Seville Part 4 – Convents, Cookies, and la Macarena

Seville was a delight to explore by wandering, its cityscape a web of ancient alleys that with every twist and turn slowly revealed the heart of this very old city to us. While the historic center of the city is a relatively condensed area that orbits around the Cathedral of Seville, the Royal Alcázar and the bullring, every bario in the ancient metropolois was fascinating to wander through. Spanish maps of the city from the 16th century hint at what’s to be found. In the 12th century, expanding upon an older Roman defensive wall from the first century AD, Seville’s Moorish rulers totally enclosed the growing town with a new and larger fortified wall.

It started at the Torre del Oro and ran north along the Guadalquivir River until it turned and headed inland in a huge arc that reconnected back at the tower. The old city walls originally had fifteen gates allowing entry into the city and were named for their function. Coal was brought into the city through Puerta del Carbon, while olive oil merchants used Postigo del Aceite to bring their product to town.  Puerta de Jerez and Puerta de Cordoba were the gateways through which travelers from those towns entered Seville.  Puerta Real was built for the exclusive use of the Spanish royals. 

The walls stood until a modernization of the city in 1868 required all the gates except for three be demolished. Today only the Puerta de la Macarena, Puerta de Cordoba, and the Postigo del Aceite remain.  Several small sections of the crenellated wall still stand along the ring road, Ronda de Capuchinos, that now follows the ancient edge of the city. Other parts turn up randomly across the city, where they were incorporated into the walls of newer 19th century buildings.

Roughly following the ring road, we would zig and zag our way through the old neighborhoods of the city that were once shielded behind its ancient wall.  Starting in the old Jewish quarter, now Santa Cruz, we followed the wall topped with an aqueduct along Calle Aqua and peered through locked gates, spying the lush shaded courtyards of the traditional homes. Buildings along this calle that back to the Jardines de Murillo use the old defensive wall as part of their structure. Veering into the center of the old Juderia we found some of the narrowest lanes in Seville. The thinnest being Calle Reinoso which leads off Plaza Venerables and is affectionately nicknamed “Calle de los Besos,” the Street of Kisses to visualize how intimate the passageway potentially can be.

After the Moors were defeated in 1248 every mosque in Seville was converted to a church. A similar policy ensued in 1492 when King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castille issued the Alhambra Decree, expelling all of Spain’s Jewish population. But a century before the Spanish Inquisition began a rioting mob in 1391 was incited by the hateful rhetoric of a Christian Archdeacon, Ferdinand Martinez, blocked the exits from the Seville ghetto and set the Juderia ablaze. It was once a thriving community that hosted three large synagogues and twenty lesser ones.  Four thousand people died that March 15th. Survivors fled the city, or were forced to convert to Catholicism. The abandoned properties were redistributed by King Henry lll to Christian nobles. The Iglesia de Santa María la Blanca is a notable conversion of a synagogue built in the 13th century. Its stunningly ornate plaster work ceiling veils its tragic history.  A block away where Puerta de la Carne once stood, the street is now lined with umbrellaed tables in front of a mouthwatering assortment of eateries.

Blindfolded or throwing darts at the map, any direction you randomly choose in Seville reveals fascinating layers of history. We never passed the chance to explore a church if its doors were open. Admittedly that’s a huge number in Seville. And some visits are more rewarding than others, we learned upon entering the chapel of the Convento Santa María de Jesús.  The gilded 16th century baroque interior was beautiful. What we found just as intriguing (you get a little numb by the huge amount of gold-leaf in Seville,) though, was that the nuns, of the non-sequestered order of the Poor Clares, bake “Las Dulces,” cookies and pastries, in order to financially support themselves. They sell the tasty creations derived from centuries old, secret recipes from behind an iron barred window.

A half block away the Casa de Pilatos was a marvelous example of a 16th century Andalusian Palace that rivaled the workmanship of Real Alcazar.

It displays a unique juxtaposition of Mudéjar, Gothic, Renaissance and Romantic architectural styles that seamlessly blend into a kaleidoscope of color, shape and texture. 

There are also Roman and Greek antiquities on display that were collected by an early patriarch of the family when he served as Viceroy of Naples in the mid-1500s.  It has amazingly stayed in the same aristocratic family for 500 years and today the 20thDuchess of Medinacelli still has a private residence there.  Admission is free on Mondays after 3pm, but there can be a long queue.

Continuing down the street toward the main boulevard we found Sevilla Vinos a small shop that specializes in local Andalusian wines and sherries. You can purchase wine here by the bottle or you can bring your empty bottles back to be refilled from large casks like the local folks do.

Farther along, the Almazen café was the closest we could find to an internet café in Seville aside from Starbucks. But what’s the fun of that when you can find a neighborhood gem instead. Mostly, taking your laptop computer to work in a public space just isn’t done in Europe from our experience. It seems to break the cherished protocol of separating work from pleasure, a refreshing practice here.

