Friday, December 29, 2006

Sevilla and Christmas in Rota

I thought I had retired but I am under enormous pressure to meet the tight deadlines imposed by my Editor for publishing these pieces. Here we go with a ‘blog’ about Sevilla, the charming capital of Andalucia.

Firstly we must apologize to all those who woke early on the 19th of December to hear Miggy on Radio Solent. They got their proverbials in a twist during an outside broadcast that morning and postponed her to the next morning when the listening public got two for one as I had a word on air as well.

The 0830 bus from Rota to Sevilla goes by way of Jerez. The journey to the latter is familiar to us now but we did not see much of the new territory between Jerez and Sevilla due to fog. The bus station at Sevilla was only a short walk from our Hotel through the narrow streets of Santa Cruz.

Our four star Hotel Los Sieses, conveniently situated in the heart of the sights that must be seen, was a little jaded and probably earned and lived up to its stars back in the 1930’s. The room was clean, warm and comfortable and Miggy had the long soak in a bubbly bath to which she was so looking forward and we got the room at an ‘offer’ price!
We walked to the Torre del Oro, a magical 13th century tower, which used to guard the town against attack from the river. It is said that the Golden Tower got its name because of the sun’s reflection on the gold tiles that once covered the twelve-sided building or from the hair colour of the beautiful damsel who King Pedro locked up in the tower while her husband was away at war. The tower has been used for many purposes since its defensive role including storage of precious metals from South America and a prison. It now houses an interesting Maritime Museum.

From the tower we strolled along the Paseo beside the river Quadilquivir past the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza, Sevilla’s bullring and the most important bullfighting venue in all Spain along, perhaps, with that at Ronda.
Crossing over the river to the Triana district we continued our stroll along the waterfront to cross the river once again next to the Torre del Oro.

A ‘Menu del Dia’ lunch of roast pork was followed by a siesta. In the evening we did our Paseo past the Ayuntamiento and through the main pedestrianised shopping streets Tetuan and Sierpes where Miggy bought two fans in the famous fan store of ‘Diaz’. We also bought an outfit for Miggy for Kate Hay’s wedding at ‘El Corte Ingles’, a vast department store like John Lewis.

The Christmas lights over the streets and in the Plazas were magnificent and lived up to their reputation and the Tree in the Plaza Nueva looked as if it was carved from ice.

Supper in ‘Robles’ of various media racion was fun and we talked to a couple from Dublin of all places.

The Hotel buffet breakfast the following morning was fine as it should be for €16 each. It comprised a wide range of hot and cold items including sausage, egg and bacon and a third of a bottle of Cava!

The Real Alcazar of Sevilla, although a selection of beautiful buildings and reminiscent of the Alhambra in Granada, has less allure than the Alhambra in that it comprises palaces built by the Catholic Monarchs in the 14th to 16th centuries within the walls of the Moorish fortifications. The halls and patios of the palaces were a copy of the Moorish style and were in fact built by Grenadine craftsmen.

The one advantage of this later construction over the earlier of the Alhambra is that the plaster walls and wooden ceilings are much more decorative, the brilliant primary colours having not faded as much as those in the earlier Alhambra. The upper floor of the main Palace is still used by the Royal Family when in Sevilla. They were in residence at the time of our visit and so their rooms were unavailable to us.

The 15th century Cathedral of Sevilla, built on a 9th century mosque, is the largest Gothic temple in the world and the third largest of the Christian world. It is massive both in area and height. Its 18 metre high main Altarpiece, where scenes from the Old and New Testaments are depicted with over a thousand statues and its collection of precious metal, jewels and paintings add to its grandeur – but why? My answer to that rhetoric question is Power. The mortal remains of Christopher Columbus are housed in the Cathedral.

The only parts of the mosque that remain are the Patio of Orange trees where Muslims washed themselves in the central fountain before entering the mosque and the Giralda, the minuet that has over the years grown to tower 93 metres high and dominate the skyline of the city. We climbed its 35 ramps, built as such to allow the bell ringer to ride his horse to the top, to find magnificent views over the city.

A late lunch at ‘Robles’ saw us each tuck into an absolutely delicious roast leg of baby lamb.

After a siesta and bath we again walked through the shopping streets and squares to breathe the almost tangible Christmas spirit. We had a tapas supper and great fun at a wonderful café frequented by Sevillians, Casa La Viuda,

After more bacon and egg and Cava for breakfast we packed our bags and checked out and then went to see the vast Plaza de Espana housing an enormous pavilion built for the 1928 Iberian-American Expo.

