Marching Through Paris

Marching Through Paris

“Oh, Paris! How beautiful! It’s super-romantic!”

A Spanish woman was saying this to her friend as we passed by.

GF and I both laughed.

“I guess Paris has the same reputation everywhere,” GF said.

Indeed it does. It is amazing to me how many Spaniards have recited the same line to me: “The only problem with Paris is the Parisians.”

I would expect this kind of stereotype to be prevalent among tourists; but two Spaniards who lived in Paris for a long time, and who spoke French fluently, told me the same thing. Why is this image so persistent? Even now we see this stereotype reenacted in movies, television shows, and books. Bill Bryson, in his jejune travelogue of Europe, dwells on this image of the Parisians at length: the snobby, miserable, rude, pretentious Parisian.

Perhaps the person who explained it most memorably was a Blablacar driver from Barcelona who spent three years living there. He said:

“People from Madrid are cocky. But they’re at least happy. People from Paris think they’re better than everyone else, and they’re still miserable.”

In short, the Parisians have an image problem.

Paris, however, does not. Every person I’ve spoken to has praised Paris to the skies. What a strange reputation for a city to have: beautiful and full of assholes. Needless to say I was curious to see for myself.

Not that I needed any additional encouragement to visit Paris. The city’s history speaks for itself. Voltaire, the French Revolution, World War II; the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Versailles; the impressionists, the modernists, the existentialists; Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein; the art of French cooking, the art of French life—the city has been the center of so much activity that, whatever interest you may have, whether it be painting, cooking, writing, history, philosophy, or just eating, odds are you will be led to Paris.

And I was finally going.

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Unfortunately I wouldn’t be there for long. I had to squeeze my trip into a weekend. We would arrive early Friday morning, have all of Saturday to explore, and leave early Sunday.

When I say early, I mean early in the most brutal and cruel sense. In order to book the cheapest flights, GF and I fly when other people don’t. When you’re booking a flight several months in advance, it may sound reasonable to fly at 7 in the morning. But when the date of departure nears, and you realize to make it to the airport, get through security, and be on time for boarding, you have to wake up at 4, this decision may feel somewhat less sensible than it appeared at first. This decision may be especially regretted if, like me, you spend most of the week without sleeping enough, because you teach classes both in the early morning and late at night. And if you’re built like me—tall, leggy, and delicate—you will not be able to catch a wink of sleep when sitting in a cramped seat several thousand feet in the air.

Thus I arrived in Paris with red eyes, a sore neck, and that mixture of panic and mental inactivity that comes with sleep-deprivation. It was in this state that I shuffled down the line to get through customs. (I thought that people coming from Madrid didn’t have to go through customs, since it’s in the Schengen zone, but with the terrorist activity I understand border control has been tightened.)

In my best accent, I said Bonjour to the woman behind the class, as I handed her my passport. She flipped through the passport to the page with my photo and personal information. Then, she flipped to the page before that.

Immediately I felt nervous. Several years ago, on a flight to Kenya, I managed to get toothpaste on my passport (the tube exploded). Unfortunately, the stains are still visible; but fortunately, only the irrelevant first page was affected. Sure, it doesn’t look great, but it’s hardly worth the hassle and expense to get a new one.

These considerations were apparently lost on the customs official who, after turning to the afflicted page, looked up to give me the most unforgettable look. She jerked her neck back, pursed her lips into a duck-billed sneer, and raised her eyebrows with alarm. Then she stamped my passport and rolled her eyes and she handed it back to me. This hasn’t happened to me anywhere else.

I was in France.

More specifically, I was in the Beauvais-Tillé Airport. This is a small and shabby airport, handling only about 4,000,000 people annually. (For comparison, the Charles de Gaulle Airport handles about 66 million people annually.) It is marketed by Ryanair as the Beauvais-Paris airport, but this is simply a lie. The airport is 85 km away from Paris. The only way to get to Paris is by bus; the bus costs 17€ per trip, and the ride takes over an hour. Bear this in mind the next time you want to fly Ryanair to Paris.

A long line had already formed in front of the ticket machines for the bus. Apparently, the only way to get a ticket was to use one of these machines; and since everybody needed a ticket, everyone was waiting. The line moved slowly. We waited, shuffled a feet steps forward, and waited.

“I’m gonna go look at what’s going on,” GF said.

She left her bag and went to the front.

“There’s only one working machine,” she said as she returned.

There must have been at least fifty people in line. So here’s another tip: if you plan on saving money by taking an early flight on Ryanair to Paris, and justify this decision with the thought that it gives you extra time in Paris, consider that you will have to wait in line to buy tickets for a bus, and then take a bus ride that lasts 70 minutes and costs 17€. But I was too tired to be feeling regrets.

Finally an employee came out and began working on the broken machines. He pulled them apart, tinkering with the inside, and then rebooted them. As one of them started up, I noticed the operating system: Windows 97. No wonder they weren’t working.

But when the machines sprung back to life, we were able to buy our tickets and go out to the buses. And what do you know? Outside was a ticket booth with real people selling tickets, and a pretty reasonable line. Keep all this in mind for your next trip to Paris.

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GF slept the whole busride. I listened to an audiobook and looked out the window. The ride from the Beauvais-Tillé Airport to Paris is at least quite nice. It was a lovely, sunny day, and the French countryside rolled past—fields of green farmland with hardly a house in sight. The ride was so different from any I’d seen in Spain. For one, the landscape was flat, while Spain is persistently mountainous. What is more, the lush, glowing green of everything contrasted sharply with the dry, sandy soil near Madrid. And I didn’t even see one castle!

I was just about to drift off when we entered the city. Suddenly, I was filled with excitement. Out the window I could see several skyscrapers. And then, in the distance, I saw that famous form, so iconic and unmistakable—the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower in the distance.

Now only was I in France, but in Paris.

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The first thing you will notice about Paris is that it looks like Paris.

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Nothing is out of place. You can stroll along the Seine, its dirty, dark green waters flowing merrily while ferry after ferry go by. Along the river, people are selling used books, Japanese prints, and pornographic posters from shabby wooden shacks. Cafés are inescapable and immaculate. There are no gaudy plastic signs, there is no tasteless decoration. The menus are displayed in glass cases; the color scheme is a subdued mix of blacks, greys, and dark reds. The waiters are well dressed; the tables and chairs are of finished wood; the silverware, the plates, the glasses are polished and stylish. Tree-shaded boulevards lead to roundabouts with monuments in the middle. Everything looks antique and lovingly preserved. The city is elegance itself.

Our first stop was the Sainte-Chapelle. I wanted to go there, because I still have a vivid memory of seeing pictures of the Sainte-Chapelle in my art history course. We were covering the gothic, and the professor was explaining how the gothic architects managed to make buildings with ever-large windows—a very difficult feat in a stone building. The apotheosis of this tendency was the Sainte-Chapelle, a building made completely of stained glass—or at least it seems.

The Sainte-Chapelle (Holy Chapel) was completed in 1248, under the auspices of Louis IX. He had acquired some important relics from the Venetians (including the Crown of Thorns) and wanted a place to put them. Damaged during the Revolution and restored afterwards, nowadays the building is primarily a tourist attraction.

Except for the tall, gothic spire, you cannot see the building from the street. It is now entirely surrounded by another edifice, that wraps around the outside. This building serves as a security checkpoint, through which you must pass in order to reach the inside. This means standing on a line as person by person shuffles through a metal detector. The French are not taking any risks nowadays. Once you get through security, you’ll see burly men with assault riffles strolling around the complex, looking tough and serious. They walk by, looking both reassuring or menacing, depending on your mood, as you wait in the next line to actually purchase your ticket. You can enjoy the exterior of the building as you wait; but unfortunately you cannot see the facade very well, since the restricted area prevents you from getting far enough away.

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When we finally bought our tickets, went inside, and then ascended the stairs to the upper chapel, we gasped in unison. The place is stunning. The room seems to be suspended through sorcery; how can such delicate mullions support a stone roof? This illusion is created, as in many gothic structures, by moving the main support outside and out of view, in the form of flying buttresses. But the illusion is perfect.

Light pours in from every direction, turned into a rainbow of colors by the stained glass. The more you examine the glass, the more entranced you become, for the glass is covered with scenes from the Bible. On one side is the Old Testament, and on the other side the New. The ceiling has been painted to look like the night sky; wooden sculptures of saints adorn the interior; and on the wall above the doorway, below the magnificent rose window, is a fresco of Christ enthroned, surrounded by angels. For me, the only thing that the Sainte-Chapelle lacked was the sense of spiritual power and religious awe that I often get from gothic buildings. The final effect is rather purely aesthetic—a sweet, delicious prettiness.

Our next stop was the Louvre. By now we were tired and hungry. We had been awake for a long time, hadn’t slept or ate much, and had been on our feet for much of the day. But I was determined to go. Even before I had any interest in history, art, or Paris, I had heard of the Louvre. Everyone has. It is one of the few art museums with a world-wide reputation, a name respected by connoisseurs and philistines. I knew I had to go.

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The Louvre seen from the Musée d’Orsay
Originally, the Louvre was a fortress, built under Philip II in the 12th century, right in the center of Paris on the right bank of the Seine. (You can still see the castle foundations in the Louvre basement.) Many years later, in the 16th century, the building was transformed into a Renaissance palace by Francis I; the Louvre thus bears no trace of the French Gothic style, and is instead a classical construction of straight lines and clean forms. Monarchs stayed in the palace for a while, until Louis XIV decided that he preferred to live in Versailles. Then the building was given to various academies. Finally, during the French Revolution, people had the truly revolutionary idea of transforming it into a public museum to display the Royal Collection. It opened in 1793.

The Louvre is large. It contains multitudes. Its collection spans from the beginnings of Egypt to the present day. You would need several days of persistent, diligent walking to see everything, and perhaps a lifetime to properly appreciate and understand the many thousands of paintings and artifacts. We didn’t have a lifetime or several days; we had a few hours before the museum closed. Thus I only experienced a taste of the collection, and I can only offer you an echo of a taste.

Of course, there’s the Mona Lisa. The painting hangs in the center of the Louvre’s vast collection of Renaissance art. A museum employee stands on either side; a barrier prevents anyone from getting too close; and a thick plate of glass ensures that the painting would survive even if the museum went up in flames. Probably at any time of the day, there is a big crowd around the painting. When GF and I went, it was around dinner time (the Louvre is open late on Fridays), so the crowd was not terrible.

We slowly elbowed our way through the crowd, as the elusive image came into view. It is a very strange experience, seeing a famous painting with your own eyes. The Mono Lisa is perhaps the most iconic image in the world (maybe second to McDonald’s golden arches) so you’d think seeing the original would be akin to a religious experience. But many have told me that they found the painting disappointing.

The most common complaint I hear is that the painting is small. At first glance, this is an odd thing to complain about; the Mona Lisa is a portrait, and has the usual dimensions of that genre. But upon further reflection, this complaint is revealing of the way we experience art in the modern world.

Unlike people living as recently as the 19th century, you have already seen high quality images of the Mona Lisa a thousand times—on television, in movies, on billboards, advertisements, and commercials. This reproduction of the image has turned it into an icon. What makes something iconic is that it stands for more than itself. Originally, the word icon meant a devotional image, of a saint, Jesus, or the Virgin, used in prayer and religious ritual. In theory, the icon is not meant to be the object of religious worship, but merely an aid; the image allows the worshipper to focus his feelings and thoughts on the next world. Thus an icon is not meant to draw attention to itself, but help you think of something else.

The Mona Lisa performs a similar function in our own world, serving as a visual cue for all sorts of diverse associations—Leonardo, the Renaissance, Italy, the Louvre, culture, sophistication, mystery, even painting itself. This use of the image has gradually ruined our ability to really see it; we stop paying attention to the details, just as we stop paying attention to a font when we begin to read a story. Like a word in a book, we glance at the image instead of carefully scanning it. The Mona Lisa has ceased to be a thing in itself, and has become a symbol for other things. And when this is the case, the only difference between seeing a copy and seeing the original can be superficial things, like size.

It would take much patient work to be able to see the painting as it would appear to you for the first time, as a fresh work of art. And when you are standing in a crowd of people, crushed on all sides, surrounded by cameras and iPhones, separating by at least ten feet from the painting itself, it is all but impossible to give the painting justice. I stood there and did my very best; but it wasn’t long before somebody nearby asked me to take a photo of him standing in front of the painting.

“Alright,” I said, as he handed me his camera.

He smiled and then unfurled a sign that read:

“YOU SHOULD BE HERE!”

It would take a library of books to do justice to the Louvre’s collection, so I will only mention a few more famous works. A floor below the Mona Lisa is a sculpture by Michelangelo, the Dying Slave. Originally sculpted for the uncompleted tomb of Pope Julius II, the work depicts the moment of death of a supine and nearly naked man. This seems potentially spiritual and tragic, but to me the sculpture looks inescapably sexual; the figure’s pose and even his face strike me as strangely feminine. Am I alone in this?

