Lower Mahattan, seen in the magical light of the bright spring sunshine in April this year:
Lower Mahattan, seen in the magical light of the bright spring sunshine in April this year:
While we in Singapore are being distracted this 11 September by what may be the most closely contested election since independence, the United States and much of the World will be remembering a day 14 years ago that must not be forgotten. 14 years on, the United States and New York City seems to have since assumed a air of normalcy, at least from what I saw of the city in April. Worst hit by the savage act of terrorism, it does seems well on the road to recovery even if the events are indelibly etched into the psyche of every New Yorker. Ground Zero, which is being regenerated, today represents the resilience of the American spirit. Much like a phoenix that has risen from the ashes, a new and taller structure has risen, One World Trade Center, which now stands as the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.
Rebuilding the World Trade Center
I never tire of railway stations, especially the grand stations of old in which one can quite easily be transported back to an age when rail travel might have seemed to be all about the romance of it.
A grand old station I found myself passing through quite recently was in Hoboken, New Jersey, just across the Hudson from the Big Apple. Being on the waterfront, it was built in 1907 to also connect with trolley buses and ferry services to Lower Manhattan. This was later extended to the subway. As an early intermodal transport hub completed before the first road tunnels were dug under the Hudson, the terminal served an important role in the movement of man and material across the river to a New York in the midst of transformation. In its heyday, the terminal boasted a YMCA residence,completed in 1922 and hosted a mail sorting facility.
The station is one that oozes with the charm of the old world, seen especially in its Beaux-Arts inspired architecture. It is a style found in several iconic stations of the era, one of which was Paris’ beautiful former Gare d’Orsay, now the Musée d’Orsay. Outwardly, the terminal’s copper clad appearance takes us back to the age of its construction. The copper, added for fire resistance – a requirement that was especially necessary seeing that the previous terminal had been consumed by a huge fire just two years prior to its construction, was quite readily available. There was as an excess of the metal procured for the erection of the area’s most famous landmark, the Statue of Liberty, which would otherwise have had to be sold for scrap.
The most eye-catching and charming part of the terminal is its Waiting Room. The spacious room has a ceiling that rises to a height of 55 feet (about 17 metres) and is crowned by the most impressive of skylights. The daylight that filters through the skylight, constructed of Tiffany stained glass, casts a warm and welcoming glow on the limestone and bronze finishes of the luxuriously decorated room; as do its bronze chandeliers in the hours of darkness.
Looking around, one can understand why Hoboken Terminal has been described as the most impressive and striking of the five terminals that were found along the New Jersey Hudson waterfront. It now is the last of the five still is in use. Another survivor, the Central Railroad of New Jersey terminal at Jersey City, from which operations had been terminated in 1967, stands today only as a conserved building within Liberty State Park. The Jersey City terminal and Hoboken Terminal, have both been designated as historic sites and are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Hoboken Terminal’s architect, Kenneth Murchison, was a graduate of Columbia and the Paris based École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts and a notable practitioner of the Beaux-Arts style. Hoboken was one of several railway station projects Murchison was involved with. His work includes another station for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad (for which Hoboken was built) at Scranton in 1908, which has since been transformed into a hotel.
Following the opening of the Holland Tunnel at the end of the 1920s, the Lincoln Tunnel at the end of the 1930s, and the introduction of three new subway services across the Hudson in the 1930s, demand for railway and ferry services began to fall off. The gradual decline was to lead to the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad merging with the Erie Railroad in 1960 to form a loss making Erie Lackawanna (EL) Railroad, which in 1970 scrapped inter-city services. By this time ferry services had already stopped in 1967. Conrail was to take over the running of EL’s commuter train services in 1976, before that passed into the hands of the State-owned New Jersey Transit (NJ Transit) in 1983.
The declining fortunes of the railway and ferry took its toll on the terminal and its upkeep. A early victim of this was the original iconic tower, which had to be dismantled in the 1950s due to concerns about its structural integrity. The station lost much of its gloss by the time ferry services had stopped and it wasn’t until 1995 that an effort was made, by NJ Transit, to restore the station to its original glory.
The first phase of the effort, which lasted until 2003, involved repairs and replacement work on the terminal’s structure, roofs and canopies, as well as a refurbishment of the majestic Waiting Room. A second phase was initiated in 2005. This gave the terminal back its iconic tower, a reconstruction, in 2007. Some of the efforts were unfortunately undone when the terminal and its Waiting Room (as well as much of Hoboken) was battered by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which required further restoration work.
