Of all the places we’ve visited so far, Buenos Aires might have the most visible and vibrant arts scene. There are dozens of theatres, cultural centers, and art museums all across the city, and each features a constant rotation of performances and exhibits. Weekends bring craft fairs where local artisans can showcase their work and music and dancing (the ubiquitous tango) in some of the parks. We’ve seen a lot since we arrived, but, alas, I’m a little sad we didn’t get seats for the performance of El Principitoat the symphony orchestra. For now I’ll have to settle for the Spanish-language version of the book we bought.
We’ve visited several of the local art museums (especially those that have free or discounted admission days). The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes might be our favorite, in part because it is free every day, and in part because it has a wide-ranging collection. Argentina has strong ties to Europe, and the Bellas Artes Museum has many works by European artists like Degas and Rodin. Of course, Argentinian artists like Antonio Berni also play a big part in their modern collections. A special exhibit gathering the works by Norberto Gomez, including current sculptures, reminded us a lot of video game art and old flash internet videos.
In San Telmo, the Museo de Arte Moderno is free on Tuesdays (guess which day we went). It is in a pretty inconspicuous brick building, but the supporting beams on their central staircase look like the track of a roller coaster. Even if it wasn’t the designer’s intention, it made me happy to discover it once we got inside. Temporary displays of pieces by Antonio Berni (perennially popular here), Picasso, and Hernan Soriano took up much of the museum. Soriano’s exhibit of reworked illustrations and maps are mind-bending; by finely cutting, layering, and painting over older images, he creates something entirely new. Sadly, no photos inside this museum, but thankfully the internet can help compensate.
MALBA, the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano, is the most Central and South America focused. As you might guess, it focuses on more local issues and peoples. We clearly missed some of the messages behind the works since our knowledge of past conflicts and corruptions is sketchy, but I can at least appreciate that those situations led to beautiful art.
The Fortabat Coleccion started as the personal collection of Argentina’s richest woman. It was interesting to me to go through what an individual found pretty or worthy of attention. I agreed with a lot of her taste – especially some of the mountainous Argentinian landscapes (more so because we are looking forward to seeing Tierra del Fuego in a couple weeks). There are now rotating exhibits as well, and those featured less generically pretty but more current dioramas making some pointed political commentary about women in power in Argentina (at least that was what I took away) and the concepts of beauty that are so pervasive in many cultures. I don’t think I’ll ever have a personal collection that can afford Bruegels and Bernis (yup, here too) but it is nice to dream. I like the airplane-hangar-shaped building as well, which is newly built in Puerto Madero, one of BA’s newest, and richest, neighborhoods.
Naturally, Buenos Aires itself also acts as a gallery. The 75-foot tall Floralis Generica sculpture is centered inside its own park. The petals are supposed to open and close each day like a real flower, but currently the mechanisms are a bit broken, so it wasn’t fully open during our visit.
San Telmo is a good neighborhood for mural-hunting, but there are monuments in parks all over the city. In another European callback, there are a fair number of statues of men looking important while on horses scattered around the city.
And if a person has any interest in Spanish-language literature, there are more bookstores here than any place I’ve ever been. In some areas of Recoleta, every third shop will be a bookstore. Even the sidewalk stands often have classic tomes for sale, not just pulp romances or thrillers. Today I walked past one selling copies of Horace and Tacitus next to the latest fashion magazines. I don’t know how much of it translates to more reading, but it makes me happy to find books almost everywhere.
We spent a noisy, hectic, enjoyable week in Lima, Peru as a stopover to line up cheap airfares from Cancun, Mexico to Buenos Aires, Argentina. The weather reminded us of Seattle even though the landscape was almost the opposite. Arid brown and gray foothills lead up to the Andes, but each morning a light layer of Pacific fog rolled a few miles inland and enveloped Miraflores and the days usually had a cool, salt-smelling sea breeze near the water.
A main attraction was the food, which seems to be revered all around Latin America. In Lima, the local speciality is seafood ceviche. We had several kinds, but our favorite contained seabass. The raw fish is cooked in lime juice; corn, hot! peppers, onions, and sometimes potatoes and plantain chips are added to the mix. Locals also use seafood in other creative ways, including chupe de camarones, a shrimp soup with corn, potatoes, and a fried egg on top. We bought some species of local trout at a supermarket, and it rivaled the salmon we miss so much.
Outside of seafood, the aji de gallina is a perfect lunch on a cooler day. Chicken is shredded (so finely it took me a while to realize it was actually in the dish) into a yellow pepper sauce and served with rice. Anticuchos, marinated beef hearts, are a surprisingly tasty appetizer. Alpaca makes the menu as well, and wasn’t as gamey as we were led to believe; in fact, it was quite tender. And of course, cuy an infamous Peruvian dish. It is more of a mountain-region fare, so in Lima it is served mainly in expensive, tourist-oriented restaurants. But we didn’t let that deter us and baked one at home. Equally adorable and delicious, it does take a lot of effort for a small meal.
