I have heard wonderful things about Spain, so I was not particularly surprised when Madrid turned out to be a beautiful, friendly, fun city. (Although, Barcelona was usually the city being mentioned, so that city must really be something.) I think there’s something about the combination of the wine or beer at every meal, the long siesta in the middle of the day, and I swear there is something to greeting everyone with “hola!” That final vowel just opens up the mouth and face and makes people instantly more relaxed and welcoming than, for example “bonjour”, ending in a closed, reserved mouth position (are my acting roots showing?) Whatever the reason, we had a wonderful time eating so much ham, drinking so much wine, and seeing amazing art and architecture. I’ll speak more about the food, including where and what we ate and enjoyed in later posts (tapas are a brilliant idea, aren’t they? Who ever just wants to eat one thing and just be done with it? I certainly don’t.) These are the sites and wanderings we particularly enjoyed in Madrid.

Prado Museum (Museo Nacional del Prado) One of the largest art collections in Europe, this beautiful museum, of a manageable size, houses a lot of religious art, including not just Spanish artists like El Greco, but lots of Dutch painters as well. Also there, many Goya paintings including The Second of May and the Third of May 1808, and the famous triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthy Delights.

Paseo del Prado A narrow, tree-lined park between two roads on the east side of the city, near the Prado museum. A nice walk. DSC02823

Plaza Mayor We found ourselves walking through this central square nearly every day, as we were staying nearby. Quite touristy and filled with lots of costumed characters (including an amusing fat spiderman) and probably avoidable restaurants and cafes, but with some nice architecture, statues and murals, it’s worth a look.

Rastro Flea Market This market, held on Sundays in a huge area of the Embajadores neighborhood. Large, and with an eclectic mixture of the new (art, t-shirts, leather bags, clothing, espadrilles, fabrics, souvenirs, underwear) and old (antiques of all sorts, mostly along the side streets). A little bit of everything, very enjoyable, even if we didn’t buy anything.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia We visited this modern art museum mostly for Picasso’s Guernica, but really enjoyed all the art, as well as the setting.

Palacio Real de Madrid We didn’t go in the royal palace, but the outside, and the surrounding Plaza de Oriente (with several cafés for a coffee or glass of wine) and Sabatini Gardens were very beautiful.DSC03021

Almudena Cathedral This large cathedral, beside the palace, is a nice example of a newer cathedral, as it opened in 1993 (but took 100 years to build).

Other sites:


Let them eat slightly stale eclairs!

It is so lovely when a dear friend comes to visit. Beyond good conversation and fun outings, a visiting friend can also provide motivation to get out and do some of those things that have been on the list for months.  The touristy things, if you will, that somehow get replaced by mornings of jogging in the forest, afternoons of faire des courses (grocery shopping, where you might have to hit up variously the Monoprix, the health food store, grocer, butcher, and baker for the meal) and evenings of watching every season of The Mentalist. This particular friend helped me finally get to the Louvre, for one, and we even took a tour, which I probably wouldn’t normally do. We also visited The Château de Versailles. Versailles is one of those places that I am glad exists because history but that I probably wouldn’t have gotten behind at the time it was built. See also: Colosseum. When we visited, back in February, although it felt just springy enough here in Paris to add a bounce to my step, it was still winter enough that the trees were barren, and the only flowers to be seen were sprinklings of tiny, white snowdrops. Also, the fountains were off, and the water very low so it was hard to get an idea of the gardens, beyond general enormity. All the opulence made us hungry, so we visited the in-house Angelina for lunch (there are many other dining options throughout the complex), to kill two tourist birds with one stone. We visited the take-away counter, rather than the restaurant, as the counter was already expensive but not EXPENSIVE. It was, I hope, not as good as the Parisian one, because the sandwiches were just fine and the eclairs were quite stale. Even without the gardens in bloom, the sheer vastness of the grounds, and lavishness of the castle itself is beautiful and impressive, and definitely highlights the chasm between the wealthy ruling class and starving peasants that existed at the time it was built.

