holy toledo!

Toledo Puente de San Martin

I expected Toledo to be full of holes. Or I expected it to be completely and utterly Toledo. I don’t know exactly where the phrase originates from but ‘Holy Toledo!’ is one of those American exclamations you don’t hear very often now, and is often confused with all the various ‘Holy’ exclamations used by Robin in the Batman TV series of the 1960s. Those I think were derived from ‘Holy Toledo’. Oh hold on, this just in, Toledo was a very holy city historically in Spain. There is a big cathedral there after all. There is a Toledo in Ohio, and if you say ‘Ohio Toledo’ quickly it sounds a bit like ‘Holy Toledo’ but no, no it doesn’t really. I think it has some relevance to baseball announcers, “Holy Toledo, what a hit!” or similar. So with all that on my mind, we got on a train from Madrid, and we went to Toledo.

I think ‘Hilly Toledo’ is a more accurate phrase. That place was full of steep streets and winding narrow alleys. We arrived and jumped onto one of those open top tour buses outside the station, not a cheap ride, but it went all around the edge of the town for all the amazing views over this well-contained citadel perched on a hill in a bend of the Tagus river. It is a beautiful sight, a medieval city preserved in all its old Castilian glory. The droning voice on the headphones told us about the Moors, and the old Visigothic Kings, and how Toledo was the ‘City of the Three Cultures’ for its blend of Muslim, Jewish and Christian populations, and lots of other interesting facts presented in a dull, sleepy way. I mimicked it which was not too hard as I too am dull and sleepy. Well, in real life perhaps, but when I was an open-top-bus tour guide in London I was much more animated about presenting history. One of the spots I liked most was the Puente de San Martin, above, a 14th century stone bridge. I sketched it from a bus stop on the other side of the river while waiting for the tour bus to pick us up again after I had literally flown across the Tagus…more on that later. Not too far from here is a church where the great El Greco painting ‘The Burial of the Count of Orgaz‘ is displayed. El Greco, the great painter of the Spanish Renaissance, lived in Toledo. El Greco wasn’t of course his real name, he was just called that because he was Greek. A bit like Nick The Greek from Lock Stock, I suppose. Anyway it was very impressive.

Toledo Don Quixote

Also associated with Toledo are two things – steel, and Don Quixote. You see him everywhere. You also see shops selling knives and swords everywhere, often with a figure of don Quixote outside, or maybe a knight in armour. I mean, a LOT of knife shops. They must love cutting things there. We were waiting for a tour of the cathedral, and while I was waiting I decided to do a quick sketch of the Don Quixote at the knife store next to us. He looked like a surprised Count Dooku, like when Dooku had his hands cut off by Anakin Skywalker and Chancellor Palpatine said “Kill him, Anakin. Kill him now.” After about 30 seconds of sketching a woman who worked in the store came out and looked at me quickly before going back inside. She came back out a minute later and said I couldn’t sketch there because people wouldn’t be able to see the knives in the window. There was a massive window next to me full of knives. She said I could come in and draw the other Dooku – I mean, Don Quixote – inside the shop, but I was like, I will be sketching for maybe another 30 seconds and can also just step back one step if standing here is bothering you. Bear in mind there were lots of other people standing there waiting for the tour to start as well, none of them were holding a sketchbook so none of them got asked to move. And before you knew it, I was done. It’s almost like I have written a book about drawing people quickly or something.

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Next, we took a tour of Toledo Cathedral. That place was amazing! So many ornate details inside. Our tour guide was giving us a lot of the history, but he was speaking in English and Spanish simultaneously, switching language several times in the same sentence, which was starting to get a little distracting. My son was getting a bit antsy as well, so we left my wife on the tour and went off to do a bit of sketching. Just in pencil, I wanted to sketch fast and I had intended on adding paint, but never got around to it. My son drew the same scene below. Not every day we get to sketch a massive historic cathedral together!

