Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Bear & Castle(s)

I suppose that "The Bear & Castle(s)" sounds a little bit like a British pub but in reality it describes a Sunday drive through the Spanish countryside with my bipedal attendants and a few bear chums. I still can't get used to the idea of being able to jump in a car and spend the afternoon castle-crawling. Most bears prefer to spend long, lazy Andalucían Sundays lounging by the pool, playing shuffleboard, and drinking Russian Bears (click here for recipe) and Polar Bears (click here). Both are excellent cocktails!

Our first castle is (sort of) found in the nearby town of Castellar de la Frontera. Castellar is a little odd because it's really two, two, two towns in one and you have to go through the first to get to the second. A little over 30 years ago, inhabitants of the hill top town (where the castle is) were moved down river to a "new town" by the Spanish government. The relocation didn't go very well and soon some of the original inhabitants started moving back to the top of the hill. Unfortunately, they found that many of their homes - which now have historical value - were bought up by affluent Germans-cum-hippies.

The two groups don't get along terribly well. I thought that, as a
freelance Good Will Ambassador, I might be able to open a meaningful dialogue between these two groups and bring some harmony into this hilltop village. Unfortunately, the Spaniards seemed more keen on eking out a living and the Germans of turning the castle into a parador hotel. And run medieval flea markets.

I can understand why the government wanted to resettle the Castellarians (I just made that word up): the drive up up up and down down down the hill was a little nerve-wracking. The road - barely (bearly!) one lane wide - twisted and turned around hairpin turns and up blind crests and I must confess that, at one point, I thought that one of my bipedal attendants had messed her pants. The fact that you also have to avoid VW campers and trailers (I did say they were German) parked along one side of the road and certain death on the other didn't help too much.

On the summit of the hill looms the
13th century Moorish castle within whose walls is nestled the original village. This tiny village - redolent of jasmine and orange blossom - is a living labyrinth of winding lanes and whitewashed houses decorated with flowers and ceramics. There's also a lot of dog poop. They don't mention it in the guide books but I think visitors should know about these things. I believe that my bipedal attendants sent ahead a press release announcing my visit because one resident kindly left out 3 bear-size chairs for us (see above right). That's me (left), Manny (centre) and Blund (right). Their presence helped keep many autograph hounds away that day.

You can't actually go into the castle proper which was a bit of a disappointment but you can peek through the windows and look at the hotel fixtures gathering dust.

Our secon
d castle that afternoon was about 20 minutes away in Jimena de la Frontera - another traditional hill village with rows of whitewashed houses lining very steep and narrow, cobbled streets. You approach the 13th century castle (yes, another one!) through the actual town and although the drive up is a bit tricky, it wasn't so bad that it made you wonder if your will was up to date. (Mine is - all my money is going to help rescue moon bears in China. I hope that my bipedal attendants aren't counting on a big windfall.) At least there weren't any near misses in anyone's underpants this time.

The castle, which was built on an earlier Roman site (there is a Roman inscription at the entrance dated to 151 C.E.), is approached through the Islamic horseshoe-triple gateway (below). You can explore as much as you like within the castle grounds and visit the towering castle keep and the ruins of vaulted underground water cisterns. The views from the battlements are breathtaking and you can see
olive, oak and chestnut trees - bears are always on the look out for nuts - in the valleys below and on a clear day you can see Gibraltar and the Moroccan coastline.

The town itself is very picturesque and pretty quiet - and is becoming more and more a feeder town for Gibraltarians - but on Easter Sunday there is a feria and an encierro (bull run). Fortunately there were no enraged bulls racing along its serpentine streets looking for drunk knobs to spear with their horns on the day we were there. But if there had been any, I would have cheered the bulls on!

Monday, May 19, 2008

A Bear and His Oasis

"... an oasis in a busy world"

As a freelance Good Will Ambassador, I make it a point of honour when I travel to stay in fairly modest accommodations. For one thing, I had my fair share of 5 star (and higher) hotels in my international fashion model days and I'm also concerned about propriety (or at least the appearance of propriety), and I just don't think that people - even philanthropists- should flaunt their wealth unnecessarily. Besides, I am a freelance Good Will Ambassador and my bipedal attendants are a bit of a drain on my finances, so I have to count my pennies.

I decided that my bipedal attendants - who have both been fighting virulent colds for the past 2 weeks - could use a little R & R, so I took them to the Rock hotel in Gib for some much needed pampering. Built 76 years ago by the Marquis of Bute, the hotel still has that old-world charm of a bygone era. Two years earlier, he built the El Minzah Hotel in Tangier. He did have a knack for creating stunning hotels.

Amazingly, all the rooms at the Rock - which itself is nestled into the side of "the rock" enjoy fabulous views across the Bay of Gibraltar, the mainland of Spain and Morocco's Rif Mountains. The views were certainly conducive to sitting on the balcony and enjoying a glass of sherry or scotch - which were provided, compliments of the hotel.
I was really pleased with the luxurious bathrobes supplied in our room because there's nothing a bear likes more than a soak in a tub. Except maybe a long snooze in a cave.

The Rock also graciously ensures that a family of ducks (well, rubber duckies) resides in every bathroom so it made my bath time especially fun. But that may have had more to do with the sherry. And the scotch.

