Author Archives: Miguel Gomez

About Miguel Gomez

Historian of Medieval Iberia

Vienna, First Impressions


Prince Eugene of Savoy, the Empire’s most successful general.  Not Austrian.

European capitals basically reflect the era in which their country, kingdom, nation-state peaked in power and wealth.  For Austria, of course, that means the eighteenth and nineteenth century, when the Habsburg monarchy was at its height.  Or at least at its Austria-only height, as before that, during the real apex of Habsburg power, the focus was Spain.


So, as a result, Vienna is an imperial, baroque nightmare.  The city is grandiose and ornate.  The Hofburgcomplex, once palaces and gardens and now public buildings and parks, dominates the center of the old city.  It is impressive to look at.


The Michaelplatz side of the Hofburg

I worked in the Österreichische Nationalbiblothekfor a couple of days this week, which is housed on the Heldenplatz side of the Hofburg.


Yes, all that is the library.

It is rather imposing, and slightly difficult to use.  While requesting books is straightforward enough, and the collection is absolutely massive, the reading rooms sorely lack for space, and one has to pay a 3€ daily use fee (or 30 per year).  These things ought to be free.


Otherwise, I did not get a chance to see a lot in Vienna.  The city is expensive, especially if you stay inside the urban core.  The beer is simple and good, which as the unusual craft beer malcontent, I welcomed. The food is interesting.  If, like a normal person, you find fried veal abhorrent and fried pork OK but a little dull, the best alternative I found is the abundant Turkish food.  The irony of eating “oriental” food in the heart of the empire most challenged by the Turks is just a nice bonus.  Also, there is a “wienerwurst” stand off the Stephansplatz that claims to be the original hot dog stand, for what it is worth (mediocre hot dog).

From the perspective of a medievalist, Vienna is a little disappointing. There isn’t a lot.  Domkirche St. Stephanis an awesome fourteenth-century gothic pile, but c’mon, the second half of the 1300s might as well be the seventeenth century—barely medieval.


St. Stephan’s Cathedral

At least part of the façade of the twelfth century church survives (from the original church built by Duke Henry II; more on him below).  There is one other gothic church, in a section of the city which used to house the docks along the Danube, dedicated to the Virgin.  The Rathaus (delightful German word for city hall) is a Neo-gothic beauty, but again, it reflects the nineteenth century grandeur of the Empire, and not Vienna’s medieval past.


The Rathaus decorated for Pride Week

One of the oldest churches in town (1155), belonging to the Schottenstift, has, like most things medieval, been built over in baroque style.


Apparently ecru or pale yellow was the color of baroque architecture.

The monastery and church are so-called because this was an Irish monastic foundation. Unfortunately, the only medieval section which is preserved, the “Romanesque chapel”, is closed most days of the week.  Still, the church and monastery are pretty interesting, since it is one of the few places with direct connection to the Babenberg dukes inside the city, having been founded by Henry II.  Since I am in Austria to study these dukes and their era (twelfth and thirteenth century), I was particularly interested to see this church.  There is a nice statue of Henry II “Jasomirgott”.


Well, Jasomirgott may have been the first duke… but I don’t think he wore a crown!

Henry was the first scion of House Babenberg to rule as duke, not just margrave, having received the Privilegium Minus from Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in 1156. The Privilegiumwas essentially an internal political rearrangement made by Frederick to come to terms with his Welf rivals.  The result, however, was to elevate the eastern marcher territories of the Holy Roman Empire to an independent duchy and, eventually, independent of the rest of Germany.  Frederick and Henry were apparently army buddies from their shared experiences during the Second Crusade.  Both nearly died trying to cross Anatolia when the German crusaders were relentlessly hammered by the Seljuks.

Henry’s nickname, “Jasomirgott” may stem from his status as a crusader– it appears to come from a middle-high German phrase meaning “so help me God”.  Henry is buried in the church of the Schottenstift. So, Henry and his Irish monastery were the most interesting “medieval” thing I saw on my first trip to Vienna.  Also, there was a man selling outstanding local cherries in the platzin front of the Schottenstift, always a bonus.


