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

On the trail of Barcelona’s History – Barri Gòtic

On the trail of Barcelona’s History – Barri Gòtic

From its beginnings as a Roman-era harbor and garrison to today’s exuberant capital of Catalonia, the northeastern-most region of Spain, Barcelona has developed into a fascinating patchwork of architectural styles.

Barcelona-Port Vell

Barcelona is one of the busiest port cities in the Mediterranean.

Once the seat of the medieval kings of Aragon, it remained an austere gothic city until the industrial revolution generated a Modernist rebirth. Today, these successive metamorphoses can be followed along its various barrios (neighborhoods), wooing tourists with an embarrassment of riches that makes this sunny Mediterranean city one of the most visited in Europe.

 

 

Begin along Las Ramblas

Barcelona-Living statue,

The lower part of Las Ramblas is lined with living statues.

It’s Barcelona’s most famous street, a 1.2 kilometer-long (0.75 mile) pedestrian artery that runs through the center of the city from the waterfront statue of Christopher Columbus to the Plaça Catalunya (Catalonia Square), where the old city meets the Modernist 19th Eixample neighborhood. In recent decades, to cater to the throng of visitors strolling in the shade of its venerable plane trees, it has become overrun with café terraces, living statues and street vendors of all kind. But never mind that it is mainly shunned by locals these days, if you are a tourist, it’s the first landmark you identify, if only for its no-fail access to most of the major attractions of the old town.

From the waterfront, a right turn into any of the narrow side streets gets you into the labyrinthine alleys of the Barri Gòtic.

The Gothic Quarter

Barcelona-Gothic Quarter styles.

Centuries of architectural styles coexist in the Gothic Quarter.

Barcelona-Royal Plaza

In the heart of the neighborhood, the 19th century Royal Plaza is one of Barcelona’s favorite meeting spot.

The oldest part of Barcelona, the Barri Gotic includes remains of the roman city wall as well as a number of medieval landmarks going back to the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. However, the most damaged of these ancient monuments were extensively restored in early 20th century, which transformed the original somber neighborhood into a neo-Gothic tourist delight.

The maze of narrow lanes now leads into inviting squares, most notably the elegant Plaça Reial (Royal Plaza), built in the mid-19th century as a luxury residential complex on a site once occupied by a Capuchin convent. Inspired by French neo-classical squares, the rectangular plaza is surrounded by identical four-story buildings raised on vaulted semi-circular arches. Today, with its soaring palm trees, central fountain and arcades lined with restaurants, bars and popular night spots, the pedestrian square is a favorite meeting venue for locals and visitors alike.

 

 

The Cathedral of Saint Eulalia

Barcelona-Cathedral

The Gothic nave of the Barcelona Cathedral.

Meander northward from Plaça Reial and within ten minutes, you come to a sprawling gothic confection rising from the highest point of the neighborhood. It’s the Barcelona Cathedral, officially knows as the Cathedral of the Holly Cross and Saint Eulalia, after a local girl who defied Roman Emperor Diocletian by refusing to recant her Christian faith. Built on the site on an earlier roman temple, its origins reach back to the early days of Christianity. The present cathedral stands on the remains of a succession of sanctuaries, with most of the current structure from the 13th century, when the construction of Gothic basilica began. As for the grand façade, it’s a flamboyant example of neo-Gothic style added in the early 20th century.

Barcelona-Saint Eulaila crypt.

In the crypt, this Renaissance sarcophagus is said to hold  relics of Saint Eulalia.

Inside, the most notable elements are the Gothic choir stalls, the crypt with its elaborate Renaissance tomb dedicated to the eponymous saint, and the 15th century cloister. In addition to its series of side chapels, the elegant cloister includes a garden, a fountain, the Font de les Oques (Fountain of the Geese), and a pond that is home to a gaggle of 13 white geese. They have been squawking here since medieval times, when they warned against intruders and thieves. Their number is explained variously as representing the age of the saint when she was martyred or that she suffered 13 tortures during her persecution.

Leaving the cloister, it’s only a few steps to the Plaça Nova (New Square), which traces back to 1358, when it was the site of the city’s hay market. It is still flanked by two of the defense towers that protected the fortified Roman colony.

