Monday, June 25, 2018

Hong Kong's socio-economic and geographical diversity on view on a hike from The Peak down to Wah Fu

from today's hike's trailhead
 View near the hike's end

Waterfall, greenery and resting butterfly spotted along the way ;b
To many people who visit, Hong Kong can seem socially and physically homogeneous.  In their eyes, Hong Kong is a concrete jungle full of expensive stores and rich people.  But while it's true that one in seven Hong Kongers is a millionaire (when measured in Hong Kong dollars), the wealth gap between the richest residents of the Big Lychee and the poorest is actually pretty wide indeed; with those living in luxury up on The Peak being several times richer than those living in public housing such as Wah Fu Estate.  And as my hiking posts (of hikes undertaken on Hong Kong Island as well as beyond) often show, the territory actually has plenty of green spaces as well as high density urban ones.
Both Hong Kong's socio-economic and geographic diversity were on view during the hike I went on earlier today with a friend that began up on The Peak (to be more precise, Victoria Gap) and ended several hundred meters lower down -- and several notches down on the social ladder too -- at Wah Fu (more precisely, in the vicinity of Wah Fu Estate).  And while the hike both started and concluded in areas where there were plenty of people in plain sight, much of it actually took place on trails that passed through green areas where far more butterflies (including at least one White Dragontail!) and spiders (including a number of Golden Orb Weavers) were on view than human beings.  
For those who think of The Peak more as a major tourist attraction than exclusive residential area: realize that apartments in this exclusive neighborhood can go for several hundred million dollars.  Contrast this with the fact that the maximum monthly income limit for individuals seeking to get into public housing in Hong Kong is HK$11,540 (as of 2018).  Put another way: the combined lifetime incomes of several hundred, if not thousands, of public housing dwellers would still not be enough to buy one flat on The Peak.
Yet while it can feel like the super rich folks living on The Peak and those in public estates may live in different worlds, the fact of the matter is that both groups -- and also those that make up the socio-economic groups in between -- have equal access to Hong Kong's country parks and the hiking trails that criss-cross them.  The beauty of nature and the joys that come from being outdoors on a beautiful day are things that anyone who venture into the likes of Pok Fu Lam Country Park on whose borders can be found both super expensive Peak residences and public housing over at Wah Fu!
As anyone who lives for a time in Hong Kong will realize, hiking is really popular among Hong Kong residents, be they expat or local, female or male, young or old.  Even Hong Kong movie stars get spotted on hiking trails, with one friend having spotted Chow Yun Fat up on Sharp Peak, and another having spotted Carina Lau and Tony Leung Chiu Wai walking along the (Victoria) Peak Circuit!
After photos of Ekin Cheng, Yoyo Mung and Hsu Chi hiking in Tai Tam Country Park surfaced a few years back, a fellow Hong Kong movie fan friend lamented her not ever having bumped into them there despite that part of Hong Kong being where she regularly goes hiking.  For my part, I'm not all that surprised that I've yet to spot a movie star while out hiking since I tend to focus on spotting interesting critters (sometimes doing interesting things!) when out in the countryside.  And when I crossed paths with the first Chief Executive of Hong Kong while walking along the Bowen Road Path one Chinese New Year day some years back, it was only several minutes later that I got to realizing who that familiar-looking gentleman hda been! ;D   

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Taking in a flamenco experience at Sevilla's Casa de la Memoria

A place where memories get made...
 
 ...in particular those involving flamenco performances :)
 
I spent two years of the last decade of the previous century in Tanzania conducting research on what's known in Kiswahili (the country's official language) as makumbusho.  While those institutions are known as "museums" in English, the word makumbusho actually literally translates into English as "memories".  So, for Tanzanians, a museum would be a house of memories (and vice versa).
 
In Sevilla, however, the House of Memories I visited was less a museum in the conventional sesnse than a cultural center dedicated to the Spanish performing art of flamenco.  And it was at that particular Casa de la Memoria that my German friend and I added a flamenco show to our list of cultural events that we've attended together (which already includes a traditional dance performance at Yogyakarta's Kraton, a Christmas Eve concert at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, an organ recital at Speyer's cathedral and a number of classical music concerts in Hong Kong, including one featuring multi-Grammy award-winning double bassist Edgar Meyer).
 