To go with the food, Inca Kola is often the drink of choice. It tastes like bubble gum with an undertone of cream soda; it’s a good thing I wasn’t exposed to this as a child – I might actually drink soda. It is so popular that Peru is one of the few places in the world where Coca-Cola is outsold (though they have since bought the company that produces Inca Kola). If not that, the second national drink is the pisco sour. I usually don’t like cocktails, but this one goes well with the local cuisine. Artisanal beer is a growing industry; we tried some at Nuevo Mundo after we saw it advertised on their delivery van and then accidentally found their bar.
Everyone we met asked if we were going to Machu Picchu. Sadly, that will have to be future adventure, but we still wanted to see some of the pre-Incan and Incan treasures that are the national heritage. The Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology, and History was our starting point. Their collection is the smaller of the two museums we visited, but it also covers colonization, the fight for independence, and the era of the republic.
The Larco Museum displayed the larger collection of Pre-Columbian artifacts (it was also the more expensive admission). The majority of both collections is pottery, which survives well and didn’t tempt conquistadors to melt it down and ship it out of the country. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it is fantastic. There is pottery with alpacas that look like corgi puppies, guys relaxing on their boat with a drink (yes, really), people with animals, animals that look like people, erotic scenes, human sacrifices, maize plants, and plenty of other creatures and human faces in various states of stylization. My personal favorite is the man lying on the top of a pot with the mouth of the vessel coming out of his back, like he was bothering the potter at work and got stuck in the clay.
There are also fabrics, preserved by the dry climate; even cloaks and shirts made of tiny feathers have lasted. Colors look as though they were dyed yesterday and feature patterns that seem modern. Many pieces are from burials; the afterlife was just as important in this corner of the world as it was in ancient Egypt. Mummy bundles were a common way of interring bodies, the individual wrapped in layer upon layer of cloth and with items they would need after death.
A wonderful thing about the Larco is that they display the most interesting pieces in the museum proper, but you can also look at most of the rest of the collection as well; it is one of the very few museums in the world that let you wander around their storerooms. There are scores of floor-to-ceiling glass cases filled with objects. Each item is grouped by what it depicts. Two cases were entirely devoted to owls, others more to ducks, some to fish; full walls of pottery featured human faces, or polka dots.
A 40-minute ride from Miraflores is the Basilica of San Francisco, a beautiful church in the Lima District. No pictures are permitted inside its monastery or museum, a tour of which also goes through the catacombs below (where 25,000 bodies are buried). But inside the church photography is allowed, and its design certainly welcomes artists. The church’s interior features gorgeous wooden altars along the sides that reach high enough to bend with the domes above. Many are dedicated to Mary and Latin American saints. The ceiling of the church is unique among those we’ve seen – stark red and white patterning that is reminiscent of the surrounding landscape and ancient pottery.
If you do not like insane traffic, Lima may not be for you. We caught a local bus outside the airport and spent over 90 minutes making our way to Miraflores. We arrived at rush hour, so traffic was at its peak, but that stops exactly zero people from driving as though they are participating in a vehicular game of chicken. Our driver wedged the bus between lanes, in spaces meant for motorbikes, and in front of mobs of other cars to make stops. Approximately 60 near-collisions later, we jumped off in our neighborhood. Honestly, it was one of the better free entertainment experiences we’ve had. The taxi back to the airport was the same way, though his habits leaned toward running red lights.
Overall, though, Lima is a city of millions and feels like it. Stores are open til all hours of the night, the city center is crowded around the clock. Poverty and wealth are shockingly close to each other – shantytowns rise up hillsides visible from new condominiums built for the rich. Food, art, work, and neighborhoods all blend and mix together. It is overwhelming and engrossing all at once.
Let’s get the complaints out of the way early. There are only two: that the temperature was about 8 degrees too high and there were about 45% too many mosquitoes. Aside from those two minor things, Merida is an amazing city. The food was incredible, it was very walkable, everyone was friendly, and many of the city’s museums are free.
The city itself is full of history – it was built over the top of the Mayan city of T’Ho (which was sadly destroyed by the conquistadors) during the 1500’s. The Cathedral is the second oldest in the hemisphere. It reused stones from the Mayan temples, as did many other structures. Now the downtown core is full of narrow, one-way streets and brightly painted houses.
On Sundays, many central streets are closed to traffic and the plazas are turned into markets. There are music and cultural events and lots of cheap food. It feels like most of the population comes to hang out in the parks and enjoy the weekend.
We were in town for Hanal Pixan, the Day of the Dead. The main avenue to the General Cemetery was closed to traffic on a Friday night. Families set out altars to honor loved ones who have passed away. Tables are filled with crosses, pictures, candles, food, and marigolds. The public celebration also features musicians and demonstrations of a traditional Mayan ball game called Pok ta Pok. The main procession (it wasn’t really a parade) took place after dark. Hundreds of people, their faces painted to resemble skulls and wearing traditional white clothing, carried candles as they walked out from the cemetery. They represent the souls of the dead returning to spend time with their still-living family members.
