pilgrim’s progress

Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels

If you’re in need of ennobling – and really, aren’t we all? – you could heed no better advice than to hightail it over to The Frick Collection. The museum is presenting the first monographic exhibition in the United States on the artist Piero della Francesca, a founding figure of the Italian Renaissance. Of the seven paintings on display, six are panels from the Sant’Agostino altarpiece – the largest number from this masterwork ever reassembled publicly – along with Piero’s only intact altarpiece in this country, the magisterial Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels. If you aren’t intimately familiar with the work of Piero – and I must admit my own ignorance on the subject – it’s likely due to two reasons: much of his recorded output has been either lost or destroyed, and the surviving works, being primarily frescoes, remain in situ, scattered among a handful of churches within the Tuscan triangle of San Sepolcro, Urbino, and Arezzo. Getting to know Piero demands a degree of pilgrimage - which only seems proper for an artist whose works revolves on religious themes. So, be thankful The Frick is as close as East 70th Street. It might not be an exhaustive survey, but there’s less voyage, more visit. Because visiting with Piero’s subjects is what you’ll want to do. His cool color palette and geometrical composition contributes to a refined and meditative nature. Piero was also a mathematical theorist, which makes perfect sense when you see the clearly defined volume of his figures and precision perspective. Balanced by a naturalism derived in part from his interactions with Flemish artists, Piero’s scenes exude a serenity, whether it be Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Apollonia, Saint Monica or The Crucifixion, which seeps into the viewer, and turns the seemingly simple act of looking a pictures into an offering of nobility.

St. Apollonia

The Crucifixion


victoria and albert

The National Portrait Gallery may make for a favored hourlong stroll but for more substantial peregrinations the Victoria and Albert Museum is pretty close to perfection. Less a proper museum than a Kunstkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, the V&A – as it’s commonly called – is an ode to Empire and a monument to the benevolent side of the Industrial Revolution. (The side that believed technology would, if not save us, at least pull us up out of the gutter.) Cherry picked from the furthest reaches of the UK’s sphere of influence, you’ll stumble on everything from medieval French tombstones and Spanish altar carvings to German stylings in wrought iron and English adventures in chased silver and blown glass. There’s an entire chancel and transept installed from a church in Perugia, majestic carpets which once graced the palace of Ottoman Sultans and the whole of the Music Room taken from the 18th century London residence of the Dukes of Norfolk. The Cast Courts, two great halls dedicated to the uniquely Victorian penchant for plaster casts, are unlike anything you’ve ever seen: yes, that’s Giovanni Pisano’s great pulpit from Pisa; yes, that’s Trajan’s Column in striking detail; yes, that’s Michelangelo’s David towering at almost 17-feet tall; and most outstanding of all, yes, that really is the late 12th century Portico de La Gloria from Santiago de Compostela. Before the internet, before photography, this was as far as many a Londoner got to seeing the treasures of antiquity and the Renaissance. Today the plaster casts are rightly viewed as stunning achievements in their own right. Despite the current fad of grave robbing claims and calls for the return of cultural patrimony, so, too, is the endless curiosity on display at the V&A.


in a new light at the frick

Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert is the largest work on panel at the Frick Collection, the intimate public gallery housed in the former residence of industrialist Henry Clay Frick. Portraying the medieval saint who renounced earthly riches to embrace a life of poverty, simplicity and prayer, this particular painting belongs to a long tradition of legends centered on the life of Francesco of Assisi, who was close in time to the Italians of the Renaissance and hence often a central subject. Yet this image is unlike any other representation. For one, Bellini’s desert bears a striking similarity to the Tuscon hills. Moreover, barefoot with arms extended and ready to receive, the saint appears to be in a state of mystical transport, transfigured by a supernatural radiance that emanates from a thick impasto of clouds at the upper left corner of the canvas. All this and not a furry animal to be found. Almost. It’s a masterpiece of spiritual poetry, made even more vivid following a rehabilitative trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s conservation department. Currently occupying pride of place in the museum’s main gallery the painting can also be viewed up close in a way you’d never be able to experience in person: via high-resolution gigapixel photography courtesy of Google’s amazing new Art Project.


