Art Overseas: Part 2


Jon and I are back stateside, but before we completely re-enter the world of whatever is to come, I wanted to follow up on my two-part series about art overseas. I can't pretend that these writings are comprehensive by all means. Books have been written, heck grad programs are built on art and culture in these places. So this is just a brief survey. England & Scotland

2 words: Free Museums. That’s what I took away from our month in the UK (plus a newfound love of creamed tea). Art, history, archeology, music, literature – anything that can go into a museum or collection is free to access thanks to the UK’s support of culture and heritage.  Of course London itself is a whole other beast – being an arts capital in and of itself. Unfortuantely we only spend 6 hours in London…. So I just know about that arts-capital-ness in theory.

National Gallery Edinburgh

National Gallery Edinburgh

In terms of immersion, being in the UK didn’t really feel that different from being in the US. There are summer music festivals everywhere with all kinds of music and events. Art and craft fairs are frequent. Pubs and evening concerts are plentiful – especially in the music city of Newcastle, where we went to 2 music festivals and got to catch a CD release party (the power went out so the party continued on the street – pretty cool). Aside form the fact that eating isn’t so much a pleasurable experience in the UK, getting out and doing something arty is quite easy, fun and always interesting.

The National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh, by the way, was one of my favorite visual art experiences. I event went back for a second visit. Incredible paintings, beautiful galleries, and an excellent contemporary art installations made for an extremely pleasant visit.

??? Lillehammer

??? Lillehammer


I am 100% certain that Norway is full of super interesting cultural goings-ons, but the fact that sitting down for a cup of coffee costs around $15 and going into a museum would mean eating hot dogs for a week, we were unable to participate in much. I do know from my own studies that Norway and the Scandinavian countries in general have a rich folk music tradition, which one can easily access on the radio. Metal and other types of hard rock are also extremely popular here. Interestingly one of the most blatant forms of creativity we saw was in home interior design. Apparently because it’s so cold most of the year people are really focused on making their homes very comfortable, inviting and beautiful.


Painting, sculpture, dance, music, old, new – Spain has it all. As Bruges oozed architectural amazement, Spain just oozes expression.  The Spanish people are already social, gregarious and outwardly emotive, and in my experience they put just as much of that gregariousness into their art. It’s everywhere, and I believe the Spanish are proud of their cultural heritage and dedicated towards fostering creativity for the future.

Not only is Spain the home of the greats like Picasso, El Greco, de Goya, Ramon Gaya and so many others; its museums: the Prada, the Reina Sofia, the Picasso in Barcelona, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, are some of the best in the world. All of this doesn’t account for the local arts, which are well taken care of via local town festivals, galleries, concerts and nightly flamenco music in tavernas.

One of our favorite experiences was getting to see a Flamenco Festival in the small mining town of La Union near Cartagena. 5 hours of dance, guitar, singing and instrumentation was incredible.

Spanish culture is delightful as well in that, especially at night, everyone is out and about. People walk around town, 3 year olds with great grandparents until the wee hours of the morning, just chatting, walking, and enjoying the warm air. I loved that scene.


Before you come to Italy in search of art, of any kind, you should ask yourself: How do you feel about the Renaissance? How do you feel about religious art? Because if you don’t care much for either, or its enormous contributions to Western art and culture, nor its implications on political history (as in how much money the church really had), you probably won’t appreciate much of what Italy has to offer.

Now, we spent the majority of our two months only in the Region of Umbria, With about 9-10 days or so combined outside of the region in Rome and Naples. One thing we learned is how unique all of Italy’s regions are, and also how important Umbria was to the Renaissance. No, it’s not Florence, Tuscany or Venice. But Umbria is home to Assisi – a pilgrimage for many Catholics. Perugia has ancient Etruscan history, and the towns surrounding Lake Trasimeno were the scenes of many battles, including the defeat of the Roman army by Hannibal himself. During medieval times the church had the majority of the wealth and, aside from very wealthy landowners was the only purse able to fund art. Umbria also became an area for many artists to study and practice, artists like Raphael himself who studied with Vannucci, or more commonly known as Perugino, in Perugia.

One thing that is so incredible about Italy is also just how much art is intact from the Renaissance era. From the largest most ornate basilicas and cathedrals to the tiny hamlet church that has a priceless 13th century altar piece inside – it’s everywhere. I’ll admit, I got a little jaded on god art, but one still has to appreciate how much there is, and how these artists paved a way for the development of painting and visual art in the Western World.

Although we weren’t there during the season, the importance of Opera should not be understated, and some of the world’s greatest opera houses are in Italy – fitting for the country that produced Verdi and Puccini. We went to the world’s smallest opera house – it was pretty cool!

But truly, so much in Italy is steeped in old tradition including food and wine. We were amazed at the wine festivals (it should also be noted that culturally, Italians seem to love to celebrate!). Not only were the pours generous, but the wines were good and so was the people watching.

European Diversity

I want to make  quick note about European culture in general. And that’s to say that sure there are a few things, mostly politically and economically that can be generalized, but one reason I find Europe so fascinating is just how unique each country and its people are. France is a completely different ballgame than Spain, and Italy couldn’t be more different from either of those two. Having been to Germany on an earlier trip, I can also say how different that country is from the others. This is really incredible to me especially given that Europe is politically unified.

What's been one of the most memorable cultural experiences you've had?

Art Overseas: Part 1


These two posts (this one and the one to follow) are long overdue for me, and as it is, they are completely inadequate as far as even beginning to skim the surface of the depth and breadth of cultural and creative expression we’ve experienced over the last 10 months. But just as at home, there is art overseas, art everywhere, in so many forms. So as a student of music, an arts administrator by profession and lover of all creative things by person, I offer a super truncated survey on the countries and places we’ve been and my (very) brief observations on the art we’ve experienced. We’ve been a lot of places so I’ve divided this into two posts – one for the first ‘leg’ of our trip – Belgium to West Africa and France; and then the second part after we returned from my brother’s wedding in May back to Europe. I love art and creative expression in all its forms (ok most all its forms, I’ll admit uber-modern conceptual dance isn’t really my thing..) and have kept an eye open for glimpses of how cultures in the 9 countries (10 if you include Vatican City! And 11 if you include our upcoming 2 day jaunt to Istanbul) we’ve visited express or the overarching things that struck me. So here we go: a brief review in chronological order of our travels of art overseas.


