Monday, May 25, 2009

Modern Art - Munoz and Vlaminck - Madrid, Spain

I visited two art galleries today - the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia and the Caixa Forum.

The modern art in the Reina Sofia often left me cold, but there were some really amazing pieces, and I learned quite a bit from renting an audioguide. The museum is best known for housing Picasso's Guernica - a depiction of the horror of war. It depicts the people and animals of Guernica fleeing and dying after being bombed during Spain's civil war. Ironically enough, as I moved on to the next exhibit, I glimpsed Atocha train station out the window - the sight of another horrific bombing approximately 60 years later.

There was a wonderful temporary exhibit of the work of Juan Munoz (two piece ares shown above - I took the outdoor photo, the other is from online information about the exhibition). Munoz' work explores the concepts of being inside vs. outside, of no man's land where you are neither in nor out, and of observing but not being able to participate in a conversation. In one room, he turns the inside into the outside by placing balconies and a hotel sign on the wall. Balconies are a recurring theme as they are both inside and outside/observer and observed. And hotels, as I am currently very aware, are transitory environments. Another room is full of figures smiling and greeting each other. You walk among them, but you are never part of them and can never participate.

The area around Reina Sofia has lots of restaurants - ones obviously aimed for tourists in the immediate vicinity, but if you go just a couple of blocks away to Calle Argumosa you'll find a wide range of cafes for the local population. There are Indian restaurants and a great vegetarian restaurant - El Granero de Lavapies.

After lunch, I walked over to the Caixa Forum (Paseo de Prado, between Reina Sofia and the Prado museums), a newly-opened building run by the Caixa Foundation. They show art exhibits and host musical events. It's worth going just to look at the building, which is a converted 1899 power station (this website has some interesting information and photos). The photo above attempts to show the 24 metre-high living wall, which is thickly covered with shrubs and plants. There are whole bushes - hydrangeas, fuschia, ferns and so much more. It's gorgeous. The Forum has a cafeteria/restaurant on the top floor, which is a pleasant quiet spot.

The current art exhibit is on the work of Vlaminck from 1900-1915. There were over 70 works from just the first half of his career, along with excellent interpretative material. It was interesting to observe how his work blended fauvist and cubist trends along with the influence of Cezanne and Van Gogh.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Culture in Madrid, Spain

I have 3 1/2 days to explore Madrid, a city I have never visited before. My top priority is to visit some of the incredible art galleries - some of the world's top art exhibits. However, my other priority is to absorb some of the city's popular culture by roaming the streets and squares, window shopping, and sampling the wine, beer, ice cream and pastries.

Madrid has some amazingly large, elaborate buildings - like fancy wedding cakes. At one point, I looked up to the sky, and there was a huge chariot and horses posed on top of a high-rise building! There are squares and gardens and fountains. The Plaza Mayor is a huge square lined with arcades. The square's most impressive building is the Real Casa de la Panaderia with its elaborate frescoes. The Palacio Real (the royal family no longer live here) is an attractive building surrounded by parks.

The most astonishing part of Madrid is how lively it is and how many people throng the streets until late in the evening. London and Paris are silent and empty on a Sunday. Not Madrid. And the metro is even busier at 10:30 at night than at 10:30 in the morning. (I'm afraid I can't report on the all-night scene - I collapse after 12 hours on my feet.)

Sunday Delights - El Retiro Park, Madrid, Spain

Sunday in Madrid - what an unexpectedly delightful day! I woke up prepared for rain as it had been cold and wet yesterday, but the sun was shining and continued to shine all day long. I paid tribute to Cervantes and Don Quixote in the Plaza de Espana before moving on to the Prado Museum where I spent over 3 hours absorbed in the works of Greco, Velasquez, Goya and many, many others.

By that point, I was ready for a change of scene so I headed to El Retiro Park, which is just behind the museum. It's a wonderful park! You can row a boat on the lake or stroll up the shady boulevard lined with ice cream vendors, fortune tellers, magicians, and living statues. There were two outdoor sculpture exhibits and a glorious rose garden. There were fountains, and paths through the woods, and outdoor cafes. There was a drum trio on one side of the lake and jazz trombones on the other side. Something for everyone.

