A Stroll Through Madrid’s Revival Period

A Stroll Through Madrid’s Revival Period

In the latter part of the 19th century, Madrid, like most of the capitals of Europe, experienced unprecedented urban modernization. However, what sets the Spanish capital apart is the variety of designs that flourished around the city as local architects reinterpreted multiple styles of previous centuries and embraced emerging trends from other European countries and the United States.

A Modern Architecture Showcase

Gran Via is a showcase of Revival architecture,

Gran Via, the main artery of the capital and its most famous avenue, is also a prime shopping destination. Created in the earliest years of the 20th century to open up and modernize the chaotic center of the city, it is a showcase of Revival architecture, and a journey through the recent history of the city.

 

 

The Telefonica Building was the first skyscraper built in Spain.

At number 28, the 89 m  (292 ft) tall, New York-inspired Telefonica Building was the first skyscraper built in Spain. A few steps farther, the Avant-garde Gran Via 32 Building occupies the largest block of the avenue. Originally built as the first department store in Madrid, the building is now the flagship store of Primark in Spain and a great place to shop for bargains.

 

 

The Metrópolis dome is decorated with gold-leaf garlands.

Among the several other emblematic buildings, it is impossible to miss the Metrópolis. Located on the corner of Calle Alcalá and Gran Vía, this symbol of the area was designed in 1905 by the French architects Jules and Raymond Février. The brothers created the facade in an elegant Beaux Arts style, with first floor balconies separated by four pairs of Corinthian colonnades, topped by statues representing Mining, Industry, Agriculture and Commerce. The central slate-covered dome is enhanced with elaborate gold-leaf garlands. 

The Eclectic Palacio de la Prensa features a brick-clad facade.

At the far end of the Gran Via, a very different but no less iconic building is the Palacio de la Prensa. Commissioned in 1924 by the Madrid Press Association (APM) for its corporate headquarter, the building was intended for mixed use, including rental apartments, office space, a movie theater and a concert hall. The stark, Eclectic style brick-clad features a16-floor corner tower that rises to a height of 58 m (190 ft).

Palacio de Cibeles

The Fountain of Cybele was moved to the Plaza in 1895.

A mere 10-minute walk west of Gran Via, the Paseo de Prado and the Paseo de Recoleto, two of the grandest shaded boulevards of Madrid, meet to form the Plaza de Cibeles, named for the fountain at its center. It represents Cybele, the Greek goddess nature and fertility, depicted on a carriage drawn by two lions. Designed in 1782 by prominent local architect and artist Ventura Rodriguez, it was moved to its current location in 1895.

The Neoclassical Palacio de Cibeles dominates the square.

However, the dominant masterpiece of the square is the spectacular Neoclassical Palacio de Cibeles. Designed by architects Antonio Palacios Ramilo and Joaquìn Otamendi the monumental building of stone, iron and glass is one of the is one of the first Modernist landmark in the city. Construction began in 1905 and took 12 years to complete. It was for over 80 years the headquarters of the Spanish Postal System and Madrid’s central post office before becoming its city hall in 2007.

 

The terrace of the Palacio de Cibeles offers a spectacular view of the Madrid skyline.

Today it serves as a major cultural venue about the city, offering an extensive program of cultural activities focusing on contemporary art. Under its impressive glass dome, the vast Glass Gallery provides multi-purpose exhibit space as well as a 262 seats auditorium. Above the 6th floor —now a gourmet restaurant — the roof terrace bar offers unbeatable views of the Madrid skyline.

 

 

Art Deco Metalic Architecture

A major product of the industrial revolution, and a defining feature of 19th century architecture  (think London’s Crystal Palace or Paris Grand Palais) —wrought iron also found its way into the mix of Madrid Revival Architecture, My first encounter with it comes as step off the very 21st  century express train from Marseille, France, at Atocha, the city’s main railway complex.

The Atocha train station has retained its original Art Nouveau facade.

Atocha Train Station — Inaugurated in 1851, the original train station was largely destroyed by fire in 1888, and promptly reconstructed to reopen in 1892. The architects for this wrought iron Art Nouveau style replacement were Alberto de Palacio Elissagne, in collaboration with Gustave Eiffel (best remembered for his eponymous tower in Paris). The train platforms were covered by a steel and glass roof in the shape of an inverted hull, 27 m (89 ft) in height and 157 m (515 ft) long, flanked by two brick buildings. 

The Art Nouveau station is now a spectacular tropical garden.

In 1985, a complete remodeling began, based on designs by the prestigious Spanish architect Rafael Moneo. The overall project included taking the original building out of service as a terminal. Now on the site of the old tracks and platforms under the great glass canopy, a concourse with shops, cafés and office space surrounds a lush 4,000 m2  (43,056 sq ft) central tropical garden featuring over 260 species of plants from five continents.

