The Brooklyn Bridge & its Fellows

The Brooklyn Bridge & its Fellows

New York City is a land of bridges. According to the site, The Bridges of NYC, there are 2,027 bridges in the city—over five times as many as the bridges in Venice. Most of those bridges are small, ugly, and deservedly ignored. But several attract attention, and for good reason. The most famous bridge in the city is, of course, the Brooklyn Bridge. But before getting to that bridge, I will review some of the other 20 bridges that connect the island of Manhattan to Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, or New Jersey.

The largest bridge connected to the island of Manhattan is the George Washington Bridge. The bridge spans the Hudson, and connects New York to New Jersey. If not the biggest bridge in all of NYC, it is the busiest—carrying hundreds of thousands of commuters per day on its two levels. A suspension bridge opened in 1931, the George Washington is not especially beautiful; indeed, it is rather grey and devoid of character. But the bridge is open to pedestrian traffic, and so can provide an excellent view of the Hudson River (though this view is, admittedly, somewhat impeded by the anti-suicide net).

The George Washington Bridge

The majority of the bridges into Manhattan are located on the other side of the island, spanning the Harlem River between Manhattan and the Bronx. A traveler on the Hudson Line of the Metro North will pass by or under many of them, including the apparently unnamed railroad bridge that takes the train over the Harlem River, between the Third Avenue Bridge to the south and the Madison Avenue Bridge to the north. Both of these are swing bridges, a design that allows the steel structure to rotate to let boats pass by (though this is seldom nowadays).

The Macombs Dam Bridge. Photo by Amoldius; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

As the train goes north, it passes by the Macombs Dam Bridge, which appears to be just another swing bridge, but which is also the third-oldest bridge in the city, having been opened in 1895. Further north are two large bridges, the Alexander Hamilton and the Washington (not George Washington), which rest on enormous steel arches.

The Alexander Hamilton Bridge (and Washington Bridge beyond), as seen from the High Bridge
The Broadway Bridge. Photo by Beyond My Ken; licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

After that comes the Broadway Bridge, a somewhat odd-looking lift bridge, whose central span can be elevated to allow for passing boats. When I am waiting for the train at the nearby Metro North Station, I like to watch the Line 1 Subway pass over this bridge, creating an odd metallic echo and illuminating the bridge with blue sparks. And finally there is the Henry Hudson Bridge, another tall and not especially beautiful structure resting on a single steel arch. The infamous Robert Moses had to fight against the protests of the local residents to get the bridge constructed, as a part of his Henry Hudson Parkway plan. 

A plaque on the bridge.

The very oldest and one of the most beautiful bridges in the whole city is also found in this area: the High Bridge. Constructed in 1848, the High Bridge was originally built as a part of the Croton Aqueduct, ferrying water from upstate New York into the city in a long tunnel, carried across the Harlem River on a series of stone archways. The High Bridge’s design and function gave it the appearance of an ancient Roman aqueduct; but the stone columns impeded traffic on the Harlem River; so in 1928 the columns were replaced by a single steel arch, much like the nearby Alexander Hamilton or Washington Bridges. Nevertheless, the bridge—now for pedestrians only—is one of the loveliest in the city, ideal for a walk with a view. The old water tower, designed to pump the water from the Croton Aqueduct uptown, still presides over the Manhattan side of the bridge, looking like a turret from some forgotten castle. 

The bridge today, facing towards the Bronx.

The most impressive bridges in Manhattan are, however, concentrated downtown, connecting the borough with Brooklyn, across the East River: the Manhattan Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Of these, the last named was the first to be built and remains the crown jewel of NYC infrastructure, a monument of engineering and one of the most significant public works of the 19th century.

A chromolithograph from 1883, the year the bridge opened. (It used to be referred to as the East River Bridge.) Note the spire of Trinity in the distance.

When construction began on the Brooklyn Bridge, in 1870, Manhattan and Brooklyn were two different cities. Unification of the boroughs would not come until 1898. Thus, the politics behind the bridge were controversial and complicated, requiring the cooperation of two rather corrupt city governments (“Boss” Tweed, of Tammany Hall, was on the board for the Bridge). Before the bridge was built, the only access across the East River was provided by a handful of ferry companies. For decades commuters relied on these little boats to get to work, as Walt Whitman immortalized in his poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!

On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,

And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

John A. Roebling

The Bridge was designed by John Augustus Roebling, a man of enormous proportions. After studying philosophy with none other than Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in Germany, Roebling moved to the United States to pursue a Utopian vision of a collectivist, agricultural community in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania. When this did not pan out, Roebling turned his attention to engineering, creating daring and ingenious designs of suspension bridges and perfecting the steel cables necessary to build them. He was the natural choice to design and build the Brooklyn Bridge. But, when the bridge was still in the planning stage, Roebling injured his foot, developed tetanus, and died. (A believer in water therapy, he refused conventional treatment and insisted on soaking his injured foot and wrapping it in towels.) This left the project to his more-than-capable son, Washington Roebling.

Washington was already a Civil War hero and, thanks to his travels in Europe, an expert in caissons. A caisson is a sort of massive container, meant to be sunk to the bottom of the river. Water is then pumped out of the bottom chamber, and pressurized air is pumped in, allowing men to dig on the riverbed. They had to dig deep into the river until they hit the bedrock appropriate to carry the weight of the bridge. It was harrowing and dangerous work—deep underwater, under intense pressure, with water constantly seeping in. As the caisson sunk deeper and deeper, requiring higher pressure to keep the water out, the men began to develop the bends when they returned to the surface (or, as it was called then, “caisson sickness”). Since the condition was not understood at the time, the management had no idea how to prevent it. Workers would come up from the heavily pressurized air to sea level in only a few minutes, not nearly enough time for the body to adjust. This left many in agonizing pain, some permanently injured, and a few dead.

Washington Roebling himself was a victim of decompression sickness (though it may have been compounded by stress), leaving him so sickly and weak that he had to communicate all of his instructions by letter and observe the bridge by telescope. Even so, the caissons eventually reached the appropriate depth, were filled with concrete to serve as the foundations, and then construction of the stone towers began—easily the most massive buildings in the city at the time. Then, the wire cables had to be suspended. The board unwisely chose an unscrupulous wire manufacturer, who knowingly provided shoddy products in order to increase his profit. And though the bridge engineers caught on to this ruse, some of the defective wire is still built into the bridge (though not enough to make it unsafe, I am assured). In fact, John A. Roebling’s original design was meant to make the bridge at least six times as strong as necessary, making it possibly the most durable bridge in the city.

Finally, in 1883, the bridge was opened to massive acclaim. It was a technological marvel, a pivotal work of infrastructure, and a tourist attraction—as it remains. Originally the bridge had room for pedestrians, electric street-cars, and horse-drawn carriages, and also two cable-cars that ferried people back and forth. One of the earliest film recordings by Thomas Edison is a passenger’s view from the front of one of these cable cars, as crowds of men in top-hats walk by. (To learn more about the bridge, I recommend David McCullough’s excellent history, from which I am drawing my information.)

The bridge looks rather different now. For one, the cable cars have gone. And the street cars and horse-drawn carriages have been replaced by a sea of yellow taxis and multicolored automobiles. Pedestrian access is via a special walkway, elevated above the road level, going through the center of the bridge. The walkway nominally has both a walking lane and a bike lane, though so many tourists crowd the bridge on any given day that cyclists must fight their way through the crowd—shouting constantly. The view from the bridge has changed quite a bit, too. Far from being the largest structure in the city, the bridge’s towers now appear diminutive against the background of skyscrapers in Manhattan.

But the bridge is still a lovely sight. The gothic arches rise up and into the air, culminating in a solid block of stone that seems oddly ancient in the city of glass and metal. The surrounding steel cables create a pleasing geometric pattern, shifting slowly as one crosses the bridge. From the center of the walkway the cables form a kind of receding net, creating a grid that disappears into a vanishing point, much like a Renaissance painting. And the view of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the East River from the bridge is one of the best in the city. Considering that it is so iconic, so pleasant, and free, the Brooklyn Bridge is a necessary part of any visit to New York.

Yet the bridge’s neighbors also deserve mention. Slightly east of the Brooklyn Bridge is the Manhattan Bridge, an all-metal suspension bridge that used an innovative design which was to prove highly influential. Opened just 26 years after the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge nevertheless appears almost entirely modern and unremarkable—entirely functional, with no thought given to aesthetics. Unlike on the Brooklyn Bridge, this bridge’s pedestrian platform is separate, off to one side, and situated below the main span, which somewhat limits the view. I do, however, enjoy the experience of riding the subway (lines B, D, N, and Q) over the bridge—hearing the hard clack of the tracks and seeing the city through the triangular bars of the bridge.

The Manhattan Bridge, as seen from the Brooklyn Bridge

Further east and north is the Williamsburg Bridge. This bridge looks to the untrained eye rather similar to the Manhattan Bridge. Opened six years earlier, in 1903, it is also an all-metal suspension bridge, appearing nowadays to be functional and unremarkable. In my opinion, however, this bridge is one of the lesser-known treasures of NYC. Like the Brooklyn Bridge, it has a central walkway that gives a nice view of the city (though, admittedly, the view from this bridge is obscured by a thick metallic cage that encloses the walkway). If the bridge is less picturesque, it compensates by far less crowded than the Brooklyn Bridge. Both times I walked across, the span was nearly empty. The visitor can also observe the subway (lines J, M, and Z) passing underneath the platform, causing a pleasant ruckus and rumbling. I even observed some love-locks on the bridge.

The Williamsburg Bridge.
The view from the Williamsburg Bridge.

I will end this post by mentioning one bridge that I have personally never seen. The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge is the longest and largest bridge in NYC, and was also the longest in the world for nearly twenty years (1964 – 81). (The Williamsburg Bridge and the George Washington have both held that distinction as well.) The enormous bridge was built under the auspices of Robert Moses as a way of connecting Brooklyn with Staten Island, and named in honor of the first known European explorer to enter New York Harbor, Giovanni da Verrazzano. Strangely, however, Moses forgot to look up the spelling of that explorer’s name, officially naming the bridge called the “Verrazano-Narrows.” It was not until 2018, fifty-eight years after its opening, that the name was finally corrected. Now Giovanni can rest in peace.

The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, from Staten Island. In foreground is a 19th century fort, Battery Weed. Photo by AJ Idnam; licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

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Two NY Churches: St. Paul’s Chapel & Trinity Church

Two NY Churches: St. Paul’s Chapel & Trinity Church

To follow up my previous post about two notable uptown churches, here are two of the most famous and historic churches in downtown Manhattan.


Standing in the shadow of the One World Trade Center is one of the most historic and quiet buildings in the city: St. Paul’s Chapel.

Few buildings can so powerfully evoke the history of New York and of the United States as a whole. The chapel was completed in 1766, making it the oldest church in Manhattan and the only church on the island which dates from pre-Revolutionary times. Indeed, the church is so old that it dates from a time when New York was not the financial center it is today, but a provincial city in a relatively unimportant colony far away from the centers of power and commerce.

Unlike the city’s two cathedrals, therefore, St. Paul’s is a rather humble construction, dwarfed by the surroundings skyscrapers. From the outside, the church’s most striking features are its neoclassical portico and its large central bell-tower (when it was first built, St. Paul’s was the tallest building in New York—consider that). In design it is Georgian, modeled on the much larger St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in London. Unlike its pale English counterpart, however, St. Paul’s is grey and brown, since it was built using the local schist and brownstone.

The inside is, if anything, even less ostentatious than its exterior. If anything, the chapel’s whitewashed walls and spare decoration evoke a kind of ethereal purity, above all worldly riches. Only two works of art call our attention: an early painting of the Seal of New York and the Great Seal the American Seal (featuring a bird which looks far more like a turkey than an eagle, as Benjamin Franklin would have liked). Nearby a plaque is dedicated to the memory of George Washington, who would come here to pray in the early years of his presidency, when New York City was briefly the nation’s capital. Alexander Hamilton, some years before that, had drilled in the churchyard during the Revolutionary War.

A vest made from the patches of emergency workers

The church has played a role in far more recent American history, however. During the horrific attacks of 9/11, the church served as an impromptu shelter for emergency workers. Firefighters and police officers slept on the pews, while volunteers prepared meals by the hundreds. The church became known as “The Little Chapel that Stood” during the ordeal, since it suffered no serious damage during the attacks. A small chapel in the back of the church commemorates this dark time, preserving some of the mementos that citizens left on the fences of the church as a memorial.

Behind the church is a graveyard, among the oldest in Manhattan. Among others, here is buried Richard Montgomery, a general during the Revolutionary War who was killed during an unsuccessful attack on Quebec.

St. Paul’s chapel, as its name indicates, is not a stand-alone church. Rather, it is a “chapel of ease” for those who found going to the parish church too far from the port, and thus too inconvenient. This explanation is a bit difficult to swallow, however, considering that St. Paul’s is literally a five-minute walk from the parish church: Trinity.

Trinity Church is, unquestionably, the most important church in NYC history. It has been around from the beginning. It was first opened in the closing years of the 17th century, serving as the parish church of the Church of England in what was then a small, provincial city, only recently transferred from Dutch to English control. The first church building, which I suppose was likely an impressive structure, burned down in 1776 during the Revolutionary War, shortly before Manhattan was evacuated by Washington’s troops and ceded to the British. A second building was erected in its place, where (like St. Paul’s chapel) Washington and Hamilton came to pray during NYC’s brief stint as the nation’s capital. But severe weather fatally damaged that building, too.

The church that stands today is the third version, which was finished in 1846. For many years its spire was the tallest structure on Manhattan, indeed in the United States—something that is difficult to believe nowadays, as the church is crushed to insignificance among the giant skyscrapers of Wall Street. In style it is gothic revival, though its design is muted and humble as compared with, say, St. Patrick’s Cathedral further uptown. What it lacks in splendor it makes up in simple beauty, which is difficult to find in Manhattan. Yet it is ironic, of course, that what was once the greatest building in New York City is nowadays charming for its small size.

The interior of Trinity is even more understated than its exterior. The gothic vaulting and pointed arches do not give their usual impression of extreme verticality, and in fact the space is inviting and human-scaled.

Image by Daniel Schwen; licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

My most vivid memory of Trinity was when I was interviewing for my first job. The company was on Wall Street (though it was not in finance). I arrived quite early and wanted to kill some time before entering the building; and as it was raining, Trinity provided the perfect escape. I was desperate for a job and this was my first real interview, so you can imagine how nervous I was. I sat in one of the pews and read Ecclesiastes in one of the bibles, a chapter whose heroic fatalism helped to calm me. Meanwhile, a group of choral singers had set up near the altar and begun rehearsing, which allowed me to hear the church’s wonderful acoustics. It was a great way to calm down before the interview. I still did not get the job.

As with St. Paul’s Chapel, Trinity is surrounded by a graveyard, also one of the oldest in the city. By far the most famous burial is Alexander Hamilton (1755 – 1804), one of the most influential intellectuals and statesmen in the founding of the United States. His death was as dramatic and memorable as his life: shot down in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr, across the Hudson in New Jersey. His grave is fairly simple: a rectangular base topped with a pyramid, which duly lauds his memory. Next to Hamilton is buried his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, who survived her husband by fifty long years. Alexander’s son, Philip, who died in a duel two years before his father, is also buried here.

Much further uptown, at 155th street, is another churchyard managed by Trinity Church. It is on the former estate of John James Audubon, and includes many famous burials, including Audubon himself. I have not visited yet, but I plan to.

For anyone in the area of Battery Park or Wall Street, these two churches provide a much-needed relief from the rush of suits and ties, the inhumanly vast buildings, the often hostile weather, and the relentless city noise. What is more, they are vessels of New York City history, nearly as old as the city itself.

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Two NY Churches: Saint John the Divine and Riverside Church

Two NY Churches: Saint John the Divine and Riverside Church

New York provides an architectural feast, especially if you do not mind straining your neck. Not least among the city’s treasures are its many churches. I have already discussed Saint Patrick’s, the city’s Catholic cathedral, easily one of the grandest buildings in the city. But Saint Patrick’s is not the only cathedral in New York. 

Further uptown is a cathedral of even grander proportions: Saint John’s. This is a behemoth of a building, certainly the largest church building in New York City and arguably in the entire country. (The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington D.C., covers more area but contains far less volume.) And the building as it exists now falls far short of the original plan. Neither of the cathedral’s front towers has been completed, nor has the enormous tower that was to stand over the midpoint of the building. Indeed, after a fire destroyed the north transept in 2001, the cathedral has even lacked a crucifix floorplan. This has led it to be informally dubbed St. John the Unfinished.

