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I Wonder Why...?

I will be writing about aspects of Spanish history and their traditions. I am a very curious person and have always needed to know "why" they do it, and "how" it came about. So over the years while living in Spain I have made a conscious effort to discover "el porque de las cosas" and I will be sharing them with you. I hope you find it as fascinating as I do.

The Lovers Bench
13 January 2021

 

 

The beautiful "Parque de la Alameda" Santiago de Compostela is reminiscent of a country estate, anchored at the centre by the 17th-century Baroque chapel of Santa Susana. There are lush gardens, historic statuary, elaborate tiered steps, and an unassuming stone bench: a “banco acústico” that holds a hundred years of secrets and whispers.

The granite seat is known as the Bench of Whispers, or sometimes the Lovers Bench. Its semicircular design and physical orientation give it an unusual acoustic characteristic. If you sit at one end and place your head up against the back of the seat, and speak even in the softest tones, your voice travels all the way across to the other end just as loud or even louder than it started out, if that's possible..!

 

The bench was added to the park around 1916, and its special properties were soon noticed by courting couples. The spot became a well-known destination for innocent dates during the Franco years when an emphasis on strict social behaviour included regulating young unmarried couples. Touching in public, or even speaking, was against the rules. So suggesting an innocent walk in the park, where maybe your partner just happened to be walking too, might end up with a secret romantic word or two.  

The nature of sound travel at the bench is similar to the phenomenon of the Whispering Galleries at the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral or at Grand Central Terminal. 

 



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Why do the Spanish eat 12 grapes on New Year's Eve?
24 December 2020

 

Traditions have always aroused a lot of curiosity in me, because there is always a reason for them, nothing just happens by chance. Every year I celebrate the tradition of the New Year's Eve grapes and many years ago I wondered why they actually did this and nobody really seemed to know why. Still to this very day I am yet to meet a Spaniard who knows the story..... so I always end up telling it...

The very short version of the story, which is pretty much common knowledge, is that wine farmers from Alicante and Murcia promoted the tradition in 1909. They were eager to sell on their large surplus of grapes from the incredible harvest they had had that year. However, although this story has some truth to it, the real origin dates back even further.

If we define the tradition of the New Year's Eve grapes as when twelve grapes are eaten in the Puerta del Sol at 12 am on December 31, which is basically the general understanding, the first written testimony of this goes as far back as January 1897 when the Madrid Press published that in "Madrid it is customary to eat twelve grapes as the clock strikes twelve, separating the outgoing year from the incoming year…" this means that at least in 1896 it was done, and probably many years before that for it to be considered  “customary” by the local press.

The plausible explanation for why someone decided it was a good idea to get cold the last night of the year waiting for a clock to strike 12 strokes and choke on a dozen grapes goes back to 1882. That year the mayor of Madrid, José Abascal y Carredano, decided to impose a tax of 5 pesetas for all those who wanted to go out and celebrate the Three Kings on the night of January 5. The purpose of this was not to stop any tradition or start any new ones but to stop the general public from raising hell and getting drunk through the night – this should not be confused with the festive floats and processions which were in the afternoon and open to everyone. 

However, it did deprive the vast majority of the locals of partying that night, except for those that were well off, of course. This obviously led to the people rebelling and trying to find a way to let off steam so New Year’s Eve became the night of preference for partying and an opportunity to make a mockery of the recent bourgeois traditions imported from France and Germany. The local newspapers frequently published how the upper class now celebrated the New Year by drinking champagne and eating grapes during the New Year’s Eve dinner, so as an act of protest the working class would congregate in the Puerta del Sol and eat grapes as the clock struck twelve.

This behaviour quickly spread and popularised in the capital, to the point that in 1897 the merchants of the city advertised the sale of “Lucky Grapes” and within just a few years it was known as far away as Tenerife.  Now, this is when the Levante wine farmers come on the scene, taking advantage of their surplus production in 1909, they carried out a national campaign to embed and enhance the custom throughout the country and were thus able to sell all their harvest.

