Monday, January 28, 2008

Titlis Tour

Skiing adventures this w-end took us to Engelberg, the monestary town, in the middle of this small, hilly country that is Switzerland. Perfect two-day tour around Titlis, little known, but stunningly beautiful mountain - glaciated on one side, where Engelberg lifts are, dolomite-toweresque on the other:

The tour is an upside-down kind, first it took us to Titlis's summit, an easy 200m walk up from the top of the lifts, and than down to the valley on its other side, a more technical undertaking requiring a couple of rapps. Approaching the first rappel station, limestone peaks look very much like the Canadian Rockies. We are on our way down to the Wenden valley, where the famous summer climbing destination, Wendenstock, is.

Usually this tour is done in a day, but as we wanted to make last the pleasure, we continued up and down to the SustliHutte, boys running up Grassen summit, and myself following the arretes to the col. Good swiss hutte, welcoming as always - although gas was not working, we had to do the cooking over the wooden stove.

The second day we went up the col opposite to the hut, with a stunning view of the Sustenpass - here is myself approaching the windy top of the pass:

And finally the fun descent down to Engelberg, illustrated by Olov's prowess, the Swede showing us how it's done: Ready!

Steady, GO!!!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Barcelona, the Last Stop

Barcelona was the culmination of my Spanish escapade. I have been to the city six years ago and have done the usual sites, Picasso and Gaudi. This time i had to take more pictures - and Gaudi is the easy target. Thus this little friend made it to my collection - Parc Guell's mascot lizard:

And a couple of houses surrounding the Guell park, that was originally planned as a garden city. The plan never got to its end, like other Gaudi projects, but the part that has been built is the happy kingdom for kids and adults alike.

These houses remind me so much of the Hansel and Gretel tale, i feel like getting a piece of the wall and taste it each time when passing here:

And why not immortalize Segrada Familia to show to the children in many many years - "yes, i saw when it was only being built, without that big tower in the middle etc"...

And these are the other Gaudi creations, the classic casa Batllo, that now one can visit for only...16 euros to see the stairs and the roof - which i surprisingly did not:

And the less known casa Vicenc on the way to the Guell Park, where the cleaning lady is getting nicely into the landscape on the first floor:

I also visited the less usual Pedralbes Monestary, founded by another disenchanted queen to keep to the quite world of spirits. This little angel guaranteed the serenity of her soul and oversaw the discipline in the nuns' conduct:

And this is the modernist tower, for once not by Gaudi, at the old textile factory, converted into an exhibition hall by the Catalan Caixa bank in 2002. Pure blue sky is the only witness to the perfect Mediterranean climate this city so selfishly enjoys...

Worthwhile is the Catalan National Museum uphill from this factory, with incredible Roman art fresques that were rescued (at least that's what the museum says) from the churches around Barcelona in the beginning of the 20th century and other, mainly Spanish, masterpieces in the newly restored upper-floor galleries.

Granada the White or Albaicin

My walk around Granada, after the Alhambra visit, took me to the second hill, called Albaicin, where the common people used to and continue living. This is the view of the whitish houses and the defense wall in the distance, as the storm comes in over the city.

Different cultures are filling the mixing pot to the brim, as this San Nicolas church, neighboring a mosque commissioned by Saudi Arabia in 2003 demonstrates:

With this breathtaking view on Alhambra in front of it:

And international tribe of tourists enjoying the view - made me think about the 5.10 advertisement with colorful shoes-,:

That much for Granada, the road awaits and calls me to continue the circumnavigation...

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Granada the Red or Alhambra

My day in Granada - what can i say, Alhambra is incredible, dream-like and totally worth a visit in one's lifetime - despite the crowds, despite the price, planning, ticketing etc - the spotlight of my trip, it even overdid Prado, and that is to say! I took over 200 pictures - and anyone can convert into being a photographer in this inspiring, geometry-filled place.

I started the visit in the opposite direction of the crowd flow, and went first to the Generalife gardens (that's where the view on the Alhambra fortress in the morning mist above comes from), what used to serve as a summer house for the Sultan during the Islamic rain. Not much remains of the house, but the gardens are incredible. They were remodeled over time, like most of Alhambra, and that adds to their charm:

The insides of the Ismail tower gives a taste of things to come in the other palaces. The interior decoration used to be split into two parts by the Islamic architects - lower part, called dado, with multi-colored tile decoration that would withstand numerous contacts with the outside world (not preserved to our times on the picture below) - like we do in the swimming pools -, and higher part with stucco, creating mocarabes, this incredible effect you can see on the picture below. Most of the decoration used calligraphic writing or colorful geometrical forms, color that mostly disappeared from the walls today. Thus poems about the Sultan commissioning the room run around the inside walls, telling us his prominence and glory.

I started the visit of Alhambra proper by the El Partal Palace, a perfect photo opportunity (nenuphar gardens recreated in the 19th century):

The Nasrid Palaces are the jewel of the place, and with tourist inflow their visit has been limited to 30 minutes, with time spots to reserve during each day. As there was no real control of when one gets out of the palaces, i stayed several hours taking pictures and falling in love with this place.

