Culture

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Quito – The Highest Capital in the World

Start your journey in Ecuador by exploring the grand colonial monuments and the tiny local shops of Quito

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A SpongeBob SquarePants piñata

The piercing blue light of a high altitude dawn breaks over the old town of Quito, as dogs chase pick-up trucks carrying produce to market. The trucks clatter over rambling streets cobbled with stones taken from the slopes of the Pichincha volcano looming above. Shopkeepers lift shutters, waving to one another as their wares are set out: sackfuls of cumin and cinnamon; aluminium pans; teetering piles of cows’ hooves; piñatas in the shapes of unicorns, Minnie Mouse and SpongeBob SquarePants.

Layers of commerce take place on these steep, narrow backstreets. In front of the shops, ladies in felt trilbies and woollen ponchos roll mats across pavements. From these they offer corn on the cobs, potatoes and avocados grown in the villages they commute in from each day.

‘All around us you can hear chismes,’ says Paola Carrera, a guide to the San Roque neighbourhood. ‘This is our word for the secrets – the news and the gossip – shared by these vendors, brought to our capital from across Ecuador.’

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San Roque Neighbourhood – Quito, Ecuador

Paola’s mother runs a shop here selling agua de vida, the water of life. This intensely sweet tonic is made from 25 plants, including the amaranth flowers that give its bright pink colour, and herbs from as far away as the Amazon.

‘I’ve always enjoyed living here, above the shop,’ says Paola. ‘The buildings in the neighbourhood are so traditional, they have such character. The people who belong to San Roque have strong ties to it, and it has always drawn visitors.’

Like most locals who pass the imposing whitewashed church of San Francisco nearby, Paola crosses herself beneath its massive wooden doors; some also touch the sculptures of sun gods at its entrance, an action said to give energy.

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The Church of San Francisco glided interior

The church’s foundation stone was laid in 1535, soon after Spanish conquistadors arrived here from Andalucía. In a pragmatic move to win local support, Franciscan monks allowed religious symbols familiar to the indigenous Quitu people to blend with the Catholicism of the invading forces. The conquistadors also brought with them a Moorish architectural style from Islamic North Africa, and saw their wealth reflected in the spectacular gilding of the interior; for the people of Quito, the gold reflected the ever-lasting power of their sun god.

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Gion Matsuri in Kyoto

July is peak summer for the northern hemisphere and while many may choose to stay indoors to get away from the heat, the Japanese are one to head outdoors for a Natsumatsuri or summer festivals, are like street carnivals, where locals get together to enjoy the warm weather with food and games. The Gion Matsuri is no different and is considered one of the most famous festivals in Japan.

Held in Gion, the geisha district of Kyoto, the ancient festival originated as part of a purification ritual to appease the gods that caused natural disasters and plagues. By far the highlight of the festival is the Yamaboko Junkō parade. The Yamaboko are giant wooden floats that are assembled in a traditional Japanese way that doesn’t use nails.

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The Yamaboko are giant floats pulled by men through the narrow streets of Kyoto

These floats are mounted onto wooden wheels and are pulled through the narrow streets of Kyoto by at least 40 men during the parade. All eyes will be fixed on the chigo, though, during the parade. The chigo is a young boy who is chosen to act as the deity’s special page that has to cut a sacred rope with his sword in one slice as part of the ritual.

In the days leading to the Yamaboko Junkō parade, attend the Yoiyama Festival, which allows parade goers to check out the floats that also act as shrines or as museums holding priceless artefacts. As with every Natsumatsuri, do check out the yatai, street stalls selling traditional Japanese snacks and food, as well as the game stalls where the gamed can win bags of goldfish and other trinkets.

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The yatai – street stalls selling traditional Japanese snacks and food

To feel like a part of the rich Japanese culture, don on a yukata (summer kimono). Yumeyakata has a wide range of colourful yukata for rent for both men and women.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

  • The month-long summer festival runs from 1 to 29 July 2016. The Yamaboko Junkō parades are held from 17 to 24 July. It’s best to head to the intersection of Shinjo and Karasuma, where the parade begins. Arrive early for the best views. Entry to all events is free.

  • From Singapore, fly Singapore Airlines or All Nippon Airways direct to Kansai International Airport (KIX). From Kuala Lumpur, fly Malaysia Airlines or Japan Airlines. From KIX, grab the Hankyu Tourist Pass with Limousine BusTicket (from US$18) at the Kansai Tourist Information Center for fast transport to Kyoto.

