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The Leopard's Travel Blog - Archives


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: A final walk through the old city
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: A last look at modernista architecture
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Gaudí’s Casa Batllò
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Flamenco night
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: The City Museum
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Touring modernista Architecture
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Tapas in the Afternoon
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Castell de Montjüic
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: El Raval District
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: The Monastery of Montserrat
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Gaudí does parks too
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Domènech i Montaner and other modernists
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Gaudí’s Casa Milà
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Gaudí’s Cathedral
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: The Works of Gaudí
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: A Night Out with Soccer
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Modernista Architecture and Gaudí
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: The Santa Maria del Mar Church
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: The Bounty of a Barcelona Market
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: More of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: In the Steps of Orwell
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Morning in Catalonia
Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Introduction
Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: The Domino Dominator and other Local Color
Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: Treasures of Amber
Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: A Glimpse into the Colonial Past
Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: New World Cathedral
Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: The Trujillo Legacy
Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: Exploring the Plaza de la Cultura
Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: When it Rains, it Really Rains in Santo Domingo
Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: Sight-seeing in the Zona Colonial
Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: Class Begins
Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: Exploring the City
Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: Introduction
Caves and Citadels of India: Last Day in Delhi
Caves and Citadels of India: Sounds and Lights at the Red Fort
Caves and Citadels of India: Night Train Back to Delhi
Caves and Citadels of India: Panchakki
Caves and Citadels of India: The Poor Man’s Taj
Caves and Citadels of India: The Tour of Ajanta Continues
Caves and Citadels of India: The Ajanta Caves
Caves and Citadels of India: The City of Aurangabad
Caves and Citadels of India: The Ellora Caves
Caves and Citadels of India: Into Maharashtra State
Caves and Citadels of India: Sojourn in Gujarat
Caves and Citadels of India: Dusk at Mount Abu
Caves and Citadels of India: The Dilwara Temples
Caves and Citadels of India: Abu Road and Mount Abu
Caves and Citadels of India: Tea Time in Udaipur
Caves and Citadels of India: The City Palace and Jagdish Temple
Caves and Citadels of India: The City on the Lake
Caves and Citadels of India: The Royal Treatment in Udaipur
Caves and Citadels of India: The Tour of Chittaurgarh
Caves and Citadels of India: Chittaurgarh Fort
Caves and Citadels of India: Galta Temple
Caves and Citadels of India: The Jaipur City Palace
Caves and Citadels of India: Jantar Mantar
Caves and Citadels of India: The Amber Fort
Caves and Citadels of India: Jaipur and the Narain Niwas Palace
Caves and Citadels of India: The Road to Jaipur
Caves and Citadels of India: Finishing up the Tour of Fatehpur Sikri
Caves and Citadels of India: The Ghost City of Fatehpur Sikri
Caves and Citadels of India: Exploring the Agra Fort
Caves and Citadels of India: Agra Fort
Caves and Citadels of India: Emperor Akbar’s Tomb
Caves and Citadels of India: The “Baby Taj”
Caves and Citadels of India: Inside the Taj Mahal
Caves and Citadels of India: A Tour of the Taj Mahal
Caves and Citadels of India: A Mad Rickshaw Ride to Agra’s Mosque
Caves and Citadels of India: The Road to Agra
Caves and Citadels of India: A Sufi Mystic’s Tomb
Caves and Citadels of India: Connaught Place
Caves and Citadels of India: Humayun’s Tomb
Caves and Citadels of India: Qutb Minar
Caves and Citadels of India: A New Delhi for a New Era
Caves and Citadels of India: Kababs and the Jama Masjid
Caves and Citadels of India: Chandni Chowk and Memories of 1857
Caves and Citadels of India: The Red Fort of Delhi
Caves and Citadels of India: Shahjahanabad, Seat of Emperors
Caves and Citadels of India: Farewell to Chandigarh
Caves and Citadels of India: The Golden Temple and Jallianwallah Bagh
Caves and Citadels of India: The Holy City of Amritsar
Caves and Citadels of India: The Road to Amritsar
Caves and Citadels of India: Chandigarh, the City Beautiful
Caves and Citadels of India: Introduction
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Wrapping up a Fine Trip with Fado Music
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: The Glorious Tangle of Alfama
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Up to the Heights of Graça
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Mouraria and Martim Moniz
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Modernism at the Park of Nations
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Everybody Shout “Sporting”!
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Scaling the Heights in Sintra
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: The National Palace of Sintra
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Sintra’s Glorious Eden
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Cascais and Points North
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: A Saturday Excursion along the Portuguese Coast
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: The Streets are Alive on a Friday Night in Lisbon
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Lost Fado in Bairro Alto
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Coffee and a Monster from a Legendary Epic
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Cuisine from the Former Portuguese Colonies
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Art Treasures both Antique and Modern
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Finishing up a Day with Coffee and Beer, Two of My Favorite Things
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Traditional Portuguese Lunch in Bairro Alto
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: The Manueline Treasures of Belém
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Belém, the Shore of Discovery
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Catching European Football on TV
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: What Fuels Portugal? Coffee and Port
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Roman and Manueline, Two of Lisbon’s Many Pasts
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Castelo de São Jorge
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: The Clackety-Clack of the Classic Lisbon Tram
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: A Taste of Eiffel
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Home Away from Home in Carnaxide
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Swimming through Tourists in Baixa
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Chasing Down Pessoa
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: In the Steps of the Carnation Revolution
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Impressions after a Red-Eye Flight
The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Introduction
Spring in the Pacific Northwest: The Ethnic Enclaves of Vancouver
Spring in the Pacific Northwest: As Urban as it Gets in Downtown Vancouver
Spring in the Pacific Northwest: The Greens and the Blues of Vancouver
Spring in the Pacific Northwest: Capitol Hill
Spring in the Pacific Northwest: The Heart of Seattle
Spring in the Pacific Northwest: Rocking Out in Seattle Center
Summering on Maine’s Route One: A Blue Hill and a Deer Isle
Summering on Maine’s Route One: Playing Fort
Summering on Maine’s Route One: Penobscot Bay
Summering on Maine’s Route One: How to Enjoy the View whether Sitting in Traffic or Exploring the Pemaquid Peninsula
Summering on Maine’s Route One: Portland
Madrid’s Other Museums: Part 2
Madrid’s Other Museums
Goya in Madrid
The Winding Streets of Toledo, Part 3
The Winding Streets of Toledo, Part 2
The Winding Streets of Toledo
German Expressionism in Madrid?
Some of Madrid’s Finest Plazas
Guernica and Other Spanish Moderns
Howitzer Avenue, Then and Now
Goya at the Prado
The Prado
Remnants of Moorish Madrid
The Delights of Jerez
Time for Tapas in Madrid
The Museum of Danish Resistance in Copenhagen
Relics of the City Behind the Wall, Part 2: The Stasi Museum and Prison
Relics of the City Behind the Wall, Part 1: Reminders of the War and a City Divided
Lobster Rolls and the Outdoors in Southwestern Maine
The Wonders of Agra, India, Part 2
The Wonders of Agra, India
Orhan Pamuk Wins the Prize!
Old World Coffee Culture in Vienna
The Museums of Lyon
Masterworks in the Churches of Rome
Bull's Blood in the Valley of the Beautiful Women
Home-style Polish Cuisine in a Warsaw Milk Bar
The Mummies of St. Michan's



Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: A final walk through the old city

On our last afternoon, we want to spend most of our time soaking in the atmosphere of the old city. We walk south to the Plaça de la Mercè and take a brief peek at the Baroque church Església de la Mercè (c. 1760), which was badly damaged during the Civil War. We get a little coffee at a bakery on the plaza. Refreshed, we continue south to Barceloneta, the district by the water. In 1753, landfill was used to form this triangle of land to replace housing destroyed to make room for La Ciutadella. By the mid 19th century it became an industrial slum but by the 1980s was transformed and has been rapidly gentrifying. However, as we get farther into the neighborhood it starts to rain, so we change our plan and decide to try an indoor activity.

We walk over to the Museu Maritim (Maritime Museum), housed in the Gothic shipyards called the Reials Drassanes (Royal Shipyards) (completed 1378), the most complete that have survived from the Middle Ages. The arched bays once sloped directly into the water, though the shore has been built up since then. We are able to look through the plate glass and see the wide arches. The highlight is a full-size replica of the flagship of Don Juan, launched from here to lead the Spanish-Venetian fleet to victory against the Ottomans at Lepanto in 1571. As the rain has let up, we decide we have seen enough of the shipyards and continue with a walking tour. Around the west side of the museum we can see the most significant remnant of the 13th-century city walls that were built in the time of Pere III around El Raval.

We go north into El Raval, getting a better sense of the vibrancy of the largely immigrant community that makes up the district. Hallie browses in some of the second-hand clothing shops on Carrer de la Riera Baixa, which are just opening up after the afternoon siesta. They all carry a hip edge and specialize in retro and vintage fashion.

On Carrer de l’Hospital we pass by another sign of the South Asian immigrant community, a “Templo Sikh” called the Guardwara Gurdarshan Sahib Ji. Down the street we come upon one of the more interesting sights of the Raval area. The Antic Hospital de la Santa Creu was the city’s main hospital in the 15th century and functioned until the 1930s. The wooded courtyard is a nice place to sit and relax and includes a little café. The stairs on the west side of the courtyard lead up the Biblioteca Nacional de Catalunya. We can walk in and glimpse the Gothic stone arches of the reading room. A smaller courtyard to the north leads into the Institut d’Estudis Catalans. The entrance vault is decorated with ceramics depicting the life of St. Paul. Beyond is a pleasant cloister.

We stop into Bar Muy Buenas (Carrer del Carme 63), a modernista bar that started in the late 19th century as a corner store. The décor is quite nice, particularly the sculpted wood partition between the bar and the main room. We have two glasses of the house Rosado at €3.20 each while the Dominican bartender enjoys listening to reggaeton and chatting with some of her regulars. The Sparrow and another patron play around with the local cat.

We get on the metro at the Sant Antoni station, named after the nearby Mercat de Sant Antoni, an iron-covered market that is seemingly shut down for renovation. For our last night, we want to return to our favorite restaurant Casa Delfín. We can’t resist having the patatas bravas again and complement them with aranida de tomàquet de pera i bonitol confitat estilo Casa Delfin (ensalada de tomate de pera y bonito confitado estilo Casa Delfín, plum tomato salad and marinated tuna à la Casa Delfin) (€6.75). The salad is a bit vertical but tasty and fresh. This time we make sure to have the pa amb tomaquet (€1.30), a very tasty version of the classic Catalan grilled bread with tomato. Appropriately for a restaurant specializing in local cuisine, the house red (€2.95) is a Tempranillo from the local Penedès region.

And with this final meal our little sojourn in Barcelona comes to an end.

Posted 3 November 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: A last look at modernista architecture

Next door to Gaudí’s masterpiece is Casa Amatller (1900) (Passeig de Gràcia 41), a building renovated by Puig i Cadafalch. True to his signature style, Cadafalch dressed the building up as a neo-Gothic palace. The window frames are supported by corbels featuring animals sculpted by Eusebi Arnau i Mascort, a frequent collaborator of the modernista architects. The main portion is in ocher-and-white stucco Italianate style, whereas the pediment is stepped German Gothic ornamented with polychrome tiles. We are able to enter the lobby and see the main staircase, which affords a view of a wonderful stained glass ceiling above.

The final wedge of the apple of discord is Casa Lleó Morera (1905) (Passeig de Gràcia 35), designed by Domènech i Montaner. Though restrained in comparison with the other two buildings, it is still a neo-Gothic wonder, elegantly topped with a series of lacy spikes and narrow gazebo. Eusebi Arnau was also hired to do the exterior sculptures for this building, creating a unity with the Casa Amatller. Unfortunately, some of the original sculptures were destroyed during the Civil War. Although the building is not accessible, we are able to just peek in the main doors to see the floral tiled stairs and a wooden elevator. According to art critic and writer Robert Hughes, the Loewe department store on the ground floor made changes that spoiled parts of the building, warranting a perpetual boycott of Loewe by fans of modern architecture.

Tucked between the holy three and very demure in comparison is Casa Mulleras (1906) (Passeig de Gràcia 37), designed by Enric Sagnier. Its straight-forward but elegant design would probably be better appreciated in another setting.

We finish up our modernista tour a little farther south with the Casa Pia Batlló (1891-6) (Rambla de Catalunya 17). The Joseph Vilaseca building has nice ironwork and pseudo-Gothic touches in a set of conical towers.

We continue walking south on the Rambla, seeking to get some lunch at the Mercat Boqueria. We again take a look at Bar Pinotxo but find it too crowded. We instead decide to put together a picnic lunch from the many offerings. We pick up bread, a bowl of fruit salad, raw milk cheese, and salchichón ibérico (spiced sausage). The abundance of food is a contrast to the condition of the market during the 1937 Barcelona May Days, when Orwell writes that he was lucky to get a wedge of goat’s milk cheese, which helped to sustain him during his run from the Civil Guards. We eat our lunch sitting down before the stretch of Roman wall on Carrer de la Palla.

Next week: The old city of Barcelona

Posted 20 October 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Gaudí’s Casa Batllò

The rain is tapering off in the morning, so we find we have another good chance to see some architecture. We take the metro directly to the Passeig de Gràcia station and get out to take a look at the Manzana de la Discordia. The three buildings that make up the “manzana” (a tidy pun as it means both “apple” and “block” in Castilian) are so named because of the impact their collective modernista style makes on what would otherwise be an ordinary stretch of Passeig de Gràcia.

We first go to Gaudí’s Casa Batllò (1877, 1904-6) (Passeig de Gràcia 43), which we skipped during our Gaudí tour day. The sidewalk in front is made up of hexagonal gray cement tiles stamped with a nautilus shell, starfish, and octopus. Gaudí originally designed these for the courtyard of this building. They were subsequently used for Casa Milà and then for sidewalks in other parts of l’Eixample by municipal consent, allowing Gaudí’s imagination to grace more of the district than most people imagine.

The building was originally constructed in 1877. Gaudí was commissioned to give it a remodeling in 1904. Thus, the basic structure of the building is standard, in contrast to Casa Milà, which Gaudí designed from the ground up. Still, Gaudí’s facelift is so extensive that little of the original design remains.

We are first struck by the façade, another one of Gaudí’s collaborations with Jujol i Gibert. The sprinkles of blue, mauve, and green tile create an effect that has been compared to the shifting colors of Monet’s paintings. Like the Park Güell, the design of the Casa Batllò is supposed to have symbolic associations. Gaudí himself explained the façade as a representation of the victory of St. George, the patron saint of Catalonia. The ridged roof represents the dragon’s spine, the iron balconies the skulls of the victims, and certain interior elements the bones. Above it all is an arched roof, representing St. George’s lance. Though the building makes a bold individualist statement, Gaudí took care to respect the lines of next door’s Casa Amatller, and the two together form two humps of a ridge.

Entry to the Casa Batllò is a steep €17.80, the highest of all of the Gaudí sites, but we reason it is probably worth it. We are not disappointed as access to this building is the most extensive of all of the ones we have seen. The price includes an audio tour, which at times spouts out the standard clichés but also offers insights into some of the finer details of the building.

A grand staircase leads up to the first floor. The foyer at the top of the stairs receives natural light from an unobtrusive skylight. The three main rooms in the front are provisioned with long windows. The walls between them are undulating, but the doors are carefully designed to fit the molded doorways. The handles of the windows are uniquely styled to perfectly fit the human hand, the kind of ergonomic design that was little valued in Gaudí’s era. The main room has a lamp nestled in a ceiling molded in a spiral design. At the rear of this floor is access to a courtyard.

Through the center of the building is an elevator shaft. Even the wooden elevator was designed by Gaudí. The light well around the elevator is lined with blue ceramic tiles that gradually change color from dark blue at the top to nearly white at the bottom. The color shift is designed to allow for maximum reflection of light throughout the building. When one looks down the shaft from above the well looks uniformly lit rather than a dark pit.

One floor has a café lounge in the front where undoubtedly over-priced food and beverages can be enjoyed. The attic level was used for the house’s staff. Gill-like slits have been cut into the walls to allow for ventilation of the laundry area. Sets of spiral stairs lead up to the roof, a less-fanciful version of the roof of Casa Milà. The bunched chimneys are gaily decorated in tile. The tower that tops the façade bulges over into a little chamber on the roof that can be poked into.

Next week: A few final modernista buildings.

Posted 13 October 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Flamenco night

We head back to the apartment for a while to take a break, intending to return in the evening. Few shops are open today, but we are able to get a baguette from a little bakery around the corner to supplement a snack. We go back into town for dinner. In the south part of the Barri Gòtic we find Bar Celta (Carrer de la Mercè 16), a Galician pulperia (octopus restaurant). We ask for a menu and are told that what we see under glass along the bar constitutes the menu, probably because choices are limited on a Sunday. The place specializes in octopus, so seafood naturally abounds. We have the patatas bravas alioli (€3.40), croquetas de bacalao (battered and fried salt cod) (€2.85), croquetas with tuna and cheese (€3.30), and pebrots de pardon (€4.60). We also know to order agua de grifo (“tap water”). Glasses of the house red (Señorio de Laurgain Rioja) go for €1.10.

The rain has finally started up now, but luckily our plans for the evening mostly involve staying indoors. Although flamenco isn’t really a traditional Catalan art form, we understand that some local places do have shows by fine performers. Our choice for entertainment this evening, Sala Tarantos (Plaça Reial 17), has been the top venue for flamenco in the city since 1963. Three shows are presented each night at 8:30, 9:30, and 10:30 for a reasonable €7.00 each. We get to the place at 8:00 and find that people are already lining up. I was concerned that the audience would be filled with tourists, but Spaniards are present and more will likely show up for the later shows. The performers, a troupe led by Yolanda Cortés, are quite skilled, with a guitarist, two male singers, two female dancers, and a percussionist with a cajón (box drum). We have arrived early enough to get good seats and can watch the technique up close. Although drinks are served, we imagine they are probably over-priced.

We instead go for drinks after the show and have two cañas of San Miguel at a bar-restaurant on Carrer D’Avinyò. The colorful owner, who sports a startling Dalí-like moustache, boasts of his ability to speak (or at least serve in) different languages and is quite welcoming to the tourists who inhabit the place this evening. By the time we get out it is raining quite hard and we make a quick walk to the metro station. We purchase one more T-10 ticket to use between the two of us as the ticket allows for multi-person use.

Next week: A masterpiece by Gaudí.

Posted 29 September 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: The City Museum

We’ve somehow managed to spend quite a bit of time in Barcelona without ducking into any true museum. Probably the abundance of modernista architecture on the streets has something to do with it, but we decide to rectify that omission today and go to the city museum, which is located in the Barri Gòtic.

Entry to the Museu d’Història de la Ciutat is €7.00 and includes a generally instructive audio tour. The highlight is a visit to the remains of Roman and Visigothic Barcino. An elevator takes us down into the basement of the building, where wooden walkways lead around select parts of an extensive set of ruins. We see the foundation of a Roman villa, basins for doing laundry, dyeing workshops, and wine-making facilities. One interesting element is the shop for producing garum, a sort of paste made with fish entrails and various other additives. Garum was apparently highly prized as a condiment and made in abundance in Barcino. I somehow imagine it tasting a bit like the spicy fish sauce used in some Asian food.

The exhibit continues with the remnants of a 6th century Visigothic church and Episcopal complex. We emerge from the ruins into the medieval Royal Palace, which has displays on medieval Barcelona and recounts the transition from Visigothic to Muslim to Carolingian rule. A relief map uses colored lights to point out some of the major sites of the city during the Middle Ages. The final two rooms in the museum are both from the Gothic era. The Saló del Tinell (1359-70) was the banqueting hall of the royal palace. Its six semicircular arches are set on low pillars and span more than fifty feet, constituting some of the largest unreinforced masonry arches in Europe and providing a fine example of Catalan Gothic. Designed under the reign of Pere III, the hall is best known as the place where Fernando and Isabel received Columbus in 1493 after his first voyage to the New World, though the story is apocryphal. The hall contains an interesting exhibit on Ildefons Cerdà and his design of the l’Eixample district. The other major room is the Capella Reial de Santa Àgata, a 14th-century palace chapel. The 15th-century altarpiece is particularly fine.

While looking around the Plaça del Rei we stumble upon the Palau del Lloctinent on the southwest side. Built in the 1550s as the residence of the lloctinent (viceroy), the palace’s pleasant courtyard has a staircase allowing a look up at an extraordinary sculpted timber ceiling from the 16th century. Inside the mansion is a temporary exhibit on correspondence between Barcelona and Islamic nations during the 13th to 17th centuries.

Next week: A little flamenco.

Posted 22 September 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Touring modernista Architecture

The morning’s weather report indicates that rain will begin in the evening, so we decide to take advantage of the clear period by taking a tour of modernista architecture.

Most major cities have experienced periods of rapid expansion or rebuilding. Some cities have at times been the home of progressive architectural movements. Occasionally, the two events will overlap, which occurred in Barcelona during the modernism period when a group of young architects working in bold new styles were offered the fresh expanse of the l’Eixample district to let their imaginations and skills loose. The area between Carrer d’Aribau, Passeig de Sant Joan, Avinguda Diagonal, and Ronda da Sant Pere is known as the Quadrat d’Or (“Golden Square,” though it’s more of a parallelogram in shape), as it contains the richest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture and design in Europe. Our walk this morning takes us by a number of the major expressions in the area, though numerous buildings are designed with some modernista elements.

Casa Planells, 1924 (Avinguda Diagonal 332). Architect: Josep María Jujol i Gibert. The location of this building on a tight corner seems to lend itself to the curvilinear gallery and balconies bulging out into space over the sidewalk. Jujol collaborated with Gaudí on some of this work and was clearly inspired to go in a similar aesthetic direction with this building.

Casa Macaya, 1901 (Passeig de Sant Joan 108). Architect: Josep Puig i Cadafalch. A wonderful pseudo-Gothic construction with intricate patterns worked into the white stucco walls. Some of the fanciful sculptural details around the door include a man on a mule and a woman riding a bicycle.

Casa Dolors Alesan de Gibert, 1902-5 (Passeig de Sant Joan, 110). Architect: Enric Fatjó Torras. Located just next door to the Casa Macaya, this building has sets of balconies and windows that thrust out in undulating shapes, creating an elegant wave-like effect.

Església de les Saleses, 1878-85 (Passeig de Sant Joan). Architect: Joan Martorelli i Montells. Martorelli was Gaudí’s architecture professor, which normally would mean little, except one can clearly discern touches of modernism in this neo-Gothic church, particularly in the patterned tiles and brickwork. We take a peek inside while mass is in progress.

Palau Montaner, completed 1896 (Carrer de Mallorca 278). Architect: Lluís Domènech i Montaner. What was then a house for one of the owners of the Montaner i Simon publishing firm was actually begun by another architect, who quit and left the rest to be designed by Domènech. The highlights of the exterior are rich mosaics that deal with the printing industry. The interior can be visited by a guided tour that is only in English at 10:30 on Saturdays.

Casa Llopis i Bofill, 1902 (Carrer de València 339). Architect: Antoni Gallissà. The block of flats bears an impressive series of large glass windows forming a thick vertical band down the middle of the façade. The rest is decorated with rich floral patterns. The brick arcaded gallery along the ground floor showcases the elegant use of brick in modernista architecture.

Casa Granell, 1901-3 (Carrer de Girona 122). Architect: Jeroni Granell i Manresa. Another building distinguished by the elegant use of windows, this time with lovely stained glass designs, some hidden behind soft purple shutters. Also impressive is the green-and-purple pastel vine decoration over the façade.

Casa Thomas, 1895-8 (Carrer de Mallorca 291-293). Architect: Lluís Domènech i Montaner. Though the building was one of Domènech’s earlier efforts, the neo-Gothic façade shows his interest in traditional architecture. The Gothic severity is softened by a pattern of tiles in blue, gold, and scarlet, some forming eagle icons. Sculpted vines climb up the columns of the first floor gallery. Particularly impressive is the ground-level wrought-iron decoration, now housing a Cubiña design store.

Casa Terrades, 1903-5 (Avinguda Diagonal 420). Architect: Josep Puig i Cadafalch. Better known as Casa de les Punxes (House of Spikes) because of its four pointed turrets, this apartment building is sort of a cross between a Flemish guildhall and King Ludwig’s castle. The main tower, the spikiest of them all, boasts an elaborate lantern. A closer view allows appreciation of the ornamental stonework in floral motifs.

Palau del Baró Quadras, 1902-6 (Avinguda Diagonal 373). Architect: Josep Puig i Cadafalch. The first element that grabs us is the exuberant neo-Gothic façade with gargoyles, knights, and fish in stone relief. Luckily, it now houses a cultural center called Casa Asia and is accessible to the public. Though the exterior has a heavy Gothic feel, the interior abounds with Eastern and Middle Eastern motifs. The ground floor has a fountain and richly decorated tile floor. The ceramic-tile-lined stairway leads to a lovely arched hall with a wood ceiling and stained glass gallery. The rear hall on this floor has delicate tree murals on the walls. We are able to take the stairs up to the roof and get a good look at some of the other modernista buildings in the area.

The third member of the holy trinity of Catalan modernism, Cadafalch was younger than both Gaudí and Domènech i Montaner and was a pupil of the latter. Like Gaudí, he was deeply traditional and Catalanist and wasn’t comfortable being lumped in with the modernism movement. In his view, everything that was good about European architecture came from traditional culture. He favored the lacy northern European High Gothic style over Romanesque mass, which in some ways put him at odds with Catalan Gothic and its emphasis on solidity over ornamentation. Though he eschewed the use of Arabic influences simply because it wasn’t a part of the Catalan tradition, elements of Middle Eastern design certainly show up in his Palau del Baró Quadras. In his later years he adapted his style to the nuocentisme movement that supplanted modernism.

Casa Comalat, 1911. (Avinguda Diagonal 442). Architect: Salvador Valeri. Another building that shows an obvious Gaudí influence, though the façade’s curvatures are restrained in comparison to the work by Valeri’s more famous peer.

Next week: A dose of history at the City Museum.

Posted 15 September 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Tapas in the Afternoon

We decide to live the Spanish way this afternoon and have a filling lunch. Our guidebook has a number of suggestions in the area, one of the most intriguing of which is in La Ribera in the Born area. Though most of these places seem over-wrought, our guidebook assures us this restaurant is worth it. We are not disappointed in Casa Delfín (Passeig del Born 36), which prides itself on doing a gourmet spin on traditional Catalan specialties. We start with a tortilla de escalivada con picada de perejil y guindilla (red pepper, onion, and aubergine omelette with pesto and chili peppers) (€4.90). The omelette is cooked to perfection, firm enough on the top and just moist enough inside. Escalivada, grilled red peppers, aubergines, and onions, is a traditional Catalan preparation, as is picada, a sort of pesto made with ground almonds, garlic, parsley, and hazelnuts. We accompany the omelette with patatas bravas con alioli y salsa de ñoras (fried potatoes with alioli dressing and ñora red pepper sauce) (€4.20). Alioli consists of pounded garlic and olive oil in an egg yolk base. The patatas bravas are wonderfully spicy, the best that we’ve had. For the main dish we have the arròs a la cassola amb rap i boets de temporada (arroz a la cazuela con rape y setas de temporada, rice casserole with monkfish and seasonal mushrooms). Arròs a la cassola is essentially Catalan paella, cooked in an earthenware pot without saffron, and this version is both hearty and flavorful. Overall, we are extremely pleased with our meal and with the friendly service and resolve to return before our trip ends.

We want to follow our meal with some dessert and are determined to indulge in the Spanish treat of churros with hot chocolate. After searching around a bit, we find a churreria called Granja Ruiz on Carrer de la Princesa and Carrer de la Cadena. We have coffee and churros with hot chocolate for a total of €8.00. The churros are made fresh, and we can watch the little strips of dough being squeezed before being deep fried. The chocolate is thick and rich, perfect for dipping the churros.

We head back to the apartment to rest up a bit, but on the way we get out at the Hospital de Sant Pau metro station. The station is named after the Hospital de la Santa Creu i de Sant Pau (completed 1910), a modernista masterpiece by Domènech i Montaner. Rather than just approach the project from an aesthetic perspective, Domènech set out to redefine the concept of the hospital. Instead of a sterile environment, he felt that patients should be able to recuperate in a garden with fresh air and trees, so he designed the hospital complex as a series of sixteen pavilions in a garden setting. The hospital’s service areas were constructed underground and linked with the above-ground pavilions. Each pavilion is a unique work, decorated with ceramic and natural motifs as well as mosaics depicting saints, angels, knights and personifications of science and mercy. The hospital functioned until 2009, but it is now closed for renovation. We are unable to walk the grounds but get a good look at the main building, distinguished by a skeletal brick spire topped with a clock.

Our apartment is a straight shot down the diagonal Avinguda de Gaudí from the hospital. With the hospital at one end and Sagrada Familia at the other, the street allows an excellent perspective on two modernista masterpieces.

After resting up for a bit, we decide to try out the Saturday evening scene in our area. We get out and start walking west. Most of the places we come upon are local joints. We also pass a number of buildings that we resolve to get a better look at in the morning. While walking down Carrer de València, we encounter yet another iron-hulled market from the modernisme era, this one the Mercat de la Concepció, now housing a 24-hour flower market.

We finally reach a trendier part of l’Eixample and locate a bar recommended in our guidebook, Les Gens que J’Aime (Carrer de València 286), a low-lit lounge bar set below the street level. Red velvet sofas, antique lamps, and mellow jazz music make for a pleasant atmosphere. Two cañas of San Miguel beer are €7.00.

Next week: A tour of some of Barcelona’s modernista masterpieces.

Posted 8 September 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Castell de Montjüic

As the weather is still holding up, we decide to focus on more outdoor activities today, beginning with the castle on the hill. We take the metro to the Parel.lel station and transfer to the funicular, which takes us to Park Montjüic. From there we have to purchase additional tickets for the teleferic cable cars to the castle. Round-trip tickets are €9.00. The name of the mountain, Montjüic, suggests “Jewish Mountain,” and there may indeed have once been a Jewish cemetery here. However, another theory claims it was named after Mons Iovis, a hill where the Romans built a shrine to Jupiter. Sections were used in the 1929 World Exhibition and the 1992 Olympics.

The most prominent site on the mountain is Castell de Montjüic. The current form of the fortress dates from the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1842, the local garrison, loyal to the government in Madrid, bombarded the city from here to quell an uprising. In the late 19th century the castle racked up a tally of tortures and executions of anarchists and alleged anarchists. In 1893, Paulí Pallàs, who tossed a bomb at an army officer, was killed by firing squad. In 1896, various anarchists and anticlericals were rounded up and tortured here after a bomb at a religious procession killed 12 people. During the Spanish Civil War, both Nationalists and Republicans were executed here. The most famous execution of that time was that of Lluís Companys, the president of Catalonia until his death by firing squad in 1940. A placard marks the spot where this notorious event occurred. We spend some time walking around the walls and grounds. I enjoy the several artillery pieces going to rust. We can see an archery club practicing in the moat. The seaward side of the castle looks over a container port, which is actually quite photogenic in the morning fog. The rooms in the courtyard had housed a military museum, but the castle is undergoing renovation and the collection is closed off for the time being.

We come down the hill on the teleferic and funicular, transferring to the subway and emerging at the Liceu station. Nearby we locate an internet café with a €1.00 per half-hour rate. After checking our e-mail we wander a bit in the Barri Gòtic looking at stores. Carrer de Petritxol, a street known for chocolate shops, has an obvious appeal. We take a peek at Caelum (Carrer de la Palla 8), a quaint shop selling sweets made by nuns from all over Spain. Now that we are accustomed to the historic quarter, we are better able to appreciate the little details in the buildings and the streets.

We go into a quiet little square called Plaça de Sant Felip, adorned with a little fountain. The façade of the Baroque Església de Sant Felip Neri church (1752) is marked with huge pits. Stories on what caused this damage vary. Some contend the gashes were made by fascists when they machine-gunned anarchists after taking the city in 1939. However, I have seen sources that claim they were caused by a bomb that fell here in 1938 and killed 153 people.

Next week: We discover our favorite tapas restaurant.

Posted 1 September 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: El Raval District

On our way back to the apartment, we stop at a gourmet meat and cheese shop on Carrer de la Marina and Carrer de Valencia near Sagrada Familia. We pick up quarter kilos of goat cheese, one from Toledo and one from Málaga, two fine and interesting cheeses. The addition of another loaf of bread and some fruits and vegetables from other shops on the way provide us with dinner. After eating, we head out to sample the nightlife in the city center.

We decide to check out the El Raval neighborhood, named for an Arabic word for the suburban area outside the medieval city walls. At one time the neighborhood was very dodgy, as memorably recounted by Jean Genet in his autobiographical account The Thief’s Journal (1949), in which the author mentions being involved in various illicit activities in this area. These days it still retains a bit of its edge, especially on Carrer de Sant Roman, which appears to have a number of prostitutes and pimps. Many of the stores and restaurants are run by Pakistanis. The South Asian restaurants have pictures of some rather odd dishes obviously engineered to local tastes. I am especially mystified by the inclusion of fries with each entree.

We stop at the London Bar (Carrer Nou de la Rambla 34-36) for a drink. The bartender is very welcoming and the house white is only €1.50 a glass. The modernista bar has been a popular hang-out since 1909 and was frequented by Picasso, Miró, and Hemingway.

We head north up the central pedestrian strip known as the Rambla del Raval, which replaced a slum block torn down in 2000. We pass some bars and restaurants with a swankier feel and get the sense that we are in a district undergoing a process of gentrification in a narrative familiar to many of New York City’s neighborhoods. Pioneering middle-class types attracted by cheap rent are likely moving in, gradually pushing out immigrants and others who made a home here long ago. Hip new spots are opening up next to comfortable old eating and watering holes.

Our last stop in El Raval is the Jazz Si Club (Carrer de Requesens 2), run by the Taller de Músics (Musicians’ Workshop). The venue is packed and we can hear flamenco playing, but we are not up for staying long enough to make the cover charge worth paying.

Next week: Castle on a hill.

Posted 25 August 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: The Monastery of Montserrat

One of our intentions on this stay is to make a day trip to someplace outside of the city. The shortlist included the town of Tarragona with its Roman ruins and the monastery at Montserrat. We settle on Montserrat as we conclude it will be a unique experience. As rain is projected for the weekend, we decide that we had better make sure to get in the trip today.

We take the metro to Plaça d’Espanya and walk from the metro station to the train station. At the automatic ticket machines we have a little trouble figuring out what to choose among a number of Montserrat combination tickets, some of which include entrance to the museum and rides on some of the funiculars. As we feel we need to choose quickly, we get two round-trip tickets for the train and rack railway for €15.00 each. When we check the monitor for our R5 train we find that the next one will not be coming for nearly an hour, so we get out from the station to look around a bit.

We find ourselves on Plaça d’Espanya, a major roundabout at the western end of the city. Flanking one avenue are two towers that resemble those of St. Mark’s Square in Venice. At the north end is the Plaça de Braus Les Arenes, a bullring designed by August Font being converted into a shopping center, which strikes us as the lesser of two evils. The Moorish Revival style is popular for bullrings as bullfighting originated in Andalusia. We walk a little bit to Park Joan Miró, a small plaza with a sculpture by the artist called Dona i Ocell (Woman and Bird).

We get back into the station and embark onto the 10:36 train. Getting to the train early turns out to be a good idea as there are not enough seats for everyone. The route leads out into suburban areas of the city and finally into a mountainous region where we can see the squarish blocks of the monastery clinging to the rippled mountainside. The first Montserrat stop is Aeri de Montserrat, where most of the passengers get off. This stop allows access to the cable car to the monastery. We might have bought tickets for these cars had we known, but we instead have a ticket for the cremallera (rack railway), which is a bit cheaper than the cable car. We reach the next stop, Monistrol de Montserrat, at 11:40. The small rack railway train leaves soon after our arrival, winding up the hillside in about twenty minutes.

The Monestir de Montserrat sits on a little plateau on the side of Montserrat (“serrated mountain”). The sausage-like shapes of the rock formations above resemble the spires of Sagrada Familia, and many have conjectured that perhaps the pious Gaudí took a cue from the most significant religious site in Catalonia. The monastery was founded in 1025 to commemorate a vision seen of the Virgin on the mountain. Napoleon’s troops destroyed it in 1811 during the Peninsular War. The current version dates to an 1858 rebuilding. Around eighty monks currently live here, but much of what we see seems designed to support tourism to this popular site.

We first go to the information booth to pick up a map and decide what we want to focus on. We know that we are not interested in hearing the Montserrat boys’ choir sing, even though it’s considered somehow special. Our first stop is the Basilica, which is quite impressive. Though the building dates from the 16th century, the façade was constructed in 1901 in an ornate Plateresque style. The interior is filled with a series of remarkable censers, each one distinct. Also interesting is the organ, which has pipes jutting out like angels’ trumpets. In an aisle along the chapels is a long line of people waiting to see the 12th-century Romanesque sculpture known as La Morenata (the Black Madonna), one of the important relics of the monastery. Though the icon’s color is attributed to some miracle, in 2002 it was determined that accumulated candle smoke has given the Virgin her dusky complexion.

We next scout around for lunch options. The restaurant overlooking the valley is closed as despite the volume of tourists we are not really in high season. We opt for the limited selection at the cafeteria and get ham and cheese and omelette sandwiches.

After lunch we check the map for our options in the area. One funicular train descends down to the location where the apparition of the Virgin was seen. Another ascends up the mountain. A hiking trail also goes up the mountain, but it is a little too rugged for our city clothing and is projected to take two hours round-trip. We instead decide to take some shorter walks. We first walk the Via Crucis along a slope close to the monastery. The stations of the cross are depicted along the way with expressionist metal relief sculptures. A final hike takes us up to the cross of Sant Miquel. The path skirts the valley and ends in an outcropping with a cross that allows us to see the monastery from the other side. The views are magnificent.

We find we have a little time left before the next train departs and check out the gift store, filled with rows of miniature Black Madonnas. In a book, Hallie notices a picture of the icon at the altar in the Basilica. We had assumed that the people we saw in line were waiting to get into some room to see the Madonna, but they were actually just in line to see it up close. We quickly pop back into the Basilica just so we can say we saw the little dark shape of the Black Madonna nestled in its niche up at the altar. We catch the 3:22 train back to Barcelona, napping along the way.

Next week: A quick dip into El Raval.

Posted 18 August 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Gaudí does parks too

We want to finish off our Gaudí tour today by seeing the Park Güell, to the north of l’Eixample. Our guidebook gives a recommended bus route, which we are able to locate on a convenient bus map posted at a bus shelter. We catch the No. 24 bus at Passeig de Gràcia and head north. The wide avenues of l’Eixample soon give way to the crowded, narrow streets of the Gràcia neighborhood. The district was a separate village until 1897, when l’Eixample connected it with the rest of the city. Gràcia is known for a Bohemian edge it acquired in the ‘60s and ‘70s and still retains a bit of today.

We get off on Travessera de Dalt when we see signs pointing to the park. It turns out we could have taken the bus farther along on the street and saved ourselves some walking. We finally reach a sign that points north up Carrer de Larrard. The street takes us up a hill of medium incline, though it feels more severe after we have been walking all day.

We soon reach the gingerbread-house gatehouses on each side of the entrance to Park Güell. We are immediately struck by the number of people milling about the main plaza and quickly take a side path to sit and relax for a while on a quiet bench before re-entering the crowded area. A set of steps leads up to Sala Hipóstila, a covered space with 88 stone columns that was originally conceived as a market. Further steps lead up to the top of this construction, a large open plaza with fantastic views of the city below. Along the plaza is a long bench called the Banc de Trencadìs, designed by Gaudí’s colleague Josep Marià Jujol. Apparently, workers at some of Gaudí’s other building sites, including Sagrada Familia and Casa Milà, were told to pick up any tiles, plates, and bottles they could find to integrate them into the bench, making it an early example of found-object collage decoration.

Each section of the park seems to have its own designated guitar busker, the best doing something flamenco-like, the worst supplying poor Radiohead covers. Various hawkers make strange bird calls to get attention. I think I’m imagining things when I hear one man offering “garum chay,” but indeed he is carrying around a thermos with tea, probably for hawkers of South Asian descent. Luckily, the park is large enough to allow us to escape the crowds and we are able to take in some of the colonnaded footpaths without too many people around us.

Gaudí’s patron Count Eusebi Güell bought the property in 1900, intending to develop a housing complex for the wealthy with Gaudí as the designer of the public spaces. Only two people signed up to build houses, and only one was constructed, a prototype designed by Francesc Berenguer i Mestres that is now a museum. The area was likely considered both too far from the city for those who wanted to be a part of it and too close for those who really wanted to be in the countryside. The city bought the failed property in 1922 and turned it into a public park. Gaudí supposedly integrated symbolism related to Catalan nationalism into many of the extravagant designs.

When we are ready to leave we head south through a different exit and find ourselves taking stairs down a street with escalators, which would have been nice to know about on our ascent. We get some coffee at a simple café on Travessera de Dalt before heading to the Lesseps metro station farther down the street.

This evening we decide to try out a special place for dinner recommended by friends. We take the subway to the Barceloneta metro station in La Ribera and proceed to the restaurant. When we arrive at Cal Pep (Plaça de les Olles 8), we see a sign stating it opens at 7:30, so we spend some time wandering around the lower Ribera area looking at shops and enjoying the temperate evening. Our guidebook suggests that it is impossible to get a table at the restaurant without reservations and difficult to get a spot at the bar, so we get back a little after 7:30. We feel silly for doing so, but we find that the bar fills within twenty minutes of our arrival.

We order two glasses of the house red, Ugarte Cosecha 2007 (€1.90), a Rioja, and are asked if we are okay with having four raciones of tapas. I have heard that this is one of those places where dishes are just brought out to you depending on what the chef is preparing that evening, so we just specify that we be given fish instead of meat. We are served pa de coca (the local version of bread rubbed with tomato) (€3.10), pebrots del padro (fried green peppers) (€4.95), trifàsic fregit (a fried seafood mix of calamari, whitebait, and prawns) (€12.55), and berberetxos a l’olla (clams in garlic butter sauce) (€10.35). We are at first a little timid with the whole pieces of fish, but at one point the chef comes out to show us we need to eat the fish whole and consume the clams with our fingers, making sure to scoop up plenty of the garlic butter. All of the food is very tasty, and the peppers make a nice complement to the seafood. After we are finished with our four servings, a plate of steamed mussels is automatically brought out for us. We decline it, content with our little dip into the Cal Pep experience. Our spots are quickly snatched up from among the group of people waiting behind us at the bar.

Next week: A day trip to the monastery of Montserrat.

Posted 11 August 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Domènech i Montaner and other modernists

We continue south on Passeig de Gracia and stop by the Fundació Antoni Tàpies (1880-5) (Carrer d’Aragó 255), a building designed by modernista architect Domènech i Montaner. The brick façade has a series of high arched windows to let in natural light and contrasts sharply with the ironwork and wire running along the top, which look much like tangles of barbed wire. Both aspects fit in with Domènech’s principle of exposing the industrial elements that make up a building. The building is now a museum dedicated to the Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies.

After Gaudí, Domènech i Montaner is probably the second best-known modernista architect of Barcelona. In contrast to his hermitic peer, Domènech immersed himself in the culture and society of the modernism era. In an influential manifesto published in 1878 called “En Busca de una Arquitectura Nacional” (“In Search of a National Architecture”), Domènech asserted that a truly national architecture should draw its strengths from traditional work. Domènech used this aesthetic principle to create a style that utilized the industrial self-image of contemporary Catalonia while at the same time proclaiming its Gothic and Romanesque heritage. As he was well-versed with both Catalan craft traditions and new technology, Domènech was able to build with the modern materials of construction and use traditional techniques for finish and decoration. He was also an advocate of brick, which was considered largely passé in 1888. Most of the new buildings in l’Eixample at the time were made of brick but covered with stucco or terra-cotta to hide their shame. Domènech saw brick as a material connected to the earth and fundament of Catalonia and thought it should form the proud basis of Catalan architecture.

We pass the three famous buildings that are collectively known as the Manzana de la Discordia (“apple of discord”). As we have other objectives today, we resolve to return to see them in greater detail another day. Our plan for the afternoon is to first get some lunch and then try to make it to another of Gaudí’s major contributions to the city.

We find ourselves having some trouble locating a decent lunch place as most in this swank area seem over-priced. Luckily, in Spain you can generally depend on the local bar-café, where food and drink are both simple and cheap. We find a little place called Bar Bocatini on Gran Via at La Rambla de Catalunya and have a jamón Serrano (dry-cured ham) sandwich (€2.70) and a pechuga de pollo (breast of chicken) sandwich (€2.70).

The Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes is the major east-west avenue of the l’Eixample area. At one time, an ambitious industrialist had schemed on building tenements on the strip down the middle. Luckily, the mayor and city councilmen rejected this plan, allowing the avenue to retain its grand aspect.

Nearby is the Universitat de Barcelona (1863-72), which we stop to take a look at. The building was designed by Elias Rogent i Amat, a friend of Cerdà, the designer of l’Eixample. Rogent used a mix of architectural styles evident in the Catalan Romanesque exterior lines and the interior Mozarabic and Byzantine elements. We are able to walk into the main hall and see one of the grand staircases. Through the back is a pleasant garden, complete with ponds and teeming with cats. The connecting cloisters are also nice.

Next week: A park designed by Gaudí.

Posted 4 August 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Gaudí’s Casa Milà

After getting a good dose of Gaudí in progress, we take the metro to the Diagonal station. We emerge in the heart of the l’Eixample (“extension”) district. True to its name, the neighborhood was conceived as an extension to the old city, which in the 19th century was bursting out of its medieval confines. In 1859 a competition was held for the design. The city Ajuntament chose an architect named Rovira, but Madrid reversed the decision and chose Ildefons Cerdà, one of the many incidents that created enmity between the regional and federal governments. Work began in 1869. Poet Victor Balaguer was chosen to come up with street names, focusing on figures in Catalan history. Cerdà’s original intention was to contain a small density of housing in each block by limiting building height and allowing for garden space. However, deregulation in the ‘50s and ’60 slackened this ideal.

We head south on the main avenue Passeig de Gràcia. Originally, a dirt road linked the Rambla to the town of Gràcia north of the city. It evolved into a paved highway and took its present form under Cerdà’s plan. Today, the avenue is lined with swank stores and restaurants, Barcelona’s equivalent of the Champs-Élysées or Fifth Avenue. The iron, modernista lamp posts designed by Pere Falqués add an elegant touch.

Our destination is Casa Milà, also known as La Pedrera (1905-10) (Carrer de Provença 261-265). The Gaudí building was constructed as an apartment complex and office building and was called Casa Milà after the businessman who commissioned it. The nickname La Pedrera (“the quarry”) is derived from its undulating stone façade. Though it appears solid, the façade actually consists of stone folds supported by steel armatures, requiring extensive calculations by Gaudí and his engineer.

We have to stand in line a bit to get our €10.00 tickets. The main entrance takes us into a leafy, circular courtyard. Ever the forward thinker, Gaudí originally envisioned ramps for cars spiraling up this courtyard to allow tenants to drive right up to their floors, but he realized it was impractical. I somehow find it comforting that there are mad ideas so implausible even the inventive Gaudí couldn’t pull them off. The lobby areas on the ground floor are dappled with delicate pastel designs. A bulging pedestrian ramp leads to an elevator that we take up to an attic constructed from a series of catenary arches. The space is taken up by a museum with Gaudí furniture and videos. Stairs lead up to the roof, considered the highlight of this building. Curving walkways lead around bizarre tiled shapes, some of which seem to evoke knights with helmets. Gaudí had originally intended to include a large statue of the Virgin and child on the roof, but Milà canceled that idea after the Setmana Tragica of 1909. The final accessible floor is an apartment just below the attic. The shapes of the rooms conform to the curved lines of the building, but the dícor is not by Gaudí. Still, we find the furnishings and artifacts of that era interesting.

Afterwards, we go up to the first floor where a temporary exhibition of the works of modernista artist Mariano Fortuny Madrazo (1871-1949) is on view. Much of his fashion designs and textile prints can be seen. I am particularly interested in his symbolist paintings based on Wagner operas. I understand that the cult of Wagner was strong in Barcelona during the modernism era. Fortuny even pioneered stage lighting with the Fortuny System.

Next week: we see more modernista architecture in l’Eixample district.

Posted 28 July 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Gaudí’s Cathedral

We decide that we may as well begin the day with the site that is closest to our apartment, the cathedral officially called the Temple Expiatory de la Sagrada Familia (The Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family) and better known as simply Sagrada Familia. Probably the most complete exterior element is the Nativity Façade on the eastern side. The four inwardly inclining spires, only one of which was completed before Gaudí’s death, are the most recognizable feature of the church. Many of the sculptural details have a melted wax effect, another defining characteristic of the church.

The southern Glory Façade, which will someday form the main entrance, cannot be seen as it is covered up and under construction. Tall cranes loom above the church’s spires on this side. We walk around to the Passion Façade on the west side, built between 1954 and 1978 based on Gaudí’s designs. The angular sculptures on this side contrast with the sinewy sculptures on the opposite façade. We learn that these are by contemporary Catalan sculptor Josep Subirachs.

We are finally ready to see the interior, which costs €12.00 to enter. Although we knew the church is under construction, we are not prepared for just how under construction it is. Most of the interior space is blocked off for hard-hatted workers, cranes, and pallets of molded concrete. Sparks from arc welders light up hidden cavities high up on the spires. Only the perimeter of the interior is accessible to visitors. Yet we are still able to appreciate quite a bit. Most interesting are the interior columns, which split like trees and create a forest effect. The columns are inclined in order to transmit the building’s load straight downwards, an innovation that eliminated the need for buttresses to hold up the walls. True to Gaudí’s religious and provincial allegiances, the 30 species of plant included in the interior and exterior decorations are native to both the Holy Land and to Catalonia. Stained glass windows let in natural light, an effect that will be enhanced once all of the protective covers are off. The towers can be accessed by elevator for an additional fee, though I understand visitors were once allowed to walk up on stairs.

Just outside of the Passion Façade is the Escoles de Gaudí, a little building with an undulating roof designed as a children’s school and now serving as a museum. The exhibits detail some of the geometric principles behind the forms the church is constructed from. Many of these designs are a revelation as they show just how much thought went into creating the complexity of geometric shapes that seem so natural and organic. A mock-up of Gaudí’s office and desk are also on display.

Just inside the Nativity Façade entrance we find two side rooms. One, the Claustre de Montserrat, contains a little exhibit showing comparisons between Gaudí’s work and natural forms. The other is called the Claustre del Roser, a pleasant little space filled with sculpture. One incongruous one depicts a reptilian devil handing a bomb to a terrorist, a reflection of the political violence of Gaudí’s time.

The extensive crypt contains another museum. Some sketches for the sculptures by Subirachs are on view. The most fascinating exhibit is a plumb-line model that provides a glimpse into Gaudí’s innovative mind. The model has strings attached to little bags of birdshot for each column of the cathedral. Cross strings represent arches and vaults, all designed to replicate the compressive load of the columns. Gaudí then photographed sections of the model and turned the photos upside down to use as a guide for the cathedral’s construction. The technique was unmatched until the era of computer modeling. We also see a similar model for the church in Colònia Güell, a project Gaudí undertook to design a textile workers’ complex for his wealthy patron. Only the crypt was completed, but it shows similarities to Sagrada Familia. We can also take a peek into a workshop filled with scale models of various pieces of the cathedral and watch a woman working on making another one out of plaster.

The original site for the cathedral was purchased by the Josephines, a conservative Catholic lay association. They chose Gaudí as their architect in 1884 after the initial architect resigned. Though the church was spared during the 1909 Setmana Tragica riots (possibly because it employed a large workforce), anarchists destroyed much of the workshop, models, and plans in 1936. By that point, work on the cathedral had already slowed down as sources of funding dried up. Work started up again in 1952, but the architects that followed Gaudí could only guess at his intentions as the original models were lost. Much of the continuing work has nothing to do with Gaudí’s plans, plus today reinforced concrete and resin-bonded finishes are used as materials instead of stone. Work continues under the direction of architect Jordí Bonet, with funding from private donors and ticket revenues from tourists eager to see one of the most visited sights in Spain. Completion is projected by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death, though many find the target date overly optimistic.

The continuing construction is still the source of controversy. Detractors contend that the finished product will be little more than a mockery of Gaudí’s original vision. Supporters compare the process with the generational cathedrals of the classic era, which endure despite being a hodge-podge of artistic contributions. Though I can sympathize with the position of the critics, Gaudí’s intentions essentially perished when he did, and I have a feeling a century from now the cathedral will be seen as one of the few religious buildings produced during the 20th century that can be considered a masterpiece. It may even inspire some form of religious devotion. However, the cathedral will first have to survive, for an additional controversy has arisen from concerns about a tunnel being built for a high-speed train from Madrid that will pass under the church. We even see a TV commercial that vividly depicts the worst-case scenario of the cathedral’s collapse.

Next week: Not enough Gaudí? We visit more of his masterpieces.

Posted 21 July 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: The Works of Gaudí

Certain artists seem destined to be idolized by those who don’t share their world-views. Gaudí was politically and religiously conservative, monkish in his habits, possibly celibate, and believed deeply in the Catholic principle of suffering. Yet his exuberant architectural designs have brought him hordes of fans from the opposite ends of the spectrum from all of these positions. Though lumped in with the modernism movement for the undulating, vegetal forms in his work, Gaudí rejected the progressive and sensualist inclinations of many of his contemporaries.

Gaudí maintained that his other religion was Catalan nationalism, and he became notorious for his political stances in incidences such as his refusal to speak Castilian when he met King Alfonso XIII, instead addressing the monarch in Catalan. Much of his work contains symbolism alluding to myth and legends associated with Catalonia.

From his early studies, Gaudí never liked to draw and instead favored using models for his designs, always thinking in terms of relief instead of flat, planar arrangements, a means of operating that surely accounts for the pre-dominance of bulging, non-linear arrangements on some of his most famous works. Some of the design techniques he developed were so innovative they weren’t matched until the development of computer modeling. To bring solidity to his designs, Gaudí drew upon both the tradition of Catalan crafts and the innovations of modern technology that were transforming Barcelona.

His career really took flight in 1878, when he met Eusebi Güell i Bacigalupi, an industrialist who became his patron and was willing to finance some of Gaudí’s flights of fancy. His major works in Barcelona include Park Güell (1900-14), Palau Güell (1885-1890), Casa Milà (1905-10), Casa Batlló (1904-6), and Sagrada Familia (1884- ). His last years were devoted to the ongoing construction of Sagrada Familia, even as the culture around him was changing and modernism began to be disdained in favor of the neoclassical nuocentisme style. In 1926, Gaudí was hit by a tram. Spectators thought he was just another homeless old man and four taxi drivers refused to take him to the hospital. He died three days later in a hospital for the poor. His fame grew decades after his death, to the point that his buildings are some of the most visited sites in Spain.

The paradoxes surrounding Gaudí’s life and work can be resolved to some degree upon closer examination. The curvaceous, womb-like interiors and dazzling color schemes inevitably draw parallels to Surrealism and psychedelia, but Gaudí neither intended to evoke the imagery of dreams nor to suggest altered states of consciousness. Instead, he was trying to construct physical expressions of his loyalty to his beloved homeland and to his Catholic faith. The interest in carefully observed organic forms in his work is partly attributed to a passionate curiosity for animals and plant-life that developed during his childhood on a farm. He possibly saw the replication of varied natural forms as a correspondence to the abundance of God’s creation and an evocation of the Catalan countryside of his youth in the middle of the bustling urban center of Barcelona. The biological shapes were created by using complex geometric arrangements, inviting a further paradox as the closer the artist gets to duplicating nature, the more involved his calculations need to be and the more alien the finished product seems. Perhaps the disconnect is intended to remind us of how far we have drifted from nature’s (and by extension God’s) kingdom if the angular restraint of our cityscapes strikes us as more “natural” than constructions following more organic contours.

Next week: Gaudí’s masterpiece in progress.

Posted 14 July 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: A Night Out with Soccer

Back at the apartment, we mix up an omelette with tomatoes and peppers for an early supper. Refreshed, we head back into La Ribera. This time we start at the north end and stop by the Palau de la Música Catalana (1905-8), a modernista building designed by Domènech i Montaner for the Orfeó Català musical society. The red brick side façade is behind glass, probably as a result of the 2004 renovation. We are able to enter the foyer and look around the restaurant, taking the time to appreciate every interior we can see. We then exit and walk around to the main entrance façade, a wonderful confection of color and ornamentation topped by a dazzling mosaic. The fat pillars along the sidewalk have mosaics in floral patterns. Another highlight is a sculptural group at the corner symbolizing Catalan music. Unfortunately, Domènech did not get as much space as he wanted, and consequently sightlines are spoiled by other buildings that are packed in too tightly.

Now that we’ve been visually stimulated, we decide to excite other senses by sampling some food and drink. We have wanted to try out cava, Spanish sparkling wine produced mainly in the Penedès region of Catalonia, and locate a nearby cava bar in our guidebook.

El Xampanyet (Carrer de Montcada 22) has been around for decades. The décor consists of some fine tilework and a number of slogans, mostly extolling the virtues of drinking. Champagne is available, but we opt for glasses of light and refreshing cava. A number of pintxos (Basque tapas, frequently served on pieces of bread) are available. We try out two styles, one with tuna wrapped in peppers, and one with sardines topped with peppers. The snack and cava total €11.00.

We continue down Carrer de Montcada and walk down to Passeig del Born, a pedestrian strip lined with restaurants that was the city’s main square from the 13th to 18th centuries. At the eastern end of the Born is the iron shell of a 19th-century produce market called the Mercat del Born. After the War of the Spanish Succession, the victorious Felipe V had a castle called the Ciutadella built just to the east of this area, flattening a city district in the process. The fortress became a reviled symbol of Castilian oppression and was finally torn down in 1869. The market, then the largest iron structure in Spain, was constructed from 1873 to 1876. The rest of the site of the citadel was used for the 1888 Universal Exhibition and is now a park called the Parc de la Ciutadella. In 2001, remains of buildings razed to make room for the Ciutadella were found under the market. It is currently closed and in process of being converted into a museum.

We would like to find a place to watch the evening’s Champions League game between Stuttgart and the local team Barça. Not many of the bars in the area seem to be showing the game, so we end up at an Australian pub on the Rambla. As it doesn’t provide the kind of atmosphere we are looking for, we leave during half-time and head back to our neighborhood. There, we walk into a place just a few doors down from our apartment called Bar Tothon and watch the rest of the game with some locals. We accompany the game with a caña (200 ml glass) of the local pilsener Estrella Damm and a glass of house wine, totaling a cheap €3.00. We join in the fun as everyone raucously applauds each of Barça’s four goals. One couple is clearly enjoying some space for a romantic liaison even as they are appreciating the game. We are easily welcomed and even make the acquaintance of the local dog, named Lluna (Catalan for “moon”). As the triumphant game comes to a close, one fan turns on a CD player already cued to the Barça fight song, which only we don’t know the words to.

Next week: An introduction to the architecture of Gaudí.

Posted 7 July 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Modernista Architecture and Gaudí

Our next destination takes us to Palau Güell (1886-90) (Carrer Nou de la Rambla 3-5), the first building we see designed by Gaudí and one of those commissioned by his wealthy patron Eusebi Güell. For the first time in his career Gaudí was authorized to cut no corners, allowing free reign to his imagination and the use of extravagant building and designing materials. The mansion belonged to the Güell family until the Civil War, when it was confiscated and used for barracks. After the Civil War, political prisoners were tortured in the basement. The family donated the Palau to the state, but it was only late in the 20th century that its historical and artistic importance was recognized and steps were taken to preserve it.

The limestone façade is unusually severe and fortress-like for a work by Gaudí, particularly the stone balustrade along the top. The effect is enlivened by a large iron ornament between the two entrance arches and a gallery along the first floor. Entry is free, but we are unfortunately denied access to much of the interior as it is under renovation. We are able to see the main floor lobby, featuring polished marble columns. More interesting is the basement, accessed by a circular ramp that was once used to lead horses down to the stable. The cave-like space is fairly spare in bare brick but has interesting columns with huge mushroom-shaped capitals.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Europe was swept by an art movement whose main elements included the prevalence of the imagination over realism, nature-based design, interest in an idealized past, and an emphasis on the sensual and mystical. The movement took the form of Art Nouveau in France and England, Stile Liberty in Italy, Sezession in Austria, and Jugendstil in Germany. In Catalonia, the movement manifested as modernism, a general term applied to the region’s architectural, literary, musical and visual arts culture of 1890 to 1910. In 1893 Catalonian critic Ramón Casellas wrote a review of a play by Maeterlinck and stated that the movement’s challenge was “to pluck from human life not direct and limited spectacles, not banal vernacular phrases . . . but gleaming, wild, paroxysmic, hallucinatory visions; to translate eternal verities into deranged paradox; to live by the abnormal and the unheard; to tally the horrors of reason, leaning on the very edge of the abyss,” a summation that perhaps better represents the movement’s objectives than its achievements.

Though the movement influenced all of the arts, in Catalonia it finds its most enduring expressions in architecture and design. Barcelona’s top three modernista architects were Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and Josep Puig i Cadafalch. Other prominent figures included Josep Maria Jujol, Josep Vilaseca i Casanovas, Enric Sagnier i Villavecchia, Joseph Fontseré, and Joan Rubio i Bellvé. Though all had distinctive styles, they were united in their interest in stylized nature, the use of Gothic and Moorish inspirations, and a general orientation towards transformation. For materials, concrete pours were eschewed in favor of stone, brick, exposed iron and steel frames, stained glass, and ceramics. Thanks to laws promoting historical preservation, around 2,000 buildings in Barcelona and Catalonia still possess modernista features.

We go back to the Rambla and continue south on La Rambla de Santa Mònica, considered the seediest stretch. At the southern end of the Rambla we come across the Monument a Colom, a column topped with a statue of Columbus built for the 1888 Universal Exhibition. It is believed that Columbus gave the report of his first voyage to the New World to the monarchs Fernando and Isabel here in Barcelona. There was even a movement in the 19th century making the dubious claim that Columbus was actually from Barcelona rather than from Genoa. Neither of these tenuous connections seem to justify the biggest monument to Columbus anywhere, particularly one that has the explorer pointing out to sea towards Libya rather than to the New World.

The weather is breezy but sunny, perfect for strolling on the abundant pedestrian walks along the Mediterranean. However, we soon get to the point where heading back to the apartment for a little rest seems best. We walk to the Barceloneta metro station, where we observe a number of Africans carrying sacks on the run, likely unlicensed hawkers of goods fleeing the police.

Next week: A local scene with soccer.

Posted 30 June 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: The Santa Maria del Mar Church

Our next destination takes us across the major avenue called the Via Laietana, named after the Laietani people who inhabited the Barcelona area prior to the Romans. The street was laid in 1908 through a densely populated strip, destroying many houses and displacing thousands of inhabitants. Many of the razed buildings were replaced with nuocentista architecture, which some consider an even more egregious offense. Crossing the street brings us into La Ribera. This neighborhood was once the site of Roman villas established just outside of Barcino’s walls. Larger communities developed here during the 13th century. Practitioners of various trades took up shop in the area, and many of the streets retain the names of medieval professions. Today, the neighborhood is broken into two halves, the south section fairly touristy and home to boutiques and restaurants, the north section grittier and housing immigrants from Africa and elsewhere.

