architecture

Abu Simbel: Ramesses II’s Ego Run Wild

This stunning but crowded day trip from Aswan has been moved from its original location.

Add Aswan to your itinerary and spend a morning at Abu Simbel

Add Aswan to your itinerary and spend a morning at Abu Simbel

Pharaoh Ramesses II embarked upon one of the most ambitious construction programs in Ancient Egypt. But it was his temple in Abu Simbel, far from the judgemental eyes in Memphis and Thebes, in the southernmost part of the Egyptian Empire that he gave his megalomania free reign.

There’s a discrepancy in the dating of the site, but it took place over two decades, either 1264-1244 BCE or 1244-1224 BCE.

The Abu Simbel temples were chopped into 16,000 or so blocks — and reassembled like a giant-sized puzzle in an artificial mountain 200 feet higher.

Carved into the side of a sandstone cliff, Ramesses II’s temple to his own awesomeness immediately impresses the visitor with its four massive seated colossi of the king that rise 69 feet high. One, sadly, has lost its torso, which now lies shattered at its feet.

Four seated colossi of Ramesses II are larger than life, at 69 feet tall

Four seated colossi of Ramesses II are larger than life, at 69 feet tall

A carving of Ra-Horakhty, the conflation of two sun gods (noticeably smaller than the statues of Ramesses II), stands in the center of the façade. A line of baboons decorates the top of the exterior, which faces east, with the rays of the rising sun bathing the frieze in light. Baboons were associated with the sun, as their cries were thought to greet the dawning of a new day.

Inside, the first hall contains eight giant-sized replicas of the pharaoh in the Osiride style, meaning they have their arms crossed over their chests to portray Ramesses as Osiris, lord of the underworld.

We don’t call him Ramesses the Great for nothin’.

The first hall features eight giant statues of the pharaoh as Osiris, the god of the underworld

The first hall features eight giant statues of the pharaoh as Osiris, the god of the underworld

Ramesses II was quite the egotist — his image is all over the temple

Ramesses II was quite the egotist — his image is all over the temple

It’s crazy to think that the temple is around 3,200 years old!

It’s crazy to think that the temple is around 3,200 years old!

In theory, though, the Great Temple was dedicated to Ra-Horakhty, Amun (creator god of Thebes) and Ptah (creator god of Memphis, associated with the underworld). Oh, and the deified Ramesses II rounded out the grouping, of course.

It’s a family affair at Abu Simbel — those smaller statues at the bottom are Ramesses’ wife, mother and children

It’s a family affair at Abu Simbel — those smaller statues at the bottom are Ramesses’ wife, mother and children

Building the temples in the southernmost part of the country, facing Nubia, also acted as a deterrent to any invaders coming from that direction. They would see these massive statues of their enemy and would hopefully be frightened away.

The temple was a genius stroke of propaganda. The famous Battle of Kadesh, in which the Egyptians fought the Hittites, actually ended as a stalemate. But that didn’t stop Ramesses from declaring a victory and commissioning numerous carvings portraying himself as the protector god and showcasing his “triumph” over one of Ancient Egypt’s archenemies.

Other reliefs on the interior walls are decorated with scenes showing the king defeating the Syrians, Libyans and Nubians, presenting prisoners to the gods.

The reliefs inside showcase Ramesses’ military “victories,” including the famous Battle of Kadesh, which actually ended in a draw

The reliefs inside showcase Ramesses’ military “victories,” including the famous Battle of Kadesh, which actually ended in a draw

Abu Simbel was built on the border of Nubia as a deterrent to invasion, and shows a line of Nubian slaves

Abu Simbel was built on the border of Nubia as a deterrent to invasion, and shows a line of Nubian slaves

At the very back of the temple, carved deep into the mountain, lies the innermost sanctuary, the holy of holies. It housed four statues. There are the three great state gods of the late New Kingdom: Ra-Horakhty, Ptah, Amun-Ra and, no surprise here, the deified Ramesses.

Sunlight bathes these three of these gods on two days only: February 21 and October 21 (some sources say it’s the 22nd), one of which is thought to be Ramesses II’s birthday, the other possibly his coronation day. The figure of Ptah, associated with the underworld, remains in partial shadow.

The temple next door is fit for a queen — in fact, it’s dedicated to Ramesses’ wife, Nefertari

The temple next door is fit for a queen — in fact, it’s dedicated to Ramesses’ wife, Nefertari

Nefertari’s Temple to Hathor

Nearby is another temple, dedicated to the goddess Hathor, though it really seems to be for Nefertari, Ramesses II’s chief wife (pharaohs were polygamous, with a harem full of spare wives). Even here Ramesses insisted upon sharing the spotlight: Out front are two 33-foot-tall statues of the queen, along with two more of the king. Diminutive figures of their children round out the family portrait.

What was groundbreaking at the time, though, was that Ramesses II portrayed his favorite wife as equal to him — her statues on this temple are the same size as his.

And inside, while it’s still impressive, the pillared hall didn’t get as much attention as the one next door. The Hathor columns, a popular style at the time, where the pillars are topped with the head of one of the most revered deities in the Egyptian pantheon, look downright amateurish in comparison. Hathor, considered the first goddess, was depicted with bovine features. The heads atop the columns all have cow ears.

Don’t have a cow! These Hathor columns aren’t as ornate as those in Ramesses’ temple

Don’t have a cow! These Hathor columns aren’t as ornate as those in Ramesses’ temple

On the rear wall, Hathor is depicted as a cow emerging from a mountain, with the king standing beneath her chin. Nefertari is shown participating in the divine rituals — on equal footing as Ramesses.

Nefertari is shown as a divine being, being crowned by the goddesses Hathor and Isis

Nefertari is shown as a divine being, being crowned by the goddesses Hathor and Isis

Fun fact: Abu Simbel isn’t what the complex was called in ancient times. In fact, it’s supposedly named after the local boy who led one of the archeologists to the site. Abu Simbel is a bit more catchy than the original name, Hut Ramesses Meryamun, the Temple of Ramesses, Beloved of Amun, if you ask me.

The entire temple complex was cut into pieces and relocated on higher ground to avoid it being flooded by the Aswan High Dam

The entire temple complex was cut into pieces and relocated on higher ground to avoid it being flooded by the Aswan High Dam

A Monumental Relocation Project

The Abu Simbel you’re visiting today isn’t at the same spot it was in ancient times. The original site has been submerged beneath the waters of the newly formed Lake Nasser after the construction of the Aswan High Dam. What happened to the temple complex?

Egyptians (and UNESCO) couldn’t bear to have such a stunning monument lost beneath the water. So, from 1963 to 1968, teams underwent an impressive undertaking. They chopped up the entire temples into 16,000 or so blocks — and reassembled them like a giant-sized puzzle in an artificial mountain 200 feet higher.

Instead of repairing the sculptures — as mentioned, one of the colossi has lost its head — the project team chose to keep the temples exactly as they were before the relocation.

If you arrive close to opening time, you’ll be stuck with busloads of other tourists. But around noon, the complex was much less crowded

If you arrive close to opening time, you’ll be stuck with busloads of other tourists. But around noon, the complex was much less crowded

Visiting Abu Simbel

If you’re staying in Aswan, chances are your guide will want to get an early move on. Abu Simbel is, after all, a three-hour drive away. But it you leave at the crack of dawn, around 6 a.m. like us, you’ll arrive at the same time all the massive tour buses pull in as well. That meant we arrived at the impressive edifice along with swarms of other visitors. There’s nothing that takes you out of the experience more than having to share an enclosed space with throngs of tourists taking selfies for Instagram and moving en masse all around you.

We suffered through a claustrophobic exploration of Abu Simbel, then went over to see the Nefertari temple. When we returned to Abu Simbel, it had largely emptied out since it was around noon. Only then did we experience the awe of this sacred space.

If you want to take a picture without swarms of tourists, snap one as you come back from Nefertari’s temple, where a low wall obscures the crowds

If you want to take a picture without swarms of tourists, snap one as you come back from Nefertari’s temple, where a low wall obscures the crowds

In an effort to prevent congestion, guides can’t go in the temples, so Mamduh, from Egypt Sunset Tours, gave us the rundown and then set us free, meeting us back at the café near the entrance.

Admission costs 200 Egyptian pounds, and be sure to spring for the 300 L.E. photo pass. This was one of the sites where we saw guards forcing violators to delete the pics right off their phones.

Like most sites you’ll visit in Egypt, you have to walk through the bazaar on your way out. As we hurried through, a dagger with a curving horn handle caught my eye. Duke likes to joke that everywhere I go I look for daggers and dollies (it’s funny cuz it’s true). I negotiated a price of 350 L.E., or about $20. I could have probably gotten him to go lower, but I was OK with that price.

As we exited on the other side of the temple hill, a policeman smiled and began chatting with us. Of course we had no idea what he was saying, but it seemed like he wanted to pose for a picture with us (for a tip, naturally). He presented his machine gun like he was offering for us to hold it, but I hope I was wrong about that. –Wally

 


Al Moudira: A Dream Oasis in Luxor, Egypt

Escape the hassle. This idyllic, under-the-radar Luxor hotel on the West Bank of the Nile has plenty of personality.

This elaborate woodwork forms one wall of the central courtyard

This elaborate woodwork forms one wall of the central courtyard

Wally and I found ourselves on a narrow road, passing children driving donkey carts, wagons piled high with sugarcane and the rugged otherworldly stretch of the Theban Mountains on the horizon.

Once we arrived at the Hotel Al Moudira and told our guide Mamduh this was where we were staying, he became visibly concerned. He even accompanied us to reception to confirm that this hotel, in the middle of nowhere, was where we really wanted to stay.

We could understand his apprehension. The sprawling Al Moudira is set back from a dusty two-lane road, in the midst of a tiny rural village surrounded by acres of fertile farmland. Mamduh just couldn’t understand why we would want to stay outside the urban center of the East Bank. But Al Moudira’s remoteness is a large part of its appeal.

The minute you enter the confines of the hotel, you’ll know you’re someplace special

The minute you enter the confines of the hotel, you’ll know you’re someplace special

We stopped by the reception room to check in and were each served a refreshing glass of karkadeh, sweetened, chilled hibiscus tea. I quickly asked if there was a bathroom nearby, as we had driven from Aswan to Luxor that day and it was a long distance between our last stop at Edfu and the West Bank. As I passed a trio of colorful wooden figurines, and saw the vintage oil-painted portraits — one of a man with a rather bushy moustache, and the other a silver-haired matron wearing a pearl necklace — outside their respective bathrooms, I knew we had found the perfect place to spend the next four nights.

The reception area

The reception area

Quirky artwork can be found here and there, revealing the proprietress’ sense of humor

Quirky artwork can be found here and there, revealing the proprietress’ sense of humor

For Wally, all he needed to see was the gurgling fountain in the open-air central courtyard, and he was grinning from ear to ear. And that was before he knew we had our own fountain in our room!

