Thursday, February 18, 2010

Lisbon

From the moment we left Lisbon on Sunday, I've had a strong and slightly irrational urge to go back. As cliché as it sounds, the place is intoxicating. Over the course of two and a half days, we saw so many widely different things, ate so much good food, experienced such an ideal cultural balance between different and comfortable, that it was without question one of the best trips we've taken yet.

We started out on Friday afternoon going to the newest part of town, Parque das Nações (which actually means 'Park of the Nations', but since I didn't know how to pronounce it, I dubbed it 'Park of the Nachos'), which was built for the 1998 World's Fair. The main attraction there is the Oceanarium, one of the largest aquariums in Europe.

I can't definitively say that this was the best aquarium I've ever been to, but it's certainly a very good one. Among the highlights were sea dragons and an enormous sun fish.



It's difficult to get a sense of scale from the photo, but the thing was massive — probably about 6 feet in diameter.

There were penguins, puffins, and otters in addition to the usual aquarium fare, and the huge main tank was stocked with so many different kinds of sharks, rays, and unusual fish that it never got boring. Half way around the tank, I was still finding new and strange animals to watch.



Also in this 'Nacho Park' was a shopping center with a large grocery store. Up to this point, Lisbon had been fairly standard: airport, metro, aquarium, typical tourist fare. But the grocery store really made us feel like we were traveling. The Portugese don't refrigerate their milk, for one thing (which made it really difficult to find since we were looking in the cold aisles), and they sell fish that has been prepared in a way I've never seen — I'm guessing dried and salted.



How one's supposed to cook that, I have no idea.

We were looking for groceries (milk and the like) because rather than staying in a typical hotel, we rented a holiday apartment, which turned out to be a good decision. In addition to having more space than a box hotel room, it was really nicely decorated.




Being the HGTV fiend that she is, Teriann really liked this.

The next day, we set off to Sintra, a small town about a half hour's train ride outside the city. Sintra has long been the place where kings and nobility have built their summer residences. As a result, the forested hills are dotted with castles and elaborate palaces. We visited two of the best.

The first was the ruins of an old Moorish castle. Usually, 'old' for a castle means 500 years or so. This castle, however, was in use by the 9th century, making the ruins about 1,200 years old.




The whole place is really atmospheric — even in February the forest is dense and fresh moss and lichen clings to the gray stone.




Feral cats roam the ruins, and, true to form, Teriann couldn't resist grabbing a stick and trying to get one to play with her.



And from the top, you can make out the next castle we visited: Pena Palace.



It's difficult for me to write about Pena Palace. For one thing, I'm slightly ashamed that I had never heard of it until we got a Lisbon guide book. For another, it comes dangerously close to upstaging one of our favorite European landmarks: Neuschwanstein.

Around 1845, Portugal's King Fernando II (who was actually Austrian) decided to add to a 16th century monastery (the red parts) and turn it into a royal palace (the yellow parts). The result is a magnificent, whimsical castle, built roughly 40 years before Neuschwanstein, and what it lacks in sheer opulence it makes up for in creativity and playfulness.






It's a play-castle, a kind of out-sized toy. The turrets aren't defensive look-outs but places to enjoy the view. You can walk across the top of the drawbridge gate. There's a breathtaking wall walk. Every style from the centuries is borrowed and not quite amalgamated. Eastern-themed motifs (the yellow minaret, for instance) sit right alongside architectural details taken from other buildings (the watchtowers, for instance, are from the icon-of-Portugal Torre de Belém).





It's stunning. While I can't say that it's better than Neuschwanstein, Pena Palace is certainly as good as it. It pushes the same limits of imagination and suggests a similarly inspired and out-of-touch creator.

But after two castles — both fantastic in their own ways — the day wasn't quite over yet. After a full day in Portugal, we still hadn't roamed through much of Lisbon's city center, so that's where we headed. Unsurprisingly, it was lovely.




We finished our banner day with a banner meal: the lady renting us her apartment had recommended 'La Bota Alta', so we decided to give it a try. It's quite unassuming, inside and out,



so we may not have otherwise chosen it, but her recommendation was spot on. We got there early enough to get a table straightaway, but halfway through our meal (swordfish and rice... mmmm) there was a line out the door, many of them locals. The food and service were excellent — if you come through Lisbon, don't miss it!

