Sagrada Familia and the genius of Gaudi

Not all the photos, descriptions and guidebook texts could prepare me for the wonder of Sagrada Familia, the most famous church in Barcelona, maybe even Spain, maybe even Europe. The most imaginative and creative one, that is for sure. Continue reading “Sagrada Familia and the genius of Gaudi”

The magic of Alhambra in 25 images

It has inspired novels and poems; it featured in movies, shows and even video games. Its fortress-like exterior elevated above Granada, with the backdrop of Sierra Nevada’s snowy hilltops, its rich decorations, splendid rooms and inner patios – these are all truly iconic images. Alhambra is a palace woven in myth, history, supreme artistic value and wealth, telling a story of another time and life. Continue reading “The magic of Alhambra in 25 images”

Palácio da Pena, Sintra: a photo diary

Sintra is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Portugal, a town well known for its many architectural monuments. It is located in the hills of Serra de Sintra, part of Parque Natural de Sintra-Cascais, and surrounded by woods, giving it a cool, fresh climate and a somewhat mysterious atmosphere. Continue reading “Palácio da Pena, Sintra: a photo diary”

Nine things I loved about you, Portugal

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Some four years ago, during a youth exchange that took place in my home town, I met Joana, a girl from Porto. In the evenings, when all activities were done and participants of the exchange relaxed and mingled on the terrace of the hostel they were staying in, Joana and I talked about our homes. She talked about Porto and Portugal, while I talked about Rijeka and Croatia. She talked with much love and appreciation, without sugarcoating, about things that defined Portugal – about the then-actual economic crisis and many problems the young people were facing, about the saudade, the language, the Douro, the specific atmosphere and “feel” of her home town Porto and the way of life of the Portuguese people. And as she was leaving for home, we made a deal that, now that she has seen my home, I would have to visit hers, one day.

This year, this deal was finally realized, as Portugal became the destination of our annual family trip. Unfortunatally, I didn’t get the chance to meet with Joana (I was with my family and on a tight schedule, she was working and quite busy), but I thought of her quite often as I was visiting places and experiencing things I remembered her talking about. It turned out that she prepared me well for Portugal – the things I imagined all those years ago as I was listening to her stories were pretty similar to the things I saw and experienced “in situ”, during our ten-day trip through northern and central parts of the country. And although her stories were colored with her love of her home, they were not really exaggerated, and the Portugal we visited was as beautiful and dreamy and real, all at the same time, as she had presented it.

During our ten days in Portugal, we only scraped the surface of the complex and rich county and got a tiny peek into the life of a place, but even that was enough to see, hear, taste and experience many things to love.

I loved the relaxed, simple life of the country, not polluted by mass tourism. After visiting so many European countries that live from tourism and completely subjugate themselves to the requirements of the visitors, this felt like a wonderful refreshment and a reminder that there still are authentic countries that are so much more than just touristic destinations.

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I loved the people – simple, honest, modest people, going around their daily activities, minding their own business, living a simple life of work and play in the shadow of their great, at times tragic, history and rich heritage.

I loved the coast – the never-ending white, sandy beaches of the western Portuguese coast and the mighty Atlantic… The feeling I had at Cabo da Roca of being at the edge of the world.

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I loved Pasteis de Nata, the sweet pastry that became an essential part of our Portuguese every day, small, incredibly tasty and very fulfilling.

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I loved vinho verde, young wine from the northern parts of Portugal, clear, of beautiful color, with a touch of fizz, tasty, fragrant and mild.

I loved the Douro, the quiet meandering river responsible for so much of what makes Portugal special.

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I loved Porto, a gritty, untidy, punk city that knows what it is, loves it and savors its quirkiness.

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I loved Lisabon, the capital whose twisty narrow streets and hilly atmospheric neighborhoods trick you into believing that this is a small, crowded town, and not a wondrous, monumental capital.

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I loved the weather, and the constant breeze smelling of salt and sea, never allowing you to forget that Portugal is the country by the sea, of the sea.

