Rebe was in acute distress. That day, wholly unexpectedly, she was informed that she had been chosen from the list of substitute teachers (interinos) and had been given a real, full-time teaching job. Essentially, this meant going from unemployed to real teacher in 24 hours. Such a change entails a great deal, of course. For one thing, she had to go get a Covid test the following day at a private lab, and then go directly to her new school to meet the other teachers. And, this being the Spanish government, she also had to do a great deal of paperwork.
But this also meant that she could not go on the vacation that she had so painstakingly planned this weekend before, with me, to the Pyrenees. She had mapped out every glacial lake (ibón), and had ranked them in interest. She had examined the weather predictions in every relevant locale, so that we could take advantage of the most temperate conditions. She had even noted which restaurants in which pueblos would be the best for our future repasts. The mountain resort was booked, the rental car reserved. And she could not enjoy any of it.
“Are you going without me?” she asked, as she frantically searched on her phone for information about the next major phase in her life.
The better angels of my nature told me that I ought to stay, in solidarity and support. But the more wicked of my internal cherubins said, in a choir, that this was an opportunity that I could not forego.
“Uhhhh,” I said. “I think so.”
You see, the trip was too good to pass up. The national park of Ordesa is a UNESCO World Heritage site—an enormous expanse of majestic mountains. Tucked into this landscape are medieval villages, some of the loveliest in the country. Every photo online gives the impression of jaw-dropping beauty. Most importantly, despite my years of crisscrossing Spain, this was a region entirely new to me—one of the final frontiers in the country. How could I pass up the opportunity to finally see the Pyrenees?
Thus, the next morning, while Rebe prepared herself for bloodwork and actual work, I left to pick up the rental car. Soon I was driving on the A-2 highway towards Zaragoza. Even though I still have apprehensions about driving by myself, the car went beautifully, and I figured that I was in for an excellent vacation. There was only one slight source of annoyance, however, and that was that the rental agency had given me the car half-empty, even though I had paid for the full-full policy.
Well, this was remedied easily enough. I pulled over and called the office, and they told me to simply bring it back half-empty with no harm done. Then, feeling rather happy with myself, I filled up the car with unleaded gasoline and drank an unleaded coffee.
But trouble started as soon as I got back on the highway. The engine revved up to a high-pitched buzz, even though I was not going very fast. Looking at the RPM meter, I saw that I was dangerously close to the red zone. Meanwhile, I could barely keep up with the creeping tractor trailers. Something clearly was not right.
I pulled over at the next exit. A call to the rental office did not help. First I was told to restart the car—which led to innumerable and seemingly nonsensical error messages popping up on the screen, for everything from the USB connection to the parking brake—and then to reset the battery. This also proved to be quite useless advice, as the “reset battery” button I was assured existed did not, in fact, exist.
Finally I was able to get the car started and took it for a few drives around the parking lot. It felt quite fine—good, in fact. Maybe the trouble had passed?
With some trepidation I once again took the car onto the highway. Once again, I tried to confidently accelerate past the sluggish transportation vehicles, and once again I found that I was the sluggish one. I pulled over and called the office again.
“What do you think the problem is?” I asked.
“Are you sure you put the right type of fuel in?” they asked.
“Almost completely sure,” I said (instantly made unsure by the question).
“Well,” they said, “then I guess the only thing you can do is return the car yourself, or call a tow truck.”
“Do you think it’s safe to drive?”
“If you go really slowly, I think you can make it.”
My heart was beating somewhere near my eardrums at this point, and sweat was rolling down my back in thick globules. But I was willing to do almost anything to avoid having to call a tow truck. So I plugged in the rental car office into the GPS, and began my journey back. But the car seemed even slower than before. I could only go half the speed limit. Fearing an accident, I turned on my emergency lights and prepared for a long, long drive.
But that was not to be. Within just two minutes, a police jeep was following me. They pulled up alongside, gesturing in perplexity, and then trailed me until I pulled over. I must say that the two men were quite nice, if not exactly helpful. Their intervention essentially consisted in telling me that it was too dangerous to drive so slowly on the highway—quite correct, of course, but not very constructive.
There was a rest area very close to where the police pulled me over. In an act of surrender, I parked the car there, took out my things, and called for a tow truck. After all, the car seemed to be deteriorating rapidly. Several times during that short drive, it rattled and shook, like the engine was choking; and before I stopped by the side of the road, the engine had cut out completely. My mind, seeking a reason for the whole thing, insisted on recriminations. Could it be my fault? Did I really put in the wrong fuel?
The stress of the situation was beginning to seem overwhelming until I walked into the rest area and found myself in that most soothing of environments: a Spanish bar. In moments, I was seated outside sipping on a coffee and nibbling on a slice of tortilla, as I waited for the tow truck to arrive. I was in the barren plains of Castilla La-Mancha, an hour away from the nearest city. As a measure of the remoteness of the area, this particular rest stop specialized in wild meats: deer, rabbit, wild boar… The closest pueblo, Saúca, has a population of about 70.
Hardly twenty minutes had gone by when the tow truck arrived, which I found quite impressive. In the blink of an eye the car was loaded on the back and I was stranded. Now, time to call a taxi. The tow truck man told me to call a number on my rental contract; the lady at the other end of the phone told me to call any local taxi service; and just as I was about to do so, I was called by a taxi driver who was on his way, asking where I was, and berating me for not telling him sooner.
Another twenty minutes and the taxi was there. A typical Spanish character, he smoked two cigarettes and downed a coke before the drive. Then, he insisted that I call the rental company—twice—to confirm that the trip was covered by the insurance. Apparently, he had been stiffed too many times.
When his nicotine and caffeine levels had been properly replenished, and his money assured, he finally agreed to drive me back to Madrid. Nothing at all interesting happened during the ride, other than that I found the receipt for the gas station, which confirmed that I put the right fuel in the car after all. This made me feel considerably better. (As it turns out, this particular model of car, the Ford Focus, has had trouble with fuel pumps; and my issues were entirely consistent with a failing fuel pump. So it was not my fault!)
The rental people were very professional: They offered me another car; and when I decided—in frustration—to cancel the trip altogether, they at least reimbursed me for the fuel I bought. If you ask me, though, giving me a car with a failing motor that required several hours worth of towing should have merited a full refund.
But I am not particularly sad that I did not get to see the Pyrenees. I will see them one day, hopefully when Rebe can actually come. Until then, let this voyage be a counter-balance to all of the nice stories of European vacations on the internet (including, of course, on this blog). Sometimes a vacation simply does not work out.
Marseille’s reputation—at least as a tourist destination—is not enviable. Virtually everyone I told about my upcoming visit raised their eyebrows. They told me that the city was very dangerous and should be avoided. One person told me that a friend of his, while merely driving through Marseille, had a gun stuck in his face through the car window. For my part, I would have never even considered going if one of my oldest friends had not, by chance, been living in the city for his historical research. He was very enthusiastic about the place, and assured me that I almost certainly would not get shot.
(According to this website, however, Marseille does indeed have the highest crime rate of any major European city—or at least in 2018. You are warned.)
Marseille is the second-largest city in France—though its population of around 850,000 is fairly modest—and the third-largest metropolitan area, after Lyon. (Need I mention which city is the first?) Like many European port cities, Marseille has a long history, dating back at least to the Ancient Greeks. Indeed, during the construction of a shopping center in the Place Jules Verne, the remains of two Greek ships were found. (If you would like to learn more, here is an hour-long documentary about the attempt to reconstruct one of the boats and sail it in the port.) Not ones to miss a strategic position, the Romans also set up camp here,
By the time I arrived, I had an entire posse awaiting me. Greg—the aforementioned historian—was accompanied by my brother (who had arrived the day before), and Lily, another old friend from New York, who was coincidentally visiting at just the same moment I was. Four denizens of the Hudson Valley thus found themselves thrown together in Mediterranean France, looking for a good time.
After dropping off my bag, the first item was lunch. Marseille is fortunate in having a robust culture of street food—particularly pizza. Just down the block, we found a food truck selling pizza baked in a wood-fired oven. And it was good: with a savory tomato sauce and a few anchovies. I mention this because, for all of its many delights, Madrid does not have a street food culture to speak of (Spaniards always eat sitting down) and also lacks a good pizza culture (Dominos is popular). So I was already rather taken with the city.
The repast done, we then boarded a city bus that carried us beyond the city limits. We were going to visit one of the treasures of the area: Calanques National Park. At first I did not know what the fuss was about. The bus left us near a trail, leading us into an entirely typical Mediterranean landscape: with dry, sandy soil, diminutive pine trees, and sun-baked rocks. Indeed, the area was strangely reminiscent of hiking trails in the Guadarrama mountains of Madrid. We carried on walking, pausing occasionally on the wooden benches, smelling some of the wild rosemary growing along the path, until we reached the coast.
Here is where the park became spectacular. The landscape swelled into peaks and then dropped in sharp cliffs towards the sea. The rough and rugged limestone shone pale in the sunlight, like old bone. This arid landscape contrasted sharply with the aquamarine glow of the Meditteranean. The result was quite dramatic. My favorite touch were the little white sailboats in the distance. We climbed a peak and took in the expansive sight, marvelling at how little the boats appeared amid the seething rock. It is difficult to contemplate such a scene—reflecting on the millenia it must have taken to form—and not feel both physically tiny and temporally insignificant.
After taking in the natural spectacle, we walked back to the bus and headed toward the city center. I want to mention something that we passed along the way, but which we unfortunately did not take the time to stop and see: the Unité d’Habitation, a modernist apartment building designed by Le Corbusier, the great French prophet of modernist architecture. Indeed, the building in Marseille is considered to be a prototype of his Utopian vision of urban planning—spaces designed to equalize social rank, to create a more open and organized city, and to embrace the efficiencies of the industrial age. Unfortunately, Le Corbusier’s vision did not pan out so well in practice, as high-rise apartment buildings were used all over the world as public housing for the urban poor, thus isolating them in corners of the city with few other resources.
Looking at the building in Marseille, however, one does feel a sense of utopian inspiration. Visually it is quite striking: with the entire concrete edifice elevated on stilts, allowing pedestrians to walk under and through the building. Thus, the apartment is integrated with the green spaces on either side, fulfilling the old notion of the ‘garden city.’ The wall panels around the windows are painted red, yellow, and blue, creating an attractively retro color scheme. At least part of the building is now a luxury hotel; and judging from the photos online, the retro aesthetic is maintained throughout. Another part of the building is a modern art museum, in which the visitor can ascend to the roof to enjoy some odd concrete excrescences, as well as a beautiful view of the city and the sea. There is even a nursery school in the building. Despite the attractive and thoughtful design, however, I would much prefer a room in a smaller building, better integrated to the life of the city. Good neighborhoods are organic rather than planned.
It was already getting a bit late, so our next step was to have a night on the town. But first we had to have a little snack. For this, we went to a local shop to buy a baguette and some cheese. Now, I cannot say that I am a particular fan of cheese, or even bread; but this little meal was quite impressive. First, the baguette was far better than what I was used to from New York or Spain—nicely crusty on the outside, while not too flaky, and almost creamy on the inside. The cheese was even more delicious. We bought three kinds (don’t ask for their names), all of them tasty. One in particular impressed me: it had three separate flavors—a sharp attack, a buttery middle, and a bitter aftertaste. The French deserve their reputation.
Evening was fast approaching, so it was time to head into the center of town. In Marseille, this almost inevitably means walking towards the water. We followed the gently sloping ground down to the city’s cathedral, which sits within a few hundred feet of the sea. It looked quite lovely in the waning daylight. Of relatively recent construction (for Europe), the cathedral was made in a Byzantine-revival style, with ample domes and circular arches—a far cry from the angular French gothic. The alternating horizontal bands of dark and light stone used in the facade give the building a playful charm. (Though I did not see it during my trip, I later learned that the much older, much smaller original cathedral can still be seen beside the modern building.)
As the sun sank below the horizon, we found ourselves in the port. Though we were just walking and chatting, this part of the night sticks out in my memory for the vibrant colors that suddenly appeared in the darkening sky. A ferris wheel was lit up neon green, while a nearby museum projected wavy blue lights onto the walkway. The horizon, meanwhile, cooled into an ember glow, turning walkers into dark silhouettes.
But we did not have all night to dawdle on romantic seascapes. We had dinner to eat. For this, Greg took us to a seafood restaurant at the Old Port, where he ordered a terrific platter of the fruits of the sea. There were oysters, clams, mussels, prawns, and crabs, all served on a bed of ice with a few slices of lemon. Now, I admit that I am not the more passionate admirer of seafood; and having it served so raw and unadorned was not exactly to my liking. But there is certainly a kind of purity to such a meal—the unadorned flavor of the Mediterranean.
Our day ended in a bar, over a bottle or two of red wine. From the start, Marseille had maintained a pleasant atmosphere. Contrary to the evil reputation of the French, the people of Marseille were consistently pleasant and friendly. (Maybe it is just the Parisians that are rude.) The city, though not spectacularly beautiful, is full of the charm of old Europe. What is more, since the city does not receive a great deal of tourism, there is a kind of intimacy to the place—the aura of a city that is lived in rather than traveled through. That night, I went to sleep eager to see more.
The next day began with a pilgrimage. We were going to visit Notre-Dame de la Garde, by far the most famous church in Marseille.
There seems to be a universal human urge to climb to tall places and, when possible, build something there. We are willing to endure quite a lot of physical hardship for something as intangible as a view. Of course, there are advantages to having the high ground—most notably, surveillance and defense. This is why so many hills in Europe are occupied by fortresses. Driving through Spain, one even sees castles built on hills overlooking tiny pueblos. Marseille is no different in this respect; a fortress was built on the city’s highest point during the Renaissance.
Before this, the hill had mainly served a religious function, being the home to a gothic chapel. It seems that expansive views, aside from their tactical advantage, also put people into a spiritual frame of mind. When the fortress became militarily useless in the 19th century, the hill reverted back to its primary function as a place of worship. Just as the Marseille Cathedral was getting underway, it was decided to build another large, neo-Byzantine church atop the old fortress. Ever since, the church has served as the most identifiable symbol of Marseille, and the city’s most popular attraction. Hills, you see, are very profitable indeed.
The walk up to the hill was relatively painless (even if we did it before having any coffee). The church presented a splendid sight to us pilgrims, as the sun shone directly behind the building. The basilica is dominated by a large tower, topped with a gilded statue of the virgin. Both inside and out, it is characterized by the same bands of light and dark that distinguish Marseille’s cathedral. In the interior you can find attractive mosaics in a pseudo-Byzantine style. But what I found more charming was the surprising sense of cramped intimacy in the church—pilgrims packed into pews, the walls full of little paintings, and toy boats hanging from the ceiling.
It would be generous, however, to consider the basilica itself an architectural wonder. It is impressive more for its situation than its design. The view is panoramic and thoroughly captivating. You can see the green, grey hills that encircle the city, and the red tile rooftops of the buildings as they fall towards the sea. White sail boats filled the water, accompanied by the odd motored craft.
Off the coast you can see the Frioul Islands (called simply “Les Îles”), four small floating bits of limestone that serve as home to about 150 residents. On the smallest, there is a well-preserved castle (islands are also useful for defense), the Château d’If—iconic as the site where Edmond Dantés was imprisoned in Dumas’s The Man in the Iron Mask. The island was actually used as a prison, in fact; much like Alcatraz, its location made it extremely difficult to escape from.
On the opposite side of the basilica, you can see the white folded shape of the city’s football stadium, the Vélodrome; and beyond that, you can see the monumental conglomeration of apartment buildings, La Rouvière, which seem to be as much part of the landscape as the mountains.
After partaking of the spectacle—and a quick coffee in the café next door—we went back down the hill and returned to the port. There, we visited the Mucem, short for the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, which was opened in 2013 when Marseille was dubbed a European Capital of Culture for that year. We did not visit the exhibitions, however, as we were short on time, and Greg assured us that they were not spectacular in any case. Instead, we headed up to the roof, to enjoy another coffee in the modernistic museum building. The outside of the entire structure is covered in a kind of grey, plastic web, like artificial seaweed, which certainly stands out among the sandy-colored stone that makes up the surrounding area.
The visitor can walk directly from the roof of the museum to the neighboring castle, Fort Saint-Jean, via an elevated walkway. This is yet another fortress in the arsenal of Marseille, built during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV. The old turrets provide an attractive view of the Old Port, and many parts of the fortification are now occupied by lovely planned gardens. Across another elevated walkway there is the church of Saint-Laurence de Marseille, a lovely old Romanesque church. From there, the old port (le vieux port) is just a short walk away.
(By the way, I have an idea for Marseille’s new official tourism slogan: “Come for the Port View, stay for Le Vieux Port.”)
On any given day, the water is full of hundreds of little white boats, bobbing gently in the tide. Restaurants wrap around the water, offering French classics like moules-frites (though that’s actually from Belgium!). At the end of the port, you will find something which, as an American, cannot but make you pine for the Old World: fishermen and women selling their fresh catches. Little brown and grey fish float in plastic bins, while their vendors call out their prices. And it is no mere spectacle; when I was there, the fisherpeople were doing good business. I am sure it tastes better than frozen fish at the supermarket.
Right next to this little market is a bit of public art, the Ombrière. Like the museum, this is yet another relic of the 2013 European Cultural Capital Celebration—a design by big-time architect Norman Foster. The Ombrière is an elevated roof whose underside is an enormous mirror. This makes for good fun as you walk underneath and crane your neck, and it is a gift to amateur photographers. It would be much appreciated in a rainstorm, too.
