24 July 2010


sub·lime: [suh-blahym] adjective, noun, verb, -limed, -lim·ing.
1. elevated or lofty in thought, language, etc.: Paradise Lost is sublime poetry.

2. impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power; inspiring awe, veneration, etc.: Switzerland has sublime scenery.

3. Archaic: raised high; high up.

–verb (used with object)
1. to make higher, nobler, or purer.

—Synonyms 1. exalted, noble. 2. magnificent, superb, august, grand, gorgeous, resplendent, imposing, majestic.

In his Tales of the Alhambra, my new friend Washington Irving wrote, "There is the sternly simple features of the Spanish landscape that impresses the soul with a feeling of sublimity". In my opinion, that couldn't be more true than when beholding the landscape of Granada and the imposing walls of the Alhambra high up on the rocky hillside.

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If the name Washington Irving doesn't ring a bell, perhaps you'll know him by the tales he penned that take place a little closer to home, such as Rip Van Winkle or The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I can hear the light bulbs coming on and the collective, "Ooooohhhh! THAT Washington Irving!" (I've been to Sleepy Hollow, by the way, and felt a little thrill in the ribcage when I saw the sign upon entering the decidedly awake and utterly charming little hamlet.)

Well, in addition to his success as a story teller, essayist, editor, soldier, and all-around busy guy, he was also a diplomat and traveled extensively throughout Spain as its U.S. minister in the early to mid 1800's. I picked up The Tales of the Alhambra while visiting the Alhambra and have been reading and re-reading it ever since. It was in the room in Alhambra's Nasrid Palace with a plaque dedicated to Irving and his prodigeous scribbling that my classmate Hudson encountered an impressive fan following of Spanish pre-teens.

But I've gone too far ahead already - I'm supposed to be telling you about our visit to the Alhambra: The city of Granada, the Alhambra, the Generalife - all were by far my favorite part of visiting Spain. The history is awe-inspiring, to say nothing of the architecture and craftsmanship that went into building the fortress, palaces, and their gardens. I wish I had Irving's way with words and could describe it the way he did, but I don't so I'll let him introduce the place to you:

"The peculiar charm of this old dreamy palace is its power of calling up vague reveries and picturings of the past, and thus clothing naked realities with the illusions of the memory and the imagination....Here the hand of time has fallen the lightest and the traces of Moorish elegance and splendour exist in almost their original brilliancy.

Earthquakes have shaken the foundations of this pile and rent its rudest towers, yet see, not one of those slender columns has been displaced, not an arch of that light and fragile colonnade has given way, and all the fairy fretwork of those domes, apparently as unsubstantial as the crystal fabrics of a morning's frost, yet exist after the lapse of centuries, almost as fresh as if from the hand of the Moslem artist.

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I write in the midst of the mementoes of the past, in the fresh hour of early morning, in the fated Hall of the Abencerrages. The blood-stained fountain, the legendary monument of their massacre, is before me; the lofty jet almost casts its dew upon my paper. How difficult to reconcile the ancient tale of violence and blood with the gentle and peaceful scene around! Everything here appears calculated to inspire kind and happy feelings, for everything is delicate and beautiful. The very light falls tenderly from above through the lantern of a dome tinted and wrought as if by fairy hands.
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Through the ample and fretted arch of the portal I behold the Court of Lions with brilliant sunshine gleaming along its colonnades and sparkling in its fountains. The lively swallow dives into the Court and then surging upwards darts away twittering over the roofs; the busy bee toils humming among the flower-beds and painted butterflies hover from plant to plant and flutter up and sport with each other in the sunny air. It needs but a slight exertion of the fancy to picture some pensive beauty of the harem, loitering in these secluded haunts of Oriental luxury.

He, however, who would behold this scene under an aspect more in unison with its fortunes, let him come when the shadows of evening temper the brightness of the Court and throw a gloom in to the surrounding halls. Then nothing can be more serenely melancholy or more in harmony with the tale of departed grandeur.


"To the traveller imbued with a feeling for the historical and poetical, the Alhambra of Granada is as much as object of veneration as is the Kaaba or sacred house of Mecca to all true Moslem pilgrims. How many legends and traditions, true and fabulous, of love and war and chivalry are associated with this romantic pile! The following papers are the result of my reveries and researches during that delicious thraldrom. If they have the power of imparting any of the witching charms of the place to the imagination of the reader, he will not repine at lingering with me for a season in the legendary halls of the Alhambra."