Later, I took the metro to the Latina district. The metro is a constant surprise. You step on the train in one sort of neighbourhood and get off somewhere completely different. The Latina district is young and happening! There were 3-4 blocks and squares lined with outdoor cafes, and the Plaza de la Puerta de los Moros was crammed with young people drinking beer, chatting and generally having a good time. I was intimidated at first but then realized they were far too self absorbed to pay me any attention at all.

I finished off the day with a wonderful meal at El Estrago, a vegetarian taberna and restaurant in the Plaza de las Pajas - I'll report further in a later posting. A very, very good day.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hospital de Santiago, Ubeda - Andalucia, Spain

The Hospital de Santiago in Ubeda (Jaen, Andalucia, Spain) is a very large Renaissance building designed by Andres de Vandelvira, who was responsible for so many of the lovely buildings in Baeza and Ubeda. It has a beautifully proportioned inner courtyard, but the truly outstanding feature is the staircase leading to the second storey of the courtyard. The walls are covered with beautifully painted frescoes, and the ceiling is glorious. I was very interested to see the coloured tiles on the tower as this is not typical in Andalucia. It reminded me of photographs I've seen of churches in Dordogne, France - I wonder if there is a connection? If anyone knows, please post a comment.

Renaissance Architecture - Ubeda

Ubeda is just 14 kilometres from Baeza (Jaen, Andalucia, Spain) - in fact, you can see Ubeda from the mirador in Baeza. It's a larger community, with a proportionally greater number of Renaissance buildings. There are approximately 6 really lovely 16th century buildings surrounding the Plaza Vasquez Molina and many more elsewhere. They are very solid buildings but beautifully proportioned and some of them have very elaborate sculptures around the arched doorways. Here are just a few photographs to give you a taste of the architecture. I hope you can feel the heat in the photo of the blue door. And, in the second to last photo, please note the rings where you can hitch your horse.
I was unable to take photographs, but I would highly recommend visiting the Sacra Capilla del Salvador. It is surprisingly large for a private chapel, and I appreciated the relative simplicity of its lines. The natural lighting was beautifully incorporated into the design. There is an interesting combination of pagan, Greek and Christian philosophies and images in the sacristy.
I also enjoyed walking around the mirador or walkway that traces the city walls and admiring the view of the Guadalquivir Valley.

My next post will have photographs of the Hospital de Santiago in Ubeda, which has the most amazing staircase.

Mostly Museums - Jaen

I took the bus and spent a day in Jaen (Andalucia, Spain). My first stop was at the Cathedral. European Catholic churches make me uncomfortable. They rely on gilt and gore to awe and frighten their congregations. It obviously works for a lot of people, but I feel a greater sense of holiness in a plainer environment without all the decorations and all the images of Christ's suffering and the martyrs' bloody deaths.

As I walked up through the older part of town, I chanced to see a poster for an exhibit at the Escuela de Arte across the street. It was an exhibit of "abanicos." I wasn't sure what that was, but it turned out to be a display by graduates from an art class (Escuela de Arte de Cadiz) specializing in fans. Their goal is to build on the history and tradition of the fan in Spain and to move it forward into the modern era. The fans on display were delightful, and I really enjoyed looking at them.

