A Week-End City Break in Hamburg

A Week-End City Break in Hamburg

The second largest city in Germany after Berlin and the third busiest port in Europe after Rotterdam and Antwerp, Hamburg sits 100 kilometers (62 miles) inland from the North Sea. Here, at the head of the long funnel-shaped estuary of the Elbe River, the city has prospered through the ages to rise along 65 kilometers (40 miles) of canals straddled by 2500 bridges – more than Venice, Amsterdam and London put together. Yet little remains of this rich past in its fascinating contemporary urban texture.

A Unique Maritime Phoenix

Hamburg-Deichstrasse

Deichstraße is all that remains of the traditional Hanseatic architecture of Hamburg.

Hamburg-Krameramtswohnungen

These two medieval half-timbered buildings were home to shopkeepers widows.

Throughout its millennium-long history as a powerhouse of international trade, Hamburg experienced a number of catastrophic fires, starting in 1030 when it was torched by King Mieszko II Lambert of Poland. However, the two most recent blazes, in 1842 and 1943, are what shaped its image of a city teaming with diverse architectural gems. Both times, Hamburg was reborn from its ashes and reinvented itself to emerge stronger and more vibrant in the wake of the devastation.

The Great Fire of Hamburg broke out on May 5, 1842 on Deichstraße (Dike Street). Over the next three days, driven northeastwards by the wind, it destroyed about one third of the Altstadt (Old Town), sparing only the southern end of Deichstraße. Today, this short stretch of street is the only intact exemple of Hamburg’s traditional Hanseatic architecture of tall, narrow houses reminiscent of those in Amsterdam. Another survivor of 17th century construction is the nearby Krameramtswohnungen – two half-timbered brick buildings on either side of a narrow courtyard, built by the Guild of Shopkeepers to house the widows of its members.

Brick Expressionism

Hamburg-Warehouse District.

The Warehouse District offers an exceptional example of Hamburg Brick Expressionism.

Hamburg-Warehouse Jugenstill.

Some of the Warehouse and Office area buildings have been restored for residential purposes.

What rose from the 1842 disaster are the twin neighborhoods of Kontorhausviertel (Office Neighborhood) and Speicherstadt (City of Warehouses) that face each other along the Zollkanal (Customs Canal). Built from 1883 to 1927, these storage and office facilities are the largest brick warehouse district in the world. Resting on timber-pile foundations, the buildings represent the finest example of Hamburg’s distinctive early 20th century tall red brick construction with ornate façades in a Gothic Revival style known as Brick Expressionism.

Now protected as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Spreicherstadt and Kontorhausviertel are a unique place to wander within red brick canyons connected by bridges, and take in the decoration details of their gabled facades. Some buildings have recently been repurposed into apartments and tourist attractions (such as the Miniatur Wunderland), but many still serve their original purpose as offices and storage facilities for spices, coffee, tea, carpets and now also electronics.

World War II Firestorm

Hamburg-Rathaus tower.

The Rathaus is topped by a soaring copper-clad tower.

Hamburg-Rathaus Hygiea.

The Rathaus fountain is topped with a statue of Hygieia.

As a major industrial center, home to shipyards, U-boat pens and oil refineries, Hamburg was the target of a sustained campaign of strategic bombings by the Allied throughout World War II. A decisive attack occurred in late July 1943 when over several nights, the bombings created a firestorm that virtually destroyed the city. Mercifully, the Kontorhausviertel and Speicherstadt area escaped the bombings. Other major landmarks, while damaged, were fully restored after the war.

The Hamburg Rathaus (City Hall) is an impressive Neo-Renaissance confection completed in 1897 to replace the original one destroyed in the 1842 fire. Under an elaborately gabled roof, its richly decorated 111 meter (364 foot) long façade displays the statues of the 20 emperors of the Holly Roman Empire. Its grand portico, topped by a soaring 112 meter (367 foot) tower, lead to a vast main entrance hall supported by 16 sandstone pillars. From there, the central courtyard, also open to the public, showcases a circular fountain topped with a statue of the goddess Hygieia.

Hamburg-Saint Micheal nave.

Saint Michael is considered of the finest Hanseatic Protestant Baroque churches anywhere.

St. Michael’s Church is the most famous church in the city, and with its 2500 seats, also the largest. One of the finest Hanseatic Protestant Baroque churches anywhere, it was completed in 1786. Destroyed by fire in 1906, it was rebuilt only to be devastated again during World War II, and restored yet again after the war.Designed according to the Latin cross plan, the 52 meter (170 foot) long, 44 meter (145 foot) wide church features a elegant marble pulpit sculpted to look like a rounded chalice, with its roof crowned by the Angel of Annunciation. Its 132-meter (433 foot) high, steeple dominates the skyline and long served as an orientation landmark for ships sailing on the Elbe.

Looking to the Future

Hamburg-HafenCity

The western tip of HafenCity is anchored by the newly unveiled Elbphilharmonie concert complex.

Hamburg-Elbphilharmonie

The Great Hall of the Elbsphilarmonie is said tod be one of the most acoustically advanced venues ever built.

While the historical warehouse district has long been a dominant feature of Hamburg, the focus is now shifting to the harbor, where HafenCity (Harbor City), one of the largest urban regeneration project in Europe, is establishing itself as the core of the new inner city. Covering an area of 157 hectares, HafenCity is a vibrant mix of cutting edge office and residential buildings, retail outlets, leisure facilities, restaurants, cafés and culture. At its western tip, the stunning Elbphilharmonie concert complex unveiled in 2017 is the new iconic reference of the city.

