Saturday, June 30, 2018

Cool critter spottings on a summer Peak hike

View from a section of the Peak Circuit on a beautiful summer's day
A stick insect clinging on for dear life to a railing on Lugard Road
Flies going at it on another section of railing on The Peak! :D
Considering how spectacular they are (especially on high visibility days), the attention of people -- be they visitors to Hong Kong or long term residents -- invariably gets drawn to the views to be had of the skyscraper city below while strolling along (the northern edge of) Victoria Peak.  On the other hand, very few folks going along the section of the Hong Kong Trail that partly goes around The Peak seem to notice the bugs and more that often are just inches away from them!

In view of the reactions that some of my friends and at least one family member have had to the photos that are the result of my critter spottings while out hiking (with colorful caterpillars often appearing to revulse as much as large spiders and slithery snakes!), maybe it's a case of many people willfully not wanting to see or recognize the existence of the creepy crawlies and other creatures that they happen to get near to.  For my part, however, critter spottings can be the highlight of many a hike.  Furthermore, I love that I've come to know about the very existence of such as damselflies, stink bugs, lantern bugs and skinks by way of spotting such creatures while hiking in the Big Lychee.

Indeed, among the major payoffs of hiking during the summer months in Hong Kong (when many others decide to take a break as a result of the high temperatures and humidity that they find too uncomfortable for outdoor pursuits like this) as far as I am concerned are the cool critter spottings that are likely to occur at this time of the year.  And for those who wonder: I truly am not just referring to those coupled creatures that I catch doing "it" on super hot days!
As a matter of fact, I've come to (also) get a real kick out of being able to spot all manner of camouflaged creatures.  And especially since I had bemoaned to a fellow hiker friend earlier this week that I hadn't caught sight of any stick insects for a couple of years now, it really pleased me to come across a member of precisely that species a few days later while hiking on The Peak.  
More than incidentally, I've found from past experience that The Peak is a great place for interesting critter spottings.  You'd think that the foot traffic on the Peak Circuit would scare non-human fauna away from the area but I've found the railings along Lugard Road to be a veritable highway at times for caterpillars and other creatures!  And it was on a hike from The Peak to Aberdeen that I caught sight of what may well be my most unusual wild critter spotting to date: that of a Chinese water dragon which a passing Country Park staffer told me was a juvenile but which already looked plenty big and adult to my eyes! :)

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The shining jewel of the Alhambra's crown that is the Palacios Nazaries (Photo-essay)

If I were to choose one place in Spain that I absolutely had to see while I was in the country, it would have been the Andalucian city of Granada's UNESCO World Heritage-listed Alhambra.  And if there's one section of the palatine hilltop city that was the last stronghold of the Moors of Iberia which I would never be able to forgive myself if I missed out on spending time in, it would have been the Palacios Nazaries which was designed to resemble a veritable paradise on earth and really does come across as a extraordinarily exquisite space.

My German friend concurred, and so much so that she booked us tickets for the Alhambra months in advance of our Spain trip which required us to be outside the Palacios Nazaries when it opened for the day at 8.30am.  Although some might see this as a rather anal move, our reward for getting there bright and early was our getting to wander around this shining jewel in the Alhambra's sizeable crown before it got really crowded, with the added bonus coming from our fellow visitors appearing to be awed to the point of silence or, at least, struck with a sense that it was better to whisper or talk in low tones rather than at a louder volume while we were within the Moorish royal palace's beautiful walls...

 A cool hint of the wonders to be found as one 
proceeds deeper into the Palacios Nazaries

In the Patio de Arrayanes (Courtyard of the Myrtles)
named for the two fragrant myrtle hedges 
on either side of the rectangular fish pond
Photo taken from the other end of the courtyard,
half an hour later (and after it got more crowded) 
The phrase "only Allah is victorious" is repeated 9,000 times
in Arabic calligraphic script throughout the palace
The Patio de los Leones (Courtyard of the Lions) named for
the famous fountain at its center that's ringed with 12 marble lions 

Some of the incredibly intricate stucco work 
in the palace resembles stalactites!
The talented men who worked on this largely 14th century 
palace complex deserve to be called artists, not craftsmen
If there were no limits to the time I could spend in the Alhambra,
I'd have happily spent more time in the Palacios Nazaries' idyllic
Partal Gardens which were built upon the ruins of an older palace...

