Category Archives: Travel

Peru: Cusco

Cusco  is the historic capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th until the 16th-century Spanish conquest. It has become a major tourist destination, hosting nearly 2 million visitors a year and most of them seemed to be there when we were visiting.

Between the tourists and the people trying to make money from the tourists, it’s a busy kind of place and high at around 3,400m with a population of about 434,000 people.


The first cathedral built in Cusco is the Iglesia del Triunfo, built in 1539 on the foundations of the Palace of Viracocha Inca. Today, this church is an auxiliary chapel of the Cathedral.

The main basilica cathedral of the city was built between 1560 and 1664. The main material used was stone, which was extracted from nearby quarries, although some blocks of red granite were taken from the fortress of Saksaywaman.

This great cathedral presents late-Gothic, Baroque and plateresque interiors and has one of the most outstanding examples of colonial goldwork. Its carved wooden altars are also important.

The city developed a distinctive style of painting known as the “Cuzco School” and the cathedral houses a major collection of local artists of the time. The cathedral is known for a Cusco School painting of the Last Supper depicting Jesus and the twelve apostles feasting on guinea pig, a traditional Andean delicacy.

As always, one of the best places to wander around is the local market, in this case a covered market called San Pedro

From the locals grabbing a snack to the more intrepid tourists drinking the fruit juices.


For vegetarians there is always a kind of horrified fascination with the meat aisles.

The endless fruit and vegetables are always cheery.


Including just a few of the three thousand varieties of potatoes we kept being told about.

And some of the combinations were a bit tricky to fathom. Is this a cupboard for medicines or condiments? Arnica and vinegar?



Many many varieties of quinoa, and even more types of tea.

Mostly the stable holders were just going about their business. In general I ask if someone minds f I take their photo and occasionally people object – no one was worried about pictures of the stall though.

The flower aisle was beautiful of course. the wooden spoon stall slightly less so.

All in all it was a really good way to get a grip on the place as people live in it now, as compared to the museum of Museo de Arte Precolombino (Peru)   which gave lie to the Inca suggestion that before them the country had only had hordes of savages.

The Incas were superlative masons and excellent working with silver and gold as the displays showed.

Their decorations included necklaces and similar made from shells from the coast.

But any walk through the displays quickly shows the superlative work of cultures alive and well long before the Incas came to power.

And what strikes a modern viewer is how fresh, how modern and often how comical some of the work turns out to be.

It would be difficult not to enjoy the stylised animal forms of some of the pottery and sculptures.

And outside on the streets of Cuzco, the everyday mix of traditional and modern continues.

Plaza de Armas of Cusco

Peru: the Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo & Pisaq

The Sacred Valley of the Incas or the Urubamba Valley is a valley in the Andes of Peru, 20 kilometres (12 mi) at its closest north of the Inca capital of Cusco.

Peru: Sacred Valley overview

The valley, runs generally west to east, is understood to include everything along the Urubamba River between the town and Inca ruins at Pisaq westward to Machu Piccu, 100 kilometres (62 mi) distant. The Sacred Valley floor has elevations above sea level along the river ranging from 3,000 metres (9,800 ft) at Pisac to 2,050 metres (6,730 ft) at the Urubamba River below the citadel of Macchu Piccu.

So most tourists start their trip to Peru in the valley or even straight to Macchu Pichu which is relatively low in terms of altitude sickness.

Though as a Cuzcena pointed out, setting the Cuzco airport at right angles to the valley means every international tourist is obliged to fly into Lima and catch a second smaller plane to Cuzco, where most of them want to be. It was said with a degree of bitterness that’s hard to dispute. Given a choice, we wouldn’t have bothered with Lima, and it’s difficult to imagine any other tourist having a different view.


sacred valley

On both sides of the river, the mountains rise much higher, especially to the south where two prominent mountains overlook the valley: Sahuasiray, 5,818 metres (19,088 ft) and Veronica , 5,680 metres (18,640 ft) in elevation.

The glaciers of these mountains provide water for crops and for the supply of towns throughout the Valley, though as the world heats up, the glaciers seem to be on the retreat. The intensely cultivated valley floor is about 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) wide on average. Side valleys and agricultural terraces expand the cultivatable area, though many of the terraces are unused, either because they’re protected as part of a historic site, or because after the Spaniards the irrigation system broke down and can’t be reconstructed.