Of course, food also heavily features in the celebrations. Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and other sweets were very much in evidence. This includes marquesitas – basically it is a crunchy crepe rolled around cheese and chocolate or vanilla filling… all things I already like, now even more conveniently packaged. Families were selling tortillas or tortas from tables alongside their memorials. Some were just store-bought food repackaged, but others were homemade deliciousness.
Local everyday cuisine is surprisingly tasty and cheap. Local ceviches were wonderful. The Marlin Azul was our favorite restaurant for seafood – their fried fish smothered in sauces and peppers accompanied the raw mixtos really well. El Pollo del Rey, a chicken place right across from our house proved that grilled chicken is an art form in Merida. Local places will have a grill covering an entire wall, and will send you home with a whole chicken, tortillas, salsas, rice, lettuce, and onions for just a few dollars. Inevitably, about 11 a.m. we would start smelling the roasting chicken and get hungry.
Walking anywhere, at any time of day, was a challenge because the smells wafting from food carts were so tempting. Tortas, tacos, fresh fruit (rambutan!), just-squeezed juices, and bags of snacks were never far away. Tortas are maybe a dollar each and one or two is enough for whole meal. Shredded pork is a perennial favorite for street vendors – and therefore for me.
Yucatecan meals are distinct from other regional dishes in Mexico. Panuchos (tortillas stuffed with beans and deep-fried, topped with pork and veggies), papadzules (tortillas filled with hard-boiled eggs and topped with pumpkin-seed and tomato sauce), and sopa de lima (chicken or turkey stock with lime and crunchy tortillas) are all brilliantly tasty.
Also, I’m going to claim Pake Taxo as my favorite junk food, anywhere in the world. I can eat a whole bag in one sitting. I’m not proud of that. But I can do it. The Quexo flavor is clearly abusing and tricking my brain into needing a daily dose of it. I’m probably going to cry if I can’t find it in the U.S. later.
The free museums include Casa Montejo, the Museo Fernando Garcia Ponce-Macay (art museum), the zoo, and the Museo de Arte Popular de Yucatan. Casa Montejo was the conquer’s mansion. It now houses a bank in the back, but the front few rooms are preserved in nineteenth century grandeur. Both art museums feature modern artists and lots of vibrant, colorful works that celebrate the local culture. I liked “Arbol de las artesanias” by Oscar Soteno Elias. The picture below is a small part of all the people, flowers, and objects in the sculpture.
The only museum we did pay for was the Museo del Mundo Maya on the north side of town. We visited Chichen Itza (a previous post) and Uxmal (a future post) and wanted to learn a little bit more about the Mayan culture and see a few non-stonework artifacts. It was a good way to spend a few intensely-air-conditioned hours. They had all sorts of jewelry, carved bones, and displays about the complicated calendars the Mayans developed over centuries.
My favorite piece was a ceramic cup specifically for drinking chocolate and designed to look like a stylized coco pod. The owner had his named written on the side as well as the use and/or a recipe. I can totally relate and now want one of my own for Christmas. I think that person and I could have been friends.
In a bit of an unusual move for us, we took a week-long intensive language class in Merida. We wanted to polish up our Spanish before spending the next several months in South America and practice what we had learned on Duolingo. The result is that I can answer the most simple questions with more confidence but that I still have to ask what others say two or three times because my brain can’t catch up with their talking speed. We were told that people speak even faster in Peru… so I’m not sure there is much hope for me comprehending anything but the more basic basics…
This rambling features a bunch of ‘favorite’ European sights that is entirely based on today’s mood (and then basically pulling a name out of a hat if we couldn’t decide) and our current state of melting in ~85+ degree heat and 90% humidity. Anything that reminds us of a cold day probably got moved up subconsciously. And of course, our experiences were colored because some places were under renovation while others were too crowded to make our experience feel worth the admission cost.
Best Art Museum: National Art Museum of Catalunya (MNAC) in Barcelona. This was the only museum we visited multiple times because Saturday afternoons are free. 🙂 The palatial building has art-filled wings and frescoed domes. It dominates a hillside above Venetian-styled towers, waterfalls and fountains. MNAC’s collection is incredible – 13th century altarpieces (with mayhem-causing demons or saints boiling away in pots), Art Deco stained glass and advertising posters, sketches of the Spanish Civil War’s destruction, works by El Greco, Rubens, Goya…
Favorite Mode of Transit: Seaplane from Split to Dubrovnik. Head to Split’s picturesque harbor, sip on drinks waterside, board to find there are only 3 passengers, enjoy gorgeous mountain and island views all the way down the coast. A 45-minute jaunt and the chance the shoreline slip by is much preferable to a 4+ hour bus ride featuring two bonus border crossings.
