Big City Tales

No Time for a Siesta in the South of Spain

May 5, 2018
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While a mid-day or late afternoon break is a long-standing tradition in many European and Mediterranean cultures, given the sheer amount of beautiful sights to behold and historical stories to soak up there is truly no time for a siesta in the south of Spain. Si amigos, a trip to the provinces of Andalusia and the heralded capital cities of Cordoba, Granada and Seville promises to be a jam-packed experience so plan to catch up on sleep mas tarde.

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Once upon a time, Cordoba was the largest city in Western Europe and for many centuries was the Islamic capital of Spain.

Under the rule of the Moors, a monumental mosque called the Mezquita was constructed in the city centre and it served the Muslim faithful until the Christian conquest of Cordoba in 1236 resulted in the building being converted into a cathedral and a main altar (Capilla Mayor) and choir loft being added. To the credit of the Christian conquerors, who appreciated the exceptional beauty of the Mezquita, the bulk of the mosque remained intact to be admired by generations to come.

Other highlights in Cordoba include the Puerta del Puente memorial gate and the Callejon de las Flores, Cordoba’s most photographed street, where many homes are adorned with potted plants on their patios and balconies that are perfectly presented in delightfully bright and cheery colour-coordinated designs.

Mezquita – Great Mosque of Cordoba

Considered to be one of the best examples of Moorish architecture, the Mezquita features a 54-metre high belltower (Torre Campanario) that provides an inner view of the mosque’s courtyard, as well as a panoramic city view. The mosque’s interior is noted for its striped arches that have the look of a forest of date palm trees and are supported by decorative columns.

The overall architectural design was ground-breaking for its time in that it was largely considered to be quite simple compared to the likes of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque in Damascus. Simple or not, the Mezquita dominates Cordoba’s skyline and is particularly spectacular at night when a one-hour sound and light show takes place.

Puerta del Puente

Originally the main city gate, the Puerta del Puente (Bridge Gate) was first constructed during the rule of Phillip II in the late 16th century.

The primary goal of the gate was to help facilitate the flow of people and materials in and out of the city, but there was also an aesthetic purpose to help in an overall city beautification effort. Shaped like a triumphal arch, the Renaissance design also features columns and carvings on both of its sides.

The gate now functions as a memorial and is situated on the northern end of the Roman Bridge close to the back entrance into the Mezquita.

Callejon de las Flores

Not many city streets have their own website, but the Callejon de las Flores (Street of the Flowers) does have one and for good reason: it’s one of Cordoba’s most visited spots and one of its most beautiful.

Although it’s not a very long or very wide street, tourists clamor to it in droves to take in a residential gardening spectacle like no where else in the world. Winding through narrow cobblestone lanes and surrounded by white-washed walls decked out in a riot of terracotta pots boasting brilliant hues of pink, purple and red flowers, Callejon de las Flores delights the senses at every turn.


Welcome to the last stronghold of the Spanish Moors and the land of a thousand castles, where the Alhambra palace and fortress stands out for its intricate Islamic art and exquisitely maintained gardens and fruit orchards at the nearby Palacio de Generalife.

Like Cordoba, Granada also features many Christian monuments and heritage sites such as the Capilla Real, the royal resting place of Spain’s Catholic monarchs, and the Cathedral of Granada that was built over top of the Great Mosque of Granada after the fall of the Nasrid dynasty in 1492.


Before it was re-built as a palace for Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Yusuf (Muhammad I), the first ruler of the Emirate of Granada in the 1300s, the Alhambra served as a small city fortress. The emir had a grander vision for the complex, including taking full advantage of its forested mountain location to create a visual spectacle around the theme of “paradise on earth” that would ultimately continue into the interior space of the palace.

Even though the structural design of the exterior is purposefully simple and plain, the interior showcases elaborate Muslim art forms such as geometrical patterns, arabesques, mosaics, wood ceilings called alfarje, and ornamental vaults called muqarnas. Other interior design features include a central courtyard, columns, fountains and reflecting pools.

Some of the main structures within the Alhambra include the Court of the Lions, Court of the Myrtles, and Hall of the Ambassadors. The Court of the Lions is the main courtyard of the Alhambra that was added by Muhammad V and is noteworthy for its blend of Moorish and Christian aesthetic elements, and its central Fountain of the Lions that was a marvel of hydraulic engineering in how water flowed from the basin and spurted from the mouths of the 12 marble lions around the fountain’s base.