Out on Calle Maria Auxilidora we walked along the ring road to the Jardines del Valle where a long stretch of fortress wall separates the park from the barrio behind it.  That Sunday a crowd had gathered on the sidewalk in front of the park to cheer on the runners in the annual Seville Marathon. 

Farther down the avenue the arched door of the Moorish influenced tower-gate Puerta de Cordoba stands attached to the Church of San Hermenegildo. A legend from the 6th century tells us Hermenegildo was a young Visgoth Prince, son of King Leovigildo who followed a branch of Christianity, Arianism, that did not believe in the holy trinity. Upon marrying a Frankish Catholic Princess, Hermenegildo converted to Catholicism against his father’s wishes. He was eventually imprisoned in the Cordoba tower-gate and beheaded there on Easter Day in 585AD when he refused holy communion from an Arian bishop.  The relic of his severed head was passed for centuries between numerous monasteries and convents on the Iberian Peninsula before finding its final resting spot at the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, near Madrid. He was canonized on the thousandth anniversary of his death. During the renaissance on the saint’s feast day, April 13th, the Brotherhood of San Hermenegildo would host jousts in front of the defensive wall that still stands next to the church. 

This is the longest stretch of ancient city wall still standing. It runs parallel to the ring road for seven blocks between the Church of San Hermenegildo and the monumental Arco de la Macarena, which stands next to the church of the same name. The last vestiges of a moat added in the 18th century are still visible here.  During the Spanish Civil War firing squads executed people against this arch. It’s believed this entrance was built by the Moors over one of the three original gates to the city constructed by Julius Caesar when he governed Andalusia in the first century AD.  The origin of the gate’s name is disputed with some historians speculating that it was named after a wealthy Roman property owner. Others think it bears the name of a Moor princess who lived next to the wall when the Arabs controlled the city. Popular belief is it was named in tribute to Macaria, daughter of Hercules, who is the mythological founder of Seville.

We stopped to see the Virgin of Hope, a venerated wooden statue draped in a gold embroidered robe covered with precious stones at Hermandad de la Macarena, and found her fascinating.  Entering the basilica is free, but there is a small fee to view, up close, the exquisite craftsmanship of the robe of the Virgen de la Esperanza de Macarena de Sevilla, (say that ten times fast!) from behind the altar.  The Virgin of Hope is the patroness of bullfighters and was famously re-dressed only once in a black robe to mourn the death, in 1920, of the famous Sevillano bullfighter, José Gómez Ortega, who was loved across Spain. 

To prevent looting of the icons during the Spanish Civil War, a caretaker secretly took the statue home and pretended he was caring for a bedridden sister. Later he pretended to be a stone mason and secreted the statue in the city cemetery within the ornate tomb of the bullfighter Ortega for several months to protect it.

Heading back into the city through the arch we eventually came to the ornately figured baroque façade of Iglesia San Luis de los Franceses.  This was a refreshing change from other baroque churches in Seville that hid their opulent interiors behind plain, almost barren exteriors that benefit from the phrase – “Don’t judge a church by its exterior.” This was clearly not the case with the Iglesia San Luis de los Franceses; it broadcast “notice me!” as if the exquisite stone figures were the 18th century mason’s version of a neon sign.  The church was built at the beginning of the 1700s for the Jesuits to use as a novitiate, but they were only able to use this elegant building for thirty years before the order was expelled from Spain and the rest of the Spanish empire.  Later it was used as a Franciscan seminary and convent, then factory, theatre, hospital for venerated priests and hospice. Eventually it was deconsecrated before being shuttered for many decades. After a ten-year renovation sponsored by the Provincial Council of Seville the still deconsecrated church is now a museum and local government office. Its four gilded baroque altars with their sixteen spiraling, solomonic columns that support the dome above are spectacular and in our opinion it’s one of the finest church interiors in the city.

Associating convents with cookies led to a little misadventure one afternoon. We entered the side door of the Convent of Santa Isabel, located next to the Iglesia de San Marcos, and met a nun talking with a parishioner.  Looks of confusion crossed everyone’s face and heads shook, no, when I asked in very poor Spanish “Los dulces por favor.”  A few moments after leaving empty handed, the gentleman the sister was conversing with called to us and to our surprise presented two simple sandwiches.  We suddenly realized we had approached the convent’s food bank and they thought we were asking for something to eat. We thanked him and made a donation which brought a huge smile to his face and ours.

In this part of the city there seemed to be a church or convent on every block, and we had surely far exceeded the number of visitations to religious institutions to keep thunder and lightning at bay. Just wandering through the neighborhoods without a particular destination in mind was very enjoyable and let us follow any whim spontaneously, whether it was a flash of light from the journeyman knife sharpener as he held the blade to his grinding stone attached to the back of his scooter, or music emanating from an alley as a marching band rehearsed, or the cacophony created by the brotherhoods practicing with their weighted floats prior to Holy Week.