The Sacred Valley was the most important area for maize production in the heartland of the Inca Empire and access through the valley to tropical areas facilitated the import of products such as coca leaf and chile peppers to Cuzco.

The climate breaks into two seasons, wet (October – April) and dry  and monthly average temperatures range between 15.4 °C (59.7 °F) in November, the warmest month, to 12.2 °C (54.0 °F) in July, the coldest month. At this time of year, the sun rises at around 6am and sets around 6.30pm though it’s position at the equator means there’s probably only half an hour difference whatever the time of year. The difference in temperature between night and day is much more extreme. Waking early before sunrise and the temperatures outside were below zero. As soon as the sun came out (which was very quickly) the temperature rose to around 20C. So having been warned to take Winter clothes, we actually enjoyed a British Summer time (yes, it really is mostly 20-25C at the height of Summer here).

Our first trip from our hotel in the Valley was to the site at Ollantaytambo, mainly because as the furthest day trip from Cuzco, numbers are a lot lower in the morning.

Ollantaytambo is a town and an Inca archaeological site in southern Peru partway down the Sacred Valley, northwest of the city of Cusco.

Ollantaytambo from the terraces

Most importantly as a visitor from sea level, it is at an altitude of around 2,792 metres (9,160 ft) above sea level. During the Inca Empire, Ollantaytambo was the royal estate of Emperor Pacahuti who conquered the region, and comes up a lot in conversation with guides travelling the country. He built the town and a ceremonial center.

At the time of the Spanish Conquest, it served as a stronghold for Manco Inca Yupanqui, leader of the Inca resistance.

Nowadays,  it is an important tourist attraction on account of its Inca ruins and its location en route to one of the most common starting points for the four-day, three-night hike known as the Inca Trail. It’s where you’ll catch the train to Machu Pichu, if starting in the Valley.

View down towards Ollantaytambo town from Inca terraces

The main settlement at Ollantaytambo has an orthogonal layout with four longitudinal streets crossed by seven parallel streets. At the center of this grid, the Incas built a large plaza that may have been up to four blocks large; it was open to the east and surrounded by halls and other town blocks on its other three sides.  All blocks on the southern half of the town were built to the same design; each comprised two kancha, walled compounds with four one-room buildings around a central courtyard.

Ollantaytambo dates from the late 15th century and has some of the oldest continuously occupied dwellings in South America. Its layout and buildings have been altered to different degrees by later constructions, for instance, on the southern edge of the town an Inca esplanade with the original entrance to the town was rebuilt as a Plaza de Armas surrounded by colonial and republican buildings. The plaza at the center of the town also disappeared as several buildings were built over it in colonial times.

Traditional Peruvian Courtyard Ollantaytambo

‘Araqhama is a western part of the main settlement, across the Patakancha River; it features a large plaza, called Manyaraki, surrounded by constructions made out of adobe and semi-cut stones.

Traditional Peruvian House

And as a tourist town there are people willing to open up their courtyards and allow you total a look inside the walls. Each “house” consists of a single room with a mezzanine. Cooking is over an open fire with a hole in the roof to allow the smoke to escape.


Guinea Pigs traditional peruvian Snack

And the minute someone rattles a bunch of barley grass the ever-present guinea pigs rush towards the food. They’re obviously hugely picturesque, even when the guide points at the largest and fattest as next week’s likely lunch.


Family Skulls
Offerings for Luck

Towns along the main road have endless restaurants with ladies standing at the side waving rotisserie guinea pigs looking very like roast rats, in an attempt to lure people in for lunch – not tempted. But the house also includes a lot of totems or charms which are a bit gruesome and sit somewhat uneasily with the catholicism we were expecting, including lama foetuses (apparently very expensive), skulls from dead relatives etc.

These buildings have a much larger area than their counterparts in the main settlement, they also have very tall walls and oversized doors. To the south there are other structures, but smaller and built out of fieldstones. ‘Araqhama has been continuously occupied since Inca times, as evidenced by the Roman Catholic church on the eastern side of the plaza.