Hellloooo gorgeous! Not only did we arrive in Bruges as our first stop on our trip – we arrived in one of the most visually stunning places I have ever seen. You may remember us blogging about it, but Belgium has loads of incredible art and expression oozing from all over. I think Belgium gets a bad rap for being boring (I’ve heard it several times), but I had completely the opposite experience.

Contemporary Installation in a Church

Contemporary Installation in a Church

Both Bruges and Ghent amazed me in the contrast of antiquity and modern right next to and on top of each other. In 12th century churches and cathedrals we saw modern photography, painting and even light installations. We saw modern sculpture in little open squares surrounded by gothic architecture. And in Ghent, an art and design student’s dream destination, we meandered down a world-famous street art alley. All this in the dead of winter – I can’t imagine what it’s like during festival season in the summer.

Beer is also something of an art – and if you are a beer lover like Jon and me you know that Belgium produces an unbelievable amount of excellent brews. And… every brewery needs a label so think of all the artists they’re employing on top of the creativity they offer by making fantastic beer!

Oh, and if you're in Brussels, you must go to the Instrument Museum  - the largest collection of unique instruments in the world - it's incredible!

Mali & Senegal

I generally feel wrong about lumping two countries together because the cultures really are different – not to mention that there are multiple ethnic groups in each of these countries - but there are a few similarities I want to point out here about creative expression. These two cultures, in my opinion, are built upon a very foundation of creativity. The line between performer and observer is much more obscure than in the West – and nearly everyone has some kind of craft or has an artisan in their family. Families themselves are artisanal – as in that family are all blacksmiths, and this family are all tailors. The tradition of craft is centuries old, as is storytelling and history told through music by dignified griots. Both Mali and Senegal are recognized internationally for the musical artists they produce, indeed the New York Times has quite the love affair with Senegal and Mali. It’s not only because of their rich traditional music, which is alive, but also because both countries produce incredible hip hop and rap artists that shake the international scene.

wedding celebration in Mali

wedding celebration in Mali

Being in Mali in January was a very interesting and difficult time. We arrived 4 days before fighting broke out between the French and Islamists who were threatening the security of southern Mali. Places like Timbuktu – the famous intellectual outpost and desert-trade crossroads – was under siege and these people who cared nothing for heritage but only for eternal glory (which I suppose is cultural it its own right – but so very horrible in the way it’s played out via religious zealots…. I digress) – burned and destroyed ancient manuscripts and cultural treasures within the libraries. As if this, and the fact that thousands of people became refugees, wasn’t enough, the very heartbeat of Mali’s expressiveness nearly came to a stop.

Public gatherings and celebrations were banned, simply for the fact that you didn’t know anymore who was friend and who was foe. Public gatherings include wedding celebrations, concerts, night clubs. Imagine Bamako in normal times. Sunday afternoon. The city is alive with multiple wedding celebrations, music, drums, dance, laughter make Bamako come alive. Then imagine Bamako with no gatherings. People got married, but musicians didn’t play, people didn’t dance. And in the North, which was completely held hostage under the most extreme view of Islam, some of the countries biggest rising musical stars couldn’t play a tune – for fear of awful retribution. This was a very different Mali. But what I will say is how unbelievably resilient Malians are. I think that if we went back now, Sundays, and every day, would be filled with expression.

In terms of visual art, and aside from sculpture and paintings made for tourists, I was very interested to see unbelievably large public art works in roundabouts on roadways. I didn’t really see any other signs of public art except these large installations. This is curious to me!

Mauritanian Singers

Mauritanian Singers


…has more camels than people. Need I say more about the lack of public art? This would probably be the place to make sandcastles – really big ones – cause… it’s the Sahara. The one look at traditional music was interesting though!


Sweet Morocco. I’m in love with this place. The blending of cultures and traditions is truly amazing. Berber, Arab, Spanish, Ottoman, French – it’s incredible. Outwardly the architecture is pretty uninteresting. But that’s because Moroccans are family-focused and so the tilework, woodwork, painting, filagre and all of the intricacy you think of when you envision Morocco lives inside the home.

Morocco is a place to overload your senses, and in addition to the sights and smells, the people provide such a warm friendly welcome that you can’t help but feel overjoyed to be there.

We took a lot of bus rides in Morocco – it’s the easiest and cheapest way to get around. In addition to the music that was almost always playing for the bus driving (and therefore everyone else), every rest stop in every village as such a sight. Open stalls, butchers with the day’s goats and lamb for sale (yes hanging, for you to purchase), boutiques with tobacco and endless amounts of cookies and tea houses – all with a local radio playing. In the Atlas mountains this was even more interesting for me because all the radio stations were playing local Berber music. Again, the blend of influences of Islamic chant, Eastern rhythms and a special flavor – the native Berber sounds – was simply music to my ears.

I’d go back to Morocco any day – just to be filled with sensory overload. And… to eat amazing food.


Hmm, mon dieu what does one say in a few paragraphs about a country who produced some of the greatest painters, writers, thinkers and sculptures in the Western World (is that too bold?). What to say about the country that welcomed America’s black jazz musicians when we wouldn’t have them; nurtured their art and then let us have them back? The country that gave us French Chanson and Nadia Boulanger and Debussy among so many others. What to say about a country whose language, food, wine and fashion is art? Are you getting the point?