One of the best vantage points to take in the full glory of the Alhambra is from Mirador de San Nicolas. Along with being an ideal spot to take a sunset shot of the palace/fortress and appreciate the trees and Sierra Nevada mountains surrounding it, Mirador de San Nicolas is a popular hangout for local buskers showing off their performance talents.

Palacio de Generalife

Originally connected to the Alhambra via a covered walkway across a ravine, the Palacio de Generalife was the summer home of the Nasrid rulers.

The design of the peaceful country retreat nestled in the Cerro del Sol hillside includes a central courtyard called the Patio de la Acequia (Court of the Water Channel) that is decorated with mosaic stone walkways, flowerbeds, fountains, colonnades and pavilions, and the Jardím de la Sultana (Sultana’s Garden) that showcases the style of a traditional Persian garden from Medieval times.

The Palacio de Generalife and Alhambra are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Capilla Real (Royal Chapel)

Given the historical significance of Granada to the Reconquista era, which marked the return of Spain to Christendom, the city was chosen by Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II as the final resting place for them and their family members. They decreed in 1504 that a royal chapel be built in Gothic style and be dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. In addition to elaborately carved tombs, the interior features a treasury of paintings and other works from Spanish, Flemish and Italian artists.

Cathedral of Granada

Boasting a Gothic foundation with both Renaissance and Baroque design elements, the highly unique Cathedral of Granada is the fourth largest cathedral in the world. The interior of the cathedral features a large main altar in a circular format along with several chapels, and a high dome decorated with stained glass windows and sculptures depicting various religious stories and themes. The cathedral’s exterior is noteworthy for its triumphant arch design with three high arches decorated with marble reliefs, and its three carved wooden doorways.


Similar to Cordoba and Granada, Seville’s architecture reflects the best of Moorish and Spanish design elements. From the stunning Real Alcazar to the sprawling Plaza de Espana and Parque de Maria Luisa, the city is a living piece of art bursting with colour, texture and technique.

As much as Seville celebrates its glorious history in the epic Catedral and Giralda bell tower, it has also opened its arms to modern structures such as the Metropol Parasol (Las Setas de la Encarnacion).

The past and present blend seamlessly in Seville, and culture also abounds with flamenco dancing, bull fighting and tapas sampling making the city a top “must see” destination in the opinion of many travel guide reviewers.

Real Alcazar

The Real Alcazar is a mixture of Christian and Mudejar architecture and is considered to be one of the most beautiful attractions in Spain.

One of the main features of Real Alcazar is the Palacio de Don Pedro, that was built for King Pedro of Castile in the late 1300s. The palace layout includes the Patio de las Doncellas (Courtyard of the Maidens) containing a central reflecting pool, sunken garden and surrounding reception rooms; the Salon de Embajadores (Hall of Ambassadors) that is the most elaborately decorated part of the palace where King Pedro’s throne was located; and the Patio de las Muñecas (Courtyard of the Dolls), where the royal family resided.

Plaza de Espana and Parque de Maria Luisa

Built for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929, the Plaza de Espana and Parque de Maria Luisa are prime examples of Spanish Renaissance Revival and Moorish Revival architectural styles.

The Plaza de Espana was the main exhibition area and was constructed of bricks and decorative tiles. The plaza includes fountains, canals and footbridges inspired by Venetian designs. The tile work is extensive and was used to create regional maps and historical scenes from all of Spain’s ancient provinces.

The Parque de Maria Luisa is an inner city garden oasis that features tiled fountains, pavilions, walls, ponds, benches, as well as plenty of flora such as palms, orange trees, Mediterranean pines, and decorative flower beds.

Catedral and Giralda

The Seville Cathedral is the world’s largest Gothic church and legend has it that church and city leaders intended it to be so beautiful and grand that it could not be replicated. From its highly ornate facade to its vast interior that has the longest nave of any church in Spain, the world’s largest altarpiece, and contains some 80 chapels, the Seville Cathedral is also notable for being the site of royal baptisms and burials, as well as being the final resting place of Christopher Columbus.

The Giralda bell tower stands 104 metres tall and the view from the top offers one of the best panoramas of Seville. The tower is decorated with tiles that change colour according to light conditions in the sky and it is topped with a weathervane, known as El Giraldillo, that represents the concept of faith. The Giralda is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is an iconic symbol of Seville.