Ollantaytambo: grain Silos


And up on the hills above there are food stores where maize and dried potatoes would be put away in the good years for the expected  years of fallow during el nino etc. The potatoes at least look like the most unappetising, stones but in times of hunger they would fill you up and keep a family going. The Incas storehouses or qullqas were built out of out of fieldstones on the hills surrounding Ollantaytambo. Their location at high altitudes, where there is more wind and lower temperatures, defended their contents against decay. To enhance this effect, the Ollantaytambo qullqas feature ventilation systems. It is believed that they were used to store the production of the agricultural terraces built around the site. Grain would be poured in the windows on the uphill side of each building, then emptied out through the downhill side window.

Walkway down from the terraces
View doen to Ollanttaytambo
Ruins at the base of Ollantaytambo complex
Bath of the Princess Ollanttaytambo
Bath of the Princess Ollanttaytambo


To the north of Manyaraki there are several sanctuaries with carved stones, sculpted rock faces, and elaborate waterworks, they include the Templo de Agua and the Baño de la Ñusta. ‘Araqhama is bordered to the west by Cerro Bandolista, a steep hill on which the Incas built a ceremonial center. The part of the hill facing the town is occupied by the terraces of Pumatallis, framed on both flanks by rock outcrops.

Due to impressive character of these terraces, the Temple Hill is commonly known as the Fortress, but the main functions of this site were always religious. The main access to the ceremonial center is a series of stairways that climb to the top of the terrace complex. At this point, the site is divided into three main areas: the Middle sector, directly in front of the terraces; the Temple sector, to the south; and the Funerary sector, to the north.

Inca Stonework
Inca Stonework, Ollantaytambo
Inca Trapezoidal Door, Ollantaytambo

And it’s an excellent introduction to the incredible engineering and stonework of the Inca sites, with dry stone walls full of precision cut blocks and trapezoidal doorways (no arches). The Temple sector is built out of cut and fitted stones in contrast to the other two sectors of the Temple Hill which are made out of fieldstone. It is accessed via a stairway that ends on a terrace with a half finished gate and the Enclosure of the Ten Niches, a one-room building.

Ollantaytambo Walkway
Ollantaytambo terraces
Tourists on the Inca terraces, Ollantaytambo
Inca Terraces, Ollantaytambo

Behind them there is an open space which hosts the Platform of the Carved Seat and two unfinished monumental walls.  The main structure of the whole sector is the Sun Temple, an uncompleted building which features the Wall of the Six Monoliths. The Middle and Funerary sectors have several rectangular buildings, some of them with two floors; there are also several fountains in the Middle sector.


The valleys of the Urubamba and Patakancha rivers along Ollantaytambo are covered by an extensive set of agricultural terraces or andenes which start at the bottom of the valleys and climb up the surrounding hills. The andenes permitted farming on otherwise unusable terrain; they also allowed the Incas to take advantage of the different ecological zones created by variations in altitude. Terraces at Ollantaytambo were built to a higher standard than common Inca agricultural terraces, for instance, they have higher walls made of cut stones instead of rough fieldstones. This type of high-prestige terracing is also found in other Inca royal estates such as Chinchero, Pisaq and Yucay

View across the terraces Ollantaytambo
View across the terraces Ollantaytambo

View across the terraces Ollantaytambo

A set of sunken terraces start south of Ollantaytambo’s Plaza de Armas, stretching all the way to the Urubamba River. They are about 700 meters long, 60 meters wide and up to 15 meters below the level of surrounding terraces; due to their shape they are called Callejón, the Spanish word for alley. Land inside Callejón is protected from the wind by lateral walls which also absorb solar radiation during the day and release it during the night; this creates a microclimate zone 2 to 3°C warmer than the ground above it. These conditions allowed the Incas to grow species of plants native to lower altitudes that otherwise could not have flourished at this site.

Ollantaytambo terraces

View across the terraces Ollantaytambo
Ollantaytambo terraces
Ollantaytambo terraces

The unfinished structures at the Temple Hill and the numerous stone blocks that litter the site indicate that it was still undergoing construction at the time of its abandonment. Some of the blocks show evidences of having been removed from finished walls, which provides evidence that a major remodeling effort was also underway. It is unknown which event halted construction at the Temple Hill, likely candidates include a  war of succession, the Spanish Conquest of Peru and the retreat of Manco Inca from Ollantaytambo to Vilcabamba.

