Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Spain”

Freeway-Free in Spain: Assorted Basque Specialties

20190529_111016doc.jpgDid I mention that Bilbao is the unofficial capital of the Basque region of Spain?   I am a little bit familiar with Basque family-style dining due to the heritage of Basque shepherds which has been perpetuated in part of northern California.  But nothing had prepared me for the pintxos (appetizer plate) bars which are the pride of Bilbao and San Sebastian.  Above you see a typical spread (pardon me and my spouse for having partially blocked the view).

The idea is to browse from one pintxos bar to the next, sampling a glass of wine and a small plate delicacy in each.  As you might guess from the decor, many of the pintxos feature the local ham, a delicacy all by itself.

One evening we were fortunate to dine at Aspaldiko, a historic country estate featuring Basque cuisine.  This was our first exposure to Spanish formal dining, which involves aperitivos,  several flavors of wine, at least five courses, with coffee and cheeses and a digestif of local sherry or port following the dessert.   Be prepared.

Another long historic tradition of the Basque country is seafaring and shipbuilding.  If you have a chance, take a short boat ride from San Sebastian to visit the  Albaola Factory and Museum  , where you can watch experts on maritime heritage and boat building working on building a replica of a 16th century Basque whaling ship.  What I know about whaling is from reading Moby Dick, and I couldn’t help but imagine Ahab facing the leviathan in one of these carefully crafted boats.

The museum also partners with local cider makers, so don’t forget to make a donation to the museum by purchasing at least a glass of cider to sip while you watch. It blends wonderfully with the smells of fresh-sawn wood.

 

 

 

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Freeway-Free in Spain: Old Bilbao Explored

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When you are tired of looking at indoor and outdoor art along the Abandoibarra between Bilbao’s two world-class museums, go for a different vibe in Bilbao’s Old Town and Warehouse District.

On a weekday, you can browse the Mercado de la Ribera, one of the largest and oldest indoor markets in Spain. (I was there on a Sunday, but I did get to see some of the lovely stained glass windows in the guild hall.)

In the Warehouse District you will find the Alhondiga a multi-story public library  built on pillars within an old warehouse, with a glass-bottomed swimming pool on the roof.  It’s a wonderful re-imagining of how to use space. (Notice that no two of the supporting pillars are alike.)

In the Old Town are the usual medieval cathedral, narrow cobbled streets, and slightly skewed medieval buildings.

And if you explore the side streets, you will find some amazing, funky shops offering  exotic (and painful-looking) piercings, gothic wear, and many other oddities.

If you want an overview, don’t omit visiting the park atop Mount Artxanda, the hilltop overlooking Bilbao, for a panorama which takes in both old and new Bilbao. 20190528_124541doc

And then maybe you’ll want to take in the art scene just one more time before you leave.

 

Freeway-Free in Spain: A Tale of Two Museums

Bilbao’s Promenade along the Estuary is anchored at each end by a world-class museum.  The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum looks like a traditional museum from the outside – a blockish building with a fountain courtyard,  a lobby with a gift shop.  Ho hum. But the museum has re-invented itself in competition with its more famous colleague at the other end of the promenade and its exhibit space, when I visited, was among the most interesting and inventive I have seen.

20190526_160456webAt the time of my visit, the museum had thrown the traditional chronological arrangement of its art right out the window, and had rearranged its El Greco’s, its Goyas, its Gauguin in alphabetical order by subject.  So the Gauguin was exhibited under A for ART, taken out of its frame and put between glass panels so you could see the paint smudges on the edges of the canvas, and some scribbles by the artist on the back of the canvas.  In the same room were examples of art by paleolithic artists as well as moderns ones.  It made me think about the Gauguan in a completely different way.

Here’s a sample of the many pieces of Spanish and European art on view at the Fine Arts Museum:

(The picture on the lower left was taken, of course, in the room labeled “P for Portrait”.)

It was a rainy day when I visited, and I could have happily stayed for hours.

The next day I visited the other end of the Promenade, the Guggenheim Bilbao.  This museum is really all about the building.  The architecture inside and out is so curvaceously fascinating that the art pieces serve as much to enhance the building as to display themselves. Here’s a sample:

Of course, Bilbao is more than the sum of two museums and a promenade along the estuary.  There is an old town. There are modern buildings. I’ll give you a glimpse of that Bilbao next time.

Freeway-Free in Spain: Bilbao Re-Imagined – Day 1

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All I knew of Bilbao before arriving was what I learned from Andy Williams in the song about “that old Bilbao moon/I shan’t forget it soon…/While Tony’s beach saloon/Rocked with an old-time tune”.

Whatever Bilbao Andy was singing about has gone, if it ever existed. For one thing, there is no beach at Bilbao; it gained its success as a port because it was situated on a wide river inlet, well away from storms AND sand.

