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Monday, May 21, 2018

Royal Entertainment in the Ninth Century: Oviedo's Heyday Monuments

Oviedo seen from Naranco
All photos in this post 2017 Jessica Knauss 
I'm back to blogging after an inexcusable absence. It's time to catch up with all the beautiful things I've been seeing since I got to Spain last September!

It was November, and hadn't rained in Zamora for more than a year. Imagine my surprise when I took the bus only a few hours north to get immediately and thoroughly soaked. And I had a(nother) cold. But, as seen in this previous post, I didn't let those accidents of nature stop me.

After walking one kilometer, huffing and puffing, and being overwhelmed and thrilled with San Julián de los Prados, it was time to sit down in the nearest plaza and call a taxi. I was finally going to a place I'd always thought was in the middle of nowhere. All the photos I'd ever seen and the awe with which the buildings were described suggested they were hard to get to. As it turns out, Naranco Hill, home to two mega-important ninth-century monuments, is not even a suburb of Oviedo, capital city of Asturias. That said, it was probably two kilometers uphill, and in my weakened viral state, it was just as well I took a taxi so I could enjoy it more.

The first unique contribution to Asturian culture sits on the hill, visible from the city, just like any of the other houses on Naranco...

...but it is that rarest of architectural creatures, a medieval building for non-religious use! Even rarer, it's the most beloved example of what the Asturians call pre-Romanesque architecture. Named Santa Maria del Naranco hundreds of years after it was first built, it's survived in great condition!

Ramiro II (mid-ninth century) had this palace built with commanding views of the city below. To go inside, you must be accompanied at all times by a guide who gives an informative tour. The other Naranco monument (see below) is included in the ticket price.

This is the first building to successfully mount a vaulted ceiling made of stone. Previous vaulted ceilings were always made of wood, a much lighter proposition. But once an architect figures out a technique for stone, even a first creation can last well over one thousand years. Other clever architectural features abound here, and it's little wonder, as this palace was built expressly to host dignitaries and grandees from near and far for policy and diplomatic meetings--and parties. It wasn't a residential palace, but a place dedicated to making an impression. 

In this artist's rendition of what the palace looked like in Ramiro II's day, we're reminded that the walls were probably painted with bright colors and hung with tapestries, although some dignitaries would still have sat on the floor so as not to sit above the king. Pillows hadn't made it to this part of northern Spain before the ninth century. 


It has two arcaded porches that are so lovely, I can't understand why this style hasn't been imitated more often.

The decorations are subtle, uniform, and surprisingly influenced by the Middle East. I can't help but see the queen's taste reflected here. It was likely the queen's duty to make sure everyone had a good time, and such an important job required sophistication and education as well as instinct.

Here there used to be a balcony from which the king and his guests could contemplate that commanding view.

While the top floor was clearly for important meetings and government, the guide presented the bottom floor as more of a mystery. It looks like a crypt, but there are no burials.

It was probably a cellar. You needed to store a lot of wine to entertain that many dignitaries. The cellar also has a successful vaulted ceiling in stone. Trust me, this is impressive stuff!

A clever architectural trick: See how the arches are longer and narrower at the ends? When you're inside, it creates the illusion of great length.

Note the fine detailing in every element. Even the columns are carved to look like drapery.

When I have millions of dollars, I'll add some similar details to my writers' retreat castle/palace.

An altar was placed here a few hundred years later, when the palace was consecrated for religious use and given the name Santa Maria.

Is this blast from the past overwhelming your senses and imagination? We're not done yet. Just a bit farther up the hill, close enough for easy access by the king and his guests, we come upon San Miguel de Lillo. Again, photos gave me the impression that this building was in the middle of a field far from the madding crowd. It was a special pleasure to realize it's within easy reach of any able-bodied Oviedo-dweller.

San Miguel's floor plan is a lot smaller now than when it started out in the middle of the ninth century. It's probably one-third its original size after a collapse in the eleventh century. It gives the impression it's been squished in from the sides, but it's still precious and rare, one of only fifteen examples of Asturian pre-Romanesque architecture that survived the centuries.

They didn't let us take any pictures inside because too many people have been unable to follow the simple request not to use flash. Trust me, it's chock full of column capitals, column bases, and friezes that transport you to the ninth century, if you aren't there already.

