Category Archives: Mediterranean

History Is Happening All The Time

Pont Romá Mallorca

It would feel safe to say that the island of Mallorca was inhabited well before the Romans came to settle. In prehistoric times, in the Neolithic period, there was life on the island, mostly in caves, it is said. At around 2500 B. C. and up to about 1400 B. C., one speaks of the pre-Talaiotic period, coinciding with the bronze and iron ages, when people settled in caves and man-made Navetes. The Talaiotic period covers the time between 1400 B. C. and the arrival of the Romans, at around 123 B. C., when Talaiotic settlements were built with impressive towers and robust fortifications.

The Romans changed all that. It seems that they first arrived on the Northern shore of the island. Settlements were made in Bocchoris near what today is Port de Pollença, and Pollentia, near today’s Alcúdia. The Pont Roma (Roman bridge, shown here) in Pollença dates from approximately 400 A. D.

The North of the island must have had its attraction for the early settlers just as it has today, what with Port d’Alcúdia, Port de Pollença, Formentor, s’Albufera and the scenery between the Badia de Pollença and the Badia de Alcúdia, embracing the Peninsula de la Victoria. One might assume that the Romans did not play golf nor practiced kite surfing nor cycling, but they may have done some bird watching, mountaineering or rock climbing, just as you can do today in this popular part of Mallorca.

If you should be looking for accommodation in the rural area of Alcúdia, there is plenty of accommodation for rent, such as can be found at Alcúdia villas. Enjoy an encounter with the past when you savour your holiday.

Miquel Barceló in the Palais des Nations

In my blog entry dated July 2nd, 2007, I told you of a commission which the Felanitx born artist, Miquel Barceló, had accepted in Geneva (Switzerland). Felanitx is the town in Mallorca (Spain), where I made my home for the last twenty years.

I have it from a very reliable source that Miquel Barceló has accomplished the mammoth task. The mural painting for the 1,500 m2 domed ceiling of Room XX in the UN Palais des Nations building in Geneva is now completed and, apparently, the finished result is said to be rather impressive.

Here is some background information (I quote from the ONUART website):

In April, 2007, in a ceremony presided over by the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Miguel Ángel Moratinos Cuyaubé, the Fundación ONUART was established in Madrid (ONU is the Spanish acronym for the United Nations Organization). Fundación ONUART is a private, non-profit agency with mixed public and private funding, whose main aims are to promote dialogue, through the use of Spanish contemporary arts, to promote dialogue, to drive understanding between cultures and societies, and to foster multilateralism in Geneva. 

Fundación ONUART commissioned Spanish artist, Miquel Barceló, to create a unique ceiling painting for Room XX. This meeting venue will host the UN Human Rights Council and will be one of the largest and most state-of-the-art of all the negotiating rooms at the Palais des Nations. What also distinguishes Room XX in particular is that it has an enormous 1,500 m2 ellipsoidal dome. This dome provides the backdrop for the biggest challenge ever for 51-year-old artist. 

The Chamber for Human Rights and for the Alliance of Civilisations will be the room’s official title following its inauguration and it will be the permanent home of the newly created United Nations Human Rights Council. It will become the UN’s most modern negotiating room, using the latest materials and technology in audiovisual resources, conference services, interpretation systems, information technology and telecommunications.

Miquel Barceló, supported by a 20-strong team, was using some 35 tons of paint with pigments from all corners of the globe, specially designed equipment, with the involvement of specialists in various disciplines, including particle physics laboratories, engineers, architects and others in heritage restoration.   

The Chamber for Human Rights and for the Alliance of Civilisations is currently being fitted out and furnished to its 800+ seating capacity. I understand that the inauguration date is set for sometime in November, 2008. We just have to wait a bit longer before we can see what the man from Felanitx has created, this time.

In the meantime, an exhibition with work by the Felanitx artist opened last week at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (Ireland), called Miquel Barceló: The African Work. The show can be seen until 28th September, 2008. This exhibition will then travel to CAC Málaga, Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga (Spain), where it will be opened in November, 2008.

