Military Club Mosaic | Sofia, Bulgaria

military_clubI’ve written about Sofia’s Military Club before, but until recently, I’d never seen this spectacular floor mosaic. Strangely enough, it is located in one of the club’s rarely used service corridors, which connects the formal bathroom and another, smaller hall and leads to the club’s otherwise quite unsightly backstage areas.

I would guess the mosaic was an original feature of the building and dates from the beginning of the 20th century, when the club was constructed (it reminded me of the floor decorations inside the former City Central Bathhouse, which also dates from the same period) – as such, it made for a really interesting contrast with the Club’s terrace tiles, which imitate the old style but were in fact put in quite recently, and the utilitarian tiles (I would guess from the 1970s) that pave much of the service areas backstage. Layer upon layer of history, and all that.

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Ever Growing, Never Aging | Sofia, Bulgaria

Sofia_growsI came across these delightfully retro-looking tiles, embedded at equal intervals into the sidewalk of a tiny street, tucked away in one of Sofia’s oldest, grandest and most aristocratic and charming neighborhoods, which occupies several blocks around the Doctor’s Garden, locked in between the Tsar Osvoboditel, Vassil Levski, Yanko Sakazov and Evlogi and Hristo Georgievi boulevards.

If I had to, I’d guess that these tiles were put in around 50 or 60 years ago, and stepping onto them somehow felt like stepping half a century back in time. The tiles are embossed with the city of Sofia’s coat of arms, which contains (clockwise, from top left): the image of a woman’s head, supposedly taken from an ancient coin and belonging to the Empress Julia Domna, which is meant to symbolize Ulpia Serdica, as Sofia was known in Roman times; the Saint Sofia Church, which is Sofia’s second oldest church (dating back to the sixth century) and which in the fourteenth century gave the city its current name (changing it from Sredets); a baldachin and a statue of Apollo Medicus, which represents all the mineral springs in and around the city; and the Vitosha Mountain, located on Sofia’s outskirts. Written just below the coat of arms is Sofia’s motto, Raste, no ne staree, which translates roughly to “Keeps Growing but Never Aging.”

The coat of arms dates back to 1900 (it was created for the city’s participation in the Paris World Expo), and the motto was added to it in 1911 – this was a great period of modernization for the city and almost all of Sofia’s now iconic buildings date back to it, many of which are actually in or around the Doctor’s Garden neighborhood. The neighborhood itself – as the place where the city’s changing (intellectual and/or political) elite has lived over the last century, captures much of Sofia’s turbulent history in a nutshell, or as the case may be, in a radius of just a few blocks. Like the tiles themselves, the entire neighborhood – although still considered very fashionable, seems to belong to a bygone era and whenever I walk around its cobblestone-covered streets, I feel like I can still smell the old spirit of Sofia in the air.

Lady of the keys | Poitiers, France

According to local legend, when the city of Poitiers was besieged by the English in 1202, the mayor’s clerk promised to bring the keys to the city to them in exchange for a lot of money. But when he tried to steal the keys in the night, the clerk found that they had disappeared from the mayor’s office. In the morning, upon discovering that the keys were missing and that treason had been committed, the mayor went to pray and request a miracle at the church of Notre Dame la Grande, where he discovered the keys in the hands of a Virgin Mary statue. In the meantime, according to the legend, the English armies – disconcerted by the appearance of both Mary and the local saints Hilary and Radegund fell into disarray, started to fight among themselves and eventually fled the city.

Unfortunately for Poitiers’ pride, this is only a legend. According to historical fact, in 1202, Poitou formed part of the English duchy of Aquitaine, under the reigns of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. During the actual battle for the city in 1356, the English beat the French, captured their king and only released him for an enormous ransom.

Oh well.

Canyon of Heroes | New York, USA

Even though I keep an on-going lists of grounds I want to see, photograph and write about, I am rarely so organized when it comes to carrying out those plans. More frequently, what tends to happen is this: I simply stumble upon grounds that look interesting, take photos of them, even though I have no idea what it is that I’m standing on (unless it is self-explanatory) and only later, as I sit down to write about it and do some research, do I find out its meaning and significance and, usually, kick myself for not knowing about it beforehand, as to have taken better and more informed photos.

