Beijing to Xi’an and the Terracotta Army

December 8, 2017

To get to the ancient imperial capital of Xi’an we chose to travel on the incredibly fast bullet train.  It was very slick and efficient and the six hour journey was comfortable.  I had been looking forward to viewing the Chinese countryside but a combination of grey misty weather and the speed of travel reduced that possibility.  Our fellow passengers were intriguing to watch and we did see a number of huge cities as the train slowed through their suburbs.

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Fast train to Xi’an

The strange weather continued for the short time we spent in Xi’an.  It was not too cold but the tops of the huge skyscrapers disappeared in the mist.  I think this was a meteorological condition rather than the pollution we had expected.  My throat and lungs never felt irritated.

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Throughout our stay in China it was obvious that it was compulsory for the guides to take us to large ‘official tourist’ shops.  In Xi’an this resulted in the odd experience of having to traipse through a vast emporium selling replica Terracotta Warriors in all sizes before we had visited the real thing.

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The American tourist’s hat gives the game away that these are not the real thing.

Difficult to pack but would have made a ‘talking point’ garden ornament.  The shop also sold lacquered furniture, silk carpets, calligraphy banners and paintings.  Some of the goods were very beautiful but we did not come to China to shop.  At last we arrived at the site of the Terracotta Army, those iconic and mysterious soldiers who have been guarding the tomb of Qin Shi Huang for nearly 2,500 years.

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The elderly gentleman in the middle above is Yang Zhifa who first came across the multitude of statues in 1974 when he was digging a well on his family farm.  Now retired on a government pension he drops into the Museum shop for photo ops with visitors.

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The Terracotta Warriors

They are such an awesome sight in real life – all lined up in this enormous building which has been built over and around them.  You can’t make out either the visitors or the soldiers at the far end as they are so far away.

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The statues were arranged in great columns, four abreast in deep pits separated by thick, rammed earth walls.  Then ‘roofs’ of logs were laid across on top.  In the picture above you can see the regular indents on the tops of the walls where these were fitted.

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Horses in amongst the warriors.

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The army was set up in battle formation with a vanguard at the front.  All the men are facing the same way except for a line down both flanks where they look outwards.

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The old photograph above was on display in the adjoining museum and shows some of the very early excavation work.  The photograph below is of an area where the 3D jigsaws of shattered statues are being meticulously reassembled.

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A continuing work in progress.

There is a much smaller pit with about 70 statues and it is now thought that this is the ‘command centre’ for the army.

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Charioteers, the one on the left would be holding reins.

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There is still a huge amount of work to be done as can be seen above, in some of the trenches the soldiers are no longer intact or indeed standing upright.  But why are these amazing sculptures here?

It is all down to Qin Shi Huang who has been designated the first Emperor of China.  Qin lived from 259 BC – 210 BC and has left a very mixed legacy.  Setting aside the incredible ‘army’, he had a profound influence on the newly formed ‘country’ of China, causing huge cultural and and intellectual growth and also much destruction.

From my guide book – “In order to consolidate the nascent empire, Qin Shi Huang reformed politics, economy and culture.  In politics, he abolished the hereditary vassal enfeoffment  system and established prefectures and counties, ruled directly by the emperor.  Based on the original rules of the Qin State, the emperor adopted some regulations of other rival states to form a workable law of the Qin Dynasty.  In economy, he claimed that both the agriculture and commerce were very important.  Besides, tax systems began to function and coinage and metrology were all standardised.  In culture, the emperor unified the Chinese characters in writing, which promoted the development of culture.  However, he also surpassed scholars who were not to his liking.”

Another very notable, and very visible ‘artefact’ Qin left was that his early defensive wall building in the north of the country turned out to be the start of the Great Wall of China.

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Kneeling archer

Particularly good examples of individual warriors are displayed in the museum.  Amazingly each of the statues is different.  The bodies and arms are all made from a small set of moulds but each head and the adornment details were added by sculptors.  The detail is amazing – the hairstyles, complete with braiding, the moustaches, and buckles and bows on higher ranks.

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Kneeling archer from behind – note the tread pattern on the sole of his shoe.

The next example is a high ranking officer, one of 7 ‘generals’ found – defined by his double layered robe decorated with many bows, his ornate headgear tied with a bow under his chin and shoes with turned up toes.

