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Max Abroad : The Best of Spain

Quite simply writing about the best things Spain has to offer and anything that might crop up along the way. Spain is a lot more than just sun, sand and sea...

The Mystery of the Giant Crystals of Almería
29 January 2019

 The Pulpí Geode is a unique phenomenon in the world, given the size, perfection, size and transparency of the gypsum crystals. It is located inside a mine of iron and lead in the district of Pilarde Jaravía, at a depth of 60 m, coinciding with sea level and 3 km from the coastline of San Juan de Los Terreros.

The geode is funnel-shaped, with the narrowest part an angled L-shaped hollow form 10.7 m3 volume, with 8 m long, 1.8 m wide and 1.7 m high. The average size of gypsum crystals is 0.5 x 0.4 x 0.3 m, with specimens up to 2 m long. Considered the best-preserved geode in the world, it was discovered by Angel Romero in 1999 inside an abandoned mine on the site of Pilar de Jaravía. It has been declared a Natural Monument.

 

 

The largest geode in the world is in Naica (Mexico) and boasts crystals that reach 10 meters in length, but it is in a mine which suffers temperatures of 45ºC and with 100% humidity which makes it impossible for it to be visited by the public. However, the Pulpí geode is at a temperature of 20ºC and offers a more than acceptable humidity level. Therefore it is the second largest in the world but the only one that can be visited.

The site will be opened to the public this year. So keep your eye on it!

 

 

 



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The Great Royal Library
24 January 2019

In the 16th century, King Phillip II of Spain wanted to build a library that would hold not only books and manuscripts of philosophy and theology but also instruments of scientific learning such as ornate globes and astrolabes, both celestial and terrestrial, and maps of the known world. 

In earlier times, this would have been considered heretical, but this new emphasis on unifying the humanities and the sciences was typical of the spirit of a new age in Europe, the so-called Renaissance, and so the magnificent Royal Library of San Lorenzo de El Escorial was built. 

The library was designed by the mathematical and architectural genius Juan de Herrera, and it is notable for being the first library on the European continent to break from the medieval dogmatic beliefs on architecture and decoration. Indeed, it’s believed that the design and decoration of the Vatican library in Rome took its inspiration from Herrera’s work in El Escorial.

The plan for the space also influenced how libraries worldwide were to display their collections. It was the first institution to display its books and manuscripts in shelving cases along the walls rather than in bays that were placed at right angles. This was done so that the titles would be visible to visitors to avoid the damage caused to the books when they were taken out to view. 

The enormous collection of over 40,000 books and manuscripts kept here cover everything from philosophy to politics to poetry, written in a multitude of different languages, including Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Chinese, and even Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Colourful frescoes adorn the ceiling depicting scenes from classical history that represent what the ancients considered to be the seven arts: grammar, rhetoric, dialectics, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Beyond the cornice, you will also find a total of 14 paintings that show scenes meant to encourage an appreciation for the arts in the visitor. 

 

 

 Among the most fascinating objects in the library are the numerous wonderfully baroque globes and armillary spheres, of which King Phillip evidently was an avid collector. It is said that the king would spend much of his time in the library studying these instruments in the company of astronomers, geographers, and cartographers. 

The Royal Library (Real Biblioteca) is located within the monastery and palace complex in Lorenzo de El Escorial, outside Madrid. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and the entrance fee 10 euros. El Escorial can be reached via public transport from Madrid. Simply take the Cercanias train (line c3) about a half hour from the Atocha or Sol station. Once you reach the station in El Escorial, it's a 30-minute walk to get to the palace, much of which is uphill so it can be quite a hike. Make sure you bring plenty of water and sunscreen if you visit in the summer.

 



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Have you visited Toledo?
17 January 2019

 

The historic city of Toledo sits atop a steep-cragged rock, around which the Tajo or Tagus river slowly meanders. This strategic position together with abundant water, forests, grazing and arable lands in the surrounding areas gives much value to the city and has always favoured its use as a permanent human settlement since prehistoric times.

With over two thousand years of history, having first been a Celtiberian city, Toledo has the special characteristic of being a melting pot where all the cultures and eras of Spain have come together and intermingled, and which together make up a small but rich example of the history of the land.