The Glass Palace is now used as temporary exhibition space by the Reina Sofía Museum.

El Palacio de CristalOne of the most striking examples of wrought iron architecture in Madrid is the Glass Palace in El Retiro , the elegant park just a few steps east of the Prado. Originally built in 1887 as a greenhouse to showcase flora and fauna as part of an exhibition on the Philippines, then a Spanish colony, Designed by architect Ricardo Velázquez Bosco, who modeled it after the Crystal Palace erected in Hyde Park (London) back in 1851. Here, the delicate Glass Palace sits at the edge of a pond filled with bald cypresses (originally natives of the the swamps of the South-eastern United States).

The Mercado de San Miguel is now a gastronomic food hall.

Mercado de San MiguelOpened back in May 1916 as a local food market just a stone throw away from the Plaza Mayor, it is another fine example of local wrought iron architecture. In recent decades, it has evolved into a gastronomic food hall where you can sample the best specialties Spain has to offer, including a dizzying variety of irresistible tapas. A dangerous place for foodies to wander into.

 

Good to Know

    • Getting there — By plane: Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport is the largest international airport in Spain, and the home base for Iberia Airlines. It is located 13 km from the city center and includes  4 terminals. Terminals 1, 2 and 3 are serviced by the same metro station, while Terminal 4 has its own metro and commuter train stations. By train: RENFE, the Spanish national railroad company operates frequent daily service between Madrid and all major cities in Spain as well as, in association with neighboring European Union countries rail road companies, to Lisbon, Milan, the French coast and Paris, with continuing journeys to most of Europe.
    • Getting around — The center of Madrid is easily walkable. However, the city is also blessed with Metro de Madrid, one of the better and least expensive subway systems in Europe. This underground network covers practically the entire metropolitan area and the airport. There are easy-to-use ticket dispensers in all the stations, with multilingual with instructions in Spanish, English, French, and German.
    • Visiting — Palacio de Cibeles, Plaza de la Cibeles, Madrid, is open year-round, Tuesday though Sunday from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm. Closed on Mondays, 1 and 6 January, 1 May and 24, 25 and 31 December. El Retiro Park and Palacio de Cristal , Paseo República de Cuba, Madrid, is open year round, 10:00 am to 7:00 pm October through March, 10 to 6:00 pm November through February, and 10:00 am to 9:00 pm April to September. Closed: 1 and 6 January, 1 May, 25 December.  Mercado San Miguel, Plaza San Miguel, Madrid, is open  from 10:00 am to 12:00 midnight from Sunday through Thursday and from 10:00 am to 1:00 am on Friday, Saturday and Holidays.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Gran Via

A City for Art Lovers – Madrid, Spain

A City for Art Lovers – Madrid, Spain

In a part of the world where most major cities trace their roots back at least a couple of millennia, Madrid, the capital of Spain is somewhat of a latecomer. But it did catch up on grandeur since its recorded history began in the 9th century when Cordobese Emir Muhammad I established it as a defensive outpost on the escarpment above the Manzanares River.

From Habsburgs to Bourbons

The majestic facades of the Plaza Mayor are lined on all sides by 327 uniform balconies.

Plaza Mayor — Fast-forward to 1561 when Phillip II decided to turn this backwater town in the geographical center of the country into the imperial capital city of the recently unified Spain. A descendent of the Habsburg dynasty, Philip was a son of Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria Charles V. This Hapsburg period ushered in a European influence that acquired the moniker of Austrian Style, although it also included Italian and Dutch elements — a nod to the international preeminence of the ruling dynasty. The Plaza Mayor, an imposing 129 m by 93 m (423 ft by 309 ft) rectangle lined on all sides by three story residential buildings opening onto the square, remains a masterpiece of uniformity and an outstanding example of the Austrian Style.

The colossal Italianate Neo-classical palace remains the official residence of the Spanish royal family.

Palacio Real — When the Bourbons replaced the Habsburgs at the start of the 18th  century, they introduced the French Style to he capital, with Felipe V (1683- 1746) ordering the construction of a Royal Palace to “out-Versailles” the home of his French monarch grandfather (Louis XIV). The official residence of the Spanish royal family, the colossal Italianate Neo-classical Palacio Real, with a grand total of 3418 rooms and over 135,000 square meters (1,450,000 square feet) of floor space, remains the largest functioning palace in Europe. These days, it is used only for official ceremonies, and open to visitors the remainder of the time. Step inside and be dazzled by the sublime royal collections featuring works  by Goya, Caravaggio and Velázquez among others, as well as stunning displays of watches, tapestries, porcelain and silverware. And don’t miss the Throne Room with its ceiling frescoes by Tiepolo.

