Portugal Road Trip – Part 1: Searching for Templar Castles

“It’s okay, you can just ignore that caution light on the dashboard. It never goes off.” “Do you have another car?” “No.” All rental cars appear equally perfect when you are making comparisons and a final selection from a website. Staying within our budget, we chose an off-airport car rental agency with good reviews, that picked us up at the arrivals terminal and sped us away to our awaiting wheels, for €12.50 a day.  The Fiat Panda assigned to us had been driven hard and put away wet, you might say. Reviewing the preexisting body blemishes with the rental agent resulted in a cartoon of the car that looked like it had been ambushed in a gangster movie and sprayed with machine-gun fire, including the roof. Nevertheless, the engine sounded fine, and our twelve-day journey began, driving in a large figure-eight, north to south route, around Portugal. Our first destination – Castelo de Almourol, before arriving in Tomar. But by the afternoon of day three we were referring to our car as the Portuguese version of the American rent-a-wreck concept. When driving through the mountains, on the way to a schist village, every warning light on the dashboard started blinking violently in Portuguese. If we had been flying an airplane, we would have donned parachutes and bailed out.  The engine sounded fine, so we flew on.

Not being sure what is open during the week in the off season, we headed for the Miradouro do Almourol, an overlook above the island that the castle commands. Located on the south side of the Tagus River, it’s not particularly easy to get to. But my wife and I enjoy the off the beaten track routes that take us through less traveled countryside. Crossing the Tagus River, we followed the N118 north into the Alentejo (beyond the Tagus) Region through flat farmlands and wine estates dating back to the 1700’s. The red wines of the area vinted with the Portuguese varietals Castelão, Trincadeira, and Touriga Nacional are acquiring international recognition now, as are the regions white wines made with Antão Vaz, Arinto, and Fernão Pires grapes.

The drive was slowed occasionally by tremendously large John Deere combines, the width of the entire road, as farmers drove them between different fields waiting to be harvested. Seasonal spring floods that replenish the soil have made this river plain an important area for cereal crops and wheat since the Roman times. Our walk a little then café philosophy quickly transformed into drive a little then café when we did our first U-turn of the trip as we passed a small place that had a tractor parked in front. Our espressos only €.70 each. It was nice to be back in Portugal.

The wetlands of the Tagus River valley are ideal for bird watchers looking for black-winged stilt, marsh harrier, purple heron, pratincole and Kentish plover. Occasionally we spotted storks atop centuries-old chimneys of abandoned homes, resting in new nests that were stacked like pancakes atop older ones before continuing their winter migration south to Africa. Quiet lanes, faded sun-bleached pastels, and centuries old weather-worn buildings dotted the landscape. Bullrings, Praça de Touros, still stand in Chamusca and Salvaterra de Magos, and the latter’s traffic circle has a large sculpture of a cavaleiro and bull to celebrate the tradition. Though interest in bullfighting has been waning since Queen Maria II of Portugal banned the spectacle in 1836 with the argument that it was “unbefitting for a civilised nation,” it regained popularity in the Alentejo region after the fights were reinstated in 1921, and the climatic killing of the bull was outlawed in 1928.

Before we reached the castle, we stopped for lunch along the riverfront in Arripiado at the ABC Bar Café. It was a tranquil spot with a boardwalk that had a view of the Tagus River and the small village of Tancos across the water. Small boats offer rides to Almourol Castle from the Arripiado riverbank here.

With its striking island location, just below the junction of the Zezere and Tagus rivers at Constância, Almourol Castle is one of the most picturesque medieval fortresses in Portugal.

Constância was once an important fishing village during the Middle Ages where it was said the rivers there were “two-thirds fish and one-third water.”

As with most things ancient on the Iberia Peninsula, the castle’s history started with an early tribe. The Lusitanians built a small fortress on the island as protection against the Romans in the first century B.C.E. Visgoths, Vandals, Alans and Moors followed until it was captured by the Portuguese during the Reconquista in 1129 and subsequently entrusted to the Knights Templar to rebuild for defense of the frontier border at the time.  It eventually lost its strategic relevance and was consequently abandoned. Various phases of reconstruction began in the mid-1900s. 

Train service to Tancos, Castelo de Almourol and the hilltop village of Constância is available from the Santa Apolónia Station in Lisbon. The trip takes about an hour and a half.   

We arrived in Tomar just as the late autumn sun was low in the sky and beginning to cast lengthening shadows on the forested slope that led to the jewel that crowns this quaint village.  We followed the winding cobbled lane to Castelo de Tomar and only got a brief glimpse of the castle through its outer gate as the heavy wooden door was closed for the day with an echoing clang. The castle combined seamlessly with the Convento de Cristo next to it and creates an immense structure that’s best observed from a distance to appreciate its scale. Admiring the expansive view from the miradouro in front of the castle, we made plans to return the next day via a tuk-tuk taxi, from the town square.

This beguiling medieval village with its narrow lanes and tranquil riverside location discreetly hides its outsized contribution to the history of Portugal.

It starts with those mysterious Knights Templar when in 1159 the first King of Portugal, D. Afonso Henriques, granted land to Gualdim Pais, the fourth Grand Master of the Knights Templar in Portugal as reward for their military prowess and religious zeal during the Portuguese wars for independence and the subsequent Reconquista. When the town was first founded, the population was so minuscule, most of the villagers lived behind the castle’s defensive walls.

In 1160 Gualdim Pais order the construction of a monastery and fortified citadel that would be known as the Convent of Christ, a combination of a fortress and a monastery, that is sometimes referred to as the Convent of Christ Castle. The convent’s most interesting feature is a round sanctuary with an ornate ceiling soaring over a central altar, its design said to be influenced by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  Legend states that the knights attended mass on horseback here, the open circular design facilitating the horse’s easy entrance and exit. Famously in 1190, outnumbered Templars defeated a larger Muslim army after their six day siege of Castelo Tomar failed.

Founded in 1118 and slowly gaining recognition from their vowed mission to protect pilgrims journeying to the Holy Lands, the Knights received Papal endorsement in 1139. Pope Innocent II’s Papal Bull sanctioned the Templars as “an army of God,” and provided them special rights that included exemption from paying taxes, allowed them to build their own oratories, immunity from local laws, freedom to cross borders, and obedience only to the Pope. With this blessing Pope Innocent ll made the first papal monetary gift to the Templars. Now a church-endorsed charity, they began receiving land, money, businesses and young nobles from wealthy families who were enthusiastic to find glory in the crusades and willingly donated their assets in order to take the vows of poverty, chastity, piety, and obedience.

Today the Templars most likely would have been charged with running a racketeering enterprise which forced pilgrims and others to pay for protection services they have not requested. This protection was usually from the very people who were demanding the money in the first place.

Things were going well for the Templars across Europe until 1307 when King Philip lV, heavily indebted to the Templars from a war against England, lobbied the Holy Church to disband the Knights Templar as it was a state within a state with its own military, preached heresy and practiced idolatry.

The Templars’ fatal day (eerie music, please) was Friday, the 13th of October 1307. Early that morning all the Templars in France were arrested as enemies of God. Upon torture many falsely confessed and were burned at the stake.  A month later Pope Clement V, a relative of King Philip, decreed that the rest of the Catholic kingdoms in Europe should arrest the remaining Templars and seize their properties. All complied except Portugal!

