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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). 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 houses 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.

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 (and upper body) — 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 if 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

 


9 Fascinating Frida Kahlo Facts That May Surprise You

Overshadowed by her husband Diego Rivera, Kahlo led a too-short life fraught with pain, which she channeled into her powerful paintings.

A portrait of the unusual artist in 1939 by Nickolas Muray

A portrait of the unusual artist in 1939 by Nickolas Muray

It seems every famous artist is eccentric in their own way, and Frida Kahlo was no exception. She didn’t follow the rules, establishing herself as the negation of what a woman was expected to be. Her singular vision continues to inspire and capture the world’s imagination. Kahlo’s recognizable unibrow, boldly colored clothes and tempestuous marriage to muralist Diego Rivera are as central to her fame as her vivid and powerful self-portraits.

During the horrific accident, a shower of gold glitter landed on Frida’s bloody and broken body — making the macabre moment like something out of a magical realism novel.

While writing my post on the Blue House, or La Casa Azul, Kahlo’s former home, I learned more than a few surprising things. Why nine, you might ask? During their lifetimes, Kahlo and Rivera passionately assembled a collection of fantastical papier-mâché alebrijes, and I’d like to imagine hers as a cat with its metaphorical nine lives. So, without further exposition, here are nine interesting facts you might not have known about Frida Kahlo.

Talk about odd couples! Here’s  Wedding Portrait of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera  by Victor Reyes, 1929

Talk about odd couples! Here’s Wedding Portrait of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera by Victor Reyes, 1929

1. She and Diego proved that opposites really do attract.

Kahlo first met Rivera when he was commissioned by the government to paint the mural La Creación at the Bolívar Auditorium of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria in 1922. Kahlo was one of only 35 females in a student body of 2,000 and belonged to a group of young intellectuals who called themselves Las Cachuchas, named after the peaked cloth caps they wore as a sign of subversion against the rigid dress code of the period. One account claims that she mischievously soaped the stairs leading to the auditorium where Rivera was working, hoping to make him slip and fall.

They met again in 1928 while he was working on a fresco for Mexico City’s Ministry of Education building. With paintings tucked under her arm, she demanded Rivera critique her work, telling him, “I have not come to you looking for compliments. I want the criticism of a serious man. I’m neither an art lover nor an amateur. I’m simply a girl who must work for her living.”

It was a May-December romance, as Rivera was about twice her age (as well as 200 pounds heavier). She was 22, he was 43. He had been married twice before. Kahlo once said, “I suffered two grave accidents in my life: one in which a streetcar knocked me down, and the other was Diego.”  

Frida paints  Portrait of My Father , 1952, in her studio. Photo by Gisèle Freund

Frida paints Portrait of My Father, 1952, in her studio. Photo by Gisèle Freund

2. A horrific — but strangely beautiful — accident changed the course of her life.

In 1925, an 18-year-old Kahlo was riding a bus home from school with her boyfriend Alex Gómez Arias when it collided with an oncoming electric streetcar. A fellow passenger on the bus had been carrying a bag of gold dust, which was released upon impact and tore, a shower of gold glitter landing on the bloody and broken body of Kahlo — making the macabre moment like something out of a magical realism novel.

When onlookers saw her, they cried, “La bailarina, la bailarina!” mistaking her for a dancer.

The bed-ridden Frida Kahlo painting  Portrait of My Family  in 1950. Photo by Juan Guzmán

The bed-ridden Frida Kahlo painting Portrait of My Family in 1950. Photo by Juan Guzmán

The near-fatal accident left Kahlo bedridden for months and enduring lifelong complications that would fuel her intensely personal artwork, turning her deepest feelings and darkest moments into art.

What a deer!  Frida With Granzino ,  Version 2  by Nickolas Muray, 1939

What a deer! Frida With Granzino, Version 2 by Nickolas Muray, 1939

3. Kahlo wasn’t able to have children, so she filled the void with exotic pets.

Kahlo was a great lover of animals and had an exotic menagerie at La Casa Azul. In many of her self-portraits she is accompanied by her favorite animals, including a pair of mischievous spider monkeys named Fulang Chung and Caimito de Guayabal. She also had Bonito, an Amazon parrot, who would perform tricks at the table for rewards of pats of butter, an eagle named Gertrudis Caca Blanca (Gertrude White Shit), hairless Xoloitzcuintli dogs and a fawn called Granzino.

These animals appeared in her work, including Self-Portrait With Monkey and The Wounded Deer, her face placed atop a deer’s body, probably Granzino’s, complete with antlers, running through a forest as nine arrows pierce its body.

Frida’s love of animals is evident in her  Self-Portrait With Small Monkey  from 1945

Frida’s love of animals is evident in her Self-Portrait With Small Monkey from 1945

Despite wanting to have offspring, Kahlo was unable to bear children and suffered miscarriages and medical abortions. Her inability to give birth became a source of trauma, and she said that her pets symbolized the children she never could have.

