A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about tourist sites

Alan Turing’s Birthplace in Maida Vale

Alan Turing, father of modern computing. Born in Maida Vale, London, 23 June 1912

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A lot of people have lived in London over the years. In fact, in the 1800s and early 1900s, London was the largest city on the planet. Of course, some of those people were bound to be famous.

To celebrate her famous citizens of yore, London puts up blue heritage plaques on houses were the famous have lived. Just the other day I was walking down a street in my new neighbourhood to find a plaque listing that the first President of Israel, Chaim Weizmann , lived for a time in my neck of the woods. Mr. Weizmann’s fellow politician and Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, lived near Paddington station in Maida Vale.

It was to Maida Vale that I was drawn recently to see a blue plaque. This one wasn’t for an Israeli politico, though. It was to see the birthplace of Alan Turing.

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Many of you probably have never heard of Alan Turing, unless you studied computer science (like me) or have an interest in World War II code breaking.

Turing was born on the 23rd of June, 1912 at 2 Warrington Crescent, Maida Vale, now the site of a rather nice looking hotel. He was a naturally gifted mathematician, and went on to study mathematics at King’s College, Cambridge. He started working for the Government Code and Cypher School, and when war broke out in 1939, Turing started working on breaking German codes at Bletchley Park, 40 miles to the north-west of London.

After the war, Turing moved to the University of Manchester, where he developed some of the most important concepts in modern computing, including work on artificial intelligence.

The end of Turing’s life was not a happy one. During a criminal investigation regarding a break-in at Turing’s house in 1952, Turing was exposed as being homosexual. Still illegal at the time, Turing was convicted of gross indecency and agreed to chemical castration to avoid jail time. Despite being hailed as a hero for his work in code breaking during the war, he lost his security clearance and was barred from further work in code breaking for the government.

A few years later Turing’s body was found in his home. He’d died of cyanide poisoning, ingested most likely from a cyanide laced apple. The death was ruled a suicide, though his family have suggested the death was accidently due to Turing’s poor storage of chemicals in his laboratory. Turing was only 42.

Turing is now widely recognised as the father of modern computing and computer science, and his work at Bletchley Park widely hailed. In September of 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology to Turing for his treatment. In 2002, Turing was ranked 21st in a publicly voted list of the 100 Greatest Britons of all time.

There are a number of tributes to Turing around the UK and around the world now. The little blue plaque just a few steps from Warwick Street tube station isn’t much as compared to the buildings named after Turing at universities across the globe, but it is a reminder of another great person that grew up in one of the biggest cities in the world.

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Next up, I'll have to see if I can find the house of Charles Babbage.

Posted by GregW 18:00 Archived in England Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

The Grand Tourer Hits Madrid

Royal palaces, epic (though recent) Cathedrals, crystal palaces not in London, (not so) cubist squares, angled buildings, NHL on the TV, a small river, where bulls come to die and lobsters come to be eaten and finally watching rugby in an Irish pub.

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View Iberia '09 on GregW's travel map.

Hopping off the train from Salamanca, the grand tour of Iberia continues (and eventually ends) in Madrid.

Madrid is the capital of Spain, and its largest city as well. In fact, Madrid is the third largest city Europe (behind London and Berlin) and fourth largest metropolitan area in Europe (behind London, Paris and Istanbul - though that’s only really half in Europe).

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Madrid is situated on the large central plain of Spain, and is situated at 667 metres above sea level (2188 ft). Not enough that I found myself puffing walking up and down stairs (as I did in Denver), but enough that I noticed that two pints was enough to give me a touch of the wobbles. I’m a cheap drunk in Madrid.

Since the middle ages, the symbol of the city has been a bear feasting on fruit from a strawberry tree, due to the prevalence of both bears and strawberry trees in the area. Other than this statue and various coats of arms, I didn’t see any bears when I was there. Perhaps they have moved out to the suburbs.

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Like Salamanca, Madrid is built around a main square (Plaza Mayor), though Madrid stretches out a lot farther from its central square than Salamanca does. Madrid is at the geographic centre of Spain, so I suppose that means that Plaza Mayor is the exact centre of the country.

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I’ve complained before about human statues, those “performers” that paint themselves grey and stand completely still, hoping that you’ll donate some money into their pot. Pointless, it’s always seemed to me. I saw a new twist on this in Madrid, with the headless statue. Basically, it is a human statue, but the person is wearing a really tall collar so you can’t see their head. Occasionally they will wave.

“Oh look, the headless person is waving! How can they wave if they have no head?”

If I was three, I would have probably been impressed. Of course, if I was three I probably wouldn’t have had any change to donate to a headless statue. I guess they are hoping for guilty parents to pay for the joy given to their children.

Spain has an interesting political history. Over the past 150 years, it went from a monarchy to a dictatorship to a republic to another dictatorship to finally a democratic constitutional monarchy. The current King of Spain is Juan Carlos I, and “officially” lives in the Royal Palace in Madrid, though it is really only used for state ceremonies. King Johnny-Charlie actually lives in a little place in the suburbs called the Palace of Zarzuela. The king is just another central city worker commuting in on the trains in the morning, I assume. Maybe he sees bears out there at his suburban palace.

Anyway, seeing as the Royal Palace wasn’t being used for any official functions at the time I was there, I was able to take a tour of the place. No photos allowed on the inside, but you can get a decent enough idea of the majesty of the place from the outside.

