Tag Archives: Darcy McClain series

Europe 2013: Toledo, Spain – Part 2

Puente de Alcántara, Spain

Last week we visited Alcázar. Picking up from there, we left the castle and made our way to Toledo’s cathedral. The formal name of the French Gothic church is Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada de Toledo. Construction on the white limestone structure began in 1227 on the site of a former mosque. The opulent, shimmering, gold interior is jaw-dropping: it’s laden with elaborate wrought iron work, lavish wood carvings, 750 five-hundred-year-old stained glass windows, and a spectacular gold high altar, not to mention eighteen El Greco masterpieces.

El Transparente, a Baroque altarpiece

El Transparente, a Baroque altarpiece

All around me tourists uttered the same word: “Wow.” The initial design had five naves and eighty-eight columns and measured 390 feet long by 196 feet wide. Over the centuries additions have been made to the original building. In the fourteenth century San Blas Chapel and a cloister were added, and construction on the towering altar in the main chapel began. It took six years to complete, and many famous sculptors worked on the five-story gold filigree structure. During the fifteenth century vaults were added and another chapel, for a total of seven today. But the most moving and stunning feature in the cathedral was El Transparente, a Baroque altarpiece illuminated by a large skylight cut high in the ambulatory behind the high altar. A second hole cut into the back of the altarpiece itself allows sunlight to strike the tabernacle. The illumination is dazzling when the sun shines from the east, giving the impression that the whole altar is rising to heaven.

Catedral de Toledo, Spain - Large skylight cut high in the ambulatory behind the high altar

Catedral de Toledo, Spain – Large skylight cut high in the ambulatory behind the high altar

We stepped outside to blinding sunlight and made our way through the picturesque narrow streets to Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca, the synagogue of “St. Mary the White,” The 1203 house of worship was designed and decorated by Mudéjar architects. The architectural style was a synthesis of techniques resulting from Muslim and Christian cultures living side by side and emerged during the twelfth century. The dominant characteristics are elaborate tile work, brickwork, wood and plaster carvings, and ornamental metals. To dress up walls and floors, Mudéjar architects used complicated tile patterns. Long after the Muslims were no longer employed as builders in Spain, their distinctive elements continued to be incorporated into Spanish architecture. Inside the synagogue the Moorish influence is obvious in lovely white horseshoe arches, capitals carved with vegetal motifs, and the contrasting dark red floors with decorative tiles. (In architecture, a capital is a “head,” the topmost section of a column or pilaster.) The synagogue has been used as a carpenter’s workshop, a store, a barracks, and a refuge for former prostitutes. Beautifully restored, today it is a museum.

Our next stop was El Tránsito Synagogue, a private family synagogue known for its rich polychrome stucco work, multi-foil arches, and a massive Mudéjar paneled ceiling with Arabic inscriptions intertwined in the floral patterns of the stucco panels. After the expulsion of the Jews from Toledo in 1492, the building was converted into a church.

Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca, Toledo, Spain

Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca, Toledo, Spain

We lunched on tapas at Mesón La Orza before we set out for the El Greco Museum, only to find it closed. We had no information about whether or not it would open that day, so we walked on to the Monasterio de San Juan de Los Reyes. The structure was built by Catholic monarchs King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I to commemorate their victory over the army of Alfonso V of Portugal in 1476, and they also planned to house their mausoleum there. However, after the reconquest of Granada in 1492, the Catholic monarchs chose to be buried in Capilla Real in Granada. The two-story Gothic monastery with its Plateresque stonework, a larch wood ceiling painted with the motifs and the coats of arms of the monarchs, and the peaceful cloister and garden were definitely worth the visit. I would have liked to linger a bit longer, but we had two more stops to make and had to hurry along to catch a train back to Madrid. But before we left, Dave had to show me something on the exterior of the monastery. Chains hung from on high, the remnants of leg irons worn by the Christians imprisoned by the Muslims. During the reconquest, the prisoners were freed, and the chains were hung on the monastery in 1494 to symbolize the triumph of Christianity.

Monasterio de San Juan de Los Reyes, Toledo, Spain

Monasterio de San Juan de Los Reyes, Toledo, Spain

With only two hours left for sightseeing and still much to see, we both agreed we should have considered at least a two-day stay in Toledo and noted this for a future visit. Not rushing but not dawdling either, we headed toward the Puente de San Martín. Constructed in the late fourteenth century to provide access to the old town from the west, the bridge has five arches, heavy fortification with towers, and an impressive span of just over 130 feet. At that time, very few bridges in the world had reached that length. It complements the older Puente de Alcántara, which links the city to the east.