My on-going quest for the platonic ideal.

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Córdoba- Sinagoga

N.B. Continuing with the clearinghouse of old, unpublished blog posts, this from May 2016…


Obviously not the synagogue

No trip to Andalucía would be complete without a visit to the center of the Caliphate, melting under the sun in the middle of the Guadalquivir valley, and so I took the students on a lovely 100-degree-plus day in early June.  This was my third visit to the city.

I have written about Córdoba before (on this blog, in 2009 originally), and don’t have a lot to add.  The only site we visited which I had not previously seen was the fourteenth century synagogue in the heart of the judería.  This tiny building perfectly replicated the Andalucian architectural style which surrounded it in the Middle Ages.  It also incorporated all of the traditional elements of a synagogue, including the women’s gallery above, and the ark/niche for the Torah scrolls.



Women’s gallery


Torah scrolls went here

Our trip was somewhat marred by an idiot of a bus driver, who, despite repeating them to me, misunderstood my directions for pickup.  He also gave me the wrong number for his mobile phone, and so it took us an hour or more to find him and successfully leave the city.  A valuable lesson for the future: don’t trust that the bus drivers know what they are doing.

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N.B.  I am adding some old material that I wrote for the blog sometime back, but never managed to publish.  I was inspired to start with this post, which is from June 2016, because I am in the middle of a very similar experience…


On a whim, I contact the monastery of Poblet to see if they happened to have any vacancy in their HostageriaInterna, that is the hostel inside the monastery.  As a Cistercian house, they take seriously the responsibility of hospitality, and so after convincing Fra. Borje, the hostager, that I was not some creep, I was off to live with the White Monks for 24 hours.


Santa Maria de Poblet was founded by the Cisterican Order in 1151. It quickly became one of the most important monasteries in the Order; it was directly dependent upon Morimond, one of the chief Cistercian houses.  It also became of central importance to the Crown of Aragón.


Eventually, Alfonso II, Jaume I and a half-dozen other kings of Aragón chose to be buried there, beside the high altar.  Jaume entered the monastery and took vows ad sucurrendum.  The practice was popular amongst the nobility in the twelfth and thirteenth century and while cynical to modern eyes, I think reflected, at least on the part of kings, a genuine effort to reconcile their often contradictory spiritual and political selves.

It turns out that the Hostageriatakes people ad sucurrendumas well, so to speak.  The monastic hospitality is aimed at people (well, men) looking for a place of spiritual retreat and comfort during crises and difficult times. The monks even appeared to be counseling one of the two other gentlemen who were availing themselves of the monastery. When I contacted Fr. Borje, he was reluctant to accept my request, but I convinced him that my interest was deep, and that I was not just coming to take pictures.

The Hostageriais in a small house, probably dating to the sixteenth century repairs and upgrades to the monastery, very much inside the inner walls.  The outer walls enclose the monastery’s vineyards, attached hotel (the Hostageria externa), and the visitor center. The inner walls surround the church, cloisters, monastic residence and the guest house.  To reach the inner compound, I had to pass through the portageria, talk to the portero, and then wait for Borje to meet me.  The busy monastic schedule meant that he could only admit guests between breakfast and midday prayers or between lunch and vespers.  My arrival time, delayed by a horrible line at the Barcelona airport car rental office, fell squarely in the afternoon.

Borje was, I think, about my age, perhaps slightly older.  Though he is from Barcelona, and, like most of the monks, a Catalan, he spoke flawless Castellano, and we chatted pleasantly.  He grew up in the El Born neighborhood of the city, but had been in the monastery for over a decade.  I did not pry too far into his background, but he told me he still goes home for visits regularly.  He was warm and friendly, but also immediately pointed out the monastery’s schedule, and the importance of punctuality.  He also mentioned that, while not technically sworn to silence, the monastic community preferred to live in quiet solitude.  I could speak to him, and the brother who manned the portageria, but otherwise I was told to let the monks talk to me, if they were so inclined, but not to address them.  After seeing me to the simple room, he left, saying “receuerdes visperos, a las siete en la iglesia, puntual por favor”.