Ollantaytambo religious complex
Ollantaytambo tourist market
Waiting for the tourists

At almost the opposite end of the valley, much nearer to Cusco, lies the citadel of Pisaq which lies atop a hill at the entrance to the valley.

The ruins are separated along the ridge into four groups: P’isaqa, Inti Watana, Qalla Q’asa, and KinchiraqayInti Watana group includes the Temple of the Sun, baths, altars, water fountains, a ceremonial platform, and an inti watana, a volcanic outcrop carved into a “hitching post for the Sun” (or Inti).

Pisaq terraces

The angles of its base suggest that it served to define the changes of the seasons. Qalla Q’asa, which is built onto a natural spur and overlooks the valley, is known as the citadel.With military, religious, and agricultural structures, the site served at least a triple purpose. Researchers believe that Písac defended the southern entrance to the Sacred Valley, while Choquequirao defended the western entrance, and the fortress at  Ollantaytambo  the northern.

Inca Pisac controlled a route which connected the Inca Empire with the border of the rain forest. The Inca constructed agricultural terraces on the steep hillside, which are still in use today. They created the terraces by hauling richer topsoil by hand from the lower lands. The terraces enabled the production of surplus food, more than would normally be possible at altitudes as high as 11,000 fee

Pisaq burial niches
Pisaq vegetation

Peru: Callao, Lima

 So we flew in, stayed overnight at the airport hotel (just across a zebra crossing from the airport terminal) and on the way back from la Paz, were left with just 6 hours to kill, too short a time for the more traditional tourist neighbourhood of Miraflores.
& that is how we arrived on a walking (and lunching) tour of Callao.
callao-monumental-4The port district of Callao was founded in 1537 by Spanish colonists and quickly became the principle port for Spanish commerce in the Pacific. At the height of the Spanish Viceroyalty, almost all goods from Peru, Argentina and Bolivia bound for Spain passed through Callao, and then on to Panama before the Atlantic crossing.
It flourished in the 19th century, which saw the building of grand plazas and South America’s first railway. Its fortunes began to decline in the 20th century and historical monuments, such as the Real Felipe fortress, Plaza Grau and other architectural gems seemed destined for oblivion.

A sign on the streets of Callao reads, Del puñal al pincel (from dagger to paintbrush). A couple of years ago, few visitors to Peru would have set foot here.

More than just down-at-heel, this main port district of Lima was downright dangerous, notorious as a haunt of gangs smuggling cocaine worldwide.

From an era of economic boom and the affluence that comes with it, Callao had suffered progressive economic decline in the ensuing years. Basically the area became, and still shows more than a few signs of being a slum.

You would not choose to walk around it alone of a night. But projects like Callao Monumental are at least trying to bring regeneration and visitors to the area, so it’s a great time to visit the fresh and edgy district as part of any tailormade trip Peru.

Callao Monumental is an art project, showcasing some of the country’s best street art, contemporary galleries and artists. It showcases contemporary urban art, champions local artists and engages with the community through its outreach and regeneration work. The hero of the initiative is an Israeli. Roughly translating as shooting star, “Fugaz” is a private initiative by an Israeli businessman and art lover, which aims to restore Callao through art and culture, and offers locals an alternative to a life of theft and drug trafficking.

The transformation began with 18 artists, 15 walls and one fractured community. “We didn’t want the locals to feel like we were invading; we wanted them to join in. Especially as Callao is the only place in Lima where, when you die, a graffito of your face is painted on the grave,” Angie Pelosi from Fugaz told me.

The heart of the project is located in the historic Ronald Building, a covered market built by a British engineer, and renovated specifically for this project. It consists of six floors of independent restaurants, artesanal fabric boutiques, galleries and studio spaces for resident artists.

It provides a starting point, plus an opportunity for retail therapy, lunch or just a cup of coffee and sit down after a walk around the barrio.

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On the ground floor, you walk through an impressive arcade of galleries and boutiques. The high vaulted stained glass roof allows light to pour in and reflect off the white marble floors. Wondering up through the maze of hidden staircases and corridors you discover exhibitions of paintings, photography and installation art.

Interior of design store Balkanica, Callao.