Many of Frida’s paintings were self-portraits, like  Autorretrato  from 1948

Many of Frida’s paintings were self-portraits, like Autorretrato from 1948

4. She’d most likely beat you in a staring contest.

Kahlo was her own most popular muse. Fifty-five of her 143 paintings are self-portraits, which is perhaps understandable when thinking about how much time she spent on her own while coping with a variety of chronic health issues. Her conjoined brows, plaited hair and watchful eyes fiercely demand that the viewer meet her gaze. And her defiant, upright posture was as much due to the immobilizing plaster corsets she was forced to wear to support her spinal column as it was her confidence.

Kahlo’s use of the intimate self-portrait often reflected her turbulent life and was a visual means to communicate her physical and psychological wounds.

Let’s take some time to reflect upon what an amazing woman Frida Kahlo was. Photo by Lola Álvarez Bravo

Let’s take some time to reflect upon what an amazing woman Frida Kahlo was. Photo by Lola Álvarez Bravo

5. She was her own brand ambassador.

Our sense of self is largely dependent on where we were born, where our family’s from and the people we choose to surround ourselves with. This was especially true for Kahlo with her distinctive sartorial style inspired by the traditional dress of the Tehuana, the independent and proud indigenous matriarchal Zapotec society in the state of Oaxaca. Kahlo’s mother was born in Oaxaca to an indigenous father and a mother of Spanish descent.

Her attire helped her craft an imaginative, colorful identity and typically included flamboyant rings adorning her fingers, a traditional square-cut blouse, the huipil, and a long wrap-around skirt, which allowed her to mask and distract from her physical injuries.

One can only imagine the sensation of Kahlo’s striking and exotic appearance when she arrived in the United States with Rivera. Her rejection of conventional fashion was unlike anything the people of San Francisco, Detroit or New York had ever seen. On a walk in NYC, a flock of children asked Kahlo, “Where’s the circus?” but she simply smiled graciously and continued walking.

The controversial  The Suicide of Dorothy Hale  by Frida Kahlo, 1939

The controversial The Suicide of Dorothy Hale by Frida Kahlo, 1939

6. She pushed boundaries and buttons.

Sometime in 1938, Kahlo was commissioned by Clare Boothe Luce, the writer of the all-female Broadway play The Women and a former managing editor of Vanity Fair magazine, to paint a recuerdo, a remembrance portrait of their mutual New York socialite friend and aspiring actress Dorothy Hale, who had recently taken her own life.

Luce presumed Kahlo would paint a conventional portrait of Hale. However, Kahlo wasn’t a fan of what she considered to be the bourgeois capitalist social scene of New York City and had a more cerebral vision in mind — to create a graphic retablo detailing Hale’s moment of death.

In the center of the painting, the building where Hale lived is depicted with its many small windows rising up behind a layer of feathery clouds. A tiny figure plummets from an upper window. In the middle ground is a larger falling figure, clearly Hale, her arms extended and her skirt billowing around her knees. Resting on the pavement in the foreground is the deceased Hale in the black velvet dress and yellow corsage she wore, her dead eyes frozen open and staring at the viewer. As if that wasn’t enough, the inscription literally bleeds into the bottom of the frame and reads, “In the city of New York on the 21st day of the month of October, 1938, at 6 o’clock in the morning, Mrs. Dorothy Hale committed suicide by throwing herself out of a very high window of the Hampshire House building. In her memory, this portrait was executed by Frida Kahlo.”

When Luce received the painting, she seriously considered destroying it, but was persuaded by friends to desist. The arresting and controversial work remained in storage for decades before being donated “anonymously” to the Phoenix Art Museum in 1960.

7. She arrived at her first solo exhibition in Mexico in an ambulance.

Kahlo’s first major solo exhibition was held at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1938 in New York City, and one year later, her works were part of a collective exhibition entitled Mexique, shown at the Galerie Renou et Colle in Paris. The French surrealist André Breton described her art as “a ribbon around a bomb.”

Due to declining health during her final years, Kahlo rarely ventured outside of the Blue House, and had to use a wheelchair and crutches to get around. In April 1953, her first solo exhibition in Mexico opened at the Galería de Arte Contemporáneo. At the time, Kahlo was on bed rest under doctor’s orders and not expected to attend. However, she made sure to be there, arriving by ambulance to a mystified crowd, ordering that her four-poster bed be moved into the gallery. She was brought in on a stretcher to the bed, where she was able to enjoy the event.

8. She made a most memorable exit from life.

Kahlo was transported to the crematorium at the Panteón Civil de Dolores, and her body was lifted out of the coffin and laid in a cart that would carry her along iron tracks to the cemetery. So desperate were people to have a memento of Kahlo that onlookers pulled at the rings on her fingers even as her body moved toward the crematorium fire. Witnesses who were in the small chamber containing the furnace claimed that a sudden blast of heat from the open incinerator doors caused Kahlo’s corpse to sit bolt upright, and when the flames ignited her hair, forming an aura around her face, her lips appeared to part in a grin just before the doors closed shut.

What the Water Gave Me  by Frida Kahlo, 1938

What the Water Gave Me by Frida Kahlo, 1938

9. She was underappreciated as an artist in her lifetime.

Kahlo’s work was largely overshadowed by that of her husband during her lifetime. This was partly because the complexity of her art was difficult for an international audience to categorize. Kahlo’s most famous works, her autorretratos, or self-portraits, combine elements of realism, surrealism and indigenous Mexican symbolism.

