Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Carnevale in Venezia

Our weekend to the Venezia Carnevale began on the wrong foot. First, amid the confusion of exiting the train in Madrid, I walked off without my jacket and pashima. February in Venice without a jacket is not a good idea. Temperatures were expected to be in the low forties with the possibility of snow and rain. We have already experienced Venice in freezing weather, so heading off without a jacket seemed imprudent. Luckily, there was an El Corte Ingles (Spain’s answer to the department store) near the metro stop and I was able to buy an adequate replacement, so we were off to the airport. We arrived at the airport 1 ½ hours before our flight, which is where we met our next obstacle. Iberia Airlines informed us that they had oversold the flight, and that even though we had purchased our tickets months prior, we did not have seats. GRRRRR! This should be illegal! But we held our cool, and waited patiently (and not so patiently) as the Venice flight was delayed and then delayed again. Fortunately, we were at the front of the line, and Scott was able to sweet talk us seats on the plane and we were off to Venezia! See our pictures at: http://picasaweb.google.com/tohjnya1/Venezia_Carnival#

In Venice, the clerk at the Alilaguna counter informed us that the next boat to Venezia left in 5 minutes and that there was absolutely no way we could possibly make the boat as it was a long, cold walk from the airport. She suggested that we wait inside and catch the next boat, an hour later. “Alilaguna boats…” she proclaimed “are never late. This is not possible.” Scott and I looked at each other, it was very late. We decided to go for it. Sure enough, as the dock came into view, the boat pulled away. “Missed it by that much...” But the clerk at the dock told us another boat would be leaving in 20 minutes.

We arrived on the island of Venezia, just after midnight, fully expecting to find the island in full celebration, as we tried to muscle our suitcases across the island to our hotel. After all, this was Friday night in the middle of Carnevale. We exited the boat at the Rialto Bridge, and were met by dark, oddly quiet streets. Here and there, we saw confetti strewn on the ground, evidence of an earlier revel, but with the exception of a scant few people, the streets were deserted. We were puzzled. Most tour guide books suggest that the best way to navigate Venezia is to find the nearest landmark to your destination and follow the directional signs posted on the buildings toward that landmark. Our hotel was near Piazza San Marco, so we found the nearest directional sign for San Marco and began our trek across the island. For the most part following the directional signs work. The signs will get you to your destination… eventually, but the signs may not take the most direct route. In our case, in the wee hours of the morning, I am certain that we must have walked around in circles, several times. The signs pointed us down dark, sinister looking streets that I would not even consider walking down in Portland, let alone L.A. Some of the deserted streets and narrow alleys of Venice are just a tad unsettling in the middle of the night, while others are romantically beautiful. Eventually, we found our hotel, the Antico Panada. Actually, we walked past it while still looking for the Piazza. We checked in, and walked over to the Piazza. It just seemed wrong not to go to the Piazza, and besides, we were wondering where the legendary Carnevale celebrations were. But Piazza San Marco was largely empty, the stores locked up tight. (We will probably never see the Piazza this empty again.)

The next morning we decided (okay – I decided) that we should go to Murano. On one hand, I hated to leave Venezia, because we had come to experience the Carnevale, but none of the festivities were scheduled until later in the afternoon. Murano, for me, was a dream, so off we went. The Murano atmosphere simply breathes glass art. Glass has been its life blood since well before the 9th century. It is said that the early artisans were actually forbidden to leave the island to protect the Murano glass secrets from the outside world. Now that’s one way to protect your intellectual property! We stopped for a couple of glass blowing demos, which were mostly show, but will fascinate anyone who has not seen a true master at work. Nothing is cooler than hot glass! I had hoped to see some of the factories, but it was Saturday and they were closed. Still, Murano was beyond fabulous, and the artist in me drank in the flavor.

From Murano, we hopped a vaporetto to Burano. Burano is a sleepy little island filled with colorfully painted houses and a history for making lace that dates back to the 15th century. We turned off the main street and found an unhurried world, devoid of the crowds, where people appeared to go about their day, in much the same way as their grandparents and great-grandparents centuries before. We had a delightful time wandering through the mostly uncrowded streets. We stopped to watch a couple of craftswomen making lace. And stared out toward the lagoon, watching a fisherman untie and hang his nets to dry. It was a thoroughly lovely afternoon and respite, before returning to Venezia and the enthusiastic party in the streets that is Carnevale.

