Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Granada, Spain: The Wonders of Two Cities

We are back in Andalusia, the Spanish region where we began our journey.  We are making a loop, and it won't be long until we close the circle.  We visited Cordoba and stood among the columns and arches of the Mezquita de Córdoba.  In Granada I walked through the illuminated rooms of the Nasrid Palace of Alhambra late one night.  These are two of the most wonderful places we have seen in all of our three tours through Europe.

In Cordoba, the Roman Bridge over the Guadalquivir River leads to the gates of the Mezquita de Córdoba.  For 2000 years it was the only bridge in the city.

The outside of the Mezquita de Córdoba is impenetrable, except after paying your 8 euros at the ticket office.

Every Sunday the Mezquita de Córdoba is open early, at 8 am instead of 10 am.  We were there right at opening, and we had the space almost to ourselves for the first hour.  It was built as a mosque in the 10th century and expanded several times.

The vertical views are as inspiring as the horizontal.
The wood mudejar wood ceilings have been beautifully restored.

Examples of beams in not-so-good condition were mounted for display in the courtyard.

Christian rule returned to Cordoba in 1236, and in the 16th century the building was converted to a Catholic church and a nave plopped down right in the middle of the mosque.  This is one of two organs installed in the church.

The carved mahogany of the choir was astounding in quantity and detail.

Another Moorish window for the collection.

Sundays must be a day to dress up in traditional garb in the city, because we saw all ages in these colorful  dresses throughout Cordoba.
It took three  days of biking to get from Cordoba to Granada, across terrain that definitely was not flat.  The white hill towns of Andalusia nestled among olive groves is the typical landscape.
Castillo de Alcalá la Real

Olive trees, everywhere.

The last grade dropping into Granada.  The valley location of the city traps air pollution, so the view of the Sierra Nevada mountains can only be faintly seen through the haze.
When I remember Granada, I remember ice cream.  It was a hot day when we arrived, and John stayed outside with the bikes while I shopped for groceries.  He must have looked hot or underfed or both, because a man exiting the store with a box of ice cream delights noticed John noticing him and his box.  The man reached in and gave John a cone and walked away.  John was poised to take a bite but remembered it might not be the best thing for his continuing lactose intolerance issues. So all that cold creamy chocolate goodness was all mine!

We stayed in an AirBnB apartment for two nights, right in the heart of downtown Granada.  It was located in a narrow alley across the street fromn the most popular ice cream joint in the city - Los Italianos.  Let me tell you, the second ice cream cone in as many days was delightful!
The street below our apartment started getting busy about 2pm and did not let up until late into the night.  The noise from happy people eating ice cream was so loud we had to keep the windows shut!
The Alhambra is the big attraction in Granada.  It is a palace complex with gardens and grand buildings.

The Palacio de Carlos V was a big hulking square building from the outside, with a surprisingly lovely round patio in the interior.

City views from the hill where the Alhambra is located were superb.
Of the multiple buildings that make up the Alhambra, the one that is star attraction is the Palacios Nazaríes.  The number of tickets sold to enter this building are limited and quickly sell out online.  We managed to get only one entry ticket to visit in the afternoon.  Additional tickets are sold the day of entry, so we left our little apartment before dawn to go stand in line.  There were many people ahead of us, some that looked like they were there most of the night.  By the time we got to the ticket window all that were left were tickets to enter at 10pm.  So John took the day shift, and while he was already snug in bed and sleeping, I ventured out into the illuminated city to see the palace.  It was a magical experience to see the intricate plasterwork highlighted by oblique light, not unlike how it must have been in the time of oil lamps.

John was able to capture images of the Palacios Nazaríes with the benefit of natural light.

It was a warm evening, and people were out eating and drinking as I walked for my night tour.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Córdoba, Spain: Chasing Windmills and Don Quixote

In the comfort of our hostal room in Segovia, John sucked up the wi-fi, alternating between the weather forecast and Google Maps, trying to decide the best route to Madrid.  There are only a few options, and the most direct involve crossing mountain passes.  As far as navigation goes, I trust John completely and and will follow him wherever he goes, content to pivot my gaze, looking for photo opportunities. 
Gaining elevation toward the pass, trying not to let that fresh snow from the previous days of rain concern us.
The morning we left Segovia the sun was shining, the first time we can remember for many days.  It was a gradual but persistent push to the pass, stopping only to inhale a few muesli bars for energy to beat the clouds gathering on the mountains.  We made it up and over, and in 30 minutes we descended the elevation it took us the three previous hours to attain. 
Once we reached the pass we bundled up in all our layers for the descent.  
Ten days of travel took us from the clogged streets of Madrid,through the open and sparse countryside of La Mancha, and winding through mountains and over passes back to Andaluisia.
One more day of cycling brought us into the urban core of Madrid, where taxis far outnumber cyclists.

Madrid making its position known on the biggest issue currently facing Europe.

We were impressed by the tidiness and many small parks and green spaces throughout the downtown.
We spent an afternoon walking the city, the sidewalks full of people, and maybe a few tipping a glass of Tio Pepe.

