Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

A Few of Our Favorite (Unexpected) Things

August 20, 2013

When you walk around Jerusalem, there are lots of things you expect to see. Cathedrals, cats, pilgrims, and mosques—minarets, cramped markets, and fantastic costumes. However, it’s the things that you don’t expect that either escape your notice altogether, or remain indelibly stamped on your psyche forever.

We saw this cute three-wheeler on the hotel roof, but what Spider Man, Mickey Mouse, and Super Lion have to do with one another evades us at the moment.

Super Lion Bike

Spiderman, Mickey, and Super Lion–An Unstoppable Team!IMG_0675

I’m mildly suspicious of a restaurant that claims an authentic Mexican experience, when they misspell the Spanish words.

Poyo Loko

Not to be mistaken for Pollo Loco.

Who doesn’t fancy a spot of cake? Especially when it’s English!

English Cake

I would try it, but for fear of crushing disappointment if it turned out to not be delicious cake.

I never expected that one would have to be told this on a crowded, traffic-laden thoroughfare. I’m sure there’s a story behind it, though.

No Playing in Traffic

Seriously, don’t play soccer in traffic.

We should probably eat here so that our submersion into the culture will be complete.

Holy Rock Cafe

What kind of music do they play in there?

Mamma never wanted you to get a tattoo, but how could she say “No” to one that’s from the Holy Land parlor?

Holy Land Tattoos

How could this not end well?

We really have nothing to add to this one.

Singing Jewish Man

A picture worth a thousand words

Checking out the local artwork is always a unique cultural experience.

Jerusalem was celebrating its Formula 1 race.

Jerusalem was celebrating its Formula 1 race.

Western Wall Painting

We saw this painting of the Western Wall, and then realized something important was missing from the cityscape.

While we’re at it, we never thought we’d run into Formula 1 racing in Jerusalem at all.

Formula 1 Race in Jerusalem

The track is ready!

Some of the vents are custom made in the Jewish Quarter.

Star of David Vents

Special vents in the Jewish Quarter

The cats run the gamut—from sleek fat cats to ragged scrappers. Some are just more photogenic than others.

Unphotogenic Cat

Sort of the feline junior high yearbook photo

And, last, but not least, we’d like to take this opportunity to commemorate the moment our trip took a turn for the horrific. We first ran into this guy in Tiberias in September 2012. About 10 days later, we saw him again near Lachish. Yesterday, we turned the corner around the hotel, and there he was, staring into our souls.

Creepy Teddy Bear Stare

Just when you thought it was safe–Creepy Teddy Bear Stare, Part 3

Jerusalem, Western Wall and the Temple Mount

August 17, 2013

We have been in Jerusalem a little over a week now.  The first half of this time was spent using Jerusalem as a base for exploring areas of the Shephelah and slightly beyond.  The past few days we have been in the Old City, exploring all its “nooks and crannies” (and wow, are there a lot of them).

Western Wall and the Temple Mount

Western Wall and the Temple Mount

This shot was taken a few nights ago of the Western Wall and Dome of the Rock together.  This view is interesting in having two iconic holy sites, one for Judaism (the wall), and one for Islam (the dome), so close together.  The contents of the dome also have significance for both of them, as well.

First, the construction of the wall is interesting in that it is part of a retaining wall holding up the base of the Temple Mount.  This retaining wall is from the “Second Temple,” as it is commonly called, reconstructed by Herod the Great (around 19 B.C., possibly finished at a later time).  The actual upper surface of the Temple Mount is not to be accessed by observant Jews, as somewhere on this upper surface, the actual temple would have resided.  This temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.  Not knowing the exact location of the temple and it holy places may cause one to tread upon the sacred ground only the High Priest could access.  At a minimum, there are also purification practices which must take place before entering the temple area.  Modern secular Jews can ascend to the Temple Mount freely, if they desire.

Given these conditions, this is why the wall has become the active sacred worship site for modern observant Jews.

Western Wall

Western Wall

Next, the Temple Mount and Islam.

Up on the temple mount, there are quite a few items central to modern Islam.  First, what is said to be the most photographed icon of Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock.