Now it was time for lunch. For this, we decided to experience a different kind of cuisine. Because of the city’s location on the Mediterranean, and owing to France’s colonial past, Marseille has a deep connection with Northern Africa (the Maghreb). Thus, there are many thousands of immigrants in the city; and of course they brought their food with them, too. This was readily apparent when we sat down to have some kebab. Of course, kebab is a European staple, to be found anywhere. But this kebab was special—not the cheap ground meat sandwich with ketchup and mustard, like you find in Spain, but a properly spiced dish with good ingredients. I was very happy with my meal.
After lunch, my brother had to catch his flight back to Madrid. (Our visits were staggered since we had different days of the week off.) This meant a little trip to the city’s Saint-Charles train station so he could catch the bus. Though you may not believe it, this train station is one of the architectural highlights of Marseille, mostly owing to the richly decorated grand staircase—adorned with statues, columns, and elaborate light fixtures—that leads from the city center up to the station building. The station building itself is quite attractive as well, a classic open metal frame.
But we did not have all day to contemplate train stations. There was still one monument left on the agenda: the Palais Longchamp. This is indeed a palatial building, though not really a palace: it is a piece of celebratory architecture, a monument to the completion of the Canal de Marseille.
This canal, completed in 1849, was an enormous engineering triumph, requiring the building of tunnels, bridges, and aqueducts in order to transport the water 50 miles (80 km) to the city, using just the pull of gravity. To this day, the Roquefavour Aqueduct—built to carry the water over the Arc valley—is the largest stone aqueduct in the world, stretching 375 meters (1,230 feet)! The canal still provides the majority of Marseille’s water. (New York City’s Croton Aqueduct, another monumental project, was completed at around the same time, and traveled a similar distance. Both projects were motivated by similar problems—growing population, salty local water, and outbreaks of cholera—but the Croton Aqueduct was supplanted within just a few decades.)
Given this background, you can understand why the Palais Longchamp is truly a celebration of water. The two wings of the building extend out from the central arch, where a statue of some Greek goddess rides atop the waves. Water pours down a mossy basin into a pool, and continues falling down towards the street. The visitor can enjoy this splashy spectacle from the two monumental staircases that wind up on either side, which lead through the triumphal arches to the lovely garden on the other side. The two wings of the structure, I should note, are home to two museums: the Museum of Fine Arts (on the left) and Natural History (on the right). They were both closed by the time we got there, though. So we contented ourselves with sitting aside the fountain, having a good chat, and drinking from a bottle of red wine my friend brought along. As far as French evenings go, this was one of the best.
We finished up the night with a home-cooked meal. For this, we took advantage of the North African influence in French cuisine—a lasting relic of the French colonies. We bought merguez sausages, couscous, and eggplant, zucchini, and tomato for a ratatouille. This meal, so simple, made a lasting impression on me, and I have tried to replicate it many times since. The merguez was particularly impressive: made from lean lamb meat, full of garlic and spice, it is very much unlike the sorts of sausages available in Spain. The couscous—also not popular in Spain—was light, fluffy, and filling, while the ratatouille (made by my talented friend Lily) was wonderfully flavorful.
The night ended, as it always must, with an episode of a history documentary—this one, about the Spanish Civil War (free on YouTube). It had been a wholly enjoyable day.
I did not have much time before my flight the next day. And I had even less time to see Greg, since he had to go work (he was researching in a government archive in the area). So after a breakfast with Lily, I headed off to see one final Marseille monument: the Abbey of St. Victor.
This is an extremely old monastery—dating from the fifth century—though it was mostly destroyed by invading Vikings and Saracens, and later rebuilt in the tenth century. The abbey is situated next to yet another old castle, the Fort-Saint-Nicolas; and indeed the church looks quite formidable itself: its high, crenellated walls make the building look more military than devotional. Certainly, positioned as it is with a commanding view of the old port, the church would have been a good defensive structure in the case of an invasion. Though I am not sure that the monks would have made the best warriors.
The building is just as formidable on the inside as without. Spare of decoration, the visitor is confronted with grey stone walls forming a somber environment. Even more dark and gloomy is the crypt, where the visitor can find half-ruined tombs and cracked carvings. Yet the building’s interest goes even further back than the church’s founding, as a Greek-era quarry was discovered here, as well as a Hellenistic Necropolis. As so often happens in Europe, history is simply piled on top of itself here.
Before my bus left to the airport, I had just enough time to eat some more delicious kebab. That may have been a mistake, however. All of us experienced some sort of stomach problem either during or after our trip. Lily got sick on the way over from New York. In my case, for many days after returning to Madrid, I would find myself nauseated after eating just a bit of food. It was rather odd.
Infirmity or no, however, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in this supposedly dangerous city. One comes away from Marseille with a very different image of France than the typical Parisian experience. The people were friendly, the food relatively cheap, and the environment thoroughly Mediterranean. I would gladly return to see more of the region.
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California and New York have a relationship like many siblings. The two have much in common: they are wealthy, cosmopolitan, populous, and mostly liberal. And yet they drive each other crazy with their differences. Whereas New Yorkers are traditionally rude, uptight, stressed, and workaholic, the archetypical Californian is relaxed, gentle, happy, and obsessed with organic food and fair-trade coffee. Who is to say which is better?
I found myself reflecting on these differences as I walked off the plane that had taken me from JFK to the San Francisco airport, in the summer of 2018. The contrast was immediate. Any time you walk into JFK, you soon have someone yelling at you. But the airport here was calm and quiet. All the staff spoke to us in cheerful, polite tones. Of course, I was suspicious.
We were here to celebrate my cousin’s wedding, and to do some sightseeing in our free time. As it happens, all of my mother’s four siblings moved to California when they left home (whether from a hatred of NY or a love of Cali, it is unclear), which means that all of my cousins on my mother’s side were born and raised here in the sunny side of the country. It was inevitable that one of them would get married here.
My aunt picked us up from the airport. We were jet-lagged, tired, and quite hungry, and so we immediately headed to a restaurant. This meant a little bit of driving. Driving is fundamental to the Californian lifestyle; and since so many people live here, that means traffic is as well. But at least there are some nice places to drive. As a case in point, we were soon crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, probably the most famous bridge in our country (the only competition being the Brooklyn Bridge).
Now, when we were crossing this bridge, I am afraid that I mostly did not get a good look at it, since the bridge and its surroundings were shrouded in a thick fog. As I quickly came to appreciate, this is not unusual in San Francisco during the summer. The reasons for such abundant mist are rather elusive to me. Essentially, the fog forms because the air over land is heated more quickly than the air over the oceans. The hot air, then, rises, which means cold air is sucked in to replace it. And this cold air happens to be foggy, since it comes from the ocean. And as this process works best when the sun is hottest, San Francisco summers are foggy.
(The reason I say that this reasoning is elusive to me is that the same logic would seem to apply to any coastal city; but New York, Valencia, and Hong Kong are not foggy to such a degree.)
The climatic consequences of this are interesting. You can have hot sunny days a few miles inland, but in San Francisco itself it will be cool and misty—even a bit chilly. Indeed, Mark Twain famously wrote: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” That adage has a few problems, however, the first being that Mark Twain never actually wrote it. Another problem is that it is not true to begin with. Winters in New York are a lot colder, as Twain well knew.
Well, if I could see the bridge on that foggy afternoon, I would have seen one of the great engineering marvels of the world. At the time it was built (in the 1930s), the Golden Gate Bridge was the longest and tallest bridge on earth. The bridge connects the city of San Francisco with Marin County (where we were going to eat), spanning the entrance to the ample San Francisco Bay. It owes its fame, not only to its dimensions, but to its elegant design and bold orange color (the paint is called “international orange”), not to mention its dramatic location at the crossroads of land and sea.
Soon enough, we parked the car in the small town of Sausalito. Like the city of San Francisco, this town’s name preserves its Spanish origins (sauce means “willow tree”; sauzal means “a willow grove”; and sauzalito means “a little willow grove”). In the past, the town was a center of ship construction; but nowadays it is a touristy little town full of nice restaurants and cute shops, with a great view of the bay. We ate in an Italian restaurant and I felt greatly relieved. But our chit chat was interrupted when somebody said: “Is that Santana?” Everyone’s eyes turned to look at someone behind me.
“There’s no way that Santana is in this Italian restaurant,” I thought, and mentally justified not turning around. Then I saw somebody walk out of the restaurant: It was, indeed, the legendary guitarist Santana. This was my welcome to California.
San Francisco is located at the tip of a peninsula enclosing the eponymous bay. In many ways the city’s geography was its destiny. A center of commerce with limited land, the city had little choice but to expand upwards. These same factors determined the history of Manhattan; and, as a result, the two are among the most visually striking cities in the United States—a collection of spires rising out of the blue.
If you have gone to Catholic school, you may have guessed that San Francisco was named after St. Francis of Assisi. To this day, the oldest structure in the city is a small white building topped with a crucifix, a part of the Misión San Francisco de Asís, a holdover of the original Spanish mission to the peninsula. One must realize, then, that a city known for being a center of liberal politics, of the Summer of Love, of the gay rights movement, of the ultra-wealthy Silican Valley technicians, was named after a Catholic monk who took a vow of poverty. History is full of these delightful ironies.
We awoke early the next day (though still groggy from the jetlag) to begin our first day of exploring San Francisco. This time, we entered the city through the Bay Bridge, directly across the bay. This of course meant traffic and a toll. But it did provide a rather dramatic entrance to the city. At four and a half miles long (over 7km), the Bay Bridge is one of the longest bridges in the United States. It is not one continuous span, however, but two separate bridges linked to the Yerba Buena island in the middle of the bay. (“Yerba Buena” is a corruption of hierbabuena, which literally means ‘good herb,’ and is commonly used to refer to spearmint.)
This bridge has been reconstructed fairly recently. The original construction consisted of a suspension bridge on the west, and a cantilever bridge on the east. But an earthquake in 1989 damaged the eastern section, which eventually led to its being rebuilt with another, more stylish, suspension bridge, opened in 2013. Photos of the construction look very much like the construction of the new Tappan Zee bridge in Westchester, quite near my home, where another old cantilever bridge was replaced by a sleek and stylish suspension bridge. And, indeed, the same barge crate was used in both constructions: the Left Coast Lifter, an enormous contraption painted patriotic red, white, and blue, used to heave big pieces of bridge into place.
On a clear day, the Bay Bridge would afford you a magnificent view of the city. On this particular day, however, it gave us a rather less magnificent view of gray fog. But this did lend the city an intriguing air of mystery.
Our first stop was Coit Tower. This tower is not exactly conspicuous amid the skyscrapers now crowding the city; but when it was built, in the 1930s, this was the finest view in town. The tower is of fairly modest dimensions, about 200 feet tall. But it stands on Telegraph Hill, one of the hilly city’s tallest and most ideally situated hills. This makes the tower a wonderful place to enjoy the view—when it is not foggy, that is. In any case, the tower is interesting in itself. Made of unadorned concrete, it has a vaguely industrial shape, perhaps like a sprinkler. Considering that the tower is dedicated to fallen firefighters, many have surmised that it was to look like a fire hydrant. The resemblance is apparently coincidental, however.
Coit Tower owes its name to Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy dowager who patronized the volunteer fire department, and who left money in her will for the beautification of the city. I would say that the money was well spent, considering the tourists crowded into every inch of the building. We entered, paid the fee, and went up to the top. The building is narrow and there is only one small elevator providing service up and down. In any case, as soon as I reached the roof, I wanted to turn back. It was rainy, the wind was howling, and the fog put a damper on the view.
But Coit Tower has much to offer besides its view. On the bottom floor, there is a continuous mural running across the outer and inner walls of the hallway. It is detailed and impressive work, done during the height of the Great Depression, under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project. Indeed, Coit Tower was the pilot project of this organization, an experiment in using public funds to employ artists to beautify public buildings. The results are still heartening. The murals are done in a Social Realist style, showing stylized scenes of America.
What makes the art “social realist” is not so much that the paintings are particularly realistic, but that they attempt to encapsulate the everyday American experience. Thus, we see street life, factories, and farms, rather than saints, heroes, or Greek gods. Personally I found the murals both aesthetically pleasing and even vaguely inspiring—showing pride and faith in our sprawling country. Certainly, such a thing seems very distant nowadays. Perhaps we ought to bring back the Public Works of Art Project. I am sure there are still lots of needy artists willing to paint inspirational scenes in public spaces.
After this we headed to the Financial District. Anywhere money is centered, big grey buildings are likely to follow; and so this is where the city’s skyscrapers are found. When you factor in the regular grid pattern of the streets, the final result looks remarkably similar to midtown Manhattan (though not as dirty). The Financial District even has its own Wall Street, in the form of Montgomery Street, one of the country’s great concentrations of capitalist activity.
For over forty years—from 1971 to 2017—the skyline of San Francisco was dominated by the Transamerica Pyramid, a daring modernist triangle of glass and steel. Even now, the building seems futuristic in its design. The same cannot quite be said for its younger brother, the Salesforce Tower, which surpassed the pyramid upon its completion in 2017. It is difficult to find anything positive to say about this building’s design. Its shape calls to mind objects not normally mentioned in polite conversation, and its bloated form does not harmoniously blend in with the San Francisco skyline, but dominates and disrupts the picture. I must admit, however, that the building is an impressive technical achievement, since erecting safe skyscrapers in the seismically-active city is no easy feat.
For lunch, we headed to Yank Sing, a dim sum restaurant in the famous Rincon Center. The building itself has an elegant art-deco design. But it is most notable for the murals inside, which also date from the Federal Arts Project. The best murals are to be found in the old post office, and were painted by the Russian immigrant Anton Refregier. They are also part of the social realist tradition, and treat of the history of San Francisco—covering major events, like the 1848 gold rush, the 1860 completion of the trans-continental railroad, and the horrible 1906 earthquake. Refregier’s sense of injustice and oppression caused some controversy, as it led him to portray some of the less attractive scenes of American history—a choice that got him into trouble as a communist sympathizer during the Red Scare. Thankfully, the murals have escaped destruction by bigots.
After we finished eating and enjoying the art, we got back in the car to head to the most iconic stretch of asphalt in the entire city: Lombard Street. This is a twisting street, consisting of eight hair-pin turns, that leads down one of San Francisco’s many hills. I have never seen anything else like it. The last time I had visited San Francisco was over ten years earlier, when I was quite young, and I still had a vivid memory of this road—so crazily misshaped. On this particular summer day, as the fog began to clear, the street was quite beautiful. Flowers bloomed in the little gardens beside the pavement, and plants even colonized one colorful house nearby.
This seems like an appropriate time to discuss San Francisco’s topography. Like Rome itself, San Francisco claims to have been built on “seven hills,” though there are an awful lot more than seven hills in the city. Indeed, there are six times more: 42 hills, ranging in height from 200 to over 900 feet tall. I can only imagine that the city’s marathon is punishing on one’s knees, and that owning a car means frequent brake repair. It is probably due to this inclination that San Francisco developed its famous cable car system—one of the city’s most identifiable symbols. In its hilliness and its in street cars, this Californian city has an intriguing resemblance to Lisbon, a city with its own big orange bridge.
Now we decided to visit the city’s most famous book store: City Lights. I must confess that I had never heard of it, and I walked out thinking that it was just a particularly nice shop. But my dear mother soon informed me that it was this humble store which published Allan Ginsberg’s iconic collection, Howl and Other Poems, in 1956—a pivotal moment in the Beats movement, as the resulting obscenity trial changed censorship practices and catapulted Ginsberg to national fame. When I found this out, I went right back inside and bought myself a copy of this poem. (Fortunately, after the store’s continued existence was threatened by the coronavirus lockdowns, an online fundraiser helped to save the business.)
After this adventure in literature, we retreated to the nearby Caffe Trieste for some caffeine. This is an elegant little establishment which holds the distinction of being the first Italian-style café on the West coast. As you might expect, having a quality coffee house near a center of the Beats movement meant that this spot also became a meeting-point for literati, like Alan Watts, Jack Keruac, and Alan Ginsberg himself. But I was mostly struck by the prices. Coffee in San Francisco is not cheap! Indeed, ever since we landed, everything I saw seemed absurdly expensive to me; and this is no coincidence.
Though San Francisco was the center of the Beats movement, the setting of the 1967 Summer of Love, and in the 1980s the epicenter of gay liberations, nowadays the city has gone the way of so many major cities—it is simply too expensive for anyone but high-earners to live there. A big part of this is due to the proximity of Silicon Valley, just a few miles south. The influx of big business has made the cost of living shoot up: the typical rent is higher than $4,500, and the typical house costs well over one million. According to this article, homelessness has increased by 17% in the last two years alone (and who knows how the coronavirus depression will affect that!). In short, it is not a great city to visit if you wish to travel on a budget.
Hippiedom and corporations aside, there are some traces of religion left in the coastal city. I have already mentioned the old San Francisco mission. There are some impressive church buildings as well, such as Grace Cathedral. This is the city’s Episcopal cathedral. The structure was completed in a resplendent neo-gothic style, doing a convincing imitation of Paris’s Notre-Dame. Yet the church doors are not gothic, but Renaissance in style; indeed, they are full-scale replicas of the Gates of Paradise. These are a set of bronze doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti, made for the baptistry of Florence, now considered to be great masterpieces of the early Renaissance. The replicas in San Francisco are wonderfully done, and were just as enjoyable to examine. The interior of the cathedral is quite as majestically gothic as the outside, with gilded paintings and stained glass illuminating the stone space. It even has a replica of Chartres’s labyrinth.
