Stones and Bones of the Alentejo

Castle of Arraiolos

Castle of Arraiolos

Driving through the Alentejo, it’s one of those experimental travel days when we leave our itinerary entirely up to choice and chance. The only thing we know for sure is that we need to reach the Algarve by nightfall. What happens between now and then, here and there … who knows? Who cares? It’s a beautiful day in Portugal.

We arrive in Arraiolos, drawn to the town by its history of rug making. But first, we’re drawn to the decaying stone castle on the highest hill. We take a left turn and drive up to investigate.

A modest stone wall trims the hill around the Castle of Arraiolos. The wall feels proportional and reasonable — as if the architect was motivated more by aesthetics rather than fear. The castle was built between 1306 and 1315, and shows its age in partial walls and missing cornices. A few beautiful details remain like the keyhole window and castle keep. According to the plaque at the entrance, D. Nuno Alvares Pereira, a Portuguese commander who was eventually beatified and canonised, lived here at some point during his life.

We get back in the car and roll on down the hill to Arraiolos. It’s a sleepy town. None of the shops are open yet but we arrive at the central plaza where a gaggle of men is stationed along a bench, ready for whatever the day brings.

We walk to the Arraiolos Rug Interpretation Center which tells the story of the region’s history of rug making from the 16th to 19th centuries. Arraiolos rugs are hand-embroidered rather than woven, with a thinner profile than traditional carpets. Early Arraiolos rug designs were influenced by Oriental and Persian carpets but this was followed by a transitional design period in the 17th century. According to the Center, “Arraiolos embroidery was always a freely practiced craft that fell between the scholarly oriental form and the popular concept influenced by local traditions and artistic freedom.” Arraiolos rug making nearly died out in the late 1800s but visual artist José Queiroz revived the craft through classes and a dedicated workshop in Évora which resulted in new appreciation and demand for Arraiolos rugs that still exists today.

One of the most interesting things about the Arraiolos Rug Interpretation Center is what was found underneath and outside of it. The plaza became the subject of an archaeological dig when a centuries-old dying complex was discovered just below the surface. As you can see in the photo above, large circular vats were used to dye the wool for the rug embroidery. The dying vats have since been covered up and in their place is a decorative stone mosaic.

Cork trees in the Alentejo, Portugal

Cork trees in the Alentejo, Portugal

Back in the car, we aim for Évora but yet again we’re intrigued by what we see on the map. We make a few quick turns down a few small roads and arrive at a cork tree forest. I’ve never seen a cork tree before. Mature and evenly spaced, the trees have wide, wandering canopies above their trunks which have been stripped of their bark. The bark regenerates every 8-10 years, making it a sustainable resource. Portugal is the wine industry’s leading cork supplier, exporting a quantity valued at more than US $1 billion in 2016.

Just past the cork trees, we arrive at Cromeleque dos Almendres. This place is a bit of a mystery — kind of like Stonehenge. It’s a megalithic complex with 95 granite stones set in a circular arrangement, possibly related to the vernal equinox and winter solstice. The stones were placed between 6,000 and 3,000 B.C. Truly ancient! I had no idea that such a place existed in Portugal. The countryside is loaded with history.

We arrive in Évora and park the car just inside the fortress wall. Walking into the town center we come to the Igreja de Santo Antão. A Canterbury cross marks the front entrance of this 16th century church. The vaulted interior suspends elegant chandeliers above a beautiful runner extending through the nave.

We stop for lunch at Café Alentejo. This is not grab-and-go cuisine for tourists. This local hangout has a cozy interior where an afternoon could easily slip by with the help of a couple bottles of Portuguese wine. I decide to be adventurous and try the fish casserole — a stick-to-the-ribs dish that could feed an entire family.

Ceramics are everywhere in southern Portugal and as we wander Évora’s streets we see lots of colorful pieces with intricate patterns and signs of Moorish influence in geometric patterns.