Even with all of these parts missing, however, it is a giant church. Not to be outdone by the Catholics, the Epicopalians conceived the project as a way to rival or even surpass St. Patrick’s. This cathedral, too, is built in an elaborate neo-gothic style that mimics the great cathedrals of France and Spain. Its hulking façade, with its three enormous doors sitting underneath pointed arches, beckons the visitor from the streets of modern Manhattan to a seemingly medieval world. All of the decorations carefully maintain this illusion, from the frilly spires, to the ornamental carvings, to the friezes of Biblical scenes above the doors. Even the monumental brass doors are covered in art, showing scenes from the life of Christ and representations of the four evangelists. Aside from the cathedral’s manifestly incomplete state, the only thing that breaks the illusion is the appearance of grey discoloration from car exhaust.

Note the person at bottom right, for scale.

The inside is fully in keeping with this aesthetic. Enormous pillars hold up a vaulted ceiling, while stained glass windows allow colored light to drift inside. The visitor is greeted by a beautifully carved wooden choirstall, holding an image of Christ against a golden background. (This is a real 15th century German work, on loan from the Metropolitan.) The cathedral even has a sort of poor man’s version of the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. As far as I know, there are no actual poets buried in this section of the church; instead, small tablets bearing the names and brief quotes of famous American authors cover the floor. According to the plaque, the idea was inspired by a rector in the church of Washington Irving in my hometown, Tarrytown.

All this is true to the style of highfalutin European cathedrals. Closer inspection, however, reveals a church very unlike those it imitates, even St. Patrick’s downtown. Saint John the Divine was conceived as a different sort of institution, a “Democratic Church,” as it dubs itself, open to any and all who would like to come. True to form, the rainbow colors of LGBT pride were displayed prominently near one altar. And this is not a pose. To pick just two examples of the church’s progressive tendency, the cathedral hosted a performance by Diamanda Galás meant to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic, and displayed Edwina Sandys’ statue, Christa, a portrayal of Christ as a woman (unsurprisingly, a very controversial work).

All of this is world’s apart from the staid, traditional activity of St. Patrick’s. On the other hand, it is free to walk into the Catholic cathedral, while visitors of Saint John’s have to pay.

Adjacent to the building is an attractive little green space, known as the West 111th Street People’s Garden. Here is located the building of the Cathedral School, a K–8 school for children of any faith; and during the summer it is common to see flocks of children in summer camp parading by. Nearby is the Peace Fountain, a sculpture by Greg Wyatt supposedly portraying the battle between the Archangel Michael and Satan, and the triumph of good over evil. Yet to me the statue looks like an angel strangling a curious giraffe. In any case, the odd sculpture provides a nice illustration of the cathedral’s less orthodox attitude towards traditional themes.

To get to our next church, we must walk a good twenty minutes or so. The pleasantest route takes us directly through the main campus of Columbia University. Founded in 1754 as King’s College, Columbia is the oldest university in New York, and one of the best in the world. Suffice to say that everyone from Alexander Hamilton to Barack Obama have studied there. The campus leaves no doubt as to the honor, splendor, and pretensions of the institution. The grandiose Butler Library, for example, is adorned with the names of great thinkers and writers: Herodotus, Plato, Shakespeare, Tacitus, Voltaire… Directly opposite is the Low Memorial Library, another stately neoclassical edifice; and on the steps leading up to its entrance is the statue of Alma Mater, a symbol of the university, made by the same sculpture who designed the Lincoln Memorial, Daniel Chester French.

The thirsty or hungry traveler may also take a small detour to stop at Tom’s Restaurant, a diner used in the exterior shots of Seinfeld. (Though the outside looks exactly like it does in the show, the inside looks nothing like the fictional Monk’s Cafe.) It is a nice place to have a coffee.

The walk further uptown takes us alongside Riverside Park, and through some quite swanky neighborhoods, with upscale apartments attended by liveried doormen. It is an appropriate setting for a church intimately connected with wealth: Riverside Church.

Riverside Church was the idea of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Curiously, this was not the first Rockefeller church that I visited. Much closer to my home, Rockefeller helped to establish the Union Church in Pocantico Hills, a lovely stone building with beautiful stained-glass windows by Marc Chagal and Henri Mattise. Riverside Church is much grander in scale, with an enormous bell tower that rises high up above the rest of the building, and which makes Riverside the tallest church building in the United States.

So big is the tower, in fact, that the actual church seems insignificant by comparison, though it is by no means small. The interior consists of a single nave, again neo-gothic in design, filled with pointed arches and stained glass. Architecturally, it is more perfectly composed, more pure of form than Saint John’s, which lends it a rare tranquility and grace. It is simple and beautiful. John D. Rockefeller was motivated to found the church partly out of a dissatisfaction with the Baptism of his youth. He wanted a more modern church, which is why Riverside is nondenominational, and also why great figures of science are carved into the decorations, including Galileo, Newton, and even Darwin.

Riverside Church is like Saint John’s in its history of progressive activism. Indeed, the church arguably has an even stronger connection to social reform. Most famously, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a major speech against the Vietnam War here, in 1967; and there are still photographs of him on the bulletin board. A far more humble mark of the church’s ethos is the bathroom sign, which declares “Anyone can use this restroom regardless of gender identity or expression.” The church is still an epicenter for advocacy on many fronts, from anti-torture, to immigrants’ rights, to support for the HIV-positive. It is a model for a humanitarian church.

It is hardly sensible to visit Riverside Church without visiting the monument next door. Within a few hundred feet of the church doors is the tomb of Ulysses S. Grant, hero of the Civil War and 18th President of the United States. It is the largest and grandest tomb of an American President, an enormous neoclassical structure complete with Greek columns and domed ceiling. Even though his presidency has been widely regarded as a failure, he was an immensely popular figure at the time of his death; his funeral drew one and a half million spectators. This explains the grandiose design of his final resting place, which is highly reminiscent of Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides.

Nowadays, the tomb is a quiet and largely ignored corner of New York, with a handful of tourists respectfully poking about at any one time. Yet it is well worth a visit. Grant is interred in a massive granite coffin, alongside his wife in an identical sarcophagus. The coffins are below the floor level, visible through a hole in the floor, where they rise up from the lower level on a platform—again, much like Napoleon’s tomb. The visitor can descend and walk around the coffins, pausing to admire the busts of other Civil War generals, such as William Tecumseh Sherman. On the upper level, flanking the staircase, are two side chapels with historical flags from the war. And up above a mosaic depicts the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Grant. One could be forgiven for thinking that Grant was a general alone, and not a president, from the evidence of his tomb.

Here is where I will end my little tour, which can take as little as a couple hours. Separated by only a few blocks are the largest and the tallest churches in the United States—not to mention a historic university and an enormous tomb. But Saint John the Divine and Riverside Church are, for me, far more than architectural delights. They are living institutions, still engaged in the proper work of religion: to improve the lives of their congregations.

Two NY Cemeteries: Green-Wood and Woodlawn

Two NY Cemeteries: Green-Wood and Woodlawn

More people are alive now than ever before, and yet the dead still outnumber the living. Many, perhaps most, of those dead are buried beneath our feet. It is unclear whether there are more interments than inhabitants in all of New York City, but it seems at least possible, considering that over five million people are buried in Queens—over twice that borough’s population. Calvary Cemetery alone holds three million bodies, making it the largest cemetery in the country.

Queens became an epicenter for burials in the 19th century, when land scarcity in Manhattan led citizens to look further afield. The state government took a cue from Pere Lachaise, the magnificent Parisian cemetery located far outside the city center. They eventually decided to convert barren and useland land near the Queens-Brooklyn border into an array of cemeteries. According to Keith Williams, bodies in Manhattan were disentered in the dead of night, to be ferried over to their new home across the river; and many were doubtless destroyed in the process.

The city was badly in need of a park around this time. Neither Central Park nor Prospect Park would be open until the 1870s. It was partly for this reason that the beautiful Green-Wood cemetery, which opened in 1838, became so popular. Indeed, the cemetery was such an attractive place to stroll about that, by the 1860s, it had scarcely fewer visitors than Niagara Falls. Though mostly neglected by tourists nowadays, it is still a lovely respite from the noise of city life, not to mention a repository of the city’s history.

I visited the cemetery on a scorching day in August. The air was humid and heavy. My clothes were soaked through with sweat, and the sun beat down harshly in the open space of the cemetery. Autumn or spring is preferable. I entered through the monumental neo-gothic gate at 25th street—a delightful work of architectural exuberance by Richard Upjohn, one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects.

Once inside, the cemetery is as rustic and attractive as a park, with roads winding through grass lawns and scattered trees. The tombstones are distributed somewhat sparsely and unevenly in this immense green space. The majority are simple graves, no more than a foot or two tall, with some more imposing obelisks thrown in. Here and there one finds a statue, in bronze or stone, and some of the wealthier families have their mausoleums built into hillsides. Near the entrance at 25th street is one of the original ponds; and nearby is the cemetery chapel, a noble structure modeled after the work of Christopher Wren. Even more beautiful, perhaps, than the cemetery itself is the view that it provides, with several vantage points offering an excellent look at the Manhattan skyline beyond the river. 

Green-Wood Cemetery holds over 560,000 “permanent residents” (as the website calls them) and a great many of them are famous. Indeed, a list of the prominent burials in the cemetery reads like a who’s who of notable 19th century New Yorkers. We have Henry Ward Beecher (1813 – 1887), a preacher who during his lifetime was among the most famous men in America. Brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Henry was himself an abolitionist and later on a champion of women’s suffrage. However, his immaculate image became somewhat tarnished during a highly publicized adultery trial.

Another dead titan from this age is William M. Tweed (1823 – 1878), known as “Boss” Tweed, the corrupt and powerful leader of Tammany Hall. After years of stealing millions of taxpayer money, he was exposed and thrown into prison. On the stand, with nothing to lose, his confessions shocked the nation. He hoped for an early release; but that was not to be. Tweed did manage to escape custody once, sneaking across the Atlantic aboard a Spanish vessel; but he was apprehended in Vigo, Spain, by the local police (who had nothing other than a rough sketch to go on). He eventually died in an American jail.

Green-Wood cemetery, though never affiliated with any religion, has prided itself through the years on its respectability, prohibiting all executed criminals, and all who died in jail, from burial within its esteemed grounds. But Tweed, never one to play by the rules, posthumously circumvented this rule and found himself underground for the long sleep.

To discuss all of the notable people sunken in the dirt would take me from now until my own funeral. But I might mention two great musical giants to be found there, Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990), most famous for West Side Story, and Elliot Carter (1908 – 2012), one of the pre-eminent American composers of the last century, who lived all of 103 years. Yet another of the cemetery’s residents may have had a greater influence on music than either of these composers: Henry Steinway (1817 – 1871), founder of Steinway & Sons. His son, William (1835 – 1896), is there too, who played an important role in the development of Queens. In fact, the 7 train stills runs under the East River in the so-called Steinway tunnel, which William commissioned for his own shipping and transportation.

We may also find some men of the Revolutionary era, such as William Livingston (1723 – 1790), a New Jersey governor who signed the Declaration of Independence, and DeWitt Clinton (1769 – 1828), New York governor who oversaw the building of the Erie Canal. Indeed, the cemetery itself has a deep connection to the Revolutionary War, since it occupied a sight of a major engagement in the Battle of Brooklyn during the opening stages of the war—when invading redcoats routed Washington’s ragtag army, in a colossal defeat for the rebels. 

But the cemetery is not just a collection of famous bodies. A more somber monument is that raised to the victims of the Brooklyn Theater Fire, a conflagration which killed nearly 300 people in 1876. Of the victims, some 100 whose bodies were scorched beyond identification were interred in a common grave here, marked by an obelisk. About twice as many people died in this disaster as in the more famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. It was the third-deadliest fire in American history.

Even if you have no interest in the dead, Green-Wood is worth visiting for its greenery. In fact, Green-Wood is a notable arboretum, and its map also has the location of some notable trees—such as American Chestnuts and large Camperdown Elms. Life prospers where death appears to reign.

On that note, let us leave the Green-Wood cemetery and travel back across the East River, to Manhattan, and then onwards north to the Bronx. Here we will find another enormous and noteworthy cemetery: Woodlawn.

Opened during the Civil War, in 1863, this cemetery received some of bodies removed from overcrowded Manhattan. It has since grown to vast proportions, and is now the resting place of over 300,000 people. While not as inviting and park-like as Green-Wood, and while not providing such an excellent view of Manhattan, the cemetery is quite attractive in its own right. What is more, Greenwood is the final resting place of some of the most iconic figures in American history.

I visited on a cold winter day, last January, with my father. My priority was to see the tomb of Herman Melville (1819 – 1891). It is a simple and indeed humble tombstone, with nothing but an empty scroll of paper as decoration. This was surprising to me. For my money, Moby Dick is the Great American Novel, and Melville our greatest novelist. Yet Melville himself died in relative obscurity. After early success writing potboiler seafaring novels, Melville’s reputation sank once he turned to more serious work; and starting with Moby Dick, he was a critical and financial failure. It was only some decades after his death that his star began to rise again. For any struggling writers (such as myself) his story provides a depressing truth, slightly tempered by the hope that posterity can be kinder than contemporaries.

Melville and Me

My father’s hero is also in this same cemetery: Miles Davis (1926 – 1991). A bass player and jazz lover, my dad has been talking to me about Miles Davis all my life, especially Davis’s landmark album, Kind of Blue; so it was gratifying for us both to finally visit him. Davis’s grave is a large tombstone, so highly polished as to be almost mirror-like. The first two measures of one of Davis’s compositions, “Solar,” are inscribed on the tombstone. Curiously, Davis is referred to as “Sir,” which as I learned was because he was inducted into the Order of Malta (in a ceremony in the Alhambra in Granada).

Note our reflections
Miles and My Dad.

It would be hard to name a musician so influential in the history of jazz. Yet there is one buried right next to Davis: the Edward Kennedy Ellington, better known as “Duke” (1899 – 1974). Ellington has a claim to being the supreme composer of jazz tunes—many of which have become standards in the repertoire—and, indeed, I think he can be justly considered one of the master composers in any genre of the last century, for his music went far beyond the conventional boundaries. His grave is a small plaque in the ground, set before a large tree and flanked by two stone crosses. 

Nearby, up the hill, is the conspicuous grave of Illinois Jacquet (1922 – 2004), an important saxophonist; and not too far off lies Coleman Hawkins (1904 – 1969), another great saxophone player, and further on Max Roach (1924 – 2007), the great bebop drummer. Woodlawn does not, however, cater solely to jazz musicians. Also interred is Irving Berlin (1888 – 1989), the Russian-born Jewish composer who helped to define American music, all while being unable to read music and only being able to play in the key of F sharp. Even if you know nothing of Berlin, chances are you can sing at least one of his songs.

Two major figures from the history of New York City are also here in Woodlawn. Fiorello La Guardia (1882 – 1947), the short Italian sometimes called the “Little Flower” who was arguably the city’s most influential mayor. He sits under an elegant tombstone, which states simply: “Statesman, Humanitarian.” Buried within the community mausoleum is someone perhaps even more influential in the city’s history, Robert Moses (1888 – 1981), the subject of the landmark biography The Power Broker. Moses was a power broker indeed, responsible for the building of parks, roads, public housing projects, and bridges. In the process, Moses displaced hundreds of thousands of the poor and destroyed whole communities. He died with his reputation in tatters, yet having fundamentally shaped New York in the twentieth century.

Woodlawn, too, is an arboretum, with some beautiful trees on its grounds. Unfortunately for me, January was not the best time to appreciate this. Nor was the bracing breeze of that January day any more pleasant than the oppressing heat and humidity of the day in August when I visited Green-Wood.

In spite of this, I greatly loved my visits to these two resting grounds. Indeed, cemeteries are some of my favorite places. They are storehouses of history, and sites of homage to those who have shaped our world. They are also places of peace, an escape from the bustle of the surrounding city, providing us a space to contemplate how our own lives might be remembered. I recommend a visit.

Woodstock: 50 Years Later

Woodstock: 50 Years Later

This past Friday I went to Bethel Woods for the fiftieth anniversary of the Woodstock Music Festival. Ringo Starr and his All Starr band was headlining. Each of us had a special connection to the event. My mother grew up nearby, and was able to attend one day of the original concert, seeing Joe Cocker perform “With a Little Help from My Friends.” My brother and I, meanwhile, had gotten into the music from the sixties in high school, and had watched the Woodstock film many times. We had even seen Richie Havens, who opened the original festival, twice—once here in Bethel Woods. Besides that, all of us are devoted Beatles fans.

My mother stressed for months preceding the event. There were so many instructions—parking passes, when to arrive, what you can take in, and so on. She had called the organizers several times in order to make sure that we were properly prepared. Even so, when we arrived (after taking the same back roads my mother had taken, fifty years ago) we were promptly informed by a state trooper that we needed an additional parking pass, the “green one,” even though we already had one they had mailed to us. To get it, we had to drive over a mile to the information tent, asking for directions several times along the way (the original trooper forgot the name of the road, which was Huckle Puddy).