The farther we were away from the historic center of Seville the fewer tourists we encountered and prices in the barrio eateries dropped considerably. Los Coloniales was one such tavern located on a corner across from Plaza Cristo de Burgos. At the beginning of March the days were sunny and warm in the afternoon so dining outside was delightful, though sometimes it required a wait.  Leaving our name with the hostess we waited in the shaded park across the street until she loudly bellowed, “Craig & Donna!” We felt like locals as we hurried over.  The tapas and the ambiance of the setting were very enjoyable.

One afternoon as we walked back to the apartment from a late lunch, luckily I noticed a single black and white flyer tacked high on a tall double-wide door, while Donna had stopped way down the block to take a photo.  Hundreds of years old, the door had a smaller single door built into which was open. I don’t recall seeing a placard on the wall identifying the building, but the flyer had a picture of a tray of cookies! By the time I turned around and got Donna’s attention the door had quietly been shut and locked to our disappointment. Finding it on a map we established that it was the Convento de Santa Inés. Allegedly they baked bolletos, little round cookie balls with sesame and honey-glazed pestiños – dough flavored with orange zest, aniseed, olive oil, and wine, then fried. Determined, we returned earlier several days later and stepped over the ancient threshold into a spartan courtyard with no sign of activity or arrows to follow. But in the far back corner under a small portico there was a plain wooden cabinet built into the wall surrounded by a fading spiritual fresco and Azulejo tiles.  Taped to its door was the price sheet for the available, “Las Dulces.” The cabinet is called a torno and when you open the door there is a lazy Susan style turntable that allows the cloistered nuns to receive your payment and provide your cookies while remaining unseen. Over the centuries, convent tornos were also sadly used to anonymously drop-off unwanted infants in hopes the child would have a better life. Three decades ago, there were forty cloistered convents in Seville, today only a dozen remains, hosting an ever dwindling number of nuns.  Not all of them bake “Las Dulces,” but knowing now we wish we had searched for the others that still do.

Dessert was celebrated, back on our apartment’s rooftop, with a glass of sherry and the cookies from the Convento de Santa Inés, as we sat with our backs to the laundry billowing gently on a warm Spring breeze and waited for the sun to set. This was unfortunately one of our last adventures in Seville before the city entered its first lockdown of the pandemic in March 2020 and all tourists were ordered to leave Spain. We were sitting on the steps of the pillar at Plaza del Triunfo late one afternoon, amazed by the emptiness of the square. There weren’t any horse-drawn carriages or lines of tourists waiting for entry into the cathedral or the Alcázar. Two policemen approached. “The city is closed, you must go home.” It was a shocking eviction notice.

We thoroughly enjoyed our immersion into the nuances of living in Seville and would definitely recommend the city for anyone considering a long-term stay. The city simultaneously manages to be intriguingly historic and contemporary. There were many different ways to enjoy the city and aside from the moderately high price of museum admissions, the cost of living in Seville and dining out was very reasonable.  We walked mostly, but on occasion used the rideshare Uber which operated very well across the city. The weather was splendid in February and March, with cool mornings warming into delightful sunny afternoons.

Make plans, enjoy your travels!

¡Hasta luego!

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

Ronda Road Trip – The Pueblos Blancos or Blinded by the Light

Needing a break from city life we rented a car at the Santa Justa train station and within minutes we were out of Seville heading south to Ronda, one of Andalucia’s many “Pueblos Blancos,” the white villages, so called because of their uniformly whitewashed houses.  Although it was less than two hours from Seville, it took us all day due to the number of planned stops and spontaneous detours we made.

Lime paint was introduced to the region when Rome controlled the Iberian peninsular. Its use was greatly expanded during the mid-1300’s when a bubonic plague pandemic swept through the Mediterranean countries.  Residents of villages were required yearly to cover the outside and the interiors of their homes and churches with a limewash, known for its natural anti-bacterial and insecticidal properties, in an effort to reduce the spread of disease. Community inspections were done, and folks were fined for noncompliance. This mandated conformity was eventually appreciated as an aesthetically pleasing look and a symbol of meticulous tidiness. Fortunately, the custom stayed and has become an iconic signature of southern Andalusia.

Cresting a low hill on the A-375, we spotted a small castle with crenellated walls and towers in a shallow valley not far from the road. Turning towards it we followed a dirt track through farmland not yet ploughed for the Spring planting to a small intersection where the castle stood next to a narrow, babbling brook.  The history of the Castillo de Las Aguzaderas isn’t really known, but it is thought to have been built in the 1300’s by the Moors as they retreated from advancing territorial gains made by the Spanish during the Reconquista. 

Of Spain’s 2500 castles this is the only one that does not sit atop the high ground of a hill or mountain to command the surrounding terrain, but according to its historical placard, stands in a hollow to protect the spring that emerges from the earth outside its wall. With no attendant and an open gate, we were free to scramble around the walls and climb stairs in a terrible state of disrepair to the top of the castle keep for views all around. In the distance an ancient stone watchtower, Torre del Bollo, dominated a hill.