To the surprise of those (including my German friend) who thought that flamenco was all about the dance, the evening performance began with musical numbers courtesy of a guitarist and raspy-voiced singer and it wasn't until around the 15 minute mark of the 1 hour show that any dancers appeared on stage.  Once they did so though, they really did come across as the soul of the show -- with the musicians looking to take their cues from the dancers rather than the other way around.  
 
Sometimes, the two featured dancers performed as a pair.  More often than not, however, each dancer performed solo -- and in so doing, were able to show the audience how different and distinct from each other the moves accorded to the male and female dancers are; with the former involving moves that emphasized his physical strength and footwork that produced loud rat-a-tat sounds, and the latter coming across as impassioned and incorporating movements so wildly dramatic that, by the end of one dance, all the flowers that had previously been lodged in the female artiste's hair were strewn on the floor!
 
If truth be told, dance is probably my least favorite of the performing arts and it took a while for me to enjoy the flamenco show.  Slowly but surely, however, I felt myself drawn into the emotion-infused artistic experience; thanks largely to the dancers who at times hypnotized and other times appeared to be in a trance-like state themselves (this particularly so in the case of the female dancer who had her eyes closed for much of her performance)!  And while I'm not about to make a beeline for any flamenco performances I see scheduled in Hong Kong, I'm glad that I did take in one in a city famous for its flamenco scene and which is said to have this distinctive art form in its soul.   

Friday, June 22, 2018

Memorable sights at Sevilla's Hospital de la Caridad

The statue of Don Miguel Mañara (carrying a sick man) 
in the park across the street from the charity hospital he founded

Courtyard within the Hopsital de la Caridad

Puppet Ponyo all wide-eyed in the 
Hospital de la Caridad's chapel 

It's close to a month since I flew out of Spain -- and in that time, I've flown out of and back into Hong Kong once more (on this occasion, to enjoy durian season in Penang).  Many of the memories I accumulated over the course of my fortnight or so in Spain remain pretty vivid though, and the fact that this is the case even for visits to venues that could be described as "minor" (or, at least, not "must see"s in the eyes of many) attests to these sites actually having been much to offer and recommend.

Take, for example, the charity hospital that my guidebook (written by Rick Steves) had listed as a "try hard to see" but my German friend's hadn't seemed to rate that highly.  Founded in the 17th century by a playboy nobleman turned altruistic human being, the Hospice and Hospital of the Holy Charity in Sevilla (aka the Hospital de la Caridad) is in operation to this day (albeit more as a charity home for the aged than an actual hospital) and is housed in buildings considered to be among the finest examples of Baroque architecture in Sevilla, if not the whole of Spain.

Located in a quiet section of the city center that's just a few minutes walk from the city's famous cathedral but can feel a world apart in terms of tourist traffic, the Hospital de la Caridad houses both elderly patients and works of art by Spanish masters such as Francisco de Zurbaran and hometown boy, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.  The bulk of the institution's artistic treasures line the walls of its richly decorated chapel (whose size as well as furnishings put many a church I've been in to shame) but, at the time of my visit, visitors were able to view up close two Murillo masterpieces which had been newly restored and were being housed in another section of the hospital complex.

While there's no question that its chapel is its architectural highpoint, the central courtyards of the Hospital de la Caridad also are aesthetically pleasing -- particularly, like it was for the bulk of my visit to the complex, when it was largely empty and consequently peaceful.  (When a large tour group entered the space during the latter part of my visit, it was rather shocking to see the quiet so dramatically shattered!)

Even my having to share it with other folks couldn't take away my appreciation of the chapel however.  On the far end from the entrance is an eye-catchingly large wooden altarpiece that has been covered with glittery gold leaf and on the upper walls and ceilings of the chapel are intricate stucco work.  The art that made the most impression on me, however, were two paintings near the chapel's entrance: one showing how life can be extinguished in the blink of an eye (Juan de Valdés Leal's In Ictu Oculi); and another depicting the hand of Christ holding the scales of justice, and also worms and bugs feasting on the decaying flesh of a bishop and  Don Miguel Mañara (Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, also by Leal)!