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General

Near to the main pit was found a series of beautiful bronze carriages and horses.  These are half size models of the deluxe sedans used by Emperor Qin when he made inspection tours.  It took decades of painstaking work to re-assemble the shattered remains.

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In his later years Qin became paranoid and feared death.  His doctors and scholars were frantically helping him in his search for the elixir of immortality when, ironically, he died as the result of imbibing mercury in one of their experiments.  At the same time Qin  had been building his immense mausoleum almost since he took control (some think it is ‘city size’).  The site of the mausoleum is known but there is continuing debate as to how this should be explored / opened.  Test probes have revealed that there are abnormally high levels of mercury, possibly as much as 100 times the normal.

The awesome Terracotta Army I had the privilege to view, and, I hope to have described to you, were put in place over 2,000 years ago to guard Emperor Qin from the evil spirits in the afterlife.  He didn’t achieve immortality in the recognised human understanding of that word but he did leave an amazing legacy in historical terms.

 

 

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Tiananmen Square to the Great Wall

November 21, 2017

At each of the important sites we visited in China we had a local guide.  They were quite different personalities, all spoke excellent English, were knowledgeable and caring, and firmly stuck to the ‘party line’.  This was quite noticeable in our ‘compulsory’ rickshaw ride and visit to the Hutongs in Beijing.

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No one but gullible western tourists would ever ride in a rickshaw in the shiny, polluted mega metropolis that is modern Beijing.  The estimated population is about 22 million but both Shanghai and Chongqing have even more people.

The enjoyable bit about this mode of transport was going down the narrow little alleyways of the Hutong area and catching a glimpse of even narrower passages to the side.

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The name Hutong is thought to come from an ancient Mongol term for a passageway and in modern Beijing, as most have been bulldozed to make way for apartment blocks and shopping malls, they are desirable areas to live in for aspirational yuppies.  Where we visited there was a brand new Chinese flag (still with the folds visible) flying beside every doorway – possibly for the imminent, and hugely important, 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.

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I would have loved to see behind these austere grey walls, but our ‘Gok Wan look alike’ guide hustled us on to our compulsory ‘home visit’.  This turned out to be a demonstration of painting inside snuff bottles in a very strange ‘house’.  The work of the woman artist was very, very beautiful but the setting was no more a normal house than the high tech, luxury hotel we were staying in.  I didn’t take any photographs because I always feel very uncomfortable in situations like this – intrusive and voyeuristic, although it was an opportunity for the painter  to sell her work.

Equally intriguing was the time we spent on our own visiting Tiananmen Square.

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The vastness of Tiananmen Square

Colin was very keen to get here as he last visited it nearly twenty years ago when in Beijing on business.  ‘Gok’ wasn’t very happy and tried to put us off with predictions of the hours long queue to get through security but we went on our own anyway.  Security was particularly strict as it was only a few days before the big Party Congress.  We thought we were going to be thwarted as we realised that, as well as bags being scanned and pat downs, everyone’s ID was being checked and we didn’t have our passports on us.  Eventually, after a lot of smiling,  our UK photo Driving Licences were accepted as suitable ID.  The wait was only about 15 minutes and provided an up close people watching opportunity.  It is definitely not true that all Chinese look alike.

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Monument to the People’s Heroes

This huge granite monument, with carvings of key patriotic and revolutionary events, is plonked right in the middle of the square but is quite dwarfed by the vast empty space all around.  Everything was so big I find it difficult to estimate how many other people were there – 99% of them Chinese tourists.

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Tiananmen Square

If you are going to have a vase of flowers why not have a big one – no idea what this was about.

The gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen) was once the main entrance to the Forbidden City but is now known world wide as the place where the iconic enormous portrait of Mao Zedong hangs. If you are as old as me you will know him as Mao Tse-Tung.

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From this angle you can’t see the six lane highway, lined with barriers, between the people and the Tiananmen Gate.  For me the next photograph sums up my confused picture of China and her people today ….

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… a vast open space, controlling barriers, ancient 15th century building, portrait of a still revered despot and a young man riding the equivalent of a ‘Boris’ bike whilst taking a ‘selfie’.

The last day of our time in Beijing was spent visiting the Great Wall of China – just as awesome but in a different way.  My reaction was as so often previously when I have had the privilege to visit very famous places  (eg Moai Statues on Easter Island) – no amount of prior knowledge, photos and articles studied, documentaries watched, etc could prepare me for the ‘standing on the spot’ experience.