The two photos (top and centre) show Miquel Barceló’s ceramic sculpture, Gran pot avec crânes sur 1 face, dated 2000. The photo (above) shows the artist in Room XX of the Palais des Nations, Geneva; it was borrowed from the Internet (© Agustí Torres – ONUART). Gracias.

Barcelona, Here We Come

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It might have been some while since you last spent time in Barcelona. Fancy a weekend there, perhaps?

I am suggesting Barcelona, because it is right on our doorstep. It is easy to get to, and it is exciting, whatever the time of the year. Right now, Barcelona is immersed in some autumnal bliss.

Barcelona has, as most coastal towns in Spain, a long and interesting history. Since its foundation in around 200 B. C., it has been dominated in turn by Carthaginians, Visigoths and the Moors. It was not until the 9th century when the Muslims were defeated by the Christians that the city was inhabited by Cataláns. During the 14th century the Catalán mini-empire reached its splendour, extending to areas such as Valencia, the Balearics Islands and even parts of southern France. In 1473, the kingdom of Castilla invaded Catalunya after various conflicts. In 1700, the Catalán language was forbidden for a long period after the Cataláns had joined forces with the English army against Castilla.

 

During the regime of Franco, the Cataláns were repressed and their language was again forbidden, this time by the threat of death. But, when Franco died in 1975, the Cataláns got back their freedom. Today, Barcelona is a very sparkling city and Catalunya as a whole, a very independent region. Both are very proud of their very own language and a certain nation-within-a-nation status. Do not always expect to get by with your usual Castellano idiom once you stray away from the tourist trail.

 

Be that as it may be, I would suggest you fly to Barcelona. Although I have taken ferry boats plenty of times (and you may not even come, as I would, from the Balearic Isles), I do not recommend you take your car, as Barcelona is rather arduous when it comes to parking, and traffic in general.

From the airport, you can take the bus to Plaça Catalunya. From there you will best be going to your hotel by taxi. I do not suggest you stay at the rather fashionable Hotel Arts, flash and stylish as it may be, because it is just too expensive. Also, I have heard comments that the hotel service is not on the same level as are the room rates. A hotel to my liking, with a very central location and with quite a bit of historic flair, is the Majestic on Paseo de Gràcia. Josephine Baker stayed there in the Twenties.

Barcelona of course, would not be Barcelona without its glorious heritage of buildings, parks and other wonders, created by Antoni Gaudí. If you have not done the Gaudí trail yet, now is a good time. And if you should be staying at the Hotel Majestic, you cannot be better located to appreciate some great works built by Gaudí’s genius.

 

There is too much Gaudí in Barcelona and its surroundings to see them all in just a few days, but the do-not-misses are Casa Batlló, Casa Milà (La Pedrera), Palacio Güell, and Parque Güell. And most of all, of course, this wonderful cathedral of all cathedrals, La Sagrada Familia. This one has been under construction since 1885, and it is still unfinished. But I assure you that you have not seen the likes before. In 1984, Gaudí’s buildings were awarded the status of being UNESCO World Heritage sites.

 

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Next on your list of priorities will have to be some concert, opera or theatre performance. The best would be a visit to the newly rebuilt Gran Teatre de Liceu, where concerts are given this weekend of works by Igor Stravinsky, at the occasion of the composer’s 125th birthday, but I am afraid that tickets have to be booked well in advance. I suppose that the front manager at the Majestic will be able to help you, but I do not know.

Apart from the Liceu, I would recommend a visit to the Mercat de les Flors for Ballet, the Espai Escenic Brossa, the Teatre Borras, Teatre Nacional de Catalunya or the Teatre Principal. For music, mostly classical, I recommend the Auditori and the Palau de Musica Catalana with its beautiful Modernist architecture. For Pop, the Palau Jordi.

 

For more information about Barcelona see the Barcelona City Guide.

