Even though Halloween is not nearly as popular in Spain as it is in my own country, it is still a time of celebration. For the day after Halloween, November 1st, is All Saints’ Day. and this means that we have a long weekend. I took the opportunity to visit one of the lesser-known regions of Spain: Extremadura. This is the area that lies to the Southwest of Madrid. Known for its relative poverty (the area is mostly agricultural, with hardly any industry), Extremadura nevertheless produces some of the country’s finest cured meats. Its cuisine is delightful.
Our first stop was the town of Trujillo. This is a small town (with less than 10,000 inhabitants) famous for being both beautiful and historically significant. The town owes its beauty partly to its location. Situated atop a granite knoll, the town has a commanding view of the surroundings, and the plentiful local rock has been quarried and used to give all the buildings a uniform appearance. The whole place is stone—from the pavement stones, to the restaurants, to the churches, to the city walls.
The town is also known for being the home of several Conquistadores (the Spaniards who conquered the New World), most notably Francisco Pizarro, the man who conquered the Incan Empire. Nowadays, of course, we are more likely to feel uneasy at this “accomplishment” of destroying a whole civilization. Even so, he is a historical character of immense importance. Pizarro’s statue stands in the main square, looking properly triumphant. (Hernan Cortés, the conquirer of the Aztecs, was from a small village not so far off. I wonder why Extremadura was a breeding-ground for these characters.)
Later that day we went to Cáceres, the second-largest city in the whole province. Cáceres also has a beautifully-preserved historical center, making it a lovely place to walk around. But perhaps even more important, Cáceres has an excellent food scene. There are many superb restaurants in the city.
The next morning we left Cáceres early to go to the National Park of Monfragüe. This is a beautiful area of green hills around the valley of the Tajo River. Humans have been drawn to this area for a long time. In the center of the park, high up on a hill, are the remains of a medieval fortress. In a cave on that same hill, cave paintings have been found, dating from thousands of years ago.
Nowadays tourists mostly come for the birds. A massive rock formation, called the Salto del Gitano (or the “gypsy’s jump”), sits at the river’s edge, creating a persistent updraft. For whatever reason, predatory birds—most notably vultures, but eagles as well—enjoy coasting in this pillow of air. This has made the park one of the best places for bird-watching in all of Europe.
During our last Easter Vacation, my brother and I took a trip up to Galicia for a few days. I had been to Galicia many times before, but this time I wanted to do something different. My plan was to rent a car and see some of the less accessible parts of the province, away from the big cities.
Well, this went mostly to plan. The main source of anxiety was the car. I was totally inexperienced in car rentals, so I was caught off guard at the office when they told me that I would have to pay more on top of what I had already paid to reserve the car—a lot more. What many rental agencies do is bundle together their gasoline and their insurance policies. So, basically, if you do not want the insurance they charge you a huge “administrative fee” for filling up the car’s tank with gas, and this makes it cheaper to actually get the insurance. As a result, we paid over twice as much in the office as we had paid online to get the car.
Personally I think this practice should not be allowed, since it is transparently a way of squeezing money from customers. But, I must admit, by the end of the trip I was glad I had bought the insurance, since I managed to scratch the side of the car in an underground parking lot.
But getting a car had many positives. One of them was in allowing us to rent an Airbnb out in the middle of the countryside. It was unlike any place I had ever stayed in: a stone cottage where an old Belgian woman lived with her dogs and chickens. If you can find the listing, I highly recommend a stay. (The cottage is quite near the town of Xuño, in the province of Pontevedra.) The surrounding landscape is gorgeous, and the cottage is near many things worth visiting—as I hope to show.
First we headed to the town of O Grove, on the recommendation of a friend. This is a popular destination for local tourism, and it is easy to see why. The town itself is quite pleasant, right on the coastline and filled with good restaurants. We stopped and had some of Galicia’s delicious seafood. (The bad part of driving is that I cannot have wine with lunch.) Across a bridge is the island of A Toxa, which is filled with resorts and hotels. It is worth visiting, however, if only for the hermitage, whose walls are covered in cockle shells.
Closer to our Airbnb was the Miradoiro da Curota, which it a lookout point on the top of one of the tallest hills in the area. Some have called this mirador the best view in Spain, if only because all of the region’s famous island national parks are visible from it. It is an extremely impressive sight. Personally I find the Galician landscape intoxicating, with its mixture of lush green, deep greys, and shimmering waters.
Next we went down towards the town of Xuño, to visit the local beach: As Furnas. This beach is famous for being the place where the writer Ramón Sampedro dove from the rocks and broke his neck, turning him into a paraplegic. Unhappy with his life of immobility, he tried for many years to be euthanized, taking his case all the way to the highest court in the land. In the end he lost the case, but he convinced his friends to give him cyanide.
This tragic story was turned into an iconic film—Mar Adentro, or The Sea Inside—by Alejandro Amenábar, with Javier Bardem playing Sampedro.
I was thrilled. You see, as usual I had hardly looked up anything before booking the trip, so virtually everything we saw was done on the spur of the moment. So it was a very fortunate coincidence to come across this beach: The Sea Inside was one of the first movies I watched in the hopes of improving my Spanish. Travelling in Spain is often like this. The country is so jam packed with treasures that you trip over them wherever you go.
Even if you do not care about the movie, the beach is worth visiting on its own merits. Skeletal granite formations jut into the water, creating fascinating patterns of pools and polished rock.
All of this was great. But the best was yet to come. After doing some searching on my phone, we drove north to the Castro of Baroña. To be honest I had little idea what to expect. It turned out to be one of the coolest things that I have seen in Galicia—or in all of Spain, for that matter.
Situated on a little peninsula, with roaring waves all around, is an ancient fort. Settlement of the land probably dates back centuries before the common era, and the fort was finally abandoned in the first century. This is what is called a “castro,” which loosely means a fortress. It was built by the (appropriately named) Castro Culture—a group of Celtic peoples living in the north. Though the Celtic language has disappeared from the Iberian Peninsula, its ruins (and some aspects of its culture) have remained.
The builders dug a little moat into the isthmus of land connecting the island to the mainland, and built two circular walls around the area. All that remains of the buildings inside the fortress are stone circles, the bases of former constructions. I imagine it would have been very difficult to attack such a place, since the only access is by sea (and there is no good place to land a boat) or across the narrow strip of land. But I doubt that the defenders could have stored enough food for a prolonged siege.
Not only are the ruins intriguing, but the site is beautiful in itself, like so much of the Galician coast.
For my money, the combination of the landscape, the excellent seafood, and the welcoming people makes this region perhaps my favorite in the entire country. And that is saying quite a lot.
In light of Francisco Franco’s recent exhumation, I am updating and republishing this post, which I originally published in February of 2017.
Any tourist to Berlin will soon be reminded of its ugly past. Monuments to the Nazi movement, to the Holocaust, to the Berlin Wall, and to the Stasi secret police are everywhere. This abundance of tragic memorials might be shocking at first, even depressing; but the very fact that they exist is an encouraging sign. The conflict, persecution, oppression, and violent terror that killed so many and ripped Germany apart—it is not hidden away, but openly discussed, commemorated, taught to children, so that it is not forgotten and never repeated.
A tourist in Madrid, by comparison, can be forgiven for never guessing that there was ever a Spanish Civil War at all. The most notable monument to that bloody conflict hangs in the Reina Sofia: Picasso’s Guernica. But there are no museums, no educational centers, no memorials. Why? Perhaps it is all too recent; after all, Franco died in 1975, and he had supporters right until the end. And yet the Berlin Wall fell even more recently, in 1989, and Berlin is full of references to its famous barrier. So mere historical proximity is not the answer
This question is taken up in Giles Tremlett’s excellent book, Ghosts of Spain. Spaniards, he says, are still so divided on the issue of Franco that it is impossible to present the Spanish Civil War in any kind of neutral way. Any mention of the war is bound to upset one side or the other, threatening to reopen old wounds, to aggravate societal tensions that once ripped the country in half.
The only solution that seems to satisfy nearly everyone is—silence. For a long time, both sides abided by a pact of forgetting, pacto de olvido, pushing the war into the half-forgotten background, letting it collect dust in the basement. As we will see later, this is becoming less and less true recently, but is still very much the norm.
With the political situation in my own country becoming more alarming by the day, I cannot afford to be a part of this pact of forgetting. I do not think it is wise to forget, nor to remain silent, especially now. We cannot indulge in historical ignorance. Averting our eyes away from painful events only makes it more likely that they will reoccur. With this in mind, I traveled to the most imposing monument to Facist Spain, El Valle de los Caídos, to hear distant echoes of Spain’s silent past.
El Valle de los Caídos, or the Valley of the Fallen, is situated about an hour’s drive outside the city of Madrid, in a valley called Cuelgamuros in the Guadarrama mountains. It is a Catholic basilica tunnelled into a rocky outcropping, its main altar deep underground. The basilica is situated in a natural preserve that covers over 13 square kilometers, in a picturesque area among pine forests and granite boulders.
The Valley is not exactly easy to get to using public transportation. The best option, I think, is to take either the 664 or the 661 to El Escorial. From there, you can take a special bus that leaves every day at 3:15 pm, and drops you off right in front of the monument. This bus returns at 5:30 to El Escorial (two hours is more than enough time to visit), and from there you can return to Madrid.
The Valley took nineteen years to complete; construction lasted from 1940 to 1959, and cost over one billion pesetas. (I do not know how much that would be in euros.) The two principal architects were Pedro Muguruza Otaño and Diego Méndez, who consciously built the monument in a Neo-Herrerian style—a revival of the architectural style of Juan de Herrera, the architect of El Escorial. But according to the official guide book
… in large part, the Valley is a personal creation of Francisco Franco, since it was his idea to have the monument crowning the rock where the sepulchral crypt would open that contains the remains of the fallen; his is the Program of the Abbey and the Center of Social Studies, after overruling the original idea that there would be a military barracks; his the choice of the site; his the decisions about thousands of little details throughout the construction and, finally, his the choice of the various projects of the Cross and the architects.
(My translation from the Spanish edition.)
The Valley took so long and cost so much money to build because of the massive engineering challenge of building it. The mountain had to be hollowed out, and careful calculations had to be made regarding the vertical and lateral stability of the rock. The rock that was excavated to make the basilica is the same rock that paves the large terrace out front.
Aside from the feat of engineering, the Valley is impressive simply for its size. If part of its interior had not intentionally been left unconsecrated—to avoid competition with the mother church—it would be a bigger Basilica than St. Peter’s in Rome. Even more striking is the cross atop the monument, which is the largest cross in the world; it stretches to 150 meters (500 feet) in height, and is visible from a distance of 32 kilometers (20 miles). A funicular—which wasn’t working when I was there—takes visitors up to the base of the cross. Inside the cross is an elevator and a stairway, which lead up to a hatch in the top. But tourists are not allowed here.
The Valley is officially meant to commemorate the fallen combatants of both sides in the Spanish Civil War. On the opposite side of the mountain from the basilica is a Benedictine Abbey, where the monks hold a perpetual mass to the dead. (I’m not sure if this abbey can be visited.) Interred somewhere within the complex—I think in chambers connected to the side chapels—are the fallen soldiers. There are 33,872 combatants buried there, all unmarked, making the Valley of the Fallen the biggest mass grave in Spain.
When I walked off the bus, I was surprised to see snow on the ground. This was the first time I had seen snow from up close in Spain. The atmosphere was dense with fog, a mist that seemed to suffocate all sound, leaving the surroundings in an eerie silence. There were about twenty of us on the bus, mostly younger people, mostly Spanish.
We followed the signs towards the monument, walking down a simple road, passing a café, towards a large hill that loomed overhead; its top was totally shrouded in the mist. The scene gave me a sense of foreboding—the jagged rocks jutting from the hillside, the pine trees laden with snow, the opaque air, the absence of sound.
I walked on, and suddenly a form emerged through the fog: a concrete arch, about thirty feet high. This was the front of the monument. Soon the path opened up into a large empty space, a flat terrace covered with snow. I walked into the middle of this terrace, my feet crunching in the snow, leaving a lonely trail of footprints. From there I could see the monument’s façade. A semicircular row of arches curved around me in a massive embrace. In the middle was the door, and above that a pietá, or lamentation, showing the Virgin Mary bent down over the dead Christ’s body.
There was something cold and sterile about those concrete arches, lifelessly repeating in perfect order like a row of tombstones in a military cemetery. They impressed at first, but had nothing behind them: doorways leading nowhere, meaning nothing. The dreary grey of concrete was only drearier in the fog. I moved towards the door and looked up at the statue. The Virgin looked so absolutely alone out here in the wilderness, up on the mountain amid the rocks and snow: petrified grief, forever mourning.
I passed through the door, decorated with bas reliefs of the Life of Christ, and went inside. This was the basilica, built in the mountain’s belly. A long tunnel stretched out before me, dimly lit. I could hear the soft mechanical hum of ventilation. Footsteps and conversation softly echoed in the cavernous space. A sign on the wall told me to be silent, for I was entering a “sacred place.”
Through another doorway, and I was standing in another tunnel, this one much larger. In the hallway, yellow bulbs glowed like torches; their light was reflected on the polished surface of the floor, making every surface shimmer with a pallid glimmer. I was deep in the earth now, buried under a mountain of rock, far from the sun’s rays and the cool breeze.
Along the walls, tapestries were hung. I looked and saw scenes of chaos: warriors on horseback attacking crowds, multi-headed hydras trampling people underfoot, angels with swords held aloft, fire and smoke and rays of light, battles and beatific visions, and always God, enshrined with light, watching from above. This was the apocalypse, depicted in eight sequential images along the hallway: the Antichrist, the four horsemen, the beast, and the final judgment. In small nooks, underneath giant bas reliefs, altars hung from the walls, telling the story of the Virgin Mary: the annunciation, the visitation, the adoration of the Magi.
My phone was in my hand and I was busy taking pictures, when a woman dressed in black walked by and yelled “No fotos, caballero.” I continued on, pausing here and there to examine a tapestry and an altar, but feeling somehow distracted, maybe even drained. There was something oppressive about the space. Like the façade outside, this hallway seemed sterile, lifeless, inhuman. The perfect symmetry of the decoration—the tapestries and altars arranged in exactly regular intervals, opposite one other, repeating and repeating—and the mathematical precision of every line and angle: there was no warmth in it, no life, only calculation and design.
I ascended a staircase, and found myself among rows of pews. Overhead, on platforms along the walls, were four statues of shrouded figures. Before me was the main altar. Christ hung from a crucifix made from tree trunks, staring up at the ceiling in merciful agony. Now I stared at the ceiling, too, as I stepped into the center of the basilica.
Over me was an enormous dome, golden and flooded with light. It was magnificent. Christ sat enthroned in the center, by far the largest figure, while dozens of believers ascended up towards him in a mountain of men and women. I walked around the circular space, agape at the sight, slowly making my way to where I began. Then I walked around again, this time pausing to investigate the small chapels on either side. They were dedicated to “the fallen.” In one chapel, a man was kneeling in prayer.
In my third pass around the space, I noticed something on the ground. I approached and saw these words written on a concrete slab: Francisco Franco. So this was it; this was the dictator’s tomb. I paused for a long while and stared down at the grave. Here he was, the man who kept Spain under his boot for forty long years. And what was he now? A pile of dust underneath a concrete slab. But he was not forgotten. A bouquet of white and red flowers sat above his name, neatly arranged. The flowers looked fresh.
