Friday, December 31, 2010

Twelve Grapes till Midnight

OK, Hispanophiles – ready your grapes!

The first time I ever participated in the mysterious Spanish grape ritual was years ago with a group of people –whose names I have long forgot, since I had only met them a few hours earlier on the train – in the Puerta del Sol on what had to be the hottest New Year’s Eve on record.  Still, it was fun trying to cram our mouths with grapes or time their chewing appropriately.  Some people had brought peeled grapes, which I would say is the way to go if you really want efficiency.


This Spanish custom, which is now spreading throughout the Spanish speaking and even Anglo world – I’m sure I’ll see some folks here in St Augustine tonight chomping down on their grapes – actually originated in 1909 as a commercial promotion after a bumper grape harvest in Northern Spain.  It was obviously a “custom” waiting for its moment!

But whatever and wherever, ¡ Buen Año Nuevo! Happy 2011!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas–and ¡Turrón!

This has been a very silent Fall on Towers of Avila, since travels and a medical problem have kept me away from my desk. But now I’m back, just in time for Christmas…not, alas, Christmas in Spain this year, but Christmas nonetheless, with a few Spanish touches.

Anyone who has ever been to Spain at Christmastime will be familiar with turrón, the traditional honey nougat candy that comes in a wide (and growing) variety of styles and flavors. My favorite is the so-called “turrón de Alicante,” which is a simple, hard nougat studded with almonds and encased in papery wafers on either side.

But there are other people who love soft turrón, which is somewhat the texture of halvah (for you New Yorkers out there) and now comes in every flavor from coconut to tutti frutti.  The more somber early versions included yema, in the style of the egg-yolk candy popular in Avila, or chestnut or other nut-based delights.   Below you see my 2006 photo of blocks of soft turrón in the window of a shop in Madrid.  The brown block has glazed chestnuts on top; the golden brown block is yema quemada, where they have run it under a broiler or a salamander to caramelize the topping. And of course, there’s coconut and something pink, possibly a berry flavor.


At the top of the stack, you will see (not very well because of the reflection on the plastic wrap) a large, blue-eyed marzipan anguilla or eel. These are also traditional.  The slightly better photos below reveal that they are elaborately decorated. Marzipan figures are popular at all times of the year in Spain and are a very ancient sweet. They are particularly popular in this season, and in fact the eels appear only at Christmas.


But this year I was unable to get to Spain for Christmas, so I had to take emergency measures: I ordered some turrón and figuritas de mazapán from the on-line Spanish food supplier La Tienda.  They are made by the company 1880, a very respectable large commercial producer. While their products are obviously not going to be exactly like the ones you might buy from that beautiful little shop not far from the Puerta del Sol, they’re quite good. I got a box of turrón and a box of figuritas, although of course it contained nothing as elaborate as the eel and runs more to stars and geometric shapes. But turrón is turrón, and now I really feel that I can get into the Christmas spirit.


¡Felices Navidades a todos!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Aviles Street – in 1572

Because of a street-widening and improvement project, the City Archaeologist, Carl Halbirt, has been able to dig extensively in Aviles Street ( a long-held ambition of his).  So far, we’ve found supporting posts of the west wall of the original parish church, Los Remedios, an exciting find because the few early maps that remain aren’t laid out in a way that makes it possible to determine the exact location of the buildings displayed on them.  Below, we see Carl digging the trench where we found one of the post holes.

Nuestra Señora de los Remedios was built in 1572, burned by Drake in 1586, rebuilt and then partially destroyed by another fire in 1699. At that point, the parish moved to the church of La Soledad on what is now St George Street, and what remained of Los Remedios was destroyed in 1702.  It was a wooden building, oriented east-west with the altar on the west end.  It may have had some form of apse, although we’re not sure about that yet.

IMGP0041 Over the weekend, we found human remains. It has long been known that there were burials under the old church floor, and in fact it was even possible to open a little door in the floor and look down on them in one of the old tourist attractions. However, this burial was either under the altar or parallel to it, head to the north, which was unlike the other burials. Furthermore, the body had been disinterred, and all that we found were bones from the feet and possibly hands, that is, extremities that probably fell off or were accidentally left behind when they disinterred the body. 