Designed by leading Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, the Elbphilharmonie rises from a 1960’s brick warehouse as a shimmering glass structure soaring over 100 meters (320 feet) into the pale Nordic sky. The façade is clad with over a thousand curved windows and culminates in a crown of crystal peaks. The lower part of the building houses a parking garage, restaurants and various conference and music studio space, and a six-story high, curved escalator that transports visitors to the upper plaza. The upper part houses the Great Hall, a steeply tiered hall holding 2150 seats over six floors, with a central orchestra stage at its base. There’re  also a smaller hall that can accommodate up to 550 guests, a 250-room luxury hotel and 45 private apartments.

A walkway around the plaza offers a striking circular view of the port, the Elbe and the city. It is the perfect place to appreciate the remarkable range of architecturally significant buildings of various times and styles that shape this dynamic city at once steeped in tradition and at the forefront of modernity.

Hamburg-Container Port.

The container port is the largest in Northern Europe.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – By plane: The airport is located 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) northwest of the city, with connections to most major European destinations. An efficient subway service links the airport to the Hauptbahnhof (central train station) in the center of town (Line S1). By train: From the central station,there are multiple ICE (Inter City Express) high speed trains connections throughout the day with all major Germany cities as well as Basel and Zurich (Switzerland).There are also direct connections with Copenhagen and Aarhus, (Denmark), Budapest (Hungary), Prague(Czech Republic), Vienna (Austria), and Bratislava (Slovakia).
  • Getting around –The city center is best explored on foot. However, Hamburg also has a well-developed public transport system. Buses run around the clock. The S-Bahn and U-Bahn metro services (underground and overground) run from approximately 5:00 am until 1:00 am in the central city.
  • Visiting –Ferry: Hamburg is Northern Europe’s biggest container port, and home to the largest floating dock in the world. To get a close up look at these awesome facilities as well as the best views of HafenCity, a harbor cruise is a must. Ignore the various cruise ships that tout their services along Landungsbrücken quay and catch the public ferry number 62 instead. Departing from platform 3 every 30 minutes, it takes you on a leisurely round trip cruise of all the points of interest for the price of a metro ticket. And you are free to hop off or on at any stop along the route.
  • The Plaza of the Elbphilharmonie, Platz der Deutschen Einheit, 20457 Hamburg, is open daily to everyone from 9:00 am to midnight. Access is free but capacity is regulated by the issue of Plaza tickets. Go early to avoid the crowds. While on the Plaza you may want to take a break at the Störtebeker Café.The menu is reasonably priced and comes with a gorgeous view of the port.

Location, location, location!

Hamburg

Bordeaux –  La Cité du Vin

Bordeaux – La Cité du Vin

The Celts settled it and called it Burdigala. Then came Julius Caesar who made it a thriving “emporium” of the Roman Empire and planted the surrounding countryside with vineyards. But it was the English who, a millennium later, got Bordeaux on its way to becoming the wine capital of the world.

The marriage between Bordeaux and England

It all began in 1152 when Eleanor, the heiress to the Duchy of Aquitaine, married the soon to be Henry II, King of England. Thus bringing her Duchy, which included Bordeaux, to the English crown for what was to be a tumultuous three centuries.

Bordeaux-vine harvest.

Bordeaux vineyards at harvest time.

Bordeaux wine was served at the royal wedding and soon became the beverage of choice of the royal household. Loyal British wine-lovers followed suite and a lucrative export market was born. By the late 1300’s, Bordeaux had become, after London, the second most populous city under control of the British monarchy. While the region reverted to the crown of France with the conclusion of the hundred years war (which actually lasted 116 years) in 1453, the demand for its fine wines endured. By the 18th century, Bordeaux, the region, was firmly established as the greatest producer of fine wines in the world. And Bordeaux, the port city on the Garonne river, prospered as the center of the wine trade. Yet throughout history, beyond these commercial ties, there was little connection between the city and wine producers that defined the region. Until the recent rise in popularity of wine tourism.

A Playground for Wine Lovers

Bordeaux-Cite dy vin.

La Cité dy Vin is dedicated to the universal heritage of wine.

Now La Cité du Vin (City of Wine) inaugurated in 2016 on the west bank of the Garonne at the edge of Les Chartrons, the historic center of the wine trade, brilliantly bridges the divide between the two Bordeaux. Designed by Paris architects Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazieres, the grand, shiny swirl of a building is a unique cultural center dedicated to the universal heritage of wine, through the ages and around the world.

Borseaux-Terroir table.

A virtual vintner discusses the uniqueness of his terroir.

Step right in. The huge reception area includes a wine boutique, a wine cellar with offerings from around the world, a casual eatery and a wine-tasting bar. And for those who plan to explore the wine region, a booking desk where every kind of tour can be arranged. But resist the urge to sample or shop just yet. Head up the curving staircase where the fun begins. You are in the multi-sensory experience area, where every sense is stimulated through the latest museum technologies, designed by Casson Mann, the London firm who also created the Lascaux IV International Center of Rock Wall Art.

A Virtual World Tour

Bordeaux-world vineyards.

Giant screens project a tour of the world’s vineyards.

It begins with a dizzying virtual helicopter tour of the world’s vineyards on three giant screens, from China to Chile to Okanagan to Rangiroa (the latter two in British Columbia and French Polynesia respectively). It’s fascinating to see how vineyards adapted to landscapes and then redefined the land and local life. This experience is the genesis of my recent visit to Lanzarote. The show also reinforces the point that La Cité du Vin it is not museum of Bordeaux wine, but Bordeaux’s museum of world wine.

Bordeaux-buffet of the senses.