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The Louvre boasts two Greek sculptures of high repute, the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo. Both of these works, made before the common era, were discovered in the 19th century. The first is an image of the goddess of victory, Nike, perhaps built to commemorate a naval victory. She seems to be standing on the brow of a ship, her silky garments flowing in the breeze. Unfortunately, the statue’s head and arms have been lost to time; she is now a winged torso on two strong legs. Despite this, the work manages to be supremely expressive, perhaps the most convincing image of triumph I know. The Venus de Milo is a sculpture of Venus, her arms missing, her chest bare, her legs wrapped in a loose robe, leaning on one leg with an arched torso.

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The last work I’ll mention is the Seated Scribe. This is a small sculpture of painted limestone, depicting a man sitting cross legged, writing on a piece of papyrus that rests on his lap. Compared to a Greek sculpture, there is nothing remarkable about this work. But when you consider that it was made around 2,500 BCE in Ancient Egypt, you will be able to appreciate just how special it is. The Seated Scribe is unlike any other piece of Egyptian art I’ve seen. First, the very fact that the work depicts a scribe is significant, for Egyptian art typically portrays gods, pharaohs, or perhaps servants and soldiers. What is more, while most art from this period is highly idealized, this sculpture is quite realistic; the scribe has an individualized face and even a paunch. Instead of seeing an image of power, we are seeing a single man, imperfect, frail, and hard at work.

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By the time we left, we were both utterly exhausted. We hadn’t slept more than four hours, we hadn’t eaten in about eight hours, and we had been on our feet for about ten hours. My body was a patchwork of pains: my legs were aching, my feet were blistered, my clothes were soaked with sweat, my stomach was grumbling, my eyes were bloodshot, and my head was pounding. GF wasn’t doing much better. And in that state, we dragged ourselves to eat some cheap Chinese food and go to bed. We had another long day ahead.

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We awoke early, threw on our clothes, and skipped breakfast. We wanted to get to Notre-Dame right as it was opening, to avoid the extremely long line we had seen the previous day.

This was only partly successful. A line had already formed, though it was only about half as long as the line from yesterday. We dutifully got on and waited. This at least gave me a chance to observe the cathedral’s wonderful façade.

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The demeanor of the great building is immediately recognizable and familiar, even to people who do not consider themselves interested in this sort of thing. To me, the cathedral, although undeniably gothic, has a certain classical elegance not found in, say, Toledo. Everything is perfectly symmetrical and harmonious. There is no jumbling of styles or mixture of motifs you so often find in other cathedrals. Although the building took almost 200 years to build, it seems to bear a unified design. (I suspect, however, that a more knowledgeable eye would detect significant differences in style that escaped me.)

Perhaps because the cathedral was recently given a cleaning, nowadays it looks fresh and even youthful. This freshness was accentuated by the beautiful sunny day, to the extent that the spiritual power I normally feel in the presence of gothic cathedrals was somehow lacking. Notre-Dame looked rather cheerful and even inviting. This might be because the building is not so angular as other cathedrals; instead of spires, such as are found in Burgos and Chartres, the towers of Notre-Dame have flat tops.

The line was moving quickly. As I approached, I was able to better see the friezes that adorned the front portals. These are perhaps the most impressive part of the cathedral; for gothic sculptures, they are remarkably naturalistic, while remaining powerfully religious. My favorite was of a man calmly holding his own decapitated head in his hands. This is St. Denis of Paris. Back in Roman times, in the third century, he was the Bishop Paris, and had the good fortune to be decapitated during a persecution of the Christians. Unperturbed by this, the good bishop calmly picked up his head and walked ten kilometers, preaching all the way. People had more pluck back then.

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Finally we got inside; and to our surprise, it was free. The place was absolutely swarming with tourists. This is why I don’t enjoy visiting the cathedrals in Madrid and in Lisbon. I enjoy cathedrals not only for the art, but because they are big, quiet places that put me in a meditative mood. But in a dense crowd, watching out for pickpockets, I didn’t feel that I could properly enjoy the ambience. This is a shame, because it’s really a lovely cathedral; the stained glass is almost as marvelous as that in the Sainte-Chapelle.

We were outside in about half an hour, both of us starving by now. We sat down to an overpriced, but quite good, breakfast in a café nearby and then began walking towards our next destination: the Musée d’Orsay.

The Musée d’Orsay is one of the world’s finest art museums. Opened as recently as 1986, the museum is housed in an erstwhile railroad station, Gare d’Orsay, completed right in time for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. The place still looks like a train station, with a cavernous, rounded glass ceiling. Wisely, the architects of the museum decided to leave much of the upper space open; and this, combined with the plentiful natural light, makes you feel almost as if you are outside. The layout of the museum is equally tasteful. The galleries for paintings are situated symmetrically on each side, along a central corridor; and this corridor, as well as two walkways up above, has been filled with sculptures, big and tiny.

Unlike the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay concentrates on a very specific place and time—namely, art produced in France (Paris, mostly) in the mid 19th and early 20th centuries. This may sound a bit narrow, but this was actually one of the most fertile periods in the history of art; and if you want to properly know this epoch, you’ve got to come here. The museum has paintings by Delecroix, Manet, Monet, Cézanne, van Gogh, Signac, Seurat, as well as sculptures by Gaugin and Rodin, among innumerable others. The collection has been chosen with exquisite taste. Every other painting is a masterpiece. Nothing is disappointing or out of place. And best of all, unlike the Louvre, you can see everything in three to four hours.

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Walking through the Musée d’Orsay was nearly overwhelming. I have never been more entranced by a museum, nor more affected by visual art. In fact, the experience made such a deep impression on me that I will have to devote an entire post to it. Here I offer only a brief sketch.

I saw everything, drinking up each painting with desperate relish. I watched as the styles changed and evolved. First I admired the academic style of William Bourguereau, who painted mythological subjects—Greek Gods, ancient heroes, scenes from Dante—with technical mastery: carefully arranged compositions, scientific anatomy, photographic shadowing; every shape is molded, every line is deliberate, every brushstroke is concealed. The paintings are masterpieces of technique, and yet stale, because they seem to bear no relationship between the artist and the world; rather, they are monuments to a dying tradition.

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In reaction to this academic style, which held sway for so long, came the impressionists. Instead of mythological scenes, the impressionists turned their eye to everyday subjects—picnics, soirées, views of the street from apartment windows. Their compositions are typically off-center and messy. Their brushstrokes are not concealed; colors and lines blur into one another. In terms of technique, it seems a step backwards from Bourguereau, but in reality the achievement is more stunning, for they had to develop their technique from scratch. The final effect is a perfect representation of that moment when, after turning your head, a new scene comes into view, all the colors still buzzing, the light playing tricks with your eyes, the forms indistinct as you try to focus. The rise of the impressionists represents a step away from the Platonic conception of knowledge—namely, a View from Nowhere, a perfect perspective that can grasp the world in its entirety—to the our more Nietzschean view of knowledge—namely, inherently subjective, bound up within a specific point of view.

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But the impressionists were only the first step. After investigating the way our eyes detect light, later artists started to probe into the ways that our brains put together the data from our eyes into the world as we know it. With this came the following question: What if the way we tend reconstructed the world is completely arbitrary? Could we make sense of our sense data using a different principle, with equal legitimacy? Thus artists began tearing the world apart, sewing it back together in new or interesting ways. Some artists, like Cezánne, tried to simplify the world into more elemental shapes and colors; others, like Signac, tried using atoms of pure color; and van Gogh used curling waves, as if the world we see were only reflection in an swirling ocean of paint.

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By the time I walked through the museum, I was absolutely exhausted. But we still had one more museum to see: the Musée de Rodin. This museum, opened in 1919, devoted almost solely to the French sculptor, Auguste Rodin, who was considered by none other than Kenneth Clark as the greatest sculptor since Michelangelo. The museum is situated in the former Hôtel Biron, where Rodin liked to work. When he died, he donated his sculptures and his collection of art to the French government, on the condition that they make the hotel into a museum. It was done, and is now one of the many charming places to visit in Paris.

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The museum consists of an extensive garden and the old building, with Rodin’s sculptures scattered generously throughout. The garden might be the nicest part. There, you can find The Thinker thinking away, surrounded by hedges, as well as copies of almost every one of his major works.

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Now, I must admit that my ability to appreciate sculpture lags far behind my ability to appreciate paintings. Even so, it is clear that Rodin was a brilliant artist. While still depicting human figures, largely with realistic anatomy, he manages to break completely from the Greco-Roman tradition. Far from representing idealized forms, Rodin’s figures are human, imperfect, and often ugly. Far from achieving a classical, timeless grace, Rodin’s figures are twisted, contorted, tortured. The Thinker is a case in point: far from a wise philosopher, calm and contemplative, the man is troubled, anguished, and brooding.

One of my favorite works was Rodin’s Gates of Hell. Originally intended to be the doorway for a Museum of Decorative Arts, until the museum was abandoned, the sculpture is now considered one of Rodin’s masterworks, perhaps his magnus opus. It is meant to be an elaborate representation of Dante’s Inferno. Many of his most famous sculptures originated as pieces of this composition, with The Thinker presiding over the entrance. Everything around the pensive man is a stew of sin and suffering, with figures emerging, half-formed, from the background, tortured, broken, their faces wracked with pain. It is a powerful and terrifying work.

But the sculpture I like best is Rodin’s Monument to Balzac. It is really an absurd statue. The writer stands, his body entirely enveloped in a robe, with his mustachioed face held high, as if snubbing the viewer. At first glance, the figure’s pose might seem totally unnatural; but the longer you look, the more you can see how the body of a paunchy man might easily look like this under a thick robe. I love the sculpture because it manages to make something so apparently unheroic into the symbol of human genius. Balzac is totally uncouth. He is ugly, fat, unshaven; his hair is messy, his robe is shabby. And yet, his inner brilliance allows him to stand completely above the world, unconcerned with conventional success, totally devoted to his personal vision. The sculpture is a monument to the outcast, eccentric, and ultimately triumphant artist.

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After walking through the garden and the old hotel, enjoying not only samples of Rodin’s finished work but preparatory studies he left behind, I was done with museums. I couldn’t possibly absorb any more art. By now the day was waning; in a couple hours, the sun would set. Luckily, there was only one more thing I absolutely needed to see: the Eiffel Tower.

Luckily, it wasn’t hard to find. Standing at 1,063 ft (324 m) tall, the Eiffel Tower remains the tallest structure in Paris. Built for the World’s Fair 1889, it was criticized quite severely in its time, especially by the intelligentsia. This is amazing to me, for it is difficult to imagine how the tower could be more perfect.

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For me, and perhaps many others, the Eiffel Tower represents Paris’s Golden Age. It was a time when the future could be embraced without scorning the past, when aesthetic values could be questioned without beauty being abandoned. Made of wrought iron, the structure was so daring that people thought it would be blown over by the wind. I can understand why. Even now, there seems to be so little metal per square inch that it looks like it’s made of matchsticks glued together, ready to come apart at the merest breeze.

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There is something human about its shape. Looking at the tower dead on, with only two of its legs visible, the tower seems like a Colossus standing over the world. The tower is also, like Paris, elegance itself. The way that the legs gently curve together until they meet at the top has all the classic grace of the Parthenon. Or perhaps the Eiffel Tower can be better compared with the pyramids, as its creator did. This is the modern pyramid, equally useless, equally monolithic, equally iconic. For whatever reason, I find it tremendously inspiring that people built something so big and so ambitious for no practical benefit whatsoever. To me, this is the essence of being human.

We sat in the grass nearby for a few minutes, just taking in the sight. Men were walking around, trying to sell bottles of wine. I was really in the mood for some wine, but I didn’t feel confident about buying wine from these guys and drinking it in the park. Isn’t it illegal? After shooing away five of them, I decided to go. You can’t really enjoy a view when you’re constantly refusing a drink.

We had only one final stop, and not much time to see it: Montmartre. Montmartre is a famous neighborhood in Paris, with a similar reputation to the West Village in New York. Situated on a hill, in the past Montmartre was a haven for artists, where eccentric bohemians could live with cheap rents. Nowadays, it is mainly a tourist attraction, most notable for the gigantic Sacré-Cœur Basilica. Near Montmartre is the famous Moulin-Rouge, nestled amid countless sex shops. By the way, I wonder how so many sex shops manage to stay in business; you’d think they would all sell basically similar products, and so having so many would be unsustainable. But they manage to stay in business, apparently. I suppose enough horny tourists come to Paris to keep an entire town of sex shops above water.

We took our obligatory photo of the Moulin-Rouge, and then began to walk up the hill. On the way, we passed Les Deux Moulins, the café where the film Amélie was shot. (Great movie, by the way.) Soon we arrived at the top. The white cupola of Sacré-Cœur, lit up by spotlights, shone like a beacon amid the darkness. Gathered round where hundreds of people, tourists speaking dozens of languages, and immigrants speaking dozens more trying to sell stuff to the tourists. Inside the basilica, a mass was being held. Outside, people smoke and drank and laughed with one another. It was a wonderful night.

We walked down the stairs in front to the street below. Then suddenly I saw a flash of light.