Breton, an original member of the Dada group and the founder of the Surrealist movement in 1924, visited Kahlo in Mexico in 1938 while she was working on Lo Que el Agua Me Dio (What the Water Gave Me). Breton was transfixed by it, calling Kahlo a “natural surrealist.” Kahlo rejected the label and replied, “I never painted dreams. I paint my own reality.”

When Kahlo died at the early age of 47 in 1954, Rivera begged his friend and patroness of the arts, Dolores Olmedo to purchase 25 of Kahlo’s paintings for a mere $1,600. He wanted to make sure that an important part of his wife’s work remained in Mexico. –Duke

A sudden blast of heat from the incinerator caused Frida’s corpse to sit bolt upright. Flames ignited her hair, forming an aura around her face, and her lips parted into a grin just before the doors closed shut.

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.

República de Guatemala 32

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.

16 de Septiembre 82

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

Av. Juárez 44

The Fantastical Woodcut Illustrations of Pau Masiques

A Q&A with the Monterrey, Mexico-based artist, who designs everything from children’s books, comics, posters and chocolate wrappers.

Bubble  by Pau Masiques

Bubble by Pau Masiques

The Ignacia Guest House is filled with wonderful art, objects and books on architecture. After Wally and I were given a tour, I walked up to one of the framed woodcuts with a depiction of the former beloved housekeeper Ignacia, for whom the boutique hotel is named, to jot down the artist’s name, which was signed in graphite in the lower right corner: Pau Masiques.

We loved how he captured the essence of this well-loved woman at two stages of her life. So I decided to reach out to Masiques to learn more about his process and inspirations.

Drawing is like being involved in a great debate in which your work participates in a shared dialogue with that of other creators.
— Pau Masiques
Blindada

Blindada

Masiques combines technology with tradition, transforming woodblocks into mesmerizing artwork. Whether it’s a woman wearing a city as a crown, her head encircled by an endless line of cars emitting fumes, or a squatting Hercules wearing the hide of the Nemean lion, with Medusa and Minotaur perched upon the bent barbell gripped between his teeth, Masiques pulls us into the illustration and the story it tells. His works evoke the warped whimsy of fairy tales and folklore, so of course we were drawn to him. –Duke

Hèrcules

Hèrcules

You created custom artwork for the Ignacia Guest House. Did the owners approach you, and how did you come up with the concept?

I heard about the commission from a friend and found it to be a very appealing proposal.

Recibí el encargo por parte de un amigo, me habló del proyecto y me pareció muy atractiva la propuesta.


When did you realize you were artistically inclined?

I’ve always liked to draw. I don’t remember exactly when this began, but I guess it was when I was very young, like all children — at that age we all have the creative potential to become artists.

Something that’s been with me from an early age is my love of comics. I think that’s what fueled my interest in drawing, in literature and a general curiosity about the world around me.

Siempre me ha gustado dibujar, no recuerdo cuando empecé, supongo que muy temprano como todos los niños, a esa edad todos tenemos un gran potencial como artistas plásticos.

Lo que me ha acompañado siempre, desde muy pequeño, es mi afición a leer cómics y eso creo que fue lo que alimentó mi interés por el dibujo, por la literatura y la curiosidad en general por el mundo que me rodea.

La sel·lecció natural campiona mundial

La sel·lecció natural campiona mundial

How did your career as an illustrator begin?

I took some comic and drawing courses during my childhood and early adolescence, but I wasn’t a very disciplined student at the time. Without putting in effort, your talent doesn't improve.

It wasn’t until later, while pursuing an illustration degree at the Escola Massana in Barcelona that the idea of becoming a professional illustrator occured to me. My connection to my professors, who had rich, creative careers in illustration, excited me and encouraged my dedication to that profession.

En mi niñez y adolescencia tomé algunos cursos de dibujo y cómic pero no era un alumno muy disciplinado en aquel momento, y sin esfuerzo las cosas no salen.

No fue hasta que empecé más tarde en la especialidad de ilustración de la Escola Massana de Barcelona que la idea de dedicarme profesionalmente a la ilustración me pareció posible. El contacto con maestros que tenían una rica vida profesional me animó y estimuló a dedicarme a la ilustración.

Ánimas

Ánimas

Tell us about your process. What materials and tools do you use?

I always carry a couple of notebooks with me. I use them to collect my ideas, whatever they may be: ideas that arise from an ephemeral need of their own or those of a commision. These sketches are the foundation, which I continue to elaborate using digital image processing software. Even when they’re made into a woodcut, the image I’m going to carve into the wood has been refined and retouched using a computer. The end result is closer to what I have on screen. However, there are elements that are impossible to reproduce using this technology that engraving offers. There’s a special vibration in the stroke and line when using a hand tool. Accidents that are the result of chance, which only occur by working directly with the materials, bring much more depth and strength to the end result.

