Tuesday, February 21, 2012

La Capital y las Espadas

Over the weekend, through my study abroad program, I enjoyed the stately sight of Madrid and the timeless streets of Toledo.

In Madrid, we took a walking tour through the downtown area to look at some important buildings and shops. Madrid is the largest city in Spain, and is the capital of the entire country.

 The street signs in the main part of the city are decorated with images of what trades were practiced traditionally in that street.

 The royal palace in Madrid has over two thousand rooms. It is rarely in use by the king, except for special occasions. Other Spanish officials, such as the Spanish President and the Prime Minister, are able to use the capital palace for hosting galas and the like as well. When it is not in use by the royal family or the government, there are rooms open to the public, for around a €10 fee, to tour through.
 I opted out of entering the palace, but enjoyed the view of the courtyard.

 Madrid is a much more modern city than Barcelona, although by American standards it is quite old. In comparison to the Catalan cities, the capital of Spain has mostly the same style of architecture from the same era. The streets are flatter and more practical for high traffic, and the buildings scream of modern life.
 This bakery is well known for their pastries. It functions as a chain and has a few locations in Madrid. The smell was tantalizing, although I did not have a chance to purchase any.
 The market of Saint Michael (Mercado de San Miguel) is similar to La Boquedilla, but is smaller. Rather than the open air feeling of Barcelona's market, it is made entirely of glass and metal, with spaces between the glass and metal, letting fresh air and birds flow freely in and out of the market.
 These tasty looking morsels were just some of the things sold in this busy market. Filled with tourists and locals alike, it is a good place for a snack or even to lunch. Be careful to watch your purse and avoid the lunch hour, as it gets quite crowded around 1 pm.
 Despite having different materials, different colors, and different spaces between windows, these buildings fit seemlessly together, as though they are one continuous structure.
 This bear is known to be a favorite spot where tourists take a photo to prove they've been to Madrid. I find the tree to be a bit oddly shaped, more like broccoli than any deciduous I've seen.

 The city is mostly flat, a strange contrast with the hill-ridden Barcelona outskirts.  Madrid is set on the top of a plateau on a mountain in the very center of Spain.

 This arc de triomf is the slight sign of remaining Roman influence in the center of the country. There are few major cities in southern Europe that do not have one of these monuments.
 This restaurant is supposedly the oldest restaurant in the world. Whether it truly is or not, the food was delicious, albeit expensive. It is known best for its lamb and pork, but for my meal I chose the veal.

 It was well worth the experience and the flavor, but it is not a place to eat if you're on a budget.
 We went to this chocolateria for chocolate con churros, and were quite disappointed. It is a very well known place for the snack, especially after a night of partying on a winter night. But the chocolate was bitter and lacked flavor, and the churros were undercooked.
A statue of Neptune sets at one end of the city, sitting welcomingly in the middle of a round-a-bout.

The city of Madrid has an overall newer feeling than Barcelona. It reminds me of the steam-punk style of science-fiction, with the industrial building designs and everything in every tone of brown.

We also spent some time in Toledo, a previous capital of Spain, known for its craftsmanship with metal. It was the capital during the time of Muslim rule. This was a dynasty that lasted for nearly four hundred years.
 The city of Toledo is the ideal location for an ancient capital. It is hidden and protected by every kind of geographic protection. Sturdy hillsides and a river protect all sides. Where Madrid is open and flat, Toledo is closed and curved.
 The buildings scream of mountain dwellers, built directly into the geography, with no need for adjustment of the landscape.

 The city is quite small in populous, but is still very crowded, with or without the masses of tourists that visit. There was very little space to build outward, because of the rocky country-side. So everything is built very close together.

 This door is one of many that keep the memory of Muslim rule in mind. Such an archway would seldom be found further North.

 Inside of Catedral de Toledo, we enjoyed the beautiful Catholic influence. It is a Cathedral of Gothic architecture, which is given by the high archways that support the weight of the towers, a technique previously unused. The architectural engineering of the time was revolutionary.

 With golden designs and objects throughout the building, you get a sense that this was not a place for the common man. However, every good Catholic Toledoin of the time would have done his Sunday service in this high temple.