The Palace of Catalan Music

Barcelona-Palace of Catalan music.

Elaborate mosaics decorate the facade of the Palace of Catalan Music.

Another short walk northward from the cathedral to the street that bears its name but is far too narrow to do it justice, the Palau de la Mùsica Catalana stand it all its glory. Built at the turn of the century for Orfeó Català, a presitigious Barcelona choral society, this architectural jewel is the crowning creation of famed local Art Nouveau architect Lluis Domènech I Montanier.

Barcelona-Palau glass ceiling.

The main concert hall boasts an ornate stained glass ceiling.

Designed around a central metal structure covered in glass, it exploits natural light to create an exquisite harmony of sculpture, mosaic, stained glass and ironwork inside and out. The rich glazed mosaic decor of the façade, which incorporates traditional Spanish and Moorish architectural elements, is especially striking. The interior is equally flamboyant, particularly the main concert hall with its inverted stained glass domed ceiling. The Palace remains to this day an exceptional venue for opera and symphonic as well as folk music, and an essential landmark in the cultural and social life of Catalonia.

Graze at La Boqueria

Barcelona-Boquaria fruit.

The vegetable and fruit stands are especially colorful.

Barcelona is famous as one of the foodie capitals of Europe and the Barri Gotic, one of its most visited neighborhood, offers plenty of attractive eating options. But the first de rigueur stop for connoisseurs is just across Las Ramblas, at the edge of the El Raval neighborhood. Arguably the most famous food market in all of Spain, the Mercat de Sant Joseph de la Boqueria (a.k.a La Boqueria) traces its origin back to the 13th century when it started out as a cluster of meat stalls. It settled in its current location in 1840, on a space previously occupied by a convent dedicated to St. Joseph. Its graceful Art Nouveau iron and glass structure was added in 1914.

Barcelona-Jamón Iberico

Jamón Iberico is much appreciated by gourmets throughout Spain and beyond.

In its current iteration, la Boqueria is a grid of some 200 permanent stalls selling all manners of local and exotic foodstuff. They converge on an oval plan from colorful local vegetable and fruit displays to cured meats and cheeses to fresh-out-of-the ocean seafood in the center. Those who are shopping for provisions come early, before the aisles become clogged with tourists. For the rest of us, it’s fun to graze through La Boqueria, munching on slivers of Jamón Iberico, the famed dry-cured ham from the Iberian breed pigs, or grab a stool at one of the many tapas bars sprinkled around the market. They are hugely popular so you may have to hover a while before scoring one. Then order whatever looks good in the plates of your neighbors, a glass of cava(local bubbly) or cerveza(beer) and watch the world go.

Barcelona-Panorama

The roof terrace of the luxury Eurostars Grand Marina Hotel offers a unique panoramic view of the city.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – By air:A number of low cost carriers, including easyJet, Germanwings, Ryanair, Transavia and Vueling connect Barcelona International Airport with most major cities in Western Europe and beyond. The airport is located 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from the city center and easily accessible by public transportation or taxis. By train: there are multiple daily high-speed-rail connections between Barcelona and Madrid (travel time between 2.5 and three hours) and several major cities in France (travel time from Paris is 6.5 hour, Lyon 5 hours, Marseille 4 hours and Toulouse 3 hours). By sea: the city is one of the busiest ports in the Mediterranean for cruise ships and ferries. There are ferries from the Balearic Islands, North Africa – Tangier and Algiers, and Italy – Genoa, Civitavecchia, Livorno and Sardinia. The ferrys dock at Port Bell, at the bottom of Las Ramblas.
  • Getting around –The city center is best explored on foot and easily walkeable. However there is also a good public transportation network of buses, trams and a modern metro system with twelve lines that provide efficient access to all parts of the city.
  • Visiting – The Cathedral, Plaça de la Seu, Barcelona, is open Monday through Friday, 12:00 pm to 7:30 pm, Saturday, 12:30 pm to 5:00 pm and Sunday, 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm. Nearest metro stop: Jaume I. If time allows, a short elevator ride to the roof offers a panoramic view of the city. Palau de la Música Catalana, Carrer Palau de la Mùsica Catalana. Nearest metro:  Concert times vary throughout the year. There are guided tours  daily from 10:00 am to 3:30 pm.  La Boqueria, Las Ramblas, 91. Nearest métro: Liceu. Open Monday through Saturday from 8:30 am through 8:00 pm. 
  • Staying– On this recent visit, we stayed at the Eurostars Grand Marina Hotel, Moll de Barcelona, s/n, 08039 Barcelona, my son’s favorite hotel in Barcelona, and now mine, for its unique central waterfront location within a 5 minute-walk from Las Ramblas. Built by famed Chinese-American I.M. Pei (think the Musée du Louvre Pyramid in Paris, or the J.F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston). In addition to all the amenities and services one expects from a 5-star hotel, this luxury property offers exceptional panoramic views overd the entire city and the mountains to the horizon. Contact: e-mail reservas@grandmarinahotel.com, tel. +34 936 03 90