Suelo llevar siempre conmigo un par de cuadernos, los uso para verter ahí mis ideas, sean cuales sean: ideas que surgen a partir de una necesidad expresiva propia o las de un encargo profesional. Esos bocetos son el origen, luego sigo elaborando mucho más el dibujo usando un software de tratamiento de imágenes. Incluso cuando realizo una xilografía, la imagen que voy a tallar en la madera la he revisado y retocado en la computadora, así me aseguro que el resultado final es más próximo al que tengo en pantalla, en el aspecto compositivo sobretodo, sin embargo hay cosas imposibles de reproducir con los medios que ofrece la computadora y que sí ofrece el grabado, hay una especial vibración en el trazo y unos accidentes fruto del azar, que solo trabajando directamente en la materia surgen y que aporta mucha más riqueza y fuerza al resultado final.

Woodcut illustrations influenced by lotería cards

Woodcut illustrations influenced by lotería cards

What are your influences? What inspires you?

The woodcuts of Frans Masereel, the work of José-Guadalupe Posada, Manuel Manilla and engravings in general are my most immediate references. The early works of Joan Miró — the painting The Farm for example — means a lot to me because of its closeness to my life. In that image, he represented a world very familiar to me.

I admire any form of expression, however rough, that seems to have a compelling narrative. I’m interested in so-called outsider art, such as the work of Bill Traylor. Through his ingenuity, he was able to reveal his world to us and describe it with enormous beauty and simplicity.

I’m interested in many artists, but perhaps what inspires me most is simplicity and expression, rather than technical skill. For example, while doing research for a recent project, I discovered the work of Jessie Oonark, a brilliant Inuit artist. At the moment, her work is a source of inspiration for me.

Drawing is like being involved in a great debate in which your work participates in a shared dialogue with that of other creators.

Las xilografías de Frans Masereel, la obra de Posadas, la de Manilla y el grabado popular en general son quizá mis referentes más inmediatos. La primera etapa de la obra de Joan Miró también, la pintura La Masía por ejemplo, me conmueve mucho por su cercanía, por representar y condensar en esa imagen un mundo que me es muy familiar.

Admiro cualquier forma de expresión que por tosca que parezca tenga una especial pulsión narrativa, me interesa mucho también el llamado arte “marginal”, como por ejemplo la obra de Bill Traylor, que con su aparente ingenuidad es capaz de desvelarnos su mundo y describirlo con enorme belleza y sencillez.

Me interesan muchísimos artistas, lo que más me inspira es quizá la simplicidad y la fuerza expresiva, más que un supuesto virtuosismo. Hace poco por ejemplo, descubrí a partir de la búsqueda de documentación para un trabajo, la obra de Jessie Oonark, una genial artista inuit, en estos momentos su trabajo es para mi una fuente de inspiración.

Dibujar es como estar metido en un gran debate, en el que tu trabajo dialoga con el de otros creadores.

A page from a comic about black musicians who have died under mysterious circumstances

A page from a comic about black musicians who have died under mysterious circumstances


Do you listen to music when you work?

I usually combine moments of silence with listening to music or radio programs, depending on the degree of concentration needed at that moment.

Suelo combinar momentos de silencio, con otros de música y de escucha de programas de radio. Depende del grado de concentración que necesite en cada momento.

Masiques’ whimsical work has appeared on a line of chocolate bars

Masiques’ whimsical work has appeared on a line of chocolate bars

Is there a favorite project you’ve worked on?

In general, I’m pretty excited about each commission I receive. I’ve illustrated wrappers for chocolate bars, books, press articles, and posters for concerts and theater workshops. I’ve collaborated in fanzines and I’ve also done solo exhibits of my engravings and sculptures. My favorite thing might be sculpture. It’s something I haven’t done in awhile. I’d say that wood carving and constructing objects are a couple of my favorite practices. I don’t do them as often as I would like — maybe that’s why I choose them as a favorite.

En general suelo ilusionarme con casi todos los encargos que recibo. He ilustrado envolturas para chocolates, libros, artículos de prensa, he realizado posters para conciertos y talleres de teatro, he colaborado en fanzines, también he exhibido mis grabados y esculturas en algunas exposiciones, pero quizá una de mis prácticas favoritas es la de la escultura, y es algo que hace mucho que no hago, podría decir que tallar madera y construir objetos es una de mis prácticas favoritas, y que no realizó tan a menudo como quisiera, quizá por eso la escojo como favorita.

What’s one of your favorite places in Mexico City?

I’ve lived in the north part of the country, in Monterrey, Nuevo León, for about nine years, but I love going to Mexico City, and there are many places that I like. But one place I don’t mind returning to again and again is the National Museum of Anthropology.

Vivo en el norte del país, en Monterrey (Nuevo León) desde hace cerca de nueve años, pero me encanta ir a la Ciudad de México y hay muchos lugares que me gustan, pero un lugar emblemático al que no me importa regresar una y otra vez es el Museo Nacional de Antropología.

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

 

A Perfect Afternoon in Artsy Coyoacán

Follow our six-stop walking tour of Mexico City’s bohemian neighborhood, including Plaza Hidalgo and Los Danzantes restaurant.

After visiting Frida’s house, explore the boho hood of Coyoacán and purchase some traditional regional handicrafts at the artisanal market

After visiting Frida’s house, explore the boho hood of Coyoacán and purchase some traditional regional handicrafts at the artisanal market

There’s much to do in the charming neighborhood of Coyoacán beyond La Casa Azul, the lifelong home and studio of famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.

