Southwestern Iberia – A Caravan of Dreams


Standing near the narrowest point between Africa and the Iberian peninsula is Djebel-al-Tarik, a mountain named after a Berber general. He led a mixed Arab and Berber army that helped establish a spectacular civilization whose remains still fascinate today. Tarik’s Rock is better known as Gibraltar.

The Arabs brought with them a developed way of life that included the use of coffee, chess, Algebra, silks, carpets , perfumes and maybe most importantly, advanced irrigation methods, vital for a dry sun-burnt land. There was much more , including those strong pointed arches that feature in their landmark structures still seen in major Andalusian cities.

At Cordoba, the Mezquita or Great Mosque, into which a catholic altar was inserted after the Reconquest, has one of the most remarkable architectural interiors in Europe, a “forest”of stone arches that is a treasure in itself.

A 320 ft (98m) former minaret is today the tower of Seville cathedral. The Giralda, as it is known, towers like a marker by the tomb of Columbus inside the church.

Overlooking Granada, the mysterious Alhambra (Calat Al-Hamra or Red Castle ) has inspired all who visit. An early American ambassador, Washington Irving, expressed the (surrounding?) nostalgia in his stories recorded as “Tales of the Alhambra”. Garcia Lorca, one of Spain’s greatest poets and dramatists, writing in Granada on memory, a mood of forgotten times, claims that “at the heart of all great art is an essential melancholy”. While guitar great Andres Segovia captured that feeling in his famous, lingering rendition of Francisco Tórregas “Recuerdos…”

South of the mountains , the coast gradually curves until it reaches what was considered the end of the occidental world, Al-Gharb or “The West”, now the Algarve. The furthest point is at Cape St Vincent and the dramatic setting of the Sagres peninsula, 200ft/60m above the Atlantic Ocean, whose enormous panoramic seascape truly deserves the description of “a balcony open to infinity”.

CapeSagresIt was here that the enigmatic fifteenth century Prince Henry (known as “the Navigator”), Grand Master of a knightly religious order, an ascetic usually portrayed in black, established a naval research center which introduced navigation by the stars. For 40 years, Henry gathered astronomers, cartographers, seamen, traders and adventurers keen to discover new trade routes to India and the riches in the spice trade. Still surviving today is the great wind-rose (32 segments, 135ft/43 m in diameter), a huge compass-chart laid out on the ground to record th strength and directions of prevailing winds.From this research centre ships were to sail to West Africa, Angola, Guinea, then round the Cape of Good Hope to Mozambique and towards Goa,Macao and on to Jakarta and Japan. Historian William Manchester noted eloquently that in just one generation, a few hundred small ships “discovered more of the world than had all mankind in all the millennia since the beginning of time”.

Still today, that magnificent coastline is a magnet and a challenge. Surfers come, some regularly from the coastline – even from as far away as Cadiz, and even others from California, Hawaii and everywhere around the world, because Sagres is the most consistent point, a westernmost point, where currents meet and the waves are good.

Also inspired were the 1960’s truly iconic California band, the Doors. They made a major classical-jazz-rock crossover impact with a piece of music which was released as “Spanish Caravan”(see The Doors – Spanish Caravan, at the Roundhouse). In it a lightning guitar riff, echoing the “Asturias”of composer Albeniz, is taken up by the legendary Jim Morrison who expresses the yearning romanticism towards that era when he sings:

The Doors ..Roundhouse First Night FRONT“Carry me, Caravan take me away

Take me to Portugal, take me to Spain

Andalusia with fields full of grain

I have to see you again and again…”

and adds

 “Trade winds find galleons lost in the sea

I know where treasure is waiting for me…”


Sentiments that world surfers have expressed many times in their search for the highest wave, often in the fiercest storms. Among those is self-proclaimed “psycho”(“I got to be a little crazy”) Hawaiian veteran from Oahu, Garrett McNamara, a daredevil surfer who has been on the highest waves ever surfed, claims some of his favorite beaches are on the western side of the Vila do Bispo area near Sagres but sees the Ericeira/Nazaré region, north of Lisbon, as a Mecca of European surfing.

article-2059755-0EBF0C3100000578-598_634x381His 78ft/23.77 m wave, recorded at Nazaréin November 2011 is still the official accepted world record although his training companion Andrew Cotton as well as Brazilian Carlos Burle have also been seen on the 100ft “killer”waves of the Praia do Norte at Nazaré Canyon, geologically deeper and longer than the Grand Canyon, USA (see the fantastic Carlos ride of of Oct 28th 2013).

Mc Namara appreciates that “the world has no idea of the marvel that is this country”. He considers Portugal and its coast to be the best kept secret in Europe and southwestern Iberia to be always a land of dreams to be rediscovered, as Jim Morrison sang “again and again”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Towards 2015. In The Footsteps of Napoleon


My guest this month is an intrepid traveller, history buff and guide extraordinary, Alain Poirot

Alain is a long term resident of the Provence and passionate follower of Napoleonic campaign reenactments. Battlefield re-enactments add a different dimension to memorials. They bring out the full spectacle, the identifying colored uniforms,the regimental flags and the moving patterns of what was a chess game of life and death.

They are a glimpse into the past, an attempt to understand historical experience in a way that will frequently elude the armchair campaigner writing detailed footnotes. It is possible to claim that no landscape feels as haunted as the scene of a battle. Otto von Bismarck expressed that clearly, “The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions, but by iron and blood “.

Over many years, Alain has walked over battlefields, from Waterloo to Austerlitz and on to the grim field of Borodino on the road to Moscow.

Lev Tolstoy, writing in “War and Peace”, saw it all as being “…opposed to human reason” and thought that “in historical events, great men-so-called-are but labels serving to give a name to the event.” Napoleon himself claimed that “soldiers generally win battles; generals get the credit for them”, and yet, for more than a century, military theory and practice was constantly measured against the genius, and myth, of one man, Napoleon Bonaparte, who knew very well that, not being a genuine monarch, he could never afford defeat.

We asked Alain a number of leading questions  about his fascinating interest.