The arcade of this semi circular building has on its face the coat of arms of each of the fifty four Spanish provinces and the depiction of an historic event in that province all in ceramic tiles. The shady cool gardens of the Parque de Maria Luisa adjoining the Plaza de Espana has numerous fountains, ponds and artificial lakes and a wide variety of plants and flowers including oleanders, one hundred year old orange trees, magnolias, banana trees and rose bushes. It is also home to Peacocks.

A bustling and excellent Lunch back at the ‘Casa La Viuda’ was a befitting end to our visit to this friendly, clean, interesting and vibrant city.

Our bus journey back to Rota was uneventful although the lady driver was behind schedule and extremely worried that her books didn’t balance fares taken with passenger numbers.

We were late for a Choral Concert in Rota’s main Church that evening but what we heard was beautiful and included a carol or two, as we know them in England. It was a great start to our Christmas celebrations and continued the Christmas spirit we encountered in Sevilla.

We attended mass at the Church on Christmas Eve. It was different to the service with carols that we are used to but, from the little we understood, the message was the same as that we hear in the Anglican Church, beware commercialism, love the family and God. The Catholic congregation don’t have wine at communion only bread. The priest drank the whole goblet!

Christmas day was a great success and the meal to which the three couples contributed as mentioned in the last ‘blog’ was excellent. We laughed a lot and by the time we got to brandy and cigars we had spent six hours at the table.

We are overwhelmed by the number of greetings received by card or email but with Christmas now over we turn our thoughts to New Year’s Eve which traditionally involves gathering in the main square and eating a grape with each strike of the midnight bells, drinking Cava and kissing all and sundry.


Monday, December 18, 2006

Christmas is a comin'

From Lymington to Rota this season we have travelled 1,768 miles through the water at an average speed of 5.25 knots. 28% of the miles have been done under sail and the remainder under engine. We have travelled on 53 days out of the 161 days available. Of those 53 days we have experienced winds of force 5 or more on 8 days and of force 6 or more on only 3. The maximum wind force encountered at sea has been force 7 and that on 2 days only. Having said that our policy is to sail only when the wind is forecast to be force 5 or less and we have studied forecasts intently to achieve that goal.

Our ‘holiday’ in Andalucia over we have returned to the ‘household’ chores on board and to cleaning and maintenance. That’s not as bad as it sounds but maintenance must be kept up, even on a new boat, to ensure that she functions properly and keeps her good looks.

Finally the cold has beaten Miggy and she swam in the sea for the last time on the 4th of December! Temperatures reach between15ºC and 18°C during the day and it has dropped to 6ºC at night, although that is unusual! Mostly we have clear sunny days but when it rains it falls in torrents and when it blows it blows in fury.

Preparations for Christmas are in full swing, both on ‘Bella’ and in Rota. Leaving aside the religious side of Christmas, The Spanish celebrate differently to us in that they have a family meal on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. Whereas Father Christmas brings our presents on Christmas day, in Spain the kids have to wait for their presents until the three Kings arrive at Epiphany on the 6th of January.

Having said that the Spanish appear to celebrate in style and build not just cribs outside their churches but parts of ‘Belen’ (Bethlehem) in the town square! They also build complete model villages representing ‘Belen’ in incredible detail with running water, flames under the fires and potters wheels turning.

Rota is decorated with great taste and extensively with the trees in the squares lit and light tableaus hung over all the streets within the centre of town. The Council or the Traders or both must spend significant amounts to provide this wonderful spectacle unlike most towns in England, including Lymington. It is said that Seville is the best decorated city in Spain. We are going there for a couple of days just before Christmas to find out and see the sights.

We sang some carols at an evening of Christian fellowship and Bible study having been invited to supper by Americans, Peter and Jane, whilst we were admiring their property by the sea here in Rota. What else would one expect? Perhaps just plain old American hospitality. This was abundant as well in the food served at supper and the fine company of some forty Americans, including their wives and children, serving in or retired from the Naval base here.

