Thursday, December 30, 2010

Prego: A Way of Life

So after leaving Spain, the bus headed back into France for a two city stop before finishing out in Italy. The two areas we focused on were Nimes and Aix en Provence, both of which were kind of lackluster experiences due to unforeseen circumstances. The biggest draw in this region and one of my most anticipated buildings, the Maison Carree, had it's front completely covered up due to restoration...a real downer for sure. One of the most influential buildings in the history of architecture, was not to be seen this time. Aix is a small Provence in south France and was mainly just a rest stop for the trip but that didn't stop it from being eventful. After intense negotiation of convincing people not to strip in order to swim in foundations and mysterious glass bottles dropping from hotel rooms with the local authorities asking questions, it was clear that a Italian intervention was needed.

Italy has to have been my favorite country on the trip. It was the perfect mix of feeling like you are in a foreign place without being too overwhelmed with all that is around you. The food is awesome, the landscape was beautiful, and too many sights to see in one visit. The language barrier even seems non-existant at times due to the high number of tourist,  most of the people speak enough english to make interactions simple and less complicated than in other countries. At times, it felt like more people spoke english here than in England itself. If all else fails, just throw in a "prego" it's pretty much interchanged for any word here.

Our stay began in Como, a city technically in Italy but right on the Switz boarder so it made day trips into Switzerland relatively easy. Como, Riva and Lugano are all situated on these huge lakes with grand mountains running right up to the shores. The beauty of this place attracts people from all of the world, including George Clooney, who has a summer house on the lake. Unfortunately, not saying I didn't try to, Dr Doug Ross was no where to be found.

Venice was our first true Italian feeling city and easily one of the best experiences on the trip. The most amazing thing about Venice is the fact that you are dropped off in a large plaza and after you cross the bridge, you will not see any car within the city. Implemented across a series of canals with crossing streets, it can be a little confusing finding your way around first, but when you find the main waterways, it becomes a little easier. It is by far not the cleanest city and you'll experience some smells that will take your breath away, but is one of the most interesting places you could ever hope to visit.
Looking Back into Venice

Exploring each of the narrow streets and watching the gondolas drift by and under bridges is a experience you will miss when it's over. The main streets are filled with people visiting the countless number of stores and restaurants that give life to the area. Murano glass is the big seller in the city and the number of fine glass stores seems to be infinite with each one selling at lease one unique thing. Of course during our stay here, we were missing Halloween back home, so several of us took the opportunity to purchase a venetian mask to wear to dinner that night.  Even though you are in Venice, wearing one of these long nosed masks will still get you plenty of strange looks.

In our studies, we visited the Scarpa museum in Venice, which incorporates the canals into the building, and a Tadao Ando modern art museum that had some of the strangest exhibits I had ever seen...everything from a horse with it's head stuck 3/4's of the way up a wall to anime character statues that at 23 years old, I couldn't stand in the room without blushing. The real draw of the city, really most Italian cities, is exploring the streets and the places in between.
Ally of Venice

After Venice came Florence and although  it was a little strange seeing cars again, it was still a real treat to navigate through the connecting streets. Our hotel this time was only one block over from one of the buildings I was most excited to see, Santa Maria and the Duomo. One of the most important buildings in the history of architecture, the dome marked the advancement in technology and engineering thinks to it's designer, Brunelleschi. There is no more powerful feeling in Florence than walking down an ally and catching a glimpse of this massive cathedral in the distance.
View of Duomo from street
The larget dome of it's time, tourist can still walk between the two shells that it is composed of to get a breathtaking view of Florence and Tuscany. The trip up is not exactly the most pleasant thing as some spaces are less than two feet wide with the same passage being used for those entering and leaving the dome. Theres a lot of waiting in confined, dark spaces and you have to take opportunities to move as soon as you get them. In comparison to the Eiffel Tower, this didn't leave my legs feeling near as bad, but the low clearance would get me every now and then. Any pain getting up is worth it just to take in the surrounding view of the countryside.
Overlooking Florence on the Duomo
There really is a ton to see here, from Brunelleschi to Michelangelo to David...even to Galileo's severed finger...Florence is not short on what it has to offer. Perhaps above any of the architecture, Florence has become known for it's open air markets in the city. Leather is the hot commodity here and there are plenty of vendors that are not afraid to lure you in to get a sell. I hadn't seen so many sales pitches since the red light district in Amsterdam. I ended up leaving Florence with quite a bit less Euros and looking forward to closing the trip out in Rome.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Adios Espana, Ciao Italia

So, I have officially been back home for over a month now and I feel like its about time I wrapped up the Europe blog. Over the next few days, we will go all the way from Valencia to Rome.

Our last two stops in Spain were Valencia and Barcelona, with modern architecture a plenty and lots of famous buildings from the likes of Calatrava, Nouvel, Van der Rohe and Gaudi. Valencia itself is an interesting city in that it really does not feel very Spanish at least in the way of the popular architecture, sure there is the typical bull ring of most Spanish cities and the cuisine, but it just seems to take a back seat to more modern standards. Home to Santiago Calatrava, Valencia has really developed into a showcase for his work and has a special area dedicated just to him and his design. This massive complex is almost like a playground design strait from his imagination and developed on a large scale. A series of about five buildings are laid out within sight of each other and are connected through various walkways and reflecting pools.
View Across the Reflecting Pool

It's really a lot to take in at once, with most buildings looking like they are right out of the Star Wars universe. They all have a different function such as museums, garden, aquarium, auditorium and even a pedestrian bridge. Structurally, the buildings are a tribute in themselves to the advancement of structural engineering with soaring cantilevers and overhangs, but at times lack a fluid continuity between each other. There really is no common point and kind of feels like an amusement park at times but never-the-less, is a true attention getter.
View from side of Calatrava's Science Museum

Barcellona was officially the last city in Spain and is known for such historical architecture as the works of Gaudi and the much loved, Barcelona Pavilion by Meis van der Rohe. These are some of the most talked about buildings no matter if you study architecture or not, you have probably heard about these at some point. If you are looking at taking a look into some of these buildings while in Spain, be prepared to wait in line, crowds flock to these all day.  Gaudi's Sagrada Familia has been in construction for well over one hundred years and still attracts crowds around the block to get a glimpse inside the sand-castle appearance of the church. The Barcellona Pavilion is a little easier to get into and was also a real treat to see the huge slabs of stone that make up the walls and to get a look at the famous dancing lady. The much copied, never duplicated pavilion still holds up well to works of the modern era.
Dancing Lady of Barcelona Pavilion

One of the most recent additions to Barcelona and the most promenade on the skyline in the tower of Torre Agbar by Jean Nouvel. The tower itself is clad in thousands of glass panels the give it a distinctive look and add a outside layer to the concrete shell. At night, the tower lights up in a brilliant display of blue and red that can be seen from far away. Security on the inside is pretty tight and only about half the bottom floor is open to the public with pictures being limited, a real shame when you know that some of the best work is locked away, never to be seen by the public. Regardless, its an excellent interpretation of a modern day skyscraper and extremely hard to miss.
Torre Agbar

All in all, Barcelona has what you expect from such a large city with two much to see over a course of three days. Over that time, I actually felt like I had walked around every street in the city as much as my feet hurt. You'd be surprised how easy it is to get turned around when looking for a giant skyscraper. I can say that I learned a couple of important things while in Spain, the most important being to never trust the food and that Guns N' Roses will literally play in any city I am in a week before or after I leave.
Missed Connections

Up next, a very quick trip back to France and wrapping it up in Italy...