We arrive at the Cathedral of Évora. Initially built in the late 12th century, the cathedral has been the subject of continual architectural additions during the centuries since then.

The cathedral’s full mass becomes evident as we climb the stairs to the rooftop terrace and lantern tower — the highest point of Évora. We descend to the cloisters and view the grandeur of the main chapel. My own faith is of no particular type or description, but I never tire of experiencing the magnificence of divine spaces such as this.

Back on the streets of Évora, we hurry to see one more sight before it closes for the day: Capela dos Ossos. This is one of Évora’s most popular sights but I haven’t read much about it or prepared myself for what we’re about to see. The art museum is nice, but the 16th century chapel below it is a rather creepy experience.

Capela dos Ossos is an ossuary. The bones and skulls of more than 5,000 people are stacked and stuck at every turn, even lining the arches of the vaulted ceiling. I can’t imagine that any of the people whose bones and skulls are here would have expected this to be their final resting place. The purpose of the ossuary isn’t entirely clear, at least from what I’ve read about it.  It may have been built to encourage self-reflection about our mortality or it may have been a solution to overflowing graveyards of the time. Either way, I feel lucky I can walk out of here, unlike so many others.

It’s late in the afternoon so we find an outdoor cafe near Evora’s stunning relic of a Roman temple, where we stop for a cold beer and contemplate the scenes of the day — including this poem at Capela dos Ossos (translated by Father Carlos Martins):

Where are you going in such a hurry traveler?
Stop … do not proceed;
You have no greater concern,
Than this one: that on which you focus your sight.

Recall how many have passed from this world,
Reflect on your similar end,
There is good reason to reflect
If only all did the same.

Ponder, you so influenced by fate,
Among the many concerns of the world,
So little do you reflect on death;

If by chance you glance at this place,
Stop … for the sake of your journey,
The more you pause, the further on your journey you will be.

Architecture Culture


West elevation of Shiva temple

West elevation of Shiva temple

Prambanan sits precariously in central Java, Indonesia. Built around 850 A.D., Prambanan has a dramatic history of glory, abandonment, rediscovery, restoration, repeated collapse and repeated rebuilding from centuries of earthquakes, looting, the ravages of time and volcanic eruptions as recently as February.

It is a spectacular Hindu temple complex — one of the largest in Southeast Asia. Its central square and main temples have been re-assembled while most of the surrounding smaller temples lay in piles of stone on the ground. At the time of its completion, Prambanan included 240 temples in all.


Prambanan, 1895 ~ William Henry Jackson, U.S. Library of Congress public domain

“Discovery” of the temple is credited to C.A. Lons in 1733. However, Colin Mackenzie, a Scottish surveyor employed by Sir Stamford Raffles, came upon Prambanan in 1811 which prompted the first full survey of the site. Significant restoration and rebuilding didn’t begin until the 1920s. Obviously, a lot of work has gone into reconstructing the complex since then. It seems miraculous that many of Prambanan’s bas-relief narrative panels of sages and apsaras remain intact, somehow pieced together after centuries of decay and distress.

With that said, there is still a bit of risk inherent to any visit to Prambanan. Entering the temple of Shiva requires a hard hat just in case your timing coincides with the frequent grumbling of nearby Mount Merapi.

Prambanan’s three main temples hold sculptures of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. The Shiva temple contains a deep well at its center and during restoration a stone casket was found resting on charcoal and animal bones. The casket held coins, jewels and gold, perhaps meaning Prambanan was a royal mausoleum of the Mataram Kingdom.

Of the sculptures at Prambanan, Sir Stamford Raffles said, “In the whole course of my life I have never met with such stupendous and finished specimens of human labor, and of the science and taste of ages long since forgot, crowded together in so small a compass as in this little spot.”

Architecture Culture

Artist, Architect, Earth

Earth Day! I spent the afternoon with my face in the flowers at Gardens by the Bay, admiring the small-scale artistry and architecture of Planet Earth. In honor of the big-picture beauty found all over the world, a few favorite landscape photos from my travels are also included here. Enjoy the day and the big blue planet we all call home.

