how to go to Barcelona

Las Ramblas

Barcelona . . . say it out loud, and take your time with it.  Bar-ce-LOHHH-na.  The word lolls around in the mouth, briny and sweet, like salted caramel.  It’s an elegant, loopy kind of name for an irregular city, a place of inconsistencies and contradictions.  Most people who can read a map think it’s part of Spain, but the Barcelonans who fly the flag of Catalonia steadfastly deny this.  It’s a patchwork of small historic neighborhoods but also a sprawling modern city; it’s located on the Mediterranean yet it doesn’t know how to be a seaside town.  If Spain is, as Edmund Burke pronounced it, a “great whale stranded on the shores of Europe”—not really a part of it but too big to be shoved back into the sea—maybe Barcelona is some kind of barnacle stuck on the whale.  To cite another unexpected and strange source (but why not, for this strange town), Leon Trotsky described Barcelona (in 1916) as a  “Big Spanish-French kind of city.  Like Nice in a hell of factories.  Smoke and flames on the one hand, flowers and fruit on the other.”

it was OK

In their quest to understand the world through food analogies, MoT staff members approach Barcelona through the metaphor that, by law, must be included in any travel writing about Spain (or this not-Spain part, Catalonia), Barcelona is like paella–but paella that has some nice sausage and shrimp and peppers that you want to pick out and leave the unevenly seasoned rice for somebody else.

What it’s like

Even though like, oh, everything everywhere, Barcelona has a Roman history, it’s not highly in evidence any longer.  Its main core down by the sea (which you can completely avoid ever seeing during your stay there; they invented their beach quite recently, for their hosting of the Olympics in 1992) is a mash up of dense medieval quarters cut through by nineteenth-century urban planning, wrapped to the north and east (cardinal points being sort of relative here) by the Eixample, one of nineteenth-century Europe’s stupidest urban planning schemes (more of this below).

In part a result of this messiness, Barcelona has a serious image problem.  Pop quiz: what does it look like?  That’s a question you can easily answer for other cities with monumental images like Chicago’s skyline seen from the Lake or the plan of Paris as seen from above, and cities with memorable individual landmarks like the Taj Mahal and Colosseum: great monuments of artistic achievement and cultural relevance that show us what has been and/or continues to be significant for a place.  The most recognizable thing in Barcelona is an unfinished, weird church that is not celebrated as a center of religious faith but rather for its famous architect who is famous for being kind of weird.  That’s the best Barcelona can do in the way of emblems; its vast character is similarly unknowable; kind of a wreck.  That barnacle metaphor is looking better to us all the time.

At the same time, Barcelona has some things that are really worth a focused visit (although, given the choice of Spanish cities alone, we’d head down to Andalusia).  But, if you must go, here’s how MoT suggests you deal with Barcelona, if your tracks lead you thither.

What to avoid

A lot of cities repay a directionless meander; this is not one of them.  At best, it can get skanky fast, at worst, just dangerous (like any big city, Barcelona houses great economic disparity, but—worse—it also tends to draw a sleazy spring-break kind of crowd to some of its neighborhoods).  And that’s one thing we don’t like about it: you really need to stick to a map, and are better off shooting under questionable, boring, or noisy parts of it on the metro.  Identify the spectacle that you really want/need to see, and ignore the in-between parts (it’s like going to an action movie and avoiding the “dialogue” that connects the scenes with stuff blowing up).

we get it. really, we do.

Another thing to avoid: language.  Your high school Spanish will help a bit here, but remember that this is Catalonia, not Spain, and Catalan is the preferred “co-official” language here.  We’ve heard it said that Catalan sounds like Spanish, French and Klingon rolling around in a concrete mixer.  Get used to it, since it is verbally flown like that super-stripey yellow and red flag.  Indeed, Catalan is the first language listed on the airport signs, above Spanish and English, in generous service to the Catalan-speaking population of the world, which numbers fewer souls than the population of North Carolina.  We get the point. One nice thing about Catalan: no one else in your tour group will be brave enough to try it, so when they frown at your crummy high school Spanish, you can just brush off their criticism: it’s Catalan, idiota.

What to see

If you’ve read this far it’s because you know about the things that are really worth seeing and, as confounded as we are to explain it, the travel department here at MoT can’t deny that they are richer for having waded through the murk of Barcelona to enjoy a few of its real treasures.  If you need someone to tell you three things you cannot miss, here they are:

I. The Medieval

Santa Maria del Mar

Barcelona’s oldest concentrations of good buildings date from the medieval period, and there is some cool stuff in this category, just a little different from the Romanesque and Gothic you see elsewhere in Europe.  The Barri Gòtic is a no-brainer, so go there, where you’ll find the cathedral and lots of narrow streets with interesting doorways and sculpture. In the neighborhood: Restaurant Can Culleretes, which is fantastic, marvelous (check them out here).  Plan for an early meal so you beat the crowds and can have the extra joy of lingering over your meal while you watch a long queue of people salivating at the door.  Go in, put yourself in the hands of the wait staff and order whatever they recommend.  If there’s anything served with white beans, get that.  Buy as much food as you can afford and leave nothing behind. Do this now, thank us later. Another great wandering area (which are, again, too few and far between in this city) is El Call, the old Jewish Quarter.  The more you travel in Spain the more you’ll read history along the lines of “The Jewish population of [city x] was vibrant and healthy prior to the ascension of Isabella and Ferdinand.”  You can spend your whole Spanish vacation angry about the riches of Jewish and Muslim culture lost to the machinations of los Reyes Católicos and really only get started.  And this is not wasted time: better to growl along the picturesque and narrow streets of this sad quarter than to simmer about it at home.

Markets outside of Santa Maria del Pi (to the right)

Find your way to the fourteenth-century Santa Maria del Pi, which is one of several medieval churches in the city that reveal the unique characteristics of Catalan Gothic.  In general, these churches tend to be taller across their whole width, with big rounded naves.  Without a clerestory, they are somewhat dark and murky, and the apparent lack of a cleaning regimen for a few centuries only enhances that character.  Santa Maria del Pi is surrounded by several oddly-shaped and nicely-scaled plazas full of restaurants, shops and people.  Markets are held here pretty frequently, allowing you to buy unexpected and spiffy things you didn’t know you needed.  But you will be better off with a set of those hand-carved paella spoons, trust us. A bigger church from the same period, Santa Maria del Mar, hovers over the Ribera district.  Incredibly tall and broad, the exterior looks mural and boxy; interior is totally different: unified, vast ad exceptionally lofty—the vault height is consistent across this transept-free church.  Outside is the Fossar de les Moreres, a monument to the dead of the War of Spanish Succession of 1714 and thus is another reminder of the independent spirit of Catalonia.

juice at La Boqueria

Cutting back across town, you’ll run the sensory assault of the Ramblas, made worth the effort by two things.  FIRST: the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria is one of our favorite things in Barcelona.  The history of La Boqueria runs back to the thirteenth century (and thus the way we can justify your stop here during your consideration of “medieval Barcelona”); the current structure dates to the mid-nineteenth.  Stall after gorgeous stall of fruits, nuts, spices and all manner of take-away treats make an easy and fun lunch on your feet.  Several restaurants offer a place to sit and enjoy great stuff too. La Boqueria is the redemption of Las Ramblas.  SECOND: make your way through an admittedly dingy neighborhood to a site which was, as the church’s name implies, in the field beyond the city gates: Sant Pau del Camp, a wonderful little gem, is the oldest church in Barcelona.  The core of the small Greek-cross church building is Romanesque with heavy, strong, dark vaults, awkward domes and squinches.  It’s stark, cool, serious and quiet.  A later cloister is lighter with foliated arches and great capital sculptures.  You can sit for a long, long time without seeing another soul.  Keep in mind that this under-visited church means a lack of tourists and tourist amenities in this area; you will walk through real-people Barcelona to get there so have your act together and don’t expect to fall into a sangria and tapas fest on the way out. In the neighborhood: If you are so inclined, on your way back to Las Ramblas you can stumble upon the Palau Güell, built by Gaudi for his great patron in 1890 (More on him below.)  When we were there in 2010 it was under renovation and thus open for free, which seems just about right (details here).

Resonating with that medieval vibe?  Or just need a breather out of the city?  Work out the trains (it’s not hard, really) and take a day trip to the Monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat.  You’ll find some impressive architecture, moving spiritual devotions, and a landscape that is unique in the world.  We tend to be city people rather than nature travelers, but this was amazing even to us.  (See some of it here.)

