The Elegance of Spain ~ Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia

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After visiting Edinburgh I headed south. I’ve always enjoyed visiting London and the United Kingdom, but I looked forward to exploring a non-English speaking territory blessed by warm weather and outstanding gastronomy. Thus, I headed to Spain with no solid plan. I’m generally a 50% plan/50% discovery style of traveler. I only knew that I had to see Madrid, the capital of Spain and Barcelona. I allotted myself three weeks in August. Most people, at least in the United States of America rave about Barcelona as the “must-see” city of Spain. I ended up charting a course that commenced in Madrid, continued to Barcelona, onward to Valencia and back to Madrid.  The three biggest markets or cities in Spain also happen to be Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia.

I believe Spain has a complex past and in academia I’ve always thought that the study of its history has often been dismissed in favor of more popular Western European countries such as France, Germany and of course England. Perhaps there is an academic elitism and snobbery that persists today. After all, who hasn’t heard of Spain’s economic troubles, bailouts and the acronym of PIGS (Portugal Italy Greece Spain) widely used in Eurozone discourse? Nonetheless, I think Spain is a special place with plenty to offer and after visiting the “Big Three” cities I can understand how this country’s history has evolved to be quite complex. As an outsider and a first time visitor, I did feel strong regional identities and differences. Similar to the United States of America where most moderately educated folks probably wouldn’t describe a Californian, a Texan and a New Yorker as “all the same” you probably would not follow suit with a Madrileño, a Barcelonés or a Valencian, either.

I did choose to return to Madrid during my entire visit to Spain since this city resonated with me the most; the feel was elegant, classic and traditional. For global appeal, Madrid is probably most famous for its world-class art collections at the El Prado Museum (or the Museo Nacional del Prado), the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum (or the El Museo de arte Thyssen-Bornemisza ) and the Reina Sofia Museum (or the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía). These three world-class art museums are collectively known as the Golden Triangle of Art located on the Paseo del Arte. I had a fantastic experience visiting all three of these venues.

I also thought Madrid was quite cosmopolitan although some may argue that Barcelona offers that appeal. I can understand why Barcelona is more commonly favored – it has the beaches and the Mediterranean flavor plus the Gaudi-esque flamboyance. But at the end of the day it comes to personal choice, right? And for me, coastal proximity isn’t important since laying out on the beach as a lifestyle doesn’t sound like a terribly exciting incentive for me. The extraordinary art collections, the sophisticated classicism and the sensual elegance of Madrid moved me. Don’t get me wrong as I do enjoy the occasional beach holiday and appreciate Mr. Gaudi, but I prefer elegant and vibrant City life. Plus, Madrid is a terrific strategic hub for travel within and outside the country with high-speed options per the AVE network.

I start my pictorial review with Madrid. Three highly recommended places to experience: the El Prado Museum or the Museo Nacional del Prado, the Royal Palace or the Palacio Real de Madrid (I was blown away by the opulence of the royal dog armor! Seriously.) and Retiro Park or Parque del Retiro.

MADRID: Outside the El Prado museum. I spent the whole day there and that was not enough! Here I am channeling one of the great Spanish Masters, Diego Velázquez. His work “Las Meninas” is widely accclaimed and not to be missed at the El Prado.

MADRID: Cibeles Plaza or Plaza de Cibeles near Retiro Park.

MADRID: Fronting the main entrance to Retiro Park.

MADRID: Floating on the water at Retiro Park.

MADRID: Part of the Endless Water Feature Tour (in Retiro Park).

MADRID: Grounds at the Royal Palace of Madrid.

MADRID: Just another fine summer day walking the pooches outside the Royal Palace.

MADRID: Inside the Royal Palace grounds. Cultural enrichment day for the kids.

MADRID: The Royal Palace (complete with Water Feature). No photos inside. My impression in words: THE SUPERLATIVE of Opulence, Elegance and Power. The refined artistry of the decor, appointments and detail was unbelievable. I have also seen “royal armor” of former world powers in other European countries but none compare to the elegance of protective gear of the Spanish Royal Collection. No fine detail was spared even with horse and dog armor either. Seriously.

MADRID: In addition to the amazing gastronomy, the nightlife isn’t bad either in Spain’s capital. Madrid has many eclectic and interesting neighborhoods to explore day or night. The barrio La Latina is just one example. Cava Baja is only one street with many cool restaurants and bars in La Latina.