The Golden Triangle

It was his son Carlos III (1716-1788), who undertook the task of transforming the city into a capital worthy of the monarchy, ordering among other things the creation of the Museo del Prado complex.  

The Prado Museum was first opened to the public in  in 1819.

Museo del Prado — To art lovers the world over the Prado is virtually synonymous with Madrid. Based on the former Spanish Royal Collection, the museum is widely considered as housing one of the world’s finest collections of European art from the 12th to the early 20th century, and the single most significant collection of Spanish art. The numerous works by Francisco Goya, the single most represented artist, as well as Hieronymus Bosch, El Greco, Rubens, Titian, and Velásquez, are merely highlights of the collection, which also boasts the largest holding of Italian masters outside Italy. In recent decades the artistic prestige of Madrid has further been enhanced by the opening of two additional world-class museums. All three are located within a 20-minute walk of each within an area that has acquired the moniker of The Golden Triangle.

At The Thyssen, in addition to the rich collection of paintings, several galleries also showcase marble works by August Rodin.

Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza Commonly known as The Thyssen, the museum opened in 1990 to showcase the private collection started in the 1920’s by Heinrich, Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kászon. With over 1,600 paintings, it was once the second largest private art collection in the world after the British Royal Collection. Here, in a relaxing, airy environment, you can feast your eyes on an eclectic selection of treasures ranging from Italian primitives, works of the English, Dutch and German Schools to French Impressionist and Post-expressionist pieces, and an exceptional collection of American works ranging from 19th century landscapes to Abstract Expressionists. 

The historic building repurposed as the Reina Sofia Museum was originally constructed as Madrid’s General Hospital in 1805.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía — or simply the Reina Sofía is the third major landmark of the Golden Triangle. Inaugurated in 1990, it is dedicated to the great modern and contemporary Spanish masters such as Pablo Picasso, Salvator Dali, Joan Miró and Juan Gris and their international counterparts: Georges Braque, Alexander Calder, Max Ernst, Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, et al. Since I have never felt a particular connection to this artistic period, I considered giving the Reina Sofía a miss. However, the museum is now the permanent home of Picasso’s most revered work: his monumental Guernica (3.49 m by 7.76 m or 11.45 ft by × 25.45 ft). I couldn’t resist the opportunity to view this iconic piece.

Unflinchingly brutal in its representation of the horrors of war, Guernica has become a powerful universal anti-war symbol.

The Story behind Guernica — Created for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair, the monumental canvas immortalizes Picasso’s outrage over the April 27, 1937, bombing of the village of Guernica in northern Spain. By all accounts, the Guernica attack was the first deliberate bombing of civilians in world history. It was conducted by the German air force to help General Franco win the Spanish civil war. The military dictatorship that followed didn’t end until the death of Franco in 1975. Meanwhile, Picasso entrusted the safekeeping of the work to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, stipulating that it couldn’t be delivered to Spain until “public liberties and democratic institutions had been established in the country”, which finally occurred in 1981.

A Hidden Gem

Male figures, Nayarit Style painted ceramic., Western Mexico.

As an antidote to impending European art overload, and to take cover on a sizzling hot June afternoon, I made my way to the Museo de América. Located at the edge of the universities neighborhood in the northwestern part of the city, it is an impressive, custom-built edifice, with high arches and a towering steeple that hint of the 18th century Spanish cathedrals of Latin America. It is also delightfully air-conditioned — and virtually empty of visitors. Yet the museum houses an impressive collection of over 25,000 artefacts exploring the varied cultures of the Americas from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic Circle, from the various Pre-Columbian civilizations  to the 19th century, and their long, convoluted history with colonial Spain. Unsurprisingly, the highlights are those pieces sent from the Americas to Spanish rulers from the 16th to 18th centuries.

Detail of the Post Classic Maya Troano Codex.

Among the most notable artefacts is the Madrid Stele, a 46.5 cm by 29.5 cm ( (18.3 in by 11.6 in) limestone bas-relief with red and black paint seams from Palenque (Mexico). This Mayan work from  the Late Classic Period (600 to 800 A.D.  is one of the pieces that held the Palenque’s throne in one of the rooms of the palace’s central courtyard. Another Mayan treasure is the Madrid Codex (a.k.a.Trocortesiano or Troano Codex), one of only four surviving Maya books dating to the Postclassic Era (900–1521 A.D.). Originally from the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico, the  22,6 cm  by 416,5 cm ((8.9 in by 164 in) codex, painted on Amate paper, illuminates sacred rituals like sacrifice and the invocation of rain, while simultaneously depicting everyday activities like weaving, hunting, and beekeeping.

The the facade of the museum is reminiscent of the Neo-gothic style of many Latin American cathedrals.