This done, we circled back and were finally allowed into the parking lot, being waved on by dozens of attendants. The walk to the venue took us past a great many signs, each one adding to the ever-increasing list of prohibited items and activities. No weapons, of course, or “any object that may be used as a projectile” (quite a broad category), nor professional cameras, posters, banners, selfie sticks, iPads, or lawn chairs. If you wanted to bring a camera, it could not have an interchangeable lens. If you wanted to bring a bag, it had to be plastic and transparent, allowing the staff to easily see what was inside. Among the list of permitted items were umbrellas, strollers, and “two 20oz. factory sealed bottles of water per person.” On the list of prohibited items were musical instruments.

Before going inside, we had to pass through metal detectors (no precaution can be omitted in the age of mass shootings), and then have our tickets scanned. After a slight wait, we were allowed inside. 

The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts is a cultural complex located on the original grounds of the 1969 Woodstock Festival. The site was opened partially to combat the economic downturn of the region. Years ago, the Catskill Mountains were a popular vacation spot for those living in New York City, especially in the summer when the city became unbearably hot. But events conspired to make this option ever less popular. The widespread use of air conditioning made it unnecessary to escape to the mountains, and the rise in cheaper air travel made destinations further afield more popular. Resorts and hotels closed down, leaving the region devoid of an economic heart.

Bethel Woods has several venues, including a small indoor one (where I saw Richie Havens) and the outdoor pavilion, big enough (with lawn space) for around 10,000 people. (Since you cannot bring in your own lawn chair, you must rent one from Bethel Woods if you sit on the lawn.) This is where Ringo was to perform. The complex also has a museum dedicated to the sixties: counterculture, Vietnam War protests, the Civil Rights Movements, and so on. I visited this museum back when I was in high school, and I remember an old Volkswagen Bus on display, as if it were an antique horse-drawn carriage or a space shuttle.

Riche Havens at the original concert.

On this day there were tents set up all around the space, selling knick knacks, Woodstock paraphernalia, and overpriced food and drinks. A single can of beer cost $14. There were a couple cordoned-off bar areas that only catered to visitors with special tickets, who sat behind the barrier on plush chairs drinking overpriced drinks. People wearing tie-dye shirts and bell bottom jeans, with flowers sticking out of colorful bandannas, strolled around sporting bags and other merch that featured the iconic Woodstock symbol, a guitar with a dove perched on it. The average age has increased quite a bit since the first festival, though not quite by fifty years. In general the crowd was overwhelmingly white—more so, I suspect, than the original crowd, if I can judge from photos and videos. Despite threatening rain, it was a fine, sunny day.

When the original Woodstock Festival was held, this land was a dairy farm, owned by Max Yasgur. Like the anniversary concert, the original one was planned to make money. In today’s dollars, tickets for all three days cost well over $100. About 200,000 attendees were expected. But the organizers had difficulty finding a venue. The town was opposed to the concert, even though the organizers lied and said that only 50,000 would come. By the time they secured Max Yasgur’s farm, three days before the concert, they did not have enough time to build the fences. The event became, de facto, free; and more than 400,000 people came. Logistically it was a nightmare, with massive traffic jams, insufficient food, water, and toilets, and muddy fields caused by the rain. What prevented the event from becoming a calamity was a spirit of cooperation and camaraderie that prevailed among the concert-goers.

In short, the event became an iconic moment in the counterculture movement of the sixties. And though it was, financially, a disaster for the organizers, the 1970 documentary of the festival more than recouped the expenses.

Nothing I could write would capture the amazing energy of the original festival better than the documentary. While the youth were boiling over with indignation at the horrors of racism and the Vietnam War, they were simultaneously filled with an extraordinary hopefulness, actuated by the belief that music and love could herald in a better world.

No event, then, could be further in spirit from the original festival than the anniversary concert. Hippiedom has passed from counterculture to kitsch. If the original event was a logistical disaster, this one was impeccably planned. If the original event did not turn a profit, this one certainly did. The hippies were filled with a do-it-yourself ethos; they thought that they could escape the perils of commercial culture by creating things by hand, by getting back in touch with nature, by cooperating rather than competing with each other. Now, hippie garb can be bought at the gift shop, for inflated prices; and Bethel Woods transparently squeezes its visitors, by prohibiting them from bringing anything from home into the event.

The original attendees slid around on the mud and bathed in the river; they entertained themselves with drum circles. You cannot bring a guitar or a drum into Bethel Woods, and to see the music you sit on either a rented lawn chair or within the concrete pavilion. The hippies tried to reject capitalism. Now, two jumbo-trons beside the stage play commercials and display ads before, between, and after the show. And the contrasts did not stop there.

The first band to play was Blood, Sweat, and Tears, who in another iteration had played at the original festival. The band’s line-up has changed quite a bit over the years; and nobody currently in the group was present at Woodstock. In fact, the current vocalist, Keith Paluso, was years away from being born in 1969. The 30-year-old singer rose to fame as a contestant on the NBC show, The Voice; before that, he informed us, he had been a park ranger in Tennessee. “So don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t be anything you want,” he said to a cheering crowd. But I wonder if the hippies of 1969 would have thought that being chosen on a corporate TV show by a cast of super-rich celebrity judges was a really inspiring origin-story.

The band played well, sticking to its signature style of jazz-rock—a fusion of exotic harmonies, elaborate solos, and a steady backbeat. Paluso said that they played nearly the same set as the band did fifty years ago (though their set wasn’t captured on the documentary).

The next to perform was Edgar Winter, brother of the famous guitarist Johnny Winter, and famous in his own right for the hit song “Frankenstein” in the seventies. The aging rocker played with a power trio, guitar, bass, and drums, while he switched between synthesizer, saxophone, and timbales, all the while singing in his surprisingly powerful falsetto (he’s 72 years old, after all). His act featured a lot of jamming, with Winter playing call-and-response with each of the instrumentalists in turn, scatting a lick and having the player repeat it. I thought it was a little much.

Finally Ringo came out, accompanied by his All Starr Band. The idea of this band is that Ringo gathers together former members of prominent rock groups, and each of them performs songs from the high points of their careers. It is like a retirement home for aging rockers. The current line-up features Colin Hay, of Men at Work; Hamish Stuart, of Average White Band; Steve Lukather, of Toto; and Gregg Rolie, who played with Santana at the original Woodstock. During their set, then, Colin Hay sang “Land Down Under,” Hamish Stuart sang “Pick up the Pieces,” Steve Lukather sang “Rosanna,” and Gregg Rolie sang “Evil Ways.” Ringo, for his part, sang several of his hits from the Beatles, including “Yellow Submarine” and “With a Little Help from My Friends,” as well as some hits from his solo career, like “Photograph.”

Ringo was charming as ever, effortlessly funny even if occasionally sounding out-of-tune, such as when he asked “Are there any young girls in the audience?” before singing “You’re Sixteen.” In the age of Jeffrey Epstein, this does not sound like an innocent question. The other members played and sang well, too, delivering a crowd-pleasing performance. I was happy to see Ringo, not only since I think he was one of the keys to the Beatles’ success (despite his reputation, his drumming was innovative and crucial to the band’s sound), but also because this meant that I had seen both living Beatles (having seen Paul McCartney in Yankee Stadium, years ago). For a man of 79, he looks and sounds great.

While I do not wish to disparage the music of the anniversary, I think it also illustrates a major shift since the days of Woodstock. Rock music used to be the affair of amateurs, who figured out how to play and sing by themselves. Nowadays, rock music has been professionalized. The musicians at this concert played with a technically immaculate polish that was very different from the original generation of musicians. As a contrast I might offer Richie Havens, a man with no musical education who created an entirely original way to play the guitar, tuning it to an open chord, barring it with his thumb, and strumming like a madman. Or I might mention Jimi Hendrix, whose self-taught style has remained basically inimitable. The guitarists who played at the anniversary, by contrast, were studied professionals, capable of playing flawless blues solos, jazz chords, or funk riffs. They could sound like anyone, in other words, except themselves.

So what are we to make of this immense contrast? In truth, it is not surprising that the youthful hippie culture puttered out. People get older, more successful, more integrated, and more conservative. Besides, such an outpouring of naïve hope was perhaps unsustainable. In any case, as a method of social change, the hippie way was rather self-indulgent and hedonistic, hoping that drugs and dancing was enough to change the world.

The change also illustrates the immense power of the culture to absorb a counter-culture, commercializing everything to the extent that it loses its teeth and even its identity. We actively buy into this commercialization. Money is basically irresistible.

Yet for all the naiveté, the fuzzy thinking, the hedonism, and the self-righteous nonsense of the hippie movement, it is difficult not to regret the disappearance of that immense, hopeful energy, that impossible dream of ushering in a new world. Now we have many of the same problems as the hippies had—foreign wars, racism, exploitative capitalism—but without the spirit of cooperation, inventiveness, and optimism that might allow us to push back. For Woodstock was not about the trappings of hippiedom, or even ultimately about the music. It was about a dream.

NY Museums: The American Museum of Natural History

NY Museums: The American Museum of Natural History

There is no place in New York City to which I have a more intimate connection than the American Museum of Natural History. I practically grew up inside its walls. For a nerdy boy on the Upper West Side, it was the perfect place for a weekend outing. My mom recalls taking me there and letting me run around in the big Hall of Ocean Life, while she enjoyed a beer at the refreshment stand. (They do not sell beer anymore.) My dad took me plenty of times, too, and then followed up the visit with a meatball subway sandwich.

Kids still love the museum. The natural world, after all, is far more accessible than the highfalutin world of art. A child who is still figuring out the basics of the world around her has no need of elaborate images to reconnect her to her senses. And it is fortunate for our society that the museum is so accessible to children. Judging from the case of Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, or Neil deGrasse Tyson (as well as myself) the fascination exerted on youthful visitors to the museum often matures into a fascination for the natural world and a respect for the power of human reason. And you do not need to be a child to feel this twin amazement at world without and the intelligence within. I feel it every time I visit.

You can enter the museum from several spots. The grandest is, without a doubt, through the Roosevelt Rotunda on Central Park West. When walking up the stairs, the visitor will notice the heroic equestrian statue of President Theodore Roosevelt. It is worth pausing to continue this statue, for it encapsulates much of the controversial history of the institution. The mustachioed man is flanked by a Native American and an African man, both on foot, and both looking rather dejected to my eyes. The racial message is clear: the white man sits atop the lesser races. To its credit, the AMNH is acknowledging this imagery with a special exhibit, “Addressing the Statue.” I think this strategy is far preferable to the idea of simply removing it, since now the statue provides an opportunity for learning.

Theodore Roosevelt holds a special place in the history of the museum. His father was one of the museum’s founders, when it was still housed in the Arsenal Building of Central Park. The younger Roosevelt was himself an ardent naturalist, and we have him to thank for many of our country’s most beautiful national parks. But being a nationalist in those days did not mean what it means today. Roosevelt did an awful lot of hunting on behalf of the museum, providing some of the exotic animals that were later stuffed and mounted in the amazing displays. Our views on hunting big game and on racial differences have both, fortunately, evolved since then.

To thank the President for his support, the museum is studded with acknowledgements. The most extravagant of these is the massive mural painted by William Andrew Mackay, covering three tall walls of the Roosevelt Rotunda, where the visitor enters. These depict the eventful life of the naturalist president, turning him into a kind of secular saint on the walls of the cavernous room. But of course most people’s attention is absorbed by what is happening in the middle: the dramatic encounter between a brontosaurus protecting its calf, and the hungry allosaurus prowling for prey. Both the baby and the predator are dwarfed by the gargantuan form of the brontosaurus, whose already significant height is bolstered by standing on its hind legs. Personally I doubt that such a massive animal could perform such a maneuver without breaking its legs. Indeed, replica fossils had to be used, since the real fossils (made of stone, after all) are too heavy to mount in such a way.

Much as I would like to move on to the museum’s exhibits, there is one more relic from the museum’s past that deserves comment. Downstairs from the glorious Roosevelt Rotunda is the Roosevelt Memorial Hall, which includes four small exhibitions about the varied activities of the president: his interest in nature; his love of exploration; his time as a statesman; and his life as a writer. What draws most attention, however, is a diorama showing a meeting between Peter Stuyvesant—the Dutch leader of what later became NYC—and the indigenous Lenape people. Made in 1939, this diorama contains several omissions and inaccuracies that work in the Europeans’ favor, such as showing the Lenape almost nude. Again, to its credit, the AMNH has included annotations on the glass, pointing out several of these problems; and their website includes lesson plans to help visiting teachers use the diorama.

I am dwelling on these examples of the museum’s less noble past, not to portray the institution in a negative light, but to show that the museum is working to improve itself without burying its past. It is a model to imitate. And the museum has a long history. This year, 2019, marks the 150th anniversary of the institution. This makes the AMNH one year older than the Metropolitan, which was founded in 1870.

Now it is finally time to enter the museum. Luckily, the entrance fee is still a suggested donation for all visitors, so you need not break the bank. What should we see first? There is a great deal to choose from. In fact, the AMNH is the largest natural history museum in the world, with millions upon millions of specimens of animals, fossils, minerals, artifacts… It would be virtually impossible to see the entire thing in one day. For my part, it has taken me dozens of visits to fully wrap my mind around the museum; and even a lifetime would not suffice to learn all it has to teach.

Let us go on straight ahead from the Roosevelt Rotunda into the Hall of African Mammals. Simply as a work of art, this is one of the high points of the museum. In the center a herd of eight African elephants—bulls, cows, and calves—huddle together. Arranged around this heard, in little niches in the walls, are other exotic animals: lions, zebras, giraffes. The visitor would be forgiven for thinking that all of these were merely plastic replicas; but they are real taxidermied specimens of animals (one of the elephants was shot by Theodore Roosevelt himself). This gives the dioramas a kind of macabre air, which is combined with melancholy when examining endangered species such as the rhinos and the gorillas. 

Yet art intervenes to uplift this collection of exotic bodies into a thrilling exhibit. Every diorama is masterfully done: the animals stand in dramatic, lifelike poses amid an environment so scrupulously recreated as to be totally convincing. Added to this are the paintings on the curved surfaces enclosing the dioramas. These hand-painted backgrounds are worthy works of art in their own right: adapting perspective to the wall’s curvature in order to create a nearly seamless continuation with the scene in the foreground. The result is a strange blend of natural beauty and human invention, which is at turns convincingly lifelike and technically astounding. As I walked along from diorama to diorama, I felt like pilgrim visiting a church, walking around from chapel to chapel.

The lion’s share of the credit for this work goes to Carl Akeley, who participated in both collecting and mounting these specimens. Though this business of big-game taxidermy can seem to us in the present day as grim and barbaric, I think that Akeley deserves to be viewed as an artist of high ability. Creating compelling nature dioramas is no easy matter. It requires a naturalist’s eye for fact and a sculpture’s eye for form. To construct a compelling design that is, at the same time, true to nature, requires a special knack. Akeley was a master of it.

A kind of sister to this gallery is the Hall of Asian Mammals, also accessible through the Roosevelt Rotunda. This is a decidedly smaller space; and as the plaque on the wall informs us, the animals here are owed to a “Mr. Ferney” and a “Colonel Faunthorpe,” who made six expeditions into Asia to hunt these animals. Two Asian Elephants stand in the center of this gallery, slightly smaller than their African counterparts. This gallery originally contained a specimen of a giant panda and a Siberian tiger, but the subsequent history of those species led the museum to place these in the Hall of Biodiversity as examples of endangered species (more later). On my latest trip, I learned that there is a type of Asian Lion with a rangy mane, which lives in a small sliver of India.

Now let us descend a flight of stairs once again to the Rockefeller Memorial Hall, on the ground floor. Here we can enter the space directly below the Hall of African Mammals: the Hall of North American Mammals. We find still more superb animal dioramas. The most famous of these is the Alaska Brown Bear. Two of these stand behind the glass. One is reared up on its hind legs, while the other prowls menacingly nearby. The height of the upright bear is startling. Standing before it, you feel how easily this creature could overpower you. Another superb display is of the moose, which features two bull moose jousting with their antlers. As a Canadian friend once told me, moose are the “king of the beasts.”

A quick trip through the Roosevelt Memorial Hall will lead us to one of the museum’s newer spaces: the Hall of Biodiversity. Opened in 1998, it did not exist when I was a young child. The room has a stunning design. Through the center is a swath of artificial rainforest, made to replicate one of earth’s most diverse environments. A legion of tentacled creatures hang from the ceiling, including a giant squid, an octopus, and a massive jellyfish. A glass case holds the giant panda and Siberian tiger, among others, as examples of endangered species; and the bones of the long-dead dodo can be found. Most of the action takes place on the far wall, which is illuminated from behind. Here is represented the entire panoply of life, from bacteria, to algae, to fungi, to plants, and finally to all the many variations of animals: worms, insects, crustaceans, mollusks, and vertebrates of every kind. (There is an online version that you can click through.)