The municipality’s name comes from Coyohuacan, Nahuatl for “the Place of Coyotes.” This colonia, or neighborhood, features meandering streets filled with well-preserved colonial buildings, delicious restaurants and handicraft markets waiting to be explored.

You’ll see balloon vendors all over CDMX

You’ll see balloon vendors all over CDMX

All you’ll need for a perfect afternoon in Coyoacán is a comfortable pair of shoes and a sense of adventure — the area is walkable, and all of the stops listed below can easily be explored by foot.

The Fuente de los Coyotes in Coyoacán

The Fuente de los Coyotes in Coyoacán

Make a Splash

Stop 1: Plaza Hidalgo

Your journey begins in the historic heart of Coyoacán, just a few blocks from La Casa Azul. On Avenida Francisco Sosa, you’ll find not one, but two public squares: Jardín Centenario, which memorializes the 100th anniversary of Mexico’s independence, and the Plaza Hidalgo. Together they form a typical colonial town square, complete with benches for people-watching, gazebos for music and vendors selling balloons.

Near the entrance of Plaza Hidalgo, a street artist was selling woven palm-leaf crickets. We purchased a pair for 50 pesos each (about $2.50), and as the vendor was handing them to us, a woman seated on a nearby bench offered her advice by telling us to use hairspray to keep them green.

People push crickets on you everywhere you go in Mexico City. These palm ones are more appetizing than the ones in the croquettes we ate

People push crickets on you everywhere you go in Mexico City. These palm ones are more appetizing than the ones in the croquettes we ate

Here you’ll find a circular stone fountain known as the Fuente de los Coyotes, or Fountain of the Coyotes, the animals from whom the borough takes its name. The iconic landmark occupies the center of the plaza and features two bronze coyotes by sculptor Gabriel Ponzanelli. Numerous spouts located around the perimeter spray graceful arcs of water into the air over the playful pair.

Be sure to stop into the exquisite Iglesia de Coyoacán, the large cathedral, across the way.

Ignacio Allende Esquina Avenida Miguel Hidalgo

Grab a bite on the patio of Los Danzantes, just off the park, for good food and people-watching

Grab a bite on the patio of Los Danzantes, just off the park, for good food and people-watching

Let’s Dance

Stop 2: Los Danzantes

On the periphery of the square is Los Danzantes, the Dancers, a multi-story restaurant in a colonial-era building with panoramic views of the park. Wally’s coworker Juls lived in Mexico City, and this is one of her favorite restaurants. We were seated outside on the patio terrace, and similar to the cafés of Paris, it was a great place to watch the world go by and enjoy a leisurely meal. While we were there, a guitarist paused for a moment as he passed by, looking to see if there might be an interested party willing to pay him to play a song or two. The restaurant also has its own mezcal distillery and grows seasonal produce in garden plots called chinampas in Xochimilco.

The bar at Los Danzantes

The bar at Los Danzantes

We had ceviche, cricket croquetas and hoja santa (holy leaf), a local specialty stuffed with goat cheese

We had ceviche, cricket croquetas and hoja santa (holy leaf), a local specialty stuffed with goat cheese

Mezcal and a mariachi are all it takes to make Duke happy

Mezcal and a mariachi are all it takes to make Duke happy

Plaza Jardín Centenario 12

Look for these yellow arches across from the Jardín Centenario to enter the handicraft market

Look for these yellow arches across from the Jardín Centenario to enter the handicraft market

Get Crafty

Stop 3: Mercado Artesanal Mexicano

After lunch, visit the Mexican Craft Market and walk beneath garlands of fluttering papel picado, colorful cut-tissue paper bunting. The two-story market has dozens of craft stalls featuring a wide variety of traditional Mexican handicrafts and regional specialties from all over the country, all in one place.

You’ll spot the coyotes for which the colonia is named all over the place

You’ll spot the coyotes for which the colonia is named all over the place

Colorful skulls on offer at the craft market

Colorful skulls on offer at the craft market

We headed upstairs first, but it seemed to be endless stalls of tattoo artists and not many handicrafts. The first floor, though, was more our speed. Wally and are were especially drawn to the colorful Oaxacan alebrijes, traditional folk art depicting fantastical creatures embellished with brilliant patterns and colors. (We have a thing for the surreal.) Each small wooden totem is carved by hand, often using nothing more than a simple pocket knife. We brought home a strange little skeleton, a green and orange insect and a black cactus with a bright pink flower and hummingbird on top of it.

When I purchased an unusual-looking doll made from a bulbous gourd with coarsely braided rope pigtails, two tiny breasts and coconut shell limbs (200 pesos, or $10), Wally replied, “You like things that look old, are a little bit cuckoo and are unlike anything we’ve seen elsewhere.” He knows me so well.

Stalls often sell the same crafts at different prices, so shop around — but don’t expect to bargain for a lower price.

Felipe Carrillo Puerto 25


coyoacanchurchaisle.jpg

BONUS STOP!

Pop into la Iglesia de Coyoacán (aka Parroquia San Juan Bautista) across the square.

The façade looks plain, but the inside is awash in gilded niches, sweeping arches and hand-painted ceiling frescos, with a peaceful cloister around back.

If that hasn’t convinced you, you can hunt down the creepy life-size mannequins of Christ and a dead baby!