Clearly, it worked and today there are few who do not welcome the New Year with 12 grapes in their hand and eat them to the sound of each stroke as it counts down to the New Year. Rare is the Spaniard who will risk poisoning their fate for the coming year by skipping the grapes, many don’t finish them in time and it does take a bit of practice but it is the effort that counts, no effort – no luck, well at least that’s what those who don’t succeed tend to say… 

For those who cannot be in the Puerta del Sol, they will follow it on television, normally on La Primera which tops the national audience ratings year after year with around 8 million viewers, some 6 million more than second place. Being such an important occasion some people spend a few extra minutes to remove the seeds or peel the skins off their grapes all in an attempt to improve their chances of swallowing them in time. My best piece of advice is: buy small seedless grapes and you’ll have no problem but they are not easy to come by as the traditional grape variety for New Year's Eve is the Vinalopó from the Valencian Community, the one promoted by the wine farmers back in 1909, so if you can't find seedless try to avoid the large juicy ones or you’ll be in trouble and may well choke your way into the New Year, try and pick the smaller ones and at least remove the seeds…. Good Luck and wishing you all a Happy New Year!

 



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The History of Spain's Cava
01 December 2020

You'll probably drink a lot of Cava over the coming Christmas period, but do you know the history behind it? Three hundred years ago, wine was much more important than it is today. Currently, the annual consumption per capita in Spain is around 15 litres per year, whilst before, the consumption per capita would have been around 150 to 200 litres!

In all probability, the reason justifying this higher consumption would have to be attributed to the need for higher levels of energy that were needed to perform the work that at that time was almost all manual and therefore, required more effort; which implied a higher intake of calories than today. This would explain the importance given to the cultivation of grapes and of all the associated wine industry, which weighed heavily within the economy of the territory, in particular in the area of the Mediterranean. At that time (XVIII century), wines had very different characteristics to current wines, since they were fortified with alcohol and were sold wholesale in vats, barrels or skins.

Already in the XVIII century, the Catalan people knew of the existence of sparkling wines, thanks to the cork manufacturers from the areas of La Selva and the Ampordà (Gerona) since they were the principal suppliers of cork tops to the Champagne manufacturers in France.

In the first half of the XIX century, the first steps are taken in Spain to manufacture sparkling wines following the same method of Champagne, and little by little they become aware that the preparation of these wines should not only be limited to the fermentation in the bottle, but that within the wine regions, locations should be found that due to the nature of their land and climate, would produce maximum quality wines.

 

 

During the second half of the century, some sparkling wines already became outstanding for their quality, winning some medals in international competitions such as the Universal Fairs in Paris or Vienna, to name some.

As from the end of the XVIII century, vine growing becomes the most important farming activity in Catalonia and particularly in the Penedés region.

According to historians, the evolution of this farm product can be attributed to the success obtained in the export of brandy and from the wines produced throughout the second half of the XVIII century and which increased during the XIX century.

But in this latter period the principal role was played by the invasion of phylloxera in the French vines, that as from 1863 stopped producing, and consequently, the Catalan wine producers went through a splendorous unprecedented era, known as the “gold fever” because it made the prices of the Catalan wines rise tremendously, due on the one hand to the scarcity of French wines and on the other to the development of sales by means of railways.

 

Although at that time it seemed impossible, the great production dream in which the inhabitants of the area lived, would receive a severe blow.

This was phylloxera, a very small insect but very prolific in reproducing, which could at great speed finish off any vine stocks it found in its path eating all the roots.

Phylloxera appeared for the first time in Europe in 1863 through Bordeaux, originating in America. This insect, which advanced at a rate of 40 km per year, first attacked the French vineyards and after a few years, it also attacked the Spanish vineyards.

However, while phylloxera attacked the French vineyards, the Spanish wine producers saw their earnings increased considerably by exporting their wines to France as well as to other countries that France could not supply.

When phylloxera reached Catalonia through Gerona in 1879, the way to fight this insect was already known, this was by grafting the vine to American rootstock that is resistant to the insect.

Once they found a way to combat phylloxera, now they could think of replanting the fields.

In Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, a group of farmers and wine producers, amongst which were Marc Mir and Manuel Raventós, committed themselves to a fast renovation of the vineyards and to the improvement of the sparkling wines that had recently become implanted in Spain and in particular in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia.

The great achievement was not only to have obtained the restoration of the fields but also in making the right decision to determine which kinds of grapes would develop more successfully in these lands.

Experiments began to take place with local grape varieties and with others that were already grown in the area, such as Macabeo, Xarel.lo, Parellada, Monastrell and Garnacha, as well as more central European varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The refurbishing of the wine cellars, which at that time had no facilities for cooling the grape must, did not allow for the adaptation of the last two since being earlier varieties (more precocious) were harvested when the summer temperatures were too high, which entailed fermentation problems.

