The Light of Lisbon

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There is something special about the light of Lisbon, something magical and inexplicable that has always enchanted artists, writers, poets, ordinary Lisboetas … as well as the rest of us who have been visiting the city. But how to explore, grasp and understand that magic (without killing the charm), how to explain and present such a complex, subtle, intangible feature in a museum?

An excellent (and still ongoing) exhibition, “The Light of Lisbon”, was created this summer, based on love for Lisbon and an combined artistic and scientific approach to the phenomenon of light. As such an unusual exhibition theme requires unusual collaborators, one of the curators was a physics professor, while another came from the area of film and cinema. The space: western tower of Terreiro de Paço, recently acquired from the military authorities and converted for cultural purposes, overlooking the Tagus river and the main city square.

The exhibition cannot be put neither in a scientific nor in an artistic box: actually, the secret might be in the fact that the rational, emotional and the experiential side to the exhibition worked so well together. All my senses were captivated! Pieces of art from the Museum of Lisbon collection (some of them have never been displayed before), poetry that could be listened to, the museum space with windows wide open, letting the view gaze towards the cityscape at times and the very light in question pour in, all that acted in a synergy. Light is a dynamic and changing phenomenon – wonderful timelapses from the very museum roof and the films displayed capture that very well.

And so, it is proven: the materials Lisbon is built of, the colours of its façades, frequent winds that clear out the air, the number of sunny hours, topography, reflections from the water surface, and the interplay of so many other factors have their role in enabling the particular Lisbon light. There are many complex but measurable features to it! Still, for science there always remains an inexplicable bit. As “The Light of Lisbon” shows, its magic and its sense can only be grasped and transmitted completely by bringing art, intuition and experience into play.

Photo credit: Nuno Cera, 2008

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Singeverga

Autumn weekends in Portugal can be unstable in terms of weather: this one was just like that, with wonderful, sunny Saturday and grey, rainy Sunday. Saturday just called for being outdoors all day: the plan was visiting seemingly ordinary places near Porto where tourists and foreigners don’t usually head – peeking into the “real Portugal”, Portugal beyond the two principal cities and the coast. The itinerary included: passing through Roriz (the one near Santo Tirso), where a very important romanesque church of St. Piter is situated, seeing the Singeverga Benedictine monastery nearby,  stopping at São Mamede de Negrelos, popping to Pombeiro de Ribavizela to visit its monastery church dedicated to St. Mary of Pombeiro, passing through the tiny Vizela and Tagilde, ending at the mount and sanctuary of St. Quiteria overlooking Felgueiras, before the well-deserved dinner.

These places are unfamiliar to a majority of Portuguese, not to mention foreigners, however, the strangest one, Singeverga, might ring the bell for many. Not because its monastery has a huge butterfly collection or the painting attributed to Tintoretto in its posession. It is rather beacuse Singeverga is where the famous Portuguese liquor of the same name is produced. Of course, nobody but a few monks know exactly how it is made.

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One would think the tradition goes centuries back – in reality, it is thanks to a friend of monastery, who happened also to be a chemical engineer, that the production was made possible – back in 1945. The 6000 yearly bottles, manually filled, are one of the main sources of income for the monastery, lead by the Benedictine principle of ora et labora.

I had an opportunity to taste some beautiful, warm caramel coloured Singeverga: very sweet and flavorful, containing, besides alcohol, a range of spices, caramel, black tea, and probably some secret ingredients. But don’t be tricked with the sweetness – it is also very, very strong!

Photo: http://www.garrafeiraspedro.pt

At the medieval fair (learning about the Portuguese)

Out of 365 days of the year, 12 are very, very special in Santa Maria da Feira, the small town in Northern Portugal. Those days that the town and the region live for are happening right now, centered around the most prominent local monument – the well-preserved castle dominating the urban landscape. The medieval journey of Santa Maria da Feira, the 19th so far, has turned into the largest event of its kind in the entire Iberia. Every year, the event has a particular historical context (this year it was the rule of King Afonso III, the 13th century period).

