While Gary was here we visited both the Alcázar and the Cathedral de Seville. We’ve walked by both several times. They are both located adjacent to the Juderia, the old Jewish quarter, now called Bario Santa Cruz.
The Alcázar: An alcázar is a type of Moorish castle or palace in Spain and Portugal built during Muslim rule, mostly between the 8th and 15th
centuries. Many cities in Spain have an alcázar. Palaces built in the Moorish style after the expulsion of the Moors from Spain in 1492 are often referred to as alcazars as well. Sevilla has an especially nice alcázar which was originally a 10th-century palace built for the governors of the local Moorish state. This complex of buildings and gardens still functions as a royal palace for the Spanish Royal Family —the oldest in Europe that’s still in use. The core of the palace features an extensive 14th-century rebuild, done by Muslim workmen for the Christian king, Pedro I (1334-1369). Pedro was nicknamed either “the Cruel” or “the Just,” depending on which end of his sword you were on. Pedro’s palace embraces both cultural traditions. It has been a World Heritage Site since 1987.
The Cathedral de Seville: Seville’s cathedral, Santa Maria de la Sede, is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, at least the third largest church of anykind anywhere, and is also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The cathedral’s construction lasted over a century, from 1401 to 1506. It is said that when the plans were drawn up, church elders stated, “Hagamos una iglesia tan hermosa y tan grandiosa que los que la vieren labrada nos tengan por locos.” (Let us build a church so beautiful and so magnificent that those who see it finished will think we are mad). The basilica occupies the site of the great Aljama mosque, built in the late 12th century by the Almohads, the ruling Moorish dynasty, of which the only remaining parts are the Patio de Naranjas, the Puerta del Perdon (on Calle Alemanes, on the north side), and the Giralda (formerly the minaret, now the belltower).
Its central nave rises to an awe-inspiring 42 metres (138 ft) and even the 80 side chapels each seem tall enough to contain an ordinary church. Its total area covers 11,520 square meters, nearly three acres. Some new volume calculations have now pushed it in front of St Peter’s in Rome and the Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida in Brazil as the largest church in the world. But this is still a subject for debate, and many claim it is still the third-largest in the world.
The interior is, of course, both lavish and elaborate. But, every time I go into one of these great churches I can not help think of the good all that money could have done had it been used to directly help the people instead of wringing out their every last “nickel.”
The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939):
This war broke out in Morocco when a few of the most influent generals in the Spanish Army, led by General Francisco Franco, rose up against the democratically elected Republican government, presided over by Manuel Azaña. Allegiances were not always clear-cut during this conflict. Essentially, the ranks of the Left (also known as Loyalist or Republican) comprised workers, peasants and trade unions, but also the Spanish government, Socialists, Communists and Anarchists. The Right (also known as Nationalist), was supported by rebellious factions of the army, industry, landowners, the middle classes and the Catholic Church. For various and somewhat contradictory reasons, the Loyalists received the support of the Soviet Union and European democracies, while the Nationalists were armed and equipped by the Fascist governments of Germany and Italy.The Spanish Civil War would prove to be both fierce and bloody. Although the resources of the two sides were not that unequal, the Nationalists were better organized and received extensive material aid from Germany. The Loyalists received very little assistance from the Soviet Union and, moreover, were divided by internal conflicts between Communist, Socialist and Anarchist factions.
While European and North American volunteers fought for the Republic in the framework of the International Brigades, and a number of foreign artists and writers supported the Loyalist cause, including Ernest Hemingway (who was working as a reporter and photographer) and George Orwell (who fought on the Republican side only to be prosecuted later on and thus became profoundly disillusioned by the rivalry in the ranks of the Left), the Nationalists were finally triumphant.
The war is thought to have cost 500,000 lives though official figures have now put the casualty figure as high as 1 million.
The war also witnessed the first ever deliberate aerial bombing of a city. On April 27th 1937, the ancient city of the Basques – Guernica – was bombed and destroyed by the Condor Legion of Germany. For Hitler it was a useful experiment into the “value” of bombing civilian targets. For the Nationalists, it took out a city of spiritual importance for the Basques. For Europe, the warning posed by this bombing was obvious. Hence the attempts by Chamberlain and Daladier to create a formula for Europe to avoid any chance of a repetition of Guernica. Aerial bombing and its consequences were to terrify Western Europe during WWII.
