Monday, September 28, 2015


Hallgrímskirkja is a Lutheran cathedral designed by Gudjón Samúelsson. Samúelsson drew his inspiration for this project from his surroundings, particularly from columnar basalt formed by lava flow in this volcanic island. It took over 40 years to complete the cathedral. Samúelsson didn't live to see the inauguration of Hallsgrímskirkja in 1986.  

The cathedral is named after Hallgrimur Petersson, Iceland's beloved poet who penned Hymns of the Passion (listen here: He was also the pastor at Saurbaer in Hvalfjördur.

The rib vaulted ceiling reminds one of the great Gothic cathedrals. But what sets it apart from its predecessors is its clean and simple style. Sharp arches flow down to linear columns. 

The main altar is adorned with an eight-meter long painting, Five Crucifixions by Helgi Torgils Fridjónsson. "Whether this work should be regarded as religious, is really up to the spectator, however all mental conflict is by nature religious. People ponder the suffering of the crucified but I do not believe that for a religious person passion stands for direct pain but rather for a kind of experience and motion in time", according to Fridjónsson.

The organ was made by Johannes Klaes of Bonn. It is 49 ft. high and weighs 25 tons. 

Straight lines frame an arched window.

Hallgrímskirkja sits on a hill and its tower can be seen around town. There is a 360 degree view of the city and harbor from the tower which rises 73 meters (244 ft) from the ground. I used it as my point of reference when exploring the city. The fee for the elevator ride to the tower is 800 kr. Proceeds from the fee are used for church projects.


Images by TravelswithCharie

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Urban Art Reykjavik

What would you do to stave off the blues when you only get 5 hours of daylight during the winter months? Reykjavik has the answer. Colorful, highly imaginative wall art to brighten the dreariest of days. The stamp act above is at the Design Center. It is tasteful and representative of the work they do at the center.

This one is called Poor Ugly. It is elaborate. So much going on here. On Hverfisgata Street.

Urban art is sharply juxtaposed with Victorian architecture. At Dillon's Bar on Laugavegur.

Practical wall art. A refresher course on how to tie a necktie. And an arresting advertisement for Gudsteins. 

Mushrooms growing on a mushroom. Hmmm. Think what you will.

Cartoon characters with graffiti and blue sky. Rare blue sky during our stay in Iceland.

"And I will raise you up on eagle's wings." On Laugavegur, the main shopping street in Reykjavik. 

There are more murals to discover in Reykjavik. I refer to these as murals rather than graffiti (unless there are elements of the latter in the mural) because there is an attempt to create art, not just traditional scratched or scribbled graffiti. These murals have evolved from street art. It was fun finding them as we walked around the city.


Images by TravelswithCharie

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Madrid Basics

Eat well


Casa Labra has been around since 1860. This historic tapas bar still continues to draw a crowd. Follow the long line if you wish to load up on tapas and eat outside at one of the hard to get tables. Or try to secure a seat in the small restaurant indoors where you can order the specialties of the house which are the croqueta de bacalao (cod croquette) and empanadilla de carne (meat turnover). Casa Labra is on Calle Tetúan. Check their website for their menu and prices.

Gourmet Experience at El Corte Ingles on Plaza Callao
The Gourmet Experience is on the top floor of this department store. There are a number of counters offering different kinds of tapas. I ordered a pintxo of cod with a cool and light tinto de verano. There's also a gourmet store on this floor where you can find wine, Spanish olive oil, olives, chocolates, delicacies and kitchen accessories for the gourmand. The view from the balcony of the rooftops of Madrid is probably enough to entice anyone to check this place out. Drink plus pintxo at Me Voy a Tomar Una Cai equals 6,25€.

A pintxo of cod and a tinto de verano

Pastries and Hot Chocolate:

Chocolateria San Gines
I love that thick chocolate taste. It reminds me of my childhood days. And those long churros are great for dipping. It's not coated with sugar as they are in the United States. Chocolateria San Gines is the go to spot for the after theater crowd and late night revelers. This is another one of those old institutions in Madrid. It dates back to 1894. It's open 24/7.

