Islamic Architecture in Andalucia

Specifically, the two mesmerizing beautifully old and intricate palaces of La Alhambra, Granada and Real Alcázar, Sevilla. The Nasrid palaces of the Alhambra were built by the last Muslim dynasty on the Iberian peninsula during the 14th century, while the Palacio de Pedro I of the Alcázar was built for the king of Castile in the same time period, with various additions and restorations over the hundreds of years since their construction. Both left us in awe of their detail and color and use of light and water to create powerfully peaceful spaces.

I have jumbled the photos here between the two sites, the (hover) titles indicate where each is taken.

Real Alcázar, Sevilla Sunset, Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada Real Alcázar, Sevilla

Intricate domes and carved ceilings far above cap many of the spaces, often with further layers of three-dimensional arches, domes or stalactite shapes within. I could have stared at each of these for the entirety of our visits.

Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada Real Alcázar, Sevilla Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada

Light pours into these spaces from above and all around.

La Alhambra, Granada Real Alcázar, Sevilla

Several materials are used to produce related patterns and effects – whether tile, marble, or wood it may be decorating the walls or arches or ceiling and incorporate painted colors or carved openings for light and air. Somehow to me it has neither the gaudy ornateness or heavy massiveness of much of the surrounding centuries’ architecture.

Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, GranadaReal Alcázar, SevillaNasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada

As a lover of geometric pattern (rather than, say, arabic poetry calligraphy), the tile work stands out throughout these rooms – so much variation over simple themes, so many alternate paths to the same intersections of star-filled points.

Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada

Real Alcázar, Sevilla Real Alcázar, Sevilla Real Alcázar, Sevilla

Water, in fountains and pools and rivulets cut in the floors, connects the inside and outside spaces of these palaces. Incredibly worthwhile visits to both, inspiration for art and a life of balance.

Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada Real Alcázar, Sevilla Real Alcázar, Sevilla

Semana Santa in Granada

Easter Sunday falls right in the middle of our trip to Spain, and Holy Week (Semana Santa) overlapped with our stay in Granada, in the region of Andalucia known for particularly elaborate processions and intricate massive hand-carried floats called pasos during this high-point of Christian penitence, lament, and celebration.

Procession, Alhambra, Granada

On the train from Barcelona to Málaga that Thursday morning we happened to be seated across from a Swiss-Spanish photographer who has returned year after year to Málaga to document the processions there. Salva Magaz introduced himself and gave us a personal preview on his laptop of the solemn exertion involved in carrying these floats, dozens of men carrying often well over a ton of wood and silver and decoration for hours into the night. Beautiful photography, engaging conversation about religion and world travel, the Andalucian countryside and coast; we talked off and on for the next several hours, a warm connection made with a good human on this cross-country train ride.

Arriving in Granada after dark that night, our taxi driver initially told us it would simply not be possible to get to our apartment – a procession was moving step by step along our street all evening. Winding his car’s way through the narrow hillside cobble roads of the Albaicín neighborhood crowded with pedestrians, he got us close and we walked behind the tail of the clamor to reach our lodgings, nestled below the Alhambra.

Stephanie knows how to pick apartments for our trips. La Alhambra por la Semana Santa con la luna llena.

Four other processions were making their way through town at the same time on Thursday, and onlookers lined the streets waiting for the procession’s return after 2am. Every day of the week has processions by different brotherhoods (lay Catholic organizations), and on Friday we encountered more beginning in the afternoon, some heralded by drums, others marked by lingering clouds of incense.

Procession, Alhambra, Granada

Our tickets for the historical highlight of this visit, the Alhambra, were scheduled for Saturday afternoon, which by luck happens to be the starting point of the only procession that day: Santa Maria de la Alhambra. Led by a marching band, then hundreds of costumed penitents in blue capes and capirotes, women in black veils, children in vestments ready to light the meter-long candles of the procession later in evening, the slowly moving march paused regularly in silence to file its way through the winding road out of the Alhambra. Nearly an hour after it began, the paso depicting Mary at the foot of the cross inched past us with a second band, with sweating men in rough cotton headbands and kneepads already trading places for a rest and water, ready to continue to march down to the Cathedral and return to the Alhambra after midnight.

Procession, Alhambra, Granada Procession, Alhambra, Granada Procession, Alhambra, Granada

A solemn walking vigil into Easter morning, a particularly spiritual time to visit this historic town.

