chicks & ducks & geese better scurry

XoloitzcuintleBeyond art and tchotchkes, Senora Olmedo had a diverse interest in living animals, too, such as geese, ducks, and peacocks, which she collected and kept in the gardens of her museum. And who doesn’t love a pretty peacock? However what I found most fascinating was the handful of endangered Xoloitzcuintles, a 3,000-year old native breed of hairless dog considered sacred by the Aztecs. (They believed the dogs were needed by their masters’ souls to help them safely through the underworld.) Initially I thought I was looking at a group of sleek and sinuous statues – until they moved.
xoloitzcuintlepea hens

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the fabulous life of dolores olmedo

Dolores-OlmedoDolores Olmedo had quite the colorful life. As a young girl from a working class background she caused a scandal when her family discovered that she had posed nude for the painter Diego Rivera. Forbidden to see the artist anymore, it wasn’t until many years later that their paths crossed again, by which time Olmedo had become one of the richest women in Mexico – both a successful businesswoman, philanthropist, and patron of the arts. Rivera was broke, close to dying, and concerned about his legacy. At his urging she went on a buying spree, amassing a major collection of the painter’s canvases in addition to works by Frida Kahlo, Diego’s wife, with whom Olmedo had a tempestuous friendship fraught with jealousy over Rivera’s affections. After Kahlo and Rivera’s deaths she bought a 16th century hacienda in southern Mexico City, which she later converted into a museum and shrine to her life of passionate collecting. Not only does the five-building complex hold her entire store of pre-Hispanic, colonial, folk, modern and contemporary art, but also the largest holdings of Kahlo and Rivera anywhere – and her private chambers, filled with extravagant displays of ivory and porcelain, showcase photos of Olmedo with virtually every famous person in the world.

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jose clemente orozco

san iledefonso collegeIf you think of Mexico and 20th Century painting, it’s only natural that your mind gravitates toward the power couple, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Their politics and personal stories have become a mythology entwined within their art – often superseding it. (And much more about them later.) Yet amongst Rivera’s contemporaries, Jose Clemente Orozco was often considered the more gifted artist. A social realist painter, Orozco specialized in bold murals that established the Mexican Mural Renaissance along with Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Yet before my arrival in Mexico City I had never heard of him.  That changed rather fortuitously at San Iledefonso College, a museum and cultural center in the historic center of the city, where the painter’s epic frescoes grace three floors of courtyard walls and stairways. In the 1920s, soon after the Mexican Revolution, the government sponsored mural paintings with themes centering on Mexico’s history and politics of the post-Revolution era, but Orozco – in a marked distinction from Rivera – was highly critical of the Revolution, and used his art to examine the bloody toll the movement took on ordinary Mexicans as it lined the pockets of both the upper classes and the church. Influenced by Symbolism – and satire – the politically committed painter takes on the history of human suffering from the time of Cortes’ conquest: the landscapes are somber, the working classes are oppressed, death is dignified and anonymous, the privileged bourgeois is distorted, the revolutionaries are blinded by revolution. Beyond form and composition these are not necessarily always aesthetically pleasing works of art but, wow, there’s no denying their power.

jose orozco

Stairwell Orozco

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larga vida al correo

IMG_2811Mexico City’s Palacio de Correos is – as its name suggests – a postal palace. Built at the very beginning of the 20th century, its design and construction was the most modern of the time, including an eclectic style that mixes several different traditions into a very complex  – and very grand – design. The building has a steel frame and a foundation built on an enormous grid of steel beams, which has allowed it to withstand a number of earthquakes. Built with a very light-colored, almost translucent variety of a stone called “chiluca,” the exterior is covered in decorative details such as iron dragon light fixtures and intricately carved stone around both the windows and the line of the roof. A perfect example of the building’s complicated design is the fact that each of the building’s four floors has windows in a different architectural style. Yet  the palace’s unity is maintained through the clever repetition of arches. The main entrance has a large ironwork canopy which is typical of the Art Nouveau that was fashionable in the early 20th century. Inside, the marble floors and shelves combine with bronze and iron window frames manufactured in Florence. The main stairway features two separate ramps that come together to form a landing, then seem to cross on the second landing above before moving off, each in their own direction. Rather an apt metaphor for the mail, don’t you think? Long may it live.

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mickey mouse slept here?