In the doorway, a frieze depicting circus performers, influenced by Roman wall art via Byzantium, is unique because it's the only non-religious artwork that has been found in a church of this period.

Although not on the scale of San Julián de los Prados, there are some deteriorated paintings here that are the first depictions of the human form in Asturian wall art. They look similar to the people in mozarabic manuscripts and are probably a direct inheritance from Visigothic art.

They carved the jalousie windows out of one single block of sandstone each! A marvel of engineering and sculpture. This is a modern reproduction; the windows shown in the photos above with a plate of glass protecting them are originals.

In the Museum of Oviedo, this is a column base from the same era and in much the same style as the column bases in San Miguel de Lillo. I love the exotic look, reflecting the same taste as Santa Maria del Naranco.

Now that we've returned to the city center, it's a good opportunity to take a look at the last of the four monuments from Oviedo's first heyday. This fountain/well that supplied the city with clean water is the only public civil construction that survives from the ninth century. Although it was outside the city walls at the time, it's now mere steps away from the nightlife/cider district. Here you can see how the ground level has risen over 1100 years.

The engineers built Foncalada to take advantage of a natural spring.

Carvings include the Asturian cross with a blessing to protect the well: "This sign protects the pious. This sign defeats the enemy." I know I feel safer about Oviedo's water, reading that!

I saw many more exciting, unique things in Oviedo. It's impossible to exhaust its medieval wonders, and if you like cider, it's absolutely the place for you! But more will have to wait for another post.

My mother has been saving and engineering ways to make money ever since I told her I was going to live in Spain, and very soon, we'll be going on a Grand Tour together. I'll have to take yet another break from the blog, though this one is excusable. See you near the end of June!


Monday, April 2, 2018

Zamora's Medieval Treasures: Holy Week 2018

Easter Sunday in Zamora
Photo 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón
All year, I was puzzled as to why Spring Break here in Zamora occurs after Easter. The week before, Holy Week, is so full of activities, I thought, why wouldn't people focus on them rather than going to school? It turns out, they did just that, and now I fully understand: we all need this week of vacation to recover from Holy Week!

It was the best Easter of my life, unlike anything I've ever experienced. I got swept up immediately, after my first procession, to a degree I never would've expected. I didn't think I could love Zamora any more than I already did, but as I learned from my husband, love is infinite. My love for Zamora kept growing with the sense of community, the excitement, the beauty, and the deliciousness. 

Below, highlights of a mind-blowing week in pictures (click the F icons to go to the original posts) and videos (click play), and to conclude, a tempting look at some of the special foods of Zamoran Holy Week. As you'll see in the photos and videos, much of it has a strong medieval flair, so even though it happened this week, I'm counting it as a time-travel experience and one of Zamora's medieval treasures.

March 22 - Passion Thursday




March 23 - Friday of Sorrows


The first full, dressed up procession of Holy Week on the Friday of Sorrows takes the Cristo del Espiritu Santo, which is the oldest image to be taken out in procession, from the thirteenth century,  and therefore my favorite, from Espiritu Santo to the Cathedral and back again. Scroll to 15:45 to hear the wonderful chorus!



March 24 - Passion Saturday



March 25 - Palm Sunday




March 26 - Holy Monday




Elsewhere in Zamora, possibly the best vocal experience of Holy Week, the Brotherhood of the Christ of the Good Death sings "Jerusalem, Jerusalem" in the Plaza de Santa Lucia on Holy Monday night. Forward to -19:31 to listen.



March 27- Holy Tuesday



Elsewhere on Holy Tuesday: Christ of the Via Crucis and Our Lady of Esperanza meet and say farewell before continuing to their separate churches. Scroll to -11:11 for the big action.


March 28 - Holy Wednesday




March 29 - Holy Thursday




March 30 - Holy Friday




March 31 - Holy Saturday



April 1 - Easter Sunday




How can anyone keep going like this for more than a week? The answer lies at least partly in the food of Holy Week.

