The J. Paul Getty Museum In Los Angeles: The World’s Best Free Museum?

getty museum in los angelesFrequent travelers like myself can get very jaded. The more you travel, the harder it is to find a place or an experience that really floors you. It’s very easy to bang around from one place to the next, devouring travel experiences whole and then concluding that was nice, what’s next? But every once in a great while, some place or some experience will shake me out of that spoiled, travel-induced stupor and into that giddy discovery buzz that reminds me why I travel in the first place.
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I don’t think I’ve ever had one of those delirious discovery moments at a museum though, until I visited the J. Paul Getty art museum in Los Angeles last week. I appreciate fine art and photography but before visiting the Getty I’d never really been to a museum that I didn’t want to leave.


paul gauguinAside from their jaw dropping collections, the place is like an idyllic refuge of beauty and serenity perched high above a gritty and, in some ways, unattractive sprawl of a city. You pay $15 to park, but admission is free. After parking, you board an electric, cable driven tram system that whisks you ¾ of a mile up to the museum, which sits 881 feet above sea level. The museum’s designer and architect, Richard Meier, designed the place in order to give visitors the feeling of being “elevated out of their day-to-day experience” and the complex of modern white buildings, fountains and gardens feels very much like an escape from L.A’s gritty, noisy bustle.


getty museum family roomI was at the Getty, which opened in 1997, with my two little boys, ages 3 and 5, so we started our visit in the Family Room, where my sons made masks, drew, and lounged in a replica of a fancy 18th century French bed against the backdrop of replicas of some of the remarkable works of art we were about to experience. My boys insisted on wearing their masks all day and they left the Family Room in such a great mood that they happily let me wander the galleries and grounds for hours, feeling like little celebrities as loads of people stopped to compliment them on their masks.

The current headlining exhibition at the Getty is “Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance,” which focuses on art from the first half of the 14th Century and runs through February 10 (most of the same pieces will also be in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario from March 16- June 16). It’s an extraordinary collection of pieces from museums and churches around the world that’s never been displayed in one place before.

The last time I was in Florence I was 24, and spent more time courting Scandinavian backpackers than soaking up the treasures at the Uffizi and other museums, so the icons, paintings, stained glass, manuscripts and medieval books were all new to me. As was their exhibit of the earliest illuminated copies of Dante’s masterpiece “Divine Comedy.”

getty museumI’d never even heard of featured artists like Giotto di Bondone, Bernardo (Who’s Your) Daddi, and Pacino di Bonaguido before, but their works of art absolutely floored me. Seeing their ornate, colorful, majestic works of art, many of them created to honor their religious faith, and digesting the fact that they were created 700 years ago made me wonder if people in the year 2712 will be as moved by anything that’s being created today the way I was by these works of art.

We also lingered over some remarkable black and white photos of Chicago and Philadelphia from the ’60s, and really set up shop on the upper level of the West Wing, where we basked in the glory of the great impressionists and had a good laugh watching every member of a Chinese tour group dutifully pose for a photo in front of Van Gogh’s “Irises,” which the museum paid $53.9 million to acquire. Oddly enough, none seemed interested in another painting just steps away that I think is far more interesting: Paul Gauguin’s painting “The Royal End,” which depicts the severed head of a Polynesian man.

It was a glorious sunny day, and we spent time checking out the South Promontory, which is a re-creation of a desert landscape, and the Central Garden, which has a reflecting pool with a maze of 400 azalea plants, before repairing to the café, where we were in for another surprise: damn good food at reasonable prices.


view from getty museumAs we sat at an outdoor table, and tucked into some truly outstanding chicken quesadillas, basking in the warm sun like lizards and enjoying the almost-alpine views of pine trees and green mountains in the distance, I felt the bittersweet sadness that comes at the end of any great trip. I thought about buying an expensive T-shirt or coffee table book to commemorate what had been an idyllic day but decided instead to simply let the experience linger in my memory.

The truth is that I don’t just want to go back to the Getty some day – I want to live there amidst the art, the gardens, the vistas, and the wonderful cafeteria food. I don’t think I could afford the parking and the place closes at 5:30 p.m. each day, but a guy can always dream.