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Just to the south of the Royal Palace is the Cathedral de La Almudean. Construction was started on the Cathedral in 1879, but was abandoned after the Spanish Civil War. Construction was restarted in 1950, and finally completed in 1993. Cathedrals always seem to take a long time to build.

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Despite taking a long time to build, the Catholic church in Spain seems to be doing okay. As I was walking around, there was soft organ music playing throughout the church. It wasn’t from the massive organ, but rather was being pumped in out of the Bose speakers attached to columns throughout the church. Bitchin’ stereo system, Archbishop.

Not in use when I was there

Not in use when I was there

Out front they have a big statue of Pope John Paul II, who was pope when the cathedral was finished in 1993. Even in bronze, he seems more life-like than the current pope.

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After seeing the two main tourist sites, I took a wander around Madrid. Took in sites like the Plaza de Espana, Plaza de Oriente, Rose Garden, Puerta del Sol and points in between.

Yellow building in Sun

Yellow building in Sun


I shall run you through!

I shall run you through!


Ornate Window at Police Station

Ornate Window at Police Station


Riding into the sunset at Puerta del Sol

Riding into the sunset at Puerta del Sol


Ramiro the first statue in Plaza de Oriente

Ramiro the first statue in Plaza de Oriente


Smells like flowers!

Smells like flowers!


I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden!

I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden!


Cross in the light

Cross in the light


Can you hear the people sing?  Statue near Principe Rio

Can you hear the people sing? Statue near Principe Rio


Building near Banco de Espana

Building near Banco de Espana


Birds bathing at Plaza de Espana

Birds bathing at Plaza de Espana


Balconies ad infinitum

Balconies ad infinitum

After lunch, I headed over to the other side of Madrid to check out the Parque de El Retiro. Known officially was the Parque del Buen Retiro (the park of the pleasant retreat), most folks just call it El Retiro. Three-hudred-fifty acres of green space, it is known as the “lungs of Madrid.” It includes the Monument to Alfonso XII overlooking the Retiro Pond and the Crystal Palace, inspired by the place of the same name in London.

Monument to King Alfonso XII at lake in Parque de El Retiro

Monument to King Alfonso XII at lake in Parque de El Retiro


Fountain near Alcala gate in Parque de El Retiro

Fountain near Alcala gate in Parque de El Retiro


Holding the crown at fountain near lake in Parque de El Retiro

Holding the crown at fountain near lake in Parque de El Retiro


Puerta de Alcala

Puerta de Alcala


Tables at snack bar in Parque de El Retiro

Tables at snack bar in Parque de El Retiro


Alcala Gates in Parque de El Retiro

Alcala Gates in Parque de El Retiro


Pond at Crystal Palace in Parque de El Retiro

Pond at Crystal Palace in Parque de El Retiro


Crystal Palace in Parque de El Retiro interior

Crystal Palace in Parque de El Retiro interior


Crystal Palace in Parque de El Retiro in sun

Crystal Palace in Parque de El Retiro in sun


Crystal Palace in Parque de El Retiro

Crystal Palace in Parque de El Retiro


Trees turning in Parque de El Retiro

Trees turning in Parque de El Retiro

There is also a statue by sculptor Ricardo Bellver called El Angel Caído, inspired from a passage in Paradise Lost by John Milton. The sculpture represents Lucifer falling from the heavens. It is claimed this is the only known public monument to the devil, though I somehow doubt it. Anyway, my camera was momentarily possessed by a demon of ill-focus, so my picture of the fountain is mucho fuzzy.

Fountain Glorieta del Angel Ciado in Parque de El Retiro

Fountain Glorieta del Angel Ciado in Parque de El Retiro

I did at least get this in focus close up of the dragons spewing water at the fountain.

Dragon Spewing at Fountain Glorieta del Angel Ciado in Parque de El Retiro

Dragon Spewing at Fountain Glorieta del Angel Ciado in Parque de El Retiro

That was a lot of wandering, so time for a break. Cervezas, Vinos and tapas sounds good.

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Streets in the central part of Madrid have decorative signs for their street names. In addition to the street name, they have a picture depicting the name of the street.

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I was staying at the Hotel Ingles, which was described as being a faded glory by some of the reviewers on hotel review sites. It’s really not that faded, nor glorious. Especially when compared to my hotel in Buenos Aires, the Hotel Reina. It had Marble stairways, stained glass windows, 25 foot ceilings and a wrought-iron elevator cage for the glory part. For the faded part, the elevator didn’t work and smelled of electrical smoke and the carpet in the lobby was threadbare. Now that is faded glory!

Back to Madrid (which incidentally reminded me a lot of Buenos Aires - though I suppose actually it is more the other way around - Buenos Aires is Madrid-like, as Madrid was built first). The hotel Ingles dates back to the 1880s (the specific year seems to be in doubt, even in the hotel’s own information. It is either 1882 or 1886). The rooms have been updated since then, though, and are clean though small hotel rooms. They do have high ceilings and cool wooden shutters on the windows. The hotel is central located, well priced, doesn’t have bed bugs and does have hot water, so that’s all that mattered to me.

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The hotel does have CNN. I caught this little nugget on CNN - a crack down on immigration to the UK. Hopefully they let me back in the country!