We walk into the south part of La Ribera down the Carrer de l’Argenteria, which leads straight to the Església de Santa Maria del Mar (1329-83), a church constructed in a record 54 years. The short building period was achieved by a massive community effort involving much of the town’s able-bodied population. To this day the church has a populist reputation. The architecture represents one of the finest examples of Catalan Gothic in the city. The façade is characteristically severe and imposing, though livened by some of the ornamentation. The reliefs over the main entrance depict men hauling, probably because the longshoremen guild made heavy contributions to the building. The buttresses are solid rectangular blocks with only rainspouts as ornaments, a contrast to the fanciful buttresses of northern European Gothic. The interior reveals an astonishing sense of width, partly achieved by thin columns that minimize the distinction between the aisles. Indeed, the spacing of the columns is the widest of any Gothic church in Europe, 53 feet from center to center. Though the church never sported much in the way of ornamentation, it did once possess an 18th-century organ and baroque altar that were burned by the anarchists during the Civil War, which followed an earlier gutting during the 1909 Setmana Tragica. The site may have been occupied by the first episcopal seat in Barcelona in the time of Emperor Constantine. On the south side of the church is an eternal flame in memory of Catalan resistance fighters who were buried here after the defeat in the 1714 siege of Barcelona.

We proceed north to the famous Carrer de Montcade, a wealthy street in the Middle Ages that still sports many fine mansions from the 14th and 15th centuries. Many of these have courtyards that can be peeked into, including those associated with the Museu Picasso and the Galeria Maeght art gallery. All are charming in their own way, particularly the ones with arcaded staircases. We also pop into the courtyard of the Centre de Disseny, which contains a pleasant café-restaurant.

Naturally, we are still jet-lagged on our first day and have reached the point where we need to have some coffee to keep going. We stop into a pastelería, which actually turns out to be a famous pastry shop called Brunells. We glance at the many baked goods before sitting at the bar to have coffee. I have a cafè sol (café solo, espresso) (€1.10) and the Sparrow has a cafè tallat (café cortado, espresso with a spot of milk) (€1.20).

Refreshed and ready to see some more sights, we walk north in La Ribera and go by the Mercat de Santa Caterina (2005), an indoor market designed by Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue to replace a 19th-century version. The undulating, multi-colored ceramic roof alludes to the extravagances of the modernism era of architecture.

We cross back into the Barri Gòtic and go through Plaça Reial, constructed in the 19th century and the only square in Barcelona to be designed as a complete unit including arcade and buildings along the perimeter. It certainly seems out of place in the medieval quarter and is more similar to some of the plazas I saw in Madrid. The most distinctive features are the lampposts by the fountain, designed by the noted Barcelona architect Antoni Gaudí in 1879, constituting some of his first known work. Though they only hint at the exuberance of Gaudí’s later work, they still retain a unique charm in the caduceus and winged helmet (symbols of the god Hermes) that decorate each one. In the 1880s, the bankers and merchants for whom the square was developed deserted it for new opportunities opening up in the l’Eixample district and the plaza fell into disrepute. By the ‘60s and ‘70s it contained Barcelona’s central drug market and was considered dangerous up until the ‘80s. Today, its edge has been significantly blunted, and it is mostly occupied by tourists relaxing by the fountain or sitting in the many sidewalk cafes.

Next week: Modernista architecture.

Posted 23 June 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: The Bounty of a Barcelona Market

Not quite having our fill of Barcino’s scant Roman remains, we follow a narrow street called Carrer del Paradis that leads to the courtyard of a building containing four columns and the architrave of the Temple Romà d’Augusté, the only remnants of a Roman Temple dedicated to Ceasar Augustus. The ruin is nestled in an attractive space and surrounded by green walls.

Our wanderings next lead to the pleasant Plaça de Sant Joseph Oriol, the home of Església de Santa Maria del Pi (1322), a Gothic church. Its most prominent feature is the huge rose window, hanging over an ornamented arched portal. The interior, which was gutted by anarchists during the Civil War, is a classic example of Catalan Gothic. The single nave spans a tremendous fifty-four feet, with the chapels on the sides more like extensions than discrete units. The church is currently under renovation, so we are unable to get a good look at the interior.

Close to the church is an area that was once Barcelona’s Jewish quarter, known as the Call. We find a small space that houses the Sinagoga Major, a synagogue based on the remains of the city’s medieval synagogue. The Jewish community was active here until the pogrom of 1391, which led to a Christianizing of the area. A search beginning in 1987 led to the discovery and reclamation of this underground space. In 2002, the synagogue was opened for worship.

We are ready to have a little lunch and consult the guidebook for ideas. The closest good possibility seems to be at a nearby market. We step out on the Rambla again, this time finding ourselves on La Rambla de Sant Josep, lined with flower stalls. We can see the Gran Teatru del Liceu, built in 1847 as an opera house. In 1893, an anarchist threw a bomb into the audience during a performance of Guillermo Tell, killing 20 people.

Walking north on La Rambla, we pass through Plaça de la Boqueria, covered with a large mosaic by Catalan artist Joan Miró. We finally reach the Mercat de la Boqueria (1840-1914). Though this site has held public markets since at least the 13th century, the present market has a soaring iron shell that represented an innovative use of new technology when first constructed. We walk around a bit, a little dazed by the sheer quantity of cheeses, meats, chocolates, fruits, and vegetables. The fertile fields of Catalonia yield a rich agricultural abundance, a contrast to the more arid land of other parts of Spain. We had intended to eat lunch at Bar Pinotxo, a popular tapas place recommended by friends, but we find that it is packed, primarily by supporters of Stuttgart, the team that is playing the local football team tonight.

We instead head back to Plaça de Sant Jaume for lunch at Can Conesa (Carrer de la Llibreteria 1), a place that prides itself on its “artesans de l’entrepà” (“sandwich artisans”). We understand it is a popular locale for workers for lunch. We get a couple of hot sandwiches, llom (lomo, sirloin) (€2.75) for me and vegetal (vegetable) (€3.00) for the Sparrow.

After lunch we go to a small square called Plaça de Sant Just. Some men are sitting outside and sketching by the Gothic fountain, reputed to be the city’s oldest. The rest of the square is taken up by the simple, single-nave Catalan Gothic church Església de Sants Just i Pastor (1342). The architect Antoni Gaudí was arrested at this church in 1924 because he refused to speak Castilian to the police officers who stopped him. Such were the days of the dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera, an era when the Catalan nationalism of those like Gaudí was suppressed by the government in Madrid.

Next week: A visit to the Santa Maria del Mar church.

Posted 16 June 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: More of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter

After seeing the Cathedral, we take the time to explore the cloister off of the right-side nave. The pleasant space contains a leafy garden with fountain and thirteen geese, a number that supposedly represents the age of Saint Eulàlia at her martyrdom. I understand there was once a custom of putting an empty eggshell in the fountain during the Feast of Corpus Christi. The cloister connects to the Capella de Santa Llúcia, one of the few remnants of Barcelona’s Romanesque period. Most of the buildings of that era were swept away to make way for the Gothic building craze.

The rise of the Gothic period in Europe coincided with the victories of Catalonian count Jaume I and an associated rise in trading, which was able to finance new construction. The biggest surge of building occurred during the reign of Count Pere III (1276-85), under whom much of La Catedral, the Drassanes shipyards, and the Saló del Tinell were constructed.

The dominant architectural style in Barcelona during this era was High-Catalan Gothic. Northern European Gothic during the same period strived for height in cathedral ceilings and tall, pointed spires. Catalan Gothic architects preferred breadth over height and generally ended their spires and bell towers in flat roofs. The celebrated cathedrals of France during this period had as much stained glass as possible to create a sense of light and space. Catalan Gothic favored the solidity of the wall. The highly decorative flying buttresses of northern Europe are more likely to appear as plain square counterforts in Catalonia. Similarly, the ornate, lacy decoration of northern Europe was generally eschewed. Whereas the central plan of the northern Gothic cathedral consisted of a nave lined on either side with aisles and chapels, in Catalonia the cathedrals tend to have single naves and simply defined chapels.

In Barcelona, one has to redefine expectations formed from exploring the great cathedrals of the rest of Europe. Catalan architects possessed a formidable ability to create expansive width using the advanced principles of arch construction, and the lack of decoration allows for a greater appreciation of the basic structure of these buildings, even if the eye has less to get lost in. The height and natural light penetrating the cathedrals of the north have the effect of projecting the soul outwards towards an imagined heaven, but in a Catalonian cathedral the soul is allowed a cave-like solid space for intimate contemplation.

Once we get out of the cathedral we go to the nearby Casa de l’Ardiaca, a 16th-century building housing the city’s archives. The courtyard with fountain is lined with lovely tile-work, though we are scarcely able to enjoy the serene space before a horde of kids piles in on a tour. We see many groups of children on class trips during our time here. In 1902, the courtyard was renovated by Domènech i Montaner, who is better known for his many contributions to modernista architecture. A set of steps leads up to a nice view of the cathedral. A doorway accesses the lobby of the archives, which contains a corner for viewing a huge piece of the city’s Roman wall.

We proceed down a narrow alley that leads under an old pedestrian bridge to the Plaça de Sant Jaume. The area was originally the site of the forum of the Roman city. Today it is the center for regional government. On one side is the Gothic Palau de la Generalitat, the seat of Catalonia’s provincial government. On the other side is the Ajuntament, Barcelona’s city hall. This more recent building has a neoclassical façade.

Posted 2 June 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter

We quickly get an adequate dose of the Rambla scene and veer off into a side street. At Plaça de la Vila de Madrid we locate the Roman Tombs, a set of nicely preserved sarcophagi in an open space cut into the square, though at the time they were constructed this area was along a road leading north from the old Roman town. The tombs can be viewed from above but not seen up close.

At this point we are in the Barri Gòtic neighborhood, the historic center of the medieval city, characterized by a maze of narrow, cobblestoned alleys leading to picturesque squares. Apparently, the neighborhood contains the most concentrated collection of 13th- to 15th-century buildings in Spain.

On Carrer de la Palla, we stumble upon a fenced-off plaza containing the remains of an ancient wall. An informational placard explains that these sections were once part of the 3rd-century enclosing wall of the Roman city of Barcino. The walls have been integrated into much newer buildings, offering an interesting contrast between the ancient weathered stone and brighter, beige-painted concrete.

Continuing down Carrer de la Palla takes us along the outer perimeter of the former walls and leads us into Plaça Nova. Here we find another placard pointing out the remains of two towers and the arch of an aqueduct. The towers flanked Roman Barcino’s northwest gate, constituting two of 78 such towers ringing the town. They are now integrated into the Palau Episcopal and the Casa de l’Ardiaca. At the northwest end of the plaza we can see a mural consisting of a number of scribbled stick figures. If my guidebook didn’t point them out, I wouldn’t have noticed these additions that Picasso made in 1962 to the façade of the Col.legi de Arquitectes.

Our next stop is one of the old city’s true highlights, La Catedral (1298-1460). Though we understand that Barcelona’s main cathedral is an example of the Catalan Gothic style, it is only after we see other expressions of the type that we realize just how incongruous the ornamented northern European Gothic façade with its spiky triple spires really is. Although this façade is somewhat based on a 1408 plan, it was actually designed by 19th-century architect Joseph Oriol i Mestres and constructed from 1887 to 1890. However, most of the building does exhibit the standard traits of Catalan Gothic, including minimal interior ornamentation. Whatever decoration there was remained intact even during the Spanish Civil War as the anarchists spared the cathedral during their ravaging of Catalonia’s churches.

One of the curious highlights of the interior is a font where Native Americans brought by Columbus on his first voyage were supposedly baptized. More interesting from an aesthetic perspective is the choir in the church’s center, full of finely wrought wood sculpture. A wide staircase before the altar leads down to the crypt, where the tomb of Barcelona’s patron saint Santa Eulàlia is located. The crypt is a fine work of art in itself, particularly the astonishing relief by Pisan artists depicting the tortures inflicted on the saint before martyrdom. One piece of art that is inexplicably missing is a life-size wooden sculpture of the crucified Christ that is supposed to be in the chapel of Christ of Lepanto. The icon was carried before the mast of Don Juan of Austria’s flagship during his victory at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Overall, we are quite impressed by the cathedral. In this regard we disagree with George Orwell, who wrote, “I think the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance.” Yet Orwell was on the run from communist factions at the time he visited the cathedral and was likely not in the right frame of mind for considered appreciation.

Next week: The tour of the Gothic Quarter continues.

Posted 26 May 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: In the Steps of Orwell

On the east side of the Plaça de Catalunya is the Telefónica (Telephone Exchange) building, significant to those familiar with the struggles between anarchist and communist factions in Barcelona during the notorious May Days of 1937. At that time, Civil Guards allied with the communists tried to take the building from the anarchists who were occupying it, setting off five days of fighting that ended with the arrest and exile of those associated with the anarchists. A memorable account of this episode in the history of the Spanish Civil War is preserved in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

Like many young leftists of the time, George Orwell arrived in Spain in 1936 eager to support the international fight against fascism. He joined the anarchist P.O.U.M. militia simply because it was affiliated with a group he was involved with in England, little realizing the ramifications of the faction’s political alignment. As chronicled in his memoir, he finds Barcelona swept along with a revolutionary fervor as companies are collectivized, unions take control of the local government, religious institutions are attacked, and class distinctions are dissolved or minimized. Orwell’s poorly equipped militia is soon shipped to the front in the Catalonian highlands, where the trenches of the opposing fascist troops are so far away that the main threats are persistent cold and boredom.

When he returns to Barcelona on leave, Orwell finds that the political landscape has changed as a spirit of distrust has arisen between those supposedly united in a common cause. The anarchist factions favor a revolution, whereas the communists, who are allied with Stalin’s U.S.S.R., insist that any real revolution has to wait until the war against Franco’s forces is won. Tensions erupt into fighting during the May Days of 1937, when communist and anarchist groups battle each other in the streets of Barcelona’s historic quarter. Though the physical fighting quickly dies down, the communists prevail in the political arena, vilifying the anarchists in the press and arresting their members. Orwell himself has to hide out from the Civil Guards due to his affiliation with the anarchist militia and eventually flees to France. The experiences informed his opinion of Stalinism and its followers and shaped his later novels Animal Farm and 1984.

At the southern end of the plaza is the beginning of the Rambla. La Rambla is Barcelona’s most popular street, as evidenced by the throngs of tourists and those who prey upon tourists that crowd the avenue at any time of the day. Although traffic gets through in narrow lanes along the sides, the Rambla is primarily a pedestrian way. The name is derived from the Arabic word ramla (“riverbed”), but by the Middle Ages the stream that once ran this course was a conduit for raw sewage just outside of the city walls. Once the city walls were demolished the strip began to be developed as a primary avenue. Orwell writes about street fighting and barricades along the street during the Barcelona May Days when the east side was occupied by the anarchists and the west primarily by the communist militia and Civil Guards. One can hardly imagine those events today, when the biggest danger seems to be being overcharged at the many stands catering to tourists.

Technically, the Rambla is called Las Ramblas as it actually consists of a number of connected portions, each with its own name and character. We pass through La Rambla de las Canaletes and La Rambla dels Estudis, the latter known for the constant twittering din of its bird markets.

Next week: The Gothic Quarter.

Posted 19 May 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Morning in Catalonia

We are rather quickly impressed by the friendliness of the majority of the people we encounter in Barcelona. Service people are always smiling and genuine in their greetings, and everyone seems generally helpful and welcoming, even to tourists. I find it a sharp contrast with Madrid, a city that seemed more conservative and colder in attitude. The difference may be due to capital city snobbery contrasted with provincial warmth or the mellowing effect of living on the shore of the Mediterranean, or perhaps the spirit of the Catalonian people truly is something special.

We begin our morning by putting together a simple breakfast of bread with butter and raspberry jam. The ground coffee left in the apartment is decent, and the maker efficiently apportions coffee into two charming cups. We watch a little of the morning news on both the Castilian and the Catalan channels.

Contrary to popular belief and Franco-era propaganda, the language of Catalonia is not a dialect of Spanish but is in fact closer to the Provençal dialect of France. The affinities with written French are evident, though the pronunciation is certainly more like Spanish. Castilian Spanish and Catalan developed from Latin independently due to the pattern of Roman settlement. The Roman elite—traders and financiers—settled the interior and the south, bringing with them the formal Latin that preceded Castilian. Less cultivated types settled Catalonia, introducing a more modern and slangy Latin.

Catalan has been banned at certain times ever since Catalonia’s defeat in the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714. Proponents of Catalan nationalism in the late 19th century sought to affirm the regional culture of Catalonia and the local language to distinguish themselves from the rest of Spain. The movement was suppressed during the 20th-century dictatorships of Primo de Rivera and Francisco Franco. Franco’s death in 1975 set off a fanatical resurgence of the language, which has softened in the years since. Currently, a majority of the population of Catalonia can speak and understand the regional tongue, but less than half can write it. Local TV and radio must broadcast a certain amount of Catalan programming, and prominent local papers are published in Catalan.

Though I understand Catalonians take a great deal of pride in their local language, I never encounter any reluctance from the locals to speak Spanish with me, and their accents are easier to understand than in Madrid. However, I am always careful to refer to the language as Castellano (Castilian) rather than Español to avoid any nationalist connotations. We find that the written language is everywhere. Street names are in Catalan instead of in Spanish (“carrer” favored over “calle,” “plaça” over “plaza,” “avinguda” over “avenida,” etc.). Official signs are in both Castilian and Catalan, probably due to local and federal decrees. The bilingualism leads to some absurd situations where a translation seems redundant, such as a sign in the metro that reads in Catalan “Prohibit baixar a la via” and in Castilian “Prohibido bajar a la vía.” We find ourselves using very little of the local tongue outside of ubiquitous phrases like “bon dia” and “adéu.”

We decide to begin our explorations by going right to the old city where most of the main sights are. We take a short trip on the metro to the Urquinaona stop and walk to Plaça de Catalunya, a popular plaza on the dividing line between the older medieval neighborhoods and the newer extension to the city. Along the perimeter are a number of department stores, including the national chain El Corte Inglés. We can also see the venerable Cafè Zurich, a popular spot for people-watching. Some of the architecture dates from the era of nuocentisme, a 1920s neoclassicist response to the turn-of-the-century style called modernism.

Next week: George Orwell in Barcelona.

Posted 12 May 2010


Barcelona, Mediterranean Jewel: Introduction

Barcelona, honor of Spain, alarm and terror of enemies near and far, luxury and delight of its inhabitants, refuge of foreigners, school of chivalry, and epitome of all that a civilized and inquisitive taste could ask for in a great, famous, rich and well-founded city.

In the spring, the Sparrow and I decided to take a trip to Spain that would focus on the city of Barcelona, one that neither of us had ever been to. The following is my account of our brief but powerful love affair with the capital of Catalonia.

After a typically bad night’s sleep on our flight we have a little coffee and manage to open our eyes enough to take in our first glimpse of Spain out of the window and are treated to a grand view of the Pyrenees. Snow-topped and imposing, the peaks clearly indicate why Spain only experienced infrequent invasions from the rest of the continent. Soon the hilly contours of the region of Catalonia come into view, followed by the capital city of Barcelona spread out along the water of the Mediterranean.

Once we arrive at the apartment we have rented for the week, we wait a bit sitting on a bench in a little pedestrian zone in the middle of the Avinguda Diagonal, a busy street that, true to its name, cuts across l’Eixample’s grid in a diagonal direction. The little walking areas in the middles of busy streets are quite nice and common in the area. The skyline just to the east is dominated by the Torre Agbar (2005), a cucumber-shaped tower in dark blue and lurid red glass designed by Jean Nouvel. Even more iconic are the spires of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia cathedral, visible over the tops of buildings just a couple of blocks to the north.

The owner shows up soon with the keys and we are let into our home for the next several days. The apartment is on the ground floor and towards the back of the building. As there is no real natural lighting, the space could easily seem cave-like and oppressive, yet it is done up so nicely that it feels cozy and charming. The main room has a couch with table and TV and a loft bed above. The back door leads into a little outdoor area with washer/dryer and a table with two chairs. The space would make a pleasant breakfast area, though it’s never quite warm enough for us to feel tempted to take advantage of it. The kitchen is well-appointed with coffee maker, microwave, toaster, and plenty of attractive dishes and cookware. We also find various basics like cooking oil, sugar, spices, and coffee, doubtless left by previous guests. I had expected to be simply thrown the keys and some towels and left on our own and am instead pleasantly surprised at the time the owner takes to show us everything and to make sure we feel at home. Other perks include umbrellas and a host of informational material and maps on Barcelona. After we pay her the cash for the apartment, the owner takes friendly leave of us.

After having a simple snack, we go for a stroll around the neighborhood. We are naturally drawn to the Sagrada Familia cathedral and take in the impressive sight at night. The haze of our jetlagged eyes and the darkness make the melting façade seem even more unreal. We walk around a bit more and come across the Plaça de Braus Monumental bullring by the Monumental metro station. The neo-Moorish building was designed by Ignasi Mas i Morell and now houses a bullfighting museum. The neighborhood is very residential, though we find plenty of little shops and cafés nearby.

We stop for dinner at a local cafeteria-restaurant called Jada and assemble a meal out of a variety of tapas. We have the truita del dia (tortilla del día, Spanish omelette of the day), pa amb tomaquet (pan con tomate, toasted bread rubbed with garlic, olive oil, and tomato), croquetas (croquets with chicken and salt cod), patates braves (patatas bravas, fried potatoes in spicy sauce), and two glasses of the house red, all totaling a reasonable €10.55. The tapas seem to be of a standard style that one can obtain in any corner restaurant, sort of a Spanish equivalent of diner food.

Next week: The journey begins.

Posted 5 May 2010


Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: The Domino Dominator and other Local Color

Today in conversation class we play dominoes in Spanish. I get the impression Fridays are frequently spent playing games as my classmates seem accustomed to the routine. The rules are Dominican, though perhaps this game is a pan-Caribbean variant as the brothers tell me the same version is played by Puerto Ricans. I have observed dominoes played at blinding speed in the street, but we naturally go at a much slower pace. The teacher partners with me as I am new to the game. She and I make short work of the other team, though I have little idea of what I’m doing. The basic rules are simple, but the strategy is complex and requires carefully following the play and thinking ahead. I manage to stumble upon some good plays and gain a reputation as a shrewd player, though I truthfully protest that I’m more lucky than cunning. For her part, the teacher mocks the other team with colorful language. For the first time I realize that the name “domino” comes from the Latin root for “dominate,” and when a player has won a round he or she appropriately calls out “domino” (“I dominate”).

After lunch I get out for one more afternoon of sight-seeing. I go by a church called the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Carmen (Sánchez and Arzobispo Nouel), constructed in 1596. During its history it has been a hospital, an inn, and a jail. It also experienced the tender touch that Drake and his men gave to most of the city’s Catholic churches and was burnt down. The original version was in stone, the present one in brick. The façade has an Isabelline red-brick portal and an Islamic peak. When I walk by the Capilla de la Tercera Orden Dominica I see that the doors are open today despite my guidebook’s insistence that it is the office of Santo Domingo’s archbishop and not open to the public. I am able to peek into the plain brick interior and see the remains of a mural over the altar. I take a walk down to the southern corner of the Zona Colonial at the end of Isabel la Católica and find the grave of a Dominican poet named Arturo Pellerano Castro (better known as “Byron”) with text from some of his poems.

On El Conde between Isabel la Católica and Las Damas I find a gallery associated with the Colegio Dominicano de Artistas Plásticos. Among the more contemporary pieces I find three by two classic modern artists. Ramón Oviedo, a major figure in Dominican expressionism, is represented by Teatro, which appears to portray a flayed animal, and Sonido sin Eco, a moody piece composed of shadowy figures. The third piece is an untitled one by Darío Suro from 1974 of an abstract skull.

I next visit a cathedral called the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Mercedes (Las Mercedes and José Reyes), built during the 16th century. The façade has a small stone sculpture over the front door, and the back portion has a lovely Madonna in blue tiles. Nearby is the small Iglesia de San Miguel (José Reyes and Juan Isídro Perez). The rectangular door contrasts nicely with the rounded barrel vault interior. The supporting interior arches are of heavy, rough-hewn stone.

While walking around I find myself north of the Zona Colonial and end up along a very local shopping district on Avenida Mella. I’m even more surprised to find the gates of a Chinatown at Mella and Avenida Duarte. The little area has a couple of stores and some Chinese restaurants, but I see few actual Chinese people.

Walking east, I reach the north-east corner of the Zona Colonial and the Iglesia de Santa Bárbara (Gabino Puello and Isabel la Católica), a graceful brick church built in 1574. The present three-arch design was included in the rebuilt version (after being sacked by Drake’s men, natch) and apparently helped to fortify the church against destruction by hurricanes. Just north of the church is the Fuerte de San Bárbara. The fortification was built in the 1570s as one of the city’s main defenses, but it was still captured by Drake in 1586. I take the rough stairs to the top and find a set of cannons. The view down the length of the Ozama River is impressive, and I can see a docked cruise ship.

I can’t resist another stop for fresh fruit juice at La Cafetera Colonial, especially in the afternoon’s heat. I order lechoza without knowing what the word means and find out it is papaya. At one point, an older woman comes in and inspects the dust on one of the ironwork fixtures before sitting down glumly behind the bar. I imagine she is an owner or manager. A younger guy behind the counter jokes with me about the señora before getting down to the business of giving everything a good dusting.

I end the afternoon sitting in Parque Colón contemplating dinner ideas. I run into a couple of classmates, and we all chat for a bit. At one point, we observe a security guard dragging a woman away, and we conjecture she is a beggar that security doesn’t want bothering any tourists in the park. We go up to the bar in the Conde Restaurant for drinks. A cuba libre (rum and coke) with Brugal (a local brand) light rum is RD$ 120. We make plans to meet up later at what he knows as Paco’s and I know as Grand’s Cafeteria and Bar.

Sure enough, when I get to Grand’s I see a painting showing that its former name was Paco’s. I have a pierna horneada (roasted pork leg) sandwich (RD$ 130), consisting of huge chunks of meat in a baguette with fries on the side. When my classmate comes by we decide to go to a cheaper local place he knows of.

We walk down Palo Hincado to a colmada across the street from the Puerta de la Misericordia. A colmada is a peculiarly Dominican invention, a corner grocery and liquor store by day that turns into a bar by night. The drinks are cheap compared to the fancier cafes, and we indulge in 650 ml bottles of the atrocious local lager Presidente (RD$ 80) and santo libres (RD$ 50) with Brugal añejo rum mixed with Sprite. We spend part of our time drinking in front of the gate. At one point, a boy with only rudimentary language skills and no parents in sight latches onto us, expressing his fondness by hurling plastic bottles in our direction. We do our best to disarm him, but he returns with a stick. We divert his aggressive energy into pest control and have him chase the rather monstrous cockroaches that occasionally run across the sidewalks in this area.

Though people have spilled out into the street around the colmada, a lot of action is underway inside as people are dancing to merengue and salsa. People of all ages congregate here, drinking hard and socializing. Two men who seem to be arguing comically come up to us, each explaining his case. We don’t understand them, but my classmate identifies one as the regular bottle collector for the colmada and suspects the other one may be trying to move in on the territory. Suddenly, the invader menacingly wields a bottle at his competitor. The situation diffuses, only to escalate again when the man returns with a stick. At this point others intervene and disarm him. After this bit of theater we call it a night.

In the morning I expect my driver to be late as is common for the locals, but not only is he not on Dominican time, he even shows up five minutes early. I immediately take a liking to his gentlemanly and easy-going manner and we chat on the trip, my comprehension aided by his relatively slow rate of speech. The ride to the airport takes about thirty minutes. On our right the low-hanging sun is sparking over the blue water, the beginning of another beautiful day in the Caribbean.

Posted 28 April 2010


Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: Treasures of Amber

I have my morning café at the Conde Restaurant at Parque Colon. A café con leche goes for RD$ 40, RD$ 5 more than its equivalent at Grand’s at the other end of El Conde.

On the way back to the apartment I get an empanada with fish for RD$ 20 at the corner stand. While I am relaxing inside the power goes out, which I understand occurs regularly here. When I leave for the afternoon I ask a man sitting in front of the fence how long it should be out, and he says it won’t take long. It is back on by the time I return in the evening, but while out walking I notice most stores don’t have power, and the ones that do are likely using generators.

I don’t do much while out today as I have nearly exhausted the limited sight-seeing opportunities, but I do stumble across some interesting things. One is the Monasterio de San Francisco (south of the Plaza de San Antón), which dates from 1508 and was the first monastery in the New World. Like many of the city’s Catholic buildings it was burned down by Drake and had to be rebuilt. The monastery was employed as a mental asylum from the 1880s to the 1930s until it was destroyed by a hurricane. It was never reconstructed and remains in ruins. Apparently, chains that were used to bind the inmates can still be seen, but as the site is mostly barred off I cannot find any. Concerts are sometimes staged here, and I can certainly imagine it would serve as a dramatic venue.

While sitting for a bit in Plaza España I observe a Politur officer stopping a shirtless man carrying a beer walking towards the Alcázar, probably to ensure that the tourists visiting the museum aren’t disturbed. The man seems to have enough of an excuse for the officer to let him walk on. Along the river walls of the plaza is a fortification called the Puerta de San Diego, which was built in 1571 to defend the city from assaults from the river. I walk along the thin walkway along the rampart, trying to imagine how evocative the view must have been before the road was built along the river. I notice that the Capilla de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios just south of the plaza is open. I take a peek in and see a simple brick barrel vault interior with art hung on the walls. Two men appear to be rehearsing something.

The rest of the afternoon is devoted to amber. Dominican amber is considered some of the finest in the world and is readily available. Scenes from the film Jurassic Park were even shot in the country, though I don’t know whether they were the scenes that featured amber. I first step into the Museo Mundo de Ambar (Arzobispo Meriño and Restauración). Though not sufficiently interested in paying for the museum, I do spend a little time looking at the items in the gift shop. Next, I check out the Museo de Ambar (Calle El Conde at the Parque Colón). This place is primarily a gift shop, but it has a free and mildly interesting museum upstairs showing the process of mining and refining amber with signs in English and German. One can also see larimar, a blue stone found only in the Dominican Republic.

The lights go out briefly while I’m in the apartment in the evening, but they thankfully come on before I go to bed so I don’t need to sleep without the fan on.

Next week: Last day in Santo Domingo.

Posted 21 April 2010


Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: A Glimpse into the Colonial Past

The other major sight I see today is the Museo de Las Casas Reales (Las Damas south of the Plaza España) (RD$ 50 entry). The Renaissance style building was constructed in the 16th Century and once housed the Governor and Royal Court for the Spanish Caribbean territory. Today it is an interesting history museum that is also a pleasant place to visit as the courtyard in back has peacocks and peahens wandering about.

The collection begins with the discovery and exploration of the New World, including models of Columbus’s three original ships prominently on display. A placard explains how the age of discovery began with the marriage of Isabel and Fernando II of Spain. One highlight is a map of the early colonies of the island founded by Columbus and his brother Bartholomew. The map places the original La Navidad settlement with authority, though I understand no physical signs of it have yet been found. Another map convincingly shows that the colony of Santo Domingo was the center for the exploration of the New World.

The island of Hispaniola was the third that Cristóbal Colón, better known to us as Christopher Columbus, came across on his pivotal first voyage in 1492. At that time he established the settlement of La Navidad on the northern coast of what is now Haiti. He also kidnapped a dozen or so of the native Taínos, most of whom didn’t survive the voyage back to Spain. When he returned to the island on his second voyage a year later he found the colony had been destroyed by the Taínos in reprisal for kidnappings of some of their number by the colonists. He had a second colony, La Isabela, established on the north coast of what is now the Dominican Republic. This settlement was in turn ruined by disease. In 1494, Christopher’s brother Bartholomew (Bartolomé) traveled to Hispaniola to meet his brother and founded the colony of Santo Domingo in 1496. This third colony ended up being the one that lasted and grew into the present capital of the nation. On Christopher’s third voyage in 1498 he sanctioned the enslavement of the natives to mine gold, setting a precedent taken up by the explorers that followed him.

A small exhibit is dedicated to the Taínos, a tribe that inhabited the island for about 700 years before the arrival of the Europeans. The artifacts include an idol of Yúcahu, the god of the cassava plant that was a staple of the Taíno diet. One placard mentions the sobering fact that at the time of discovery the island had 200-300 million indigenous inhabitants, a number that was reduced to 12,000 by 1517 due to disease and brutal forced labor.

The next room has artifacts from the age of piracy that plagued the Spanish through attacks on their colonies and plunders of their treasure-laden ships. Sir Francis Drake, the explorer who circumnavigated the globe and was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth of England, is here better known as a pirate due to his 1586 invasion of Santo Domingo. Among the old maps of Santo Domingo is one in English created by a member of Drake’s crew showing where the English fleet and ground forces were arrayed during his attack. One long paragraph digresses into the natural history of the tortoise, probably an exotic creature to the English of the time.

Much piracy was sponsored or at least encouraged by the English and the French during their war with the Spanish Empire. Curiously enough, the only placard I see in English discusses the history of this piracy, as if to make sure English speakers know about the crimes of their mother country. One exhibit goes into the story of an island called Isla de la Tortuga (Turtle Island) off the northwest coast of Hispaniola. The French settlers on this island used grills called boucans to smoke meat, which became the basis of the word “buccaneers” when these same settlers turned to piracy to supplement their incomes.

As attacks became more numerous, the Spanish colonists were forced to retreat behind the protected walls of Santo Domingo, allowing pirates to establish bases on the rest of the island. One placard explicitly traces a line from these settlers to the French colony of Saint-Domingue and present-day Haiti. I understand that there is still a great deal of animosity towards Haitians in the Dominican Republic, so I am not surprised at this indictment of their origins. One interesting object is a large stone that was once used to mark the boundary between the Spanish and French colonies.

The exhibit on cultivation includes implements for farming and processing sugar cane. The collection also includes devices used to confine and punish slaves, whose market was spurred by sugar cane cultivation. The importation of African slaves to the island is significant to a majority of the population of the Dominican Republic as most people can trace their ancestry back to these slaves, who greatly outnumbered the European colonists.

The rest of the museum’s collection is not as interesting to me as it focuses on artifacts from the early Spanish colonies and objects that were once housed in this building. I do enjoy the armaments collection, apparently acquired by Trujillo as a gift from a Mexican general in 1955. Items include Pancho Villa’s uniform and arms from around the world, including Japan, Persia, India, and Turkey. The final item of interest to me is a model of Santo Domingo in 1785, depicting the Zona Colonial surrounded by a fortifying wall.

I take a break outside and sit for a bit in Plaza España. A group of school kids have also come out and are playing on the benches. Three merengue performers in matching gaily colored shirts come around and start to play after being goaded by the kids. They half-heartedly dance, mostly solo but some in same-sex pairs, before being distracted by other pursuits.

While making my way back to El Conde I stumble across a set of ruins at Calle Hostos and Luperón. They are of a hospital called the Hospital San Nicolás de Bari, ordered built by Governor Ovando in 1503 as the New World’s first. It actually survived Drake and various natural disasters until a hurricane knocked it down in 1911. The picturesque ruins include Moorish arches and hordes of pigeons.

Tonight I get dinner at La Cafetera Colonial (El Conde near Avenida Duarte), a narrow place with pleasant, artsy decor. Though the restaurant has tables in the back, everyone is seated at a row of chairs at the bar. The fare is mostly sandwiches, so I order a ham sandwich (RD$ 90), grilled with green tomatoes. The menu board mentions that a 10% service fee is added afterwards.

A number of juices are mentioned on the menu (all RD$ 55), most of which I am unable to find in my dictionary and only figure out later. Among them are lechoza (papaya), granadillo (red passion fruit), zapote (sapote), guanabana, toronja (grapefruit), tamarindo (tamarind), melón (melon), chinola (passion fruit), naranja (orange), and piña (pineapple). I ask for a chinola but am told they are out. I next try for a piña. The juices can be ordered “natural” (with water) or “con leche” and are blended fresh before you. My piña is very flavorful and refreshing.

My dining companions make up quite a cast of characters. In addition to the locals, who are already colorful enough, a Chinese woman is reading translated Paul Auster while using ice to treat a lump on her hand. Even more intriguing is a lavishly made-up French woman uneasily treading the line between aging gracefully and its opposite. She cooingly calls the barkeep “cariño,” “querido,” and “corazón.” “C’est pas lourd, chéri,” she says to me before leaving. I would respond except I’m not sure what she’s referring to as not heavy. My dinner? Her make-up? Life itself?

Next week: The color of amber.

Posted 14 April 2010


Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: New World Cathedral

To supplement my lunch, I pick up an empanada from a small stand on just a block from my apartment. I choose the chicken (RD$ 15) out of the many varieties offered. The shell is nice and flaky and the filling composed of shredded chicken with spices and vegetables.

I begin the afternoon’s sight-seeing with a walk down Calle Palo Hincado from Parque Independencia. At the intersection with Arzobispo Portes near the sea I come across the Puerta de la Misericordia, a gate that was erected during the 16th century as the city’s western entrance. National hero Ramón Mella fired the first shot that touched off the rebellion against Haiti here in 1844. I continue walking east on Calle José Gabriel García and at Calle 19 de Marzo I find some fortifications with cannons that constitute Fort San José, built after the attempted British invasion of 1655. Across the street is a statue of Father Bartolomé de las Casas, the priest who preached against the genocide of the indigenous inhabitants.

Today I have finally gotten around to seeing the main cathedral located at the Parque Colón. The Catedral Primada de América was constructed from 1521 to 1540 in a mix of Gothic and Romanesque styles. It is the oldest cathedral in continuous operation in this hemisphere, but it was unfortunately excessively vandalized by Francis Drake and his crew during their 1586 occupation.

I enter through the western façade, which is an example of an ornate style of Spanish architecture known as Plateresque. Tourists are sitting in groups in the pews being led on guided tours. A guide approaches me pretty quickly after I enter and offers a tour in English. I decline his services and soon find out that I don’t much need him as the placards that offer detailed explanations of each chapel are in Spanish, English, French, and German.

Some of the highlights include the chapel to the right of the pulpit, the Chapel of Life and Death, which contains a modernist stained-glass window by Rincón Mora depicting a bizarre John the Baptist baptizing Christ. The Santa Ana Chapel, also to the right of the pulpit, has the church’s only original stained-glass window, depicting an angel with the Virgin and Child. Allegedly, Francis Drake slept in this chapel during his army’s occupation of the church.

To the right of the west entrance is a painting by Enrique Tarazona from 1917 depicting the bearing of the body of Christ. The chapel next to it has a nice painting on wood. Another nearby chapel allegedly once housed the remains of Columbus. I leave the cathedral through the southern doors, which lead onto a plaza with buildings where the priests were once quartered.

Next week: Santo Domingo’s history museum.

Posted 7 April 2010


Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: The Trujillo Legacy

I have my morning coffee at Grand’s Cafeteria and Bar on the El Conde at Parque Independencia. The place was founded in 1967 and serves as an interesting contrast to the El Conde Restaurant at the other end of El Conde. Both are great locations for sitting on the sidewalk and people-watching, but Grand’s is more frequented by locals than tourists. A café con leche is RD$ 35.

Today in conversation class, we have a spirited and highly opinionated discussion on the political landscape in the Dominican Republic and how corruption has made any decent political progress difficult. Our teacher seems to feel that most people are misled by easy promises, an observation that can apply to any nation’s politics. We also hear some political history with an emphasis on the dictator Trujillo and his legacy.

Few of today’s democracies managed to survive the twentieth century without a period of dictatorship, and the Dominican Republic is no exception. The dictator Rafael Trujillo, known both as the Benefactor and as the Goat, first exerted power as the chief of the Dominican National Police, an organization that had been created by the United States during its occupation of the country. In 1930 he forced progressive president Horacio Vásquez from office and established himself president in a sham election. Over the next thirty years he had various candidates elected president but always retained real power for himself. His crimes include using his secret police, the SIM, to torture, imprison, and murder any who opposed or seemed to oppose him. He was also a notorious sexual abuser of women.

Trujillo welcomed Republicans fleeing Franco’s Spain and Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, though less out of humanitarian concerns and more due to his program of encouraging immigrants of European ethnicity to come to the country. This racial policy found its most brutal expression in an ethnic cleansing in 1937, when Trujillo had tens of thousands of Haitians living in border areas massacred.

Though he used his monopoly of various industries to ensure that he and his family amassed huge personal fortunes, Trujillo did help to strengthen the economy and granted peasants state land to cultivate. His authoritarian policies also kept crime levels low. For these reasons and for his general support of the peasantry, he is still remembered fondly in certain quarters. For most of his rule the U.S. supported him, mainly due to the stability he brought to the country and his staunch anti-Communism. However, he became an embarrassment to the U.S. government after a series of highly publicized incidents, including the assassination of a Dominican dissident of Basque descent in New York in 1956, an assassination attempt against President Betancourt of Venezuela in 1960, and the murder of the three Mirabal sisters, who opposed the regime, in 1960. His support among his own people waned when he made an enemy of the Catholic Church. In 1961 Trujillo finally met his end when his car was ambushed by a number of gunmen supported by the CIA.

Next week: Santo Domingo’s main cathedral.

Posted 31 March 2010


Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: Exploring the Plaza de la Cultura

As I had a difficult time finding a simple breakfast yesterday, I take up the habit of eating rolls with butter in my apartment in the morning. When I get out I see that things are definitely livelier this morning as it is a regular working day. The traffic circle around Parque Independencia is choked with cars and trucks and a lot of people are out on El Conde. I notice uniformed people on the pedestrian mall cleaning up trash. A man moves down the street carrying thermoses and cups and selling coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. One peculiarity of Dominican culture I notice is that people hiss at each other to get attention, even in situations where it would seem impolite to do so.

I find that I am more in step in class this morning as I am getting more accustomed to the Dominican accent. I find that Dominicans tend to drop the “s” at ends of words, so that “ellos” comes out as “ello.” They also frequently substitute the “r” with an “l” so that “moreno” sounds like “moleno.” This morning I meet the director of the school. He is very welcoming and offers to help me with anything I need.

For my after-lunch activity this afternoon I decide to check out the Plaza de la Cultura to the west. I start out walking along Avenida Simón Bolivar, a busy street in a commercial district. Several of the houses on this strip seem like mansions for the wealthy. The Plaza itself provides nice, leafy places to sit. In the heat and humidity of the afternoon, one cannot walk for very long without needing to sit in the shade. Luckily, the city has many benches in tree-lined areas for this purpose.

The Plaza de la Cultura contains the primary museums, the national theater, and the national library of the city. The area was owned by Trujillo and donated to the people after his assassination. I first consider going to the Museo del Hombre Dominicano, but it doesn’t sound that exciting according to my guidebook and doesn’t seem worth the RD$ 75 entry fee. A classmate will later confirm this for me. The Museo Nacional de Historia y Geografíca sounds more interesting, but it is under renovation.

I do go into the Museo de Arte Moderno (RD$ 50). Currently, the 25th Bienal show is going on, so a lot of the art on exhibit is contemporary. I am not so much interested in these works, but they do display an attention to the craft of painting and sculpture that I find missing in a lot of contemporary art. One fine work on permanent display on the first floor is Antonio Prats-Ventós’s Alegoria a la Pesca Dominicana o la Leyenda de la Desfloración del Mar (Allegory of Dominican Fishing or the Legend of the Deflowering of the Sea) (1954), a large woodcut panel.

The best art is on the top floor, which features works from previous biennales and is a better showcase for the highlights of Dominican art. Many artists fled Franco’s Spain and brought a Spanish flavor to Dominican art, and in an ironic twist, art in the Dominican Republic was actually encouraged by Trujillo with his sponsorship of the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes. Important represented artists include Silvaro Lena and Ramón Oviedo, the latter known as the first master of Dominican art.

One of the more interesting works is Como Jonás en el vientre del Gran Pez (Like Jonah in the Belly of the Great Fish) (1994), a series of five abstract expressionist panels, each with a shark’s fin, by Aquiles Azar Billini. Aquiles is the son of the famous Adriana Billini Gautreau, one of the earliest Dominican modernists. Another of my favorites is El Sacrificio del Chivo (The Sacrifice of the Goat) (1958) by Eligio Pichardo, a gruesome painting depicting three men devouring a goat cut onto pieces. I have to wonder if it was intended as a criticism of Trujillo as its title resembles that of Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel La Fiesta del Chivo, about the assassination of the dictator.

While looking at the paintings on the top floor I am given an impromptu tour by a guard woman, who takes me around explaining the significance of all of the paintings. Her accent is extremely Dominican and I have a hard time understanding her. Sometimes I ask her to slow down and clarify and other times I just nod and smile. She seems delighted both when I understand and when I don’t and enjoys talking about the art.

After the walk back to the main part of the city I sit in the Parque Independencia for a bit. As dusk starts to come on, two soldiers guarding the place perform the simultaneous lowering of two flags.

I walk along El Conde to get dinner at a place recommended in my guidebook and come across Restaurant Mariscos (El Conde and José Reyes). The place is tiny and is staffed by one woman. A variety of seafood with rice is offered on the menu. I choose the standard dish, mariscos con arroz (RD$ 95), a full bowl of Spanish rice with chunks of various types of seafood. White sauce comes in a bowl on the side. The seafood is fresh and tasty.

I feel that I am finally seeing El Conde in full flower as many people are on the street tonight hanging out, socializing, and making plans. I see a group of musicians with drum, güaut;ira, and accordion strike up some merengue, to the delight of passersby who break into dance.

Life in the Dominican Republic seems to move to two rhythms: the frenetic percussive beats of merengue and the smooth, romantic contours of bachata. Merengue has its origins in folk music and in its purest form is performed on a tambora (a two-sided drum), acordeón (accordion), and güira. Based on a gourd instrument used by the Taíno people, the güira resembles a cylindrical cheese grater and is played by running a stiff brush vigorously across its surface. The tambora provides the driving beat and the acordeón a melody to supplement the vocals. Traditional merengue is warm and folksy, but in its dance club forms it tends to be excessively processed and synthesized, particularly when blared out of cars in some neighborhoods of New York.

Bachata is a slower rural music centering on themes of love and heartbreak, the Dominican blues. In its purest form it is played on guitar, drums, and güira. Whereas merengue was championed by the Trujillo regime, bachata was suppressed and only fully flowered as a popular recorded form after the dictator’s death. As a dance merengue is easy, in part because the high beats per minute allow little in the way of leg movements. In contrast, bachata involves quick footwork.

Next week: Memories of the Trujillo years.

Posted 25 March 2010


Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: When it Rains, it Really Rains in Santo Domingo

A fierce rain begins while I’m walking on Calle Isabel la Católica near the plaza. Although rain is a frequent occurrence, the locals don’t seem to carry umbrellas and instead favor ducking under ever-present overhangs. I start to follow this practice just to fit in with the natives. Pausing to wait out the rain doesn’t affect my schedule as I don’t have to be anywhere, and I soon discover it allows for a certain space for quiet contemplation and forces one to stop and observe city life frozen for a time. A few people are waiting under various overhangs along this street, all lost in their own thoughts. A little truck comes by blaring some sort of slogans that may be political or advertising or something else entirely. The rain also helps to break the afternoon heat. This rain shower will actually turn out to be the last one I experience during my time in the city.

After the rain ends, I proceed to try out the second walking tour recommended in my guidebook, which takes me by a number of other churches. The first one is the Iglesia de Santa Clara (Padre Billini and Isabel la Católica), which dates from 1552 and was the New World’s first nunnery. Its distinguishing characteristic is a rugged portal with a bust of St. Claire. Like many churches from the early era of Santo Domingo, this church had to be rebuilt after it was sacked by Francis Drake and his troops.

A little farther on is the Conventos de la Orden de los Predicadores (Hostos and Padre Billini), the first convent of the Dominican order founded in the New World. The façade is impressive, with decorative pillars, blue tiles, and red Isabelline vines, but it is unfortunately being renovated and entry isn’t allowed. When I pass by on a later day I feel bad for some of the workers pounding away high on the scaffolding in the full heat of the sun. Apparently, Father Bartolomé de las Casas, who wrote about Spanish atrocities against the indigenous inhabitants of the island, did much of his writing here.

Across a small square is the Capilla de la Tercera Orden Dominica (Avenida Duarte and Padre Billini), built in 1514. By some miracle, this church actually survived both natural disasters and the ravages of Francis Drake’s crew and is the only colonial structure to reach the present day fully intact. It sports a nice baroque façade and a brick belfry. The final church of the day is the Iglesia de la Regina Angelorum (Padre Billini and José Reyes), built in the late 16th century. It has an imposing façade with gargoyles.

For dinner I decide to strike out deeper into Gazcue to locate one of the places mentioned in my guidebook. I walk down Avenida Independencia, a main avenue that heads south-west from Parque Independencia, and locate the restaurant called Hermanos Villar (Avenida Independencia and Avenida Pasteur). Actually, the brothers Villar seem to have a mini-empire, with a fancy garden café and dessert shop nearby. I am more interested in the cafeteria, which is supposed to have good, simple food for cheap. Unclear on what to do when I come in, I ask the waiter, who lets me know I can order sandwiches off of the menu or choose some of the selections that are kept warm under glass. I ask the server what some of the selections are and get rice (RD$ 40) with bacalao (salted cod) mixed with vegetables (RD$ 100) and water (RD$ 15). The place is filled with locals eating, drinking, and enjoying a game of béisbol playing on the TV. The Dominican Republic is probably one of the few countries besides the United States where baseball is more popular than soccer. While I am eating, an older man drinking from beer in a sack comes in with an attractive and nicely dressed young woman. When he opens his mouth I realize he has an American accent. I don’t have to think too hard to figure out what is going on here. As if to reinforce my suspicion, once I get out and take a walk down the street a man offers in English to “show me a lady.”

After dinner I head down Avenida Pasteur to Avenida George Washington (better known as the Malecón), a popular strip running along the sea lined with ritzy hotels and casinos. I walk along and reach El Obelisco, built in 1936 to commemorate the changing of the city’s name to Ciudad Trujillo by the ever-modest dictator Trujillo. The obelisk is ringed by a sort of boardwalk that is bustling with people.

Next week: Exploring the Plaza de la Cultura.

Posted 10 March 2010


Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: Sight-seeing in the Zona Colonial

After eating, I go back down El Conde and take a walking tour recommended in my guidebook. The tour appropriately begins at the Parque Colón, the main square of the historic center. The leafy place is fronted by the main cathedral and has a statue of Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón) in the center. At the west end is the town hall, dating to the 19th century. The plaza is the best location for people-watching in the city as foreigners and residents alike hang out here, as do a large number of pigeons. During my frequent visits I see plenty of wedding couples getting their pictures taken in front of the cathedral at the southern edge of the park.

I also notice officers of the Politur, the tourist police. I understand that they are the best ones to go to when foreigners have any trouble as they are considered more reliable than the other police. Their visible presence and frequent patrols in the most touristed areas seem to have the intended effect, and I rarely see any harassment of tourists, even at the level of simple begging or pushing objects for sale. The Politur also seem to be well equipped, with some riding segways.

My next stop is the Fortaleza Ozama (RD$ 40), located at the southeastern corner of the Zona Colonial. The oldest military building in the New World dates from 1502 and has been occupied by various nations including Spain, England, France, Haiti, the United States, and, almost as an afterthought, the Dominican Republic itself. Much of it is an open courtyard surrounded by walls and what were probably formerly barracks. Along the west wall is a row of tanks, artillery pieces, and one rickety helicopter. Cannons run along the wall facing the river. The main building is a tower called the Torre del Homenaje. The tower can be entered and climbed to the top, where one has great views in all directions. The other main building, El Polvorín, was a powder house and has a statue of St. Barbara (drafted as the patron saint of the artillery) carved above the door. The fort also has a small arms museum whose highlight is a map showing the walls and fortifications that once ringed the city.

Visible on the other side of the river is a curious building that looks like a Mayan pyramid. I find out that this is the Faro a Colón, a monument whose construction was begun in 1948 by the dictator Trujillo. It was finished after many years and lit in 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing. However, the powerful light is rarely turned on because it causes blackouts, leading many people to consider the monument a wasteful joke.

I leave the fort and head up a cobblestoned street that runs from the southern end of the fort called the Calle de Las Damas. It was the first paved street in the New World (at least the first one laid by Europeans) and was so named because the wife of Diego Columbus (Christopher’s son) and her friends used to stroll up and down it. Governor Nicólas de Ovando had it laid in 1502 when he moved the settlement from the Ozama River’s east side to the west side after its former incarnation was destroyed by a hurricane. The various buildings along Las Damas are full of history. At the point where Las Damas meets El Conde, stairs lead down to the road along the river.

At Las Damas near El Conde is a building called the Hostal Nicolás de Ovando. Built in 1509 as the residence of Governor Ovando, it today houses a top-notch Sofitel hotel. I am able to take a glimpse into the courtyard to see the classic Gothic arches. A little farther up is the Casa de Francia, which was originally the residence of Hernán Cortés. In this location, he allegedly planned the expedition into Mexico that resulted in the conquest and brutalization of the Aztecs. The impressive masonry facade provides an interesting look at the residential architectural style of the period. The building now houses the French embassy.

Farther north on Las Damas is the Panteón Nacional, originally constructed as a Jesuit church in 1714. The dictator Trujillo restored it to house the tombs of various national heroes. The interior has a long barrel vault with an impressive iron chandelier hanging from the rotunda. Over the altar is a lively mural. Just south of the Panteón and connecting Las Damas with Calle Isabel la Católica is the Plaza de María de Toledo. Two arches mark the remains of a former Jesuit residence. One can also see heavy buttresses supporting the Panteón, likely the reason the building has survived for so long.

The next point of interest is the Capilla de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios at Las Damas and Las Mercedes, which was constructed as a private chapel in the 16th century. The charming little brick church has a triple-arched belfry. Just after this church is the Reloj del Sol, a sundial built in 1753 and positioned so that officials housed in the nearby Casas Reales could look out and see the time.

Las Damas ends at the large Plaza España, a nice place to sit and catch breezes off the river. At the western end are a number of ritzy restaurants with places to sit outside. At the east end of the plaza is the Museo Alcázar de Colón, which was once the residence of Columbus’s son Diego during the early 16th century. It has been restored after years of neglect and is currently a museum housing Columbus family artifacts. The plain linear surfaces adorned with Islamic portals and vine ornaments are characteristics of the Isabelline style, a late Spanish Gothic form.

Next week: Caught in the Caribbean rain.

Posted 3 March 2010


Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: Class Begins

In the morning, I make an early start to get some breakfast before class. Little seems to be open at this hour, and I end up wandering around longer than I intended. I finally settle on El Conde Restaurant (El Conde and Arzobispo Meriño), a classic place for sitting on the sidewalk and people-watching in the Parque Colón. As I don’t want a big breakfast, I have to coax the bar maid to get me some toast to have with my café con leche (total RD$ 55). She also gives me a styrofoam cup with napkins and a small liquor bottle in it. I fear a rip-off and tell her I didn’t order the liquor, but she explains it’s simply filled with water to keep the cup from flying away.

After eating, I quickly walk to the Spanish academy. Once I get there I find out that lessons are not starting until 9:00 as today is a holiday (Dominican Constitution Day, I believe). I meet the office manager, who sets me up with some tests to assess my level of Spanish. I am also able to use the internet, which is a nice perk. The instructors and students slowly roll in. The school’s complement is rounded out by a dog and cat.

Class begins with two hours of grammar instruction. The instructor is firm but at times cheeky, saying “buenas noches” when my classmates show up tardy. The level of instruction is definitely a challenging one for me as I am forced to really learn verb tenses and concepts that I only have a passing familiarity with. Plus, the courses are taught entirely in Spanish, and the Dominican accent is difficult to comprehend. At first I find the rapidity of the teachers’ speech tough as well, but I learn quickly that they are actually slowing down for the benefit of the students and that Dominicans on the streets are much faster. The instructors are all young women in their twenties who have received teaching certificates from the university. Many are continuing their education.

After a half-hour break we have a group conversation class with a very vivacious and very talkative instructor. The conversation groups offer introductions to Dominican culture and history with comparisons to life in the United States. Today, the instructor expounds on the Dominican concept of “sanky panky,” denoting a relationship between a local and a foreigner that possesses shades of prostitution.

After class I go by a grocery store called La Despensa (El Conde and Avenida Duarte) to pick up provisions, including bottled water (the local tap isn’t considered safe), fruit, and rolls. I have lunch back at the apartment. As I imagine my dinners will be heavy with meat and grains, I emphasize fruit for lunch. The pears are particularly good, and the guineos maduros (ripe bananas) tasty and cheap.

Next week: Sight-seeing in the Zona Colonial.

Posted 24 February 2010


Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: Exploring the City

Once I have settled into my current accommodations I go out to explore a bit. The apartment is in an area called Gazcue, a quiet leafy suburb just to the west of the Zona Colonial. Everything is very quiet today as it is a Sunday afternoon. My first encounter upon leaving the apartment is with a young man drinking from a beer bottle in a paper sack who asks me something in Spanish. When he sees I don’t understand he asks me if I speak English. He tells me he is a Dominican returning to his country after many years in Argentina and is having trouble figuring out the public transit routes. I tell him I’m hardly in a position to help him.

I walk east to get a sense of the neighborhood and encounter typical signs of the developing world like garbage left carelessly on the street; broken sidewalks; lean, roaming dogs; and a general impression of grime and decay. Aggressive traffic is another sure manifestation. Stoplights are rare in this area, so when crossing a busy street one basically needs to run when one has a chance. The pedestrian crossing marks are hardly respected and appear merely decorative.

It soon starts to rain, slightly at first but soon forcefully. I huddle under an overhang and wait it out. From my vantage point I have the opportunity to observe the various forms of public transportation available in the city. Taxis called carros de concho pack in people and run regular routes. Even more packed are the públicos, minivans that drive standard routes for cheap fares. These can be distinguished as someone is usually standing in the open doorway trying to solicit fares. Most hazardous looking of all are the motoconchos, basically motorcycles that operate as taxis.

My apartment in Gazcue is just a few minutes west of the Zona Colonial, the historic colonial district. The area was once surrounded by walls, which are still present along the Ozama River to the east, along the sea to the south, and at certain other random points. The neighborhood is residential, commercial, and touristy all at once and possesses charming elements like occasional cobblestone streets and colonial era architecture.

I enter the Zona Colonial by way of the main pedestrian mall called Calle El Conde. El Conde was once a thoroughfare but was closed off to traffic in the 1970s. It is now the main strip for restaurants, shopping, and various services. I walk the length of the street to the Parque Colón at the other side, which has plenty of tourists. Although subdued at this hour, a good number of people are about, and I hear snatches of bachata and merengue music in the air.

After getting some cash from an ATM I look for a place for dinner. Many establishments seem to be closed, but I manage to locate a 24-hour cafeteria by the Parque Independencia close to my apartment. I have a grilled ham sandwich (RD$ 160) and apple juice (RD$ 70). I notice a sign outside reading “no armas de fuego” (“no firearms”). These are quite common, and I find it disconcerting that signs need to be put up to tell people not to bring guns into restaurants, as if I had stepped back into the wild west.

After dinner I decide to check out the Parque Independencia, a landmark in the center of a busy traffic circle at the western end of El Conde. The park is accessed through a guarded gate called the Puerta del Conde (“Gate of the Count”), named after the Count of Peñalba, who led the defense of Santo Domingo against invading British troops at this spot in 1655. The site is also significant due to its role in the 1844 bloodless coup orchestrated by a group of Dominicans against occupying Haitians, resulting in the creation of an independent Dominican Republic. At that time, the first Dominican flag was raised over this gate by Ramón Mella, one of the heroes of the republic. The gate is inscribed by the Latin words “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“it is sweet and fitting to die for your country”), originally written by Horace and used in a poem by Wilfred Owen, who appropriately called the phrase “the old lie.” The park within the gate is pleasant and tree-lined with benches. At the west end of the park is a mausoleum called the Altar de la Patria, which houses an eternal flame and the tombs of Juan Pablo Duarte, Francisco del Rosario Sánchez, and Ramón Matías Mella, all three of whom were leaders during the 1844 coup.

After this minor diversion, I head back to the apartment and call it an early night as I’m still tired from the early morning flight. The table fan in the loft area proves to be invaluable for keeping me cool, driving away mosquitoes, and blocking out the inevitable noise from the streets.

Next week: First day of class

Posted 17 February 2010


Santo Domingo, Caribbean Capital: Introduction

Although I’ve been studying various languages for much of my life, in the fall I decided to try out something I had never done before: a course of immersive language study in a foreign country. Spanish seemed like a good one to try out as I have a good knowledge of the structure and grammar but wanted to be smoother in my conversational and comprehension skills. So I signed up for a week at a Spanish language academy in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic to see if it was right for me. I found the experience instructive and enjoyable in many ways. So for the next few weeks my blog will chronicle my journey.

After a calm flight of some four hours, my plane descends through heaps of white clouds over lush green fields and the dazzling blue waters of the Caribbean. The flight lands about thirty minutes early. After disembarking, foreign travelers need to purchase tourist cards for US$ 10 each, though I don’t know what one would do if one only had euros or some other currency. The card itself is an attractive little piece, but it unfortunately and rather oddly has to be almost immediately handed over to an immigration agent. Immigration and customs are both smoothly negotiated.

Apparently, the only public transit from the Las Americas airport to the city of Santo Domingo is a local bus that doesn’t even stop at the airport itself. Tourists are instead advised to take a taxi. I have opted to arrange for pick-up through the school where I will be studying. When I enter the main concourse I find my ride has not arrived yet. I allow extra time both because I have landed early and because I want to allow for “Dominican time.” Just as I am ready to call the school, someone shows up with a sign bearing my name.

In addition to doing airport pick-ups, my driver puts up students from the school who have signed up for home stays. We chat amiably in Spanish during the drive. She mentions having family in New York, which I will find is the case for nearly every Dominican I meet. The drive takes us west along the sea and rows of palm trees. The temperature is a warm 85º and humid, which will vary little during my week-long stay. We cross the Ozama River over a bridge and proceed south along the walls of the Zona Colonial, the historic center of the city of Santo Domingo.

She first takes me to my apartment to show me where it is located. She then drives to the school to show me how best to get there on foot. We finally circle back to the apartment, where she leaves me with the keys after I give her a US$ 100 deposit. I hardly imagine that the steep deposit is the cost of replacing the locks but is rather a means of discouraging carelessness.

The apartment can best be characterized as funky spartan, with solid wood but rough-hewn furniture. The futon in the living area is comfortable, but the metal rods of the frame are starting to break. The bed is up in a loft, accessed by narrow, rickety stairs. Perks include cable TV, refrigerator, kitchen with dining table and cookware, and a table fan for the bed. In all, it’s a nice amount of space and is more welcoming than a hotel room.

Next week: The Leopard gets out and peeks around the city.

Posted 10 February 2010


Caves and Citadels of India: Last Day in Delhi

We supplement a breakfast of parathas and scrambled eggs with the pedas that The Maharani bought on the train the previous day. The objectives for our last day are shopping and hopefully a sight or two. We’ve decided to forego renting a car for the day and to instead attempt to get around with a mix of rickshaws and public transit.

The rickshaws drop us off at the Indraprastha Metro station, the end of the blue line. The area is thought to have been the location of the fabled city of Indraprastha, the setting for much of the epic Mahabharata. From here we take the steps up to the elevated station. According to a handy, easy-to-follow map, it costs 8 Rs to get to our destination. The Maharani purchases tokens for all of us at a booth. After a security check, we wave the tokens over a sensor and get entry through the gate. The token must be dropped in the gate at the station of exit. The train is spacious and has a “for ladies only” section, which of course not everybody respects. We notice that most of the riders seem to be young people and conjecture that perhaps older types are leery of this form of transport. We, however, are quite impressed by the efficiency and cleanliness of the Metro train and the stations. The only complaint we have is that the service is still limited, but once all the lines are completed it will be a great way to get around Delhi.

