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27 Mar 2015

Moorish Spain: Madrid

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March 27, 2015 Category: Travel Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO:  Royal Palace

By Renée S. Gordon

“Africa begins in the Pyrenees”  Anon.

Spain, Europe’s third largest country, is culturally, historically and geographically one of the most interesting countries in the world. Located over 85 percent of the Iberian Peninsula, it includes islands in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the Canaries and the Balearics, and two regions in North Africa. The 8-mile Strait of Gibraltar separates it from Africa, making it easily accessible to the continent. As of 2014, Spain has 44 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the greatest number of World Heritage Cities on the planet.

A consistent characteristic of the country’s history is the recurring waves of settlers and conquerors. Archeology points to the fact that there were hunters and gatherers in the region 800,000-years ago but the earliest Neolithic settlements did not occur until around 5,000 BC. The Iberians inhabited the area until the arrival of the Phoenicians in 1,100 BC, followed by the Greeks, Celts, Romans, Visigoths and Moors. Some historians believe that “Moor,” a term for northern Africans, entered the language circa 46 BC when the Romans began using it to refer to the people of northwest Africa as “Maures,” a Greek word for black.

The Phoenicians, in hopes of stopping Greek incursion, requested help from Carthage. The Greeks, in turn, asked the Romans for aid and Hamilcar Barca, a noted Carthaginian leader, took most of Spain in the First Punic War. The Carthaginians continued invading Spain under Hannibal, son of Hamilcar, leading to a pivotal event in early Spanish history, the siege of a tiny Roman allied seaport, Sagunto. When Hannibal besieged the village in 219 BC they found themselves without any assistance from Rome. Realizing they were in an untenable situation, and not considering surrender as an alternative, they lit a bonfire and the women, children, ailing and elderly hurled themselves onto it. The men made a heroic last stand and this battle marked the opening of the Second Punic War.

When the Romans recaptured the city five years later they honored it by erecting a number of temples, monuments and a theater. A restored first-century AD, 165-ft. in diameter, theater in the town is worth a visit as are the ruins of the castle. The Castillo de Sagunto is situated atop the original location of the town and has visible ruined remains of the past inhabitants including the Moors. The Theater has been declared a National Monument. Sagunto was known until 1877 as Murviedro, “old walls,” a name given to it by the Moors.

Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Major defeated Hannibal and the Roman conquest of Spain began. The Romans ruled Spain for six centuries. In 406 AD the Vandals move into Spain but were driven into Africa by the Visigoths who ruled over the majority of the country by 550 AD.

In 711 AD an army of 10,000 Moors, under the command of Tariq ibn-Ziyad, entered Spain by crossing the Strait of Gibraltar to defeat Visigoth King Roderic in the Battle of Guadalete. Tariq landed on Gibraltar to assemble his forces before moving onward. The rock was referred to as Jebal Tarik, the Mountain of Tarik,” from which it gets its present name.  They conquered the majority of the country by 722 AD, leaving only lesser northern Christian kingdoms unconquered. The Islamic Moors would rule the country they called Al-Andalus for the following 700-years.

Madrid, the capitol of Spain, is situated near the geographic center of the country. It is accessible by air and rail and is an ideal orientation point for visits throughout the country. The number and variety of world-class museums afford visitors a unique opportunity to begin to understand the depth and scope of the country’s history and culture. Sadly, there is little tangible evidence of the Moorish occupation of the city but there are signs of their influence throughout the city.

Archeological excavations prove that the area that is now Madrid has been settled since the Paleolithic Era. Excavated objects are on view in the National Archeological Museum founded in 1867. Visits begin with an audiovisual presentation and proceed through 11 themed permanent galleries and a current temporary exhibition, “The Alhambra,” focused on the masterpiece of Moorish architecture.

