Casa Islamica – Toledo

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Built during the 10th century, during Spain’s Islamic period, the Casa Islamica shows it’s heritage in it’s double horseshoe arches, herringbone pattern brick floor, and other, smaller details.

One of my favorite spaces in all of Toledo is the Museum of Magic Spain (El Museo de la España Magica). Built in the 10th century, the interior of this unassuming building is an enchanting example of Mudejar architecture on a human scale. I prefer it’s other common name, the “Casa Islamica”. It’s just on the other side of a narrow street (one of the wider streets in the historic center actually) that runs along the south wall of the short side of the transept of the Cathedral. From the non-descript appearance of the building facade, one would have no idea that the house that they are walking past was built in the 10th century (some recent estimates put it earlier than that even), which probably has something to do with the reason that I find this place so fascinating. There are whole neighborhoods in the historical center of Toledo where hundreds of square meters of incredible underground spaces like this lie hidden underneath the twisting mazes of simple, albeit charming, vernacular architecture. The kind of cute, Southern-European townhouses that, while they might elicit genuine, slightly fawning tones from friends and family when posted on Facebook, hide thousands of years of history below their cloistered courtyards and down their dark, dank stone stairways.  I’ve had the good fortune to descend some of those stairways. Sometimes by chance, sometimes by invitation. Some are open to the public (Las Cuevas de Hercules is another fascinating example, look for a post on that soon) and some, well… it’s good to smile at people.


Move along folks! Nothing here but Mazapan and cheap t-shirts!

I took some time this morning to visit one of those that is still opened to the public, though how long it will remain so is unknown, as it is currently up for sale. If you have a million euros sitting around gathering dust, I can hook you up.

These days, the space houses a kind of half-campy, half historical, one-hundred percent interesting collection of things related to the occult side of the world of magic, “magic” in Spain referring more to a type of mysterious dark art and lore than the slight-of-hand kind of magic that Americans might think of. It’s a far cry from the days, 500 years ago, when this space was part of a storage complex belonging to Cardenal Francisco Jimenez de Cizneros, a fascinating figure who had, at various times, served as Grand Inquisitor, founded one of the world’s oldest research universities (Complutense University of Madrid), and who was, for a short period, the most powerful man in Spain, ruling over the kingdom as Regent during a dangerous period of transition.
Entering the house, I walked down a narrow hallway to the front desk, where I was greeted by a pleasant young woman who asked me if I spoke Spanish. I replied, in Spanish, that I was only there to see the architecture. She offered me a discount and put away the pamphlet that she had been ready to hand me. As I turned around to head down the tight spiral staircase that would take me not just 5 meters below the street above, but some 1100 years back in time, a small, elderly, hunch-backed woman opened a door off the side of the hallway, stepped out in front of me while looking around me as if I wasn’t there, and belted out something in deeply accented Castilian to the girl behind the desk. I couldn’t make it out, but as they moved further into their verbal exchange, I got the impression that they were neighbors, or relatives, and that they both lived in the building. I waited for the old woman to finish and move out of my way. I stood there with an amused look on my face, looking down on the top of the old woman’s head and laughing to myself inside, when the Señora took notice of the bulk of denim and cheap cotton pattern fabric looming over her. She looked up with a start and jerked back slightly, her eyes shooting open. She raised her hand up, even with her head, and made a snappy motion, like an orchestra conductor trying to pull that last tremolo out of his strings section. She popped off one last brief sentence at the girl behind the desk, and disappeared back into her dark passageway. “Ooooo kay!” I said to no one really, and looked back to the girl, shrugging my shoulders and curling the edges of my mouth down in the universal gesture for “I have no fucking idea what just happened, but I don’t care either.” She chuckled and answered “Nah!” shaking her head. I headed down the stairs.

The first thing that greets me when I enter the space is a sense of age. Or rather, a sense that the place that I just entered is absolutely disconnected from the place that I just came from. Every one of the stair risers that I place my foot on represents a step back in time of 50 years. 2000… 1950…1900…1850… 4 steps, and Americans are engaged in a bloody civil war. 1800… 1750… 1700… 3 more steps and the Salem witch trials are just wrapping up in the American colonies. 1650… 1600… 1550… 1500… The Catholic monarchs have expelled the last of the Jews from Spain and reconquered all lands that were under Islamic domination since the invasion of 711. 1450…1400… 1350… 1300… 1250… I can smell the dampness quite strongly now, the smell of incense that met me in the doorway has been replaced by the smell of mildew. 1200… 1150… 1100… Angkor Wat is under construction in Thailand. 1050… 1000… 950… One more step. 900. My feet land on the brick and bare earth floor with a crunching sound.

