Photo Post: A Visit to the Seville Cathedral Rooftop

There are some things in Seville that don’t need any further explanation – a cotton candy sunset over Triana, Plaza de España’s beautiful tile benches, the dreamy chords and staccato of a flamenco performance.

And then there’s the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and its stunning minaret. Visiting the rooftop has long been on my to-do list, and even with a guide recounting the history, lore and practicality of the temple, the views of La Hispalense needed no explanation.

Florentino met us at Puerta de San Miguel, adjacent to Avenida de la Constitución. It was a busy Saturday evening, and the streets were clogged with families and street performers. Once we’d stepped inside – our guide with an enormous key and soft feet – we’d get ground rules: watch your step, stay with the group, and don’t touch any wires.

The massive cathedral of Seville

We climbed a winding staircase, worn down by more than 600 years of history. Etched Stars of David, rhombuses and other figures were a testament to the 100 years it took to build the cathedral once the city was reconquered. It was dark and cramped, but we emerged just over the sacristy, affording us views of Plaza de Virgen de los Reyes below.

The Giralda

cathedral in seville

For someone who has climbed the Giralda and visited the cathedral itself two dozen times, I didn’t think the building and anchor any touristic route would hold much mystery. 

Florentino reminded us to watch our step as I nearly tripped over a stone pod on the uneven surface. These devices were used as weights for the reliquia below – statues, paintings and even old altarpieces were hoisted using this archaic system.  So, there, I learned something. He pointed out features in the building process, from the stained glass to the buttresses, navigated a labyrinth of staircases, rooms and small patios.

sunset from the seville cathedral

sunset Seville Spain

When you’ve admired the sprawling cathedral from below, it’s incredible to see the details up close. So close, in fact, that I received a shock from wires designed to keep pigeons away. Oops, broke rule three.

We climbed and climb, retracing the Latin cross as Florentino recounted the 500 chapels below our feet and lore about the construction and consecration of the cathedral. Like everyone else, I gasped when we reached the highest point of the tour.

The Giralda Tower Seville

We were just a few yards from the Giralda, and climbed up the dome of the sacristy to contemplate the tower. Along with the Patio de los Naranjos, the minaret is a trace of the mosque that stood here until the reconquest in the 12th century.

Rooftop tour of the cathedral

Entering the temple shortly after, we walked behind the organ on a small walkway that could only accommodate you if you squeezed by, careful not to trip over the wires that light the naves. I had lost Florentino’s voice by now, but that hardly mattered.

Stained glass at the Seville Cathedral

rosette window in the catedral de sevilla

Once back on the ground, I could truly appreciate the immensity of the cathedral and its importance in Seville lore and history. The church built to inspire all those who see it to think that the architects and commissioners must have been crazy. Crazy, maybe.

If you go: Conocer Sevilla runs weekly visits to the cathedral rooftop – called the Cubertizo de la Catedral. Tours are about 90 minutes, cost 12 per person and it’s recommendable to wear comfortable clothing, as surfaces are unsteady and there is a bit of climbing involved. For more information and reservations, check Conocer Sevilla’s webpage.

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I visited the cathedral as part of the Typical NonSpanish project with Caser Expat. For more on the project, visit their webpage or find them on twitter.

Yes, Boss! : On Learning to Drive a Tuk Tuk in India

“Ok Boss, you take over now.” Mukul grinned widely as he took his hands off of the glorified bike handlebars that constitute the steering wheel, ignition and gas pedal of a tuk tuk, and motioned for me to take over. We were in the middle of rush hour traffic in Agra, India (which is, for the record, every waking hour of the day in my observation). My eyes most have grown wide in the rearview mirror because he took over again just as soon as I’d shaken my head no.

A tuk tuk is a ubiquitous symbol in many Asian and African countries, used to transport passengers most commonly. It’s like a motorized tricycle with a rudimentary automobile body resting on top. We had been warned: keep your hands and feet inside, and don’t take any babies offered to you on street corners.