On a busy Friday we came across resident artists at work, setting up for a photography exhibition, chatting with them about their work.


callao monumental

callao monumental


All six floors of the crumbling Casa Ronald, built in the early 20th century by English-educated financier Guillermo Ronald, with cathedral-high ceilings and marble columns, has been restored by Fugaz and transformed into an arts hub.
Elsewhere in Callao, independent galleries such as Evolución and Bufeo have opened, design stores including Lima Modern and Balkanica are moving in, and leading sculptor Victor Delfin has set up shop there.While artworks costing hundreds of dollars are aimed at the wealthy Limeños who are now discovering this formerly no-go barrio, the galleries all commit to working with the community and employing local people. Young chalacos work as guides and can attend creative workshops, life-coaching talks, Muay Thai classes for those that perform well at school and English lessons.

callao-monumental-6There is also a rooftop terrace, well worth a stop for the spectacular view of the surrounding area, including the harbour and the modern commercial port, the naval base and the historic Real Felipe fortress.At the weekends, when the community project tends to arrange more events, there’s a bar up there and sometimes live music – a great spot for a sun downer, taking in the view.

  • callao monumental
  • callao monumental
  • callao monumental
  • callao monumental
  • callao monumental

callao monumental

callao monumental

Murals by local and international street artists now grace the walls but that was only the beginning of the new face of Callao Monumental, the historic centre. Artists, businesspeople and chalacos, as Callao residents are called, have all got involved: they include grandmother Cristina, whose children are all in prison, and Luis, better known as El Padre, who takes in street children.

An exhibition inside Casa Ronald, an early 20th-century townhouse that has been restored as an arts hub


A mural painting with crouching figure in Callao, Lima

The change in Callao has been remarkable, with crime reported to have fallen dramatically. “I’ve noticed how people are coming together,” Pelosi says. “They’re starting to care about their community. Even the police have seen an improvement.”


Everyone warns you before travelling to Peru, sometimes a bit too enthusiastically, about altitude sickness. In fact our recent trip was quite well planned, skipping over Lima at sea level to the relatively low lying Machu Pichu (2430m) through the Sacred Valley around Ollantaytambo (2792m)  to Cuzco (3399m) and the heights of La Paz  (3640m) and Uyuni (3700m)

And once you arrive the advice is generally good and sensible stuff: take it easy, go slowly, drink lots of water, eat light foods only, don’t drink or smoke.

Even so, whilst walking along the flat becomes straightforward and downhill a breeze, even after two weeks anything more than a couple of steps up and we were all wiped out. Just rushing to get things ready in the morning could leave us panting for breath,

And they don’t warn you about the very basic impact of such dry air – your nose dries out making night time sleeping less pleasant than it could be. Your mouth and throat become very dry so you drink more and more. The UV light will burn easily and the bright light will persuade your brain that it should feel hot, whilst the wind actually keeps you quite cool. Vaseline on the nose and mouth isn’t a great look but was surprisingly practical.

But absolutely no one tells you about what it will feel like when you return to sea level, how wet the air will feel and how full of “stuff”

It was a good trip but I’m glad to be home, sleeping in my own bed. Mostly.

Cordoba Mezquita

The reason for visiting Cordoba is simple: the Mesquita, a cathedral built through the remains of one of the most beautiful mosques imaginable.

The construction of the Mosque began in 786 A.D. and enlargements were carried out by four different Umayyad Rulers.

The building is roughly rectangular, divided into a courtyard, also known as the Orange Courtyard, the old minaret, which was transformed into the bellfry tower of the Cathedral in the 17th century, and the prayer hall


The prayer hall is made up of more than 800 marble, jasper and granite columns, which supported around 400 horseshoe arches with arch-stones in two colours.


Above them, the mihrab impressed with all its splendour. It was built using marble, featuring stuccos and beautifully coloured Byzantine mosaics, contrasting with the gold background.

After the Christian conquest, the mosque continued little changed for around 500 years until the local bishop persuaded the Spanish king to allow it’s conversion into a more standard cathedral building.

You approach the mesquite through small white streets, skirting the walls to maximise the shade in the Summer. Originally the arches to the building would have been open to the city, allowing the breezes to cool down the interior and obviously allowing in much more light.