Our room opened to a courtyard filled with vibrant flowering bougainvillea, a fountain, and a sitting area

Our room opened to a courtyard filled with vibrant flowering bougainvillea, a fountain, and a sitting area

A Tour of Al Moudira

We passed through the entrance hall, which leads to the stunning central courtyard. The fountain stands in the middle, while at the far side, light filtered through an intricate cedarwood mashrabiya screen integrated into the main pavilion, creating an inviting seating area complete with cushioned banquettes for guests to perch and relax on.

A raised platform in the courtyard is gorgeously appointed and is a great spot to relax before dinner

A raised platform in the courtyard is gorgeously appointed and is a great spot to relax before dinner

Garden paths made of repurposed tile meander throughout Al Moudira

Garden paths made of repurposed tile meander throughout Al Moudira

The man leading us to our room stopped to introduce us to a dark-haired woman. “This is the boss!” he exclaimed. “Al moudira! She is the owner, the designer, the manager — basically, she does everything!”

It wasn’t until later that we made the connection that Al Moudira means “boss,” specifically the female form of the word.

The junior suite Wally and I stayed in was airy and spacious (not so “junior”) and included a generous sitting area, a central fountain surrounded by cushions, air conditioning, a minibar and a king-size canopy bed. The Wi-Fi was weak in our room, but that’s the point. The vibe is low key and has been designed for you to unplug. Don’t worry, though. You can still post to Facebook and Instagram (though don’t you dare check that work email) with the Wi-Fi in the main courtyard.

Our spacious room had a fountain in the middle of it!

Our spacious room had a fountain in the middle of it!

Every morning, light filtered through the colored glass set into the vaulted domes of our enormous en-suite bathroom.

The complex itself is comprised of a maze of open arches, crowned with cupolas and enclosed inner courtyards, each with its own fountain and verdant oasis.

The beautiful objects found throughout the hotel have been collected by Zeina, the owner

The beautiful objects found throughout the hotel have been collected by Zeina, the owner

The Boss Tells Us the History of Al Moudira

One evening while Wally and I were relaxing on the central courtyard terrace, we met Al Moudira again, the charming multilingual Lebanese proprietor, hostess and creative force behind the hotel, Zeina Aboukheir.

I casually asked if anything had stood where the hotel was and she paused our conversation to retrieve a scrapbook that a close friend had made for her, documenting the process and various inspirations for her desert palace. A dedication on the first page caught my eye. It read, “Al Moudira, ou la folie de Zeina” (the madness of Zeina — or as we might say, “Zeina’s crazy idea”).

Construction began in 2000, but the hotel feels old and grand, due to the vintage finds and architectural salvage Zeina has amassed from her travels and effortlessly layered into her labor of love, including Persian carpets, salvaged wooden doors and mother of pearl-inlaid chairs.

I told Zeina I loved the artworks that adorn the walls of the Eastern Bar, hand-colored boudoir images from a series titled Femmes de Bou Saada, and she replied, “Yes, aren’t they wonderful?”

The Eastern Bar has naughty artwork, games and a piano

The Eastern Bar has naughty artwork, games and a piano

Enjoy a cocktail before and/or after dinner

Enjoy a cocktail before and/or after dinner

The bar evokes a cozy parlor in a British mansion

The bar evokes a cozy parlor in a British mansion

Zeina purchased the desolate plot of land and set out to transform it into a storybook refuge. She hired Olivier Sednaoui, who specializes in vernacular architecture, which incorporates traditional regional and indigenous styles. Sednaoui had previously built his own home near Medinet Habu, inspired by the methods and techniques of Hassan Fathy, a pioneer in sustainable mud brick architecture.

The hotel is named for Zeina’s nickname: the Boss Lady

The hotel is named for Zeina’s nickname: the Boss Lady

Zeina and the architect had many spirited debates over the concept of the hotel complex.

“Did you get your way?” Wally asked.

“For the most part,” Zeina said, smiling.

She added, “He was very good at brickwork. But that’s all he wanted to do. When that was finished, he left.”

No shrinking violet, Zeina persevered over the following years, assembling a team of local workers and craftsmen, along with Lebanese artist Mario Dahab, whose flourishes can be seen throughout the boutique hotel. This can-do spirit earned her the nickname Al Moudira. When it came time to decide a name for the hotel, she already knew what to call it.

Lush plants, soothing earth tones, arches and cupolas are all part of the relaxing aesthetic at Al Moudira

Lush plants, soothing earth tones, arches and cupolas are all part of the relaxing aesthetic at Al Moudira

“The Only Place Possible in Luxor”

The hotel’s interiors have a theatrical quality, blending Egyptian, North African and Near Eastern styles. As Zeina told us, “I find things I like…and then figure out where to put them.” For example, the piano in the Eastern Bar was discovered at a flea market in Alexandria.

I wasn’t the least bit surprised when she told us that the hotel has received celebrity guests, including French fashion designer Christian Louboutin, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger and supermodel Kate Moss — who we learned, much to our dismay, was there just a few days before we were.

Wally and I ate breakfast and dinner al fresco in the communal courtyard, partly because there wasn’t another option nearby, but also because the meals we had there were delicious. The menu changes nightly and features a variety of Mediterranean, Eastern and European-inspired dishes — all at a remarkably affordable price.

Lunch of mezze, or small dishes, which we enjoyed al fresco by the pool

Lunch of mezze, or small dishes, which we enjoyed al fresco by the pool

The central courtyard is where most guests have breakfast and dinner

The central courtyard is where most guests have breakfast and dinner

Service was warm and hospitable, and we felt like we were guests at a lavish caliphate’s winter palace. I enjoyed hearing the sound of rustling palm fronds and birdsong as well as the occasional call to prayer while exploring the beautifully landscaped grounds. (We got a bit lost on more than one occasion.)

During our stay, the large swimming pool was the perfect place to seek refuge from the strong midday sun, and Wally and I looked forward to spending a few hours reading and relaxing poolside after exploring the hot and arid West Bank.

The pool is where the action is in the afternoon

The pool is where the action is in the afternoon

Get a drink or a bite at the pool pavilion

Get a drink or a bite at the pool pavilion

You will have to share your stay with flies, but there were small brushes placed everywhere (Wally called them shoo-flies), which act like a horse’s tail to swat away the pests. Duke would rest the shoo-fly by his head, convinced that this trick kept the flies at bay.

If you’re planning on visiting Luxor and are looking for the perfect place to stay within close proximity of the ancient pharaonic sites of the West Bank, and prefer a restful refuge not in the midst of the Luxor chaos, look no further than Al Moudira. You’ll soon learn that a stay here is the perfect getaway, or to, quote Louboutin: “For the most divine hotel owner, Zeina, and for the garden — basically the only place possible in Luxor.” –Duke

Forget downtown Luxor — we recommend staying at this refuge on the West Bank

Forget downtown Luxor — we recommend staying at this refuge on the West Bank

Hotel Al Moudira
Luxor
West Bank,
Hager Al Dabbeya
Egypt

 

La Casa Azul, the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City

Explore the quirky blue-painted home-turned-museum where the bohemian Mexican artist was born and lived while married to muralist Diego Rivera.

You can wander through the home Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived in

You can wander through the home Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived in

One destination that was at the top of our list to visit while in CDMX was La Casa Azul, or the Blue House, the former home and studio of Mexican artist and revolutionary cultural icon Frida Kahlo.

The first thing to capture your attention upon arrival at the corner of Calles Londres and Allende, which is now the Museo Frida Kahlo, are the vibrant cobalt-blue walls that rise straight up from the sidewalk. They reminded me of the intense blue used by French painter Jacques Majorelle in his garden acquired by Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Bergé in Marrakech, Morocco.

To be in the former home of this captivating, self-willed individual was an amazing and moving experience.
Get your tickets well before you visit — and get the earliest time available to cut down on crowds

Get your tickets well before you visit — and get the earliest time available to cut down on crowds

The other was the line of people waiting to gain admission. After reading how popular the destination is, we purchased and printed our tickets in advance for the first available self-guided tour of the day to avoid the crowds. If you show up without a ticket, we’ve heard you can expect to wait up to four hours, as the museum limits the amount of people allowed inside. Even if you get your tickets in advance, plan on getting into line half an hour early so you’re at the beginning of your group.

Portrait of Frida Kahlo  by Roberto Montenegro, 1936

Portrait of Frida Kahlo by Roberto Montenegro, 1936

You can download an electronic version of your ticket, which will be scanned by one of the museum docents. If you’d like to take pictures inside, which we did, you’ll need to purchase a photography pass for an extra fee of about 30 pesos, or $1.50.

Keep in mind that the cost of your ticket also includes admission to the Anahuacalli Museum, designed by Diego Rivera to contain his impressive collection of pre-Columbian art. It’s great fun to explore.

Duke leans on the iconic blue walls of La Casa Azul while we wait to go in

Duke leans on the iconic blue walls of La Casa Azul while we wait to go in

It’s cool being able to explore the home shared by these two famous artists

It’s cool being able to explore the home shared by these two famous artists

Inside La Casa Azul

At the entry, you’re met by a few of Kahlo’s fantastical and monstrous papier-mâché folk art alebrije figures, traditionally representing Satan and Judas, which are filled with firecrackers and exploded on Sabado de Gloria, the Saturday before Easter.

Part of the courtyard includes this tiled pool

Part of the courtyard includes this tiled pool

Built around an open-air central courtyard, the interior of the house offers visitors a chance to catch a glimpse into Frida’s creative universe. Each room is organized by theme, many exactly as Kahlo left them. The first room Wally and I entered was originally the formal living room, where the Riveras hosted storied intellectual guests from Gershwin to Trotsky and now functions as a gallery featuring a selection of Frida’s lesser-known paintings. Of note is Portrait of My Father, made by Kahlo 10 years after her father’s death with the dedication “I painted my father Wilhelm Kahlo, of Hungarian-German origin, artist-photographer by profession, in character generous, intelligent and fine, valiant because he suffered for 60 years with epilepsy, but never gave up working and fought against Hitler. With adoration, his daughter, Frida Kahlo,” and a still life depicting sliced watermelons inscribed with the phrase “Viva la Vida” or, Long Live Life.

Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick  by Frida Kahlo, 1954

Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick by Frida Kahlo, 1954

Portrait of My Father  by Frida Kahlo, 1951

Portrait of My Father by Frida Kahlo, 1951

Viva la Vida  by Frida Kahlo, 1954 — the last of her paintings she signed

Viva la Vida by Frida Kahlo, 1954 — the last of her paintings she signed

The next room held a delightful miniature puppet theater created by Frida. One of my favorite items in the house, it contained a cat or perhaps jaguar, a seated woman, a skeleton with a red sash around its waist and an alligator suspended in the air. Also on display was a painting by Diego Rivera titled La Quebrada. The inscription in the lower right corner reads, “A La Niña Fridita Kahlo la maravillosa. El 7 de Julio de 1956 a los dos años que duerme en cenizas, viva en mi corazón” (To the little girl Fridita Kahlo, the wonderful one. On July 7, 1956, two years since she went to sleep in the ashes, she lives on in my heart.)

