Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Spanish Gypsies

After leaving the island of Madeira I flew into Lisbon and hoped an overnight train to Madrid. I have a eurorail pass for Portugal/Spain/France so I just had to reserve a seat and then we’re off. You could get a reclining seat instead of a bed for much less money so I figured I’d go that route. I forgot how I like to mess things up though and within 3 minutes of sitting down and fiddling I had thoroughly broken the seat I was in. On the good side I could recline further back than should be allowed by the laws of physics, but on the bad side I could only recline, kiss sitting up straight goodbye. After enduring the painful process that is overnight transit I had about 7 hours or so in Madrid to see the sites and spill things on my jeans. I did the latter within another five minutes or so and then headed off to see “Guernica” by Pablo Picasso in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. It’s much bigger than I imagined in real life, but after about 3 floors of Surrealism I was pretty much shot after not having slept much. I talked my way into the library there saying I was an art student [which really wasn’t much of a lie now that I think about it], but you had to surrender all of your belongings and only go in with a t-shirt, pants, pencil, computer, and white paper. I pulled down a book about Frank Gehry in Spanish to look like I was researching and commenced the pillaging of their internet connection. Not surprisingly, I still dislike Gehry even in other languages.

After all that was said and done I hopped a train to Granada and arrived in late at night. I found the hostel with the help of a cab driver who I’m pretty positive did not possess brakes. I don’t say that because he sped around, quite the opposite, he had to haul up on the e-brake every time we got to a stop light and made my stick driving look fast by comparison. The hostel I was staying at, like most of Granada, was packed with free spirits and just as many congo drums. I felt bad that I didn’t have a nose piercing and dreadlocks so I got the former as fast as possible. The dreadlocks are taking a while to happen, but I’m doing my best. At the hostel I did meet two fellow Americans, Charlie and John, that will come in later in the story [note: foreshadowing] and almost managed to sleep through the whole night until the Spanish party crew came back around 5 in the morning and continued the loud party right outside of our room. The next day it was Alhambra time, the main reason I came to Granada on my way to France. An incredible experience to be sure, though I was immensely surprised about the construction of the palaces. They seemed to be made mostly out of wood, especially the interior but most of the walls as well. I was thinking stone was going to be much more prevalent. Though the ornamentation was painstakingly crafted, I would venture so far to say that much of the building was pretty sloppy construction. With many previous openings filled in leaving the lentils, and the fountains at the court of the lions not even going in straight lines. Regarding the Court of the Lions, somebody stole the lions. The lions have been taken. Well, not stolen, per se, but imagine my surprise to round the corner and see an empty fountain with no water held up by air, not stone felines. Like my luck with most architecture sites, I usually get there when they are in the middle of a restoration project or other event. When I visited years ago the Pantheon had scaffolding covering more than half of the circle, Villa Savoye was getting ready for a wedding reception complete with laser lights and disco ball, and I’m pretty sure the Parthenon will have been moved to a site near Minnesota by the time I get there. Lions aside, the Alhambra was an incredible experience, many times having painstaking details covering every square inch of an entire room.

I didn’t know about it before I came, but later in the sangria themed night Charlie and John brought up to me that there were Gypsies living to the North of the Alhambra in a placed called Sacromonte [Peter and Gavin try to contain yourselves]. As soon as I heard Gypsies my ears perked up and before I knew it we were at the “Gypsy Museum” the next morning seeing the caves that used to be lived in by the traveling nomads. Like most exhibits using big signs with larger arrows, it was extremely disappointing and presented all of the caves in a white washed neat and orderly manner. I don’t know much about Gypsies, but I’m pretty positive even monks don’t leave their caves that spotless and tidy. After walking through there we found a trail that lead to the actual Gypsy caves, those that are still occupied and used to this day by squatters and anyone else that wants to live in rocks. I still don’t know who technically owns the land, so if anyone else knows please comment, I’ve been without internet for a few days and haven’t been able to research it further. Regardless, the site is amazing, barely outside of the city, and on the other side of the Nasrid Wall [originating from Nasrid Palace in the Alhambra] are a series of rolling hills with caves dug out and still occupied today. The constructions of the shanties outside of the shelters are piece meal and consist mostly of fabrics and fencing, presenting a rough sense of enclosure. Though since they are on the other side of the wall you can’t even see the city, just the Alhambra, and it’s as if you’ve found a lost land known only to a few. Truth be told we were one of only a few other people walking around that day and John, Charlie and I managed to scramble up on top of the wall for a better look at our surroundings. As much as I could tell, the caves were not used as very permanent settlements and were more along the lines of transient housing and gathering. The site of the caves stands very close to the city, only separated visually by the wall from viewing the urban areas. Even being so close, it manages to seem remote and in a land all of its own.

A little bit to the West of the cave encampments is an addition to the Nasrid Wall and the other main reason I wanted to go to Granada previously. The addition was completed pretty recently [in 2006] and hasn’t been in that many publications that I’ve seen, which is a shame b/c it’s a really simple but extremely well executed piece of architecture with a real sense of place and understanding of construction. Antonio Torrecillas is the name of the architect that put it together. Part of the Nasrid wall, which stands about 14 feet or so high, had fallen into disrepair and so a section was needed to link two parts of old wall along a stretch about 100 feet long. The wall as well as portal is made by thin sheets of granite stacked on top of each other with no mortar holding it together, just weight. Working as a passageway as well, the wall has a hallway sized path on the inside with light filtering in and cooling breezes passing through the shaded enclosure. Above your head in the interior of the wall are steel ties providing the structural stability to connect the two walls to each one another. There are only a few different lengths of stone, arranged in different ways in order to create a seemingly random pattern of opening and light. I thought it was an extremely poetic example of a simple material and construction technique used to create an incredibly complex spatial presence while also relating directly to the culture and site around it.

Thoughts on Traveling #3 : Portuguese airport bathrooms have a life sized fly stenciled in every urinal. Your really have no choice but to go for it.


Shawn Nee said...

It's really genius to put those flies in the bathroom. Who doesn't want to pee on that damn fly? You gotta get him. Thus, preventing you going all over the floor.

I wonder what is in the girls bathroom? Investigate.

Nick Sowers said...

T, I can totally hear you reading the post to me. Good stuff, I have great memories of Granada. Have you had chocolate con churros?