IMG_8086 There was no way I was going to tackle sketching all the ornate sculpture of this place. Look at the shot below, with the light coming in from the ceiling. This place was amazing.

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I did draw outside though. We had a little bit of time before we needed to get back to the train so we took that time to grab a Pepsi Max and sit in the shade, resting our legs, while I drew the cathedral. I couldn’t get too far though, so drew the outline and about half of the details, the important ones – I added the rest along with the colour later.
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This is the Toledo train station, which I sketched while waiting for our Madrid-bound train.

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And below, here am I ‘flying’ over the river. I ziplined across thanks to a company called ‘Fly Toledo‘ which operates a zipline near the San Martin bridge. That was exciting. I had to walk the equipment back over the bridge afterwards but I got a photo of me posing at the end as if in mid flight. I suppose at that point I could have, like all the other photos, appeared to be more of a daredevil and had my hands free but I’m not a daredevil am I. It was the first time I had ziplined since I was 17, so yeah, not really a daredevil. It was exciting though. (Photo by Fly Toledo)

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We didn’t have time to go to Segovia on our Madrid trip, but that is the other day excursion I would have liked to do. Not only because it is another beautiful historic and of course Roman town, but also because it sounds like that place in Avengers that Ultron lifted into the sky and threw back to the ground. Next time perhaps!

out and about in madrid

Mercado San Miguel Madrid

Not far from where we were staying in Madrid was the Mercado San Miguel. This covered market – well, more like a food hall – was chock full of fresh food and drink to buy and enjoy in a very Madrid atmosphere. We came here a few times for tapas, churros, sangria, but I decided it needed sketching so late one evening when the family went to bed I came across the street, got a sangria and some olives stuffed with mussels, and sketched the bustling gourmet mercado before going home at midnight. The red sangria was delicious. There were lots of tourists there, Americans dragging their sleepy teenaged kids around to experience late-night Spanish culture, some groups of English men on more sensible weekenders than the ones down at the Costa Brava, young ladies sampling Spanish wine and desserts, and occasionally a few locals too, I guess, or maybe visitors from other parts of Spain. I wasn’t really paying much attention to all the people and their conversations, I was looking at the ironwork on the ceiling. I did really enjoy this place, though it is very self-contained and not as large or diverse as the big market in Barcelona that I sketched in 2003. However it was a nice taste of Madrid, literally.

Palacio Cristal

Above is the Palacio Cristal, located in the Parque Dell Buen Retiro, the expansive green space in the heart of the city. We spent an afternoon wandering about here, among the trees and lawns, and we sat for a while by this lovely old building. This might have been my favourite part of Madrid. I sometimes forget in my rush to see big exciting urban wonders that I actually love great urban parks more than anything. I always loved Hyde Park, Regents Park, Central Park in New York of course. Buen Retiro (“Pleasant Retreat”) is exactly that, and dotted with great structures such as this, the Palacio Cristal. This was built in 1887 by Ricardo Velázquez Bosco, possibly inspired by Paxton’s great Crystal Palace in London. Unlike that one, this palace was never relocated to a southern suburb to become the name of a football team and then burn down, and it still sits pretty among the greenery today. I sketched it while we took a break from all the walking. There was a pretty steep street to enter the park, Calle Claudio Moyano, lined with second-hand book stalls and the occasional cold drinks spot, so by the time we reached the middle of the park our feet needed a rest. Well my son’s didn’t, he wanted to kick a ball around but had left it at the apartment. So, we drew this.

Atocha Station Madrid

Speaking of greenery, this is the Atocha train station, in Madrid. We went there to catch a train to Toledo, and were then delayed by the fact you need to wait in a long line to buy a ticket to Toledo. More like Delayed-oh. Sorry, that was a bad pun, even for me. So, it gave me time to do a sketch of the incredible botanical garden they have inside the main atrium. This was also one of the stations where the awful terrorist attacks of 2004 took place, killing 193 people. The legacy of that atrocity is still visible in the fact that to board a train in Spain, or at least the ones we boarded, you need to go through security and have bags x-rayed.