one big basilica

You could almost be forgiven for strolling past the Basilica of San Francisco el Grande without giving it a second glance.  Though it’s the largest dome in Spain – larger than St. Paul’s in London even – its main facade faces the intersection of the Gran Vía de San Francisco and the Carrera de San Francisco in what is essentially a traffic circle.  Add to that a high steel fence and the incumbent swirl of motorist garbage that it collects, I wouldn’t call it the most inviting of entrances. But passing it by would be a shame as inside there is a magnificent chapel painted by Goya and a secret stash of  art that can be seen at unbelievably close range.  This is one of those rare times where not speaking the local language actually helps.  Claim total ignorance of Spanish and the tour guide will show you how to operate the lights on your own.  Let the Spanish-language tour get started then bolt straight for the altar and nick in through the doors on the left.  Turn the lights on and off like you’ve been instructed and self-guide your way through the Basilica’s private rooms, which are literally crammed with art.  Eventually you’ll make your way to an opulent room where the church superiors once met – the Renaissance-era sculpted-walnut seats are one of those marvels of craftsmanship that define the enlightened times.  As you find yourself looping back to the opposite side of the altar however, you’ll find the star attraction:  Zurburán’s painting of St. Thomas Aquinas. No protective glass, no barriers, the painting is so close you could reach out and touch it. It’s so still – and quiet – that even a confirmed non-believer can’t help but grow contemplative looking at the great scholar as seen by the great artist.




say thyssen-bornemisza five times fast

Imagine being so outrageously wealthy that you run out of space to display your encyclopedic collection of art.  Then imagine convincing the government to spruce up the 18th-century Palace of Villahermosa so that you can establish your own museum – across the street from the Prado, no less -  and free up a bit of wall space at home.  In a nutshell, that’s the story behind the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, the legacy of steel magnate Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza and his wife, Carmen, a former Miss Espana and ex-wife of Lex “Tarzan” Barker. While the Prado allows you to focus in depth on the body of work from a number of great painters, the Thyssen gives you a stunning overview of art history from the Renaissance, to Flanders and France, German Expressionism, 19th Century North America, to Cubism, the Avant Garde and Pop Art. As if that were not enough, beginning in the late 1980’s local-girl-made-good Carmen started assembling her own collection of pictures.  So they built an extension to house the separate – yet complementary – Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, which while particularly rich in late- and post-Impressionists also covers the waterfront, so to speak. It’s all wonderfully eclectic to say the least – and small enough to be enjoyable while not overwhelming. I think what impressed me most of all was how expansively the collection delves into 19th century North American and Hudson River School painting.  (What a surprise to see the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington’s cook, Hercules.) We are so accustomed to revering the early European masters that it’s almost shocking to discover they could take any serious interest in our own pre-imperial culture.


let us now praise great men

There was a time when most of the known world fell under the influence of the crowns of Spain and Portugal.  From the early 15th century through to the 17th, these two countries engaged in a rivalrous exploration, establishing contact with Africa, Asia, and the Americas, while mapping the globe. It was the Age of Discovery, also know as the Age of Exploration; a bridge from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, fueled by great men performing feats of derring-do. To prevent a conflict  the two countries entered into a formal treaty that essentially divided the world in half, giving each exclusive rights to their newly discovered lands. When Columbus sailed west towards the New World, Vasco da Gama headed east, rounding the Cape of Good Hope and finding a route to India, the Spice Islands, and ultimately China.  Spheres of influence overlapped once Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the globe, however, and suddenly the English, French, and Dutch woke up to the fact there was a lot of money to be made on the road – to use an old theatrical phrase.  But that takes nothing away from Portugal, whose sailors went beyond the limits of human imagination at a time when the sea was dominated by little more than myths and mystery.  It’s with that in mind that the Monument to the Discoveries was erected along the Tagus River for the Portuguese World’s Fair in 1940.  A 170-foot high slab of concrete carved in the shape of a ship’s prow, at the tip is Henry the Navigator – sponsor of Bartolomeu Dias’ 1460 exploration of sub-Saharan Africa – flanked by 33 other explorers, cartographers, and scientists of the time. (It’s not nearly as Soviet as it sounds.) An enormous world map mosaic occupies the front plaza and outlines the routes of various Portuguese explorers. Oh and yes, you can go to the top of the monument and take in the view, too.