My next stop was the Palacio de Villardompardo, a beautiful old mansion containing the remains of the Arab Baths, the Museum of Traditional Arts and Customs, and the International Museum of Primitive Art. I had visited the Arab baths in Granada, but these were much larger and better preserved. Interesting how we've evolved from bathing as a social activity to something that is done extremely privately. I really enjoyed the Museum of Traditional Arts and Customs. There was a diverse collection ranging from farming equipment to home furnishings to clothes and toys. There was a gorgeous painted horse-drawn cart (tiny scenes on the side panels and brightly-coloured wheels) for riding to the fair. The most surprising children's toy was a toy altar so that they could play at serving mass or being an angel. There is also a large collection of primarily Spanish primitive art, but by then my legs were tired and I wanted to sit down and have some lunch.
Finding somewhere to have lunch is always tricky in a new town. The first trick is finding some; the next trick is finding one you'll like. I tend to go for restaurants with outdoor tables as I love to be out of doors - and the cigarette smoke is less bothersome. I finally stumbled on a small, plain cafeteria with a great location. The Kiosco el Parque is located in the Parque de la Victoria, across from the Monumento a las Batallas. The food is fairly basic, but it's a pretty location, and there is lots of local activity to watch. In addition, it's only one block from the Provincial Museum.

The Provincial Museum was great because it was air conditioned, and it had toilet paper (somewhat rare in Spain from my experience). It was a very hot day (33 degrees) so I appreciated the coolness. The building combines an archeology museum and a fine arts museum. I've now been to 4 archeology museums, which is rather a lot in just a couple of weeks. But I really enjoy looking at the Roman mosaics as well as the small items that people use on a daily basis - jewellery (interesting how quickly we turn to decorating ourselves and our belongings) and household pots and candleholders. I can imagine using these things. The Fine Arts collection was very eclectic with only one or two paintings by a great number of regional artists. I enjoyed the special exhibit of prints by David Roberts of the Holy Land. Nowadays we buy guide books and take trips. In the 1800s, travel was more difficult so they travelled vicariously by purchasing books of prints showing other people's travels. Roberts' work is very detailled, and he had a talent for portraying both architecture and people.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Rustic Cloister - Baeza

The cloister of the cathedral in Baeza (Jaen, Andalucia, Spain) is very different from the cloister of the San Jeronimo Monastery in Granada. The columns are rough and squat. The garden is confined to some potted plants. And yet there is a certain rustic charm, and I found it very pleasing.

Walled Towns - Baeza

Baeza is a fortified town and was originally surrounded by a thick, tall wall for protection in the ongoing wars betweens the Christians and the Moors. The wall is still a very visible presence in the town. You walk through the gates to move from one part of the town to another. Houses have been built adjacent to and incorporating the wall. And you can go for a walk around the outskirts of the town following the outlines of the wall.

A walled city is a foreign concept to North Americans where the cities are wide open and sprawl out into the surrounding countryside. I rather like the wall. It provides a sense of security and identity.

I was also delighted by the views over the olive groves below the hilltop town from the mirador. And surprised, but equally delighted to find that there was a flock of sheep and goats grazing right outside the town and within two blocks of the cathedral.

Olive groves as far as the eye can see. I am beginning to really enjoy olive oil; it adds a very distinctive flavour and richness to foods. And it is served on everything - from toast at breakfast to drizzled over slices of cheese. And you can get a saucer full of olives for free when you order a drink - wonderful olives that are always different - some are spicy, some are soft and ripe, some are unripe and crunchy. And I've even discovered dark chocolate made with olive oil - although I think that's a tourist gimmick.

Discovering Baeza - Andalucia

Baeza is only a short distance from Cordoba and Granada, but it feels so different. Gone are the white stucco walls and flowers and well-dressed women to be replaced by solid stone buildings and a small town atmosphere.

Baeza is a community of approximately 15,000 people settled on a hill overlooking the olive groves of the Guadalquivir valley. In the distance are the lumpy, low Cazorla mountains. Baeza is a commercial hub for the surrounding farming area so you'll see dusty 4WDs and even ATVs driving up the main street. However, it's also a UNESCO world heritage site (along with the neighbouring town of Ubeda), so there are lots of tourist buses and souvenir stores.

Baeza's strongest economic period was during the Renaissance (1500-1600) when the residents built some magnificent churches, universities and palaces. Later generations didn't have the money and resources to replace them so they have remained more or less intact. But there is a real mix of architecture that is relatively harmonious, reminding me that cities can be organic, living beings. John Gill, author of Andalucia: a cultural history, says that Spain is a relatively modern country in constant dialogue with its past. Perhaps that is why there is such a comfortable blend of styles and ways of life. I wonder if Canadians are ever in a dialogue with their past? I don't think so.