I will say that France, with its plethora of art, has really expensive, and expansive, art museums. It’s very costly to have a holiday in Paris in particular and even with 4 days we didn’t go to Louvre (I know.. I know!!). We did however purchase the Musee d’Orsay/Musee Rodin combo ticket, which was totally worth it, especially if you buy the ticket at the Rodin Museum because there’s never a line. Paris no doubt has some of the world's best art museums, but the gardens, sculptures and simply just the grandeur of the city feels like you're living in a piece of art. The rest of France, with its charming villages, perfectly landscaped countryside and all the wonderful french things that go with it make for a wonderful place to be. Why is it though that American nightclub music is SO popular though??!

To be continued... The UK, Norway, Spain and Italy...

This is Pompeii


So that catastrophic historical event that you learned about in grade school – where a volcano erupted and perfectly preserved an entire city under ash and stone for nearly 2000 years before being discovered? Yeah, it’s every bit as incredible as you might thing it is. This is Pompeii – the city that was buried beneath the destruction of Mount Vesuvius. We went there, and it was astounding. When we arrived in Naples one of the first things we did in the morning was to walk down to the water and view the bay. If you didn’t know the history behind Mount Vesuvius, you’d just be mildly impressed at the large dome-shaped mountain across from the city that clearly is missing a good third of it’s top. But when you know what it caused, standing there and thinking, that is Mount Vesuvius – wow – makes the experience that much more impactful. It also reminds you how long the land has been inhabited; by so many different people; and in so many ways that are important to the Western World.

Pompeii is a short 45-minute train ride on the Circumvesuviano train that leaves from Naples’ central Garibaldi station. The ride isn’t particularly interesting; that is until you round the southern slope of Mount Vesuvius and see just how much of itself it blew into nothing. Like Mt St. Helens, Vesuvius was a significantly higher elevation before its most recent eruption in 79 AD.

There were 2 things that struck me up arrival at the Pompeii Scavi station (which leads directly to the ruins): 1) I had imagined that Pompeii was further up the slope of Mount Vesuvius, but it’s actually quite low in the valley; 2) Pompeii was huge – not just some small town. Pompeii was a thriving city and its completeness in terms of how extensive the ruins are really is mind-boggling.

Somehow Jon and I missed getting a map or any sort of guide to the city. This was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that we had no schedule for our visit – just an open curiosity that led us to many places where there were no tourists whatsoever. It was a curse in that we didn’t know what we were looking at at the time. It’s ok. I bought a book to read up later.

Archeological Finds in Pompeii

When you walk into the main city square and approach the Temple of Jupiter, you have the first real understanding of the grandeur of the city and of its scope. Between Rome, Athens, visiting Greek Islands and many Roman ruins throughout France, Spain, England and Italy there is nothing that compares for me to the scale of Pompeii. It’s not tall and massive like the Colosseum. It’s simply that it’s an entire city, excavated, and completely accessible.  It really hits home what this place is when you come to a large storehouse of excavated pottery, in the midst of which are plaster-casts of the human shelled remains that were found at the site. Crouching, laid out, looking frightened – this is the only museum of sorts (except the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC) where I’ve felt such a human connection to the past.  Even the fact that they are plaster casts (there is one case of actual remains to see, the rest are in the Archeological Museum in Naples), does not distract from understanding that fear and disaster completely transcend time and culture.

Crouching Pompeii Victim


One of the treasures of Pompeii upon its discovery was the mosaic and fresco artwork. Although much of the art has been moved to the Museum in Naples, there are still frescos and mosaics to view at Pompeii. Again, it’s one thing to see a fresco here and there at a ruin; it’s another to see it in the context of the vast city. You begin to understand the scale. I cannot imagine what the sight may have been like to discover homes, temples and taverns complete with furniture, tableware, art, sculpture and yes, the people, upon Pompeii’s discovery. Pompeii is special because you can walk down the original stone streets, see the grooves in the stone from cartwheels and look along the main thoroughfares and archways. Letting your mind fill in the missing columns and rooftops it’s easy to see Pompeii as a busy city center and commercial hub – all buried in one night.

In terms of ‘attractions’ this visit was probably the best 11€ I’ve spent on the trip. We took about 5 hours to walk and explore and missed an entire quadrant of the city.  If you go, bring food and water, and a keen curiosity to explore. This was a special treat for us, and I will always be grateful for seeing what is left of Pompeii.

Perugia Italy


The other day Jon and I had the opportunity to trade some work hours at the farm in order to spend the day exploring Umbria's capital city, Perugia, Italy. Aside from today (at the time of writing) it's been a bit rainy, so working out in the gardens hasn't been the most enticing prospect. Our hosts are both artists and arts lovers and carry a museum card, which meant we could spend the majority of our time, aside from general exploration, visiting Perugia's many museums and indoor highlights.

Perugia is old - for lack of better words. Many of its foundations are from the Etruscan times (Roman Iron Age 1-400 AD). In the early 14th century it became an academic and artistic center - with the founding of the University of Perugia. It attracted both artists and scholars, including the painter Pietro Vannucci, nicknamed Perugino, who was the teacher of Raphael (thank you wikipedia!). Although Raphael's paintings have been moved elsewhere you can still see his fresco in a small church. We seem to be destined not to actually see any of Raphael's work, because we happened to make it to said small church right as it closed for lunch. Booo.

Thanks to our hosts' museum card, we did however get an intense dose of medieval and renaissance art - that which we've dubbed 'god art' - at the National Gallery of Umbria. There's no getting around it since at this time the only people with money to commission art were in the church, or noble/wealthy people that wanted blessings and so forth in their home. It's, of course, beautiful, but after an entire museum of it we were really excited about the one contemporary sculpture installation in the entrance of the museum. I shouldn't minimize this artwork - it's important in its place in art history. The frescos are truly beautiful and the fact that they've survived is even more amazing. Also the fact that so many interior surfaces were covered in frescos is mind-boggling to me.

Our next stop after the Gallery took us to the Cathedral, which is beautiful and also full of priceless works of art. But this was not the highlight church for us.

