Ottoman Mosque Architecture

by Steven Brenner

Were I to choose my religion based solely on the places of worship, there’s no doubt it would be Islam.

Coming from Rome, with over 400 churches, it’s amazing to see the contrast in Istanbul -  the largest city in the middle east, with the greatest number of active mosques (almost 3,000).

When we think of typical mosque architecture, with the dome and minarets, we’re really thinking of Ottoman mosque architecture, developed in the 14th and 15th century.

Normally when I travel, I don’t do much sightseeing unless I can do it with a knowledgeable guide who can help me understand and appreciate it properly.  I prefer taking one guided tour on a specific subject that’s really in depth rather than spending a week on my own roaming around sites that I don’t fully connect with.  So in Istanbul, to better understand the history of the mosques (which in turn reveals a great deal about the relationship between people and their religion) I went on 3 hour walk by Context Travel (which lasted 5 hours!), focusing on just 2 of the most important mosques designed by Sinan, the great Ottoman architect. We visited Sehzade Camii, dedicated to Suleyman’s son, Prince Mehmet and the complex of Sultan Suleyman “the Magnificent”.

After taking off our shoes, careful to not touch any sacred ground, we would sit and discuss the various elements of each building, using photocopied images from our guide to help put things in context.

The Catholic churches of Italy that I’m so used to – those overwhelming, overly ornate places with so much iconography -  don’t always succeed in making me feel closer to God.  In Sehzade Camii, my first impression is how nice it is to not have every inch of space covered with images and stories.  Instead, there’s beautiful Arabic script flowing along the walls and ceiling.

My second impression is how much what seems to be decoration is really so much more.  The Islamic scholars were very advanced mathematically.  This geometry is symbolic of the universe – a  place of elegance, of sense, of structure, and this sacred mathematics seemingly brings us closer to God.

Visiting the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are of course on everyone’s list of sites to see in Istanbul.  I highly recommend visiting Sehzade Camii and Suleyman’s, especially with a knowledgeable guide.

Here’s a little video interview I did of our guide and expert, Yavuz Sezer.



Barcelona – City of Chocolate

by Amy Knauff

This is probably going to sound crazy (or obnoxious), but I’m currently living in a Central American country with a tropical climate and… I miss autumn! I can just picture readers out there glaring mental daggers at me, or getting ready to submit this post to Don’t get me wrong, having beach weather almost year-round is pretty awesome. But autumn has been my favorite season my whole life, so when I see friends posting pictures on Facebook of gorgeous red-gold-orange-yellow trees, sidewalks filled with satisfyingly crunchy leaves, and trips with their kids to pumpkin patches or apple orchards, I can’t help getting a little nostalgic for my old East Coast autumns.

And the food! Don’t get me started on the food I’m missing… those hearty comfort foods that can only be truly enjoyed and appreciated when it’s chilly outside. The ham stews and pumpkin pies of my childhood. And from my years living in Italy, roasted chestnuts, pasta with funghi porcini, truffles. And one of my favorite cool-weather, warm-you-up treats? Hot chocolate!

Actually, I find chocolate in general much more satisfying when in cool weather. As I sit here in the tropics sweating and being bitten by mosquitos, I don’t really crave melty, messy, super-sweet chocolate (try a refreshing fresh-squeezed lemonade instead). But oh, when it’s gray and bitter outside, nothing gets those endorphins moving like a gorgeous dark chocolate truffle.

My European friends tell me that the cool weather has finally hit there. It’s nearly November, summer is well and done by now, and it’s time to really embrace the fall and everything that comes with it. If you’re visiting Barcelona around this time, I cannot emphasize enough that you should not miss all the delicious chocolatey treats you’ll find around the city.

I always knew that chocolate con churros was famous in Barcelona — and on my first visit I made sure to try the thick, gooey hot chocolate accompanied by fried churros sprinkled in sugar. It was the perfect rainy December afternoon merinda. (It’s also a favorite post-discoteca snack in the wee hours of the morning among young Spaniards, much like a trip to a 24-hour diner in the US, or a cappuccino and freshly baked cornetto in Italy.)