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The bell tower at one end of the courtyard would have called the faithful to prayer, originally through the voice of the muezzin and now to the sound of bells.


The courtyard is a very beautiful space, marked out from the centre of town as restful with no shops or hawkers to disturb the peace.
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We entered into darkness, with crowds as always centred on the doors in and out, but as we moved through the building the crowds fell away very quickly.


The columns really do give the impression of palm trees, of walking through a very plain stone forest.

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And slap bang in the middle of the still beauty, you find plonked down a cathedral, feeling entirely out of place.

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 The first Eucharistic ceremony of the Dedication of the Catedral was celebrated in 1236. The construction of Main Chapel, transept and Choir was initiated in 1523. It was built in Renaissance style and was designed by the architects Hernán Ruiz I, II and III, Diego de Praves and Juan de Ochoa. The impressive choir stalls around the High Altar were designed by Duque Cornejo. On both sides of the temple a number of Chapels are located, which were built to satisfy the desire of fervent Catholics to be buried in the Cathedral.
If this was intended to show some kind of brutalist triumph of Christianity over Islam, it fails.
The clash between the two styles, the simplistic plain columns of the mosque versus the renaissance opulence of the cathedral and statuary makes the cathedral seem overblown.
Bizarrely, it just doesn’t feel like a church no matter how many crucifixes are stashed away amongst the columns.
The glory of the mihrab makes the Christian altar seem blowsy and vulgar.
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The orientation of the mihrab, perpendicular to the altar makes the discord between the two building worse.
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The juxtaposition of the Christian and Islamic style of architecture, reinforces the pleasure of the original plain Islamic decor rather than the renaissance.
dsc_0322 dsc_0338Though it’s difficult to understand how or why the clash of the two styles should simply reinforce the usurping nature of the Christianity.
dsc_0339 dsc_0340It really is the most remarkable place.

Seville: Cathedral & Views

It’s hot in Seville, rising to 40C we were glad to find shades across the streets.

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In the middle of the day, people would walk from side to side trying to eke out the meagrely shade available.dsc_0204

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We made it through the older streets Las Ramblas, with it’s Jewish quarter, no longer any Jewish population to speak of.

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But the views into small courtyards were lovely, plus the horse carriage rides were very picturesque.dsc_0214

Also lots of small bars, usually decorated with bulls heads from the local arena.dsc_0215 dsc_0216

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The cathedral was astonishingly large, yet surprisingly difficult to find a decent view once inside since the church had made great efforts to break down the church into more workable, human shape.

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Attached to the cathedral is the minaret from the original mosque, which can be climbed (mostly ramp rather than stairs) to give really good views of the smallish city.

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But the first thing you see on the way in is a statue of Joseph holding Jesus, and then you suddenly realise how rare images of Jesus with His earthly father really are.


The gruesome art included a severed head of John the Baptist, which neatly introduced us to the Spanish gothic gore and drama.

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Amongst the grandeur of the arches are innumerable altars, some modest, some covered in gilt.dsc_0222

Some open and some closed away.dsc_0223 dsc_0224 dsc_0227

The glass was rather plain compared to the internal decoration.dsc_0228 dsc_0230

A display of church memorabilia was positioned at th beginning of the nave, interfering with the longest view thought the choir stalls to the main altar.dsc_0231 dsc_0232 dsc_0233

Picturesque in it’s way, but it made it difficult to gain a sense of the grandeur of the church when built, when it would have been gloriously unfurnished.dsc_0234 dsc_0235

Amongst everything else, one of the many tombs of Christopher Columbus could be found.dsc_0236 dsc_0237

And in the midst of the hurly burly of visitors, the reminder that for some this remains at heart a religious place.dsc_0238 dsc_0239 dsc_0240 dsc_0241

A short climb up the tower led to excellent views down towards the Alcazar palace and gardens.dsc_0243 dsc_0244

Across the city towards the bullring.dsc_0245 dsc_0247

Down last the square, Las Rambles to the right…dsc_0248

And down towards the river.

dsc_0249 dsc_0253 dsc_0254 dsc_0255Back down to ground, and we found ourselves in the courtyard with the orange trees, the original mosque’s site of ablutions prior to prayer. The cathedral is an astonishing place, not quite a pleasure, more of an experience.