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For me, however, the visit to this fair was more of a contemporary than a medieval journey, giving an excellent insight into how Portuguese are – their mentality, values and the current state of mind. And also giving some mixed feelings!

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There are some educational and museum initiatives present, created with a lot of sensibility, engaging people in learning about the medieval treasures in their surroundings. One of them was a workshop aiming at recreating well-known limestone sculptures in cork, an emblematic Portuguese material. However, such activities were almost completely shaded by numerous and diverse entertainments. It seems that crisis has been bringing out the most diverse entrepreneurship ideas that have little to do with the genuine spirit of the Middle Ages: artisans and food sellers have been inventing all kinds of “historical” products and the sea of visitors has been enjoying them. Even if simplified and at times banal, more resembling a fairytale than historical recreation, I tend to understand the phenomenon of a medieval fair as an opportunity to escape the reality that, for many, is quite harsh in Portugal. It is also a way to enjoy wonderful Portuguese summer, open air “convivio” (gathering) and eating out, because, despite the ever present economic constraints, this warm and open nation rather saves elsewhere.

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It was lovely to see children being interested in bows, arrows and wooden toys and being immersed in playing together outdoors, far from computers and gadgets. That brought back some memories of my own happy and carefree childhood years.

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On the other hand, more an more city children have no opportunity to see and touch a real animal: the little “zoo” with domestic animals like horses, donkeys, sheep and chicken was thus almost as exotic as the wild bird area, where falcons and owls proudly stood, captured but still with that sparkle of wild and unpredictable in their eyes.

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The Almalagues experience

A little while ago I undertook a study trip to Almalagues, a village near Coimbra. The journey was wonderfully organized by my colleague, Antonio João, who has a special interest in this place: his research is dedicated to the Almalagues weavers.

For me, this trip was an exciting encounter with living intangible heritage, since Almalagues has been an important weaving center for centuries and the tradition has still been maintained, even if on a much smaller scale. The museum in the center of the village is more of a meeting place for local craftsmen and other inhabitants. It’s principally their home, with the door open for the rare visitors aside. A guest like me not only could pass by freely, but also could touch and try everything, taste a few local drinks and ask questions on “how it once was”. Or how it still is for some! A home is more proper word to describe this place than a museum, as their target group are the hosts rather than visitors, as we were received just as we would be at someone’s home, and as… it looked like one! Someone’s grandparents’ home, to be precise.

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The weaving room was that one particularity of an Almalagues home that made their everyday life so special.

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A number of beautiful, thick, textured pieces displayed are for sale – they come with a price tag, though. But hey, doesn’t our consumerist world need to rethink the matters of quality, duration and meaningfulness? Don’t those Almalagues pieces also have a whole collective memory woven in?

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If anyone has a doubt about those rhetoric questions, I’d recommend to experience the weaving process themselves, to feel the level of patience, creativity and physical force needed for this job. I was lucky to try it, and from that moment my respect for these wonderful makers grew exponentially.

So, best of luck, Antonio João! Your mission is bigger than Almalagues and touches more general contemporary values (or lack thereof). And I am sure that the weavers are here to stay!

Through Portugal from north to south – and vice versa

I do as much as I can to travel through Portugal, and even though it is not among the hugest countries, I have only seen a fraction by now. I proudly present the current scope of the trips done – 35 municipalities:

278 municipalities in continental PortugalHowever, to get to know something about the rest of the territory I had to look at bibliographical sources, so here come a few lines referring to my current readings: Portugal de perto and Duas Linhas.

