Valencia: Spain’s Third City Offers Culture And Cuisine

Valencia
Sean McLachlan

There’s a well-worn tourist trail in Spain: Madrid for the art, Barcelona for the nightlife and the Costa del Sol for the beaches. All of these are great, but there are plenty of other spots that often slip under the radar. Valencia, for example, gets plenty of tourists from Europe yet seems to not get so many Americans. I hardly saw any in the past three days.The Yanks need to reconsider because there’s a huge amount of history and culture to experience. Valencia on Spain’s Mediterranean coast has been a center of industry and the arts for more than 2,000 years. Founded by the Romans in the second century B.C., it soon became one of the leading cities on the Iberian Peninsula. In the Middle Ages it had a diverse population of Christians, Muslims and Jews who managed to get along most of the time despite the near-constant warfare between Muslims and Christians that ravaged the peninsula and made the city change hands several times.

Sad to say, this harmony was not to last. Everyone in the Jewish community was kicked out or forced to convert during a Christian riot in 1391. The success of the Reconquista in 1492 spelled the beginning of the end for the Muslim community. Their legacy lives on in the city’s art and architecture.

Valencia’s historic center is an architectural jewel with its winding medieval streets, old palaces and churches, and countless little shops and cafes. Here you’ll find the 13th century Valencia Cathedral, which claims to have the Holy Grail on display. This little agate cup is said to date to the first century B.C., although the ornamentation around it is clearly medieval. The story goes that St. Peter took it to Rome after the Crucifixion and it was in the possession of the first 23 popes before it was sent to Spain to keep it safe from persecuting Romans.

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To see the cup itself, check out the Holy Grail Chapel just to the right of the entrance. It’s displayed in surprisingly modest surroundings although that will change if the current Mayor of Valencia, Rita Barberá, has her way. She wants to get UNESCO World Heritage status for the cup, make a large showroom for it, and dub Valencia “the city of the Holy Grail.” Hey, it worked for Turin. Relic hunters will also not want to miss the preserved arm of San Vicente.

You can make a grand entrance to the historic center via one of the two medieval gates, each flanked by a pair of towers. The Torres de Quart are pockmarked by the bombardment they received during the War of Independence against Napoleonic occupation in 1808. The more ornate and less abused Torres de Serranos overlook the Turia riverbed. The river was diverted in the 1950s and now the riverbed is a long, green park that makes for a shaded avenue through the heart of the city.

Summer in Valencia is scorching, so it’s a good idea to take shelter in one of the city’s many museums. Museum junkies will feel at home here. There are dozens of museums on seemingly every subject. The most outstanding one is the City of Arts and Sciences. This ultramodern complex includes the largest marine park in Europe, a huge science museum, concert hall, IMAX cinema and greenhouse.

The Valencian Museum of Enlightenment and Modernity offers a constantly changing set of temporary (and free!) exhibitions. Right now they’re having exhibitions on witchcraft, Siberian shamanism, and photographs from turn-of-the-century Russia. Budget travelers will also want to check out the many other free museums: the Museum of Fine Arts, with its collections of Goya, Sorolla and many other Spanish artists linked with Valencia; the Military Historical Museum; the Prehistoric Museum; and the Ethnographic Museum, among others.

For a rundown of all of them, check out this list of top museums in Valencia, art museums, and more obscure museums – and I do mean obscure. There’s a Rice Museum, and a Tin Soldier Museum that boasts the largest collection of little tough guys in the world.

Valencia has a distinct regional culture. Many locals here speak Valencian, which depending on who you ask is either a dialect of Catalan or its own language. It’s sufficiently close to Castilian, in that this Castilian speaker can mostly understand it, although there are occasional words that are completely different. In any case, signs are generally both in Valencian and Castilian, and often in English too.

When not hiding in a beautiful church or interesting museum, you can keep in the shade by wandering the little streets of the historic quarter. There are plenty of little restaurants and cafes to keep you fueled. Eating and drinking in Valencia offers a regional variation on the Spanish theme too, but that deserves an article of its own, so stay tuned for that tomorrow!

Secret Toilet Discovered In Scottish Castle

castle, Drum Castle
Wikimedia Commons

Archaeologists working on a conservation project at Drum Castle near Aberdeen, Scotland, have discovered two secret chambers, one of which includes a medieval toilet complete with its wooden seat.

Drum Castle features a 13th-century castle keep that’s the oldest intact example in Scotland. Besides the hidden toilet, the team found a second secret chamber that’s reputed to have been where one of the men of the clan hid out for three years after the defeat at the Battle of Culloden. The chamber with the toilet was hidden by bookshelves installed in the 19th century, while the second chamber was a real-life safe room for rebellious Scots. Both were found in the medieval keep.