Grab a coffee and snack at Panadería Pública

Grab a coffee and snack at Panadería Pública

Take a Coffee Break

Stop 4: Panadería Pública

If shopping has worn you out, we recommend stopping for a delicious pastry paired with a great cup of coffee at the Panadería Pública for an afternoon pick-me-up. There’s an array of options here, including traditional conchas, campesinos and orejas, as well as French baguettes, croissants and pain au chocolat to name a few. I ordered a café con leche and Wally got his latte con leche light. We also purchased a pastelito de guayaba, a puff pastry similar in size and shape to a turnover, filled with cream cheese and guava paste. Stop to chat with the friendly staff.

Higuerra 22
La Concepción

The marigold yellow façade of La Conchita has seen better days but still has charm

The marigold yellow façade of La Conchita has seen better days but still has charm

Goin’ to the Chapel

Stop 5: Plaza de la Conchita

A short stroll southeast is the leafy Plaza de la Conchita in the colonia La Concepción, a quiet sanctuary that feels worlds away from the crowds of tourists visiting La Casa Azul just a few miles away. The small square contains a pale yellow, timeworn and weather-beaten beauty of the 16th century, the Churrigueresque, or Spanish Baroque-style, chapel known as La Conchita. One of the oldest in Mexico, it’s said that the conquistador Hernán Cortés ordered the church to be built on top of a Toltec altar soon after he settled in Coyoacán. The village was used as the base for the conquistadors after they conquered the Aztec Empire.

The church is designed in the Churrigueresque, or Spanish Baroque, style

The church is designed in the Churrigueresque, or Spanish Baroque, style

Duke sits on the steps around back

Duke sits on the steps around back

Unfortunately, the chapel was closed, so we couldn’t venture inside, but the building itself is a charming example of colonial architecture.

The fellas love to take jumping shots

The fellas love to take jumping shots

Golden hour made the church walls glow

Golden hour made the church walls glow

Fernández Leal
La Concepción

Teenagers practice salsa moves at the end of a striking, geometrical arbor

Teenagers practice salsa moves at the end of a striking, geometrical arbor

Park It

Stop 6: Frida Kahlo Park

Just steps from the Plaza de la Conchita is Frida Kahlo Park. Here you’ll find a menagerie of topiary animals at the entrance and a fountain with a bronze sculpture of a nude woman with her legs drawn up, also by Ponzanelli. A group of teenagers was practicing salsa routines under an arbor of bougainvilleas.

Like the coyote fountain in Plaza Hidalgo, this woman was sculpted by Ponzanelli

Like the coyote fountain in Plaza Hidalgo, this woman was sculpted by Ponzanelli

Wally loves Frida

Wally loves Frida

Is Diego jealous of Duke’s attention to Frida?

Is Diego jealous of Duke’s attention to Frida?

The park is a bit small in scale, but it’s worth stopping by to take a photo with the larger-than-life figures of Frida and Diego and to see the brightly colored mural by Dan Silva aka Polvoe, across the way on Tepalcatitla street.

The mascots of Coyoacán, as depicted by street artist Polvoe

The mascots of Coyoacán, as depicted by street artist Polvoe

A colorful mural across from Frida Kahlo Park caught our eye

A colorful mural across from Frida Kahlo Park caught our eye

Fernández Leal and Avenida Pacifico
La Concepción


Coyoacán was easily one of our favorite places we visited in CDMX. You can see why this enchanting and storied part of the city has attracted artists and intellectuals over the years. –Duke

 

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


Gaya Ceramic: Italy Meets Bali

If you’re interested in handmade pottery, stop in this charming Ubud boutique.

An Italian couple took their native country’s dedication to quality and paired it with Balinese craftsmanship

An Italian couple took their native country’s dedication to quality and paired it with Balinese craftsmanship

It's true, Wally and I have a shared fascination with folklore, history and handicrafts which ultimately drives most of our travel destinations, and is why we decided to stay in Ubud, the cultural heart of Bali. The island has a special energy all its own, but if you want to enjoy it and have only a few days, you may find that seeing everything you would like to on your itinerary is logistically impossible. However, one of the places I refused to cut was the Gaya Ceramic showroom.

Gaya Ceramic has formed a perfect marriage of Italian design and Balinese craftsmanship.
Stop by Gaya Ceramic to pick up some gifts for family and friends — and treat yourself while you’re at it

Stop by Gaya Ceramic to pick up some gifts for family and friends — and treat yourself while you’re at it

The boutique is located on Jalan Raya, the main thoroughfare that passes through the center of Ubud, in the village of Sayan. If you’re hiring a taxi or driver, make sure to let them know that it’s not the smaller branch of the road, as our driver took us to the Ceramic Arts Center by mistake. While this educational division with classes, workshops and a residency program for artists from around the globe is certainly interesting, I wanted to see the goods for sale at the shop.

The duo behind the craft are husband and wife Marcello Massoni and Michela Foppiani. Both passionate creatives who caught the attention of Gaya Fusion's director, Stefano Grande. After meeting with Stefano, they made the decision to move from Italy to Bali and established Gaya Ceramic. It should come as no surprise then, that their aesthetic is the perfect union of Italian design and Balinese craftsmanship.

