Mapping and (late) thoughts for 2015

Sevilla, mapping, Christmas 204

A familiar Sevillano sight – the Puerta de la Macarena, in my old barrio.

The character of this year's show was a little girl called Estrella. These are the toys in her room.

The protagonist of this year’s show was a little girl called Estrella. These are the toys in her room.

Sevilla, mapping, Christmas 2014

Estrella escapes into a dream world, starting off in her fish tank…

and then, in one of the most spectacular (and incredibly realistic) images, the building appears to be on fire...

and then, in one of the most spectacular (and incredibly realistic) images, the building appears to be on fire…

Sevilla, mapping, Christmas 2014

and is engulfed by flames.

Sevilla, mapping, Christmas 2014

Then the Ayuntamiento appears to collapse

Before becoming encircled by jungle vines

before becoming encircled by jungle vines

and exotic flowers

and exotic flowers

Sevilla, mapping, Christmas 2014

Until the whole façade is a colourful mass of tropical foliage (why can’t we have it like this all year round?)

A Roman-style mosaic of a knight on his charger

A Roman-style mosaic of a knight on his charger.

We see the city's mighty Guadalquivir river, by its Roman name, which was later given to the riverfront street in Triana

We see the city’s Guadalquivir river, by its Roman name, which was later given to the riverfront street in Triana

and its Arab name, which means "the mighty river".

and its Arab name, which means “the mighty river”.

Guadalquivir, mapping

Estrella sails down the river on a caravel.

and the piece de resistance - a dragon

and the piece de resistance – a dragon

which breathed real fire

which breathed real fire.

Mapping 2014, Sevilla

Not a great shot, but you can just about make out the beast.

Next the Ayuntamiento "filled up" with water

Next the Ayuntamiento “filled up” with water

with marine plants across the whole façade

with marine plants across the whole façade

and lots of brightly-coloured fish, reminding us of the new aquarium.

and lots of brightly-coloured fish, reminding us of the new aquarium.

Then the Three Kings arrived on the their camels

Lastly, the Three Kings arrived on their camels.

The new year wasn’t greeted in my house with any great excitement or sense of hope – sorry all you eternal optimists and believers in the integral goodness of mankind, fresh starts, and all that. Long-term unemployment (my husband’s, not mine) does that to you. A topic I tend to avoid here as who wants to read my whinges? Exactly. I just eat more cake and biscuits (see below).

So on a more cheery note, and in typically belated fashion, I wanted to share with you some images from this year’s Mapping show in Seville (Christmas 2014/15). Laser video images were projected onto the rear façade of the Ayuntamiento – our town hall, lit up spectacularly every Christmas.

This show, now in its fourth year, has become hugely popular with the people of Seville. It’s free, it’s steps way from the shops where they forget the crisis to buy presents for one and all, and it’s pure entertainment.

Called Sueños de Agua, this year’s show was about a little Sevillana girl called Estrella who has a vivid imagination and dreams on Christmas Eve of going on adventures in her fish tank. I’ve put a few still images from it here, a tiny fraction of what you could see – the full-length video is below.

We missed seeing the Mapping before Christmas as we were already in England when it started, and when we returned, between Reyes, going back to school and work, I didn’t manage to blog about it while the show was still on. But I thought it was worth posting the pictures anyway.

These Mapping shows are always pretty pretty impressive delights all generations, especially those whose inner child, wide-eyed in wonder, relishes being transported to another, simpler world by these stunning

images.

Back in the real world, do you have any resolutions for this year? Mine are

1) to eat more healthily (biscuits and cake are just so tempting, especially in this chilly weather, with a nice cup of The Earl) and

2) to swear less in front of my children. Failing bloody miserably at both so far (Lola, get me a damn Jaffa cake!).

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A Merry Christmas in Seville, some gourmet goodies, and a sting in the tail

Christmas, Navidad, Sevilla

The Giralda glows golden behind the dazzling Christmas lights in Plaza Nueva.

 

Christmas, Navidad, Sevilla

The façade of the Ayuntamiento sparkles in festive mood.

Seville at Christmas-time feels wonderfully festive, with people going about their business – whether local Sevillanos working, meeting friends, buying presents or visiting belens (nativity scenes), or visitors under the spell cast by an already magical city at its most delightful – under the pretty, sparkling, colourful lights.

