Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Tooting His Horn

As most of you know, most bears are connoisseurs of fine art and, at the risk of tooting my own horn, I'm no exception. While most bears go in for naturalism, I find myself drawn to surrealism - a taste perhaps developed during my international fashion model days in Paris and Madrid.

So imagine my surprise when my bipedal attendants and I chanced upon a sculpture of Salvador Dalí's smack dab in the middle of a traffic circle not far from where we live.

The town of Puerto Banús doesn't have much to recommend itself unless you're a stinking rich jet setter looking for a place to tie up your yacht - and since I'm now a freelance Goodwill Ambassador, that's no longer an option for me. Besides, I've left those hedonistic days behind me. Puerto Banús was only "built" in 1970 by a close friend of Generalissimo Franco and its grand opening was attended by a Who's Who of celebs: Roman Polanski, the Aga Khan, Hugh Hefner, and Prince Ranier and Princess Grace of Monaco. And of course me. If memory serves, Julio Iglesias sang that night.

Anyway, the rhino. Four years ago, the 3-ton rhinoceros - known officially as Rinoceronte vestido con puntillas (Rhino dressed in lace) - found its way to a traffic circle entering town thanks to the generosity of Lorenzo Sanz, the former president of Real Madrid Football Club. He donated it to commemorate the 100th year anniversary of Dalí's birth. I confess that the rhino's "lace" was a little rough on my back side - which of course was bare. (Bear humour.) In any case, inspired by one of his own surrealist films as well as a painting by Veneer ("The Lace Maker"), Dalí created the sculpture back in 1956 and the one in Puerto Banús is only one of eight in the whole world.

I confess that visiting the rhino up close was a bit of a challenge. The traffic that careens around the circle is heavy and a couple of times I thought that Eternal Hibernation was only a moment away. Then I realized that a lot of people were slowing down because they recognized me. I almost got beaned by a passing car when I went over to say hi to the King of Saudi Arabia! Afterwards, what with the weaving in and out of traffic and near death experience, I had to calm my nerves with a nice little cocktail on the beach. It was a pretty tough day although great art and a fruity cocktail (or two) can really revive a bear's spirits.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Puerto of the Sigh of GB

"Give something to the poor blind man, because there’s nothing crueler in life than to be blind in Granada" ...

In 1489 Ferdinand & Isabella - in their bid to take back Spain from the Moors - besieged the city of Granada after the Moorish king Boabdil (or Abu Abdullah) understandably refused to surrender it. Boabdil eventually lost and was exiled with his family to the Alpujarras area to the south of Granada past the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Legend has it that as the royal party left Granada, they stopped at a rocky mountain pass some 865 metres high, from which they could have one final glimpse of Granada, their former citadel. The spot (that's me above) is now known as the puerto or 'pass' of el último suspiro del Moro, 'the Moor's Last Sigh', because looking loving back at the Alhambra, Boabdil burst into tears, earning this rebuke from his mother: "You do well to weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man!"

Ouch. Nice mother. I bet Boabdil didn't send her a Mother's Day card!

I would have wept too and made a bear-sized sigh if the Alhambra had belonged to me and then I had lost it. The Alhambra or 'Red Fort' (Al Qal'a al-Hamra) was the residence of Granada's Moorish kings, and work began on the complex in the 9th century - when it was a simple fort - and completed in the 14th century - when it became 'the ruby set above [the hill]'.

The Moorish part of the Alhambra can be divided into 3 major areas: the Palacios Nazaríes (named after the Nasrid Moorish Dynasty), the Palace gardens of the Generalife (Jannat al-'Arif, or "Garden of the Architect"), and the Alcazaba (the 11th century fortress). There is also a Renaissance palace of Carlos V smack dab in the middle of it.

The Nasrid Palace is undoubtedly the most beautiful complex in the Alhambra. With its intricate stucco work and tiled chambers, apartments, baths & harem, its myrtle-edged pools (me above) and geometric domed ceilings, it is a living testament to the skills of its architects.

The rooms of the palace are decorated with swirling
Arabic calligraphy, and in the Hall of the Ambassadors - with its inscription, "I am the heart of the palace" - Boabdil signed the city's surrender. The writer Washington Irving - of Sleepy Hollow fame - was a diplomat attached to the American legation in Spain and set up a study in one of the Nasrid Palace's abandoned rooms. From there he wrote the romantic Tales from the Alhambra, which would not only awaken interest in the site but encourage the government to finally restore it.

Near the Palace is the Alcazaba (or 'citadel'), which first saw light in the 11th century but was finished a few hundred years later. It has 13 fortified towers, including the Torre de la Vela (right) which gives visitors excellent views of the Daro River and Granada's green valleys.

One of my favourite places in the Alhambra - mainly because I can hide from autograph hounds in its sculpted gardens - is the Generalife. The Muslim view of paradise is a lush, leafy shaded garden to be enjoyed by "the fortunate ones" and the Generalife comes pretty close to that ideal. So private is it that the Sultana Zoraya used to meet her lover who was the chief from another clan in one of the walled gardens. It did not have a happy ending.

Once a summer palace for the Nasrid rules - famous for its long pool, framed by flowerbeds, its fountains, cypresses, colonnades pavilions and belvederes - it is believed to be one of the oldest surviving Moorish gardens in the world.

