Monday, July 15, 2024

ALESUND, NORWAY: An Art Nouveau Gem and Much More

Alesund, Norway. View from the city park.

The last part of our recent trip to Norway was spent in and near the city of Alesund, a small city on Norway’s west coast, once the center of a thriving cod liver oil industry.

On the Alesund waterfront with statue honoring the historic cod fishing industry.

In 1904, most of Alesund was destroyed by a catastrophic fire. With help from other European countries, it was rebuilt, providing the opportunity for new architecture in the Art Nouveau style. Almost every building features some kind of ornament.

Alesund. Art Nouveau inspired house design.

Art Nouveau was a movement within architecture, decorative art, and fine art that took place during the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. In Scandinavia it is known more commonly under the German name Jugenstil. New materials and techniques were explored, and the classical models of the past were abandoned in favor of creative forms of expression inspired by the organic vitality of nature. 

In the Alesund Art Nouveau Centre, everything--from furniture and window treatments, to wallpaper and doorknobs--is in the Art Nouveau style. 

Spiral staircase in the Alesund Art Nouveau Centre.

The Alesund Art Nouveau Centre, housed in historic buildings near the port, tells of the fire and its aftermath, and displays examples of Art Nouveau furniture and home decoration.


Viking inspired silver baskets. 

The Fiskemuseet (Fishing Museum) in Alesund is also worth a visit. Exhibits, some with life-size figures, show how cod were processed to produce the rich oil, a source of vitamins A and D. I remember that when I was a child my mother put cod liver oil in my orange juice and how I hated the fishy taste.

Historic photos and containers of cod liver oil at the Fiskemuseet.

Many people come to Alesund for trips into the fjords, and before we came to Norway we had thought we would like to do that. But it turned out that our days in Alesund didn’t coordinate with the days of the boat tour. So we adapted our plans.

Former lighthouse at Alesund Harbor, now the honeymoon suite of a local hotel.

On our third day in Alesund we took a local bus to the Sunnmore Museum, a collection of 40 historic houses and other buildings resituated in a large park, as well a museum of boats, including several from Viking times.

Boathouse at Sunnemore Museum.

Graveyard of the Borgund Church, Sunnemore

It was a beautiful spring day, warm, and flowers were blooming.

People in National Dress at Sunnemore, on their way to a reception in a historic meeting hall.

As we walked around Sunnmore, we noticed groups of people in the traditional Norwegian dress—women in long embroidered skirts and men in dark suits. Even children and babies were wearing the national dress. While Norwegians don’t wear such clothing on a daily basis, it is apparently usual to wear the traditional clothing for confirmations and other special events. 

National dress, in store at shopping mall in Alesund.

Later, when we went into the shopping mall near our hotel, we saw the dresses and accompanying accessories on display.

Traditional design wall decoration, historic farmhouse at Sunnemore Museum. 

Our final excursion from Alesund was to nearby Runde Island to see the nesting seabirds. For more about that, go to my post of May 20, 2024 .

On Runde Island..

Norway is a big country and in the two weeks we were there we only saw a small part of it. But our visits to three cities—Oslo, Bergen, and Alesund—gave us a good taste of the landscape, culture, people, food, weather. We’d like to go back someday to experience more.

Art Deco window decoration, Alesund. 


Monday, July 8, 2024

BOLIVIA: Inca Ruins, Salt Flats and More, Guest Post by Owen Floody

Pre-Incan ruin at Tiwanaku, Bolivia

With many thanks to our friend Owen Floody for another exceptional contribution to The Intrepid Tourist.

No, I didn’t see Butch Cassidy or the Sundance Kid, but I did visit the area in which they disappeared on Bolivia!, a June 2024 trip run by Wilderness Travel and expertly led by Andrea Heckman and Danny Viveros. The trip was challenging due to low temperatures and high altitudes (9,500-16,400 feet).  But our efforts were repaid by outstanding landscapes and a wide range of historical and cultural experiences extending from pre-Incan ruins to cutting edge Bolivian foods and wines.

