Sunday, 31 July 2016

Seville, day two: Private Johnston Assigned To Squinting Detail

Seville, Spain (Sevilla, España)
November 2015
Our main goal of day two in Seville was to see the monumental Real Alcázar - royal palace. The majority of the palace was constructed in the 13th-century by Moorish kings. As the Spanish royal family reside here for part of the year, it the oldest palace in Europe that is still in use as a royal palace.
On the way, we clutched our jackets around ourselves in the early morning chill (it was before noon, for heaven's sake).

A tour group could be heard fast approaching from behind, so we stopped dead in our tracks to let them ahead of us, not wanting to be caught in the bum-bag-toting throng. This turned out to be a cloud with a silver lining, as we discovered a beautifully bright wall with an attached fountain. How picturesque!

Once inside, we were immediately struck by the awe-inspiring architecture and decoration. Every single inch was covered in stone and plaster carvings, painted tiles or tapestries. Having entered the royal quarters (Alcoba Real), I stared up in the Salón del Techo de Felipe II and turned in circles trying to take every little detail in with my hopelessly inadequate eyes. Such precision! Such opulence!

Not all tiles were of the geometric variety - some were incredibly well-painted fragments of a much larger wall mosaic.

Under the Maiden's Patio (Patio de las Doncellas), excavations uncovered evidence that a pool with gardens used to be present here. At the time, the whole patio had been covered over in marble tiles since the 16th-century, so they undertook work to restore the space to former glory. Shortly after reinstating the garden and reflecting pool, however, Ridley Scott requested it be tiled over again temporarily as part of the set for the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven. Over ten years later, the garden is in full swing.

At one of the alcazar's highest points stands a tiny figure of the Roman god Mercury, gazing out over a pool, with a "gallery of the grotesque" behind (grotto-like decoration). He and many other elements around the pool were gilded in their heyday, but now only the bronze remains. Underneath the calm water's surface, a stampede of catfish surged toward their afternoon meal that was being scattered about by a staff member.
Trailing down from Mercury's pool, we performed a cursory sweep of the gardens, but found that we were more impressed with the stunning architecture indoors than of a load of plants. No offence to plants. They are wonderous, too.

We did pause in the gardens for a quick rest, and took in the ornate blue ceramic tiles, which seem to be immensely popular in Seville (tiles in general are popular here, but the blue ones are special).
Leaving the palace, our minds enriched, we sought to nourish our tastebuds. 

Our AirBNB host recommended Bolas, which literally translates to balls (...of ice cream). When we first entered, the shop was deserted, yet we were swiftly joined by a girl in an apron appearing from the back room with a ta-da! flourish. She was fluent in English and explained many flavours to us, giving us little sample spoons so we could partake of the various tastes. Being accustomed to Italian gelato and not Spanish ice cream, we thought that three scoops would be an acceptable amount and picked an array of flavours including fig cream, caramel chocolate and lemon cinnamon. Less than halfway through we knew we had made a mistake and might not be able to finish our delectable pots of goodness for they were much denser in texture than gelato.
At one point, the sprightly server bounded over to extend to us two spoonfuls of the hot-off-the-press pistachio ice cream, which she thought tasted better when just made because of how the sugars behaved. Though we didn't (and indeed, could not) finish our pottles, it was a great experience and we knew we would be back for mid-afternoon pick-me-ups again.

That evening we stocked up on oranges and purchased a cava to go with our dinner of sandwiches. In the little Carrefour I found a mini trolley, which I propelled through the aisles in fits of happiness - it was so light and manoeuvrable! I wanted to take her for my own and call her Bindy. Alas, at the end of the shopping trip we were forced to say our tearful farewells.