After the Cathedral we walked across the length of the city center, on the spine of the hill on which Perugia sits, to Piazza Italia, where we located the steps and escalators that take you beneath the surface to explore the incredible underground structure below Perugia - Rocca Paolina. Ancient cities with well preserved buildings on the surface always make me wonder what treasures lie underneath. Perugia is a singularly special place where you can wander through the medieval underground city and see what it might have been like. What is so impressive is how tall the ceilings and archways are, how they are tiered just like the city above ground, and how perfectly engineered it all is. It's one of the cooler things we've seen on this trip to be honest. Highly recommended.

Once we re-emerged we made our way back across the city to visit the Collegio del Cambio - the 14th century seat of the exchange guild. The beautiful wooden inlay interior reminded me of the inlay work we saw in Essouira, Morocco - but this was an entire room of intricately carved and decorated wooden facades. Beautiful.

We made a brief lunch stop of Porchetta (pronounced porketta) - herb stuffed whole roasted pig, cut in the thin slices on a fresh roll (with a bit of the cracklin - yum) - and continued wandering the winding streets and staircases of the city. We found the Raphael fresco, but as mentioned it was closed for lunch. There was so much else to see that we resigned ourselves again to come back another time.

We'd been told that the church of St Pietro was an incredible bastion of art so we huffed across the entire city to see it. Originally a 10th century monastery, it was central in Perugia until it was burned in the late 14th century (thank you again Wikipedia). In addition to the medieval-style botanic garden, the interior of the church is a floor to ceiling lesson in frescos and 15-16th century painting. It's stunning, with treasures from great renaissance painters at every glance. The fact that we also snuck in to the crypt made for a particularly exciting church visit. It always urks me that there are interesting places in old churches you're not supposed to go - it was time we took matters into our own hands.

Anyway, if you know renaissance art (which I don't really) you'll recognize the names of Perugino, Salimbani, Alfani, Reni and Vasari; all of whom are represented in this art-laiden place of worship. As a music person - I was also struck by the stunning wood-paneled choir and large format chant manuscript on display. Just being in this place transports you to another time.

Once we were transported back to the modern era, we were over due for a coffee and snack. I opted to try a canoli since - hey we're in Italy - but then quickly understood why our Sicilian host advised us we should never get canoli outside of Sicily. Now we know - not so good. But we made up for it with gelato later so don't worry about us. After walking back to the main square we were really quite tired and got a glass of wine to rest our feet. We had a couple more hours to kill before our ride came so the last of our Perugia visit was spent exploring the many beautiful and winding side streets.

Perugia is really an incredible city. I know I haven't seen really much of anything in Italy (Florence, Arezzo and Siena are coming later), but this city that is steeped in a rich artistic history is not to be missed. Plus, it's the home of the Eurochocolate Festival in October, and where the famous Italian Baci come from - so what's not to like?

2 Days in Barcelona

What a whirlwind! I arrived in Toulon, France on Friday night after 2 days in Barcelona. Is 2 days enough to do that city justice? Absolutely not. Did I give it a good go? Hell yes. Would I ever want to go back to Barcelona? Are you crazy for asking such a silly question?? Ok, I guess I asked that question - but anyway, of course I would! Here's how I spent my 48 hours in Catalonia. Arrival

After leaving Alicante at 12pm on Wednesday I drove with several Spaniards via BlaBla Car (another post on that method of transport coming soon) to the Barcelonian suburb of Sant Joan Despi. I had written instructions via Google on how to take the regional train from there to my hostel and so I didn't think it would be a problem. I was incredibly grateful to a fellow passenger who just happened to be going to the exact same metro stop as me (coincidence or did I really seem like I wasn't going to make it??) and helped me buy my ticket because none of the train numbers matched the directions I had. Thank you kind stranger!

I found my hostel easily after that and checked in. I looked forward to staying in a hostel because, despite the lack of sleep I knew I'd get, I wanted to meet some fellow travelers. The lady at the desk asked me if I was "going to the festival" and I said, "Sure. What is that?" "Every neighborhood in Barcelona has a street festival. This one is in the Gracia neighborhood, we're leaving at 10:30." Cool, I had some time to ditch the bag, relax and meet my roommies.

Festival Gracia

Ok, so my hostel was kinda dirty and the AC in our room didn't work but it is SO awesome that they led a group of guests to the Gracia festival for free. We were about 15 people - Americans, Germans, a Canadian, 2 Kiwis, some British guys and a Polish guide from the hostel. Fun. Although they had said it was a street fair with "lights hanging in the streets," that was a completely lame explanation for what it really was. Dozens of small streets throughout the neighborhood were themed and decorated, some completely covered, with hanging lanterns, sculptures, lights and art. There were stages with live music - each a different kind of music - and bars and food carts selling drinks, empanadas and sandwiches. Every bar in between had it's doors open offering take-away cocktails and snacks. Basically this was a giant neighborhood movable feast. It was incredible.

In the plazas between the streets, the city had erected tents and dance areas. In one square the band played swing music, in another there was a DJ. In a lot of ways it reminded me of the atmosphere during New Year's eve in Brugges - unbelievably happy people celebrating just to celebrate out and about - one hundred percent happy positive goodness. This plus the artsy element to it made it an all-trip highlight. The big thing that was missing was my hubby!!

A 13-mile walk

The next day I woke up leisurely ready to explore the city. You already know from my last post that I intended on visiting the Joan Miro Park - which was mildly, well ok, not really that successful. After my 'experience' I wandered up past the Placa Espanya to the 'magic fountain' which wasn't so magic as it was turned off, and up to the Museo de Arte de Catalanya. This impressive, palatial museum overlooks Barcelona with incredible fountains, sculptures dotted about and a grandeur that's humbling. I was even more excited to see the interior until I learned it was a hefty 12 euro ticket. So much for the free museums of the UK! They do offer a free day on Saturdays from 3pm-9pm, but being a Thursday that didn't work for me. So I grudgingly skipped the art museum and continued up Mont Juic towards the Olympic Park.