We especially loved this kinda creepy puppet theater Frida created

We especially loved this kinda creepy puppet theater Frida created

Moving farther along, white painted ceiling beams and bold blue, yellow and white glazed tiles complement the kitchen countertop and frame the chimney. Kahlo embellished the walls surrounding the wood-burning stove using miniature glazed clay mugs to whimsically spell out her and Diego’s names. On the opposite wall are two doves tying a lovers’ knot and a pair of pumpkin-shaped clay tureens sitting atop a long yellow table.

Frida spelled out her and Diego’s names in miniature clay mugs on the wall above her stove

Frida spelled out her and Diego’s names in miniature clay mugs on the wall above her stove

A glimpse into Frida’s kitchen

A glimpse into Frida’s kitchen

The neutral tones of earthenware pottery pair nicely with the bright blue and yellow tiles

The neutral tones of earthenware pottery pair nicely with the bright blue and yellow tiles

Next to the kitchen, the dining room shares the same vibrant color scheme with bright yellow open storage shelving chock full of colored glassware, earthenware pots, plates and indigenous artifacts.  

The dining room

The dining room

A bright yellow cabinet displaying some of Frida’s collections

A bright yellow cabinet displaying some of Frida’s collections

Rivera’s small bedroom is tucked off to the side of the dining room. A pillow sitting on a vintage armchair is embroidered with the words “Despierta Corazon Dormido” (Wake Up, Sleeping Heart). Outside this room, a flight of stairs leads to the second floor library and studio, an addition by Rivera.

The small room Diego stayed in also once housed Leon Trotsky, with whom Frida had an affair

The small room Diego stayed in also once housed Leon Trotsky, with whom Frida had an affair

Up in the studio, large steel-framed windows look out to the garden and fill the room with natural light. There’s also an enviable collection of books. Kahlo’s small wooden work desk holds an assortment of brushes, a palette, a mirror and small glass bottles of pigment waiting to be mixed for use.

Frida’s work table: where the magic happened

Frida’s work table: where the magic happened

The materials Frida used in her paintings

The materials Frida used in her paintings

Color pigments Frida used to create her paint

Color pigments Frida used to create her paint

Adjacent to these tools, a wheelchair faces an easel with the painting Still Life With Flag — a reminder that Frida experienced a series of life events that left her in chronic pain. At the age of 6, she contracted polio, which left her right leg withered and shorter than her left, causing her to limp. In her teens, while traveling home from school, the bus on which she was riding was hit by a streetcar. She sustained serious trauma, including multiple fractures of the clavicle, ribs and spine, and was pierced by an iron handrail from the streetcar that impaled her pelvis. Frida miraculously survived and and began painting self-portraits — her reality captured by a mirror within the intimacy of her own studio at home. She once said, “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”

In poor health for much of her life, Frida had to paint in a wheelchair now and then

In poor health for much of her life, Frida had to paint in a wheelchair now and then

Immediately off the artists studio are a pair of Kahlo’s four-poster beds. As Frida was frequently bedridden, her day bed is fitted with a mirror above that she would use to paint while convalescing. Because she died in this room in 1954, her death mask fittingly (yet creepily) rests atop the bed. On the wall behind the headboard, a skeleton with tiny arms wearing a top hat and a painting of a presumably dead child with a garland of purple poppy flowers watch over the bed.

Frida’s death mask sits on her bed

Frida’s death mask sits on her bed

Frida’s night bed has a framed grouping of butterfly specimens attached to the panel above. These were given to her by Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. On a lace-topped table nearby a headless pre-Columbian urn contains her ashes. A cabinet of toys rendered in miniature are displayed off to the right.

The large urn to the left contains Frida’s ashes

The large urn to the left contains Frida’s ashes

We exited via a staircase from Frida’s day room in the central courtyard and followed a winding path that led us past a stepped pyramidal structure, added and built by Rivera, a pedestal to display their pre-Columbian sculptures in the garden. Frida loved botany and collected many species of plants native to Mexico and created a garden abundant with yuccas, bougainvilleas, cacti, jasmine and agave.

Wally and Duke on the patio leading to the central courtyard

Wally and Duke on the patio leading to the central courtyard

Diego especially loved pre-Columbian artifacts

Diego especially loved pre-Columbian artifacts

A large ofrenda is set up in the garden

A large ofrenda is set up in the garden

Around back you’ll find an opportunity to pretend to be Frida and Diego

Around back you’ll find an opportunity to pretend to be Frida and Diego

An ancillary building contains an exhibit named after a drawing Kahlo made in 1946: Appearances Can Be Deceiving, where the artist drew herself, showing an X-ray view through her traditional Tehuana dress to reveal her injured leg and plaster corset. The first room displays a few of Kahlo’s personal objects used in relation to her medical condition. There’s also a vitrine with mannequins wearing Kahlo’s distinctive Tehuana dresses and headpieces. She favored the huipil, a boxy blouse, rebozo shawl and long skirt, a representation of Kahlo’s authentic Mexican femininity. There’s also a couture dress with a buckled corset by fashion designer and provocateur Jean Paul Gaultier whose 1998 spring-summer runway was titled Tribute to Frida Kahlo. In this same case is a dress by Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons surrounded by a sort of hoop cage, and in the last room there’s a delicately embroidered bodysuit with an incredible fringe jacket by Roberto Tisci for Givenchy.

An outbuilding houses some of Frida’s distinctive outfits

An outbuilding houses some of Frida’s distinctive outfits

A dress by Comme des Garçons (left) and  The Freckles  by Gaultier

A dress by Comme des Garçons (left) and The Freckles by Gaultier

To be in the former home of this captivating, self-willed individual was an amazing and moving experience. Like Kahlo, La Casa Azul has many layers — its details bear witness to her inspired magpie approach, filled with objects that carried personal meaning to Kahlo and are reflected in her fascinating collection of arte popular. –Duke

La Casa Azul, the Museo Frida Kahlo

La Casa Azul, the Museo Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo Museum
Londres 247
Del Carmen
04100 Ciudad de México, CDMX
Mexico

 

olmedomuseum

10 Most Instagrammable Places in Mexico City's Centro

A photographer’s tour of the CDMX historic district, from the Palacio de Bellas Artes to the Gran Hotel Ciudad de México.

CDMX, as the cool kids call it, is full of stunning design, a mind-blowing mix of colonial architecture and modern marvels. Here are some of our favorites to help you get started on a cultural and Insta-worthy tour of the city’s historic heart.

Centro Histórico

A chandelier hangs above the holy ark

A chandelier hangs above the holy ark

The second and third floors of the Sinagoga Histórica have some beautiful elements

The second and third floors of the Sinagoga Histórica have some beautiful elements

Look up to see the folk art-styled ceiling, with its gorgeous color pallette

Look up to see the folk art-styled ceiling, with its gorgeous color pallette

1. Sinagoga Histórica Justo Sierra 71

Start your tour with this hidden gem, built and established by the Ashkenazi, Eastern European Jews who arrived in Mexico City as refugees escaping persecution in the early 1940s. The Historic Synagogue, or Templo Nidje Israel, is entered through an interior courtyard beyond the building’s colonial façade (and a somewhat grumpy guard).

The interior contains a rather plain assembly hall on the first floor, but the sanctuary located on the second floor is impressive, said to be modeled after a synagogue in Lithuania. Make sure to look up at the vaulted clerestory ceiling intricately painted in hues of rust, mustard yellow, blue and green. An elaborately carved platform stands in the center of the room and faces the richly ornamented aron kodesh, or holy ark, surrounded by folk art elements typical of Eastern European villages. The sacred Torah scrolls were once kept behind the blue velvet curtain panel embroidered with silver thread.

Justo Sierra 71

What seemed to be a bizarre fantasy video game ad was playing in the courtyard while we visited

What seemed to be a bizarre fantasy video game ad was playing in the courtyard while we visited

Open archways line the corridors of the ex-college

Open archways line the corridors of the ex-college

You’ll spot murals all over the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso

You’ll spot murals all over the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso

2. Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso

A block or so down from the synagogue is a former Jesuit boarding school that has since been transformed into a museum and cultural center. After the Jesuits were expelled from the city, the building temporarily served as barracks for the Mexican army before becoming the National Preparatory School. The site is considered to be the birthplace of the Mexican muralism movement and features murals painted by David Alfaro, José Clemente Orozco (Wally’s personal fave) and Diego Rivera.

Justo Sierra 16

La Casa de las Sirenas is located within one of the first colonial mansions in Mexico City

La Casa de las Sirenas is located within one of the first colonial mansions in Mexico City

Our al fresco meal was delicious

Our al fresco meal was delicious

Grab a bite on the rooftop terrace, which overlooks the back of the cathedral

Grab a bite on the rooftop terrace, which overlooks the back of the cathedral

3. La Casa de las Sirenas

The frieze on the façade of this former 17th century colonial abode features a Caravaca cross flanked by a pair of mermaids, which gives the restaurant its name, the House of the Mermaids.

We ate a delicious lunch on the rooftop terrace with a spectacular view overlooking the extremely disappointing Templo Mayor and the back of the impressive Catedral Metropolitana, while an organ grinder played a whimsical tune over and over from the street below.

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The Metropolitan Cathedral organ

The Metropolitan Cathedral organ

This over-the-top golden altar is just one of many inside the massive cathedral

This over-the-top golden altar is just one of many inside the massive cathedral

Saints galore in various niches in this Baroque church — note the highly realistic detail on his hand

Saints galore in various niches in this Baroque church — note the highly realistic detail on his hand

4. Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral

This massive Baroque-style cathedral dominating the northern side of the Zócalo plaza was built in stages between 1573 to 1873, shortly after Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors defeated the Aztec Empire. Among the oldest and largest cathedrals in the Americas, much of it was built using stones pilfered from the Templo Mayor. (Maybe that’s why the temple’s ruins are so unimpressive.) Step inside to see the large, ornate Altar of the Kings, collection of paintings, pipe organ and statuary.

Plaza de la Constitución s/n

Pop into the lobby of the Gran Hotel to marvel at the stained glass ceiling and ironwork

Pop into the lobby of the Gran Hotel to marvel at the stained glass ceiling and ironwork

The curving balconies and organic grillwork on the cage elevators make this Art Nouveau gem worth a shot or two

The curving balconies and organic grillwork on the cage elevators make this Art Nouveau gem worth a shot or two

5. Gran Hotel Ciudad de México

After binge-watching the Spanish soap series Gran Hotel on Netflix, we had to go inside this historic Art Nouveau gem of the same name. It was originally the city’s most luxurious department store, known as el Centro Mercanti — in fact, you can still see the monogram “CM” in the stained-glass ceiling designed by French glass artist Jacques Grüber as well as the railings. Fun fact: The interior is featured in the opening scenes of the James Bond film Spectre.