II. The Modernisme 

our kind of Mod

Art Nouveau was a wonderful movement: across Europe, architects and artists strove to develop an intentionally modern style rooted in the culture of their region.  In general, it was a legible, readable development of regional customs into a self-conscious modernity.  The fabulousness of Art Nouveau reached Barcelona during the Renaixença, or “Catalan Renaissance,” one of the many efforts to re-establish political independence from Spain. Art Nouveau, then, developed with more political oomph in Barcelona than it did in many other European capitals where it was not more than an aesthetic movement alone. Even if you’re not an architecture person you’ve probably learned about Antoni Gaudí, Barcelona’s most famous architect and designer of some of the city’s most famous buildings.  Gaudí: the name sounds to us like the sound our dog makes when she yawns.  Of all the versions of Art Nouveau across Europe, his is the one we understand and admire the least.  It has none of the elegance of Victor Horta in Brussels, nor the classical clarity of Otto Wagner in Vienna, nor the whimsy of Ödön Lechner in Budapest.  It is lumpy, irregular, and like the language that Gaudí himself celebrated, pretty unintelligible to most people.  Remember the Palau Güell we mentioned above?  At street level, two large catenary arched openings are filled in with dark, gruesome ironwork that may have been on H. R. Giger’s mind when he started work on Aliens.  Images of seaweed and snakeheads lurk about.  On the top are some of those ceramic doodles of Gaudi’s that are more palatable—but they are way up high, destined for the enjoyment of the birds, not us.

up on the rooftop: Casa Milà

If you go to Barcelona for the architecture, you can’t ignore Gaudi’s monuments, so why not see them: the perpetually under-construction Sagrada Familia (warning: its district is horribly congested and noisy; we wonder how it might have impressed Trotsky); the Parc Güell with its admittedly cute lizards (but not cute enough to make up for the nightmares inspired by the Palau Güell); the Casa Vicens, which has all the elegance subtlety of a giant pile of Legos; and the Casa Batlló which charms us a little with its painterly façade.  Several of the Gaudí monuments are open to the public, most at exceptionally inflated ticket prices (currently 17.50 euro, or $24.84, to get into the Casa Batlló, which he only renovated!!!  You can do all of Versailles for that!!!).  Of them, we can recommend the Casa Milà, which offers quite a lot for the entry fee.  There is one large suite of rooms open for visit and decorated in the continental Art Nouveau; it is very elegant and quite nice (you could almost forget you’re in Barcelona).  The attic space reveals the bizarre, wafer-brick arched construction of the building, and is fitted out as a big museum to Gaudí.  There you can see some very interesting and beautiful models of Gaudí buildings and their structural designs, as well as a lot of that unfortunate Gaudí furniture (neither interesting nor beautiful).  The big fun is on the roof, where you can walk all over the undulating moonscape of the building.  That’s pretty neat.  (More info here.)

And, of course, the bonus of being in a Gaudí building is that you look out at something else. Sadly, in this case, it’s Barcelona, and one of the most tiresome parts of it: the Eixample (a Catalan term that loosely translates as “monotunfriendly”).  From above, it looks like there was a fire sale on chamfered squares.  The designer did this, on purpose, to increase visibility and light and air while expressing political equality, blah blah blah.  It’s brutal (not to mention boring) for pedestrians: to negotiate these weird big intersections one must walk, and walk, and walk to get to the crossing, and then it’s still not very safe since the cars have started turning onto your street and have picked up speed long before they see you. It is a relentless grid of a development with sameness celebrated in the cause of egalitarianism.  No boulevards pointing at important cultural markers here (as was done in contemporaneous developments in Paris, Vienna and elsewhere); the Eixample is all about endless sameness that allows no one to stand out: it’s urban planning’s version of the whole little league team getting the same trophies to celebrate Excellence In Participation. Perhaps because of this utterly boring setting, the late nineteenth-century architects in the vast development were inspired to go nuts in elevation. Sure there are a few Gaudí buildings, but he was not the only architect in Barcelona during the Fin de Siècle.  Very near to Casa Mila is the Illa de la Discòrdia (“Block of Discord”), where Gaudi’s Casa Battlo is cheek-by-jowl with interesting buildings by his lesser-known peers Lluís Domènech i Montaner, Josep Puig i Cadafalch and Enric Sagnier.  In fact you can spend a few hours wandering through this neighborhood and see a lot of architecture from this period.  This link and this map will help you find your way.

The Palau: Barcelona’s Best

But if you really want to celebrate Barcelona’s Modernisme, take the metro back to La Ribera, where you will find the building that in our estimation is Barcelona’s best: the Palau de la Música Catalana, a music hall designed in 1905 by Domènech i Montaner.  It is a brilliant, exuberant building on a tricky site.  The building is hemmed in on all sides yet through its decorative tile work and most importantly amazing sculpture on the corner (by Miguel Blay) commands attention while manifesting the great independent spirit of the music that the building was designed to celebrate.  Definitely get a tour of this building; go see whatever show is playing while you are in town so you can spend time here. Note: the folks who run this joint are really picky about photos inside; you will get hollered at if you try to sneak one.  Better to just play by the rules, buy some postcards in the shop and splurge a bit on the pastries and tapas in the café, which is a wonderland of ceramic tile.  You’re paying a surcharge for the environment but really, here, it’s worth it.

III. The Modernist

Of course, Barcelona was not done in 1914, and some interesting, and important, things lurk about, if you are so inclined.  (We would be more inclined to write about them if we weren’t exhausted from writing about Gaudí.)  There’s the Jean Nouvel Lite-Brite tower—but figure out the schedule before hiking up to see it since it’s not glittery every night.  There is the giant Santiago Calatrava tower that looks like the world’s most elegant and biggest elevator lobby ashtray.  And then there’s MIES.

how do you say “spiffy detail” *auf Deutsch* ?

Way away in a tucked-away corner of the city, displayed with all the care given to a wedding gift you didn’t really want but can’t give away without offending a rich family member, stands the German Pavilion by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.  Built as a temporary structure, it was dismantled after the close of the 1929 International Exposition and rebuilt in 1986.  Go early for the great fun of watching the crew climb gingerly all over this thing to make it look as pristine as Mies intended.  Close up, this is an extraordinary collection of materials: everything is sumptuous, rich, gorgeous, detailed to the last beinahe nichts.  If you are the kind of person who is sometimes tempted to lick chrome, proceed with extreme caution.

IV. A few more things

“Smoke and flames on the one hand, flowers and fruit on the other.”  That’s pretty much it—although in our experience, it was more like flowers and fruit, few and far between, in the midst of a sea of smoke and flames.  One more very nice island in the midst of sea of smoke is the Museu de la Xocolata.  It’s educational and delicious!  And maybe the best museum ever, just starting with the fact that your ticket is a BAR OF CHOCOLATE and 50% of the merchandise in the gift shop is edible.  (Get more here.)

Not really a barnacle, Barcelona is a string of islands: Santa Maria del Mar, la Boqueria, Sant Pau del Camp, Palau de la Música Catalana and the German Pavilion are all worth your visit; we’re very glad to have seen them.   It can’t be all bad or the Plastiscines never would have extended their invitation to us to get down in the Catalan capital.  Even the in-between parts are not all bad: scuttling under the surface of the city, we enjoyed lots of strolling musicians in the metros.  Dodging gaggles of art majors and questionable characters on the street we hunted churros and admired the awesomely well-behaved Dogs of Spain.  And we really loved the tidy, speedy, overnight train to Granada.

Quixotic in Xocolata

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how to go to Florence

Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) takes in the View (Merchant & Ivory, 1985)

Florence has one of the highest Amazing-Things-to-Square-Yards ratios of any city, but that doesn’t make it a great city to visit because all those nice things are awash among less-nice, and even foul, things, that make it not a great city to visit.  The problem is all the people who have come from far away; not only the bazillions of tourists like you and me that clog the streets and overwhelm the historic sites, but also the gajillions of people who have come, seen an opportunity to make a buck, and stayed put.  In short, Florence is kind of destitute of Florentines, and as is the case in so many places, the general quality of the place really suffers for all the people who don’t belong there (and yes we, as hearty travelers, recognize the irony of that statement, but we proclaim it nonetheless).  Florence is like a lovely soup brimming with choice morsels prepared in the most careful and perfect manner and that one might savor individually, but the broth is all wrong: it came out of a can, and the can came from a factory somewhere far, far away.

This is not to say that Florence not worth the trip; for Heaven’s sake, that is not our point.  This is one city whose individual elements are worth picking out of, or to continue the metaphor, wading through, a wonky gravy.  It is the medieval powerhouse that became the birthplace of the Renaissance; brilliant and tasteful clergy, merchants, artists and architects have left their stamp all over the place.  This is the Florence that Lucy Honeychurch discovered in the excellent A Room with a View, where Lucy knows that the best things happen when Florence is either taken in from far away (the famous view from across the Arno or from the poppy field), or a view from right in the midst of the beautiful things (hanging back from a group of gogglers outside of the Bardi Chapel, for example).  It’s the in-between parts that are problematic, because there it is so very hard to get by yourself.

The in-between parts are made worse today by all the commercial ugliness that a visitor must pass to get from point to stunning point.  But it’s absolutely worth it and, at the same time, since Florence is really, really small,travelers can manage this quickly, if not comfortably.  Just don’t go planning to spend weeks on end in Florence; it’s not a place to wander and get lost in, as we like to do in many cities with happier fabric.  Let’s start with the hard part first, shall we?