From afar the whitewashed casas of Zahara de la Sierra brilliantly reflected the sunlight like polished marble.  The homes, stacked like building blocks, rose up the hillside until they met a sheer butte. A square tower crowned the butte’s summit.

We followed the long ring road that circles the mount through the village and decided to have lunch at Meson Oñate where we were drawn to the outdoor patio that overlooks the Zahara-El Gastor Reservoir and the rolling farmland that surrounds it. 

After lunch, to work off our delicous meal, we hiked to the Castillo de Zahara, which crowns the mountaintop above the village. It was a well paved steep path at the start, but soon the slope decreased to a manageable incline that zigzagged up the mountain.  For our effort we were rewarded with stunning bird’s eye views over the red tiled roofs of the village and to the distant lake below. A tower is all that is left of a larger Moorish castle from the 13th century that was built over the ruins of a small Roman settlement that once called the mountaintop home. Barely accessible, it provided a safe haven during times of trouble. The castle had a turbulent history with its control passing back and forth several times between the Moors and Spanish. Even French troops once commanded its summit through Napoleon’s conquest of Spain during the Peninsular War that raged in the early 1800’s.

With a last-minute decision to take a longer route to Ronda, we headed into the mountains outside of Zahara de la Sierra on CA-9104, a serpentine road with steep slopes that took us into the Sendero La Garganta Verde, a rugged and wild scenic area that is known for its population of Griffon vultures, and Monte Prieto.  The wind was insanely whipping around us when we parked the car at the Puerto de las Palomas (4500ft above sea level) mountain pass and walked to an observation deck in hope of viewing some vultures.  Griffons are large birds of prey that have wing spans up to nine feet across. We were fortunate to spot some, far off in the distance before we ran back to the car, chilled to the bone.

The sun sets early when you are on the eastern side of the steep Sierra del Pinar mountain range.  The last rays of sunlight still illuminated Grazalema as we drove into the village, but the temperature dropped along with the vanishing light of a February afternoon.

We sat in the plaza and had café across the sidewalk from an interesting statue of a bull being roped.  The statue commemorates the ancient practice of hunting wild bulls. The tradition continued through the Romans and Arabs and was Christianized by the church into the feast of the bull to celebrate the Virgen del Carmen. During the festival, three times a day, a bull is released to run through the village for an hour with the men chasing after, in hopes of roping it. The beginning and end of each bull’s run is announced with fireworks throughout the day.  Sections of an old Roman road that led up into the village are still visible from the mirador on the edge of town.

Enjoying the freedom and spontaneity a rental car offers is a big plus when developing itineraries. Finding convenient and affordable hotels that have free or inexpensive onsite parking was another whole issue.  It was dark by the time we reached Ronda and we were having difficulty finding the hotel’s parking. With one last call to the hotel receptionist the garage door to their secret lair, that was our parking space, was magically revealed to us on a back alley, under the Hotel Plaza de Toros. Only big enough for six cars, our tiny Fiat 500 easily fit in its tight confines.

The next morning revealed that the hotel was in an excellent location, just a block from the town’s famous bullring, Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda, built in 1784. Aside from bullfights it has been used as an armory and calvary training grounds by the Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda, a noble order of horsemen in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The promenade next to bullring is dedicated to famous literary talents who were enamored with the “Ciudad Sońada” or “Dreamed City,” as Ronda is also called. While Don Quixote didn’t tilt at any windmills in Ronda, his creator Miguel de Cervantes certainly drew inspiration from the area as he traveled between villages for his day job as Royal Tax Collector. Washington Irving found inspiration in the rugged landscape of southern Spain when he traveled through Ronda in 1828 prompting him to write, “There is something in the austere presence of this Spanish landscape that wounds the soul with a feeling close to the sublime.” He also romanticized the brigands, who some saw as Robin Hood figures that lived in the mountainous terrain surrounding Ronda, and Irving was disappointed in not encountering any on his journey through Andalusia, ignoring the poverty and repressive feudal system that forced many into a life of crime. Ernst Hemingway was drawn to the machismo and pageantry of bullfighting in Ronda, where the sword and red muleta cape were first introduced into the ring by the legendary matador Francisco Romero in 1726.  Orson Welles explained bullfighting as “an unjustifiable yet irresistible, three-act tragedy.” Wells was so fascinated with this quintessential Andalusian village that he chose to be buried here on the hacienda of a bullfighter friend – “A man does not belong to the place he was born in, but to the place he chooses to die.” Spanish poet, José Agustín Goytisolo summed it up best for us with, “We sighted Ronda. It was raised up in the mountains, like a natural extension of the landscape, and in the sunlight it seemed to me to be the most beautiful city in the world.”

