Friday, July 20, 2018

Pigging out in the land of jamón! :b

They take their jamón really seriously in Spain...

Fancy this plate of jamón, cheese and toasted breadsticks? :b
How about this charcuterie and cheese platter? ;b
I love jamón.  Maybe not as much as Ponyo loves ham but trust me when I say that I love it plenty enough.  And part of me wanted to order it every time I saw it listed on the menu in a cafe, restaurant or bar when I was in Spain!  Amazingly, I was able to resist doing so.  And it probably was a very good thing too as jamón is served for breakfast as well as lunch and dinner in Spain!  
As it turned out, I did have jamón at breakfast, lunch and dinner in Spain.  But even while the temptation to do so did get stronger and stronger the closer I got to my departure from the country, I did manage somehow to amass sufficient will power to prevent there being an actual day when I had jamón at every single meal!
In so doing, I was able to try a good variety of dishes -- with some actually consisting of vegetables and seafoods rather than "just" some part of a land animal -- while I was in that Western European country whose people definitely do seem to have a particular love for pig meat.  Still, believe you me when I say that I truly did eat a lot of jamón in Spain -- and a good enough variety of it too, since I actually did go ahead and sample a good amount of the Prosciutto-like Jamón Serrano, the drier -- and tastier, as far as my tastebuds are concerned -- Jamón Ibérico, and also the super deluxe -- and deeply delicious -- Jamón Ibérico de Bellota while in the Land of Jamón! 
Incidentally, I found it interesting that it's really only the tourists who drink sangria in Spain -- with the locals preferring to drink tinto de verano if they do go for wine mixed with something (as opposed to straight wine or, even more popularly as far as I could see, beer) -- and that, outside of Valencia, paella tends to be ordered by foreign visitors to Spain rather than local residents but, on the other hand, jamón really does seem to be genuinely beloved by pretty much all Spanish people.  Consequently, one won't feel shamed when ordering it in Spain -- if one needs one more reason to unashamedly put away lots of it when there! :)

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The monumental complex that's Philip II's El Escorial (Photo-essay)

There were a number of places I visited in Spain in which indoor photography was forbidden in parts or even all of the interior spaces where the public was allowed to venture in to look around.  They included museums (including the most famous Spanish museological establishment of them all, the Prado) and places with royal connections, including the Capilla Real (Royal Chapel) in Granada, the royal palace in Madrid and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Monastery and Site of the Escurial (aka El Escorial) built at the end of the 16th century at a time when Catholic Spain felt threatened by Protestant "heretics".

Conceived by the very religious King Philip II to serve as a royal residence but also house a school to embrace humanism in a way that promoted the Catholic faith, a beautifully decorated library (full of books written in Hebrew and Arabic as well as Latin scripts), a monastery(!) and a grand mausoleum for Spain's royal family(!!), El Escorial is an extremely large complex with 4,000 rooms, 1,200 doors, 2,675 windows and some 24 kilometers worth of passageways!  

All this nonetheless only hints at what can be seen within, which includes one absolute masterpiece of religious artwork in the form of Rogier van der Weyden's The Crucifixion along with more religious relics than I ever thought it would be possible to gather together and display in one place (El Escorial's Basilica) and also more royal remains assembled in one very cold and frankly pretty eerie series of sepulchre spaces than I ever cared to be in the presence of!  So maybe you should count yourself lucky that I don't have photographs of such places and items to share with you as well as be satisfied with the following picks of the images that I did manage to capture while there... ;b

 A picture which hopefully gives a sense of how enormous 
-- and also visually forbidding -- El Escorial is! 

El Escorial's gray granite stones and even grayer 
slate roof tiles make one want to call for a bit of color... 
so enter Puppet Ponyo into the frame! :b
Looking towards the front of the Basilica in the 
Peeking from the cloister through a chained gate...
.After thrusting my camera into the space, it caught this image!
A(nother) quiet space in the cloister
The ceiling fresco of that otherwise austerely decorated space :O
Outside again many hours later, I felt like I had only scratched the surface 
of this monumental complex which I'm amazed does not attract as 
many visitors as so many other lesser as well as smaller Spanish sites!

