30 March, 2014

An Encounter with author John Brierley on the Camino de Santiago

Note: This article was submitted and appeared on the Winter 2014  issue of La Concha, the official newsletter of the American Pilgrims on the Camino (APOC).

Surely the tall, lean man with graying hair, and a kindly face accentuated by thick, bushy eyebrows had heard the question countless times before. He must have anticipated it, thus in response to my friend Jade's inquiry, he smiled gently and answered, “Yes, I am John Brierley”.

Our chance encounter with the famous author of the “A Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino de Santiago” guidebooks occurred midway between Melide and Ribadiso on a brisk mid-October afternoon. Since the start of our camino two days ago in Sarria, Jade and I had overheard snatches of conversation among fellow pilgrims along the lines of “Do you know the author of those guidebooks that everyone seems to be carrying around? He and his wife just passed by ten minutes ago”, usually followed by a general description of the couple (both tall and trim, with matching packs).

Initially, I dismissed this talk as a case of mistaken identity, or wishful thinking. At the same time I took a harder look at the author's photo on my guidebook's inside cover (yes, I was one of the above-mentioned “everyone”), just in case.

And now, Jade and I had overtaken a couple matching their description, decided to be bold and the inevitable question had been asked. John Brierley and his wife Ann were gracious in conversing with us, and indicated their hike was an annual ritual to research updates (e.g. new albergues) for both the Camino Frances and Camino Portugues guidebooks. John took great delight in knowing that while I focused on the practical matters outlined in each chapter, Jade concentrated on the internal reflections posed in the “Mystical Path” section. Ann burst out laughing when I jokingly asked how it felt being married to a rock star.

Moreover, the author peppered us with questions about our Camino (first timers), our route (Sarria to Santiago), how our experience was going so far (splendid), and so on. Our brief encounter ended when passing pilgrims vied for his attention, and we said our goodbyes and carried on.

Later, the skies opened up as we approached Ribadiso. The light drizzle continued into the night, and as Jade and I discussed the past few days events over grilled octopus and wine, we agreed that meeting the Brierleys was undoubtedly one of the highlights of our Camino, and something that made our first-time pilgrimage even more special.

07 January, 2013

"Look Up!" - Riga's Art Nouveau Architecture

The agape mouth, the arms held high up to her head, seemingly about to pull at her hair, the horror on her face - all these invite questions - what had she just seen? Her husband in bed with another woman? Or perhaps the pile of unwashed laundry? 

Such were my musings during an afternoon spent walking around the Quiet Center in Riga. Although just a ten minute walk from the Old Town, it felt like a world away. Gone were the groups of boisterous lads, non-existent were the shot bars and strip clubs that catered to the hordes flown in by Ryanair. Here in the Quiet Center, it was, well, quiet. 

Not for nothing is Riga the Art Nouveau capital of Europe, with roughly forty percent of the city's buildings created in that style. I'm not an architecture expert by any means, so a formal definition of the phrase "art nouveau" escapes me, but I'd like to think the term describes a building that's fun and interesting not only in design but to look at, and my adventure in the Quiet Center which brought me face-to-face with colorful buildings with decorative, intricately-carved facades lined with intriguing grotesques, fearsome gargoyles, muscular atlases and curvy caryatids, plus that screaming woman, left no doubt about that. 

Concentrated along Elizabetes and Alberta Iela, some of the architecture is simply unreal. One of my favorites is this building on Elizabetes 10b, the top of its facade composed of blue ceramic tiles, flanked by white giant pensive sculpted heads, and a demonic looking figure on top. Never seen anything quite like this, have you?

On Alberta street, apartment buildings stand side by side offering the Art Nouveau enthusiast his fill of glorious architecture, plus a searing pain in the neck from the semi-permanent upward tilt of the head.

This outstanding example of Art Nouveau at No. 13 is a riot of sculptural reliefs of masks, dragons, female figures, etc. Sometimes It felt like too much to take it all at once. But when in doubt, look at the bare-breasted women, that's what I say.

To view more of these, Riga's Art Nouveau Center has come up with a nifty interactive guide to the Quiet Center's numerous treasures, which is here. Other districts of Riga are covered as well, including the Old Town where several examples of the style are present.