El Riojano

El Riojano is an elegant little teahouse established in 1855. It has an irresistible array of pastries and cookies to choose from. And there's ice cream too! Great place for breakfast or afternoon merienda. Calle Mayor, 10.

La Mallorquina on Puerta del Sol

La Mallorquina is a good place to load up on pastries. They have not raised their prices much over the years. Most of their rich pastries like the plain napolitana sell at 1,20€ and 1,10€ for a rosquilla. They have a stand up counter where you can sip your coffee or drink your soda if you're in a rush. There's also a sitting area on the second floor.


Lara - Corredera Baja de San Pablo, 4 (near the Gran Via)
Lara is known for its comida casera or "home cooked" cuisine. They serve generous portions with each course. We had the fixed menu with appetizer, entrée, and dessert and I was already full with the eggplant I ordered for starters. The proprietors were gracious and we were well fed. Though the restaurant is close to the Gran Via, the neighborhood is nice and laid-back.

Mercado San Anton in the Chueca neighborhood, Calle Augusto Figueroa 24
I ordered skewered tuna from 7 Delicatessen Islas Canarias on the second level. It was a novelty for me to eat tuna marinated in adobo sauce. The adobo sauce really transformed the tuna. It was quite tasty. 12€.

Garbo Restaurante on Plaza del Carmen
I love truffles so I ordered pasta with truffles. I sat in the main dining room as it was too hot to sit in the terrace. I like the relaxed ambience of this restaurant. It's great for solo diners. Tallarin tartufo plus a glass of wine added to 16,65€. Price includes a 1,50€ cover charge. 

dNorte Taberna at C/Mesoneros Romanos 8

Merluzza Cantabrico

I ordered the Merluza Cantabrico and it was soft, moist and flavorful. With wine the bill came to 15,50€. The restaurant consists of three floors plus an outdoor terrace. Fast and efficient service.

Gino's - C/Gran Via 43

Tavola di Crostini

The Tavola di Crostini above is more than enough for three people. Our bill with wine was 33,40€ including a Pizza Pollo Marinato and a Merluzzo prezzemolo. Enter the restaurant through the VIPS bookstore on the Gran Via and take the stairs down to the basement.

People Watch

La Marinera on Plaza Mayor
For the price of a glass of wine, you can sit at any of the outdoor cafés for as long as you wish. This can be habit forming. So much going on at Plaza Mayor. I watched a group of joggers run across the square while one of them took a group selfie with his monopod as he jogged along. What will they think of next? Glass of wine is 4€. They'll give you chips to munch on for free.

Plaza Santa Ana

This is a nice neighborhood close to the Puerta del Sol but less hectic. Lots of good tapas bars in the neighborhood. 

Sleep well
Hostal Triana
Calle de la Salud, 13 (at Plaza del Carmen)
Convenient location, friendly staff and reasonable room rates. Request for a room away from the street. Close to Puerta del Sol and Gran Via, shopping, restaurants. Metro stop is Gran Via or Sol.

Free entry days and times at these museums:
Reina Sofia
Saturday from 2:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

6 to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 5 to 8 p.m. on Sunday.

Airport transportation
The Metro is a convenient and least expensive way to go to the center of Madrid. The transfer station is Nuevos Ministerios if your destination is Gran Via, Sol, or Callao. The ticket as of the writing is 5€ which can be purchased at any machine at the Barajas airport station.  It's difficult to take the Metro with heavy or oversize luggage as there are no elevators and not all stations have escalators. I had to lug my 21-inch suitcase up several flights of stairs. Though I packed light, it was still a challenge!

Alternatively, there are airport shuttles that can be arranged in advance. Check with your hotel if they can set up your airport pick-up or drop-off.  I paid 22€ for the trip back to the airport with Aerocity. 