Bilbao was the Pittsburg of Spain, a busy port located near iron deposits, and thus steel mills and manufacturing plants. Like Pittsburg, when the iron gave out, the city verged on collapse.   The warehouses emptied, the port facilities were allowed to become outmoded, and manufacturing jobs left for cheaper labor pools.

City visionaries hit on the idea of re-positioning Bilbao as a cultural center, and reclaiming its idle port as a riverside sculpture park and promenade. Someone heard that the Guggenheims were thinking of establishing a satellite museum in Europe, and Bilbao pulled out all the stops to secure this prize. The result: a voluptuously curved Frank Gehry–designed building which is a destination in itself, supplemented by The Museum of Fine Arts (the second largest museum of Spanish art in the country after El Prado in Madrid) at the other end of the promenade,, and between them a lovely open green space bordering the reclaimed river, studded with sculptures, bridges, fountains, playgrounds, and outdoor performance spaces.

Sculptures vary from realistic to very abstract:

The fountains bubble graciously from traditional to naturalistic:

And the playgrounds are well-used (note: the red-capped youth on the rope net are the same ones you can spot starting their school field trip in the first photo above).

20190526_172636webSo – come to Bilbao for the walk, the outdoor art, the architecture, the parks… and that’s only the first day!

Freeway-Free in Spain: It is Good to be the King

Plaza and Portico and PalaceThis bright sunny morning was almost too nice to spend inside, even if “inside” is the Palacio Real, home to the monarchs of Spain beginning in the 18th century.  We took our time along the way, stopping into a beautiful local market to admire the produce and incidentals on offer.Que Bello Mercado!

At the palace we waited about 10 minutes for entry while being entertained by a guy making giant bubbles and an accordionist playing, inexplicably, “Michele” and “Theme from The Godfather” instead of “Lady of Spain.”

The palace makes  Versailles look tawdry. I never imagined so much gold-and-silver-embroidered silk and velvet existed in the world. The extravagance is excused nowadays because the rooms are opened to the public in general for viewing and are otherwise used only for state occasions; the current king prefers to live in more comfort and less pomp in a smaller palace in the suburbs. But still, the amount of wretched excess is a little stomach-turning after viewing the homeless living in cardboard boxes in the arcades of the closed shops in the Plaza Mayor.

The state rooms are, of course, all tapestry, chandeliers, and mirrors, with frescos on the ceilings painted by Tintoretto and Velasquez and other lesser lights. We also got a glimpse of some of the rooms which had been used as private living quarters by various monarchs; these had been decorated to match  then-current tastes and ranged from a faux-Tyrolean-beer-hall decor for a billiard room through an all-Chinese porcelain and stucco and tile sitting room to an Empire/Egyptian room with sphinx holding up the table.

A visit to the Royal Armory Museum at the close revealed that the excess had been going on for at least 500 years – a wealth of gilded and engraved armor, including lots of matching miniature armor for the princelings to play in, and elaborate headpieces and breast-plates and rump-covers for the horses, all gilded, lavishly engraved or sculpted, and provided with satin covers and embroidered saddles to finish the look. (None of the kings ever actually fought in these things, although they may have jousted once in a while.)

After leaving the Palacio we took refuge in Taberna de Alabardero, an al fresco stree-tside cafe recommended by Lonely Planet AND Rick Steves, overlooking the palace and gardens. The prices were high and the service slow, but the people-watching was prime.

We finished off the afternoon with a stroll in the Royal Gardens and the Campo del Moro, then caught the Metro back to the hotel. For the evening we enjoyed a gala dinner at nearby Tres Encinas, a rather upscale (for us) seafood restaurant nearby. I  seized the opportunity to wear my one “nice” outfit, just so I can say the suitcase space wasn’t wasted.
Our maitre’d  was unabashedly charmed by Winifred’s Peruvian-accented Spanish, and monitored our table closely as we divided a wonderful salad of grilled vegetables and prawns (with heads and legs still attached to show how fresh they were) followed by a sole in the same state for the same reason but expertly divided and de-boned, followed by a dessert of chocolate brownie plus trimmings, and a couple of complimentary cuplets of cherry liqueur as a gift of the host. We were very glad we had dressed for the occasion!Shrimp Appetizer - Tres Encinas P1010262web P1010263web

Freeway Free in Spain: Madrid and its Museums – Thyssen- Bornemizso

the Baron and BaronessThe Thyssen-Bornemizso museum is the last of Madrid’s”Big 3″ and perhaps the most cosmopolitan/ecumenical, as it spans from early medieval art through the impressionsts all the way to Roy Lichtenstein and Marc Rothko. In addition to the core collections, this museum had the most intriguing special exhibitions of the Big 3. On the day of our visit we happened on a special exhibit devoted to the influence of open-air painting on the Impressionists. We took this in first, then approached the regular collection already half-dazzled.