The road leaving Madrid to the south is the definition of flat.

Approaching our next cultural stop -- Toledo (Spain, not Ohio)

Toledo showing off its more picturesque side.
Workers were installing canopies above the streets in anticipation of the inevitable summer sun.

The old part of Toledo has something old and interesting at each turn.

Wed spent a couple of hours in the Museo de Santa Cruz, where Roman mosaics from the area were on display. 

The sturdy fortifications of Toledo.

The exterior of the Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz, a mosque built in 1000 AD, and later converted to a Christian church. 
During excavations outside the mosque a portion of a Roman road and overlaying a sewer were found.  So typical of what we have seen all over Spain, where the new ruling civilization builds on top of the previous one.
After leaving Toledo we were n the heart of the La Mancha region, where the deep colors of earth, tree, and sky meet.

And like Don Quixote, we were looking for windmills.

I am merely the Sancho to John's Don Quixote.  We have been casually looking for a copy of the book in English at used bookstores without much luck. 

Red poppies!  The joy of Spain in spring!

We passed through the small town of Almagro, where the main plaza is completely surrounded by timbered structures, unusual for the region.  The end is in sight for these painters.

We stealth camped one night on a reservoir.  In the evening two gentleman walked by and were placing strips of paper with numbers along the shore.  They told us the next day there would be fishing.  We didn't quite know what that meant until the next morning as we were leaving a caravan of cars with fisherman arrived to sett up for the annual derby.  We left just in time, I think!

I said to John, not a few minutes before, that we had not seen storks for a while.  And then we came upon this stork condo!

The second and highest pass we crossed leaving La Mancha and returning to Andalucia, on our way to Cordoba.

Spain has areas designated as Parque Natural, which we are not quite sure that means, since there still are plenty of houses and grazing.  But we do find some open areas.  We found this oak forest with a clear and cold running stream nearby, one of the better stealth camps.

Morning light as we were dropping from the mountains into the valley that will lead us to Cordoba.

Flat and hot, that is what I remember from the last stretch to Cordoba.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Segovia, Spain: Across the Hign Plateau

From the Portugal border we continued east.  The cities of Salamanca and Segovia were on our list to visit.  Along the way we crossed wide open spaces dotted with an occasional small agricultural town.  Along the way were stretches of canola fields so bright it almost hurts the eyes, oak forests, and an occasional pig farm.  This elevation is still high here and the winters can be cold.  With the rolling hills and large plantings of wheat, it is a landscape not unlike eastern Montana. 

Rolling into Cuidad Rodrigo on one of the last bright and shiny days.

Some of our new friends.

Big skies and quiet roads.  There was so little traffic we were able to ride side-by-side for along some stretches of road.

Oak forests dot the hills with the green grass and tiny yellow flowers of spring.  We found out that some of the best ham is made from acorn-fed pigs. 
All good things must come to an end, and so did the crystalline blue skies of the last couple of weeks. We knew it would, because we have a weather app on our smartphone. But it was a surprise when it came a bit early and we woke up to raindrops on the tent fly. We had just a short distance to ride from our stealth camp in a cow pasture to the university town of Salamanca. We established ourselves in a campground east of town before it really started to come down, and it continued into the night. So we took our umbrellas with us into the city for a day of sightseeing, and by afternoon we were rewarded with enough sun for some bright photos.
The Romans crossed here.  Portions of this bridge crossing the Tormes River date back to the 1st century,

The Plaza Mayor has 88 arches around the square decorated with medallions of important historical figures.

The buildings in the heart of the old town are so packed together that the only way to get a view is to look up.  Notice the texture of the building on the upper right of the picture...

...called the Casa de las Conchas -- "House of the Shells".

For a small fee it is possible to walk around the old buildings of the university.  We found the shape of the windows of the inner square interesting.

Once we get rid of the bikes and the stretchy clothes, we become anonymous tourists.  John looks like just another silhouette on the street.

Puffy clouds after a night of rain.

On a whim we visited the Casa Lis Art Nouveau and Art Deco Museum.  Besides a rather disturbing collection of French dolls, there was a totallyy gorgeous stained glass window looking south over the river.

The open areas between buildings of the university are public areas, and there were several Henry Moore sculptures on display.  A nice contrast of new and smooth against the hard edges of the stately architecture.

Canola fields forever.

One stealth camp was in a pine forest where every tree was scarred like this.  Little clay pots were at the base collecting the sap from the bleeding trees, presumably for the manufacture of turpentine.
The town of Segovia is in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, which separate it from the metropolis of Madrid.  The mountains catch the moisture of storms coming from the west, making it a green and sometimes misty place. 
Rain followed us to Segovia, and the town was a fantastical sight as we approached.

Adding to our collection of aqueduct images, the mighty Roman aqueduct of Segovia crosses through the heart of the town.

The structure is, to say the least, awesome.

Sixteenth century cathedral meets first century arches.

Hey, there's a troll in the arches!

The exterior of many of the buildings in Segovia have a plaster coating with an embossed motif.

Looking out from the Alcazar into the countryside.

Morning sun on the Cathedral on the day we left this fairy tail town.

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