Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Last full day in Spain: Tour of Salamanca

Tour of Salamanca: When arriving at Salamanca, our tour guide first showed us El Río Tormes, which runs through Salamanca, and the Roman bridge that crosses it. Our goal for the day was to see the New Cathedral, the University of Salamanca, and the Plaza Major. We started with the New Cathedral, which has the original Cathedral still standing along with the new building added. The Cathedral was initially built in 1140, fun fact is that before they included the newer part of the Cathedral in 1513, their plans were to tear down the old cathedral and completely rebuild. During the 220 years it took to finish the Cathedral, multiple architectural styles were used in the process, including Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque. During the Romanesque style, we can see that the windows were made very small so that arrows thrown at the Cathedral were unable to pass through to the inside. Another fun fact is that in 1973 a family lived in the bell tower and they were in charge of ringing the bells every hour on the hour. The family was referred to as Los Campaners, or the bell ringers.

When walking towards the altar, you can see 53 painted tiles which represent the story of Jesus. These tiles were painted by an Italian named, Nicolas de Florencia. Afterwards, we visited the University of Salamanca, founded in 1218 and is known as the oldest university in Spain.

It is said that if students could find the frog in the Plateresco architecture outside then they would pass all their classes. In actuality, the frog represented sexual temptation and death. Originally, the University was an all male school and if they paid any mind to women they would fail classes and possibly die. The frog on the skull was to remind the boys each day they entered the building to focus on their classes and not on the women. To finish the tour, our guide took us to the Plaza Mayor de Salamanca. Similar to every other Plaza Mayor, the balconies above the coffee shops and and restaurants, were once used by spectators when watching bullfights. However, there was one part of the Plaza that stood out for me. There was a statue of an elephant upside down on it's trunk, sculpted by Spanish artist, Miguel Barceló. It is said that the elephant represents the equilibrium necessary for artistic creativity.

Didactic Center of the Jewish Quarter

Today, after finishing our final exam, we visited the Didactic Center in the Jewish Quarter of Segovia. It is located in what was once the house of the most important Jew in 15th Century Spain, Rabbi Abraham  Seneor.  He was close to the monarchy and was dubbed "El Rab" which meant that he was a liaison between the Hebrew community and the monarchs. When he was elderly, he was baptized during the rule of Isabel and Ferdinand. He was very wealthy and had one of the biggest houses in the Jewish section of Segovia. The Center consists of 3 rooms that provide information on the Sephardic culture and give viewers an idea of what this neighborhood was like in the Middle Ages. In the gift shop, they sell, among other things, replicas of the keys that had belonged to Jews who were expelled from their homes after Isabel and Ferdinand decreed the expulsion of Jews from Spain.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

La Granja

On May 10th, the group traveled 20 minutes to the town of La Granja. The first place we visited was the Real Fábrica de Cristales, which is a Glass Museum. This building was constructed in 1770 by Joseph Díaz during the reign of Carlos III, who fomented national industries such as this one. It is of neoclassical rectangular design and made up of stone and brick as well. The equipment within the museum used for glass making includes replicas of 2 huge heating ovens with 8 openings for the crisoles (melting pots). The glass, a mixture of 70% sand and 30% of potassium, sodium, and calcium, would be heated at 1,300°C for 16 hours. The factory, now mostly a museum, was active up until 1962. However, we learned that the art of making glass actually originated in Syria in 4000 BC.

The group also got to see beautiful glasses being blown at this museum, which put in perspective how many people it actually takes to produce a piece. We saw molded decanters and blown glass champagne flutes being made. The glass blowers blew into long pipes and then twirled them to begin to shape the glass. Each person had a specific task in the whole process, with the final step of letting each piece cool to later sell. Any excess glass would be reheatedand recycled. There used to be a school of glass blowing, but when the economic crisis of 2008 hit Spain, the school was closed.

Our guide explained how glass panes used to be made from huge bottle-like shapes called manchones. They were very difficult to make because workers only had 3-4 minutes to blow the glass before it hardened. Also it took a lot of lung power to blow such big pieces. Mirrors were also created for the royalty and the very wealthy. Back then they were made with mercury. The saying that if someone breaks a mirror, they will have 7 years of bad luck comes from the early days of mirrror making. Supposedly, if a maid broke a mirror, they would have their salary docked for 7 years to pay back their employer. The museum also displayed some white glass that looked like porcelain; its coloring is made of ground up horns of animals, specifically deer. Today this museum produces elaborate chandeliers of unique modern/baroque styles, for example, the "Cosmic" chandelier (shown below) incorporates the planets of the solar system.

After lunch we walked to the Palacio Real, but unfortunately, it was closed for preparations for the King's visit on the following day. However, we ventured to the gardens behind the Palace where we saw beautiful fountains and an abundance of greenery. We had a chance to enter a labyrinth within the gardens, which was fun to explore and try to find our way back. Some of us got lost. I won't mention who.

