My Summer 2010 Tour: Spain
“Chē-vē-tä-ˈve-kyä” sounded strange but it was the principal port of Rome, about 80 km away. Big ships require deep water, as the saying goes. Rome being on River Tiber, could ill-afford that luxury.
On 1st July, 2010, I reached Civitavecchia by train. When I came out of the station, I found no guide, no bus and no information. All I could see were cruise ships, awesome in their height like multi-storied buildings. I dragged my carry-on towards them till I met two smart ladies wearing the uniform of “Ocean Princess”. When I told them I was looking for ferry to Barcelona, they pointed to the far end of the port and said in unison, “Over there”. No problem, I am used to such a situation and that is why I keep three-to-four-hour margin.
I had a ticket of "Grimaldi Lines", purchased a day before for € 50. The ferry was large and spacious and had lounges, restaurants and swimming pools. Being a deck passenger, I had no seat. Soon the ship was in the open Mediterranean Sea. I came out for bracing fresh air. The water was deep blue and the sail was calm. I spent some time watching the waves then returned and slept on a couch, going off and on to a café for soup, salad and sandwich.
La Rambla Street
La Rambla Street
After 20 hours, the ship docked at Barcelona. I fished out a crumbled chit from my pocket with the bold words “PORTAL DE ANGEL” and showed it to a fellow-passenger. He pointed out toward north and I moved in that direction. Unknown to me, I was going towards the world famous street, La Rambla. Soon I entered the street and walked through a great diversity of people, shoppers, tourists, comedians and street musicians performing live - some imitating Michael Jackson wearing white gloves and white socks. Someone had rightly said, “the only street in the world which I wish would never end”.
Luckily I saw many fellow-countrymen and spoke to them in Urdu or Punjabi. It relaxed my jaws and lifted my spirits. When I showed them the hostel address, one came along with me and guided me right to the place, Hostel Lausanne, 24 Ciutat Vella, Portal del Angel, Barcelona.
I got a spacious room with a view. Besides, there were free coffee or tea and internet. What else one could expect from room rent of €30?
Next day, I started my walk from Rambla Street which was filled with newspaper kiosks, flower shops, animal stalls and a variety of artists - some drawing portraits or caricatures. At the end of the street, was “Plaça de Catalunya”, a large plaza surrounded by monumental buildings. There were as many as nine streets emanating from the square and all were crowded with tourists and locals. On its one side was the statue of Christopher Columbus, honoring the renowned explorer and discoverer of America. I sat on a bench nearby and watched people moving around.
A unique church
On my third day I went to see a famous Church, Sagrada Famililia. This was No.1 attraction of Barcelona and it took me about an hour to get a €12 ticket for entry.
The church was designed by Antoni Gaudi, a Spanish Architect famous for his unique designs. During his youth, he suffered from rheumatic fever and thought that a regular walk would cure him. He used to spend lot of time in gardens and rural area. This exposure to nature inspired him to incorporate natural shapes into his work. His designs and mosaics reflected natural angles and curves.
He was a Catholic and devoted his life for designing Sagrada Famililia which would eventually have 18 towers, 12 for the 12 apostles, 4 for the 4 evangelists, one for Mary and one for Jesus. Eight towers have so far been built and the remaining ten were expected to be completed by 2030.
I had heard a lot about Barcelona Olympic Stadium and Spanish Village. Riding metro and Funicular rail, I went to the top of the Montjuic Hills. There were many Olympic installations like Palau Sant Jordi (an indoor sporting arena), the Olympic stadium and swimming pools. After casually visiting these places, I headed downwards for Spanish Village. It had streets and squares like a real village in the natural surroundings of the hills.
I reached Madrid at about 4 pm. I had a reservation in a hotel which had provided me with some instructions on “how to get there by public transport”. So using metro, I went the hotel, Best Western Arosa. Though rated 4-Star, its charges for a standard room were € 62 which seemed a good deal.
Next morning, I stepped out of the hotel and soon found myself on Gran Via, literally meaning “Great Road”. It was lined with fabulous building, shops, and restaurants. The buildings were very old and low rise representing early 20th century architecture. Not only lavishly decorated, there were large statues perching on the edge of their roofs. It was like a walk through an open air museum.
Near the end of Gran Via, there were some modern buildings with latest architectural styles like Metropolis Building and Telephonica with winged Goddess Victoria. On the same road was the Plaza del Callao with a number of movie theaters in Art Deco buildings. I felt as if I was passing through the Broadway of New York.
Soon I saw an oasis of greenery. This was Retiro Park, a large French Style garden. It was filled with sculpture and monuments. In a bustling city, the park was like a green lung. It had a gorgeous patchwork of colorful flower, fountains, lakes and emerald greenery.
In the same vicinity were the Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid containing plants from the five continents specially South America and the Philippines. Besides, there were state-of-the-art greenhouses for research.
Dominated by the statue of King Phillips III, Plaza Mayor was a grand arcaded square. Under its arches were high-end restaurants and cafes filled with tourists sipping wine with tapas (small snack-sized dishes). Besides, there were a large number of open-air cafes and stalls offering antiques, coins and military memorabilia. At many places, street entertainers had budged in showing their tricks specially the buskers looking like real statues.
Casa de la Panaderia was a prominent building on the Plaza Mayor. Popularly known as ‘Bakery’, it was designed to house the Bakers’ Guild which used to control the price of grain. It was very powerful and had a strong political influence. The building had two Flemish style towers and spires. On the opposite side was another building that also had two towers and spires. This was the Case de Carniceria, which was once the butchers’ shop.
The square itself was surrounded by red-brick three storied residential buildings with extended balconies serving as the ‘lookout’ of the festivities down below. In old days, there were royal coronations, executions and bull fights. Looking closely, one could still see the blood on the walls from some of the bull fights held in earlier years.