LGQ : How long have you been going to Re-enactments ? 

First time was in 2001……. I had read many books on the subject but had never been to any of the battlefields. We travelled by coach from Épinal in the Vosges all the way to Moscow and back, following in the footsteps of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Of course, going to Russia added to the spirit of adventure.


What made quite an impression on me, was visiting  the site of the Berezina  river crossing in what is today Belarus. Nothing has really changed there since 1812 ! The houses in Studzienka  (the village where the two bridges over the Berezina were built) most likely look much the same as they did in 1812 …(thanks to communism) still entirely built of wood. The fields and forests are still there…no industry,  no modern buildings. One can virtually believe that Napoleon and what was left of his army saw the same landscape.

The word “ Bérézina “ has in french become synonymous with disaster. The battle of the Berezina took place on  26-29 november 1812. In itself the battle was a victory for the  French as they managed to cross the river over the two bridges built on the orders of General Eblé and his 400 mostly Dutch bridge engineers. For the Russians it was a military defeat as about 50.000  French soldiers crossed safely to the right bank of the river. However…after the crossing of the Berezina one could say that the “ Grande Armée” did not exist anymore. In the next few days the temperature dropped to – 20/30 celsius.

The next tipping point for me was the bicentennial of the battle of Austerlitz in 2005 , near the Czech city of Brno.There I realized the importance of the 100 and the 200-year commemorations. More participants, more money is made available to organize such an event . There is much more adrenaline ….it is like drinking champagne  instead of wine !

LGQ: What got you involved ?

Reading books on the subject

LGQ: What preparations do you have to make?

All the practical elements : hotel reservations / equipment /  visas for both Russia and Belarus have to be arranged / reading / maps

LGQ  : Which battles have you attended?

The first re-enactment I saw was  of Borodino in 2001 (in Russia about 100 km from Moscow). I was with a group of  French people, all passionate followers of Napoleonic history. That year I also visited the battlefields of Austerlitz and of course the Crossing of the Berezina.

DSC_0745The next re-enactment was in December 2005 . It was the bicentennial of the battle of Austerlitz,  still remembered today as Napoleon’s greatest victory. It was also the battle of which he was most proud ( he defeated the combined forces of the Russians/Austrians and the Prussians ). This is a battle which is still studied today in Military Academies all over the Globe.

I also went to the 2006 Austerlitz re-enactment and realized there the importance of the 200 year commemorations. They are special occasions…more excitement…more action… more spectacle .The battle which took place on December 2 , 1805 has given birth to a now very famous exclamation …”le beau soleil d’Austerlitz”

Napoleon had observed during the previous days of the battle that the morning mist regularly filled the lowland and was then slowly burnt off by the winter sun .He used that mist to disguise his troops and make a surprise attack on the Pratzen plateau. The Russians who held the Pratzen plateau were routed and it was a turning point in that day’s battle as Napoleon had split the enemy line.

On the 5th of December 2005…..the fields were covered with a thin layer of snow….it was freezing and the mist was there as well as the sun . It was perfect !

 LGQ : What do you feel you get out of it ?

Going back into the past. History.The closest I can come to how it really happened.

It is amazing what  fascination all those different nationalities have for the personage of Napoleon, whether they are French, Belgium, German, Polish, Russian, Czech, Italian, American, Canadian, etc

LGQ: Why do people participate in re-enactments ?

Going back into a time capsule…the attempt at capturing the real events… It is like living an adventure

In Borodino, participants in the re-enactment also recreated for themselves the  encampments near the battlefields with tents  identical to those used in 1812,  open wood fires for keeping warm and for preparing the food.

In December 2005 at Austerlitz,  people camped outside, near the battleground in freezing cold weather…..

In the real invasion of Russia there were 30.000 dead on Napoleon’s side and 60.000 on the Russian side at Borodino alone. About 650.000 men from various nations set out with the Grande Armée and took with them 28 million bottles of wine .

LGQ: Which future events are you preparing  for?

Waterloo  2015 and St Helena  2021

It is also amazing to see that the participants in those re-enactments come from various countries like Belgium/ France / Switzerland / Poland / Czech Rep / Italy / Russia / Belarus / Holland / USA / etc etc

These events have caught the imagination of literally thousands of men and women across the globe. At the last Borodino reenactment  there were over 100.000 spectators.

Napoleon is usually played by either Frank Samson of France or Mark Schneider of the United States of America.

The role of Napoleon at Waterloo 2015 has not been attributed yet  but will be given to either one of these two men….A fierce competition is going on between the two for this prestigious role.

DSC_0788At the major re-enactments of Austerlitz 2005 and Borodino 2012, Napoleon was played by Mark Schneider ,an actor from Virginia who looks a bit like Napoleon, he is an excellent horse rider who has earned the reputation of playing the role  vigorously.

Frank Samson is a lawyer  who has studied Napoleon’s native tongue. He, of course, is a bit dismissive of the American, a Napoleon played by an Anglo-Saxon , Quel horror ! ( please note that the role of Wellington is presently played by a New Zealander !?) The organizing  committee of Waterloo 2015 face a difficult task taking a decision. Albeit…in the late 1980’s, six Napoleons turned up at a reenactment event at Waterloo!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Mediterranean Winter in Malta – “Bring me the head of John the Baptist”

DSC_0003Cool temperatures and glorious skies mark Malta in November. Clouds tinged with gold, red, crimson, blue against creamy-yellow limestone, echo Titian, Veronese, and maybe even Turner. A fabulous blend of colours –  Nature always remains the greatest artist.

The Maltese archipelago is a remnant of the geological land bridge, over 40 million years old, that once linked the continents. It is the shallowest stretch of the Mediterranean, dividing the sea into its eastern and western halves and, underwater, connecting Sicily and Tunisia.

Local people identify Gozo as Calypso’s isle where Odysseus was kept as a love slave over 7 years for the pleasures of the goddess-nymph. Eventually, helped by Athena,  he was allowed to go, but not before being offered immortality as a last temptation.