Tuk Tuks in India

From the first time we took one in Delhi – from our hostel in M Block to the Lotus temple – I was hooked. In fact, we’d skip bicycle-pulled rickshaws and even elephants to get around India, always amazed at how fast the little things zipped, and how easily they’d maneuver through traffic.

Tuk tuk drivers have to have their driver’s license, but you’d never know. On more than one occasion, I was nervous the thing would tip over (or I’d fall out) when a driver would take turns to fast, or that the whole “Oh, everyone honks their horn, even though it’s illegal” excuse was enough reason to garner a fine. It was thrilling but oftentimes scary. 


In Delhi, we preferred taking the women’s only train car on the underground, but gritty Agra merited a tuk tuk. Mukul was employed by the homestay we’d be staying at and offered to be at our service the whole day – for 6€. The ride from the station took ten minutes, as the road ere clogged with commuters in trucks, cars, motorcycles and tuk tuks, along with the odd cow or goat. I was impressed with how the tuk tuk’s three wheels could navigate roundabouts with no clear traffic signs or lanes.

“You see, to drive is so fun!” Mukul said. I would take his word for it. 

After dropping our bags and adding our names to an ancient guest book that registered travelers from all over the world, Mukul took us to the Taj Mahal. Built along the Yamuna River as a mausoleum to Shah Jahan’s third wife, the whole reason we’d come north was to see the building said to make the sun and moon shed cheers. He dropped up near the bazaars to the south of the complex and told us he’d wait there for two hours.

Visiting the Taj Mahal Agra

The Taj was stunning, just as I imagined it would be.

And that made Agra Fort, where Shah Jahan was imprisoned until his death, facing the mausoleum, all the more meh.

Deciding to skip the Baby Taj that afternoon for a nap (old habits die-hard, even while traveling), Mukul was waiting for us outside the homestay, napping himself with his feet sticking out of the tuk tuk. “Hop in boss! You drive?” he asked, stepping out of the vehicle.

Tuk Tuk Drivers

We again declined and had him take us to the Mehtab Bagh, manicured lawns facing the northern facade of the Taj. We admired the temple from afar as the sun begin to wane. It was one of those moments where the world seemed to stop and I found myself nearly short of air – it’s that magical, and I felt at the same time 8 and 80 with wonder. I made an announcement:

“I’m going to ask if I can drive Mukul’s tuk tuk.” Hayley gave me the same bewildered look that I had given our driver that morning.

Mukul was having a chai tea at the stand across the street from where he’d left us, chatting with other drivers and holding the cup with just three fingers. He immediately sat up, gulp his tea down and unleashed the grin when I told him I’d like to take him up on his offer. 

How a tuk tuk works

There wasn’t much of a learning curve: you switched on the engine, then rolled the handbar throttle to get the thing going. We tuk-tukked down the road back towards the Red Fort, Mukul sitting at my side to steady the handlebars. The cylinders seemed to be in the steering mechanism – I could feel all of the energy pulsating through my hands.

I felt like I was speeding, risking an accident (or insurance claim), like I could maybe take on the traffic on the ring road. 

Tuk Tuk Driving

Then another vehicle passed and I told Mukul I was finished, just before we found the Muti Mahal neighborhood buzzing in the wake of the elections, which took place that very day. Marigold garlands had been strung in doorways, and people were drinking fizzy water while sitting on plastic chairs. We sped past them, honking.

“Ok, Boss! Next time you come to India, you drive to the city!” he offered, but Agra was sadly a disappointment overall.

Riding in tuk tuks in India

We took one more tuk tuk ride with Mukul, from the home stay to the train station, stopping for a milky chai tea at a roadside hut. Ali would be waiting for us on the other side of  a sleeper train with a decked out tuk tuk, stories from his guru and the same large grin it seemed every Indian we encountered had.

