Soul-stir­ring Span­ish tour

Cathe­drals and mosques – and a cathe­dral in a mosque! – in­spire this trav­eller.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Travel - By HO WAH FOON star2­travel@thes­

THE first thing I hear be­fore be­gin­ning a tour of Spain, that colour­ful coun­try of ruth­less bull-fight­ing, fever­ish foot­ball, and sen­sual flamingo is: be­ware of pick­pock­ets.

One of Golden Tour­world Travel’s sea­soned tour man­agers, Chong Vui Chan, warns us of the dan­ger be­fore we be­gin our 12-day Spain/Por­tu­gal tour in May. A travel-mate e-mails a list of “dos and don’ts in Spain” sent out by a for­eign em­bassy that also cau­tions about pick­pock­et­ing. And my own re­search on­line says that Barcelona – the first stop on our tour and Spain’s most vi­brant com­mer­cial cen­tre – has been dis­hon­ourably crowned “the world’s cap­i­tal for pick­pock­et­ing” by a travel ad­vi­sory com­pany.

Why has this crime seem­ingly be­come a “ca­reer” in this coun­try? The one rea­son given by all the lo­cal guides we meet is the coun­try’s high un­em­ploy­ment rate. The Eu­ro­zone debt cri­sis that en­gulfed much of the Euro­pean Union from about 2009 on­wards was dev­as­tat­ing for Spain, where the un­em­ploy­ment rate hit a high of 27% in the first quar­ter of 2013.

Although the econ­omy is re­cov­er­ing now, partly on the back of ro­bust tourism, the un­em­ploy­ment rate has stayed high, at 18.75%, mean­ing 8.3 mil­lion Span­ish peo­ple are job­less.

“Pick­pock­et­ing is still se­ri­ous in Spain, though it is not as bad as three years ago. But the good thing about Spain is that there is very lit­tle vi­o­lent crime,” says Chong.

In other words, apart from hav­ing to be a lit­tle more vig­i­lant than usual about your pock­ets (also hand­bags, wal­lets, etc), Spain is a safe place to travel in. In fact, the coun­try’s rich her­itage, in­ter­est­ing tourist spots, and beau­ti­ful coun­try­side are at­tract­ing tourists from all over the world – Spain wel­comed 75 mil­lion vis­i­tors in 2016.

Beauty of the holy

Among this largely Catholic na­tion’s pop­u­lar at­trac­tions are its mag­nif­i­cent cathe­drals and churches. What en­thrals me the most, how­ever, is that its most-vis­ited church is a 135-year-old un­fin­ished struc­ture in Barcelona.

The Sagrada Fa­milia is a large Ro­man Catholic cathe­dral as­so­ci­ated with fa­mous ar­chi­tect An­toni Gaudi (1852–1926); it is now part of a Unesco (United Na­tions Ed­u­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Or­gan­i­sa­tion) World Her­itage Site.

Con­struc­tion of the build­ing be­gan in 1866; Gaudi took over with his own de­sign ideas in 1883 and was still work­ing on it when he died. Progress has re­mained slow be­cause work was in­ter­rupted by the Span­ish Civil War in 1936-1939, and it is funded en­tirely by pri­vate do­na­tions and tourist re­ceipts.

We are told by our lo­cal guide that Gaudi, who de­voted the last 40 years of his life to this un­prof­itable project, died a pau­per. “When he was hit by a car, ev­ery­body thought he was a beg­gar.” He died in hos­pi­tal af­ter the ac­ci­dent.

Nowa­days, Gaudi and his works are cel­e­brated in Barcelona, and the con­tin­u­ing con­struc­tion of the Sagrada Fa­milia re­mains faith­ful to his freely ex­pres­sive or­ganic style.

This mag­nif­i­cent piece of Gothic ar­chi­tec­ture is now sched­uled to be com­pleted by 2028. But af­ter visit­ing the mas­sive build­ing with its metic­u­lously fine carv­ings of the life and death of Je­sus Christ, and learn­ing there are still more tow­ers to add, I have to won­der if it will ever be com­pleted ....