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This building is known colloquially as the House of Tiles

This building is known colloquially as the House of Tiles

This distinctive tiled building is now a Sanborns department store

This distinctive tiled building is now a Sanborns department store

6. Casa de los Azulejos

Meaning “the House of Tiles” in Spanish, the exterior of this 16th century building is embellished with tin-glazed ceramic tilework known as azulejos, from Puebla, Mexico. The property was originally the residence of the Valle de Orizaba counts, one of the wealthiest families in the country. It was purchased by brothers Walter and Frank Sanborn in 1919 and converted into the flagship location of Sanborns, a Mexican department store and restaurant chain.

Av Francisco I. Madero 4

Since you’re in the area, you should pop into the Palacio Postal just to check out the amazing staircase

Since you’re in the area, you should pop into the Palacio Postal just to check out the amazing staircase

Things are looking up at the Postal Palace

Things are looking up at the Postal Palace

7. Palacio Postal

Also known as the Correo Mayor, the Postal Palace was built by Italian architect Adamo Boari and Mexican engineer Gonzalo Garita and has been in continuous operation since it first opened in 1907. The interior was restored to its original gilded splendor with the help of Boari’s granddaughter, who had the original building plans in Italy. The money shot is of a pair of grand interconnecting staircases embellished with vegetal brass balustrades that almost appear to be alive. My only regret is that we weren’t able to send a postcard home while there.

C. Tacuba 1, Cuauhtémoc

To get this money shot, you have to go into the Sears department store across the street

To get this money shot, you have to go into the Sears department store across the street

8. Palacio de Bellas Artes

We didn’t get to go inside on this visit. But the secret to an amazing aerial shot is to head over to the Sears department store directly across the street. (If you don’t want to have a snack or drink on the balcony café, just go up one more floor and press your camera against the glass as we did.)

Designed by the same architect as the Palacio Postal, the building’s gorgeously photogenic Art Nouveau exterior is topped by a lattice of iron and a shimmering iridescent ombre-tiled dome. At the very top, the Mexican eagle perches on a cactus with a serpent in its beak, with the four figures beneath representing the personifications of the dramatic arts.  

The plaza includes various sculptures, including four Pegasus statues designed by Catalan Agustí Querol Subirats, as well as the famous Mexico City Olympics logo — way too popular with tourists to get a good picture of.

Av. Juárez

The Hemiciclo a Benito Juárez monument

The Hemiciclo a Benito Juárez monument

A large green space sits right next to the plaza of the Palacio de Bellas Artes

A large green space sits right next to the plaza of the Palacio de Bellas Artes

9. Alameda Central

This leafy park was created in 1525 on what was previously the site of an Aztec marketplace. Its name comes from the word alámo, Spanish for poplar tree — which can be found in abundance throughout the park. You’ll encounter children playing in empty fountain basins and locals of all ages meandering or sitting on benches along the many paths. The Kiosco Morisco was located there briefly and used as a pavilion to announce lottery winners before being moved to make way for the semicircular Neoclassical Hemiciclo a Benito Juárez monument, dedicated to the former Mexican president.

Av. Hidalgo s/n

This fountain is right across from Alameda Central and is worth a quick visit to get the Insta shot

This fountain is right across from Alameda Central and is worth a quick visit to get the Insta shot

Governmental buildings and the Museum of Memory and Tolerance surround the fountain

Governmental buildings and the Museum of Memory and Tolerance surround the fountain

País de Volcanes  ( Country of Volcanoes ) by Ricardo Legorreta

País de Volcanes (Country of Volcanoes) by Ricardo Legorreta

10. Fuente de Vicente Rojo

Across from Alameda Park, tucked into the courtyard of the Museo Memoria y Tolerancia surrounded by governmental offices is a fountain designed by Mexican visual artist Vicente Rojo and architect Ricardo Legorreta. Titled País de Volcanes (Country of Volcanoes), it features more than 1,000 small burnt red concrete pyramids emerging from a sunken reflecting pool, a reference to the coarse volcanic tezontle stone widely used by the Aztecs. –Duke

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Biblioteca Vasconcelos: A Futuristic Architectural Marvel

Architect Alberto Kalach’s amazing library in Mexico City contains bookshelves that hang from the ceiling, and a whale bone sculpture by artist Gabriel Orozco.

Off-the-beaten-path CDMX: la Biblioteca Vasconcelos

Off-the-beaten-path CDMX: la Biblioteca Vasconcelos

After a visit to the labyrinthine and often-claustrophobic Mercado de Sonora Witch’s Market, Duke and I took a short Uber ride to the Biblioteca Vasconcelos in the Colonia Buenavista neighborhood. Dedicated to José Vasconcelos, a Mexican writer, philosopher and politician, the library’s interior is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

Story after story of metal and glass bookcases defy logic, floating above like a science fiction version of Hogwarts.
Wally and Duke in ecstasy: Who needs to go to church when you’ve got a library like this?

Wally and Duke in ecstasy: Who needs to go to church when you’ve got a library like this?

The interior is like stepping into an M.C. Escher drawing

The interior is like stepping into an M.C. Escher drawing

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

From the building’s exterior — a fortress of concrete and steel grillwork — you’d never imagine the airy futuristic interior within. However, getting into the hallowed repository of knowledge was a bit tricky. Initially, Duke and I saw the gaping maw of the parking garage and wondered if we had to enter there. We skirted around to the right of the building in an attempt to gain access. When we realized there wasn’t an entrance there either, we paused to ask a local who was walking his dog. He gestured to the left side of the library. We thanked him and made our way over to a courtyard with a couple of smaller buildings and the main entrance.

The exterior of the library isn’t too impressive — but just wait till you step inside!

The exterior of the library isn’t too impressive — but just wait till you step inside!

When we first stepped foot inside the 400,000-square-foot Biblioteca Vasconcelos, designed by Mexican architect Alberto Kalach, we could barely contain our giddiness. We looked around in wonder, our necks craning in every direction.

The floating stacks are a novel way, pun intended, to display books

The floating stacks are a novel way, pun intended, to display books

Story after story of metal and glass bookcases defy logic, while simultaneously offering a sense of complete order, floating above like a science fiction version of Hogwarts. Thin steel beams seem barely able to support the monumental stacks filled with books. Hazy silhouettes of patrons can be glimpsed through translucent sea-green catwalks.

Greenish-blue semitranslucent walkways connect the stacks

Greenish-blue semitranslucent walkways connect the stacks

Seating areas seen from across the expanse

Seating areas seen from across the expanse

We felt as though we had entered a sacred space, one that evoked the same reverence of the organic space-age architecture of La Sagrada Família church in Barcelona, Spain.

The exhibit  Vientos de Japón  ( Winds of Japan)  by master calligrapher Ryuho Hamano was on display when we visited

The exhibit Vientos de Japón (Winds of Japan) by master calligrapher Ryuho Hamano was on display when we visited

Duke daring to lean against the thin wire railing

Duke daring to lean against the thin wire railing

Wally chose a more secure spot for his portrait

Wally chose a more secure spot for his portrait

Sunlight plays a major role at the Biblioteca Vasconcelos, filling the interior with natural light. Ingenious louvered glass panels soften the sun's rays and keep the library from getting too hot.

The far ends of the library offer expansive views of the city

The far ends of the library offer expansive views of the city

As we passed by the first floor patios, we saw teens practicing dance routines, mimicking the choreography seen in some pop star’s latest music video. Beyond them, we could see the sprawling botanic garden that surrounds the structure. During our stay in Mexico City, we saw chilangos of all ages, from teens to seniors, dancing in public spaces.

A botanic park surrounds the structure

A botanic park surrounds the structure

Whenever I got too close to the cable rails on the upper floors of the library, my head would spin with vertigo. It became clear that this was a library for the brave. God forbid I needed a book located at the end of one of these stacks.

Looking down at Gabriel Orozco’s hanging sculpture,  Mobile Matrix

Looking down at Gabriel Orozco’s hanging sculpture, Mobile Matrix

A Whale of a Time: Orozco’s Mobile Matrix

Hovering above the central atrium hall is the striking Mátrix Móvil (Mobile Matrix in English), an intricately inscribed gray whale skeleton fitted onto a metal armature. Conceptual artist Gabriel Orozco and his team used over 6,000 mechanical pencils to etch concentric circles onto the bones, which stretch over 38 feet long. I learned that the whale had died after beaching itself on the Baja Peninsula during a migratory trip along the Mexican Pacific coast. The art piece adds a museum-like quality to the space.

A peek at the whale bone sculpture

A peek at the whale bone sculpture

There’s a lot to see in Mexico City, but the Biblioteca Vasconcelos is worth adding to your itinerary. It’s quite close to CDMX’s historic Centro. And when you’re done exploring this modern marvel (and have taken copious amounts of photos), head past the Buenavista rail and bus station and cross the overpass that spans the bustling Avenida Insurgentes. A 10-minute walk straight down Calle Salvador Díaz Mirón will bring you to the colorful Kiosco Morisco in the nearby Santa María la Ribera neighborhood. –Wally

A forest of paper cylinders with Japanese kana characters on display at the entrance

A forest of paper cylinders with Japanese kana characters on display at the entrance

Duke poses in front of the art exhibit

Duke poses in front of the art exhibit

There are elevators for those who don’t want to walk up all those stairs

There are elevators for those who don’t want to walk up all those stairs

One of the rooms along the sides of the library was filled with women knitting a cool cactus

One of the rooms along the sides of the library was filled with women knitting a cool cactus

Peek-a-boo! Duke looks through one of the stacks near the edge of the railing

Peek-a-boo! Duke looks through one of the stacks near the edge of the railing

Biblioteca Vasconcelos
Mosqueta
Eje 1 Norte S/N
Buenavista
06350 Ciudad de México
CDMX, México

 

6 Reasons to Visit the Museo Dolores Olmedo

The legacy of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo remains alive in this hacienda that’s as pretty as a peacock — which, incidentally, is overrun by them.

The Museo Dolores Olmedo hacienda is as pretty as the peacocks that roam its grounds

The Museo Dolores Olmedo hacienda is as pretty as the peacocks that roam its grounds

I had read that Mexico City is sprawling, but you don’t truly begin to understand this until you’re actually there. And although Uber is a cheap mode of transportation, our advice for exploring CDMX and its many sights is to plan your days according to mayoralities, or municipalities. Since Xochimilco was the farthest destination on our itinerary, we put a day aside to experience the canals and visit the Museo Dolores Olmedo located nearby.

Peacocks strut about the lawn, perch on branches and sit in rows like sentinels on the hacienda’s rooftop.

We were fortunate enough to see a few of the males fan their shimmering iridescent plumage in the hopes of getting lucky.
The original structure dates back to the 1500s

The original structure dates back to the 1500s

Often overlooked by tourists, the estate was once owned by philanthropist and self-made businesswoman Dolores Olmedo Patiño. Known as Lola to her friends, Olmedo purchased the 16th century colonial hacienda in 1962 and resided there until her death in 2002. It’s worth noting that the five-building complex contains the largest private collection of works by Diego Rivera.