The tour began in La Paz, where we struggled to adjust to the altitude and “Incan” slopes and steps.  We soared above the city on its impressive cable-car system and explored Old Town areas including the Sagarnaja artisan district and “witches’ market.” But the high point was a day at Tiwanaku, a pre-Incan (peaking in 500-950 AD) ruin between La Paz and Lake Titicaca.

From La Paz, we flew to Sucre, the main streets of which were busy hosting an auto race. Our activities here included visits to the fine ASUR Museum of Indigenous Arts and Casa de la Libertad, an important site in Bolivia’s struggle for independence. Inspired by the beautiful textiles in the museum, we escaped the car races by traveling to the nearby town of Maragua, where we had a delightful visit with a local weaver.

Silver mining at Potosi, Bolivia.

From Sucre, a long drive took us to Potosi.  The first thing that any visitor to Potosi notices is the city’s dominance by hulking Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain). This dominance extends far beyond first impressions. From the 1545 discovery of silver here, the resulting mines made Potosi rich and bankrolled the Spanish empire for hundreds of years: In the 16th – 18th centuries, it is estimated that 80% of the world’s silver came from Cerro Rico.  Mining continues, though the diminished return requires effort (note the young miners straining and running) and exacts significant health tolls.

Though the highlight of our stop in Potosi was a visit to a still-active mine, a close second was a tour of the National Mint.  On display here are some of the huge wooden mule-driven machines used to press silver ingots into sheets for coin stamping. While these and sample products might be expected at such a site, a lovely chapel and some interesting religious art were more surprising. Perhaps the most memorable of the latter was La Virgen del Cerro, a painting in which the central figure’s shape mimics that of Cerro Rico.

The Salar (salt flats)

The next phase of the trip was my favorite.  This took us to the Salar de Uyuni and Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve. The first is the largest salt flat on earth, extending over 4100 square miles. It is flat, flat, flat and white, white, white, punctuated just occasionally by rocky “islands” that are impossible to judge for size or distance due to the lack of familiar landmarks.  Despite, or perhaps because of, its uncompromising uniformity, it is a fascinating landscape.

Laguna Colorado

Other than the Salar, some of the sites we visited on this leg included a train “cemetery” in Uyuni, a cave near Colchani containing mummified human remains dating back many (possibly 3000) years, a field of fancifully shaped rocks, a thermal area, and a series of colored lakes, some sporting flamingos.  Among the lakes, the most impressive was the famous Laguna Colorado (Red Lake). 

Night sky, Bolivia

One of the outstanding characteristics of this area is its isolation.  This reduces light pollution, making it an ideal site for night-sky photography. I made one such effort from a vantage point just 20 yards from our hotel.  Whether for photography or not, any visitor to this area must step outside at night and look up!

Isla del Sol at Lake Titicaca

Finally, it was on to our last stop, Lake Titicaca.  On the way, we enjoyed the blessing of new cars at the Copacabana cathedral.  But our focus was the lake and its major islands, the Isla del Sol and Isla del Luna (Islands of the Sun and Moon), both of which offer impressive Incan ruins. On the Isla del Luna, the major site is the Temple of the Virgins, dedicated to the Virgins of the Sun. A striking aspect of this is its division into chambers, each presumed to have been the residence of a woman living on the island.

View of Lake Titcaca from Isla del Sol

The Isla del Sol gave us wonderful (though not always welcome) exercise: Those Incan steps again.  But it also exposed us to what I thought was the most impressive of the Incan ruins we encountered.  These included a beautifully constructed road, an altar that may have been the single holiest site in the Incan empire, and an extensive complex of buildings called El Laberinto (The Labyrinth). It is hard to imagine a structure that better combines beauty in structure and location. Apparently, the Incans appreciated a good view. 

So maybe the Incan steps were worth the effort after all. 