MADRID: The elegance of the Spanish people, both men and women was especially felt in Madrid. This is a display at a boutique on the Gran Vía which caught my eye. Spanish women are heavily adorned with accessories! I liked the fact that the people were casually chic in the summer – dressed nicely without being stuffy or overly concerned. Casual chic and not casual sloppy!

MADRID: Blend of art and architecture.

MADRID: I appreciated how these shopping streets/arteries emptied into an attractive plaza area for possible people watching.

In summary, I adore Madrid because of the aesthetics and the cultural offerings. The architecture, the museums, the beautiful fountains, the vibrant nature of the tapas culture and the elegantly stylish people are just some of the elements that contribute to the attractive features of this cosmopolitan European capital.

Next pictorial stop: Barcelona and Valencia. Barcelona felt flamboyant and very Mediterranean to me. Valencia felt quieter than Madrid and Barcelona. Valencia is a quaint city which is famous for its paella and its City of Arts and Sciences (Ciudad de las Artes y Las Ciencias or Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències). Valencia is also known as the destination for most Madrileños when they want a beach holiday.

BARCELONA: Barceloneta, the city beach.

BARCELONA: La Sagrada Familia, a Gaudi masterpiece.

BARCELONA: The Endless Water Feature tour continues in Spain.

BARCELONA: Park Güell and decorative benches. Another Gaudi masterpiece.

BARCELONA: A view of the city, the sea and La Sagrada Familia (with the cranes) from  Park Güell.

On to deliciousness in Valencia – my first meal there!

VALENCIA: Outstanding paella. If you’re in Valencia this is THE destination for an authentic version of this fancy rice dish.

VALENCIA: More beautiful displays of water.

VALENCIA: Jamon! Jamon! Jamon!

VALENCIA: The City of Arts and Sciences.

VALENCIA: Shallow and Wide Water Feature at the City of Arts and Sciences.

VALENCIA: Bull Ring on left, a train station to the right.

Barcelona and Valencia have their own flavor. In addition to Madrid, I think all three cities in Spain should be experienced but depending on your interests, your personality, the chapter in your life….you will be drawn to either or, accordingly. Of course, this incredible country is not limited to the Big Three. Next on my short list include Granada/Sevilla for the amazing Alhambra and San Sebastian/Bilbao up North. And of course there are many, many more cites and small towns to visit in this planetary wonder!

Honduras ~ Copan Ruinas ~ Copan Mayan Ruins

I traveled to Honduras solely for the purpose of seeing the Mayan ruins located in the area called the Copan Ruins or Copán Ruinas. I believe the other ruins are located in Mexico and Guatemala. This experience was more like navigating through a well-manicured park setting. My understanding is that these Honduran ruins are more known for the detail of the structures and that the ruins in Tikal, Guatemala are known more for the scale and in its non-park like setting.

 

Guatemala ~ Volcán Pacaya ~ Volcano Pacaya

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A few photos from a quick hike up Volcán Pacaya, an active volcano in Guatemala. I was amused that there were “donkey taxis” that followed us up the incline for the first fifty yards or so in hopes that one of us would capitulate and pay our way up the hill on the backs of these beasts. It was an entry level/novice hike in my opinion, an interesting one nonetheless and there were no takers, at least in my group for donkey transport.

 

Guatemala ~ Lago de Atitlán ~ Lake Atitlan

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From Antigua, I took a shuttle to Lago de Atitlán or Lake Atitlan. It’s a beautiful body of water with a number of lakeside communities or towns. I visited three of the communities by boat; San Jose, San Pedro and Santiago. San Jose was the most interesting for me based on the photographic subjects. Below, you’ll find several snapshots of town life in San Jose: a woman transporting goods, a small mural on a home and also a carnival like setting at a school. Santiago is famously known for its church.

Pictured right below is a view of the lake from Panajachel, the town where the shuttle dropped us off.

Guatemala ~ The Opulence of Non-First World Authenticity

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I had a wonderful journey in Guatemala as I was based in Antigua, a UNESCO world heritage site and a city of tranquility. From Antigua, I traveled to Volcan Pacaya and Lago de Atitlan. I believe I made the right choice to begin my Central American tour in Antigua as it evoked a powerful feel of history and was indeed a showcase of architectural splendor. The imperfections of the concrete structures, the indigenous people, the palette of colors and textures – these all contributed to the historic charm and the authentic beauty of the town. I attempted to capture photos which reflected the subtle beauty of this developing country located on that forgotten isthmus called Central America. Please check back later for photo captions. (I just wanted to get these uploaded!)