From one perspective, it stands to reason that there would be meditations on death and what comes after in the chapel of a hospital, hospice and/or home for the aged.  But talk about putting the fear of God -- more precisely, being judged to have committed more sins than good deeds by God! -- into those who enter and make use of that place of worship, particularly those who do so regularly for a significant period of time! :O     

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Not always feeling at ease in Sevilla's famous cathedral :S

Among Sevilla Cathedral's claims to fame is it being
the final resting place of one Christopher Columbus
 
This cathedral also houses Spain's most valuable crown,
whose centerpiece is the world's largest pearl
 
Just one look at its High Altar will get you realizing
that it's quite the treasure too!
 
And it's Chapter House may well be the most
beautiful in the world! :O
 
Sevilla's Catedral de Santa Maria de la Sede has many claims to fame.  One of three structures in the Andalucian city (along with the Real Alcazar and the nearby Archivo de Indias) which is UNESCO World Heritage-listed, it took some 100 years to build and its total area of 23,500 square meters makes it the third largest church in Europe (after St Peter's in Rome, and London's St Paul's Cathedral) and the largest Gothic church in the world.  Kings, princes and cardinals are buried in it.  And so too is the Italian explorer largely funded by Spanish monarchs, Christopher Columbus, "who sailed the ocean blue" to what he thought was India but turned out to be the Americas.
 
Even if you didn't know who he was or that he's buried in Sevilla's cathedral, you'd be able to figure that Christopher Columbus' tomb is a big deal since it's pretty much always surrounded by crowds of people from various parts of the world. Another section of this vast building where the crowds -- understandably -- gather in front of is its High Altar, where the largest altarpiece ever made can be found, albeit behind metal grills that the church administrators in Spain seem to erect far more than their equivalents in many other parts of the world. 

I have to be honest: often, Sevilla Cathedral felt far more like a tourist attraction than an actual place of worship to me.  One reason is because of the large amount of people there who weren't there to pray.  Another is that the place is chockful of treasures, works of art (including by Goya, Murillo and Zurbaran), and -- my apologies in advance if I offend sensitive religious souls -- some rather bizarre and discomfiting oddities.  
 
Many years ago, I read a book about Christian relics in which it was mentioned that there are a number of churches in Europe that claim to be in possession of Jesus Christ's foreskin.  (Incidentally, it was through looking up that word in a dictionary that I came to find out what it meant!)  And while Sevilla Cathedral is not one of those Christian places of worship that have made that claim, its treasury does contain hundreds of what are claimed to be saintly body parts along with gold and jewel encrusted items, including the Corona de la Virgen de los Reyes, whose creator, Manuel de laTorres, made use of the world's largest pearl for the torso of the angel at the center of this precious crown!
 
In retrospect, I should have known to brace myself to behold some pretty unusual sights when the first part of the cathedral proper that I entered (which has been set aside as its art pavilion) turned out to house a 17th century piece of sculpture made to resemble the severed head of St John the Baptist.  Oh, and near an exit hangs El Lagarto, a stuffed crocodile gifted by an Egyptian Sultan to Spain's King Alfonso X when the former sought to wed the daughter of the latter!
 
Far more pleasing to my eye was the cathedral's Chapter House, where the archbishop and his council would meet to consider matters.  Its magnificent domed ceiling and marbled patterned floor makes it an aesthetic wonder.  At the same time as I was admiring its beauty, however, I found myself thinking it highly likely that some pretty unsavory decisions got made in the room, and perhaps that what accounts for my feeling literally chilled while in there... 
 
More specifically, as I had learnt at Cordoba's Casa de Sefarad, Sevilla was where the Spanish Inqusition got its start, with the first ever auto-da- of the Spanish Inquisition, which led to the burning alive of six individuals, being held in that city whose famous Jewish Quarter now no longer is home to any Jews.  And while the seat of the Inquisition was across the river in Triana, a Sevillan archbishop, Pedro Gonzalez de Mendoza, is considered to be the true founder of the Spanish Inquisition -- and the chances are indeed high that he made a number of decisions in his seat's chapter house... :S

Friday, June 8, 2018

Inspired by Anthony Bourdain even while mourning his demise

A hearty serving of rabo de toro (bull-tail's stew)
I could totally see Anthony Bourdain having enjoyed

 The Spanish eat tripe too! 

