Butterflies before breakfast

I was trying to trace a persistent error message in my camera and eventually found that it was due to a lost set of photos taken two years ago. I’d taken them during an early morning walk to look for birds inside Nameri national park, on the border between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. On the way back we saw a large number of butterflies in a space of about 15 minutes. I managed to photograph a few of them. This is what biodiversity means!

The Gothic Palace in the Alcazar of Seville

Almost 900 years ago, in 1248 CE, the Moorish rule over Seville came to an end when Fernando III captured the town. His son, Alfonso X, razed a large part of the Almohad palace and built a Gothic palace in its place. Parts of the garden also re-purposed the walls of the old palace. This gallery shows parts of the Gothic palace and the garden behind it.

Flowers of the Sahyadris

Kaas plateau is a seven hour drive from Mumbai. The herbs flower in the closing weeks of the monsoon: between September and early October. Many of the flowers you see here are also found in the nearby Mahabaleshwar plateau and in Lonavala, closer to Mumbai. Expect lots of small herbs, few bushes and trees only rarely. Be prepared for long walks in rain and mud, with no food and water except what you carry with you.

Flowers and herbs of the Western Ghats, especially of the Sahyadris, are now well documented. There are many guides for amateur naturalists like me. I was introduced to the pleasures of flowers by Adesh Shivkar and Mandar Khadilkar; google them if you wish. There is nothing available yet for an amateur explorer of the fascinating tiny world of mosses and lichens (see the featured photo).

The Moorish Alcazar of Seville

We were very naive about access to monuments in Spain. We should have bought tickets on-line a while before our visit, instead of arriving and standing in queue. The queue moved fast, but the tour of the upper part of the palace was sold out. We were restricted (if that is the correct word) to the vast ground level of the complex. This gallery covers only a small part of the enclosure.

The construction of the Moorish part of the complex was started in the 10th century, and continued till the 13th century. During the 12th century, the Almohades caliphate built the parts that are shown in the gallery above. I lost myself in the intricate work in stone and wood, and the interplay of wind and water for cooling. Along with the calligraphy that you see in the photos, these are characteristic of the Mudejar architecture of this part of the world.

Spanish Street Art

Walking in the back streets of Madrid’s art district, between small galleries and run-down buildings, I was stunned by the graffiti you see in the featured photo. It was painted on a sheet of plastic covering part of construction site. The beautiful skyline, minimally emphasized by the yellow lines, and the lettering were so assured, and at the same time so ephemeral! I was lucky that I walked by the few days of its lifetime.

I did not see more by this artist. In that sense none of the Spanish cities I visited seemed to have the prolific street artists of Porto. But what I saw captured me. Just as I captured some of what I saw. Here’s the gallery below, browse it and see if you like it as much as I did.

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.

Alhambra

Qalat Al-Hamra, the ancient name of the palace now called Alhambra, means the Red Fort. Qalat comes from the same root as the Hindi word qila, meaning fort. The name is derived from the stone, whose colour you can see in the featured photo. An Indian, whose imagination will be inflamed by the red sandstone of Mughal architecture, may be disappointed by the name. However, everything else in Alhambra lives up to its reputation.

So much has been written about Alhambra that I do not really need to add to it. The present structure was built in the 14th century by the Emir of Granada, and added to over the next one and a half centuries, until the fall of Granada and the surrender of the last sultan, Boabdil, in 1492 CE. It eventually fell into disuse, and serious efforts at restoration only began in the 19th century CE. Even for those who have grown up with the impressive Mughal architecture, Granada is a visual treat. The intricate stone and wood work, the sheer proliferation of detail, the clever lattice work with Kufic calligraphy worked into it, everything is delightful. The little flakes of paint on some of the walls indicate that there was much more to the decoration than is visible today.

There are three distinct part of the Nasrid dynasty palace complex. The first part which you get to see is the Hall of Ambassadors and the courtyard in front of it. Then the route passes through the halls around the Courtyard of Lions. Finally you reach the Emir’s palace and the garden of Lindajar. The grandeur of the Hall of Ambassadors is more than matched by the intricacy of the octagonal vault of the Hall of Two Sisters.