Although I didn’t get to view it, the museum also holds the so-called Treasure of Quimbaya: 122 mainly gold artifacts including figurines, crowns, pendants, necklace beads, bells, nose and ear ornaments as well as ceremonial vessels and musical instruments. The treasure is currently the object of an ownership controversy with the Columbian government. Regardless, the Museum of the Americas is a joy to visit for anyone interested in the arts, archaeology and ethnography of the Americas.

Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza – Jan Van Kessel III (attribution). View of the Carrera san Jerònimo and Paseo del Prado with a procession of carriages (circa 1686).

Good to Know

    • Getting there — By plane: Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport is the largest international airport in Spain, and the homebase for Iberia Airlines. The airport is located 13 km from the city center and includes 4 terminals. Terminals 1, 2 and 3 are serviced by the same metro station, while Terminal 4 has its own metro and commuter train stations. By train: RENFE, the Spanish national railroad company operates frequent daily service between Madrid and all major cities in Spain as well as, in association with neighboring European Union countries rail companies to Lisbon, Milan, the French coast and Paris, with continuing journeys to most of Europe.
    • Getting around — The center of Madrid is easily walkable. However, the city is also blessed with Metro de Madrid, one of the better and least expensive subway systems in Europe. This underground network covers practically the entire metropolitan area and airport. There are easy-to-use ticket dispensers in all the stations with multilingual with instructions in Spanish, English, French, and German.
    • Palacio Real Calle de Bailén, 28071 Madrid, Spain, is open October through March from Monday to Saturday: 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Sunday: 10:00 – 4:00 pm and and April through September from Monday to Saturday: 10:00 am to 7:00 pm. Sunday: 10:00 – 4:00. It is closed on major national ho holidays.  Contract: tel. +34 914 548 800.
    • Museo del Prado, Calle de Ruiz de Alarcón, 23, 28014 Madrid, is open year-round Monday to Saturday 10:00 am to 8:00 pm and Monday from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm. Contact: e-mail , tel. +34 913 302 800. 
    • Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Paseo del Prado, 8, 28014 Madrid, is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm and Monday from 12.00 noon to 4.00 PM. Contact: tel. +34 917 911 370.
    • Museo de América, Avenida Reyes Católicos, 6, 28040 Madrid, is open Tuesday through Saturday 9:30am to 3:00pm, and Sunday 10am to 3pm. Closed on Monday and major national holidays. Contact: tel. +34 915 492 641.

Location, location, location!

Madrid

Raoul Dufy — A Passion for Color

Raoul Dufy — A Passion for Color

One of my favorite museums in the south of France, the Hôtel de Caumont – Art Center recently opened a new exhibit focusing on the work of the French painter Raoul Dufy (1877 – 1953). Held in conjunction with the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, which owns one of the largest collection of the artist’s works, the exhibition ‘Raoul Dufy: a Passion for Color’ explores the artist’s entire career, with particular attention to Dufy’s close link with Provence and the work of Paul Cezanne.

From Normandy to Provence

Yacht in Le Havre (1904). Oil on canvas, 69 x 81 cm. Le Havre Musée d’Art Moderne-André Malraux.

Born in Le Havre, a major port city on the English Channel, Dufy takes his first step as an artist at the city’s Municipal Art School before being awarded a scholarship to the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (National School of Fine Arts) in Paris in 1900. His early works, mainly landscapes of the Normandy coast, are Impressionist in style, until 1905 when he encounters the work of Henri Matisse and Fauvism at the famous Salon des Independents — and is briefly attracted by the power of color and the strength of drawing of the Fauvist mouvement.

Fishing Boats in Martigues (circa 1910). Oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm. Private Collection.

Then, in 1908, during a trip to the south of France with Georges Braque, Dufy discovers the work of Cezanne. He goes to paint at l’Estaque, a small fishing port close to Marseille, in homage to the Provencal master. While Braque turns to cubism a year later, Dufy continues to study Cezanne’s work until 1914. The blues of the sea and sky remain at the heart of his on-going exploration of his favorite motifs: coastal landscapes, boats, regattas and bathers. But he now adds the ochres, greens and reds hues of Provence to his palette. Warm orange tones also make their way into his indoor scenes, showing the extent to which the southern climate is influencing his appreciation of color.

The Cezanne Legacy

Nice Pier and Promenade (circa 1926). Oil on Canvas, 38 x 46 cm. Paris Museum of Modern Art

This newfound “Cezannism” endures in the work of  Dufy to the end of the decade. He applies it to his own places of residence,  Paris and Le Havre. After the First World War, Dufy returns to Vence. Now, while still inspired by Cezanne, he also has a short flirtation with Cubism even as his own distinctive style emerges in the early 1920’s: skeletal structures, arranged with foreshortened perspective, and the use of thin washes of color applied quickly, in a manner that comes to be known as stenographic. Dufy’s cheerful oils and watercolors depict events of the time, including yachting scenes, sparkling views of the French Riviera, regattas and musical events.

