Saturday, 30 November 2013

Saint Andrew's Feast Day

Today is the Feast Day of the Patron Saint of Scotland, Saint Andrew.

It is also the 83th Birthday of my father. So Will and I went down to Montreal by train to have lunch with him at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel which sits on top of the Central Station in Montreal.

Winter scene around 11am near Alexandria, Ontario.

We had a lovely lunch, starting with a glass of Champagne, all the waiters know my Dad so we were well taken care of.  My father told Will stories of my childhood, I know those stories well, they are all connected to the hotel industry of which my father was part of for many decades. His favourites are the ones about the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City. The stories are 50 years old but still funny, of course they involve food and restaurants. Happy Birthday Dad!!!!

 They say we look alike

Le Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City

Friday, 29 November 2013

Jannat Al-Arif, (generalife) Gardens of the Alhambra

When we came to Granada to visit the Alhambra I did not understand what the term Generalife meant, what was that exactly? It referred to a garden area, a summer palace next to the Alhambra.

Only after doing some research did I understand that it was a distortion of the name Jannat Al-Arif
or Garden of Paradise or of the Architect, the architect here being God, as creator.  In Islamic thought water is the element that gives life to all matter. The Generalife is just East of the Alhambra on an adjoining hill. Summer residence of the Emirs, the relationship between the architectural and the natural has been reversed here, where gardens and water predominate over the Summer Pavilions used as living quarters. The massive boxwood trees, rose, carnation and gillyflower bushes, shrubs, oleanders, willows and cypresses comprise an absolute masterpiece of the art of Horticulture by following the Koranic image of paradise.

The generalife follows a strict description of how to plan and build a garden, the Emirs and their gardeners carefully landscaped this huge area so that water flowed and watered the plants, trees and flowers while providing a peaceful and pleasant view. It is a summer residence and you will find remnants on the South side of 4 different vegetable plots surrounded by walls and then as you walk further the terrace gardens with different themes in their composition.

We visited in November but it was still lovely to see, in must have a very different look in the Spring or Summer.

The Alhambra above Granada with the Sierra Nevada mountains behind.

Patio de la Acequia (main channel)

View of the Alhambra from the Generalife

View of Granada from Generalife

View of the Sierra Nevada

Courtyard of the Sultana or Cypress

 Terraces of the generalife


Granada Ciudad Real

Some terms to start: Alhambra : Al-Hamra (the red)
General life : Jannat Al-Arif  (garden of paradise)
Granada, (Grenade, Pomegranate, a fruit)

It is important to know that some of the expressions or names of the places visited are distortions of the original Arabic words or names for those places. Granada is high in the mountains and at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains which in November when we visited was already covered in snow. When we left Sevilla it was 20 C. by the time we arrived in Granada the temperature at dropped to 12 C. and at night it was 5 C. quite the difference from the coastal town.

The Sierra Nevada waters cascading down the mountains feed the gardens of the General Life (Jannat Al-Arif) and provides water for the Alhambra fortress and the Palace of the Nazarid (ruling dynasty of the time).

Granada known prior to its conquest by the Spanish Kings as Elvira de Granada, is built on the Sabika Plateau.
We climbed by train from Sevilla and currently a High Speed train track is being built, though our train went at speeds of 150 Km per hour, a high speed train can do 220 Km per hour.

Everywhere you look thousands of Olive trees and a stand of Poplars 

The climb is quite interesting, you leave the plains and hilly countryside covered nowadays by groves of Olive trees and slowly the topography changes to plateaus surrounded by high mountains in the distance, the Olive groves are replaced by Pine forest and large groupings of Poplar which serve to cut the high winds and protect the fruit trees. As we neared Granada the snow covered Sierra Nevada appeared, quite a beautiful site in the bright sunlight.

Granada is a city built on hills and on a plateau, narrow streets from the Middle-Ages when it was still a Moorish town. It is an elegant city with a great cathedral and a Royal Chapel to the Catholic Kings where Isabella and Ferdinand are buried and where their insignia of power, the Silver Crown of Queen Isabella and the Sword of State of Ferdinand are on display. A gigantic mausoleum occupies most of the central space of he Royal Chapel and their tiny coffins, they must have been thin and short little people are below, they are made of wood and covered in black metal sheeting. Flowers and  votive candles light the crypt. Queen Isabella was elevated by the Pope, some decades ago to the title of Servant of God and there is hope that one day she may become Saint.