Location, location, location!

Barcelona, Barri Gotic

Las Ramblas

La Boqueria

Eurostars Grand Marina Hotel

Tahiti Diary – The Glamour Islands, Bora Bora and Moorea

Tahiti Diary – The Glamour Islands, Bora Bora and Moorea

Tahiti, as French Polynesia is commonly called (after its capital island) may consist of 118 islands and atolls spread across more that five million kilometers (two million square miles) of South Pacific ocean, but at the very mention of the word, even the most casual armchair traveler will sigh: “Bora Bora… Mo’orea…”

Society Islands - Catamaran.

Catamarans are a popular means of transportations around the Society Islands.

Ever since English explorer Captain James Cook first landed on their shores in 1769, these two beauties of the Society Islands Archipelago have attracted the notice of visitors for their spectacular volcanic peaks and their lagoon in infinite shades of blues, But it is cinema, and especially the various remakes of “Mutiny on the Bounty” that has made them a destination every romance seeker in the world yearns to experience.

 

 

Bora Bora the Diva

Bora Bora-Otemanu

Bora Bora’s Mount Otemanu rises from the lagoon.

Bora-Bugalows.

The shores of Bora Bora are lined with guest bungalows.

Captain Cook coined her the “Pearl of the Pacific,” and 20th century American author James Michener, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Tales of the Pacific, anointed her “the most beautiful island in the world.” These do not seem overstatements as I catch, from the tiny nearby island of Taha’a, my first hint of Bora Bora’s iconic Mount Otenamu rising across the vast aquamarine expanse of the lagoon. When I finally set foot on this most celebrated of islands, however, I am saddened to find that it has fallen victim of its popularity.

Many cruise ships on their way across the South Pacific make it their “Tahiti stop.” And since the Hotel Bora Bora opened it first bungalows standing on stilts over the lagoon in the late 1960’s, the island has developed into an environment based mainly on tourism. With ten luxury hotels now thrusting their tentacular rows of bungalow over the most secluded parts of the lagoon, the leading industry on the island is the “honeymoon package.” It’s undeniable that the romantic quotient of these secluded properties, with their eye-popping views of the lagoon and the mountains, is as stratospheric as their prices. But for those who seek pursuits beyond enjoying a special moment of marital bliss, Bora Bora can quickly become Bora boring.

Friends beneath the Sea

Bora-Clownfish.

A clownfish swims among the anemones.

Bora-Manta Ray

A manta ray comes to check me out.

Bora Bora-Coral.

The colorful coral reef of the Bora Bora lagoon.

Like a majority of visitors, I come ashore in Vaitape, the main population center of the island. What must once have been a charming Polynesian village is now a typical tropical tourist place, a main street lined with strip malls offering every imaginable flavor of local souvenirs. Makeshift stands touting bottled water and cups of local of fruit to go share the sidewalk with stories-high signs and banners advertizing “quality South Seas black pearl jewelry by international designers” and resort fashion. Mercifully, my plans for the day lay beneath the lagoon. I am off to experience what underwater exploration was like before Jean-Yves Cousteau and Emile Gagnan (respectively French navy diver and engineer) brought diving into the mainstream when they invented their “Aqua-lung” in the late 1940’

Seen from a dive boat speeding toward the destination our underwater walk, the island regains its ethereal beauty, even seen through the row of heavy metal diving helmets that line the center of boat. I eye the contraptions with eager anticipation tinged with a fair amount of wariness, as our dive instructor goes through the logistics and safety instructions. Then I am on the stairs with water to my shoulders. The staff settles the helmet firmly in place over my head. A tap tells me the oxygen valve is connected. That’s my cue to let go.

