Posts Tagged With: architecture

Exploring North Vietnam: Sensational Sapa

About five hours drive (or 8 hours overnight train trip) north of Hanoi is the mountain hideaway town of Sapa, in the shadow of Fan Si Pan—one of Vietnam’s tallest mountains. This is a land of steep hillside rice terraces and colorfully dressed hill tribes like the Black Hmong and Dao. There’s a beautiful lake, of course, French colonial buildings, and a town that’s constantly under construction (like the rest of Vietnam). We roamed the town, took in a buffet dinner and dance show at our hotel, and visited an eclectic mostly-outdoor market. I had come down with a bad case of bronchitis, so couldn’t hike to the hill-tribe villages as we had planned. A local doc gave me some antibiotics, which perked me up for awhile.

So, let me take you on a photo tour of Sapa. As always, click on any photo to enlarge and then arrow back and forth. Please enjoy.

Sapa lake and French colonial buildings

Categories: Architecture, Art, Asia, History, Photography, Shopping, Travel, Uncategorized, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Exploring Hanoi Part III: A Couple of Fascinating Museums

Normally, I avoid museums. No matter how revealing the dishes, weapons and other elements of a past civilization are, looking into little plexiglas cases does not excite me. I am definitely interested in how people of the past lived, worked and spent their time, but a hands-on exhibition is more my style. That’s why I loved Hanoi’s Ethnology and War Museums. At the Ethnology Museum, I admit we skipped the indoor exhibits (in plexiglas cases) for a chance to wander around the recreated villages outside.

Some notes about three of the houses. The communal house is 19 meters in height including 3 meter stilts. Its floor area is more than 90 square meters.

A team of 40 Bahnar people came from Kon Rbang Village in Kontum City, in the Central Highlands, to build this house. It was modeled after the village’s early 1920’s communal house. The most important tool in its construction is the axe, which is used to cut the wood and carve the trunks. The axe can also be used as a chisel to mortise the columns.

The high roof is supported by eight massive pillars, four of which are 60cm in diameter. The structure is composed of many other posts and beams arranged horizontally, vertically or diagonally at different heights. They serve to both connect and support the house. The longitudinal beams and purlins are 14 to 15m long. The sloping and curved roof is rounded at its lower part. It is not only attractive, but also helpful for wind resistance. This curve brings lightness, elegance, and the impression of a greater height.

Role of the communal house

The communal house has a significant meaning in villages. It is the largest and the most spectacular architecture, showing the power and talent of the community.

Traditionally, the communal house was used for social and ceremonial activities. It was a place for guests to be received, for men to be together during their free time, for the elderly to transmit knowledge to younger generations, for old villagers to deal with village affairs, and for villagers to concentrate together in community events. Collective rituals were also held at the communal house. In the past, the youth were on duty here to prepare for fights or to defend the village. Young bachelors and widowers also spent nights in the communal house. Women did not usually enter this house.

Heads of sacrificed buffalos and hunted animals are often hung in the communal house. These are the trophies and pride of the community. Other ritual objects and protecting talismans of the villages are also preserved in the communal house.

EDE Longhouse

The long house is 42.5 meters long and 6 meters wide and sits on one meter high stilts. It was reconstructed at the Museum in 2000. It was originally built in 1967 and belonged to Mrs. HDiah Eban’s family (Ede Kpa) in Ky Village, Buon Ma Thuot city, Dak Lak Province in the Central Highlands.

The house is oriented in a north-south direction according to Ede tradition. The north side is the front with the main entrance. The south end was where families lived. As a house of a powerful family, it was built with big columns and beams, on which many decorations were carefully carved. Its original staircase, over one meter wide, was carved from one large wooden board.

Traditionally, extended matrilineal families lived in long houses. The more people who lived in a house, the longer it was. Some houses were 200m long. In the 1970s, there were still houses 50m to 60m in length. Since the 1980s, extended families have split into nuclear ones that live in smaller houses.

Giarai tomb house

The tomb house was built in 1998 by five Giarai Arap men from Mrong Ngo Village, ChuPa District, Gia Lai Province.

About thirty dead people can be burried in this large tomb house in the village. The decorated sculptures are carved from tree trunks using axes, chisels, and knives. Statues of men and women showing off their secret parts, and pregnant women symbolise fertility and birth. The wooden roof is covered with plaited bamboo planks on which designs are painted with natural red pigments. Figures on the roof depict activities of the tomb abandoning ritual.

It is thought that the tomb house is for the dead in the afterlife. Broken dishes, bottles, cups and trays, and wooden models of tools are put inside the tomb to provide necessities to the deceased in their other world. After the ritual, the tomb is abandoned.

The War Museum

This was our biggest surprise. I didn’t expect to like it, but the exhibits were extremely well done, with actual tanks and shot-down U.S. planes, as well as recreated scenes indoors of wars throughout Vietnam’s history. Check out the exhibit of a battlefield with men crawling through tunnels below. Also a bicycle equipped with a rocket launcher. The country was constantly fighting off invaders.

 

 

Categories: Architecture, Art, Asia, culture, History, museums, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Exploring Hanoi’s Old Quarter: Part II

More photos from Hanoi, including beautiful tiled artwork along roads and streets, lots of scooters of course, graduation (high school, I think) pictures at the Temple of Literature, cows in the street, the country’s tall and skinny apartment buildings, temples, soldiers in formation at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum (his body is taken to Moscow once a year for refurbishing), and me with a group of delightful school children who were passing through a temple complex on their way home.

If you cursor over the photos, you’ll see the captions. Click on a photo, it will enlarge, and you can arrow your way forward or backward. Please enjoy.

Categories: Architecture, History, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Vietnam—Exploring Hanoi’s Old Quarter: Part I

I was in high school/college in California while the Vietnam war had been raging for ten-plus years, and I knew many young men who were drafted into the army and sent to this far-away country. Years earlier, the U.S. had teamed up with other UN countries to stop communist North Korea from taking over democratic South Korea (remember the tv show, MASH?). In Korea’s case, the UN forces were able to push back the N. Korean forces to the 38thParallel, where the country remains divided to this day. I suppose, when the U.S. went into Vietnam with the same aim (to keep the North Vietnamese Communist party out of South Vietnam), they felt it was doable. But this time, the U.S. was alone, without the backing of UN troops. As we now know, the war in Vietnam was a disaster for both the Vietnamese people and U.S. soldiers. The Communist north took over the south, many Vietnamese U.S. collaborators were killed, and I’ll never forget the news videos of panicked crowds trying to get on the last U.S. planes to leave Vietnam.

Since then, Vietnam has fostered good relations with the U.S. and has welcomed tourists from all over the world. Even so, memories of the war-ravaged country remained in my mind, and since it is a Communist country, I wasn’t sure what to expect when Jerry and I traveled there last November (2019).

We had taken a southeast Asia cruise a few years earlier and joined excursions to central and south Vietnam, but we had never seen the North.

So please join me as I take you on a virtual tour of North Vietnam, starting with its capital, Hanoi. As far as I could tell, there is no central transportation in Hanoi. Everybody, and I mean everybody, rides mopeds or bicycles, but mostly mopeds (tourists can take rides in pedicabs (called cyclos). It must be the moped capital of the world. Crossing a street in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, you must watch for a good open spot, step out onto the street and keep going. If you don’t stop or hesitate or waiver in your direction, the moped riders and any other vehicles will swerve around you. It takes getting used to.

Carrying colorful balloons on a moped_DSC0124 copy_DSC0124 copy_DSC0145 copy_DSC0145 copy

Categories: Architecture, Asia, culture, Food, History, Photography, Shopping, Travel, Uncategorized, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Most Beautiful Church in the World

wide-angle interior showing plant-stem columns, flower ceiling and stained glass

In 1883, whimsical creative architect Antoni Gaudi started working on Sagrada Familia (sacred family), a huge Roman Catholic church in Barcelona, Spain. At the time of his death in 1926 (he was hit by a streetcar), less than a quarter of the building was finished. Slow progress then and later was partially due to lack of funding (it relied on private donations) and the Spanish Civil war (1936-39) By 2010, when I first visited, it was more than halfway done, but the central nave was stacked with building materials so we had to walk around the edges. On my second visit, last September (2018), the interior was complete and spectacular. The outside towers, however are still under construction, and the expected finish date is 2026—100 years after Gaudi’s death.

Known as God’s Architect, Gaudi felt that the Medieval Gothic style of his day was limited. It relied on large support structures called buttresses, and he believed that God’s house should be free of bulky supports, yet limitless in its height and grandeur, so he turned to nature, or what he saw as God’s architecture. The support columns of the church resemble the stems of plants, making the design stronger and lighter and allowing for more natural light. Gaudi built many of his models upside down to show how the weight would be distributed.

The main entrance, in the nativity façade, contains a complex variety of scenes featuring Jesus, Mary, Joseph, angels, kings, shepherds, flowers, animals and birds, all depicting the adoration at the birth and life of Jesus. The rear entrance, or Passion façade, depicts the death of Jesus with simple lines and figures. Many architects have worked on the church since Gaudi’s death, and all did their best to stay true to his plans and vision. Sagrada Familia has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Categories: Architecture, Art, churches, culture, engineering, Europe, History, Photography, Spain, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

5 Days in Venice: Magical or Mundane?

Gondolas in Venice's lagoon

I’ve heard mixed reviews about Venice. Some say it’s the most magical city in Europe. Others complain that it’s too touristy and over-rated. Yes, Venice calls to tourists like the hive calls to a swarm of bees. If you stay in the areas around St. Mark’s Square, you’ll encounter similar swarms of tourists and long lines. But even there, the magic is palpable.

We wanted to visit the Doge’s Palace and infamous prison while avoiding the crowds, so we went late in the afternoon. At one time, Venice’s powerful Doges ruled much of Europe from their palace in the sea. Anyone who opposed them was thrown into the palace’s dungeons, but eventually, more room was needed, so a separate prison was built across a small canal next to the palace and the two connected by a covered bridge. Writers later referred to this passage as the Bridge of Sighs as it was thought that prisoners sighed as they looked out at the pleasures of Venice, which they would never experience again. As we crossed into the prison, we peered out through the small, decorative window openings at a crowd of tourists taking pictures of this famous bridge.

After our palace/prison tour, we decided not to stand in the long, snaking line waiting for the elevator to the top of the Campanile, a tall tower in the square. I bet the view was amazing from the top. Instead, we found a table at one of the outdoor restaurants, ordered some food and a spritz (a Venetian specialty drink) and listened to an orchestra playing classical and contemporary music as the setting sun turned the façade of St. Mark’s cathedral to gold. Definitely magical.

We had planned to ride in a gondola, but in the small canals around St. Mark’s Square, dozens of gondolas, each carrying a couple or family, lined up like a traffic jam on a watery freeway. Many of the couples looked bored or were staring at their cell phones. Not romantic. Not magical.

Instead, we walked the narrow car-free lanes and crossed tiny canal bridges as well as large ones such as Rialto and Accademia—two of five spanning the Grand Canal. Rialto was the first built. Its premiere incarnation in 1181 consisted of a row of boats tied together side by side and planks laid on top of them. With its second incarnation in 1255, it became a wooden drawbridge allowing ship traffic up and down the canal. It collapsed in 1444 (under the weight of a crowd gathered to watch a boat parade in celebration of a wedding) and again in 1524, then was redesigned and built in 1591 as a covered stone structure lined with shops on both sides.

Instead of a tourist hotel, we opted to rent an apartment near the outskirts of Venice island. After taking some wrong turns trying to find the address while dragging suitcases behind us, we eventually arrived at a door in a building down an alleyway. One flight (but lots of steps) up, our apartment was perfect, with a balcony overlooking the small canal below. Our landlady, Sophia, lived next door and her dogs barked each time they heard us coming home. Below, along the canal, a string of restaurants and a wine bar made up the social life of our neighborhood. Sometimes we cooked our meals (there was a grocery store not far away); sometimes we ate out. We felt like we belonged there.

We also adapted to life without cars. Once we located our vaporetto (basically a bus on water) stop, we bought passes and went everywhere. The vaporettos were always crowded with standing room only, so we positioned ourselves near the “door” enabling us to get on and off easily. Coming home in the evening, the Moorish-style palaces and casinos with their twinkling lights spread golden reflections on the water of the Grand Canal.

Conclusion: Magical.

Categories: Architecture, Art, bridges, culture, Europe, History, Photography, Stock Photography, Travel, Venice | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

CWW: Up and Down

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India: Taj Mahal—Monument to Love

 

In a faraway land called India, a great emperor named Shah Jahan adored his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. When she died giving birth to their 14th child, he built her the most magnificent tomb in the history of the world—the Taj Mahal.

Agra 597 “We’ll meet at the bus at 5:30am,” our India tour guide informed us the night before. “We want to be first in line.”

Ugh! Near the front of the line, we stood in the dark for what seemed like forever, waiting for the gates to open. Luckily we were squeezed between “stand in line” railings, so I had something to lean on in my groggy condition.

When we finally entered at sunrise, all sleepiness disappeared, and we were struck by the ethereal beauty of one of the world’s most beloved edifices. Consistently named one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the ivory-white marble tomb takes your breath away when you see it up close for the first time. Its name is Persian for “Crown of Palaces,” and so it is, reigning on a marble base, or plinth, at the far end of a narrow reflecting pool, and guarded by a minaret at each corner.

The tomb was commissioned in 1632 and finished in 1643 using materials from all over Asia (white marble from India, jade and crystal from China, turquoise from Tibet, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, sapphire from Sri Lanka), and it’s thought that more than 1,000 elephants were used to transport building materials. The rest of the 42-acre complex—finished between five and ten years later—includes a mosque, guesthouse and formal gardens. Total cost in 2015 U.S. dollars—$827 million. The project employed some 20,000 artisans under the guidance of a board of architects. In 1983 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for being “the jewel of Muslim art in India.”

Clever subterfuge: To protect the building during WWII, the Indian government erected scaffolding around it in anticipation of air attacks by the Japanese Air Force. Scaffolding was again used during the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971 to mislead bomber pilots.

To this day, the Taj Mahal still stands as a symbol of love. Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore poetically described it as “the tear drop on the cheek of time.” And so it was for Shah Jahan. When he died, he was laid to rest in a sarcophagus next to his beloved Mumtaz.

Categories: Architecture, Art, Asia, India, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Touring India—The Art of the Palace

In my previous post, I took you on a visual tour of Lake Pichola in the India city of Udaipur, district of Rajasthan.

Today we embark on an exploration of Udaipur’s City Palace, which is one of the architectural marvels of Rajasthan.

Udaipur city palace swing 752, 754 copy

Indeed, Udaipur City Palace on the banks of Lake Pichola is the most-visited tourist attraction of Udaipur and the largest palace complex in Rajasthan. It was started in 1559 and not completed until the 18th century because each new ruler kept adding on to it using granite and marble in a surprisingly harmonious blend of Medieval, European and Chinese architecture.

Inside its walls are eleven palaces, including Manak Mahal (Ruby Palace) that features figures of crystal and porcelain, Bhim Vilas and its collection of miniature paintings, and Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors). Other palaces hold Chinese and Dutch ornamental tiles, murals, wall paintings, silver art, inlay, and an amazing amount of colored glass.

There is also an arena where elephant fights were staged, and an area of marble arches where eight times, maharanas were known to weigh themselves and then distribute their weight in gold and silver to lucky locals.

In addition, there are bird cages and carrier-pigeon boxes in tower rooms; glass mosaics of peacocks representing the three seasons of summer, winter and monsoon; ubiquitous Indian scalloped arches, and towers that look out over the city on one side and Lake Pichola on the other.

Check out workers cleaning the palace walls while perched on bamboo scaffolding, which is really amazing when you remember that bamboo is a grass.

My apologies for the blurry photo of the palace gate. It was a grab shot as the bus was driving past, but I did want to show you the gate’s spikes. They were installed to prevent the enemy’s elephants from pushing through the gate.

Click on any photo below to enlarge, and then use the arrows to move back and forth. Likes and comments are always appreciated, and if you’ve been to India, I’d love to hear about your travels there.

Categories: Architecture, Art, India, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

Touring India—Lake of Palaces

There is a beautiful lake in Udaipur, Rajasthan, India….. Its name is Pichola.map India Udaipur

On one side, its waters lap at the base of ancient homes; boat docks; wide concrete steps called ghats, where women come to wash their saris or string marigold garlands; and the towering fort-like walls of the City Palace. On the other side, hazy mountains seem to float in the sky.

Legend has it that the lake was created in the 15th century when a gypsy Banjara tribesman built a dam so that his livestock could cross a stream. Maharani Udai Singh II built his shining city of Udaipur around the lake in 1560, while strengthening the dam and enlarging the lake. It’s currently 3-miles long, 2-miles wide and 30-feet deep.

Within its waters are two natural islands, each supporting a palace. The white Taj Lake Palace is exclusive to guests staying at its hotel, but you can see its interior in the 1983 James Bond film “Octopussy.”

The Jag Mandir, or Lake Garden Palace, made of marble and yellow sandstone (including 8 white-marble elephants guarding the palace), was built in the 1550s as a hiding place for Prince Khurram, who became Shah Jahan—builder of the Taj Mahal. Later, Maharana Swaroop Singh sheltered several European families here during the revolt of 1867. The hotel caters to weddings and other lavish events, and the palace gardens bloom with roses, jasmine flowers, palms, frangipani and bougainvillea.

From the comfort of a marigold-draped boat, our small tour group cruised the lake and then disembarked for an exploration of Jag Mandir, where we learned that jazz legend Kenny G, who had been on our flight from Delhi to Udaipur the previous day, was scheduled to perform on the palace stage that evening.. Afterwards, we re-boarded our boat and headed back to the city proper.

I hope you enjoy the visual tour of Pichola Lake. As always, click on any photo to begin the slideshow.

Categories: India, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Bangkok’s Grand Palace

 In 1956, actor Yul Brynner, as the king of Siam, sang and danced through a gilded palace in the movie, “The King and I.” The country of Siam has since changed its name to Thailand, but its Grand Palace in Bangkok is still something to sing about.

The older Thai capital at Ayutthaya in the North had been destroyed in 1767 during a war with Burma, and newly proclaimed King Rama I ordered his men to remove bricks and other materials from the forts, walls and palaces (but not the temples) of this ruined city and send them by barge down the Chao Phraya river to the new capital city of Bangkok. Not only was he updating his wooden palace, but to solidify fortifications around his riverside capital, Rama I dug canals along its eastern edge, turning the city into an artificial island.

The Grand Palace is not one large structure in the tradition of most European palaces. It’s divided into four main courts separated by walls and gates and originally housing royal offices, state ministries, the royal chapel, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, ceremonial throne halls, and the king’s harem quarters. After a second expansion during the reign of Rama II, the palace covered an area of 2,351,000 square feet and was Thailand’s administrative and religious center, with thousands of inhabitants including guardsmen, servants, concubines, princesses, ministers and courtiers. And just like Rome’s Vatican City, the Grand Palace was considered a city within a city, subject to its own set of laws.

Gradually the government ministries grew in size and moved to other locations. The King, too, relocated to more modern palaces. In 1932, a student-launched revolution overthrew the absolute monarchy of King Rama VII, replacing it with a constitutional monarchy. Today, the Grand Palace still serves as a royal ceremonial venue, as well as a museum and tourist attraction.

I found the Grand Palace to be a photographer’s eye-candy wonderland rife with golden temples; bejeweled pavilions; and giant, elaborately painted warriors. I’d love to return, without having to follow a tour guide, and get lost in the visual magic of it all. Have you been to Bangkok’s Grand Palace? If so, what were your impressions?

Click on any image to see the slideshow.

Categories: Architecture, Art, Asia, culture, History, Photography, Stock Photography, Thailand, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

How to Nickname Your Skyscraper

Pudong and the Huangpu River at night
It’s a tall, tall world in the district of Shanghai known as Pudong.

Boardwalk along the Bund, ShanghaiA mere twenty-one years ago, Pudong—on the eastern shore of the Huangpu River, opposite the city’s celebrated Bund—was a mix of farmland, squatters’ shacks and swamp. Now it has a population of more than five million and is home to some cloud-scrapers even Superman would have to think twice about leaping over in a single bound. As these behemoths neared completion, Shanghai residents gave them nicknames.

