Stockholm: Gamla Stan

Our hostel of choice is located in Gamla Stan, the old town. This part of Stockholm is located on one of the small islands of the city’s earliest settlements, and it still maintains its medieval character. 

 After grabbing our customary coffee and snack, we took stroll down the waterfront to catch sight of the Riddarholmen Church. This church is the final resting place of all of Sweden’s monarchs. Parts of the church date from the late 13th century when it was first built as a greyfriars monastery. The building is only open to visit during the autumn and summer, so Tom and I were unable to get inside.

 
Our next stop was the Stockholm Cathedral, the oldest church in Gamla Stan. The facade is in the Swedish Brick Gothic style, but my favorite part was the wooden statue of Saint George and the Dragon. (If a sculpture or statue of this particular biblical event is housed in a house of worship, it is commonly what I admire the most). Attributed to Bernt Notk (1489), the statue was commissioned to commemorate the Battle of Brunkerg (1471), and serves as a reliquary containing the saintly remained of George himself in addition to six others.

 Adjacent to this lies the Stockholm Palace, the official residence of the Swedish Monarch. Nicodemus Tessin the Younger formed its shape like that of a Roman Palace. When he passed away in 1728, the chief architect role passed on to Carl Hårleman who is largely responsible for the the Rococo interior. Construction had started in 1697, but did not officially complete until 1760. This is because work on the building was paused for 18 years due to the expense of the Great Northern War. 

 We then took a leisurely stroll through the Skansen Museum, the first ever open air museum, founded in 1891. One can experience over five centuries of  Swedish history in a visit, and there were several animals romping about in their habitats. The only disappointing part was that the aquarium required an additional fee to visit, and despite my desire to have a close-encounter with lemurs, neither of us could justify paying an additional $12 for it. After all, the USA has some of the best zoos in the world. 

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Alta: At First Sight

 The trade-off we made to stay in Alta, which is a bit off the beaten path, was having fewer day activities unless one wants to shell out $$$ to go dog-sledding or snowmobiling. I personally would have liked to visit the Sorrisniva Hotel, a hotel that is carved entirely out of 250 tons of ice every year, but at an entrance fee of $24, the price was too steep for either Tom or I to justify.

We intended to have our time in Alta be a bit lazy hazy, so we slept in and savored some extra sleep. As a result, we didn’t roll into town until the early afternoon. We popped-in to check out the inside of the Northern Lights Cathedral before grabbing some coffee and free wi-fi at a nearby pub.

The current design of the church is the result of a competition in 2001 that was won by a collaboration between schmidt hammer lassen architects and Link Arkitektur. The city council wanted an icon that would highlight Alta’s role as a gateway to the Northern Lights. In the words of founding partner John. F. Lassen, “The Cathedral of the Northern Lights is in its design a result of the surrounding nature and local culture. The building is a landmark, which through its architecture symbolizes the extraordinary natural phenomenon of the Arctic northern lights,…The cathedral reflects, both literally and metaphorically, the northern lights: ethereal, transient, poetic and beautiful. It appears as a solitary sculpture in interaction with the spectacular nature.”

 The sun sets earlier in the North than it did in Oslo, so we were greeted by darkness when we exited the pub. Outside, waiting for us was a varied display of ice sculptures. Some depicted human forms while others were animal sculptures. My favorite, however, was a realistic human heart that had a beating red light inside it. The heart was enclosed by icy brick walls, and I interpreted it as a metaphor for the warmth and life that lies in each of us despite whatever cold, outer, exterior persona we may present to the world. Tom thought I was overthinking it, but I personally like trying to analyze the message an artist is trying to convey.

 We then hopped into the car for Day 2 of our hunt. This time we drove about 2-hours west. The forecast was looking good for clear skies, and based on the lessons from yesterday, we knew we had to look for the stars. After all, if you can see the stars clearly, then you know that clouds are not obstructing the view. Eventually, I started seeing a light green shadow to our back right. At this point, I wasn’t sure whether I was hallucinating it due to my deep desire to see the Northern Lights, but Tom pulled over to have a look and verify my suspicion. It turned out I was right!

 Not too long after, bands of green danced across the sky. Tom and I were so excited about our discovery that we couldn’t help but laugh, and hug, and smile. It was a glorious gift that the universe had presented us, the gift of light. After you truly see the lights with the naked eye for the first time, you know exactly what to look for. It is true what they say, that the lights dance. You can see the shape and the density of the bands and swirls change as the particles shift with the wind. I was so happy to be able to share the experience with someone that is so special to me. 

P.S. I didn’t exactly have the right photography equipment for this shot, so we faked the lighting we’d need by using the car’s headlights.  

Travel: Vienna Churches

Despite my growing impatience for the medley of iconic religious frescoes, alters, chapels, and biblical interpretations, I continue to struggle with avoiding the visitation of churches. It is not hard to deny how intrinsically the tie into european culture; the strength of the populations devotions has deep roots with the development of heritage. As such, the following two are presented briefly.