We get out at the Rajiv Chowk station. While the Sparrow is getting some cash from an ATM, the Duke of York takes a picture in the Metro station and is told to delete it by a cop. We emerge at the center of Connaught Place, getting a glimpse of the Central Park in the middle. Two bombs went off in this area in mid September, set by a group calling themselves the Indian Mujahideen. While trying to locate the cottage emporium we are diverted by two allegedly helpful men in a row. One leads us to a private store, the other tells us the emporium no longer exists. Thankfully, we have a guidebook that points out our destination on a map. The Central Cottage Industries Emporium (Jawahar Vyapar Bhawan, Janpath) is a many-storied complex with a full range of goods at fixed prices. After doing some shopping here we move on to another area of Connaught Place and locate the State Government Emporiums (Baba Kharak Singh Marg). Each of India’s 28 states has a store here. The Sparrow is most interested in the Rajasthan store, which is temporarily located in Rajiv Ghandi Bhawan. In this same building she also finds the SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre, run by the Self-Employed Women’s Association, a non-profit co-op that ensures the women who make the goods are compensated fairly for their labor.

We are ready for lunch and find a good option in the guidebook. The nearby restaurant Kwality (7 Regal Building, Sansad Marg) was set up to serve American GIs during the war and has been a Delhi institution ever since. The classic feel is enhanced by chandeliers, wooden furnishings, and male waiters in uniforms. We have murg malai kababs (grilled chicken in clotted cream) (225 Rs), murg Kwality (250 Rs), chef’s choice chana (chickpeas in sauce) (145 Rs), a huge bhatura (deep-fried flatbread) (45 Rs), and bharwan aloo (potatoes stuffed with vegetables) (150 Rs). While we are eating, a parade proceeds along the street in front. From the icons on the flags we can tell it is a Communist Party rally. To get back to the Metro station we pass by the underground Palika bazaar. Security in the Rajiv Chowk station is tight, and our bags are x-rayed.

We debark back at the Indraprasha station and hire two rickshaws at 100 Rs each to get to the Nizamuddin Dargah. Here, The Duke of York accompanies The Maharani to buy more books at the Ghalib Academy. The same drivers take us to Purana Qila. The now crumbling fortress was once the sixth city of Delhi. The Mughal emperor Humayun began its construction, calling it Din Panah. Sher Shah continued building it after he took over Delhi. Humayun regained the city and the fort, though ironically it was here that he died in 1556, falling down the steps of the observatory. As the fort will close soon, we only really see the entrance gate.

We then hire two new rickshaw drivers. First, we have them stop at two structures across the street, which are both free. The Khairul Manazil was a mosque built in 1562 by Akbar’s nurse. North of it are the ruins of the Lal Darwaza (“Red Gate”), also known as the Sher Shah Suri Gate or the Khooni Darwaza (“Blood Gate”). The nicknames are definitely appropriate to its history. Originally built by Sher Shah, the gate was popular as a place for displaying the heads of criminals during the Mughal period. Emperor Jahangir had some of his rivals executed at this gate, and Emperor Aurangzeb hung the head of one of his elder brothers here. After the 1857 Uprising Emperor Bahadur Shah II and some of his sons were found hiding in the nearby Humayun’s Tomb. Three of the sons were executed at the gate by a British major. The gate earned its name yet again in 1947 when Muslim refugees trying to flee the city were murdered at the spot. We enjoy walking among the ruins as our last bit of sight-seeing in India. For 200 Rs each the drivers take us to Noida. I can see the domes of Akshardham on the way, a 2005 temple built by a Gujarati Hindu sect. When we reach Noida the drivers act worn out and request an extra 50 Rs each.

We call a car to take us to the airport. The driver asks 600 Rs. We take a course south of Delhi on the Outer Ring Road, which gets clogged with traffic at some points. The trip takes one and a half hours. The driver asks me to pay him on the approach road to the airport instead of at the point of arrival as he is not licensed, our final under-the-table transaction in India. Security is tight at the airport, but it is also efficient and understandable given threats against specific Indian airports. We wait for our flight at midnight, worn out but satisfied after a full and stimulating three weeks in India.

Posted 20 January 2010


Caves and Citadels of India: Sounds and Lights at the Red Fort

We call a local car service to get us to the Red Fort for the evening performance. The driver shows up a half-hour later than expected, but he tries to make up for it by taking some unorthodox routes. We are charged 400 Rs and make it to our destination just as the evening’s sound-and-light show in English is starting. We swiftly buy 60 Rs tickets and get to the fort’s gardens, where seats have been set up. A recorded narration of the historical events associated with the fort regales us over loudspeakers, accompanied by dramatic touches like laughter, music, and galloping horses. Lights illuminate the various palaces as appropriate to the story. The narration is as cheesy as I remember it from ten years ago, and the real appeal is seeing the evocative contours of the fort at night, especially under a full moon. Most of the history is connected with the Mughal residents and significant events like the sacking of the fort by Nadir Shah. After the 1857 Uprising is recounted (during which no mention is made of the subsequent massacres by the British, perhaps so as not to offend tourists), the fort’s connection to important events is a bit more tenuous. Gandhi and the independence movement are mentioned, which the fort played little part in. One reference is to the Indian National Army (INA), a group of Indian expatriates, originally POWs captured by the Japanese, who received the assistance of Japan with forming an army to fight the British. Three of the officers, a Hindu, a Sikh, and a Muslim, were publicly tried at the Red Fort in 1945, which I suppose justifies including this piece of history in the presentation. The show ends with a portion of Nehru’s Independence Day speech, made at the fort on midnight of August 15, 1948, which is followed by the Indian national anthem.

The Maharani wants to have dinner tonight at a place recommended by a friend of hers. Mr. Goel of the tour company mentioned it as well and had told us it is at the Radisson Hotel in Noida. As no taxi cars are parked outside the fort, we hire two rickshaws at 200 Rs each. Once we arrive at the Radisson we are told the restaurant is just a bit farther but within walking distance.

The interior of the Great Kabab Factory (Fortune Arcade, Sector 18) is characterized by modern design that wouldn’t be out of place in a hip U.S. restaurant. In Delhi, this is the place to go and is priced accordingly. The menu changes daily and has a set price of 749 Rs a person for five courses of meat plus accompaniments. What starts out as a pleasant dinner becomes an epic struggle to do justice to a meal that the most gluttonous of Mughals would balk at tackling. The five courses consist of galouti kababs (fried patties made with minced lamb, spices, and flour) with roti (grilled flatbread), two kinds of chicken, breaded fish, and seekh kababs (grilled minced meat). The chicken and seekh kababs are particularly succulent. The accompaniments include salad, glasses of warm buttermilk, three types of dal (stewed lentils), a choice of breads, kadahi paneer (fried cheese cubes in sauce), mutton biriyani (a rice dish), and four kinds of dessert including custard, rasmalai (sweet cheese balls soaked in cream), gulab jamun (deep-fried doughy milk balls served in syrup), firni (rice pudding), and halva pudding. To top it all, the format is essentially all-you-can-eat, which the Duke of York and I do our best to take advantage of. The ladies naturally quit much earlier. At one point we narrowly escape being served more pieces of chicken than we can handle. The Duke of York, the Sparrow, and I have Foster’s, an Australian beer brewed locally.

After dinner, we decide that a walk home would be good for the digestion, though it ends up being farther than we thought. The trail back to Sector 25 leads around homeless sleeping in tents, along shattered sidewalk, and past feral dogs, though enough people are out on the streets that we feel relatively safe.

Next week: Last day in Delhi.

Posted 13 January 2010


Caves and Citadels of India: Night Train Back to Delhi

We have a leisurely morning as our only objective of the day is to catch a train in the afternoon. Breakfast this morning includes chole bhature, a wonderful spicy chickpea blend served with deep-fried flatbread. The Sparrow and I walk around outside the hotel and take some pictures, then relax on chairs by the pool. When it’s time to leave we arrange two cars owned by the hotel to take us to the train station for a total of 450 Rs.

At the train station we wait in the upper class hall, which still has bad toilets. Though I have read that security has been stepped up at the station we hardly see any. The Sparrow does some sketching in the waiting lounge. A middle-aged man sees her and offers us some of his Urdu calligraphy. We politely decline on the assumption that some sort of a pitch is forthcoming. When the train arrives, The Maharani has a porter carry her bags and help us find our seats.

Our three-tier compartment on the Sachkhand Express costs 1,052 Rs a person. The train runs from Nanded, Maharashtra to Amritsar and is named after a Sikh holy site in Nanded. The Statesman had attempted to get the two-tier tickets for us, but they were sold out by the time we firmed up our itinerary. The open compartment we are in has two benches for sitting and six beds, two above us and four strapped against the wall. Two other seats occupied by Punjabi women are on the other side of the corridor.

The train leaves at 2:05, and we settle in for what will be a nearly 24-hour trip. The sixth person in our compartment is named Praveen, who works in finance for an auto parts company. He is travelling on business and becomes a good companion as well as a fruitful source for engaging discussions on cultural differences between the U.S. and India. It turns out he is in our position as he missed out on the two-tier train tickets as well. At one point a talkative young chap materializes and introduces himself as a Maharashtrian champion pistol shot going to a match. A Punjabi man from British Columbia pops by and chats with us for a while. He has brought his son to India to visit family and Sikh religious places. The conviviality of the trip makes up for the rather worn and cramped accommodations, a contrast to our first-class ride from Chandigarh to Delhi. What we don’t enjoy are the pests: many roaches, some mosquitoes, and at least one furtive mouse.

The ticket price doesn’t include any food, but various consumables are offered by a near-constant stream of sellers hawking milk, soda, fruit drinks (or “frooti” per the common brand name), ice cream, samosas, water, tea, chips, and chocolates. The warm milk-seller speaks in a hypnotic, baritone drone that nearly lulls me into buying some (“dudh, garam dudh, dudh”). We even procure some playing cards for 30 Rs, a purchase that proves invaluable for passing the time. We play games of gin that Praveen joins in on. Our new friend reveals himself to be quite the card shark, and his malfunctioning laptop gives him just the excuse to skip out on his work. When the train pulls into the town of Manmad it reverses direction, slightly disconcerting until we look at the map and verify we are on the right course. After Bhusawal a man takes dinner orders for veg or non-veg meals. We order the veg for safety. We stop at Burhanpur and Khandwa, the first stops in Madhya Pradesh state. The nearby compartments are filled by a number of Sikhs on a religious pilgrimage. One man comes by and offers the communal meal of langar. Thanks to a deck of cards, Praveen’s companionship, and that ineffable feeling that one can only describe as “the romance of the rail,” the first several hours pass fairly quickly and we are soon ready for sleep. Sheets, pillows, and blankets are passed out. We pull down the beds and get to sleep, trying to keep the sheets tight and shutting our eyes to any creatures that may wish to crawl over us. During the night the train stops at Bhopal and Jhansi.

In the morning we stop at Gwalior, Morena, and Dholpur. Aloo parathas (pan-fried flatbread stuffed with potato) with yogurt are served for breakfast, after which we strike up the card games again. When we reach Agra, someone comes on and sells pethas, the sweet local specialty. At one point the middle bed falls on me as its metal fixtures are in need of replacement. Some Punjabi women help us rig a temporary fix. They find out that the Maharani is Punjabi also and offer her peanuts and sesame snacks. The Maharani buys a box of pedas in Mathura as the sweets are considered a specialty of that city. After Mathura we are presented with a total bill for the food: 270 Rs. The last few hours end up being the most agonizing as we are tired of the hard bench, the general grime, and the clothes we slept in. We stop in the town of Palwala. After the Nizamuddin station in Delhi we hear talk of a theft on the train. A man has had his pocket cut and his wallet taken while he was washing at the basin. We are thankful to finally reach Delhi at around 12:30. Outside the Ajmeri Gate we manage to hire a car for 700 Rs to get us to Noida, where we are staying.

Next week: The Red Fort sound-and-light show.

Posted 6 January 2010


Caves and Citadels of India: Panchakki

Now that we’re nearly set to leave Aurangabad, I thought I would pause to add a little about the Mughal emperor after whom the city is named. Aurangzeb, whose name means “Ornament of the Throne,” was the son of the emperor Shah Jahan. He distinguished himself at an early age from the previous Mughals by his fervent devotion to Sunni Islam and his occupation with martial matters. When his father Shah Jahan became ill, the prince had him imprisoned and managed to have his three brothers removed as obstacles to the throne. He was aided by Roshanara Begun, the younger daughter of Shah Jahan, who was not as devoted to her father as the favored Jahanara. The ascetic emperor focused more on constructing simple mosques and fortifications than bejeweled monuments. In his devotion to the Sunni faith, Aurangzeb cared little for inclusiveness, enacting punitive laws against Hindus and bringing back the tax on non-Muslims. He managed to expand the empire to its greatest extant by 1698, expanding it deep into South India; however, his foray into the Deccan become an endless campaign that for him only ended with his death in 1707, far from Delhi. After his reign the empire dwindled, its borders beset by enemies Aurangzeb made, its treasuries depleted by various wars, and its dynastic line crippled by battles for succession. Though none of the Mughal emperors were strangers to oppression and acts of brutality, Aurangzeb has a particularly bad reputation. His legacy is still cited as justification for anti-Muslim sentiment by Hindu nationalists.

Our final sight for the day is close by, a religious compound called the Dargah of Baba Shah Muzaffar (20 Rs entry), built by Aurangzeb for the Chishti mystic he considered his spiritual mentor. We first see a pleasant pool with jumping khol fish and a large banyan tree. We then walk through a gate and see the mosque and shrine. People are washing themselves in a tank in the courtyard. I notice a kid standing next to the Sparrow while his father takes his picture. I offer to have a picture taken with him. He seems delighted and has his sister and the Sparrow join us. We still haven’t seen what the little complex is famous for, a water mill dating from the 17th century known as the Panchakki, but when we go back to the front and the main tank we find a map that points out the mill in a little structure in the corner. Through one hole we can see a flywheel mechanism and in the structure itself the grinding wheel, once employed for grinding flour. The working pump brings water from a reservoir 6 km away to collect in the main tank.

We have yet again put ourselves in the uncomfortable position of having gone all day without lunch, though filling up at the breakfast buffet in the morning helped. We don’t want to have another dinner in the hotel, so I locate a restaurant in the guidebook called Woodland, which is apparently on the same street as our hotel. We ride along but don’t manage to find it. The driver Sajid drops us back at the hotel and we take our leave of him and his companion. Some of us have concluded that the two of them are a bit shady and are perhaps not always employed strictly as drivers. Sajid’s companion in particular seems like he’s been hired to be around just in case some physical presence is required, though the only time he acts in this capacity is when he’s called upon to remove a rather large bee from the interior of the vehicle.

Not willing to give up just yet on the Woodland restaurant, we ask at the reception desk and find out it is just across the street, but when we get there it appears closed, perhaps for Eid. Thus, we’re left no choice but the hotel restaurant yet again, which isn’t too horrible a situation as at least the food is very good. This time we have malai murg tikka (chicken in clotted cream sauce) (200 Rs), anjeer khumani kofta curry (vegetable balls in fig and apricot sauce) (140 Rs), subz begum bahar (vegetables in cashew sauce) (140 Rs), murg khass makhani (chicken in cumin butter sauce) (240 Rs), and noorjhani murg biriyani (chicken and spicy rice) (220 Rs). The sweet lassi (yogurt shake) (80 Rs) is nice, but the lemon cheese cake (120 Rs) isn’t deserving of the name.

We face a final debacle when we discover that the Slounge bar is closed for “dry day,” presumably Eid again. Naturally, no drinks are available in the restaurant later. We lament that we didn’t have a drink the previous night and that we don’t have the Statesman with us anymore, as he would have prepared ahead of time and ensured that we had a stock to get us through. As it is, on the one evening when we don’t have to be up in the morning to go anywhere we have little to do but watch cable TV.

Next week: Adventures of an overnight train to Delhi.

Posted 30 December 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: The Poor Man’s Taj

After our tour of Ajanta, we find that the best way to get back to the parking lot is to take steps down from Cave 8 and walk over the bridge across the fairly dry river. From here one can climb thirty minutes up to a vantage point on a cliff to see the view that the original British hunting party first had of the valley. We instead take the leafy, shady path back to the ticket building, where we stop at the MTDC restaurant for drinks.

We get back on the bus and have to wait quite a while before it gets going and takes us back to the T-Junction parking lot. Sitting on an AC bus would have helped as the air is stifling in the bus’ interior. We don’t immediately see our driver and his companion when we get back in the parking lot, and his mobile phone is off due to some issue with roaming charges, but the duo appears before too long. We have time to see a couple of more sights in Aurangabad, both to the north of the town. We pass through the historic Delhi Gate and the Makai Gate and find ourselves in a residential Muslim area. Many of the residents are dressed in their best for the holy day.

Our next destination is a rather novel one, the Bibi-ka-Maqbara (100 Rs entry). One passes through the main gate and has the eerie sensation of seeing a sort of alternative universe version of the Taj Mahal, a universe in which different aesthetic standards of proportion clearly apply. Though similar in shape to the Taj, the Bibi-ka-Maqbara seems squashed together, and its minarets appear stumpy. Also, marble has only been used for the first two meters of the base, a product of the project’s budget issues. Completed in 1678, the mausoleum was dedicated to Aurangzeb’s wife Begum Rabi’a Daurani by their son Prince Azam Shah. We go into the main tomb after leaving our shoes outside. The Begum’s tomb (the genuine one) is at the bottom of an octagonal recess and has been covered with coins left by visitors. The other people visiting the tomb seem to be local Muslims who likely are not approaching this holy site with the same degree of humor as we are. On our trip we have seen quite a variety of monuments spanning the entire Mughal period, and I find it fitting that the last one we see represents the dynasty in decline.

Next week: Wrapping up the tour of Aurangabad.

Posted 16 December 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: The Tour of Ajanta Continues

As we continue our tour of Aganta, Cave 9 is the first of the chaityas we come to. Chaitya prayer halls have basilica-like interiors that generally consist of a central nave, transepts along the side, and a stupa devotional mound. They frequently have elaborate carved facades with windows that let in natural light. The chaityas are associated with the Hinayana school of Buddhism and are older than the viharas. The one in this cave dates from the 1st century BC and has an impressive façade with a peepal-leaf-shaped window.

Cave 10 is the oldest and grandest of the chaityas, dating from the 2nd century BC. A glass panel protects and helpfully draws attention to one of the oldest surviving Buddhist murals in India, depicting dancers around a bodhi tree, which in this case represents the Buddha. Other parts of the walls have been defaced by Hindi graffiti, apparently left by the British soldiers who discovered the caves. The window in the façade is useful for letting in natural light to illuminate the interior. This cave’s stupa is truly huge. Cave 12 is distinguished by a series of cells. Cave 15 is partly closed off for a group engaged in conservation work. Cave 16 is a vihara famous for a painting known as the “Dying Princess,” which actually depicts a queen fainting upon hearing that her husband King Nanda is taking up the calling of a monk. Cave 17, from the mid-5th and early 6th centuries AD, has some of the best-preserved and finest paintings of all the caves. The frescoes on the facade are worth regarding first. The wall on the left side of the veranda has fragments of a Wheel of Life. One picture pointed out in the guidebooks shows an amorous royal couple in a pavilion enjoying wine. My guidebook claims that they are having a last drink before giving away their wealth to the poor, whereas the Duke of York’s guidebook states that the man is trying to seduce the woman with drink. Of course, the original artists didn’t leave behind any textual guides to their work, so any narrative description is up for interpretation. Inside the cave, a guide with a flashlight makes it easy for us to pick out the most famous paintings, most of which are illustrations from the Jatakas. In one, from the Sutasama Jataka, a bodhisattva tries to talk a prince out of eating his subjects, some of whom are stewing in pots. The Simhala Avadana frieze shows a group of sailors being devoured by cannibalistic ogresses on an island. On the pillar next to this frieze is a famous painting of a dark-skinned princess regarding herself in a mirror.

The 5th century Cave 19 is the finest chaitya hall. Bodhisattvas cover the sculptured façade. On a side wall are the snake king Nagaraja and his queen, evincing a distinct Hindu influence. Inside the small, tight hall is a relatively tall stupa topped with a blossoming crown reaching up to the roof. The figure in the stupa is a rare standing Buddha. Caves 21 to 26 are the latest, dating from the seventh century, and are in various stages of completion. Cave 24 is interesting as its unfinished state gives us a sense of how the excavations of the completed halls proceeded. Cave 26 is the final, climactic chaitya, though even it is unfinished. In the “Temptation of Mara” frieze on the right wall, the Buddha rests under a peepal tree avoiding the seduction attempts of seven sisters. The finest sculpture is the Parinirvarna, Siddhartha on his deathbed. The huge figure reclines in an accepting pose as angels wait above to greet him to nirvana.

Next week: The poor man’s Taj Mahal.

Posted 9 December 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: The Ajanta Caves

In the morning a complimentary copy of the Times of India comes sliding under our door. A nice breakfast buffet is available in the hotel restaurant at the Lemon Tree. Some of the better choices include potato and pea parathas (stuffed flat bread) and bhaji poori (puffy, deep-fried flat bread and spiced vegetables). I also have a masala (spicy vegetable) omelette with chicken sausage.

Our intention for the day is to give ourselves plenty of time to see the other set of caves the area is famous for and then see other sights in Aurangabad as time permits. Today is the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, evident in the number of Muslims leading goats. The festival commemorates Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael at Allah’s command. Goats are butchered to symbolize Allah’s acceptance of a ram instead of Ibrahim’s boy. Muslims traditionally give a large portion of the meat of the sacrificed animal to the poor.

After a couple of hours of driving we reach the Ajanta Caves. We have to park at the T-Junction and pay a 7 Rs “amenities” fee per person. Though hawkers are disallowed, a group of men comes up to us, discreetely trying to sell us their guide services. We pass through the shops of the reception area to get to the eco-friendly buses that go to the caves themselves. AC buses cost 12 Rs, whereas the non-AC variety cost 7 Rs. No AC buses seem available, so we pile into one of the others with the locals.

We purchase the 250 Rs tickets and climb up the steps to start exploring the caves, which were hewn out of the hillside just like those at Ellora under the supervision of a community of monks from the 2nd century BC to the 7th century AD. The site was abandoned and known only to local tribespeople for many centuries, likely why they escaped the vandalism of the Muslim iconoclasts. In 1819 a small detachment of East India Company soldiers hunting tigers re-discovered them. Unlike the sculptures that Ellora is known for, Ajanta’s fame is its paintings, done on dry primer with natural pigments. As the artists worked with dry instead of wet surfaces, the paintings are not technically frescoes, though they certainly resemble the results of this technique. The caves are numbered in sequential order, and the path around the semi-circular valley leads from one to the other. For some of the primary caves, shoes need to be left outside, not so much for religious reasons but rather to preserve the paintings from dust. Some of these also have limited numbers of visitors, though that isn’t a problem for us today as we’re in a small group and the caves are not overly crowded. The small flashlights we have brought turn out to be handy. Sometimes we listen in on some of the guides to find out what the narrative paintings depict.

Dating from the late 5th century, Caves 1 through 8 are viharas, monasteries associated with the Mahayana school of Buddhism. Most of Ajanta’s viharas are deep colonnaded halls where the monks took shelter and worshipped. Each contains a central shrine with a figure of the Buddha. The murals in Cave 1 depict episodes from the Jatakas, tales of the former lives of the Buddha. The first masterpiece of this cave is the painting of the boddhisatva Padmapani resting in sublime calm among a host of attendants. The other is the sculpted Buddha figure in the shrine; his hands are frozen in the gesture that initiates the motion of the Wheel of Life, portrayed in sculpture behind him. On one of the pillars is a whimsical little sculpture of four deer that share the same head. Cave 2, another vihara, has floral motifs on the roof that are thought to have been influenced by Greek art. One sculpted frieze shows the ogress Hariti converted by the Buddha’s teachings. The next cave of note is Cave 4, one of the largest, which has impressive statues and a central shrine that we can actually enter and appreciate the meditative calm of. Cave 6 is a two-storied vihara. Cave 7 is a very simple and shallow vihara, little more than a colonnade and shrine.

Next week: Finishing up the tour of Ajanta.

Posted 2 December 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: The City of Aurangabad

After the Ellora Caves, we make the walk back to the parking lot and contact the driver to come pick us up. While waiting for him, we enjoy watching the langurs at play. Two baby monkeys are fantastically springy on their spindly little limbs. We watch some of the bigger monkeys steal food from the back of a car. We are very hungry after driving all day and don’t want to repeat the mistake we made at Mount Abu of not eating until we get back to the hotel. My guidebook points out the MTDC restaurant closeby, affiliated with the official Maharastra Tourism Development Corporation. However, our driver Sajid recommends a place he knows that is also close.

The road from Ellora skirts a canyon. On the other side is a steep hill topped by the famous Daulatabad (Deogiri) fort. Though the original citadel was built by the Yadavas in the 10th century, the Muslim Ghiyas-ud-din Tughluq brought it to prominence when he established the present fort here in 1327 and had the court moved from Tughluqabad, the third city of Delhi. The exodus was conducted at great cost to human life. He moved them all back after seventeen years. Emperor Shah Jahan took over the fort in 1633.

Sajid drives us to an eatery called Fauji Dhaba (Nasik Road), a simple place with open-air seating. We have Szechuan noodles (65 Rs), mixed vegetable pakoras (battered and deep-fried vegetables) (50 Rs), and vegetable koftas (vegetable balls). The food is decent enough to keep us going. We find out afterwards that Sajid knows the retired Sikh colonel who owns the place, which explains why he brought us here. Sajid even boasts that had he known the man’s mobile number he could have called him up and had the situation at the border with the bribe fixed. We soon reach Aurangabad. The city is named after the emperor Aurangzeb, who made it his base, fortifying the walls to stave off attacks from the Marathas. Today, it is primarily an industrial city visited by tourists mainly for its easy access to the caves.

We arrive at the Lemon Tree Hotel (R 7/2 Chikalthana, Airport Road), one of a new chain springing up all over India. The titular fruit is evident in a strong scent in the lobby and the general color scheme. The 3,300 Rs a night rooms are very nice and include refrigerators and complimentary bottles of water. We have been told we were upgraded at no additional cost, probably due to low occupancy. Although there is a loud wedding taking place on the grounds outside, we can’t hear any of it in our room. More than any other we have stayed in, this hotel seems designed to shield the clients from the reality of India outside as all of the windows face the semi-circular courtyard with pool, fitness room, and well-manicured lawn. The hotel attempts a hip edge, which is achieved successfully by the modernist furniture but not so much by the weak jokes printed on framed t-shirts and on the restaurant placemats.

We eat in the hotel restaurant. We are a bit confused at first because some of the dishes we order come with either rice or roti (flatbread) and seem designed for individual portions rather than the sharing we are accustomed to. We have the kesari murg angaar (chicken marinated in curds and cheese and baked in a tandoor oven) (200 Rs), bharli wangi (stuffed eggplants in sauce) (140 Rs), and ussal masala (whole sprouts cooked in sauce) (140 Rs). The latter two are Maharashtrian dishes. The Duke of York and I decide to defer beer for the hotel bar, called Slounge. When we pass by the bar, we decide not to go inside because the music is loud and nobody is in there. This decision will prove fatal.

Next week: the fabulous Ajanta caves.

Posted 25 November 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: The Ellora Caves

At 3:30 in the afternoon we finally reach the famed Ellora Caves (250 Rs entry). The term “cave” is actually a misnomer as all of the excavations in the basalt hillside were manmade, the product of six centuries of work encompassing Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain periods, depending on the religious affiliations of the local rulers who financed the ongoing projects. Though largely intact, Ellora did suffer from Muslim iconoclasm, particularly during the reign of Aurangzeb when some of the sculptures were destroyed. The Buddhist caves are numbered 1 to 12 (dating from 500-750 AD), the Hindu caves 13 to 29 (600-870 AD), and the Jain ones 30 to 34 (800-1100 AD).

As we have very little time to see the site before closing, we focus on the caves mentioned in my guidebook as being the most interesting. We begin with Cave 15. This cave, called Das Avatara after the ten sculptures of Vishnu’s incarnations, began as a Buddhist cave but was converted into a shrine to Siva. We climb up to the more interesting second floor and examine a fascinating panel depicting Siva emerging from a lingam as Brahma and Vishnu look on. Another fine Siva sculpture depicts the god in the aspect of Nataraja in the familiar dance pose. A bat flits about between the columns in the cave’s dim interior.

The next cave we see is Cave 16, also known as the Kailash Temple, and it is definitely worth the trip alone. Possibly conceived by the Rashtrakuta king Krishna I (756-773), the temple took a hundred years for completion, and the results are stunning. The name refers to Siva and Parvati’s mythic Himalayan residence, Mount Kailash, which the temple has been designed to resemble. Steps lead up to the mandapa main assembly hall and primary sanctuary (a functioning temple), topped with a pyramidal tower. In front of it are two elephants that have been disfigured by invading Muslims. The side walls of the mandapa have a narrative panel with scenes from the Mahabharata and episodes from the life of Krishna. We walk the courtyard in the customary clockwise direction, admiring the plethora of fine sculptures. One of the highlights is a tableau depicting the demon Ravana shaking the walls of his prison while above Siva and his consort Parvati are barely inconvenienced, the god using his toe to calm the resulting earthquake. We go up the steps at the southwest corner to see the Hall of Sacrifices, featuring the seven mother goddesses (sapta matrikas), and the goddess of destruction Kali standing atop a pile of corpses.

The next one we see is Cave 21, the Ramesvara. Dating from the late 6th century, it is considered the oldest of the Hindu caves. The highlights of this one are a pair of river goddesses on either side of the veranda and amorous couples known as mithunas around the balcony. We stop in Cave 25 and see a ceiling sculpture of the sun god Surya riding his chariot towards the rising dawn.

The final cave we see is Cave 29, the Dhumar Lena. The path to this one takes us on a trail around a river gorge, under a (presently dry) waterfall, and into the cave from a side entrance. The 6th century cave has another tableau of Siva and Parvati having to deal with the rumblings of the demon Ravana as well as one of Siva skewering the diminutive demon Andhaka. The main entrance is flanked by lion sculptures.

We don’t have time to see either the Buddhist or Jain caves, but we reason we will see plenty of Buddhist art tomorrow at Ajanta, whereas the Jain caves couldn’t possible top the Dilwara temples we have already seen.

Next entry: The city of Aurangabad.

Posted 18 November 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Into Maharashtra State

We get up early in the morning and bid farewell to our hosts. We also have to take our leave of the Statesman too as he will be staying in Ankleshwar with his daughter and son-in-law. We get on the road at 7:00 in the morning with a Muslim driver named Sajid and another man whose function is never entirely clear. We are yet again riding in a Toyota Innova. However, Sajid has to turn around and go back to the house as he forgot the car papers, which are required for crossing a state border. Ankleshwar is just waking up at this time of the morning. We pass a little village with inhabitants still slumbering on cots outside of their mud huts. The blue glow of a TV set emanates from one. We face another obstacle at the Tapi River where a bridge is down and we have to backtrack.

We stop for breakfast at a simple roadside place called Hotel Prayag. As we obviously don’t fit in with the other customers, all of whom are male, we are shown to an AC room with adjoining toilet. We order parathas (fried, stuffed flatbread) and dal (lentil stew) for a total of 116 Rs. The food is simple and fresh, and we note that the place seems to be run entirely by boys.

Our driver Sajid has a certain personality all his own that definitely sets him apart from the other drivers we have had. He doesn’t seem like a man who likes to take orders and comes across a little mouthy at times. At one railroad crossing, he follows other cars making an impromptu diversion through dirt roads and, disconcertingly, across a shallow river.

Soon after entering Maharashtra state we are stopped at a toll booth. A man in sunglasses checks the car’s papers and temporarily confiscates the Maharani’s cellphone. I first think it is a security check prompted by the terror attacks as cellphones are frequently used as timers for bombs. However, the man is bothered that the Maharani’s name is not on the car’s papers as the owner. She says she is the brother of the owner and doesn’t share the last name because she is married. The man doesn’t like this excuse and wants to fine us 2250 Rs. The claim has some legitimacy as they are concerned that a private car is possibly being used as a taxi; however, it is effectively just an opportunity to extort some money. The man even asks the Maharani what our respective professions are in order to assess how much graft he can collect. Calls are made to Ankleshwar and the price of 1200 Rs is eventually negotiated. The rest of us stay in the car, but the Maharani describes the man and his colleagues as resembling villains from a Hindi movie.

The low point of the trip is about thirty minutes of exceptionally bad road, pitted and broken to the extent that the car has to crawl forward. Insult is added to injury when we have to pay a toll for this road. We can’t help but notice that a lot of men are hanging out at the toll building doing nothing. We are relieved to get back on good, straight road headed towards the mountains. The flatland abruptly ends, and we ascend a winding road that leads up to a plateau, the beginning of the Deccan plain that dominates the geography of the southern part of India.

Next week: The magnificent Ellora caves.

Posted 4 November 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Sojourn in Gujarat

We have a simple breakfast at 6:30 in the morning consisting of omelettes, toast, and chivra (sweet-and-spicy rice). I go up to the roof of the hotel again for a final look. A mist is lying on the polo ground and the lake is very calm, though I can hear some chanting that I attribute to the Brahma Kumaris. We leave the hotel at 7:15. By now we have received clarification that the shooting at the Delhi airport was a random event unconnected to terrorism.

We arrive at the Abu Road railway station an hour later and quickly find our driver, who has shown up with the Toyota Innova we saw yesterday. At this point we have to bid farewell to Ranjit Singh and Manoj Kumar as they have only been contracted to take us this far. We are sad to see them go as they have been trustworthy and helpful.

We are not looking forward to this drive as we already know it will likely be the most time we’ve spent in a car since the day trip to Amritsar, but we are comforted by the thought that we will have a full day of rest to look forward to tomorrow.

The road south soon takes us into Gujarat state. At one railroad crossing we have to wait for quite a while, and I notice that the gates are operated by hand crank. The road is generally new and well maintained. At one point we see a camel caravan led by women crossing the center divider, yet another of the contrasts that India is known for. I am amused by the road signs that offer tips on safety, caution against drunk driving, and occasionally indulge in a witty aphorism. “Better ‘late’ than ‘never’” is one of my favorites. One truck has a philosophical bon mot emblazoned across its rear: “Life is drama, man is actor.” We pass through Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, founded in 1411 by Sultan Ahmed Shah to serve as the capital of the Sultanate of Gujarat. Today it is a major cultural and commercial center.

Naturally, the Gujarati language is more popular than Hindi or English here, and I pass the time on the road trying to make correspondences between the devanagari Hindi script I am familiar with and Gujarati. In many cases, Gujarati characters resemble their devanagari counterparts except without the horizontal line along the top. Road signs written in English along with the two scripts offer convenient Rosetta stones that help me figure out the less familiar characters.

I spend much of the trip in the front passenger seat, which is comfortable to the point that I even nap for a bit. However, as the day goes on the sun gets hotter and its beams pour in especially bright in the front. The driver has already told us the car is not adequately equipped with air conditioning, and the discomfort only gets worse for all of us. I am relieved to move to the back at one point in the ride. To keep out the sun the ladies put veils up in the windows, making us feel like we are travelling in purdah. At least the driver’s taste in Hindi ballads is soothing. He plays some of his favorites numerous times on the car’s stereo. I will never be able to hear “Sandase Aate Hai” from the film Border without thinking of this ride.

We arrive at Ankleshwar at 4:00. The negotiated price for the ride was 16 Rs/kilometer, which includes paying the driver to return to Abu Road. The total ends up being around 6,000 Rs. The relatively new house we are staying in is huge, featuring open spaces and many bedrooms, and is located in a gated community. We are made to feel welcome and enjoy the next day relaxing and socializing.

Next week: Maharashtra State.

Posted 28 October 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Dusk at Mount Abu

Although we are all quite hungry by now, we are determined to get in one final sight in the town as we will be leaving in the morning and unable to see anything else. Mount Abu is also home to several Hindu temples. We choose to see the one at Guru Shikar because of the reputed views. On the way, we see one of the honeymoon couples glimpsed at Dilwara stopped by the side of the road for photos. We also see a Brahma Kumari “Peace Park.” The Brahma Kumaris are a sort of cult based in Abu Road, recognizable by their white clothing.

The road up to Guru Shikar is steep and winding, a bit of a challenge for the driving skills of the indefatigable Ranjit Singh. After parking, we go past the snack places and souvenir shops up the steep climb to the top. The Atri Rishi temple at the top is small and white, but the real reason to come here are the stunning views of the surrounding hilly countryside from the highest point in Rajasthan. One heavily henna-ed, stylishly dressed young woman is posing for a series of glamour photos taken by her likely new husband.

Afterwards, we are more than ready to eat. We head to try to find one of the restaurants mentioned in the guidebook. However, Ranjit Singh does not know the area well as he has not spent much time here. I try to show him the place on the map in my guidebook, but the message does not seem to get through. Plus, parking is scarce in town. The van parks on the west side of the polo ground and we get out and walk. We find one restaurant, Veena, but it appears suspiciously empty, which may just be attributable to the odd time for dining. The one we are looking for, Jodhpur Bhojnalaya, is likely to be quite a walk as it is on the other side of the polo ground, plus the Maharani indicates that a bhojnalaya is generally a simple cafeteria-like place, so we quit and go back to the hotel. On the way we see another venue occupied by the Brahma Kumaris.

The hotel restaurant has somewhat of a view of the lake through the windows, but it certainly doesn’t match the views from the courtyard above. We have malai kofta dilbahaar (vegetable balls in clotted cream sauce) (135 Rs), pulao rice (85 Rs), a chili chicken Chinese dish (250 Rs), hariyali murg tikka (chicken in mint, green chili, and coriander marinade) (300 Rs), dal tadka (North Indian lentil stew) (135 Rs), and tawa roti (flatbread cooked on an iron griddle) (15 Rs). The food is fine is fine but nothing special. We order breakfast in advance for early the next day so we can get on the road at a good time. Lefty, the Duke of York, the Sparrow, and I sit for a while in the courtyard and look down at the lake. I find a set of stairs that take me to the rooftop, which has little pavilions for sitting. Much activity is in progress on the lake.

Next week: The road to Gujarat.

Posted 21 October 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: The Dilwara Temples

Around 2:00 we reach the Jaipur House, a heritage hotel. Built on the highest hilltop in 1897 by the Maharaja Ram Singh, the property was converted into a hotel in 2002 and is still owned by the Maharaja of Jaipur. Although the hotel’s location is prime on a hill overlooking the lake and seems nice, our rooms appear to be the former servant’s quarters and are a bit dingy. The Sparrow and I have two little balconies that look out upon nothing interesting, though I suppose we are lucky as our fellow travelers don’t have balconies at all. Plus, the hotel staff seems to enjoy loitering near our rooms, though they make a pretense of standing at attention when we approach. We even catch a whiff of marijuana smoke, which may be attributable to the staff. At this point we have little time to relax in the room as we want to make sure and see the famous Dilwara Temples before they close.

The town isn’t very big, and the temples are a short ride away. The five Jain Dilwara Temples are reputed to be some of the finest in India. We leave our shoes in a rack and are also not allowed to bring cameras, cell phones, or any leather goods, so we try to leave all these in the van. A sign says that menstruating women are not allowed “otherwis may suffer” (sic), although it is not clear who would incur the suffering. We have to line up until enough people are present and are led in as a tour. The tour is in Hindi and the guide has the presentation of a drill sergeant, so the English speakers take the opportunity to look around the temples while he speaks. Everyone else on the tour is Indian, including a few couples who seem to be on their honeymoons. Each temple is carved entirely from marble and contains a shrine with a Buddha-like figure of a specific tirthankira. The 24 tirthankiras (“crossing-makers”) are revered by Jains as spiritual guides who showed the way to moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth and suffering). The final tirthankira was Mahavira (c. 599-527 BC), a prince who, much like the Buddha, renounced the material world in favor of an ascetic life. Mahavira is credited as the founder of Jainism.

After each temple the guide leads us to, time for darshan (“glimpse of the god”) is allowed. The first temple, Vimala Vasahi, is also the oldest, dating from 1031 and dedicated to Adinath, the first tirthankara. In the central sanctuary is a white icon of Adinath guarded by statues of Parshvanath, the 23rd tirthankara. The forty-eight pillars of the hall are all lavishly carved, as is everything inside this temple including the amazing domes and surrounding shrines. Outside this temple is a hall with ten marble elephants. The small Mahaveerswami Temple is also in this area. The next main temple we see is the Luna Vasahi, dedicated to Neminath, the 22nd tirthankara. We are shown a dome and columns that are made from one piece of marble. Inside is a black-colored figure of a tirthankara. The Bhimasah Pittalhar temple is less spectacular simply because it has fewer carvings. The gilded figure of Adinath in the shrine dates from 1468 and is made of five different metals. A donation is requested open leaving this temple, which must be given by the right hand only. The final temple, Khartar Vasahi, dating from 1458 and dedicated to Parshvanath, sports a tall stone tower.

Next week: The highest point in Rajasthan.

Posted 14 October 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Abu Road and Mount Abu

We have our pleasant final meal at the hotel, tasty parathas (stuffed, fried flat bread) and chivra (a sweet rice dish). I spend the rest of the morning lounging on the balcony, taking in my last breaths of the crisp mountain air. In the lobby while waiting for the van I speak with a pleasant young man at the reception desk who tells me he lives in the nearby village. We discuss Barack Obama, whom he finds very impressive. Once we have gathered at the van, The Maharani tells us she heard there was a shooting at the Delhi airport, but at this point there is little information to go on.

We leave the hotel around 8:30. The road south is winding and hilly and broken up by much construction. I notice that even women are employed for road construction, shoveling sand while dressed in their colorful clothes. We also have to make room for occasional goats and cows. The Maharani notices the video screen in the front of the van and asks about entertainment. A list of DVDs is read out, and the Maharani requests the classic film Raj Kumar.

We reach the town of Abu Road, located in the flatland at the base of Mount Abu, around 12:15. Our objective is to arrange for transportation to Ankleshwar or someplace close for the morning. The Statesman, the Maharani, and I first go to the bus station, but the government officials in the booth are completely useless. The Statesman then finds a travel agent at a stand that appears to me to be a typical panwalla stand until I notice the word “travel” on the sign above in Hindi. The Statesman finds out about a sleeper bus that leaves in the evening. Then he notices a car for hire and speaks with the driver, who arranges for us to speak with the owner. We make a deal with the owner to hire the car for the approximately 5,000 Rs it will take to get to our destination and make a deposit of 1,000 Rs. After this bit of business is set the Statesman goes to a liquor shop and picks up some beer, opening up two of the big bottles. The Statesman says these shops are popular in Abu Road with Gujaratis, who live in a dry state and have to pop over the border for their liquor. Once we get back in the van he takes one for himself and gives the other to us to pass around. The Sparrow, the Duke of York, and I end up drinking the bottle (with the prestigious name of Haywards 5000) in the van, feeling like naughty high school kids.

The ride up to Mount Abu, the highest peak of the Aravalli range, is long and winding. We see langur monkeys lazily sitting by the roadside, watching us while we’re watching them. It was said that the Rajput fire clans originated on these heights and are reborn here, but despite this martial connection the town of Mount Abu was always a resort destination, first developed by the British as a hill station, then used for palaces by the Rajputs, and now popular with honeymooners and tourists. Upon reaching the town, the first thing we notice is one hotel after another. I also see many signs in Gujarati, testifying to the high volume of Gujaratis who visit from just over the nearby border. The area also possesses a good share of natural beauty, including Nakki Lake and hills with interesting rock formations.

Next week: The Dilwara Temples, the fame of Mount Abu

Posted 7 October 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Tea Time in Udaipur

Our next official destination is the Sahelion-ki-Bari (5 Rs entry), a one-time summer retreat for palace ladies planned by Rana Sangram Singh II (1710-34). Particularly striking is the lily pond with sculptures of elephants and lions. All of the flowers are full and brilliant in bloom. On the way out, we see a young woman in a veil accompanied by an older woman. The Maharani mentions that among traditional families, a young married woman goes out in public in this fashion escorted by her mother-in-law.

Udaipur is thankfully slim on obligatory sights, so we have time in the afternoon for other pursuits. Shopping is one activity that has so far been neglected on our travels. Mahendra Singh first points out a jewelry shop. We do some browsing and the Maharani picks up some earrings. We then inquire about a textile shop and are directed to one around the corner called the Maharani Emporium. The Sparrow enjoys looking at the hand-stitched quilts and picks up a couple. The rest of us sit and sip some water the staff serves us. I am very tempted by a gold raw silk jacket, especially as they promise to have one made to fit me and deliver it to my hotel. I reason that they probably won’t be able to get it to me in time and am saved from an impulse purchase.

After dropping Mahendra Singh off we are ready to take a break, which seems to be an ideal opportunity to have high tea at the palace. We are driven back to the City Palace (entry requires us to show our tickets again) and locate the Fateh Prakash Palace hotel. We are directed to the hotel restaurant, called The Gallery. The main Durbar Hall has high ceilings and is fitted with chandeliers, but we choose to sit on the terrace with its fine views of the lake and its palaces. Three of us order the classic tea (200 Rs), which comes with cookies. The other three have the full durbar tea (325 Rs), which comes with scones, cake, cookies, jam, and clotted cream in traditional English fashion. A full range of teas are available to enjoy with these tasty snacks. In a gallery overlooking the hall are the decorative objects of the Crystal Gallery, which we can get a glimpse of but don’t feel the need to pay the 300 Rs entry price to see up close.

The Maharani has an idea of taking a boat ride around the lake. We walk to the information booth and check the options. Ideally, we would prefer to take the 200 Rs half-hour tour, but it is not available at this time for some reason. The only other choices are the 300 Rs one-hour tour, which includes a stop at Jag Mandir, and the 3000 Rs private charter boat tour. While we are trying to make a decision, we notice that a number of official-looking men are hurrying about. Lefty will later say she saw the maharaja at this point, his ear to his mobile phone. As our preferred boating option is not available, we decide to forego the boat ride and just sit on the terrace overlooking the lake. Behind us, the palace horses are taken out for late afternoon trots. Relaxing at this spot ends up being the best idea of all, providing much-needed respite from our busy schedule. I can even make peace with the fact that we are not staying in a hotel at the lake. We sit and watch the sun until it sets. On the way back to the hotel we pick up bottles of water for 15 Rs each, which the Statesman finds an excessive price as in his opinion one needn’t pay more than 12 Rs.

When we get back to our rooms we find that the mattresses that had been under the beds, which we thought were just extra sleeping pads, have been placed out on the balconies, a wonderful idea that have made the balconies even more ideal for lounging on. We all hang out in the Maharani’s room. The ladies take up positions on the balconies while we men drink Blender’s Pride Indian whisky mixed with soda and eat snacks, including tomato chips and a date-like fruit called chiku that the Statesman has picked up. As we are still the only ones in the hotel, we request that the chef propose a menu for dinner, and we are pleased with the choices of paneer (fried cheese) butter masala and curried chicken, which we enjoy in the restaurant.

Next week: The journey to Mount Abu.

Posted 30 September 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: The City Palace and Jagdish Temple

As we walk out into the city of Udaipur proper I can discern a bit of the mellow character that the city is known for as we are not swarmed by touts or others. We walk the steep steps up to the Jagdish Mandir Hindu temple and remove our shoes. Built in 1652, the temple is dedicated to Jagannath, an aspect of Vishnu. In front of the main shrine is a little bronze icon of Garuda, Vishnu’s half-man, half-bird vehicle. We gather inside the pillared hall called the mandapa before the main shrine (called the garbhagriha, “womb chamber”). We nearly have to cover our ears from the din of a loud bell being rung. Before us, a group of worshippers are offering puja (devotion) in the form of flowers to a black stone four-armed icon of Jagannath. Two men wave brushes and chant mantras. The chanting continues after the bell stops ringing. The worshippers’ hands go up and holy water is flung onto the crowd. After the ritual has ended, we walk around to see the carvings on the outside of the temple, including rows of demons, elephants, horses, and people engaged in quotidian life matters. To the side of the Garuda temple is a smaller one dedicated to the elephant god Ganesh. In the courtyard around the back of the main shrine are three smaller shrines, one dedicated to the sun god Surya (the mythic ancestor of the Sisodia Rajput clan), another to Durga (the warrior aspect of Shakti, the sacred feminine force), and one to Siva. We pass by a doorway that leads into a courtyard where food is offered. Mahendra Singh points out that the flag and golden fixture on the top of the temple’s shikhara (tower) denote that it is a working temple.

We go back into the main courtyard of the City Palace and enter through a gate topped with a depiction of the sun. From the Moti Chowk courtyard we enter the palace itself. Inside is a genealogy tree for the ruling family, which is apparently the oldest continuous dynasty in the world. In the Rajya Angan courtyard we see a museum dedicated to Rana Pratap Singh. Paintings depict the pivotal Battle of Haldighati. We can also see his armor and a model of his horse Chetak with a trunk affixed to its snout, apparently added so that the Mughal elephants would mistake the horse for a baby elephant and not attack him. In the Chandra Mahal we see a marble basin that was filled with silver coins for Rana Karan Singh’s wedding; they were afterwards given to the citizens of the city. Steps lead up to the Badi Mahal on the top of the palace, an open-air courtyard. Trees are growing from the center, apparently because the palace was built around a hill that we are now on top of. The courtyard offers fine views, including a wall below across which elephants once wrestled, one trying to pull the other to the wall. A picture and painting show the last such competition, taking place in 1951.

The palace is full of narrow, twisting passageways and stairwells, which were designed to confuse invaders and would do the same for tourists if not for the well-marked main path. One corridor leads to the Dilkushal Mahal, a room with miniature frescoes depicting life in the court. Next comes the Kanch ki Burj, a little mirrored chamber. We spend a bit of time in the Madan Vilas, a courtyard with nice views of the city. On one side is a gallery dedicated to Colonel James Tod, who wrote the first history of the Mewars in English. We take steps down to the little mirrored Moti Mahal (“Pearl Palace”) and the Bheem Vilas, which has a small pachisi table inscribed on the floor. The Pitam Niwas has a mock-up of the maharaja’s office and a rather odd cardboard cut-out of the maharaja himself. The Mor Chowk courtyard has three fine peacock mosaics made from pieces of cut glass and stones. The Zenana Mahal (women’s quarters) now holds a series of paintings. One of the most interesting depicts a tiger being hunted and shot. The tiger is shown as a series of eleven separate figures that together constitute a sort of animation. We get back into the Moti Chowk courtyard and spend some time looking at the sculpture gallery, which contains depictions of the some of the older Vedic gods like Indra, Agni, and Yama, as well as the standard gods and battles between Rama and the demon Ravana. We exit through a set of huge doors whose ceiling has a painted dome with angels.

Next week: Time for high tea at the palace.

Posted 23 September 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: The City on the Lake

After the van arrives at the hotel we go into the city of Udaipur. We see voter registration booths for both the Congress party and the BJP in the village of Badi and in the city. We pick up our guide, Mahendra Singh, at a local travel office. He understandably didn’t wish to come out to the hotel to meet us. I like the fact that he has earrings in both ears in classic Rajput fashion.

The city of Udaipur has a unique history in the annals of the Rajput clans. The Sisodia Dynasty, the rulers of the kingdom of Mewar since 1326, have a reputation for fierce independence, which they fought to maintain even as other Rajput clans gave into the Mughal Empire. Mewar opposition to Mughal might dates back to the 1527 Battle of Khanua, when Rana Sanga led a combined Rajput force against Emperor Babur. Despite their defeat on this occasion, they continued to defy the empire from their hilltop capital Chittaurgarh. Rana Udai Singh II came to power soon after the sacking of the fort in 1537. The difficulties with defending the fort likely influenced Udai Singh’s decision to found the city of Udaipur on the shores of Lake Pichola in 1559 as the new Mewar capital. Unlike the leaders of other Rajput clans, Udai openly defied Mughal emperor Akbar, prompting the emperor to attack Chittaurgarh. Udai’s decision to leave Chittaurgarh to be besieged by Akbar’s army is considered by some to be an act of cowardice and by others to be a shrewd strategic withdrawal.

The son of Udai Singh, Rana Pratap Singh (1540-1597), succeeded his father in 1572. He carried on his father’s battle against Akbar, most famously when 80,000 of Akbar’s troops under Man Singh of Amber met Pratap Singh’s smaller army at the mountain pass of Haldighati on 18 June 1576. Though the result was inconclusive, the battle was hailed as a major victory by the Mewars. Pratap Singh retired to the Aravalli mountains and carried on a guerrilla campaign until Akbar withdrew in 1587 to focus on other concerns. Pratap’s son Rana Amar Singh (1596-1620) continued the fight, this time against Akbar’s son Emperor Jahangir. After years of resistance, he finally signed a treaty recognizing Mughal rule in 1615. His own son Karan Singh became friends with Jahangir’s son Khurram, even sheltering the exiled prince who would later reign as Emperor Shah Jahan. The present maharana, Arvind Singh, has filled the now symbolic role since 1984, the 76th in an unbroken line of Sisodias.

I have read that Udaipur is mellower and less tourist-infested than the other cities we have visited, so I am delighted to be here and ready to explore. Our first destination is the City Palace (75 Rs entry, 200 Rs camera), the largest of the palaces of Rajasthan and the second largest in India. We walk along the outer road up to the palace, featuring a sweeping view of Lake Pichola. Mahendra Singh points out the cream-colored, photogenic Jag Niwas, or Lake Palace, built as a summer palace in 1740 by Maharana Jagat Singh II. To the south on the lake is the Jag Mandir palace, begun by Rana Karan Singh in 1615 and finished by Rana Jagat Singh I. Jahangir’s son Prince Khurram (the future Emperor Shah Jahan) stayed here while in exile under the protection of Karan Singh. Mahendra Singh claims that the design of the palace helped to inspire the onion dome of the Taj Mahal, but I find this dubious. European women and children took refuge here under the protection of Maharana Swarup Singh during the 1857 uprising. He also points out Sajjangarh, the monsoon palace, on a far hill. Maharana Sajjan Singh built this palace as a summer retreat in 1883. Mahendra Singh mentions that the James Bond film Octopussy was filmed in both of these locations as well as in the Hotel Shiv Niwas Palace, part of the City Palace. Once inside the eastern courtyard of the palace, we make a detour out of the Tripolita Pol gate to the north to see a nearby temple.

Next week: The Jagdish temple and the City Palace of Udaipur.

Posted 16 September 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: The Royal Treatment in Udaipur

By late afternoon we finally reach the city of Udaipur. The van takes us into the main city, but then we end up following a road around Fateh Sagar Lake that leads out of the city to the west and into the woods beyond, making us wonder exactly where our hotel is. We pass the touristy arts-and-crafts compound called Shilpgram. The beaten-up signs with our hotel’s name on them that we see on the way certainly fail to inspire confidence. On the Badi Hawala Road we pass a little village called Badi and finally reach the hotel, about twenty minutes outside of the city. The Maharani and I are a bit bothered that the hotel is so far off the beaten path. I in particular was hoping that the hotel would be one of those around Lake Pichola. However, we end up being very pleased with the hotel.

The Royal Retreat hotel (Village-Hawala, Badi Hawala Road) was built as a hunting lodge in 1995 and has only been operating as a hotel for two years. We quickly figure out that although the hotel has 57 rooms, we are the only guests in this luxurious setting due to cancellations prompted by the Mumbai attacks. We suspect that as a result we have been upgraded to the finest rooms, three large ones in the upper part of the main building all connected to a central foyer. Each room and the common area are adorned with a variety of impressive crafts and antiques that make us feel like we’re staying in a museum. The doors to our rooms are huge wooden affairs with big bolts as locks. Each room has two balconies positioned for sitting, with lovely views of the surrounding Aravalli Mountains and woodlands. We can also see the other rooms in separate buildings along two pools. They seem nice, but certainly nothing like the accommodations we have. We find access to the roof and enjoy gazing at the stars from the bench on a little pavilion. In the distance, a yellow glow emanating from a valley shows us the direction of Udaipur.

We go down to the restaurant for dinner and find that we are waited on by a supremely attentive staff that outnumbers us. We try the murg lababdar (chicken with tomatoes and onions in a cream and butter sauce) (250 Rs), chicken biriyani (200 Rs), and dum aloo Rajasthani (pressure-cooked potatoes in sauce)(200 Rs). The staff personally ladles out the food for us. Much more than we can eat has been prepared, but we feel okay with not finishing everything as we imagine the staff will be able to consume it. All of the food is very good and obviously freshly prepared for us.

I make a point of getting up early to watch the sunrise from the rooftop. As the pink hue emerges from the direction of Udaipur I see a line of women going up one of the hills. The birds make a lovely chorus. We have a minor issue with water as none seems to be coming in the bathroom, but the Maharani has already notified the staff. It seems there was a leak during the night. On the way down to the restaurant for breakfast I look into one of a series of cupboards lining the stairwell and find that they contain erotic miniature paintings like one would find in an illustrated Kama Sutra. For breakfast we have fine masala omelettes and afterwards wander around one of the lovely pools, regretting that we are not here in warmer weather.

Next week: Udaipur, city on a lake.

Posted 9 September 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: The Tour of Chittaurgarh

We can see the walls of Chittaurgarh Fort looming high on the hill, and I find it amazing that the fort was successfully besieged so many times. A road winds up to the top, passing through a series of gates; at the final one is a little village containing the fort’s remaining inhabitants. We can take the van inside with us, and it proves invaluable for negotiating the expanse of the fort. As we do not want to delay getting to Udaipur too much, we resolve to only spend an hour seeing the main sights. After we buy 100 Rs entry tickets, we hire a guide named Dilip Kumar Sharma for 200 Rs. Although normally I’m not a fan of guides, in this case it seems to make sense because he can take us to the most important places in our limited time. The Maharani in particular wants to see those spots associated with the many stories she has heard of the fort’s history.

We first stop at the Palace of Rana Kumbha, a ruin from the 15th century built during the height of Mewari power. The tangle of ruined cupolas and steps is fun to explore. Queen Padmini is alleged to have committed jauhar on this spot in 1303, and her bones were found underground in a series of cellars that the guide shows us the staircase to. The palace was also inhabited by Mira Bai (1498-1547), a Hindu mystical poet and devotee of Krishna who was married to a Mewar prince. We next stop briefly at the Shingara Chauri Mandir Jain Temple from the 15th century, dedicated to the 16th Jain tirthankara, just to enjoy the lavish carvings on the exterior. We then stop and look at a few Hindu temples, including the highly ornamented Kumbha Shyama Temple, also built by Rana Kumbha. Nearby is a smaller shrine dedicated to Mira Bai. We can see a black statue of Krishna inside and hear a continuous recorded chant. A group of boys go up the steps and ring a bell before entering the shrine. Our next stop on this rapid tour is Vijay Stambh, a tower of victory erected by Rana Kumbha in honor of his victory over the Muslim Sultan Mehmud Khilji of Malwa and Gujarat in 1440. The walls of the nine-story structure are covered with mythological scenes. We don’t take the time to take the stairs to the top. A number of other temples are visible in this area.

Our final stop is Padmini’s Palace, a series of walled gardens and rooms overlooking a green-tinged lake. The guide takes us into a room with a mirror installed, across from which is another little palace surrounded by a pond. From here, Sultan Ala-ud-din Khalji allegedly had a glimpse of Padmini in the reflection of the pond in front of her palace. We notice that two teenage boys seem to be following us around this palace, but they seem merely curious. The van takes us around to see the Suraj Pol gate, offering views of the farmland beyond, and Kirti Stambh, a smaller tower built by the Digambaras sect of Jainism as a monument to the first tirthankara Adinath. We drop the guide off and leave Chittaurgarh at 4:30. It really is a shame to be only able to spend a little time here as the fort complex warrants a day trip, but we are glad we are able to see any of it at all.

Next week: The city of Udaipur.

Posted 2 September 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Chittaurgarh Fort

Spending the previous day in bed has been good for the Duke of York, and we are all pleased to have him back with us after only one missed day. We leave Jaipur at 8:30 in the morning. I am again impressed by the condition of the road. The generous three lanes on each side for long stretches make for an easy ride. We make a short stop at a little food place associated with a Bharat Petroleum gas station called Ghar Dhaba (subtitled “your own guest house”) for drinks and snacks. We have come to enjoy varieties of chips spiced with tomato that seem common. At one point, the van unexpectedly stops behind some other cars. We realize we are at a railroad crossing, which tend to back traffic up for a while in India as the gates are shut well before the train actually arrives.

On the way to Udaipur, we decide to make a stop at Chittaurgarh to see the famous fort. The fort of Chittaurgarh is sort of an Indian equivalent of Troy as a source for tales of heroism and tragedy. Legend says it was founded by Bhim, a Pandava hero from the epic poem the Mahabharata. Originally built in the 7th century by the Maurya dynasty, it was seized by the Rajput Bappa Rawal in 734 and served as the capital of Mewar until 1568. The fort was first sacked in 1303 during Rana Ratan Singh’s reign by the Delhi sultan Ala-ud-din Khalji. The sultan agreed to withdraw his army in exchange for a glimpse of the legendary beauty of Ratan Singh’s queen Padmini. The Mewar allowed Ala-ud-Din a private viewing of the queen in the reflection on the lotus pond in front of the palace. However, Ala-ud-din took advantage of this opportunity to have Ratan Singh ambushed and captured. As the sultan had already made his interest in the queen known, she concocted a daring scheme, agreeing to give herself to the sultan in exchange for her husband’s safety. She proceeded to lead a group of soldiers dressed as her maids-of-honor to the Khalji camp, where they managed to rescue Ratan Singh. Despite their initial success, the Mewar forces were defeated in the ensuing battle. Rather than succumb to the enemy, Queen Padmini led 13,000 women in committing jauhar (mass self-immolation) by throwing themselves with their children on a funeral pyre.

The Mewar Rajputs reigned again from 1326, and the fort was refortified by Rana Kumbha after his reign began in 1433. The fort was besieged by Sultan Bahadur Shah of Gujarat in 1535, and again, the women committed jauhar led by Queen Karnawati. Yet the Mewars persisted in their reign in the hilltop citadel. The final and most significant ruler of Chittaurgardh was Rana Udai Singh II (1522-1572). He was nearly assassinated at an early age by his cousin, who had already killed Udai’s three older brothers. Udai was saved from the same fate by his loyal nursemaid Panna Dhai, who placed her own son in Udai’s bed to be murdered by the cousin while she fled with the young prince. Udai returned two years later to take the throne at the age of 13.

Whereas other prominent Rajputs such as the Kachchwaha clan of Amber were content to make peace with the Mughals, Udai Singh resisted any alliance or collaboration with Akbar, so the emperor sent his army against the fort in 1567. In a strategic move, Udai abandoned the fort, leaving just 8,000 soldiers to mount a defense. The fort fell in 1568 after a terrible siege, followed by the jauhar of the women and children. Yet even that didn’t satisfy the emperor’s bloodlust, and Akbar had 20,000 villagers who had holed up in the fort massacred. Udai’s son Maharana Pratap Singh continued to defy Akbar and nurtured a lifelong dream of reclaiming the fort, but he didn’t succeed. The Mewars were allowed to have the fort back in 1616 but by now Udaipur was established as the capital.

Next week: Now that we’re steeped in the history, we’ll explore the fort itself.

