Some time ago my wife and I went on a study tour around Spain looking at the Christian and Islamic architecture of the peninsular. The only booking we made was a flight to Madrid and from there we travelled by train and bus around Spain. When we arrived in our chosen town or city, we would head to the plaza major and then look for a nearby hotel to stay for a few days.
Madrid was once little more than a fortified village and it was not until 1561 that Felipe II made it the permanent capital of the Spanish empire. The historic centre of the city is fairly compact with the Plaza Major, the Cathedral and the Palacio Real all within walking distance of each other. The Cathedral was only built in the 19th century but has a dramatic location overlooking the plain. Nearby is the delightful Plaza de Santa Cruz whose fascinating roofs caught my eye.
Whilst in Madrid we took the opportunity to visit the Escorial, a palace-monastery complex about 20 miles to the north-west of Madrid and about 3,000 feet above sea level. It was built to commemorate the victory of Felipe II over the French at St Quentin in 1557.
The austere style reflects the severe outlook of Felipe and one of the architects, Juan Bautista de Toledo, was at one time an assistant to Michelangelo working at the Vatican. The palace provided accommodation for the king and his retinue, the college and monastery fulfilled religious functions, the mausoleum housed the royal dead, while the huge library served the whole complex.
From Madrid we went to Seville to tour the south before the weather got too hot. Seville is the capital of Andalucia, the souther area of Spain and the obvious place for a base for the Muslims who invaded in 711 AD. It became the Muslim capital after the fall of Cordoba in 1031 and was not retaken by the Christians until 1248. Following the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492, Seville was given a monopoly of Spanish trade with the new continent and rapidly became one of the richest and most cosmopolitan cities in Europe. This was Spain’s golden age. It is in Seville’s cathedral that Christopher Columbus is buried. On the eastern sde of the cathedral is the Giralda tower, the minaret of the original mosque.
After Seville fell to the Christians, the main mosque was used as a church until 1401 when a new church was built on the site. It was one of the largest in the world, built in the Gothic style and was completed in 1507. In 1511 the main tower collapsed and it was rebuilt in the Renaissance style, only nine years after the first Renaissance building by Bramante in Rome. It was in Seville that I saw for the first time the contrast and juxtaposition of Christian and Islamic architecture.
Near the cathedral is the Alcazar, a beautiful, intriguing palace-fortress, connected to the lives and loves of many Christian and Muslim monarchs. The Alcazar began life as a fort for the Muslim governors of Seville in 913 AD and has been adapted and enlarged in almost every century since.
In 1364-66, the Christian Pedro I created the sumptuous Palacio de Don Pedro on the site of the old Muslim palace. At the heart of this palace is the wonderful Patio de las Doncellas, whose doors are among the finest ever produced by Toledo’s carpenters. Pedro’s Muslim ally in Granada, Mohammad V, sent along many of his best artisans who had worked on the Alhambra. They were joined by Muslims and Jews from Toledo and Seville. Their work represented the best of contemporary architecture and design and drew on the Christian and Muslim traditions, forming a unique synthesis.
A large area to the south of the city centre was transformed for the 1929 exhibition. Here is a large park with some 3,500 trees, a welcome respite from the bustle of the city. Facing the park is the Plaza de Espana, on of city’s favourite relaxation areas, with fountains and mini-canals. Around the plaza is the most grandiose of the 1929 buildings, a semi-circular brick and tile confection featuring Seville tile work at its gaudiest. The whole area harks back to Seville’s era of past glory.
From Seville we had a day’s outing to Cordoba. This city was originally a Roman colony founded in 152 BC and became the capital of the peninsula when it fell to the Muslim invaders in 711 AD. By the tenth century it had become the largest city in Europe with a population of between 100,000 and 500,000. It was retaken by the Christians in 1236 and has declined ever since. The mosque of Cordoba, built in 785 AD, is the first significant building of Muslim Spain. The main hall has many features similar to the Great Mosque of Damascus. The roof is supported by interlocking horseshoe arches with voussoirs of alternating colours. Its double arches rest on 856 columns all constructed from jasper, onyx, marble and granite taken from previous Roman buildings.
Our next base was Granada. Granada was also a Roman foundation and was ruled by the Muslims from Cordoba and then in the 10th century from Seville. Modern Granada, with its heavy traffic and high-rise appartment blocks, seems a world away from its Muslim past. However, the main square, overlooked by an unpreposessing cathedral, is quite a pleasant area to enjoy.
From the roof of our hotel, right in the centre , you could get a feel for the tapestry of the old city. A similar rich urban texture can be seen in the houses of the Albayzin quarter as they cascade down the hill where the Arabs lived. It was here, after the fall of Cordoba and Seville in the 13th century that the Arabs sought refuge.
The real attraction of Granada is of course the Alhambra which had dominated Granaa since the 9th century. It was a palace, a citadel, a fortress and home to the Nasrid sultans, high government officials, servants of the courts and elite soldiers from the 13th to the 15th centuries. By the 13th and 14th centuries, Granada had become one of the richest cities in Europe and the fortress had turned into a fortress palace. By the end of the 15th century the economy had stagnated and the rulers had retreated into a hedonistic existance inside the fortress. In 1492, Granada fell to the Christian monarchs.