Not far off is the city’s catholic cathedral, Saint Mary’s. Completed in 1971, the building is so oddly shaped that you could be forgiven for not thinking it was a place of worship. To me, it resembles an enormous washing machine agitator, ready to rinse off the sky. While I am not an enemy of modern architecture, I do think that churches ought to be a bit more solemn and less, well, ridiculous in appearance. This church was built to replace the original cathedral, which had been standing since 1854. Reduced to the status of a humble church, this building still stands, now called Old St. Mary’s. While no architectural marvel, the simple brick building does have the conspicuous advantage of looking like a church.
Perhaps the most beautiful catholic church in the city is Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s. It is a pale white building with two long, narrow spires. The interior is quite lovely, with a coffered ceiling leading to a semi-dome above the main altar. The church even has a full-scale replica of Michelangelo’s Pietá—and it is extremely well-done. A center of the Italian-American community, the church holds services in Italian as well as in English. Somewhat more surprisingly, the church also holds services in Cantonese!
After some milling about in town, we got back in the car for the day’s final destination: Lands End. As you might have guessed, this is one of the many spots in San Francisco where earth meets water. More specifically, this is a park near the mouth of the bay. It is quite a romantic spot, with shrubby trees clinging to rocky soil, with the wind and the waves crashing in. The visitor’s center sits above a kind of rocky crater, beside which stand some ruins of old structures. This is all that remains of the famed Sutro Baths, an enormous complex of swimming pools that used to attract thousands of visitors.
I took some time to walk along the shoreline. The landscape is beautiful and dramatic, with whitecaps washing over sunbleached rocks, and the rolling hills crawling out from under the screen of fog. As I walked on, the Golden Gate Bridge came into view—still partially shrouded by the mist, but magnificent nonetheless.
I also noticed something strange in the water, a sort of concrete stump in the middle of the bay. I learned from a nearby sign that this is the Miles Rock Lighthouse. It was built after the SS City of Rio de Janeiro ran into a submerged reef and sank in 1901, killing 135 of the 220 on board. Originally, this lighthouse—which is built on a lonely rock—had the recognizable form of a tower, but in the 1960s the top floor was demolished in order to make room for a helicopter landing pad. Nowadays, the lights are automated, so nobody has to sit there, alone, in the middle of the foggy bay.
So ended my first day in San Francisco. We got back into the car and drove by the famous Cliff House restaurant, which overlooks the Seal Rocks (both of these very accurately named). Then, after a pizza dinner, we were on our way back to the suburbs. But I would return.
San Francisco is blessed to have the rail system with the dorkiest name in the country: BART, which stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit. For my next day in the city, I hopped on the BART by my aunt’s house in the suburbs, and disembarked at the Embarcadero. This is the city’s waterfront to the east, facing the bay; and its name is yet another mark of the city’s Spanish heritage (embarcadero is a place where you board a vehicle). With the weather quite clear and sunny, I could see the full span of the Bay Bridge. Infrastructure is inspiring.
I walked along the water, enjoying the gentle breeze and the bright sun, pausing occasionally to examine anything that caught my eye. This certainly included the giant sculpture, Cupid’s Span, which consists of a huge bow and arrow that have been stuck into the ground. Designed by the artist team Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen (who are married), the sculpture is meant to pay homage to San Francisco’s history as a city of love. (But to me it looks as though cupid had carelessly lost his weapon, which is not good news for would-be lovers.)
Next I passed the Ferry Building, which looks vaguely like a medieval city hall—with a large clocktower shooting up from a lower structure. This beaux-arts style building actually took its inspiration from the Giralda, the half-Moorish, half-Renaissance bell tower of Seville’s cathedral. As you may imagine, before the construction of the major bridges, ferries were quite important to the life of the city. But as time went on, the building came to be seen more and more as a historical monument, and parts were even rented out for use as office space. Nowadays, however, the building has regained some of its former luster, and is a tourist attraction in its own right—with a food court and a market in the “Grand Nave.” It is still the main ferry hub for the city.
While I walked along, I noticed an interesting presence on the streets: big, hulking streetcars. This is the city’s historic streetcar service. Much like the city’s cable cars, these streetcars now mainly serve a nostalgic purpose, ferrying tourists in creaky wooden and metallic boxes across the city. But they really are quite charming to see, as they scuttle past like big colorful beetles. Incidentally, I also passed by the Fog City Diner, a landmark restaurant with a classic, retro appeal. I later ate here with my family, and the food was fantastic.
My next stop was Pier 39. This pier is one of the city’s major tourist centers, which means it is crowded and filled with all sorts of touristy junk. But the pier is still worth visiting, if only for the view. From the end of the dock, you can see both the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge; and behind you there is Coit Tower and the Transamerica Pyramid. What most attracts attention, however, are the Sea Lions. A few decades ago, these animals preferred to lounge on the rocks near Cliff House, but for some reason they moved inside the bay and set up camp here. The sea lions took over these docks and have not budged since. The number of animals present on any given day fluctuated. When I visited, there were probably around 50; but there can be many times that number.
There are still more things to see from the pier. The SS Jeremiah O’Brien was docked not far off in the bay, a so-called Liberty ship. These were medium-sized cargo ships mass-produced during the Second World War, to ferry goods and men across the Atlantic. This particular ship has quite an impressive record, having been part of the D-Day Armada and seeing use in the Pacific Theater. The ship normally sits in the dock, available for tours; but occasionally it takes tourists on short rides.
Yet by far the most famous thing in the bay is not a ship, but an island: Alcatraz. You may be surprised to learn that this name also dates back to the Spanish occupation. Nowadays, the word alcatraz is used to refer to garrets; but at the time the word was used for pelicans (both are white, coastal birds). Thus, Alcatraz is the island of the pelicans—as it remains, incidentally.
(It is also curious to note that this word—like virtually all the Spanish words that begin with “al-”—is a loan word from Arabic, dating all the way back to Moorish Spain. It most likely comes from al-ḡaṭṭās (in Arabic: الْغَطَّاس), which means “the diver.” So the name of one of the world’s most famous prisons comes from a Spaniard misidentifying a bird, using a word that was misheard from Arabic several centuries earlier. History is a funny thing.)
The last time I had been in San Francisco, I visited this island with my family. Nowadays, unfortunately, you need to have booked tickets in advance in order to visit, so we missed our shot. But I do have a strangely vivid memory of my time on this island. It is an arresting mixture of the wretched and the beautiful—with dark, concrete cells surrounded by ocean and sky. Because of the frigid waters and strong tides of the bay, the prison was considered escape-proof, though three prisoners tested this notion in 1962 (as dramatized in the classic film). The iconic gangster Al Capone was imprisoned here, as well as the famous “Bird Man” of Alcatraz, Robert Franklin Stroud, who did important work on bird diseases during his many years of imprisonment. (Alcatraz, however, did not let him have either birds or equipment.)
By now, I had had enough of the overpriced and gaudy seaside, so I headed to one of San Francisco’s great neighborhoods: Chinatown. San Francisco has a claim to being the most important city in Chinese-American history, as the city’s Chinatown—established in 1848—is the country’s oldest. Though New York City has a higher Chinese population in total, people of Chinese descent make up a greater portion (about a quarter) of San Francisco than NYC or anywhere else in America. As it happens, most of the residents in the Bay Area hail from southern China, where Cantonese rather than Mandarin is spoken (which explains why some services at St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s are offered in that language).
The most recognizable landmark in the neighborhood is the Dragon Gate—a stylized arch (called a pailou), with two fearsome guardian lions on either side. This was actually a gift from Taiwan, and was erected as a kind of PR stunt during the Korean War for the Chinese-American community (since the People’s Republic of China was fighting on North Korea’s side).
Two other notable landmarks are the Sing Fat and Sing Chong buildings, both on Grant Street. These feature an arresting combination of typical Western and Chinese building styles—looking like ordinary buildings that have grown ornamental frills, towers, and swoops. But elaborate architecture is not needed to know that you are in Chinatown. Every surface is covered with Chinese characters, and red lamps hang over the streets.
I had quite a bit of fun simply walking around. I love walking into Chinese grocery stores and food shops, as they are always full of unfamiliar products and brands, all of them wrapped in sparkling colors. As I walked by an alley, I spotted a couple men practicing a dragon dance. And I even paid a short visit to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, which is exactly what it sounds like: a small factory for fortune cookies. But the best part of visiting Chinatown was the food. I waited online at a dumpling shop and walked out with enough food for three people, all for less than $10. In San Francisco, where a ham sandwich can cost more than that, this is beyond a bargain. And it was delicious.
Next, I wanted to visit a museum. San Francisco has plenty to offer in that regard. There is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), which has a vast collection of 20th century art, all housed in an appropriately daring building. There is the Legion of Honor, an imposing neoclassical building with a wide-ranging collection of (mostly European) art; and the de Young Museum, which mainly focuses on art from the United States. If you are looking for something a little more interactive, the Exploratorium—located on the Embarcadero—is full of participatory exhibits. (The museum was the brainchild of Frank Oppenheimer—a far more beneficent gift to humankind than Frank’s older brother’s gift of the atomic bomb.)
But I only had time for one museum, and the one which interested me the most was the Asian Art Museum. This museum is located right across from San Francisco’s city hall—a lovely Palladian structure with a gilded dome—as well as from the main branch of the San Francisco public library. The museum is an enormous institution in its own right, with one of the country’s great collections of Asian art. As I walked through the galleries—going from India, to China, to Japan—I found myself more and more deeply amazed, both at the quality of the collection and of the art itself, and once again filled with a burning desire to learn more about these cultures. But as I am, alas, still quite deplorably ignorant, I will let my photos do the talking:
This concluded my last full day in San Francisco. It was late and I needed to get back to my Aunt’s house for dinner. So I made my way to the nearest BART station and was whisked back across the bay. But I still had time for a last glimpse of the city.
On one beautifully unfoggy day, I took BART into the city center. I was going to go on a bike ride with my cousins. And to get to our rendezvous-point, I had to walk through one of the most famous neighborhoods in San Francisco: Haight-Ashbury.
Of all the famous cultural moments in the history of San Francisco, the 1967 Summer of Love may be the most iconic. That summer, tens of thousands of hippies—dressed in tie-dye and bell-bottom jeans, taking every type of substance you can imagine—converged on the city in order to protest war, reject capitalism, and in general to imagine a different kind of world. It was one of the high points of the sixties counter-cultural movement, an event that helped to identify an entire generation. The moment was so notable as to even merit its own hit song: “San Francisco,” by Scott McKenzie. It summed up the moment thusly:
All across the nation
Such a strange vibration
People in motion
There’s a whole generation
With a new explanation
And indeed there was.
All hippiedom aside, the neighborhood is quite beautiful in itself, for its array of classic Victorian-style houses. These constitute perhaps the most distinctive buildings in the city—stately, elegant structures of wood and many windows, all scrunched up against one another in the city’s rolling hills. Residents have taken to painting them mellow, contrasting colors, leading to the popular nickname “Painted Ladies.” Personally, I found the neighborhoods quite charming. And I was also taken with the detectable aftershocks of the summer of love in the neighborhood, such as an “anarcho-syndicalist” bookstore (presumably one doesn’t have to pay?), and the coffee shop where I waited, which served a very nice brew in a space dominated by used books.
Finally it was time to assemble with my cousins. Within mere minutes, we had rented bikes and were pedalling our way through Golden Gate Park. If San Francisco’s Painted Ladies are the city’s equivalent to New York City’s brownstones, then the Golden Gate Park is the city’s Central Park. In fact, it is quite a bit larger than Manhattan’s greenspace, which is impressive in a city that is a fraction of NYC’s size. However, the two famous parks could never be confused by a visitor. Whereas Central Park is full of maples and oaks over a gently rolling field of grass, the Golden Gate Park has palm trees, eucalyptus, and cypress, which to me seemed quite beautiful and exotic.
Even more exotic were the bison, which were lounging casually in a field. This was almost certainly the first time I had ever laid eyes on a live bison. (There are stuffed ones in the American Museum of Natural History.) And, of all places, I did not expect it to happen in San Francisco. The park had purchased a herd back in 1899, when the country’s bison population was threatened; and it seems the habit of keeping bison is hard to kick.
We made our way through the patchwork of roads, paths, and bridges, until we came to a large open garden. This is where the de Young Museum (mentioned above) is located, as well as the California Academy of Sciences. But I was more interested in a lovely sculpture of two of my heroes, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, praying to their creator Cervantes—yet another echo of Spain in this Californian city. We dismounted and walked for a bit, enjoying the sun and the bird calls (most of which were entirely unfamiliar to me), until we came to the park’s end.
Suddenly, the sky opened up and the land expanded into a sandy beach: the very literally-named Ocean Beach. There were a few scattered surfers in the distance (which caused my cousin’s boyfriend, an Australian, keen envy). Behind me, I observed a beautiful Dutch-style windmill, which had been constructed in 1903 as a tasteful way of pumping water into the park.
My time in the city was quickly coming to an end. We pedalled back to the other side of the parks, returned the bikes, and then had dinner in a bar. Soon, I was on the BART, heading back to the suburbs.
Inevitably, I missed a great deal during my trip. I would have liked to have visited more museums and to have seen Alcatraz once again. I also regret not paying a visit to the Castro District, one of the country’s most important gay neighborhoods. It was here that Harvey Milk became the nation’s first openly gay elected official, before his gruesome assassination. It was also here that the nation first came to grips with the horrible AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
San Francisco is, without a doubt, one of the great American cities. Its history is fascinating, and its personality is unmistakable. Yet the city I had seen was very different from the city of Allen Ginsberg, Scott McKenzie, and Harvey Milk. Nowadays, San Francisco is the city of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk. Whether or not this is an improvement, I will let its residents decide.
Soon enough I was walking through the airport gate, back into JFK. And it was not long before someone was yelling rudely. It felt good to be home.
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My years in Madrid have been consumed with the search to find the cheapest possible flights. Within Europe, this is fairly easy, as bargain airlines could bring you from Madrid to Krakow for less than forty euros. But it is more difficult to find similar deals for trans-atlantic flights (which I need to get back to New York). For a few years, the best deals I was able to find were with Icelandair, which allowed me to travel for around $500 with one checked bag. The only inconvenience was having to have a stopover in Keflavik Airport—a large airport near Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik.
I performed this maneuver twice: once in the July of 2017, and once a year later. Both times, I had a few hours to kill between flights, and so I decided to spend some time in Reykjavik. This is easy enough. A shuttle bus leaves the airport about twice an hour, which brings you to the BSI bus terminal in the city. There you can find luggage lockers in which you can leave any heavy luggage while you walk around the city. Neither the bus nor the locker is especially cheap—nothing in Iceland is, unfortunately—but it was still within my limited budget. This was how I visited Iceland.
Stopover 1: July 2017
By the time I arrived in Iceland I was already jetlagged. My flight had left from Madrid late in the day, and had arrived in Iceland in the middle of the night. When I boarded the bus to Reykjavik, it was around three in the morning. And yet it was not dark. Because it is so far north, Iceland enjoys near perpetual daylight in the summer months, and suffers nearly perpetual darkness in winter. The landscape was bathed in a gray twilight, with the sun hovering somewhere near the horizon, as I slumped into my seat on the shuttle bus. A young man checked my printed ticket and, soon, I was on my way to the largest city in Iceland (population: 130,000).
Iceland does not lack for sophistication, as I soon discovered. The bus was comfortable and equipped with wifi. Soon I was using the internet connection to look up an organ piece that I had heard some months earlier, in Munich: the Salva Regina by Olivier Latry. It is an enchanting and unnerving piece of music, built of augmented and diminished chords, that seemed ideally suited for the sort of environment I saw out the window. The road to Reykjavik cut through a barren landscape of amorphous volcanic rock covered with a thin layer of moss—a landscape so bereft of feature or vegetation that it seemed entirely arbitrary where the road was built.
Occasionally, some buildings could be seen in the distance: small prefabricated structures made of steel and fiberglass. I did not know what I expected to find in Iceland, but I did not expect to find such total emptiness and precariousness. Every bit of human life seemed as if it had been eked out in a hostile environment. And, indeed, Iceland is hostile: at such a high latitude, Iceland’s climate is nearly arctic. Even in the middle of July, I needed extra layers to be comfortable (which I had hastily bought at a second-hand store before my trip). Simply looking out the window during this short bus ride opened my eyes to the reality of life in this place. It is a land of a few, hardy people, willing to deal with surroundings that are not especially conducive to comfortable life.
Finally the bus arrived at the station. I put away my extra bags and left to explore the nation’s capital. Once again, I was surprised at how humble and sparse everything was. The bus station itself is little more than a shed, and it stands right next to a neighborhood of residential houses. Even these buildings had the quality of bomb shelters, with thick concrete walls and small windows. I suppose it is difficult to build on permafrost.
Very soon I was standing in front of one of the most famous buildings in the country: the Hallgrímskirkja, a monumental church. I will discuss this church more later (since I experienced more of it during my second visit), but I do want to highlight here that this church is one of the tallest structures in the entire country. Certainly, it is not a miniscule building, but in any other context it would be medium-sized at best. Even provincial churches in Spain are taller—and that is putting aside apartment buildings. Once again, the permafrost creates real limitations.
I did not have much time—only about two hours—so I could not stop to do anything. Besides, it was around five in the morning by this point, so nothing was open. I just wanted to walk as far as I could; and the experience was surreal. Since the jet lag and the sunlight had totally thrown off my own biological clock, I had little sense that it was the middle of the night. So it was shocking to see the many young people still crowding into bars, throwing up into the bushes, or pissing on the sidewalks. Typically, such scenes are mercifully shrouded by the darkness of night. In the twilight, however, it was rather disturbing to see—especially since I was quite painfully sober.