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The next day I headed north, for no particular reason other than I had spent most my time in South-central Madrid the day before.

Church near Tribunal station

Church near Tribunal station


Flats and Balconies along Calle de Almagro

Flats and Balconies along Calle de Almagro


Faces on building near Banco de Espana

Faces on building near Banco de Espana


Path and Trees on Paseo de la Castellana

Path and Trees on Paseo de la Castellana


Plaza Dr. Maranon

Plaza Dr. Maranon


Pink flats and balconies

Pink flats and balconies


White building on Paseo de la Castellana

White building on Paseo de la Castellana


Traffic in Plaza de Cibeles

Traffic in Plaza de Cibeles


Red Curvy Building at Ruben Dario

Red Curvy Building at Ruben Dario

That eventually took me to Nuevos Minsterios and Plaza de Pablo Picasso. Nuevos Minsterios is a large government complex that houses the headquarters of several ministries. Just north of it is a large metro and train station topped by a mall, and just north of that the Plaza de Pablo Picasso. For a plaza named after Picasso, it is not very cubist. It is just a shady, green square surrounded by big tall office blocks.

Arches at Nuevos Minsterios

Arches at Nuevos Minsterios


Pool at Nuevos Minsterios

Pool at Nuevos Minsterios


Steps at Nuevos Minsterios

Steps at Nuevos Minsterios


Funky Sculpture in Plaza de Pablo Picasso

Funky Sculpture in Plaza de Pablo Picasso


English going cheap at Plaza de Pablo Picasso

English going cheap at Plaza de Pablo Picasso

After lunching in the area, I headed just further north to see Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, the home of Real Madrid. Real Madrid is a football team in Madrid, playing in the Spanish league, and the team which houses superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka. Real Madrid has also been declared the most successful club of the 20th century by FIFA, having won a record thirty-one La Liga titles, seventeen Spanish Cups, a record nine European Cups and two UEFA Cups.

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Seems a little concrete-ish from the outside. Maybe it is nicer on the inside.

Up the street from the stadium is the Plaza de Castilla. Its just a big traffic circle with a monstrous metro, train and bus station, but it has these nifty diagonal buildings.

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From there, I took the metro back down to Sol station, near my hotel. Gotta love the metro in Madrid. 13 underground lines and 3 tram lines, it is one of the longest metro systems in the world. Its growth in the last twenty years has been dubbed the “Madrid miracle” and made Madrid the envy of many transit geeks the world over. Plus, it only costs €1 to get almost anywhere on the system except the furthest outer reaches.

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That evening, after 6 meals in a row of tapas, I decided to go for a full-grown meal, and hit a Mexican restaurant near my hotel. It was nice to see that all the Mexican stereotypes that one sees in North America, and no doubt makes Mexicans cringe, are alive and well in Spain as well. Sombreros and maracas, festive lights and waiters saying “Si, Senor” like Speedy Gonzales. Despite being a Mexican restaurant, I don’t recognise any dishes on the menu. I order something with the word pollo in the name. It was okay. The Mexican beer was cold.

After dinner, I took a wander around the area near my hotel.

Palace Hotel

Palace Hotel


Traffic circle and fountain

Traffic circle and fountain


Tio Pepe Sign in Puerta del Sol

Tio Pepe Sign in Puerta del Sol


Fountain in Paseo del Prado 2

Fountain in Paseo del Prado 2


Bench and Lights in Paseo del Prado

Bench and Lights in Paseo del Prado

Wandered out, I hit a bar. I randomly choose a place near my hotel, chosen mostly for the short distance back to my hotel. Seemed a typical, small, lounge.  Lots of comfy and hip grottoes and groups of young Madrid-ites hanging out, just gearing up for a long night out.  Trance and dance music playing over the sound system.  Waitresses that were stunning.  One of them looked like former 1980s Canadian VJ Erica Ehm.

So what does this hip, lounge bar in the middle of Spain have playing on the TV?  A replay of the National Hockey League’s game from the previous night of Ottawa vs. Philadelphia.  I was, needless to say, the only person in the entire bar that was watching the hockey. I thought that perhaps I had died and gone to heaven - after all I had a teenage crush serving me and hockey on the TV. Then I got the bill for the beer. €4.50 for a half-a-pint. Nope, I’m still on earth.

I headed back to my hotel and crawled into bed. Turns out my room overlooked a street that was a big night out for a Friday evening. The party kept going and going and going. Finally, at 6 AM the noise stopped and the revellers went home.

The next day, my final day in Madrid, I decided to go and see the river. It was on the banks the Manzanares River that the city of Madrid was founded by the Moors in the seventh century, so I figured it would be an important and mighty water route through the city.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

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The river is pretty tiny, actually. On it’s banks stands Estadio Vincent Calderon, the home to Madrid’s other football team, Athletico Madrid. The banks of the river were pretty busy the day I was there due to an international football match between Argentina and Spain.

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I was hungry after my walk down to the river and it was noon, so I decided to get some lunch. It was very hard to find open food. Saturday noon in Madrid is like 8 AM Sunday in London. Only joggers, young families and old people are up. There are no stores open. I guess that makes sense as party people were up until 6 AM. Everyone is still in bed from the night before.