Today's post was almost called: Meet My Tiny Naranja Perambulator

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Seville, day one: Naranja Bonzana - A Dirty Street Orange Para Todos

Seville, Spain (Sevilla, España)
November 2015
Arriving into Seville in the evening, we rolled up to a street near our AirBNB and waited for our host to turn up after sending him a message. He said he'd be right down and a few moments later we saw a man standing about looking lost. I asked him "Manuel?", he nodded. I followed up with "AirBNB?", to which he shook his head sadly and wandered off. Then the real Manuel approached, hopped in our car which was embarrassingly full of all manner of road trip supplies, and directed us to the apartment's carpark. Once inside, he took the time to give us a few information sheets and talk us through a map of the city. We were ready to explore!
The next morning we walked into the centro storico and on the way we saw a fragment of a Roman aqueduct. It was built at the same time as the city walls, sometime during the reign of Julius Caesar. According to legend, it was the Greek hero Heracles who founded the city, which was first called Spal. During Roman rule it was changed to Hispalis, and during Moorish rule it was altered again to Ishbiliyya, where we derive the modern name. Ishbiliyya sounds very similar to the Spanish pronunciation of Sevilla: 'say-bee-ya'. 

A handy insight that Manuel let us in on was the combined entry ticket for the church of El Salvador and the mighty cathedral. Most visitors waste valuable sightseeing time in the long line for the cathedral when they could be skating on through to the church first. We followed his advice and later were able to enter the cathedral without queueing for either attraction at all!

The church was enjoyable, for me mainly because of the disco colours that the stained glass windows cast upon various pillars, walls and floors (and even me!). 

Once inside the cathedral, we decided to scale the Giralda first in case we ran out of time (the afternoon was already pressing on due to our terrible sleep patterns). Of Moorish construction, apart from the top part with the bells which came later, the tower is considered one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. Climbing up was a novel experience, as there were no stairs but rather a long ascending ramp. This was put in place so that the tower guards could ride their horses up and down.

On the way to the top, there were several rooms open in the centre which taught us historical facts. Don't try to quiz me on them though, as they whooshed straight out of my brain the second we were back at ground level. I did snap a picture of this complicated clock, though, so you're welcome for that.
I'll also mention that the whole way up, I would occasionally exclaim "TO GIRALDA!" all thanks to the film The Road to El Dorado. In the movie, you can make an offering to the gods by sending it "to Xibalba" (pronounced she-balba) and in one scene the protagonists shout it enthusiastically... I guess you kinda had to be there.

Admittedly, the view from the Giralda wasn't as wonderful as I was hoping for, but it was still a city view and gave us a good perspective. I like to be able to compare a map with a decently high vantage point so that I can imagine the map as a real city. That sounds weird, but when all you see are lines and squares on a bit of paper, you can forget how much goes into a city - all the little passageways and grand buildings, hidden gardens and bustling plazas.

We spent the rest of the afternoon finding all the different areas of the cathedral, including a room seemingly made solely for a small fountain.

One painting in particular caught Yannick's eye - that of Santa Justa and Santa Rufina, painted in 1817 by Goya. He gleefully pointed out that they were eating soup while a lion suckled their toes. Well, the story goes that these two 3rd-century sisters were potters by trade who refused to provide pottery for a pagan ceremony. They were ordered to renounce their Christanity, but resisted and faced several trials. Santa Justa was starved to death and thrown down a well. It was believed that Santa Rufina would give in after her sister's death, but her resolve only grew stronger, so she was thrown to the lions. However, the hungry lions did not attack, and instead were as meek as domestic felines. So the pagans had her strangled. Martyrdom, etc, the end.
You can see in the background a little Giralda, and that's because the saintly sisters were allegedly protectors of the tower and the cathedral, even protecting them from the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 (according to legend).

Spending a bit of time looking into each chapel, we saw a tomb in one which was set upon marble so polished that you could see a reflection.

We overheard an American couple say "Okay, how about we do Columbus and then we do the tower?" And indeed, Christopher Columbus was there as well! Although it's a bit uncertain where exactly his final resting place truly is, at least some of his bones are in the cathedral. His tomb was super fancy, with statues of four pallbearers hoisting his remains. Clearly the people of Seville thought him a top bloke.

Outside in the courtyard we gazed up into the trees and had visions of how much orange juice we could make from nature's bounty.

Though apparently the oranges growing on trees in the city taste rubbish and aren't worth the effort of collecting them. How sad! At least they look pretty.

On our way out, we noticed that the enormous door had an enormous handle with intricate designs. They don't make 'em like they used to.