Palazzo Gelato

 

What it’s like

The center of town was built by Imperial Romans, and there’s nothing that the Imperial Romans loved more than a straight road (except perhaps a ninety-degree angle); it’s very clear where the Romans left off (the edges of the neat castrum grid) and the Florentines began (by observing where the roads get all crazy and, well, Italian).  This central plan, juxtaposed against the non-planned periphery, makes it very easy to get around and know where you are at all times.  Florence has a few main nodes of wonderfulness: the Piazza della Signoria, Santa Croce and the Cathedral-San Lorenzo area among them, and you will want to go there.  But, as you make your way, keep in mind:

What to avoid

Appreciated by Roman veterans two millennia ago, those nice straight streets in the center are the obvious paths for today’s traveler to take, and businesses are mindful of that. It is the easiest, straightest paths from place to place that have been almost completely taken over my multi-national brands, turning Florence into a big open-air shopping mall.  Part of that character is necessary in any city, and the miles of leather stands crowded around San Lorenzo are, we think, a welcome reminder of medieval markets. Il nostro problema are the boring retailers that line the main drags of this and every other big city’s commercial center.  It’s one thing to window shop Italian labels (and we have spent plenty of time window-licking our way along swanky streets where houses like Prada, Gucci and Armani stand, aloofly, cheek by fashionable jowl); it’s another to be pummeled with images of the big fat boring brands that are here and everywhere else.  When we travel to Italy we want to be swept into an Italian reverie, and stay there: not to be jostled back to twenty-first century Boringland.  Florence is not alone here: if a Gap store can open in Milan, what hope is there for the rest of the Apennine peninsula?

this is NOT the problem

Steer clear of Mallissimo Massimo Firenze, a condition that has spread through the fair city like Eczema ‘on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.’ In general, MoT resident travel experts bemoan the impact of what MoT resident economists believe about globalization: it’s kind of bad (and yes we recognize the irony of that statement that we just MacTyped on our MacBook while drinking Ethiopian coffee from a cup made in China while wearing clothes from yet another continent, but we believe it nonetheless). Our advice: take the long way around from place to place; the narrower and more twisty the street, the better: you’ll find fewer boring stores and more interesting local goods, as well as fewer American art history students clogging your path and a greater number of good places to eat.

What to see

In addition to being a smallish place, Florence has been beat up in ways that interrupt what might otherwise have been opportunities for hours of strolling through picturesque neighborhoods.  Much of the area around the historic core is quite recent, and some of the interior has been rebuilt in the nineteenth century (following national unification, Florence was Italy’s capital from 1865-71) with urban schemes of questionable quality and in the twentieth century to replace what Hitler blew up.  Florence is one place that does not, in our opinion, repay the slow traveler.  Take your time with the things that matter, but that can be a short list, and then you can move on to Siena or Venice or wherever.  If you need someone to tell you three things you cannot miss, here they are:

Brunelleschi’s dome, from the campanile

 

 

Santa Maria del Fiore is the full name for the cathedral (Duomo) of Florence, which stands, in the Italian tradition, with a bell tower (campanile) and baptistery (here, dedicated to St. John).  The interior is not thrilling to those who have learned to like Gothic churches by looking at France, where vaults soar miles above lofty interiors bathed with stained glass.  Florence cathedral’s medieval structure is comparatively drab, and the iron tie bars that support the vaults look, to many people (who notice them), like afterthoughts (they’re not).  But you probably didn’t come to see the church interior, or even its external marble revetment (stunning, but nineteenth century); you’re here for the lid they didn’t know how to build when they started work on the cathedral in the middle ages.  You’re here for THE DOME.

The cathedral’s dome is perhaps the dome of dome experiences.  It’s the mother of all domes; really, we mean that.  Its designer, Filippo Brunelleschi, invented a new thing when he made a double-shell dome, meaning there is a void rising up through the structure and you get to walk through it.  (If you want a good history of the dome, you could do worse than read Ross King’s book, which is comprehensive but not nearly as exciting as the story it tells.)  If later architects from Michelangelo to Christopher Wren could be impressed by the idea, you should be, too.

Get there early; the line gets long in the summers later in the day.  It’s a long climb; first to the base of the dome (visitors can briefly walk through the church interior below the dome and view the (intentionally) gruesome and terrifying images in the frescoes painted by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari).  Then the walk gets really interesting, through the dome itself, since your walk follows the curvature of the structure.  463 steps above the pavement, you’re rewarded by sweeping, stunning views.  It’s the best thing in Florence; second only, maybe, to the climb up the Campanile (do this on another day after your legs have recovered).  The climb itself is less interesting and a bit shorter (414 steps), but the view of the city is still spectacular AND the view back to Brunelleschi’s dome makes it appear even bigger than you thought it was.

focaccia at Verrazano

 

 

In the neighborhood: Don’t miss the wonderful memorial for the cathedral’s architects against the buildings immediately opposite the transept to the south side: the medieval architect, Arnolfo di Cambio (tablet in hand) looking downward to the plan of his design; and the Renaissance architect, Brunelleschi (working the compass) looking upward to the dome of his invention.  Great architects should be honored this way more frequently.  The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo is the museum for the building; it has lots of sculpture that used to be on and in the building, and also preserves really, really old drawings and models of proposed designs, as well as Brunelleschi’s death mask.  After the exertion of the climb, travelers are well rewarded by a great, relatively inexpensive and completely delicious lunch or snack at Cantinetta da Verrazano (Via dei Tavolini, 18).  It’s all focaccia, all the time.  Pay at the register at the front for the number of pieces desired, take your ticket to the back where you can point out your selections (MoT recommends fungi and the one that is all tiny tomatoes & basil).  It’s a small place but you can probably perch on one of the little benches that also allow you to gawk at the pastry case while you eat, and make your selection for wrapping up lunch with a slice of torta della nonna and a cappuccino.  Or, go across the street to Perche no! (“why not,” indeed!  Via dei Tavolini, 19r) for gelato.  And wonder what in the world those dopes over at MoT were complaining about; this city is fantastic!

Michelangelo’s “Dusk” in the New Sacristy

 

 

II. San Lorenzo

This church looks like a real dump from the outside; we’re still puzzled that the Medici never got it together enough to finish Cosimo’s church—its bare, ugly macigno front was intended to be covered with marble.  But, they had other priorities, as you will see inside.  This interior is Brunelleschi at his best; a much more identifiably Renaissance style when compared with the cathedral’s dome.  It’s a sublimely quiet, cool, refined interior; just what the doctor ordered after wading across the stream of leather merchants outside, and shielding one’s eyes from the cheap souvenir shops across the street (then again, if you need that Ciao Bella t-shirt, or apron featuring the anatomy of Michelangelo’s David, this is the place).

The church interior is wonderful, but do not neglect its notable additions, too: the Sacristies designed by Brunelleschi and Michelangelo; the two together are your textbook-perfect examples of early and late Renaissance works.  The “New” Sacristy features lots of Michelangelo sculpture too.  So good.  But just as good is the Laurentian Library of Michelangelo’s design, accessible from the courtyard to the south of the church.  All of it by him, including the clever reading desks and the ridiculously and fabulously monumental stair leading to the library.

San Miniato al Monte

 

 

III. San Miniato al Monte

Florence looks best from far away, and this is the far-away spot from which it is seen to best advantage.  Go to a market (the Mercato Centrale is handy and interesting) or good sandwich shop to gather provisions for lunch or a late afternoon snack; get a bus ticket from a tobacconist and grab the number 12 bus across the Arno then up, up and away.  Don’t be fooled by the Piazale Michelangelo, where the bus will stop first.  Let others on your bus get off and join the glut of tour coaches, cars, crap hawkers and tourists who fill up the parking lot.  Go all the way to the top of the monte and be rewarded for your patience.

A steep climb up some stairs takes you to a piazza in front of San Miniato, a Romanesque church that is lovely and striking all on its own and definitely worth poking around in for a while; you might get lucky and get to hear the Olivetan monks sing for a while.  But it’s the view back to the city that will make you swoon; it’s a great place to sit for a while, eat, and enjoy this beautiful city.  What was it again that we were crabby about earlier?