Mickey Mouse

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main street carcassonne

carcassonne panoramaLooks can be deceiving: Carcassonne is not a castle. Surrounded by almost 2 miles of fortifications it’s the largest walled city in Europe. The first signs of settlement in this region of Languedoc date to about 3500 BC, but things didn’t take off until the Romans identified the hilltop site as strategic and started building fortifications. Next came the Visigoths, who expanded the fortress into a fiefdom – until the Papacy stuck its nose in. Pope Urban II arrived to bless the foundation stones of a new cathedral and turned the growing city and its environs into a secondary seat of church power – all the better to launch a crusade against the pesky Cathars, a religious group which rejected Catholicism as the Church of Satan. Holy war, as we all know, is very good for business. More ramparts went up, dungeons were built, and towers were erected to house the Inquisition. Carcassonne became a border citadel between France and Spain that remained unconquered until the 17th century, when an economic revival under Louis XIV trumped the city’s military significance. In truth Carcassonne wasn’t so much conquered as absorbed into a burgeoning colonial empire. Cite de Carcassonne, as it’s now called to distinguish it from the modern-day town of Carcassonne down the hill and over the river, is no longer a functioning city – technically. Yet it’s been restored to varying degrees of authenticity in an example of artistic simulacrum. Populated with shops, hotels, and tourists eating ice cream at outdoor cafes, the city appears at first glance authentic. But not unlike Disneyland’s Main Street USA, it’s all a facade. And yet I have to give someone serious props because it’s an awfully good one at that.
carcassonne main street

carcassonne

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moliere is everywhere

moliere is everywhereThough by all accounts playwright-actor-stage manger Moliere spent only a few years of his early artistic life in Pezenas, the small Sud de France town has adopted him as though he were a native-born son. (Without benefit of a beach or other tourist attraction, you can’t really blame them for doing what they have to do.) There’s the Hotel Moliere, of course, and a public monument to the writer in the center of town. (The only one outside of Paris, people are quick to tell me.) In the local museum a chair used by Moliere while he was in residence is proudly displayed – a gift of cultural patrimony purchased by villagers who banded together to rescue the relic at auction.  A summer festival of his plays is one of the big cultural draws.  And though I cannot vouch for the quality of the drink produced, there is even Les Caves Moliere for anyone who likes their wine a bit on the theatrical side. Note to marketing gurus everywhere: even the most tenuous of connections can be made charming when executed with Continental panache.

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playing hooky with james turrell

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walks along the seine

paris plageThe banks of the River Seine in Paris might be a UNESCO World Heritage site, but that historical marker hasn’t stopped the city from indulging in a little creative adaptation. This summer the city’s ongoing initiative to reclaim the river comes into its own. Les Berges, literally The Banks, is part of Mayor Bertrand Delanoë’s greater plan to reduce car traffic and increase “soft” methods of transportation. (Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Sadik-Kahn, take note.) Transit options like the Velib bicycle share program and the Autolib electric car sharing form one pillar of the plan. Pedestrianization of the banks of the Seine and of Place de la République are another. Cultural programming and spot infrastructure aim to bring people back to the river, while activating sites with new functions: the Georges Pompidou highway, on the right bank, has been transformed into an urban boulevard in an attempt to share the public space between motorists and pedestrians; the Left bank quays, between the Royal Bridge and the Alma Bridge, have been closed to traffic and turned into an 11-acre promenade. What makes the plan unique, aside from the macro strategy involved, is a requirement for flexibility: temporary structures must be capable of being moved, extended if popular, taken down quickly if ineffective. This applies even to large-scale proposals like The Emmarchement, a 600-seat amphitheater which links the Musee D’Orsay to the river and serves as the starting point for an immersive riverside walk. (Flexibility is also useful for environmental reasons. Paris is overdue for its “100-year flood,” which last crippled Paris in 1910.) Some portions of Les Berges will become part of the programming for this year’s Paris Plage, the popular annual beach that takes over the banks of the Seine between July and August. (Originally criticized as an excess of public expenditure, the Plage has become a beloved tradition, expanding to three different areas along the river.) Another part of Les Berges includes a series of floating barges called Archipel, which opened next to the Sewer Museum in late June. The five barges are planned in accordance with the biodiversity map of Paris. The semi-aquatic vegetation between the barges cleans the banks of the Seine while the landscaping offers different opportunities for the public to experience the space. Each island barge – archipelago, get it? – has a different theme with plants native to Paris. According to project’s website: For the lazy, the chairs of the island mists are waiting for you; for the wild, find the open aviary bird island; for the romantic, walk in the tall grass prairie of the island; for those seeking the country, sit in the shade of an apple orchard on the island. And for anyone interested in the future of what an urban experience could entail, walk along the banks of La Seine.