The visit of King Alfonso XIII to the Penedés in 1904 represented a recognition that the sparkling wines produced in the area were quality wines, at the same time reinforcing the area in its self-esteem and promoting its projection.

In this way, little by little the production of sparkling wines is consolidated. In 1911 the official statistics show that the sales of these wines in Spain already exceeded the amount of foreign sparkling wines. At the same time, the development of exports is also carried out towards the Latin American countries with which Spain had always kept a good relationship due to the origin and relationship of its inhabitants.

New technologies are introduced, and the quality in the trade improves and working conditions become increasingly more professional.

The development of society at the end of the ’50s and ’60s provokes an increase in consumption of wines from 5 to 40 million bottles, which obliges winemakers and producers to make increasingly large investments to cover an increase in demand.

This same growth phenomenon also commences to appear in Europe after the Second World War, but while German and Italian sparkling wine producers opt for carrying out the second fermentation in large pressure tanks, French and Spanish producers opt for maintaining the traditional method of obtaining the sparkle naturally with a second fermentation of the wine in the bottle itself.

Intensification of cultivation is already a fact. The industrialisation and commercial aspect of sparkling wine becomes increasingly more important.

One of the most relevant periods with regards to change that takes place in the viticulture sector is, without doubt, the decade of the ’60s. In all spheres, there are profound modifications in the structures with the objective of improving quality. New rules and regulations are established in order to guarantee the quality of the products and improvements in viticulture techniques continue to be introduced. There is an introduction of new technologies in bodega infrastructure, vinification processes are perfected and a good economic level is attained with the increase in sales. As an anecdote, during a symposium on economy held in 1964, it was already being said the Cava (Champán or Xampany as it was called at that time) had very good perspectives both in the national as well as in the international markets and taking into account a future joining of the common market, the future production of cava could reach a roof of 100 million bottles. Today the production of Cava has exceeded 230 million bottles.

 

 

The decade of the 70s was the time when the great expansion of Cava outside the country took place, and it continued to grow until today with a presence in over 120 countries.

Due to legal security matters and economic needs, as from 1932, new regulations are enacted in Spain to regulate the wine sector, which will modify all the legal organisation with the publishing of a framework law, a series of regulations of inferior legal range and the creation of Regulating Councils. The Decree of April 18, 1932, created the “system guarantee of the origin of the wines” and a period of 4 months is set for completing this Decree with a General Statute for Wine.

With the Wine Statute of 1932, the production system is regulated for viniculture products, which represents the very first legislative systemization that is applied in our country. What it is, in fact, is a legal text promulgated with the object of organising all activities of the whole viniculture sector in the Spanish State. Said Statute defines sparkling wines as “those that have carbon dioxide produced within the wines by second alcoholic fermentation in the closed container, that is spontaneously, or produced by the classical method for these productions or variations”.

But it was only later that an Order of 1959 when the first Spanish rules were passed on sparkling wines. It was also in this text when for the very first time in official documents the word “Cava” was used, although this name did not have at this time the etymology which later would become the defining word for sparkling wine.
These rules also set forth that those producers of sparkling wines that wish to state on the labels the type of production must request it from the authorities in order that the label may have a subtitle in smaller letters than those used for “Sparkling Wine”, that mention “Aged and produced in a Cave”.

Here, the generic name “Cava” was not to be applied in a specific manner until the enactment of a new Rule in January 1966 approving the “Regulations for Sparkling and Gasified Wines”. This rule defines the word “Cava” to characterise the sparkling wines of the classical system of fermentation in the bottle and ageing in the cellar, and a consulting and ancillary body is set up of the General Directorate for Agriculture, called the Sparkling Wines Council, which acts as a link between the producing sector and the Government. Specifically, in its Article 5, it is established that “The producers of sparkling wines by the classical system of fermentation in the bottle and ageing in the Cellar may characterise their products with the Name of “Cava”, which is the distinctive brand for this system of production, after prior authorisation from the General Directorate of Agriculture”.

During the ’50s and ’60s Cava begins becoming a well-known product. An interesting fact is worthy of mention in this History of Cava and that is the case of “Spanish Champagne”, which occurred in the United Kingdom during the ’50s.

In the mid-’50s, the fact that a company was selling in the United Kingdom, with a certain amount of success, a wine labelled with the name of “Spanish Champagne”, began to draw the attention of the large companies distributing French Champagne, all of which took the case to the Courts.