The mirador beyond the park overlooked olive groves and spring fields still dormant.  Past them distant mountains faded into the horizon.  The path through the mirador led to the Puente Nuevo bridge that connects the younger old town to the ancient village across the steep sided El Tajo (The Deep Cut) gorge, carved out eons ago by the rushing waters of the Rio Guadalevín.  Finished in 1793 after 34 years of construction, the new bridge isn’t so new anymore, but it was an engineering feat when it was constructed across the shear 390ft deep chasm that divided the village. It replaced a poorly built 1735 bridge that tragically collapsed after only six years’ use, killing fifty people.

Ronda is a fabulous city for walking and as we continued across the bridge into La Ciudad, Ronda’s old-town quarter, we stopped in awe, to photograph the iconic whitewashed houses that are tenuously perched atop the walls of the gorge. Precarious to the point that if their front door slammed too hard the back of the house might fall into the gorge! 

We worked our way to Plaza Duquesa de Parcent in the center of the historic district for lunch. Passing architectural details from Ronda’s Moorish and Spanish past still evident on some of the ancient buildings.

In the off-season not all of the restaurants were open, but it was a beautiful day and we didn’t mind waiting for a table in the fascinating historical surroundings. A few minutes later we were seated at a table in the sun, caddy corner between the Convento de Clarisas de Santa Isabel de los Ángeles and the Convento De La Caridad, both built in the 16th century. The classic symmetry of Ronda’s Town Hall with its two-tier colonnade anchored the far side of the plaza.  

Adjacent to the town hall the Iglesia de Santa María la Mayor is the real draw to this side of the historic district.  With two rows of covered balconies next to an adjoining former minaret turned belltower, it’s a unique façade for a church and it’s built on the foundation of a 14th century mosque. Ronda and Granada were the last Moorish strongholds in Andalusia, and the mosque was ordered destroyed after Ronda surrendered in 1485. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel immediately ordered that a Gothic church be built upon the spot. 

The balconies on the front were added during the reign of King Felipe II in the 1500s for the well-to-do and nobles of the city to watch maestranza tournaments in the plaza, before the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda was built. A century later the church was partially destroyed in an earthquake and the rebuilding over the next two centuries embraced a mishmash of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles that sends architectural purists into a frenzy of “how could they.” Though smaller than the churches in Seville, we found the Iglesia very refreshing with its lofty interior and fabulous religious art.

Just inside one of the side entrances, a worn stone stairwell led up to a walled catwalk that wrapped around the side and back of the building. The views from it over the red tiled roofs of the old quarter seemed not to have changed for centuries.

Later that evening we explored the new town and found Grabados Somera, Shallow Engravings, a wonderful workshop and gallery filled with etchings of matadors, senoritas and Ronda, all the creations of master printmaker engraver Pedro Somera Abad. Writing this now we regret not purchasing a print as a souvenir of our time in Spain.

We eventually came across La Casa de Jamon, a gourmet store and Iberian Ham bar that will leave any carnivorous epicure salivating. Here a leg of the best jamon to take back to your casa will dent your wallet an extravagant 600€.  We never realized those acorn fed porkers could command such a price. Along with jamon, they have locally sourced sausages, wine and cheese from the Andalusia region. We decided to order a charcuterie board for dinner and we were not dissappointed with the tasty assortment presented.

The next morning we walked through the Jardines De Cuenca along a walled path that traced the course of the Rio Guadalevín through El Tajo gorge far below. Across the chasm the hanging gardens of the old palatial homes that lined the cliff edge were redolent with color. The path through the park slowly descended to the Puente Viejo; built in 1616, it is the oldest stone bridge over the river.

Across the bridge the route split to go back into La Ciudad, the old town, through the Renaissance era Puerta de Carlos V, where taxes were once levied on the wares merchants brought into the city.  Or we could go downhill to the impressive arched ruins of the Baños Arabes, a 13th century Moorish bathhouse on the outskirts of the city, that provided heated water, an impressive feat 800 years ago.

Along the river that supplied water to the Arab baths, grist mills once stood just inside Ronda’s double ring of fortress walls that protected this side of La Ciudad.  The mills ground wheat harvested from the surrounding countryside. The stones of the outer wall were repurposed long ago. Now only remnants of the massive inner wall, the last line of defense before entering the city still stands, causing us to pause and imagine its former glory. Walking under the last vestiges of Ronda’s mighty defenses, we headed back.

It was lightly raining as we strolled along Carrera Espinel in search of an interesting place for dinner.  Most of the inside tables at the restaurants we passed were taken with diners escaping the damp evening chill.  But the aroma of savory clams drew us to an outside table at Restaurante Las Maravillas, where the waiter was attentive and refueled the tower heater next to our table to help keep us warm. The dinner and wine were delicious.

Plans to visit Olvera and Setenil de las Bodegas the next day were made over dessert and coffee. It had been a long satisfying day, our “walk a little then café” evolved to “walk a little more, then bed.”