These beauties are aceitadas, roughly translated as "oilies." Crisp and toasty, a beautiful balance of sweet and hearty, with the welcome presence of the taste of olive oil, somehow never overwhelming, I had these cookies at school before vacation, at a friend's house while not gawking from the balcony, and finally bought this box at La Tahona del Pan on Amargura Street.

For years, I'd been hearing about torrijas, a special Easter food Spanish people look forward to all year. I looked all over Zamora for a bar or a bakery that could make them for me, but ended up having to use a recipe and make them at home. It's not a service-industry food. Easter Sunday, I had my special bread and the other ingredients, and drum roll please...

They're pretty much French toast. This bread had cinnamon and lemon juice already. I soaked the slices in milk (probably a way to moisten old, hard Spanish loaves), then bathed them in egg, and fried them up with olive oil, as you do in Spain, and they turned out delightful. Lots of pots and pans to wash for breakfast, though.

Finally, how does a Brother or Sister of the Congregation of Jesus the Nazarene hold up for six or seven hours of procession on the morning of Holy Friday starting at 5 a.m.? By taking a break at the Avenue of the Three Crosses that includes sopa de ajo (my favorite, wonderfully simple Castilian garlic soup) and something called dos y pingada, which sounds a lot like a cuss word. The dos are two eggs, and the pingada is rustic toasted bread and at least three different kinds of pork, to include ham, loin steak, chorizo, bacon, anything you can think of, depending on which restaurant you end up at. Everyone, even people not in that brotherhood, likes to get in on the dos y pingada action around Easter.

Here is the dos y pingada I ended up with at Cafe Brasilia on the Avenue of the Three Crosses: eggs, toast, ham, loin, and morcilla (black pudding). As emotionally drained as I was after watching the final procession on Easter Sunday, after eating this dish, I could've kept going for another week. 

I will never forget my first Holy Week. Thanks for coming along with me! 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Zamora's Medieval Treasures: Holy Week

The monument to the Merlú (an important Holy Week rite)
welcomes visitors to Zamora's Plaza Mayor.
Photo 2017 Jessica Knauss 
I was raised in the American secular/Protestant tradition, so when Spanish people ask me about Easter, I tell them it's a single day when we bite the ears off chocolate rabbits. (I briefly lament how unimportant Easter has become in Awash in Talent, Part III.) On the other hand, when I ask Zamorans about Easter, they usually launch into thirty minutes to an hour of rapturous memories and excitement for this year's processions, ceremonies, and music with strong recommendations about which events not to miss for any reason.

Zamorans participate in a mock funeral procession for the Burial of the
Sardine, Ash Wednesday. Absurdity to kick off Lent.
Photo 2018 Jessica Knauss 
This is the first time I will be in Spain for all of Semana Santa (Holy Week). (Yes, Easter lasts a lot longer than one day in Spain.) I was laid low by what I hope is my final bad cold of the year during Carnival, though I was able to see the Burial of the Sardine, the final nuttiness before the strict sobriety of Lent.

The Brotherhood of the Holy Burial was
founded in 1593.
Photo 2017 Jessica Knauss 
Honestly, Lent in Zamora hasn't seemed that dreary. It's at least partially because everyone's so stinkin' excited about Holy Week! I had to find out more about the origin and meaning of these celebrations! My research included talking to Zamorans, library books that are, for the most part, poems in praise of Holy Week, and a visit to the Holy Week Museum. This is how beloved this "week" is: Holy Week lasts more than one week! It begins on the Thursday before Palm Sunday, known as Passion Thursday, and continues through Easter, and I've even had some inklings that it might go on through the Monday or Tuesday after.

Processional crosses give me a strong medieval vibe.
All photos in the Holy Week Museum 2018 José Pablo Palencia Morchón 
In the Middle Ages, the Church sought out ways to get the message to the lay population. How could regular people take part in a text-based religion when hardly any of them could read? In northern Europe, Passion Plays and Mystery Plays took hold because the people put themselves in the holy roles. These traditions survived the Protestant Reformation because there are no images involved, only flesh-and-blood people acting as obvious proxies.