  • Enjoy a full Japanese experience of staying in a ryokan with modern comforts at Maifukan, situated within Gion. Their combination Japanese/ Western-style rooms let guests enjoy the best of both worlds (from US$143 per pax per night).

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THE GREAT WIDE OPEN – Cultural Fusions in Mongolia

The future has arrived in Mongolia, both in the high-rises of its capital, Ulaanbaatar, and in the vast emptiness
If the Buddha were living now I think he would use social media,” said Baasan Lama, the fresh-faced abbot of Erdene Zuu, Mongolia’s oldest monastery. He flashed a luminous smile. “I already have a Facebook page.” From the folds of his thick red-and-gold robes, he pulled a small book he had published four months earlier that offers 108 tips for right action in a scattered world. “Short,” he told me, in no-nonsense English. “People don’t like to read long books these days!”

Visitors from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s boomtown capital, kept bundling into the small room where I was sitting with the Hamba Lama Baasansuren, as he is officially known, to receive his blessings and teachings. Not many minutes earlier, in the 17th-century whitewashed prayer hall next door, I’d listened to him lead chants while younger monks pounded drums.

The bulging-eyed black demons on the walls, the red-and-gold benches, the fragrance of juniper incense, and the flickering rows of candles and butterlamps all made me feel as if I were in Tibet.

The complex contained temples that looked Chinese and gers (the domed white felt huts also known as yurts) with chapels inside. A brick wall surrounded it, mounted with 108 tall, white stupas that seemed to ward off the emptiness of the Orkhon Valley, once the centre of the Turkic, Uighur, and Mongol empires and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Erdene Zuu, locals had told me, stands on the ruins of Karakorum, the city that Genghis Khan’s son Ogodei built in 1235. Driving here across unending grassland, I’d seen only a handful of lonely white gers against the wide horizon and a few crop-circle gatherings of goats beside Bronze Age burial mounds.

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Erdene Zuu Monastery

Though Baasan Lama is only 37, he has spent the past 24 years in the temple, having taken on robes after his country emerged from 70 years of Soviet-imposed atheism. Now the strapping lama was presenting me with a sleekly produced CD he’d released to go with his book, featuring sing-along Buddhist chants that had become instant hits with the iPhone-tapping, Lexus-driving, sushi-and-Gucci movers of Ulaanbaatar. As two ‘monklets’ offered us cups of fermented mare’s milk and bowls of noodles with thick beef, the lama continued his impromptu discourse. “I’ve read the Bible,” he said. “And the Koran. I think that if Jesus and Mohammed and the Buddha were alive now, they would be good friends.”

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Rocca Scaligera – Sirmione, Lombardy, Italy

Lakeside Beauties

Wait till the afternoon crowds thin, then cross the drawbridge to this fairy-tale castello almost entirely surrounded by the deep blue water of Lake Garda. All towers and fancy battlements, the 13th-century castle was built by the powerful della Scala (or Scaligeri) princes of nearby Verona, 2 miles out into the lake. Garda is the largest in Italy and considered by many to be the most beautiful in the Lake District.

Just as Bellagio is known as Como’s Pearl of the Lake, fans of Garda call Sirmione the Jewel of the Lake. Beyond the castle are the narrow streets of the boutique- and cafe-lined Old Town, a pedestrian island still redolent of medieval times. In ancient times, the Lake District served as the cool summertime desti­nation of Rome’s VIPs, in particular the hedonist poet Catullus, who was drawn to Sirmione as much for its natural sulfur baths as for the lovely setting. The panoramic Grotte di Catullo is said to be the ruins of his villa.

By comparison the 19th-century Villa Cortine Palace Hotel seems downright modern. Palatial, colonnaded, formidably decorative, and just this side of over-the-top, it is the area’s finest hotel, with impeccable gardens, lapped by the lake’s edge.

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The Last Supper – Milan, Lombardy, Italy

One of Leonardo’s Most Powerful Works

Where else can you tell a taxicab driver the name of a painting as your destination, and expect to get there? Every self-respecting Milanese, cabbie or not, knows the location of Leonardo da Vinci’s II Cenacolo (The Last Supper), one of the world’s most famous images, tucked away in the Gothic church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

The entire country closely followed the painstaking twenty-year restoration that was completed in 1999. On a wall in what once was the refectory of the church’s adjacent convent, Leonardo created this powerful 28-foot mural.