Today's post was almost called: Caballo Del Vertigo - Animal-Friendly Buildings

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Zafra: Dodging Cuttlefish Like a Pro

Zafra, Spain (Zafra, España)
November 2015
Smack bang between Mérida and Seville is a town called Zafra. Our reasoning is usually that if it's on the way, why not take a look? If we don't like it, we can leave. No harm done.
When we arrived, it was just about breakfast time. But for us, breakfast was a little later than most people's breakfasts, and that includes Spaniards who never wake before 10:00. Spotting a bakery, Yannick acquired a chocolate-covered dougnut, but then I was like woah hold up, wait a minute! Isn't that a churreria over there?! It was! But they were just closing for the day because no one has breakfast churros at that late hour. He busied himself with the chocolate-covered doughnut and had to be happy without sugar-covered doughnut sticks that are customarily dipped in chocolate. Hard life, huh?
The air inside our car was nice and toasty, but as soon as we opened the doors a crisp breeze rolled in that reminded me of being back in Wellington. We hustled through a lush park and gazed up at the alcazar. When the Christians seized Zafra from the Moors during the Reconquista, a nobleman set about constructing walls and a big mansion-casle for himself. Interestingly, the town's name derives from the Arabic word for yellow, where we also take the word "saffron".

Now, you may be thinking that we had had breakfast not that long ago, so lunch would be far off. Not so! Tapas are needed frequently to keep our bodies and minds at peak nutrition. Doughnuts also. On our way to find fodder, we passed through a square with lively striped banners strung between the trees and dangling from balconies. There was no indication of what purpose they held, so I'll assume they were to show support for a local sports team. Football seems like a safe guess.

Though not by the seaside, many of the tapas bars specialised in various seafoods which did not appeal to us. We used our iPhone's translate app to furiously type in every word, trying to find something that sounded even plausibly like something we would eat. Every time it would pop up with "tuna", "anchovies", or worse (namely cuttlefish, and marinated dogfish - which is a type of shark).
But eventually we found a bar with several non-seafood dishes on the menu! Handily, every tapas bar will provide you with a basket of bread, and some other snack like olives and fava beans. The first tapa that arrived was a tasty melange of spinach, garlic and chickpeas. With a vino tinto on the side, lunch was a success! Praise be for Google Translate.

Almost as soon as we sat down to eat, a small furry sausage dog waddled up and sat at our feet. His puppydog eyes were on point, but he wasn't getting any of our food, no sir! He persisted, staying for the entire duration of our meal, and was even joined by a twin at one point. Sorry, boys. Hey, you probably wouldn't like garlicky spinach anyway.

True to our nature, we returned to the car and siesta'd for an hour. What a charmed life we live. Though, the ambient air temperature could have been warmer. Seville's forecast was for much higher. WHY YOU NO, Zafra?

Today's post was almost called: The Curious Case of the Donut Nutcase (Or: Yannick Has Breakfast)

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Mérida, day two: Necia, Necia! (Spurring the Chariot of Discovery)

Mérida, Spain (Mérida, España)
November 2015
On our second and last full day in the archaeological zone of Mérida, we tried to fit in as much as we could to make use of our sightseeing ticket.
Before all else, we took a trip to the circus, where horse and chariot races would have been held. As the Roman structures fell into ruin over the centuries, the circus was covered in earth and used as fields for growing crops. It was only properly excavated in the early 1900's, and remains one of the best preserved Roman circuses. Admittedly, it wasn't much to look at as it was just an oblong field with remnants of stonework, but it was interesting.

As we capered down the road towards a basilica, we stopped to admire a small bath complex and an aqueduct. Seriously, ancient stuff is sprung on you every whichway you turn in Mérida! The storks clearly enjoyed the aqueduct too, as we could see their huge floppy nests all over the top of it.

The basilica itself is closed to the public, but the Cripta de Santa Eulalia is open for all to see (with a ticket). It was quite dark down there in the crypt, but we were able to see fragments of wall from an old Roman house that the church had been built atop, and even some more frescoes! Are you getting sick of me talking about frescoes? Well, be prepared for mosaics!