There are actually two palaces that create what is known as Nasrid Palaces, called that because of the last Nasrid dynasty of the sultans that ruled Islamic Granada before its final fall in 1492 and built the royal residency in the 14th century: Comares Palace and the Palace of Lions. Charles Quint appreciated them so much that he established his own residence in the old Arab palaces instead of using his newly built Collesium-like villa just behind them. Concerning the Charles Quint palace, someone called it a meteorite that landed by chance in the middle of Alhambra - and that is exactly what it felt like to me.

This is a picture of the entrance to the Comares Palaces, as visitors saw it when introduced there by the Sultan. The door on the right led to the harem and the living quarters, door on the left to the Myrtle court and the throne room.

The court of the Myrtles, after the shadowed corridor following the left-side door above looks like this, with the immensely high (35 meters) throne room behind it:

The decoration of the rooms alongside the court uses stucco and mocarabes to their fullest:

From the Myrtles court Charles Quint made a direct door to the second palace, what is now known as the Palace of the Lions. The picture below represents one side of the Lion's court, probably the most famous place in the Nasrid Palaces. Unfortunately the fountain was fenced off and lions were being restored, as well as the Kings' room, - which made me take 30 pictures less of the place, still incredibly beautiful:

Pictures by Juan Laurent of the same place, the Lion's court, but from the 19th century. His pictures did a lot to make Alhambra a popular tourist destination - and develop travel monument photography.

And the last thought - about cats - Granada is also somehow a city of cats. I saw so many of them around Dario river, in Alhambra and on the Albaicin that i couldn't believe it in the end. It does go with the town's mysterious and accommodating nature. And cats made me think about this painting by Dirk de Vos that i remember from Prado - the cats fight for dead prey. I cannot find it on the net as it's not that popular, it is rather peculiar.

The only thing i haven't seen is a granada tree with fruits on!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Museum spree - Prado 3

And now a couple of my classic favorites that i came back to see in Prado on my return from Toledo (as Reina Sophia museum was closed, again, - i just stayed with the old masters...).

Velasques's name is the most associated with Prado. I actually didn't enjoy that much his monumental paintings - maybe because having already seen them with many other mediums. However i felt his mastery in this Aesop:

and in the same impetus the disenchanted god of war, Mars:

There are so many other incredible paintings in the museum, especially by Rubens and Tiziano, that is difficult to pick and choose any. But Ruben's realization of all the apostles' portraits was one of these feats to the eyes hard to forget. They all looked so alive and convincing, it is difficult to imagine how he managed to do 12 of them, without a model, without getting bored or rushing through to get paid. Talent must be the answer. Here is his Saint Tomas, in the same room:

And there is so much more...For example, Rubens's Saturn devouring his child:

is impressive, especially as compared to Goya's one from his dark times, in another gallery, the 'dark one', on the same floor:

And the last one - El Greco's Trinity (inspired by Durer's drawings), one of his first big paintings in Spain, commissioned by the Santo Dominguo el Antiguo Monestary upon his arrival in Toledo. The monestary still shows a copy of the painting in its church - as well as El Greco's tomb under its floor. Toledo, Alpha and Omega for this visionary.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Toledo - the Historic Capital of Castille

Second day in Spain and i get to the real city - Toledo, that has in 30 minutes of train everything that Madrid lacks in history and historic monuments. Mystic, with a touch of the south, full of old rumors of Arabs and Jews, it languishes in its awesome bay despite the rambling tours of excited Russians, annoying American students, and the usual 'click click' Japanese. Court of the Monastero de San Juan de los Reyos, commissioned by the Catholic kings, the perfect couple - Isabella and Ferdinand:

The sights to visit are numerous, and a day is not exactly enough to see everything with serenity. With places such as the Mosque of Christ of Light and the Synagogue of Mary´s Annunciation (only in Spain!!!), one has to do his history homework to enjoy even more the melting pot-pouri of it all. And El Greco, i forget El Greco.

My most memorable memory is probably from visiting the San Juan the Babtist hospital-palace all by myself (picture of its court above). As it is just out of the city limits, it was spared by the crowds. I had the place to myself and my plethora of emotions: Scared in the crypt with that unbelievable acoustic - especially when i tried to move the stones in its middle; Bewildered in front of Greco's Segrada Famillia in the Tavera's small but incredible collection of paintings:

(This is one of his most beautiful Maries, inspired apparently by his own woman's giving birth to his son, the future painter and architect Jorge Manuel, - and some speculations say it is himself that he painted as Joseph on the right); Happy to have a conversation with someone about my discoveries in Prado and elsewhere - a very nice guide i had just for myself.

And the garden-courts - what we call for some reason Italian court back home - used to be in high esteem in Toledo and were created with a thought for the amateur photographers that we all are in this digital age. After my Granada visit, i started to have doubts about their origins as probably they were to some degree influenced by the Mauresque achievements before the catholic kingdom's expansion. Below is the picture of Santa Crus Monastir court - what tranquility, what a feel of serenity and spirituality...not to forget the Marzipans of Toledo, very very good and still produced by the nuns of different abbeys!