Guggenheim, Bilbao

Continuing our exploration of the Basque Country of Spain, on Sunday afternoon we visited the Guggenheim Museum in the city of Bilbao, a mecca for those interested in contemporary art and architecture. This museum, designed by the Canadian-born American architect Frank Gehry, was built along the Nervion River, and was completed in 1997. Other Guggenheim Museums besides the one in Bilbao include locations in New York City (designed by Frank Lloyd wright), Venice, Berlin, Los Vegas, and Abu Dhabi. One of Gehry's goals for the Bilbao museum was to integrate it with the city. Another was to create a structure that would be considered a work of art. In short, the museum is a place that connects with urban life and provides a place for lovers of contemporary art to view a variety of artistic forms. On the outside of the museum, one of the first things we saw was a very sculpture of a spider, measuring about 9 meters in height. For its creator, Louise Bourgeois, the spider represents both protector and predator, and the piece is titled Maman (French for "mother"). Maybe she is protecting the museum and the city of Bilbao. In addition to the permanent works of Bourgeois, Richard Serra, and Jenny Holzer, among others on the main floor of the museum, we saw the temporary exhibit of Abstract Expressionism that included works by Motherwell, Rothko, Pollock, de Kooning and Gorky, for example.

Bilbao has experienced a renaissance since the years of its economic decline, which began in the 70s. The museum has been a major component of the economic revitalization of the city, boosting tourism and creating culture in what was once a vacant lot beside a polluted river. The Bilbao Guggenheim, along with many urban renewal projects, has increased the overall appeal of the city. Within the first 3 years of the museum's opening, tourism quadrupled in Bilbao, bringing in about 500 million euros of economic activity, not only from the museum, but also from the tourists staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, and shopping.

One of my favorite pieces in the museum was by a German painter and sculptor, Anselm Kiefer. The name of the piece is “The Order of the Night,” and it features huge sunflowers that loom over a body (the artist) lying prone on the ground. Because sunflowers follow the sun, this piece expresses the connection between the earth and the sky, as well as humankind's place between the two. The canvas measures 356x463 cm; in other words, it's quite large. I like the piece because of my love for that specific flower, but also because of the simplicity of the colors.

San Sebastián

Today the weather was perfect: warm temperature, soft breeze, and plenty of sun. Our day started out with breakfast in the Oñate Country House, after which we piled into the van and set off for San Sebastián. After arriving, we began our tour of the city.

San Sebastián is part of the País Vasco which is in northern Spain and it is very different from the central part of Spain, where we've been until now (Segovia and Madrid). The País Vasco is much greener, with lots of mountains, valleys, and pines trees. San Sebastián, however is a port city located on the Cantabrian Sea, and therefore fishing was a big part of its economy. Now it is tourism that fuels the economy. The three playas (beaches) in the city make it a popular destination for tourists from all over Spain, Europe, and the rest of the world.

San Sebastián is called Donostia in the Basque language and many of the street signs are only written in Basque. Like other major cities in Spain, San Sebastián has a Plaza Mayor (central square) where traditionally its residents used to gather on balconies and watch bullfights. Today, the Plaza Mayor is used as a place to gather for fiestas (which can last days depending on the fiesta). On our tour, we stopped at the marketplace (La Brecha), several different churches, and other public spaces as our guide talked about some of the traditions of the city's inhabitants. She described, for example, the Tamborrada, which happens every 20th of January, and consists of a 24-hour long drumming, marching and singing celebration with groups dressed up as soldiers or chefs.

After our tour of the casco viejo (historic section) of the city, we enjoyed pintxos, a type of finger food eaten before a main meal and usually accompanied by una copa de vino. They are delicious and consist of small pieces of bread with meat, fish, eggs or vegetables on them. The word “pintxos” is Basque for the Spanish term tapas.

After enjoying the pintxos and the bag lunches our host mothers had lovingly packed for us the day before, some of us headed to the beach called La Concha. The water was cold though we did end up going in for a bit, dipping our toes and splashing around. The beach was not as crowded as some of the beaches I’ve been to in America, like Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. There were several families spread out on towels, sunbathing and enjoying themselves. Something that the group of us found a bit surprising is that it is normal for the women to sunbathe topless. It was interesting to see the cultural difference because this is considered a perfectly normal thing to do in San Sebastián. Also, children ran around naked and dogs frolicked in the ocean. When we had had enough of the sun’s rays to tan (or in some cases burn) our skin, we walked around the city of San Sebastián. It was a perfect day to tour a beautiful city and enjoy its coastal setting. That evening, as we headed back to the Country House in Oñate, many of us fell asleep in the van after another busy, eventful day in España.

A Fishing Village and a Famous Tree

On Monday morning, our stay in País Vasco (Basque Country) was coming to an end, but we had two more stops before returning to Segovia.

Our first stop was the fishing village of Mundaka on the northern coast of Spain, famous for its great waves for surfing.  The morning we went, however, the ocean was calm.  We walked around a bit, seeing some of the coast and the outside of the Basilica of Saint Catalina, a church built on a peninsula in a style in between the Gothic and Renaissance constructions we have seen elsewhere.  Note that the arches are neither pointed nor semicircular, but instead are a sort of in-between stage of an elliptical shape.