King Dinis of Portugal did not believe the charges leveled against the Templars, remembering instead their service to a fledging country, and offered sanctuary to knights that had escaped capture.  He then persuaded Pope Clement to support the creation of a new organization, the Order of Christ, into which he transferred all the Templars’ wealth and holdings. The new Order’s mission was now the liberation of the Iberian Peninsular from the Moors and wars against Islam in Africa.

Same group with a new name, but to ensure that the deception of the Pope succeeded, the headquarters of the new order were established, almost in exile, 210 miles away in Castro Marim, a frontier town on the Guadiana River, that serves as the border with Spain.

One hundred years later Dom Henrique of Portugal, Duke of Viseu, better known as Prince Henry the Navigator, allowed the Templars/Order of Christ to return to their former seat of influence in Tomar.  Here they now helped Prince Henry the Navigator establish a medieval think tank: a research institute dedicated to developing navigational tools for a ship to determine its accurate position at sea, relying on the Arabic studies of astronomy, mathematics, trigonometry, which were farther advanced than European knowledge at the time.

The Order of Christ succeeded the Knights Templars as the country’s banker and financed building the fleets of ships needed at the beginning of Portugal’s nautical age of discovery. As rewards, fleets of caravels with white billowing sails boldly embellished with the distinctive red cross of the Order (perhaps the first attempt at global branding) carried explorers down the west coast of Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean in 1487. Portugal’s age as an expanding empire had begun!

Wandering the cobbled lanes of the old town in mid-October, we seemed to have the whole village to ourselves. Later, as the day was perfect, we walked along the Nabao River, crossing a small footbridge in Parque do Mouchão. The view back toward the village was sublime with ducks slowly trailing ripples through the mirrored reflections of the buildings in the water.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Lodging: Casa dos Ofícios Hotel

Dining: Restaurant Beira Rio and Sabores ao Rubro

Cordoba & Granada – Location, Location, Location

The view from the train window was a blur of greenery, a vast landscape of undulating hills dotted sporadically with small villages and the remnants of ancient fortresses crowning the hilltops, set amidst a sea of olive trees, that seemed to spread from the wake of the speeding train to the horizon. Seventy million olive trees, 24 different varieties, covering over three million acres in Andalusia produce 900,000 tons of olive oil and 380,000 tons of table olives annually. No wonder we’ve been enjoying Spain so much – the olives are so good!

We were nearing the end of our stay in Seville, but there were still destinations outside the city we wanted to explore before we departed Spain. Being so close to the ancient Moorish cities of Cordoba and Granada, how could we not visit? Plans were made to catch an early train from Seville and spend the day exploring the major sites in Cordoba, before continuing to an Airbnb rental in Granada for three days. There were always debates about budgeting, wanting to do it all and affording it are issues we continually faced during our two-year journey, fortunately the highly discounted rate we received for booking an apartment in Seville during the shoulder season made this side trip financially reasonable.

It was 152 BC when Pliny the Realtor, standing on the bank of the Guadalquivir River, toga blowing in the wind, turned to General Claudio Marcelo, the founder of Roman Cordoba, and with the swoop of his arm across the grand vista before them proclaimed future realtors’ favorite adage, “location, location, location!”

Situated along the last navigable section of the river, Granada prospered as a river port, exporting grain, wine and olives down the river to the Atlantic Ocean, where the goods were then sailed around the Rock of Gibralta into the Mediterranean Sea, eventually reaching ancient Rome. In the 1st century BC Roman engineers built a graceful, sixteen arch stone bridge that spanned 820ft across the Guadalquivir River and has been in continual use, with renovations of course, for two-thousand years.

The city continued to flourish for centuries under Visigoth rule and later Muslim conquest. In the year 1000 the city was estimated to have an enlightened and tolerant population of 450,000 Muslims, Christians and Jews, surpassing Constantinople, making it the largest city in Europe. The intellectuals of the city were renown throughout Europe for their contributions to the advancement of astronomy, medicine, philosophy, and mathematics.

Cordoba slowly lost its significance as a riverport trading center after the reconquest when the waterway eventually silted up and navigation to the city became impossible. By the 1700s its prosperity had diminished, and its population reduced to only 20,000.

Our first stop was Córdoba’s Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, Castle of the Christian Kings, a royal residence and fortress built in the Mudéjar-style on the site of a former Muslim Fortress. While the castle is interesting, the exquisite formal gardens were a splendid oasis, wonderfully colorful even in early March. Here Christopher Columbus initiated his negotiations with Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon to finance his voyage of discovery in 1492.

The city’s most famous landmark, the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, was a short walk from the Alcazar. It’s an enormous structure occupying the equivalent of a New York City office block, part of which features an enclosed courtyard with a central fountain surrounded by an orange grove. The worn exterior was fascinating with its elaborate brickwork, and Moorish arches around the windows. The ancient doors into the space are offset by horseshoe shaped arches, a design influence copied from Visigoth architecture. Construction of the Great Mosque of Cordoba started in 786 AD and lasted for three-centuries as it was continually expanded.

Using 850 recycled Roman columns, topped with two tiers of arches, the Great Mosque of Cordoba’s prayer hall is a dazzling space with rows and isles of geometrically precise columns that seem to recede to infinity, in every direction. It was one of the largest mosques in the Muslim world when it was built.

Fortunately, in 1236 when Ferdinand III, king of Castile and León, captured the city, he was enamored with the mosque’s magnificent architecture, and he chose to leave it totally intact including the mihrab, an elaborate prayer niche in a wall that faces Mecca.

For a time, Muslims and Christians were allowed to pray in the same space. This lasted to 1499 when Muslims were expelled or forced to convert if they wished to stay in Spain. The original mosque remained unchanged until the mid-1500s when a towering high altar and choir loft were built in the center and numerous side altars were added along the exterior walls. The old minaret was finally incased within a magnificent, squared belltower.

Afterwards we wandered through the narrow alleys adjacent to the cathedral, peeking into verdant courtyards that looked so lovely we were tempted to invite ourselves in, but did not.  The only thing missing were flowers in bloom. The sun was not yet high enough in the March sky to warm the cold stones and prompt the first blossoms of spring.

Later that evening upon our arrival in Granada we took an Uber from the train station to our rental in the Albaicín district, on Cta. de Alhacaba, a steep cobbled lane just down from Plaza Larga. It was an attractively gentrified apartment in an older traditional Spanish home, with a center courtyard, that had been divided into several units. Looking out from our window the next morning, we could see on a ridge above us the ruins of an extensive fortress wall, built during the 11th century Zirid kingdom.

Getting our day underway, we walked uphill to Plaza Larga and ventured into the traditional colmados, a small grocery store where you tell the shop clerk everything you need and they pull it from the shelf behind the counter for you. Our Spanish was minimally up to the task.

A few steps from the shop a limited section of the citadel wall containing the Arco de las Pesas has been renovated. Known as the Arch of Weights, this was an important entrance into the city where merchants had their goods weighed and taxed. Its distinctive zigzag tunnel was designed to slow and throw off balance any attacking enemy who had breached its door. The passageway’s vaulted ceiling now provides perfect acoustics for buskers. Crossing through we headed toward the Mirador de San Nicolás.

There are several overlooks on Albaicín hill, but the view of the Alhambra from San Nicolás Plaza was sublime. We stopped here several times as we explored this hilltop across the valley from the Alhambra. We enjoyed lunch and sangria on the terrace at El Huerto de Juan Ranas or dangled our legs over the edge of the mirador as the sun arced across the sky.