Famous blue horsesThe regular collection is now actually TWO collections, that of the Baron and his family which had been a-building for two generations, and that of late-comer Baroness Carmen Tyssen-Bornemizso (a former Miss Spain, and well-qualified judging by the full-length portrait which hangs in the entry gallery). So one is forced to zig and zag from the Middle Ages to the Barbizon school with the Baron, then leap to an unusual collection of American painters from Winslow Homer to Roy Lichtenstein with Carmen, then back to the Renaissance again with Carmen, then back to the Impressionists with the family collection. One wonders why the two collections could not simply be integrated along chronological lines; probably feminism has something to do with it.

Edward Hopper

 

A nice small special exhibit of paintings showing women going about daily life rounded off over seven hours at the T-B. There was one more exhibit of modern art entitled “Hyperrealismo” but we ran out of brain cells.

We went back to El Retiro to stop and smell the roses one last time. On this warm sunny Sunday it seemed all Madrid was celebrating La Dia de la Madre in the park: picnicking, strolling with the obligatory gift rose in hand, rowing in the rectangular Estanque. On the way back to the Metro we discovered a street of bookstalls like those along the Seine selling used books of all sorts. I barely resisted “Matilda”, one of my favorites from Roald Dahl. Perhaps in the park we discovered the real elusive center of Madrid.

Freeway Free in Spain: Toledo Transit

Bus to ToledoWe started off at a good hour for our expedition, arrived at the station in plenty of time to catch the 9:20 train, only to find that it was sold out. Next available train on a busy commute and tourist day was at 12:20. Scratch.

We went back to the hotel by Metro to save energy, I said something about our failed plans to the desk manager, and he replied quickly, “Why not go by bus?” Turns out the express bus leaves every hour, from a station about a half hour away by Metro.

With one thing and another we got to the bus station in time for the 11 AM bus and we were in Toledo by noon. A wonderful town for traipsing around.

The Last Supper - Toledo Cathedral facadeWe started with the awesome (in the original sense) cathedral, a soaring flamboyant Gothic/Baroque structure on the outside, with a wonderful Last Supper going on in sculpture across the front above the main door. If you look at it from the rise of steps across the plaze, you can see down onto the table where the sculpture was careful to provide both bottles of wine and a plate of rolls as required.
On the inside more of the same – a LOT more. In addition to the profligate use of gold from the New World to decorate altars, clothe icons, and create 10 foot-tall monstrances to hold the Host between communions, it contains more great paintings than they have room to hang or light or even identify decently – a whole set of Christ and the apostles by El Greco hung kitty corner to the viewer behind a grate, Titian, Correggio, and Rembrandt hung in a half-lit chapel on a temporary scaffold in front of the altar and again behind a grate.

St John and Cousin Jesus

St John and Cousin Jesus

The most awesome thing about the Toledo Cathedral is the detail – everywhere you look there is an artwork that would be worthy of its own exhibit in any other context.  For example, this mosaic of John the Baptist with his young cousin Jesus – at least 30 feet tall over the door of the cathedral – not even mentioned in the audio guide or anywhere else – but so powerful!

We got halfway through the audio tour and elected to pause for lunch at a vegetarian restaurant Winifred had located online nearby. (We are on a veggie kick since being greens-deprived in our first day in Madrid.) There are good and bad veggie restaurants – Madre Tierra  was excellent – a wonderful salad and then a cream of spinach soup so thick and rich I could have eaten it with a fork.

Virgin and Unicorn - Choir stall - Toledo Virgin M crowning a saint in ivory - Toledo Saint and demon contending- choir stall - Toledo Jacob and Esau? Choir Stall - Toledo

Then back to the cathedral for the rest of the tour of amazing carvings and sculpture.  (See some of the amazingly evocative carvings in the choir stalls above)

The art highlight – the Sacristy- was closed for renovation, which was probably a blessing in disguise. Otherwise we would never have made it to the El Greco Museum, which had a different set of apostles, much better displayed, hung in a setting designed to recreate a 15th century home such as El Greco might have lived in during his time in Toledo – quite charming.

Back to the bus, stopping for Winifred to pick up some mementoes and gifts. The express bus was full, so we took the milk run, whistle-stopping through a series of villages and small towns, letting off matrons who had been shopping for their week’s supplied in the supermercados of Toledo, taking up young people who had been visiting their families for the holiday and were headed back to Madrid – it was fun to make up stories to explain the meetings and partings.