Thus, Toledo is known as The City of the Three Cultures, a name which refers to the Christian, Islamic, and Hebrew cultures that coexisted during centuries within its walls, impregnating it with its own special identity. This almost brotherly union and the plurality of traditions can best be seen in the architecture, where the customary artistic styles of each one are interwoven, exchanging influences and forming hybrids with their own personalities. The Mudejar style, a mixture of Islamic and Christian styles, predominates in the city, combining principally Romanesque structures and purely Muslim elements.

There were various important examples of intercultural exchange, such as the so-called School of Translators of the 12th and 13th centuries, which was decisive in preserving and disseminating knowledge of the Greco-Latin and Arab cultures.

A very important town developed while Christianity took hold around the first century, remaining until the present day and maintaining, for better or worse, the Greco Latin cultural legacy.

The first written historical document which mentions Toledo dates from the Roman period, a testimony of the conquest of the city in the year 193 BC, when it was already an important Celtiberian city. The Roman historian Tito Livio mentioned the city of Toletum, a term whose origin would be Tollitum, meaning "raised aloft". During this era, Toledo became an important urban centre and evidence of this period include the ruins of a monumental circus, and the ruins of the water supply system with the dam wall, also some remains of the aqueduct across the deep ravine of the Tagus River.

Following the decay and fall of the Roman empire at the hands of peoples from the North of Europe, the city was conquered in the 5th century AD by the northern barbarians and in the 6th century, the Visigoths moved their court to Toledo.

In the year 569, Leovigildo, King of the Visigoths, established his court in Toledo and in 589 it became the political and religious capital of Hispania, after the abandonment of Arianism and conversion to Catholicism by the Visigothic king Recaredo. During this period, the Councils of Toledo took place here. These were assemblies with ecclesiastical, political and legislative functions. Only a few material vestiges remain of this era, such as some ruins of chrismons, capitals and pilasters, together with some gold and silversmith work. These items are on display in the Museo de Los Concilios y Cultura Visigótica (Museum of the Visigothic Councils and Culture), and others found in various parts of the city were later re-used and remain embedded in walls and towers.
Although dating from old, the Jewish presence was not pronounced until 712, the year in which the Moors conquered the city.

The conquest, without a fight, of the city by the Berbers of Tarik in the year 711, began the period of Muslim domination in which the Moors occupied Toledo for 373 years, a relatively short period, but their influence was enormous, both in the labyrinth-like layout of narrow and steep alleyways, of parapet walks that go nowhere, often with covered passageways on top, and in important architectural remains, such as the Bab-al-Mardum mosque, today known as Cristo de la Luz (the Christ of Light), built by Musa ibn Ali, among others.
The religious tolerance of the Muslims allowed the Christians to co-exist with the Moors and led to the appearance of the so-called Mozárabes-"Mozarabs"-who created a unique culture which would have far-reaching effects on architecture and decoration, as well as customs, vocabulary, literature and music. This situation also allowed the Jews to form a prosperous community, although their presence dated back to the Visigoth period.

 

 

In 1085, when Alfonso VI took the city walls with no bloodshed, many of the Muslim inhabitants decided to stay with the Christians and Jews. The harmony between the three cultures bore fruit as notable as the School of Translators of Toledo, renowned for having recuperated part of the classical culture from various Arab documents. The Islamic legacy faded with time, and the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, expelled the Jews in the 15th century. However, the cultural mix in the city had been determined and can still be felt today.

King Alfonso VI conquered the city from the Muslims in 1085, and Toledo became part of the Kingdom of Castile. The King promised to respect not only the Muslims and their property, but also allowed them the use of their language and the freedom to practice their religion. This maintained the stability of a large portion of the population. The Christians who had taken part in the conquest. and their religious orders also became part of this plural society and received houses and orchards in the city as rewards from the King.

In 1226, Fernando III and the Archbishop Rodrigo Ximénez de Rada decided to build the Cathedral, the only purely Gothic building from this period. In the 14th century, due to the economic and social crisis at the time, the atmosphere of religious tolerance which characterised Toledo in previous centuries progressively disappeared, especially affecting the Jewish community, which was accused of being the cause of all problems.

