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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 Ducal Town of Pastrana
31 May 2019

Recently I returned to a magnificent medieval Ducal town located between the Tajo and Tajuña Rivers in the Sierra of Guadalajara; Pastrana. It was first documented in manuscripts referring to the Visigothic town of Pastrana, mentioned by King Wamba (672-680) when he was drawing up boundaries for the Christian dioceses. However, its better-known history begins with Alfonso VII of Castile, who, in 1174, granted the town of Pastrana to the Order of Calatrava. The town belonged to this military order until 1541, when Charles I reclaimed it and granted it to Ana de la Cerda, widow of Diego de Mendoza, Count of Melito. In 1562, Philip II granted the title of Dukes of Pastrana to Ana de Mendoza, the legendary Princess of Eboli who spent her final years imprisoned in the Ducal Palace of Pastrana.

The years straddling the Renaissance and the Golden Age were ones of true splendour for Pastrana, thanks to the efforts of its noblemen, the visit by the mystic Teresa of Jesus, who founded convents in there, and the establishment of silk factories operated by Moors brought in from Andalusia who settled in an area today known as  Albaicín.

Pastrana’s historic quarter, which maintains its medieval layout, contains a large number of buildings of undeniable artistic quality and historical value. These include the Ducal Palace, constructed in the mid-16th century with a rectangular floor plan, which has an outstanding Renaissance doorway. The crypt of the Collegiate Parish Church of Our Lady of the Assumption (16th-17th century), adjacent to the original Gothic church of the Knights Templar, contains the remains of the Dukes of Melito and Pastrana. The church also contains the Parish Tapestry Museum, which has a collection of religious art and renowned Flemish tapestries that give the museum its name.

  

 

The Conceptionist Franciscan convent and the Convent of Carmel from 16th century,  were founded by St. Teresa of Jesus. The latter houses, curiously, The Museum of Natural History of the Philippines and the Teresian Museum (or Carmelite and Religious Art Museum), dedicated to the founding saint and to another great saint and mystic, St. John of the Cross, who visited the town. Other buildings of interest are the College of St. Bonaventure built in 17th century, with its Baroque facade and patio, the remains of the old castle and walls built by the Knights Templar; the old quarter of the Albaicín, with its unusual layout, and several emblazoned palaces and manor houses from the 16th and17th centuries.

 


Alonso de Covarrubias designed the Ducal Palace of Pastrana and its doorway has a recognisable design feature, which is a reproduction of the one on the Alcázar fortress in Toledo. It stands beside the walls of Pastrana and has a parade ground at the front. The eastern tower, known as "the Chamber of the Golden Grille", was the site where the Princess of Eboli, Ana de Mendoza y de la Cerda, was held between 1581 and 1592 by order of Philip II. She was bricked in and imprisoned in her quarters along with her maid until she died, only being allowed to go outside for 1 hour per day. Going outside actually meant going out onto a caged balcony, which was in her room. The rest of the time she had to stay out of sight and in her quarters. It is thanks to the Princess of Ebolí that Pastrana is still a well-visited town today.

Doña Ana de Mendoza, the Princess of Éboli, was a woman full of historical intrigue and mystery. The fascination of her is fueled not only by her legendary beauty, courtly manipulations, and murderous plots, but also the mystery surrounding an alleged fencing accident and her eye patch. She has captivated attention for centuries, been immortalized in opera by Verdi, portrayed in Hollywood by Olivia de Haviland, and is the subject of numerous books and video productions.  So who is Doña Ana de Mendoza and why did she wear an eye patch?

Born in 1540 into the powerful house of Mendoza, Doña Ana was the daughter of Diego Hurtado de Mendoza and Catherine de Silva.  Doña Ana endured what appears to be a dysfunctional home life as a child, including the embarrassment of her father’s infamous philandering, something not accepted in 16th Century Spain.  Little is known of Doña Ana’s childhood, but she was described as passionate, intelligent, religious, and rebellious in her youth.  It is alleged that during her early adolescence, and prior to the development of safety equipment, she lost her right eye in a fencing duel with a page.  In part, it appears the juxtaposition of her renowned beauty and her eye patch has fueled a mystique that has captivated admirers for centuries.  