Best City for Drinking Outside: Budapest. This city takes summer drinking to a new level. Mix cheap beer, lots of public space, great transit and voila! Some parks have stands selling alcohol, but it is more common to bring your own. Time of day doesn’t particularly matter, though nights are better, especially if you come across live music or a soccer match screening. Fisherman’s Bastion and the pedestrian-only Liberty Bridge provide some great views and enough drinking space for everyone.
Most Impressive City Walls: Dubrovnik. Game of Thrones is filmed there for a reason. Several cities we visited had walls in the past, but Dubrovnik’s are complete and you can walk all the way around them, exploring towers and the intimidating Lovrijeniac Fortress across a small bay. The blue Adriatic and the tightly packed Old Town fill the views.
Happiest Palace: Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal. Move over, Neuschwanstein. Not only is the Pena Palace more brightly colored, it was actually lived in. The interior is just as cheerful as the outside with fountains and tiles. The grounds are pretty as well, with rambling trails, live black swans, and carefully planned views.
Favorite Old Town: Tallinn. Small, surrounded by towers, full of church spires, pastel colored buildings, and a pretty hill to climb. Yes, restaurants and souvenir poods dominate. We ignored those and focused on the cuteness, small parks, and quieter streets. Note: we avoided the high season, weekends, and cruise tour groups.
Library Nearest My Vision of Heaven: Trinity College Library, Dublin. One of about three places that looked like their Instagram images, no photoshopping required. Thousands of books, richly colored wood, gorgeous bindings. Large crowds detracted a bit. It isn’t a very wide room since the sides are cordoned off, but at least we could stay as long as we wanted to try to soak it in. The library at Portugal’s Palace of Mafra gets an honorable mention because it is equally beautiful, with far fewer visitors. The downside there is not being able to walk as far into it to get a sense of the scale. But the huge cross-shaped hall is gorgeous marblework worthy of a such an impressive royal residence.
Most Interesting Non-Art Museum: Village Museum, Bucharest. Outside in a city park, the Village Museum let us tour the Romanian countryside without leaving Bucharest. Dozens of old buildings – homes, churches, barns, windmills have been preserved, and turned into a living history museum. Lots of love has gone into furnishing the homes and keeping the carved gates and painted details. It was fun even in a storm (we sheltered in a wine press). The wide variety of structures showcased the different traditional styles from around Romania.
Sports Team with the Most Rabid Fans: Hadjuk Soccer Club from Split. Our hosts warned us that if we were ever harassed in a bar or on the street to just say “Volimo Hajduk” (“We love Hajduk!” – we never had to, everyone was really kind). Graffiti with the name Hajduk and their red-and-white checker colors was EVERYWHERE – sidewalks, buses, underpasses, huge murals on buildings. They have their own branded chocolate, liquor, snacks. Every kid must own at least one jersey. Even in Dubrovnik, Hajduk reigned.
Coincidental Event We Didn’t Plan to See But Enjoyed the Most: Red Bull Air Race, Budapest. Ok, so the weather was terrible, practices were cancelled, events cut short, and we didn’t get to see them fly under the bridge (a thing they convince the planes to do!). And it was still an incredible display of reflexes and flying planes stupidly close to water and between buildings in the center of a city with thousands of people cheering on either side of the river.
Creepiest Cemetery: Cemiterio dos Prazeres, Lisbon. Ghosts clearly come out at night. Above ground tomb, with doors of broken glass, let the lace curtains covering the coffins flutter in the wind. Few people, but cats in surprising places watching you.
Church Putting All Others to Shame: La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. La Sagrada Familia is otherwordly. It stands alone, strikingly different from any other church we saw. Inside, the white stone canvas swirls with rainbows of colored light streaming through the stained glass. Statuary covers the exterior, the side portraying the Crucifixion is in violent relief, the opposite showing Creation is decadent with natural scenery. It is expensive, the priciest building we entered, but worth it – even with the thousand other people. While waiting to enter you can even watch the ongoing construction, and dream about what it will look like when finished.
Most Heartwrenching Memorial: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. The preserved concentration, forced labor, and death camp complex is a sobering memorial to human suffering and powerful warning about the evils humans will commit. Crowds detract a bit initially, but it was easy to begin to ignore them and turn inward to try to understand the horrors that happened there. Auschwitz I was on a too-human scale, its brick buildings reminded me of college dorms. But of course, inside are the exhibits of human hair, items confiscated from the victims. It’s awful. My stomach churned for hours remembering that people tortured, murdered, starved so many. Auschwitz-Birkenau’s vastness magnifies the horrors of Auschwitz I. Everyone should visit to confront the world’s failure to stop the Holocaust and the ongoing need to keep it from recurring.
Historical Artifact We Should Have Learned about In School but Didn’t: Romania’s Steel Crown. King Carol I asked for a crown of steel made from cannons captured by soldiers fighting for Romania’s independence. He wanted to remember their sacrifice.