Away from myth, the temple blocks of Ggantija are composed of stones, several tons in weight, that are considered by Unesco and confirmed by carbon-dating, to be the oldest buildings in the world. They were left by a neolithic people who made their home there, long before the pyramids of Egypt were constructed, but who disappeared mysteriously around 2000BC.

Christianity came with the legendary shipwreck of St Paul on his way to Rome where he would be tried and executed by the sword.  On Malta’s high point near the ancient capital of Medina, the “Silent City”, St Paul’s catacombs at Rabat still mark ancient Christian burial grounds

It is the Knights of St John, however, who left the biggest impact on the main island . The warrior-monks transformed it into a fortress and, after victory over the Turks in the Great Siege of 1545,  the island became known as the Shield of Europe. The Knights’ familiar eight-pointed cross was said to symbolize the main elements of the Sermon on the Mount as well as the different national groupings or “langues”.

VallettaCoCathedralFloorOverviewIt is in their Cathedral of St John that one of Europe’s greatest art treasures can be experienced. Just entering the main church there is a feeling of celebration and exuberance, apparent from floor to ceiling. High above, the ceiling paintings by Mattia Preti recount the life story of St John the Baptist. Behind the altar, marble figures portray the Baptism of Christ but it is the floor that soon becomes the focus of attention. Like a tapestry of color in marble, filling the whole nave, are some 400 brilliant decorative tombstones of Grand Masters  and major figures of the order, each with a story and image. This alone would make a visit to the Cathedral unforgettable. It is, however, just a preamble to the Oratory which contains a powerful and graphic portrayal of the “Beheading of John the Baptist” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

The Oratory was a place for meditation and prayer by young knights newly inducted into the Order. It was also a place of judgement. Caravaggio was commissioned to fill a whole wall, more than 3×5 meters, with an altarpiece. Traditional portrayals of St John the Baptist range  from the optimistic depiction of St John as a child in Leonardo da Vinci’s “Virgin of the Rocks”(in Paris and London), to scenes from his life, such as those painted on the walls of the cathedral in Prato by Fillipo Lippi, focusing on the dance of Salome as a principal element.  Alternatively he appears as a teaching figure on the side of God holding a book, such as in the exquisitely detailed Ghent altarpiece “The Lamb of God” by Jan Van Eyck.

Caravaggio, however, chose a radically different approach to his subject.Variously called  “The Painting of the 17th century” (!) or “the first work of a modern art”, the artist presents a scene involving the spectator in the moment after the beheading, the used sword still lying on the ground. Caravaggio usually painted from live models, so his contemporaries saw his art as “not painting but truth”. Here only the expression on the dead saint’s face is peaceful. A bright ray of light highlights the central scene, in the background prisoners look out from a building said to resemble the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta.

The stark theme breaks away from illustrating a biblical past to a vision of an artist familiar with murder,violence and brutality. It is a work that speaks to a post-Auschwitz age where “only following orders” became the standard, emotionless explanation for unspeakable horror.  It has consequently been described as one of the most important works in western painting even though darkness seems to prevail. The artist, having been made a knight himself in the same Oratory, was shortly a fugitive once more, escaping from an impregnable prison. In absentia, he was ceremonially disrobed by the knights in front of his masterwork, a cloak being pulled from a stool in the original place of induction.

On the wall facing the “execution” is Caravaggio’s  “St Jerome Writing”. Faintly behind the figure, a cardinal’s hat can be seen hanging from the wall of the hermit’s cell. He almost seems to be contemplating the events opposite. St.Jerome, an early Church father is shown with a skull symbolizing the transience of life while a candlestick suggests spiritual illumination. Like the larger picture it is painted mostly in brown but also underlined by a defining strip of red, in this case the saint’s robe Originally in a different location, it was moved to the Oratory after being stolen in 1984, held for ransom, then recovered in 1986.  Another attempted theft, this time on “St John” badly damaged the picture. It is unlikely that either work will leave Malta again.

Escaping from Malta, a paranoid Caravaggio went on to portray himself as a severed head of Goliath held by David and as a head on a platter in “Salome With Head of John the Baptist”.Shortly afterwards he was dead, in mysterious circumstances, at the age of 39.

Today he remains a figure of interest and speculation. Did this genius murderer fugitive exhibit violent behaviour as a result of lead poisoning from the paint used at the time? Was he unstable due to the trauma of losing most of his family to plague when aged six? Certainly dark stories penetrated by beams of light became his trademark. Many consider that Rembrandt could not have existed without him, and  his major works, particularly “St John” in Malta, are seen as the most spiritually intense  paintings in the history of art. This, his largest work, is the only one he ever signed using the red, painted blood of the beheaded saint, an ultimate acknowledgement.

For anyone exploring the ideas of western culture,  a visit to Malta is essential. The Chief Executive of one of the world’s major auction houses, Stephen Murphy has emphasized the need to experience , to see, a work of art : “ We have a saying in our company, when our people are assessing or valuing something, they will say “ I haven’t stood in front of the painting yet” No matter how many times they may have seen images of it, they are not ready to give their opinion.”


Seeing the Caravaggio’s in Malta can be a life-changing visit. What better place for a meaningful winter break?

Disclosure: LG visited Malta courtesy of  Hilton Hotels and EasyJet, organized by the Malta Tourist Office.

1 Comment

Filed under Art, Europe

Books, Beats and City Lights

ginsberg-dylan-mcclureWriting in the 1950’s but projecting “to Posterity” , Irish poet Louis MacNeice, envisioned a time when reading and even speaking would be replaced, “By other less difficult media.”

Today bookshops are vanishing, the internet rules and knowledge is too often submerged by a flood of information. However, in San Francisco, still standing out as a major source of mind-energy is the famed City Lights bookstore in North Beach. Its principal founder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, defined his endeavour as a “finger in the dyke holding back the flood of unknowing.”

ferlinghetti-1Presenting itself as a literary meeting place since 1953, City Lights now at 60, both a bookshop and a publisher, places itself firmly “where the streets of the earth meet the boulevards of the mind.”

Placards in the windows proclaim “Open doors, Open books, Open minds”. Ferlinghetti, self-styled as an earlier bohemian, enabled the Beat Generation by publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl ( ‘’ I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”) following the ground breaking live reading at Gallery 6 in 1955.

Behind the poets, the new approach was marked by the train-of-thought writing of Jack Kerouac adding a new dimension to the easy going City-on-the-Bay. In his seminal novel “On the Road” the hero, Dean Moriarty, asserted that “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who…burn, burn, burn, like fabulous roman candles.”

Many had experienced that feeling of jazz music “splitting the earth” and Kerouac was delighted that “Everybody in ‘Frisco blew. It was the end of the continent, they didn’t give a damn.”

d5271702lDefense of free speech, liberation of the word from censorship became another rite of passage to the developing counterculture. Obscenity trials involving the publishing of Howl by City Lights and presenting Michael McClure’s “The Beard” on stage were eventually won. They made possible other publications such as the first printing of Henry Miller’s provocative novels in the United States, and drew much attention to the writers on the Bay.

Above all, it was knowledge escaping from the academy, and for the poets a revival of the oral tradition with the writer as performer ; Kerouac demanding that we “ Shout Our Poems In San Francisco Sreets – Predict Earthquakes”.

By 2001 City Lights was established as an official landmark. Ferlinghetti had become the first Poet Laureate of San Francisco and a street, Via Ferlinghetti was named in his honor.

Jack Kerouac Alley materialised as a pedestrian precinct behind the bookstore while the Gallery 6 poetry reading is remembered on Fillmore Street with a bronze plaque outside the site of the former building. All very formal and official and yet the voice of the Beats continues to resonate .

Among the many to acknowledge their influence was Stuart Brand whose work did so much to make technology liberating. He considered meeting the Beats to be his great transforming moment and an antidote to corporate brain-lock. It led to Haight-Ashbury, LSD and the psychedelic revolution, where poets talked and musicians listened.

“My words man, my words” exclaimed Jim Morrison of the Doors, while the coming of Bob Dylan was seen to disturb the peace and discomfort the powerful.

jobs_stewart_brand!Finally Steve Jobs , whom Stuart Brand defined as a total hippy ( “I was an early hippy and Steve Jobs a late hippy, we were paying attention to the beatniks”), expressed his admiration for the way Brand had linked various ideas together in his Whole Earth Catalogue to provide the tools to “change civilisation”. Brand still offers controversial ideas on TED conferences and lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.

Each generation rediscovers the vitality of what became known as the San Francisco Renaissance. Charismatic actor of our times, Johnny Depp, when advised how to read Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues for a film protested “ I’m not reading as him, I’m reading it as me. It’s my interpretation of his piece.” Depp insisted, however, that without On The Road or Howl there would never have been a Bob Dylan or “The Times They Are-a-Changin”.

tv-poetry-9609-1In tribute to the indispensable collections emerging from City Lights, Johnny Depp emphasizes that “the riches I was able to walk away with from these heroes, teachers and mentors are not available in any school that I’ve ever heard of.”

City Lights Bookstore remains a shining beacon in San Francisco, a reason in itself to visit the city.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Matters of Faith – “If you ain’t happy, you ain’t listening to enough Coltrane!”

ImageSan Francisco is interested in spirituality rather than religion, observed Kate Cooper, visiting historian from Manchester, England.

She was speaking at the Forum discussions organized at Grace cathedral, one of the many centers of faith that reflect the tradition of tolerance towards different cultures and beliefs in the Bay Area. This wide range of influences and interests are seen in the architecture of the numerous faith based structures in San Francsico –  ranging from a Russian Orthodox church whose spires suggest the flame of a candle to the fascinating Vedanta temple with domes that echo the Taj Mahal.

ImageOver from the Pacific Heights, on Cathedral Hill, is the dominant shape of the huge Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Mary. The distinctive roof is composed of floating “hyperbolic paraboloids” (like the former Commonwealth Institute in London). It has affectionately been nicknamed “Our Lady of Maytag” as, to many, it resembles the central part of a rotating washing machine.

Here too, the changing attitudes to religion and spirituality can be seen. After St Mary’s inaugural Papal Mass with John Paul II, Nobel Prizewinner Czesław Miłosz discussed the difficulties in writing religious poetry, noting that we live in a largely postreligious world. Seeking a return to the roots in 2013, newly elected Pope Francis reminds us that the saints did not have bank accounts and, in his choice of name, emphasizes the importance of the Saint of Poverty (and also the patron saint of San Francisco!).

In North Beach, a building which started in 1948 as a gymnasium has been carefully converted to contain a loving reconstruction of the Porziuncola of St Francis in Assisi. On the entry steps of the chapel are the words “I want you ALL in Paradise”, the franciscan message to the world. It is said that no person who enters the Porziuncola will ever see hell.

San Francisco embraces the full spectrum of religion and spirituality though – not just the traditional – There is even a cult around one of the greatest Jazz musicians of the century.

ImageJohn Coltrane is celebrated as one of the 90 dancing saints in the rotunda of an Episcopal church on Potrero Hill, while at 1286 Fillmore, near the elegant new Jazz Center is the African Orthodox Church of St. John Coltrane. The liturgy is the uplifting 1964 album of the saxophonists “A Love Supreme”. There is a five-hour Jam session every Sunday and its motto is “If you ain’t happy, you ain’t listening to enough Coltrane!”

On a more contemporary note, Edward Mendelson, contributing editor to PC magazine writes with tongue-in-cheek that, as everyone knows, “the world religion of the educated and prosperous in the twenty-first century is Apple, with it’s Vatican in Cupertino and it’s cathedrals the light filled Apple stores”.  Cynics would counter that maybe Apple is more like Scientology than anything divine.

Certainly enlightenment and mindfulness are in fashion amongst the Silicon Valley elite. At nearby Twitter headquarters there are the popular meditation courses seen
as a tool to better oneself and improve productivity,while this years Wisdom 2.0 conference was attended by top executives from Linkedin and Cisco. Meanwhile Google employees are taking classes to improve their EI -emotional intelligence in an internally delivered course entitled “Search Inside Yourself“. This has been so successful that that there is apparently a waiting list of 400 and growing.