Barcelona is Spain’s creative capital, and Art with a capital A keeps the creativity going. That is Art in its widest sense, including fashion, architecture, music, design, as well as street cred. For fine art, I recommend visits to the Miró Foundation, the CaixaForum, the MOCBA Museum of Modern Art, the CCCB, the Fundación Tàpies, and the Centre Cultural Caixa de Catalunya, inside of Gaudí’s La Pedrera. And most important of all, the Picasso Museum. For friends of Pre-Columbian art, the Museum Barbier-Mueller is a must. And do not forget a visit to the Catedral de Barcelona, the cathedral.

After all that theatre and art, Picasso and Gaudí, you will want to wine and dine in Barcelona. Barcelona is one of the World Capitals of good food. There are too many restaurants (more than 10,000), tapas bars, bodegas and cervezerias to choose from, and some of them of a very good quality. I suggest that you buy yourself a copy of B-guided or of Guía del Ocío for guidance. What I would do, in any case, is to go either to the Barrio Gotico, the Port Vell area, or the Olympic village. There you will find seafood restaurants galore, plus restaurants specializing in Catalán food, or Mediterranean food. Just enter the establecimiento that seems busiest of all. You will not be disappointed. Or you could try Restaurante Hofmann, in Calle Argenteria, 74-78. Pricey, but first class.

If time allows, and your fancy takes you, you could head North-East to Girona or Figueres. In Figueres, you could pay an unforgettable visit to the museum of that other Catalán artist genius, Salvador Dalí, whereas in Girona you would visit that beautiful medieval old town centre, including the historically unique Jewish quarters, the Call.

North-West takes you, instead, to the Monasterio de Montserrat. And also to Terrassa, where you can enjoy the annual Festival de Jazz, in full swing right now.

I hope you will enjoy your trip.

 

All Saints

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Spain is a country where religion has played, and still plays, a considerable part in daily life. More so than in Northern European countries, or in Canada and the USA. Much more so. And religion in Spain, ever since the days of the Inquisition, has been exclusively Roman Catholic. That is 500 years by now, roughly speaking.

 

One significant difference to life, the way we know it, is the patron Saint.

Each child at birth is given a name, which most often has been passed down within the family. Traditionally, the oldest son is given the name of the paternal grandfather, and the oldest daughter the name of the maternal grandmother. The second son is given the name of the maternal grandfather, and the second daughter the name of the paternal grandmother. And so on.

 

As a consequence, you have an abundance of Miguels, Jaimes, Pedros, Antonios, Tomeus and Juans. And many Marías, Catalinas, Joannas, Antonias, Barbaras, Claras and Magdalenas.

All these names, of course, are borrowed from Saints. Each day of the year has been assigned to one particular patron Saint, and the child who is given the name of this Saint, will celebrate the day of their Santo with as much fervour and joy, if not more, as they will their day of birth. You get more presents as a Spanish child on your Saint’s day.

 

Today, by the way, is the day of Sant Calixt. Yesterday was San Teófilo. Tomorrow will be Santa Teresa de Jesús’s day. Enhorabuena.

If you look around, you will probably find it very hard to find a Tamara in Spain, or a Timothy. It is not unheard of, but it is extremely seldom. It is much more common to meet a Vicente, or a Gregorio. Or a Teresa, or an Apolónia.

Of course, churches are most often named after a Saint as well, here. That’s why we have the Basílica de San Francisco, here. The Oratorio de Sant Blai. And the Parroquia de San Nicolas.

It seems that more churches are named after Santos than Santas, but that may be for a future blog entry to look into.

 

Anyway, your very own Saint plays a very big role all of your life, if you live in Spain, or in a Catholic country. You celebrate your Saint’s day at every opportunity that might present itself. But you also live in a parish that has its own Saint. And you live in a village that also has its own Saint.