We watched the play of light change the shadows and the intensity of the red walls from which al-qal’a al-hamra, in Arabic the red fortress, takes its name.  The palace is dramatically situated on a hill, with the snow-covered Sierra Nevada Mountain Range and Mt. Mulhacén, the Iberian peninsula’s highest peak in the background.

For centuries since the Muslim time, continuing into the 1950s, muleteers ran mule trains laden with fresh produce, fish, and merchandise from the coast up over the Sierra Mountains along a vast network of trails to Granada.  Much of this 8-12 hour journey was done at night to take advantage of the cooler evening temperatures to ensure the quick arrival of perishable food.  The mountains also provided sanctuary to the maquis, resistance fighters, in the 1940s and 50s who opposed the dictatorship of General Franco after the Spanish Civil War.

The historic Albaicín district is extremely hilly, think San Francisco hilly, a severe contrast compared to the flatness of Seville and Cordoba, but the labyrinth of narrow alleys that twist up and down the ancient hillside was intriguing. The Palacio de Dar al-Horra, “Home of the Honest Lady”- the mother of the last Emir of Granada, was an interesting example of 14th century Moorish domestic architecture, with its intricate Alfarje, carved wood ceilings, verandas, and courtyard.

Nearby we accidentally stumbled upon the 16th century Royal Convent of Saint Isabel and entered the courtyard in hope that its church was open. Unfortunately it wasn’t, but as we wandered we discovered the “cookie door.”  Actually, it is a cabinet built into the wall of the convent with a door on each side that separates the cloistered nuns from the public. Ring the bell above the door, speak your order when someone answers and place your money in the cabinet and close the door.  You will hear the other door open and then close when your dulces have been placed inside.  It’s a sweet centuries old tradition which helps the nuns support their convent. 

We were enjoying our stroll through the whitewashed alleys as we headed down the hillside toward Plaza Nueva, when “Splat Splat!” Honestly it felt like we had been shat upon by a flock of tourist hating birds. Something akin to the Spanish version of the Hitchcock movie classic. And the smell was awful! We don’t remember exactly what was said, but quickly a well-dressed middle-aged couple guided us into an empty plaza and pulled a huge roll of paper towels out of their bag and proceeded to “help,” clean the mess off our jackets as they patted us down and attempted to pickpocket us. I wish I had been quick witted enough to yell, I KNOW KARATE!, with an intimidating scowl. At least my wife would have burst into laughter and perhaps that would have broken their concentration. It was over in a flash and they vanished.  Fortunately, we keep all our valuables under our clothing, not in any exterior pockets.  Rattled, we continued on. A beautiful city, good tapas and sangria helped our mood rebound.  Later that evening when I was reviewing the photos taken during the day, I spotted them in the lower corner of a picture taken moments before that encounter.

Bar los Diamantes and La Gran Taberna, located next to each other on Plaza Nueva, were excellent places to dine, and we tried them on separate days. At home in the states now we are making tapas inspired from dishes we tasted at both places.

Afterwards we walked along the thin ribbon of road that follows the Darro River through this section of the old town. It’s lined with numerous historical sites and bridges that cross the river; the ambience was wonderful.

After a long day we couldn’t muster the strength to walk the steep uphill back to our apartment and opted to use the local bus. The routes in the historic section use micro-buses to navigate the ancient parts of Granada and took us pretty close to where we needed to go.

Only a limited number of people are allowed to visit the Alhambra each day, so we made reservations for a group tour early the next morning. 

As we were leaving our rental the next morning, we couldn’t extract the key from the interior lock on the front door. We can’t recall how many doors we’ve unlocked during our travels, but this was a first! Apartment doors in Europe are intriguing, especially if they are in newly renovated buildings.  The trend seems to be to install a very sturdy door with numerous deadbolts that insert into the door frame with the turn of single key.  They appear to be designed to thwart any home invasions or resist the battering ram of a S.W.A.T team. The rental agent asked us to stay at the apartment until a locksmith arrived, without offering a time.  That was unacceptable and we asked them to have the door repaired by the end of the day.  We took the key to the courtyard with us and hoped for the best. 

The Alhambra is massive and originally served as a fortress for many centuries before Mohammed ben Al-Hamar, the first king of the Nasrid dynasty arrived in the 13th century and established it as his royal residence. Each subsequent Muslim ruler continued to add and beautifully renovate every interior surface lavishly adorned yesería, intricately carved or cast stucco featuring arabesque, geometric and calligraphic designs.  Later the Christian monarchs would introduce mudejar tiles and Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque techniques to various building sprees. 

The most significant Spanish contribution to the Alhambra was the Palace of Charles the V. It is an immense renaissance style building with a two tiered colonnaded balcony surrounding a circular courtyard at its center.

Construction started in 1527 and was continually interrupted over the next 430 years and was eventually abandoned until the government dedicated funds to finish it by 1957. Somehow this amazing amalgamation of diverse architectural styles at the Alhambra creates a unique and satisfying visual harmony.

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the Catedral de Granada Royal and next to it the Capilla Real de Granada. Both were built over the ruins of the Granada’s Grand Mosque in the old medina after the reconquest.  The cathedral features a towering white and gold interior and a stained-glass cupola above the high altar.

The Capilla Real de Granada is a burial chamber for the Catholic Monarchs Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand and features their ornately carved marble tomb. Joanna of Castile, Queen of Castile and Aragon, and her husband Philip I “the Handsome” of Castile, are entombed next to them in an equally elaborate sarcophagus.  The Sacristy-Museum here also displays gilded church panels, along with renaissance paintings from Flemish, Italian and Spanish artist. The monarchs’ crowns and scepter are also on display. 

Across the lane the wonderful Moorish architecture of Palacio de la Madraza, a former Islamic school dating from the 1300s, has been well preserved.

To our relief the door lock was fixed when we returned to the apartment that evening. Though to our dismay the landlord left a bill for the locksmith’s services of 150€! Attached to the invoice was a note that said the locksmith could not find any fault with the door, that it was in perfect working, and we were responsible for the bill.  We did not agree that this was our “operating error” and questioned it.  Thinking it was a maintenance issue and ultimately the apartment owners’ responsibility. There was an exchange of text messages, with the rental agent demanding payment. We refused to pay. Things deteriorated – ancient ancestors and future generations to come were flavorfully cursed.  We left early the next morning to avoid any confrontation.

With a half day to fill before our train departed, we dragged our suitcase clickity clacking over the cobblestones of the historic center as we made our way to the Basilica de San Juan de Dios. Built in the 1700s, when a seemingly unending supply of gold and silver flowed back to Spain from their colonies in the Americas, the church is a temple not only to Christ, but a shrine to all things Baroque, with every surface ornately detailed, much of it gilded. The sacristy and the other rooms behind the altar hold a museum-like collection of artwork, precious religious objects, and gold adorned reliquary.

Across the street at Candelas Bocadilleria we sat at a table in the sun and enjoyed the best churrerias of our time in Spain.

Two blocks away and two centuries older, the Monasterio de San Jeronimo (1504) stands as the first great Renaissance style achievement of Spanish architect Diego de Siloe, who was trained in Italy. He followed this with the Grand Cathedral of Granada (1528.) This royal monastery was the first in Granada commissioned by Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand after the conquest of the city. It’s a massive structure with a two-tiered cloister surrounding a large courtyard fully planted with orange trees. 