At that time, the United Kingdom had not signed the Treaty of Rome, for which reason the rules for the denominations of European origin were not applicable in that country and in fact, other countries such as Australia, Germany, Russia or Cyprus had also sold and were selling products under the name of Champagne.

In 1958, in a first lawsuit, which was heard in the penal courts, a popular jury declared the Spanish company innocent, condemning the defendants to pay the costs for the court case. Nevertheless, the French industry continued with legal actions and in a second court case in 1960, this time through the civil courts, the Court ordered that the company desist from selling the sparkling wine in question under any description that included the word Champagne since the expression “Spanish Champagne” could confuse a part of British consumers.
This particular case brought an important precedent. As from that time, in the United Kingdom and the whole Commonwealth, the word Champagne could only be used to describe the wine produced in this region under the rulings of the AOC.

A few years later, in 1966, Spain ratifies and adheres to the Lisbon Agreement where the protection of certain geographical names is recognised and among these, that of “Champagne”. This position will be reasserted in the “Ratification Instrument of the Agreement between the Spanish State and the French Republic on the protection of the Denominations of Origin, an indication of origin and Denominations of certain products and Protocol” drawn up in Madrid in 1973.

With the future entry of Spain into the Common Market, the need arises for adapting the legislation on Cava to the community rulings. Due to this need, the Order of the 27th of February 1986 is published by which it is established that the Denomination “Cava” is reserved for quality sparkling wines produced by the traditional method in the region that is established therein. It was in this Order, specifically in its annexe, where the area of production is determined of the Determined Region for Cava and which is currently defined in the Regulation for Cava that is in force.

The incorporation of Spain into the CEE on the 1st of January 1986, signifies the recognition of Cava as a Quality Sparkling Wine Produced in a Determined Region (V.E.C.P.R.D.), a category in which are grouped all the first category or maximum quality sparkling wines and which are comparable to the Denominations of Origin and what it, in fact, means, is the recognition of the CEE, that Cava can only be produced in the Spanish State and provided that this is within what is known as the “Cava region”.



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Visiting Zaragoza?...visit the Aljafería
19 November 2020

 


  

The Aljafería in Zaragoza was declared a National Monument of Historical and Artistic Interest on the 4th June 1931. In 1947, however, it still remained a woeful sight in rags, according to the architect Francisco Íñiguez Almech, who for over thirty years undertook a slow and thorough recovery task. After his death in 1982, this was continued by the architects Ángel Peropadre Muniesa, Luis Franco Lahoz and Mariano Pemán Gavín. The result of all these alterations, backed by several archaeological digs, has led to the present-day appearance of the building, in which the original remains can be distinguished from the reconstructed part.  

Moreover, the Regional Assembly of Aragon has its seat in one section of this collection of historical buildings. Work on the Assembly building was started in 1985 by the architects Franco and Pemán. This work is part of the aesthetic trends of contemporary architecture, and its authors have avoided including historical elements that could lead to possible mistaken interpretation. In 2001, UNESCO declared the Mudejar architecture of Aragon a World Heritage site, and praised the Aljafería palace as one of the most representative and emblematic monuments of Aragonese Mudejar Architecture.

 

 


This retains part of the primitive fortified enclosure on a quadrangular floor plan reinforced by great ultra-semicircular turrets, together with the prismatic volume of the troubadour Tower, whose lower part, which dates from the IX century, is the most ancient part of the architectonic building.

The Islamic Palace enclosure houses residential quarters in its central area which are similar to the typological model of the 'omeya' influenced Islamic palaces, just like those that had developed in the Moslem palaces in the desert (which date back to the VIII century). So, in contrast to the defensive spirit and the strength of its walls, the 'taifal' palace, which is of delicate ornamental beauty, presents a composite plan based on a great rectangular open-air courtyard with a pool on its southern side. Next come two lateral porticoes with a polycusped mixed line series of arches that acts as visual screens and at the far end some tripartite rooms, which were originally intended for ceremonial and private use. There is also a small oratory in the northern portico, with a small octagonal floor plan, in whose interior fine and lavish plaster decorations can be seen (with typical ataurique motifs) as well as some brightly coloured well contrasted pictorial fragments, which are of particular interest. All of these artistic achievements correspond to the work carried out during the second half of the XI century under the command of Abu-Ya-far Ah-mad ibn Hud al-Muqtadir, and they serve to highlight the cultural importance and the rich virtuosity of his court. Furthermore, the Aljafería is thought to be one of the greatest pinnacles of Hispano-Moslem art, and its artistic contributions were later copied at the Reales Alcazares in Seville and at the Alhambra in Granada.


