Sunday, August 30, 2009

Capsule Hotels in Japan

Spinshell.TV dispels all the myths about capsule hotels and even lists a capsule hotel that admits women in Tokyo.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Alsace Wine Region

The Route du Vin is an oenophile's dream destination. With its vineyards producing rieslings, gewurztraminers and pinot blanc among others, visitors drive through its medieval villages for a taste of Alsatian fare. Colmar sits at the southern tip of this wine road. At first glance, it looks like any other bustling city. But as you enter the center of the city, you are transported to another age. Fourteenth and 15th century half timbered houses, seemingly untouched by time, invite you to linger. At every turn of its cobblestoned streets, a picture waits to be taken.

Colmar once led the Decapole, an alliance of ten cities that banded together to protect them from taxes levied by the nobility. The Ancienne Douane (Customs House) is a 15th century building where members of the Decapole once met.

The legacy of the merchant class remains in finely detailed homes such as the Maison Pfister with its balcony and turret and the Maison des Têtes which, true to its name, is decorated with sculpted heads on its façade. The Quartier des Tanneurs (leather maker's district) reveals what may have been considered high-rise housing in the middle ages - three or four story half timbered buildings, all in a row. The area of Petite Venise (Little Venise) has earned its title with its waterways.

The Musée d'Unterlinden is housed in a former convent with a 13th century cloister. It is possibly one of the best small museums in Europe housing the Issenheim altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald. This polyptych shows Christ on the cross with red sores all over his body. It was originally commissioned for a hospital where patients with skin diseases were treated and it conveys the artist's sensibility towards those patients. There's something for everyone to enjoy at this museum - medieval toys, sculpture, rooms decorated in period furniture, modern art in the basement (including Impressionist paintings) and more.

Colmar's best known son is Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty. His home in Colmar displays his art (Bartholdi was also a painter). There are prints and pictures of the making of the Statue of Liberty. Elsewhere in the city are monuments created by Bartholdi.

There are many cafés in the old city so you can rest your tired feet and try some of the local wines. Or you can go wine tasting at one of the caves in nearby villages.

One such village is the storybook town of Riquewihr. It is surrounded by medieval walls. Its main street is lined with houses which have survived from the middle ages. Take notice of the wrought iron signs as you walk up the street. The bus to Riquewihr from Colmar passes through vineyards and stops at neighboring villages like Ingersheim and Bennwihr, two charming towns with tasting rooms. Buses to Riquewihr leave across from the train station in Colmar and trip time is approximately 30 minutes. You might prefer renting a car for more extensive sightseeing and wine tasting. There's a car rental company located next to the train station.

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Colmar is easily accessible by plane from Paris or by train from Strasbourg or Basel. Hotel rates vary according to season. I stayed at the Hostellerie Le Maréchal in Petite Venise. Le Maréchal is a four-star hotel in a 16th century, half-timbered house with a gastronomic restaurant, L'Echevin. I asked for a light, fruity wine from the Alsace region and thoroughly enjoyed the 1997 Pierre Frick gewurztraminer I was served. For more information about the hotel, go to

Bon voyage!

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Article transferred from my Geocities blog
Photos by Charie

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Under Brunelleschi's Dome

In the quattrocento, Lorenzo Ghiberti was awarded the commission to carve the gilded bronze panels decorating the north door of the Baptistery after winning the competition against the likes of Jacopo della Quercia and Filippo Brunelleschi. The outcome of this contest proved providential for Florence because Brunelleschi moved on to build the dome which crowns the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore. Not since the Pantheon in Rome was constructed between AD118-28 has a dome of this scale been built.

The red-tiled Duomo is one of the most enduring symbols of Florence. White ribs contain its sides and a lantern of white marble with windows caps the dome, directing light into the cupola. There are 463 steps leading to the dome for a 360-degree view of the Tuscan countryside. From within the cathedral, one can marvel at the restored fresco of the Last Judgment which covers the cupola.

A walk along Via del Calzaiuoli reveals tempting shop windows, fun distractions as we crisscross our way to Piazza della Signoria and the Palazzo Vecchio, one of the palaces of the Medici family. The Medicis' support of scholars and artists like Michaelangelo contributed to the flourishing of the arts, an essential factor defining the Renaissance. The Palazzo is currently behind scaffolding but its tower remains visible high above the rooftops of Firenze.

A band playing pop music is circling the square and the musicians are dancing to the beat. The light mood is infectious and many faces are smiling. We sit at an outdoor café to take it all in.

The Signoria has played host to many celebratory events and has witnessed as well the dark days of the "bonfire of the vanities" when untold numbers of books, works of art, tapestries, jewelry and articles deemed to foster "immorality" were burned in a colossal pile. Girolamo Savonarola, the monk who authored this affair, was himself hanged then burned at the stake here.