The second phase also saw five of the six unused ferry slips refurbished in 2011. Ferry services have since been reintroduced. Boarding of ferries is now carried out at the level of the rail tracks and not on the second level, which had originally been equipped with a large and beautiful concourse. The second level is now used by NJ Transit and is closed to the public.
A revival of fortunes came with the restoration. The terminal today is a major hub with a better designed integration of transport services. Services now also include the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Transit (LRT) system that was introduced in 2001. With its new tower in place, the station has also regained its prominence along the lower Hudson and is today a work of architecture, even if not for the charm of the old world it exudes, that is a joy to behold.
More information on the beautiful station, its history and architecture can be found at the following links:
I love old university towns and I got to have a look at one of Spain’s oldest, Alcalá de Henares, quite recently. The university established there had its origins in 1293 as Estudio de Escuelas Generales de Alcalá and became the University of Compultense (Universitas Complutensis) in 1499 through the vision of a important church figure at the time as Spain was entering into its Golden Age, a move that was to transform the former college to one of Spain’s most important seats of learning and also lead to the expansion of Alcalá into a planned university town. Although the university has since been moved to Madrid, the city of Alcalá de Henares’ still retains much of the flavour of the old university town and has seen a revival of the old university as the University of Alcalá in more recent times.
I arrived in Alcalá de Henares in the quiet of a Saturday morning and the first glimpse I had of the city was of its quiet, neat and ordered streets lined with brick and sandstone buildings coloured gold by the light of the morning sun. Alcalá, some 30 kilometres from Madrid, seemed distant enough to be isolated from the hustle and bustle of Spain’s capital city; the dignified air of calm unsurprising perhaps of a city that was reinvented as a seat of learning.
What does surprise in Alcalá is that perhaps there is much more of it than its early weekend demeanour does suggest, the city’s glitter is one that glows not just due to to golden light of the morning, but the that of the city’s fascinatingly storied past. The city’s rich history, which has been recognised by the listing of its historic and university precincts have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1998, goes back well beyond the university or even the Moorish origins of its name, Alcalá – derived from the Arabic Al-Qal’at or fortress. This I was to very quickly realise two hours into my stay in the city.
My visit to Alcalá de Henares was the first stop in what was to turn out to be an amazing journey that also included visits to four other UNESCO World Heritage cities close to Madrid. The trip was made possible by the Spanish World Heritage Cities Group (Ciudades Patrimonio de la Humanidad de España), the Spanish Tourism Board and Thai Airways. Alcalá de Henares, located close to Madrid’s Barajas airport, made it a very convenient first stop.
One of the things that becomes very quickly apparent about Alcalá, is its association with Spain’s most celebrated literary figure, Miguel de Cervantes; Cervantes’ work, Don Quixote, an icon of a masterpiece that is considered to be one of the most important works in Spanish literature. Alcalá is where the famous writer came into the world during the days of the Spanish Golden Age and Alcalá’s heyday in 1547, and in Alcalá, we find all things Cervantes, including in and around the city’s main square that is very predictably named after him.
The main square, Plaza de Cervantes, is where the medieval town of Alcalá and the post-medieval university town meet. The formerly walled medieval town in which there was a Arab, Jewish and Chirstian quarter, lies to the east of the square. To the west is the university town and its ordered streets. In the centre of the square, the centre perhaps of Cervantes’ Alcalá, is where the writer is immortalised in a statue that stands high over the square, holding a quill in his hand.
It was to the square that I headed out to almost as soon as I put my bags down at the hotel, resisting the urge to climb into the very inviting king sized bed in the beautifully furnished room of the hotel. This despite the lack of sleep having stepped off only hours before from the 12 hour intercontinental flight.
The hotel, Alcalá de Henares’ is surprisingly modern as a Parador. Surprising because the limited experiences I have had of staying in a paradors, were of ones in which the tone of the decor of the rooms seemed to match the history of the buildings they would be found in. Paradors, luxury hotels run by the Spanish government, are usually found in historic buildings such as former palaces, castles and monasteries.