Spain by Rail (Renfe) Pass

Some quick notes on pre-purchasing and reserving tickets for the Renfe Spain Pass as of March 2016, as the info we were able to find in answer to several questions was out of date or confusing:

  • The Renfe Spain Pass website is less than friendly, but it is possible to arrange everything online by yourself now. You not only need to purchase the pass here, but also all reservations (rather than through the main route/search site), and the only way I could reliably get it to be in English is by creating a Renfe account and logging in before starting through any of these forms.
  • But the site is very forgiving in that you may purchase and cancel a pass within 24hrs for a full refund, and may cancel and rebook reservations at any time (up to the day before at least).
  • The one exception to this is that the reservation form will not let you book earlier than your first reservation date!
    • You can cancel all your reservations and start over, and you can book alternate travel times and then cancel your first reservation, but both are a hassle. Make your first reservation the first date you think you might travel!
  • The 4-ride pass is currently €163, about $185. Therefore, it’s worth considering for any combination of trips that cost more than €40 each.
  • Each ride covers one segment, not one booking from the main Renfe site – if you are traveling a non-direct route (e.g. for us, Barcelona -> Granada, requiring a change in Cordoba), it’s probably worth buying the  smaller leg separately.
    • So spend some time pricing out the individual segments of your trip on the main site before deciding how many rides you’ll use on the Spain Pass in the one month from first travel.
  • The pass definitely paid for itself when we needed to change our itinerary a few days before traveling and were able to get now-€110 tickets for one segment. So it would presumably be even more useful if you’re flexibly uncertain of your travel dates or plans.
  • You DO need to make reservations (= buy tickets for a particular train) before traveling.

Here are the steps to buy a pass and make reservations:

  • See that green menu on the right? Each step you’ll need to return here and re-search for your pass for each action. Tedious, especially for multiple passes / passengers (each will need to separately search, select, buy, print for each reservation).
  • Compra – buy a pass. You’ll need your passport number, and it’s easiest to pay with PayPal. You should save the PDF version of the pass with the Pass Number, but this should also email a “locator” confirmation number that you can lookup your pass with your passport for the next steps alternatively.
  • Formalización de Viajes – reserve/book a train ticket. You’ll need to pick the departure and destination cities, and then can pick the train. If you check the box on the confirmation page, after you “purchase” (for $0.00 unless you are upgrading to a higher class) you may select specific seats.
  • Consulta – Search for and review all / reprint reservations.
  • Anulación Viajes – Cancel a reservation.

Just bring your printed pass and reservation (and passport, though that’s often not checked) to board. Train stations can still be confusing here, with separate departures boards and platform areas for local, medium, and AVE trains but not clearly marked, but we’ve been fine arriving 30 minutes before departure so far.

Sagrada Familía, Barcelona

We arrived in Barcelona directly by AVE fast train from Madrid our first day in Spain, a long day and short restless night since departing Atlanta, overtired and excited to immediately jump into our short visit to this Catalan city. The Sagrada Familía awaited us two blocks around the corner from our apartment.

My expectations for this still-in-construction-after-100-years cathedral were set by the ostentatious exterior, dripping sand castle, weathered and modern and too busy pile of towers upon towers. But in person, and especially inside, this is an awe-inspiring spiritual and sacred monument.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Part of my visual/architectural confusion before entering was that the two sets of finished towers and entrances are on either transept (arms of the typical cross-shaped floorplan), while the “front” and “rear” of the church are still mostly in-progress. Somehow rotating the building 90° and realizing that the overall shape is that of a typical cathedral and most views as above are from the side makes this basilica less absurd in my mind. The left side of the exterior photo shows the nave’s stained glass which quickly became the focal point inside for us. The quality of the afternoon light through these masses of windows, transitioning from blue and green to red and fire along the length of the nave is incredible in this light, open, and brightly welcoming space.

Sagrada Familia, BarcelonaSagrada Familia, BarcelonaSagrada Familia, Barcelona

The shapes of everything from ornament to structure within emphasize an incredible precision of geometry and math as it manifests in the organic world – from cubic grids and spiraling staircases to the branching hyperbolic columns and arched swooping domes, this is fluidly super-imposed modern technology on the memory and material of nature. Gothic stone echoes seamlessly into this (the?) masterpiece 20th century church.

As part of our ticket on this not-very-crowded (though still pulsing with masses of tourists until just before the end of our visit at closing time), we reserved time near sunset to ascend the Passion Tower via elevator. The views of Barcelona are somewhat constrained by protective fencing and the ongoing scaffolding, as well as the immense stone towers you descend within, spiraling around and bridging between as you return to the main body of the church. Not for the faint of knee or heights, the final half of the descent is through an interior spiral staircase apparently endless through the  rail-less center opening. While I am not afraid of heights, often these edge-less spirals evoke some vertigo for me, but once again the precision and balance of the design of this place surprises me and there is nothing but joy and awe in the downward experience.

Passion Tower100 ft of spiral stairs to get downFrom the Passion Tower

That said, we’re both glad Stephanie joined me at the top to look out on the city, and then returned via elevator. We met at the bottom of the stairs back in the southern transept, and took some time seated in the center of this loudly glorious worship space for silence and reflection as the stained-glass light dimmed and our first day transitioned into night.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona