Archive for the ‘unesco’ Tag

Brasilia, September 2016

This is of course Brazil’s capital, built in the center of the country, but the middle of nowhere, in a relatively short span in the 1950s, and officially inaugurated in 1960. The plan is obvious from the air as you approach the airport, shaped like a bird, or a drawn bow and arrow, with a spine of government structures spanning about a mile, and numerous structures designed by Oscar Niemeyer. It was recognized with World Heritage status in 1987.

It’s a decent, but long day trip from Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, with frequent and reasonably priced flights. I was based in Rio, and it’s advisable to use a departure from the centrally located Santos Dumont Airport (SDU), instead of the much further Galeao Airport (GIG). I picked a 6 AM departure from SDU, a quick and inexpensive taxi ride, but ended up returning to GIG, which made for a rather long, 90 minute return bus trip to my hotel in Copacabana. It’s a 90 minute flight over a pretty barren landscape that gives you an appreciation for the task involved in building a new federal capital from scratch sixty years ago, and sprouting a city of now 3 million inhabitants.

There’s a bus that stops just outside the terminal in Brasilia, which will drop you off at the major sites downtown. It’s a 20 minute ride, and I got off at the Tres Poderes (three powers), which is surrounded by Niemeyer’s signature buildings. This fairly small area is home to Brazil’s version of the Capitol, the White House, and the Supreme Court, all within about 500 m or each other. They’re also the best structures in town. I took the free tour of Congress, which was impressive, it’s the building with the skyscraper in the middle and the two domes. The interior is also very nice, with a cool collection of mid-century furniture and art and a sophisticated feel. Nearby is the presidential palace, the supreme court, and the foreign ministry. Behind it is a cluster of 1980s structures by Niemeyer, which are crumbling.

National Congress building

National Congress building (1960)

Itamaraty Palace (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Itamaraty Palace, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1970)

I walked west, about a mile towards the cathedral. It’s not that large, and a pretty cheerful space, with a gleaming white interior and lots of stained glass. I liked it, while the building next door, the museum, was a crumbling UFO. Way further afield, another mile away, is the Santuario Dom Bosco, completed in 1970, which is pretty unexceptional from the outside, but is a winner inside, bathed in light shining through blue and purple stained glass.

Interior, Brasilia Cathedral

Interior, Brasilia Cathedral (1970)

Interior, Don Bosco Chapel

Interior, Don Bosco Chapel (1970)

Niemeyer’s buildings elicit a visceral response. You can’t doubt the imagination that went into them, but I get this feeling that he forgot the human scale in Brasilia. It’s a bold plan on paper or in a model, but doesn’t quite work in reality. Now overall, the city comes across as being pretty sterile, with little pedestrian traffic, few places to sit and enjoy the view, and vast exposed empty spaces that are hard to maintain. Despite some very nice religious structures scattered around the city, it’s reminiscent of some of the places in the old Eastern Bloc that I’ve been to, like Chisinau. The main axis is a bit like Washington’s Mall, but with much less character, less vegetation, and really grim buildings and ministries lining the road. It’s also a very pedestrian-unfriendly city, the address system is nearly impossible for a first-time visitor to decipher, and the main social centers seem to be shopping malls. I took lunch in a mall food court after nearly starving, dodging a few six lane highways, and creepy stretches of concrete jungle to find an unmarked Brutalist structure that actually had people inside.

The living areas are way in the periphery, with a large slum on the western outskirts, while the original 1950s / 1960s living quarters are in generally good shape and wealthy areas, with a few of them carefully preserving Niemeyer’s intentions. Interspersed between the apartment buildings (located in these so-called Superquadras or superblocks) are lots of greenery and a small commercial zone every few blocks. It’s hard to imagine these really getting lots of street life, but they seem to have a decent selection of restaurants and markets. Downtown there’s very little in terms of services.

Restored apartment building

Restored apartment building

Typical  neighborhood commercial stretch

Typical neighborhood commercial stretch

A word about safety, since this is on the minds of most visitors to Brazil- Brasilia is quite safe, I didn’t worry about carrying my DSLR around and taking lots of photographs, unlike in Rio and Sao Paulo.

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Condesa Art Deco, Mexico City

Mexico City is a new, old favorite destination of mine, at least as far as cities go. I first visited 20 years ago, and was surprised and delighted by the chaos and vitality. This was in the bad old days of the 1990s, when the city was seemingly on the edge of oblivion, with 20+ million souls living at a mile and a half above sea level, a place badly damaged by the 1985 earthquake, hopelessly polluted, sinking like Venice in the spongy lake bed, and high in crime. I visited during one of the volcano Popocatepetl’s eruptions, the mountain casually spouting ash and smoke 40 miles east of the city, nearly lost in the haze that blanketed the city.