Till next time, Craig & Donna

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Seville Part 1 – Living in the Centro Historico

Our host had given us instructions to make our way to the Jardines de Murillo, past the historic monument commemorating Columbus’ discovery of the new world and then cross the park entering the Santa Cruz barrio through an old gate, under an elaborate balcony. It’s believed this balcony was the inspiration for a scene in Rossini’s comedic opera, The Barber of Seville, where Lindoro and his band of troubadours played a serenade below the window of the stunning Rosina.  We’d pass through this relaxing park many times during our time in Seville while heading out to explore the city or shop at the closest Supermercados MAS. An excellent small grocery store with bakery, meat, cheese, and fish departments. We signed up for their shopper’s club card!

“Continue down Calle Agua,” so called for the ancient aqueduct that ran atop the high wall that parallels its length and supplied water to Royal Alcázar of Seville, a former Moorish palace before the reconquest of Seville in the 13th century by the Castilians. “It turns and becomes Calle Vida.” A few steps down the lane Calle Judería veered off, a reminder that this was once the old Jewish quarter when the Moors ruled the city and continued until 1492 when King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella decreed that all Hebrews be expelled from Spain.

We continued straight as the high walls of the lane narrowed to a point where walking single file was required, and the clickety-clack of our suitcases reverberated off the shadowed stone walls. With a broad smile and “Hola!” a sample of freshly toasted snacks was enthusiastically offered to us by an energetic saleswoman. It appeared that her mission was to have every tourist who passed her station sample the tasty treats created at Sabor a Espana, the shop that anchored a corner on Plaza de Doña Elvira, our final destination. Centered with a tiled fountain and surrounded by fragrant Seville orange trees, the intimate plaza was an oasis of greenery amidst the ancient stones of the old town.

Our host was waiting as promised with keys and an orientation of the apartment which we would call home for the next six weeks. It was the smallest apartment we had rented during our travels, but it had wonderful rooftop access with a super view of the plaza below and the Royal Alcázar, which was close enough for Seville football star Jesus Navas to kick a soccer ball into, if he were so inclined.

We will be the first to admit that our travels have not been in an orderly systematic approach to working our way slowly around the world. Instead, we seemed to have adopted a hybrid pinballer approach for ricochet shots to select our destinations across the globe. We wanted a location that offered a warm winter but eliminated any coastal towns for concern that a February/March stay would be too cold or damp along the oceanfront. We opted for Seville, with a population of 700,000, as an affordable alternative to staying in Madrid or Barcelona. The city was the ideal choice for an extended stay with near perfect weather and loads of interesting things to do and see within minutes of our apartment in the center of the historic district. This would have been totally prohibitive with our budget if we had booked this during the high season, but traveling in Spain during the shoulder season was very budget friendly and allowed us to immerse ourselves into the city’s cycle of activity.

A wonderful daily ritual soon emerged, with greetings exchanged with the shop attendant as she swept the cobblestones every morning or was offering samples later in the day when we passed.  Of course, we shopped there; the sweet aroma was too enticing to resist and the snacks were delicious. “We’ll walk it off,” we laughed. Then there were the tapas! Two favorite spots were La Fresquita, a tiny standing room only bar, uniquely devoted to “all things Semana Santa.” This included the playing of classical church music and the occasional wave of a smoky incense-filled censer over the countertop.  The other was Las Teresas, an old school tavern decked with polished wood and whole legs of Jamon Iberico dangling above the bar. We walked everywhere in Seville; it was the perfect city to explore by foot. Every direction proved rewarding with interesting discoveries.

Small plazas held cafés. With their tables set in deep shade, they dotted the historic center and provided a quiet spot to just sit back and enjoy the old-world ambiance of this foreign city, with an intriguing mix of Moorish and Spanish architecture. Our “walk a little then café, then walk a little more,” approach allowed ample opportunities to enjoy the sunny days.

Minutes from our door an arched passage under dwellings in the old Jewish quarter opened onto the Patio de Banderas. It was once a courtyard for a tenth century Moorish palace. In the 1700s the buildings that lined it were used as an armory. Later the square was planted with orange trees and converted to a riding ring for the local gentry to use. At the far end another arched gate framed the La Giralda belltower of the Catedral de Sevilla as we exited onto the Plaza del Triunfo. Built in the twelfth century during the Almohades dynasty when the Andalusian region was still part of Muslim Spain, the tower was originally a minaret.

Its square design is based on the Moorish architecture of the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech. The interior does not have a traditional set of stairs for the muezzin to climb to the top for the call to prayer. Instead, it was built with a ramp wide enough for the muezzin to ride a donkey to the summit of its 167ft height. I imagine they would have had a high muezzin turnover rate if this accommodation wasn’t made to facilitate the five times a day call to prayer. After a sixteen-month siege that ended in November 1248, the Muslim forces in Seville surrendered and originally wanted to destroy the minaret before their forced relocation from the city, to prevent its repurposing for another religion. Upon hearing this ing Ferdinand III of Castile included in the terms of surrender a passage that threatened “they would all be put the sword” if the beautiful minaret were defiled in any way. In the sixteenth century a new top third was added with renaissance architectural influences that expanded its height to 337ft and included space for its array of 24 bells. Giralda, “she who turns,” is the name given to the weathervane atop the belltower, with the heroic female statue representing the triumph of Christianity. The exterior of the tower blends Islamic decorative relief sculpture, featuring floral forms, intricate geometric shapes and stylized calligraphy, with Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance architecture. This is referred to as Mudéjar style and is prevalent in many of the historic buildings in Seville and throughout Andalusia. It is an enchanting blending of cultures and a signature of the region.