Calle del Carmen

The biggest sale of the year in Madrid is in July.  This is also when Madrid is inundated with visitors so the shops are packed with people. Since Spain is the home of Zara, they have branches all over the city. But there are many similar boutiques to browse for clothes and accessories like Sfera, Lefties, Lft, and the popular H&M. I bought several blouses to replenish my meager wardrobe. The department store, El Corte Ingles, has clothes and accessories as well as souvenirs, home goods, electronics, and a supermarket. I fell for a leather handbag and some wallets. And they provide assistance with filing VAT forms so you can be reimbursed for the taxes you paid for your purchases. There's a minimum amount of purchase to qualify for reimbursement.


Images by TravelswithCharie

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Casas Colgadas, Cuenca

Casas Colgadas (Hanging Houses)

The Casas Colgadas are the iconic symbols of Cuenca. Hanging precariously on a cliff above the deep gorge of the Huécar river, they defy gravity. There used to be more hanging houses in Cuenca but only three have survived to this day. The Museo de Arte Abstracto Español occupies two of these houses. To get a good perspective of their hairy perch, walk downhill to the Puente de San Pablo which straddles the gorge. 

Hanging Houses from Puente de San Pablo

The footbridge of San Pablo is a good vantage point for a sweeping view of this fortress town. Look down and you'll appreciate the depth of the gorge. Look up and you'll see how the balconies of the Casas Colgadas seem suspended in the air. Look behind you for a panoramic view of the highest section of the old hill town. And across the bridge is the Parador de Cuenca, a former monastery from the 16th century which has been converted into a government-run hotel.

View of the gorge of Huécar and Parador de Cuenca

It's well worth the entrance fee to the museum to see its contemporary art collection and get a close look at these finely crafted wooden balconies. You cannot step out on the balcony but the view through glass doors is exhilirating enough with the canyon directly below. 

Original Elements

There are portions of the house that have been left intact after renovations were made in the 20th century to accommodate the museum. The provenance of the lattice window with late Gothic tracery (located by the stairs leading to the first floor) has been linked to the same shop which made the parapets for the Triforium of the Cathedral of Cuenca. This is not surprising as one of the former owners of the house, Gonzalo González de Cañamares, was a canon of the Cathedral in the late 15th century. His family's coat of arms can be found in the house.

The Museo de Arte Abstracto Español is a unique museum. It blends art and architecture under one roof. Above, a beamed ceiling complements the contemporary art on display. 

Casas Colgadas
Calle Canónigos, Cuenca
Entrance fee: 3€ as of this writing


Images by TravelswithCharie

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Museo de Arte Abstracto Español, Cuenca

"What you have done in Cuenca is surely one of the most admirable, indeed brilliant, works of art.... a remarkable balance of painting, sculpture, and architecture." Alfred H. Barr in a letter to Fernando bel

Jardin Seco, Fernando Zóbel, 1969

Manila born Fernando Zóbel conceived the idea of a museum for abstract art in Spain while contemplating on a proper home for his significant collection of Spanish contemporary art from the 1950s to the 1960s. Together with Gustavo Torner, they found a venue in the Casas Colgadas (Hanging Houses) in Cuenca. The Museum of Spanish Abstract Art opened in 1966 with forty works of art on display from Zóbel's collection. His fellow artists and friends -- Torner, Gerardo Rueda, Antonio Lorenzo and Eusebio Sempere assisted him in various capacities as co-director and curators of the museum. 

Zóbel became concerned with how best to insure the survival of the museum beyond his lifetime. He decided to donate his collection to the Fundación Juan March in 1980. He believed that the Fundación would "preserve and expand" the collection following the fundamental idea on which the museum was founded. The Fundación incorporated the donated works with its own. There are 127 paintings and sculptures on permanent display at the museum from the Abstract Generation.

Ornitóptero numero 545, Fernando Zóbel, 1962

"In art, things are either necessary or superfluous", wrote Fernando Zóbel in an article published by the Christian Science Monitor in April 1984. Ornitóptero 545 is part of Zóbel's Serie Negra, Black Series where he has let go of the superfluous, in this case, color. (The late paintings in this series though treats black as a color.) He painted lines on the canvas using a hypodermic syringe needle which technique he perfected when working with his Saeta (arrow or improvised Flamenco song) series of paintings. These lines create movement which is the subject of the painting and which an ornithopter (an aircraft with flapping wings) is meant to convey. 