An early arranged marriage to Rui Gomez enabled Doña Ana’s presence in the court of King Philip II of Spain.  Her husband’s wealth and influence provided for financial security and titles following the acquisition of estates in Eboli, located on Italy’s southeast coast.  Her husband’s death and her subsequent relationship with Antonio Perez proved to be a fateful turning point for Doña Ana.  Like her husband, Perez was a powerful insider in Philip II’s court. Perez brewed a plot of manipulation between the King and his half-brother involving a rebellion in Flanders and perhaps a move toward taking power in Portugal.  When a whiff of the plot was sensed, Perez orchestrated a murder to squelch its further discovery.  Doña Ana said to have had involvement in the plot, was imprisoned by the King and subsequently stripped of parental rights and property.  Some claim she was treated very harshly by the King, in part due to his sexual jealousy and sense of betrayal, but as with her eye patch, there is a dearth of supporting evidence for such claims. She would die sick, lonely, and imprisoned.

Numerous and widespread explanations for Doña Ana’s eye patch abound.  They typically assert in a matter-of-fact fashion that Doña Ana lost her eye in a fencing accident, perhaps around the age of twelve.  However, absolutely no evidence has come to light to support such claims.  They appear to be the speculations of historians attempting to explain her portrait — assertions that have much more intrigue than the lesser-known speculations surrounding a horse accident while hunting around the age of fourteen.

Under the advisement of King Philip II, she was betrothed at age twelve to a Portuguese nobleman, Rui Gomez da Silva, the King’s personal secretary and life-long courtier, who was 24 years her senior.  A few years later, Rui and Doña Ana’s marriage would be consummated and she would go on to bear Rui their first of ten children.  Like her husband, Doña Ana became well established in the court of King Philip II where she enjoyed a close relationship with Queen Elizabeth of Valois, the king’s third wife.  It is during this time that some allege Doña Ana became the King’s mistress, but several scholars deny this.  Whether fictional or otherwise, such allegations have helped fuel dramatic (and largely fictional) storylines on stage and screen, furthering Doña Ana’s mystique.  At about this time, Doña Ana’s parents became further estranged, and her father left with another mistress.

Doña Ana’s husband, Rui Gomez, worked to secure their children’s future by purchasing the town of Eboli in Naples, as well as several villas.  Rui was granted the title Duke of Pastrana and Grandee of Spain by Philip II in 1572.  This established Doña Ana as the Princess of Eboli and the first Duchess of Pastrana.  Her husband died the following year.  Thus began a series of problematic and dramatic chapters in Doña Ana’s existence.  In grief, Doña Ana and her mother moved to the convent in Pastrana.  

A few years later, Doña Ana and her mother returned to Madrid against the Kings wishes. Not long after, her mother died, followed shortly thereafter by her father.  However, her father, having married another in an attempt to secure a male heir, had left his second wife pregnant, threatening Doña Ana’s inheritance.

Doña Ana’s husband was succeeded by his protegé, Antonio Perez, as secretary to Philip II.  Antonio Perez, only slightly older than Doña Ana, was a married man.  Doña Ana established a close relationship with Perez, and again, adulterous allegations abound, but some claim their relationship was purely political.  Their relationship was apparently hidden from the King.  Historians are divided as to why that was the case with some claiming it was due to impropriety, while others claim it was due to Doña Ana’s renewed liaisons with the King.  Regardless of truth, Doña Ana’s relationship with Perez deepens her intrigue in Spanish legend and serves as a turning point in her life and in Spain’s history.

Perez, a trusted secretary to Philip II, became caught up in a revolt that developed in Flanders. The Duke of Alba and Don Juan of Austria (half-brother of Philip II) were intertwined with Perez in this revolt.  Perez offered to serve as a mediator in the conflict, however, he was playing both sides.  He altered state communiqués between the King and Don Juan and sold state secrets.  Doña Ana was apparently aware of Perez’ treachery vis-à-vis their close relationship, evidenced by their visitations, and exchange of opulent gifts. Don Juan’s personal secretary, Juan de Escobedo, previously allied with Perez as his spy against Don Juan, turned against Perez and also discovered the relationship between Perez and Doña Ana.  At this point, it is alleged that Perez and Doña Ana conspire to assassinate Escobedo.  Some historians assert Doña Ana was not an active participant in the plot but was merely complicit.  Though several more machinations in this operatic saga occur, Philip II (pictured) discovered the treachery of Perez and Doña Ana.  Perez held off trial for several years, having somewhat assuaged Philip II with accusations of Don Juan’s pernicious intentions towards Philip’s throne.

However, Doña Ana was placed under house arrest in 1581. The King stripped Doña Ana of her parental rights and property in 1582.  This relatively harsh treatment of Doña Ana helps fuel allegations of the King’s sexual jealousy and romantic relations with Doña Ana.  In 1589, ten years after the discovery, Perez was finally charged with the murder of Escobedo.  This led to riots and unrest by Perez’ supporters.  In 1590 Perez escaped to Aragon.  Perez, in exile, published scathing, defamatory accounts of King Philip II’s court, assertions that went unchallenged, contributing to the Spanish Black Legend.  Doña Ana, imprisoned for a decade, eventually died depressed and ill in 1592.