Dome of the Rock

Dome of the Rock

Contained within this dome lies a section of ancient chiseled bedrock, commonly called the “Foundation Stone.”  This stone actually has significant traditional meaning to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  For Judaism, some believe this is the actual location of the Most Holy Place of the destroyed temple.  For Christianity, if this is the temple location, is bears significance because of the visits Jesus paid to the temple grounds.  For many in Islam, it is from this spot that Muhammad ascended into heaven.  The qualifiers of “some” and “many” are used here.  If you do any reading on these traditions, you will see that there is debate among members of all these religions as to exactly where and how all of these events transpired for their respective traditions.  Also, there are many (many) more traditions associated with these spots, these are just the most well known.

To refocus on Islam and the Temple Mount – today when you visit or read about the Temple Mount, it is usually the Islamic history and culture that is noticed and pondered.  The Temple Mount is actually under control of an Islamic Waqf (an Islamic Trust), while Israeli police provide security for the site.  Because of this, along with the presence, design, and artistry of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam comes to the forefront when visiting the Temple Mount.  The Al-Aqsa Mosque is located across from the Dome of the Rock.  It is one of the world’s oldest mosques and is considered the third holiest site of Islam.  It has a capacity for over 5,000 worshipers and has held its historical significance in Islam since the late 7th century A.D.

Al-Aqsa Mosque

Al-Aqsa Mosque

These icons are some of the foremost to the world’s major religions.  They provide an interesting backdrop to these cultures that can at times be so different, yet share the same icons, and find themselves at such a close proximity.

New adventures…

June 7, 2013

…coming soon.


Madrid’s Art Neighborhood: The Good, the Bad, and the Picasso, Part 2

October 2, 2012

We’re home safe and sound, but we’ll keep posting about our trip (we got behind–spotty Internet access can do that). Part deux of our tour of Madrid’s art museum neighborhood ends with us at the popular modern art museum, the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Reina Sofía Art Center).

Normally, we are not modern art fans. But that’s generally. There are pieces of modern art that are both iconic and extraordinarily moving. That is the art in which the creator is using the medium to express intense emotions, ideas and feelings that are too distorted, subtle, or fluid for a classic canvas. This is what brought us to the Reina Sofía, home of two famous Spanish Civil War-era artists: Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. The current curator of the museum has quite cleverly matched some of the masterpieces with films from the same eras, which provides a fascinating insight into the culture behind the art. Thus, with our trusty guidebook in hand, we immediately made a beeline for the museum’s pièce de résistance: Picasso’s Guernica.

Centro de Arte Center of Modern Art Reina Sofia

Reina Sofía Art Center

The Spanish Civil War began in 1936, with the Nationalista party and Franco’s coup d’état. Franco was a fascist, and had the backing of both Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. The painting takes us to April 26, 1937 on a bright market day in the Basque capital city of Guernica. The city was filled with farmers and shoppers from the countryside, as well as war refugees, swelling the normal population. Around 3:40 in the afternoon, a German warplane appeared over the horizon, but this was not alarming–until it began bombing the bridges and roads leading into the town. Then more warplanes appeared and the real bombing began. For 3 hours, the town was a roiling mass of panic, animals screaming in fear, people rushing to escape. But there was no escape. Those that survived the bombs long enough to make it to the streets and hills were met with machine gun strafing, like shooting rabbits fleeing a warren. By sunset, the once-proud town was leveled by Hitler’s first experiment in saturation bombing, by Franco’s leave. The time and place were strategic: Franco needed to make an example and the bustling, independently-minded town offered the most horrific opportunity for casualties.

Bombed Building Guernica

Remains of Bombed Guernica Buildings – Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H25224 / CC-BY-SA

Picasso, a Spaniard, was in Paris, France, brainstorming for a mural he was to paint for the World’s Fair when he received the news of the atrocity. All ideas were forgotten, and he began the work of his lifetime. In a matter of weeks, he presented the 286-square-foot mural to the world. The painting itself, a study in cubism, resembles broken shards jumbled and pieced together. Nothing is as it should be. Chaos reigns even in the very color and composition of the images. A bare bulb lights a nauseatingly monochromatic scene of unmitigated terror–a man trapped in a burning building screams as a woman runs, dragging her wounded leg behind her. A dying horse, pierced by a broken spear, has thrown its rider, his severed arm still clutching a sword. Someone looks out the window to see the turmoil below. A mother raises her face and her voice heavenward as she clutches her dead child in her arms, Picasso’s own pietá. Above it all, a fighting bull, the symbol of Spain’s courageous spirit, bellows in impotent fear and the dove of peace fades helplessly into the background.