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The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu, near Beijing

The section we visited was at Mutianyu, a 3.5 mile long restored section which is about 90 minutes drive from central Beijing.  There is a very slick system of organising the huge numbers of tourists who visit here every day of the year – multi storey car park, pleasant walk through area of new tourist restaurants and souvenir  shops, managed queuing for the shuttle bus, efficient ticketing and then an exhilarating 6 minute chair lift to get up onto the ridge where the wall is built.  My heart sank when I saw the scale of the infrastructure but up on the Wall it never felt crowded.

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From my guide book : “The Wall wasn’t built in one go.  Rather, there are four distinct Walls.  Work on the ‘original’ began during the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC), when hundreds of thousands of workers laboured for ten years to construct it.  Work continued during the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) but it took the impending threat of Genghis Khan to spur further construction in the Jin dynasty (1115-1234).  The Wall’s final incarnation, the one we see today, came during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when it was re-inforced  with stone, brick and battlements over a period of 100 years.”

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At Mutianyu the Wall switchbacks along a spectacular ridge making some very steep steps in places but also affording beautiful views over the woodland below and to the far distant soaring peaks.

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The enormous Chinese characters marked on the distant hillside say ‘loyalty to Chairman Mao’.  I loved walking on this tiny section of the 8851 kilometre long  Wan Li Changcheng – the Great Wall.  In spite of this awesome length it is a myth that the structure can be seen from outer space.

Again from my guide book : “Despite being home to around one million soldiers, the great irony of the Wall is that it rarely stopped China’s enemies from invading.  It was never one continuous structure; there were inevitable gaps and it was through those that Genghis Khan rode in to take Beijing in 1215.  Nor could the Wall stop the Manchus sweeping down from what is now northeasters China and overthrowing the Ming dynasty in 1644.”  Nowadays the Walls infamy encourages a new invading horde – tourists.

In the next episode – a bullet train to the ancient capital, Xi’an, and the Tarracotta Warriors.


China

November 18, 2017

This is just the start of what could turn out to be a lengthy series of posts about our recent trip to China.  It has taken  a few weeks since our return to sift through the 1500 photographs, identify proper place names and choose a small enough selection not to bore our friends rigid.  We started our visit in Beijing, travelled south through Xi’an to Chengdu and then east via the Three Gorges onto Shanghai – many cars, trains, planes,  one boat and, of course, a rickshaw.

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Wumen (Meridian Gate), Forbidden City

It would take a week to really do justice to the amazing architecture and layout of the Forbidden City in Beijing but we did enjoy our whizz around visit in bright, cold sunshine.  Originally the Wumen was reserved for the Emperor’s sole use but even we were allowed entry now and through into the first of many awesome sights.

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Jinshui He (the Golden Water Stream)

We were now in a vast paved courtyard cut across by the Golden Water Stream.  The water wasn’t actually gold but still reflected the five marble bridges spanning it with their ornate marble balustrades.

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This imposing bronze lion was one of a pair guarding the next gate, Taiheman (Gate of Supreme Harmony).  He is positioned on the east side and his paw on a globe denotes that imperial power extended world wide.

If you have the seen the film The Last Emperor you will recognise this enormous space as  the largest of the interior courtyards – it could accommodate the entire court of up to one hundred thousand people.  As you see there were a lot fewer people the day we visited – almost entirely large parties of Chinese tourists.

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On the right is the Taihe Dan (Hall of Supreme Harmony)

As well as the sweeping vistas I was entranced by some of the close up details and particularly their symbolism.

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Main entrance doors always had large studs arranged in rows, the number indicating ranks in the feudal hierarchy.  The ones above were made of brass and then gold plated.  The pattern of 9 X 9 implies a gate used only by the Emperor as the number nine represented the supremacy of the monarchy.  Other titled people, princes and barons had fewer studs on their gates, and the lower ranks had studs made of iron.

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The Palace of Earthly Honour

The bronze crane above is featured often throughout the Forbidden City, and indeed all China, as cranes were venerated as the prince of all feathered creatures and had the legendary status embodying longevity and peace.  There were hundreds of the huge water vats scattered close to the main buildings.  As well as being decorative they also had a very practical purpose – filled with water against a fire emergency.  In winter they were covered and wrapped around with quilts and, when necessary, heated from below with charcoal to prevent the water from freezing.