“What was that?” I asked GF.

“Dunno,” she said. “Go look.”

I walked over to where some other people where standing.

In the distance, I could see the Eiffel Tower, its form lit up with yellow lights. On the top, a searchlight was slowly spinning, sending a powerful beam in all directions. Seconds later, the light turned towards us again, flashing like the sun itself as it passed. I looked on in wonder. And as I looked, I couldn’t help thinking that this image could represent all of Paris: elegant, mysterious, brilliant, illuminating all the world around.

 

 

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Notes on a Spanish Bullfight

Notes on a Spanish Bullfight

Ernest Hemingway was, to put it mildly, not an animal rights advocate; but even he felt misgivings before attending his first bullfight—not for the bull, but for the horses. (More on the horses later.) He went for reasons of art; he wanted a chance to see death for himself, to analyze his own feelings about it, in order to escape what he regarded as the trap of the aspiring writer—to feel as you’re expected to feel, not as you actually feel. Much of his book on bullfighting is dedicated to persuading the reader to do the same; he enjoins us to attend at least one show, and to do so with an open mind—to see how it really affects you, instead of how it’s supposed to affect you.

I put down Death in the Afternoon and decided that I would give it a try. But I still felt uneasy about it. Not many things are more controversial in Spain than the bullfight. The country is split between aficionados and those who object on moral grounds. In several parts of Spain, including Catalonia, the bullfight has even been outlawed. It is easy for me to see why people find the custom unethical. Six animals are killed per show, and they are not killed quickly. Nevertheless, from my studies of anthropology I have retained the conviction that you ought to try to understand something before you condemn it. Thus I wanted to see a fight with my own eyes, to analyze my own reactions, before I came to any sort of verdict.

This post will follow that course, first by providing a description, and then my attempt at analysis. Probably everything I say will seem infuriatingly ignorant to the aficionado, but that is unavoidable. I’m a guiri and there’s no escaping that.

 

The Fight

The big time to see bullfights is in May and June, during the festival of San Isidro. A fight is held every day for eight weeks straight. The fight I saw took place in Madrid’s bullring, Las Ventas. It is a lovely stadium, built in a Neo-Mudéjar style with horseshoe arches, ceramic tiles, and elaborate ornamentation in the red-brick façade. I’d bought the cheapest tickets I could. In any bullring, the price of the ticket depends on the distance from the action, as well as whether the seat is in the sun or the shade (the seats in the shade can be twice as pricey). The seats are hardly seats, just a slap of concrete. You can rent a pillow to sit on for €1, which is probably a good idea.

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Las Ventas
The stadium was completely full; the vast majority of the crowd were not tourists, but Spaniards. Unlike flamenco, the bullfight has retained a strong fandom among the natives here. There were people of all descriptions: young children, teenage girls, twenty-something men, married couples, and senior citizens. Almost everyone was dressed in their Sunday best.

A bullfight is a highly organized affair. Each event has three matadors; each matador fights two bulls—not consecutively, but by turns. The matadors fight in the order of reputation, with the most famous (and presumably most skilled) matador taking the last turn. A complete fight takes less than fifteen minutes. It is divided into three parts, each announced by a trumpet blast.

First the bull runs out, charging into the arena at full speed. The bull is fresh, energetic, and haughty. It charges at anything that moves, trying to dominate its environment. This bull has hardly seen a dismounted man before in its life; it has been reared in isolation, to be both fierce and inexperienced. Before anything can be done with the bull, the bull must be tested. Thus the matador and his banderilleros begin to provoke the bull. To do this, they are each equipped with large capes, pink and yellow, which they use to attract the bull’s attention. It runs at them, and they hide for safety behind special nooks in the arena’s edge. Sometimes the bull tries to pursue them, ramming the wooden wall with his horns; but there is nothing the bull can do once they get into the nook.

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Hiding from the bull
The only person who comes out and stands in the ring is the matador, who performs some passes with his cape. Really impressive capework is impossible with the bull at this stage, since it is too vigorous and belligerent. But these passes are not for show. The matador needs to see how the bull moves, the way it charges, whether the bull favors any specific area of the arena. Each bull is different. Some will charge at anything, and others need to be coaxed. Some are defensive, others offensive. Some slash their horns left and right, and others scoop down and lift up. The matador needs to know the bull to work with it.

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Testing the bull
(It sometimes happens that they decide the bull is unsuitable. This happened once during my show. Suddenly everyone left the ring, leaving the bull alone. Then the gates opened, and half a dozen heifers ran into the ring. The bull, seeing the heifers, immediately calmed down, and followed them out of the ring. I assume that the bull is killed in this case, since it isn’t useful for anything; a bad bull won’t be bred, and a bull cannot be fought twice, since they learn from experience.)

Next the picadores enter the ring. These are men armed with lances, riding on horseback. The horses are blindfolded and heavily armored with padding. The bull is led by the bandilleros towards the horses and provoked to attack. For whatever reason, the bull always tries to lift the horse on its horns. This doesn’t work, because the horse is significantly bigger than the bull; indeed, the horse seems hardly to react at all to the bull’s attack. Meanwhile, the picador stabs the bull in its back, jabbing his lance into a mound of neck muscle. As the bull ineffectually tries to lift the horse, it drives the spear into its own flesh. The pain is usually enough to discourage the bull after about a minute. By the end of the ordeal, the bull’s back is covered in blood.

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picador facing a bull
(In the past, when Hemingway wrote his book, this part of the bullfight was considerably more gory. The horses wore no armor, and were thus often killed. There are some terrible photos of horses being impaled in Hemingway’s book. The bull would rip them apart. The picador thus had a narrow window to do his job, and would often end up on the ground, pinned under his dying horse. I am glad that this isn’t the custom anymore, though doubtless a purist like Hemingway would mourn its passing.)

The bull gives up, the picadores leave the ring. Next the bandilleros must further weaken the bull. They do this by stabbing barbs into the same area of the bull’s back. This is a really dangerous job. The bull must be running straight at them in order to drive the barbs deep enough into its muscles. The bandillero runs at an angle to the bull’s charge, holding the barbs high above his head with outstretched arms, and stab the bull right over its own horns. The pain makes the bull pause for a second—which gives the bandillero much needed time to get the out of there. Even so, the guys have to run like hell, and often end up jumping straight over the wall out of the arena in order to escape. Three pairs of barbs must be speared into the bull. These barbs, which are covered in colorful paper, don’t fall out, but hang from the bull’s back for the rest of the fight.

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A bandillero preparing to attack
Finally the matador enters the arena. This is the culminating phase, the part that everything else has been leading up to. By now the bull has been thoroughly weakened. It is tired, injured, and, most importantly, disillusioned of its own power. The bull does not charge at anything that moves anymore, but conserves its strength carefully; it does not heedlessly waste its energy sprinting across the field, but makes more calculated attacks. The bull also holds its head lower, and does not slash with its horns, since its neck muscles have been damaged. In this state, the matador can work with the bull.

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The matador
With a red cape in one hand and a sword in the other, the matador dominates the bull. It is incredible to see. In just a minute, the bull goes from a dangerous, wild animal to mere clay in the matador’s palm. The matador can let the bull pass within a hair’s breath of his chest; he can stand a mere footstep in front of the bull’s face; he can turn his back and walk away. The bull is completely under his control. I cannot imagine the amount of time spent around bulls necessary to achieve this seemingly mystical ability.

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Working up close with the bull
After about three minutes of capework, wherein the matador lets the bull come nearer and nearer to him, then it is finally time for the kill. The matador walks to the edge of the ring and exchanges his sword for a heavier one. (What was the first one for?) A hush comes over the ring. Hundreds of people hiss, urging all conversation and cheering to stop. The matador stands before the bull, holding the sword above his head. With his left hand, he shakes the cape. The bull charges, the matador lunges with his sword, stabbing the bull over its horns and into its back. The crowd erupts in applause. The bull begins to stagger. The bandilleros come out, sweeping their capes at the bull, who is now too weak to properly attack. Finally the bull gives up. It limps away from its harassers, making its way to the opposite corner of the ring. But soon it loses its strength; its legs collapse and it falls to the ground. A bandillero walks over and finishes it off with a dagger.

The fight is over. The bull’s body is tied to a team of mules, and dragged around the arena in triumph before being removed from the ring.

 

Reaction

The bullfight is not considered a sport, but an art form. This is important to note, for as a sport the bullfight would fail utterly. There is no winning or losing, only a beautiful or an ugly performance. There is also hardly any element of suspense, since every bullfight follows the same course and ends the same way.

Of course there is a certain unpredictability to a fight, since everyone who enters the ring risks his life. No matter how much you practice around bulls, you cannot eliminate the chance of being gored. During my show alone, the bulls managed to knock down two people, and probably would have killed them if the others hadn’t managed to quickly get the bull away. But the occupational hazard of being killed by the bull, while certainly integral to the fight, is not what excites aficionados. Rather, it is the skill and artfulness of the matador they enjoy.

It does not take an imaginative eye to see symbolism in a bullfight. The bull is a force of nature. It is stronger and faster than any man, a heedless, seemingly indomitable force that will indifferently trample anyone in its wake. The bull is elemental. It is fought by men in elaborate costumes, following a prescribed ritual. The bull moves with violent impulse; the men move with elaborate grace. The bull stands on four legs, his dark brown body close to the ground; the men stand on two legs, holding their brightly clad bodies rigidly erect.

The men defeat the bull because they have intelligence. The bull cannot understand the difference between the cape and the man, and thus all its strength is wasted in pointless attacks. The men use an animal they tamed—the horse—as well as tools they invented—the pike, the barb, the cape, the sword—in order to dominate and vanquish the bull. Thus the bullfight dramatizes the triumph of human intelligence over mindless power, the victory of culture over nature.

Or perhaps you can interpret the spectacle as a psychological allegory. Bulls have been a symbol of the beastly side of human nature since the story of the minotaur in the labyrinth, and probably long before. The bull thus represents unbridled instinct, the untamed animal that lurks within us, the impulses that we have but must repress in order to live in society. The matador controls and then destroys these impulses, restoring us to civilization. In this light, the bullfight represents the triumph of the ego over the id.

In any case, the spectacle is meant to be tragic. The bull is a beautiful, noble animal, who fights with tenacity and courage. The bull is feared, respected, and envied for its power and its freedom. The tragedy is that this sublime animal must be killed. But its death is necessary, for the bull represents everything incompatible with society, everything we must attempt to banish from ourselves in order to live in civilization. To be absolutely free, as free as an untamed bull, and to be civilized are irreconcilable states. Living in society requires that we give up some freedom and remove ourselves from the state of nature. Although we gain in peace and security from this renunciation, it can still be sorely regretted, for it means leaving some impulses forever unsatisfied. Thus we identify with the bull as much as with the matador; and even though we understand that the bull must be killed, we know this is terribly sad, because it means a part of ourselves must be killed.

This is how I understand the bullfight. I am sure many would find this interpretation terribly jejune. But the more important point is that the spectacle is one that can be seriously analyzed for its aesthetics. It is not a mere display of daring and skill, but an artistic performance that touches on themes of life and death, nature and culture, animal and man. It is as ritualized as a Catholic mass, and just as laden with symbolism.

But is it moral? Should it be tolerated? Is it ethical to enjoy the spectacle of an animal getting wounded and then killed? Is it wrong to cheer as a matador successfully stabs a sword into a living creature?

Ernest Hemingway had this to say about the morality of bullfighting:

So far, about morals, I only know that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after and judged by these moral standards, which I do not defend, the bullfight is very moral to me because I feel very fine while it is going on and have a feeling of life and death and mortality and immortality, and after it is over I feel very sad but very fine.

If I adopt Hemingway’s view, and take my emotional reaction as the basis of my moral judgments, then I must come to a different conclusion. Of course, I had many emotions as I watched. First I was impressed by the spectacle of the bull charging across the arena. Then I admired the stoicism of the horses as they withstood the bull’s attacks; and I felt pity for the bull as the lance was driven into its back. I was again impressed by the physical courage of the bandilleros as they let the bull charge full speed towards them. And of course I was filled with awe at the skill of the matador, who sometimes seemed more god than man.

But finally I was disgusted. Hemingway described the bull’s death as a tragedy, but for me it was not sad; it was sickening. I felt weak, dizzy, and nauseated. And it was not the type of nausea that I get in long car rides. It was a feeling I’ve had only a few times before. The first time was in the sixth grade. I was performing a dissection on a pig in science class. My partner was a vegetarian, but I was the one who had to leave midway through, because I thought I would vomit.

During that dissection, I felt that I had swallowed a stone, that I was covered in filth, that my blood was rancid, that my skin was alive and crawling. I had this same feeling when I saw a goat have its throat cut open in Kenya, and I had this same feeling as I watched a bull struggle across the arena, its chest heaving, its legs shaking, blood dripping from its mouth, only to collapse into a heap of quivering pain, and die.