Every Christmas I try to take some interesting foodie treatsto England, to add a Spanish flavour to our family meal. Last year we had cheese from Doñana Park with a special edition Tio Pepe sherry (Dos Palmas), which worked beautifully together and went down a treat with everyone.

Doña Manuela cheese from the Sierra de Aracena.

Doña Manuela cheese from the Sierra de Aracena.

tuna, atun, feria market

As delicious as it is hard to find – smoked tuna.

This time, we’ll be feasting on goat’s cheese from Doña Manuela’s farm in the Sierra Aracena, which I visited with the kids earlier this year, some manchego with red wine, smoked tuna, and Botani dry muscatel.

The first two I bought in Triana market, at the Charcuteria Alfredo stall – across the river from the new gourmet Lonja del Barranco market, which I shall be writing about soon. The atun ahumado was from another market, in calle Feria, where David, a young guy from the fishing town of Barbate, also offers products from the famous almadraba tuna. I wrote about his stall, La Almadraba, in my travel article for the Guardian back in May, but sadly it didn’t make the final cut in the published version. The smoked tuna I bought isn’t almadraba, but it is extremely good, and I’ve never seen it anywhere else.

wine, vino, white wine, moscatel, Botani, Malaga

Botani – dry white muscatel wine from Malaga.

sparkling wine, Andalucia, vino, muscatel, Malaga, Ordoñez, Botani

The sparkling version of Botani.

The wine, Botani, I first found out about from fellow Seville blogger and Tapas Queen Shawn Hennessey (I also interviewed the winemaker, Victoria Ordoñez, for a travel magazine). Unusually for muscatel wine from Malaga, which is normally sweet, this is a dry wine – yet floral and fruity without being too honeyed or sickly (I HATE sweet white wine; semi-dulce is very common in Spain). In Seville you can buy Botani at Flores Jamones y Vinos. I also got some of the sparkling version which I’ve never tried before.

For buying Christmas presents to take back to England, my favourite hunting grounds are the various crafts markets, full of original handmade pieces, where you can meet the creators behind the artworks, sculptures, jewellery, and ceramics.

Amazing mechanized wedding scene, which also features both bankers and politicians being cooked in pots.

Mechanized wedding scene, which also features both bankers and politicians being cooked in pots.

At the Plaza Nueva Christmas craft market, also known as the Mercado Navideño de Artesania, I found this stall of beautiful handmade wooden toys from Granada, Arbole. They had a full-sized puppet theatre, wooden trains, ride-ons, and mechanized toys.

These included a detailed model of a wedding ceremony in a church, with an extraordinary contemporary subtext: beneath the congregation was a version of hell with two chambers, one labelled banqueros (bankers) and the other politicos (politicians), populated by diablitos (little devils). Two men, (presumably) an abuser of democratic power and an arbiter of financial mismanagement, were being cooked in pots over flames.

As hilarious as it was surreal, this seemed a fitting expression of what many Spanish feel about the political and financial powers that be.

Happy Christmas, and here’s to a better 2015!

My last Duchess – an interview with the Duquesa de Alba

The Duquesa with her third husband on their wedding day, outside her palace in Seville.

The Duquesa with her third husband on their wedding day, outside her palace in Seville.

The entrance of Palacio las Duenas in Seville, typically besieged by press

The entrance of Palacio de las Duenas in Seville, her preferred residence, typically besieged by press.

Back in 2009, I interviewed the Duquesa de Alba, who passed away last week in her palace here in Seville at the ripe old age of 88. The Duquesa was an aristocrat – the most titled noble in the world, in fact – but she wasn’t a stiff, stuffy type. Known as Cayetana, she dressed like a hippy with print dresses, flowers in her hair and beads around her ankles, loved flamenco, and was a keen amateur painter. She rarely missed seeing her favoured hermandad, Los Gitanos, in Semana Santa (Holy Week). She was married three times (and was widowed twice) and had six children. Hers was a full life, lived with enormous gusto almost to the very end (read my full biography of her).

Often this barefoot Duchess claimed to be “a normal person” – clearly she wasn’t, as someone with a fortune estimated at 3.5 billion euros, but she certainly had fewer pretensions than many in her position. She preferred her Seville palace, Las Dueñas, to other grander properties, and she said that she felt most at home in this city – and the Sevillanos loved her for that. My piece for the El Pais in English blog talks about the intense mutual affection between Cayetana and the people of Seville.