The palace of the Catholic King and Queen was erected on top of the Moslem structure in around 1492, to symbolise the power and prestige of the Christian monarchs. However, the direction of the work fell to the Mudejar master, Faraig de Gali. The work blended the medieval artistic inheritance with the new Renaissance contributions. From this origin came some of the most significant examples of the so-called Reyes Catolicos style (that of the Catholic King and Queen).
 

The palace comprises a flight of stairs, a gallery or corridor and a collection of rooms known as The Lost Steps, which lead to the Great Throne Room. Of these, the most interesting are, on the one hand, the paving made up of small paving tiles and the tiles from Muel, and on the other, the gold and polychrome wooden ceilings among which the magnificent coffered ceiling in the Throne Room is especially remarkable.

From 1593, by order of King Phillip II, the Siennese engineer Tiburcio Spanochi drew up plans to transform the Aljafería into a modern style fort or citadel. Consequently, he provided the buildings with an outer walled enclosure with pentagonal bastions at the corners and an imposing moat surrounding it all (with slightly sloping walls and corresponding drawbridges). However, the real reason for building this fort was none other than to show royal authority in the face of the Aragonese people’s demands for their rights as well as the monarch’s wish to curb possible revolts by the people of Zaragoza. After this first military renovation, throughout the XVIII and XIX centuries, extensive alterations were made to the building to adapt it for its use a barracks. To this day the blocks built during the reign of Charles III remain, along with two of the NeoGothic turrets added during the time of Isabel II.
 

Lastly, it must be must be pointed out that very few Aragonese monuments have as many excellent architectonic examples such as those at the Aljafería in Zaragoza, summing up ten centuries of daily life as well as historic and artistic events in Aragon.

 

 



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The Origins of the Spanish Language
28 October 2020

 

The "Camino de la Lengua" (the path of the Spanish language) starts from the San Millán de la Cogolla Monasteries in La Rioja and passes through five locations that have had a special and unique relationship with the history of the Spanish language in Spain: the Santo Domingo de Silos Monastery in Burgos and the cities of Valladolid, Salamanca, Ávila and Alcalá de Henares. 

The Yuso and Suso Monasteries are in the village of San Millán de la Cogolla and are European Heritage Sites. They are in the Cárdenas Valley, a tributary of the River Najerilla, in the foothills of the Demanda Mountains and under La Rioja's highest peak, San Lorenzo (2,262 metres). Suso, the upper of the two monasteries began in the caves inhabited by the hermits and disciples of San Millán in around the 6th century. The building work that turned these caves into the monastery is reflected in the different architectural styles layered on top of each other from the 6th to the 10th centuries: Visigoth, Mozarabic and Romanesque.

Suso's cultural importance comes from the collection of manuscripts and texts written at the Monastery's library, one of the most important during Spain's Middle Ages: the Codex Emilianense de los Concilios (992), the Quiso Bible (664) and a copy of the Apocalypse by Beato de Liébana (8th century) make this one of the most important, if not the most important, libraries during Spain's Middle Ages. This setting provided the backdrop for what is today the oldest written evidence of the Spanish language.

The Yuso Monastery was built to expand the Suso Monastery in the 11th century and is particularly large. It was built during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and combines different architectural styles: mainly Renaissance and Baroque. The Monastery's museum houses many wonderful works of art: paintings by Juan de Rizzi (thought to be the best Spanish religious painter) and copper pieces dating back to the 17th century. The 11th century gold and ivory chests hold the relics of San Millán. The screen closing off the church's lower choir was made in 1676 and the retrochoir's sculpture contains eight beautiful Spanish images One of the Monastery's best pieces is also in this area: a pulpit made of walnut, which is thought to date back to the late 16th century.

 

 

The Monastery's library and archive are of particular interest and are considered to be one of Spain's best. The Medieval archive's main items are two cartularies (the Galicano and the Bulario cartularies) containing around three hundred original documents. 

The library remains as it was furnished towards the end of the 18th century. The true value and interest of the library is not so much the number of documents it houses (over ten thousand), rather the unusual nature of the items. One of these unusual pieces is the "Gospel of Jerónimo Nadal", printed in Antwerp in 1595. Although it is unusual to own a copy of this edition, the actual format of the book is even more unusual, as all the sheets are painted one by one in various colours.