Bella looks well with ribbon and 100 fairy lights around the ceiling and a 450mm Christmas tree on the table. Our plans for Christmas day are made and they include a full English Christmas dinner and all the bits that go with it. Another English couple will roast the Turkey in their oven, as it is bigger than ours, and the vegetables. They also have a Christmas pud for which Miggy will make the brandy butter. Miggy will prepare a prawn and Scottish smoked salmon starter and roast the potatoes, the bacon rolls and sausages. We will also provide mostly French cheeses as we have a delightful French couple eating with us as guests. We will all chip in with the Champagne, wine and brandy.
Whilst we will enjoy our Christmas here in Rota immensely, we shall miss seeing our family and friends very much. So, wherever you are in the world

Merry Christmas
Feliz Navidad
Joyeux Noël
Feliz Natal
Buon Natale
Frohe Weihnachten

And, of course, a Happy And Prosperous New Year to you all.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Andalucian Tour Part 3

We drove to Ubeda the long way round by way of the Las Alpujarras on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, negotiating hundreds of hairpin bends. There are fine views down the valleys to the Mediterranean and up to the snow capped peaks of the Sierra.

Villages cling to the sides of valleys and the buildings here have flat roofs, the only such examples in Andalucia. The oak and walnut trees were resplendent in autumn colours against the background of pines and firs.

Lanjaron at the western entrance to Las Alpujarras is a spa town famous throughout Spain for its bottled water. We stopped at Bubion at the head of the Poqueira valley for coffee but it was closed for a funeral! The somewhat ugly holiday town of Trevelez towards the eastern end of the area is famous for its cured hams.

Crossing the Sierra Nevada towards the North through the pass of Puerto de la Ragua snow was lying at 2000 metres and we enjoyed a snowball fight.

Descending from the Sierra Nevada to an arid plain we took lunch at La Calahorra where an odd castle stands on the only hill around built, apparently, by some chap to please his wife.

We then drove along the Autovia towards Ubeda by way of the Sierra Magina. It started to rain as we increasingly plunged into Olive groves as far as the eye could see.

We had booked a four star Hotel at Ubeda in the hope of some luxury and a bath rather than the usual shower for Miggy but it was far from four star in reality. To cut a long story short we changed Hotel.

Ubeda is a World Heritage Site full of magnificent Renaissance/Gothic buildings. The grand buildings are plenty and splendid but in the drizzle and being the only souls present, Miggy felt that it was like spending a night in a museum.

The following morning it was still raining as we headed west towards Cordoba. We called into Baeza, another world Heritage Site full of grand buildings but were unable to see them due to dense fog.

All the way from Ubeda to Cordoba, via Jaen there were Olive groves north, south, east, west and up and down and the smell of Olives and Olive oil pervaded the atmosphere sometimes so pungent as to be overpowering.

Jaen is a large city with little interest other than a Cathedral. We decided to give the town a miss in favour of taking coffee at the Parador de Turismo, one of the many state run Hotels that give an excellent and consistent service (expensive mind you), next the Castillo de Santa Catalina built on a rocky pinnacle high above the town with spectacular views.

We took a detour from the main road through what appeared to be a service road through the Olive groves. We were close to the trees and were amazed at the variety and differing sizes of the Olive and the fact that, in some cases, they were growing black and green Olives on the same tree, perhaps by way of grafting.

Our ‘Pensione’ in Cordoba, ‘El Repose de Baghdad’ again provided clean and comfortable accommodation in the heart of the city, the Juderia, the old Jewish quarter near the Mezquita. It was very reminiscent of a Moroccan Riad. We walked around the narrow, pedestrian cobbled streets of the area during the evening and felt the sense that nothing had changed for 1,000 years. It was lively and it felt ‘lived in’. After a good but expensive supper we retired for the night.
The star attraction of Cordoba is, without doubt, the Mezquita that dates back 12 centuries. This great mosque that embodied Islamic power on the Iberian peninsular has within its mighty walls more than 850 columns of granite, jasper and marble, some taken from Roman and Visigoth buildings, supporting the roof and creating a dazzling visual effect.

The ‘Mirhab’ or payer niche is richly decorated and held a gilt copy of the Koran around which pilgrims circled seven times on their knees.

In the 16th century part of the mosque was destroyed to accommodate an enormous Cathedral. It is quite astounding to see a Christian place of worship inside that of a Muslim one.

We were advised to start our visit to the Mezquita before 1000 to take advantage of the fact that there is no entry fee at that time. I think the reason for this is clear as, when we arrived and for some time thereafter, Mass was being sung in the Cathedral. Roman Catholic mass made an interesting accompaniment to our tour of a former Muslim place of worship even though the lead lady soprano was out of tune!

The Torre del Alminar, built on the site of the original minaret to the mosque is impressive and stands over the Puerto del Perdon where Christian penitents were pardoned! Between this tower and the entrance to the mosque lies a courtyard planted with orange trees. This is where Muslims would wash before entering the Mosque’

The grandness of the Mezquita, the juxtaposition of different faiths and the Islamic architectural detail of its construction make this a building of incredible beauty and significance. It is surely a sight that must be on the itinerary of everyone travelling through this region.

