The Grandeur of Granada

The main altar in the church of the Monastery of Caruja

The main altar in the church of the Monastery of Cartuja

Traffic posts topped with pomegranates

Traffic posts topped with pomegranates

Named from the Spanish word for pomegranate, Granada is a vibrant city with the energy and buzz you would expect from a university town.  Rather than one sprawling campus, the University of Granada is parsed out over a number of sites including buildings with historic and cultural importance – churches, seminaries and royal houses.  I tried to imagine how unique my college experience would have been had I studied in such a historic atmosphere.  Rated one of Spain’s top universities and with 80,000 students, I now understand the youthful dynamism that Granada radiates.

The altarpiece in the Monastery of Cartuja by master, Sanchez Cotán, is painted to give the illusion it is made of grey marble.

The altarpiece in the Monastery of Cartuja by master, Sanchez Cotán, is painted to give the illusion it is made of grey marble.

The most iconic site in all of Granada is The Alhambra, the Moorish citadel and palace overlooking the city dating back to the 9th century.  We did not tour The Alhambra mostly because I did not purchase tickets in advance, and admissions sell out daily.  I felt bad at first about missing out.  However, I have seen so many palaces and fortresses in the last couple two years of travel that I am not too disappointed.  Also, every blogger who has traveled to Granada has written much about The Alhambra.  I do not think I could have shared anything new.  We made up for any loss of discovery with a few stunning additions to our ongoing ABC Tour*.

This marble and ebony shrine sits beyond the main altar of the Carthusian Monastery behind a wall of Venetian glass.

This marble and ebony shrine behind the main altar of the Carthusian Monastery is partly concealed by a wall of Venetian glass.

We first visited the Monastery of Cartuja.  The construction, which began in 1516, was never completed even after three centuries.  The Carthusian Order of monks derive their name from the Chartreuse Mountains of the French Alps, as do the English Charterhouse monks.  Although this order at one time occupied twenty-four monasteries in Spain, most of these were confiscated and secularized in 1836.  Today, only four Carthusian monasteries still exist in Spain.

Carthusian monks are permitted leave their cloister only three or four times per year.  The rest of the time they spend in silent meditation and prayer.  They speak only when necessary.  They dine together only on Sundays and Holy Days.  Their meals are always vegetarian.  They pay for their basic needs by performing various crafts including making rosary beads from rose petals.  We saw some samples of these rosaries in the monastery gift shop, and they still have a flower scent.  A set of rosary beads costs €40, about $55.

There are two identical pipe organs facing each other overlooking this massive sanctuary of the Cathedral of Granada.

There are two identical pipe organs facing each other overlooking this massive sanctuary of the Cathedral of Granada.

We later made our way to the Cathedral of Granada.  The towering Gothic façade has one tower because the original design calling for two towers was too massive for the foundation built atop the city’s ancient mosque to support.   The cathedral’s Renaissance interior is so huge in scale that I could not help but feel small.  The massive, ornate columns soar nearly 200 feet to the arched ceiling.  It took over 180 years to build this cathedral, and I can understand why given its size and infinitesimal detail.

One last stop on the ABC Tour was the Church of San Jerónimo, or Saint Jerome, the 4th century priest who translated The Bible into Latin.  While modest compared to the grandeur of the Cathedral of Granada, it was still impressive.  The Catholic Monarchs, Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II, founded the monastery and church, which was built in a distinctive Renaissance style.  If the names of these monarchs seem familiar, these are the same Spanish monarchs who commissioned the sailing expedition of Christopher Columbus to find a western trade route to the East Indies.  His discovery of the Americas led to the rapid rise of Spain to the stature of a world power.  The tombs of the king and queen now rest in the Royal Chapel just outside the Cathedral of Granada.

Classical music played by students of the music conservatory made our Granada visit complete.

Classical music played by students of the music conservatory made our Granada visit complete.

Granada made the leap from a medieval city with narrow, winding streets to a modern city by razing some medieval buildings that had historic significance.  What was lost to antiquity was replaced by a downtown with gardens, parks, plazas and streets lined with sidewalk cafes, bakeries, shops, apartment buildings and hotels.  The current mix of old and new is quite appealing.  Add in a free classical quintet concert (flute, clarinet, bassoon, French horn and oboe) at the top Royal Conservatory of Music during this, Granada’s 2014 Week of Chamber Music, and this made for a great addition to our tours of the great cities of Spain.

