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
http://www.march.es/arte/cuenca/?l=2

*****

Images by TravelswithCharie



Thursday, August 13, 2015

Cuenca, Spain

Cuenca

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. 

Passageway

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!

Children
What does your heart hold,
Divine in its gladness?

Myself
A peal from the belltower
Lost in the dimness.

Children
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
museodelgreco.mcu.es

*****

Images by TravelswithCharie



Friday, August 07, 2015

Toledo

Alcázar

Though I've traveled extensively, once in awhile I will do things without preparation. So I find myself in unfavorable situations and there's no one else to blame but me. Now I know never to walk around the walled city of Toledo without a map unless my plan is to happily get lost along its narrow and winding cobblestone streets. The Castilla region was also experiencing an extraordinary heat wave during my visit. So there I was walking in circles when the temperature was roaring past the 100° F mark. 

Calle Commercio

A friendly cashier at the Burger King on Plaza Zocodover* informed me that the El Greco Museum is past the Cathedral but that it was quite a distance away. Armed with my cold drink, I followed the main street to the spire of the Cathedral of Toledo in hopes of finding the museum. (*What's in a name? Zocodover means place of animals and originates from the Arab word, suq ad-wadābb.)

Tympanum of the Puerta del Reloj
Cathedral of Toledo

I easily made it to the north portal of the Cathedral known as the Puerta del Reloj. You enter through a high iron gate. This is oldest of the portals and dates back to the 13th century. The tympanum is worth a stop for its impressive sculptures of the Virgin Mary with Joseph, Elizabeth and St. Anne on the right side and the angels hovering above them while on the left side are the sculptures of the Magi and an attendant for their horses. Notice the rosettes that surround each of the figures and the grey Corinthian columns that divide the niches. There are finely carved bas reliefs to be divined on this tympanum.

I trudged on past intriguing alleys after the brief stop at the Cathedral, but I was nowhere close to my destination. Though the old, walled city appears small and scaleable, it isn't so. Toledo covers the same area size as Boston. And there are many steep uphill climbs.  I asked a street cleaner for directions to the museum and she told me to follow the road ahead of us which actually led away from the museum! (Am not sure if she did that on purpose though we had a nice conversation, or so I thought.) As the afternoon wore on, I was getting more and more discouraged and wilting from the extreme heat. I passed by several important landmarks but my heart was not set on exploring them. And while walking down a narrow passageway, I heard someone screaming so I stopped and waited a couple of minutes under a window where the screams were coming from believing someone was in trouble. After listening intently, I realized the scream was coming from a television set. Someone was watching a telenovela or movie. That was my reward for getting lost!

One of many interesting alleys

Some tourists walking ahead of me asked a store owner where the museum was and she said she didn't know. I wondered how she couldn't know when that is one of the main attractions in town? Was she just fed up with people asking her the same question all day long? And probably disgusted that no one was buying anything from her store!

I decided to follow a family who had asked someone else where the museum was and thankfully, they were not misled. It was heavenly to finally find the Museo del Greco and stay in the shade for a bit.


The museum is located in the former Jewish quarter of Toledo. In fact it is next door to the Sephardic Museum which is in the El Transito synagogue.  And the Museo El Greco is on the grounds of the former palace of Samuel Levi, the treasurer of King Pedro I. 

Toledo was once called the City of Three Cultures. Muslims, Jews and Christians coexisted harmoniously in this town for centuries. Such an inspiration in today's troubled world!

How to get there: Take the train from Atocha Train Station in Madrid to Toledo. It takes approximately 30 minutes to get there. From the Toledo train station, you can take the local bus or taxi to the walled town. Get off at either Plaza Zocodover (where the tourist office is located) or at the Alcazar.

* * * * *

Images by TravelswithCharie



Friday, July 31, 2015

Alcala de Henares


Calle Mayor

The Roman Empire found its way to Spain in the first century BC and they built a settlement in Alcalá de Henares. They called it, Complutum. The Visigoths drove the Romans away and they in turn were given the boot by the Moors in 711. The Moors named their new conquest, Al-Qal'at, which means citadel. Alcalá de Henares means citadel on the river Henares.

Alcalá was recaptured from the Moors in 1118 and became part of the bishopric of Toledo. It was in the early 16th century when Cardinal Jimenez de Cisneros conceived the idea of a univeristy town and laid the groundwork for a university with the specific purpose of training students as administrators for the church and the state. For years the Universidad de Alcalá was the center of higher education in Spain until it was moved to Madrid in 1836 and Alcalá was left to languish. Thanks to the forward thinking group of citizens called the Sociedad de Condueños (Society of Joint Owners) who bought several of the university buildings and preserved them that the historic center has survived to this day. The current Universidad de Alcalá de Henares was established in 1977.


