In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Brave and resourceful townspeople confront the aftermath of three days of battle in July 1863 during America’s Civil War

A reproduction of Lincoln’s handwritten Gettysburg Address is on the smaller rectangular monument in front of the centerpiece Soldiers’ National Monument at Soldiers’ National Cemetery in southern Pennsylvania. Lady Liberty stands atop the monument. Ringing the second tier are the figures of “War,” “History,” “Plenty” and “Peace.”

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

When the carnage ceased and the forever-changed Union and Confederate armies marched away from the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, the monumental task of dealing with the dead, dying and severely wounded was just beginning for the overwhelmed townsfolk.

The cascade of casualties on both sides was staggering after the three-day series of battles, the bloodiest of the Civil War, waged in this south-central Pennsylvania town. Union General George G. Meade commanded the Army of the Potomac, 93,000 soldiers strong.

A total of 3,155 were killed, 14,529 were wounded and 5,365 were captured or missing. The tally of injured may have been higher, because in those days, the wounded were counted as such only if their care required a doctor.

“The Battle of Gettysburg” cyclorama is an oil painting that measures 377 feet around and stands 42 feet high, about the height of a four-story building. It depicts the ill-fated Pickett’s Charge, on July 3, 1863, when Confederate forces attacked Union troops on Cemetery Ridge. It was completed in 1884 by French artist Paul Philippoteaux, and is housed at the Visitor Center of Gettysburg National Military Park.

On the Confederate side, General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia’s troops numbered about 70,000. Unfortunately, an accurate accounting of Lee’s losses do not exist, so historians have put forth these estimates: 3,500 killed, 18,000 wounded and 6,500 captured or missing.

The population of Gettysburg was a mere 2,400. Many of its residents were farmers, their fertile land overrun by the military clashes of July 1-3, resulting in a turning-point victory for the Union Army. The trim and neat homes and businesses in the center of town were largely undamaged by the fighting, and in the aftermath, some of the wounded crawled to these dwellings, begging for aid.

By the third day of battle, more than 100 buildings — public and private — were housing the wounded. Field hospitals, with surgeons on both sides doing the best they could with limited resources and supplies, were set up in tents and barns and under shade trees.

In addition to the soldiers in dire need of attention — many in great pain crying out for help — thousands of dead horses littered the landscape, as did broken wagon wheels, cannon shells, jagged fences and abandoned rifles and other equipment.

July Fourth — the 87th anniversary of the founding of the United States of America — was a rainy day, muddying the ground, and hampering burial progress.

The fear of the spread of disease and the awful stench of decomposing bodies scattered across 25 square miles of open land were among the most pressing problems, soon to be exacerbated by the stifling summer sun.

This is when the capable people of Gettysburg mobilized their efforts to great effect — burying the dead. Union and Confederate soldiers had started the process, excavating shallow, temporary  graves for their comrades where they fell. It was a hurried effort; limbs and hands protruded from some sites (even months later), lending a ghoulish air to an already morbid undertaking.

When the armies withdrew, thousands of dead men were still above ground.

The identity of some soldiers could not be determined.

Identification was also a challenge. Neither army wore what we know today as dog tags. It was, at that time, the soldiers’ responsibility to leave proof as to his name and other personal details. In some cases, burial teams found letters or photographs in a man’s pocket to provide clues. Better yet was a diary or Bible, where the soldier had written on its flyleaf his name in full, and the regiment and company in which he served.

Soldiers who had the heartrending chore of burying their friends could in many cases identify them, then leave a list of names written on hastily made headboards to cover a group en masse.

Among the heroines of this part of the story was a German immigrant named Elizabeth Masser Thorn (1832-1907). She lived with her three sons, all under the age of 10, and her parents in the gate house at Evergreen Cemetery.

Elizabeth’s husband, also a German immigrant, was off serving in the Union Army with a company in Virginia. Before the war, the couple were caretakers at the cemetery, the only public burial space in Gettysburg.

