Wednesday, 26 August 2009

She Says - Roman wonders and superb Seville

24-26 August
On our way out of Portugal, we passed through a small town called Campo Maior, purely to see their Capela dos Ossos, a tiny bone chapel created in the 1700s to commemorate 2/3 of the town (some 1500 people) who were killed when a gunpowder explosion occurred in the castle. This time, the chapel was decorated with skeletons (though not necessarily anatomically correct!), as well as many bones and skulls. It’s rather strange how people decide that this is an appropriate way to deal with large numbers of bodies. I’m guessing they feel it is more respectful than putting everyone into a mass grave. It was quite moving actually, to think of all those people killed in a disaster that left them unable to be identified and given individual burials. The town itself was absolutely dead (no pun intended) and I’m not sure they’ve seen too many tourists from some of their reactions to us - although the chapel’s guest book was full and include many recent foreign visitors, we saw no-one else.

We crossed the border through increasingly desert-like terrain to reach Merida in Spain. While the city itself wasn’t much, the entire place was full of Roman ruins. It was really cool to see how much of the Roman city remained in pieces all across the new city - everything from two different types of giant aqueducts (complete with storks’ nests!), to a temple (that a guy later built his house inside!), to pieces of old Roman road and city preserved neatly beneath buildings. No, not glass-covered so you can look in from above, but buildings have actually been built over the top of the ruins with them completely preserved underneath! You can enter the site and walk around the old roads with a modern building right above your head. There was also a large complex housing a theatre and amphitheatre, right next to each other, and several large villas. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to visit any of the big attractions, only gazing in from the outside, as the entrance fees (even though they gave a good package deal) were too much for our budget. The old Roman bridge leading over the river was supposedly the longest remaining in the world, but I think that’s a bit of a cheat as several sections were rebuilt in the 17th century. Walking under the bridge, I was ecstatic to find evidence of bats roosting in one of the Roman sections (happy me). The campground on the outskirts of town was very quiet with a bit of shade, and we chatted with a British couple now living in Spain, who seemed very envious of our trip. We also saw some other bike travellers, two of the handful we’ve seen camping, but didn’t get a chance to talk to them. I think they were younger than us, which makes a change, as most people we’ve seen have been older.

We’re now in beautiful Seville, living it up! To get a full experience of one of our few big European cities, we’ve treated ourselves to two nights in a nice pension room, complete with rooftop balcony, right in the middle of the old city and its attractions. We decided to stay here for two reasons – 1) the campground is well out of town, we would have to either drive or take a bus into town each day, but we also want to take night photos so it’s not very convenient, and 2) we are almost about to leave Europe and are unlikely to be back for quite some time, and we’ve been working hard with all the camping and cost-saving, so it’s a celebration of the trip we’ve had so far and the trip that is yet to come! It’s costing us a bit, but it’s worth it – last night’s view of the cathedral from our balcony was awesome. The city itself is fantastic, and everything I’d heard it would be. It’s very laid back and pleasant, considering what a large city it is. Again, it’s very quiet tourist-wise and I wonder if it’s just that no-one is travelling for recession reasons? It’s hot here, but not so much more than Portugal, which is good because everything we’ve read or heard about Seville says it’s scorching hot in summer.

Managing to get settled in a room before lunchtime yesterday gave us the rest of the day to start exploring. We wandered through the small streets of the Jewish Quarter, then through the larger streets and squares of the old town, admiring the beautiful and varying architecture and the cathedral, now heavily influenced by Moorish styles and including tilework similar to Portugal. We headed to the Plaza de Espana – to us just a point on the map supposed to be worth seeing and having no idea what it was. We stumbled in through a side entrance, to find the plaza spreading far ahead of us. The massive semi-circle plaza is full of decorated niches, each depicting a major Spanish city. Each niche is decorated in tiles, and includes a location map and panel depicting a major event from that city’s history. We enjoyed an early dinner sitting in one of these, waiting for the evening’s golden light to begin. In the centre of the semi-circle is a massive building, with two smaller buildings to each side, and through these you can access balconies for views over the whole plaza. The second half of the semi-circle was closed, as they are restoring the city niches – the first section had already had its restoration completed. In front of the semi-circular buildings is a moat with several highly decorated bridges, leading into the centre of the entire plaza to a large fountain. It’s an incredible monument to the country, and an interesting blend of architectural styles, from Islamic influences to almost garish tilework to medieval-style scenes in the niches. We moved on to visit the Plaza de America, which houses the Archaeological Museum and two other buildings. We caught the museum in perfect light for photos. In the middle of the three buildings lies a pond, providing an excellent foreground for photos and a very picturesque scene to the eye. The museum has fantastic decorations across it, but the direction of light made it difficult to see the other buildings. As we headed back to our room last night, we passed a park full of pigeons that people feed – in fact, several stalls sell almost nothing but bird food. The birds land on people who have food, providing a lot of entertainment in watching people’s reactions to birds unexpectedly landing on them!

Right now, we’re taking a siesta after spending around 4 hours in the Alcazar, the mostly Moorish-decorated palace of the royals for many years. After Xander’s treat to the Giger museum in Switzerland, this was my treat – I have a real thing for Islamic decoration, and palaces like these are the bees’ knees when you don’t get to see mosques. I have no idea what I will and won’t be able to see once we hit Morocco, but a building on such a grand scale as this was worth the money! We visited the king of palaces 10 years ago, La Alhambra in Granada, something I had wanted to see for years before, and all it has done since I feed my fascination with Islamic art and culture. One day, the Middle East and Petra……The palace lower level contains a series of highly decorated rooms, the walls of which are decorated with carved plaster, either white or with touches of colour, and around the edges and floors are mosaic-patterned tiles. The king’s main room has a high ceiling lined with wood and painted with stars of red and gold. The rooms enclose an open courtyard with a pool, and surrounded by ornately decorated arches. The upper level is more European in style, including tilework forming pictures as we’ve seen elsewhere in Portugal and Spain, and massive tapestries including ancient maps of the world. The palace is surrounded by a beautiful set of amazingly well-groomed gardens and, with its fleet of gardeners, you can almost imagine what it was like back in the palatial days, with the constant activity of sweeping the pathways to keep them clean of leaves, manicuring the hedges, etc.

The other highlights for today were the cathedral at dawn and the extensive parks of Seville. We caught the cathedral just after sunrise, as we wanted to get to the Alcazar as soon as it opened and spend as long as possible there, as well as hoping to beat the tourist crowd a bit (didn’t help much!). The beautiful light at this time of day was great for photos. After the Alcazar, we wandered back to the Plaza de America for more photos now the light was shining on the other buildings. We also walked through easily the best city park I’ve ever seen. The Seville parks are an amazing community resource, lush and green in this dry and dusty heat, holding a maze of trails and little plazas, fountains and pools. In particular areas, there are even information plaques for the different trees, providing names and uses for the plants, and a very extensive exercise trail, with information plaques showing you different exercises to complete at each point!

We’ve only seen a fraction of what the city has to offer, as it’s very different to other places we’ve been, where all the attractions are generally crammed into one central area. Seville spreads far and wide, and around every corner is another beautiful building or pleasant park. However, we don’t have the time or money to delay for more exploration and will have to move on tomorrow.