Note: If you have a Garmin GPS, don’t use it to find the museum, as it will get you lost in a residential neighborhood below the museum that won’t get you to the Getty. Follow the directions on the museum website. And if you can’t make it to L.A., check out the museum’s YouTube channel to get a flavor of the place.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara, SodanieChea on Flickr and the Getty Museum]

Celebrate Georgia O’Keeffe’s 125th Birthday In Santa Fe (Tres Leches Cake Is Involved)

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Mention Georgia O’Keeffe and cooking isn’t what comes to mind. But the iconic Southwestern artist was ahead of her time when it came to food. So says O’Keeffe’s former cook and assistant Margaret Wood, author of “A Painter’s Kitchen: Recipes from the Kitchen of Georgia O’Keeffe” (Red Crane Books), and “Remembering Miss O’Keeffe: Stories from Abiquiu” (Museum of New Mexico Press).

Wood shares anecdotes from her years with O’Keeffe, in an inspired demonstration class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. When not working with O’Keeffe in her Abiquiu garden, Wood procured eggs and meat from local farmers, and prepared simple, wholesome dishes such as leg of lamb with garlic and honey-mint sauce, or corn soup.

Santa Fe’s Inn on the Alameda is offering a special, “Happy Birthday, Georgia Experience” package, which includes a four-night stay for two, museum passes, a Georgia-focused class at the cooking school and more.

To purchase tickets for either event, click here, or call 505-983-4511.

[Photo credit: Inn on the Alameda]

A Day On Santa Fe’s Canyon Road

canyon roadI’m not what could be described as a patron of the arts, yet for some reason, I seem to have a knack for living in cities famed for their galleries and arts and culture scene: Vail. Lahaina. Santa Barbara. Calistoga. Telluride. Could I be a latent art groupie?

Nah. I’m just attracted to scenic places. I also spent many years waiting tables to support my writing habit, and it’s always been my belief that if I’m going to suffer for my art, then I’m sure as hell going to live someplace beautiful … where I can also make mad tips.

I’ve never lived in Santa Fe, but I’ve spent a lot of time in what’s best described as the arts epicenter of the Southwest. I’ve written of my obsession with the city’s restaurants, but my fondness for Canyon Road is more about visual, rather than prandial, pleasures. According to its official website, “within a few short blocks, visitors to Canyon Road can experience more than two centuries of the historic adobe architecture for which Santa Fe is famous…”

Located within walking distance of downtown and the Plaza, this 3/4-mile stretch of galleries, boutiques, cafes, restaurants, and artists’ studios is world-renown amongst art collectors, particularly those attracted to Southwestern and Native American themes.

For me, Canyon Road is less about the art, and more about people watching, architecture, and cultural immersion. And let’s face it: with my writer’s salary, I’m hardly in the market for “investment pieces.” The great thing about Canyon Road, however, is you don’t need money or an interest in art to enjoy it.canyon roadOver the years, I’ve spent many peaceful hours, in all four seasons, wandering Canyon Road. I especially love the enchanting adobe homes that line the side streets and far eastern end.

There’s no bad time of day to visit, but I prefer early morning, before the galleries open, when the only signs of life are dog walkers and the odd sidewalk washer. A late afternoon or evening stroll or run is my other favorite way to experience Canyon Road. The hoards of tourists are gone, and I can pop in and out of galleries as I get in some much-needed exercise (eating, as I’ve mentioned, being my other favorite activity in Santa Fe).

See
What galleries you choose to visit of course depends upon your interests. For what it’s worth, I love Pachamama, a lovely shop specializing in Spanish Colonial antiques and Latin American folk art – both passions of mine. The owner, Martha Egan, is a renown scholar of Latin folk art, and has written some excellent books on the subject. One of the reasons I enjoy this storesanta fe is that it’s full of affordable treasures. I also love Curiosa, a quirky boutique selling milagros, folk art, jewelry and other trinkets.