Cheapest Deal: Castles during Croatia’s off season. They often charge at least a small admission fee. But in April, some days no one will be at the ticket booth and the castles will still be open (can’t blame them for wanting to hike up if no tourists seem to be in town). 🙂 Happened at Omis and on Hvar.
Cutest Public Artwork: Book Fountain in Budapest. Water makes it look like the book’s pages are turning. It’s cute. The end.
Prettiest Hiking: Plitvice Lakes, Croatia. We visited during the off-season and avoided the worst crowds, and it was peaceful and pretty. Boardwalks weave around the waterfalls and under the trees; it’s a perfect way to spend at least an afternoon.
Where to See Books & Manuscripts Up Close: Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. The large libraries are beautiful in their own right, but only display a handful of books – they are all still on shelves. This museum focuses on individual books and has hundreds on display, all the way back to papyrus from ancient Egypt and fragments from the earliest copies of several books of the Bible.
Favorite Fortress for Exploring: Suomenlinna, Helsinki. A small series of islands in the Gulf of Finland have the preserved remains of a massive fort that guarded Helsinki’s harbor. The tunnels running through many ramparts and rocky waterfronts are open for exploring.
Stress-inducing Thing that was Fun Afterward: Driving in Romania. Driving laws in Romania appear to be suggestions. Roads are shared with speeding semis, horse-drawn carts, bicycles, cars pulling over for no reason. Everyone honks for everything. But the countryside is pretty, especially in the Transylvanian mountains.
City Walking that Doesn’t Suck: Barcelona’s Wide Boulevards. Outside the Gothic Quarter’s tangled mess, sidewalks are huge, open, flat. The city is easy to navigate because just about every street is at a right angle.
Here are some other things grouped by city that I didn’t want to come up with individual paragraphs for:
The damp of Diocletian’s palace basement in Split still shows how good Romans were at construction. Ruins at Solin add to that argument. Klis Fortress is also pretty but they clearly know people are coming due to GoT filming – the price keeps going up.
The shore path on the Babin Kuk side of Dubrovnik was more relaxing than ones nearer the Old Town. Ferrying out to Lokrum Island also avoided about 95% of the crowd and was a nice place to spend an afternoon being stalked by peacocks.
Bucharest has a beautiful Orthodox church every few blocks. Towering over everything, the Palace of the Parliament is a primer in government waste. Two hours away in the mountains, Peles Castle proves that a country doesn’t have to have a royal family for very long before all the trappings show up.
In addition to the Uprising Museum, the entire city of Warsaw is a WWII memorial. Walking anywhere you come upon plaques and statues commemorating events or people, letting you map out the destruction in your own neighborhood. In the suburbs, the Wilanow Palace serves as a reminder of the pre-WWII era.
Krakow crams a lot into a small space, which explains why it’s packed with tourists. The Franciscan Basilica is incredible. The park encircling the Old Town, the riverfront walk, or Kazimierz (the traditionally Jewish area) gets away from some of the horde. Further out, the now-parklike Plaszow Concentration Camp is Auschwitz’s lesser-known cousin that makes a thoughtful accompaniment to Oskar Schindler’s Factory.
Again, these are the places that stuck out the most. Just about everything we saw was worth our time in some way or another. For every place we saw, there are more we heard about but didn’t get to. I suppose yet another reason to head back at some future point….
Tallinn is high up on the list of places I could see living after traveling gets old. Each place we’ve gone this month just makes the list of reasons why longer. (Full disclosure: it has gotten noticeably colder since we arrived and I’m not yet sure I could last through a winter. I’m pretty glad we’ve had a sauna as the weather has changed.) My favorite spots in the city are Kadriorg Park and the paths along the waterfront.
Kadriorg Park has a prettily colored summer palace with the same name. It was built for Catherine I of Russia, but is now an art museum. We were lucky enough to be here for the end-of-the-season Light Walks. For a single night, thousands of candles line the park paths, spotlights and stages go up on the buildings and gazebos, and a large portion of the city comes to hang out, listen to music, and see the night-ending fireworks.
The Estonian Art Museum, KUMU, is in a far corner of the Park. We went on an almost free day and spent a few hours. I was happy to find a temporary exhibition of 19th century dresses – and a War and Peace miniseries has been airing on TV – so I’ve gotten my fill of period clothes/drama. Intimidatingly cinched waistlines aside, it would be fun to have one in my wardrobe just because. There were some really interesting artworks trying to deal with the decades of Communism and pretty landscapes that explain why hiking is a popular activity. Perhaps the oddest thing was a room full of dozens of sculpture heads and busts – a little creepy for sure, especially the random one on the wall that was a seagull. (There was also a similar set of baby head sculptures outside – I might have nightmares from it.)
