February 24, 2009

An interview with one of our art and architecture travel experts


John is one of the travel experts based in our New York City office. He’s passionate about art and architecture, and helps design our tours around the world.

Q: What are your favorite travel destinations?
A: I firmly believe that each destination is fascinating in its own way, and I love exploring new places and discovering what’s distinctive about them—the local history, culture, music, art, architecture, design, cuisine, popular entertainment, politics, manners, mores, etc. Having said that, I never tire of visiting Japan, New Zealand, Italy, Spain, Scotland, China, Hong Kong, Bangkok and London.

Q: Which cultural sites do you find most compelling?
A: There are so many, it’s difficult to choose! For me, a few of the essentials everyone should see at least once in their lifetime are:
– Angkor complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia
– Kyoto, Japan
– Beijing, China
– Fez medina, Morocco
– Alhambra in Granada and Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain
– Venice, Rome and Florence, Italy
– Kremlin in Moscow, Russia

Q: What are a few off-the-beaten-track locations that you recommend to art and architecture lovers?
A: Again, there are so many great ones, often in or near some of our most popular destinations. For example:
– Naoshima, Japan is a wonderful fusion of contemporary art and architecture (mostly designed by Tadao Ando) on a bucolic island in the Seto Inland Sea.
– Kanazawa, Japan is home to the renowned 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, historic samurai and geisha districts, living crafts traditions such as lacquerware and gold leaf, and one of the Japan’s “big three” gardens.
– Phnom Penh, Cambodia has French colonial buildings, an Art Deco market, interesting “New Khmer” modern architecture, the Royal Palace, and a national museum filled with Khmer sculpture from the Angkor period.
– Krakow, Poland offers ancient synagogues, churches with incredible polychromed interiors, royal palaces, and even a Communist-era model city.
– Napier, New Zealand, a charming seaside town in the beautiful Hawkes Bay region, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1931. Rebuilt in the style of the day—Art Deco—it retains an amazing design cohesion including details based on local Maori motifs.
– Sergiev Posad, Russia features an important, well-preserved, and architecturally fascinating Russian Orthodox monastery complex. One of the towns in the Golden Ring, it’s an easy day trip from Moscow.
– The Veneto in Italy is often overlooked by visitors to Venice, but Verona, Padua, Vicenza and other towns in the region have a wealth of amazing options, including Palladian villas, Roman ruins, stunning frescoes, and of course wine tasting!
– Potsdam, just outside Berlin, Germany, is a rolling green landscape of royal palaces, gardens, lakes and a historic town with great shops and restaurants.
– Mexico City has buildings by Luis Barragan, the home of painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, important frescoes and many other monuments of modern art and architecture.

Q: What are you reading right now?
A: I’ve developed a special interest in Japanese and Chinese writing, so I’m reading Chinese Calligraphy by Zhongshi Ouyang and Shizheng Wang, a recently published tome that covers the subject in great depth. I’m also re-reading Ehon: The Artist and the Book in Japan, the catalog from an excellent show at the New York Public Library a couple of years ago. And I just finished Fin de Siecle in Krakow, a book on the Young Poland movement—the Polish manifestation of Art Nouveau—that I found at the Stanislaw Wyspianski Museum in Krakow.

Q: What are your favorite museums?
A: I enjoy many types of museums: house museums, such as the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok, that provide an experience of residential architecture and show how the inhabitants once lived; small museums dedicated to a single artist, artwork or type of work, such as the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy; outdoor architecture museums, such as the Edo-Tokyo Tatemono-en in Tokyo, that tell the story of a place through its buildings and they way they have evolved over time; intimate museums in historic buildings, such as the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, that allow you to feel close to the art work; museums inside spectacular contemporary structures, such as the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain and the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures in Tokyo; and national museums that reveal different types of cultural heritage a country determines is important to preserve, such as the National Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and the Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand.

However, in my never-ending quest to experience the Stendhal syndrome, I most often find myself at large institutions with breathtaking permanent collections and inspired temporary exhibitions. For serious art lovers, I consider all of the following worthy of a special trip:
– State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
– National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan
– National Gallery, London, England
– Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain
– Pergamon Museum, Berlin, Germany
– Shanghai Museum, China
– Vatican Museums, Vatican City

It’s also worth noting that some of the most remarkable works of art and architecture in many destinations are not in museums but in places of worship, government buildings and private homes, and we carefully design our private touring accordingly.

Q: Is there something you always try to purchase when you travel?
A: My bags are usually quite heavy on the return flight because I stock up on:
– Books about local art and architecture produced by local publishing companies
– CDs of local music, especially traditional or classical, produced locally
– Local honey or fruit conserves
– Small bottles of local liqueurs

Q: What do you do on a typical weekend in New York?
A: On most Friday nights, I visit MoMA, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, Asia Society or the Rubin Museum (which is three blocks from our office). I try to hit the galleries in Chelsea at least one Saturday a month. On Sundays, I usually ride my bicycle to Central Park, eat a picnic lunch and read under the trees, then spend a few hours in my favorite place in New York—the Metropolitan Museum (where I’m a member)—catching the latest temporary exhibitions and exploring the depths of the permanent collection. I also volunteer for Open House New York, which, for one weekend each autumn, coordinates the opening of interesting architectural spaces to the public.

Q: Other than art, what else do you enjoy?
A: Good food. Good wine. Exploring the city by bicycle. Hiking. Taking photographs. Jazz. Early music. New music. Visiting my family on the West Coast. Drawing pictures with my niece and nephews.

Destinations:  Cambodia, China, England, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, Spain, Taiwan

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