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Two very different Sevilla palacio

View of the main stairway in the 

Roman mosaics and more in 
the former residence of a Spanish countess

On my final day in Sevilla, I visited two palacio which were very different from Madrid's Palacio Real and didn't really fit my idea of a place that would fit the English definition of palace.  It's not that the Palacio de los Marqueses de la Algaba and the former residence of the Condesa de Lebrija now house museums rather than royalty or noble folk.  Rather, it's that they are smaller in size than the grand buildings which the word "palace" bring to mine and, in fact, come across more like mansions or even townhouses to my mind.

If truth be told, I found the Palacio de los Marqueses de la Algaba (whose visual highlight one doesn't have to go in to see since it's its main doorway) and the Centro de la Interpretación Mudéjar (whose exhibits point to the establishment operating on a rather limited budget) housed within it to be on the underwhelming side.  Maybe I'd be more impressed if it had been the only Mudejar site I had come across on my Spain trip but as it was, I already had spent several hours in the stunning Real Alcazar in the same city.   

Still, not all was lost since this turned out to be one of those instances when the journey felt worthwhile even if the destination didn't! Put another way: I actually enjoyed the sights I was treated to on the walk over to this historic site that's situated in a neighborhood located away from the city center and off the beaten tourist path -- which included the eye-catching Metropol Parasol but also streets lined with stores, bars and eateries that catered to locals far more than tourists, and gave me more authentic and cultural interesting views of regular life in Sevilla.

Located closer to the city center (and just a few doors away from the Casa de la Memoria where I had taken in a flamenco performance the previous evening), the Palacio de la Condesa de Lebrija's exterior doesn't stand out all that much from the neighboring buildings but I'm willing to bet that its interior is pretty unique.  Remodelled in the 18th to 20th century and filled to the brim with all sorts of treasures by a noblewoman with a discerning, if eclectic, collector's eye, this 16th century mansion houses Roman mosaics (from nearby Italica), Greco-Roman busts, lots of ceramics (urns, tiles, etc.) and seemingly anything else that caught the Condesa de Lebrija's fancy.

The ground floor contains antiquities galore and feels like an old fashioned museum while a visit to the upper floor will have you feeling like you've gone back into time as well as have stepped into the private quarters of an obviously eccentric as well as rich lady (who was not above doing such as installing an Arab-style sitting room a few doors away from an actual private chapel and the kind of library that will have bibliophiles swooning).  Left as it had been at the time of the Condesa de Lebrija's passing in 1938, the Palacio de la Condesa de Lebrija contains a lot of character thanks in no small part to a woman who really does come across as quite the character as well as collector.

More than incidentally, my visit to it was made all the more enjoyable by it not appearing to have been a place that has been "discovered" by many visitors to the city.  To those who opt to follow in my footsteps: be sure to pay the extra fee for entry (via a guided tour) to the upper floor rather than just be content to restrict yourself spending time in the ground floor, which is chockful of antiquities but actually is less colorful than the section of the palacio where photography is sadly not allowed.    