I land a few meters lower on velvet sand, and for a magical half-hour, I wander past exotic coral formations, inches away from colorful clown fish in their anemone shelters. I make friends with a manta ray who is as interested in me as I am in it, repeatedly brushing my ankles with its silky wings. Seen from the bottom of the lagoon, Bora Bora is still magical.

Mo’orea the Magnificent

Moorea-Roto Nui.

Mo’orea’s volcanic peaks soar into the clouds.

Moorea-water garden.

Mo’orea’s mountainiside water garden.

Just when I think the Society Islands cannot get any more spectacular, Mo’orea rises out of sea the like a fairytale land. Sharp volcanic spears pierce the puffy white clouds above. Silvery waterfalls streak down the fern-draped cliffs. Pinnacles of emerald forests frame serene meadows sprinkled with small villages of pastel-painted house surrounded with a jumble hibiscus and birds of paradise. Despite being just a short ferry ride away from Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia on the main island of Tahiti, Mo’orea retains a bucolic atmosphere.

What better way to explore this magnificent island believed to have inspired Michener’s mythical Bali Hai than a tour with local professional photographer Renaud Fayada? His off-road vehicle takes us first into the interior, past pineapple fields and sub-tropical forests. to a mountainside vanilla plantation and a dreamy water garden. After a stop at the Belvedere lookout for stunning views of Mou’a Rotui (altitude 899 meters, or 2950 feet), the peak that separates Cook’s Bay from Opunohu Bay, things get serious.

Moorea-Barrier reef panorama.

The top of Magic Mountain offers dazzling aerial views of the barrier reef.

We start onto an impossibly steep rocky trail that earns itself a place high on my list of off-road rides I am thrilled to have taken but never will again! However, from the very top of Magic Mountain, the 360-degree panorama of the northern part of the island and the dazzling aerial views of the barrier reef are worth the stomach-churning experience. Afterward, in spite of multiple switchbacks, the drive down the verdant slope that is all that remains from a giant two-million-year old caldera to the small fishing village of Papetoai on the western side of Opunohu Bay is anticlimactic.

I wistfully re-board the ship’s tender for one last night on the Paul Gauguin. The next morning finds us already docked in Tahiti harbor. After two unforgettable weeks of exploring the farthest reaches of the storied South Seas, it is time to reluctantly re-enter the “real world.”

Moorea-Caldera.

A panoramic view of the northern part of the island illustrates its volcanic origins.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting to Bora Bora – by air: Air Tahiti offers several daily flights between Tahiti and Bora Bora as well connections with other major Society Islands.  Bora Bora airport is located on a small motu (islet) north of the main island, with boat transfer to it. The major luxury resorts have counters at the airport. For accommodations on the main island, Air Tahiti provides a free shuttle transfer from the airport to Vaitape. By sea: Two cargo/passenger ships, the Hawaiki Nui and the Taporo VII, make two weekly trips between Pape’ete and Bora Bora (with stops in Huahine, and Taha’a). A number of South Pacific cruise ships make frequent stops on the island. The Paul Gauguin, the only cruise ship operating year round in French Polynesia, makes over 30 stops a year on the island.Contact: tel. (US) 800-848-6172, or visit pgcruises.com.
  • Getting to Mo’orea – by air: Air Tahiti flights between Papeete and Mo’orea are about 15-minute long, and run back and forth several times a day. For latest schedule, check Air Tahiti. By sea: the high-speed Aremiti ferry runs throughout the day. For latest schedule, check Aremiti Arimiti.
  • Activities –Bora Bora ocean floor walk, Bora Bora Diving and Reef Discovery. Mo’orea photography tour,  Eyes of Moorea Photography.

Location, location, location!