The list could go on, with all the things springing into my head now as images through a filter with washed-out, overexposed hues. Quite a remarkable country, warm and beautiful both inside and out. A wonderful place full of wonderful people. Joana, you were right! 🙂

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Pueblos blancos y un pueblo azul

We remember some trips for the people we meet, some for the music we discover, some for the adventures we stumble upon… And some trips remain forever defined through color. Continue reading “Pueblos blancos y un pueblo azul”

Splendid Sevilla, pt. 3: „Catedral del Toreo“

Bullfighting is one of Sevilla’s (and Spain’s in general) oldest and most important traditions. Although I consider this „sport“ completely unacceptable and cruel, we were in the heart of the Spanish bullfighting tradition so we could not miss the chance to visit the  Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla, the oldest and one of the finest rings in Spain and the world. Proof enough of its significance is the grand name that it goes by, „Catedral del Toreo“.

The yellow sand of the ring

Construction of the bullring that can accommodate around 14,000 people began in 1749 and was completed in 1881. It was in this ring, alongside the one in Ronda, where bullfighting on foot began in the 18th century, and it is consider to be one of the world’s most challenging environments because of its history, characteristics and the unforgiving public. The regular bullfighting season in Sevilla lasts from March or April until late September, with some 20 fights taking place every year, and you can learn about them by taking the organized tour of the ring and the adjoining Museum.

The Museum

Our visit was an extremely interesting, almost spiritual experience. We were led by a lovely guide who gave her best to answer all our questions about the sport, keen on helping us realize that, despite its brutality and unfairness, bullfighting is inextricably ingrained in the tradition, culture and heritage of the area. She tried to show us that, for the people of Sevilla and Andalucia, bullfighting is so much more than „just a sport“, as she talked about some of the highlights of the Museum’s collection of sculptures, paintings, costumes, posters and equipment that trace the sport’s history from the 18th century to present day.

Guided tour of the MuseumThe Museum, detailThe Museum, detail 2Old postersModel of the bullfighting ring

While some descriptions of the bullfighting rules and rituals were literally heartbreaking and I found it difficult to understand or justify things that happen in the arena year after year, the guide tried to give us a different perspective on the matter and shared with us stories of celebrated bulls and toreros of Sevilla such as Juan Belmonte and Joselito El Gallo. It was all extremely insightful and I would strongly recommend the visit to the Museum to anyone even remotely interested in the Spanish bullfighting tradition.

Gallito and Belmonte, a famous pair of bullfightersBullfighters

As a part of the guided tour, we naturally visited the arena itself, a visit that caused quite stirring, opposing emotions – from resentment and disgust upon hearing about the number of animals whose blood is spilled on the yellow sand of  Real Maestranza year after year, to a bizarre sense of awe upon seeing how meticulously kept and maintained the arena is, as if it was an altar, a sacred place.

The yellow sand of the ringAuditoriumReal Maestranza holds some 14,000 peopleDSC_0323

A number of times during the tour bullfighting was elevated, symbolically, to the level of religion – in descriptions of complex and meaning-barren rituals of the fighting, in talking about legendary fighters, with their clothes made of expensive, lavish materials kept in glass boxes as if they were liturgy vestments of cardinals or popes, to tiny bottles containing priceless grains of sand from the ring, sold in the souvenir shop like some sort of relics.

PostersReal Maestranza, detailBiblioteca

Still heavily under impression, we continued along the sunny streets of Sevilla, trying to shed the conflicting emotions from the visit to Real Maestranza and return to the mode of enjoying the laid-back atmosphere, fantastic weather and splendid architecture of this fascinating, contradicting city.

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Splendid Sevilla, pt. 2: A Palace of Sun and Lace