The California Street cable car rattles its way through the city up Nob Hill. There, surrounded by landmark hotels, the Pacific Union Club and the Masons Grand Lodge is the most visited church of all, Grace Cathedral.

ImageEstablished during the Gold Rush, destroyed by the 1906 earthquake fires, the present structure was started in 1928 on land donated from burnt homes. It was finally consecrated in 1964, a visual “Europe 101” reminding of the Notre Dame in Paris and maybe the last of the Gothic-style churches. Traditionally conservative it has transformed itself into a forward-looking institution with a dynamic Dean, the Rev. Canon Jane Shaw who came from Oxford via Harvard and Berkeley. She participates actively in the innovative Forum discussions in the Cathedral Hall, the recent ones also attended by Professor Kate Cooper ( A newly commissioned work for the San Francisco Opera caused controversy. ”The Gospel of Mary Magdalen” opens with a scene where Mary is in bed with “someone else’s husband” and a lively debate took place in the Forum. Themes such as “The Textual Magdalene – apostle or prostitute?“ were also discussed in the presence of the composer and the mezzo-soprano who came to speak on “the fully erotic but fully spiritual story of Mary and Yeshua “. Other themes for debate have included those on “God and technology” and “Gender Equality” while every Tuesday evening several hundred young people come for yoga on  the labyrinth by the nave.This helps to quieten the mind and balance the body.

628x471An exact replica of the Florence Baptistry doors at the main entrance to the church continues the links to the past. The Renaissance originals by sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti impressed the young Michelangelo  so much that he referred to them as being like the Gates of Paradise. The  Florence originals are now in a museum and the molds used for the Grace cathedral doors, were later used to replace those in Florence and only then destroyed.

ImageThe labyrinths in the nave and just outside the church doors, another link with early Christianity, were inspired by the one in the famous Chartres cathedral in France. They are much used by contemporary pilgrims who follow the path of the labyrinths from start to finish in contemplation and meditation much like the pilgrims in the old world.  The labyrinth has been so popular at Grace Cathedral, that even Google created one at their headquarters for “walking meditation”.

Nearby the interfaith chapel commemorating the 20,000 San Franciscans who died of AIDS, has as its centrepiece the famous triptych that local artist Keith Haring completed just weeks before succumbing to the disease himself.

Many outstanding figures have accepted invitations to speak from the pulpit in the past ,among them the Dalai Lama,Martin Luther King and Lech Wałesa.  ImageContemporary stained glass windows celebrate  the achievements of astronaut John Glenn and the ground-breaking E=mc2 formula of the greatest brain of the 20th century, Albert Einstein.

Some have worried that science basically undermines religion. Einstein concluded that “What humanity owes  to personalities like Buddha, Moses and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the enquiring and constructive mind”. Embracing this, Grace Cathedral maintains its relevance and a central part in the public life of the city. No visit to San Francisco is quite complete without it.

There is even a Peets Coffee House in the basement.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Billionaires, Bodhisattvas and Sailors


Cities are said to be repositories of memories, but it is people that make cities. The exchange of ideas and life styles that give urban life texture, stories and scurrilous gossip.

At the western side of Pacific heights, near the home of Senator Diane Feinstein by the Lyon steps so popular with outdoor exercise enthusiasts, are the houses of the new, high-tech business leaders. Jonathan Ive, one of Apple’s masterminds lives on Broadway. Nearby is one of the many trophy homes of “Bazillionaire” Larry Ellison who is credited with changing the world of database software.

Ellison himself has a flamboyant lifestyle and, according to the press, a public image as a brash business tycoon that he has been trying to counter of late with the recent public display of his well chosen Japanese collection – oozing the quiet elegance he’d like to be known for. Of course the press has a different idea, announcing “Larry Ellison, Bodhisattva in Waiting, Brings Enlightenment to San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum.”

ImageThe Ellison house , at 2850 Broadway, has a grandstand position from which to oversee the America’s Cup races on the Bay below. His sleek black Oracle-sponsored catamarans, defending cup-holders , virtually flying across the water below the panoramic terrace. Ellison himself will, of course, most likely be found at the Golden Gate Yacht Club he bought or maybe even more likely, as a former crew member of the victorious 2010 boat, on the water himself.

Another commanding house, this time at 2080 Washington Street, was once the residence that sugar millionaire Adolph Spreckles built for his young bride Alma de Brettville. She was formerly a nude model for local artists and prominent as the Goddess of Victory on the Dewey Monument on Union Square. The house has fifty five rooms including a Louis XVI ballroom. It attracted a lot of gossip as Alma was half his age ,to which she would shrug her shoulders and say “I would rather be a rich man’s darling than a poor man’s slave”.

ImageMore recently the Spreckles mansion has been home to Danielle Steel, the best selling author alive. With over 100 novels to her name, her “formula” clearly captures the popular pulse, attracting sneers about her being the Queen Mother of Trash. But with books said to bring in over $800 million a year, she feels no need to comment.

At 64, the ever outspoken Steele complains that there is no style in San Francisco, “it’s all shorts and camping boots”. As for California healthy living she adds “ I would rather die than exercise . San Francisco is a great city to raise children, but I was happy to leave it”. She now seems to spend much of her time in Paris indulging in haute-couture and red-soled Louboutin shoes, of which she can boast a collection of more than 4000 pairs, worth over $4 million

These are just some of the innumerable stories that give a feel for a city and make it fascinating. As San Francisco’s self-taught thinker Kenneth Rexroth emphasised “The art of being civilized is the art of learning to read between the lies”.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

San Francisco – An Island on the Landdata:text/mce-internal,%3Cimg%20class%3D%22alignleft%20size-full%20wp-image-899%22%20src%3D%22https%3A//

Despite having a a population of less than a million, much smaller than nearby San Jose, San Francisco has become the richest of cities. It has the youngest population, the least children and the highest i-phone use in the country.