I'm getting closer to having visited all the olympic cities from the 1990's. Although Nagano probably won't be on this trip's agenda. The stadium and park was impressive - I love the Olympics. I continued my walk in search of Joan Miro's actual museum, only to find that after waiting in a very long line, the entry to that museum was 11 euro. Being on a meager 25 euro/per day budget makes these things difficult! So I moved on but was delighted to find myself descending Mont Juic in the incredible tiered gardens of Laribal. What a beautiful and romantic place to have so close to the center of the city.

Deciding that I needed a snack, I made my way back to the Metro and hopped off at the Placa Catayluna, right in the thick of downtown and at the top of the famous La Rambla. I didn't really have it in me to walk La Rambla, but I did head through part of the old city to the Cathedral and had a nice sandwich whilst watching throngs of tourist pay the 5 euros to enter the church (which I also skipped - although apparently there are gardens inside the cathedral - that's cool). Feeling like my 10 miles of walking before 3pm was taking it's toll, I headed back to the hostel for a proper siesta.

The remaining miles for the day took place during the evening, while enjoying the company of my roommates, the unbelievable artistry, and art of the city, the balmy coastal air, tapas, sangria and the lively vibe that Barcelona has to offer. 13 miles is a lot - and I was certainly ready for a good night's sleep.

The remaining few hours

In the morning I decided that I better check out the Rambla, the Mercato Boqueria - the famous indoor/outdoor food market - and catch a bit of the Gothic Quarter. Most gratefully I had already seen the Gaudi houses and Picasso Museum while in Barcelona with my family in 2001 - otherwise this post - and my 2 days- would be a lot different. I will say that if in Barcelona and you haven't seen the museums, the tourist card, which includes 6 museums for 30 euro is a great deal. But beware, that line out of the Picasso Museum was HUGE. It's August, what can you expect.

My day-2 walk took me through the old city and up to the lively market - which was a bit too crowded for me given the number of tourists. It was still an enticing sensory experience - the presentation of the fruits and fish in particular were really amazing. This would be the place I'd hang out in May or October - and definitely with a bit more cash so as to sit at one of the market tapas bars and enjoy the fresh food and great atmosphere.

I headed all the way down La Rambla, through the Gothic Quarter (which is stunning) and up to the Arc de Triomf. A really lovely circuit. My 4pm departure loomed so I decided to check on the progress of the Sagrada Familia and made a quick trip on the metro for a photo op. It's looking good! I think the 2026 completion date is on track (since of course I clearly know about such things). Hmm, perhaps that's a celebration to take part in! After admiring such an interesting architectural feat, I sped back to the hostel, grabbed my bag and raced to meet my next BlaBla Car ride to Toulon. Sound quick - yeah I'm still tired.

My 2 days in Barcelona were fabulous, albeit exhausting. I didn't have a great impression the last time, but I think now that's because I was simply too enamored with Sevilla to really see Barcelona's advantages. It's nice to be back in France - especially because now I can talk to people! It has been strange to be solo, after being with Jon for so long. We'll be back together soon and I'm looking forward to it! Hasta Luego!

How I Almost Got Scammed in Barcelona


Ok, I get it, it's summer, the high of European holiday season and Barcelona is packed with tourists. But, I've been in the beautiful city of Barcelona for less than 24 hours and already had an attempted-rip-off scheme. After this little interaction I realized that in all my travels, in so many places, I have never once been the target of a scam and even though I've read about them and been warned, I was still somehow surprised to find myself in the middle of one. Here's what went down - and what to look for if you're in Barcelona.

The Scam

I decided this morning that I wanted to visit the park that holds the namesake for one of my all time favorite artists - Joan Miro. So I hopped on the metro out to Placa Espanya (which is stunning and grand and totally incredible) and found my way to the the park. Thinking that it would be an entire Miro sculpture garden I was somewhat disappointed that there was only 1 - albeit enormous - sculpture. Ok ok, it's really impressive and I was happy to see it.

Placa Espanya Barcelona

But thinking that there might be more smaller sculptures hidden in the little palm-tree lined garden beside the sculpture I started walked through the shaded pathways. This was at about 11:30 in the morning.

Dona i OcellNot far past the gate a young man came up to me and asked me where the Olympic Park was. Although I thought it odd that he was clearly Spanish, I figured that there are a ton of Spanish tourists and maybe he was just lost, so I looked at his map (which was completely in tatters) and started to help him find it. Bizarre event #1.

At that moment another guy came up and said he was a policeman (undercover of course - but why would you say that?!) and that there was a lot of drug trade in Barcelona and that he needed to see our ID's and make sure we weren't doing a deal (really!?). He proceeded to flash some kind of identification card - and by flash, I mean there wasn't an opportunity to even look at it. Bizarre thing #2.

Bizarre thing #3 happened with the guy who was "lost" gladly whipped out his wallet and ID, opened it up and handed it to the "plainclothes policeman" who thumbed through it and said, "ok no money." Then he looked at me and asked if he could see my passport (which I did not have on me).

I then proceeded to ask him if I could actually see his ID, to which he flashed it again, and I said, "Um sorry, no you can't see my ID, there's no problem here, I'm leaving." And before I could walk away the "policeman" turned on his heal and left. The guy with the map didn't seem interested in knowing where the Olympic park was, but I told him anyway.


Jess and Dona i Ocell

Upon walking away it dawned on me that this interaction could have gone in several much more unfortunate ways for me, as in I was kinda surprised that one of them didn't just take my bag.  I also realized that they had probably been watching me take pictures of the sculpture so they knew I was a tourist. I'm generally pretty discreet about such things, but hey when you want to take a picture of a giant sculpture you gotta take it.