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After leaving the monumental Catedral de Sevilla, we continued our tour of the city with a visit to another magnificent complex – Real Alcázar de Sevilla, a stunning palace that will stay in my memory as the most beautiful place I have visited during our trip to Andalucia.
Palace entrance
The Alcázar is considered to be one of the most outstanding examples of the mudéjar architecture found on the Iberian Peninsula. It is a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site and the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe, since its upper floors are still today used by the royal family as their official residence in Sevilla.
Interior patioWindow detail
The complex was originally founded as a fort in the 10th century and has since been expanded and reconstructed many times. The first to build a palace on the site were the Almohad rulers in the 11th century, and afterwards, Christian monarch used it as their main residence. “It is one of the most representative monumental compounds in the city, the country and the Mediterranean culture. Its influences held within its walls and gardens began in the Arabic period and continued into the late Middle Ages Mudéjar period right through to the Renaissance, the Baroque era, and the 19th century. Subsequent monarchs have made their own additions to the Alcázar.” (Wikipedia)
Interior
From the moment we entered the palace complex hidden behind high walls, it felt like traveling into a magical world of spectacular rooms, inviting inner courtyards, exotic plants, colorful Andaluz tiles and beautiful decorations.
Geometric decoration
The many rooms of the palace are designed and executed in such intricate details that we had to make sure, more than once, that we were not being tricked by some kind of trompe-l’œil but that those were real architectural elements.
Intricate detailing
What I found most interesting about the palace interior was how un-interior-like it felt, with walls appearing light and fragile as if made of lace, wide doorways between rooms, decorated windows overlooking hidden patios and the ever-enchanting interplay between the light and shadow.
Walls like lace
With the breeze flowing freely through the rooms, the palace seemed very delicate and light, and it felt as if it was not a building but a mysterious, dreamy space somewhere beyond reality. The palace led us deeper and deeper into its mysterious world, with every room being more spectacular than the previous one and every patio appearing more harmonic and inviting than the one before.
Monumental sightsMonumental roomsThe golden dome
I was already deeply in love with the Alcázar even before we left the magical world of colorful decorative tiles, patterns and lace-like walls and entered the palace gardens. All palaces of Al Andalus paid special attention to their gardens with fruit trees, horticultural produce and fragrant flowers. Apart from supplying food for the residents of the palace, they also had an important aesthetic, even spiritual function. As the palace itself, the Alcázar  gardens went through a lot of changes through history, among those interventions made in the Mannerist style.
ArchitectureAlcazar gardensAlcazar gardens, pt. 2
We strolled around the gardens in complete awe, delighted every time we discovered a secluded hidden garden nook with a fountain or a pool and benches covered with traditional colorful Andaluz tiles.
Wonderful details everywhereGarden detail 4Garden detail 3
We walked by proud birds that sauntered confidently around the gardens, unphased by the presence of tourists and visitors, we admired the interplay of water elements and plants, we got lost in a maze made of shrubbery and loved the tall palm trees creating shade under which people were laying in the grass, resting. Different parts of the palace gardens offered different sights, smells, colors and types of atmosphere spanning from lyrical, monumental, romantic to more intimate ones.
Posh birdsGarden detailDecorations, pt. 1
Among all the wonderful experiences we had in Andalucia, and there really were many, Real Alcázar will be one of those to stay in my fondest memory. Somehow, it will always remind me of all beautiful sides of Sevilla, as a place where mystery and grandeur, Christian and Moorish heritage, beautiful nature and bright sun all come together to recreate – in small(er) scale – almost all of the things that make the city so special.
Alcazar gardens, pt. 3

Splendid Sevilla, pt. 1: A Warm Welcome and a Town-Within-a-Town

 

Sevilla

I expected so much from Sevilla – it is one of those towns whose name alone is so laden with expectations and images inspired by literature, music and art that you actually think you know what the city will look, feel, smell and sound like. Finally arriving to the city after years of creating your own ideas about it and realizing – yes, we really are in passionate, romantic Sevilla, the very heart of Andalucia – was immensely exciting.

Exiting the hotel early in the morning after the first night spent in a new city, armed with pocket guides and crisp, unused pull-out maps, fresh from the good night sleep and ready for the introduction to the city and exciting new day ahead, is one of my favorite feelings in the world. As I write this paragraph, I vividly remember leaving the hotel with my family that first morning in Sevilla, happy because all the previous steps of our trip to Andalucia happened as planned, from the flight from Italy, renting a car in Valencia, a long drive through the vast, strangely hued landscape of southern Spain, to arriving to Sevilla, locating our hotel and settling down tiredly but happily in our rooms. As we exited the hotel, I felt the early morning sun on my skin and crisp, fresh air that caught me by surprise as I expected the dry heat of early September to last from dusk till dawn in this part of the country. We were finding our way around the neighborhood while the city around us was slowly waking up and rather than dramatic and grand, our first impression of Sevilla was warm, uncomplicated and hospitable. We instantly felt at home.