While I was able to cross two important things off my list, it is still long, and somehow, after spending two months in Morocco, and after upcoming trips to Madrid, Rome, Florence, Berlin and Vienna, and back to Nantes, we will only be in Paris for one more month. I’m not sure how the year went by so fast, but I do know that I will have to really get going. Euro Disney, here I come!


Ancient and Modern

The plaza in Rabat that holds both the Tour Hassan and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V is a salute to Morocco old and new and contains many icons of the country:colorful tiles set in neutral stone, ornate carving, gold lanterns, fountains, large Moroccan flags fluttering in a sea breeze and palm trees. The tower was built in 1195 by the Almohads and was intended to be the tallest mosque minaret in the world. Construction was abandoned, however, and it stands now at 145 feet tall. After an earthquake in 1755, all that remains of the mosque itself are the pillars, visible in the photographs below. The mausoleum next door where the current King’s father, grandfather and uncle are laid to rest, was designed by a Vietnamese architect and finished in 1961. It is adjoined by a mosque, built at the same time.


Chellah, Home of the Storks

These ruins, which combine a Roman city called Sala Colonia with Chellah, a Merenid encampment are fascinating and peaceful. Just up the banks of the river, as it snakes inland, further from the ocean than the medina or the new city, the area had several groups of inhabitants over the years, as is the case with much of Rabat. It was first settled by the Phoenicians, and then expanded by the Romans in AD 40. They built a temple, a forum, a bath, a water distribution center, including the Pool of the Nymph, the overgrown and crumbling foundations of which can be seen. The Romans abandoned the city in 1154, but in the 14th century a Merenid sultan began building on top of the existing Roman site. Still discernible are the minaret tower, school building, tombs and gardens. In one far corner lies a pool built for washing before prayers. At one point the pool began being fed by underground springs from the river and eels were discovered in it. Lore says that women who feed hard boiled eggs to the eels will receive good fertility and easy childbirth. We visited Chellah on a cloudy day, which made it a bit cooler than the previous days 90 degree heat. Now, Chellah is abandoned by all but visitors and the hundreds of storks that winter in nests built in every tree and on every high tower. The clacking of the bills makes a unique, if loud, soundtrack to a visit.



The Kasbah

I believe I have somehow made it through two and a half years of posting about Morocco without once mentioning a certain song by The Clash from 1982. It is probably best not to start now. The Kasbah of the Oudaias (alternatively Oudayas and Udayas), being a fortress, has a highly defensible position atop a hill at Rabat’s edge with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Bou Regreg River on another. Original construction took place in the first century and then the structure was added to, altered, and/or repurposed by the next inhabitants over the years. It is now mostly residential, (fun fact: kasbahs are apparently very hot property for foreigners to buy up) but also inside the walls are a jewelry museum in what used to be a palace, an Andalusian garden in the palace grounds, a café overlooking the river, and the oldest mosque in Rabat.


The Fortified City

Rabat, Morocco sits on the Western coast of North Africa. Slightly north of Casablanca, and west of Fez, Rabat feels calm for a city of well over a million. The fifth-largest city in Morocco and the capital of Morocco since independence in 1956, it is sort of an in-between city; not quite as cosmopolitan as Casablanca, not quite as touristed as Fes and Marrakesh, and less hectic than Tangier. But with lovely sites and scenery, it is a pleasant place to spend some time. Settled as early as the 8th century, BC by Phoenicians and Romans, it outlasted the empire and became the home to Berbers. The city takes its name from the ribat, or “fortified place”, the fortress that the Berbers built on the Northern shore, which later became a kasbah. Over the centuries, the area saw waves of popularity, becoming home to many different groups, including the Almohads, Muslim refugees and pirates. Because it is bordered on one side by the Atlantic Ocean, it was an excellent spot for war campaigns, shipping, and yes, looting. Now, there are several beaches, particularly good for surfing, since the waves are untempered by a bay or much of a breakwater.

