Category Archives: Architecture

Barcelona, Here We Come

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It might have been some while since you last spent time in Barcelona. Fancy a weekend there, perhaps?

I am suggesting Barcelona, because it is right on our doorstep. It is easy to get to, and it is exciting, whatever the time of the year. Right now, Barcelona is immersed in some autumnal bliss.

Barcelona has, as most coastal towns in Spain, a long and interesting history. Since its foundation in around 200 B. C., it has been dominated in turn by Carthaginians, Visigoths and the Moors. It was not until the 9th century when the Muslims were defeated by the Christians that the city was inhabited by Cataláns. During the 14th century the Catalán mini-empire reached its splendour, extending to areas such as Valencia, the Balearics Islands and even parts of southern France. In 1473, the kingdom of Castilla invaded Catalunya after various conflicts. In 1700, the Catalán language was forbidden for a long period after the Cataláns had joined forces with the English army against Castilla.

 

During the regime of Franco, the Cataláns were repressed and their language was again forbidden, this time by the threat of death. But, when Franco died in 1975, the Cataláns got back their freedom. Today, Barcelona is a very sparkling city and Catalunya as a whole, a very independent region. Both are very proud of their very own language and a certain nation-within-a-nation status. Do not always expect to get by with your usual Castellano idiom once you stray away from the tourist trail.

 

Be that as it may be, I would suggest you fly to Barcelona. Although I have taken ferry boats plenty of times (and you may not even come, as I would, from the Balearic Isles), I do not recommend you take your car, as Barcelona is rather arduous when it comes to parking, and traffic in general.

From the airport, you can take the bus to Plaça Catalunya. From there you will best be going to your hotel by taxi. I do not suggest you stay at the rather fashionable Hotel Arts, flash and stylish as it may be, because it is just too expensive. Also, I have heard comments that the hotel service is not on the same level as are the room rates. A hotel to my liking, with a very central location and with quite a bit of historic flair, is the Majestic on Paseo de Gràcia. Josephine Baker stayed there in the Twenties.

Barcelona of course, would not be Barcelona without its glorious heritage of buildings, parks and other wonders, created by Antoni Gaudí. If you have not done the Gaudí trail yet, now is a good time. And if you should be staying at the Hotel Majestic, you cannot be better located to appreciate some great works built by Gaudí’s genius.

 

There is too much Gaudí in Barcelona and its surroundings to see them all in just a few days, but the do-not-misses are Casa Batlló, Casa Milà (La Pedrera), Palacio Güell, and Parque Güell. And most of all, of course, this wonderful cathedral of all cathedrals, La Sagrada Familia. This one has been under construction since 1885, and it is still unfinished. But I assure you that you have not seen the likes before. In 1984, Gaudí’s buildings were awarded the status of being UNESCO World Heritage sites.

 

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Next on your list of priorities will have to be some concert, opera or theatre performance. The best would be a visit to the newly rebuilt Gran Teatre de Liceu, where concerts are given this weekend of works by Igor Stravinsky, at the occasion of the composer’s 125th birthday, but I am afraid that tickets have to be booked well in advance. I suppose that the front manager at the Majestic will be able to help you, but I do not know.

Apart from the Liceu, I would recommend a visit to the Mercat de les Flors for Ballet, the Espai Escenic Brossa, the Teatre Borras, Teatre Nacional de Catalunya or the Teatre Principal. For music, mostly classical, I recommend the Auditori and the Palau de Musica Catalana with its beautiful Modernist architecture. For Pop, the Palau Jordi.

 

For more information about Barcelona see the Barcelona City Guide.

Barcelona is Spain’s creative capital, and Art with a capital A keeps the creativity going. That is Art in its widest sense, including fashion, architecture, music, design, as well as street cred. For fine art, I recommend visits to the Miró Foundation, the CaixaForum, the MOCBA Museum of Modern Art, the CCCB, the Fundación Tàpies, and the Centre Cultural Caixa de Catalunya, inside of Gaudí’s La Pedrera. And most important of all, the Picasso Museum. For friends of Pre-Columbian art, the Museum Barbier-Mueller is a must. And do not forget a visit to the Catedral de Barcelona, the cathedral.