“The Thorn family was accustomed to death,” said Caitlin Brown, a National Park Service ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park during a free morning tour I took in mid-September. “They dealt with it on a daily basis.”

For the fateful days of combat, the Thorns were displaced. The Union “high command” took over the house, and soldiers camped around it. “They tore down fencing in order to mount a better defense against the Confederates,” Brown said.

The Thorns fled a few miles south of Gettysburg to stay with friends. When they returned home on July 7, the horror was nearly indescribable.

“Utter destruction was everywhere,” Brown said. “Ten soldiers were in a mass grave at the water pump. All the windows were gone. Gravestones were blown to pieces.”

Worse yet, there was no organization in place to bring order to the surrounding chaos.

Elizabeth looked to her community. “ ‘The Thorn family is suffering, but so is everyone in Gettysburg,’ ” Brown said, paraphrasing Thorn. “ ‘ We need to work together to restore Gettysburg.’ ”

Which is what came to pass. Volunteer nurses stepped up to administer to the needy. And Elizabeth, technically Evergreen’s sole caretaker in her husband’s absence, was six months pregnant. Swollen ankles and an aching back didn’t deter her from digging mass graves for soldiers. She is credited with helping to lay 91 men to rest.

The government also offered contracts for bid to engage burial crews. Some of those were led by free men of color, who, like all workers, had to learn to properly handle the fragile, disintegrating bodies so as not to cause further harm.

Elizabeth’s husband, Peter, survived the war. The middle name of their baby daughter, Rose Meade Thorn, was a tribute to the Union general.

An informational board tells visitors about the history and layout of Soldiers’ National Cemetery.

A second individual important to Gettysburg’s recovery was attorney David Wills. His three-story brick house on what is now Lincoln Square, in the center of town, took in wounded and served as a depot for supplies. He also received letters from families desperate to locate their dead sons and take them home for reburial.

Wills is credited with putting forth the idea of a national cemetery. Appointed to proceed by Governor Andrew Curtin, Wills was instrumental in guiding the purchase of the 17 acres of battlefield land adjoining Evergreen Cemetery that would become Soldiers’ National Cemetery.

More than 3,000 Union soldiers were eventually reinterred there, under flat markers with their names, if known. Over the years, about an equal number of Confederate soldiers were disinterred and reburied in cemeteries in the South.

Many markers say simply “unknown,” or in some cases the number of deceased in a mass grave are noted and whether they were Union or Confederate troops — if that could be determined.

United States President Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of Soldiers’ National Cemetery,  delivering his two-minute Gettysburg Address. This statue of him is outside the Visitor Center at Gettysburg National Military Park. 

The Thorn family themselves were buried in Evergreen Cemetery, but it has another huge claim to fame in American history: It is where Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, delivered the 272-word Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. The night before the dedication of this “hallowed ground,” he stayed at the Wills home, which opened to the public in 2009.

The formal invitation for Lincoln to participate at the dedication was not issued until November 2. Was Lincoln’s attendance an afterthought? Some experts think so, considering that Edward Everett agreed to deliver “the Oration” in September. Others believe that Wills was just tardy in sending a letter, and cite the fact that he also extended his personal hospitality to the president.

The Brown family mausoleum occupies the very spot where Lincoln gave his address in Evergreen Cemetery, which is separated by a metal fence from Soldiers’ National Cemetery, the acreage that was dedicated on November 19, 1863. 

A mausoleum for the Brown family was erected on the exact spot, and there is no plaque that reveals that this was where Lincoln stood for the two minutes he spoke to the crowd of about 15,000. A metal fence separates Evergreen Cemetery from the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, but visitors need only exit one site to get to the other on foot.

Lincoln was the second speaker on dedication day. He followed politician, pastor and orator Everett of Massachusetts, who droned on for two hours presenting his 13,000-word opus.