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St. Steven’s Cathedral is an icon of Vienna, and dominates the shopping streets of the city center. It is  the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, and the seat of the current Arch Bishop, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn. The site stands on the ruins of two earlier churches, the former dating from 1147. As a symbol of the city, it has borne witness to vital moments of Austrian History. The tomb houses the Bishops, Provosts, and Ducal crypts. Furthermore, it was only spared damage from the World War II bombings, when Captain Klinkicht disregarded orders from the city commandant to leave it in just debris and ashes.

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Interesting Fact: “The composer Ludwig van Beethoven discovered the totality of his deafness when he saw birds flying out of the bell tower as a result of the bells’ tolling but could not hear the bells. ”

The roof is multicolored, and despite its exterior having been marred black by pollution overtime, significant restoration projects have helped it regain its glossy tiled and white facade.

The Interior is a rainbow of colors that interplay with each other along the Gothic/Romanesque pillars, high spanning nave, and mass of windows. It is a current art feature, and provides a creative, modern-day take on the limestone cathedral.

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I also stopped by to visit St. Peter’s Church. It lies but a few streets away, but the two couldn’t be more different. This other one reflects the Baroque style, and maintained by the priests of the Opus Dei. Despite having origins dating from the early middle ages, the current building was inspired by St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, with construction beginning in 1701. The interior golden stucco is particularly eye-catching given how solemn and dark the interior is, due to the current scaffolding that masks the exterior.

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The infamous Plague Column also lies within mere spitting distance. It was designed, and installed to fulfill a vow made by  Emperor Leopold I in 1679, when he fled the plague epidemics, saying that if it would end, a mercy column would be erected in remembrance.

Travel: Classic Paris Sites

I promise, this is the last church that I visited in France! Of course, it is the infamous Notre Dame; the building that inspired Victor Hugo’s classic novel with a hunchback as the protagonist who watched medieval Paris life occur from afar. The sprawling gothic architecture is unique, and it is not difficult to revel in the stark contrast these dark creatures present against the sunny skyline.

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The one flaw in climbing the tours however, was how incredibly jam-packed it was. There was little to no room to maneuver, and the entire walkway was enclosed within a 3” x 3” wire mesh. I can’t even imagine partaking in this during the summer!

 

While I understand the safety precautions, it took some strategic planning to get good photographs devoid of this interference.

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The statues also reminded me of a classic Warner Brothers cartoon called the Gargoyles. It was ‘back in the days’ of my youth, and I’m sure it is no longer a recognizable cartoon or brand. I enjoyed it though! It told the story of good versus evil gargoyles that could only continue their battle within the confines of darkness. If sunrise hit, they returned to their stony state.

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We then headed to the Orsay Museum; it has a diverse collection of impressionist paintings, and documents the progression of this art. Once again, no photos allowed. Some of my favorite artists were on display, such as Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, and Cezanne.

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As dusk approached, we decided to breath in the crisp Paris air, and swing by the triumphal arch to witness the largest roundabout in the world. Interesting Fact: Insurance companies no longer debate claims when an accident occurs here, to save time and headaches they now just split the damage costs 50/50.

Strolling to the Eiffel Tower took longer than expected. Fortunately, we arrived just as the sun dipped below the horizon. This allowed for a large array of photographic shots documenting the vibrancy of the lights with respect to the darkening sky.

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(I almost lost mother in the crowd, she is about a head shorter than me and quite difficult to locate even in a supermarket)

Opting not to wait in line and pay the high lift prices, We managed to climb to the 2nd level platform (a LOT of stairs) and witness some breathtaking views of the city, and particularly the Champ de Mars at night.

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On the hike up, I took some time to have a nerd moment and admire the forethought required in the difficult connections. It’s interesting to consider the complexity of the geometry and how the designers engineered all the steel elements to puzzle together in just the right formation.

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What comes to mind when you think of Paris? Have you been to any of these places? How have the inspired you?

Travel: Sagrada Famila

So, I tend to think that I am traveling during the off-season of the tourism industry, but today was not the case. When we arrived at the Sagrada Familia the line wrapped all the way around the cathedral, thankfully, in my preemptive research, we had already purchased tickets online that allowed us selective entry within the assigned time-slot; no waiting for us!

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The Cathedral is Gaudí‘s brainchild, and has been in construction for over a century. Construction of the structure commenced in 1882, and Gaudi officially took the design of the project in 1883, transforming the conventional structure into his vision, something that cohesively incorporated gothic roots and curvilinear Art Nouveau forms. It recently reached surpassed the halfway point of construction primarily due to financial setbacks that had resulted from the interruption of the Spanish Civil War.