After all that theatre and art, Picasso and Gaudí, you will want to wine and dine in Barcelona. Barcelona is one of the World Capitals of good food. There are too many restaurants (more than 10,000), tapas bars, bodegas and cervezerias to choose from, and some of them of a very good quality. I suggest that you buy yourself a copy of B-guided or of Guía del Ocío for guidance. What I would do, in any case, is to go either to the Barrio Gotico, the Port Vell area, or the Olympic village. There you will find seafood restaurants galore, plus restaurants specializing in Catalán food, or Mediterranean food. Just enter the establecimiento that seems busiest of all. You will not be disappointed. Or you could try Restaurante Hofmann, in Calle Argenteria, 74-78. Pricey, but first class.

If time allows, and your fancy takes you, you could head North-East to Girona or Figueres. In Figueres, you could pay an unforgettable visit to the museum of that other Catalán artist genius, Salvador Dalí, whereas in Girona you would visit that beautiful medieval old town centre, including the historically unique Jewish quarters, the Call.

North-West takes you, instead, to the Monasterio de Montserrat. And also to Terrassa, where you can enjoy the annual Festival de Jazz, in full swing right now.

I hope you will enjoy your trip.

 

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Paul Andreu and the National Grand Theatre in Beijing

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If you are interested in architecture, there is no doubt that you are impressed by the work of Jørn Utzon, the Danish architect who gave the world the singular Sydney Opera House, in Australia, inaugurated after much delay in 1973, and now declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We all saw Sydney Opera House pictures last week when the APEC Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation met there for their 2007 summit.

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In his pursuit for immortality, Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava surprised us all with a splendid Auditorium concert hall in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain, in 2003. Not so many delays in that case. No summits there, as yet, either.

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Now, we can be in awe of the new National Grand Theatre in Beijing, unofficially put to use a few days ago by former Chinese leader and opera enthusiast, Jiang Zemin. Admittedly, I wasn’t there when comrade Jiang Zemin, 81, sang his bits of Peking Opera to an intrigued audience, but I am more than impressed by French architect, Paul Andreu’s work that continues a formidable tradition of great 20th century opera and concert house architecture in China’s capital city.

The retired president and Communist Party chief sang parts of a Western opera and also, of a Peking opera for theatre staff when he visited last Friday, a Hong Kong newspaper reported.

The controversial National Theatre, a shiny half sphere, sits in stark contrast next to the Soviet-style Great Hall of the People in downtown Beijing, perhaps 500 m from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. It was due to open in 2005, then 2006, and is now expected to open at the end of this year.

The National Grand Theatre of China in Beijing was designed by French architect Paul Andreu. You may know Monsieur Andreu for his Maritime Museum in Osaka, Japan, or his Grande Arche in La Defense, Paris, France, amongst others. His Beijing theatre must be one of the most talked-about architectural projects for years, both because of Andreu’s bold and innovative design, and for the grand scope of the project itself.

Once opened, it surely will become Beijing’s foremost cultural centre, situated in the heart of the capital, symbolizing all that is exciting about the new China, and no doubt will convert into one of the visual icons of the upcoming Beijing Olympics 2008, together with Herzog & de Meuron’s as yet unfinished Olympic Stadium (see photo below). And any number of summits will be held there, too, for sure.

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It’s lucky, isn’t it, that UNESCO will not be short of candidates for future World Heritage Site considerations?

Some Buildings in Mallorca Are 3,000 Years Old, or More

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Imagine you walk through a passage way that is covered by a solid stone slab weighing some 3,000 kilograms or more and that was put there, no-one knows how, some 3,000 years ago, or more. Eerie.