The identity of the person is a mystery. He was probably buried at the time that the first church was built, and possibly disturbed when church was rebuilt after Drake’s raid and then moved when the parish moved.  It must have been someone who was important to the early Spanish community, since the other bodies were left buried at the location of Los Remedios.  We can see the outline of the grave in which he was buried (the Spanish at that time in St Augustine generally buried people in shrouds and not in coffins), we have a few fragments of bone, and beyond that we know nothing. Because of the location of the burial, it is possible that this was one of the early priests of the St Augustine parish church, and in the photo above, we see city officials, archaeologists an the current pastor of the Cathedral examining the remains of what he referred to as “possibly one of his predecessors.”

The bones will be examined by the University of Florida and then reburied.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Bread, the Staff of Life - Madrid Style - at Panedería Harina

I just listened to a great interview on Esradio with Carmen Baudin, one of the people behind Harina in Madrid.  Harina (which means “flour”) is a bakery-coffee shop that serves everything from breakfast through snacks and light meals, as well as retail breads and rolls, and is located at Plaza de la Independencia 10 in Madrid, near the Puerta de Alcalá, El Retiro, etc.  They don’t have an alcohol license, for various bureaucratic reasons, but you can bring your own wine if your lunch is not complete without it.

The breads sound wonderful – and in my opinion, Spanish breads are among the best in the world and are an undiscovered treasure for non-Spaniards – and what is also neat is their beautiful blog, Madrid Tiene Miga.   “Tener miga” means there’s something about it, there’s a point there, there’s something to it. Here are some baguettes from the website…


In any case, if you go to the site, you can get recipes, great photos, and – if you’re a baker like me – talk about bread and get tips from enthusiasts.  The next time I pass through Madrid, I know where I’m going!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Museo Arqueológico Nacional - Spain's Archeological Record

I was going through the photos on my cell phone and I came across some pictures I had "sneaked" at the National Archeological Museum in Madrid.  The first photo shows the exterior: as you can see, it less than imposing because it is behind a barrier of construction trucks and fences.  Reconstruction of the exterior and interior started some time ago, and most of the building is not open to the public. I'm not sure when they expect to finish it or if perhaps the work has been affected by Spain's financial crisis.

The collections are, of course, also closed and packed away.  However, the musuem set out a very nice five-room exhibit of particular treasures from its various collections, and it's still worth a trip even if you won't get to see every last sphinx and stele ever found.

Here we see a couple of things that are in the proto-history room.  The first is a rather snooty looking sphinx-like creature is known as the Bicha de Balazote. It was found in Balazote, which is in Albacete. Bicha (bug or critter, as we'd say here) is a corruption of the French word biche, meaning female deer or doe, but it certainly doesn't look like either. The figure is limestone, and is thought to date to the 6th century BC. Its origin is unclear, although it may have a Greek influence.

The next is an imposing pile that was probably part of a temple of some kind, also from the 6th century BC.  You can't see it very clearly here, but there are interesting carvings on it.  It was found in Aragon.

While there is not a huge amount to be seen in this currently limited exhibit, it spans millennia and reminds one yet again how long the Iberian peninsula has been inhabited and the vast number of peoples that have swept over it during those scores of centuries.  The museum's webpage has more information about the exhibt, and there is also a detailed description of each of the items  (you have to burrow down several levels to get to it).

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Corpus Christi in Madrid

Yesterday, Sunday, was the celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi.  The traditional date was actually the Thursday preceding, but for some reason the city kept that date (suspending certain parking rules, for example), while the Church moved it to Sunday.

In any case, there were several days of masses and a large vigil the night before, and then there was the day itself. There was an outdoor mass in front of the Palacio Real. In the photo, you see the banners of the various cofradías and organizations that led  the procession.

DSCN3308 The custodia, or monstrance, is mounted on an elaborate platform on a carriage; in the past, it was probably carried or drawn by hand, but now it seemed to have some form of automotion of its own and glided along the route.  We followed, amidst the sound of the bells from the Cathedral, the military band in front, and bursts of unpredictable song. It took nearly three hours to shuffle up the hill to the Puerta del Sol and then back to the plaza in front of La Almudena.



People had laid floral carpets in the street. Unfortunately, I didn´t get a photo of any of them before they had been stepped on, but this will give you an idea.  Spearmint was included among the flowers, so they were fragrant when stepped on.