 



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Santa Maria de Guadalupe
24 May 2019

 

 

The Monastery of Santa Maria de Guadalupe is a magnificent display of religious architecture spanning four centuries, symbolising two significant events in world history that both occurred in the same year, 1492: the final expulsion of the Muslim power from the Iberian Peninsula and the discovery of America by Columbus. Its famous image of the Virgin also became the pre-eminent symbol of the Christianisation of the New World and later the Basilica of Guadalupe was built in Mexico in her honour, becoming commonly known as the Queen of Mexico and the Empress of America. 

 

The Monastery, the principal of the Order of St Jerome, played a very influential role in the history of Spain, being associated by the crown with important events, notably by the Catholic Kings (Los Reyes Católicos ) with the conquest of Granada and the discovery of America in 1492. The Monastery was, and remains a centre of pilgrimage. It was a cultural centre of the highest order: its hospitals and its medical school were renowned, as was its scriptorium and its library, containing a very rich collection of documents. Many famous artists were attracted to Guadalupe, including Juan de Sevilla, Francisco de Zurbarán, Vicente Carducho, and Luca Giordano.

 The harmony between the buildings, which occupy 20,000m2 and the classic works of art that it contains within the monastery and its museum, make it an outstanding example of Spanish history. The site is one of great beauty, overlooking a valley surrounded by high mountains, notably the Villuercas, and containing abundant vegetation.

At at the end of the13th century, a Cáceres shepherd discovered close to the River Guadalupe a statue of the Virgin Mary that had been buried by Christians from Seville around 714 when fleeing before the Moorish invaders. The shepherd built a chapel to house the statue. A few years later it became a church, enlarged in 1337 by command of Alfonso XI, who visited it on several occasions. This king invoked the protection of Our Lady of Guadalupe for the battle of Salado in 1340 and, following his victory, declared the church a royal sanctuary, founding a secular priory there. For 447 years under the Hieronimite Order, the monastery was the most important in Spain and one of the most famous in the Christian world. In 1835 the order passed responsibility to the Archdiocese of Toledo, which handed it over to the Franciscan order in 1908.

 


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Seville - The golden years
16 May 2019

Seville is one of the most spectacular cities in Spain for architecture, a City that possesses an unparalleled wealth of history and art. Together the Cathedral, Alcázar (Arabian fort) and Archivo de Indias (The New World Trade Archive) form a remarkable monumental complex in the heart of Seville. They perfectly epitomize the Spanish "Golden Age", incorporating vestiges of Islamic culture, centuries of ecclesiastical power, royal sovereignty and the trading power that Spain acquired through its colonies in the New World.

Founded in 1403 on the site of a former mosque, the Cathedral, built in Gothic and Renaissance style, covers seven centuries of history. With its five naves it is the largest Gothic building in Europe. Its bell tower, the ‘Giralda’, was the former minaret of the mosque, a masterpiece of Almohad architecture and now is an important example of the cultural syncretism thanks to the top section of the tower, designed in the Renaissance period by Hernán Ruiz. Its "chapter house" is the first known example of the use of the elliptical floor plan in the western world. Ever since its creation, the Cathedral has continued to be used for religious purposes.

  

 

The original nucleus of the Alcázar was constructed in the 10th century as the palace of the Moslem governor, and is used even today as the Spanish royal family's residence in this city, thereby retaining the same purpose for which it was originally intended: as a residence of monarchs and heads of state. Built and rebuilt from the early Middle Ages right up to our times, it consists of a group of palatial buildings and extensive gardens. The Alcázar embraces a rare compendium of cultures where areas of the original Almohad palace - such as the "Patio del Yeso" or the "Jardines del Crucero" - coexist with the Palacio de Pedro I representing Spanish Mudejar art, together with other constructions displaying every cultural style from the Renaissance to the Neoclassical.

 

 

The Archivo de Indias building was constructed in 1585 to house the Casa Lonja or Consulado de Mercaderes de Sevilla (Consulate of the merchants of Seville). It became the Archivo General de Indias in 1785, and since then it has become home to the greatest collection of documentation concerning the discovery of and relations with the New World. The Archivo de Indias, designed by the architect responsible for completing El Escorial, Juan de Herrera, is one of the clearest examples of Spanish Renaissance architecture. An enormous influence on Baroque Andalusian architecture and on Spanish neoclassicism, it symbolizes the link between the Old and the New World.

