Friday, August 25, 2017

Spain's Alhambra: Where More is Moor

Red tiled roofs of the Alhambra in Spain (wikipedia)

GRANADA, SPAIN – For nearly 250 years the Alhambra palace in Granada, Andalusia, Spain, known affectionately as "The Red Fortress", served as the palace, harem, residence of court officials and, at one time, a garrison of 40,000 soldiers. Even so, though massive in scale, its relatively unassuming exterior opens into an ultra-decorated interior filled with ornate designs and geometric patterns that virtually cover every inch of its walls, ceilings, courtyards and cloisters.
Generalife exterior (wikipedia)
Begun in the 9th century by the Islamic Caliphate, most of what visitors see today is the result of two reigns between 1333 and 1391. Yusuf I and Muhammad V provided most of the inspiration in what is regarded as the greatest expression of Spanish Muslim art and architecture in the world.

As an inscription on one wall in the Alhambra says, "Nothing in life could be more cruel than to be blind in Granada."
Fountains abound at the Alhambra  (wikipedia)
But there is more to the history of the Alhambra than the Moorish influence, for the Christians ousted the Muslims in 1492 and in the process, the palace became the residence of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Indeed, it was at the Alhambra in the same year that Christopher Columbus obtained his commission to seek a new route to India.

The king and queen stayed busy during that year, spending much of their time partially restoring the various palaces to Renaissance preferences.
Spanish Inquisition by Goya

Among the most enchanting aspects of the Alhambra is the constant sound of flowing water emanating from its fountains. Combined with tiled pools and channels, water is an integral feature of the structure as are the intricate lacy filigree that is featured in the Hall of the Two Sisters. The honeycombed patterns, while numerous, somehow retain their simplicity to create a harmonious and pleasing ambiance for all who visit.

Also present are the delightful warbling sounds of nightingales that enhance the sounds of the cascading water.

Ferdinand and Isabella were also responsible for establishing the Spanish Inquisition in 1478 in an effort to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms. Though not officially abolished until 1834, the Inquisition only had jurisdiction over baptized Christians. There was a loophole, however. Freedom of religion was non-existent during much of the period in which the Inquisition thrived which, therefore related to all royal subjects.
Intricate Arabic carvings can be found everywhere at the Alhambra (wikipedia)
Construction on the fortress began in 889 CE on the site of a small Roman fortification. For several hundred years the Alhambra fell into ruin until it was renovated and rebuilt in the 13th century.

Today, the Alhambra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which Moorish poets have described as "a pearl set in emeralds", referring to the color of the buildings and surrounding woods.
Gardens aplenty adorn the
grounds (wikipedia)

Oddly enough there are also caves encircling the Alhambra which are used as homes. Despite the historical importance of the palace, travelers get a strong dose of contemporary living when they view hundreds of television antennas emanating from the caves.

Visitors today do not enter through the Gate of Justice, the original access. Due to overwhelming attendance, the primary entrance could not accommodate modern-day throngs.
Arcaded gardens at the Generalife in Granada  (wikipedia)
The Alhambra is one of those places where visitors frequently fail to allow enough time to see it properly.
Ceiling of the Two Sisters Hall (wikipedia)
Among the most popular sites is the Court of the Lions, a rectangular courtyard that is roughly 116 feet long and 66 feet wide. It is surrounded by 124 white marble columns supporting a low gallery with a pavilion penetrating into the court at either end. The delicate and ornate walls extend to a domed roof while the walls are covered with blue and yellow tiles, with an enameled blue and gold border.
Court of the Lions

Directly in the center of the courtyard is the Fountain of Lions. Twelve sculptured white marble lions support an alabaster basin that gurgles with the sound of water gently lapping the pool. The lions are not created with anatomic accuracy but are instead designed to symbolize strength.

Often travelers in a hurry fail to experience the Palacio de Generalife or the "Garden of the Architect."

The Generalife has been restored several times since its creation in the 14th century. Situated on the summit of Monte Mauror is the Martyrs' Villa commemorating the Christian slaves who were forced to build the Alhambra and confined in subterranean cells.
Gardens and fountains are a hallmark of the Alhambra
Also situated on Monte Mauror are the Vermilion Towers which is a Moorish fortification complete with underground cisterns, stables and accommodations for more than 200 men.

The Alhambra is well worth a visit, and proof positive that under Ferdinand and Isabella, at least, "the reign in Spain didn't always fall upon the plain."

