Santiago Pilgrimage

I was up on the bridge of the National Geographic Explorer early today. It was 6:30 am and the half-moon was painting a bright path on the dark sea, all of it soon erased by the rising sun. We were heading almost straight east, in the Bay of Biscay, towards the lightening orange glow on the misty horizon. It’s the last day and we should be to Bilbao by the afternoon. Yesterday it was Santiago da Compostella, the famous site of medieval pilgrimage. Of modern pilgrimage too, it seems, as there were thousands of people there, continuing the tradition. There were scraggy loners suitably disheveled with their walking sticks and tattered backpacks, but more numerous were groups of young people with slick aluminum walking poles and the latest gear. They would celebrate their arrival with group photos in the main square with their colorful backpacks in a rainbow pile beside them.  The old part of town is great, with stone buildings of tan granite, cafes and squares, and a set of stone covered markets; fish, vegetables, fruits, meat and cheese… a separate market for each. The Romanesque church is a wonder, despite its baroque accretions. I caught the end of a Mass and the sound of the organ music was suitably transcendental. Since I’m working, I’m always taking pictures on the fly, but did have a half hour for a coffee at a sidewalk café. Just inside was a mother with her beautiful little girl, who was playing with her mum’s i-phone. I took the picture above through the window and liked the tender moment playing out through the reflections and distortions of the glass. I liked that they wore the same striped shirts.

The Alhambra, Granada

We left early from the port of Motril with the sun dissipating thin clouds that had settled on the coast the previous night. We took our busses through the spring countryside, winding through the mountains to the charming and fabled city of Granada, where we began our walking tour of the Alhambra, the legendary Moorish palace complex situated on a striking promontory above the city. We began with a walk through the Generalife Gardens, which were resplendent with blooms. The most striking were the irises; great bunches of them clustered along the paths, with wisteria hanging heavily from trellises. Adding to the rainbow of colors were the flowering Judas trees.

We entered the fortified complex of the Alhambra by one of its gates and visited the Palace of Charles V, a great sixteenth-century block of a building with grand portals and an oval shaped courtyard in the center, open to the sky, with two monumental stories of columned arcades all around, like the Roman coliseum turned inside out. When we entered the Muslim buildings it was a vivid contrast in architectural styles. The Alhambra had a more human scale and was decorated with elegant non-figural designs, where Charles’ palace decorations were all about war, dominion and the aspirations of empire.

Built in the middle ages by the Nasrid sultans, few structures so eloquently evoke the sense of the luxury of the Andalusian Muslim court. The Alhambra’s walls were covered with colored tiles and stucco-work in complex designs of Arabic calligraphy, geometric designs, and arabesques. The ceilings were remarkable, one made of tens of thousands of pieces of cedar wood arranged in elaborate star-shaped motifs, symbolic of heaven. The elegant facades of the courtyards were reflected in placid pools of water, so still that they mirrored the buildings perfectly. The quality of light was warm and rich, perfect for photography.

The Court of the Lions was the most impressive of all, even while being the smallest of the courtyards. Dozens of slender marble columns carried graceful arches dripping with multi-faceted ‘stalactite’ moldings or ‘muquarnas’. Mute remnants of the colored paints that decorated some of the stucco designs still clung to the facets, giving an indication of former radiance.

I visited the chapel that houses the tombs of Spanish royalty, including the sepulchers of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, the patrons of Christopher Columbus and the monarchs who finally conquered Granada, Spain’s last Muslim outpost, in the late fifteenth century, making the Iberian peninsula fully in Christian hands once again. Like the famous sigh of the last ‘moor’ of Spain, we departed this wonderful and storied town back to the comfort of the Explorer and set off for the Pillars of Hercules: Gibraltar.

The Explorer

I’m happy to be aboard the National Geographic Explorer; it’s a wonderful ship with a great crew. I’m writing this as we’re rolling in heavy seas as we go through the Straits of Gibraltar with waves about ten feet tall. This picture I took when I first boarded the ship in Cadiz. Hopefully there will be more sunny days. I wish I could post more picture galleries, but the internet capacity on the ship is limited, so the images may have to wait until I get to Istanbul April 13th. Be patient everyone!

Super Seville, Spain

It would be hard to overstate the charms of Seville, the lovely Andalusian town on the Guadaquivir River in Spain. I spent the day exploring the old town, parts of which are still flanked by the 12th century Muslim-period walls. It’s Easter weekend and the religious processions are in full swing, with all of the Sevillian confraternities competing with each other to carry around elaborate–and heavy–floats with religious scenes on them. Some weigh thousands of pounds. Ever wonder where the KKK got the idea for their robes and the tall conical hats? From these religious brotherhoods. Today I saw a group with forest green robes with hats about four feet high. Here’s a short video I took of them on YouTube. The city is in full bloom with orange blossoms, Judas trees, jacarandas, and wisteria in full glory. Check out my Seville Scenes slideshow .

The highlight was the Plaza Espana with its riot of tile work. The old city was filled with tourists but still a pleasure to walk through. I met a priest from Toledo who was trying out his new digital camera and exhibiting less than saintly patience with his new machine. I told him I was from Canada and he spent the next five minutes trying to pronounce ‘Saskatchewan’. He was unable to do it, but it was great entertainment to listen to him try. I met a family of Indians from Calcutta who now reside in Dusseldorf. Lovely people.

I started the day at 4:00 am in Madrid, caught a flight at 7:00 here with many from the Lindblad/National Geographic group. We begin in earnest tomorrow. As I was walking around and took pictures today with my staff shirt with the NG logo, I heard an American girl say to her friends “He’s a National Geographic photographer!” I’ll have to milk that for all it’s worth.

Seals in Carpinteria


There’s a colony of about 100 seals, with lots of pups, near Carpinteria. I visited there the other day near sunset and was rewarded with a wonderful view. They like this little cove because even at low tides the headlands keep people away. I watched a great documentary on the ocean and on the life and work of Sylvia Earle, it’s called Mission Blue after her alliance for the protection of our seas. Visit the Mission Blue website to learn more about the film, which is on Netflix streaming, and the work that Sylvia Earle and her institute is doing.


A Walk in Wilder Ranch, Santa Cruz

Went for a great walk along the sea cliffs at Wilder Ranch, just north of Santa Cruz. One of my favorite places near where I’ve been living these past couple of months.