Click any photo to view at full size or in slideshow format.

Architecture Art Nature Outdoors Photography

Among the Lanes of Lukang

Hidden away along the west coast of Taiwan is a town called Lukang. Much of Lukang has the everyday hustle and bustle of motorbikes and street stalls, but among this is a sleepy little neighborhood that’s altogether different. Lukang’s Historic Preservation Area reaches back in time with narrow brick lanes and beautiful little doorways that feel untouched since well into the last century.

Exploring the area by foot allows time to linger among the evident history and charm, and walk through some of Lukang’s well-preserved temples. Longshan was a favorite with its calm, open spaces and old, impeccably groomed trees in the courtyard.

Old Market Street and Nine Turns Lane hold the discovery of antiques, crafts, artists at work, and doorways to homes within the district. Sometimes colorful, sometimes old and worn, each doorway has its own personality along with a healthy dose of intrigue as to what might be found on the other side.

Architecture Culture


The world’s largest Buddhist temple, Borobudur, sits on the Indonesian island of Java. It’s interesting to note some similarities Borobudur shares with other significant sites around the world. Borobudur was constructed around 750 AD — about the same time Tikal was at the height of its power as a kingdom of the Mayans in what we know today as Guatemala. Similar to Machu Picchu in Peru, Borobudur was abandoned at some point and lay hidden by jungle and volcanic ash until uncovered centuries later. Thomas Stamford Raffles, ruling governor of Java in 1814, sent an expedition to investigate Borobudur after being informed of its existence. Raffles has since been credited with its rediscovery.

Borobudur was completed in approximately 825 AD and sits on top of a hill, as you can see from the approach. It includes a base, body and top with nine levels. It’s a massive site — difficult to capture in a single frame while standing at the base. Steep steps at each side of the square-shaped foundation lead to the various levels, each level adorned with intricate reliefs (more than 2,600) depicting people and scenes of life. They reminded me of reliefs at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, even though Borobudur predates Angkor Wat by several centuries.

More than 500 Buddha statues sit around Borobudur, many without heads. The large bell-shaped stupas near the top level hold an additional 72 Buddhas within their interiors — you have to peek inside the holes to see them. The site is surrounded by lush jungle and distant hills — a beautiful setting muted by the excruciating midday heat that helped chase the crowds away, but go early or late to capture the Buddhas in their best light. They’ll be waiting, just as they have been for the past 1,189 years.


Architecture Culture Travel

Photo of the Day: Unspoken

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple Gate Guardian

The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple has taken on a festive hue for Chinese New Year, enhanced by darkness as I realized when I walked past it last night. Suddenly the temple guardian at the Mountain Gate was more fierce and real than ever before, protecting the entrance with a bold stance and a menacing, shadowed face. He glared at me, slowed me in my tracks, with right hand open in a pose that said, “STOP! Take my picture! It’s Chinese New Year!” So I did.

Architecture Festival Photography

Day Five in Bhutan: Punakha to Paro

Meri Puensam Resort

We left Punakha’s Meri Puensam Resort just after 9:00 a.m., according to the old fashioned clock hanging outside the reception cottage. Like a lot of things in Bhutan, the clock looked old but new, machine made but hand-lettered, a blend of old style and modern convenience. It seems like every detail in Bhutan has a story to tell, a bit of history to share or just something of interest that makes you wonder about its origins.

Punakha Dzong

We drove north from the hotel, stopping at a small park with a view of Punakha Dzong — the focus of our morning. The sun had just come up over the mountains to the east, illuminating the isthmus at the confluence of the wide Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu (mother and father rivers). Punakha Dzong was built here at the base of the hill in 1637 — at the tip of the trunk of a sleeping elephant as metaphorically predicted by Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Mahayana Buddhism.

