Europe in January 2017 – The Third Day

On the third day of the January 2017 trip to Spain and Italy, your intrepid travellers arose (very) early in order to the catch the high-speed train from Madrid to Barcelona. This train, operated by Renefe, travels at close to 300 km/h, making the journey from Madrid to Barcelona just a touch over two and a half hours.

Leaving Madrid well before the sun had risen provided the opportunity to watch the sunrise from our train carriage as we sped along the Spanish plains towards the northern Mediterranean coast and the city of Barcelona.

Barcelona is, of course, situated in Catalunya, a part of Spain that has been seeking formal independence from the central government for many years. The Catalan people have their own dialect of the Spanish language (which description they may not like) and very proudly use that in preference to the more traditional Spanish. They are very close granted, but the presence of multi-lingual signs featuring two different dialects of Spanish makes it clear that the Catalunyans really do see themselves as different to the rest of Spain.

The primary purpose of our visit to Barcelona was to see the famous (and as yet incomplete) Basilica de la Sagrada Familia or to give the building its full name, the Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family. Designed by Antoni Gaudi, the Basilica has been under construction since 1882. It is often described as a wonderful of architectural design and construction but I have to confess that it did nothing for me.

The facade of the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia

The external part of the building looked like an unfortunate blend of old and new with one appearing to melt into the other at whim (though I suspect there was nothing whimsical about it at all). The external visage, when I first viewed it, was jarring to the point of distraction, and try as I might I could find very little ‘beauty’ in the facades I could see. Does that make me a philistine?

The interior of the basilica was slightly less jarring if only because there was no mix of old and new. The design was consistent throughout the main floor, a very open and modernist large church building. The use of colours, particularly in the stained glass, was intriguing, and certainly added to the ‘openness’ of the space, which could only be described as light, breezy. There were some architectural features that were very impressive, but my overall sense of the building is that it is more a work of art than a church designed for the celebration of liturgy.

Perhaps that’s the danger of a liturgist exploring a church building. I always tend to explore and assess the building on the basis of how it might be used for what the purpose it was constructed – i.e. for the celebration of liturgy.

And for me, the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia didn’t work liturgically.

After what I considered a disappointing visit to la Sagrada Familia we explored some of the Latin quarter of Barcelona, little back alleys and small streets, hidden plazas and buildings of significance, including the Catedral de Barcelona, a building that dates back to 1298. In comparison with the previous church, this building is particularly moving, with side chapels devoted to many a saint, a cloister that includes the provision of geese (yes, Bishop Bill, there is definitely some planning and plotting going on), and the cathedra of the Archbishop of Barcelona that has been occupied by the current and all past holders of that ecclesiastical office.

The Cathedral of Barcelona from the plaza in front

The Cathedral has new and old components, but the difference is that that they have been brought together in a more harmonious way. And there’s the rub; there was a consistency to what those responsible for the building have attempted to contrive. And it worked.

After exploring these two churches, it was time for a late lunch and then the trip back to Madrid via the high-speed train (we so need these in Australia!).

It was a long day, but a rewarding day, and well worth the effort make the trip to Barcelona.

Europe in January 2017 – The Second Day

The first full day in Madrid started early for this intrepid traveller, so early, in fact, that it started last night! Having adjourned to bed early in an attempt to “catch up” on sleep, I awoke at what I thought was 9.30am – and thereby had a momentary panic – only to discover it was only 9.30am on Tuesday evening. This changing time zones is for the birds!

Anyway, this morning saw me awake before the sun rose, which wasn’t difficult given that sunrise this morning was scheduled for 0836! Getting up, showering, have the heart-starter coffee, etc etc in the dark is usually reserved for very occasions when I have to be somewhere early in the morning, not on an “ordinary” day (though there was nothing ordinary about today even though we are in Ordinary Time).

Venturing forth from our apartment close to 1000, with the sun feeling more like 0700, our first stop was to find a place for coffee. We found a nice little place just around the corner – which isn’t difficult given the sheer volume of similar “nice little places” in Madrid – where we availed ourselves of the chance to use our rudimentary Spanish to consume some very strong coffee and some butter croissants. Thus fortified, it was off to see what could be seen.

We ventured along the Calle de Mayor towards the Palacio Real de Madrid, taking advantage of whatever possibilities we might discover along the way. One of those possibilities was a store that specialised in the sale of ecclesiastical goods of very superior standards.