Looking back on it I also see that the 'policeman' played his part terribly and really wasn't convincing. However if they had wanted to make a quick getaway, they both had the moment of hesitation that was needed. I guess that's my fault for wanting to help a seemingly lost person.

Of course I'm grateful for being safe, I still feel at ease in this great city and am looking forward to enjoying the rest of my time here. It just goes to show that jam-packed-tourist time really does equal scam time.

Festival Cante de las Minas


Last Friday night Jon and I had a blast. Near dusk we drove about 45 minutes south towards Cartagena to a small inland mining town called La Union for the 53rd Annual Festival Cante de las Minas, or "Songs of the Mines." The chance to go see an international flamenco festival was one not to pass up. Plus, the cheapy tickets were only 10 euro per person, how could we go wrong? The first half of the 10 day festival is all presentation of individual artists, and the second half is a competition. Since we were only going to afford one night of tickets, we opted for a competition night in order to see all the kinds of flamenco: singing, dance, and instrumentation.

As mentioned, La Union has a heritage in mining - primarily silver, alum, iron ore and other minerals; and apparently given the richness of the soil and the proximity to Cartagena (see my last post on the city), played an extremely important economic role in the Mediterranean economy (source: Discover Costa Calida). The mining community gave way to a rich folkloric tradition and La Union has now become home to not only the Festival we attended, but is clearly an arts center in the area. The large central indoor market was even converted into a performance venue. As an arts person, this union (no pun intended) between mining and arts is fascinating, and I love seeing how industry and culture are intertwined here.

Although the festival is billed as "international" and world-renowned - which I'm sure it is - I'm fairly certain we were the only English speaking people there, and certainly the only Americans within a 20 mile radius. Even the ticket office didn't have any English speakers (nor did they take credit cards...).  But we showed up around 7pm, explored the little town, and settled down on the main plaza for a cañas (small glass of beer) and tapas. The square was filled with little kids jump-roping and families enjoying the coolness of the evening - such is the Spanish way - all generations out together. I love it.

I want to highlight a few moments in the night, because, in addition to the guitar and the harmonica, the singing and dancing soloists were truly amazing. I also have to say that not only were the musicians great, but it was just as much fun to watch the audience react, with a hearty, "Olé!!" when they were impressed. This, by no means, is not a culture that remains passive.

Baile - Dance

Woah. Before I say anything about traditional and professional flamenco dance. You just have to see it.

When I came to Spain with my family in 2001, we went to Sevilla and found an amazing locals tavern. There were about 10 chairs lined up, occupied by 2 or 3 guitarists and the rest clappers and singers. It wasn't a show, it was just a night out. People from the audience would come in and dance a bit and then switch out. Actually it's very similar to neighborhood dance parties in Mali and Senegal. But I digress. The point is that it was very participatory.

This was something entirely different. 1 Guitarist, 2 singers and 3 others clapping. And, then, that guy: Eduardo José Guerrero Gonzàlez. He strode in, more like glided in and proceeded to give 2 performances unlike anything I've ever seen. I'm not exaggerating. Sitting on the edge of my seat, with chills, I watched as this person danced with such a power, grace, passion and energy that I really have never seen. It was angular and sudden, but smooth and fluid at the same time. Jon and I were both dumbfounded at the end of his performance. In so many ways, the baile for men is easily linked to the art of bullfighting. The movements, the sudden attacks, the provocation - you see the matador in the dancer.

So as I was watching this incredible feat of human artistry I started to think about the art of bullfighting. It's not bullfighting season, we'll miss it by a few weeks (since Spain is essentially closed in August). I understand that there are a lot of people out there that think bullfighting should be banned, that it's cruel and dangerous. Well, I'm not disputing that it's cruel and dangerous. Just during our first few days here a young 16 year old boy was gored to death during a run of the bulls in Spain. And in the ring, it is a fight to the death - either the matador or the bull. But if you watch bullfighting - you see the art. You see the depth of the tradition, and the richness of the cultural expression. From the ceremony, to the running of the bulls, to the fights, to the costumes and fresh in my mind - to the dance - bullfighting runs in the veins of the Spanish. Art, music and dance runs in the veins of this culture as well. And it became crystal clear to me that you can't separate the two.

I think that in our American culture we rarely see the arts so clearly expressed in sport, and very rarely do we see sport reflected in the arts. But last night while I was watching the dancer, not only did I see the matador, I realized that in the matador is also the dancer. To see these two uniquely Spanish traditions blended into one was beautiful. It was the highlight of the evening for me.

Cante - Singing

When we left the show at 2am, Jon asked me, "Yeah, so the signing, it sounds like..." and before he could answer I said, "Quranic chant? Yes, it does and it should - it's the Moorish influence left on the music tradition."  (Thank you Lewis & Clark for all those ethnomusicology classes!) Flamenco singing is powerful, intense and for lack of better words, just really interesting and impressive. We saw 4 singers as part of the competition, 3 men and 1 woman. The first singer came out swinging, with huge notes and unbelievable projection. The second slow played it a bit, was much more casual in his performance, but was really incredible. The third singer left us wondering how 10 euros could possibly be better spent (that was just before the dance performance!). His first song was quiet, the son Mineras - for the miners - and we both commented, "huh he's not as impressive as the last guy." But we were wrong. The control, the emotion, the tiny pitch fluxations (or half and quarter tones if you're into music theory), not to mention the stupidly long amount of time he for which he could hold a pitch, again, was just incredible.

The singers performed traditional songs. Even people in the audience next to us were singing along. I know this sounds silly, but it's something I love about Spain - just how Spanish everyone is. They wear their culture on their sleeve - it's beautiful.

Overall it was a truly wonderful evening of music and art. I'm so grateful that we were able to experience it!

What have some of your favorite/best overseas arts or cultural experiences been?

