On my last Sunday in Spain I took the short day trip from Madrid to Toledo. This is really worth it, if you have the time, and the inclination to see one of the old capitals of Castile. One of the highlights is the immense cathedral filled with chapels and side-chambers. Apparently the reason why it is so large is that it was established by razing the old mosque, and wanted to build over the full area that it occupied.
I took a ticket with an audio guide and meandered through the place, looking for the paintings by El Greco, Raphael, Murillo, Velazquez and Goya. After finding them, I followed the audio-guide’s whispered commands and came to the chapel you see above: dedicated to the new kings of Castile. The two sepulchres which you see in the featured photo belong to Henry III of Castile and his wife, grandparents of Isabel who, with Ferdinand, were instrumental in unifying Spain. All that is history. What I don’t understand is this business of three pillows. Wouldn’t that be too high for comfort?
In Seville we visited the cathedral, reputed to be the world’s largest. Before my feet gave up, we chanced on the ornate catafalque (see the featured photo) which holds the remains of Christopher Columbus. This reminded me of the wars of geometry which Portugal and Spain fought across the world.
The background to this is well-known. In 1486 Bartholomew Dias had sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, and opened up the sea route to Asia for Portugal. Unable to compete in the east, Ferdinand and Isabel of Spain decided to finance the harebrained scheme of Columbus to find a westerly route to India after the fall of Granada in 1492. Spain hit gold, literally, when Columbus chanced on the continents now called the Americas.
The wars to control the sea-routes east and west went on for another couple of years. By 1494 Portugal and Spain involved the Pope in finding a political solution to end these skirmishes. It was agreed that everything to the east of meridian 46 degrees west would belong to Portugal and everything to the west to Spain. The agreement clearly did not consult geographers and geometers who could have told their political masters that you cannot divide a sphere into two parts by one line of latitude.
The result of this error, you might say, is history. In 1513 the Pacific Ocean was discovered by Balboa and his crew. Within years Spain crossed the Ocean and skirmishes broke out on the eastern edge of the Pacific. The new wars between Spain and Portugal were eventually halted by political recognition of mathematical facts. The meridian of 142 degrees east was the chosen as the second dividing line. In 1529 Portugal and Spain agreed that part of the world between these two meridians which included the Americas would belong to Spain, and the rest to Portugal.
It was hot in the cathedral, and I decided to sit down while The Family walked about. I slipped into my siesta which ended only when she came back to say we could go.
The choir of the cathedral of Toledo looked so much like something out of Harry Potter that I had to sit down to recover. I’d decided to make a day trip to Toledo from Madrid largely to see the city that El Greco made his own. My first introduction to El Greco, decades back, came in the form of a large format book where each plate seemed to have a picture of Toledo in the background. Not only does Toledo loom large in El Greco’s paintings, I found that El Greco looms large in Toledo’ history.
The Cathedral of Toledo has a room full of paintings by El Greco. It is dominated by this painting of the disrobing of Christ before his crucifixion. The figures are the typically elongated ones that one expects in the middle and late period of El Greco’s paintings. There’s also the wonderful colours of cloth that are such a signature of his style. There’s so much to see in the Cathedral of Toledo that I did not grudge the 10 Euro ticket. The free audio-guide that you get with it actually made the trip very much more enjoyable. I found that it nudged me to see much more than I would have seen otherwise. I spent a full two hours in the cathedral, perhaps twice as long as I would have without this wonderful guide.
On the other hand, I did feel a twinge when the Church of San Tome charged me nearly 3 Euros to see the single painting by El Greco that they have. Its the magnificent painting called the Burial of The Count of Orgaz. El Greco painted this for his parish church, and my final charitable thought was that this could be thought of as a bequest by the painter. I wish though that they let you photograph the painting. Since they don’t, and I took one photo before I was told, I converted it to monochrome before posting it. In the roughly twenty minutes that I spent here, the crowds tripled. The church does well from this bequest. Did you notice that there is exactly one woman in the painting?
Nearby is the Museo El Greco. It is housed in an old Jewish house which was mistakenly thought to be one which he lived in. Nevertheless, the museum is worth visiting, because if the wonderful collection of about twenty original El Grecos that you can get to see. One of my favourites is this commissioned altarpiece designed and painted by the Greek, called Saint Bernardine of Sienna. This is one of his last finished paintings. You can see the extreme elongation of the figure here. Also notice that Toledo is worked into the bottom of the painting.
I’ll end this post with a wonderful picture by El Greco of his city, Toledo. This alone would make the Museo El Greco worth visiting. Given the nearly twenty paintings by the master collected here, I would not mind paying as much as the entrance to the cathedral. The fact that entrance was free on Sunday was a bonus.
The cathedral of Porto is near the Sao Bento station. As we walked up to it, the bright sun was behind the twin towers of the cathedral, and in our eyes. The Family said that it does not look very impressive from outside. We walked into the interior gloom. The cathedral did not look very impressive inside either. A narrow but high nave was topped with the barrel vaulting typical of Romanesque churches. The baroque porch from which we had entered was clearly added on much after 1120, when this part of the cathedral was completed. The Family took a closer look at the chapels and the decoration while I sat on a bench and nursed a bad knee.
The entrance to the place of worship is seldom ticketed, and this was no exception. However, you had to pay to enter the cloister attached to the cathedral. We duly paid up to enter the much more interesting Gothic cloister built during the 14th and 15th centuries (see the featured image). The azulejo panels at this level were designed in the early 18th century by Valentim de Almeida. The tiled panels on the upper level, which you can see bits of in the featured photo, were designed by Antonio Vidal around the same time.