The Old Town leans heavily towards touristy and governmenty, and is full of souvenir shops, restaurants, and embassies. Its town walls and towers are mostly preserved so it feels cozy. Many buildings are pastel colors and there are churches every few blocks. I’m sure we’ve seen each Old Town street multiple times. It is fun to visit, but I’m glad we stayed outside of it where meals are cheaper and there are fewer crowds. Tourist groups can be nice if you are in them, but less so if you are trying to get down a narrow, cobbled street through a hundred people going the other direction.
Churches in Tallinn run the full spectrum of Christian decor. Several are Russian Orthodox, full of beautiful artwork covering every surface, and what feels like acres of gold. Others, Roman Catholic and Lutheran, tend more toward Nordic austerity.
Just outside the Old Town is the Museum of Occupations. Estonia spent an unfortunate amount of the 20th century under Russian and German control without self-determination. Especially thought-provoking were video interviews on the end of World War II. Some Estonians had been forced into the Red Army (Russia overran and occupied Estonia from 1940-1), but were OK with fighting against the Nazi invasion. But as the war turned and it became clear that Russia wanted to re-occupy Estonia, others joined German army units or otherwise fought to try to keep Estonia free of outside rule. Sadly, numbers were not on their side. It struck me what a Catch-22 deciding which side to fight for must have been. There was no way to know which side would win, or support your claims to independence, or how you might suffer if you chose wrong.
We were also in town for the Tallinn Marathon. Thousands of runners show up for a weekend of races, making us feel bad for our pointed lack of exercise. The race route is definitely scenic – immediately to the left of the picture is the Baltic. Companies and individuals set up cheer squads along the route playing upbeat music – one we walked by had a live band that was really good. Other people had already stopped (not runners, just walkers like us) for an impromptu concert.
Tallinn is really a city that feels like a small town. We can walk everywhere and feel safe doing so, even late at night. On nice days, the parks are full of families enjoying the sun. But like any other city, there is a huge selection of choices for food, art events, shopping malls (Rahva Raamat bookstore has a good selection of English-language titles!). At the very least, I can’t wait to come back to Estonia. Maybe even during winter just to experience the short days and potential for northern lights…
We’ve been in Dublin 6 days and it is in contention for our favorite place so far. It reminds us a lot of Seattle – especially the Belltown and Fremont neighborhoods. There are tons of Asian restaurants and Polish groceries, it has been cool and rainy, and we can walk almost everywhere. After 6 months in countries where English is not an official language, it is nice to be able to have small conversations at stores without worrying about mispronunciations or fumbling through transactions. Sadly, it’s more expensive than other places we’ve been, so our short stay represents more of a holiday than a residence.
Since our stay is short(er), we’ve been trying to cram as much into a week as we normally see in four. The National Gallery of Art had a (non-photographable) exhibit of da Vinci drawings. He really was interested in everything: making sketches of cats, studying river eddies and human bodies, and finding time to try his hand at poetry in between.
The National Archaeology Museum (photographable) had butter, clothes, and bodies preserved in the peat bogs, lots of weaponry, church artifacts, and even Egyptian mummies. One small pile of coins were actually tokens handed out by taverns as change and only usable at the same pub – maybe one of the earliest customer loyalty programs.
Just west of the tourist center are St. Patrick’s and Christ Church Cathedrals. Kevin toured Christ Church and I went through St. Patrick’s. Both are made of gray stone and look similar from the outside. The exteriors are relatively plain, no soaring buttresses or gargoyles, just a few towers and arched windows. Inside, however, they are full of art. Brightly tiled floors and stained glass break up the dull stone. Statues, paintings and flags do the rest. Writer Jonathan Swift was Dean at St. Pat’s in the mid-1700s and is buried under a corner of the tile floor.
St. Patrick’s also has a tradition of receiving regimental banners as a way to remember soldiers killed in battle. Once the flags are hung, they are left to dissipate over time. The newest flags are still brilliantly colored and slowly darken over time before becoming mere tatters.
We’ve made sure to try Irish beer and whiskey. Guinness really is better here, as are local craft brews like McGargles. And they really must be better, because even I don’t mind drinking the beer.
Despite its reputation for whiskey, there is only one active distillery in Dublin, and it only opened only a year ago. Teeling Whiskey is very proud of the fact that they are the first new distillery to open in the city in more than 100 years. Though it takes more than three years to make a proper Irish whiskey, the Teelings inherited their father’s share from a distillery elsewhere and can sell it under their name. It apparently helps to have a starter stock when opening a distillery.
I was sure to make the pilgrimage to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells and the library’s Long Room. Thankfully timed tickets we bought online allowed us to skip the line once we saw it stretched all the way around the courtyard. The Kells exhibit was a great reminder of the skills of illustrators and calligraphers and the intense work that would have gone into each page. Only two sets of pages are displayed at any time, so the actual book itself is a bit underwhelming, not to mention that it is quite crowded.