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Wenshou (ornaments on roof ridges)

I loved these mythical little creatures adorning the ridges of every roof in the Forbidden City.  Again there is intriguing symbolism and mythology involved.  The largest one on the right is a son of the Dragon King who rules the seas therefore he could stir up the waves  and change them to rains – yet another fire precaution.  The size and number of the smaller ‘animals’ would be decided by the status of the owner or occupier of the building.  The above ridge has only five creatures and is on one of the twelve halls in the side courtyard which were used to house the imperial concubines of different grades.  The most important building has a series of eleven mythical animals.

Sadly and tiredly we left the Forbidden City and travelled the few kilometres to the Summer palace.

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The Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, Summer Palace, Beijing

This beautiful, colourful, ornately decorated palace was first built in the Qing Dynasty in 1750 by Emperor Qianlong.  It was rebuilt in 1886 and was the place where the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi handled court affairs, accepted laudations and received foreign diplomats when she stayed at the Summer palace.

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The Long Corridor of the Summer Palace

Emperor Qianlong built this kilometre long covered walkway for his mother’s 60th birthday.  It goes along the shore of Kunming Lake and was to allow the lady to enjoy the view even if it was raining or snowing.  The inside of the roof was painted with delightful little scenes along its entire length.

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The Hall of Prayer, Temple of Heaven, Beijing

Inside was where prayers were said for a good harvest.

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Inside the Hall of Prayer

To be continued.


How Did That Happen?

October 9, 2017

I hinted in my last post about the slightly scary feeling that time has been speeding up.  This time warp experience was confirmed in August when it was noticed that we have been married for fifty years.  How can all that time have passed so quickly?  Anyway it was time to celebrate.  I believe in making celebrations last as long as possible so we started with a superb little dinner party at Two Fat Ladies at the Buttery in Glasgow – the food was exquisite, a bit different from gammon steak and pineapple half a century ago at our wedding reception.

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The ladies have moved on from a wee sweet sherry to exotic cocktails.

A few days later was our main party at the Kingarth Hotel on Bute.

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Founder members of the newly formed ‘Stripy Gang’

It was a great night filled with laughter, food, champagne and good friends.

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“On behalf of my husband and myself ……”

As a wonderful gift to us, our two children, plus wife and partner, arranged a family weekend away crammed with very carefully chosen activities to fit with individual and collective tastes and interests.

We were booked into the Devonshire Arms at Bolton Abbey near Skipton – equidistant for the journeys for both the Scottish and English travellers.  It was a beautiful sunny afternoon when we arrived and a joy to stroll down to the ruined abbey.

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The late afternoon sunshine was pouring through the stained glass windows onto the ancient stonework.

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The weather on Saturday was mixed but we managed to avoid the heaviest of the showers and enjoy the sunny spells.  The day’s activities started with a visit to Ingrow Loco Museum & Workshop.  An interesting little place absolutely crammed with steam trains and artefacts and jolly volunteers.

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You are never too old to dream of being a train driver.

Of course the next step had to be a ride on a steam train – on the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway from Ingrow to Haworth.

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I think Jane was the most excited of us all, as, strangely, she had never been on a steam train before.

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Hanging out the window in the smoke.

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Very evocative sounds and smells.

Our destination had also been carefully chosen – this one very specifically for me, a visit to the Bronte Parsonage Museum at Haworth.

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The tour group at Haworth Parsonage

The family were very kind and waited quite patiently while I went a lot more slowly than them, soaking up a perfect mixture of history and literature.

Back at the hotel this was the idyllic view from our room as we changed for dinner.  Colin and Keith went out and watched for a bit – a change from a muddy shinty pitch.

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Our meal  in the hotel on Saturday night was an amazing ‘tasting menu’.  Counting in various amuse bouche, it ran to about ten courses, all of them quite small quantities so that we did not feel stuffed.  Similarly the accompanying different wines for each plateful were only a couple of mouthfuls so no one ended up legless.  We are all interested in food and cooking so it was great fun.

Saturday was a whole day activity and a totally new experience for us – a trip to York Races.  We had tickets for the County Stand and in advance had discussions about what to wear – did the ladies need hats a la Ladies Day at Ascot?  Fortunately it was Family Day so the dress code was relaxed a bit.  We all scrubbed up well, with the girls in frocks and high heels but no headgear, and the boys with smart casual jackets but no ties.  It was quite a cool blustery day with a few showers which caused all the scantily clad young race goers to stick closely to the bars inside.  Some of the outfits were astounding!

