Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

I stand firmly by the belief that a cliche tour of Italy — Rome – Florence – Venice — is a very worthy endeavor indeed. My gut, however, forces me to look for something a little different even within a predictable schedule. After a nearly lifelong tradition of the exceptional tour I cannot help but revel in unusual delights.

This is not to say that we uncovered some unknown gem nor came upon an unvisited secret corner of these mightily visited cities. But here and there we found unpredicted delights, sometimes in the most predictable locations.

In Rome it began at the Vatican Museum. Accidently on line for the opening hour (since I had the times wrong) we entered with the first few hundred guests. But as they — and they consisted mostly of locust-swarming group tours — made a beeline for the Sistine Chapel, we headed to the picture gallery. And there we stood before three massive Raphael masterpieces, with our backs to tapestries he designed, entirely alone. Several hours later we were body-to-body (and body-to-lunch!) with the hoards standing beneath Michelangelo’s ceiling, but for that brief moment, we had the masters to ourselves.

Still in Rome, on a certainly well-known and yet oddly unpracticed trip out of town, we took the train to Ostia Antica. There lies an entire forgotten city of ancient Rome. Blue Guide in hand, we worked our way through tall grass into and out of rooms and courtyards, we charted our way by frescoes, old wine bars that took little imagination to reanimate and lively mosaics that patterned the floors of baths and gyms and living rooms. Our reliance on what I think of as alternative tour books — the Blue Guide and a Wallpaper* City Guide — endowed us with informative as well as fun insight. After all, we may not have gone searching down the Cardo Maximus for the “striking” mosaic at the doorway to a 4th century home.

Rome even managed to surprise us when we took only a few steps off the well-trodden tourist lanes. With take-away pizza from a well-known spot on the tourist-saturated Palazzo Navona, a little ways away we found a slighty dingy square with several benches, a dramatically arguing couple and this lovely fellow watching us all from his window perch. Now, with calendars at every souvenir shop touting “Cats of Rome,” this is nothing extraordinary, but enjoying a postcard moment without a postcard shop in sight proved pleasant enough.


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I refuse to pay the full admission to the Rijksmuseum, which claims to be “open” but has a measly fraction of its collection actually on display. The shell of scaffolding and the lack of any apparent progress underneath that layer may not dissuade the line of tourists outside its side “entrance,” but I will not stand for it. Not for 14 euros, at any rate.

That left two museums on the Amsterdam to-do list: the Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh Museum. The first I had never been to, the second I visit any time I happen to find myself in town. They are, of course, two very different places.

The Anne Frank House was a place to be. The simplicity of the arrangement — mostly empty rooms with excerpts from The Diary of Anne Frank included in a few displays. It required time and slow moving to recall the story of the families who hid there and a smart young girl with a diary. It made for a very personal experience — even if we were swamped by a tour group of French teenagers.

A visit to the Van Gogh Museum, on the other hand, cannot help but be a very public and often contact sport. First there is the game plan strategy: spotting the empty pocket of space into which I jump and then ride the current of shuffling feet. Then, there is the general hum about the place. While this is not the ideal way to enjoy art, there is something nice about the fact that the chatter is generally about the work itself or, at the very least, the artist. So, whereas it may sound like a loud cocktail lounge at times, there is a satisfaction in knowing that these two little old ladies here are talking about the color and those kids over there are pointing out the subject. Or, you could wear headphones to cancel the noise and add a soundtrack to the drama of those strokes.

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Amsterdam appears to be forcefully redefining its public image. I dare to suggest that Amsterdamers themselves never had any doubt about its nature, but city officials seem intent to present a better image to the general public outside. So when a certain disreputable commentator from the United States described the city as a “cesspool of corruption and crime” (which not surprisingly makes no sense at all) two residents, supported by the local tourist bureau came out with the Youtube video “The Truth About Amsterdam.” The country then gave itself the Citymarketing Innovation Award as a little pack-thyself-on-the-back.

Less original but even more alluring to me, for the first time this year Amsterdam, the International Bulb Center and the Tulip Museum got together to plant a whole lot of tulips in public spaces, museum gardens and even a few backyards. This is their attempt “to revive the city as a tulip capital.”