I was cranky without my lunch. I took out my Madrid map and studied it. I hadn’t done much research on Madrid before coming, and basically had just focused my touring on the points of interest listed on the map. On arriving and first looking at the map, I’d picked out a few places on the map that seemed to be most interesting. Of those, only one place still remained unvisited on my grand tour of Madrid.

The Plaza de Toros las Ventas, or in English, the bull ring.

For me, the concept of bull fighting and Spain are inextricably linked, and the las Ventas bull ring is could be considered the spiritual home of bull fighting. (Personally, I’d lean more towards Seville or Toledo as being the spiritual home of bull fighting, though I really know nothing about bull fighting, so I have logical reason to say that. They just “feel” more bull-fighting-ish.)

Anyway, my feet were hurting, my stomach was grumbling, and the pull of seeing the bull ring was waning as the pull of a cold beer and warm meal in central Madrid grew. I spent a minute staring at my Madrid subway map and thinking about the two different routes I could take - one to the bull ring and one to Sol station.

Finally, the grand tourer in me snapped out of his languor and stepped to the fore. “Come on, Wesson. You didn’t come all this way to just sit around, drink and relax, did you?”

At this point, the vacationer in me meekly said, “a little rest wouldn’t be a bad idea.” He got shouted down by the grant tourer, though, and off me and all my personalities went to the bull ring.

The bullring was opened in 1931 after the previous bullring proved to have too few seats. The new bullring, built in the Neo-Mudéjar architectural movement that pays homage to the Moorish history of Iberia, holds 25,000 people. In addition to bullfighting, the bullring holds concerts, tennis and when I was there, a circus. I wonder if the elephants get spooked by all the ghostly bulls wandering the pitch of the bullring?

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Not only was the grand tourer in me satisfied by seeing the bullring, but the stomach in me was satisfied as well. For outside the grounds of the bullring, Madrid was hosting the Fiesta Gastronomica del Marisco de Galicia y Artesania en Madrid. My Spanish ain’t great, but I recognised enough words to piece together “Seafood Festival.” Oh yeah. €14.00 for three lobster tails. Right on!

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Hands still covered in butter, I looked at my watch. It was still early afternoon, and my flight back to London wasn’t until nine in the evening, but even the grand tourer in me was too tired to continue. My thumb was still hurting from the spill I had taken in Sintra, I had a blister on the big toe of my right foot, my right achilles tendon felt like it was on fire and the instep on my left foot sent pulses of pain up my leg with every step. Because I had only planned a week in places I hadn’t been before, I had packed it full to the gills with activities. The only day “off” I had taken was on the Monday, and that day off included a tour of the area around Oriente station followed by a six hour train ride from Lisbon to Madrid.

The previously meek voice of the vacationer finally got his say.

“Let’s grab a beer and chill out until our flight.”

My personalities were all in agreement, so we grabbed the metro back to central Madrid where we had a few pints in an Irish pub, watching sports on the big screen, until it was time to collect our luggage and head out to the airport.

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After seven jam-packed days, I was ready to go home.

Posted by GregW 09:35 Archived in Spain Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Hola Salamanca!

Walking tour of Salamanca, Spain, UNESCO World Heritage Site... There seems to be a lot of those around.

sunny 15 °C
View Iberia '09 on GregW's travel map.

After a late night arrival in Salamanca, the next day I was off to explore.

Salamanca has a very long history, and much of the old town has been well preserved. UNESCO made the old city a world heritage site in 1988. The town is probably most famous for its University which was founded in the 12th century.

I did a rough circle of the city on my one day there, hitting all the highlights on my tourist map of the city, plus whatever I saw along the way.

It was a nice day, very sunny but a touch windy.

The town is centred around Plaza Mayor (Main Square). The buildings surround the square are Baroque dating from 1729 to 1755. The plaza was designed by the architect Alberto de Churriguera and finished by Andres Garcia de Quinones.

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Off to the east of the Plaza Mayor is Santa Clara Convent. No longer a convent, the building now hosts a museum with murals and paintings from the 13th to 16th centuries.

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Streets here are narrow and short and twisty, suddenly bursting out into open squares and park spaces, like a good medieval city should be.

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Plaza de Libertad

Plaza de Libertad


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Espoz y Mina Street

Espoz y Mina Street


Looking down Calle Consuelo at the Torre de Clavero

Looking down Calle Consuelo at the Torre de Clavero

Heading north from the Plaza Mayor, I eventually reached the Plaza de San Marcos and the Iglesia de San Macros, a small, round, Romanesque church at the Zamora gate to the city.

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Next I headed down the Paseo de Carmelitas, a wide boulevard with lots of green space with walking paths, trees, fountains and sculpture.

Gateway to Hospital Santisima Trinidad

Gateway to Hospital Santisima Trinidad


Spitting Boy Fountain in Paseo de Carmelitas

Spitting Boy Fountain in Paseo de Carmelitas

I cut in about halfway down the street at Campo de San Francisco, a green space that has the Vera Cruz church, Ursulas Convent and Monastery and the Palace of Monterrey bordering it.

Palacio de Monterrey Tower

Palacio de Monterrey Tower


Monastery of the Annunciation Doorway

Monastery of the Annunciation Doorway


Iglesia Vera Cruz bell tower

Iglesia Vera Cruz bell tower


Walking to church, entrance to Iglesia Vera Cruz

Walking to church, entrance to Iglesia Vera Cruz


Cross in Campo de San Francisco

Cross in Campo de San Francisco

From there, the tourist trail took me down Compania, a street jammed back with interesting sites.