Monday, June 25, 2018

Sevilla's 21st century Metropol Parasol

Does this look like a parasol to you?
In any event, the Metropol Parasol is what the structure's called!
And if nothing else, I think its existence -- and the views from up it --
helps emphasize that Sevilla is not a museum but a living city :)
I spent a lot of time in old buildings over the course of my Spain visit last month.  I figure this is to be expected since this once major world power's Golden Age is considered to have begun in the last decade of the 15th century and been over decades before the 17th century drew to a close.  But while its glory days are long past, the fact of the matter is that Spain is a still evolving nation with a society and culture that remains very much alive rather than living museum that exists solely for the edification of tourists and historians.  
Still, it's true enough that many visitors to Spain (like myself) spend far more time in the historic sections of its cities than those parts of the cities and country where more modern (and even post-modern) styles of architecture abound.  So it came as a bit of a shock to the senses when, on our way to visit a museum housed in an old palace on our final full day in Sevilla (the city that's (also) home to such as a UNESCO World Heritage-listed Gothic cathedral and centuries old Real Alcazar), my German friend and I stumbled across a giant, alien-looking structure that looked more like it had come from the future than was a vestige of the past!
The brainchild of a Berlin-based German architect who decided to shift his middle initial to the back of his namethe Metropol Parasol opened for business in March 2011.  Standing in space that previously served as a car park and conceived as an attempt to revitalize the formerly nondescript Plaza de la Encarnación, this tall and large wooden structure which brings to mind mushrooms, sponges and waffles (as much as -- if not more so than -- parasols) houses a farmer's market, shops, bars, restaurants, and archaeology museum. 
From its roof-top terrace and walkway that winds and undulates like a rollercoaster track, one can enjoy panoramic views of the city that take in both its newer and older parts -- and my German friend and I did so; in the process, spending quite a bit of time up there on top of the Metropol Parasol.  If we had known that it happens to be held together by polyurethane (foam seal or, more simply, glue) though, I'm not sure if we would have done so for as long as we did -- or been so relaxed while up there!
It's been reported that the local folks still don't know quite what to make of the Metropol Parasol and whether they like it or not.  In addition, I don't get the impression that it's considered to be a major tourist attraction in a city that's not exactly lacking major historical sites and sights.  For my part, however, I am glad that it's part of my Sevilla experience and memories.  If nothing else, I reckon that it's a pretty unique structure whose existence bears testimony to the city's authorities not being inclined to just dwell on past glories and the glorious past.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Hong Kong's socio-economic and geographical diversity on view on a hike from The Peak down to Wah Fu

from today's hike's trailhead

 View near the hike's end

Waterfall, greenery and resting butterfly spotted along the way ;b

To many people who visit, Hong Kong can seem socially and physically homogeneous.  In their eyes, Hong Kong is a concrete jungle full of expensive stores and rich people.  But while it's true that one in seven Hong Kongers is a millionaire (when measured in Hong Kong dollars), the wealth gap between the richest residents of the Big Lychee and the poorest is actually pretty wide indeed; with those living in luxury up on The Peak being several times richer than those living in public housing such as Wah Fu Estate.  And as my hiking posts (of hikes undertaken on Hong Kong Island as well as beyond) often show, the territory actually has plenty of green spaces as well as high density urban ones.

Both Hong Kong's socio-economic and geographic diversity were on view during the hike I went on earlier today with a friend that began up on The Peak (to be more precise, Victoria Gap) and ended several hundred meters lower down -- and several notches down on the social ladder too -- at Wah Fu (more precisely, in the vicinity of Wah Fu Estate).  And while the hike both started and concluded in areas where there were plenty of people in plain sight, much of it actually took place on trails that passed through green areas where far more butterflies (including at least one White Dragontail!) and spiders (including a number of Golden Orb Weavers) were on view than human beings.  

For those who think of The Peak more as a major tourist attraction than exclusive residential area: realize that apartments in this exclusive neighborhood can go for several hundred million dollars.  Contrast this with the fact that the maximum monthly income limit for individuals seeking to get into public housing in Hong Kong is HK$11,540 (as of 2018).  Put another way: the combined lifetime incomes of several hundred, if not thousands, of public housing dwellers would still not be enough to buy one flat on The Peak.

Yet while it can feel like the super rich folks living on The Peak and those in public estates may live in different worlds, the fact of the matter is that both groups -- and also those that make up the socio-economic groups in between -- have equal access to Hong Kong's country parks and the hiking trails that criss-cross them.  The beauty of nature and the joys that come from being outdoors on a beautiful day are things that anyone who venture into the likes of Pok Fu Lam Country Park on whose borders can be found both super expensive Peak residences and public housing over at Wah Fu!

As anyone who lives for a time in Hong Kong will realize, hiking is really popular among Hong Kong residents, be they expat or local, female or male, young or old.  Even Hong Kong movie stars get spotted on hiking trails, with one friend having spotted Chow Yun Fat up on Sharp Peak, and another having spotted Carina Lau and Tony Leung Chiu Wai walking along the (Victoria) Peak Circuit!

