Tag Archives: Architecture

A departure from the unusual

Tuesday 13th July 2021. Today was departure day, with all of the old familiarities of international travel subsumed by the strangeness and uncertainties imposed by the pandemic. Our departure was not until 4pm, so at least we could do something we  are used to doing, which was to wander the streets of a town exploring as we went.  The area of Reykjavik around our hotel is full of lovely little architectural touches, as well as homicidal people on rented electric scooters, and it repays rambling around. In many places, the actual streets are decorated.

and there’s the longest hopscotch track [Jeremy Clarkson Voice ON] in the world [Jeremy Clarkson Voice OFF].

Many of the buildings have some quite extravagant art on them.

And the touches of colour are not only for the traditionally-architected buildings

but can also be found among the more modern ones.

At one stage we stopped for a coffee, in, as it happens, the bar out of which we got chucked at closing time yesterday.

At that point we were en route from the downtown area which contains both the Lutheran cathedral (which, while attractive enough, is, well, just a church really, and hardly Interesting at all)

and the Roman Catholic cathedral (the Church of Christ the King, an altogether much grander affair, unsurprisingly)

in our search for the final Interesting Church of the holiday, which we’d espied as we scurried to and from our Covid test.

This is Háteigskirkja, which as far as I can tell is a non-denominational church. Its website modestly refrains from conveying very much useful information about it, which is a shame, because it’s a striking building; and as the door was open (unusually in our experience of Iceland’s Interesting Churches) we ventured in to find some lovely mosaics inside.

Climbing the stairs to the gallery level we noticed yet more stairs continuing up… the place was deserted so of course we climbed them, eventually arriving at a final workman’s stair up to an open trapdoor… Well, what is a photographer to do when faced with an open trapdoor? Thus we clambered out into one of the bell towers.

When we did this, it was about five to midday and I wasn’t going to hang about trying for artistic images just in case these bells were attached to a clock – so we scarpered back the way we had come!

On the way back to our hotel, we caught a glimpse of the back end of Hallgrímskirkja, the “Space Shuttle” church.

I was quite glad to get that picture, as it’s very difficult to do it from near the church itself.

And that was the end of our wandering around Reykjavik, as it was time to collect our bags and hope that the taxi would arrive that Dagur had promised us would take us to the airport.  Arrive it did, bang on time, with a very large and friendly chap driving it. He whisked us off to the airport where we went through the various formalities of providing the necessary documentation to prove we weren’t currently plague-ridden.  As we approached the security check, I realised that I still had my penknife with me; I usually remember to pack it in my hold luggage, as the security bods don’t generally like people carrying them on to aeroplanes.  Since this was a Swiss Army knife – not a huge one, but even the small ones are ridiculously expensive to replace – I decided to ask the security chap if there was any way I could take it through.  Rather to my surprise, he said it was OK, which was nice of him.

Covid paperwork – and the necessity to wear a mask – aside, the departure process was exactly like it always was, though I suppose the airport was less crowded than it might have been.  After a mask-free fortnight, this was not particularly welcome, but it shows that care is still needed.

We treated ourselves to a coffee and a toastie, and boarded the plane, which was only a few minutes delayed. Much to my surprise, the WiFi on board was free, so I took the opportunity to update this blog as far as I had time to do (you’ll have inferred that this didn’t include today’s entry), and took advantage of some sustenance to fuel the creative juices.

(That wasn’t all me – Jane decided she had to provide moral support.)

Arrival at Heathrow was on the original schedule, and we took the usual half-mile walk to get to the border checks, wondering if there was a horror story about to unfold, having heard tales of six-hour delays and horrendous queues.  Much to our surprise, everything was very swift.  We had all the right paperwork, we whizzed through the border checks, our bags came out pretty fast and our taxi was very nearly awaiting us, we got through so quickly – Heathrow Terminal 2 was very, very quiet.  From touch down to getting the kettle on at home took barely over an hour and a quarter.