Designed by architects in Chicago, the Jin Mao Tower has a pointy top that looks like those needles you stick into eggs that whisk them from inside the shell. Some call it the Egg Beater, others the Marinade Injector or Syringe. As a business center and home to the Grand Hyatt Shanghai hotel, it stands at 1380 feet or 88 stories high. For an entrance fee, you can shoot up at thirty feet per second to the top floor observation deck along with 999 other like-minded people for a stunning view.

Pudong on a clear day in Shanghai

Pudong on a clear day in Shanghai

Once the tallest structure in China from 1994 to 2007, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower at 1,535 feet (387-foot broadcast antenna included) is no longer the tallest, but definitely the most unique. Its eleven spheres, fifteen observation levels, and three gigantic columns host a combination of exhibition facilities, restaurants, shopping mall and hotel. The highest observation deck, at 1148 feet, is known as the Space Module and has an outside area with glass floor. Its architects designed it to resemble two dragons playing with pearls. It’s called, simply, the Pearl Tower.

Next up is the Shanghai World Financial Center. It’s a sleek, modern beauty at 1,614 feet (101 floors), the glass-and-metal façade reflecting sky and clouds. It, too, has a sightseeing top floor and can survive a devastating magnitude-8 earthquake (good to know if you’re sightseeing on that top floor when the earth shakes). With its distinctive trapezoid hole near the top, it’s easy to see why it garnered the nickname, Bottle Opener.

A brightly lit, masted brig sails up and down the Huangpu River in front of the Bund and Pudong.

A brightly lit, masted brig sails up and down the Huangpu River in front of the Bund and Pudong.

And at the top of the heap, so to speak, is the almost-finished Shanghai Tower. When completed in 2015, it will stand 2,073-feet high, with five basement levels, 121 floors above ground and five podium floors, and it will be, not only China’s tallest building, but also the second tallest in the world (Dubai’s Burj Khalifa is taller). Since Shanghai is on a seismic belt, engineers poured a twenty-foot-thick underground baseboard over almost a thousand 282-foot-deep foundation piles to ensure stability. And, since Shanghai is also subject to frequent typhoons, they designed the building to twist about one degree per floor to offset high winds. The building spirals upwards like a snake climbing a tree. Because of its twist, it’s called the Screwdriver. Or sometimes the Egg Whisk.

These buildings and many others in Pudong draw attention to themselves in the evening by switching on an incredible, constantly changing and colorful LED lightshow. I admit to sitting by my Bund hotel-room window after dark and watching, fascinated, as the lighting display created a mesmerizing backdrop for the barges, ferries and sightseeing boats plying the river.

The Bund (older city) at night
One night, a flash storm added lightening to the mix. It was much better than tv.

Lightening splits the sky over Pudong during a brief evening rain storm.

Lightening splits the sky over Pudong during a brief evening rain storm.

The Pearl Tower with its bulbous spheres is easy to spot, but can you pick out the Egg Beater, Bottle Opener and Screwdriver? Hint: at night, the unfinished and lightless Screwdriver disappears in the blackness.

Categories: Architecture, Asia, China, Photography, Reflections, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shanghai, China: Garden of Dragons

Yu Gardens bridge, pavilion and lake.

Yu Gardens bridge, pavilion and lake.

The most delightful maze in the world is not a maze—it’s a 5-acre plot of tranquility in Shanghai’s Old Town. But once you pay your entrance fee and step inside Yu Gardens, it’s easy to get hopelessly turned around amid the tapestry of winding walkways, caves, red pavilions, carp-filled lakes, stone bridges, whimsical doorways and myriad artful rock formations (which I suspect are feng shui inspired). “Haven’t we been to this spot before,” I asked my husband more than once as we wandered around gawking at the aforementioned sights, and peering through different-shaped openings that framed the garden’s treasures.

The largest and most prestigious of its era in Shanghai, Yu Gardens was built in fits and starts during the Ming Dynasty between 1559 and 1577 by Pan Yunduan as a peaceful place for his aged father. It was first opened to the general public in 1780. Despite damage during the First Opium War, Taiping Rebellion, and in 1942 by the Japanese, it was repaired by the Shanghai government and declared a national monument in 1982.

Don’t expect orchids and other floral arrays here, but if you’re ever in Shanghai, Yu Gardens is a must-see. Be sure to go when it first opens to get ahead of the tour busses.

If you’d like to wander with me through this enchanting garden. just click on any photo to start the visual tour. But, as the sign says, “Be Careful,” because here there be dragons.

Categories: Architecture, Asia, China, culture, gardens, Photography, Stock Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Norway: Viking Churches? Not

It’s an ironic story line—after raiding and pillaging towns and villages in countries throughout the north Atlantic, Vikings returned home and went to church.

Perhaps they did, but if so, they didn’t attend services in a stave church—so named for its interior, weight-bearing pillars, or staves. There may be dragons on the roof, but stave churches weren’t built until after the Viking Age ended. That date is traditionally marked in England by the failed invasion attempt by Norwegian King Harald III, who was defeated by Saxon King Harold Godwinson in 1066. Ireland and Scotland note their own dates, predicated on victories against Vikings.

stave church, Borgund, Norway

stave church, Borgund, Norway

At one time there were more than a thousand stave churches throughout Europe. Most were built between circa 1130 and 1350 AD. Construction stopped when the Black Death started to spread through Europe, and congregating in small spaces became life threatening.

And the stave church is indeed a small space. So small, in fact, that most of its congregation had to stand—men and boys on the right, women and girls on the left. The elderly and sick could sit on benches along the walls.

Today only 28 stave churches survive, and all are in Norway where there is a long tradition of building in wood (remember those sturdy Viking ships). Earlier churches were built on often-soggy ground and succumbed to wood rot. Lesson learned. Stone foundations solved that problem.

stave church interior, Oslo, Norway

Stave church interior, Oslo, Norway

While visiting the stave church in Borgund, I was surprised to see that it—like other stave churches—had no windows. The only light entered through a few small portholes high up on the walls. The altarpiece depicts Christ’s crucifixion. Animal masks adorn the south door, and serpents and dragon-like creatures decorate the main-door side panels and lintel. On the roof turrets, Christian crosses and dragonheads keep each other company. Old legends die hard I guess, and it seems that the parishioners were hedging their bets—honoring old gods and new.

I found it interesting that the timber used in construction of the church was most likely seasoned on the root, strategic cuts drawing the tar to the surface before the tree was felled. After construction and during renovations, additional tar was applied to protect the wood.

carved doorway, stave church

carved doorway, stave church

It was common to bury the dead under the church floor, but that practice stopped at the end of the nineteenth century thanks to the unpleasant smell. However, stillborn infants and babies who died before being baptized could not be buried in the consecrated ground of the churchyard. Tiny coffins were placed under the floor, even in recent times. It seems odd to me that the ground around the church was considered consecrated, but the ground under the church was not.

If you stand inside the church and look up, you’ll see that the roof above the nave looks like an inverted boat with ribs. Hmmmmm! I wonder what inspired that design.

Categories: Architecture, culture, History, Norway, Photography, Scandinavia, Stock Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments

Weekly Photo Challenge: Near and Far

Helsingborg, Sweden from the castle keep

The town of Helsingborg, Sweden through an archway in the castle keep.

While in Europe this summer, our cruise ship stopped at Helsingborg, Sweden, and we spent several hours exploring the town. One must-see on our agenda was The Keep. Once a castle stood on the hill overlooking Helsingborg’s streets, but now the only thing left is The Keep—a walled entrance behind which stands a lone remaining tower. We climbed the steps up to The Keep, and I looked back to capture this image of the town (far) framed by one of the arches (near).

Helsingborg, Sweden is across the narrow Oresund strait from Helsingor, Denmark—a town famed for its Kronborg Castle, which is said to have been the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Helsingborg, Sweden, castle keep framed by flowers

Looking up from the streets of Helsingborg towards the castle keep

castle keep, Helsingborg, Sweden

Another near-and-far view of the castle keep

Categories: Architecture, flowers, Photography, Stock Photography, Sweden, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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