Monday, July 16, 2018

Recent disaster in, and some relief for, southwestern Japan

Canal scene in Kurashiki

Watery beauty in Okayama's Korakuen

View of the river from a prime seat at Hiroshima's Kanawa
Two Saturdays ago at Sake Bar Ginn, its Japanese owner (and my good friend) asked if I had heard about the floods and landslides besetting much of southwestern Japan.  I replied that I had read a report or two about the situation but it wasn't until days after we had that conversation that I got to realizing how bad things had gotten there.

The first inkling I received that this was a pretty serious calamity was when I checked the website of the Asahi Shuzo sake brewing company and saw a posted notice about a posted notice about the brewery and head office having suffered flood damage; this despite their being located up in the mountains!  Still, it wasn't until I saw a video showing the extent of the damage that was suffered by this major sake brewer, whose facilities had seemed so state of the art when I had the rare privilege of visiting them this past January, that  I got to getting a good sense of how major a disaster had struck.

The death toll having gone past 200 later in the week gave an even clearer picture of how grim the situation has been for the denizens of flood- and landslide-hit areas.  And the photographs of what the nation's worst floods and landslides in 36 years have wrought has made for heartbreaking viewing, especially if one feels a personal connection to that part of Japan -- which I have on account of my having spent time in a number of cities, towns and villages in the affected prefectures of Hiroshima, Okayama, Kyoto, Nara, Yamaguchi, Shiga, Hyogo, Gifu and Fukuoka.

The idea that Hiroshima, which already has gone through so much, could well have suffered further damage gets me wondering whether there really is justice in this world.  And it really would have been such a loss for humanity if beautiful places like the historical quarter of Kurashiki and the Korakuen in Okayama that's considered to be one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan had suffered physical devastation.

So it's quite the relief to get confirmation today that the latter two areas have been undamaged (and I'm going to assume that no news is good news with regards to the more internationally famous sites in the area).  In addition, it's absolutely wonderful to learn about the donations that have been made for disaster relief -- including by a certain charitable Pear Fairy, as relayed by a fellow Funassyi fan who was present when the Pear announced that its appareance fee and sales proceeds of its goods at the recently concluded Nassyi Fes in Tokyo would go to help flood victims!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Remembering Liu Xiaobo and freedom for Liu Xia!

You are not easily forgotten, Liu Xiaobo
In the months since the death of the man who loved her so, as will be clear to anyone who reads his moving I Have No Enemies essay, many people have worked to make sure that Liu Xia -- whose only crime, it seemed, had been to be married to the man she loved -- had not been forgotten.  As an example, at the July 1st march this year here in Hong Kong, people carried banners urging that Liu Xia be freed.  In addition, the plans for the vigil to mark the first anniversary of Liu Xiaobo's passing held near the city's government offices originally involved it being a rally directed at the Communist Chinese government calling for Liu Xia's release.
As it turned, however, plans for that July 13th event had to adjusted.  For on the same day (July 10th) as the world got the miraculous news that all 12 boys of a football (soccer) team and their coach had been rescued from the cave in which they had been trapped for some two and a half weeks, the arguably even more amazing news came of Liu Xia having been allowed to leave China to receive medical treatment in Germany!    
To be sure, Liu Xia is not entirely free to do and say whatever she wants (yet) since her brother, Liu Hui, is effectively being held hostage in China.  But the wide smile on her face in pictures taken after she arrived in Europe clearly show that Liu Xia is now in a far better place than she was just a few days before; and this, in turn, gives those of us who have taken part in campaigns to urge for her freedom renewed hope that political protests can lead to the achievement of our goals, however unlikely they can seem to come true until, well, they do! :)  