The monastery’s main chapel is cavernous with a barrel-vaulted ceiling that leads your eye to a towering gilded high altar, minutely detailed with religious iconography. The tomb of El Gran Capitan, Fernandez de Cordoba, lies in the chapel. A hero, he is credited with several reconquests across Andalucía, and after a ten-year campaign, the surrender of Granada from Boabil, Muhammad XII of Granada, the 22nd and last Moorish Sultan in Spain.

We barely scratched the surface of all the places to see in Granada. It’s a good excuse to plan a return, our own Reconquista, of this beautiful and fascinating region in the future.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Seville Part 3 – Walk a Little then Café

Parts of this ancient city with its labyrinth of cobbled lanes feel more akin to a small village with an earth toned, sun drenched patina. Vibrant traditions and a youthful vitality along with numerous historic sites scattered across the city all contribute to make Seville a walker’s delight. There’s no correct way to explore the city. How you do it depends on the amount of time you have to indulge yourself in the history and atmosphere of this beautiful city. Strolling through the city is the finest way to discover its character. Immersing ourselves into the city for six weeks, we walked the familiar cobbled lanes multiple times with many variations and sporadic detours that we hope you find interesting.  Seville never ceased to charm us. 

The routes we favored most webbed out from behind the Cathedral of Seville’s Patio de los Naranjos on Calle de Placentines, around the corner from the Palacio Arzobispal on Plaza Virgen de los Reyes, and wandered through the Alfalfa, Centro and La Macarena districts.

An old-world fabric store bedecked with selections of gold embroidered trim, ribbons, and tassels hanging from worn wooden cabinets enticed us inside.  Further on the display window of a religious goods store fascinated us with its selection of all things sacred. Before crossing into the Plaza Jesus de la Pasion, the savory window display at Confiteria La Despensa De Palacio stopped us dead in our tracks. Lovingly run by generations of the Santaella family, the shop has been Seville’s premiere chocolatier and pastelería for over 250 years. The pastries were sumptuous!

Across the street the Plaza Jesus de la Pasion widens to reveal a wonderful example of 19th century Andalusian architecture. The far end of the square features a façade of red brick framing Azulejos tiles and Moroccan influenced, pointed arched windows.  The plaza also seems to be a favored place for a protest or political rally as we came across several, over the weeks we spent there.

At this point it’s possible to head one block over to visit the Iglesia Colegial del Divino Salvador, on the plaza of the same name. This is a very popular square with many restaurants and outdoor tables along with buskers providing entertainment.

The Iglesia Colegial del Divino Salvador is the second most important church in Seville after the main cathedral and features a monumental and intricately carved 18th century Baroque altar. The beautiful piece was created by the Andulasian altarpiece architect and sculptor Cayetano de Acosta, who contributed works to numerous churches across southern Spain.

Returning to Plaza Jesus de la Pasion, the far end of the square funnels into the very cosmopolitan C. Puente y Pellon. Lined with a wide variety of shops, we found the most interesting to be the Zapaterias, shoe cobblers, and the dress shops, their windows filled with colorfully clad mannequins displaying tight fitting and frilly dresses called traje de flamenco or traje de gitana, for the upcoming Seville Fair (La Feria De Abril).

Here we found what we regard as the best bread bakery in Seville, Crustum Panem Bridge and Pellón, https://www.crustum.es/ sandwiched between window displays featuring towering pyramids of tasty Bocadillo de jamón, the ultimate hoagie lunch para llevar, to carry away, for an inexpensive picnic. The bakery offered a wide assortment of breads and empanadas. Our favorite though was a very dense bread made with nuts, seeds, and dried fruit which they sold by the slice and weight.  We returned often.

A little further on the Setas de Sevilla loomed over us as we left the alley.  The Setas is a massive, multi-story, Lego-like freeform sculpture with a viewing deck atop it. Constructed entirely of wood, it nearly covers a full city block. It’s an iconic symbol of modern Seville that the locals lovingly call The Mushroom because of its shape. 

For over 150 years this plaza was the true center of the city for Sevillianos when 400 market stalls of the Mercado de la Encarnación occupied the land above the ruins of the medieval Convento de la Encarnación, from which the plaza took its name.  The market operated until 1973 when the building was demolished for structural reasons and the remaining ninety vendors were housed in temporary facilities for what was hoped to be three years.  Inaction by the city left the site closed for 31 years and the area around the plaza became blighted, until the local government sponsored an international design competition in 2004 for ideas to revitalize the plaza and return it to its former prominence. 

Jürgen Mayer, a German architect, won with a concept called Metropol Parasol, constructed with sustainable wood. At 490 feet long by 230 feet wide and just under 100 feet tall, it is the largest wooden structure in the world made with laminated Finnish pine. Its unique design features 3500 sections attached together with 16 million nuts and bolts. The interior of the Setas now hosts a daily market with 38 vendors offering fruits and vegetables, fish, meat, poultry, and cheese. The base of the monument and plaza is ringed with restaurants that have excellent outdoor seating in the shade of the mammoth structure. Inside by the market stalls are several traditional luncheonettes that offer inexpensive daily specials.

A detour to the Guadalquivir River and Triana can be easily made here by following Calle Imagen west. This walk took us past many older buildings with interesting architectural details, and the 14th century Iglesia de San Antonio Abad which hosts the Brotherhood of Silence, the oldest brotherhood in Seville.

A block away the aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans drew us into Elhombre Pez, where you can only purchase bags of whole or ground coffee beans. Their coffee beans are definitely worth the purchase if you have an apartment stay in the city.

The Seville Museum of Fine Arts, set in a former 17th century palace, is also in this direction and is an intriguing detour with its extensive collection of Spanish masterpieces.

Several blocks farther the Real Parroquia de Santa María Magdalena was an interesting discovery. Built in 1691, this Baroque church has a fascinating interior.  The small bar on the corner, Casa Murillo, was a reliable spot for café and lunch. Across the street Churreria San Pablo always seemed to have a line waiting for its sweet treats.

Calle Regina directly behind the Setas de Sevilla begins to funnel folks away from the bustling historic district and into a more residential area, though it’s still lined with a variety of shops and eateries. And if you share our belief that the food is always better and more affordable two blocks away from a popular tourist attraction, you will like this neighborhood. On this stretch Mr. Cake Sevilla with its artfully prepared and tasty offerings is a nice place to rest.

The Iglesia de San Juan de la Palma stands at the crossroad to our favorite tapas bar in Seville, the Bodega La Plazoleta. The gothic portal of the church is one of its few remaining original features. Compared to other churches in Seville its relatively small, but it features three interesting side chapels devoted to the Brotherhoods of Bitterness, the Virgin of the Head, and Our Lady of Montemayor.

The restaurant is on a small square, to the right of the church, that was far enough off the main path that it didn’t attract many tourists. Over our six-week stay in Seville this was our go to bodega for its excellent food, relaxing atmosphere and chocolate cake! The restored 15th century Palacio de las Dueñas is nearby, but let’s face it, it’s impossible to do everything and we needed to save some ideas for future visits to this wonderful city.