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Original, 1100 year old brick floor.

The brick and earth floor is original, and very uneven. Roman style bricks are laid on their sides in a pleasing and rhythmic herring-bone pattern. Where the floor was just too far gone to restore, one of the more recent owners had filled the empty spaces with smooth and level cement, creating a contrast that exaggerates the rustic (the word seems like a ridiculous understatement considering the age of the place) look of the brick pavers.

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Space left by missing pavers has been filled with concrete.

The most striking feature in the room is an Islamic double horseshoe arch, supported by a slender column that rises up from an understated base nested humbly into the brick floor. I have no understanding of the various socioeconomic strata of the time during which this place was constructed. I do know, however, due to its proximity to the cathedral, which was previously the main mosque of the city, that this home was no peasants home. Yet neither was it the home of a powerful family. Perhaps the fact that most of the plaster covering the brick and stone walls was gone, (it would have been that plaster that would have carried the bulk of decorative pattern that would tell the more complete story of the social position of the builder and occupant of this house) was throwing me off. “Best not to try to infer too much in the absence of any meaningful information.” I thought. I made a mental note to get in touch with one of my more scholarly friends.

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Double horseshoe arches

Standing in front of the arches, the heighth of the space is surprising. Vertical shafts of eerie blueish light graze the rough faces of the brick walls, highlighting the texture and lending an even deeper air of antiquity to the space. It looks almost as if the set designers for Raiders of the Lost Ark had been hired to design this place. Or, more likely, had visited Toledo for inspiration. In fact, Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford, visited Toledo last year around this time, and I can’t help but wonder if he visited this place. If he did, he may have felt a familiar chill as he stepped through the arches and under the shaft of light. I must confess that, every time I come here, every time I pass under the hole in the ceiling that creates this shaft of light, I hear Jones’ unheeded admonition to his (unfaithful) jungle guide: “Stay out of the light.”. I must also admit that, when I do pass under it, I step quickly. You just never know…

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“Stay out of the light.”

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Household cistern. Not a well, but an underground water storage system

Cordoba – ancient “Ornament of the World”


…ancient capitol of a break-away caliphate.

…birthplace of famous poets, painters, bullfighters and guitar players.

…tucked away on a quiet bend of an ancient river.

…witness to history: Roman, Islamic, and Catholic conquest and collapse.

…a thousand years ago, the “Ornament of the World”

… rebirth as a modern, tiny gem.

My daily strolls around Cordoba provide plenty of photo opportunities for a guy who loves crumbling architecture in the form of cobblestone streets, rusty black iron balconies, terra cotta and ochre bricks, roof tiles and pavers, crumbling plaster, granite, limestone, and deep mahogany.
But it’s not all decay and crumbling glory. Cordoba is alive and well and vibrant. I’ll post the “proof of life” in a later entry. For now, please enjoy this look at a backstreet city a little less than well-cared-for. To me, every one of these fading facades represents opportunity and hope. In bars, restaurants and cafes, one gets the impression that Cordobés have reached a zen-like peace with the long decline of the once-mighty caliphate, and the violent contraction of the world dominance of the Royal Spanish colonial empire some 700 years later. In fact, one gets the impression that they couldn’t care less about their long, slow fall from glory. Not that they aren’t proud of their city, quite the contrary. It’s just that they seem to have a genetically embedded sense of the inevitable passing of time, the changing of fortunes, the falling and rising of empires and the ephemeral nature of the title “Ornament of the World”.



Hello readers,

Starting in January of 2016, Postcards From Spain will begin posting from Spain!

It’s long been a dream of mine to slow-travel through this wondrous country of contrasts. The one or two week visits always seem to pass way too quickly. Every trip is a whirlwind of travel and experiences that can only be digested after I’ve arrived back at home. After the unpacking, settling in, returning to work and the rhythms of a more normal life can I begin to slowly scroll through the thousands of photographs I’ve taken. It’s during this slow digestion of an experience already passed that I begin to realize what a spectacular affair it was. I liken it to an old school space probe that, after a tortuous rocket ride boost phase and the escape from earth orbit, zooms around some far-off stellar body, completely detached and spinning, functioning, executing code and commands, capturing data and hitting waypoints on its parabolic zoom through space, eventually hurtling back into the draggy, burning atmosphere. Only after splashdown and dissection does it yield the full story of it’s flight. Only on examination of the data does the true story of the cosmos emerge, technicolor and mesmerizing.