Capturing the emotion-packed moment of Judas’s be­trayal of Jesus, it began to deteriorate almost immediately following its completion in 1495. Its recent restoration was as controversial as that of the Sistine Chapel, with some histo­rians claiming that precious little has survived of the original painting or coloring, having been re- (and mis-) interpreted a little too zealously over time by countless restorers (there have been seven restorations since 1726); others herald it as a milestone of patience and craftmanship.

There is no dis­missing that it is one of Leonardo’s finest works, one whose every brushstroke revealed the “intentions of the soul.” He searched for years among the city’s criminals for Judas’s face; the result, art historian Giorgio Vasari declared, was “the very embodiment of treachery and inhumanity.”

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Palazzo Ducale – Mantua, Lombardy, Italy

A Celebration of Renaissance Splendor

Mantua is a city locked in its past, richly endowed with art and historical memories of the 400 years when it flourished under the patronage of the powerful Gonzaga family, who were to Mantua what the Medicis were to Florence.

Their 500-room, fifteen-courtyard Palazzo Ducale, built between the 13th and 18th centuries, is so sumptuously decorated that an afternoon’s visit can induce a magnificent stupor. Vast gilded halls and huge galleries are filled with vibrant canvases by Renaissance masters, most notably Andrea Mantegna, whose fan­ciful Camera delgi Sposi (Bridal Chamber, 1472—1474) is the fortress-cum-palazzo’s highlight.

A watershed in Renaissance imagination, it is Mantegna’s masterpiece and his only remaining fresco cycle, an important part of the unrivaled legacy of art left by the Gonzaga dynasty.

After stumbling out of the splendor of the Palazzo Ducale, how to match the experience? You can eat like the dukes of Mantua beneath the frescoed ceilings of Trattoria II Cigno, where recipes from the personal cookbook of the Gonzagas’ court chef hold diners enthralled centuries later.

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Sistine Chapel – Rome, Lazio, Italy

The World’s Most Famous Ceiling

The spellbinding frescoes that cover the ceiling and walls of the Sistine Chapel are among Western civilization’s greatest achievements. Historians always knew Michelangelo to be a master painter (although, following his success with David’s completion, he painted infrequently before being commissioned to create the ceiling by Pope Julius), but the biggest revelation of its fourteen-year restora­tion (the most controversial of all time) was his startling use of light and bright colors, which had been drastically muted over the centuries from accumulated dust, dirt, incense, and countless candles.

Although he started off with a team of assistants and apprentices, Michelangelo fired them all and worked alone for four years before unveiling his work to a speechless pope and public in 1512. After an international restoration team completed work on this brilliant extravaganza depicting biblical scenes from the Creation (the creation of Adam is the ceiling’s focus), they turned their attention to the wall behind the main altar and Michelangelo’s equally powerful Last Judgment.

Its completion in 1541 brought Pope Pius III to his knees. Although Michelangelo is often associated with his birth town of Florence (where he is represented by David and the Medici Chapels), his presence is strongly felt in the Eternal City.

The Sistine Chapel rightly caps any visitor’s short list, but the Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica confirms Michelangelo’s genius as a sculptor, while Rome’s elegant Piazza del Campidoglio shows off his natural talent as architect and city planner: one of the world’s most beautiful and copied squares (reinterpreted in New York City’s Lincoln Center), it has been left essentially as he designed it.

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The Top Ten Sights – Rome – Lazio, Italy

“Rome welcomes you when you come and forgets you when you go.”—Federico Fellini

A republic was declared in Rome in 509 B.C., and all roads have led here ever since. A very busy city of leisurely citizens, Rome serves up a jolt of big-city life with the warmth of a small provincial town.

Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore— One of Rome’s four major basilicas, built in the 5th century, then restored and extended between the 12th and 18th centuries. Its magnificent 5th-century mosaics are among the oldest and most beautiful in the city, and its 15th-century coffered ceiling is said to have been gilded with some of the first gold brought from the New World, a gift of the Spanish monarchy.

Borghese Gallery—Begun by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the 17th century, the collection includes Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, Raphael’s Deposition, Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, and Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath, among innumerable other masterpieces.