Picasso Guernica

Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937. Oil on canvas. Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.

The world was shocked and horrified by the gritty imagery, having till then only seen the sanitized version of events that Franco permitted it to see. Suddenly, nations were aware of the losing battle being fought by the Republicanos and the chilling efficiency of the fascist war machine. Now they knew what this brutal trinity was capable of, but did they realize this was the prelude to the even more egregious genocides of World War II?

Today, the Reina Sofía houses this work of art in a room by itself, where you can stand and reflect on the heartbreaking events that lead to its creation and those that continue on today around the world. War is a truly terrible thing, but, sadly, as long as there is evil in the world willing to exploit the innocent, then we can only hope there is a greater good willing to rise up and protect those in need.

Madrid’s Art Neighborhood: The Good, the Bad, and the Picasso–Part, 1

September 30, 2012

When one thinks of great art in the world, your mind usually goes to the Old Masters of the Renaissance, and especially the Italians. But Spain had its share of Old Masters, too: El Greco, Goya, Diego Velázquez, and Murillo. However, when it comes to modern art, Spain wins the prize with heavy hitters like Picasso and Dalí. We were able to see a healthy sampling of them all in Madrid’s famous art museum neighborhood. Part 1 of our tour of art through the centuries will focus on the classical works at the Thyssen and Prado. In part 2, we’ll have a crash course Spanish Civil War-era modernism.

Our artistic warmup was the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum. The Thyssen collection was begun by Baron Thyssen and his wife and former Miss Spain, Baroness Carmen. After the baron’s death, she opened the gallery to the public and continues to add to the collection today. While you do have a couple of Titians and a Caravaggio, you will mostly only see the artistic B-list here. Now, that’s not a bad thing, as even bad classical art is still pretty good (unless it’s German, and bad German art is, well, bad). The Thyssen’s main strong point is its collection of Impressionist works. As the Renaissance drew to a close, Velázquez and Goya spearheaded a movement in which intricate details started being “faked” by broader brush strokes and “blotches” of color, giving you the “impression” of the picture–and from far away, they look very realistic. Just don’t get too close.

The next day, we visited the A-list, beginning with the world-famous Prado. We used our guidebook to take us straight to the big guys (it is a very good idea to always enter an art museum with some kind of plan, saving you literally hours of confused wandering). We began our artistic journey with the Renaissance fledglings, Fra Angelico and Bosch. Both were religious artists, but frontrunners of the movement. Bosch (1450-1516) also gives us the first peek at surrealism, especially with his Garden of Earthly Delights, a discomfiting three-panel depiction of what happens when God’s creation devotes his life to pleasure rather than spirituality. Short answer is eternal torment with a creepy self-portrait of Bosch staring at you reproachfully.

Fra Angelico Annunciation

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation

Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) was next on the list. His most well-known painting is Las Meninas, a lovely snapshot of the royal family. This is a beautiful 3-D painting, drawing you in as the action happens all around you. Mom and Dad are sitting somewhere behind you as Diego paints their portrait, but you can see their reflection in the mirror behind the artist. Their little princess watches them as her meninas, maids of honor, play with her. The court dwarf and the family dog seize the opportunity to relax.

Velazquez Las Meninas

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas

Next up was El Greco (The Greek, 1541-1614). The nickname is understandable, since his real name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos, and that would have been very difficult for the lisping Castillianos to say. El Greco specialized in religious art, but mixed a bit of impressionism with spirituality and a touch of mysticism. His saints are long and thin, guiding your eyes up their bodies and to heaven–which is usually where their large, expressive eyes are pointing, too. El Greco’s Christ bears His cross, blood running from His pierced head and down His neck; but His face is serene, looking towards His deliverance and the sinful world’s redemption.