If I followed my emotions, I must condemn the bullfight as unambiguously immoral. But I have read enough psychology to know that emotional reactions can often be illogical. And I have read enough Nietzsche to know that moral judgments are often hypocritical and self-serving. Indeed, as somebody who eats meat, I feel odd drawing a line between a bullfight and a slaughterhouse. Does it really make such a big difference if the animal is killed painlessly or not? We do not make this distinction with humans. You simply cannot kill a human “humanely,” though we think we can kill animals that way. So if I want to condemn the bullfight, ought I to become a vegetarian?

Hypocrisy aside, I have trouble deciding how animals should be considered in a moral framework. As I have written elsewhere, I think humans can be held accountable for their actions because they can understand their consequences and alter their behavior accordingly. Bulls obviously cannot do this; a bull cannot reason “If I kill this man, I will be killed as punishment.” Thus a bull cannot be held accountable in any moral framework; and this also means that a bull cannot enjoy the protection of moral injunctions. The golden rule cannot be applied to an untamed animal—or to any animal, for that matter.

For this reason, I am not against meat eating or hunting (except endangered species, of course). But bullfighting is distinguished from those two activities by the amount of pain inflicted on the animal, and all for the sake of mere spectacle. Now, I can understand why this didn’t bother anyone in the past. Death and suffering used to be far more integral to people’s lives; infant mortality was high, childbirth was dangerous, and most people lived on farms, constantly surrounded by birth and death. But nowadays, as we have banished death to slaughterhouses and hospitals, seeing an animal stabbed and killed before our eyes is shocking and gruesome. The reason the bullfight is tolerated is because it is cloaked in ritual and hallowed by time. The tradition and aesthetic refinement stops people from seeing the bullfight as animal cruelty.

As I said before, animals cannot operate within a moral system, so they cannot be protected by moral codes. The morality of bullfighting is thus not a question of the bull, but of us. How does it affect us to watch a creature suffering without feeling compunction? How does it change us to witness a ritualized death and to cheer it on? How does it reflect upon us that we can be so desensitized to violence passing right before our eyes? The willingness to turn a creature into an object, and to use pain as a plaything, is not something I want for myself. I do not want to be so totally insensitive to the suffering of a fellow creature.

Nevertheless, I have serious misgivings about condemning the bullfight. For one, it is an art form, and a beautiful one. But more importantly, I feel remarkably hypocritical, not only because I eat meat, but because my modern, luxurious lifestyle allows me to completely banish the killing of animals into the background. Instead of having to witness it, I allow death to happen behind the scenes, as I go about my day blissfully unaware. Perhaps having to witness death is a good thing, to bring me back to reality and to prevent me from living in a kind of bourgeois fantasyland.

In conclusion, then, I have to admit that I don’t really know what to think. I would be sad to see the tradition disappear, but I also find the spectacle sickening. In any case, I’m happy I went, but I do not plan on going again.

 

 

Toledo Revisited

Toledo Revisited

This April, I managed to visit Toledo twice, first with my family and second with some of GF’s friends. In the process I realized that my first post about Toledo was hopelessly inadequate. Now, with more experience, I think I can write something more worthy.

By now I have traveled enough in Spain to be able to say that Toledo is one of the most beautiful cities in the country. It has everything: picturesque views, beautiful art, engrossing history, and impressive architecture. The only serious problem with Toledo is that it is so close to Madrid, which makes it a haven for tourists. Now of course every city has tourists; but no other city in Spain, not even Barcelona, is so entirely oriented toward foreign visitors.

Toledo is not a city anymore, but a giant museum. Every restaurant and shop exists exclusively for visitors, not locals. Tour groups crowd the streets; tour buses surround the city. There is even a zip-line so that runs over the Tajo River, so that people can experience the same cheap thrill as provided in any good amusement park. I saw a young girl zip across, screaming her head off, staring into her phone the whole ride as she recorded herself. Maybe I am quaint, but I can’t see the point of zip-lining across a marvelous river if you are not even going to look at the view. This modern obsession with photographing ourselves does not strike me as healthy. In any case, the sound of zipping and screaming effectively ruins the pleasure of standing on the medieval San Martín bridge, with its impressive battlements on either side. It is difficult even to enjoy a peaceful walk in the city, since chances are you will be asked by some passersby to take a photo of them. The first time isn’t a problem, but by the fifth time it gets irritating.

But the tourists must be tolerated. The city is worth it. So, without further ado, here are my favorite sites to visit in Toledo.

 

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The City on a Hill

We have to start with the city itself. Seen from a distance, it is a sight worthy of a painting (which, of course, it was, by none other than El Greco). The old city stands majestically on a hill, overlooking the whole surrounding area. Houses with beige walls and red roofs are jammed into a chaotic jumble, squeezed into the limited space of the hillside. No green parks can be seen in the city; just stone and tile. Below runs the Tajo River, with trees growing along its banks. (We used a taxi to get up to the hill for pictures; I think it would be a long walk.)

The two most prominent buildings of the skyline are the Alcázar and the cathedral. The first is an old fortress, built during the reign of Charles V. It is a massive, severe, and merciless building, with four large spires and a cheerless grey façade. The cathedral is slightly more graceful; but the spiky, gothic tower hardly lifts the mood. In short, Toledo looks medieval.

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From any direction, the approach to Toledo is impressive. You can see the old city walls, clinging to the hillside; the Puerta de Bisagra, a massive fortified gate; the Puente de Alcántra, an old Roman bridge; or the Puente de San Martín, a medieval bridge. Even today, the old fortifications are impressive and perfectly preserved. Toledo was a well protected city.

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Before entering, it is worth a walk around the perimeter of the town. A wonderful park runs alongside the Tajo River, underneath both of the old bridges. There you can walk beside the rushing water, with the impressive cliffs for scenery. In some places there are old ruins—stone structures built alongside the river—that add a certain romantic charm to the walk. I kept going  until I saw a stairwell leading up to the Puente de San Martín, which has a fantastic view.

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Now you can enter the city itself. Toledo boasts the finest city centers in Spain. Cobblestone streets wind up and down the hills, chaotically intersecting with no apparent order or design. The streets twist and turn so much that you can get disoriented very quickly. Once I tried to walk someplace without using a map. I made three attempts, each time taking a different route; and each time I came back to where I left.

Walking up and down the hills can also be a bit exhausting, as your ankles bend on the uneven stone streets. This is unavoidable, for there is really no option but to walk; the streets are so narrow, so crowded, and so closely packed that driving a car would be impracticable (plus it would ruin the experience). But all this is worth it for the feeling that you have been transported in time to medieval Europe.

After a stroll about town, you can begin to visit some of the fine monuments of Toledo. Here are my favorites, in no particular order.

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Santa María la Blanca

Santa María la Blanca is one of the two medieval synagogues in Toledo. As its name indicates, the building was later turned into a church after Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain. Built in 1190, it is one of the oldest surviving synagogues in Europe, and surely one of the most beautiful.

As in many buildings in Toledo, the synagogue has a marked Moorish influence. A wooden roof sits atop rows of crescent arches, just like in a mosque; and ornamenting these arches are unmistakably Moorish decorations, carved in stucco. The place is called “la blanca” (the white) because almost everything inside has been whitewashed. This gives the place an angelic, otherworldly aura, emphasized by the LED lights that have been installed in the floor.

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The synagogue does not take very long to visit. I highly recommend it, not only because it is quick and cheap, but because the room still has a certain spiritual power. If you’re like me, you will feel calm and meditative when you stand inside.

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Synagogue “El Tránsito” and the Sephardic Museum

Just nearby, in the old Judería (Jewish quarters), is Toledo’s other synagogue, El Tránsito, built in 1356. At first glance this synagogue is less impressive, consisting of a large rectangular room. But the wooden ceiling is lovely, and when you look at the walls you will quickly see what the fuss is about. There you can find exquisite Moorish-style stucco ornamentation, perhaps the finest outside of Andalucia; indeed, if you were simply shown a photo, the synagogue could be mistaken for a room in the Alhambra. It’s amazing how much Islam, Judaism, and Christianity borrowed from each other during this time. We will be seeing more of this.

Attached the monastery is a museum of Sephardic culture, which is worth visiting. “Sephardic” is the name given to the distinctive Jewish culture of Medieval Spain, formed from living a long time alongside Christians and Muslims. For many years, Jews had prominent places in the universities as well as the governments of Muslim and Christian rulers. Isabella and Ferdinand even had Jewish advisers; and the El Tránsito synagogue itself was financed by Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia, treasurer of the Christian king Peter of Castille. But the Sephardic Jews were forced to flee Spain or convert to Christianity in that all-important year of Spanish history, 1492, forming a diasporic community throughout the world.

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Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes

Nearby both of the synagogues is the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes. It was built during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs after their victory against Portugal in the Battle of Toro (1476). The battle was significant, since it meant that the most dangerous obstacle to Ferdinand and Isabella’s union had been overcome.

From the outside, it is an impressive gothic structure, studded with spires. If memory serves, the entrance fee is only to gain access to the monastery’s cloisters. This is no problem, since the fee is small and the cloisters are quite lovely. The cloisters have two levels, which enclose a small but attractive garden. The openings of the lower level have fine stone mullions; it always amazed me that stone can be carved into such pretty, delicate shapes. The upper level was even more impressive, mainly because of the Mudéjar style wooden roof, which used royal insignias within a Moorish pattern of crisscrossing lines and stars—another example of cultural intermixture.

The church attached to the cloisters must be entered from another door. It is an impressive space, with tall vaulted ceilings and colorful stained glass. Unfortunately, however, I didn’t get a lot of time to look around, since by the time I went inside mass was about to start.

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Church of San Ildefonso Jesuitas

In another part of town, well outside the Judería, is the impressive Church of San Ildefonso Jesuitas. Construction began on the church in 1629, continuing for over 100 years. I actually only went into the church on a whim, since the façade did not particularly interest me. Indeed now that I look at pictures, I confess that I find the church rather ugly.

The inside, however, is quite a different story. It is a well-lit and open space, with lovely white walls. But the real treat it not inside the church, but above it. You can climb up to the second floor, pause to enjoy that view of the church, and keep ascending up a metal staircase to one of the towers. From there, you can enjoy perhaps the best view from within Toledo.

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The Church of San Román

Perhaps the most impressive example of cultural intermixture, even more than Santa María la Blanca, can be found in the Church of San Román. If you were not told it was a church, you could be mistaken for believing it was a mosque. Horseshoe arches support a typically Moorish wooden ceiling; and all along the walls runs what appears to be Arabic script. But the elongated paintings of people on the walls reveal the true nature of this building, for representational art is not found in any Mosque.

In reality, this church is a church and has always been a church. Built in the 13th century, the architects quite deliberately imitated Moorish styles, to the point of even writing fake Arabic on the walls. (It is just scribbling meant to look like Arabic.) It even has a church tower that looks like a minaret. The only off-note is a Renaissance cupola affixed to the church in the 16th century.

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In order to find the church you might have to search for the “Museum of Gothic Culture” (Museo de los concilios y de la cultura visigoda), since nowadays that is what the old church is used for. Some of the information and artifacts on display are no doubt interesting, but the church itself is so much more interesting that it was nearly impossible for me to focus on the Visigoths during my visit.

 

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz

As befitting the former home of El Greco, two of El Greco’s finest paintings can be seen in Toledo. One of the these is The Disrobing of Christ, which you can see in the Cathedral (more later); the other is The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.

This painting is on display in its own special chapel in the Church of Santo Tomé. Originally I thought it was in the church itself, which led to me blustering in and scouring every corner for the famous painting. Don’t bother. There is a special entrance to see it, which leads into a chapel where the titular Count of Orgaz still rests. More than likely this small room will be jam-packed with people; there must have been five separate tour groups when I visited, their guides chattering away in various languages. Nonetheless, El Greco’s masterpiece is worth it.

The subject of the painting is based on a local legend. Don Gonzalo Ruíz, the erstwhile Count of Orgaz (actually, he wasn’t a count; the distinction was awarded to his family later) was a pious man who donated money for the enlargement of the Church of Santo Tomé. In thanks, when Don Gonzalo Ruíz died, Saint Augustine and Saint Stephen descended from heaven to bury him. El Greco was commissioned to paint this scene in around 1586 by the priest of the church. But the scene was not to be purely historical, for El Greco’s contract stipulated that he must include portraits of many of the well-to-do men in Toledo, for obvious pecuniary reasons.

The painting is magnificent. The shining, golden armor of Count Orgaz, the flowing, finely patterned robes of the saints, the way the dead man’s body lies limply in the arms of his holy companions—all this put to rest any doubts I had about El Greco’s technical mastery. The man could have painted with as much facility as any of the finest artists of the Italian Renaissance.

But this realism is integrated into El Greco’s characteristically unreal style. The mourners gather round the grave in an absent space with no volume or depth. Each of the men wears a frilly collar and a black shirt, and seem remarkably unsurprised by the appearance of the saints. Of course, showing shock would have spoiled the portraits that El Greco integrated into the painting; for here El Greco displays most powerfully his skill as a portrait artists. All the mourner’s faces are wonderfully individual and expressive. El Greco has snuck in an entire gallery of first-class portraits, worthy even of Rembrandt.

