travel

Madrid

flamenco performance madrid

Because of my delayed flight I’d missed the chance to get a sense of the terrain I was travelling through so I was looking forward to the drive to Madrid. But the terrain was pretty monotonous. The land is covered almost exclusively with olive plantations. Olives for hours, and no other sign of life. No birds, no animals, no people, just the occasional massive billboard bull.

The bus I was on apparently had wifi, but it didn’t work well. The onboard entertainment system had a genuinely terrible selection of music and a bunch of films that were mostly in Spanish with no subtitles. I ended up watching Amelia, because it was the only one they had in English, but it lacked sufficient emotional depth for me to feel invested in.

So I stared out the window and reminded myself of how big the world is. It’s easy to forget that in the UK where everything is so dense and close together. Elsewhere, there is so much empty space. Driving always puts me in a pensive mood.

After Granada, Madrid felt big and unfriendly. I wasn’t there long enough to really get a sense of the city and it seemed like there was a lot less opportunity to interact with people beyond transactional stuff, like buying a meal. Even that wasn’t a particularly friendly experience. Serving staff spoke English but they weren’t all that enthused about having to help out and at every place I ate I had significantly slower service than the people around me. At one point I stumbled upon a weird restaurant that had cheap sandwiches and was inexplicably filled with nuns in groups of threes but I couldn’t figure out how to order food so I left.

One night I went to see a tabla flamenco show on the recommendation of a friend and out of a desire to keep up my quota of watching dance shows. It was interesting, but very touristy, not the sort of thing that I would normally do. I enjoyed the performance but at these sorts of encounters I always find it more interesting to pay attention to the meta experience of being there, watching the watchers and trying to figure out what about the encounter made it feel inauthentic.

Madrid made me feel like there were things happening and I wasn’t really a part of them. Perhaps I was missing having a high vantage point to look down from. In my accommodation I slept without covers and the noise of the traffic, garbage pickup and road maintenance continued on until 4am forcing me to dig out my earplugs to get some sleep.

Granada

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I didn’t know much about Granada before I decided to go there. It was a snap decision made after seeing a random photo in my Instagram feed of a fashionable young woman in a black dress on a street paved in river stones with geometric designs.

I don’t regret that decision one bit. After booking my ticket I learned that one of the major attractions in Granada is the Alhambra, which was high up on my list of cool places I will probably never visit. I also learned that food and accommodation there is very cheap, which made me a bit sad that I hadn’t been before.

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Getting there was a bit of an ordeal. There was a problem with our plane which resulted in a five hour delay, during which the poor pilot and crew looked lost while engineers tried to read pdfs of the technical manual on their iPhones. Our plane was mostly full of families on holiday and the children became increasingly restless and annoying. I felt quite bad for the parents. It was a relief when they finally let us off the plane with some meal vouchers because the cabin was beginning to smell like hot, dirty diaper.

By the time we arrived in Malaga I had long since missed my bus and the ticket office had closed. Luckily I was able to book another ticket on my phone, otherwise I’m not entirely sure what I would have done.

I was surprised by how well I dealt with the temperature, which was pushing 40 degrees. I suppose it was because it was a dry heat, which allowed sweat to evaporate as it should. Being from Vancouver and living in the UK, I’m used to hot, muggy air clinging to your skin and making you very uncomfortable. But in Granada I was fine; I just had to drink massive quantities of water.

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I enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere in Granada. I’m very glad that I got the chance to see the Alhambra. I spent the better part of a day there soaking in all of the patterns and textures and didn’t have to spend as much time in line to get a ticket as I was expecting to. The only downside was that there isn’t much choice in the way of food up there. On the one hand there’s a cafe that does coffee and buns with meat or cheese in them, and on the other there is a Michelin star restaurant that is quite pricy. There isn’t anything in between.

I wandered down the hill, deciding to patronize what seemed to be the city’s only vegetarian restaurant, to find out that it’s only open for about four hours a day. It was the first of many failed attempts during my trip to support veggie restaurants.

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Wanborough to Godalming

Watts ChapelMy friend Sam and I have been slowly working our way through the Time Out Book of Country Walks, Volume 1. I picked up a used copy online for £3, but they’re all avaliable online for free in their most up-to-date form through the Saturday Walkers Club website.*

The other day we decided to do walk 2: Wanborough to Godalming, which travels through the Guildford area of Surrey. At just over seven miles, the walk was considerably shorter than most of the other ones in the book, no doubt to leave walkers some time to take in the cultural attractions on the way. Most of the scenery was wooded and due to the absence of interesting wildflowers this time of year, pleasant, but fairly unmemorable.

Unlike most of the walks, this one crossed a highway, which was a bit frightening. I think the book said “with care, cross the dual carriageway” but neglected to add the bit about making peace with whichever deity one would normally pray to.

Across the highway the walk takes you through the middle of a vinyard where the signage warns you to not stray from the path, because the vinyard makes use of high quantities of sprays. We mused for a bit about how global warming has made owning a vinyard in southern England a viable business venture. Though if the grapes in England are sprayed with chemicals that make them dangerous to walk near, I doubt I’ll be purchasing any English wine in the near future.

We stopped in at Watts Gallery, which is dedicated to the memory and work of George Frederic Watts, though it also displays works by other related artists and craftspeople. Taken in its entirety, the gallery gives you a little snapshot into a particular period of Arts and Crafts and pre-Raphaelite romantic backlash against the Industrial Revolution. It was interesting to see a selection of work that spanned Watts’ career in a number of styles, some more academic or commercial, some more expressionist and symbolic. I particularly liked the collection of ceramics on display by William and Evelyn DeMorgan, and given that no one seemed particularly fussed about me having my camera out, I took a lot of pictures of them.

The gallery also had a temporary exhibit on the work and life of Richard Dadd. Dadd was by all accounts a complete nutter who suffered from what was probably some form of paranoid schizophrenia. After murdering his father he spent the rest of his life in mental institutions. The majority of his ouvre was created while he was living in Bethlem Hospital.

His work was really cool to see up close. When you view paintings online it’s so easy to lose sight of the scale at which they exist. His work has so much intricate detail that I’d always assumed that it was much larger than it actually is, but the paintings were surprisingly small and richly textured. The longer you stare at them, the more little details become apparent, and you can see in it the roots of a whole generation of fantasy illustration.

Watts Chapel

Watts Chapel

The real highlight of this walk though is Watts Chapel, designed and built by Watts’ wife Mary Fraser-Tytler as a means of training local people to work in crafts and trades. Both the interior and exterior are made of ceramic, richly patterned in Art Nouveau and Celtic revival style.

* The Saturday Walkers Club website is an amazing resource for anyone based in London without a car. The site has hundreds of itineraries for walks that begin and end at train stations within two hours of London that have been created by club members and are free to use. Most of them pass by some specific site of interest that you may have missed if you’d just set out on your own. Highly recommended.

Jewish Cemetery, Prague

Jewish Cemetery, Prague 

While in Prague we went for the full tour of the Jewish monuments in Josefov. Sadly in most of the synagogues and museums photography is prohibited so I don’t have much to show in this post. Some of them are quite beautiful and elaborate and well worth visiting.

In particular, the distinctly Moorish style and ornate interior decoration of the Spanish Synagogue stands out. Every surface is richly ornamented with geometric patterns in a palette of reds, blues and golds. It also contains an exhibit about the history and cultural contributions of Jews in the Czech Republic, documenting their continually changing relationship with the state and society, the rise of Zionism and the Czech Republic’s relationship with Israel. There was also a display of silver from synagogues all over the Czech Republic. I think if I was going to recommend one synagogue to visit, this would be the one.

The Old-New Synagogue is purported to be the final resting place of the legendary Golem of Prague. It contained a selection of beautiful old tapestries on display that were once used as Torah covers, fortunately/unfortunately they were dimly lit, probably for conservation reasons. Fortunately/unfortunately there was no photography allowed either, probably also for conservation reasons.

Jewish Cemetery, Prague

I did take a couple photos, however, in the Jewish Cemetery in Josefov. It’s an interesting place, raised high above the level of the street due to the sheer number of bodies buried inside. At some point in time they ran out of space so they began to lay graves on top of previous graves, gradually raising the level of the earth over time. Each time the existing headstones would be replaced at the highest level, until what remains is an overcrowded disarray of stones of various ages, in various states of repair, packed in haphazardly and fighting for view.

Given this history, I was tempted before my visit to think that it was a small place, but it turned out to be a lot larger than it looks from outside the gates. It’s an odd shape that fills the spaces between several buildings. Just about the time you think that you’ve found the end of it you turn a corner to find another courtyard jam-packed with stones, and it’s only then that you begin to understand just how numerous the bodies are that are interred there.

Visiting the cemetery, I felt much the same as I did at the Sedlec Ossuary, which is, I suppose, to say something about the calm realisation of the inevitability of death. It happens to everyone eventually, and gradually time strips the dead of their identities, and us of our memories of them. Though there are some conservation efforts in place to save and maintain some of the most culturally significant headstones, the majority of them are slowly decaying and becoming impossible to read.

Jewish Cemetery, Prague

Kutna Hora

Silver Mine at Kutna Hora

Richard was very insistent that we see the Czech Museum of Silver while we were in Kutna Hora. I’m glad he did because I really enjoyed my visit.

The area around Kutna Hora has long been a rich source of silver, and during the Middle Ages it was the site of the royal mint. Underneath the town there is a large network of who knows how many mine shafts dug by medieval silver miners. At the museum you get the opportunity to tour through a portion of the mines to understand some of the harrowing conditions under which people worked.

As part of the tour, you suit up in hard hats and white canvas coats similar to what would have been worn by Medieval Czech miners. The coats have pointy hoods so they’re kind of a mix between dressing gown and KKK. You learn soon after entering the mine shaft that people were smaller in Medieval times than they are now. Unlike, say, the Củ Chi tunnels in Vietnam, no attempt has been made to widen the tunnels for tourists, so for many people on the tour it can be a tight squeeze to get through. Good thing we wore hard hats because I whacked my head a few times.

Kutna Hora Mine

Abandoned for 400 years, the tunnels are mostly flooded with water, and everywhere you look there are heavy sediments of calcite and other minerals gradually accumulating and filling the tunnels back in again. Give it another several hundred years and some of them might close up completely. Makes me wonder what a post-Anthropocene practice of geology would look like, if humans manage to last that long.

St. Barbara

St. Barbara

Our next stop was St. Barbara, a fantastic example of High Gothic architecture, with a beautiful set of Art Nouveau windows. St. Barbara is the patron saint of miners, so it was fitting that there would be a church in her name in Kutna Hora. Inside there was a fresco dedicated to the miners and minters of coins. We arrived shortly after a wedding so the organist was still there, messing around and sounding very dramatic. I took a lot of pictures, some of which are on Flickr.

train tracks

There is a small train line that runs along Kutna Hora, with a cute little single car train that goes back and forth, eventually connecting with the main line. We saw this train waiting at Kutna Hora Mesto, and for reasons that defy all logic, did not run for it. It left without us, seemingly the last train of the night.

So we walked the tracks toward the main line, along a rather scenic drainage ditch. I had my very first and hopefully last experience of stinging nettles. When we finally made it to the main station we had to wait a good hour for the next train, which like what seemed to be most trains in the Czech Republic, was fashionably late.

Kutna Hora Train Station at night

Sedlec Ossuary

Sedlec Ossuary 

Sedlec Ossuary

While we were in the Czech Republic Vicki suggested that we should visit the church of bones, so we spent Saturday in Kutna Hora, about seventy-five kilometres outside of Prague.

The Sedlec Ossuary contains the bones of at least 40,000 people who died during the Middle Ages. For quite some time the parish was a very fashionable place to be buried, and people would travel long distances in order to bring their relatives there, as it had been sprinkled with earth from the Holy Land in the 1200s. I could have sworn that I read somewhere, though I’ve been unable to back this up with online research, that it was said that the soil had magical properties, and bodies of anyone who was interred there would decompose quickly without putrefying.

Sedlec Ossuary

Sedlec Ossuary

But over time the cemetery became very overcrowded. Eventually many of the bodies were dug up and placed inside the chapel in artfully Baroque ways.

I suppose some would find that creepy. I didn’t. If anything, I felt a solemn sense of calm, coupled with an awareness of the inevitability of death. I think it was probably a combination of the fact that the bones were well bleached and that they were arranged in ways that didn’t really suggest any sort of skeletal structure or personality that would identify them as particular people. They’re just assemblies of disembodied objects. In contrast, I’m always left feeling a little icky when I’m confronted by the mummified remains of saints in Catholic churches.

Cemetery at Sedlec

Cemetery at Sedlec

Outside the Ossuary there is a very cheery cemetery, bright with flowers and potted plants. I particularly liked the headstones. The majority of them were very simple, with fantastic 20’s and 30’s style typefaces, and here and there images of the deceased peered out from them.

I always find the practice of putting pictures of the deceased directly on the headstones a little strange and foreign, probably for the same reason as above. The person is identified, so you have to reckon with the fact that they had a life and a personality, something you can map memories and feelings onto.

You can see more pictures from my trip to the Czech Republic on Flickr here.

Prague

Prague

I don’t generally plan much for trips but this was by far the least amount of planning and preparation I’d ever done. I figured I’d just book a plane ticket and a room for the weekend, tag along with Richard and Vicky and go wherever they did. It worked out, and I had a great time. It’s nice to be able to delegate the planning to other people sometimes.

Prague has an excellent, cheap transit system, though initially we found it confusing. We hopped on the bus from Vaclav Havel Airport expecting to be able to pay for tickets but were waved off repeatedly by the driver. We then assumed that we’d be able to buy tickets at the metro station, but the ticket-dispensing machines only take coins, and it was late at night, so there was nowhere to break our bills so we treated ourselves to a free trip that night. I’ve heard stories about how horrible the ticket inspectors can be to tourists. Thankfully we didn’t run into any.

Having enough change is a constant issue in Prague. As soon as you have it it evaporates from your wallet. So many purchases you make are in such small denominations that it makes sense to pay in coins. Shopkeepers always seem to ask for exact change and are reluctant to break bills into small coins, probably because like you, they also need to hoard them so they can use the toilet.

Prague

Prague

You can easily spend several days just wandering around in Prague, looking at the architecture. It’s home to some of the most fabulous examples of Art Nouveau, as well as many other lovely Baroque buildings. Since the weather was great we spent most of our time outside, sightseeing, rather than visiting the museums and attractions, and we tried to find as many ways as possible to get up really high so we could look over the city. It’s beautiful in pretty much every direction.

If I’m allowed to complain a little, I thought it was kind of a shame that the facades of so many magnificent churches were crowded so much by nearby buildings. In many cases it wasn’t possible to step back far enough to be able to appreciate them fully. You could only really imagine what they look like at the top.

At some point in time I’d love to go back and visit some of the museums. The national museum was closed for renovations while we were there, though there was apparently a classical music concert happening inside the evening we passed by. It seemed like lots of churches and historical buildings were advertising chamber music concerts all over the place. I don’t know if this happens all the time or if it was part of a festival – it wasn’t entirely clear. I’d love to take in some shows at some point. I’m sure some of the spaces would make great venues for live music.

I’ve posted more photos on Flickr. I’ll probably be uploading another batch later this week.