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The Romanesque San Benito church is along the Compania right before you get to the imposing Universidad Pontificia. Established in 1104. During the middle ages the Benedictines who worshiped at this church battled for control of the city government with the worshippers of Saint Tome. Saint John of Sahagun mediated between the two groups, bringing peace to the city and in turn becoming patron saint of Salamanca.

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The Pontifical University of Salamanca, or in Spanish the Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca and known as the UPSA was founded in the 13th century as part of the main Salamanca University. The Spanish government dissolved of the University of Salamanca's faculties of Theology and Canon Law in 1854, closing the university. It was reopened in the 1940s.

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Courtyard of Bibloteca Publico across from the Universidad Pontificia

Courtyard of Bibloteca Publico across from the Universidad Pontificia

After crossing the Plaza San Isidro, you enter the main campus of the University of Salamanca.

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Columns of School of Philosophy at University of Salamanca, across from the Salamanca Cathedral

Columns of School of Philosophy at University of Salamanca, across from the Salamanca Cathedral

After almost eight centuries in operation, the university of Salamanca is still going strong. In addition to a number of students from Spain, the university is a favourite of foreign students, especially those looking to study Spanish, and has over 2000 foreign students.

Being in operation in 1218 makes it around the ninth oldest university in the world, though like all these lists, there are all sorts of disputes. Firstly, while being granted a Royal Charter in 1218, there was a school at Salamanca dating back at least 100 years earlier. Plus, places like the University of Nanjing, in China were founded in 258 BCE, but only became a “university” in 1888. Some claim Salamanca is the oldest because it was the first to be granted a papal decree to be a university

Whether Salamanca is 1st, 8th, 9th, or 20th on the list of oldest continually operating universities, dating back 800 years makes it pretty old in anybody’s book, I would think.

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The Rectorado...

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Rectorado? Damn near killedorado! Hmm, that joke seems to work a lot better in English.

Sitting just a block away from the university is the twin cathedrals of Salamanca. The original cathedral was built in the 12th century, and is a Romanesque medieval cathedral. A new cathedral was built, co-joined to the older cathedral in spurts and fits from the 16th to the 18th century, picking up elements of Baroque, Renaissance classicalism and Gothic architectural along the way.

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South of the Cathedral is the Tormes river, across which an old Roman bridge dating back to the first century spans. It’s been updated along the way.

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The other side of the bridge is the south side of the river known as Arrabal. The area seemed nice, if a touch quiet (excluding the traffic streaming along the main roads). Climbing up in the park gives a nice view of the old part of Salamanca across the river.

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Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad

Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad


Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad through wooden art

Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad through wooden art


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I crossed back over the Enrique Estevan bridge, which lead up to the Church and Convent of San Estevan. The convent belongs to the Dominican Order. Reading from the information on my tourist map, is says that the convent shows “ global concept of a city of thought like Salamanca. The facade of the church of the convent is considered one of the best examples of Plateresque style. The cloustro de los Reyes or La Sala Capitular are just some of the attractive places we can admire inside.”

I love that. “some of the attractive places we can admire inside.” Can we? I looked around to see who the "we" was, but it was just me.

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Just up the street is the 15th century Torre del Clavero. The tower is all that remains of a mansion built by Francisco de Sotomayor.

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I then did a trip through the nearby Parque Huerta de los Jesuitas, which is a pleasant green space to the east of the old city. I had done a lot of walking, though, and was getting tired, so I returned to my hotel to rest up.

I had dinner at a nice little restaurant just off the Plaza Mayor. It was tapas, so I had three plates of items instead one big plate. I must admit dinner was a kind of solemn affair. I like good food, but when travelling alone I usually just grab a quick and cheap bite. Its not that I don’t want to splash out on a nice meal, its just that I feel both self-conscious and bored sitting in a restaurant by myself for an hour eating a nice meal. I wonder what other solo travellers do about meals?

After that, I looked for a place to grab a pint. Of course, I wound up in an Irish pub. Irish pubs are everywhere. I drank in an Irish pub in Ulaan Bator, Mongolia. This one was different than most Irish pubs in that it had mixed Irish pub and pirate theme. The typical Irish paraphernalia like Guiness advertisements, bookcases and stained-glass windows separating booths was joined up with cannons, guns, parrots and boxes of treasure. I am not sure why the meshed those two together.

“Arr, matey. Top o’ the morning to ya, ya scurvy-dog!”

The bar was mostly filled with locals watching a couple Spanish football league matches. I noticed that the Spanish people don’t seem to take any breaks between words. Itsoundsliketheyjustsayanentiresentenceasasinglewordwithmanysyllables. I wonder how they breathe?

I really should have gone to this place...

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Mmmm, tarta de suelo... D'oh!

The next day, I checked out and bid "¡Adios!" to Salamanca and boarded a train to Madrid. The train was interesting, a small train of just 3 coaches, the interior of the cars were were white plastic, with blue fabric seats. It reminds me of a hospital from Sci-fi movies, but moving. Perhaps its design is based on a “hospital ship” from Star Wars or Aliens?

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As the train runs from Salamanca to Madrid, both situated on the central plains of Spain, we passed an number of rocky hills covered with sparse forests. It reminded me a lot of the novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” which probably speaks well about Hemmingway’s ability to describe landscapes as the novel does take place in the hills around Madrid.