Lunch of local Racion was interesting. Neal ordered what was reputed to be chicken liver and turned out, after he had digested a cube or two, to be congealed blood! “I don’t care for blood be it called liver or not”.
During the afternoon we walked to the Plaza de la Corredera that was built in the 17th century in Castilian style. This vast, beautifully arcaded square was the scene of bullfights and other sports and public events. The square is now lined with cafes under the arches and seems to be a gathering place for gypsies, vagrants and dogs.

The Roman bridge over the Rio Quadalquivir is being repaired at the present time and is inaccessible.

We had supper of Tapas including the local speciality of ‘Rabo de Toro’ (bull’s tail) and an enormous ‘Torres’ brandy.

The next day we made our way south from Cordoba through plains and rolling hills still littered liberally with Olive groves. As we climbed once again into the Sierra de las Nieves and the white villages that we had seen on the first day of our tour we were heading for Gaucin where the D & K guidebook told us we would have fine views of the Mediterranean. When we got there we found to our surprise that the view from 1600 metres down the valley to the south encompassed not only the Mediterranean but also the Rock of Gibraltar.
We nearly ran out of petrol on the way to Gaucin and had to coast the downhill sections of the drive in neutral for twenty kilometres!

After six days of wonderful sights and beautiful countryside we were bought down to earth as we arrived at the coastal strip of the Costa del Sol where there is massive and ugly over development. We sat at a café on the Marina side at La Duquesa and ordered coffee in Spanish only to get the reply in broad Glaswegian that it would be bought to the table. In fact not a café or restaurant in the vicinity of the marina had anything Spanish on the menu and
we heard only English spoken for the entire time we were out of the car.

We were extremely pleased to arrive at Mary and Peter’s (John Gilbe’s Mother and Stepfather) splendid house in an oasis of beauty and serenity just outside the Marina of Sotogrande. They gave us a very cordial welcome with something we had been longing for – a good cup of tea and later for supper,
Roast Lamb, which we had missed for many months. This accompanied by good wine and great company made a fine evening at Mary and Peter’s home.

Peter and Mary were kind enough to show us the Marinas along the coast to the east of them to help us with our plans for net year. We decided that Estepona Marina was the one for us in that area due to its reasonable price, its cleanliness and to the fact that the restaurants surrounding it were Spanish. They also drove us out to Castellar de la Frontera, an amazing castle on a high rocky outcrop, the Medina of which is a fully functioning town.

After a lovely lunch with them we said our farewells to Mary and Peter, until next year that is, and headed north back to Rota.

On the way we stopped and had coffee at the white hilltop town of Medina Sidonia. This town was historically the seat of the Guzman family who made their riches from investments in the Americas. Much of the town’s medieval walls still stand and cobbled alleys nestle between them.

Our tour of Andalucia has been an outstanding success and we have enjoyed immensely every facet without exception. We have driven more than 1500 kilometres through stunning and varied countryside from fertile valleys and arid plains to snow capped mountains amongst which Eagles soar. How could we forget the sight and smell of olives in sufficient numbers to feed the world forever? We have been immersed in the Andalucian culture, a mixture of North African, European and Middle Eastern, that has made its proud people carefree yet caring and we marvel at the material heritage their ancestors have left for us to enjoy.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Andalucian Tour Part 2

The scenic route from Ronda to Granada takes one across the top of the mountains of the Sierra de las Nieves and the Sierra Tejeda, Almijara and Alhama on good but narrow and tortuous roads with fine panoramic views, through the pine clad foothills and along fertile valleys with citrus and olive groves and crops of all kinds including tomatoes, asparagus and artichokes.

We had breakfast in a busy smoke filled café in the main square of El Burgo. We had tostada drizzled with wonderful extra virgen olive oil and sprinkled with a little salt – just like the locals have. It was about 1030 on a Sunday morning and the men in the café/bar, there were no women, were on their second or third wine, beer or spirit, whichever took their fancy! We made do with a cup of coffee as we were driving! Lunch in the hills was mouth watering spit-roasted pork in an isolated taverna.

The views from the ‘boca’s’ or ‘puertos’ (passes) through the Sierras were stunning and as we descended down what seemed a sheer face from 1600 metres to the plain of Granada.