Experience the different aromas associated with wine at the buffet of the senses.

Drift over to a “terroir table,” where vineyards alter with the seasons, then virtual vintners spring to life, sharing what gives their terroir its identity and makes their wine unique. Browse from  Burgundy to the Mosel Valley to Tuscany before reaching the country of Georgia where a monk at the Alaverdi Monastery introduces one of the cradles of wine civilization. Then it’s a stop at the Buffet of the Five Sense, where from citrus, rose petal or chocolate to straw and wood shavings, you can smell the different aromas associated with wine through bell jars and curvy copper trumpets.

Bordeaux-tales of wine

One of the modules is a multi-media epic tale of wine.

Stick your head into a big aluminum bubble to hear and smell the fermentation process, or join a virtual dinner table and eavesdrop on a discussion about wine and food. And in the Bacchus and Venus room,  recline on a red velvet couch to watch a ceiling screen that projects the sights and sounds of love and wine – music and poetry, while rose petals seem to drop from the sky. There are 19 modules altogether, each one an interactive slice of wine culture.

Time for Tipple

Duck confit with guava sauce at Le 7 Restaurant.

But virtual travel can be hungry work. On the seventh floor,  Le 7 is an elegant restaurant with a panoramic view of the city and the Port of the Moon, the historic shipping port named for its broad moon-shaped curve in estuary of the river. Its refined menu of regional dishes varies with seasons and has already earned it mention in the 2018 Michelin guide “L’Assiette Gourmande.” Its 500-label wine list, with half of the selection from France and the other half from the various wine-producing regions of the world, is no less noteworthy. There is also a choice of 32 wines available by the glass.

View from the Belvedere – The Garonne River and the Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas (inaugurated in 2013).

Then to cap off the whole experience and even better views, head one more floor up to the Belvedere. This is where all visitors can enjoy a 360-degree panorama of the city, the river and the surrounding countryside while sipping a glass of wine selected from 20 different labels, five Bordeaux and 15 global wines (included in the price of admission). Whether you are a devoted oenophile or a casual wine tourist, this new shrine to wine is sure to peak your interest with its wit, whimsy and style.

Bordeaux-Place de la Bourse.

The Place de la Bourse is one of the most representative works of Classical French architecture and an iconic Bordeaux landmark.

Good to Know

  • Getting There– Bordeaux is located 600 kilometers (370 miles) southwest of Paris. By plane: Bordeaux-Merignac Airport is 11 kilometers (7 miles) west of the city center. It is a regional airport that serves mostly domestic flights as well as connecting flights from major European hubs. An express bus runs every 30 minutes between the airport, the central train station (Gare Saint Jean) and the city center. By train:There are several daily high-speed train (TGV) connecting Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport and Bordeaux Gare Saint Jean (4 hours), as well as near hourly connections between central Paris (Gare Montparnasse) and Bordeaux (3 hours). There is also a regular train service from most major cities in France and beyond.
  • Visiting La Cité du Vin ,134 Quai du Bacalan, 33300, Bordeaux, France. The exhibits area is open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. The restaurants and shops are open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 11:00 pm and Sunday from 10:00 am through 7:00 pm. Contact: tel. +33 55 616 2020, email. contact form.
  • UNESCO Listing–The Bordeaux city center was recognized in 2007 on the UNESCO World Heritage List as “an outstanding urban and architectural ensemble” of the 18th century. This remarkably large area encompasses most of the historic city as well as the Port of the Moon and the opposite riverbank.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

La Cite du Vin

Risen from the Ashes – the Vineyards of Lanzarote

Risen from the Ashes – the Vineyards of Lanzarote

Some historians speculate that the ancient Greek vinestock of  Malvasia grape reached the Canary Islands with the Romans. Others credit Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator with introducing the vines in the 15th century. Either way, historical records show that wine has been produced on Lanzarote, the easternmost island of the archipelago, some 60 miles (100 k) offshore off the western Sahara, for over 500 years. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the sweet aromatic Malvasia wine was thought after throughout Europe, with England its major export market.

Life in Lava Land

Lanzarote - vineyard 1

Lanzarote vineyards now thrive in the volcanic landscape.

Lanzarote was a fertile place then, with a thriving agriculture industry. However, Lanzaroteños had to rethink things when in the 1730’s, six years of continuous volcanic eruptions buried one third of the island, including its best farming land, under a thick coat of lava and volcanic ash. Grain and cereals, the staples of the time, were now out. Those farmers who didn’t flee for greener pastures in the Americas had to drastically revise their methods of survival. The island did have a proud heritage of viticulture, but would vines still grow in this new apocalyptic landscape?

La Geria-Vineyard

The ruins of ancient bodegas still stand amid the vineyards.

Actually, yes. The vintners soon discovered that the volcanic ash (picón) that now covered the farmland was an efficient porous mulch. It absorbed the moisture from the air, released it into the ground and then prevented evaporation.They had to dig several feet through the picón to reach the original soil and plan the vines. Within its own basin, each plant then had to be protected from the sometimes fierce Atlantic wind by a semi-circular wall built from the omnipresent black basalt rock. Since then, wine growers have built over ten thousand of these tiny craters throughout the island to create the spectacular countryside of black vineyards that is unique to Lanzarote.

No Sour Grapes

La Geria-Vega de Yuco

Bodega Vega de Yuco.