Mar Menor & Cartagena, Spain


The post is overdue, I know, sorry about that. You know that the idea of "Seeking Fireflies" is about travel and inspiration. Well, unfortunately I can't say that our lack of writing is due to an overwhelming influx of inspiration. No, just laziness, and not a whole lot of activity. But! We have had the pleasure of visiting some of our surrounding areas which include the Mar Menor and the ancient Roman port city of Cartagena (not the one in Colombia...). Mar Menor

Mar Menor is an inland lagoon south of Alicante on the Costa Calida. It's 170 square kilometers of no more than 22 foot deep water. The lagoon is bordered by a thin strip of sandbar called La Manga that's only 350 feet wide at it's thinest. The lagoon water is flat, warm and a haven for watersports. The Mediterranean side has great beaches and swimming. So naturally you think, "Oh, there's probably so much open space and it's charming!"

But on the contrary. That little strip of land? It's completely developed with high rise apartments and hotels. Oh, and do you want a full English breakfast? Yep, you can find it here! This is where the Spanish and apparently the English come to holiday. There's very little that's natural about it. I will say that it's a great place for families, given that the lagoon is so shallow and warm.

On our wedding anniversary (hooray!!) we opted to surprise each other with separate activities. Jon took us to the lovely Calblanque beach down the coast of Mar Menor and I had opted to have us go kayaking on Mar Menor. The beach-going in the amazing natural reserve was beautiful and lovely. It was a Tuesday, but apparently that didn't mean uncrowded beaches. I'll tell you why in a bit. But driving up and down La Manga looking for the watersports rentals was not so lovely. Not that I'd ever thought about what a highly developed tiny strip of land might look like - now I know - Ew. And not that I'd ever thought about how to service the thousands of people that occupy this little strip - now I know, it's a smelly, sewer-y prospect. Double Ew. Thank goodness Jon planned a nice day at the beach!

We also decided to visit Los Alcazares, the main town on the lagoon side. Again, I can totally see why Spaniards and foreigners alike go to these charming beachy towns, with long waterfront walks and beachfront cafes. But for us, the beach is crowded and we prefer the tiny, gentle and clear coves of the Mediterranean. Seriously, who wouldn't?! I still want to go kayaking though. Or sailing, that would be nice too. We did end the day with a big bowl of ice cream, that even came with a sparkly "Date una Fiesta" poof on top - it's as if they knew!

Oh and going back to the note about why the beaches are crowded. Interestingly, most Spaniards apparently have 2 residencies. One in the place they work, and a second shared by the family at the coast. Given that it is SO hot in Spain in August, the country essentially closes and everyone goes to the beach. We've been on both a Monday and Tuesday, and on one day, there were lines to go to the beach because the car park was overflowed. Wow. So much for those cozy private beaches. It's not so bad - the Spanish are incredibly friendly, and...well, very attractive. It's good people watching :)


Love. This. City. For the history lovers, this town is oozing with historical significance. Founded during Phoenician times and central to the Roman Empire (known as Carthago Nova - new Carthage), Cartagena was and still is one of the major naval ports in the Mediterranean (source: wikipedia). It's also apparently one of the deepest ports in the world. Upon our arrival, we walked right up to the water, which is, because it's an active port, a built-up approach. Thinking it's a busy commercial place, one would figure that the water would be murky. But no, the water right in central Cartagena is perfectly blue and clear with little fishys swimming. It was so inviting I wanted to jump right in! We couldn't believe how clean and clear it was.

Cartegena's old city is welcoming and accessible, and the architecture is beautiful. Dominated by modernist and Art Nouveau-style facades, I couldn't help but keep my eyes moving above me, barely paying attention to what was in front of me.

Cartagena is filled with Museums, mostly related to Roman and Naval/Military history. Thanks to the Tourist Office recommendations, we opted to visit the Concepcion Castle, with a fantastic 360 degree view of the city. It probably wasn't the best activity to do at 12pm in the heat of the day, because we climbed the hill and arrived at the ticket desk dripping in sweat. The reception was fabulous and the gentleman at the desk helped us figure out how to get the most out of our visit and packaged 3 museums together for only 18 euros for the two of us. And the tickets were good for 2 weeks if we decided not go to to all of them! That's a great deal. I love the museum packages, we could have seen 6 museums for something like 25 euros.

The castle museum itself didn't actually have a lot to offer, but the audiovisual work that had been done was excellent and we learned a lot of history.

Next we headed towards the Roman Theatre - one of the largest outside of Rome. The museum there was apparently newly opened and of course I was thrilled to see that they have temporary and rotating modern art exhibits in the main entrance. I love the combination of ancient and new that I continually find in Europe! The museum is fantastic and walking around the theatre was great fun (despite the fact that the guard wouldn't let us sit down in the theatre - it's not like my bum was going to break it - it's thousands of years old!!!).

Our final stop after a picnic lunch took us to the Roman Baths Museum. I loved this museum. The Museum management could have easily left this an outdoor-blazing-in-the-sun site, since it's basically an archeological dig in the middle of a neighborhood. But instead, they built a very cool modern and open air ceiling with a mixture of steel and wood to compliment the ancient stones of the baths. Being able to see the floor foundations, original marble tiles, and even remnants of murals and frescoes was incredible. Great Museum totally worth a visit.

We had planned to stay for dinner, but since it was only 6pm, dinner would start until at least 10pm, and we were gross from the heat of the day, we opted for a siesta at home and tapas in Murcia.

Cartagena is only 45 minutes from us, and I can't wait to go back and walk the city more just to be in what feels like a new and old uniquely Spanish city.



Four days off has offered a nice break from the long days of kid-dom and allowed us to finally see a bit of France. Observations? Yes I have them. Lyon

Our first full day off from camp took us to France’s second largest city (ok, I thought Marseille had that title, will check) of Lyon, situated on the Rhone and Saone Rivers, partly tucked into and built onto some lovely hills, partly sprawling into the Rhone Valley. As Jon mentioned, Lyon is the gastronomical capital of France. For food lovers this would normally elicit a “Yipee!” However, when you’re on a “budget” good eating at fine restaurants is limited to a one shot experience, and if you read Jon’s last post, that one shot experience can be pretty disappointing if it doesn’t turn out.