pena palace

Consort to Portugal’s Queen Maria II – and cousin of Bavaria’s “mad” King Ludwig – Don Fernando II built Palacio Pena in the 19th century atop a ruined monastery perched on the summit of the highest hill in Sintra. Overlooking a vast expanse of countryside, the view – on a clear day – extends all the way south to Lisbon.  Influenced by the romantic and eclectic tendencies of the time, the Don oversaw the creation of a revivalist palace incorporating artistic styles from antiquity to the Renaissance, while entwining art of the Far East with Arab-style domes and minarets.  In short, he built himself the ultimate over-the-top fantasy castle; a worthy rival to Neuchswastein. Almost as dramatic as the castle are the surrounding gardens; a remarkable project of landscape transformation Lord Byron likened to “a wonderful Eden.” Initially barren at the time, the hill was turned into a 200-acre arboretum of historic gardens, grottoes, fountains, and lakes, imbued with the same Romantic taste for the exotic so evident in the palace.  It’s all terribly dramatic and hauntingly beautiful; a testament to the Romantic ideal of man’s supremacy over nature. Pena has spoiled me, I think.  It’s what I always imagined a fairytale castle should be.  And more.


rif fort

The Rif Fort was built at the head of Otrabanda at the beginning of the 19th century to provide additional defense for the entrance to Curaçao’s harbor.  At the time it had 56 cannons.  When danger threatened an iron chain was stretched between the formidable fortification and Fort Amsterdam across the water in Punda.  During the Second World War the chain was again used when German U-boats were spotted.  Currently, Rif Fort village is a part of the Renaissance Curaçao Resort and a UNESCO World Heritage site, housing a variety of shops, restaurants and an art gallery.  The view from the Fort’s ramparts over the Caribbean and the entrance to St. Anna Bay are spectacular, especially at night when the sky is littered with stars.


arriba, aruba

Aruba is a desert island – but certainly not deserted. Off the coast of Venezuela – yet far from off the beaten path – Aruba has a dry, rumpled landscape so overflowing with candelabra cactus that homeowners cut them down and build fences out of their spiny trunks.

When the Spanish arrived in the 15th century, they promptly turned around and left, proclaiming it useless, an “isla inutil”.  The British later did the same, leaving the Dutch as the only takers.  And they pretty much turned it over to us NYers, who have taken to Aruba in droves, making it one of the top destinations for tri-state sun seekers.

Aruba sits outside the hurricane belt and enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean. It sports a pair of wide white-sand beaches on the southern coast, lined with up-market hotels; a reasonably safe and, in places, charming capital city that reflects a little of the island’s Dutch heritage; a wild and wooly northern coast for adrenaline junkies and adventure seekers; and an efficient modern airport that can land the jets needed for easy, direct flights.  Life is good here and Natalee Holloway notwithstanding, visitors can enjoy it without the twinge of guilt that often accompanies a vacation in a developing country.

To be warmly and genuinely welcomed by the people of Aruba is instantly relaxing.  This is not your typical salt-rimmed Caribbean island. And that goes a long way towards explaining why Aruba is so popular (an unheard of 40% rate of return visits) and why everyone is smiling as though they’re letting you in on their secret.

Oh, and did I mention the beach?

This is your guide to the best of our other “outer” borough.  And just in time for the snow, too.


Most of the high-rise hotel resorts are situated along Palm Beach, a seven-mile stretch of powdery white sand and ultra-lazy lounge chairs.  However, Eagle Beach is just a short walk down the coast and a lot less crowded with sun worshipers and water sports enthusiasts.  The water is cooler and at certain times of the year huge turtles come ashore to nest.  Eagle Beach is a great walk in the morning or evening and an even better place for curling up with a significant other.


One of the best features about staying at the sleek Renaissance Resort & Casino is access to the 40-acre private Renaissance Island – by way of a boat launch that motors into the hotel lobby, no less! Split into halves, the adults-only beach has a stand of friendly pink flamingo (just don’t get too close), while the family beach boasts iguanas and tropical birds.  Either way, the water is crystal clear and the crowds are left behind on the mainland.


The boutique Renaissance Marina sits smack in the middle of the capital’s harborfront, close to all the action Aruba has to offer.  Plus the stunning pool, spa, 24 hour casino and lounge areas are strictly adults-only.  By day the Crystal Theater features the “Experience Aruba Panorama,” a quick tour of the islands history, people and culture on five jumbo screens.  By night it’s home to an action-packed-and-not-nearly-as-twee-as-it-sounds Let’s Go Latin show, the most extravagant collection of singing, dancing and acrobatic theatrics on the island.  The casual Aquarius Restaurant gives new life to the buffet concept with fresh mounds of all-you-can-eat lobsters, shrimp, scallops and steaks. For a little more romance and a lot less bustle, try staying across the road at the Ocean Suites, where you’ll have nothing between you and the sea.


The Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino is at the end of the famous Palm Beach.  Boasting the largest rooms on the island it makes for the best spot to vacation with your family – not on top of them.  Together you can enjoy one of the many activities on offer, like the Banana Boat or the Bon Bini Kids Club will keep the little ones supervised and entertained all day (or night) while you take to the sun (or the casino).


One of Aruba’s newest and chicest restaurants, Pinchos Grill and Bar has a unique outdoor setting suspended on a pier, out and over the Caribbean Sea.  Comfortable rattan furniture and huge overstuffed pillows add to the laid-back al fresco ambiance. The menu consists almost entirely of pinchos or kabobs, but the secret is in the dipping sauces that come on the side.  Pinchos is also of one of the most beautiful and romantic spots to watch sunsets in Aruba.


There is no better way to explore the island than on one of De Palm Tours off-road safari adventures.  A full day’s tour in one of their customized Land Rovers brings you along the wild, barren north coast, where you’ll see an Aruba few people know:  the fascinating Gold Mill ruins, impressive volcanic rock formations, the elegant Alto Vista Chapel, and the Fontein and Guadirkiri caves.  Your tour ends at De Palm Island, a private water park off the coast.  Leave the kids to play in the water slides while you wade into one of best snorkeling experiences in the Caribbean.  Surrounded by a soft coral reef, the water is teeming with tropical fish, including schools of majestic blue parrotfish.


Hands down the coolest ride in Aruba is the 90-minute guided tour aboard one of Atlantis Submarines’ giant passenger subs.  Dive down over 100 feet to the Barcadera Reefs and see the remains of two spectacular shipwrecks. Along the way you get up close to some amazing sea life:  colorful schools of tropical fish, huge sponge gardens and the fascinating beauty of the coral fields.  Position yourself near the captain for the panoramic view and you’ll understand why Jacques Cousteau had one of the coolest gigs imaginable.


The Aruba Ostrich Farm provides a personal encounter with these giant flightless birds.  Try feeding one of these prehistoric creatures, or better yet, get on top and attempt a ride.  A working breeding farm, there’s also an incubator for the giant eggs and makeshift hospital where you can see the adorable babies fresh out of the shell.


Forgo all those candy colored rum drinks with the paper umbrellas and plastic swords loaded with fruit. Locals reach for Balashi, a crisp cool beer the island began brewing when the cost of imported suds got too high. Nothing goes down better on a dry hot day.  And hops-heads can even take a free tour to see how it’s made. (Reservations required: [email protected])


If you happen to still be out exploring the desert or the north coast of the island when the sun starts to sink, there is no more beautiful place to enjoy the view than at the quirky Alto Vista Chapel.  Amid rock formations and cacti, the small chapel built by missionaries in the mid-1700’s is reached by a long winding road that goes high above the sea.


When the massive cruise ships come to town they are a sight to behold.  Docking right in town, these floating cities are a beautiful backdrop to the setting sun.  Blue Bar at the Renaissance not only serves a mean variety of cocktail treats, it also overlooks the pool and the harbor, making it an ideal spot to cuddle up on their cushy sofas and watch the sun sink behind the boats.


Hosting two gigantic palapas on the white sand beach, overlooking the Caribbean sea, Moomba Beach Bar is a hidden gem offering a little a bit of everything:  the largest cocktail menu on Aruba, a wide variety of cold beers and a great casual menu with salads, sandwiches, burgers and snacks. Once you learn that Moomba is an Aboriginal word meaning “let’s get together and have fun,” you’ll realize that this is perhaps the most appropriately named spot in all of Aruba.  Grab a beach chair, get your feet in the sand and enjoy the live music.


Like the more famous parties in New Orleans and Rio, the month before Lent is Carnival time. The entire island participates in street parades with colorful costumes and floats, music, dancing, and the election of the Carnival Queen.  The Sunday before Ash Wednesday is an all-day celebration that takes over the streets of the capital, Oranjestad. 


Aruba is one of only three islands that provide pre-clearance for US citizens, allowing flights from Aruba to enter the US as domestic flights.  After check-in, head through passport control and security.  When you arrive home, the only wait you’ll have is at the luggage carousel. For more information:  CLICK HERE.


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