My Most and Least Favorite Things About Spain

Spain has been an interesting contrast with the other countries in which we have lived over the past three years. As we prepare to move on, it is natural to reflect on the high points and the low ones. Here are some thoughts about what I most enjoyed and least enjoyed about Spain.

#1 Least Favorite – Dog poop

I find it incredible that dog owners in towns all around Spain do not clean up after their poopy dogs. There are piles of dog crap on almost every sidewalk of every block of every town I have visited. The big cities like Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Granada, and so on, are well-enough funded to have maintenance employees in the city centers who pick up pet poop along with garbage. Not so in the other areas of the towns. If the people of Spain had any idea how disgusting it is to tourists to have to dodge these piles, and how poorly it reflects on their country, they might do a better job of enforcing dog sanitation regulations. Thank goodness dogs are outlawed on the beaches!

#1 Most Favorite – The people

Our finest friends in Spain were the Brits, Mike and Ruth, on either side of me.  Joining us were their friends from England, Debbie and Hannah at the site of a Roman quarry in La Torre.

Our finest friends in Spain were the Brits, Mike and Ruth, on either side of me. Joining us were their friends from England, Debbie and Hannah at the site of a Roman quarry in La Torre.

We have made friends in every country we have visited, and Spain was no exception. It is always the memories of places and events shared with locals and fellow travelers that seem the most vivid. Even if we never see some of these friends again, we will never forget the kindnesses they have shared with us that made our time in Spain memorable.

#2 Least Favorite – The poor

There are poor people in every country, but that is no reason to forget about them. The poor economy hit Spain harder than most industrialized countries, and they have lagged behind the rest of the world in recovering. Personally, I think Spain has the resources it needs to take care of its people. Unfortunately, much of the revenues that flow into the economy seem to get siphoned off through corruption and unethical business practices.

When Spain recently announced Felipe VI as their new king, he proclaimed he would work to achieve greater equality and more opportunities for the unemployed and the needy. I hope he has the influence, the leadership and the integrity to bring about these benefits for his people.

#2 Most Favorite – The Food

The Central Market of Torrevieja, where I purchased dried figs and apricots.

The Central Market of Torrevieja, where I purchased dried figs and apricots.

I love fresh markets, and Spain is a fantastic place to find countless varieties of fruits, nuts, vegetables, olive oil and prepared foods to meet most people’s tastes. The land is fertile and productive. There is no reason for the people of Spain to ever go hungry. We also learned they make delicious chocolate in Spain!

#3 Least Favorite – Pickpockets

In the resort towns along the coast, there is little concern about personal safety and security. I have never felt unsafe walking alone or with my wife. And even though we were never directly approached in the big cities – Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Granada, Cordoba – we were always cautioned to be on the lookout for pickpockets. This was especially true in the bus and train stations whenever we were toting luggage. After having my wallet lifted in Rome, I have become more vigilant about watching out for thieves. They have become quite sophisticated in some instances. For example, I witnessed a well-dressed man in a fine suit carrying a clipboard and hanging around our hotel in Granada while the tour buses were unloading. When he saw that everyone remained standing next to their personal bags and he noticed my wife and I were watching him, he walked away.

#3 Most Favorite – The Weather

A typical sunny day at one of Torrevieja's many local parks.

A typical sunny day at one of Torrevieja’s many local parks.

Although the Costa Blanca has experienced its worst drought year on record and there have been dozens of brush fires in the surrounding countryside, it has been pleasant living on the coast just a few short blocks from the beach. The evening breezes coming of the Mediterranean Sea are cool and refreshing. In fact, we have seen rain here on the southern coast of Spain just a handful of times during our stay. We have been most fortunate weather-wise when we take into account that Madrid received over a foot accumulation of hail on July 3rd. The traffic on the freeways feeding this city of 3.2 million was brought to a standstill and the precipitation eroded the track of the high speed train from Alicante to Madrid. The Metro subway and the airport were flooded forcing delays and diversion of flights. I am grateful that we live on the Costa Blanca where it was 85°F and sunny.

There is something for everyone in Spain, and I am sure I will think of more things I could have added to this list after we leave.  Suffice it to say Spain should be on your list of countries to visit. Should you decide to go, I will be watching for your stories so that I might reminisce about our time in Spain. Buen viaje!

