Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Visit to the Mezquita of Cordoba

For those of you heading to the medieval city of Cordoba, here's a tip: visit the Mezquita before 10am. It's free  during daily mass and the crowd is thin; just remember to dress appropriately. After 10:30am when the floodgates open, expect the Mezquita to be heaving with busloads of tourists, and don't let me tell you so. 

Getting to Cordoba is a breeze; the quick AVE train takes you from Seville to Cordoba in less than 60 minutes, making it an easy day trip. There's also convenient left luggage facilities at the bus and train stations if you wish to lock up your bags while visiting Cordoba, which is what we did since we planned on going directly to Granada. It's then a quick 5 EUR taxi ride to the medieval walls of the beautiful Mezquita of Cordoba. 

The Mezquita symbolizes the confluence of religion and powers on the Iberian peninsula during the 12th and 13th centuries. Construction of the Mezquita started in 784 AD under Abd Rahman I and evolved over two centuries blending various architectural forms in  which a minaret, mihrab, courtyard were subsequently added by various rulers. 

The Great Mosque expanded over time, accommodating as many as 10,000 worshippers. In 1236, King Ferdinand III captured Cordoba from the Moors and converted the Mezquita to a place of Christian worship. It wasn't until the 14th century when King Alfonso X ordered the construction of two chapels within the structure of the mosque. Today, this remarkable piece of architecture is declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

While majority of the mosque was destroyed to accommodate the construction of the Villaviciosa Chapel and Royal Chapel, the layout of the floor plan is still very much Islamic. Entering the Mezquita, you are immediately captivated by a forest of symmetrical columns made from a mix of jasper, onyx, marble, and granite, many taken from old Roman and Visigothic buildings. The double arches of alternating red and white voussoirs gives the interior a beautiful visual effect, as does the lavishly decorated mihrab that adorns the ibla wall  facing the direction of Mecca. 

The most significant Christian addition is perhaps the impressive 16th century Baroque choir set in the middle of the building. It's interesting to see the juxtaposition of different architectural styles; the elegant Islamic arches is vastly different from the intricately carved Gothic vault ceilings. The minaret was also converted to a Baroque bell tower. The orange tree-clad courtyard, Patio de los Naranjos, with several ablution fountains were originally built for the Muslims to use before prayer. Allow yourself enough time to wander through the Mezquita and take in the architectural delights of the once powerful Moorish empire.

The Mezquita is not the only sight to see in Cordoba. Not as grand as the Alcazar of Seville, the palace-fortress built by Alfonso XI in the 14th century known as  Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos is also worth visiting if time permits. Throughout its life, the palace was used as the Court of Inquisition, then a civil jail, and finally a military prison before it was converted into a museum. The expansive garden and dazzling water ponds makes for a nice walk even in the sweltering 40C heat.

If can deal with the heat, I also recommend a quick walk across the pedestrianised bridge, Puente Romano, for panoramic view of the Mezquita. On the far side of the bridge is Torre de la Calahorra, a medieval watchtower. You cannot beat the view of the Mezquita's bell tower from the tiny narrow alleyway of Callejon de las Flores, which perfectly frames the elegant tower. 

The Old Jewish Quarter comprising of windy labyrinth of alleyways, flower-filled patios, and whitewashed houses makes for an atmospheric place to wander around and get lost in. After a hard day of sightseeing, we made sure to reward ourselves with a glass of Montilla, a fabulous local white wine unique to the Andalucia region, and it was on to Granada.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Tapas-crawling in Seville

We got an extra bank holiday this year to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee (God save the Queen!) and jetted off for a week-long holiday in sunny Spain with my kid sister. Andalucia has been on top of my list of places to see ever since taking on an architectural history class during my university days at Berkeley. I was intrigued by the fascinating blend of Islamic and Gothic architecture of grand palaces and mosque-cum-cathedrals such as Seville's Alcazar, Mezquita of Cordoba, and the magnificent Alhambra of Granada. Thanks to the new route from London Gatwick to Seville from both EasyJet and Ryan Air, getting to the gateway of Andalucia has never been easier!

We started our grand tour of Andalucia in Seville, the fun-loving city best known for flamenco, sherry, and oranges. Seville is a beautiful city full of charming pedestrianised streets, buzzing bars, and picturesque riverfront. While in Seville, we followed a strict Spanish regime which involved waking up late, taking a 3 hour siesta at 2:30pm, eating dinner at midnight, and bar-hopping until late. 

By day, we visit all the major attractions, starting with the impressive Gothic cathedral and Moorish bell tower (Giralda). The Cathedral occupies the site of a 12th century mosque and today, the only remnants of the old mosque are Patio de los Naranjos and minaret built in 1198. The Cathedral is much larger than I expected, and no doubt, a stunning piece of architecture.  

The Cathedral is also the resting place of Christopher Columbus, who if you need a lesson in history, discovered America in 1492. Since it was a local holiday, the Cathedral was free and open to the public to celebrate San Fernando, the patron of Seville with a lively procession inside the church. 