After making my way through the nightlife sections of town, I reached the seaside. Here I got a glimpse of the beauty of the Icelandic landscape. The sky was streaked with low-lying clouds, shining bright yellow from the low-lying sun. Ships sat idle and empty at the docks—coast guard vessels, fishing boats, pleasure barques—their dusky reflections an indistinct shadow in the shady light. I kept going and going, trying to get as far as I could in the peninsula before I ran out of time. This led me to Seltjarnarnes, the township at the very end of the landform. Further on, I could see the distinct, cubic form of the Saltjarnarneskirkja, another architecturally daring church.
I had hoped to get all the way to the Grótta Island Lighthouse, which stands at the extreme end of the land. But, alas, I ran out of time before I could make it. I had to turn back. But I took a few minutes to sit by the sea and gaze into the ocean. The circumstances—the brisk morning air and the unnerving dawn light, combined with my jetlag and exhaustion—produced a strange and memorable feeling: as if I had reached the end of the world, and was gazing into an unknown beyond. This was easily the most north that I had ever travelled, and for all I knew it was the most north I would ever travel in my life. For a moment, I felt the thrill of adventure and, that most wonderful of travel sensations, the endless wonder of the world.
This did not last long, however, as I had to rush back to the bus station if I wanted to make it to New York. Soon, I was once again being driven through the strange volcanic landscape, was making my way through airport security, and was flying thousands of feet through the air. I was seated next to a nice family from Argentina, and chatted with them a bit in Spanish. Out the window, I could see an endless landscape of mountains, rock, and ice: Greenland. It was magnificent, in the way that only nature can be. And I hoped that, someday, I would have the time and the means to experience more of this extraordinary part of the earth.
Stopover 2: July 2018
A year had gone by, and I was not much the wiser for it. But at least I knew that, if I was going to stop in Iceland again, I should at least give myself a little more time to explore. Thus, I gave myself upwards of 10 hours during this second stopover: enough to at least visit a couple things and have a bite to eat. Plus, not all of it would be in the middle of the night.
But some of it would be. My flight arrived at around four in the morning, and of course I was exhausted. Once again, the sun was not quite fully up nor fully set; but this particular night was cloudy, and so it was fairly dark outside. Since nothing in the city would be open yet, I decided to spend some time trying to get a little sleep. So I lay down on one of the benches near my arrival gate and closed my eyes. The sleep was not forthcoming. Though the place was mostly quiet, the lights were blaring brightly, and placing my hoodie over my eyes did not help much. What is more, every ten minutes or so another plane would arrive, flooding the hall with passengers. This did not make for restful sleep.
One way or another, though, the time passed. By around eight, I decided that it was time to go to Reykjavik. The process of arriving was exactly the same as the year before: a coach bus to the city’s bus station. After about an hour, my luggage was stored away in luggage lockers, and I was retracing my steps.
This led me, very soon, to the Hallgrímskirkja (“the church of Hallgrímur”). And now I finally had some time to stop and visit it. From the outside, the church is quite unlike the typical European architecture. It features a central tower flanked by a series of steps which ascend, logarithmically, to the highest point. This gives the building a wonderful energy, as if the entire structure is being swept up towards the sky. Incidentally, this design also helps to accentuate the building’s verticality, helping it to appear taller than it really is (74.5 m, or 244 feet).
In front of the cathedral stands a statue of Leif Erikson, perhaps the most famous Icelander in history: the first European to set foot on the American continent. This statue actually predates the church, as it was given as a gift to Iceland from the United States. It was designed by Alexander Stirling Calder (who also designed the statue of Washington in NYC’s Washington Square), and is quite a heroic piece of work.
One can get some idea of the engineering challenges presented by Iceland’s climate when one learns that this church—which, again, would not be considered particularly big in another European context—took forty years to complete: from 1945 to 1986. In fact, the original plan for this church did not call for it to be so large; but the dimensions were enlarged in order to outshine the country’s Catholic cathedral (located not far off). This church, by the way, belongs to Iceland’s national denomination, which is based on Lutheranism. The inside of the building is quite as geometrically daring as the outside: an unadorned assemblage of gothic vaults and arches.
Next I made my way to the city center—which was very familiar, even though I had seen it only briefly a year ago—and then onwards to the shore. There, I paused to admire the daring form of the Harpa Concert Hall, a modern performance space consisting of glass over a steel frame. Both the windows and the underlying structure were created using various geometrical forms, which make the surface of the building fascinating to see, especially as the variously angled windows catch the shimmering morning light. The Iceland Symphony Orchestra most commonly performs here, and I am sure it is quite a good show.
By now it was still early morning, but I was famished. So I decided to visit one of the most popular cheap restaurants in the city, Icelandic Street Food. When I visited, this establishment had just recently opened, and yet it already was the top-rated cheap restaurant in the city. As soon as I arrived, I could see why they had had such success. The entire staff—an international collection of young men, from Iceland, and Eastern and Northern Europe—were extremely friendly and went far out of their way to create a pleasant atmosphere. Also, their menu was tailor-made to engender satisfaction. They sold soups—two types: lamb and fish. If you paid a little extra, your soup came in a bread bowl. But whatever you got came with unlimited refills. Soon I found myself downing my third bowl of soup, as I chatted with the friendly Polish waiter.
Best of all, my soup came with a free coupon for a beer at the bar next door (which had the same owner). So even though the meal was not exactly cheap by my usual standards, I got quite a lot for my money. And, best of all, it was good.
Now my time in Iceland was running out. I could only visit one of the city’s attractions. There were many options. The Perlan is an impressive exhibition center, built in a former hot-water heater on a hill somewhat outside the city center. But I did not have time to walk so far. The National Museum of Iceland was an intriguing choice, filled with artifacts from the country’s Viking past. And of course there was the famous Iceland Phallological Museum, an exhibition dedicated to the phalluses of the animal kingdom. That was certainly tempting. (By the way, I highly recommend reading the museum’s Wikipedia entry.) But I eventually decided on a new attraction: Tales from Iceland.
To be honest, I did not know what to expect when I paid and walked inside. But I was immediately delighted to find that my ticket came with free coffee and cookies. Iceland was certainly making a good impression this time around. Soon I discovered that Tales from Iceland is an audiovisual exhibit, consisting of dozens of screens and chairs, all set on a standard timer. This way, all the videos end at about the same time, and you have a minute to move on to the next video station. I thought it a very neat idea.
I have to admit, however, that I mostly did not care for the videos on the first floor. These mainly consisted of over-produced, romanticized travelogues by tourists to Iceland, with cheesy commentary about how travel broadens our horizons and deepens our feelings and so forth. But I am sure my girlfriend would have loved it, since traveling around Iceland is one of her dreams. Certainly, judging from these videos, the country is quite beautiful. There are endless fields, cliffs, valleys, rocks, and rivers—not to mention the glaciers and volcanoes—with a few hardy Icelanders living in cozy houses scattered throughout this barren environment. The tourists seemed always to be on an adventure: driving down a dirt road, walking under a waterfall, riding an exotic horse, or camping under the northern lights. Maybe I can go on my honeymoon.
The upstairs was considerably more to my tastes. Here, the videos gave little overviews of many different aspects of this little island nation. I learned a lot in a short time, and much of it surprised me. The most important thing to keep in mind about Iceland is that there are really not many Icelanders. Indeed, there are more sheep than people living in the country: with over 800,000 of the former, and just about 320,000 of the latter. In other words, there are more people living in my county in New York (Westchester)—about three times more, in fact. Considering this, virtually every accomplishment in Iceland seems nearly miraculous.
Consider the book industry, for example. Iceland had a robust and vibrant literary output—novels, nonfiction, journalism—and even a Nobel Laureate, Halldór Laxness. Of course, this is true of nearly every major country; but in a country the size of Iceland, this means that an absurdly high portion of the population must publish a book. In fact, 1 in 10 Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime—a higher portion than anywhere else in the world. (Icelandic, by the way, is a Nordic language, like Swedish or Danish; but it is distinct for being the most closely related to Old Norse, which allows Icelanders to read the medieval Eddas and sagas in the original.)
The figures on authorship are impressive enough. But consider Iceland’s football team. Somehow, in a country the size of a medium-sized city, they have assembled a team which can compete with and even defeat countries like England (whose population is about 200 times bigger) in the World Cup. Iceland has also had great success in entertainment. A surprising number of successful musicians have come out of Iceland—including, most famously, Björk. (Here’s a charming video of her.)
And all this is not to mention Iceland’s impressive economic success. For most of its existence, Iceland had been primarily a fishing nation. In fact, the closest the thing the country has had to a war were the so-called “Cod Wars”—conflicts over fishing territories waged against the UK. In the wake of the Second World War, however, Iceland emerged as one of the most developed countries in the West, with a standard of living well above many European nations (as well as above the United States). You can get a feel for Iceland’s success by, say, paying for a cup of coffee. It is not a cheap place.
Apart from being culturally exceptional, Iceland is also geologically extreme. Besides its high latitude and cold climate, Iceland is distinct for the very high level of volcanic activity. The entire island was formed from an upsurge of igneous rock from the ocean floor. Volcanic eruptions are not uncommon events in the island, and are occasionally disruptive. As recently as 2010, a volcanic eruption in the south of the country grounded flights in the UK.
Curiously, it is not quite known why Iceland should have so many active volcanoes. Partly this is due to the country’s location between two continental plates; but still there must be other factors at work. The volcanism has certainly been good for tourism, however, powering attractions such as the Blue Lagoon, a famous geothermal spa. In fact, many houses in the country get their heating entirely from the earth.
I finished the museum, and now it was time to go. On my way back, I passed by the Tjörnin, or the little lake in the center of the city. It is a picturesque spot, with the profiles of the buildings reflected in the placid waters, and lots of birds feeding on the plentiful breadcrumbs made available by the residents. There, I snapped a final picture before returning to the station, boarding the bus, and then flying back to New York. It was a wonderful layover; and I suspect it will not be the last time that I set foot in Iceland.
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Venice certainly does not lack for sights. The entire city is virtually an open-air museum; there are architectural masterpieces on every other corner. And even if you get tired of the historical center of Venice, there are plenty of islands in the Venetian lagoon that are worth visiting. But I think that it is worth going even further afield during your trip. The famous city of Verona is not far off, and the Prosecco wine region is also within reach. But if you are interested in art, then the place to go is Padua.
Trains leave regularly from Venice to Padua. They cost less than 10 euros, and the trip takes substantially less than an hour. In no time I was stepping off the train and walking towards my destination: the Arena Chapel. Also called the Scrovegni chapel, this is the small church where Giotto—known as the father of the Italian Renaissance—did his finest work. Not wishing to leave anything to chance, I booked my ticket online in advance. The chapel is small, and the artwork is delicate; so only 25 people are allowed in during any visit; and a visit lasts about 15 minutes. I certainly did not want to go all the way to Padua to be told that there were no more tours that day.
Indeed, I was so worried about making the tour in time that I arrived substantially early, leaving me an hour to kill. Luckily, the Musei Civici di Padova—the municipal museum—is right next door. This was free to visit and actually quite beautiful. The collection is housed in a former monastery, filling the old cloisters within and without; and this former monastery itself sits in the bucolic monastery gardens (now a public park). The collection was far more impressive than I expected. There are bits of Roman ruins, fine works of ancient pottery, original manuscripts, and prints and drawings.
But of course, this being Italy, the main attraction were the many sculptures and paintings on display. Both the quality and variety of these works astounded me. In Europe, art is truly endless; every city has its own collection of minor masterpieces. Padua has some fairly major masterpieces in its collection. There were some wonderful examples of religious wood carvings, with faces distorted in grief at the dead Christ. The paintings were quite wonderful as well. There are works by Tiepolo, Bellini, and Tintoretto, and dozens of works by lesser-known masters. By the time that I had to leave for the chapel, I was rather disappointed that I could not spend more time enjoying this charming collection.
Now it was time to visit the chapel. This is a separate building off to the side of the former monastery. We gathered in front of the entrance, just as the previous tour group was exiting through a separate doorway. Soon enough we were being herded inside—all twenty-five of us—to watch a short informative film while the climate adjusted around us. It is a very good system, I think. The film gives us a bit of background, while the air conditioning gradually cools down the temperature and reduces the humidity, so that when we enter we do no harm to the artwork. I must admit, though, that I was a bit cold by the end of the film.
Before we go inside, allow me to give you some background. The chapel was never part of a public church, but was rather built at the behest of a wealthy banker, Enrico Scrovegni (thus the name), who owned a large mansion—now demolished—right next door. The chapel was built over a Roman arena which once occupied the spot (thus the other name), whose ruins can still be seen nearby. Scrovegni must have been quite a wealthy man, since he was able to recruit the great Giotto from Florence, the preeminent painter of his day. Giotto came, and spent about two years on the project. The result was one of the great masterpieces in the history of European art. For his time, Giotto was an extremely innovative figure, pioneering techniques for adding realism, dimension, and form to his paintings. There is a lifelike drama to his work that makes him a forerunner of the entire Italian Renaissance.
Finally it was time to enter. I walked through just one doorway and, finally, I was there. I remembered seeing this chapel in my art history textbooks, and finding it astonishing even then. In person, the chapel was extraordinary. Everyone who entered was reduced to the hushed silence that accompanies any great work of art—the feeling of awe that forces us to speak in reverential whispers. Though composed of dozens of individual works, the Arena chapel is a unified work, with a single aesthetic sensibility pervading the atmosphere. The dominant color is blue—a shade between the bright blue of the sky and the dark violet of the late evening. It helps to give the chapel the lush, cool ambience of a cloudless summer night.
This comparison is quite obvious, when you look up to see the ceiling painted as the night sky. In two panels, Giotto represents Christ and Mary as the center of the universe (earth, in Giotto’s day), with the prophets as planets, against a starry background. Then, in four distinct levels, panels tell the story of Mary and Christ, and represent the virtues and vices. At the far end is the centerpiece of the program: a magnificent portrayal of the Last Judgment. The entire work has been aptly compared with Dante’s Divine Comedy. Indeed, Giotto, who was a near-contemporary of Dante, may have been directly influenced by that great poem in its images of heaven and hell. In any case, the Scrovegni chapel is a work of comparable ambition and skill: a grand cosmic vision, attempting to encompass the human experience.
The main entrance of the chapel (which is not where the modern visitor enters) is right below the Last Judgment. On the opposite side is a triumphal arch, underneath which the priest would have stood. The grand program of decoration begins right at the top of this triumphal arch and then works its way down tier by tier. The cosmic cycle is set in motion by God the Father, who calls the archangel Gabriel to his side, and instructs the angel to deliver the annunciation to Mary. This is done immediately below, on either sides of the arch—Gabriel on the left and Mary on the right—who form a beautiful pair. Already, we can see some of Giotto’s innovation here. The two figures occupy a convincing architectural space, with balconies that sing to hang into the air. This was something quite new in the history of art. Though still not true perspective (since the lines to not converge on a vanishing point), even this little background is a more convincing three-dimensional representation of space than anything in gothic painting.
The story on the upper tier begins even before the annunciation to Mary, with the story of Mary’s parents, Joachin and St. Anne. Mary herself was the subject of an annunciation, as an angel informed her mother that Mary would be born without original sin (immaculately, in other words). The story of Mary’s birth and marriage takes us back around to the triumphal arch, where Gabriel’s annunciation has its proper chronological setting. This sets in motion the story of Christ, which begins with the birth, the adoration of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, and the rest of the typical scenes of Christ’s childhood. This sequence takes us to the first half of the second tier. Now, Christ’s adulthood begins, with its many scenes: the baptism, the miracles, the betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection. This takes us all the way to the Last Judgment, the logical end of the series (and, indeed, of the world).
Of course, this is a story often told. You can see it, or part of it, in any church in Europe. Giotto’s excellence is revealed in the execution of this standard program. He was an artist of many talents. One is his sense of dramatic narrative. Rather than a series of disconnected scenes, as is often found in gothic art, the scenes in Giotto’s work all lead very naturally to the next. This is done through simple but effective visual cues, such as having Christ constantly facing in the direction of the next panel, or having the ground seem to continue from one scene to the next. This gives Giotto’s rendition of these classic stories an organic continuity and unity, easy and pleasant to follow.
Giotto was a dramatist in other ways. Whereas emotion is rather abstract or generalized in medieval art, Giotto renders emotion more palpable. This is apparent in many scenes: the tender kiss shared between St. Anne and Joachim at the golden gate of Israel, or the way that the Virgin gently cradles her newborn son, or the passionate grief apparent in those mourning Christ. The emotion in these scenes is shockingly direct; and this is a measure of Giotto’s realism. His figures are not generic or unreal, but solid and substantial. Their emotions are expressed through their very physicality—an embrace, a kiss, a gesture.
Giotto’s realism and his dramatic sensibility are tied together through his gift for composition. Several of the panels are masterpieces of formal study, guiding the viewer’s eye to the central drama, and expressing that drama through shape and line.
The best example of this—and perhaps the best painting in the entire chapel—is the arrest of Christ (or the kiss of Judah). It is a traditional scene, but its execution is far from traditional. Judas is normally shown coming and kissing Christ on the cheek, as Christ looks forward. But in this work, Christ and Judas directly face each other; Judas actually embraces Christ, covering him with the fold of his gown, and appears to kiss him directly on the mouth. The contrast between the stoic, tall Christ and the lowly, cowardly Judas—who looks both timorous and ridiculous, as he puckers—is extreme. And yet the pair, locked together, stand as a kind of anchor for the chaos raging around them. The torches, clubs, and lances of the mob are positioned so that they seem to emerge from the pair, splitting the night sky. On the left St. Peter is cutting off the ear of one of the assailants, while a hooded figure grabs somebody off to the side. On the other side, an official (painted with impressive volume and foreshortening) points menacingly to Jesus, signaling the others to apprehend him.