Ten euros bought us a scavenger map, descriptions of the plantings and admission to some rarely seen regal Amsterdam corners. The best by far were the backyard gardens. Some of these were the central spaces behind small museums — Museum Van Loon, Museum Geelvinck Hinlopen, Prins Bernard Cultuurfonds and the Museum Willet-Holthuysen — situated in former canal-side mansions donated back in the day for their current curatorial life. 

Even more remarkable were the equally stately private homes in which Amsterdamers currently live. These included a small patio garden reached through a basement-level kitchen in perfect yellow, the mayor’s home and a dashing estate with a view of the kitchen — vintage silver and china set on display, along with the gentleman of the house eating his lunch.

Of course the biggest garden of them all is Keukenhof, which we had strolled for three hours on a previous day. Between the two tulip tours we witnesses greater shape, height, texture, saturation, density and color variety than I had ever imagined possible in a tulip. There were brand new hybrids, wild varieties and heirloom selections.

Of course, the practical Dutch included in the Tulpen Dagen Passepartout an honest caveat in the guide’s introduction: “Let’s hope they will all be in full bloom!”

They were not. A cold spring has not been overly inviting to the tulips.

But that just meant some of the most notable bulbs were the tulips’ often overlooked companion: the daffodil. This too came in many more varieties than I could have guessed. Some grew with clumps of flowers on each stem. Another in white and creamy orange was called “Butter and Eggs”. But the most memorable was the densely petaled “Narcissus odorus plenus,” which three months of high school Latin meant smelling either really good or really bad.

I took a chance. The flower rewarded generously.

Narcissus odorus plenus

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Under Brussels

There is a city under the city here in Brussels. It evidently took them some time to find it, but there it was, perched upon by the Place Royale.

At the end of the 18th century a royal banquet hall called Aula Magna, which had been built in 300 years before, was plowed over to build a new square: Place Royale. Nearly two centuries later archeologists rediscovered the basement ruins, along with a medieval church and even a lane that once ran between the two.

In the meantime, some of these stone and brick spaces had been incorporated into the structures above: as wine cellars for the Bellevue Hotel during the 19th century and as archive storage rooms for the Lloyds Bank during the 20th century.

Today is it a historical secret charm in the city center. We walked along the now covered cobbled street of Rue Isabelle; wandered around the massive stone pillars that once held a chapel’s vaulted ceiling; passed by sewer pits and drainage channels.

For the inner archeologist-geek in us the greatest thrill was inside the remains of the Aula Magna itself, the last portion of this underground city to be unearthed. We could hear the trams rumble by overhead on the cement slab that now secures the site. In the kitchen the elegant tiled flooring from the once-majestic banquet hall above lays flat where it collapsed. Against the walls old hearths upon which meals were made can still be seen.

And in one section, history can be read from a slice of striated ruins: the large white stone pillar heads, individual floor tiles and most fantastic, a clearly distinguishable black line. It marks with charcoal February 3, 1731. That day  the Governess of the Netherlands, Marie-Elisabeth of Austria, sister of the Emperor Charles VI, retired to her apartments in the palace of Brussels without extinguishing the candles. The resulting blaze destroyed half of the palace and led to the demolition that would hide these sites from view for centuries.

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Print History

Clearly I love books and pretty much everything about them. So the thrill of walking through one of the oldest print shops in the world cannot be overstated. On a quick weekend jaunt up to Antwerp, we took in the Plantin-Moretus Museum, the former home and business Christoffel Plantin established in 1546. This charming museum and its gorgeous garden courtyard may be one of those last hidden gems of Belgium.

From the book collection to the historic impact of the printers, the intertwining tale of family friend Peter Paul Rubens, the wood-lined libraries, the rooms filled with lead letters, the wooden presses lined up against the windows . . . For the book-geek it was a wonderland.

Consider . . .

This piece from its collection: the only complete set of the original Garamond dies and matrices.

My writing nook is comfortable, but how is this for a proofreader’s desk, set by the ceiling-high windows for better light.

Although our accommodations may differ, we all still use the same marks, half a millennium later.