As I stood there, looking down at the grave, a strange feeling began to take hold of me. An icy hand gripped my insides and twisted; my knees felt weak; sweat ran down my back. Suddenly a sound snapped me out of the trance. “¡NO FOTOS!” yelled the woman in black at a tourist—her words echoing harshly in the cavernous space and breaking, for a moment, the suffocating silence.
I walked around the room once more, and then I fled—walking through the tunnel, through the door, and back into the open air. I went down the front stairs and into the courtyard. In a corner, someone had built a snowman. The poor fellow was already starting to melt.
I turned to look at the monument once again. The fog had receded somewhat, giving me a better view of the mountainside. Up above, breaking through the mist like a ship pushing through stormy waves, was the cross. It was just an outline, a faint silhouette in the semi-darkness, standing far up above everything in the surroundings.
The Valley of the Fallen is popular: it is the third-most visited monument under the direction of the Patrimonio Nacional, the governmental caretaker agency. But it is also intensely controversial. Indeed, how can it not be? Whatever Franco may have said or thought about its ostensible purpose—commemorating both sides of the war indifferently—the Valley is an obvious monument to Spanish Fascism: nationalistic, Roman Catholic, Falangist, megalomaniac.
Added to this is the uncomfortable fact that part of the labor that went into the Valley’s construction was done by Spanish prisoners of war of the defeated side. Granted, from what I can find, it seems that these prisoners constituted a rather small percentage of the workforce; what is more, the labor allowed prisoners to commute their sentences. Nevertheless, the thought that Republican soldiers contributed their sweat and toil to a monument celebrating their defeat, cannot help but inspire discomfort.
More controversial still are the burials. I mentioned above that nearly 34,000 people are buried in the Valley. But it is important to note that many of these burials were not performed with the consent of the families. To the contrary, Franco’s men dug up soldier’s graves in huge numbers, carting them off to the Valley to be a part of Franco’s grandiose gesture of reconciliation. To this day, families are trying to retrieve their loved ones from the massive vaults of the basilica, where they are interred without name or marking of any kind.
This is not to mention Franco’s tomb. Francisco Franco is the only person interred in the Valley who did not die in the Civil War. More problematically, Franco is buried as a hero: right in the center of the Basilica, still carefully adorned with flowers. There are many who think his remains should be removed,* and others who think they should at least be moved to the mausoleum on an equal footing with the rest of the deceased. The Right counters that this gesture would be pointless, purely symbolic, and would needlessly disturb the populace. So his remains remain.
[*His remains have, of course, been removed, as I discuss at the end of this post.]
I should also mention the only other marked grave in the basilica, that of José Antonio Primo de Rivera. Little known nowadays, Primo de Rivera was the leader of the proto-fascist Falangist party in the Spanish Republic. Due to his revolutionary activities as a politician, he was imprisoned before the Civil War, and was executed after the outbreak of the conflict. He is buried in the center of the Basilica, right across from Franco. Though his political career was marked with some contradictions, his death in prison allowed the Francoist forces to turn him into a martry for the cause. Thus his presence.
In his book, Ghosts of Spain, Tremlett describes a Falangist rally that he witnessed inside the Mausoleum. The flag and symbol of Franco’s party were proudly waved, and Franco’s daughter was even in attendance. These rallies were formally outlawed in 2007, as part of the Historical Memory Law. In 2009 and 2010, when Spain was in control of the socialist party, the monument was closed several times. This was ostensibly for safety reasons, though the Right saw it as a sign of suppression. When the socialists were voted out of power in 2011, masses resumed in the Basilica.
The most pressing question, it seems to me, is what should be done with the monument? At present, the Valley of the Fallen is presented as just another historic Catholic Basilica, like El Escorial, with informational plaques about its artwork and design. A visitor, totally innocent of Spanish history, can conceivably visit the monument and never guess that it was connected with a Fascist government. I think this is not an acceptable situation.
In 2011, an “expert commission” was formed under the socialist government to give advice on the future of the monument. They proposed setting up an interpretive center, to explain to visitors why it exists. They also suggested that remains of the soldiers be identified, and their names inscribed on the terrace outside, and that Franco’s remains should be removed completely. These seem like sensible and good suggestions to me, but the conservative government, upon their ascension to power, announced that they had no intention of following them.
I think this situation needs to change, and soon. As one of my students said, if you see the monument with “non-political eyes,” it is a beautiful and astonishing work. But there is no separating the Valley from its politics; and any attempt to do so is itself a political act—one that tacitly approves of what the monument stands for. History cannot be swept under the rug, especially now; it must be confronted, interpreted, understood, and taught. Reframing the Valley will be a challenge, but it is also an opportunity for Spain to come to grips with its past
Update, October 2019: The Remain’s of Francisco Franco have, at long last, been removed from the Valley. It was the fruit of a long legal struggle between the socialist government and Franco’s family, among other conservative forces. The relocation of Franco’s body was purposefully quiet, dignified, and private—all the better to prevent violent outbreaks.
For my part, I think that this is certainly a step in the right direction, though much work remains to be done. The remains of the dead must be identified and, if the family desires, removedfrom the basilica. Moreover, information should be available on the site, telling of the monument’s past and not just of its architecture. This will be no easy task, of course, and is certainly many years off. But the removal of Franco’s body gives me hope that Spain is now readier to confront its past.
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The plane landed late; and by the time the metro took us to the city, it was midnight. Though the Airbnb was not far from the metro stop, we were so tired that we elected to take a taxi. The driver grimaced when he saw the address.
“How much you pay to stay there?” he asked.
“Not much,” I said truthfully.
“You should pay nothing!”
He dropped us off in front of a long, dark alley.
“Stay on that side,” he told us, before driving off.
“I guess this is it,” I said, and we hesitatingly began to walk into the darkness.
Just as we approached the door, a noise startled us. Two homeless people were crouched right beside the door, talking. In truth I had no reason to think that they posed any kind of threat. But the taxi driver’s words had put me on edge. I fumbled with the lockbox on the door, reading the relevant digits from my phone and tugging. The thing popped open and revealed our keys.
We took the elevator to the top floor. There, I read in the instructions that I was to use the blue key for this one. My friend Becca tried to open it, but to no avail.
“Are you sure it’s this one?” she said.
“Yes, it says the blue key for the blue door.”
She tried again.
“It’s not working,” she said. “Want to try?”
I pocketed my phone and grabbed the key. But as soon as I turned it I felt a snap—the key had broken off in the lock. I was horrified. It was one o’clock in the morning and I had just jammed the lock of our apartment. There was nothing to do but to call the host, who I hoped lived close by. Luckily he picked up quickly.
“You what?” he said.
“The key broke off in the lock.”
“How hard is it to open a door?” he said.
“You know ten people are staying there?”
“Yes, I know it’s…”
“Just wait there.”
I assumed that he would have to call the locksmith, which on a Friday night at one in the morning could easily take hours and cost hundreds of euros. But, to my immense relief, within five minutes he appeared carrying a box of tools. The key shard was extracted and, with some more scolding, we were ushered inside. He then opened a lockbox inside the apartment and gave us a replacement key. The charge was five euros.
“Thank you!” I said, marvelling at the efficiency of the process. Guests must break keys in the door all the time, if he had it down to such a science.
Anyways, the ordeal was over: we had arrived in Athens. From the balcony of our Airbnb we could see it: the Parthenon, high up on its hill, gleamingly lit with floodlights. I looked at the ancient temple, relaxed, and felt that strange wondrous feeling of finally seeing something with your eyes which you have seen a thousand times in photographs.
I was finally here, in Athens, the honorary birthplace of Western culture. I was in the city of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; of Thucydides and Pericles and Solon. For worshippers of history, no ground is more sacred. And yet my first experience in this city of philosophy and art was being frightened by a taxi driver and then criticized by a disgruntled landlord.
Our first stop was the National Archaeology Museum. As one might expect from an archaeology museum in one of the greatest of ancient cities, this one of the city’s cultural jewels. It is located right in the heart of Athens, in an impressive neoclassical building that evokes the grandiose history it hopes to document. When we went, the line was short and the price was entirely reasonable.
The collection begins with a set of artifacts which cannot be properly called ‘Greek.’ Some of these are Cycladic art, from the Cyclades, a collection of small, rocky islands off the Greek coast. The art is remarkable, both for its high quality and for its extreme contrast to what we normally think of as ‘Greek’ art. There is no hint of realism in these works. To the contrary, the sculptures of faces and bodies are heavily stylized, leaving a characteristically angular and abstract form which would fit in well in any modern art gallery. One of my favorite works from this section is the representation of a harp player, whose instrument seems to emanate from his leg.
Another civilization which flourished before the ancient Greeks were the Mycenaeans, whose culture covered much of modern-day Greek, the Peloponesus, and the islands. The archaic culture takes its name from the greatest city of its era, Mycenae. One of the artistic masterpieces from this period is the so-called Mask of Agamemnon. This is a funerary mask made of pounded gold around 1500 BCE. The mask owes its name to its discoverer, Heinrich Schilemann, who believed it to belong to the legendary king of the Trojan War. Nowadays this link seems extremely unlikely, if not fanciful. The mask is beautiful, nonetheless. Its highly stylized features evoke an individual—noble, powerful, and tranquil in the repose of death.
What I stumbled upon next astonished me: the Antikythera mechanism. This is one of the most remarkable artefacts in history, one which I had heard about several times from documentaries and television. But I had no idea it was here. The Antikythera mechanism is a highly sophisticated device used to compute the positions of celestial objects and to calculate eclipses. In essence it is an ancient computer. It was discovered in a shipwreck off the coast of Antikythera, in 1901, and was made some time around 100 BCE. Badly corroded by its centuries under the sea, and broken into several fragments, the pale green chunks of metal hardly do justice to the triumph that such an object represents.
In technical sophistication it would be over a thousand years until Europeans created anything comparable. The mechanism contained over 30 gears whose turnings could model the irregular movements of the sun, moon, and planets. It would be wound with a little crank, and it was originally covered with inscriptions of the months and days (Egyptian names written in Greek script) and the intercalandary days used to correct the Egyptian 360-day year. The level of knowledge needed to create such a device is extraordinary. Merely developing the mathematics needed to accurately calculate the moon’s orbit, for example, took generations of work. And to be able to build such a delicate device that embodies these mathematical relationships in a usable form—that is true sophistication.
Near the fragments of the original device are several modern reconstructions of what it may have looked like. All of these agree that it was a medium-sized box with a metallic face that displayed several rotating rings. The device is not exactly beautiful to look at; but in what it means for our species—the ability to chart and predict the movement of celestial bodies with mathematical precision—it is an artifact more moving than even the finest sculpture.
The museum’s sculpture collection allows the visitor to see the evolution of Greek technique. The archaic period was characterized by a notable influence of Egyptian art upon the Greeks. One can see this clearly in the Knoisos Kouros, a large statue of a young man made around 500 BCE to mark a grave. The figure is stiff, with his arms straight at his sides; his hair is braided behind him; and his mouth wears that characteristic ‘archaic smile,’ a sort of otherworldly grin typical of this period. Nearby is a statue of a sphinx—with a smiling human head, an eagle’s wings, and a lion’s body. Clearly these early Greeks were admirers of their ancient counterparts in the Nile Valley.
Compare this statue with one made about 100 years later: the Poseidon of Cape Artemision. This is a bronze statue depicting a bearded god, his arm raised in a gesture of smiting, found in a shipwreck. (It is unclear whether it is Poseidon or Zeus, since the object in the god’s arm—a trident or a thunderbolt—has been lost.) Here the body is far from stiff, but poised to strike, its right foot lifting up in preparation. The face, too, is far more expressive. Gone is the archaic smile. The bearded god is magnificent, foreboding, and regal.
Found in that same shipwreck is the Jockey of Artemision, a bronze statue that was made even later, at around 150 BCE. Here realism has advanced considerably. We see a young boy riding a horse. The horse is frozen mid-stride, while the impossibly small boy is seated bareback. To my eyes the work has a decidedly morbid air: the horse looks sickly while the boy looks frightened. But it is a masterful work of art, with every muscle of the horse’s body modeled beautifully, and its face wonderfully lifelike. Again, we must marvel at the technical sophistication needed to create such a well-balanced, realistic sculpture out of bronze.
The Golden Age of Greek art is, however, normally considered to lie between the stiffness of the archaic period and the realism of the Hellenistic period. During this properly classical age, idealized form met technical sophistication, creating those wonderful heroic figures who are both believable and yet beyond human. Among these we might class the Aphrodite of Knidos or the Capitoline Venus, iconic statues of the idealized female body, both of which can be found at the museum—or, at least, Roman-era copies.
One of the museum’s great male nudes is the Antikythera Ephebe, a bronze statue found in the same shipwreck that yielded up the above-mentioned mechanism. As with the case of the Poseidon statue mentioned above, the identity of the young man is unclear, since we do not know what he held in his hand. Nevertheless it is an extraordinary representation of the perfect human form—very far-removed in conception and execution from the Egyptian-influenced statues created just two centuries before.
The museum has many masterpieces; but one cannot do justice to its collection by focusing on these pieces alone. There are superb examples of ancient coins and pottery, and sculptures ranging from 1,000 BCE to the Roman era. The Greek vase-painting alone deserves and rewards close study. But, for me, the most moving galleries were those which contained ancient funerary markers. These are like tombstones, most often decorated with statues in high relief, that show us intimate and often touching representations of the departed. In one we see a father holding a baby, whose little hand is outstretched towards his deceased mother. It is wonderful art; but, more importantly, it is so wonderfully human.
This was our first morning. As visiting museums is tough work, we emerged tired and hungry. But the weather was lovely beyond belief. It was mid-March, and Madrid was still feeling the winter chill. Athens, meanwhile, was sunny and perfectly warm, and the sky had nary a cloud. We were also fortunate when it came to food. Greek food is justly famous; and Athens, of course, has no shortage of it. We ate lunch in a place called O Kostas, ordering two lamb gyros and fries with feta cheese. It was delicious. For dessert, we headed to a spot called Lukumades, which serves a type of pastry called, appropriately, Loukoumades. These are essentially like doughnut holes—fried balls of dough—but they are especially sumptuous, soft on the inside and slightly tough on the outside. Traditionally they are served with honey, which is what I ordered. It was a voluptuary experience.
After we ate, we headed to a tour that Becca had booked before we arrived. We wanted to see at least some of the country outside of Athens. A trip to Delphi or, better still, one of the Greek islands would have been ideal; but since we had limited time, we settled on a short trip to the Temple of Poseidon. The tour met at a hotel, where we boarded a large tour bus. I was rather impressed at the driver’s ability to maneuver the blimp-like vehicle through the narrow Athenian streets. Our guide gave us a running narration of the sites we were passing, through the bus’s PA system, as well as giving us some background as to the history and the mythology associated with the temple.
Apart from its major monuments, the city of Athens is itself not especially attractive—a clutter of unremarkably buildings—but the landscape surrounding the city partakes in all that fabled beauty of the Greek countryside. The bright blue Mediterranean, the gentle hills and small islands sparsely covered with green, and the little towns nestled among these elevations—the whole scene brought my thoughts back to the country’s ancient past.
