Friday, 29 March 2013

Spain: Avila, In the City of Stones and Saints

Spain: Avila, In the City of Stones and Saints

Kon Hans

The city of Avila, one and a half hour’s drive from Madrid, invites the visitor to a magical journey into the history

"High up in the mountains and made from sun, soil and stone and frozen winds that swipe the plains, Avila is a shining Lady that rules from inside her huge walls…

Walls and Cathedral of Avila

And so begins the story of the unique Avila, the “City of Stones and Saints” (Ciudad de los Cantos y los Santos), with its numerous churches, monasteries and the massive walls that embrace her and immerse her in a glorious medieval tale. A small city of 60,000 inhabitants with a rich history emerges majestically, firm as a rock in its small valley, under the shadow of the Sierra de Gredos, in the highlands of Castile, inviting the visitor to traverse its gates with its colossal impregnable walls looming above, for a magical journey in history, just one and a half hours’ drive from Madrid.

UNESCO Monument

View of Avila from the Walls
Spanning over two and a half kilometers in length the medieval defensive walls of Avila, the best preserved in Europe, protected the historic city perched at an altitude of 1,131 m., not only from enemies but also from the icy northern winds. Today, they are the biggest attraction of a city that its historical centre has been classified since 1985 as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Half the wall is navigable on foot (approximately a distance of 1 km) by paying a small fee and it is possible to learn about all the stages of its construction through a really well structured explanatory path. The view from up there, from the turrets and battlements, is stunning, both of the historic center of the city, down below, and of the nude and purple horizon far away.  However, beyond their eerie beauty, the walls of Avila carry a great symbolic weight: constructing them, maintaining and manning them required a great joined effort from its multiethnic population; and so Arabs, Jews and Spaniards, the farmers, the masses and the nobles alike, all came together for a project which was of everyone’s concern, and each and everyone left a small part of their sweat and of their soul in those walls. When you finish walking on the walls you have two options: either turning back the way you came or, even better, descending at the West Gate and returning through the city's historical centre. 
Walls of Avila

Walking through the alleys of the historic center, you feel the omnipresent walls around you and the feeling of protection they radiate, just as the cityspeople would have felt as they headed for the picturesque Plaza del Mercado Chico (Small Market Square) to do their daily shopping with the voices of the merchants still reverberating through the mists of time. Many small shops with a variety of local delicacies can be found all around: it is worth mentioning the Yemasde Santa Teresa, a handmade egg-based dessert renowned throughout Spain, which we can find mainly in the famed Patisserie Flor de Castilla along with other excellent delicacies.  Furthermore, apart from the great desserts, Avila is famous for its genuine Castilian gastronomy which is ideally combined with its mountainous character: Barco de Avila big beans for an exquisite cocido (soup with meat, vegetables and legumes), huge juicy veal t-steaks Chuleton de Avila or the spicy reddish potatoes “revolconas”, containing smoked paprika of the finest quality. A first class restaurant, in the historic centre, where you can sit in an authentic Castilian atrium and enjoy all of the above mentioned plus the world-famous cochinillo asado (small piglet cooked entire in a stone oven), is the Las Cancelas 

Religious tourism

Walls of Avila
After completing this culinary marathon and for a good digestion you can wander around the rest of the city, outside the walls. Religious tourism is thriving in Avila, which in fact holds the record of the highest number of churches in proportion to its residents in the whole Spain, thus it is guaranteed that on every corner of the street you will come upon the carved gate of a temple. Nonetheless, it is recommended to visit to the Cathedral of Avila, which is attached to the walls, and a part of them in reality, since it was designed for military use with a unique Gothic character.

Noteworthy are also the Basilica of San Vicente with a unique example of Romanesque sculpture: the Cenotaph of the Holy Brothers Martyrs, the Church of San Pedro and of course the Royal Monastery of St. Thomas, of which the imposing Gothic architecture reflects its dark reputation as the seat of the Inquisition and posterior residence of the notorious and dreadful Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada. The Museum of Avila on the other hand is an ideal place for a virtual walkthrough of the multifaceted history of the place, whereas in its two impressive buildings the whole history of the creation of the city unfolds: from the Celtic tribes and all the way to the Romans and the Visigoths, later the Arabs and finally reaching the recent harsh rural life of its inhabitants and their traditions, which revive in specially designed rooms that seem to have been transferred intact from a mansion of that era. Here you can also admire the mysterious monolithic Bulls of Guisando (Toros de Guisando) or stand spellbound over the incredibly geometrical Roman mosaic at the floor of the entrance.

When the time comes to leave the legendary walls behind, watching them as they melt in gold as the pure white light washes the stony valley, Avila will be the radiant lady of the medieval tale as she beats you farewell, proud in her cold, beautiful loneliness.

Published in KATHIMERINI ©, on February 2, 2013 (transl. & edited from greek, original here )

 (All fotos by Kon Hans)

Walls with the Cathedral of Avila

Basilica of San Vicente

Bulls of Guisando

Bridge over the main Gate of the Walls

Museum of Avila

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Madrid, a modern European city, where liveliness and art blend in a latin dance!

Madrid, a modern European city, where liveliness and art blend in a latin dance!