Eat/Drink
Canyon Road is home to some of Santa Fe’s most famous (and expensive) restaurants, including Geronimo, The Compound, and the venerable El Farol. Personally, I suggest you save your money and fuel up with breakfast at The Teahouse, located at the eastern end. In addition to things like steel-cut oatmeal and house-made granola, they make absolutely insane, gluten-free “scones (more like muffins)” topped with a mantle of crusty melted cheese, green chiles and a soft-boiled egg.

If you’re jonesing to start your day with authentic New Mexican food, you can do no better than the pork or chicken tamales at Johnnie’s Cash Store (above), less than a ten-minute walk from the galleries, on Camino Don Miguel. Go early, and as the name implies, bring cash. Five dollars will fill you up.
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While you may want to skip the more spendy places for a meal, the patio of El Farol is a favorite spot for an afternoon glass of wine or beer, or happy hour cocktail. The Tea House also serves beer, wine and coffee drinks.

For an afternoon pick-me-up, head down Canyon Road, and turn left onto Acequia Madre, which has some of the area’s most beautiful adobes. Make a right on Paseo de Peralta, cross the street, and you’ll see Kakawa Chocolate House. Revive with a hot or cold sipping chocolate (“elixirs”) and a sweet treat; the red chile caramel coated in dark chocolate is outstanding.

Stay
My favorite hotel in Santa Fe just happens to be located around the corner from Canyon Road. The Inn on the Alameda (right) is an attractive Pueblo-style property with 72 spacious, comfortable rooms, many with French doors and balconies. It’s not the hippest spot in town, as it’s popular with older travelers. I suspect it has something to do with the elaborate full breakfasts and the daily wine and cheese happy hour, both of which are gratis for guests. And really, who in their right mind wouldn’t love a deal like that?

Don’t let the median age dissuade you if you’re a bright young thing. The hotel has stellar service, an outdoor hot tub, free parking, allows pets and is close to all of Santa Fe’s attractions. It’s also across the street from a bucolic creekside running path, and offers killer packages (especially if you’re a food-lover) in conjunction with the Santa Fe School of Cooking, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the farmers market. A stay here always feels like coming home to me, but then, Santa Fe just has that way about it.

P.S. Canyon Road on Christmas Eve is a vision of fairy lights and farolitos.

[Photo credits: gallery, Santa Fe Convention & Visitors Bureau; gallery, Flickr user xnergy; Johnnie’s Cash Store, Laurel Miller; Inn on the Alameda; Alice Marshall Public Relations]

Visit Denver For Dia De Los Muertos

dia de los muertosIf a ticket to Mexico isn’t in the cards for Dia de los Muertos this year, you might want to consider Denver. It may seem strange that a non-border state throws down so hard, but Denver is, after all, in the Southwest, and as such, has a thriving Hispanic community, as well as arts and culture scene. This colorful, oddly joyous holiday dates back to pre-Columbian times, and has its roots in pagan rituals celebrated by indigenous peoples, including the Aztecs.

If you want to skip the Halloween hangover (sugar or otherwise) and instead spend the Day of the Dead (which is technically November 1) honoring dead ancestors (it’s okay if they’re not yours) with dancing, eating and looking at traditional holiday arts and crafts, here’s the lowdown on what’s going on in Denver.

Today (Oct. 27), from 5 to 8 p.m., the Denver Botanic Gardens is hosting a flower-rific celebration that will include live music, art, dancing and traditional face painting. Flowers, and marigolds in particular, are a big part of Dia de los Muertos imagery.

On October 30, the Dia de los Muertos Celebration and Tattoo Artist Skull Show and Charity Auction will be held at El Diablo restaurant, starting at 8 p.m. Expect lots of “art skulls,” food, special cocktails, face painting and a silent auction.

The Chicano Humanities and Arts Council Gallery is displaying Dia de los Muertos artworks in various mediums, now through November 3.

On November 2, the Museo de las Americas will commemorate with altars and classes on making Dia de los Muertos crafts, such as elaborately decorated sugar skulls.

[Photo credit: Flickr user moonchild studio]

Top ten things to do in Brussels, Belgium

BrusselsA couple of weeks ago I was chatting with some fellow travel writers and the conversation turned to Brussels. The general consensus seemed to be that Belgium’s capital isn’t worth visiting.