Five manuscript copies (with subtle phrasing variations) of the Gettysburg Address exist. Two are held by the Library of Congress; one by the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield; one by Cornell University in Ithaca, New York; and one resides in the Lincoln Room at the White House in Washington, D.C.

Soldiers’ Memorial Cemetery was closed to burials after the Vietnam War, accepting only spouses and children of those already interred.

Silenced cannons intermingle with monuments throughout Soldiers’ National Cemetery. 

It is a beautiful, peaceful setting now; a fitting, final resting place for every soldier who “gave the last full measure of devotion” to the United States of America.

Quick reference: Most of the sites at Gettysburg National Military Park are free and open to the public. Rangers give talks on battle-related topics, and guide visitors through the expansive fields and woods where the fighting took place. The one I attended was called “Four Score and Seven Years Ago: Lincoln and the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.” Rangers distribute maps, and pamphlets called “Today at the Park,” which contain the talks’ titles and schedule. The cemetery is open dawn to dusk.

If your interest in the Civil War is high, you’ll want to budget two to three full days (or more) in Gettysburg. I spent a full day on the battlefields and about four hours in the museum. I didn’t have time for the 24-mile, 16-stop self-driving tour and saw only a tiny fraction of the 1,400 monuments and memorials. The driving tour takes a minimum of three hours, more if you read everything.

Summer can be hot, humid and above all else — crowded. Plan accordingly.

Gettysburg National Military Park, museum and visitor center: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. April 1-October 31; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. November 1 to March 31. Closed Thanksgiving, December 25 and January 1. There is a fee for full access to the museum’s 12 galleries, film and cyclorama painting. Backpacks are not allowed in the museum and there are no lockers to store them in. In other words, leave everything locked in the car trunk. Visitors can carry in a water bottle. 1195 Baltimore Pike;

For more information on the Gettysburg Address:


In the northern Chilean desert, San Pedro de Atacama’s artists draw inspiration from landscape and wildlife

A tile mosaic on the side of a one-story building in San Pedro de Atacama captures the animals and scenery that visitors will see around this small town in northern Chile. 

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In November 2016, spring in the Southern Hemisphere, I took an unforgettable, two-week trip to Easter Island and Chile. This is the ninth post about my adventures. See September 10, August 27, July 27, June 17, April 10, March 6 and February 12, 2017, for earlier posts about Easter Island, and July 8 for one about the El Tatio geysers in northern Chile.

When I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, artisans were about halfway finished installing a tile mosaic on the front of a one-story building in this dusty small town in the Chilean desert.

The mosaic illustrates the natural wonders that draw tourists to this region: a snow-capped Andes peak, rendered in shades of blue, tan and white, capturing the slanting play of light on the mountain; long-legged, black-tailed pink flamingoes; furry tan vicunas, members of the camelid family; and green cacti reaching skyward on a reddish-brown mound of sand, signifying the desert.

I think the left side may have been portraying the ragged cliff and rock formations of the Valley of the Moon, an evocative, close-by destination perfect for a challenging hike.

At the top, in a deep blue sky, was a Gaviota Andina, a black-headed gull, white wings spread in flight. Below, the sky gave way to a wide, lighter blue panel.

The lower half of the mosaic was yet to be completed. Stacks of colorful tiles, cans of adhesive and a wheelbarrow were among some of the tools and supplies on the sidewalk in front of the artwork.

The building was about a five-minute walk from the hostel where I was staying, and so over the four days that I called San Pedro de Atacama home, I passed it about eight times as I made my way to and from the center of town.

Every day, a bit more work was completed. It was beginning to look like I would get to see the mosaic in its entirely before I departed.

San Pedro de Atacama predates the tourist boom, its surrounding acreage rich in copper and quartz. Nowadays it’s abundant lithium that’s drawing multinational mining corporations to this South American country. Yes, the lithium that powers your smart phone batteries and so much more.