Vespers is the evening prayer service of the monastery.  Historically, following Saint Benedict, the monks prayed 8 hours a day (matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers, compline). The Cistercian Order, in the twelfth century, were strict observers of the Regula (Rule of Saint Benedict), but their modern descendants are not quite as strict.  The monks at Poblet today have 6 services throughout their day. IMG_7650 Vespers, the traditional evening prayer, is at 7pm.  When the bell rang, about 2 minutes before, I walked up from the guesthouse, into the magnificent twelfth century cloister, and then in the monk’s door to the church itself.  Vespers, Lauds, and the Mass are popular with visitors and people staying in the Hostageria externa, and so for those services, guests of the Hostageria internaare observers from the church pews.  The monks themselves (all 17 of the 18, one played the organ) sit in the choir, towards the front of the church.  As with all the hours, the ceremony consisted of the monks singing part of the cycle of the Psalms, the spiritual focus of monastic life.  The psalms and antiphons are chanted in Catalan. Somewhat surprisingly, at least to me, only some hymns, and the Gloria responses were sung in Latin.  Readings from the Bible were also in Catalan.  Thanks, Vatican 2, for diminishing my medieval experience!

Next came supper, and again, the 1300-year-old influence of Benedict was clear.  The Regula reads “Therefore let two cooked dishes suffice for all the brethren;
and if any fruit or fresh vegetables are available, let a third dish be added.”  My experience broadly conformed.  We walked from the church into the cloister, and then into the refectory at 7:30 sharp. The refectory is frequently among the most striking parts of a Cistercian monastery.  The high ceilings and windows, combined with their extremely austere aesthetics is interesting.  The 80-foot-long room had ceilings which peaked more than 40 feet overhead.  The room otherwise had a low door on the left into the kitchen, a pulpit from which one monk would read during meals, and a low bench for utensils in the middle of the room, near a medieval (not working) well.  The lower walls were trimmed in dark wood benches, with dark wood tables in front.  I was directed towards a table near the front with the other guests.  Dinner consisted of some sort of cabbage and bean dish, tortilla (Española), and hard brown bread.  Cherries for dessert, which worked for me.  Throughout dinner one of the monks read an article about theology from the pulpit positioned halfway up the right wall of the refectory.

Dinner ended promptly at 8:30, and we all exited the refectory together.  After a few minutes of milling in the cloister, we gathered on the north arcade for the lecture.  The evening air was just starting to get pretty chilly, and sitting on the stone benches did not help much.  I began to understand how the monks could wear their white tunics and black scapulars: even in mid-June, the nights at Poblet are chilly.  And older member of the community read a couple of passages from the Bible for about 10 minutes before the bell rang for Complines.

The evening office was considerably more interesting in that the guests of the Hostageria interna were allowed to participate with the monks in the choir of the church.  One of the other guests, an older gentleman who was exceedingly kind to me, showing me where in the hymnal and psalter I could find the text for the service. Being up close and personal with the monks, sitting and standing with them as they proceeded through the psalms, and reading a long with them brought the whole thing to life in a far more profound way than sitting in the pews had for Vespers.

Compline ended by about 9:30, and despite the fact that sunset was still an hour away, the inner gates of the monastery were closed, and the monks retired.  Luckily, I found myself tired enough to also fall asleep somewhat early, but not before a walk along the walls to admire the gathering evening.


Borje had hinted to me the day before that we were not compelled to join in all of the monastic offices, and I believe specifically he had the 5:15 AM Matins in mind. Nevertheless, I woke in the cold dark and stumbled to the church as the bell started ringing.  Like Compline, I was able to sit in the choir stalls and participate in the ceremony.  Two of the monks greeted me, and showed me the proper places in the hymnal and psalter to find the morning readings.  Borje, who led most of the antiphonal chants, encouraged me to sing along.  I tried, but was much more comfortable simply reading along with their chanting. The church was mostly dark, but over the 45-minute-long service, the sky began to lighten perceptibly, and by the time the appointed psalms had been sung, the church was glowing faintly in the morning light.  It was again an impressionistic experience.