So we had spent time in a gleaming new development, centuries-old castles in the wooded hills, and a beautiful, old-world European capital. And we still had one more day!

We started it with something we had been waiting for for several months: a GoCar tour.



These funky yellow three-wheelers guide you through a predetermined tour route with a navigation system that also tells you a little about the sights. Only this is obviously geared towards tourists, taking you through the picturesque, interesting parts of the city. We saw them — but didn't have time to get one — when we were in Barcelona, and this was our first chance to rent one since.

I anticipated having a peaceful, carefree dawdle around town. In actuality, it was very different than I anticipated. The main thing that struck me is how INCREDIBLY LOUD it is. Unless you're idling at a red light, the engine screams in your ear constantly. And the roads of Lisbon aren't so much paved as they are sort of flattened out — sort of. So if there's a car behind you and you're compelled to travel at flow-of-traffic speeds, it bounces around with a cartoonish fervor that is hilarious the first few times and annoying thereafter.

And there was the little issue of one of the brakes failing. The brakes are bicycle-style on the handlebars, and the left one on ours completely gave out after about twenty minutes. Not confidence-inspiring on the hills.

And speaking of hills, there was one the little screaming engine simply could not scream its way up. We had to coast back down and get a more vigorous running start to crest it.

And speaking of going backwards, there's no reverse gear. So if I misjudged a corner, co-pilot Teriann had to get out and push.



Still, it was good for a laugh, and it definitely felt like an adventure. I should also point out that the staff was both very helpful and genuinely kind.



A little rattled and with our hearing not yet back to normal, we set off for the final stop of our weekend: Belém. It's a part of town on the coast — just west of the city center — with a number of things to do and see: the iconic Torre de Belém (where Portugese navigators set off in the glory days of Portugal's empire), the modern Monument to Discoveries, and a medieval, elaborately-carved monastery.

We took a few pictures on the giant map in front of the Monument to Discoveries,




but it was too cold and windy to make the walk down to the Torre. So instead, we ducked inside the Monasterio Jeronimos. Can't go through a major capital without taking in at least one big, old church!

Before our journey to the airport, however, we stopped for one last dinner a block or two away from the monastery. By now, good food was almost seeming routine to us. What made this particular place all the more memorable was the head waiter. Presumably also the owner, he was high-energy and immediately our best friend — imagine if Steve Irwin had been born in Portugal.

He made a few recommendations, but when he came back to take our order, it turned out I didn't have a choice anyway: "I have surprise for you! A very special surprise! Cod fish... that's all I'll tell you. Surprise. Very, very good. Not on the menu — made it special for someone but made too much. Very good! Surprise! If you don't like it, I'll buy both your meals." And on and on. Every time he passes, he winks: "Surprise! For you!" We sit eating our bread and cheese — he's barely able to contain his excitement, flashing the thumbs up. We sit sipping our Coke — he silently mouths from the other side of the restaurant: "Surprise!"

It was indeed tasty, but not nearly as fun as his anticipation. When we left he smiled ear-to-ear, extending his hand for a good, firm shake. But not sickly so — he was just genuinely thrilled that so many people had come to eat at his restaurant.

And we will again when we go back. What a city — what a weekend.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Bilbao

Winter is a cold and dreary time in London. This weekend, for instance, it was only slightly above freezing. So for our first trip of the new year, we headed south — to Bilbao, Spain.

The main draw was Frank Gehry's incredible Guggenheim Museum. We were both a little worried, though, that it might be the only thing to do and we'd end up bored. As it turns out, though, Bilbao is a lovely city: public gardens, a charismatic old town, and a strand of funky style. It's in northeast Spain — heart of the Basque region.

The first night, we had tapas on the Plaza Nueva,



and strolled down the river to see the Guggenheim at night. Disappointingly, it wasn't well-lit (probably due to a light-up art installation near by), but the Calatrava bridge looked great.



Dinner was a small hitch: we couldn't really find anything that wasn't either a bar or a cafe, so we gambled on a place that looked nice, Cafe Iruña.



