Noon Beneath the Underdog

I had too little time in New York to listen to new music. I passed by the New York Public Library, but it may require prior arrangement to look at the papers of Charles Mingus which it holds. I did not think of this until I passed the stone lions guarding, among other things, the life’s work of a musical genius (photo below). I do not really think of Mingus and his music in terms of geography, but if I had to, I would associate 42nd street with it. Sure enough, I met up with Charles and Sue Mingus outside the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminus (featured photo).

New York City: public library

The low curved roof at this junction of passageways is held up by four pillars, some of which you can see here. They form a whispering gallery. I found travellers pausing to try this out: one of a couple would stand at one of the pillars, and the other would go to another and whisper something. It works, because they would then go off laughing together.

It is said that Charles Mingus proposed to Sue through this elaborate long-distance method. I haven’t found this story in Beneath the Underdog his rambling book which we have to count as his autobiography. Perhaps it is there in Sue Mingus’ memoirs, Tonight at Noon. I should read it.

Just for that I walked up to 10th Avenue on 42nd Street. Another block north, and I could have gone to stand at the address where Charles Mingus last lived. I did not have the heart to do that.

Pedimental Beasts

Toledo calls itself the city of three cultures. This is most visible in the monastery of San Juan de los Reyes. I walked through the Jewish quarter, and past the synagogue, into this large monastery built in the Mudejar style by Islamic architects and artisans, and found a stunning building.

Toledo: San Juan de los Reyes, detail 3

There is a wonderful mix of Christian spaces with Islamic decorations in the tiles on the floor and the woodwork in the ceilings along the corridors. But my eyes were caught by the exuberance of the details on the carvings on pillars and pediments.

Toledo: San Juan de los Reyes, detail 3 Toledo: San Juan de los Reyes, detail 4

I have seldom seen this kind of naturalistic detail outside of India. I walked slowly along the verandah bordering the central courtyard, admiring each piece of sculpture and taking a few photos. I’m sure each of these has been fitted into a symbolic belief structure, and if I were well-versed in medieval Christian symbolism I would see other layers of meaning under them.

Toledo: San Juan de los Reyes, detail 5

I just took pleasure in what the simple artists saw: a dog, a pig and a duck. Satisfied with my slow circuit around the central garden, I waddled out.

The Generalife of Alhambra

From the terrace of San Nicolas church in the Albaycin of Granada, one gets a good view of the Alhambra complex. In the featured photo you can see, on the right, the palace complex which is together called the Alhambra. The white building on the left, nestled into a hill called Cerro del Sol (Peak of the Sun), is called the Generalife today. The word is a corruption of the Arabic Jannat al-Arif, meaning the Garden of the Architect.

Generalife: Patio de la Acequia

We had a ticket which would take us through the gardens and pavilions of the Generalife, as well as the Alhambra. These are on two separate hills. On the burning hot day when we walked through them, these distances looked enormous. I was happy for the water fountains dotted around, where one could refill bottles and splash water over one’s face.

We walked through the gardens. What remains of the Moorish garden is hard to spot. The present design is from the middle of the 20th century. The flowers are chosen for their colours rather than fragrance, testifying to an European sensibility. The main building here is called Patio de la Acequia, meaning the courtyard of fountains. The photo above is a view along this courtyard.

Generalife: Inside Patio de la Acequia

The sultan would retreat here for peace and quiet in the 14th century CE. The building is simple today, although one does not know where ancient arabesques have been hidden under centuries of whitewash. Those decorations which are still visible are similar to the work in the Alhambra. We walked through the passages of this structure, marvelling that a sultan would spend extended times here. Once one of them was here long enough that a rebellion broke out in the Alhambra.

Albaycin viewed from the Generalife

There is a marvellous view of the Albaycin from this hill, as you can see in the photo above. I did not spend too much time in the garden, because I liked this more. The Family was more practical; she figured that we would see grander work inside the Nasirid palace. So she spent more time in the garden, while I sat on a bench after splashing water on myself and waiting to dry out.

The Grand Road

It had rained the previous night, and the temperature had turned bearable just as my trip to Spain was coming to an end. Around mid-day I walked down Gran Via, a street full of shops, movie halls, theatres, bars and restaurants, and even one casino.

