An adventure in Prague

I don’t usually travel in the summer, but a chance to see two friends from the USA in Europe was too good to pass up. We met in Prague and despite the heat and crowds, had a great time discovering this fascinating city.

Our first day, we had a lunch that included fresh lemonade—perfect for the hot day and now my new addiction—and then went to the Speculum Alchemiae. This museum is housed in one of the oldest buildings in Prague and seen via a tour given by a staff member. We learned a lot about alchemy during the reign of Emperor Rudolph II, its relationship to the science and Church of the time, and how secretive the alchemists had to be. The ‘reveal’ of the passage to the underground laboratories was worth the price of admission!

After an aperitif (or was it two?!), we headed to dinner at a restaurant that specializes in duck. Everything we ordered was delicious and our waiter was great, making suggestions about starters and main courses. Then we joined four million (slight exaggeration!) other people to walk across the Charles Bridge.

The next day, we decided to take a hop on, hop off tour bus to reach the castle. When I’m by myself, I tend to forget that there are other options besides walking, but this time there were friends to remind me that it was hot, a long walk from our hotel, and uphill. Entering Old Town Square where we could catch the bus, we walked into the activity that was the Prague Folklore Days parade. The participant groups were preparing for the parade and posing for pictures. No way were we hopping on the bus right away!


Reflection in train station window

Because of where we ‘hopped on’ the bus, we got most of the tour before getting to the castle, which was what we wanted (and were glad we avoided the walk up the hill). It was hard to get photos while we were in motion, but we were stationary long enough for me to capture the reflection in the windows of this train station.

Arriving in the area of the castle, we opted for a snack before more sightseeing. After the pastry and lemonade of the previous day’s lunch, it was disappointing to be served ‘prefab’ lemonade (how quickly we become spoiled!) and pie that was still frozen. Balancing out that were the great views of the city and the street below us from the terraces surrounding the castle.

One of our priorities was seeing the Mucha stained glass window in St. Vitus Cathedral; turns out there’s more stunning stained glass than that one window.

Our ticket also gave us admission to Golden Lane, which was hot and crowded and sent us fleeing to the bus, which appeared almost immediately—hooray!

Before dinner, we did something I would never have done by myself—we went to an absintherie. What an interesting experience! When we asked how best to taste absinthe by itself, the bartender suggested what I think was called an absinthe beetle (not a real beetle to be seen, but apparently, one can buy bottles with an actual beetle). The heated fumes were so strong, I could not take a sip for several minutes. After that, we tasted various absinthe cocktails—good, but strong. As I said, interesting!

That night, we took a ghost tour, led by a storyteller in costume. Kristýna was wonderful and a couple of her stories had me gasping in surprise and shock at the ending.

One of our party had to leave late morning the next day and casting about for something to do that would take only an hour and not involve a lot of walking, we settled on a tour of the Old Town Hall. What a lucky choice! For one thing, we got to see the figures of the Astronomical Clock from the inside. Every hour, these figures rotate in front of the two windows on the front of the clock. For another, our guide was personable and knowledgeable and managed to convey a lot of Prague history in a short time. Once again, we found ourselves underground at what was the original level of the street—two to eight meters below the current street. The tour finished with our guide requiring that we each speak a word of Czech before he would let us up the stairs!

As I seem to say a lot, I look forward to going back and exploring more of this wonderful city.

St. Vitus Cathedral

Images © Melissa Corcoran.

The Museu Nacional do Azulejo

What an absolutely fabulous visit to the Museu Nacional do Azulejo in Lisbon – truly one of the best times I’ve spent in a museum!

I looked forward to visiting this museum, also known as the National Tile Museum, because I knew that Portugal was famed for its tiles, but it was even better than I expected, thanks to its well-captioned exhibits, the displays designed to be touched, and the excellent app that included both audio and text descriptions.

Azulejo is the Portuguese word for tile and the audio guide explained that the word came from the Arabic ‘al-zulaich,’ which means ‘polished stone.’ I learned about the various ways of making azulejo: the alicatado technique, in which painted and fired clay sheets were scored in a pattern and individual pieces broken off; the corda seca (dry cord) technique in which the pattern was pressed into the soft clay, forming grooves that acted as barriers between the different colors during the firing; the aresta (ridge) technique in which the motif was stamped onto the soft clay, with the lines of the design forming ridges that provided the same separation of colors as in the dry cord technique; and the imprint technique, in which the motif stood out from the surface of the tile, rather than the outline standing out as in the ridge technique.

Wall azulejo.

In the section on tile making in the first part of the 16th century, I learned that Muslims on the Iberian peninsula used wall and floor azulejos that imitated large tapestries. The audio guide pointed out that tile’s ability to reflect light had a great impact in the days when buildings were illuminated by candlelight.

An example of the faience technique.