The sheer abundance of models on display gives a visual illustration to the richness of life on this planet. This amazing variety, developed over 3 billion years of evolution, goes far beyond our humdrum ideas about plant and animal types. To give an example, once a teacher of mine asked everyone in class to make a guess at how many species of bee there are in the world. People’s guesses ranged between 12 and 300. The answer is 20,000. Unfortunately, this biodiversity is being dramatically curtailed through human action—which is why this gallery was made. 

This attractive space opens up to what has always been, for me, the most dramatic room in the museum: the Hall of Ocean Life. Here is where I would spend most of my time as a child. This hall is one of the biggest spaces in the museum. It is dominated by the life-sized model of a blue whale, the largest animal to ever exist on the planet, hanging from the ceiling. This lightweight model weighs no less than 21,000 pounds—so just imagine what the real animal must weigh. It is frankly stupefying that something so large can be alive. The entire herd of elephants from the Hall of African Mammals can huddle underneath its belly.

Dioramas line the walls of both floors of this hall. The best of these are on the bottom, where you can find a polar bear, a pod of walruses, and a huddle of sea lions. Here, as elsewhere, these displays are amazingly dramatic and lifelike. We can see the sharks in pursuit of the poor sea turtle, and the dolphins jumping out of the water to catch some flying fish. But the real masterpiece of this hall is the battle between the sperm whale and the giant squid. The sperm whale is the biggest toothed predator in the world, and its prey is likewise large. This big-headed mammal dives deep under the water—sometimes over a mile deep, going more than an hour without breathing—in order to prey on the invertebrate monsters that lurk below.

The most notable foe of this whale is the giant squid, itself one of the world’s largest animals, capable of growing to over 40 feet in length. When a whale finally catches on of these squids, it must be a serious fight, as the suction-cup scars found on the hide of sperm whales attest to. The diorama evokes all the drama of this encounter. We arrive once the fight has commenced: the whale has one of the squid’s tentacles in its jaws, and the squid is wrapped around the whale’s enormous head. The diorama is illuminated in a semi-darkness that recalls the inky blackness of the deep ocean

As a child, I found this scene both fascinating and terrifying, and became obsessed. I drew the battle over and over, doing my best to perfect the two different forms: the smooth blue whale and the sprawling red squid. Even now, this conflict between the big-brained sperm whale and the monstrous giant squid calls to mind a deep conflict within our own nature.

This description only touches upon the strange, otherworldly beauty on display in the Hall of Ocean Life—a beauty that captivated me as a child and which still moves me. The world below the seas is more fantastic and alien than anything dreamed up in science fiction. You can see this clearly in the three dioramas depicting life in the ancient oceans: creatures whose bodies form spirals, cones, wings, prowling about on an ocean floor populated with blooming anemones. The colorful, twisting, bulbous forms of the coral reef also evoke this strange allure. A part of me has always wished to be a marine biologist.

Now we will leave the Hall of Ocean Life to travel back through the Hall of Biodiversity, to enter a space which I have still not adequately explored. The first is the Hall of North American Forests. This space is dedicated to the sorts of environments present in the United States and Canada, from the deserts of Arizona to the cold forests of Ontario. The most impressive object on display is a cross section from a 1,400 year-old Sequoia. It is enormous: big enough to serve as a dance floor or even to serve as the foundation for a house. Notable historical events are marked on the tree rings, going from the invention of book printing in China (in 600), to the crowning of Charlemagne (in 800), to the death of Chaucer (in 1400), to the ascension of Napoleon (in 1804), to when the tree was finally cut down, in 1891.

This hall is also notable for a diorama depicting the little critters who live in the soil, responsible for breaking down organic matter and keeping the cycles of life in swing. The worm, centipede, and daddy-long-legs are blown up to 24 times their actual size, which is not a pleasant sight. The same can be said for the giant model of a malarial mosquito, which does not increase my affection for that species. Teddy Roosevelt played a part in educating the public about the role mosquitos play in spreading malaria, since he had to deal with the disease when overseeing the Panama Canal.

When we leave this hall, we enter yet another of the museum’s grand entrance spaces. This is named, appropriately enough, the Grand Gallery. It is most famous for the hanging Great Canoe, made by the peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Carved from a single tree, this enormous boat can hold a dozen people and is suitable for use in ocean waves. The front features an exquisite painting of a killer whale. When I was a boy, I normally entered the museum here. At the time the canoe was filled with the plastic figures of Native Americans; and I would look at these mannequins with a kind of uncomprehending terror, since I could not figure out what those men were doing. The museum has since refurbished the canoe and removed the figures, hanging it higher so as to make the decoration more visible. 

There are still other treasures to be found in this gallery. In one corner is a glass containing an ammonite fossil. This are extinct mollusks which looked like squids living in a spiral shell. This particular ammonite happened to fossilize under high pressure, which resulted in it being an iridescent rainbow. Nearby is a magnificent stibnite: a metallic crystal formed from antimony and sulfur. These crystals form themselves into a collection of jagged silver spikes all sprouting from a central core. A nearby child compared it to a porcupine.

The Grand Gallery normally leads to the Northwest Coast Hall; but it is currently closed for renovation. This hall is the oldest continued exhibit space in the museum, having been opened in 1900. The peoples of the Pacific Northwest are known throughout the world for the high quality of their visual art, including the iconic totem pole. This hall contained a great many of these poles, among other art, which made it one of the museum’s more beautiful spaces. Much of this was collected by the pioneering anthropologist, Franz Boas, during the famed Jesup North Pacific Expedition of 1897 – 1902. The current renovations are yet another example of the museum’s attempt to confront its past: updating the information to reflect how these cultures wish to be represented, rather than how anthropologists represented them 100 years ago.

The Grand Gallery also leads into the equally grand Hall of Human Origins. Opened in 1921, this hall was the first exhibit about the controversial topic of human evolution in the United States. The hall still performs this admirable task, teaching visitors about the evolutionary past of our own species. The visitor is first confronted with three skeletons, one of a modern human, one of a chimpanzee (our closest living relative), and one of a Neanderthal (our nearest extinct cousin). On the wall there are models of various primates, with their genetic similarity to humans shown underneath. Chimpanzees are nearly identical, with 99% similarity.

A major highlight are casts of famous human ancestor fossils, including Turkana Boy and Lucy. (I myself studied human evolution in the Turkana Basin, so it is always gratifying to see the plaque about the region.) There is also a reproduction of the Laetoli Footprints—imprints preserved in volcanic ash 3.5 million years ago, showing clear evidence of bipedalism—and a diorama of the what the two australopithecus may have looked like as they walked across the ashy plain (the male with his arm snuggly around his mate). There are also scenes representing the life of early humans, building shelters out of mammoth bones or being ambushed by giant hyenas. It was a tough life back in the paleolithic.

After moving through the Hall of Human Origins, you come to the Hall of Meteorites. This is most notable for containing a large chunk of the Cape York Meteorite. It is unknown when this iron meteorite struck the earth (near Cape York, in Greenland), though it was likely thousands if not millions of years ago. The original meteorite broke up into three large pieces, which were used by the Inuit living nearby to make iron tools. For decades Westerners searched for the mysterious source of iron (not easy to come by in the arctic), until Robert Peary, the explorer, finally found the meteorites and arranged for them to be transported and sold to the AMNH (likely without compensating the Inuit). The fragment displayed is so heavy that the foundations for the platform had to be built down to the bedrock below. It’s an awfully big rock. 

The Hall of Meteorites normally leads to the Hall of Gems and Minerals. However, this hall is closed for renovations at the moment, which does not surprise me, since every time I visited the hall struck me as looking decidedly retro. The angular, geometrical design of the room (which appropriately mirrors that of a crystal) was praised highly when it was opened in the 1970s; but nowadays it looks very similar to how Kubrick imagined the future would be, in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nevertheless, this is one of the most beautiful corners of the museum. The glass displays, arranged throughout the room, are filled with gleaming stones—gems which reflect and refract light in a thousand distinct ways. 

(Visit here to see photos of the original gallery and concept drawings for the new gallery.)

This hall has a colorful history. Whenever I visit, I think that the hall looks like the kind of place Lex Luther would rob in order to get some kryptonite. Other people have had similar thoughts, it seems. In 1964, Jack Roland Murphy (“Murph the Surf”), with two accomplices, snuck into the museum and stole some of its most famous pieces: the Eagle Diamond, the DeLong Star Ruby, and the Star of India sapphire (all donated to the museum by J.P. Morgan). The thieves were eventually caught, and the jewels found and returned to the museum—the Star of India was found in a bus station foot locker—with the notable exception of the Eagle Diamond, which was likely cut into smaller pieces and sold. (Murph the Surf was later convicted for murder; in prison he became a minister and was released early; he is currently the vice president of the International Network of Prison Ministries.) 

The heist even inspired a 1975 movie.

We have gone to the very end of the museum, but we have still left out one of the museum’s most notable wings: the Rose Center for Earth and Space. Opened in 2000 (so I did not see it as a child) this is the newest part of the museum, and it shows. The space-age design features a massive central sphere enclosed in a glass cube. The new Hayden planetarium is housed within this sphere, where visitors can see shows projected on the upper dome. Neil deGrasse Tyson is the first and, so far, the only director of the Rose Center; and he narrates many of the astronomical shows.

Below this “cosmic cathedral” (as the designer called it) is the Hall of the Universe. Here you can find information about stars, planets, galaxies, and the moon, all displayed on sleek metallic panels. There are scales that tell you what your weight would be on Mars and the Moon (in pounds, which requires a conversion for non-American visitors). In one clear glass case there is a self-contained ecosystem of algae and tiny shrimp—a microcosm that represents the macrocosm of earth. A curving walkway that leads away from the planetarium takes the visitor through the entire history of the universe, from the big bang to the present day. 

The star of the hall is the Willamette Meteorite. This is another iron meteorite, yet it looks strikingly different from the Cape York Meteorite. Its surface is pockmarked—I believe from centuries of weather erosion. The rock has been on earth a long time. Possibly the core of an early proto-planet, smashed to smithereens in a cosmic collision, this meteorite struck earth thousands of years ago (but we have yet to be able to find the impact sight). It was found in Oregon, but it was likely moved by expanding and receding glaciers. As with the Cape York Meteorite, the Willamette Meteorite was taken without the consent of the native peoples who had long known about it. This led to a lawsuit, in 1999, by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, demanding the return of the rock (which had been in the museum for nearly 100 years by then). Luckily, the AMNH reached a deal that allowed it to keep the meteorite.

Adjoining the Hall of the Universe is the Hall of Planet Earth, devoted to geology. This gallery has accomplished the difficult job of rendering geology visible, tactile, and immediate. The space is filled with models of geological formations, many of which can be touched. These slices of earth help to illustrate the normally invisible processes below the surface which have shaped our planet—the slow churning of the continental plates, the effects of receding glaciers and running water, the volcanic explosions which hurl up new land from the depths. The hall also has a section devoted to climate change, which features an ice core (a piece of ice formed over thousands of years) which the visitor can “read” by moving a monitor over different sections, thus revealing how the climate has changed. 

From what I observed, children love the Rose Center for Earth and Space. Everywhere I looked young kids were reading, looking, touching, laughing, and in general having a great time. To me this represents an accomplishment of a high order. Making whales and dinosaurs accessible to children is straightforward; but to make accessible the abstract theories of physics, the slow processes of geology, and the distant threat of global climate change—this calls for subtlety and skill, and the designers of this hall have accomplished their task with brilliance.

Now we must get to an elevator and ascend from the bottom to the top floor. We have dallied in the museum for a good, long time, and it will close soon, so we had better get to the spectacular fossil rooms on the fourth floor.

The proper place to begin is on the Orientation Hall. Here the visitor can see a video that explains some background of evolution and cladistics (making evolutionary trees). But the visitor will likely have difficulty focusing on this video, since in 2016 the museum added an enormous dinosaur to the room. This is the Titanosaur, a massive, long-necked sauropod whose form dominates the space. From tail to head, the animal stretches 119 feet (or 32 meters); and in life it likely weighed well over 60 tons (an adult elephant, by comparison, weighs about one-tenth as much). The size of these animals is simply staggering—especially considering that they began life in an egg scarcely bigger than that of an ostrich. How much vegetation did one of these have to eat in a day in order to survive? 

The fossil rooms make a closed circuit, so the visitor can go in any direction. The most logical direction to go in, however, is to begin with the Hall of Vertebrate Origins—since this way the galleries are chronological.

From the perspective of biology, the Hall of Vertebrate Origins is likely the most fascinating hall of fossils, even if it lacks any of the spectacular specimens of later eons. We can see examples of the first vertebrates, on sea, on land, and in the air. One of the more memorable fossils on display are the jaws of the extinct Megalodon, a shark that lived millions of years ago, and which grew several times larger than today’s great white shark. The tremendous and terrifying jaws, hanging from the ceiling, dwarf even the bite of a Tyrannosaur. Nearby hangs a model of the Dunkleosteus, an armored fish that lived many hundreds of millions of years before the Megalodon, and which likely was major predator of its day. Further on is a Pterosaur, a member of the first known vertebrates to have achieved flight. (Commonly called dinosaurs, the Pterosaurs were closely related but technically not dinosaurs. Also, the term “Pterodactyl” only refers to one subgroup of the Pterosaurs.)

These three examples only touch on the immense biological richness in this hall. For anyone hoping to better understand the history of life on our planet, their time will be well spent in close examinations of the specimens on display. The museum also offers computer booths that allow visitors to scroll through various evolutionary trees and learn more about different species.

We now come to one of the museum’s most spectacular spaces: the Hall of the Saurischian Dinosaurs. Now, Dinosaurs are typically split into two large evolutionary groups, the Ornithiscia and the Saurischia. The latter includes all carnivorous dinosaurs as well as sauropods (and birds, the only living dinosaur group). This means that this gallery includes the famous Tyrannosaur. Even when manifestly dead, the Tyrannosaur has a commanding presence. The mere thought of it being alive is enough to cause goose bumps. And this predator—one of the largest to have ever walked the earth—was likely even more terrifying than we normally think. According to the paleontologist Stephen Brusette, Tyrannosaurus was highly intelligent, had excellent vision, and likely lived and hunted in packs. One of them is frightening enough; imagine a gaggle of T. Rex. And to think that this fearsome creature began its life no bigger than a chicken. 

Across from the Tyrannosaur is another museum favorite, the Apatosaurus (sometimes called the Brontosaurus). This is a sauropod, somewhat smaller than the Titanosaur in the other room, but still large enough to make even the Tyrannosaur look petite by comparison. Another fearsome predator on display is the Allosaurus, a carnivore somewhat smaller than Tyrannosaurus that lived several million years earlier, which was an apex predator in its own epoch. This Allosaur is bending over to scrape some meat off of a fresh carcass. One less flashy specimen on display is the skull of a velociraptor (which, despite its portrayal in Jurassic Park, was about the size of a turkey).

Next we come to the Hall of the Ornithischian dinosaurs. This group does not contain quite as many star dinosaurs as the other hall, but it will not disappoint. Here can be found one of the museum’s most important specimens, a mummy of a duck-billed dinosaur. Unlike in the vast majority of dinosaur remains, here we do not only have the skeleton, but the skin of the ancient animal. This has allowed scientists to get a much better idea of what the scales of a dinosaur were like. Also on display is a Stegosaurus, famous for its small brain, spiked tail, and a back covered in vertical plates (whose purpose is still debated). My personal favorite, however, is the Triceratops, an herbivore that lived alongside T. rex and was one of its principal foes. Powerfully built, with a three-pronged horn and a protective ridge, hunting these beasts must have been no easy matter. 

I am always moved by the dinosaurs. They were magnificent animals, many of them so far beyond the range of size and power that we can find among today’s land mammals and reptiles. That such a diverse group of powerful beasts could go entirely extinct from a chance event—a meteoric bolt from the blue—cannot but remind us of our own precarious existence. Indeed, these chance catastrophes play a disturbingly crucial role in the history of life on our planet. Dinosaurs themselves would never have become so dominant if not for the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event (possibly caused by volcanic activity), which eliminated much of their competition. And the mammals would never have been able to emerge as the current dominant life form if not for the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, which eliminated every one of these creatures (except for birds), thus leaving the stage set for us. But how long will we last?

The next hall focuses on the early history of our own clan, the mammals. The further back one goes in evolution, the mudier become the distinctions between distinct lineages. Thus, some of the fossils on display in the Hall of Primitive Mammals do not strike us as mammals—and in fact are not, only early relatives. Into this class falls the Dimetrodon, a sail-backed cuadroped that looks far more reptilian to my eyes than anything resembling a house cat. But a close examination of its skull reveals the tell-tale opening behind its eye socket, leaving a bony arch which scientists have decided constitutes the defining mark of a new class of animal, the Synapsids, which includes mammals.