A statue of Doña Lola, patroness of the arts, with one of her beloved Xolo dogs

A statue of Doña Lola, patroness of the arts, with one of her beloved Xolo dogs

Olmedo met Rivera when she was 17 and he was in his 40s, when she accompanied her mother, a school teacher, to the Ministry of Education, where Rivera was working on murals in the building. Rivera asked Olmedo’s mother to be allowed to make some drawings of Dolores.

Olmedo amassed the largest private collection of Rivera’s works

Olmedo amassed the largest private collection of Rivera’s works

“My mother gave her permission without knowing I would pose nude. I never told her about it. It was like magic watching how such beautiful shapes came forth from his tiny hands and how, without lifting the pencil from the paper, he could draw such long, smooth lines. The time went by without my noticing it while I posed.” –Dolores Olmedo

That was how the unique lifelong friendship was born. Under the guidance of Rivera, Olmedo amassed a vast collection, which she donated to the people of Mexico.

Here are six reasons to add the Museo Dolores Olmedo to your Mexico City itinerary:

Don’t miss the Frida gallery at the museum — we walked past it at first and had to convince a guard to reluctantly allow us to backtrack

Don’t miss the Frida gallery at the museum — we walked past it at first and had to convince a guard to reluctantly allow us to backtrack

The Colonial kitchen is covered with hand-painted Talavera tile from Puebla, with a swallow bird motif, and was preserved from the 16th century hacienda

The Colonial kitchen is covered with hand-painted Talavera tile from Puebla, with a swallow bird motif, and was preserved from the 16th century hacienda

1. The setting itself is worth the entrance fee.

Formerly known as Hacienda La Noria, which translates to the Water Wheel Estate, the grounds are as impressive as the villa. There’s a variety of fowl, including ducks, geese and peacocks. Lots of peacocks. Peacocks strutting about the lawn. Peacocks perched on the branches of trees — who knew they could fly? Even peacocks sitting in rows like sentinels from the hacienda’s rooftop. We were fortunate enough to see a few of the males fan their shimmering iridescent plumage in the hopes of getting lucky.

The estate is surrounded by spacious gardens with a variety of native plants and flowers: dahlias, bougainvillea and colossal blue agaves. Fun fact: The potent liquor can only be categorized as tequila if it has been produced from the piña, the heart of this varietal.

Giant blue agaves

Giant blue agaves

This is where tequila comes from!

This is where tequila comes from!

2. There are some strange-looking dogs known as Xolos or Mexican hairless.

Close to the hacienda is a spacious pen, home to several bald, wrinkled, dark-skinned canines. Commonly known as the Mexican hairless, the Xoloitzcuintli, or Xolo, are descendants of a pre-Columbian breed of hairless dogs. Their name comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and is a combination of two words: “Xolotl,” the name of the Aztec god of lightning and death, and “itzcuintli,” meaning dog. According to Aztec belief, the breed was created by Xolotl to protect the living and guide the souls of the deceased through the dangers of Mictlán, the underworld of Aztec mythology.

Doña Lola was fond of Xolo, or Mexican hairless dogs. Dante, the pup from  Coco , is one of this breed

Doña Lola was fond of Xolo, or Mexican hairless dogs. Dante, the pup from Coco, is one of this breed

Looks like someone gave this dog a bone (IYKWIM)

Looks like someone gave this dog a bone (IYKWIM)

Dogs carved from volcanic rock adorn the house

Dogs carved from volcanic rock adorn the house

Believe it or not, the so-ugly-they’re-cute canines were a delicacy enjoyed by the Spanish conquistadors, who ate them to the brink of extinction.

Although the breed is revered for its loyalty and intelligence, we don’t recommend dangling your toddler over their pen, as we witnessed a family do while we were there.

Wally sitting on a bench in the style of Frida Kahlo’s painting  The Bus , her recollection of the moment before her tragic accident (that’s Frida to the far right)

Wally sitting on a bench in the style of Frida Kahlo’s painting The Bus, her recollection of the moment before her tragic accident (that’s Frida to the far right)

3. You can check out some of Frida’s artwork.

Part of the allure of the museum was to see the surrealist works of Frida Kahlo. In a separate room, located off the interior arcade of the hacienda, were several small-format works by the prominently browed artist. In life, Doña Lola had little regard for Kahlo as an artist, but purchased 25 of Kahlo’s paintings shortly after her death at Rivera’s insistence to ensure his wife’s work remained in Mexico under one roof.

One of Frida’s native Tehuana dresses looms large from a glass case in the corner.

It should be noted that Frida’s works are frequently traveling. Two of Frida’s most famous works, La Columna Rota and Self Portrait With Monkey, were absent on our visit.

The postcard-sized works we saw are suffused with symbolism. She frequently depicted suffering and loss, using her broken body in her art, having suffered from childhood polio at the age of 6, which left her a semi-invalid, exacerbated by an accident when she was 18, when a trolley car collided with the bus she was on.

Keep an eye out for peacocks in the trees!

Keep an eye out for peacocks in the trees!

A large bust of Diego sits in the gardens

A large bust of Diego sits in the gardens

4. The museum houses the largest collection of Diego Rivera’s art in the world.

Displayed within the cavernous rooms of the main house is a gallery displaying pieces from different periods of Rivera’s work. Arranged in chronological order, the collection starts with early works, including post-Impressionist and Cubist style paintings.

Not to be mean, but we can understand why Rivera called himself Rana-Sapo, or Frog-Toad

Not to be mean, but we can understand why Rivera called himself Rana-Sapo, or Frog-Toad

Cover the kiddies’ eyes! This is a portrait of the dancer Maudelle Bass Weston

Cover the kiddies’ eyes! This is a portrait of the dancer Maudelle Bass Weston


Diego’s  Portrait of Dolores Olmedo (La Tehuana),  1955

Diego’s Portrait of Dolores Olmedo (La Tehuana), 1955

El Picador , a painting of a seated Spanish bullfighter, shows the influence of Diego’s time in Spain under the tutelage of one of Madrid’s leading portrait painters, Eduardo Chicharro

El Picador, a painting of a seated Spanish bullfighter, shows the influence of Diego’s time in Spain under the tutelage of one of Madrid’s leading portrait painters, Eduardo Chicharro

A guard told us we weren’t able to take photos here — until she spotted the sticker that signified we had paid extra for this privilege. We’re not sure if the same rule would have applied with the Frida collection.

If you pay a little extra, you can take pics of the artwork

If you pay a little extra, you can take pics of the artwork

Portrait of Pita Amor , 1957, the year Rivera died

Portrait of Pita Amor, 1957, the year Rivera died

In the Outskirts of Toledo (The Old Men)  reflects the influence of El Greco, whose work Rivera studied while living in Spain

In the Outskirts of Toledo (The Old Men) reflects the influence of El Greco, whose work Rivera studied while living in Spain

Prized pieces from Olmedo’s pre-Columbian collection are distributed among the museum’s rooms — a result of her relationship with Rivera, whose passion for these artifacts is as legendary as the man himself. An entire wall holds effigies known as Colima dogs, depictions of Xolos in terracotta, an essential accessory found buried in ancient tombs throughout Northwestern Mexico. As mentioned, these totems were used to protect and guide the deceased’s spirit through the dangers of Mictlán, the Realm of the Fleshless, or to continue to serve their owners in the afterlife.

Olmedo’s collection of pre-Columbian Colima dogs, which were buried with the dead to guide them on their journey in the afterlife

Olmedo’s collection of pre-Columbian Colima dogs, which were buried with the dead to guide them on their journey in the afterlife

In a room that was once the hacienda’s chapel are preliminary concept sketches for murals that illustrate the extensive planning required for these large-scale works. A mobile fresco, Frozen Assets, which Rivera did for MoMA, the New York Museum of Modern Art, in 1931, which was his commentary on capitalism and its inequality. The skyline is composed of NYC skyscrapers, the Daily News Building, Bank of Manhattan Building, Rockefeller Building and Chrysler Building among them. A steel and glass structure filled with scores of sleeping men, or possible corpses, (the “assets”) are watched by a guard. Beneath it all is a bank vault with a man seated on a bench, waiting to examine his earnings.

Rivera was a fervent collector of ancient Mexican artifacts

Rivera was a fervent collector of ancient Mexican artifacts

Frozen Assets  by Rivera, 1931

Frozen Assets by Rivera, 1931

The final gallery contains a series of sunsets painted from the balcony of Olmedo’s house in Acapulco, which reminded us of Claude Monet’s Impressionist study of haystacks.

Adam and Eve are depicted on this massive Tree of Life, a common theme reflected in traditional Mexican folk art

Adam and Eve are depicted on this massive Tree of Life, a common theme reflected in traditional Mexican folk art

5. You can take a tour of Mexico at the Museo de Arte Popular, or Folk Art Museum.

The gallery that houses this collection is named for the curator Fernando Gamboa. Filled with artifacts acquired by Olmedo from Mexico’s diverse regions, the folk art collection is touted as one of the most important in the world. In the 1920s, when Mexico’s roots were mostly rural, the popular arts and crafts movement became widespread, and was part of the new definition of national identity. On view are masterworks in glass, ceramic, papier-mâché, wood and tin, folk techniques passed down through generations by village craftspeople.

An ofrenda to Rivera concludes  The World of the Dead  exhibit

An ofrenda to Rivera concludes The World of the Dead exhibit

6. End your visit with whimsical ofrendas from various historical epochs.

The Day of the Dead is a popular festival for families to remember and celebrate departed ancestors, and Doña Lola was known for her elaborate ofrendas, “offerings” dedicated to the deceased. Olmedo explored new ways to incorporate the traditional with the world of contemporary art. The theme at this portion of the museum, near the entrance and gift shop, varies from year to year, and on our visit was El Mundo de Los Muertos, The World of the Dead. The exhibit takes you on a journey through the funerary legacy of civilizations throughout history: Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Nordic and Mayan, complete with a priest performing a human sacrifice atop a temple.

We found ourselves comfortably spending about two and a half hours at the Museo Dolores Olmedo, delighted by the peacocks, the grounds, folk art and, of course, the works of Mexico’s most famous artist couple.

Duke enjoying the gorgeous setting of the Olmedo estate

Duke enjoying the gorgeous setting of the Olmedo estate

Cost for admission is about $5, with a small additional fee for photography. The museum is free on Tuesdays, though it’s certainly worth 5 bucks not to deal with the extra crowds. –Duke

Stop by the Museo Dolores Olmedo after a morning along the Xochimilco canals

Stop by the Museo Dolores Olmedo after a morning along the Xochimilco canals

Museo Dolores Olmedo
Avenida México 5843
La Noria
16030 Ciudad de México
CDMX
Mexico


Beyond Prambanan: The Love Temples of Plaosan

Explore the twin temples of Candi Plaosan, built by a Hindu prince for his Buddhist bride in Central Java.

Plaosan is an often-overlooked addition to a day trip to Prambanan

Plaosan is an often-overlooked addition to a day trip to Prambanan

Our Borobudur guide, Wishnu, was showing us a few pictures that other tourists and guides had shared with him, when he paused to play us footage taken from a drone, soaring above a couple of stunning temples.