Today there are over a dozen thriving bodegas (wineries) on Lanzarote, covering close to 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) of active vineyards concentrated mainly in the central area of the island known as La Geria. Together they produce an average of 2 million liters (530 thousand U.S. gallons) annually, with around 75 percent of the production still dedicated to the Malvasia grape. Although they now produces a variety of wines, the most famous remains the traditional sweet dessert nectar with a rich texture reminiscent of aged Madeira. The balance of the production is split between Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez, which also produce quality sweet wines, and Listan Blanco for whites, and Listan Negra Mole for reds and rosés.

Lanzarote-vineyard2

The traditional single vine hole-and-wall method remains in use when planting new vineyards.

Typically, all Lanzarote wines are said to have a distinct personality: fruity, but with mineral characteristics and good acidity.The few that I sampled did fit that description, unsurprisingly given the island’s unique growing conditions. Most of the Bodegas welcome visitors with guides tours of their facilities and tasting opportunities for a reasonable fee. They usually require advanced booking. Here are three of the most popular wineries:

Lanzarote-El Grifo

Famed native son César Manrique created El Grifo’s logo.

Bodega El Grifo– Founded in 1775, El Grifo is the oldest bodega in the Canaries and one of the ten oldest in Spain.Their 50 hectare (125 acre) vineyard surround the El Grifo Wine Museum, which gives visitors an interesting insight of the unique methods of viticulture practiced on Lanzarote as well as a snapshot of the island’s history.

Bodega La Geria– Built in the late 19th century against the spectacular backdrop of the Timanfaya National Park, Bodega La Geria is considered one of the most important vineyards on the island, with an annual production capacity of 300,000 liters (80,000 U.S. gallons). Six wines ranging from dry and semi-sweet to sweet Marvasia are produced under the La Geria Label.

Lanzarote-Bodega Rubicon

The ancient cellars of Bodega Rubicón

Bodega Rubicón– Another venerable institution dating back to the mid-18th century, Bodega Rubicón has retained its beautifully restored colonial-style main house (a rarity on the island), complete with the courtyard shaded by an ancient eucalyptus tree. While the traditional artisan winemaking facilities of the old winery are reverently maintained, Rubicón has undergone major renovations and expansion in 2000 to introduce new technologies in the production of their wines.

Lanzarote-Bodega Vulcano

Bodega Vulcano de Lanzarote opened its doors in 2009.

Not all the wineries on the island are historical. Some are quite recent, such as the Bodega Vulcano de Lanzarote that opened its doors in 2009. But even these modern operations use the traditional single vine, hole-and-wall method when planting their new vineyards, preserving the unique landscape created three centuries ago by the ingenuity of the early vintners.

Good to Know

  • Getting there –The island’s only airport is located just west of the capital city of Arrecife, with regularly scheduled flights from the Spanish mainland and major western European cities, as well as between the main islands of the archipelago.
  • Getting around – Although there is a good network of busses serving all the major points of interest, and reasonably priced taxis are readily available, I found a pre-booked car rental with pick-up and return at the airport to be the best value transportation option for exploring the vineyards at leisure.
  • Visiting –  Bodega El Grifo, Lugar El Grifu, Carretera Teguise-Uga LZ-30, Km,11,35550, San Bartlomé, is open daily from 10:30 am to 6:30 pm. Guided tours are available Monday through Sunday at 10:00 am, 1:00 pm, 4:00 pm and 5:00 pm. Advanced reservation required. Contact: tel. +34 928 524 036, mail. malvasia@elgrifo.com. Bodega La Geria, Carretera la Geria, Km 19, 35570, Yaiza,is open daily from 9:30 am to 7:00 pm. Guided tours are available Monday through Friday at 2:00 pm. Advanced reservation required. Contact: tel. +34 928 173 178, mail. bodegalageria@lageria.com. Bodega Rubicón, Carretera Teguise-Yaiza, 2, 35570, La Geria, Las Palmas is open daily from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm. Contact: tel. +34 928 173 708, mail. administracion@bodegasrubicon.com.
  • The vineyards of La Geria are an area protected by the Lanzarote DO destination of origin.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

La Geria

El Grifo

Rubicón

The Volcanic Wonderland of the Canary Islands – Lanzarote

The Volcanic Wonderland of the Canary Islands – Lanzarote

The Canary Islands rise from the Atlantic Ocean some 100 kilometers (62 miles) at their closest point off the coast of North Africa. As the southernmost province of Spain, the archipelago has become over the past few decades a popular subtropical escape for beachgoers from Western Europe. And it has acquired a mass-tourism reputation that has kept it off my list of compelling destinations – until now.

Why Lanzarote?

Lanazarote-agricultural interior.

Lanzarote’s landscape was shaped by volcano eruptions.

With winter about to close in on the Northern Hemisphere, I am yearning for just one more week of sunshine and snorkeling before the onslaught of the year end holidays. The easy accessibility of the Canaries earns them a second look, and preconceived perceptions dwindle. As with most places, the archipelago has its share of less developped areas, places like Lanzarote. Much less familiar than its overbuilt Gran Canaria and Tenerife siblings, the island owes its unique personality to two major influences: the longest volcanic eruption in recorded history and the island’s favorite son, César Manrique.

An Alien Planet

Lanzarote-Timanfaya logo.

The sculpture marking the entrance to the Timanfaya National Park was created by César Manrique.

The eruption began in September 1730. Over the next six years, it buried a third of the island under torrents of lava, wiping out a dozen villages and several hundred homes, and dusted most of the remaining agricultural land under a thick layer of ash.To this day, the scarred badlands it left behind, now the Timanfaya National Park, are as starkly surreal as an alien planet.

Timanfaya-Fire Mountains.

The Fire Mountains vistas evoke an alien planet.

