Postcard from Cordoba, Spain: Mezquita Catedral

The Cathedral of Cordoba is dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption, yet even the city’s Catholics tend to refer to it simply as La Mezquita, the Mosque.

A Roman temple once stood on this site, but it was torn down with its building materials recycled for construction of a Visigoth church. The Moorish conquest in the 8th century resulted in another teardown and recycling of materials, particularly columns.

Cordoba became the headquarters of the independent Caliphate in Spain, and a golden age of construction burst forth to create a capital to rival the splendor of Damascus and Constantinople. This meant the mosque must be enormous.

The interior boasts approximately 850 granite jasper and marble columns. As the handsome columns were too short to attain the desired height, the arches they supported were topped with a second tier of arches, all in a striking pattern alternating red brick and white stone. A shell-shaped ceiling carved from one block of marble crowns the gilded Mihrab, the original center for prayer, at the heart of the Mezquita.

King Ferdinand III (1199-1252) reclaimed Cordoba from the Moorish rulers in 1236, and the mosque immediately was consecrated as a Christian place of worship. The original Gothic altar inserted in the middle of the former mosque was expanded and modified to reflect later and Renaissance and Baroque styles. The architectural encasement of the original minaret masks its origins. A full Renaissance nave popped up above the existing roofline during the reign of King Charles V (1500-1558). Some say the king was displeased with the resulting intrusive architectural assault upon the stunning structure.

Lawrence Boheme offers a tale involving a 1,000-mile round trip for the bells of Santiago de Compostela to symbolize the historical rivalry between the Spain’s Christians and Muslims at this site:

At the height of Muslim power, during the Omega Caliphate at the end of the 10th century, the fearsome warlord Al-Mansur led a bloody raid through northern Spain, going as far into Christian territory as Santiago de Compostela. On the loose in the great pilgrims’ city, the Moor had the audacity of riding his horse into the cathedral and letting it drink from the font of holy water, outraging the Christian townsfolk; then, even more insultingly, he had the church’s bells carried 500 miles south to Cordoba, where they were melted down to make lamps to illuminate the Great Mosque.

When, two and a half centuries later, in 1236, the Castillian King Ferdinand the Third (“The Saint”) reconquered Cordoba, his first action, to avenge the humiliation caused by Al-Mansur, was to have the lamps carried back to the shrine of Saint James, where they were melted down to make a new set of bells.

Postcard from Sevilla, Spain: If a resident peacock fanned his tail inside Real Alcazar, would anyone even notice?

According to traditional Western norms of design, seemingly incongruous combinations of floor-to-ceiling colors, textures and materials create a remarkable feast for the eyes in the Alcazar Palace.

In 913, in what had been the ancient Roman city of Hispalis, the ruling Caliph of Cordoba ordered the center of government be established on this site. His successors further embellished the palace and expanded it toward the Guadalquivir River.

When the Castilians under Ferdinand III (1199-1252) gained control of the territory in 1248, portions, but not quite all, of the original palace were lost as Christian rulers sought to imprint their taste and traditions onto the site.

Pedro I (1334-1369), either called Pedro el Cruel or Pedro el Justo depending on which version of history one sides, had a lot of complications in his life. In addition to those continually and violently contesting his throne, Pedro as a young ruler was coerced into several arranged politically advantageous marriages despite his obvious love of Maria de Padilla (1334-1361).

Before Pedro’s half-brother, Henry II of Castile (1334-1379) dealt him fatal blows, Pedro made extensive use of the talented artisans and craftsmen on hand in Sevilla to build a palace luxurious enough for him and his mistress. The Mudejar alterations resulting from the Moorish architects employed by the Christian king produced handsome results.

The Alcazar’s contradicting yet complimentary architectural styles represent an evolutionary melding of royal whims from 11th-century Moors through 13th-century Gothic, 14th-century Mudejar and the Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries. The ruling Bourbons made further architectural alterations to suit their 19th-century tastes and residential requirements.

Real Alcazar is where Queen Isabella I of Castile (1451-1504) contracted with Christopher Columbus to finance his explorations. The palace was the setting chosen for Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) to meet and marry Isabella of Portugal (1503-1539) in 1526. Today, portions of the palace still function as an official royal residence of the Spanish monarchy.

In addition to actual history-making events, the palace and grounds of Real Alcazar have lent their magical atmosphere to diverse film and television projects from Lawrence of Arabia in 1962 to several seasons of Game of Thrones.

And lo, the azulejos. What tiles are found throughout.

Postcard from Turin, Italy: How royals gave the city a French accent

Statue of Emanuele Filiberto (1528-1580), Duke of Savoy

Marriages among the titled in Europe generally had larger ramifications than the immediate household.

Once upon a time, the House of Savoy ruled over an Alpine region northwest of Italy, primarily now part of France. In 1051, Otto of Savoy (1023?-1060?) wed Adelaide, a marchioness whose titles brought Turin (Torino) under the House of Savoy.

The land that would eventually become Italy was a battleground in a constant tug of war between France and Spain between 1494 and 1559. When Emanuele Filiberto (1528-1580) inherited the title of the Duke of Savoy in 1553, he found himself somewhat turf-less. Turin was under French control.

Already known as “Testa d’fer” (“Ironhead”) for his early military service to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) (Charles I of Spain), Emanuele continued to serve the Habsburgs. Emanuele chose sides wisely. The seasoned soldier led the forces of Spanish King Philip II (1527-1598) to a victory at the Battle of Saint Quentin in northern France on the feast day of Saint Lawrence (of the grill) in 1557.

Gradually regaining the former Savoy kingdom from Spain and France [no doubt assisted by his marriage to Margaret (1523-1574), Duchess of Berry and the sister of King Henry II of France (1519-1559)], Emanuele made Turin the capital.

Bishop Domenico Della Rovere (?-1587) had commissioned a palace there as his residence and had the Cathedral of San Giovanni erected next door in 1498. Emanuele made the Bishop’s Palace his own. The Bishop’s Palace was hardly large enough to accommodate the needs of the ruling family, so Emanuele and his successors continually added wings and additional structures. The current fa├žade of Palazzo Reale addressing the sweeping Piazza Castello was the result of an ambitious construction project launched by Regent Maria Christina (1606-1663), a daughter of King Henry IV (1553-1610) of France and the widow of Vittorio Amedeo I di Savoia (1587-1637).

The domed Baroque Chapel of the Holy Shroud, Cappella della Sacra Dinone, was built adjacent to the Cathedral and the Royal Palace at the end of the 15th century during the reign of Carlo Emanuele II (1634-1675). The cherished cloth some claim bears the image of Jesus came into the possession of the House of Savoy in 1453. The relic was damaged by a fire in a chapel in the Savoy’s earlier capital before Carlo Emanuel moved it to Turin.

A major fire again threatened the shroud in 1997, with firefighters smashing its bulletproof glass to spare it. The renovated chapel was not reopened until this past fall, so the shroud itself was tucked away out of sight during our summer visit.

Successive Savoy rulers of the Kingdom of Sardinia resided in the Palazzo Reale until 1865. Victor Emanuele II (1820-1878) , the newly crowned King of Italy, moved out of the residence shortly after commissioning architect Domenico Ferri (1795-1878) to add the elegant Grand Staircase of Honor to the interior.

The Italian Republic claimed ownership of the Royal Palace and its grounds in 1946, and the extensive compound now is operated as Musei Reali Torino.

When Emanuele Filiberto made Turin the official capital of Savoy, he also turned his back on some of the family’s French connections by proclaiming Italian the official language of the kingdom. While he changed the spoken tongue, the architecture and design of Turin never lost a strong French accent.