Anyone else up for morcillo (blood sausage) canapés?

A couple of hours ago, I found out that one of my heroes has not only died but committed suicideAnthony Bourdain has given me so much inspiration and joy along with entertainment.  He led me to have memorable meals at a number of dining establishments, including Tung Po and the now sadly defunct Tai Po branch of Yat Lok here in Hong Kong, Muthu's in Penang, and Koyoshi Sushi in Osaka.  Watching his shows made me want to follow in his footsteps and head to many parts of the world, including places as diverse as Vietnam (a country he seemed to genuinely love) and Amsterdam (which an episode of The Layover made really enticing).  

I loved that Anthony Bourdain was able to appreciate both "low end" and "high end" foods, and that he seemed so happy whenever he was in Asia, eating Asian foods.  I also got a major kick out of his sharing my love of street food, "tube food" (including blood sausage and liver sausage as well as more "regular" types of sausage) and "nose to tail" eating, and making it come across as "cool" rather than "gross".  

And while I haven't actually watched any of his Spain shows, I still felt like I was following in the intrepid and enthusiastic traveller's footsteps there as I did such as make a point to try a variety of foods and eateries (all of them sans reservations) on my travels in that country as well as try to look at the country and society from the viewpoint of a traveller interested in delve deep into it rather than just scratch its surface -- the way I reckon he would.

On the culinary front: I made sure to go beyond just eating jamon while in Spain (though it's also true that I did eat quite a lot of it -- Serrano, Iberico and even Iberico de Bellota) and trying a lot of local and regional specialties.  Having done some research beforehand, I knew that the Spanish eat a lot of sea creatures that many associate more with Asian culinary traditions (including razor clams, squid and octopi).  Ditto re eating animal parts such as tripe, cheeks and tails!  So when I saw such items on the menu, I would readily and happily order and eat them -- sometimes to the shock of my German friend, and often to the appreciation of the Spanish restaurant staff.  

I know there are people who see eating such items as stemming more from a dare than genuine expectation that one will find them delicious.  In all honesty though, I enjoyed eating rabo de toro (bull's-tail stew) and the Spanish version of blood sausage (morcillo) so much that I ended up happily ordering and eating them more than once on this Spain trip along with pimientos de Padron (the Russian Roulette of green pepper dishes!), gazpacho (so refreshing on hot days!) and, yes, platters of jamon (sometimes also with cheese but often just alone)!

And, like Anthony Bourdain, I regularly washed the food down -- or, should I say paired them(!) -- with alcohol: more often than not straight beer but also sometimes clara con limon (the Spanish version of British shandy or German radler), cava (Spanish sparkling wine) and, in one instance, a generous pour of gin and tonic.  

Returning to Anthony Bourdain: The way he's left this world has made it so that my thoughts and views of him will now forever be tinged with tragedy.  At the same time though, I have little doubt that this man who I never ever had the privilege of meeting, yet feel like I've had many conversations and experiences with over the years, will continue to inspire me when I travel, look at food and so much more.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Artistry seemingly everywhere you look at Sevilla's Real Alcazar (Photo-essay)

As I came to know over the course of my Spain trip, the country is home to a number of Alcazars (with a capital as well as small "A/a").  But as far as I know, there's only one Real (as in "royal" but it's easy enough to read the English meaning into it!) Alcazar in Spain -- located in the heart of Sevilla and UNESCO World Heritage-listed to boot.

Built for the Christian king Pedro I (1334-1469) by Muslim workmen -- whose artistic talent I'm absolutely in awe of -- on the site of a 10th century Abbadid Muslim fortress, the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe was added to and enlarged over the centuries and consists today of a number of palatial buildings and also has sprawling gardens within its expansive grounds.  The Real Alcazar was the Spanish attraction that I queued the longest to get into (more than one and a half hours!) but I have to say that it was totally worth the wait and I loved the place so much that I ended only leaving at a few minutes after its official closing time (and am grateful that the Spanish aren't the best of timekeepers!)!