Above this earthly scene flies the heavenly host, with Mary, Peter, John the Baptist, and Jesus in the center, surrounded by angels and saints. Every member of this heavenly host gazes up at Jesus—all except Mary, who looks sadly down at the burial below. There is an interesting mix of contrast and continuity between the lower and the upper halves. Although the heavenly host glows with eternal life, while the black funeral scene reeks of human mortality and decay, all the figures seem to occupy the same continuous space. The descent of the two saints, garbed in bright yellow robes, bolsters the impression that the boundary between heaven and earth has been ruptured. And if you look long enough at this painting, you may feel this rupture all the more powerfully, as El Greco’s spiritual beauty shines into our profane world.

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The Cathedral of Toledo

By now I have seen enough cathedrals in Spain that I can say with confidence that the Toledo Cathedral is one of the very best. Indeed, the only thing that makes me hesitate to pronounce it the greatest is that I have yet to see the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. In any case, the Toledo Cathedral is a jewel in the crown of Spain and obligatory if you visit the town.

To buy tickets, you must go to a small building across the street from the cathedral, where you will be herded through the gift shop before you can make your purchase. When you go, I recommend the audioguide; it is well-made and adds a lot to the experience. You will enter through a door in the cathedral’s side—a really ugly portal. It has four tasteless Corinthian columns built into the façade. I don’t know why this was done to the cathedral, but whoever did so should be kept away from all religious structure in the future.

Generally speaking, the Toledo Cathedral is not remarkably attractive from the outside. It has one impressive tower, but on the other side is a stumpy Renaissance cupola that throws the whole structure off balance. Certainly the main façade of Toledo cannot compare with the mountains of spires and sculptures you find in Burgos. Nevertheless, the three doors in the front are truly splendid; and dramatic sculptures of robed figures with cover the building, preaching to eternity with arms outstretched.

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It is the interior of Toledo that is so impressive. Every inch of space is covered with decoration, and all of it first-rate, in a dazzling mixture of styles. I wish I could give a full overview of every little piece of the building, but there is simply too much to see. Here are some highlights.

First the main chapel. Like any respectable gothic cathedral, the Toledo Cathedral was built to emphasize height. The vaulted ceiling hangs more than a hundred feet above you, supported by impossibly tall columns of stone. The stained glass windows allow a dull glow to reach the interior, enough to illuminate the top but not the bottom of the building; thus a spooky and somber darkness pervades the whole space.

The cathedral has many portals. From the inside, the most impressive of these is the Portal of the Lions. Over the doorway, a breathtaking series of friezes have been carved in the plateresque style, the distinctive ornamental style of the Spanish Golden Age. We see the genealogy of Mary, a tree that begins with Abraham (I think) and ends with the Coronation of the Virgin in the center. Emerging from the top of this work is the organ, its pipes jutting from the wall.

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After you walk around the main chapel, exploring the lovely decorations that cover both the inside and outside of the central choir and the resplendent golden central altarpiece, you will come upon the most striking and original artwork in the cathedral: El Transparente. This is a marvelous altar that incorporates both painting, stucco, and statues in marble and bronze, among other media, and that stretches from the ground all the way up to the ceiling and beyond. Right behind the main altar, between two sets of columns, is a marble sculpture of the Virgin Mary seated, Jesus in her lap, surrounded by white angels with bronze wings. Above her is a heavenly glow, with bronze shafts of lights emanating in all directions; and baby-faced cherubim fly around, basking happily in the sunshine. Really, there are too many figures to describe or identify. It is absolutely stunning.

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But the work doesn’t stop there. A hole has been made in the thick ceiling above, allowing sunlight to shine directly onto the altar. And surrounding this opening are colorful paintings and seated statues, all of them holy figures who calmly look down on you from several stories up, as the light of heaven pours in from beyond. I can’t fathom the technical challenges of such a work. The vertical arrangement of the figures, the mastery of so many different artistic media, the engineering problem involved in cutting a hole in the roof—and yet the final effect is not strained at all, but tasteful and magnificent.

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All this is just a taste of the beauty you can find in the main chapel; but there is much more to see. One of the most impressive rooms in the cathedral is the Chapterhouse. This room was used for meetings with the Archbishop of Toledo, a position which has long been the most powerful religious title in Spain. The archbishop’s golden chair stands in the center of the room, opposite the door; running along the rest of the walls is a wooden bench, where everyone else would sit. The coffered roof is of gilded wood, divided into geometrical shapes. On the upper half of the wall is a series of frescos, showing scenes from the life of Jesus; above the door is an excellent portrayal of the Last Judgment. Running below this, above the wooden bench, is a series of portraits of the Archbishops of Toledo, going back to the very beginning. It is fascinating to see how the style of portraits changes throughout the many years.

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Surpassing even the Chapterhouse is the Sacristy—traditionally, where the archbishop would prepare to give services. Nowadays, the huge room is used as an art museum. An enormous painting covers the entire barrel-vaulted ceiling; it depicts a massive host of angels gathered around a heavenly light, which shines from the word “Yahweh” written in Hebrew. This style of ceiling decoration was common enough in the Spain of the 17th century, but this is the most stunning and successful example I have seen. I once caught myself drooling as I stared up at it, lost in the illusion that I was looking into heaven itself.

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Excellent paintings are hung all along the walls, many by El Greco. The most notable of these is his Disrobing of Christ, which stands in the very center of the room. El Greco captures the moment right before Christ is stripped of his clothes. Jesus stands in the center, staring up into heaven, his bright red robe enveloping his body. He is looking into heaven with a serene and sad expression. His eyes seem moist with tears. A noisy, chaotic rabble surrounds him. But what is most striking is that none of them seems to be paying attention to Christ; instead they are absorbed with each other, seemingly consumed with petty argument. Thus the figure of Jesus stands isolated among the crowd, untouchable, unearthly, abandoned by humanity but not abandoning us in return. In short, it is a masterpiece of religious art.

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The Toledo Cathedral also has a lovely cloister. On the outside wall is a series of frescos depicting the doings and lives of several saints from the history of Toledo. From this cloister you can access the Chapel of Saint Blaise. This is an octagonal room, built in the 14th century. Originally the walls were covered with a series of medieval frescos. But unfortunately, since the chapel was built below street level, water has destroyed many of these. This is a real shame, because the remains are utterly enchanting. In style, they strongly remind me of images I’ve seen of Giotto’s work, and indeed the artists (their names are unknown) may well have been directly influenced by Giotto, as they were from Florence.

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This is just a taste of what you can find in the Toledo Cathedral. Inside you can find superb examples in every medium—friezes, paintings, sculptures, architecture, the decorative arts—of nearly every phase and style of Spanish art: plateresque, Mudéjar, neoclassical, renaissance, baroque, and of course gothic. But what is most miraculous is that all these disparate elements combine to form a perfect whole. It is one of the greatest artistic projects in the world, and something I will always recall with awe.

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A Castle and a Palace: Manzanares el Real and La Granja

A Castle and a Palace: Manzanares el Real and La Granja

As I am slowly discovering, Madrid has an inexhaustible wealth of day trips. I have already written posts for my four favoritesToledo, El Escorial, Salamanca, and Segovia—and another post for four more: Ávila, Chinchón, Aranjuez, and Alcalá de Henares. Now I must add two more to this already long list: Manzanares el Real and La Granja.

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Manzanares el Real

Manzanares el Real is a small town north of Madrid, situated at the food of the Guadarrama mountains. The only way to get there on public transportation is by bus line 724, which you take from the Intercambiador at Plaza de Castilla.

On the advice of a classmate, GF and I decided to spend a Sunday morning of an otherwise lazy weekend on a trip there. It was a dreary February day, cloudy and drizzling. The busride was unremarkable, taking us through several of those nondescript Spanish villages that always manage to disorient me, since they look so similar that I cannot tell whether I’ve seen them before. I spent most of the ride reading, anyway. To be exact, I was reading Hemingway’s famous guide to bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon, which was appropriate, since our route took us past a bullring and a statue of a matador.

In forty minutes we arrived. Our first stop was the tourist office, where a very friendly women gave us a map and marked it up with sites to see. In retrospect, I am deeply impressed with her for being so enthusiastic; there are not very many things to do in Manzanares, but she squeezed every last drop out of the possibilities.

Our first stop—and, indeed, the only reason we made the trip in the first place—was the castle. Manzanares is home to one of the best preserved, most picturesque castles in Spain, the so-called “New Castle.” (It was built in the 15th century. We will meet the “old” castle later.)

The castle is surrounded by a wall, full of narrow slits for archers, that wraps closely around the perimeter. The castle itself has a square layout, with a small appendage in the back. Tall towers stand over each corner. Its symmetrical form, gray granite façade, and curving walls combine to form a surprisingly pretty building.

After some mucking about trying to find the ticket booth, finally we did, bought tickets, and went in. To be frank, I am not sure I would recommend doing this. There was not very much on the inside of the castle. In the lower level were a few panels of information; and in upper floors, there were old bedrooms and living spaces with period furniture. But neither of these were memorable. The only thing worth seeing was the view from the top of the castle. You can walk all around the roof, going from tower to tower. On one side you can see the town, and the mountains beyond; on another side, the nearby reservoir (I thought it was a lake at the time).

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We were outside again in less than an hour. Now what? We looked at the map the woman at the tourist office had given us. The only thing that caught my attention was the aforementioned “Old Castle.” This is about a ten minute walk from the New Castle, across the Manzanares River that runs through the town. It would be easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it. Hardly anything remains. At first glance it is just an empty, grassy field; the only indication that there used to be a castle here is a small granite wall, no more than five feet tall.

From there, we followed a road the woman recommended, which took us out of the town and towards the reservoir; the idea was to get away from the city, so we could get a good photo of it. On the way, we passed by the town cemetery; the gate was open, nobody was standing by, so we walked in.

I had been wanting to visit a cemetery since I came to Spain, and this was the first opportunity that presented itself. I was interested in cemeteries because, before coming here, I gave a tour of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery to a family from Madrid. During the visit, they kept remarking how different American cemeteries are from Spanish ones.

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They were right. While Americans cemeteries can look like parks, their Spanish counterparts are totally devoid of vegetation. Instead, the dead are interred in stone sarcophagi that sit on top of the ground; either that or they occupy a slot in a large stone wall. For me, the place had a much more somber feel. There was nothing alive there but us.

We left and kept going along the road. Soon we crossed a bridge that took us over the reservoir, turned around, and admired the view. It was still a drizzly, dreary day, but the gray rainclouds brought out a special charm to the landscape. On the banks of the reservoir, amid the pools of water, white cows were grazing. Beyond was the town, nestled at the foot of a craggy mountain, a mass of jagged gray slithering up into the mist.

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We took some pictures, and then headed back into town to the bus station. The surrounding area actually looked like it had some nice hiking paths; but I hadn’t brought the shoes or the willingness to go on a hike. We went to the bus stop.

While we waited for the bus to arrive, I admired some of the storks who made their nest on a tree nearby. This was the first time I heard the strange clacking noise that storks make by rapidly beating their beaks together, as they arch their neck back so far that the top of their skull touches the back of their long slender neck. Actually, I thought the sound was coming from a motorcycle engine at first, the noise is so strange and harsh. Doesn’t it damage their beaks to snap them together so forcefully?

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La Granja de San Ildefonso

In Hemingway’s book, Death in the Afternoon, he mentions his favorite things to see in Madrid:

“But when you have the Prado and the bullfight season at the same time with El Escorial not two hours to the north and Toledo to the south, a fine road to Avila and a fine road to Segovia, which is no distance from La Granja, it makes you feel very badly, all question of immortality aside, to know that you will have to die and never see it again.”

All of these places I had seen, except La Granja. Naturally I had to go.

The Palace of La Granja is found in the town of San Ildefonso, in the province of Segovia, near the Guadarrama mountains. From Madrid, there isn’t a direct way to get there on public transportation. First we took the train from Madrid to Segovia. From the train station in Segovia, we took the city bus to the central plaza, near the Roman aqueduct, since that is where TripAdvisor said the bus to La Granja would be. But the bus was not there. We asked a bystander, who told us to go to the bus station, about a seven minute walk. (If you are making this same trip, take the bus from the train station direct to the bus station to save you this walk.)

We arrived and got on line to buy tickets. But once we got to the end, the man behind the desk told us to buy our tickets as we got on the bus. So we went to the loading area. One bus arrived, it wasn’t the right one; then another, also not the right bus. Finally the bus to La Granja arrived. We paid and got on. The ride to San Ildefonso took about forty-five minutes. All told, the trip from Madrid to San Ildefonso took over two hours.

We went straight to the palace. Seen from the town, it is not very impressive. Its main distinguishing feature is a large cupola that towers above everything else in the town. I suppose the kings who lived here were not especially concerned with awing the few citizens of the town; rather, this palace was originally a kind of royal retreat, where the kings spent their summers to go hunting in the forests nearby. The palace itself dates from the 1720s, under the reign of the first monarch of the Bourbon dynasty, Philip V, after the chaos of the War of Spanish Succession. The war ended with a French family on the Spanish throne, and thus this palace bears the mark of French taste. Specifically, it is modeled on the palace of Versailles, built by Philip V’s grandfather, Louis XIV. Like its predecessor, La Granja even has its own splendid French gardens, of which we will see more later.