If you make a left at this crossroad, it’s a simple detour to the Alameda de Hércules. The origins of this large park date to 1574 and it is believed to be the oldest public garden with tree lined promenades in Europe.  The park takes its name from a statue of Hercules, the mythical founder of Seville, excavated from the ruins of a nearby ancient Roman wall.  This part of the city now has a younger hipster atmosphere and is known for its nightlife and club scene as well as its array of restaurants offering a variety of international cuisine. In this barrio the Basílica de Jesús del Gran Poder is an unusual church with its circular sanctuary which is surprisingly hidden within the church’s traditional façade.

Back at the crossroads: Thursdays are, as the name Mercadillo Histórico del Jueves suggests, the best day for this final leg of the walk. Legend says that this street market has been a feature of the city since the Moors ruled Seville.  Every Thursday several blocks of Calle Feria are closed to traffic, and it becomes a pedestrian mall lined with vendors now selling antiques and flea-market type items.  The market is a popular destination, and occasionally we felt like we were in a conga-line weaving through a sardine can.  We did find a small, folkloric style painting of Seville’s La Feria de Abril that just fit into our suitcase.

It was quite a walk from our apartment on Plaza de Doña Elvira, but our favorite local food market in Seville was the Mercado de la Feria, several blocks past the mercadillo histórico.  The market had a very authentic feel to it, being in a neighborhood that is far away from the tourist center of the city. It had a wonderful fish monger, cheese shop and fresh pasta maker. Accustomed to their neighborhood clientele, the vendors seemed surprised with our purchases which indicated that we actually cook for ourselves.  This is also a great destination for lunch as there are a number of small restaurants that ring the market.

Next to the market – It’s not always open, but if the door under the 13th century pointed Gothic arch of the Real Parroquia de Omnium Sanctorum is ajar, it’s worth stopping to investigate – is one of the oldest churches in Seville. It has gone through many incarnations over the centuries, most notably after a 1355 earthquake, and arson attack in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War.

At this point in the walk, you can choose to head back towards the Alameda de Hércules or continue on towards the towers of the Puente del Alamillo bridge, which you’ve probably already spotted, that spans the northern part of the Guadalquivir River. Head to the river. There is a wonderful pedestrian foot/bike path that follows the course of the river. This stretch of the river is also popular with anglers using traditional long poles and line gear to catch fish from its bank.

It is a long but pleasant walk south along the river back towards the bustle of Seville.  Mid span on the Puente del Cachorro is a great vantage point for photos of the historic Triana waterfront with kayakers and scullers enjoying the river.

If its late in the day and you want to catch a movie, the Centro Comercial Plaza de Armas is only two blocks inland from here, in the restored 19th century Old Cordoba Train Station.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Belize – When Iguanas Fall from Trees, Head South

“Welcome aboard, folks. Our flight time to Belize is two hours and ten minutes. The weather is expected to be a balmy 80 degrees Fahrenheit today when we land,” the pilot announced as we were buckling in. Then continued with “As you know the National Weather Service has issued the very rare ‘Beware of Falling Iguanas Weather Alert’ for Miami and South Florida this morning.”  As funny as this sounds, it actually happens when the temperature dips into the thirties in Florida.  Cold blooded animals, the iguanas slowly stiffen as the temperature drops and eventually lose their grip on the tree branches they have been sleeping on and fall to the ground, stunned, where they lay immobile until the temperature rises.  Iguanas can grow quite large and may cause serious injury or death if you are unlucky enough to get struck by one of the falling frozen reptiles. It sounds like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie – be careful out there. We were delighted to be heading south again to a warmer climate after a cold and rainy November and December in Italy, which was followed by a warm-hearted, but very frigid Christmas with our kids in New Jersey.

On our final approach for landing the wing of the plane dipped to reveal a beautiful azure sea outlined with dense green jungle and brilliantly white sand beaches – and not much else – as far as the eye could see.  It was still much like it was several millennium ago when a prosperous Mayan civilization flourished, supporting an estimated population of 500,000 – 1,000,000 in the region. Columbus sailed by without stopping and landed in Honduras during his last voyage to the Americas in 1502.  Navigator Juan Diaz de Solis did not mention a landfall or discovery during his expedition in 1507 sailing from Panama to the Yucatan. Several theories suggest that the 190-mile-long Belize Barrier Reef, the largest in the northern hemisphere, was too difficult to navigate through so the Spanish fleets sailed past. We witnessed this difficulty once from the deck of a cruise ship as the captain left a snaking wake as he steered a serpentine route through the underwater obstacle course.

The first European to arrive in Corozal literally washed ashore as a survivor of a 1511 Spanish shipwreck. To stay alive, conquistador Gonzalo Guerrero offered his skills as a soldier to Mayan Chief Na Chan Kan at Chactemal, (now Santa-Rita, Corozal Town). He proved his skill as a warrior and married the chief’s daughter, Princess Zazil Há. The children from their union are recognized as the first Mestizos of Central America; theirs was the first Mayan liaison recorded by Bernal Diaz de Castillo in his memoir “The True History of the Conquest of New Spain,” written in 1568.

Guerrero defended his adopted homeland against conquest in 1531 when he helped Chief Na Chan Kan defeat the Spanish army in a battle near the Rio Hondo. Today the river is still Belize’s northern border with Mexico.  Spain never established any permanent settlements in Belize.  Gold and silver were discovered next door in Guatemala and Honduras. Belize was absorbed into the Spanish empire of Central America by its proximity to its larger neighbors, but was never colonized until the British subversively entered the territory.

The riches of the new world didn’t go unnoticed for long, but by the time English and Scottish pirates arrived on the scene in the mid-1600s, the treasure-laden flotillas destined for the Spanish crown from central America had been replaced by shipments of logwood.  Native to northern Central America, logwood or bloodwood was used by the indigenous tribes of the region to produce a vibrant red-orange dye. Mixed with other ingredients, a full spectrum of colors was possible. It grew abundantly and was exported to Spain where the cheap natural resource revolutionized the textile industry and afforded commoners a chance to have colorful wardrobes, which before was only afforded by the nobility. Gone were the days of fabrics dyed gray with soot. 

Gold or wood – it didn’t matter. Pirates were pirates and willing to steal your cargo regardless of its content, as long as there was a profit to be made, and the English textile mills were demanding logwood.  After plundering large Spanish merchant ships that sailed across the Gulf of Honduras, the pirates found safe refuge for their smaller vessels in the shallow waters behind the Belize Barrier Reef amidst its 450 cays and atolls, where they could hunt for food, get fresh water, and repair their boats.  In 1670 England and Spain signed a treaty banning piracy in the Caribbean.  The days of the infamous pirates of Belize, Edward Lowe, Captain Charles Johnson, Bartholomew Sharp, Captain Henry Morgan, and Blackbeard, were waning.  By this time English pirates had discovered Belize was full of logwood and many ex-privateers became legitimate and wealthy logwood cutters and exporters after buying African slaves to work in the miserable conditions of the mosquito-infested jungles.  Though Spain considered all of Central America as part of their empire and occasionally harassed the British logwood camps trying to evict them, the Spanish crown never established any settlements in Belize. 

In 1763 Spain signed another treaty allowing English subjects the “privilege of wood-cutting,” but still retained sovereignty over the region. Possession is nine-tenths of the law and Belize finally became the English colony of British Honduras in 1862. Mahogany had replaced logwood as the major export. Conflict with the Mayans escalated as settlers moved farther into the interior exploiting the regions mahogany forests, and forced the indigenous population from their lands by burning their villages and crops. The giant cut logs were floated down the country’s rivers to the coast and where rivers didn’t exist, small logging railroads were built to satisfy the European demand for this beautiful hardwood that was favored for fine cabinetry, furniture and shipbuilding.