The lower part of the belltower and the Mudéjar style Puerta del Perdón gate into the Patio de los Naranjos courtyard filled with perfuming oranges is all that remains of the grand mosque that was repurposed as Seville’s first Christian cathedral after the reconquest. The old building stood until 1401 when construction started on the Catedral De Sevilla, https://www.catedraldesevilla.es/cultural-visit/ with the mission to illustrate the city’s emerging importance and wealth as a trading center on the last navigable stretch of the Guadalquivir River. The church elders offered the following inspirational instructions to the builders: “let us build a church so beautiful and so magnificent that those who see it finished will think we are mad.”

The inside of the of the church, also known as Santa Maria de la Sede, is cavernous with eighty side chapels and a ceiling that soars 138ft high. It is the third largest Christian cathedral in the world. The grandiose Gothic woodcarving of the Retablo Mayor, altar piece, is the life work of one artisan, Pierre Dancart, and gilded with an amazing amount of gold from the then newly discovered Americas.

Statues representing four kings of Spain from Aragon, Castile, Leon and Navarra are pole bearers for Columbus’ tomb, belatedly acknowledging that the explorer, who died in poverty, had made a major contribution to the Spanish Empire.

Always up for a climb, we signed on for a rooftop tour of the cathedral. Following our guide, we climbed stairs worn smooth over the centuries through ancient passageways hidden in the walls and towers to the top of the church for a beautiful view across Seville. We were grateful that we didn’t pass up a chance to walk amid the Gothic spires, flying buttresses and gargoyles that adorn the inspirational structure.

When the tour ended, we rested across from the church, on the steps of the Monumento a la Inmaculada Concepción in Plaza del Triunfo. It seems to be a rite of passage for visitors to Seville, to sit here in the heart of the historic district and soak in the ambiance of this beautiful city.

We let your minds imagine life in Seville centuries ago as horse drawn carriages, filled with tourists now, clattered across the cobblestoned square in front of the Royal Alcazar of Seville. Despite the fact that we were visiting in February, every day the queue for the Royal Alcázar of Seville was always exceptionally long, so we opted to buy our tickets and reserve an entry time online.  The same option is available for the Catedral De Sevilla.

The Plaza del Triunfo sits on what was once Seville’s ancient river port until the 900’s when the area was filled, and the Caliph of Cordoba ordered the building, adjacent to it, of the Royal Alcázar of Seville to accommodate offices of the Muslim government and the Caliph’s residence.

It’s been expanded and renovated numerous times over the centuries by both Muslim and Christian rulers. But surprisingly each successive regime savored an appreciation of the previous ruler’s Islamic architecture, intricate wall and ceiling decorations and quiet, lush oasis-like gardens. All are designed to create a sense of wonder, a key element of Islamic art. The Spanish Kings and Queens continued to admire the Muslim architectural style and imported Mudéjar craftsmen from Toledo and Granada to enhance their newer constructions which favored European Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance architectural styles. 

The importance of the Alcázar evolved significantly as Spain’s colonization of the Americas saw the country grow into the world’s first global empire, all of it directed from this seat of power in Seville. It’s an amazing place is the best way to sum it up.  Today the Alcázar of Seville is still occasionally used as a royal residence by King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia.

Flamenco is synonymous with Seville and one of most enjoyable ways to watch it was to find a street dancer or group busking. Our favorite dancer was Charli La Tornillo. She entertained crowds many afternoons with a passionate, fiery routine near the fountain in Puerta de Jerez Square, located on the tram line not far from the Alcázar. The Jardines de Murillo and the Plaza de España were also reliable spots to find Flamenco dancers.

One Saturday morning we decided to take the tram from the Prado De San Sebastian metro station into Plaza Nueva to start our morning, a relatively short trip in a modern coach through the pedestrian only historic center on a route lined with ancient stone and fin-de-siècle buildings.

It passed Seville’s 15th-century Exchange that now houses the Archivo de Indias, which contains centuries worth of records pertaining to Spain’s colonies in the new world. We first noticed a group of elegantly attired women wearing unique fashionable hats called tocados, or fascinators, walking along Av. de la Constitución, not far from city hall, our final stop. Saturday mornings, it turns out, are when civil weddings are performed in Seville.

It was an interesting morning watching the various fancifully dressed wedding groups queue in the plaza before their assigned time. Unlike civil ceremonies in the states, which usually are lowkey events, civil weddings in Spain are occasions for fashionistas to dress to the hilt.