Posted 26 August 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Galta Temple

After the restaurant, we return to the hotel to drop off our guide, whom we are happy to be rid of. As Ranjit Singh is still willing to drive us around, we have him take us to the temple complex at Galta, where we would have gone yesterday had two of our party not been sick. The road to the site winds through a sparsely wooded area that seems abandoned until we find ourselves interrupting a street cricket game. As we park, Ranjit Singh warns us that the monkeys who inhabit the place will snatch our bags if we’re not careful, so we make sure and minimize our belongings.

Just outside the gate, we are offered peanuts to purchase “to make the monkeys happy.” The Maharani retorts that we have no desire of making the monkeys happy. We pay 30 Rs to bring in the digital camera. We first pass by a number of shrines set up in a courtyard. One, a temple to Hanuman the monkey god, has some men hanging out outside who ask us to come in and look, but we decline. The macaque monkeys circle us warily as we approach the steps that lead up to the freshwater springs that make this place famous. We walk up the steps to the first tank, where a number of people are washing. We have a brief monkey alert as one comes alarmingly close on his way down the side of the steps while the Sparrow is taking a picture. At the tank on the top of the steps we find ourselves alone with a group of monkeys frolicking in the water. On the other side of the tank is the Surya Mandir temple to the sun god, but we don’t dare approach any closer to the macaques. On our way down, a woman tries to get money from us by showing us a snake in a bowl. Thankfully, most of the people present ignore us. As we walk back through the courtyard we hear prayers coming through a loudspeaker. By this point Manoj Kumar is shadowing us. I ask him if he likes the place, but he replies he’s just here to escort us. We drive back down the road and encounter a political procession. People are carrying flags with an icon of a hand, the symbol of the venerable Congress party.

As the road passes the Sisodia Rani-ka-Bagh (10 Rs entry, 20 Rs cameras) garden that we tried to see yesterday, we decide to stop here as well. The gardens in the area were once retreats for Jaipur’s nobility. This one is the best preserved and was built by Jai Singh II for the Udaipur princess he married to secure an alliance with the Sisodia Rajputs. The murals on the outside depict incidents from the life of Krishna. We spend some time walking the pleasant lanes and sitting in the kiosks of the terraced garden. I can understand why the location is a frequent setting for Bollywood movies.

When we return to the hotel, the Sparrow and I explore the extensive grounds and locate the pool where the peacocks are lounging. Lefty, the Sparrow, and I have dinner in the hotel restaurant, a meal that represents the low point of our culinary adventures. As everyone is a bit afflicted with at least minor digestive problems, we all have grilled chicken sandwiches (150 Rs), ordering them without raw vegetables. They are effectively hot chicken salad sandwiches and rather bland, which is just what we need. The Sparrow at least enjoys a banana lassi after we have ensured that no water is added to it. We order a bowl of plain rice for the Duke of York, a ritual that the waiter remembers from the previous evening. Afterwards, we drink in the room with the Statesman, who has again kindly procured wine and liquor.

Next week: The road to Udaipur and Chittaurgarh Fort.

Posted 19 August 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: The Jaipur City Palace

After touring Jaipur’s Jantar Mantar we walk to the nearby City Palace (300 Rs entry). The main royal residence of the city was originally built by Jai Singh II but added on to by subsequent maharajas. We enter through the Tripolia Gate into the Sarvatabhadra courtyard. In the center is the Mubarak Mahal (“Welcome Palace”), a reception hall that houses a fine textiles museum featuring fabrics and clothing from all over North India. We pass into the next courtyard, holding the Diwan-i-Khas (“Hall of Private Audience”), an open-sided hall featuring two gangajalis (silver urns) that are apparently the largest crafted silver objects in the world. Maharaja Madho Singh II had these urns filled with Ganges water and taken with him to London to attend the coronation of King Edward VII in 1901 because he didn’t trust the water in London, ironic given the reputation of Indian water today.

We enter the Diwan-i-Am (“Hall of Public Audience”), a lavish hall with chandeliers, rich crafts, and odd portraits of the maharajas. Back out in the courtyard we get a glimpse of the present maharaja Bhawani Singh Bahadur, a plainly dressed elderly man being pushed in a wheelchair, serving as a reminder that unlike the other palaces we have visited this one is still owned by the ruling family. We enter the Pritam Niwas Chowk, known as the Peacock Courtyard due to the peacock-fan designs on the arches over the doorways. From here we can see the seven-story height of the Chandra Mahal (“Moon Palace”), the royal family’s private residence.

At this point our guide Mr. Singh has begun to get on our nerves a bit. He is frequently intrusive, continuing to talk to the Sparrow while she tries to enjoy the textiles in the museum, even though he is merely reading information she can see for herself on the placards. When we are in the Peacock Courtyard we could use Mr. Singh to take a picture of us, but of course when we need him he is off on his mobile chatting with somebody. Even though I would enjoy spending more time exploring the palace and seeing the armory collection, I’m willing to leave it just so we can dispense with Mr. Singh more quickly.

It is time for lunch. Though my guidebook has some good recommendations, a decision has been made to just listen to the guide’s recommendation rather than risk going off on our own and possibly getting ill. Mr. Singh is only too happy to take us to a restaurant that he touts as the best in Jaipur. The van has trouble getting into the parking lot as it is packed with rickshaws carrying school kids. They wave at us and we wave back, feeling like visiting dignitaries. Surabhi (Old Amer Road), a heritage restaurant that was once the palace of one of Jai Singh’s ministers, is an obvious tourist trap judging from the many large groups arranged at the big tables, though it does have pleasant courtyard seating off of an arched Durbar hall resembling a diwan-i-am. The costumed man playing a Rajasthani violin for money is also a bit much. We have tasty chicken jaisalmeri (205 Rs) and gatta curry (180 Rs). It becomes quickly obvious why Mr. Singh has brought us here as we see him talking to the staff and receiving a free lunch, which he obtrusively eats next to us. We suspect he is also receiving a commission for bringing us here. Our experience has shown that with guides you just don’t know what you are in for.

Next week: The Hindu temples at Galta.

Posted 12 August 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Jantar Mantar

On our way back into the city of Jaipur, we stop briefly for pictures at Jal Mahal, the lake palace, originally built by Sawai Pratap Singh in 1799, who probably not coincidentally spent his childhood at Udaipur’s Lake Palace. Ranjit Singh parks the van near the city center. As usual, walking anywhere in an Indian city is never a simple matter, and we have to side-step cars going through a narrow gate and pass a heavy smell of urine before we get to our next destination.

The astronomical park known as Jantar Mantar (100 Rs entry) was constructed between 1728 and 1734 by Jai Singh II, one of five he had placed in northern India, including a less spectacular one in Delhi. The name derives from the words for instrument (yantra) and formula (mantar). Though Jai Singh’s primary interest was in using the stars to guide astrology charts, the accuracy of the instruments is still impressive to this day. Mr. Singh, our guide, finally proves his worth here by telling us details about the sculptures that aren’t available in the guidebook. The sculptures can also be appreciated strictly for their abstract beauty.

The impressive Samrat Yantra sundial is set at 27 degrees N, Jaipur’s angle of latitude, and is divided into two arcs corresponding to the two halves of the sun’s journey across the sky. The sun’s shadow falling on the marks inscribed on the arc tells the time, which is set to the Hindu lunar year. A sign tells us that due to this difference the time should be off by 16 minutes, which is indeed the case. The next instrument we see is the Yantra Raj, which has inscribed constellations and is used as a guide to the heavens. The Narivalya Yantra is also a sundial consisting of two sides, the Narivalya Uttar Gola and the Narivalya Dakshin Gola. Which side is active depends on whether the sun is in the southern or the northern hemisphere. The Jai Prakash Yantra has two matching hemispheres and is used to find the position of the sun in the zodiac. Its readings are verified by individual sculptures making up the Rashivalayas Yantra, each corresponding to a specific sign of the zodiac. Another structure, the Ram Yantra, consists of a colonnaded cylinder and allows determination of angle of azimuth and altitude of celestial bodies. By now the sun is high and it is quite hot, and we try to stick to the shadows of the sculptures. Just outside the complex we get postcards at a little shop for 10 Rs each.

Next week: The city palace of Jaipur.

Posted 5 August 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: The Amber Fort

We meet our guide to Jaipur, a man named Mr. Singh, and set off on the tour. The van goes by the Ram Niwas Gardens, where we can see Albert Hall, a British-designed building from 1867 that bizarrely mixes Venetian and Mughal architecture. We pass through the New Gate into the walled Pink City, where indeed all of the building retain a pink hue. We stop to take pictures of the Hawa Mahal (“Palace of Winds”), Jaipur’s most recognizable landmark. The five-story palace was built to allow women of the court to discreetly watch street processions below while remaining behind screened windows. An elephant in make-up strolls down the street, likely on its way to work at the Amber Fort. We head in that direction as well, passing the Jal Mahal lake palace on the way.

The road winds its way north up to Amber (also known as Amer) after passing through a gate. The stronghold city was the capital of the Kachchwaha Rajput clan from 1037 to 1727, at which point Jai Singh established Jaipur. We can see the imposing fort on the hill; to its left is Jaigarh fort, built in 1600 and also used by the Kachchwahas. After the van parks, we proceed to the gaily colored elephants waiting to bear visitors up the slope to the fortress. The price of the elephant ride is included in the tour, but we are advised to tip the drivers 25 Rs per person. The trip up is pleasant but is marred by some minor annoyances. Hawkers on the path try to sell us various objects and are encouraged by two young women on the elephant in front of us. Then our mahout (driver) tries to get us to exchange $3.00 for him. I ask him the elephant’s name and he says it is Padma. At the end of the ride the Sparrow gives him 50 Rs, but he requests 100 Rs. I tell him 50 Rs is quite enough. Also, we suspect that the elephants are not well treated as some have wounds near their ears where they are likely struck by the drivers’ sticks.

The elephant lumbers through Suraj Pol (“Sun Gate”) and drops us in the central Jaleb Chowk courtyard, where we buy tickets for 150 Rs. We climb up steep steps through the Singh Pol (“Lion Gate”) and see the Diwan-i-Am (“Hall of Public Audience”), where I am intrigued to find the elephant trunk motif now familiar from Agra and Fatehpur Sikri in the design of the brackets. Indeed, the fort retains architectural elements from both Mughal and Rajput traditions. The Ganesh Pol (“Elephant Gate”) leads into another courtyard, where we see the marble rooms of the Sukh Mahal (“Pleasure Palace”), distinguished by carvings of colored vases in the walls. We can see a lady’s palanquin housed here. On the other side of the courtyard is the Sheesh Mahal (“Mirror Palace”), once the private chambers of the maharaja and queen. This building was featured in the famous dance sequence in the film Mughal-e-Azam, but it is closed to visitors now and we can barely see its mirrored mosaic interior.

Nearby, we can see a restored stained glass depiction of Krishna. The Sheesh Mahal is flanked by two buildings resembling the princess bedrooms at Agra fort. A stairwell leads to the Jas Mandir, decorated with mosaics and featuring screens through which we can view the nice garden in the midst of a lake in front of the fort. The oldest part of the fort is the Palace of Man Singh I, which has the remains of Krishna frescoes in a pre-Mughal Hindu style. We walk back down to the Jaleb Chowk courtyard. While others are using the restroom I go up the stairs to the right of the main stairs to take a peek at the Shri Sila Devi Temple, which is dedicated to Sila, the goddess of war and an aspect of Kali, who is of course revered by the martial Kachchwaha clan. A Ganesha statue is visible outside. We decide to walk back to the van as it seems easy enough to go downhill. A shortcut leads through the Dilamar Bagh, a pleasant garden. Somewhere in the distance a shot goes off, and the large flocks of birds resting on the pavilions fly off in a frenzy.

Next week: The astronomical wonder known as Jantar Mantar.

Posted 29 July 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Jaipur and the Narain Niwas Palace

We finally reach the city of Jaipur proper, which was founded by the Kachchwaha Rajputs. The Kachchwaha Rajput clan dates to 1128, and the warriors established their capital at Amber in 1150. After the defeat of the Mewars by the Mughal emperor Babur in 1527, The Kachchwahas found it prudent to form an alliance with the Mughals, cemented by the marriage of Raja Bharmal’s daughter Jodhabai to Emperor Akbar in 1562. The later raja Man Singh I (1589-1614) served as one of Akbar’s most trusted military chiefs. Their most well-known leader, Jai Singh II (1688-1743), became maharaja at the age of 13. Jai Singh’s greatest achievement was moving his capital from Amber to Jaipur, whose construction was begun in 1727 and continued for eight years. As Jaipur was positioned on a major trade route rather than on a defensible hilltop, the move represented a significant shift from martial to commercial concerns, greatly aiding the clan’s prosperity and the prominence of the city. Known as the Pink City for the terra-cotta color of the buildings within the old city’s walls, Jaipur was one of India’s first planned cities. After Jai Singh II’s 43-year reign ended, battles of succession ensued that allowed the Marathas and eventually the British to move in. Today, the honorary royal title of Jaipur belongs to Maharaja Sawai Bhawani Singh Bahadur (born 1931).

We get to the Narain Niwas Palace hotel (Kanota Bagh, Narayan Singh Rd) around 4:30, driving through a gate that leads to a pleasant courtyard. The hotel is a heritage place and is a bit rough around the edges but charming. The property dates to 1928, when it was built for General Amar Singh, then commander of the Jaipur State forces under the British. We find our rooms are along a pleasant grassy garden. These cottage rooms have wood-carved beds, marble floors, and reproductions of miniature paintings. However, according to the guidebook the prized room is No. 36, which shows up in design magazines. The Duke of York and the Sparrow immediately get into bed to ease their fevers.

It is only 5:30, but it is already cold enough that I have to wear a jacket outside. We will find that the desert makes this area hotter during the day and colder in the evening than we are used to from being in Delhi and Agra. The Maharani, Lefty, and I go out to survey the area. A little mall is across the street. We walk down the street to the east and find a little store where we can buy snacks. On our way back we see Ranjit Singh and Manoj Kumar, who are staying at a little hostel outside the hotel gates. Manoj Kumar is on top of the van scrubbing.

As we have two sick people we do not want to stray too far from the hotel, so the three of us eat in the hotel restaurant. The main dining room is very nice, decorated with various Rajput artifacts and pictures of maharajas. We try the local specialty lal maans (250 Rs) (lamb in red sauce), aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower) (140 Rs), bajra roti (35 Rs), and naan (40 Rs) (both flatbreads). I have a 650 ml bottle of Kingfisher Premium (160 Rs). I get a bowl of boiled rice to take back to the room for the Sparrow, nicely packaged in a bowl with foil cover. We bundle up under blankets in the cold room, and I fall asleep trying to ignore fireworks from a nearby wedding and the occasional yipping of feral puppies outside my door.

In the morning we can see peacocks strolling through the garden outside our rooms. Morale is low in the group as two of our party are in bed and sick. The Sparrow at least seems to have gotten past the worst of it as her fever has broken, and she decides to brave going out into the city with us. The Duke of York, however, is still laid up in bed. The five survivors go down to breakfast. The buffet is not as good as at Mansingh Palace and more limited. I have masala chai, a masala omelette, uttapam (crispy pancake with vegetables), dhokla (a rice dish), paratha (stuffed pan-fried bread), and besan toast.

Next week: Our stay in Jaipur begins with a tour of Amber Fort.

Posted 22 July 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: The Road to Jaipur

As we enter the state of Rajasthan, we find the road a pleasant contrast to the crammed, perpetually under-construction roads of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. The modern, lightly trafficked highway has two lanes in both directions. Additionally, our driver Ranjit Singh is very cautious, honking his horn at any car he approaches as a warning and driving at a reasonable speed, though the moderate velocity is aided by the general lumbering quality of the vehicle. The landscape gradually gives way to the desert scrub and lofty hills that characterize Rajasthan. On the way, the Sparrow starts to experience both digestive problems and the aches of fever, and it is apparent she has gotten ill from something she ate. She takes some ibuprofen to reduce the fever and ease the pain and braves the ride.

I’ll pause here to fill the reader in on some of the history of the state of Rajasthan and the Rajput clans who founded it. Theories on the origins of the fiercely martial Rajputs vary, but it is thought they are descended from invaders from Central Asia who came into the subcontinent between the 3rd and 6th centuries A.D., possibly the Huns, Scythians, or Gurjaras. They became prominent in the 6th and 7th centuries AD, calling themselves Rajputs (from raj-puteras, “son of a king”) and establishing themselves as the rulers of the area now known as Rajasthan. Today, the Rajputs make up about ten percent of the population of the state of Rajasthan. The clans are divided into three main groups: the Agnikula (descended from Agni, the sun god) who claim to have emerged from a fire pit near Mount Abu; the Suryavansha (descended from Surya, the sun god), including the Sisodias of Mewar and the Kachchwaha; and the Chandravansha (descended from Chandra, the moon god).

By the 10th century they controlled many areas in North India and are even thought to have founded Lal Kot, the first city of Delhi. The important early clans included the Sisodias, who controlled the southern Rajasthan kingdom of Mewar and would found capitals at Chittaurgarh and later Udaipur; the Rathore, associated with Jodhpur; and the Kachchwahas, who would found capitals at Amber and later Jaipur. Clashes between the Rajputs and the growing power of the Mughals in Delhi first took place when Mewar forces were defeated by Babur’s army at the Battle of Khanua in 1527. The Rajputs were mainly subdued during the reign of Akbar, who shrewdly cemented alliances with them through intermarriage. Rajput royalty began to be intermingled with the Mughals, and one of Akbar’s most trusted generals, Man Singh, was the grandson of the Maharaja of Amber.

The alliances crumbled during the reign of Aurangzeb, who invaded Rajasthan, sacking Udaipur and vandalizing Hindu temples. After the Mughal Empire started to disintegrate in the 18th century, forces from the Maratha Empire made incursions into Rajasthan. The Marathas were put down by the British, who made a series of treaties with the Rajput rulers, granting relative autonomy in exchange for allegiance to the crown. The policy paid off during the 1857 Uprising when the maharajas of Jaipur and Udaipur both remained loyal to the British. After independence, the princely states of Rajasthan formally agreed to join the newly formed nation of India, though the rulers were to retain their titles and receive stipends by the federal government. These privileges lasted until Indira Gandhi removed them in 1971. Many of the Rajput rulers had to sell off much of their assets and turned their former palaces into hotels and tourist sights.

We reach Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, around 4:00. Ranjit Singh stops at the Sisodia Rani-ka-Bagh garden and we pay to go in. However, it has become apparent that the Duke of York is also experiencing fever and chills and is generally doing much worse than the Sparrow. We thus need to forego any more sight-seeing for the day and get to our hotel. A wedding is going on at the garden anyway, so it is not the best time to visit.

Next week: Jaipur, the pink city.

Posted 8 July 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Finishing up the Tour of Fatehpur Sikri

The zenana (women’s quarters) section of the city of Fatehpur Sikri begins with the Panch Mahal (“Five-Storeyed Palace”), a columned pavilion in five levels ending with a single kiosk on top. In the courtyard garden behind the Panch Mahal we enter the Sunahra Makan (“Golden House”), attributed both to Akbar’s mother and to his Christian wife Mariam. The bare remains of a few paintings are visible in the chapel-like interior. The main part of the zenana is Jodhabai’s Palace, an enclosed courtyard that houses several palaces modeled after Rajput architecture. On the north side of this courtyard is the Hawa Mahal (“Palace of the Winds”), a tower with delicate screens where women could catch the breeze. Before leaving, the Sparrow and I go to see a building called Birbal’s Palace, though it is unlikely that Akbar’s male courtier Birbal would have had a residence in the zenana. The ornamented building sports a ceiling carved to resemble a canopy of blossoms and probably housed another of Akbar’s wives. We exit the palace through a different entrance from the one we arrived in and pass what are reputed to have been the stables.

After the fort, our guide Islam leads us to the nearby Jama Masjid. No ticket is required but we do have to leave our shoes at the entrance. Entry is up a series of steps lined with lounging goats to the imposing Buland Darwaza (“Great Gate”). This gate was added by Akbar in 1576 to celebrate his victory in Gujarat. Like the other Mughal mosques we have seen, this one has a central courtyard with a dome-topped main prayer hall facing Mecca. The most significant site here is the Dargah of Sheikh Salim Chishti, originally made of red sandstone but subsequently faced with white marble. The outer wall is a particularly fine and intricate lattice screen with elaborate brackets. Before we enter, a man lends the men plastic head coverings for a price. The tomb itself is filled with lovely carvings and is topped with mirrors. The Statesman takes his turn with a peacock fan, waving it over the tomb. Outside, children jump and play as a group of musicians perform qawwali. Nearby are a number of tombs for ladies of the zenana along with the tomb of Islam Khan, Salim Chishti’s grandson. We realize that we are being shadowed by a caretaker with a lathi stick, who makes a show of chasing away kids hawking postcards. Naturally, he expects a tip for providing “protection,” and the Duke of York and I conjecture the kids might be taking a cut as part of a charade put on for our benefit. The various means of pressuring visitors for money certainly has an effect on the otherwise engaging business of visiting Islamic holy places, and it is an unfortunate contrast with our experience at the Golden Temple at Amritsar.

We get on the bus again to get back to the parking lot. However, it stops midway through the trip to pick up some French tourists and starts back the other way to the fort. The Statesman makes a scene until the drivers return us to the parking lot as promised. We don’t have to pay for the ride this time. We take our leave from Islam after giving him a 100 Rs tip and leave Fatehpur Sikri at 12:10.

Next week: The Road to Jaipur.

Posted 1 July 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: The Ghost City of Fatehpur Sikri

This morning, the breakfast choices are a bit different as the Indian selections include uttapam (a kind of crispy pancake loaded with vegetables), poha (a sweet rice), and pav bhaji (bread roll with a vegetable stew). The intention for today is to take a tour of Fatehpur Sikri, which is on our way to Jaipur. Once we check out of the hotel we meet our guide for Fatehpur Sikri, a Muslim named Islam. He tells us that many tourists have canceled their trips to Agra due to the terrorist attacks. He also speaks Japanese and has been giving tours for eighteen years. I find out his family is in medicine and has served in this capacity since Mughal times. We reach our destination in an hour.

The city of Fatehpur Sikri was supposedly constructed on this site as it was associated with Sheikh Salim Chishti, to whom Emperor Akbar came with a wish for a son and heir. When his wife became pregnant with Salim (the future Jahangir), Akbar called for a mosque and city to be built in Sikri. Construction proceeded from 1571 to 1585. However, the city’s use as the Mughal capital was short-lived as it was abandoned after 1585. The standard explanation is the lack of water resources in the area, though scholars who have examined the history more carefully contend there were other reasons why Akbar moved the capital first to Lahore and then back to Agra.

We drive through the Agra Gate to the parking lot. As it is still early, the mists cling to the fort and lend it an appropriately mysterious air. After parking, we need to get on buses at a cost of 5 Rs to get us closer to the entrance. Entrance to the fort is 260 Rs. The first area we see of the main fort complex is the Diwan-i-Am (“Hall of Public Audience”), a grassy courtyard that contrasts with the equivalent structures at the Delhi and Agra forts. Instead of a pillared hall, the emperor would sit in a small pavilion in this courtyard. We can also see a sandstone rock against which people would be executed by being crushed by an elephant. The courtyard leads to the main part of the mardana, or men’s quarters. Here we see the Diwan-i-Khas (“Hall of Private Audience”), topped with four chattri. The interior has four stone walkways radiating out from a thick, sculptured central pillar called the Throne Pillar. Islam tells us that Akbar would meet with representatives of various religions here. The equality of all is symbolized by the four equivalent entrances. Islam wryly comments that Akbar’s invented synthesis religion (Din-i-Ilahi, “Divine Faith”) only had 18 sycophantic followers, all of whom gave up their faith after his death. From a nearby terrace we are able to see a structure filled with a pool of stagnant water. A few young men broadcast their willingness to dive into the water for money. We can also see the Hiran Minar (“Deer Tower”), a short tower bristling with stone spikes (once elephant tusks). Our guide claims that the tower was built over the tomb of Akbar’s favorite elephant (who was named “deer”), but according to other sources it was actually built by Jahangir in a deer field.

We next see the Treasury, which includes interesting brackets depicting elephants with trunks similar to ones we saw at Agra Fort. Around this building are little halls where ladies would supposedly play ankh michauli (“hide-and-seek”). Islam claims he is a photographer and asks us to take up poses hiding in this hall. We agree just to humor him. The adjoining Astrologer’s Seat is filled with lavish Jain carvings. In the middle of the courtyard is a large Pachisi Court, sized to use dancing girls as pieces. The next palace, the House of the Turkish Sultana (also known as the Anup Talao Pavilion), is filled with lovely carvings of birds and trees. The thick walls once accommodated folding shutters. Though cited as the room of Akbar’s wife Sultana Ruqayya Begum, it was more likely a pleasure pavilion as it would have been odd for women to be quartered in the mardana. Next to this palace is the Anup Talao, a pretty pool with a platform in the center. The nearby Daulat Khana (“Abode of Fortune”) served as Akbar’s library and living quarters. His personal sleeping chamber, the Khwabgah (“House of Dreams”) has a huge raised platform that once held his bed.

Next week: The tour of Fatehpur Sikri continues.

Posted 25 June 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Exploring the Agra Fort

Once we have finished our tour of the Diwan-i-Am of the Agra Fort, we take steps that lead from the Diwan-i-Am to the upper story of the Macchi Bhavan (“Fish Palace”), which used to contain fish tanks. A small door opens to the Nagina Masjid (“Gem Mosque”), a three-domed marble mosque built by Shah Jahan for the harem. Here we can see a balcony with lattice screens from which the ladies could discreetly examine goods for sale in the courtyard below. A terrace beside the Macchi Bhavan has both a black slate throne and a white marble throne. The black one, the Takht-i-Jahangir (“Jahangir’s Throne”) was constructed for Jahangir in 1602 when he declared himself emperor in defiance of his father Akbar. It was brought to the fort in 1610. Jahangir apparently used to observe elephant fights from this throne. From the terrace we can get a glimpse of the Taj Mahal in the mists on the other side of the river. Close to the terrace is the Diwan-i-Khas (“Hall of Private Audience”).

A doorway from the Macchi Bhavan leads to a stairway and the plain white marble Mina Masjid (“Heavenly Mosque”), built by Shah Jahan and apparently used during his imprisonment. A passage leads from here to the Mussamman Burj, an elaborate pavilion decorated with pietra dura and a copper dome. It is said that Shah Jahan caught his last glimpse of the Taj Mahal from here before he died. Before the pavilion is a little courtyard with a pachisi board, a game apparently played with dancing girls as pieces.

The next major part of the fort is the Anguri Bagh (“Grape Garden”), laid out in a charbagh design with a marble tank in the center. The nicely patterned garden is spread out before the Khas Mahal (“Private Palace”), the emperor’s sleeping chamber. Saurabh points out iron rings in the ceiling that once held fans used to cool the emperor. Below this palace are windows that lead to the former dungeon. On either side are two smaller palaces that were inhabited by the princesses, the favored Jahanara and the vindictive Roshanara. One is a summer palace, with hollow walls that once contained cooling water, whereas the other was designed to hold oil lamps and stay warm in the winter.

Saurabh next leads us to the Jahangiri Mahal (“Jahangir’s Palace”), which was built by Akbar and likely used to house his harem, probably including his Rajput wife Jodhabai. The design elements blend Mughal and Hindu styles. The synthesis is most visible in the central courtyard, which includes numerous Hindu decorative motifs, including flowers, elephants, and mythic animals. A passage leads out from this courtyard, where we see the Hauz-i-Jahangiri (“Jahangir’s Cistern”), a bowl made from a single block of porphyry used as a bathtub.

Saurabh seems to be taking us on this tour a bit hastily, and we would like to go back and see parts of it at a more leisurely pace as we still have time before it closes. We tell him he can go, but he agrees to wait while we take our time. During our more considered exploration I take a glimpse into the Sheesh Mahal (“Mirror Palace”) at one end of the Anguri Bagh, where royal women used to bathe. The palace is closed, though glimpses of light reflecting off the many mirrors are just barely visible through the doors. I also notice a room with the Ghaznin Gate, a carved wooden door from the tomb of Mahmud Ghaznavi, a Persian sultan known for his raids into India. He died in 1030 and was buried in Ghazni, Afghanistan. The British brought the tomb’s door to the fort in 1842 as a trophy.

On the way back to the hotel, we stop at a sweet and snack shop called GMB Sweets, where The Maharani picks up pethas, Agra’s local specialty sweet. The place turns out to be within walking distance of the hotel. The Maharani offers Saurabh a tip but he refuses, insisting that we just give him a good recommendation, a classy gesture that enlarges our opinion of this guide. I find out from his business card that he also gives tours in German, so we chat briefly in Deutsch.

We all meet in the Tequila Bar at the hotel and have cocktails, 330 ml bottles of Kingfisher (150 Rs), and pakoras (150 Rs). Afterwards, The Duke of York and I walk back down to GMB Sweets to get snacks. The raj kachori (28 Rs) is too sweet, but the pav bhaji (30 Rs) is good.

Next week: The ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri.

Posted 17 June 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Agra Fort

The restaurant we have chosen, Achman (By-Pass Road, Dayal Bagh), is on the way back from Sikander and isn’t very busy for lunch. Hopefully this is only due to the odd hour we are eating, and the guidebook assures us the place is popular with Agra residents in the know. We try the specialty navratan korma (150 Rs), whose slightly sweet mix of nuts, dried fruit, and cheese is unusual; shimla mirch (stuffed peppers) (95 Rs); paneer makhani (cheese cubes in butter sauce) (115 Rs); dal arhar tadka (lentil stew) (75 Rs); jeera (cumin) rice (70 Rs); and naan (oven-baked flatbread) (20 Rs). The food is tasty and seems authentic.

After lunch we head to the Agra Fort, experiencing heavy traffic on the way. At one street I can see “country liquor” being sold through a set of bars to men drinking it on the sidewalk in small 200 ml bottles. This stuff is notoriously cheap, low quality, and sometimes poisonous.

At the Agra Fort we get a decent discount of 250 Rs (usually 300 Rs). Emperor Akbar had this citadel built between 1565 and 1573 on the site of Rajput fortifications. Shah Jahan constructed additional buildings inside, and Aurangzeb had the ramparts built. It is probably most famous as the place where Aurangzeb held his father Shah Jahan captive after usurping the throne. Most of the interior is military territory and inaccessible to the public. The off-limits portion includes the famous Hathi Pol (“Elephant Gate”) on the western side. The present entrance is across a drawbridge to the Amar Singh Pol, named after a Rajput warrior in Shah Jahan’s army, which leads to a sloping ramp surrounded by high defensive walls.

We pass a second gate lined with balconies where ladies used to sit and throw flowers upon the arriving emperor. This gate leads to a courtyard that houses the Diwan-i-Am (“Hall of Public Audience”), added in 1628 by Shah Jahan and featuring peacock arches. The inlaid marble alcove for the throne is connected to the royal chambers in the interior. The legendary Peacock Throne had been placed here until Shah Jahan moved his capital to Delhi. Before the throne is the Baithak, a small table made from one single piece of marble where ministers used to sit to receive instructions. From the raised height of the Diwan-i-Am we can see the white domes of the Moti Mosjid (“Pearl Mosque”) behind a wall, now inaccessible to the public. One odd feature to this courtyard is the gothic Tomb of John Russell Colvin, a lieutenant governor who died here of cholera during the 1857 Uprising. He is also known for founding a mental hospital in Agra, which I have to imagine is the reason his tomb is allowed to remain here.

Next week: The tour of Agra Fort continues.

Posted 10 June 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Emperor Akbar’s Tomb

Our tour of Agra continues with Akbar’s Mausoleum at Sikandra (reduced ticket price 100 Rs). Though designed by Akbar himself, it is conjectured that his son Jahangir finished construction according to a different design, resulting in an architectural scheme that doesn’t quite fit together. As this is Sunday, many people have come to picnic on the grass just outside. On the walk up I chat with Saurabh a bit and learn that he runs a shop near our hotel and only conducts tours during the high season. We enter through the Buland Darwaza (“Great Gate”) to the south and pause so Saurabh can point out the symbols representing different religions, fitting Akbar’s philosophy of religious inclusion. We see deer and a group of langur monkeys in the garden on the approach to the mausoleum. Saurabh explains the difference between the vegetarian, relatively benign common langur monkeys, easily distinguishable by their gray fur and black faces, and the more aggressive and larger red-furred Rhesus macaques.

Saurabh says the charbagh garden originally contained orchards per the Mughal style, but they were razed and replaced by grass to allow a better view of the monument. The mausoleum is an unusual structure for a Mughal monument, its base topped not by a dome or pavilion but a sort of pillared superstructure. At the entrance, a man tries to ask us to leave our shoes, but Saurabh maintains that we can carry them. The man reprimands Saurabh, obviously because he’s looking for a tip. The vestibule inside the entrance is richly adorned with grapes and flowers in various colors. From here a long plain hall leads down to a minimalist crypt containing Akbar’s real tomb (as opposed to the replica that is more common in these mausoleums). A man sings verses by the light of a candle and a skylight.

Upon his father Humayun’s death, Akbar became the third Mughal emperor at the age of 13. He was the first Mughal to be born in India, in this case Rajasthan, and was accordingly the first to consider himself a native ruler rather than a foreign conqueror. He proceeded to consolidate his rule by subduing a number of kingdoms. He also adopted a more peaceful and effective means of bringing Rajasthani kingdoms under his power by forming Mughal marriages with Rajput princesses, the first being the empress Mariam-uz-Zamani, better known as Jodhabai, the daughter of the Kacchwaha Maharaja of Amber. Their story is told clumsily but with style in the recent film Jodhaa Abkar. Akbar also set off the Mughal trend of great architecture with the Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri, and Humayun’s mausoleum. To this day Akbar maintains a reputation for being the most enlightened of the Mughals due to his abolition of discriminatory laws and taxes on non-Muslims, his patronization of the arts, and his openness to different religions. Akbar died in 1605 after a glorious fifty-year reign.

Once outside again, Saurabh walks us around to see the tombs of other Mughal family members in niches around the mausoleum and points out an underground passage to a secret escape tunnel. He lets us know that because the mausoleum isn’t a very popular sight for tourists it’s considered sort of a lover’s destination. Indeed, we see furtive couples huddling behind columns as we walk around the building. The gate to the north is in ruins as it was destroyed by the Persian invader Nadir Shah and never repaired. By now we are ready to break for lunch. Saurabh recommends the Pinch of Spice restaurant just as the agent did, telling us it is the latest, hottest place to go in Agra. We counter with a restaurant called Achman, listed in my guidebook. Saurabh says he used to go there when he was a kid but that now Pinch of Spice is the place to go. We decide to stick with our choice.

Next week: the tour of Agra concludes with the Agra Fort.

Posted 3 June 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: The “Baby Taj”

I have seen Agra’s main sights on previous visits, but I have never seen the Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah, which is our next destination. As we ride on the Yamuna Kinara Road on the west bank of the river, Saurabh points out the white mausoleum on the other bank. We are able to get a reduced ticket price of 100 Rs (usually 110 Rs) because we have same day Taj tickets. The tomb of Mirza Ghiyas Beg, a member of Akbar’s court and wazir (chief minister) in Jahangir’s, the tomb is also known as the “Baby Taj” due to a slim resemblance to the larger monument. The sobriquet has some validity as it was Agra’s first marble-faced building and sports a fine use of pietra dura inlay on its exterior walls as well as four stubby minarets at the corners. Instead of a dome, the mausoleum has a squarish central pavilion, which Saurabh tells us is due to a Turkish influence. The interior is lavishly decorated with inlay work, rococo gilt designs, and paintings.

The emperor known as Jahangir, the fourth of the Mughals, was the son of Akbar and the emperor’s Rajput wife Jodhabai. Prince Salim’s early years are best known for the legend of his romance with the dancing girl Anarkali, the source for numerous paintings, plays, and poetry as well as the classic film Mughal-e-Azam. Salim evinced an ambitious streak when he had himself declared emperor in Allahabad while his father was waging war in the Deccan. This plan failed, and he had to wait until after his father’s death to take the crown. The self-dubbed Jahangir (“World Seizer”) was less martial than his predecessors and preferred drink and the luxuries of the court to the battlefield.

Just as Salim had been a bane to his father, the new emperor had to deal with a revolt by his own son Khusrau, who had been Akbar’s chosen successor. He defeated Khusrau and had him cruelly blinded as punishment. The animosity between father and son became a recurring theme in Mughal history and contributed to its decline in later years. Among Khusrau’s followers was the Sikh guru Arjan, whose execution by Jahangir touched off Sikh animosity towards the Mughals.

Jahangir fell in love with a Persian woman named Mihr un-Nisa. He married her after her husband died, and she gained the nickname Nur Jahan, “Light of the World.” Her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg (Itimad ud-Daulah, or “Pillar of the State”) became Jahangir’s chief minister. The presence of the staunchly Islamic Persians caused tension in the court as Jahangir shared at least some of the tolerant views of his father. Nur Jahan gained more power in court, issuing orders as the defacto ruler while Jahangir succumbed to alcoholism. When the inevitable battles for succession ensued among Jahangir’s sons she backed Prince Shahriyar. When the other son Khurram took power as Shah Jahan, she was exiled to Lahore. However, Nur Jahan’s legacy lived on in the form of her niece Arjumand Bann, the new emperor’s favored wife Mumtaz Mahal, buried in the mausoleum that bears her name. Jahangir is remembered as a patron of the arts rivaled only by his father, and his architectural legacy includes Akbar’s mausoleum and the tomb of Itimad ud-Daulah.

Next week: The tomb of Emperor Akbar.

Posted 27 May 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Inside the Taj Mahal

After exploring the garden in front and making a leisurely approach to the Taj Mahal, we reach the platform that the mausoleum rests on. Most of the Indians leave their shoes in the racks here, but we join the other foreigners by instead putting the slip covers over our shoes. Once on the main pedestal, we first go to the red sandstone structure to the west, which is a functioning mosque and an assembly place for prayers on Fridays. It is interesting to compare its design with that of the two Jama Masjids we have seen.

From the railing to the north we enjoy looking out at the serenity of the Yamuna River. We appreciate the fine marble sculptural work on the exterior of the Taj itself as well as the pietra dura inlay, containing semi-precious stones from all over Asia. Inside the monument we follow the crowd moving clockwise in the octagonal central chamber around the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan, set off by a marble screen. Mumtaz’s tomb is topped with the ninety-nine names of Allah, whereas Shah Jahan has a pen box in the top of his, a signifier of a male ruler. Shah Jahan’s tomb, to the side of Mumtaz’s, is the only aspect of the design that breaks the monument’s symmetry. In accordance with Muslim tradition, these tombs are just replicas. The real ones are beneath, afforded access through a passage that is now cut off but that I recall going down on previous visits. Originally, Shah Jahan was meant to have been entombed in an identical version of the Taj in black marble on the opposite side of the river (the brick foundation of which is still visible), but his son Aurangzeb’s seizing of the throne ended that plan. One can only speculate whether Aurangzeb’s action robbed the world of a fantastic architectural diptych or preserved the uniqueness of the Taj.

Outside, the building to the east is identical to the one on the west except that it is not a mosque. We walk back and meet up with Saurabh at the main gate, taking a few last, lingering looks at the Taj. Outside, one of the touts, who had earlier tried to build a special relationship with me by introducing himself as Ravi and asking me to remember him, sets at me again. Because I ignore him, the price of a book rapidly goes down from 600 Rs to 200 Rs. It’s unfortunate that I have no need for it.

Next week: The monument known as the “Baby Taj.”

Posted 20 May 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: A Tour of the Taj Mahal

In the morning we can make out what I so far have not heard in India: the morning adhan (call to prayer) sung from a mosque by a muezzin. The Sparrow points out that the melodic quality is very different from the calls we heard in Turkey. I spend a little time going through the cable channels and notice (among the inevitable plethora of music videos) a Sikh channel with broadcasts from inside the Golden Temple as well as channels devoted to Hindu religious programming. The serial re-enactments of Hindu epics are particularly interesting to see in a certain sense.

Breakfast is included with the price of the stay and consists of an extensive buffet. The Indian choices include sambar (spicy soup), idli (rice dumplings), dosa (stuffed rice crepes), and aloo bhaji (potatoes with vegetables), whereas the more western options include baked beans, bacon, and sausage (the latter two discreetly separated from the rest of the food so as not to offend anyone’s religious sensibilities). Omelettes are made to order, and I opt for the healthy mix of vegetables and spices in the masala omelette. For tea, the Maharani makes a special request for masala chai, also known as “ready made.”

After breakfast, we go to the lobby and meet our guide for the day at the appointed time. I am generally leery of guides as I find the disadvantage of being herded through a sight frequently outweighs the benefit of hearing information you may not get otherwise, but I end up liking Saurabh, who unfortunately sets a high standard that most of the other guides are not able to meet. We tell Saurabh the places we wish to visit, and he comes up with the best order in which to see them, taking into account traffic patterns and crowded times.

The first place we visit is the legendary Taj Mahal itself, which Saurabh thinks is best seen first thing in the morning. The van drives us to the eastern area of the neighborhood known as Taj Ganj until it reaches the vehicle exclusion zone, set up to prevent excessive pollution in the monument’s vicinity. Saurabh advises us that due to security restrictions we should not take in any bags, writings materials, or even books, so I have to leave my guidebook behind. To get closer to the entrance, we pile into an electric bus with a large group of French tourists. Once we debark, the inevitable touts swarm around us trying to hawk postcards and books. We pay the hefty 750 Rs entry fee, which hopefully goes to keeping the place maintained well. The ticket includes a free bottle of water and slip covers for our shoes. We enter through the east gate into the area known as Chowk-i-Jilo Khana until we reach the main entrance, an arched gateway lined with verses from the Qur’an designed proportionately so they appear to be the same size from viewers on the ground. Through this gate we have our first glimpse of the Taj. Though I have already seen it twice, I am still awestruck by the loveliness of this building.

The story of the Taj is well-known, timeless, and even true to a certain extent. Emperor Shah Jahan had it built as a tomb for his beloved wife Arjumand Bann Begum, known as Mumtaz Mahal (“Chosen one of the Palace”). She died in 1631 while giving birth to her fourteenth child, a fact that can’t help but lessen some of the romanticism of the story. Work on the mausoleum commenced in 1632 and ended in 1653. Saurabh fills us in on other facts about the monument, including telling us that the dome was made in one piece and dragged up into position by elephants. He then lets us know that he will wait by the south gate while we go and explore. I appreciate his willingness to let us see it on our own. We approach down the length of the pools, snapping pictures along the way. We see what is known as the “Lady Di bench” on the central platform, so named simply because the princess had a famous picture taken there, and we see that many have lined up to emulate Diana’s pose. The layout of the Taj departs from that of the standard Mughal charbagh garden in that the main mausoleum is not in the center of the square plan but at the far north end.

Next week: The tour of the Taj Mahal continues.

Posted 13 May 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: A Mad Rickshaw Ride to Agra’s Mosque

After lunch I want to see at least one sight before the end of the day and settle on Agra’s Jama Masjid. Our drivers have already told us that they don’t consider this a sight-seeing day, so we have to fend for ourselves as far as transportation is concerned. We flag down an auto rickshaw and tell him we will need an additional vehicle to get the five of us to the mosque. However, he asks us all to pile in, leading to a situation where I am in the front with the driver while Lefty, the Duke of York, the Sparrow, and the Maharani are all crammed in the back on each other’s laps. Yet five is hardly an uncommon or even outlandish number of people for a motor rickshaw, and we see plenty with as many as seven adults as passengers. The driver asks up front for a fare of 100 Rs. The road follows the Yamuna River, and we can see the Taj Mahal floating ethereally in gleaming white on the other side. The ride takes us into an old Muslim neighborhood with narrow streets known as the Kinari Bazaar. When we get to the mosque the driver says he will wait for us, which makes us think we are paying him enough to make it worth it to him.

The Jama Masjid was built by Shah Jahan in 1648 for his favorite daughter Jahanara Begum. When we enter the mosque a friendly caretaker tells us we can carry our shoes and walks with us, explaining various details. A group of kids also swarm around us. We watch our belongings around them, but they seem more curious than a threat. They are surprised that the Maharani speaks Hindi, and she further confuses them by reciting some poetry in Urdu. The caretaker explains that a passage once connected the mosque to the Agra Fort before the British tore down it down to make way for their railway after the 1857 Uprising. The design is very similar to the Jama Masjid in Delhi. The main prayer hall is topped by three large sandstone domes and includes five arches. We enter and see the mihrab inscribed in black with verses from the Qur’an, and the caretaker points out the marble mimber inscribed with the design of the mosque.

At this point a couple of worshippers tell the caretaker to make the kids go away as they are ruining the reputation of the mosque. The guide replies that there is little he can do, but by now they have gotten bored with us and go play amongst themselves. The caretaker points out a shelf with copies of the Qur’an and a small room on the north side where Princess Jahanara came to pray. In the courtyard is a small tomb. I give the caretaker a tip of 20 Rs once he has finished with the tour. As we leave, another Muslim man asks the Maharani to tell us not to worry about the attacks in Mumbai as that sort of behavior doesn’t characterize the Muslim community in Agra. He also apologizes and tells us we should go to him if anything happens. The last is probably a bit boastful but still comforting. Although our sight-seeing for the day is brief, we enjoy getting to know Agra by way of a lightly touristed neighborhood.

After we leave the mosque, we find the rickshaw driver still waiting for us. The Maharani tells him we would like to pick up some sweets before we return to the hotel, and he takes us to Deviram Sweets. The noted shop dates back to 1965, and we pick up a 1 kg box (180 Rs) with some of our favorites, including pedas and gulab jamun. When we get back to the hotel we see an elephant passing by outside. The Maharani tries to give the driver 200 Rs for the round trip, but he requests 250 Rs for waiting and for going by the sweets shop, an inevitable escalation in price.

In our absence, the Statesman has been quite active, having gone out to buy new sandals along with liquor, wine, and snacks. He has thus arranged a small party in the hotel room. We see on the news that at this point commandos have completed sweeping out the last terrorists in the Taj Hotel and the siege in Mumbai has ended.

Afterwards, the Duke of York, Lefty, the Sparrow, and I go down to the hotel’s Tequila Bar (an odd name for what is decorated like an English club), where Lefty has a cocktail and the rest of us enjoy a 650 ml bottle of Kingfisher Strong (240 Rs). A few other random tourists are having drinks and poking suspiciously at bar snacks.

Next week: The legendary Taj Mahal.

Posted 6 May 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: The Road to Agra

As always, our first action in the morning is to turn on the news to keep abreast of possible threats and get updates on the situation in Mumbai. This morning, we learn that there are still terrorists holed up inside the Taj Hotel 58 hours into the crisis. For breakfast we have bread fried in spicy besan (chickpea flour), a local twist on French toast.

Today our whirlwind tour of Agra and Rajasthan begins. We hit a bit of traffic getting out of Delhi, but thankfully it is not as bad on a weekend and we soon reach the open road. On the way we request a quick stop. Ranjit Singh obliges by taking us to a roadside restaurant. Though suitable for clean bathrooms, we decide to not get any food or drink as the place is an obvious tourist trap. Once we enter Uttar Pradesh state we soon pass by the town of Mathura, reputed to be the birthplace of Krishna. I can see a huge icon of the god shrouded in scaffolding by the side of the road.

Traffic inevitably thickens as we enter Agra. The city first became important when the Sultan of Delhi, Sikander Lodi, moved his capital here in 1504, thinking it an optimum location from which to watch over his empire’s feuding factions. The first Mughal emperor Babur’s son Humayun captured the city in 1526, acquiring the legendary Kohinoor Diamond as a tribute from the Raja of Gwalior here. Agra served as the Mughal capital from 1566 to 1649, when Shah Jahan moved it to Delhi.

We get to our hotel around 2:15. The Mansingh Palace (Fatehabad Road) is a modern four-star hotel elegantly fronted in sandstone. Our rooms are very nicely appointed, with cable TV, free bottles of water, a refrigerator, and a shower that inspires a reverence that most Indians probably reserve for religious shrines. It seems that we never quite got used to the bucket, cup, and faucet method of washing that is common in Indian homes. Interestingly enough, all of the hotels we stay in have this equipment available as an option for those who are accustomed to it.

For lunch we go to a restaurant called Only (corner of The Mall and Taj Road) within walking distance of our hotel, though this doesn’t stop motor rickshaw drivers from hustling us for a ride. The place does have a heavy tourist clientele, evidenced by a bus group that makes a swift appearance, but the Mughlai cuisine is also very good. We have the murg shahi korma (chicken in a rich tomato and cream sauce) (189 Rs), gosht dopiaza (lamb in onion gravy) (165 Rs), chicken biriyani (195 Rs), malai kofta (vegetable balls in clotted cream sauce) (165 Rs), and begum bahar (vegetables in cashew sauce) (120 Rs). The waiter warns us about the sweetness of many of the dishes, but none of them seem overly sweet to our palates. The Duke of York and I share a 650 ml bottle of Kingfisher beer, the most common brand. People frequently engage in lists of the good things that British rule brought to India; in my opinion cold lager beer belongs in this category, the perfect accompaniment to spicy food and an ideal refresher in a warm climate. Science backs me up on this assertion as apparently the essential oils in chilies dissolve better in alcohol than in water.

Next week: The Jama Masjid of Agra.

Posted 29 April 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: A Sufi Mystic’s Tomb

Here there is a vast ocean of blood before me,
God alone knows what more I shall have to behold.

—Ghalib, after the ravaging of Delhi

Let it be granted that there is today
A greater patronage and love of Art
In Hyderabad; but, Zauq, who has the heart
To leave the lanes of Delhi and go away?

Tr. Ahmed Ali

One of my other must-see sights in Delhi is the Nizamuddin Dargah, located in a neighborhood of narrow, tangled streets with inhabits whose families have probably lived there for generations. Ranjit Singh drops us off on the street in front of the pedestrian-only area, and we bravely plunge in. We first come to the Tomb of Mirza Ghalib, which is quite a delight for the Maharani as he is a favorite poet of hers. We then reach an area with narrow alleys lined with flower-sellers. The Statesman buys a garland of flowers for each of us. One man offers to keep our shoes safe. When the Maharani asks how much he charges, he simply replies “whatever would please you.” We leave our shoes with him and enter the main courtyard with a number of dargahs and tombs.

Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam, designed to achieve a personal closeness with Allah primarily through ritual and devotion. A number of orders practice Sufism, Chishti being one of the most prevalent ones in India. Chishti was founded in Afghanistan in the 10th century. The order spread into India when the saint Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chishti settled in Ajmer, following a dream he had in which he was instructed by the Prophet Muhammad. Chishtiya in India have followed his teachings, which include the renunciation of material goods, participating in ritualistic activities collectively known as sema, generosity towards others, and tolerating religious differences. One form of sema used by Chishtiya is qawwali music, intended to lull its performers and listeners into a state of spiritual intoxication to bring them closer to Allah. The music is led by a solo singer accompanied by clapping, harmonium, dholak (double-membraned barrel drum), and table (paired hand drums).

I first go into the red sandstone Dargah of Amir Khusrau, Nizam-ud-din’s disciple and a noted poet. Next I go inside the onion-dome-topped marble dargah of Sufi saint Sheikh Nizam-ud-din Aulia, dating from 1562. The saint’s tomb is surrounded by a marble rail and covered by a mother-of-pearl canopy. A man gives me a handkerchief to wear on my head inside the shrine, and I place the garland of flowers on the tomb. I am impressed by the Statesman’s adherence to the rituals, bowing before the tomb and offering flowers. In front of the shrine a group sings qawwali accompanied by harmonium and table. The courtyard also includes the Tomb of Princess Jahanara, Shah Jahan’s favorite daughter, topped with a hollow filled with grass in accordance with her wish to have nothing but grass over her grave. The oldest building is the red sandstone mosque called Jamat Khana Masjid on the western side, commissioned in 1325 by Khizr Khan, son of Khalji sultan Ala-ud-din. We certainly enjoy being immersed in a spiritually reverential atmosphere, but one must still be wary of scams. One involves being asked to write your name in a book so that your name will be used in a prayer. Naturally, an appropriate donation must be given for this spiritual service. By the time we get back to Ghalib’s tomb a Pakistani TV crew is filming just outside. We also pass by the Ghalib Academy, which the Maharani is delighted to find and provides a source of several books for her.

As I started this entry with a couple of quotations from Urdu poetry, I should pause and add a brief word here. Urdu, the language of Pakistan and numerous Indian Muslims, originated as a hybrid of Persian, the court language of the Mughals, and the Sanskrit-derived dialects of North India. The poetic tradition was heavily influenced by the works in Persian and early Hindi of Amir Khusrau (1253-1325), one of Sheikh Nizam-ud-din’s disciples, who was renowned in the courts of the Delhi sultans for his skill. He is also credited with creating qawwali from Persian and Indian musical traditions. Poetry written in Urdu flourished during the Mughal period and is often cited as having found its greatest expression in the works of Mizra Ghalib (1796-1869), who is most renowned for his ghazals, a compact poetic form consisting of rhyming couplets with a repeated refrain. Ghalib’s primary competitor was a poet named Mohammad Ibrahim Zauq (1789-1854), who is sometimes cited as playing Salieri to Ghalib’s Mozart. Though now considered the lesser poet, Zauq was appointed the poet laureate of the court of Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II, himself an avid poet.

When we get back to Noida we learn on the news that six hostages and two gunmen have died at the Nariman House in Mumbai. The crisis continues.

Next week: We get on the road to Agra.

Posted 22 April 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Connaught Place

After our visit to Humayun's Tomb we have to take a break from sight-seeing to go to the office of Trans India Travels, the travel agency we have hired for our tour through Agra and Rajasthan. The office is located in Connaught Place, a commercial district in New Delhi designed by the British in the 1920s as a series of concentric circles. We are driven to a little parking spot and are met by the company’s director, who takes us back to his well-appointed office. We have the customary drinks he offers, pay him the balance owed for our tour, and receive our vouchers for the hotels. He recommends a restaurant for lunch, Veda, which according to our guidebook seems overpriced. I instead want to try out another option.

As always, Connaught Place is bustling with a host of shoppers and businesspeople, and its avenues teem with various forms of transport. I notice a very clean-looking entrance to the Delhi Metro and resolve to try it out at least once when we return to Delhi. Signs of the Metro’s continuing construction with the attendant clouds of dust are visible all over the city, and when the present plan is completed it will even go as far as Noida.

The restaurant is not difficult to find as the Statesman knows it from the old days when he ate there because he had little money. When we get to Kake Da Hotel (74 Municipal Market, Outer Ring), we can’t help but have some reservations when we see the flies buzzing about. The place is basically a simple sidewalk eatery except with indoor seating. In the front, big pots of food stew, attracting a line of customers who eat standing on the sidewalk. Once our table is ready we climb up some rickety stairs and are seated at a simple table. We have the chicken tikka (65 Rs), shahi paneer (cheese cubes in sauce) (45 Rs), kofta curry (vegetable balls in sauce) (65 Rs), and aloo matter (potatoes and peas) (32 Rs). The simple Punjabi food is tasty but undistinguished, and we will remember this restaurant more as an adventurous culinary experience than as a viable place to get a meal. But after all, part of the fun of traveling, especially in a land as outside of one's experience as India, is to try new things and to take chances. Luckily, nobody has any stomach difficulties from the adventure, which is likely one reason places like this scare so many travelers. As a general rule, we try to stick to restaurants that have a lot of turnover to assure that our food hasn't been sitting around.

Next week: A Sufi mystic’s tomb.

Posted 15 April 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Humayun’s Tomb

The Qutb Minar was constructed by Delhi’s early Muslim rulers, but naturally the Muslim dynasty that had the largest impact on India were the Mughals, and for the afternoon we return to the Mughal monument tour and go to Humayun’s Tomb (250 Rs entry). Our first stop in this complex is the Tomb of Isa Khan Niyazi, a small edifice that preceded Humayun’s tomb by 20 years and was dedicated to an Afghan noble in the court of Sher Shah who fought the Mughals. We take a look at the tombs inside the octagon-shaped, domed mausoleum but spend more time at the gate outside, which has some colored tile and steps that allow us to get on top. Indian monuments seem to rarely have off-limits areas, allowing visitors to climb onto all sorts of precarious vantage points unhindered by safety rails.

Once we get through the main gate we can see the glorious main mausoleum, the first of its kind built by the Mughals in Delhi. Constructed of red standstone and inlaid with black-and-white marble, it was built by Humayun’s widow Haji Begum (mother of Akbar), who is also buried here. The mausoleum is placed firmly in the center of a grassy garden segmented into four quadrants by water canals; this characteristic charbagh (“four-part garden”) layout is influenced by the desert-dwelling Mughals’ love of water and plant life. The aesthetic heritage of both the Mughals and that of the chief architect, who was Persian, contributed to the tomb’s design. The synthesis of elements is evident in the use of the bulbous dome, similar to those of buildings in Samarkand, surrounded by chhatri (pavilions), a basic element of Hindu and Mughal architecture.

We spend some time exploring the open rooms and passageways of the interior, some connected, some separated by latticework screens. Aside from housing the remains of the second Mughal emperor, the mausoleum is historically significant as the hiding place for the last emperor Bahadur Shah II after the Uprising of 1857 was quelled in Delhi. He and some members of his family were captured here by the British, with three of his sons receiving summary execution nearby. We also go back to see the small Barber’s Tomb, a slim mausoleum topped with its own dome and chhatri. The emperor’s loyal barber deserved a tomb because he was the only one trusted to hold a razor to the emperor’s throat.

As for the emperor himself, Humayun was already a seasoned warrior when his father Babur defeated the Sultan of Delhi and founded the Mughal dynasty. Humayun marched on and took Agra while his father conquered Delhi. Among Humayun’s spoils of war was the Kohinoor diamond, now part of the British crown jewels. He became emperor just four years later at the age of 23 after his father’s death. His addition to Delhi’s landscape was the fortress of Din Panah (now known as the Purana Qila or Old Fort), considered the sixth city of Delhi. The thorn in Humayun’s side proved to be the Afghan Sher Shah, who attacked the Mughals from the east while Humayun was trying to consolidate his power in the west. Humayun was forced into exile while Sher Shah ruled from Delhi. Humayun successfully retook Delhi in 1555 after Sher Shah’s death. His victory was short-lived, however, and six months later he died falling down the steps of a library he had built in Din Panah.

On our way out of the mausoleum parking lot we pass by the blue-domed structure called Sabz Burj, a 17th-century tomb inconveniently positioned in the middle of a group of busy streets, another reminder that in Delhi the relics of the past are often smoothly integrated with the busy thoroughfares of the present day.

Next week: Business and lunch at Connaught Place.

Posted 8 April 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Qutb Minar

The night is a pivotal one for me as it is my first full night’s sleep, so I finally feel I have overcome the jet lag. We wake to images of a helicopter hovering over Nariman House in Mumbai and further bad news from what is being called the “War on Mumbai” but which will eventually be scaled down to simply “Attack on Mumbai” or, more enduringly, “the Events of 26/11.” For breakfast we are treated to chivra (a sweet and spicy rice dish) and omelettes. Our drivers Ranjit Singh and Manoj Kumar arrive punctually in the morning and we set off for another day of sight-seeing in Delhi.

Our first stop of the day is Qutb Minar (250 Rs entry), located on the site of Lal Kot, the first city of Delhi, founded in the 11th century by the Tomar Rajputs. The centerpiece of the complex is the Minar, a victory tower built by Qutb-ud-din Aibak to celebrate his conquest of Delhi, marking the beginning of Muslim dominance. Construction began in 1202, but Qutb-ud-din only completed the first story, the other four being built by his successor Iltutmish. I recall being able to walk up the steep steps of the monument many years ago, but after a terrible accident in which people were crushed and killed on the stairs the interior has been closed off to visitors.

Though the Minar is the most famous part, the complex has much to explore. We stroll through the Alai Darwaza, with its nice central dome and inscribed Quranic verses, added by Ala-ud-din Khalji. The inlaid marble decorative style was influenced by Pathan artists from Byzantine Turkey and by the Seljuks. Beyond this, we see the Tomb of Imam Zamin, a latticework structure with a dome. The Madrasa and tomb of Ala-ud-din Khalji are inspired by the Seljuk tradition of combining madrasa and tomb in the same building.

Of some interest is the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, which was commissioned by Qutb-ud-din and is made of materials plundered from 27 Hindu and Jain temples. All of the faces of figures have been removed in accordance with Muslim tradition. Later additions by Iltutmish are purely Islamic and have inscribed Quranic verses. Within the mosque is the Iron Pillar with inscriptions in Sanskrit attributed to Chandragupta II of the Gupta period, an early Indian empire (320-550 AD). It is composed of 98 percent pure iron, a level of purity that still puzzles metallurgists. The pillar was probably brought here by the Tomars, but nobody knows from where. Beyond the mosque is the encircled Tomb of Iltutmish, composed of three ornate arches blending Indian and Muslim styles. The crumbling first story of Khalji sultan Ala-ud-din’s Alai Minar is also visible. The minaret would have surpassed the Qutb Minar by twice its height had the sultan been able to complete its construction, but it instead remains a testament to failed ambition.

Next week: The tomb of Emperor Humayun.

Posted 1 April 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: A New Delhi for a New Era

The latter half of our first day in Delhi brings us from the Mughal period to the twentieth century. We first get driven over to Raj Ghat, a park fairly close to the fort on the same side of the river. The area is known for a series of memorials to deceased Indian political leaders. We walk by Charan Singh’s memorial, and the Maharani quips that his barely six-month term as Prime Minister hardly deserves any commemoration. The most significant one is Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial. His Samadhi (cremation memorial) marks the spot where he was cremated after his 1948 assassination. The simple black slab is engraved with the Hindi letters for “hai ram” (“oh God”), his last words, and is strewn with flowers. We briefly visit Indira Gandhi’s monolith and Rajiv Gandhi’s frieze memorial; the mother and son prime ministers were both the victims of political assassinations. A memorial to Indira’s other son Sanjay Gandhi, who died in a private plane crash in 1980, is in the vicinity as well, but we don’t bother with his. Sanjay is most well known for various infamous measures during the 1975 “emergency” called by his mother, including forcibly evicting slum residents in the vicinity of Jama Masjid. We do make an attempt to get to Nehru’s memorial, but we give up when it seems too far a walk for those of us who are still jet legged.

After stopping briefly at a cantina in the parking lot to have some drinks, we have Ranjit Singh drive us into New Delhi. India’s British capital was designed by Edwin Luytens on a scale to match the wide boulevards of the grander European cities. We drive down the main avenue Rajpath, running from Rashtrapati Bhavan, the former home of the British Viceroy and now the presidential palace, to India Gate. The president’s residence is characterized by a fusion of European neo-classical with Mughal stylings in its red sandstone, domes, and filigree work. We also have our first sighting of monkeys, as common as squirrels in certain parts of India.

We stop for a bit at India Gate, a grand arch designed by Luytens in 1921. The names of British and Indian soldiers who died in the Northwest Frontier and the Afghan War of 1919 and 90,000 Indian soldiers who died in World War I are inscribed along the thick trunks of the arch. The eternal flame beneath commemorates the dead from the 1971 Indo-Pak war. A small, empty canopy nearby once housed a statue of George V. The atmosphere here is a bit carnivalesque as touts try to sell toys and snake charmers show off their skills.

We ride back to Noida and relax for a bit before visiting with family over dinner. Much of the talk revolves around Barack Obama, the president elect of the U.S. who has caused quite a sensation in India.

Next week: More touring of Delhi’s Muslim monuments.