Some believe that the earliest colony in the area was named Matrice. The Moors erected an Alcázar, Majerit, on a hill above the river they referred to as Manzanares al-Magrit. This fortress was designed for protection against invasion and lasted until Alfonso VI conquered Madrid in 1085. He decreed that the mosque within the fortress be purified with holy water and consecrated as a Catholic church. Remains of the Moorish city walls are visible in the Plaza de Oriente.

Philip II moved the capitol to Madrid from Toledo in 1561. Under Bourbon rule, the city expanded beyond what is now the old city. They were responsible for the building of larger edifices like those seen in other parts of Europe. Construction on Madrid’s Palecio Royale was as begun in 1738 on the site of the former Moorish Alcázar by Philip V. Italian architects designed the quadrilateral-shaped, 2800-room, 2200 window, complex completed in 1764. It is the largest building in the city. Visitors are limited in the number of areas they may tour but the highlights include the Staircase of Honor, the Campo del Moro Gardens, the Hall of Mirrors, the apartments of King Charles III, the Throne Room and the Royal Pharmacy. It features lavish furnishings, architecture and artworks by such masters as Goya, El Greco, Velázquez, and Caravaggio. The Camp of the Moors Gardens is so called because the Moors were encamped there during the 11th-century siege.

Tours are offered daily unless there is a special event. Visitors can select from a 45-minute guided tour for an additional fee or a self-guided tour. Arrive early because lines can be long.

Art has always held a position of prominence in Spain. The earliest examples of the country’s artistic heritage are pre-Ice Age petroglyphs found in the Cave of the Pool near Ronda. Creation, appreciation and the collecting of art continued throughout the various conquests and political upheavals. At the zenith of Spain’s Golden Era, the centuries of New World exploration and exploitation, the Spanish channeled the wealth they were accruing into the acquisition of all forms of art by the premiere artists in the world.

Spain today has one of the largest and most comprehensive art collections in the world. Museums throughout the country exhibit these masterpieces but Madrid’s museums boast more than their share. Visitors rarely have time to visit all the museums but there are three that are within the “Golden Triangle,” are walking distance of each other and should not be missed.

The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum exhibits the once private collection of Baron Hans Heinrich von Thyssen and his son. The collection was installed in the neoclassical Villahermosa Palace in 1992 and was purchased by the government a year later. At the time of its sale the Thyssen collection was the second largest private collection in the world and consisted of more than 1,400 paintings. In 2004, a new wing was added when his wife, Carmen Cervera, added her personal collection. Highlights of the collection include works by Picasso, Rubens, Hopper, Van Gogh, Gauguin, German Expressionism and Andalusian art. The museum has three floors with thematic galleries arranged around a central courtyard. Museum entrance is free on Mondays from noon until 4 PM.

Before entering the Reina Sofia Museum take time to sit in the exterior courtyard and admire the architecture. The museum is housed inside a former historic hospital with a façade made modern by two glass elevators on either side of the entrance. The collection is beyond impressive and includes a showing of a film by Luis Buñuel to supplement the art.

The showpiece here is Picasso’s “Guernica,” a Spanish Civil War protest painting. The painting was commissioned in 1937 by the Spanish government for a French exhibition. It hung in NY until 1981 because Picasso requested that the painting not be returned to Spain until democracy was reinstituted. The museum is free after 7 PM on Mondays and free, guided tours are offered several times a week.

A sculpture of Goya greets you outside the entrance to the Museo Nacional del Prado. The internationally renowned Prado was originally established as the Royal Museum of Painting and Sculpture in 1816 as a repository for the art collection of the kings. The Prado, the largest museum in the country, has a permanent collection of more than 8,000 paintings and one of the largest sculpture collections on the continent dating from the 1100s to the 19th-century. The collection is so vast that visitors should decide exactly which artworks they must see and go there first. The permanent collection is spread over three floors and 10 subdivisions. The gallery guide is excellent with masterpieces listed pictorially with gallery location.

Many consider “Las Meninas” Velazquez’ masterpiece and the most important Spanish painting. There is always a crowd but I suggest you add this remarkable work to your list and be certain to view it from several angles. Other works I consider important are Goya’s “The Naked Maja” and “The Clothed Maja,” El Greco’s  “The Resurrection” and “The Adoration of the Shepherds” and the gallery filled with the profoundly disturbing “Black Paintings” by Goya. Goya painted these 14 paintings directly onto the walls of his home near the end of his life and there is no proof that he ever exhibited them.

Spain’s most internationally famous citizen is a character created by Miguel de Cervantes and visitors can still encounter Don Quixote and the faithful Sancho Panza in the Plaza Espana. Behind their bronze, sculpted, figures sits Cervantes book in hand. A figure depicting fame tops the monument while five women personifying the five continents are also represented.

Sooner or later, every visitor passes through the Plaza Mayor. Originally the area was a marketplace but in 1617 Philip III hired architect Juan Gómez de la Mora to build the plaza. It has been reconstructed several times and today is a 394-ft. by 295-ft. rectangle with 237 balconies. The 1590 Casa de la Panaderia, the most striking building, has the coat of arms of Charles II on its façade as well as detailed murals. An equestrian statue of Philip III is in the square’s center. This is a great spot for photo ops.

Just off the Plaza Mayor you can dine in the Restaurant Botin, the oldest continuously operated restaurant in the country. Hemingway and Goya have dined here on the classic fare. Tours are offered to diners.

The Monastery and Site of the Escurial, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984 was completed in 1581, was one of the first Renaissance buildings in Spain and was considered the eigth wonder of the world. Philip II began its construction after a victory at the Battle of St. Quentin. The complex honors the martyrdom of St. Lawrence who was slowly grilled over an open fire. The design of the monastery replicates a grill with Philip II’s Royal Palace forming the handle and four 190-ft. towers representing the feet. The granite monastery is 676-ft. x 528-ft.

The Royal Apartment of Philip II is austere. It overlooks the church enabling him to worship as he died in this room in 1598 of gangrene. The sedan chair used to transport the king in his final days is also on view. The church forms a Greek cross with four central pillars each 100-ft. high. The largest of the church’s more than 40 altars is the 100-ft. high altar.

Do not miss Philip’s 1581 library on the second floor. It initially contained 10,000 volumes and more than 2500 manuscripts, many preserved by and purchased from Muslim scholars. The shelves are made of exotic woods and special cases contain extremely rare items including a fifth-century text by St. Augustine. Tibaldi painted the 16th-century ceiling frescoes. Many of the volumes are in Arabic and were brought to Spain in the seventh-century by North African monks who deserve much credit for Spain not entering a “Dark Age.” The library is organized by ideas based on the seven liberal arts.

Directly beneath the high altar lies the octagonal Royal Pantheon containing identical Baroque caskets placed in marble niches, the remains of Spanish royalty. An adjacent “rotting room” is used to hold the bodies for 30-years before they are given a place in the main crypt.

There is always more to see in Madrid, but we will be heading to Toledo via the countryside that was familiar to Don Quixote. As we cross La Mancha we will have great views of the countryside and the iconic windmills.

I wish you smooth travels!

Travel Tips:

Philadelphians can experience their very own cherry blossoms in Fairmount Park at the traditional Shofuso Japanese House and Garden beginning Saturday, March 28. Aside from the sheer beauty of the venue a variety of programs are planned including an archeological dig, Japanese Garden Workshop, lecture series and Nodate Cherry Blossom Tea. Information is available online.

“Attacks on America: The Fight Against Terrorism and Hate Crimes” opens in Washington, DC at the Crime Museum on March 18, 2015. The exhibit focuses on terrorist attacks committed on American soil including Hate Crimes. Featured artifacts will include a Klan robe and rope from a lynching, a rifle confiscated from the Virginia Jihad Network, and letters penned by the Unabomber. The aim of the exhibit is to educate and raise the level of awareness regarding these threats.

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