In the 15th century, the "Catholic Monarchs", Ferdinand and Isabel, who sought the political and religious unity of the Kingdom, established the Tribunal of the Inquisition in Toledo in 1485 and decreed the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. These decisions deeply affected the social structure of Toledo.

With the crowning of Charles V (also known as Charles I) in 1519, Toledo became the most important city in the world, known as the Imperial Capital. This period, although short, brought to Toledo an era of splendour in which the Renaissance was manifested in important works carried out under royal patronage, together with that of the archbishops of Toledo, who were great promoters and sponsors of buildings.

In 1561, Philip II decided to move the court to Madrid, initiating a period of political decline, but fortunately, it had no effect on religious, artistic or cultural aspects. It was right at this time when Domenico Theotocopoulos, El Greco, the extraordinary painter born in Crete, decided to settle in the city and paint the majority of his universally acclaimed works of art.

In the second half of the 19th century, the arrival of the railway brought growth outside the city walls, in the areas with the easiest terrain, and the appearance of extensive neighbourhoods of new buildings where most of the city's population lives today.

In 1982, Toledo was named the capital of the Autonomous Community of Castilla La Mancha, returning to the city some of to its former political and administrative importance.

In December 1987, the UNESCO declared Toledo a World Heritage city in recognition of its uniqueness, as it is almost impossible to walk its streets without coming across an ancient mosque, a Gothic or Mudejar church, a Romanesque or Visigothic structure, a synagogue, or a Renaissance palace. Several days are needed to visit and enjoy all of the sights of Toledo, as well as a dash of adventurous spirit to fall under the spell of the city and discover its mysteries while touring it, either in search of a well-known monument, or just exploring its winding streets.

 

 

 


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The Ducal Palace of Lerma
08 January 2019

The 17th Century "Palacio de Lerma" was the home of the Duke of Lerma, an influential favourite of King Phillip III of Spain. He was an important diplomat who negotiated numerous treaties and his magnificent and imposing palace was a symbol of his power. He could be described as a religious and racial bigot and was the person who, along with the Archbishop of Valencia, Juan de Ribera, initiated the expulsion of many thousands of Moriscos, the remnants of the earlier Moorish occupation of Spain, who had (officially at least) converted to Christianity. These two zealots had also encouraged the king to enslave the Moriscos for work in mines etc, as he could do so “without any scruples of conscience,”. Thankfully this proposal was rejected.

 

 

The Duke eventually fell from grace (but not before becoming a cardinal) and his palace fell into disrepair but it has now been sympathetically restored to become a “Parador”, a state-run, high end, tourist hotel, one of many historic buildings used in this Spanish effort to support tourism.

 

 

As one approaches Lerma on the nearby A1 autovia (either from Madrid or Burgos) one can see from a great distance the four imposing black spires (clearly recently renovated) at the corners of the building, looking like a giant, perhaps menacing, ecclesiastical edifice. From a distance, the building looks like one might imagine the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition  (in keeping with the ideas that originated there) but when viewed up close from the town square it looks imposing and palatial. The palace had magnificent gardens and was reputed to have had 7 chapels (only one survives).

Next to the palace is an impressive church which, like the palace, bears the Duke’s coat of arms. Also check out the other historic buildings in the town including the tourist office, in a building where Rubens is said to have stayed.

If you fancy visiting the Palace and staying the night there  take a look here

 



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The Flour Festival - Els Farinats
04 January 2019

No festival in Spain is complete without a bizarre tradition like throwing tomatoes or running in front of bulls or jumping over babies or setting off tons of gunpowder....

The annual festival of Els Enfarinats is celebrated with the mother of all food fights; flour and eggs. Els Enfarinats takes place in the town of Ibi in Alicante on December 28 as part of celebrations related to the Day of the Innocents. During the day long festival, participants dressed in mock military dress stage a mock coup pretending to take over the town. Dressed in a slovenly manner, they enter banks and shops stirring up trouble in a good-humoured way, imposing fines on shopkeepers and bankers, mocking local dignitaries and reading humorous speeches. Those who oppose are assaulted with flour cakes and eggs.

The tradition's origins are unclear, but it is believed to have grown from the ancient Feast of Fools, or Fiesta de los Locos, once part of the old Roman festival of Saturnalia. The tradition is over 200 years old.

 



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