Tryon Palace in New Berne NC

Tryon Palace in New Berne NC is America’s only royal palace. It was first built for the colonial governor of NC in 1770, and is a great place to get a feeling for the Eighteenth Century. It really is a very nice Neo-PalladianTryon Palace country house with a pair of dependencies joined to the house by semi-circular colonnades. All through our tour, I kept wondering, how could it look this good after two-hundred and fifty years? At the end of the tour, it became clear. By nineteen-fifty, a road went right through the site of the main house and only one dependency was left. It was all rebuilt afterward. No wonder it looks so good. It’s only sixty Tryon Palaceyears old!

Real or rebuilt, Tryon Palace is certainly worth visiting. Not just the palace and grounds, but the neighboring historic buildings are beautiful. Also the whole town of New Berne is very pretty. There is not much of a downtown, but the residential neighborhoods are spectacular. The locals are ridiculously friendly. People stopped us in the street, not content with a “good morning”, they wanted to know how we were enjoying North Carolaina, New Berne, the sights, the weather, etc.DSC01074

Palau de Musica Barcelona Modernisme

IMG_2205Barcelona is home to Modernisme, the Catalan version of Art Nouveau. One of the best Modernista buildings in Barcelona is the Palau de Musica Catalana. I think that it is one of the most beautiful buildings anywhere. If agree with me that often less is just less and more is actually more, you will love this building. It was designed by Lluis Domenech i Montaner (in Català, two ll’s are pronounced y, and the er that ends Montaner is pronounced ay as in French) from 1905 to 1908. It was built for the Orfeò Català, which is the Barcelona choral society. This sounds misleading because in the early twentieth century, the Catalans believed that their culture could restore their nationhood, and the choral society organized much more than group singing. The building is filled with images of Catalan and world music and strongly asserts the important place of Catalunya in European culture.

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The building is also incredibly pretty. The architect believed that he should design everything in the building and produced the designs for stained glass, sculpture, mosaic, terra cotta and metalwork, as well as the design of the building. The building is on a very restricted site, hemmed in by two very narrow streets. Domenech i Montaner wanted to fill the building with natural light. What he did was design a modern curtain-wall building where the glass outer walls serve to keep out the weather but do not hold up the building. This is the same kind of building as a glass curtain wall International Modern skyscraper like the Seagrams Building in New York, But instead of eliminating all decoration and references like a modern skyscraper, he saturated the building with decoration and references.

First the outside. By the time you see it, you are right up close to the building. First you notice the details of the ground floor. The ticket windows are in the ground-floor columns and are clad in broken tile mosaics in beautiful colors. The column capitals are terra cotta flowers in several different varieties and colors. The corner of the building is ornamented with a huge sculpture group which includes an allegorical figure representing Catalan folksong and a figure of Sant Jordi (Saint George) slaying the dragon. Sant Jordi is the patron saint of Canalunya.

Only then do you notice the second floor. Using a steel frame to support the building allowed Domenech i Montaner to line each of the two facades with double colonnades. The walls are reduced to stained-glass screens as in a Gothic cathedral.

The top of the facade

These days, you enter the Palau de Musica from the back. A new addition has been built next door and, after you buy your ticket, you enter through the cafe. It looks like the cafe is original because the stained glass enclosure for the food and waiters looks like it has always been there. There is a marble lobby and a symmetrical pair of staircases with light-fixture newel posts that leads you up to the auditorium. When you enter the auditorium, you are bowled over by the pattern and color. Every inch is covered with decoration. The stage and seating area is actually pretty small, as this was not designed as a concert hall, an opera house, or a theater, but as a space for the choral society. The stage is ornamented with with mosaic pictures of women – the muses – each of whom plays a different musical instrument. From the waist up, the women become three dimensional statues, leaning out of the wall. Above the stage, a giant pipe organ with thousands of pipes fills the proscenium arch.

On the right side of the stage, the upper arch is filled with a group of horses (Pegasuses) flying out of the corner. The left side has a willow tree above a statue of the founder of the choral society. The middle of the ceiling is dominated by a rectangular stained glass skylight that hangs down at its center like a giant drop. The drop is the sun, and is surrounded by rings of portraits of women, who represent singers in the chorus. The stained glass rectangle is located in a ceiling of terra cotta fluting, ornamented with flowers. The edges of the ceiling are held up with columns which spread out into fan vaulting in the form of peacocks tails. The arches between the peacock’s tails contain the names of famous international and Catalan composers.

