Tuesday, June 15, 2004

SPAIN Day04//02.May.04 - Tolerance & Toros: Toledo & Madrid

From Granada, we took a long drive up north towards Toledo, and I watched the Spanish plains gave way to pine trees and rocky terrain of the Sierra Nevada as the altitude increases. (A bit of trivia, Madrid is 1000 feet above sea level and is the highest European city altitude-wise). It'll be close to lunch time before we arrive at Toledo.

When I was a child, like any other, I was fed on a diet of beautiful princesses, gallant knights and spired-castles and treacherous moats. While it clearly lacked princesses and knights in shining armours, Toledo enchanted all of us who came off the coach for a photo stop upon arriving at this medieval city. The kings of yesteryears have taken advantage of this piece of elevated land that is encircled by the Tagus river to form the seat of power i.e. the capital of Spain before it was moved to Madrid by King Ferdinand. One can almost imagine the king of Spain overlooking his denizens from the balcony of his castle as they bustle about in this prosperous city. Although, that was many years ago, Toledo still retains its fairy-like quality as it is considered a UNESCO heritage site. Therefore, any renovation can only be done after officers from UNESCO has made their inspections and met their approval. I think that's a brilliant idea. How else can all these historical sites retain their charm and splendor without governance from man's voracious appetite for development?

We left our vantage point for lunch at a local restaurant. The food wasn't particularly memorable, what I remembered of that restaurant was being serenaded by four men dressed in navy blue conquistador outfits. I think it's not a faithful reproduction. I expect to see Shakesperean ruffles round their necks instead of collars. They were strumming classical guitars and slapping on the tambourine and then trying to sell us CDs. I wonder if UNESCO would have approved?

After lunch, we met up with our local guide. He brought us walking about the narrow streets with intriguing names like Calle del Diablo (Street of the Devil) and Calle del Infierno (Street of Hell), pointing out squares where Jews, Muslims and Christians used to trade peacefully side by side. An almost unheard of scenario these days, but such display of tolerance was how Toledo earned its name as the City of Tolerance. From that market square, we were led to a grander one, delineated by architectural symbols of religion, politics and judiciary. I noticed the prevalent emblem of a two-headed eagle on most buildings, and asked the guide about it. He explained that it was Toledo city's coat of arms, donated from a king's own coat of arms, after realising that Toledo had none. We went to the church next and viewed a painting by 'El Greco', this painting was famous because it depicted a burial ceremony aided by angels that happened in that very church.

Toledo's status of a capital, and tolerance for all creed, encouraged the influx of foreign immigrants from the south. Most of them are from Damascus (in Syria), and with them, they brought Damascenean art. Damascene means to decorate (metal) by etching or inlaying especially with gold or silver. We were later brought to a factory where we witness the custodian of this ancient artform as he dexterously used gold thread to decorate the surface of a piece. Not only skilled in the art of damascene, Toledo has may skilled artisans specialising in making swords and armory. Silversmiths used to craft these weapons of death for the kings, knights and soldiers who fought to protect Toledo and to conquer lands afar. Nowadays, they peddle these swords for tourists who fancy swinging the Excalibur, or even owning a whole set of weapons from the cast of Lord of The Rings.

I experienced a ring of another kind, two hours later after leaving Toledo for Madrid. A bullring. My first ever authentic, bloodthristy, gory bullfights. As it was the first fight ever for that season, we were caught up in a jam heading towards Plaza de Torros, built in 1921, its red-bricked walls and arches indicative of the Mudejar style. From afar, I could see three flags billowing from this huge building that can seat up to 25,000. At first, I thought that I would only be watching one bullfight. Turns out that a ticket will buy you six bullfights, each lasting up to approximately 20 minutes. As glad as I am that I'm experiencing a cultural event intrinsic to Spain, I couldn't help cringing at the events that unfold. First, the master of ceremony would be holding a placard with the bull's vital stats: its weight and where its from, for all to see. Then out comes the matador and his band of assistants. There are three tercios (stages) to the corrida (bullfight). The first one, tercio de varas, the matador is aided by his peones (assistants) and picadores (horsemen with lances). In the tercio de banderillas, banderilleros thrust pairs of colourful darts into the bulls back. By then, the back of the bull would be weakened and covered with blood. I sat and watched men in tight sequinned outfits with colourful banderilleros in both hands danced gingerly around a bull before raising their arms high up and aiming it into the bull. As though, that alone wasn't enough, the picadores will stab the bull repeatedly with their lances when the bull charges at their armoured (and no doubt frightened) horses. These acts served to weaken the bull, before the tercio de muleta, where the matador will make a series of passes at the bull with his signature red muleta (cape). He then ends the bull's misery by aiming for the bull's heart through the back with his estocada (sword). Before the bull falls to the ground, the peones will attract the bull's attention and make it turn left and right until it collapses while spurting blood to the ground. After the kill, three horses trotting in a series would enter the bullring and drag the dead bull away while the matador, waving to the crowd, makes his celebratory catwalk round the ring. If the crowd approves of the matador's style and execution, they will be seen waving a white hankerchief or tissue.

Out of the six bullfights, I sat through only three, partly because it was raining down on us, and because I don't particularly derive any pleasure from seeing animals being tortured to death. I tried to console myself with the fact that these creatures did not die in vain, as I'm told that they would be immediately slaughtered and taken to specialty restaurants. I was glad that our dinner was not at one of those restaurants. That night, after the fight, we had dinner at a Chinese restaurant. For once, I am I glad that Chinese are practical when it comes to slaughtering livestocks, no pomp and ceremony required!


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