Evening on the bus

Freeway Free in Spain: Madrid and its Museums – El Prado

El Prado 3D galleryEl Prado

At El Prado you can thrill your fill on the Big 3 of Spanish painting: Goya, El Greco, Velasquez.  Wow!  I warmed up with a roomful of Hieronymous Bosch (inspiration for every sci fi paperback anthology cover ever printed).  The Garden of Earthly Delights is enough to give one nightmares for a week.  On the wall catty corner is Breughel’s Triumph of Death  with Death leading an army of skeletons against the doomed remainder of mankind – the original zombie apocalypse.Bosch - Earthly Delights and Torments After

Unfortunately, a guard informed me that photos are not allowed soon after I left Bosch and Breughel, so I will have to link you to websites for you to get your tastes of G, V, and el G.

I was headed for Goya but got side-tracked by Velasquez.  Three hundred years before the Impressionists, this man knew exactly how to make light shine out of a picture.  I could have looked at his portrait of the Infanta Maria  and her handmaidens and dwarves for hours speculating on what was happening in each person’s mind, but the traffic of Japanese, German, French, and Spanish tour groups impeded reflection.

So I proceeded on my search for Goya but went the wrong way and got caught by El Greco  – even earlier than Velasquez, and combining use of light and of exaggeration to portray emotion and character in a way that prefigures Toulouse-Lautrec by 400 years.

W and I had split up after Bosch and Breughel.  When we reunited for lunch I was ready to babble about El Greco while she had found and been immersed in Goya, especially the “black Goyas” from his late period.  We exchanged enthusiasms, and then went out to explore again.

This time I found the Goyas and worked backward from the black period all the way to when he was hired to do “cartoons” of designs of frolicking gypsies and children,  to be used as patterns for tapestries at the local royal weavers workshop.  Amazing.  Age and war do alter one’s  point of view, and to go backwards in his career, from the murals of massacre and the blindness of fate to these sunny comic scenes, was especially poignant.

So which was the greatest painter of the Big Three?  Impossible to choose.

 

 

Freeway-free in Spain: Madrid and its Museums: Reina Sophia

Line for Dali

Madrid is a big city, the largest we have visited in Spain. Unlike the other largish cities we have visited, it does not seem to have a historic center; the Plaza Mayor is a nice place in daylight, but in the evening it is a haven for the homeless who are sheltering in cardboard boxes left over from the day’s sales of tidbits and trinkets for tourists. The main gathering place for events is the Puerta del Sol, site of the city hall and of Madrid’s civic mascot, the statue of a bear reaching for fruit on a strawberry tree (obviously not the kind of strawberries we grow for shortcake in the US).  Unlike other European capitals, it does not have an iconic identifying landmark, like the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben  or the Brandenburg Gate or St. Paul’s Cathedral.  What Madrid has is Art, in three world-class museums, and in Madrid we looked at Art, with an occasional eyeball-break in the lovely Parque del Buen Retiro.

Here are our experiences with the Big Three (spreading over a couple of posts):

Museo de la Reina Sophia
Reina Sophia focuses on  Spanish modern art with the jewel of the collection being
PIcasso’s  Guernica Pablo-Picassos-Guernica-001.  The museum was having a special exhibit of Dali
which had started two days before our arrival and despite the drizzle the line to get in there was across the plaza  when we arrived at 4:30.  We decided to do the rest of the museum and come  back later for Dali.  We worked our way up in the general admission line, and  discovered gleefully that as seniors we qualified for free admission to  everything but Dali.  W had done her prep and started us on the second floor, but even  then we wore out our feet and our brains before we got to Guernica.  

Two days later we came back to the Reina Sophia for a second go-around.  This time we let ourselves drown in the overwhelming torrents of Dali and Picasso. These had never been my favorite painters, but after learning of the background against which they lived and painted I am more favorably inclined.

I did not know that Guernica had been painted on commission by the republican government of Spain to show at the Spanish pavilion at the 1936 World’s Fair in Paris.  I did not know it  was part of an attempt to win world sympathy for the republicans in the Civil War against Franco. (They got a lot of sympathy, but Franco still won). And I did not know that during World War II Dali had to flee Spain for France, then for the USA. There he became the first performance artist/career celebrity, perfectly reading the needs of the host country, anticipating Paris Hilton and Madonna by a half-century.

After drinking from the fire hydrant of history and art at Reina Sophia, the park was a chance to stretch our legs and our eyes over some longer distances.  There is something very refreshingly basic about a vista that includes a little girl and a pigeon.

Park and Pigeon

Freeway-Free in Spain: People and Public Art

There’s something about a statue, especially if it is reasonably representational, that makes people want to interact with it.  Here are some that we ogled, sat on, cuddled with during our trek in Spain.  Can you identify where we were?
Ware the Plague or the Inquisition - CacerasThe Goddes Ceres - Caceras Storks frozen in bronze - Caceras Pisarro AKA Cortez - Trujillo Paso Doble Dancers - Caceras Native son - Toledo P1000990web On the Pilgrim Road - Burgos Grandparents? Burgos Madrid Icon The Fallen Angel - Park de Buen Retiro, MadridT

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