The interview was to coincide with an exhibition of paintings from her vast private art collection, held at the Museo de Bellas Artes here in Seville, with works by Titian, Goya, Chagall and Renoir. I was granted time with the Duquesa on the strict condition that I didn’t ask her about, or indeed mention, her family – the divorces and dalliances of her children were a constant source of fodder to the prensa rosa, and a constant source of preoccupation to herself. I promised that I would respect these parameters, and I did.

We had a long and entertaining conversation, about her taste in art, childhood memories and her experience of living in London, as well as subsequent visits. She was full of humour and insight, with an excellent memory, her speech slowed and slurred by illness, but her mind sharp. Her English was fluent, with an upper-class accent.

After I submitted my article, the newspaper which had commissioned it, an English-language publication based in Andalucia, couldn’t resist bringing in the gossip-mag angle – partly for context to explain who she was to those who didn’t know, but partly for a gratuitous tabloidy take, mentioning exactly what I’d been asked to avoid. My interview ended up being published with an added scandal-loving edge which I found mortifying. Luckily, when I sent her a copy, she loved it (phew!), sending me a beautiful thank you card – which I still have, obviously.

By then even more intrigued by this irrepressible octogenarian, I stood outside the Duquesa’s palace on the day of her third wedding in 2011 for hours in the heat, along with hordes of other Cayetana-philes, and was rewarded with a glimpse of the sprightly 85-year-old famously kicking off her shoes and dancing for the delighted crowds. I was also lucky enough to be invited to a flamenco performance held in honour of the Duchess of Cornwall when she visited Seville earlier the same year with Prince Charles – the Duquesa de Alba had met Camilla on a previous occasion in London, and the two Duchesses sat together in the front row. Afterwards she came over to greet some of those present, including myself.

Duquesa de Alba

Sevillanos (and those from further afield) signing the books of condolence in the Ayuntamiento.

To the best woman in the whole of my Seville. May God

“To the best woman in the whole of my Seville, the Duquesa de Alba. Rest in peace.”

"For the most illustrious woman which Seville has ever had, with much affection from a Sevillana. May God keep you ni his glory."

“For the most illustrious woman which Seville has ever had, with much affection from a Sevillana. May God keep you in his glory.”

Sevillanos queue up the stairs of the Ayuntamiento (Town Hall) to pay their last respects to the Duchess.

Sevillanos queue up the stairs of the Ayuntamiento (Town Hall) to pay their last respects to the Duchess.

Her death last Thursday was sad, if not unexpected, and the next day I went to pay my last respects at the capilla ardiente  where she was lying in state attended by her family (the Salon Colon of the Ayuntamiento was used, the largest room available – an estimated 80,000 people passed through in less than 24 hours). At midday on Friday her funeral was held in the Cathedral, and standing with the local press pack, I had a ringside seat at this sombre and moving occasion.

Alfonso's wreath to his wife reads: "I don't know if I knew how to tell you how much I loved you, I love you, and I will love you."

Alfonso’s wreath to his wife reads: “I don’t know if I knew how to tell you how much I loved you, I love you, and I will love you.”

Wreath from ex-King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia; many were surprised they didn't attend in person.

Wreath from ex-King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia; many were surprised they didn’t attend in person. Their daughter, Doña Elena, came instead.

Eugenia, the Duquesa's youngest child and only daughter, with her brother Jacobo.

Eugenia, the Duquesa’s only daughter, who was very close to her mother, is comforted by her brother Jacobo.

As someone who isn’t accustomed to the protocolo surrounding the death of a public figure, it was intriguing to see the spectacle, from the capilla ardiente and condolence books in the Ayuntamiento, to the funeral itself in the magnificent 15th-century basilica, conducted by the former Archbishop Cardinal of Seville.

Sevillanos applauding as the funeral cortege passes on the way to the cathedral.

Sevillanos applauding as the funeral cortege passes on the way to the cathedral.

The Duquesa was taken from the Ayuntamiento alongAvenida de la Constution to the cathedral, with crowds applauding as the procession past.

The Duquesa was taken from the Ayuntamiento along Avenida de la Constution to the cathedral.

The royal representative at the funeral was Doña Elena, sister of King Felipe.

The royal representative at the funeral was Doña Elena, sister of King Felipe. Many expected either reigning or former monarchs to attend the funeral.

The Archbishop Cardinal of Seville blesses the Duchess, swathed in the flags of Spain, and the Casa de Alba.

The former Archbishop Cardinal of Seville blesses the Duchess, swathed in the flags of Spain, and the Casa de Alba.