But we know there’s good food to be had in Lyon and gosh darnnit some day will find it. Having visited during college, I know there’s a fabulous Saturday market there where all the top chefs shop for their ingredients. We didn’t get to see it this time, again for the future.

For France’s (maybe) second largest city, Lyon has a great vibe. It’s laid back, totally impressive architecturally and just a really fun place to be. I could spend a lot of time there.


A desire to see another place in France took us to Aix-en-Provence. We originally had grand plans of going down to the coast, maybe skirting into Italy (which is really only about a 45 minute drive from Lyon) or Switzerland, but 4 days and the cost of train tickets, hotels and food forced us to pick 2 places, and I’m so glad we did.

I LOVE AIX-EN-PROVENCE. There I said it, totally in love. The area has been settled since Roman times, and I was more than overjoyed to get a glimpse of the famous Roman aquaduct from which I built a model of in grade school from the train.

Aix has everything you think of in a small town of France – the food, the old and charming architecture, beautiful natural surroundings, and art – lots of art. Not only is Aix the home of Cezanne, this is a town bursting with cultural activity. If you don’t include the 8 theatres within a kilometer radius, you’d still be impressed. At the tourist office I picked up the “Guide Culturel” for April. It was just for April and thicker and more event-packed than Portland’s own TBA Festival (nothing against TBA!!!). There were over 10 events listed for each day, including lectures, gallery tours, dance, music and theatre – and these were just the programmed events. Everyone who doesn’t work in a restaurant in Aix must be an artist I’ve determined.

Jon and I opted for a free concert of live JS Bach played on the grand Cathedral’s organ. We figured – what an awesome opportunity to hear Bach’s music played on a grand scale in the environment for which it was written. It was cool, needless to say.

Our food experience was better in Aix, mostly because we stuck to the local boulangeries and patisseries and ate picnic style – stocking up on sausage, cheese, fois gras for Jon, wine and fruit – all for under 25 euro.

Jon’s probably tired of hearing me say this, but Aix is a place I would love to hole up in a studio apartment and just live the small French town vibe for a good while. It also helps that the Mediterranean is less than an hour away!

Wine Country

That’s sort of a silly title, because I’ve come to determine that all of France is wine country. We took the slow train (which still moves pretty quickly) from Aix through Nimes, Montpellier, Beziers (which has a giant castle/church overlooking the town for future note), Narbonne, Carcasonne, Toulouse, Agen and finally to our destination of Marmande, just ahead of Bordeaux.

Old Carcassonne

It was a fun game of looking out both sides of the train and continually saying to each other – look castle! Look cathedral – look castle cathedral! I wish we’d started a castle count, but just know there are a lot of them.

The south of France between the cost and the Bordeaux region is stunning. Vineyards are everywhere, flowers are blooming, trees are sprouting. This is what you think of when you imagine France. Rolling countryside, stunning villages tucked here and there, vineyards, farms and gardens.

Wine Country

Le Chateau

You already know that Jon and I suck at budget traveling. So we decided that instead of staying in a not so great 1 or 2-star hotel for 50-70euro, we’d just do it right and stay in a chateau for 10 euro more – and that’s where I’m writing you from. We opted not to go to Bordeaux in order to slow down and have more time to rest before camp starts again tomorrow, and instead of staying in town where we’re to get picked up Wednesday we booked a room in a chateau in the countryside. It’s lovely, what can I say; it’s a blessed life.

Wish us luck with the start of camp tomorrow! What have been some of your favorite travel accommodations?

When they honk, don't be offended

After two weeks in Senegal I have come to the following conclusion about West Africa: What makes the most sense is less important than the illusion of order. Put another way, you cannot simply walk from point A to point B; you can wait, change rooms, wait again, and then travel through points C, D, E, F before having your passport checked to make sure you belong at point B? Anything official in Senegal is staggeringly slow, unnecessarily redundant, and really quite odd; but then I give you the most brutally efficient device in Senegal…the car horn. The car horn is so important that when the original honking device on the car breaks, and it will due to very frequent use, other knobs, levers and devices are converted into the new control for the horn. Why have turn signals, widow-wipers, or brights when that lever can be used as a horn? Seriously though, driving is crazy and without a horn you would get into an accident in the first mile.

Moving on…

As I have been extremely lazy in posting, I will try to recap our last couple of weeks in a sentence. Our hosts are awesome…we have stayed with Jess’ old friend Abdu and his lovely wife, eaten very well, and explored much of Dakar and the beachy Casamance area of Southern Senegal. Dakar is a very different city from Bamako; its much more sophisticated and developed but still has that community feel unique (for me at least) to West Africa. Unfortunately, with a bit more city comes a few more jerks: Jess is hounded quite a bit more here by people trying to sell us stuff, ask for handouts, and sometimes actually demanding money from us for no other reason than because we have it. We are definitely viewed as cash machines to some here, which is unfortunate as the majority of people are really interested in just talking and getting to know us. Jess bears the brunt of this as she speaks French and really wants to talk with locals to be a good visitor and because she loves the people here…I say I don’t speak French and they leave me alone. The rub is that every 5-6 days I get a little crazy with everyone having conversations that I can’t understand. It’s frustrating and a little lonely.

On a good note, my feet have finally healed and I’m over my first bout of travelers’ sickness. Things are looking up! Incha’allah.

Today we went to Lac Rose, a naturally occurring pink salt lake like the Dead Sea. It is definitely weird to float in a lake 10 times as salty as the sea; you just pop up out of the water. You can float on your back in a foot of water!

Tomorrow is our last day in Dakar and then we are off to the St. Louis area for a couple of days before making our way through Mauritania, Western Sahara and Southern Morocco on an epic overland adventure. I like Senegal, but I’m ready to move on I think.