       Downspout of a gutter 

It is perhaps due to the local residents' keen awareness and appreciation of their cultural heritage that they pay particular attention to detail such as this downspout which I noticed along the arcaded walkways. These covered walkways on Calle Mayor are lifesavers especially when the temperature hovers around 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer months. You can sit at a café or shop in comfort without getting burnt by the sun.


Stork's Nest

These white storks are increasing in numbers. They seem to love their perches atop the towers and steeples (of which there are a lot of) in town. And the white stork is a protected species in Spain and the local government attends to their needs. Once a year they migrate to Africa for a couple of months and return in October. But it seems this pattern is changing as it has been observed that they are now spending more time in Alcalá. 

Plaza de Cervantes

The university and city center was conferred the Unesco World Heritage Site status in 1998. This was the first city planned as a university town and became the model for other educational centers in Europe and the new world. 

El Paraninfo, Colegio de San Ildefonso

El Paraninfo is a jewel of a hall Inside the Colegio de San Ildefonso at the Universidad de Alcalá. In the old days, this was where a candidate for a doctorate degree was tasked to defend his studies and receive his diploma or if he fails, leave in shame.  Nowadays, the annual ceremony for the Cervantes Prize for lifetime achievement in literature is held here with the King of Spain giving the prestigious award to the winner.


Museo Casa Natal de Cervantes
With Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

Miguel de Cervantes was born in Alcalá in 1547. We know him best for his work, Don Quixote de La Mancha.  The house where he was born is on Calle Mayor and it displays furniture of the era as well as various early editions of his book since its publication and the translated versions. There are also precious drawings by Salvador Dali. There is much to see in this compact house and the entry is free.

Cervantes through Don Quixote has left us this inspiring passage:

"One man scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable stars
And the world will be better for this."

How to get there: Take the Cercanias train from Atocha station or Ministerios from Madrid to Alcalá de Henares. It takes approximately 30 minutes to get there and costs 5€ as of this writing.

*****

Images by TravelswithCharie

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida


"I hate darkness. Claude Monet once said that painting in general did not have light enough in it.  I agree with him. We painters, however, can never reproduce sunlight as it really is. I can only approach the truth of it. " Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida

Mother, 1895

Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923) was a prolific Spanish painter from Valencia. He has been dubbed "the painter of light". His works include portraits, landscapes, historical and monumental themes. He left behind some 2000 paintings and there is a good representation of his oeuvres at his former home which is now the Museo Sorolla.

In the painting, Mother, Sorolla portrays his newly born daughter, Elena, with his wife who looks lovingly at her daughter. It's difficult to use white paint without overwhelming the subject. But Sorolla meticulously works with gradations of white. The white wall is a different shade from the white pillowcases and the white bedcover. He works with the curves of the bodies under the cover and the folds of the bedcover to veer away from a monochromatic tone. 

La llegada de las barcas, Jávea, 1905

La llegada de las barcas (the arrival of the boats) is one of my favorite paintings in the collection. I love how the sails are billowing in the wind and seem to engulf the painting. Sorolla was exposed to the works of the impressionists during his studies in Paris. This painting reflects the influence of impressionism on his work with the barely discernible figures, his brushstroke rendering of the sea and the application of a nautical theme. 

Frieze of flowers, fruits and laurel on the mantel

The mantel and upper walls of the dining room are decorated with a frieze of garlands of fruits and laurel accentuated with portraits of Sorolla's wife and daughters.

Artist's studio
Painting in background: Strolling along the Seashore, 1909

Not surprisingly, Sorolla's studio is well appointed. Some of his extensive collection of ceramics are displayed here along with his impressive desk, a bed, sculptures and religious statues, his paint brushes and watercolor paintings. Sorolla painted many scenes of the Alhambra and its gardens in Granada and they are hung in this room.

Sorolla's works were a "commercial" success during his lifetime. He had a market for his paintings both in Europe and the United States. He was invited by the Hispanic Society of America to exhibit his works in the U.S. in 1909. He returned in 1911 for an exhibition of his paintings at the Chicago Art Institute. He was also in demand as a portraitist and among his subjects was Howard Taft, the President of the United States whom he painted in 1909. Sorolla also received numerous awards for his works including the Grand Prix and the Medal of Honor at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1900 and the medal of honor at the National Exhibition in Madrid in 1901. 

Garden

There's a little bit of the Alhambra in Sorolla's garden. I enjoyed listening to the music of the fountains and rested awhile and away from the noise and heat of the city. The sweet scent of oranges from a heavily laden tree in front of the house permeated the air. This was such a lovely place to re-energize and remind myself that traveling isn't all about keeping up with the "things to see and do" list but more importantly, to bask in serendipitous moments like this.

Museo Sorolla
General Martinez Campos, 37
Madrid
Metro: Iglesa line 1, Ruben Dario line 5, Gregorio Marañón line 7 or 10
Entrance fee: 3€ (check for discounts for senior citizens or students and Saturday afternoons
museosorolla.mcu.es 

*****

Images by TravelswithCharie