Santanyí for instance, has San Jaime as its patron Saint. Felanitx, where I live, has San Augustín. And Palma has San Sebastian. Another day off, every time. Sounds confusing to most of us, but it is an important backbone to people in Spain, and to your very own next door neighbour, provided he is not Swedish, German or Dutch. Or Moroccan, as it may be.

Unlucky is the person in Spain, who is first born in a village who’s local Saint is San Pedro, whose paternal grandfather was called Pedro and who goes to his parish church that is also named after St. Peter. He will only have one Saint day’s worth of celebrating a year.

 

Let me take this opportunity to congratulate our Muslim neighbours on completing their fast of Ramadan, and celebrating the Eid al-Fitr festivity to mark its joyous end.

 

Time to Talk About Salt: Flor de Sal

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Nothing enhances the taste of food like salt.

We all use salt, sometimes without knowing it, every day of our life. Without salt, animals cannot survive, and this includes the human animal. Too much of it can be dangerous and cause illnesses, and too little can cause dehydration.

 

If we need to use it, does it matter what salt we use? Or is salt just … salt?

 

The answer is, of course there is a difference. 90 % of salt today is refined, the same as sugar. The refining process kills all the goodness, in sugar as well as in salt. Natural salt consists of 84 different minerals and trace elements, which all occur naturally in the human body. However, according to the European Union food regulation, 82 of these 84 elements are lost from the salt when refining it to common table salt. Common table salt consists of almost 100 % sodium chlorine. Sodium chlorine from a medical point of view is a pure cellular poison and hence unhealthy for our bodies.

 

Enter two German ladies, Katja and Sabine, who a few years ago started to harvest the Queen of Salts, or Flor de Sal, on the island of Mallorca, Spain, near the Nature Reserve of Es Trenc.

 

Flor de Sal is an age old extraction method originating from the French Atlantic coast. Here, only the precious flakes of the first layer on the surface of the salt marshes is tenderly crystallized. Once harvested, this salt, pale pink in colour, becomes whiter when it is dried, naturally, in the sun. The salt obtained is 100% pure and it reaches your palate without having suffered any alteration.

 

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Flor de Sal is the purest of all salts. Leading chefs all over the Balearic Islands recommend Flor de Sal d’Es Trenc.

 

If you happen to live in Mallorca, like I am in the lucky position to state, Flor de Sal d’Es Trenc comes to a market, or a delicatessen, near you. It is available in four flavours: Natural, or with extract of black olives, or Mediterranean (herbal), or with Hibiscus (flowers). It retails for about 6,80 €.

 

If you live elsewhere, check the Internet and the Flor de Sal website, and enquire about distributors. The two ladies’ set-up is getting better and better all the time.

 

Give it a try. Flor de Sal d’Es Trenc is the purest salt imaginable.

 

You may never again say that salt is just salt.

 

I know, all of this sounds like a commercial endorsement. Well, it isn’t. The two ladies don’t even know me. They certainly don’t pay me. I discovered their salt a few years ago. I have used it ever since. I have recommended it to friends and relatives. Everybody likes it.

 

Now you can consider yourself a friend as well.

 

Frédéric Chopin’s Hapless Trip to Mallorca

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Mallorca always had an infatuation with famous people. Be that the Spanish Royal family, the British Princess Diana, filmstars Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Goldie Hawn, Danny DeVito, or even longer ago, Frédéric Chopin and George Sand. As long as they all are rich and famous.

I told you about Amandine Aurore Dudevant, aka George Sand, on an earlier occasion on this very blog (see August 3rd). She came to Mallorca in 1838, accompanying Frédéric Chopin, the Polish composer and pianist.

 

Born near Warsaw in 1810, the son of a French émigré and a Polish mother, Frédéric François Chopin won early fame in the relatively limited circles of his native country, before seeking his fortune abroad, in Paris. 

 

Chopin began to play the piano with verve at the age of 5, taught by his older sister Ludwika. His talent was immediately apparent, and the services of a piano teacher were soon enlisted in order to support his practice. Chopin was a highly dedicated student. It is even said that at the early age of 7 he slept, by his own free will, with wine-corks between his fingers in order to achieve a wider grip. He knew his destiny. 