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Visiting Valencia? Let Sorolla guide you around...
20 October 2020

Joaquín Sorolla is one of the great masters of 19th-century Spanish painting. He became internationally famous with his paintings of Mediterranean scenes, full of light and happiness. This route around his hometown, Valencia, covers the places connected to his life and works. From the neighbourhood where he grew up, to the places that inspired him, including the museums that display his art. 


The Sorolla Route is a cultural proposal that explores the history and works of the Valencian painter Joaquín Sorolla. The route covers about thirty spots around the city of Valencia which are connected to some extent to the artist. The urban route we present includes some of these important places. It can be covered on foot in a day, although you can also take the metro or tram to some of the places, for more convenience.

 


 

We start the route at the artist's birthplace, situated at 8, Calle de las Mantas street, which is marked by a commemorative plaque. Close by we'll find the Church of Santa Catalina, where he was baptised, and the Church of San Martín, where he married Clotilde García. Then we'll go to the Silk Exchange, as its steps are the setting in the artist's painting "The Cry of the Palleter" (1884). Then, we head towards the Fine Arts Club, to which the artist used to belong. It is currently situated in a Gothic palace on Calle Cadirers street.


The next stop is the Cathedral, a building that appears in some of Sorolla's earlier works. If we walk down Carrer de San Vicente Mártir street, we'll get to the Town Hall, which houses an art collection that includes some of Sorolla's paintings, such as "My Family" (1901). We continue on Calle de las Barcas street towards the section known as that of the Painter Sorolla: the Artisans' School of Valencia used to be situated here. The artist belonged to this school between 1876 and 1878. The centre is currently situated on Avenida del Reino de Valencia and conserves an oil painting by Sorolla and some of the drawings he made while he was a student.

 


 

The route continues by crossing the Turia River, over the Puente de la Exposición bridge, popularly known as "La Peineta" ("ornamental comb"). Designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, it will take us to Calle Galicia street, where we'll find the Palacio de la Exposición palace, which held the Regional Valencian Exhibition in 1909, which showcased artworks by several artists, including Sorolla.

 

 

Then we walk down Paseo de la Alameda to get to the Valencia Museum of Fine Arts. Its collection includes around 50 of Sorolla's paintings. After that we cross the Turia River again towards El Carmen Centre. It is an old 13th-century convent which used to house the School of Fine Arts, where Sorolla studied between 1878 and 1887. Today it is an exhibition centre and holds the Joaquín Sorolla Research and Study Institute. The House-Museum of Benlliure is close by, dedicated to the Benlliure family of artists, intimately connected to the Valencian artist.

 


 

The route continues towards La Malvarrosa beach, which appears in many of Sorolla's paintings. On the coast we'll also be able to discover the house of another of his friends - the House-Museum of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez. We'll also see two places whose activity was an inspiration to the artist for several of his works: the Hospital Valencia al mar (old San Juan de Dios shelter) and the Casa dels bous house. If we walk down the promenade we'll get to Valencia's monument to Sorolla, situated in Plaza de la Armada Española square.

The urban route ends at the General Cemetery of Valencia, at the family pantheon where the artist is buried. Nevertheless, we can enjoy more of his paintings in the Lladró Museum, six kilometres from the city, in Tavernes Blanques.



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Manzanares el Real Castle
16 October 2020

 

The town of Manzanares el Real, 30 miles north of Madrid, is most famous for its castle, which is an imposing example of the Castilian military architecture of the 15th century and one of the last of its kind in Spain. In fact, after initially being user as a fortress, it became a residential Palace of one of the noblest families in Castilla since the Middle Ages: the Mendozas. However, Manzanares Castle is also closely tied in with Madrid's recent history, because the process leading to the autonomy of Comunidad de Madrid (1981) was started there, as was the project for the Statute of Autonomy, which would be approved in Congress and the Senate in 1983.

 

 

The construction of the castle began in the year 1475, at a time when Madrid was just a little town. The castle has a quadrangular plant with four towers on the corners. The whole building is surrounded by a permiter barbican, with a single entrance via a beautiful west-facing door, flanked by two strong turrets and defended by stone deer. All the walls of the barbican contain loopholes in the shape of the Jerusalem Cross in homage to the first duke's brother, Cardenal Mendoza, who was given the title of Cardinal of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem Basilica by the Catholic Monarchs in 1480.