After photos of Ekin Cheng, Yoyo Mung and Hsu Chi hiking in Tai Tam Country Park surfaced a few years back, a fellow Hong Kong movie fan friend bemoaned her never ever having bumped into them there despite that part of Hong Kong being where she regularly goes hiking.  For my part, I'm not all that surprised that I've yet to spot a movie star while out hiking since I tend to focus on spotting interesting critters (sometimes doing interesting things!) when out in the countryside.  And when I crossed paths with the first Chief Executive of Hong Kong while walking along the Bowen Road Path one Chinese New Year day some years back, it was only several minutes later that I got to realizing who that familiar-looking gentleman was! ;D

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Taking in a flamenco experience at Sevilla's Casa de la Memoria

A place where memories get made... particular those involving flamenco performances :)
I spent two years of the last decade of the previous century in Tanzania conducting research on what's known in Kiswahili (the country's official language) as makumbusho.  While those institutions are known as "museums" in English, the word makumbusho actually literally translates into English as "memories".  So, for Tanzanians, a museum would be a house of memories (and vice versa).
In Sevilla, however, the House of Memories I visited was less a museum in the conventional sesnse than a cultural center dedicated to the Spanish performing art of flamenco.  And it was at that particular Casa de la Memoria that my German friend and I added a flamenco show to our list of cultural events that we've attended together (which already includes a traditional dance performance at Yogyakarta's Kraton, a Christmas Eve concert at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, an organ recital at Speyer's cathedral and a number of classical music concerts in Hong Kong, including one featuring multi-Grammy award-winning double bassist Edgar Meyer).
To the surprise of those (including my German friend) who thought that flamenco was all about the dance, the evening performance began with musical numbers courtesy of a guitarist and raspy-voiced singer and it wasn't until around the 15 minute mark of the 1 hour show that any dancers appeared on stage.  Once they did so though, they really did come across as the soul of the show -- with the musicians looking to take their cues from the dancers rather than the other way around.  
Sometimes, the two featured dancers performed as a pair.  More often than not, however, each dancer performed solo -- and in so doing, were able to show the audience how different and distinct from each other the moves accorded to the male and female dancers are; with the former involving moves that emphasized his physical strength and footwork that produced loud rat-a-tat sounds, and the latter coming across as impassioned and incorporating movements so wildly dramatic that, by the end of one dance, all the flowers that had previously been lodged in the female artiste's hair were strewn on the floor!
If truth be told, dance is probably my least favorite of the performing arts and it took a while for me to enjoy the flamenco show.  Slowly but surely, however, I felt myself drawn into the emotion-infused artistic experience; thanks largely to the dancers who at times hypnotized and other times appeared to be in a trance-like state themselves (this particularly so in the case of the female dancer who had her eyes closed for much of her performance)!  And while I'm not about to make a beeline for any flamenco performances I see scheduled in Hong Kong, I'm glad that I did take in one in a city famous for its flamenco scene and which is said to have this distinctive art form in its soul.   

Friday, June 22, 2018

Memorable sights at Sevilla's Hospital de la Caridad

The statue of Don Miguel Mañara (carrying a sick man) 
in the park across the street from the charity hospital he founded

Courtyard within the Hopsital de la Caridad

Puppet Ponyo all wide-eyed in the 
Hospital de la Caridad's chapel 

It's close to a month since I flew out of Spain -- and in that time, I've flown out of and back into Hong Kong once more (on this occasion, to enjoy durian season in Penang).  Many of the memories I accumulated over the course of my fortnight or so in Spain remain pretty vivid though, and the fact that this is the case even for visits to venues that could be described as "minor" (or, at least, not "must see"s in the eyes of many) attests to these sites actually having been much to offer and recommend.

Take, for example, the charity hospital that my guidebook (written by Rick Steves) had listed as a "try hard to see" but my German friend's hadn't seemed to rate that highly.  Founded in the 17th century by a playboy nobleman turned altruistic human being, the Hospice and Hospital of the Holy Charity in Sevilla (aka the Hospital de la Caridad) is in operation to this day (albeit more as a charity home for the aged than an actual hospital) and is housed in buildings considered to be among the finest examples of Baroque architecture in Sevilla, if not the whole of Spain.

Located in a quiet section of the city center that's just a few minutes walk from the city's famous cathedral but can feel a world apart in terms of tourist traffic, the Hospital de la Caridad houses both elderly patients and works of art by Spanish masters such as Francisco de Zurbaran and hometown boy, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.  The bulk of the institution's artistic treasures line the walls of its richly decorated chapel (whose size as well as furnishings put many a church I've been in to shame) but, at the time of my visit, visitors were able to view up close two Murillo masterpieces which had been newly restored and were being housed in another section of the hospital complex.