As impressive as this is, my personal favorite from the chapel is the Last Judgment. Like any typical representation of this awesome event, the scene is divided horizontally and vertically. On the top Christ sits among the saints in heaven, while below him the world is split between the saved and the damned, the former to his right and the latter to his left. Right at the bottom, we can see Scrovegni himself offering his chapel to the angels (presumably to secure his salvation). And we can see that the chapel, as it was when this was painted, is not as it is today. Concretely, the chapel today is smaller and less ornate that this drawing, which has led scholars to conclude that parts of the original chapel were demolished because the local church complained of competition.
Right at the bottom, below Scrovegni, there are a collection of naked, impish figures emerging from coffins. Presumably these are the dead, arising to be judged. Like many great painters, Giotto let his imagination run wild in his depiction of hell. Jets of flame shoot down into the abyss, carrying the damned into the inferno, where Satan and his minions are waiting. Demons pull and push the frightened sinners. Some unfortunates are hanging, while many others are being stuffed into pits at the bottom. In the center, Satan himself chews on a sinner, while others grasped in his hands await the same fate. Serpents emerge from his ears and he sits on a bed of dragons, which also gnaw hungrily on corrupt flesh. If Giotto was not inspired directly by Dante, he was responding to similar cultural currents. Or perhaps both imaginative men just enjoyed picturing the suffering of their enemies.
This more or less brings us to the end of the religious scenes. But I still have not mentioned the exquisite decorative painting that occupies the spaces between these scenes. They are beautiful works of abstract art, with geometrical and floral patterns perfectly imitating the appearance of marble inlays. Individual portraits of Old Testament figures occupy the spaces between the New Testament panels; and the knowledgeable viewer will notice that these, too, are carefully selected, in order to draw connections between the stories of the prophets and the story of Christ. For example, the story of Jonah and the Whale is placed before the resurrection, since Jesus’s death and rebirth were mirrored in Jonah’s being swallowed and then spit out again. (Many theologians spilled a lot of ink trying to prove that the New Testament was prefigured by the Old.)
We come finally to the representations of virtues and vices in the bottom tier. Though not explicitly religious, these only reinforce the message of the chapel: for the virtues lead directly to salvation and the vices to damnation. They are, thus, the abstract lessons to be learned from this great cosmic story, or if you prefer a moral philosophy expressed through personification. The execution of these vices and virtues in monochrome (thus imitating sculpture), only heightens their abstractness.
There are seven virtues, all mirrored by their corresponding vice on the opposite wall: hope with desperation, prudence with folly, justice with injustice, and so on. They are all wonderful, my personal favorite being the portrayal of Envy: standing in flames, clutching a bag of money, with a serpent emerging his mouth and turning around to bite him in the face. There can be no more graphic illustration of the torture and self-destruction inherent in envy. The representation of hope is also justly famous, as winged woman reaching up towards a crown; while her counterpart, desperation, has hung herself.
After fifteen wonderful minutes, we were led out of the chapel. I was exhausted. I had spent the morning rushing to the train, rushing to the museum, and then absorbed in artwork. It was time for lunch. For this, I headed to one of Padua’s better-known cheap eats, Dalla Zita, a small sandwich shop in the center. Dozens of color-coded sticky notes cover one of the walls, informing the visitor of the many sandwich options available, each one with a cute name. Somehow, the staff of the shop have memorized all of these sandwich names, and so you need only say “Steve” or “Babu” to get the sandwich you want. I do not remember what I ordered, but I am sure it involved roast beef and was delicious.
While I sat on the corner, stuffing the assemblage of bread, meat, and sauce into my mouth, I had quite a charming interaction. A woman, who had accidentally cut me in line in the sandwich shop, saw me, realized her mistake, and came over and actually apologized to me. That had never happened to me before. This was only the second act of small kindness that day. When I was in the monastery gardens trying to find the chapel a young man came over and pointed me in the right direction. He did not even want a reward! These things rarely happen in New York.
Now I had a few hours before my return train to Venice. I decided to spend some of it simply walking around the city of Padua. Though not as shockingly beautiful as Venice (no city is), Padua is a charming city, with an attractive historic center. Its most characteristic feature are the shaded arcades lining the wide, cobblestone streets. The walk along the river Bacchiglione—which runs through the center of the city—is also quite lovely. But the most picturesque spot in the city is, undoubtedly, the massive central square: the Prato della Valle (literally, “meadow of the valley”). At 90,000 square meters, this is the biggest plaza in Italy and among the largest in Europe. But it is not only special for its size. A moat encircles around a grassy central island, with no fewer than 78 neoclassical statues on either side of the canal.
Two of Padua’s most splendid church buildings stand nearby. Within sight of the Prato della Valle is the Abbey of Santa Giustina, a massive brick church building topped with domes. Like so many Italian churches, this church is richly and beautifully decorated. But it is perhaps most notable for holding the remains of St. Luke the Evangelist. Well, at least most of the remains: the evangelist’s body is entombed here, but his head is in Prague, and one of his ribs is in Thebes. In any case, I unfortunately did not have the chance to visit this church, since I was more interested in visiting another one nearby: the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua.
This basilica is the largest and, undoubtedly, the most glorious church building in Padua, though it is not the city’s cathedral. (This distinction is held by a far more modest structure, which has a famous fresco cycle by Guisto de’ Menabuoi.) Its profile is difficult to miss. Though the building has few external sculptures or friezes—being mainly composed of red brick—the roof is forest of domes and spires, which gives the building a vaguely Russian appearance.
Before going inside, it is worth pausing to examine an equestrian statue located right next to the building. This is the Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata, by none other than Donatello. Gattamelata is the nickname of Erasmo da Narni—it means “honeyed cat”—a famous condottiero (basically a general for hire). Though this statue lacks the ferocious strength of Andrea del Verrochio’s statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice, it is perhaps more historically significant in the history of art, if only because it was made earlier. The statue has many of the hallmarks of the early Renaissance: humanism, realism, secularism, classicism. After all, the subject of the sculpture is neither a saint nor a king, but a person famous for his own exploits—an individual. And Donatello obviously paid close attention to the anatomy of horses, as we can see from the careful modeling of the muscles and even the veins in the horse’s head.
The statue’s classicism is not only apparent in its realistic style, but also in the technique used: a bronze sculpture made using the lost-wax technique. Such a large-scale equestrian statue had been beyond the technical abilities of Europeans since the fall of Rome. It was the rediscovery of the statue of Marcus Aurelius (misidentified as Constantine) which showed Renaissance artists the possibilities of bronze sculpture. Donatello was both a pioneer and a master of this technique. It is also worth comparing this statue to one of the masterpieces of medieval sculpture, the Bamberg Horseman. The two works—both beautiful and realistic—reveal a difference in worldview. The Bamberg Horseman is graceful, handsome, and above all royal: a man of elevated status. Gattamelata is a much more imposing presence: self-contained, intelligent, determined, he seems to be a heroic man riding out of history.
Now, let us enter the basilica itself (where Gattamelata is buried, incidentally). Like so many Italian churches, the Basilica of Saint Anthony is lushly decorated. When not covered with fresco, every surface shimmers with gold, silver, or marble, in sharp contrast with the fairly plain walls outside the building. Because I could not take pictures, my ability to talk about any aspect of the church in detail is limited. What most sticks out in my memory is the palatial shrine of St. Anthony of Padua. When I visited, pilgrims were lined up to receive a blessing and to kneel by the saint’s relics. Indeed, this basilica is an important site of pilgrimage, and is one of the eight international shrines designated by the Catholic Church (two of the three are in Italy, and three are in Poland).
With my visit concluded, I retreated outside to take a final look at the basilica. I had spent far less than a day in Padua, and almost every minute of it was enjoyable. Indeed, I found the city so charming that I wished I could spend far more time there. At the very least, the streets of Padua are more lively than those of Venice. But I had scheduled my train back and I could not stay any longer. One major site I missed was the Palazzo della Ragione, an enormous medieval town hall, decorated with dozens of paintings. I also wish I had visited the University of Padua, one of the oldest universities in Europe, where Galileo himself once taught. I suppose that the next time I return to Venice, I will have to return to Padua as well.
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My first footsteps in Europe were in the airport in Venice. It was in 2007, when I was a sophomore in high school, some time before my sixteenth birthday. Typical of that age, I was awkward, hormonal, pubescent, immature. During this trip, I was exposed to the most beautiful things that I had ever seen, and was largely unimpressed. Teenagers are too wrapped up in themselves to care much for the outside world. I had a digital camera that my mom had lent me; but over half of the photos I brought back from the trip are of my friends, or cats, or other nonsense. The only thing that roused me to enthusiasm was the food, which was quite excellent.
Eleven years later, I finally returned to the city, to see what I had missed. It was quite a lot.
As usual, I was travelling on a budget. This pretty much ruled out the possibility of staying on the island of Venice itself. Small, antique, and exclusively devoted to tourism, accommodations are not cheap. Thankfully, there is the Mestre—the mainland of Venice (not the old city), which is generally quite a bit more reasonably priced. I stayed at an Airbnb in a quiet neighborhood and very much enjoyed the experience.
Frankly, I think staying in Mestre was better than staying in Venice itself, partly because I could get away from the crowds at night. And unlike the island of Venice, this quiet neighborhood had a real community of locals, which certainly improved the atmosphere. I had some beautiful mornings sipping coffee at a corner café, while I watched senior citizens come in for their morning glass of wine. And being close to affordable restaurants and supermarkets was also quite nice.
My memories of my first day in Venice, in 2007, are all a blur. We arrived early in the morning, all of us disoriented and jetlagged. Our hotel was right in the city center. Since virtually all of the buildings on the island are old, the rooms were tiny and the elevator only fit for one or two people. Most amusingly, our bathroom fan made a screeching, wailing noise that I will never forget. All of us badly wanted to take a nap, but our Irish tour guide insisted that we stay awake all day in order to adjust to the jet lag. By the time we had dinner, kids were falling asleep at the table. I nearly did the same.
Coming from Spain, at least I did not have to deal with jet lag this time.
The Mestre is very well connected to the city center with public transportation. In my case, all I needed was about a twenty-minute bus ride. Soon I arrived at the train station, stepped off, and confronted the new but strangely familiar profile of Venice.
Now, I have called the center of Venice “an island,” but that is not accurate. Rather, it is a collection of small islands—over 100—which are connected with bridges. The city occupies a lagoon between two rivers. This oddity of location is what gives the city its charm. Though Amsterdam and even New York may have more individual bridges, no city I know of is more dominated by the presence of water. But of course, having a city built on a lagoon entails unique challenges. The foundation of the city has been sinking, partly as a result of settling, and partly as a result of pumping groundwater (causing buildings to sink further into the ground). This, combined with climate change-induced rises in sea-levels, have worsened the periodic floods suffered by the city. Already, many ground floors are uninhabitable.
(In 2003, a massive engineering project was initiated, called MOSE, but it stalled because so much money had been siphoned off due to corruption. Work seems underway again, as global warming exacerbates the flooding problem. The flooding in 2019 was the worst in fifty years, causing widespread damage to the city’s cultural heritage.)
Building a city on a lagoon also entails unique transportation challenges. The lagoon is far too unstable for a subway, and the city is too cramped for either trains or buses; so the only option within the old center is by boat. The Venetian equivalent to a bus is the vaporetto, or water taxi, fair sized ferries that patrol the city in 19 lines. Line 1 is popular with tourists, since it goes down the Grand Canal. The other famous option for water transport is the gondola—operated by a single gondolier, pushing the elegant boat through the water with an oar. Nowadays the gondola exists exclusively for tourists, and the price reflects that: 80 euros for about half an hour, and more at night.
As I walked through the city, I have to admit that my first impressions were rather mixed. Venice is obviously and undeniably beautiful; indeed, judged purely in terms of its buildings, I believe it has a claim to being the most beautiful city in Europe. But the atmosphere of Venice is odd and empty. Keep in mind that I was visiting during the high tourist season, in July, when many locals go on holiday (about 55,000 live in the old center). This meant that whatever local life that Venice may have was largely dead. Instead, the streets were dominated by people carrying cameras, and others dragging suitcases. It felt like being in the world’s most beautiful airport. Or perhaps Venice is better compared to an enormous, open-air museum. This meant that one of the chief charms of travel—taking part in local life—was off the table.
Venice is probably at its most lively in the weeks leading up to carnival. During this time, people dress up in beautiful masks and elaborate costumes, now famous throughout the world. You may be surprised to learn that this is a modern tradition, though it has historical roots. Masks were banned in Venice for about two hundred years, from the 18th to the 20th century. It was only in the 1970s that the tradition was revived. When I visited in 2007 it was mid February, and the streets were full of these disguised Venetians. For the most part these seemed to be street performers, however, who only dressed up so that tourists would pay to take photos with them.
If you look at the old center from the air, you will see an S-shaped gash running through the city. This is the Grand Canal, the largest canal in the city. For many years it was the main artery of Venice, since there was only one bridge which crossed it (the Rialto). As a result, it became something like Fifth Avenue in New York City: a place for the wealthy of the city to flaunt their success. As the canal was the central thoroughfare, the magnificent façades of private palaces face the water, displaying a variety of different architectural styles from the city’s history. The Ponte de Rialto is the oldest of the four bridges that cross the Grand Canal. It provides a lovely view as well as being quite attractive in itself. However, like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, it is covered in shops, which makes it rather cramped. (For centuries the bridge in this spot was a wooden construction; but multiple collapses convinced the authorities to rebuild it in stone.)
After crossing the bridge, and taking the obligatory photo, I continued making my way to the central square: the Piazza San Marco. This is easily the most famous area of the city. For the most part the plaza is dominated by long buildings composed of many levels of arcades. At the far end is St. Mark’s Cathedral (which I will describe later) and its marvelous campanile, or bell tower. At nearly 100 meters, this tower is the tallest structure in the old city, and quite attractive in spite of its simple form.
Not far off is the clocktower (Torre dell’Orogio), another of the city’s landmarks. Two bronze shepherds with hammers ring the bell on the top, while a winged lion (the symbol of St. Mark) holds an open book below them. (A statue of the Doge once accompanied these lions, but Napoleon had him removed.) Below the lion sits the Virgin and child; and twice a year (on Epiphany and Ascension) mechanical figures of the three wise men emerge from the adjacent door and make their bows as they pass. For the time it was created—during the Renaissance—this was an impressive engineering feat.
The face of the clock itself is also a marvel. The sun travels along the twenty-four hours of the day, against the background of the zodiac. In accordance with Ptolemaic astronomy, the earth sits right at the center of the clock, while the sun, moon, and stars rotate around it. Bad science aside, the clock’s combination of blue and gold is quite pleasing on the eyes.
If you are standing at the end of the square, with the clock tower to your left and the basilica directly ahead, you will see the space open up to your right. This is called the Piazzetta, and it leads directly to the sea. The view is framed by two columns topped with statues—one of St. Theodore (who was one of Venice’s patron saints) and the lion of St. Mark.
Proceeding forward, you arrive at yet another iconic area of the city, the Riva degli Schiavoni, a waterfront promenade. At almost any time of year (except during a pandemic) this place is extremely crowded. Gondolas bounce up and down in the waves, while people sell all sorts of knick knacks from stalls. The waters around this area are typically quite busy, with ferries going back and forth, as this is near one of the mouths of the Grand Canal. The view is characterized by the distant form of San Giorgio Maggiore, an enormous basilica that sits on an eponymous island across the waters. Its campanile looks quite like the San Marco’s, creating a pleasing symmetry.
Now the first major stop on our tour has arrived: the Doge’s Palace. If you are looking out at the water, this palace will be right behind you, though you may not have paid it much attention. In the context of Venice, the building’s exterior is not immediately eye-catching (though I will return to it later). But within is a palace of quite astonishing dimensions. I recommend going early, as there can be long lines to enter. I arrived at around ten in the morning and was basically able to walk right inside. The visit began with a small exhibition space, where I was delighted to find some drawings by John Ruskin. The famous art critic was also a talented draughtsman, and he made dozens of meticulous sketches of the city in preparation for his monumental book, The Stones of Venice. As I happened to be reading the book at the time, this seemed to bode well for my visit.
On display were also the forty-two original capitals of the stone pillars on the palace’s exterior. (Those there now are replacements.) Ruskin considered these capitals—which most of us overlook—to be the most significant artistic statement of the palace, and devoted much attention to their analysis. I will leave my own commentary for the end, and will instead embark now on the palace interior.
But before moving on, it is worth asking: What is a “doge”? This title, sometimes translated as “duke,” is unique to Venice. It is a cross between a king and a president: a ruler given royal prerogatives who was elected for life. The political organization of Venice was somewhat complicated, but suffice to say that it was an aristocracy with a touch of republicanism. The ruling class was basically hereditary; but they were divided into governing bodies—councils, parliaments, senates—and held elections (within their own ranks); and there were some checks on arbitrary power.
If the cases of Athens, Amsterdam, and England can be trusted, there seems to be some connection between a maritime, mercantile orientation and democratic forms of government. This is the case of the Republic of Venice as well, which rose to wealth and power through sea trade rather than conquest (though it was not averse to war). This, perhaps, is one reason why the city’s government—with its separation of powers and its checks on authority—developed the way it did. This also explains the moderate degree of intellectual freedom allowed in Venice, where the censors of the Catholic world could not reach. Venice also had a degree of religious autonomy, as its highest religious figure was the Patriarch of Venice, who himself was elected by the senate (from among its own ranks, of course).