A Multifaceted Talent

The Large Bather (1913). Oil on canvas 182 x 245 cm. On deposit at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Burssels. Private Collection.

In addition to his coastal landscapes, the exhibition presents other Dufy favorite themes, among them interiors of his successive workshops, flowers and bathers. The later is a subject of infinite variations as Dufy associates the bather motif with mythological evocations of nymphs and goddesses of Greek and Roman Antiquity, such as Amphitrite or Venus. 

 

 

 

Bouquets of wild flowers, circa 1948. Watercolor and gouache on Arches vellum, 50 x 65.7cm.

He also nurtures a strong interest in flowers, to the point of specializing in the field. From 1910 to 1930, he produces a number of highly successful floral patterns for the French couturier Paul Poiret’s textile company and the Bianchini-Férier silk factory in Lyon. He excels in this area, in which ornaments, scrolls and ellipses are matched by a subtly infinite palette of colors. Then in the 1940’s, he turns to watercolor to represent wildflowers such as poppies, cornflowers, daisies, irises and anemones in seemingly careless bouquets and garden still lifes.

Dufy transferred his mythologicaldesigns onto ceramics.

Throughout his career, he also acquires a reputation as an illustrator and as a commercial artist. His engraving plates appear in books by Guillaume Apollinaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and André Gide among others. He produced a huge number of tapestry and ceramic designs. And he paints murals for public buildings.

 

 

 

The Electricity Fairy

The exhibition ends with an immersive installation of the Electricy Fairy mural.

In 1937, for the International Exposition of Arts and Technology in Paris, Dufy completes one of the most ambitious paintings ever undertaken: a monumental work of 600 square meters (6500 square feet), composed of 250 panels illustrating the social role of light, to decorated the inside façade of the Pavilion of Light and Electricity. To represent the history of electricity from its first observations to its most recent applications, the composition is organized as a liberated, lively drawing of bright blocks of color, depicting many of the artist’s favorite subjects, including yachts, flocks of birds, festive scenes and allegorical and mythological figures. The work can now be admired in its dedicated permanent hall at the Paris Museum of Modern Art. But the creators of the current exhibition found a way to bring it to their visitors: the last room of the itinerary features an immersive installation of La Fée Électricité which allow the viewer to appreciate the work in greater detail than the original display.

Dufy’s Workshop in Perpignan (1942). Oil on canvas, 65 X 85 cm. Paris Museum of Modern Art.

Dufy’s artistic legacy languished for a number of decades after his death in 1953. Critics seemed to consider that the optimistic, fashionably decorative nature of his work trivialized it. Featuring more than ninety works from French and international public and private collections to prove them wrong, the exhibition, which runs until September 18, 2022, is well worth a visit if you happen to be anywhere this summer within detour distance from Aix-en-Provence and the Hôtel de Caumont – Art Center.

The original of La Fée Electricité resides at the Paris Museum of Modern Art.

Good to Know

  • Getting There By train: there are frequent TVG (high speed train) connections throughout the day from Paris (3 hours) and Lyon (1 hour) as well as Geneva (3 hours) and Brussels (5 hours) to Aix-en-Provence. The TGV train station is located 15 kilometers (9.5 miles) southwest of town, with a bus shuttle running every 15 minutes between the station and the bus terminal in the center of town. By plane: MarseilleProvence airport is 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) southwest of Aix, with numerous flights from Paris, London and other major European cities. It is served by the same shuttle as the TGV station.
  • Visiting – Caumont Art Center, 3, rue Joseph Cabassol, 13100, Aix-en-Provence, France.Is open daily from May 6 to September 18 from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm, and from September 19 to May 5 from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Contact: e-mail, or Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 20 70 01.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Hotel de Caumont - Art Center

In the Historic Center of Aix-en-Provence — A Gem of Contemporary Cuisine

In the Historic Center of Aix-en-Provence — A Gem of Contemporary Cuisine

The capital of the Duchy of Provence and a renowned cultural center throughout the Middle Ages, the city of Aix-en-Provence require no introduction. Its well preserved Medieval and Renaissance historic center, vibrant artistic life and colorful open-air markets draw visitors from the world over.

In the heart of the historic center – NIRO by Le Gambetta.

And where tourists abound, so do eateries of all stripes! Fast food counters line the cobbled alleys of the old town and bistro terraces invade its tiny squares. The food they dish out is mainly forgettable, the service often rushed. Their purpose is to provide sightseers with ready sustenance and the impression they are taking in a bit of the laid-back mediterranean vibe before they move on to their next selfie opportunity. To be fair, Aix is also home to a few restaurants where culinary excellence still flourishes, establishments where savvy patrons can enjoy leisurely three-course meals of the best contemporary fare France has to offer—places like NIRO by Le Gambetta.