Dominating the City is the Alhambra, the Red Fortress so named because the setting sun hitting the stone walls turn them red. This is a UNESCO site and can be reached by car easily, you can walk up but it is steep and quite the treck on very narrow roads, allowing just one car to pass at any given time. The City authorities have devised a system of traffic lights to manage the up and the down car traffic.

Granada was the seat of the Nazaride Dynasty the last Muslim dynasty to rule the Kingdom of Granada. The conquest of Al-Andalus starts in 711 by the Berbers several dynasties will rule,
the Ziride, the Almohavid, the Almohades and finally the Nazaride. They are from Medina from the tribe of the Banu Khazraj. The Arab ruler who takes over or conquers Al-Andalus from the Berber Almohades and takes over in 1232 is Muhammad Ibn Yusuf Ibn Nasr, Al- Hamar (the red), Al-Ghalib (the conqueror), at the time the Christian Kings of Spain and their Nobles were reconquering Spain with the support of the Pope in Rome.

He is the one who will build the Fortress and the Palace with the gardens we see today. His dynasty will rule until 1492 when they are forced to surrender to Queen Isabella of Castille and King Ferdinand of Aragon.

To visit the Alhambra complex you need a minimum of 3 full days. It is a very big area divided between the Citadel, the Palace and the summer gardens and Palace. Not to mention of course the Palace built by Charles V in the Palladian style which is used today as an exhibition space. Their is also the Medina which is part of the citadel, the hammam and the Church which stands on the grounds of the former mosque. The Christian Kings understood the beauty of the architecture and the cultural treasure it represented and quickly made of the palace and citadel their own Royal Residence in Granada without alterations to its style.

It does help to read before you go to Granada to understand the history and the people involved. Washington Irving lived in the Nazaride Palace in the rooms of Charles V and wrote a famous book about it, Tales of the Alhambra. He was also a diplomat and served at the US Embassy to Spain with the rank of Minister for 4 years between 1842-46. He was a prolific author and wrote many famous stories, like the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

We elected to visit the Nazaride Palace by night, which is magical, our light was a full moon and some spot lights. Reservations are required in advance and you are allocated a specific time to enter and given one hour to visit the Palace. It was very cold that night and the Palace is on a very high cliff with dramatic views of Granada. But it is so beautiful, it is difficult to describe, you go from marble courtyard to marble courtyard,  you admire the intricate wood carved ceilings and the Yeso tiles decorating the walls ( carved plaster tiles forming intricate decorative patterns) . The Motto of the Nazaride is visible everywhere on the walls woven into the pattern, Wa la ghalib willah Allah ( Only God Conquers all ).

The Alhambra complex does show the Muslim Arab culture at its zenith in terms of artistic creation when Europe was beginning to emerge from the dark Middle-Ages. No wonder the Catholic Kings of Spain and Nobles were astonished by what they saw in Granada and elsewhere in Andalusia, Sevilla and Cordova come to mind. It is also important to remember that there was a great deal of exchange between Muslims, Jews and Christians in Spain at the time, commercial, artistic and cultural.

The reconquest of towns like Sevilla, Cordova and Granada did not mean that all that was built by the Moors would be destroyed by the Christians, on the contrary most of it was preserved and maintained. The Mosque were converted into Christian Churches eventually re-built for a purpose more suitable to a Christian rite but the rest was integrated into the general culture.

Detail of a wall decoration of the Nazaride Palace with in the centre the motto ''Only God Conquers all''

Detail portion of wall decoration, coloured tiles and Yeso tiles above. 

 The Courtyard of the Ambassadors in the Nazaride Palace with its great reflecting pool

Intricate decorations in the Nazaride Palace rooms, reminded me of the Fatimid Dynasty Palaces and Mosques in Cairo. 

 Lions Courtyard 

Lions fountain

This day light photo is dated and prior to 2002 before the Courtyard was restored. But I added here to give an impression of the Courtyard in daylight. In this photo the courtyard is not paved with marble slabs as it is nowadays, instead you have small crush stone. Some older photos show the courtyard with shrubs and flowers surrounding the fountain. In all likelihood the courtyard had plants all around as people would walk in the covered alley all around. The fountain is also interesting, there are 12 lions, symbol of the 12 tribes of Israël. Each lion has a small Star of David on its forehead, interesting when you think this was an Islamic Palace. Shows the ancient connection between Judaism and Islam.

I could add many more photos of this incredible Palace which represent a high artistic achievement in Islamic Architecture. I love the idea of the water element in all the courtyards which in turn serves to refresh and to give life to plants and man. A simple idea which is beautiful and elegant. 