Another exhibit connected to Italy – it discussed the faience technique from the Italian city Faenza. This technique, developed in mid-16th century, allowed for a greater range of color tones and potters were able to produce tiles that resembled paintings. A magnificent example of this technique is the Our Lady of Life panel. It consists of 1,498 faience tiles and imitates a retable (another word I learned on this trip; it means a decorative structure placed on or above and behind an altar). The audio guide told me that this is considered one of Portugal’s azulejo masterpieces because of the complexity of its design and color scheme and I can see why.

I had to go looking for it because it had been moved into a special exhibit area, but a favorite panel was the registo panel of Our Lady of Carmo. Registos are azulejo panels that were placed on building facades after the 1755 earthquake as protection from further catastrophes. They depicted the Virgin Mary or saints, particularly St. Marçal, who offered protection against fires. This panel was made in Coimbra and the colors are different from azulejo made in Lisbon: the blues are more grey in tone and the yellows more orange.

The museum is housed in a former convent, the Convento de Madre de Deus, which was a convent for the cloistered Order of Saint Clare. One of the interesting factoids I learned when visiting the church was that the amount of gold used for the gilded carved frames of the paintings that cover the ceiling and part of the walls was that of six gold coins. With all the glitter, one would not expect that, but the layer of gold is very thin.

By the time I left the museum, I had told a guard, the man in the gift shop, and the two people at the front desk how much I enjoyed my visit and how great the audio guide was. If you’re ever in Lisbon, go to this museum!

More azulejo:

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A day in Belém

I spent a day in Belém because one thing led to another: the Monastery of Jerónimos was high on my list of places to visit in Lisbon, then I saw that the Tower of Belém was part of the same UNESCO World Heritage site, then I noticed that the  Museu da Marinha was in the same area and I like maritime museums.

Thanks to clear directions and a map from the hotel receptionist, I found my way to the stop for the bus to Belém. Once at the monastery, I bought my ticket for the monastery and tower and thanks to a suggestion from a TripAdvisor reviewer, headed for the tower first. Despite arthritic knees, I enjoy climbing towers and the view from up high. Standing in line to enter the tower, water was splashing over the walkway, which explained why there was a space in the line! That reminded me that Nuno had told me the day before that the Tagus River is saltwater and tidal at this point.

The tower was built around 1514 as part of the defense system of the port of Lisbon.  Starting in 1589, it was successively used as a prison, a customs post, a telegraph station, and a lighthouse. A curious feature is a corbel in the shape of a rhinoceros head. This carving was inspired by the arrival in Lisbon of a rhinoceros from India in 1513. It was given by King Manuel I to Pope Leo X the next year, but sadly, the rhinoceros drowned when the ship carrying it sank.

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After lunch, I headed to the Museu da Marinha. Walking through an area that was a mix of residential, commercial, and apparently abandoned buildings, I passed an alleyway. Ten seconds later, I decided to backtrack and take a picture and lucked out – a horse and carriage passed just then and were framed by the opening!

The Museu da Marinha was a mixed bag. The first section included exhibits and signage that were interesting and informative, without being overwhelming. For example, the sign board for a selection of maps pointed out that cartography provided practical information for navigation and that charts and maps were also illustrated with the new types of plants and animals and the different people being encountered by Europeans. Another exhibit of model ships explained that these were used for training purposes and listed the details of the actions illustrated by the model (most of which I didn’t understand, but I appreciated the concept). A couple of highlights for me were noticing that the frame of a painting of Henry the Navigator was made to resemble rope and learning a new phrase – armillary sphere.

The next part of the museum was filled with displays centered on the navy, merchant marine, and fishing. These were mostly models and I wished for more context and easier-to-read signage. A section I liked contained two rooms preserved from the royal yacht Amelia; I could definitely see myself being quite comfortable in one of these rooms! In an area across a courtyard was a huge space filled with royal barges and traditional fishing boats. The prows of both barges and boats were decorated, albeit in quite different styles.

I wrapped up my day by visiting the monastery. I can only describe the Manueline style as exuberantly magnificent. My neck hurt from looking up, trying to note every detail of the columns and ceilings. I understood why people were taking pictures – so was I – but I cannot think it proper to take selfies in front of an altar. As with my walking tour the day before, I was introduced to a person of whom I had never heard – Alexandre Herculano – via an exhibition on his life and contributions. Another exhibition consisted of a timeline of 500 years of the monastery, Portugal, and the world. I chuckled internally when I saw a notation about the synthesis of aspirin, since I’d stopped at a pharmacy the evening before to buy some, anticipating sore muscles after walking so much.

In a triumph of figuring out something, I found the stop for the bus back to my hotel. And thank goodness, another pastry crossed my path that evening!

Images © Melissa Corcoran.