And so we reach the end of our adventure into a really unusual place.  Iceland is a remarkable destination, even if you only stay and do the tourist bit in the south; but having seen most of the accessible areas of the island, with, in Dagur, a guide who knows his way around and could make sure we saw things of interest to us, made our time there even more impactful. And we’ve covered a lot of ground:

The middle bit is only accessible with courage and a backup car, but looking at that summary I can understand why our brains were full of the sights, sounds and smells of the country.  It’s been a fantastic fortnight, and we’ve loved the place.  We Will Be Back, as it will be interesting to see what the place is like in Winter (apart from just cold, of course).  I’ll do a further blog post with some general summary-type thoughts about Iceland, and so maybe you’d like to come back in a couple of days to take a look; it will be our opportunity to round off what’s been an extraordinary holiday in a really unusual country.

 

Oman Day 8 – Muscat Ramble

Thursday 28 Feb. We spent the morning with Rashid, who took us to see some of the highlights of Muscat before lunch. We certainly packed it in – Grand Mosque, Opera House, Souq, Sultan’s Palace, National Museum. I took loads of photos, but really feel that I need to get to a PC to tweak them to do the sights justice. Here are a few, and I will come back and update them with improved versions once I can get my hands on decent RAW processing software.

The first item on the itinerary was the Grand Mosque, a gift to the people of Oman from Sultan Qaboos, with the intention of spreading a clear message of inclusive and peaceful Islam. It’s an impressive building, certainly on a par with the Sheikh Zayeed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, Through a knowledgeable and impassioned exposition of information about the mosque, Rashid also showed that he has a serious and thoughtful approach to his Ibadi Islam religion. (Ibadism, a school of Islam pre-dating Sunni and Shia denominations, is dominant in Oman and is noted for its realism, tolerance and preference for solving differences through dignity and reason, rather than confrontation).

I could drown you with photos and information, but I’ll try to include just the bare essentials and will set up a full Flickr page on the mosque in due course.

Right from the first approach, you get the sense that the building is intended to inspire awe and devotion. It combines places of worship (white marble) with places of enquiry, scholarship and administration (pink marble).

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

As you approach the central hall, there are many impressive views of the buildings.

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

Before entering the main hall, Rashid showed us that this is also a place of learning and scholarship. An impressive door leads into a library

Inside the Library

where people may read, study and learn. There are also imams on the site who will give guidance to anyone who asks for help.

Then we entered the main hall of prayer, which is hugely impressive. It really is difficult to convey this in photos. Here’s an overall impression

and here are some other highlights as you walk around: A vast carpet, hand stitched in Iran by (I think) 43 women over four years, and valued at around 10 million pounds

Prayer Hall carpet

(interestingly, it has no lines in it to instruct worshippers how to line up – the Abu Dhabi mosque does – but apparently they line up OK anyway. See later for more lines). The detailing all around is very intricate and beautifully done

Prayer Hall - ceiling detail

and there are detailed carvings and mosaics all around the walls. Some are functional – this contains copies of the Quran

Niche inside Prayer Hall

some are decorative

Here’s a set of individual Quran chapters laid out in a niche.

and here’s a view of the central dome and massive (Austrian crystal) chandelier.

Prayer Hall - chandelier and carpet

Outside the main hall of worship are several courtyards where worshippers can find a place when the main hall is full.

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

In the above photo you can also see carved script running around the walls; the entire Quran is written in the fabric of the buildings – albeit in a highly caligraphic style which is difficult to read, apparently.

The lines you see in these courtyards are lines along which (male only) worshippers stand and kneel to pray. The number of courtyards with these lines in really underlines that the mosque can accommodate a huge number of worshippers, the vast majority of whom will be male.

Females are by no means excluded, oh, no, absolutely not. Here is the hall where women can worship.