Very near the river, and pretty much across the street from the alcazaba was the Zona Arqueológica de Morería. On show were ruins dating back to Roman times, but also more recently - the Moorish quarter had been built atop that. Having dug deep enough, archaeologists had uncovered an original Roman road. Just imagine the bustle of two thousand years ago - bakers hauling their carts of bread, craftsmen calling out "two for one deal!" and hundreds of besandalled citizens skipping on their merry way to the baths or the theatre. And have we changed all that much? Now we have motorised bread carts, sure, but there's always a two for one deal.

Nexton our whirlwind tour came the Museo de Arte Visigodo, or museum for Visigoth art. However, the most interesting piece of art we saw there was not Visigoth, but rather Moorish. A friendly elderly staff member began to explain histories to us in Spanish, but we confessed we couldn't understand him. He suggested French, Italian or German, as he spoke all three as well as Spanish. So he told us (in French) that the stone inscription was from the foundation of the alcazaba and a crucial part of Mérida's history. As we left, he said "farewell, goodbye!" showing proficiency in a language he professed not to speak. What a guy.

After spying Trajan's Arch, which was once the entrance to a large temple complex, we went on a bakery quest. Having seen two people walk past clutching baguettes, we knew there had to be one around. Down a busy pedestrian street we were surrounded by people and their tiny dogs, some in pink jackets (the dogs, not the people). Having finally found a little bakery, Yannick ignored the baguette after all and nommed on doughnuts. The Spanish know their doughnuts. 
For some reason, the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano offered free entry after 14:00, so we waited a little while outside under the blue sky and windswept palm trees. Here another tiny dog came into our line of vision, drawing our attention by yapping incessantly. When his owner picked him up placatingly, he writhed like a demonic squid until he was placed back down. His yapping was somewhat stymied when he became aware of a nearby leaf that he found offensive in some way. Attempting to savagely attack said leaf, the leash constricted against his throat and the profuse production of saliva led the tiny canine to look positively rabid. His owners ignored him.

At last the hour of entrada gratis was upon us, and we were immediately blown away by the museum. Even simply the building itself was modern and yet reminded you of a Roman construction with thin bricks and airy archways.

It held a fascinating collection including some huge and stunning mosaics. Unfortunately every single one of them had damage which looked like the result of some issues with ripping up the delicately placed tiles so that some aristocrat of yesteryear could show it off over his mantlepiece. 

Some had great big patches missing entirely, or segments that were filled in later by artists trying to recreate the scene. The methods used today for mosaic extraction are much more sophisticated than in the early 20th-century, when much of Mérida was excavated. Regardless, these were some of the most impressive mosaics we had ever seen and we marvelled at the thought of the huge rooms they would have decorated. As well as mosaics, we perused an assortment of sculptures, coins (I spotted a Hadrian!) and frescoes. 

One of particular interest to me was a mosaic showing a chariot pulled by four horses. In the top right, you can see the word "nicha", which was used as a driving word to spur the horses on. Nicha! Necia! Is me!We had been roamin' the museum for hours and at last were too weary to continue. Our explorations had taken us to every site on our combined tickets, and more! While Mérida may not be as thrilling as the Brave Pixar Princess of DunBroch, our expectations of the city were far exceeded. 
We soaked in the Roman history and the warmth of the sun as well. I can honestly say that Mérida is one of the best Roman archaeological zones I've visited outside Italy. (Except for Hadrian's wall, because Hadrian!)

Today's post was almost called: Follow That Breadstick!

Friday, 8 July 2016

Mérida, day one: Memoirs of a Zumo Wrestler

Mérida, Spain (Mérida, España)
November 2015
We had become so accustomed to the awesomeness of having freshly squeezed orange juice every morning with breakfast in Liencres that after our departure we had immediately invested in a portable squeezer for ourselves. It was possibly the most rewarding €2 I've spent in my whole life! Our first day in Mérida, we awoke in our heavily classical Roman themed hotel (with fake marble statues of lithe young women in the lobby) and partook in the zumo de naranja. Yannick deemed us zumo wrestlers as it takes some elbow grease to get all that goodly juice from the oranges. 
Our main goal in visiting Mérida was to experience many Roman sites, and that's just what we did! Down the street from our hotel was the Casa del Mitreo, where we procured the €12 combined ticket, which allowed us access to the main archaeological sites. The cool thing was that it didn't have an expiry date - we could have seen half the sites and come back a year later to see the rest! I mean, we were only there for two days, but we could have done that.