Many times I have heard it said that the particular geography of Greece was the key to its cultural development: that the hills and mountains made overland travel difficult, while the many islands and harbors made sea travel, and thus international trade, far more profitable. Thus, the Greeks became excellent sailors and developed independent city-states, whose merchants sailed far and wide, coming into contact with other cultures and bringing back ideas, arts, and technologies from afar. I have even heard it said that the particular clarity of the Meditteranean sun in Greece shaped their logical philosophy and their classical art. Theories such as these should always be handled with caution. Still, as I looked at this dramatic and yet harmonious landscape, I could not help but feel inspired myself.
Finally we reached the temple. It stands on a bluff overlooking the sea, a commanding position for the house of a god. The guide led us from the parking lot to the site, gave us a little speech, and then let us roam free. Built during the Golden Age of Athens, under Pericles (c. 440 BCE), the temple itself is now in a ruined state, with less than half of the original columns standing and nothing of the roof or internal structures to speak of. Even so, the temple has been a tourist destination for many years, as attested by the many graffiti carved into the rock, including the name of Lord Byron. The ruined temple is perhaps all the more charming to modern visitors because of its ruin. As it stands now, the columns open up towards the viewer, and the temple itself becomes a kind of lens or frame for the landscape around it.
Martin Heidegger, the philosopher who idolized the Greeks, was horrified by most of what he actually saw on his trip to Greece. This temple was one of the few sites that inspired him, which he recorded in his influential essays on aesthetics:
Standing there, the building rests on the rocky ground. This resting of the work draws up out of the rock the obscurity of that rock’s bulky yet spontaneous support. Standing there, the building holds its ground against the storm raging above it and so first makes the storm itself manifest in its violence. The luster and gleam of the stone, though itself apparently glowing only by the grace of the sun, first brings to radiance the light of the day, the breadth of the sky, the darkness of the night.
My response to the structure was, however, muted compared with my response to the landscape surrounding the temple. Nevertheless, it was special to see my first true Ancient Greek temple, in situ. It is a work of art that perfectly complements nature.
We arrived back around dinnertime, ate, and then went to bed. Tomorrow was going to be a big day.
We awoke in our pitch-dark room early. It was time to visit the Acropolis. Breakfast was easy. The streets were full of vendors selling sesame bread rings—which taste like thin, crunchy bagels.
The walk to the base of the hill was short, and it was not long before we began to encounter ruins. First was Hadrian’s Library, built during the reign of that Roman Emperor to house some of the cultural treasures of Athens. (Educated Romans were acutely aware of the cultural debt they owed to Greece.) Little of this structure remains, just a few walls and free-standing columns in a grassy field. Nearby is the Roman agora (an agora is an open space used for assemblies). Athens’ original agora was apparently swallowed up by surrounding buildings, making a new one necessary during the Roman era. The most famous structure in this area is the Tower of the Winds, possibly the first weather station in history, equipped with a wind vane, multiple sundials, and a water clock.
Our path then took us past the iconic Theater of Dionysus. Built into the side of the hill, the theater will be familiar to anyone who has seen later Roman theaters, partially because the Romans refurbished it, and partially because this is the prototype of all theaters that came later—possibly history’s first theater. Semicircular rows of seats descend to the stage, which is framed by a grandiose stone backdrop. It was amazing to see the venue where, in all probability, the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes were performed. It may be difficult for us to appreciate this nowadays, when theater and all its offspring (television, movies) so dominate our entertainment and art. But at one point theater was an entirely new, cutting-edge artistic medium. The Greeks not only gave birth to this artform, but quickly produced masterpieces, still powerful after more than 2,000 years.
The path took us on a gradual ascent up the hill of the Acropolis. Soon we came to the entrance to the site. Though there were lots of tourists mulling about, I was surprised that we did not have to wait on a long line to get inside. It was not at all like visiting the Colosseum in Rome: we paid and walked right inside. A little more walking, and we were standing before the ancient entrance to the Acropolis, the Propylaea. This consists of a marble colonnade, with wings on either side, which sits grandly atop the stairs leading up to the Acropolis. At the time this was a sacred space, and so the Propylaea served as a gate, and was used to control access to the city’s temples, barring the way of any undesirables.
We climbed the stairs, passed under the Propylaea—and there it was, the Parthenon.
Seeing any iconic site evokes a peculiar feeling: a quick succession of awe, disappointment, boredom, excitement, curiosity, wonder, and awe again. First you think, “That’s it!” Then you think, “Well, I guess that’s it.” And then you start to really look at it, in a way you never could in photos or in videos. Now you can sense the building’s proportions, and see it in the proper situation—the strong Mediteranean sun bearing down, the bear rock of the hill underfoot, and the expansive view on every side.
The Parthenon was built at the height of Athenian power, at around 450 BCE. Athens had just emerged victorious from a war with Persia, the very war recorded by Herodotus in his Histories. During that conflict, the Persians had ransacked the city of Athens and had burned several sacred sites, including an older temple. Nevertheless, Athens emerged from the war stronger than ever before, the de facto leader of the Delian League—a loose federation of Greek city-states. Indeed, the league dues paid to Athens by the other members helped to fund the new temple, something that the other cities did not appreciate. The high-handed leadership of Athens eventually resulted in the Peloponnesian War, recorded by Thucydides, which ended with the defeat of Athens by Sparta and its allies, and the end of the Athenian Golden Age.
The construction of the Parthenon, then, coincides exactly with Athens’ most glorious moment. On the surface the building is simplicity itself: rows of columns (69 in all, originally) holding up a roof. But the beauties are in the subtleties. First, the columns themselves swell slightly in the middle, in order to counteract the optical illusion that perfectly straight columns are narrower in the middle. The whole foundation itself is slightly bowed, or bent, which helped rain flow off the roof as well as made the building stronger—not to mention lessening the stiffness of the building’s profile.
Then there is the artwork. Very little of the original sculptures remain, much of it having been carted off to England by Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin (more on that later). As extraordinary as much of this artwork is, it was not meant to be the main focus on the structure. In fact, it was placed so high above that it is unclear how it could have been properly seen. The Ancient Greek traveller, Pausanias, does not even mention the friezes that are now considered touchstones in the history of art. Instead, the main focus of the building was an enormous statue of Athena, holding the winged form of Nike (or vistory), now lost to time.
We do have a good idea of what this statue would have looked like, though, from several reproductions and representations, as well as from written descriptions. Ironically, as the classicist Mary Beard points out, we in the present would likely not have found this statue particularly beautiful. Certainly the full-scale reproduction in Nashville is not inspiring. The gargantuan figure was not meant to be a work of art, after all, but a cult image—indeed, the goddess herself made incarnate. And the temple was not a place of services or worship, such as a church or a mosque, but a place to house the offerings to this physical goddess.
Nowadays, we are not apt to see the ruined temple as the house of a goddess, or even as primarily a religious structure. Rather, we cannot help seeing the Parthenon as a kind of visual representation of the culture that gave us philosophy, art, and democracy. We see the ancient structure, and we think of Pericles, the great leader of Athens, and his ironic funeral oration:
If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences…if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes…
But the Parthenon has been affected by far more history than merely Classical Athens. The building served as a church for much longer than it ever was the home of Athena. The pagan temple was first consecrated under the Byzantines as a Greek Orthodox church; and then, during the crusades, the Parthenon fell under the control of several different Western European states, becoming a Roman Catholic church controlled by the French, the Italians, and the Catalans in turn. Finally the Ottoman Turks seized control, and the Parthenon became a mosque. In 1687, during a war with Venice, the Ottomans unwisely decided to use the Parthenon as a refuge for civilians, as well as a storage depot for gunpowder. A stray Venetian shell ignited the powder, killing dozens and seriously damaging the building’s structure.
Thus, what we see now is merely a shadow of what the building would have originally looked like. In fact, the Parthenon has already been partially reconstructed; at the beginning of the previous century, not even the building’s outline remained standing. Even so, what would have been the dark internal chamber is now nothing but empty space (where a large crane was parked when I visited). What stands, in other words, is only the outer rim of the building—as if a house had been gutted, leaving only its external walls. What is more, almost all of the sculpture has been destroyed or removed; and, importantly, the bright paint that would have originally decorated the Parthenon has long ago been washed away.
The building we celebrate, then, is very different from what the Athenians actually built. And as in the case of the Temple of Poseidon, I suspect that we cherish the Parthenon because the passing years have turned it into a noble ruin. Rather than a colorful exterior containing a dark internal chamber, we now find a skeleton made of pure white marble, filled with nothing but sunlight and air. What we see, in other words, is only the mathematically clean and elegant outline of the original structure—giving us a rather false idea of what life in Ancient Greek was actually like.
Still, it is beguiling to behold. The temple has a mesmerizing power, its irregularities so subtle as to be unnoticeable and yet intriguing. What could have been a stiff and rather lifeless building instead appears supple, graceful, and dynamic.
It is worth momentarily pulling your gaze from the Parthenon to examine some of the other temples on the Acropolis. The most notable of these is the Erechtheion, a somewhat smaller temple dedicated to both Poseidon and Athena. According to the founding myth of the city, those two gods had a contest in order to which one of them would become the city’s patron deity. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident, and caused a well to gush forth. Unfortunately, however, it the water was salty. Athena responded by causing an olive tree to grow. As olives are fundamental to the Mediterranean diet, the Greeks wisely chose Athena. This temple marks the spot where the contest supposedly took place, and was built around the two miraculous gifts—the marks of Poseidon’s trident and the sacred olive tree.
The profile of the Erechtheion is somewhat odd, since it was perforce built over uneven ground, to which the architects had to adapt. Its most famous feature is the Porch of the Maidens, a porch held up by the statues of six young women, called Caryatids. Now the statues in the porch are all replicas. One of them was carted off by the infamous Lord Elgin, and now stands in the British Museum. The other five have been moved to the Parthenon Museum (more later).
The last temple on the hill is the Temple of Athena Nike. It is a small temple situated near the entrance, which was decorated with friezes of the highest quality, some of which are now in the British Museum, and others which have remained in Athens. Besides these other structures, it is worth mentioning the view from the hill of the Acropolis. Athens spreads out in all directions, an endless sea of mostly white buildings hemmed in by distant green mountains. From here I could see the Temple of Hephaestus, a remarkably well-preserved temple that does not receive a fraction of the attention from tourists as do the ruined temples in the city—which supports my earlier point, that we are attracted to these buildings precisely because they are ruins. Near the temple is the Church of the Holy Apostles, a 10th century Orthodox Church.
I could also see the famous Areopagus, a rocky outcropping said to be where the gods held Ares on trial (thus the name), and, according to Aeschylus, where the gods held Orestes on trial for the murder of his mother. The ancient Athenians used this hill for their own trials, and St. Paul was said to have made a speech to the Athenians in this spot. John Milton referenced this classical past in the title of his iconic defense of a free press, the Areopagitica. Looking in another direction I saw the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, at one time the largest temple in Greece, but now only a collection of free-standing columns in a grassy field. Most striking of all was Mount Lycabettus, a hill whose rocky peak is taller even than the Acropolis.
I descended from the Acropolis feeling a mixture of triumph and deflation. The big moment was over: I had seen the Parthenon. Was I any the better for it? But we still had a great deal more to see, much of it found in the Acropolis Museum, located right down the hill from the Acropolis itself.
The Acropolis Museum is the second great museum in the city of Athens. Compared with the Archaeology Museum, this one is a much younger institution, having been opened in 2009 after many false starts. The museum, thus, projects a sleek, modern aspect to the visitor. Even the building itself is interesting and innovative. Designed by the Swiss, Parisian, New Yorker Bernard Tschumi, the entire structure is lifted above an ancient archaeological site, leaving the ruins below both visible to visitors and accessible to researchers.
Unfortunately, photos were not allowed in most of the museum, so I must rely on my hazy memory. The first exhibit was housed in a large hall. Shards of broken pottery and other small archaeological remains were housed in glass cases along the walls, while free-standing statues and structures were scattered throughout the space. This is the gallery containing artifacts from the slopes of the Acropolis—consisting of a mishmash of domestic items and the remains of various small sanctuaries. The floor has several glass panels, allowing the visitor to look down at the ancient site below (called the “Makrygianni plot”). As the museum’s website explains, the upwards slope of this hall intentionally recalls the slope of the Acropolis hill itself: quite a nice touch.
After climbing some stairs, the visitor then finds herself in a sort of enormous warehouse, with concrete grey pillars holding up the high ceiling, and large windows letting in the bright Greek sun. The space is full of statues and fragments of buildings, many of them visibly archaic. These are the remains of the pre-Golden Age Acropolis, the temple complex which was largely destroyed by the invading Persians. Only broken fragments of the decorations remain, but they are beautifully suggestive. Particularly noteworthy are the pediments from the Hekatompedon, the so-called Ur-Parthenon that stood on the site of the current temple. We see a lion killing a calf, the curling body of a snake, and a man with three bodies (each of them wearing the above-mentioned archaic smile). For me, the statues of the animals are especially lovely. The Golden-Age Greeks seldom depicted animals in their visual art, preferring to focus instead on ideal human form.
Moving on through this floor, the visitor then comes to a special balcony, where she will find five familiar friends: the Caryatids who hold up the Porch of the Maidens in the Erechtheion. They are exhibited, appropriately, on a balcony within the museum. These are the originals—at least, those that have remained in Athens. Besides taking one back to England, Lord Elgin badly damaged another of the Caryatids in his attempt to remove the sculpture. The authories in the museum have done their best to piece her back together again, but the difference is stark. The mythological significance of these Caryatids is, as it happens, uncertain. According to the museum’s website, the most plausible theory is that they represent choephoroi (mourners, or “libation bearers”) of Cecrops I, the king of Athens who was supposedly buried there.
Nearby are the friezes taken from the Temple of Athena Nike. Among these is a justly famous sculpture of a goddess adjusting her sandal. For me, it is a wonderful piece. The way that the thin cloak drapes over the goddess’s body is masterful, both revealing the countours of her body and creating a fascinating geometrical pattern. Indeed, the lightness and daintiness of this image reminds me of nothing else so much as Degas’ many paintings of ballerinas.
So far, we have already had much to see: but the museum’s main raison d’être is still unmentioned. On the top floor is a space especially constructed to house the friezes and sculptures from the Parthenon. It is an enormous space, flooded with light, made to be the exact same dimensions of the original building, and even oriented the same way. In the original building, the friezes would have been far above the visitor, with most of their beautiful details impossible to see. Here, the friezes are dispalyed above the viewer, but close enough for pleasurable viewing. At either end are the remains of the pediments—fragmentary sculptures of gods and heroes.
In my opinion, it is a brilliant design, doing justice to the original setting of the works while allowing for added visibility. The Greek authorities had good reason for investing in such a cutting-edge design, you see. Remember that the vast majority of the original friezes are not in Greece at all, but in Athens, thanks to the aforementioned Lord Elgin. The Louvre has some other pieces, and a few other fragments are scattered here and there. As one might expect, Greece has been trying to get back these originals for decades, arguing that they were taken under improper settings. One of the main arguments against returning the works was that they are impossible to see in the original setting. But the construction of this gallery had made that argument a moot point. Now, Athens has arguably a better space for displaying the artwork than London or Paris.
The British Museum and its counterparts have, unsurprisingly, been less than forthcoming in these demands to return the originals. For one, losing the Parthenon freize would mean losing one of the British Museum’s prized posessions. What is more, giving back the artwork would set a precedent that could potentially unravel the British Museum completely, considering how many of the British Museum’s prized works have been taken from other parts of the world, often under less than scrictly legal circumstances. Greece is just one of many countries demanding repatriation.