I disagree. While it can’t compete with London or Paris, it has its own charm and can easily fill up three or four days of a European tour. The mixture of Flemish and Walloon culture makes for a distinct city with an interesting history. A large immigrant population is livening things up too, with Ethiopian cafes, Asian restaurants, and a string of Congolese shops in the Matonge area.

Here are ten reasons not to skip Brussels.

Beer!
Belgian beer is justly famous for its variety and flavor. From the rich Trappist and Abbey beers to the more secular but equally tasty Lambics and Saisons, Belgium is a beer snob’s paradise. There are plenty of fine bars in Brussels serving up this lovely brew. A Gadling favorite is the centrally located Delerium Cafe, which sells more than 2000 varieties from around the world, and of course a huge selection of Belgian labels.

Chocolate!
Like Belgian beer, Belgian chocolate needs no introduction. Hey, it’s so good you can even snort it. Chocolate shops abound in Brussels and most cafes will serve you a piece along with your coffee.

Peeing statues!
Ah yes, the famous Manneken Pis. Has anyone gone to Brussels and not seen this? There are several stories about how this little guy came into being. The one I heard was that a sculptor’s son went missing back in the seventeenth century. A frantic search ensued and the sculptor swore he’d make a statue showing his son exactly as he found him. Take a look at this photo courtesy Jim Linwood to see what the kid was doing when he finally turned up. In the spirit of affirmative action, a female counterpart was erected in 1987 in Impasse de la Fidélité/Getrouwheidsgang (Fidelity Alley) showing a little girl squatting and doing her business. She’s called Jeanneke Pis.

Art Nouveau!
Brussels is justly famous for its many Art Nouveau buildings dating to the early part of the last century. The best way to savor the scene is to go to one of Brussels’ many Art Nouveau cafes where you can enjoy a coffee and a piece of Belgian chocolate while admiring the architecture. One of the greatest of Art Nouveau architects was Victor Horta whose house museum is a classic of the style.

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Classic Films!
Belgium was an early innovator of film back during cinema’s infancy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The best place to learn about this is the Musée du Cinéma/Filmmuseum, where you can see artifacts from the birth of motion pictures. The museum’s two cinemas show arthouse classics and silent films with live piano accompaniment.

Tanks and Swords!
The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History is one of the best war museums I’ve ever visited, and I’ve probably visited too many. The land that now comprises Belgium has been fought over for centuries and this museum’s collection reflects that bloody past. It has an excellent tank collection from both world wars as well as an extensive armory of medieval weapons to slice, dice, chop, hack, and crush your enemies. Why is this cool? It just is.

Fine Art!
Museums are the best way to stay dry when the Belgian weather gets wet, which it does frequently. Brussels has several art galleries and museums. The most prominent are the Royal Museums of Fine Arts. Together they boast some twenty thousand paintings, sculptures and drawings. They include the Ancient Art Museum, the Modern Art Museum, the Wiertz Museum, the Meunier Museum, and the Museé Magritte Museum.

The Historic Center!
Much of medieval Brussels was leveled to make way for new construction in the nineteenth century. Luckily, a classic core survives around La Grand Place/Grote Markt, where centuries-old mansions and churches still survive. This is the most photogenic part of Brussels and while it can get overrun with tourists, it’s still worth a look. A little further out, visit the Basilique du Sacré Coeur/Basiliek van het Heilig Hart, an Art Deco basilica that’s the fifth biggest church in the world, and La Cambre Abbey, a 12th century abbey.

Comics!
Besides film, beer, and chocolate, the Belgians have always been big into comics. At the Belgian Comic Strip Center you can learn all about this with a variety of comics on display and a big gift shop if you want to bring some home. Belgium’s most famous comic artist was Hergé, creator of Tintin, who of course has his own museum.

Day trips!
Belgium is a small country with a good rail system. This makes it a good base for day trips. The lovely countryside is dotted with several castles and rustic villages. Regular trains go to several historic cities such as Antwerp (one hour), Ghent (30 minutes), Bruges (one hour), and Liege (one hour). For more information on day trips, click here.

So head on over to Brussels. You won’t be sorry!