The casa was a 1st- or 2nd-century villa owned by a wealthy Roman family. Many of the rooms' floor mosaics were intact, and even some frescoes could still be seen. One that stood out to me was a mosaic of a chubby cherub delicately holding a bird. Evidence of the cult of Mithras was found nearby, which is why archaeologists named the house Casa de Mitreo. Mithras was a mysterious figure who may have been the Roman form of the Indo-Persian deity Mitra. He was born from a rock and slaughtered a bull, then feasted on the carcass with his new pal, the sun.
Along a dusty pathway the casa was connected to another site, Los Columbarios, which is a 4th-century necropolis containing two families' crypts (also with sweet frescoes inside). 

Just down the road we found the amphitheatre, which was surprisingly touristy compared to the last two sites we saw (where there was only one other visiting couple). Touters were foisting flyers at us left, right and centre. Interestingly, they seemed to be aimed at Spanish tourists rather than foreigners.
Once we entered through the iron gate of the site, we were allowed peace and quiet once more, with a few tourist comrades admiring the ancient stones. Boasting a capacity of 15,000 spectators, some epic gladiatorial fights were undoubtedly had in the eras of emperors.

Standing adjacent to the amphitheatre was the theatre, where plays would be staged. Drama was a central part of Roman life, and this theatre was constructed less than ten years after the city of Emerita Augusta was founded. Augustus, first emperor of the Roman Empire, founded the city in 25BC for veteran soldiers and ensured they had all amenities every Roman would expect - the theatre, the amphitheatre, the circus, and the baths.

During the reign of Constantine, when Christianity spread far and wide through the empire, drama was seen as unholy and the theatre was covered in earth. Up until the late 1800's, the very tops of the stands could be seen and excavations began around 1910. Since the 1930's, the theatre has been utilised as a real theatre, holding performances, and is the most visited site in the city.

I suppose being covered in earth preserved the theatre quite well, as we were able to use the same tunnels under the seats as Roman spectators would have used to avoid stepping on people's toes two thousand years ago. Metal braziers burned on the walls, throwing flickering light down the dark passages.
With the afternoon wearing on, we made to leave but could not find the blasted exit. We followed the signs, but no salida! We tried to leave the same way we came in, but an officious Spaniard told us we couldn't go that way. So we walked back across the site and found ourselves hemmed in by fencing once again. The signs were wildly misleading! We asked a kindly looking man who was spraying weeds with death potion, and he told us to exit the way we had entered. I knew it!

After briefly checking out the Temple of Diana, we feasted on another 3-course lunch menu with wine, this time for only €12! We were dreadfully full (and in want of a siesta), but we were near to the Roman bridge (el Puente Romano) so popped on over for a teacup themed photo. We watched a girl nearby for a while as she took what I can only imagine were hundreds of selfies of her and the bridge. She still wasn't done when we had finished walking back across the 750-metre long puente.
The only non-Roman site we saw that day was the alcazaba, a Moorish castle that had been built in 835 and was now left in ruins. We took a walk along the ramparts to avoid a howling group of schoolchildren and enjoyed the views over the river as we waited for their excitable shrieking to move elsewhere. Who should we encounter there but selfie girl! She had caught up to us, hopped up on the crenelations and was posing for more selfies.

Eventually the courtyard below us was child-free, so we went to investigate the cistern, which sounds like a toilet but apparently is an underground water reservoir. Aside from the walls, it was pretty much the only part of the alcazaba left standing. The water was probably no longer used for drinking, as several goldfish lazily swam around in it! Godrays from the little window shone down and made the whole scene very atmospheric.
We didn't notice how close we were to the child horde as we were exiting the alcazaba and we became stuck in a traffic jam as two teachers performed a headcount. School trips are not fun for anyone except the kids, who are only happy because they don't have to be trapped in a classroom all day. They didn't care about the history! They were all babbling to each other the whole time.
Once we staggered back to our hotel, we decided we quite liked Mérida and should stay one extra night. But the receptionist told us that they were booked out, so with heavy hearts knowing we had but one day left in the city, we collapsed and fell into a lunch-induced coma for four hours. 