For my part, I would be deeply sad to see the British Museum come apart. But after seeing the frankly amazing gallery in Athens, I cannot help but think that this is where the Parthenon freize belongs—lit up by the Mediterranean sun, with the Parthenon itself visible through the wide windows. Seen here, amid so much other classical art, the work is just more meaningful than in foggy London.
So what is in the gallery, if the originals are in London and Paris? Well, mostly plaster casts. Certainly they lack the quality and luster of the original marble, but it is better than the proverbial nothing.
The sculptures and friezes of the Parthenon are virtually the definition of classical perfection for us moderns. In the pediments (under the slanted roof) we see the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus on one end, and the competition between Athena and Poseidon for the loyalty of the citizens on the other—though these are so badly damaged that only fragments of heads and bodies remain. Somewhat better preserved are the metopes. These are panels of friezes in high relief that went around the outside of the building. There were, originally, 92 of these; but time, deliberate destruction (by Christians who thought them graven images), and accidental tragedies (such as the powder explosion) have destroyed most of them beyond recognition. The best ones are mostly in the British Museum, while some of the most ruined panels are still in place on the building, all by invisible to the visitor.
The metopes were divided into four themes, one per side: the gigantomachy (the fight between the gods and the giants); the Amazonomachy (the fight between Greeks and Amazon warriors); the fall of Troy; and the fight between the Lapiths and the centaurs. The theme is clear: war. Each of the panels depicts two figures, embroiled in conflict. These four mythical wars encapsulate the worldview of Periclean Athens quite well: the supriority of the divine over earthly force, the superiority of men over women (and the Athenians were patriarchal even by ancient standards), the superiority of Greeks over non-Greeks (xenophobia is nothing new), and the superiority of humans over the beasts. It is easy to see these articles of faith as a response to the Persian invasion—an assertion of the superiority of Greece over everyone else.
As works of art, the panels of the fight between the Lapiths (legendary Greeks) and the centaurs are perhaps the finest from the Parthenon. Some of them must certainly be ranked among the finest sculptures in Western history. However, as Mary Beard points out in her guide, several of these panels are manifestly inferior—stiff, awkward, misproportioned. It seems that the Greeks hired mediocre workmen in order to get the building finished. After all, the entire building was finished in less than ten years. Compare that to the decades, and even centuries, it took to build the great cathedrals!
The last major sculptural work is the frieze, which went around the naos in a continuous panel. Like most Greek temples, the Parthenon consisted of two major parts: the peristyle, which are the columns that wrap around the perimeter, and the naos, or inner chamber. The Parthenon as we know it today consists exclusively of the peristyle, which contained the pediments and the metopes. As a result, imagining how the frieze would have originally looked is somewhat more difficult for us.
The frieze, sculpted in rather low relief, depicts an enormous procession, with men, women, and children, animals of various sorts, and people on horseback, bearing all sorts of goods and objects. It is an amazing work of art, containing immense variety within a coherent narrative structure, in a style that has come to be synonymous with Classical Athens. Ironically, however, scholars are still unsure what this iconic work of art is supposed to represent. The work is virtually unique for being a representation of daily life—something otherwise absent in Greek artwork. Most would accept that it is some sort of religious procession, but which one is yet to be determined. The museum’s website asserts that it is the Panathenaia—the most important ritual in honor of Athena—but, according to Mary Beard, this is far from clear. So, as it happens, we do not know what one of the most influential works of Western art is about.
After our busy morning on the Acropolis and several hours in the museum, we had ingested all of the art and architecture we would digest for one day. Our next stop was quite a bit different. Becca wanted to visit a famous sandal shop, which used to be owned and run by Stavros Melissinos, known as the poet sandalmaker. The shop is well-known; and it counts many celebrities as past customers, including John Lennon (after whom there is now a sandal named). Now, I must admit that I am not an expert sandal connosoire. I have been wearing Birkenstocks for most of my life, and they suit me just fine. But other people seem pretty pleased with the shop’s products.
We spent the rest of our time just wandering and eating. Virtually everything we tasted was excellent. Before long, it was time to brave the dark alley once more, and go to sleep in our little bunk-beds. The next morning we walked over to Syntagma square—the central plaza of Athens—and then took the metro back to the airport. It had been quite a journey. Surely, we had missed a great deal of what Athens has to offer. But what we had seen was enough to make Athens one of my favorite trips in Europe. I will return one day.
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Every October in Madrid something peculiar happens: the streets around the center flood with about 1,800 sheep and 200 goats. This is the Fiesta de la Transhumancia, a festival celebrating the history of shepherding in Spain. By the time the sheep arrive in Madrid, they have already had quite a journey. Beginning in the north of the country, in the Picos de Europa, they make their way south for the winter on the cañadas reales, one of which passes through Madrid.
These “royal ravines,” as you might translate the term, were set aside in 1273 by Alfonso X (so-called “the wise”) to support Spain’s wool industry, and it seems that the shepherds have retained their ancient right. I have heard it said that this focus on producing merino wool ultimately damaged Spain’s economy by directing resources away from agriculture. In any case, it has given rise to this colorful tradition.
The sheep enter the city through Casa de Campo, and eventually make their way to the Plaza de Cibeles, passing through the Puerto de Sol during their trek. My brother and I scoped out spot near the bottom of Gran Vía to catch the sheep on the final leg of this journey.
The sheep are preceded by their masters, dressed in traditional garb, singing old songs, and playing historic instruments.
They are followed by a flood of sheep, punctuated by a few brown goats wearing tinkering bells. Alert sheep dogs and shepherds wielding cane sticks kept the animals moving in line. For somebody raised on or near a farm, such a sight would likely not evoke any strong reaction. But for me, it was exhilarating.
The sheep were followed by a team of oxen pulling a card—absolutely enormous beasts—and then a crew of street sweepers, to deal with the mass of urine and excrement left on the pavement.
More people are alive now than ever before, and yet the dead still outnumber the living. Many, perhaps most, of those dead are buried beneath our feet. It is unclear whether there are more interments than inhabitants in all of New York City, but it seems at least possible, considering that over five million people are buried in Queens—over twice that borough’s population. Calvary Cemetery alone holds three million bodies, making it the largest cemetery in the country.
Queens became an epicenter for burials in the 19th century, when land scarcity in Manhattan led citizens to look further afield. The state government took a cue from Pere Lachaise, the magnificent Parisian cemetery located far outside the city center. They eventually decided to convert barren and useland land near the Queens-Brooklyn border into an array of cemeteries. According to Keith Williams, bodies in Manhattan were disentered in the dead of night, to be ferried over to their new home across the river; and many were doubtless destroyed in the process.
The city was badly in need of a park around this time. Neither Central Park nor Prospect Park would be open until the 1870s. It was partly for this reason that the beautiful Green-Wood cemetery, which opened in 1838, became so popular. Indeed, the cemetery was such an attractive place to stroll about that, by the 1860s, it had scarcely fewer visitors than Niagara Falls. Though mostly neglected by tourists nowadays, it is still a lovely respite from the noise of city life, not to mention a repository of the city’s history.
I visited the cemetery on a scorching day in August. The air was humid and heavy. My clothes were soaked through with sweat, and the sun beat down harshly in the open space of the cemetery. Autumn or spring is preferable. I entered through the monumental neo-gothic gate at 25th street—a delightful work of architectural exuberance by Richard Upjohn, one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects.
Once inside, the cemetery is as rustic and attractive as a park, with roads winding through grass lawns and scattered trees. The tombstones are distributed somewhat sparsely and unevenly in this immense green space. The majority are simple graves, no more than a foot or two tall, with some more imposing obelisks thrown in. Here and there one finds a statue, in bronze or stone, and some of the wealthier families have their mausoleums built into hillsides. Near the entrance at 25th street is one of the original ponds; and nearby is the cemetery chapel, a noble structure modeled after the work of Christopher Wren. Even more beautiful, perhaps, than the cemetery itself is the view that it provides, with several vantage points offering an excellent look at the Manhattan skyline beyond the river.
Green-Wood Cemetery holds over 560,000 “permanent residents” (as the website calls them) and a great many of them are famous. Indeed, a list of the prominent burials in the cemetery reads like a who’s who of notable 19th century New Yorkers. We have Henry Ward Beecher (1813 – 1887), a preacher who during his lifetime was among the most famous men in America. Brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Henry was himself an abolitionist and later on a champion of women’s suffrage. However, his immaculate image became somewhat tarnished during a highly publicized adultery trial.
Another dead titan from this age is William M. Tweed (1823 – 1878), known as “Boss” Tweed, the corrupt and powerful leader of Tammany Hall. After years of stealing millions of taxpayer money, he was exposed and thrown into prison. On the stand, with nothing to lose, his confessions shocked the nation. He hoped for an early release; but that was not to be. Tweed did manage to escape custody once, sneaking across the Atlantic aboard a Spanish vessel; but he was apprehended in Vigo, Spain, by the local police (who had nothing other than a rough sketch to go on). He eventually died in an American jail.
Green-Wood cemetery, though never affiliated with any religion, has prided itself through the years on its respectability, prohibiting all executed criminals, and all who died in jail, from burial within its esteemed grounds. But Tweed, never one to play by the rules, posthumously circumvented this rule and found himself underground for the long sleep.
To discuss all of the notable people sunken in the dirt would take me from now until my own funeral. But I might mention two great musical giants to be found there, Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990), most famous for West Side Story, and Elliot Carter (1908 – 2012), one of the pre-eminent American composers of the last century, who lived all of 103 years. Yet another of the cemetery’s residents may have had a greater influence on music than either of these composers: Henry Steinway (1817 – 1871), founder of Steinway & Sons. His son, William (1835 – 1896), is there too, who played an important role in the development of Queens. In fact, the 7 train stills runs under the East River in the so-called Steinway tunnel, which William commissioned for his own shipping and transportation.
We may also find some men of the Revolutionary era, such as William Livingston (1723 – 1790), a New Jersey governor who signed the Declaration of Independence, and DeWitt Clinton (1769 – 1828), New York governor who oversaw the building of the Erie Canal. Indeed, the cemetery itself has a deep connection to the Revolutionary War, since it occupied a sight of a major engagement in the Battle of Brooklyn during the opening stages of the war—when invading redcoats routed Washington’s ragtag army, in a colossal defeat for the rebels.
But the cemetery is not just a collection of famous bodies. A more somber monument is that raised to the victims of the Brooklyn Theater Fire, a conflagration which killed nearly 300 people in 1876. Of the victims, some 100 whose bodies were scorched beyond identification were interred in a common grave here, marked by an obelisk. About twice as many people died in this disaster as in the more famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. It was the third-deadliest fire in American history.
Even if you have no interest in the dead, Green-Wood is worth visiting for its greenery. In fact, Green-Wood is a notable arboretum, and its map also has the location of some notable trees—such as American Chestnuts and large Camperdown Elms. Life prospers where death appears to reign.
On that note, let us leave the Green-Wood cemetery and travel back across the East River, to Manhattan, and then onwards north to the Bronx. Here we will find another enormous and noteworthy cemetery: Woodlawn.
Opened during the Civil War, in 1863, this cemetery received some of bodies removed from overcrowded Manhattan. It has since grown to vast proportions, and is now the resting place of over 300,000 people. While not as inviting and park-like as Green-Wood, and while not providing such an excellent view of Manhattan, the cemetery is quite attractive in its own right. What is more, Greenwood is the final resting place of some of the most iconic figures in American history.
I visited on a cold winter day, last January, with my father. My priority was to see the tomb of Herman Melville (1819 – 1891). It is a simple and indeed humble tombstone, with nothing but an empty scroll of paper as decoration. This was surprising to me. For my money, Moby Dick is the Great American Novel, and Melville our greatest novelist. Yet Melville himself died in relative obscurity. After early success writing potboiler seafaring novels, Melville’s reputation sank once he turned to more serious work; and starting with Moby Dick, he was a critical and financial failure. It was only some decades after his death that his star began to rise again. For any struggling writers (such as myself) his story provides a depressing truth, slightly tempered by the hope that posterity can be kinder than contemporaries.
My father’s hero is also in this same cemetery: Miles Davis (1926 – 1991). A bass player and jazz lover, my dad has been talking to me about Miles Davis all my life, especially Davis’s landmark album, Kind of Blue; so it was gratifying for us both to finally visit him. Davis’s grave is a large tombstone, so highly polished as to be almost mirror-like. The first two measures of one of Davis’s compositions, “Solar,” are inscribed on the tombstone. Curiously, Davis is referred to as “Sir,” which as I learned was because he was inducted into the Order of Malta (in a ceremony in the Alhambra in Granada).
It would be hard to name a musician so influential in the history of jazz. Yet there is one buried right next to Davis: the Edward Kennedy Ellington, better known as “Duke” (1899 – 1974). Ellington has a claim to being the supreme composer of jazz tunes—many of which have become standards in the repertoire—and, indeed, I think he can be justly considered one of the master composers in any genre of the last century, for his music went far beyond the conventional boundaries. His grave is a small plaque in the ground, set before a large tree and flanked by two stone crosses.
Nearby, up the hill, is the conspicuous grave of Illinois Jacquet (1922 – 2004), an important saxophonist; and not too far off lies Coleman Hawkins (1904 – 1969), another great saxophone player, and further on Max Roach (1924 – 2007), the great bebop drummer. Woodlawn does not, however, cater solely to jazz musicians. Also interred is Irving Berlin (1888 – 1989), the Russian-born Jewish composer who helped to define American music, all while being unable to read music and only being able to play in the key of F sharp. Even if you know nothing of Berlin, chances are you can sing at least one of his songs.
Two major figures from the history of New York City are also here in Woodlawn. Fiorello La Guardia (1882 – 1947), the short Italian sometimes called the “Little Flower” who was arguably the city’s most influential mayor. He sits under an elegant tombstone, which states simply: “Statesman, Humanitarian.” Buried within the community mausoleum is someone perhaps even more influential in the city’s history, Robert Moses (1888 – 1981), the subject of the landmark biography The Power Broker. Moses was a power broker indeed, responsible for the building of parks, roads, public housing projects, and bridges. In the process, Moses displaced hundreds of thousands of the poor and destroyed whole communities. He died with his reputation in tatters, yet having fundamentally shaped New York in the twentieth century.
Woodlawn, too, is an arboretum, with some beautiful trees on its grounds. Unfortunately for me, January was not the best time to appreciate this. Nor was the bracing breeze of that January day any more pleasant than the oppressing heat and humidity of the day in August when I visited Green-Wood.
In spite of this, I greatly loved my visits to these two resting grounds. Indeed, cemeteries are some of my favorite places. They are storehouses of history, and sites of homage to those who have shaped our world. They are also places of peace, an escape from the bustle of the surrounding city, providing us a space to contemplate how our own lives might be remembered. I recommend a visit.
There are many day trips that one can take from Lisbon, but one stands out both in popularity and importance: Sintra. This small city contains multitudes. Populated since prehistoric times, occupied by the Moors, used as a summer retreat by the royal family, and then beautified during the Romantic age of architecture—the city is bursting with monuments. And, most importantly, Sintra is easily accessible from Lisbon, merely a 45-minute ride on a cheap commuter train from Lisbon’s central Rossio station.