For visitors, the scenery and wildlife are the attractions, and many of the 4,000 or so residents have some hand in the tourism industry. They might run a hostel or hotel — or work in one; they might give tours out to the national parks’ salt flats, where the flamingoes play; to the stark landscape of the Valley of the Moon; or drive the predawn mountain run so passengers can catch the El Tatio geysers spouting off at sunrise (see July 8 post).

Earth tones and brighter colors often combine in tapestries, table runners and woven tote bags made by local artists. I bought a small, supply-laden llama figure like those on the second shelf at left. 

Or they might be craftsmen or artisans, making a living selling their brilliantly colored cloth wares and pottery. In stalls and markets, hand-woven fabrics and spools of yarn, covering the spectrum of the rainbow and then some, provide a glorious contrast to the white walls and red-brown clay adobe architecture.

When the sun is as bright and unrelenting as it is here, it’s best to harness it, as one craftsman was doing in front of a shop. A piece of multicolored striped cloth was draped over his head and shoulders, completely shrouding his face.

No high-tech equipment for this artist, who was making the most of the sun’s rays to burn a decorative lizard into plank of wood.

He was sitting, bent over a long, thin plank of wood, with just his hands and heavily tattooed forearms visible. (If not tattoos, then tattoo-like sleeves covered his forearms.)

In his right hand he held a large magnifying glass horizontally over the plank, concentrating the powerful rays to burn the lines and curves of his design into the wood. At this moment, he was forming the tail of a crowned lizard, splayed at the top of the plank.

With his left hand, he was grasping the plank between his thumb and fist, steadying it, balancing it across his blue-jeaned knees.

On the ground to his left was a sign written in Spanish. Coins were tossed atop it, obscuring some of the words. Mostly likely it said something about donations being welcome.

The afternoon light shining through the wooden slats made a pleasing geometric pattern on the ground at a small craft mall near my hostel.

At one of the smaller craft malls between the center of town and my hostel, the sun again played an ornamental role. In a large open space, horizontal and vertical lines composed a geometrical pattern on the ground, the shadows cast from the overhead wooden slats lining the top of open metal framework.

Caracoles Street is the busiest in town, with shops, restaurants and lodging nearby, if not on the street itself. The small church, the Iglesia San Pedro, was touted in guidebooks as an oasis of white in a sea of adobe. That description was off the mark.

Several guidebooks I’d read before my trip indicated that the wall around Iglesia San Pedro and the building itself were totally painted white. As you can see, that wasn’t what I found.

It’s in a small plaza, just to the north, of the western side of Caracoles, closer in fact to a street called Padre la Paige. I don’t know whether some sort of renovation was under way, or the townsfolk decided they just wanted a change. But not a speck of white paint remained on the exterior. Just adobe, adobe, adobe.

The tree-lined plaza was decorated with balloons and signs noting that it was hosting a “Mountain Do” event, three simultaneous trail runs of 42 kilometers, 23K and 6K, from town out into Valley of the Moon. I met a man from Brazil who was visiting specifically for the race, and he competed in the middle distance.

One of the few tree-lined spots in the middle of San Pedro de Atacama.

San Pedro de Atacama in looks has much in common with the American Southwest of the 1800s and early 1900s — from the mostly one-story adobe buildings to the wind-blown tumbleweeds, to the cloudless azure sky to the unsparing sun. Some November mornings can be blessedly cool, but by early afternoon, knee-baring shorts, ample shade and a cold drink are in order.

Yes, I got to see the finished mosaic. Green shrubs sprouted around and under the hooves of the vicunas, against the white-rocky terrain in the foreground. The flamingoes were given a blue lagoon, their habitat in the national reserves. At the bottom edge, a pretty border of light gray and tan separated the art from the sidewalk.

Quick reference: Latam has many flights from Santiago to Calama, the closest city of size to San Pedro de Atacama. At the airport, several companies offer minivan transfer to San Pedro. The ride is a bit over an hour on a national highway that was in excellent condition when I visited.