The whole complex is actually several palaces connected together with an intricate sequence of both indoor and outdoor spaces. Lavish carving and decoration is used inside and in the gardens and outdoor spaces water plays an important role in such a hot climate. One of the most beautiful of these outdoor spaces is the Court of the Lions, constructed in the 14th century. The central feature is a fountain feeding water through the mouths of 12 stone lions, while the surrounding colonnade is made up of 124 slender marble columns producing a delicate oriental effect in the shape of a medieval cloister.
From Granada we moved up to the centre of Spain, to the old city of Salamanca. This has been ruled in turn by the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Muslims and the Christians. The Plaza Major is probably the most beautiful in Spain and was built between 1729 and 1755 in the Baroque style. Bullfights still took place in this square until the 19th century.
The main street, always bustling with activity, runs from the Plaza Major down to the river. Walking along the street, the tower of the old cathedral comes into view, a landmark in the city. The old cathedral was begun in 1120 and is built in the Romanesque style but also incorporates Gothic and Byzantine influences. The new cathedral was built abutting its predecessor and its Baroque dome can be seen from every angle. The two together form one building complex.
The cathedrals are built in red sandstone as are all the major buildings in the centre so there is a unity of material within the city running through the different periods of architecture. The new cathedral is finely detailed both inside and without and I was particularly taken by the base of one of the columns which has an almost abstract design of sculpture.
Right next to the new cathedral is the delightful open space of the Plaza Anaya, opening off the main street. Nearby is the curious House of Shells, built at the end of the 15th century. Its original owner was a doctor at the court and a member of the Order of Santiago, whose symbol was the shell.
A delightful cloister is to be found in the Convento de las Duenas, a convent of Dominican nuns, built in 1533. The main building is Gothic, the cloister Renaissance. It is two storeys and not quite rectangular. It has a great sense of space and detail and on the upper storey the capitals of the columns are all different. From the upper storey you get some enticing glimpses of the cathedral as you move around.
From Salamanca we took a day trip to Avila, which for almost three hundred years regularly changed hands between the Muslims and the Christians until the fall of Toledo to the Christians in 1085. The town is famous for St Theresa who reformed the Carmelite order of nuns and died there in 1582, after which the town gradually declined. The old centre is surrounded by a rough quadrangle of massive stone walls of which the cathedral forms part with its apse jutting out as part of the defences. Shortly after visiting Avila we moved on to the city of Toledo to use that as a base. Toledo was an important town for the Romans, a capital and religious centre for the Visigoths in the 6th century and the capital of central Spain for the Muslims in the 8th century.
After the Reconquista, the Vatican recognised Toledo as the seat of the church in Spain. Phillip II decided to create his capital in Madrid because of its greater potential for expansion. Toledo is built upon a hill around which the river Tagus flows on three sides so it has a natural defensive position. Large portions of the old city walls remain intact and serve to define the area of the old town. To the south the medieval bridge of St Martin was originally constructed in the 14th century and has been rebuilt several times since. The bridge, combined with gates at either end, once provided a sturdy defence to the city. Now they provide a powerful and dramatic structure.
There are several gates to the city and the Puerta del Sol is a reminder of Toledo’s Islamic period. There is the characteristic horseshoe arch in a rectangular frame and all the decoration is carried out in stone and brickwork. The only mosque still surviving from Toledo’s Muslim past is the Mezquita, a small brick structure dating from 999 AD. The construction of the Christian cathedral began in the 13th century and continued slowly over the next centuries.
Essentially a Gothic structure, the cathedral is nevertheless a mix of different styles as a result of its development over time and the mixed history of the city. The centre of the cathedral is dominated by the choir stalls, a feast of sculpture and carved wooden stalls. The screen behind the high altar is richly decorated in the Renaissance style and behind that is the apse, a rich masterpiece of Spanish Baroque. whose centrepiece is a window known as El Transparente.
From Toldedo we moved on to Segovia, a small town measuring only three quarters of a mile by a quarter which sits on a limestone hog’s back. The suburbs have spread only to the north so it is a perfect example of a medieval town with the walls clearly defining the edge with the rolling countryside. The first historical reference is to the Romans in 192 BC and when the Muslims invaded in 711 AD it became a front line town. Time seems to have come to a halt in the 17th century.
Like all medieval towns, Segovia is a densely packed maze of narrow streets interspersed with landmarks. There are 26 places of worship in this tiny town of which 8 are just outside the walls. These include convents, monasteries, churches and the cathedral, overlooking the central square. The cathedral is a late Gothic structure built largely between 1525 and 1577 but not completed until the 18th century. It is probably the last powerful expression of Gothic architecture in Spain and is a massive yet harmonious structure built of limestone with its tower dominating the main square. It reused much of the material from the earlier cathedral it replaces on the site and also preserves the earlier cloister.
The most astonishing and dominant structure in Segovia is the aqueduct erected some time in the 1st century AD to supply water to the Roman garrison in the high part of the town. The water is brought from a river about ten miles away and up to the point where it enters Segovia it runs in an underground channel transporting water at 30 litres per second. The free-standing arcade crosses a valley and covers the last three quarters of a mile into the town. It is constructed of 20,000 blocks of granite held together without any kind of binding agent or mortar. The top tier consist of 166 arches supported by a lower tier of 126 pillars. At its middle point as it passes over a square it reaches a height of 90 feet.
Recently restored, in 1999 it received an award from the American Institute of Engineers and there seems no reason why it should not last another two thousand years as a monumental achievement of our western culture.