OK – so maybe that’s a little dramatic. But it feels that way. Looking at the photos I’ve taken during my travels always leaves me with the feeling that…somehow, I missed something of the experience while I was there.

I hope that the end of the “launch – flight – record – reentry – process” mode of data capture and processing will create a more seamless environment in which I can experience and share the stories of my travels.

I will be updating a few times before our departure date, and stay tuned for the first post from Madrid!

Abrazos desde Seattle

Postcards from Spain (AKA Peter Hamann)

Leganes farmer’s market

Every Friday in the city of Leganes, as happens in many cities throughout Spain, farmers and merchants gather on a small side street on the North edge of town for the weekly farmer’s market, or “mercadillo”. Here, you’ll find olive vendors selling various blends of house made olive mixes in brines and marinades ranging from deeply complex spice mixtures, to more traditional straight-forward, mild vinegar based marinades. Bakers display all manner of galletas (cookies) and tartas (cakes) , pastries, cream puffs, and other delights, each the perfect accompaniment for an afternoon tea or espresso with the neighbors at home. The smells of vegetables, fruits, honey, preserves, cheeses, frutos secos (dried fruits, nuts, potato chips and other snacks) all rise from bins and tables to mix with those of cured meats and fish to create an essentially Spanish olfactory cocktail. A person can spend an afternoon strolling among the stalls, sampling and buying all sorts of goods (cash only please!) while gypsy children sing and dance in and around their vans, parked back away from the street, while their parents make a living selling whatever the Spanish home maker (with traditional wheeled market cart in tow) or handyman might need. Socks, underwear, tools, small home electronics and toys, all can also be found at the market. MARKET STREET SIGN MARKET 16 OLIVES 1 OLIVES 2 OLIVES 3 MARKET 1 MARKET 2 MARKET 3 MARKET 4 MARKET 6 MARKET 7 MARKET 8 MARKET 17 MARKET 14 MARKET 10 MARKET 11 MARKET 12 MARKET 13

Maderuelo, Province of Segovia – Part 1

Maderuelo is a small medieval town of roughly 150 inhabitants, located at the southern end of the Embalse de Linares del Arroyo (The Linares Creek Reservior) in the province of Segovia, about 140 kilometers north of Madrid. We stopped here for some tapas and a stroll (they do a lot of that in Spain) on our way to another town and bought a jar of honey from the beekeeper. Passing through the town gate and following any of Maderuelo’s streets, up past the church to a tiny plaza almost at the end of town, you will arrive at the home of the Colmenero de Maderuelo – the Beekeper of Maderuelo. I’ll write about the colmenero some day, but for now, I’ll just share some images of  Maderuelan village architecture. The town is a mix of decay and rebirth. Spanish rural tourism has taken off in recent years, with many city dwellers converting old family homes and investment properties into “Casa Rurales” or “country homes” for weekend and vacation rental. With their human penchant for the nostalgic, ample supply of towns with an intact historic architectural base, and at-hand stores of rural accouterments for decoration, The Spanish have given the lives of these small country villages a reprieve of sorts based on rural and eco-tourism. While they may never return to anything close to their former states, their slow slide toward oblivion has been arrested. Who knows, as city life becomes more hectic and more young Spaniards “opt-out” of modern, debt inducing, hectic soul-crushing industrial lives in the cities (prescriptions for anti-depressants is skyrocketing in this country that traditionally has been seen as knowing “how to live”), one might see a small bump in re-population of  small towns and villages like Maderuelo.

A good breakfast of tapas y cortados at the town bar / cafe / restauranteMADERUELO BAR TEMPLARIOS TAPAS   MADERUELO BAR TEMPLARIOS


Valdevarnes country house ruin

I came across this ruin while walking in the fields around Valdevarnes after a particularly satisfying meal of roasted vegetables, meat and wine. I wandered off for a smoke and a stroll while the others took their siesta. It was a glorious afternoon. The sky was a perfect, post-card blue dotted with puffy white and grey cumulus clouds. As the sun set I rushed here and there through the deeply furrowed fields like a madman trying to capture scene after scene in the perfect Castillian setting sunlight.



Your wanna-be Hemingway photog out for a smoke in the Spanish countryside.

Your photog

Cistercian monks, experience design, William Randolph Hearst, Spain, beer, and champagne corks

Why use a champagne cork on a $3.50 330 ml bottle of beer?


At the risk of “diluting the brand” (Postcards from Spain) allow me to turn all “beer blog”  and touch on some subjects that are near and dear to my heart: beer, Spain, and experience design.