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I sat back and watched the rocky, dry scenery pass by, waiting for the next part of the trip. Despite what they might have taught you in My Fair Lady, the central plains of Spain are quite dry.

Soon the rocky hills, patches of forest and endless plains gave way to low rise buildings, highways and office parks. The exterior of all cities now, almost indistinguishable from any other city.

This specific city, though, was Madrid.

Posted by GregW 14:30 Archived in Spain Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Sintra: The Mythical Land of Mist

A wander around and wonder at the UNESCO heritage site of Sintra, outpost of both the Arabic and Moorish rulers of Al-Andalus and the plaything of the kings of Portugal built in the Romantic style.

rain 13 °C
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One wouldn’t expect that you could get on a train at a functional looking train station in Lisbon and wind up less than an hour later in a mountain village that looks pulled from a painting on the cover a fantasy novel.

One would be wrong, though, because you can get in less than one hour by train from Lisbon to Sintra.

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Sintra is an example of 19th century Romantic architecture, a style which is ornate and colourful. For this architecture styling, the town was made a UNESCO heritage site. Through the years the town has attracted to those drawn to the fantastical, from fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen, who called the town the “most beautiful place in Portugal,” to romantic and tragic poet Lord Byron, who called it a “glorious Eden.”

House of Hans Christian Andersen

House of Hans Christian Andersen

I first heard of Sintra through the writing of a travel blogger going by the handle of “The Longest Way Home.” He wrote of a search for a hidden Knights’ Templar well while in Sintra. What a magical place, I thought, where one can have adventures reminiscent of Indiana Jones. When heading to Lisbon, I just had to see it for myself.

From Lisbon, I headed out from Sete Rios train station, just a 15 minute walk from my hotel.

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After a 45 minute trip on a comfortable suburban train, I stepped off into a village straight out of a fairy tale. I got hit with the magic right off the train. Just down the street from the train station is the town hall. The town hall was designed by architect Adaes Bermudes and built between 1906 and 1909 in “the neo-manueline style.” It is both imposing with it’s large tower, but also quite inviting and open.

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Unfortunately, in addition to getting hit by magic, I started to get hit by rain. It had been sunny the day before in Lisbon, but the rain had settled in over the area on Sunday. With a train ticket booked out of Lisbon the next day, this was my one day to see Sintra, though, so I decided to brave the rain and see the sites.

Up from the town hall is the main historic area of the village, anchored by the Royal Palace of Sintra. The Palace stands overlooking the centre of Sintra, topped by two large white chimneys. The earliest parts of the palace were built in the 9th century by the wallis, the Moorish governors of Sintra. Since then it has been added to, expanded, and renovated to become the building it is today.

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The rest of the town is as pretty. Up in the hills, Sintra has more of an Alpine village feel than a Portuguese sea-side village. Rocky hills covered with evergreen trees rise in all directions around the village.

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From the village, there are two buildings atop different hills that tower over the village.

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The first one is the Moorish castle. The castle had its beginnings as a military fort, believed to date back to the 9th century and the period of Arab occupation. It served as an excellent observation post for monitoring the coastline for attack, and because of its cliff-top location was hard to attack and easy to defend. It wouldn’t have made a great look out to the sea the day I was there, though. Fog obscured the coast, and the wind meant that even if you could have seen the coast, you would not have been able to stand on the walls for long without being blown over.

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In the event that you aren’t aware of the history, much of Spain, Portugal and parts of France were ruled by Arab and North African (known as Moors) rulers from the 8th until the 13th century. After Islam rose in power and much of the Middle East and North Africa were converted, rulers of the new Muslim kingdoms sought to expand into Europe. In 711 they expanded into the Iberian peninsula, and expanded their control over the next 50 years. The area of their control was known Al-Andalus. Borders shifted and Kingdoms passed between hands for the next 350 years. In the 1100s, most of Iberia was reclaimed by the Catholics, though the final patch of Muslim rule was not returned to Catholic control until 1492.

The castle at Sintra was built by the Moorish rulers of Sintra in the 9th and 10th centuries. It was recaptured by the King of Leon in 1093, but captured back quickly by the Moors. In 1147, the castle was handed over to Afonso Henriques, who became the first king of the newly created Kingdom of Portugal.

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Traitor's Gate, used as an escape path in the event of a bad siege

Traitor's Gate, used as an escape path in the event of a bad siege


Knights' Quarters.  A gatehouse and 3 storey housing for the guards

Knights' Quarters. A gatehouse and 3 storey housing for the guards


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Cistern for storing water

Cistern for storing water


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I really liked the Moorish Castle, despite the wind, rain and fog. I like ruins. I’d rather see ruins than a completely restored building (even though I know extensive work has been done to keep the castle in the shape it is). Ruins speak to both the age of the building, and also the impermanence of humans and our history. The trees and bushes that sprout up among the tumbled rocks of the walls of the castle lay waste to any claim we humans make about the enduring majesty of our existence. We are just small specks on this big earth, and in 1000s of years it may be the case that no one will even be able to tell we were even here.

(Well, actually having read the book “The World Without Us,” I know that it’ll take 7 million years for the faces to erode off Mount Rushmore. But the rest of the stuff we build will disappear pretty quickly without us around to maintain it).