The Duchess' husband, Alfonso, cannot hide his grief, as he stands next to the Duchess's children.

The Duchess’ widower, Alfonso, cannot hide his grief, as he stands next to Carlos, 19th Duke of Alba, and the Duchess’s other children.

Over the first hours and days after she died, Twitter was filled with evenly-divided views, along the following lines. Either: 88-year-old extremely rich woman dies – big deal, when a penniless 80-something is being evicted from her home today; or: What an amazing woman, a force of life, she will be dearly missed in Seville.

The Duquesa was loved by a large number of Sevillanos because she adored their city so passionately, being an aficionado of flamenco, bull-fighting, Semana Santa and Feria. She also supported a number of charity causes, and helped individuals to pay for essential medical treatments which they couldn’t afford.

However there were plenty with no time for this phenomenally wealthy woman who led a life of privilege most can only dream about. As a terrateniente, she owned vast tracts of land, and her estates were subsidized by the European Union to the tune of three million euros per year. Parts of these fincas were not used for agriculture, as is the case with much land here in Andalucia, which many people see as grossly unfair when a considerable number of Andalucians don’t have enough to eat.

Whatever your view of her, she was a figure with an extremely high profile here in Spain. For this reason, I would like to show the full interview as it was originally submitted to the newspaper, as while not containing any major revelations, I think it offers a small insight into a fascinating, free-spirited, and controversial woman.

Portrait of Cayetana as a child by Spanish painter Zuloaga.

Portrait of Cayetana as a child by Spanish painter Zuloaga.

´´When I was a child, my father took me to the Prado every Sunday. I especially loved paintings by Velazquez and Goya,´´ Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart, the most titled woman in Spain, otherwise known as the 18th Duquesa de Alba, tells me. ´´I have always loved art. When I was four years old Zuloaga painted me, but I fidgeted so much he said he´d never paint another child,´´ she recalls – and he didn´t. The resulting portrait, of the young Cayetana on her favourite pony, Tommy, also features her toys Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat, represented with spooky, staring eyes.

The Duquesa, now in her eighties, is still a keen art aficionado – not surprising since she´s the owner of one of Spain´s most important private collections, with over 600 works. So which are her favourite painters? ´´I love Impressionism,´´ she says. ´´Gaugin, Latour, but also Spanish painters like Velazquez.´´ When I ask her which are her preferred paintings in the current show, Coleccion Casa de Alba – 40 works (´´they couldn´t fit any more in,´´ she says, sadly) from her palaces in Madrid and Seville – she replies, ´´La Duquesa de Alba en blanco´´, the emblematic Goya of her antecedent, the 13th Duquesa (the artist´s patron and, allegedly, lover), in front of which she has been photographed many times, and a less controversial Renoir.

´´I am delighted the exhibition has had such a good response – it´s full every day,´´ she tells me happily. In earlier days, the Duquesa was a keen collector, and her favourite hunting ground was London. ´´I love the galleries, I used to go to the Marlborough Gallery (a leading contemporary art gallery in Mayfair) to buy paintings. I liked Picasso, but not Bacon or Hockney.´´

´´I lived in England when I was a child, while my father was Ambassador in London,´´ she recalls, switching to perfect English, with a refined, aristocratic accent and no trace whatsoever of Spanish. ´´We lived in Belgrave Square. I went to a convent school. I didn´t like it very much – the teachers were sarcastic, and I was away from my country. It was rather difficult,´´ she recalls with typical upper-class understatement.

But she retained an affection for the English capital. ´´I love London. I stay at Claridges when I´m there – it´s divine. I go to Marks & Spencers and Selfridges, which are wonderful.´´ (When I tell her Marks & Spencers is going to open in Marbella soon, she laughs and says, excitedly ´´Oh good!´´)

´´I go to the National Gallery and Tate Britain, and to Covent Garden for the opera – I love Verdi, and Italian operas in general. But I haven´t been for a while – my last trip to London was 10 years ago.´´ When I ask her about her views on current art, she replies that she likes contemporary Russian painters, but hasn´t heard of Damien Hirst´s pickled sharks. She likes Picasso – who wanted to paint her naked when she was 22, but her husband wouldn´t allow it (´´it would have been very shocking in that era,´´ she explains).