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Seville Before and After the Spanish Empire

The Gold Tower was built during Moorish rule in the early 13th century to guard access along the Guadalquivir River.  The tower's lime mortar gave off a golden glow in the evening sun which led to its name, the Torre del Oro.

The Gold Tower was built during Moorish rule in the early 13th century to guard access along the Guadalquivir River. The tower’s lime mortar gave off a golden glow in the evening sun which led to its name, the Torre del Oro.

Seville, an elegant city of over 700,000 people, rose to prominence as a working seaport on the Guadalquivir River.  It served as the launching point for the exploration voyages of Christopher Columbus.  Subsequent wealth that poured in from the New World making Seville one of the most important trade centers in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.  In addition, the wealth of treasures the conquistadors plundered from the Incas and Aztecs funded an expansion in Spanish military power greater than anything in human history up to that time.  That wealth is nowhere more evident than in Seville.

The bell tower of the Cathedral of Seville was originally a minaret for the mosque which once stood adjacent.  Over 340 feet high, the top is accessed by 36 ramps which allowed horsemen to ride to the top.  The Giralda is named for the weathervane at its top.

The bell tower of the Cathedral of Seville was originally a minaret for the mosque which once stood adjacent. Over 340 feet high, the top is accessed by 36 ramps which allowed horsemen to ride to the top. The Giralda is named for the weathervane at its top.

Seville from the Giralda Tower and the Alamilla Bridge's slanted white tower built for Seville's '92 World Expo.

Seville from the Giralda Tower and the Alamilla Bridge’s slanted white tower built for Seville’s ’92 World Expo.

Seville added to its prominence in the era of exploration with the global circumnavigation voyage of Ferdinand Magellan, which left from Seville in 1519.  The city monopolized trans-Atlantic trade with the discovery of the New World and opened a Golden Age of art, literature and music.  It was during this era that Cervantes wrote Don Quixote de La Mancha and the art works of Diego Velazquez and El Greco gained world recognition.  The influence of these and other Spanish artists has carried over through The Renaissance to modern times.

The vast scale Cathedral of Seville inspires awe.  It is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world in both area and volume.

The vast scale Cathedral of Seville inspires awe. It is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world in both area and volume.

Today, the architecture of Seville is a study in contrasts.  The Cathedral of Seville is the largest Gothic style cathedral in the world and third largest cathedral of any type.  The ultra-modern Parasol Metropol is the largest wooden structure in the world, and covers a subterranean archeological site.  On the ground level is fresh market where vendors’ stalls offer extensive choices of meats, seafood, fruits, vegetables and baked goods.  While it is not the largest of public markets, it offers a full range of purchase options.  It is also maintained to a level of pristine cleanliness that outshines any public market I have ever seen.

The Metropol Parasol is believed to be the largest wooden structure in the world - 490' x 230' and 85' high.  On the street level is the public market.

The Metropol Parasol is believed to be the largest wooden structure in the world – 490′ x 230′ and 85′ high. On the street level is the public market.

The public market is housed below the Parasol.  It sparkles with cleanliness and offers the full range of produce, meats and baked goods.

The public market is housed below the Parasol. It sparkles with cleanliness and offers the full range of produce, meats and baked goods.

Seville buzzes with vibrancy like any great university city with lots of young people surrounded by the bustle of commerce.  I found a rich mixture of modern and historic architecture.  There is no denying the artistic elegance of the city which proudly proclaims its class and style.

This vibrant city will resonate with me for a long time.  There is so much to see in Seville that I wish I would have had more time there.  Unfortunately, a single day was all we had.  That was most important thing I learned from our visit to Seville – to not try to fit in everything worth seeing into a single day.

This pavilion marks the entrance to the Park of Santa Maria Luisa, once the grounds of Seville's 1929 World's Fair.

This pavilion marks the entrance to the Park of Santa Maria Luisa, once the grounds of Seville’s 1929 World’s Fair.

© All photos copyrighted by Florence Ricchiazzi Lince

Cordoba, Spain – Crossroads of History

One of the many pools in the gardens of the Alcazar Palace.

One of the many pools in the gardens of the Alcazar Palace.