After the ceremonies, friends and families escorted the bride and groom to nearby restaurants to continue the celebrations.

Seville is also a popular destination for joyful, outlandishly boisterous hen parties. Participants parade through the streets, dressed in quirky outfits, to celebrate their friend and bride to be.

Seville packs a lot into a small space and every direction we headed offered something interesting. The Hospital los Venerables was just a few steps away from our front door, down the narrow Calle Gloria that opens to the aptly named Plaza Venerables. 

It was built in the 1600s as a retirement home for poor, elderly or disabled priests.  The very austere exterior deceitfully hides a wonderfully ornate Baroque chapel and interior, as well as various tranquil courtyards. Today the building is used as a museum dedicated to the Sevillian born (1599) artist Diego Velázquez.  A collection of paintings by 17th century artists Francisco Pacheco, Murillo and Bartolomeo Cavarozzi are also on display.

There was an amazing amount to see in Seville as we wandered all over the city.  We’ll share our walks across this intriguing city in a number of future blogs.

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.

Reggio Emilia – Fine Food and Ancient Alleys

Seemingly never-ending waves of softly rolling hills that we viewed from the towers of San Marino, up-close now, were verdant with the new growth of winter cover crops and persimmon orchards, heavy with their delectable late-ripening orange fruit. The landscape, a patchwork quilt of autumn colors and earth tones, dotted the countryside enroute to Reggio Emilia, like the brush strokes of an impressionist painting.

Still elegant nineteenth century villas now stand where Reggio Emilia’s ancient defensive walls once rose, until a surging population demanded city expansion in the late 1800s.  A wide boulevard lined with trees and a well-used bike path now follow its original hexagonal footprint around the bike friendly city.  Bicycling across the flat terrain of Reggio Emilia is a popular way to commute to the train station or work in the pedestrian-only historic center from outlying neighborhoods, and is supported with 125 miles of well-marked urban bike lanes.  Emilia-Romagna has set a regional goal of getting 20% of all commuters to bike to work and funding 2300 miles of dedicated bike lanes.

The Reggiani’s enthusiasm for bicycling dates back to the 1870s, when a hippodrome was part of Parco del Popolo, and continues today with fierce loyalty to area road-bicycling racing teams that compete in the historic Giro dell’Emilia that has coursed through Emilia-Romagna since the race was first held in 1909. Currently it’s an a 1.HC event on the UCI Europe Tour.

With the assistance of the receptionist at Hotel Posta we were able to park on the street, just outside the historic center, without a fee for a week. This is unheard of during high season, but it was a great savings for us that we fully appreciated.  Located in the center of the city on Piazza del Monte, across from city hall, the hotel is in the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, a historic building which was originally constructed in 1280 as a governor’s palace. For over 500 years, since 1472, the rooms under its crenelated roof have been used as a hotel.

It has been renovated numerous times during the centuries, but still retains the old-world charm. The room rate was quite affordable in late November and we practically had the place to ourselves. From our window overlooking the piazza we watched the ebb and flow of Reggio Emilia pass below, highlighted by a teachers’ protest, a Christmas parade, and nightly buskers who took excellent advantage of the wonderful acoustics that the small plaza offered.

The city’s three large piazzas, Camillo Prampolini, Di Prospero, and Della Vittoria, are lined with historic buildings, churches and restaurants. During high season they would have been bustling with tourists and cafes tables would have nearly filled the squares.

Now in late November, city workers were hanging Christmas lights from the lamp poles throughout the city and erecting a Christmas tree in Piazza Prampolini, while a large temporary ice-skating rink was under construction near the Romolo Valli Opera House. 

Bundled up against the chill now, only the hearty sat at the few tables left outside, though inside the cafes was not really much warmer. Good coffee and locally produced Lambrusco helped ward off the chill as we expanded our concept of “walk a little, then café,” during our wanderings between churches in this pleasant city. 

Cheese is our weakness and we delighted in every opportunity to try different aged Parmigiano Reggianos. (Longer aging produces a stronger or more flavorful cheese, with some cheeses aged up to 36 months for that intense flavoring.) Paired with a locally produced aged balsamic vinegar, it is a surprisingly tasteful combination.

Oh, let’s just face it – Italian food is our weakness and we thoroughly enjoyed discovering the city’s cafes, bakeries, and restaurants as much as we enjoyed the city’s churches and museums.  Charcuterie boards, pastries and pasta tempted us repeatedly in this culinary temple of gastromic delights.  Here are some of our favorite places: Antica Salumeria Giorgio Pancaldi – always worth the wait for a table. Terme del Colesterolo – you have to love the name and their porchetta sandwiches. La Casalinga – a fresh homemade pasta store with super nice ladies who will stop what they are doing and make any tortellini or ravioli you request if the case is empty. Yes, we did buy some to take to our apartment stay in Milan. Dolce Charlottefor their savory and sweet baked goods. And Tabarin Osteria Popolare – even though they confused our order with the table adjacent to us it was still a wonderful dining experience.