By Kon Hans

Madrid is a mysterious and full of charm Spanish Lady.  She is stern and majestic, and at the same time sensual and cosmopolitan, but above all she knows how to welcome her visitors.  From the famed “Golden Triangle of Art” that unfolds in her centre with the three big museums: Prado, Reina Sofia (MNCARS) and Thyssen Bornemisza, to the huge evergreen park “Buen Retiro”, and from the alternative, lively and with the omnipresent artistic spirit, neighborhood of Chueca to the frantic nightlife district of Huertas, where thousands of bars and discos open their doors and let the latin rythms pour out, Madrid offers absolutely everything; except of course the sea.
Madrid´s City Hall

However this absence has forged its Castilian temperament.  Situated high in its plateau – it’s difficult to imagine that Madrid has an altitude of 700 m.! – she gazes at the yellow-red plains that unfold all around and at the small villages of the proud Castile, up to the crests of Sierra in the horizon. The spirit and the pride of the people of this sun-baked land are the ones that give the character and the charm to the Lady of Spain. People that have faced poverty, hunger and a heart-breaking civilian war and came out stronger, and planted the seeds of a brilliant future in the dry land around them.  From that same seed, with much effort, pain and love, Madrid blossomed into the modern Spanish capital of today that emblazons its past proudly.

Walking in the city 

La Latina
Its imposing buildings dominate in broad streets, large squares and parks; it is a city that  invites you to walk, to get immersed  in the small inspiring alleys of the “neighborhood of the Letters” (Barrio de Las Letras) or in the animated and of a particular color neighborhoods of Lavapies La Latina and Malasaña.  Here you may savor the famous tapas with a caña, a cold glass of beer - the best combination for the hot Spanish summer and in absolutely reasonable prices.
Puerta del Sol

Walking in the centre of Madrid, from the Puerta del Sol up to the Plaza Mayor you can witness how a healthy, attended historical centre functions in a modern capital. The crowds seem to swarm from everywhere in the Puerta del Sol as here is symbolically as well as literally the centre of Spain: the famous “Zero Kilometer” (Kilómetro Zero), the point  from where all the kilometric distances in Spain are calculated. From there also, pedestrian roads unfold to all directions, and they can lead you to the magnificent Royal Palace, the grand Cathedral, the Opera or, alternatively, if you are more interested in some “smart” shopping, in the colorful streets of Fuencarral, full with rich and juvenile Spanish fashion in its windows. Wherever  you go in the centre, underneath the brilliant deep blue sky, Madrid will reward you:  you will hear the rhythmical claps accompanying the magic notes of  an Andalusian guitar in the tablaos (bars with live flamenco music), you will relish the famed jamon and see it hanging all over the ceiling above you as you  enter the Museo del Jamon, you will be drifted away by the joy and laughter towards the sleepless Plaza Dos de Mayo, you will dance and lose yourself into the dazzling sweet lights of the unique Madrilenian night.

Art and creation

Art in Madrid - Loewe, Gran Via
Beyond, however, its magical nights, Madrid is also the place where the muses of art and creation dwell. Its impressive museums, experimental art galleries, culture institutions and art foundations constitute samples of an evolved aesthetics and a long-lasting artistic tradition, and many of them are amongst the most important in Europe and in the world. 
The flagship of its large fleet of art is without doubt the famous Prado Museum, a unique collection of masterpieces from the 14th century until the beginning of the 19th, with Velazquez, Goya and El Greco fighting with their dark forms against the light of Rembrandt and Caravaggio.  Of its permanent collection containing well over 8.000 pieces, only one third of it is possible for the museum to exhibit each time, even with its new remarkable wing; for that reason its collection is on a continuous recycling base and a great many important periodical exhibitions are organized throughout the year. The“Young Van Dyck” is one of those, which someone visiting Madrid until the end of March may enjoy. 
On the other corners of the “Golden Triangle” you can find the National Museum-Centreof Art  Reina Sofia (MNCARS)and the Museum of Art Thyssen-Bornemisza; two exceptional museums that complement perfectly  the visit to Prado  as they come to offer superb works of modern and contemporary art to this magical tour in the history of artistic creation.  Both of them organize a score of activities and periodical exhibitions without mentioning the unique masterpieces of their permanent collections, such as the enormous and imposing painting of Picasso´s “Guernica” that you can enjoy in the Reina Sofia Museum in a specifically designed space. For an eager visitor that would like to visit the massive collection of all three museums, there exists a single ticket, called "Art Walk Pass" in a very reasonable price for the whole “Golden Triangle”.

PhotoEspana 2013

Art in Madrid - Sala Alcala 31
Along with the various festivals and events taking place in the hot summer, the lucky ones that visit Madrid from 5 June to 28 July (to be confirmed) will stumble upon the famous PhotoEspaña 2013 that is taking place in a dozen of galleries and culture institutes all across the city, with the photograph being the sole protagonist in this unique and internationally acknowledged festival.
At the end, leaving the Lady of Madrid behind and looking from high above at the familiar golden-red canvas with a bittersweet sense overcoming me, as so many times before, one gets the feeling that the famous Greek writer Kazantzakis indeed was right when he was saying that “we can have many homelands in our heart”.

Published in KATHIMERINI ©, on July 21, 2012 (transl. & edited from greek, original here )

 (All fotos by Kon Hans)

Puerta del Sol - troopers

Bar "Madriz - Madriz" in Fuencarral

Colorful spanish couture 

Art in Madrid - Sala Alcala 31