San Pedro has a wide range of accommodations. The closer to the center of town you stay, the more you’ll pay. I stayed at Hostal Solar, Volcan el Tatio No. 737, Licancabur, San Pedro de Atacama. It is about a 10- to 15-minute walk to town (website has a map). It has only 10 rooms. I made the reservation online; the site was mostly in Spanish, but it has been updated to include English. My en-suite room (very small bathroom) had a queen-size bed. Towels were provided. Remember, you are in the desert: Rainfall is rare. Therefore, take very quick showers. No television or radio. A small interior courtyard ringed by the rooms is a gathering place for guests. Made-to-order breakfast is included. Most days it was eggs, bread and cheese, served with good, strong coffee. A full-size refrigerator is in the entryway, provided for guests’ food and drink. The refrigerator by the breakfast room dispenses cold, filtered drinking water. In the evening, thermoses of hot water, cups and materials for tea and coffee are available in the entryway. No staff are on the premises overnight, so guests have keys to unlock the hostel’s front door in addition to their room keys.

Two quick-and-easy recipes to help get an impromptu party started

Three-bean chili and corn muffins will put some heat into your next gathering. 

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Did September sneak up on you? Did the summer heat and humidity make you long for cooler temperatures and keep you out of the kitchen except for the most basic preparations to feed your family?

Now that standing over a stovetop for more than 10 minutes isn’t so taxing, are you eager to get together with friends and watch some football (or your favorite sport)?

With these recipes for vegetarian chili and corn muffins, you can prepare both and be ready to eat in less than an hour. Get the chili going first, then turn your attention to the muffins.

Buy (or make) your preferred appetizers, put the beer, soft drinks and water on ice, and get cooking! (Have your friends bring dessert.)

This vegetable chili might become one of your favorites, based on its simplicity and depth of flavor. Aside from dicing the vegetables, it’s really just opening a series of cans. Purists can rehydrate their own dried beans overnight, of course.

This also works nicely as a last-minute weeknight meal, served with a mixed green salad.

My Southern friends might be appalled that the corn muffin recipe doesn’t contain lard or anything else that unhealthy. And they may well consider it blasphemy that the cornbread isn’t prepared in a cast-iron skillet.

But as I’ve said in this space before, all recipes are suggestions. It’s up to you to tailor the basics to your palate. So … sometimes I make this cornbread as muffins, sometimes in an 8-by-8-inch well-greased glass dish.

I always have powdered buttermilk on hand. I like Saco Cultured Buttermilk Blend in the 12-ounce round container, available in Walmart, many grocery chains and online. It keeps for months in the refrigerator. Directions for substituting  powdered buttermilk for liquid buttermilk in recipes are on the container’s label.

King Arthur Flour also makes dried buttermilk, sold in a 16-ounce bag. I’ve never tried it, but the company’s products enjoy a solid reputation. Its website says that the reconstituted powder is not for drinking out of a glass. That likely applies to the Saco brand also.

If you don’t have powdered or liquid, don’t worry. You can make your own “sour” milk. Put 1 tablespoon white vinegar or 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice in a measuring cup. Add regular milk (I use 1 percent) to 1 cup mark. Allow to stand for about 5 minutes. Stir lightly. Use as directed in the recipe.

Now, you are ready for some football — not to be confused with soccer, as our British friends would say.


I use light red kidney beans, black beans and cannellini beans, but feel free to substitute your favorites.

Vegetarian Three-bean Chili

Hands on: 10-15 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes, longer if you like thicker chili

Serves: 4-6

You’ll need a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven to make this chili, and if you are doubling the recipe, either a huge Dutch oven or two on separate burners. As with all chili, if you like toppings such as sour cream, shredded cheddar cheese or onions, by all means, let your guests add them at the end.

I’ve also made this chili with bite-size pieces of boneless, skinless chicken breast. But I prefer it without the poultry.