We walked around the quadrangle. One of the doors leads to a renaissance staircase designed by the 18th century Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni who built many landmarks around the city. We peered at this, then walked around to the treasury inside the chapterhouse. We walked in a daze past shiny pieces meant to impress and suddenly spotted the odd decoration shown alongside. Could it really be a piece of the skin of St. Francis Xavier? We clicked a photo for our friends from Goa, and moved on. Baroque paintings decorate the roof of the chapterhouse. We admired them and moved up to the terrace.
One can take a closer look at the tiled murals here. These are genuinely beautiful, and totally Portuguese. We looked up at the steeple with a statue of a saint brandishing a cross from his niche. A sea gull sat on the large cross atop everything. Weeds grew out of the mortar. We’d noticed before that the once powerful church has entered a little bit of a backwater in this century. We went down by Nasoni’s stairs. The broad steps, evenly spaced, are very good for the knees. If you ever wonder why an architect has to design stairs, try descending a long flight of stairs made by amateurs. Your knees will tell you how bad they are.
There was a guide standing in the cloister. We asked her where Nasoni was buried. She did not know. As we exited we asked the lady who sold us the tickets where we could see Nasoni’s grave. She excitedly told us that no one knows. According to her he was buried somewhere in the cathedral, but the records are lost. Later we googled this and found that he is buried in one of the famous churches he built: the church of Sao Pedro dos Clerigos.
The old cathedral, Se Velha, was built soon after Coimbra became the capital of Portugal in 1143 CE. Since the Portuguese state of that time saw itself in terms of a militant Christianity fighting the Moors, we’d expected the cathedral to be grand.
In Coimbra the cathedral does not seem to be a very important structure. The gargoyles had not been cleaned for a long time; there were weeds growing out of them (see photo alongside). When we passed the cathedral in the morning its doors were still locked. People around did not seem to know whether there is an open door one can enter. We left and went up to the university, which was already bustling with faculty, students, and tourists. Of course, you might expect this in an university town. Maybe even the bishop teaches now and then.
When we came back down after some hours we found the cathedral doors open. The inside was nice, but nothing really distinguished it from the many churches we had already seen. Perhaps it was a touch more imposing: the height must have been hard to achieve in the days before the flowering of the Gothic style. Perhaps all the really good stuff was moved to Lisbon when it became the capital in 1255 CE. There were lovely azulejos on the wall, a portrait of the queen, St. Isabel, a nice gilded altar-piece. I liked the painted and gilded wooden statue whose photo you see alongside. The most amazing things in the cathedral were the two immense sea shells which serve as baptismal fonts (one of them is in the featured photo). Apparently they were found somewhere in the Indian Ocean in 1952.
As we exited the cathedral we realized that a wedding was in the offing. A few men milled around a priest in formal vestments who stood at the top of the steps leading up to the door of the cathedral from the square. As we watched, guests began to arrive. Most drove up to the square and disgorged women in beautiful gowns escorted by men in suits. We did not feel out of place in the gaggle of ill-dressed tourists who were on watch. The Family wanted to wait for the bride. I looked for a good place to photograph her from, and eventually found one at the mouth of a road coming into the square from above. The Family was lost in the knot of people and cars in the square. I could get a few photos of the bride in her long white train. You can barely see at the edge of the photo her mother in a lovely purple gown.
So the cathedral still does play a role in the life of the community. It is just that the relatively hard days that Portugal is going through leaves little money to keep all large old structures in good shape.
There wasn’t much time to prepare for the trip to Portugal. I read during my layover in Munich. The historical entry point to Lisbon was the Praça do Comércio. We arrived on a brilliant Sunday afternoon and decided to go off to this square after a quick shower at the hotel. The Metro in Lisbon covers downtown pretty well. We got off at the station called Baixa-Chiado and walked.
Past Praça Luis de Camoes we turned into the steep Rua Alecim, and walked down its length. The interesting building whose photo you can see above is just opposite a cafe. We were a little tired, and thought that some caffeine would do us good. The cafe was such a beautiful hodge-podge of couches, tables, and odd decorations that it could well have featured in a movie (see photo alongside).
We walked out fortified, and found ourselves in Cais do Sodré after a short walk. This was interesting, but not where we wanted to go. So we backtracked, and found ourselves walking along Rua do Arsenal. The evening sunlight made even blank walls look beautiful. The long street eventually brought us to the Praça do Comércio.
There was a violent pillow-fight going on in front of the statue of King José crushing stone snakes. We sneaked past the skirmish and crossed the road to the Tagus river. The crowd here was a mixture of locals and tourists.
After a brief halt at the river-front, and admiring the far-away Bridge of 8 May (named after the day of the revolt against the dictator Salazar), we walked to Terreiro do Paço. A little further on we could see the old cathedral, so we moved in towards the district of Alfama. We passed the Jose Saramago Foundation, and climbed up along a series of very picturesque streets. There was washing hanging from windows every now and then.
We climbed up a steep road and found ourselves right outside the Igreja Santo Antonio de Lisboa. We stopped for a quick look at the church, and then went on to the cathedral a few steps away. A picturesque tram thundered past us. We could walk past the church on a downward sloping road to reach the local Fado bars. We were too tired for this, so we took the other road at the fork. A few steps up and we saw a nice fish restaurant: one could see that it was nice by the number of people inside. We joined them and ended the first of our epic walks across the town.