Christ Carrying the Cross El Greco

El Greco, Christ Carrying the Cross

Rubens, a Flimmand, was next. And really, it’s safe to just go ahead and lump Rubens (1577-1640) and Titian (1490-1576) together, especially since they reside next door to each other at the museum. Both of their works center mainly on sensualism, with a focus on mythological themes. Titian’s big patron was Philip II, who was apparently not as rigid of a saint as he would have you believe. But when they were being serious, they both presented some beautifully executed portraits, making even the “let’s marry within the family” Habsburgs look almost normal.

Rubens Habsburg Portrait

Peter Paul Rubens, Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma

Our last stop at the Prado was Goya (1746-1828). And wasn’t he quite the character–he began as a court artist, albeit a facetious one. He painted his royals like they were, rather than flattering them. Now the world saw the arrogance, the stupidity of their nobles shining through. Habsburg underbites jut out viciously and eyes stare blankly and dumbly ahead. He ended his royal portrait career when Napoleon put his brother on the Spanish throne, spurring a mob to gather in Madrid in protest on May 2, 1808. Napoleon’s brother was brutal, and rather than end the protest peacefully, he sent his Eqyptian mercenaries into the plaza to make an example of the rebels. The mob was too big, and no one could escape the massacre. On May 3, the ringleaders were rounded up and executed before a firing squad. Goya watched it all, and produced his quintessential works Second of May, 1808  and Third of May, 1808. Some legends say the screaming young man in white in Third of May was a friend of Goya’s that he watched die. He retired from the public eye when he became too deaf and riddled with disease to continue. This began his Black Period, where he smeared the walls of his house with nightmarish visions of flying demons, witches, and satanic rituals.

Francisco de Goya Segundo de Mayo 1808 Second of May

Francisco de Goya, Segundo de Mayo, 1808

Francisco de Goya Tres de Mayo 1808 Third of May
Francisco de Goya, Tres de Mayo, 1808

All photos courtesy of Wikipedia Commons and are public domain images.

El Escorial and Valle de Los Caidos

September 27, 2012

We were in Madrid a couple of days ago, and decided to take a daytrip out to the town of El Escorial. There were two main sites here we wanted to visit, the palace of San Lorenzo del Escorial and Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen).

King Charles V, Isabel and Ferdinand’s son, built a palace next to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, but when his son Philip II took the crown, he began the 40-year construction of El Escorial. The complex served many purposes: a royal retreat, a basilica and mausoleum for the royal family, a place to “safely” learn humanist ideas, and a slap in the face to the rising Reformation movement headed by Martin Luther. The stoic, foreboding palace also became Philip’s headquarters for conducting the bitter Inquisition, in which suspected heretics were tortured and publicly executed.

San Lorenzo del Escorial Philip II Inquisition

San Lorenzo del Escorial

The palace itself has several interesting features. We toured the Royal Living Quarters, centered around the basilica’s high altar (the focal point of a cathedral). Originally, both Philip and his queen Elizabeth’s beds (on opposite sides of the basilica) faced the altar through open windows. But Elizabeth died before construction was done and their daughter took her room. The Royal Pantheon below houses primary, secondary, and a few tertiary royals, as well as infantes (royal children) who died before confirmation. A fascinating library houses 40,000 priceless books in many languages, including Arabic and Hebrew. A sign over the door promises excommunication to anyone who leaves without properly checking out their tome.

Our other stop was Valley of the Fallen, a Spanish Civil War memorial. The 33-month war claimed 500,000 victims split along ideologies rather than borders. Neither side was innocent, both committed unspeakable atrocities. In 1936, the military rebelled against the democratically elected liberal government. Two parties emerged: The Nacionalistas lead by Generalisimo Franco (ultra-conservatives and nobility) and the internationally-aided Republicano militia (liberals and socialists). The next three years resulted in a starved and broken nation–many older Spaniards are actually very small, their growth stunted due to these hungry years. Mussolini and Hitler both lent their aid to Franco. The last of the resistance fell in 1939 and Franco ruled with a religious iron fist for 37 years, allowing only “safe” ideas to cross his borders.