Those are the three places a person really should go to avoid being slapped by passport control on the way home.  But the city does, of course, offer a lot more, and it is our habit to think thematically about our destinations.  Behold:

inside the Bargello

 

 

I. The Medieval & Renaissance City

Although Firenze has Roman roots, it flowered during the medieval and Renaissance periods; lots of buildings and collections reveal this important historical transition.  For the earlier material, see the great church of Santa Croce and the Cathedral (the former will make the latter look more majestic than comparisons with the French Gothic that most people think of when they think of “medieval architecture,” which we know everyone does, all the time).  Pass through the medieval church by Cambio, adorned with Giotto’s wonderful frescoes, exit into a courtyard and find yourself face to face with the Renaissance: Brunelleschi’s little Pazzi Chapel is a fifteenth-century gem dropped into this medieval crown.  Walking back toward the center, wend your way to Via Isola delle Stinche, 7r where you will find Vivoli and its truly magnificent gelato.  Please have a pistacchio for us.  Our other favorite medieval sites include Santa Maria Novella, a superb collection of buildings with the strictest guards in town; pay the extra to go into the museum cloisters: the frescoes will knock you out and hardly anyone goes back there, so you will have some time to commune with art all by your onesie.  Very close at hand, the Officina de Santa Maria Novella (Via della Scala, 16r) is a pharmacy dating back to the fourteenth century that now offers some of the nicest shopping for your Florentine memento.  Warning: once you’ve lived with almond hand cream, you can’t live without it.  Florence has great medieval palazzi: don’t miss the Bargello (see below), now an art museum, the Palazzo Vecchio (at least from the outside, which is framed to one side by the Loggia dei Lanzi), and the Palazzo Davanzati (Via Porta Rossa, 9-13), which remains furnished and adorned like a fine residence.  It’s under-visited (read: not crowded) and fantastic.  Don’t miss it.

With this medieval background, visitors will even better understand the profound and radical shift of taste seen in the Renaissance.  Compare Santa Croce with San Lorenzo; consider the Bargello and Davanzati in light of the Palazzi Medici and Strozzi.   Warning: your head may begin to ache from aha! moments.  We recommend liberal dosages of gelato to ensure full recovery.

Brunelleschi, again: the Ospedale degli Innocenti

II. Brunelleschi

Florence is Filippo’s town.  Start at the Baptistery, admire Ghiberti’s doors, which beat Brunelleschi’s in the design competition; celebrate this failure which pushed him into architecture.  You’re standing near the place where he famously demonstrated one of his many inventions: linear perspective.  Yes, someone had to think that up so that Western art could change completely and forever.  It was Brunelleschi.  (How are you feeling about your resume right about now?)  If you haven’t been to the Duomo dome, do that.  Then, walk north from the piazza and find your way to the Piazza Santissima Annunziata, the eastern edge of which is Ospedale degli Innocenti.  Compared with the more majestically scaled, but old-fashioned Loggia dei Lanzi, Brunelleschi’s small arcaded loggia is a delicate and stunning first go at what we now call Renaissance architecture. It’s pretty amazing: there are no baby steps here; Brunelleschi just did it.  Zigzag back toward the middle of things, down the Via Camillo Cavour to pass by the house of Brunelleschi’s great patron, Cosimo de’ Medici.  Continue on to Cosmino’s church, San Lorenzo, of Brunelleschi’s design.  The core of its interior is the Ospedale’s loggia bent around and given a roof.  Make sure to see his “Old” Sacristy before you go, and if it’s open also take in the other sacristy, designed as an homage to Brunelleschi by one of his better-known admirers and fellow Florentines, Michelangelo.  From here, it’s as much of a hike as you’ll have in Florence to walk back through town, crossing the Arno over the elegant ellipses of the rebuilt (grazie, Nazis) Ponte Santa Trìnita to Santo Spirito.

Stile Floreale

 

 

III. Floreale Florence

The Medieval and Renaissance elements of Florence are enough to keep most people happy; travelers who like to go off the beaten track, especially in an Art Nouveau kind of way, can do that here in Florence too.  Many Italian cities took part in this modern movement that swept Europe from around 1880 to the outbreak of WWI.  In Italy the movement is called Stile Floreale (suggesting the naturalistic source for ornamental motifs) or Stile Liberty (revealing indebtedness to the London department store, of which we are rather fond also), but was part of the self-conscious modernity of much of Europe at the time, applied here as decorative devices that modernized buildings that remained otherwise conservative in their planning.  A surprisingly good walking tour is available here.  It’s long, but will take you to places you wouldn’t go otherwise, to see a very different side of Florence.

“Rape of the Sabine Women,” Giambologna, in the Loggia dei Lanzi

 

 

IV. Art Without Tears, or Band-Aids

What about the Uffizi?  What about the Accademia?  Ignoring them leaves a Florence holiday incomplete, but we have explained elsewhere why we are in favor of leaving itineraries incomplete.  We are all for enjoying the bounty of art available in this museum-rich city, but as we’ve said before, we do not like museum-going to become a contact sport, so we avoid these places.  Probably in one’s life one needs to go to them—we’re glad to have seen Primavera in person, but regret how impossible it is to do that without being mercilessly packed with so many other people who need to pay their respects to Botticelli.  In a city with such good alternatives, we prefer the Casa Buonarroti, a fine palazzo on an insignificant street with early and diverse Michelangelo works; the Loggia dei Lanzi, an open-air kiosk full of sculpture (and unfortunately, usually, lots of tourists resting their feet and not looking at the Giambolognas all around them); and our favorite, the Bargello, stuffed with wonderful things like ceramics, textiles, silver, and sculptures by Michelangelo, Donatello, the Della Robbia family, Cellini, competition entries for the Baptistery doors by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi, and lots more Giambologna, one of our favorites.  He’s not very well known outside of art history circles, which is too bad; take some time to get to know him through his violently twisting multi-figure works, his quiet allegories (Architecture is in the Bargello) and even a riot of little bronze birds (also Bargello) that you will want to take home.

It’s all good, and because everyone else is in line at the Accademia and Uffizi, you’ll almost have the joint to yourself.  It proves the rule that Florence is really, really better when it’s just you and a bunch of dead artists.

another view

Photo of the Innocenti loggia: Simone Ramella (http://www.flickr.com/photos/ramella/)

how to go to Rome

your holiday starts here: Piazza della Rotonda

The truth of the ancient aphorism ars longa, vita brevis is made more obvious in Rome than in any other European capital.  All those great cities bear witness to rich and lengthy histories through miles of venerable structures and museums heaving with centuries’ worth of art, but Rome is different: there you will really feel how long art is and how short your time to soak it in.  In such capitals as Paris and London monuments articulate a clear sense of historical change; Rome spreads out with multiple histories as vast and rambling as the city itself.  Those other cities may simply feel more comprehensible because they are easier to traverse from end to end via long boulevards and snappy subways; while all roads may lead to Rome, finding the right one to get back to your hotel, or the correct bus or subway to get you from point to point to point is another story altogether.  It is the un-embraceable bigness and depth of Rome—not so much a repository of art but a work of art itself—that is its glory, and the problem to the traveler who expects to “do” this city in four days, two weeks, whatever.  There’s simply too much, and your time is too little.

The best you can do is to arrive with certain, select places that are of greatest interest to you, and then let the city do the rest. Navigating the city can be a challenge; negotiating it as a linear progress can be futile; expecting Italians to abide by posted opening hours is a fool’s errand.  More importantly however, this is one of these places that will open up in unexpected ways if you have the time and willingness to walk around with less agenda and more free time.  This is counter-intuitive if you travel with a checklist mentality, but ultimately, is the most rewarding; instead of seeing everybody’s Rome, you’ll discover your Rome.

What to see?

After you have followed our general advice on organizing your days (plus: read this blog), you need to determine which of the many, many famous things that have been drawing countless travelers to the banks of the Tiber.  Be selective about what you choose and be willing to let some things go.  But, if you need someone else to tell you three things you cannot miss, here they are:

Pantheon

 

I. The Pantheon

The great temple dedicated to all the Roman gods is stunning in photography and jaw-dropping in person.  The effect of its spherical interior (the height of the interior from the floor to the top of the dome and the diameter of its circular plan are the same measurement) defies accurate description through words, drawings or photographs.  That simplest of design concepts is made surprisingly complex by the veneers of colorful marble (brought from all ends of the Empire) in geometric patterns lining the walls and floor, and most notably by its ever-changing light source.  The only window (so to speak) is the open oculus at the apex of the dome; depending on time of day and the quality of the weather (including rainy days, when it will rain inside the building), the light effects changes the interior.  Visit the Pantheon as many times as possible to take in this shifting atmosphere.  (Also, do not neglect to pay your respects at Raphael’s tomb.) The Pantheon makes us wonder if its (possible) designer Hadrian hadn’t been so distracted by all that emperor stuff, just what more would Roman Imperial architecture have become?

In the neighborhood: Lots of souvenir shopping in interesting galleries, paper makers, etc.  Pricier than other neighborhoods, but that’s not always a bad thing, especially if your tchotchke reminds you that you were at the Pantheon. Lots of churchy shopping—tons of shops for elaborate vestments and altar ware.  You don’t have to be a man of the cloth to enjoy window shopping for glittery, shiny crucifixes and incense burning devices and other sacramental gizmos. Church of the Gesù: home church of the Jesuits, built in the mid-sixteenth century.  Fine church with powerful late Renaissance architecture, but the real reason you go is for the mind-blowing ceiling fresco painted by Baciccio in the 1660s-70s.  Largo Argentina: This collection of ruined temples will only attract the attention of serious scholars of antiquities for the temples themselves.  The rest of us, however, will be impressed by two other aspects of this interesting site.  First, it appears significantly sunken which is, of course, the result of the ground around it rising across the centuries.  In many places in Rome you will see the result of this phenomenon (the Pantheon itself used to be approached by a tall flight of steps; now you walk in virtually on grade), but no where quite as dramatically.  Second, the site is a stray cat refuge, so you can observe dozens of i gatti di Roma lolling about ancient relics.  Giolitti, one of the best gelato joints in town, favored by Michelle Obama and John Paul II.  If it’s good enough for the FLOTUS and the Pope, it’s certainly good enough for you.  We recommend the puro chocolate (approximately 137% cocoa), if you dare.  (Like a lot of non-antiquities in Rome, this is not super-easy to find, so you are advised to print a map before you go.  Here are MapQuest’s hilarious directions (you can obviously walk the pedestrian ways north of the Pantheon, through the piazza and beyond, and get there much more directly).