Behold!  The entrance to King Pedro I's Palace!
 
 
Stairway leading up to the Upper Royal Apartments

Seemingly every bit of the Real Alcazar,
including its ceiling space, is a work of art
 
See what I mean?
 
And again... this in the Salon de Embajaroders 
(Hall of Ambassadors) that was King Pedro I's throne room

The Patio de las Doncellas (Courtyard of the Maidens)
with its long, rectangular reflecting pool
 
Puppet Ponyo wishes it to be known that even the doors
of the Real Alcazar are beautifully decorated
 
Seemingly every thing you look at, everywhere you look
in the complex, is a thing of dizzyingly gasp-inducing artistry :)

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Amazing sights abound inside Sevilla's Iglesia del Salvador

One of fourteen richly decorated altarpieces to be found
 
The chapel containing the Christ of the Passion statue has its own 
separate entrance through a courtyard of orange trees
 
The statue of Our Lady of the Waters
predates the church by about 400 years
 
Considering how (in)famously Catholic Spain is, it may seem somewhat strange the first outright Christian site that I visited was in the third -- rather than first or second -- city in the country that I set foot in.  To be sure, I did walk past a few churches and one massive cathedral in Madrid as well as spent time in the cathedral section of Cordoba's Mezquita.  Still, it's true enough that the first Christian, never mind Catholic, establishment that I made a point to check out was Seville's Iglesia del Salvador (Church of the Savior).   

Built on the site of a ninth century mosque (whose traces have been largely eradicated, though it's worth noting that what's now the church's bell tower used to be a minaret), Sevilla's second largest Christian place of worship is close to uniformly Andalusian Baroque in architectural style and decor, and is aesthetically all the more pleasing and beautiful because of it.  Containing far more -- and far more elaborate -- altarpieces than I had hitherto been used to seeing inside a single church, the Iglesia del Salvador is far more filled with art than its fairly plain looking exterior would have you think, and what a diversity of Christian art and artefacts there are on display in there too!
 
As heavy-looking as the high-ceilinged main space of the church feels bright and airy, the church's 14 (yes, really!) large altarpieces are all pretty spectacular and distinctive.  For example, there is one which memorably features images of God the father and God the spirit as opposed to the usual God the son.  Also, while the main altarpiece includes a statue of Christ on the cross, Jesus also appears in more unusual incarnations, including one riding an ass, and another which has him looking incredibly humble and bowed as well as bloodied.   

Amidst the elaborate architectural flourishes and religious depictions, the church's three-dimensional sculptures and statues really stand out.  And I'm not just referring here to the statue of Jesus Christ carrying the cross that's so revered that the faithful have been known to kiss one of its heels or that of the Virgin Mary which, in centuries gone by, was paraded through the city in times of drought!  For even church's more modest sculptural works, like the pair of lamp angels attached to columns located close to the main altarpiece, have such individual facial features that they seem so much more defined and life-like than the pride and joy of many an art museum as well as equivalent establishment.  

To think that I would have missed out on these sights if not for the existence of a combo-ticket for Sevilla Cathedral and the Iglesia del Salvador, and it being so that buying it at the latter allows one to avoid the far longer queue for tickets at the former!  As it is, while my German friend and I were in the very short line for tickets at the Iglesia del Salvador, we saw a group of American tourists peek into the church and mistakenly decide that, since they already had been to the cathedral, this smaller Christian establishment would not be worth visiting!
 
Post having spent a good deal more time gaping at amazing sights galore in the Iglesia del Salvador than I actually thought I would, I genuinely feel that those folks actually missed out on quite the visual and cultural experience.  At the same time, they probably helped those of us who opted to give this church a chance have a better experience than we might otherwise have had since, unlike at such as Cordoba's Mezquita, the small number of tourists within made for a more uncrowded and, consequently, pleasant and peaceful time in the place! :)