Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Cuenca, Spain

Last Thursday, February 20th, we took a drive with another missionary couple, The Riggs, to the old walled city of Cuenca.  It's about 1 hour and 45 minutes east, southeast of Madrid.
It's a city in the autonomous community of Castile–La Mancha in central Spain. It is the capital of the province of Cuenca.
Spain is made up of 17 autonomous regions, the best comparison for those "uninitiated" among us, would be the various States of the Union in the U.S.

Cuenca is located at about 3000 feet elevation, across a steep spur, whose slopes descend into deep gorges of the Júcar and Huécar rivers.
When the Iberian peninsula was part of the Roman Empire there were several important settlements in the province. However, the place where Cuenca is located today was uninhabited at that time.
When the Muslim Arabs captured the area in 714 A.D., they soon realized the value of this strategic location and they built a fortress (called Kunka) on the spur between the two gorges dug between the rivers,  Júcar and Huécar, surrounded by a 1 km-long wall. Cuenca soon became an agricultural and textile manufacturing city, enjoying growing prosperity.
Around the 12th century the Christians, living in northern Spain during the Muslim presence, started to slowly recover the Iberian peninsula. Eventually the Muslim Arabs were defeated and driven out sometime in October 1177 by Alfonso VIII (I think).
The cathedral started to be built at that time and was finished in 1270.  So, by our standards, it's incredibly old.  Of course, over the years, it has experienced periods of decay or destruction and has been partially rebuilt, especially the facade which has had a major rebuild over the years, but still maintains its original Gothic style (the first Gothic cathedral in Spain, the other one in Avila).
It was a cold day last Thursday, which was both a curse and a blessing.  The curse was, it was really a chilly day to be out and about as a tourist.  Which was also the blessing; we had the town to ourselves, especially the cathedral.  Those who know us know that I love visiting cathedrals, and it must be said that Vivienne basically tolerates my love affair with them.  In short spurts.
The cathedral is officially the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Gracia ("Basilica of Our Lady of Grace"). 
Unlike many other cathedrals in Spain, photography with flash is not allowed in the interior. So our picture-taking was severely curtailed and pictures are slightly blurred because of time-lapse photography.
But this visit was special for another reason. 
Standing in the center of the cathedral, I was explaining to Brother and Sister Riggs how spectacular the acoustics of these cathedrals are to me and how it's my wish to hear them always full of the sound of live music, which rarely happens nowadays except on rare occasions. I often express how I hope that during the Millennium these amazing buildings are spared and that they are used to house world-class choirs and orchestras that fill them with the glorious sounds of the great masters of music through the ages.  I mentioned to them that the first time I ever sang in a cathedral was in France in 1968 with the BYU A Cappella Choir.  We were on the first ever European tour of a BYU choir and France was our first stop.  We visited a beautiful Gothic cathedral on the outskirts of Paris.  During our visit the building was empty, which I've since learned is quite typical at mid-day during the week.  Anyway, we desperately wanted to sing in it, so Dr. Ralph Woodward agreed, and we assembled in the center, near the altar and began to sing, filling the huge space with really glorious music.  As a side-note, this BYU choir later that summer in Wales, England would win the International Eisteddford, which for choral groups was sort of like winning the Olympics.  So we were pretty good.
I mentioned to the Riggs that I have never forgotten how wonderful it was to sing in the acoustical setting of a large cathedral or basilica. So, on their own, they went and talked the custodian of the building into turning off the recorded music to allow Vivienne and I to sing.  Since we basically had the cathedral to ourselves, they agreed and we had the "cool" opportunity to sing out at the tops of our voices some LDS hymns, like "I Know That My Redeemer Lives".  I'm sure it's the only time the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Gracia has been filled with the singing of "The Spirit of God, Like A Fire Is Burning", but it just seemed appropriate to me that THAT song should be heard in that space, considering its use in the dedication of the Kirtland Temple.  I was hoping the local missionaries would have been walking by outside and heard that singing and asked each other, "What the heck!?  Do You Hear What I Hear????"
So yeah, it was pretty cool.
The Gothic facade

The area directly behind the main Altar dedicated to the memory Alfonso VIII who liberated the city. Lots of gorgeous marble.  It always amazes me that this was done without modern machinery.
Incredibly detailed Renaissance ceiling in the Chamber room of the Cathedral. Huge paintings of the Apostles surround the walls.