Surrounded by water on three sides , like Manhattan, but located on 74 hills, it is said there is an “island mentality “ to San Francisco. It was described by poet laureate Laurence Ferlinghetti as being “indeed an offshore province, not really part of mainland America”.

The City’s exudes a liberal feeling not found in many other cities in the US – years ago, the American poet Kenneth Rexroth explained that its liberal traditions reflect the fact that it was the only city that was not settled by the westward spreading puritan tradition. Instead, San Francisco has thrived as a place of great contrasts ever since the days of Levi Strauss stapling rivets into working clothes to make his, bphoto 2y now eponymous, creations.

There may be 400 banks, 20 universities and some of the most valuable property in the country, however, at the same time, it has the least home ownership and the highest rental population. Much of this due to a policy of strict rent control that is strongly enforced in San Francisco. In older properties (anything built before June of 1979), landlords may only increase the rent by a token annual percentage (1.9% in 2013-2014), so although an average 1 bedroom apartment may rent for $2,700 per month, many pay only $700 or less. It encourages tennants to stay, some for a lifetime.

I recently toured the city with my brilliant colleague, Craig Smith, city guide and authentic insider, who explained that centuries ago there were virtually no trees here when the Spanish arrived but that years of careful cultivation and a suitable Mediterranean-type climate transformed the landscape. Everything grows in this idyllic environment including many exotic shrubs and plants.


Only the eucalyptus is avoided because the dry leaves and bark are a constant fire hazard. Redwood, disliked by termites,was particularly popular in constructing the many huge Victorian and Queen Anne style houses while the windy climate meant few insects, so no need for nets or air-conditioning, making elegant bay windows a prominent architectural feature.

Facing the bay, the fabled Pacific Heights on the northern side of the city has some of the most valuable real estate in the United States. The major attraction for many are the world’s most beautiful urban views with a panorama from Alcatraz to Sausalito and the Golden Gate Bridge. It is also firmly anchored on bedrock, so many buildings survived both the 1906 earthquake and the fire that followed.

I asked Craig if, like so many others in San Francisco, Pacific Heights would be his location of choice assuming money to be of no object but he instantly answered  “no, Sausalito”.

g_47_WaterviewHorizonsThe former home town  of  Zen master Alan Watts and actor Robert Redford, Sausalito, has a relaxed style, warmer temperatures and proximity to both the scenic Marin headlands and wine producing NapaValley. It would certainly make a great choice!


Filed under Uncategorized

Gold Rush, Blue Jeans and Earthquakes

Golden-Gate-from-San-FranciscoIn my recent trip to San Francisco, I noticed that this town, having been subject to multiple booms and busts over the years, is on the move again. Headlines in the San Francisco’s  Chronicle explained that yet another technology bonanza is the culprit for the current housing boom – an effect being especially felt in the “City by the Bay” more than anywhere else.

An explosion in technology jobs, IPO’s by cutting edge start-ups and big money buy-outs by larger companies have created yet another generation of instant millionaire buyers thrown onto the city’s housing market. Even run-down old buildings and warehouses in the SOMA (South of Market Area) and away from the Bay Bridge are being renovated with a renewed vigour – becoming outposts for new social technology darlings like Twitter and Yammer.

googlecarLuxury busses with wi-fi and tinted windows zoom through the city to provide a free regular service for Google employees to Mountain View in Silicon Valley – a practice followed by numerous others like Genentech and Yahoo!, while the driverless (yes, driverless) Google car passes by to demonstrate innovation in action.

Some say this is due to a West Coast hippy mentality of the 1960’s which left a legacy of radical thinking, others because of the concentrated brain-power of Stanford, Berkeley and another 20 or so universities. Although much research has been traditionally sponsored by the military defense companies in the past, today there is a far broader spectrum of investment and speculation, with companies such as Apple, Facebook, Oracle, and other emerging tech leaders dominating from their positions in the famed Silicon Valley. The list goes on but, whatever the impulse, one third of all the venture capital in the United States is concentrated in the “magic triangle” between San Jose, Marin County and Pleasanton/Livermore in an area with a total population of around 7 million. Thanks to all this, the iconic city of San Francisco, situated in the middle of it all, is booming once again.

Historically of course, the Bay Area was not always so active. Protected by fog, mist and unstable weather, the Bay offered shelter but only to ships that could find it. The Camino Real of New Spain, its governors and the Dominican/Franciscan missions only reached out to claim possession. The Yerba Buena settlement which became San Francisco originally had a population of only 469 and very few trees.

The defining moments for this city were really the great Gold Rush of 1849 and the earthquake of 1906. Early discoveries of gold and the staking of claims caused a frenzy of landgrabbers and easy money.The 10,000 newcomers of 1848 became by 1849 a throng of 25,000 from all over the world. Among them only some 300 women, many of them prostitutes.

Sailors rushed inland, leaving a graveyard of 800 abandoned ships on what became known as the Barbary Coast, named after the infamous dens of North African pirates. Highwaymen averaged 500 killings a year on the Camino Real. Desperate ships captains resorted to kidnapping to raise their crews. Ex-convict elements from the Antipodies attempted a takeover which was only crushed by crowds of self appointed vigilantes. There were imprisonments, hangings and deportations back to Australia.

Interestingly, the gold seekers were only able to extract a small portion of the gold in the foothills, more 70% of the gold is estimated to still be there. However, very real fortunes were made during this time – mostly by enterprising suppliers to miners or by those involved in the construction of the rapidly growing city that was springing up as a result of this growing activity.

user2425_1172627992The classic case is the legend of Levi Strauss who originally attempted to sell brown sail cloth material for tents to gold miners but found greater demand for sturdy work clothing. The predominant material used at the time chafed so a hard wearing but smoother cotton was sent for.

This had been a major export from Nîmes in France (hence from/de Nîmes or denim) to the dockworkers and sailors of the dominant Mediterranean port of Genoa (known as Gênes to the French , hence “jeans”).On sea voyages this denim clothing could be laundered by being dragged behind the ship in a net.