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Studying the Odds

I enjoyed learning a new ‘skill’ and having betting explained to me but I found it all a bit tense, as if I was sitting a test all the time – there was not a lot of time to relax between races.  It was fun but I am too mean to get carried away – I don’t like handing out money and getting nothing back!  I preferred to watch the assorted people and the beautiful horses, and drink more champagne.

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I would have been better off simply choosing my favourite colour than trying to work out odds, starting prices and all the other information available.  It was fun and exciting at times but I am clearly not a natural punter.

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The thunder of hooves.

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First Past the Post

Our Golden Wedding celebrations were all wonderful in their different ways.  We are so blessed  to be surrounded by such loving, caring, and thoughtful family and friends and to have had each other for such a long time no matter how fast or slow time passed.


More Spanish Cities

July 2, 2017

Seville was a new adventure for us and had just as much wow factor as Barcelona and Cordoba.  We were quickly becoming immersed in the juxtaposition of Moorish architecture, middle ages Christian additions and adaptations, and the pomp and bling of Catholic Christianity.  This can be epitomised by the Moorish entry into Seville Cathedral.

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The Moorish horse shoe shaped arch flanked with Christian saints and angels.

The cathedral was started in 1401 on the site of an earlier mosque and took a century to complete (Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is simply following the long building pattern).  My guidebook says “… in sheer cubic vastness [this] is the largest Christian church in the world … the vast Gothic arches that line the nave inside the cathedral are so high that the space within the building is said to have its own independent climate”

The piece de resistance has to be the immense  golden Retable Mayor built between 1482 – 1564 and now reputedly the largest altarpiece in the world.  Again I was glad of my binoculars for closer inspection.

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Attached to the cathedral is another piece of ‘recycled’ history – La Girelda, the symbol of Seville.  This was originally a minaret of the mosque built in 1198.  In the 14th century the bronze spheres on top were replaced with Christian symbols and the final ornate design we see today was completed in 1568.  We climbed to the top to enjoy the amazing views over the old city.  Intriguingly it wasn’t steps we had to negotiate but gently sloping ramps from floor to floor – much easier on the knees during the descent.

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After the Cathedral we moved on to Seville’s most iconic building – the Reales Alcazares.  Again I find it easiest to quote from my guidebook – saves me overloading on the word ‘awesome’.  “This extensive complex embodies a series of palatial rooms and spaces from various ages.  The front towers and walls are the oldest surviving section, dating from AD 913 and built by the Emir of Cordoba, Abd ar-Rahman III , most likely on the ruins of Roman barracks.  A succession of caliphs added their dazzling architectural statements over the ensuing centuries.  Then came the Christian kings, particularly Pedro I in the 14th century, and finally the rather perfunctory 16th century apartments of Carlos V.”

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The mosaic tiling on the lower walls in places was very delicate and very beautiful.  In the following photograph you can also see some of the intricately carved wooden doors.

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Wandering through courtyards and rooms, everywhere we turned there were yet more stunningly beautiful things to see.

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The refurbishment of this part has replicated the original bright colours.

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At times the beauty around us was almost overwhelming but away from the iconic tourist sights we found Seville to be a warm, friendly destination.  When surrounded by such amazing architecture and decoration even our hotel got in the act – viz the lift doors in the main lobby.

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The weather was mostly sunny and very hot – but you will know the phrase ‘The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain …’.  Well it certainly did in Seville one afternoon when we had two 10 minute monsoons.  This turned out to be a very friendly experience as the cafe pavement sunshades became refuges for every passerby including us.

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Our last awesome Spanish city was Granada  – where, of course, the Alhambra dominates.  This is the best preserved mediaeval Arab palace in the world and had long been on my wish list for a visit, and it certainly did not disappoint.

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The Alhambra, Granada

Seen from across the valley the Alhambra looks a quite austere, regular, defensive palace but once you start to wander around the inside it is an almost overwhelming visual feast.   There was not the layers of Muslim and Christian worship we had grown accustomed to in our other three Spanish cities – this was purely residential, luxurious and oozing power and wealth.