The Coliseum—Once able to seat 50,000, the Coliseum was begun in A.D. 72 by Vespasian and inaugurated in A.D. 80 by his son, Titus. Combat was the usual entertainment—between men, between animals, between men and animals, and even between ships, as the whole thing could be flooded. Centuries of neglect and outright ransacking have left it a shell largely without floor or seats, but what a shell it is, with three tiers of columns—Doric, Ionian, and Renaissance paintings, including numerous works by Tintoretto and Reni. The famous statue of the wolf suckling Romulus and Remus is here, as is the original statue of Marcus Aurelius astride a horse, which once sat in the center of the piazza. Pollution led to its removal indoors; a copy remains outside.

The Pantheon—Built in 27 B.C. by Marcus  Agrippa and reconstructed by Hadrian in the early 2nd century A.D., the Pantheon is the most complete ancient Roman building remaining today and one of its architectural wonders: its dome is exactly as wide as it is high, supported by pillars hidden in the walls. Raphael’s tomb is here.

The Roman and Imperial Forums—The center of Roman life in the days of the Republic, the Roman Forum was a stone quarry and cow pasture before excavations began in the 19th century. You need a map and guide to put some meaning to the ruins, which include numerous temples, the Umbilicus Urbus, considered the center of Rome (and, by extension, of the empire); the Curia, the main seat of the Roman Senate; and the House of the Vestal Virgins, home of the young women who minded the Temple of Vesta’s sacred fire. The Imperial Forum was begun by Julius Caesar to show the power of the emperors. You can see his forum, once the site of the Roman stock exchange; the Forum of Augustus, built to commemorate the defeat of Caesar’s assassins; the famous Trajan’s Column, with bas-reliefs depicting the emperor’s campaign against the Dacians; the Forum of Trajan; and much more

Spanish Steps—Designed by Francesco de Sanctis and built between 1723 and 1725, these wide steps ascend in three majestic tiers from the busy Piazza di Spagna to the French Trinity dei Monti church, one of Rome’s most distinctive landmarks and the place to be at sunset, with a view of Rome’s seven hills. The steps take their name from the Spanish Embassy, which occupied a nearby palace in the 19th century. The boat­shaped fountain in the piazza was designed in the late 16th century by Bernini or his father (the jury is still out). The house where John Keats lived and died sits beside the steps.

Trevi Fountain—Designed by Nicolo Salvi and completed in 1762, the fanciful Baroque fountain features Neptune standing on a chariot drawn by winged steeds.

Vatican City—The world’s smallest independent state, Vatican City is accessed through St. Peter’s Square, surrounded by an elliptical colonnade with some 140 saints on top. Straight ahead is the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica, the center of world Catholicism. The Circus of Nero, where St. Peter was crucified, once sat on this spot, and in 324 the emperor Constantine commissioned a basilica to be built here in the saint’s honor. The present structure dates from the 16th and 17th centuries and contains cream-of-the-crop statuary, the Michelangelo-designed dome and his famous Pieta, and so much more that it’s overwhelming—exactly as it was supposed to be. To the north of the piazza, the Vatican Museums contain one of the world’s greatest collections of art from antiquity and the Renaissance, including Raphael’s famous stanze (several rooms containing many of the artist’s masterpieces), housed in a labyrinth of palaces and galleries.

The gem of the collection is the famous Sistine Chapel, with its ceiling painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512 (see separate entry on page 196).

Other Must-Do’s

Bocca Della Verita—Reenact the scene from the 1950s Audrey Hepburn classic Roman Holiday: Go to the atrium of the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin and stick your hand in the gaping Mouth of Truth— legend has it that if someone puts his hand in the mouth and tells a lie, the mouth will bite down. Be careful what you say!

Market at Campo dei Fiori—One of Italy’s great daily marketplaces, and some of its best theater. Shaded by canvas ombrelloni, stalls sell the freshest produce available—come before 9 A.M. or the city’s chefs will have snatched up all the best. Insight into daily Roman life at its most authentic continues after the last stall disappears. Patrons of the popular hole-in- the-wall La Vineria wine bar spill out onto the piazza, wineglass in hand, to discuss the scandal of the week or the day’s soccer score.