Our next stop was Puerta de Bisagra, the main gate to the old city of Toledo, a majestic stone gate built in the tenth century in the time of the taifa of Toledo. The taifa was a Muslim medieval kingdom located in central Spain in 1035 that endured until the Christian conquest in 1085. The gateway is actually two gates, the old one built by the Moors between the sixth and seventh centuries, and a new gate built in the sixteenth century. After photo snapping and a time check, we pressed on to our next destination.

Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz dates back to 999 and was built as a mosque known as Bab al-Mardum. It is the only surviving mosque of ten that once stood in Toledo. It has a square footprint that measures roughly twenty-six by twenty-nine feet. The facade is brick and decorated with a series of arches. The interior has open brick latticework and an arcade of blind horseshoe arches that support nine ribbed vaults, all of which have a unique geometric design. In 1186 when the mosque was converted into a chapel, a transept and a Mudéjar-style apse were added. The chapel derives its name from legend. When King Alfonso VI rode into Toledo in victory in 1085, he discovered that a candle, which had burned continuously behind the brick masonry for three and a half centuries of Muslim rule, was illuminating a statue of Christ concealed within the brick wall to prevent profanation.

Puente de Alcántara, Toledo, Spain

Puente de Alcántara, Toledo, Spain

Mindful of the time, Dave and I threaded our way through the quaint Toledo streets toward the Puente de Alcántara, an arched stone bridge built between 104 and 106 to span the Tagus River. So far we had avoided getting lost in Toledo, but that soon changed. The street we were on came to an abrupt end, and we had to loop back up the steep incline. Along our way a British couple stopped us to ask for directions. We really couldn’t help them, except to say that this street was not the way to the bridge. They too were in a hurry to reach the train station. “So let’s team up and rally on,” they said, and that’s precisely what we did until we bumped into a local. She gave us excellent directions, but not ones we wanted to hear. We had to hike another steep hill. We crested the rise only to discover that the bridge was nowhere in sight. We still had a ways to go. Eventually, the bridge came into view, and the four of us let out loud sighs. We finally entered the station and queued up. Neither we nor the British couple had purchased return tickets, and we were darn lucky to get the last four seats on the 5:00 p.m. train. The next available departure with any empty seats was at 9:00 p.m.

We arrived back at the Westin in time to shower and change for dinner at Lieu Restaurante for what would be a fabulous meal prepared by chef Daniele Scelza. The restaurant offered two prix fixe menus. I ordered one and Dave the other, along with the wine pairings. The meal began with test-tube cocktails and chorizo madeleines for two—gratis—followed by a transparent tomato ravioli with parmesan cream and basil for me, and for Dave a zucchini carpaccio: paper-thin slices of zucchini with a tangy citrus and herb drizzle. Next, I had an aerated gazpacho and Dave a potato-bacon pie with escargot in a beef sauce. So far everything had been superb, and we couldn’t wait for our mains—Dave had the lamb saddle with creamed sweet potatoes, and I chose black cod with olive oil, basil, tomato confit, and pumpkin puree. By the time dessert arrived, I had run out of superlatives. We shared an order of creamy chocolate with olive oil, brownies, and tiles of red wine granita; and an order of berries, cassis sorbet, and ginger chips, topped with a champagne foam. Both were palate-pleasing delights. A meal to remember, but unfortunately, from what I’ve read on the Internet, the restaurant has permanently closed.

Next week: “Europe 2013: The Prado Museum – Madrid, Spain.”

Europe 2013: Gijón, Spain

Gijon SpainI had never heard of Gijón, the Big Apple of Spain, until I read an article in American Way magazine, an American Airlines in-flight publication. Curious about the former fishing village, known for its cider, we decided to check out the port city. We woke to a gray day with storm clouds hovering low and threatening. Drizzle chased us from Suances to Gijón as we motored along the Bay of Biscay, but as we entered the town, the sun peeked through the clouds.