Ahhh, how does one describe Carnevale in Venezia? If you truly wish to discover Venezia, in all its medieval charm, Carnevale is the time to visit. The air of frivolity is infectious as all of Venezia takes to the street in costumes and masks for a grand celebration of an era gone by. The party was in full swing when we arrived in Piazza San Marco. Entertainments had been scheduled on the grand stage, which included a costume parade, improvisations and performances, clown bands and dancers, The Heliosphere - a trapeze artist suspended from a hot air balloon, who performed a ballet overhead, The Teatro Pavana - a group of actors on stilts, portraying giraffes, circulated through the crowd. This was a feast for people watching. Some of the revelers donned masks, while others were in full 16th or 17th century dress. Still others were costumed as fairytale or movie characters… Little Red Riding Hood, Alice (from Wonderland), Goldilocks, Obi Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader and Storm Troopers marched a very regal Princess Leah about the Piazza, acting out their roles. The Ghost Busters made their own debut, spraying the crowd with confetti as they raced about after phantom ghosts. Spontaneous Congo lines and human chains formed and wove their way among the revelers. One of the most entertaining bands was called Companía Teatro Calzo, which they translated for me as the Band “Without Shoes”. The Barefoot Band dressed in brightly colored uniforms and head pieces and played rowdy music as they led their followers on a wild dash through the crowd. When the festivities on the stage were over, the party continued on for only a short time. Venice has been a tourist destination for well over 400 years, and has developed closing the city down to a fine art form. It was amazing to watch just how quickly the shops and restaurants around the Piazza and around the city could close up shop. It explained why the streets had been so empty the night before.

Sunday was time for a museum, so we took the vaporetto down the Grand Canal to the Cá Rezzonico. The museum itself is really nothing special. It was interesting to see the inside of an 18th century palazzo. Two pieces in the museum were worth the admission price. The Dama Velata (Puritas) by Antonio Corradini is simply an amazing sculpture. (Sorry not photos were allowed inside the museum, but you can see a picture of it here: http://www.museiciviciveneziani.it/frame.asp?id=2720&musid=7. Yes, that is all sculpture; there is not a veil over the statue.) The museum also had a fine collection of Murano glass, including a magnificent 17th century Murano Chandelier which consists of a garden of multicolored flowers and lights. One of the few remaining intact pieces from this era.

Next we joined to the mob at Piazza San Marco and the cathedral. I like to think that all cathedrals are built as monuments to God. I realize, of course, that most cathedrals were built by Bishops who wanted to demonstrate their power and authority. However, there is no way that one can visit San Marcos Cathedral and not believe that it was built to be anything other than a demonstration to the world of Venetian wealth and power. History attests to this… In about 900 A.D., the Doges of Venezia decided that they needed a relic, so they stole the bones of Saint Mark from Egypt and brought them home to Venezia. With the bones, the winged lion became the symbol of Venezia. A cathedral was built to house the bones, but it was burned by an angry mob in the late 900 A.D. The current structure was finished about 1093 A.D. and houses the booty pillaged from wars in Turkey and Constantinople. The interior glitters with golden mosaics and intricately carved marble pillars. The original 4 horses are believed to be originally from the 1st or 2nd century A. D., but no one is sure where exactly they were made. Copies of these horses now adorn the cathedral façade. The originals are on display in the Cathedral Museum and are well worth the line and admission price. Plus, the admission price to the museum allows you to access the terrazzo which overlooks Piazza San Marcos. The view of the Piazza from the terrazzo was mesmerizing. It was fascinating to watch the eddies and flows of the crowd from above. It was not unlike watching a tide, and we marveled at how packed the piazza had become, even when compared with the night before.

We decided that mingling with the crowd did not appeal to us, so we set off to explore the rest of Venezia. We chose the Jewish Ghetto as our destination. Scott, navigator extraordinaire, consulted the map and determined the best route. And then we discovered Venetian crowd control. Carnevale had taken over the island and the police were out in force to move the crowd. The officers decided which way they were going to route the crowd and it did not matter if that was your destination or not… Everyone goes that way. It is a stampede of cattle philosophy, best avoided whenever possible because once you have been herded into one of these controlled mobs, it is difficult to get out, and the mob never moves fast. Scott, the grand negotiator that he is, managed to talk our way around several of these controlled mobs and we traversed the island in short order.