The park is the island’s leading tourist attraction, drawing close to two million visitors per year. Fortunately, strict controls are in place to protect its unique landscape from human depredation (as well as protecting visitors from the unforgiving terrain). At the Visitor Center, sightseers must board a comfortable air-conditioned bus that take them on a winding tour of the aptly named Montañas del Fuego (Fire Mountains). The narrow 14 kilometer (9 mile) “Ruta de los Volcanes”, is a one-way circuit closed to normal traffic. The bus stops at the most spectacular vantage points, with enough time for passengers to capture the moment. Throughout the trip, a soundtrack in Spanish, English and German dispenses information about the eruption.

Timanfaya-Silver desert grass.

Tufts of sliver grass rise from the thick coat of ash.

Although there hasn’t been an actual volcanic upsurge on the island since 1824, the fire still smolders beneath Timanfaya. Back at the Visitor Center, staff demonstrate the heat of a residual geothermic anomaly (or magma chamber) close to the surface, instantly causing dry brush to burst into flame and vaporizing water into a jet of steam.

 

 

 

César Manrique, Local Hero

Lanzarote-Village

Traditional whitewashed homes are the norm on the island.

Born in Lanzarote’s capital of Arrecife in 1919, César Manrique went on to build a reputation as an abstract artist in Madrid and New York before returning to his homeland in 1968. An passionate environmentalist, he then dedicated the remaining 25 years of his life to the preservation of what he called the “singularity” of his beloved island. He relentlessly lobbied the local government to introduce regulations that would ensure the responsible development of tourism. His influence proved as far-reaching a force in shaping present-day Lanzarote as the overwhelming volcanic eruptions that blasted the island three centuries ago.

Lanzarote-El Diablo Panorama.

The panoramic views from the Restaurante del Diablo showcases the surreal landscape of the park.

Manrique was instrumental in drawing up strict guidelines for the construction of the beautifully simple, whitewashed low-rise buildings reminiscent of the ancient  White Villages of Andalusia. They have since influenced all development projects on the island, from the restoration of humble village houses to sprawling luxury resorts. But Manrique didn’t stop at the preservation of Lanzarote’s distinctive identity and natural resources. He also left his imprint on the land with a series of landscape art creations. In Timanfaya National Park, high above the Visitor Center, the dining room of his circular Restaurante del Diablo showcases the surrealist landscape of craters and crusted magma formations streaked with startling orange, reddish-pink and purple overtones.

The El Rio straight, seen from the edge of the Famara cliff.

Further north up the coast, his Mirador del Rio is an other testimonial to his inexhaustible architectural creativity. Here, a lookout point is wedged into the Famara cliff face, framing with a curved spaceship-like window the overwhelming views of the Atlantic Ocean some 475 meters (1,500 feet) below, and across the narrow El Rio straight, the nearby island of La Graciosa.

 

 

Manrique’s Own Home

Lanzarote-Taro de Tahiche

Created within volcanic bubbles, Manrique’s home includes a spectacular swimming pool.

Of all of Manrique’s creations, the one that best reflect his passion for the island’s extraordinary landscapes is his own home at Taro de Tahiche. At ground level, the façade appears that of a simple, whitewashed, lanzarotoño country house. But step inside and it’s all open spaces, with light flooding in from skylights and a glass wall looking down at an open-air aquamarine swimming pool surrounded by giant cacti. Around the pool, curvy nooks and rooms created from five natural volcanic bubbles are interconnected by tunnels excavated in the lava. Today the property houses the César Manrique Foundation and attracts visitors in droves.

Another Manrique favorite is the majestic adjoining Jameos del Agua, a vast volcanic cave system that includes a shimmering underground lagoon filled with silvery blind albino crabs and a natural auditorium that slopes down into the earth.

Seashore Favorites

Lanzarote-Playa Blanca

Once an isolated fishing village, Playa Blanca is now one of the island’s popular resorts.

While I was pleasantly surprised by the unexpected abundance of unique attractions on the island, I didn’t lose sight of what had originally drawn me there: Lanzarote’s reputation for some of the best snorkeling spots in the Canaries. The southern tip of the island, with over six kilometers (four miles) of pale sandy beaches sheltered from the gusting Atlantic winds by the nearby Femes mountains seemed an obvious place to settle. At the center of it, Playa Blanca, until recently an isolated fishing village, has predictably grown into one of the island’s most popular resorts. Although it now shows all the signs of a mass tourism destination: large resort hotels, a boardwalk lined with café terraces and souvenir shops, it was pleasantly uncrowded during my late fall visit. But mainly, it boasts clear, calm waters and seawalls teaming with life accessible right from the beach. Just swim in and float along with a variety of small species: schools of sardines to be sure, but also rainbow fish, zebra fish, parrot fish, cuttlefish and sea cucumbers.

Lanzarote- Playa de Papagayo

The Playa de Papagayo cove is one of the most pristine snorketling spots on the island.

For more seclusion and marine life, a few miles to the east the pristine shallow cove of Playa de Papagayo is tucked within the sheer cliffs of the Los Ajaches Nature Reserve. Although it is accessible only via a rocky dirt road to the parking lot, then a steep flight of stairs to the beach, it is well worth a visit. Still a bit farther up the eastern shore, and of much easier access, Puerto del Carmen’s Playa Chica is a favorite with divers as well as snorkelers. And with good reason – it is loaded with underwater critters. Here again you can swim right off the beach, or jump in from the small harbor wall. And the variety is even more interesting. In addition to the above, I spotted starfish, squid, various bream, small Sama eels and even a distant barracuda.