St. Peter's Basilica

 

II. The Vatican

The Vatican comprises four things, each of them requiring a certain effort, stamina and planning.  The Basilica is the church dedicated to St. Peter, designed and built for a century and a half starting in the first years of the sixteenth century.  When it gets enormously crowded it loses its sense of being an active church, which is a shame.  Be there at the very start of the day or the very end, when the crowds are smaller and you can experience the church in relative quiet, if not quite silence.  If you are the first one in the door, head straight for Michelangelo ‘s Pietà, which is on the right as you enter, so you just have Plexiglas between you and the sculpture.  Michelangelo’s Dome, which, likewise, you should see early in the day (again, shorter lines) or toward closing time (lines may have lengthened, but the sun will be behind you as you look into the center of town).  It is not much more expensive to buy the ticket that allows an elevator ride to the base of the dome (make sure to get out and walk along the woopy nave roof), from which you must hike—but it’s a very cool hike through slanty, skinny corridors sliced through the dome.  It’s tiring but, dude, you’re walking through a dome! And the view from above is not to be missed.  The Museums, which are super crowded, all the time, and unfortunately everyone is herded through like cattle (except for the lengthy galleries full of art that Rick Steves hasn’t told his devoted followers to study).  There’s not much choice but to join the line for the famous things, including the octagonal courtyard with the Apollo Belvedere and Laocoön, Raphael’s frescoed rooms and of course the Sistine Chapel.  Just go in knowing it will be crowded and deal with it; after you exit you can find plenty of space to relax in The Piazza.

the Forum

 

III. The Forum

Center of the world for centuries, during which the impossible complexity of this archaeological site grew in innumerable layers in a chaotic, picturesque, melancholy and inspiring tableau.  Try to find a quiet (relative term here) corner to plant yourself and imagine your way back through well over two millennia of its history. Enter from the Campidoglio side, which will give you a splendid view across the whole site before you enter. Total nerds should carry a copy of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” with them to review throughout the day, alternating site visits with swooning fits as needed.

Nearby: The Colosseum. Helpful to have the RomaPass for this and other sites throughout and around the city.  It will help you save a few euro along the way, and what is most valuable, save time by ducking around the longest lines for popular sites like this.  Also close: the Campidoglio and Capitoline Museums; the former a brilliant urban and architectural design by Michelangelo; the latter a collection of art and antiquities with fine views across Rome and the Forum.

The sites above do not reflect any stunning discoveries, but they are super-famous for a good reason.  They’re totally awesome; that is historic fact (we have graduate degrees in these subjects; trust us).  But there are other ways to organize your time in Rome, reflecting the many historical layers of this great city.  This is a different way to travel, one that privileges themes and chronologies rather than geographic proximity, but also demands that the traveler ignore great famous things to emphasize other things, arranged by theme.  Behold:

the Baths of Caracalla

 

I. Imperial Rome: The Ancient Concrete Jungle

Go to the Forum and the Colosseum, where concrete is used but not nearly to the sweeping effect you’ll see later.  After the messy (Republican-era) Forum, admire what’s left of the order of the Imperial Fora; tour Trajan’s Markets and start to be excited about concrete—the market hall was the first big concrete vault built in a public building in Rome. At some point try to get tickets into Nero’s Domus Aurea, unless more of it has caved in so it’s all shut down again, in which case you will have to content yourself with the pictures on postcards.  For his many, many faults, Nero was a great supporter of art and architecture, as his concrete house shows.  Go to the Pantheon and admire the spatial and technical feat of that dome: concrete simulating the vault of Heaven.  Not too far away you can catch the bus down to the Baths of Caracalla, a concrete structure as big as they come.

St. Ivo della Sapienza

 

II. Baroque Rome

The Catholic Counter-Reformation prompted a bombastic building boom in Rome.  During the sixteenth century, the city was blessed by the joint efforts of extraordinary artists and papal patrons who knew how to utilize their talents—and had access to the deep deep papal purse to support them.  Catch a bus or taxi out to Michelangelo’s wild and wonderful Porta Pia, at the end of the Via 20 Settembre by the Corso d’Italia, and walk into the city along this busy long straight street—an anomaly in the otherwise irregular city plan, and indicative of the new urban planning undertaken in the Renaissance and Baroque periods.  Visit Santa Susanna and the Fontana dell’Acqua Felice (the latter fronts a piazza which is one of the densest scooter parking lots in the city).  Take your time in Santa Maria delle Vittoria, which is pretty overpowering and heavy for its scale.  But you, like most people, will be focused on the scene to the left of the altar: Bernini’s stunning chapel for the Cornaro family featuring the Ecstasy of St. Theresa. In textbooks that only have room for one photo per artistic movement, that’s THE one for Baroque sculpture.  Study the treatment of the skin, the clothes, the cloud, and remember: that’s a big freaking rock that he made look like skin, fabric and a floating cloud! Farther down the road are the pair of Baroque churches that every architecture major must learn by heart: Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and Bernini’s San Andrea al Quirinale.  They’re both just barely on this side of sublime, and while much, much, muchmuchmuchmuch smaller than St. Peter’s, require a certain amount of time to absorb.  Borromini will wow you with crazy melted architecture; Bernini will draw you through an evocative narrative portraying St. Andrew’s crucifixion, apotheosis and final reward in the Holy Spirit in the dome.  When you plan this day, be aware that on Saturdays these small churches are very popular with weddings, so you may need to wait to dart in between ceremonies.  Also, San Carlo has strange hours, so build your day around the times it is open.  Once done with this leg of the journey through Baroque Rome, rest and eat, then continue on: the slightly later Trevi Fountain is nearby; hang on to your purse but make sure to throw a coin in the fountain (this assures your return to Rome one day).  More in keeping with the theme of the day: head up to the Villa Borghese, which is in the midst of extensive public gardens. They are nice, and we like the umbrella pines, but you need to go to the Galleria Borghese, housed in the villa proper.  It’s a weird villa building, but its patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, had divinely good taste and commissioned or snatched up a ton of Bernini’s best work.  That’s where you’ll find his David and Apollo and Daphne; if you can view the latter without breaking into tears, you need to have your pulse checked.  Make sure to reserve tickets in advance; they are limited every day and you don’t want to be left out.  Lastly, wind your way down to the wonderful sixteenth-seventeenth-century Piazza del Popolo, which is treacherous for pedestrians but very cool to look at from a safe distance.  Your destination is the less architecturally-remarkable Santa Maria del Popolo; head in there, marvel at some wacky ornament, and jostle your way with all the other people on the left side of the altar there to see two great paintings by Caravaggio; impressive on their own but especially when compared with the contemporaneous but yawn-inducing work by Annibale Carracci in between them. If you have not yet floated off to Baroque nirvana wander through the Piazza Navona.  Play hide and seek with Borromini, whose Sant’Ivo della Sapienza is not too far away, but somewhat difficult to find, since the church is hidden behind a boring dirty orange wall on a street that looks like nothing important happens there. Like San Carlo, Sant’Ivo has weird hours, but it is part of the university and is sometime open for university events.  If you are not dressed too terribly like a tourist, you can waltz right in there, take a seat and achieve Borrominirvana.  If anyone talks to you in Italian, just strike a pose like a bored academic and they’ll leave you alone.

Trastevere

 

III. Trastevere

Tired of the famous things and the crowds they draw?  Head across the Tiber to this part of Rome that preserves a medieval character more than most of the city.  Trastevere has several sites of note that for most people are just not worth the walk across the Tiber: Santa Cecelia is a beautiful martyr’s shrine exhibiting every major architectural era in Rome (make sure to get way up front to see the haunting sculpture of Cecelia under the altar).  Santa Maria in Trastevere likewise blends Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque motifs in a church that absorbed Roman antiquities (spolia) in its original design.  Don’t miss the wacky recycled Roman columns by being overwhelmed by the apse mosaics.  But the real joy of Trastevere is just wandering around and being partially lost, discovering great restaurants and cool small shops.  Ditch the map; maybe watch the sun or a compass (if you travel with one of those) to have a certain sense of which way the river is so you can get back to your hotel eventually; but in general you will be well rewarded by discovering a private part of Rome that you will swear no other person has seen as you have.

