09/08/2007, Written in Barcelona
We came to Sitges with high hopes. But it turned out to be overpriced and overrated. No doubt it's great fun to be here with a group of like-minded mates, up for some serious beach and night life. But for your average couple, especially about 45 minutes walk from the centre of town, it's not really idyllic.
Sitges was a classic fortified town on a craggy promontory with a fishing village. There is still some fishing but it does not have much presence. Around the crag is now a hilly town along a spectacular beach. It is very much tourist-ville, playing host to an extravagant mixture of western-European nationalities and sexualities. The place was 'adopted' by German and British gays in the 1970's and has snowballed from there.
In one respect it was like Morocco. Cafés almost entirely filled by blokes, all watching the street and chatting. But definitely not watching us! Sitges is full of gay men, posing, cruising, gossing, playing all sorts of games from dominoes upwards. There are a lot of lesbians too, but not as flamboyant or as visible as the boys.
In between there are indeed straight couples and families, mostly taking one of two attitudes. Either they're mixing with the brightly plumaged gays, just slightly, self-consciously liberal about it. Or they have a glazed expression of astonishment. 'Well, Cheryl (or Mireille, or Sabina or Luzia), I never knew there were so many!'
We went out for a drink at the Marypilli bar on Wednesday night. It was pleasant and friendly. Nice cocktails. But in the end we didn't hang out till the scene kicked in at 0200. Soft, we are!
Otherwise, Sitges was a bit of a wash-out. It absolutely chucked with rain every day, making life a little dreary, and the marina was very dear. We flew, as we usually do, our big rainbow flag. (We'd taken it down for Morocco, where homosexuality is illegal. We're not that brave!) We always hope that other gay and lesbian sailors will come and say hello when they see it; so far that's only happened in Cadiz, where we met the lovely Dane, Johan and Rota with Sandrine and Sylvie (visiting Muriel and Stephane on Alna'ir.)
Also, you can see our wonderful sun cover over the cockpit. This was a very welcome civil partnership present, which we have used a lot this summer and last. In Sitges we finally did a long overdue job of re-rigging the lazy jacks on the stack-a-pack. This confines the mainsail, making it much easier to put up and pull down, and for yonks the bits of rope and bungee have needed replacing. We put on new line and bungee, with plastic snap hooks on the end. This makes them easy to remove, so the cover can go over the boom. Now it is much higher, and also slightly steeper so rain doesn't sit on it to the same extent.
The job also makes the stack-a-pack work better. Definitely should have done it months ago.
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Valencia feels exhausted. Not surprising, given the excitements of the America's Cup and the annual extravaganza of the Fallas in July. The streets and parks are empty; this is the Calatrava bridge over the ex-Turia riverbed. The bridge is beautiful, but the most striking thing is the emptiness of the park. We tried hard to think of any other large (rich) city where the parks would be so empty at 1700 on a sunny Friday afternoon. London, Berlin, Wellington, Seville, New York, would all see crowds.
It also fits with the strange formality that haunts the city. In Andalucia, you feel that a swirling chaos might erupt any moment and whisk you away to some unpredicted future. Here, a stately formality precludes such thrills, instead imposing an order and grandeur that infects the mind. You think of majesty, of empire, and of staggering architectural ambition. That's a different post.
The America's Cup programme describes this as 'the greatest moment' in Valencia's history. No! What of the conquest by the Muslims in 711, and by Jaime I in 1238. (It is noticeable in the architecture and the style of living that this area was Christianised some 250 years before most of Andalucia.) And what about the Republican government, who made this their headquarters? This is another place where history and conflict, imperial fortunes, civic pride and extravagant religiosity are written all over the face of the town.
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The Cup finished in early July; with both skippers and 58.5% of the two crews, New Zealand scores either way, but otherwise we'd prefer not to talk about the result.
The place is pretty empty. There's space for at least 150 large yachts in the North Marina alone (where we are), but there's less than 30. We're not the smallest, but we're not far off. There's Dutch, German, French, Italian, American and one we think is Kiwi. Some of the boats are shut up, their owners obviously elsewhere after the excitement. So it's rather eerie, the stillness surrounded by all these brand new facilities.
Speaking of facilities, the toilets and showers must have been overwhelmed when the place was full. At the moment, only one of each is open. Given the scale of the project, these are not brilliant. The office staff are slightly erratic in their opening hours: 0900 was well after 1000 on Saturday, but departure is prompt at 1900. Not surprising perhaps, given the uncertain future.