One of the first things we noticed when we arrived at the showroom were exotic, climbing vines with pale lavender blooms. The dense growth framed and partially concealed the façade, lending the exterior an air of curiosity, as if letting you know you’re about to enter somewhere enchanting.

Marcello Massoni, the CEO of Gaya Ceramic, still throws the original prototype for each new piece

Marcello Massoni, the CEO of Gaya Ceramic, still throws the original prototype for each new piece

The Gaya Ceramic shop is like walking through an art exhibit

The Gaya Ceramic shop is like walking through an art exhibit

Inside, a rich, jewel-tone malachite green tile covers the floors. The boutique contains an array of luxurious, refined hand-crafted objects. Gaya’s designs include sculptural porcelain and lava sand mortar and pestles, to more elaborate ceramic coral wall art, bowls, plates and one of my personal favorites, “tattoo” vases embellished with a deconstructed pattern of twining cobalt blue chinoiserie flowers, all handmade in Bali.

What’s most impressive, though, is the relationship Marcello and Michela have fostered within the village of Sayan, where the company is based. Villagers who have mastered the intensive hands-on apprenticeship program have gone on to become fully vested employees, ensuring that these skills live on for generations to come.

Gaya makes up to 9,000 pieces a month!

Gaya makes up to 9,000 pieces a month!

Intricately patterned Raku ware pottery pieces are grouped together

Intricately patterned Raku ware pottery pieces are grouped together

A couple of the delightful employees who work at Gaya

A couple of the delightful employees who work at Gaya

Every element, from the wireless radio — they even have a Spotify playlist — to the small circular clay tokens with their logo stamped into them that adorn their shopping bags, has been thoughtfully considered.

Visit their showroom and take your time to admire the beauty of each piece. And if your suitcase isn’t big enough, they ship.


Q&A with Marcello Massoni, owner of Gaya Ceramic

How has your cultural background been incorporated into Gaya?
We always put a bit of Italian flavor into our ceramics. The innovation and attention to detail that Italians are well known for is embedded in all our creations.

 

How has the culture of Bali influenced you?
Balinese culture helped us to reach a high level of craftsmanship and inspires us every day with its architecture, nature and ceremonies.

 

Tell about us your process. How does a lump of clay become a beautiful object?

All of our pieces begin their life in the studio. I still throw the original piece from which a prototype is made. For our hospitality projects, we custom create ceramic collections based on a client’s functional and aesthetic needs. We use different clays, glazes and diverse firing techniques (gas, raku, wood firings). All of our processes are handmade.

 

On average, how many pieces are produced per month?

Between 7,000 to 9,000.

 

Now for a few fun non-business related questions. What are a couple of your and Michela’s favorite local restaurants?  

Locavore or the restaurant at Bambu Indah.

 

Where’s the best place to get a cup of coffee?  

My house.

 

Favorite place to visit on Bali?

Pura Gunung Kawi or Geger Beach in Nusa Dua.

 

Best place to get gelato (and we know you’re biased)?

Gaya Gelato :)

gayaubud

Gaya Ceramic
Jalan Raya Satan No. 105
Sayan, Ubud
Bali, Indonesia 80571

Klungkung, the Hellish Comic-Paneled Water Palace of Bali

Head to Semarapura to see a monument to a mass suicide and illustrated ceilings that depict gruesome demons.

Monstrous statues, lily-covered pools of water and pavilions filled with comic book-like artwork come together at Klungkung

Monstrous statues, lily-covered pools of water and pavilions filled with comic book-like artwork come together at Klungkung

A mythic creature watches over the pavilion

A mythic creature watches over the pavilion

The Hall of Justice depicts various torments — like having your nether regions scorched

The Hall of Justice depicts various torments — like having your nether regions scorched

I had always been intrigued by one of the photos Wally had taken when he first visited Bali 17 years ago. The image is a detail shot of a small naked one-eyed male creature with a high ponytail. 

I later discovered that he took this photo at the Klungkung Palace. This was my first time to Bali, but Wally’s second and I was truly excited to have found more than a few places he hadn’t been to. Klungkung wasn’t one of those places, but was so different from the other sites in our itinerary that we simply had to visit. Of course Wally didn't mind, which is one of the many reasons we make a great couple — we’re both drawn to the unusual and fantastic mythology of other cultures.

The panels portray the various forms of hellish punishment awaiting those who are found guilty in the afterlife.

We arrived in Semarapura, the capital of the Klungkung Regency and purchased our tickets to enter across the busy thoroughfare from the pavilions.

If the Puputan monument looks like a giant phallus, that’s because it kinda is! This memorial is a linga-yoni, a representation of the Hindu god Shiva’s, er, divine energy

If the Puputan monument looks like a giant phallus, that’s because it kinda is! This memorial is a linga-yoni, a representation of the Hindu god Shiva’s, er, divine energy

Overlooking the town’s main intersection is a towering memorial resembling an upside-down cannon barrel constructed of black volcanic stone. The monument is known as the Puputan Klungkung and commemorates the ceremonial mass ritual suicides known as puputan. The word comes from the Balinese puput, meaning “to finish” or “end.” And that’s exactly what occurred when the Dutch invaded Semarapura in 1908 and brought the entire island of Bali under colonial domination. Miniature dioramas inside the memorial depict scenes from historic local events, including the battles with the Dutch.