And there is, of course, Spain’s other fa­mous re­li­gious build­ing (which also in­spired me to buy a book to learn more about it): the Mosque of Cor­doba, which has a 16th cen­tury cathe­dral in its cen­tral part. Imag­ine, a church within a mosque!

Con­struc­tion of the Great Al­jama Mosque on the site of a monastery in the south­ern city of Cor­doba was be­gun in 786 by Abd al-Rahman I af­ter Arab Mus­lims con­quered Spain. The mosque was con­verted into a cathe­dral when Fer­nando III con­quered Cor­doba in 1236.

This con­ver­sion may be re­spon­si­ble for the build­ing’s ex­cel­lent state of preser­va­tion, as no other The Mosque of Cor­doba was con­verted to a cathe­dral in the 13th cen­tury and has re­mained a Chris­tian place of wor­ship in use since then, but its ar­chi­tec­ture and much of its in­te­rior (in­set) is dis­tinctly Is­lamic. — Filepics mosque from that age has sur­vived in­tact in this area. The Mosque of Cor­doba is now a Unesco her­itage site at­tract­ing three to four mil­lion vis­i­tors a year.

Although a Gothic cathe­dral was built in­side sub­se­quently, large ex­panses of 11th cen­tury Umayyad Caliphate crafts­man­ship still re­main. The gor­geous Is­lamic ar­chi­tec­ture, seen as the high­est ex­pres­sion of Is­lamic art in Spain, is said to make this the most im­por­tant his­toric mosque of the West.

Dur­ing our tour of this build­ing, our Chris­tian guide speaks pas­sion­ately about the Is­lamic in­scrip­tions on the walls and ceil­ings. To her, this is part of a na­tional her­itage that is to be trea­sured, re­gard­less of one’s re­li­gion and back­ground.

Mus­lim ar­chi­tec­tural in­flu­ence in Spain can also be seen in the renowned Moor­ish citadel and palace called the Al­ham­bra, pre­served in Granada in south­ern Spain.

Miss­ing in ac­tion

The tour doesn’t in­clude a bull­fight­ing match, though we are taken into a bull­fight­ing ring and mu­seum. Chong says that on pre­vi­ous tours, many peo­ple walked out be­fore the match ended.

This busi­ness is in­deed on the de­cline mainly be­cause more and more peo­ple view killing a bull to win an hon­our “too cruel and bloody”.

An en­try ticket to a bull­fight

€100 starts at about (RM500), I dis­cover af­ter en­quir­ing at the ticket counter.

This cen­turies-old en­ter­tain­ment is now banned in Barcelona, and the old ring in the city’s cen­tre has been turned into a shop­ping area.

Shop­ping is not an ac­tiv­ity given much fo­cus on our tour. Af­ter most mem­bers of the group ask for time to go shop­ping, how­ever, the tour man­ager obliges.

To me, shop­ping is one way of un­der­stand­ing peo­ple’s way of life and the eco­nomic struc­ture of a coun­try.

And shop­ping is, of course, ther­apy to boost your happy cells! I of­ten quote a Chi­nese say­ing when peo­ple frown over my shop­ping: “Prac­tis­ing thrifti­ness is vir­tu­ous, but spend­ing money is hap­pi­ness.”

When I re­turn home, my suit­case is full of Span­ish olive prod­ucts, dried fruits, and sou­venirs – some for self-con­sump­tion and dis­play, oth­ers for friends. See­ing oth­ers en­joy­ing your food is also cause for hap­pi­ness.

Fur­ther hap­pi­ness: At the end of our jour­ney, not one of our 25-mem­ber group – in­clud­ing our tour man­ager – had been pick­pock­eted.

The mag­nif­i­cent al­beit un­fin­ished Sagrada Fa­milia cathe­dral in Barcelona. (In­set) In­side the cathe­dral.

— Pho­tos: HO WAH FOON/The Star

In­side a bull ring that is used once a year. There has been pub­lic pres­sure to abol­ish the cen­turies-old ‘sport’ of bull­fight­ing in Spain; it is al­ready banned in Barcelona.

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