*ABC Tour stands for ‘Another Blessed Cathedral’ in reference to the churches and cathedrals we have visited in a dozen countries in the last three years.
Note: All photos are the copyrighted property of Florence Lince.
The high mountains of the Sierra Nevada provide winter skiing and year-round fresh water for Granada and the fertile valley where it lies.

The high mountains of the Sierra Nevada provide winter skiing and year-round fresh water for Granada and the fertile valley where it lies.

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I Hit the Jackpot in Torrevieja

Life-size bronze statues of a director and five musicians pay tribute to the rich musical legacy of Torrevieja.

Life-size bronze statues of a director and five musicians stand on the Paseo Vista Alegre in tribute to the rich musical legacy of Torrevieja.

This was the final week of the Tapas Crawl, the 10th Annual Ruta de Las Tapas. We set out for the town center to check out the annual Book Fair on the downtown waterfront. Florence and I are avid readers, and we were interested to see if there were many books in English available at reasonable prices. Granted, the local library has a decent English language section, mostly fiction. A range of restaurants would be serving their best tapas for whenever the hunger bug hit, but first a little shopping was in order.

The annual book fair consists of six large book kiosks on the seafront pedestrian walkway.

The annual book fair consists of six large book kiosks on the seafront pedestrian walkway.

We were surprised to learn that Suzy and Rob, purveyors of the Bargain Books shop downtown, were the only outlet for English language books in town. I would have thought there would be demand for more given the large English expat population in Torrevieja. According to Suzy, that used to be the case. However, the other businesses folded, and now she and her husband have the last remaining English language bookstore.

Tomato and cheese pizza - 7€ ($10), and plenty left over for later

Tomato and cheese pizza – 7€ ($10), and plenty left over for later

We had eaten light that morning. Then it was time to ‘tapa off’ our appetites. I was already salivating in anticipation of our return visit to La Mila-Grossa, the Argentine restaurant we had discovered the previous weekend. We made a stop at La Bella Lola, which offered an excellent toasted tomato and cheese tapa. Next stop – La Mila-Grossa Restaurant.

Empañadas with Salsa de la Abuela - As soon as the aroma hit my nostrils I knew I was in for a treat.

Empañadas with Salsa de la Abuela – The aroma told me I was in for a treat.

We started with some fine appetizers. However, we had the main courses in mind. Florence longed for a vegetarian pizza, and I planned to make a meal of the house specialty empañadas. I had sampled them the weekend before, and the anticipation was killing me. When the empañadas arrived, I inquired if they had hot sauce thinking I had spied some on a side counter. Our server, Mariano, asked if I wanted ‘picante’ – the hot stuff. Oh, yeah!

Let me interject here that I love hot, spicy food. I have not tasted a decent hot sauce since we left Mexico over a year ago. Suddenly, a plain bottle with a generic skull ‘n’ crossbones sticker appeared on our table. I was as nervous as a teenager on a first date. Could this be the moment I had been waiting for? I put a taste on my fork and licked it off. A tense moment passed, and then a small fire started on the tip of my tongue. The juices that formed in my mouth were as sensuous as my first French kiss! I thought I heard angels singing. My heart beat and breathing sped up. It was delicious!

The handsome, young Mariano made me a gift of his grandmothers salsa.

The handsome, young Mariano made me a gift of his grandmothers salsa.

I had a pleasant conversation with Mariano after we had eaten. He told me he was from a town near Mar del Plata, Argentina, where his mother lives. He now lives here in Torrevieja where his father’s family originates. As we were preparing to go, I asked if the picante sauce served with lunch could be purchased. ‘Le gusta?’ he asked, pleasantly surprised. (You like it?) Then he told me his grandmother makes it for the restaurant, and yes, I could have some.

Mariano brought a generous container of the heavenly elixir from the kitchen. I asked him how much. He handed it to me and said, ‘Esto es un regalo para usted.’ (This is a gift for you.) Mariano had given me a gift of liquid gold which I now call Salsa de la Abuela, grandmother’s salsa. I had hit the jackpot! Muchas gracias mi amigo.