Two pavilions and a ceremonial gate are all that remain of a former palace in Semarapura

Two pavilions and a ceremonial gate are all that remain of a former palace in Semarapura

Klungkung Royal Palace

Across the street from the Puputan monument are what remains of the former royal palace complex of Puri Agung Semarapura. Built at the end of the 17th century, sadly many of its structures were destroyed during the Dutch conquest.

A brick path forms a bridge to access the Floating Pavilion

A brick path forms a bridge to access the Floating Pavilion

Wally and I entered the Klungkung grounds through a side gate where a group of three women, ready to pounce upon unsuspecting tourists, were attempting to sell a variety of clothing, from sarongs to short-sleeved men’s dress shirts. We politely told them we weren’t interested and walked to the restroom located on the opposite side of the complex. When we emerged, one of the women who had split from the group awaited us and followed us around, trying to sell us an extra-large men’s batik shirt. Honestly, it was a cool shirt and we would have bought it from her if she had the right size.

The Hall of Justice is literally covered with illustrated panels

The Hall of Justice is literally covered with illustrated panels

Justice was once meted out from this table

Justice was once meted out from this table

The Kertha Gosa Hall of Justice: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Among the few buildings that remain is the Kertha Gosa. Situated in the northeast corner of the compound, the raised pavilion served as the kingdom’s Hall of Justice. Inside sits a table and six elaborately carved wooden chairs. Painted in red and gold, the raja’s chair features the image of a lion, symbolizing his position as chief of court. A second has a cow image and was used by a Brahman priest who served as both lawyer and advisor to the raja. A third chair bearing a dragon, was for the secretary.

A lion, dragon and cow decorate the chairs in the Hall of Justice

A lion, dragon and cow decorate the chairs in the Hall of Justice

Here, the raja met visiting dignitaries and presided over a court comprised of himself and three Brahman priests. Disputes that could not be reconciled at the village level were heard and mediated within the Kertha Gosa Pavilion.

Looking up, the vaulted ceiling is covered with highly detailed narrative stories painted on wood panels, many of which are popular tales from shadow puppet theater. Their traditional style of visual storytelling is known as Kamasan or Wayang painting and were produced by generations of artists from the nearby village of Kamasan, who served as artisans to the royal court.

The ceiling is covered with illustrations — it’s like a Balinese comic book about a trip to Hell

The ceiling is covered with illustrations — it’s like a Balinese comic book about a trip to Hell

Highly detailed images of gods, humans and demons rendered in red, indigo, ochre and white are arranged to illustrate the coexistence of the natural and supernatural.

The main subject of the paintings is Bima, a strong warrior from the Mahabharata, who journeys to the underworld to save the souls of his parents. Scenes portrayed in these panels are associated with the various forms of hellish punishment awaiting those who are found guilty in the afterlife.

Klungkung consists of two main structures, but golly, they’re fun to visit

Klungkung consists of two main structures, but golly, they’re fun to visit

The Floating Pavilion of Bale Kembang

After gawking at the ceiling and taking numerous photos, Wally and I continued on to the Floating Pavilion of Bale Kembang. Surrounded by guardian statues, the structure rises from the middle of a pond in the center of the complex. The pavilion was greatly expanded by the Dutch in the 1940s and was originally a smaller, lower structure which served as the base for the raja’s guards.

One of the guardians of Klungkung. Too bad they couldn’t have saved the local kingdom from colonization by the Dutch

One of the guardians of Klungkung. Too bad they couldn’t have saved the local kingdom from colonization by the Dutch

Lichen covers many of the statues on Bali, lending an ancient otherworldly air to them

Lichen covers many of the statues on Bali, lending an ancient otherworldly air to them

One of the narratives within the Bale Kembang depicts episodes from the story of the Buddhist king Sutasoma, who defeated his enemies through passive resistance. Also portrayed is the rags-to-riches folktale of the humble Pen and Men Brayut and their 18 children, who through their tireless labor, no pun-intended, achieve wealth. Bordering these panels is the palindon, an earthquake calendar foretelling the indirect effects of divine power should seismic activity occur during the corresponding month.

Overwhelmed by the variety of demon and exotic fauna before me, I barely noticed the male and female artists seated on the floor of the pavilion who were putting the finishing touches on single-scene Kamasan paintings. The man was doing the drawing and the woman filling in the color with a small brush. Stacks of these paintings and hand-painted fans, for sale as souvenirs were placed nearby.

Two artists create Kamasan style paintings, fans and Balinese calendars

Two artists create Kamasan style paintings, fans and Balinese calendars

In a bit of a daze by what we had just seen (or perhaps it was just hunger and the heat), Wally and I left the Floating Pavilion. One of the aforementioned women we had passed upon entering the complex approached us, delicately extracting several hand-painted eggs from a white plastic bag. Our resistance worn down, we purchased a few as gifts, agreeing to keep one for ourselves. We were glad we did, as we now have a souvenir of our experience at this magical place. –Duke

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Klungkung Royal Palace
Jalan Diponegoro
Semarapura Kangin
Central Semarapura
Klungkung Sub-District
Klungkung Regency
Bali 80761
Indonesia