Santa Maria in Cosmedin

 

IV. Early Christian Rome

The Early Christian church found its architectural expression under Constantine in Rome, and there’s a fair amount left to see, although much has been altered or unfortunately frosted with Baroque lusciousness.  It takes a little effort to find the bus to get there, but it’s worth it to visit one of the catacombs (we liked the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, where you can have a tour in one of a dozen languages), which show what little artistic expression the Christians were allowed prior to the faith being tolerated in 313 AD.  Go to the cathedral in town, St. John Lateran, which still has its Early Christian plan and wonderful courtyard, although much of its architecture is altered.  Especially important here is the Baptistery; make that THE Baptistery, the earliest one ever.  EVER.  One church that retains more of its Early Christian qualities is Santa Maria in Cosmedin (where you can also have your Roman Holiday moment with the Bocca della Verità, if you must).  If you can manage the tram, a trip out to Santa Costanza, the mausoleum Constantine built for his daughter, is well worth it: it’s a round building with lots and lots of mosaics.  Lastly, if you are really serious about getting in touch with early church history, make like a fourth-century penitent and get around to all seven of the official pilgrimage churches.  The challenge of doing this today with subways, busses, and Aerosoles will really make you appreciate those dedicated pilgrims of earlier centuries and feel guilty about how much you’ve pathetically complained about your sore feet and stiff hotel pillow.  Try sleeping with pigs and going barefoot, pilgrim!

Capitoline Museum

 

V. Happy Museums

Rome is a great art city but the big museums can really be a trial (MoT firmly believes that museum-going is not a contact sport).  Rome has several great museums, chock-full of work that would be treasured by any other city that wasn’t lousy with Michelangelo and Raphael, thus not overrun by tourists.  Here are our favorites: The National Etruscan Museum/Villa Giulia is full of really old art and housed and in a unique Renaissance villa that is a series of pavilions, kiosks, gardens and water elements extended along a long axis.  It’s good for ancient art and also breathing air under the super-blue Roman sky and seeing healthy plants, which are not to be had in abundance in Rome (this is kind of the point of building a villa).  The Galleria Borghese is busy, but manageable due to their carefully timed entries; it comes with the benefit of being surrounded by a huge public garden.  The Capitoline Museums are full of wonderful antiquities (inducing Constantine’s 8-foot-high head) and largely overlooked by tourists rushing on to the Forum.  We love, love, love The Villa Farnesina, a small palazzo structure slathered with glorious frescoes by Raphael and his friends.  Plan to spend quality time with Galatea; she will cure you of your jostled-traveler blues.  A few hours in any one of these less-frequented museums can renew your spirit and energy to face down the hoards elsewhere in the city.  If only the Romans had access to these institutions when Odoacer was bearing down on the city, who knows how things might have gone differently for the Goths?

. . . and it ends here.

the tastiest place in the world

Maria Theresa of the Habsburgs, overlooking the art history and natural history museums built by her dynasty

Accepting the proposition that taste is “aesthetic judgments made in a social setting” (as well as the reaction to one of the five senses as performed by all the little buds on the tongue), one might well wonder if there is a single place on the earth where the greatest concentration of tastefulness might be located.  Plenty of places present themselves: such famous cities as Paris, which most everyone has an impression of as (if nothing else) a pretty place, whether they’ve been there or not; also in the running would be places without such highly-esteemed and widespread reputations but instead rank due to personal connections of select individuals.  Among all such famous and not-famous places, a strong contender is Vienna.

The general impression of Vienna’s central districts is characterized by a great nineteenth-century ring encircling a medieval core with Baroque interjections throughout.  Vienna modernized beginning in the 1860s on the pattern of the great boulevards of Paris.  But here the pupil has outstripped the teacher.  Whereas much of Paris’ medieval fabric was ripped to shreds by Baron Haussmann’s boulevards that crisscrossed through the city, in Vienna the Ringstrasse was built on the ruins of its fortification walls, surrounding its medieval district rather than slicing through it.  Also, whereas Paris’ streets allow no room for disagreement about what’s important in the city plan—one is forever walking straight into a prominent historical monument or symbol of authority—the nature of Vienna’s Ring is more inclusive.  Traversing this faceted, angled street (not a complete ring, it is a chunky U-shape whose ends are connected by the “Danube Canal”), the view changes constantly, so that pedestrians view Vienna’s great monuments of culture, government and education at shifting and skewed angles.  These symbols of authority, then, are not the emphasis of the street but rather are players that support the importance of the street, which is the territory of all.  For being an imperial capital with all the trappings and trimmings, Vienna nurtures a sense of belonging to the place—even for an outsider—rather than appears to want to put someone in her place.

Two apartment buildings on the Linke Wienzeile, including Otto Wagner's Majolika Haus (1898), with some Herr in the unit meant for MoT's future HQ

Other great European cities can offer a similar (or maybe even greater) degree of wonderfulness in terms of their riches in art and architecture, historical importance, as well as musical and culinary offerings.  But many of them—the most popular tourist destinations in Italy come immediately to mind—have ceased to be living cities.  They are outdoor museums populated by people from other places.  Vienna certainly has a healthy tourist trade, but the city absorbs its visitors and makes them part of the broader population of Viennese who also frequent the parks, galleries and cafés.

Secession Gallery (Olbrich, 1897): "To the time its art, to art its freedom"

The "Looshaus," making friends on the Michaelerplatz

Variety abounds.  Vienna’s architecture is consistent in its high quality rather than a single overriding style.  Certainly, the periods of greatest strength for the city and its empire/nation are evident through the concentration of Gothic, Baroque, nineteenth-century, fin de siècle and early twentieth century buildings.  At least through the period of early Modernism, new styles were pursued in a way that rarely damaged the environment as a whole.  For all the efforts made by later Modernists to claim Adolf Loos as a radical designer who prefigured the Bauhaus, one look at the famous Goldman & Salatsch Building reveals a great concern for scale and materials that make this building fit into its prestigious site on the Michaelerplatz and so near the Hofburg.  Secessionists and Jugundstil architects like Josef Maria Olbrich and Otto Wagner were even better. They all added harmoniously to a city which is distinct and visually engaging at every turn; it is hard to imagine anyone not finding some building to love in Vienna.

Much of the credit for the aesthetic strength of the city goes to its most elite residents for several centuries: the Hapsburgs.  Vienna is proof-positive of the fact that, although empires are not good for things like social justice, they are great for things like urban planning, architectural symbolism and art collections.  An interest in latter actually focuses this search for the Tastiest Place in the World to a smaller scale: it’s not just Vienna, but a building in Vienna, and beyond that, one room.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum was opened in the late nineteenth century to make the gigantic collection of art amassed by the Habsburgs through their centuries of power available to public view.  Across an expansive park of green, the museum’s twin, the Naturhistorisches Museum houses extensive collections in natural history.  Together, they are a university of human achievement: what we have discovered, what we have imagined.

Numbers of other museums and galleries in Vienna house more recent art—art that was made for consumption of regular (non-royal people).  The Kunsthistorisches Museum is, in its way, more profound, for when he opened it, Franz Joseph I opened a collection of art made for elites to a broader public.  Seeing Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele at the Belvedere is wonderful, but it’s not the same experience or achievement as opening an exquisite imperial collection to the unwashed masses, dramatically broadening the social setting for interactions with art.  Thanks to the modernizing Habsburgs, we can see this:

Anthony Van Dyck (1632)

. . . and this. . .

Caspar David Friedrich, "Fog" (1807)

. . . and this. . .

Jan Lievens, "Old Man" (1625)

. . . and this. . .

Pieter Bruegel, "Hunters in the Snow" (1565)

. . . and this. . .

Canova, "Theseus and the Centaur" (1805-19)

. . . and a lot more before our eyes fall out of our heads, exhausted from the sheer wonderfulness of it all.

under the dome

The overwhelming richness of the collections is bound to give even the sturdiest gallery-goer a bit of museum coma, but fear not: the museum offers excellent therapy in the form of a café, one of Vienna’s great cultural legacies.  The café is situated in the front and center of the building, beneath the great octagonal dome.  Domes have always been profound symbols in architecture: the vault of Jupiter’s Heaven, the symbol of Paradise with Christ.  In Vienna?  The dome at the Kunsthistorisches Museum enshrines the sacred liturgy of devouring coffee and cakes.

What the Austrians lack in savory fare they more than make up for with their gifts of cakes to the Western world.  Paris gets a lot of credit for cafés and pastries, but it was the Viennese who learned how to brew beans from the Turks and then spread that major event in western civilization through Europe; likewise, it was the Viennese who taught the French how to bake—thus the preference les pâtisseries Viennoise in the City of Light.  Heck, it was a Viennese baker who invented the croissant!  Fact.