Punakha Dzong

Nearly 400 years of history, including fires, earthquakes and flooding, sat quietly on the riverbank in front of us. Punakha Dzong looked statuesque, fortified and regal, reached by a diminutive bridge over the river at the west side.

In looking at this photograph now, it’s apparent how perfectly proportioned Punakha Dzong is to its surroundings. It is beautiful but not ostentatious. Its height complements the width of the rivers. The contour of the structure matches the contour of the mountain behind. How fascinating to wonder about the process of designing and building it so many years ago. Did the builders stand at this exact viewpoint, pushing the height and roof tops up, up, up until they seemed in perfect harmony with the landscape?

Bridge to Punakha Dzong

Upon crossing the bridge, I discovered the bridge is not diminutive at all and actually rather large with post and beam construction and a gable roof. Over the river and through the doorway, the gargantuan scale of the dzong became suddenly apparent as I stood in its shadow and looked up. This really is the essence of the beauty of Punakha Dzong — that its presence is harmonious with the landscape yet so grand and significant to those within and around it.

Entrance to Punakha Dzong

I walked beyond the entry and down the stairs to the gardens on the east side of the dzong. I wanted to get a photograph of the entire structure. I backed up as far as I could but I still couldn’t capture it full frame, as Kinga provided scale standing on the steps at lower right in the photo. He looks so tiny!

Punakha Dzong

Prayer wheel at the entrance

The north entrance has two steep staircases — one of which is wooden and can be pulled up to deny entry to any unwelcome visitors. We climbed up, reaching the landing with a walk-around prayer wheel and beautiful painted murals throughout.

Punakha Dzong

Punakha Dzong is unique in having three docheys or courtyards (rather than two). The first courtyard accommodates administrative offices, monks quarters surround the second courtyard, and the third courtyard has a temple and assembly hall. No matter where you are in Punakha Dzong, significant doorways and staircases are all around.

Punakha Dzong

Stairway to enlightenment?

Punakha Dzong

We removed our shoes and Kinga led us through the assembly hall where about 30 young monks were reciting texts in a continuous hum. They tried to sit still and ignore the handful of tourists walking clockwise around the room, but I caught a few curious glances as we admired the interior. We received a blessing, putting the water in our hands to our mouths and then pouring it over our heads. Kinga told us the story of  Buddha’s life as portrayed by the murals on the north wall.

Decorative metal work on the front door

Having toured the interior, we returned to the first courtyard and descended the staircase, passing this incredible embossed metal work on the front door. Outside, the morning was heating up as families and monks came and went across the bridge in colorful ensembles.



After just a few more photos of Punakha Dzong we were back on the road to Thimphu, having seen some breathtaking sites in Punakha and Phobjikha Valley. Crossing Dochu La Pass and its 108 chortens once more, the skies were clear revealing Bhutan’s Himalayas to the north.

Chortens at Dochu La Pass

Chortens at Dochu La Pass


We reached Thimphu in the early afternoon, and met up again with Fin, owner and founder of Bridge to Bhutan. We shared the details of our fascinating trip over great pizza (yes, pizza!) and salad at Season’s Restaurant. I highly recommend this quaint eatery if you find yourself craving a little variety amidst the Bhutanese buffets.

We bid a fond farewell to Fin and set out on an afternoon of shopping before heading to Paro for the night. Shopping in Thimphu was surprisingly good — the National Handicrafts Emporium sells many different fixed-price items (rugs, shawls, wooden bowls, boots, paintings, jewelry) with the guarantee that everything they sell is made in Bhutan.

The Bamboo Stalls in Thimphu

Not far from the emporium, the “Bamboo Stalls” also have a wide range of things for sale in more than 50 outdoor huts lining the sidewalk. (Apologies for the photo quality — I was using the point-and-shoot during this little outing.)