Our visit began with a museum of tapestries. Now, I’ve seen my fair share of tapestries in Spain, and normally I do not find them terribly interesting. But these were magnificent. The palace had tapestries dating back to the reign of the Catholic Monarchs (the late 15th century). But the most impressive were made during the time of Charles V. They were massive, well over 12 feet tall. The surface was covered with elaborate, allegorical scenes, with damsels and knights, sages and demons, each personifying a virtue or a vice. There were also mythological beasts and historical figures woven into the panoply of images. There was Hercules holding up the heavens, and a representation of Boethius’s Wheel of Fortune, as well as Plato, Seneca, and Solomon the Wise. I wish photos were allowed.

Then we went into the palace proper. The first room had portraits of Philip V and his family, all of them bedecked in frilly outfits and white wigs, all of them smiling gaily. Their smile reminded me of Kenneth Clarke’s episode on the French Enlightenment, in his marvelous documentary, Civilisation. It is an ironical, bemused, dispassionate smile, a smile that Clarke dubbed the “smile of reason.” This was, after all, the Enlightenment.

As usual in palaces, the rooms were beautifully furnished: still-lifes, portraits, and religious paintings hung on the walls; delicately carved and upholstered chairs stood awaiting the royal bottoms (which, alas, do not appear nowadays); and elaborate chandeliers hung in every room. Each ceiling was covered in a large painting, usually of a mythological scene amid a heavenly background.

When I walk through the former abodes of the ultra-wealthy, I tend to feel a little queasy. It all seems so frivolous and so profligate. Nobody should be this rich. Palaces are not warm, welcoming places; they crush you under the weight of all their finery and splendor. I cannot imagine that living in a palace has a positive effect on your psychology. Every single piece of furniture, every clock and candelabra, bespeaks wealth and power. And how do you keep your head and govern a country when your entire world is a never-ending chant to yourself? How do you manage a kingdom when you live in a world apart?

Nevertheless, the royal apartments in La Granja were so tastefully decorated that my usual misgivings about palaces didn’t bother me. It was a really beautiful place, arranged with tact and restraint. We walked through the bedrooms, dressing rooms, the study, the banquet hall, and then went down the stairs to the ground floor. By comparison, this floor was quite empty. The most lovely thing to be seen is a beautiful fountain full of bronze figures, with a backdrop made from seashells. Other than that, however, the ground floor is full of neo-classical statues. These were of very poor quality, I thought, bland and lifeless.

But it wasn’t long until we went through the entire floor and had gone outside to visit the gardens. Now this was the real palace. The gardens of La Granja are massive; indeed, judging from the map, the gardens are bigger than the whole town of San Ildefonso! For the most part, they consist of long, straight avenues lined with trees and bushes that connect several plazas; in each of these plazas is a fountain. The fountains are the most impressive part, even when they are turned off (as they were during our visit). The most eye-catching is the long, terraced fountain that runs down a hill next to the palace; small statues line the walkway on both sides, and at the top are more statues in bronze. From here you can see the palace at its most impressive. Clearly, this is the facade that was meant to be seen.

Philip V must have felt quite smug with himself after having these gardens built; they represent the dominance of French royalty over Spanish affairs. But I did not feel even an inkling of the splendor that the gardens were supposed to represent. Rather, the place was cold and empty. The trees were still bare; a chilly breeze blew threw the gardens; the snow-covered peaks of the Guadarrama stood in the distance; and the fountains sat amid this wintry landscape, dry and silent. 

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From an anthropological perspective, I thought the gardens embodied certain unmistakable ideals of the Enlightenment: orderly rows of hedges, straight paths, circular plazas, Greco-Roman sculptures. It is easy to imagine Philip V strolling through with his ironical smile and white wig, admiring his taste and power. The garden was planned like a city, with main avenues and connecting streets. There is no Romantic love for untamed nature, no mystical communion with the chaotic. Nature is, rather, domesticated, ordered, disciplined, brought into line with the dictates of reason. The result is impressive, but it lacked what I most crave from parks: life.

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We strolled around for about half an hour, and then we left. It was lunch time. I was really excited for this, because the last time I visited Segovia I had some excellent food. We had one meal in mind, the two classic dishes of Segovia: Judiones de la Granja and Cochinillo. The first is a bean stew, and the second is roast suckling pig. They are so popular that almost every restaurant offers a daily special with the two dishes, the first as an appetizer and the second as the main course. The problem is that it’s expensive. We walked around for about twenty minutes, comparing prices, before settling on one restaurant with decent prices and full with clients. (If a restaurant is full of Spaniards eating, it’s probably pretty good.)

Luckily there were seats. We ordered the special, and waited with stomachs grumbling and mouths watering. First came the Judiones. Judiones are big and tender white beans, grown locally. They are served in a stew, along with chorizo, pancetta, and morcilla (blood sausage), a combination that gives it a distinctive smoky, peppery flavor. We finished the stew, mopping up the last of the sauce with our bread. Then came the cochinillo, a huge hunk of meat served over a bed of fries (the Spanish love fries). The skin was crispy, the meat was tender and juicy, and everything tasted of savory oil. I enjoyed it so much my hair stood on end. I stuffed myself and then sat back with a satisfied sigh. It was easily one of the best meals I’ve had here.

Because of the bus schedule, we had about an hour and a half to kill before the next bus to Segovia. Luckily, we happened upon the perfect solution: the Royal Glass Factory of La Granja. Originally it was a factory established by Philip V to make glass products for the La Granja palace. Nowadays it’s not a factory anymore, but a museum dedicated to all things glass.

Most surprising was simply the museum’s size. It has everything. Inside you can find historical examples of the machines used in glass manufacturing, massive metal contraptions that I did not understand. There were also fine examples of stained glass, bottles and jugs stretching back centuries, and an entire wing dedicated to modern practitioners of the art of glassblowing, with some really spectacular examples. But coolest of all, they had two (somewhat unenthusiastic) glassblowers giving demonstrations. The nonchalance with which the glassblower stuck the rod into a fiery furnace and then turned in the red-hot mass into a lovely vase was remarkable.

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Indeed, the museum had so much that I wished I could have spent more time inside looking around. But, alas, the bus was coming. We left, took the bus back to Segovia, and then the train back to Madrid.

So in addition to all the many treasures you can see on a visit to Madrid, now I must add that one of the finest castles and perhaps the very finest palace in Spain are within reach of a day trip.

 

West to Extremadura: Cáceres and Mérida

West to Extremadura: Cáceres and Mérida

 

Cáceres

“See those trees?” the driver said.

“Yeah.”

“That’s what the pigs eat, the acorns from those trees. They’re called encinas.”

“Oh, neat,” I said.

We were on our way to Cáceres, one of the major cities in Extremadura. Out the window I could see the flat, featureless, interminable plains of the region. The drive west from Madrid is perhaps the least interesting one in Spain I know. There isn’t anything to see except fields of grass and the aforementioned short, shrubby trees. But the visual dullness is amply compensated by what the traveler can learn about Spain from a trip here. Case in point: jamón ibérico, the finest ham in the country—and ham is fundamental to Spanish food—comes from here. The black pigs roam, free-range, eating the acorns of the encina trees, known in English as the holm oak.

Our driver spoke in the fast, clipped accent of Cáceres, only slightly easier to understand than the dreaded accent of Andalusia. We were on vacation for Semana Santa, Holy Week. Our final destination was Lisbon; but to break the trip into manageable chunks we decided to stop in Cáceres and Mérida on the way there, cities that had been recommended to us.

In two hours we arrived, dropped off our bags, and went into the city center. It was a rainy, overcast day, with a chilly breeze. The gray sky and the dull light gave the town a forsaken aspect. But instead of detracting from the city’s charm, the weather added to it.

Cáceres has one of the finest historical centers in Spain. The walled city is almost perfectly preserved; it looks like it’s hardly changed since the Middle Ages. Most of the buildings are weather-beaten, worn down, but their brown stone façades are all the more impressive for that. Unlike Toledo, few buildings stand out for special comment. Rather it is the entire city center that is the main attraction, the narrow stone streets, the proud walls, the many church spires.

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But Cáceres is not exactly beautiful, and it certainly isn’t pretty. The city is impressive for its severity. While wandering through the chilly interior of a cavernous church, or standing in the rain underneath the city walls, you get the powerful sense of what it must have been to live here, eking out a living on the hard soil, taking shelter behind the walls, seeking salvation in another world. The final impression is that life here was precarious and hard; and even now the town seems only to limp by on the strength of its tourism.

The first building we visited was the Concatedral de Santa Maria de Cáceres, a co-cathedral built at the end of the Romanesque period. Like most building in Cáceres, it is rather plain; the outside is devoid of ornament. The most beautiful thing on the inside is a massive carved wooden altar, quite a marvelous piece of work. You can also visit the building’s tower, which affords you with an excellent view of the old city.

Probably the most conspicuous church in Cáceres is the Iglesia de San Francisco Javier. This church sits at one of the highest points in the city, and its two white towers, which flank the main doorway, can be seen from quite a distance. The inside is rather strange. On both the ground and the upper level there is a massive timeline, recounting the history of Spain and the Catholic Church. It wasn’t very well made; the board was so crowded with names and dates, all printed in tiny letters, that you would have to spend many hours to read everything. Also on the upper floor was a museum of Belén (nativity scene) figurines. They had examples not only from Spanish history, but from all around the world. There was everything in the church except a church.

From the top floor you can walk up to either of the tall, white towers. Not only did we get a nice view of the city, but we also got a close look at some of the white storks nesting on the opposite tower. They are lovely birds.

Next we went to the Museum of Cáceres. In truth, I wasn’t expecting much from this museum; and the nondescript building only confirmed my lack of excitement. The place seemed so destitute that I doubted there could be anything worth seeing. But I am happy to report that I was very wrong.

The collection spanned from prehistory to the present day. It began with the region’s pre-Roman inhabitants, their jewelry and clay pots. Next were the Roman artifacts, including little statues and tablets with still visible Latin inscriptions. There were replicas of the agricultural tools used by the erstwhile peasants of the region, as well as their traditional dresses. Down a flight of steps I found a room dedicated to the Visigoths, and down another flight, in the basement, was the most impressive room of all. It was an original aljibe, a water well constructed by the Moors. In dim, subterranean light, the distinctive crescent arches of the Moors stand over a still pool of water. It’s enchanting.

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I thought that would be all, but a walkway led to another building, and there I found that the Museum of Cáceres also boasts an impressive collection of modern art, including a sketch by Picasso. On the floor below that, there are also a few examples of Medieval art, and even a work by El Greco. If you find yourself in Cáceres, do visit this museum; it is impressive, and for us it was free!

We were hungry now, and tired, so we ate at a restaurant in the center—very good, by the way—went back to our Airbnb, and went to sleep.

The next day was bright and sunny. We ate breakfast and headed into town. Once there, however, we realized that we didn’t have anything to do. We had seen the major churches, we had seen the museum, we had walked all the streets. Now what? I was lazily turning this question over when I noticed how lovely the surrounding area looked in the sunlight.

“Why don’t we take a walk outside the city?” I suggested.

“Sure.”

Thus we turned down a narrow street, passed through the old medieval gate, and emerged on the other side. In just twenty minutes we were surrounded by farms and grass. To our left some horses were grazing, and when we paused to look at them, one of them walked over and stuck his nose through the gate.

“I think he wants to be petted,” I said, and gingerly touched his snout.

GF did the same, and the horse seemed to like it. But then the horse abruptly turned away, and went back to eat some more grass. I think he was hoping we’d give him food.

Soon we found a dirt path leading away from the road, going to our left into another grassy field. We turned and followed it. By now the weather was nearly perfect, with a warm sun and a cool breeze. The grass shone green, and the flowers were in bloom. In the distance we could see more horses grazing in the open fields; and beyond that, the old city center of Cáceres sitting nobly on its hill.

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The natural scenery and the blue sky felt so refreshing after the gloomy rain and the harsh Medieval architecture of yesterday. The only buildings here were derelict. An old farmhouse with boarded up windows, stuccoed brick walls, and cracked wooden window-frames stood by the side of the path; its roof was totally caved in, the wooden beams a broken heap on the floor, everything covered in weeds. A stone wall ran besides this farm; shards of colored glass has been glued to the top, though I don’t know why. Elsewhere we found a brick arch, the old doorway of a now demolished building, its top covered in moss.

We walked for hours, holding our jackets, soaking in the sun and breathing the fresh air. But then the sun began to go away, and it became so chilly we had to put our jackets back on. Storm clouds were appearing; in just minutes the blue sky was devoured by gray. We headed back for town, but we hadn’t gotten far before the rain started. Unluckily for us, we didn’t have our umbrellas; but luckily it wasn’t a downpour. Our route home led us through a part of town we hadn’t visited before. It was modern and unremarkable, for the most part; but we did pass by an old church building. This building wasn’t itself particularly beautiful, but on its roof I could count ten stork’s nests, with several of the storks standing guard.