From 1323-1975, Drum Castle was the seat of the Chief of Clan Irvine. In addition to the keep, the property features Jacobean and Victorian additions. It is now open to visitors and is only 10 miles outside Aberdeen. Visitors can see the historic interior and stroll through the surrounding ancient oak woodland, a rare survival of primeval forest that’s been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Venice: Grand Vistas And Little Details

Venice
Sean McLachlan

On my first day in Venice I walked the streets without a camera in order to savor the beauties of this unparalleled city. I was leaving the next afternoon so that morning I got up at dawn in order to catch Venice at its abandoned best.

It’s a different city, more peaceful. You can linger on a bridge or take a shot from the middle of a street without getting trampled. You can capture the way the light plays on the water or on the side of an old, crumbling building without half a dozen heads getting into the shot.

Venice has a different character in those early hours. Instead of gondolas, cargo vessels ply the canals making deliveries to this city without cars. The streets are empty but for local workmen cleaning up or getting ready to open up their shops and kiosks. The only other tourists are lone photographers like me. My idea was a pretty obvious one, after all.

The low-angled light makes for some nice play between the tops of the buildings shining golden in the morning and the still-dark recesses of the alleyways and narrow canals. The low-angled light puts faded details into higher relief, like the faded Latin inscriptions on the lintels of church doors or the weathered escutcheons on Renaissance palaces.

%Slideshow-693%The early hours are also the time for visiting the big attractions. There’s something eerie about seeing the Piazza San Marco with only half a dozen people in it. One pair was a newlywed couple. A tuxedoed man was fiddling with the camera while his stunningly beautiful wife, decked out in her bridal gown, gave instructions and adjusted her veil. Beyond them the Grand Canal shimmered in the early light. I’m sure their wedding photo is the envy of their friends.

As stunning as these broad vistas are, Venice rewards a close look. There are details in the buildings and streets that make for great close-ups. In the Piazza San Marco, for example, you have this little bronze figure, one of a set.

At the corner of St. Mark’s Basilica is the square’s most historically important work of art, a porphyry statue of four armored men clinging to one another in mutual defense. I’ve wanted to see these little guys for years.

They’re the Tetrarchs. In 293 A.D., the Roman Emperor Diocletian decided the empire was too big and had too many enemies for one man to rule. He created the Tetrarchy, with an Emperor and a Caesar for both the West and the East. They were supposed to rule in harmony but of course the rivalry more often than not led to civil wars. In another century the Western Empire was a nonentity, while the Eastern Empire, known today as Byzantium, lived on until the 15th century. This famous statue originally stood in Constantinople but was stolen during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and brought here.

Many people photograph this statue, yet miss something even more interesting a few feet away. On a stone bench at the entrance to the basilica there’s a strange design scratched into the surface. It’s been almost worn away by centuries of bottoms, but you can make out a square within a square, partitioned into several segments. This was a Renaissance board game that people would play while whiling away the hours on the plaza. It’s a reminder of the regular folk who lived in Venice in the shadow of the great rulers, artists and priests.

This fired my imagination. Perhaps some other detail will fire yours: the dusty icons in an antique shop, the mosaic advertisement for a pension set into a street, the half-finished Renaissance fresco in the entryway of an obscure church. When you’re strolling around Venice or any great city, keep an eye out for those little details that catch your fancy as well as the grand views that everyone admires. That way you’ll end up with a photo album uniquely your own.

Strolling Through Venice Without A Camera

Venice
Wikimedia Commons

I’ve wanted to visit Venice all my life. Who wouldn’t? It has the reputation of being the most beautiful city in the world, and with my love of architecture my first glimpse of it was going to be a lifelong memory.

After a rainy week in Slovenia, I arrived in Venice on a gloriously cloudless afternoon. I had less than 24 hours in the city before family obligations would take me home. After checking into the Hotel Alex, a basic but wonderfully central one-star hotel, I left my camera in my room and headed out.

Wait, I left my camera in my room? Yep. I wanted to savor Venice without the distraction of trying to create abstract memories. Living in the moment is one of the five reasons to leave your camera at home.

(Of course I did take photos on my second day, otherwise my editor would have had an aneurysm. Those are coming up tomorrow.)

With so little time I was free to enjoy Venice without a must-see list. My time was too short to visit even a tenth of the places I knew I wanted to see, let alone all those I didn’t. So I saw nothing, or more precisely I saw whatever the city gave me. I decided to take a suggestion from Stephen Graham’s classic travel book The Gentle Art of Tramping and go on a zigzag walk. A zigzag walk is a simple travel plan. You start by taking a left. Then at the first opportunity take a right. Then left. Repeat. You will soon be happily lost and seeing things you never thought you would.