 

After the studies, Chopin went to Vienna, where he was recognized as a decent pianist with some nicely written compositions, but altogether, it was not the success he had hoped for. Thus, he went back to Warsaw and, later, set his course for Paris. In Paris, Chopin did not immediately achieve success. It took a couple of hard years of composing and performing before he had worked himself into the High Society where he gave lessons to Royals and received the highest appreciation for his compositions. Chopin quickly became famous not only as a composer or teacher but also as a pianist.

 

Chopin was never to return to Poland again and made very few trips outside of France, mainly because of his weak health. The most famous of his trips may be a disastrous one to Mallorca which nearly cost him his life and another one, to Scotland, which was equally bad for his health. 

 

Chopin was diagnosed with Tuberculosis early in his life and it is quite surprising that he even reached the age of 39 before the illness finally took his life, after about 15 years of struggle. At this young age, Chopin had composed an amazing amount of works from a wide range of piano genres.

 

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In 1836, at a party hosted by Countess Marie d’Agoult, the mistress of fellow-composer Franz Liszt, Chopin was introduced to George Sand, who had been granted a divorce one year earlier from a marriage of convenience. She fell in love with him and offered to become his mistress. Chopin, however, did not find her attractive at first. “Something about her repels me”, he told his family. But George Sand had strong feelings for Chopin and pursued him until a relationship developed.

 

Chopin was already in poor health at the time, which is why he took his physician’s advice to leave Paris and go for a milder climate during the winter, in the Mediterranean. 

 

In the autumn of 1838, Chopin set off with George Sand and her two children, to spend the winter on the island of Mallorca. They arrived on November 8th, 1838, in Palma de Mallorca by boat from Barcelona. They rented a simple villa and were apparently quite happy. On November 15th, Chopin wrote a letter to a friend, saying “I am in Palma (…) I am close to that which is most beautiful”.

 

When the sunny weather broke, however, Chopin became ill. On December 3rd, Chopin wrote a letter to the same friend, saying “I have been ill for the last two days like a dog”.

 

When rumours of Chopin’s suspected tuberculosis reached the villa owner, they were ordered out and could only find accommodations in the Real Cartuja de Valldemossa (Real meaning Royal), a Carthusian monastery from 1399 until 1835, but now defunct, in the then rather remote village of Valldemossa. They stayed there from December 28th, 1838, to February 11th, 1839, when they left Valldemossa, Chopin being seriously ill.

 

He had been ill-advised to come to Mallorca. Even though temperatures here rarely drop very low, there is a sometimes quite unpleasant humidity in the air in Mallorca, rain or no rain, which can be uncomfortable and extremely damp in the winter. Not so healthy for someone with a tuberculum problem. Anyway, the hapless party left the island on February 13th, by boat from Palma de Mallorca, heading for Barcelona on their way back to Genoa and, eventually, France.

 

Although his health improved, Chopin never completely recovered from this bout. He complained, with his habitual wit, about the incompetence of the medicos in Mallorca: “The first (doctor) said I was going to die; the second said I had breathed my last; and the third said I was already dead”.

 

Chopin convalesced during the summer of 1839, in Nohant, George Sand’s manor house, 300 km from Paris.

 

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In 1845, as a further deterioration occurred in Chopin’s health, a serious problem also emerged in his relations with George Sand. The affair was further soured in 1846 by problems involving Sand’s daughter Solange. This was the year when Sand published her book Lucrezia Floriani, whose two main characters – a rich actress and a prince in frail health – might be interpreted as Sand and Chopin; the story was in fact somewhat derogatory to the composer. In 1847 the family problems finally brought the relations between the two to an end, which had lasted for ten years. Chopin died later that same year.