From The Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving, published 1832.

18 July 2010

Barcelona - Agua, Agua, Por Todas Partes

What do you do when you're a wealthy engineer with extensive property who has a thing for hydraulics? You dot your extensive property with illuminated fountains, of course! That's exactly what Pierre S. DuPont did at Longwood. A visit to the World's Columbian Exhibition in 1903 gave a young Pierre a fountain of ideas. Inspiration came from all over the globe - French, Italian, Moorish - making Longwood famous for its water features.

When we heard about the fountain show at Montjuic in Barcelona, we couldn't but wonder if the DuPonts saw the fountains there? And we couldn't leave without seeing them for ourselves.

Font màgica de Montjuïc at the head of Avenida Maria Cristina was proposed, built, and opened in a year, just in time for the 1929 Great Universal Exhibition. With the imposing National Museum of Art of Catalonia as a backdrop, the views of Barcelona from the top are stunning.

On our last evening in Barcelona, some of us decided to see the fountain show. We emerged from the Metro stop, rounded the corner, and basically stopped in our tracks. It's amazing the difference a little light and water can make in a landscape.

Yeah, I think Pierre would have been impressed!

17 July 2010

Barcelona - Parc del Laberint d'Horta

The Parc del Laberint d'Horta is an emerald in the ring road surrounding Barcelona. Named for the labyrinth of clipped cypress at its center, the garden is situated north of the city just off the Carrer dels Germans Desvalls, one of several streets in the area named for the Desvalls family who owned the property and built the garden. It is the oldest and perhaps loveliest garden in Barcelona. Contrary to popular (i.e. non-Spanish speaking) belief, 'Horta' has nothing to do with horticulture, it's simply part of the name of the district in which the garden is located.

The garden is a mix of 18th century neoclassical and 19th century romantic, begun in 1791 and continued by Desvalls ancestors until the family gave the park to the city of Barcelona in 1969. The Desvalls palace, once the center of social and cultural events as well as open air theatre performances and now home to a school of horticulture, still stands at the entrance to the gardens with its imposing iron studded doors and 16th century watch tower.

Just inside the entrance is this fountain, which we have affectionately dubbed "the poop fountain" owing to an unfortunate meeting between one of my classmates and a bird!
What makes this garden so wonderful is not only the 750 person per day visitor limit but the use of terraces, vistas, and garden rooms that give you the feeling of being in several gardens, not just one. Water is used to effect to draw you from one room to the next, first running along then inviting you to pause and reflect by one of the many still pools. There are ample places for one to sit and enjoy the cool green shade, which I did a lot of since it was hot the day we visited!

The neoclassical elements in the garden made me wish I had paid more attention in my college Greek and Roman mythology class. Statues and busts of Greek mythical figures decorated the garden rooms, giving one who knows how to 'read' the garden a clue to its overarching theme: love and death. I find with many of the classic tragic love stories that one or other of the lovers usually ends up losing thier head over their amour. This guy was obviously no exception.

Unlike me, you, literate garden reader, are no doubt versed in the story of Theseus and Ariadne and their relationship to the labyrinth (their love story ended with a tragic case of amnesia - what's up with that!?). The labyrinth at Parc del Laberint thankfully doesn't house a minotaur ready to devour you, but if you're brave enough to enter it (I wasn't) you will find a statue of the god Eros at the center. Mercifully, you don't need a string to find your way out, either!

On the terrace above the labyrinth is a neoclassic pavilion with a reflecting pool and fountain reached by crossing a bridge over the Romantic Canal, at the end of which is the Island of Love. A sculpture of Egeria, a mythological water nymph, overlooks the pool.

The newer Jardi Romantic lies on the lowest terrace and is shaded by tall pines and Eucalyptus. The beds are divided in to myrtle-lined rectangles covered in Agapanthus (one common name for it is Flower of Love). When in bloom, I imagine the area would look like a gently waving sea of blossom! Oddly enough, this garden terminates in what used to be called the "false cemetery" which was outfitted with ornamental headstones (no longer there - gee, I wonder why?). This part of the garden does have a more tranquil feeling than the rooms of the upper terraces, and I was drawn to it by the sound of rushing water which I found to be a waterfall and channel that ran the length of the garden. In the center was another quiet pool with a long stone bench echoing the arch of the pool on one side.