Disenfranchised and oppressed, the Mayan revolted in what is called the Caste War against their colonizers. Led by Marcus Canul, a Mayan chief,  his people demanded the British pay for the crops they burnt and for the land they occupied.  In northern Belize, Canul’s freedom fighters attacked and occupied the garrison town of Corozal. The movement lost its momentum when Canul was killed during an unsuccessful assault on Orange Walk in 1872.  Long considered a rebel and criminal, he is now regarded as a Belizean hero who fought against ethnic cleansing. The deforested jungles were replaced by sugar cane, ranching and agriculture plantations.

Belize finally became independent in 1981, though The British Army still maintains a jungle warfare training facility in the country to help deter Guatemalan aggression in an unresolved border issue. Aldous Huxley once wrote, “If the world had any ends, British Honduras (Belize) would certainly be one of them. It is not on the way from anywhere to anywhere else. It has no strategic value. It is all but uninhabited.”

Today the tiny country of 400,000 supports a diverse culture descended from Mayans, Mestizos, African slaves, Garifunas, Europeans and more recently immigrants from Lebanon, Germany, the East Indies, Asia and North America with an economy centered on tourism and agriculture.  English is the official language of Belize, but it is not the first language of many with Spanish, Belizean Creole and Q’eqchi’ Maya primarily spoken, depending on what part of the country you are in.

The barrier Islands and cays where pirates might have hidden treasure now sport popular resorts on their white sand beaches. Scuba divers can explore shipwrecks, the Great Blue Hole (a marine sinkhole that is visible from space,) and the exceptional marine life found along the Belize Barrier Reef which is now a marine reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site.  Ashore the jungles and mountains continue to reveal the extent of the Mayan civilization in Belize with over 600 known archeological sites discovered so far, ranging from ceremonial caves to towering stone pyramids.

We are on the other end of the tourist spectrum and wanted something very lowkey, inexpensive and relaxing for a month. We headed to Corozal! Located on Chetumal Bay, it is the northern most city in Belize and only 16 miles from Chetumal, Mexico. It was founded in 1848 by Mestizo refugees from Mexico fleeing Mayan retribution from the Caste Wars there. It prospered exporting mahogany logs when there were still enough trees to support the timber industry. Sugarcane now fuels the economy. 

In 1955 Hurricane Janet, a category 5 storm with winds of 175mph, flattened ninety-five percent of Corozal and left 8,000 people homeless.  Surprisingly one of the few buildings left standing on the waterfront, fully intact, was the home of lumber baron John Carmichael.  It was built in the 1880’s using only mahogany.  The house is still used today as a Catholic mission. The pre-1955 wooden structures have been replaced with concrete block houses now, mostly two stories high, except the four-story Mirador Hotel, the tallest building in town.

Our ah-ha moment happened after the two-hour, inland drive from the airport, when we entered Corozal and saw the enticing turquoise waters of Corozal Bay on our way to our Airbnb rental. We drove a mile along a still bay bordered by a low battered seawall and numerous public parks dotted with palm trees.

Turning onto 2nd St. North our driver stopped in front of a flowering bougainvillea-covered wall, less than 200ft from the water, that hid the Villa Imperial Loft Apartment, our home for the next four weeks.  Our host Oscar wasn’t home at the time, but had made arrangements with Sue, another guest, who graciously led us through the flowering garden, complete with a resident mama cat and her kitten, and up the back stairs to our studio apartment. She enthusiastically answered our first questions about Corozal.

The large room was brightly painted and pleasantly decorated with an eclectic mix of antiques, reminiscent of visiting our grandparents.  A wall of windows facing east offered a glimpse of the bay, and any storms approaching, through the neighbor’s tree. Best was the kitchen across the landing at the top of the stairs. It was enclosed on three sides with just screened windows, covered with louvered shutters. In stark contrast to the apartment, it was very rustic with the feel of an old lake cabin. But we soon realized it was the perfect spot to observe the wide varieties of birds that visited the trees in the backyard, and we thoroughly enjoyed cooking and eating there.  Birding over the next month while walking along the waterfront was one of the highlights of our stay in Corozal. Spotting just a few of the 590 bird species in Belize, we saw sandpipers, great kiskadee, white-collared manakin, yellow-throated euphonia, tricolored heron, kingfisher, lineated woodpecker, great egrets, couch’s kingbird, crimson-collared tanager, black and white warbler, and the outrageously raucous plain chachalaca, which you’ll hear well before seeing them.

For many travelers visiting northern Belize, Corozal is just a brief stop on their way to or from Mexico or Guatemala, or a transfer point to catch the two-hour Thunderbolt Ferry or a flight on Tropic Air from the Corozal Airport (CZH) to San Pedro, on the barrier island, Ambergris Caye.  The town doesn’t have a beach, which has probably helped keep it off the beaten path for most tourists that visit Belize. Access to the shallow water is from stairs in the 1.5 mile long stone seawall that has not fared well against the surges of the ocean. We had read that the district has a sizeable expat community, that likes to avail themselves of all the big city options, mainly a Walmart and Sam’s Club that are across the border in Chetumal, Mexico.  But from our experiences we only encountered a handful of North Americans, surely not surging numbers that would indicate it was a sizzling hot spot for vacationing or retirement that would change the character of the town. And that’s a good thing. The joy of Corozal for us was its tranquility; there really was not much to do there aside from chilling and the occasional dip in the gentle waves of the bay.  The serenity of the seascapes compensated for the lack of activities.

We were enjoying the tropical 80-degree weather of Corozal and re-embracing our slow travel philosophy by immersing ourselves in the daily flow of life in this small coastal town. It was wonderful to see parents accompanying their uniform clad children to school every morning. Some parents drove, others walked along or bicycled with their kids. Routinely at the end of the school day an older couple pedaling a three-wheeler sold homemade popcorn to the kids or the youngsters lined up for ice cream on the porch of a home that doubled as an ice cream parlor. The kids waved to us if they noticed us bobbing in the bay across the street.

Our daily walks led to discoveries all across town, mostly culinary in nature. We were eager to find the best places to buy groceries, interesting places to eat and quench our thirst.  Most importantly, our craving for good coffee was easily satisfied directly across the street at the top of a colorful flight of tiled stairs. Here Oscar’s nephew Rudi runs the LVDM Coffee Stop on the porch of his home and makes what are easily the best cappuccinos in Corozal. He also rents two rustic villitas in his backyard. 

In town there were any number of Asian-owned grocery stores that all offered the same staples. We tended to prefer a shop called the Central Supermarket, because they were the closest place to carry our recyclable beer bottles. Diagonally across the street the city’s daily market had numerous fruit and vegetable stands, an open-air butcher, and clothing vendors. A twice weekly farmers market was held outside of town, across from the cemetery.  Fortunately, this location did not reflect negatively upon the quality of produce sold there. At a much greater walking distance, it didn’t offer any real advantage over the produce sold for the same price at the daily market. Shopping there was an early morning event and the atmosphere was very vibrant. It was here we got the first glimpse of the country’s Mennonite farming community, easily identifiable by their conservative dress and spoken Pennsylvania German. Since 1958 when they were invited to settle in Belize by the first Premiere of the country, George C. Price, the community has grown to 10,000, and they have contributed immensely to Belize’s agriculture self-reliance.