Posted 25 March 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Kababs and the Jama Masjid

Our next objective is lunch. I find a place in my guidebook that is nearby, and our driver Ranjit Singh assures us it is a pukka place. We head there along a primarily pedestrian side street branching off of Chandni Chowk called Dariba Kalan Road. From there we proceed to the Esplanade Road, filled with both commerce and simpler matters, like children washing under water pipes.

On Gali Kababian we finally see a sign that points out the restaurant and go down a narrow passage leading to a little courtyard with four different eating halls, all of which comprise Karim’s. Opened in 1913 by a chef descended from a family of chefs who served the Mughal emperor Akbar, the famous restaurant is prized for its meat dishes, so we are sure to emphasize non-veg in our orders. We have half plates of the chicken mughlai (95 Rs), chicken biriyani (100 Rs), seekh kababs (grilled minced lamb) (22 Rs), a chicken seekh kabab for the Sparrow (28 Rs), and a dish called Karim vegetables (60 Rs). The seekh kababs are wonderfully juicy and one of the standouts in a great meal of Mughlai food. After we order, The Duke of York notices that his guidebook points out the marinated mutton burra as a specialty, so we order that as well (100 Rs) and are not disappointed.

Now that we are well fed we take on the Jama Masjid, accessible through its south gate (no. 1) close to Karim’s. India’s largest mosque, originally called Masjid-i-Jahanuma (“mosque commanding a view of the world”), was designed by Shah Jahan and built between 1644 and 1656 on one of Shajahanabad’s two hills. We walk up the steps to the gate and are asked to leave our shoes, which a man guards for a tip. He also tells us we need to purchase tickets for our cameras. Instead, the Statesman holds our cameras while the rest of us go in and explore. I am a little unprepared for the layout as I have become accustomed to the mosques in Istanbul, which emphasize cathedral-like interior spaces. Mughal mosques like this one instead feature open courtyards with elaborate colonnaded halls to house the mihrab prayer niche. I speculate that perhaps they are intended to mimic the open spaces where the Mughals must have prayed while they were still a nomadic people. In the center of the courtyard is a pool for ritual ablutions. The prayer hall has an elaborate marble carved mihrab and is crowned with three marble domes. At the northeast corner is a white shrine that contains the Prophet Muhammad’s relics.

The Sparrow and I decide to be adventurous and climb up into the minaret, which costs 50 Rs a person. Apparently, women need to be accompanied by men, but we do see a group of young women alone. We follow the signs through the Gate 1 entrance and make our way around a pavilion at the south-west corner before climbing up the steep steps to the claustrophobic space at the top of the minaret. The view is magnificent, even through the haze of pollution, but we don’t stay long as the number of people crammed into the small space is unsettling. After giving the shoe-minder a tip, we cross the mosque courtyard to the north gate and get in the van. We feel fulfilled for braving the very local and very Muslim quarter, and I can’t help but think that the experience helps to ease our anxieties from the terror attacks a little.

Next week: From Old Delhi to New Delhi.

Posted 18 March 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Chandni Chowk and Memories of 1857

After leaving the Red Fort, we next decide to take a tour of Chandni Chowk. The main street of Shahjahanabad was once tree-lined and featured some of the finest bazaars in Asia, which would require quite a stretch of the imagination to visualize today. These days the street has a reputation for being chaotic and absurdly crowded, though those of us who know New York City conclude it isn’t as bad as Manhattan’s Chinatown on a weekend.

We first stop at the Lal Mandir Jain Temple, but it is closed for the moment. We next walk by the Hindu Gauri Shankar Temple and then the Sikh Gurudwara Sisganj, founded in 1784. Across from the Sikh temple is the fountain marking the spot where the ninth guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, but only after he watched three of his followers gruesomely killed by being sawed in half, burned in cotton, and boiled in water, respectively. The British maintained the spot’s bloody reputation by hanging suspected insurgents here after the 1857 siege of Delhi. The Statesman points out the famous sweet shop called Ghantewala, open since 1790 and known for serving the last Mughal emperors and everyone since.

I’ve alluded a couple of times to the events to 1875, and I should pause to briefly describe this pivotal event in New Delhi and India’s history. The Uprising of 1857 is sometimes called the Mutiny in British histories and the First War of Independence in Indian accounts. Both terms tend to reveal political orientations rather than offer an accurate description of the events. The rebellion began among Muslim and Hindu sepoys in response to rumors that new rifle cartridges were greased with pork and beef fat, both proscribed by the troops’ religions. However, resentment of the imposition of British laws and culture had already been brewing for some time among a broad spectrum of the populace. The Uprising quickly spread across North India and expanded beyond a military mutiny to take on the character of a general revolt.

In Delhi, the sepoys seized Shahjahanabad on 11 May 1857 and proclaimed Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II their leader. By that point, the empire existed in name only, with the emperor maintained as a figurehead by the British. A noted Urdu poet, he was more interested in the arts than in leading a rebellion and was especially concerned about the brutal behavior of some of the sepoys, but he saw little choice as his British sponsors had been evicted from the city. The British laid siege to Delhi, assisted by Nepalese and Sikh troops (the latter were spurred by past grudges against the Mughals), and breached the walls on 14 September. The city that had been one of the jewels of Asia was pillaged and its inhabitants killed, exiled, or reduced to penury. Bahadur Shah II and his family were captured and put on trial. His sons were executed and he himself was exiled to Burma, where he lived out his remaining year expressing his grief in poetry.

The British managed to defeat insurgents in other parts of India as well, partly due to their use of the telegraph, which quickly spread news of the rebellion to British garrisons, and partly due to the spontaneous and unorganized character of the Uprising. British reprisals against the populace were merciless and excused by incidents of British civilians killed by rebels. The tenor of British rule changed significantly as the fiction of mercantile rule by the East India Company ended and the British government took control. Queen Victoria was declared the Empress of India, with a Viceroy to maintain central authority in the occupied land.

Next week: India’s largest mosque.

Posted 11 March 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: The Red Fort of Delhi

Delhi was once a paradise,
Such peace had abided here;
But they have ravished its name and pride,
Remain now only ruins and care.

—Bahadur Shah II, the last Mughal Emperor
Translated by Ahmed Ali

The path into the main part of the Red Fort leads through Chatta Chowk, a walkway lined with tacky souvenir and crafts shops that once had a reputation for housing bazaars filled with exquisite workmanship. We proceed through the arch of the Naqqar Khana (“Drum House”) and then to the impressive Diwan-i-Am (“Hall of Public Audience”), a colonnaded alcove where the emperor would hold court. The marble dais where the throne once sat is still visible, though it is surrounded by a wire net. We go around the back of the Diwan-i-Am to the open area that constitutes the bulk of the fort’s accessible area. To the west are the ugly barracks the British built after occupying the ground. More pleasing to the eye are the lovely gardens of the Hayat Bakhsh Bagh to the north. The northernmost structure, the Shah Burj, was used to pump water from the river to feed the “stream of paradise,” a presently dry canal that once flowed through all the palaces. We walk south from this little building to see the succession of little palaces on the eastern edge. Though Shah Jahan was responsible for most of the fort, Aurangzeb did put his stamp on it, and the charming onion domes of the Moti Masjid, dating from 1659, are part of the devout emperor’s legacy. Next to it are the hammams, the former baths.

The next building is the Diwan-i-Khas (“Hall of Public Audience”), a smaller-scale version of the Diwan-i-Am used by the emperor to address his nobles. Within this marble pavilion inlaid with semi-precious stones is a famous inscribed Persian couplet composed by Shah Jahan’s prime minister: “If there be paradise upon this earthly sphere / It is here, oh it is here, oh it is here.” The hall has unfortunately been bereft for some time of its finest furnishing, the Peacock Throne that was looted by the Persian Nadir Shah in 1739. The next palace is the Khas Mahal, the emperor’s personal residence. The octagonal tower jutting out to the east was used by the emperor to appear to throngs on the riverbank. The Rang Mahal (“Palace of Color”) housed the emperor’s wives and mistresses. Neither of these buildings is accessible.

We are able to enter the Mumtaz Mahal, a palace believed to have been built for Shah Jahan’s wife Mumtaz Mahal. The building contains an Archeological Museum that we spend a bit of time in. The Maharani points out a copy of a text that narrates Mughal history. One gallery is devoted to the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II and includes his marble chair. I notice a letter from John Nicholson to General Wilson. Both were British officers involved in the siege of Delhi during the 1857 Uprising. Nicholson was known both for his brutal behavior towards Indians and for his retaking of Delhi from the insurgents who had occupied it. We spend some time exploring the fort and trying to imagine how it once was during the height of the Mughal Empire, made a little difficult by the tour and school groups and the constant roar of traffic from the road outside where the banks of the river once were.

Next week: The crowds of Chandni Chowk.

Posted 4 March 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Shahjahanabad, Seat of Emperors

On the morning of our first day in New Delhi the news focuses on the terror attacks. The situation is still in progress as terrorists have holed up in the hotels and elsewhere as Indian soldiers have surrounded the buildings. The attacks have made us all anxious, but we make the decision to press on with our itinerary and go into Delhi for a day of sight-seeing.

The same travel agency that we have contracted for our tour through Agra and Rajasthan is providing us with a van for two days in Delhi, complimentary for one day. We find that the van is rather large, with a capacity to seat ten people. Our driver is one Ranjit Singh, whose family still lives in Rajasthan and who is working to send his kids to school. Ranjit is a Rajput and has the bushy, elegantly groomed moustache to prove it. The seat next to him is occupied by Manoj Kumar, a youngster whose purpose isn’t entirely clear beyond opening and closing the door for us and helping Ranjit back up in tough spots, yet we gain a fondness for him regardless. We speculate that he is likely an apprentice learning the tour business.

Our first destination is Old Delhi, the neighborhood known as Shahjahanabad after the emperor who began its construction in 1638 as the new Mughal capital. The area was once cordoned off by a wall and 14 gates. Today, the walls are mostly gone and only four gates remain. Ranjit Singh drops us off in front of the Red Fort and tells us he will meet us at Gate 3 of the Jama Masjid mosque at a later time.

I might as well pause to briefly go into the history of the man for whom this area is named and who was one of the most prominent emperors of the Mughal dynasty, which contributed much to shaping India’s history. Prince Khurram, the son of the emperor Jahangir and a Rajput princess, distinguished himself in battle in the Deccan and earned the title Shah Jahan, “Emperor of the World.” After the mysterious deaths of his brothers Parviz and Khusrau (the latter in prison due to his earlier defiance of his father), the ambitious Khurram found himself in a good position for the throne. However, Jahangir’s powerful wife Nur Jahan supported his surviving brother Shahryar. Khurram revolted and had to take refuge in Udaipur in 1623. Upon Jahangir’s death, Shah Jahan returned and defeated Shahryar, removing all opposition to his rule. To consolidate his power, Shah Jahan abolished some of the reforms enacted by his grandfather Emperor Akbar, including bringing back some discriminatory laws against Hindus.

Shah Jahan’s architectural exploits include expansion of the Agra Fort as well as construction of the Red Fort and Jama Masjid in Delhi. He is of course best remembered for the Taj Mahal, a mausoleum for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. He was also a strong supporter of the arts. After he became seriously ill in 1657, his four sons started to plot and vie for the throne. Aurangzeb, the most ruthless and ambitious of the bunch, had Shah Jahan imprisoned in Agra Fort, where he spent out his remaining years being tended to by his favorite daughter Jahanara. He died in 1666 from illness that was possibly complicated by an overdose of opium.

Work on the sandstone walls of the Red Fort (Lal Qila) began in 1638. Shah Jahan moved in ten years later and it served as the center of power for the Mughal Empire through most of its duration until the British took over after the 1857 Uprising. We make our way through the postcard hawkers, buy tickets (250 Rs for foreigners, considerably less for Indians), and get through the security check at the main entrance at Lahori Gate. The barbicans at this gate were added by Shah Jahan’s son Aurangzeb, much to his father’s chagrin. On the rampart above is a flagpole and a stand where India’s prime ministers traditionally give speeches, the most famous being Jawaharlal Nehru’s “tryst with destiny” speech on the occasion of independence.

Next week: A tour of Delhi’s Red Fort.

Posted 25 February 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Farewell to Chandigarh

After the previous day's grueling day trip to Amritsar we all agree to adopt a more leisurely pace today, especially considering we will be traveling to Delhi in the early evening. The Statesman contributes by not having the television on quite so loud early in the morning. I watch some of the news after waking, much of which is devoted to the upcoming one-day international 50-over cricket match between England and India. Much praise is lavished on Mahendra Dhoni, the India captain. The biggest point of concern is the dew on the pitch, which can affect the game in unpredictable ways.

Now that we are without our driver Talojan Singh, the Statesman has agreed to go out with Lefty, the Duke of York, the Sparrow, and me while the Maharani tends to some packing for the next, extended leg of our trip, more involved in her case as she’s already been staying here for three weeks. We go out into Chandigarh in the Statesman’s lean red Suzuki Maruti to see more buildings designed by Corbusier, a particular architectural interest of mine. We first try to see the High Court, but the parking lot is packed and we don’t want to park too far away. We are only able to see the building’s distinctive parasol roof from a distance. We then go to the multi-level Secretariat building with its elegant exterior ramps and are told at the gate that we need prior permission to enter. The restriction is partly due to the fact that Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh was assassinated by Sikh nationalists in front of this building in 1995.

Having given up on any Corbusier-related sight-seeing, we next go to Sector 17, the city’s commercial heart, and walk around the large outdoor mall. The Statesman first leads us to the Indian Coffee House, one of his favorite haunts. The turquoise-walled place has been around since 1957 and has an authentic feel, sort of like a vintage American diner. We all have the “hot coffee” for 10.70 Rs. Most of the food available on the menu is typically South Indian, fitting coffee’s association with the south. The place is owned by a South Indian coffee co-op and has a number of branches, including one in Delhi. The Statesman’s preference for coffee over tea has certainly led us to an interesting experience.

We next explore the extensive selection of English books at the Capital Book Depot. I find a great selection of books in English by Indian authors. As we stroll down the length of the mall we pass by the Neelam Theatre, a classic movie house. The Statesman tells us it is no longer popular and will likely go the way of the sadly neglected classic Art Deco movie palaces of the U.S. After checking out a couple of clothing stores we leave the mall and ride with the Statesman as he does some errands. On a grassy field at the side of the road I can see the checkered pattern of laundry laid out to dry in the sun.

Back at the Statesman’s house he and I watch the 50-over cricket game between England and India and observe some of England’s innings. The Sparrow sketches the mango tree in front of the house. We soon have to catch the train to Delhi. A hired car, sadly not driven by our former driver Talojan Singh, arrives to pick us up. On the way traffic is stalled due to a raucous procession connected somehow with the transport election, led by a group of men beating drums and dancing street bhangra. The Maharani wryly comments that many were probably coaxed with the promise of free liquor.

We get to the train station in plenty of time but quickly regret being so punctual as we are assaulted by the cacophonous sound of hundreds of birds vocalizing loudly behind metal screens above the platform. Between this shrill din and shaking off begging children the wait is more agonizing than it need be. I am amused watching people who ignore the overhead causeway connecting the platforms and instead walk across the tracks.

The Shatabdi Express is known for being one of the most luxurious and fastest in India. Indeed, our first class coach is very comfortable, and we are offered biscuits, candy, water, and ice cream, as well as a dinner of paneer (fried cheese), roti (flatbread), dal (lentils), rice, and dahi (curds). It seems that the 415 Rs tickets are quite a bargain. I spend my time keeping track of the cricket game over the shoulder of a man who is following it on his laptop.

I notice that on our way through Haryana state we pass the town of Panipat, where the Mughal period in India began in 1526 when Turkish warlord Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodi, the Sultan of Delhi, and proclaimed himself emperor. We reach the New Delhi train station on time. Finding a driver to take us to our destination can be challenging as many are reluctant to go as far as we have asked. The Statesman finally manages to get us a small van that we have to cram into. The Statesman and I sit in the front seat with the driver, the Statesman precariously poised with the gear shift between his legs.

Though just across the Yamuna River from Delhi, the fast-growing urban district of Noida (short for the less-melodious name New Okhla Industrial Development Area) is actually located in Uttar Pradesh state. Upon arrival at our destination we learn that India has won the cricket match by 6 wickets but are also hit by the more serious news of the terror attacks in Mumbai. At this point information is sketchy; the news only reports that terrorists have struck the Taj Hotel, the Oberoi, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Café Leopold, and perhaps other locations. Indian news is less squeamish about showing gore than American TV, and we see several grim shots of blood pooled at the Café Leopold, an unsettling image for our first night in Delhi.

Next week: Our first day in Old Delhi.

Posted 18 February 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: The Golden Temple and Jallianwallah Bagh

Once we are nearly around the pool of the Amritsar temple complex we stand in line to get into the central temple, the Harmandir. Entry is across the Guru’s Bridge causeway after going under the ornate archway called the Darshani Deorh. We have to stand in line in full sunlight, a hardship alleviated by listening to a constant chant accompanied by tabla and harmonium coming over loudspeakers from the temple. Once inside we see the musicians and the singers. We walk up the stairs to explore all three levels of the temple, each with someone reading from the holy book the Guru Granth Sahib. On the second floor is a selection of books that some visitors have borrowed to read devotions. Others sit in quiet contemplation in window niches, catching the breeze and gazing at the calm water of the pool. We appreciate the many decorative details in the marble inlay and carved wood panels in the interior before climbing the stairs to the roof and enjoying the view.

The path from the Harmandir leads past a booth where people can take Prasad, an edible blessing in the form of sweet halwa pudding. I am approached by a friendly Sikh who asks where we are from and welcomes us. I am at first a bit guarded as I expect some sort of sales pitch, but his welcome is genuine. We next go into the Akal Takht, the seat of the Sikh political leadership and the nightly shelter for the Guru Granth Sahib. We pass by the gnarled Jubi Tree at the northwest corner of the courtyard, which was planted 450 years ago and is believed to grant miracles. The strips of cloth hanging from its branches have been added by women wishing to give birth to sons. Our final stop at the temple complex is the Museum, full of portraits of gurus and other important Sikhs, including an idealized one of Bhindrinwale himself. One painting depicts the Akal Takht after the devastating attack by the Indian army. Some of the martyrdom paintings in the museum are truly horrific, rivaling depictions of the executions of Catholic saints.

After the temple we retrace our steps to Jallianwallah Bagh, which we passed on our way from the parking garage. The events that once took place here are significant to Indians to this day. In the aftermath of World War I, the nationalist movement in India started to grow restless for independence, prompting countermeasures from the British Raj. In 1919, a series of strikes were staged in Amritsar to protest the British Rowlatt Act, which allowed the imprisonment without trial of any Indian suspected of sedition. The British called for a ban on public meetings when looting occurred at some of the demonstrations. Nevertheless, a mass demonstration took place on April 13 in Jallianwallah Bagh on the occasion of the Sikh festival of Baisakhi. In response, British General R. E. H. Dyer and his 150 Gurkha and Baluchi troops marched into the space and opened fire on the unarmed crowd. The walls prevented any escape, and many died diving for cover in the well. Death estimates range from 379 to 2000, many of the wounded having died due to Dyer’s refusal of medical aid. The massacre provoked an outcry and provided a turning point for the Indian nationalist movement.

We go through a narrow passage that leads to an open, grassy space. The lot was once surrounded by walls that hemmed in the mass of peaceful demonstrators and made it brutally easy for British-led troops to stage a massacre. The area is now a pleasant park to walk around in and contemplate a pivotal event in Indian history. A pyramid marks the spot where soldiers fired from. From there one can walk to the well, known as the Martyr’s Well, that many of the victims took fatal dives into. The other artifact remaining from the massacre is a section of the original wall, riddled with clearly marked bullet holes.

On our way back we are able to bypass the traffic squall of Ludhiana by taking a more direct route to Chandigarh. As the afternoon drags on and the lack of sleep and jet lag start to kick in I find myself nodding off, but I can never quite manage to rest as the lights of oncoming traffic keep jerking me awake. The hours in the car today have been very taxing, but we agree that the temple was a special experience and well worth it. For dinner we order pizza from Pizza Hut, the product of which is more exotic than it may sound. We get both a vegetarian pizza and a kadai chicken pizza. The former is pleasantly spicy, but the true standout is the chicken pizza, featuring a tasty blend of kadai chicken, onion, capsicum, green chili, and coriander.

Next week: A final day in Chandigarh followed by a train ride to New Delhi.

Posted 11 February 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: The Holy City of Amritsar

We pass over another of the five rivers of Punjab, the Beas, on the approach to Amritsar. The river also happens to mark the easternmost extent of Alexander the Great’s conquests. The traffic only increases closer to Amritsar, which we reach around 1:30. The city was founded in 1577 by Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh guru, on the site of a bathing pool known for its healing powers. Our driver Talojan Singh drops us off outside a parking structure and points us in the general direction of the Golden Temple. When we leave the car we are instantly thrust into chaos as the streets in this section of the city have no sidewalks, and we seem to be besieged on all sides by pedestrians, scooters, rickshaws, and touts hawking temple paraphernalia. The comparison with the relative calm of Chandigarh is quite a shock, but we do our best to keep track of everyone and follow the signs to the temple.

The Golden Temple, the holiest site for the Sikh religion and our sole reason for making this lengthy day trip, was originally completed by Guru Arjan Dev in 1601 and later rebuilt by Maharaja Ranjit Singh after it was sacked by Afghan invaders. Our first stop at the temple complex is the area where shoes are collected. We have to remove both shoes and socks and are given a claim tag. At this point, the Duke of York and I wrap handkerchiefs provided by the Statesman around our heads, while the ladies put on scarves. Entry to the temple complex is afforded through a shallow pool where we wash our feet.

The chaos of Amritsar gives way to serenity when we go through the arches of the Victorian-style clocktower at the north end and have our first glimpse of the gleaming golden Harmandir temple, fixed in the center of a pool teeming with fish called the Amrit Sarovar (“Pool of Nectar”). Enclosing the pool is a marble courtyard called the Parikrama, which we walk in a clockwise direction. Around this courtyard are Sikh shrines known as the 68 Holy Places. Sikhs from all backgrounds and descriptions wander on the cool marble, accompanied by occasional visitors like us. We pass by a group of men who have stripped to the waist and are wading in the pool and see men bearing spears making casual circuits of the courtyard.

At the east end of the Parikrama are the two brick watchtowers called the Ramgarhia Minars, the tops of which were blasted off during the notorious Operation Blue Star. A little farther on a gate leads to the Guru-ka-Langar, where communal dining occurs in accordance with Sikh tradition.

I will pause here for a little historical background on recent events at the temple. In the 1980s, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi offered behind-the-scenes support to Sikh leader Jamail Singh Bhindrinwale in opposition to the Akali Dal, the primary Sikh political party and an opponent of Gandhi’s Congress party. In a classic example of blowback, Bhindrinwale turned increasingly radical in his agitation for the Sikh breakaway state he called Khalistan. In 1984, he and his followers holed up in the Akal Takht at the Golden Temple with a cache of weapons. The Indian government responded by mobilizing army troops and armored vehicles. After blasting off the tops of the Ramgarhia Minars with artillery and sending in paratroopers, who were mowed down on the Parikrama by militants manning machine gun posts, the final assault of Operation Blue Star began. On 6 June 1984 the Akal Takht was heavily damaged and Bhindrinwale and many of his followers were killed. In response, Indira Gandhi was assassinated on 31 October 1984 by two of her own Sikh bodyguards, an event that ignited anti-Sikh riots in Delhi that killed thousands of Sikhs before order was finally restored.

Next week we enter the central shrine of the Golden Temple.

Posted 4 February 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: The Road to Amritsar

We all fail to get adequate sleep again. At least being up early allows us to make an early start for our day trip to Amritsar. The Statesman sets a mellow mood in the morning by playing a video of a sitar performance on the VCR. Trusty Talojan Singh shows up on time, and we depart at 7:15.

We soon get out of the city and into the lush farmland of the Punjab, the bread basket of India. Road signs are increasingly in Punjabi Gurmukhi script only. We see fields of sugar cane and open plots where men use pressing machines to extract sugar cane juice. Occasionally, we see stands where slabs of marble are being sold, all imported from Rajasthan and likely destined to make up the floors of Indian dwellings. The road has a number of gurudwaras (Sikh temples) and shrines dedicated to the tenth guru Gobind Singh corresponding to stops he made while on the run from the Mughals. Villages appear at intervals, each one accessed from the main road through a gate. One can judge the relative wealth of each village by the opulence of these gates.

For breakfast we stop at another branch of the Haveli restaurant, this time in the town of Jalandhar. This one is very similar to its sister venue in Karnal, down to the truck mock-up inside, though for some peculiar reason the menu claims that this is the only branch. For breakfast we try two different plates. One is the chole bhature (40 Rs), with big, greasy bhature (fried flatbread) perfect for mopping up the spicy chickpea blend. The other is a poori aloo with halva plate (45 Rs), which comes with four pooris (a smaller version of a bhatura, a potato mix, and sweet halva pudding. The rustic kitsch theme visible at the other restaurant is in full expression here with the kinds of cots that villagers sleep on and a well outside where an energetic youngster is playing at hauling up a bucket, an activity I imagine many of her less fortunate counterparts in the villages likely don’t have the luxury of simply playing at.

I should offer some background before my readers get lost in the names of these Sikh gurus that will get mentioned more frequently in this blog. Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1539), a spiritual leader and philosopher who drew upon Hindu and Muslim elements while rejecting elaborate rituals, worship of idols, and the caste system. His successor, Guru Angad (1504-1552) recorded Guru Nanak’s hymns in the modified Punjabi script that is now known as Gurmukhi (“script of the gurus”). The fourth guru Ram Das (1534-81) is best known for founding the city of Amritsar. Relations between the followers of the gurus and the Mughal Empire were generally peaceful, particularly under the religiously tolerant reign of Emperor Akbar. However, the situation changed during the reign of Emperor Jahangir, who objected to the conversions of Muslims to Sikhism and was particularly bothered when Guru Arjan Dev (1563-1606), the fifth guru, supported his rebel son Khusrau. Jahangir had Arjan Dev tortured and executed. In response, his son Guru Har Gobind (1595-1644), the sixth guru, founded the Akal Takht as the center of Sikh political and military resistance to the Mughals, beginning the martial tradition that Sikhs are known for. Conflict continued with the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan, but the final affront occurred during the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb, who tortured the ninth guru Tegh Bahadur (1621-75) to try to force his conversion to Islam. The guru refused and was executed in Chandni Chowk in Delhi. Bahadur’s son, tenth and final guru Gobind Singh (1675-1708), founded the militant Sikh brotherhood of the khalsa in 1699 to protect his followers from Mughal tyranny. Guru Gobind Singh also codified the Adi Granth, a compendium of hymns by all the gurus, naming it the Guru Granth Sahib as his successor and sole source of Sikh spiritual guidance.

Next week we finally reach the city of Amritsar.

Posted 30 January 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Chandigarh, the City Beautiful

Though the jet lag keeps us from sleeping the night through, we are all prepared to make a day of it in Chandigarh. The Maharani introduces us to Girija, the Statesman’s diminutive maid. She is charmingly shy but pleased to meet us, giggling at my tentative attempts at speaking Hindi. The Maharani asks her how old she is and she says she thinks she is between 18 and 20 but doesn’t know for sure. Her family occupies a small room the Statesman has had built on the roof, though Girija herself lives with her husband elsewhere, and they have all come from the state of Uttar Pradesh. Girija has told the Maharani that her sister eloped with a man, and instead of supporting her sibling Girija seems to have disowned her, an all-too-common tale of the kind of traditional values that still have a major hold throughout India.

After our trusty driver Talojan Singh comes by in the Innova we set off into Chandigarh. Though the capital of both Punjab and Haryana states, Chandigarh is administered as federal territory, which confers certain advantages. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru first conceived of the city as an assertion of India’s modernism, and noted Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier was commissioned as the chief designer. Construction was begun in 1952 and completed in the 1960s. The city is efficiently organized into a series of numbered sectors. With its wide avenues and open spaces, Chandigarh is a very un-Indian Indian city, of which its residents are justifiably proud.

Some of the sights along our drive are typical of India, including barbers shaving customers on roadside set-ups and men urinating brazenly against walls in broad daylight. The Sparrow comments that she’s never seen so much public urination as she sees in India. These days motorcycles seem to be the dominant form of two-wheeled transportation, much more popular than the once ubiquitous scooter.

We get driven to Sukhna Lake, an artificial body of water that was part of Corbusier’s vision. We stroll for a bit and watch people navigating the water on the popular paddle boats. Naturally, these parks are nothing compared to the glories of the fabled Rock Garden (10 Rs entry). The life-long obsession of a retired Public Works Department road inspector named Nek Chand, who began construction in 1965 out of bits of rubbish left over after the city’s construction, the Rock Garden has become a Chandigarh institution. Though the project was initially illegal, Nek Chand was eventually fully funded and provided with a work force. The park opened to the public in 1976 and has been attracting the curious ever since. The garden is now a sprawling maze of paths leading by waterfalls, grottos, narrow walkways, arches, and whimsical sculptures. We even see the humble hut that Nek Chand used to live in. A lot of local residents seem to be enjoying the garden today, wandering in groups and snapping pictures of each other standing under the waterfall. The Statesman mentions that founder Nek Chand, now in his 80s, has an office here and is always willing to speak with admirers. We seek out this office but learn that he is not in today.

Walking around in the morning has taken its toll on us jet-lagged travelers, so The Statesman suggests we relax for a bit in the Bougainvillea Garden in Sector 3. The flowers are pleasant, but we spend most of our time sitting by a new war memorial. The elegant structure has a pointed black monument positioned in the center of a spiraling black wall inscribed with the names of soldiers from Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, and Chandigarh killed in India’s wars. Some of the conflicts mentioned are the Jammu-Kashmir conflict of 1947-48; the 1962 Indo-China War, which has a great number of names associated with it; the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War; and the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War.

After our rest, we take a drive to see more architectural works. We take a quick spin through Punjab University in Sector 14. The most distinctive building is the Gandhi Bhavan, a three-winged structure designed by Pierre Jeanneret set in the middle of a pond.

We follow The Statesman’s suggestion for lunch, Sundaram’s South Indian Restaurant in Sector 26. The Statesman even knows the kind woman who runs the place. The décor strikes us as very modern and would not look out of place in a Manhattan restaurant. We are given complimentary rasam, a spicy soup, in glasses as an appetizer. I have a rava masala dosa (67 Rs), which has a very buttery texture and is one of the best dosas, a filled rice crepe, I have had. We also enjoy our first taste of South Indian filtered coffee (28 Rs), a strong, frothy beverage served in the metal tumbler it is brewed in. The Maharani decides to try one of the Chinese dishes that the restaurant also specializes in. As usual, we are presented with a bowl with anise and rock sugar to cleanse the palate after the meal.

Next week: The Road to Amritsar

Posted 21 January 2009


Caves and Citadels of India: Introduction

The Leopard hasn't managed any real travel in some time, but I’m happy to report I’ve just returned from a rather epic trip through much of North India. This time the Leopard journeyed with some hearty fellow travelers, who in these pages will be known as the Sparrow, the Maharani, the Statesman, Lefty, and the Duke of York. Our group came from a wide variety of backgrounds, some native Indians, some Indian ex-pats, and some foreigners visiting for the first time. Our ages ranged from late twenties to early seventies, yet somehow we formed a cohesive group that managed in some difficult circumstances and thrived in some glorious ones. Our course took us through a number of cities, including New Delhi, Chandigarh, Amritsar, Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur, Mount Abu, and Aurangabad, and across large expanses of northern India, all of which will be touched on in the weekly installments of this blog. Let the journey begin.

Lefty, the Duke of York, the Sparrow, and I arrive in New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport around 4:30 in the afternoon after a pleasant but tiring flight on Air India. We soon meet up with the Maharani, who has come down from Chandigarh in a hired car to pick us up and take us back with them. Naturally, the car comes with a driver, one Talojan Singh, a tall, wiry young man who will prove a skilled driver. The vehicle is a Toyota Innova, a common car in India useful for its ability to accommodate a flexible number of people. In our case, the seven of us barely fit with the luggage piled in the back.

Our overwhelming first impression of Delhi is of dust churned up by the assortment of vehicles on the streets and floating around people and buildings. Combined with the constant pollution, we see the cityscape of Delhi pass by behind a constant haze that deepens with the advent of dusk.

The notorious Delhi traffic eases once we get outside of the city. The road is lined with wedding palaces, gaudy complexes of tents, gardens, and ornamented columns designed as venues for weddings, which are quite popular this time of year. We also see the ubiquitous Tata brand trucks with “HORN PLEASE” or “AWAZ DO” (“make noise”) helpfully emblazoned across their rears, whereas their front grilles sport black sashes or hanging fabric tufts intended to ward off the evil eye. The trucks are frequently stopped at the roadside dhabas, where the occupants eat simple food on outdoor tables. We also notice more than a few “English Wine and Liquor” shops, a name which is somewhat of a misnomer as these places primarily deal in Indian-made alcohol, though in the “English” styles of scotch and lager beer.

Riding in a car in India takes some getting used to. Our enterprising driver weaves in and out of traffic with a total disregard for lanes, honking and flashing the high beams energetically at any car in the way. However, careful observation reveals a certain logic to the art of negotiating the Indian expressway. Drivers are actually quite accommodating, generally allowing others to cut in front of them. Staying between lanes appears to be a means of keeping one’s options open, as you never know which lane is optimum for passing. The horn, considered an obnoxious last resort on western roads, is in India an essential means of communicating your presence and direction of approach to other drivers.

For part of the trip we travel on the Grand Trunk Road, a major artery running from Bangladesh to Pakistan that has its origins in a route first established in the 16th century by the Afghan conqueror Sher Shah Suri and later expanded by the Mughals.

The Maharani has a good idea for a place to stop for dinner. The Haveli resort near the town of Karnal is part of a chain of rest stop restaurants specifically designed for tourists and middle-class Indians who wouldn’t be comfortable stopping at a genuine dhaba, though it still tries to maintain a connection to the simpler style of eatery with kitschy touches such as a full-scale mock-up of a truck and various rustic decorations. The two doormen wearing traditional Punjabi outfits and welcoming us with the standard Sikh greeting “sat siri akal” let us know that we are in for a typical Punjabi meal. The restaurant is vegetarian, though an adjoining, less-popular restaurant serves meat. We enjoy baingan bharta, shahi paneer, gobi bhujiya, and missi roti. The food is very tasty and costs only about 70-85 Rs per dish. The resort also serves as a good place to use very clean bathrooms, which of course is invaluable when on the road in India.

As we get close to our destination we find ourselves on a stretch of road that is startlingly modern, complete with streetlights, reflectors, and lanes so definitively marked that even Talojan Singh respects the lines. We soon see a sign proclaiming “Chandigarh – The City Beautiful” and find ourselves negotiating the traffic round-abouts that are fixed at each corner of the city’s sectors. We reach the Statesman’s house in Sector 20 around 11:30. We new arrivals quickly settle in and get into bed for some much-needed rest.

Next week: A peek around Chandigarh

Posted 14 January 2009


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Wrapping up a Fine Trip with Fado Music

Still caught up in Alfama, the DJ, J., and I stop to see the view at Largo das Portas do Sol. J. points out Cacilhas, the area on the south side of the river known as a working class neighborhood. We return to the Largo Chafariz de Dentro and decide to eat dinner. J. picks out a restaurant just off of the square called Maritima das Colunas. Though it seems like a bit of a tourist place, J. seems to be confident it will be good. I try the bife a portuguesa (8.00€), fried steak topped with a fried egg with fries on the side. The DJ has something similar except with bacon. He and I share a .375 liter carafe of the vinho da casa (2.75€). Nearby are a few fado places. The owner of the place proudly points to an ad in a tourist map indicating that his place has fado Wednesday to Sunday nights.

Afterwards, we acknowledge that J. may want to go home and call it a night as he has to work in the morning but that the DJ and I wish to stay out and enjoy some nightlife on our last night. But first J. takes us on a ride across the 25 de Abril bridge at night. Though it is hard to see much in the dark it is still nice to see the lights of Lisbon from across the river. Afterwards J. drops us off in the Bairro Alto.

The DJ and I decide we want to see a fado show. The word fado literally means “fate” but when applied to this form of traditional Portuguese music it has other associations as well, much as the name of the blues genre implies more than just a simple bad mood. The usual subjects are disappointment in love and saudade, an untranslatable word connoting a bitter-sweet nostalgic longing for an unreachable person or place. Like much traditional music, the origins of fado are uncertain. Some say fado might have been handed down by the Moors. Others that it has links to the medieval troubadour tradition. Still others have found influences of the music of Portuguese colonies. In the modern era fado became popular in the Mouraria neighborhood at a tavern where a prostitute known as A Severa sang. Fado’s biggest singer was Amália Rodrigues, an international superstar whose fame spread through recordings and film and who died in 1999. Because the Salazar regime heavily promoted fado (albeit in a sanitized version that cleansed the lyrics of references to violence and violent passions), it fell out of favor after the 1974 Revolution but has regained popularity in recent years. In a performance, a fadista (fado singer) is accompanied by a guitarra, a 12-string Portuguese guitar shaped like a mandolin, and a viola, an acoustic guitar.

We seek out the Tasca do Chico, the place that has fado on Monday nights at 10:00. We get there at perhaps 10:10 and find the place packed to the point that we can only look through the doorway. As a few people clear away we take spots standing at the open window. Male singers trade off singing lead, accompanied by a viola and guitarra. The songs are mournful, each one ending with a breathtaking vocal cadenza. The crowd seems to be made up of regulars, and they are very appreciative of the performances. During a break we manage to make our way to the bar and order imperials of Sagres. A female vocalist is singing by this point. The songs are stirringly lovely, and we are very pleased we have a chance to witness this scene on our last night. After we leave we go down Rua Diário Noticias and hear the crowd joining a singer for choruses of “Que Sera Sera” at the Adega do Ribatejo we had passed by three nights ago, a nice coda for our final night.

I hope you enjoyed following me and the DJ on our journey through Lisbon and environs. I’m a bit saddened now that I have ended these blog entries as it lends an air of finality to a fine trip. Naturally, I have other trips to foreign lands coming up, and I look forward to blogging them.

As they say in Lisbon, Até logo!

Posted 4 June 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: The Glorious Tangle of Alfama

To get to the train station where we are scheduled to meet J., the DJ and I need to walk through the Alfama district. We start at the Largo das Portas do Sol, which we had previously discovered after visiting the castle, and simply proceed down the steps, imagining that we will get there eventually. Some anti-tourist graffiti has been spray-painted on the wall by the steps. One reads “Tourists: Respect the Portuguese silence or go to Spain!”

Alfama turns out to be a revelation. Because it survived the earthquake fairly intact, Alfama has been essentially preserved in its historical state. Some of the foundations even date back to the Visigothic era. In Moorish times it was a major part of the city, even though much of it was outside the siege walls. The name may relate to the Arabic word al-hama, meaning springs or fountains. After the reconquest the nobility moved out and it became more of a fishing village within the city, remaining the most densely populated sector.

Wandering along a maze of tiny streets and staircases (streets that are called becos and travessas, both indicating “narrow street,” instead of ruas) we see that life continues here as it probably did a century ago. Children play and older people go for walks and lean out of their windows. Laundry hangs out of windows and on lines strung between buildings. The noise of traffic is absent as nothing larger than a motor scooter could fit in these alleys, and even a scooter could hardly go far without having to go up or down stairs. Instead, we hear radios and TVs playing and conversations spilling out of the windows of houses. We pass a small cobbler’s shop where an old man is at work. At one point I see the bohemians from the miradouro pass by before disappearing into a side street, a half-seen image that adds to the atmosphere of mystery. We pass by a remaining portion of the Cerca Moura (Moorish siege walls) at Largo de São Rafael by a lemon-tree garden. The little street nearby called Rua da Judiaria was home to the Jewish community in medieval times. We eventually make it down to the Santa Apolónia train station, which serves the north of Portugal as well as Madrid and France, and wait for J. to show up.

When he arrives, J. picks us up in his Mini Cooper and takes us back towards Alfama, parking close to the Casa do Fado e da Guitarra Portuguesa. It is a shame we were unable to see this museum dedicated to fado. J. takes us on a more focused tour of Alfama, beginning at the Largo Chafariz de Dentro. The fountain in this square has been in use since medieval times and is one among the many that account for the Arabic name of the place. We walk up a series of stairs as he tells us more about the neighborhood. We learn that every June there are festivals that cause the tiny squares to get packed with both locals and visitors. We go through the Largo de São Miguel, featuring a palm tree in the middle of the square. He points out odd mobile frames decorated with flowers that are used in a traditional dance.

Wandering through Alfama is a perfect way to close our afternoon, but we still have an evening to look forward to, and I will relate our encounter with Fado music next week.

Posted 21 May 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Up to the Heights of Graça

The restaurant the DJ and I are searching for, O Manel, is supposed to be in a side street near the Parque Mayer theatre, a 1920s complex set to be razed and redeveloped by Frank Gehry, but we are unable to find it. After giving up, we refer back to the guidebook and find another place in the Chiado area that serves traditional Alentejo food. To get there we take the Elevador da Glória once again and get a bus down Rua da Misericórdia. The bus stops right in front of the restaurant, Charcutaria (Rue do Alecrim 47A). I try one more form of cod, bacalhau com natas e coentros (“salt cod with cream and coriander,” 9.90€). The fish is baked with the other ingredients and is excellent. The DJ has polvo grelhado com batatas a murro (“octopus with jacket potatoes”). The restaurant is a bit too upscale for my taste (having nice tablecloths and well-dressed waiters), but at least the food is good and seems traditional. Some bread and appetizers had been placed on our table at the outset, and an empanada shows up on our bill despite the fact we didn’t touch it, but the waiter takes it off.

Our last day would be a lousy occasion to break our habit of having coffee after lunch, so we seek out a place nearby. The first two we go by, Café dos Teatros on Rua António Maria Cardoso and SV Café on Rua do Capelo, are closed as it is Monday, but we soon find a recommended place that is open. On the way we need to pass through Rua do Capelo and are stopped by a crew in the midst of filming in front of a hotel. A number of people try to pass but are stopped by a very attentive guard. When the filming occurs we can’t quite tell exactly what the action is supposed to be. The café called Black Coffee on Rua Ivens 45 has a nice, modern, wood-furnished interior and proves to be a pleasant place to stop. The bica (.75€) is bitter, dark, and fresh.

I have an ambition to go into the neighborhood of Graça, which we haven’t quite gotten to yet. We go to wait at the stop for our favorite tram, no. 28. A truck is unloading a pallet for a nearby beauty store, holding up a line of traffic. After the pallet is dropped off the truck drives away, only to return after the line of traffic has moved on to unload another pallet. After we get on the no. 28 it is delayed again for an ambulance picking up a patient.

According to the guidebook the tram line terminates in Graça, but it seems to go farther and we have to get off and double back from Rua Angelina Vidal. Located north of the castle, the Graça district was developed with homes for workers around the turn of the last century, and their transport was probably facilitated by the tram line. Today it still feels very local. We walk up Rua Senhora do Monte to the Miradouro da Senhora do Monte. The Senhora in question is an image of the Virgin encased in glass. The spot is popular with lovers at sunset, and it is easy to see why as the view is sublime from what is the highest point in Lisbon. Even the castle looks vulnerable sitting below us on a neighboring hill. We sit for a bit near a group of young bohemians on a bench who sing and play an accordion.

While sitting in the little park a quotation from Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet comes to mind:
“Nothing nature or the country can give me compares with the jagged majesty of the tranquil, moonlit city as seen from Graça or São Pedro de Alcântara. There are no flowers for me like the variegated colouring of Lisbon on a sunny day.”

We walk down to the Igreja da Graça church but find it closed. The church dates to an original monastery built in 1271 and was renovated after the earthquake. A miradouro at the outer edge has an outdoor café. We sit down on a bench in a little park in front of the church and call our friendly local J., who will be meeting us this evening. He instructs us to meet him at the Apolónia train station. We have some time so we remain seated for a while, enjoying the scenery and the antics of dogs being taken on afternoon walks.

Next week we visit another new neighborhood, one that reaches back into another era.

Posted 15 May 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Mouraria and Martim Moniz

After our excursion to the Park of Nations, the DJ and I transfer to the green line and head south to the Martim Moniz station. Befitting its name, tile tapestries on the platform depict knight and monk figures that evoke the era of the legendary knight, one of the key figures in the siege of Lisbon by Afonso Henriques. As we ascend we see tiles with Arabic lettering, creating an interesting contrast to the Christian figures below. Coming out we find lots of South Asians in the Praça do Martim Moniz square, a rather ugly plaza with surrounding buildings that seem perpetually under construction. The eastern immigration to the area is appropriate as we are in the lower part of Mouraria, a section of Lisbon where the Moors were allowed to settle after the city was conquered. By 1500 or so they had all been expelled or converted.

As most of the museums and major sights are closed on Mondays we have to make a tour out of seeing minor sights and exploring neighborhoods, and my guidebook comes in handy for this purpose. On Rua da Mouraria we go into the Socorro church, a small building with some fine tile panels from the 18th century. The guidebook also recommends that we go into the entrance to the former Colégio dos Meninos Orfãos at no. 68 on this street, founded as an orphan hostel in the 13th century. We find several lovely tile panels depicting Biblical scenes with figures such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are a rare find that we would have never known about if it hadn’t been for the guidebook. At the corner of Rua Mouraria and Rua do Capelão a sculpture in stone of a fado guitarra reads “Mouraria - Berço do Fado” (“Mouraria, cradle of the fado”) and marks the nearby house where the legendary fadista A Severa lived.

We walk down Rua da Palma past an Indian grocery store towards Rossio. Here I notice A Ginjinha on Largo de São Domingos. The place is known for ginjinha, a sweet cherry liqueur popular among immigrants and older Portuguese people, as well as among tourists like us who read about it in guidebooks and develop unhealthy curiosities. The place fits the most reductive definition of a “bar,” having space for little more than a man behind a counter. We order two small glasses of Ginja Espinheira for .80€ each and drink them standing outside among others. We find the color, taste, and consistency utterly appalling, but we would have been disappointed had it been at all palatable. I imagine the price accounts for its popularity among those who have little to do during their days but drink and have little money to do it.

Up at Rua das Portas de Santo Antão 58 we find the Casa do Alentejo, a cultural center representing the region of Alentejo. Inside is a courtyard designed in 1918 in a fantastic Moorish style with tiles, columns, and a fountain. The décor is supposed to represent the Moorish character of Alentejo. Lunch time is upon us so we check the guidebook for nearby recommendations and find a promising possibility. We take a bus up the Avenue da Liberdade, an avenue completed in 1886 to serve as a local equivalent of the Champs Élysées that allowed the city to expand towards the north instead of just along the river. The pavement has calçada à portuguesa in interesting swirling patterns. Every year on April 25, a carnation-festooned procession goes down this street to commemorate the Revolution.

Next week we head up to Lisbon’s highest point.

Posted 7 May 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Modernism at the Park of Nations

Our final day dawns in a quiet corner of Lisbon. Though tired from difficulties sleeping the DJ and I are dedicated to making a full day of it. On the way to the Telheiras Metro station we stop at a pastelaria so I can get café com leite and a spiral danish pastry. As we have used up our five-day Sete Colinas cards we need to add an additional day, which requires inserting the card into the automatic dispenser before purchasing a one-day pass. The DJ’s card isn’t accepted by the machine, and the man in the information booth informs us it has been damaged. Though it has only endured wear-and-tear from coming in and out of the DJ’s pocket the card is fairly flimsy, so he needs to pay an additional .50€ to get a one-day card.

We take the green line to the Alameda station and transfer to the red line, which was specifically constructed to shuttle people to the Expo 98 at the end of the line. There, at the Oriente Metro station, we emerge into the extraordinary Estação do Oriente, a glass-and-concrete terminal designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Calatrava’s distinctive use of natural light and organic forms is evident in a roof that resembles the delicate canopy of a forest with metal tree columns and a network of thin, intertwining branches. From there we head across the street into the Vasco da Gama shopping center and out the other side towards the river, which on this eastern edge of Lisbon opens up into a huge bay before constricting to flow west into the ocean. We walk past the large beetle shape of the Pavilhão Atlântico stadium. At this point we are in the main section of the Parque das Nações (“Park of Nations”), a commercial and cultural center adapted from the former structures of the world expo. At that time the area was a derelict stretch of warehouses, oil tanks, and a munitions factory that all had to be leveled. The expo coincided with the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the sea route to India and appropriated the ocean as its theme, which explains the look of much of the park.

Behind us are two hotels designed like ship prows thrusting forcefully towards the water. Nearby is the entrance to the Oceanário, one of the world’s largest aquariums. Little cable cars hang on a line over the water promenade. To the left is the Torre Vasco da Gama, the tallest construction in Lisbon, a tower coupled with a curved metal pylon that makes it look like a rigged mast. Just to the north is the Vasco da Gama bridge, one of the longest bridges in Europe. The section closest to Lisbon is a true suspension bridge, but it possesses a simpler viaduct design for most of its length. The bridge was designed to reduce congestion on the Ponte do 25 de Abril and open up access to inland Portugal and Spain.

Though packed with interesting modern architecture, I am more inclined to spend the bulk of our final day soaking up the atmosphere in central Lisbon. On our way back to the station we see one of many “volcano fountains” that periodically shoot up plumes of water in the park. As we descend into the Metro station we see some modern tile-work with comic-book-like figures that resemble the work of Roy Lichtenstein, just more evidence that in Lisbon the subway serves as a contemporary art gallery.

Next week we head back into the center of things.

Posted 30 April 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Everybody Shout “Sporting”!

At this point the DJ and I basically have to leave Sintra to give us enough time to meet up with J., though we would definitely enjoy spending more time here. To get to the train station, we walk through the Parque da Liberdade, a pleasant park that includes an Asian-style garden.

We make it back to Lisbon just in time for the appointed meeting with J. in the park outside of the Telheiras Metro station. J. has come in his new Mini Cooper and drives us back to his apartment in what appears to be a fairly well-off area. J. has only just returned to Lisbon himself from a week in the country, but he makes us feel comfortable and shows us to a spare room that we have to ourselves. He also gives us a spare key so we can come and go as we please. The generosity and trust of our contacts continue to surprise me and gives me encouragement as to the worth of the project. At this point we have little time to stay and relax as we need to get some dinner before the soccer game. Luckily, the stadium is only one Metro stop away from Telheiras station. We can even see the stadium from the road as we walk.

We are not able to get a real dinner and have to settle for fast-food at the Estádio José Alvalade. It turns out we have decent seats in the lateral portion of the stadium near one of the goals. Before the game commences a troop of very young-looking cheerleaders performs a routine. They make up with spirit what they lack in technique and choreography.

The stadium is nearly full and the crowd very enthusiastic. Next to the DJ an older man wearing Sporting regalia spends much of the game shaking his head in grim disapproval. Next to me a group of teenagers are more animated, jumping out of their seats, waving their arms, and shouting “filho da puta!” (“son of a bitch!”) and other colorful phrases I don’t recognize but which I imagine they didn’t learn from their mothers.

Sporting is undoubtedly the superior team as evinced by their control of the ball and a succession of well-planned attacks on goal. However, the Setúbal defense is strong. Unfortunately, Sporting’s defense is not as organized as its attack, and Setúbal scores two goals despite having attacking players who don’t possess the skill of Sporting’s. Setúbal makes one goal just before half-time, which is equaled by Sporting’s captain João Moutinho but only by a successful penalty kick. Setúbal quickly rallies to make another goal. Sporting pulls it together enough to tie the game with five minutes to spare.

Close to us is a contingent of vocal Setúbal supporters, which makes sense as the municipality of Setúbal is fairly close to the south. After one of the Setúbal goals things seem to get a little ugly and guards arrive to separate the fans from some agitated Sporting fans, eventually forming a permanent cordon around the group. At the end of the game the Setúbal fans continue their chanting and wait to be escorted out of the stadium under the protection of the guards.

The day has been an especially active and tiring one, and we are glad to make the walk back to J.’s apartment. Though the schedule was grueling, the trip to Sintra was very much worth it. As J. is sleeping by now, we let ourselves into his apartment and get to bed.

Next week, our final day in Lisbon commences.

Posted 24 April 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Scaling the Heights in Sintra

As the DJ and I barely had time for breakfast we are quite hungry for lunch. Naturally, we want to steer away from the heavily touristed restaurants in the center of town near the palace and try to find something a little farther out. As we walk we come across a hotel called Lawrence’s on Rua Consigliéri Pedroso that has the distinction of possibly being the oldest extant hotel on the peninsula, having first been mentioned in a 1764 postcard. It is also where Lord Byron stayed when he began writing “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.”

Some random walking brings us to a café called Ementa Piriquita Dois at Rua das Padarias 18 that has a menu in Portuguese only. We notice that the menu has two prices for each offering, one for the mesa (“table”) section and one for the esplanade (outdoor) section. We eat indoors. I have a sandes fiambre (“ham sandwich”) for 1.50€. We share a 1.5 liter bottle of water (1.40€) and a salada tomate (essentially tomato slices in oil, 4.20€) that is actually the best part of the meal as the tomatoes are fresh and tasty. I realize that this café is a cousin to the famous Piriquita café elsewhere in the town that is mentioned in the guidebook. S. has told us that we can’t pass up the famous queijada cakes they make here, so we order one (.75€) and have it with a garoto (.60€). The cake is a nice little cheesecake. The food isn’t that special, but it is reasonably priced.

After lunch we reason that we really only have time to see one more major sight, and we choose the Moorish castle over the famed Palácio da Pena on the rationale that we’ve already seen a royal palace today. Besides, the Pena only dates from the 19th century and we history-starved Americans can’t help but be drawn to the oldest possible sites. Although the guidebook mentions a stone staircase that leads up to the castle, the route we find first takes us up by a winding road. A hop-on bus service goes up as well, but we are determined to hike. Many other young travelers are also taking the walking route. The hike is not unpleasant as the road is quite shaded by trees. I have been pleased at the leafy green landscape that surrounds Lisbon, a contrast with the aridity of Spain. A sort of camaraderie bonds everyone marching up, a mutual recognition that few are bold, vigorous, or self-flagellating enough to undergo this trip on foot. After a hike of at least a half hour we come to the castle. The Palácio da Pena appears to be farther along on the same road.

After purchasing tickets (4.50€), we follow a path that leads off of the road to the Castelo dos Mouros. Though much renovated in the 19th century, the original castle dates from the 9th and 10th centuries. We first come to the ruins of a Romanesque church, called the Igreja de São Pedro, from the time of Afonso Henriques. The garrison at the castle apparently surrendered to Afonso without a fight after he had successfully taken Lisbon. The castle itself is placed on two pinnacles of rock connected by ramparts. Between them are the ruins of a mosque, a cistern for holding water, and a “traitor’s door,” an escape route named thus because the treasonous could reveal it as an entrance to the castle. We enthusiastically climb up to the Royal Tower, the highest point, and enjoy a spectacular view of the lands below, including Sintra, the Palácio Nacional, and the ocean in the distant mists. The Royal Tower once had an annual fire lit to let the people in Cascais know that the castle was manned and vigilant. On another hill the Palácio da Pena is visible. While we are at the highest point we receive a call from J., our contact, who confirms the time and location for our meeting later in the evening. We explore both pinnacles of the castle and then descend the mountain via the stone path, which terminates at the church of Santa Maria. We pass by a small house with a plaque stating that Hans Christian Andersen lived there during a visit in 1866.

Next week we get back to Lisbon in time to see a soccer game.

Posted 16 April 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: The National Palace of Sintra

As the DJ and I have gotten into Sintra a bit late we want to immediately plunge into some sight-seeing. One of the two primary palaces of Sintra is the Palácio Nacional, and as it is the first one we come to we decide to go in. Entry is free on Sundays until 2:00. It is thought that there was a Moorish palace on this site that was occupied by the Christian conquerors, but most of the present building dates from the time of Dom João I (1385–1433) and Dom Manuel I, who invested the wealth of da Gama’s voyages into the construction. The last royal in residence was Martia Pia in the 1880s, the grandmother of the final king of Portugal Dom Manuel II (1908-10).

The palace’s architecture blends Gothic and Manueline elements with a few Moorish touches, all combining in fascinating and startling ways. Signs point the way for a self-guided tour of the place, and each room has signs in Portuguese and English. The first room of interest is the Manueline Hall, which has distinctive arches over the windows and is part of a wing added by Manuel I. The next room is the Manueline style Sala dos Cisnes (“Room of Swans”), so named for the swans painted on the ceiling. Outside is a courtyard with a Moorish-style water grotto lined with lovely blue tile tapestries depicting courtly scenes. The Sala das Pegas (“Room of Magpies”) has a host of magpies carrying banners marked por bem (“in honor”), the motto of Dom João I, who allegedly had this room painted to satirize the gossiping ways of the court ladies. Another story has it that the king gave a rose to a lady-in-waiting but a magpie snatched it. The king’s excuse was por bem (“all to the good”).

Next, the bedchamber of the imprudent Dom Sebastião I (1557-78) has nice tiles. But what really impresses us is the magnificent Sala dos Brasões (“Blazons Room”), also built by Manuel I, which has a domed and coffered gilded ceiling decorated with stags and the coats of arms of 72 families. Blue tile along the walls depicts royal scenes. We find one small room with a magnificent view where the deranged Dom Afonso VI (1656-83) was imprisoned for nine years by his brother Dom Pedro II (1683-1706) until his death. A nearby room features a miniature ivory Chinese pagoda. Another highlight is the Capela Palatina (“Palatine Chapel”), possibly built during the reign of Dom Dinis I (1279-1325) in the 14th century, which would make it one of the oldest surviving portions of the palace. The chapel is stunning and evinces a Moorish influence in the ceiling (which reminds me of some of the patterned wood I saw in mudéjar artifacts in Madrid) and the ceramic tile floor. What is known as the Sala Moura or Sala dos Árabes (“Moorish Room” or “Arab Room”) was the bedchamber of Dom João I and has a Moorish fountain in the center. The tour ends with the Cozinha (“kitchen”). The kitchen chimneys turn out to be the large conical structures that are the most recognizable feature of the palace’s exterior.

Remember that Moorish castle on the hill that I keep referencing? Next week the journey turns into an ascent.

Posted 9 April 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Sintra’s Glorious Eden

Though today was slated for a trip to Sintra, S. wakes up even sicker than before and is in no shape for travelling. The DJ and I are still determined and decide to make the trip on our own by train, even though the plan requires us to do quite a bit in a short period of time. Because we will not be returning to the suburb of Carnaxide we need to take our luggage with us and leave it someplace in Lisbon. I have read that the major train stations have luggage lockers, so we decide to try our luck with one of those. First, N. drives us south to Algés on the coast, from where we catch a train to Cais do Sodré. The ticket costs 1.10€ and the journey only takes ten minutes. We have to ask where the luggage lockers are as it is not immediately apparent, but we soon locate them by the station’s cafeteria. Only one open locker appears to be left and some German tourists are standing around eyeing it. They seem to decide they cannot fit all of their belongings in it and soon leave. We manage to cram both the DJ’s case and my bag into the one locker. We have to deposit 1.50€ for the first hour of use and in return the machine prints out a slip that will allow us to retrieve the baggage later.

Normally, trains to Sintra depart from the Rossio station, but as the station is closed we need to catch it elsewhere. We take the Metro to the Areeiro station and soon find the train station nearby. We get two ida e volta (round-trip) tickets for a very reasonable 3.30€ each. The ida price is 1.65€, so there is no price saving for a round-trip ticket. The disproportionate prices for transportation are quite odd, as a one-way trip to an outside town like Sintra costs just .35€ more than a one-way bus ride in the city. Nobody checks our tickets on the trip out or on the return. I notice that the train stops in Queluz where the palace that we glimpsed yesterday is located. After about 45 minutes we reach Sintra and are frankly amazed that we were able to figure everything out quickly enough to get us here fairly early in the afternoon.

Sintra was once the summer residence of Portuguese royalty, and some of the finest sights are the former royal palaces. Before that the town was occupied by the Moors until Afonso Henriques and his Crusaders conquered it in 1147 after they had already taken Lisbon. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries British travelers were particularly drawn to the town. Lord Byron stayed here in 1809, beginning his epic poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” while in residence and including some stanzas about Sintra, opening with:
Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes
In variegated maze of mount and glen.
Ah me! What hand can pencil guide, or pen,
To follow half on which the eye dilates
Through views more dazzling unto mortal ken
Than those whereof such things the bard relates,
Who to the awe-struck world unlocked Elysium’s gates?

We soon find out why he was so enthralled and why it is well worth it for us to make the trek out here for a day. Sintra is divided into three main areas: Estefânia around the train station, the main town of Sintra-Vila, and the village of São Pedro de Sintra. To get to Sintra-Vila from the train station we consult a map posted nearby. We determine that the correct way is to take Volta do Duche. The delights of the town are quickly apparent as we walk along a leafy road that loops around a valley towards the town center. On the way we pass the Fonte Mourisca (“Moorish fountain”), constructed in 1922 by José da Fonseca. Though clearly a romantic-revivalist novelty, the fountain’s enclosure in a niche set apart by three intricate arches within a larger bulging ogival arch is quite charming. As a counterpoint, the Moorish castle is visible on the heights above us.

Next week we explore the exotic rooms of Sintra's National Palace.

Posted 2 April 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Cascais and Points North

The next town our merry quartet reaches is Cascais, which seems more authentic than Estoril as it is less exclusive and still a functioning fishing port. The water along the coast is too cold to actually go in, as evidenced by the number of sunbathers but the slim minority of swimmers. We park and walk through the small town center looking at the little shops. We find a gallery filled with the works of a Brazilian artist, and I enjoy peeking into a place that sells old military antiques. The tiles on the main strip Rua Frederico Arouca are in the calçada à portuguesa style that we saw in Rossio. Out on the wharf an arts fair is nearly commencing.

For lunch, S. suggests we get grilled sardines at one of a row of restaurants. These places seem primarily geared to cater to British tourists, who are here in abundance. Normally I would try to avoid such establishments, but if S. and N. think they’re okay I am willing to risk it. We go to one called Chequers, where a few British tourists are sitting at the outside tables. S. says the waiter seems disappointed when he finds out she is Portuguese as it is more difficult for him to gull us. We all order a portion of sardinhas assadas (“grilled sardines,” 5.50€). They take a while as it is after the normal lunch hour and the coals need to be reheated, but we spend the time watching England beat Samoa in the Rugby World Cup on TV. A few Portuguese at a nearby table cheer for Samoa. The fish come whole on the plate and tastes fresh and good. Afterwards, S. and N. take us to a famous old Italian gelato place called Gelados Santini. I try a small cup (2.00€) of the chocolate, which is very rich and tasty.

We next stop at the Boca do Inferno (“mouth of hell”), just west of Cascais. After parking we walk down to a viewing platform on a bluff and can see waves spectacularly crashing against cliffs and surging into an inlet. A plaque mentions the involvement of Aleister Crowley and Fernando Pessoa with the place. The notorious British occultist came to Lisbon to visit Pessoa after the two had struck up a correspondence. Pessoa then, in 1930, aided Crowley in faking his own suicide at this inlet. S. picks up a bag of traditional Sintra pastries shaped like horseshoes that we try.

We next make our way past the beach of Guincho to Cabo da Roca, which is famous as the farthest western point of continental Europe. A monument establishes this fact with a quote from Camões: “Aqui onde a terra se acaba e o mar começa” (“here where the earth ends and the sea begins”). We find it windy and cold on the heights by the monument, so we do not stay long. Though our plan had been to go to Sintra, the day has dragged on a bit too much to really make much of a visit there, which is unfortunate as a view of the Moorish castle on the mountain is tantalizing. Instead, S. suggests we go there tomorrow. As we drive through the woods, S. and N. talk about legends of supernatural occurrences associated with this area.