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a revolutionary bolthole

vid-s-terrasy-prezidentskogo-lyuksaHome to both royalty and revolution, Rocco Forte’s Hotel Astoria in St. Petersburg has unveiled an elegant, new Czar’s Suite as part of a multi-million dollar refurbishment timed to celebrate the hotel’s 100th anniversary. At more the 3,500 square feet it’s a far cry from the garret where John Reed penned Ten Days That Shook The World, his eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution. (In the early days of glasnost I had the serendipitous thrill of finding myself in Reed’s room, which more than made up for the cramped quarters; the bloody mob hit in the lobby … well, that’s a story for another time.) With a lounge overlooking St. Isaac’s Square and its glorious cathedral, a library stocked with Russian classics, and a fully equipped kitchen with a 16-seat dining room that doubles as a boardroom it’s not too hard to imagine what the Bolsheviks might make of such opulent surroundings. Antique pieces dating back to 1912, including gold lamps, candelabra, and red and gold striped arm chairs and sofas were returned to the hotel from President Putin’s Konstantinovsky Palace and installed in the suite alongside contemporary classic pieces, such as dramatic black and white prints of the Mariinsky, which – culture mavens take note – is as conveniently located as the nearby Hermitage. All that’s missing is the beluga.

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sweeping up at the denver art museum

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finding the reclusive clyfford still

20130520-074951.jpgThere are unknown artists and there are legendary masters. Rarely could one man be described as both. Abstract expressionist Clyfford Still, however, was one and the same. After a retreat from the art world in the 1940’s, he controlled who got to see his canvases – and how. But his influence on Pollack, Newman, and Rothko was profound. An eponymous museum in Denver maintains some 2,500 of his works – everything in Still’s possession at the time of his death. Seen collectively they give rise to the idea that Still was not merely a painter of individual artworks but the architect of a grand symphonic vision.

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wish list: faraway, so close

13063619536535391028_1If you’re like me you’ve long dreamed of Cuba, the faraway, so close island off the coast of Florida that’s been off-limits to US citizens for more than fifty years. Rich in history, culture, and all that glorious music, it’s an American traveler’s version of Snuffleupagus: a rare creature able to be seen by everybody but us. Insight Cuba, a leader in small group people-to-people travel, is about to change all that. As travel to this enigmatic island is made legal for only the third time in fifty years, this licensed tour operator has me salivating at the chance to explore the once-forbidden island with a sweepstakes, running now through June 17th. To take part, ‘Like’ the Insight Cuba Facebook page and enter via the “Win a Trip to Cuba for Two” tab at the top. A winner will be selected at random on June 18th and receive a free trip for two on the tour of their choice: Undiscovered Cuba, Cuban Music & Art or Classic Cuba. The grand prize includes round-trip airfare from Miami to Havana; first-class accommodations, meals and activities; an Insight Cuba tour leader and Cuban guide; entrance fees; in-country ground transportation and transfers; 24-hour emergency service and maybe most important of all, a U.S. Department of the Treasury License and Letter of Authorization. Underdeveloped, stubbornly unchanged for decades, the revolution and the resulting embargo may have decimated the travel industry in Cuba, but it didn’t kill it. And the irresponsible policies of our own government have done nothing to squelch the abiding curiosity about our neighbors 90 miles to the south.

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don’t forget to tip your driver

sanctuary of aphaia

A quick chat with a taxi driver let us in on the fact that the Temple of Aphaia is Aegina’s major archaeological site, and before you know it we found ourselves driving at breakneck speed through fields of pistachios trees and toward the northeastern corner of the island. I’m glad we took his advice – and his cab – as the ruins were certainly impressive: a Doric temple has stood on this spot since the 5th century BC. Legend has it the temple forms an isosceles triangle with the Parthenon and the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, which makes for a great story, whether or not it holds true. On a clear day it feels like you can see forever, or at least all the way to the port of Piraeus. Click the panorama below, then click again for greater detail. And don’t forget to tip your driver.

aphaia panorama

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sunset, cape sounion

sunset at sounion

For a civilization so closely aligned with the Mediterranean, it is remarkable there are no temples in Athens dedicated to Poseidon, the god of the sea. However, on the rocky peninsula of Cape Sounion, which juts into the sea at the southeast tip of Attica, the Athenians built him a sanctuary – as well as two to the goddess Athena, patron of their city – that today stands as one of the most remarkably situated of all classical ruins. Built on the summit of the rock, which rises 200 feet out of the water, and surrounded by stout walls, the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion keeps watch over the great expanse of the Aegean. As you’d expect, it’s also a magical place to watch the sun set. Click the panoramic image, then click again for greater detail.

temple of poseidon

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