Bora Bora

Mo'orea

Musée d’Orsay, Paris – Picasso Bleu et Rose

Musée d’Orsay, Paris – Picasso Bleu et Rose

One of the perks of a stopover in Paris in autumn is discovering the temporary exhibits that are popping up in museums throughout the city. Predictably, each year one will transcend all others and become the landmark artistic event of the season. For me, this year the honor goes to the Musée d’Orsay for its exciting “Picasso. Blue and Pink.”

From Pablo Ruiz to Picasso

It’s easy to overlook, but before he got around to inventing Cubism (with his friend Georges Braque) Picasso was already Picasso. Barely 19 when he arrived in Paris in October 1900, after being selected to represent his country in the Spanish painting section of the Universal Exhibition, young Pablo Ruiz already had all the makings of a prodigy ready to immerse himself into the vibrant local art scene.

Yo Picasso-self-portrait 1901

Self-portrait “Yo, Picasso”, 1901, Pablo Picasso (Private collection).

A great admirer of Van Gogh, he immediately embraced his style of painting in broad strokes of pure colors with a self-portrait in the traditional three-quarter pause facing the viewer. With his knotted cravat and unruly hair, he styled himself as a modern romantic figure fashionable at the time. And with great self-assurance, he signed the work “Yo Picasso” (I, Picasso – 1901).

This marked the start of a six-year period of intense creative activity punctuated by travels between Spain and Paris. A time that would later become known as the master’s Blue and Pink Periods. Now the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée National Picasso-Paris, in their first ever large-scale collaboration, are presenting an exceptional event dedicated to this vital early period of his career. The chronological presentation of a vast number of paintings and drawings allows the viewer to better reconsider the work of this towering 20th century artist within the context of his 19th  century roots.

Between Spain and Paris

Picasso-Woman in Blue.

“Woman in Blue,” Pablo Picasso ,1901 (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid).

The eye-opening experience of the 1900 Paris art scene is not young Picasso’s sole source of inspiration. His early works also speak volume of his attachment to both the 17th century Spanish Golden Age and the Catalan Modernism that flourishes in Barcelona at the time. In February 1900, he holds his first exhibition, filling a famous bohemian cabaret (Els Quatre Gats) with hundreds of stunning drawings, a number of which are included in this exhibition. Then, in Madrid for a few months in the winter of 1901, he creates a striking reference to Velasquez with his Woman in Blue.

Back in Paris in the spring of 1901 with a few pastels and paintings produced in Barcelona and Madrid, he catches the eye of Ambrose Vollard, a renowned gallery owner of the Parisian avant-garde, who proposes to organize an exhibit of Picasso’s work in the early summer. A few months of frenzied activity ensue, during which he focuses on subjects typical of Paris life by day and night. He embraces and reinterprets the works of the great of modern artists, especially Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas, to create most of the 64 paintings displayed in the three-week exhibition. The event is a critical success.

Into the Blues

Picasso-Mother Child Sea.

“Mother and Child by the Sea,” Pablo Picasso, 1902 (POLA Museum of Art, Kanagawa, Japan).

This success, followed in short order by the suicide of his close friend Carles Casagemas, draws the young painter into a period of sorrowful introspection. His palette becomes dominated by blues, and his subjects an expression of his melancholy. In addition to a cycle of paintings directly associated with the death of his friend, he produces a group of poignant works revolving around the figure of Harlequin and the pathos of the world of saltimbanques (circus performers).

By the end of 1901, he visits the Saint Lazare women’s prison in Paris. Here the inmates are mainly prostitutes, some of whom are incarcerated with their young children. These visits inspire a series of painting on the theme of motherhood, and of solemn female figures as the embodiment of loneliness and misfortune. His tragic depictions are reminiscent of the Renaissance paintings of El Greco.

 

La Vie en Rose

Picasso-Acrobat Family Baboon.

“Acrobat’s Family with a Baboon,” Pablo Picasso, 1905 ) Göteborgs Konstmuseum, Goteburg, Sweden).

