Lovely Cadiz

Lovely Cadiz
Cadiz - my favorite place so far in the trip to Southern Spain

Monday, October 14, 2013

Dottore Gianni's Sojourn to Spain: Flamenco in Madrid, El Greco in Toledo

Day 9: 

This morning (Wednesday 2 October) I took a taxi to Barcelona Sants Rail Station and got there in plenty of time to catch the Ave back to Madrid. In exactly three hours we arrived, and I had no wait whatsoever in the taxi queue before being whisked (and I mean whisked – this cabbie was more like NYC drivers than any of the others I’ve encountered here in Spain) to my final of three hotels this
view from my hotel window
trip: The Francisco I on Calle de Arenal, a lovely pedestrian zone between Puerta de Sol and the Teatro Real. I took a short walk to buy some bottled water and stopped for a beer at a tiny outdoor cervezeria near my new hotel. I was pleasantly surprised by the finger food served with the beer – fried calamari. The rest of the afternoon I caught up on mundane matters, then headed out to my one and only night of flamenco! While I remember seeing Jose Greco on the Ed Sullivan show in my youth, this was my first live experience, and it was terrific!
The pedestrian zone on Arenal
The place, Las Tablas, is an easy ten minute walk from my hotel. I was the first to arrive, and was seated in majesty at a 
Las Tablas for flamenco!
table front and center about 4 feet from the small stage! I began to realize that the place was not going to be packed. I had chosen to have a meal there, and seemed to be the only one of eight members of the audience to do so – but I’m so glad I spent the extra, as I’d never have thought to have ordered the delicious tomato based soup, followed by extraordinary oxtail and potatoes, and finished off with pears in a wine sauce. Oh, and did I mention that instead of a glass or two of wine, a full bottle of very tasty red wine from Ribera del Duero, was opened for me, and I’ll admit I drank most of it.

If the food was good the show was fantastic. When I read about Las Tablas I decided that it was the place for me, as the
flamenco was traditional. I think the first thing we think of when we think flamenco is flashy dancers, and that was true here. There were two women and one man that danced at times all together, at times in pairs, and in solos, which each of them offered us. What may be not so apparent but what is essential to the experience is the singer and the guitarist. A small, weasel of a fellow and a chubby nondescript guy came out on the stage and started the program off. The weasel was the singer, or canteor, and what a soulful sound he made. Flamenco  comes from Andalusia, but has roots in Mozarabic music, in gypsy songs, even in Jewish synagogue chants, as well as in Andalusian folk music.

While it is impossible for a non-Spanish speaker to comprehend literally the lyrics, this fellow made it 
abundantly clear that what he was singing about was anguished and dramatic. He was wonderfully expressive in the sounds he made, though his face revealed none of that expression. He was there to tell the story, and tell the story he did.

The very ordinary looking guitarist was extraordinary in his playing, and seemed to take great pleasure in it. I would have been completely happy to have heard him as a solo artist, so brilliant was he on his instrument.

Then of course there were the dancers. The two women looked to be in their later 40s or early 50s – one tall-ish with
sandy colored hair, the other short with the blackest of black hair. They danced wonderfully together, then, during guitar and vocal breaks one each left the stage and changed into expressive costumes, assuming characters that I could not describe exactly, but that through their dancing I felt I understood. The taller of the two did her solo in a gown with a long train, and part of her expertise was to control the train as she danced explosively around the stage. The shorter danced what seemed the story of a woman whose heart had been broken, who was alone, but who managed to get through life, and was proud that she was able to.