Mallorcan civilization is much older than one might think. It is older than the Arab’s, and older than the Roman’s. As old as some Pharaonic dynasties, even.

 

There was life in the hills of the Levante some 4,000 years ago. Well, let’s settle for 3,000 years, just to avoid argument. Yes, that’s almost as old as the pyramids of Giza. No, I am not comparing the two. It is to give you a feeling of age, nothing more.

 

The Megalithic civilization that had settled in the Balearic islands, mainly really in Menorca, but to a lesser extent also in Mallorca, is called the Talayotic society. Talayotic because they lived in settlements that were characterized by some massive watchtowers, called Atalayas. If you are really into all that you should soon make your way to Menorca, where there are some fourty or fifty settlements, of various states of importance. Some of them are magnificent. World heritage stuff.

 

Here, on the bigger Balearic island, we have to settle for something smaller and lesser. But impressive nevertheless, if you join me on the way to Ses Païses (see photo above), near Arta, or to Capocorb Vell, south of Llucmajor, or to Son Fornes, near Montuïri. Mallorca has only about twenty or twentyfive Talayotic settlements, of which the three named above are the biggest and best preserved. Some others and mainly smaller Talayots in Mallorca are not very well cared for, I am afraid. Some have been outright neglected.

 

I do not know why the Island guardians care so much more about small infringements in contemporary planning laws, when they have architectonic remains of historic importance on their hands that they neglect to even fence in.

 

Be that as it regrettably may, you might just want to pop down to Llucmayor and see for yourself, one of these days. The Capocorb Vell settlement is well fenced in and is signposted all the way from Llucmajor. You can’t miss it. Opening hours there are from 10h00 to 20h00 (closed Thursday), now that the season is in full swing. But busloads have been known to descend, and it gets too hot anyway. Why not wait another few weeks until things get cooler. The extensive Talayot is nicely looked after. Of course this is public domain, but the keepers are private people that obviously care. There is a small entry charge of 3 € and it is worth every Cent. If you get exhausted from looking and perhaps acting out that Indiana Jones urge inside of you, refreshments are on offer, as are crisps and sweets. You can take your young ones, too. But urge them to stick to the paths. 

 

And if you are still up for it, you might check on the other sites, too. Son Fornes near Montuïri is currently being assessed in earnest, after many years of neglect. A small exhibition display has recently been opened at the vicinity.

 

A real classic is Ses Païses, near Arta, but then, some of you might know that one already.

 

It is the Talayot that Mallorca likes to show off.

 

A Visit to Málaga

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Instead of Málaga, it would have been more obvious to do a blog entry on Valencia at the time of the America’s Cup, being won by that infamous sailing nation, Switzerland. Well, I didn’t. I suppose I simply am not enough into sailing myself for having thought of the obvious choice. But don’t get upset. The Swiss Alinghi team’s win was the second triumph after 2003, as you all know, and thus, another Valencia regatta, this time the 33rd America’s Cup, will be raced in 2009. I will do a virtual visit of that Mediterranean city before the next competition. Promise.

But today, it’s Málaga’s turn. And hardly any sailing will be mentioned.

Málaga is a city full of history and tradition, but it is also the capital of the Costa del Sol. That’s in Andalucía, as far as Spanish provinces go. Andalucía’s capital is Sevilla, but again, that would be a different entry for some other time. The Phoenicians founded the city of Málaga, then called Malaka, around 1000 B. C. That was way before Moors or Arabs or Islam were thought of, or Alinghi or the Emirates Team.

After the Phoenicians came the Romans, to be followed by the Visigoths. The Moors came to Malaka in the 8th century A. D., and with them the Caliphate of Córdoba. During that time, Malaka became the capital of a distinct Kingdom, dependent on Granada. By now, the city was called Mālaqah.

Málaga today is rather cosmopolitan, making you feel welcomed wherever you might hail from. The locals are friendly and have a deep sense of hospitality. I am sure you will want to come back after your first visit.