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Portugal de perto by Nuno Ferreira has to do with the crisis period that emerged around 2007 (or is it just mid-age crisis of its author?!). At that time, the awarded travel journalist with 20 years of experience faced a period of unemployment and decided to do something crazy – walk through Portugal from south to north and get to know its people and its diverse landscapes more profoundly. This was an opposition to those last-minute tasks and breaking news and quick trips journalists do by nature of their job. Thankfully, some sponsors (namely, the Expresso newspaper) recognized the idea, and voila, now that the itinerary has been completed, we have the book available!

DSC06217However personal and referring to an old dream coming true, this entertaining travelogue is also a portrait of (rural) Portugal and its people as they really are. Offering a kind of unfocused view to the country and its landscapes, it is a reminder that the urban reality we live in is not at all the only there is!

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The second book also deals with the problem of how to explore a complex and shifting thing such as a country’s contemporary identity, however in a more scientific way. Architects Pedro Campos Costa and Nuno Louro invented a methodology to approach Portuguese landscapes as defining elements of the country.

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On a map of Portugal, they imposed a set of parallel horizontal lines at each 10 kilometers, and two curves following the road infrastructure, outlining the country borders. Then they traveled from north to south, stopping at the defined points of intersection and making photographic documentation. The results of the survey were then gathered, analyzed and presented at an exhibition and in a book. The project dates from 2009, but for me it’s quite new, taking into account the stage of my own work and bibliographical research.

It turns out that the project confirmed the complexity of the territory, showing how littoral and interior stripes are two of all the many different and defining elements of the territory, and enabling fresh view into potentials and traps of urban development. Those were not so clearly visible using “conventional” methods for studies and planning.

The very inspiring work was presented in the book named Duas linhas, containing a selection of juxtaposed photos from the parallel registers, accompanied by interpretive texts by the two authors themselves and by invited contributors: Mário Alves, Álvaro Domingues, João Ferreira Nunes, Samuel Rego and João Seixas.

The Douro valley experiences

The Douro valley on a warm, golden autumn day is a great place to be. There are people who travel half the world to get to see it, and I am so privileged to live nearby! Last weekend, the time has come to pay a visit to the region, passing through Mesão Frio, Peso da Régua, Pinhão and Quinta do Seixo, where I spent most of the afternoon.

The Alto Douro region has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001 and it is one of the world’s oldest recognized and protected wine production regions. And its contemporary life is flourishing amazingly!

An average Portuguese is probably as much as a wine expert as a professional enologist in countries with less wine culture. Wine is a part of their everyday and a major pillar of the national economy. Never forgetting the traditional modes of wine production (which can be known from azulejo panels or learned about in museums), they however opted for the use of latest technologies in this industry nowadays. So there are robots, computerization and wine institutes with highest precision instruments involved to get the best of what nature has to offer.

Actually, Portuguese wine producers don’t hesitate to take the best of both worlds, and that can be seen in Quinta do Seixo: in 2007, the old structures there were recuperated and a modern winery constructed, upon a design by Cristiano Moreira & Associados. Cristiano Moreira (1931-2012) was a professor at the University of Porto, with significant experience in industrial facilities, and, in my opinion, refined approach towards the beautiful Douro landscapes, both cultural and natural.

Voilà, here I am at the Quinta do Seixo: at first glance, it seems to be an immense complex of vineyards, with a well-maintained old building, perfectly integrated into the landscape. During the tour, I discover lots of contemporary elements invisible from the outside. And later, with some a posteriori research, I realized the scope of construction works done!

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The quinta (the wine production estate) is situated near the village of Pinhão. The view to the wavy hills in all shades of green and earthy autumn colours is breathtaking. And there I come to the recuperated building itself. There is nothing in it that is not in harmony with the landscape. The technology is only visible from the inside: the robot-presses for the grapes instead of human labour and steel barrels for the wine to be preserved up to highest standards, the video-projectors everywhere and the latest-generation illumination. Maybe even a little too contemporary presentation, if you ask me!

Update: the interior design is a project of another architect, Paulo Lobo, who is responsible for many interesting contemporary interiors in Porto (thx Marta Costa!)