That is what happened as I waited to meet my friend Maria on the corner of Fulton and Broadway in the Financial District. As I leaned against the fence of the Saint Paul Chapel, I noticed some black granite strips with inscriptions along the sidewalk. Since I didn’t have time to look at them carefully and didn’t want to stray too far from our meeting spot, I just quickly snapped some photos of the ones around me and could not, for the life of me, figure out what those dates and names meant.

It turns out that there are more than 200 of those inscriptions along the Canyon of Heroes – the section of lower Broadway, where the city’s ticker-tape parades traditionally proceed, in which shredded paper (originally actual ticker tape, but now mostly confetti) is thrown from nearby office buildings onto the parade route, creating a snowstorm-like flurry.

Traditionally advancing northward from Bowling Green to City Hall Park, ticker-tape parades have been taking place in New York City since the 1880’s, in celebration of all kinds of events and in honor of the personalities behind them.The inscriptions on the black granite strips list honorees – mostly people and sometime events, of past ticker-tape parades and their dates – from war and sports victories, through national and foreign dignitaries’ visits, to sea rescues, a flight over the North Pole and various other landmark flights, to space missions and expeditions to Antarctica. The first (impromptu) ticker-tape parade took place on October 28, 1886 to commemorate the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, while the most recent one (very much planned, I imagine) took place on February 7, 2012, in celebration of the New York Giants’ win of the Super Bowl XLVI.

The full list represents a kind of compact and skewed modern history of the world and sheds light into the ever-changing tastes of New Yorkers, when it comes to what and whom to celebrate. Looking at it, I see many that I wish had known about and taken pictures of:

  • June 18, 1910: Theodore Roosevelt, following return from his African safari;
  • April/May ??, 1921: Albert Einstein (the only scientist to ever receive a ticker tape parade tribute);
  • August 27, 1926: Gertrude Ederle, first woman to swim the English Channel and September 10, 1926: Amelia Gade Corson, first mother and second woman to swim the English Channel;
  • October 18, 1926: Queen Marie of Romania;
  • After 1936 Berlin Olympics, Jesse Owens following winning four gold medals in Nazi Germany;
  • November 18, 1947: U.S.-to-Europe “Friendship Train” bearing gifts and supplies;
  • September 17, 1949: Forty-eight European journalists on “American discovery” flight around United States;
  • November 13, 1951: Women of the armed forces;
  • May 20, 1958: Van Cliburn, winner of the Moscow International Tchaikovsky Competition (the only musician to ever receive a ticker tape parade tribute);
  • January 10, 1969: Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, and William A. Anders, following the Apollo 8 mission to the Moon and August 13, 1969: Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, and Michael Collins, following Apollo 11 mission to the Moon;
  • October 3, 1979: Pope John Paul II;
  • January 30, 1981: American hostages released from Iran;
  • June 20, 1990: Nelson Mandela of South Africa.

Things were different back in 1626 | New York, USA

And the fact that the East River covered what are now several square miles of streets, sidewalks and buildings in Lower Manhattan back then was the least impressive.

In 1626, the Dutch – who had been using the southern tip of Manhattan as a fur trading post, purchased the entire island from the Lenape, a Native American tribe, for 60 guilders (whose value was estimated at about $1000 in 2006) and called it New Amsterdam.

About four decades later, in 1664, the Dutch surrendered New Amsterdam to the English, who promptly renamed it New York, in exchange for Dutch control over Run, which was deemed to be a much more valuable asset at the time.

The fact that I just had to look up what Run is (a 3-by-1 km island which is now part of Indonesia, if you’re curious) just goes to show the Dutch lack of foresight, although it is anybody’s guess if New York would have become what it is today had it remained under control of the Netherlands. Somehow, “If I can make it there / I’ll make it anywhere / It’s up to you / New Amsterdam, New Amsterdam” doesn’t have the same ring to it, but who knows, it might be just a prejudice on my part.

Nautical theme | Nea Skioni, Greece

Three things:

1. Today marks the 100th anniversary since the sinking of Titanic – an event that caused the death of 1,514 people (making it one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history) and that, in the century that followed, became the iconic subject of endless paraphernalia, books, movies, exhibitions and proverbial sayings. (I highly recommend reading this unusual story about the mark left by the Titanic’s sinking on an otherwise unremarkable Bulgarian village.)

2. The color of the Aegean that you can see on the left edge of the right picture above is exactly what I had in mind when I wanted to paint my living room’s wall “the color of the sea”. I almost gave up, as I looked for paint everywhere and almost became convinced that this color doesn’t exits anywhere but in my imagination, but finally had it made especially (to pretty great results, if I say so myself – you can see the resulting wall color here).

3. The first glimpse of the sea still takes my breath away, although it was neither the first time I saw the sea this year (after the Atlantic in January and the Mediterranean in February), nor was it the long-awaited first sight of the Black Sea from my childhood (that I have written about here).

I’ve spent the last 40 minutes trying to pick one of these three things around which to spin a nautically-themed post, but then I thought, why not include all of them? Then, I proceeded to ignore the possible answers to that question (such as: because they are neither related nor equally compelling or interesting to read) and did it anyway. I hope you find something worthwhile here either way, and – at worst, that I’ve made you think and dream of the sea, which is never a bad thing. And by never, I mean all the times you do it while managing to banish nagging thoughts of maritime disasters.

Albi, the exceptional | Albi, France

The town of Albi, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was so breathtakingly beautiful that I couldn’t help but take my eyes off the ground and look up and be smitten by its rusty pink townscape: the old brick houses, huddled together along the banks of the River Tarn; the graceful church of Saint Madeleine and the Saint Salvi cloisters; the remarkable cathedral of Saint Cécile, which – having been built over a period of 200 years is still the largest brick building in the world, the millenium-old bridges; and, of course, the imposing Palais de la Berbie, which looked more like a fortress than a palace, with its perfectly symmetrical and “remarkable” French garden.

The views were so stunning that even I was compelled to make an exception and temporarily abandon my preoccupation with taking pictures of feet.

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Well, ok, not entirely. And only temporarily.

When I did manage to look back down at the ground, I discovered that, luckily for me, Albi’s grounds didn’t disappoint either and were as filled with the character, detail, history, layers and colors as its architecture.

[Thanks, Emerich, Adeline and Naomi, for the tour and the gracious hosting. :)]

When the Zeitgeist falls out of step with the times | Sofia, Bulgaria

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the inspiring intervention with the Soviet Red Army monument in the center of Sofia. Overnight, an anonymous graffiti artist transformed a part of the monument, which until then had featured a group of heavily armed Russian soldiers and partisans going into battle, into a colorful posse of comic book characters, superheroes and popular culture icons. Spray-painted underneath the unlikely congregation, a caption read: “In step with the times.”

The short-lived intervention was not just masterfully carried out, but also managed, with a single sweep, to raise issues that have been brewing for years on so many different levels: from pure aesthetics to discussions about contemporary art, national symbols, history and politics.

I thought it was brilliant.

Just four days later, the superheroes disappeared as quickly and as mysteriously as they appeared. In a move that must have put the guerrilla graffiti artist to shame with its swiftness and secrecy, the Sofia Municipality had the monument scrubbed clean in the middle of the night.

A couple of weeks after the superheroes’ short-lived appearance, I went to see the monument again – now mostly back to its usual black. Although only traces of colorful paint now testify for its brief transformation, they still stand as a reminder that this momentous (and momentary) transformation ever happened. Although public debate on the intervention has mostly died down by now, the passing of time seems to be doing nothing to diminish my fascination with it.

Not entirely by chance, my visit to the monument was preceded by a trip to the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Sofia, which – in what is surely not a mere coincidence either, opened on the exact day on which the soldiers and partisans woke up as Superheroes. But even without this contrast, Sofia’s new museum of contemporary art is a confusing and sad place.

Visitors are first met by a stone plaque that reads “Museum of Contemporary Art,” which looks more like a tombstone on a grave than anything else. A path among decidedly un-contemporary sculptures then leads to the museum’s entrance. The turn-of-the-century, former arsenal building has been brought up to date in the most superficial and unengaged way I could imagine – by renovating its original façade and smacking some iron and glass appendixes onto it. Inside, the opening exhibition isn’t any less perplexing: in one corner of the space, a couple of Christo and Jeanne-Claude lithographs uncomfortably rub shoulders with a few silver-framed Chagalls and Picassos. The main exhibition consists of decorative ceramics from Norway.

I was dumbfounded, the earnest assurances from the ladies working in the museum that contemporary sculptures will be put in the park behind the museum and the current exhibition will be replaced by a permanent, presumably contemporary one, doing little to ease my uneasy state.

To add insult to injury, as a final stroke, the abbreviated name commonly used to refer to the museum in Bulgarian is SAMSI (Sofia Arsenal – Museum for Contemporary Art). In Bulgarian, ‘sam si’ means ‘you are alone’.