From Venice’s beginnings in the 8th century, as a satellite of the Byzantine Empire, the city-state gradually rose in power and influence. It was a major staging ground during the crusades and profited enormously from trade with Asia along the Silk Road. By the Renaissance, the Republic had the wealth and the means to compete with the Ottomon Empire for control of the Mediterranean. But the “discovery” of America by Europe spelled the end of Venice’s high-point, as trade gradually shifted away from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Thus began a long, gradual period of decline which ended in 1797, when Napoleon conquered the city and formally ended the rule of the Doge. All told, the Republic of Venice survived some thousand years.
With this brief history lesson out of the way, let us see how this humble Doge lived. After passing the courtyard (enclosed on the far side by St. Mark’s Basilica), and ascending a flight of stairs, the visitor enters into a succession of brilliantly decorated rooms. The rooms are so ornate, in fact, that it even impressed my fifteen-year-old self. The second time around, I was stunned. Every ceiling is covered with carved engravings and panelling, and every wall is adorned with enormous paintings. Though the palace was built in the 14th century, and thus owes its form to the Venetian gothic, several fires required the interior rooms to be redecorated. Luckily, the great painter Tintoretto was on hand to provide much of the new decoration. The painters Veronese and Tiepolo, and the architect Andrea Palladio, also contributed; so there was no shortage of talent.
The palace contains some rooms that you would expect to find in any palace: luxuriant apartments for the ruler and antechambers where ambassadors could cool their heels. (Unfortunately, the Doge’s apartments were closed for renovation when I visited.) But there are also many sorts of rooms that you will not find in any other European palace. There is a Council Chamber, a Senate Chamber, a chamber for the Council of Ten, and rooms for the administration of justice. Judging from the size of the room’s alone, they were not built for a single ruler, but for hundreds. This did not stop them from decorating like kings.
There are simply too many rooms and too much decoration to enter into too much detail. I will let the photos do the talking:
One chamber does, however, stand out for special comment. This is the Grand Council Chamber, which is not only the biggest room in the palace, but one of the biggest rooms in all of Europe. It is simply massive: 1325 square meters (over 14,200 square feet!). The room had to be big because the Grand Council included all of the patrician males over age 25 into its ranks, which amounted to well over one thousand men. This may not sound inclusive to us, but for its day this was radical. One of this council’s tasks was the election of the Doge, who sat on the podium at the far end of the room. Behind this podium is one of the largest oil paintings in the world: El Paraiso, by Tintoretto (though largely executed by his son). The painting stretches over 25 meters and includes many dozens of figures. Ruskin thought that it was an artistic masterpiece, though I found its sheer size more impressive than its artistic quality.
The other noteworthy aspect of the room are the portraits of the first 76 Doges running around the top of the room. These, too, were commissioned to Tintoretto, but were mostly done by his son (the painter was quite old at the time). Each of the Doges is present along with a scroll, on which are written their most important achievements. The one exception to this is Marino Faliero, a Doge who attempted a coup d’etat and was beheaded. In place of a portrait, there is a black cloth for this tratorious duke. History is not kind to the subverters of democracy. (Well, perhaps Julius Caesar is a partial exception to this. Napoleon as well, I suppose.)
After the grand tour of the regal rooms used by the Venetian government, I entered the prison. This dreary space has been known as the Pozzi (the wells) and the Piombi (lead), and it deserves both names, as it is a damp space with a leaden atmosphere. (You can tell that the Venetians were concerned with laws and their efficacy, since they built the major prison next to the center of government.) The “old” prison is connected to the “new” prison (built several hundred years apart) via the “Bridge of Sighs,” which was so known because it was the last place a prisoner could see a bit of sunlight and utter a weary sight before his long confinement. In 1756, the infamous Giacomo Casanova effected a daring escape from these prisons by climbing onto the roof.
Thus ended my tour. But before moving on, I ought finally to address the columns on the outside of the building. John Ruskin was extremely fond of the sculptures carved into the capitals of these columns, and devoted ample space to them in his book on Venice. Indeed, by common consent they are masterpieces of gothic sculpture. Inspired by Ruskin, I spent a good thirty minutes examining these columns in detail, and I was glad I did (even though, as mentioned before, the columns currently outside the palace are copies of the originals inside). They generally consist of figures interspersed within vegetable patterns, usually demonstrating some allegorical significance. Rather than launching on a giant Ruskinian rant myself, I will be content with a few photos:
Thus ended my tour of the Doge’s Palace. But I did not have time for a break. After all, St. Mark’s Basilica is right next door.
No monument in Venice better illustrates the city’s role as a conduit between the Catholic and Byzantine worlds. St. Mark’s embodies both influences. Neither wholly gothic nor wholly byzantine, the church is an alluring hybrid structure, unlike anything else in the world. At a first glance, the basilica (it is also a cathedral, though more commonly called a basilica) presented a chaotic forest of towers, domes, and semi-domes. It bears very little resemblance to the towering gothic spires that are so common elsewhere in Europe. Rather than awe the viewer with harmony or height, the basilica is profuse in details of decoration. Mosaic scenes from the life of Jesus—quite lovely in its bright colors and gold backgrounds—adorn the surface, while statues of saints stand guard above.
The most famous figures on the cathedral are the four bronze horses that adorn the roof, right above the entrance. They are Roman copies of Greek originals, supposedly designed by the famed Greek sculptor Lysippos (more probably they adorned a Roman triumphal arch). Certainly they are wonderful works of art. The reason they are here is because the Fourth Crusade went sour, and culminated in the sacking of Constantinople (a Christian city) by the Catholic forces. Napoleon had the horses taken to Paris in 1797, but they were eventually returned after his defeat, in 1815.
The other famous decorations are the tetrarchs. This is a rather odd and unsettling sculpture, made in the fourth century and, like the horses, taken from Constantiple during the Fourth Crusade. By the time this work was made, the Roman Empire was in disarray, and the Emperor Diocletian decided that he needed to divide power between three additional co-rulers in order to maintain order. This sculpture represents the co-dependence of these four rulers. But the four men do not seem like confident allies; rather, they seem scared out of their wits. Certainly it is not a work that inspires confidence—they clutch each other in fearful desperation. The sculpture is also remarkable for the degree of abstraction. The great Roman tradition of realistic sculpture (as epitomized by the horses) had already been lost by this time.
Saint Mark’s owes its name to a Venetian trick. According to the story, two wily Venetian merchants smuggled the saint’s body from Alexandria to Venice in the 9th century. (Supposedly, they covered the body with pork to prevent Muslims from investigating.) The story is extremely difficult to believe, if only because the body would have already been nine centuries old and unrecognizably decayed. However, standards of evidence were not very high in the Middle Ages; and in any case the city had much to gain by being the home of the evangelist’s relics. The story seemed doubly dubious when one considers that, according to legend, the saint’s relics could not be found when construction began on the basilica; Mark himself had to appear to direct the Venetians to his mortal remains.
Well, eternal resting place of St. Mark or not, the basilica is an immortal work of art. Entrance to St. Mark’s is free. All one has to do is stand in a long line and wait. Once inside, you will find yourself in a space quite unlike any other European cathedral. The floorplan is a Grecian rather than a Latin cross, meaning that the building is as wide as it is long. But St. Mark’s is not like a gothic cathedral, which impresses with its architectural majesty. Rather, basilica’s outstanding feature is its decoration. The overwhelming impression is of light, gold, and color. Every inch of the interior is covered in mosaics with gilded backgrounds. Unfortunately, many of these have been retouched or restored, most often with a definite loss in quality. Even so, the whole has a power greater than the sum of its parts—hypnotic in its use of color.
My next stop was the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Even though this building is called a “school,” it is really the historical seat of a powerful religious confraternity. (A confraternity is essentially a private club that promotes a religious cause. San Rocco—”Saint Roch”—was a saint commonly invoked against the plague.) Though magnificent enough, the façade of this building does not attract attention in the context of Venice. But the inside is special indeed. As in the Doge’s Palace, there are several enormous rooms, all of them richly decorated. Unlike the Doge’s Palace, however, much of the decoration in the Scuola Grande was provided by one man: Tintoretto.
After Titian, Tintoretto is probably the most highly-regarded painter of the Venetian school. Nicknamed “il furioso” for the energy of his brushwork, he was known for working fast and rough. He was no perfectionist. By general consent, the quality of his work is highly uneven. But his style was very well-suited to the semi-darkness of these enormous rooms, where his figures could dazzle with their suggestiveness rather than their perfection of form. His paintings are notable for the drama and movement of their subject, rather than the typical Renaissance solidity and harmony. I would be lying if I ranked Tintoretto among my own personal favorites, though Ruskin was quite wildly fond of him. For me, the wooden carvings in the seats along the walls were, if anything, more charming than Tintoretto’s great pictorial spread. But I do admire his productivity.
After this I made my way to one of Venice’s many museums: the Gallerie dell’Accademia. This museum is the Venetian equivalent of the Uffizi in Florence: housing a massive collection of Italian art, from the medieval period to the 19th century. It is housed in another former confraternity building, this one the Scuola della Caritá. When I visited, parts of the museum were undergoing restorations, and so were unavailable. Even so, the museum has an impressive collection.
As usual, I was most captivated by the works of Hieronymous Bosch. There are three major works by this Dutch painter to be seen. One is the triptych The Hermit Saints, which shows three saints resisting temptation in the wilderness. In keeping with his typical, bizarre style, Bosch represents these temptations in a series of absurd little figures—monsters, skeletons, nun’s heads—that surround these simple, pious men. Another triptych is The Crucifixion of St. Julia, which shows us a bearded woman nailed to the cross. Christians explained the beard with a story about a woman who prayed to God to make her repulsive (and thus protect her virginity); but probably the historical reason involves images of Christ from Eastern Europe, in which Christ’s dress was misinterpreted by Westerners as being that of a woman.
My favorite work, however, is a series of four paintings called Visions of the Hereafter. Here, as usual, Bosch sets his vivid imagination to work picturing the world beyond our own. The most captivating of these images is the Ascent of the Blessed, which shows us the infinite white light that leads to paradise. To our modern eyes, the image cannot but remind us of some space exploration movie. We have used the same sort of image to represent portals to other dimensions or accelerations to speeds beyond light. Bosch proves himself, once again, to be one of the modern age’s visual godfathers.
The museum has works by Titian and Tintoretto, of course. But a more elusive Venetian painter is also on display: Giorgione. A few years older than Titian, Giorgione is normally regarded as one of the great innovators of Venetian painting. The trouble is that it has historically been difficult to definitively attribute works to him. Indeed, an air of mystery seems to surround Giorgione, which is apparent in his painting The Tempest. It shows a young woman suckling a baby, while a traveller looks on with a curious expression. In the background we can see an Italian village, while a storm rages overhead (thus the title).
The execution is quite beautiful indeed. Its meaning, however, is difficult to decipher. To my eye it looks like a depiction of the “rest on the flight from Egypt,” when the Virgin Mary escaped Egypt with the infant Jesus, and stopped to suckle him on the road. But the woman—almost completely naked, and staring rather boldly at the viewer—is unlike any other depicting of the Virgin. Contemporaries referred to her as a “gypsy” and the man as a “shepherd,” but art historians, straining for cohesion, have proposed obscure stories from classical mythology and fanciful allegorical meanings. Yet none of these interpretations sheds light on the particular power of this painting, in which the heavy and humid atmosphere of a storm, the grey, shadowy light through the clouds, is so palpable. I can see why it was Lord Byron’s favorite.
I cannot leave the museum without mentioning, if not the greatest, than the painter who did the most to show Venice to the world: Canaletto. This was not his real name, of course; he was called “little canal” because his paintings were so often focused on Venice’s many waterways. His paintings are consistently impressive, capturing the city with photographic accuracy. Personally I cannot fathom how much time it would take in order to create such a scrupulously detailed image. But in a world before photography, this was the only way that wealthy nobles could catch a glimpse of the city from afar. Canaletto was more than a mere technician of monumental patience, however. His paintings have a very charming, wistful emotion running through them, a kind of atmospheric joy. They are absorbing and refreshing works.
My next stop was another church: Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (normally just called the “Frari”). After St. Mark’s itself, this is perhaps the most important church building in Venice. If you only saw the exterior, however, you would be excused for not thinking so. The basilica’s brick façade and relatively plain decoration do not make it stand out in the context of Venice. Nevertheless, it is certainly worth a visit. From the inside, the basilica looks like unlike any church building I have seen. It is an incongruous mixture of dark materials and open windows, of plain surfaces and rich decorations. The entire building does not come together as an organic whole; rather it seems like a warehouse for art and monuments. But it is a beautiful warehouse.
Among the artwork, the best may be the large-scale paintings by Titian. I found the Pesero Madonna especially beautiful for the shimmering effect of the brightly-colored robes. Titian is also responsible for the painting in the main altarpiece, a wonderful depiction of the Assumption of the Virgin. But what really caught my attention were the funerary monuments. The Frari is the resting place of many Doges, as well as some of the city’s most gifted artists. Titian himself is buried here, commemorated by an enormous marble sculpture by Antonio Canova—erected centuries after the artist’s death. Canova himself (arguably the greatest neoclassical sculptor) is buried here, in a stunning pyramidal cenotaph—my favorite work in the whole basilica. I also found myself captivated by the monument to the Doge Giovanni Pesaro (not the same Pesaro as in Titian’s painting). This gruesome monument features black skeletons emerging between African servants, who support the monument’s upper half. It is disturbing for many reasons.
It is worth mentioning another of Venice’s many basilicas, Santi Giovanni e Paolo. In appearance it is quite similar to the Frari, and it likewise is the final resting place of many Doges. However, I think the most impressive thing to see is not inside, but next to this old structure: the equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni. This was done by Andrea del Verrochio, most famous for being Leonardo da Vinci’s mentor. But he was a great artist in his own right, as this sculpture proves. It is really a marvelous work: the horse is rippling with muscle, and confidently striding forward. The condottiero is both heroic and ruthless: his face is ugly and yet compelling, and his pose one of unquestionable command. It is one of the finest depictions of a military leader.
After all of this glorious art and all of these magnificent monuments, my last stop is rather depressing: the Venetian Ghetto. This is the neighborhood where Jews were forced to live for hundreds of years. In fact, the word “ghetto” itself comes from this area of Venice. The derivation of the word remains rather difficult to pin down. It may come from a German word for street (many of the Venetian Jews spoke a German dialect), or a diminutive form of an Italian word (“borghetto,” or little town), or perhaps from a Hebrew word. We visited the Venetian Ghetto on my school trip, back in 2007; and I still remember our guide explaining that the buildings were taller in this area because the Jews did not have room to build anywhere else.
The Venetian Ghetto is split into two sections, the Ghetto Nuovo and the Ghetto Vecchio (the “new” and “old” ghettos), though this classification refers to when the area was used as foundries, not as a place of Jewish residence. (Indeed, one hypothesis for the word “ghetto” is that it comes from the Italian “getto,” which means to pour molten metal into a mold. Many foundries existed in this area.) Two bridges connect this part of Venice to the surrounding area; and Jews had to be sure to return to the ghetto before the nightly curfew, or face a stiff fine.
Even in my brief time walking through the ghetto, I noticed that there was still a significant Jewish presence here. There are several synagogues, cultural centers, and even a kosher restaurant. There is also several monument to the victims of the holocaust. Fortunately, the Jewish community largely escaped Nazi percesution in Venice, and this was thanks to the heroism of Giuseppe Jona. Jona was a Jewish physician who, like many Jews, was deprived of his profession during the Nazi occupation. He took it upon himself to stay in Venice and to help organize the Venetian Jewish community. In 1943 the Nazis ordered him to help them locate the Jews in the city. Instead of cooperating, Jona burned every document in his possession that could be used, and took his own life. He is memorialized in the Venetian Ghetto, and certainly deserves it.
As I walked through this distinct corner of the city—so strangely marked by tragedy and hope—I reflected on the long history of anti-Semitism in Europe. The Nazis were merely the last and worst in a long line of Jew-haters. Even great works of art are marred by this sentiment. The most obvious example of this is, perhaps, Shakespeare’sThe Merchant of Venice, which reflects many of the worst stereotypes of Jews. (Because Shylock is so compelling a character, some have argued that the play is not actually anti-semitic; however, I think the work is incoherent if you consider Shylock the real hero rather than, as I believe Shakespeare intended, the villain.) It is depressing to think that even a man with as free a mind as Shakespeare’s could not entirely escape prejudice. But prejudice runs very deep. The ramshackle buildings of the Venetian Ghetto are a testimony to this lasting hatred and also to the community’s lasting resilience.
This does it for my return to Venice. But listing the monuments does not do justice to the real experience of visiting the city. Venice is one gigantic work of art. Virtually every angle of the old city is picturesque—from the impressive works of architecture to the forgotten corners of run-down buildings. Venice is palpably an abandoned city, a floating relic, which gives it a kind of romantic charm. But the city is also refreshing—for the ocean breeze that blows through it, for the ever-present sight of water. Admittedly, for all of its beauty, Venice does lack the most charming part of any city: street-life. I cannot say it is my favorite European destination. Even so, the memories Venice evokes—of awkward pubescence, of my first window into a wider world—will always make the city special for me.
Before my flight home, I found a café and sat outside sipping grappa, the strong Italian brandy. I have to admit that I actually had no idea what grappa was. I thought it was some sort of wine, and I winced when I took my first taste (I normally do not drink liquor). Even so, sitting outside in the sunshine, sipping on this flaming beverage, I could not help but feel rather satisfied with the way that my life had turned out. When I visited Venice in 2007, I could never have guessed that I would be living in Europe ten years later.
If you know anything about Venice, you will know that this post has left out virtually everything beyond the city center itself. There are many smaller islands that are also worth visiting. But that will have to wait for another post.