Metropol Parasol

Located in the old quarter of Seville, the Metropol Parasol is the world’s largest wooden structure and is shaped like gigantic mushroom parasols, which are intended to emulate the vaulted arches of the Seville Cathedral and the leafy branches of ficus trees growing nearby.

The Metropol Parasol contains four levels and includes a museum that showcases Roman and Moorish artifacts found on site during construction, a large Central Market, an outdoor plaza/performance space, and panoramic terraces.

Magnifico Madrid

March 21, 2018
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With its ultra-modern infrastructure built up around well-preserved historical sites, there is no doubt that Magnifico Madrid is Spain’s most visited city. From the AZCA and CBTA business districts to the Gran Via and Royal Palace tourist areas, there is plenty to say “Ole!” about in, you guessed it, the bullfighting capital of the world.

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Business is Booming

As the third largest city in the European Union, Madrid is the headquarter location for many of Spain’s major companies such as Telefonica, IAG and Repsol. The city is also the home of the United Nations World Tourism Organization and the Royal Spanish Academy.


The AZCA financial district in northern Madrid is often referred to as ‘Madrid’s Manhattan’ because of the many skyscrapers it contains. The district’s tallest building is the Torre Picasso that was designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect who created the original World Trade Center (WTC) towers in New York City.  The Torre Picasso and WTC towers share the same rectangular shape and sleek, minimalist exterior. AZCA’s other significant skyscrapers are the Torre Europa,  Torre Banco de Balboa Vizcaya (Torre BBVA), Torre Titania and Torre Mahou; all standing over 100 metres in height.

Interestingly, the most famous building in AZCA is not a skyscraper; rather, it is Bernabeu Stadium where the Real Madrid football team plays. The stadium holds up to 80,000 spectators and is very loud and raucous, especially when beloved fan favourite, Ronaldo, or another cherished team star scores a GOOOOOAAAAALLLLL!!!!!

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The CBTA district (Four Towers Business Area) is home to the four tallest buildings in Madrid that are all over 200 metres in height: Torre Espacio, Torre de Cristal, Torre PwC and Torre Cepsa. The four towers are located next to each other along the Paseo de la Castellana, one of the widest and longest avenues in Madrid.

Gran Via

The shopping and nightlife destination of choice in Madrid is the Gran Via, which is also known for its elaborately designed building facades that showcase the best of early 20th century architectural styles. The Metropolis Building is one of the area’s most famous and most beautiful with its tall dome and numerous decorative statues.

Green Space is Thriving

Of all European cities, Madrid has the most number of trees and green space per resident meaning that most people are within a 15-minute walk from a designated park area.

Along with the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid and Casa de Campo, a large urban parkland on the city’s western edge, Buen Retiro Park is a popular destination that offers scenic pathways and an artificial lake with row boat rentals.  On the weekends, an array of street performers descend on the park to entertain the crowds.

Buen Retiro Park was originally built as a royal retreat and there are thus some very regal statues located throughout it such as the Monument to Alfonso XII that provides an impressive jaw-dropping backdrop while rowing on the lake.

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Progress and History is Working Well Together

Madrid’s city planners deserve full credit for not sacrificing its myriad historical landmarks in the name of progress. Whether it’s the ultra-modern inclined Gate of Europe twin towers, or the elegant and statuesque Puerta de Alcala and Cybele Palace and Fountain, the city really does offer the best of both worlds resulting in a metropolis that oozes a definite hip and urban vibe AND pays homage to its glorious past. Vamos Madrid!

Barcelona or Bust

July 17, 2012
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The year was 1992. The place was Barcelona, Spain. The event was the tower diving competition at the Summer Olympics, held in the hillside community of Montjuic. While I don’t recall the competitors, I do remember being riveted to the TV screen from my home in Calgary wishing that I was there.

As the cameras, perched high atop this stunning outdoor diving venue, slowly panned across the city’s expansive skyline, I was completely awestruck with the eclectic mix of centuries-old Gothic cathedrals, modern high-rise apartments, and timeless seafaring vessels docked in the harbor far below.

Yes, it was amor a primera vista (love at first sight!) and over 20 years later my affection remains strong for this grand European city.

From its panoramic city views to its old world charm that meshes seamlessly with trendy cosmopolitan elements, Barcelona is a “jewel in the sun” to quote a fitting phrase from the rock band Queen. The city is a jewel that continues to shine bright in my memory and is one that I long to see.

Parc Guell in Barcelona, Spain.