Bistronomie at its Best

The inviting dining room is the perfect setting for a relaxed Bistronomie evening.

What’s Bistronomie? A culinary trend started some three decades ago by a handful of young, classically trained French chefs who saw the need to bring the traditional Haute Cuisine of the prestigious high-end restaurants — and stratospheric prices — down to earth. They focused their creative talents on simple, high quality products of the French heartland to take bistro fare to new heights. Bistronomie was born!. In the heart of the historic center of Aix en Provence, NIRO by Le Gambetta is the epitome of the Bistronomie vision.

A delicate Mousse of Shiitake Mushrooms Amuse Bouche.

In their elegantly casual restaurant, its owner Chef Damien Serre-Combe (in the kitchen) and his wife, the ever-charming Claire (in the dining room) deliver on the Bistronomie promise. The menu is modest in size only: four appetizers, five main courses and four desserts, with each category featuring a vegetarian option, plus a cheese board and a couple of weekly special  mains. It is enhanced by a short, well thought-out wine list, a number of choices offered also by the glass to facilitate pairings. But with every dish remarkably creative and flawlessly executed, choice is still a dilemma. This is why, over the two weeks of her recent visit, a long-time friend and fellow foodie and I determined to eat our way through the NIRO menu.

Cochon Confit with Black Garlic Cream.

Each meal began with a complimentary amuse-bouche, a few mouthfuls of a delicate treat to stimulate our taste buds while we perused the menu. One day, it was a generous dollop of shiitake mushroom mousse on a bed of creamy zucchini purée, enhanced with exotic spices and a drop of truffle oil. The next day, it was rave-worthy baby oyster mushrooms sautéed in a melange of fresh aromatic herbs. Then we got to the serious business of discovering our favorite dishes.

And The Winners Are…

Miso-glazed salmon with caramelized cumquats.

In the Main Course Category — I thought I had found it on the first day with the Cochon Confit:  succulent cubes of slow-cooked pork loin topped with a velvety cream of black garlic, garnished with a mousse of celeriac (a.k.a celery root) and hazelnuts. But the next day’s Saumon Laqué au Miso, a moist pan cooked slab of salmon, brushed with a Miso glaze and garnished with caramelized cumquats and a medley of crunchy seasonal vegetable, was pure bliss. Full disclosure: I ordered it a second time during our “challenge.”  Therefore I suppose it should be declared the winner?  But I’ll call it a draw.

The Foie Gras Maison appetizer.

Appetizers — The main course portions were so generous that wisdom dictated forgoing the starter – but my friend and I occasionally agreed on one to share, such as the intriguing Poulpe de Roche à la Galicienne: tender slices of Rock Octopus, simmered in Spanish spices, and served cold with a garlicky Aioli sauce. On an other visit I opted for the sumptuous Medaillons de Foie Gras Maison — three slices of home made Foie Gras served with toasted Ginger Bread and Mango relish. Generous enough to share or pass for a decadent main course. Definitely a winner either way!

Chocolate Millefeuille with caramelized Pineapple.

Desserts — Always the hardest of decisions, since I’ve seldom met a dessert I didn’t like, but the honor easily went to the exotic Millefeuille Chocolat-Ananas: two wafter-thin outer layers of nutty chocolate crunch holding caramelized fresh pineapple chunks and topped with coconut mousse. 

 

 

The Man Behind the Magic

Chef Damien Serre-Combe.

Born in Martiques, a picturesque little town just west of Marseille, Chef Damien spent his formative years in West Africa, where his businessman father had settled. There, he acquired his interest in exotic spices “while enjoying home-cooked meals at my local friends.” Back in Marseilles as a university student, he took a job as a dishwasher in a top local restaurant to help finance his medical studies—and discovered his passion. He started the long cooking apprenticeship process, working his way up in the kitchen and acquiring a degree in restaurant management along the way, ultimately opening his own restaurant in 2016.

Another heavenly Amuse-Bouche creation: oyster mushrooms sautéed in aromatic herbs.

It was simply Le Gambetta back then, a neighborhood hole-in-the-wall named for its street address, just outside the boundaries of the old town. Already the vision of Chef Damien stood out: imaginative combinations of unusual spices and seasonal products of the highest quality, prepared with flair and served with spot-on timing. Le Gambetta quickly became a bursting-at-the-seams neighborhood favorite. Then the pandemic shuttered the entire country.

The Pear Tart on a base of pecan nuts nougat was my dessert first runner up.

