Monthly Archives: March 2013

In Which I Reveal I’m a Writer, Am Judged Insane

science-magazines

So imagine this.  I was in the lovely American Book Center in the heart of Amsterdam (our flagship English language bookstore) about to buy an arguably trashy read I found in the bargain section.  The counter is right next to the giant news stand and while the clerk was ringing up my purchase I did a sudden double take when I saw what you see on the left.

I pulled the magazine out to confirm, with my heart beating rapidly- yes, this was the Astronomy magazine for which I wrote the cover article, sitting innocuously on the news stand with all the other magazines!

By this point the clerk wants the four Euro for the book and is giving me an odd look, so I feel obliged to explain.  “Sorry, but I wrote this cover article!” I say proudly.

“You wrote the cover.” He says this with a Dutch accent and a tone I’m not entirely certain of, but is very similar to one I hear if my native English pace of speech gets too fast and excited about something (which, let’s be honest, happens a decent amount).  So I explain.

“Yes, I’m an astronomer and I write, and I wrote this cover article.”  And I put the Astronomy magazine back on the newsstand- fun as it would be to purchase I have copies of the magazine already, and this is encouragingly the last one they have.

“I’m sure you did,” he says, with a funny look on his face.  It’s then I realize that the clerk’s tone is not the “I don’t understand” tone I assumed but rather one far more impossible to deal with- a tone that doesn’t just say “I don’t believe you” tone but downright “this girl is nuts!”

“The door is that way,” he says with the same tone and look as he points helpfully two meters behind us at a doorway that any sane, rational person can spot seeing as you have to walk past it to get to the counter.  And I realize at that moment you can’t actually tell someone you’re not crazy when they already think you’re making up being a scientist and writer for your own odd, perverted reasons.  So I go.

The funny thing though?  Though my pride took a hit the writer in me doesn’t really mind, as for the rest of my life I have a good story from it.

Inside the Palace of Catalan Music

palace-of-catalan-music

I’m normally not an architecture person when I travel.  What I mean by this is when I think of places I want to go I do like picturesque places or buildings loaded with history, but I don’t think I’ve ever deliberately traveled somewhere because someone told me the architecture was stunning or spent much time at all considering it.

So when I tell you Patrick and I decided to go on a tour of the Palace of Catalan Music and it was stunning you know it must have made quite an impression!  Built just over a hundred years ago, the entire style is supposed to invoke a garden.  Stained glass windows flood the place with light during the day and there are little details everywhere your eye looks from little flowers to statues showing the Flight of the Valkyries to musicians on the walls, each different and there to inspire the musicians-

catalan-music-palace

barcelona-opera-house

Patrick: Why don’t you put me in your blog?  You know I’m a ratings bonanza!
Me: Ok, go stand by that statue and give everyone a sense of scale.

So he did.

skylight-up-close

There were tons of details all over the place, but my favorite was definitely the stained glass skylight in the center of the concert hall.  It’s supposed to look like a drop of sunlight in the middle of the blue sky, but as you can see here there are so many details that you can’t help but stare trying to take them all in.

So hey, this was architecturally a very lovely building!  I’m not saying this is a sort of style that you’d want in your living room, but in the middle of a concert hall where your mind and eyes tend to wander it is quite remarkable.

Photo: View from Park Güell, Barcelona

gaudi-park-barcelona-view

While everyone in Amsterdam was busy shivering to death this past weekend, my brother and I went to sunny Barcelona.  Where, dear reader, it was warm– skirt and t-shirt during the day warm!- so just the right thing for folks getting impatient for the end of a long European winter.

Barcelona is a very lovely city with lots to see, so to kick things off here’s a view from Güell Park overlooking the city, designed about a century ago by Antoni Gaudi.  More on him later as it’s impossible to show off a bunch of Barcelona photographs and not have a bunch of his buildings in them, but the park has the added bonus of the view out towards the sea…

The Palaces of Sintra, Portugal

sintra-moorish-castle“You must go to Sintra!” everyone tells you the moment they hear you’re going to Lisbon.  When even the random Portuguese man on the street is telling you such it’s advisable to do so, so I hopped on the commuter train for the ~40 minute ride out with no serious ideas of what was there except a nice town with a lot of nice summer palaces and estates from the Portuguese royalty and other elite.

And holy hell, everyone is right- you must go to Sintra!  The town is lovely, and the palaces are so wonderful that I think they have my new favorite palace in the world here!

pena-palace

The palace in question is the Pena National Palace, perched on the highest hill around with sweeping views of Lisbon to the east and the westernmost point of Europe in the opposite direction.  It was built in the 19th century to be the summer resort of the Portuguese monarchy, meaning it’s built in full romantic style like something a child would draw in art class.  Meaning it’s totally awesome.

pena-national-palace

The town of Sintra itself is quite nice too- at the bottom of the hill, but chock-full with more palaces and mansions that are palaces in their own right.  Smack dab in the middle of town is the Sintra National Palace which was the royal summer residence from the early 14th century to the late 19th century when Pena was constructed.  The outside is nowhere near as fantastic but wow, you know how I said Lisbon lacks the grandeur and wealth of the Portuguese crown because it got razed in an earthquake?  Well when that happened they rebuilt and restored what was damaged in the Sintra Palace, so you definitely get a taste of what it was likesintra-palace-insideswan-room-sintrasintra-palace-magpiesNow I must say, I’ve been to enough palaces in northern Europe by this point to know if I could choose I would definitely be a medieval noble in Portugal over one in, say, Ireland or England.  Castles in northern Europe from that time period are certainly interesting but always just leave me with the impression of how cold and dark it must have been- the poor of these countries now lead a more luxurious life- but you don’t get that feeling at all here.  In fact, you get the feeling that if they offered you the keys to Sintra Palace you’d be quite happy to settle down here, so imagine how much more spectacular it must have seemed 500 years ago!

Overall I must confess that if I did the Portugal weekend again I would base myself in Sintra with a day going into Lisbon rather than the other way around, as it’s such a nice little town with quite a lot to see.  Plus while I know the Portuguese probably wouldn’t let me, it’s quite fun to imagine taking up residence in the palaces.