The waiter didn't speak any English (very few people did) and clearly we had no idea what we were doing, because what we ordered turned out to be sliced meat on a plate. That's all: just meat on a plate. So it wasn't a culinary coup, but an enjoyable night nonetheless. We got a bottle of local wine and experimented making our own kalimotxo, a Basque drink that's basically half red wine and half coke. It doesn't taste as strange as it sounds.

Sunday, we got up nice and late (it's vacation after all) and mosied over to one of the most famous buildings of modernity: the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum. Opened in 1997 and designed by "starchitect" Frank Gehry, it eludes explanation. To me, it's nothing short of inspiring.

I should also explain that, as a kid, when I wanted to be an architect, this building was a huge deal. I read about it when it was still only a design, still being constructed. For more than a decade, I've seen pictures and wanted to see it for myself. So forgive me if I post one or two too many of my own pictures here... I just think it's stunning.










Inside, there's a massive ground floor gallery. It's a huge space uncluttered by columns or supports. Though why it was filled with a collection of rusty metal shapes, I have no idea. Why not use it for a work that is dependent on the huge scale?



Perspective can be deceiving: if you look near the top in the center, you can see two people. That should help to give you some scale of the size of the gallery.

We did like, however, the giant spider on the riverfront,



and these industrial-strength tulips by Jeff Koons (you can see both in the wide shots above).




He has a few pieces in the Phoenix Art Museum, if I remember correctly, and is, if you believe this plaque, from Nueva York.



I'm confident to say that this is my favorite modern art museum I've been to. Partly because the building is, in itself, a work of art, and partly because there wasn't really that much modern art in it. One reason we went when we did was for the traveling exhibition that took up the entire second floor: an exhibition about Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright's connection to the Guggenheim is that he designed the famous Guggenheim museum in New York. And since he has such strong Arizona connections, both Teriann and I were already familiar with many of his works. It was a well-put-together exhibition, with a bit of history alongside drawings and models. Far more interesting, methinks, than a typical modern art exhibition.

All in all, a great weekend!

Monday, February 8, 2010

New York Philharmonic

Over the last year and a half, I've been fortunate enough to see some of the world's great musicians perform. This didn't dampen my anticipation at all, though, for the concert I went to last Thursday. The New York Phil and their new music director, Alan Gilbert, have been all over the (classical music) news now for some time; partly because the press has been almost completely positive about him, and partly because the New York Phil is arguably the United States' most distinguished orchestra, I was really looking forward to it. Excited, even, like a kid going to a carnival. And with that excitement, I made no claim to objectivity: I was fully prepared to be blown away, to be transported, to witness the best orchestra I had ever witnessed...

But then they opened with Haydn. And not a charming, witty Haydn symphony, a wallowing, minor-key yawn that began with — and seemed to remain — a slow movement. Though the people sitting behind me (who I think were music students) were not impressed by the string section, my good will saw me through to the next piece, John Adams' The Wound Dresser. Again, I have to admit that I'm not impartial: I have known and loved that piece for years. Sometimes, though, hearing a piece you love — from the balcony played noncommittally — can be an underwhelming experience. Plus, as it's a slowly unfolding, almost meditative work, it wasn't served well by the dreary piece it followed.

As lukewarm as I was feeling at the intermission, things started looking up: their performance of Schubert's 'Unfinished' Symphony was far superior to the Haitink/London Symphony performance of it I saw in October (that may have more to do with Bernard Haitink's careful and cautious reading of it). Their final piece, Berg's Three Orchestral Pieces, is a favorite of mine and they performed it well.

They didn't shine through, however, until the encores. Maybe they (or Gilbert?) loosened up — the weight of a European tour lifted. But both encores, Beethoven's Egmont Overture and Bernstein's Lonely Town from On the Town, were beyond perfect. They crept into that rare kind of music making that makes you react viscerally rather than critically. They gave me that transcendental something I had come for, and more than made up for an otherwise tepid concert.

One final thing: as a young trumpet player, I have long admired the principal trumpet player of the NYP, Philip Smith. Maybe that's understating it: Philip Smith makes the trumpet sound how it is supposed to sound. Hearing him play live (there were plenty of trumpet solos in Adams' piece) was something I had wanted to do for at least the last decade. So Mr. Smith, in case you have a google notification set up for your name, Bravo to you, sir!