The Hall of Primitive Mammals is notable for the mammal island—a large array of fossil specimens that illustrate the range of mammalian diversity. By any measure, we mammals are an immensely diverse lot, having populated the land, sea, and air, occupying all sorts of niches, and ranging in size from a large insect (the smallest bat) to the biggest animal ever to exist (the blue whale). Amid this sea of variety we find the Glyptodont, an extinct relative of the armadillo, far larger and far more heavily armored. The face of this fossil preserves a sense of the patient drudgery which must have characterized this poor beast’s life, as it dragged its heavy shell through the landscape. The saber-toothed cat led a more exciting, if not more successful, life thousands of years ago, as did the lumbering cave bear. But the most terrifying skeleton of all may belong to the Lestodon, an enormous ground sloth whose gaping nose socket seems to look at you like a cyclops.

Finally we come to the Hall of Advanced Mammals, which features species more recently extinct (many of which died off during the great megafauna extinction 10,000 years ago). Here we can see a large array of specimens that illustrate the evolution of horses, growing up from dainty things the size of dogs up into the stallions of today (though, as often happens with evolution, this progress was not always linear). At the end of the hall we see extinct relatives of the elephant. One is the mastodon, which is about the size and build of a modern elephant, if slightly stockier. This nearly complete fossil skeleton was found in New York—amazing to consider.

Standing a head taller is the Mammoth, a much closer relative of the elephant that went extinct not too long ago, while the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations were well under way. It is massive, of nearly dinosaurian proportions, with tusks that curve so tightly inward that it seems they would have been useless for defense. (Scientists are now playing with the idea of using DNA from frozen mammoth remains to bring them back. I wish them luck.)

By now, you must be exhausted. Museum fatigue has set in, and you can no longer concentrate on or even enjoy what you are seeing. This is inevitable at the American Museum of Natural History. There is just way too much. I have already written far, far more than I planned to, and there is still so much of the museum left to explore. I have left out the Hall of Reptiles and Amphibians, the Hall of North American Birds, and the Hall of Primates. And that is not all. The museum has huge exhibits devoted to cultural anthropology. Aside from the aforementioned Northwest Coast Hall, there is the Hall of Asian Peoples, the Hall of African Peoples, the Hall of Mexico and Central America, and the Hall of South American Peoples.

And here I must add a note of criticism. It says a great deal that a museum of natural history would include exclusively non-Western cultures. Admittedly, this is largely a historical artifact of the time when the study of “primitive” living peoples was grouped with the study of human evolution and primate behavior in the discipline of “anthropology.” This grouping obviously reflected cultural and racial biases of the original founders of the field. But we have moved far beyond that, and now it seems discordant and strange to walk through, say, the Hall of Asian Peoples. How could a single hall, however well-made, encompass the enormous history and diversity of the Middle East, Central Asian, Southeastern Asia, and East Asia? Even encompassing the traditions of China alone would require a museum for itself. Not only that, but the cultural halls generally have a dark and dingy aspect, as if they have been left unchanged for decades.

So it is my hope that the museum soon refurbishes, not just the Northwest Coast Hall, but all of the cultural halls—taking into account not only advances in our understanding, but how the cultures themselves would like to be represented. Judging by the progress that the museum is already making in this respect, I think that the future looks bright.

What more can I say about the Museum of Natural History? I have already said more than I planned to, and yet it scarcely seems enough. My visits to the museum had a fundamental influence on me. My shifting interests throughout my childhood and adulthood—in marine biology, chemistry, physics, botany, human evolution, and human cultures—have virtually tracked the floor plan of the museum. From an early age, I have been possessed with a desire to collect, catalogue, and display—an urge which I am sure owes much to this place. Beyond its importance in my life, however, I see the Museum of Natural History as a model institution for the coming ages, as something much needed in our society, even as a kind of secular church for the new age: capable of appealing to the mind and to the emotions. I hope that every child may feel the wonder I felt, and still feel, at both the universe around us and the intelligence within, which has allowed us to know something of this universe.

Memories of Sintra

Memories of Sintra

There are many day trips that one can take from Lisbon, but one stands out both in popularity and importance: Sintra. This small city contains multitudes. Populated since prehistoric times, occupied by the Moors, used as a summer retreat by the royal family, and then beautified during the Romantic age of architecture—the city is bursting with monuments. And, most importantly, Sintra is easily accessible from Lisbon, merely a 45-minute ride on a cheap commuter train from Lisbon’s central Rossio station. 

A penalty of this accessibility and attractiveness is, of course, popularity. The city is crawling with tourists and all of the concomitant junk: overpriced restaurants, tacky gift shops, crowded streets, and so on. But, of course, if Sintra is popular, it is popular for a reason. This is apparent as soon as you step off the train. The surrounding countryside is picturesque in the extreme, with rolling green hills dotted with tile-roofed houses. The old center of the city is just as lovely, filled with imposing mansions (Sintra has long been the wealthiest spot in Portugal) ranged along medieval streets.

The whole place has the aura of a fairytale, so it is fitting that Hans Christian Anderson visited in 1866. A plaque marks the house where he stayed. Lord Byron was another famous visitor, relishing the dark forests and the craggy peaks that loom above the city. When he first visited the city, he wrote “Oh Christ! it is a goodly sight to see / What heaven hath done for this delicious land! / What fruits of fragrance blush on every tree! / What goodly prospects o’er the hills expand!” Years later, in a famous line from Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimmage, Byron dubbed the place a “glorious Eden”—words that the Sintra tourist office are grateful for, I’m sure.

The most notable landmark within the old center is the Sintra National Palace. Compared with many other European palaces, this one has a rather modest aspect, striking the visitor as a large manor house rather than an imposing royal residence. Its most notable aspect are the two white cylindrical smokestacks that rise up from one side, like the two ears of a rabbit (used for the kitchen). The interior decoration, too, is quaint rather than majestic. Wood-paneled ceilings are decorated with the images of swans, magpies, and sailboats. The only room that is unmistakably regal is the Sala dos Brasões, or the Blazons Hall, with features a Moorish-influenced wooden ceiling bearing over seventy coats of arms of noble families, with azulejos running across the lower half. One is also reminded of Portugal’s Age of Exploration, since a delicately-carved model of a Chinese temple is also on display. 

The Hall of Blazons, with some distortion from the panoramic

Most of Sintra’s notable monuments are, however, not to be found in the city center; rather, one must ascend the hill overlooking the old town. It is possible to walk up this hill, though it is not for the faint of heart. I think it would take at least an hour of trekking from the base to the top. Most people opt for the bus, specifically the 434 bus, which leaves from Sintra’s train station. Now, I have taken this bus up twice and it has been highly unpleasant both times. The road leading up is steep, winding, and narrow; it is easy to get stuck behind a slow driver. In any case, the bus is normally packed to bursting, so that one may have to stand up during the ride, gripping the railings for dear life as the bus chugs its way up.

The bus stops near two major monuments: the Castle of the Moors, and the National Palace of Pena. I opted for the former during my first visit, for the very silly and superficial reason that it was cheaper.

The Moors were no fools: when they built fortifications, they chose locations wisely. This is just such an example: the old castle sits atop a hill, providing great visibility of the surrounding area and making attack up the steep hill difficult. Nevertheless the castle fell, in the 12th century, to the invading Christians (though it was not taken by force). Henceforth it became a Christian castle, and was periodically rebuilt and reinforced down the years. The walls that stand today probably owe little to the Moors, the castle’s name notwithstanding.

It is an extremely romantic spot. Grey granite walls rise out of the trees, snaking around the hillside. The visitor can walk along these walls, enjoying the unsurpassable view of the surrounding countryside. Below one can see the town of Sintra itself, ensconced in the forest and centered around the palace, with the green countryside beyond speckled with habitations as the land spreads out until the blue sea in the far distance. Though the hill is not very high, standing atop the walls and looking down gives one an amazing sense of height. Aside from the view, the castle itself spurs the imagination. Its crumbling form, wrapping around little but empty forest, evokes a faraway time. Like all ruins, the fortification’s very incompleteness invites fantasy.

The Castle of the Moors, with the countryside beyond

Standing on the walls, back in 2016, I could see across to the colorful, even disneylandish form of the National Palace of Pena. I was both intrigued and repulsed by what I took to by a terrific display of gaudiness. Yet despite this garish impression, enough curiosity formed deep within my psyche to prompt me to revisit Sintra, two years later, with the purpose of seeing this memorable building up close.

Pena Palace, as seen from the Castle of the Moors

The Pena Palace was built in the 1800s, during the high point of architectural romanticism: and it remains a monument to this movement. Romanticism, as a movement, was characterized by a fascination for everything exotic and ancient. The Romantic imagination, no stickler for details, freely mixed elements of medieval France, Renaissance Europe, Golden-Age Portugal, and Moorish Spain, resulting in an eclectic jumble of styles held together by sheer exuberance. The castle today is dominated by its bright pallet of red, blue, and yellow—its flamboyant form visible for miles around.

A model of the Pena Palace

When I spied the castle from the Castle of the Moors, it did not look very big to me—even smaller than the Sintra Palace below. Yet when I finally approached the building, years later, I found it to be gigantic, dwarfing all of the visitors that climbed up to visit. The palace has a roughly tripartite structure, with a red right, a blue center, and a yellow left. The visitor first passes through an elaborate stone gate, reminiscent of the Torre Belém, in order to reach the front entrance. There another gate—the walls covered in blue tiles, with elaborate and gruesome decorative sculptures surrounding the windows—leads inside the palace. From here I entered a sort of cloister, with every surface covered in tiles of blue, orange, and green, rather like those in the Alhambra.

Many of the rooms we passed were similarly decorated. The roofs, however, swelled into elaborate, web-like vaulting: a parody of gothic cathedrals. From within the cloister we could look up to see the bright red tower, whose form is also reminiscent of the Torre Belém. As is typical of palaces, there were rooms full of ornate furniture and other expensive decoration. In one room a beautiful candelabra with glass blown to look like leafy vines hung from the ceiling; in another, the Noble Room, nearly life-sized statues of bearded men held up the candles. Royalty has its rewards. Yet one of the more memorable rooms was the kitchen, whose elegant simplicity contrasted sharply with the pageantry above.

This strange architectural conglomeration owes its form to many hands. The primary architect was the German Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege, who is also remembered for his geological research. The King and Queen themselves also lent a hand in the decoration. As it stands today, the palace is somewhat reminiscent of the modernist works of the Catalan architects Gaudí and Domènech i Montaner, though it lacks the controlling intelligence that vivifies the works of those two men. The final impression not one of beauty, but of a kind of whimsical playfulness, strangely contrasting with the normally austere ideal of monarchy.

Eschwege also lent a hand in planning the gardens surrounding the palace, and in this he was highly successful. Both times I visited this hill, I decided that I could not endure another bus ride, and elected to walk down the hill. Luckily, gravity aids greatly in this direction. I recommend this strategy, since the forest is lovely. Here you can see the other layers of walls that form the Castle of the Moors, which slither down the mountain like a ridgeback snake. While lost in this forest, it is easy to see why this spot attracted the attention of romantics: the decaying ruins amid the tangle of trees perfectly evokes that sense of distant grandeur that so beguiled the romantic imagination.

I reached the end of the hill, continued further down through the old streets, once again admiring the many small, nameless corners of beauty in the city. As I got on the train back to Lisbon, I thought complacently that, finally, I had seen what Sintra had to offer. But I was mistaken—which I would have known if, for once, I had done some research before visiting. In fact, I had not even come close to exhausting the treasures of Sintra, so it seems that I must still go back.

The most famous thing I missed is the Quinta da Regaleira. This is yet another monument of the eclectic imagination of the romantic mind. A “quinta” is a large manor house, typically owned by an aristocrat of some sort. This one was eventually purchased by António Cavalho Monteiro, an eccentric who was lucky enough to inherit a large fortune. He used this fortune to create a landscape of mysteries. The dominant architectural style of this property is neo-gothic, which can be seen in the palace and the chapel. The gardens, however, reveal the previous owner’s love of the enigmatic: they feature several tunnels and even two inverted towers that Cavalho Monteiro dubbed “initiation wells.” They were apparently used in rituals related to Tarot cards. Nowadays they are used in the modern ritual of Instagram.

Nearby is the Quinta do Relógio, a Neo-Mudéjar manor house that is currently on sale for over $7,000,000. Tempting, I know. Also close is the Seteais Palace, a large manor house originally constructed for the Dutch consul in the 18th century, and now run as a luxury hotel. Probably outside my budget. Somewhat further off is yet another palace: the Montserrate Palace, which used to serve as a summer getaway for the court. This somewhat strange-looking edifice is yet another example of the romantic style of Sintra’s architecture: colorful, exotic, miscellaneous. 

This short list only scratches the surface. Probably the best way to see everything is with a car and a few days to spare, not just a day-trip from Lisbon. I am sure that such a trip would be amply rewarding. The area is enchanting, and has enchanted so many people throughout the years that it is filled with monuments to its own charm. I can see what Lord Byron was talking about.

Memories of Lisbon

Memories of Lisbon

Lisbon was the very first place outside of Spain that I visited in Europe. It was in April of 2016, during Holy Week, as the end-point of a trip through Extremadura. We took a Blablacar, and I was amazed that there was no border, natural or artificial, between Spain and Portugal.

As we approached the city, the driver turned on the radio to let us hear Portuguese. I had hoped that my experience with Spanish would allow me to understand a little of this sister tongue. But it was absolutely foreign to my ears. Far from sounding like a closely-related language, Portuguese was as familiar as Russian. (I have since learned that this reaction is quite common. Peninsular Portuguese is strikingly different in pronunciation and speech rhythm from Spanish, even though on paper the two languages are quite similar.)

We entered the city on the majestic 25 de Abril Bridge—a suspension bridge conspicuously reminiscent of the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco. (The 25th of April, 1974,  is the date of the famous Carnation Revolution, when the dictatorship was overthrown.) Two massive towers hold up a double-decker span over the river Tagus, the whole thing painted a rusty red color. Next to the bridge is another monument that recalls a foreign city: Christ the King, a tall statue of Jesus inspired by the famous Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. Through the cables of the bridge we could see the city of Lisbon huddled on the riverbank, its colorful tiles shining in the sunlight. This was my first glimpse of the city.

(The Tagus, by the way, is the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, also passing through Toledo and Aranjuez.)

Despite this grand entrance, however, my mood quickly turned sour. I had been spending the previous six months exploring Spain like a madman, slowly getting the lay of the land, coming to understand the ancient country’s geography, culture, and language. Now I was, once again, a complete novice. I did not have the slightest grasp of Portuguese, so I had to rely on English, which made me feel like any other tourist. (This wasn’t a problem for communication, since the Portuguese are excellent linguists.) And I had not even the slightest notion of the history of anything we saw. 

But maybe this is all just an excuse. Maybe I was just sick of being on the road. After all, I had hardly spent a single weekend in Madrid the whole year. Whatever the cause, I managed to sabotage my own trip to Lisbon. I spent the better part of my time in that beautiful city wishing I were back in Spain. As anyone who has been to Lisbon knows, this is a shame, since Lisbon is one of the jewels of the Iberian peninsula—indeed, of all Europe.

Residual guilt and regret prompted me to revisit the city two years later, in September of 2018. TAP Portugal, the budget airline, lets you have a layover in Lisbon for no additional charge. So, before returning to Spain for the new school year, I had a little vacation in the Portuguese Capital, determined to see the city with fresh eyes. It was worth it.


Lisbon has one of the most distinctive profiles of any European city. The streets are paved with the famous Portuguese pavement—smooth bits of stone, black and white, that are sometimes arranged into mosaics. The buildings, meanwhile, are marked by that other distinctly Portuguese art: azulejos, or colored tiles. Even very ordinary apartment buildings are coated in shining porcelain. The city is generally quite hilly; and the smooth pavement does not make walking any easier. But the hills are what make Lisbon so dramatic, for streets will open up into magnificent views of the city and the ocean beyond.

On my first trip to Lisbon I learned something of the history and layout of the city by taking a “free” walking tour. The tour lasted four hours, and it was one of the most memorable experiences from my travels. We were led around by a man with long, flowing, black hair, whose passion for the city was intoxicating. He was a true Portuguese patriot, and an enthusiastic son of Lisbon. As he reminded us, Lisbon is one of the oldest cities on the Iberian Peninsula and indeed in the world, founded by the Phonecians and later occupied by the Carthaginians and the Romans. The city is far, far older than the country for which it serves as capital.

In our guide’s memorable phraseology, Lisbon is a woman—with “black, flowing hair” (like his) “studded with seashells, who wears a dress that flaps in the wind like a sail.” Her husband, he continued, was the sea; and their child is the neighborhood of Alfama. This is the oldest neighborhood in the city; and if you have an ear attuned to languages, you will know that its name derives from Arabic. Though popular with tourists, the neighborhood has preserved much of its original charm. When we arrived, neighbors were chatting through their windows, and an old woman was washing something in a fountain. The area preserves the chaotic jumble of narrow streets typical of ancient cities; and this arrangement muffles out much of the extraneous urban noise, giving the Alfama a peaceful atmosphere.