When I think about India, I can almost feel the two-stroke engine under my butt and the potholes, just the same as I taste a warm butter naan or smell the sandalwood. 

The Colors of India - Tuk Tuks

On our last day in India, trying to spend our rupees as we suffered through a humid day in Mumbai, a street vendor on Elefanta Island was peddling small, plastic tuk tuks. We bargained him from 100 rupees each to 100 for both – about 1.30€. The toy barely fit in my bag, already replete from clothing purchases, tea and spices. It’s now sitting near my desk as a reminder of road trips, of awakened senses and that lonely road near the Mehtab Bagh.

Would you ever drive a car in a country like India?

Want more of this eye-opening country? Check out Learning by Watching | The Colors of India | The Hawa Mahal

Autonomous Community Spotlight: Extremadura

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.  

spain collageOn my first visit to Extremadura in 2009, Tita explained the meaning of the comunidad to me: Extre because it’s extremely far west, cozying up to Portugal, and madura because the hardened plains shaped the conquistadores that grew up there.

Extremadura is one of Spain’s best-kept secrets, and I sincerely hope it stays that way. It’s sandwiched between western Andalucía and Madrid and traversed by the A-5 mega highway, yet most tourists conveniently (and thankfully) leave it off their list. From hidden monasteries to a wine region you’ve likely not tried, these far-flung plains have the potential to attract visitors and their tourist euros.

Name: Extremadura

Population: 1.1 million, a mere 2.36% of Spain’s total population

extremadura collage

Provinces: Two; Badajóz and Cáceres

When: December 2009, 13th of 17

About Extremadura: Despite its reputation as a sleepy, sparsely populated corner of Spain, Extremadura has seen some of the most important developments of Spain, beginning with the Romans. Known back then as Luisitania, the capital of Mérida (then Emerita Augusta) was an important city for trade and culture. Roman ruins, like a beautifully preserved theatre and an aqueduct visible from the highway, rub elbows with the ubiquitous old man bars and banks in the administrative capital.

Merida Spain amptheatre

When the Muslims moved in during the first few years of the  eight century, Mérida was one of the Caliphate’s most strategic regions due to its proximity to Portugal. The Córdoba Caliphate fell three centuries later, and power was jockeyed to the Taifa of Badajoz and remained under Muslim rule until 1230.

During Spain’s golden age, Extremadura took its place in the sun: not only did it produce a great number of conquistadores like the Pizarro, Hernán Cortés and Núñez de Balboa, but a great deal of the riches that arrived from the new world never made it to Madrid, finding a permanent home in Extremadura.

Statue of Pizarro in Trujillo

Nowadays, the region is famous for its cork production and acorn-fed ham, as well as outdoor wildlife areas. If you’ve never heard of it, there’s little surprise.

Must-sees: Extremadura boasts dozens of hidden gems. I say hidden because of the province’s network of lonely highways, many of which curve through mountains and around man-made lakes. Given its crop of conquistadores, you’ll likely see places that share a name with South American cities – Valdivia, Medellín, Orellana – and the medieval cities seem to be living back in time.

view of Trujillo, Extremadura

Mérida’s Roman Ruins are recognized by UNESCO, and the city houses an excellent museum with artifacts from Lusitania. At just two hours north of Seville, it’s beyond easy to get to, and castles and monasteries pop out along every curve.

Cáceres’s elegantly preserved walled city is also a UNESCO site whose mix of Roman, Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance architecture is unparalleled and worthwhile, and I swooned over Trujillo‘s stone churches and Renaissance palaces. On  a whim, the Novio and I also went to see the Guadalupe Monastery (surprise! Also a World Heritage Site) and visited the charming little town of Garganta la Olla. I also love the names of towns, which pay homage to famous residents or local lore.