“What’s that?” I asked, and then, “Can we visit it?”

Wishnu replied that locals call these the Love Temples, and of course we could visit them — we just needed to let our driver for the Prambanan trip know that we’d like to add it to our itinerary.

The great love story began with an interfaith union between a Buddhist princess and a Hindu prince.
The northern complex is the one worth exploring

The northern complex is the one worth exploring

In the Name of Love

The site is officially called Candi Plaosan, a complex of Buddhist temples located in Klaten, Yogyakarta, a short distance north of the Hindu temples of Prambanan. What makes it truly unique is that both complexes were built by the same Javanese king.

Plaosan is a testament to the love that brought a Hindu prince and Buddhist princess together

Plaosan is a testament to the love that brought a Hindu prince and Buddhist princess together

Wally climbs over the stones at Plaosan

Wally climbs over the stones at Plaosan

Duke on the temple complex

Duke on the temple complex

Looking toward the female viharn (monastery) from the one for males

Looking toward the female viharn (monastery) from the one for males

There are piles of rubble all over Plaosan, testifying that there’s still a lot of restoration work to be done

There are piles of rubble all over Plaosan, testifying that there’s still a lot of restoration work to be done

There were once many more of these smaller shrines

There were once many more of these smaller shrines

The great love story behind Plaosan began with an interfaith union between the two ruling dynasties of Central Java during the 9th century. Pramodhawardhani, a Buddhist princess and daughter of Samaratungga, the last known king of the Sailendra Dynasty, married Prince Rakai Pikatan, from the Hindu Sanjaya family. When Pikatan ascended to the throne, Pramodhawardhani became his queen and was given the name Sri Kuhulunan. Religious differences didn’t separate the couple, and together they played a significant role in building some of the finest Hindu and Buddhist temples of Central Java.

Plaosan is a 9th century complex built at the height of the Mataram Kingdom. Once part of a single site, Plaosan Lor, the northern main temples and the smaller Plaosan Kidul to the south are now separated by a public road.

Because Plaosan isn’t too well known, you could have the temple grounds virtually to yourself

Because Plaosan isn’t too well known, you could have the temple grounds virtually to yourself

A Temple for Men, A Temple for Women

One of the first things Wally and I noticed as we entered the temple grounds of Plaosan Lor were four imposing stone ogres. Known as dwarapala, the stocky and squat semi-kneeling guardians grip a short thick club in their right hand, while the other rests upon a bent left knee.

Creatures known as dwarapala guard the entrance to the temple

Creatures known as dwarapala guard the entrance to the temple

This giant will fight to protect Plaosan

This giant will fight to protect Plaosan

Like Prambanan, the sanctuary follows a square grid system with groups of smaller ancillary shrines laid out in orderly rows. The buildings were constructed without mortar, their stones quarried and precisely cut. A small number have been reconstructed, standing amongst piles of gray andesite blocks yet to undergo restoration.

The temples are quite similar —but we’re pretty sure this is the one for men

The temples are quite similar —but we’re pretty sure this is the one for men

And this is the temple for women (actually living quarters for female monks)

And this is the temple for women (actually living quarters for female monks)

At the center of Plaosan Lor, the two nearly identical structures were viharas, meaning they were designed as Buddhist monasteries.

Above the arched gate portal leading to the temple is a Kala head whose gaping mouth symbolically swallows our mortal impediments and permits passage into the sacred inner courtyard.

Some entryways in the inner temple are shaped as the mouth of the deity Kala

Some entryways in the inner temple are shaped as the mouth of the deity Kala

Legend has it that Kala’s mouth crushes those impure of heart. Poor Duke!

Legend has it that Kala’s mouth crushes those impure of heart. Poor Duke!

Towering stalagmite-like spires crown the multistory vihara, rising like the jagged peaks of Mount Meru, the holy mountain abode of the gods, and a pair of mythical serpentine makara form the railings of the staircase leading to the monastery — a small Kewpie-doll like dwarf figure stands within the creature’s gaping jaws.

The monument sits on a high rectangular stone podium with an apron that extends several feet outward, forming a porch where visitors can circumambulate the structure. Its exterior walls feature false windows, an architectural element meant to maintain symmetry on the façade. These are embellished with distinctive Kala-makara ornamentation, but unlike the ones above the gateways, these depictions of include a lower jaw with a wide mischievous grin similar to the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Kala is a giant who was born from Shiva’s sperm

Kala is a giant who was born from Shiva’s sperm

Enshrined within the central hall are a pair of headless seated Bodhisattva statues, one that is more or less a torso, presumably plundered and decapitated by relic thieves. An empty pedestal between the pair possibility held an enthroned bronze Buddha.

There’s not a whole lot to see inside the temples — mostly seated statues of Bodhisattva, those who have reached enlightenment but remain behind to instruct others

There’s not a whole lot to see inside the temples — mostly seated statues of Bodhisattva, those who have reached enlightenment but remain behind to instruct others

Some of the statues inside the temples are now decapitated

Some of the statues inside the temples are now decapitated

Intricately detailed reliefs of various demigods and deities adorn the exterior walls. According to a theory presented by Nicholas Johannes Krom, head of the early 20th century Dutch Archeological Society, the two vihara were sponsored by influential patrons and built for male and female monastics — not as a tribute to love, as locals prefer to believe.

Bas-reliefs line the exterior of Plaosan

Bas-reliefs line the exterior of Plaosan

The south-facing vihara depicts male figures, while the north depicts female figures. The south temple was probably a monastery for Bhikkhu monks, while the north housed Bhikkhuni nuns.

You can see the construction style in action: squares of interlocking stone

You can see the construction style in action: squares of interlocking stone

Deities and demigods adorn the outer walls, which you can circumambulate on a platform

Deities and demigods adorn the outer walls, which you can circumambulate on a platform

In the distance, behind the vihara, a celebration complete with multicolored garlands made of balloons was taking place. We passed through a side gate in the low wall separating the two temples and explored the second vihara.

Whether or not Plaosan was constructed as a symbol of Pikatan’s devotion to Sri Kuhulunan or as a display of political reconciliation to placate the Buddhist Sailendra Dynasty, it certainly makes for an interesting story. –Duke

plaosan5.JPG

Candi Plaosan

Jalan Candi Plaosan
Plaosan Lor
Bugisan
Kecamatan Prambanan
Kabupaten Klaten
Jawa Tengah 57454
Indonesia

Pura Kehen: The Fire Temple of Bali

The parts of a Bali temple explained, from the bentar to padmasana to kulkul, in this most sacred of temples, which sports a truly giant banyan.

Pura Kehen is dedicated to the Hindu god of fire

Pura Kehen is dedicated to the Hindu god of fire

On our fourth day in Bali, we arrived at Pura Kehen, an impressive state temple located in the village of Cempaga in the Bangli Regency. Although it’s the largest and most sacred of the region, the temple was blissfully beyond the tourist radar and appealed to our desire to experience the quieter side of Bali.

A glimpse of the village down the hill through the main entrance of Pura Kehen

A glimpse of the village down the hill through the main entrance of Pura Kehen

Smaller shrines on the temple complex are resting places for ancestral spirits during temple ceremonies

Smaller shrines on the temple complex are resting places for ancestral spirits during temple ceremonies

You have to wear a sarong like Duke when visiting a temple on Bali

You have to wear a sarong like Duke when visiting a temple on Bali

The ancient temple compound was erected during the 9th century and was known as Pura Hyang Api, dedicated to the supreme being Agni, the Hindu god of fire. When sages moved from one ashram to another, it was customary to carry fire along. A couple of centuries later, the temple was renamed Pura Hyang Kehen, derived from the Balinese word keren, which translates to “flame.”

The bug-eyed, fang-baring disembodied head of Bhoma prevents malevolent spirits from entering the temple grounds.
The main staircase of Pura Kehen features frightening guardian statues from the Hindu epic, the  Ramayana

The main staircase of Pura Kehen features frightening guardian statues from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana

Duke was enamored with Pura Kehen, though Wally would say it’s B-list

Duke was enamored with Pura Kehen, though Wally would say it’s B-list

Built upon the slope of a hill, the temple is reached from the street by a steep 38-step staircase flanked by a pantheon of stone guardian statues from the Hindu epic the Ramayana. At the top, overlooking the grand gateway, is the bug-eyed, fang-baring disembodied head of Bhoma, whose purpose is to prevent malevolent spirits from entering the temple grounds. We were sure to follow proper etiquette and wore our sarongs, which our driver Made (Mah-deh) expertly tied for us several times throughout our trip.

We loved spotting Bhoma’s head at temples. He’s the offspring of the deity Vishnu as Vahana, a wild boar, and Dewi Pertiwi, the Earth goddess

We loved spotting Bhoma’s head at temples. He’s the offspring of the deity Vishnu as Vahana, a wild boar, and Dewi Pertiwi, the Earth goddess

Bhoma, with only his head left, guards temple entrances

Bhoma, with only his head left, guards temple entrances

Smaller candi bentar gates divide courtyards on the temple complex

Smaller candi bentar gates divide courtyards on the temple complex

Weather-worn statues, ornate detailing and lichen-covered stone are typical at Balinese temples

Weather-worn statues, ornate detailing and lichen-covered stone are typical at Balinese temples

Just beyond the entrance, you’ll find an assortment of blue and white Dutch Delftware pottery, including plates and bowls, embedded in the exterior walls surrounding the second courtyard — a relic of the Dutch occupation of the island. I paused to admire one that depicted an idyllic farm scene, including a watermill, ducks and oak tree.

This wall, like the main gate, is designed to deter menacing ground-dwelling spirits from gaining entry. The enclosed courtyard beyond includes a pavilion for gamelan musicians and is used for traditional dance, feasts and puppet performances during festivals.

We entered the third and most sacred courtyard through an elaborate symmetrically split gate known as a candi bentar. The gate resembles a jagged triangle separated vertically and split in two. Its sides symbolize the balance between the positive and negative forces of the universe. There’s no decoration on the inner parts of the gate.

Candi bentars are dramatic features of many Balinese temples, and represent the split halves of Mount Meru

Candi bentars are dramatic features of many Balinese temples, and represent the split halves of Mount Meru

Candi bentars are, not surprisingly, also called split gates

Candi bentars are, not surprisingly, also called split gates

There’s no ornamentation on the interior of these gates

There’s no ornamentation on the interior of these gates

The gateway is flanked by fearsome sword-bearing bedogol, the Balinese name for the guardian statues standing on either side of the entrance. Of course Wally was immediately drawn to these diabolical figures. I later learned that the pair are typically characters that complement each other, such as younger and older brothers.