A penalty of this accessibility and attractiveness is, of course, popularity. The city is crawling with tourists and all of the concomitant junk: overpriced restaurants, tacky gift shops, crowded streets, and so on. But, of course, if Sintra is popular, it is popular for a reason. This is apparent as soon as you step off the train. The surrounding countryside is picturesque in the extreme, with rolling green hills dotted with tile-roofed houses. The old center of the city is just as lovely, filled with imposing mansions (Sintra has long been the wealthiest spot in Portugal) ranged along medieval streets.
The whole place has the aura of a fairytale, so it is fitting that Hans Christian Anderson visited in 1866. A plaque marks the house where he stayed. Lord Byron was another famous visitor, relishing the dark forests and the craggy peaks that loom above the city. When he first visited the city, he wrote “Oh Christ! it is a goodly sight to see / What heaven hath done for this delicious land! / What fruits of fragrance blush on every tree! / What goodly prospects o’er the hills expand!” Years later, in a famous line from Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimmage, Byron dubbed the place a “glorious Eden”—words that the Sintra tourist office are grateful for, I’m sure.
The most notable landmark within the old center is the Sintra National Palace. Compared with many other European palaces, this one has a rather modest aspect, striking the visitor as a large manor house rather than an imposing royal residence. Its most notable aspect are the two white cylindrical smokestacks that rise up from one side, like the two ears of a rabbit (used for the kitchen). The interior decoration, too, is quaint rather than majestic. Wood-paneled ceilings are decorated with the images of swans, magpies, and sailboats. The only room that is unmistakably regal is the Sala dos Brasões, or the Blazons Hall, with features a Moorish-influenced wooden ceiling bearing over seventy coats of arms of noble families, with azulejos running across the lower half. One is also reminded of Portugal’s Age of Exploration, since a delicately-carved model of a Chinese temple is also on display.
Most of Sintra’s notable monuments are, however, not to be found in the city center; rather, one must ascend the hill overlooking the old town. It is possible to walk up this hill, though it is not for the faint of heart. I think it would take at least an hour of trekking from the base to the top. Most people opt for the bus, specifically the 434 bus, which leaves from Sintra’s train station. Now, I have taken this bus up twice and it has been highly unpleasant both times. The road leading up is steep, winding, and narrow; it is easy to get stuck behind a slow driver. In any case, the bus is normally packed to bursting, so that one may have to stand up during the ride, gripping the railings for dear life as the bus chugs its way up.
The bus stops near two major monuments: the Castle of the Moors, and the National Palace of Pena. I opted for the former during my first visit, for the very silly and superficial reason that it was cheaper.
The Moors were no fools: when they built fortifications, they chose locations wisely. This is just such an example: the old castle sits atop a hill, providing great visibility of the surrounding area and making attack up the steep hill difficult. Nevertheless the castle fell, in the 12th century, to the invading Christians (though it was not taken by force). Henceforth it became a Christian castle, and was periodically rebuilt and reinforced down the years. The walls that stand today probably owe little to the Moors, the castle’s name notwithstanding.
It is an extremely romantic spot. Grey granite walls rise out of the trees, snaking around the hillside. The visitor can walk along these walls, enjoying the unsurpassable view of the surrounding countryside. Below one can see the town of Sintra itself, ensconced in the forest and centered around the palace, with the green countryside beyond speckled with habitations as the land spreads out until the blue sea in the far distance. Though the hill is not very high, standing atop the walls and looking down gives one an amazing sense of height. Aside from the view, the castle itself spurs the imagination. Its crumbling form, wrapping around little but empty forest, evokes a faraway time. Like all ruins, the fortification’s very incompleteness invites fantasy.
Standing on the walls, back in 2016, I could see across to the colorful, even disneylandish form of the National Palace of Pena. I was both intrigued and repulsed by what I took to by a terrific display of gaudiness. Yet despite this garish impression, enough curiosity formed deep within my psyche to prompt me to revisit Sintra, two years later, with the purpose of seeing this memorable building up close.
The Pena Palace was built in the 1800s, during the high point of architectural romanticism: and it remains a monument to this movement. Romanticism, as a movement, was characterized by a fascination for everything exotic and ancient. The Romantic imagination, no stickler for details, freely mixed elements of medieval France, Renaissance Europe, Golden-Age Portugal, and Moorish Spain, resulting in an eclectic jumble of styles held together by sheer exuberance. The castle today is dominated by its bright pallet of red, blue, and yellow—its flamboyant form visible for miles around.
When I spied the castle from the Castle of the Moors, it did not look very big to me—even smaller than the Sintra Palace below. Yet when I finally approached the building, years later, I found it to be gigantic, dwarfing all of the visitors that climbed up to visit. The palace has a roughly tripartite structure, with a red right, a blue center, and a yellow left. The visitor first passes through an elaborate stone gate, reminiscent of the Torre Belém, in order to reach the front entrance. There another gate—the walls covered in blue tiles, with elaborate and gruesome decorative sculptures surrounding the windows—leads inside the palace. From here I entered a sort of cloister, with every surface covered in tiles of blue, orange, and green, rather like those in the Alhambra.
Many of the rooms we passed were similarly decorated. The roofs, however, swelled into elaborate, web-like vaulting: a parody of gothic cathedrals. From within the cloister we could look up to see the bright red tower, whose form is also reminiscent of the Torre Belém. As is typical of palaces, there were rooms full of ornate furniture and other expensive decoration. In one room a beautiful candelabra with glass blown to look like leafy vines hung from the ceiling; in another, the Noble Room, nearly life-sized statues of bearded men held up the candles. Royalty has its rewards. Yet one of the more memorable rooms was the kitchen, whose elegant simplicity contrasted sharply with the pageantry above.
This strange architectural conglomeration owes its form to many hands. The primary architect was the German Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege, who is also remembered for his geological research. The King and Queen themselves also lent a hand in the decoration. As it stands today, the palace is somewhat reminiscent of the modernist works of the Catalan architects Gaudí and Domènech i Montaner, though it lacks the controlling intelligence that vivifies the works of those two men. The final impression not one of beauty, but of a kind of whimsical playfulness, strangely contrasting with the normally austere ideal of monarchy.
Eschwege also lent a hand in planning the gardens surrounding the palace, and in this he was highly successful. Both times I visited this hill, I decided that I could not endure another bus ride, and elected to walk down the hill. Luckily, gravity aids greatly in this direction. I recommend this strategy, since the forest is lovely. Here you can see the other layers of walls that form the Castle of the Moors, which slither down the mountain like a ridgeback snake. While lost in this forest, it is easy to see why this spot attracted the attention of romantics: the decaying ruins amid the tangle of trees perfectly evokes that sense of distant grandeur that so beguiled the romantic imagination.
I reached the end of the hill, continued further down through the old streets, once again admiring the many small, nameless corners of beauty in the city. As I got on the train back to Lisbon, I thought complacently that, finally, I had seen what Sintra had to offer. But I was mistaken—which I would have known if, for once, I had done some research before visiting. In fact, I had not even come close to exhausting the treasures of Sintra, so it seems that I must still go back.
The most famous thing I missed is the Quinta da Regaleira. This is yet another monument of the eclectic imagination of the romantic mind. A “quinta” is a large manor house, typically owned by an aristocrat of some sort. This one was eventually purchased by António Cavalho Monteiro, an eccentric who was lucky enough to inherit a large fortune. He used this fortune to create a landscape of mysteries. The dominant architectural style of this property is neo-gothic, which can be seen in the palace and the chapel. The gardens, however, reveal the previous owner’s love of the enigmatic: they feature several tunnels and even two inverted towers that Cavalho Monteiro dubbed “initiation wells.” They were apparently used in rituals related to Tarot cards. Nowadays they are used in the modern ritual of Instagram.
Nearby is the Quinta do Relógio, a Neo-Mudéjar manor house that is currently on sale for over $7,000,000. Tempting, I know. Also close is the Seteais Palace, a large manor house originally constructed for the Dutch consul in the 18th century, and now run as a luxury hotel. Probably outside my budget. Somewhat further off is yet another palace: the Montserrate Palace, which used to serve as a summer getaway for the court. This somewhat strange-looking edifice is yet another example of the romantic style of Sintra’s architecture: colorful, exotic, miscellaneous.
This short list only scratches the surface. Probably the best way to see everything is with a car and a few days to spare, not just a day-trip from Lisbon. I am sure that such a trip would be amply rewarding. The area is enchanting, and has enchanted so many people throughout the years that it is filled with monuments to its own charm. I can see what Lord Byron was talking about.
Lisbon was the very first place outside of Spain that I visited in Europe. It was in April of 2016, during Holy Week, as the end-point of a trip through Extremadura. We took a Blablacar, and I was amazed that there was no border, natural or artificial, between Spain and Portugal.
As we approached the city, the driver turned on the radio to let us hear Portuguese. I had hoped that my experience with Spanish would allow me to understand a little of this sister tongue. But it was absolutely foreign to my ears. Far from sounding like a closely-related language, Portuguese was as familiar as Russian. (I have since learned that this reaction is quite common. Peninsular Portuguese is strikingly different in pronunciation and speech rhythm from Spanish, even though on paper the two languages are quite similar.)
We entered the city on the majestic 25 de Abril Bridge—a suspension bridge conspicuously reminiscent of the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco. (The 25th of April, 1974, is the date of the famous Carnation Revolution, when the dictatorship was overthrown.) Two massive towers hold up a double-decker span over the river Tagus, the whole thing painted a rusty red color. Next to the bridge is another monument that recalls a foreign city: Christ the King, a tall statue of Jesus inspired by the famous Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. Through the cables of the bridge we could see the city of Lisbon huddled on the riverbank, its colorful tiles shining in the sunlight. This was my first glimpse of the city.
(The Tagus, by the way, is the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, also passing through Toledo and Aranjuez.)
Despite this grand entrance, however, my mood quickly turned sour. I had been spending the previous six months exploring Spain like a madman, slowly getting the lay of the land, coming to understand the ancient country’s geography, culture, and language. Now I was, once again, a complete novice. I did not have the slightest grasp of Portuguese, so I had to rely on English, which made me feel like any other tourist. (This wasn’t a problem for communication, since the Portuguese are excellent linguists.) And I had not even the slightest notion of the history of anything we saw.
But maybe this is all just an excuse. Maybe I was just sick of being on the road. After all, I had hardly spent a single weekend in Madrid the whole year. Whatever the cause, I managed to sabotage my own trip to Lisbon. I spent the better part of my time in that beautiful city wishing I were back in Spain. As anyone who has been to Lisbon knows, this is a shame, since Lisbon is one of the jewels of the Iberian peninsula—indeed, of all Europe.
Residual guilt and regret prompted me to revisit the city two years later, in September of 2018. TAP Portugal, the budget airline, lets you have a layover in Lisbon for no additional charge. So, before returning to Spain for the new school year, I had a little vacation in the Portuguese Capital, determined to see the city with fresh eyes. It was worth it.
Lisbon has one of the most distinctive profiles of any European city. The streets are paved with the famous Portuguese pavement—smooth bits of stone, black and white, that are sometimes arranged into mosaics. The buildings, meanwhile, are marked by that other distinctly Portuguese art: azulejos, or colored tiles. Even very ordinary apartment buildings are coated in shining porcelain. The city is generally quite hilly; and the smooth pavement does not make walking any easier. But the hills are what make Lisbon so dramatic, for streets will open up into magnificent views of the city and the ocean beyond.
On my first trip to Lisbon I learned something of the history and layout of the city by taking a “free” walking tour. The tour lasted four hours, and it was one of the most memorable experiences from my travels. We were led around by a man with long, flowing, black hair, whose passion for the city was intoxicating. He was a true Portuguese patriot, and an enthusiastic son of Lisbon. As he reminded us, Lisbon is one of the oldest cities on the Iberian Peninsula and indeed in the world, founded by the Phonecians and later occupied by the Carthaginians and the Romans. The city is far, far older than the country for which it serves as capital.
In our guide’s memorable phraseology, Lisbon is a woman—with “black, flowing hair” (like his) “studded with seashells, who wears a dress that flaps in the wind like a sail.” Her husband, he continued, was the sea; and their child is the neighborhood of Alfama. This is the oldest neighborhood in the city; and if you have an ear attuned to languages, you will know that its name derives from Arabic. Though popular with tourists, the neighborhood has preserved much of its original charm. When we arrived, neighbors were chatting through their windows, and an old woman was washing something in a fountain. The area preserves the chaotic jumble of narrow streets typical of ancient cities; and this arrangement muffles out much of the extraneous urban noise, giving the Alfama a peaceful atmosphere.
Our guide also took us to the Bairro Alto, the “upper district.” Indeed, the neighborhood stands on one of the city’s hills. It was built considerably after the Alfama, and its streets lack the labyrinthine intricacy of that lower zone. Nevertheless, the streets are intimate and at times reveal lovely views of the city. More importantly, the Bairro Alto is the center of Lisbon’s youth culture nightlife, comparable to Brooklyn or Madrid’s Malasaña. At night the streets are packed with crowds of drinkers freely mingling. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to partake.
I did, however, go to see a fado concert in a café in this neighborhood. Fado is the flamenco or the blues of Portugal: a folk music sung to the accompaniment of a guitar (in this case, a Portuguese guitar). Though I did not understand the words, the music’s mournful quality is palpable. As the guide of our free walking tour informed us, the music expresses saudade, a Portuguese word that means “longing”—a deep state of spiritual disquiet for something missing. Our guide, incidentally, thought that this feeling was at the heart of the Portuguese character: the yearning of a widow for her fisherman husband, lost at sea; or the urge that drove the Portuguese to push off into the unknown during the Age of Exploration; or nowadays the longing of some Portuguese (our guide among them) for the country’s Golden Age, when it was briefly one of the most powerful states on earth. Thus our tour ended with our guide stating his desire that Portugal leave the European Union to forge its own path. Quite an experience.
To continue with my overview of the city, we turn next to Baixa. It stands in the heart of the city, and at the heart of Baixa is the Plaça do Comécio. This is a grand, monumental square that opens up right to the River Tagus. An equestrian statue of Joseph I of Portugal stands at the center of the yellow buildings, with the king looking warlike and formidable despite being mainly dedicated to opera during his reign. In this area are to be found high-end shopping and touristy restaurants, which I like to avoid. Right next to Baixa is Chiado, a similar zone of shopping and restaurants, containing some of the city’s central plazas.
One of Lisbon’s most characteristic sights are the trolleys. As in San Francisco, the trolleys help pedestrians to traverse the steep hills of the city; and they have become a tourist attraction in their own right. The trams preserve a retro look, since the cars in use are still of the same rather diminutive size as when the system was built, in the 1870s. The most famous tram line is 28, which often ridden just for providing a good tour of the city. Our guide, however, warned us that it was wise to keep a sharp eye on one’s belongings, since the trolley is patrolled by pickpockets. I took a ride on the tram on my first trip—waiting nearly an hour on line to do so—and was, sadly, quite disappointed in the experience. I think walking provides a much better view of the city.
Lisbon has more recently taken on a strangely south Asian appearance, due to the spread of rickshaws catering to tourists. Again, I preferred to walk.
As befitting a seaside city of steep streets, Lisbon has many excellent lookout points. One is the Miradouro de Santa Luzia, near the Alfama, which offers an excellent view of the deep orange tiles of the rooftops and the pastel blues and pinks of the buildings. Lisbon has none of the brooding majesty of some Spanish cities; it is all light and air. The lookout point itself is a nice place to have a rest, with its tile benches and flowering trees. Right next door is the Miradour das Puertas do Sol—offering another superb view of the Alfama and the river beyond. The last time I went an enormous cruise ship was docked right in front of the old neighborhood. This cannot be good for maintaining its local atmosphere.
