Travelogue: Discovering the Iberian Peninsula

A portion of my ancestry can be traced back to the Iberian Peninsula, specifically Spain. Seeing it first hand –  the people, the culture, and, of course, the architecture – is something I’ve wanted to do for some time now.  Spain’s diversity of culture peaked my interest the most, from the northern Basque region to the southern coast of Andalusia. I was accompanied by my wife Camila, a Brazilian; so, naturally, our journey began in Portugal (alongside her distant cousins from across the Atlantic), before proceeding on to Spain.

View of the Palace of Pena from Sintra….two hours later, we would reach the top

View of the Palace of Pena from Sintra….two hours later, we would reach the top

A brief look into the peninsula’s history suggests a colorful past: during the Second Punic War (218 B.C.) the Iberian and Celtic tribes (already inhabiting the region) were annexed under Roman rule.  Later, in the 5th century A.D., Germanic tribes invaded the peninsula. Muslim influence took hold in the 8th century, with Islamic armies seizing the region. Centuries of different rule and occupants created a unique mix of people and cultures throughout the region.

Our Iberian tour started in Lisbon; of the many sights, I found the Torre de Belem most fascinating. The tower is beautifully positioned along the Tagus River. Its watch towers echo Muslim style minarets and feature crenellation brilliantly designed in the shape of shields and lightly detailed loggias, which all combine to create a wonderful ensemble.  Although built long after the Roman and Moorish empire, the architecture still expresses the rich history of its city.


(left) Iconic quarter façade of the Tower of Belem (right) Detail of the façade depicting the rope stone bands and shield details

After our short stay in Portugal, we migrated east to Spain, landing in the capital, Madrid.  About an hour west of Madrid lies Segovia, one of the most stunningly sited cities in Spain.  It’s often likened to a ship – the alcazar (castle), cathedral pinnacles, and aqueduct forming, respectively, the bow, masts and rudder of a ship. The aqueduct, an iconic image of the town, was built by the Romans who transformed the ancient town into an important military base.  It was hard to grasp the scale of this massive structure, and it wasn’t until I stood alongside its base did I realize just how immense it is. This aqueduct stands as a symbol of a Roman Empire that occupied the region long ago.

The Roman aqueduct at Segovia

The Roman aqueduct at Segovia

Having our fill of Madrid, our travels took us south towards the Andalusia region. Along the way we made stops in Granada, Seville, and Cordoba. Cordoba’s Mezquita personified the Islamic influence on the Iberian Peninsula. Its evolution took form over many centuries.  In the 10th century, some of the most extravagant additions were completed, including the elaborate mihrab and the maqsura. During the 16th century, a cathedral was built in the heart of the mosque, blending the Islamic forms of previous centuries with newer classical elements of the time to form a masterpiece.


(left) Elaborate organ inside the cathedral within the Great Mosque (right) The Mihrab: this prayer niche once held a gilt copy of the Koran

All told, it was an interesting study on the evolution of buildings, cities and, subsequently, nations. Much like the Americas, Iberia has taken shape from the influence of different settlements and rulings over its long history. Although diverse across the different regions of the Peninsula, its eclectic architecture actually binds it together to form a timeless environment.

The preceding was authored by DMSAS intern architect Isaac Bonilla. Isaac has been with the firm since 2006, the same year he graduated from Andrews University with his Masters of Architecture.

One Response to “Travelogue: Discovering the Iberian Peninsula”
  1. Moritz says:

    The architecture in Portugal is really special. I’m looking forward to visiting Sintra this december, I heard so many positive things about it. Thanks for the inspiration 🙂

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