The Patio of Monasterio de Guadalupe

Food is a big deal in Extremadura, particularly big game, cheese and wine. You can expect huge portions of tender meats from pigs, cows and wild boar, as well as pheasant and quail. As a matter of fact, much of the Extremaduran plains are perfect for birdwatching (and protected!), and the national park of Monfragüe is home to several rare breeds.

But, if you’re like me, you’ll choose a robust glass of Ribera de Guadiana to wash down your migas, or fried breadcrumbs, and stinky Torta del Casar cheese. Paprika is also produced in the cherry tree-dotted foothills of La Vera.

The main square of Garganta la Olla

One thing you could skip? The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s last residence, Yuste, was a big (and expensive) letdown. 

My take: Sharing a border with occidental Andalucía, Extremadura is closer than my go-to destinations like Granada or Málaga. Its stark plains, hollow sky and long stretches of highway are similar to my surroundings, with blips of civilization on lone roads. 

What really draws me to Extremadura is that it hasn’t experienced the heavy tourism that the coasts and bigger cities have, meaning it’s Spain Spain. From the warmth of locals in teeny towns to the cheap prices and filling meals, I’m a pretty big proponent for Tita’s Extremadura.

Have you ever been to Extremadura? What do you like (or not) about it?

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León | Castilla-La Mancha | Cataluña

Walking The Medieval Murallas of Ávila

I’d seen the walls from the highway on the way to Madrid – like something out of a period piece, the red roofs of the historic  center spill down from a shallow hill, corralled by more than 80 stone towers. In this city of stones and saints, it’s what puts Ávila on the map.

On a recent trip to visit the city I studied abroad in, I detoured towards Ávila, a small provincial capital nuzzled up to Madrid. This meant backroads past crumbling castles, farmland and hamlets that are but a blip on a little-traversed highway.

Sigh. I love Castilla y León.

Las Murallas de Avila y su Visita

Ávila is a city of stone churches, small plazas and the birthplace of Saint Theresa the Mystic and Saint John of the Cross, founders of the Descalced Carmelites, though the imposing muralla is what I came for (I did light a candle for my abuela at the Church of Saint Theresa while de paso, though).

Construction began under Alfonso VI at the end of the 11th Century, and nearly a millennia later, the entire city was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage City, one of thirteen in Spain.  

Western Walls of Avila

Iglesia Santa Teresa, Avila

Avila CollageThe Cathedral of Avila

More than one kilometer of the city walls can be visited – the short tramo from the Puerta del Alcázar around the plaza and to the cathedral, and from Puerta de las Carnicerías around the western side of the old city to Puerta del Puente, at the lowest point of the city. You can also exit at Puerta del Carmen, right next to the Parador de Turismo. One ticket is valid for the entrances at Puerta del Alcázar and Puerta de las Carnicerías.

Walking the City Walls of Avila

The Cathedral of Avila from the City Walls

Puerta del Carmen Avila

Selfie at the Murallas de Avila

Visting the Medieval Walled City of Avila Spain

Leave 90 minutes or so to visit the walls, and don’t miss the numerous Romanesque and Gothic churches within them. Also of note is the museum, convent and church dedicated to Saint Theresa (or the yolk pastries bearing her name). 

If you go: The walls are open daily from 10am, with guided tours available. Tuesdays from 2 to 4pm free. If you have a Carnet Joven, show it with a photo ID for a discounted ticket. Be sure to bring sturdy shoes, as some parts of the walls are hazardous. Regular admission is 5€, reduced 3.50€. If you want a great photo, walk or drive to Los Cuatro Postes, just across the Adaja River.

If you like walks and hikes and old things, you’ll enjoy: The Dubrovnik City Walls | Climbing Teide, Spain’s highest point | Spain’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Have you been to Ávila? More importantly, have you tried ternera de Ávila?!

Autonomous Community Spotlight: Castilla-La Mancha

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain. 