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Here are some Madrid people, sketched while we lunched on pizza outside the Museo Reina Sofía. We spent all morning in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, yet barely scratched the surface of this large art gallery. I was there first and foremost to see Guernica, Picasso’s huge classic, which paints the horrors of an aerial bombardment of a small Basque city by German planes late in the Spanish Civil War. It’s been one of my favourite paintings since I was at school, so to finally see it for real in all its vast, immersive terror was quite an experience. It was accompanied by lots of Picasso’s preparatory sketches, and other paintings by him and by other artists around the time that led up to and influenced this masterpiece. There was a whole section on the art of the Spanish Civil War. That is one conflict I feel I have never really understood properly. It’s always been talked about, written about, painted about, but its legacy lived on right through the end of Franco and probably beyond. Being in Madrid for the first time, I felt a sense of urgency that I need to educate myself about this civil war and about the people of Spain, which I think is a much more complicated country historically than many non-Spanish people know. So, I need to start doing some reading. If our trip to the Reina Sofía has done anything it has made me resolve to learn more. The other thing I enjoyed about the Reina Sofía was the abundance of works by that other great cubist, Juan Gris. I used to love Juan Gris when I was an A-Level art student, I did a project on him and we all went to see an exhibition of his work at Whitechapel. My favourite thing about him though was all the jokes I could use with his name, all really based on either being Hungry or Angry. As I repeated quite often, “Don’t make me Juan Gris, you won’t like me when I’m Juan Gris.” I bet Picasso and Braques used to say that to him all the time.

royal madrid

Bernabeu

On our first full day in Madrid, the first thing we did was go to the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, home of Real Madrid. On my previous trip to Spain I went to the Camp Nou in Barcelona, and did the tour of the stadium, with their impressive trophy room. I really wanted to see the trophies of Real Madrid, who have won the European Cup / Champions League an unbelievable 13 times, and so that’s where we went. My son is a huge football nut as well and actually has a Real Madrid shirt – we’re not Real fans, he got it because he likes Modric and Bale, and in Spain I prefer Barcelona historically (though I don’t really care, my only beloved club is Tottenham), but it was something special to see this amazing place. Cristiano Ronaldo had just left the week before for Juventus, so his #7 spot in the dressing room was empty. We saw the baths, where Ronaldo used to bathe. We saw the toilets, where Ronaldo used to pee. We saw the mirrors, where undoubtedly Ronaldo also spent a lot of time. We got to walk out on to the pitch, and pretend we were shooting on goal (my pretend free kicks always went in the top corner; much like my real ones). It was a very fun way to spend the morning for our soccer-obsessed family.

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Palacio Real, Madrid

This is the Palacio Real, home of Royal Madrid. Haha. Hah. This is the royal palace (yes I know you figured out what Palacio Real means in Spanish), as viewed from the lovely Jardines de Sabatini. This is the official residence of the Spanish royal family, but it’s really only used for state functions. The current king of Spain, for those of you who are not aware, is King Felipe VI. I obviously haven’t been listening because I still thought it was King Juan Carlos I, who was on all the peseta coins when I visited Spain as a kid. The palace is on the site of a ninth century Moorish Alcazar, but the present palace dates from the mid-1700s. We didn’t go inside; I’m sure the royal trophy room is a delight but does not have as many European Cups as Real Madrid. We were out and about walking, and we strolled over to this part of town to look through the gardens, there is a small labyrinth and several nice ponds, and then I came across a group of urban sketchers dotted around drawing this building. We hadn’t had dinner yet so I asked my wife if I could just quickly do a 20 minute sketch. I was suddenly inspired by all the sketchers, the biggest group I had seen out in a while (this was pre-symposium), and I just wanted to join in. So, good time for a rest (actually my son decided to run laps), and I stood and drew. I didn’t really interact with any of the other sketchers but I peered over their shoulders, some very nice work that made me just want to draw stuff. If I had time I would have liked to have sketched the cathedral adjacent to the royal palace.