We got back to the Plaza and there was Benediction. Madrid is like New York, a secretly devout city that  likes to really express it when the right moment arrives.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Archeology and the Crown

Another nice museum exhibit! This one is at the Palacio Real in Madrid (I´m back in Madrid) and is definitely worth seeing. It tells the story of the involvement of the various Spanish kings, mostly in the 18th century, with the development and encouragement of archeology, both here in Spain and in the New World.
Carlos III and Carlos IV were very important in the latter.  It is for this reason that there is a statue of Carlos IV in the Zocalo in Mexico City: he was instrumental in founding their Academy of Fine Arts (named San Carlos) and in promoting the arts in Nueva España.
Part of the reign of Carlos III occurred during St Augustine´s 20 year British period,  and we were on our way to becoming a territory during part of the reign of Carlos IV, so we probably were less affected by their activities than other parts of the New World.  It is recorded that we did manage to celebrate the birth of Carlos IV with a pageant and many festivities.  Had the British not intervened, we might have had somewhat of a flowering of our own in St Augustine, although of course we were such a tiny colony that it probably wouldn´t have been on a very spectacular level.
In any case, it is interesting to see how the Spanish crown, at that point the Bourbon dynasty, encouraged the intellectual and cultural life of the colonies.  While things went downhill for them in the 19th century,  the Bourbon kings were 18th century Enlightenment intellectuals who pursued their own research projects and also encouraged other scholars, particularly among artists and the higher clergy.

Museo Alfercam – Truly Unique!

A brief mention in conversation with an avilesino (resident of Avilés) took me to the Museo Alfercam, a curious collection of cars, motorcycles and…musical instruments.
It was founded a couple of years ago by two brothers, Alberto and Fernando Campelo, one of whom collected musical instruments and the other of whom collected automotive vehicles, ranging from Model T Fords and elegant 1930s Rolls Royce sedans to WWII motorbikes.
DSCN3083 There are more than 400 musical instruments, grouped by the regions of the world from which they come, with a sound track that plays when you enter each room. There are also posts where you can get more information and hear the individual instruments, and the same is true of the automotive vehicles.
It´s located in a residential district of Avilés and is truly worth a visit.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés – in Avilés

I´m in our sister city, Avilés, right now, and here are a few photos of our founder and first governor, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. 

Menéndez landed in Florida on September 8, 1565. He was born in Avilés, in the house below, which is now the city´s School of Ceramics, training young people in the great Asturian ceramics tradition. 


Menéndez wanted to search for his son, who had been lost on a journey exploring the Caribbean, and Felipe II permitted him to mount an expedition if he would also go to Florida to establish a permanent Spanish base there are make sure that the territory, already claimed by Spain, was not seized by the French or the British. 

He did so and remained in Florida for several years,  returning to Spain when Philip called him back to be the commander of the Armada that was preparing to set forth for the north. Unfortunately, Pedro Menéndez died of typhoid before this could happen. We have to wonder how history would have been different if he had lived; Menéndez was a phenomenally good seaman and would probably not have set forth at that time of year and lost the fleet, but instead would have waited for a better time to attack. In any case, Menéndez died in 1574, and is now buried in the Franciscan church in Avilés in this stone casket up in a niche in the wall  near the altar.

DSCN3051 There is a plaque next to the sarcophagus given by the City of Avilés, which gave a duplicate to St. Augustine. The plaque was lost for many years, but finally turned up again and is now at the base of St. Augustine´s statue of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. But here is his statue in Avilés, in the plaza named for him.



Thursday, May 27, 2010

Asturias, España Húmeda



This picture was taken from the train window as we passed through the foothills of the Picos de Europa on my way to Avilés.  This part of Spain, as you can see, is very green.  It rains a lot here, which it was actually doing at that moment, but you don´t get green without rain.

I´ll be in Avilés, a coastal city west of Gijón,  for the next few days and will be providing a full report.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Looking for La Leche

I’m about to set off for Spain once again, and one of my minor projects will be searching for Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto, the title of a Virgin who was the object of great devotion in St Augustine in its early days and whose shrine is still here, attracting visitors from all over the country who come here to pray for safe childbirth.  The devotion arrived here in the late 16th or early 17th century; it originated in Madrid in the 16th century and was very popular there at that time.

Originally, we seem to have had a figure of La Leche that probably looked like the original in Madrid, but it was stolen and destroyed by the English from Charleston in the 18th century when they destroyed the ermita during one of their attacks.  It was replaced by a painting that is now in Campeche, Mexico, and the statue we have at the Shrine is a modern statue made in Germany and added shortly after the building was restored in the 1930s. The ermita has been destroyed several times, not only by the British, but by natural forces such as hurricanes, and has consequently has been rebuilt several times.

In any case, the question is what the original figure looked like.  In this case, too, the figure has ceased to exist. The devotion had been housed in the Iglesia de San Luis in Madrid, but the church was seized, profaned and destroyed by the Communists during the Spanish Civil War, and the figure is thought to have perished at that time. Again, there was a painting (source unknown to me) that was received by the Parroquia del Carmen, a nearby church in downtown Madrid, and became the new object of devotion until sometime later in the 20th century, when it also was stolen. 