To some extent, this is nitpicking. The port as a whole is a huge achievement, built in just three years on underused docks, incorporating a new canal nearly a kilometre long, massive amounts of new landscaping, the lovely Veles y vents (sails and winds) building. If the use and quality of these spaces is kept up, it will have been an amazing regeneration project.
At the moment, as the post on pilotage says, there's been no decision about the future of the marina. If the Spanish government need some help working on what to do, we know a very good regeneration strategist with extensive understanding of how the leisure marine sector works, and lots of experience with complicated partnerships. As a freebie to start with: decide who's managing it, and start selling winter berths. Otherwise a wonderful centre which could be such an impetus for yachting (racing and cruising) will become another slightly run-down area full of the little sport fishing boats that are so popular all over Spain.
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27/07/2007, New Carthage
Cartagena means New Carthage, the name given to the town when they conquered it from the Phonecians. People have been fighting over this natural harbour, its defensible hills and fertile hinterland for 3000 years. It's in a great strategic position too, on the trade routes along the coast and a good landfall from the Balearics, Italy and (as for us) North Africa.
We're a bit touristed out after Grenada, but we have visited the Castillo de la Concepcion and the Civil War air-raid shelters, as well as taking the tourist bus. The latter is just right; not too long nor too short and a good bite of information.
The Castillo is very well presented, and must be the most disabled accessible ancient monument we've ever seen. It has a good interactive exhibition, showing how the town grew and shrunk over the centuries. It got a big boost when the fervid swamp of an inland sea to the north was drained, which stopped lots of diseases and allowed expansion. There was another big boost in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, due both to being fleet HQ and lots of mining. Today it is recovering from major economic collapse in the 1980's, and relying heavily on tourism, the large commercial port and the Navy to do it.
In between, of course, lies the rarely-mentioned 'extreme agitations' of the later 1930's, aka the Spanish Civil War. Cartagena was the HQ of the Republican fleet, used both for the navy effort and to keep Madrid supplied. As a result it was very heavily bombed, even by the standards of that war which saw the first aerial bombardments. The council organised a committee for passive defence, which built a big system of air-raid shelters. Some of these were in the hills that characterise Cartagena, and the ones under the Castillo, in the highest hill, are open to the public.
They are very moving, with recorded interviews with survivors, contemporary films and posters and the like. The first time a bomb was dropped, they had never heard of such a thing, and were all out in the streets watching.
The Civil War is hardly mentioned in Spain, and you rarely see mention of Franco. Giles Tremlett, in his excellent Ghosts of Spain, talks of the deliberate policy of oblivio, forgetting, which followed Franco's death. It was essential to help the country to heal. But now, as people are growing up for whom it is history, not memory, and as they dig up mass graves all over the countryside, now it needs more discussion. The shelters seemed a very good place to start.
The picture is one of the four great water cisterns underneath the castle, a spooky place.
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Everywhere we go we look for the dykes. It should be simple. Go on the net, put in the name of the place and 'lesbian', or in a pinch 'gay', and up it comes. Especially places like Seville, Lisbon or Cadiz. Maybe the guidebook will have somewhere, though it may be out of date, given the speed with which bars come and go.
It works in much of the UK, right? Even in Ipswich it led us to the regular group, and various friends there. (Hi, Sally and Penny!)
But we've pretty much failed till Granada, where we hit gold! The picture is us with new friends Rocio (next to Sarah) and her girlfriend Monica. The bar is the lovely La Sal, at c/ Santa Paula 11, just south of the Grand Via. It's been there for an extraordinary 19 years and doesn't bother with the web. We found it in the Rough Guide, and it was open.
To measure this triumph you have to understand the failures. They fit into various categories. There are the places which simply don't exist; you go to the address and there's a shoe shop, or an empty site. Just not a bar/bookshop/hangout at all. This happened in La Coruna. Then there are places which exist but aren't gay; the Levante bar in Cadiz, or the very popular slightly alternative bar in Lisbon. Or you find somewhere which is open (probably only from midnight and is strictly for the boys: stand up, the Poniente bar in Cadiz. Or somewhere draped in rainbow flags but permanently shut: Oporto, Seville and La Coruna all come to mind. Or there is a nice gay-run bar, but which isn't really a gay or lesbian bar in the sense of meeting and talking to other dykes; welcome to the very pleasant Torito bar in Rota.
Pip argues that the solution to this is to find the address, and then sort of hang around in nearby streets. Before long, other befuddled queers will happen along, and lo! A party. The problem is of course that you still don't meet local people, and it means hanging around some pretty weird places late at night.