And I am forgetting the Cathedral, one of the biggest and richest in Europe, with its statue of Maria Blanca and that strange thing, combining architecture, painting, and sculpture, - the Transparenta - as baroque as one could get - have to see it to believe it! Very good paintings are stored at the Sacristy, as in all of these churches, an incredible Batista by Carravaggio - how did he get in there? - a good Ribera, and that breathtaking captured Christ by Goya...!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Museum spree - Prado 2

My first Prado post concentrated mainly on the by-standing masters, not focusing on the pop-stars of the place - Velasques and El Greco, or should i also say Ribera, Zurbaran, Murillo - or Rubens, Titien or Tintoretto?...Choice is too large to keep it real - that is why i had to go there for two days in a row to get my head straight about at least some of it.

To start with the inspirers of this whole lot of revolutionaries, here are the two incredible paintings, hanging side by side and illuminating the space around them, first Annunciation by Fra Angelico - angelically pure, the jpg below is far from doing it justice:

And Messina's dead Christ with an angel, something close to da Vinci or Ruben´s angels, but again so movingly human, it could by itself resume the whole Renaissance:

Being religious or not, one has to appreciate religion for giving the impetus to the existence of all this art. In Prado, there is no way of getting around religion. And each painter seems to have his Pieta in there, pick and choose the one you like! My two favorite ones are Flemish, Van der Weyden´s Descent from the Cross - that was originally destined for Isabella the Catholica and Fernando's burial chapel in Granada:

And Anton van Dyck´s Pieta, that beats them all - maybe not Michel Angelo's, but that's in a different register:

And the last, but not least in this religious feast - Caravaggio. Only one painting of his exposed in Prado, like Rembrandt´s, but an impressive one. Used less to inspire religious faith, but to rather show his aesthetic standards, it stays in my memory, David and Goliath:

Hmm, so again no time to even start speaking about Velasquez, El Greco, and will have to wait for a Prado 3 intervention!

Museum spree - Prado 1

I not only took care of tourism on the streets, i also went to the museums. And so it happened that Prado was the first. Oh my, it's been a while since i have been impressed by a museum...maybe British Museum? or National Gallery in DC? (hmm that by itself is a frightening thought) Not sure anymore, but Prado is more than one can wish for - and take in one day...What can i say - it does stand up to its reputation and has to be seen! That Habsburg family knew how to make art collections - even if they forgot how to find spouses of fresh blood to preserve their kin.

Whom should i start with? This one from the master Goya, incredible, stunning light, and oh so strong after all the imperial royal family depictions! Guernica´s predecessor by spirit...

Another jewel - alone from this master in the exhibits, but so full of him - Zaskia as Artemis, by Rembradt van Rijn - Jewish queen in this Catholic kingdom - kingdom that chased them all away the same year it 'discovered' the New World and conquered Boabdil's Granada...And isn't it the master himself, contemplating the visitor from behind the queen's shoulder, less proud than Velasques on the Menines near-by, but not less talented!

And Bosch that despite age and the absence of any Renaissance tricks holds most visitors' attention pretty well and long with his Garden of Pleasures. If he lived today, he wold have been a perfect sci-fi manga painter - or writer! Here is a detail, but you have to see it all to believe it! Strawberries, dressed up pigs, hellish machines and cut-off ears, not to mention what looks like Dali-style eggs...All that in the 15th century, and held in high esteem on the wall of his own prudish Escorial by Felippe II...See here for more details on the tryptic.

Rambles through Madrid

By chance i got to Spain this week and my journey starts in Madrid. I have not yet been to this city as it is not exactly on the axis of east-west travels of mine - and here i go!

As usual, so much to see and so little time...My program got messed up early in the morning - Palacio Real (photo below) was closed for official ceremonies - as well as the Reina Sofia Museum, my two first objectives. Next i had the bad idea to go to Atocha, the railway station with a tropical garden in its midst. The man at the ticket desk made all possible and impossible efforts to not understand my rudimentary Spanish and finally, after 30 min of talks, gestures, and drawings, sold me two tickets for cash - one to Toledo for tomorrow, and one to Granada for the day after. I had to go see another lady to get my ticket from Granada to Barcelona and to pay by credit card as my cash ran out as quickly as my patience. Anyway, Spanish customer service has some way to go to be at least at the French level, not even mentioning the American one.

This is the Catedral de Nuestra Senora de Almudena in the morning light, that reminded me of our St George's Cathedal in Lviv.

Here is another shot of a lovely garden i stumbled upon near the San Andres church and the San Pedro´s mudejar tower.

And the last shot of the Placa Mayor, still with its Christmas decorations on. Talking about Christmas or Navidad, during my rambles i came upon this strange ceremony attracting crowds in the Buen Retiro park - thousands of balloons going into the Madrid sky. I first took them for birds - and then felt like a Persian or a Chinese traveler in the Middle Ages, contemplating this ceremony i had trouble understand. Finally i found a booklet in Spanish i managed to somehow figure out - the principle of this Arbol de los Deseos was the following - beginning of December Madridians came over to the big glass Xmas tree and filled it with balloons. Each balloon had a wish marked on it. And today, January 6th, certainly to celebrate Christmas with me, all the wishes went to the sky!