Soon we were back at our Airbnb; we cooked our own dinner that night, and did not go out again. Our two days in Cáceres were spent. If you get a chance, I recommend a visit. It isn’t as spectacular as Toledo or Córdoba, but it is impressive nonetheless. Besides, what Cáceres lacks in beauty it makes up in intimacy. The medieval streets are not filled with noisy street performers or clowns in costume; you won’t have to nudge your way through massive tour groups or dodge gaggles of Americans on Segways. The restaurants are filled with locals; the shops sell food, not gaudy knickknacks. Horses, not double-decker buses, roam the city’s surroundings.

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Mérida

Mérida is an hour’s drive west of Cáceres, pretty near the border with Portugal. As usual, we were taking a Blablacar. Our driver was from Seville, and his friend, another passenger, from Cáceres. Both were lovely people, laid back, sociable, patient with our Spanish, so the drive was pleasant.

The drive became doubly pleasant when a rainbow appeared to our left on the way over. It had been a long time since I’d seen a rainbow from a moving car, maybe even years; so it was interesting to see how the rainbow moved across the landscape with us as we drove. I have this deep-rooted idea from watching cartoons as a child that a rainbow is a stationary object (how else could Leprechauns bury their pots of gold at the end?). But of course that’s not true; rainbows are optical illusions caused by the refraction of light through water droplets in the air, and thus appear at a different locations to each individual viewer. I suppose I’ll have to play the lottery if I want a pot of gold.

After an hour, our pleasant drive was over; indeed, I was having such a good time that I was genuinely disappointed when we arrived. But what could I do?

We picked up our bags and walked to our Airbnb. It was in an apartment building in the center of town, very easy to find. I texted our host, who promptly let us into the building. An elevator ride to the top, and she was at the door waiting.

Hola, ¿qué tal?” I said.

“Hello,” she said, in a perfect American accent.

“Wait, you’re American?”

“Yeah, don’t you remember?” GF said.

“Oh, that’s right!”

Weeks ago, GF told me that our host in Mérida was an American—information that I promptly forgot. I had been communicating with her entirely in Spanish.

She was a young woman from Alaska, here in Spain to teach English in the government program. Incidentally, I find it somewhat surprising that I have so far met two people from Alaska, given that the state has a population of 800,000. Only two states, Vermont and Wyoming, have less people. I learned one surprising thing about Alaska: it has a very diverse population, including a sizeable colony of Hmong.

But we didn’t stay long to chat. Our bags tucked away, soon we were out on the street. By now it was already rather late; all the monuments were closed, and the sun would be setting in an hour. With few options, we decided that we would stroll along the river. The Guadiana River is the bigger of the two rivers that run through the city; it is the forth largest river in Spain, and further West forms part of the border with Portugal.

(By the way, the prefix Guad- can be found in several other Spanish place names, such as the Guadalquivir, the river that runs through Seville and Córdoba, the Guadarrama, a mountain range near Madrid, and Guadalajara, an old city in Castilla La Mancha. This prefix is a Castillianization of Arabic.)

A park ran along the riverside, green and splendid. Stray cats hid among the bushes, and teenagers sat and chatted on the benches. The river was calm and clear; the overhanging trees were reflected on its surface in the waning daylight. We walked until we reached a bridge, and then climbed a stairwell hoping to cross the river. But once we got to the top, we both gasped.

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Half the town was gathered in the square; it was totally packed with people. There, under the walls of the old Moorish fortress, they were having an Easter Parade. The first time I saw a Spanish Easter celebration was in my college course on the anthropology of the Mediterranean. The most immediately noticeable thing—for an American, at least—is that it looks like a gathering of the Ku Klux Klan. Either by coincidence or intention, the traditional costumes of the Spanish Easter procession are nearly identical in appearance to that of the American hate group. Of course, the Spaniards created their costumes first, and thus it is absurd to associate them with American racism. Nevertheless, the first time I saw it, I couldn’t help feeling uneasy.

The unease passed quickly, however, and soon I was wholly absorbed in the spectacle. Rows and rows of hooded figures were lined up, some in red, some in white, each of them carrying a stalk of wheat, no doubt of symbolic importance. Among these there were tons of children, who each carried a little bag full of candy with them; as they walked by, they handed each passerby with outstretched hand a treat. Behind the hooded figures was the float. On a large platform was a life-sized figure of Jesus seated on a donkey, on his triumphant ride into Jerusalem. Behind him was a large palm tree, on either side of him a disciple carrying a stalk of wheat, and in front a woman knelt with clasped hands.

I stood there, examining the float for a while, when a man walked up to the front of it and started shouting through a whole in the bottom. Then he knocked on the top of the float, and all the sudden it stood up. Underneath were about twenty people, carrying the thing on their shoulders. I have no idea how heavy it was, but I can’t imagine it being comfortable to have it resting on top of you while you’re huddled underneath with so many others.

Slowly the float lurched into motion, step by slow step, plodding like a giant through the town. Behind the float was the band. It is apparently traditional to have marching music during these processions. The band consisted entirely of brass instruments and drums. The music was very simple, and very loud. The snare drums beat out a slow, methodical march rhythm. Over this, the band played a somber sequence of minor chords—a sour, out of tune, tremendously tragic sound that conveyed a sense of overwhelming loss. Sometimes a trumpeter would play a call-and-response with the rest of the horns, squeezing out a strangled series of shrill notes, to be answered by the violent blare of the other players. If you think I didn’t liked it, you’re mistaken; it was deeply impressive.

We stood and watched the parade for about an hour. This was one of my favorite experiences from Spain. I feel privileged to have seen it.

But now it was dark, and we were hungry. Our host recommended a bar to us, a place called the Bar Alhambra, which she said served free sandwiches included with every drink. We searched and searched, and after half an hour found nothing; finally we had given up and decided to go eat pizza, when by chance we found it. We ducked inside and ordered two drinks. As promised, each one came with a sandwich and a side of fries. The food was not luxurious; indeed, it was so greasy and salty that I felt slightly ill and covered in oil by the time I finished mine. But it was free! I ordered another beer, and got another sandwich. If you’re in Mérida and eating on a budget, go to the Bar Alhambra.

That was it for that night. The next day was Monday. This was to be our only day full in Mérida, so we had lots to see. But there was one potential problem: it was a Monday. I hadn’t thought about this when I made our plans. You see, Monday in Spain is the day that monuments run by the Patrimonio Nacional are closed. I had the sinking feeling that we wouldn’t be able to see any of Mérida’s rich treasures during our stay.

The reason I had chosen to visit Mérida was because of ancient history. Specifically, Roman history. When Spain was controlled by the Roman Empire, Mérida was the capital of Hispania, the Roman name for the Iberian Peninsula. As a result, some of the finest Roman ruins in Spain, and perhaps anywhere in the world outside Italy, can be found here.

We wandered into town and had breakfast. Then, with bated breath, we went to our first stop, the Roman theater and amphitheater. I sighed with relief when I saw that the place was full of people: it was open.

We bought combination tickets, which included five or six Roman sites, and then went into the complex where the two jewels of the city are found. These are the aforementioned theater and amphitheater, which are situated right next to one another in a walled-off section of town.

We walked inside. I was bursting with excitement. When I was younger, I spent hours pouring over books on Roman military tactics. Much later, I read all six volumes of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and made my way through Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Cicero, Seneca, Hadrian—in short, I was about to see with my own eyes something that I had been learning about for almost all my life. The reality didn’t disappoint.

The visit took us to the amphitheater first. It was like the Colosseum on a small scale, although it was still a massive construction, big enough for 15,000 spectators. Many of the entranceways into the area were still perfectly useable, the Roman arches still holding strong. Other parts of the building were in various states of decay, allowing me to see the different layers of materials used in the building. One thing I learned—and I’m mildly ashamed I didn’t know this before—was that the Romans had bricks. Indeed, the bricks looked so neat and pristine, their color still bright red, that I found it hard to believe that they were original. (Apparently, the Romans got the technique for fired bricks from the Greeks.) This brick was mostly used for support and for the arches; the exterior was covered in slabs of gray stone.

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The years had been hardest on the seats; most of them were reduced to rubble. Apart from that, however, the preservation was astonishing. Our visit took us through a long tunnel, the main entrance. On either side of the walkway, cardboard cutouts of gladiators were standing; beside these were captions of information, explaining the typical armaments of the different types of gladiators. I had thought there were only two or three types of gladiators, but apparently there were a dozen or more, each with their own distinct weaponry. Some had tridents and nets, some had big, rectangular shields and short swords, and some had small circular shields, heavy helmets, and daggers.

I tried in vain to imagine what it would be like to fight for my life in front of hundreds of cheering people, and gave up. It is a chilling thought to realize that this splendid architectural marvel was built so that the exploited citizenry and overfed nobles could watch slaves kill each other. It is yet another proof that great art can be produced for nefarious ends.

At the end of the walkway, on either side, were the small rooms used to keep the combatants in waiting, so that they could rush out into the arena when it was their time to fight. In the middle of the area there was a depression in the ground; I think this was a kind of trap-door, used to send animals into the arena, but I’m not sure: it didn’t look big enough.

Most extraordinary of all were the faded inscription, on a stone in front of the box reserved for government officials. It read AUGUST. PONT. MAXIM. TRIBUNIC POTESTATE XVI. (I myself couldn’t read it, but there was an informational plaque nearby.) From this we learn that this amphitheater was built during the reign of Caesar Augustus, around the year 8 BCE to be precise. To put that in context, the Colosseum was built about eighty years later, in 75 CE.

After our fill of pictures we went to the next stop, the Roman theater. If the amphitheater was stunning, I don’t know a word for this. It didn’t look real; it looked like a set for a high-budget Hollywood film. I didn’t know such things still existed.

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Well, let me describe it. The amphitheater holds about 6,000 people; it was first built in around 15 BCE, but majorly renovated about 200 years later. As in all amphitheaters, a semi-circular stadium of seats surrounds a central stage. At first glance the seats looked to be in much better condition than the seats in the neighboring theater; but this was an illusion created by stone-colored plastic coverings. (Events are still held here on special occasions, so they need working seats.) In the middle is a semi-circular open space, and beyond that, on a raised platform, a larger rectangular space. This was where the magic happened. But the real attraction was the structure behind the stage.

On each side, resting upon two levels of ten elegant Corinthian columns, was a wonderful façade that served as a backdrop for the ancient theater productions. This is called the scaenae frons, a normal fixture of Roman theaters. It had three doors, one in the center and one on each side, that allowed the actors to enter and exit the stage. The columns themselves were lovely, made of delicately textured gray and white marble. Standing in the nooks of these columns were Roman statues (the originals are on display at Mérida’s museum of Roman art; these are replicas) of gods and heroes, with flowing robes and ornate armor.

I feel a powerful sense of helplessness in moments like this, when faced with something so beautiful and so historic. What am I supposed to do? I take pictures, I wander around, I sit, I stand, I stroll, I do my best to examine and appreciate. I feel a sense of awe at the age and splendor of the place, but what am I supposed to do with this feeling? I wish that the experience would humble me, will put things in perspective, and thus ennoble me; but of course the person who walks out of the monument is still the same petty, neurotic person who walked in.

We left. I hoped to visit the city’s museum of Roman art next, but here my fear became reality: it was closed, because it was Monday. So we left to go find some more Roman ruins.

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Luckily, Roman ruins were not in short supply. In just ten minutes we came upon the so-called Temple of Diana. This is something of a misnomer, as the temple was actually dedicated to Augustus. Nevertheless, it was an impressive sight; a marble lintel sat atop several towering columns. The only indication, to my eyes, that it was Roman and not Greek was the small arch that crowns the structure. Behind the remains of the temple was affixed an old Renaissance-style house. Apparently, some rich knight decided that it would be nice to live next to the old ruins. The house was elegant enough, but the final effect of the house and the temple was somewhat incongruous. If memory serves, the government considered knocking it down, but finally decided that the house itself was important enough to merit preservation.

Next we went to the Alcázaba. As its name suggests, this is an old Moorish fortress; it stands next to the Roman bridge, so as to guard the old entrance to the city, and apparently was built over the remains of an older, Roman fortress. This fortress came in handy to the Moors, as they faced several uprisings. Even today the walls are tall and thick, and could have easily withstood all but the most organized attacks.

The entrance fee was included in our combination tickets, so we walked right in. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to see inside the walls. I imagine that the place was previously full of military barracks and other martial necessities, made out of non-durable materials. The only exception to this was the stone cistern. This was an odd-looking, square building that stands in the center of the fortress; indeed, it looked Egyptian to my eyes, but what do I know? There was nothing inside except a long ramp that leads deep underground. At the bottom was a pool of clear, blue rainwater where, surprisingly enough, some fish make their home. But what do they eat?

Apart from this, there were some plants and some archaeological remains, but nothing really caught my interest. The view from the wall, however, is worth seeing. From there we could see our next destination, the Roman bridge.