Note: All photos are the copyrighted property of Florence Lince.

Our Tour of The Vatican

Photos are not allowed in the Sistine Chapel.  This photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo
Photos are not allowed in the Sistine Chapel. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Nothing quite prepares you for viewing The Vatican.  Vatican City looks small on the map, and compared to the rest of Rome it is fairly small.  However, it takes four hours just to walk through the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica, so it is not small.

Although everyone has seen a photo of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which was painted by Michelangelo 500 years ago, a photo cannot begin to do justice to the experience of seeing the ceiling through one’s own eyes.  The photos do not provide any indication of the scope or scale of the artwork.  Also, the appearance of three-dimensional columns on the ceiling is an illusion.  The arched ceiling has a smooth surface.

Even though the Sistine Chapel is no bigger than a high school gymnasium, there is so much to take in visually that we took a bench along the side of the chapel and we sat for half an hour just looking at the artwork.  Our necks hurt from looking up constantly, so we took in the murals along the side walls as well, which are the work of other Renaissance masters.

So much history has taken place within these walls.  This is the chapel where the Congress of Cardinals votes to select a new pope.  This is where, after over a four year span, Michelangelo stepped out of his primary artistic role as a sculptor to paint over 5,000 square feet of frescoes on the ceiling and high walls of the chapel.  Unlike the portrayal of Michelangelo played by Charlton Heston in the movie The Agony and the Ecstasy, he did not lay on his back to paint the entire ceiling.  The artist did spend a great deal of time bending over backwards, however, and that had to be agony.

Michelangelo had many helpers who most likely mixed paint and made the many trips up and down the scaffolds which reached over sixty feet above the floor.  Assistants also probably did the messy job of mixing fresh plaster since Michelangelo took on the difficult task of painting frescoes by applying paint while the plaster was still drying, thus creating the strongest possible bond between paint and plaster.  Even if some talented assistants had been tasked with painting a bit of sky or scenery, Michelangelo gets the credit for designing and painting the masterpiece that is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  He hired and fired so many assistants that no one else could take credit for any significant contribution to the finished work.

Twenty-five years after the completion of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo was approached on behalf of the pope with the commission to paint the vast wall behind the altar which now holds his other chapel masterpiece, The Last Judgment.  He was hesitant to take the job thinking it was a test that would taint his reputation if he failed to live up to the standard he had set with the chapel ceiling. 

Photo credit:  Wikipedia Commons

The Last Judgment by Michelangelo
Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

The Last Judgment was the largest fresco ever painted up to that time, and it was a controversial piece given the amount of nudity that was depicted.  When the pope’s Master of Ceremonies, Biaggio di Cesena, proclaimed the painting was more suitable to a public bath or tavern than a holy place, Michelangelo painted a likeness of Cesena on the body of Minos, Judge of the Underworld, with donkey ears to symbolize foolishness and with a snake coiled around his middle to cover his genitalia.  (bottom right corner)  Cesena complained to the pope, who is said to have joked that his judgment did not extend to hell, so the painting remained unchanged.

During the ecumenical Council of Trent, nudity in religious art was condemned.  In 1564, after Michelangelo’s death, the genitalia referred to as ‘objectionable’ in The Last Judgment were painted over with drapery, which is how the painting has been viewed to this day.

Getting to the Sistine Chapel involves strolling through extensive galleries and museums.  You will begin to appreciate the vast treasures of The Vatican when you join our walk in this short video.

First Impressions from Rome

Pope Clement XIII had the Palazzo del Quirinale built as a summer palace on Rome's highest hill to escape the stench of the Tiber River.

Pope Clement XIII had the Palazzo del Quirinale built as a summer palace on Rome’s highest hill to escape the smell of raw sewage which flowed down the Tiber River.

We round the corner to enter the Quirinale Plaza and catch our first sight of The Vatican.

We round the corner to enter the Quirinale Plaza and catch our first sight of The Vatican.

This is my first visit to Rome.  My wife, Florence, has visited Rome on five occasions prior to this visit, so she is excited for me to experience awe and wonder of The Eternal City.   She loves to describe the sights I am about to lay my eyes on for the first time, and she is eager for my reactions.  However, her descriptions do little to prepare me for what I am experiencing.  There is simply no way to describe Rome to the first-time visitor.  It would be like trying to explain Disneyland to an alien.  One must see Rome for oneself.