 

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Nativity Facade

Passion Facade

Passion Facade

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was absolutely breathtaking to behold. Gaudi has a penchant for embracing the natural forms he sees in nature, such as the way a tree branches or the facets of a crystallized gem. In the modern architecture world, we call this biomimicry, utilizing observations from nature and emulating the structure or processes to build a thought-provoking and innovative structure.

You can see it in his design of the interior columns.

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You can see it in how he effectively uses natural lighting in the interior.

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It was also quite amazing as a structural engineer to understand that he utilized the concept of form-finding in one of his earlier designs, the Colonia Guell. This is particularly fascinating because it involves finding the equilibrium shape of a structure given applied loads. It is an example of simplified non-linear analysis in actions wherefore the structure tends to get stiffer, and stronger, as it is subject to more deformation, the opposite of what one would typically think.

Okay, moving on from my enginerd moment. : P

Next, we spent a leisurely walk admiring the architectural discord that resulted from having different architects design houses that are co-located side by side on the Illa de la Discordia. It is particularly vital since it is noted for being prime examples of Barcelona’s most important Modernista architects, Lluís Domènech i MontanerAntoni GaudíJosep Puig i Cadafalch and Enric Sagnier

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The image is a little jarring, yet its catches the viewer’s eye and allows one to study the uniquely disparate styles of each individual.

Our final act of the day was to swing by the Palau Musica after traipsing through the streets of the Gothic Quarter. We opted not to tour the interior earlier in the week because the cost tradeoff wasn’t quite worth it considering that the Sagrada Familia was the same entry price, but had more significant visionary value. It does seem gorgeous though, so if you are in the area and have time, you should try to catch a performance at least.

The Sagrada Familia has been a consistent controversy within the borders of Spain, what are your thoughts on it? Is it over-the-top and an unnecessary investment? Or is it an icon of Gaudi and a symbolic representation of the Catholic Faith?

 

Travel: Au Revoir Portugal!

I was finally fortunate enough to stay at my first hostel ever! (Since I was staying with my friend’s family while visiting her in Portugal). Unfortunately (or fortunately) it was the off-season, so I had a quiet relaxing day, and enjoyed the room to myself at night. This was probably for the better considering that I woke up a 3:00 AM this morning so I had time to walk the 15 minutes to the OPO Airport in time to catch a 6:30 AM flight.

So, Guess where I am? : P . . . MADRID!

I rendezvoused with my dear mother. While this may not sound optimal, considering the classic vision of a no-holds barred and party hard Euro Trip with close friends, I am both sad that I don’t have that opportunity, but grateful to be spending what could be my last quality moments with her. You see, since my school was on a completely different track than typical universities, Quarters versus Semesters respectively, I don’t have any friends that have the same availability as I do. Furthermore, as I was pursuing a graduate degree, those of my friends who streamlined into the working world have exactly that, work, with limited options or freedom to drop everything and disappear.

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I had planned to complete this trip on my own, and yet, it is nice to have some company. There would have been moments of loneliness and doubt, followed by meeting people from different countries and spontaneously finding bonds of friendship. Don’t you worry though! My mother leaves in 2.5 weeks, and my trip will revert to solo travel as I continue through my next few European nations.

Despite us both being incredibly tired, her because of the 6 hours time-difference, and me because I have the incapacity to sleep early, we managed to pack in our day!

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Palacio Real

Our first stop was the Palacio Real. After the 9th century Alcazar was destroyed in a fire in 1734, Felipe V, who was raised in Versailles, decided to replace it with a much grandeur structure. He never lived to see his vision however, since it was not completed or habitable until 1764. The palace’s exterior is not ostentatious, but is compensated for by the extravagance of the interior rooms.

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Unfortunately, I have limited pictures since most palaces and sites in Madrid do not allow you to take pictures. 😦

After completing the Palacio Real, we meandered back to the Plaza de Oriente to savor some coffee and a snack, and enjoy the fresh open air of the square. We were able to admire the central fountain, which includes a bronze equestrian statue of Felipe IV; it dates from 1640 and is reputedly the first ever bronze depiction of a rearing horse. It is said that Galileo assisted with the calculations to allow it to balance on the horse’s hind legs.

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Almudena Cathedral

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Plaza de Oriente

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We then admired the Cathedral de La Almudena, and the splattering of gothic chapels encased within its neoclassical shell. This cathedral was in fact planned centuries ago, but suffered from a lack of funds and a Civil War bombing, so it did not actually open until 1993. The best part was the crypt, which features neo-Romanesque architecture, and more than 400 columns! Each bears its own unique capital.

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This is also the sight of the image of “Our Lady of Flor de Lis” It is one of the oldest images in Madrid having been commission by King Alfonso VI in 1083 AD.

The day was wrapped up by a relaxing stroll the Jardines de Sabatini, and quiet contemplation when gasping at awe at the ancient hieroglyphics that still lay carved on the interior walls of the Temple of Debod. (Unfortunately due to a lack of better preservation techniques, these images are gradually fading from existence).

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Sabatini Gardens

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Temple of Debod