Plaza de Espana located inside the leafy
Parque Maria Luisa is lovely spot for relaxing especially in the early evening for an impromptu picnic or stroll around the semi-circular plaza which was once the centrepiece of the 1929 Exposition. There are also several museums and dazzling fountains to enjoy within this beloved tranquil park. 

You cannot miss the Real Alcazar, the royal residence of generations of kings and caliphates. Photos do not capture the intricate and exquisite details of this beautiful palace. You enter through Puerta del Leon which takes you to the Patio de la Monteria, a grand courtyard decorated with plasterwork by the finest craftsmen from Granada. Throughout the entire palace, you can admire the gorgeous Islamic facades in the Mudejar styles. Neatly laid out with terrace verandas, pavilions, and perfectly manicured gardens, the  Gardens of the Alcazar is a delightful refuge from the unforgiving heat. 

Seville is full of charming neighbourhoods. Be sure to get lost in the narrow alleyways in Barrio Santa Cruz, the former Jewish ghetto and enjoy a late evening tapa crawls of patata bravas, croquettes, jamon y queso around Matteo Gago and Rodrigo Caro. You can also take a walk along the riverfront to see all the major sights in the neighborhood of Arsenal including Torre del Oro, Tetro de la Maestranza, and the 18th century bullring. 

From here, you can head across the river to the working class neighbourhood of Tirana. Previously a gypsy enclave, Triana is now a popular hangout with alfresco bars spilling out on Calle Betis. It is not only famous for pottery and ceramics, but also for its food market at the end of Isabel II bridge. 

Eating and drinking in Seville is far more reasonable than Madrid or Barcelona; you can eat well without feeling the pinch on your wallet. We probably stopped by at least a dozen tapas bars around the city and gladly recommend the following:

Bodega Santa Cruz (Calle Mateos Gago): An old-school tapas bar with local vibe. Standing room only unless you can snag an outdoor table. Order a few cervezas and tapas and then move on. In fact, you can't go wrong with any of the tapas joints on this street. 

Enrique Becerra (Calle Gamazo 2): Located on the same street as our flat; traditional Andalucia cooking; very good tapas but a bit more pricey. 

Taberna Coloniales (
Plaza del Cristo de Burgos, 19): classic tapas bar; portions are generous and prices are very reasonable. The fritura de pescados is very good. If you don't fancy cerveza, then you can order Tinto de verano, a refreshing summer red wine with a splash of fizzy lemonade.  

Other tapas bars include: Boreas, Nueva Victoria, Bar Eslava, and Bar Teresas. After spending three days exploring and eating our way through the picturesque city of Seville, it was time to move on to Cordoba.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Hackney Weekend 2012

The countdown to the London 2012 Olympics is well underway with just one month to go until the Opening Ceremony. To celebrate, London is hosting a variety of free events and festivals throughout the capital, among them is Hackney Weekend, a free two-day music extravaganza with an impressive line up of A-list superstars. 
Keenan and I were lucky enough to score Sunday tickets to this free concert held at Hackney Marsh. While Rihanna and Jay-Z were the main headliners at Hackney Weekend, this music festival very much celebrates the success and talent of homegrown London-born artists including Leona Lewis, Taio Cruz, Plan B, Jessie J, Dizzee Rascal, Example, Tinie Tempah, Jack White, Labrinth, Chase & Status, Florence + the Machine, and Professor Green. 
Sunday morning we traveled out to East London donning rain gear and our Hunter wellies (yes, we’re having quite the British ‘summer’). We joined 55,000 music revelers at Hackney Marshes for a fun day of music. Over 30 artists performed across the event’s six stages. We carefully planned our day, weaving between the tents to make sure we got to see all of our favorite artists perform live on stage. 
Opening acts included rapper Professor Green; English indie rock band, Bombay Bicycle Club; and local Hackney boy, Labrinth. The atmosphere was amazing; despite the mud and brief rain shower, everyone was happy and really enjoyed themselves. I was impressed how organised everything was, from the security checkpoints, bar and food areas, first aid stations, and even the ladies port-a-potty toilets were surprisingly clean.  
We watched Jessie J. and rapper/singer/songwriter Plan B delight the crowd with hits, “Domino,” “Nobody is Perfect,” “Love Come Down” and “Prayin.” B.o.B, who performed an awesome set playing both his guitar and piano over at the 1xtra Stage, joined the Main Stage with Jessie J to sing their hit “Price Tag”. I was beyond excited to see a live performance by Florence + The Machine as I am a huge fan of their music. They were awesome on stage, belting out all my favorite songs, including “Dog Days are Over,” “No Lights,” and “You’ve Got the Love.”
There was also an unannounced ‘Special Guest’ for Sunday’s line-up. Rumour was that it could be Kanye West who is on tour in the UK and whom made a guest appearance on stage with Jay-Z on Saturday night; or Eminem, or even Coldplay. To my surprise, and somewhat a disappointment, the Special Guest turned out to be rapper Dizzee Rascal. 
Over in the In New Music We Trust Stage, newcomers folk singer Ben Howard and Born to Die singer Lana Del Rey, who wore a short red dress, did not disappoint the audience with their respective musical talents. Sporting her signature 1960s bouffant, Lana Del Rey’s melancholic set was a major contrast to the high-energy beats of previous artists on her supporting stage. 
Back over at 1xtra Stage, the British singer, Taio Cruz, dressed in black with cool shades, electrified the crowd, closing out his set with his hit “Dynamite” and “Break your Heart.” We joined revelers in the rave-like, heart-thumping Dance Arena where superstar D.J/Producer David Guetta got fans up on their feet and singing along to “Titanium.” 
Of course, Sunday night was all about Rihanna who opted for an Egyptian-themed stage. She got the crowd on their feet, opening with “Only Girl (in the World),” followed by all her major hits from all her studio albums to date. Guest appearance by Jay-Z was a special treat, sharing the stage for three songs: “Run this Town,” “Talk that Talk,” and “Umbrella,” which we thankfully didn’t need for the rest of the day as the sky opened up for a lovely sunset over East London. Rihanna’s 90 minute set was superb, entertaining, and definitely a highlight of Sunday night’s event, if not the entire festival weekend, closing the festival with “We Found Love”. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