Interestingly, as the concert seemed to be winding down when the short dancer introduced each of the artists, the make dancer, younger with a scruffy beard, had not shown much, and I found myself thinking that he was there to 
accompany the more accomplished women. But NO! He was off stage when the introductions were being made, and when he came back on his stance had become more firm and he began to move with a flourish I’d not seen in him in the first perhaps hour that had gone by since the show began. And then he began to move, and his heels clicked faster and faster until the small audience was astonished. Approval is expressed by the members of the tiny troupe with the word Ole! This was either muttered or spoken aloud, or at certain points shouted out, whether it referred to the singer, the guitarist or the dancers. Well, the mostly novice audience, me with my wine bottle and empty plate at the center table, two young Asian American students (I’m guessing) at the table to my left and behind them three other Asians, a mother, father and daughter, began to learn that we too should join in on the word Ole! as the mood hit us. As the performance built in intensity it all seemed spontaneous, five people seated on chairs, one after another getting up and performing, but I began to see that it was very carefully orchestrated, and that the build-up was moving relentlessly to the young male dancer’s fiery performance. He kept astonishing the audience (the other two of whom were seated farther back and seemed to be veterans of watching flamenco performance) with his seemingly impossibly fast footwork and panache, and Ole! was shouted again and again. At one point he was so astonishing that one of the two students on my left, as if in a swoon, shouted “Aaaaahhh!” while the rest of us screamed Ole! It was an almost humorous moment, and the dancer smiled very slightly as if to say, “Mission accomplished.”

Then all five rose and engaged in a finale that was short but brilliant – and left the stage. That was it, and I was bowled over. What I learned more than anything, was that even the brilliance of the male dancer was eclipsed by the ensemble of five. Particularly in the cases of the canteor and the guitarist, you wouldn’t have noticed them passing on the street, so normal looking were they. But all came together with tremendous expertise, in song, instrumental music and dance in one of the most magical evenings I’ve spent. I spoke to the bartender – who I think owned the place – it’s a tiny operation, Las Tablas – afterwards, saying that what was most amazing to me about the evening was how this troupe of five seemed to be playing to a huge auditorium, whereas there were only ten other people in the room – the tiny audience, the bartender, and the sweet server, whose name I think is Marisol.

For my money, that bare stage, those five souls who bared their souls artistically, might as well have been a symphony, a huge troupe of ballet dancers, a Shakespearean drama. The quintet was all the more impressive because they created such great theatre with seemingly so little – except of course their disciplined and wonderful talent.

What does one do after such an evening? One tucks oneself into bed and dreams about it.

Day 10:

And the next morning one awakes and takes his second day trip, to the former capital of Spain, Toledo! I used the same tour company that had provided the very satisfactory tour I’ve already described, to Avila and Segovia. I was once again on a rather comfy bus, along with about 20 other tourists. Toledo is not far south of Madrid, but is in another area of Spain, La Mancha, in fact is its central city. 

A view (if not exactly El Greco's) of Toledo
Toledo is notable for its dramatic location, made even more dramatic by a famous “view” of the city painted by
View of Toledo, El Greco
Metropolitan Museum of Art -
this is the one I'm familiar with
Domenikos Theotokopolis, better known as El Greco. Its cathedral is one of the most beautiful and the most important in Spain and boasts several portraits by that famous Greek whose work is also to be seen in the Chapel of Santo Tome and in a museum which is devoted completely to his work,  the highlight of which is his great painting, the View and Plan of Toledo. One of the most fascinating aspects of Toledo is the interconnectivity between three great faiths, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, apparent in it. While few if any Jews and Muslims live here today, alas, for one brief, shining moment…

View and Plan of Toledo (the one you'll see in Toledo itself) - that's the Virgin Mary
in the sky above it! 