Playa de San Lorenzo

Playa de San Lorenzo

We began our exploration with a walk along the waterfront. Playa de San Lorenzo is a beautiful, crescent-shaped, golden-colored beach and has a five-thousand-foot-long promenade that stretches along the water. Parts of the coastline are rocky, and areas do have strong currents as well as big waves, but we had no plans to swim or sunbathe, merely to take in the scenery.

Gijón marina by the promenade

Gijón Marina by the Promenade

At the end of the promenade, we retraced a path to San Pedro Church, which is located at the foot of the original village Cimadevilla, the oldest part of Gijón. The style is Romanesque Asturian, typical of the architecture seen throughout the Cantabrian seaboard. Unfortunately, the church was locked, so we began the steep climb through the narrow cobblestoned street to Cerro de Santa Catalina, a park at the tip of Cimadevilla’s peninsula, to see the stunning coastal views. On our way down, we came across the ruins of an old Roman settlement and baths. We explored them, then toured the city square, before our thoughts turned to lunch and fabada asturiana. Fabada is a rich Spanish bean stew, a hot and heavy dish best served for lunch and best eaten on a day like that one: chilly and rainy. Ours was served with crusty bread and a glass of Asturian cider. For dessert, we purchased turrón at a nearby bakery to nibble on during the drive back to Suances. Turrón is either duro (hard) and crunchy, or blando (soft) and chewy. The candy is made from toasted Marcona almonds, sugar, honey, and egg white.


San Pedro Church in Gijón

San Pedro Church in Gijón

I knew from experience that the Spanish eat dinner much later than we do in the US, so we had made reservations at Restaurante La Dársena for nine. Even then, we had the restaurant to ourselves until the stroke of ten. When we arrived the maître d’ gave us a quizzical stare, as though he was stunned to see anyone looking for a table at this early hour. After some scurrying around, we were shown to our table with a view of the marina. Our server informed us he was Argentinian and had recently relocated to Spain. When it came time to order, we couldn’t understand him and he couldn’t understand us despite our Spanish, which is pretty good. Suddenly, he threw his arms into the air in exasperation and walked off. Not the best start to a meal, but he soon returned with a platter of raw fish. He pointed and we nodded or shook our heads. He understood “broiled” and looked rather pleased with himself as he walked away to fill our wine order.

San Pedro Church in Gijón and Author Pat Krapf

Me at San Pedro Church in Gijón

The incident reminded us of another dining experience. We were at a small family restaurant in Croatia, and the lunch menus weren’t in English. We asked for help, but our server just nodded to anything we said. Not very hungry, we ordered three starters—at least that’s what we thought. When the meal came, we were dismayed to see three main courses. Before we touched the food, we asked to see the owner. We explained our mistake and told him we would pay for the third meal, but could he please take one back. He simply nodded and whisked away the beef stew, which he handed to a man behind the counter. The man took a seat at a nearby table and proceeded to eat it. The check came and the owner had removed the dish from the bill. However, we included the cost of the stew in our bill, paid it, and gave our server a good tip. As we were leaving, the owner said in perfect English, “I hope you enjoyed your meals, and please come again.”

At La Dársena our wine arrived, and twenty minutes later our meal came. Oh no, I thought. Déjà vu. No way could we eat all of this seafood, one large and two small platters of fish and shellfish. But we did. And other than a loaf of crusty bread, that’s all we had for dinner, and every bite was broiled to perfection. Fish, bread, and wine: a fine meal indeed.

Next week: “Europe 2013: The Guggenheim – Bilbao, Spain.”

Europe 2013: Belém Tower – Lisbon, Portugal

Belém Tower, Lisbon

On our last day in Monte Carlo, we were packing when I heard a low rumble, which grew louder and louder. Having experienced my share of earthquakes, I paused to listen but felt no movement, so I slid open the glass door in our room and stepped onto the balcony. In a few seconds, Dave joined me. The steady vibration intensified and seemed to be coming from the Formula 1 pits near the harbor. We assumed the drivers were test-firing their engines until the noise became almost deafening. Then to our delight, one race car after the other came roaring down Princess Grace Avenue in front of our hotel. Hearing and seeing the Formula 1 cars in action…now I was hooked on Grand Prix racing. I was sorry we weren’t staying for the race, but we had a plane to catch.

Formula 1 race car driving down Princess Grace Avenue, Monte Carlo.