natas, churros, super bock and francesinha

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For the Spain and Portugal part of my trip I started a new sketchbook, one of the hardback landscape Stillman and Birn Alpha books I like so much. I did the England sketches at the end of the previous sketchbook, so it was a good place to start a new book. As with my Italy trip last year I decided to decorate the front page with a title like this and draw in some of the things I would eat or drink on the trip. So, a few words then I guess on some of the culinary items on this page. First of all the stuffed olives. These were from the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid, a wonderful place less like a market and more like a self-contained food hall, with lots of really tasty tapas and snacks on sale. I can’t resist a stuffed olive, and these ones were stuffed with peppers and fish and even mussels. Underneath it is a bocadilla – like a little piece of hard toast, I suppose – with sliced and spiced octopus on it. That was nice. I’m definitely one for seafood and like a bit of the tentacled variety. Below that, the little purple drink is a Ginjinha, from Lisbon – more on that later (I drew the Ginjinha shop), but that was a delicious appetizer of a drink, a kind of sweet cherry liqueur, a local specialty. Speaking of Portuguese specialties, next to that is the Nata. The pastéis de nata, a small pastry filled with custard and occasionally other things, costing about a euro a piece, was pretty much my main food in Porto. I could not get enough of them. I just really like custard and pastry. It’s a good job those hills are so steep in Porto, to help me work them off. Speaking of Porto, the orange-coloured item just above the ‘T’ is a vastly not-to-scale version of something called a ‘Francesinha’. Ok, I will come back to the Francesinha. Next to that, a dry Madeira wine that I tried in Lisbon at the Cafe ‘A Brasileira’, that was nice, a dessert wine. Above that to the left, a ‘Tawny’ Port wine, typical of Porto, this one was from the Sandeman winery and sampled during a nice lunch. Next to that, the typical Portuguese beer, Super Bock. Along with Sagres, this is what you will see everywhere, especially littering the sidewalks of Rua da Bica after a heavy Friday night. Just right of the Spain title, the red drink is Sangria, the very tasty Spanish drink made from wine and fruit. I had this at the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid while sketching. And finally, the churros dipped in hot chocolate, this was from the Chocolateria San Gines in Madrid, the famous chocolate cafe located right across from our apartment. Extremely tasty, and the chocolate is rich (you can drink it, but you’ll spend the rest of the day knowing about it).

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And so, the Francesinha, above. It means “Little French Girl” according to my Portuguese friends. I didn’t know what it was, other than you can get them everywhere in Porto. I went into one cafe on the Alfandega to order one for a mid-afternoon snack, but this was no mere snack. Now typically they come with meats like pork and steak, but I don’t eat those so I had to find one with chicken. A Francesinha works like this – two huge slabs of bread, filled with cheese, sausage, meat such as steak, maybe another meat, fried egg, then more thick cheese on top, finally covered in a thick tomato sauce in a bowl. This meal is DENSE. It’s also served with fries, to dip into the melted cheese. I could not finish my chicken one. And I don’t think I met another visiting sketcher who had one they could finish. People of Porto, I salute you for your fortitude. But there’s more. Another restaurant I went into had an ‘XXL Francesinha’, a huge one costing 35 Euros, that was only for one person, no sharing. The deal is, if you finish it all you get a prize. Now I was talking to a waitress in another restaurant who said that she had actually taken on this challenge and won, and her prize was…she didn’t have to pay. I hope she at least got a certificate or something. If I’d eaten an XXL Francesinha, I’d need a doctor’s note…

the incredible sagrada família

Sagrada Familia
Another one checked off the life-long wish-list! This is the famous and magnificent Sagrada Família, the ongoing masterpiece of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. I love to sketch a cathedral. Of course this isn’t technically a cathedral, it is a “Basilica and Expiatory Church” – there’s no bishop, you see. It’s also only really half a church, because as you probably know it is not quite finished yet, stunning and unbelievably detailed though it is. It is over a century and a quarter in the making, entirely funded by donations, and naturally is a huge draw for tourists. It is expected to be finished by 2026, with a massive central spire still to be added. I quite prefer it like this. It is quite something to think that this will look really different the next time I go to sketch it. Finally however I have sketched it, this building I have always wanted to see and draw.