Morning offices continued apace quickly.  After briefly retreating to my room, it was time for Laudes.  The dawn service actually falls somewhat after dawn in midsummer, and is of sufficient interest to draw a few of the hotel guests to the church to watch.  As a result, it was back to the pews for the guests.  I found myself struggling to stay awake for the service.

At 8 AM sharp, we headed back to the refectory for breakfast.  Breakfast was somewhat of a self-service affair, as we found the central bench laid out with cereal, yogurt, and bread.  After grabbing some bread and cereal, I retreated to my table, hoping that the coffee would present itself shortly.  Sure enough, one of the monks came out of the kitchen with a carafe wrapped in a napkin, approached the table, and asked “quieres café?”  I am confident enough in my Catalan to know what he was asking, and so I gave an enthusiastic nod.  Smiling, the man poured hot coffee, pre-mixed with milk… all over my cereal.  This unexpected twist brought on a moment of panic on my part.  Here I was in a Cistercian monastery in Cataluña, that is to say nearly out of my linguistic and cultural depth.  I assumed I had made some sort of mistake, until I glanced at my fellow guest, who was contentedly slurping down his coffee-cereal slurry.  The coffee-bearing brother had already moved on to repeat his bizarre breakfast concoction for the monks, and so I relaxed and accepted the situation.  Of course coffee over corn flakes is about as good as you might imagine, which is to say not good.  It isn’t undrinkable (or uneatable?), but it isn’t really two great tastes that taste great together.  Reflecting on this unusual breakfast choice, I can only conclude that, as individuals cloistered away from the real world, monks get confused about how things work for regular people.

The busy Sunday morning continued with a full Mass at 10 AM.  Like Laudes, the Mass attracted many visitors, and so once again I was relegated to the pews.  For some reason I was surprised to find that the Mass was much the same as any Catholic mass.  The presiding monks (the abbot and two others, who wore green scapulars denoting their role as priests) were quick and efficient with the service, and one even gave a very brief homily (in Catalan).

Other than all that, I got to tour the monastery, which is beautiful, and flanked by vineyards in which the monks work.IMG_7646

Architecturally, the twelfth-century cloister was the most impressive part, after the church, where I could not take pictures.IMG_7661All things considered, it was an amazing experience.  I did have to wait nearly two hours after lunch to leave, as Borges had disappeared with the gate keys, but other than the slight delay, I enjoyed my live Cistercian experience.

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Dusting off the blog…

Wow, nothing since November. Typical, I supposed, but here I am six months later, in the midst of another Europe trip.  I didn’t add anything to the blog from my second trip to Mexico this past winter.  Too much beer.  But I am going to try to add a few posts this trip.  I am visiting Austria for the first time, which should give me plenty to talk about.  Italy and Spain as well.


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Residencia de Estudiantes

For the final four nights of this unusual but lucky quick trip to Spain, I stayed in the Residencia de Estudiantes, an institution which I knew nothing about before this week.

Though founded in 1910, the current campus, part of CSIC, was opened in 1915 and, it seems, amplified in the early 1930s. The Residencias were opened by the Junta para amplicifacion de Estudiantes, in order to provide a hub for intellectual life in Madrid, and accommodations for visiting academics, artists, writers, etc.

The glory days were the 1920s and 1930s. Guest from that era include some obvious Spanish luminaries like Miguel de Unamuno, José Ortega y Gasset, and Gabriel García Lorca, but also some notable extranjeros like Albert Einstein and Marie Curie.

The Residencia rooms are spartan but comfortable enough. The building is old but renovated. The restaurant was pleasant (especially the breakfast), and the bar a nice touch.

On the other hand, there was some super bourgeois event for Hyundai, celebrating the introduction of 4WD compacts to the Spanish market, because everyone needs an off-road Hyundai. Apparently important people attended, judging by the photographers and ambiance of the whole thing. It likely brings in the money for CSIC, but strikes me as not in the spirit of the place.

Anyway, this was a very interesting part of the trip. When I first heard that the Residencia Estudiantes was to be our accommodation, I was expecting a dorm. It is not perhaps much more than a dorm, but it is certainly filled with interesting history.