Redención by famous float sculptor Mariano Benlliure, 1931
Holy Week Museum 
In Spain, lay people get involved in reenacting scripture using the images--sculptures and crosses--in their churches. The first evidence we have of Holy Week in Zamora comes from a thirteenth-century text written by Alfonso X's brother indicating that Zamorans had a tradition of "making presentation of Our Lord" on Palm Sunday. What does this mean? It's likely they were already doing what they did yesterday, which was this year's Palm Sunday: carrying a beloved statue of Christ through the streets of Zamora. The first such processions might have been as simple as some of the iconography we see in Alfonso X's Cantigas de Santa María: a church official carrying a small image with few adornments, surrounded by clerics and laity, probably singing and dancing.

Christ of the Lagoon, 16th century
Holy Week Museum 
Enthusiasm spread rapidly, and by the fourteenth century, the first cofradías (brotherhoods) were founded. These societies, first formed according to medieval guild occupations, are associated with a church, or more specifically with one of a church's images. On the appropriate day of Holy Week, according to whether they have a Virgin of Sorrows, a Crucifixion, or any number of other saints or scenes, it's the brotherhood's responsibility to take their image out in procession, normally on an elaborate float. The oldest such float I saw in the Holy Week Museum is from 1522.


Gethsemane with realistic leaves that rustle in the breeze
Holy Week Museum
During the busiest days, several brotherhoods can undertake multiple processions at any and all times of day. Most processions leave from their home churches, but some leave from the Holy Week Museum where the float is on display.

The Last Supper, 20th century
Holy Week Museum 
The floats, mobile works of art, can portray any and all Biblical scenes having to do with the Passion, and can have anywhere from a single half-sized statue to a crowded life-sized Crucifixion with thieves, Romans, and Mary Magdalene, to a Last Supper complete with table settings for thirteen. There is usually plenty of room on the sides of the float for candle holders and bouquets of fresh flowers. Some floats have evolved special features such as crucified Christs with articulated arms so that they can be taken from the cross and placed in a tomb. The floats must balance decorative exuberance with the width of the church door and the narrowest street on their processional routes as well as weight distribution.

Underneath the float, neck pads for the float bearers
Holy Week Museum 
Weight distribution is important because the floats are carried on the necks of the brothers (cofrades--women can do it, too, in some brotherhoods). The role of float bearer involves physical strength and sacrifice as well as anonymity because the most spectators will see during the procession are their well-shined shoes.

My WTF face upon discovering that some floats travel on wheels
Holy Week Museum 
Given what I know about float bearers, and the penitent interpretation I gave them, I was disappointed to find, in the Holy Week Museum, that some floats move along on wheels.

The costume of each brotherhood stands next to its float in
the Holy Week Museum. 
There are always more brotherhood members outside the float to accompany it along the route. Here we come to the most potentially disturbing sights of Holy Week. While one Zamoran surmised that because the images are often covered in gore, they might frighten children from other countries such as the United States, I think it's the cloaks and headdresses the members wear that are sure to strike the wrong note with an unprepared American.

Costume of the Brotherhood of the True Cross
Holy Week Museum 
The idea behind the brotherhood costumes was that the members are marching in penitence. If people in the street could see who they were, it would be like bragging, literally taking a "holier than thou" attitude. Therefore, many of the brotherhoods use capes to cover recognizable clothing, and a hood that includes a cone to disguise the wearer's height. A certain radical group in the United States understood the advantages of anonymity as they carried out their acts of violence and hatred and appropriated the costume without permission. Holy Week celebrants all over Spain don't have to change their traditional costume because one notorious group in a foreign country uses it for evil. Even knowing all that, some of the costumes are hard to get used to.

This brotherhood's costume is based on shepherds' cloaks.
Holy Week Museum 
On the other hand, some brotherhoods use cloaks derived from their original occupations in the Middle Ages and early modern times. They often have intricate embroidery, and anyone could say they're gorgeous.

Holy Week Museum
Some special roles in the procession, such as carrying certain crosses, are so desirable that a brotherhood member must put his name down before he's even taken first communion and might be allowed to fulfill that role when he's in his forties or fifties.

Holy Week Museum 
These traditions appear to have survived intact since the thirteenth century. However, Holy Week fell into neglect during the nineteenth century because of a statewide expropriation of Church possessions. It made a spectacular comeback at the end of the nineteenth century because of organizations like Zamora's Pro-Holy Week Society. This society runs the Holy Week Museum and provides all kinds of other support for Zamora's most convivial week of the year.