The ecclesiastical goods store on the Calle de Mayor

Three liturgists walking into an ecclesiastical goods store should set off alarm bells. There was some simply stunning items to be found, and it would have been very easy to have purchased a few if not many of the items that were to be found therein. My Parish Business Manager will be relieved to hear the Parish credit card stayed firmly in the wallet – though there’s a few days left in Madrid, and I know where to find the store!

Leaving the ecclesiastical goods store, we continued our saunter along the Calle de Mayor until we walked up a little street and strode firmly into the Plaza de Mayor, a square featuring one of the most beautifully decorated governmental buildings I have ever had the pleasure to view. Unfortunately, the photo I took of this Plaza is actually a video and I can’t upload it at the moment – but I hope to do so when I return to Australia.

The Plaza de Mayor led us to the Plaza de San Miguel which featured the architecturally intriguing Mercado de San Miguel, the exploration of which revealed some mouth watering possibilities for our eventual lunch. There was seafood, paella, cheese, wine, beer, yogurt, and many other things in little stalls within the building, simply too much to have everything. Having a look around though proved appetising…

Leaving the Mercado de San Miguel saw us delivered within a few minutes to the corner facing the Palacio Real de Madrid and the Cathedral de Neustra Señora de la Almudena, the Cathedral Church of the Archbishop of Madrid. We stood on the plaza that separates the two grand buildings, and I was overcome by the sheer size of the Cathedral.

The Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Almudena

That the main doors of the Catedral should face the courtyard of the Palacio shouldn’t surprise anyone in what was once considered the most Catholic nation in Europe. One can almost imagine the Spanish Royal Family leaving their residence and walking through the courtyard, across the plaza, and up the stairs into the Catedral. Almost. More on the Catedral a little later.

The Palacio continues to be the official residence of Their Majesties The King and Queen of Spain, together with their two daughters. That being said, it is also a place of national significance and is, therefore, open to members of the public, citizen and visitor alike, to wander through (the carefully laid out route). It is, as you might expect for a building dating to the late 1700s, a building of splendour, designed to project the power of the Crown (not the current possessor thereof) in architectural and symbolic ways.

Walking through the public and ceremonial rooms of the Palacio it is possible to see how the designers and builders have sought to fulfil the building’s function. It is truly a magnificent building, beyond price by any standard, and a building that has especial significance for the nation and people of Spain. That it is not a museum but a living and working building is evident as you walk through.

Palacio Real de Madrid

The Royal Chapel of the Palacio was ornate and, liturgically at least, a little overdone. Having said that, I wouldn’t mind being appointed chaplain to a Catholic king or queen and have the celebrate all many of liturgical rites in a chapel like that. Anyone know of any positions of the like currently vacant? No? Oh well, back to parish land for me!

After our tour of the Palacio, we stepped inside the aforementioned and adjacent Catedral de Neustra Senora de la Almudena. This is an interesting building, a mix of the old and the new that appears to jar when they meet. In other words, I don’t think it quite worked for me architecturally. I’m not sure how it would function liturgically, not having experienced the celebration of liturgy in that space, so I am left with the impression of having walked around the place.

The one part of the Cathedral that did work for me and which I found particularly prayerful and moving was the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, the walls of which were covered in mosaics of aspects of the Christian story in modern and very warm colours. The modern styled tabernacle at the centre of the rounded sanctuary was impressive both in size and beauty. I think that the reason this particular space worked for me was simply because it wasn’t a mix of old and new. Though old techniques were used to decorate the space, it was entirely modern in style. There was a symmetry to the space that couldn’t help but be conducive to prayer.

There were some interesting aspects of the buildings fabric which have definitely given me some ideas for the renovation of the Cathedral “back home” – I think someone should prepare the Bishop for both the changes and the price tag!

After our visit to the Catedral was over, we adjourned to the previously visited Mercado de San Miguel for some lunch, and the repast was was everything it promised to be. The Mercado is clearly popular with both locals and tourists – there was standing room only for many more people than us, but that too seemed to be the norm of lunching there.

The completion of lunch saw us doing some more wandering that ultimately led us to the successful navigation of the Madrid Metro system (which is very comprehensive and easy to use) to land us at Serrano, the upmarket shopping precinct of Madrid where all the big luxury brands have their outlets. Needless to say not many Euros were spent there, and then only for some light refreshments before the return trip back to our apartment.