Our ride inland through the fertile and most populous region of Spain, Andalucía, revealed a checkerboard of golden acres of wheat alternating with verdant fields of sunflowers.  I have never seen or imagined so many sunflowers, and the fields in full bloom glowed with bright yellow made all the more vivid under the shining sun.

The walls surrounding La Mezquita give it a fortress-like appearance.

The walls surrounding La Mezquita give it a fortress-like appearance.

Our ABC Tour (Another Blessed Cathedral) ultimately led us to La Mezquita (The Mosque), now known as the Cathedral of Cordoba.  There is nothing like it in the world and a bit of history is necessary to appreciate its story.

Pushing back the boundaries of a weakened Roman Empire, the Visigoths built a Christian church in Cordoba on the site of a temple honoring the Roman god, Janus.  The Visigoths controlled most of what is now Spain for over 100 years before the Muslim conquest early in the 8th century.

The courtyard of palm and orange trees leading to the entrance of The Mosque Cathedral.

The courtyard of palm and orange trees leading to the entrance of The Mosque Cathedral.

The Muslims (referred to as Moors in Spain) made Cordoba the capital of their Al-Andalus region in 718 AD.  Beginning in 784, the emir of Cordoba ordered the construction of a mosque on the site of the Christian church, which was demolished.  During this period, Cordoba also became one of the most prosperous cities in the world, known for its advancements in science, art and architecture.  The Christians and Jews in the city were welcomed to stay and worship as they pleased as long as they paid a tithe to the Muslim emir.

The array of columns hints at rows of palm trees in a desert oasis.

The array of columns hints at rows of palm trees in a desert oasis.

Over a period of 200 years the mosque was enlarged and enhanced until it became one of the largest and finest mosques in the world.  It is an impressive structure covering some 250,000 square feet.  From the outside the mosque does not appear that impressive.  While ornate by today’s architectural standards, the mosque gives off a distinctly military feel with forty foot high walls and iron gates at its arched entries.

So magnificent was the finished mosque that when the Catholic Church proposed building its cathedral addition in the middle of the mosque, it was over the objections of the people of Cordoba.  Opposition to the cathedral was overruled by King Carlos V without his ever having visited the site.  In 1526, when the king did witness the damage he had unwittingly allowed, he is said to have remarked, ‘You have built here what you or anyone might have built anywhere else, but you have destroyed what was unique in the world.’

The Mosque covers an area of over 250,000 sq. ft. with over 800 columns spread throughout.

The Mosque covers an area of over 250,000 sq. ft. with over 800 columns spread throughout.

Once we entered the huge courtyard and the cathedral itself is its grandeur revealed.  Florence and I both looked at each other and simultaneously mouthed, ‘Wow.’  (If only there was a word that equaled Wow to the tenth power.)  The expanse of the mosque is filled with over 850 columns made of onyx, granite, marble and jasper, all holding up brightly colored red and white arches which in turn support much higher arched ceilings.

The Roman Bridge featuring 12 arches connects the Old City with the new.

The Roman Bridge featuring 12 arches connects the Old City with the new.

Cordoba today is a tranquil city with parks and plazas with plenty of fountains and statuary.  It is also one of the premier locations in the world for bullfights.  Many people find bullfighting to be a cruel sport.  In fact, bullfighting has been banned in some areas of Spain, most notably Barcelona in the Catalan Region.  However, bullfights remain popular in Andalucía.  There are fourteen bullrings in Cordoba, the largest of which is the Plaza de Los Califas, which seats 16,900 spectators.  The excitement stems from the possibility of death faced simultaneously by both fighter and bull.  It is worth noting that bulls bred to fight are raised and treated gently and fed only the finest food fit for a bull.  As for the moral principle of bullfighting, I personally find it hypocritical to criticize a fight to the death between man and bull when we as a society raise vast herds of cattle to be unceremoniously slaughtered without giving it much thought.

Strolling the Jewish Quarter of Cordoba with our new British friends, Ruth and Mike Steele

Strolling the Jewish Quarter of Cordoba with our new British friends, Ruth and Mike Steele

We topped off our tour of Cordoba with a stroll through the picturesque Jewish Quarter with its artisan ceramic and leather shops and a synagogue dating back to AD 1350.  We passed the museum of the Spanish Inquisition in which about 3,000 people (some estimates are higher) were executed for their religious beliefs.  We also visited the nearby Alcazar Castle with its spectacular gardens.  The royalty of Spain clearly knew how to live in grand style.