Our guide also took us to the Bairro Alto, the “upper district.” Indeed, the neighborhood stands on one of the city’s hills. It was built considerably after the Alfama, and its streets lack the labyrinthine intricacy of that lower zone. Nevertheless, the streets are intimate and at times reveal lovely views of the city. More importantly, the Bairro Alto is the center of Lisbon’s youth culture nightlife, comparable to Brooklyn or Madrid’s Malasaña. At night the streets are packed with crowds of drinkers freely mingling. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to partake.

I did, however, go to see a fado concert in a café in this neighborhood. Fado is the flamenco or the blues of Portugal: a folk music sung to the accompaniment of a guitar (in this case, a Portuguese guitar). Though I did not understand the words, the music’s mournful quality is palpable. As the guide of our free walking tour informed us, the music expresses saudade, a Portuguese word that means “longing”—a deep state of spiritual disquiet for something missing. Our guide, incidentally, thought that this feeling was at the heart of the Portuguese character: the yearning of a widow for her fisherman husband, lost at sea; or the urge that drove the Portuguese to push off into the unknown during the Age of Exploration; or nowadays the longing of some Portuguese (our guide among them) for the country’s Golden Age, when it was briefly one of the most powerful states on earth.

In the heart of the city is the Baixa area, and at the heart of Baixa is the Plaça do Comécio. This is a grand, monumental square that opens up right to the River Tagus. An equestrian statue of Joseph I of Portugal stands at the center of the yellow buildings, looking warlike and formidable despite being mainly dedicated to opera during his reign. In this area are to be found high-end shopping and touristy restaurants, which I like to avoid. Right next to Baixa is Chiado, a similar zone of shopping and restaurants, containing some of the city’s central plazas. 

One of Lisbon’s most characteristic sights are the trolleys. As in San Francisco, the trolleys help pedestrians to traverse the steep hills of the city; and they have become a tourist attraction in their own right. The trams preserve a retro look, since the cars in use are still of the same rather diminutive size as when the system was built, in the 1870s. The most famous tram line is 28, which often ridden just for providing a good tour of the city. Our guide, however, warned us that it was wise to keep a sharp eye on one’s belongings, since the trolley is patrolled by pickpockets. I took a ride on the tram on my first trip—waiting nearly an hour on line to do so—and was, sadly, quite disappointed in the experience. I think walking provides a much better view of the city.

Lisbon has more recently taken on a strangely south Asian appearance, due to the spread of rickshaws catering to tourists. Again, I preferred to walk.

As befitting a seaside city of steep streets, Lisbon has many excellent lookout points. One is the Miradouro de Santa Luzia, near the Alfama, which offers an excellent view of the deep orange tiles of the rooftops and the pastel blues and pinks of the buildings. Lisbon has none of the brooding majesty of some Spanish cities; it is all light and air. The lookout point itself is a nice place to have a rest, with its tile benches and flowering trees. Right next door is the Miradour das Puertas do Sol—offering another superb view of the Alfama and the river beyond. The last time I went an enormous cruise ship was docked right in front of the old neighborhood. This cannot be good for maintaining its local atmosphere.

By continuing up the hill you will reach what is simultaneously one of the best views and the most impressive monuments of Lisbon: the Castelo de São Jorge. This medieval fortification is built upon the ancestral core of the city, where everybody from the Phoenicians to the Moors had their own forts. This is no surprise, of course, since the castle stands upon an easily defensible spot, controlling all the surrounding ground and providing an excellent view of the river as well. It is a superb spot.

The castle is up above.

What remains today is hardly more than a husk—the proud walls encircling little but trees and a few decaying ruins. But it is worth visiting for the commanding view alone, which becomes especially dramatic once you climb up to the top of the walls. The castle gardens are home to a handful of peacocks, which surprised me by appearing high up above my head, in the branches of a tree. I had no idea that peacocks were so agile. The castle also contains a small museum, showcasing some of the archaeological objects unearthed there—many examples of ceramics, as well as some ornamental Moorish tiles.

From the front of the castle, overlooking the city, the visitor can spot one of the other great lookout points of Lisbon: the Miradouro da Graça. Further up that same hill is the Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, a place frequented by sunset lovers and aspiring instagrammers. The city is nothing if not photogenic.

During my first visit to Lisbon I was very surprised by its cathedral, often called the Sé. I was used to seeing the massive gothic, barroque, and neoclassical constructions of Spanish cities. Lisbon’s cathedral seems downright humble by comparison. It was built during the Romanesque period, which necessarily limits its size (since the barrel vaults of Romanesque architecture require a narrow space). What is more, the church has been repeatedly buffeted by earthquakes, most notoriously the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.

An engraving of the earthquake, fire, and tsunami

This earthquake was one of the deadliest and most destructive in history. It was a catastrophe. The earthquake struck in the morning of All Saints Day, when most people were in church—heavy stone buildings that were probably the worst place to be. A massive tsunami followed in the wake of the earthquake, and in the chaos a fire raged out of control. In the end, tens of thousands of people were killed and over three-fourths of the city’s buildings were in ruins. During the walking tour our guide pointed out the Carmo Convent, a convent that has been maintained in its ruined state as a memorial.

An old photograph of the ruined Carmo Convent

This disaster caused ripples in Europe’s culture as well as its surface. Many took it as a punishment from God, since it fell on a holy day. Voltaire, meanwhile, was dissuaded of the Leibnizian idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds. This led, among other things, to the writing of his most famous book: Candide. But before that philosophical tale, Voltaire published a poem on the event, condemning the idea that humans had somehow deserved it: “And can you then impute a sinful deed, / To babes who in their mothers’ bosoms bleed?” Rousseau responded vigorously against this poem, asserting that humanity deserved it by being corrupted by civilization. After all, if the people of Lisbon had been living in little hamlets, spread out thinly across the landscape, the casualties would have been small. But it did not take a Voltaire to see through this casuistical argument.

My second trip to Lisbon was vastly enhanced by visiting two of the city’s museums. The first was the very popular Museo Nacional do Azulejo, which celebrates the great Portuguese art of colored tiles. The museum is somewhat out of the way, located in what was previously a convent: Madre de Deus. But it is well worth the effort to get there.

The collection offers a bit of history on the tradition of azulejos. As you may have intuited, the word is a loanword from Arabic, specifically the word for “small polished stone.” Any visitor to the Alhambra will know that decorative tile had a strong tradition in the Moorish world, the art of geometric design driven by the prohibition on depicting human forms. Even today, many if not most azulejos contain either geometric or plant motifs. However, this is certainly not always the case. Azulejo altarpieces depicting Jesus, Mary, and the saints were on display. Other tiles portrayed scenes of history or of daily life, like the tapestries that hung in many royal dwellings. 

The former church of the convent that now houses the museum

The variety was astounding. From restrained blues and white to vibrant colors of every kind; from quaint flowers to designs created from mathematical algorithms; from plain squares to tiles with three dimensions—the museum showcased the scope of the artform. Just as impressive as the collection, however, was the building itself. The convent has many richly decorated rooms, with golden altars, coffered ceilings, and walls covered with paintings. In one of the more celebrated rooms, the choir, the entire space is ornamented with gilded woodwork encasing high-quality oil paintings.

Yet the most stunning work on display was the Panoramic View of Lisbon before the 1755 Earthquake. This sequence of tiles encircles the walls of a large room, providing a detailed sketch of the riverside of Lisbon as it existed before that calamity. The work was originally commissioned to decorate a palace, presumably to help a monarch keep track of his own domain. Even a superficial inspection of this work will impress the viewer with how much the city has changed since the earthquake. The old city is covered with religious architecture: churches, convents, monasteries—and now only a hint of this monumental majesty remains. This azulejo is likely the closest thing we have to a snapshot of the ruined Lisbon.

The next museum I visited was the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, which is somewhat misleadingly translated as the National Museum of Ancient Art (though the word “antiga” just means old, not “ancient,” and indeed hardly anything in the collection comes from ancient times). This is the largest museum in Lisbon and indeed Portugal; in fact it boasts one of the largest collections in Europe—or so they like to boast. 

Judging from my visit, I am willing to believe the claim, for the museum seemed to constantly expand. Luckily, the museum is quite a pleasant space, since it is in an erstwhile palace. I first visited the painting gallery. It was far more impressive than I had anticipated. There were works by Dutch, German, Italian, and Spanish masters. I was particularly pleased to find a wry work by Albrecht Dürer, St. Jerome in His Study, with the old bearded saint pointing rather impishly to a skull as a memento mori. The airy, triumphant style of Giambattista Tiepolo (who decorated Madrid’s palace) was in attendance, as well as the dark, brooding style of José Ribera.

Dürer’s depicting of St. Jerome

But my favorite work by a long shot was the Triptych of the Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymous Bosch. Anthony was one of the early Christian ascetics, who isolated themselves in the desert in order to purify themselves. Bosch’s work represents the physical and spiritual temptations that the saint had to endure during his long years of fasting and prayer. As usual with Bosch, this gives rise to bizarre and fantastic imagery. The central panel is the main focus: showing the kneeling saint surrounded by the whole population of Bosch’s superfecund imagination: human-animal hybrids, men lacking limbs and even whole bodies, fish wearing armor, ruined buildings and burning cities—each of these images visually fantastic and symbolic of sin. It seems that Bosch had a both a horror and a fascination of sin, since he was so adept at portraying it.

Paintings constitute only a small part of the museum’s collection. There are all of the items of royal living: elegant furniture, finely-woven tapestries, delicately crafted silver and ceramic tableware—the list goes on. And the collection is not merely from Europe. Pioneering explorers and colonists as they were, the Portuguese collected many fine works from far off places, most notably China and (if memory serves) Japan. The museum’s sculpture collection is especially impressive, if only because of the way that the statues are arranged in the wide halls of the former palace, like silent servants waiting to be called upon.

Inevitably with a museum of this size, some version of fatigue sets in during the visit. Fortunately, the museum has a fine café which leads out to a garden in the back, where you can enjoy yet another sweeping view of the city. I would have lingered there longer, but the museum was closing and the guard kicked me out.

I have spent this long describing the enchanting city, but I have yet left out one of the most splendid corners of the city: Belém. 

The name “Belém” is Portuguese for Bethlehem. The neighborhood stands rather far from the city center, near the mouth of the Tagus river. To get there it is best to take a tram or a train. I took the latter, passing under the 25 de Abril Bridge on the way.

I am afraid that my first trip to Belém, in 2016, only added to my bitterness at Lisbon. This is because the line to visit the Jerónimos Monastery—one of the famous monuments of the are—was very long; and after waiting for an hour and paying to get inside, I found out that the most impressive section of the monastery, the church, is free to visit and has no line at all. Let my experience serve as a warning to any visitors in a hurry.

All carping aside, the Jerónimos Monastery is by far the most impressive work of religious architecture in the city. Its size is immediately striking. Like so many grand monasteries, Jerónimos spreads out with the girth of a palace. While waiting in line, under the hot Portuguese sun, I did get a chance to admire the building’s beautiful façade: ornamented with fabulously intricate friezes designed by João de Castilho (or, as he is known in his native Spain, Juan de Castillo). The cloisters of the monastery are some of the finest I have ever seen, so delicately carved that it makes the stone seem lighter than air. Within this monastery are buried several Portuguese luminaries, such as the novelist Alexandre Herculano and the poet Fernando Pessoa.

The monastery church maintains this exquisite decoration. In the vast and gloomy space, culminating in web-like vaulting, the columns rise up like legs. Each of them has been carved almost from top to bottom. As in the Escorial Monastery in Spain, Jerónimos serves as the royal resting ground. Large pyramidal tombs sit upon sculpted elephants, containings kings and queens. Yet the most famous people buried in the church had not a drop of blue blood. In matching tombs near the entrance are buried Luís de Camões, Portugal’s greatest poet, and the famous explorer Vasco da Gama. These tombs were constructed long after those two eminent men died; but their remains were transported here in the 19th century.

The style that characterizes the Jerónimos Monastery is called Manueline—a blend of gothic, Italian, Spanish, and Moorish influences—and it is typical of the Portuguese Golden Age. Nearby is another excellent example of this style, as embodied in the Belém Tower. Indeed, this tower was composed of the same rock as was used to make the monastery. It was built as a defensive structure; but this pragmatic function did not lead to a dull edifice. Rather, the fortification displays the same exuberant decoration as the monastery. The fortress was originally constructed on a small island near the bank; but the shoreline has gradually expanded, so that nowadays the tower can be visited on foot. Both times I saw the tower, the line to enter was quite long, so I decided against it.

Just down the river from the tower is the Monument to the Discoveries. This is a far more recent construction, having been built in 1939 for the Portuguese World Exhibition. It is a worthy addition to the area. The massive concrete fin is shaped like the prow of a ship; and riding on top, in a heroic procession, are great figures from Portugal’s Age of Discovery. In the space in front of the monument, a large mosaic compass has been inserted into the pavement. In the center is a map of the world, with the names of notable explorers and the dates of their voyages marked. Most of the figures aboard the ship are, I am afraid, unknown to me. But at the tip is Henry the Navigator, the Prince who helped to inaugurate and coordinate the first Portuguese explorations.

No account of Belém would be complete without mention of the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, a bakery famous for making Lisbon’s most iconic food: pastel de nata. This is made with egg custard inside a small, crispy pie crust. They are omnipresent in Lisbon and make for an excellent breakfast or dessert. The recipe was originally developed in the Jerónimos Monastery itself, by monks who wanted to make some extra money. But when the monastery was secularized in the 19th century, the recipe was sold. While I am on the subject, I should also say that, in general, the food in Lisbon is quite good: fresh, flavorful, and reasonably priced. I especially enjoy the cod.

To sum up this long overdue account, Lisbon is a city of delights. The city itself is beautiful; and it is full of history and culture. Indeed, the only problem with Lisbon is that it is so nice that it attracts a great many tourists. But this is the curse of all great destinations.

Canary Islands: Lanzarote

Canary Islands: Lanzarote

A year had passed since my last trip the Canary Islands. Now it was time to go back—for this trip, to the island of Lanzarote. This time, however, I was traveling on someone else’s dime. Rebe had bought me this weekend trip as my birthday present. Relationships sometimes do pay off. 

The view of the Madrid mountains from the plane window

Lanzarote is the fourth largest Canary Island by area, and the third largest by population. It sits at the northeast extreme of the archipelago, its form like a squiggly oval in the sea. The main thing that I had been told about the island is that it is Martian: bone dry, bereft of vegetation, and covered in red volcanic soil.

As with last time, we would have to rent a car to traverse the island. I was only slightly less nervous about driving than I had been last year. The added time had not added to my experience. I had been behind the wheel remarkably little in the intervening months. At least the car was cheap, and came with insurance. Once again, we rented with PlusCar, and got a Honda Prius with automatic transition (I can’t drive a stick) for about sixty euros, with everything included.

Soon we were on the road. My informants had been right: the island looked like another planet. Misshapen mountains swelled out of the flat red desert, where scarlet soil alternated with fields of black igneous rocks. As in Andalusia, nearly all of the buildings were whitewashed—a recourse against the sun and the total lack of shade. These low-lying dwellings nestled within the wide space, connected by roads that cut through the land at arbitrary angles, there being almost no obstacles in the topography. Though the landscape gave every impression of being inhospitable, the weather was almost perfect: warm but not hot, with a gentle cooling breeze.

Why is Lanzarote’s bone-dry climate so different from the verdant Tenerife’s, which is only a few hundred kilometers away? I suppose the answer must be elevation. The high peak of Teide, Tenerife’s central volcano, captures the mist rolling in from the clouds and channels it downwards to the valleys below; while Lanzarote is quite flat by comparison.

Human habitation on these islands goes back a surprising way. As I mentioned in my previous post, the islands were inhabited by an ethnic group known as the Guanches before the Spanish arrived. But before the Guanches established themselves, the islands were visited by several ancient peoples, most notably the Romans, who left archaeological remains near the pueblo of Teguise. The great geographer Ptolemy even gave the islands’ exact locations. It is a wonder that it did not become a popular vacation spot sooner.

Our plane landed in the afternoon, so our first order of business was, naturally, to have some lunch. We stopped in a place called El Moreno, which specializes in grilled meat (though, again, one wonders where the animals are living). Both of our dishes were delicious. Canarian food has so far never disappointed me in its richness and its simplicity.

From there it was a very short drive to our first stop: the Fundación César Manrique.