For the miners however, it was not strong enough at the seams and the final commercial breakthrough came only when Jacob Davis applied copper rivets at strategic points. He became a partner and patent holder. It then became the single best selling item of clothing in the world and today is virtually a uniform in Silicon Valley. Corporate headquarters are located on Levi Strauss Plaza in San Francisco, the company is still privately owned by Levi Strauss descendants and a “blue jeans” museum has been opened in Buttenheim, Germany, from where the founder had migrated.

As much as California and the Bay Area is famous for, it also has its share of infamy – not least of which for the perceived prevalence of Earthquakes in the region. A fracture, the notorious San Andreas fault was the cause of some 400 quakes recorded after 1848. Early in the morning of April 18th 1906, however, the ground moved along the fault and suddenly shifted 16’ to 20’ north. By today’s measurements it would have registered around 8 on the Richter scale. 28,000 buildings were destroyed and half the population made homeless. However, the major damage was done not just by the force of the quake, but rather by the 50-some fires that raged for days and weeks after the quake, The prevalent rumor of course, is that a healthy percentage of those fires started, not as the result of ruptured gas lines as commonly thought, but by distraught residents who torched their own homes to claim on fire damage in the absence of any available earthquake insurance. It took 9 years to rebuild the city to a state resembling its prior glory.

6787638359_e031d7b26a_zSeismic activity is a primary concern on the famous bridges. When the Golden Gate Bridge was opened in 1937 it was thought capable of resisting any conceivable earthquake. It is still considered a technical masterpiece, but recent research suggested the possibility of a collapse at the city side, Fort Point supporting arch, leading to a 392 million strengthening retrofit.

On the other side of the city, the 8.5 mile Oakland Bay Bridge is having problems too, ominously with bolts breaking. During the 1989 earthquake a 50’ section collapsed. Now a whole section between Treasure Island and Oakland is being replaced.

There is , of course,  constant research on how to minimize earthquake damage, particularly in Japan. New buildings now consist of an exoskeleton fitted with hydraulic dampers that absorb energy and convert it into heat which it dissipates. Architects in Tokyo believe indestructability is now a given. “You could keep working at your desk at Rippongi Hills if there were a big earthquake beneath Tokyo”, say specialists. 
San Francisco is taking note , thinking of “The Big One” to come.


Filed under Uncategorized


big-surBig Sur, California

The drama of the Pacific coastline is one that has always fascinated and inspired travelers.

Henry Miller, the writer whose books many readers describe as a life-changing experience, described the Pacific especially at Big Sur, as an “overwhelming force which is hidden within its obvious grandeur “. On Big Sur itself, he finally wrote “I have found the perfect place”.

North of San Francisco, the fabled Highway 1 is defeated by the rugged terrain of the “Lost Coast” and the wilderness of the King Range. South, this most romantic of roads leads to what was known as El Pais Grande del Sur (the big country to the south or Big Sur).

There, the Santa Lucia mountains seem to erupt from the ocean, giving way to incomparable vistas, unique on earth, where the one common aspect is the haunting presence of that vast majestic ocean.

Charles Olson, poet and intellectual from Gloucester, Massachussetts, declared in his study on Herman Melville (the author who wrote, amongst other classics, “Moby Dick”) – “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large and without mercy…(it is) the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and a people”.

The presence of the ocean reminds us of the fierce determination of the early explorers to overcome its unpredictable winds and hidden rocks. Today, speed-breaking sailors and sea-defying surfers throw an equally powerful challenge, literally flying across the water,always on the edge,pushing to the limit. Santa Cruz surfing legend Jay Moriarty (hero at 15, dead at 23) warned “Don’t take anything for granted, because one minute it can be there and the next minute it can’t, and it happens so quick.”


Fatalities occur all the time on this stretch of aquatic wilderness. Only just last week, the San Francisco Chronicle announced with a banner headline “Tragic Day on the Bay “.  One of the huge racing catamarans, whose 131’ long sail could power the boat up to three times the speed of the wind, lost its trajectory and capsized. On board, double Olympic medalist sailing champion Andrew Simpson, strategist for this year’s America’s Cup was trapped under the hull, unable to escape.

A few months earlier, in October 2012, the defending Oracle team for the Cup, lost its multi-million dollar boat when, unable to make a turn, it capsized and was destroyed by the sea.

The will to overwhelm nature may be there but ultimately the ocean is indomitable. It is awareness of this force that constantly attracts those seeking both peace and stimulation in the rugged landscape of Big Sur, where the mountains and the sky meet the turbulence of the Pacific.

400_frederic_larson_mavericks_surf_contestThe surfers consider the beaches and headlands from Ghost Tree to Pfeiffer Beach and Willow Creek to be hard core. On those waves, with many observing that ”one wrong turn, and you’re hitting the water like concrete at 50 miles an hour”. But in that challenge, one finds much more than just danger. The recent surfing film “Chasing Mavericks” explains “it’s not just about surf, it’s about the one thing in life that sets you free .”

That of course has been the big journey over the ages for “the seekers” out there. For example, the “astronauts of inner space “ as defined by the “Human Potential Movement” at the renown Esalen Institute search for a mind-body connection that comes from within instead of the waves. Esalen’s co-founder Michael Murphy, wrote a classic book exploring the mysticism of Golf and its similarities with the journey of life itself (“Golf in the Kingdom”).

Others participate in the Zen Mountain Center around Tassajara Hot Springs, while higher, at about 1300 ft above the Pacific ocean, the new Camaldoli Hermitage provides peace and refuge to all seeking tranquility. At the Hermitage, the monks follow the ancient teachings of St. Romuald, and St Benedict observing vows of silence. Outside visitors are welcome however, and may reflect on how aptly Henry Miller described this landscape, when he arrived in 1944, as “… the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look”.

The Californian coast, has always felt on the edge of the western world, and not only because it may all fall into the sea when the “Big One” hits, but as the culmination of the “Long Road West” as talked about by American historians.

In much the same way as the tip of Portugal at Sagres served as a launching pad to the searchers of the New World under Prince Henry the Navigator, so did ”New Spain”, and the Camino Real of the Jesuits and the Franciscans, serve as the final link with the edge of that continent.