At the risk of breaking my engagement, Castilla-La Mancha only conjures up one thing to me: Don Quijote de la Mancha, the star-crossed lover and would-be knight who is synonymous with Spanish culture. While I can admire Don Alonso’s attempt to bring back chivalry in the early 17th Century, the very thought of him reminds me of high school Spanish class and having to make a video of our own quijote-like adventures (we attacked the rickety jungle gym in my back yard with a stick and made up a parody to a Backstreet Boys song, in case you were wondering).

The expansive region east and southeast of Madrid has quite a few claims to fame besides Quijote and his sidekick Sancho Panza, and the ‘giants’ he fought at Consuegra. I’ve admittedly only been to Toledo for two days, and spent two weeks living in the Monasterio de Uclés, but my hunch is that the medieval architecture, the sunflower fields and the Manchego cheese (yep, it’s from La Mancha, bendito sea) would win me over.

Name: Castilla-La Mancha

Population: 2.1 million

 

Provinces: Five; Albacete, Ciudad Real, Cuenca, Guadalajara, Toledo.

When: September 2007, 8th of 17

About Castilla-La Mancha: “Shifting Borders Since 711″ could be the unofficial tourism slogan of this area of Spain. Once part of the the Muslim caliphate in the early 8th century, Christian crusaders slowly fought back and the whole region was eventually unified under the Catholic Crown in that infamous year, 1492. 

During those centuries, the region became known as Castilla la Nueva, a shout out to its cousin, the Kingdom of Castille. This area actually included Madrid, then a small farming village, and its capital was named as Toledo. Under the Catholic Kings, New Castille regained its Christian heritage, giving way for Cervantes to pen sweeping ideas in his famous novel.

In the late 18th century, José Moniño, Count of Floridablanca, redrew county lines, so to speak, creating several comarcas and making Albacete a region of Murcia. It was not until the creation of Autonomous Regions with the 1978 Constitution that Albacete returned home to Castilla-La Mancha, and is now its largest city.

Despite being one of the largest territorial regions, Castilla-La Mancha is sparsely populated (I lived in Uclés, population: 220, for two weeks. We were lucky to have a place to escape from camp food!). Just take the high-speed train between Madrid and Córdoba for proof.

Wine, olives and livestock thrive on the dry plains, and historically La Mancha has been known for agriculture more than industry.

Must-sees: Castilla-La Mancha is home to one of Spain’s former capitals and a heralded city, Toledo. This UNESCO World Heritage site is known for being the Ciudad de las Tres Culturas, or a haven for religious tolerance before Torquemada and the Inquisition rolled around.

In medieval times, Catholics, Jews and Muslims rubbed elbows in the Plaza del Zocodover, and the artistic and cultural legacy is still present. Famed Spanish painter El Greco made this city his home and his artwork remains preserved in his home and workshop near the Tajo Gorge, and the Alcázar’s historical significance is renowned. If you’re in Madrid, make the trip.

The old school windmills at Consuegra are under an hour’s drive from Toledo, and while they’re no longer used, they have whimsical names of knights.

The famous casa colgantes, or hanging houses, of Cuenca are widely known. Built on the gorge of the River Huécar, they’re the main attraction in a town full of noteworthy monuments, churches and museums. Its historic center is also a UNESCO site. 

And wouldn’t you know? Manchego cheese is largely produced in this region of Spain, as is wine and sunflower oil. So eat, drink and be glad you found out about this region. And try Marzipan, a traditional Christmas sweet that is mass-produced in Toledo.

My take: If you’ve read any other posts on this blog, you’ll know I champion small-town Spain and count food and drink among my favorite things. Toledo is a quick train ride outside of Madrid and an absolute treasure, and you can reach Guadalajara and Cuidad Real in no time. There’s absolutely no reason why you should skip Castilla-La Mancha.

And if you want a Quijote fix without traveling too far, there’s always Alcalá de Henares.

Have you ever visited Castilla-La Mancha? 