From the guidebook – “A magical use of space, light, water and decoration characterises this most sensual piece of architecture.  It was built under Ismail I, Yusuf I and Muhammad V, caliphs when the Nasrid dynasty ruled Granada.  Seeking to belie an image of waning power, they created their idea of paradise on earth.  Modest materials were used (plaster, timber and tiles), but they were superbly worked.  Although the Alhambra suffered pillage and decay, including an attempt by Napoleon’s troops to blow it up, in recent times it has undergone extensive restoration and its delicate craftsmanship still dazzles the eye.

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 Patio del Mexuar

This council chamber, completed in 1365, was where the reigning sultan listened to the petitions of his subjects and held meetings with his ministers.

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The temperature in Granada was in the mid 30s – a wee bit hot for we fair skinned Scots so we found the exquisitely decorated surrounds of various pools and patios particularly welcoming.

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Looking out to the Garden de Lindaraja

The Islamic calligraphy and arabesques around this window were superb and the garden beyond looked very peaceful and inviting.

The Alhambra is rightly a huge tourist attraction and after a few hours of sharing space with our fellow gawpers and trying to absorb everything I was seeing it was very pleasant to head next door to the Generalife, the country estate of the Nasrid kings – ‘tranquility high above the city, a little closer to heaven.

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Patio del Acequia

Looks like we had the place to ourselves!  I don’t know how I managed to take the above photograph with no other tourists in view – they were wandering about in their thousands – and I hope they enjoyed the Alhambra as much as we did.


A Tale of Four Cities

June 19, 2017

The cities in question were the four we visited last month when in Spain.  But first a little digression.  I always smile when filling in my address on an online form.  Usually there is space for two address lines and then the next one says ‘city’ – so I ‘promote’ Rothesay to city status.  Then I feel I should apologise to my fellow residents because we all chose to live here and not in a ‘city’!

Our trip to Spain was a concentrated sight seeing feast of Andalusia but we started with a short visit to Barcelona.  This was very specifically to see again the wondrous Sagrada Familia.  We last viewed it about 16 years ago and knew that much more of the building has been completed since then.

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Sagrada Familia dwarfing the surrounding city.

When we were last there it was even more of a building site, with really only the eight giants towers in place.  This time the main sanctuary is almost complete. It has been consecrated (in 2010 by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI) and is already used occasionally for worship.

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The huge, elegant, soaring pillars.

To stand inside this amazing space is to make you feel at the same time very, very small, and also in awe of the  immensity of the human brain able to design and build such an incredible building.

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Exquisite detail on the enormous doors.

Antoni Gaudi who designed the Sagrada Familia was in charge from 1883 until his death in 1926 but others have continued to bring his visions to reality.  Gaudi was very influenced by nature and passionate about conveying the teachings of the Gospels and the Christian Church so every detail whether large or small has meaning.

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Stained Glass Windows

The sun streaming through the glass simply filled the sanctuary with multi coloured light – it felt like standing inside a rainbow.  I loved the stained glass – no depictions of  saints, the Holy Family or Bible stories – all abstract, but a very carefully planned movement of colours.

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In most ways it has the form and shape of a traditional cathedral but just on an awesome scale.  Modern building technology and new materials allow for the heights both inside and outside to be greater – very clever geometry means that the supporting pillars appear slim and elegant.

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I used my binoculars frequently to look at the details and the sculptures on the two main facades – the Nativity and the Passion.  Sagrada Familia is now estimated to be completed by 2026.  I pray that I will still be fit enough to return then.

Whilst in Barcelona we made a quick return visit to another of Gaudi’s masterpieces – La Pedrera with its iconic chimneys.

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The other three cities we visited were all new to us.  In Cordoba we were introduced to another building ,equally as awesome as the Sagrada Familia but from a different era – La Mezquita, a mosque begun in AD786 which was frequently extended during the next six centuries until it had over a thousand pillars.

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Just a few of the forest of pillars.

The 10th century Mihrab in an octagonal chamber has some of the finest Byzantine mosaics in existence.

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In 1523 about 60 pillars were removed from the centre of the mosque at the behest of Emperor Carlos V and a huge Christian cathedral built inside and to this day it has been a place of Christian worship.  My guide book says “La Mezquita’s identity as a mosque is inescapable – notwithstanding the cathedral insensitively placed in its centre like a huge spider in its web.”