A Duomo day, part 1

During the many years I lived in Boston, one of my favorite places was The Brattle Theatre, which showed second-run and classic films. I got to see some of my favorite movies on the big screen that I had previously seen only on television, like “Singing in the Rain” and “Rear Window.” The problem was that when the movie came around again in a couple of years, I’d want to see it on the big screen again. Not sure why, but I thought I had to justify a return visit and resorted to saying things to myself like ‘well, this is a restored version, so I can go see it again.’

Similarly, I justified my visit to Il Grande Museo del Duomo today by buying a ticket that included a tour of the north terrace, an area closed to the general public. The ticket included admission to the dome, the crypt, the baptistry, the bell tower, and the new Opera Duomo Museum.

The tour exceeded my expectations. First of all, my guide Angela was wonderful. She introduced herself to me in English, which is how I responded. Then I realized that I knew the Italian for that and repeated my introduction in Italian. She was so encouraging, telling me to try speaking Italian whenever I could, even if it wasn’t perfect.

I didn’t realize that the tour would include more than climbing up to the terrace. Angela took me into nave, pointing out and explaining various elements of the church. This added another layer to my understanding and appreciation of the cathedral as a whole, which, after all, is not just about Brunelleschi’s dome. A symbolism I particularly liked is that the colors of the robes of the three virtues depicted in the dome’s fresco – Faith (white), Hope (green), and Charity (red) – are echoed in the colors of the façade of the cathedral. My curiosity was piqued when Angela pointed out the door that leads to the stairs the clock keepers use to adjust the twenty-four clock over the center doors (hmmm, wonder what tour lets you up there?).

Leaving the nave, we climbed to the north terrace. What a view! Angela pointed out an observatory that is still in use, the Palazzo Medici Riccardi (you can’t go ten feet in this city without falling over a Medici), and the unfinished façade of Basilica di San Lorenzo. It was wonderful seeing the city from that in-between height, but best of all was seeing the outside of the dome from a different angle.

I said goodbye to Angela with a ‘grazie mille,’ which elicited a smile and more encouragement about using whatever Italian I know, and started the hike to the top of the dome. Perhaps because my eyes had already been opened to new details, I noticed some things I hadn’t noticed on previous climbs, for example, that the depiction of hell on the fresco is quite gruesome. A more-pleasing moment was noticing the herringbone pattern of the bricks, one of the techniques used by Brunelleschi to support the massive dome.

Reaching the top, I found it blissfully uncrowded. I performed one of my minor jobs in life, which is taking photos for people. After all, how could I say no to the young woman who asked me to take a photo of her with Giotto’s bell tower – I mean, she used the proper name! When I offered to take a picture of a couple from Australia, I met Colleen and Peter, with whom I started a conversation that went from the cupola to the bar of the museum. We talked about politics, the medical systems of our respective countries, and how good the house wine is at restaurants in Italy!

My next stop was the museum, which recently reopened after an expansion and renovation. It is stunning. The size has more than doubled, which allows for some fantastic exhibits, including a reconstruction of the earliest façade of Santa Maria del Fiore. One of my favorite galleries was the Galleria della Cupola, focusing on Brunelleschi and the construction of the dome. Here I found a connection to an area I love – the Casentino Valley – in the three ‘tree trunks’ that represent the forests of the Casentino from which came the wood used for the scaffolding and machines used to build the dome.

Leaving the museum, I calculated how much more I could see the next morning. The ticket is good for twenty-four hours, and my first entrance was around 10:45, so I should be able to see two of the three remaining places if I start early.

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A Duomo day, part 2

Images © Melissa Corcoran.

Duty done

I’ve done my duty and visited the Galleria dell’Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David. While appreciating the magnificence and symbolism of the statue, I was underwhelmed. (I don’t think it’s because I’d seen so many representations of it beforehand; other artworks have blown me away when I finally saw them in person after seeing them in pictures.) More interesting to me was seeing the unfinished Michelangelo sculptures in the hallway leading up the David – the figures truly looked as if they were trying to break free of the stone.

A tenor viola and violoncello made by Stradivari.

A tenor viola and violoncello made by Stradivari.

What caught my eye as we wandered through the rest of the museum was a small gallery housing a series of panels by Taddeo Gaddi. The panels depict stories of Christ and St. Francis of Assisi and originally decorated a reliquary cupboard. In their gold-rimmed quatrefoil frames, they glowed in the dimly-lit room, drawing me in to look at them more closely.

The ticket included admission to the Museum of Musical Instruments and that was the best part of my visit. Most of the instruments were beautiful (a couple were just weird). There were computers available with a nicely-done program that included information on the various instrument makers and recordings of music from the time of the Medici and the Lorraine. I didn’t get to read and listen to more than a small percentage of the program, so I’ll be going back there.

As I said, duty done on the David and as a bonus, I discovered the beautiful panels and the fascinating Museum of Musical Instruments.