I started Postcards from Spain as a place to share some of the thousands of photographs I’ve taken during my years of travel in Spain. What’s more, rather than just a place to post pictures (there are better venues for that) I wanted to tell stories with photographs, in a venue that encourages you to stop and pause for a moment  (something that social media sites actually discourage with the urgency created by knowing that there is another post just below, one which demands that you scroll down to “see what happens next” in a literal race to the bottom that can never be won).

I want Postcards from Spain to be a place to create a sense of place and time, to convey an experience, not to be an exercise in speed scrolling. To that end, I often post a short narrative along with the image(s) to give some background, but more importantly to set a scene, to try to impart a sense of place or time to a photo and to try to convey some sense of what I felt when I took the photo. In that sense, Postcards from Spain is my attempt at, on a very limited scale,  experience design.

Experience design is a difficult discipline. The designer has no control over the intended audience’s state of mind on entry, common understanding of the subject, perception aptitude, etc. The best the designer can do is make assumptions and work to them. Success is fleeting and hard to measure. In fact, almost every single interaction between the audience and the designers work will never be seen or evaluated by the designer, with practically  zero feedback  the designer can use to evaluate the effectiveness of their work.

Occasionally one encounters a “designed experience” in an area of interest dear to one’s heart. The shared understanding,  common ground and shared interest allows one to fully understand the designers intent in a way that the general public might not. Formula One Paddock-scented Man Candles might be an example. To the non gear-head, a race day scented candle might just “smell like gas”. But to the initiated, those who have spent time on or near the hallowed grounds of Laguna Seca or Le Mans, the addition of a slight hint of the essence of hot rubber to the mix of oil and petrol will immediately be perceived by the intended audience and (assuming it has been properly technically  executed by the candle manufacturer) the product is a success.

OK – back to beer and experience design, but first we need to take a quick detour to the ruins of an abandoned monastery 150 kilometers North East of Madrid. The monastery of Santa Maria de Ovila. Trust me I’m going somewhere with this.

In the late 12th century, Cistercian Monks erected a monastery on a plot of land near what is now Azañon, about 150 kilometers northeast of Madrid, on land recently wrestled from Moorish control. The Christian Castilian rulers followed a policy of granting land to parties that declared an interest in holding newly re-conquered land under Christian rule. Many of the recently established Catholic religious orders (the Cistercians included)  grew rapidly in stature as a result.

The monastery thrived and grew for the next 400 years, but toward the end of the second millennium began to fall into a state of decay. Civil wars,  Napoleonic invasion, and a misguided anti-clerical populist decree all contributed to the ultimate decline and abandonment of the monastery by the beginning of the 20th century. Enter American Media Tycoon William Randolph Hearst.

In the 1930’s, Hearst and his chief architect Julia Lewis traveled to Spain to assess the feasibility of disassembling and transporting the monastery of Santa Maria de Ovila to the United States for reassembly. Morgan had already overseen the construction of Hearst castle on the central California coast, but apparently Hearst was after something a little more “authentic”. Deals were struck with the local Spanish officials and money changed hands. State officials were “encouraged” to look the other way while Spanish cultural heritage protection laws were ignored. Santa Maria de Ovila’s time in Spain, as it had stood for hundreds of years, had come to an end. In July of 1931, 11 ocean-going freighters passed through the Panama Canal with the stones of the ancient monastery in their holds. They put in to the San Francisco Bay and unceremoniously disgorged their commoditized , palatalized,  stones onto the docks and headed back out to sea. Plans for the new, rebuilt structure were drawn up and approved. A site was planned and preparations made.

The best laid plans…

The economic turmoil of the depression forced Hearst to abandon his plans and donate the stones to the city of San Francisco in return for the city paying off the huge bill for storing the thousands of crates housing the stones. Hearst even refused a demand by the newly minted dictator Francisco Franco to return the pieces of the monastery to Spain. The stones experienced various depredations including multiple fires, neglect, and theft. It seemed as if the Monastery of Santa Maria de Ovila had angered the Almighty himself and carried into all affairs a bias toward eradication.

Until (are you following this all?) 2003, when, after years of wrangling, ground was broken on the construction of the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, California. There, Cistercian monks were able to purchase the remaining stones and rebuild portions of the monastery by filling in missing portions with newly fabricated elements. Today the monks work 14.5 acres of prime California land to produce a variety of wines that their 12th century brethren could not have imagined.


OK, so where are we?

Experience design? – Check!

Cistercian Monks? – Check!