Florence loves roasted chestnuts.  I bought cookies.

Florence loves fresh-roasted chestnuts.

As we start walking from our hotel near the central train station, I begin to notice the numerous locations that sell pizza.  My comment – ‘Look, another place that sells pizza!’ becomes tiresome, so I begin noticing shops with baked goods.  I had to stop.  After stocking up on a few essential goodies, we wander toward the President’s Palace, known officially as the Palazzo del Quirinale, the historic home of thirty popes dating back to the 16th century.  It is the sixth largest palace in the world and the largest home to any head of state.  From outside we have no idea about the scale of the palace on the inside, and the guards at the gate were not about to let us wander in to see for ourselves.

Mythological figures and horses seem to emerge from the rocks and pools of the Trevi Fountain.

Mythological figures and horses seem to emerge from the rocks and pools of the Trevi Fountain.

Descending from Piazza Quirinale on Rome’s highest hill, we see crowds of people ahead.  A quick check of the city map confirms they are converging on the Piazza di Trevi and the iconic Trevi Fountain.  There is so much happening artistically in the massive fountain that I can hardly take it all in at one time.  Also, I now realize how fortunate we are to be visiting Rome in the off season.  I think we would have had to wait an hour or more to get the photos that were available to us just by walking among the crowd to the edge of the observation area.

The Spanish Steps leading to the church above are the widest in the world.

The Spanish Steps leading to the church above are the widest in the world.

A few blocks beyond the Trevi Fountain is the Piazza di Spagna (the Spanish Plaza) and the Spanish Steps.  These 135 steps ascend to the Church of Trinitá dei Monti.  This day was the eve of The Epiphany, the day when the three magi appeared in Jerusalem following the birth of Jesus, so there was still in place a Nativity scene on the upper terrace of the steps.

Massa, the lovely sales clerk at Vinovip near the Trevi Fountain, cheerfully offers samples of liqueurs, which I am happy to taste.

Massa, the lovely sales clerk at Vinovip near the Trevi Fountain, cheerfully offers samples of liqueurs, which I am happy to taste.

We encountered numerous sights on our initial stroll through the city.  The fascinating thing about Rome is one can walk a mere block or two in any direction and suddenly you come upon a park, a plaza, a fountain, a palace, or one of the dozens of architectural wonders which abound, and we have barely scratched the surface.  Fortunately, Florence scheduled our stay here for a week.  She knew not to cut short our time in this great city.  All these legendary places are now coming to life right before my eyes.

I Should Write a Book – So I Did

The geese of the real Selva Negra

The geese of the real Selva Negra

Many times someone has said to me, “You should write a book!” And I finally did. Our first book is a children’s book for early readers with lots of pictures and only a sentence or two per page. It is called The Geese of Selva Negra, based on our real-life visit to the Selva Negra eco-lodge near Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

Baby Goose goes for a walk

Sample artwork from The Geese of Selva Negra
Art by Tad Sigman

We were fortunate in our travels to meet Tad, a recent college graduate from Fairbanks, Alaska. In a chance encounter at the Backpacker Hostel in Iquique, Chile, Tad informed us he had worked as an illustrator. “Wow,” we said, “we have been looking for an illustrator!” We explained our idea for a children’s book about a real place. We then exchanged email addresses and began following one another on Facebook.

I sent Tad my script and ideas for illustrations, and he followed up with drawings that simply blew us away. Tad and I talked about what we would do with any profit the book might generate. We agreed to donate any profit from the sale of the book to a worthy nonprofit organization that helps children. We decided on St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

End of the day for the goose family

Sample artwork from The Geese of Selva Negra
Art by Tad Sigman

After several months of living and traveling procrastinating, Florence performed the steps necessary to get our book listed on Amazon as an eBook with a list price of 99 cents. This week the Spanish translation will also be ready for publication. We seek to promote our book to school libraries to provide copies to teachers because eBooks can easily be projected for groups or entire classrooms to view at one time. The educational content of the book comes at the end of the story with a map and a question asking readers if they can spot the geographical location of the real Selva Negra.