This palace is connected with the one of Charles V (1500-1558) built in the Paladian style and is a completely different school of thought. In this context it appears out of place and ugly.
It was essentially built as a Palace for Official functions where the Nazaride Palace was for personal residential use.

Palace of Emperor Charles V built in the 16th century in the Alhambra complex

The Courtyard of the Palace of Charles V.

I will write a second entry on the gardens of the Alhambra the Jannat Al-Arif aka General life.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

I first heard of this Church under construction when I was in school some 47 years ago. I was fascinated that given the architect was dead and Spain had gone through a terrible Civil War and was a poor country in 1967 ruled by a dictator Francisco Franco, that this building could continue with donations to be built. Though until 1980 the construction was often halted due to lack of funds, this is no longer the case and completion date is announced as 2028. The entire financing of the construction of this church has always been through private donations from the public.

Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) built many things in his life, Barcelona is littered with his buildings, apartment blocks, houses, gardens, housing developments, all fantastic and beautiful. So my fascination with his work is a long standing affair. To my mind his work is pure imagination and intelligence, it is about beauty, nature and God's Creation. Yes Gaudi in his work represents God's creation, themes of nature, flowers, plants, animals and natural shapes are everywhere. There is Park Guell, Palais Guell, Casa Batllo, Casa Milà, there are also other buildings less known and decorative elements built by Gaudi on commission from clients, like a fantastic gate to a great estate in the Sarria neighbourhood.

Until 4 years ago I had only ever seen old photos of La Sagrada Familia and other Gaudi buildings in Barcelona, seeing them in person is a totally different experience.

La Sagrada Familia was first started in a vacant area of Barcelona, a new area of the City in 1882 with two parks on either side of the building. Strangely the main front facade of the Church, the Glory facade (South) is across a street from apartment buildings. The facade we constantly see are the side entrances, one is the Nativity (East) and the other is the Passion (West). No matter how long you look at the building you constantly discover new things to look at, a detail you missed.

 The interior when we visited November 2013 almost complete, though much of the statues and stain glass windows still need to be completed and installed. Majestic nonetheless. Note the columns are like trees with limbs climbing to heaven.

This is a very interesting postcard as it shows in the middle view what the basilica will look like in 2028 when completed. The view on the left is the portal of the Nativity and the view on the right is the portal of the Passion still not complete.

A side view with the new stain glass windows installed in the last 2 years.

A view from the sky, The front of the Basilica when completed will not have the East or West park side space. The City grew and did not allow for a more expansive Southern view.

During the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 the church under construction was nearly destroyed by anarchists who set fire to it. Luckily the damage was contained. 

Today artists, sculptors, architects continue the work to complete the building, they take their inspiration from Gaudi's ideas and concepts, but they also leave their own imprint. So you can say that there is a amalgamation of Gaudi's principal idea and their style in the final realization. Per example the stain glass windows, the concept is Gaudi clearly but the final product is the artist who has been working on the windows for the last 20 years. The same with the numerous sculptures, the current artist is executing the work based on the idea of what Gaudi wanted to do, following his instructions but the final product is that of the artist, a disciple of the school of Gaudi. His wishes are fully respected so in the end this will be still his masterpiece.

Main High Altar, the stain glass is not yet installed. The canopy over the Altar is like a great umbrella

Ceiling is like a burst of sunlight with gold rays radiating.

Crypt below the main Altar not open to visitor and only open to worshippers after 5:30pm in the evening when the main church above is closed for the day. It was built one year before the construction of the top part started, before Gaudi took over the project. It is more traditional Gothic with an Arts and Crafts floor

The darker stone is the original building of 1882 the lighter stone is more recent with the white stone at the top being the most recent addition.  This is the Nativity side of the Church.

One of the four Evangelist medallions made like thick Murano glass, it is lighted from behind. They are fairly high above and surround the main Altar.

A magnificent basilica and well worth a visit, if for nothing else to admire the architecture of the place and its fanciful decorations.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Real Maestranza de Caballeria de Sevilla

Real Maestranza, Plaza de Toros, Sevilla. Of course when you think of Sevilla many will think of the opera Carmen, the story of a Cigarette Factory gypsy girl who has many lovers and has a brief fling with a Spanish Soldier Don José and then a glamorous Matador Escamillo, only to find death at the Plaza de Toros.