Monday, July 1, 2024

PRESIDENTS, SPORTS HEROES and Much Much More at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC

Abraham Lincoln, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC

My visit to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, was on February 12th, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, so, of course, my first stop was in the gallery of American Presidents. Lincoln is depicted life size, standing in his office at the White House. The guide at the Visitors' Desk in the lobby told me that when Mary Todd Lincoln first saw the painting she thought he looked so real that he was still alive.

The National Portrait Gallery shares a building with the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). (See my post of June 10, 2024.) Each of the four floors of the museum has galleries for both museums. During my visit I zigzagged between them before returning to the courtyard on the first level.

Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Sandra Day O'Conner, Ruth Bader Ginsberg 

A visit to the Portrait Gallery is a walk through American history, beginning on the first floor with portraits from 1600 to 1900. In the American Presidents gallery on the second floor George Washington greets visitors at the entrance, looking very much the Father of our Country.

American Presidents Gallery. George Washington at entrance.

Paintings of other Presidents vary considerably in size and style—each President choosing his own portraitist. Some of the paintings are in a traditional portrait style...

Bill Clinton, painting by Chuck Close

...while others, like those of John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, are depicted larger than life and in a more contemporary style.

John Kennedy, painting by Elaine de Kooning

Barack Obama, painting by Kehinde Wiley

Adjacent to the President's Gallery is a gallery dedicated to The Struggle for Justice, beginning with a large painting of Congressman John Lewis. 

Congressman John Lewis, painting by Michael Shane Neal

Other figures in the gallery include singer Marian Anderson, activist and journalist Charlayne Hunter Gault, Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt Administration, and Minaru Yasui, civil rights attorney who fought for Japanese American rights during and after World War II. Each portrait is accompanied with a panel briefly citing the person’s role in history.

Michelle Obama, painting by Amy Sherald

I then climbed the elegant stairway to the third floor in search of Michelle Obama’s portrait in the gallery of Twentieth-Century Americans. The painting by Amy Sherald, of Michelle Obama in a flowing white dress, dominates the room.

I then climbed more stairs to reach the third-floor mezzanine where paintings of American sports heroes line the wall. 

Gallery of Champions, Arthur Ashe

There I found baseball players, football stars, tennis champions—men and women athletes whose names have become part of history. At the other end of the mezzanine are portraits of people from the entertainment world—actors, singers, dancers.

Third floor mezzanine.

The paintings on exhibit are just the tip of the iceberg, a selected few of the thousands of portraits in the Smithsonian collection. You can find more by searching the National Portrait Gallery's website. You may be surprised at what you will discover!


Monday, June 24, 2024

BERGEN, NORWAY, 3 DAYS IN MAY: Old and New and a Walk About Town

The Domkirken (Cathedral) in Bergen, Norway, dates to the 12th Century.

Conventional wisdom says to always carry your umbrella when you are in Bergen, and on our recent trip to Norway in May, we were glad we did. Unlike Oslo, where we had enjoyed warm, sunny weather, it was cool and cloudy in Bergen with periods of rain. But that didn’t stop me from going out and walking around the city.

Our hotel and the colorful building fronts of Bryggen.

Our hotel, the Radisson Royal Blu, where Art’s conference was being held, was in the heart of Bryggen, the historic center of the city, now preserved as a UNESCO Heritage site. 

Historic buildings of Bryggen. View from our room at our hotel.

From medieval times through the late 1800s, Bergen was the focus of trade on Norway’s west coast. Colorful storefronts facing the waterfront were once busy offices and warehouses and other buildings connected to the shipping business. Today they are restaurants and souvenir shops.

Entrance to the Bergen Castle.

Just beyond the warehouse district is the entrance to the old castle/fort and its large ceremonial hall, the Hakenshallen, a structure dating back to the 1200s. The opening reception of Art’s conference was held there and we were greeted by the mayor. It was not hard to imagine knights in armor dining in the magnificent room long ago.