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Trujillo: Homeland Of Conquistadora The Explorer

Trujillo, Spain (Trujillo, España)
November 2015
You may have heard of a Trujillo in Peru as it's the third largest city in the country. With a population of over 800,000, it stands in stark contrast to old Trujillo in Spain.
In the early 1500's, adventurers seeking their fortune known as conquistadors set out on the long sea voyage to the New World. One of the most well known was Francisco Pizarro from Trujillo, who decided to conquer the Incan Empire and steal all of their precious metals. After a few unsuccessful attempts, he appealed directly to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V for funding and soon was gathering a horde of family and friends to take on Peru afresh. Unfortunately, their plan largely worked - with some setbacks. Pizarro abducted the Incan emperor, but went against the rest of his party's wishes when he executed him. Hadn't he heard of a bargaining chip?! No matter, the empire fell even with Pizarro's uselessly deceased hostage. They named a settlement after their hometown, and Pizzaro even founded the capital, Lima.

Back in the present day, the Trujillo of Spain is home to less than ten thousand inhabitants. Though it is small, the riches brought back from Central and South America mean that palaces litter the old town. Everywhere you look, there's a palace or church or statue (or castle, but we'll get to that later).
The most prominent statue on the main square is that of - guess who! - Francisco Pizarro, who brought much glory of conquest for Spain. The story goes that the American sculptor actually was representing Hernán Cortés (a distant cousin of Pizzaro who conquistadorially caused the downfall of the Aztec empire - what a duo). Allegedly the artist tried to gift the statue to Mexico, but you can imagine that didn't go down well, so he rebranded and sent the statue to Trujillo with the plaque reading Pizarro.

Passing through the tightly packed cars parked all over the plaza, we found a little restaurant serving a €15 three-course menu on a quiet street and relaxed a while sipping red wine.

We were feeling very sleepy post-meal, so we sluggishly traversed a few streets, wondering at the many fortified residences that had been built by powerful families (who were prone to a good feud every now and then). We climbed atop one and dangled our legs over the side, basking in the warm sun. The roof we had commandeered had three wells so that the inhabitants didn't have to leave the safety and comfort of their mansion to relieve their parched lips.

Many of the streets were of medieval size (i.e. almost too narrow for modern cars). At one point we flattened ourselves against a wall as a van navigated an acute turn and then hurtled down the street towards us, its driver talking on the phone with one hand and holding an interrupted cigarette in the hand that controlled the wheel. Mad skillz.

A strikingly piratey image of Francisco de Orellana shows that conquistadoring is a sure cause of premature ageing as he was only 35 when he died (though historians debate this, some putting the birth year closer to 1490). Having ventured to the Americas with Pizarro, Orellana led the first full navigation in recorded history of the Amazon River. He had fifty men with him, whom he ordered to build the boat, and from start to finish the trip took about ten months. The river was named Rio de Orellana for his troubles, though we know it as the Amazon today due to his exploits as well. At some stage along the journey, his men were attacked by a Tapuya tribe which had traditionally always had women fighting alongside men as warriors. Taking a cue from Herodotus, he referred to these women as Amazonas.

Feeling just barely more awake, we managed to walk up to the 10th-century Moorish castle on the hill. The original style and structure has been kept mostly the same, though it was rebuilt by the Christians in the 13th-century.

Now it's not the most beautiful castle I've seen (cough château de Belcastel cough), but it is intimidating.

Because it stands at the highest point in the town, views over the surrounding rooftops are well worth the walk up. From here we could even see the enormous stork nests that sat like shoulder pads on nearby towers.

The ramparts, archways and buildings constructed on top of solid rocky cliff foundations made the whole town charming. It felt even more untouched and authentic than Cacéres. I sat with drooping eyelids by the Iglesia de Santa María la Mayor for a bit and pondered why the rest of the world hasn't adopted the idea of the siesta.

Today's post was almost called: The Curse of Trujillo - Incantations of Devastation