Out there at Big Sur, at this land of the setting sun, with sunsets that vanish into the sea, you realise that you have reached the true end of the world. Beyond that coastline, there is only a journey back to the beginning, to the Far East, to China, to Japan, and to the land of the rising sun.

Sunset over Pacific Ocean and coast, Big Sur, California

There is a finality to this coast, culminating with movements like California Cool, the Beat Renaissance, and even a governor who, like the present Pope Francis, studied to be a priest in a Jesuit seminary.

Governor Jerry Brown urges the principle of “tantum quantum” – where you take what you need. Less not more. “It’s almost a Buddhist thought, a Greek thought”  he says – a balance that he calls “proportionality”, where “you can never stop the human heart from yearning and you can never stop the universe from being silent “.

Big Sur, is the embodiment of all that is California thus, the drama of the past, the excitement of the present, the thought of the Beats, and a presence of the inevitable. Henry Miller was most surely right – A more Perfect Place could hardly be imagined.


Filed under Uncategorized

The Russians have landed at the Golden Gate!


A messenger came running through the corridors of the Viceroy’s residence in Mexico City. He urgently demanded to see the Spanish King’s Visitador General  – “Your  Highness, the Russians have landed at the Golden Gate!”.  These words set in motion a whole chain of actions which resulted in the naming and the myths of California.
Cabrillo, in 1542, had been the first to sail along the California coast, claiming it for Spain – but by the mid-1700’s all of Europe seemed to be attacking  the once mighty empire of Spain’s King Charles V, on which the ” sun never set ” . There was a loss of energy and spirit everywhere except in New Spain where missionary efforts were pushing the great frontier.
Politics were ever present. The Jesuits had been a kind of advance-guard  with their trademark  Black Robes , arriving ahead of the soldiers,  but back-stabbing at the courts in Madrid and Mexico City saw their universal expulsion by 1767. The Franciscans, less intellectual but more practical, took over, struggled with the politicians, and in fact had more problems with Yankee traders than the Russians.
The great force of the Franciscans was a short, ascetic friar from the island of Mallorca, Junipero Serra. He had planned to establish a chain of missions, each a day’s ride apart, that would extend “El Camino Real” (The Royal Road) to the north from its then limits in Mexico and Baja California. The road itself was a mule track along the mountains, through sand and forest elsewhere, a pathfinding slow road “to eternity”, quite unlike the great roads in Europe built for military reasons by Napoleon.
By 1772 Father Serra had four small churches built between San Diego and Monterey and, in 1772, a first watch tower was built at the Golden Gate. Among the outposts established by the Franciscan friars led by Junipero were Los Angeles (1767), San Francisco (1776), Santa Clara (1777) and Santa Cruz (1791). As a result of this work, Junipero Serra had gained the unofficial title of Founder of Spanish California.
However, it is to the heart of Europe, to Italy, that we have to go to find meaning in those California place-names. Assisi, pink stone glowing from a distance, is a skyline of prominent towers, castles, domes, walls and churches. One of the great destinations in Umbria’s  “land of the saints”, it celebrates the Christian teachers of internal life – St. Benedict and St. Francis and, of course, their enthusiastic followers.
Bazylika_Santa_Maria_degli_Angeli_AsyżOutside the medieval walls, the enormous dome of the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli stands over the exquisite ninth century chapel, the Porziuncola.This chapel, said to have been once given to St. Benedict, was offered  to St. Francis in 1208  as a founding  home for the Franciscan order.It celebrates the Virgin Mary’s Ascent into Heaven.
Climbing the roads inside the town, narrow streets lead to the great Gothic Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, it’s upper and lower churches covered with frescoes by fabled artists, including Cimabue and Giotto. This makes it one of the artistic highlights of Europe, noted for its unique tranquility despite being a major stop for visitors, and of course countless pilgrims.
Porziuncola chiesa
These great Christian monuments follow the footsteps of  Francis of Assisi, a man who was transformed from playboy, soldier and singing troubadour into one of the great human spirits.  At the end of the Dark Ages, he focused attention on the humanity of Christ and  the celebration of God through his creation, philosophically returning man’s attention back to earth. It was important that the Franciscans were to be friars, free to move and travel, not monks tied to a monastery. The rope around their waist with three knots is there to remind them of their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Francis himself travelled to Spain, Morocco and with the Crusaders to Egypt and the Holy Land.
It was the Spanish followers of St. Francis who created the mission on the edge of the western world. So it is interesting to note how the positioning of churches in Assisi seem to be reflected in the cities that have grown up in California.
Just like Santa Maria degli Angeli is at the base of Assisi situated outside the walls, so the mission named after it by those Spanish-speaking Franciscans, Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porziuncola (Our Lady Queen of the Angels of  Porziuncola), has grown to become today’s prosaic “L.A.”, situated in the southern part of the state.
In turn the naming of San Francisco (1776, after the Basilica of San Francis), and Santa Clara (1777, after the Basilica of Santa Chiara), both in close proximity, in the northern part of the state, reflect the position of the great churches on the slopes below Mount Subasio in Assisi. While the Misión la Exaltación de la Santa Cruz (named for the feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross) is also an echo of the great Franciscan burial church, Santa Croce in Florence. It is these fascinating links between the energetic modern cities of California, north and south, and the original Spanish Franciscan pioneers that gives an additional resonance and stimulus to the imagination.


The connections with the spiritual heart of Italy are reinforced by the recently elected Pope, the Jesuit Cardinal Bergoglio – who adopted Francis as his papal name. True to his namesake, he has embraced humility, but seems to have a twinkle in his eye. Coming from Argentina, a wonderful wine-making country, he would undoubtedly appreciate the fact that Saint Francis warned the friars not to be sad and gloomy, and the pope would surely chortle at the typical clay-souvenir mementos frequently seen in Assisi today.Amusingly one of the most common is a representation of two friars standing by a big barrel with a sign that advises to “drink the wine on earth as there is none in heaven”.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized