Saturday, May 27, 2017

Simple moments in Paris

Papillons at the Grande Galerie de l'Evolution in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris

I am fortunate enough to have made a half-dozen trips to Paris in the past few years, and thanks to friends and proximity as well as occasional SNCF train ticket bargains, I hope to make many more. No matter how many times I visit, I find myself in unfamiliar neighborhoods and am delighted by new experiences.

A hot-air balloon over the Loire Valley as seen from the train to Paris

I am accompanied on my most recent trip by my friend who grew up in Paris and her two children, and so for part of my visit I share a kids' eye view of the City of Light. I also help myself to some rare "alone time" where I visit nearly empty museums and enjoy a solo stroll halfway across town. Here are some highlights:

Le Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris in the Petit Palais

Bronze statue of Winston Churchill at the Petit Palais in Paris

The Bataclan theater in Paris's 11th arrondissement

Boutiques and workshops line la Coulée Verte, an old railroad viaduct in
Paris's 12th arr.

View from the garden promenade on top of la Coulée Verte in Paris

Wine warehouses were converted into the trendy Bercy Village neighborhood in
Paris's 12th arr. Just after taking this photo, I received a soaking from
the rainwater which had collected in the parachutes above the walkway.  

View from the 2nd-floor balcony of the Grande Galerie de l'Evolution in Paris

Elephants at Grande Galerie de l'Evolution in Paris

Apes at the Grande Galerie de l'Evolution in Paris

Exhibit at the Arab World Institute (Institute du Monde Arabe) in Paris

View of the Seine from Place Louis Aragon at the tip of Ile Saint-Louis in Paris 

Saturday, May 13, 2017

On the road to and through Zaragoza

Zaragoza is our last stop on our month-long trip to Spain. 

Our winter 2017 trip to Spain is coming to a close. As we cross the Castile-la-Mancha region, we make a few somewhat "meh" stops at sites recommended in my guidebook, spend a night in a motel in a tiny village that turns out to be a delightful surprise, and find ourselves smack in the middle of Carnaval crowds in Zaragoza, our last stop before France.

To ...

On the plains of La Mancha we see windmills off in the distance and make two brief stops in Belmonte and Consuegra before heading to our destination.

This castle in Belmonte, Spain, was built in the 15th century
by the Marquis of Villena after the king gave him the town.

Statue of Don Joaquín Poveda Sánchez in Belmonte, Spain

Windmills on a ridge above Consuegra, Spain

We've planned the trip so we don't have too many long days of driving. I reserve a room in a cheap motel in Saúca because it's equidistant between Toledo and Zaragoza. Our expectations are low: a clean room and good WiFi will satisfy, but pleasant surprises await us at the El Cercao Hostal. We've arrive a little early so we have a coffee in the bar and watch game shows on TV while we wait for our room. Our host explains that since the regular rooms lack heat, she's upgraded us to a family room. The charming, spotlessly clean room includes a kitchenette and an extra bed as well as the usual amenities. I don't usually include shameless plugs in this blog, but if you ever find yourself in the Guadalajara province and need a place to stay, this is it.

We couldn't have been more pleased with our stay at El Cercao Hostal in Saúca.

Saúca's church is the tiny village's only landmark.

Another view of the church in Saúca, Spain (pop. 70)

El Cercao isn't serving lunch today, so our host points out the shortcut to Sigüenza, about 10 minutes away. We have a number of restaurants to choose from, and after filling up, we check out the town. There are two main attractions here: the cathedral and the castle. The castle's foundations date back to the 5th century. The Moors then the Christians expanded it, and today it is a hotel. We're allowed to poke around the courtyard, but to see more, we would have to check in. (Another time, perhaps.)

Sigüenza Cathedral

Castillo Sigüenza

Courtyard of Sigüenza castle

One last stop worth mentioning is one we make between Saúca and Zaragoza in the Aragón region. The village of Calatayud is overlooked by a huge Moorish Fortress, visible from the motorway. We spend about two hours here ... enough time for walk through town, a snack and a café solo.

Ruins of an 8th-century Arab castle in Calatayud are visible for miles around.

Colegiata de Santa María in Calatayud

Storks and a nest atop a building in Calatayud

Through ...

The cupolas of the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar
dominate the skyline of Zaragoza, Spain.

We have arrived in Zaragoza — our final stop in Spain before heading to Toulouse to see my sister and then home to Lauzun. We're staying across the Rio Elbro so our first view of the city also is the best view — from the Puente de Piedra.

Zaragoza's Plaza del Pilar

A few years ago some friends suggested we visit Zaragoza (Saragossa is its Spanish name). They had been most impressed with the city's huge plaza, and indeed, the Plaza del Pilar is pretty amazing. Landmarks here include the Basilica de Nuestra Señora (El Pilar), La Lonja de Mercaderes (an exhibition space that originally was a merchants' market exchange), the  Ayuntamiento (city hall) and La Seo cathedral. Whimsical sculptures and a modern fountain (Fuente de la Hispanidad) seamlessly blend with the traditional and historical buildings that rim the plaza. A televised tapas cook-off is taking place while we're here, and I am surprised there aren't more people out and about on this mild sunny day. But wait ... the throngs are coming.

Fuente de la Hispanidad in Zaragoza has the silhouette of South America.
The fountain, by architect Ricardo Uson García, was built in 1991

Despite our travel-weariness, we manage to explore a good part of Zaragoza in our afternoon here. We are starving by 5 p.m. and have trouble finding a bite to eat. (We never do manage to acclimate to meal times in Spain.) At last we find a restaurant and order tapas ("one of each, por favor) and drinks to fortify ourselves for our last night out.

Fuente del Dragon in Zaragoza

A huge Caesar statue in a Zaragoza shopping center

It's the last night of Carnaval celebrations here, and we have vowed to stay up late and enjoy the festivities. We aren't exactly sure of where the parade will take place but we follow miniature superheros and princesses as they head to what we assume is the start of the parade route. Eventually we realize that the celebration will wind through the city and the sidewalks are soon clogged with people.

My limited view of the Carnaval festivities in Zaragoza

I am not a big fan of crowds, so we hang back, have some ice cream and wait to see what will happen. As the parade passes the Plaza de España, we manage to catch glimpses of the floats and costumes. But I've seen enough, and my brave and clever husband manages to get us across the street so we can return to our hotel.

Zaragoza at night from the Puente de Piedra

Congratulating ourselves for staying out so late, (It must be nearly 10 o'clock!) we turn our attention to a good night's sleep before tomorrow's drive north over the Pyrénées.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Taking it easy in Toledo

A view of Toledo, Spain, from the walls of the old quarter

By the time we reach Toledo, it is the last week of our month-long trip to Spain, and the travel is starting to catch up with us. We are tired and a little cranky. Something we ate hit us wrong and we have to cancel plans to take the train to meet our friend Miriam in Madrid. But we manage to rally enough to explore and enjoy this World Heritage Site and one of Spain's most historically rich cities.

Toledo is known as the "city of the three cultures" because Arabs, Jews and Christians lived here for centuries. The old quarter of the city is considered to be an open-air museum because of the diversity of its historical and artistic sites.

Plaza Zocodover in Toledo, Spain

Our apartment is just a short walk to the base of the city and we take a long ride up several escalators to the top: steps away from Plaza Zocodover. Our first evening we grab a map at the tourism office and nose around the town. On day 2, we meet our guide for a free city tour and learn about the history and culture of Toledo as we walk up and down the narrow streets. (Watch out for cars! I can't imagine driving here.)

Toledo's smallest window

Toledo's history is long and complex — I won't even try to tell its story here —  and our guide does her best to share the highlights. Our first stop is the ancient mosque Bab-al-Mardum, built in 999, converted into a church in 1187, and eventually turned into a museum, the Mosque of Christo de la Luz.

Mosque of Christo de la Luz in Toledo, Spain

Rooftop cat in Toledo, Spain

We also make a stop to examine the exterior of Cathédrale Sainte-Marie de Tolède. considered to be one of Europe's greatest Gothic structures. Inside are two paintings by El Greco (1541-1614). The great Spanish Renaissance painter moved to Toledo in 1577 and created some of his greatest masterpieces here. The El Greco Museum, located in Toledo's Jewish Quarter, opened in 1911, and his paintings can be found in several churches here.

Marker embedded in the sidewalk in Toledo' Jewish neighborhood

After our walk through Toledo's Jewish Quarter, I am eager to return, which we do the following day. In the Middle Ages, most of the city's Jews lived here, although it wasn't mandatory. Small tiles have been placed in the pavements of this neighborhood indicating that visitors are in the Jewish Quarter. Although I am secretly hoping to find a good Jewish deli (nope!) I am delighted by the winding streets and our visit to the Sephardic Museum located in the Synagogue of El Transito (originally known as Synagogue Samuel ha-Levi for the man who founded it). The museum is small but contains some interesting examples of daily life and worship for the Jews in during the 13th and 14th centuries.

Interior of Synagogue of El Transito in Toledo, Spain. Women
were allowed to watch services from the gallery upstairs. 

Architectural detail in Synagogue of El Transito in Toledo, Spain

As we window shop we can't help but notice the many shops selling knives and swords. The city has been a traditional steel-working center since around 500 B.C. and artisans here continue to manufacture swords for collectors around the world. Although we aren't looking to buy weapons, we do find some beautiful gifts of a completely different sort for our sons. (I can't say any more in case they are reading this).

My knight in shining armor and a store display in Toledo, Spain

San Servando's Castle (youth hostel) in Toledo, Spain

Don Quixote statue in Toledo, Spain

Exterior detail of the Alcazar Army Museum in Toledo, Spain

Ruins of the convent of San Pablo Granadal in Toledo, Spain

Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes in Toledo, Spain

Rooftops and the ancient city wall in Toledo, Spain

Monday, May 1, 2017

Enchanted by Cuenca

Cuenca turns out to be one of my favorite stops during our month-long trip to Spain.

Our two days in Cuenca are a delightful surprise as we enter the final week of our month in Spain. Nearly everything about this little city, located in the Castile-La Mancha region, delights me. In addition to the architecture, art and heritage of the city itself, the surrounding region is quite breathtaking too, as we discover on our second day when we visit Ciudad Encantada — the Enchanted City.

Our visit to Cuenca, Spain, starts with a walk along the Río Júcar.

Our temporary home is located along the Río Júcar at the base of the steep hill that leads to the city center, and a walk along the river is the perfect renewal therapy after our two-and-a-half-hour drive from Valencia. The little apartment we've rented has a bombed-out-shell look from the outside but turns out to be cozy and clean, and our kind host has even provided for tomorrow's breakfast.

Iglesia Virgen de la Luz in Cuenca

'Turbas Generación' by artist José Luís Martinez Gómez in Cuenca

It's nearing cocktail hour, so we set out to the ancient walled city. As usual, our first stop is the tourism office, which we easily find in the Plaza Mayor. However, it hasn't reopened after siesta yet, so we find a sunny spot for una cerveza y vino tinto and people-watch to pass the time.

Ken stops for a chat with A. Federico Muelas, poet/
journalist/screenwriter who was born in Cuenca.

Arches are incorporated into the design of Cuenca's
ayuntamiento (town hall)

We enter Plaza Mayor through the arches of the ayuntamiento (town hall), designed by architect Jaime Bort in 1733. The plaza's most striking building is La Catedral de Cuenca — Spain's first Gothic-style cathedral — built in the 12th century on the spot where the city's ancient Muslim mosque had been located.

Exterior detail of La Catedral de Cuenca

We get advice and a bonus book from Cuenca's tourism office.

At 4:30, the Oficina de Turismo reopens and the very helpful woman here supplies me with a 50-page glossy guide in addition to the usual map. She says that since we have a car, we must also drive to the mountains — advice we will take tomorrow.

Plaza Mangana in Cuenca 

From the year 711, Cuenca was under Muslim rule. Four-hundred years later, attracted by its strategic location at the confluence of the Júcar and Huécar rivers, Christian armies conquered the city. Eventually, Muslims and Jews settled in their own neighborhoods, while Christians controlled the rest of the city. Some of the ancient city walls are still standing and each street seems to contain vestiges of Cuenca's rich past.

No one is certain of the origins of Cuenca's casas colgadas (hanging houses).
The Museum of Abstract Art is housed in two of the hanging houses in Cuenca.

Perhaps the most emblematic feature of this UNESCO World Heritage Site are las casas colgadas or hanging houses. No one is sure of the origin of the three houses — some claim Muslim roots, others say medieval. The buildings were restored in the 20th century and the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español is housed in two of them. True to their name, the buildings hang from the cliffs above the Rio Huécar. The best view of las casas colgadas is from the Puente de San Pablo, a narrow footbridge.

Puente de San Pablo in Cuenca

Ken considers whether or not to cross the Puente de San Pablo in Cuenca.

Cuenca relied on agriculture and textile manufacturing throughout much of its past, but today a vibrant arts community is located here, and along with tourism and recreation, the city seems to be thriving.

Cuenca's Parador de Turismo, a hotel, originally was the Convento de San Pablo.

After a great night's sleep we drive through the Serranía de Cuenca Nature Reserve to Ciudad Encantada. Located in a mountain canyon nearly 1,500 meters above sea level, the site contains curious rocky formations that have been sculpted by Mother Nature into figures that look like animals, objects and humans. I'll let the website explain the natural phenomenon:
"The reason behind the existence of all these fanciful shapes is the different hardness and composition of the rocks. At the top there is magnesian limestone, grey and more resistant to erosion than the one below, which has a reddish tone. The lower part erodes faster than the upper part, creating shelters and cornices."

Rock formation at Ciudad Encantada near Cuenca

Rock formation at Ciudad Encantada near Cuenca

Ventano del Diablo (Devil's Window) offers a view of the
Rio Júcar in the Serranía de Cuenca Nature Reserve
Another view of Ventano del Diablo (Devil's Window) in the
Serranía de Cuenca Nature Reserve

Perhaps it's the combination of the ideal-size city and the nearby natural splendor, but there's something about Cuenca that makes me pretty confident I'll be back one day.