General Franco’s victory marked the beginning of a forty-year dictatorship in Spain (1939-1975). In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, Hitler sought Franco’s support for his own military campaign, but Spain was in no position to provide either financial or human resources so she remained “neutral.” Although the Spanish Civil War had been a training field for the battles to be waged in the Second World War, Spain would play no part in the latter but agreed to sponsor a small army of volunteers known as La División Azul.
Under the Franco regime Spain suffered international isolation, although in varying degrees. In 1955 the country was accepted as a member of the United Nations, and in 1970 General Franco named prince Juan Carlos his successor as the future king of Spain, thereby re-establishing the monarchy. Upon the dictator’s death in 1975 King Juan Carlos I was crowned and the country set out on the long journey back to full democracy in Spain.
Madrid: A few days after Gary departed we decamped from our apartment at Calle Viejos 1 for Madrid. We made our way to Estacion Santa Justa, the train station. The trip to Madrid is only 2.5 hours on the fast train. We caught a cab at the Estacion Atocha and were in our room at the Westin Palace Hotel by mid-afternoon. It is a very nice hotel (we are staying on points) in a very good location – about 1 km from the royal palace. We took a walk around in cool but sunny weather. A local said the weather is actually a little warmer than usual for this time of year.
On our second day we toured The Prado Museum, only two blocks from our hotel. It is considered by many to be the finest art museum in Europe. We have a low tolerance for museum crawling but there were a couple of things we particularly wanted to see.
The first was “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by the Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch. “Art historians and critics frequently interpret the painting as a didactic warning on the perils of life’s temptations. However, the intricacy of its symbolism, particularly that of the central panel, has led to a wide range of scholarly interpretations over the centuries. Twentieth-century art historians are divided as to whether the triptych’s central panel is a moral warning or a panorama of paradise lost.”
Another, considered by many to be the world’s finest painting, is Velázquez’s “Maids of Honor” (Las Meninas, c. 1656 ). It’s a peek at nannies caring for Princess Margarita and, at the same time, a behind-the-scenes look at Velázquez at work. One hot summer day in 1656, Velázquez (at left, with paintbrush and Dalí moustache) stands at his easel and stares out at the people he’s painting—the king and queen. They would have been standing about where the viewer is and we see only their reflection in the mirror at the back of the room. Their daughter (blonde hair, in center) watches her parents being painted, joined by her servants (meninas), dwarves, and the family dog. (At this time household dwarves were considered status symbols.) At that very moment, a man happens to pass by the doorway at back and pauses to look in. Why’s he there? Probably just to give the painting more depth. This frozen moment is lit by the window on the right, splitting the room into bright and shaded planes that recede into the distance. The main characters look right at us, making us part of the scene, seemingly able to walk around, behind, and among the characters.
A particularly striking painting is “The Bearded Woman” by Ribera. This painting is also known by its Spanish name, La Mujer Barbuda. Certainly one of the strangest, most foreboding images in the history of art, Ribera’s painting is the portrait of the fifty-two-year-old Magdalena Ventura from Abruzzi with her husband and a newborn baby.
This is one case where pictures certainly speak louder than words, because as anyone can tell at a glance, Magdalena Ventura was far from a typical wife and mother: the unfortunate woman sports a beard even longer and more luxurious than that of her husband, who gazes forlornly at the viewer from the murky, shadowy background.
The stone tablet at the right of the picture bears a Latin inscription which tells us more about this unlikely trio: the inscription describes the “The Bearded lady of Abruzzi” as “a great wonder of nature” who bore her husband three sons before sprouting a bushy, undeniably masculine beard at the age of thirty-seven. She was a famous medical mystery in her day. Her unfortunate condition was probably driven by hormonal imbalances not then understood.
On our third and final day we made our way to the royal palace only to find it closed for two days in the middle of the week for a government function of some kind. So, we wandered about in some of the back streets. Our hotel was right across the street from the National Congress so there was a big security presence in the area.
London: We arrived Thursday at London Heathrow after an easy flight from Madrid. We got some pounds and purchased two Oyster Cards which provide about a 40% discount on the expensive but indespensable Underground (The Tube). We hopped the tube for the hour ride to Green Park station in the Mayfair district about four blocks from our hotel, not far from Buckingham Palace. We have stayed here before so we remembered the area pretty well. After settling in it was time for dinner so we hit a pub around the corner – fish ‘n chips. It seemed odd to be able to eat at 5:00 again and it not be tapas.