On the Northern tip of the city lies the Kasbah of the Oudaias, the site of the original ribat, now mostly residential. Just across the Bou Regreg river lies the city of Salé. Through the centuries, power often changed hands between the cities. Now, a tram runs neatly between them.

As you can see from the fog blanketing the Kasbah, the Atlantic Ocean plays a large part in the climate. This was quite an unusual amount of fog, and, although winter can be wet and chilly, March has been sunny and a warm 68 degrees.


Inside the Kasbah.

Just below the Kasbah is the Medina, or old city, the quietest , most well-laid out medina that I’ve seen (not that I’m particularly an expert, I grant you). To the south of the medina is the new city, where most restaurants, cafes and business occurs. Below that are more residential neighborhoods, including the one we are staying in, as well as Mechouar where the Royal Palace is, and the wealthy Agdal. The new-ish tram system provides fast, easy, affordable (one ride is 6 dirhams, about 74 cents) transport to most of the city.

The main sites of the city which we will be exploring are the Kasbah, which is also the site of the Andalusian gardens, the Tour Hassan and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, where the previous two kings are buried, and the ancient Roman site of Chellah. There is also a very good archeology museum, and even a zoo.



world enough, and time

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The first time I visited the Musée d’Orsay in Paris I was spending my junior year abroad in London. I was taking an art history class taught by Pat Utermohlen, an elegantly eccentric older woman with giant glasses, handfuls of rings and a love for art that was contagious. I had never taken an art history class, didn’t (and don’t) really “get” art beyond what I find enjoyable to look at, but I wanted to make the most of my time abroad, and I made sure that the two elective classes that I was able to choose would have plenty of cultural offerings. Once a week Pat Utermohlen led us through a London museum (some many more than once), and we would also have a weekly lecture about what we would see. My first experience with art theory, actually discussing art, and writing about it, was truly interesting, although it admittedly was a bit of a struggle. There is a saying that writing about painting is like dancing about architecture*. That’s not to say that there is no value in it, just that it feels a bit awkward. Pat Utermohlen also took us on a weekend trip to Paris, to see the great works there. The trip is quite a blur; I think we visited every major museum with works relevant to the period we were studying (late 19th to early 20th century) including the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Picasso museum, the Marmottan museum as well as a trip to Giverny to see Monet’s house and gardens that he famously depicted in his water lily paintings. At the Louvre all I really remember is running by renaissance painting after renaissance painting to get to the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, which were mostly memorable themselves for the mass of tourists all trying to get a picture of themselves with the artworks (so bizarre.) But the Musée d’Orsay, which I hadn’t even known existed, felt like a museum that was made just for me. It was the art I liked, (impressionism, mostly) in one place, and that place happened to be a gorgeous Beaux-Arts style former train station, and it wasn’t too crowded or huge.

The second time I visited the Musée d’Orsay was last Sunday, and it was just as perfect as I remembered. Since I will be in Paris for a bit of time, I was able to purchase a Carte Blanche, a membership card for both the Orsay and the L’Orangerie, for about the cost of 3 visits. This way I can go as many times as I like, spreading out the trips so that I can leave before I stop really seeing the art (museum overload, is what I call it, for me it can set in as early as two hours into a trip). And the discount ticket for young people was capped at age 35. I love that art institutions tend to peg “young” as under 35. The Orsay doesn’t seem to be as popular or as busy as the Louvre or, to be sure, the Eiffel Tower, but I think there is so much more value in it. The museum houses some very famous paintings, such as Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone, some of Monet’s water lily paintings, Renoir’s very large dancer series, Whistler’s Mother, as well as others, and some great paintings by possibly less-well known artists, Berthe Morisot, Millet, Courbet and Caillebotte. (That links to one of my favorite paintings). I took the picture above of one of the giant clocks on the top floor through which you can see the city below. The museum being a former train station, there are several clocks of different design throughout the museum.