Leaving Nice, we flew over the Mediterranean, the best part of the uneventful two-and-a-half-hour flight. We had arranged for a driver to take us to our hotel in Lisbon. When we greeted him outside the terminal, he appeared sheepish. “There’s a slight problem,” he said. Evidently, the room we had reserved at the Altis Avenida Hotel in town wasn’t available for the night. While on a business trip, the prior guest had suffered a heart attack and been hospitalized. His wife was en route from Spain to pack up his luggage, which was still in the room, and the hotel was completely booked. However, the Altis had accommodations at one of their other locations “just for the night.” We weren’t thrilled about this news, as the other Altis was miles from any tourist attraction and we had already mapped out our plans for the afternoon, but we went with the flow.


The 25 de Abril Bridge and view of Lisbon.

On the drive into Belém, we crossed a bridge that looked remarkably like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and I commented on this to our driver. The 25 de Abril Bridge, which connects Lisbon to Alamada, was built by the American Bridge Company, the same firm that constructed the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, but not the Golden Gate Bridge. The upper deck has six car lanes, while the lower deck carries two electric trains. The name “25 de Abril” commemorates the Carnation Revolution, a military coup that overthrew the regime of Estado Novo on April 25, 1974. The “Carnation” in the name refers to no shots being fired during the unrest.


As it turned out, the change in accommodations was a pleasant one. The Altis Belém Hotel overlooks the Tagus River, and the minute I saw the contemporary design I was curious about the decor of our room. The choice didn’t disappoint. The ultramodern room was decorated in red, black, and white, a color combination I’ve always loved—clean and cheerful. The walls behind the bed and to the right were white, while the opposite one, which ran the length of the room, was a deep red with a pattern of circular white lines etched into the ruby color. The other wall was glass, and it faced a small marina. The furniture was black and white with a red sofa and a plush red accent rug. The bathroom shower had black granite walls and countertops. The tub was white Corian, a solid surface material manufactured by DuPont. The acrylic polymer can be molded into just about anything and comes in a myriad of colors. My first thought when I saw the bathroom? I loved the look, but I know from experience that black surfaces are a nightmare to keep clean because of water spots.


White metal shutters in our room at the Altis Belém.

As a waning sun sneaked into our room, I found the button for the electronic curtains as well as a remote control for a series of white metal shutters. Not only were the shutters an architectural feature, but they also served a purpose: filtering the bright sunlight. They ran along the outside of the entire building, anywhere a window was located. Quite intrigued by this design, I paused from unpacking to play with the system. During the day, it afforded enough privacy to forgo the curtains.


On the coffee table next to the red sofa sat a tray with a bottle of chilled chardonnay, wineglasses, appetizers, and a note from the manager apologizing for the change in hotels. We finished the appetizers, then left to explore the closest attraction, the Belém Tower.


Belém Tower. The banner photo shows one of the terraces on the tower.

The tower was built on the Tagus as part of a larger defense bulwark and completed in 1521. The architectural style is referred to as

Manueline, named for King Manuel I, and is a Portuguese variant of the high Gothic style found in northern Europe, but with more exuberant decoration and nautical-themed ornaments. The style reflected Portugal’s self-confidence and wealth, a result of the Age of Discovery, when explorers created new trade routes that brought riches from India and other faraway destinations to Lisbon.


The exterior is rather ornate for a tower, with beautifully sculpted balconies and limestone ornaments. It has Moorish-style turrets at each corner, where a battery of cannons was housed to defend the waterway. At one point, the tower basement was used as a prison. The terrace above the basement is decorated with a statue of Mary and child meant to protect seafarers, for it was from here that many of the great Portuguese explorers embarked on their voyages. And Christopher Columbus stopped at the tower after discovering the New World. The second floor contained the royal residences, and on the upper floors were the armory and private rooms. On the top floor is another terrace with pretty views of Belém and the Tagus River, and a beautiful loggia with intricate carvings and several balconies. We spent over an hour exploring the tower, then returned to our hotel for dinner.


Still feeling rundown from our colds, we ordered room service and relaxed for the evening, as we had a busy agenda planned for the following day. To accompany the chardonnay left by the hotel management, we chose a selection of cold and hot starters rather than mains: marinated tuna with a wasabi cream, sautéed Algarve shrimp with a fresh cucumber salad, pan-seared lobster ravioli and mizuna with lemon, a small cheese sampler, and a basket of freshly baked breads.

Next week: “Europe 2013: Saint George’s Castle – Lisbon, Portugal.”