Schokoladenkuchen & Einspänner at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Cafe

tasty place: Cafe Schwarzenberg, first cafe on the Ringstrasse

If the pastry is the queen of the culinary world, Vienna is her natural capital and the café is her throne.  The art museum’s café is one of hundreds of such institutions throughout the city—each with its own décor, history, sensibility and vibe.  For a few Euros, anyone can have access to a corner of this one small yet vital and magnificent manifestation of what makes the whole of the city so great: the rich heritage of an imperial capital opened for the enjoyment of the many.  The setting, the visual qualities and certainly the edible delights conjoin to make a seat in a Viennese café the tastiest place in the world.

kitchen geek: “Goblet of Fire” edition

The main course (unless you are slow, in which case: YOU are the main course)

Having already tackled the gastro-literary adventures of Chomping in the Chamber of Secrets (read all about it here) and The Not-Last Meal of the Prisoner of Azkaban (read all about it here), MoT‘s Literary Liason and Noshing Nutritionist is here to thrill Potterrific palettes with a Tri-Wizard Tri-Course Championship Banquet (you are reading about it, right here, right now).  The menu is presented here so you too can nosh along while screening the film version of the book, as MoT staff did recently (but after reading the book, of course).

The First Task

Behold: Grindylow Gumbo with Gillyweed Garnish

Preparation: Sing the following lines with head fully submerged in pot for best effect:

“Ginger, cabbage, shrimp and Thai spices take,

“Stir ’til it looks like a murky lake,

“An hour long the pot will need to simmer,

“Until this soup is ready for your dinner.”

Note: No, of course this isn’t made with “real grindylows.”  That would be far too expensive and they’re out of season now anyway.  Duh.

Service: Garnish with gillyweed stolen from your Potions Master.  Gillyweed is no fun to get stuck between your teeth; but then again, it’s not as bad as getting stuck by a Merperson’s trident.  Deal.

The Second Task

Behold: Wing of Hungarian Horntail

Preparation: The Hungarian Horntail is the meanest, foulest and craftiest of dragonkind.  If you can bag one before it bags you, prepare thusly (or else face gamey, stringy meat): soak for several hours in buttermilk before dredging in flour mixed with spices (heavy on the paprika–a natural match for the meat) (they’re both from Hungary, get it?).  Conjure a massive pan (for quick frying in oil) and a ginormous oven (to finish cooking).

Note: Most poultry is served as “wings,” (note plural).  But since the Horntail is the largest of all dragon breeds, one wing will feed your village.  (See photo, in which a chocolate van–always at the ready in case of mass Dementor attack–is parked next to the wing we prepared for our banquet.)

Service: There is no service for a piece of meat this size; the only appropriately-scaled garnish might be an entire felled tree, but you probably cut down a good portion of your village forest to stoke the fire to cook this beast.  Dispense with the formality.  Invite everyone to go at it like a Troll of Nadroj.

The Third Task

Behold: The Dark Lord’s Dark Chocolate Cauldron

Preparation: Melt chocolate and stir in cream; turn mixture into Size One self-heating cauldron (the kind Muggles adorably call a “fondue pot”).  Prepare plate with dippable treats, which are edible suggestions of the following:

“Bone of the father, unwillingly given (pretzel sticks).

“Flesh of the servant, willingly sacrificed (strawberries).

“Love-handles of the eater, regretfully gained (marshmallows).”*

Service: Everyone knows that, finally, “Blood of the enemy, forcibly taken” is required of this spell (I mean recipe).  Read “spirit” for “blood” and you can make a good choice of what liquid to pour into the cauldron when serving the Cauldron at the table.  After a quick incendio incantation, voilà et bon appetit:

*Additional text not included in the published version of the Goblet taken from a rare, tossed-out manuscript discovered by MoT Dumpster-Diving Celebrity Stalkers in J. K. Rowling’s trash bins.

happy birthday to lou

In this rare photograph, Louis Sullivan is shown reviewing a recipe.

Widely recognized as one of America’s greatest architects, as well as the designer of some of the best late-nineteenth century buildings to grace his adopted hometown of Chicago, Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) is rarely given credit for another of his great contributions to western civilization: the deep-dish pizza.  True.  Is it really so surprising that this delectable treat, dependent on a simple and straightforward structural base and amenable to loads of personal embellishments, would be the creation of the genius who brought us the Auditorium Theatre, Carson Pirie Scott and the ‘cool one’ in the Gage Group?

This small morsel of Sullivan’s biography is as little discussed as the sad truths of his later life which, after his stunning achievements through the early 1890s, quickly fell into decline until his lonely, embittered, alcohol-soaked death alone in a south side hotel room.  The new light being shed on Sullivan’s life as a pizzeria pontiff—made available just in time for nationwide celebrations of his birthday as MoT goes to press (so to speak)–shows eerie similarities.  Sullivan’s story is usually told as one of various architectural experiences, but recent research reveals he actually was chasing a culinary muse.  Sullivan started baking as a way to break the cultural barrier that existed between Irish families like his living in his Italian Boston neighborhood.  His parents’ disapproval of young Louis’ interest in risotto, ziti and lasagna forced him to flee to Philadelphia, where he polished his hoagie expertise near the Italian market while moonlighting as an architect with Frank Furness.  Sullivan then traveled to Paris where he enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to cover his real interest in enhancing his culinary techniques.  At last Sullivan felt prepared to move to Chicago, a city of great culinary promise and where success in his day job (architecture) actually eclipsed his efforts slinging pizzas in Little Italy.  At night, Sullivan worked to perfect his design of the pie: a sturdy base of cheese and tomato sauce supported in a highly functional tall crust, and finished with a dizzying array of embellishments, from balsamic glazed onions wound in tight Celtic knots to sausage-and-meat-patty interlace adorned with arrays of foliate-cut pepperoni and vegetal flourishes of basil chiffonade.

New interpretations for old buildings: basil leaves were the inspiration for this pattern in the Auditorium Building

Forever fighting the memory of his father’s discouragement (“what’s with all this clatty Italian ballsch?  Make yer pa some boxty, fer the luvah St. Aoidhghean!”), Sullivan plucked up his courage to unveil his creation at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.  Sadly, here his dream turned to nightmare, as a preponderance of fair-goers (most of them from the east coast, records reveal) bypassed the Pizza Louis stand in favor of the tomato-smeared flatbread being offered at the nearby Neapolitan kiosk.  To make matters worse, at this time Sullivan also discovered his that his sous chef, Franco, was moonlighting at the nascent Gino’s East, and fired him in a fit of rage.  Discouraged and destitute, Sullivan marched away from his failed venture at the fair, never to return to the pizza kitchen again.  Sullivan’s oft-cited words that the Columbian Exposition had retarded American progress “by a half-century” is often misrepresented as a critique of its Classical architecture: he was really talking about the New York thin crust.

To help restore this tasty tale to its proper place in history, MoT is making available here, for the first time, a manuscript recently discovered among the Sullivan Archives at the Ryerson & Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Discovered by MoT‘s Senior Food History Archivist, the essay, written in Sullivan’s own hand, appears here in unedited form.

“The Deep Pizza Artistically Considered”

The gourmands of this land and generation are brought face to face with something new under the sun–namely, that evolution and integration of yeast dough and cornmeal, that special grouping of pressed dairy curds and savory red fruits, that results in a demand for the erection of a tall crust and a deep pizza.

Problem: How shall we impart to this crude agglomeration the graciousness of those higher forms of omnivorocity and culture that rest on the fiercer passions?  Let us examine the elements, let us search out this essence of the problem.

The practical conditions are, broadly speaking, these:

Wanted: 1st, a foundation of dough, uniting the chewy deliciousness of yeast dough, with the crunchy texture of cornmeal, while serving the function of supporting the excess that will be piled above.

2nd, a ground floor, so called, devoted to a bed of cheese: ample, melty, luscious.

3rd, a second story of crushed tomatoes, full of the life-vigor and sun-joy of a summer’s day, while embodying the soulful autumnal warmth of lengthy stewing with herbs and a little sea salt.

4th, above this an indefinite number of toppings piled tier upon tier.  At the top of this pile is all that makes the structure complete, filled with ingredients that supplement and complement the layers hidden below.

We must now heed the imperative  voice of emotion.  And hunger.

It demands of us, what is the chief characteristic of the tall-crust deep-dish pizza?  And at once we answer, it is saucy.  This sauciness is to the artist’s nature its thrilling aspect.  It is the very open organ-tone in its appeal.  It must be in turn the dominant chord in its expression, the true excitant of the imagination.  The crust must be tall, every inch of it tall, while the pie is deep, deep as the eternal sea.

It must be every inch a round and saucy thing.

-Louis Henri Sullivan, Chicago

Fascinating on its own merits, this essay also enhances a fuller understanding of Sullivan’s better-known writings, especially a famous one in which he treats the design of skyscrapers.  Written just a few years after “The Deep Pizza,” it begs a comparison that reveals the extent to which Sullivan depended on his culinary experiences in the development of his architectural theory.  Surely these findings demand a full reappraisal of Sullivan’s entire oeuvre so we all may better understand the depths of this tasty genius.

 

The declining master’s memorial to his former glory: Merchants’ National Bank (1914, Grinnell IA) executed in colors of tomato and mozzarella; richly carved ornament celebrating what Sullivan himself referred to as the “pizza pie window”

kitchen geek: Star Wars edition

A few days ago, in a kitchen not so far away . . .