Side chapel built in the 15th century. There are typically lots of side chapels, many dedicated to particular "saints" or wealthy citizens or political or religious figures of the city.

Oldest tomb in the Cathedral-from 14th century

Tombs with beautiful alabaster stone work.

Resting place of a knight of the 15th century-exquisite alabaster stone work

Facade of front of Cathedral,undergoing renovation, a never-ending task.

Town square in front of the Cathedral

Side street off the town square leading to the old arched entrance into the city

Old arched entrance into the city that borders the steep slopes descending into the gorge.

Old entrance into the city outside city walls leading to footbridge crossing the deep gorge.

Looking back into the entrance into the city.  On the left are the "Hanging Houses" of Cuenca.  Sister Riggs on the bench, Vivienne with ear muffs, a sweater and a borrowed coat.

From the footbridge looking back at the old city and the famous "Hanging Houses"

The old city of Cuenca with the Cathedral to the upper right.  Bottom of the gorge is 200 feet below

The "Hanging Houses" of Cuenca, built in the 14th Century.  They claim the balconies of the houses are solid, but I'm not sure I would feel all that safe stepping out onto them.  However, people live there, and the top story is a high-end restaurant.
One last picture, even though blurred.  Just inside the Cathedral's main entrance, a 16th century depiction of The Last Supper.  Almost life-sized with fantastic detailed work.  Unable to get closer because of ropes, this was all I could capture.  Easy to distinguish Judas on the right, with Christ at center in the back.
Conclusion; if you go to Cuenca, don't miss the Cathedral (maybe they'll let you sing!) and the Hanging Houses over the gorge.

Friday, February 7, 2014

New year, new missionaries, new opportunities

We had a great time in the MTC celebrating the New Year in the Spanish customary way of eating 12 grapes, one at each dong of the clock at midnight.  First time we've been awake at midnight on New Year's Eve in a long time!  The tricky thing is that the grapes have seeds in them.  A lot of the missionaries just swallowed the seeds whole, but this lady de-seeded the grapes prior to midnight, yet still could NOT eat them fast enough.  I did put one grape in my mouth with each dong of the clock but when it was over I had chipmunk cheeks to chew on for a while!
About a week after New Years we said goodbye to a wonderful group of missionaries and welcomed in a new batch.  Then two week later we had to say the hardest good bye--the Sitteruds completed their mission and went home:(  We had such a wonderful experience working with them.  I personally learned SO much about the gospel in action and I grew to be a better person, rubbing shoulders with them.  We miss them a lot!  This is what I wrote to our daughter:
It's a little like when you are expecting your second child and wonder if you can ever love her as much as you do your first child.
Her reply: I just want to remind you that I am your second child so you have nothing to worry about.
The Lovells are wonderful people.  We really enjoyed about ten days of working with them until it was decided by the area authority that the numbers of expected missionaries did NOT warrant two counselors and they prefer to use local members.  So the Benitos will remain and we have moved on.  We will continue to do the music hour on Sundays and give hair cuts and shots.  That frees up our Sundays so we can go to the local wards and interact more with the young single adults that we work with.
Also, we started teaching an institute class in Alcala (an hour train ride away) on the history of hymns which we are really enjoying.  Good, smart kids in the class!  So we will continue to be busy and look for opportunities to help the Madrid missionaries more.
Here are some pictures:

Everyone with their twelve grapes ready for midnight!

The missionaries from the MTC going to Madrid

The traditional treat for Kings Day, roscon

Teaching conducting skills

Elder Christopherson

Getting ready to sing on the steps by the temple

President Sitterud taking pix on his ipad and Elder Sullivan waving his arms!

Last Sunday with the Sitteruds

Elder Malan with the hermanas planning in our piso

Elder Helske (from Finland!) fixing our Spanish lesson.

Another beautiful sunset out our window.

President and Sister Lovell, the new MTC president and his wife.

A couple of elders badly in need of haircuts.

Elder Nickerl trying not to cry while being shorn.