Royal Palance of Madrid
I love long walks. Whenever I am free after seeing famous landmarks, I just go to any direction. I take care to keep the walk straight so that I can return back without any problem. In the process, I come across many monuments.
One fine day, while walking in the downtown of Madrid, I had a rare sight, Royal Palace of Madrid. I could get near it without any hindrance as the reigning king Juan Carlos and the Royal Family were not living there. The palace was partially opened for public. Unfortunately, on the day of my visit, it was closed for public viewing due to some repair work. But even from the outside, it looked spectacular.
Last day at Madrid
I remained at Madrid for three days. It was a quite a safe city and I moved with ease in its liveliest square, The Puerta del Sol (Spanish for "Gate of the Sun")with a large equestrian statue of King Carlos and a 20 ton statue of a bear eating fruits from a tree.
Also, I went to zoo and aquarium complex spread over 3,000 square meters. It was a home to animal as diverse as rhinos, koalas, dolphins and rare Iberian lynx.
On my last day in Madrid i.e. 7th of July, 2010, there was a sudden flow of people with red & yellow shirts, shouting to the top of their voices as Spain had won semi-final of 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Next morning, I left for Cordoba by bus.
I reached Qurtuba, also known as Cordoba, at about 2 pm and with some efforts found a budget hotel, Boston, for euro 29 per night. The hotel was located in Plaza de Las Tendillas, a semi-pedestrian zone. In the evening, I strolled through the town. It was a well-conserved historical place and a ‘World Heritage” as declared by UNESCO. The streets were narrow lined with cafés and souvenir shops. The residential building were equally beautiful with colorful and fragrant flowers. Just a leisurely walk took me to Juderia District where Jewish synagogue, Mesquita and Alcazar were situated in close proximity reflecting contribution of Jews, Muslims and Christians.
I was mostly interested in the grand mosque, Mesquita, but it was already 6 pm and entrance gate was closed. It was a massive structure with high walls. Moving along a side street, I came across the Guadalquivir River and enjoyed a cool air in otherwise hot weather. Later at night, I had dinner starting with delicious soup made from meshed vegetable and olive oil and ending with “alfajores”, a typical Arabian dessert made of almonds and honey paying about €16.
Next day, I paid €20 and boarded a tourist bus for Madinatul Zahara, an Arab Muslim medieval town located about 5 km from Córdoba. It was built by King Abdur Rahman III for his wife Zahra. First stop was a Museum and, second, the ruins of the town. It is said that it took 25 years to build it but it existed for only 65 years as it was looted and plundered in a rebellion. For the next 9 centuries it slept forgotten beneath a hard dirt cover. Although restoration work was going on for the past many decades, only one-tenth of the medina had been excavated so far.
Mosque converted into cathedral
On my last day, I went to see the mosque and bought a ticket of € 6. However, the entry was free before 10 am which was not well-publicized and hence I missed the opportunity. The approach was through a courtyard with old historical orange trees and fountains. First view was exciting. Jan Morris described it as "so near the desert in its tent like forest of supporting pillars."
There were a large number of granite jasper and marble pillars. Sunlight was streaming in from the windows creating interesting effects inside. The imam place “Mihrab”, was magnificent with shell-shaped ceiling carved from a single block of marble and was decorated with mosaics of gold.
There was no place for Muslims to pray as the mosque had been converted into cathedral. Many Muslim groups had tried their best for allowing them to pray within the premises. But the Bishop of Cordoba refused them saying that “sharing the space with Muslims would be like a man sharing his wife.”
On 11th of July, 2010, I left for Granada. Though only 160 km away, the bus took a lot of time as the entire route was mountainous. The ride was, however, very pleasant with pretty, rolling terrain and lush greenery. The bus briefly stopped at many villages perched on the hills. The city of Granada itself was situated at an elevation of 738 metres looking over the fertile Vega plain with the magnificent mountains of the Sierra Nevada as its backdrop.
I stayed at a modest place for euro 20 per night arranged through tourist office at the bus-station. Called Pension La Milagrosa, it was near to Trinity Square in the maze of fascinating labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets.
Next day, I went to see the Fabulous Alhambra. It was a very popular spot and it took me about one hour to purchase the tickets. The area was divided into three parts: (i) the ornate Nazrid Palaces, (ii) the Alcazaba (the battlements) and the (iii) Generalife (the gardens). First, I moved towards the palaces. To control the flow of tourists, everyone was allotted a particular half-hour slot for each spot.
These were a long series of palaces regarded as wonder in the architectural world. Despite centuries of decay, damage and looting, the palaces were looking awesome with their interior walls adorned with intricate artwork. It was like a pearl set in emerald.
First was ‘The Mexuar Palace’ where the Sultan “met with the citizens to listen their problems”. Second, Cuarto Dorado (the golden room), where the sultan used to make most important decisions. Opposite this was Serallo which was his official residence and harem.
The alcazaba or citadel was located at the far end. It was also known as red fort due to the color of the rock that made up its walls. It served as military headquarters for the Nasrid dynasty. It was built on the highest point of the hill to defend the royal family. The original construction had 24 towers but only a few remained. I climbed to the top of one tower and relish the spectacular views of the city of Granada and surrounding countryside.
A long covered walkway brought me to Generalife or "Garden of paradise". These were said to be the oldest surviving Moorish gardens terraced in Italian style with Water Steps and countless fountains. These gardens were beautiful with cypress-trees and hedges of laurel giving an overwhelming feeling of peacefulness and serenity.
My next destination would be in Portugal, a town called Sagre located at the extreme southwestern corner of Europe. To the ancient world, Sagre was last explored point or end of the land.