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Atop another hill (more hiking down and hiking up in Sintra, just like Lisbon. At least I was getting exercise to offset the vacation food and drink), I hiked up to the Pena Palace. Build in the 1840s and 1850s on the site of an old Monastery, the Pena Palace sits atop another high peak overlooking Sintra.

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It is the “exuberant creation” (according to the tourist brochure) of Queen Maria II of Portugal and her consort, Fernando of Saxe-Coburg Gotha. It is the epitome of the Romantic architecture, an ornate and eclectic decorative style.

In some places online, I read that Pena Palace described as “Disney-esque.” I can see that. Besides for the bright colours, it is a castle built in the mid-1800s, long after the time for medieval castles had past. It is a mish-mash of styles sporting such disparate touches as Eastern-influenced onion domes, Venetian-inspired towers and medieval battlements.

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Tiled façade reminiscent of Arab influences

Tiled façade reminiscent of Arab influences


Triton, God of the seas

Triton, God of the seas


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The weather had turned even worse as I reached the Pena Palace. The fog had rolled in and the wind had picked up. The weather was definitely only rolling in from one side, though. The Palace had two courtyards on either side of the main building. On the lee-side, it was quiet and gray, drizzling but with no wind or fog. Walk through the gate to the other courtyard though, and and it was foggy and windy, and the light drizzle was pelted by the strong wind into small bullets of water.

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I did not enjoy the Pena Palace as much as the Moorish castle. It felt too “put on” to me. It was a Palace, not a castle. It was purely for show, a chance for the rich and powerful to say, “look at us, aren’t we grand and regal?” Bah, humbug, I say. Perhaps this is my Protestant, working-class heritage showing through, but it just seems a waste of resources on something that is nothing but flourish.

King Fernando and Queen Maria did get one thing right, though. The gardens surrounding the Palace were impressive. Like the castle, the gardens are a mish-mash as well, built with a trees and plants from around the world. Somehow, despite being on a windy and cool mountain-top in Portugal, they were able to plant flora from around the globe, including from the tropics.

Former vegetable garden and 16th century orchard of a monastery on the site, was transformed into a garden in honour of queen Dona Amelia

Former vegetable garden and 16th century orchard of a monastery on the site, was transformed into a garden in honour of queen Dona Amelia


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Queen’s Fern Valley - Collection of ferns planeted in a valley with special conditions, surrounded by deciduous trees.  Felt very Jurassic Park in there

Queen’s Fern Valley - Collection of ferns planeted in a valley with special conditions, surrounded by deciduous trees. Felt very Jurassic Park in there


Bronze statue built by Ernesto Rusconi in 1848

Bronze statue built by Ernesto Rusconi in 1848


Temple of the Columns built in 1840.  Small temple serving as a viewpoint over the Palace (though exactly how you can see it through the fog and heavy foliage is beyond me).  Built on the site of a chapel dedicated to St. Anthony.

Temple of the Columns built in 1840. Small temple serving as a viewpoint over the Palace (though exactly how you can see it through the fog and heavy foliage is beyond me). Built on the site of a chapel dedicated to St. Anthony.

I was going to hike out to the Cruz Alta, the “high cross.” The cross is carved in stone and stands at the highest point in the Sintra hills, at 529m above sea level. The point is also a good place to look out and see the Atlantic Ocean.

The rain intensified, though, and the fog thickened. My jeans were soaked up to my knees thanks to the wet weather. I decided to skip the Cruz Alta, figuring I wouldn’t be able to see anything anyway, and find a nice cafe for a warm cup of tea or cocoa.

On the walk out of the garden, I was stopped at a junction of a few paths consulting my park map when a couple came up. They were from Belgium, and unsure of how to get out of the park. The area surrounding the Palace of Pena is called a garden, but it covers 85 hectares, so getting lost is quite understandable. Luckily, one of the few skills I have is map reading, so I was able to lead them out to the Valley of the Lakes entrance. We walked along and chatted, and it turns out they had just come from the Cruz Alta. They confirmed I had made the right decision - the wind was awful and the fog and rain meant that you couldn’t see a thing.

one of the lakes and duck house near the Valley of the Lake Entrance

one of the lakes and duck house near the Valley of the Lake Entrance

We parted ways at the exit of the park, and I headed back on a forest path to the Moorish castle, where I planned to follow the same path I’d come down to get back to Sintra. The forest paths ungulate up and down, and to make them easier those who built and maintained the castle and its paths have added stone steps to the steep bits to create stairways. Over the last ten centuries, though, the stones have become smooth and rounded. Add to that the rain that had fallen that day, and the stones became positively slick.

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In my last entry I mentioned that my shoes were old and didn’t have much tread left. I’ve had the shoes for two years, so it was well past the time to trade them in. I had been meaning to go out and buy new shoes, but kept putting it off because the shoes were fine for walking on dry days on flat, even pavement. Put in a place where they needed more grip though, the worn down soles offered no traction though. Like a racing car driver on slick tires on a wet track, I lost it.

I fell hard. A French couple were passing by just then, and they were nice enough to check that I was okay. I was alive and not bleeding, but I didn’t feel great. I’d landed mostly on my back and left arm. My back, where it had hit the stones, was throbbing. There were shoots of pain from my hand as well, and I couldn’t bend my left thumb.