Sticking out like a bit of a sore thumb is the Palace of Carlos V - an unfinished palace which was begun in 1526 by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. He is considered to be the first true king of Spain because he ruled over both Castile and Aragon. After he commissioned the palace, he left Granada and seemed to have forgotten all about it - I bet Boabdil never forgot about the Alhambra! Nevertheless, the palace is an excellent example of Renaissance architecture and it is the only work left to us by Pedro Machuca who was a student of Michelangelo.

The ceiling to the colonnade (right) was only built in the 1960's - until then all those columns just jutted into the air. Its central courtyard used to be used for bullfights, which makes me very unhappy because bullfighting is just mean and cruel. Just like bear-baiting.

You're probably wondering how I know so much about the Alhambra. To be honest, yesterday marked my 4th visit to the site. I was there in 2000 two times, because one of my bipedal attendants lost her ticket to the Nasrid Palace (tickets are strictly time-stamped for the palace), and we had to return the next morning.
In 2005, I visited the 'Red Fort' with my other bipedal attendant and his bipedal attendant-in-law who, better organized than her daughter, didn't lose he
r ticket.

And now yesterday. Of course, being such a repository of information and being so cute, I was drawing crowds of people who thought that I was an official tour guide but then when they recognized me - Oi vey! - it was back to the sheltered gardens of the Generalife for a little peace and quiet.

The Alhambra is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most visited sites in the world. I think the millions of people who visit the Alhambra every year pretty much vindicate Boabdil. And I know this comment isn't worthy of a freelance Goodwill Ambassador but ... his mother was such a bitch!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Fishy Business

Before I made my mark as an international fashion model, I was a poor starving albeit photogenic bear (with high cheekbones and excellent posture) just learning the ropes on the catwalks of Paris. And while I was in Paris, I learned the expression chacun à son goût which roughly translates as "everyone has their own taste" or "one man's meat is another man's poison." I used to think that this was an expression cooked up by Parisians to account for their taste in snails and frog legs but today I learned that not accounting for taste is both universal and ancient.

How so?

This morning, my bipedal attendants and I went to visit the ruins of the Roman town of Baelo Claudio, located about located 22 kilometres outside of Tarifa on the Atlantic coast of Spain. Baelo Claudio began life as a base for North African trade in the 2nd century b.c.e. but, as a processing town for garum, had its heyday during the reign of Emperor Claudius (41 - 45 c.e.). Garum was a food condiment as well as a natural cure-all (e.g., dog bites, dysentery, and ulcers) which the ancient Romans were absolutely crazy about. It was made in Baelo Claudio by the gallons, sloshed into amphorae and then shipped around the Roman world - which, bear(!) in mind was pretty large.

Garum is made from the crushed decomposing guts, heads, tails, roe and blood of fish which have been pickled in open pots under the hot sun for several weeks in brine. Often vinegar, wine and herbs are added. The highest quality - the Grey Poupon of the fish sauce world - was made from mackerel, while the Heinz ketchup variety was made from tuna. It was reputed to have a mild taste but it was so whiffy to produce that garum had to be made outside areas of human habitation. And I used to think that corned beef and cabbage smelled! (Well, it does.)

Some people have likened garum to Worcestershire sauce but I can't really comment because, as a vegetarian bear, I've never had Worcestershire sauce because it has anchovies in it. Needless to say, Bloody Mary's are not my tipple of choice.

The ruins at Baelo Claudio offer the visitor a glimpse at a typical Roman city. There is a circular city wall, a large main gate, administrative and judicial buildings (including a curia for the local senate and a basilica or courthouse), a public archive, forum, and temples to Jupiter, Juno, Minerva and to the Egyptian goddess Isis.

There are also small shops, a market place, a theatre, three aqueducts, and even public baths. After a day in the fish vats, I'd want a nice soak too. Preferably with bath salts rather than pickling salts. At the edge of the town is the "industrial park" where you can see what's left of the garum tanks, the aqueduct which serviced them, and a sewer system.

For fun, Romans liked to pit bears against other wild animals as well as gladiators - the Emperor Commodus is reputed to have murdered 100 bears by his own hand in just one day! - so I was very much relieved not to have found an arena at Baelo Claudio. If there had been - well, let's just say that as a freelance Goodwill Ambassador, that would have been quite the test to my professionalism.

Of course, we weren't the only ones there today and I had to hide behind my fair share of columns to avoid being recognized. I hope the fact that I had to duck under the cordons and sprint past the prohibido pasar signs didn't annoy the guards too much - those signs and barriers certainly didn't stop a couple of tour groups from climbing over to take photos.

The ancient town lies very close to the coast of the Atlantic, and what with the seemingly unending white sand beaches & dunes, turquoise water, and perfect surfing winds, it's an amazing spot to sit and watch the kite surfers and think about life as it was 2,100 years ago. Over the years, Baelo Claudio was besieged by a tidal wave, earthquakes and even Barbary pirates, and its inhabitants finally called it a day in the 6th century c.e. But if you can find that spot away from autograph hounds (like behind a column), block out the tour guides (you can spot by them by their togas), and sit very still you can almost smell the garum. And although the French may say, chacun à son goût - this is a good place to remember that the Romans said it first, de gustibus non est disputandum. Because when in Rome ...