 

Lanzarote-Whitewashed village

Good to Know

  • Getting there –The island’s only airport is located just west of Arrecife, 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 – Although there is a good network of busses on the island and reasonably priced taxis are readily available, I found a pre-booked car rental with pick-up and return at the airport to be the best value transportation option to thoroughly explore the island. There are excellent, well marked roads linking the various points of interest. It’s about one hour of driving time to cross the island from North to South, and about thirty minutes across.
  • Visiting –Timanfaya National Park– Fire Mountains Visitor Center is open daily from September 16 to July 14, 9:00 am to 5:45 pm, and from July 15 to September 15, 9:00 am to 6:45 pm, with the last bus tour departing 45 minutes before closing time. Contact: tel. +34 928 840 057. Cesar Manrique Foundation, and Cesar Manrique House Museum, Taro de Tahíche – C/ Jorge Luis Borges, 16, 35507 Tahíche. Lanzarote, are open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Contact: tel. + 34 928 843 138, mail. fcm@fcmanrique.org.
  • The entire island of Lanzarote was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in October 1993.

Location, location, location!

Lanzarote, Spain

Playa Blanca

Timanfaya National Park

Taro de Tahiche

In the Land of Gaudi – Barcelona, Spain

In the Land of Gaudi – Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona’s architectural heritage may span 2000 years, but in recent decades this most visited of Spanish cities has become all but synonymous with Gaudi, the undisputed master of Catalan Modernism. His indelible influence helped shape the design of the city during its industrial renaissance heydays.

Who was Gaudi?

Gaudi-Casa Batllo facade detail.

Gaudi’s elaborate dynamic curves and organic shapes are a trademark of Catalan Modernism.

Born Antoni Plàcid Guillem Gaudi I Cornet in 1852 in  Reus, some 100 kilometers (65 miles) south of Barcelona, in 1852, he studied architecture in the Catalan capital. Here, he quickly embraced the Art Nouveau style and its predominance of curves, dynamic shapes and elaborate decorations that favored the use of organic motives. His work was controversial and not widely appreciated during his lifetime. It was not until well after his death in 1926 that he became recognized as the most influential leader of the Catalan Modernist movement.

Gaudi-Casa Mila atrium.

At Casa Milà, the stairs that lead to the entrance of the apartments wind along the atrium walls.

Now admired worldwide, his buildings figure among the top tourist attractions in Barcelona. Seven of them have been designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO since 1984, for their “exceptional creative contribution to the development of architecture and building technology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” 

Which Gaudi sites to visit? Unless you are an architecture student or an inveterate Gaudi fanatic with several days on your hands, a couple should suffice to get an understanding of the master’s achievements. In addition to which you are sure to catch a walk-by look at a few others, just by wandering around the central Eixample district.

A Gaudi Crash Course – Casa Batlló

Gaudi-Casa Batllo noble floor.

The “noble floor” is an Art Nouveau masterpiece onto itself.

Gaudi-Casa Batlló roofline

The arched roofline gives the house a surreal fairytale look.

This is the first of Gaudi’s works I ever came across, and it remains my favorite. On my first visit to Barcelona some 20 years ago, I had the good fortune to attend a reception here. Our host had privatized the property for the evening, offering guests a unique opportunity to experience at leisure one of the most emblematic works of this brilliant architect.

The house was originally constructed in 1877, and by all accounts was an architecturally unremarkable classic building, albeit located at a desirable spot of the Passeig de Gràcia, in the fashionable new Eixample district. It was purchased in 1903 by Joseph Batlló y Casanovas, a prominent textile industrialist who granted Gaudi full creative freedom to design his residence here. Although the commission initially entailed demolishing the original structure, Gaudi ruled it out. He proposed instead an extensive remodeling effort that redesigned the façade, redistributed the interior spaces and radically expanded the central skylight. Thus transforming the building into a functional, modern home and a striking Art Nouveau showcase.

Gaudi-Casa Batllo skyline.

Natural light flowing down the skylight ripples along  the ceramic tiles.

Covered with a mosaic of glass shards in a palette of blues and greens, the undulating façade, under the effects of the changing light and sunshine, gives an illusion of water in motion. The dramatic arch of the roof, tiled in electric blue Majorca ceramic, tops the building with a giant wave. Many also see in it an interpretation of the legend of Saint George (the patron saint of Catalonia) slaying the dragon. Then, the roof become the scaly back of the dragon, with the cross-topped tower representing the knight’s lance entering his victim. Either way, the house exudes a surreal fairytale look.

Gaudi-Casa Batllo staircase.

The staircase evokes a Jules Verne underwater world.

Behind this Modernist façade, visitors enter a symbolic Jules Verne underwater world, where the grand staircase  undulates like the spine of a giant marine beast, up to the 700 square meter (7500 square foot)  “noble floor,” which the Batlló family occupied until the mid-1950’s, Here, Gaudi transformed the original layout, opening partition walls with large stained glass-paned double doors to create a vast gallery of multi-purpose areas. Today, Casa Batlló is broadly viewed as the ultimate expression of Catalan Modernism.

Park Güell and the Gaudi House Museum

Gaudi-Park Guell gate houses.

Gaudi found inspiration in the tale of Hansel and Gretel for his design of the gate houses.

If Casa Batlló is Gaudi’s fantasy house, Park Güell is his quintessential dream park. Built between 1900 and 1914 as a collaborative venture between entrepreneur Eusebi Güell (hence its name) and Gaudi, the park was originally conceived as a luxury gated community for the Barcelona elite. However, due to its remote Carmel Hill location on the northwestern side of the city, there was little interest in the planned 60 construction plots. Only two houses were built, neither designed by Gaudi. Ironically, he purchased one of them in 1906 and resided there for the remainder of his life. He did, however, design the park, an 18-hectare (45-acre) wonderland with some 3 kilometers (2 miles) of walks and steps, fascinating stone structures, wooded areas laced with pathways and two Hansel and Gretel-style gatehouses.