By continuing up the hill you will reach what is simultaneously one of the best views and the most impressive monuments of Lisbon: the Castelo de São Jorge. This medieval fortification is built upon the ancestral core of the city, where everybody from the Phoenicians to the Moors had their own forts. This is no surprise, of course, since the castle stands upon an easily defensible spot, controlling all the surrounding ground and providing an excellent view of the river as well. It is a superb spot.
What remains today is hardly more than a husk—the proud walls encircling little but trees and a few decaying ruins. But it is worth visiting for the commanding view alone, which becomes especially dramatic once you climb up to the top of the walls. The castle gardens are home to a handful of peacocks, which surprised me by appearing high up above my head, in the branches of a tree. I had no idea that peacocks were so agile. The castle also contains a small museum, showcasing some of the archaeological objects unearthed there—many examples of ceramics, as well as some ornamental Moorish tiles.
From the front of the castle, overlooking the city, the visitor can spot one of the other great lookout points of Lisbon: the Miradouro da Graça. Further up that same hill is the Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, a place frequented by sunset lovers and aspiring instagrammers. The city is nothing if not photogenic.
During my first visit to Lisbon I was very surprised by its cathedral, often called the Sé. I was used to seeing the massive gothic, barroque, and neoclassical constructions of Spanish cities. Lisbon’s cathedral seems downright humble by comparison. It was built during the Romanesque period, which necessarily limits its size (since the barrel vaults of Romanesque architecture require a narrow space). What is more, the church has been repeatedly buffeted by earthquakes, most notoriously the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.
This earthquake was one of the deadliest and most destructive in history. It was a catastrophe. The earthquake struck in the morning of All Saints Day, when most people were in church—heavy stone buildings that were probably the worst place to be. A massive tsunami followed in the wake of the earthquake, and in the chaos a fire raged out of control. In the end, tens of thousands of people were killed and over three-fourths of the city’s buildings were in ruins. During the walking tour our guide pointed out the Carmo Convent, a convent that has been maintained in its ruined state as a memorial.
This disaster caused ripples in Europe’s culture as well as its surface. Many took it as a punishment from God, since it fell on a holy day. Voltaire, meanwhile, was dissuaded of the Leibnizian idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds. This led, among other things, to the writing of his most famous book: Candide. But before that philosophical tale, Voltaire published a poem on the event, condemning the idea that humans had somehow deserved it: “And can you then impute a sinful deed, / To babes who in their mothers’ bosoms bleed?” Rousseau responded vigorously against this poem, asserting that humanity deserved it by being corrupted by civilization. After all, if the people of Lisbon had been living in little hamlets, spread out thinly across the landscape, the casualties would have been small. But it did not take a Voltaire to see through this casuistical argument.
My second trip to Lisbon was vastly enhanced by visiting two of the city’s museums. The first was the very popular Museo Nacional do Azulejo, which celebrates the great Portuguese art of colored tiles. The museum is somewhat out of the way, located in what was previously a convent: Madre de Deus. But it is well worth the effort to get there.
The collection offers a bit of history on the tradition of azulejos. As you may have intuited, the word is a loanword from Arabic, specifically the word for “small polished stone.” Any visitor to the Alhambra will know that decorative tile had a strong tradition in the Moorish world, the art of geometric design driven by the prohibition on depicting human forms. Even today, many if not most azulejos contain either geometric or plant motifs. However, this is certainly not always the case. Azulejo altarpieces depicting Jesus, Mary, and the saints were on display. Other tiles portrayed scenes of history or of daily life, like the tapestries that hung in many royal dwellings.
The variety was astounding. From restrained blues and white to vibrant colors of every kind; from quaint flowers to designs created from mathematical algorithms; from plain squares to tiles with three dimensions—the museum showcased the scope of the artform. Just as impressive as the collection, however, was the building itself. The convent has many richly decorated rooms, with golden altars, coffered ceilings, and walls covered with paintings. In one of the more celebrated rooms, the choir, the entire space is ornamented with gilded woodwork encasing high-quality oil paintings.
Yet the most stunning work on display was the Panoramic View of Lisbon before the 1755 Earthquake. This sequence of tiles encircles the walls of a large room, providing a detailed sketch of the riverside of Lisbon as it existed before that calamity. The work was originally commissioned to decorate a palace, presumably to help a monarch keep track of his own domain. Even a superficial inspection of this work will impress the viewer with how much the city has changed since the earthquake. The old city is covered with religious architecture: churches, convents, monasteries—and now only a hint of this monumental majesty remains. This azulejo is likely the closest thing we have to a snapshot of the ruined Lisbon.
The next museum I visited was the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, which is somewhat misleadingly translated as the National Museum of Ancient Art (though the word “antiga” just means old, not “ancient,” and indeed hardly anything in the collection comes from ancient times). This is the largest museum in Lisbon and indeed Portugal; in fact it boasts one of the largest collections in Europe—or so they like to boast.
Judging from my visit, I am willing to believe the claim, for the museum seemed to constantly expand. Luckily, the museum is quite a pleasant space, since it is in an erstwhile palace. I first visited the painting gallery. It was far more impressive than I had anticipated. There were works by Dutch, German, Italian, and Spanish masters. I was particularly pleased to find a wry work by Albrecht Dürer, St. Jerome in His Study, with the old bearded saint pointing rather impishly to a skull as a memento mori. The airy, triumphant style of Giambattista Tiepolo (who decorated Madrid’s palace) was in attendance, as well as the dark, brooding style of José Ribera.
But my favorite work by a long shot was the Triptych of the Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymous Bosch. Anthony was one of the early Christian ascetics, who isolated themselves in the desert in order to purify themselves. Bosch’s work represents the physical and spiritual temptations that the saint had to endure during his long years of fasting and prayer. As usual with Bosch, this gives rise to bizarre and fantastic imagery. The central panel is the main focus: showing the kneeling saint surrounded by the whole population of Bosch’s superfecund imagination: human-animal hybrids, men lacking limbs and even whole bodies, fish wearing armor, ruined buildings and burning cities—each of these images visually fantastic and symbolic of sin. It seems that Bosch had a both a horror and a fascination of sin, since he was so adept at portraying it.
Paintings constitute only a small part of the museum’s collection. There are all of the items of royal living: elegant furniture, finely-woven tapestries, delicately crafted silver and ceramic tableware—the list goes on. And the collection is not merely from Europe. Pioneering explorers and colonists as they were, the Portuguese collected many fine works from far off places, most notably China and (if memory serves) Japan. The museum’s sculpture collection is especially impressive, if only because of the way that the statues are arranged in the wide halls of the former palace, like silent servants waiting to be called upon.
Inevitably with a museum of this size, some version of fatigue sets in during the visit. Fortunately, the museum has a fine café which leads out to a garden in the back, where you can enjoy yet another sweeping view of the city. I would have lingered there longer, but the museum was closing and the guard kicked me out.
I have spent this long describing the enchanting city, but I have yet left out one of the most splendid corners of the city: Belém.
The name “Belém” is Portuguese for Bethlehem. The neighborhood stands rather far from the city center, near the mouth of the Tagus river. To get there it is best to take a tram or a train. I took the latter, passing under the 25 de Abril Bridge on the way.
I am afraid that my first trip to Belém, in 2016, only added to my bitterness at Lisbon. This is because the line to visit the Jerónimos Monastery—one of the famous monuments of the are—was very long; and after waiting for an hour and paying to get inside, I found out that the most impressive section of the monastery, the church, is free to visit and has no line at all. Let my experience serve as a warning to any visitors in a hurry.
All carping aside, the Jerónimos Monastery is by far the most impressive work of religious architecture in the city. Its size is immediately striking. Like so many grand monasteries, Jerónimos spreads out with the girth of a palace. While waiting in line, under the hot Portuguese sun, I did get a chance to admire the building’s beautiful façade: ornamented with fabulously intricate friezes designed by João de Castilho (or, as he is known in his native Spain, Juan de Castillo). The cloisters of the monastery are some of the finest I have ever seen, so delicately carved that it makes the stone seem lighter than air. Within this monastery are buried several Portuguese luminaries, such as the novelist Alexandre Herculano and the poet Fernando Pessoa.
The monastery church maintains this exquisite decoration. In the vast and gloomy space, culminating in web-like vaulting, the columns rise up like legs. Each of them has been carved almost from top to bottom. As in the Escorial Monastery in Spain, Jerónimos serves as the royal resting ground. Large pyramidal tombs sit upon sculpted elephants, containings kings and queens. Yet the most famous people buried in the church had not a drop of blue blood. In matching tombs near the entrance are buried Luís de Camões, Portugal’s greatest poet, and the famous explorer Vasco da Gama. These tombs were constructed long after those two eminent men died; but their remains were transported here in the 19th century.
The style that characterizes the Jerónimos Monastery is called Manueline—a blend of gothic, Italian, Spanish, and Moorish influences—and it is typical of the Portuguese Golden Age. Nearby is another excellent example of this style, as embodied in the Belém Tower. Indeed, this tower was composed of the same rock as was used to make the monastery. It was built as a defensive structure; but this pragmatic function did not lead to a dull edifice. Rather, the fortification displays the same exuberant decoration as the monastery. The fortress was originally constructed on a small island near the bank; but the shoreline has gradually expanded, so that nowadays the tower can be visited on foot. Both times I saw the tower, the line to enter was quite long, so I decided against it.
Just down the river from the tower is the Monument to the Discoveries. This is a far more recent construction, having been built in 1939 for the Portuguese World Exhibition. It is a worthy addition to the area. The massive concrete fin is shaped like the prow of a ship; and riding on top, in a heroic procession, are great figures from Portugal’s Age of Discovery. In the space in front of the monument, a large mosaic compass has been inserted into the pavement. In the center is a map of the world, with the names of notable explorers and the dates of their voyages marked. Most of the figures aboard the ship are, I am afraid, unknown to me. But at the tip is Henry the Navigator, the Prince who helped to inaugurate and coordinate the first Portuguese explorations.
No account of Belém would be complete without mention of the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, a bakery famous for making Lisbon’s most iconic food: pastel de nata. This is made with egg custard inside a small, crispy pie crust. They are omnipresent in Lisbon and make for an excellent breakfast or dessert. The recipe was originally developed in the Jerónimos Monastery itself, by monks who wanted to make some extra money. But when the monastery was secularized in the 19th century, the recipe was sold. While I am on the subject, I should also say that, in general, the food in Lisbon is quite good: fresh, flavorful, and reasonably priced. I especially enjoy the cod.
To sum up this long overdue account, Lisbon is a city of delights. The city itself is beautiful; and it is full of history and culture. Indeed, the only problem with Lisbon is that it is so nice that it attracts a great many tourists. But this is the curse of all great destinations.
A year had passed since my last trip the Canary Islands. Now it was time to go back—for this trip, to the island of Lanzarote. This time, however, I was traveling on someone else’s dime. Rebe had bought me this weekend trip as my birthday present. Relationships sometimes do pay off.
Lanzarote is the fourth largest Canary Island by area, and the third largest by population. It sits at the northeast extreme of the archipelago, its form like a squiggly oval in the sea. The main thing that I had been told about the island is that it is Martian: bone dry, bereft of vegetation, and covered in red volcanic soil.
As with last time, we would have to rent a car to traverse the island. I was only slightly less nervous about driving than I had been last year. The added time had not added to my experience. I had been behind the wheel remarkably little in the intervening months. At least the car was cheap, and came with insurance. Once again, we rented with PlusCar, and got a Honda Prius with automatic transition (I can’t drive a stick) for about sixty euros, with everything included.
Soon we were on the road. My informants had been right: the island looked like another planet. Misshapen mountains swelled out of the flat red desert, where scarlet soil alternated with fields of black igneous rocks. As in Andalusia, nearly all of the buildings were whitewashed—a recourse against the sun and the total lack of shade. These low-lying dwellings nestled within the wide space, connected by roads that cut through the land at arbitrary angles, there being almost no obstacles in the topography. Though the landscape gave every impression of being inhospitable, the weather was almost perfect: warm but not hot, with a gentle cooling breeze.
Why is Lanzarote’s bone-dry climate so different from the verdant Tenerife’s, which is only a few hundred kilometers away? I suppose the answer must be elevation. The high peak of Teide, Tenerife’s central volcano, captures the mist rolling in from the clouds and channels it downwards to the valleys below; while Lanzarote is quite flat by comparison.
Human habitation on these islands goes back a surprising way. As I mentioned in my previous post, the islands were inhabited by an ethnic group known as the Guanches before the Spanish arrived. But before the Guanches established themselves, the islands were visited by several ancient peoples, most notably the Romans, who left archaeological remains near the pueblo of Teguise. The great geographer Ptolemy even gave the islands’ exact locations. It is a wonder that it did not become a popular vacation spot sooner.
Our plane landed in the afternoon, so our first order of business was, naturally, to have some lunch. We stopped in a place called El Moreno, which specializes in grilled meat (though, again, one wonders where the animals are living). Both of our dishes were delicious. Canarian food has so far never disappointed me in its richness and its simplicity.
From there it was a very short drive to our first stop: the Fundación César Manrique.
Few architects are as emblematic of a place as César Manrique is of Lanzarote. The only comparison I can think of is Gaudí’s relationship with Barcelona. Manrique was a prolific Spanish architect who spent much of his career in New York. Indeed, Nelson Rockefeller—a lover and patron of modern art—paid for Manrique’s apartment. Upon his return, Manrique set about transforming the landscape of his native island. It is largely thanks to him that there are no high-rise buildings or ugly billboards obstructing the natural beauty. He also helped to implement building codes that insured that all buildings have a traditional look. That the island is so well-composed is largely thanks to him.
But Manrique also built his own works of art, scattering them on every corner of the island. The building which serves as the headquarters of his foundation, called the “Volcano House,” was his own home for twenty years.
Anyone expecting the architectural exuberance of a Gaudí will be disappointed. Rather, Manrique’s style is made to highlight and complement the island’s natural beauty. Thus, upon entrance the visitor finds herself in a courtyard filled with exotic plants and little ponds. The only explicitly artistic touch is the mural running across the back wall—which, to my eye, bears the obviously traces of Miró’s style. The low walls also afford a glimpse at the landscape beyond, which rises up into red hill in the distance. It is a charming and comfortable space; yet I found myself slightly disappointed at the simplicity.
But this feeling disappeared when I descended to the lower level. Manrique put his house on land still scarred by volcanic eruptions. Several craters pockmarked the terrain, which Manrique turned into subterranean rooms—a posh living room, a dance floor, a lounge, a spot for grilling, and a small swimming pool: all decorated with sleek furniture. Manrique carved out tunnels to connect these five spaces, and the feeling is that of being in a high-class nature resort. In the main building some of Manrique’s drawings, paintings, and ceramic work were on display.
Even after this performance, however, I admit to being somewhat less than awed by Manrique’s work. It is admirably simple, and it complements the landscape remarkably well. However, I thought that it lacked a forceful personality behind it, and that it well beholden to a vision of tropical paradise which I did not share. But this was only the beginning of my acquaintance with Manrique’s architecture. For, as I soon learned, there is not a single corner of the island that does not bear his fingerprints.
I should also mention that we met one of Rebe’s friends at the Fundación. He’s from another Canary Island, and had met Rebe during a camping trip. Unfortunately for me, I found his Canary accent to be so thick that I could hardly understand a word he said. It is a very different sort of Spanish.