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As I mentioned in my last podcast, it’s pretty hard to do a podcast about Spanish life when everything has been turned upside down. Normally I take inspiration from what I can see in any given week, or from a recent trip. But I’ve just been seeing the inside of my apartment and, occasionally, of the nearby grocery stores. However, I can’t leave this podcast season incomplete. After all, I just have one episode to go to make a nice, round, even twenty episodes. And since it’s hard to talk about day-to-day Spanish life during the coronavirus times, I thought it would be good to revisit the last time in Spain’s history when daily life was so completely turned upside down.
I’m talking, of course, about the Civil War of 1936-39. Of course, in this podcast I can’t hope to do a real thorough history of this war. If you want that, there are plenty of great books on the market. If I tried to even list the major writers on the war, I’d be here all night. In fact, the Spanish Civil War is only behind World War II in the number of books dedicated to the subject. That is pretty crazy, considering that far more people died in World War I or even the Vietnam War. But the conflict has an enduring fascination, for quite a few reasons.
So here’s the basic background. Spain came out of the 19th century in pretty bad shape. The Napoleonic invasions, in the early 1800s, successfully introduced the idea of constitutional government into the country. After that, things were never quite the same for the Spanish monarchy. There were tensions everywhere: between the monarchy and the church, between the church and the people, between advocates for different branches of the royal family, between the rich and the poor, between liberals, monarchists, carlists, and anarchists, and that’s just the beginning. Spain was steadily losing its overseas colonies, a process that ended in the humiliating defeat in the Spanish-American war in 1898, when the decadence of Spain’s power finally sunk in for a lot of people.
In the early 20th century, Spain was economically backward. Industrialization had come late to the country, and for the most part hadn’t come at all. Spain was still mostly agricultural. Not only that, but the country was highly decentralized, as it is now. Each region had its own organization, its own politics, and many regions had their own languages. In the places where industrialization had taken hold, like in Barcelona and Asturias, organized labor had become a powerful force. Meanwhile, in an attempt to get rid of the corrupt and inefficient government, Miguel Primo de Rivera seized power in a military coup in 1923. (Spain has had a lot of military coups.) He ruled for about seven years, until he too had to renounce power. By then there was popular support for democracy. The king absconded, and the Second Republic was born.
The Second Republic survived for five tense years, 1931 to 1936. As you can imagine, democratic government didn’t exactly heal the rifts in Spanish society. Political tensions spilled into violence all too often. There were street fights, riots, brutality between bosses and workers, and even a violent uprising in Asturias (which was put down by Franco). Basically nobody was satisfied. There were conservative parties, fascist parties, liberal parties, and anarchists and socialists who thought the entire system was broken—which it undoubtedly was. An unsteady and ineffective center-left coalition was in control in 1936. But that was just the beginning.
The military had secretly begun planning an uprising to seize control, as they had done many times in the past. The spark that set off the conflict was the assassination of José Calvo Sotelo, a conservative politician, who was killed by the bodyguards of the socialist party leader. Shortly thereafter, all around the country, military units attempted to seize control. If the plan had gone perfectly, there would have been no war. But it didn’t go as plan—at least not everywhere. In the weeks following the start of the uprising, on July 17, the rebel forces controlled about a third of the country. This included most of Spain’s north, a lot of the center, and a pocket of the southern coast. The government maintained control of Madrid, as well as the prosperous eastern coast—including Valencia and Barcelona.
At this point, the government didn’t seem to be in such a bad position. After all, they had more fighting men. They had the big cities and the big factories. They had the money. Most of the areas that the rebels conquered had a low population density and were mainly agricultural. If no outside party had gotten involved, then I think it fairly probable that the rebellion would have been defeated. But of course that was not to be. Spain, instead, became the laboratory of Europe, where all of the newly radical ideologies came to clash for the first time.
Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany came to the aide of the rebels, while Stalin’s Soviet Russia offered supplies to the government forces. The rest of the world’s governments, however, wanted no part in the conflict. They were understandably wary of being dragged into another world war, after the terrible experience of the last one (though of course they couldn’t avoid it in the end). So England, France, and the United States signed a non-intervention pact, which forbid them to give or even to sell weapons to the Spanish government.
Meanwhile, people from all over the world began to pour into the country. There were lots of Italian and German soldiers, of course. (My girlfriend’s grandfather was one of these Italian soldiers, which is why she has an Italian last name.) On the Republican side, there were volunteers from all over—Ireland, England, the United States, France, and even some Germans and Italians. For the most part, these were inexperienced, idealistic young men who wanted a chance to fight against fasicsm. George Orwell was one of them. They formed the famous International Brigades.
Needless to say, the idealism and heroism of young volunteers wasn’t enough to stop German tanks and fighter planes and bombs. Simply put, the Republic soon found itself outgunned. Meanwhile, the organization of the rebel side soon consolidated under Francisco Franco, who was relatively young at the time, but who made a name for himself by leading the crack African troops in Spain’s wars to suppress its colonial uprisings in North Africa. (In fact, Franco had been sent to the Canary Islands right before the war, but he managed to return with his North African troops.) The Republican side, on the other hand, did not consolidate so easily. There were many different left-wing parties which had their own organizations, and which often did not agree. When George Orwell finally fled Spain, it wasn’t from the fascists, but from the Stalinists which had seized control in Barcelona.
In a series of bloody battles, the rebel forces gradually wore down the Republicans. Life for the civilian population had also taken a dark turn. There were summary executions on both sides of the lines. Neighbors denounced neighbors, and people were taken from their houses, shot, and buried in anonymous graves. The famous poet, Federico García Lorca, was killed, as well as countless others. To this day, Spain is the country with the most mass graves in the world, after Cambodia. Hundreds of thousands still remain buried across the country, many still undiscovered.
To make a very long and sad story short, the rebels won. Franco seized power in 1939, and he didn’t give it up until his death in 1975. His rule effectively kept the country poor and backward for another thirty years. To this day, the people who grew up in the opening years of his reign—people who are senior citizens now—are very noticeably shorter than their children and grandchildren, largely because of the widespread malnutrition in those years. After Franco’s very timely demise, Spain did finally make the transition to democracy, in no small part thanks to King Juan Carlos I, whom Franco had appointed as his successor. The Spanish constitution was voted into being in 1978, thus inaugurating modern Spain.
As you can see, Spain has historically had a lot of tensions running through it. And the same is true today. Spain still has regional tensions, most notably in Catalonia and the Basque Country. And it is still difficult to talk about the Civil War. Franco’s Spain didn’t end that long ago. Many people alive remember it well. Some people actively supported it. There are still living veterans of the Spanish Civil War, on both sides. In any case, Civil Wars are just inherently painful—the sense of betrayal and distrust is everywhere. Even though America’s Civil War happened a long time before Spain’s, it still causes controversy.It will be interesting to see how this current crisis affects Spain. Maybe nothing will really change, and we’ll all go back to normal. Maybe it will strengthen xenophobia and the populist right party, Vox. Or maybe it will engender a new sense of solidarity and unity in its citizens. I really have no idea. Spanish politics, as ever, are difficult to predict. But Spanish culture is a different matter. Spanish culture managed to emerge from a century of conflict, a bloody civil war, and a repressive dictatorship, and I know that Spanish culture will emerge from this crisis, too. It’s only a matter of time.
Europe is full of cathedrals. Some people weary of them quickly. After all, you get the basic idea after a couple visits: In front there is an impressive façade, with several magnificent doors; then the inside is composed of a nave and the two aisles that lead to the main altar; and of course you have the choir, the transept, and all the little chapels on the periphery. It is the same layout every time, with only minor exceptions and variations. And, of course, the artistic styles are fairly uniform, too. There are the Romanesque and the Gothic styles, and all of the standard tropes of Christianity: Jesus, Mary, the prophets, the evangelists, and all the various angels and saints.
But there are those, such as myself, who only grow more fascinated the more cathedrals they see. In fact, I think that it is only possible to appreciate a cathedral once you have acquired a certain background. Even if styles are fairly uniform across Europe, the level of execution certainly is not; and it takes some experience to tell the difference. But cathedrals are more than mere exercises in art, of course. They represent the greatest monuments of Europe’s most deeply spiritual age. Each one is suffused with a sensibility that is almost entirely foreign to the modern world: a pervading sense of the nothingness of this life in comparison with the life to come. Unlike the palace of Versailles—a building devoted to earthly power and splendor—a cathedral uses earthly art to evoke something otherworldly. Thus, while I find the effect of most palaces to be rather deadening, I always find a visit to a cathedral uplifting. Nowhere is this more the case than at Chartres.
Chartres is a fair-sized town in the vicinity of Paris. Trains leave several times a day from the the capital’s Montparnasse station, and the ride takes a little over an hour. For whatever reason, I had to struggle with the ticket machine, which did not seem to wish to give me a ticket. My uncle told me that he also needed help buying a ticket to Chartres, but none of the French people could understand him when he said “Chartres.” (I had the exact same situation with my Airbnb host. French people can be very particular when it comes to pronunciation. And “Chartres” is not easy to say correctly.) In any case, all of us ended up getting to the city in time.
Though doubtless once a beautiful medieval town, most of Chartres was sadly destroyed during the Second World War. The cathedral’s survival and preservation is little short of miraculous, considering the circumstances. Even if most of Chartres’s medieval architecture was burned or blown away, the town still has a robust memory of their heritage. When I arrived the people were having their annual medieval festival. There were archery contests, parades of drummers and flag-twirlers, a concert of period music, and even obstacle courses for the children. All the vendors were dressed in the appropriate medieval rags and caps. It was a lovely time.
But unfortunately my train tickets did not leave me with much time to appreciate the life of the town. I wanted to spend as much time in the cathedral as possible. My hope was to get a tour from the great Malcolm Miller, a famous scholar of the cathedral who has been giving tours since the late 50s, but that was not to be. When I walked in the cathedral, I had just missed an assembling tour group (not with him), and I decided to settle on the standard audioguide.
I am getting ahead of myself, however. First I should describe the cathedral’s distinctive profile. Chartres is immediately recognizable for its two non-matching towers. The north tower (on the left, facing the building) is quite notably taller than the south tower; and its style is also quite different. This is because a fire necessitated the rebuilding of the north tower, which was completed in the early 1500s. Stylistically, then, it is more recent, partaking of the flamboyant gothic. While superficially more resplendent, it is actually the less interesting of the two towers, as it is rather like that of many other cathedrals. The right tower, on the other hand, is an architectural marvel in its own right. It features a sloping octagonal stone spire, constructed without any interior framework to hold it up. This is quite an amazing feat, when you consider that it was completed in 1150. Even now, there is not a bigger stone spire anywhere.
The first impression, upon walking into the cathedral, is rather stark. Compared with the great Spanish cathedrals—Toledo, Seville, or Santiago—the cathedral of Chartres can seem, at first glance, disappointingly empty. Toledo’s cathedral, for example, is stuffed to the brim with every sort of artwork. The cathedral also lacks the ostentatious splendor of so many Italian churches—shimmering with color and gold. Chartres’ appeal is quite different. It is the beauty of form, line, and light. It is the architecture of purity. The walls, arches, and vaults are arranged with such exactitude that the final effect is like that of a brilliant mathematical proof: the manifestation of divine logic.
Admittedly, this sensation of purity is partly a result of a thorough cleaning that the cathedral underwent about ten years ago. Centuries of soot had accumulated on its walls, turning them a dusky gray. During the restoration, the walls and even the statues were cleaned, making everything appear an ethereal white. This cleaning was not without its controversy. Part of the romance of visiting old buildings, after all, is the overpowering sensation of age, the palpable weight of time. Making the buildings look as good as new does radically alter the effect. However, the decision was defended as being necessary to the building’s preservation. For my part, the restoration did bring out the extreme lightness of the structure.
The audio guide first asks you to step back outside to examine the front portal. As with so many cathedrals, it consists of three doorways—one large one in the center, flanked by two smaller ones—lushly decorated with biblical figures. Appropriately enough, Christ sits enthroned in the center of the affair, surrounded by representations of the four evangelists. The most charming sculptures are not in the tympanums above the doors, however, but in the jambs separating the doorways. These elongated men and women are some of the sculptural masterpieces of the gothic age: they possess a certain majesty, mixed with a naive charm that I find difficult to describe. Even the decorative carvings between the human figures are varied and beautiful.
It is worth taking a closer look at these sculptures to spot the tiny personifications of the seven liberal arts (the trivium with the quadrivium). This marks the epoch when Chartres was at the forefront of European intellectual life. Before the time of universities, cathedrals were major intellectual centers; and the School of Chartres played a major role in shaping the scholastic thought that would dominate the European mind for centuries. The School of Chartres was distinct for its great emphasis on natural science, which was not always highly valued at the time. Indeed, you can see the scholars’ interest in both science and antiquity in one tiny figure, believed to represent the Greek philosopher Pythagoras. As Lawrence M. Principe said in his history of science, the middle ages are unfairly maligned as benighted.
As soon as you walk inside, you must turn your attention to the windows. The stained-glass windows of Chartres are simply extraordinary. The quality of craftsmanship and art is excellent; and there is just so much of it. Normally, only a few windows receive the lavish treatment of elaborate pictorial representations, the rest being taken up with basic patterns. Not in Chartres: every window is bursting with detail. Describing even a fraction of these windows would be an enormous task. The audio guide had me walk around the entire length of the building, pausing before each set of windows, pointing out the most distinctive features. Each one merited close examination; but there are so many that you must budget your time and energy.
Some windows deserve special mention. The three rose windows—enormous circular panels above the three entrances—are magnificent, if difficult to see in detail from the ground. Indeed, many of the panels contain so many scenes—such as the Life of Christ, or the entire genealogy of Mary—that they overwhelm the viewer with information. One exception to this is the so-called Blue Virgin, a large representation of the Virgin with the Christ child. It is a wonderful piece of work, with Mary enshrouded in a glowing blue robe, while angels fly all about her. Though a difficult and expensive medium, Chartres shows that stained glass is quite the equal of painting or sculpture in its power.
My favorite windows were those around the aisles. These features several different panels, typically with a Biblical story occupying the main panel, with secondary scenes in the periphery. Curiously, many of these windows show craftsmen and laborers of different professions in the lower panel, such as shoemakers or blacksmiths. This is unusual in gothic art, and the guide explained that it was because the local guilds financed the windows. Recent research has thrown doubt upon this explanation, however, since it is unlikely that the guilds had nearly enough money. These scenes were perhaps included more as a gesture on behalf of the church, as a way of symbolizing its universal nature. Either way, it does give the cathedral a curiously democratic aspect.
The windows deserve far more attention than this. But I will let the images do the talking. Let us move on.
Chartres’s main altar would be glorious in another setting, but it seems somewhat out of place in the heavily gothic atmosphere of Chartres. It is an ornate, neoclassical sculpture in white marble of the assumption of Mary. It is clearly the work of a different age: the figures are carefully realistic and engaged in a dramatic action. The choir stall is another product of a later age (having been made in the 16th to 18th century), but it fits the aesthetic of the church rather better. It is beautifully carved with an endless number of details, providing a sculptural counterpoint to the complex windows above.
One of Chartres’s most recognizable features is the labyrinth. This takes the form of a circle, with one single path running from the beginning to the end point. It is meant as a symbol of the Christian’s path from sin to salvation, one long, winding road from the periphery to the center, a kind of miniature pilgrimage. (And the cathedral is, of course, part of the network of pilgrimagepaths that lead to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain.) Simply as a design the labyrinth is quite lovely; and the more one examines it, the longer it seems. I wonder how long it would take to walk the entire distance.
The last stops on my visit were the north and south portals. The first is dedicated to the Virgin and the second to Christ’s crucifiction. In another context, virtually all of the sculptures in both doorways would be considered masterful by itself; in Chartres they are further extensions of the cathedral’s majesty. I was particularly taken with a group of Christian martyrs in the south portal, each of them holding a symbol of their identity. (I could not hope to identify the vast majority.) Though rather stiff by the standards of Renaissance sculpture, the bodies have a certain tension and dynamism, as if they are all on the lookout, that I found very appealing.
Thus concluded my audioguide’s visit to Chartres. Aware of the cathedral’s reputation, I was fully prepared to be awed; and I was not disappointed. But there were still a few delights in store for me. Right as I was about to walk out of the cathedral for the last time, a man began to give a lecture on organ music. He was seated high up above, in front of the keyboard, and speaking to an audience via a microphone; his image was projected onto a screen. I could not understand anything he said, since it was French, but it was obvious that he was giving some sort of a lecture on organ music, since every now and then he would demonstrate his point by playing the organ. It sounded fantastic. There are few more powerful feelings than hearing the ancient pipes of an organ resounding through the cavernous cathedral.
As I emerged onto the street, I was treated to another kind of music. Set up right in front of the cathedral, a group of four men were performing medieval songs on period instruments—simple jigs, mostly, with bouncing rhythms. It was quite a contrast to the somber and magnificent sound of the organ from a moment ago; yet it was a charming way to leave the atmosphere of the cathedral. Cathedrals exist to touch us in special moments, when we are able to see our own lives as very small in relation to something enormous that is above and all around us. This feeling engenders a sense of calm and even of detachment. Yet we cannot live our lives this way. We need rhythm, emotion, passion, too, if we want the full range of the human experience. The fullest life of all will contain moments of both passion and calm. And this is just what I experienced during my visit to Chartres
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It seems that I suddenly have an awful lot of time to work with. Because of the surge of coronavirus cases in Madrid, all schools have been closed, and I’ve been sent home for at least two weeks. On Friday they ordered all the shops and restaurants to be closed. And today was the first day of a nation-wide lockdown. Nobody is allowed on the streets, except to go to work, buy medicine or groceries. I think the Spanish people are mostly taking this well. True, there’s no toilet paper left in any of the shops. But people are keeping their spirits up during this difficult time. Every day, at eight o’clock, people have been gathering on their balconies to cheer the hardworking medical personnel.