Gaudi-Park Guell fountain.

The fountain at the main entrance of the park is one of the most photographed lizards in the world.

The steps at the entrance are guarded by one of the most famous lizards ever: the colorful mosaic dragon fountain whose likeness can be found by the shelf-full in gift shops throughout the city. At the top of the hill, a large square surrounded by a sinuous tiled bench offers a spectacular view of the park and the entire city. Gaudi’s home is now a museum housing a comprehensive collection of furniture and decorative elements of his own design.

Iconic Casa Milà

Gaudi-Casa Mila Pedrera.

Casa Milà’s organic facade earned it the moniker of The Quarry.

Casa Milà is considered Gaudi’s most iconic residential design, due to its structural and functional innovations as well as its striking ornamental solutions. Formally named after the businessman who commissioned it, it is better known by the moniker originally given to the structure for its pale, irregular stone façade appearance: La Pedrera (the Quarry).

 

Gaudi-Pedrera atrium frescoes

The vaulted ceilings and walls of the atrium are decorated with colorful frescoes.

The curved façade is a unique example of organic architecture, looking like a massive rock softened by its wavy lines and undulating wrought iron balconies. The house actually consists of two separate buildings that share only their façade and roof.  Both have their individual entrance and atrium. The interior is equally groundbreaking, including an elaborate ventilation system that eliminates the need for air-conditioning.  But it is the roof that is the most startling part of La Pedrera.

Gaudi-Pedrera roof warriors.

Helmet-clad stone warriors conceal ventilation towers.

Aside from its remarkable views of the city, the roof terrace is a unique maze of unbridled creativity. Here, convoluted flights of stairs and walkways lead to and around clusters of giant helmet-clad stone warriors and Darth Vader look-alikes that conceal chimneystacks and ventilation towers. Beneath it, the soaring attic space supported by 270 parabolic brick vaults houses a modest museum with a display of architectural models of Gaudi’s buildings and some of his furniture creations. It is the last residential building designed by Gaudi before he devoted himself entirely to the construction of La Sagrada Familia.

An Overwhelming Architectural Hallucination

Gaudi-Sagrada Familia.

Although still under construction, La Sagrada Familia is the most visited landmark in Spain.

A work in progress for the past 136 years at the time of this writing, La Sagrada Familia (the Holy Family) is one of the most overwhelming catholic sanctuaries ever devised and Gaudi’s most famous work. Financed from the start solely with private donations, and more recently with the steep “donations” levied from tourists, its construction was interrupted in the mid-20th century by the Spanish Revolution. It began to gather momentum again after the Second World War, and the process accelerated exponentially over the past four decades with the introduction of computers into the design and construction process. The project was declared to have passed mid-point in 2010, and to be 70 percent complete in 2016. However some of the greatest challenges remain, including the construction of six additional giant steeples.

Gaudi-Sagrada Familia Nativity.

The Nativity Façade chronicles the birth and life of Jesus.

Of the three great façades, the Nativity to the East, the Passion to the West and the Glory on the South side, only the Nativity was completed in Gaudi’s life time. It is easily recognizable for its molten wax look and its scenes reminiscent of the birth and early life of Jesus. The construction of the Passion façade, built from 1954 to 1976, is especially striking for its stark, gaunt characters, including an emaciated figure of Christ being scourged, and the crucifiction. The Glory, started in 2002 and still unfinished, will the largest of the three. In addition to the Ascension of Christ to heaven, it is expected to represent various scenes of Hell and Purgatory as well as the seven deadly sins.

If time allows, and you have anticipated by purchasing your entrance tickets well ahead (it is the most visited tourist attraction in the Spain), do step in and gawk at the soaring flower vaults and rainbow-colored stain glass, and experience this grandest of architectural hallucination ever.

Good to Know

  • Visiting –  Casa BatllòPasseig de Gràcia 43. Metro: Passeig de Gràcia.Open daily from 9:00 am-9:00 pm. Contact: tel. +34 932 160 306. Park GuellCarrer de Larrard (main entrance). Opendaily from 8:00 am-9:30 pm. Contact +34 934 091 831. La Pedrera, Passeig de Gràcia, 92. Metro: Passeig de Gràcia. Open daily: November through February 9:00 am-6:30 pm and March through November 9:00 am-8:00 pm. Contact: Tel. +34 934 845 900. La Sagrada Familia. Metro Sagrada Familia. Open daily: October through March 9:00 am-7:00 pm, April through September 9:00 am-8:00 pm and November through February: 9:00 am-6:00 pm. Contact:  tel. +34 932 073 031;
  • Budget considerations – Entrance fees to the Gaudi landmarks can get expensive. While I am not usually a fan if city passes, in this case, it could pay to research ahead the various tourist passes for Barcelona, most notably the Barcelona Pass and Barcelona Card. But do check their offerings carefully to make sure they correspond to your plans for visiting the city. You can also save money and time by booking your tickets directly from the various sites. And of course you can always walk by and enjoy the exterior of Gaudi’s buildings for free.

Location, location, location!

Casa Batllo, Barcelona

Park Güell, Barcelona

La Pedrera, Barcelona

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic Foodies Finds

Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic Foodies Finds

Barcelona is said to have the most restaurants and bars per capital in Europe, which could get overwhelming. But options are easily narrowed down once you eliminate the obvious tourist traps touting all manners of paellas in multiple languages. While their quality and service can vary wildly, they often don’t make it above indifferent on either count.