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But then, after the theoretical part, I get to taste the port wines, and that is an experience involving all senses. From the dark and elegant exposition and interpretation spaces, one gets to the bright, sunny tasting area, opening towards the landscape. Oh, how cleverly were the mirrors used to reflect the western sun and create shades and reflections! The division towards the outer space was nothing more but the thin glass surface that stretched throughout the entire length of the room. However, I was blessed with the best possible weather, so I spent most of my time outside at the terrace. The view stretched from Pinhão in the distance to the green terraced landscapes all around. The building and the terrace were just……nature rearranged: the layered stone façade with rich texture, the earthen esplanade with touches of grass and moss, and the shiny spotless glass surface reflecting once again the landscape.

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Silence is broken by glasses tinkling in a toast. And then, a sip of vintage ruby port crowns this magic experience.

Photos: all mine except the first one, which comes from http://www.afaconsult.com/portfolio/29911/92/adega-da-quinta-do-seixo.

CAMOC 2014

CAMOC, the ICOM’s Committee for the Museums of Cities, had its annual conference during the first days of August in Sweden. The host was the Gothenburg City Museum.

This year’s topic was a very intriguing one – industrial heritage. CAMOC experts came from around the world, and the host country was the right place to find inspiring, state-of-the-art examples of what can be done in this area.

Thanks to the CAMOC’s grant, I took part in the event, from which I benefited at so many levels! It was great to see all the people I met at the ICOM Rio general conference in Brazil last year and to make new,  beautiful contacts and friendships. It was a privilege to learn from the leading Swedish experts in industrial heritage and to discover how they turn projects and ideas into reality. It was interesting to find out how museums around the world work beyond museum walls and how both experts and non-experts create numerous innovative, museum-like experiences everywhere, from Greece and Belgium to Japan or Australia. It was rewarding to share my own research findings and external views to the industrial heritage of Porto, and to find out it was inspiring to others too!

Out of many precious moments, here I will share a few of the most memorable:

Abandoned Places. Jan Jörnmark started to research abandoned locations accidentally. He ended up publishing several books of photographs: powerful and poetic, the “images worth a 1000 words” kind of photographs. It’s a pity that he, strategically, almost didn’t show any during his keynote speech at the conference…

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SAACKE. My dear colleagues Zé Luis Tavares and António Feio also research abandoned places, perhaps as long as Jan Jörnmark, and their work is at least as philosophical and poetic as Jörnmark’s. I hope that, soon, their findings will reach broader public. And we missed them in Gothenburg, even though their work was represented with a video!

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The Skateboard Guy. Professor Lasse Fryk used his son’s skateboard as a metaphor for the learning process: true learning is only possible through experiment and practice. Practice, and openness to challenges and possibilities of the contemporary epoch, make perfection!

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The textile museum in Borås. More than just a museum, it is a result of a joint effort of the university, the municipality and private investors. An abandoned factory has been converted into a multi-purpose creative center, opened this May. They already have converted 40 000 m2 of space, bringing all textile forces of the region together – from students to fashion designers, entrepreneurs and even innovators. And there are another 20 000 m2 to be transformed for the future tenants! The museum itself was bursting with colour and creativity. My favourite part (every girl’s favourite, I guess): a giant walk-in closet full of clothes, shoes and accessories, where it is possible and desirable to try everything on!

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Creative initiatives related to heritage in Athens. Marlen Mouliou explored them all! The Soundscapes/Landscapes project, that she experienced herself, sounded the most interesting to me. The idea was simple: interpreting the history and the atmosphere of a neighbourhood in Athens through its sounds, in real time. A hybrid, interactive artistic installation was commissioned by the Onassis Cultural Center of Athens and various artists participated. According to Marlen, the realization was brilliant – memorable and completely immersive. Something to investigate further!

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Photos: my own + k-blogg.se (Jan Jörnmark)  +  http://marinoskoutsomichalis.com/soundscapes-landscapes/