In the early 16th century, Venezia segregated its Jewish population and formed one of the first Jewish Ghettos. The name “ghetto” comes from the Italian word for copper, this part of the island was known for its copper foundries. It is an interesting contrast between the lavish palazzos of uptown Venezia and the densely populated world of the ghetto, whose buildings lack much of the embellishment found throughout the rest of Venice. Venezia still has a thriving Jewish community with three active Synagogues. We would have loved to see the inside of them, but tours are only given through the museum, which was closed. (I suppose we must leave something for the next trip.)

And so we wandered back through the party toward our hotel. Along the way we met up with the Barefoot Band and stopped to join in the fun. It was the perfect ending to a perfect weekend.

On a side note… We stopped by lost and found at the Renfe office in Madrid on our way home and found my forgotten jacket. Alas, the pashima from Pisa was not with it. Still, more luck than we had any right to expect… Tomorrow, we leave for Greece, and the cradle of civilization… and Greece is forecasting SNOW!

Monday, February 16, 2009


In Spain, there is a long tradition of romerías. "Romería" refers to the processions which carry sacred images from one pueblo to another (yes, you've seen them in the movies). There are romerías all over Spain, with lots of history, although nowadays they seem mostly to be an excuse to have a picnic out in the country. The word derives from Roma, referring to pilgrims walking to Rome. However, the word is also close to "romero", which means rosemary. Therefore, it's common to see people with sprigs of wild rosemary in their buttonholes.
On Sunday, we joined a group of friends at the Romería of Pozoblanco. You can see the pictures at:


and in the Diario Córdoba:


In this semi-annual romería, the image of La Virgen de Luna is carried from the pueblo of Villanueva de Córdoba to the pueblo of Pozoblanco, a distance of about twenty miles. We heard various stories about how the image came to be shared between the two villages; I don’t know if any of them are true, but they’re good stories. A shepherd found the image in the 1300’s, and the Santuario was built to house it. (The image may date from Visigothic times. One theory is that it was hidden from the invading Moors, and the shepherd found it after the Reconquista. When you look at the pictures, you might be skeptical that the image dates from before A.D. 800. With good reason. During the Middle Ages, creation of religious figures with associated legends was a big business. Pilgrimage sites brought in lots of visitors and the associated trade.) The pueblo of Pozoblanco didn’t yet exist at that time. The image was carried to Villanueva de Córdoba for the big festivals for many years, during which Pozoblanco came to be. One year, due to excessive rains and flooding, the people of Villanueva de Córdoba weren’t able to make it to the Santuario to get the image. According to the people of Pozoblanco, this meant they’d lost their right to the image, and so they brought it back to their own pueblo. There were some skirmishes fought over it (hence the symbolic weapons carried during the romería). Finally the pueblos reached an agreement to share the image, resulting in the opportunity to go out to the country for a picnic twice a year.

It was about an hour's drive to get there from Córdoba. Pedro, one of our group, is a proud son of Pozoblanco, and insisted on giving us a tour of the pueblo before we continued out into the countryside. We saw the original Pozo Blanco (white well) from which the pueblo takes its name. In the old days, roosters would...roost?...on the well, which was therefore covered with excrement, giving it the characteristic white color. My mind reels with "chickenshit" jokes, but I'll resist the temptation.

We drove out of town into the countryside, which is a landscape known as "dehesa." In ancient times, it was oak forest with heavy underbrush. Several millennia of human occupation have left the forest thinned considerably, but not clear-cut. This leaves clearance for individual trees to grow much larger, with grassland ideal for grazing pigs, sheep, goats, and cattle. One of the guys in the group explained to us (with no small pride) that this was an early example of sustainable land use.