Zóbel was bestowed the Medalla de Oro al Merito de Bellas Artes in 1983 by King Juan Carlos of Spain. He died in Rome in 1984.

Brigette Bardot, Antonio Saura, 1959
Bóveda para el hombre, Bronze Sculpture by Pablo Serrano, 1962

Saura has said of this portrait of Brigitte Bardot that "the presence of the model is less important than the illusion created".* 

Pablo Serrano has this to say of his sculpture Bóveda para el hombre (Cave for the man): "deep down a man is nothing other than an animal searching for a cave in which to take refuge".*

Untitled, Gustavo Torner, 1978

Torner is both a painter and sculptor. He lives in Cuenca and has just celebrated his 90th birthday. He was one of the instrumental people in the establishment of the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art in Cuenca where he was born. In an interview with Angeles Garcia of the newspaper, El País, Torner said, "El hombre no puede vivir sin belleza" (Man cannot live without beauty). 

Max Bill, A Temporary Exhibition 

Max Bill: Obras Multiplicadas Como Originales (1938-1994) is a temporary exhibition of the graphic works of Swiss artist, Max Bill. It runs through September 18, 2015.

The Museo de Arte Abstracto Español has received numerous awards including the Medal of Honor for Merit in the Fine Arts in 1980, the European Museum of the Year Award by the European Council in 1981 and the Tourism Award of Castilla-La Mancha in 1997.

Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the first director and founder of MoMA in New York wrote a letter to Fernando Zóbel in 1970:  "What you have done in Cuenca is surely one of the most admirable, indeed brilliant, works of art.... a remarkable balance of painting, sculpture, and architecture."*

*from the Catalogo de Museo de Arte Abstracto Español (Fundación Juan March), Cuenca

Museo de Arte Abstracto Español
Casas Colgadas, Cuenca


Images by TravelswithCharie

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Cuenca, Spain


The Moors built this fortress town around 711-714 on a ridge between two gorges of the Júcar and Huécar rivers. Alphonso VIII of Castile captured this citadel, known then as Kunka, in the 12th century and renamed it Cuenca. A Christian town was born and spread down the hill. The old hill town or "upper city" became the seat of religious institutions while the lower town hosted a booming textile industry until the 16th century. 

Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage site. In its Justification of Inscription, the World Heritage Committee describes Cuenca thus: "It is also exceptional because the walled town blends into and enhances the fine rural and natural landscape within which it is situated".

Plaza Mayor

The Plaza Mayor is the gathering place for festivals like the nine processions preceding Easter and the concurrent celebration of Religious Festival Week. The Camino del Calvario, (Road to Calvary) procession with religious pasos (statues or images set on a float, often borne by several men on their shoulders) takes place in the early morning hours of Good Friday. These religious processions are attended by thousands of visitors every year.

Evenings lend a magical aura to the square when it is bathe in light from surrounding buildings. It's pleasurable to sit at one of the outdoor cafés or on the steps of the Cathedral and breathe it all in. 


The narrow streets and covered passageways in Cuenca are irresistible. Though some of the streets are steep, the lure of discovering something on the "other" side is too overpowering to ignore. 

Convento de Carmelitas Descalzas/Iglesia de San Pedro

There are a number of convents and monasteries built in Cuenca from the 12th to the 16th centuries that have survived to this day. In the photo above, the Baroque Convent of the Carmelites (now Ménendez Pelayo International University) partially sits in the shadow of the Church of St. Peter on Plaza Trabuco. This is the highest point in the old town and a stone's throw from a section of the walls that are still standing today. 

Sunset leaves a rosy tinge on the rooftops of Cuenca. 

Plaza San Nicolás

This image is my favorite impression of Spain - when night gently gives pause to day. I'm sitting at a terrace overlooking this intimate little plaza where two boys are playing ball with their doting grandparents keeping watch. How simple and sweet life is in these parts. I feel at peace with my surroundings. Life is truly beautiful.