Then again, these guys were also working in Greek, Latin, Aramaic and Hebrew, among other languages.

But this is what it is all about: type. Drawers upon drawers of incredible fonts, designs and scripts from centuries past; amazing, beautiful and inspiring.

And then there was this. A better view of a Rueben’s painting than you are likely to get anywhere else and only one of a series he did of the extended Plantin-Moretus family. This is Mother Plantin. Known for his realism, Reubens certainly seems to have captured the essence of Mrs. Plantin. From the look of her, one might guess that Mr. Moretus, her son-in-law, truly earned his right to take over the business.

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Actually, it amounted to only four books:

Life in the Middle Ages, by Martyn Whittock

The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell

In Search of the Dark Ages, by Michael Wood

The Discarded Image, by C.S. Lewis (Yes, as I said to the bookstore clerk, the Narnia guy.)

With many thanks for the recommendations, I was even able to help support the British Library by purchasing two of the titles at its lovely shop. And I shall enjoy gathering up the gems they offer.

Elsewhere in London, throughout the city’s magnificent museum collections — all free to enjoy — I gathered up a marvelous collection of priceless objects in images and descriptions, many of which I hope will find their way in some form onto the presently blank pages that lie before me to be filled.

These amber and glass beads were made for the neck of a lucky Viking lady.

“I am called ring,” the inscription says.

Look for the carefully chiseled image in the amethyst.

To be sure all your jewelry is straight on the go, this silver compact mirror slips into the smallest traveling bags.

On the road, you need to be especially careful of a bad exchange rate; with your portable scale and carrying case, money measurement is always accurate.

You would never show up at someone’s house for dinner without your own spoon, and this folding one really impresses hosts and fellow guests alike.

Travel means camping out in dark, unknown places, so keep this folding candlestick in your luggage and you can always see the contents of your al fresco meals.

Of course, at home something a little more showy is called for, such as this 3-foot gold candlestick with intricate if creepy carvings.

And it might be from the middle ages, or it might be from that super funky Scandinavian design shop in SoHo: the most awesome walrus tusk chess piece ever.

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Although nearly every excursion I take includes a hot cup of tea, nowhere has that seemed more appropriate than London. Nowhere was it also such an available option.

We typically travel with our own tea, given the general coffee-drinking nature of most of our acquaintances. But even in the charming home of coffee enthusiasts — an impressive espresso machine, Mr. Clooney — perhaps it is just a habit of culture that the cupboard is stocked with good, brisk tea and the counter-top home to a kettle. So on our very first morning, we sipped our PG Tips tea and watched the whirl and swoosh of the Thames. Welcome to London.

We have long given up the illusion that we might “take this one easy” wherever the next escape might be. In a new location we pack in as many locations, sights, explorations and vital experiences as the seconds allow, which leaves us depleted by that witching hour between four and five. Enter the brilliance of tea time in England.

Having swept through the newly revised medieval collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, we stopped for tea and scones in one of the three original dining rooms, the first of their kind, included when the museum first opened its doors in 1857. We found a spot in the Poynter Room, or Dutch Kitchen, where we sat with our crumbly scones and pots of piping hot first-flush Darjeeling beside the old-fashioned grill on which chops and steaks (the original fare served here) had once sizzled. We were surrounded by walls in blue and white tiles, originally painted by the women in a local arts college, depicting the months and seasons. Or we could have taken a seat in the green Morris room with paintings by Burne- Jones or the Gamble room’s over-the-top Arabian, classical, renaissance and modern melange.

Our first museum tea had actually been found earlier that day at the London Museum, received gratefully in a to-go cup to battle the cold during our stroll through the Barbican Center. Imagine the ability to simultaneously experience  the convenience of a Starbucks with the satisfaction of supporting a cultural institution while enjoying a first-rate cup of loose-leaf tea. Brilliant.

And, finally, there is the delight in a no-frills, good cup of tea at the game. At the Fulham football grounds, where the wills of the wind can rip off the river and skip through the bundled crowd, perhaps any cup of hot beverage would suffice. But serving a cup of PG Tips “2Go” earned this tea-drinking culture my nod of deference.

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