Sevilla has always had a large gypsy population who lived with the Jews across the river in the more popular neighbourhoods. So the story of Carmen has some basis in fact, the Plaza de Toros was built in an area which was not considered a good neighbourhood at the time, the location facing the Guadalqivir River and its old prosperous Port which brought the riches of the Empire from the Americas, and the great Cathedral on the other side.  Today the area is a beautiful park area set in historical surroundings.  The Baratillo or bullring we see today was built in 1761 and earlier version was built around 1730 by order of the King of Spain, Philip V, the first of the Bourbon to rule Spain.

However the origin goes back even further to 1248 when King Ferdinand III the Saint conquered the City and rid it of its Moor rulers. At first the role of the Baratillo was to be a military equestrian school for the Noble Knights under the Brotherhood of St-Hermenegildo.  Teaching horsemanship to the Nobles was very important to the Crown and they had to be proficient in the Jineta riding with short stirrups and bent knees.

Uniform worn by Prince Carlos de Bourbon y dos Sicilia in 1962, such uniforms are worn by members of the Royal Order.

Philip V having received the support of the Brotherhood during the War of Spanish Succession between France, Austria, Holland and England, granted privileges to the nobles of Sevilla and created the Real Maestranza de Caballeria, the head of which was the son of the King, the Prince of the Asturias. Today this position is held by H.M. King Juan Carlos and his son the Prince of the Asturias is deputy head of the Brotherhood. All other positions of the Royal Society are held, to this day, by the oldest and noblest families of Sevilla. So bullfighting is closely associated with the Crown in Spain. The Royal Order is responsible for the administration and up-keep of the buildings and bull ring.

It was Philip V in 1729 who authorized the bullfights as a festivity where the Nobles could display their skills at horsemanship. There was no Matador as we see today it was more about horsemanship skills.

Today the Royal Society is also the sponsor of the School of Tauromachy which trains young bullfighter and also supports many High School groups in Seville composed of students and teacher of the Aula Taurina Association. It also promotes the arts and culture and gives out prestigious academic prizes to the best students of various Faculties of the University of Sevilla. Because of its origin as a Royal Order of Chivalry it continues to promote equestrian sports, which remain important in Spain.

In front of the building is an equestrian statue of the mother of the current King, Maria de las Mercedes Countess of Barcelona.  The complex is composed of several structures, the house of the Royal Order with its ornate baroque rooms, library, grand reception hall and Royal Chapel. There is the Princes gate and box, the bullfighters Chapel and various other stalls for horses and mules and rooms for the staff, veterinarians, an infirmary, etc. Finally the bullring itself.

The bullring is egg shape with a diameter of 63 meters, the floor is slightly raised at the centre and is made of yellow-ochre pipeclay extracted from the quarries of Alcala de Guadaira.

Bullfighting in North America with all the animal rights group is often judged harshly as a cruel blood sport. The problem is that most people do not know much about bullfighting and nothing about the tradition or where it came from or how it started and it is easy to fall back on stereotypes, misconceptions and righteous indignation.

Bullfighting as we know it today as had a long evolution through the centuries. Spain has 36 species of wild bulls which roam the countryside.

Given that this type of bulls are unpredictable adds to the danger element. Bulls do not always loose and can kill both horse and man. Not to forget they weigh more than one ton and come at great speed.

The matador in the early years was simply following the horsemen around on foot and if the situation became too dangerous would be charged with distracting the bull away from the horsemen. To avoid casualties in men and horse, this type of military exercise was steeped with rules and regulation and it was a practice drill to become better horsemen in battle.

With time the Art of War changed and heavy mounted cavalry was replaced with a much lighter cavalry. However the problem of the wild roaming bulls continued. Washington Irving describes in his book ''Tales of the Alhambra'' how in Andalusia, when he travelled, they were constantly on their guard, not wanting to come upon any such wild bulls in a field or on the road. Not knowing if a wild bull was eyeing you ready to charge with deadly consequences. Difficult of us to imagine in North America, unless you think of the Buffalo on the Prairies, given that bulls and cows were imported here from Europe and were the docile kind.

With time the Matador became more and more skilled at challenging bulls in an open area and the cavalry men became the picador of today, playing a secondary and very minor role in bull fighting.

Bull fighting is an art, it is part of the culture of Spain and has developed into a series of complex rules regulating every fight. It is not only courage in the arena but also steady nerves, good reflexes and a keen sense of how an unpredictable animal might react, which requires split second decision, good judgement and precision in movements.