The power of the once mighty Spanish Empire came full circle for me after having seen the Spanish influence in colonial Latin America during our two years touring and living there.  Even though Spain is no longer considered a major world power, its place in history is forever set with an elegance that rivals any country.

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.

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.

Starting Anew in Torrevieja, Spain

There are two miles of beaches lining the coast of Torrevieja.  This beach is two blocks from our apartment.

There are two miles of beaches lining the coast of Torrevieja. This beach is two blocks from our apartment. Pedestrians can walk the entire waterfront with shops and restaurants lining the walkway.

We have walked the city streets, learned the bus routes, visited the central shopping mall, checked out the main cathedral and located the nearest supermarkets and the public library.  Now that we have our feet on the ground we are free to check out the interesting sights of the city.

The 'coralista monument' is a tribute to music and musicians.  It references the Habaneras singing style brought to Torrevieja by sailors who brought Cuban-style song and dance back from the Caribbean in the 18th century.

The ‘coralista monument’ is a tribute to music and musicians. It references the Habaneras music adopted from Cuba via shipping trade dating back to the 1700’s.

Torrevieja, or old tower, is a city of 100,000 people with double that number when you count the surrounding suburbs.  The original tower that gave the city its name was built as an overlook facing the sea.  The tower no longer exists except for some foundation stones that mark its origin.  The city has since erected a stone tower representing the city’s namesake.

The Torrevieja area had proximity to sub-sea level lowlands just a half-mile inland from the coast.  Some early settlers dug a ditch from the sea to these lowlands and flooded two areas to form shallow lakes that were used as dehydration ponds to make salt.  These two salt ponds are huge, combining to cover over 9,000 acres.  Salt production still takes place and now exceeds 800,000 tons/year exported mostly to Western European markets.  The shoreline areas of the salt lakes are protected parklands serving as habitat for birds and wildlife.  Wading birds are common as they prey upon fish in the shallow lagoons.

Torrevieja's main church viewed from Plaza Constitución.

The city’s central church was rebuilt in 1844 using stone blocks from the old tower that was left in ruins from this earthquake.

The city does not have a natural port, so the area was overlooked until the 17th century as far as a hub of commercial activity.  Early settlers were mostly fishermen from Genoa and Naples looking for less competitive fishing areas.  To this day Italian surnames are common among the local population.   Modern day Torrevieja features a water-break seawall that extends nearly a mile around the city’s main marina which moors over 300 boats.  People can stroll the entire length of the seawall on a beautiful boardwalk and get an outstanding view of the city waterfront from offshore. 

The elaborate altar inside the Church of the Immaculate Conception

The elaborate altar inside the Church of the Immaculate Conception

The main church in Torrevieja, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, was originally built in 1798.  A severe earthquake in 1829, which would have registered a 6.6 using the Richter scale, had its epicenter close to Torrevieja and devastated the city.  Surrounding towns were also nearly destroyed.  There was little history of seismic activity along the Mediterranean coast, so the local populations were caught completely by surprise. 

Picturesque parks are found throughout the city, like this one a few blocks from our home.

Picturesque parks are found throughout the city, like this one a few blocks from our home.

The current city of Torrevieja is a tourist and expat destination.  Nearly half of the population is made up of British expats who own a home or apartment somewhere around the city.  English is spoken in most shops, restaurants and businesses.  There is an English language weekly newspaper, an English cinema, and innumerable groups and clubs including golfing, cycling, acting, hiking and jogging.  Runners were drawn to the 31st annual Torrevieja Half-Marathon, which took place on February 23rd and draws over 2,000 runners. 

The Central Market of Torrevieja offers a variety of fresh fruits, deli items and goodies.

The Central Market of Torrevieja offers a variety of fresh fruits, deli items and goodies.

While we are not beach people per se, we enjoy strolling along the waterfront on a warm sunny day and feeling the cool breeze.  And now that we have our bearings, we look forward to getting to better know our new home town.

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.