You can tell from our list that we've tried. Really, we have. Not that we're major bar bunnies or club hoppers or anything. (Stop falling about at the back there). But we like to meet other women. And we also want to meet people in the places we visit, and we'd hoped that finding the lesbians would be one way to do that.
So it was all the sweeter to find La Sal, meet Rocio and Monica, and the lovely Rosa who owns the bar and took the pic. Certainly, we should find somewhere in Barcelona!
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On Tuesday in Granada we visited the Alhambra museum. This has lots of interesting stuff including some very beautiful 'domestic' items from the palaces, such as a folding chair with delicate marquetery.
They are restoring the famous fountain in the Court of the Lions at the moment, taking each marble lion out and cleaning him up. The museum incorporates a fascinating little film on the work, and the completed Lion No. 4. Having done some restoration work, Sarah was intrigued; these days they use lasers to clean the stone, but it's not obvious how you'd use that 200ft up in a cathedral vault. They are undertaking significant rebuilding on the crumbled lions, which is probably controversial in conservation circles, but the right thing to do in such a well-loved and visited monument that has so many lessons for us today.
On the Wednesday morning we visited the Capilla Real, where Ferdinand and Isabella are buried. It is always interesting to speculate what would have happened if so-an-so hadn't been around. Hitler? Herod? Isabella is a character who invites such speculation, because, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, Elizabeth Tudor and Catherine the Great she is a powerful European Queen who seemed to drive conquest and change in very specific ways. It does seem likely, though, that the internal strains and increasing divisions of the Nazrid dynasty would have led to its downfall anyway. Would another kind of Catholic Monarch have maintained the convivencia, which Isabella broke, or created the Inquisition?
Tolstoy would have argued that the great leaders are the least free - at least that's what he says in War & Peace. And Stephen Fry, in Making History suggests that the larger historical circumstances create the person that the society requires. So, maybe the extraordinary levels of repression and cruelty of medieval Spain after the Conquest were inevitable.
Even so, it was interesting to see them properly buried. Isabella's extraordinary collection of Flemish painting is also in the Sacristy and well worth a look for some very beautiful work.
The picture is a view across Granada from the Alhambra with the Cathedral in the centre; we couldn't get in there because the Mass for Santiago (the feast of St James) was about to start, but we were pretty much cultured out by then.
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So many people have written and painted and composed around this exquisite collection of palaces that it is difficult to add one's humble thoughts. We spent half a day exploring the fortified hilltop that dominates Grenada and is the apogee of Islamic mediaeval Spain. It gets hot and tiring by mid-afternoon, but it's absolutely worth it.
There must have been buildings here since the Romans, if not earlier, but the place really came into its own in the 11th century after the collapse of the Caliphate of Cordova, when Grenada became an independent taifa (or small kingdom) under the Zirid dynasty, who moved its capital here. In the thirteenth century the Nasrid dynasty began; by then the earlier fortress was in ruins and they really are the first builders of the Alhambra we see now. After Grenada fell to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, which completed the Christian conquest of Spain, the Catholic Monarchs and their descendents made many further alterations. The biggest of these is the enormous palace Carlos V (their grandson) built on the hilltop, but there are many smaller ones, such as the addition of the Virgin Mary to the Islamic key markings over major doorways. The key and the virgin, next to each other, is a Christian/Muslim dualism which dominates the complex; it illustrates the complex relationship between faith and power here in Andalucia.
The Alhambra divides into several sections, all within a massive wall at the top of El Sabika, the last of the hills of the Sierra Nevada, protruding like the bow of a giant, landlocked ship into the fertile vega or plains. At the pointed end, looking west, is the Alcazaba, the military fortress, itself a small town and wholly enclosed away from the court or the medina. The picture shows one edge of the fortress, seen from the Generalife, with the plains stretching away behind.
There is the medina itself, a town supplying the many needs of the court and garrison, from fullers to armourers. Very little of this remains except floor plans and the ancient public baths.
There are the palaces, which provide many of the famous images of Islamic architecture. Of these, the most complete are the Comares Palace, the Lion Palace and the Palace of the Generalife, but there are the remains of many more. (The Generalife complex, separated from the rest of the Alhambra by a deep ravine, was the 'home farm' of the court, and also houses a pretty summer palace. It is pronounced something like Henerallifay.)
The palace of Carlos V is very different indeed, and houses the Alhambra museum. This is shut today (Monday) so we will go back to it tomorrow.