Friday, August 18, 2017

Creativity in its purest form at Art Brut in Lausanne

Henri Rousseau was a prolific "naive artist" who specialized in
African scenes  (

LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND  There are several names for an artistic genre categorized at "Naive Art." Others call it "Outsider Art" or "Primitive Art." Whatever term you give it, as William Shakespeare wrote, "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.," the world of "Naive Art" is creativity in its purest form.
Naive artists use materials that are readily available
In case you are not aware of this particular artistic genre, it is defined as "any form of visual art created by a person who lacks the formal education and training that a professional artist undergoes (in anatomy, art history, technique, ways of seeing)."
Perhaps the best known artist to most of us in this type of art is Grandma Moses, but there are others such as Henri Rousseau and Alfred Wallis who have had even greater impact on the genre. In fact, "Naive Art" is now a fully recognized artistic medium which is represented in art galleries throughout the world.
Exterior of Art Brut
One of the first to recognize the "purity" of Outsider Art was Jean Dubuffet who opened the Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1976. While Outsider Art is today regarded as a legitimate art form, Art Brut remains one of the few museums in the world that is totally dedicated to the medium.
Some patrons might view the exhibitions as dark or moody because the works have been created by people who are "criminally insane, delusional or secluded and marginalized." This IS NOT the intent that Dubuffet had in mind when he opened his gallery however.
Seashell face at Art Brut  (
Rather his purpose was meant to endorse art collections by people who had otherwise been sheltered from outside influences allowing them the freedom to create from their purest instincts. Hence the name "Naive Art."
Visitors who make their way through the four-story Art Brut Collection comprised of both permanent and traveling exhibitions, get a far more greater understanding of the positive motivations of the artists if they enter with an open mind.
"Repast of the Lion" by
Henri Rousseau (
In some ways the art reminds us of the mathematical savant Raymond Babbit who was so masterfully portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the film "Rainman." The only difference being that many of these "outside" artists use the creative segment of their brains rather than the portion used for calculations.
Typically the art is colorful and almost childlike in its quality but there is also something wholesome and unique that beckons viewers to draw closer, often  in ways that their more famous professional counterparts are not able to accomplish.
Art Brut is more intriguing the more you explore (wikipedia,org)
There is almost an elementary school perspective that is unique in its own way. Collections are eccentric and diverse incorporating objects that are frequently readily available in a particular artist's personal environment; crushed flowers, toothpaste or sea shells for example.
Everywhere you look at Art Brut, something catches your eye  (
In fact, there are some who would say the "untrained" artists are better at their craft than many of the highly-paid well-recognized painters and sculptors who frequently leave patrons befuddled at what they are attempting to achieve.
It is this aspect of Collection de l'Art Brut which makes it so special. It is art created purely from the primal need by the artist(s) to express themselves.
Wooden horse from Collection de l'Art Brut
The collections in Art Brut, which means literally translates to "Collection of Outsider Art," is arranged in groupings by each artist with a brief biography that unfolds their particular talents directly in front of the viewer.
If patrons are apprehensive at first, they usually are intrigued the further they delve into the variety and diversity of artistic skills that are displayed. This is a museum that builds upon itself and grows with the people who dare to explore the emotions of the creations.
"The Waterfall" has a feeling of serenity with its pastel colors (
As one critic put it, Art Brut is a place "where the art is almost screaming at you." It's an undeniable statement for sure, but one which, in the end, contains a powerful message that is both positive and emotional.
In its own way, Collection de l'Brut often touches us in a more personal way than traditional art is able to accomplish.
"Primitive Art", which also a better description of the genre than "naive art", is frequently applied to the medium by academia who distinguish these creations as being similar to "tribal" contributions such as wall paintings or primitive carvings.
Art Brut's version of a Trojan Horse  (wikipedia)
Most experts agree that naive art was more or less "discovered" around 1885 when artist Paul Signac noticed the prolific contributions of Henri Rousseau. Signac was intrigued enough to begin arranging exhibitions of Rousseau's work at several prestigious galleries.
But whether you call it "Naive" or "Primitive" or "Outsider" or just plain "Folk Art" this exciting genre of expression is something that each of us can relate to in our own individual way.
Collection de l'Art Brut is limited only by the ability of the imagination to create  (
The Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland is a good place to begin. In fact, it may even become an inspiration for your own "naivete."