The next morning after coffee we tubed it to the Natural History Museum. We have been spoiled by the Smithsonian so I gave it a C+. Lots of critters and fossils in glass cases. That evening we saw “Kinky Boots” at the Adelphi Theatet near Covent Gardens. A good musical based on a true story about an old, bankrupt shoe company in North Hampton that rescues itself by making “kinky boots”for cross dressers. Good story, good music, good cast, and a good message about acceptance. We enjoyed it.
Saturday we hit the British Library where we saw original Shakespeare follios, Leonardo’s two fisted mirror writing, the Magna Carta, the Guttenburg Bible not to mention original Beattle’s music in John Lennon’s own hand. Later we went to a matinee performance of “The Book of Morman” at the Prince of Wales Theater on Piccadilly Street. It was funny, rude, profane, and brutally offensive to every known demographic group. We loved it.
Bletchley Park: The main site of “Project Ultra”, the British code breaking operation during WWII made recently famous by the movie “The Immatation Game” is here in Bletchley Park about 60 miles NW of London.
It is located between Oxford and Cambridge Universities, principal sources of brain power for the project. It was once a country estate before being purchased by the war department in the 30’s. There were more than 2000 people working here in deep secret during the war. But the project was decentralized for security reasons so there were another 6000 or so working in other locations. It was code breaking on an industrial scale – a massive project that shortened the war by at least two years, according to historians, saving hundreds of thousands of lives.
Here’s the problem. Germans created the “Enigma” machine in the 20’s and modified it many times thereafter.
Battery operated and about the size of a portable typewriter (remember those?) it consisted of a keyboard, corresponding lightable letters, five wheels used three at a time and a series of patch cords. Each wheel had the 26 letters of the alphabet on its rim. Each day at midnight every enigma machine was “rekeyed” according to a prearranged scheme by replacing yesterday’s three wheels with today’s and in a different order, setting each to new but different starting positions and rearranging the patch cords. These settings were collectively called the day’s “key.” Starting with a plain (unencoded) message, the letter key corresponding to each letter in the plain message was slowly pressed thus illuminating one of the lightable letters. With each key press, each wheel advanced to a new position so each resulting letter was produced by a different wheel combination than the last. The patch cords further scrambled the results. At the receiving end, the encoded message was entered into another enigma also set exactly to that days key.
The upshot of all this is that each encoded letter was one of 157 million, million, million possible combinations of wheels and cords. It would take an assiduously dedicated individual longer than the age of the universe to try each combination by hand and he would then have only one correct letter as a result. For obvious reasons, the Germans (and Japanese and Italians who also used the machines) thought their code system to be unbreakable. So, all their encoded messages were sent in the clear by wireless which the allies were listening to. The problem for the allies was how to break each day’s code in less than 24 hours so it could be used to decipher the intercepted messages before the code was changed again.
It turns out that the mathematical wizards figured out a way to reduce the 157,000,000,000,000,000,000 combinations to a more manageable 1 million or so. This is where Alan Turning, literally the inventer of the modern programmable computer, comes in. He invented the Bombe machine (named for a pastry). It is not a computer and is not programmable. It is an electrical-mechanical device designed to figure out the “key” used that day by the Germans. It actually duplicates 36 enigma machines. After it is set using clues from intercepted messages it whirls and clanks as it checks all the possible combinations until it stops, having arrived at one possible “key.” That key is then checked by another machine. If the key deciphers messages then “Bob’s Your Uncle”.
While the original Bombe was installed at Bletchley, there were many more scattered around Britain. After the war they were destroyed. The one now at Bletchley was recreated by a group of retired engineers and it works. It decodes enigma messages.
Alan Turning was later convicted of homosexuality and given the option of prison or chemical castration. He chose the latter but soon committed suicide by cyanide poisoning. The British government “apologized” and pardoned him in 2010.
On Monday, our last day we mostly got organized for our departure from Europe but Rolynn did go to Harrod’s for a little shopping. Tuesday morning we hopped the tube for Heathrow for our 7 hour flight to Boston. Following a 5 hour layover (Rolynn got a pedicure) we arrived at Reagan International where Rolynn’s brother picked us up. We will spend Thanksgiving with The DC branch of the Shellum clan in Brian’s mountain home in the Canan Valley of West Virginia. We will then drive to Myrtle Beach for a couple weeks at our time share where we will be joined by many of the same Shellums plus Rolynn’s sister from Wisconsin.
So, what do we think of our trip? We were in Europe for 2 1/2 months which did not seem too long to us. We liked our “more or less stay put for a month” plan but we might reduce that to 3 weeks next time, although we do not know where the next trip will take us. It is nice to heading home.