Tonight, however, we dined out, walking up the small street outside our building to the nearby Plaza Santa Ana for dinner. Naturally enough, since we are in Spain, we opted for the tapas, enjoying a tasty meal and a bottle of wine in the outdoor setting of the plaza.

But now it’s to bed, because tomorrow sees us venturing forth to Barcelona! But more of that tomorrow…

Europe in January 2017 – The First Day

So the intrepid travellers departed Sydney at 1645 on Monday 9th January enroute firstly to Madrid and then Rome. After a fourteen hour flight to Dubai, an eight hour stopover in Dubai International Airport (which thankfully to some pre-planning on the part of one of the travellers included the opportunity to shower!), and then a further eleven hour flight to Madrid, it’s now 1645 on Tuesday 19th January.

Ain’t world travelling a crazy thing?!

As I sit and write this first part of the travelogue, we intrepid travellers are safely ensconced in the tiny apartment that will be our home while here in Madrid. It is good to have ‘stopped’ moving in once sense, and to have reached the destination.

But let me go back in time, dear reader, and share some of the highlights of the last God-alone knows how many hours…

The flight from Sydney to Dubai was the first time I had been aboard the Airbus A380 aircraft, the incredible two-deck machine that seems to defy all the laws of aerodynamics. But it flies, and flies quite comfortably.

I was a little miffed during the flight because the person occupying the seat in front of me seemed determined to recline his seat into my skull as soon as the captain had turned off the fasten seatbelts sign. Trying to eat one’s Mushroom Tortellini would have been a real challenge if the cabin staff hasn’t insisted he put his seat forward during the meal service. Thank goodness for Qantas cabin staff I say. It was a temporary relief however because back the seat reclined just as soon as the food tray had been whisked away by the aforementioned Qantas cabin staff. I guess I should have expected it during what was, after all, a night flight.

The arrival into Dubai was ahead of schedule, always something one wishes to hear in connection with air travel. The downside, of course, is that when you have to wait for a connecting flight it only means an extra hour in the airport terminal. Thankfully, there had been some plotting and planning surrounding our original scheduled seven hour stopover in Dubai, and we had purchased entree into one of the airport lounges (including the aforementioned showers) to while away our time in more luxurious setting. Can I just say: Best. Choice. Ever!

The availability of showers, a buffet breakfast (at 0230, it’s still a goer!), barista-made coffee, and the kind of seating that you just can’t find in your ordinary, run-of-the-mill departure lounge made the stopover not only bearable but downright enjoyable! A personal highlight during the stopover was experiencing the azan (Muslim call to prayer) as the sun was rising over the desert on which the Dubai International Airport sits. A very moving experience I have to say.

The airport itself is both large and architecturally stunning, an amazing use of space, material (including water – a precious resource in a desert country) that is functional as well.

The flight from Dubai to Madrid was also an interesting experience – another Airbus A380, another person sitting in front of me wishing to recline their seat into my forehead (this time during a daytime flight), and some wonderful cabin staff (this time courtesy of Emirates). There were entertaining additions to this flight however: passengers who seemed to think they could ignore the conditions of carriage, and then feel aggrieved to the point of being rude when cabin staff pointed out that the passengers would not be able to do just as they wanted. Go figure! Add in people complaining about not being able to have their choice of food, not having enough choice in the salad (or suggesting that what was advertised as a salad wasn’t in fact a salad – I can’t be sure), and there was plenty of entertainment to go around.

A momentary panic crept into this first ‘day’ when, having arrived in Madrid, I sought to retrieve my carry on bag from the overhead (being the good passenger and putting it there when I left Dubai!) only to discover it had gone MISSING! The momentary panic may have something to do with the said bag contacting both the medication which I have been prescribed to take AND my travel documentation (apart from the Passport which was safely in my hand!). The mystery of its disappearance was solved when the other passenger who took it ‘by mistake’ returned it to the aircraft and the Emirates cabin crew. Crisis averted, and the trip could continue.

Catching a cab from the airport to our little apartment was followed by a quick shopping trip, and then a walk to explore the nearby Puerto del Sol and, more importantly, to find a place for coffee. Which we found and enjoyed before returning to the apartment for an early night.

Stay tuned, dear reader, for further dispatches.