Both the inside and the outside of the Palau de Musica are a delight. The overwhelming amount of decoration is not, in fact, overwhelming, because it is all so light, so pretty, and so joyous. Even though Domenech i Montaner was making several serious points about the value of Catalunya, about the place of Catalan culture in Europe, and about the future of his country, he did it with such skill and talent that the messages are not bombastic, but charming and convincing.

Chocolate in Florence

 

CHOCOLATE IN FLORENCE

chocolaate Florence

Chocolate Festival

Susan found a seasonal celebration in a Florence tourist brochure that is the consummation of her fantasy – a week-long chocolate celebration in the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella just a couple of blocks from our apartment. We walked over in the drizzle and found a row of big white tents set up. There were dozens of chocolate purveyors showing chocolate truffles, chocolate bark, chocolate covered candied fruits, chocolate covered waffles, chocolate covered strawberry shish-kebobs, every flavor of chocolate bar, and cubes of gianduia, frutti di Bosco, and every other kind of chocolate.

Even better, every one of the merchants forced us to try samples. A woman from Venice assured us that she made the candies in her “laboratorio” and never sold other makers products, like some other dealers. She had a block of a candy called cremino. In New York, in Morningside Heights, we used to buy this candy from the wonderful local chocolate shop called Mondel’s. They called it Figaro Truffles. This cremino was like the mother lode of Figaro Truffle. It is made of alternating stripes of hazelnut cream chocolate and creamy chocolate truffle. This combination is called gianduia in Italy and is better than anything.


We also bought four jars of fruit conserves from a family called Stringhetto. They had every imaginable flavor and several unimaginable. Once again they forced samples on us. The first was apple and lemon, which was splendid. The second was blackberry, which was overwhelmingly berry-like. The third was amarena, which is Italian for sour cherry, and apricot, which is a perennial favorite of mine. We bought every one that we tasted. Only afterward did I find out that Suzie was thinking of them as gifts, whereas I assume that we’ll eat them all.

The vegans in Spain fall mainly in the plain.

No, there are no vegans in Spain. It’s the ham.

It’s a good thing that I’m not a vegan, at least in Spain.  Or a Moslem or an observant Jew (I’m a non-observant Jew) They have absolutely no idea what it means to  leave the pork out of a dish. If you order green beans, say, it will come with a sprinkling of Serrano ham on top. They eat cones filled with ham cubes the way Americans eat ice-cream cones – in the street.

ham Spain

If you go to a big food market, there will be a huge display of pig legs, varying in age (age is good, like wine), in quality (you want the piggies to be fed on acorns), and in price. We visited the supermarket in the basement of the big department store (For some reason, the big department store chain in Spain is called El Corte Ingles – The English Court) to pick up some cheese and salami for a little dinner, and we found a festival, a celebration, an orgy of ham. The housewares department also had a wide selection of pig-leg holders. One end is a stainless steel cradle, the other end is a collar with a wing-nut to tighten onto the ankle of the ham. Both parts are anchored to a heavy base so the ham doesn’t move while you are carving paper-thin slices. Portugal has presunto and Italy has prosciutto, but nobody has the same obsession as Spain.

ham shop Spain

Figueres Spain is Surreal

FigueresFigueres is a nice little town. It suffers from being in Catalunya,  very close to Girona which is one of the most beautiful towns  I’ve ever seen. We stayed in Girona and made a day-trip to Figueres, which is only a half-hour away by train. The only reason anyone goes to Figueres is because Salvador Dali created his theater museum there. The building is great, and very bizarre. The art is exactly what you’d expect from Dali. And there are a few surprises too. Toward the end of his life, Dali started to design jewelry and jewelry-like objects. These are beautiful. They opened a new market for him and were a new profit center.

Salvador Dali in Figueres

First, some pictures of the town and of he museum building.

 

Then some pictures of the inside of the building –

Finally some works of art –

Some jewelry to end –

There are two broad schools of thought about Dali. In one, he’s a commercial-minded publicity hog who specialized in self promotion and even went so far as to sign blank sheets of paper which were later made into silkscreens. The other opinion is that he and a few colleagues invented a new way of painting – Surrealism. And that he continued to experiment with new media and forms of expression throughout his life. Even more, some of his paintings are among the best paintings ever made.