I’ve returned twice since then, in the space of a few months. Mexico City has changed much over the past decade, becoming cleaner, sporting bike lanes, cutting edge, world-class food, audacious new architecture, while still being an inexpensive place to visit. It’s actually quite close to the Four Corners, and a fun place to go for a long weekend. That said, it’s so vast that you can’t really see a whole lot in a weekend. It’s probably going to be one of those places that I go to regularly, like LA, where I feel familiar enough that I can visit a different section each time and see something new each time. The UNESCO-listed historic center (Centro Historico) is still my favorite part of town, with these austere, tilting structures of dark red and gray volcanic stone that have survived every natural and political calamity over the past 400 years. To this day it’s still the commercial and political heart of the city, and the entire nation. The central square, Zocalo, is the epicenter of Mexico, a space of gigantic proportions much like Red Square is to Moscow, or Tiananmen Square is to Beijing.

About three miles southwest is a neighborhood called Condesa, developed in the 1930s, which was badly damaged in the 1985 earthquake and fell into obscurity until about ten years ago, when it underwent a major resurgence. Now it’s the yuppie / trendy / gay center of town, cosmopolitan, featuring a mix of new architecture mixed in with many Art Deco buildings in various states of repair. It’s also one of those few places in city that’s actually green, with a couple of large parks that make it a pleasant place to hang out, day and night. Despite the incessant traffic on the main streets, it looks like a great place to live.

There are also some buildings by the Pritzker laureate Luis Barragan, who’s work seems to be neglected in Mexico despite his fame worldwide. I took a tour of his works scattered throughout the city, and for the most part, they really slip under the radar. His house and studio is a must-see for architecture buffs, located a mile beyond Condesa in Tacubaya. So here’s a sampling of the buildings and streetscapes of Condesa.

Houses by Luis Barragan, Avenida Mexico 141-143

Houses by Luis Barragan, Avenida Mexico 141-143

Art Deco house, Condesa

Art Deco house, Condesa

Edificio San Martin, Avenida Mexico 167

Edificio San Martin, Avenida Mexico 167

Edificio Tehuacan, Avenida Mexico 188

Edificio Tehuacan, Avenida Mexico 188

Weekend in Quito, Ecuador

I don’t recommend just a long weekend visiting South America, but I’m pretty short on vacation days. So I jumped on a cheap-ish fare, and flew to the high altitude capital of Ecuador, Quito, or more accurately San Francisco de Quito. I’m no longer used to long flights, and being squeezed into the back of a plane, on American Airlines, with a plane full of high schoolers, is tough to tolerate. In any case, the plane was delayed by a swarm of bees bugging the baggage handlers, and I didn’t arrive at my hotel until 1 AM, rather irritated.

It’s a very new airport, but situated a very long distance, and a $26 taxi ride, from the city center where I stayed. Stepping off a plane in a foreign country is always a thrill, as your senses are heightened, and you notice nearly everything regardless of how tired and disoriented you are. I noticed the cool mountain air, at 2850 m, the city never gets that hot, and it’s always sweater or light jacket weather in the evenings. The ride went along a very new, modern freeway, past the usual commercial zones resembling anywhere in the US, first heading south, then turning west and curving around several canyons and heading nearly 2000 feet uphill to the city. I was finally oriented by the lighted statue of Panecillo towering over the old town, and sighted the whitewashed and slightly run-down structures of the city center. The very hilly terrain was reminiscent of the other San Francisco (California), just add nearly 3000 m and a lot of mountains.

I essentially had two days to explore, and spent the first day walking and exercising hard just going up and down the steep streets and stairways. Ecuador is a very convenient country to visit for people from the US; the US dollar is the official currency, and it’s easy to track how much you’re spending. As for the prices, I found it to be slightly more expensive than Mexico City, for food at least. Lunches ran about $4-6 for the set course meals (almuerzos), museums were about $2, and of course, walking around was free. It’s still loud, noisy, and full of commercial activity, but easily an order of magnitude less chaotic than Mexico City. The city center is compact, situated on a grid, and definitely human scale. The population must be in fantastic physical shape, climbing all those hills and mountains at nearly 3000 m.

San Francisco church and convent

San Francisco church and convent

Old Town from the Basilica

Old Town from the Basilica

UNESCO recognized Quito’s old town as one of the first cultural World Heritage Sites in 1978, along with Krakow. To this day, it’s almost completely intact despite numerous earthquakes, and architecturally homogeneous. The churches are some of the most magnificent I’ve seen, with very fancy gilded interiors reminiscent of the Baroque churches in Rome, but with lots of Spanish / Moroccan / Islamic elements and designs. The style is unique. The exteriors are generally severe and solid, probably reflecting the seismic powderkeg of the surrounding region, but the courtyards are peaceful, lush zones away from the noise of the city. Another highlight was exploring the roof of the cathedral, which involved a very tight squeeze up a claustrophobic spiral stairway, and ended with a great view of the tiled domes and the plaza down below. The bad news is that many of the churches will charge you money to enter, so it’s easy to burn through cash here.