In the case of the parador in Alcalá, while it is rather interestingly set up in a 17th Century former Dominican monastery, the Convento de Santo Tomás that has also seen use as a military barracks in the 19th century and a prison in more recent times, its transformation into a parador has given it an ultra modern feel. The parador’s beautifully furnished rooms and spa, does make it all that more difficult to want to leave its premises.
At Plaza de Cervantes, the gaze of a Cervantes is towards the the plaza’s north. Following his gaze and turning west is one of the main cobbled streets of the medieval Jewish quarter, the Calle Mayor, along which the house in which Cervantes was born is found. Furnished with furniture from the era, the two-storey house with an inner courtyard typical of old Castille, is now a museum that is a must visit, especially for all interested in Cervantes’ life and work.
It was just past Cervantes’ birthplace on the Calle Mayor that a link to pre-Moorish past was to leap out at me to the beat of of a march. Making its way down the street was a religious procession. While being one very typical in the sense of the Iberian traditions as well as one commemorating a post medieval event, the 1568 return of the relics of city’s patron saints, “los Santos Niños”, Saints Justus and Pastor, the procession also tells of Alcalá’s links to Roman times. The saints, both children, had been martyred for their faith in the year 304 AD, at a time when a Roman settlement, Complutum, was established there.
Plaza de Cervantes being at the divide of the old and new Alcalá, is always a good place to start with orientating oneself with Alcalá, especially when one gets to do so high above it with an ascent of 109 steps to the top of the tower of Santa María (Torre de Santa María). Located at the square’s southern edge, the 15th century tower that was the bell tower of the Church of Santa María la Mayor, is one of the few parts of the church that escaped destruction during Spanish Civil War. The view it provides, besides that of a close-up of the storks that seem to be nesting and roosting on top of just about every red rooftop and the spire in the city, is unparalleled and provides a sense of how the city had evolved.
Lying in the shadows of the tower, are some of what has survived of the ruined church. One of the attractions the ruins contain is a reproduction of its destroyed baptismal font with pieces of the original font embedded into it. The original font was the one that featured in Cervantes’ baptism in October 1547 and its recreation can now found in the surviving El Oidor chapel. The chapel along with the Antezana chapel are where an Interpretation Centre for the Universes of Cervantes (Los Universos de Cervantes) is now housed. What is also interesting is that the archway that leads to the El Oidor chapel is beautifully decorated with a 16th century grille and beautifully executed Mudéjar plasterwork.
Besides the ruins, there are also several other interesting historical structures around the square. One I was able to visit is in the south-eastern corner close to the tower, a two-storey Castilian courtyard building from the 16th century that served as a guesthouse or hostel for university students. The house’s structure has been well preserved along with the courtyard and its laundry well. Used by the municipality in more recent times, two rooms on the upper floor of the building have now been reoccupied by the university.
A structure of significance lies on the western side of the square. This, the Corral de Comedias, constructed as an open air or courtyard theatre or corral de comedias in 1601, is the oldest in the country to have survived and also one of the oldest theatres still in use in Europe.
Modelled after Spain’s first purpose built theatre, the Corral de la Cruz, Alcalá’s corral was originally laid out as all early purpose built theatres in Spain were, replicating the layout and arrangement found in the makeshift theatres that preceded them. The makeshift theatres utilised courtyards of inns and houses and had a stage placed at one end and as with the makeshift arrangements, the purpose-built ones that were a natural progression also featured balconies and boxes on the upper levels of the three free sides, where the audience, segregated according to social status and gender, could watch the performance from.
Over time, the Corral de Comedias underwent several transfromations, including the addition of the horseshoe shaped theatrical seating facing the stage in 1831. From 1945 to 1971, the theatre saw use as a cinema, after which it was abandoned. It wasn’t until the 1980s that a massive effort was made to restore it, which was completed only in 2003 when the grand dame’s dignity was restored through its use as a theatre.
One of the surprising things I learnt about Alcalá, was that it was here that the seeds of the Spanish sponsored adventure led by Christopher Columbus into the new world was planted. The city, serving as the location of the first meeting of the Venetian with Queen Isabella and where the expedition was planned, the events taking place in and around the very majestic Archbishop’s palace tucked away in an area of the city northwest of the main square.
The palace is especially interesting in that it was built as a residence for the Archbishop of Toledo, the highest ranking member of the clergy in the Catholic church in Spain and through much of Castille’s and Spain’s history, one of the country’s most influential positions, in 1209. Its architecture bears the influences of its long history and within its walls resided not just powerful church men, bit also served as the residence of kings and queens, including Ferdinand and Isabella and in which their daughter Catherine of Aragon, the future first wife of Henry VIII and the Queen of England, was born in 1485. It the annulment of marriage to Catherine that Henry’ sought that was to lead to the split of the English Church from Papal authority in the 1530s.
The Church, or rather an important member of its leadership, was to have a significant influence on the revival of the city’s fortunes, which fell into decline following the expulsion of the Jews in 1496. Cardinal Cisneros, Queen Isabella’s one time confessor and a powerful member of the clergy, established a university in 1499 that was to become one of Spain’s most important seats of learning. The buildings of the university, which would be centered around the magnificent edifice of the Colegio de San Ildefonso put up by Cisneros east of the medieval town, to which I will devote more detail to in a separate post, has to be one of the highlights of a visit to Alcalá.
A visit to Alcalá, as in the rest of Spain, would of course, not be complete without indulging in its gastronomic offerings. There is a mix of old and new, traditional and fusion that can be found along the city’s streets. The parador for one, offers two restaurants, in which a full meal can be savoured for a reasonable outlay and is great value for money. One is in the more traditional setting of the Restaurante Hostería del Estudiante across the street from the main lobby of the parador at the former Colegio Menor de San Jerónimo. The other in a more contemporary setting of the Restaurante de Santo Tomás set in the cloisters of the former Convento de Santo Tomás.
There is also the chance to savour the more modern interpretations of traditional dishes in more contemporary settings in Alcalá, with restaurants such Plademunt in the quiet streets of the new part of the city and Ambigú in the historic quarter, just by the Teatro Salón Cervantes. Both restaurants are helmed by young culinary talents. On offer at Plademunt are the extraordinary tapas creations of Ivan Plademunt that feature some very traditional and hearty working class comfort foods from the region such as migas and atascaburras as well as pinchos of pintxos from the Basque country.
Ambigú’s offerings include many favourites including grilled octopus, sardines and a dessert to die for, torrija. The utterly sinful dessert, traditionally served during Lent and the Holy Week, is made from a base of bread soaked in milk and is similar to the English bread and butter pudding, only better!
It was a pity lunch at Ambigú can on the back of a visit to Esencias Del Gourmet on Calle Mayor just around Cervantes’s birthplace . The proprietor of Esencias Del Gourmet holds a fun yet enlightening food and wine appreciation experience, which was to provide me not only with a much better appreciation of wine and how fine foods can complement wine and bring out its flavours, but also a full stomach that left me with little room for much more.
I first caught sight of the Mimizuka (耳塚) in the fading light of dusk. What can best be described as a mound of earth topped with a gorinto – a five-tiered pagoda often used as gravestones; the Mimizuka looked mysterious and curiously out of place against the backdrop of the line of low lying roofs silhouetted against the twilight sky. Surrounded by what largely is a quiet residential neighbourhood in the Higashiyama district of of Kyoto, the mound, I was to discover, stands as a relic of a brutal past.
Translated from Japanese as “Mound of Ears”, it is where the remains of tens of thousands of humans are buried. Originally named as the “Mound of Noses” or Hanazuka (鼻塚), the remains it contains are in fact noses – those that were severed from at least 38,000 Koreans killed during the Japanese military expeditions into the peninsula initiated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi at the end of the 1500s. Preserved in brine and shipped to Japan as trophies, the noses were buried at the location in 1597 during the time of the second invasion of Korea.
It is in an area that is very much associated with Toyotomi Hideyoshi that one finds the rather macabre monument, just down the very generously proportioned Shomen-dori (正面通) that runs west from the Toyokuni Jinja (豊国神社), a shrine dedicated to the cruel but much revered daimyo.
The area is also where the grand Hoko-ji (方広寺) temple housing the great Buddha of Kyoto was put up by Toyotomi Hideyoshi – intended to rival the Daibutsu, or giant Buddha, of Nara, in scale. Much of the temple, construction of which began in 1586, and its Buddha was destroyed in an earthquake in 1596 and only its bell has survived to this day.
More information can on the little known Mimizuka can be found in a New York Times article written for the 400th anniversary of the mound, Japan, Korea and 1597: A Year That Lives in Infamy as well as in a Wikipedia entry. More on the Hoko-ji, the Toyokuni Jinja and the area can also be found at this site.
The arrival of Spring, Spring Airlines that is, did spring me a pleasant surprise. That came in the form of an to, quite literally as it did turn out, soak Shanghai up over a weekend, the weekend that coincided with the launch of the Shanghai based Low Cost Carrier’s Shanghai to Singapore route.
The launch of the route, coupled with the no-frills carrier’s attractive fares (overall, Spring’s fares are said to be some 30% below their competitors), does make Shanghai, just five hours away, a rather appealing destination for that short break away from Singapore.
Spring, which was founded in 2005 and operates a fleet of Airbus A320 aircraft – one of the world’s youngest fleets, sells its tickets directly through their website and mobile apps. Flying over 50 routes, which are mostly domestic, it does have offer several international destinations in Japan, with the latest offering being Singapore.
More than any other city in China, Shanghai has a fascinating mix of the vestiges of what was a rather colourful past together with the emblems of its current renaissance driven by its position as the financial centre of a booming land of opportunity. Within easy reach of several other popular culturally rich destinations such as Suzhou and Hangzhou and several water towns, Shanghai does seem to have it all for the traveller, whether on a short break or on a lengthier trip. A big plus is the excellent public transport network does make travelling to many of its attractions quite a breeze. In its shops, cafés, and eateries, ranging from the trendy to the traditional, as well as its bazaars and markets, it does have an appeal for many especially so from Singapore.
I had two full days at my disposal. While that didn’t quite give me enough time to fully appreciate what the city and its environs did have to offer, the Shanghai I did see, even on what did turn out to be a rain soaked weekend, did have a huge appeal to both the photographer and the traveller in me.
The rain did bring an air of freshness and joy to the streets of Shanghai, offering an alternative perspective of Shanghai and its many sights from the umbrella painted pedestrian malls, vendors touting umbrellas at Metro station exits, to reflections of Shanghai’s famous lights colouring its nighttime streets. The rain did not as well dampen any of what Shanghai is to me all about, a city rich in contrasts and with it contradictions in its mix of old and new, tradition and modernity, and in a heritage that tells us of the meeting of east and west, a meeting that has as much to do with the clash of civilisations as it has about the embrace the civilisations did also find themselves locked into.
The contrasts and contradictions that gives Shanghai its soul is indeed very much in evidence all around. It is in Shanghai that one can take as much pleasure from sipping tea in a traditional teahouse with centuries of history behind it, as in chilling out over a slice of cheesecake and a cup of espresso in one of the many hip cafés that line the streets of what is today a very Bohemian part of Shanghai in the former French Concession.
The contrasts one will find does certainly not end in the places to chill-out at. From hairdressers, to eateries and places to shop at, sometimes just a few doors away from each other, to Shanghai’s public spaces; the collisions of time, cultures, and even ideologies, seemingly at odds with each other are very much in evidence. All of this does provide Shanghai with a rather unique flavour and one that for me is the Shanghai Story that the city did tell and it is this story I hope will come out in the posts on My Shanghai Adventure that will follow.
About Spring Airlines Shanghai to Singapore Route
Spring Airlines is China’s first and only low-cost airline, which was founded in 2005 by Spring Travel and has become a dominant player in the domestic travel market in China. Currently Spring Airlines offers flights on the Shanghai (Pudong Airport) to Singapore route three times a week. Each ticket comes with 15 kg baggage allowance (inclusive of cabin baggage). Do also look out for some of the really good travel deals Spring does also offer from time-to-time including a current offer for flights from Singapore (for travel up to 31 May 2014) that includes two nights free accommodation in a five-star hotel in Shanghai (more information including terms and conditions can be found on the Spring Airlines website).
Spring Airlines has a huge online presence (in fact their website and mobile apps account for all of their ticket bookings), and besides their website, they can be found on Facebook, Instagram, and can also be contacted through Skype (id: springairlines001).
A visit to any Southeast Asian town or city is never complete without the experience of a wet or traditional market. The market is often where the colour and life of a city can best be captured and I often enjoy a walk through one as I did on a recent trip to Yogyakarta in Central Java. One of the markets in Yogyakarta which does deserve a visit is Pasar Kranggan which can be found just down Jalan Pangeran Diponegoro from Tugu Yogyakarta (Yogyakarta Monument).