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Cordoba Cathedral

The next photograph shows how refurbishment work has been done in places on the outside to show how glorious it must once have looked.

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I loved the narrow streets of Cordoba – sometimes only a few feet wide, and sometimes just enough space for a car to squeeze along with its wing mirrors folded in.

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It was hot in Spain so we were very grateful for our cool hotel, housed in a series of very old buildings with a number of inviting little courtyards to relax in.

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Not sure how authentic the ‘ancient broken Roman pillar’ was but the oranges were real and were virtually falling off the trees as we watched.  As well as the ‘formal’ sightseeing at La Mezquita and other places we had the huge privilege of being in the right place at the right time.

Cordoba was holding its version of Gardens Open Day – La Fiesta d Los Patios d Cordoba, and we discovered the most beautiful garden gems normally hidden from sight behind the whitewashed house walls with their lace covered, ornately barred windows and solid wooden doors.  We had a sketch map outlining a route around the neighbourhood and like many local people we popped in and out of the riotously coloured and lovingly cared for private patios.

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Hours of watering every day!

That is two of my four Spanish cities – Seville and Granada will follow soon.


The End of Another Year

December 27, 2016

It is the few quiet days between Christmas, with its weeks of anticipation and preparation, and Hogmanay with its reflections and shenanigans.  I realise I haven’t blogged as much this year and posted nothing at all in the last three months – no real reason but lots of excuses – so I will, as tradition dictates, finish 2016 with a quick review of September to December.

Three times we had ‘little’ holidays – two within a few hours driving time and one a short haul flight.  When we visit family or friends in the south of England we usually just shoot past the Lake District en route for somewhere else but in late September we stayed on Ullswater for a few days of glorious autumn sunshine.

 

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MV Balmoral

The sister ship of the PS Waverley came to visit in Rothesay, so of course we had a wee sail on a rather chilly, grey day.  A nice ship but in my eyes without the personality of her sister.

Another weekend at the end of October we had reason to visit Pitlochry for a few days  when the autumn colours of the trees was quite spectacular.

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In amongst all the trips away life on Bute continued in its fascinating way – the dwindling numbers of tourists and the starting of winter activities underlining this time of transition between the seasons.  There was a good dry spell of weather and the farmers gathered their harvest in.  We celebrated at church with a service and a scrumptious lunch.

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He didn’t have to do all the dishes by himself!

At the beginning of November we jetted off seeking some winter sun – and found it very pleasantly warm in the south of Tenerife.  The Hotel Bahia del Duque was beautiful, peaceful and with a choice of restaurants.

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The perfect terrace for breakfast and afternoon tea.

There were a number of swimming ‘pools’ scattered down the hillside, all beautifully set in the landscaped gardens.

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There never seemed to be anyone in the water when we strolled past en route for our daily amble along the esplanade to the next village along the coast.  It was a very luxurious place and we even had our own wee plunge pool – I could manage three strokes from corner to corner.

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The young lady in the next photograph had gone to a lot of trouble to get comfy whilst she sunbathed.

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This short break set us up nicely for the whirl of activities that arrive with December.  Each of the organisations we are members of holds a Christmas party or dinner ( I try to avoid turkey until Christmas day, while Colin chooses it every time) – lots of fun and laughter and good company.  There were also concerts and special church services.

The Fundraising Committee at the United Church of Bute held a Cake and Coffee morning in mid December and I helped mount a display of Nativity Sets in the sanctuary at the same time.  It was amazing – 18  depictions of the well known story but each one different and having its own story to tell (bought in different countries, some very old and some fairly new etc).

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My sister brought this set from Russia many years ago.

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Beautifully carved; hand knitted by various members of the congregation; very old.

The whole church was beautifully decorated.

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…. and even some cakes were suitably festive.

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Would I be tempting fate by making a New Year Resolution four days before 2017?  I’m not promising but I will try not to leave such long gaps between my blogs next year.

The weather has been very wild for the last ten days – storm Barbara followed swiftly by storm Connor.  The inevitable disruption to the ferry services over the whole of the west coast of Scotland has been immense.  We personally were not affected as fortunately none of our family’s comings and goings were scheduled for ‘no service’ days but many folk around us suffered  anxiety and the last minute rearranging of already complex travel arrangements.  I hope my readers have had a joyful and Happy Christmas.

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Christmas Day 2016 on Ettrick Bay