The heart of it all, Plaza Grande and the Presidential Palace from the roof of Quito Cathedral

The heart of it all, Plaza Grande and the Presidential Palace from the roof of Quito Cathedral

Speaking of mountains, I headed up the Teleferiqo on Sunday (a $5-7 taxi ride from the old town). This cable car goes up the side of Pichincha, to 3935 m. I got up early and hunted around for an honest taxi (the ones with a camera in the front seat), and ended up walking nearly a mile before getting into one. The taxi circled around the southern traffic belt, through several tunnels, and climbed steeply uphill to the lower cable car station. The weather was cooperating, even though the weather forecast said it would start raining at 10 AM. But well, the forecasts are always generally right, and usually wrong on the details. I lucked out, but wasted no time in starting hiking once at the top station. My goal was the summit of Rucu Pichincha, which was a moderately strenuous, 3 mile (5.8 km) hike that topped out at an incredible 15380′ (4690 m). The elevation gain was just short of 2500′, and the trail was busy on this beautiful Sunday morning. Most of it was a regular hiking trail / dirt road, then a trail with a few scrambling spots and washed out areas, then a scramble up a loose sandy slope, turning into a Class 3 climb for the last 50 m or so. Nice and spicy, and hey, I’ve never been at this altitude before. But I didn’t really feel it, maybe it was the slightly thicker air from being near the equator, but it felt more like the equivalent of 13000′ in Colorado. I felt surprisingly good at the top, and the view was fantastic with all the civilization sprawling below and crawling up the sides of the Andes foothills. The bonus was the view of the nearby volcanoes slowly being enveloped by clouds, Cotopaxi’s symmetric cone, the broken summits of Iliniza Norte and Iliniza Sur just to the southeast, and Antisana, and Cayambe to the northeast. These peaks break the 5000 m mark, and being nearly that high, I had to believe that I could probably physically handle that little extra altitude. Exciting. By the time I got back to the cable car station, the summit was completely socked in with plenty of rain. The city is not known for sunny weather, and more often than not, it’s four seasons every day.

Cotopaxi and Iliniza Norte / Sur from the summit of Rucu Pichincha, along with all that civilization below

Cotopaxi and Iliniza Norte / Sur from the summit of Rucu Pichincha, along with all that civilization below

And more Quito, 2.7 million inhabitants

And more Quito, 2.7 million inhabitants

The other nifty thing was the vegetation, and there was plenty of it even at 15000′. The snow line doesn’t really start until around 16000′, compared with a 12000′ treeline in Colorado, and 6000′ at Mt. Hood. Every ecological zone is represented in Ecuador, with 20000′ of elevation difference in a country the size of Nevada. It’s amazing biodiversity.

Plant life at 15000 feet, this stuff feels like astroturf

Plant life at 15000 feet, this stuff feels like astroturf

But alas, I had to catch the red eye back to the States and be at work in the morning. I definitely wasn’t looking forward to that, but what a fun little trip!

 

 

Gracanica Monastery

A 20-minute bus ride south of Pristina, the Gracanica Monastery is one of the high points of medieval art and architecture in the region, located in a predominantly Serbian enclave. The monastery grounds testify to a lot of history, although much of its recent history has been messy, to say the least. The walls are topped with barbed wire, which is not the usual for a religious compound, but this is Kosovo, which is either an independent nation or a part of Serbia, depending on who you talk to. Until recently, the monastery was guarded, but in a slightly more hopeful sign of the times, the KFOR troops have disappeared.

The interior is dim and atmospheric, nearly entirely covered in colorful frescos, and like other Orthodox churches, there are no seats for worshippers, and the air is heavily incensed. Although small, the church feels quite spacious, especially the very high vaulting. Along with sites in Decani, Peja / Pec, and Prizren, these are UNESCO-listed sites. Like religious sanctuaries should be, it’s a respite from the world outside.

Church exterior

Church exterior

Frescoes, interior

Frescoes, interior

Hard feelings remain in Kosovo between the two major ethnic groups, from what I can tell. The town of Gracanica functions as a de facto part of Serbia, the exchange bureaus are based on Serbian dinars, and Euros are difficult to exchange.

Kosovo is relatively easy to travel around, it’s small enough that no bus trip is longer than 1.5-2 hours, and the major towns and sights can be seen in day trips from Pristina. Pristina itself is a cosmopolitan town from the presence of UN, US, and EU personnel, and has plenty to offer once you get past the sometimes very “Ost” buildings and crumbling infrastructure.