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Sant Pau del Camp

Barcelona is full of relatively well-preserved ancient and medieval sites, but I believe the small Benedictine monastery of Sant Pau del Camp is my favorite.


Sant Pau del Camp

The existing buildings are from the twelfth and early thirteenth century, but the original church on the site dates back to the tenth century.  It may have been founded by the second count of Barcelona, Wifred II (r. 897-911), son of Wifred the Hairy.  His tombstone was discovered in the monastery during sixteenth century restorations.


Wifred II’s tombstone

The original foundation was destroyed by al-Mansur in 985, and the replacement church was not begun for some time.  By 1098, a local noble family of the Bell-Lloc region had completed the restoration of the church, and it was a Benedictine monastery by 1117.  It was never a big monastery– seven monks at the height.  But the community added a lovely, if small, cloister by the thirteenth century.


Hunting scene in the capital of one of the pillars of the cloister. Other scenes include Adam & Eve and Saint George and the Dragon.

The church itself is a romanesque treasure.  The tympanum of the main door is especially nice.


The tetramorphs are my favorite part.

Overall, Saint Pau del Camp is a fantastic example of just how much of Barcelona’s medieval heritage survives.  It is striking for a large city, especially one that experienced the vicissitudes of the Guerra Civil.  This is not the most impressive monastery in Spain, but it is the most impressive monastery inside a very large city in Spain.

Citations:  Many of the dates cited here come curtesy of Paul Freedman, “A Privilege of Pope Alexander III for Sant Pau del Camp (Barcelona)”, Archivum Historiae Pontificiae 31 (1998), 255-63.

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Having driven back and forth past Antequera a number of times, I decided to take a day and visit this central city of Andalucía, as it bills itself.

Antequera is, like most small towns in the region, a beautiful cluster of white houses surrounding a monumental zone built on a hill, a classic acropolis.  Unlike the relatively late foundation of Almería, Antequera is a very ancient city, and so it nicely fits the pattern of ancient Mediterranean urban development.  It was an Iberian city, Anticaria,  part of the so-called Turdetani region during the middle of the first millennium BC.  But in fact, Antequera is rather more ancient than that.  The city is home to three important dolmens, or megalithic tombs. One of the, the Romeral dolmen, is dated to the early second millennia BC, and is oriented towards the nearby El Torcal rock formations (more below). Two of them, the dolmens of Menga and Viera, date back to before 3500 BC, similar to other neolithic era passage tombs, like Newgrange in Ireland.  The Viera dolmen is, like most other European passage tombs, oriented towards the dawn on the equinoxes.  The Menga dolmen is oriented towards the nearby Peña de los Enamorados, a distinctive mountain. Sadly the dolmen site was closed, and I could not visit the tombs.

I was able to visit the old city itself, however.  Not a lot remains of the Roman town.  The best preserved ruins are the baths.


The Roman baths, including mosaic covers over the preserved mosaics of fish and the god Oceanus.

The rest of the Roman sites were largely built over, with the possible exception of the main gate into the alcazaba.  It is known as the “gate of giants” due to the statue of Hercules and local Roman notables that used to crown it.  The legs of Hercules remain.


Arco de los Gigantes, with the Peña de los Enamorados visible in the background.

The interior of the alcazaba contains within its walls the old Roman acropolis, and perhaps some Visigothic ruins as well, all completely ruined during the French occupation around 1810.  What is preserved is the castillo itself, restored and expanded after the conquest of the city in 1410.


The fifteenth century bastions of the alcazar, on top of the thirteenth and fourteenth century walls, on top of Roman fortifications.

The siege and capture of the city was the work of Fernando, prince and regent of Castilla, who earned the epithet de Antequera for his trouble, and the crown of Aragón a few years later.


Fernando with the alcazaba above.

Fernando became regent of Castilla in 1406 when his brother Enrique III died.  Alongside his brother’s English widow, Catherine of Lancaster, he protected the throne of his young nephew, Juan II.  Fernando took control of the southern half of the kingdom, and decided to put the potentially-disruptive nobility to work eroding the frontier with Granada.  The siege of Antequera began in April of 1410.  The walls were breached in the southeast quadrant of the arrabal in September.  After defeating a Granada relief army, the siege was over.