A city of contrasts, a symbiosis of cultures, built around the deep valley of the River Darro, Granada has been coveted by many different civilizations for its strategic position. Iberians, Romans and Visigoths preceded the Muslims who were to make the city the cultural centre of the western world for centuries. They bequeathed the city most of its exceptional heritage and designed its urban layout, a charming tangle of narrow lanes, beautiful gardens and fountains. Then came the Christians and the Catholic Kings.

The real benefit of our ‘Pensione’ in Granada was not its cheap price, its clean and comfortable en suite room but its location in the Albaycin and only a hundred metres from the west gate to the Alhambra complex.

The people of Granada call themselves Grenadines, which are Pomegranates in Spanish.

The Cathedral is without doubt the most massive religious edifice we have seen on this trip so far. Corinthian columns support a magnificent circular Capilla Major, housing the altar and choir.

We had a Tapas supper in a friendly bar. Only after we had ordered four varieties of Tapa did the waiter tell us we had a free Tapa with every drink. A very sociable evening ended later than we had intended with full stomachs!
We rose early in the morning to look at the view from the Generalife (sounds to us like an Insurance Company but is pronounced (G as in Gun) Gaynayrahleefay), the Sultan’s summer palace and farm, with the early morning sun on the Alhambra. As did the Sultans in the 13th and 14th centuries from their summer palace, Generalife, we watched the soft rays of the early morning sun wash the stark stone walls of the Alhambra with a warm glow and wake the mist kissed valley of the Albaycin way below. All the time the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada to the South presided, grandly.

There are three Palaces within the walls of the Alhambra the earliest of which is the Palacio del Portico of which little remains. The Comares Palace and the Palace of the Lions, like any Moorish residential building of the period, has the living and state accommodation built behind an arched gallery surrounding a central patio or courtyard. The scale, adornment and embellishment are, of course, grander in Palaces than in normal houses as would befit a Sultan.

It would be too protracted to mention every striking feature of each Palace, and there are a multitude and they are very beautiful, suffice it to limit myself to one or two of the most important. Should you wish to see more please read a book, look at the website or preferably visit the place.

The Court of Myrtles, the rectangular central patio in the Comares palace, gets its name from the myrtle bushes that border the still pool, which in turn reflects the grandeur of the building.

The patio of the Palace of Lions is cruciform with a grand fountain at its centre comprising a large bowl supported on twelve Lions. This would have been richly painted with a predominance of gold to contrast with the white marble.

The façade of the Comares Palace is one of the architectural masterpieces of the Alhambra and of Islamic art with its original, now worn, covering in strong colours of different tones. It reaches a peak of perfection in the impressive eaves, masterpieces of Islamic carpentry.

The walls of the Sultan’s living rooms and rooms of state are decorated internally with a dado of Azulejos or Cuerda seca (Tiling, mosaic or painted) and sebka (fretwork plaster panels) above. Any colour in the plasterwork has faded but would have been rich and magnificent. A fine example of this wall finish can be seen in the Comares Hall or Throne room, the largest and perhaps the grandest room in the Alhambra. In this hall the wooden ceiling is extraordinary in that it is made up if different sized wooden boards nailed together and then to the ribs of the vault. Varying small decorative wooden pieces are then pinned on to give a textured effect. The ceiling, like any wooden ceiling plain or textured, would then have been gloriously painted.

One of the most striking features in the Alhambra is the ceiling in the Sala de los Abencerrajes entered off the patio of the Palace of the Lions It is a cupola of mocarabes (stalactite-like decoration made by joining together tiny prisms of plaster or wood to give a honeycomb effect) forming an eight-pointed star.

Perhaps the most beautiful and exquisite of all rooms in the entire Alhambra, containing superb examples of all the lavish features outlined above is the Mirador de Lindaraja.

The Medina, the domicile and workshops for the Sultan’s staff, within the Alhambra walls is largely an archaeological site or has been overbuilt by a renaissance palace, church and convent.
The outer walls of the Alcazar or fortified Citadel that housed the Sultan’s elite army are intact but only foundation stonework walls remain of the quarters and workshops for the troops. One of the most potent symbols of the Alhambra and of Granada itself is the Watch Tower at the western end of the Alcazar. This massive Tower appears on Granada’s coat of arms and the views from it over the city and the hills to the west are magnificent.
In the evening we climbed up through the narrow streets of the Albaycin, the original Moorish town, to the Plaza San Nicolas where we watched the colour of the walls of the Alhambra and of the snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada change to pink as the sun set.

If there is one striking place to visit in Andalucia or, indeed, the entire Iberian peninsular it has to be the wondrous Alhambra.

Miggy broadcasts on BBC Radio Solent next on the 19th December at between 0630 and 0645.