 In a small ante-chamber at the back of the Cathedral was a room full of gifts that families had bestowed upon the church over the centuries. They are now on display for visitors. This ancient copy of the new testament, with golden illustrations, was among the many beautiful pieces.
 This crown was donated by the Queen of Spain. Incredibly, I do believe that those stones, as large as the end of my thumb, are the real thing. Now we know why such stones are now precious. The royalty of previous generations gathered them all before any of us were born.

 This fresco was in the chamber for priests to robe before mass. The room is now open to visitors, and also displays dozens of paintings. The artist of the fresco added himself into the painting, in the open window. (on the left, near the top of my photo)
 These three panel paintings were common during the Gothic period, and usually consisted of a center image of an important Christian event, and images of the family who commissioned the painting or their patron saint on the sides. I'm unsure about the story behind this particular one, except that the center is of the last supper. (Yes, there's more than just Da Vinci's version)

 This painting, painted directly onto the cathedral wall, is of the patron saint of travelers and drivers. He was known for helping people to cross a river, and one day carried the Christ child upon his shoulder and across the river, with all of the weight of human sins upon his back.
 From the outside we can see how the traditional twin spires of the Gothic church was not quite achieved. I presume funding ran out, and so the second spire was never completed and remains a dwarf to its partner.
 This pleasant entry-way is a way into the convent, still full of nuns today, in Toledo. The women of the convent make sweet pastries, called marzipan, to sell to visitors. The treat is made of honey, sugar, and almond, as well as other ingredients for different flavors.
 Toledo is know for the master-worked metal objects. These elegant golden trinkets are made from slowly woven and hammered threads of metal.
 Northern Spain has some of the best steel in the world. Toledo has some of the best sword crafters in the world. So celebrated are these craftsmen that the American military commissions a sword factory in Toledo for dress swords to be used in ceremony. One person in our group decided to purchase a sword to bring back. As far as I know, as a checked item, it will fly just fine. But I cannot help wonder what conversations the luggage scanning personnel in the airport will think.
 We visited the Synagogue of Toledo. I must admit it was my first time in a Jewish place of worship, but it felt no less welcoming of deep thought and tranquility than any church or cathedral. During the Muslim rule of Spain, those who did not convert to the Sunni religion were not treated with any negativity, but were imposed with a higher tax than those 'true believers.' Many Spanish Jews changed religion publicly, but continued to practice their traditions in private. The Muslim influence can be seen in the architecture of the Synagogue.

 In an ante-chamber of the Jewish temple, there was a modest display of relics and treasures from the worshippers of the time.
 These pieces of jewelry seemed strongly African in design, to me, but were apparently worn by local women of the time.
 This gown was worn as a wedding dress many hundreds of years ago. Now it stands in the museum along with other ancient formal clothing.

 Later, after our official tour, we went into a jewelry shop to look at some handmade pieces. These decorative dishes and animals were far above any of ours price ranges, but were enjoyable to look at.
 Two of my friends purchased necklaces like these ones, for around €80, as gifts for people back home.
 The jewelry pieces are made by hand on this wooden device. The shop owner is also the craftsman and explained the process to us. With tiny threads of gold, silver, or platinum, he weaves the delicate shapes until satisfied. Then, with a small wooden hammer, he pounds the metal into place. After painstaking hours, a medallion is produced.
 From outside, as we were leaving, I meant to get a candid shot of him working, but he spotted me and gave me a thumbs up instead. He must be in his 70s, having worked for fifty years already at his delicate trade.
 This archway lead our way back over the bridge out of town. There is clear Roman and Muslim influence in the arches.

Of the two cities, I prefer Toledo to Madrid. The narrow streets, classic feeling shops, and mountain-city feeling somehow put me at home. Although I grew up in a forest, I find myself comparing cities to my home. The tight streets feel to me like underbrush, and the old buildings are like tall pine trees. The happy people make me think of morning birds, chirping at the sun. And, more than anything I suppose, the sword shops make me think of dressing as a knight and running through the forest to slay monsters with my brothers, like I did as a child.

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