A recent storm toppled this pine, taking the Agapanthus planted around the base of the tree for a ride.
Leaving the Romantic Garden you come to a quirky little garden with a hermit's hut built into the wall. More seating lines the stone wall and a table and stools cut from tree trunks sits invitingly in the center of the patio. I thought it would have been a very pleasant place to sit and take tea with a faun!

The plantings in the garden are decidedly Mediterranean, with Arbutus unedo, Agapanthus, Eucalyptus, Acanthus, Hedera, and Bougainvillea.

For a place to linger and enjoy a good book, Parc del Laberint offers many secluded nooks where one can sit and revel in the quiet solitude. For the more daring, the labyrinth offers a challenge to the intellect and one's sense of direction. For the garden literate it tells a number of stories, from the many ancient myths depicted in statuary to the repeated theme of love told by the plants and flowers in each of the gardens.

For most of us, this was the favorite garden in Barcelona. When next you're in the area, make a point of visiting. Take along a book of Greek Myths to enjoy while listening to the sound of water playing over the stones, or spend the day with your sweetheart and write a new chapter in your own love story here. Whatever your reason for visiting, Parc del Laberint should be on every garden lover's list when in Barcelona!

05 July 2010

Gaudí's Barcelona - La Sagrada Familia

It's funny, when you're about to go on a trip that everyone knows about, how many people suddenly appear who have traveled to where you're going. Where were these people last fall when I was researching the sites we should visit? Apparently, they only reveal themselves when the itinerary is finalized and come with all sorts of "you MUST see this" recommendations!

Our itinerary was pretty packed, but when three different people in the space of a few days all told us, "You MUST see La Sagrada Familia!", we thought perhaps we should heed their advice. The trip wasn't just all about the gardens, anyway, it was about the gardens in the context of the country's culture. And religion and religious structures are part of a people's culture, right? Right! I'm deviating a bit from the chronological order of our itinerary but thought I'd tell you more about Antonio Gaudi and the amazing work that consumed his later life.

The Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia (Expiatory Church of the Holy Family) is a massive Roman Catholic church designed by Gaudi, to which he devoted the last fifteen years of his life. Construction began in 1882 and is still ongoing.

Beg pardon? Still ongoing? It's been 127 years and they haven't finished it yet?

Allow me to quote Sr. Gaudí: "My client (meaning God) is in no hurry". Funding for the construction is entirely by private donations and admission fees. Gaudí himself gave all his money to the effort and went door-to-door begging for more. He lived at the church until the time of his death, at which time only the Nativity Façade had been built. Most of the original plans for the church were destroyed during the Spanish Civil War so much of what's been done since has been the inspiration of the artists and architects working on it.

Photo from Wiki Commons

We lunched at a sidewalk cafe right across the street from the cathedral. Impressive doesn't even begin to describe it. After queueing a short time to buy tickets, we bypassed the longer line for one of the tower elevators and went inside. I've been in several cathedrals in England - some ruins, some still active neighborhood houses of worship - and each one has taken my breath away. Even in its unfinished state this one did, too.

Imagine stained glass in the windows!

Emerging from the exit you find yourself under the Passion Façade. This depicts the passion - the pain, sacrifice, and death - of Christ. The sculptures by Josep Maria Subirachs are very stylistic. The façade faces west and receives the last rays of the setting sun, creating dramatic light and shadow effects.

Directly opposite, on the east side of the church, is the the Nativity Façade which was the only part of the church completed in Gaudí's lifetime. Similar to the Passion Façade it depicts Jesus's birth, childhood, and early manhood. The rising sun which illuminates the façade symbolically represents new life. There are three entrances on this side, one door each for hope, charity, and faith.

We didn't have time on this visit to take the lifts to the towers, which are supposed to be spectacular, or to visit the crypt, or really linger and take in all the astounding details. I read recently that the nave is due to be opened for public worship by October of this year, and the church is to be consecrated by the Pope when he visits Barcelona in November.

I always marveled at the dedication it took to build the medieval cathedrals I've seen - some taking decades, as Sagrada Familia has. It takes a lot of faith to put so much effort into something that you may not live to see completed. I hope to be able to return in ten years or so (with a visit or two in between) and see how much has been done. With the anticipated completion date being somewhere around 2026, I think it would be fascinating to see the progress first hand and to one day be able to enjoy a service there or hear Evensong.

Visiting this time and watching the workmen inside as they carefully smoothed a just-poured concrete floor reminded me that true craftsmanship - no matter what the discipline - requires time and patience.

Good thing God has plenty of both!