Now it was finally time to check into our Airbnb. Our bags had been sitting in the car the whole time. Rebe had rented a room in a house a little bit outside the town of San Bartolomé. Like so many places on the island, the neighborhood seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. We parked the car and went inside. Already I marvelled at the total lack of parking regulations. “We don’t care about that kind of stuff here,” our host explained. The house was entirely typical: whitewashed, with a tile roof, and surrounded by a fence enclosing a small garden. The interior was of a piece with the outside: mostly empty, with white ceilings, white walls, and full of viny plants.
The beauty of Lanzarote was already beginning to get under my skin. It is the beauty of barrenness, of emptiness, of the desert. It is the beauty of wide open nothingness. What few structures there are—trees, houses, hills—stand out amid the cloudless sky and even terrain, presented as in a minimalist work of art. It is a place that I could get used to.
Since we arrived relatively late, it was already evening when we had settled into our Airbnb and were ready to leave again. Inevitably, we decided to visit another work of Manrique, the Jameos del Agua.
The road there took us across the entire length of the island. When we got into the car the sun was already setting; in half an hour it was quite dark. So far I had been doing decently well in my driving. But piloting in the dark unnerved me. I had hardly any experience with it. On the highways it wasn’t bad, since there were many other cars illuminating the roads, as well as some street lights. And many of the main roads off the highway were lined with reflective plastic.
But our route took us through local roads with no luminescent resources whatsoever. I was driving blind, only able to see the next twenty feet of road in front of me. There were not even any natural contours to the landscape to help orient me; the road was a flat surface surrounded by a flat plain—a line of black asphalt imposed over black volcanic rock. Needless to say I did not find it especially relaxing, and I slowed down to a crawl.
Eventually we reached our destination. It was around eight in the evening and the large parking lot was mostly empty. From the outside the place didn’t look like much—a few nondescript buildings in the middle of nowhere. We paid the entrance fee and went inside, and a winding staircase led us down into a large crater. There we found a restaurant: elegant tables, chatting guests, and a well-stocked bar.
A kind of manufactured “cool” music was pumping through the sound system—a mixture of wavy atmospheric synth and insistent drums, with a woman’s ethereal voice intermittently crying over the ruckus. Such music immediately set the tone of the place: loudly expensive. I did not like it. Though we had not eaten, we did not even consider ordering something from the restaurant, since even a beer was sure to be twice its usual price. Instead, we moved towards the central tunnel.
This is easily the highlight of the Jameos del Agua: a volcanic tube connecting a crater on either end. In the tunnel is a salt-water pond, where a strange species of indigenous lobster lives: the Munidopsis polymorpha. In size it is closer to a shrimp than a lobster, indeed even smaller; and its color is albino white. This diminutive create is blind, and is only found in Lanzarote, for which reason it has become the island’s symbol.
Nearby signs advised us not to throw any coins into the water, since this pale lobster depends on a fragile environment. Meanwhile, shifting lights on the ceiling and bottom of the tunnel silhouetted the jagged rocks. I tried to photograph it but the effect proved too delicate for my camera’s light settings. After admiring the cave for a good while—trying to ignore the irritating music—we moved through the tunnel to the other side. Here we climbed a staircase to another crater.
This space resembled a resort: with lawn chairs, a bar, umbrellas, and a pool in the center. The water glowed neon blue in the darkness. Further on I discovered a concert hall. This was by far my favorite part of the Jameos. The hall was beautiful—built into the cliff side, with rows of seats underneath the amorphous igneous rock. Here the bad mood-music could be heard no more; the space was sonically isolated. It must have had motion sensors, too, for when I entered the lights turned on and music began to play on the hall’s speaker system. It was a medieval motet. Ghostly voices reverberated throughout the hall, slowly ascending and descending in Latin syllables. It was gorgeous. And I was there, alone, to appreciate it: the sounds of heaven under the earth.
Despite the place’s commercial and even tacky aspect, I enjoyed the Jameos del Agua. In the stillness and blackness of the night, with very few people around, it had the mystery of an abandoned place.
With another ride through the night, and a quick dinner at a pizza place, we were already finished with our first day at Lanzarote. The next day was our last.
Our first stop the next day was the island’s national park: Timanfaya.
The drive there took us into a landscape that was even more barren than usual. The soil glowed red in the morning sun as the car passed miles of flat terrain. It was hard to believe that we were going anywhere, as the terrain was so rhythmically monotonous. But the voice of the GPS directed us forward, until we were instructed to turn off the road, towards a statue of a little devil that said “Timanfaya.” (This demon, the symbol of the park, was designed by—you guessed it—César Manrique.)
There, a man in a little shack took our money—it was cash only—gave us tickets, and allowed us to go on. The ground here was no longer red and sandy, but dark brown, rough, and arranged in messy piles. The road took us up a slight hill and towards the visitor’s center, where we were waved into a parking spot. Timanfaya has no trails, only roads; and you are not permitted to drive around it yourself, but must take one of the park’s bus tours.
We boarded the bus, along with about twenty other visitors, and set off to see the UNESCO biosphere reserve. I had little idea what to expect as the bus lurched into motion. A recording began to play on the bus’s sound system, giving us information about the park in three languages: English, Spanish, and German (more languages are available on the park’s app). The bus crawled into the volcanic landscape; and I was repeatedly amazed at the driver’s skill, for it must not be easy to maneuver a large tour bus on the narrow, twisting, uneven road.
The devil statue is an appropriate symbol for Timanfaya, for it is a hellish landscape. The audio guide informed us that it was formed during the island’s most recent volcanic eruptions, in the 1700s. Indeed, the guide even included readings of some eyewitness testimony of the cataclysm. (I believe there were no human casualties.) The ground writhed and churned like a storm-tossed sea. The rock itself had grains, like the wood of a tree that had grown around some impediment. Hardly a speck of vegetation was in sight. I found it impossible to capture the impression by taking photographs through the bus’s windows. The tortured mounds of black and red rock created the nearly nauseating sensation that the ground was alive.
This is the closest that I have ever been to a volcanic eruption, and it was a powerful experience. Since I have lived in seismically inactive areas all my life, the idea of the earth moving—or, more radically, of the earth spitting up more earth—is difficult for me to even imagine. But in Timanfaya, the evidence of volcanism is so perfectly visible that it is impossible to forget the perpetual burning which boils beneath our feet.
The visit was, however, surprisingly short. In about forty minutes we were back in the parking lot. Near the visitor there are some pits and holes in the ground. There, a park worker was demonstrating the still-active volcanism of the area. He did this by pouring water down one of the holes, only to have it shoot up in a geyser of steam moments later. I almost had a heart attack the first time. He also stuffed some straw into one of the pits, which promptly caught fire due to the escaping heat.
After witnessing these marvels of nature, Rebe bought some knicknacks at the visitor’s center, and we were on our way again. We next wanted to see Lanzarote’s capital: Arrecife.
The city first presented itself as rather ordinary and unremarkable—a collection of whitewashed buildings and crowded streets. But the prospect considerably improved once we walked to the shore. Arrecife is Spanish for “reef,” and it takes its name from the rock reef that lines the coast. The water was blue and shimmering; and even though we were at the port, it was full of swimmers. Further down we saw Arrecife’s beach, the Playa del Reducto—a typically idyllic combination of sand, sunbathers, palm trees, and resorts.
Soon we came upon the city’s most historic landmark: the Castillo de San José, a small fortress built in the 1700s. It is on an island attached to the mainland by a stone walkway, much like the Castillo de San Sebastián in Cádiz, only more diminutive. Crystal water lapped both sides of the walkway, and the wind whipped up once we reached the halfway point. Two old canons stand guard before the weatherbeaten castle, two hollow tubes before a now obsolete edifice. The fortress now houses a small art museum, but I did not know this at the time, so I did not pay the entry fee to go inside.
Looking back towards the shore, we could see the Church of San Ginés, perhaps the most notable house of worship on the island. The current structure owes its form to the 17th and 18th centuries; but it was built over the first hermitage on the island, which was established in 1574 to house an image of the island’s patron saint. A flood swept away this original building in the 1600s. Nearby is the Charco de San Ginés. Charco is Spanish for “puddle,” but this is a man-made bay where fishermen moor their colorful skiffs. Needless to say that it was designed by César Manrique.
Our next stop was, of course, yet another of that indefatigable artist’s work: the Mirador del Río. This is on the north-eastern side of the island, somewhat close to the Jameos del Agua, so it took a little time to get there. Thankfully we weren’t driving at night. The road took us up above the sea, passing little villages and some scattered wineries. From the outside the Mirador doesn’t look like much. The parking lot is adorned with one of Manrique’s mischievous statues, but the building itself has been disguised by being built into the cliffside.
We walked in and prepared to pay the entrance fee.
“You don’t want to go in,” the ticket man said. “There’s lots of fog. You can’t see anything.”
“Really? Uh… thanks,” I said, and we began to walk back to the car.
“Now what?” Rebe said to me, rather disappointed that we had come all this way for nothing.
“Don’t listen,” we heard a voice say. It was a Spanish woman walking out of the Mirador. “Even with the fog, it’s nice.”
“Oh… thanks!” we said, and went back inside.
“You sure?” the ticket man said, seeing us again.
Only in Spain does the man selling tickets try to dissuade you from paying.
Like nearly everything Manrique built, the Mirador del Río has a parking lot, a gift shop, and a café. The man may not have been a groundbreaking architect, but he understood tourism. As usual, the interior is sleek and chic, with curving walls and hand-made metal chandeliers. The space opens up through two enormous windows, revealing the famous view.
Unfortunately, the ticket vendor was right: it was a foggy day. Normally one should be able to see the neighboring island, La Graciosa, and the narrow channel of water between them (called el río, or “the river”). But this sight could only be snatched at intermittently, when gusts of wind blew the insistent fog away. It was impressive nonetheless. The overlaying mist, which smelt of moisture and ocean, lent a mysterious grandeur to the distant island, only visible in stolen moments. And, true to form, Manrique did a wonderful job in integrating the structure into its surroundings; even the gift shop did not seem out of place.
Daylight was waning; our time in Lanzarote was coming to an end. For a last stop we went to the nearby Famara Beach, one of the island’s best-known beaches. The sand stretches for miles, and the cliffs of Famara make a picturesque backdrop to the coastline. However, the current was strong and the wind was cold, so there was not a soul in the water. Volcanic rocks were scattered amidst the sand, trapping pools of water here and there. Very carefully, I placed my camera on one of these rocks and set the timer. We had to have at least one photo together on the trip.
After our fill of salt and sand, we got back into the car to go home. But we decided to make a quick stop to the nearby pueblo of Teguise on the way back. It is certainly one of the more charming villages on the island, with several historic church buildings, old cobblestone streets, and a view of the beach below. In the pale blue light of the dusk, the white buildings had an almost ghostly glow. Here, again, was that spare beauty of the desert, which I had quickly come to cherish.
The next morning we dropped off the car, boarded the plane, and returned to Madrid. (I should mention that we used PlusCar once again and it was just as cheap and convenient as before.) Just as in Tenerife, I wished that I could have spent more time on the island—far more. Both of the islands were pleasant in the extreme: friendly people, fresh food, temperate weather, and intoxicating natural beauty. I envy the people who live there.
I spent the entire plane ride in a panic. The sleep deprivation didn’t help. As usual, I had bought tickets for an early flight in order to save money; and, as often happens, I was too nervous to sleep well the night before. Several seats in front of me, Rebe was contentedly snoozing. I tried putting my hood down over my eyes and drifting off; but every time the plane dipped or turned, I was jolted awake. The art of sleeping on airplanes still escapes me.
Our destination was Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands. This is a group of volcanic islands off the Western coast of Morocco. Including Tenerife, there are seven main islands in the archipelago, along with many minor ones. These islands have been controlled by Spain since the late middle ages. They were conquered as a kind of prelude to the colonization of the New World—during which they were used as a jumping off point to cross the Atlantic.
Before the Europeans came to establish themselves, the islands were populated by indigenous peoples known as Guanches, who had originally came from Northern Africa. Their culture was either totally destroyed or absorbed by the invading Spaniards, so that nowadays only slight traces remain, along with tantalizing archaeological evidence. Today the islands are a kind of offshore European vacation spot.
Considering that I was heading to a tropical island with my girlfriend, it would be logical to assume that I was in a good mood. I was miserable—gripped by anxiety. You see, the Canary Islands are unlike peninsular Spain in at least one crucial respect: the lack of public transportation. You simply must rent a car. Luckily, in my experience car rental prices in the Canary Islands are often very low. Unfortunately, however, I was not very good at driving.
Having grown up with good public transit, I had spent my entire life without serious need of driving. Consequently, I got my license quite late: at the age of 21. And even then, I rarely used it. Moving to Madrid—a place extremely well-connected by trains, buses, and subways—did nothing to remedy the situation. Indeed, I had driven so rarely since getting my license that, before taking this trip to Tenerife, I had probably gone less than 100 miles in total—a few dozen miles a year, here or there.
What is more, I had never driven without the company of a more experienced driver. Rebe certainly did not fall under this category. She did not have her license; she had barely even touched a steering wheel. In short, she would not be any help. I was on my own.
When we arrived at the airport, I insisted on taking a few minutes to have a coffee and relax. But it was no use. As I stared down into the milky brown of the coffee, I felt sure that this was to be the last coffee I would ever taste. My mind flooded with images of gruesome crashes—a head-on collision, careening off a cliff, spinning out of control. This was it: the end.
Finally it was time to go down to the parking garage and pick up the car. We found the desk and got in line. Behind us a loud bachelorette party also got in line—the women occasionally chanting and singing. I hardly noticed them, however, as I shuffled towards my doom. I was shivering and covered in a cold sweat. Then—suddenly—I felt a sharp pressure in my abdomen.
“I have to go,” I said to Rebe, and ran back upstairs—to the bathroom. Strong anxiety tends to upset my bowels.
Ten minutes or so later, I re-entered the line. Now it was our turn to do the paperwork. I could hardly pay attention to the man’s explanation. As I signed the paper, I felt as though I were signing the order for my own execution. We walked out to the car—a Smart car, tiny and cute. Do these things have good crash safety ratings?
Failure confronted us immediately.
“How do you open this thing?” I said, trying to get the back door opened.
“Wait,” Rebe said, and tried herself to find the handle—also with no luck.
In shame, I had to ask the rental car guy to open it for us. Not a good omen.
We got in. I adjusted the seat. I adjusted the mirrors. I checked and rechecked my seatbelt. I turned on the car and braced myself. My head pounded, my vision narrowed, my veins felt like they were flooded with fire. And despite doing my best to not let any of this show, my voice quivered when I said:
The car was ignited and put into drive. Very gingerly, I pressed the gas. Nothing happened. I pressed a bit harder; still nothing.
“What’s going on?” I said. “The car isn’t moving. Why won’t it move?”
“The emergency brake is on,” Rebe informed me.
“Oh, shit.” Another bad omen.
I switch off the brake, and the car begins to move. All of my senses are focused on the vehicle. I try to remember my training—rules of the road, blind spots, when to signal. After a couple spins around the parking lot it is time to get to our Airbnb.
“Ok, what do I do?”