Finally, there are the gardens. Many of these are of course integral to the buildings, but can also be written about in their own right.
(This is not the traditional division, which divides the Alhambra into the fortress Alcazaba, the royal palaces, and the Generalife. But we're going to say a bit about the different bits as we've carved it up, which allows us a few more pix.)
Although we are neither of us qualified to comment on the history or symbolism of the Alhambra, we are sure that its beauty and history, together with the places we have seen elsewhere in Morocco and Andalucia, will continue to echo in our hearts, and will emerge in different ways in Sarah's writing and Pip's silver-smithing.
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This garrison is at the steepest edge of the crag, with vertiginous walls interrupted at multiple points by highly defensible watchtowers. In plan it is a triangle, and sadly for us, quite a bit of it is closed for restoration at the moment.
We climbed the cylindrical Torre del Cubo ('bucket'), where this picture was taken. The bulky corner on the left of the picture is the Tower of Homage. This is not the tallest tower in itself, but is on the greatest elevation so the top is the highest. This was probably the first Nasrid building, and the first sultan may even have lived here for a while.
On the right hand side, with the flags flying is the Watch Tower, the apex of the triangle of the fortress. This tower (surmounted by a 19th century belfry) has amazing views for miles and miles. This is where the Catholic Monarchs hoisted their flags on 2 January 1492, after receiving the keys from King Boabil.
Inside, the fortress does have a large space which one would normally expect to be an open parade ground. In the Alcazabar, it was built up, with one narrow street running its length, and warehouses, barracks or residences filling most of the space. At the end, under the Watch Tower, is a large bath complex. Underneath there are big spaces with narrow vertical entrances (like an upside down funnel). These were used for storage - grain, water, salt. And people: they were also dungeons.
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If we had not seen the Alcazar of Seville and the Mesquite of Cordoba we would have been even more amazed and awed by the artistry and beauty of these palaces. They bring the beauty of true proportion and the exquisite artistry of work in plaster, stone, wood and tile to a new peak.
A particularly interesting feature are the mocárabes, complex structures of prisms within prisms made in plaster or stone, that hang down in ornate, geometric stalactites. These are suspended from domes and arches all over the palaces.
The picture shows one amazing archway in the Palaces, but they are difficult features to photograph from ground level. The only other place we (Sarah really) have seen such a feature is in the Mogul buildings of sixteenth century India, notably the deserted city of Fatephur Sikkri, near to Agra. The inscription around this one starts 'Sublime piece of work/Fortune wishes it to surpass all other monuments.'
The palaces are built on the same patterns as most Islamic traditional homes. There is a central patio, with water in it in some form. Off this are rooms, often rectangular with an alcove at each end. The surrounds are in at least two stories. There may well be roof terraces as well.
In the beautiful Court of the Myrtles in the Comares Palaces there are four arches leading to rooms said to be the quarters of the sultan's four wives. These quarters are again rectangular rooms with alcoves. We were interested to see that this is exactly the pattern of the riad we stayed in in Fes. A flexible and effective layout in places of extreme temperatures.
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Many books have been written on these beautiful buildings, by people more knowledgeable than we will ever be. You go from one room to another, gazing at the extraordinary detail. Each room is covered in either stucco or ceramic tiling or wood.
The stucco or stone is carved into intricate patterns, which do not represent living things (as this is forbidden in the Koran). They are inspired by plant life, and you see many stylised leaves and fruits, as well as pure geometric design resting on advanced mathematics.
Also, there is a lot of Arabic script, highly stylised and flowing. Some of it is quotations from the Koran, glorifying Allah, or citing the revelatory basis for successful conquest or the centrality of water to the design of the palaces. Other scripts are poems, many specially commissioned, exalting the sultan or marking major events such as the circumcision of the eldest son. The picture shows just one small example, where the letters are inlaid into the surround.
Ceramic tiling is brought to a very high pitch here, with complex geometric patterns with colours that often have specific meanings. (In a palace in Fes, to compare, our guide pointed out the blue of Fes, the green of Mecca, the brown of Marrakesh). There is a particular viewing place, a lovely covered balcony called the Mirador de Lindajara ('the eyes of Aixa's house') which has tiles thinner than a little finger and less than the length of a thumb. These are laid out in complex regular patterns, fitted together with precision and grace.
Many ceilings are coffered in ornate wood, one in particular providing an extraordinary stellar depiction of the seven levels of heaven. These were (some still are) heavily gilded. The Christians continued this tradition, and you see many gilded insignia of the yoke and arrow, used by Ferdinand and Isabella.