The many natural scenic lookouts offer stupendous views of the bay, especially from the Gibralfaro Mount, next to Gibralfaro Castle, which once was a Moorish fortress. There is a Parador (hotel) right next to the castle, which is where I stayed with my family on a recent visit. Our journey centred on experiencing the unique gastronomy, history and culture of this part of Andalucía. The whole city is dotted with typical Spanish bars, some in the style of rustic tavernas, and others in the style of bodegas where you can try the typical local Los Montes wine, sweet, dry or semi-sweet. Try a dish of the local cuisine along with it, like tapas or seafood.

The Museo Antropológico (Anthropology Museum) is located in the Historic Centre, right in the Parque Natural de las Contadoras. Here you can view old wine presses and oil mills, and if you are lucky enough to arrive during grape harvesting, like during the next fortnight to three weeks, you might be able to join in the treading of the grapes, that will later become the exquisite Málaga Muscatel.

As well as the Paseo del Parque, which began as a carefully tended botanical garden, you can visit the Finca de la Concepción in the vicinity of the city. It belongs to the city council these days, although in the past it was the property of a renowned local couple. These are picturesque gardens, that at one turn make you feel as though you are in the tropics, and at the next, as being in a desert. Many beautiful and significant botanical species grow here. The whole area, including gardens and mansion, was built in the middle of the 19th century, and it has retained the beauty and learned atmosphere of its former owners.

The Retiro contains a bird park which is unique in Europe, with more than 300 species. It also has a beautiful historical garden that represents the period from the Middle Ages up to the 18th century.

The main museums are located in the city’s old town: Bellas Artes (Fine Arts), Arte Sacro (Religious Art) and Arte Contemporáneo (Contemporary Art). You will be going back a few centuries when you visit the Museo Arqueológico (Archaeological Museum) in the Alcazaba, the Teatro Romano (Roman Theatre), the Cathedral, with its one tower unfinished, and the Palacio de la Aduana (Customs House) near Paseo del Parque.

The pride of the locals is Málaga’s prodigious son, one Pablo Ruiz Picasso. You might want to visit his Casa Natal (birth place) in the Plaza de la Merced, or else the newish Museo Picasso Málaga which is housed in the exquisitely reformed Palacio de Buenavista, a nobleman’s palace dating back to the 16th century and lovingly restored and amplified, and re-opened in 2003. This museum is a mere two minutes walking distance from Málaga’s Cathedral. The Picasso Museum’s permanent collection centers around some very impressive works donated to the Spanish nation by the widow of Picasso’s oldest son, and in part on some very generous long term loans, also from heirs of Spain’s most famous painter. Admission was 6 € when we went. For tickets and reservations it is best to telephone 901.246.246.

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Apart from Picasso, the most symbolic experiences you can have in Málaga are a visit to the Cenachero (the bronze sculpture of a young fisherman carrying his cenacho or basket of fish), and then to have a generous helping of fresh anchovies.

The whole of Málaga is a never-ending beach, stretching from Misericordia, which goes as far as the port area, to the beaches of Peñón del Cuervo near the hamlet of Cala del Moral. Take a walk along the Paseo Marítimo Antonio Machado (promenade), and pause for something to eat or drink in one of the many refreshment stands along the way.

For younger visitors the main areas of attraction are a short ride away: Benalmádena’s Puerto Marina and ’24 hour square’ and Marbella’s Puerto Banús are both out of town, some 20 kms and 40 kms to the west. Both are very trendy and chic, but be warned that bars, clubs and discos don’t get busy until near midnight and stay open till dawn.

If Picasso is of serious interest to you, and you have not been to Paris or Antibes, France, there are some other important Picasso places in Spain for you to see. The Museo Picasso in Barcelona is as much worth a visit as is the Museo Nacional Reina Sofía in Madrid, which houses Picasso’s Guernica masterpiece.

 

But Paris, Antibes, Barcelona and Madrid are all a long way away from the Costa del Sol and Málaga, I am afraid.