We saw more and more people walking along the road, some on horseback, as we approached El Santuario de la Virgen de Luna, the church at the halfway point between the two pueblos. All around the church were hundreds of families with their picnic lunches. We got ourselves situated and munched a bit before walking over to the church. La Virgen had been walked from Villanueva de Córdoba in the morning, and would arrive in Pozoblanco in the evening; she spent the siesta in El Santuario. We guaranteed our good luck for the year by ringing the church bell.
La Virgen was carried out of the church around 3:30, escorted by black-uniformed men of the Cofradía (a sort of lay brotherhood). They were armed with (fake) halberds and shotguns (loaded with blanks). All of this happened to the sound of the church bell ringing and the guns firing randomly and the crowd cheering. It was quite a sight.

We all enjoyed a drink at one of the outside stands before going back to our picnic site. Eventually, everything got packed up; nothing happens in a rush in Spain. We all drove back into Pozoblanco to buy some "hornazos", traditional sweets made for the romería. It was a very nice end to a very nice day. We participated in a very Spanish tradition, something that we’d never get to see in a normal vacation.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Medina Azahara

After over four months in Córdoba, we decided it was time to visit the Medina Azahara. This is probably the last of the “big” tourist sites in Córdoba, but we just hadn´t gotten around to it. We found ourselves without other plans today (unusual in itself!), so we paid 6.50€ each to board the tourist bus and head over. You can see pictures at:


The Medina, more properly called the Madinat al-Zahra, was built beginning in A.D. 940, while Spain was still very Muslim. It was begun by the caliph Abd Al-rahman III as a demonstration of the unification of al-Andalus under his rule (let´s face it…an ego trip on a grand scale). He used it as his administrative center, effectively the capital of Moorish Spain for a time. The Medina´s heyday was short; the caliph´s successors moved the government seat to Madinat al-Zahira (yes, I know the name looks very similar, but look carefully at the letters), to the east of Córdoba. After that, the Medina fell rapidly into decline. It was partially destroyed when the caliphate broke up around A.D. 1010, and systematically dismantled for building materials over the succeeding centuries. It was never really lost, but it wasn´t excavated as an archaeological site until the early 1900´s.

It´s quite enjoyable to see ruins that have not been completely restored. At the Medina, parts of the castle and court have been restored, but other parts have been left in ruins. The areas that have been restored give you a feel for what the scholars think the original structure must have looked like. But when areas are left in their ruined state, you get a very different feel for the structure, and how people lived. In many ways the ruins, with bracken and weeds pushing their way through the cracks, seem more real even without complete roofs or floors. The Moorish architecture is really quite amazing. Tonya is falling in love with the Moorish art and scroll work that decorates the walls and doorways. It must have been inspiring to live in places adorned in such a manner.

These sites which haven´t been maintained and restored just feel much older. To really see an ancient building as it was, you´d have to be able to go back in time. Restored, or in ruins; that´s the choice. Buildings like Córdoba´s Mezquita, which have been in continuous use for a thousand years, are a mixture of ancient and non-so-ancient and near-modern and modern. The ruins of the Medina show what it was like around A.D. 1000, though it takes some imagination to visualize it.

Friday, February 6, 2009

More Spanish Humor

February has come in like a lion. Actually, considering the kind of weather we’ve been having, it should be a wetter animal. Let’s say that February has come in like a giant squid. The sun came out this afternoon, so maybe we´re past the worst of it.

One of the other teachers at Gran Capitán told me a good joke the other day. Like many jokes, it requires some knowledge of the culture. Let´s go back to the 1960´s and 1970´s, when Franco was still in power, and the Guardia Civil was the national police force. They were a pretty rough bunch. They were particularly nasty to the gypsy population, resulting in a mutual antipathy which has lasted to the present day, although the Guardia Civil has cleaned up its image considerably.

So, back to the joke. Two gypsies were walking along the road when they saw a discarded Guardia Civil uniform in the ditch. One of the gypsies said, “Look, Paco! What nice clothes! I´m going to try them on!”

Paco said, “But José! Why would you put on a Guardia Civil uniform?!”

José said, “Look at the nice cloth! It still has lots of wear.” And he proceeded to put in on.

When José had the uniform on, Paco asked, “So, how do you feel now?”

José replied, “You know, I have the sudden urge to beat the @#$%&!! out of you.” (Rimshot)

By all accounts, the Franco years were not a particularly nice time. It’s an interesting comment on the resiliency of human nature, that people can joke about it now.