You get the feeling that she herself would have been up for it on her own terms, as a passionate, romantic young woman, whose first love affair was with a bullfighter at the age of 17 (see box). The Duquesa is one of the richest women in Spain, with an estimated wealth of 600 million euros (when I ask if this is correct, she replies firmly, ´´I have absolutely no idea´´) and has an eye-popping 50-odd titles, including 11th Duchess of Berwick, 11th Baroness of Bosworth, 12th Countess-Duchess of Olivares and 18th Countess of Palma del Rio.

Born Maria del Rosario Cayetana Alfonsa Victoria Eugenia Francisca Fitz-James Stuart y de Silva, she is descended from the English royal family through an illegitimate son of King James II of England (also James VII of Scotland). King James bestowed on Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart (his surname means ´´son of James Stuart´´) the title of 1st Duke of Berwick; a painting by Ingres of Jacobo features in the exhibition. It was another of her antecedents who started the astonishing family art collection – Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, 3rd Duque de Alba, known as the Iron Duke, whose portrait by Titian is in the exhibition.

Gotya's painting of the 13th Duchess of Alba, rumoured to have been the painter's lover.

Goya’s painting of the 13th Duchess of Alba, rumoured to have been the painter’s lover.

When visiting Naples in the 16th century, he became interested in Italian art, and his patronage was continued by the 4th Duque. In the 18th century, the 13th Duquesa, Maria del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva, was an enthusiastic sponsor of talented young artists. She also gave away inherited works by Velazquez and Raphael. When Maria Teresa died without an heir, the title passed to her nephew Carlos Miguel, 7th Duque de Berwick, who travelled around Italy collecting Italian and Dutch paintings.

The current Duquesa has added many 19th and 20th works to the collection, notably by Renoir, Picasso and Miro. Cayetana has three main residences, where her artworks normally reside: the Palacio de Liria in Madrid, the Palacio de Dueñas in Seville and the Palacio de Monterrey in Salamanca. She also owns other houses in Marbella and Ibiza, as well as fincas all over Spain. It is said that she can cross Spain from one end to the other without leaving her own estates, and that she has more titles than the Queen of England, who would have to bow to her, being of lower rank.

Although she was born in Madrid, the Duquesa prefers the Andalucian capital. ´´I feel more at home in Seville,´´ she says. She has received various honorary medals from the city, and is delighted that a statue of herself will soon be erected in the Jardines de Cristina, wearing what she described as ´´a very Spanish dress – not exactly flamenco.´

This despite marked opposition from her nemesis, Antonio Rodrigo Torrijos, IU leader and deputy mayor of Seville. Clearly she can´t stand Torrijos, as when I ask her about the Torre Pelli, a highly controversial 178-metre skyscraper being built in La Cartuja with the politician´s full support, she blames it on, ´´that terrible Communist´´, adding that ´´it´s not the mayor´s fault.´´ She also is less than positive about recent changes in her adoptive city. ´´It used to be a lovely town,´´ she tells me. ´´Now they´re spoiling it by putting in new things like cycle lanes. It´s terrible.´´ But, she is quick to add, and repeats several times in our conversation, ´´Í am not a political person.´´

She speaks slowly, a result of recent illnesses, but has no problem making herself clear, and is expressive and animated, with a playful sense of humour – she is fun to talk to and seems to enjoy discussing her art collection, and her earlier life. In fact, she is so lively that you get the impression of a much younger woman trapped in a rather aging body.

As a young woman, Cayetana says, ´´I used to paint a bit, and I loved sports like riding – I used to jump in shows. I also loved tennis and skiing´´. She still goes to the beach in the summer, with the rest of the Spanish population, where she allows paparazzi to take pictures of her in her colourful beachwear, being the free-spirited bohemian that she is (apart from the cycle lanes).

She has a notoriously complicated relationship with the press, which has an ongoing obsession with the private lives of her and her family – four of her six children are divorced, and she has a much younger companion who is not universally approved of – and this is reflected in her parting words to me, which are, said a little plaintively, ´´treat me well.´´

f you want to read more about La Duquesa, I blogged extensively on Andalucia.com. Click here.

A meeting of minds and Moorish magnificence by moonlight

Palacio Carlos V - a recent construction by the Alhambra's standards.

Palacio Carlos V – one of the more recent constructions by the Alhambra’s standards.

The circular interior of Charles V's palace. He was the first Holy Roman emperor and liked to make a statement.

The circular interior of Charles V’s palace – he was the first Holy Roman Emperor.

When you work from home, as I do, Social Media isn’t just for watching hilarious viral videos of animals falling off bicycles, comparing notes about X Factor, and poring over photos of your friends’ kids.