The history of the city is fascinating. Much is owed to its location, as the river Tajo does not so much run through it, 
The River Tajo, and at the upper left, the Alcazar
but nearly surrounds the rocky hill on which the old town was built. Romans realized the strategic value, capturing it in 192 BC, calling it Toletum, and holding it until the Visigoths took it away in the waning days of the Empire and made it their capital. During the days of the Romans and Goths the city was already a cultural and trading center. The arrival of the Moors in 712 saw the city grow in those respects and Toledo became a place where three cultures, Arabic, Jewish and Christians lived together as equals. It was re-taken in 1085 by Christian forces led by King Alfonso VI with considerable help from that soldier of fortune known as El Cid (the romantic legends surrounding that warrior for hire are marred somewhat by the fact that he worked for whomever would pay top peso) in the early days of the Reconquista, but while Toledo served as headquarters for the ongoing Christian campaign to rid Spain of the Moors, the town itself remained a model of tolerance, where Jews and Arabs alike remained some of the most important citizens of the city,
The mix of stone and brick in the walls is aspect of
Moorish building
the Jews primarily as money-handlers, the Arabs as architects. This almost miraculous mixing of cultures (compare it to the Middle East today) came crashing down with the end of the Reconquista, when Fernando and Isabel (we know them as Ferdinand and Isabella), the Catholic monarchs who united Castile and Aragon and therefore the entirety of Spain, began to systematically force out of the country or exterminate any Muslims and Jews who would not convert to Christianity. Their remarkably cruel tool for doing this, the 
One way to know that you're in the Jewish
section of the city is by the symbols of the faith
inlaid into the street, in blue
Inquisition, was extremely effective in what we’d call today ethnic cleansing. Then, in 1561, when Philip II moved the capital from Toledo the relatively short distance to Madrid (some say to separate church from state, some say because Madrid was located at the very center of Spain, others that there was room to grow in the barren area around Madrid) Toledo’s political prowess disappeared. While it remained the religious center of the country primarily because of its great cathedral it was not until wealthy Europeans discovered the beauty and history of the place while on their grand tours that Toledo was “back on the map” so to speak.

So there were many reasons Dottore Gianni was excited to see this city. It is with mixed emotions that he describes the tour, as one day is not enough to do this amazing place justice. The guide, while more than adequate, had a relatively thick accent, and given the number of essential sites in the city, was forced to leave a number of vital places out of the tour.  Had the good doctor to do it again, he would have visited on his own and would have spent one night in the city. To any of you reading this who might contemplate a trip, heed the advice of a now slightly sadder but somewhat wiser Dottore.
Our tour guide took us to a spot where you can almost get a
good look at the exterior of the cathedral
But for the time we had, we saw a fair amount of important spots, and I appreciated that so much focus was placed on the peaceful co-habitation of cultures. We started with the Cathedral, which in fact was built upon a mosque and retains some Moorish décor. It is almost impossible to appreciate this building from the outside (unless you view it from outside the city), as it is so tightly fitted into its space and hemmed in by other buildings, but once inside one appreciates the beauty of the place. It took literally centuries to build, begun in 1226, completed in 1495 (or according to another source 1227-1493, but who’s counting?), and as a result is a mix of styles from the Gothic to the Baroque.  
the high altar is practically hidden by
this screen
but if you cheat a bit and shoot through the bars, you can get
a sense of the splendor
The central nave of the church is supported by 88 (!) columns, and stops at the remarkable choir, which features 
The coro, or choir, is also ornate, and
features this beautiful sculpture of
madonna and child
elegant carving. There are two side aisles to the right and left of the nave, making an unusual five aisles in all. The side aisles carry on to the outrageously ornate Gothic high altar and behind it into the apse which features one of the most fascinating parts of the church, a Baroque masterpiece called El Transparente. In order to properly light it an opening was created in the roof. That hole, surrounded by putti, faces east, and each morning as the sun rises and hits the altar just right, the result is apparently breathtaking, but you don’t need to arrive exactly at sun-up to be taken with the beauty and uniqueness of this part of the cathedral. 
El Transparente
And the opening created to help light it
We were whisked past the sacristy, which contains major paintings by Goya, Titian, Rubens, Velasquez and Bellini – a 
El Greco's Jesus Chrisst
very respectable art museum in itself – but did stop at El Greco’s individual portraits of Christ and the apostles. The painter, in search of other-worldly facial expressions for the disciples, apparently used mad men as models. They certainly don’t look mad, but the portraits are unique. We also stopped at another El Greco, depicting the repentant Peter, before we left the cathedral (too soon, too soon) to see other sights.
and a few of his "mad" disciples
The next (whistle-) stop was at Santo Tome, a very simple chapel which houses what some call his best-loved painting, 
The Burial of Count Orgaz
The Burial of Count Orgaz. It is not Dottore Gianni's best loved painting by the master, but it is certainly a beautiful work, and is perfectly set just above the Count’s tomb, as opposed to in an art museum for example. Worth the visit, and out guide did a good job of taking us through the intricacies of the painting, as it simultaneously gives us two views: in the lower half of the painting we see the burial on earth, with several onlookers, one of them El Greco himself in the upper we see the Count being taken into heaven. It’s a powerful and once again, well-placed piece of work.