Women's Prayer Hall

As you can see it’s much smaller than the spaces reserved for male worshippers. This is because it is apparently OK for women to pray at home, but men have a duty to attend a mosque to pray if they can. Women pray separately from men in order that the men don’t lose focus on the act of worship by catching sight of a fetching female, albeit one wrapped up in a scarf.

For a fan of architectural photography such as myself, there are many opportunities for striking photos.

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

We left the mosque with one final view

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

before heading to our next stop – the Opera House. This is a pretty monumental slab of architecture – modern because recently built (at the behest of the Sultan, who was educated in England and acquired a taste for opera there, poor sap).

The Royal Opera House, Muscat

Inside is, as you’d expect, very nicely done, with a posh ticket hall leading to the auditorium.

Ticket Office, Inside the Royal Opera House, Muscat

(on the extreme left you can see the security scanner whch prompted the nice guard chappie there to relieve me of my Swiss army knife for the duration of our visit, just in case I had considered running amok with it). The auditorium itself is large but not huge – a capacity of 1,100 poor unfortunates – and with a very large royal box (not a surprise, given whose idea the building was).

It’s all very comfortable, with screens in the back of each seat showing the translations which are so critical when trying to make some kind of sense of the ludicrous plots that are unfolding before you.

You may have guessed that I don’t like opera, and you’d be right. It’s the singing that I hate, mainly. In fairness the auditorium is also used for ballet, orchestral, local and international song and theatre productions…

Anyhoo – our next stop was the Souq – Muscat Souq is in an area of the town called Mutrah. Jane was looking for some of the kind of glass receptacles that were used on our camp majlis tables:

and we thought, of course, “Souq and ye shall find”. So we souqht, among the many colourful boutiques:

Muscat Souq Scene

Muscat Souq Scene

and were offered many, many opportunities to buy all sorts of things, but mainly Kashmiri cloth and incense; but the requisite glassware was not around, although there were some other nice scenes.

Muscat Souq Scene

Muscat Souq Scene

Muscat Souq Scene

Most places were selling tourist tat, and so our occidental appearance was very much grist to the mill of the local importunate selling technique. We just said “shukran” (meaning literally “thank you” but in this context “no, thank you” and eventually escaped so that we could visit our next stop, the fortifications and Sultan’s palace on the outskirts of Muscat.

The Royal Palace is stylistically a bit off the mainstream in my humble opinion – it looks more like something that Gaudi might have dreamt up.

Royal Palace, Muscat

Overlooking it is Al Mirani Fort, one of a pair of ancient forts guarding Muscat from those marauding Riffs from Nizwa (the other is called Al Jalali and is across the harbour from Al Mirani).

Al Mirani Fort, Muscat

As you look away from the Royal Palace, you see a monumental street with monumental buildings and, at the end of it, the National Museum.

National Museum, Muscat, Oman

I’m not normally a great one for museums and my back and feet were aching for some respite – lunch, say; but in we went. The museum is not vast but the scope of its exhibits is, covering Oman’s prehistory and history, renaissance, relationships with the world, Islam, heritage, maritime history and the land and the people. There’s an airy central atrium

with lots of exhibition halls going off it. Some things were very striking, such as the relief map of an irrigation system from mother well, through habitations and finally to the plantations

Sample irrigation plan

which, if you look closely, is beautifully done in layered wood to show the contours.

Sample irrigation plan

Another such relief map illustrates clearly how Muscat nestles among mountains.

Muscat Harbour relief in wood and photo

We also found an exhibit hall dedicated to the “beehive tombs”

and a selection of very imposing gates such as this one

which was made in 1126 and guarded the entrance to ash-Shibak fort. If you look closely, you can see the UK Royal Coat of Arms among the other calligraphic, floral and animal motifs. It reflects the close ties between Oman and the British East India Company in the time of the Mughals.