. . . a class of Jedi Younglings gathered to reinforce (haha) their skills while celebrating the birthdays of two of their number.  MoT’s resident StarWarsologist (and ranking Jedi Knight) was on the scene to ensure an appropriately Jedish revelry.

The evening began with the Initiates’ preparation of their Factryn meat pies.  Ideally they would have used the Force, but apparently their skills were a little off this night so manual work was allowed.  Factryn meat pies probably look like pepperoni pizza to you, but take note, dear reader, that these meat pies are prepared with slices of Bantha sausage, not pepperoni.  Do you know what Bantha sausage tastes like?  Pepperoni.

Younglings’ favorite beverage

Judge me by my color, do you? The most appropriate beverage to pair with a Factryn meat pie is this lovely green punch that has a certain frothy and misty quality that evokes its planet of orgin, Dagobah.  Although served in small quantities, it is strong, powerful and one cannot help but feel a little wiser for drinking it.

What is it called, you ask?  Yoda soda, it is.

Younglings’ favorite dessert

Finally, as is the case at birthday parties in so many galaxies, the meal was concluded with galactic cake (marbled, to symbolize the ‘light’ of the true Jedi’s path and the ‘darkness’ of the Sith).  Formed in the shape of a lightsaber, that symbol of the Jedi’s attainment of manual dexterity along with absolute harmony with the Force, it was served with another Youngling favorite: Wookie Cookie ice cream.

MoT special consultant Jon B. described it as “not as clumsy or random as a blastercake: an elegant cake, for a more civilized age,” and we thank him for that excellent critique. True though Master Jon’s words may be, this Knight does recognize a discrepancy between this description and the general lack of civility observed during the Younglings’ sleep-over, especially a few hours past their bedtime.  Perhaps a Blastercake would have been in order.

kitchen geek: “Prisoner of Azkaban” edition

The Matters of Taste staff has recently completed the third book in the Harry Potter series and, as a follow-up to the worldwide success of the themed dinner inspired by the Chamber of Secrets (read all about it here), commissioned its very own Literary Liason and Nutritionist to prepare the Not-Last Meal of the Prisoner of Azkaban.  The menu is presented here so you too can eat along while screening the film version of the book, as we did (but after reading the book, of course).

Note: Although the most consistent food theme in the book is chocolate, because it is always consumed as an antidote, it has not been selected as a central motif in this menu: quite the contrary.  At the same time, chocolate is not really seen in this narrative as a literary device.  As confirmed by Matters of Taste Chief Psychologist and Food Historian, chocolate should be kept close at hand and consumed regularly when Dementors appear in “real life.”  Don’t think this is just a contrivance of a fairy tale: if you have a family, or a job out of the house, or if you ever go to the post office or grocery store; in short, if you deal with any people at all, ever, you know that there are some “people” who just know how to suck the oxygen out of a room.  Guess what?! Clever disguises Dementors don these days.  Clever.  Where’s that Cadbury bar?

But on with our tale:

BeholdSirius Black Bean Soup

Preparation: Cook dry beans–dry as if these beans have endured hardship, pain, loss and soul-crushing isolation for a dozen years–in a large pot with stock, tomatoes (which you should call “to-mah-toes” for the occasion), smoked ham, onion, a small chopped pepper, cumin, chili powder, garlic, adobo and cilantro.  Cook under pressure until mixture is thoroughly demented; process and reheat.

Note: The heat of this dish should not be profound, but rather a background note to the earthiness of the beans and ham.  To achieve this result, select  a pepper that rates somewhere between “crazed lunatic” and “vengeful madman” on the Scoville scale.

Service: Serve with a dollop of boggart crème.  As diners eat, encourage them to change the shape of their dollop to something ridiculous.

Behold: Hippogriff Tenders

Preparation: Slice hippogriff steaks into strips. Dip in buttermilk and toss in a mixture of crushed herbed stuffing mix crumbs (it’s not a shortcut; it’s magic!) and parmesan (grate it off the block; no shortcuts/magic here).  Bake in oven until golden.

Note: Some assume hippogriff meat is gamey; in actuality it tastes just like chicken.  It is at its best when freshly butchered, but as the plucking of their very large feathers is exceptionally tedious, we recommend allowing a professional to prepare the tenders for you.  (Additionally, this saves one from the hassle of packaging and freezing the amount of meat which can be taken from the carcass of a fully-grown, 2200 lb. hippogriff.)

Service: Present with barbeque and honey-dijon sauce spiked with a little cayenne (it needs to have a little bite), and on a fine silver platter or china.  After all, they are right proud creatures.  Even in death.

Behold: Patronus Pie

Preparation: Conjuring the heights of your emotional history to face the extreme delicacy of custard-making, think happy thoughts as you heat milk and a vanilla bean up to the boiling point (but not to the boiling point!), whisk part of it into a bowl into which you have already whisked sugar, starch and eggs (thoroughly, but not too thoroughly!).  Still happy?  Return to heat and whisk constantly, at perfect “medium” until the custard is just barely thickened (but not too thick or you are on the verge of scrambled custard!); transfer with lightning speed (still thinking happy thoughts) through a sieve into a bowl to cool.  Examine interior of custard pot, note the amount of custard already set up within as gooky clumpy nastiness, embrace deflated mood, throw pot out kitchen door.  Return to what edible custard did make it into the bowl and slowly stir in pieces of butter until they melt.  Is there enough curdle-free custard to fill a pie shell? Even a quarter inch?  Huzzah!  (Use that feeling to strengthen yourself the next time you conjure a Patronus Pie.)  After pudding/custard has cooled, spoon it into prepared pie shell over a thin layer of chocolate ganache studded with banana slices; spread Chantilly cream on top.

Service: plate at table; garnish with a Dementor’s Kiss (see top photo).

Note: Whether your custard succeeds or fails, be sure to clean out the ganache bowl.  You’ve earned it and, quite frankly, your emotional recovery may depend on it.

Also: if custard is a complete disaster, run to the store and purchase the ready-made hand-held chocolate-covered graham-marshmallow treat seen here.  This will satisfy the need for a sweets course at the end of the meal, as well as serve as an appropriate tribute to Remus Lupin, who is otherwise sadly neglected in this menu.


kitchen geek: “Chamber of Secrets” edition

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose in the kitchen: a time to whip up a noodle casserole, and a time to knock out a Boeuf Bourguignon à la Julia; a time to roast a turkey for family gathering, and a time to bake brownies to comfort a broken heart; a time to cook a meal that is both an intellectual and a culinary wonder, and a time to geek out and play with your food.  This is one of those times.

Life goes by too quickly to celebrate only a small, select number of big holidays and universally-acknowledged achievements with a special meal: birthdays, anniversaries, promotions, graduations.  Why wait, when the calendar is full of anniversaries of historical significance, and better yet, when interesting things are happening around you all the time?

Recently the Matters of Taste staff has undertaken a group reading of the Harry Potter books.  Upon completion of the second volume MoT’s Literary Liason proclaimed a Chamber of Secrets weekend centered around a screening of the film and, of course, a special meal.  With just a brief consideration of general nutritional goals, range of palates that would be present, and general story themes, the menu almost wrote itself.

basilisk loaf with minty peas

Behold: The Basilisk Loaf

Preparation: Form the ground basilisk meat in the usual way (with egg, bread crumbs, sauté of onion and red pepper; use plenty of pepper but go light on the essence of Slytherin); wrap in bacon scales and ornament with onion fangs, mushroom nostrils and red pepper tongue and yellow pepper eyes.   Present the loaf in a bed of minty peas because, you know, they’re British and stuff.

Note: This dish is always better when you grind your own basilisk meat at home.

Service: At table, massacre the basilisk with three swift strokes of a long bejewelled sword.  Present the severed head with artfully sprayed ketchup-colored bile as shown above.  Suggest that the diner poke out the basilisk’s yellow pepper eyes.  Did you just gross out a fourth-grader?  Nicely done!

horcrux cakes

Behold: Horcrux Cakes

Preparation: Use your preferred molten-chocolate lava cake recipe.  It should go without saying that we emphasize the importance of dark chocolate in this recipe.

Note: We do not recommend the addition of an actual piece of a person’s soul in these cakes as it adversely affects the quality of the cake crumb; however, a little espresso powder does lift the flavor profile nicely.

Service: Arm your wizards with forks, Fawkes, and/or basilisk fangs to attack the cakes in the manner of Harry going after Tom Riddle’s diary within moments after they’ve been pulled from the oven.  Watch their insides ooze all over the place.  Consume.  We bet you didn’t know that Lord Voldemort tasted like Ghirardelli 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate, did you?  He may be dark and bad, but he is also delicious–and that’s even before he takes the form of Ralph Fiennes (a noseless and cruel Ralph Fiennes, but Ralph Fiennes, none the less).

Dinner may be served with a nice polyjuice potion and, of course, make sure your house elf cleans up the mess while you watch the movie.  As Aragog would say, bon appétit, my children.