Mendocino Headlands – Northern California Coast

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The Mendocino Headlands were truly a dramatic sight. As I walked along the edge of the cliffs, the vision of the ocean’s breadth was strong and powerful yet the feeling was still peaceful and serene. The contrast of observing people and their dogs down below on the sand who seemed so tiny (and insignificant) in the context of the giant coastal landscape reminded me of the encompassing beauty of nature.

Mendocino is also a charming coastal town with vibrant foliage:

Above: Garden of the Kelley House Museum.

Below, a surreal sight as I was driving back to San Francisco on California Highway 1.

Mendocino – Northern California Coast – Big River Beach

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I define Mendocino as a destination on California’s northern coast to escape real life. It’s a three and a half hour to four hour drive from San Francisco but well worth it. The drive along California Highway 128 thru some wine country to get there is visually pleasing as well. I imagine that most San Franciscans head south to the central coast of Big Sur for a similar escape because of the shorter drive. According to the owner of my bed and breakfast, most visitors to the Mendocino headlands are from the San Francisco Bay Area, France, Switzerland and Germany.

The highlight of my visit was the discovery of Big River Beach which was a short walk from my lodging. You would need to take some wooden steps down from a sandy church parking lot to get onto the beach. But once your feet hit the sand and you see the water the senses awake. The visual panorama is stunning, sublime and otherworldly. It’s not the type of beach setting you would associate with tropical islands, the Caribbean or some glitzy European getaway. The temperatures were very cool as I was wearing a jacket and light scarf – yet I was still comfortable. Big River Beach felt dramatic and exclusively hidden.

My Chicago – Images of an American City

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Based in San Francisco, I enjoy the cultural and culinary delights in addition to the international feel of this city. San Francisco also has the regional advantages of the north bay wine country, access to the beautiful northern California coast, and other outdoor escapes including Yosemite and Big Sur in the southerly direction. I bring this up to compare it with my impression of Chicago which I would like to call the “quintessential” American city. Perhaps it is because Chicago is in the middle of the country, at the crossroads – it thrives in the heart of the country without the significant Asia-Pacific influence experienced in California, or the European influence/northeast elitism of the New York/Eastern seaboard. Perhaps it is the only city in the Midwest which delivers culture, sophistication and a lively restaurant scene. Anyway, here is a short gallery of images I took which capture My Chicago.

Record temperatures were set during Memorial Weekend.

The cool down continues at Millennium Park.

The Chicago River.

Incredible period work at the Palmer House. No doubt part of someone’s art-architecture Chicago tour.

Lovely green space.

The “El” or Chicago train. I took the Blue Line to get to Wicker Park from the Loop.

Pooch standing guard at a Wicker Park home.

Chicago Nights – public street chess.

Lake Michigan, of course.

Public Art.

And finally, a place worth a visit.

Chicago Architecture Foundation | Chicago River Tour

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If you have been following my blog you may have gotten some incomplete posts. Apologies for that. I think WordPress (the blogging platform I am using) has changed its format so I am still getting used to it.

Anyway, I finally have the chance to share more images from my visit to that quintessential American city, Chicago. Chicago is known for its architecture and public works of art so I wanted to be sure to experience it more intimately. There are many companies which offer tours on the Chicago River regarding the history of the buildings along the water, but friends suggested I take the tour by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. I was delighted to learn later that the foundation offers all kinds of tours: walking tours, bus tours, short tours, long tours – from art deco specific tours to trips to Frank Lloyd Wright’s works. I will definately participate in these events when I return. The tour was terrific and the weather was glorious that day. Here are some of the images I captured:

This was the first mention on the tour, the Wrigley Building.

The Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower stands tall on the left. It is supposed to be the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.

The “El”, or Chicago train.

Yes, this view was along the river.

Perhaps re-visiting the eighties here.

And finally Trump Tower Chicago above and on the left, the Wrigley Building on the right. Both buildings are along Michigan Avenue. Trump Tower Chicago is the second tallest building in the United States of America after the Willis Building which was pictured above.

I’ll be back soon to post more images from Chicago.