The Bamboo Stalls have purses, bags, table runners (bought one), scarves, shawls, jackets, wood carvings and lots of great other souvenirs to take home. Many prices are fixed, but sellers usually offer a small discount if you show interest in something. Go early — the cold nights shut down the stalls shortly after dusk.


Bhutanese boots (with tops rolled down)

And that brings me to the Bhutanese boots. Yes, boots. I became mildly obsessed with them during the six days I was in Bhutan. You will not find boots like these anywhere else in the world, which is why I think I was so enamored with them. They are embroidered, colorful, extremely decorative and usually very tall (just Google Image “Bhutanese boots” and you’ll see what I mean). K5 (the current king) is often wearing these boots in his stately portraits. They look like the boots of a court jester or maybe a circus performer with their swirls, stripes and embellishments. Awesome!

Time to make the boots

My obsession turned into a search for a boot shop, which we located in Thimphu after dark. We entered the shop where boots were being made in custom sizes and colors, awaiting pick up by their lucky owners. We saw the soles being attached and the sewing machine where the boots were put together. So cool!

Gimme some sole

Sew easy

If only I could have found a reason why I needed these boots! I figured I could wear them in Singapore for a special occasion like Chinese New Year or Formula 1 (hey, with a little black dress? surely no other girl would be wearing them!) but then again I didn’t want to disrespect their beauty, history and purpose. So I decided they were best… left in Bhutan. We said goodnight and I left the shop empty handed. Perhaps next time I go I’ll bring back a pair and put them in a glass case as a memory of the spirit and uniqueness of this country.

We drove on to Paro, checked into yet another charming hotel, enjoyed dinner together and departed for Tiger’s Nest in the morning.

Next: My Last Day in Bhutan

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Day One in Bhutan: Surprise, Surprise


Finding myself on the way to Bhutan was not something I expected to happen in 2012, so from the beginning Bhutan has been nothing but a surprise to me. Mr. Producer, generous husband who he is, secretly booked the trip as a birthday gift for me. A friend of ours wanted to go, had done the research and found a tour company but didn’t have anyone to go with so… Mr. Producer signed me up.

When I found out, I was speechless. I cried. And then I got REALLY excited. Bhutan is a sort of Holy Grail of traveling — mysterious, isolated, unspoiled and so abnormally expensive that young, uber-adventurous, jet-setting backpackers who have explored just about every nook and cranny of the world have largely been left at the Bhutanese border. The expense alone means that if and when you go to Bhutan, you’ll probably be exploring the country among a small number of well-to-do, well-traveled tourists who have been working and saving for a very long time to get to Bhutan. That said, Mr. Producer made a wise financial decision by seizing the opportunity to send only one of us to assess this expensive land of mystery. I was happy to accept the mission.

We, Kelly and Kelly (our friend and I share the same name), were off to Bhutan. We flew from Singapore to Paro, Bhutan with a quick stop in Calcutta on a plane that was nearly empty, as service by Druk Air just started in September. Calcutta looked hot and hazy from the air, with flat terrain crowded by apartment buildings and farmland. Upon landing we took on a huge load of passengers, all looking for a seat on the left side of the plane — the best vantage point for a glimpse of the Himalayas.

We took off and began the final 50 minute flight into Paro. The view to the west featured cumulus clouds as far as the eye could see, but Jhomolhari (7,314 meters/24,000+ feet) managed to poke through the blanket and reveal itself with a wisp of white at its tip. Suddenly the clouds were gone beneath us, we entered the mountains around Paro and began our descent — finding our way as if we were threading needles through mountain valleys, one after another, twisting and turning, finding our way to the airport while from the window it looked like we would surely skim the treetops along the way. Yikes! With one last unexpected tilt and dip of the left wing just before landing, we touched down and passengers burst into applause.