We move to the couryard of the Uffizi Gallery where statues of great artists and writers like Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Boccacio, Machiavelli and Dante Alighieri stand in timeless procession. We read off their names and recall their contributions and the influence their works have inspired in the arts and sciences. As dusk gently spreads its wings over the city, we enjoy the play of lights on the waters of the Arno River on our way to Ponte Vecchio.

Long gone are the days when the Ponte Vecchio was lined with butcher shops. Jewelry stores have replaced them and illuminate the bridge with its brilliant cache of expensive baubles. We mentally pick some things while window-shopping and pretend we can afford the beautiful gems on display. Happy with this thought, we walk to the Piazza della Repubblica just as merchants at the Mercato Nuovo fold up their shops for the evening. The Triumphal Arch provides a classical foil to the outdoor cafés that populate this square.

It's nearly impossible to walk for long in Florence without being reminded that Michaelangelo has trodden these very same cobblestone streets. In the San Lorenzo district, we relish the poignant contrast of Night and Day and Dawn and Dusk, tomb monuments sculpted by Michaelangelo for the Medici heirs. But as great as Lorenzo il Magnifico was, his tomb is just as humble. Adorned by an unfinished Madonna and Child, it is a far cry from the memorials built for less deserving Medicis.

Copies of Michaelangelo's David at the Piazza della Signoria and at Piazzale Michaelangelo in the hills above the city cannot prepare the visitor for the original 15-food statue carved from Carrara marble and which now resides in the Galleria dell'Accademia. It is a remarkable work for the way Michaelangelo has portrayed the young man, David, before he slays Goliath. With furrowed brow David awaits his opponent, slingshot over the left shoulder and clenching a piece of stone with this right hand. Veins protrude prominently on his large right hand as powerful muscles on his arms and legs reveal the strength of youth that will overpower the giant.

We find seats to observe David from various angles. With great difficulty we tear ourselves away to examine the Prisoners (or Slaves) more closely. These are unfinished works meant for the tomb of Pope Julius II. In this state, art historians have equated these figures bound by the slab of marble with the bondage of slavery. The Slaves provide insight into how Michaelangelo carved his figures by chiseling the midsection first.

When the patriarch of the Medici clan, Cosimo il Vecchio, wanted to get away from it all, he retreated to his cell in the Dominican convent of San Marco. Cosimo sought refuge here from the pressures and intrigues that hounded him daily. In the 15th century, Fra Angelico, a religious artist, painted scenes from the life of Christ on the walls of many cells. He is widely recognized for his depiction of the Annunciation. In the refectory is a painting of the Last Supper by Domenico Ghirlandaio, at whose workshop Michaelangelo was once an apprentice. And there are mementos belonging to Savonarola who was the Prior of San Marco from 1491.

Going to church in Florence is like walking into a first-rate art museum. In the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella is a painting by Masaccio called Trinita. What is noteworthy about this oeuvre is the application of single-point perspective, a new concept in painting during this period. Masaccio did not live long (he died at 27 years of age) but he left an indelible mark with his realistic portrayal of subjects so skillfully demonstrated in the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, something artists will emulate thereafter.

It's been quite a journey into the quattrocento (15th century). My feet are all the worse for wear and what's more, I've run out of Band-Aid to cover the blisters. But I'm not complaining. On the contrary, I feel fortunate to have wandered the streets under Brunelleschi's dome.

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First published in 2004; transferred from my Geocities blog
Photos by Charie

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Lemon Tree

For the first time in three (or four) years, my lemon tree bore a fruit. A single, precious one. I thought I'd lost all the blooms but somehow this one survived. Now I can sing "lemon tree, very pretty". Happiness is a green lemon. Yes!

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Image by Charie

School supplies

It's back to school in the U.S. in late August and for the last couple of weeks many stores have been holding sales on school supplies. One I couldn't resist was at Office Depot recently where they had 5¢ pencil pouches, 10¢ sharpeners, and 25¢ pack of 10 pencils. I was all excited to pick up a few hundred for the grade school children in Roxas City but when I got to the store, I could only buy three of each item as there is a limit on the number you can purchase on sale items. What a letdown! So I called my Mom to buy some supplies at the Office Depot near her office and I visited another store close to my house. I figured I have enough pencils to give to 6o kids. It's not nearly enough. Last year we gave school supplies to 234 children so we have a long ways to go. This will be our fourth year giving school supplies to children in Roxas City. I have to say it's one of the most satisfying experiences I've had, ever.

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Image by Charie

Sunday, August 02, 2009


Today's writing prompt from The One Minute Writer is "talk". Here's what came to my mind first: "Talk is cheap". Think politics. It's not hard to connect the two. Next prompt please!