On the way home we stop in Queluz at the Palácio de Queluz just to catch a brief glimpse of the Rococo edifice from the outside. Known as the Versailles of Portugal, it was once a summer home for Lisbon’s royalty. Dom Pedro began construction in 1747 while still infant (prince). His wife, Dona Maria I, went mad after the death of her son in 1788 and wandered the corridors tearing her hair and shrieking. One would hope that it is now considered haunted. The palace’s furnishings were taken with the royal family when they fled the French invasion in 1807.

Next week, the long-awaited trip to the magical town of Sintra finally happens.

Posted 26 March 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: A Saturday Excursion along the Portuguese Coast

Generally I end up getting around with public transit when I travel to a foreign country, so I’m always grateful for those rare opportunities when I am able to ride around in a car with a local. And although there is a train that goes along the coast from Lisbon, a car is really the ideal way to experience the little towns and beaches along the way. So the DJ and I are delighted that today both S. and N. have the day off and want to take us on a drive outside of Lisbon, this despite the fact that S. is feeling a bit under the weather. The plans encompass visiting the beaches, Sintra, and perhaps Mafra if we have time. The intentions already seem a little ambitious and will quickly prove to be so.

The trip takes us west along the coast of Portugal, making several stops along the way. The first stop is at the Jamor sports complex and the Estádio Nacional, where Portugal’s national football (soccer) team plays. It seems that The Police will be playing here in three days, so we are unable to look around much. And yet again, Sting has foiled my intentions. The stadium has been around since 1944, as is apparent from the classical style of the turnstiles.

We next stop at Paço de Arcos on the coast. From here we can see both Cova do Vapor, the farthest point of the southern bank of the Tejo river, and another point of land jutting into the ocean farther to the south. Once we make it to the beaches at Carcavelos we have made it past the mouth of the Tejo and are moving along the ocean. Our trip takes us by many old fortresses, all of which were constructed to guard the coast. Lighthouses are also common.

At Carcavelos we stop at a place called Bar Moinho for coffee. The outside tables and deck chairs look out on the beach, but we prefer the comfortable indoor couches to stay in the shade. The beach is apparently frequented by celebrities. Nearby is an old fortress that is now a NATO military base.

The next major beach town is Estoril. Luxury apartments and hotels face the water. Out of all of these resort towns Estoril in particular seems the most like a European Riviera destination. During World War II exiled royals like Umberto of Italy and Juan Carlos of Spain hid out here, protected by Portugal’s neutrality. At the other end of the social spectrum, refugees used Lisbon as a transit point to escape the war, as famously referenced in the film Casablanca.

We stop at the pleasant Parque do Estoril for a bit. At the opposite end of the park from the beach is the huge Casino Estoril. My interest in the casino is due to its association with a certain fictional character known by the code number 007. During the war Lisbon was a popular locale for the activities of spies of both sides due to its neutrality. Ian Fleming came to Estoril while employed by British naval intelligence and was apparently taken at the card tables by a German agent. He based his novel Casino Royale on the experience. However, a colleague who accompanied him insisted that Fleming only played Portuguese businessmen and fantasized about their being enemy agents. I find the story both pathetic in a Walter Mitty-ish way and somewhat charming, and I like the image of Fleming squinting fixedly across a chemin de fer table at some lumpy, sweating Portuguese middle manager who only a lavish imagination could transform into the cruel and calculating Le Chiffre, the adversary of the first Bond novel.

But enough intrigue, we have more beach towns to see. Next week: Cascais and beyond.

Posted 19 March 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: The Streets are Alive on a Friday Night in Lisbon

The DJ and I haven't been very successful finding a happening place to relax in, and also we don’t necessarily want to become too settled in a bar as we expect S. to call us soon to meet up, so we hang out on the streets for a bit instead of going into a bar. Occasionally, we see an actual resident of the area open a window or leave from one of the doorways, but otherwise most of the people seem to be from outside of the neighborhood. We pass a casa de fado called Adega do Ribatejo (Rua do Diário de Notícias 23). We don’t want to go in as there is a minimum charge, but we can clearly hear a woman singer from outside, so we sit down on a nearby doorstep and listen. We get into a conversation about things that are fundamental to the lives of men our age. The mournful fado music serves as a perfect soundtrack.

We contact S. but find that they won’t be in the city until a bit later. We step into some random bar and have a sangria (1.00€) that doesn’t taste great but that provides a kick. I take the last bit of my sangria out on the street with me just because I can. By now things are starting to pick up in the area as the bars are beginning to get active. Walking down the streets I am offered drugs for sale at least three times that I notice. We next go to a bar and club recommended in the guidebook called A Bicaense (Rua da Bica de Duarte Belo 38–42) on the same street as the Elevador da Bica and have a Super Bock (2.00€ for 20 cl). The place includes DJ music and a small dance floor in a separate room that is still empty. By this point the huge lunch has finally worn off, and we look around for some place with snack food. We find Sudoeste on Rua Barroca and Traversa da Queirada. A sandes de chouriço (“chorizo sandwich”) costs 2.00€ and is reasonably tasty.

We finally hear from S., who tells us to meet them at a bar on Rua da Atalaia. By now the streets are packed with people, mostly rather young people, drinking, smoking, and enjoying themselves. Indeed, many of the bars are scarcely as crowded as the streets outside and seem content to make a brisk business selling beer in plastic cups for outdoor consumption. The primary streets are Rua do Norte, Rua Diário de Notícias, Rua da Atalaia, and Rua da Rosa. For us, seeing drinking on public streets is unusual, but it is perfectly legal and normal here. After meeting up with S., N., and a friend of theirs we go to a bar called Agito at Rua da Rosa 261, a street where the crowd is thin enough that we can walk without too much difficulty. The music is vintage ‘80s and the place is very crowded. We manage to get beer from the bar but have little room to stand. I ask their friend, who lives in the area, how he manages to sleep on a weekend with such noise in the streets. The answer is obvious: he doesn’t. Strangely and gradually the bar starts to become quieter. We are able to find stools to sit on. Then suddenly it is totally quiet. We notice that it is 2:00 am and the place has closed. We decide to call it a night at this point. Many of the streets have emptied out, though some core areas are still very busy. We learn that around this time people go to the discos on Avenida 24 de Julho along the water to continue the party.

For us, the party is over. After bidding their friend goodbye we go to the Praça Luís de Camões and retrieve the car from a very clean underground lot. The ride home takes us along the river where N. points out some of the discos whose parking lots are now packed with cars. We go through Belém. Along with the sights we saw yesterday we also see the inverted V-shape of the Colonial Wars Memorial, commemorating those whose lives were lost (wasted, in S.’s opinion and undoubtedly many others) in Portugal’s African colonial wars. We don’t get home until around 3:00 am and are pleased to get to sleep.

We’ve been much enjoying our time hanging out in Lisbon, but we also definitely want to take a look at the surrounding area. Luckily, the weekend is coming up and S. and N. will have time to take us on a drive out of the city. I will begin the account of the journey next week.

Posted 12 March 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Lost Fado in Bairro Alto

Our general pattern for this trip has been to stay out during the day and meet up with our local host S., who drives us back to Carnaxide where we are staying with her and her boyfriend N. However, the plans for tonight are a little different as we intend to experience a bit of Lisbon’s night life. S. has gone home from work early as she doesn’t feel well, but she and N. plan to come into Lisbon later in the evening, at which point they will be able to meet us. We just need to occupy ourselves until then, a mission for which the Port Wine Institute seems ideally suited.

Back at our favorite table near the corner at the Solar do Vinho do Porto we first try the Infantado Ruby (1.40€), rather sweet and thin as can be expected from a Ruby port. We next decide to try the Ramos Pinto Vintage 2003. At 7.50€ for a glass it is the cheapest of the Vintage ports and shows its worth with its complexity. However, for the price we feel that the Ramos Pinto LBV 2001 we tried the other day is comparable, probably because the 2003 hasn’t yet matured enough in the bottle. The experience is instructive in demonstrating how bottle-aged Vintage ports compare to wood-aged LBVs, and overall the tastings are invaluable for helping us sort out the differences between different styles of port. While enjoying the ports and trying to ignore the insipid comments from a group of American tourists at the table next to us (“this tastes like what we call cough syrup,” she tells a very patient waiter) we discuss what to do with our evening before meeting up with S. and N. One of our top priorities is catching a fado show, and my guidebook mentions a nearby place with fado from 8:00 on Friday nights.

I will get into a better description of fado, a traditional form of Portuguese folk music, later, but for now I will just mention that fado can generally be heard at two types of venues. A casa de fado has more professional singers but has a minimum dinner charge for food that may not be very good. A fado vadio (“vagabond fado”) is more laid-back and has no cover charge. However, the quality of the music may not be as high.

We walk into the Bairro Alto and find the fado place, Tasca do Chico, a fado vadio on Rua Diário de Notícias 39. However, a sign outside states that fado is on at 10:00 on Monday and Wednesday nights. Though thwarted, we go into the pleasant bar for beer. Uma imperial (20 cl of draught beer) of Sagres costs 1.50€. The bar has a nice space with many pictures and posters of fado stars. We still have some time before S. and N. are expected so we look for some of the places mentioned in our guidebook on Rua Diário de Notícias and Rua Atalaia, two streets that seem to be the focus of the Bairro Alto scene. All of them appear to be closed. We had expected that, as in New York and San Francisco, people would start drinking after work on a Friday and the bars would be open and busy by this time, but it instead seems that they don’t get going until later and at this time people are only just starting to eat dinner. Indeed, when we see signs for happy hours they generally run until 11:00 or so.

Will our attempts at finding a thriving nightlife scene fail? Of course not, and the story continues next week.

Posted 5 March 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Coffee and a Monster from a Legendary Epic

Today is hardly the day to break the routine the DJ and I have established of having coffee after lunch, especially as the guidebook has a good suggestion in the area. We end up in the area called Bica, built after an earlier neighborhood had been destroyed in 1598 by a landslide resulting from an earthquake. After a bit of navigation through a tangle of streets we are able to find the Esplanada do Adamastor, also called the Santa Catarina Miradouro.

The plaza is named for a statue of Adamastor, a monster that figures prominently in the epic poem The Lusiads. The author Luís Vaz Camões writes of the dread creature threatening Vasco da Gama’s fleet as it rounds the Cape of Good Hope. Adamastor is a staple of Portuguese myth, representing the storms and other unknown elemental forces that opposed the nation’s maritime ambitions. The graffiti-covered statue depicts a man with a stormy beard seeming to emerge from rock, evoking the passage from Camões’s poem:

Even as I spoke, an immense shape
Materialized in the night air,
Grotesque and of enormous stature,
With heavy jowls, and an unkempt beard,
Scowling from shrunken, hollow eyes,
Its complexion earthy and pale,
Its hair grizzled and matted with clay,
Its mouth coal black, teeth yellow with decay.

Some unsavory types sitting around in the square clue us that the area may be a bit dodgy, but we feel safe going down the steps to the café hidden at the south-west corner of the square. The café, Noobai, has a magnificent view from its outdoor terrace. We find a seat with a good vantage point and order a garoto (1.00€) each, though we find they are not as good as the pingados we had at the Pois, Café two days ago. Still, the views of the river and the bridge are worth it. Afterwards, we make a plan to go to the fado museum. To get there we first need to get down the hill, which involves walking along the rails of the Elevador da Bica. At the bottom of the hill we find that the funicular originates in a pleasant little garage in a building with azulejo tiles. We catch a bus that takes us to Praça do Comércio, search among a confusion of bus stops, and catch another bus that we think will take us in the right direction, but it instead takes us north and doesn’t stop until Praça Figueiroa. At this point we reason we won’t make it to the museum before it closes and decide to make alternate plans.

The DJ wants to do some shopping for his girlfriend, so we look around at some of the stores in the Baixa area. One is an H&M store that has a glass floor on the ground level that seems to reveal some old ruins. We also step into a wine store that specializes in port. One rack contains vintage bottles of port from as early as the 1930s. These are coated with dust, and the rack carries a sign that reads “do not clean” as if to ensure that the dust guarantees authenticity. I think I would happy to take my port without the dust, thank you very much.

In case any of you readers have lost track, we are now on Friday, which means it’s time to go out and get a taste of Lisbon’s nightlife. The account of this adventure will begin next week.

Posted 27 February 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Cuisine from the Former Portuguese Colonies

After enjoying some high-brow culture, the DJ and I want to indulge our taste for the more physical variety, so our next objective of the day is getting tickets to see local football (soccer) club Sporting play on Sunday evening. Our friendly local S. kindly printed out a seating chart and list of prices for us, pointing out that tickets are 5.00€ higher on the day of the game, so it makes sense to buy in advance. The Estádio José Alvalade, where Sporting Club de Portugal plays, is nearby at the Campo Grande Metro stop. The stadium was built for the UEFA European championship of 2004 and is characterized by green tile, leading fans of the rival club Benfica to refer to it as the green toilet, a phrase we repeatedly hear from our local contacts, who are all Benfica supporters. The cheapest seats are 15.00€, but we decide to go for the 20.00€ tickets to get better seats.

Somehow, the day has managed to slip into the afternoon without our noticing and it is time for lunch. The DJ and I have had several goals in terms of food for this trip, two of which have been accomplished by eating Goan food and bacalhau. We also want to sample some food from Portugal’s former African colonies. The guidebook recommends a place that sounds good and we decide to try for it even though it seems like it will take some time to get there. The trip involves going back to the Baixa Metro station and catching our favorite tram no. 28 west past the Bairro Alto to the São Bento region. The area’s history is a bit infamous as during the 16th century the Rua do Poço dos Negros (“street of the well of negroes”) and the Avenida Dom Carlos I both reeked foully from the stench of the bodies of African slaves dumped at the bottom of the hill after they had died from living in undoubtedly inhuman conditions. Today there seems to be a large African immigrant population in the sleepy residential district.

The trip turns out to be entirely worth it. We immediately feel welcome at the Pastelaria Nascer do Sol (Rua do Poço dos Negros 94) as the friendly owner greets us with handshakes. I introduce us and tell him where we’re from. Despite the title, the place is more of a tasca than a bakery. The menu is short and handwritten, both of which I consider good signs. We order the two African specialties, cachupa (6.00€), a Cape Verdean dish, and moamba, an Angolan specialty. Unfortunately he is out of moamba, but he recommends the arroz polvo (octopus with rice) instead, so we order that. The cachupa is a filling stew of pork, chicken, garbanzo beans, potatoes, and vegetables. The arroz polvo is very good, the octopus having been prepared so it is not too chewy. Each dish could easily feed two people, except when the two people are two full-grown hungry males like us. The owner is very attentive and spends much of his time at a table with people who appear to be family members.

Packed in with food, we are now ready for our afternoon coffee. We manage to locate a rather special venue for our daily ritual, which I will get into next week.

Posted 20 February 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Art Treasures both Antique and Modern

As usual, our friendly local host S. drives us from the suburb of Carnaxide into the city. This morning the DJ and I have her drop us off near the Calouste Gulbenkian museum as it is on her way. It seems like a good day to go to a museum as we may be doing a lot of traveling outside of the city during the weekend and museums are closed on Monday. Besides, I can hardly leave a city without seeing at least one art museum. First we go to a pastelaria near the museum for breakfast. I have the standard croissant with butter and a café com meia leite (.80€). Interestingly, a café com meia leite da máquina is .85€. I believe this means the coffee comes fresh from the machine.

Afterwards, we walk to the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, an arts complex. The collection was acquired by Armenian oil tycoon Calouste Gulbenkian, and the current foundation is involved in many cultural arenas. A number of different ticket combinations are offered for the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian. We want to get the ticket that combines entry to the museum and the nearby modern art museum, which is 7.00€. But the woman at the cashier’s desk informs us that the ticket machine at the modern art museum is not functioning, which for some reason means that entry to that section is free, so we only need to pay the 4.00€ for entry to the main museum.

The collection begins with the standard Egyptian and Greco-Roman antiquities that one can see anywhere, though the Assyrian relief is quite fine. It gets more interesting in the Middle Eastern section, which includes Iznik tiles from the Ottoman Empire. The painting collection covers all of the major movements and includes works by van der Weyden, Ghirlandaio, Rubens, Rembrandt, van Dyck, Ruisdael, Fragonard, Boucher, La Tour, Gainsborough, Corot, Millet, Manet, Monet, Degas, and Renoir. One of my favorites is Rodin’s The Blessings (1900), a sculpture in marble of two angels that I don’t believe I’ve seen before. I also enjoy the small Art Nouveau crafts and jewels by the French artist René Lalique (1860-1945), all contained in a separate room. The Peitoral-libélula, a brooch depicting a fantastic half-woman, half-dragonfly creature, is particularly stunning.

We walk through the lovely gardens of the Gulbenkian complex to get to the Centro de Arte Moderna, the modern art museum. We have a little trouble finding it but don’t mind as the setting is nice and even includes a pond and stream. The museum is divided into two floors, one containing modern art and the other more contemporary works. The modern art collection is quite nice, and I take note of several Portuguese modernists. Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso (1887-1918) has many paintings in a Cubist and Futurist vein. António Carneiro (1872-1930) is represented by some hazy nocturnes. Eduardo Afonso Viana’s (1881-1967) abstract paintings share an affinity with the circular patterns of Sonia Delaunay’s work on a nearby wall. The works of Júlio dos Reis Pereira (1902-83) are more Expressionist in style. Probably the most famous work is José de Almada Negreiros’s (1893-1970) Retraito de Fernando Pessoa (Portrait of Fernando Pessoa) (1964). Negreiros was one of the founders of Portuguese modernism, and his vigorous, Futurist painting of Pessoa probably helped promote the common image of the writer seated at his desk in hat and glasses. Another interesting painting is the surreal Exquisite Corpse, painted by five artists undoubtedly inspired by the collective “exquisite corpse” paintings of the Surrealists.

We've much enjoyed our foray into a museum, but all of this culture has taken a lot out of us and we will accordingly spend the rest of the day indulging ourselves. Let the decadence begin with a taste of African food in next week's entry.

Posted 13 February 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Finishing up a Day with Coffee and Beer, Two of My Favorite Things

Casa Liège, the restaurant the DJ and I eat in, is located on a street with another funicular, the Elevador da Bica. The car is different from the Elevador da Glória as the interior slants with the slope of the hill and is divided into separate compartments with separate entrances. We follow our established tradition and seek out a place for coffee after lunch. The first place we check out, Café no Chiado on Largo do Picadeiro, seems a bit too upscale. I prefer to avoid cafés where the waiters are dressed better than I am. The guidebook leads us to a nice place called Vertigo Café (Travessa do Carmo 4). The small and intimate space features wood furnishings and Art Nouveau glass inserted in the ceiling. Uma bica is .90€.

Nearby at the north end of Largo Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro at Rua da Trindade we notice a building with extraordinary sepia and yellow tile-work depicting statues in niches between the windows. The building is called the Casa do Ferreira das Tabuletas and dates from 1864. The house is named for Luís Ferreira, an azulejo artist known as Ferreira das Tabuletas (“Ferreira of the tablets”).

The DJ and I have made a fairly active day of it despite not sleeping well, but at this point we are ready to relax until the appointed meeting with S. We go north past the Ferreira house and stop at the Cervejaria Trindade (Rua Nova da Trindade 20C) for beer. Cervejarias are essentially beer halls. This particular one is built into the walls of a former monastery and has nice azulejo tiles. We have Sagres Preta, a dark lager, in a 30 cl size for 1.40€. We pass the time by trying to translate passages from one of the free daily newspapers handed out at the Metro stations, an excellent way to practice our Portuguese comprehension skills. Afterwards, we catch a bus on Rua São Pedro Alcântara that goes up past the Praça do Príncipe Real, a nice shady garden park in an area known for gay and lesbian bars, and takes us to the Rato Metro station. From here we get on the Metro to the Campo Pequeno station where the bullring is.

The bullring Praça de Touros do Campo Pequeno is a large, red brick neo-Moorish construction that dates from 1892. Unlike in Spain, it is illegal to kill the bull in the ring in Portugal, though it hardly matters from the bull’s perspective as it is killed, hopefully humanly, right after the spectacle. We walk around the ring and can see horses in a stable possibly being prepared for a bullfighting event. S. soon comes by in her car and picks us up.

Back at S. and N.'s place in Carnaxide S. makes us another wonderful dinner. This time she produces a traditional Portuguese dish called bacalhau à Braz, a mix of cod, potato strips, and egg baked and topped with black olives. We find it extremely tasty. S.’s boyfriend N. is off the night shift and is able to join us this evening. A friend of S.’s drops by and has some food too. We agree to all meet up tomorrow night in Bairro Alto for drinks.

Those familiar with the Leopard's pursuits are probably wondering how I've managed to go so long without visiting an art museum. Well, I can assure you that next week's entry will continue the story with a mandatory glance at one of Lisbon's finest museums.

Posted 6 February 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Traditional Portuguese Lunch in Bairro Alto

Though the DJ and I are all set to leave Belém we have heard from S., our friendly and well-informed local, that you simply cannot leave the area without having a pastel de Belém, a special pastel de nata (cream or custard tart), so we go to the famous Antiga Confeitaria de Belém (Rua de Belém 90), which has been making them since 1837, and pick up a couple at .85€ each. The little tarts are fresh and hot and filled with cream. Apparently only three bakers know the secret recipe. We first stand at the counter eating our pastries, but we realize that the interior of the place is cavernous and has plenty of seating.

We take the tram back to the Cais do Sodré station and then the Metro to the Baixa station. From here we take the west exit, which involves an ascent up a series of escalators that gets us to the square where the Café A Brasileira is located.

We look at a couple of restaurants in the Bairro Alto (literally “high neighborhood”) area. The neighborhood’s development on one of the seven hills dates from the 1500s, when Dom Manuel I moved the royal residence from the castle to the palace on the waterfront and the city started to spread to the west. The area was called the Bairro Alto de São Roque after the Jesuit church of São Roque. At one time there were many print shops and newspaper offices, which gave rise to streets called Rua de O Século and Rua do Diário de Noticias, both named after newspapers. The streets were laid out in a fairly simple grid that predated that of the post-earthquake Baixa, and the neighborhood survived the earthquake fairly well. We will not learn the true character of Bairro Alto until Friday night as on this weekday afternoon it is a lazy residential quarter with few people on the streets. The first two restaurants we check out, 1°de Maio and Fidalgo, seem unnecessarily pricey, so we look for a cheaper option mentioned in the guidebook.

When we find Casa Liège on Rua da Bica de Duarte Belo 72 we look at the menu and see that it has many traditional Portuguese specialties at budget prices. Inside, we are delighted to find a very local scene as old men sit around smoking (despite the “no smoking” sign) accompanied by a blaring soap opera on the TV. These small, cheap places are known as tascas, and this one has been around for thirty years. The DJ has the bitoque de vaca com ouvo (steak filet with a fried egg, 5.00€), and I indulge in the bacalhau cozido com batates e legumes (cod boiled with potatoes and vegetables, 6.25€). The server brings white wine vinegar and olive oil. The DJ has heard that these are traditional condiments for bacalhau, so I drizzle them over the fish. The meal is hearty and just what we are looking for. We are given a basket with two pieces of bread. After the dinner we are asked how many pieces of bread we eat so that it can be added to the check. This practice is common in Lisbon, and for that reason most people don’t touch anything put before them that they didn’t order.

And how does one follow an filling traditional Portuguese meal? With coffee, of course, but that bit of the story will continue next week.

Posted 31 January 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: The Manueline Treasures of Belém

Coming out to the district of Belém turns out to be a good idea, and the DJ and I enjoy walking around and exploring. The other main sight by the water is the Torre de Belém, built from 1515 to 1520, the last years of the reign of Dom Manuel I. The little tower was originally constructed as one of the many fortresses designed to guard the mouth of the Tejo river and was once positioned on an island in the river itself, but the earthquake helped to recede the river and now the torre is close enough to the shore to be accessible by a platform. Though it saw some action when it was taken by Spanish troops in 1580 it was primarily used as a prison, particularly by Dom Miguel I (1828-34), the usurper of Dom Pedro IV’s throne. The tower is considered the one true surviving Manueline building as others were either modifications of previous structures or built after Manuel’s reign. Some of the interesting details added by architect Francisco de Arruda include Moorish arched windows and balconies, twisted rope and other nautical motifs, a rhinoceros, Manuel’s spherical emblem, and the cross of the Order of Christ. The rhino is famous for being considered the first such depiction in European art. It doesn’t seem worth it to pay to go inside, so we just see the exterior. A nearby ramp leads into the river, allowing me to indulge my ritual of touching the water of a foreign shore.

We walk past the Centro Cultural de Belém, an interesting building dating from 1993. The upstairs garden is supposed to be pleasant, and we can just barely see some greenery peeking out above. Moving inland brings us to the huge Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, which once stood nearly on the shore. Built from 1502 to 1551, the monastery is considered one of the finest expressions of the Manueline style. The building was primarily designed by Diogo de Biotaca, the earliest practitioner of Manueline, and João de Castilho, who took over from Biotaca in 1517. Prince Henry the Navigator had originally constructed a hermitage on the site, and Vasco da Gama’s last night on shore was spent praying there. Dom Manuel I made a vow to the Virgin Mary in exchange for a successful journey for da Gama. When da Gama returned bearing spices and a route to the east, Manuel had to deliver on his end of the deal. Luckily, a tax on all of the trade with the east helped him to fund the project.

The original sections of the complex consist of the monastery and the church. A long wing extending to the left of the church was added in 1850 and is now an archeology museum. The first thing to see is the amazing church, which is free to enter. Castilho designed the entrance and included a statue of Henry the Navigator above the arch. Inside and close to the entrance are the tombs of Vasco da Gama and Luís Vaz de Camões. Dom Manuel I is buried in a tomb near the choir. Though Gothic in many respects, the interior has clear Manueline inspirations visible in naturalistic forms like the six central columns, which resemble nothing more than palm trees sprouting up into the superb patterns of the rib-vaulted ceiling.

Entry to the cloister is 4.50€. The Manueline design is extraordinary, and nature, religious, and royal symbols all entwine with ropes and anchors in elegant patterns. The lower level is intricate, whereas the upper is more delicate and characterized by lacelike stone finery. Pessoa is buried here in a tomb in one of the arcades, though his remains have only been here since 1985. The cloister also affords an entrance to the upper choir of the cathedral.

We've enjoyed wandering through Belém, but we do feel compelled to check back in with the center of the city, a story we'll continue with next week.

Posted 23 January 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Belém, the Shore of Discovery

In the morning the DJ and I ride into the city with S. as usual. On the way we pass by an interesting construction built in a neo-Moorish style. S. lets us know that it is a bullring and suggests it as a meeting spot later so we can take a closer look at it. After she drops us off we get a café com leite and a croissant with butter at a pastelaria near her work. The croissants are different from the ones I am used to as they are much denser and not as flaky.

Our objective for the day is the district of Belém on the coast to the west of the center of the city. We first take the Metro down to the Cais do Sodré train station on the river. On the way out of the station we notice a series of huge tile tapestries depicting the rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. S. has suggested that we take a train from here to Belém as the Metro does not go in that direction. That would probably be the fastest way to go, but we would rather travel on the pre-paid Sete Colinas cards and instead take tram no. 15, a sleek, modern light rail tram. The tram is crowded and we have to stand the whole time near some French tourists who babble about the sights we pass. As we’re not sure where to get off, we debark at the stop marked “Belém” and end up having to walk a bit to the things we want to see. But we don’t mind too much as it is pleasant and breezy and we are finally able to get close to the water. With its wide streets and flat open spaces, the area is a contrast to the cramped and hilly historic center.

Named after Bethlehem, Belém was once a suburb whose docks ended up being pivotal in the history of the discoveries. Even Christopher Columbus stopped here on his way back from the New World. More significantly, Vasco da Gama set sail from Belém in 1497 on a voyage that took him to India, and upon his return he was welcomed in this area by Dom Manuel I. Later, the Spanish Armada assembled here before its disastrous confrontation with England.

The first sight we come to is the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (“Monument to the Discoveries”). In the 1940s Salazar put on an exhibition on this waterfront to celebrate Portuguese history. The first discoveries monument, a temporary one, was constructed then. The current version was completed in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Infante Henrique (also known as Prince Henry the Navigator), an early patron of exploration. The shape is meant to evoke the prow and sails of a caravel, the light, fast sailing vessel that helped make the discoveries possible. From the front the monument looks like a cross. It also has a properly fascist look that fits its origin during the Salazar years. Along the sides can be seen figures marching up ramps towards the river and into destiny and the unknown. Prince Henry is at the front, followed by notables including Vasco da Gama, Pedro Álvares Cabral (discoverer of Brazil), Fernão de Magalhães (also known as Ferdinand Magellan), Diogo Cão (discoverer of the mouth of the Congo), Bartolomeu Dias (first to round the Cape of Good Hope), Luís Vaz de Camões, and Dom Manuel I. In the plaza before the monument is a mosaic map of the world showing Portuguese explorations and conquests.

Next week, the tour of the Belém district continues with a look at some startling architecture.

Posted 16 January 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Catching European Football on TV

While walking through the Praça da Figueiroa the DJ and I are curious about a number of noisy tourists wearing red shirts getting drunk at a café. I realize that these are fans of Manchester United, the soccer club that is playing local team Sporting in Lisbon this evening in the European Champions League tournament. I have heard many stories of rowdy football fans in continental Europe and am intrigued to witness the phenomenon up close.

We try to get on the subway at the Praça dos Restauradores station, but all of the entrances are closed. S. later suggests that it is closed because someone has committed suicide on the tracks. We go back to Rossio and catch the subway there. By this point the troop of Manchester United fans is very drunk. They stumble onto the train with us on the same car as a group of Sporting fans. The two compete by singing their respective fight songs, but no altercation breaks out while we are observing.

We meet S. by her workplace in Alvalade. On the drive back to her apartment we pass under the Aqueduto das Águas Livres. A marvel of engineering, the aqueduct spans the valley of Alcântara and was once used to bring water to Lisbon from the surrounding hills. The sturdy arches, the tallest in the world when built, were constructed from 1731 to 1748 and survived the earthquake, but the aqueduct was closed in 1967. Earlier in the morning, S. had pointed out some structures near Carnaxide that had been used to collect water for the aqueduct.

When we get back to the apartment S. suggests watching the game someplace local. She still needs to eat, so the DJ and I go down and check out the scene at a corner café just across the street from her apartment. A big-screen TV is broadcasting the game live to an eager group of fans seated at outside tables. We get a table on the side and accompany the match with bottles of a local lager called Super Bock and a tray of peanuts. A lot of attention is focused on Cristiano Ronaldo, a Portuguese player who used to play with Sporting but is now with Manchester. He makes the one goal of the game, and we will read in the morning that he apologizes to his former club.

During half-time highlights of the Rugby World Cup match between Italy and Portugal are broadcast. Portugal loses at a pathetic score of 31 to 5, but when S. tells me that the Portugal team is made up of amateurs I have to respect them for managing to qualify for the tournament in the first place. We quite enjoy watching the football match in such a local venue. I’m sure if we had been in the city we would see plenty of Manchester United fans, but here everyone is a local and supporting Sporting. S. even jokes that we should be careful about speaking English lest we be mistaken for fans of the away team. We manage to fit in well enough for a passerby to ask us the score. Even S. roots for Sporting despite being a fan of Benfica, Sporting’s Lisbon rival. After the end of the disappointing game we return to S.’s apartment and have a couple of slices of frozen pizza as a simple, light dinner. We chat a bit about various matters and get to bed, feeling fulfilled by a fascinating first full day in the new city.

Next week we take a trip outside of Lisbon's central area and enjoy the seaside at Belém.

Posted 9 January 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: What Fuels Portugal? Coffee and Port

After a busy afternoon the DJ and I decide to get some coffee and locate a good nearby café in the guidebook. Pois, Café (Rua São João de Praça 93) is Austrian run and has lots of couches, magazines, and books, many in German. We both have a pingado (.80€), essentially a macchiato. We have unknowingly established a pattern for our visit: a big lunch in the afternoon (common for the Portuguese) followed by a leisurely stop for coffee and a smaller dinner later in the evening.

Coffee is a national obsession in Portugal as it is in many European countries, and it comes in many forms. Um café is of course espresso, and in general Portuguese espresso is very rich, bitter, and tasty. Local waiter slang for an espresso is uma bica. Um carioca is a diluted espresso. Um garoto has a splash of milk and is also called a pingado, though only one café we go to has this term on the menu. Um galão is a very milky coffee, which of course I never order. Um café com leite is espresso with steamed milk, similar to the French café au lait or the Spanish café con leche. A coffee with milk is also called uma meia de leite, half espresso and half milk. Coffee fresh from the machine is called da máquina.

Venues for drinking coffee run from the very basic to the excessive. A pastelaria (pastry shop) is the simplest place to get coffee and also a good venue for having baked goods with coffee in the morning. An esplanade, with outdoor seating, is generally the most expensive type of place. S. tells us that a basic café should not cost more than .50€, and many of the typical pastelarias do seem to sell it at this price, but because the DJ and I want to experience interesting places with unique atmosphere we are willing to go to places where coffee costs a little more.

The afternoon is starting to wind down and most of the sights are close to shutting for the day, so we need to start thinking of what to do with our evening. It seems like an ideal time to try tasting some port at the Port Wine Institute we have heard about. We catch the tiny no. 37 bus from the Sé cathedral and take it all the way north to the Praça da Figueiroa.

The final leg of the trip to our objective allows us to use one of the city’s three ascensores, the Elevador da Glória located at the western end of the plaza. We learn later that this funicular has just reopened after being closed for some time. We find the little yellow car waiting for us at the bottom of the hill and climb on and wait for departure. The wedge-shaped chassis of the vehicle follows the steep slope of the hill, but the interior consists of a level compartment with benches on either side.

After the short pleasant trip to the top of the hill we find the Solar do Vinho do Porto at Rua de São Pedro de Alcântara 45. I am a little disappointed that the institute, which opened in 1944, doesn’t quite have the old atmosphere that I hoped for. It instead feels too modern and stiff in décor despite being housed in an 18th-century palace. Also, the clientele consists primarily of badly dressed tourists. However, my complaints are forgotten when we are presented with menus offering 200 ports by the glass divided into a number of categories. The prices range from 1.00€ to 25.00€. We try out two Late-Bottled Vintage ports: La Rosa 2000 (2.40€) and Ramos Pinto 2001 (2.30€). Both come in healthy 3.5 cl pours and are served from trays bearing the bottles. We both find the Ramos Pinto more complex. Conveniently, bottles of the offerings can be bought to take home.

The wine most firmly associated with Portugal originates in vineyards in the Douro valley to the north, after which it is fortified with aguardente (a distilled spirit made from grape skins) and bottled and shipped from the area around Porto, the city that gives the drink its name. Port comes in several varieties but can be broadly categorized into wood-aged and bottle-aged ports. A Vintage port comes from a single harvest, is bottled after two to three years, and is left to age for longer in the bottle. Vintage ports command a premium price as they need to age quite a while in the bottle before achieving maturity. A Late-Bottled Vintage or LBV port also comes from a single harvest but is aged in wood for four to six years. The extra aging in wood allows more oxidation and faster maturation, so an LBV is ready to drink sooner than a Vintage. Unfiltered LBVs are considered more traditional and often compare favorably with Vintage ports, whereas filtering tends to change the character of the wine. Filtered LBVs do not gain quality with extra bottle aging, but filtered ones can improve if aged a few years in the bottle. A crusted port is a blend of wines from several years and bottled young without filtration (hence the name “crusted”). If produced with skill a crusted port can be very drinkable.

Tawny ports are wood-aged and given gradual oxidation that imparts nutty flavors. Tawnies are bottled indicating ages of 10, 20, 30, and 40 years. The average age of the vintages used has to meet the minimum number of years. Generally, a Tawny needs at least 10 years to be drinkable. A Tawny Reserve port is a blend of ports that have aged for at least seven years in wood. Non-reserve Tawnies and those without indication of age are basically cheap blends. Tawny ports of a single year are called Colheitas and have a vintage year indicated on the bottle. A Ruby is a young port aged in steel from three to five years. Reserve port is a premium ruby port. White port is made from white grapes and is served chilled.

Next week our second day closes with a couple of beers and some European sports.

Posted 2 January 2008


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Roman and Manueline, Two of Lisbon’s Many Pasts

After spending quite some time enjoying the castle the DJ and I walk back out past the entrance arch and into the courtyard of the Palácio Belmonte hotel where we find a public passage to a square called the Pátio de Dom Fradique, an odd area of blasted, broken buildings covered by graffiti. Outside this area is an ancient street called Rua dos Cegos that has some of Lisbon’s oldest houses, some from the 16th century. We end up at another miradouro at the Largo das Portas do Sol.

We take a look at the guidebook for lunch recommendations. One restaurant is nearby and is apparently one of the few places in Lisbon that serves authentic Goan food. The special fusion of Portuguese and Indian cuisine that makes up Goan cooking seems like an interesting thing to try out. The restaurant turns out to be back the way we came near the castle. It is called Arco do Castelo (Rua do Chão da Feira 25) and has a nice, intimate feel. We try tiger shrimp curry, the house specialty (12.00€), and the fish curry (8.00€), both over rice and accompanied by nan (.75€). Everything is very tasty, and I particularly enjoy the blend of spices in the fish curry.

Now that we’re well fed we’re ready to take on more sight-seeing. One nearby spot of interest is the Sé Catedral that we had passed earlier on the tram. A horde of tourists just happens to be entering at the same time we are, which somewhat dampens the solemnity of the visit. Lisbon’s main cathedral is a rather plain and rustic Romanesque edifice that was founded in 1150 on the site of the primary mosque after the city was successfully taken from the Moors. Dom João V once ornamented the church in Rococo style, but restorations after the earthquake have restored the elegant simplicity of the interior.

The guidebook mentions that a museum featuring the ruins of a Roman theatre is nearby, which seems like a good destination. On the way we notice a plaque bearing a poem about the Revolution:

do silêncio das “gavetas”
da pátria amordaçada
dos peitos desfeitos pelas torturas da Pide
subiu o camor da liberdade
floriu abril
                        Abril 1984

Though my command of Portuguese is hardly precise, I believe it translates roughly into the following:

from the silence of the cells
from the suppressed homeland
from breasts mutilated by the tortures of the PIDE
arose the clamor of liberty
April bloomed
                        April 1984

We enter the Museu do Teatro Romano through the Rua de Augusto Rosa entrance. Entry is free. The ground floor contains some remnants of sculpture and a broken stone carving dedicating the theatre to Nero. We go to the next floor and look out the windows before heading back down towards the exit. The man at the desk points back up and tells us to see the Teatro Romano. It seems we neglected to go up an additional floor and see what makes this museum so special. On the third floor we can see the actual excavation site of the amphitheatre of Roman Olisipo, and upon crossing the street, Rua da Saudade, we can see spread out before us the remains of columns from the stage and seating for an audience of 5,000. It appears that the excavation site is active and digging is still in progress.

The DJ says he would like to get close to the river. It seems like a fine idea so we proceed down the slope of the hill, imagining that as long as we descend we are on the right course. We go through a tunnel that ends up at the pleasant Campo das Cebolas. However, the river is cut off by some construction project. It seems there are few places in this area of Lisbon where one can get close to the river. We walk west from the plaza down Rua da Alfândega and stumble across a fantastic Manueline façade. We are surprised and rapt before our first look at true Manueline architecture.

The Manueline style is named after king Dom Manuel I (1495-1521), who put the riches amassed from trade with the east to good use by constructing buildings like the Torre de Belém, the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, and others that unfortunately failed to survive the earthquake. These and numerous smaller buildings are distinguished by late Gothic construction and ornamentation that artfully blends floral and maritime motifs with royal and religious symbols. Some of the most fanciful Manueline buildings look like something out of a fairy tale or perhaps from an undersea castle with their twisted ropes entwined with seashells and flowers. Frequently, Moorish elements are combined with design ideas brought home by explorers to the east. Distinctive structural elements include semi-circular instead of pointed arches, ornate portals, and eight-sided capitals.

For this particular building, the most notable features are the figures on the tympanum above the double doors and the pattern of emblems along the arch, but interesting details abound and are held together by a logic that sanctions ornamental exuberance. The façade is the only remnant of the early 16th-century church Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Conceição Velha, most of which was destroyed during the earthquake. The interior was rebuilt but is currently closed for restoration. It just proves that though we spend much of our time letting a guidebook tell us what to see, sometimes the most amazing sights are the ones we just happen upon.

Next week the day comes to a close with tastes of coffee and port wine.

Posted 26 December 2007


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Castelo de São Jorge

After disembarking from charming Tram No. 28 the DJ and I find ourselves at the Miradouro de Santa Luzia. Lisbon has so many locations with wonderful views that the language has a special name for them (miradouro, literally “golden view”), and this one allows a glorious view of the river and its southern bank. The miradouro itself has a pleasant grapevine-enclosed terrace with many historical scenes depicted in azulejo tiles. One offers a stylized version of the 1147 siege of Lisbon that took place at the nearby castle and another shows the center of Lisbon prior to the earthquake.

You can hardly walk down a street in the historical areas of Lisbon without encountering at least one building covered in the beautiful tiles known as azulejos. The name comes from either the Persian word zulej (“blue”) or the Arabic word for polished stone, al-zuleycha. The tradition dates back to the 14th century, when tiles were imported from Muslim craftsmen in Spain. Certainly, the custom of layering plain surfaces in decorative tile must have come from the Moors. In the 17th century local Portuguese factories produced tiles depicting the Biblical scenes that can be seen in many churches. Post-earthquake buildings constructed according to Pombal’s designs frequently used tiles in the façades, and many examples can be seen of simple patterned tile-work on buildings of this era. Styles changed in the 20th century when Art Nouveau tiles became popular with newer buildings. The tile tradition continued when the Metro was constructed, and many stations have distinctive tile tapestries and designs. On our wanderings around Lisbon we are frequently delighted to stumble upon particularly impressive azulejo displays in the most unlikely corners.

We follow the signs to the castle up the cobble-stoned street Rua do Chão da Feira. One can easily sense that this area is older than the Chiado we were in this morning. On the way we notice a corner cordoned off by a metal partition topped with a sign reading “URINOL” and sporting a silhouette of a figure very obviously depicting the intended use of the spot. A characteristic odor and wet ground demonstrate that the enclosure is not just historical. We pass by the oldest outer walls of the castle, thought to date back to Roman times. Apparently, this prime spot on the hill was fortified by the original Celtic inhabitants of the peninsula and was subsequently occupied by the Romans, the Visigoths, and the Moors.

Our course leads through the outer walls under the Arco de São Jorge, after which we see a niche holding an image of the titular saint, the dragon-killing patron saint of Portugal. Entrance to the inner walls of Castelo de São Jorge is 5.00€. After tickets are checked we find ourselves in an open square called Patio de Armas lined with cannons and featuring a statue of Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal. Afonso had already declared himself king when in 1147 he besieged the original Moorish castle with the aid of French and British Crusaders whom he had persuaded to join him in exchange for a share of the spoils. The castle fell after seventeen weeks, after which the invaders sacked the city and killed both Christian and Muslim inhabitants.

The ramparts of the castle afford sweeping views of the city. We can see across the Baixa to the Elevador de Santa Justa where we were in the morning. We can also see the Ponte do 25 de Abril, a suspension bridge that bears a more-than-passing resemblance to the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco, which is not surprising as the same company designed both bridges. It was called the Salazar Bridge when originally inaugurated in 1966 but was renamed after the Revolution. Standing even higher than the bridge on the far bank is the Cristo Rei, a statue of Christ the redeemer built in 1959 on Salazar’s orders that resembles the one in Rio de Janeiro in form. The combination of icons from two different Western hemisphere cities offers a delightful confusion to the eye.

After walking the length of the ramparts we find the former Palácio de Alcáçovas, the residence of Portuguese kings from the 14th to the 16th centuries and the Moors before that. We can go in and imagine medieval life in the cold, dark interior. The palace contains an exhibit called the Olisipónia, featuring a video of Portuguese history. In the cafeteria outside we spot a peacock nested on a windowsill and are delighted to see others wandering the grounds. They appear to be kept in the ruins of a chapel.

One of the most striking parts of the castle is the old Moorish keep in the center, called the Castelejo. We are able to walk up onto the ramparts for even better views. Extending east from the Castelejo is a low barbican wall with a gate called the Puerta de Moniz. Legend has it that the knight Martim Moniz discovered this gate open and sacrificed his life keeping it ajar, thereby giving his fellow warriors access to the castle. Much of this history is vividly brought to life in José Saramago’s novel História do Cerco de Lisboa (History of the Siege of Lisbon). On the western side we can see a staircase that leads down the slope to the Torre de São Lourenço (“St. Lawrence’s Tower”), though I’m not sure what purpose it was designed to serve.

The castle certainly lives up to its reputation as one of the most interesting things to see in Lisbon for both historical and sheer visual reasons. Yet there is much more to see, and next week we will descend from the castle and enjoy other architectural highlights.

Posted 19 December 2007


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: The Clackety-Clack of the Classic Lisbon Tram

After thoroughly feasting our eyes on the view, the DJ and I descend down the spiral staircases and walk west from the Elevador de Santa Justa along a viaduct platform that takes us under the buttresses of the Convento do Carmo and along its nave. As we head south from the square the DJ notices a music store and naturally wants to go in. The proprietor demonstrates the guitarra, a Portuguese guitar vital to playing fado, a form of traditional Portuguese folk music.

The talk with the music store owner goes entirely in Portuguese, and it actually proceeds fairly smoothly. Portuguese is very close in grammar and vocabulary to Castilian Spanish (though it is closer to Galician), but the pronunciation is frequently different and not as regular. Once one learns the peculiarities of pronunciation the language feels round and soft in the mouth and the dominance of “sh” sounds and nasal vowels is quite lovely. Unlike many European countries where regional dialects are a frequent source of division, Portugal has few regional variations so the language tends to aid national unity. Though both the DJ and I have studied Portuguese and speak it whenever possible, we find that English is very common as a second language and more people seem to know English than in Madrid, Rome, Berlin, and other major European cities I have visited. Indeed, S. tells us that, unlike in Spain, France, and other countries, TV shows and movies in English are always subtitled rather than dubbed in Portugal.

At one point we notice some graffiti reading “PIDE = SIS.” I assume SIS refers to the Serviço de Informações de Segurança (“Security Intelligence Service”), Portugal’s internal security service since 1984. We repeat my steps from yesterday and go to the Armazéns do Chiado (Rua do Carmo and Rua Garrett), an indoor mall restored after the Chiado fire and dominated by the French department store Fnac. We go to the TMN store (a local cellphone network) to add additional value to the DJ’s phone.

After this bit of business is taken care of we are ready to do some serious sight-seeing. The first objective on the itinerary is going to be the castle that we’ve seen looming on the opposite hill. The guidebook recommends tram no. 28 to get there. The tram rails go in both directions around the little square to the west of Café A Brasileira, creating a scene very much like one described by Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet:
Around the square the streetcars grumble and clang. They look like giant yellow mobile matchboxes, in which a child stuck a slanted used match to serve as a mast. When jerking into motion, they loudly and ironly screech. Around the statue in the middle, the pigeons are like black crumbs that flit about as if they were being scattered by the wind.

The square is called Praça Luís de Camões and features a monument to Portugal’s national poet inaugurated in 1867. Luís Vaz de Camões (1524-1580) is best known for Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads), an epic poem based on Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India. The pedestal below the monument represents other Portuguese authors. Though we can see the tram rails we have a hard time determining where it actually stops. We finally find a sign marking the stop on a side street to the south.

Tram no. 28 is sort of a tourist attraction in itself and is known, just like the cable car in San Francisco, for carrying more tourists than locals. A sign posted in Portuguese and English offers the helpful but rather obvious warning to look out for pickpockets. The tram takes us on a halting, jerky ride across Baixa, past the Sé cathedral, and up the windy tangle of streets around the castle. Though old, the area was largely rebuilt after the earthquake and was modified for wider streets.

A familiar sight in the city since 1903, when they replaced horse-drawn trams, Lisbon’s five electric trams (eléctricos) are part of the Carris network and can be used with our Sete Colinas card. Single rides are 1.30€ just like the buses. One needs to press the parade (“stop”) button to disembark; otherwise the operator does not open the back door. The trams are not as regular in frequency as the Metro or the buses, and we quickly realize why as they go down a lot of the narrow streets that tend to get blocked by delivery trucks and other traffic. Sometimes, in really narrow passages a tram has to wait for the one coming in the opposite direction to pass. Still, riding in the wood-furnished interiors is a great way to experience the older parts of the city.

Next week we at last reach the heights of the castle.

Posted 12 December 2007


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: A Taste of Eiffel

Morning begins with the renewed vigor granted by a restful sleep coupled with the enthusiasm of discovering a new city. As S. is not leaving for work until 9:00 or so the DJ and I decide to get a ride into the city with her. The only other option would be to take a regional bus to the Marquês de Pombal Metro station, but the bus is not part of the Carris network and would take us about 45 minutes to get into the city. For breakfast S. serves us pão (“bread”) Alentejano, a sour bread specialty of Alentejo, the fertile region south of the Tejo river where S.’s boyfriend N. comes from. We enjoy it toasted with butter accompanied with instant coffee mixed into warm milk.

After S. drops us off we get on the Metro and head south. We buy five-day Sete Colinas cards from the automatic dispensers, reasoning that we will put them to good use over the next few days. I like the fact that the card has an image of Fernando Pessoa on it. When I get to the gate in the station, I first try to insert the card in the slot like I did with the single-ride ticket. I try it every possible way before a passerby sets me right and shows me how to wave the card over a scanner.

We get out at the Baixa Metro station. Although one can take a series of escalators from the underground station to ascend into Chiado, I have determined that a far more interesting option awaits us. We get out at the exit on Rua do Crucifixo and Rua da Vitória and walk north to Rua Áurea, where we find the Elevador de Santa Justa, an outdoor elevator used to ferry people from Baixa to the heights of Chiado. The design of the contraption is quite stunning, and we can clearly see an ornamental affinity with the Eiffel tower in the steel latticework and floral designs. Indeed, it happens that the elevador was designed by a disciple of Gustave Eiffel named Raul Mésnier de Ponsard in 1900, about a decade after its more famous predecessor. We have to wait in line for a bit, but we thoroughly enjoy the ride up in an old wooden compartment. At the top we ascend a spiral staircase to an elevated platform and are treated to phenomenal views of the rust-colored terracotta roofs of Baixa below and the castle to the east. Those who wish to linger can sit in the café at the top. Like Rome, Lisbon is supposedly built upon seven hills, and its topography is readily apparent from this height.

As the industrial age dawned on a city that had expanded up and down a number of hills local engineers started to develop ways to relieve the population of strenuous walks by constructing this series of elevadores and ascensores. The four include the Elevador de Santa Justa (opened 1902) and the funicular trams (ascensores) Elevador da Glória (opened 1885), Elevador da Bica (opened 1892), and Elevador do Lavra (opened 1884). Originally, the three ascensores were steam-powered but were converted to electricity in the early decades of the twentieth century. They appear to operate with underground cables just like the cable car in San Francisco. All four are part of the Carris network, so we can freely use our Sete Colinas cards to save ourselves from too much hiking and enjoy a piece of living history at the same time.

Next week: Our first ride in one of Lisbon’s historic trams.

Posted 5 December 2007


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Home Away from Home in Carnaxide

Yes, it's been an eventful first day for me, but though I am moving around a lot, my first hours in Lisbon also involve a lot of sitting in the various squares as I am rather tired and the heat is a bit more than I expected. Thankfully, the time to meet S. arrives and saves me from further compulsion to explore. I get back on the Metro at the Rossio station and head back to Alvalade. S. is ready to go and we get back to the airport to pick up the DJ, who contacts us with the cell phone he has rented to use on this trip. We meet up without further incident.

The DJ is pretty tired and I have effectively worn myself out with my wanderings, so S. graciously offers to drive us to her apartment before going back to work. We head out of the city past the stadiums for Sporting and Benfica, two of Portugal’s top soccer clubs. Both are gleaming and new, having been recently constructed for the 2004 European Championship. S. lives in Carnaxide, a housing development in the municipality of Oeiras to the west of the city on the other side of the Parque Florestal do Monsanto, Lisbon’s sprawling park. The community is characterized by fairly pleasant apartment towers. She lives on the thirteenth floor of one of these. The DJ and I marvel at the elevator, which has no inner door so we can see each floor as it passes.

S. and her boyfriend N. inhabit a three-bedroom flat with a good bit of space that includes a full kitchen and two bathrooms. One bedroom has been converted into an office and the other into a guest room. We soon meet N., who has been sleeping all day as his job involved a lot of night shifts. After S. leaves to return to her own job we go with N. to the local grocery store to pick up provisions. Naturally, this simple visit to get groceries is an adventure for me and the DJ as we get to see all of the interesting things for sale. We are particularly awed by the selection of fresh fish and the huge pieces of bacalhau (salted cod), a Portuguese staple we will soon become more familiar with. N. fills us in on the relative qualities of Portuguese beers.

When we get back to the apartment N. has to leave for work, and the DJ and I do our valiant best to stay awake until S. comes home. We succeed by checking our e-mail and focusing on planning our next day in the city. When S. returns she commences to make dinner for us, letting us help her out with cutting and chopping. She makes chicken in a sort of stroganoff sauce that brings in elements of Portuguese cooking. We eat it with relish. Afterwards S. has us sample a couple of liqueurs from the Azores, one tasting of bananas. The generosity of S. and N. to two people they have just met has already astonished me and will continue to do so during our stay with them. Our stay with them constitutes my first experience with the website, but I would highly recommend it not only for those who want to save some money on accommodations but also for people who want to meet locals and experience daily life the way the natives do, which to me is invaluable.

After dinner we watch a little television and talk but don’t stay up very late. Most of what we glimpse consists of subtitled American TV shows, which is enjoyable as it allows me to try to make correspondences between the two languages. The most amusing aspect is of course seeing how American slang is translated. We also see a bit of a Brazilian soap opera, which are apparently popular here as they seem to be of higher quality than indigenous Portuguese soaps. After a bit of this entertainment I rapidly drop off into a deep sleep, dreaming of assailing the castle I glimpsed on the heights above Rossio.

Next week, a new day and a full night’s sleep bring lucidity.

Posted 28 November 2007


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Swimming through Tourists in Baixa

We’ve gone through the Revolution and the earthquake in the last few entries, so I think it’s time to just enjoy the scenery of downtown Lisbon for a bit. I’ll take up the story back at Praça do Comércio. While wandering around I notice that a tourist office is located on the western side along with a national winemakers’ association venue that allows you to taste wines for free, something we neglect to take advantage of during our visit. In the center of the square is a bronze statue of Dom José I, the king during the earthquake and rebuilding. I sit here for a while in the shade of the statue’s pedestal along with a few other tourists. At the north end is an impressive arch from 1873 called the Arco Triunfal (“Triumphal Arch,” also known as the Arco da Rua Augusta) that rises high up above the line of the flanking buildings. The figures depicted include the Marquês de Pombal, explorer Vasco da Gama, Lusitanian chieftain Viriatus, and Nuno Álvares Pereira, though the figures on the very top are Glory, Genius, and Bravery. The square was once the site of the Terreiro do Paço, a royal palace that was destroyed during the earthquake. The palace’s steps apparently still lead into the water, though they are not visible due to construction. In 1908, king Dom Carlos I and his son were assassinated in this square, preceding the declaration of the Republic by two years.

I proceed through the arch and north up Rua Augusta. The pedestrian-only street is teeming with tourists and people trying to prey on tourists in every possible way. The set of streets from the Praça do Comércio to the Rossio constitute the area known as Baixa (from the word for “low” due to its position between hills) and constitute a grid planned out by Pombal that remains one of his lasting marks. The area is traditionally a business district, with banks mingling with clothing stores and shops full of the standard tourist marginalia. The streets themselves are named after trades, like the Rua da Prata (“street of silver”), Rua dos Sapateiros (“street of cobblers”), Rua Áurea (originally Rua do Oro, “street of gold”), and Rua do Comércio (“street of commerce”). Pessoa used another of these streets, Rua dos Douradores (“street of goldsmiths”), as the setting for the office of his heteronym Bernardo Soares in The Book of Disquiet.

Much of the buildings in the Baixa are designed in a distinctive architectural style known as Pombaline, after the Marquês de Pombal, the man most responsible for the rebuilding of the city after the 1755 earthquake. The architects Pombal employed designed in what was then a modernist idiom of minimally decorated façades with a glossy finish and, frequently, tasteful tile-work. The resulting constructions were also some of the first buildings specifically designed to withstand earthquakes as their internal structures possess a wood-lattice framework to distribute the stresses of trembling ground.

I travel the length of Rua Augusta to the Rossio and continue north to the Praça dos Restauradores. Four plazas in one day are a bit too much, but at least this one has foregone the standard statue for an obelisk, which commemorates the declaration of Portugal’s independence from Spain on December 1, 1640. The plaza has two interesting architectural highlights. One is the façade of the Estação do Rossio (“Rossio station”), a lovely building featuring two horseshoe portals around the entrance, a clock in a turret on top, and plenty of Art Nouveau details combined with classical spires and other features. The style is considered Neo-Manueline as it is based on the florid sensibility common to Manueline architecture, which we will encounter more of later. The train station itself is currently closed due to a collapse in the tunnel, but the space is being utilized to house temporary exhibitions.

The other fine piece of architecture is the Art Deco Eden Cinema, which originally opened in 1931. The façade is a simple skeletal construction consisting of a band supported by two columns. Across the band are bas-reliefs depicting posing actors and a crew filming. Behind the band and columns of the façade is a concave wall of glass. Apparently, the façade was once a continuous surface, but after the cinema shut down and the building was converted into a hotel the space once used for film posters was opened up and palm trees were planted in the atrium formed between it and the glass windows behind. The words “Eden Teatro” are still engraved on top.

It astonishes me that in the last few entries I’ve only recounted the first day in Lisbon, but I promise that the day will come to a sleepy close in next week’s entry.

Posted 21 November 2007


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Chasing Down Pessoa

After getting a taste of some of the city’s history I decide to go on another walking tour recommended in my guidebook. This time I’m looking for some sights associated with the author Fernando Pessoa, a modernist poet best known for writing under a series of assumed personalities called “heteronyms” and whose true gifts were only acknowledged after his death when his vast body of unpublished work was discovered. Pessoa was born in 1888 on nearby Rua Serpa Pinto near the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos. Of more interest is Café A Brasileira at Rua Garrett 120, where Pessoa was known to spend a lot of time writing. The classic coffee house opened in 1905 and features a bronze statue of Pessoa (with his characteristic hat and glasses) by sculptor Lagoa Henriques placed out by the sidewalk tables where tourists can pose with it. Apparently, a coffee at the bar is not too pricey and might be a nice way to enjoy the elegant wooden interior, but it just seems too touristy a place. Like other cafés of its time, Brasileira was a favored location for the tertúlias (social gatherings focused on political, philosophical, and artistic discussions) that were suppressed during the Salazar years.

My walking has given me tantalizing glimpses of the Tejo (Tagus) river to the south, and I feel drawn to the water, though perhaps I would also rather walk down rather than up the slope of the hill. I set a course and walk by the Câmara Municipal (city hall) from where the First Republic was proclaimed in 1910. I soon reach the Praça do Comércio, one of the Marquês de Pombal’s additions to the post-earthquake city. Ochre-colored buildings with regularly spaced arches cover three sides of the square. The fourth side faces the river, though a barrier and ongoing construction keeps the water out of reach. At the north-east corner is Café Martinho de Arcada, another café frequented by Pessoa and other writers. This one was founded in 1782 and was also a haunt of José Saramago, the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize. Though Martinho de Arcada and Brasileira are now over-priced places swarmed by tourists, I assume they had a different and more appealing character in Pessoa’s day.

I should mention a bit more about the earthquake that I’ve already referenced a couple of times. During morning mass on November 1 (All Saints’ Day) in 1755, the most devastating natural disaster in Europe’s recorded history struck Lisbon, killing many tens of thousands in the initial quake and the resultant fires and tidal waves. Current estimates put the magnitude at 8.7 on the Richter scale. In the aftermath, a minister of king Dom José I titled the Marquês de Pombal was ordered to "bury the dead, feed the living, and close the ports," a mission he took on with ruthless efficiency, imposing martial law, razing the remaining buildings of the Baixa neighborhood, and imposing an urban grid design on the area. Interestingly enough, Pombal was reputedly asked why Lisbon needed the (at the time) wide streets he was planning. “One day they will be small,” he allegedly said, and modern Lisbon certainly bears out his prognostication. The earthquake’s effects ranged beyond the borders of Portugal and proved a pivotal event in the Enlightenment era. Voltaire questioned the theory of a benevolent universe in Candide and a philosophical poem, Rousseau advocated returning to nature and avoiding densely packed urban centers, and Kant published a scientific explanation that remains one of the earliest seismology texts.

I will close this week’s entry with an excerpt from Voltaire’s “Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon” to offer a taste of the effect the event had on the European consciousness. The translation is my own:

“Run up and contemplate these frightful ruins,
This debris and tatters, these dismaying ashes,
These women and children piled on each other
Under shattered marble, these scattered limbs;
A hundred thousand unfortunates devoured by the earth
Who, bloody, torn, still palpitating,
Buried under their roofs without hope of rescue,
End their lamentable days in horrible torment.
To cries half-formed by expiring voices,
To the terrifying spectacle of their smoking ashes,
Do you say: 'This is the result of eternal laws
Imposed by a free and just God?'
Do you say, seeing this heap of victims:
'God has avenged, their death is the price of their sins?'
What sin, what crime did these children commit
Who lie on the crushed and bloodied breasts of their mothers?
Lisbon is no more, was it more full of vice
Than London or Paris, swimming in pleasures?
Lisbon sinks into the abyss while they dance in Paris.”

Next week we’ll explore more of the Baixa neighborhood in downtown Lisbon.

Posted 14 November 2007


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: In the Steps of the Carnation Revolution

Last week we were exploring the area around the Rossio, and I mentioned the square's role in the 1974 Revolution. I will pause here to fill you in on some of the historical background. The story basically begins in the era between the two world wars.

In 1928 António de Oliveira Salazar was appointed finance minister under President Carmona, who himself had gained power after a bloodless coup. In 1932 Salazar became Prime Minister. Since the birth of the Republic in 1910 Portugal had gone through a period of political turmoil that the fledgling parliamentary government had a difficult time managing through democratic means. Thus, little opposition presented itself when Salazar introduced a new constitution in 1933 that gave him broad authoritarian powers. Under Salazar’s right-wing, Catholic-based Estado Novo (“New State”) Portugal gained some degree of political and economic stability at the price of poor education, human rights violations, censorship of the press, and repressive measures enforced by the dreaded PIDE (Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado, “International and State Defense Police”). The PIDE ran the notorious political prison Tarrafal in the Portuguese colony of Cape Verde where opponents to Salazar’s rule frequently found themselves imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes executed. Though he supported Franco and the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War, during World War II Salazar steered a middle course of uneasy neutrality, letting the Allies use bases in the Azores but selling wolfram to Germany. However, Portugal also instituted a liberal policy towards Jewish refugees and became a transit point for many seeking escape from the Nazis.