Singing of the children
In the night silence
Light of the stream, and 
Calm of the fountain!

What does your heart hold,
Divine in its gladness?

A peal from the belltower
Lost in the dimness.

You leave us singing
In the small plaza
Light of the stream, and
Calm of the fountain!
Federico Garcia Lorca, excerpt from Ballad of a Small Plaza

Nuestra Señora de Gracia

Moonlight becomes the Cathedral of Nuestra Seńora de Gracia on Plaza Mayor, the first Gothic cathedral built in Spain. The façade, however, was reconstructed in the 20th century after it was damaged from the collapse of the belfry in 1902.

Where to stay:

Hotel Convento del Giraldo
Calle San Pedro, 12

I love this hotel! It's right in the center of the old town and I can easily walk up Calle San Pedro to the highest point in town or walk down to Plaza Mayor to the Casas Colgadas and to the Puente de San Pablo which crosses the Huécar river.

From my room below the eaves of this 17th century former convent, I could hear the hot summer wind howling obtrusively. It made me think of the nuns who used to live here in simple accomodations. 

Where to eat:
Restaurante San Nicolás
Calle San Pedro, 15

How to get there:
Take the train from Atocha Train Station in Madrid. It takes an hour to get to Cuenca from Madrid on the fast train, over 3 hours on the regional train. Any hand carry or luggage goes through the X-ray machine, just as they do at the airport.


Images by TravelswithCharie

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Museo del Greco

A Repentant St. Peter c. 1600

Domenikos Theotokópoulos or El Greco was born in Crete in 1541. He moved to Toledo in 1577 after years of apprenticeship in Venice and Rome. El Greco's paintings have raised many questions as to why his subjects are elongated. Some theorists believe this is a result of an impaired vision. Others advanced that El Greco was merely using his own painting fundamentals to create what he envisioned as natural beauty. Nonetheless, El Greco left an enduring body of works. Many of the paintings on view at the Museo del Greco belong to the later period in his career including the Apostolate series. He died in Toledo in 1614.

In the painting above, a repentant St. Peter is portrayed with tears in his eyes. St. Peter is begging for forgiveness after denying Jesus Christ three times.  The theme of repentance was common in the late 16th century. 

St. James the Greater (Zebedee)
Oil on canvas, 1608-1604

"It is only after years of struggle and deprivation that the young artist should touch color - and then only in the company of his betters." El Greco

It is best to view the paintings of El Greco up close and in person to better appreciate his mastery in color application. The green cape of St. James (Santiago of Compostela) and the capes worn by the apostles in this series are painted in brilliant hues and show El Greco's command of color.

 St. Bernardino Altarpiece, 1603

St. Bernardino Realino was a Franciscan missionary who spent much of his life preaching against vice and usury and espousing peace in his native Italy. Pope Pius II called him the second Paul.

This work is a fine example of the many paintings and altarpieces that El Greco was commissioned to do for the churches and institutions in Toledo. It is a full portrait of the saint and even shows his bare foot which peeps through the hem of his cassock. Beside it are the three archbishop mitres representing Sienna, Ferrara and Urbino which bishoprics he humbly turned down.

View of the rooftops of Toledo from the museum

The Museo del Greco is a recreation of the house of El Greco and sits on the property purchased by the Marquis de la Vega-Inclán for the purpose of establishing a museum. Don Benigno De la Vega-Inclán y Flaquer is one of the most important art patrons in Spain in the early 20th century and it was through his efforts that this museum was established and a significant collection of the works of El Greco were brought together under one roof.  The Casa Museo has a chapel with a stunning coffered ceiling decorated in the Mudejar style, a traditional Spanish courtyard, a kitchen, a garden and well preserved cellars. 

Cellars of the Museo del Greco

These cellars are what remain of the palace built on this site in the 14th century by Samuel Levi, the treasurer of King Pedro I. They were used as storerooms and had a bathing area.

"You must study the Masters but guard the original style that beats within your soul and put to the sword those who would try to steal it." El Greco

Museo del Greco
Paseo del Transito, Toledo


Images by TravelswithCharie