By the end of 1904, Picasso is living in an artists’ colony in Montmartre where he befriends poets Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire, and becomes romantically involved with his model, Madeleine. The color range of his palette broadens, making a subtle transition to the Rose Period. In addition of a number of portraits inspired by Madeleine, he focuses with renewed interest on the Saltimbanques theme. Here he follows two main threads: the family and fatherhood of Harlequin, and the circus performers that combine the commedia dell’arte character with the lithe figures of acrobats and jesters.

The Saltimbanques cycle spans the period from late 1904 to the end of 1905. In early 1906, a retrospective of the works of early 19th century Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres inspires Picasso’s “Boy Leading a Horse,” and begins the transition of the Pink Period toward ochre. The trend becomes more pronounced during Picasso’s stay in Gòsol, a remote village high in the spectacular Catalan Pyrénées, through the summer of 1906.

Picasso-Two Nude Women.

“Two Nude Women,” Pablo Picasso, 1906 (Museun of Modern Arts, New York).

When he returns to Paris in September, his attention is evolving toward a new expressive language: composing images by interlacing basic shapes, and a palette restricted to shades of ochre. The work gradually become more geometric, foretelling the ascent of Cubism.

This comprehensive chronicle of Picasso’s early creative development includes key works from the world’s outstanding museums and private collections to bring together some of the finest and most emotionally compelling examples of modern painting I have ever come across. It is unlikely that such a selection, on view at the Musée d’Orsay until January 6, 2019, will be seen again in a single place in the foreseeable future. But if you miss it here, do not despair. It will then travel to Basel, Switzerland, where it will be on display at the Beyeler Foundation from February 3 to May 26, 2019.

 

 

 

 

Good to Know

  • Visiting – The Musée d’Orsay, 1 rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 75007 Paris, France, is open Tuesday through Sundays from 9.30 am to 6:00 pm with night openings until 9:45 pm on Thursday. It is closed on Monday, May 1 and December 25. Contact: tel. +33 (0) 1 40 49 48 14.
  • Getting there – There is easy public transportation from anywhere in Paris to the museum: métro station Solférino (Line 12) or bus stops a few steps away (Lines 24, 63, 68, 69, 73, 83, 84, 94).
  • Admission – Picasso, Bleu et Rose is included in the general admission ticket. However, due to the success of this exhibition, the lines can be even longer than usual for this wildly popular museum. To cut down on the waiting time, tickets may be purchased in advance through the museum’s on-line ticket office.

Location, location, location!

Musée d'Orsay

Tahiti Diary –  The Garden of Eden Islands, Huahine and Taha’a

Tahiti Diary – The Garden of Eden Islands, Huahine and Taha’a

After a week of exploring the breathtaking vistas of the remote Marquesas islands followed by two laidback days at sea, we are entering the most visited archipelago of French Polynesia, the Society Islands. Created by volcanoes eons ago, they have evolved into the dreamy landscapes of soft mountains covered by lush jungle greenery and silky white coral sand beaches of South Seas fantasies.

A Busy Day in Paradise

Society-Huahine morning.

Sailling around the lagoon reveals many secluded coves.

Within the shimmering turquoise ring of its lagoon, Huahine retains the alluring authenticity of timeless Polynesia. Actually two islands, Huahine Nui (Big Huahine) and Huahine Iti (Little Huahine), connected by a short bridge, it is a jungle of coconut groves, banana plantations, breadfruit trees and watermelon fields. And this lush landscape sprinkled with bright tropical blooms is also a preserve of sacred temples and unique pre-Columbian structures.

Society-Huahine Maroe Bay.

A lone sailboad shares our Maroe Bay anchorage.

The M/S Paul Gauguin is anchored in the serene Maroe Bay this morning, with the ship’s tender taking passengers the rest of the way to the sleepy Huahine Iti village of Maroe, where an off-road vehicle (the de-rigueur means of transportation throughout French Polynesia) awaits. We cross the bridge to Huahine Nui and the charming little town of Fare before climbing the steep road to the Belvedere, the island’s prime lookout with a panoramic view of the bay and the wilderness of Huahine Iti. It’s back down after that, to feed the sacred giant blue-eyed eels that fill a stream running through the tiny hamlet of Faie. Our guide buy cans of mackerel from a nearby road stand, tosses in a few chunks and the water becomes alive with writhing eels. Although I am assured they don’t bite, I pass on the opportunity to step into the stream and hand-feed them.