We both love books and we both love when children’s imaginations are stirred by fascinating stories. We now have ideas for a dozen more children’s books about the places we have traveled and the unique animals that live there. Perhaps one day we will have a series of children’s books in both English and Spanish about far-off places that actually exist. And when we do we will continue to support worthy nonprofit organizations that benefit children from the profits of book sales. For example, our next book project is set up to benefit Girls With Wings which encourages girls to learn to fly. We have set up a “Crowdfunding” drive to cover the cost of hiring an illustrator. Click here is you wish to learn more.

Sicily, I Haven’t Forgotten You

The gold leaf mosaics in the Monreale Cathedral are spectacular.

The gold leaf mosaics in the Monreale Cathedral are spectacular.

I have focused so much on our travels and life abroad in Latin America that I have completely overlooked our recent trip to Sicily. This story is all about family. My father-in-law’s family emigrated from Sicily. We are talking about a BIG, Italian-size family. There are still over a hundred of their relatives living in and around Santa Maria in the north mountain country of Sicily.

Every biblical scene is done in mosaic detail.

Every biblical scene is done in minute mosaic detail.

My wife has visited Sicily on five previous occasions. This time, however, was the first time she visited with a husband. I wasn’t sure what to expect or what the local customs were for greeting a new member of the family. I can now tell you there is a lot of hugging and kissing involved. I finally got the hang of the alternating-cheek air kiss. The hugs vary depending on the family relationship – longer hugs with grandparents than with second or third cousins. The children give big hugs as soon as their parents announce, “He is your cousin.” Then they want to play.

The Concordia Temple in Agrigento built around 500 BC is a testament to the architects of Ancient Greece.

The Concordia Temple in Agrigento built around 500 BC is a testament to the architects of Ancient Greece.

Leading up to the family reunion is a twelve day private motorcoach tour of Sicily with family from the States. There is so much history here and so many sights to see. Every civilization that ever amounted to anything left its footprint in Sicily, and with good reason. Sicily served as the breadbasket to every empire that spread through the Old World. Geographically, Sicily is situated at the crossroads of the Mediterranean Sea. To this day there are more preserved Greek ruins in Sicily than there are in Greece. And the Romans picked up where the Greeks left off. There is also Spanish blood and Anglo blood in the Sicilian pedigree, which is evident when you notice the many Sicilians with light hair color and blue or hazel eyes.

The Aeolian Island of Vulcano seen from the road on Lipari.

The Aeolian Island of Vulcano seen from the road on Lipari.

We arrived by cruise ship in the Port of Catania after stops in Naples, Florence, and Pisa, Italy, Villefranche, France, Valencia, Spain, the Spanish Isle of Ibiza, and Tunis, Tunisia. My in-laws meet us in Catania. They had to rush home to the States for a family funeral the last time they were in Sicily. This may be their last opportunity to see family. Plus, Dad speaks beautiful Sicilian, and that is a huge benefit for the giant reunion that awaits.

My wife’s favorite spot in Sicily is Taormina, perched precariously on top of a small mountain. The Greek Amphitheater overlooking the sea is beyond compare. My favorite spot was the Aeolian Island of Lipari. The crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean and the views from the cliff road make this island paradise idyllic.

Cousin Nino knows where to get the best gelato.

Cousin Nino knows where to get the best gelato.

You cannot mention Sicily without mentioning the spectacular cathedrals. The 21,000 square feet of mosaics in the Cathedral of Monreale overlooking the capital city of Palermo are among the finest in Italy, if not the world. And in Tindiri, there is the Cathedral of the Black Madonna with its amazing folklore to go along with the architecture. There are other churches of note. However, the final stop on the ABC Tour (Another Blessed Cathedral) is the one in Santa Maria with the family name carved in stone along with the date, 1598.

I have not even touched on the food. I started out thinking the national dish of Sicily is eggplant because I could not get away from it. I eventually found alternatives. The world can take lessons from Italy on how to make dessert. The gelato is the best to be found anywhere and the cannolis are to die for!

A genuine Italian cannoli - whipped ricotta cheese and honey filling and rolled in crushed pistachios.

A genuine Italian cannoli is filled with whipped ricotta cheese and honey and then rolled in crushed pistachios.



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