Few architects are as emblematic of a place as César Manrique is of Lanzarote. The only comparison I can think of is Gaudí’s relationship with Barcelona. Manrique was a prolific Spanish architect who spent much of his career in New York. Indeed, Nelson Rockefeller—a lover and patron of modern art—paid for Manrique’s apartment. Upon his return, Manrique set about transforming the landscape of his native island. It is largely thanks to him that there are no high-rise buildings or ugly billboards obstructing the natural beauty. He also helped to implement building codes that insured that all buildings have a traditional look. That the island is so well-composed is largely thanks to him.

But Manrique also built his own works of art, scattering them on every corner of the island. The building which serves as the headquarters of his foundation, called the “Volcano House,” was his own home for twenty years.

Anyone expecting the architectural exuberance of a Gaudí will be disappointed. Rather, Manrique’s style is made to highlight and complement the island’s natural beauty. Thus, upon entrance the visitor finds herself in a courtyard filled with exotic plants and little ponds. The only explicitly artistic touch is the mural running across the back wall—which, to my eye, bears the obviously traces of Miró’s style. The low walls also afford a glimpse at the landscape beyond, which rises up into red hill in the distance. It is a charming and comfortable space; yet I found myself slightly disappointed at the simplicity. 

But this feeling disappeared when I descended to the lower level. Manrique put his house on land still scarred by volcanic eruptions. Several craters pockmarked the terrain, which Manrique turned into subterranean rooms—a posh living room, a dance floor, a lounge, a spot for grilling, and a small swimming pool: all decorated with sleek furniture. Manrique carved out tunnels to connect these five spaces, and the feeling is that of being in a high-class nature resort. In the main building some of Manrique’s drawings, paintings, and ceramic work were on display.

Even after this performance, however, I admit to being somewhat less than awed by Manrique’s work. It is admirably simple, and it complements the landscape remarkably well. However, I thought that it lacked a forceful personality behind it, and that it well beholden to a vision of tropical paradise which I did not share. But this was only the beginning of my acquaintance with Manrique’s architecture. For, as I soon learned, there is not a single corner of the island that does not bear his fingerprints.

I should also mention that we met one of Rebe’s friends at the Fundación. He’s from another Canary Island, and had met Rebe during a camping trip. Unfortunately for me, I found his Canary accent to be so thick that I could hardly understand a word he said. It is a very different sort of Spanish.

Now it was finally time to check into our Airbnb. Our bags had been sitting in the car the whole time. Rebe had rented a room in a house a little bit outside the town of San Bartolomé. Like so many places on the island, the neighborhood seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. We parked the car and went inside. Already I marvelled at the total lack of parking regulations. “We don’t care about that kind of stuff here,” our host explained. The house was entirely typical: whitewashed, with a tile roof, and surrounded by a fence enclosing a small garden. The interior was of a piece with the outside: mostly empty, with white ceilings, white walls, and full of viny plants.

The beauty of Lanzarote was already beginning to get under my skin. It is the beauty of barrenness, of emptiness, of the desert. It is the beauty of wide open nothingness. What few structures there are—trees, houses, hills—stand out amid the cloudless sky and even terrain, presented as in a minimalist work of art. It is a place that I could get used to.

Since we arrived relatively late, it was already evening when we had settled into our Airbnb and were ready to leave again. Inevitably, we decided to visit another work of Manrique, the Jameos del Agua.

The road there took us across the entire length of the island. When we got into the car the sun was already setting; in half an hour it was quite dark. So far I had been doing decently well in my driving. But piloting in the dark unnerved me. I had hardly any experience with it. On the highways it wasn’t bad, since there were many other cars illuminating the roads, as well as some street lights. And many of the main roads off the highway were lined with reflective plastic.

But our route took us through local roads with no luminescent resources whatsoever. I was driving blind, only able to see the next twenty feet of road in front of me. There were not even any natural contours to the landscape to help orient me; the road was a flat surface surrounded by a flat plain—a line of black asphalt imposed over black volcanic rock. Needless to say I did not find it especially relaxing, and I slowed down to a crawl.

Eventually we reached our destination. It was around eight in the evening and the large parking lot was mostly empty. From the outside the place didn’t look like much—a few nondescript buildings in the middle of nowhere. We paid the entrance fee and went inside, and a winding staircase led us down into a large crater. There we found a restaurant: elegant tables, chatting guests, and a well-stocked bar.

A kind of manufactured “cool” music was pumping through the sound system—a mixture of wavy atmospheric synth and insistent drums, with a woman’s ethereal voice intermittently crying over the ruckus. Such music immediately set the tone of the place: loudly expensive. I did not like it. Though we had not eaten, we did not even consider ordering something from the restaurant, since even a beer was sure to be twice its usual price. Instead, we moved towards the central tunnel.

This is easily the highlight of the Jameos del Agua: a volcanic tube connecting a crater on either end. In the tunnel is a salt-water pond, where a strange species of indigenous lobster lives: the Munidopsis polymorpha. In size it is closer to a shrimp than a lobster, indeed even smaller; and its color is albino white. This diminutive create is blind, and is only found in Lanzarote, for which reason it has become the island’s symbol.

Nearby signs advised us not to throw any coins into the water, since this pale lobster depends on a fragile environment. Meanwhile, shifting lights on the ceiling and bottom of the tunnel silhouetted the jagged rocks. I tried to photograph it but the effect proved too delicate for my camera’s light settings. After admiring the cave for a good while—trying to ignore the irritating music—we moved through the tunnel to the other side. Here we climbed a staircase to another crater.

This space resembled a resort: with lawn chairs, a bar, umbrellas, and a pool in the center. The water glowed neon blue in the darkness. Further on I discovered a concert hall. This was by far my favorite part of the Jameos. The hall was beautiful—built into the cliff side, with rows of seats underneath the amorphous igneous rock. Here the bad mood-music could be heard no more; the space was sonically isolated. It must have had motion sensors, too, for when I entered the lights turned on and music began to play on the hall’s speaker system. It was a medieval motet. Ghostly voices reverberated throughout the hall, slowly ascending and descending in Latin syllables. It was gorgeous. And I was there, alone, to appreciate it: the sounds of heaven under the earth.

Despite the place’s commercial and even tacky aspect, I enjoyed the Jameos del Agua. In the stillness and blackness of the night, with very few people around, it had the mystery of an abandoned place.

With another ride through the night, and a quick dinner at a pizza place, we were already finished with our first day at Lanzarote. The next day was our last.


Our first stop the next day was the island’s national park: Timanfaya.

The drive there took us into a landscape that was even more barren than usual. The soil glowed red in the morning sun as the car passed miles of flat terrain. It was hard to believe that we were going anywhere, as the terrain was so rhythmically monotonous. But the voice of the GPS directed us forward, until we were instructed to turn off the road, towards a statue of a little devil that said “Timanfaya.” (This demon, the symbol of the park, was designed by—you guessed it—César Manrique.)

There, a man in a little shack took our money—it was cash only—gave us tickets, and allowed us to go on. The ground here was no longer red and sandy, but dark brown, rough, and arranged in messy piles. The road took us up a slight hill and towards the visitor’s center, where we were waved into a parking spot. Timanfaya has no trails, only roads; and you are not permitted to drive around it yourself, but must take one of the park’s bus tours.

We boarded the bus, along with about twenty other visitors, and set off to see the UNESCO biosphere reserve. I had little idea what to expect as the bus lurched into motion. A recording began to play on the bus’s sound system, giving us information about the park in three languages: English, Spanish, and German (more languages are available on the park’s app). The bus crawled into the volcanic landscape; and I was repeatedly amazed at the driver’s skill, for it must not be easy to maneuver a large tour bus on the narrow, twisting, uneven road.

The devil statue is an appropriate symbol for Timanfaya, for it is a hellish landscape. The audio guide informed us that it was formed during the island’s most recent volcanic eruptions, in the 1700s. Indeed, the guide even included readings of some eyewitness testimony of the cataclysm. (I believe there were no human casualties.) The ground writhed and churned like a storm-tossed sea. The rock itself had grains, like the wood of a tree that had grown around some impediment. Hardly a speck of vegetation was in sight. I found it impossible to capture the impression by taking photographs through the bus’s windows. The tortured mounds of black and red rock created the nearly nauseating sensation that the ground was alive. 

This is the closest that I have ever been to a volcanic eruption, and it was a powerful experience. Since I have lived in seismically inactive areas all my life, the idea of the earth moving—or, more radically, of the earth spitting up more earth—is difficult for me to even imagine. But in Timanfaya, the evidence of volcanism is so perfectly visible that it is impossible to forget the perpetual burning which boils beneath our feet. 

The visit was, however, surprisingly short. In about forty minutes we were back in the parking lot. Near the visitor there are some pits and holes in the ground. There, a park worker was demonstrating the still-active volcanism of the area. He did this by pouring water down one of the holes, only to have it shoot up in a geyser of steam moments later. I almost had a heart attack the first time. He also stuffed some straw into one of the pits, which promptly caught fire due to the escaping heat.

After witnessing these marvels of nature, Rebe bought some knicknacks at the visitor’s center, and we were on our way again. We next wanted to see Lanzarote’s capital: Arrecife.

The city first presented itself as rather ordinary and unremarkable—a collection of whitewashed buildings and crowded streets. But the prospect considerably improved once we walked to the shore. Arrecife is Spanish for “reef,” and it takes its name from the rock reef that lines the coast. The water was blue and shimmering; and even though we were at the port, it was full of swimmers. Further down we saw Arrecife’s beach, the Playa del Reducto—a typically idyllic combination of sand, sunbathers, palm trees, and resorts.

Soon we came upon the city’s most historic landmark: the Castillo de San José, a small fortress built in the 1700s. It is on an island attached to the mainland by a stone walkway, much like the Castillo de San Sebastián in Cádiz, only more diminutive. Crystal water lapped both sides of the walkway, and the wind whipped up once we reached the halfway point. Two old canons stand guard before the weatherbeaten castle, two hollow tubes before a now obsolete edifice. The fortress now houses a small art museum, but I did not know this at the time, so I did not pay the entry fee to go inside. 

Looking back towards the shore, we could see the Church of San Ginés, perhaps the most notable house of worship on the island. The current structure owes its form to the 17th and 18th centuries; but it was built over the first hermitage on the island, which was established in 1574 to house an image of the island’s patron saint. A flood swept away this original building in the 1600s. Nearby is the Charco de San Ginés. Charco is Spanish for “puddle,” but this is a man-made bay where fishermen moor their colorful skiffs. Needless to say that it was designed by César Manrique.

Our next stop was, of course, yet another of that indefatigable artist’s work: the Mirador del Río. This is on the north-eastern side of the island, somewhat close to the Jameos del Agua, so it took a little time to get there. Thankfully we weren’t driving at night. The road took us up above the sea, passing little villages and some scattered wineries. From the outside the Mirador doesn’t look like much. The parking lot is adorned with one of Manrique’s mischievous statues, but the building itself has been disguised by being built into the cliffside.

We walked in and prepared to pay the entrance fee.

“You don’t want to go in,” the ticket man said. “There’s lots of fog. You can’t see anything.”

“Really? Uh… thanks,” I said, and we began to walk back to the car. 

“Now what?” Rebe said to me, rather disappointed that we had come all this way for nothing.

“Don’t listen,” we heard a voice say. It was a Spanish woman walking out of the Mirador. “Even with the fog, it’s nice.”

“Oh… thanks!” we said, and went back inside.

“You sure?” the ticket man said, seeing us again.

Only in Spain does the man selling tickets try to dissuade you from paying.

Like nearly everything Manrique built, the Mirador del Río has a parking lot, a gift shop, and a café. The man may not have been a groundbreaking architect, but he understood tourism. As usual, the interior is sleek and chic, with curving walls and hand-made metal chandeliers. The space opens up through two enormous windows, revealing the famous view.

Unfortunately, the ticket vendor was right: it was a foggy day. Normally one should be able to see the neighboring island, La Graciosa, and the narrow channel of water between them (called el río, or “the river”). But this sight could only be snatched at intermittently, when gusts of wind blew the insistent fog away. It was impressive nonetheless. The overlaying mist, which smelt of moisture and ocean, lent a mysterious grandeur to the distant island, only visible in stolen moments. And, true to form, Manrique did a wonderful job in integrating the structure into its surroundings; even the gift shop did not seem out of place.

A glimpse of the famous view

Daylight was waning; our time in Lanzarote was coming to an end. For a last stop we went to the nearby Famara Beach, one of the island’s best-known beaches. The sand stretches for miles, and the cliffs of Famara make a picturesque backdrop to the coastline. However, the current was strong and the wind was cold, so there was not a soul in the water. Volcanic rocks were scattered amidst the sand, trapping pools of water here and there. Very carefully, I placed my camera on one of these rocks and set the timer. We had to have at least one photo together on the trip. 

After our fill of salt and sand, we got back into the car to go home. But we decided to make a quick stop to the nearby pueblo of Teguise on the way back. It is certainly one of the more charming villages on the island, with several historic church buildings, old cobblestone streets, and a view of the beach below. In the pale blue light of the dusk, the white buildings had an almost ghostly glow. Here, again, was that spare beauty of the desert, which I had quickly come to cherish. 

The next morning we dropped off the car, boarded the plane, and returned to Madrid. (I should mention that we used PlusCar once again and it was just as cheap and convenient as before.) Just as in Tenerife, I wished that I could have spent more time on the island—far more. Both of the islands were pleasant in the extreme: friendly people, fresh food, temperate weather, and intoxicating natural beauty. I envy the people who live there.

Canary Islands: Tenerife

Canary Islands: Tenerife

I spent the entire plane ride in a panic. The sleep deprivation didn’t help. As usual, I had bought tickets for an early flight in order to save money; and, as often happens, I was too nervous to sleep well the night before. Several seats in front of me, Rebe was contentedly snoozing. I tried putting my hood down over my eyes and drifting off; but every time the plane dipped or turned, I was jolted awake. The art of sleeping on airplanes still escapes me. 

Our destination was Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands. This is a group of volcanic islands off the Western coast of Morocco. Including Tenerife, there are seven main islands in the archipelago, along with many minor ones. These islands have been controlled by Spain since the late middle ages. They were conquered as a kind of prelude to the colonization of the New World—during which they were used as a jumping off point to cross the Atlantic.

Before the Europeans came to establish themselves, the islands were populated by indigenous peoples known as Guanches, who had originally came from Northern Africa. Their culture was either totally destroyed or absorbed by the invading Spaniards, so that nowadays only slight traces remain, along with tantalizing archaeological evidence. Today the islands are a kind of offshore European vacation spot.

Considering that I was heading to a tropical island with my girlfriend, it would be logical to assume that I was in a good mood. I was miserable—gripped by anxiety. You see, the Canary Islands are unlike peninsular Spain in at least one crucial respect: the lack of public transportation. You simply must rent a car. Luckily, in my experience car rental prices in the Canary Islands are often very low. Unfortunately, however, I was not very good at driving.

Having grown up with good public transit, I had spent my entire life without serious need of driving. Consequently, I got my license quite late: at the age of 21. And even then, I rarely used it. Moving to Madrid—a place extremely well-connected by trains, buses, and subways—did nothing to remedy the situation. Indeed, I had driven so rarely since getting my license that, before taking this trip to Tenerife, I had probably gone less than 100 miles in total—a few dozen miles a year, here or there.

What is more, I had never driven without the company of a more experienced driver. Rebe certainly did not fall under this category. She did not have her license; she had barely even touched a steering wheel. In short, she would not be any help. I was on my own.

When we arrived at the airport, I insisted on taking a few minutes to have a coffee and relax. But it was no use. As I stared down into the milky brown of the coffee, I felt sure that this was to be the last coffee I would ever taste. My mind flooded with images of gruesome crashes—a head-on collision, careening off a cliff, spinning out of control. This was it: the end. 

Finally it was time to go down to the parking garage and pick up the car. We found the desk and got in line. Behind us a loud bachelorette party also got in line—the women occasionally chanting and singing. I hardly noticed them, however, as I shuffled towards my doom. I was shivering and covered in a cold sweat. Then—suddenly—I felt a sharp pressure in my abdomen.

“I have to go,” I said to Rebe, and ran back upstairs—to the bathroom. Strong anxiety tends to upset my bowels.

Ten minutes or so later, I re-entered the line. Now it was our turn to do the paperwork. I could hardly pay attention to the man’s explanation. As I signed the paper, I felt as though I were signing the order for my own execution. We walked out to the car—a Smart car, tiny and cute. Do these things have good crash safety ratings?

Failure confronted us immediately.

“How do you open this thing?” I said, trying to get the back door opened.

“Wait,” Rebe said, and tried herself to find the handle—also with no luck. 

In shame, I had to ask the rental car guy to open it for us. Not a good omen.

We got in. I adjusted the seat. I adjusted the mirrors. I checked and rechecked my seatbelt. I turned on the car and braced myself. My head pounded, my vision narrowed, my veins felt like they were flooded with fire. And despite doing my best to not let any of this show, my voice quivered when I said:

“Ok, ready?”