This is Spain’s biggest tourist draw, so one has to make sure to buy the tickets well in advance. We realized this a bit more than a week before we were planning to visit, and found that the tickets to the Nasrid palace were sold out. One can get a combination ticket, at a higher price, which allows you into the full complex of Alhambra and also to some buildings inside Albaycin. This was still available. There is a separate ticket to the Alhambra gardens and the Generalife, which does not give you entrance into the palace complex. This remains available even longer. We were fortunate that our hosts independently arranged for a night visit to the palace, so we got to see the Nasrid complex twice. The second visit was with a guide. He was good and pointed out details which I might have missed otherwise. However, I liked to pace myself with the audio guide, since that is also really well put together.

The friendly San Miguel market

We walked out of Plaza Mayor in Madrid through the north-west exit, and we were in the San Miguel square. In front of us was a wrought iron and glass structure from the beginning of the 20th century: the market of San Miguel. In recent years Madrid has converted many indoor spaces to the equivalent of food courts, from this to the upmarket Platea near Plaza Colon. We were in Madrid for too short a time to try more than one.

The main business of the market started behind the stall with fruits and vegetables. The sides of the market are lined with shops selling interesting tapas: fish on toast, cheese on toast, hams, stuffed olives, and so on. We diffused through the market slowly. The central aisle had long tables where you could sit and eat what you had bought. This part was crowded, and we realized that we would have to wait a while to find a place.

A very pleasant discovery was a counter for wines. I had my first tasting session of wines from the Rioja and Ribera del Duero areas here. We had discovered the grape varietal called Tempranillo a year ago in Portugal. We met it again. My previous experience with Spanish wines was inadequate. I resolved to repair this gaping hole in my experience during the trip. There was also a counter with sherries and vermouths, which could serve us over another evening, if we had one.

Decades ago, I had my first view of live performances of Flamenco in Tokyo. The cultural compliment seemed to be returned here. I tasted something called Gulas which adapts Japanese cutting techniques to create a dish which looks like eels on toast (click on the thumbnail above to see the details). Later I found a stall selling sea urchins. I’d only ever had it before as the wonderful raw goo that is called uni in Japan. This is different, as you can see in the photo above (if you haven’t seen sea urchins before, click on the photo of the things which look like hairy doughtnuts).

The Family found a stall with Sangria, and I got myself a Rioja. We found seats at a table and settled in for a bit of tapas: some fish, some ham. I’d not had much experience with the cheese of Spain. This was a good opportunity to try out the varieties available here. Madrid has an olive which I had not tasted before: this variety looks bright green, and has a different flavour (you’ll see it in the bottom rack below the stuffed olives if you click on that photo). The sweets did not seem specially Spanish. There were macaroons and chocolate of various kinds, and the Portuguese Pasteis de Nata, all of which looked and tasted authentic.

We thought it was a nice place to have an early evening’s drink. Dinner, as always in Spain, comes much later, well after sunset.

A walk with Carmens

We walked up and down the world heritage district of Albaycin in Granada on a hot day. Narrow paths wound between closed doors framed with tiles. Dazzling white walls of Carmens struggled to hold back flowering trees and creepers. It took me some time to figure out that although carmen means a garden in Spanish, in the Albaycin it has the added meaning of a house surrounded by a garden. Through gaps in the walls one could get a view of the Alhambra. I’d not paid much attention to descriptions of walks through this old Moorish part of the town, but it is one of my most pleasant memories of Spain.

The old houses were made with bricks and limestone mortar. Although there is a tremendous amount of study of the old materials in order to restore the most important buildings, the results are mainly applied to public property. Most of these carmens are private property, with their doors firmly shut. I could see more modern materials used in various places. As we walked between these white walls, The Family and I talked about the name of this area.

Albaycin or Albayzin apparently comes from an Arabic root which means the (place of) falconers. Baaz is a word that we knew. It is the Hindi word for a falcon, a loan word from Persian. That was intriguing. Were there really Persian influences in al-Andalus? I found later that in al-Andalus other words related to falconry, for example, dastaban for a falconer’s gloves, also come from Persian. How did the Moorish kingdoms of the far west carry the influence of Persian?

A Gallery of Waterspouts

The Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Toledo is a Spanish-Gothic monastery which is still being restored. It was founded by Ferdinand and Isabel, who united Spain and financed the voyages of Christopher Colombus. There’s a lot to say about this monastery. I’ll say that in a later post. This post is only a gallery of the fantastic waterspouts which drain from the roof into the inner courtyard.