Upstairs is the main attraction, the Long Room. It’s one of the few tourist spots where photographs online and on postcards look just like the real-life version. It was absolutely as pretty as I’d hoped. It even smelled like a proper library. The sheer number of books on the shelves is mind-numbing. I’d happily move in tomorrow.
On display among a few showcased books is a 1916 Proclamation issued by the leaders of the Easter Rising. In another case is a 14th century Celtic harp that, according to legend, belonged to Brian Boru. This harp is literally the symbol of Ireland – it appears on Guinness beer and on government seals and the Irish euro coins. In any other place the harp probably would have been the centerpiece of its own museum, here it is overshadowed by the library’s towering shelves.
Another free afternoon at MNAC! Still trying to make up for art we’ve seen but not shared…
This time we started with an even older collection of art from churches in the 1100-1200s. Dozens of murals were literally peeled off church walls in small towns in Catalonia and reattached to new backings. Arches and apses were recreated to their original dimensions, so it feels like a deconstructed church. I imagine the conservators working on the 900-year-old paint faced a very stressful job…
We also filled in the gaps from about 1800 to the 1900. It is really fun to imagine the lives of those pictured, and whether the artist liked the wife he drew so many times… or if she liked him.
One portrait appeared to be Bill Hader from SNL hiding behind a poorly-affixed mustache. Not sure I can explain how he ended up in a painting more than a century old.
There were some beautiful impressionist landscapes and lots of organic lines in work that both inspired and was inspired by Gaudi.
A darker period of work from the 1930s dealt with the Spanish Civil War. Brightly illustrated recruitment posters contrasted with artist’s renditions and photographs of destruction and civilian suffering.
On Sunday, we again attempted to go to Picasso Museum during free times, but found the line even longer than last week. Maybe a third time will be the charm! Instead, we headed to the beach. It wasn’t warm enough to swim but that didn’t stop the seafront restaurants from being crowded. Sangrias, seafood, and gelato were out in force. As were yachts so large that I initially mistook them for small cruise ships or naval vessels.
To cap off the previous art & this post, here are some sightings from our walks.
As I don’t specifically remember from childhood, Barcelona hosted the 1992 Summer Olympic Games. Not too far from our apartment, the main set of venues and park are still in use. It was all built on a grand scale with wide lawns and walkways, now good picnic spots.
Next door to the Olympic Park are the grounds of the 1929 International Exposition. The Palau Nacional, which now houses the Museu Nacional d’Arte de Catalunya (MNAC), was built as a temporary structure to house a portion of the Exposition. It was too beautiful to tear down afterward, so it was remodeled and made into the museum’s permanent home. The large fountains in front were built at the same time, and given the same reprieve.
Many museums don’t let visitors to take pictures. However, the MNAC does allow non-flash photography, so here are some arts to make up for everything else we’ve seen but haven’t been able to share. My camera doesn’t take the best images in the lower, painting-preserving lighting; it was more vivid in person.
The museum was massive; with the time we had courtesy of an entrance-fee-free Saturday afternoon, we saw less than half of the collection. Fortunately, we will be in Barcelona for several more weeks, and will be returning.
We wandered through the Medieval section first, taking in paintings and sculpture from the 1200s and gradually moving forward in time to the 1700s. Almost all the pieces were based on the lives of Catholic Saints and the Bible. Only during the latter stages of the Renaissance did ordinary people and scenes from daily life appear. And by that time, the excessive use of gold leaf tapers off as well.
Wrapping up the Renaissance and then skipping ahead several generations to the early 1900s, there is a noticeably wider variety of subjects, most taken from daily life. There were furniture pieces by Gaudi and his followers and paintings depicting quiet moments in the home or countryside. It feels much more relatable.
Leaving the museum about 6 pm, there were hundreds of people enjoying the view from the terraces. Hawkers tried to sell cheap trinkets, two small stands sold wine and snacks, and lots of people took selfies. Staircases lead down to the Venetian Towers and a pre-marathon pasta dinner was finishing up with runners for Sunday’s race trying to carboload.
Today, some day-to-day images from wandering around Lisbon. The city is built on seven hills, and streets and sidewalks in the older areas of town are often narrow and cobbled. You can hear cars coming a long way off, but fortunately for us our apartment is in a very quiet area. Vehicles need special passes to enter it and usually streets are traffic-free and used as additional sidewalk space or as a yard. In places where sidewalks are wider, the pavers show their artistic side.
We walk almost everywhere and get a decent amount of exercise just going to the grocery or butcher. Staircases are incredibly common, and funiculars and elevators move people up steeper hills, though tickets are relatively expensive. In older areas, streets that do allow cars wind around and rarely follow anything resembling a grid pattern; wandering around and getting lost is a good way to spend an afternoon.
The most popular mode of transit for tourists seems to be the Carris trams that run around the old town. They look as if they came directly from the 1920s and rattle around on their tracks between some of the major sites.