It’s a lifeline to other, like-minded people with the same interests, in the same field of work, often in broadly the same region. Anyone who sits alone in their house, shuttered away in an office/cubbyhole/sitting room/garden shed in front of a computer for a large part of the day, will know what it feels like to operate in a vacuum. Noone else to bounce ideas off, commiserate, celebrate, or just ruminate with.

So, when you’re largely isolated, and you live abroad too, an online forum of people who live in the same country as you, speak the same language as you, and have an enormous collective knowledge base to which you contribute and which you benefit from, is a godsend.

I’m lucky enough to be a member of one such Facebook group. Who’d have thought that Zuckerberg’s beast, great for selling unwanted furniture and stalking ex-boyfriends (plus engaging with customers, as any SM consultant will tell you), would be a launch pad for such a dynamic collaborative meeting of minds. Entrepreneurs, marketers, writers, bloggers, and creative types who live in Spain, and are passionate about the country. The name is WABAS: Writers and Bloggers about Spain.

A view of the Alcazaba, the fortress, from the entrance to the Nasrid palace.

A view of the Alcazaba, the fortress, from the entrance to the Nasrid palace.

Last year I attended the group’s second national annual get-together, in Malaga, which was hugely enjoyable, interesting and constructive. This year the WABAS venue was Granada. Friends, wine, expertise and the Alhambra. Meeting online friends in person (do they look like their photo? Are they what I expected?). It’s a winning combination.

We learned about topics relevant to media-savvy expats in business. We talked. We listened. We agreed. We disagreed. We ate. We drank. We drank some more.

these niches were used for jars of water, a symbol of hospitality, vases flowers or perfume.

These tiled and decorated niches were used for jars of water, a symbol of hospitality, vases flowers or perfume.

And we visited the Alhambra. At night. It was only my second time in this wondrous complex of Moorish and Renaissance palaces, the first having been nine years ago when I was pregnant with my first child. As an occasional tour leader in Seville, I was delighted that we were taken around the Alhambra by an excellent guide, Maria Angustia from Cicerone Tours. As this native granadina informed us, Maria Angustia is the patron saint of Granada.

She also told us that the Alhambra, which dates from the 13th century when this part of Spain was ruled by the Moors – cultured Islamic rulers from north Africa – was self-sufficient; its own independent mini-city. With no natural water source, usually an essential factor in establishing a settlement, the hill above Granada wasn’t an obvious location to build a palace; a river fed by the Sierra Nevada had to be diverted to provide water for the sultan’s new palace. But the Nasrid ruler Muhammed I obviously had a vision in mind. Titbits like these, about how the monument was initially planned, bring history to life.

We started our tour at the Palace of Carlos V, King of Spain and the first Holy Roman Emperor, for whom the phrase “the empire on which the sun never sets” was coined. He also built the Casa Consistorial (original Town Hall) in Seville and held his wedding to Isabel of Portugal in the Alcazar of Seville. This 16th century palace, a few centuries more recent than the Nasrid Palaces which are the main draw of the Alhambra, is unusual in that it was the first building to be square on the outside, and round inside. The Palacio Carlos V is used for concerts and exhibitions.

Arabic calligraphy and tiles.

Arabic calligraphy and tiles in the Mexuar Palace.

 

Arabesque detail of an archway in the Comares Palace.

Arabesque detail on an archway in the Comares Palace.

Painted decoration on a ceiling of mocarabe, modelled after stalactites in a cave where Mohoma took refuge.

Painted mocarabe decoration on a ceiling, modelled after stalactites in a cave where the prophet Mohammed took refuge.

 

Artesonado (decorated painted wood) ceiling in the Mexuar Palace.

Artesonado (decorated painted wood) ceiling in the Mexuar Palace.

Entering the first section of the Nasrid Palaces, the Mexuar Palace, we saw examples of the extraordinarily complex, multi-layered decoration for which the Alhambra is famous as the most perfect example of a Moorish palace in the world. A combination of geometric alicatado tiles, with designs made from tiny pieces of ceramic; the intricate white relief sections, often with plant motifs and Arabic calligraphy inscriptions, called arabesque; the coffered artesonado wood ceilings, with their gold details; and coloured mocarabe decoration (see photo above), and you have a dazzling array of never-ending abstract art, 360 degrees, on every surface. Maria called it “an explosion of imagination”.