 

Although Mallorca has treated its guests, Chopin and spouse, not in a very commendable way, as one can easily read in George Sand’s travel memoirs of A Winter in Mallorca, published in 1842, Mallorca has since made the most of the couple’s stay in Valldemossa. One could quite rightly say, that Mallorca’s most famous tourist attraction, after Palma’s Cathedral, for those visitors that do not come only for sun, sea, sex and sangria, is Chopin and Sand’s legendary 45 days stay at the Carthusian monastery. Today, the Claustro houses a Chopin Museum, mainly for the purpose of celebrating the composer’s visit.

 

Two of the pianos that Chopin played in Mallorca are exhibited there, including the one which he had shipped over all the way from Paris.

 

During the tourist season, short piano recitals are offered to visitors at the Valldemossa Cartuja, four times a day. A real treat, every time, even if only for a brief duration. In August every summer, Mallorca celebrates the annual Chopin Festival of Music, the Festivals Chopin de Valldemossa, with its 27th edition just concluded.

 

If you ever have a chance, come for yourself one day and see how Mallorca treats you.

A Visit to al-Andaluz

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A person, a place or even a country is always an expression of their very own life story. The country of Spain is no different thanks to its rich history. 

The Iberian Peninsula was inhabited by Iberians, Celts and Basque people before the Romans occupied what they then called Hispania. The Romans lasted until perhaps the 5th century, when their Empire decayed. After that, Germanic barbarians crossed the Pyrenees and Visigoths and Vandals settled here in quick succession. They were followed by the Arabs and Muslims of the Islamic Umayyad caliphate who first arrived in Iberia in 711, mainly hailing from North Africa, and commonly called Moors.

The Moors brought the entire Iberian peninsula, except for Galicia and Asturias in the far north, under Islamic control (see map below); however, frontiers with the Christian north were constantly in flux. The new Islamic territories, referred to as al-Andaluz by the Muslims, were administered by a provincial government established in the name of the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus and centered in Córdoba.

Within a century, the Islamic, or Moorish civilization in Iberia was widely considered to have been the most advanced in Western Europe. The period of al-Andaluz was a prosperous time for Spain. The Muslim invaders brought with them a cultural influence which greatly enriched the Iberian life in all aspects of arts and architecture, music and literature, food and agriculture.

The period of the Caliphate (from 929) is seen by Islamic writers as the golden age of al-Andaluz. Crops produced using irrigation, along with food imported from North Africa, provided the area around Córdoba and some other al-Andaluz cities with an agricultural economic sector which became by far the most advanced in Europe. Among European cities, Córdoba under the Caliphate, with a population of perhaps 500,000, eventually overtook Constantinople as the largest and most prosperous city in Europe. 

 

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Within the Islamic world, Córdoba soon developed into one of the leading cultural centres. The work of its most important philosophers and scientists (notably Abulcasis and Averroes) had a major influence on the intellectual life of medieval Europe.

The society of al-Andaluz was made up of three main groups: Christians, Muslims and Jews. The Muslims, though united on the religious level, had several ethnic divisions, the principal one being the distinction between Arabs and Berbers. Mozarabs were Christians that had long lived under Muslim domination and thus had adopted many Arabic customs, art and words, while still maintaining their Christian rituals and their own Latin-derived languages. Each of these communities inhabited a separate part of the cities of al-Andaluz.

But history is a funny business. Today, Spain is not so sure about its Moorish past. Whilst everybody is proud of Muslim remnants in Spain, such as the Alhambra in Granada or the Great Mosque in Córdoba (now integral part of the Cathedral in Córdoba), Spain seems much happier about its own history beginning in 1492 with the Americas being discovered for the Spanish Crown.

Over the last ten years or so, Spain has seen an enormous influx of immigrants, including a large number of Arabs from Morocco. In Mallorca, where I live, these immigrants are called Moros (moors) in quite a derogatory way. Some locals are worried about a rebirth of al-Andaluz, especially now that al-Qaeda’s second-in-charge has begun to verbally claim the historic al-Andaluz for the Islamic world.

Watch this space.