Construction of this road started in 1910, following 40 years of planning and dithering. In these 40 years musicals and satires were written about it, and the name Gran Via was originlly given to it as a joke. In the 19 years that passed before it was completed, 14 other streets were destroyed along with buildings around them in order to construct this showcase of urban planning.

I started my walk from the Plaza de España, near the end of the street. Brick facades just off the Gran Via drew my attention. The style was popular in the 1920s and 1930s, but the use of brick and tiles in decorating the facade makes them look very attractive even now. The buildings on the main avenue are in a mixture of styles, as you can see from the photos below.

Particularly notable for its chequered history is the Edifico Telefonica, which played a role in the defence of Madrid during the civil war, and therefore had the distinction of being the most frequently shelled building of that time. Ernest Hemingway was one of the war correspondents who covered the news from his haunt in the bar at Museo Chicotle next to this building. Perhaps he gave the name "Howitzer Alley" to this road at that time.

Unfortunately, it is hard to find a detailed list (in English) of buildings along this route, or their architectural history. But if you are willing to try to puzzle out the Spanish, then there is an excellent guide which you can find here.

The Bañuelo

We walked along the little stream called the Darro on a narrow road. This was the lowest part of the Albaycin in Granada. A tourist bus went by and we had to flatten ourselves against a wall to let it go. I saw an opening next to me and a sign for the old bath-house or Hammam that we were looking for. This is called El Bañuelo, which simply means the bath. We walked in, and just after a little reception found an open space with a little square pool full of water.

Granada : arches inside the hamam

We walked past this into the main baths. This 11th century CE bath would have been lost if it had not become part of a private house. Originally the baths were attached to a mosque called the Mosque of the Walnut Tree. Hammams played almost as important a social role in Al Andalus as mosques. Both were places where people could gather and socialize. Women, who were generally supposed to be inside houses, could go to both these places. A mosque would have separate rooms for the segregation of genders, but in a Hammam this would be done by having different timings for men and women.

Granada: Hamam with skylights

The different rooms were for hot and cold water. The openings which you see in the ceiling were meant to allow light in, and steam out. At the back was a room whose roof had fallen in. Apparently this contained the boilers. The tiles on the floor are original, but the plaster-work has not survived the centuries. When I started taking photos, I found that the light was beautiful. I can imagine the wonderful play of light on the rising steam in a working Hammam.

Archives of the Indies

Although every Indian now seems to know about the bull run of Pamplona, the football clubs of Madrid and Barcelona, and Bunyol’s festival of La Tomatina, until a few years ago a random person in a Mumbai train would not be able to say anything definite about Spain. The historical connection between India and Spain being so low, it is odd to come across a beautiful Renaissance building in Seville called the General Archives of the Indies. It took me a moment to realize that the Indies in question lie across the Atlantic.

We never entered to gawp at the eight kilometers of shelves which hold 80 million pages dating from the 16th century CE to the end of the Spanish empire in the 19th century CE. I doubt that access is permitted to this treasure trove of recent history. However, some of the documents of general interest are on display.

The Family drew my attention away from the cathedral to this building right outside. Apparently it was first built as a market hall for Seville, to draw merchants out from the cathedral, where they had conducted their business till then. King Philip II of Spain got his favourite architect, Juan de Herreira, to design this building. The clean uncluttered lines look beautifully modern.

The horse carriage that you see in this photo will be visible on any day I guess, standing in that particular patch of shadow. This spot is one of the "stations" where tourists can hire a carriage. Why is Seville full of these antiquated and expensive things? They seem to have something to do with the April Fair in this region.

The doors of her face

One of the famous churches of Barcelona stands in a very constricted space within the Barri Gotic (Gothic quarter), or old town. This is Santa Maria del Mar. Standing in front of it, only the name tells you how close you are to the harbour. I was captivated by the door of the church, and the two commemorative figures on it (featured photo). The story is that when the church was built in the 14th century CE, all the guilds of the area, la Ribera, lent a hand. The figures acknowledge their help in porting the stones of the church. The last stone was laid in 1383 CE.

When you look closely at the figures and how they are dressed, you realize how different it is from modern European clothes. The closest in style that we can see today are probably the kilts and stockings of traditional Scottish dress.

Barcelona: rose window of Santa Maria del Mar

The year long seismic events of 1427 CE culminating in a destructive event called the Candelmas earthquake of 1428 CE destroyed, among other things, the rose window. The one which can be seen now was finished in 1430 CE. As far as I know, this medieval church was not touched by the refurbishments which swept through this area and remade it into the romantic-medieval tourist centre that it is today.