William Randolph Hearst? – Yep!

Spain?- Got it!

Ahhh yes…beer!

In 2010, the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company enetered the Belgian style abbey ales market via a partnership with the nearby Trappist monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux, who inhabit the monastery constructed from the stones of the ancient monastery of Santa Maria de Ovila, now the oldest building in America west of the Rockies and the oldest example of original Cistercian Gothic architecture in the Western Hemisphere.

BAMM! triple whammy of Beer, Spain, and Cistercian monks in one sentence!

OK so what does this all have to do with experience design? Get to the point man!

Well, let’s say that you’re a Californian beer maker and you want to offer a Belgian Trappist Abbey Ale to compete with the amber flood of Belgian Trappist Abbey Ales washing over the beer aisles of American specialty beer shops and premium grocery stores. You can’t just put your product, however awesome it may be, into a standard beer bottle and rely on a catchy label to attract enough attention to differentiate yourself on a crowded shelf and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. It doesn’t matter that your craft beer was made with fruit that was grown and harvested on the grounds of an ancient Spanish Monastery that was originally built on land wrestled from a crumbling Muslim kingdom, that housed Napoleons troops, whose purchase was clouded in intrigue, that was disassembled,  labeled piece by piece, snuck out of Spain on the eve of a revolution, shipped to the US to languish and be set afire!  No – you need to create an identity and an experience for the American beer connoisseur.

And here we are – enter the champagne cork!

Ovila cork 1

For their Belgian Style Abbey Ales, Sierra Nevada has chosen a design that features a heavier than usual dark brown bottle with a champagne style cork, complete with its wire cage “muselet” and heavily rounded lip reminiscent of larger size bottle from Belgium and France. Why go to such trouble and cost on a bottle that only holds 330ml (12 oz)? The user experience.



Say what you want about marketing, but in my opinion, these guys “nailed it” in every choice that went into the design of this bottle. Sierra Nevada has delivered an experience through their choice of the cork and muselet, heavier bottle, rounded mouth and detailed label design, but in a small, single serving form that lends itself to a more frequently enjoyed experience.

Pick up the bottle – it’s heavier than you would expect.

Ovila present 1

Check out that cork – Fancy!

Look at the label. The color and design say “I was drawn by a monk in a 900 year- old candle-lit, stone walled room in an ancient monastery. The die-cut edges look like a ratty old hand-torn piece of paper, while costing only pennies a piece to produce.

label edges label CLAIRVEUAX

Sierra Nevada, the folks that brought “Craft Brew” into the public lexicon in the 90’s have turned their attention to the Abbey Ale market with a love that shows in every detail of packaging execution, creating an experience at every step of engagement with the product.

Tying it all back into the theme of this blog:  sharing an experience with the user through an image that captures and conveys the essence of a place and time, this humble beer bottle has accomplished exactly what I set out to do with photographs, but with glass, wire, paper and cork. It transports the user to another place and time. It looks like it came out of the bodega of a 900 year old monastery and conjures up images of monks toiling in the fields, sitting at the long wooden table, candles and crusty loaves of bread at hand.

And yah – the beer itself is excellent!

Cordoba – Torre de la Calahorra – Model of the Alhambra

Looking way into the past for this post (back to 2005 – almost ten years). Cordoba – Ancient Roman outpost, capital of the Islamic Caliphate,  Ornament of the World. Cordoba has been called by many names. Every ancient culture has left her stamp of occupation on this historic city. Romans, Visigoths, Arab and North African, Catholic… all of these still breathe in her walls. Proud of their heritage, whether a mix of all who have passed through, or identifying strongly with any one sub-group, Cordebese take pride in their golden past. A visit to the museum located inside the Torre de la Calahorra, or The Tower of the Calahorra will reward the visitor with a deeper understanding of why Cordoba was called “The Ornament of the World” by the 10th century German poet Hrotsvitha. On display in the museum is a scale model of the Alhambra of Granada. Why the museum chose a monument associated with another famous Andalusian city is a mystery to me, but it is a beautiful model. I don’t know who made it, but maybe one of my Spanish Architectural and Museum modeller friends can enlighten me… CORDOBA MODEL 7 CORDOBA MODEL 4 CORDOBA MODEL 3 CORDOBA MODEL 5 CORDOBA MODEL 6 CORDOBA MODEL 2 CORDOBA MODEL 1 The camera I used was an old 4 megapixel pocket point and shoot, and I wasn’t very good at taking pictures back then, so I apologize for the poor image quality, but I really wanted to share these images.