 

The south facade boasts a portico, the outer face of which is made up of low arches with a flamboyant Gothic style pillar between each one. It contrasts sharply with the solid walls and shows how lnigo Lopez changed the look of his residence with the help of the skilled architect Juan Guas. The latter also designed the magnificent portico, galleries around the central courtyard, with late Gothic and Mudejar influences particularly on the ceilings and the corridors containing the coat of arms of the Mendozas, Lunas and Enriquez. The Castle’s stately appearance, contrasting with the harmonious blend of Moorish and Renaissance details and the elegance of the mock Arabic cornice on which the battlements are supported, is only interrupted on the south-facing facade by the splendid portico which gives it a special grace and uniqueness.

 

 

The Mendozas used this Palace-Castle as a stately home for less than a century. In 1565 when the 4th Duque del Infantado died, feuds between the inheritors resulted in its disuse and a slow process of deterioration until the architect, Vicente Lamperez Romera, took responsibility for the first restoration works in 1914. Declared a Historical ­Art Monument in 1931, the Duque del Infantado, lnigo Arteaga y Folquera, ceded it to Madrid County Council in 1965. At present, the Castle is run by “Direccion General de Turismo de la Consejeria de Economia y Empleo de la Comunidad de Madrid”.

The castle of Manzanares also appears in the movie "El Cid" (1961) featuring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren. If you ever get a chance to pass by Manzanares El Real, I highly recommend visiting this wonderful property.

 



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The Biniadris Cave - Menorca
02 October 2020

The Biniadrís cave is a forgotten cavern in the rock that hadn’t been touched for thousands of years. In an almost inaccessible hole in the rock face, measuring just 10 square meters were a great number of human skulls covered with dirt. Some had a perfect orifice drilled into the cranium, indicating that they had been trepanned. 

 

 

The cave was discovered in 2013 in the island of Menorca in the Balearic Islands. So far, the archaeological team has identified the bones of around 100 people belonging to the island’s Talayotic period during the Bronze Age. The cave was used from around 3,300 years ago until around 2,600 years ago as a burial site – “a sacred space” where mysterious funeral rituals were carried out.

However, they don’t know how they got the bodies to the cave but it appears that they were wrapped in a kind of linen shroud and carried on their backs. They were placed in the centre of the cave, covered with red ocher and left there until they had to make room for another body. Then the old remains would be piled up against the sides of the cave.

 

 

The archaeological team which has just published the first results of their research has photos of one of the most impressive discoveries in Biniadrís: a perfectly preserved lock of hair dyed with red ochre powder. They would cut a lock of hair from the dead and placed it in a tube that was made of leather or wood or other materials. In the lids of these tubes, which were made of bones, they carved a series of almost perfect concentric circles. However, it’s impossible to know what these ceremonies meant to them. In the same period, the Assyrians worshipped Enki, the god of fresh water; and the Egyptians worshipped Osiris, god of the afterlife. Like thousands of other beliefs that prompted generations of wars, they no longer mean anything.

The archaeologists have also discovered buttons made of bone in the cave, similar to those from a duffel coat that suggest that the bodies were dressed. The buttons were pieces of craftsmanship that were perhaps passed down from generation to generation, according to archaeologist Manuel Altamirano.

In their report, the team describes five trepanned skulls bearing practically perfect holes. Some of these holes are scarcely big enough to fit a pencil through while others are as big as three centimetres in diameter. The lips of the holes suggest that the bone regenerated after the operation and the individuals subjected to the surgery carried on living. Trepanation was a common medical operation dating back to Neolithic times, undertaken to relieve the pressure of meningitis or strong headaches. The trepanations were performed by people with a certain know-how. According to the archaeologists, they made the holes with a stone tool using it like sandpaper and then employed a point. They would have had some kind of painkiller to avoid the pain.

The Biniadrís cave is the last mysterious corner of the funeral territory known as the Cales coves in the Alaior region of Menorca where, in 1990, other caves were found containing evidence of similar burials, such as Es Mussol, Es Càrritx and Es Pas. But, even within this extraordinary framework, Biniadrís is exceptional due to the quality of the remains. The digs will continue next summer – the cave still has much to reveal about the trepanned redheads.



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New World Ingredients
26 August 2020

Spanish history - and Spanish gastronomy of course - would take a huge turn when a new continent was discovered by mistake, in 1492. It was also the year of the reconquest when the Muslims of Al-Andalus were expelled from most of the Iberian Peninsula. This meant that a lot of the cooking techniques from this culture were disregarded, and so Spanish gastronomy was in need of a revival. Thankfully, the Americas were able to provide that extra lift needed to revitalise Spanish food.