Taking a left out of the hotel brought me to a strange little bookshop with a “Going out of Business” sign in its window and a display of odd books with titles like Il Libro dei Vampiri. I’d come across Venice’s only occult bookshop, which was about to close after 24 years because the owner was retiring. I had a pleasant chat with one of the employees, helping him plan his first trip to London, and bought a worry stone for a friend. These are little jasper stones with a groove worn in one side. You rub the groove to reduce stress. My friend is a government employee in a European country and is inextricably linked to her nation’s slow slide into the Dark Ages. If anyone needs a worry stone, she does.The bookshop had sucked me in so quickly I hadn’t even seen anything of Venice yet, so I determined not to go into another shop for a while and wound my way through the city’s narrow lanes, my gaze lifting above the shopfronts to admire carved balustrades and Renaissance coats of arms set into a background of faded, flaked paint from which the rich Italian sunlight was able to coax a hint of its former brilliance.

Luckily I looked down as well as up, because another left took me down a dank little alley that ended abruptly at a narrow canal. There was no railing or sign. The pavement simply ended.

A gondola glided by so close I could have touched it, its wake slapping against the mossy stone foundations of the buildings to either side of me. Water dripped from a carved cornice above to fall into the canal with a loud ploink.

It was quiet here. I was alone and the sounds of the city sounded muffled and distant. Leaning against the wall, I looked out and saw a white marble bridge arching over the canal a few feet away. The map could have told me its name but I didn’t bother to check. People filed past while a gondolier wearing the trademark straw hat and black-and-white striped shirt sat on the railing calling out, “Gondola ride. . .gondola ride. . .”

On a zigzag walk if you come to a dead end you retrace your steps until you can make a another turn. That took me from the cool seclusion of the alley to the warm, crowded sunlit bridge. I sat down near the gondolier and looked down the canal flanked by tall, narrow houses decaying in that graceful Mediterranean manner. Burgundy and peach paint flaked off to reveal islands of plaster or brick, or clung onto their backing long enough to fade to near whiteness. On windowsills and rooftop terraces were sprays of greens and reds and yellows from carefully tended houseplants.

I sat there maybe five minutes and that gondolier must have had his picture taken a dozen times. Nobody took my picture. In fact I think they all framed me out of the shot. What, a dreamy eyed travel blogger doesn’t symbolize the essence of Venice?

Another zig and a zag brought me to San Paolo Apostolo with its unassuming 15th century exterior hiding a rich collection of art. But first I was drawn to the Romanesque bell tower, which for some reason was situated across the street from the church. Tufts of grass grew from between its crumbling bricks. A low door of thick, ancient oak barred entry. Above it was a Latin inscription. As the radio from the trinket shop across the street played Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds I ran my fingers over the faint letters, worn nearly smooth by centuries of weather and curious tourists. I made out the date 1459 and nothing more.

A pair of lions flanked the doorway. One was fighting a serpent, the other held in its forepaws a decapitated head that looked at me with a serene expression. I headed inside the church to admire the art, including a Last Supper by Tintoretto and Piazza’s St. Silvestri Baptizing the Emperor Constantine (an important moment in the death of paganism). Every church in Venice is an art gallery. Then I continued my jagged course across the city.

Or at least I tried. Canals and dead ends kept forcing me retrace my steps, and after another half hour I found myself back in front of my hotel just when I was in urgent need of a bathroom.

Angels watch over the tourist who abandons his timetable. Soon I was back on the streets. My camera remained in the hotel room.

UNESCO Reports Damage To Timbuktu Worse Than Previously Reported

Timbuktu
Emilio Labrador

A team from UNESCO has visited Timbuktu in Mali to make its first on-the-ground assessment of the damage caused by last year’s occupation by the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith).

The group took over Timbuktu in April 2012 and imposed a harsh form of Shariah law. Believing the city’s famous shrines and medieval manuscripts to be against Islam, even though they were created by Muslims, they began to destroy them. Early this year a coalition of Malian and French forces pushed Ansar Dine out of the city and into the northern fringes of the country, where they remain a threat.

Now that the situation has temporarily stabilized, UNESCO sent a team to investigate the damage. They had some grim findings. While recent reports stated that the damage wasn’t as bad as originally thought, that turns out not to be true.

Expedition leader Lazare Eloundou Assomo of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre said, “We discovered that 14 of Timbuktu’s mausoleums, including those that are part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, were totally destroyed, along with two others at the Djingareyber Mosque. The emblematic El Farouk monument at the entrance to the city was razed. We estimate that 4,203 manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba research center were lost.”

Thousands of other manuscripts were taken away from Timbuktu before the Islamists could get their hands on them. Most are now in the capital Bamako. While this saved them, Mr. Assomo told the BBC that they need to be returned to the controlled environment of the research center before the humid rainy season sets in and causes damage to the fragile pages.