The weird thing is, they are both right. Dali nd his wife were appallingly crass self promoters who were passionately interested in their income. Also, Dali’s Crucifixion at the Metropolitan is one of the best paintings ever painted. His Spanish Civil War, also called Soft Construction with Beans, is a horrifying and original image.

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crucifixion

Iceland in February!

This past winter, Suzie and I went to Iceland to see the Northern lights. We stayed in the Northern Light Inn on a lava field in Southwestern Iceland, very close to the Blue Lagoon. We toured around our corner of the country and spent a few days in Reykjavik as well.

The Blue Lagoon near our hotel

The Blue Lagoon near our hotel

The Blue Lagoon was formed by the runoff from a geothermal electricity plant set in a lava field. The runoff contained so much white silica mud that it clogged the pores of the lava and created a shallow warm lagoon. Now it’s a spa and heaven to soak in. As you can see, it’s baby blue set in a landscape of black lava – very dramatic.

The Spa at the Blue Lagoon

The Spa at the Blue Lagoon

The weather at the Blue Lagoon changed every fifteen minutes or so. The sky would be bright blue, then huge hail would fall for a few minutes. Then the sky would be blue again, the rain. Then blue, then snow. All within a couple of hours.

We hired a car and driver who took us on a tour around the Reykyanes peninsula, that is Southwestern Iceland. We visited Gulfoss – a huge waterfall about a third the size of Niagara.

Gulfoss Waterfall

Gulfoss Waterfall

Elan in a Goony Hat near Gulfoss

Elan in a Goony Hat near Gulfoss

Iceland also has the oldest parliament in the world, running for a thousand years. This is the site of the original parliament – the Althing – where Vikings came together to vote.

Site of the Althing

Site of the Althing

Strokkur geyser

Strokkur geyser

Geyser is one of the few words in English that comes from Icelandic. The original Geyser is dormant now, but only a few yards away is Strokkur, which erupts every few minutes.

Reykjavik is the country’s only city, and its historic district resembles a more urban version of Cape May. It’s all Victorian with very similar buildings and gingerbread, only in Iceland the traditional siding is not clapboard by corrugated iron.

Victorian House in Reykyavik

Victorian House in Reykjavic

Amazingly and bizarrely Cape May-ish

Amazingly and bizarrely Cape May-ish

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Best pastry shop for the best pastry in Portugal

Pasteis de Nata – the best pastry in Portugal

The Portuguese are not picky eaters. They are hearty trenchermen. They also don’t avoid sweets. But the best pastry in Portugal is unquestionably the Pastel de Nata.  Pasteis de Nata are little cream tarts in a flaky pastry crust.

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The line at the Antiga Confeiteria de Belem

They are rich and wonderful and avoid the too-eggy and too-heavy affliction which affects many Portuguese pastries that originated in nunneries.best pastry

The original purveyor of these morsels of deliciousness is the Antiga Confeiteria de Belem. It is an 18th century bakery that still churns out the pasteis for lines of ravenous customers snaking down the block. Belem is one of our favorite neighborhoods in Lisbon, and we’ll post about its other attractions later, but first things first.

Perfectly Picturesque Pena Palace in Sintra Portugal

Pena Palace in Sintra

One of the first days of this Portuguese trip was a day trip to Sintra – a short distance from Lisboa. Sintra itself is extraordinarily cute with picturesquely climbing alleyways, art galleries and craft shops. It is also a great spot because it forms the center of a district of stunning country houses and palaces. There is a royal palace downtown, right on the main square. But we were there to see the houses in the neighborhood. My favorite is the least “tasteful” of the lot. Many guidebooks dismiss it as Victorian eccentricity at its worst, but I think that it’s Victorian eccentricity at its best.Pena Palace Portugal

Pena Palace Portugal

Suzie at Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal

Pena Palace (Palacio Nacional da Pena) is a spectacular mountaintop amalgam of Gothic, Manueline, Moorish and Renaissance elements. It was built for King Ferdinand II between 1842 and 1854 and designed by a German amateur architect, Baron Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege.  It is now a Unesco World Heritage Site as one of the greatest examples of Nineteenth Century Pena Palace PortugalRomantic Revivalism. The day we visited, it was intermittently foggy and rainy. We’ve visited in bright sunny weather on previous trips to Portugal, and I think that it looks even better in the fog.Pena Palace Portugal IMG_0098 IMG_0099