 

12 Places I Want to See Once More Before I Die

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You might know the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.

Well, here is my list of 12 places that I would like to go back to and see once more before my time is up. They all are places that I some way or other associate with moments of happiness during my life’s journey, so far:

1. Aleppo, in Syria (see above photo), and its souks. And Damascus, on the way there. And some Chai tea. Without sugar.

2. Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock), in Australia. And the Ghan train ride from Darwin to Adelaide, on the way to Uluru.

3. The pyramids, in Egypt. And the Mena House Oberoi Hotel, opposite Khufu Pyramid, also known as Cheops Pyramid, to spend the night. And some Meze.

4. Jerusalem. This time with peace all around, if possible. And some Falafel.

5. Ensenada, in Baja California, Mexico. This time with an outing to Cabo San Lucas in Baja Sur, Mexico. And some Mango with sweet red pepper.

6. The Zzyzx salt desert, California. And some ice cold water.

7. Mount Fuji, Japan, also known as Fujiyama. And on the way, O-cha tea in Kyoto. And Toro Sushi. And Sake.

8. The Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey. And a visit to Topkapı palace. And some Rakı. And some Lokoum.

9. The Grand Hotel, Taipei, Taiwan. The best hotel experience I’ve ever had. Well, not quite true. But definitely the best Dim Sum meal that I have ever had, except for a wonderful prawn Wanton soup that I once ate in Chinatown, Los Angeles.

10. Kars, the ancient capital of Armenia. And Mount Ararat, on the way there. Or on the way back. And Erzurum. Only this time, without going to the hospital.

11. Inverness, in Scotland. And the Highlands. This time with a detour to the Isle of Mull. And a Single Malt, or two.

12. A Spanish choice, at last: The Alhambra, more specifically, the Lions’ patio, in Granada, Andalucía. Divine. Thank you, al-Andaluz.

 

Not a place to visit but a thing to do once more would be the Camino de Santiago. But next time a different route, and a longer one.

 

What would your own list be like? Do you have a list, somewhere in the back of your mind?

Not a World Heritage Site, Yet.

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One of the most imaginative buildings you will ever have seen anywhere is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, in northern Spain. Truly great architecture.

 

The problem is, it does not really work as a museum.

I consider Frank Gehry, the architect of the Bilbao museum, one of the great master architects of our times. Gehry, Canadian by birth, is sometimes associated with what is known as the Los Angeles School of architecture. He is the creator of some outstanding landmark buildings, such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the American Center in Paris, the Gehry Tower in Hannover, Germany, or the Marqués de Riscal Winery in Rioja, Spain. Frank Gehry was awarded the Pritzker Prize for Architecture in 1989. Gehry is considered a star architect, but he also sometimes sparks some vehement criticism. The spectacle of a Gehry building often overwhelms its intended use (especially in the case of museums), it is often said.

Well, I believe that to be true in the case of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum building.

The Guggenheim Bilbao now celebrates its 10th anniversary. I have been to visit twice in the last six years, and I am utterly impressed by the sheer uniqueness of the building’s shape and expanse. Mind blowing. Stunning. Powerful. Strong. Very special indeed. Exceptional. But the art, on display inside the building, suffers from all the attraction that the architecture commands. Nothing on the walls can compete with the shell that encompasses it all. What a shame.

Perhaps the man is not to be blamed. Perhaps the problem is the perception of art in our time. Perhaps art has moved away from the soothing comforts of masterly brushstrokes of the times of van Gogh. Perhaps art is no longer the tease of the intellectual mind that it was during the heyday of Cubism, and perhaps art no longer wants to be a challenge for the onlooker as it was during the times of Picasso or Duchamps. Perhaps Joseph Beuys was the last artist for the Thinking Man and now, it is all but entertainment.

The Guggenheim Bilbao is all show and no content, all entertainment and no message.