Soon new ingredients would appear in Spain, though some people who looked at them would wrinkle their noses or frown upon them, and it would take many years for some of these vegetables to become acceptable to Spanish palates. Curiously, much of the Spanish diet -if not most- is based on these few ingredients and some would even, someday, save Europe from starving during famine.

So what ingredients are we talking about? Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and cocoa as well as wheat. There was hardly any pre-columbine influence in the preparation of food in Spain, but for the use of these vegetables. However, as we mentioned, it's acceptance took a little longer.

It is believed that potatoes came into Europe through Galicia, where it was first cultivated. This bulb had been discovered in Peru in 1532, it would take some years till it spread to the rest of the country, and continent, but eventually, it was accepted, especially during the Eighty Years' War, when it fed thousands of Spanish soldiers stationed in Holland. The lower classes took more time to assimilate this new vegetable, preferring turnips and parsnips instead.

Today potatoes in Spain are one of the main ingredients of the most emblematic dishes in Spanish cuisine: tortilla de patatas, patatas bravas, papas arrugadas from the Canary Islands and many others. Should you ever travel to Spain you will get the chance to taste all the wonders that Spanish cuisine makes with potatoes. But the potato is not only important in Spain of course, but most European countries also have this bulb as a base ingredient for many of their dishes.

Tomatoes in Spain were imported from Mexico, as it was an important ingredient in Aztec food. In Spain, it was believed to be unfit for consumption, and it was given a medicinal and ornamental use as well. Nowadays we can't imagine life without tomatoes: pantumaca, gazpacho, salmorejo and many other dishes use it as a base ingredient. Tomato also changed the gastronomy in different countries. What would pizza and spaghetti bolognese be without tomatoes?

Another very important ingredient was cocoa beans. During the 17th and 18th century chocolate in Spain became a national vice of the gentry. In the Aztec empire, chocolate was consumed very bitter, directly from cocoa and occasionally mixed with wheat flour. The Spaniards had the great idea of mixing it with sugar and it became the most popular drink among the wealthier classes. In fact, the Spanish aristocracy and clergy would drink it at all hours. Too popular in fact for the liking of the church, who decided to forbid it! 

Some of the smaller ingredients that made it across the ocean to Spain include paprika which has since become one of the Spanish's favourite spices. This spice is used in a number of dishes in Spanish cooking and is the vital ingredient for transforming chorizo sausages into their characteristic red colour. Before this, chorizo was generally a black or brown colour. It was in the 17th century that they began to combine the sausage with paprika, hence changing the image of the sausage forever.

As you can see, many of the traditional dishes that we associate with Spain would not have existed if it were not for Colombus's idea to try and reach China in a different way. Who knows when they would have been brought over to Europe and how they would have influenced European cuisine had they not been discovered by the Spanish....?



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Thinking in a foreign language makes us more rational
17 July 2020

Ever heard this as a child? : “What language do you need me to use so you’ll pay attention?”

It turns out that there is some truth behind the question. A series of recent scientific studies suggests that we think and make decisions differently if we process the information in a language other than our mother tongue.

Even if we grasp the notion equally well in both languages, our final decision on the matter will tend to be better thought out, less emotional and more results-oriented.

A leading expert  on bilingualism at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Albert Costa, believes it is good for deliberative thinking; it makes you think twice about things.

Costa began his research with the tramway dilemma: would you push someone onto the tracks if that death were to save the lives of five other people? The moral conflict involved in sending someone to their death appears to vanish when the question is put to subjects in a language other than their mother tongue.

The proportion of people willing to sacrifice a person for the larger good shot up from 20% to nearly 50%, with the only difference being that they processed the question in a second language.

It appears that processing information in a foreign language makes us less prone to emotional thinking and more focused on efficient results. We become less moralistic and more utilitarian.

The research also finds that thinking in another language increases our tolerance for risk-taking on anything from planning a trip to embracing a new breakthrough in biotechnology.

As the Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman explains, our brain seems to have a System 1, which focuses on fast, instinctive and stereotypic thinking, and a System 2, which deals with issues requiring greater consideration.

In our native language, we may be more prone to using System 1, while the additional effort required for thinking in a foreign language might trigger System 2. This could explain the higher percentage of people who overcome loss aversion and moral dilemmas in a foreign language.

For instance, these insights might be useful during negotiations that require participants to put their personal feelings to one side and focus on the greater good.

 

 

 



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