It was interesting to discover that old buildings, or at least their outer walls, are not torn down, even when they are gutted inside. Structures are close enough together that walls are shared; it is easier to remodel later than to start from scratch and worry about the neighbors having structural problems in the interim. Even empty buildings are poetic looking; mosses and weeds grow from edges of missing roofs as the walls slowly crumble.
One of the fancier areas to grab a meal out is in the waterfront district. The Mercado da Ribeira has been remodeled from just a farmer’s market selling fresh produce and seafood into a major foodie center with chefs and restaurants from around Lisbon showcasing local meals. It is a little more expensive than many small eateries, but the selection is amazing; there is no way to try everything, even with a month in town. A dish I particularly enjoyed there was quail and mushroom risotto; it helped to warm me up after a chilly day of walking.
Overall the food here is just as tasty, though not as spicy, as in Southeast Asia. Local favorites are egg-based pastries, fresh cheeses and yogurts, oranges, and seafood of all kinds. We’ve also eaten horse for the first time, it was similar to bison and really tender. Maybe Ikea was on to something with their meatballs? And for drinking: inexpensive wine. The “expensive” bottle of wine we purchased was almost 6 euro; most are under 3 euro, which is why don’t feel bad bringing home a new bottle to try every time we go out!
Lisbon is covered in art, but many museums and churches don’t allow photos inside. Just imagine lots of gilt-framed paintings and statues of Mary, Jesus, and the Catholic saints, as well as all sorts of golden crosses, celebrations of naval power, and art brought back from colonies around the world.
Lisbon is justifiably famous for its centuries-old tradition of covering buildings in patterned and painted tiles. There are hundreds of designs and they can make any street feel like a work of art.
Lisbon has been a welcoming and fun city to explore, I can’t believe Portugal wasn’t higher on my radar earlier. Fortunately, we will be leaving behind more things to see, so when we return there will be new explorations waiting. We head to Barcelona in just a few days; the final main sight we plan to see in Lisbon will be the palace at Mafra, with its famous library, it has been something I’ve been looking forward to all month.
We took our first trip into Georgetown to see some of the tourist sights and eat some local cuisine. Rather than taking the 45-minute bus ride (we really are out in the suburbs) or a taxi, we opted for Uber. It worked out pretty well – our driver had good advice for what to see and eat in town – and dropped us off in front of the best mee sotong (squid and noodles) stand in Penang, which happens to be in a food court outside of Fort Cornwallis.
The British (if the names Georgetown and Cornwallis weren’t giveaways) were responsible for the construction of the fort under the direction of Captain Francis Lightfoot. Ironically, he died shortly afterward and the first recorded marriage in the fort’s chapel was his widow’s to a new husband. Fort Cornwallis isn’t overly impressive – it has a relatively low brick wall and a few sea-pointing cannons; it never saw combat, so more secure battlements were never needed.
Georgetown has an eclectic mix of architectural styles and heritages – a British-colonial style still defines the buildings of the banking core, just down the street is Little India (with saris, curries, and spices for sale in shop windows), Chinese and Buddhist traditions show up everywhere (temples are common in the Old Town, as are small, red altars at the front of businesses, and Chinese-language signs), Armenian Street betrays European character (low building with shutter-covered windows), and Islamic influences also have great significance (mosques, beautiful patterned and flowered tile work, and signs in Arabic). The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the unique blend of cultures and traditions that has shaped the city.
The area around Armenian Street is known for murals and street art, both intentional and unintentional. While we were there, some of the paintings were serving as the backdrop for a music video. I don’t think the group is overly famous yet as there was no crowd of screaming hangers-on.
The diverse types of meals that are available reflect the mixing of cultures. Chinese, Cantonese, Indian, Malay, Nyonya, Western, Portuguese, Thai, and Japanese are all often available at the same food court. Rice and noodles are still central components, as are spicy peppers and rich sauces (often too spicy for me, sometimes too spicy for Kevin).
Clay-pot-cooked meals have been my favorite discovery since arriving in Penang. Rice is already heated in a clay bowl and a choice of meat or veggie topping is added when you order. The flame is turned up and the flavors blend together for a bit. It is served piping hot with a separate plate so you can dish it out as you go and share with friends; the rest of the meal stays toasty in the insulated bowl.
One final note about humidity – the actual air temperature is only a few degrees fahrenheit warmer than Chiang Mai, and we adjusted to that fairly well. Penang averages about 88-90 degrees; we were often up to 85 in Thailand. But the humidity – 70% or higher -makes it feel much warmer and far more uncomfortable. Michelle, our Uber driver on the return trip, was amazed we had spent a few hours walking around outside in the middle of the day. She admitted even locals never get used to it, they prefer go from one air conditioned place to another. At least our apartment is higher up and near the water, meaning some parts of the day offer cooling breezes, but between about 1 and 6 p.m. and after 9:30 p.m the air stagnates and all pretense of comfort vanishes.