Ostia Antica—As evocative as Pompeii and twice as well preserved, Rome’s best- kept secret can even be reached by subway. Excavations of the ancient port of Rome reveal much of the history of the far-flung Roman Empire.

Piazza Navona—The Eternal City’s nightlife at its best. In warm weather, take a seat outdoors at Tre Scalini cafe for the people-watching and the specialty tartufo, a rich chocolate concoction named for its resemblance to the knobby truffle. Against the background of Bernini’s Baroque Fountain of the Rivers, a host of Felliniesque characters from central casting mingle with German students, retired couples from Florida, and Roman residents of all shapes and inclinations.

Via Condotti—Via Condotti and its grid of cobbled offshoots at the foot of the Spanish Steps offers ultrasmart shopping and the ideal venue for the early evening passeggiata ritual. In this atmospheric, traffic-free neighborhood is Rome’s oldest cafe, Caffe Greco, a centuries-old watering hole where Casanova, Goethe, Lord Byron, and Buffalo Bill all stopped for a coffee break.

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Sydney Opera House and the Harbor – New South Wales, Australia

A Beloved Icon and a Luxe Hotel Overlooking the Waterfront

Sydney is Australia’s largest, oldest, liveliest and brashest city, and its Opera House—initially reviled for its startlingly modern design (resembling a cluster of billowing white “sails”)—has come to be as emblematic of the city as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris.

Chosen from more than 200 designs submitted in 1957 by the world’s most prominent architects, the project was instantly controversial. The building took fifteen years to complete, during which time its disillusioned Danish creator, Joern Utzon, removed himself from the project, never to see it finished.

Today the opera house, perfectly situated on Sydney’s busy and picturesque harbor, is the cultural heartbeat of the city. Numerous opera, sym­phony, ballet, and theater productions take place in its Opera Theater and Concert House (both of which pride themselves on perfect acoustics).

If you want the experience without the music, the Opera House’s Bennelong Restaurant, located in one of its most dra­matic spaces, offers an elegantly spare menu amid magnificent harbor views.

For a view from the outside, you can’t do better than the elegant Four Seasons Hotel, from whose upper floors you can view the Opera House to your right, the Harbour Bridge to your left, and the glistening expanse of the harbor filling out the vista all around. Its marble lobby isn’t a bad spot for other kinds of views, either: Nearly every celebrity who visits Sydney passes through at some point.

The hotel’s coveted waterside loca­tion—near the spot where Australia was born—is the nucleus of the most popular tourist attractions: Circular Quay is the spot from which hundreds of ships zigzag their way across Sydney Harbour, and the 70-acre green oasis of the Royal Botanic Gardens offers some of the finest walks in town. If you want opera tickets, the Four Season’s concierge is almost guaranteed to find you a seat.

Sydney’s historical waterfront district, The Rocks, is close by, nestled next to the Harbour Bridge. Once the haunt of braw­ling sailors and ex-convicts, it has now been gentrified and made respectable, with restau­rants, shopping, galleries, and exhibition spaces. Only the Lord Nelson, the city’s oldest continuously operating pub, evokes the area’s early days.

Palenque Mayans Mexico

Palenque – Chiapas, Mexico

Most Haunting of the Ancient Mayan Cities

In a dense virgin jungle at the foothills of the Usumacinta Mountains lies one of the most extraordinary ruins of the Mayan culture. Occupying a high, strategically situated plateau, Palenque blossomed during the middle to late Classic Period of the 6th to 9th centuries A.D. as a center of art, religion, and astronomy.

It was one of the first Mayan sites to be discovered and remains one of the most majestic and best preserved. Its elegant architecture, descriptive stucco carvings, calligraphy, and decorative friezes reached great artistic heights, and much has been left in situ.

Other artworks are dis­played in a small museum recently opened near the entrance to the grounds, or in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Only a fraction of the monuments have been exca­vated, the foremost the Templo de las Inscripciones (Temple of the Incriptions), a stepped pyramid that holds the extraordinary tomb of Palenque’s ruler, King Pacal, who died in A.D. 683 (his burial mask, made of 200 frag­ments of jade, is in the museum in Mexico City).

The perfect complement to the Palenque expe­rience is the lodging at Chan-Kah Ruinas. Its simple stone and wooden bungalows are spread out over 50 acres of primordial jungle like a timeless Mayan village. Your wake-up call comes at dawn when the tropical birds begin their chorus.