The impressive principal shrine of Pura Kehen is located here. Known as a Meru tower, the elaborate 11-tiered pagoda symbolizes the mythical Mount Meru, the Hindu holy mountain where the gods dwell. The number of levels are always odd, three, five, seven, nine or 11, and reflect the importance of the patron deity. Eleven is associated with the highest order or supreme being. Mountain gods enter and inhabit the Meru through an opening in the top when visiting the Earth during temple ceremonies. Each tier is covered with thatched black hair-like fibers obtained from the trunks of arena palms. According to Indonesian folklore, the spirit known as Wewe Gombel nests in this type of palm, where she keeps children she has stolen away from neglectful parents.

The taller the Meru, the more significant the deity

The taller the Meru, the more significant the deity

Adjacent to the Meru tower in the northeastern corner of Pura Kehen is another sacred monument known as a padmasana, dedicated to the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The uppermost feature is an empty stone throne, known as a lotus throne, which reminded me of a holy version of the plastic booster seats used to elevate small children at a restaurant table. This seat is reserved for the immeasurable and formless Widhi Wasa, the All-in-One God. The entire structure is covered with bas-relief and rests atop the stone shell of a cosmic world-carrying tortoise, Bedawang Nala, whose perpetual movement is thought to be the cause of the island’s frequent earthquakes. A pair of snakes coiled around the turtle’s body represent our earthly needs: safety, food, shelter and clothing.

This intricately carved padmasana shrine, or lotus throne, is dedicated to the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva

This intricately carved padmasana shrine, or lotus throne, is dedicated to the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva

The door detail on the entrance gate shows the god Vishnu, riding his eagle mount Garuda and battling a pair of  rakshasa  demons

The door detail on the entrance gate shows the god Vishnu, riding his eagle mount Garuda and battling a pair of rakshasa demons

A curious feature of the pura is its unusual drum tower. The kulkul, a slit, hollowed log that resonates like a drum when struck, is suspended high upon a platform amongst the intertwined branches of the largest ancient banyan tree we’ve ever seen.

Wally climbs in the roots of the largest banyan tree he’s ever seen

Wally climbs in the roots of the largest banyan tree he’s ever seen

This no-longer-working fountain might bear the icon of Dewi Sri, the Balinese rice goddess

This no-longer-working fountain might bear the icon of Dewi Sri, the Balinese rice goddess

A shrine surrounded by bidadari, celestial female spirits, emerging from clusters of lotus flowers

A shrine surrounded by bidadari, celestial female spirits, emerging from clusters of lotus flowers

One of the most beautiful temples of our visit, it’s well worth venturing out to. We arrived about an hour before Pura Kehen closed, and we were alone, aside from two other foreign couples wandering through — and an elderly local woman whose insistent calls tried, unsuccessfully, to draw us over to see what she was selling. –Duke

The spirit Wewe Gombel nests in arena palms, where she keeps children she has stolen away from neglectful parents.
purakehensepia.JPG

Pura Kehen
Cempaga
Bangli Sub-District
Bangli Regency
Bali 80613
Indonesia

17 Surprising Things About Brazil

From the bizarre beach culture of Rio to the urban sprawl of Sao Paulo, here’s a list of things that will shock you about Brazil travel.

The girl (and boys) from Ipanema Beach in Rio

The girl (and boys) from Ipanema Beach in Rio

“What drew you to Brazil?” I asked first off. I’m always interested in knowing what draws people to destinations. The exoticism of Southeast Asia and Morocco appeal to Duke and me, but we have yet to visit South America together.

“Cheap airfare,” my friend Ben replied without a moment’s hesitation. He and his boyfriend Derrick subscribe to Scott’s Cheap Flights, a mailing list that informs you of airline deals. It’s well worth paying $30 a year for the premium version.

(I signed us up, and we’ve already received a few emails that have inspired us try to figure out a creative way to use a long weekend.)

Derrick and Ben share their experience of traveling to Brazil

Derrick and Ben share their experience of traveling to Brazil

Brazil is a study in extreme contrasts. You have poverty and wealth, beauty and squalor, all of these opposing forces, in a very small space.

Ben pointed out that within 24 hours of booking, airlines are required by law to refund your money, unless it’s within seven days of the flight. So you call jump on a good price — and back out the next day if you’d like.

“We booked three trips almost immediately: Japan, Brazil and Spain,” he said, “And it all cost less than our trip to Australia the year before.” The trip to Brazil ran them only about $400.

The botanical gardens in Rio felt like you’re on the grounds of an abandoned plantation

The botanical gardens in Rio felt like you’re on the grounds of an abandoned plantation

Neither of them had been to South America before, and “another upside was that it was their summer and our winter,” Derrick said.

The fellas stayed about five days in Rio and two and a half in São Paulo.

The Selaron Steps in Rio de Janeiro, where Michael Jackson danced in a music video

The Selaron Steps in Rio de Janeiro, where Michael Jackson danced in a music video

They chose a different neighborhood each day, deciding upon a site or two to see — like the steps where Michael Jackson danced in the controversial “They Don’t Care About Us” music video, directed by Spike Lee, for instance — and then wandered around.

Here are their observations about Brazil, a country they found to be more complicated than they ever imagined.

 

1. Rio has a huge beach culture — but hardly anyone lays out or goes swimming.

People flock to the beaches in Rio, where they engage in athletic activities: volleyball, soccer or paddleball.

“But almost nobody goes in the water,” Derrick said. “It’s not the thing to do.”

“People aren’t laying down,” Ben added. “They’re all standing, and maybe sitting a little bit.”

The beaches are very large, but after you walk about five minutes, you’ve got the gist, because it repeats itself, Derrick said.

There’s a pretty black and white tiled path that runs the entire length of the seaside. And all along it, you have different restaurants and vendors, where you can get, say, a 5-pound coconut.

The waterfront is divided into different sectors, called postos. Each is known for different things, Ben says: One might be where the models hang out, one’s where the gay guys are, and another’s for families.

Cachaça vendors can whip you up a caipirinha to go for a few bucks

Cachaça vendors can whip you up a caipirinha to go for a few bucks

2. It’s super cheap to drink in Rio.

By the sidewalk are the officially sanctioned snack kiosks, but as you go 100 yards or so onto the sand, you get unofficial tents setups, or guys with insulated backpacks peddling fried cheese, beer and drugs. A lot of people had caipirinha-making kits, and you could buy a drink from them for $3.

A bottle of cachaça, a distilled spirit made from fermented sugarcane juice that’s the national drink of Brazil, could be bought at a store for $2.

Christ the Redeemer towers above Rio. Sometimes he looks like he’s in Heaven

Christ the Redeemer towers above Rio. Sometimes he looks like he’s in Heaven

3. Christ the Redeemer could be lost in the clouds.

When Ben and Derrick went, the 125-foot-tall statue of Jesus that overlooks Rio atop Mount Corcovado was shrouded in fog the entire time they were there. Be sure you take advantage of a clear day and see the sites that are on the 1,000-foot-high rocky outcroppings above the city.

The 125-foot-tall statue stands atop the massive granite dome of Corcovado hill and, since its erection in 1931 has become one of the most famous landmarks in the world.

You take an incline railway up Corcovado. “As we were going up, we were like, still nice, still nice — and then, bam! Fog,” Ben says.

It killed them a bit that they couldn’t get the iconic money shot — but to make themselves feel better, they joked that it was like “seeing Jesus in Heaven.”

The Parque Lage and School of Visual Arts is a gorgeous locale in Rio

The Parque Lage and School of Visual Arts is a gorgeous locale in Rio

4. Brazilians are beautiful — and parade around in next to nothing.

They’ll go from the beach to a food stall, wearing a speedo, shoulder shawl and flip-flops. They all wear Havaianas, the super-trendy, colorful plastic flip-flops created by a Scotsman in 1962.

 

5. But the people aren’t all that friendly.

For a city with a reputation as a party city, Ben and Derrick didn’t find the locals to be that outgoing.

“I’d always been under the impression that Brazilians were super nice, super willing to engage in conversation, that if they recognize an outsider, they’ll talk to them, but that wasn’t the case,” Ben says.

The fellas felt pretty safe wandering around Santa Teresa during the day — but you should always be on your guard with valuables in Rio

The fellas felt pretty safe wandering around Santa Teresa during the day — but you should always be on your guard with valuables in Rio

6. The crime is, unfortunately, as bad as advertised.

When they got to their hotel, they were given cards with the hotel’s contact info and were told to leave their wallet and everything else locked in the room’s safe when they left the premises. “Carry this card and a copy of your passport, and that’s it,” Derrick advised.

They took what money they felt they needed and kept it in their front pockets. “Don’t take out more than you can afford to lose,” Ben said.

“It was a bummer,” he continued, “because I love taking pictures, and my go-to mode is walking around with my camera. Everything I read said, take a photo and then put your camera away immediately in a nondescript bag.

“One afternoon we went out, and within five minutes of leaving the hotel, this guy tapped me on the shoulder and told me, ‘You need to put that away. Don’t have it out,’” Ben said.

He did feel fine using a cellphone as a camera, though. Just don’t draw too much attention to yourself, he added. Expert tip: Use your work phones — just in case they do get stolen, heh heh.

A lot of banks don’t even let you access their interior ATMs after 8 p.m. because of the fear that people will force you to withdraw money, Ben said.

Derrick moved the money he planned to spend on the trip from his checking account into a savings account.

“There’s definitely a feeling of crime,” Derrick says. Someone told them not to have bags facing the streets because bikers could ride by and swipe them.

Kids beg for money, and it’s the second-highest country in terms of child prostitution, next to Thailand, Ben informed me. (He does his research.)

Both of their Kindles got stolen out of their hotel room — the one thing they didn’t put in the safe.

 

7. Brazil is an extremely sexual country.

Prostitutes are everywhere, especially in São Paulo. “You get propositioned all the time,” Derrick says.

There are bathhouses for days, along with love hotels, similar to those found in Japan.

Take a sky tram up to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. Helicopter tours are available from here, from which you can see gorgeous views of the entire city

Take a sky tram up to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. Helicopter tours are available from here, from which you can see gorgeous views of the entire city

8. Rio didn’t get rid of its favelas (the slums built into the hillsides) for the Olympics.

Instead, they’ve had the police go in and take control, Ben said. “It’s like going into a war zone,” he added: police in body armor, SWAT vehicles, guns. They’re trying to drive out the drug dealers and crime lords.

Thousands upon thousands of people live in these communities, and they don’t have running water all the time or reliable electricity.

“They’re very vibrant communities, but are riddled with crime and corruption,” Ben said. The pieced-together shacks are, ironically, very brightly colored and pretty.

“Brazil is a study in extreme contrasts,” Ben said. “You can see the favela as you pass the Maserati dealership. You have poverty and wealth, beauty and squalor, all of these opposing forces, in a very small space.”

Ben and Derrick recommend using a wireless hotspot and rideshare apps to visit spots like Parque Lage and School of Visual Arts

Ben and Derrick recommend using a wireless hotspot and rideshare apps to visit spots like Parque Lage and School of Visual Arts

9. Rideshare companies like Lyft are a convenient way to get around.

Ben and Derrick have found rideshare apps to be a better option in many parts of the world than taxis — some of which can be corrupt. This way, you’re going through an app, your route is mapped out, and no money exchanges hands.