Plaza Mayor

The first stop on our touristic route of the city was Metropol Parasol, a wooden structure located over La Encarnación square. Completed in 2011 following the design of a German architect Jürgen Mayer, with its dimensions and height of 26 meters, it claims to be the largest wooden structure in the world. Because of its interesting shape, the structure is popularly known as Las Setas (mushrooms) de la Encarnación, and that shape was said to be inspired by the vaults of the Cathedral of Sevilla and the ficus trees in the nearby square, Plaza de Cristo de Burgos.

Las Setas, Plaza MayorLas SetasThe beehive structure

As we climbed the terraces of Las Setas, the first aerial view of Sevilla opened up in front of us. This was the first time we saw how big the city is, with interesting buildings, a network of streets and roads and landmarks stretching in all directions, and the walk around the beehive-like, winding terraces of the intricate structure was an experience in itself.

Las setas, the wooden constructionView from Las Setas

Our next stop of the day was the monumental cathedral of Sevilla, Catedral de Santa María de la Sede. What a fascinating sight it was to first lay sight on the largest Gothic cathedral, the third largest church and the largest cathedral in the world, appearing less like a building and more like a walled town-within-a-town.

Catedral de Sevilla

The cathedral was built with the purpose to demonstrate the power and wealth of Sevilla after the city became an important trading center in the 13th century due to the Reconquista. The decision to build the new cathedral was made in 1401, with an ambitious idea verbalized, according to local oral tradition, by a cathedral chapter who said:

“Hagamos una Iglesia tan hermosa y tan grandiosa que los que la vieren labrada nos tengan por locos” (“Let us build a church so beautiful and so grand that those who see it finished will think we are mad”).

Cathedral, detail

The cathedral was built at the site of a Moorish mosque and the builders used columns and other elements from the previous building, including its minaret which was converted into La Giralda bell tower. The building was completed in 1517, but the work on the interior continued until the early 20th century.

The interior of the cathedral is vast, boasting the longest nave of any cathedral is Spain.

Vastness of the cathedral interiorCathedral interior, detailCatedral de Sevilla, interior

The most spectacular part of the interior is Retablo Mayor, a golden altarpiece designed by a Flemish artist Pierre Dancart, who worked on it for an unbelievable period of 44 years. Retablo Mayor is one of the largest altarpieces in the world and its reliefs depict scenes from the Old Testament and lives of saints.

Retablo Mayor

Near the main entrance to the cathedral stands the tomb of Christopher Columbus which supposedly contains the body of the famous explorer. The elegant and solemn sarcophagus of Columbus is carried by four large statues representing the kingdoms of Aragón, Castille, León and Navarra.

Columbus tomb

Among the many awe-inspiring parts of the cathedral complex, its courtyard is the one that left the biggest impression on me, with its simplicity, openness and the offer of well-sought and well-needed rest for pilgrims and tourists. As opposed to the interior of the cathedral, the courtyard didn’t make us feel frightfully small, vulnerable and insignificant, but safe and welcome. Whether in a walk around the Patio de los Naranjos, originally the courtyard of the former mosque or in a rest in the shade, close to one of the fountains, the courtyard presented us with many intimate spots for contemplation, gathering thoughts and rest.

Patio de los Naranjos

Perhaps the most famous part of the cathedral complex is La Giralda. Originally built as a minaret of the mosque that stood on the site under the Muslim rule, it was converted into a bell tower for the cathedral after the Reconquista. Its height is a little less than 105 meters and it has been, ever since the medieval times, one of the most important symbols of the city.

La Giralda

The climb to the top of the tower is on the must-do list of every tourist visiting the city. There are no steps, but a ramp consisting of 35 segments (wide enough to allow the person riding a horse to climb the tower, a remnant of its Moorish heritage), so the feat seemed fairly easy at first. However, the height of the tower and the scale of the achievement that is to climb it (or get back down from it, for that matter) soon became painfully apparent through the dizziness and the numb pain in our knees and back felt as we were going up in circles. It was all worth it, though, as, after getting to the top, we were given a gift of another aerial view of sunny Seville. From the very heart of the city, we enjoyed the light, refreshing breeze and observed the beautiful city, bathed in sun, spreading around us in all directions.