Seville owes its importance during the 16th and 17th centuries to its designation as the capital of the Carrera de Indias (the Indies route: the Spanish trading monopoly with Latin America). It was the "Gateway to the Indies" and the only trading port with the Indies from 1503 until 1718.

The Conjunto Monumental, or group of historic buildings encompassing the Cathedral/Giralda, the Alcázar and the Archivo de Indias, constitutes a remarkable testimony to the major stages of the city's urban history (Islamic, Christian, and that of Seville with its associations with the New World), as well as symbolizing a city that became the trading capital with the Indies for two centuries - a time during which Seville was the hub of the Spanish monarchy and played a major role in the colonization of Latin America following its discovery by Columbus.

 

 

Each one of these monuments is associated with the colonization process. The tomb of Columbus is preserved in the Cathedral. The Sala de los Almirantes (Admirals' hall) in the Alcázar was the headquarters of the Casa de Contratación (House of Trade), from which the monopoly with the Indies operated, and where, as a seat of learning, it spawned some of the most important expeditions of exploration and discovery of that period. And the Archivo de Indias has, since the 18th century, housed the most valuable and important documents, which provide an insight into this historical event.

 


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BEST TIME TO VISIT : ALL YEAR ... except maybe for August - too hot for most!



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Chariot Races in Toledo
07 May 2019

While most of Toledo’s historic structures are within the fine city walls, just outside is a real treasure dating back to the Roman occupation of Spain, a full-scale chariot racing stadium. 

The Roman circus, built to host entertainment events like horse and chariot races, was likely constructed sometime in the first century, possibly under orders from Emperor Augustus, and was one of the largest of its time. 

These events were typically held on special days and sometimes were organized under the patronage of noblemen, who wanted to commemorate events in their own lives. A stone inscription found records a day of games that was paid for by a resident to celebrate his elevation to the status of Sevirate or priest of high stature. 

The oblong rectangular stadium was around 1388 feet long and 330 feet wide and could hold around 13,000 spectators, all gathered to watch the gripping races, which were often dangerous for the participants. It is thought that the circus at Toletum was used until around the 4th or 5th century, after which it was mostly abandoned, save for its sporadic use as a cemetery and a potter’s colony. The site was excavated in the early 20th century and is well-preserved.

 


Most of the ruins can now be seen in a tree-covered public park on Avenida Carlos III. The presence of trees means one cannot get the same overview as one can get of Circus Maximus in Rome but there is much more to see since a lot of the infrastructure like the foundations, passages, and archways are exposed. The park represents just over half of the original circus. On the other side of Avenida Carlos III, in a former parking lot alongside Paseo Circo Romano, is another significant section of the circus which has just been excavated, but has much less remaining material. Information boards are provided and about 75 per cent of the original structure is now accessible to the public. This is what it supposedly looked like originally:

 



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My Favourite White Wine
02 May 2019

 

Spain’s current popularity as the culinary hub of innovative gastronomy has opened the door for the proliferation of Spanish wines. The Spanish culture itself is extremely popular now and is being heavily marketed to a ready and receptive audience. One of the biggest draws of the Rías Baixas Albariños is that they represent great quality at an affordable price and offer an exciting alternative to the consumer bored with traditional white wine choices.

Rías Baixas (ree-ahs-buy-shass) is the most important Denomination of Origin (DO) in the Galicia region of northwestern Spain. The DO was formally established in 1988 and owes much of its acclaim to the white Albariño (al-ba-ree-nyo) grape, which has been elevated by many in Spain and abroad to cult status.

The history of the DO dates back to 1980 when an official denomination was created specifically for the Albariño grape variety. When Spain entered the European Union (EU) in 1986, however, the denomination was changed to Rías Baixas because EU wine laws did not recognize a DO named for a single grape variety. Since 1988, the DO has complied with all Spanish and EU wine regulations. The Rías Baixas DO is regulated by the Consejo Regulador (local governing body) which ensures adherence to permitted grape varieties, viticultural practices, winemaking and ageing procedures.

A beautiful green area, Rίas Baixas has been likened to a vision of the Garden of Eden. This lush land is characterised by rίas – deep, wide inlets of water encroaching many miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. The southern group of these rίas is known as Rίas Baixas (the lower estuaries).

 

 

Rίas Baixas vineyards are all located within the province of Pontevedra in Galicia. There are 8,650 acres under vine with more than 6,500 growers and almost 20,000 individual vineyard plots ranging from 330 feet to 985 feet in altitude. Almost 100% of the wine produced in the region bears the DO designation. The cool, damp climate is dominated by its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean; however, there are varying micro-climates within the five different designated sub-zones of the region.