This was done on my last day in Barcelona, when my wife and I took the metro out on a bright Sunday morning. We found that lovely spot across from the pond looking up at the Sagrada Família, and as I sketched there were other urban sketchers from southern Spain also there capturing the view. Always nice to meet the Spanish sketchers, I’m a big follower of the various groups around the country, and learn from them a lot. Once they were gone, I was joined by a group of elderly Catalans; the old woman sat next to me chatted away to me in Catalan, tried to teahc me a few words, and they kept me in good company while my wife went off to take photos. This is the Nativity Façade, which pre-dates the Spanish Civil War, sketched in the Stillman & Birn ‘beta’ sketchbook.

I didn’t go inside this time. The queues are fairly enormous, and our time was limited. I’d love to in the future. There will always be another trip to Barcelona.

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under dreaming spires

Barcelona Cathedral

This is Barcelona Cathedral. Not the Gaudí one you’ve all heard of (and not the Camp Nou, which is also a kind of cathedral, of sorts), but the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia, built between the 13th and 15th centuries in the old town. The neo-Gothic façade wasn’t built until the 19th Century,  so all in all this makes the Sagrada Familia seem like a rush job. These sort of epic buildings take time. It’s all quite stunning. This was on a warm Saturday afternoon, and I was on my way to the final sketchcrawl meeting at the end of the Urban Sketching Symposium. This took me less than an hour of quite rapid sketching, which for all the details I was quite impressed with. I added the colour later on, as I had to get a move on. I do wish I’d had time to go inside, I understand the interior is quite lovely. I sat in the shade to sketch this. I love sketching a cathedral. Cathedrals, pubs and fire hydrants, that’s me.

rambling free

La Rambla, Barelona

Back to Barcelona… I was impressed with all the shop fronts in Barcelona. On a future trip, I will organize myself better, and spend a whole day sketching ONLY shop fronts. As it was I managed just a couple, on the big bustling thoroughfare you’ve all heard of, La Rambla. Also called Las Ramblas. La Rambla is bustling alright, full of tourists rambling up and down, lots if interesting sketchable buildings, and absolutely no other reason to stay there whatsoever. It’s not really my thing, all those people. Pickpocket paranoia on overdrive. Ok, I must confess, what actually bugged me were those guys walking about making the bird-whistle noises with those little plastic kazoo things. It sounded like Sweep (of Sooty fame) being beaten up. Annoying noises aside, the architecture and shop fronts were a sketcher’s delight. I loved the one at the top, Viena, which I sketched in the Beta book. A group of young Australian lads who were staying in the hotel next door chatted to me excitedly about this place while I sketched, saying they had amazing breakfasts. There were lots of groups of excited young lads from other countries in Barcelona. It a popular place for stag parties (bachelor parties). My friend Francesco came here for his one several years ago, went to an FCB game (I couldn’t come, I was in America). Definitely a good-time city.

Farmacia Nadal

Above is Farmacia Nadal, which I sketched on the last day when strolling back to my hotel. Below, a much quicker sketch, the warm evening sky with La Rambla going left to right, looking down Carrer del Carme, Catalan flags waving from balconies. I bumped into a few urban sketchers while sketching this one, on their way back from their USk workshops, including Matthew Brehm; it was his workshop in Lisbon back in 2011 that inspired me to try this sketch out.

La Rambla & Carrer del Carme