Baeza feels very safe and comfortable. There are teenagers hanging out in the central Paseo, women shopping in the pedestrianized Calle San Pablo, and families and groups of men chatting at El Mercantil, a central cafe (see photo).

The Renaissance university is still offering classes, and there is a lovely cloister and baroque staircase in the Palacio Jabalquinto. The first photo shows the oldest university building - the students used to record their degrees in bull's blood on the wall of the building - hence the "graffiti." Antonio Machado taught here, and you can still visit his classroom.

The church of Santa Cruz is the oldest church, and I enjoyed its simplicity. The Museo A. Moreno (calle Tres Fuentes) had two excellent art exhibits. I really enjoyed looking at Antonio Moreno's portraits, and the temporary exhibit by Raquel Bartolome Robledo made exuberant use of colour. I also enjoyed the cathedral cloister and will post some photos separately. There are some wonderful tiny alleyways with arches that seem to lead in a circle behind the cathedral.

I always try and take the time to really explore a new place so I spent a day and a half wandering around Baeza. I discovered a market near the Plaza de Toros with crowds of women poring over heaps of fabric, shoes strung up on clotheslines, underwear, and piles of blouses. The salesmen were loudly proclaiming that their merchandise was the best and the cheapest.

I watched vans delivering bread to homes and restaurants - if you weren't home, they'd leave a lastic bag of bread attached to the grill on your door. And my next post will introduce you to the sheep and goats grazing just beyond the downtown/residential areas!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Alhambra Roses - Granada

The Arabs particularly valued scented flowers so the Alhambra gardens are full of roses, jasmine, stock and other highly-perfumed flowers. In mid-May, the roses are a particular delight. And there are thousands of them - along the Tower Walk, behind the parador and at the Generalife. Here are just a few photos - I wish they could convey scent as well as colour.

This bouquet is sent with much affection to family and friends in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan - a much harsher climate - who endured a blizzard just a few days ago.

Carmen de los Martires - Granada's Enchanted Garden

The Carmen de los Martires is a 19th century villa and grounds situated just below the Alhambra. Part of the grounds are maintained as the villa is occasionally used for official receptions. However, the vast majority of the gardens are almost abandoned. As a result, it's an intriguing place to wander, evoking memories of The Secret Garden or Sleeping Beauty. There are beds of irises and alleys of roses surrounded by ivy and weeds, a fountain singing to itself in the centre of long-forgotten pathways, and grottoes swathed in moss and mystery. A peacock struts proudly along a pathway, loudly proclaiming her royal status.
The wooden panel is part of the front door of the villa.

More Photos of the Alhambra - Granada

Here are some more photos of the Nasrid Palaces of the Alhambra. Most of them are close ups. Please note the wooden ceiling in the photo. My photo does not do it justice, but it is the most amazingly detailed marquetry, combining innumerable small pieces of wood into a harmonious whole. The stone work was originally painted in briliant colours - what an amazing sight it must have been - although I really like the current white lace.
I wish I was a better photographer, but I hope this will inspire you enough to look at more images of the Alhambra - or, even better, to visit it yourself.

Alhambra - Harmony in Lace and Arches - Granada

There are no words that can adequately describe the beauty of the architecture of the Nasrid Palaces at the Alhambra. The detailed stone carving, intricate wood marquetry and tiling form a harmonious whole with the sound of water flowing and the scent of roses. In this and the next post, I can only hope that my photographs will relay at least a small portion of the beauty of this site.
The first two photos show the detailed stone carving and woodwork. The third photo is of the Comares Palace while the fourth is the is of El Palacio del Portico, one of my favourites. The final photo is of the Puerto del Vino, one of the principal access gates, both then and now, to the
More detailed photos are shown in the next post.