Friday, July 13, 2018

Nothing but praise for Madrid's Museo Arqueológico Nacional

Valuable ancient artifacts on display at Spain's 
The over 2,300 year old Lady of Elche may well be 
the best known object in the museum's collection
The museum has substantial collections of Ancient Greek artefacts
along with ones from Egypt and the Near East as well as Spain
The first place (besides my hotel!) that I spent a considerable amount of time in after arriving in Spain was a museum: to be precise, Madrid's Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza).  And the first place in Madrid that I made for after returning from my week-long Andalucian sojourn (which included visits to Cordoba, Sevilla and Granada) and re-checking into our hotel in the Spanish capital was the Museo Arqueológico Nacional.
Much less of a popular tourist attraction than the fine arts trio of the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Museo del Prado and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, the archaeology museum with the wonderfully apt acronym of MAN was not at all crowded on the day that I visited it despite my doing so during a Saturday and entry to the museum being free from 2pm to 8pm.  To those who opted to exclude it from their list of sights to see when in Madrid, I'll say that it's very much your loss; this not least since this particular museological establishment actually turned out to be my favorite of all the ones I visited in the country!    
Founded in 1867 by Queen Isabella II, the Museo Arqueológico Nacional was envisioned to be one of those great national museums which would exhibit the nation's past (and connect it to ancient settlements that go back thousands of years).  Over the past 150 years or so of its existence, it has utilized a number of distinct exhibition designs; with the latest redesign having been completed as recently as 2013.

As would be expected of an educational institution whose most recent remodelling took place in the 21st century, this Madrid establishment incorporates user-friendly multimedia technology.  In view of its visitors appearing to be predominantly Spanish (and probably local Madrileños and Madrileñas at that), I was pleasantly to also see that both the more conventional and multimedia displays were accessible for speakers of English as well as  Spanish. 
Of course all this wouldn't count for all that much if the museum didn't also have some pretty historically interesting and visually impressive artefacts on display in its spacious exhibit rooms and halls.  Those for whom old is gold should note that the Museo Arqueológico Nacional's collection includes items that date back many thousands of years to prehistorical times.  And for those who are keen on checking out items made of gold and other precious metals (and/or studded with precious stones): suffice to say that the museum has plenty of those too (and not just restricted to gold coins too though the museum does indeed have quite the sizeable numismatic collection)!
Still, what actually bowled me over the most about this particular museological establishment is the sensitivity and intelligence of its curatorship as evidenced by the way in which it chose to intepret and present the country's past and, also, itself and its collections.  Among other things, I found it really insightful of the Museo Arqueológico Nacional to actually have exhibits explaining its history along with the history of the various peoples whose objects are on display in the museum as well as certain individuals who had prominent roles in acquiring certain collections for the museum (including Spaniards who conducted excavations in Egypt and other places outside their home country).
Something else I found interesting -- and on the unconventional side -- was that this archaeology museum had in its collections and displays not only items associated with pagan peoples and others who would consitute "The Other" in the eyes of many Spaniards but also Christian artefacts.  On a related note: I thought it rather bold and admirable that mention was made of the impact of the Spanish Civil War on the Spanish physical and cultural landscape, and the subsequent necessity for salvage archaeology to be undertaken in various parts of the country. 
In sum: I found the Museo Arqueológico Nacional to be a remarkably enlightened institution; one which is admirably contemporary and even forward thinking in terms of such as the methods it utilizes to educate its visitors about various ancient peoples and Spain's past, and also thoroughly humanistic in its philosophical outlook.

Monday, July 9, 2018

More Moorish and Catholic monuments in Granada (Photo-essay)

Nothing else in Granada can compare with the Alhambra (and the Generalife, which I tend to look upon as being part of the greater Alhambra complex).  Heck, few, if anything, edifices in Spain can compare with the last major -- and arguably greatest -- Moorish monument ever constructed.  (Let's put it this way: I may not have been so awed by Cordoba's magnificent Mezquita or Sevilla's sublime Real Alcazar if I had set foot in the Alhambra before visiting those two other pretty visually stunning edifices.)

Nonetheless, I did find a number of other structures that caught my eye and interest during my brief sojourn in the Andalucian city: some of them Moorish in origin, others of which are entirely Christian.  And along with the old parts of Sevilla and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed old town of Segovia, I found the historic sections of Granada to have nooks and crannies that were enjoyable to explore and the kind of streets I liked walking along...