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This bridge was quite similar to the Roman bridges in Salamanca and Córdoba: a stone road built over a series of arches, not more than fifty feet over the water. But the bridge of Mérida does have the distinction of being considerably longer; indeed, it is the longest surviving bridge from ancient Rome. Including the approaching ramp, the bridge stretches well over 2,500 feet, or about half a mile (for non-Americans, that’s 790 meters). It is simply huge, a stupefying achievement of engineering. My mind reels from trying to imagine how it was built; how do you arrange the stones in deep water?

GF and I walked all the way across, which took about 10 minutes. Once on the other side, we walked through a lovely riverside park towards the other major bridge of Mérida, the Puente Lusitania. This is an attractive, modern bridge, designed by the architect Santiago Calatraba. It was finished in 1991, which finally allowed the city to close the Roman bridge to vehicular traffic. To emphasize that point, the only bridge linking both halves of Mérida until 1991 was a bridge built by the Romans.

The form of the Puente Lusitania was dominated by a big, great fin, like the back of a whale. In the center was a lane for pedestrians, which we took to get back to the other side of the river.

Our next stop was the Circus Maximus. This was on the other side of town; we had to walk about half an hour, all the way through the city center and through a tunnel under a highway to get there. Again, our tickets included this visit, so we walked right in.

In truth, there wasn’t much to see. It is a dilapidated stone wall (previously, rows of seating), that surrounds an oval-shaped grass field. The only impressive thing about the monument was its size: it’s huge. This was, of course, because chariot races cannot be carried out in closets. We walked around the grassy field for a few minutes, while I tried in vain to imagine what a chariot race would look and feel like, the horses stampeding in a confused heap, the wheels rattling, the whips cracking, the men shouting, the crowd screaming. It must have been a heck of a lot more interesting than the Kentucky Derby, at least.

Outside the Circus Maximus were the remains of an old Roman aqueduct, the Acueducto de San Lázaro, one of the three Roman aqueducts of Mérida. Compared with the extraordinary aqueduct of Segovia, this one was rather short—only about 20 to 30 feet. It did go on for quite a ways, however, eventually extending over the other river of Mérida, the Río Albarregas.

We followed it for a while, across the river and into a park, until the aqueduct disappeared over a hill. Then, we broke off for our next destination, the last site included in our tickets: the Casa del Mitreo. This is an impressive archaeological site, consisting of the remains of an entire Roman housing complex. Understandably, you can’t go in; rather, the visit consists of a walk around a platform raised above the ruins, allowing you to peek inside the rooms. The complex was quite large; either it was one very rich family, or several families of more humble means. I don’t know, because all the information panels were written in very small font, in Spanish, and there was a crying kid nearby that kept breaking my focus. Oh well.

In truth, the site was not spectacular to look at, mostly a collection of walls and pillars. There was, however, some impressive floor tiling, beautifully preserved. My favorite was a floor that had three concentric patterns: an outer pattern of criss-crosses, a middle pattern of rectangles, and an inner pattern of an intricate labyrinth. Floor tilling hasn’t advanced much in the last two thousand years, it seems.

The sun was setting now, and both of us were exhausted. We had been on our feet all day, crisscrossing all over town. But we had one final thing see: the Acueducto de los Milagros, or Aqueduct of the Miracles. This meant yet another walk through town, which we dutifully made, painful and blistered as my feet now were. It was worth it.

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This aqueduct was massive, about 80 feet tall, standing on three arches. It is partly in ruins now, scarred by the tooth of time, but this only lent it a special majesty. The sun was setting, shinning directly onto the aqueduct, making its brick construction glow a rusty red. All around was a park, where families were talking and laughing. GF and I sat on a bench, resting our aching limbs, staring up at the towering ruin. It was so impressive and so lovely that soon I felt myself full of energy again, ready to drag myself through a dozen more Roman monuments. But there were no more to be seen.

For dinner we decided to go back to the Bar Alhambra. We limped back into town, and were again greeted with a surprise: they were having another Easter Parade. This time the crowd was gathered in front of the doors of a church. Just as we got there, the procession started to exit the church, walking with slow steps to the beat of another doleful march. We watched it go for a while, and then went to feast on beer and cheap sandwiches. Our trip was over. We would be going to Lisbon early next morning, but that’s for another post.

I’m not sure I’ve had a better day in Spain, and that’s saying something. Do visit Mérida. It is an extraordinary place.

 

Review: Imperial Spain, by J.H. Elliott

Review: Imperial Spain, by J.H. Elliott

Imperial Spain, 1469-1716Imperial Spain, 1469-1716 by J.H. Elliott

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Already by the end of the sixteenth century many Spaniards seem to have been gripped by that sense of fatalism which would prompt the famous pronouncement of a Junta of theologians in the reign of Philip IV. Summoned to consider a project for the construction of a canal linking the Manzanares and the Tagus, it flatly declared that if God had intended the rivers to be navigable, He would have made them so.

For Anglophone readers interested in the history of Spain, this book is invaluable. Elliott has here accomplished a real feat, of research, of writing, and of analysis. The book ably navigates that forbidding passage between simplifying popular accounts and unreadable scholarly monographs, managing to be both a work of serious intellectual synthesis and an absorbing account of Spain’s history.

Elliott has an astounding ability to seamlessly combine many disparate threads into the same narrative. He pays close attention to economic history: crop yields, interest rates, inflation and deflation, the debasement of currency, the balance of trade, tariffs and regulations. He incorporates social and cultural shifts: changing religious attitudes, demographic trends, class tensions, intellectual movements. And yet he also does not neglect the superlative individuals: Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles V, Philip II, the Conde Duque, among others. The only thing conspicuously absent was military history, which suited me just fine.

Although the story of Spain during this time was heavily interwoven with both the New World and the rest of Europe, Elliott’s focus doesn’t stray from the Iberian peninsula. He gives only the most cursory account of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and only mentions the struggles of Charles V against the Protestant Reformation. For those looking for a history of Spanish colonization, this book will therefore be disappointing. I must also add that Elliott’s judgment is at its worst in his brief section on the conquistadores. He describes them as glorious conquering heroes of a barren civilization, which I cannot abide in the light of the destruction and exploitation that followed in their wake.

Keeping those exceptions in mind, this book is a superlative account of this period of Spanish history. The competing centrifugal and centralizing forces at play, the conflicting traditions of Castilian and Aragonese governments, the infinitely subtle machinations of power, the gradual emergence of a national identity, the meteoric rise of the Spanish Empire, the cruel, grinding decline that followed, the heroic and hapless individuals struggling with forces beyond their control—all this is related with brevity, insight, and power.

It is difficult not to see the whole story as a morality play writ large. What with the ruthless exploitation of the treasure mines of the New World, the expulsion of the Jews and the Moors, the obsession with purity of blood, and the alignment of religious orthodoxy with central power, it seems as if the collapse of the grand but hollow edifice was the inevitable result of intolerance and folly. But even if we can learn some valuable lessons from this history, it is important to remember that the story is not so simple, and many decisions which in retrospect seem obviously foolish were at the time fairly reasonable (though of course many weren’t).

In short, I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in this fascinating time and place. It could hardly be better.

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Review: The Odyssey

The OdysseyThe Odyssey by Homer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To this day, the most interesting research project that I’ve ever done was the very first. It was on the Homeric Question.

I was a sophomore in college—a student with (unfortunate) literary ambitions who had just decided to major in anthropology. By this point, I had at least tacitly decided that I wanted to be a professor. In my future lay the vast and unexplored ocean of academia. What was the safest vessel to travel into that forbidden wine-dark sea? Research.

I signed up for a reading project with an anthropology professor. Although I was too naïve to sense it at the time, he was a man thoroughly sick of his job. Lucky for him, he was on the cusp of retirement. So his world-weariness manifested itself as a total, guilt-free indifference to his teaching duties. Maybe that’s why I liked him so much. I envied a man that could apparently care so little about professional advancement. That’s what I wanted.

In any case, now I had to come up with a research topic. I had just switched into the major, and so had little idea what typical anthropology research projects were like. And because my advisor was so indifferent, I received no guidance from him. The onus lay entirely on me. One night, as I groped half-heartedly through Wikipedia pages, I stumbled on something fascinating, something that I hadn’t even considered before.

Who is Homer? Nobody knew. Nobody could know. The man—if man he was—was lost to the abyss of time. No trace of him existed. We can’t even pin down what century he lived. And yet, we have these glorious poems—poems at the center of our history, the roots of the Western literary canon. Stories of the Greek Gods had fascinated me since my childhood; Zues and Athena were as familiar as Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. That the person (or persons) responsible could be so totally lost to history baffled me—intrigued me.

But I was not majoring in literature or the humanities. I was in anthropology, and so had to do a proper anthropological project. At the very least, I needed an angle.

Milman Parry and Albert Lord duly provided this angle. The two men were classicists—scholars of ancient Greece. But instead of staying in their musty offices reading dusty manuscripts, they did something no classicist had done before: they attempted to answer the Homeric question with field work.

At the time (and perhaps now?) a vibrant oral tradition existed in Serbo-Croatia. Oral poets (guslars, they’re called there) would tell massive stories at public gatherings, some stories even approaching the length of the Homeric poems. But what was most fascinating was that these stories were apparently improvised.

In our decadent culture, we have a warped idea of improvisation. Many of us believe improvisation to be the spontaneous outflowing of creative energies, manifesting themselves in something totally new. Like God shaping the Earth out of the infinite void, these imaginary improvisers shape their art from nothing whatsoever. Unfortunately, this never happens.

Whether you’re a jazz saxophonist playing on a Coltrane tune, a salesperson dealing with a new client, or an oral bard telling a tale, improvisation is done via a playful recombining of preexisting, formulaic elements. This was Milman and Parry’s great discovery. By carefully transcribing hundreds of these Serbo-Croation poems, they discovered that—although a single poem may vary from person to person, place to place, or performance to performance—the variation took place within predictable boundaries.

The poet’s brains were full of stock-phrases (“when dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more”), common epithets (“much-enduring Odysseus”), and otherwise formulaic verses that allowed them to quickly put together their poems. Individual scenes, in turn, also followed stereotypical outlines—feasts, banquets, catalogues of forces, battles, athletic contests, etc. Of course, this is not to say that the poet was not original. Rather, it is to say that they are just as original as John Coltrane or Charlie Parker—individuals working within a tradition. These formulas and stereotypical scenes were the raw material with which the poet worked. They allowed him to compose material quickly enough to keep up the performance, and not break his rhythm.

But could poems as long as The Odyssey and The Iliad come wholly from an oral tradition? It seems improbable: it would take multiple days to recite, and the bard would have to pick up where he left off. But Milman and Parry, during their fieldwork, managed to put our fears at rest. They found a singer that could (and did) compose poems equal in length to Homer’s. (I actually read one. It’s called The Wedding of Smailagic Meho, and was recited by a poet named Avdo. It’s no Odyssey, but still entertaining.)

All this is impressive, but one question remained: how could the oral poems get on paper? Did an oral poet—Homer, presumably—learn to write, and copy it down? Not possible, says Alfred Lord, in his book The Singer of Tales. According to him, once a person becomes literate, the frame of mind required to learn the art of oral poetry cannot be achieved. A literate person thinks of language in an entirely different way as a non-literate one, and so the poems couldn’t have been written by a literate poet who had learned from his oral predecessors.

According to Lord, this left only one option: Homer must have been a master oral poet, and his poems must have been transcribed by someone else. (This is how the aforementioned poem by Avdo was taken down by the researchers.) At the time, this struck me as perfectly likely—indeed, almost certain. But the more I think about it, the less I can imagine an oral poet submitting himself to sit with a scribe, writing in the cumbersome Linear B script, for the dozens and dozens of hours it would have taken to transcribe these poems. It’s possible, but seems unlikely.

But according to Ruth Finnegan, Alfred Lord’s insistence that literacy destroys the capacity to improvise poems is mistaken. An anthropologist, Finnegan found many cases in Africa of semi-literate or fully literate people who remained capable of improvising poetry. So it’s at least equally possible that Homer was an oral poet who learned to read, and then decided to commit the poems to paper (or whatever they were writing on back then).

I submit this longwinded overview of the Homeric Question because, despite my usual arrogance, I cannot even imagine writing a ‘review’ for this poem. I feel like that would be equivalent to ‘reviewing’ one’s own father and mother. For me, and everyone alive in the Western world today, The Odyssey is flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. Marvelously sophisticated, fantastically exciting, it is the alpha and omega of our tradition. From Homer we sprang, and unto Homer shall we return.

[Note: I’d also like to add that this time, my third or forth time through the poem, I decided to go through it via audiobook. Lucky for me, the Fagles translation (a nice one if you’re looking for readability) is available as an audiobook, narrated by the great Sir Ian McKellen. It was a wonderful experience, not only because Sir Ian has such a beautiful voice (he’s Gandalf, after all), but because hearing it read rather than reading it recreated, however dimly, the original experience of the poem: as a performance. I highly recommend it.]

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