Friday, August 11, 2017

Switzerland's mountain climbing funiculars

Switzerland probably has more funiculars than any country in the
world...Trains that climb up the side of a mountain (Taylor)
SWITZERLAND  What do you get when you combine the convenience of a train with the aerial prowess of a cable car to climb to seemingly inaccessible heights? The answer is a funicular which may just be the best kept transportation secret in the world.
There is a reason why they
are called "fun"-iculars

Not that funiculars are uncommon mind you. In fact they're everywhere. It's just that many people get a blank expression on their face when you mention this unique form of travel. In a sense, funiculars are like mountain climbing on tracks.

Historically, funiculars have been around since 1515 when Cardinal Mattaus Lang, the Archbishop of Salzburg, used the system to haul construction materials to access the Hohensalzburg Castle in Austria.
Arriving at Giessbach Falls on the Lake of Brienz (Taylor)
It wasn't until the 1860s that modern funiculars began operating commercially with the opening of the Funiculars of Lyon in 1862.

Obviously funiculars are most practical in mountainous destinations or places where the gradient for access is too steep for normal rail transportation. All of which makes Switzerland an ideal location for these odd looking machines to ascend and descend to new heights.

Funiculars are friendly (Taylor)
There is even a song dedicated to the opening of the first funicular on Mount Vesuvius in Naples, Italy. Though you may not recognize the tune by its name, "Funiculi, Funicula," it's practically guaranteed that once you hear the music and the words you will immediately recall the 1880 tune written by Luigi Denza.

The key to funiculars lies in the first three letters of its name; "fun." They come in all sizes and lengths and Switzerland has an abundance of these odd-shaped little vehicles to enjoy.
The original funicular to Mt Pilatus  (
For starters lets begin with the rollercoaster-esque Gelmarbahn in the canton (state) of Bern. the Gelmar funicular has the distinction of being the steepest funicular in Europe with a gradient of 106 percent. You read that right, 106 percent.

Constructed to carry heavy construction materials for the building of the Gelmar Dam, it seemed unwise to demolish the rail system upon completion of project. Not to be deterred, the clever Swiss opened the line to tourists, and the rest is history.
Funiculars have a "one track mind" except in the middle when
they pass each other,,,Call it a "Swiss track meet" (Taylor)
Be warned however, to reach the funicular, which runs for more than 3/5ths of a mile to a height of 6,102 feet above sea level, you must cross the Handeck suspension bridge which hangs some 230 feet above the Handeck Gorge.

In the case of the Gelmarbahn however, less adventurous travelers can reach the upper terminus at Handegg by car.
Over the hump on the Gelmerbahn funicular  (
The Ritom funicular in the Ticino region of Switzerland is slightly less imposing to travelers with a gradient of 87.8 percent. Best of all the ride takes visitors to the breathtaking Piora Valley, one of the most untouched destinations in the canton.

Ideal for hiking and biking excursions, the Piora Valley funicular also showcases lush vegetation including a large variety of alpine wildflowers nestled within vast meadows and grazing cows and horses.
A chalet by the tracks (Taylor)
Funiculars are not always located in rural regions. They do have practical applications in cities as well. Take the short funicular to the top of the Zurichberg Hill for example. Back in the day, it was difficult for students to reach the polytechnic school, especially laden with books and papers.
Lugano's funicular

The answer? A short funicular, of course, which was built in 1889 between the River Limmat and the school in Zurich. Today the funicular transports about 50 students every two minutes in both directions.

The city of Lausanne, which in itself is a rather vertical destination overlooking the Lake of Geneva, renovated their metro system to operate from the cathedral to the lake. Though technically not a true funicular, the system does scale the hillside in a way that allows travelers to avoid the serpentine routes to the top.

Funiculars pass in the middle to counterbalance the system
The smallest funicular in Switzerland may be reserved for the largest appetites. Traveling slightly less than 300 feet, the funicular runs from the promenade on the Lake of Lucerne to the 100-year old Hotel Montana and its excellent restaurant overlooking the lake.

In Lugano, the fastest most convenient method of getting to the city center is by riding the funicular that runs from the railway station to the heart of town in mere minutes.
Funiculars get to otherwise inaccessible places  (Taylor)
Just look around. If you spot a place that seems out of reach, chances are the Swiss have figured out a way to get you there efficiently and in comfort. Overcoming the initial apprehension is up to you, of course, but it only takes one funicular adventure to make you a veteran.

Funiculars are "mountains of fun"  (
All you really need is having the "inclination" to visit some of the most mesmerizing sites you can imagine.

In Switzerland that's known as "basic training."