Hakonshallen (ceremonial hall)

My first job after arriving in Bergen was finding a laundromat to do our laundry. I learned that, like virtually everything else, all the machines were operated by credit card. We had gone to an ATM machine when we arrived in Norway and gotten cash (Norwegian kroners), but almost never used it. Even the smallest purchases (like a cinnamon roll at the local bakery or the toilets at the train station) was paid for with a tap of a credit card. 

Spring flowers in the Bergen city park.

Armed with a map picked up at the hotel, I took a self-guided walking tour through the streets of Bryggen, then circling the city park, where strollers ambled down flowered paths and swans floated past a fountain in the center of lake. 

Swan in the lake at the Bergen city park.

Bandstand at the Festplaza.

Tulips, rhododendrons, and all kinds of flowers were in the glory of the spring bloom, brightening the overcast weather. At one end of the park a bandstand was ready for summer concerts.

Sample piece (from Brazil) in the Indigenous Histories exhibit at the Kode art museum in Bergen.

Facing the park on one side are three of Bergen’s art museums. One afternoon I met a friend for a visit to a fascinating exhibit called Indigenous Histories. (For a virtual tour of some of the pieces in the exhibit, go to my June 22, 2024 post my Art and Books blog.)

At the main shopping plaza in downtown Bergen, a modern portico has been added to provide protection from rain or snow. Look carefully at the metal column and you can see multiple images of me with my camera.

I then returned to the waterfront by walking through the business district of downtown Bergen. There a wide plaza with memorial sculptures is flanked by commercial buildings dating from the 19th Century.

A food stand at the fish market offered burgers made of salmon, whale, elk, and reindeer meat.

In the fish market along the waterfront stalls were filled with artfully arranged fish, caviar, and sausages made from reindeer, whale, elk. There were also stalls with various cooked foods to go. (I didn't try any.) The fish market 
seemed to be more of a tourist draw than a place where locals went to purchase seafood to cook at home.

White building at end of the street is the beginning of the Floibanen Funicular.

A popular attraction in Bergen is the funicular, a skyride that whisks you up from town to the mountain overlooking the city for a spectacular view. But on the day I planned to do it, it was raining and the clouds were so thick that I knew it would be impossible to see anything from the viewpoint. So, instead, I went to the archeology museum next to our hotel and joined a one hour tour.

Trade routes from Bergen in the Middle Ages.

In the Middle Ages, Bergen was a transportation hub, sending ships to ports in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America.

Layers of history revealed in the archeology museum.

Over the centuries the wooden buildings of Bryggen burned many times and were rebuilt many times. As archeologists dig through the layers of remains they have uncovered evidence of life going back to medieval times. In the museum there were displays of ancient shoes, combs, tools, knitting needles and more--even a communal wooden toilet seat! I was particularly fascinated by the display of wooden sticks covered in runic writing.

The Futhark are ancient writing systems used by the Old Norse people of Northern Europe.

Both sides are carved with Runic inscriptions. "Hakon carved me, but the boy owns me." and "Bard owns me. He found much to object to in the person who carved me."

And on our last morning, after the conference was over Art and I did a tour of another museum in Bryggen, which introduced us to life in Hanseatic times. (Bergen was a member of the Hanseatic League, a confederation of German city/states involved in trade in the 14th to 16th centuries. Norway did not become an independent country until 1905.) We then checked out of our hotel and made our way to the ferry building to board the ship for our overnight trip to Alesund. As the ship steamed out of the harbor, the sky cleared and the sun came out as we said good-bye to Bergen. We no longer needed our umbrellas.

Leaving the harbor and the cloudy skies of Bergen.

For more about our ferry trip from Bergen to Alesund go to my post of May 27, 2024, Two Weeks in Norway: Trains, Planes, and Automobiles, and a Few Ferries, Too.

And for an overview of our three days in Oslo, go to my post of June 17, 2024, Oslo, Three Days in May: Opera, Art, History and Sunshine. 


The Bryggen waterfront, historic buildings, with the addition of a modern Ferris Wheel, constructed while we were there, perhaps in preparation for the summer tourist season.