But it wasn’t until I took Context Travel’s “City of Chocolate” tour last time I was there (oh god! a whole tour about CHOCOLATE!) that I realized the importance of chocolate to Barcelona. When thinking about chocolate in Europe, Switzerland or Belgium probably pops into your mind: but it turns out that Spain was actually the first place that chocolate arrived in the Old World, when Columbus brought back unprocessed cacao beans with him into the port of Barcelona. In fact, after taking the chocolate tour, I suddenly started seeing chocolate shops and granjas (cafés that specialize in chocolate and sweets) all over the place when I hadn’t even noticed them before.

The “City of Chocolate” tour is led by Esther, a native Catalana with perfect English, who met us near the port and led us around the city for about 3 hours, ending in the Eixample neighborhood just north of the Old City. Context keeps their tours small (my group only had 5 people), which means you can get to know each other and the guide during the tour, easily ask questions, and the guide can personalize the tour a bit based on what the group seems to be interested in.

During the 3 hours Esther mixed a good amount of chocolate history and culture in Barcelona with interesting tidbits about the city, commenting on things as we walked, both chocolate-related and non-. I learned odds and ends that I wouldn’t have from a guidebook, like:

-the Columbus statue in the port is meant to be pointing to the New World, but it’s actually pointing in the wrong direction

-the bronze plaques you see on the ground in front of some stores signify that it’s an historic food shop

-thick, bitter hot chocolate drinks were used to keep sailors energetic, full, and warm during long trips (without weighing the ships down with too much food)

-the street performers on Las Ramblas actually have to audition and get permits to perform there

But of course the most fun part of the tour is the tasting. Esther brought us to Granja Dulcinea, one of the oldest granjas in the city, where we sat down and tried hot chocolate with melindros (a ladyfinger-like cookie) as well as a bottled cold chocolate drink called Cacaolat (which kind of looks like a Yoo-Hoo… remember those?).

We stopped in three chocolate shops later on in the tour — first at one of the oldest ones of the city (with one of those historic plaques in front), Fargas, where we saw a piece of old-fashioned chocolate-processing machinery and lots of different kinds of classic chocolate bonbons. Esther picked out several different flavors for each of us to taste-test as we walked along to our next tour stop. The second tasting stop was at a sweets store/café on Las Ramblas, filled with interesting, trendier chocolate designs and combinations, where we tried chocolate-covered mint leaves and bright red chocolate lips. Our final stop at the end of the tour was a modern, elegant shop filled with gorgeous, perfectly arranged chocolate bonbons of all different types, both classic flavors and unusual ones (ginger, Caribbean lime, strawberry-champagne, etc). Everybody on my tour was so chocolated-out by then that we all opted to take our chocolates away to have later, once we’d come down from the sugar high.

The “City of Chocolate” tour is a must-do for chocolate lovers like me. (By the way, there’s also a chocolate museum in Barcelona — not included on the tour — that looks like it’d be worth a visit: If you’re not a chocolate fanatic, Context Travel offers plenty of other tours you can choose from — on food, art, architecture, history, and even tours geared towards kids — in Barcelona and in 15 other European cities, 4 US cities, and 2 Asian cities. Visit their website for details.

Sketching Rome with Kelly Medford

by Steven Brenner

I don’t draw.  Or paint.  The only people who have ever seen my attempts at art are my kids when we draw together and although they think I’m pretty awesome, it’s still not something I’d want to pass around or have on display.  But I wanted to try Kelly Medford’s Sketch Rome Tour because she said it was open to all, and I thought it sounded a like a good, unique idea.

We met at the Pincio at the Villa Borghese overlooking Piazza del Popolo.  We were two people on the tour so she had a lot of time for us.  First, she gives you a sketch kit that you get to keep.  It includes a sketch book that she hand-makes with a variety of papers – not too big as to be intimidating, and with paper that’s designed for different mediums.  There is a pencil with sharpener, a pen, and a watercolor kit with a brush that contains its own water tube.

Kelly goes over a few techniques, which we then experiment with – line drawing, shading, drawing just the mass without lines.  We moved through the park, choosing statues and trees and benches as our subjects, progressing from pencil to ink to watercolors (with a stop for coffee along the way).