Fish Traps and Black Pearls

Society-Huahine fish traps.

The centuries-old fish traps are still used today.

We continue along Lake Fauna Nui to Maeva. Once the seat of local royalty, it has the highest concentration of ancient marae (sacred stone platforms) in French Polynesia. Its most unique feature, however, is its ancient maze of fish traps. Laid out in V-shaped patterns pointed toward the ocean, the stone labyrinth emerges above the water level. As the fish are drawn toward the sea by the ebb tide, they become trapped in a circular pool where they are easily netted or harpooned. The centuries-old traps are still in use today.

The waters of Motu Murimahora are a snorkeler’s paradise.

We part company with our guide to board an outrigger canoe for a cruise around the lagoon. After a stop at the “Huahine Pearl and Pottery Farm” to learn about the cultivation of the rare Polynesian black pearl, we bounce across the crystalline waters to Motu Murimahora on the east coast of Huahine Iti (motus are reef islets of coral sand that surround an atoll. In other words they are tiny slivers of heaven). The snorkeling is magnificent here, a slow drift over coral heads amidst schools of multicolored fish. When I regretfully come out of the water, my six companions on this adventure are already convivially lingering on our host’s dock, sipping the ‘milk’ from freshly beheaded coconuts before we re-board the outrigger for more spectacular views of the island on our way back to the pier.

Society-Huahine bridge..

A short bridge connects the twin islands of Huahine Nui and Huahine Iti.

 

The Vanilla Island

Society-Taha'a catamaran

A catamaran cruise around Taha’a is a great way to get a first glance at nearby Bora Bora.

Society-Tahaa Motu Mahana.

Motu Mahana on the Taha’a lagoon.

Like its neighbor Huahine, the flower-shaped Taha’a is a botanical beauty. In addition to her fertile valleys and hillsides covered with banana and coconut groves, this island is also a vast natural greenhouse for the prized Tahitian vanilla orchids (Taha’a produces about 80% of all the vanilla in French Polynesia). Its intoxicating scent wafts on the warm breeze as I board a catamaran for an exhilarating morning of sailing on the infinite shades of blues of the Taha’a lagoon. The ultimate destination of the morning is the Taha’a coral garden and another memorable snorkeling experience before completing the sail around the island.

After a quick stop back on the ship, I catch a tender to Motu Mahana, the Paul Gauguin’s very own private motu, where a lavish beach barbecue lunch is already in full swing. Many of the ship’s passengers are here, swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, or just chilling on the pristine sand with a drink from the floating bar. No scent of vanilla here. The mouth-watering aroma of grilling meat and fish fill the air. In the shade of the coconut grove, a good-humored game of beach handball is in progress. I wander off to the back of the islet. Here, the narrow water’s edge path is deserted, and the lagoon so shallow it looks like molten crystal. After a couple of hours on Mahana, I begin to fantasize about getting left behind. Robinson Crusoe never had is so good.

On the western side of Taha’a, the Tiva village church marks the entrance of Hurepiti Bay.

 

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – By air: Huahine is served by Air Tahiti with flights throughout the day from Papeete, and regular flights from other Society Islands (Moorea, Bora Bora and Raiatea). Faha’a, which is located less than 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from and within the same lagoon as Raisatea, can only be access via ferry from that Raisatea airport. By sea: The 5-star Paul Gauguin, the only luxury cruise ship operating year round in French Polynesia, offers frequent itineraries that include both Huahine and Taha’a. For those who wish to travel independently around the Society Islands, two cargo/passenger ships, the Hawaiki Nui and the Taporo VII, make two weekly trips between Pape’ete and Bora Bora with stops in Huahine, and Taha’a. However, it is my understanding that they are slow, rather uncomfortable and booked months in advance.
  • The M/S Paul Gauguin is owned and operated by Pacific Beachcomber, S.C., based in Seattle, WA, U.S.A, and a specialist in French Polynesia tourism. The company is engaged in the ownership and management of quality hotels throughout the region and a pioneer of sustainable development and environmental protection in French Polynesia. All their properties are EarthCheck certified.

Location, location, location!

Huahine

Taha'a