Friday, August 4, 2017

In Salzburg, Austria the hills are always alive with the "sound of music"

Salzburg captures the imagination with its architecture and
musical heritage  (
SALZBURG, AUSTRIA  The old adage goes 'good things come in small packages." If that is true, then Salzburg, Austria may just be the origin the saying. Despite being the fourth largest city in the country, Salzburg's compact size combined with its multitude of things to see and do make it a traveler's gem.
Salzburg was the site of
"The Sound of Music"
Thanks to Julie Andrews and "The Sound of Music", most Americans probably know Salzburg better from the popular 1965 film than they do as the birthplace of Mozart, but no matter Salzburg, as with Vienna, always returns to its musical heritage.

There is no such thing in Salzburg as "too much Mozart."

Nestled along the banks of the Salzach River with the dominating Hohensalzburg Castle (Festung Hohensalzburg) overlooking the Old Town, it is easy to get the sensation that Salzburg is smaller than it really is.
Hohensalburg, one of the largest castles in Europe. overlooks
the Salzach River  (wikipedia)
Hohensalzburg, one of the largest castles in Europe, peers protectively from its perch at the northern boundary of the Alps where it was one of the key backdrops in "Sound of Music" and has long been a favorite destination for visitors.

Old Town has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997 and it only takes a few minutes walk through the meandering narrow streets filled with a Gothic and Baroque architecture to see why. Salzburg is a city of churches and palaces that capture the imagination of travelers from every corner of the planet, especially Americans.
Mozart was born in Salzburg
The name Salzburg means "salt fortress" thanks to the abundance of salt mines in the region.
Germany sits on the opposite shore of the Salzach, making Salzburg an easy place to use as a base to visit much of Bavaria as well as Austria.

Salzburg is not a place to rushed. Rather it is a destination that should be absorbed through the pores for it is an ideal location to immerse yourself into all the reasons people say they want to travel.

Though Austrians find amusement in the hordes of Americans who sign up for one of the "Sound of Music" tours, there is no denying the revenues derived are no laughing matter for the city.
In Salzburg, Mozart has been proudly cherished for centuries
Several companies operate SOM trips which include visiting many sites in Salzburg proper where the film was shot, as well as an excursion into the countryside to visit the church where Maria and the Baron were married. Don't be surprised if the church looks smaller than it did in the film.
Hellbrunn Palace is one of Salzburg's most popular attractions
One of the best parts of the trip is the fascinating trivia  guides provide which some might say ruins the story, but which also puts the true history into more proper perspective.

For example, late in the movie when the von Trapps are escaping from Austria and heading to Switzerland, the guides point out that if the family actually went in the direction depicted in the film they would really be crossing back into Germany instead. But that's only a detail and all part of the fun.
Mirabell Palace is famous for its
gardens  (wikipedia)
Among the sites not to be missed are the previously mentioned Hohensalzburg Castle, the historic city center, Salzburg Cathedral, Mozart's birthplace as well as his residence, the Franciscan Church and Residenzgalerie, an art museum in the Salzburg Residenz.

If that isn't enough to occupy your time, explore Mirabell Palace with its fabulous display of gardens, flowers and fountains.

There is also SchlossLeopoldskreon, a rococo palace and national historic monument as well as Hellbrunn with its world famous "water games" designed Markus Sittikus, Do not go if you are afraid to get wet.
Ludwig II's Neuschwanstein is near Salzburg for a great day
trip  (wikipedia)
With its proximity to Germany, Salzburg is also a great base for day trips to Ludwig II's Neuschwanstein Castle, Oberammergau (home of the Passion Play), fun loving and festive Munich and Hitler's "Eagles Nest" (Berchtesgaden) sitting atop Germany's third highest mountain overlooking Salzburg about 20 miles away. 
Hitler's Eagle's Nest retreat is close to Salzburg in nearby
Berchtesgadan  (wikipedia)
Along the main street in Old Town is a tiny shop which is sometime difficult to find because they do not advertise or use the internet to promote. The shop is a treasure trove of painted eggs that make superb gifts for Easter and/or Christmas. Some are works of art in their own right, and therefore you will likely not get a bargain, but it's worth the effort to find it and, if nothing else, window shop its unique array of gifts.
Don't miss Hellbrunn Palace
with its trick fountains
One word of caution, unless you have reserved hotels well in advance, Salzburg is NOT the place to visit during a music festival, especially if it features Mozart. The throngs of visitors crammed into the narrow labyrinth of streets is not conducive to an enjoyable experience.
Otherwise, Salzburg is a gem of Tyrolian culture and justly calls itself the "stage of the world." It is certainly the place where as Julie Andrews sang "The hills  indeed) come alive with the sound of music."