In my mind, the Guggenheim Bilbao is entertainment pure and good, and nothing much else. For me that is not enough, and I feel short changed.

But if you want to judge for yourself: go to Bilbao. You will not be disappointed. You will be regally entertained. Wait till the end of the opening hours, before you leave the museum. On your way out you will be saluted by a spellbinding spectacle that is worthy of a circus performance. See for yourself.

Just don’t go to Bilbao for the art.

The Moroccan Hollywood

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The UNESCO World Heritage Committee met again, at the end of June, in New Zealand.

I looked into this whole business of UNESCO World Heritage sites and was surprised to find that in Spain alone, there is this very impressive list of World Heritage locations:

Alhambra, Generalife and Albayzín, Granada

Burgos Cathedral

Doñana National Park

Historic Centre of Cordoba

Monastery and Site of the Escurial, Madrid

Works of Antoni Gaudí

Altamira Cave

Monuments of Oviedo and the Kingdom of the Asturias

Old Town of Ávila with its Extra-Muros Churches

Old Town of Segovia and its Aqueduct

Santiago de Compostela (Old Town)

Garajonay National Park

Historic City of Toledo

Mudejar Architecture of Aragon

Old Town of Cáceres

Cathedral, Alcázar and Archivo de Indias in Seville

Old City of Salamanca

Poblet Monastery

Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida

Route of Santiago de Compostela

Royal Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe

Historic Walled Town of Cuenca

La Lonja de la Seda de Valencia

Las Médulas

Palau de la Música Catalana and Hospital de Sant Pau, Barcelona

Pyrénées – Mont Perdu

San Millán Yuso and Suso Monasteries

Rock Art of the Mediterranean Basin on the Iberian Peninsula

University and Historic Precinct of Alcalá de Henares

Ibiza, Biodiversity and Culture

San Cristóbal de La Laguna

Archaeological Ensemble of Tárraco

Archaeological Site of Atapuerca

Catalan Romanesque Churches of the Vall de Boí

Palmeral of Elche

Roman Walls of Lugo

Aranjuez Cultural Landscape

Renaissance Monumental Ensembles of Úbeda and Baeza

Vizcaya Bridge

Teide National Park

On this blog, I have looked into topics like the Alhambra, Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia and the Route of Santiago de Compostela already, and I am planning to cover other sites from the impressive UNESCO list in due course. Provided that you want to know about these things, that is.

UNESCO say that Heritage is our legacy from the past, that we live with today, and that we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. Places as unique and diverse as the wilds of East Africa’s Serengeti, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Baroque cathedrals of Latin America, make up the world’s heritage.

What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.

 

That’s why today, I want to tell you about a UNESCO site not in Spain, but in Morocco. Spain’s neighboring country which at times seems so far away from us, and the site of Ksar Aït Ben-Haddou, have deserved a little attention.

Ksar of Aït Ben-Haddou (see photo above), along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakesh, is situated in southern Morocco in the Ouarzazate province. The ksar, a group of earthen buildings surrounded by high walls, is a traditional pre-Saharan habitat. The houses crowd together within the defensive walls, which are reinforced by corner towers. Aït Ben-Haddou is a striking example of this type of architecture of southern Morocco.

Aït Ben-Haddou and the Ouarzazate part of Morocco are famous for being the film locations in a number of Hollywood epics, and non-Hollywood as well.

Mohamed Belghimi, in 1983, opened Morocco’s first film studios at the edge of Ouarzazate. And ever since, business has been booming. Michael Douglas’ “The Jewel of the Nile”, Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun”, Russell Crowe’s “Gladiator” – were all filmed here, at the Atlas Film Studios. As were Gerard Depardieu in “Asterix and Cleopatra” and Brad Pitt in “Babel”, all filmed in the south of Morocco.

What makes Ouarzazate particularly funny is that this Moroccan Hollywood does not have a single cinema. Apparently. But you would not come to Aït Ben-Haddou and go to the movies, would you?