Many famous people have stayed at the Rock, including Sir Winston Churchill, Sean Connery, and the Two Ronnies! My bipedal attendants had to explain to me who the Two Ronnies were but I don't think their style of comedy really jives with Bear Humour. In any case, you can ask to see the guest book but it's very old (well, 76 years old) and you have to be very careful with it. If you do ask for it, you can see my paw print. Yes, Abdelaziz our waiter recognized me!

In turns out that booking rooms at The Rock was a stroke of brilliance because the health and spirits of my bipedal attendants revived greatly. They especially enjoyed drinks and lunch on the wisteria covered terrace of the Barbary Bar where they dreamed of being rich and be able to indulge in such luxuries as a way of life. You can also take a full English tea with cucumber sandwiches, scones and teacakes there but, well, they had John Smiths on draught so there was little chance that the bipedal attendants would be drinking tea.

Unfortunately, the disadvantage of little perks like a weekend at a grand colonial hotel is that it leaves people with a taste for more. *Sigh* I remember when warm chocolate chip cookies from the bakery at Marks and Spencers (on Main street in Gib) was a big enough treat for my bipedal attendants. They can be so trying! One of them even stole some of the hotel's stationery and I actually had to put my paw down when it came to taking the ducks!

If I do take them back to the Rock - and they've already begun whining and dropping hints - I'll have to remember to book directly from the hotel website. Rates are almost 50% less if rooms are booked online. Not that I'm cheap or that my bipedal attendants don't deserve it - but like I said earlier, as a freelance Goodwill Ambassador, I have to count my pennies. Not all of us are Angelina Jolie.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Grey Bear in a White Village

As you probably know, many bears are agnostic and consequently we don't like to take sides in religious debates. Having said that, those of us who are more spiritually inclined like to keep things close to home and worship at the altars of the two Celtic bear goddesses Andarta and Artio. Personally, I'm drawn to Hinduism which would make me a yogi bear. That's a little bear humour.

Constitutionally, Spain is a secular country but its history was shaped by, among other things, the Roman Catholic church.
Visit any town, city, or village here and you'll be face to face with the splendours of Catholicism as well as its less salubrious side. But in my role as freelance Good Will Ambassador, I prefer to think about the more positive bits. At least today.

Last weekend, my bipedal attendants and I took a road trip to the pueblo blanco (white town) of Arcos de la Frontera. The grandson of Noah (who remembered to bring two bears aboard his ark) is claimed to be Arcos' founder but I think that's just
a local legend. The Romans were definitely there. And for over two centuries (1011-1264), the precarious hilltop town was a taifa (a Muslim-ruled principality) but was retaken by the Christian king Alfonso the Wise (opposed to Alfonso the Brave or Alfonso the Magnanimous) in the 13th century. The town once again became Christian.

Although there are many churches in town, there are two which demand your attention: the Mudejar basilica of Santa María de la Asunción (top left & right) and the Gothic Parroquia of San Pedro (bottom left).

Santa María dates from the 15th century and was built over an earlier mosque. Historically, Christians and Muslims like to do that sort of thing: build their own places of worship and palaces on the smoking ruins of their predecessors' places of worship and palaces. But I don't want to say anymore because bears don't like to take sides in religious debates. Santa María's original bell tower was destroyed in the earthquake of 1755 which flattened Lisbon. Work was begun on a new bell tower but the "new" one remains unfinished. After only 3 years of reconstruction, the money ran out. The one thing I learned from my days as an international fashion model is to always retain a good accountant.

The ch
urch of San Pedro was built in the 16th century on top of a - wait for it - a Moorish fortress. Unlike Santa María which was closed for renovations, we were able to visit San Pedro. There are two leathery undecomposed bodies on display which had been found in local Roman catacombs. Their outfits were quite nice (I know, always the fashion model!) but these tableaux were a little grisly (not grizzly). They're touted to be saints but I think they only received saint-status because of the condition of their bodies. I don't know what the secret to their peaches and cream complexion is but it just shows you how important a good moisturizer is.

Many years ago a rivalry for supremacy developed between the two parishes of Santa María and San Pedro. The congregation of San Pedro refused to say the phrase "Maria, mother of God" in their prayers, using instead "the divine shepherdess" or "Saint Peter, mother of God" in their prayers. Saint Peter, mother of God? My how silly religion can be. Santa María eventually won the God War when, in 1764, a decree of the Holy Tribune in Rome gave it major parish status. I think the two parishes have since made up.

There were many many things to see in Arcos - convents (inclu
ding a closed convent whose silent nuns sell cookies through a revolving window), palaces, mansions, a Jesuit house, and of course other churches. There's also a castle (see right) which started out as an Arab fortress but after it was seized it was converted into a palace for the Duke of Arcos. Now it's owned by a private individual and is pretty much out of bounds to the public. I could hear a TV playing from behind the massive door I'm sitting in front of. I don't know what they were watching because it would have been rude of me to peek through the keyhole - although one of my bipedal attendants sneaked a peak. Some people.

We decided to leave shortly after lunch because bus tours were pouring into the casco antiguo (old town) and I find that camera wielding tourists often don't make a distinction between my former international fashion model days and my current role as Freelance Goodwill ambas
sador. Sometimes I feel so conflicted about my celebrity.

What I like about the town is that in spite of the church's attempt to erase all traces of its former Muslim conquerors, glimpses of Islamic architecture, gardens, tilework, iconography, art and culture can be seen everywhere. At least it's pretty obvious to me. I guess that makes me a Raider of the Lost Arcos.