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24 Mar 2016
Interpreting Spain

Interpreting Spain

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We have two great tours coming up with Guide Lecturer, Jason Webster - La Convivencia in May, and To The Ends of The Earth in June.

Jason is better placed than most to talk about Spain, having lived there for many years, written many books on Spanish history and being fluent in both Spanish and Arabic. He is even married to a Flamenco dancer from Valencia!

I thought I would write a few words about my recent trip to Spain, in which I visited many of the sites we frequent on these tours.

Retracing the pilgrimage route, I started in France and travelled through the North of Spain, visiting some breath taking medieval towns and villages, not least St Bertrand de Comminges. Here, a magnificent cathedral sits atop a hill and serves a community of no more than 250 people. Along the medieval pilgrimage route, there is a crocodile mounted on a wall, apparently the gift of a pilgrim on his way from Egypt.

In Santo Domingo de la Calzada Cathedral, I saw a coup containing live chickens. Legend has it that two chickens remarkably came to life on the dinner plate of a local magistrate, and as a result chickens have been kept in the cathedral ever since.

At Irache, there is a monastery and winery, which still provides wine and water for thirsty pilgrims through a tap in its wall. The wine was welcome at the end of a long day, but is probably a vintage to be drunk in moderation.

At Burgos and Leon I saw two of the finest cathedrals I have ever visited, the detailed and elaborate chapels of Burgos contrasting with the austere Gothic of Leon which none the less contains more than 1,800 square meters of stained glass.

I ended my tour of Northern Spain, which included some of the best food I have eaten, at Muxia, a chapel in Finisterre (the World’s End) which burnt down after being hit by lightning, but has since been reconstructed. It was a suitable place to end a journey, looking out to sea and contemplating, as medieval pilgrims did, what might lie beyond…

Moving to Toledo, it was fascinating to see some of the sites that are included in our ‘Convivencia’ tour. A magnificent cathedral, mosque and two synagogues are all part of the fabric of this beautiful Spanish city, where the School of Translators was founded. It was here that many of the philosophical and scientific works from classical Arabic, classical Greek, and ancient Hebrew were translated and it is easy to see the influences that the different cultures had on each other.

In Cordoba, the highlight was a visit to the Mosque/Cathedral, regarded as one of the most extraordinary accomplishments in Moorish architecture. No building better tells the story of the Convivencia and Reconquest, a cathedral nave sitting slap bang in the middle of a Mosque – a direct Christian challenge to Islam.

In Seville, the Royal Alcazar is a patchwork of sublime buildings and beautiful gardens. It was a joy to sit amongst the many water features and soak up the sun in balmy March temperatures, knowing it was cold and raining in the UK.

In Granada, my tour’s end, it is fair to say that the Nasrid Palaces, part of the Alhambra, are the most extraordinary buildings I have ever visited. Ornate structures are inscribed with elaborate Arabic script, poems in the form of palaces. The view from St Nicholas Square across to the Alhambra was famously described as one of the most beautiful in the world by Bill Clinton, and I couldn’t disagree!

Michael Ivey

Director, Historical Trips