After our short walk, we journeyed onward to Guernica (spelled Gernika in Basque and pronounced gher-NEE-kah).  Gernika is famous today for the bombing it endured during the Spanish Civil War, in which hundreds of civilians were killed indiscriminately (the exact number of casualties is disputed) by Hitler's German forces in aide of the fascist nationalists led by Francisco Franco in 1937.  This event was immortalized in Picasso's famous painting Guernica that same year, seen below.

While in Gernika, we had the chance to see the Gernikako Arbola (the "Tree of Gernika" in Basque).  This oak tree is an important symbol of freedom to the people in the Biscay region of Spain.  It was under this tree that the Reyes Católicos (Fernando II and Isabel I) first swore to uphold the rights of the Biscayan people.  This became a tradition as each new feudal lord of the region stood under this tree to swear to uphold the rights of the people.  The original tree, the "Father Tree," lived from some time in the 14th century until the early 1800s.  When it finally died, it was replaced by its "son," a tree grown from one of its acorns, called the "Old Tree."  This tree was replaced again later that century by the "Son Tree" and its trunk was placed in a temple to preserve it in 1926.  In this way, both the Old Tree and the Son Tree survived the bombing of Gernika, continuing to symbolize the freedom of the people living there in spite of the destruction of the town.  The tree still stands today, in its fifth incarnation.
This tree is so important to the people of the region that it features prominently on the coat of arms, alongside two wolves symbolizing the founder of the region, Lope de Haro, as well as appearing on the coat of arms for several towns in the region, Gernika included.  Additionally, the symbol of the oak leaf can be found on public landmarks.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Romanesque Churches

Today our group took an afternoon stroll through the streets of Segovia to visit Romanesque churches.  It was a beautiful day to walk around the small city, and though it was hot, we found reprieve from the sun within the silent stone walls of centuries old buildings.  In total, we entered two holy structures, named San Millán and San Justo y Pastor.  The third church on our tour, the Church of San Esteban, was closed, but we viewed it from the outside because of its elegant tower. These churches, like eleven others throughout the city, share the same architectural style known as Romanesque or románico.

Found in other parts of the country and Europe, these churches were built from the 11th to the 13th century and include elements from Roman architecture. For example, the layout of the church is in the shape of a cruz latina or Latin cross, with the alter always located in a semicircular apse in the east, and the main entrance in the west. Romanesque churches can have anywhere from one to five naves, the center one always taller than the others. Outside the church are carvings in the stone (for Segovia the stone is limestone), to represent biblical stories or mythological figures. In the middle ages few could read, so such carvings helped illustrate the important lessons within the Bible and mythology.

Below the churches lie the graves of local families. This custome changed centuries later with the Bourbon king Felipe V and the creation of Spain's first cemetery in La Granja. Here, in the Church of San Millán, each grave was marked with carved numbers that corresponded to a chart listing the names of the family members so the graves could be identified. The graves sometimes held whole families and after enough time had passed, a new family would occupy the grave. 

Additionally, only in Segovia will you find a galería porticada, something like a covered stone patio, on the outside of the churches. No one really knows why this is such a predominant feature in this city's churches, but it is believed to be because of the weather. During the cold months the churches would be quite chilly, and if they were also used as meeting places for local governments, the outside patio would be warmer if it protected people from wind, but still allowed for the warmth of the sun to penetrate.  An interesting theory, no?

Of course, each of the churches we visited was unique in its own way. The first, San Millan, is the largest in Segovia, with its four naves and semicircular apses on the east end of the cross-shaped floor plan. Inside, an enormous organ still plays even after its construction in the 17th century.  

Mind you, the church itself was constructed in 1111 (completed in 1126).  Inside, another typical feature of Romanesque churches, are paintings on the stone walls that depict biblical scenes as well as mythological references. In the Church of San Millán there are frescos of San Cristóbal carrying Christ, Christ on the cross, and an almost more renaissance-like portrayal of baby Jesus being circumcised.  

The second church, San Justo y Pastor, is much smaller, though not to be overlooked. Today it is known for the beautiful paintings that surround the alter. They are even better preserved than those of San Millán, and show numerous biblical stories, from the creation, to Judas' betrayal, to the Crucifixion.  

It is important to note that all of these churches are Catholic, hence the importance of saints (also found within the paintings and carvings).  Also in San Justo y Pastor lies a medieval wooden figurine of Jesus post Crucifixion. He is life sized, and like many religious figures, is brought out during Holy Week.  How did he come to find his home in this small church?  A donkey brought him from France, according to legend. No one knew which church he should belong to, so the donkey continued to carry him. When the donkey died in front of the church of San Justo, this was taken as a sign as to where the wooden figure belonged. It has become part of the church, not only for special occasions, but also in educational and biblical plays performed throughout the medieval ages.  

We viewed the third church from the outside because of its beautiful tower. Before it was damaged by fire and repaired, it was the tallest tower in Segovia. This church is called San Esteban. 

Even those who do not identify with the Catholic religion can appreciate the beauty and history within these architectural gems. We visited only three today, but there are more to see right here in Segovia and beyond.

Last full day in Spain: Tour of Salamanca

Tour of Salamanca: When arriving at Salamanca, our tour guide first showed us El Río Tormes, which runs through Salamanca, and the Roman bri...