Salazar suffered a stroke in 1968 and was replaced by Marcelo Caetano. Caetano instituted some reforms, but they were not sweeping or rapid enough for a group of left-wing military officers disgruntled by Portugal’s wasteful involvement in colonial wars in Africa. These officers banded together under the name MFA (Movimento das Forças Armadas, “Armed Forces Movement”) and seized power on April 25, 1974. Caetano’s government quickly surrendered and thousands poured into the streets to celebrate the Revolução dos Cravos (“Carnation Revolution”). The Revolution gets its name from stories of flower sellers giving red carnations to rebel soldiers, and the image of a flower in a rifle is still a popular icon. Free elections were finally carried out again after a period of political uncertainty when Communist and moderate parties vied for power.

To get a taste of this history, I follow a walking tour outlined in my guidebook. The directions lead me up the steps at the western end of Rossio and left on Calçada do Carmo. I eventually get to a calm, intimate square called Largo do Carmo, a good place to sit and relax under shady trees. The guidebook points out the Headquarters of the GNR (Guarda Nacional Republicana), Portugal’s national guard, at the eastern end of the square. After the uprising of the Revolution, prominent members of the government, including Salazar’s successor Caetano, fled to these barracks. People packed the square, somehow squeezing in beside the tanks commanded by rebel officers, and called for the capitulation of the old regime. Caetano and his cronies surrendered and fled to exile in Brazil the next day.

For sheer visual appeal the most interesting building on the square is the Convento do Carmo. The remarkable old cathedral, which is also visible from Rossio, was once the largest church in the city but was partly destroyed during the earthquake of 1755, which is hardly surprising as it was constructed on a precipice. Instead of a roof the cathedral is topped by the skeletal vault ribbing of the nave supported by the remaining walls. It now houses the Museu Arqueológico, an archeology museum.

I move on to the Travessa do Carmo, make a left on Rua Serpa Pinto, and then a right on Rua Garrett, named for a Romantic era writer. The area up here is known as Chiado and is popular as a shopping district, amply evidenced by the crafts shops and the Fnac mall. Chiado suffered much damage during a fire in August of 1988 and many of the marble façades of the buildings had to be restored. I pass by the Igreja dos Mártires (“Church of the Martyrs”), built on a site where the Crusaders who assisted in the 1147 siege of Lisbon once made camp. English members of the victorious army were later buried at this location.

The guidebook leads me to the walls across from the Teatro São Luiz on Rua Antónia Maria Cardoso, where graffiti dating from the socialist fervor following the Revolution is supposed to be visible. However, the wall has been newly painted over. The final stop on the tour is no. 26 on this street, the former Headquarters of the PIDE, Salazar’s secret police. I can’t find the exact address as the buildings are being renovated, a controversial move among those who want the spot turned into a museum. I also can’t find the plaque that commemorates the four people killed when PIDE operatives fired at the crowd that surrounded the building on the day of the Revolution, the only fatalities of a nearly bloodless uprising.

Next week I promise my wanderings on my first day in Lisbon will take a lighter turn.

Posted 7 November 2007


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Impressions after a Red-Eye Flight

We left off last week just as I’m getting on the subway to begin my adventure in Lisbon. You would think that the lack of sleep would severely impair my ability to figure out the public transit system, but I actually catch on fairly quickly, which I think is a testament to the system’s ease of use. I ride south from Alvalade to the Rossio station and emerge at Praça da Figueiroa. My first glimpse of the center of things takes in the mid-day sun beating down on tourists sitting in cafés, African immigrants conversing in clusters, and middle-aged Portuguese people briskly going about their business. On the heights to the east I can see the famed castle. Otherwise, the small square is unremarkable except for a statue of king Dom João I that dates from 1971.

As always, clarity is a forgotten thing on the first day in a new city. The fatigue of a night flight combines with jet-lag, general disorientation, and the human instinct to reject stimuli that refuse to fit a known frame of reference. Together, these elements make the foreign city seem more foreign than it is. My first impressions of Lisbon are jagged, and the city’s layout and flow of humanity seems much more chaotic than it will on my second and subsequent days. To focus my explorations, I use my guidebook to point me to interesting sights nearby.

Just north of the square is the church Igreja de São Domingos on Largo de São Domingos. The Inquisition once read its dread sentences here and auto-da-fé processions would frequently originate in the tiny square in front before proceeding to the Rossio, but the church is now better known for bearing the marks of a fire that gutted it in 1959. The ceiling, a long red barrel vault, has been restored, but the walls are rough and blackened, lending the space a battered but noble appearance. The altar was designed by the architect of the famous monastery of Mafra. Like Praça da Figueiroa, the square seems to be a locus for African immigrants.

I then pass to the nearby Rossio square, one of the central transportation hubs of the downtown area. The plaza is officially named after Dom Pedro IV, whose statue graces the center. However, the sculpture was originally intended to depict Emperor Maximiliano of Mexico. The statue switched identity when the unfortunate Maximiliano was assassinated while the statue just happened to be in Lisbon in 1870. This square seems less local and more formal than Praça da Figueiroa. The pavement has a distinctive pattern of black stones alternating with white stones in waves that can cause optical illusions if looked at from the right angle, especially if viewed by someone who slept on a plane the night before. The style is called calçada à portuguesa (“Portuguese paving”), and this particular example was completed in 1849.

Rossio was apparently always in the center of things, and it is conjectured that a hippodrome was located here when the city was in Roman hands. In 1506, the square was the epicenter for the gruesome murders of 2,000 to 4,000 Jews and suspected Jews in the surrounding area by frenzied mobs encouraged by Dominican friars. Though order was restored the massacre was only a prelude to the horrors experienced by the Jewish population, and Rossio was once notorious as the site of auto-da-fé during the Inquisition, which was housed in a building on a site at the north end now occupied by the Teatro Nacional de Dona Maria II, dating from 1846. If Rossio was ever haunted by these terrors, the ghosts may have been soothed a little when on the day of the 1974 Revolution a flower seller allegedly gave a carnation to a soldier, who placed the stem in his rifle barrel and gave the insurrection an enduring symbol, but I’ll get more into that in next week’s entry.

Posted 31 October 2007


The Seven Hills of Lisbon: Introduction

Just a couple of weeks ago I returned from a week in the thoroughly pleasant city of Lisbon, Portugal. Why Lisbon? True, you don’t often hear it mentioned in the list of the classic European capitals, that exclusive club of cities that one simply must visit, but a trip to Lisbon makes one wonder just why the city hasn’t made the cut. Whether you’re searching for good museums, fine cuisine, fascinating architecture, temperate climate, or a wealth of cultural opportunities, you can certainly find it here and often for cheaper than at other cities in Western Europe. The latter makes a big difference these days, and on my trip I was chagrined to learn that the dollar had hit an all-time high of $1.40 per Euro. Also, you would be hard-pressed to find a major capital in short range of so many beaches. When you factor in everything, the question really becomes: why not Lisbon?

Besides, no city quite looks like Lisbon. I mentioned hills right at the outset, and I feel like I managed to get to the top of all seven of them. Yes, a bit of hiking is involved to negotiate Lisbon’s slopes, but various forms of public transit are a big help. And from these heights you can revel in the beauty of a classic city and the blue of the river below. So I hope you enjoy reliving this trip with me, and on the way I hope to add snippets about Portuguese culture and history to provide context. If you need some help with pronouncing some of the Portuguese words I have included here, take a glance at my Portuguese pronunciation notes on my Portuguese grammar page.

I took this trip with a friend of mine, whom I will call the DJ, an old companion through travels and other life adventures from California. And yes, he is a working DJ. Because the DJ and I live in different cities we had to take separate flights to Europe. So the first leg of my journey is my own, but after we met in Lisbon the story is both of ours.

I have to begin the tale on a Tuesday morning, waking up after an overnight flight. Though Lisbon has some amazing architecture, my architectural feast actually begins with an appetizer even before I land in Portugal. My flight takes me through Madrid on Iberia Airlines. Transiting through Madrid’s Barajas airport allows me to take a good look at the new and much applauded Terminal 4, a design by Antonio Lamela and Richard Rogers unveiled in 2006 as the central hub for Iberia. My flight lands in the satellite terminal called T4S, which is primarily used for flights outside of the European Union. My first impression is of a series of pylons on V-shapes holding up the undulating ceiling down the length of the narrow terminal. The shapes gradually shift in color and proceed from one end of the spectrum to the other.

After I go through immigration and a security check I catch the underground automatic train that takes me to the T4 terminal. This terminal is similar, though the colors of the columns don’t seem to follow the entire color spectrum. I also notice many nautical details, like shapes resembling steamship stacks on the baggage carousels. Window glass is utilized to allow the maximum use of natural light to soften the environment. In general, I find the terminal less austere and more comfortable to be in than most others I have experienced.

The flight from Lisbon to Madrid lasts about an hour and seems to consist mostly of business travelers. Upon landing I discover that the DJ’s flight is delayed by a few hours, so instead of meeting with him I try to call S., a contact the DJ made on the website, a network for people looking for accommodations. I manage to get her on the line after a couple of abortive attempts. It turns out she is outside the airport in her car. I run out and jump in, hastily introducing myself and telling her the news about the DJ’s flight. We agree that she will go to work and I will go into the city until it is time to return to the airport to get the DJ.

S. works fairly close to the airport in an area called Alvalade, a primarily commercial district. When we reach her place of work she parks the car and points the way to the nearby Roma Metro station. The plan is for me to meet her back here in three hours. In the meantime I decide to just go into the historical area and look around for a bit. I use one of the automatic ticket machines in the Metro station to obtain an ida e volta (round-trip) ticket.

Let me pause here to give some description of public transit in Lisbon. The public transportation system is very efficient and reasonably priced, and one can get around well with a combination of the Metropolitano subway trains and the Carris network of buses and trams. The best deals for those of us wanting to travel a lot are the Sete Colinas (“seven hills”) cards, which permit unlimited travel on both the Metro and the Carris network. A one-day Sete Colinas card for the central zone costs 3.85€; the five-day card costs 14.00€. The cost includes a .50€ charge for the card itself. However, additional days can be added to the same card to save the .50€.

For the Metro, a single one-way (ida) ticket is .75€ and a round-trip ticket (ida e volta) costs 1.35€ within one zone. Only a handful of stations in residential areas are outside of the central zone. The Metro network consists of four lines known by their colors (red, green, blue, and yellow), most of which converge in the central area of the city. The Metro only dates from the 1960s so the stations look very modern and are maintained well. We find that trains run frequently and get us around the city quickly. On the Metro a single ticket is inserted into a slot, whereas the Sete Colinas card is rubbed over a scanner on top of the gate. Both need to be retained to exit the station due to the zone system.

Carris buses also have the scanners for the Sete Colinas cards, or single-ride tickets can be bought from the driver for 1.30€. Yes, strangely enough a bus ride costs more than a subway ride. The bus network is extensive and helps to fill in the territory not covered by the Metro. Some bus stops have good maps showing the entire network. Others at least list the stops for the bus line served.

Posted 24 October 2007


Spring in the Pacific Northwest: The Ethnic Enclaves of Vancouver

One of the best qualities about Vancouver is the multi-cultural texture. People of Chinese descent make up the largest ethnic minority, and you can get a good taste of the culture in Chinatown. Vancouver’s Chinatown is one of the oldest in North America as Chinese immigrants date back to the gold rush of the 1850s and the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s. You will likely enjoy walking through Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park, a pleasant little garden with a lovely lily pond. Next door is Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, a nice Ming Dynasty-style garden. The latter has an admission fee. Nearby is Shanghai Alley, site of the first Chinese settlement in Vancouver. At the end is a bell that marks the spot. At the intersection of West Pender and Taylor St. is the gate to Chinatown, which was actually only erected in 2002.

One of the most delightful sights is the Sam Kee building, known as the narrowest office building in the world. It was apparently built out of protest when Pender Street was widened and an owner who lost land in the deal insisted on still building on what was left. At 4-foot, 10-inches the building seems like merely a facade to the construction behind it. An insurance company still operates out of the cramped space, though there is only enough room for employees and customers are served out of the windows. The upper floor has an overhang and is more spacious. To sample some tea, stop at the Ten Ren Tea and Ginseng Company at Main and Keefer, where you can try some tasty green and jasmine teas.

Vancouver also has a large population of South Asians, primarily Punjabi Sikhs. Ethnic Punjabis have been in the area since the early part of the last century, inspired by Sikh soldiers who had served in the British army and were trying their fortunes in other parts of the commonwealth. Though the largest concentration is in the suburb of Surrey to the south, one of the best places to experience the culture is the Punjabi Market, centered on the intersection of 49th Ave. and Main St. in Vancouver. Here you’ll find street signs written in both English and Punjabi script and can enjoy indulging in Indian food at the various restaurants. The stores and groceries are also fun to explore. Hear the Bhangra music coming from the music stores and try not to start moving your body to the infectious rhythm.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this tour of Seattle and Vancouver, I was in the area for a wedding and naturally spent a lot of time with family, but I enjoyed what I saw of the two cities and hope that you found this glimpse enticing. Next week I’ll start blogging my recent trip to Lisbon, Portugal.

Posted 17 October 2007


Spring in the Pacific Northwest: As Urban as it Gets in Downtown Vancouver

Did I mention that Vancouver has a downtown? Yes, you can get a good urban experience to complement your nature tour in Vancouver. I find the downtown both manageable and attractive, and many of the high-rise apartment buildings have a somewhat Scandinavian look. Some of the landmark buildings include the geodesic dome of Science World, the Vancouver Lookout! tower (essentially an ungainly version of Seattle’s Space Needle, and yes, the exclamation point is officially part of the name), and the white sail-like structures of Canada Place (site of the Expo ’86 world’s fair).

The historic district is known as Gastown. This cobble-stoned neighborhood&emdash;named after “Gassy” Jack Deighton, who had a saloon constructed in the area in 1867&emdash;is the site of the original town that eventually grew into Vancouver. The area is now quite trendy and touristy.

For drinking and dining, one of the more pleasant areas is Commercial Drive just south of downtown. Farther west is the Kitsilano (“Kits”) neighborhood, popular for its beaches as well as pubs and places to hear live music. The scene is livened by its proximity to the University of British Columbia, a pleasant campus with buildings characterized by clean modern design.

If you don’t mind a trendier, more touristy scene, head to Granville Island. Originally a sandbar fortified with sludge that housed industrial and logging plants, Granville was redeveloped in the 1970s with restaurants, museums, and markets that used the available industrial buildings. Though the island is frequently crowded, you can enjoy a tour of the Granville Island Brewery and try out local goods at the indoor Public Market. The benches on the boardwalk outside looking out at False Creek are a nice place to sit and eat on a pleasant day.

Next week we’ll finish up our tour of Vancouver.

Posted 10 October 2007


Spring in the Pacific Northwest: The Greens and the Blues of Vancouver

After enjoying the calm pace of Seattle for a bit it was time to head north to Vancouver. The straight route between the two cities is Highway 5, but you actually have two options for crossing the border. The truck route, no. 543, veers off of Highway 5 and often provides an alternative if the main road seems clogged. The main road leads to the standard border crossing at the Peace Arch, named after a commemorative arch dedicated to the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. The U.S. and Canada have been at peace ever since.

What I found really striking about Vancouver is how much greenery you can find packed into an urban area. Plus, you’re rarely far from stirringly blue water. One of the best places to go to contemplate the scenery is Queen Elizabeth Park (Cambie Street and 33rd Avenue). From here, you can enjoy stunning views of the snow-capped mountains and the waters of the Burrard Inlet, both of which form a lovely backdrop to the high-rise buildings of downtown Vancouver. The colorful blooms of the park’s gardens are also lovely. If you’re hungry, you can stop at the Seasons in the Park restaurant at the summit. Although it is a bit pricey and touristy, the views from the window tables are unparalleled. Look for a commemorative plaque indicating that Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin dined here during the 1993 Vancouver Summit.

The other great place to enjoy nature is Stanley Park. Improbably located just to the north of downtown, Stanley Park is quite a treasure. Interestingly enough, it was originally set aside as a military reserve in the 1860s due to fears of an invasion from the U.S. In 1888 it was designated a park and somehow managed to survive to this day despite occupying a prime location for real estate. You can drive through it, but if you have the time I would recommend walking or cycling the seawall path that follows the coastline of the entire park.

As you head along the northern coast of the park, the first thing you notice are totem poles, replicas of poles representing various native tribes of British Columbia. You can also see the Nine O’Clock Gun, a cannon that used to signal curfew time for fishermen and still goes off at 9:00 every night. Also look for the Girl in a Wetsuit statue (modeled after the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen) standing on some rocks offshore. Nearby is a replica of the dragon figurehead that once graced the prow of the SS Empress of Japan. The next landmark is the Lumberman’s Arch, formed by a single tree trunk.

Definitely stop for a bit at Prospect Point, affording great views of North Vancouver, the city across the inlet, and the mountains beyond. Parking is $2.00 per hour but is good throughout the park. Another nice place to stop is the Hollow Tree, a burnt cedar stump. Walk the trail down to the beach for fantastic views of Vancouver Island in the mists to the west along with a number of container ships that serve the ports. Also look for the Siwash Rock, a 50-foot-high offshore promontory.

Next week we’ll spend some time in downtown Vancouver.

Posted 3 October 2007


Spring in the Pacific Northwest: Capitol Hill

As my traveling companions and I found ourselves in Seattle with a rental car at our disposal, we decided we would get out of the downtown area and explore a bit. We found the Capitol Hill area, a bit inland and east of the water, to be of interest. It can also be reached by bus from downtown. Just remember that if you're taking a bus from the downtown free zone you pay when you debark. Vice versa if you're coming back into the free zone. Capitol Hill has been a magnet for Seattle’s counter culture since the 1960s, and today it remains a center for the city’s student and gay life.

The Pine and Pike corridor, two east-west streets, define the axis of the neighborhood, and you’ll get a good feel for the place by walking around here. Many of the bars and restaurants are along the main north-south street East Broadway. And if you’re in the mood for dessert, I would highly recommend Cafe Dilettante (416 E. Broadway between E. Republican and E. Harrison). You can get chocolate in a wide variety of forms here, including hot chocolate and a wonderfully moist Rigó Jancsi, a chocolate Hungarian torte similar to a sachertorte.

For a pleasant drive, head north on East Broadway along pleasant tree-lined streets with huge houses and stunning views of Puget Sound. Just to the north of Capitol Hill is an understated green space called Volunteer Park. You will likely enjoy walking around the grass, but the real reason to come here are the views from a rather large water tower on a prominent hill. Two stairways spiral around the water tank itself, allowing you to climb to the top and gaze out at the fantastic bodies of water that seem to ring the city on all sides. Exhibits offer information on the municipal planning of Seattle’s parks. It happens that Volunteer and others were designed by the Olmsted Brothers, the firm run by the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central and Prospect parks in New York.

And though Seattle is a wonderful city with both natural and man-made beauty, we also experienced another facet of its reputation. Yes, it rains a lot in Seattle. Even while we were there in the spring the rain came down quite a bit. I like the resilience of the locals, many of whom seemed perfectly comfortable walking around without umbrellas as I and my group cowered under awnings. So just don’t count on perfect weather and don’t let a little rain spoil your fun.

Next week we’ll take a journey north to Vancouver.

Posted 26 September 2007


Spring in the Pacific Northwest: The Heart of Seattle

A good visit to Seattle may begin at the Seattle Center, but it should certainly go on from there, and you will find that other sights await you as you probe farther south. Keep in mind that although the area is very walkable you can also opt to take busses, which are actually free in a certain zone of downtown. One thing you might enjoy is the Seattle Art Museum, which has a small collection but usually attracts visitors on the strength of its temporary exhibits.

You might also be interested in a brand new building that has graced the downtown Seattle scene of late: the Seattle Central Library at 4th Avenue and Madison Street. Yes, I realize the thought of walking into a library for sight-seeing seems odd, but you probably haven’t seen many libraries like this one. The building was designed by contemporary architect Rem Koolhaas, and if you know his work you will understand why it has astonished visitors and residents alike since its opening in 2004. The exterior is in panes of diamond-patterned glass and steel that extends in odd directions for ten floors. Walk in and proceed up the escalator to the main room, called the Living Room, a spacious environment flooded with natural light. Next, an escalator takes you to the Mixing Chamber, where patrons use public computers and seek help from librarians in a space painted in vibrant red. Two more escalators take you up to the tenth floor from where the highest point affords a dizzying view of the Living Room below. Then walk the Books Spiral, a series of ramps that leads along the vast dewey decimal-organized stacks of books down to the sixth floor. At each step you will find intriguing design details, all of which make for a fascinating library visit.

If you’re interested in more historical experiences, go farther south to Pioneer Place, the historic city center. Here you will find a totem pole that is a replacement of an original stolen from Native Americans in 1890. In 1938, this original burned down and $5,000 was sent to the Tlingit tribe for a replacement. Their reputed reply was: "Thanks for paying for the first one. Send another $5,000 for a replacement."

At the Underground cafe at 608 First Ave you can get tickets for the Underground Tour, an odd attraction that is both touristy and a genuine history lesson. Apparently, Seattle grew up as a saw mill on tide flats. But naturally there were problems with flooding, and sewage would often back up through plumbing. This on top of accidents with sinkholes in sawdust landfill. Thus, after Seattle burned in the 1889 fire the city started to build up the streets by setting up brick walls along the sidewalks, filling them in, and paving over the tops. The levels of these streets increased progressing east, so whereas First Avenue was only 10-feet higher, Sixth was more like 30 feet. However, the local businesses continued operation, so customers would have to climb up and down into sidewalks with ladders. Eventually, the sidewalks were covered, creating indoor malls. After the 1907 plague, the legitimate businesses were shut down, but in the 1920s speakeasies thrived. The entrances were finally cemented over and now these passageways can only be accessed from the first floor of the buildings. The Underground Tour will take you through a couple of these passages and give you a full account of the history.

Naturally, good food and drink were a staple of my visit, and I have to mention three of my favorites. All are in the Belltown area, a once run-down district near Seattle Center that is now a trendy home to new restaurants and bars.

Café Campagne:
1600 Post Alley at Pine Street. If you like a European experience, this place and the affiliated Campagne restaurant are good places to go. Enjoy French wines and a cheese plate and move on to carefully prepared entrées and desserts.

Macrina Bakery and Cafe:
2408 1st Avenue at Battery Street. A great place for coffee and well-crafted baked goods any time of the day, but people really come out for the weekend brunch, when the special bread pudding is very popular.

Two Bells Tavern:
2313 4th Avenue at Bell Street. If you like a homey local pub for your food and drink, Two Bells is highly recommended. The selection of draught beer is heavy on local brews, and if you’re at all hesitant about something they’re more than willing to let you try a small sampling glass before ordering. The food is also worthy of note. If you’re on a budget, you might shoot for the Monday evening all-you-can-eat pasta deal for $6.95, but I would recommend the basic burger, whose name isn’t worthy of the thick patty of beef served on good crusty bread.

Next week we’ll venture out of Seattle’s downtown area and explore a bit.

Posted 12 September 2007


Spring in the Pacific Northwest: Rocking Out in Seattle Center

A few months ago now a family wedding took me to a part of the continent I know little about but that I acquired quite an affection for. My brief overview of the region began with a couple of days in Seattle. Like many mid-size cities, Seattle is both sprawling and compact in that it encompasses a large area that you’re not likely to see much of if you’re just visiting as you will probably confine your travels to a relatively small downtown area.

Like many people, I stayed in the vicinity of Seattle Center, the site of the 1962 World’s Fair and current home to the famous Space Needle. Though as overused an icon of a city as the Eiffel Tower, the Space Needle actually has a very elegant retro-futuristic look when seen from close up, and the view from the top is unbeatable. You can complete the retro-tour with a ride on the monorail, which also originated with the World’s Fair. It only goes a short distance but it’s still fun.

However, for me the must-see at Seattle Center is the Experience Music Project. I consider the name both a bit pretentious and somehow ennobling because the EMP is essentially a museum of rock ‘n’ roll. The “experience” begins with the building itself, designed by noted architect Frank Gehry with his characteristic undulating metal. If you take the monorail, you will actually drift through some of these blobby metal shapes. Inside, you’ll be treated to an extensive tour of rock history, including plenty of scholarly text, artifacts, and, of course, music.

Naturally, there is a special Hendrix Gallery, a fine collection in tribute to one of the city’s most famous residents, even though he only made his name in music after leaving. The handwritten lyrics and outfits are particularly fun. Another highlight is the Guitar Gallery, a fascinating history of the evolution of the electric guitar, focusing on the quest for greater volume and including many rare guitars. And try, if you can, to tear yourself away from the Sound Lab. In this space, various instruments are mounted for play in small booths, including guitar, bass, drums, and keyboard. Fine interactive displays give tutorials. You can also play with effects pedals (the wah-wah is particularly fun), a sampling keyboard, turntables for beat-matching, and a mixing board. Visitors can also jam in sound booths or produce demo CDs.

Going south from Seattle Center will take you deeper into downtown. One of the most heavily trafficked spots in this area is Pike Place Market. Dating from 1907, this is the oldest continuous public market in the country. Your tourist-trap alert will be going off as soon as you enter, but you would do well to enjoy a fresh salmon sandwich at the Market Grill for much cheaper than it would cost you at the many touristy seafood restaurants. And depending on your sympathies, you will either shudder in dread or genuflect in awe when you see the very first Starbucks cafe close to the market. I’m only half-joking about the genuflecting: when I was there a group of people were standing before it as if in a sort of mute religious rapture.

Next week we’ll see a bit more of what downtown Seattle has to offer.

Posted 12 September 2007


Summering on Maine’s Route One: A Blue Hill and a Deer Isle

Continuing over the Penobscot bridge will set you on an easterly course past the town of Bucksport and towards Ellsworth. The area is known for its antique stores, the most famous of which is probably the Big Chicken Barn, located about halfway between the two towns. And sure enough, the store is housed in a huge chicken barn, but the poultry has been replaced by tons of antiques and used books. Browsing the wares is fun even if you don’t buy anything, and the upstairs book area has comfortable chairs to sit in.

Unless you’re in a big hurry to get north, I highly recommend a detour onto the islands to the south, usually done via Route 15 south from Route One. You’ll soon reach the village of Blue Hill, where you can appreciate the tiny harbor and browse some of the pottery shops that the place is famous for.

Hikers will enjoy going up Blue Hill Mountain. To get there, take Mountain Road between Route 15 and Route 172 (Ellsworth Road). You will probably see some cars lined up alongside the road where you can park. Otherwise, the trail head is easy to miss from the road. The hiking offers a 45-minute medium-effort ascent to the rocky summit of the hill with a great view of the bay. You can continue on the trail and come down the other side of the mountain, in which case you’ll need to walk back along Mountain Road to your car. Also close to Blue Hill are the Blue Hill Falls on Route 175 just off of Route 172, an interesting example of a set of reversing falls that can be enjoyed with watercraft or just visually. The views of the water from this secluded area are quite lovely.

If you want to get even farther away from civilization and closer to the water, continue south on Route 15. At some point you will pass over a bridge onto Little Deer Isle and will shortly be on Deer Isle itself. One diversion you can make at this point is taking Sunshine Road east from the town of Deer Isle. The little road will curve through some pretty countryside frequently fronted with water. I should advise you that much of the water access in this area is private. I was able to find a pier to park and enjoy the view of a harbor, but I can’t say whether it was public access or if I just didn’t stick around long enough to be chased away. You might also want to stop at Nervous Nellie’s (598 Sunshine Road), and enjoy some homemade jams and chutneys, all available for purchase, tasting, and spreading on scones in the café. A local sculptor has created some interesting metal constructions in the woods behind Nellie’s, and you should really stop and take a look at his Grail Castle, complete with Parsifal, the Fisher King, and other characters from the myth.

Continuing south on Route 15 will bring you to Stonington, a small fishing village at the southern point of Deer Isle. I would say that Stonington is the polar opposite of a town like Camden, which we encountered earlier in these entries. Few tourists make it down this far, and the harbor is filled with fishing boats instead of pleasure yachts. The scene is very local and low-key, but if you’re respectful you should feel fine spending some time here. You could probably sit for quite a while watching the activities of the lobster fishermen. For food I highly recommend the Fisherman’s Friend (5 Atlantic Avenue), a local, unpretentious restaurant known for serving up fresh seafood at decent prices. Do not pass up the lobster stew, either in a cup or a bowl portion. It’s probably the best I’ve had.

And what next? We’re only halfway up the coast of Maine, and the delights of Acadia National Park await us just up Route One. However, Deer Isle is as far as I’ve managed to get so I’ll need to end our journey here. I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I've enjoyed reliving it, and I can definitely say the pull of Maine will certainly get me up there again before too long.

Posted 5 September 2007


Summering on Maine’s Route One: Playing Fort

Continuing on Route One will soon bring you in sight of a massive and modern bridge spanning the Penobscot River. The construction is an example of a modern single-plane, cable-stay bridge, similar to the notable Zakim bridge in Boston. Look closely at the first column and you might notice windows at the top. Yes, you can actually go to the top of the bridge. To do so, take the last left before you reach the bridge and follow the signs to Fort Knox. There, a combination ticket will get you into both the observation tower and the fort itself, or you can just get a ticket for the fort.

Though the observation tower may be the primary attraction, I would urge you to spend some time in the fort as well. I admit I have a certain fascination for military fortifications and have been known to linger in the crumbling castles of Europe. Fort Knox (no, not the one with all the gold bars) isn’t nearly that old and only dates from 1844, when it was built to defend the area against a possible invasion by the British. Further fears of invasion kept it active during the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. No enemy ever attempted to attack the fort, and it’s easy to see why as it represents a formidable defense. Just imagine yourself on a ship entering the harbor and seeing an array of cannons ranged against you in four batteries, all of them cased in thick stone walls, and it’s hard to think of a better reason to mutiny.

Unlike the smaller and fragmented Fort William Henry, which we visited in an earlier part of these blog entries, Fort Knox is in remarkably good condition, probably because it wasn’t destroyed like the other one was. Some might be a little disappointed that Knox never saw any action as such, but it seems to me that the most effective forts are the ones that seem so impregnable that they never get attacked at all.

Before entering the main fort, I would recommend wandering into one of the batteries. There, a long stairway leads down into shadowy bunkers where you can look out at the harbor and imagine the sightlines of the cannons that were once mounted there. The main fort has an inner courtyard that was used as a parade ground, though it seems so small you can’t imagine a lot of extensive parading going on. You can also enter the barracks and officers’ quarters. One of these rooms is outfitted with period equipment and furniture to give you a sense of how the officers lived.

Although the cannons were all taken away and melted down to provide metal for World War II, a couple of them were since restored, so you can see the full size of one of these behemoths. A detailed illustration shows you just how much work it took to fire a single shot. Definitely explore the long alleys that go along both the inner and outer sections of the fort. The gun ports open on an inner channel where enemy troops would be caught in a deadly crossfire, if they ever managed to make it this far of course. So much of the fort is open for exploration that you may find yourself reverting to childhood and playing "fort." You shouldn’t feel bad as Civil War reenactment societies like to do essentially the same thing here, but they of course have more authentic outfits.

Posted 29 August 2007


Summering on Maine’s Route One: Penobscot Bay

As you head north on Route One you will find yourself driving along the perimeter of Penobscot Bay, home of a number of small towns, each with a distinctive character. The first major one you reach is Rockland (fans of Allen Ginsberg should note it’s not the same Rockland that appears in Howl). I have to qualify all of my comments about Rockland by saying I managed by sheer coincidence to reach there during the annual lobster festival, which draws in the crowds and can make it a little difficult to enjoy the small town charms of the place. That said, Rockland has a pleasant commercial historic center and a nice harbor. If you wish to avoid the town completely (which you should consider if you don’t actually wish to spend time there as traffic tends to back up), you can take Route 90 just after Waldeboro (perhaps stopping at the historic Moody’s Diner on Route One).

Route 90 meets up with Route One again in the twin towns of Rockport and Camden. Rockport is sleepy and seems to have little going on. Camden, however, is a bustling destination for tourists of all sorts, though those with bigger bank accounts tend to feel more comfortable here. Just take a look at all of the luxury yachts docked in the harbor and you’ll see what I mean. Although the area around the water and the town park are pretty, I find the scene a little too bourgeois for my taste, and it’s not the best place to eat if you’re on a budget. However, I did enjoy eating at the Waterfront Restaurant (40 Bay View Street), mainly because in addition to the upscale dinner menu they also offer a grill menu with less expensive offerings that you can enjoy in the lounge area.

Head north out of Camden and you’ll see a strip of bed and breakfast inns, all located in quaint old houses, though the location along the busy road probably means the guests paying premium prices to stay at these places may not sleep very well. Past the B&B district is another collection of accommodations, but these are mainly motels and likely better suited to your budget if you just want a simple place to rest your head for the night. If you end up travelling without advance reservations (not advisable in the high season), your best bet is to just go along this strip and look for vacancy signs.

Those who want to escape the stuffiness of Camden would do well to stop at Camden Hills State Park, just off of Route One a little north of the town. Day use is $3.00 per person and allows access to picnic tables and hiking trails. The Megunticook trail will take you up to the top of the titular mountain, where fantastic views await you. If you want to save yourself the exertion you can simply drive to the top of Mount Battie and look out upon the harbor. Climb up the monument to World War I to get even higher. Also note a plaque with an early poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, who grew up in the area and was inspired by the view.

Continuing north on Route One brings you to my personal favorite of the towns along the Penobscot: Belfast. Neither as commercial as Rockland nor as touristy as Camden, Belfast is just a pleasant harbor town where you can sit in the waterfront park and enjoy the water or stroll in the historic district and take in the classic brick architecture. A great place to eat and drink in Belfast is Darby’s (155 High Street), a classic pub dating from the Civil War era. Enjoy the original tin ceiling and bar, try some regional brews on draught, and indulge in a Picky toe crab roll, a fresh local specialty.

Posted 21 August 2007


Summering on Maine’s Route One: How to Enjoy the View whether Sitting in Traffic or Exploring the Pemaquid Peninsula

As you may suspect, the farther north you travel up the coast of Maine the thinner the crowds get, the fewer tourists you encounter, and the more local and “authentic” the experience. However, at this point we’re only just outside of Portland. While here, you may, if you enjoy shopping more than I do, feel like stopping at Freeport, a town best known for a plethora of outlet and other stores. The most popular destination is the L. L. Bean store, as big as a mall itself and ready to satisfy all of your outdoor needs, even if the need hits you in the middle of the night (the store is open 24 hours).

Whether or not you wear yourself out by shopping, you may want to stop briefly at the town of Topsham where the Sea Dog Brewing Company (1 Main Street) offers decent food and very good beer, best enjoyed on the outdoor deck with a view of the gentle rapids on the Androscoggin River. Continuing east on Route One will take you through Bath and then over a bridge with a majestic view of the Kennebec river.

I should give you a warning here that this part of Route One frequently experiences traffic jams, particularly during the summer when it seems like everyone in Massachusetts had the same idea for a vacation in Maine that you did. I find that traffic can be especially bad at the stretch through Wiscasset, a town that bills itself as the “Prettiest Village in Maine” on a sign as you approach. I haven’t been all over Maine, but quite frankly I’ve been in plenty of towns that easily beat Wiscasset for the title of prettiest. I don’t know if it’s this bit of over-inflated advertising or the placement of Red’s Eats, a popular lobster shack, right off the road, but cars can back up quite a bit, and I would urge you to not attempt passage during rush hour or a weekend afternoon as you may get stuck for a while. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to bypass the place, so you might have to just take in the historic city center and the pretty view of the river as you slowly crawl along.

Once past Wiscasset, you may want to take a detour down one of the peninsulas that fan out into the ocean. Boothbay Harbor is a popular destination, but its tourist trap reputation has kept me away. Instead, I recommend a trip out onto the Pemaquid Peninsula. If you take Route 129 out of Damariscotta and then switch to Route 130 and head south as far as you can go, you will hit Pemaquid Point, a rocky beach with great ocean views and shady picnic tables. The Fisherman’s Museum here offers a glance at local history. An even greater delight is the lighthouse, which you can climb up to see the multi-prism light from up close for the price of a nominal donation.

Another nice diversion on the peninsula is Colonial Pemaquid (off Snowball Hill Road at Pemaquid Beach), a museum with artifacts from the original 1623 settlement in this area. Included in the admission price is Fort William Henry. Though only the main tower is left (and even that part is a replica), the fort has definitely seen some history, and in 1696 it surrendered to French and Indian attackers. If the fort doesn’t impress you, the views of the bay from here certainly will.

Posted 15 August 2007


Summering on Maine’s Route One: Portland

When it comes to the expansive lands of the United States, my favorite cities are definitely New York City and San Francisco, but if I were to choose my favorite states out of the fifty, Maine would make the list before both New York and California for simple reasons that include the green and blue-veined landscape, the friendly people, and one of the loveliest coastlines in the country. And just as the Pacific coast has a highway appropriately called Highway One due to its primacy as a scenic route, Maine has a Route One that winds up along the fjord-like inlets all the way to the Canadian border.

I’ve been on a few visits to the various towns and beaches on this coastline, the most recent and extensive ending just a few days ago. So for the mid-summer edition of this blog I thought I would offer a tour up the coast and share some of my favorite spots for enjoying the manifold pleasures of Maine.

And what better place to begin the journey than a beach? Personally, I’m a much bigger fan of rocky beaches than the sandy variety, and Maine is effective at providing for my perhaps unusual inclination. One of my favorite beaches is at Two Lights State Park in Cape Elizabeth, reached by taking Route 207 off of Route One and continuing on Route 77. Here you can find plenty of rocks large and small to clamber over as well as a working lighthouse and an old bunker that once contained 16" guns and guarded the coast in World War II from an invasion that never came. Seafood fans may want to try the specialties and open-air seating at the Lobster Shack (225 Two Lights Road), though I warn you it is touristy and often packed out. If you like lighthouses, you may want to continue on 77 and then take Shore Road to Fort Williams Park, where you can enjoy the Portland Head Light, Maine’s oldest lighthouse, as well as the remains of the fort.

Heading north from Cape Elizabeth takes you to Portland. Though drifting through small towns is the best way to enjoy Maine (and in all honesty the state has few big ones), I can never resist a stop in Portland when cruising up Route One. And despite the fact that it’s Maine’s largest city, Portland still retains an intimate feel. The Old Port area is the most historic and charming and accordingly attracts the most visitors. Nearby Congress Street has a vibrant arts scene with galleries and the Portland Museum of Art, housed in an I. M. Pei-designed building and sporting a collection heavy on works by artists with a Maine connection. I would also recommend wandering out to the Eastern Promenade, a park along the water. The best views are from the Portland Observatory (138 Congress Street). Though you may think of an observatory as a means of surveying the stars, this one was built to watch the surrounding bay and dates from 1807.

For fans of microbreweries, I highly recommend local favorite Gritty McDuff’s (396 Fore Street at Exchange Street). The beer is brewed on the premises and generally satisfies discerning brew palates. Here’s a tip: if you go in the front entrance on Fore Street, you’ll find a bar-and-grill suitable for families during the day and conducive to noisy college drink-fests at night. If you’re looking for a different scene, go through the back entrance on Wharf Street, where the space is more intimate and includes outdoor seating on the cobblestones on nice days.

Posted 8 August 2007


Madrid’s Other Museums: Part 2

The next stop on our look at Madrid’s less famous museums is a big one and could easily take up a lot of time to see properly, but I think those who put in the effort will learn a lot about the tapestry of Spanish history and the different cultures that combined to make up the unique Spanish character.

Museo Arqueológico Nacional:
Calle de Serrano 13. On the other side of the same building that houses the national library. Entry 3€, free on Saturday afternoon. The exhibition begins with a few rooms devoted to early humanoid anthropology and Greek, Egyptian, and Roman antiquities, none of which I find very impressive as I’ve seen enough similar artifacts in many other museums. The most interesting exhibits for me focus on Spanish history. One room offers a look at the original Celtic inhabitants of Spain who were conquered by the Romans and includes a model of Numancia, a town encircled and destroyed by the Romans. The Carthaginian colonization of Ibiza is represented by a collection of small ritual figures. Other early Iberian artifacts include the Pozo Moro funerary monument, a towering tomb from around 500 B.C. From the same period are the famous Lady of Baza and Lady of Elx, Iberian sculptures from the 4th-5th century B.C. The Roman section includes some fantastic mosaics dating from the Roman occupation of the peninsula.

After the Roman Empire declined, the Visigoths settled in Spain. Several artifacts highlight the rule of Leovigild, the Visigoth ruler who left the greatest mark and established his capital in Toledo. A Toledo sarcophagus with the Apostles dates from this era. Other Christian objects are included as well. One room is devoted to the treasure of Guarrazar, a collection of jewelry and votive crowns once belonging to Visigoth kings from 621-672, found in the environs of Toledo. The collection really comes alive for me with the objects from Al-Andalus, the former Moorish region of Spain. The carved capitals and bronze astrolabes are interesting, the latter reflecting the advancements of Muslim science. A real highlight is an archway from the Aljafería Palace in Zaragoza. The exhibit continues with artifacts in Gothic and mudéjar style from the Christian kingdoms that took over after the reconquista. One 15th-century door to a cathedral has an Islamic star design with Gothic lettering. The most fantastic relic from this period is a domed wooden roof set in the ceiling, elegantly patterned with interlocking stars. The collection closes on the top floor with objects from the 16th to the 19th centuries that are not that interesting compared to those in the other rooms.
The Leopard’s verdict: Anyone interested in Spain’s history or who wants to see some fine artifacts from long ago will consider the treasures in this museum mandatory.

Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporáneo:
Calle del Conde Duque 9-11. Free entry. The contemporary art museum is housed in an old ducal palace that also contains a music venue. It is rather small and contains art similar to that of the contemporary section of the Reina Sofía. I particularly enjoy the ‘60s era woodcuts, which seem to be of a rebellious nature and were likely censored during the Franco era.
The Leopard’s verdict: Good for those who are very interested in contemporary art. Others will probably get their fill at the Reina Sofía.

El Museo del Jamón:
Carrera de San Jerónimo at Calle Victoria (with other locations nearby). Okay, I’m being a little cheeky with this one. The Museum of Ham is really not a museum but a chain restaurant and deli. However, you can get plenty of ham and other food in various guises here. One section has a restaurant and bar, another sells take-away sandwiches and pastries, and a third offers deli portions. A bocadillo de jamón is only 1.30€, which is a good price for a filling ham sandwich.
The Leopard’s verdict: Great for lovers of ham, and most others could probably find other tasty things in the deli section.

Ayuntamiento (City Hall):
Plaza de la Villa. Free tours of this classic municipal building are given every Monday at 5:00 in both English and Spanish. Inside, you get to sit in the Salón del Pleno (council chamber), an opulent room with 17th-century ceiling frescoes, and hear about the city council proceedings. The other rooms include a sort of banquet and reception hall with a lovely glass ceiling; a staircase with three old tapestries, one based on a Rubens painting of Helen of Troy; a room with some paintings, including one by Goya; and a room with some treasures, including a silver monstrance and documents containing the first laws of Madrid.
The Leopard’s Verdict: As there is currently only one tour a week I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way just to see city hall, but if you have the time you might enjoy this look at the interior of a classic and still functioning building.

Yes, I confess that some of the museums I have mentioned would not have been at all missed had I not made a visit, but of course you never know until you actually go in (and did you notice that there’s no price for entry to most of these?). I certainly don’t claim to have visited all of the museums in Madrid. Among others, I missed the interior of the Palacio Real (Royal Palace), the Museo de Artes Decorativas (Museum of Decorative Arts), the Casa de la Moneda (museum devoted to currency), the Museo de la Escultura Abstracta (Museum of Abstract Sculpture), the Museo Taurino (bullfighting museum), the Convento de las Descalzas Reales (a convent full of fine frescoes and tapestries), the Museo de la Ciudad (City Museum), and the Museo del Ferrocarril (Railroad Museum). But there’s always next time. And if anyone out there has visited any of these or others and wishes to recommend them (or recommend against them as the case may be), definitely drop me a line and let me know.

Posted 11 July 2007


Madrid’s Other Museums

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of museums, but I will have to admit that my fetish compels me to waste valuable vacation time in places that just don’t have that much to offer even as it inspires me to discover out-of-the-way treasures. I’ve already mentioned quite a few of the major museums in these pages—including the Prado, the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, the Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Academia de Bellas Artes, and the Lázaro Galdiano—but like all the major European cities Madrid abounds in a number of smaller museums. For the sake of the curious, I’m going to mention all of the “specialty” museums that I visited and give you my honest opinion so you can assess whether they’re worth your time.

Museo de San Isidro:
Plaza de San Andrés 2. Free entry. This small museum marks the spot where the city’s patron saint San Isidro died. The building itself is new, but the courtyard is from the 16th century. The exhibition has some interesting artifacts from Madrid's history, including some excavated objects, a Roman mosaic and tomb from a villa in Carabanchel to the south of the city, and Muslim crafts. The models depicting Madrid at various times in history are instructive. In one room is a deep well connected with one of the saint’s miracles. San Isidro allegedly called the well’s water to rise to rescue the son of his master after the boy fell in. Another room contains a 17th-century chapel in nice condition.
The Leopard’s verdict: Pleasant to pop into if you’re in the area around the Plaza Mayor and are interested in seeing some history.

Museo Naval:
Paseo del Prado 5. Free entry. You’ll find the security a little tighter than is usual for museums as this one is attached to the headquarters of the Spanish Navy. The museum has the expected collection of model ships (including the fabled Spanish armada), regalia, admiralty portraits, and other artifacts. One room has a huge oil painting of Christopher Columbus in the New World. Another central room has a large red sail captured from the Ottomans at the decisive Battle of Lepanto (1571). It has since been embroidered with a ducal standard. Relics and standards from the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) are included. Another room focuses on the Spanish-American War with a model of the naval Battle of Santiago (1898) at Cuba and a captured American flag. The Civil War room includes a Nazi flag captured from the German vessel Deutschland, bombarded by Republican planes in 1937. The room dedicated to exploration has a large map of the world depicting the travel routes of the principal Spanish explorers and includes a chart by Juan de la Cosa from 1500 that is apparently the oldest extant map that includes the New World. The modern navy room has a model of the Spanish navy’s flagship, an aircraft carrier called the Príncipe de Asturias. Its deck sports miniatures of American-made Harrier jets and Blackhawk helicopters.
The Leopard’s verdict: Military history and maritime buffs will have a great time here, but others might get bored by the seemingly endless portraits of admiralty and sailing ships.

Museo Municipal:
Calle de Fuencarral 78. Free entry. The building was constructed as a hospice in 1721 and sports a lavish stone portico, though much seems to be under renovation. The temporary exhibit consists of a pleasant series of black-and-white photos of Madrid from 1965 to 1990. The permanent collection focuses on the history of the city through paintings and artifacts. The highlight is a model of the city from 1830 before the Gran Vía was built and only farms existed to the west of the Palacio Real.
The Leopard’s verdict: Not much to see here, though that may change after renovations are complete. People who have wandered the city a bit will probably enjoy the model to compare it to the city today.

Biblioteca Nacional y Museo del Libro (National Library and Book Museum):
Paseo de los Recoletos 20, just south of the Plaza de Colón. Free entry. The city’s main library is housed in a grand 1892 building. In the basement is a museum that just opened recently and is very modern in conception and design. Among the expected rare books are exhibits on book printing. I notice a facsimile of the epic Spanish poem El Cantar de Mio Cid, better known as El Cid, and an Index of Forbidden Books listing publications banned by the Grand Inquisitor.
The Leopard’s verdict: Fans of rare books and printing will probably have fun taking a quick look, but others will likely be unimpressed.

Next week: The museum tour continues with a look at the treasures of the National Archeology Museum.

Posted 3 July 2007


Goya in Madrid

The two names probably the most associated with Spanish art are Picasso and Goya. I mentioned in an earlier entry that you can see some great art by Picasso at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid (including the stunning Guernica), but the fact is you’ll find a lot more of the master’s work at the Picasso Museum in Paris. Goya, however, is a different story as he was a court painter for Spanish royalty and did some of his finest work in Madrid. I’ve already mentioned the numerous Goya paintings you can see at the Prado, but I want to make sure and talk about three smaller museums in Madrid so true Goya enthusiasts can get their fill.

The mandatory stop on all Goya pilgrimages is the Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida. Though it’s not the easiest place to get to (requiring a metro ride and a transfer to a bus), the trip is well worth it and entry is free. Goya did all of the frescoes on the walls and ceiling of this tiny building in 1798 at the request of King Carlos IV. Goya’s tomb is here as well, his body having been transferred in 1919 from Bordeaux, where he died in 1828. The cupola has a trompe l’oeil fresco depicting one of the miracles of St. Anthony. According to the legend, the saint called on the corpse of a murder victim to rise up and absolve the saint’s father, who had been falsely accused of the crime. The rest of the ceiling and the walls include cherubs and other figures holding up a royal drapery in white with gold detailing. The painting technique is very soft and pastel and fits the gentle curves and intimacy of the space. Mirrors have been placed to allow easy viewing of the frescoes without neck strain. The location of the Ermita is also significant as it is near the Cementario de la Florida, where 43 rebels executed by French troops on May 3, 1808 are buried. They were killed on the Montaña del Príncipe Pío where a train and metro station are now located. The event is famously commemorated by Goya in his painting The Third of May, which can be seen at the Prado.

Much closer to the heart of things is the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (Calle de Alcalá 13, within walking distance of Puerta del Sol; entry fee 3€). Founded in the 17th century, this academy of art once boasted Picasso and Dalí among its students, but the two found it too stuffy for their taste, which should give you an indication of what to expect. The collection is small, but interestingly enough more of the signs are in English than at the Prado. You can find some fine paintings by Francisco Zurbarán (1598-1664), Luis de Morales (1515-86), El Greco (1541-1614), and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-82). Naturally, I am most drawn to the works of Goya, some of which pre-date the famous pinturas negras by only a few years and evince his growing interest in dark subject matter. In Procession of Flagellants (1816), a group of conical-hatted and masked penitents lumber along like the damned. Goya apparently witnessed the scene himself. Inquisition Scene (1816) focuses on similar figures, now facing the dread judgment of the inquisitors. The Madhouse (1812-14) is a realistic observation of men twisted in various poses of insanity. Burial of the Sardine (1812-9) is a bit lighter in tone and depicts a religious festival, this time without flagellation.

The final museum for Goya fans is the Museo Lázaro Galdiano (Calle de Serrano 122, entry fee 4€, free on Sunday). This small collection of art is housed in a 20th-century Italianate mansion once owned by private collector Don José Lázaro Galdiano. Much of the information is in English. The exhibition covers a good span of European art. Some of Goya’s darker works are here, including what might be a copy of Procession of Flagellants (1816). Both The Witches (1797-98) and Witches’ Sabbath (1797-98) are obvious precursors to the pinturas negras. The former is a grim work showing witches bearing babies in a basket approaching a cowering victim while a demon hovers above. The latter is an early version of the pintura negra of the same title. This one shows a horned devil being offered a child sacrifice. Goya’s Entombment of Christ (1771-72) is an interesting religious work by the master.

Of course, I could go on and mention various houses where Goya was known to have lived as well as locations of his workshops and such, but surely nobody could be obsessed enough to track each of these places down. Or could they?

Posted 27 June 2007


The Winding Streets of Toledo, Part 3

Having stopped at houses of worship for two of the world’s major religions, I intend to finish up my tour of Toledo by concentrating on the third. My first stop on this leg of the trip is the church and monastery Iglesia San Juan de los Reyes (entry fee 1.90€). Commissioned in 1476 by Fernando and Isabel (the rulers who bankrolled Columbus), the monastery contains a Franciscan cathedral and a cloister. The church is a nicely ornamented Gothic cathedral with good stone carvings. The delicate cloister features a lovely grove of orange trees and a coffered ceiling in the mudéjar style.

I next walk down to the Puerta del Cambrón, a gate with a more traditional Christian arch, in contrast to the Arco de la Sangre through which I entered the town. Then I go past the town walls to the Puente de San Martín. A number of tour buses are parked on the other bank of the Río Tajo river, and a tour group goes by me on their way out. The view from here is stunning as the river runs through a gorge circling the city.

My next stop is another El Greco site, Iglesia de Santo Tomé (Plaza del Conde, entry fee 1.90€). Immediately visible is the famous painting by El Greco, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586). The most obvious attribute is the distinction between the solid, formalized world below with a row of figures attending to a man’s funeral and the swirling, transcendent world of heaven above. As related in legend, the painting depicts St. Stephen and St. Augustine helping to lower the count’s body into the tomb. The count’s actual tomb is right below the painting.

I return to the Plaza de Zocodover, which seems a good place for lunch. I pick up a bocadillo (sandwich) with cheese and jamón Serrano (one of the finest of the Spanish hams) at a little place on the plaza called Ñaca Ñaca. I eat lunch on the plaza. The area is swarming with Italian and French high school kids on field trips. I walk to the square near the cathedral for a bit. The Ayuntamiento (town hall) is nearby, a classic Italian style building completed in the 17th century.

My final stop on my tour of Toledo is the cathedral (entry fee 6€). Constructed from 1226 to 1493 on a site formerly occupied by a mosque, Toledo’s cathedral is a huge classic Gothic edifice, and it is nice to see something truly grand in the style of the cathedrals I have seen from this period in France. Highlights include the Sala Capitular with its frescoes of the crucifixion and resurrection facing the last judgment and portraits of the Spanish archbishops, the treasury and its huge 16th-century monstrance (the Custodia de Arfe), the colorful alabaster sculpted figures of the altar, and a Baroque sculpture behind the altar of the Madonna and child with angels above. The fantastic Sacristía has a Baroque trompe l’oeil ceiling overflowing with the host of heaven. The sacristy also contains copies of El Greco’s paintings of Christ and the Apostles from the El Greco museum as well as his painting The Expulsion and Caravaggio’s St. John the Baptist (c. 1598). The cloister has huge frescoes on the walls. At the northern end of the cloister is the Capilla de San Bla containing the tombs of two bishops and a fine ceiling fresco. I understand that in one of these chapels service is still conducted using the Visigothic liturgy.

And then what? I have to confess that I end my day in Toledo sooner than expected and take an earlier train back than the one I had booked. Although full of interesting sights, the town is exceptionally touristy. Even the cafés and restaurants in this area seem to cater primarily to tourists. I always consider it a bad sign when I see a menu in four or more languages. But don’t let these minor complaints dissuade you. Toledo is definitely worth an excursion. Just get out before it starts to get to you.

Posted 20 June 2007


The Winding Streets of Toledo, Part 2

One of the many things that have excited me about my trip to Toledo is the prospect of seeing intact remains of the Moorish past, which Madrid largely lacks. My search for one of the mosques takes me through many tiny, winding streets. Cars and pedestrians seem to exist on intimate terms in this little town, and I frequently have to duck into a doorway to allow a car to pass by in very close proximity. I finally find the Cristo de la Luz Mezquita (Cuesta de los Carmelitas Descalzos 10). The 10th-century mosque is under restoration and inaccessible, though I can see its rustic character. Originally known as the Bab-al-Mardum mosque, the current name seems to reflect usage as a Christian church.

The mosque is a little disappointing, but Toledo has another one that I seek out. The two are the only ones left out of the ten mosques of Moorish Toledo. The street the second mosque (Mezquita de las Tornerías) is on has a sign saying that the entrance is around the back in Plaza Solarejo. Entry is free and accomplished through the office of an arts foundation that maintains the site. The mosque itself is from the 11th century and consists of nine sections separated by arches. The mihrab (prayer niche) seems like it needs restoration. A group of elementary school kids is inside on a field trip. Their teacher asks them questions such as “who is the God of the Muslims?,” “who is the prophet of the Muslims?,” and “what is a Muslim temple called?” They answer in unison: “Allah,” “Mahomet,” “mezquita.”

Next, I walk past the square with the cathedral but have decided to make it back around here later and instead see some of the sights in the southwest area of the town. The Casa-Museo del Greco is closed, but a sign points out a location where the paintings are temporarily being exhibited. I’m assuming the house is supposed to be at least one of the artist’s residences in Toledo as he lived here from 1577 until his death in 1614. On the way I reach one of the town’s synagogues.

The Sinagoga Tránsito and Museo Sefardí (Calle Samuel Levi, entry fee 2.40€) has a fantastic main hall with its mudéjar marble-work and wood carvings in the ceiling. Hebrew lettering runs along the top of the wall. The architectural details combine Gothic, Cordoban Islamic, and Almohadan (from the Almohad Berbers who once conquered Al-Andalus) styles. Outside of the main hall, an exhibit traces a general history of Jewish people in Europe and in Spain in particular. Jews first arrived in Spain when the emperors Vespasian and Hadrian were carrying out their wars in Palestine. This particular synagogue was constructed in 1355 by special permission of King Pedro I as synagogues were then prohibited. It was turned into a church when the Jews were expulsed in 1492. Restoration didn’t commence until 1910.

The paintings from the El Greco museum are temporarily housed in a little museum at the edge of town called the Real Fundación de Toledo (Plaza de Victorio Macho 2, entry fee 3€). I first stop and enjoy the views of the river below. The grounds contain a pleasant courtyard with a fountain. I then look at the permanent exhibition of the art of local artist Victorio Macho (1887-1966). The building was established as Macho’s house and workshop in 1953. Some of his sketches are quite nice, as is the sculptured tomb effigy called My Brother Marcelo. The El Greco room contains a small but nice collection of his works from 1600 to 1614. View and Plan of Toledo (1608-14) is a somewhat idealized portrait of the city and includes patron saint San Ildefonso. The best paintings in the exhibit are the portraits of Jesus and the twelve apostles painted 1610 to 1614 for a church in Toledo. All are individualized and on black backgrounds. The Tears of St. Peter (1603-7) is a lovely example of devotional painting.

My next stop is another synagogue, the Sinagoga de Santa María la Blanca (Calle de los Reyes Católicos 4, entry fee 1.90€). Built in the 13th century during the reign of Alfonso VIII in the mudéjar style, this former synagogue is designed with a central nave with two parallel naves on either side. The arches have a clear Moorish influence, as do the finely carved capitals. The spaces between the arches have similarly intricate carvings. The building was converted into a church in 1405, which accounts for the carved wooden altar with paintings of the Annunciation and the Nativity. Around the altar are a series of gilt clam shell sculptures.

The two synagogues are the only remnants of what was once the Jewish quarter (Judería). The synagogues and mosques of Toledo have proven interesting, but I can’t help but find it sad that these ancient houses of worship are now museums simply because the people who once worshipped there are long gone and have never returned.

Next week: The tour of Toledo wraps up with a visit to the famous cathedral.

Posted 13 June 2007


The Winding Streets of Toledo

Holy or not, the town of Toledo makes for a fun excursion when visiting Madrid and provides an interesting comparison to the capital city. Madrid is relatively young for a major European city. It really only started to grow in 1561 when Spanish King Felipe II moved the capital there, even though at the time Toledo, with a population of 80,000 to Madrid’s 30,000, seemed like a more likely choice. In contrast, Toledo was a prominent city much earlier, serving as the capital of Visigothic Spain from 589 until the Moorish conquest. Consequently, Toledo has more of what visitors expect from a European city, which means you can check off Gothic cathedrals, narrow cobble-stoned streets, ancient walls, and a castle.

Getting to Toledo is extremely simple. Just catch the high-speed AVE train from Atocha station in the southern section of central Madrid. The ride takes only 35 minutes and costs 13.80€ round-trip. I made sure my day in Toledo began early so I would have plenty of time to explore. Upon arrival it is not immediately apparent which direction to head in, but I follow the other tourists and go up the road to the right upon leaving the station. Some of them wait at the bus stop, but I understand that the main attractions are within walking distance. The part of Toledo worth visiting is all concentrated in a historic area on the hill. I soon see the Alcázar (castle) on the heights and walk in that direction. My walk takes me over the Puente de Alcantara foot-bridge and through the old walls of the city.

The first sight I encounter is the Museo de Santa Cruz (Calle de Cervantes 3, free entry). The entrance to the early 16th-century building that houses this museum is a lavishly sculptured stone portico. The wooden ceiling is also obviously very old. I am most interested in the permanent collection of paintings, which contains many works by El Greco. I like the shimmering silver background and angel wings of The Annunciation (1601-14). Veronica (1577-80) uses a dark and pale palate that is odd for El Greco. Appearance of Christ to Maria (1595) is also unusual for El Greco for its realistic handling of facial expressions and forms. Assumption of the Virgin (1607-13) is a fine, radiant example of a late Greco, full of dazzling blues, reds, yellows, and silvers and composed of a poetic jumble of forms, a contrast to the earlier painting of the same subject in the Art Institute of Chicago.

I should probably pause to mention a little about Toledo’s most famous artist. Doménicos Theotokópoulos was born in Crete, but he spent most of his life pursuing his art in Italy and Spain, where he earned the simple moniker "El Greco" ("the Greek"). As a young man he went to Venice, where he may have studied for a time under Titian and certainly became influenced by the distinct painterly style of Venetian artists like Tintoretto. He then moved to Rome where he gained notice both for his works and for an abrasive, outspoken personality that eventually gained him enemies. Finally, El Greco came to Toledo in 1577, where he would develop his mature style. He had originally intended to become a court painter, but after two commissions King Felipe II rejected him for further work. El Greco thus remained in Toledo for the rest of his years. Though he had a successful workshop that produced many commissions, he was never as appreciated during his lifetime as he has been in the modern era as the elongated Mannerist forms, distorted compositions, and bold, expressive colors of his mature paintings proved a major influence on 20th-century art.

Entry to Toledo proper is through the Arco de la Sangre (Arch of Blood), which has an evident mudéjar style. The gate leads to the central Plaza de Zocodover, a triangular space that was an Arab livestock market and is now ringed by cafés and restaurants. I walk up the hill to the Alcázar. A Roman military base and an Arab fortress had been on this site previously as it is the highest point in the town. The current fortress was built by King Alfonso VI in the 11th century and converted into a royal palace by Carlos V. The castle’s profile is rather elegant for a keep, particularly the spires on the four corner towers. The Alcázar will not be open until the army museum inside is finished. During the Civil War, the castle was held by Nationalist forces against a Republican siege until Franco’s army arrived to secure the city. As such, the edifice became important as a symbol of Nationalist heroism.

Next week: The remnants of mosques and synagogues in Toledo.

Posted 6 June 2007


German Expressionism in Madrid?

Yes, I quite expected to be enveloped in Picasso and Goya during my forays into the art treasures of Madrid, but not even I anticipated enjoying German art from the Expressionist and Neue Sachlichkeit periods. You can find it and much more at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Unlike the other two of the "big three" museums of Madrid, the Prado and the Reina Sofía, the Thyssen-Bornemisza is a private collection—owned by a German-Hungarian baron and his wife—and does not concentrate on Spanish art. For that reason, I wasn’t very excited about it as I imagined I would see many artists I was already familiar with from other museums. However, I was pleasantly surprised at the breadth of the German Expressionism collection.

Some of my favorites out of the German paintings include Otto Müller’s (1874-1930) Two Female Nudes in a Landscape (1922), which portrays two women on a flourishing green and pink hillside. The two figures are very obviously inspired by the forms of African art, one of the major influences on artists of this era. I also notice that Ludwig Kirchner’s (1880-1938) Alpine Kitchen (1918) is very similar to Van Gogh’s The Night Café in its depiction of a sickly yellow woman hunched over a table, closed in by a brightly colored room. Emil Nolde’s (1867-1956) Autumn Evening (1924) is a good example of the more abstract inclination of this style of art and portrays a landscape with big blotches of orange and red and stripes of green.