The site of the Castilian breach.

Fernando, unlike his namesake who would complete the conquest of the Nasrid kingdom, showed leniency, and allowed the citizens of Antequera, huddled in the alcazaba, to negotiate their surrender.  All who could were allowed to decamp for nearby  Archidona, or elsewhere in Granada.  The city established a remarkably sympathetic monument to the expulsion of the Muslim population.


Remembering the exile.

The mosque was, of course, preserved and converted into a church but was sadly destroyed along with much of the top of the alcazaba during French occupation.


This was a three-aisle mosque. Not much left.

Antequera remained a frontier city and military headquarters for the rest of the fifteenth century.  The process of repoblacion appears to have proceeded slowly, with fewer than three-thousand people reoccupying the city in those years.  The city began to expand more quickly in the sixteenth century, once the war with the Nasrid kingdom was ended, but an interesting bit of trivia in the history of the alcazaba speaks to the continued difficulty of life for the citizens.


Torre de Papabellotas

In 1582, the cabildo (town council) decided to build a bell and clock tower onto the alcazaba, to bring a touch of modern life to the city.  Clocks were, of course, an expensive novelty in the 1500s, and so the council had to raise funds to pay for their project.  In order to do so, they sold the groves of Encinas (ilex oaks) that grew on the flanks of the alcazaba and the walled parts of the city.  These groves were, as was customary in the medieval world, common property.  The citizens of Antequera in fact relied on the oaks for part of their subsistence, gathering the acorns to prepare what must have been an unpalatable stew, papabellotas. One imagines they gathered firewood and grazed pigs under the oaks as well.  Indeed, usufruct rights in the forests was a regular part of the subsistence strategy of peasants and commoners everywhere.  But this was the sixteenth century, and the modern world was already beginning to vanquish the old ways.  Thomas More had already written, some 65 years earlier, about “sheep devouring men” in his Utopia.  Cervantes himself was doubtlessly already formulating his own epic about the changing world which left poverty and cynicism in its wake.  The Diggers of England would make their own challenge to the dispossession of forest rights barely 60 years later.  And so the dispossessed people of Antequera dubbed the new clock tower the torre de papabellotas.  The tourist literature of 2017 presents this as a quaint nickname, though no doubt the original appellation was intended to be a cynical criticism, not a cute homage.


Papabellotas: not a good story.

There is one quaint story associated with the history of the city.  The unusual promontory called Peña de los Enamorados, which basically translates as “lovers’ leap” is so-called because of the story of interfaith love and suicide in the Middle Ages.  In the nearby town of Archidona (on the far side of the Peña from Antequera), the daughter of a wealthy family fell in love with a Christian soldier kept prisoner in the town.  She schemed to free this young man, and the two fled together away from Archidona.  Her upset parents sent out search parties, and the young couple hid on the mountain.  Fearing that, once they were inevitably captured, the escaped soldier would be executed, the two decided to leap to their deaths.  I am sure the dolmen-builders had a more dramatic story associated with this distinctive piece of geography, but at least this story doesn’t blithely gloss over tragedy.


Peña de los Enamorados: a better story.

The sixteenth century also saw the construction of much of the city’s religious architecture.  The most impressive church is the Real Colegiata, started by Fernando de Antequera, but only finished in 1550.  Clinging to the side of the alcazaba, it is an impressive church.


Real Colegiata de Santa María el Mayor

Below in the city an impressive parish church dedicated to San Sebastian was completed, also in the middle of the sixteenth century, as the arms of Carlos V attest.  The eighteenth-century bell tower is remarkably Aragonese-Mudéjar in style.


Iglesia de San Sebastian

Antequera is an attractive city, truly a gem of the ciudades medianas de Andalucía, as it bills itself.  Worth a visit, and I look forward to seeing neighboring Archidona in the future.

My visit to Antequera ended with a drive through the mountain range to the south, called El Torcal.  The range is made of unusual and impressive weathered limestone.  It was a sea floor at one point, pushed up during tectonic activity after the Jurassic period.  I would love to return with more time for proper hiking and exploring.