Heads of famous bulls who fought in the arena

The bulls are breed specifically for fighting and nothing else. Each bull is examined by a Veterinarian to ensure that the animal is free of disease or is not injured before the fight. They are not tormented or abused. The red cape of the Matador is simply a tradition and does nothing to excite a bull, what the bull is attacking is movement in the cape as the Matador stands still.

Bulls are also fairly smart and can charge either from the left or the right, it is up to the Matador to judge from what side he will be charged at by the bull and all this happens in less than one minute.

An error of judgement on the part of the Matador can easily result in a very severe injury or death. The most famous Matador Manolito died at age 30 in 1947 from being gored in the lower abdomen by a bull in the ring, he had misjudge the bulls reaction after having administered the kill.

Added to the element of constant danger is the fact that thousands of people are watching your every move and will not hesitate to shout or whistle their disapproval if the Matador makes a mistake or is not positioned properly or does not show courage. Crowds can turn on a Matador and root for the bull instead.
 Poster of the Season with the calendar of days of Bull fights with the name of the Matador appearing.

The entire combat is timed and executed in precise time frames, each segment is adjudicated by professional judges and a series of moves must be executed in each segment, points are allocated or not on how the Matador is performing. The kill must also be clean and requires a great deal of practice and skill. The sword must enter the bull at a precise point at the base of the neck, this area in very small no more than a few inches, a specific spot which will allow the blade to go straight to the heart and kill instantly the animal. It is far more complicated and dangerous than imagined given that the coup de grâce is given with the Matador standing in front of the charging bull. The victorious Matador will exit by the Princes Gate. The dead bull is butchered and the meat goes to select restaurants.

As for the seats they are divided between sun and shade, the best and most expensive seats are in the shade. Many boxes are reserved for the Royal Society and this includes the Princes Box. The bullring as a seating capacity of 13,934 seats and is divided in two floors. The covered archways balconies are the boxes and the lover uncovered section is for the general public, the seats in that area are stone. From the Princes Box reserved at all times exclusively for the use of the Royal Family on either side are 6 boxes reserved for their guests. Another 8 boxes are reserved for the member of the Royal Order of Chivalry and their family and guests.

Royal Box or the Princes Box reserved for the Royal Family
always in the shade. Below it is the Princes Gate for the victorious Matadors. 

 Under the clock on the opposite side in the Sun the box for Politicians, below is the entrance for the bulls.

General seating area bring a cushion.

I have been to many bullfights in Mexico City at the great bullring during the Season. It is an incredible spectacle and charged with emotions. I have seen bulls killed and Matador badly injured and carried off, while the bull walks away.  I do not believe that a bullfight can be viewed as either this or that, no more so than wrestling or boxing, it fits in an area all by itself. In Spain bullfighting is culture and part of the National fabric of the country.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Some 35 years ago today, an anniversary

Well, who knew it would last this long, mind you a soothsayer many years ago in LaPaz, Bolivia where I was on an Official mission told me that it would last a lifetime. We met by chance through a friend. Strange how Fate sometimes arranges things.

We just returned from a 23 days cruise and train trip to Europe where we celebrated our anniversary. We did so and met with many of our friends in Rome and London. Today here in frigid Ottawa,  was it this cold 35 years ago, I do not think so, we think of it all. We did not have puppies back then, since we have had Bundnie and Reesie and now Nicky and Nora, all Dachshunds from around the world since one was born in Egypt, the other in Chicago and our current two in Capena just outside Rome.

We have owned two houses and rented others and lived in SQ (staff quarters) provided at high rent by  my employer on various continents.

A relationship and a life crowded with incidents and events but also with lots of happiness and wonderful memories. We can thank our lucky Star!

At the beginning on Riverside Drive

Our wedding day in the garden of our friend J.K. with our Reesie

On the Via Appia in Rome

At the summer season of the teatro del'Opera di Roma at the Terme di Caracalla.
There has been a lot of opera in our life and theatre, gourmet food, wines and good friends.

In Assisi  

At Cap Sounion near Athens 

In the gardens of the Catherine Palace at Tsarkoye Selo

Our 35 th Anniversary dinner aboard the Azamara Quest

My favorite photo of Will and Sidd at Drottningholm Palace near Stockholm, a special day since for Will it was a long held wish to visit the Theatre of the Palace built in 1665 by Nicodemus Tessin the Elder the original stage machinery designed by Donato Stopani is still intact . This visit is just one of the many happy events in our lives.