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León

Love and the Art of Flamenco Guitar Making: A Visit to the Guitarrería Mariano Conde

The sawdust on the floor gave it away: this was actually a living, breathing sort of workshop, not one where the workers are tucked away, out of sight for appearances. My ears perked with each twang of the six strings of a flamenco guitar. There was a few hollow knocks, followed by a bit of sanding.

That’s where the sawdust came from. 

Growing up, I played the clarinet and learned music theory while perfecting trills, scales and my embouchure. Upon taking a flamenco course in Seville, I discovered that I shared the innate rhythm bailaores possess, the internal metronome that allows them to recognize palos and styles, then spiral into dance. My ears picked up the 2/4 and 3/4 counts and set my feet into motion with a firm golpe using my whole foot.

There are three big parts to flamenco – el cante, or the song; el baile, or dance;  el toque, or the guitar. The guitar is what accompanies  the cante, and sets rhythm to the bailaor. 

To learn about how flamenco guitars are crafted, Tatiana took us to the Mecca of guitarras flamencasGuitarrería Mariano Conde. Tucked away from the Ópera area on Calle de la Amnistía, this workshop has existed since 1915 and is operated by a third-generation craftsman and his son. 

Mariano hardly looked up from his work as he welcomed us into the bi-lever taller. He was sanding down the intoxicating curves of a flamenco guitar, crafted from cyprus and a century-old design. There was a muttered holaaaaa bienvenidas and a quick dos besos for Tatiana as she led us downstairs into the dimly lit belly of the shop. 

The tools of the trade stood against the wall – picks, sanders, measuring sticks, protractors. Nearly two dozen guitars in various stages of development, each showing just a fraction of the work that goes into crafting a lightweight flamenco guitar. In all, about 300 hours of labor go into producing a single instrument.

Mariano descended the stairs, carrying a soundboard over his shoulder. Made of thin strips of cypress or spruce, this part of the guitar provides for the reverberation and the sound that is transmitted when strings get plucked. Once this part of the guitar has been crafted, the sideboards are affixed, followed by the fretboard, or neck.

Just as a painter signs the bottom of a masterpiece, Mariano’s signature comes by way of the carving on the top of each fretboard – his is a minute, gently sloping “M.”

Many of the guitars we saw were in their final stages of production – applying coat after coat of French shellac, drying, or ready for the strings and bridge to be attached. Around the sound hole, Mariano adds another signature of his workshop, one which is solely dedicated to flamenco guitars: the rosette.

Made from carved and dyed pieces of wood, the color and pattern of rosettes changes regularly, and his current design pays homage to the first generation of flamenco guitar craftsmen in his family. The costs begin at 2800€ and rise steadily from there, depending on the wood used and hours of craftsmanship.

Unless, of course, it’s a Sonata.

A list of about 30 names of guitars, named for the poems that accompany the tag, are specially crafted for famous names in flamenco (including the recently deceased flamenco great, Paco de Lucía) and specialty buyers, including musicians who do not perform in the flamenco style. The Sonata guitars are pricey, but done solely by el maestro himself.

Mariano himself was hospitable, answering my questions between teens looking to replace nylon strings and other curious buyers who walked into the shop.

To say the Conde Hermanos, sobrinos de Domingo Esteso, are household names when it comes to flamenco guitars, would be an understatement. I’m not a flamenco aficionado, but can appreciate the discipline and attention it take to perfect an art, be it el cante or el baile or el toque.

The Art of Making, Alma Flamenca from Deep Green Sea on Vimeo.

I visited Guitarrería Mariano Conde as part of the ‘Origins of Flamenco’ tour with OGO Tours. Check out their website for loads more, from food to walking tours to excursions. Javier and Tatiana graciously invited my friend and I free of charge, but all opinions are my own.

If you’re interested in more Madrid and flamenco: My Perfect Madrileño Day | Mercado San Miguel | Where to see flamenco in Seville

Do you like Flamenco?

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