Chef Damien used the downtime well, scouting and ultimately acquiring his ideal location in the much thought-after picturesque historic center of town. Here, he designed his kitchen into a coherent work space, and the “front of the house” into an inviting dining room with a remarkably efficient open service area. And he found the time to finetune his seasonally-inspired menus. “I always start with spices,” he explained, “then focus on how they can enhance the flavor of the varied seasonal products.”  He also favors the fresh catch from  nearby small Mediterranean fishing ports and the abundance of heirloom vegetables from back-country farms.  It’s NIRO now (by Le Gambetta for your loyal fans of yore) and it’s better than ever. If your travel plans take you anywhere near Aix-en-Provence, make sure to call ahead for reservations. It’s well worth a detour!

Good to Know

  •  NIRO by Le Gambetta , 37 Place des Tanneurs 13100 Aix-en-Provence, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 12:00 noon to 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm to 9:45 pm. It is closed on Sunday and Monday. Tel.  +33 (0) 4 42 27 65 46.
  • Getting there—NIRO is located in the pedestrian historic center, a short 10-minute walk from the Cours Mirabeau and La Rotonde.
  • This cozy restaurant with its relaxing contemporary flair and off-street shaded terrace can accommodate a maximum of 50 guests. While it is still a word-of-mouth place at the time of this writing, the word is deservedly getting around fast. Reservations are strongly recommended any time and a must on weekends.

 

Location, location, location!

NIRO by Le Gambetta

A Canary Islands Winter Escape – Tenerife

A Canary Islands Winter Escape – Tenerife

Tenerife, the largest island of Spain’s Canary archipelago, boasts weather so fine that it was pronounced as one of the very best climates on the planet in a recent global survey by no less of an authority than NASA. Rising from the Atlantic Ocean some 300 kilometers (200 miles) off the coast  of North Africa, it enjoys year-round sunshine and temperatures that range between 22 and 28 degrees Celsius (71 to 83 Fahrenheit) depending on the season.

Tenerife welcome.

The promise of all that sunshine, along with the island’s dramatic volcanic scenery and the gorgeous sandy beaches of its south coast (albeit now lined with sprawling luxury resorts), is what makes Tenerife a favorite sub-tropical escape for winter-weary Europeans — and on a recent chilly February day, got me on a plane to the island.

 

Lunar Landscapes

Mount Teide is the highest point in Spain.

The first hint that we are approaching Tenerife is the imposing cone of a mountain emerging in the distance from the shimmering ocean. With an altitude of 3,715 meters (12,188 ft), Mount Teide has the distinction of being the highest point in Spain, as well as the highest point above sea level in the islands of the Atlantic. Created by successive volcanic activities going back three million years, Mount Teide as we see it today was formed a mere 170,000 ago, with its base emerging from the Las Cañadas crater (the remains of an older, eroded, extinct volcano) at a height of around 2,190 m (7,190 feet) above sea level. Teide and the surrounding 18,900 hectares (47,000 acres) form the Teide National Park, which we visit the following morning.

Las Cañadas is a forest of sculptural jagged rocks.

After a slow drive up through a forest of tall Canary Island pines still veiled in morning mist, we emerge into a striking lunar landscape. The road runs southwest to northeast across the caldera, with frequent parking areas in the most photogenic spots. The jagged rocks that fill the great amphitheater of the Las Cañadas escarpment rise like gigantic bronze sculptures against the crystalline blue sky. A dusting of fresh snow has fallen on the summits during the night, highlighting the top of the central volcano with a silvery sheen. Rough footpaths beckon the more adventurous visitors to take a closer look at the dramatic craters and lava formations. I prefer to stick with the panoramic views.

The Road to Masca

Masca is a cluster of houses tittering at the edge of a ravine,

Leaving the surreal rocky wasteland of Teide, we continue north, deeper into the steep volcanic world of the center of the island, toward Masca. This tiny mountainside village in the remote northwestern hinterlands is unanimously rated as one of the must-see spots on Tenerife. Reaching Masca is a tense experience, an endless succession of switchbacks on a narrow, cliff-hugging road weaving up the mountain and then down to the village. The journey is rendered all the more unnerving by the unexpected density of the traffic, including tourist busses that clog the way.  But the views that are revealed with every turn defy superlatives.

The view from Masca reaches all the way to La Gomera.

Masca itself is a cluster of simple stone houses balanced on the edge of one of the deepest ravines on the island, and linked by rough walkways dotted with prickly pears and palm trees. The uniqueness of this hamlet tucked in the fold of the ancient Teno Massif  is in its exceptionally scenic location framed by steep ravine walls, against  a soaring pinnacle backdrop that hints of Machu Picchu. Then, far to the west, the ravine opens onto the ocean to reveal a view of the island of La Gomera on the horizon. Past Masca, we continue our way north toward Santiago del Teide. At the Cherfe lookout point, we enjoy one last remarkable vista of the hamlet before heading toward the coast for a quick look at The Giants.

The Wall of Hell

The Cliffs of Giants.