I Heart London in the Summer...

My kid sister came to visit and brought the California sunshine with her -- thanks Annie!  The weather has been miserable the past few months with torrential downpours, gale-force wind, and below-normal temperatures. To date, this is by far my worst summer in the UK although I probably say that every summer, but seriously this summer has been unusually cold. I had to wear my leather gloves throughout most of May and started questioning if we skipped summer altogether? But, on my kid sister's  second visit to London, she enjoyed seven straight days of 80F temperatures and glorious blue skies. It was brilliant!

Besides catching up on some sleep and making herself comfortable in our beloved Clapham flat, my kid sister got the chance to visit neighbourhoods that she didn't get to see on her first trip to London. She schlepped out to Canary Wharf to have lunch with her brother-in-law at Jamie's Kitchen; met me for a picnic lunch near Paddington station before taking herself for a canal walk from Maida Vale to Camden Town. 
She perused through the funky shops at the Stable searching for quirky souvenirs for friends in California; went museum-hopping around South Kensington; checked out the hipster neighbourhood of Shoreditch; and dined alfresco along the Southbank. Keenan and I both had to work during her stay in London, but we spent evenings together over home-cooked meals, or cold beers and white wine at one of the local pubs, The Sun being my favorite for its lovely beer garden. It was great catching up with her about her busy semester as a nursing student and other exciting news from California.

One of Keenan's former co-workers also stopped through London on her way home from a business trip in Switzerland. It was somewhat a little reunion as we met up with the same co-worker in Santorini while on a family holiday last year. It was fun taking Annie and my friend around London, showing them my favorite places and restaurants. Saturday we went to check out Borough Market and had a walking lunch of bratwurst, chorizo sandwiches, paella, and a massive chicken wrap called 'The Hangover' whilst admiring London's newest skyscraper, The Shard.  Tummies happy, we were off for a walk along the River Thames to the iconic Tower Bridge. 

It was the perfect day to spend the afternoon in Royal Greenwich, the neighbourhood just south of Canary Wharf. We stocked up on some snacky items and a bottle of white wine for a picnic near the Royal Observatory from where there is an amazing view of London. Greenwich was all decked out for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee where the Royal River Pageant will start. Cutty Stark, the last surviving and fastest tea clipper of her time which reopened to the public in April, was heaving with visitors. My kid sister thought it was funny that Londoners all flock to the nearest green patch on warm summery days, donning bikinis and board shorts. I'm sorry to say, kiddo, we're not guaranteed summer here in London.  

The next morning we went up to the charming neighborhood of Notting Hill, walked around Portobello Road, which was surprisingly quiet for a Sunday. Then we took the train for a day trip to Oxford. We haven't been to Oxford in over three years; crazy how time flies! It was nice to see Oxford in another light as my last visit to Oxford was in the dead of winter. 


We snagged some patio seats at The Head of the River pub, which overlooked the canal, for a late afternoon lunch all washed down with a pitcher of Pimms. We visited several colleges, including Christ Church College, Corpus Christi College, and Queen's College, and of course stopped for the obligatory tourist photos of the Bridge of Sighs and the Radcliffe Camera. I had forgotten how lovely Oxford is; shame that it took me three years to return.

My kid sister and my friend continued another day of sightseeing around London while Keenan and I were at work, visiting old tourist haunts: Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, National Gallery, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and Parliament, and Piccadilly Circus. My friend flew back to San Francisco and we prepared for our week-long holiday in Andalucia, Spain. Plenty of sunshine guaranteed there.

Cheerios from London!