While there's no question that its chapel is its architectural highpoint, the central courtyards of the Hospital de la Caridad also are aesthetically pleasing -- particularly, like it was for the bulk of my visit to the complex, when it was largely empty and consequently peaceful.  (When a large tour group entered the space during the latter part of my visit, it was rather shocking to see the quiet so dramatically shattered!)

Even my having to share it with other folks couldn't take away my appreciation of the chapel however.  On the far end from the entrance is an eye-catchingly large wooden altarpiece that has been covered with glittery gold leaf and on the upper walls and ceilings of the chapel are intricate stucco work.  The art that made the most impression on me, however, were two paintings near the chapel's entrance: one showing how life can be extinguished in the blink of an eye (Juan de Valdés Leal's In Ictu Oculi); and another depicting the hand of Christ holding the scales of justice, and also worms and bugs feasting on the decaying flesh of a bishop and  Don Miguel Mañara (Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, also by Leal)!

From one perspective, it stands to reason that there would be meditations on death and what comes after in the chapel of a hospital, hospice and/or home for the aged.  But talk about putting the fear of God -- more precisely, being judged to have committed more sins than good deeds by God! -- into those who enter and make use of that place of worship, particularly those who do so regularly for a significant period of time! :O     

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Not always feeling at ease in Sevilla's famous cathedral :S

Among Sevilla Cathedral's claims to fame is it being
the final resting place of one Christopher Columbus
This cathedral also houses Spain's most valuable crown,
whose centerpiece is the world's largest pearl
Just one look at its High Altar will get you realizing
that it's quite the treasure too!
And it's Chapter House may well be the most
beautiful in the world! :O
Sevilla's Catedral de Santa Maria de la Sede has many claims to fame.  One of three structures in the Andalucian city (along with the Real Alcazar and the nearby Archivo de Indias) which is UNESCO World Heritage-listed, it took some 100 years to build and its total area of 23,500 square meters makes it the third largest church in Europe (after St Peter's in Rome, and London's St Paul's Cathedral) and the largest Gothic church in the world.  Kings, princes and cardinals are buried in it.  And so too is the Italian explorer largely funded by Spanish monarchs, Christopher Columbus, "who sailed the ocean blue" to what he thought was India but turned out to be the Americas.
Even if you didn't know who he was or that he's buried in Sevilla's cathedral, you'd be able to figure that Christopher Columbus' tomb is a big deal since it's pretty much always surrounded by crowds of people from various parts of the world. Another section of this vast building where the crowds -- understandably -- gather in front of is its High Altar, where the largest altarpiece ever made can be found, albeit behind metal grills that the church administrators in Spain seem to erect far more than their equivalents in many other parts of the world. 

I have to be honest: often, Sevilla Cathedral felt far more like a tourist attraction than an actual place of worship to me.  One reason is because of the large amount of people there who weren't there to pray.  Another is that the place is chockful of treasures, works of art (including by Goya, Murillo and Zurbaran), and -- my apologies in advance if I offend sensitive religious souls -- some rather bizarre and discomfiting oddities.  
Many years ago, I read a book about Christian relics in which it was mentioned that there are a number of churches in Europe that claim to be in possession of Jesus Christ's foreskin.  (Incidentally, it was through looking up that word in a dictionary that I came to find out what it meant!)  And while Sevilla Cathedral is not one of those Christian places of worship that have made that claim, its treasury does contain hundreds of what are claimed to be saintly body parts along with gold and jewel encrusted items, including the Corona de la Virgen de los Reyes, whose creator, Manuel de laTorres, made use of the world's largest pearl for the torso of the angel at the center of this precious crown!
In retrospect, I should have known to brace myself to behold some pretty unusual sights when the first part of the cathedral proper that I entered (which has been set aside as its art pavilion) turned out to house a 17th century piece of sculpture made to resemble the severed head of St John the Baptist.  Oh, and near an exit hangs El Lagarto, a stuffed crocodile gifted by an Egyptian Sultan to Spain's King Alfonso X when the former sought to wed the daughter of the latter!
Far more pleasing to my eye was the cathedral's Chapter House, where the archbishop and his council would meet to consider matters.  Its magnificent domed ceiling and marbled patterned floor makes it an aesthetic wonder.  At the same time as I was admiring its beauty, however, I found myself thinking it highly likely that some pretty unsavory decisions got made in the room, and perhaps that what accounts for my feeling literally chilled while in there... 
More specifically, as I had learnt at Cordoba's Casa de Sefarad, Sevilla was where the Spanish Inqusition got its start, with the first ever auto-da- of the Spanish Inquisition, which led to the burning alive of six individuals, being held in that city whose famous Jewish Quarter now no longer is home to any Jews.  And while the seat of the Inquisition was across the river in Triana, a Sevillan archbishop, Pedro Gonzalez de Mendoza, is considered to be the true founder of the Spanish Inquisition -- and the chances are indeed high that he made a number of decisions in his seat's chapter house... :S