Washington Irving was an American writer and diplomat who lived in the Alhambra in the 1820s.

Washington Irving was an American writer and diplomat who lived in the Alhambra in the 1820s.

We visited the rooms occupied by Washington Irving when he lived in the Alhambra as the US Consul. Most well-known outside Spain as the writer of books such as Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra brought the then-largely abandoned, but mercifully still intact, palace to the attention of a worldwide audience, drawing visitors to a then-unknown part of Spain for many years to come. This American author and hispanophile – he wrote several books about the country – is revered in Andalucia, and you can even follow a Washington Irving route across the region.

Two of the 12 marble lions on the Fuente de los Leones.

Two of the 12 marble lions on the Fuente de los Leones.

Courtyard of the Lions, with trees behind. The night sky with shadowy trees was full of mystery, while the courtyard by heaving with other visitors.

Palace of the Lions, with trees behind. The night sky with shadowy trees was full of mystery, while the courtyard was heaving with other visitors.

One of the most celebrated monuments within this UNESCO World Heritage Site is the Fountain of the Lions, recently restored. Each of the 12 carved marble animals is different, but the fountain wasn’t lit up at night when we there, so it was difficult to see their faces, with individually modelled eyes and mouths. Maria explained that the water has to be to very carefully controlled to ensure that it flows out of the lions’ mouths at precisely the same speed. As always with such fabled beasts, theories abound as to why there are 12 – signs of the zodiac is one possibility.

Courtyard in the Comares Palace - water was essential to Moorish architecture, for its soothing sound, artistic (reflective) qualities and cooling effects in the sweltering summer.

Courtyard in the Comares Palace – water was essential to Moorish architecture, for its soothing sound, artistic (reflective) qualities and cooling effects in the sweltering summer heat.

The Alhambra was very busy on the night we visited, too much so for my liking, and Maria told us that 50 visitors enter the complex every five minutes – that’s 600 an hour – and that the palaces are open for 14 hours a day. Three million visits per year.

Afterwards, we went out for tapas, as you do, and I exchanged guiding notes with Maria, and reacquainted myself with fellow WABASers, as well as converting virtual online friendships into real ones, over a few bottles of good Spanish white wine from Rueda. Networking in real life and online is a necessity for today’s freelancers, and if you can do it with the surroundings of such a legendary city like Granada, all the better.

For practical information on visiting the Alhambra, see this useful post by fellow WABAS member and resident Granada expert, Molly Sears Piccavey.

 

Eight paws and four hooves – our new donkey

Two kids, two dogs, donkey, husband.

Two kids, two dogs, donkey, husband.

Getting to know my new "child".

Getting to know my new “child”.

Over the past 11 years since I’ve been living in Spain, I’ve acquired one husband, two children, and two dogs (in that order). Now our family has grown again, with a new arrival – a baby donkey.

It’s a long story – isn’t it always? We were out for a walk with the dogs one sunny Sunday afternoon, and we came across a donkey, as you do. It wasn’t tethered, it didn’t have any food or water, and looked pretty sad and lonely, if in good health and well-fed. As it was a hot day we decided to take it home to give it some water, at least.

Gentle Lucero was a donkey delight.

Gentle Lucero was a donkey delight.

Luckily we had a fenced off area of our large garden which had been used for growing vegetables, but was currently abandoned and overgrown. So in went Lucero, as the kids christened our new four-legged friend, and we went out to buy him a halter and some food. Lucero was a quiet, calm animal, male but not “whole” as they euphemistically describe it. Right from the start, I made it clear to Zac (8) and Lola (5) that the donkey wasn’t ours to keep, that someone would come and collect him and take him home soon, that we were just looking after him.

Their dad took them out for rides on Lucero in the olive field next door. The donkey nuzzled them and followed them about – I had never realised these gentle creatures were so affectionate. Before long Zac and Lola were donkey-doped, hooked on this furry creature the same height as them, with soft, kind eyes and nibbly lips. Zac, who is a typically bouncy and active eight-year-old, spent hours in his enclosure just talking to the animal and being with him.

Our Labrador Buddha gets to know Lucero the donkey.

Our Labrador Buddha gets to know Lucero the donkey.

Inevitably, given that everyone around here knows everyone else and their animals, word got back to the owner that we were looking after his beast, Pepe. He came to collect Lucero/Pepe on the Wednesday night, when the kids had just been out for a ride on him. Who would have thought that in just four days (three of them spent at school) two small children would become so strongly attached to a burro? They were both inconsolable when Lucero was loaded up to be taken back home.