View from La GiraldaWonderful Sevilla seen from La Giralda

Malta’s Gems

There are many wonderful towns in Malta with specific atmospheres, styles and stories. However, if you are dependent on public transport as a means of traveling around the island, as we were, and don’t really have too many days to spare for random explorations, chances are that you will have to make a selection of towns that you want to visit and simply hope that you made the right choice. This being our first trip to Malta, we decided to focus on the better known towns of the island, trying to experience diversity in terms of urbanism, atmosphere and location, knowing that we can’t visit them all.

Mdina, detail (3)

The first “must-do” town on our list was the picture-perfect traditional fishing village of Marsaxlokk. This was the place I was most excited to see when we started preparing for our visit to Malta and from the very moment we got off the bus and the lovely colorful sight appeared in front of our eyes, I knew that my expectations were going to be met, if not exceeded.

Marsaxlokk, detailMarsaxlokk is historically important as its bay, Golfo dello Scirocco, was where first Phoenicians landed and set up trading posts on Malta during the 9th century B.C. The village is also an important element of the island’s fishing tradition, since most of Malta’s fish supplies are caught by fishermen coming from this port.

Today, the village is famous for its fishing market and luzzus, colorful fishing boats painted in bright yellow, red, blue and green that can be seen rocking on the clear blue sea. With their colorful appearance and eyes, believed to protect them from danger, painted on the sides, the luzzus appear as all-knowing mythological sea creatures lurking quietly at the passers-by.

MarsaxlokkThe all-seeing eye

Most of the boats are carefully and lovingly preserved and kept by their owners and as such they look really gorgeous, set against the Marsaxlokk promenade lined with palm trees, cafes and market stalls selling traditional products.

We sat down in one of the cafes, enjoying the warm, sunny weather. The sight of boats rocking in front of us was almost hypnotizing. This was yet another image of Malta that will forever stay in my memory, with the colors of luzzus, the atmosphere of Marsaxlokk and the feeling of presence of the mysterious island heritage.

Fishing boats of MarsaxlokkLuzzu, detail

Another beautiful, although quite different Maltese town that we had the chance to visit was Mdina, The Silent City. This fortified town became the part of popular culture as the place in which parts of the Game of Thrones series were filmed – it “played” King’s Landing in season 1 of the series. For Malta, it bears a much greater importance, as it served as the island capital from antiquity to the medieval period. Mdina’s role as a capital, therefore, spans from ancient history to fictional worlds and times.

Mdina, city gate

From the outside, hidden behind austere, monumental walls, the town seemed a bit unwelcoming, but once we crossed the bridge and entered the maze of quiet narrow ochre streets, we felt warm, secure and detached from the everyday life.

Streets of MdinaMdina, detailStreets of Mdina, pt. 2

Mdina feels a bit like a museum town, and the nickname “silent city” suits it perfectly, as it gives out an air of mystery – as if the walls and buildings had a secret and if they could talk, they would tell fascinating, if somewhat frightening stories.

Mdina, detail (2)Mdina detail

Adjoining the fortified town of Mdina stands Rabat, a town that takes its name from the Arabic word for suburb (as it was the suburb of the old capital Mdina) and it still feels like one, rather than a city of its own. Maybe because of that, Rabat is less occupied by tourists and a walk around this town shows a more domestic, everyday side on life on Malta.

RabatRabat church

Rabat is home to the famous Catacombs of St Paul, a complex used in Roman times to bury the dead as it was deemed unhygienic to bury them in Mdina. To walk around the complex today, dimly lit with yellowish light, and explore the niches is an interesting, if somewhat bizarre experience after which exiting the complex into fresh air and the sunny weather seems like a real relief.

Catacombs of St PaulCatacombs, exit

Discovering small towns of Malta with their idiosyncratic appearances and atmospheres is a wonderful way to spend some time on the island. They show many different sides of the island and the way these towns and their residents live. Especially valuable is getting lost in back alleys, away from tourist trails – this is a way to discover the face of the island that is not created and presented for tourists only, that is more authentic and that is real everyday Malta, as seen and experienced by the lucky people who live there.