Friday, June 8, 2018

Inspired by Anthony Bourdain even while mourning his demise

A hearty serving of rabo de toro (bull-tail's stew)
I could totally see Anthony Bourdain having enjoyed

 The Spanish eat tripe too! 

Anyone else up for morcillo (blood sausage) canapés?

A couple of hours ago, I found out that one of my heroes has not only died but committed suicideAnthony Bourdain has given me so much inspiration and joy along with entertainment.  He led me to have memorable meals at a number of dining establishments, including Tung Po and the now sadly defunct Tai Po branch of Yat Lok here in Hong Kong, Muthu's in Penang, and Koyoshi Sushi in Osaka.  Watching his shows made me want to follow in his footsteps and head to many parts of the world, including places as diverse as Vietnam (a country he seemed to genuinely love) and Amsterdam (which an episode of The Layover made really enticing).  

I loved that Anthony Bourdain was able to appreciate both "low end" and "high end" foods, and that he seemed so happy whenever he was in Asia, eating Asian foods.  I also got a major kick out of his sharing my love of street food, "tube food" (including blood sausage and liver sausage as well as more "regular" types of sausage) and "nose to tail" eating, and making it come across as "cool" rather than "gross".  

And while I haven't actually watched any of his Spain shows, I still felt like I was following in the intrepid and enthusiastic traveller's footsteps there as I did such as make a point to try a variety of foods and eateries (all of them sans reservations) on my travels in that country as well as try to look at the country and society from the viewpoint of a traveller interested in delve deep into it rather than just scratch its surface -- the way I reckon he would.

On the culinary front: I made sure to go beyond just eating jamon while in Spain (though it's also true that I did eat quite a lot of it -- Serrano, Iberico and even Iberico de Bellota) and trying a lot of local and regional specialties.  Having done some research beforehand, I knew that the Spanish eat a lot of sea creatures that many associate more with Asian culinary traditions (including razor clams, squid and octopi).  Ditto re eating animal parts such as tripe, cheeks and tails!  So when I saw such items on the menu, I would readily and happily order and eat them -- sometimes to the shock of my German friend, and often to the appreciation of the Spanish restaurant staff.  

I know there are people who see eating such items as stemming more from a dare than genuine expectation that one will find them delicious.  In all honesty though, I enjoyed eating rabo de toro (bull's-tail stew) and the Spanish version of blood sausage (morcillo) so much that I ended up happily ordering and eating them more than once on this Spain trip along with pimientos de Padron (the Russian Roulette of green pepper dishes!), gazpacho (so refreshing on hot days!) and, yes, platters of jamon (sometimes also with cheese but often just alone)!

And, like Anthony Bourdain, I regularly washed the food down -- or, should I say paired them(!) -- with alcohol: more often than not straight beer but also sometimes clara con limon (the Spanish version of British shandy or German radler), cava (Spanish sparkling wine) and, in one instance, a generous pour of gin and tonic.  

Returning to Anthony Bourdain: The way he's left this world has made it so that my thoughts and views of him will now forever be tinged with tragedy.  At the same time though, I have little doubt that this man who I never ever had the privilege of meeting, yet feel like I've had many conversations and experiences with over the years, will continue to inspire me when I travel, look at food and so much more.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Artistry seemingly everywhere you look at Sevilla's Real Alcazar (Photo-essay)

As I came to know over the course of my Spain trip, the country is home to a number of Alcazars (with a capital as well as small "A/a").  But as far as I know, there's only one Real (as in "royal" but it's easy enough to read the English meaning into it!) Alcazar in Spain -- located in the heart of Sevilla and UNESCO World Heritage-listed to boot.