I hobbled back down to Sintra, skipped the hot cocoa and instead went for a numbing beer. I hopped on the next train to Lisbon, returned to my hotel and slipped into a hot bath, hoping to soak the pain away.

The back pain was fine the next day, but the thumb is taking longer to recover, though it is recovering. A poor ending to what had been a great day.

It’ll be fine though. A few days later I was reading an article about how scientist have determined that we humans actually tend to more positively remember things than they actually occurred. We save the good memories, but throw out the bad ones. Years from now when I look back at this entry, I’ll probably be surprised reading about the thumb sprain. I won’t remember it. Instead I’ll probably recall the little Alpine-feeling village in the hills outside Lisbon that had a mystical ancient castle blanketed by a magical fog.

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Posted by GregW 14:01 Archived in Portugal Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Hill goes up, hill goes down - Walking Lisbon

Photos from two days spent walking around Lisbon, Portugal

sunny 16 °C
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Portugal!

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Unchained from my desk for a week, I decided to jet down to Portugal and Spain for a quick site-seeing jaunt. The first few days were spent in and around Lisbon.

Lisbon is Portugal's capital and largest city. It is situated on the River Tagus near where it drains into the Atlantic Ocean, making it a vital port as well.

The centre of town is still filled with very historic buildings, and lots of bendy and narrow streets. It is also exceedingly hilly, so I spent most of my time marching up and down. I realized that I need new shoes, as the tread on my shoes is almost warn off and on the smooth worn cobblestones, I found myself often losing grip and sliding.

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I started my day at Santa Apolonia, and walked from there. It's about time somebody recognised the good work that Apolinia did in Purple Rain, though I think sainting her might have been a bit much.

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Up the hill is the National Pantheon, which also has a small market outside.

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From there, I ventured further up hill to get to the Miradouro Sra do Monte, a church atop a tall hill in Lisbon. From there, there are nice views of the city.

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On a hill not far away is the Castelo de Sao Jorge (Castle of St. George). I hiked down and sweated my way back up to the top to see the Castle.

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From there, it is a short (thankfully downhill) jaunt to the Cathedral of Lisbon. Along the way, I passed a number of interested houses and sites.

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In the Cathedral

In the Cathedral

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If you don't feel like walking, there are trams that can take you up and down the hills. On the part through the tourist area, they run olden trams that are wooden and rickety. Other trams in the city are modern ones.

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At the bottom of the hill, near the river, was a modern art museum, which had giant statues of The Beatles that had them dressed up as their Sgt. Pepper alter egos on one side, and reflective on the other.

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In the main part of the city is a number of squares, including Praca da Figueira.

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Nearby is the Rossio train station. Modern and old at the same time.

An old exterior...

An old exterior...

...and a modern interior

...and a modern interior

Another hill would take you up to Bairro Alto. I climbed it, but if you want you can take the Santa Junta Elevator. It is basically a vertical subway with only two stops - down and up.

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In Bairro Alto is the Ruinas do Carmo, where there is today an archaeological exhibit. The ruins themselves are a church that was being restored, but the money ran out so no roof was every put on, leaving it open to the elements.

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Not far away is this nice looking theatre - Teatro de Trinidade.

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Back down the hill, and more walking - this time at least on mostly level ground, along the Ave. da Liberdade. Some nice tile work on the sidewalks here. There's lots of nice tile work in Lisbon, probably due to the fact that it was controlled by the Arabs for a long stretch from 700 to around 1150 AD.

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Finally back to my hotel. I took a different tube line back to my hotel, and came out to find this graffiti.

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At first I thought it funny because it had Bender on it, but as I walked out of the basin that the tube station was in and up onto the street, it seemed more ominous. The court of the metro was dirty, with graffiti and imposing tower block. It felt very urban jungle and unsafe. I walked along a road was cut off due to a construction site, but the large concrete barriers blocking traffic just reminded me of checkpoints at army bases. I crossed a busy road that had an uneven dirt median under an imposing concrete overpass, and then passed an and overgrown empty field. On the whole, the scene made the place seem very dodgy.

I ended up walking the wrong way. Even though I had a map, not all the streets were labelled on my map, and street signs in Lisbon are sometimes rare. Therefore I ended up walking around lost for a while. The sky had turned grey, and on the whole my mood darkened as well. Luckily I was staying at a big, bright, shiny American hotel, so I was able to see their bright red sign from blocks away.

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It's quite possible that the metro stop was fine, but after that I went to one of the other metro stops near the hotel instead of that one.

Another day I went out to the western tip of the city, near Gare do Oriente and the Vasco da Gama Mall. Back in 1998, Expo was held in Lisbon, and the area around the train station is where the pavilions were. Today it is a shopping mall, arena, aquarium and river-side walkway. It also includes a cable car that runs along the river front.

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Nearby is the Vasco da Gama Tower, shaped like a sail in honour of the explorer. Normally you could go up and get views of the city, but the tower is currently closed as they add on a five-star hotel. Take that, Dubai!

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So instead I found a nice spot on a patio and had a beer.

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Sure, it was only 1:30 in the afternoon, but it is a holiday, after all.

More to come from this trip. Sintra, Salamanca and Madrid are all coming up as I get pictures and text organised. Stay tuned!

Posted by GregW 04:42 Archived in Portugal Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

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