Valle de Caidos Valley of the Fallen Franco Spanish Civil War

Franco’s Valle de los Caidos

He almost immediately began construction of Valle de los Caidos, a basilica, mausoleum, and war memorial. There is a great deal of controversy over this site, which was built at least partially by POWs, either forced or voluntarily. Around 50,000 fighters of both sides rest here with Franco himself. The nave is 300 yards long, but only 262 of those are blessed by the Vatican, keeping it smaller than St. Peter’s.

Valle de Caidos Valley of the Fallen Nave

View Through the Gates and Down the Nave in the Valley of the Fallen Basilica

It’s hard to repress a thrill of horror as you pass beneath the giant Pieta, Mary cradling her dead Son, and walk down the chilling underground granite aisle to the high altar. You wonder how mothers and wives felt as they made the same passage on their pilgrimage to the urns of their sons, fathers, brothers, and husbands in two rooms marked “RIP 1936-1939, Died for God and Country.” Franco lies in the middle of it all in a flower-strewn grave at the altar. All the while, stern bronze angels in niches stare at you as you slip by.

Valle de Caidos Valley of the Fallen Angel

Armed Angel in the Valley of the Fallen Monument

It is an interesting irony that two brutal religious dictators are both buried in this town, separated by 300 hundred years. Does history repeat itself? Over and over.


September 24, 2012

Where can you scratch a baby camel under its chin (until it lays its head on the ground, because it likes it); see the Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans at the same time; enjoy a four, five, or maybe seven course meal for just a few euros (we lost count, as it just kept coming and coming); visit street markets with open air meat and fish; the same markets with fruit and vegetables from the Atlas mountains; see a few stars of David where you would not expect them; visit an archeological museum with local finds from the Greeks, Romans, and some more modern items; and do all of this in a day trip coming from another country? Welcome to Tangier, Morocco. From Tarifa, Spain, it’s only a 35-minute “fast ferry” ride across the straight of Gibraltar.

Berber Market

Berber Market, Tangier, Morocco.

Morocco–as with many places in Europe and the Near East which had contact with the Greeks and Romans in early times, and the Moors, Spanish, French, and English in later times–has had an interesting history of religion, change, and control.

There are Roman ruins at the city of Volubilis  (115 miles south of Tangier) which harken back to the time when Rome controlled all shores of the Mediterranean. Before that, just outside of the city of Tangier was a Phoenician colony at one of two potential sites for the ancient Pillars of Hercules. In more recent times (19th and 20th centuries), Morocco went through an interesting era as an “international city” where its ownership was shared between multiple countries and it was designated a tax-free zone. This, as you can imagine, attracted everyone from thrifty billionaires to con-men, and caused the Moroccan government to leave Tangier by the wayside. Times have now changed for the better, and in 1956, Tangier was returned to full Moroccan control. The Moroccan government is now investing in Tangier again, trying to bring back the “world-class” city status it once had (minus the con-men).

City of Tangier, Morocco.

City of Tangier, Morocco.

As mentioned, here you will find the strange mix of church, mosque, and synagogue that you might expect to find in Jerusalem. The mosque and church histories are not that hard to fit in, given the Moorish and European influence, but the synagogue is a tougher fit.  As is the case with many pockets of scattered Jewish populations, Morocco at times opened up to receive Jews. Some even came to the area in Rome times. These patterns solidified a Jewish presence here, which has declined in modern times. This helps explain the occasional Star of David you see in Tangier, as on stair rails from a popular Jewish hotel in the 50s near the port in Tangier.

Star of David Morocco Tangier Jew

Star of David on a Popular Tangier Hotel

Unfortunately, we cannot show pictures from the archeological museum, because, as with some museums, they do not allow photos. This is a pity for this museum in particular, since they do not sell books, nor do they have a website. Allowing responsible photography, as many museums have found, is a great way to promote themselves.

Last but most important, petting baby camels. They appear to have a sweet spot, just under the chin. Once you find it, you appear to have control of them. Who would have thought a camel could be so adorable?

Petting Baby Camel

The Sweet Spot on a Baby Camel Is Right under Her Chin