When you’re clearly stuck, Kelly can show you what you’re doing wrong.  For example, I tried to do some clouds and they looked horrible.  Kelly showed me how clouds actually fit into the perspective and how to reproduce them – easy to do once she points out why things look the way they do.  These little hints help bring you closer to putting what you see on paper, but they aren’t so technically oriented that you lose your intuition and your freedom to draw however you want.

My tour-mate’s awesome watercolor.

And that’s part of Kelly’s point – not to make you a good artist or a better artist (although that’s part of it) but more to share this activity that she really loves with people who might have never considered it.  Since I had my camera with me I shot a little interview where Kelly gives you the scoop herself:

Tours are 3 hours and well worth it for the sketch kit alone.  Kelly can be found on the web at:

Kelly Medford’s Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Instagram


Lisbon tour guides you love to hate

by Steven Brenner

I was working through my list of stuff to see and do – the neighborhoods I wanted to visit, the Moorish castle in Sintra, Belém, a few beaches along the Cascais train line… – but I wanted to know what I might be missing.  So I googled something to the effect of “different things to do in Lisbon” and the first thing that popped up was We Hate Tourism Tours (WHTT).

I’m a sucker for their punk rock attitude and surf style designs, but I also could tell they were on to something different and unique.

I wanted to know about things that were overlooked in Lisbon.  I wanted to know the unusual stuff that could easily slip under a tourist’s radar.  It was clear that’s what these guys were about – they’re more than guides, they make the magic that happens when you visit friends who know and love their city.

For 25 to 45 euro, depending on the tour, they’ll take you around Lisbon, or to Sintra and Cascais or into the Bairro Alto for dinner.  They also have a “pirates” tour and are in the midst of creating a “crooks of Lisbon” tour as well.

Are they just for the young and hip?  Well, reading their many positive reviews on Tripadvisor, I get the impression that their clients represent a pretty wide mix of ages and backgrounds.  Clearly these guys aren’t set out to only capture the ex-skater dads like myself – they offer something way beyond the scripted history lesson or flag carrying guide with a microphone.  They want you to truly know the city and to help you understand the Portuguese mentality and culture, why things are the way they are, combining history and facts with a hand’s on experience of Lisbon life.  They want you to be a temporary local.

The founder, Bruno, told me this story that puts who they are and what they do into perspective:

It’s the early days of the company and Bruno has decided that when he schedules a tour, it’s going to go even if there’s only one person.  So he pulls up to the meeting point in his black, open top vintage jeep and meets his client – a single, American guy, who jumps in and asks Bruno if he’s the only person on the tour.  Bruno says, “yeah” and the American guy responds, “well, you’re not going to make much money today!”

“Thats ok – maybe I’ll make a friend instead!” Bruno says.

I met three of their guides – Jose, who was doing his first day in training as a driver, and who manages this apartment just above the old Bairro Alto quarter that’s famous for its nightlife.  I met Marcos, a smiling surfer guy who is clearly into what he does and never tires of infecting people with his love of Lisbon, and Bruno, the founder (and now friend).  They’re about 7 people strong and run a few tours a day, rain or shine, despite how many people sign up.  However, I think the days of having just 1 person on a tour are long gone!

For great local info from the WHTT crew, follow these links:

Only with Locals map of Lisbon

Lisboa Lovers (photo blog)

Lisbon google map for travelers and “temporary locals”

Check them out, or as they say on their site, “stay home and cry!”

Florence’s Bargello Museum: more naked men per capita than the Uffizi

by Alexandra Korey

Much loved in the 19th century, the national museum of sculpture in Florence, better known as the
Bargello, now sees a much smaller flow of tourists than the flashier Uffizi and Accademia. While there
are reproductions of the Uffizi’s colourful paintings and the very famous David on everything from
serious books to less serious men’s underwear, the duller stone and bronze works housed at the
Bargello seem unable to compete.


The reality is that the Bargello houses more naked men per capita than the Uffizi, and does not lack in
famous names either: with its 3 Michelangelos, one ought not to snivel at it. It’s also pretty colourful,
since it’s got a great collection of maiolica (glazed terracotta). I know that many short-visit tourists don’t
go to the Bargello since there are, apparently, more important options. But I was surprised to hear
that many Florentines have never been there. This museum contains sculptures that put Florence
on the map – works by Donatello that essentially began the Renaissance. How strange that my friends
had never been inside.

While the Uffizi is getting new signage, services and spaces, the Bargello lags behind in modern
museology, making it useful to take a qualified tour (I like Context Travel) if you don’t happen to have
an art historian handy. Museums like this require narration to be understood and fully appreciated. You
could print this post and bring it with you, and that’d be like having an art historian in your pocket. To
complete this effect I’m going to walk you through the space chatting as if you were my best friend. I’ve
turned off my scholarly voice.

There is no map available to visitors of the Bargello, so you’re going to have to use your imagination.
After you purchase your ticket, you’ll enter an open courtyard that has an imposing stone staircase on
its right side. The courtyard is decorated with hundreds of coats-of-arms of the podestà, the head of
Florentine government who resided here. The building dates to 1255, with many subsequent additions
and alterations. This history helps explain the rather illogical arrangement of rooms and the steps that
separate them even on the same level. When the Medici had full control of Florence, the role of the
building and of the podestà turned toward law enforcement, and later it became the city jail. Only in
1840, thanks to the discovery of some frescoes, was this use of the building revoked (the jail was moved
to Le Murate, where it stayed until 1985, and that building has now been renovated and turned into a
cultural complex).

The rooms in this museum are not arranged chronologically, in that the first room to the right,
near the stairwell, houses the Michelangelo and Michelangelesque sculptures. If you were to do
things “right,” you might first head upstairs to the Donatello room, complete the second floor with the
Verrocchio room, and then head down to Michelangelo at the end. This order of rooms would present a
traditional “progressive improvement” view of art history that can be helpful for the simple reason that
students keep styles and artists’ names in their head best if taught things in order.

As you’re not a student, feel free to check out Michelangelo’s Bacchus in that ground floor room first.
He’s a youthful work by Mike, and what I think is coolest is the way that marble is made to look like soft
flesh. Drunkenness requires a softness of focus that is not easy to render in hard stone. The other works

in this room are less spectacular, but the Pitti Tondo is a nice way to see Michelangelo’s work in

The largest room in the Bargello is on the first floor: the Donatello room contains, as you might
imagine, sculptures by this man who first used the natural contrapposto pose that characterizes early
Renaissance sculpture. Compare two Davids by Donatello with the more famous David by Michelangelo
at the Accademia! Don’t miss the snarky naked putto (cherub) in bronze, sheathed in mystery (we don’t know
when he was made, nor what he really represents).

This room has two possible exits – a door toward the back of the room, or the door through which
you originally came. Take the latter if you want to get to the loggia in which there are some fun bronze
sculptures of animals. Take the former if you like strange Ottoman bronze objects. In the intermittent
rooms are decorative objects in metal, maiolica, and ivory. There is a large glass case that contains
jewelry and cameos that I find particularly fascinating. There is a ring that has a velvet lining for
comfortable wear, an item that particularly intrigued me when I first came here as a student.

There’s a frescoed chapel with a pretty good scene of tortured souls in Hell and what is claimed to be
a portrait of Dante on the altar wall. In the glass cases at the back of the room don’t miss the small
enamel and silver plaques that are some of the most amazing goldsmith work you’ll ever see.

Many people seem to miss the upper level of this museum which houses a huge coin collection, a room
full of miniature bronze sculptures, another dedicated to seriously gaudy maiolica by the Della Robbia
Family, and finally the Verocchio room. The star of this room is yet another statue that represents
David, so of course you’ll want to compare him to the Donatellos you saw downstairs. On the left
wall just inside the door is a fascinating bas-relief that represents the story of a woman who died in
childbirth and the grief of her husband, who commissioned this work. It’s one of the most touching pieces
in Renaissance art history.

Alexandra Korey no longer teaches art history, preferring blog readers to students, since if you’re still
reading this, you’re really interested in hearing what I have to say. You can read more of her ramblings
about life in Florence with an aesthete’s eye on her blog