After such a sprint round the tourist boxes-to-be-ticked, we were ready for a break, and Rashid took us to the Turkish House for a seafood meal – wonderfully grilled prawns and some sort of snapper, accompanied by calamari, hummus, a spinach salad and some wonderful flatbread – a nice way to round off the day’s touristing.

By the time we’d finished lunch (around 2.30pm) the traffic had really built up, as this was a Thursday and therefore people were heading out for the weekend. So it was a bit of a grind to get back to the hotel, but we made it in time for (complimentary) afternoon tea followed by (complimentary) G&T and an opportunity for me to update the blog. We have one more day in Muscat and you’ll simply have to read the next instalment to find out how that went.

Day 5 (I) – Split….

19th September. Now that I am a gentleman of leisure, one of the annoying aspects of being on holiday is having to get up early. An alarm set for 0630 seems to be par for the course for this holiday, bringing back dark memories of life as an employee, whereas having to set an alarm at all in normal life is a bit of a bore and if one has to do it, it should be no earlier than 0730. So the news from Željko that we would have to depart our hotel at 0600 in order to be on an 0630 catamarn bound for the town of Split was met with something of a groan. It turned out, as did so many of his plans, to be a good idea, but coherent thought, smooth co-ordination and swift action at 0500 are not my forte.

Anyhoo…at 0600 we bundled our cases onto a bus and stumbled down to the harbour in Bol, just as the sun was going about his (or her) business for the day.

and the catamaran duly arrived

to take us to Split, a journey of just over an hour to a very handsome town. At one stage, it used to be just this place on the Dalmatian coast, until this Roman chap, Diocles, came along, liked the weather and the local availability of fine (Brač) stone, and decided it would be just the spot to retire to once he stopped bothering about being Emperor, so he had a big Palace built there, which now forms about half of the old town of Split.

Željko had arranged for us to have a guided tour, and we met Malenka, who took us round the main sights of the Palace. As we went round, the reason for our very early departure became clear – the Palace fills with tourists very quickly, and by getting there promptly we were actually able to see it when it wasn’t mobbed. It’s an impressive site, with some of the original construction supplemented by modern reconstruction.

Some of the locals actually live within the confines of the palace; people had set up house there before its historical (and touristic) value was truly recognised, and so there are homes and apartments dotted around the site. It’s now a UNESCO world heritage site, which is in part funding the reconstruction, and Malenka explained that UNESCO rules were that any reconstruction work had to be clearly recognisable as such. So, in the photo below, it is quite clear to see which is original tilework and which is modern

as it is with this mosaic.

I shan’t bore you with too many photos of the Palace – go and see it for yourself, and get a guided tour to give you some extra insight as you go round, is my recommendation. But there are some nice courtyards off the main streets

as a stark contrast to the crowded Hell that is “souvenir alley”, the corridor leading from the South Gate.

The sheer number of tourists has (unsurprisingly) had its impact. For example, there’s one square which used to have tables and chairs set out outside a restaurant, but now they are limited to setting up places on the steps.

Outside the confines of the Palace proper, there are some scenic corners

and you can see where building started by leaning extra houses against the Palace walls.

There is a large, sprawling and busy market with many opportunities to buy local produce (Jane bought some of the local tangerines which were, indeed, very tangy)

and the area around the Palace is, generally, very crowded.

That being the case, we decided to take up on a suggestion from Malenka and head over to a quieter aera of Split, towards the Marjan Forest Park (Šuma Marjan), which is on a hill to the north-east of the harbour.

(in the middle of the hill in the photo above, you can see the terrace of the bar ViDiLiCi where we stopped for a coffee and a beer). It’s a pleasant walk up a stepped road

and the terrace I mention above has a good view over the town

as has the walk back down towards the town.

All too soon we had to reconvene to catch the (somewhat knee-crunchingly cramped) tour bus to take us to the next stage of the day, in the Krka National Park, which held the promise of some spectacular scenery. So, to see this, read on, dear reader, read on….