IMG_9997 (1)

El Torcal de Antequera


El Torcal de Antequera

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Walking Madrid’s city walls

From the perspective of a medievalist, Madrid doesn’t necessarily have a lot to offer.  Like many big, modern cities, Madrid has had much of its past paved over, rebuilt, dismantled, or otherwise sacrificed in the name of progress.  The same sort of thing has happened in Paris, London, etc.  The problem for Madrid is somewhat compounded by the fact that medieval Madrid was simply not a very large city, with few significant monuments or landmarks.  The ones it did possess, like its castle and mosque, are today buried under their later replacements, the Palacio Real and the Almudena Cathedral.

So there is not a lot left of Mayrit, which was never really much more than a frontier fortress of al-Andalus.  It was largely a product of the military organization of the emir Muhammad I (852-886), who fortified the region both to defend against Christian incursions from the north and to pacify internal disorder, a regular issue for Córdoba.  But, as an al-mudayna (fortified precinct, from whence the term Almudena comes), Mayrit was surrounded by walls.  Some of them are still visible below the cathedral.


Ninth century walls visible in the very modern Parque Muhammad I, below the Almudena cathedral.


Another angle

The park also features a scale-model of the city and its original walled precinct.


Model of walls, Parque Muhammad I

The walls were expanded considerably in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, after Mayrit passed into the hands of Alfonso VI of Castilla/León, along with the rest of the taifa of Toledo in 1085.  The circuit of those walls is visible in the layout of the streets which run from the Parque Muhammad I, south across the Cuesta de la Vega, and then southeast towards Calle de los Mancebos.


A bit of the wall is visible on Calle de los Mancebos

The wall then turns east through what is now the Plaza de San Andres (the original incarnation of the church was at the edge of the city walls), and then directly through the Museo de San Isidro. The museum has a nice exhibit on the walls as well, but it is not clear whether the famous campesino saint himself lived outside or inside the walls.  The museum preserves a chapel which is said to stand on the site of his home, which lays inside the circuit of these twelfth-century walls.  The walls would have been built right in the middle of the Isidro’s lifetime (1070-1130).

The walls continue down the Calle de Cava Baja, with the curve of the street quite clearly conforming to the old fortifications.  The trace of the walls is preserved in the playground which lies between Cava Baja and Calle del Almendro 17.


The shadow of a tower in the playground brickwork.

The route of the wall continues onto Calle Cava de San Miguel, and crosses the Calle Mayor somewhere around the Plaza Comandante las Morenas. It then proceeds straight downhill along Calle de la Escalanita, where again the layout of the street clearly reflects the course of the wall.



Old fortification stones visible in the side of the extant buildings on Calle de la Escalanita.

The walls then turn across the Plaza Isabella II, likely right through the current Royal Opera House, and then reconnect to the old fortifications in the Plaza del Oriente.  One of the towers which connected the Andalusian walls to the Christian-era walls is visible in the parking garage underneath the Plaza.


Tower and corner of the walls in the Plaza de Oriente parking garage.

Walking the circuit of the walls is a great way to get a sense for the size and layout of medieval Madrid, and to also get a clear sense of how the city expanded in the sixteenth century.  It was also a nice chance to get to know the neighborhood of La Latina  a little more.  Next post is on the origins of the neighborhood’s name.

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I visit another Spanish-speaking country.

Mexico, Quintana Roo, Tulum.  Complicated place this.  It is one part resort-like beach experience, one part neat beach town, and one part terribly poor community.  

The beach, while white-sand and pleasant, was quite crowded.  We paid money to go on a snorkeling trip that took us out to a very crowded reef for about 45 minutes. The guide yelled at us to stay together the whole time, and I got kicked in the head by tourists with Go Pro cameras every time something interesting appeared.  Bad experience.  On the other hand, we sat at some relatively low-key resort all day, drank beer, ate lunch, and I think had a $60 tab for five people.  So there is that.