Originally a mosque, this building's minaret was replaced 
by a bell tower after it became the Iglesia de Santa Ana
Dating back to the 1330s, the Corral the Carbon is the 
last remaining caravanserai of Granada's original fourteen
The beautiful prayer room that is one of the few surviving 
in Granada, founded in 1349 by the Nasrid Sultan Yusuf I
Granada's most famous Christian site is the Capilla Real
(Royal Chapel) where the bodies of Queen Isabel, King Ferdinand, 
and their successors Philip the Fair(!) and Juana the Mad(!!) lie 
However, my favorite Christian site in Granada was the Monasterio 
de la Cartuja (Carthusian Monastery) located in the city outskirts
 Its rather plain exterior (and even cloister) doesn't 
prepare you for the lavishness of its church interior!
Puppet Ponyo understandably wide-eyed 
in the monastery's church ;b
And why the heck is the monastery's statue of 
Mary Magdalene so sexy looking?! :O

Sunday, July 8, 2018

How to get free tapas in Spain

Bocadillo and a side of chips/crisps on the house 
with my order of beer at a Granada bar :b 

Complimentary tapa with my order of beer
at a Madrid tapas bar :b
Free tapa with my order of clara con limon in another Madrid bar :)
For the first part of our Spain trip, my German friend and I ate together at every meal in which we partook.  The afternoon after our visit to the Alhambra, she began to feel poorly and ended up taking to dining in the rooms of the hotels that we stayed in even on the days when she felt okay enough to venture out of the hotel to do such as visit a museum. 
Going at it alone in terms of wandering about various city streets and checking out the sights, I also ended up dining alone for the bulk of the my second week in Spain.  Sometimes I did so in actual restaurants but, more often than not, I would have my lunch and dinner in tapas bars -- which I found more comfortably informal and, also, had areas where single diners didn't stick out like a sore thumb so much in a part of the world where going out looks to be a pretty social affair.     
The first time I ate out alone in Spain, I was presented with a complimentary tapa after I ordered my drink (a glass of local lager which really refreshed on a hot summer's day).  When this happened again the next day, I chalked it down to Granada's reputation for being the only city left in Spain where patrons get given complimentary tapa whenever they order a drink (though it also was the case that at the eatery we dined in shortly after arriving in the city, my German friend and I did not get any free tapas with our drinks).
When I continued to get complimentary tapas after I ordered drinks at tapas bars in Madrid after we returned to the Spanish capital from our Andalucian sojourn, however, I realized there had to be more to this series of events.  And while my German friend leapt to the conclusion that Spanish people were inclined to be more friendly to me when she (a dreaded German!) wasn't around, I reminded her that there was one evening during our first spell in Madrid where we had been served complimentary tapa at a tapas bar.     

Looking back at that occasion and considering what it and all the subsequent times that I had been presented with free tapas had in common, I came to the realization that every time this occured, I had been seated at the counter or the nearby bar area (barro) rather than at a table further away (in what's called the mesa or salón in Spanish) or outside (terraza).  At the same time, while it's supposed to help increase your chances of getting a tapa on the house if you order your drink first before placing your food order (rather than doing both at the same time or -- perish the thought! -- ordering your food before ordering your drink), I didn't find this to be as much of a factor with regards to the procurement of complimentary tapas as where I sat when I was in a bar!
I've read of people who favor paying for drinks but not food in Spanish bars.  To my mind, this really only works if you're not really into food since you don't get choose to what tapas you're going to be given and what you're given on the house can vary quite a bit both in quality and quantity.  (More than incidentally, my experience is that the quality of a complimentary tapa can be pretty indicative of the quality of the food you order at that bar/restaurant!)  At the same time, I highly recommend eating at the counter of a tapas bar over the salón or terraza as you're more likely to have friendly interactions there with the staff and fellow customers.  
A case in point: While seated at the counter one memorable evening at a newspaper-themed Madrid bar named El Diario, I wasn't only gifted tapas with each of the two beers I ordered but also offered slices of pineapple that the staff were sharing among themselves and patrons at the counter, and -- at the suggestion of a Spanish couple I had managed to strike up a bit of conversation with (despite my Spanish being on the minimal side and their English being the same way!) -- handed a slice of heavenly jamón ibérico de bellota to sample; and yes, I really do reckon that things would have been different if I had been seated in another area of the same establishment that night!