Surprisingly, even though Corozal is located right on the bay, we could not find fresh fish and had to purchase locally caught frozen fish, conch and lobster from Frank’s, a great butcher shop that makes their own sausage and offers a wide assortment of fresh beef, pork and poultry.  Directly across from Frank’s on the other side of the civic center field we found Vivi’s for wonderful meat pies.

On one of our walks, we did meet a young brother and sister team carrying a five-gallon bucket on the handlebar of their bicycle. It was full of lobster and conch, caught by their father earlier that morning.  They were going door to door in the neighborhood, selling it so they could buy their school uniforms.  Of course, we purchased some, and it was delicious.

The town does not have a marina for boats, but there are spots along the bay where fishermen pull out their ancient mahogany boats for repairs.  Called sandlighters, many of these traditional sailing vessels were built across the bay in the fishing community of Sarteneja and are over eighty years old.

There were several small bakeries in town, each offering different specialties.  The Y Not Bakery, to the detriment of our waistlines, was the closest and created the best temptations. Another favorite was Caramelo Bakery across from the high school and down the street from Belcuisine, a spice factory that produces flavorful Belizean Recados mixes.

Corozal really was a rewarding foodie’s destination with numerous small taquerias and enterprising folks offering roadside barbeque. Many businesses were operated from the windows of homes, like Ruby’s, who prepared delicous ceviche then sold it through her living room window for take-away.

The only option for eating out was casual dining. We found June’s Kitchen and Mar’s Caribbean Garden for homecooked meals.  Directly across from the bay, Scotty’s Crocodile Cove was a relaxing spot with thatched roofs; it was an enjoyable place for a refreshing Belizean brewed Belikin beer and large burritos that could easily feed three people.  The Tortuga Grill, across from the waterfront Rainbow Park, and the Wood House Restaurant, adjacent to Miami Beach, both offered good food and views of the bay.

Corozal enthusiastically supports its art community and one Saturday a month, in the town’s Central Park, holds the Art in the Park event where local artists and craftspeople display and sell their work. It was a fun time, with live music and delicous Belizean food. It’s held between 5pm – 9pm to avoid the heat of the day.  If City Hall is open make sure to check out the fantastic wall mural depicting the history of Corozal, painted by Belizean-Mexican artist Manual Villamor.

The blank concrete block walls of homes and businesses across from Miami Beach were the canvases for street artists invited to participate in the Corozal Graffiti Festival. In 2020 street mural artists from Belize, Cuba, El Salvador and Mexico were invited to enliven the walls with an “Ancient Chactemal” theme. It was a lively event with a music stage, art and crafts for sale, body painting and food vendors. On the beach, the Corozal sailing club was offering catamaran rides on the gentle waters of the bay.

There is an abundance of civic pride displayed in this small, well-kept community on Corozal Bay that is endearing. We barely scratched the surface of places to explore in Belize and were perfectly content “Snow Birds” with our choice of Corozal for a month’s worth of lazy rest and relaxation.  We’d definitely return to explore the surrounding area more fully.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Christmas in Milan – A Monumental Cathedral, Cemetery and Horse

Snow started falling as we brewed the morning’s first cups of coffee on the stove using a traditional Italian Moka coffee pot.  Invented by Alfonso Bialetti in 1933, Italians readily accepted it as an easy way to make espresso at home, and it quickly became symbolic of “la dolce vita,” the sweet life and for us a pleasant morning ritual. The day before had been warmer, and bundled up we were able to take our coffee outside on the balcony of our fourth-floor Airbnb rental and enjoy a great sunset view.  This morning though, the tracks of the tram line melted through the thin blanket of freshly fallen snow and left two parallel lines, as if someone had drawn them on this new white canvas with a pencil.

Continuing with our philosophy of slow, immersive travel, we had opted for an apartment in the Isola neighborhood.  Though far away from Milan’s city center, it was situated near the Porta Garibaldi train station and the recently built modern skyscraper complex that surrounds Piazza Gae Aulenti. The illy Caffè here was a frequent stop for comsmopolitan people-watching and excellent coffee.

Nearby were the twin apartment towers of Boeri’s Bosco Verticale, Vertical Forest, famous for their lush foliage-covered balconies, and the Isola and Zara subway stations. The latter was only seven quick stops from the Milan Duomo.

The neighborhood also had numerous tram lines traversing it, but it was impossible to find a hardcopy map of this very extensive system while we were in Milan, though we were able to find this online map of the Milan Tram System while writing this. Ultimately, we relied on our phone’s mapping App to view our tram trips in real time and determine where to change lines to continue our journeys across the city.

Two blocks away, the bi-weekly outdoor food market closed the streets around Piazza Tito Minniti for the bulk of the day while families shopped the stalls for fresh vegetables, cheese, meat and seafood along with socks, pants, dresses and blouses. We enjoyed this aspect of Italian life after learning its subtle nuances – for example, only the vendor touches the fruits and vegetables. There is also a protocol of queueing. Sometimes though our schedule required us to shop around the corner at La Pastaia for fresh pasta or the Penny Market grocery store, where we signed up again for another shopper club card.  We’ve done this in every city where we have stayed long term – Cuenca, Antigua, Lisbon, Cape Town and Kotor. It seems silly, but those small savings do add up and jokingly it helps us feel more like a local.

Emerging from the darkness of the subway station onto the Piazza del Duomo, we were momentarily blinded by the bright sun reflecting off the monumental cathedral that towered before us. Breathtaking in its size and capable of holding 40,000 worshippers, the cathedral is the second largest in Europe, following Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, and the third largest in the world.  Designed in 1386, the ornate and dramatic Gothic façade of the cathedral is covered with 3,400 statues and spires, which required the recruitment of hundreds of stone masons and artisans from across Europe. 

The opulent exterior belies the cathedral’s spartan interior.  While massive in scale, the interior’s gray stone walls and towering columns are cold and austere even with the soft, filtered light of beautiful stained-glass windows illuminating the space. Most moving was a ghastly sculpture by 16th century Italian sculptor Marco d’Agrate of Saint Bartholomew holding his flayed skin, depicting how he was punished for converting an Armenian King to Christianity in the first century AD.

Wandering around the flying buttresses and sculpted spires on the roof of the church was the highlight of our visit to the Duomo. The day was crystal clear, and the panoramic view stretched from the Milanese skyline to the snowcapped Italian Alps. It was spectactular.

Across the plaza the Museum of the Milan Cathedral has an extensive and interesting collection of art and sculpture that at one time or another was part of the Duomo.

On the other side of the plaza stood Milan’s official Christmas tree, a modern conically shaped metal structure covered with thousands of multi-colored changing lights. Beyond the tree was the famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, where four-story tall buildings and the promenade between them are covered with a spectacular vaulted glass ceiling.  It is considered the world’s first indoor shopping mall, built shortly after the unification of the Italian peninsular into the Kingdom of Italy in the 1860s when Vittorio Emanuele II was named king.  Lovingly nicknamed “il Salotto di Milano,” or “the living room of Milan” by the Milanese, the phrase acknowledges it’s the place to meet friends and be seen.