Veronica at the Holy Week Museum 
King Felipe II (a serious dude who reigned 1556-1598) admonished the Bishop of Zamora against the way Holy Week was being carried out at the time: "There is great disorder in the churches during processions and young people go about with too much ease and disrespect... At the temple doors, in the streets and plazas where most people gather, they spread out delicacies on boards to break the fast... When they come to watch the night processions, some take advantage of the dark to commit dissolute evils, so that these are the days when God is most offended."

A shop displays its Holy Week wares. Note the folding seat
for when you're waiting hours and hours for a procession to come by.
Photo 2018 Jessica Knauss
In spite of the royal warning, and its modern somber appearance, this spirit of fun has carried through to present day Holy Week. Every Zamoran I spoke with thought of it as a time to get together with friends they've had since forever to eat, drink, sing, and have a lot of fun. My anecdotal evidence indicates that a majority hardly treats it as a religious event at all.

Buy your kiwis and get the scoop
on Holy Week happenings.
Photo 2018 Jessica Knauss 
Hundreds of years ago, the Church was highly successful in getting the lay public involved in Easter. Holy Week turned abstract concepts into tangible acts people could witness with their own eyes and even participate in. One solid sociological theory suggests that community is built through shared ritual. Even if it's lost most of its religious significance, these community bonds are stronger than ever after centuries of wild enthusiasm for these group efforts.

Another shop displays its Holy Week wares.
Photo 2018 Jessica Knauss
The most touching phenomenon I've discovered about Holy Week in Zamora (declared international touristic interest in 1986, UNESCO world immaterial cultural heritage in 2015) again has to do with its many brotherhoods. In other cities, rivalries spring up between brotherhoods and tint the "week" with a competitive (in my mind, negative) streak. In Zamora, no such rivalries exist. Many people are members of multiple brotherhoods. This would be impossible anywhere else, I'm convinced. I'm so proud to be in Zamora for Holy Week. It's sure to be unforgettable.

Recruitment poster for one brotherhood
at a Zamora bus stop
Photo 2018 Jessica Knauss 
Happy Easter!


Monday, March 19, 2018

Zamora's Medieval Treasures: Romantic Ruined Castrotorafe

The structures at Castrotorafe were made with red Zamoran bricks.
All photos in this post 2017 Jessica Knauss 
Castrotorafe's complex history highlights even further the sense of past glory evoked by contemplating its ruins. It's not just Castrotorafe Castle that's fallen into disrepair. The entire village was declared a ghost town as early as the seventeenth century.

The land had been settled since time immemorial, enjoying special prosperity during Roman times because of its position on the Silver Road between Mérida and Astorga. It's still a stop on one of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, and when I was there, our tour group spotted two lone pilgrims.

The Esla River, which has a history with another impressive monument, sustained human populations here for thousands of years.

Much of the town wall survives, giving an impression of a vast fenced-in territory.

In the twelfth century, Castrotorafe entered and fell out of royal favor, with the first documentary evidence granting a town charter. A later expropriation perhaps occurred as punishment after the people of Castrotorafe sided with Portuguese separatists.

The current castle was likely built by Don Juan, one of Alfonso X's sons, who declared himself King of León in spite of his brother Sancho's status as King of Castilla y León.


The town and its castle belonged at different times to the Order of Santiago and to various nobles, all of whom ended up disappointing their kings.


In 1475, the town was taken by forces against Isabel la Católica's rule. By promising Castrotorafe to the Mayor of Zamora, Isabel finally prevailed.

Castrotorafe's long history came to an end sometime after the wars of Castilian succession. In 1688, we find the first written notice that the town had been abandoned and was in need of repair.


In the nineteenth century, Napoleonic troops bothered to sack the church when they passed through. That's the last time Castrotorafe was sideswiped by history. Various organizations are trying to prevent further deterioration at the site, but in 2010, one of the castle towers fell.

The recent drought has created long swaths of dried-out ground cover, and Castrotorafe likely won't be suitable for picnicking without mouthfuls of dust until the rains return. Even more than Castillo de Alba, the ghost town of Castrotorafe evokes a distant past never to return.