The oldest parts of Barcelona

We had a quick look at the the most ancient part of Barcelona near the Metro stop called Jaume 1. On one side is the busy Via Laietana, on the other, the remains of the old Roman wall. Barcelona existed before the Romans built the fortified town of Barcino around 15 BCE, during the time of the Emperor Augustus. These walls are not visible at street level now. What one sees is the Roman wall from the 4th century CE and later additions.

Barcelona: part of the Roman wallWe walked along via Laetana until we came to the Placa de Ramon Berenguer el Gran (featured photo). The Roman wall has been used here to prop up the medieval Chapel of Santa Agata. The arches and windows that you see here belong to the chapel, which dates from the early 14th century CE.

We walked along the impressive walls looking at the mixture of old stone replaced by later brick filling. Doors had been cut into the wall at some time, and one of these was impressively decorated in the modern street style (photo here). We walked along until we came to the remnant of what must have been an aqueduct supplying water to the walled town.

A longer walk would also have been interesting. It is also possible to visit the extensive archaeological discoveries under the Barri Gotic. We saw the entrance near the cathedral, but, regretfully, had too little time to do this.

In the rest of the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona it is hard to tell true history from fanciful reconstruction. The Roman wall anchors you to real history: the founding of Barcino, possibly by the Laietani, the arrival of the Romans a century or two later, and the eventual fall to Visigoths in the 5th century CE.

Goatic Barcelona

We walked from Plaza Espanya up to the Magic Fountain of Montjuic on a sweltering hot afternoon to find that the beast was having a siesta. We discovered later that the true colours of the fountain are seen only after dark. This was built in 1929 for the Barcelona World Fair, damaged during the Spanish Civil War, partially restored in 1955, and reassembled for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Nearby stands the resurrected Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe. As we walked up to it, we found this incredibly eye-catching object by the road side. It was promptly dubbed the Barcelona Goatic.

Alien aesthetics

By many professional measures Gaudi was an unsuccessful architect. His best-loved works are the few public projects he undertook. His designs for houses had few takers. Why did his modernism not have a market? In the decades when he was designing modernist projects which failed, elsewhere in Europe Art Nouveau and Jugendstil were spawning commercial success. We went to one of Gaudi’s few successful building projects to find out what it was like inside. This is Casa Mila, located just off Barcelona’s famous shopping avenue of Passeig de Gracia.

Casa Mila: atrium

The atrium was full of light. The floor was covered in trencadis mosaic, the iron gates were in typical Art Nouveau style, and the bottom of a staircase was covered with a mural in delicate pastel colours (which is not original). One architectural innovation which can be seen here are the pillars. They largely carry the load of the six storeys high building. In 1906, when the construction began, it was supposed to be a radical innovation, allowing interior walls to be free of load.

Casa Mila: interior passage

As a result of being built around an atrium, the interiors of flats are full of light. The doors and windows are made with the flowing curved lines which reflect the aesthetics built into the walls. It is said that Gaudi paid as much attention to the handles on doors as in the architectural design.

Casa Mila: bedroom

The furniture was also specially designed. The flat which is on show has reproductions of the furniture that was made for the original flats. These are typical Art Nouveau pieces. I wouldn’t mind some in my flat. As you can see from the photo above, there is no lack of light in the rooms. The main problem that customers faced was the lack of straight lines in the walls. As a result every piece of furniture had to be specially made for the building. When you see the kitchen or the bathrooms you are immediately struck by this realization.

Casa Mila: bedroom ceiling

I looked up at the ceiling and was amazed at the detail there. I’m not sure that I can sleep in such ornate rooms, but the aesthetics of that time could have been different. Apparently owners began to change the furniture and colours inside the flats as soon as they could. By the time the house was declared an UNESCO heritage structure, internal and external changes were so many that it was hard to restore the original colours. As a result, I’m not sure whether this ceiling, for one, now looks as Gaudi wanted it to look.

Casa Mila: facade

The facade of the building is very distinctive. The rough and unfinished look gives it the local nickname, La Pedrera, meaning the quarry. The intricate iron-work grilles on the balconies are remarkable. But the most remarkable part of the building is probably the roof, with its fantastically shaped chimneys and flues. The alien in the featured photo is one of these.