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The Alhambra must be fascinating to serious students of garden and landscape design. The rest of us can luxuriate in the lovely flowers and scents and the cool sight and sound of water. (By the way, if you´re reading this in chronological order, ie oldest first, this is one of 5 posts on the Alhambra, which could be read in any order, you might like to go the Contents page and decide.)
As you explore, you can trace the progression from the rigid formality of Hispano-Islamic Classicism, through the stately majesty of 16th century empire, the soft and multiple flowerings of 19th century romanticism and the re-imaginings of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
In all of these, water plays a central role. For the Moors, Paradise was very like a garden. Water is glorified and blessed, and the garden patios of the Alhambra bring these beliefs together. In the severe lines of the great courtyards of the Nasrid palaces, the pools are great rectangles of still water. They reflect and soften the hard edges, right angles and severe geometry of the courtyards, shimmering and colouring the entire space. Here water moves quietly, making only the smallest of whispers, giving cause to reflect on the bounty of Allah and the fragile thread on which life depends.
These evolve into ever more complex arrangements of plants and water. The Arabs loved the date palm, and many remain in Grenada. (In Cordoba, by comparison, the palms that were planted in the courtyard outside the Mosque were replaced by the orange trees which still grow there.) In addition, an early sultan installed a complex hydraulic water system, fed by the Acequia Real (Royal Conduit) which brought water from the Generalife into the waterless crag of the palaces and the fortress. In the gardens of the Generalife, this allowed the creation of the wonderful Water Staircase, down each side of which runs, at hand height, a rill of fast, cold water refreshing as you climb up from that palace to its highest view point.
The later gardens of the Catholics have more luxuriant planting, including many more plants in the water itself. Here we find lilies and reeds, the interplay of fish in the leaves, and overhanging branches bringing a different effect of light and shade. Their fountains became more elaborate than the earlier ones, and you can hear the movement of water in jets and streams.
By the nineteenth century the Alhambra (largely ignored for some 300 years) was 'rediscovered' by the Romantics. Gustav Doré made engravings and painters such as Mariano Fortuny, Owen Jones and Lopez-Mezquita recorded and fantasised about the palaces, fortress and gardens. Their works, even when distorted by orientalist romanticising of the past, are a valuable help to the archaeologists today. This is particularly important in recovering the magnificent polychrome on the stucco work, only fragments of which survive.
Their impact is clear in some of the planting, even much more modern developments such as the Cypress Walk.
In the 20th century some areas of the gardens were re-laid out, including the 'New Gardens' in the lower part of the Generalife. These were informed by all sorts of elements of the past, including, in 1951, a reinterpretation of an Islamic garden (designed by the architect Prieto Moreno). The picture is a fountain from that garden.
If we had a garden nowadays, we would rethink the whole design to learn from the tranquillity and inspiration of these outdoor spaces. These gardens manage heat and cold, provide spaces for gracious living, and are both a feast for the senses and a stimulation to the mind. For Sarah, who had the good fortune to live in the gardens of Stowe as a child, they would be yet another dimension to the long view that is required of any serious gardener.
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15/07/2007, North Africa in the EU
The high crag at the heart of old Melilla has been fought over for millennia, as the Phoenician remains make clear. It was taken by the Spanish shortly after the fall of Grenada and they have held on to it ever since, building a massive fort around and within the rock.
This old town is called Medina Sidonia (a familiar name as the duchy was and is very powerful all around Cadiz), after the duke who conquered it. It was fortified in a series of five redoubts, which still bristle with cannon old and new. You can wander around it, looking at the tri-lingual information boards. It is still dominated by Church and Army, so in that respect it's a typical European medieval town.
The rest of Melilla was largely settled in the first half of the twentieth century, because of a very large open cast iron mine nearby, and it now claims to house more modernist buildings than any other Spanish town save Barcelona. The streets are indeed littered with them, their flat and monumental facades creating a harmonious and spacious air.
The caves offer a strange mixture. Originally started in the fifteenth century, they were gradually hollowed out over the years, serving as stores, redoubts, and for a very long time the church and convent. By the end of the 1950's, the whole fortress had fallen into disrepair, but a large archaeological and conservation project began in 1959. (Three years after Moroccan independence; just a coincidence, but we don't think so.) This resulted in some stunning modernist brickwork and building under ground and along the cliffs. The picture is a detail of the arches built into some of the tunnels with complex bends and curves needing these jigsaw keystones.
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