Lately, the time I spent in London is at the front of my mind, because I am lucky enough to be spending two weeks there very soon. It has been 12 years exactly since I was in London and, as is the way with time, it feels impossibly long ago, and just a breath away. I am hoping to revisit old haunts in that way that we do to try to grasp hold of the past. We are staying on the opposite side of the city from where I lived last time, so I am excited to discover new parts of the city as well.

*This saying, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, as well as the very similar “writing about painting is like dancing about architecture”, is believed to have been first used in 1979, and although the first quote has been attributed to several different people, they were most likely both first used by Martin Mull, a musician, comedian, and artist (and Colonel Mustard in the film Clue, for those to whom that may mean something). However, similar similes have been found as early as 1918, and it may just have been one of those maxims that were in the air. Now, it is not uncommon to hear talking or writing about various art forms to be compared to dancing or singing about math, football etc.

**The title of this post is from an Andrew Marvell poem, To His Coy Mistress.



Château des ducs de Bretagne

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Nantes, France is an old city that feels very modern, as I mentioned in a previous post. Partially it is simply a function of being very young, but the city also seems to make an effort in that direction. A good example is the castle in the city, The Castle of the Dukes of Brittany (Château des ducs de Bretagne), the center of power of Brittany when it was separate from the rest of France. Rather than making it a historically accurate castle, the city has decided to make it into a museum of the history of the area, exploring the long history with artifacts, multi-media presentations and art.

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During the summer and the “Journey to Nantes”, the usual inhabitants of the algae-green moat (a lively crew of fish, turtles, ducks and pigeons) were joined by floating mannequin heads, which represented characters from a larger, apocalyptic story line running through many of the installations around the city.

The original ramparts afford great views of part of the city, including the remaining tower of the LU biscuit factory, visible through the window in the picture below. There were originally two matching towers, flanking the entrance to the factory, one was destroyed in bombardments during the war. The tower has been transformed from its original purpose, like much of the rest of the city, into more of a community space. The LU now stands for Lieu Unique, and it holds a museum, restaurant and cafe, book and gift shop and a hamam, or Turkish bath, in the basement.

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the old uncles

Cathedral St. Pierre et St. Paul

Nantes, France is about as packed full of churches as you would expect a thousand-year-old city to be. There seems to be one around every corner, including out the window of our rental apartment. They rest their ancient bones around the corner from a café, a boutique, a sushi restaurant, folded into a young city which is constantly changing and growing. Streams of people flow by, not even glancing up at the building towering above-the old uncle at the party, they’ve heard the stories he has to tell before. But for a traveler, during a heat wave in a city with very little air conditioning, a cool, dark, quiet cathedral is a welcome respite, admiring the vaulted ceilings and painted frescoes, a pleasure.

The cathedral, the church of the Bishop of Nantes, is called Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul (St. Peter and St. Paul’s Cathedral). Building began in 1434, and was completely finished in 1891. In all that time, and since, it has been damaged many times, including during the French revolution, and when the city was bombed in 1943, and finally in a fire in 1972 when it was almost completely destroyed. Some of these various lives are evident if you look closely, but overall, it is completely harmonious and you would never know that it took so long to complete, or that it has been almost entirely restored from the original. It is built in the style of Flamboyant Gothic. One gentleman on TripAdvisor gave the cathedral a “Poor” rating, with two stars out of five. I’m not sure what he was expecting; a floor show with dancing nuns? A higher ceiling? Sandwiches maybe? Ratings sites are ridiculous. Also sometimes useful. It’s a total love/hate thing.

Below is Église Saint-Louis, more commonly knows as Notre-Dame de Bon-Port. Begun in 1843, and located near where the port used to be, it is beautifully visible from the river. Saint Louis is the patron of sailors going off to sea. The dome was inspired by St. Peter’s in Rome.

Basilica of St. Louis

The Basilica of Saint Nicholas, with the tall spire reaching up to the sky, was built in 1854 in the Neo-Gothic style and its bells make a beautiful cacophony.