Built for the Christian king Pedro I (1334-1469) by Muslim workmen -- whose artistic talent I'm absolutely in awe of -- on the site of a 10th century Abbadid Muslim fortress, the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe was added to and enlarged over the centuries and consists today of a number of palatial buildings and also has sprawling gardens within its expansive grounds.  The Real Alcazar was the Spanish attraction that I queued the longest to get into (more than one and a half hours!) but I have to say that it was totally worth the wait and I loved the place so much that I ended only leaving at a few minutes after its official closing time (and am grateful that the Spanish aren't the best of timekeepers!)!

Behold!  The entrance to King Pedro I's Palace!
Stairway leading up to the Upper Royal Apartments

Seemingly every bit of the Real Alcazar,
including its ceiling space, is a work of art
See what I mean?
And again... this in the Salon de Embajaroders 
(Hall of Ambassadors) that was King Pedro I's throne room

The Patio de las Doncellas (Courtyard of the Maidens)
with its long, rectangular reflecting pool
Puppet Ponyo wishes it to be known that even the doors
of the Real Alcazar are beautifully decorated
Seemingly every thing you look at, everywhere you look
in the complex, is a thing of dizzyingly gasp-inducing artistry :)

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Amazing sights abound inside Sevilla's Iglesia del Salvador

One of fourteen richly decorated altarpieces to be found
The chapel containing the Christ of the Passion statue has its own 
separate entrance through a courtyard of orange trees
The statue of Our Lady of the Waters
predates the church by about 400 years
Considering how (in)famously Catholic Spain is, it may seem somewhat strange the first outright Christian site that I visited was in the third -- rather than first or second -- city in the country that I set foot in.  To be sure, I did walk past a few churches and one massive cathedral in Madrid as well as spent time in the cathedral section of Cordoba's Mezquita.  Still, it's true enough that the first Christian, never mind Catholic, establishment that I made a point to check out was Seville's Iglesia del Salvador (Church of the Savior).   

Built on the site of a ninth century mosque (whose traces have been largely eradicated, though it's worth noting that what's now the church's bell tower used to be a minaret), Sevilla's second largest Christian place of worship is close to uniformly Andalusian Baroque in architectural style and decor, and is aesthetically all the more pleasing and beautiful because of it.  Containing far more -- and far more elaborate -- altarpieces than I had hitherto been used to seeing inside a single church, the Iglesia del Salvador is far more filled with art than its fairly plain looking exterior would have you think, and what a diversity of Christian art and artefacts there are on display in there too!
As heavy-looking as the high-ceilinged main space of the church feels bright and airy, the church's 14 (yes, really!) large altarpieces are all pretty spectacular and distinctive.  For example, there is one which memorably features images of God the father and God the spirit as opposed to the usual God the son.  Also, while the main altarpiece includes a statue of Christ on the cross, Jesus also appears in more unusual incarnations, including one riding an ass, and another which has him looking incredibly humble and bowed as well as bloodied.   

Amidst the elaborate architectural flourishes and religious depictions, the church's three-dimensional sculptures and statues really stand out.  And I'm not just referring here to the statue of Jesus Christ carrying the cross that's so revered that the faithful have been known to kiss one of its heels or that of the Virgin Mary which, in centuries gone by, was paraded through the city in times of drought!  For even church's more modest sculptural works, like the pair of lamp angels attached to columns located close to the main altarpiece, have such individual facial features that they seem so much more defined and life-like than the pride and joy of many an art museum as well as equivalent establishment.  

To think that I would have missed out on these sights if not for the existence of a combo-ticket for Sevilla Cathedral and the Iglesia del Salvador, and it being so that buying it at the latter allows one to avoid the far longer queue for tickets at the former!  As it is, while my German friend and I were in the very short line for tickets at the Iglesia del Salvador, we saw a group of American tourists peek into the church and mistakenly decide that, since they already had been to the cathedral, this smaller Christian establishment would not be worth visiting!
Post having spent a good deal more time gaping at amazing sights galore in the Iglesia del Salvador than I actually thought I would, I genuinely feel that those folks actually missed out on quite the visual and cultural experience.  At the same time, they probably helped those of us who opted to give this church a chance have a better experience than we might otherwise have had since, unlike at such as Cordoba's Mezquita, the small number of tourists within made for a more uncrowded and, consequently, pleasant and peaceful time in the place! :)