The car was ignited and put into drive. Very gingerly, I pressed the gas. Nothing happened. I pressed a bit harder; still nothing.

“What’s going on?” I said. “The car isn’t moving. Why won’t it move?”

“The emergency brake is on,” Rebe informed me.

“Oh, shit.” Another bad omen.

I switch off the brake, and the car begins to move. All of my senses are focused on the vehicle. I try to remember my training—rules of the road, blind spots, when to signal. After a couple spins around the parking lot it is time to get to our Airbnb.

“Ok, what do I do?”

Rebe turns on the GPS and lets the automated voice do the rest. Soon I am merging onto the highway. Nothing difficult so far. None of the cars are going particularly fast. I just have to follow the road for a dozen kilometers or so until we reach our exit. Meanwhile, every slight adjustment of the car provokes a crisis of indecision in me. What is the proper distance to maintain? Should I pass? What is the safest way to pass? What’s the speed limit anyway? Is that guy too close? Am I going too slow?

Finally our exit appears. After negotiating a roundabout, we are speeding down the center of a Santa Úrsula, a small town on the northern shore of the island.

“The Airbnb is right over there,” Rebe says.

“So should I park?”

“Yes.”

“But where? Where?”

“Anywhere.”

“Jesus.”

We drive about a mile down the street before I manage to pull off the road and into a parking spot. By now, I am totally shaken.

Luckily, the Airbnb calmed me down. I had splurged and gotten us an entire apartment. It was magnificent—a kitchen, a couch, a television, and a balcony with a view of the ocean. Perhaps this vacation in a tropical paradise wouldn’t be so bad after all.


The big division in Tenerife is between the northern and southern shores. From what I hear, the south shore—full of golden beaches and massive resorts—caters mainly to foreigners, while Spaniards tend to prefer the northern shore. No lover of sunbathing or swimming in the ocean, I figured that I would stick to the north.

Our first stop was a little town called Icod de los Vinos. We arrived at lunch time. Still very uncertain about my driving, I parked in the first available spot I could find. It just so happened that this spot was very far away from both the restaurant and the city center.

“Are you serious?” Rebe said. “We have to walk half an hour?”

“Listen, I can’t drive anymore right now.”

“Ugh.”

In retrospect, it is absurd that I was so shaken up. The driving could not have been easier. Hardly anybody speeds, and nobody drives aggressively. And if I had not been frantically monitoring the road, I would have noticed that it was a beautiful day. Unsurprisingly, Tenerife looks nothing like Madrid. Far from the arid climate and sandy soil of Spain’s capital, Tenerife looks properly tropical—filled lush greenery, with the ocean rarely out of sight.

I was happy because I was out of the car. Now it was Rebe’s turn to suffer, since she doesn’t like to walk. The way to the restaurant took us up a sizable hill. At the top we had an excellent view of the town—spread out on the slope, with patches of fields (presumably for wine) interspersed between the houses—not that Rebe was in the mood to appreciate it.

Photo by Rebeca López. She brought her fancy new Nikon D3400. This was, as it happens, the longest my beard has ever grown.

We went to a restaurant called (if memory serves) El Frenazo, which specializes in grilled meat. This is quite common in the Canary Islands, though I don’t know where they keep all the livestock. We ordered a parrillada—which is a huge platter of meat. When it arrived, we were stunned—it was an absurd amount of food, with sausages, chicken, panceta, pork chops, ribs, as well as salad and french fries. We ate as much as we could and then saved the rest for dinner.

Photo by Rebeca López

Icod de los Vinos is most famous for the Drago Milenario. This is a massive dragon tree that is supposedly one thousand years old (though nobody knows for sure), which has become one of the most recognizable symbols of Tenerife. Dragon trees, a species native to the Canary Islands, are typically small, even bush-like. This specimen, however, rises to the height of a proper tree. It is a beautiful sight: with the single, massive trunk splitting into a tangle of knotty branches.

The famous Drago Milenario. Photo by Rebeca López
Rebe with a halo of palm tree.

The old center of the town is charming, too. There is a certain architectural style typical of Canary villages: squat buildings of whitewashed granite lining plazas filled with palm trees. It is a strange combination of Latin America and medieval Europe. The local accent furthers this impression. Canarian Spanish is unmistakably different from that of the Peninsula. To me it sounds like the Spanish from Andalusia—clipped, shorn of endings, slurred together—but with a kind of jolly lilt that sounds Caribbean to my ears. I find it very pleasant, even if it is sometimes difficult to understand.

Photo by Rebeca López.

After a very long walk to the car (complicated by me not remembering exactly where it was) we were ready to see more of the island. Though I was still nervous while driving, the island’s beauty began to work on me. Every turn on the highway revealed another impressive view. Unfortunately, I could not properly enjoy these views, since my eyes were frantically fixed on the road. Rebe, meanwhile, sat in the passenger’s seat, blissfully ignorant of my mental state, taking photos through the window with her nice camera.

The Orotava Valley, with Teide in the distance. Photo by Rebeca López.

In half an hour we arrived at our next destination: La Orotava. This is a medium-sized town known for its well-preserved historical center. But anyone who has lived in Europe knows that driving in beautiful historical centers is seldom a quaint experience. The twisting, narrow, and steep streets made my already elevated blood pressure spike up to concerning heights.

“Where do I park? Where do I park?”

“I dunno, somewhere around here,” Rebe said.

On impulse, I turned down a nearby street. But a pedestrian immediately started waving at me and, in a moment, I realized that I was going the wrong way down a one-way street. Luckily, a parking space was miraculously available nearby, so I avoided a head-on collision (even though it took me about seven attempts to double park my tiny Smart car).

The center of La Orotava vaguely reminded me of Toledo, both for its antique layout and for its sharp changes in elevation. The town sits splayed out on a steep hillside, making it the most uneven municipality in Spain. As in any historical Spanish town, there are many churches to see. The most noteworthy is the Church of the Holy Conception—a looming structure whose wide façade rises into a series of gentle curves. From the inside the visitor can tell that it is a properly historical edifice, with elaborately carved altars, columns, and pulpits. It is no wonder that the locals affectionately call it a basilica and a cathedral, though it is neither of the two. 

A section of the Church of the Holy Conception. Photo by Rebeca López.

Yet my usual strategy of hunting down historical buildings was inappropriate to visiting Canarian towns. It is far more pleasurable to simply stroll about, admiring the many beautiful angles that opened up into the dramatic ocean beyond—palm trees, church spires, and tiled roofs foregrounding the blue-grey mist of the atlantic.

However, the sun was already on its way towards the horizon; and I was nervous about driving at night. So we went back to the apartment, eating the remainder of our massive meat platter for dinner. The next day was our only full day in Tenerife. We had to make it count.

Photo by Rebeca López

Our first stop after breakfast was Tenerife’s most historically significant city: San Cristóbal de la Laguna (usually just called La Laguna). The city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 for being an excellently preserved example of a Spanish colonial city. Indeed, La Laguna was a model city for many of the major Spanish colonial capitals that followed—such as Havana.

The city is located on relatively flat ground, far from the shore. The wide streets are arranged in a grid-like pattern—not strict, as in New York, but still orderly and logical. This is strikingly different from most other historical Spanish cities. Also striking is the city’s complete lack of defensive structures. A wall has never enclosed the historical city center—probably because, after overwhelming the natives, there were few conceivable enemies to defend the city from. As a result La Laguna has a pleasingly open atmosphere.

Photo by Rebeca López

After a stroll through the town—full of locals, tourists, clothing shops, and restaurants—we peeked into the city’s cathedral. It is a rather recent construction, built in the early 1900s. Like Madrid’s cathedral, it is a stylistic mismatch: neoclassic on the outside and neogothic within. Still, it is a pleasing space: open, balanced, well-lit, and filled with altars, statues, and floats used in processionals. The Royal Sanctuary is a far more ancient house of worship, having been built in the 16th century, which houses a famous devotional figure of Christ (thus the name). The most beautiful work of religious architecture in the city is the bell tower of the Church of the Immaculate Conception (the first parish to be established in Tenerife), built in 1511.

Rebe found a wall that she thought was a good background.

Yet the best of the visit was the street life. We ate an early lunch in a kebab place and listened to a couple of street performers do a decent rendition of some blues classics.

But we did not have long to dawdle. Today was the day that we ascended the volcano: Teide. We had to leave ourselves enough time to properly savor the experience. I had a concern, though. Friends had told me that it was very cold at the top of the volcano, and I hadn’t brought anything warmer than a light sweatshirt. When I told Rebe this, she made me even more concerned.

“Do you want to get to the top and be freezing? It’s not even warm down here.”

She was right. It was a surprisingly mild day for a tropical island. I figured that it was better to be safe than sorry, so we walked into a nearby sportswear store, where I bought a thermal t-shirt.

“I hope this is enough,” I said at checkout.

We got back in the car and, after several unsuccessful attempts, we navigated out of the town and towards the mountain. A Canarian friend of mine had suggested the route up the towns of La Esperanza and Las Rosas (basically from east to west), and it was an excellent recommendation. The road took us through bucolic countryside, with tree-shaded roads crossing grassy fields. Rebe put her camera on the dashboard and took photo after photo, while I stole sidelong glances at the scenery.

Photo by Rebeca López

The road up was long. Teide is simply massive: rising over 3,700 m (or over 12,000 ft) above sea level. The volcano is at the historical, cultural, and geological heart of the island. Most obviously, it is evidence of the cataclismic volcanic eruptions that formed the island to begin with. But the volcano has taken on additional significance.

The peak was worshiped by the indigenous Guanches as a god who held up the heavens. And I admit that I, too, am willing to worship the massive hunk of volcanic rock, if my pleas can postpone any further eruptions. One wonders what would happen to the island’s one million inhabitants if the long-dormant volcano should re-awaken. 

The German scientist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt—a pioneer in the study of how altitude affects the distribution of life—climbed the mountain on his way to South America. And the volcano is featured on Tenerife’s coat of arms. Nowadays Teide is the most-visited natural site in all of Spain—and, indeed, all of Europe.

As we approached and then entered the national park, the environment gradually changed. The trees shifted from deciduous to evergreen, and the fields were replaced by dense forest. The road led up and up, on a seemingly endless gradual ascent, gently turning as it went. Soon we were passing little stopping-points by the side of the road, each one offering a progressively better view of the island.

Photo by Rebeca López

In less than an hour we were above the clouds. It was beautiful. A sea of white drifted in from the ocean, bathing the base of the mountain in mist. I was astonished at how high we were. The road up had not been very steep, but already the coastline below was swallowed into the far distance. And we were not even halfway to the top!

Now, I am very inexperienced with mountains; indeed, the only one that I have climbed is Peñalara, near Madrid. But I would guess that there are few eminences which give such dramatic views of their surroundings. Teide may not be the biggest; but it is surrounded by clear air and open sea; so the full extent of its height can be easily appreciated.

The peak. Photo by Rebeca López

A few signs were set up at the resting points, explaining some of the geological history of the islands. According to them, the valleys below—such as La Orotava and Icod de los Vinos—had been formed in the space of a moment, by massive landslides breaking off from a larger volcanic structure. A sign also had information about the coronal forest, and the conservation efforts to restore it after damage inflicted by severe windstorms. 

Gradually the forest shrank and all but disappeared, leaving a barren landscape, reminiscent of Mars. Now driving became truly nerve-racking. The road kept snaking left and right, with a sharp drop off at least one side at any time. If somehow I lost control, no trees would have broken the fall. We would have tumbled a long, long way. I kept my eyes glued to the road, doing my best to keep the car within the lines as we turned this way and that. Meanwhile, Rebe sat contentedly snapping pictures and oohing and aahing at the natural beauty.

Photo by Rebeca López

Eventually we came to a rest stop. We had been driving for well over an hour already, and we were only halfway up. To actually reach the top, you must take the funicular, which is called the “teleférico.” But the price for non-residents is 27€, and that seemed too steep for us. (After reading a biography of Alexander von Humboldt, who famously ascended to the peak, I slightly regret my stinginess. Maybe next time.) Instead, we decided to have a coffee and then head back towards the north shore.

We sat outside, eating syrupy torrijas (the Spanish version of French toast) and sipping café con leche and hot chocolate. And I noticed something: it was considerably warmer than it was back down in La Laguna. My thermal T-shirt was not necessary after all.

If we had continued our ascent, we could have seen the Teide Observatory. This is an important array of telescopes that have been set up because of the island’s favorable astronomical seeing conditions. (Apparently, across the earth there is a good deal of variation in the degree to which atmosphere blurs stars and planets.) Brian May, the lead guitarist of Queen, did his PhD research on interplanetary dust here. Thus, from Humboldt to the present day, Teide has maintained a scientific significance.

The road down was just as winding and perilous as the road up. But it was shorter. In just half an hour we were in our next destination: Puerto de la Cruz.

This place was one of the first tourist centers on the island. Alexander von Humboldt himself stayed here during his visit to the island. It remains a place of hotels and resorts—tall white buildings huddled around the beach. The city itself is, thus, not especially noteworthy (though there are many good places to eat and drink). What draws attention is the beach of black, volcanic sand right in the center.

Photo by Rebeca López

We stood for some time admiring the jagged black rock that forms the surrounding coastline. The rich blue of the waters turned a creamy white as it churned and frothed in the waves, battering against the shore and jettisoning into foamy sprays. Rebe spent about ten minutes trying to photograph it. Then, we headed towards the beach. On the way we encountered a strange sort of monument: thousands of little piles of black stones. A lot of man-hours had been spent in making this natural stone garden. It is a local tradition?

The beach was beyond. For a Saturday evening, it was not too crowded. The weather was not quite hot enough for sunbathing or swimming—at least, I thought so. However, it was beautiful. I had never seen a black sand beach before. The sand was courser than normal sand, with a smoother texture. I imagine it gets very, very hot in the summer months. Exhausted, I sat down on the beach while Rebe walked along the water. Her figure was silhouetted in the intense yellow reflection of sunlight on the waves. If I had had a good camera, it would have made an excellent photograph. 

We hung out on the beach, had a drink (well, Rebe did), and went back to the apartment. Our short time in Tenerife was almost spent. We spent the night drinking a bottle of the local wine, which was surprisingly good. I suppose the mild climate and the volcanic soil are well-suited for viticulture.

The view from our apartment. Photo by Rebeca López.

The next morning we drove to the airport. But there was a problem. The whole time we had been driving, there had been yellow warning light in the dashboard, saying “neumático presión.” I panicked when I first saw it, of course, since I assumed that this had something to do with our suspension. But when I asked the rental car agent, he said it was no problem. It had stayed yellow the entire weekend. But on Sunday morning, as we prepared to return to the airport, it turned a bright red and said “urgente.”

At this point I asked Rebe what “neumático” meant.

“You don’t know?” she said, alarmed.

“I’m not sure…”

“It means tires,” she said.

“Seriously?” I said. “Oh, shit.”

Now, to reiterate, I did not know the first thing about car maintenance. I still don’t. So I was at a loss. I had Rebe call the rental car company, who told us to take it to a gas station and use the free tire pressure gauge. We did. It took us about ten minutes to figure out how to use the machine; we must have looked like two bumbling idiots. When we checked, we found that one tire had considerably less pressure than the rest. With five minutes of pumping, balance was restored, and the warning light turned off. Soon the car was returned to the airport parking lot, and my adventure in automobiling had come to a close. 

I should mention that the car rental experience in Tenerife was excellent. I used PlusCar, and I would recommend them to any who wish to travel to the Canary Islands. The price was cheap and included insurance. The company also had a surprisingly relaxed attitude. There was little paperwork, no deposit, no threats of being held responsible for damages, and no attempt to sell us anything extra. And when we returned the car, we just left the keys under the dashboard and walked away. If only renting a car were always like that.

My last image of Tenerife was magnificent. The plane began to accelerate down the runway, taking off and ascending away from the ground. In five minutes the windows were covered with the white of clouds. Moments later, as we broke through the layer of mist, I looked out to see Teide, with its crown breaking through the sea of fog. I could hardly believe it: the peak was still above us! This was the first time I had looked up at the ground from a plane window.

I wish that I had spent more time in Tenerife. It was one of my best trips in Europe. The landscape is beautiful, the people are charming, the food is delicious—and, best of all, the price is reasonable. I would go back.

Despite my constant terror, I also relished the experience of having a car. The prospect of car ownership has never had much appeal to me. But renting a car made me understand: a car means freedom. True, it also means having to take care of the car, as I also learned. Still, I loved the feeling of being able to go wherever I pleased, whenever I pleased. And it is always a relief to conquer one’s fears. I had driven, and I had survived—something I never thought possible. 

Of course, it was also very nice to be able to travel with Rebe. It was our first vacation together, and we managed not to kill each other. It turns out that spending a weekend on a tropical island with your girlfriend is, indeed, as enjoyable as it sounds.