The owner stayed chatting to my husband for while, and I had to ask him abruptly to go, losing my usual excessive British politeness (Not “I say old chap, would you mind awfully slinging your hook, the nippers are a little upset”, but “LEAVE NOW!”) as they were prolonging the painful agony of farewell for my weeping, desperate children, something no parent can cope with well.

Men are often a softer touch as fathers, in my experience (“Daaaad, Mum won’t let me watch TV/have some biscuits/buy a PlayStation – pleeeeease, go on, can I, pleeeease?”) and my husband couldn’t bear to see his darling niños in a state of such abject misery. So what did he do? He promised to get them their own donkey, of course. Dentro de poco (very soon). And so it all began.

He found someone among his wide circle of friends and acquaintances who had a young donkey ready to be separated from his mother. They arranged a barter deal and along came Polly. A *male* donkey. He’s now called Bolly.

Bolly is welcomed into his new home.

Bolly is welcomed into his new home.

Young donkeys can be nervous, a little aggressive, unpredictable, very affectionate and full of energy. Bolly is all of those things. He loves playing with the dogs, although the pecking order is still being established as our Labrador is always convinced he’s top dog – as he told the small dog in no uncertain terms soon after he arrived (having been passed on by two families). The small dog was found by my husband when he was a week old – the only survivor of an abandoned bitch with her litter of puppies.

Taking Bolly out for his first walk in the olive grove.

Taking Bolly out for his first walk in the olive grove.

Bolly meets the horses next door.

Bolly meets the horses next door.

Lola rides Bolly along the lane.

Lola rides Bolly along the lane.

I am learning fast about donkey behaviour, making lots of mistakes, and trying to be a good donkey owner. My husband is more instinctive, having had animals as a child (we had small dogs, hamster and guinea pig). The children ride Bolly bareback (on a leading rein), and they’re all getting used to this new experience. Like anything with a new animals, it’s not always a smooth ride. Bolly likes playing tug of war with the lab, whose old, deflated football, the toy he arrived with a year and a half ago, is used as the tugged thing. They chase each other around the garden. It’s not always good natured, and there are plenty of tellings-off, so we’re constantly on our guard for animal shenanigans.

One friend who knows lots about horses and lives in rural France has been a huge source of advice and support, suggesting books and videos about donkey behaviour. They are very intelligent creatures, she told me – yes, they’re famous for being stubborn, but that’s just because they take time to process information and then make a decision. Horses are faster to decide.

Beautiful tiled entrance arch to our local horse, donkey and oxen fair.

Beautiful tiled entrance arch to our local horse, donkey and oxen fair.

Gines, Sevilla, feria

Welcome. The Gines Town Hall thanks you for your visit. We hope you enjoy the authentic taste and feel which you experience at Una Para en Gines.

A feast of donkey excitements. Caramelo, a famous donkey who dances like a horse, is a star attraction.

A feast of donkey excitements. Caramelo, a famous donkey who dances like a horse, is a star attraction at this Gines fair.

Caramelo the dancing donkey at Una Para En Gines.

A dancing donkey (not Caramelo) at Una Para En Gines.

Two colourful rocieras on their mules.

Two colourful rocieras on their mules.

Donkey racing - not the most elegant sport, but great fun to watch.

Donkey racing – not the most elegant sport, but great fun to watch.

Soon after Bolly arrived, with extraordinarily good timing, I was told about a local livestock fair called Una Parada en Gines, in the next town from here, with oxen, horses and, yes, donkeys. Races, pulling contests, dressage… live music, bars, food…girls in feria dresses, a colouring/in tent…  your typical Spanish town fair. One morning, a young man doing a PhD in donkey behaviour came to do a donkey meet-and-greet with small children from local primary schools, so I took the opportunity to fire some questions at him, which he answered very good naturedly. Bolly might still be anxious from being separated from his mother, he told us, so we should be patient with him.

I didn’t much like seeing the donkeys, including tiny miniature ones, squashed together in small pens, but I suppose that’s what happens at these fairs. It was interesting to see the different breeds – I worked out that Bolly is a Catalan donkey.

It’s a steep learning curve for the whole family – kicking, biting, head-butting v hugs and gentle body contact (leaning in) – but we’re getting there.

Una Para en Gines takes place at the end of September in Gines, a town near Seville. Find out more here.