Arrival at the Paro airport

Leaving the plane in Paro, I savored the feeling of being somewhere totally foreign. Several men were dressed in traditional Bhutanese ghos — patterned knee-length robes with wide, white cuffs, a cloth belt around the waist, knee socks and leather shoes. Pretty charming traditional dress! Also charming? The architecture, even at the airport — white-washed with ornate columns and an elaborate wood cornice hand-painted with colorful motifs. And just to the left of the airport entry… meet the Wangchucks.

Meet the Wangchucks

Move over Will and Kate — the Wangchucks are a stunning young couple and admired throughout the country. Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is the fifth and current king since the Bhutanese monarchy was introduced in 1907. He’s just 32 years old and was married to Jetsun Pema last year. She is 22 years old. You cannot turn your head in Bhutan without seeing their portraits hanging from at least one wall, signpost, building or billboard. They are simply everywhere, like exquisite fixtures of the kingdom who accompany your every move. Kuzuzangbo la!

Breezing through immigration, we bought a couple bottles of wine at duty-free (yes, Bhutan has duty-free) and pushed our luggage cart toward the exit where we were met by Fin, co-founder of Bridge to Bhutan. He greeted us with impeccable English, a smart gho and the charisma of a business owner who knows exactly what he’s doing. We loaded up the luggage and left the airport in his modern SUV — not exactly what I had expected from this surprising little country.Paro countryside

Headed toward Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, I surveyed the countryside — a lot like the front range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado or the Sierras in California. I felt right at home, as Fin drove along and gave us a well-informed lesson on the history and culture of Bhutan. We stopped along the way for a short hike to the river and the first suspension bridge in Bhutan. Strewn with prayer flags, the bridge employed under foot some of the massive metal links used in its original construction (see photo). The wood and brick structures at each end were painted with fascinating patterns. The river flowed cold and peaceful below us. I knew in those moments that Bhutan was a place I was going to love.Bhutan's first suspension bridge Outside Paro Fin on a bridge to Bhutan Downtown Thimphu

We arrived in Thimphu around 5:00. The sun had left the valley, hidden by the high ridge along the west side. We entered downtown — a busy streetscape surprisingly reminiscent of alpine villages in Europe. We drove along as Fin listed off quirky and fascinating facts about Bhutan: the only country without a single traffic light, only one escalator in the whole country, a building code that requires all architecture to adhere to traditional Bhutanese style, dry Tuesdays during which no alcohol can be bought or sold, an emphasis on local organic farming rather than importing fruits and vegetables, no driving in town centers on Tuesdays in support of “Pedestrian Days”, and no smoking or tobacco use anywhere — it’s totally outlawed. Bhutan is surprisingly progressive for such an insular country.

We checked into the hotel as we took it all in. Hotel Pedling was a quaint yellow building in the center of town. Our room was on the second floor, free wifi, toasty warm with wood wainscoting and practically Swiss in its alpine appearance. The tiled en suite bathroom was huge. I had expected we’d be roughing it so I was totally surprised by the modern facilities.

Fin accompanied us to dinner at Ama Restaurant — down a few stairs, just a short walk from the hotel. The food was excellent — potatoes, marinated chicken with vegetables, naan, rice, a curry dish and Druk 11,000 beer. Also, in a small bowl was an authentic Bhutanese dish that accompanied every meal we had during our trip: ema datshi, or chilies and cheese. Sometimes mild, sometimes crazily hot, and slightly different at every meal, I tried it a few times with mixed results. Regardless, let it be known that the Bhutanese love their chili peppers.Trashi Chhoe Dzong

Off for an evening drive, we stopped along the road to see the lights of the Trashi Chhoe Dzong and admire the National Memorial Chorten by moonlight. At 8:00 p.m. people were still circumambulating the chorten in daily prayer rituals. We would return to the Trashi Chhoe Dzong tomorrow to see the changing of the guard, but for now it had been a loooong and enlightening day. Fin returned us to our hotel. I reflected on the day’s events, reveled in all of the day’s surprises, and fell asleep as a plenitude of dogs barked into the night.National Memorial ChortenNext: Day Two in Bhutan

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