Some of the paintings show how German artists of the period responded to other currents in modernist art. For example, Nolde’s Summer Afternoon (1903) is impressionist in style but with a bolder application of paint, resulting in vibrant colors. Vassily Kandinsky’s (1866-1944) Ludwigskirche in Munich (1908) seems influenced by the pointillist technique pioneered by Seurat and others with its big dots of color forming a crowd thronging before a church glimpsed only by its arched entrance. Lyonel Feininger’s (1871-1956) Lady in Mauve (1922) references Cubism in its depiction of a woman walking in a fractured cityscape of whites and blues, her body fragmented in the same planes as the city around her. The lighter side of the genre comes out in Heinrich Carpendonk’s (1889-1957) Young Couple (1915), a whimsical view of two rounded people in an expressionist space, though an odd, thin woman at a desk in the background adds an unsettling touch.

Of course, the Thyssen-Bornemisza has other modernist works as well. I am particularly struck by Van Gogh’s (1853-1890) The Stevedores in Arles (1888), which is startlingly dark for his late period. Black figures and boats are silhouetted against a blue sea and orange sunset, and the paint is mostly applied in fat horizontal blotches. The modern section also includes Frantisek Kupka’s (1871-1957) dynamic The Machine Drill (1927-29), a vigorous evocation of wheels spinning and pounding armatures. Yves Tanguy’s (1900-55) Imaginary Numbers (1954) is in keeping with his surrealist style and portrays a landscape of bulbous forms appearing to float on a black surface. Another favorite discovery is Georgia O’Keefe’s (1887-1986) New York with Moon (1925), unusual for her works as it portrays a cityscape. A big halo of light and the glow of a stop light match with the globe of the moon, partially hidden by a cloud. All three are hemmed in by red looming buildings.

Posted 30 May 2007


Some of Madrid’s Finest Plazas

By now it should be obvious to the reader that I have a thing for museums. I fully confess that nothing excites me more than rooms full of art, relics of ages past, and other very old things. But I’m only human, and after a few hours cloistered indoors breathing heavily processed air even I long for open spaces, sun, and unfocused lounging on park benches. Thankfully, Madrid excels at public places that invite both locals and tourists to pass the time. The list below includes some of my favorites.

Plaza Mayor:
One of Madrid’s major landmarks and most popular public squares. Designed in 1619, the plaza has seen everything from the beatification ceremony of Madrid’s patron saint San Isidro to bullfights to the Inquisition’s autos-de-fe, burnings, and hangings. Today it sees the far tamer spectacle of the tourist hordes. The space is almost completely hemmed in by a row of salmon-colored buildings with elegant iron balconies. At the southern end is the Real Casa de la Panadería, which is no longer the royal bakery as titled. The building is distinguished by a series of frescoes of mythic subjects painted in 1992 by Carlos Franco. The equestrian statue in the center of the square is of King Felipe III. Though the square is full of restaurants and cafés, most cater to tourists and are not recommended. Instead, sit on the benches and take in the scene.

Plaza de Ramales:
A triangular plaza ringed by cafés that provides a nice place to sit and soak in the atmosphere of the nearby royal palace. Joseph Bonaparte, the brother of Napoleon who ruled during the French occupation, had a church destroyed to create it. You can see the foundation of the church and a well, preserved under glass. Apparently, the painter Velázquez may have been buried in the church, but this claim has not been verified.

Plaza de Oriente:
Designed in the 1800s during the French occupation, this carefully landscaped square faces the Palacio Real, the royal palace that is now a tourist attraction rather than the residence of the royal family. The equestrian statue of Felipe IV was designed by Velázquez. The horse’s bucking posture was managed by making the front legs hollow. Other monarch statues line the grounds, and legend says they come alive at night. Although you can sit here, the plaza is more conducive to walking than resting as evidenced by the locals who walk their dogs here.

Plaza de Santa Ana:
A popular square in the equally popular Huertas district of central Madrid. The cafés and restaurants here are more inviting than those in the more touristy Plaza Mayor. The Cervecería Alemana at the southern end is particularly noteworthy as a beer bar that Hemingway used to frequent, and it still retains a classic feel. I can also recommend a place called La Plaza along the northern side, which has a nice low-key vibe.

Plaza de España:
A popular square at the west end of the Gran Vía. You may want to avert your eyes from the Torre de Madrid, a very ugly tower from 1957 that is unfortunately the second tallest building in the city. To the north is the Edificio de España, another rather ugly building from 1953. It has a somewhat totalitarian Eastern Bloc look with its huge flat facade of salmon stone. In the center of the plaza is a statue of Cervantes with Don Quixote and Sancho erected in 1927. You will likely see tourists crowding around it for photo opportunities.

Plaza de la Villa:
A very elegant little square with some fine buildings. At the eastern end, the 15th-century Casa de los Lujanes building is very rustic and has red brickwork in the mudéjar style. The Ayuntamiento (city hall) in granite and brick at the western end was first designed as a prison by Juan Gómez de Mora in 1644 and completed in 1693 by the noted local architect Juan de Villanueva. At the southern end is the Casa de Cisneros from 1537, though little remains of the original. The alternation of rusticated stone with brickwork is an elegant touch to this building. The statue in the center of the plaza rises from the midst of a lovely flower garden. Unfortunately, the plaza has no benches, perhaps to discourage lingering.

Plaza de Chueca:
The focus point of the busy Chueca neighborhood, known for a combination of hip and grungy charm similar to the Mission in San Francisco or Chelsea and Williamsburg in New York. In recent years, upscale restaurants and bars have become the rage, and it is the center of Madrid’s gay scene. The plaza itself is frequently crowded with revelers spilling out from the bars.

Plaza del Dos de Mayo:
A very local plaza in the Malasaña neighborhood. Come here to escape the tourists and see how the natives might spend an afternoon hanging out, walking their dogs, and watching over their children as they play.

Posted 24 May 2007


Guernica and Other Spanish Moderns

If you find the Prado a bit stuffy and traditional and prefer to immerse yourself in more modern Spanish art, Madrid’s other major art museum, the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, is the place to go. A single glance at the building lets you know you are in the contemporary realm as the museum combines an older structure (an 18th-century hospital) with modern steel-and-glass additions by French architect Jean Nouvel. The red steel color of the façade is meant to complement the front of the Atocha train station across the avenue, and the ride up the glass elevator in the front offers pleasant views of the surrounding neighborhood.

In addition to being architecturally marvelous, the museum contains a wonderful and comprehensive collection of modern Spanish art. Naturally, the major figures—Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Joan Miró (1893-1983), Salvador Dalí (1904-89), and Juan Gris (1887-1927)—are represented, but the collection contains many other artists you may not be familiar with. A few non-Spaniards, notably Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Max Ernst (1891-1976), and Francis Bacon (1909-92), are included. The museum even has a Surrealism collection that features pictures by Man Ray (1890-1976) and two pivotal films by Luis Buñuel (1900-83), Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or, playing in rotation.

However, the most famous work in the collection is Picasso’s Guernica (1937). Sure, you have seen it countless times in books and in reproductions, but nothing really prepares you for seeing it in its full size (3.5 x 7.8 meters). Additional details that were subsequently painted over are visible when seeing it up close, including an initial eye for the bull and a bird. In the same room as the painting are a number of preparatory sketches and paintings, including a gripping Head of Horse, which isolates the horse from the larger painting against a black background.

Picasso was moved to create the painting after the Basque town of Guernica was bombed on April 26, 1937 by the Condor Legion, German troops sent by Hitler’s Third Reich to aid Franco’s nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War. 2,000 residents were killed in what was one of the first terror bombings on European soil. The anguished figures are a potent reminder of the impact that the atrocity had on the consciousness of the western world. The artist insisted during his life and stipulated in his will that the painting only be exhibited in Spain after the return of democracy, so it was housed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art until after the death of Franco in 1975. In 1990 it was finally permanently installed in the Reina Sofía.

If you want to see more about the Civil War you should seek out the corner room of the museum that features propaganda posters, journals, and leaflets from that era, one room for the Fascists and one for the Republicans. A fine way to round out your visit is the fourth floor, which has more contemporary works, representing important movements like Pórtico, Dau al Set, and Equipo Crónica, a pop art group.

Posted 15 May 2007


Howitzer Avenue, Then and Now

The central boulevard that bisects central Madrid is known as the Gran Vía, running east to west from Plaza de España to Plaza de Cibeles. In the nineteenth century the area was full of winding streets, but urban planners decided the city needed a grand avenue (probably because the other major European capitals had them) and demolished many old buildings to make way for progress. Construction wasn’t begun until the early part of the twentieth century and not entirely completed until about 1929. As it grew, modern architects took up the opportunity to make their mark on the cityscape, and today a stroll along the street evokes the Belle Époque period when Europe reveled in peace, prosperity, and a flourishing of the arts.

Of course, peace only lasted so long. During the Spanish Civil War the street gained the nickname Avenida de los Obuses ("Howitzer Avenue") due to the munitions fired by Nationalist artillery spotters who used the tall buildings as convenient targets. The Nationalists were stationed just to the west of the city and subjected Madrid to a long and crippling siege before finally taking it in March of 1939. Today, the worst you will experience are crowds and honking horns as you stroll along the busy boulevard, but doing so is well worth it to see all the architecture. I’ve listed some of the most interesting buildings from west to east.

Edificio Carrión:
At Gran Vía and Calle de Jacometrezo. This prominent building was once the city’s first apartment-block hotel and is very modern considering it was completed in 1933. The wedge shape is softened by long curves of windows alternating with concrete bands, all stacked up and topped with a tower and a sign reading “Schweppes.”

Telefínica Building:
Gran Vía 28. Built from 1926 to 1929, this building was once the highest in the city and thus a particularly favorite target for the artillery of the besieging Nationalist forces. The exterior is rather plain except for a Neo-Baroque portico and other flourishes, some in an Art Deco vein.

Edificio Grassy:
At Calle del Caballero de Gracia and Gran Vía. Built in 1917, the Grassy is another wedge-shaped building like the Carrión, though this one is much more Neo-Baroque and resembles an excessively iced wedding cake.

Círculo de Bellas Artes:
At Calle de Alcalá and Gran Vía. I am not certain of the proper identity of this building, but I really enjoy the Art Deco stylings in its towers, columns, bas reliefs, and squarish Ionic capitals. It appears to be a venue for performances, and I actually like it better than the noted Metropolis building. If I am correct, it was built in 1919.

Edificio Metrópolis:
At Gran Vía and Calle de Alcalá. French architects Jules and Raymond Février designed this building in 1907. It was completed in 1911 by a Spanish architect. The most striking feature is the Neo-Baroque dome at the corner sporting a winged victory statue that was added in 1975.

Posted 9 May 2007


Goya at the Prado

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), Spain's most noted artist, was twice rejected from the Spanish Royal Academy of art as a young man. Undaunted, he studied with painter Francisco Bayeu and married the man's sister, a union that helped him get work that gradually began to include royal commissions. Goya was retained as court painter by Joseph Bonaparte (Napoleon's brother) during the French occupation, though he was very disturbed by many of the brutalities displayed by the foreign troops. King Fernando VII assumed power after the French were ousted, but Goya's relationship with the new king was not a comfortable one. In 1824, Goya left Spain to live out the rest of his days in France. His fame continues and he is the painter most represented in the Prado's collection.

Two of Goya's most immediately arresting paintings are The Nude Maja (c. 1800) and The Clothed Maja (1800-8). The woman in both portraits is thought to be the Duchess of Alba, with whom Goya may have had an affair. The nude version was painted first and naturally caused a scandal, prompting the identically posed clothed version. The extraordinary The Third of May (1814) is in a room of its own. The painting depicts the frightful moment when French occupation troops executed a group of Spanish rebels on Madrid's hill of Príncipe Pío. The focus point of the painting is a man in a white tunic with his arms spread wide, but seeing the painting full-size and close-up allows other details to come through, like the bloodied face of one of the men already shot and on the ground, the eyes of the other martyrs as they face death, and the eyes of a man pleading in the crowd. In another room, the equally famous The Family of Carlos IV (1800) is a portrait of what must be one of the ugliest royal families committed to canvas. Idealizing the gruesome group's features apparently wasn't in Goya's contract.

The most striking Goya paintings, and indeed the paintings I find the most stunning in the museum and worth the price of admission alone, are his pinturas negras (“black paintings”) from 1820 to 1823. He painted these fourteen works on the walls of his house while living in half-mad isolation. Thought to be in part inspired by the horrors of the war against the French, the paintings were never intended to be seen by others but were transferred to canvas and donated to the Prado after Goya's death. I have seen reproductions of some of these paintings, but experiencing so many of them in one place is quite amazing. They are considered transitional works to modernism as they have been very influential on Expressionism, Surrealism, and other movements. In all cases the style is very rude and the canvases are dark, often filled with grotesquely exaggerated figures and images of anguish. Highlights include the terrifying and famous Saturn, depicting the wild-eyed titan devouring one of his children. The Witches' Sabbath (El Aquelarre) is another famous one and features a crowd of witches huddled together before a goat demon. Duel with Cudgels is an odd depiction of two men on a clouded plain beating each other. In most of the paintings, human beings are portrayed as misshapen and clutched fearfully together. One of the strange exceptions to the general feeling of degradation is The whimsical Partly Submerged Dog has a dog's head peaking out over an earthen rise against a dirty brown sky.

You can also other works by Goya from his earlier years as a court painter, but few have the impact of his later career, and I guarantee the black paintings will stay with you long after your visit. What to do after getting a glimpse of the dark side in Goya's works? If it's a sunny day, a visit to the nearby botanical garden or the vast park El Buen Retiro, with its soothing paths and boating lake, might be just the thing. Whatever relaxation you do indulge in, you have earned it after getting the Prado under your belt.

Posted 2 May 2007


The Prado

Yes, it's time to talk about the Prado, one of the most distinguished art museums in the world. Though it has an intimidating reputation, I actually found it quite manageable compared to true behemoths like the Metropolitan or the Louvre, probably because the collection doesn't stray beyond European art within a certain time frame. Yet there is definitely plenty to see, and all of the most significant movements and regions are represented, but for me the most fascinating aspect was the Spanish art, the area where the Prado has all other museums beat.

The first and grandest piece of art at the Prado is the building itself, finished in 1785 as an academy for science but serving as a barracks for occupying French troops before being turned into a museum in 1814. But it is inside where the true delights begin. One tip I can give you is the museum is free on Sundays, though the regular entry fee is a very reasonable 6€, a true bargain. Also, be advised that most of the descriptions of the paintings are in Spanish only, though the audio guides come in other languages.

The collection of non-Spanish European art has some big names and many pieces you will doubtless recognize from your college art history course. One of my favorites is Pieter Brueghel the Elder's (1525-69) extraordinary Triumph of Death (1562-3), an Apocalyptic panorama of the dead unleashed upon the living that surely inspired one or two zombie movies. One room has Albrecht Dürer's (1471-1528) famous Self-portrait (1498). You may also recognize Rogier Van der Weyden's (1400-64) Descent from the Cross (1435). Though not one of his most famous works, a triptych by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) and studio, The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti (c. 1483), is interesting and illustrates a grim story from Boccaccio's Decameron telling of a woman whose rejected lover had her pursued and murdered. The Renaissance master Raphael (1483-1520) is represented by the exquisite paintings Fall on the Road to Calvary (1516) and Holy Family with John the Baptist (1520).

If you are a fan of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), the highly influential master of the grotesque, you will want to spend a lot of time in Room 56. His Adoration of the Magi (c. 1510) is a delight not because of its depiction of the title scene but because the artist seems more interested in the abundance of daily life in the background, including what appears to be the start of a battle. The Temptation of St. Anthony (c. 1500) is different from his more famous triptych based on this subject, which I believe is in Lisbon. His Hay Wain (c. 1500) is also interesting, but the true masterpiece among Bosch's works is the famous triptych Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1500). Nowhere in art is the Christian view of the progression of sin more lavishly and directly stated. The first painting, Eden, depicts a winsome Eve introduced to a somewhat too-interested Adam as the landscape abounds with the purity of nature. The second painting, Garden of Earthly Delights, shows the aftermath of original sin compounded with lust as a field of people cavort with each other and, sometimes, wildlife. Finally, Hell ends the journey with one of the most frightening and bizarre portrayals of the consequences of sin ever painted.

Though I enjoyed all of these works and more, the collection really came alive for me with the Spanish art. Here you will find El Greco (1541-1614) deservedly occupying two rooms of his own. His finer works include San Sebastian (1610-14), Adoration of the Shepherds (1612-14), and The Trinity (1577-79), depicting a sorrowful God the father mourning over a dead Christ. Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) is similarly spread through a number of rooms. His works include the famously charming court painting Las Meninas (1656) and The Drunkards (1628-29). His Christ Crucified (1630-35) is a striking vision of Christ's dazzling white body on black softened only by a glow behind his head. Spanish artist José de Ribera's (1591-1652) Trinity (1635) is an expressive painting whose composition creates an elegant visual parallel between the cloth draped under the dead Christ by cherubs and the flowing robe of the Father. Ribera's (1591-1652) Maddalena Ventura with her Husband (1631) is a portrait of a woman who grew a beard. In the bizarre painting the woman clearly possesses the wrinkled face and beard of a man even as she nurses a baby with a large breast. Alonso Cano's (1601-67) Dead Christ Held by an Angel (1646-52) depicts a frighteningly white and wounded Christ cradled by the shoulders by a worried angel.

However, even these fantastic works were not the true highlight of my visit to the Prado. That honor was reserved for the paintings of Francisco Goya, which I will talk about next week.

Posted 25 April 2007


Remnants of Moorish Madrid

So far I've written about eating and drinking, but don't assume that's all I did while in Madrid because I assure you the Leopard can't leave a destination without fully immersing himself in history and culture. And one interesting fact I learned is Madrid was founded in 854 by Emir Mehmed I of the Muslim kingdom of Córdoba in the era when much of the Iberian peninsula was ruled by Moors from North Africa. The emir had an alcázar ("castle") built on the heights near the Manzanares river. Because water was nearby the location was called Al-Majrit ("source of water"), a name that evolved into the one we know for the city. The castle is long gone, but the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) was later built on the site, and you can still stand upon the rise and look out, imagining what was once wilderness. Indeed, you can tell why the location was considered optimum for a fortress and why a city grew up on the slope to the east.

If you walk around to the rear side of the cathedral facing the Palacio Real you will find some open-air ruins on Cuesta de la Vega. These sad remains, known as the Muralla Árabe, are the remnant of the walls that once encircled the alcázar of Al-Majrit and date from the same period. The Moorish community was once spread out to the east of the Palacio Real. Today, nothing remains but place names, and about the best you can do is sit in the Plaza de la Puerta de Moros ("Gate of the Moors") and try to picture how the town must have looked back then.

Al-Majrit and the alcázar were taken without a fight by Alfonso VI, the king of Castile, in 1085. Yet in those times many Muslims were allowed to remain in the Christian kingdoms of Spain, and Moorish artisans lent their talents to the new edifices of the city, resulting in a blend of Muslim and Christian sensibilities. The use of brick and the skilled working of simple materials are both major characteristics of this hybrid style, known as mudéjar. You can see examples of mudéjar in the brick bell towers of the Iglesia de San Pedro el Viejo and the Iglesia de San Nicolás de los Servitas, both in the older quarter of the city near the Plaza Mayor. The latter is the city's oldest surviving church and sports a 12th-century mudéjar bell tower with spire.

But really, outside of these few things Madrid has very few reminders of the Moorish kingdoms that once ruled and helped shape much of what is distinct about Spanish culture. I can, however, also recommend a visit to the Museo Arqueológico Nacional (National Museum of Archaeology, Calle de Serrano 13 near Plaza de Colón). Among the many treasures you can find a fabulous archway from the Aljafería Palace in Zaragoza as well as many mudéjar artifacts, including a fantastic domed wooden roof set in the ceiling, elegantly patterned with interlocking stars. Hopefully, these recommendations will give you a little taste of a Madrid long past.

Posted 18 April 2007


The Delights of Jerez

Wine and beer are definitely the two most favored companions for tapas, but I discovered that in Madrid another alcoholic beverage enjoys popularity in the tabernas: Jerez, or what we know of as sherry. On these shores sherry is most commonly associated with cooking or the charming British sipper Harvey's Bristol Cream, so I should probably fill in some background. Spanish Jerez is a fortified wine (yes, that means it is stronger than typical wine) produced in a strictly defined region near the town of Jerez in the province of Cádiz. Jerez is categorized into five primary types:

1) Fino: The driest variety, pale in color.

2) Manzanilla: A type of fino made around the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda.

3) Amontillado: Half-way in color and mouthfeel between a fino and an oloroso.

4) Oloroso: The darkest variety, with a strong flavor.

5) Palo Cortado: Combines some of the characteristics of both amontillado and oloroso.

Where to find Jerez? Most bars in Madrid have at least a couple of types to sample, but if you want to spend some serious time in Jerez heaven, I would recommend a bar in the Huertas neighborhood called La Venencia (Calle de Echegaray 7 just off of Carrera de San Jerónimo). This place is a classic sherry bar that serves sherry and sherry only. The smell of the stuff hits you the minute you walk in, and the décor seems to match the scent, relying on old wooden furniture and posters as well as a wall stacked with Jerez bottles. The sherry list includes all five of the primary varieties for prices starting at 1.50€ a glass and not getting much higher than that. You can also order by the bottle or half-bottle, both of which are filled directly from the cask. Yes, by all means pay tribute to Edgar Allan Poe and request a pour from the "Cask of Amontillado."

You can take your bottle and glass and sit at one of the sturdy wooden tables, or you can stand at the bar and enjoy olives and nuts as you sip. Keep ordering and watch your total chalked right on the bar at your spot. What does that phrase on the menu say? "no se admiten propinas" ("we don't accept tips"), and they're serious about that. If you're hungry, order some tapas. The simple menu includes mojama (salt-cured tuna), hueva (roe), lomo (cured pork loin), cecina (salted, dried meat), chorizo (seasoned pork sausage), salchichón (a spicy sausage like salame), queso (cheese), roquefort, and anchoa (anchovies). If you end up enjoying La Venencia so much that you neglect the other great bars in Madrid, please don't blame me.

Posted 11 April 2007


Time for Tapas in Madrid

I've just returned from some wonderful days in Madrid, the splendid capital of Spain. So for the next few weeks I will be posting entries based on my discoveries. And what better place to start than the glorious Spanish appetizers known as tapas?

One of the truly great things about drinking in Spain is getting some sort of food with every drink you order due to the tapas tradition. What you get depends on the place. Sometimes it is as simple as a dish of peanuts or olives, but sometimes you get something really nice. Frequently, it depends on whatever the bar has on hand at the moment. The name comes from the word for "top" or "cap" as tapas were traditionally served in plates placed on the tops of glasses. Either glasses got smaller or tapa servings got bigger as these days they are served in accompanying dishes.

If you're thinking you can make a meal just by ordering drinks, you're very right. However, you would then be passing up some interesting culinary adventures as in addition to the free tapas served with drinks, most bars have fancier dishes that can be ordered. These usually consist of cold meats, cheeses, patatas bravas (fried potato chunks in spicy tomato sauce), or a tortilla española (omelette or frittata with potato) and generally average around 4€. These tapas can also be ordered in a large portion called a ración or a media ("half") ración, both suitable for sharing amongst a number of people.

Naturally, I have to mention some of my favorite tapas places. My recommendations are all located close to the central area of Madrid, within walking distance of the Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, as most of the hotels are in this region and you will likely spend a lot of time here just as I did. Great bars and restaurants abound, though you can also stumble across tourist traps.

Taberna Alhambra (Calle de la Victoria 9 between Carrera de San Jerónimo and Calle de la Cruz in the Huertas neighborhood):
The décor of this bar is immediately arresting: Moorish style wood-work and tile-work, including painted tiles depicting lavish scenes. The atmosphere is also very friendly and conducive to comfortable enjoyment of a nice wine and sherry list, all for reasonable prices by the glass or bottle. The tapas list has many traditional favorites, including chorizo ibérico (spicy sausage made from the ever-popular ibérico pig), lomo (cured pork loin), morcilla (black pudding), cecina de vaca (cured beef), queso curado oveja (sheep's milk cheese), boquerones (anchovies in vinegar), paté de jabugo (jabugo ham paté), callos (tripe), rabo de toro estofado (ox-tail stew), and albóndigas de ternera (veal meatballs).

El Buscón (Calle Victoria 5 right next door to the Taberna Alhambra):
You may notice that the menu is very similar to the one at Taberna Alhambra, but Buscón has its own feel and distinctive style. When I was here I ordered a tortilla española (2.90€), lomo ibérico (4€), and a glass of wine. The wine was served with an additional complementary tapa consisting of bread layered with ham. Plus, the whole set came with bread. If one ever wanted to have a complete, filling meal for cheap, this would be the way to do it.

Las Bravas (Calle de la Cruz and Calle de la Victoria in Huertas):
Though this popular beer and tapas place is a chain, the atmosphere is fun and they are noted for their patatas bravas (fried potatoes in spicy tomatoes sauce). You can also enjoy a tortilla brava (omelette with spicy brava sauce). When ordering beer here or elsewhere, remember that cerveza comes in either a small serving (caña) or a large serving (jarra).

Casa Revuelta (Calle de Latoneros 3 at Calle Cava de San Miguel in the La Latina neighborhood):
This place is particularly noted for its lightly battered and fried bacalao (cod), a popular tapa that some contend doesn't come better than at Revuelta. A pincho de bacalao will set you back 3€ and a caña of beer costs 1.20€.

Taberna Txakoli (Calle de la Cava Baja 26 south of Calle del Almendro in La Latina):
Txakoli specializes in pintxos (pronounce the "x" like an "sh"), the Basque version of tapas. You can find all of the pintxos arrayed on the bar, most served on bread, and some of them are very striking and artfully presented. At prices as cheap as 2.50€ you can afford to try a few. My favorites are the seafood varieties.

Cervecería 100 Montaditos (Calle Mayor 22 just north of the Plaza Mayor):
I have to mention this final place for its menu of 100 varieties of montaditos, small filled rolls. Best of all, each montadito is only 1€, making it easy to sample many choices. Orders are placed simply by marking off choices on a menu slip that is presented to the cashier. I tried serrano ham with olive oil, cheese, and shrimp in garlic mayonnaise, and I can't wait to go back to try the other 97.

Posted 5 April 2007


The Museum of Danish Resistance in Copenhagen

Many of the European nations that either allied with or were occupied by Germany offer less than illustrious accounts of their conduct during the war years. One of the cleanest records of that time surely belongs to Denmark, a nation that was occupied but not exactly subjugated. Perched at the northern tip of its much more powerful and militaristic neighbor, Denmark was hardly in a position to resist invasion in 1940. The government realized this fact and surrendered after minimal resistance rather than allow needless casualties to be inflicted on its people. The government managed to retain a nominal autonomy even as a vassal to the Third Reich, and the Danish branch of the Nazi party never gained power, in contrast to fascist collaborator parties that took over in other occupied nations.

The relatively lightweight degree of occupation certainly had much to do with the Nazi party's recognition of Danes as fellow Aryans who thus did not require the brutal subjugation visited on the Slavic nations to the east. Most significant of all, Denmark resisted pressure to adopt Nazi racial policies and refused to curtail the civil rights of its Jewish citizens. The Reich tolerated this position until October of 1943, when it was decided that all Jews would be deported from Denmark and sent to concentration camps. Instead, more than 90% of the Jewish population was smuggled to neutral Sweden and freedom. The success of this operation was largely due to the heroic efforts of the resistance movement.

The Museum of Danish Resistance (Frihedsmuseet), located off the Esplanaden in Copenhagen, documents this dark and victorious time with a number of artifacts and exhibits with text in Danish and English. Outside of the building you are greeted by a homemade armored car built by the resistance and used during the final days of the German occupation. Initially, resistance primarily took the form of illegal publications, and you can see some of those in the collection, along with homemade printing presses. Even coins and matchbooks were stamped with resistance slogans as a simple but visible means of subversion. Many of the earlier members of the resistance were Danish communists. Later activities included sabotage and disruption of the railways after D-Day to slow German troop deployment. About 850 resistance members were killed for their efforts, and many are memorialized in a series of heartbreaking letters to families by those condemned to death. You can also see a cardboard gun used by a resistance member to secure an escape from prison.

The World War II era seems to get farther from our experience each year, especially as other wars and genocides continue to accumulate. It also seems to get more difficult to imagine ourselves in those circumstances, our country under occupation by a seemingly unstoppable foe, but I think stories like those told in the Museum of Danish Resistance can still inspire us to be on guard for and resist tyranny in all its forms.

Posted 26 December 2006


Relics of the City Behind the Wall, Part 2: The Stasi Museum and Prison

The former German Democratic Republic (East Germany, known as the DDR in German) was in many ways modeled after the Soviet Union itself and had its own version of the KGB in the form of the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, or "Ministry for State Security"). Two museums in the eastern part of Berlin preserve the memory of this feared organization. The Gedenkstätte Normannenstrasse (Stasi Museum) (Ruschestrasse 103, near the Magdalenstrasse U-bahn station) was the HQ of the East German secret police. Artifacts on view include photos of people with blacked-out eyes, offices and conference rooms, surveillance equipment, and the office of Stasi chief Erich Mielke (Minister for State Security 1957-89). Note that you may wish to get a tour in English as all of the signs are in German.

In 1990, civil rights groups took over the Stasi HQ and seized the archives, which can now be examined. While traveling in Denmark before going to Berlin, I met a woman who had emigrated from East Germany. Upon arrival, she sent a postcard to her family describing the loveliness of the Danish countryside. The card never reached its intended recipients. Years later, she went to the Stasi archives and found her postcard intact, seized as too dangerous to be allowed delivery. I am reminded of one of Chancellor Willy Brandt's Stasi jokes, related in Michael Frayn's excellent play Democracy: "Why do the Stasi go round in threes? One who can read, one who can write, and one to keep an eye on the two intellectuals."

Most chilling of all is the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Gedenkstätte (Stasi Prison) (Genslerstrasse 66). Originally a factory, for sixteen months after May 1945 the Soviets set up a camp for political prisoners here before deporting them to Siberia or Sachsenhausen, the former Nazi concentration camp appropriated by the Soviets for their own purposes. In that time, 10,000 to 20,000 went through the camp, and 900 to 3,000 of them died. Many were war criminals, but others were simply members of the political opposition. In October of 1946, an underground cell (known as the "submarine") was constructed in the building's cellar to hold and torture political prisoners.

In 1951, East Germany and the Stasi took over the compound. From then on, prisoners were treated less harshly as physical torture stopped but the psychological variety continued. Political prisoners were brought in windowless trucks (one of which is on display) so that they would not know where they were. In fact, civil rights groups had difficulty finding the prison in 1990 after the wall fell. Prisoners were generally kept for interrogation before a show trial and confinement in a more permanent prison. At that point, they were frequently sold to West Germany. The underground "submarine" still exists and is on view, but it was only occasionally used after 1960. The submarine includes a little-ease, a cramped cell where prisoners would be confined in uncomfortable positions, and a reconstruction of a water torture device used by the Soviets. The other cells are marginally more humane. Also on display is the interrogation office with its surveillance equipment. I am told that there were ten officers for each prisoner under interrogation. No prisoner was ever allowed outside. If a prisoner was sick, he or she was put into a truck, driven around the yard for a while, and finally driven into the hospital on the compound. Visits are by tour only, and you can get a tour in English. Note that the Stasi prison is quite out of the way, requiring a long ride on the #256 bus from Lichtenfeld U-bahn.

Though the Cold War has been over for many years now, its effects linger in the psyche of all participants, and one of the best places to explore the history is the city that spent so many years divided between east and west. I myself was just coming of age during the Reagan years, when it seemed like the differences were so deeply etched that I would never see a unified Germany in my lifetime. I'm very pleased to have been proven wrong and happy that all of us, travelers and native Germans alike, can wander freely between what was once two countries.

Posted 11 December 2006


Relics of the City Behind the Wall, Part 1: Reminders of the War and a City Divided

The Berlin Wall came down quite a while ago now, and ever since the two halves of Germany were reunited the eastern portion of Berlin has rapidly westernized. Yet for much of the last half of the 20th century East Berlin was completely cut off from its neighbor, and the differences between the two portions of the city are still evident. Though most of the wall itself has been demolished (pieces of it can be bought for cheap from abundant street vendors), some graffiti-covered concrete segments remain. And when one takes the U-bahn (subway), the contrasting aesthetic of the former East Berlin stations is obvious in garish yellow or pastel tile work.

My first trip to Berlin occurred long after the reunification, but as a student of history I did my best to seek out reminders of the Cold War era. Probably one of the most visible artifacts is the Fernsehturm ("television tower"), a vaguely space-age tower (the second tallest construction in Europe) that resembles a skewered globe and is easy to see through much of the city. Nearby is Alexanderplatz, one of the central open spaces where you can see plenty of Eastern Bloc architecture. Alexanderplatz is the terminus of Karl-Marx-Allee, where the East German Army used to parade on May Day, a sight familiar from news footage of the time. You may notice that the buildings are set back from the street to accommodate crowds on wide sidewalks.

Next to the wall, the most famous symbol of the divide between the cities has to be Checkpoint Charlie, the most well-known of the border crossings. The actual checkpoint booth on the western side is now in a museum, but you can see a replica in the middle of the busy street where the barrier once was, complete with sandbags and an American flag. Hanging above it is a placard with a picture of an American officer on one side and an East German official on the other. Close by is an old East German bunker and a small museum.

To go a bit further back in time, the story of the brutal war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union is a terrible one, full of atrocities committed by both sides, and the Red Army's struggle to defeat the German invasion cost millions of lives. The Battle for Berlin itself made for a harrowing final episode to the history (well-documented in Antony Beevor's fine book The Fall of Berlin 1945. Naturally, memorials to these events were set up in East Berlin by the victorious army. In the Tiergarten, one of Berlin's major parks, can be seen the Sowjetisches Ehrenmal, a Soviet memorial composed of the first two tanks to enter the city in 1945, two artillery pieces, the names (in Russian) of the 20,000 Red Army soldiers who died in the Battle for Berlin, and a bronze statue of a soldier standing on a smashed swastika.

A more instructive tribute to the war lies deeper in the east at the Deutsch-Russisches Museum Berlin-Karlshorst (Zwieseler Strasse 4). The building was originally a German Army officers' club, but in April of 1945 a Soviet assault force set up their headquarters here. On May 8, 1945 the German army signed the surrender to the Soviets, represented by Soviet Supreme Commander Marshal Zhukov. A British officer accepted on behalf of the Western allies, and a U.S. and a French officer were witnesses. The huge room where this pivotal event occurred is preserved in its original state with flags of the attending countries. The exhibit was built by the Soviet Union and thus offers an interesting perspective as the western allies in the struggle against Nazi Germany are barely mentioned. The museum also includes propaganda posters of both sides.

Next week: The Stasi Museum and Prison

Posted 4 December 2006


Lobster Rolls and the Outdoors in Southwestern Maine

Maine's geography owes much to the glaciers that carved abundant lakes, gorges, ponds, and rivers in its interior and fjords and islands on its coast, leaving a textured landscape of green and blue. 11,000 years after the glaciers retreated, I found myself visiting the nation's eastern frontier state.

[The fall colors of Maine] Although the entire state is worth exploring, one does not have to go far to sample its delights. A trip to fabled Acadia National Park can take quite some time, but close to the New Hampshire border one can visit Grafton Notch State Park (on route 2 outside of Newry), which offers hiking on portions of the venerable Appalachian Trail and interesting formations of rock meeting water at Screw Augur Falls and the nearby Step Falls (just south of Grafton on route 2). Signs describing the geological significance of the sites are in both English and French to properly serve Canadian visitors. A solid day of hiking in Grafton is justly rewarded by a visit to the Sunday River Brewing Company just south of Newry, a great place both to interact with locals and to sample the tasty microbrews.

What says Maine more than covered bridges? If you answered bean supper, you are of course right, and you should be sure to attend the local ritual on a Saturday night, but a visit to a covered bridge is also obligatory. The Artist's Bridge is just up the road from the Sunday River Brewing Company and claims to be the most photographed bridge in Maine. I made sure I added to the tally.

Another staple of Maine cuisine is the lobster roll, consisting of chopped lobster mixed with mayonnaise served in a roll. The Lobster Shack south of Portland near the lovely rocky shore of Two Lights State Park is an obvious venue and offers a fine ocean view, but my local connections advised me of two out-of-the-way options. The first, Bay Haven (on route 11 in Cornish), is close to the Willowbrook museum (on route 11 in Newfield), a fun place to explore history and see how Mainers once lived and wanted to live (how else to explain the flying car constructed by a local inventor and now in the museum?). The second, Don's Restaurant (route 202 in Hollis Center), is more remote but even better. For a scant $7.99 you can get a roll bursting with firm, meaty chunks of lobster and a minimum of mayonnaise (lesser quality rolls are frequently over-stuffed with mayo) with a side of fries and a drink. The restaurant is rather inconspicuously attached to a gas station but is otherwise fairly easy to find.

Be advised that getting from point-to-point in Maine involves long drives on winding back roads as all routes follow the natural, often erratic landscape. Thus, it doesn't do to be in a hurry. Just enjoy the greenery, the clean air, and the gloriously frequent glimpses of water.

Posted 11 November 2006


The Wonders of Agra, India, Part 2

Upon the death of his beloved wife in 1631, Emperor Shah Jahan had construction commence on her mausoleum, and it took 23 years for the job to be finished. Soon after that, visitors spread the fame of the empire's crown jewel throughout the world. Time and the efforts of preservation have been kind to the Taj Mahal as it is no less magnificent today. Your first glimpse as you pass through the outer red sandstone gates tells you exactly why hordes of tourists, both Indian and foreign, flock to Agra in every season. As you approach closer, you see that much of the smooth marble surface is actually inlaid with many glittering stones. Inside, you can see the cenotaphs of both the emperor and his bride, though their actual graves are in the crypt below. Note that Mumtaz Mahal's cenotaph is in the center of the structure but Shah Jahan's is beside it, constituting the only break in the mausoleum's symmetry. Legend holds that Shah Jahan had planned an identical mausoleum for himself, only in black marble on the other side of the river, but was overthrown before he could begin construction.

A trip to Agra is best rounded out with an excursion to Fatehpur Sikri, some 37 kilometers (23 miles) to the southwest. Akbar had the city constructed as the new imperial capital and reigned there from 1571 to 1585. Unfortunately, the region proved to be desolate and difficult to supply with water, so Akbar had to abandon the site and move the capital to Lahore. Like the Red Fort, the walls of Fatehpur Sikri enclose a number of fascinating structures. The imperial mosque's courtyard contains the tomb of a Muslim mystic decorated in delicate marble lace. In the main structure, the courtyard behind the Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience) has a large pachisi (known as Parcheesi in English) board where Akbar played with slaves as pieces. Another testament to Akbar's unique aesthetic sensibilities is the five-story Panch Mahal palace, which combines Hindu and Buddhist architecture. Akbar's own apartment can also be visited, where the huge raised slab that once formed the foundation of his bed can easily incur envy in those accustomed to cramped living quarters.

As Agra is a major tourist destination for both locals and visitors alike you can really take your pick from modes of transportation. I went with a group of enough people to justify hiring a private car (complete with driver, naturally), which is the ideal but most expensive way. Bus tours from New Delhi are the most hassle-free means, but of course you have to conform to the tour's schedule. Taking a train is both economical and allows you to set your own schedule. However you get there, I would highly recommend taking the time to enjoy the splendors of the Mughal period.

Posted 30 October 2006


The Wonders of Agra, India

The central Indian city of Agra is famous for the distinctive contours and gleaming white marble of the Taj Mahal, and the tomb of Empress Mumtaz Mahal is indeed an extraordinary sight and worth a visit. However, Agra and environs have a number of other wonders that together make up a fine travel itinerary.

First, a brief historical sketch. Most of Agra's most interesting sights were constructed during the period of the Mughal Empire, originally founded in India in the early 16th century by Babur, a Muslim of Mongol descent who invaded from Central Asia. Babur is considered the first Mughal emperor. His grandson Akbar was the third emperor and distinguished himself with benevolent rule and religious tolerance. He was succeeded by his son Jehangir, who was in turn succeeded by his son Shah Jahan. Shah Jahan is remembered for many ventures in Islamic architecture, but none as famous as the Taj Mahal, constructed to hold the tomb of his wife Mumtaz Mahal. His son Aurangzeb was known for his religious oppression and gained the throne after a war of succession that concluded with the imprisonment of his father. After Aurangzeb, the Mughal Empire began a long decline until it finally folded under British rule.

The first major point of interest is located on the road from New Delhi in a little town called Sikandra, just outside of Agra. Here, Emperor Akbar started to build his own mausoleum in 1602, though it was completed by his son Jehangir. The red sandstone and white marble mausoleum in the center is girded by four gates, each representing a different religion: Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, and Deen Ilahi, Akbar's own synthesis religion. Each has dazzling calligraphy and a distinct design, and the wealth of experimentation provides an interesting contrast to the unifying symmetry of the Taj Mahal.

Also a little outside of Agra, in Dayal Bagh, you can make a departure from the Mughal period and visit the Radha Soami Temple, considered a Hindu answer to the Taj Mahal. Though begun in 1904, the temple is a work in progress. The current structure will eventually form the base of a dome, as evidenced by an artist's conception viewable in the interior. The unfinished nature of the temple will not stop you from appreciating the intricate marble work, carved into delicate roses, leaves, vines, and other designs. If you're lucky, you might see artisans at work shaping the marble. I managed to speak to one who told me it takes a year to complete each column capital he works on.

In my opinion, the ideal stop just before the Taj Mahal is the Agra Fort. Commenced by Akbar in 1565 and not completed until the reign of his grandson Shah Jahan, the fort is constructed in the red sandstone familiar by now from Akbar's Tomb. The interior is well worth exploring and includes a number of small palaces, mosques, and halls. One particular wonder is the Sheesh Mahal ("glass palace"), filled with glorious glass mosaic. Another structure, the Diwan-i-Am, contains a lovely white marble throne used by Shah Jahan, though the fabled peacock throne it once held was pillaged by Persian invaders. Finally, the marble-latticed tower called the Musamman Burj is mandatory. It is said that after Shah Jahan was imprisoned in the fort by his son Aurangzeb, he spent much of his time in this octagonal tower, gazing at the Taj Mahal visible just across the Yamuna River.

Next week: The Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri.

Posted 23 October 2006


Orhan Pamuk Wins the Prize!

After coming very close in recent years, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk has finally received international recognition for his remarkable body of work by winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. He has been aptly compared to post-modern stylists like Borges, Eco, and the French nouveau roman writers, but the influence of Muslim culture lends a unique quality to his work. I first discovered him as I prepared for my trip to Istanbul in February by immersing myself in readings of Turkish history and literature. I found his novel My Name is Red dazzlingly clever and insightful and was later also impressed with The Black Book, a rich and intricate evocation of the manifold facets of Istanbul, Pamuk's home city and one of his most potent sources of inspiration. If Dickens had London, Balzac had Paris, and Joyce had Dublin, Pamuk has Istanbul. I managed to read all of Pamuk's books that have been translated into English, and I hope that the awarding of the prize will prompt the translation of the remaining works. Probably the most accessible of his novels is Snow, the tale of a poet in a small town in Turkey that manages to both wittily and harrowingly encapsulate the tensions between secularism and Islamism that shape Turkey today. I would definitely recommend this novel for anyone interested in Pamuk and modern Turkey. Much has been made of his recent brush with Turkish law, and though I don't think the matter is an unsignificant one I do resist the suggestion that his winning of the prize is strictly a political recognition. I believe those who appreciate artfully complex, expert literature will realize that Orhan Pamuk's award is well-deserved on artistic grounds.

Works in English translation:

Beyaz Kale (The White Castle), 1985. Translated by Victoria Holbrook, 1990:
Initially the story of an Italian in the court of an Ottoman sultan, this intriguing and slim novel turns into an exploration of constructed identity.

Kara Kitap (The Black Book), 1990. Translated by Güneli Gün, 1994:
You won't need to read much of this novel to realize that the detective story aspect is less important than the tour through a modern Istanbul both real and fantastical. I consider it my favorite of Pamuk's works, which I attribute partly to the translation as Gün does a fine job of rendering the long poetic evocations into English.

Yeni Hayat (The New Life), 1995. Translated by Güneli Gün, 1997:
An odd, surrealist tale about the modern Turkish identity and its clash with western values. I feel like I would have to give this one a second read to fully explore it as I think there are many references that as a non-Turkish reader I may not have appreciated the first time.

Benim Adım Kırmızı (My Name is Red), 1998. Translated by Erdağ M. Göknar, 2001:
One could most easily describe one of Pamuk's most celebrated novels as a bit like The Name of the Rose set during the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, just as Eco's novel was a murder mystery revolving around an important manuscript in a monastery, Pamuk's work sets up a similar premise among miniature painters in Istanbul. However, a simple description of the plot can't give you a sense of the textured layers of history, philosophy, legend, religion, aesthetics, and post-modern conceits that fill this dense read.

Kar (Snow), 2002. Translated by Maureen Freely, 2004:
As noted above, Pamuk's latest novel is his most accessible and straight-forward in tone despite some absurdist satire and doses of Kafka. I would also say that the handling of realistic characters with well-delineated motivations is the strongest of all his novels.

İstanbul: Hatıralar ve Şehir (Istanbul: Memories and the City), 2003. Translated by Maureen Freely, 2005:
Both a personal memoir and a collection of historical anecdotes, Pamuk's love letter to his city is an enjoyable invitation into the mind of the man and the artist as well as the character of the city.

Posted 16 October 2006


Old World Coffee Culture in Vienna

Ever since retreating Ottoman soldiers left behind sacks of coffee beans in 1683, coffee has been central to Viennese culture. I have a riddle to solve as I explore the local coffee scene: How can a beverage designed to rev the body up be an integral element in a city whose rhythm is slow as the gentle currents of the Danube?

The first step is getting the lingo down. A Viennese coffee menu is extensive but not difficult to master. A brauner is the basic drink, coffee with a bit of milk. A mélange is a good substitute for a latte. More exotic choices include the einspänner, a sweet, strong mocha with whipped cream; the kaisermelange, a frothy concoction of coffee with hot milk, egg yolk, and whipped cream; and the pharisäer, a mocha with rum, sugar, and whipped cream.

My first destination is Café Hawelka, a Viennese institution that re-opened after the war and is still run by the same owners. Hawelka is a classic kaffeehaus, one of the smoky, dark places where artists and intellectuals from Klimt to Lenin once met to discuss the bigger issues. The gentleman at the door points me to a table and hands me a newspaper. Not having sufficient command in German, I skip the daily news to soak in the atmosphere and enjoy an excellent einspänner, served in a glass on a silver tray with a glass of water and a spoon, all very classic and elegant.

The Café Schwarzenberg stands in marked contrast, an opulent, palatial space evoking images of old world luxury. I sit at a table by a pianist filling the air with pretty classical pieces (waltzes are of course mandatory) on a grand piano. The dessert selection is extensive. I select the ubiquitous sachertorte (served with a healthy dollop of schlagobers, whipped cream, for a little extra) to go with my pharisäer and dream of the days of Strauss and the Hapsburgs. These ritzy places are of course more expensive but are worth it for the experience.

As for the answer to my riddle? Somehow, between the first exquisite pastry and the second mélange, the body is vacated of all will to go out and browse Vienna's amazing museums and imperial avenues, and the customer is content to spend the afternoon in lazy decadence. Such things cannot be explained, only experienced.

Café recommendations:
Café Schwarzenberg: Kärntnerring 17. Close to Schwarzenbergplatz.
Café Hawelka: Dorotheergasse 6. Located in an alley off Graben, the main strip.
Café Mozart: Near the opera. Swank place where scenes from The Third Man were filmed.
Café Central: Herrengasse 14, near Minoritenplatz. Worth at least a peek for the high arched ceilings and gleaming décor.
Alt Wien: Bäckerstrasse 9, near St. Stephan. Subdued and quiet place serving big, delicious pieces of cake.

Posted 26 September 2006


The Museums of Lyon

Lyon is often thought of as Paris's smaller sibling. Indeed, it is France's second largest city, it has France's second largest art museum after the Louvre, and it even boasts a stunted version of the Eiffel Tower. But I found that Lyon is more than the Paris experience shrunk into a smaller package. In addition to the excellent art museum, Lyon has three smaller museums offering a fascinating tour through history.

Lyon was once a crossroads city of the Roman Empire. The Musée de la Civilisation Gallo-Romaine has a huge collection of artifacts from this era. Highlights include a bronze inscription of a speech by the ill-fated emperor Claudius, who happens to have been born here, and a mosaic of a chariot race straight out of Ben-Hur. The museum is situated next to the ruins of two amphitheaters that are open to visitors.

In the late 19th century, Lyon was the site of the first studio of the Lumière brothers, pioneers of film. The building now houses the Institut Lumière, which includes a museum dedicated to the brothers and the early days of the art. The exhibit boasts early film and photographic techniques (including a sort of hologram produced in 1920!). The highlight is a tiny screening room showing a series of entrancing early films. Outside, be sure to stop at the “wall of the cinéastes,” which bears the names of directors who have visited this important site in cinema history.

The final stop on this museum tour is a harsh one, but it nevertheless stands as a testament to the French spirit. The Hotel Terminus, once the headquarters of the Gestapo during the war, now houses the Centre d'Histoire de la Résistance et de la Déportation. Lyon was the center of the resistance against German occupation, and videos and photographs chronicle the heroism of these men and women, some of whose lives ended in the horrors of the building's dungeon. The exhibit concludes with the story of the deportations of Jews to death camps, a sobering reminder of one of the bleakest periods of French history.

With its narrow cobblestone streets, sidewalk cafes, splendid cuisine, and big city sophistication tempered with small town geniality, Lyon has abundant charms. Add to these the unique museums, and a visit is well worth it. Lyon is easily reached by trains from Paris and Geneva, which take about two hours. Perrache station is more central than Part-Dieux. Lyon's center is on the Presqu'île, between the Rhône and Saône rivers. On the west bank of the Saône is the old city (Vieux Lyon). The tourist office at Place Bellecour (the main square on the Presqu'île) offers maps and entertainment listings. Presqu'île is ritzier and sports a lavish shopping district. Vieux Lyon is more conducive to relaxing and exploring. Check the official city website for more details.

Recommended Sights:
Opéra National: The Lyon opera has an international reputation for innovative productions. The building itself is a fascinating architectural blend consisting of a Neo-classical base topped with a steel-and-glass modern addition.
Musée des Beaux-Arts: On Place des Terreaux. 6€ entry. Extensive collection of European art.
Musée de la Civilisation Gallo-Romaine: Rue Cléberg 17. 3.80 € entry.
Institut Lumière--Musée Vivant du Cinéma: Rue du Premier-Film 25. 6€ entry.
Centre d'Histoire de la Résistance et de la Déportation: Avenue Bertholet 14. 3.80€ entry.

Places to eat:
Café Chouette: Rue d'Algérie 17 near Place des Terreaux. Pleasant café decorated with theater posters.
La Randonnée: Rue des Termes 4. A pleasant and reasonably priced restaurant. The prix fixe lunch is a great value and includes starter, main course, and dessert.
Kebab places: For a quick and cheap snack at any time of the day, try one of the many kebab places near Place des Terreaux.

Posted 9 September 2006


Masterworks in the Churches of Rome

If any city could be considered an open-air museum, it would be Rome. If one street fails to impress you, you need only round the corner and are bound to stumble upon some amazing structure dating from a century long past. For paintings, of course, you need to actually go indoors, and a day in the Vatican Museums offers a dose of Italian art rich in both quality and quantity that includes Michelangelo's resplendent frescoes in the Sistine Chapel and Raphael's less famous but no less amazing Stanze. However, you need not limit yourself to museums if you want to see great art. Many of the masters of old painted on commission for various churches that still retain the works. The following list of some of my favorite churches for art provides a good starting point for a tour. As a fan of Caravaggio, I made a special effort to chase his works down all over Rome, and you will see him well represented in my choices.

But first a few general guidelines. Most churches are open from 9:00 am to noon, and then close for a while before opening again from 3:30 pm or so until 6:00 pm. Hours for masses are often posted, and it is best not to enter during these times. To be respectful you shouldn't wear shorts, short skirts, or sleeveless shirts or blouses. Frequently, the masterpieces are kept in the dark, and you need to drop some change into a slot to activate the lights. A timer ticks off and then shuts off the lights again, so be prepared with enough change if you want to engage in long contemplation. You should also consider leaving a donation in the box set by the door for this purpose.

Chiesa Nuova (Piazza della Chiesa Nuova off of Corso Vittorio Emanuele II):
In this church's flamboyantly gold interior you can find a copy of Caravaggio's The Deposition of Christ (the original is in the Vatican Museums) and three early paintings by Rubens that may come as a surprise to those who associate the Flemish master solely with a certain body-type. They are all found at the altar. Our Lady with the Child is in the altar itself, and to the sides are St. Gregory and Saints Domitilla, Nereo and Achilleo. Rubens painted these works on slate so as to minimize glare.

San Luigi dei Francesi (Piazza San Luigi dei Francesi off of Via della Scrofa):
The 16th-century French national church has three Caravaggios in the Contarelli chapel that form a cycle based on the life of the apostle St. Matthew: The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600), Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1599-1600), and St. Matthew and the Angel (1602). The paintings caused a sensation when first unveiled, revealing Caravaggio's delight in setting Biblical scenes in realistic, quotidian settings with figures that are hardly idealized.

San Pietro in Vincoli (Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli off of Via Eudossiana):
Known for the chains that supposedly bound St. Peter in Mamertine prison, which are housed in an altar and lit eerily in yellow. An art lover is likely to be at least equally impressed by Michelangelo's magnificent tomb of Julius II (1545), which includes his famous sculpture of Moses (1515), depicting the patriarch as a solid, masculine figure with bulging biceps. Note that the horns on Moses's head are due to a mistranslation of the Old Testament.

Santa Maria del Popolo (Piazza del Popolo 12 at the end of Via del Corso):
Among the treasures you will find here are Pinturicchio's Adoration of the Christ Child (c. 1490), an apse by Bramante decorated with sibyls and apostles by Pinturicchio, and two sculptures of prophets, Habakukk and the Angel (1655) and Daniel and the Lion (1650), by Bernini in the Chigi chapel designed by Raphael. The true masterpieces, however, are Caravaggio's works in the Cerasi chapel: The Conversion of St. Paul (1600), famous for its horse and attendant who don't seem to realize a blessed event is taking place as Paul is sprawled on the ground, and The Crucifixion of St. Peter (1601), depicting Christ's successor as a tired old man being crucified upside-down. Note in particular the use of light, which illuminates Peter's face but keeps his tormentors in darkness.

Santa Maria della Vittoria (Via XX Settembre 17 at Largo Santa Susanna):
This small church may be unremarkable at first, but if you seek out the Cornaro chapel on the left you will find one of the most significant sculptures from the Baroque era. Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Theresa (1647-1652) depicts a mystic experience described in vivid detail in the saint's writings. Part of the piece's unique power lies in its ambiguity: though the figure is being pierced by an arrow in the hand of an angel, her expression suggests a more earthly form of ecstasy.

Santa Maria sopra Minerva (Piazza della Minerva 42 at Via del Pie di Marmo):
The piazza outside this 13th-century gothic church has Bernini's unusual sculpture called Pulcino della Minerva (1667), depicting an elephant bearing an obelisk. Inside you will find a fantastic set of frescoes by Filippino Lippi crammed into the Carafa chapel (1489-1491), Romano's Annunciation (c. 1460), and Michelangelo's statue Christ Carrying the Cross (1521). You can also pay your respects to a Renaissance master at Fra Angelico's tomb.

Sant'Agostino (Via della Scrofa 80 at Via dell'Orso):
Caravaggio's Madonna di Loretto (also known as The Madonna with Pilgrims) (1603-1605) is the most noted work in this church. At the time, it was considered scandalous due to one figure's soiled feet. Raphael's Prophet Isaiah (1511-1512) and Andrea Sansovino's sculpture Madonna and Child with St. Anne (1512) can be found close to the Caravaggio. According to Giorgio Vasari's biography, Raphael painted Isaiah after a secret entry into the Sistine Chapel and an observation of Michelangelo's work in progress; the work is indeed similar to Michelangelo's prophets.

Sant'Ignazio di Loyola (Piazza di Sant'Ignazio):
An extravagant baroque structure with a fantastic illusionist ceiling by Andrea Pozzo (1688-1690) depicting The Apotheosis of Saint Ignazio. The expansive work bursts with flying forms and flowing robes and serves to remind that when Baroque painting works, it really works.

Trinità dei Monti (at the top of the Spanish Steps):
Along with a Pre-Raphaelite chapel and nice views of the city from the top of the famous Spanish Steps, this church offers Daniele da Volterra's Deposition (c. 1545), striking for its placement of figures in the scene. The influence of Michelangelo, who was Volterra's teacher, is evident.

Posted 28 August 2006


Bull's Blood in the Valley of the Beautiful Women

My traveling companion and I journeyed to the small town of Eger, Hungary to escape the city sprawl of Budapest for a day, and we were not disappointed. Among the must-sees are the Minorite Church, the Minaret, and Eger Castle, best known for withstanding a siege by a Turkish army in 1552 and halting the Ottoman advance into Europe. We ended our exploration with a walk along Kossuth Lajos ut., looking at buildings from the Austro-Hungarian period and their wonderful wrought iron decoration.

After spending a morning enjoying these sights and the lazy, small-town feel, a trip to the nearby Valley of the Beautiful Women is a must. The Valley is known for wine cellars carved out of the hillsides, most of them set in rows along the roadway. Each cellar has its own character: some are furnished in wood like German wine taverns, whereas others are more rustic, such as Cellar #16 at the Valley's far end. Legend has it that if you push a coin into the moss walls and it sticks, you are destined to return to Eger. The old proprietor was quiet but friendly. He spoke no English but understood German. He drew wine straight from vats and offered to pour us a liter in a carry container for the road, but we declined, preferring to sample by the glass from other cellars.

Bikaver, which translates into "Bull's Blood," is the most famous wine of the region, probably more so for the legend behind it. When Eger's warriors faced the Turks, they fortified their courage with red wine. The Turks saw the red-stained faces, and that, coupled with the Hungarian's fierceness, gave birth to the legend that the defenders drank bull's blood. I'm also partial to Kekfrankos and the sweet Medina. Leánkya is a sweet, smooth, very nice white wine.

For dinner, we stopped at Ködmön Csárda on the main road, Szépasszonyvölgy ut. The "lad-catching soup," a local specialty with meat, sour cream, and liver, was excellent. Apple and cheese strudels made for a nice dessert. As night fell we began our walk back to town, satiated with fine food and wine. The castle loomed on the hill, gleaming in orange lights. Its history is long and heroic, commemorated by street names and monuments but also by the wine the warriors drank, which continues to flow in these green hills and fertile valleys.

How to get there:
Trains from Budapest's Keleti station depart frequently for Eger and take about 2 hours. Some are direct, others involve transfer at Füzesabony. Signs point the way from the station to the center of town, which is an easy walk. Stop at the tourist office on Dobó István tér, the central square, to pick up free maps to both the town and the Valley of the Beautiful Women. They can also help with train and bus schedules.

Minorite Church: A beautiful salmon-colored Baroque church with wonderful ceiling frescoes. On the central square, Dobó tér.
Minaret: The northernmost minaret in Europe and the only structure remaining from a former mosque. Junction of Knézich K. ut. and Markhot F. ut. near the central square.
Eger Castle: A tour of this looming edifice offers a nice view of the town and a solid introduction to the history and culture of the region. On Dobó István ut., entrance at Dozsa Gy ter.

Posted 14 August 2006


Home-style Polish Cuisine in a Warsaw Milk Bar

Warsaw is a modern city, partly due to its rebuilding after near destruction at the hands of the retreating German army in 1945. The city is in transition again as international corporations are transforming downtown into a major financial center. Appropriately enough, the former Communist party headquarters is now inhabited by the stock market. New restaurants in the trendy Centrum offer good Polish food at reasonable prices in decors appropriate to the hip quarters of Western Europe and the U.S. (try Grill Bar Zgoda at Ullica Zgoda 4 for excellent ryba w sosie—fish and potato cakes in tomato sauce).

However, for a more authentic experience, head to one of the many milk bars, simple establishments designed to provide cheap, hot food to all segments of the population. My first visit to a milk bar evoked images of depression-era soup kitchens as many diners were obviously very poor. Still, their neighbors at other tables appeared to be well-dressed business people on lunch breaks. The quest for a cheap lunch tends to defy economic barriers, and the milk bar seems to be one relic from the Socialist era that has some staying power.

Service is cafeteria style. After ordering and paying at the cashier, you take your ticket to the food counter for your meal. I paused for a while before the menu, inscribed in Polish on a board over the cashier. My pocket translation guide helped me figure out basic words. I ordered the pierogi and barszcz czerwony (meat-filled dumplings and red beet soup). With a drink, the meal cost about $1.75 U.S. at time of visit.

From the pickup counter I could see the kitchen, which was no grimier around the edges than a typical diner in the U.S. The food was served quickly and unsmilingly. I picked up thin, badly washed tin utensils and proceeded to a table. The dumplings looked soggy and pale but were actually firm, nicely spiced, and tasty, and the soup had a good, pungent flavor.

Milk bars and their kin are proof that you can eat good, hot, sit-down meals on a budget. Try Bar Mleczny Familijny, right on Warsaw's Royal Way at ul Nowy Swiat 39, perfect for exploring some of its best sights, including the Polish Military Museum and the wonderful National Museum. You'll even have enough left in your wallet for coffee and a fine dessert in one of the Royal Way's ritzy cafes.

Posted 7 August 2006


The Mummies of St. Michan's

During a trip to Dublin, Ireland, my traveling companion and I found ourselves drawn to the old church of St. Michan's, just north of the Liffey River. The site can only be visited by a tour, which begins in the church itself, a small, pleasant 17th-century building with white walls, dark wooden pews, and understated ornamentation. Apparently, Handel played the organ here. Visitors are soon led outside where a heavy iron door opens onto a steep stairway into the hallowed ground under the church. Dust swirls in the musty air, alive with the scents of things long secreted away. In the depths is a hallway lined with iron-barred vaults filled with coffins. Our guide is an amiable fellow with a suitably black sense of humor buttressed by a poker face.

The highlight of the tour is the mummies. Magnesium deposits in the limestone walls have kept damaging moisture from the air. The dry air split open three coffins, and the bodies within were found preserved in an amazing state. The three are displayed in a vault, still in their caskets. All have smooth, dark skin withered around thin, skeletal frames. The first is a 400-year-old nun. The second is a tall man whose legs were cut down so he could fit inside the coffin. His hand has also been severed. A thief? No, no thief would have been allowed burial under a church, says our guide. A thief who converted to the priesthood? Perhaps. His real story may be still more interesting. The final figure is known as "the Crusader" as he is reputed to have joined the Crusades.

Legend holds that shaking the Crusader's 800-year-old hand brings good luck. I am astonished when the guide invites us to line up to introduce ourselves to the old warrior. Actually, the handshake is a symbolic one that entails only rubbing the hand. I have to slouch to step into the ancient space of the vault, which is draped with cobwebs, stacked with coffins, and creaking with suggestions of ghosts. The hand feels just as it looks: old, worn leather. Looking at someone who inhabited a place and a time removed so far from your own is an amazing thing. Touching such a person's physical being is even more striking.

It is said that Bram Stoker was inspired by a visit to St. Michan's, which is hardly surprising. These ancient spaces resonate with the mysteries of death but also life preserved in death, histories of glory and pain, noble and miserable ends, all lost to us but somehow eerily real in these hollowed but calm faces. We are thankful to blink at sunlight when we ascend but feel blessed by our brief contact with a legacy much older than our own.

Posted 30 July 2006