Rebe turns on the GPS and lets the automated voice do the rest. Soon I am merging onto the highway. Nothing difficult so far. None of the cars are going particularly fast. I just have to follow the road for a dozen kilometers or so until we reach our exit. Meanwhile, every slight adjustment of the car provokes a crisis of indecision in me. What is the proper distance to maintain? Should I pass? What is the safest way to pass? What’s the speed limit anyway? Is that guy too close? Am I going too slow?
Finally our exit appears. After negotiating a roundabout, we are speeding down the center of a Santa Úrsula, a small town on the northern shore of the island.
“The Airbnb is right over there,” Rebe says.
“So should I park?”
“But where? Where?”
We drive about a mile down the street before I manage to pull off the road and into a parking spot. By now, I am totally shaken.
Luckily, the Airbnb calmed me down. I had splurged and gotten us an entire apartment. It was magnificent—a kitchen, a couch, a television, and a balcony with a view of the ocean. Perhaps this vacation in a tropical paradise wouldn’t be so bad after all.
The big division in Tenerife is between the northern and southern shores. From what I hear, the south shore—full of golden beaches and massive resorts—caters mainly to foreigners, while Spaniards tend to prefer the northern shore. No lover of sunbathing or swimming in the ocean, I figured that I would stick to the north.
Our first stop was a little town called Icod de los Vinos. We arrived at lunch time. Still very uncertain about my driving, I parked in the first available spot I could find. It just so happened that this spot was very far away from both the restaurant and the city center.
“Are you serious?” Rebe said. “We have to walk half an hour?”
“Listen, I can’t drive anymore right now.”
In retrospect, it is absurd that I was so shaken up. The driving could not have been easier. Hardly anybody speeds, and nobody drives aggressively. And if I had not been frantically monitoring the road, I would have noticed that it was a beautiful day. Unsurprisingly, Tenerife looks nothing like Madrid. Far from the arid climate and sandy soil of Spain’s capital, Tenerife looks properly tropical—filled lush greenery, with the ocean rarely out of sight.
I was happy because I was out of the car. Now it was Rebe’s turn to suffer, since she doesn’t like to walk. The way to the restaurant took us up a sizable hill. At the top we had an excellent view of the town—spread out on the slope, with patches of fields (presumably for wine) interspersed between the houses—not that Rebe was in the mood to appreciate it.
We went to a restaurant called (if memory serves) El Frenazo, which specializes in grilled meat. This is quite common in the Canary Islands, though I don’t know where they keep all the livestock. We ordered a parrillada—which is a huge platter of meat. When it arrived, we were stunned—it was an absurd amount of food, with sausages, chicken, panceta, pork chops, ribs, as well as salad and french fries. We ate as much as we could and then saved the rest for dinner.
Icod de los Vinos is most famous for the Drago Milenario. This is a massive dragon tree that is supposedly one thousand years old (though nobody knows for sure), which has become one of the most recognizable symbols of Tenerife. Dragon trees, a species native to the Canary Islands, are typically small, even bush-like. This specimen, however, rises to the height of a proper tree. It is a beautiful sight: with the single, massive trunk splitting into a tangle of knotty branches.
The old center of the town is charming, too. There is a certain architectural style typical of Canary villages: squat buildings of whitewashed granite lining plazas filled with palm trees. It is a strange combination of Latin America and medieval Europe. The local accent furthers this impression. Canarian Spanish is unmistakably different from that of the Peninsula. To me it sounds like the Spanish from Andalusia—clipped, shorn of endings, slurred together—but with a kind of jolly lilt that sounds Caribbean to my ears. I find it very pleasant, even if it is sometimes difficult to understand.
After a very long walk to the car (complicated by me not remembering exactly where it was) we were ready to see more of the island. Though I was still nervous while driving, the island’s beauty began to work on me. Every turn on the highway revealed another impressive view. Unfortunately, I could not properly enjoy these views, since my eyes were frantically fixed on the road. Rebe, meanwhile, sat in the passenger’s seat, blissfully ignorant of my mental state, taking photos through the window with her nice camera.
In half an hour we arrived at our next destination: La Orotava. This is a medium-sized town known for its well-preserved historical center. But anyone who has lived in Europe knows that driving in beautiful historical centers is seldom a quaint experience. The twisting, narrow, and steep streets made my already elevated blood pressure spike up to concerning heights.
“Where do I park? Where do I park?”
“I dunno, somewhere around here,” Rebe said.
On impulse, I turned down a nearby street. But a pedestrian immediately started waving at me and, in a moment, I realized that I was going the wrong way down a one-way street. Luckily, a parking space was miraculously available nearby, so I avoided a head-on collision (even though it took me about seven attempts to double park my tiny Smart car).
The center of La Orotava vaguely reminded me of Toledo, both for its antique layout and for its sharp changes in elevation. The town sits splayed out on a steep hillside, making it the most uneven municipality in Spain. As in any historical Spanish town, there are many churches to see. The most noteworthy is the Church of the Holy Conception—a looming structure whose wide façade rises into a series of gentle curves. From the inside the visitor can tell that it is a properly historical edifice, with elaborately carved altars, columns, and pulpits. It is no wonder that the locals affectionately call it a basilica and a cathedral, though it is neither of the two.
Yet my usual strategy of hunting down historical buildings was inappropriate to visiting Canarian towns. It is far more pleasurable to simply stroll about, admiring the many beautiful angles that opened up into the dramatic ocean beyond—palm trees, church spires, and tiled roofs foregrounding the blue-grey mist of the atlantic.
However, the sun was already on its way towards the horizon; and I was nervous about driving at night. So we went back to the apartment, eating the remainder of our massive meat platter for dinner. The next day was our only full day in Tenerife. We had to make it count.
Our first stop after breakfast was Tenerife’s most historically significant city: San Cristóbal de la Laguna (usually just called La Laguna). The city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 for being an excellently preserved example of a Spanish colonial city. Indeed, La Laguna was a model city for many of the major Spanish colonial capitals that followed—such as Havana.
The city is located on relatively flat ground, far from the shore. The wide streets are arranged in a grid-like pattern—not strict, as in New York, but still orderly and logical. This is strikingly different from most other historical Spanish cities. Also striking is the city’s complete lack of defensive structures. A wall has never enclosed the historical city center—probably because, after overwhelming the natives, there were few conceivable enemies to defend the city from. As a result La Laguna has a pleasingly open atmosphere.
After a stroll through the town—full of locals, tourists, clothing shops, and restaurants—we peeked into the city’s cathedral. It is a rather recent construction, built in the early 1900s. Like Madrid’s cathedral, it is a stylistic mismatch: neoclassic on the outside and neogothic within. Still, it is a pleasing space: open, balanced, well-lit, and filled with altars, statues, and floats used in processionals. The Royal Sanctuary is a far more ancient house of worship, having been built in the 16th century, which houses a famous devotional figure of Christ (thus the name). The most beautiful work of religious architecture in the city is the bell tower of the Church of the Immaculate Conception (the first parish to be established in Tenerife), built in 1511.
Yet the best of the visit was the street life. We ate an early lunch in a kebab place and listened to a couple of street performers do a decent rendition of some blues classics.
But we did not have long to dawdle. Today was the day that we ascended the volcano: Teide. We had to leave ourselves enough time to properly savor the experience. I had a concern, though. Friends had told me that it was very cold at the top of the volcano, and I hadn’t brought anything warmer than a light sweatshirt. When I told Rebe this, she made me even more concerned.
“Do you want to get to the top and be freezing? It’s not even warm down here.”
She was right. It was a surprisingly mild day for a tropical island. I figured that it was better to be safe than sorry, so we walked into a nearby sportswear store, where I bought a thermal t-shirt.
“I hope this is enough,” I said at checkout.
We got back in the car and, after several unsuccessful attempts, we navigated out of the town and towards the mountain. A Canarian friend of mine had suggested the route up the towns of La Esperanza and Las Rosas (basically from east to west), and it was an excellent recommendation. The road took us through bucolic countryside, with tree-shaded roads crossing grassy fields. Rebe put her camera on the dashboard and took photo after photo, while I stole sidelong glances at the scenery.
The road up was long. Teide is simply massive: rising over 3,700 m (or over 12,000 ft) above sea level. The volcano is at the historical, cultural, and geological heart of the island. Most obviously, it is evidence of the cataclismic volcanic eruptions that formed the island to begin with. But the volcano has taken on additional significance.
The peak was worshiped by the indigenous Guanches as a god who held up the heavens. And I admit that I, too, am willing to worship the massive hunk of volcanic rock, if my pleas can postpone any further eruptions. One wonders what would happen to the island’s one million inhabitants if the long-dormant volcano should re-awaken.
The German scientist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt—a pioneer in the study of how altitude affects the distribution of life—climbed the mountain on his way to South America. And the volcano is featured on Tenerife’s coat of arms. Nowadays Teide is the most-visited natural site in all of Spain—and, indeed, all of Europe.
As we approached and then entered the national park, the environment gradually changed. The trees shifted from deciduous to evergreen, and the fields were replaced by dense forest. The road led up and up, on a seemingly endless gradual ascent, gently turning as it went. Soon we were passing little stopping-points by the side of the road, each one offering a progressively better view of the island.
In less than an hour we were above the clouds. It was beautiful. A sea of white drifted in from the ocean, bathing the base of the mountain in mist. I was astonished at how high we were. The road up had not been very steep, but already the coastline below was swallowed into the far distance. And we were not even halfway to the top!
Now, I am very inexperienced with mountains; indeed, the only one that I have climbed is Peñalara, near Madrid. But I would guess that there are few eminences which give such dramatic views of their surroundings. Teide may not be the biggest; but it is surrounded by clear air and open sea; so the full extent of its height can be easily appreciated.
A few signs were set up at the resting points, explaining some of the geological history of the islands. According to them, the valleys below—such as La Orotava and Icod de los Vinos—had been formed in the space of a moment, by massive landslides breaking off from a larger volcanic structure. A sign also had information about the coronal forest, and the conservation efforts to restore it after damage inflicted by severe windstorms.
Gradually the forest shrank and all but disappeared, leaving a barren landscape, reminiscent of Mars. Now driving became truly nerve-racking. The road kept snaking left and right, with a sharp drop off at least one side at any time. If somehow I lost control, no trees would have broken the fall. We would have tumbled a long, long way. I kept my eyes glued to the road, doing my best to keep the car within the lines as we turned this way and that. Meanwhile, Rebe sat contentedly snapping pictures and oohing and aahing at the natural beauty.
Eventually we came to a rest stop. We had been driving for well over an hour already, and we were only halfway up. To actually reach the top, you must take the funicular, which is called the “teleférico.” But the price for non-residents is 27€, and that seemed too steep for us. (After reading a biography of Alexander von Humboldt, who famously ascended to the peak, I slightly regret my stinginess. Maybe next time.) Instead, we decided to have a coffee and then head back towards the north shore.
We sat outside, eating syrupy torrijas (the Spanish version of French toast) and sipping café con leche and hot chocolate. And I noticed something: it was considerably warmer than it was back down in La Laguna. My thermal T-shirt was not necessary after all.
If we had continued our ascent, we could have seen the Teide Observatory. This is an important array of telescopes that have been set up because of the island’s favorable astronomical seeing conditions. (Apparently, across the earth there is a good deal of variation in the degree to which atmosphere blurs stars and planets.) Brian May, the lead guitarist of Queen, did his PhD research on interplanetary dust here. Thus, from Humboldt to the present day, Teide has maintained a scientific significance.
The road down was just as winding and perilous as the road up. But it was shorter. In just half an hour we were in our next destination: Puerto de la Cruz.
This place was one of the first tourist centers on the island. Alexander von Humboldt himself stayed here during his visit to the island. It remains a place of hotels and resorts—tall white buildings huddled around the beach. The city itself is, thus, not especially noteworthy (though there are many good places to eat and drink). What draws attention is the beach of black, volcanic sand right in the center.
We stood for some time admiring the jagged black rock that forms the surrounding coastline. The rich blue of the waters turned a creamy white as it churned and frothed in the waves, battering against the shore and jettisoning into foamy sprays. Rebe spent about ten minutes trying to photograph it. Then, we headed towards the beach. On the way we encountered a strange sort of monument: thousands of little piles of black stones. A lot of man-hours had been spent in making this natural stone garden. It is a local tradition?
The beach was beyond. For a Saturday evening, it was not too crowded. The weather was not quite hot enough for sunbathing or swimming—at least, I thought so. However, it was beautiful. I had never seen a black sand beach before. The sand was courser than normal sand, with a smoother texture. I imagine it gets very, very hot in the summer months. Exhausted, I sat down on the beach while Rebe walked along the water. Her figure was silhouetted in the intense yellow reflection of sunlight on the waves. If I had had a good camera, it would have made an excellent photograph.
We hung out on the beach, had a drink (well, Rebe did), and went back to the apartment. Our short time in Tenerife was almost spent. We spent the night drinking a bottle of the local wine, which was surprisingly good. I suppose the mild climate and the volcanic soil are well-suited for viticulture.
The next morning we drove to the airport. But there was a problem. The whole time we had been driving, there had been yellow warning light in the dashboard, saying “neumático presión.” I panicked when I first saw it, of course, since I assumed that this had something to do with our suspension. But when I asked the rental car agent, he said it was no problem. It had stayed yellow the entire weekend. But on Sunday morning, as we prepared to return to the airport, it turned a bright red and said “urgente.”
At this point I asked Rebe what “neumático” meant.
“You don’t know?” she said, alarmed.
“I’m not sure…”
“It means tires,” she said.
“Seriously?” I said. “Oh, shit.”
Now, to reiterate, I did not know the first thing about car maintenance. I still don’t. So I was at a loss. I had Rebe call the rental car company, who told us to take it to a gas station and use the free tire pressure gauge. We did. It took us about ten minutes to figure out how to use the machine; we must have looked like two bumbling idiots. When we checked, we found that one tire had considerably less pressure than the rest. With five minutes of pumping, balance was restored, and the warning light turned off. Soon the car was returned to the airport parking lot, and my adventure in automobiling had come to a close.
I should mention that the car rental experience in Tenerife was excellent. I used PlusCar, and I would recommend them to any who wish to travel to the Canary Islands. The price was cheap and included insurance. The company also had a surprisingly relaxed attitude. There was little paperwork, no deposit, no threats of being held responsible for damages, and no attempt to sell us anything extra. And when we returned the car, we just left the keys under the dashboard and walked away. If only renting a car were always like that.
My last image of Tenerife was magnificent. The plane began to accelerate down the runway, taking off and ascending away from the ground. In five minutes the windows were covered with the white of clouds. Moments later, as we broke through the layer of mist, I looked out to see Teide, with its crown breaking through the sea of fog. I could hardly believe it: the peak was still above us! This was the first time I had looked up at the ground from a plane window.
I wish that I had spent more time in Tenerife. It was one of my best trips in Europe. The landscape is beautiful, the people are charming, the food is delicious—and, best of all, the price is reasonable. I would go back.
Despite my constant terror, I also relished the experience of having a car. The prospect of car ownership has never had much appeal to me. But renting a car made me understand: a car means freedom. True, it also means having to take care of the car, as I also learned. Still, I loved the feeling of being able to go wherever I pleased, whenever I pleased. And it is always a relief to conquer one’s fears. I had driven, and I had survived—something I never thought possible.
Of course, it was also very nice to be able to travel with Rebe. It was our first vacation together, and we managed not to kill each other. It turns out that spending a weekend on a tropical island with your girlfriend is, indeed, as enjoyable as it sounds.