By far the finest white grape variety, Albariño accounts for 90% of all plantings in the Rίas Baixas region of Spain. Rías Baixas — and more precisely its sub-zone Val do Salnés — is the birthplace of Albariño. One origin theory — romantic but untrue — is that Albariño is derived from Riesling, brought by German pilgrims on the path to Santiago de Compostela, a holy city in Galicia. Another theory is that the Cistercian monks from Burgundy, who established vineyards wherever they built their churches, introduced it in the 12th or 13th century. 

Whatever the origin, there is no dispute in terms of the quality and unique flavour profile of Albariño wines. It has been compared to Riesling for its minerality and bracing acidity; to Viognier, because of its fleshiness and peach/apricot character; and to Pinot Gris for its floral bouquet. When grown in highly acidic, granitic earth, Albariño yields a more mineral-driven and structured wine. In sandy soil, however, the Albariño grape gives a softer, rounder wine. 

A small, green, thick-skinned variety, the grape resists fungal disease in the particularly damp climate of Rίas Baixas. Albariño is a low yielding variety and expensive to cultivate. It is also one of the few Spanish white grape varieties produced as a varietal wine on its own and designated on labels. Most often fermented in stainless steel for early drinking, Albariño is a versatile grape. It responds well to malolactic or barrel fermentation and maturation to create wines of wonderful complexity and ageing ability. 

While Rίas Baixas is the birthplace of Albariño, it is also extensively grown in the Vinho Verde region of Portugal and can be found to a lesser extent in both Australia and the United States of America. 


So what food goes best with Albariño? First of all, there is no absolute right or wrong food for wine pairing, so enjoy the wine with whatever food you like. There is, however, one simple guideline: match the wine to the texture (or weight) of the food. These food-friendly wines with their intense fruit character, lively acidity, moderate alcohol and mineral overtones have a roundness and great level of acidity, which allows them to pair beautifully with a wide range of cuisines. While they are exceptional with fresh fish and seafood of all kinds, they are also delicious with chicken, pork and veal dishes as well as a variety of cheeses.

 Albariño also refreshes and cools off the palate, making it an ideal accompaniment to many spicy cuisines from around the world, including Indian, Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese food. Although I am not really an advocate of drinking wine with spicy foods.

Don’t let the fact that a large variety of wines are produced from the same Albariño grape fool you into thinking that they all taste alike. Each producer has its own unique style, based on its winemaking philosophy, experience, sub-zone location, soil and micro-climate. This is why tasting many different wines from the region is an interesting and fun experience.

Albariño is a crisp and refreshing wine, like biting into a ripe, juicy apple. It has beautiful acidity that wakes up your palate. This is an aromatic and concentrated fruity wine. On the nose, it is reminiscent of white peaches, apricot, citrus fruits and jasmine. On the palate, it is dry and lively, with an intense fruity character and mineral overtones.

My favourite winery to date in this region is 'Bodegas Martín Códax' which is located in the Val do Salnés sub-zone. It was established in 1986 and is a cooperative of 285 members. It takes its name from a 13th-century local troubadour. 100% Albariño wines are marketed under the Martín Códax and Burgáns brands.

Their vineyards, situated in small plots, use the typical system of “emparrado” and are meticulously cared for, nurtured by their experts in order to get the best possible quality. Harvest usually starts in September and it is hand harvested and the grape clusters are put in crates of 20 kg in order to avoid their being crushed or bruised and thereby decreasing quality. 

Once they arrive at the winery, they are analysed to ensure they have the essential requirements and are introduced into the de-stemmer in order to separate the berries from the stems.  Finally, a pneumatic press produces the juice.

Once they have the juice, the alcoholic fermentation process begins in stainless steel vats of 30.000 litres. When it is finished, malolactic fermentation starts. This fermentation converts malic acids into lactic acids, avoiding excessive acidity. Finally, the wine is stabilized and bottled.

Martín Códax, the man who inspired their albariño’s name, was one of the most important Galician men of the Middle Ages. The Vindel parchment, the oldest in Galician-Portuguese old language, is a testament to some of his songs which praise his love and passion for the sea.
 
Martin Codax is a pure albariño and it is produced following a rigorous and meticulous process in order to guarantee its varietal pureness and the traditional essence of the Salnés Valley original wines and I highly recommend it. Serve it very cold.

(This wine is available in Carrefour and El Corte Ingles)

 



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