It’s a pretty surreal feeling. A few weeks ago, coronavirus was just a thing happening in China. Two weeks ago, it was an Italian problem. Now it’s totally global.
Anyways, so far I am safe and sound. Meanwhile, the city of Madrid looks very, very different. It’s a complete ghost-town now. The precautions necessary to slow the spread of coronavirus go totally against the grain of Spanish culture. As I’ve talked about before, Spanish people love to be outside, to be in public, and to congregate. They greet each other with kisses and have no issues with physical contact. These qualities are—under normal circumstances—what make Spanish cities so great. In fact, I’d say that this is one of the most charming things about visiting Spain: that the city centers are always bustling with life.
A big part of this, I think, has to do with the layout of the cities itself. Every major Spanish city predates the invention of the car by centuries, and so the historical parts of these cities are always easily walkable. Really, the invention of the car was bad for city life. You can see the evidence of this almost anywhere in America, as well as in the parts of cities in Europe that have been built to accommodate car travel. On the outskirts of Madrid you enter into a kind of industrial park, where all the buildings are low-lying and spread out. When you don’t have any motivation to put things closeby, you also don’t have motivation to build up in any one place. The result is very ugly—endless asphalt, shabby buildings, and nobody on the street.
I think you can clearly see the bad effect that the car has had on city planning if you examine a place where I worked for a long time: Rivas-Vaciamadrid. Now, I don’t want to insult Rivas, because the people who live there are really quite lovely. But I think the town itself embodies everything that I dislike about modern cities. The major problem is the zoning. All the parts of Rivas are split up into discrete zones, which contain only one type of building. There are zones for single-residency houses, zones for apartment buildings, and zones for restaurants. Most of the shopping is concentrated in one giant mall. The result is deadening. There is hardly any variation to relieve your eye, since all the houses and buildings look exactly the same.
Even worse, compared to other Spanish cities, there is very little life on the street. I often had to walk from private class to private class, and I wouldn’t see more than three people during the whole time. It’s a place built for cars. There aren’t any good places to gather. True, Rivas has some big parks, but in my experience these were often empty, too. Personally I found it a bit depressing. (Again, this isn’t a reflection on the people of Rivas, who are very nice!) Going from the endlessly similar neighborhoods of the new part of Rivas to the tiny older center was always a relief. There, at least, there are some bars and cafes, and a central square with some benches.
The problem was diagnosed by Jane Jacobs. Cities are vibrant when they are mixed-use. That is, when there are lots of different sorts of things in the same neighborhood, there are that many more reasons for people to be walking on the street. And when people are on the street, the streets become that much more interesting and safe to be in. It naturally reduces the crime rate (at least for violent crime, maybe not pickpocketing), since there are always bystanders, and in general it is one of the chief delights of city life. After all, one of the constant fascinations of living in the city is seeing the human zoo on display.
A high population density can also support a wider variety of businesses, which is another of the great pleasures of city life. First and foremost, there are the cafes, restaurants, and bars. Nowadays they are much emptier than usual, but most of the time they are packed, especially on sunny days like today. I honestly wonder what is the furthest you could go in Spain from an eating establishment. You could be lost in the southern deserts and still be able to order a beer nearby. The omnipresence of restaurants is one of the great joys of Spanish life. If you want a coffee, a glass of wine, or a bite to eat, you can choose from any of the three to six establishments in eyesight. You may think I’m joking, but Spain is the country with the highest density of bars in the world. To give an example, the southern province of the country, Andalucia, has more bars than Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Ireland combined. (And by the way, Andalucia has less than half as many people as these four places.)
Another thing that’s not in short supply in Spain are the supermarkets. My neighborhood is a pretty good example of this. Within a ten minute walk from my front door there are 14 supermarkets. Fourteen! And many of them are quite big. These fourteen supermarkets represent 7 different brands, some of them Spanish, one French (Carrefour), and one German (Lidl). And this is not to mention the many butchers, vegetable shops, and bakery shops nearby. Just the other day I wandered across a very modern-looking butcher shop, which had every kind of meat you could wish for. There, I finally found a type of Spanish sausage I particularly like, called “crioll chorizo” (though the name doesn’t really make sense). My point is that you’re pretty spoiled when it comes to food selection, even if some things that are common in the US are much less common in Spain (like broccoli rabe, which I’ve never seen!).
There are two types of shops common in Spain that are often run by immigrants. One is the humble kebab shop, the most popular fast food option in Europe. I actually live on top of a kebab shop, and the smell of the spiced meats wafts up all day, giving me strange cravings. The other one is called an alimentación, which is sort of a corner shop where you buy snacks, basic amenities, and alcohol. (In Spain you don’t need a liquor license, so everywhere has booze.) Because these sorts of shops are often owned by Chinese people, they are usually called chinos by Spaniards—and I’m kind of unclear whether this is considered, or should be considered, offensive. Chino, by the way, is the standard way to refer to a Chinese person or a Chinese restaurant, of which there are a fair number in Spain.
Speaking of my own neighborhood, what else should I mention? I think by any standard there is an impressive range of businesses. There are several sports stores, for example, and they are not chains. There is a nice little one up the street that has good deals on sweatpants and sweatshirts, and a big one around the corner that has everything from fishing rods to weight lifting machines. Speaking of lifting weights, there’s also a gym—again, not a chain—a few blocks away, where my brother likes to go. And Retiro park is just five minutes up the street, where I like to go running.
Really, the longer I’ve lived in this neighborhood—which is called Pacifico—the more I have come to appreciate it. Though it isn’t a big place to go out at night, it’s a historical neighborhood that is right next to the central train station, Atocha. And I think it embodies a lot of what is good in Spanish cities. The streets are not too big and not too long, which allows for a high density of shops within easy walking distance. As a result, while usually not crowded, there’s hardly a moment when the streets are empty. A few years ago Pacifico was a sleepy part of the city, with lots of older folks. Nowadays the neighborhood seems to be gentrifying (and, no doubt, I am myself contributing to this process). There is an axe-throwing business, where you can take turns hurling a hatchet at a wooden target; there is a fancy dried-goods store, with all these different types of pastas, flours, and exotic spices; and there are lots of bio shops with organic produce and different medicinal herbs. There’s even a big technology store, and a cool book store that also serves coffee, carrot cake, and craft beer. (A specialized craft beer store just moved out of the neighborhood.)
Well, anyway, I think you get my point. There’s a lot of stuff in my neighborhood, and I think this is typical of many neighborhoods in Spain: they are mixed-use, walkable, and well connected with public transportation. In a way they are the antithesis of places that are built around cars. And I think that the result speaks for itself: it is more attractive, more interesting, and all around more livable. There’s another added bonus to living in a Spanish city: the history. Even in my quiet neighborhood, there are some important historical buildings to visit. Quite closeby is the Engine Hall, which is a kind of power station with three massive diesel generators, built for the first generation of the Madrid metro. Nowadays it is a free museum.
Not very far is the Royal Tapestry Factory. This is just one of many royal factories, which were established in the 1700s by the Bourbon monarchs in an effort to emulate the French mercantile model. These are basically state-run organizations that made luxury goods for the royal family. The glass factory, for example, is in the town of La Granja, near one of Spain’s great palaces. The tapestry factory is a brick building with a big smokestack, where some of the finest neoclassical tapestries were made for the Spanish court. No less an artist than Goya made designs for these tapestries, and his original paintings are hanging on the top floor of the Prado. Nowadays, the factory is run by a non-profit, I believe.
Quite close are two more historical landmarks: the Royal Basilica of Our Lady of Atocha, and the Pantheon of Illustrious Men. The first is an important church that is home to one of the many venerated images of the Virgin. The basilica has long been a center of religious and royal life in the city. Bartolomé de las Casas is even buried here—the monk who was one of the first Spaniards to raise awareness about the cruelty of colonization in the Americas. Nextdoor is the Pantheon, which used to be a convent. In the 1800s it was seized from the church and turned into a kind of celebration of civic Spaniards, with elaborate funerary monuments distributed around the old cloister. It’s actually quite a beautiful place, even though I’ve never heard of any of the people buried there.
Hmmm, it seems that I started a podcast about Spanish city planning, and ended up just talking about how much I like my neighborhood. But I do think that my neighborhood illustrates the ways that a city can be a joyous place. And personally I think that it is a much healthier and saner way to live than having everything spread out, like they’re on little islands, making a car necessary. Cars are convenient things, but you can’t have a car community. I think modern city planners should take a look at these historical neighborhoods and do their best to recreate them. Otherwise, we’ll be condemned to a life of seclusion and isolation, cooped up in our homes, driving from place to place—like we all have coronavirus all the time! It’s not a good way to live.
Unfortunately, even the good neighborhoods that exist are in constant risk of being rendered unlivable by rising rents. And this is a consequence of real estate investing and gentrification. Perhaps it is significant that Vienna, which is often considered the most livable city in the world, has extensive public housing projects—for almost half of its population. At the moment, Madrid’s own housing market is pretty unregulated, and I think this can easily lead to a situation of average, everyday people being pushed out of the center into the outskirts. This is a hollowing out that has already affected places like London and New York, since it basically kills the liveliness that makes these places so attractive to begin with—making them neighborhoods of empty homes owned by wealthy people, or else Airbnbs, with small businesses being bought out by big chains. Whatever the government can do to prevent this kind of situation, I’d welcome it.
Well, my podcast this week has been delayed because of a trip. It was my first international trip of the school year, and it was great. My brother and I went to Kraków, Poland—a lovely city, with a well-preserved historical center. Relatively nearby are two major tourist attractions: Auschwitz (very depressing) and the Wieliczka salt mines (very impressive). But maybe the best part of the trip was the food. Every dish was heavy, plentiful, and delicious. Even the coffee and the beer was good. And I was reminded how generally pleasant European travel can be. Arguably, it’s the best part of living here.
Admittedly, it seems like an awkward time to be writing a podcast about traveling, because of the coronavirus outbreak. Just last week, I had a brief layover in Milan, and now Milan is under quarantine, with the rest of Northern Italy. And I just received notice that Madrid will be shutting down schools for the next two weeks. Two weeks! What will I do with myself? Next thing I know, we’ll be under quarantine, too. So I guess it’s not the best time to talk about European travel, now that everyone is cancelling their vacations. However, this crisis will pass, and Europe will once again open its doors to travelers. So here I go!
The major difference between traveling in Europe and in the United States is that Europe is packed with variety. Traveling to another country is like traveling to another state—cheap, easy, and quick. You can get on a plane and, in an hour or two, get out in a place where the people speak an entirely different language, eat different food, where the architecture, music, art, and even the landscape itself is totally different. The whole continent of Europe isn’t bigger than the US. And when you consider that most people travel to Western Europe, you’re talking about an area of land about the size of one American coast.
The main reason why so much cultural variety is packed into such a comparatively small space is, simply, the amount of history that has gone by. America is one big country, and a young country, too; so a lot of the country can seem extremely homogeneous, since it is the result of rapid expansion. And a lot of this expansion happens when means of transport and communication were relatively rapid. Meanwhile, Europe grew out of ancient populations, and virtually every little town and city was relatively isolated for long periods of time. Cultural differences grow and accumulate during all this time; and this is why, in Europe, every region has its own traditional dishes, traditional dances, traditional music, and so on. This is true both within countries and between countries: there is an awful lot of regional variation packed into a relatively small space.
This naturally makes traveling in Europe quite endlessly fascinating. Poland, for example, is not too far away from Spain, but it is absolutely unmistakably distinct. And this goes far deeper than surface features like food and architecture. The two countries have been shaped by quite different historical forces, and so even their cultures have notable contrasts, such as their concepts of personal space and their senses of humor. But I don’t want to overstate my case and argue that they have nothing in common, either. Both Poland and Spain have been heavily influenced by capitalism, for example, and they have both gone through periods of totalitarian rule and repression in the twentieth century.
So the really fascinating thing, then, is seeing Europe as a kind of variation on a theme. Every country has churches, basilicas, and cathedrals, but they all build them somewhat differently. Every country has art museums and monuments to historical events, and these are all intimately interconnected. To give just one example, the beautiful gothic altar in Krakow’s St. Mary’s Basilica was sculpted by a German from Nuremberg, another city that was previously a part of the Habsburg Empire. (The Habsburgs controlled Spain for a while, too, to give you another example of their historical parallels.)
So national borders are real markers of difference, but they’re also fluid. Perhaps the most famous Pole in history, Nicholas Copernicus, studied for a time in Italy, and published his book with the help of German Protestants. Frederic Chopin, born in Poland, spent most of his professional life in French, as did the Spaniard Picasso and the Dutchman Van Gogh. The more you travel around Europe, then, the more you see a rich, interconnected story unfolding across this varied landscape. In short, it’s very cool.
Anyways, even if you don’t care much about history or art, there’s another factor that makes European travel so appealing: it’s cheap. Part of the reason for this cheapness are the low-cost flights. Sometimes you can find good deals are more traditional airlines, like Iberia; and that may be the best option. But often travelers looking to save money fly with EasyJet or Ryanair. I have a lot of experience with Ryanair. I used them for my outbound and inbound flights to Poland. They are far from being my favorite airline, but their prices are pretty irresistible. My flight to Poland, for example, cost me less than 20 euros. And that’s for a three-and-a-half hour flight!
Of course, you get what you pay for. There are no amenities on Ryanair. The seats are uncomfortable, there are no screens to watch movies, no plug to charge your phone, and of course food is not included. Besides this, you need to pay extra if you want to choose your seat or even if you want to take a bag for the overhead compartment. Since I bought the cheapest ticket, I had to fit all of my stuff under the seat in front of me. Worst of all may be the advertising. On every Ryanair flight the airstewarts give long, uninspired, rambling advertisements of various products—food, perfume, lottery tickets, and even model planes —over the plane’s crackling PA system. And they do this in two or three languages, so it takes a long time. I’ve never seen anyone buy any of this junk, so in a way it feels like punishment for paying cheap prices.
As much as I like to rag on Ryanair, the truth is that I wouldn’t have been able to travel so much if it weren’t for this infamous company. There are a couple other companies and services that also help in my eternal quest to save money. A basic one is Skyscanner, a website that reliably tells you the cheapest flights. I also have used Blablacar a lot, which is a ride sharing service. Basically, let’s say I’m planning on driving from Seville to Madrid. I can put up an announcement on Blablacar and charge riders to accompany on this trip. The driver can charge whatever they want, but typically the prices are quite a bit lower than, say, paying for a high-speed train. Of course, I felt a little hesitant at first about the prospect of getting into a car with a stranger. But the website is quite well regulated and I haven’t had any truly bad experiences. It’s also a good way to find people to chat with, if you’re trying to improve your language skills.
There is one more service I use that, I admit, makes me feel a bit guilty: Airbnb. The reason that I have some scruples about Airbnb is that it can have a potentially bad effect on the housing market of wherever you’re visiting. It’s often more profitable for landlords to rent their flats short-term to visitors than long-term to locals, and this limits the supply of available residences and drives prices up. In areas with heavy tourism, this can make it almost unliveably expensive. So there is that downside. On the other hand, hotels and even youth hostels can be much, much more expensive than Airbnbs—prohibitively so, for me. In any case, I hope I am reducing the corrosive effect of Airbnbs by normally renting individual rooms (which couldn’t be rented to locals anyway) rather than whole apartments. In Prague, for example, I stayed in a little room in the apartment of a family, far outside the center. This is not only better for the city, but also in my experience more fun, since the idea is to be with locals anyways.
Well, those are my tips. If you do some searching, you can find ways to travel around Europe on an incredibly short budget. And you get a lot for money, since there are so many things to see and do, all over the place. If you’re young—younger than 26, in most cases—then you can get added discounts on museums and monuments. Added to all this, there is also the convenience of the European Union. Now that I’m being paid in Euros, I don’t have to worry about conversion rates if I go to Italy, Germany, or Ireland. There is also something that’s called the Schengen Zone: a zone of countries where no visa or even passport is needed at the border. Flying from Spain to Italy, then, is legally the same as taking a domestic flight. You just walk right into the country.
Europe’s open borders are something that they should be very proud of, I think. It is a level of international trust and cooperation that is unique in history, I believe. And as a result of this, it is quite common for Europeans to have international experience. Though there is at least one case in which all this may backfire: during an pandemic. Now the virus is in every major European country, with over a thousand cases in Spain. And I’ve just heard that all of Italy is on lock-down. I really hope they don’t lock down Spain…
Anyways, I’m getting a bit off topic. My major point is that Europe is great for travel. There is a lot to see and do, it’s easy and cheap to get around, and borders are almost non-existent. And Europeans themselves take advantage of this. Blessed with lots of vacation time (unlike the United States, where vacation is entirely unregulated), Europeans in general take lots of trips: both within their countries and to neighboring lands. Indeed, one of the big reasons that so many people want to learn English is because of the travel industry. In a continent of so many different nations and languages, English is the only Lengua Franca available.
Now, does all this traveling help to make Europeans wiser, more tolerant, more cosmopolitan? The answer is not immediately clear to me. It’s certainly possible to travel and not learn anything. Go to any touristy area, and you’ll see what I mean. All the food is junk food (a lot of it from America), and everything for sale is junk, too. Many people travel, take a selfie with a famous landmark, stay in a hotel, and then go home. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily. It’s fun. But does it lead to anything more? I think it does, or at least I hope it does. Otherwise, what on earth am I doing? Just having fun?