Los Acantilados de Los Gigantes (Cliffs of the Giants) are gigantic basalt rock formations that rise vertically from the sea to heights of 500 to 800 meters (1,640 to 2,625 feet). They stretch  northward for 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the port of Los Gigantes to Punta de Teno, the westernmost point of the island. To the Guanches, the indigenous habitants of the Canaries, they were known as the “Wall of Hell.” Enough said.

 

A Morning with Whales

Pilot whales are year-round residents of Tenerife.

A pilot whale at rest drifs by.

Thanks to their year-long temperate climate, warm waters and deep seafloor protected against the strength of the Atlantic Ocean, the Canaries attract an abundance of marine mammals. Bottlenose dolphins and Pilot whales are year-round residents of the waters between La Gomera and Tenerife, making it highly favorable destination for whale watching. The sun is shining brightly over Puerto Colon, a busy marina in the southwester town of Costa Adeje, when we board the Monte Cristo, a spacious custom-built catamaran ideally configured to ensure spectacular viewing, for a morning excursion. As the coastline fades behind us, we are expectantly scanning the horizon. The crew soon announces a sighting at ten o’clock. The comma-shape dorsal fin of a Pilot whale is clearly visible in the distance. But as we head toward it, more pop up, tantalizingly closer, in pairs and trios. We slow down to a crawl  and the notion of time vanishes as we just enjoy the show. Some of the magnificent cetaceans are just resting before their next food dive, others already replete are now lazily drifting on the calm surface waters, dozing off we are told. Playful dolphins join in off and on.

The cruise ends along the scenic western coastline.

After an hour or so we head back, cruising along the spectacular coastline, with a stop in a particularly inviting  cove and an opportunity to jump off the boat’s diving platform for a swim – yes, even in February.

 

 

 

 

Thalasso in Tenerife

Arona Gran sunset.

Beyond its wealth of natural wonders, one of the main deciding factors in choosing Tenerife for this recent girlfriends’ winter escape was the lure of over-the-top pampering at the Arona Gran Hotel. Reopened in late September 2021 after extensive renovations, the Arona Gran is a large luxury adults-only hotel stretched along the seafront at the popular southwestern tip of Tenerife. In addition to its panoramic view of the old fishing port of Los Cristianos across the bay, it reliably delivered glorious blood-orange sunsets over the neighboring island of La Gomera.

The Thalasso pool includes a circuit of pressure jets and hydro-massage stations.

And it is home to an irresistible Thalasso Spa! Originally developed in France, the Thalasso treatment (from Thalassa, the Greek word for Sea) is defined by the therapeutic uses of seawater, its components and various sea-based products (such as seaweed, sea salt and mud). In addition to the different massage techniques, body and facial treatments, Thalassotherapy also includes a circuit made of a seawater swimming pool with a variety of pressure jets and hydro-massage stations, Roman thermal bath, sauna, Turkish bath and Thermal beds. We became frequent visitors of the spa though-out our stay.  Hint — the circuit and the treatments are very popular with the guests. Book ahead.

Teide National Park panorama.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Tenerife has two airports: the Tenerife North Airport (or Los Rodeos) and South Airport (also known as Tenerife South-Reina Sofia Airport in honor of the former Queen of Spain). South Airport is the busiest, with regularly scheduled flights from the Spanish mainland and most major West European cities, as well as between the main islands of the archipelago. 
  • Getting around – There is a good network of busses linking all the major towns on the island and reasonably priced taxis are available. Car rentals are readily available for those who prefer self-drive visiting. A highway circles the coast, and excellent, well marked roads linking the various points of interest. However, the topography of the center of the island makes for white-knuckle driving in some places.
  • Visiting — Teide National Park: The best options for visiting Teide National Park are with a rental car or on a guided tour. Public transportation to and from the park is quasi inexistant.  There are two visitor centers in Teide National Park: one at El Portillo and the other at Parador Nacional. Cable car to the top —The Mount Teide Cable Car lower station is easy to reach by road and stands at 2,356 m above sea level. It consists of two cabins that can hold a maximum of 44 passengers and travel to the top in under 8 minutes. (N.B. it was not functioning at the time of our visit due to high winds at the summit). The lower station offers spectacular views of the peaks surrounding Mount Teide. Hiking in the park — visit volcanoteide.com to get updates on trail closures, facilities, and weather. To hike Mount Teide Peak (Pico del Teide),  a free permit is required, which needs to be secured prior to your visit.  
  • Whale watching — although a large number of operators offer a variety of whale watching options on the island, we were especially impressed by Monte Cristo Catamaran Cruises for the immaculate condition of their ship, their small passenger  limits (maximum 24 passengers per cruise) and the professionalism and friendliness of the crew. Advanced reservation are required, and include hotel pick-up and return upon request.

Location, location, location!

Los Cristianos

Los Cristianos