So one of the objects of my trip is to find out what I can about the original figure and the original devotion so that this also can be contributed to the modern devotion and to the history of St Augustine.  Anyone who knows anything about this is more than welcome to contact me!  In the meantime, here’s a photo of our current La Leche, after last night’s May crowning.


Friday, April 23, 2010

Capilla and Catedral

I’ve been doing some research into things that existed in the modern Cathedral of St Augustine before the fire in 1887 and the remodeling of 1965.
chapel003 I've been trying to identify various features of the main altar and the side altars and I happened to notice something interesting today on a trip to visit the Fort, the Castillo de San Marcos. If you look at the photo above (from the Florida Memory Project), you will see that there is a sort of painted backdrop that served as an altar piece behind the main altar of the Cathedral. This photo was probably taken shortly after the Civil War. We know that it was taken before the fire in 1887, at least, and there are some other photographs that seem to show some odd 19th century additions probably made in the years just before the fire, so I think this is the earliest.
I suspect that this is the original 18th-century painted backdrop for the altar or at any rate is very close to the original. As we know, the Cathedral was built as the main parish church in 1797. It was designed mostly by a military engineer named Mariano de la Roque, who had been brought to St. Augustine to work on the fort, the Castillo de San Marcos.
chapel002 Notice the painted columns and urns at the top of the "altarpiece." Now take a look at the doorway to the chapel at the Castillo. This was also designed by Mariano de la Roque. 
It looks to me as if he or a later architect responsible for artistic design at the parish church (now the Cathedral) based the design of the altarpiece on the design of the doorway by Mariano de la Roque.  We know that he left St Augustine before the building was finished, so it is possible that this was done by his successor; or it is possible that it was part of his original design and was simply executed later, when the Cathedral was built. While it was formally dedicated in 1797, reports at the time indicate that it was not entirely complete, although I am not sure what was lacking.
In any case, I thought this would be an interesting view of Spanish New World neoclassical architecture and design.  Needless to say, the modern altarpiece looks nothing like this.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Spanish Military Hospital Museum

For years, I ignored the Spanish Military Hospital because of the rather hokey looking “ghost tours” that depart from the front of the Museum at  night and wend their way down Aviles Street by lantern-light. However, I’m forced to admit that I misjudged it.


The original hospital was built during the Second Spanish Period and the current building, a reconstruction, is designed to look as the building did in 1791.  It has either authentic period pieces or excellent reconstructions of the 18th century beds, tables, and implements. There are a few 18th century art works, such as the rather deteriorated crucifix in the main ward, shown in the blurry photo above, which is from Brazil and dates to 1713.  The guided tour discusses such things as surgical techniques (ugh!), medicines (ugh again!) and the daily life of the sick and wounded soldiers and their attendants.   Here we see the surgical – and dental! – tools they used.


Below we see a bed that was reserved for the dying; a table is provided for the things the priest brings with him on his sick call. Over the bed is a painting of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, giving the scapular to St Simon Stock while a soul dressed in white kneels, throwing off her chains, indicating the belief that the scapular speeded the release of souls from Purgatory.


The Spanish were far advanced medically by European standards, and the survival rate for patients was about 75%; by contrast, British and French hospitals of the period had a survival rate about half of that.  Doctors were licensed and studied for about 10-15 years before receiving their license. While medicines and knowledge of such things as the germ theory of disease were limited, the Spanish stressed cleanliness, fresh air, and good food.  Doctors washed their hands before and after seeing patients, for example. And the patients got hot chocolate every evening!

It’s a very interesting site and highly recommended if you’re visiting St Augustine.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Digging Up Our Spanish Past

I have been silent for several months as the result of a death in the family, but now it is time to start up again and resume our conversation on things Spanish.

Here in St Augustine, the weather has improved and it’s time for us to get back to our search for our past.

In this photo, a member of the St Augustine Archeological Association stands in front of the dig in the Plaza.  Behind him is our monument to the Constitution – the Spanish Constitution of 1812, “La Pepa.”  We have found traces of a large First Spanish Period structure, possibly the government building, in this area.

Next week, we begin digging on Aviles St, originally known as Calle del Hospital because of the military hospital located on the street.  We expect to find traces of the original parish church, Los Remedios, burned by the British in 1702, or at least parts of the burial ground that surrounded it.  More information will follow!IMG00330-20100324-1009