The town of Tulum itself is home to some fantastic little bars and restaurants, many of them specializing in Pastor tacos. Food and drinks are cheap and tasty.  However, the poverty is troubling.  There are a large number of people squatting in the jungle and trying to carve out homes there.  They are constantly surrounded by garbage.  The police ride around in pickup trucks brandishing weapons. The juxtaposition with the tourism is stark, and one can’t help but be ultra-aware of one’s privilege here.  I will try to get some more pictures and try to describe my thoughts on this further later.  Also I am going to go check out the Mayan ruins.  More to come.

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I visited Granada before, in 2010.  On that visit, we did the usual things: the Alhambra, the Cathedral, the Albaraizin.  This trip, I can’t say that I did a lot more, but it was nevertheless interesting.


My visit to Granada was actually in two parts.  The first was a day trip organized by the Insituto Malaca. We began with a brief walk through the Albaraizin, stopping at the Mirador de San Nicolas, in order to take the obligatory amazing picture.


San Nicolas itself is an interesting church, as it is definitely built over an old mosque.  It was one of the first churches built after the conquest of the city in 1492, but is currently closed ad undergoing reforms.  The bell tower is very clearly a minaret, and not the only one in the Albaraizin.


We then ran quickly down the hill to the cathedral, but briefly. The cathedral itself is a sixteenth century monstrosity, built over the site of the city’s congregational mosque.  Much of the work was commissioned and overseen by Charles V.  Sadly, there was no time to take the students inside, just to pose for a couple of pictures.


After an interesting bus ride through the old city, we arrived at our appointed restaurant in the Sacramonte, Cuevas de ?.  The restaurant, owned and run by a Gypsy family of Flamenco dancers, was recently made famous by a visit from the Obama family, a fact they were eager to share.  After a good but unremarkable lunch in the dining cave, we moved next door to another cave for a short but impressive Flamenco show.  I have studiously avoided Flamenco shows, as the overwhelming majority are over-priced tourist traps, but this was a great experience.  The dancers were professionals, and the setting, in the Sacromonte felt appropriate.  Granada is the home to Flamenco, after all.


We were next whisked off to a guided tour of the Alhambra, which was, on balance, not quite as good as the unguided tour on my first visit to the castle.  But it merits its own post, which I will do shortly.

The second part of my Granada experience came a couple of days later, when I returned to visit my friend Mayte Green Mercado.  Mayte was teaching in Granada for the semester, and so had a chance to get to know the city, and took me by some interesting sites.

We first popped in to the Capilla Real, the side chapel of the Cathedral where Fernando and Isabella are buried.  Their ornate tombs, as well as those of their daughter Juana la Loca, and her husband Philip of Burgundy, are most impressive.  They were moved here during the reign of Charles V, from their original resting place in the small church within the precinct of the Alhambra.  They were the last Iberian monarchs to follow the medieval pattern of choosing to be buried at the site of their southernmost conquest.

We also very briefly visited the scant remains of the city madrasa, just across the street from the Cathedral.  The madrasa, built by the Nasrid rulers in the fourteenth century, is today part of the University of Granada.  We also had a moment to stick our heads in a fifteenth century caravansary that also still stands in the heart of the building.  Sadly I was unable to photograph any of this because the places were closing up around us.

We went back un through the Albaraicin, which is clearly the city’s most attractive neighborhood, once again the Mirador of San Nicolas.  However, this time Mayte pointed out something just as interesting as the famous views of the Alhambra:  the city’s new mosque.


The new mosque was recently opened, after a campaign of more than twenty years to convince the city government and the neighborhood to accept it, and the Muslim community.  Surprisingly, the Muslim community of this mosque is not made up principally of North African immigrants, but Spanish converts to Islam.  The Spanish Muslim community began to grow in the 1960s, when a handful of people converted (the 1960s were that sort of time).  But since then the community has grown, slowly but steadily.  The mosque was largely financed by Emirate donations, but it appears that the community have gone out of their way to make sure it fits in its Andalucian context.  I had no clue something like this existed.

Finally, we ducked through one of the old gates… IMG_7419 and visited another spot above the Albaraicin, where the Taifa era city walls (twelfth century) are visible.


I was impressed at just how much medieval Granada really does survive. Thanks Mayte!


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