Wanting to stay in the city center till night fell, so that we could fully appreciated the Christmas lights on the tree in front of the Duomo, we wandered farther afield until we found the Chiesa di Santa Maria presso San Satiro. First built in the 9th century, the present church dates to the Italian Renaissance and  features a gilded interior and a rare example of Trompe-l’œil in a church. This painter’s effect utilizes a forced perspective to create an illusion of depth behind the altar.

After dark the plaza in front of the Duomo continued to fill with people eager to enjoy the festive mood of the Christmas season.  The Christmas tree was stunning, and its modernity nicely complimented the historic buildings surrounding the piazza.

From our balcony we could see the silhouette of Tomba di Manzoni, the grand entranceway and “Hall of Fame” mausoleum for the noteworthy, though not as wealthy, Milanese who are interned at the Cimitero Monumentale. 

As we wandered farther into the cemetery, we realized that monumental might be an understatement. It was difficult not to confuse this extraordinarily extravagant place of entombment for an outdoor sculpture garden with memorials created by a who’s who list of famous 19th and 20th century Italian artists and architects for prominent Milanese families. 

The family names on the mausoleums also adorn roads, parks, tram and subway stations across the city. There seemed to be an afterlife version of one upmanship in play here with each monument more grandiose than the last.  As if competition or success in life was not enough and had to continue till your final committal.  It was a fascinating place to explore. Plan on spending most of the day.

Donna’s mom had passed away the year before and one of our reasons for staying in Milan was to revisit a project her mother was instrumental in as a member of the United State’s Italian American Heritage Foundation and Leonardo da Vinci’s Horse Foundation. She helped for fifteen years in the 1980s and 90s to raise 2.5 million dollars to the see Leonardo da Vinci’s 24ft tall Il Cavallo recreated. The sculpture was finally realized by American sculptor Nina Akamu

Da Vinci was commissioned by the Duke of Milan in 1482 to create, at the time, what was the largest equestrian statue in the world, as tribute to his late father, Francesco Sforza.  The full-size clay sculpture was completed in 1491 and was waiting for its terracotta mold to be made and enough bronze amassed for its casting when the French invaded in 1499. Subsequentially, the clay model was totally destroyed by French crossbowmen who used it for target practice.

On its 500th anniversary, da Vinci’s Il Cavallo was unveiled outside the Ippodromo Snai San Siro, Milan’s famous horse racing track. Smaller artistic interpretations of Il Cavallo stand in the plaza behind it. This being modern Italy though a horse just can’t be a horse, and many were psychedelically painted and wore tutus or unicorn horns. Wonderfully whimsical, they definitely made us smile. 

One rainy afternoon we took the tram to the 15th century Sforzesco Castle, seat of power for the Sforza dynasty that lasted only 100 years. But in that time the fortress/palace was expanded to be one of the largest citadels in Europe and filled with works of art by numerous Italian Renaissance artists.  Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bramante, Correggio, Bernardino Zenale and Bernardino Butinone were commissioned to adorn the walls and ceilings and sculpt pieces to fill the vast space. Today the castle houses several of the city’s museums and art collections where the artists’ contributions to the palace can still be seen. A heavy fog had blanketed the citadel by closing time and was evocative of the moods cast in the historical fiction novels set in Renaissance Italy by Sarah Dunant. Later that evening we attended an Anglican Lessons and Carols service as a prelude to Christmas, then headed back to our apartment humming Christmas tunes as we window shopped.

Signs for Artigiano in Fiera, the Fair, dotted our route into Milan when we first arrived from Bergamo and piqued our interest.  We hadn’t heard of it before, but with a quick internet search realized it was the shopping event of the Christmas season in Milan. While in line to enter the center we noticed many people pulling large suitcases. Toward the end of our shopping spree, laden with purchases, we realized the bags on wheels were pure genius, and allowed the seasoned pros to carry their holiday shopping with ease. The Fiera is a tremendously popular annual, nine-day event that draws over one million visitors to the Fiera Milano, Europe’s largest exhibition center, located in Rho, just outside Milan. Folks shop for home furnishings, fashion, jewelry, arts and crafts, along with artisanal foods, wines and liquor. The sites’ nine cavernous exhibition halls were filled with vendors from 100 countries, though displays from the twenty regions of Italy occupied ninety percent of the space. Plan on spending the whole day if you hope to see everything. It was all very interesting and entertaining and truly a marathon event. From Milan it’s an easy trip on the M1 subway, which stops right at the venue.

Wanting to make our last night in Milan special, we made dinner reservations at a highly reviewed restaurant, only to be turned away into a rainy night because we arrived early as the staff was enjoying their pre-work communal meal together. (The later you dine out in Italy the more you’ll feel like a local. Though this does take some getting used to and we haven’t mastered this yet.) “Okay, we will have a drink at the corner bar and return,” we agreed.

To our delight, our aperitives were accompanied by small sandwiches with chips and olives.  We had every intention of heading back to the restaurant, but our waiter was engaging, and the Aperol spritzes were very good. We spent the time watching folks fight the wind with their umbrellas through the bar’s rain-pelted window. The specular highlights from the streetlights added magic to the scene. Occasionally some groups popped inside seeking a warm reprieve from the downpour outside, shook out their umbrellas and found a seat.  Recapping our adventures, tentatively planning the next six months, and talking about Christmas with our kids back in the states, the evening flew by until the waiter said they were closing. Umbrellas up! We headed home.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

PS – The Artigiano was canceled in 2020 due to the Corona virus lock down in Italy. Hopefully, it will be allowed 2021.

Lake Como – Natural Beauty, Swiss Olives and Pliny the Elder

We had only been settled into our Milan rental for a few days when, upon checking the long-term weather forecast, we decided to take the train to Lake Como the next day.  The days were solidly cold now in northern Italy, but still very pleasant if the sun was shining. By the end of the week, it was expected to rain for a while. What we didn’t expect was a dusting of fresh snow along the route.  In the distance the snowcapped Italian Alps were a blur as the train sped along, delivering us to the town of Como in an hour, the last stop in Italy before Chiasso, Switzerland.  Unsure of where we were heading, we followed the flow of day trippers into the town center past a blend of Gothic, Renaissance and 18th century architecture.

The famous inverted “Y” shaped lake was created by receding glaciers, 10,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age. Since the 1st century, Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote about it as an “A list” destination for poets and writers. Today artists and celebrities continue to be mesmerized by its natural beauty. The Goths, Ostrogoths, French, Spanish and Austrians have all contributed to its convoluted history until the region was united into the Kingdom of Italy by Giuseppe Garibaldi’s troops in 1859.  Even Mussolini visited one last time as he tried to flee Italy in April 1945 and cross the border into neutral Switzerland, but he was captured by Italian partisans in Dongo, a small village on Lake Como. He was executed the next day.

It was an especially sunny day and the town’s Christmas market on Piazza Cavour across from the lakefront was thriving with folks enjoying the weather and shopping amidst all the stalls for the quickly approaching holiday. At the restaurants lining the piazza, outdoor dining was still in full swing, but was only bearable if you found a table in the sun and used the provided lap blankets to help ward off the winter chill.

Aside from the usual cheese, jam, sausage and porchetta sandwich stalls, there was an olive vendor with an incredible variety of olives for purchase.  One of his most surprising offerings was Lugano olives which originate from the Italian speaking part of Switzerland! – south of the Alps, on the shores of Lake Lugano, just over the hills from Como.