Barcelona-Sensi tapas.

At Sensi Bistro, Tapas are a culinary experience.

Mercifully, the local food scene goes far beyond the upbiquitous spanish specialty. On this recent visit, we looked for intriguing “holes-in-the-wall” as we explored the city. In the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) alone, we found more promising eateries than we could possibly try during our short stay. These three delivered meals memorable for the quality and the originality of their cuisine, their outstanding service and the friendliness of their prices.

 

A New Take on Tapas

Barcelona-Sensi Salad

Mixed green salad with quinoa crackers.

Sensi Bistro is a casual, lively place that takes the traditional tapas concept to the culinary level of a gastronomic tasting menu. Each small plate is artfully presented and generous enough for two. So tempting was their menu that we ended up ordering everything that looked especially interesting – which turned out to be about half of their offerings. We ended up with a copious, somewhat random list, which our friendly waiter, Alex, tactfully  organised into a coherant, well paced menu. Only the real stand-outs are mentioned below.

Barcelona-Sensi Truffle ravioli

The peerless truffle ravioli in parmesan sauce only look plain.

We started out with a mixed greens salad with cucumbers and granny smith apple, garnished with quinoa crisps in a  coriander vinaigrette, and a tuna tartare seasoned with pleasantly hot Sriracha vinaigrette, garnished with puffed rice and chopped japanese onions. A perfect prelude for the divine truffle ravioli in parmeran cream that followed. Then came the shrimp and chorizo-stuffed squid with aioli and the roasted Iberian pork loin with demi-glace reduction and parsnip puree. Alex also showed himself a knowledgeable sommelier who recommended a superb bottle of Rioja Alavesa  2014 from Bodegas Baigorri del Garage, just the right full-bodied red to enhance our varied selections. Overall, a dining experience so satisfying that I uncharacteristically had to pass on dessert.

Creative Catalan Cuisine

Barcelona-Academia dining room.

The Cafe de l’Academiia offers delicious Catalan cuisine and romantic atmosphere.

The Cafè de L’Acadèmia is a longtime local favorite that has become an open secret in recent years for savvy visitors looking for traditional Catalan cuisine with a creative twist. Tucked away in a corner of the quaint medieval Plaça Sant Just, it combines a seasonal, market-driven menu with a generous helping of romance. The cozy dining room makes the most of its 18th century features, all rough stone walls and exposed beams, with fresh flowers, subdued lighting and unobstrusive strains of classical background music. However, the evenings being still mild when we visited in early October, we were fortunate to score one of the candle-lit table at the much coveted terrace on the pocket-size square in the shadow of the Gothic Sant Just church.

Barcelona-Academia monk fish.

The grilled monk fish with green asparagus tasted fresh out of the Mediterrean.

We started again with a mixed green salad, topped with shreds of duck liver paté this time, and a terrine of eggplant and goat cheese. A succulent rack of lamb on gratinéed potatoes and a superb grilled monk fish with green asparagus followed, paired with a bottle of powerful local red Priorat wine. A delicately tangy lemon tart topped this unpretentious, superbly prepared meal. Although the place was packed, the service was friendly and attentive. Advanced reservations are an absolute must (and a call to reconfirm a few hours ahead can’t hurt. We did to guarantee our terrace table).

A Tuscan Find

A bottle of Rosso de Montalcino is a perfect foil for parpadele with wild boar.

Osso Buco alla Sense is a Cachaca specially

Even in Catalonia, an inviting little Italian restaurant is hard to resist. We didn’t. We chanced onto Cachaca, a charming Tuscan bistro tucked in a back alley of the Barri Gòtic, just as a table was becoming available. One of their best to my way of thinking, a cozy vantage point on the tiny mezzanine at the back of the restaurant, secluded from the bustle of the packed main room.

Just about everything on their limited menu was enticing. In the end, we started with potatoe gnocchi with Porcini mushroom and saussage, and parpadele with wild boar ragout, followed by hake with pine nut-lemon sauce, and osso buco alla sense, a classic Sienese specialty. All to be shared, of course. At the waiter’s recommendation, we added their unusual naked ravioli (small meaty patties mixed with ricotta and spinach in sage butter – superb!). The home-made foccacia was irresitible and a list of excellent italian wines rounded up the menu. We chose a hearty San Giovese Rosso de Montalcino. The meal was so gratifying that it should have made a case for skipping dessert, but I have never been known to resist a good Tiramisu, and Cachaca’s definitely was that. I enjoyed every last sinful spoonful of it.

 

Good to Know

  • Sensi Bistro, Carrer Reogomir, 4, 08002 Barcelona. Metro: Jaume 1 or Liceu. Contact: Tel. +34 931 799 545. Open daily from 6:30 pm to midnight.
  • Cafè de l’Acadèmia, Carrer de Lledó, 1 Plaça Sant Just,08002 Barcelona. Metro: Jaume 1. Contact: Tel: +34  933 198 253. Open: Monday through Friday from 1:30  to 4:00 pm and 8:00  to 11:30 pm. Closed Saturday, Sunday, major national holidays and three weeks in August.
  • Cachaca Italian restaurant, Carrer d’Ataülf, 5, 08002 Barcelona, Spain Contact: Tel. +34 930 19 95 69 . Open Monday through Friday from 19:00 pm to midnight, Saturday and Sunday from 1:30 to 4:00 pm and from 7:00 pm to midnight.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Sensi Bistro

Cafe de l'Academia

Cachaca