One of the views from the Victorio Macho Museum
Our next stop was a spot that some people complained about, saying that it could have been used visits to more historical sites, but the views from the place, the Museo Victorio Macho, are so beautiful that it seemed to me worth the short visit. Macho (what a name to live up to, or to live down, right?) was an early twentieth century of middling talent who is said to be Spain’s first “great” modern sculptor. Whatever the extent of his talent, he certainly knew how to choose a location. The setting is at once peaceful and lovely, but it also serves to show why Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Christians all vied for this place. Toledo is a very difficult place to attack.
Another view from the Macho Museum - the pedestrian bridge in the disstance dates back to Roman times
The mosque-like synagogue called
Santa Maria la Blanca
On then to a synagogue built by Moors, thus very mosque-like in appearance, now owned by the Catholic Church and used as one: the place has a rather peculiar name for a synagogue, Santa Maria la Blanca, but in 1492 when Jews 
another view of Santa Maria la Blanca
were driven from Spain it became a church. It is also known as Ibn Shushan Synagogue and the Congregational Synagogue of Toledo. This place, said to be the oldest synagogue in Europe, was one of my favorite buildings as I have a great desire to see as much of Moorish Spain as I can. For that I need to venture farther south, to Seville, Cordoba and Granada, and perhaps one day I shall. But this beautiful little place, possibly confused in the particular religious affiliation, is to my mind a nice reminder of those good old days when the people of three faiths managed to coexist in peace.

Here's how to get to the Monastery
of San Juan de los Reyes
Only a short distance away, our next visit was to the Monasterio San Juan de los Reyes (the Monastery of St John of the Monarchs). This Gothic work was to be the final resting place of Ferdinand and Isabella, los Rejes Catolicos (the 
the lovely cloister of San Juan de los Reyes
Catholic Monarchs). That is not the case – they were buried instead in Granada, the last city to be taken from the Muslims in the Reconquista, to symbolize the commitment to keep Spain free of Moors. But it remains a rather impressive late Gothic work, and features a lovely cloister in the style known as “Isabeline.” There is a rather bizarre aspect to the exterior of the monastery. On one wall hang many chains that had been used by the Moors to shackle Christians in Granada – another symbol, supposes Dottore Gianni, to remind non-Christians of who was now and always would be (well, so far) in charge!

chains (dark areas on either side of the window) on the monastery of San Juan de los Reyes
Then we went to lunch, which started fair, with a selection of uninspiring tapas, absolutely brilliant in the main course, 
the main course - lamb!
which featured delicious lamb, and only okay in the dessert, a rather tasteless cake. In a city famed for its marzipan, why not that? But the wine that accompanied the meal was quite nice, and all in all it was a pleasure, particularly as I was at a table with two recently retired women who had taught special education in Denver, and with a Chinese-American teacher of bible studies and his charming wife. We enjoyed some great conversation about our travels.

Courtyard of the Alcazar
But the restaurant was outside the city, and we returned only for a quick and disappointing tour of the Alcazar. As Alcazars go Dottore Gianni definitely favors the one in Segovia.  On from their to see how metal is worked – that a ploy to bring us to the showroom and try to get us to buy some of the overpriced goods for sale there. One of the very, very low points of all too many organized tours. And then back to Madrid.

Toledo blades
What in Toledo did we not see? Many things: the apparently wonderful central Plaza de Zocodover, the Santa Cruz Museum which houses 15 El Grecos, also the El Greco museum, the highlight of which is one of his most famous paintings and perhaps the very best one to see while in Toledo, named The View and  Plan of Toledo…and so much more. But given the amount of time we had to spend, I will never regret the short but sweet visit to a stunning, historical, and at one point in its long life at least unusually tolerant town.
rather pleasing set of buildings in Toledo

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