“Brazil is a country where you definitely don’t want to rent a car,” Ben advised. “They have one of the highest rates of traffic fatalities.” (I told you he does his research.)

“Stop signs are suggestions,” Derrick added. “And so are stoplights.”

“There’s a lot of honking and screaming,” Ben said.

The Lapa neighborhood is known for its aqueduct — and boho vibe

The Lapa neighborhood is known for its aqueduct — and boho vibe

10. There are some neighborhoods in Rio you can explore during the day — that turn into wild parties at night.

One day, the boys wandered through Lapa — a neighborhood in central Rio that’s easily identifiable by the aqueduct. Then they took the historic tram up the hill to Santa Teresa, a charming artists’ community. There’s an old mansion that burned down that’s now an art event space.  

Santa Teresa, an arts district in Rio

Santa Teresa, an arts district in Rio

They also checked out Lapa at night, and saw about 300 people hanging out in the Shell gas station parking lot. This is known as the bohemian and samba district. “People are dancing right in the streets. It’s mayhem,” Ben said.

Lapa is directly downhill from a favela, and there’s a lot of pickpocketing on weekends.

A local girl told them that she survived Carnaval without getting anything stolen cuz she had a fanny pack that she wore under her clothes.

“While I’m sure that tourists are more targeted, it also happens to Brazilians,” Ben said.

Marmosets crawl along power lines all over the city

Marmosets crawl along power lines all over the city

11. You’ll see monkeys running around everywhere in Rio.

They’re marmosets and they’re cute and like to scamper over power lines. From Ben and Derrick’s experience, they’re didn’t seem dangerous.

Aside from good restaurants and a cool museum, São Paulo doesn’t have a whole lot to offer

Aside from good restaurants and a cool museum, São Paulo doesn’t have a whole lot to offer

12. There’s not a lot to do in São Paulo.

Despite being the most populous and geographically largest city in all of South America, São Paulo doesn’t offer much for the tourist, according to Ben and Derrick.

“Unless you want to eat really good food and drink really well, there’s not a lot to do during the day,” Ben explained.

Of course, they did find a couple of cool museums to explore: MASP (Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand) and Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo.

Altarpiece No. 1-3  by Hilma af Klint at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo

Altarpiece No. 1-3 by Hilma af Klint at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo

13. São Paulo is like the gritty parts of New York — but without the visual appeal.

It’s one rundown, dirty storefront after another, Ben said. Mile after mile of urban sprawl.

They would be walking around and feel safe, and then turn onto a street that felt super sketchy. It was block-by-block.

 

14. There’s a shoe shine scam to watch out for.

In a scam that’s even used here in Chicago, a man will approach you, squat down and smear something all over your shoes. “It looked like a brown sugar mixture,” Ben said.

Then the man will make a big deal about the mess will start to clean it up — wanting, of course, to be paid about $30 for his trouble.

When this happened to the fellas and they declined, the man stood there, cursing them out.

What’s for dinner? Lots of meat — but hopefully not a capybara

What’s for dinner? Lots of meat — but hopefully not a capybara

15. The cuisine consists of lots of meat and lots of beans.

Beef, cow, goat and seafood are omnipresent. Vegetables? Not so much.

You might want to try a dish Brazil is famous for: feijoada, a stew loaded with different types of slowly braised meat that takes five days to make.

The urban sprawl of São Paulo

The urban sprawl of São Paulo

16. Distances can be deceptive in São Paulo.

You can look at a map and think, That’s not too far away — and it’ll end up being an hour Lyft ride, Derrick explained.

Ben’s friend told him that it takes about three hours to drive from one end of the city to the other.

The Luz Railway Station in São Paulo

The Luz Railway Station in São Paulo

17. Overall, Brazil is a difficult country to navigate.

Ben and Derrick have traveled all over the world — and they found Brazil to be one of the more confusing countries. “If you don’t know somebody, if you’re not part of a tour group, if you don’t travel a lot, or if you’re not street smart, it definitely requires a higher level of awareness,” according to Ben.

“In a lot of ways, our trip to Brazil was unremarkable. Brazil is really about being in the moment, taking advantage of what’s there,” Ben said.

“Yah, if you’re a person who likes to go go go, or go out at a reasonable hour, Brazil’s not the place for you,” Derrick concluded. –Wally

The Seussian Whimsy of Gaudi’s Park Güell

If this colorful city park overlooking Barcelona is what failure looks like, sign us up!

The colorful curves of Park Güell are like something out of a Dr. Seuss book

The colorful curves of Park Güell are like something out of a Dr. Seuss book

When industrialist Count Eusebi Güell needed help transforming Montaña Pelada, Bald Mountain, into a one-of-a-kind residential enclave, he called upon his friend Antoni Gaudí. The two shared similar ideological beliefs: Gaudí was a spiritual man whose distinctive style was influenced by his great appreciation of nature as God’s creation. His structural forms mimicked the natural world and imbued life into his architectural masterpieces.

That collaboration led to Park Güell, which was not originally designed to be a municipal park. It was conceived as a luxury residential development with 60 plots just to the north of Barcelona’s city limits by Güell, who made his fortune from the textile industry.

Güell, whom the park is named after, was inspired by the garden city movement popularized in 20th century England, which is why the English word Park was used, rather than the Catalan equivalent, Parc.

He commissioned Gaudí, the Catalan architect responsible for some of the Barcelona’s most iconic landmarks, to create the parklike neighborhood. Gaudí made the most of the site’s uneven terrain, using organic shapes paired with symbolic references to Christianity and Catalan nationalism shared by his patron, Güell. Immediately noticeable when you enter the park is the administrator’s building, with its towering blue and white chimney topped with a gothic cross flower.

The administrative building and caretaker’s lodge are two gingerbread-like houses on the park grounds

The administrative building and caretaker’s lodge are two gingerbread-like houses on the park grounds

Making an Entrance

Wally and I arrived at the park early in the morning and were easily able to purchase tickets, which are limited to 400 people every half hour, to avoid overcrowding. A full price ticket costs 8 euros (or 7.50€ if you purchase them in advance here).

The park is limited to 400 people every half hour

The park is limited to 400 people every half hour

Just inside the entrance are a pair of whimsical lodges that look like lifesize gingerbread houses from the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.” These structures, known as the caretaker’s lodge and administration building were designed to attract potential investors. The caretaker’s lodge includes an imaginatively embellished cupola, decorated with upside-down white ceramic coffee cups and supposedly was Gaudí’s way of telling the world he had giving up drinking coffee.

We paused to take a photo with a man dressed as the park’s mascot and symbol of Barcelona, the multi-colored mosaic gecko, known as El Drac, the Dragon (for a small fee, of course).

Wally and Duke pose with El Drac, the park’s reptilian mascot

Wally and Duke pose with El Drac, the park’s reptilian mascot

Immediately before us was the magnificent grand staircase. A riot of color, its balustrade and steps are covered with shards of ceramic tiles using a technique known as trencadísis, popular with the Modernisme movement. These fragments were discarded at a nearby factory and selected with great care. The predominant blue, yellow and green tiles symbolize faith, hope and charity, and each fragment is no more than 8 to 10 inches in size.

A mosaic sculpture of El Drac, Gaudí’s gecko — now a symbol of Barcelona

A mosaic sculpture of El Drac, Gaudí’s gecko — now a symbol of Barcelona

Perched at the base of the steps is a depiction of the beloved El Drac, created with frequent Gaudí collaborator Josep Maria Jujol. It’s plausible that Gaudí’s obsessive use of this mythological creature in his designs was influenced by his devout Catholic faith — in particular, the legend of St. George and the Dragon, symbolizing the struggle between good and evil. The likeness of the iconic El Drac is a popular souvenir choice from Barcelona, and you can purchase a variety of items inspired by Gaudí’s gecko throughout the city.

The square above the columned grotto gets crowded with all sorts of interesting people

The square above the columned grotto gets crowded with all sorts of interesting people

The Hall of 100 Columns

After climbing the first flight of steps, Wally and I entered the Sala Hipóstila, Hall of 100 Columns, referred to by Gaudí as the Greek Theater. The pavilion is a forest of 86 columns in the Greek Doric style, mimicking trees, made of mortar and rubble simulating marble. Each of the columns leans slightly and supports the upper plaza terrace above. Rainwater is filtered through the layer of stone and sand from the terrace square and runs through drainage pipes ingeniously concealed within the columns to be collected in a cistern below.

Amorous couples, tourists, kids playing ball and street performers all gather in Park Güell’s piazza

Amorous couples, tourists, kids playing ball and street performers all gather in Park Güell’s piazza

The entire ceiling consists of domes covered with white trencadís as well as brightly colored mosaic circles representing the four seasons and the lunar cycles.
Although this room was originally designed to hold the community’s market, today it is often used as a concert hall, due its impressive acoustics.

An African man in traditional garb and his new friend test out the aucustics of the Hall of 100 Columns

An African man in traditional garb and his new friend test out the aucustics of the Hall of 100 Columns

The public square, an open earthen terrace, located above the hall is framed by the Banc de Trencadís, a mosaic-tiled bench curving sinuously around its perimeter.

The undulating Banc de Trencadís is a great place to look out over the city

The undulating Banc de Trencadís is a great place to look out over the city

Wally and I stopped at the kiosk and purchased a couple beers. We found a shady spot to sit and take in the spectacular view of Barcelona before us, with the amazing La Sagrada Familia church, still under construction, in the background.

Wally couldn’t believe they sold beer at the park

Wally couldn’t believe they sold beer at the park

Duke says, “Salud to España and Gaudí’s fun aesthetic!’

Duke says, “Salud to España and Gaudí’s fun aesthetic!’

Incidentally, it’s also a great place to people-watch, and we dubbed one of the visitors Catalan Mema, as she was petite and quirky and had a shock of short white blonde hair like my mother. She was also having her hand kissed by an invisible man. Only at Park Güell!

The park is full of colorful characters, including a woman who resembles Duke’s madre — and her invisible man suitor

The park is full of colorful characters, including a woman who resembles Duke’s madre — and her invisible man suitor

The back of the terrace is formed by a row of stone viaducts, remnants of the project’s original design, intended to provide residents access to their individual plots of land.

By 1914, the project was deemed a commercial failure: Not enough people wanted high-class housing so far from the city center.

Barcelona — including la Sagrada Familia Church — stretches out below the park

Barcelona — including la Sagrada Familia Church — stretches out below the park

All that remained were the buildings described, as well as an irrigation system and meandering paths created by Gaudí in his inimitable manner. Guëll convinced Gaudí to purchase the park’s model home, designed by Gaudí’s assistant and friend Francesc Berenguer.

Despite its failings as a housing complex, the city purchased the estate in 1922 for use as a public park. But it wasn't until Gaudí’s death in 1926, that Park Guëll officially opened. If you’re visiting Barcelona and looking for an enchanting place to spend an afternoon in this remarkable city, look no further than this surreal architectural landmark. –Duke