Basilica of St. Nicholas

Église Sainte-Croix is a surprise in the middle of the Bouffay district, a mixture of styles, including Baroque, Flamboyant and Neo-Gothic. Originally built in 1685 it was the site of the chapel of the nearby Chateau of the Dukes of Brittany. The church seems to have changed along with the city. It was damaged, along with almost everything else, during the bombardments of 1943.

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Where the wild (machines) are

Elephant opens mouth and raises trunk.

So far the most unique thing we’ve seen, in a very unique city, is Les Machines de l’île, or “Machines of the Island”. Taking inspiration from Jules Verne, who was born in Nantes, Leonardo DaVinci, and the shipbuilding history of the city, the machinists at Machine de l’île have created a unique world inhabited by mechanical creatures. Located on a large island in the Loire River, this part-amusement park, part-museum, part-workshop, part-art studio, is housed in what used to be a shipbuilding hangar. The world, invented by two visionaries and brought to life by a group of machinists, is still in “prototype phase”, (and owing to its imaginative, definitely slightly unrealistic ideas, likely to remain that way). This world is a tree world, the world of L’arbre à Héron (the heron tree). On display in La Galerie des Machines are small models of this tree world, as well as a larger, human-sized model, and then, just outside, a walk-able life-sized prototype of a branch of the tree. The “real world” will have mechanical herons as transportation to the treetops, and this is demonstrated with willing volunteers that are lifted 10 feet into the air and carried the length of the building. There are also mechanical ants and inchworms for movement up and down the branches. It’s a little hard to figure out, especially for me as the machinists were providing demonstrations all in French, but once you pick up the slightly tongue-in-cheek attitude, it is easy to appreciate the journey that they are beckoning you on. This is all very cool and it’s fun being drawn into this world. You can even visit a greenhouse where they are experimenting with various plants with which to populate the tree, including a large selection of flytraps, although on this particular day in July, where the entire world felt like a greenhouse, the actual greenhouse was only habitable for minutes.

Should this world not be impressive enough, the machinists have shown their skill with an enormous mechanical elephant that circles the island carrying passengers on her (or his) back and in the house in her belly. This elephant has moving legs, (although the weight rests on a wheeled structure, which is also what makes it move) blinking eyes, flapping ears, and a spraying trunk. Riding the elephant is fun, and affords quite a view, but the real fun is walking alongside as she slowly lumbers (rolls) along, lifting her trunk and covering eager children with water.

There is also a newly opened carousel, Le Carrousel Des Mondes Marins with two levels of mechanical marine creatures, a lower “abyss” level with crustaceans, giant lamp-headed fish, and squid, and an upper “surface” level with sea serpents, fish and rays. Customers can hop aboard and ride the sea creatures. “L’atelier et la branche”, or the group that dreams up and manufactures these worlds and creations, is located in the same old shipbuilding structure as the gallery, and it is possible to take an overview of what they are working on, and how they do it, although no one was working when we were visiting. There is something very intriguing about the emphasis on process, this idea that they are still working on the heron tree, and that someday it will be a reality. Though that idea is just fun, there is definitely something giant and mechanical being readied in the workshop, and I look forward to seeing what it may be.

Mechanical elephant. I don't think he (she?) has a name, you may give him (her) one in the comments.

Mechanical elephant with riders. I don’t think she (he?) has a name, feel free to give her (him) one in the comments.
Miniature prototype of Branch WorldA prototype of Branch World.

Small portion of actual branch (no herons or ants to transport though)

The walk-able, life-sized portion of branch (unfortunately no ants or herons for transport).
The heron that can (and does!) carry passengers in baskets to the treetops.A heron demonstrates carrying passengers to the branches.
Ants will crawl along branches to transport passengers.Ants will also crawl along the branches with passengers.
A mole.A mechanical mole digs in the dirt in the greenhouse.
View over the elephants ear. The view of the hangar from the elephant, over a giant ear.