Sunday 23 March 2014

Picture post 24 - Italian Modernism in Jerusalem

Jerusalem's Jaffa (Yafo) Street is the main thoroughfare in the western part of the city. Teeming with people both day and night, it is home to many shops and cafes and also to the recently completed light rail transport system. The streets and alleys running off it hold hundreds of restaurants, religious buildings, more shops and cafes and a huge amount of history. The wonderful Shuk Machane Yehuda is at the upper end, on the way to the central bus station.

The Assicurazioni Generali House, Jerusalem.
I am drawn to Jaffa Street for all of these reasons and also because it has a fascinating architectural history, with many important buildings from both the Ottoman period and from the 1930's.  It is easy to miss some of these architectural treasures if you don't look up as stroll, but some buildings stand out no matter where you are looking. One of the most striking of these is the Assicurazioni Generali House on the corner of Jaffa Street and Shlomzion HaMalka. Jerusalem has many buildings from the 1930's, most of which were designed by emigree German, Austrian and Czech Jews. The Generali House is an exception to this and was the work of the non-Jewish Italian architect, Marcello Piacentini. The original plan had been for an "International Style" building by Richard Kauffmann who drafted a proposal in 1932. This was rejected in favour of Piacentini who was not only was not Jewish, but also a member of the Novocento Italiano group of architects favoured by Mussolini's fascist regime. He also designed public buildings in Rome and in the Italian colony in Libya.

Built from 1934-36 on a triangular site, the four storey building housed the Jerusalem office of the Generali insurance company. Piacentini created a monumental effect by inscribing the company name on the facade in large Latin letters and by using Roman numerals to show its founding year. A winged lion stands on the roof looking up Jaffa Street. It must have witnessed many important moments in the history of this most disputed of cities. Made from Jerusalem stone, the ground floor has rusticated features whilst the upper floors have sanded walls. The open loggias on the front of the building are a reference to Italian classic architecture with the stepped window recesses adding an interesting touch. The loggias also have views of the length of Jaffa Street. 

The Generali building demands attention. There are many more architectural beauties on this street, some less obvious than others. Remember, look up when you walk!

The winged lion keeping watch over Jaffa Street.
You might also like A Saturday Walk in Jerusalem and The Ades Syrian Synagogue in Jerusalem.

You can see more photographs of Jerusalem and other parts of Israel here.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Picture Post 23 - Quiroga, a Mexican market

Quiroga is a busy market town in Michoacan province, in Mexico's colonial heartland. The town takes its name from one Vasco de Quiroga, a Spanish born Catholic priest who came to Mexico in about 1530 and unlike many of his countrymen treated the local population well and did much to improve their conditions with schools, hospitals and other facilities. Whilst visiting Mexico in December I spent three days in the province, based in Morelia but visiting some of the surrounding towns too. 

I visited Quiroga on a bright December morning and found streets of market stalls selling agricultural and handicraft products from all over Michoacan. Many of the stalls sell lacquerware items and wooden bowls and trays brightly painted with floral motifs whilst others sell pots and pans for domestic use. There are also many, many, stalls selling food. The brightest coloured fruit and vegetables I have ever seen were displayed in carefully constructed piles designed to attract Quiroga's shoppers and to dazzle  the occasional tourist. Other stalls sell meat, fish and cooked food ready to eat. As it was almost Christmas when I visited many of the stalls were also selling seasonal decorations made from paper, wood or cloth also of many different colours and helping to entice shoppers in this extremely competitive market.

Of course I wanted to sample the food and I enjoyed a couple of quesadillas (!) filled with cheese and beans washed down by a mug of coffee. The quesadillas were cooked on a metal stand like the one pictured above and were served with a selection of chillis and chilli sauce options graded, hot, very hot and even hotter! The quesadillas were great, the coffee a bit disappointing. I was asked if I wanted water or milk in my coffee which should have been a clue. I only drink black coffee so plumped for water. And that's what I got…a mug of hot water and a jar of nescafe! Well you can't win them all. Incidentally, I have eaten many quesadillas since my return to London, all of hem much more expensive than the ones in Mexico, none of them as good as the Mexican variety and many of them swimming in oil. Come on London, sort it out.

I like the picture featured at the head of the post for several reasons. Its a great reminder of a morning spent wandering Quiroga's market and street stalls, enjoying the colours and the December sunshine. But more than that it illustrates perfectly my feelings about Mexico and many of its people who work extraordinarily hard to make a living often in the most difficult conditions. Thousands of women work in markets, making and selling food from stalls or in many cases getting up before dawn to cook delicious treats before hawking them to passers by in order to earn a living.

Quiroga is not far from Patzcuaro, a larger town and also a great place to visit on a day's excursion from Morelia, but that is for another post!

You might also like Vintage travel…visit Mexico…in 1936 or Mexico City top ten

You can see more pictures of Mexico here

Friday 7 March 2014

I Am Istanbul - a love story by Buket Uzuner

Buket Uzuner's I Am Istanbul is a love story. In fact it is two love stories - one between Belgin and Ayhan the book's main characters, but more than that it is about the love (and hate) that Istanbul's citizens have for the city herself.

Set over a few hours in Istanbul's international airport, during what might or might not be a terror alert, Uzuner introduces us to a whole range of characters each one representing different aspects of what it means to be an Istanbullu (someone from Istanbul). She demonstrates the diversity of the city and also its great and terrible history through characters such as Anna Maria Vernier, whose family has spent more than 500 years in the city but is still referred to by some as an Italian and a Christian at that; lavatory attendant Hasret Sefertas an internal migrant from an Anatolian village and Jak Safarti who comes from an old Jewish family, as well as Greeks, Armenians, Kurds, Allawis, religious and secular Muslims, expats from other countries, a taxi driver, a gold digger, an aged architect, a gay barman and numerous others each bringing their own take on what it means to be a citizen of Istanbul as well as their own personal and historical baggage.

The airport is a microcosm of Istanbul society with the petty prejudices between different groups being played out in the conversations between the characters and minor incidents in the shops and bars. Anna Maria pushes past a headscarf wearing Muslim woman to snatch away a bottle of perfume, the Muslim woman in turn looks down on Anna Maria because of her short skirt and cross, an elderly academic is contemptuous of an American expat and also of the Turkish policeman who is a villager from Anatolia, whilst the policeman despises the architect as being from old money. But when the airport's computer systems crash and panic starts to spread we see the relationships change and barriers break down as the characters offer help to each other or think about the things that really matter to them. 

The book is tense and episodic with short chapters taking us from one character to another, making use of flashback to fill in the details of their pasts and what brought them to the airport on this particular day. The female characters are especially strong. Belgin is the main attraction having asserted her independence from an ex husband and from Istanbul and Turkish society to go and live in New York several years previously. She is returning to the city to start a new life with Ayhan, an internal immigrant who has established himself as an artist. We see her struggle with her past and puzzle over her future in the few hours she is stuck in the airport following the computer collapse. Her struggle  perhaps representing those of Turkey in deciding what her future is. Much reference is made to the (now fading?) Turkish ambition to join the European Union with supporters and opposers amongst our cast. Towards the end of the book, Belgin sums up its central idea that "…the real drama of Turkey was sharing a country with well-intentioned people all living together in very different areas with very different world views. She hoped that her grandchildren…would be able to live in a country where time wasn't so fragmented, where cities and towns and villages all used the same calendar and the same clock, where people would be free and equal…"

Despite the tensions between the characters and the communities they represent, they all identify strongly as Istanbullus, professing love, hate and fear for and of the city, but being unable to keep away.

Author Buket Uzuner was born in Ankara in 1955 and is the author of a number of novels, collections of short stories and travel writing. She trained as molecular biologist and environmental scientist. She has worked in the USA, Norway and Finland and has won a number of prizes for her work. I already love the writing of Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak. It looks like I have found another great Turkish writer to follow! Buket lives in Istanbul. I look forward to seeing more of her work in translation.

A weekend in Antwerp - art nouveau, cup cakes and a touch of Africa

It takes just three hours to get to Antwerp from London on the Eurostar, changing once at Brussels. I made my first ever visit to the city last month and discovered its architectural delights, some great cafes, a street full of antique shops and a fascinating modern museum that tells the story of Antwerp. 

Antwerp has a history as a great port city, with millions of immigrants having passed through on their way to America from Eastern Europe. The MAS  (Museum aan de Stroom) in the old docks area tells the story of the this port city, including the great waves of migrants that flowed through it. It also tells something about those who made Antwerp their home. When I visited there was a small but fascinating exhibition about the city's Chinese community. The building is extremely striking, a red brick tower with stepped brick blocks interspersed with floor to ceiling glazing at each level, affording differing views of the city. The collections include thousands of objects, paintings and photographs that tell the story of Antwerp. I especially enjoyed the "visible storage" gallery where visitors can catch a glimpse of some of the museum's treasures, whilst the other galleries display items under the themes of Display of Power, Metropolis, World Port and Life and Death. There is a good book shop too. The museum opened in 2011, was designed by Dutch architects, Willem Jan Neutelings and Michiel Riedjik and is a major component of the regeneration of this part of Antwerp.

Which one is Tin Tin? Exhibit in the MAS
Antwerp has a Jewish community numbering about 15,000. The majority are Orthodox Jews, many working in or connected with the city's diamond industry located close to the Central Station. This community was immortalised in Diamonds, the story of an Orthodox diamond merchant living in the city on the eve of the First World War. His workers compete with each other to gain his favours , his wife suffers from his overbearing personalty, his son is without direction and his daughter is a spendthrift! Written in Yiddish by Esther Kreitman, the less well known sister of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the book was first published by Foyle's in 1944.

The Het Zuid district is home to a stunning synagogue completed in 1893. The Shomrei Hadass Synagogue in Bouwmeesterstraat was designed by architects Ernest Stordiau and Joseph Hertogs. Dominating this side street it is Moorish in style. Suffering bomb damage in the Second World War it was repaired in 1958 and declared a protected monument in 1976. Stordiau was responsible for a number of buildings in the city including a chapel and a number of residential properties in the art nouveau district, Zurenborg.

Shomrei Hadass synagogue, main entrance
No visit to any city is complete for me without the chance to enjoy its collection of art nouveau or art deco architecture. Antwerp offers some great examples of both of these styles. I have already posted about the city's art deco riches here and so will pick out my art nouveau favourites in this post. The majority of Antwerp's art nouveau buildings are in the Zurenborg district, a fifteen minutes walk from the Central Station. A triangle of streets including Cogels-Osylei, Waterloostraat and General van Merlenstraat include over 100 examples of the style and will be the subject of a separate post.

There are many beautiful examples of the nouveau style in those streets but my two favourite nouveau buildings here are in the Het Zuid district. Het Bootje (the boat),  at Schilderstraat 2 takes its name from the corner balcony which is shaped like a ship's prow and is a tribute to the city's seafaring links. Commissioned by wealthy ship builder P. Rouis and built in 1901 it was designed by architect Frans Smet-Verhas. It is a riot of colours, curves, swirls and floral motifs that make it stand out from its neighbours. Today the house is divided into several separate units, including one which is home to the Chilean consulate.

Het Bootje.
It is a short walk from Het Bootje, to Volkstraat 40, where you can see my favourite Antwerp art nouveau building - the former Maison du Peuple (People's House). Built from 1899-1903 and designed by architect Emil van Averbeke it was built for the Socialist party and is now a Steiner School. Flamboyant in the extreme, it has fabulous glazed arches, elaborate ironwork and is topped by carved figures. Most striking of all are the freezes on the facade, showing the heroic labour of agricultural workers. There is a smaller freeze above the tiny side door, the shape of which reminds me of the national romantic architecture of Helsinki and Stockholm. 

Steiner School, detail
Steiner School, side entrance
Another favourite is Mercatorstraat 102-106 in the Jewish Quarter, also designed by van Averbeke. Dating from 1901, it faces the railway viaduct and has lovely yellow brick facades and wrought iron balconies. As with the Steiner School, I was particularly taken with its door, which also resembles the national romantic architecture found in Scandinavia from around 1900. On the day I visited this part of the city, there was heavy rain and Antwerp's Orthodox citizens looked at me with astonishment as I took photographs from underneath my umbrella and from the middle of the road!

Mercatorstraat, 102-106.
Brussels has long been famous for its cartoonists and for its street cartoons decorating the exterior walls of shops and other buildings. Antwerp also has many street cartoons, including a wonderful series of tableaux by Jan van der Veken, painted on to a blank wall at the back of the KBC Bank at Eiermarkt 8. Born in Ghent, van der Veken has been featured on the cover of the New Yorker. His Eiermarkt murals show a series of glamorous urban dwellers with romantic undertones! 

Other highlights of my visit included shopping and cakes! Kloosterstraat is a long street filled with antique shops of varying price and quality, all of them interesting and browsing them is a great way of spending an afternoon in the city. I even picked up a small tin once used to store "electroplated pins". I don't own any electroplated pins - it was the constructivist design on the lid that attracted me! Antwerp also has many bookshops. I loved Erik Tonen's shop at Kloosterstraat 48 which sells both new and antiquarian books and where you can see and buy original copies of the Dutch avant-grade magazine Wendingen that ran in the 1920's and 1930's.

This is a city that loves coffee …and cakes. Clearly it was my duty to sample the local produce. I loved my creme brûlée cupcake and very strong coffee at Momade Cupcakes, a tiny six seater cafe in the historic centre. There are more than 30 kinds of cupcake on offer and the service is extremely friendly. The lady serving when I visited on Sunday morning told me she had studied at the Steiner School mentioned earlier. Coffee and Vinyl is another good place at Volkstraat 45. There are racks and racks of vinyl records for sale at the rear of the shop, with coffee being served in the front area. Nice.

I also found a great place to stay. De Witte Nijl (the White Nile) is an excellent bed and breakfast hotel in the Het Zuid area, just a short walk from Nationalstraat and the main shopping and cultural areas. The owners are extremely friendly, welcoming and knowledgeable about their city. The hotel is furnished in colonial style with many antiques, pictures, maps and other items originating from or paying tribute to the former Belgian Congo. There are two suites which, continuing the African theme, are named after Stanley and Livingstone. I stayed in the Livingstone which was spacious, comfortable and had a great free standing bath. A big breakfast is available too!

Speaking of big breakfasts, I couldn't resist photographing the tiger enjoying his breakfast outside the Antwerp Zoo. The mosaic is one if a pair of panels on the exterior of the zoo which I didn't visit but the
entrance is well worth a look. For more pictures of Antwerp click here.

Mosaic at the entrance to Antwerp Zoo
Coffee and Vinyl
My kind of holiday photo!
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The 500 Hidden Secrets of Antwerp by Derek Blyth is a new indispensable guide book for the weekend visitor.