If using dried beans, reconstitute enough so that you have 1 3/4 cups of each type. Any three types of beans can be used in the recipe, not just the ones in the ingredient list. Canned beans range in volume from 14 ounces to 16 ounces. Size variations are acceptable.

If you like a very tomato-e sauce, used 2 (8-ounce) cans of tomato sauce and reduce the vegetable stock or water to 1/2 cup.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup onion, cut in dice (I prefer Vidalia onions)

1 cup red bell pepper, cut in dice

1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely chopped (optional)

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon dried coriander

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder

1 cup vegetable stock, or water

1 (16-ounce) can cannellini beans (white kidney beans), rinsed and drained

1 (16-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained

1 (16-ounce) can red kidney beans (light or dark), rinsed and drained

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

1 (28-ounce can) diced tomatoes (with juices)

1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels (unthawed)

1 tablespoon granulated sugar (optional)

1 tablespoon salt, or to taste

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion, bell pepper and jalapeño, if using. Cook vegetables, stirring frequently, for about 6 to 8 minutes, or until they begin to soften.

Add cumin, oregano, coriander, cayenne pepper, chili powder to the Dutch oven. Cook, stirring constantly, to allow the spices to bloom, about 1 minute.

Add the stock or water, the three types of beans, tomato sauce, diced tomatoes and juices, and corn. Add the sugar, which will help cut some of the acidity from the tomatoes.

Cook over medium-low heat for 20 to 30 minutes. Stir often, scraping the bottom, to make sure the chili doesn’t stick or burn. If the chili seems too dry, add 1/2 cup water and cover the Dutch oven.

Add salt and pepper. Restir and taste. Adjust seasoning, if necessary.

Serve in large bowls, with optional toppings, and corn muffins.

Leftovers can be refrigerated, up to 5 days, in an air-tight container, or kept frozen for about 3 months.

Adapted from “The Earthbound Cook: 250 Recipes for Delicious Food and a Healthy Planet” by Myra Goodman with Pamela McKinstry, Sarah LaCasse and Ronni Sweet (Workman Publishing, 2010, $20.95)


Using paper liners in muffin tins makes clean-up a breeze.

Basic Corn Muffins

Hands on: 10 minutes

Total time: 30-35 minutes

Makes: 8-9 large muffins, or about 15 regular-size muffins

1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter or margarine

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup yellow cornmeal

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon granulated sugar (or more to taste)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 egg

1 cup buttermilk (see note above)

1/2 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen (unthawed, optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a microwave-safe container, melt the butter or margarine. Set aside and allow to cool. I use a large glass bowl for this step.

Grease muffin tins or line with paper cups (like you would use for cupcakes).

In a medium mixing bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and salt. Mix lightly with a fork or whisk.

In a small bowl, whisk egg until smooth. Add buttermilk and whisk to combine.

Pour buttermilk mixture into the cooled butter or margarine and whisk to combine. (Make sure it is cool; you don’t want to cook the egg at this point.)

Gradually add flour mixture from the medium bowl to buttermilk mixture, stirring until evenly moistened. Do not overmix; it “toughens” the muffins. The batter may have small lumps. That’s OK, but if it bothers you, mix a little more. Add kernels, if using, and mix.

Fill muffin cups three-quarters full. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. The tops will be golden when baked.

Allow muffins to cool completely, if you can wait that long. This step helps the paper liners to peel easily from the muffins.

Serve with butter, jam or honey. Or your favorite chili.

They’ll keep for about 5 days in the refrigerator. To rewarm, lightly toast before serving. They also freeze well. Wrap them individually for best results.

Adapted from “The Totally Muffins Cookbook” by Helene Siegel and Karen Gillingham (Celestial Arts Publishing, 1995)

The tale of Hoa Hakananai’a, an Easter Island statue nearly 8,500 miles from home

On the back of Hoa Hakananai’a’s head, two stylized canoe paddles flank a standing bird in right profile. At shoulder level are facing carvings combining bird heads and human feet. The moai is one of the most popular displays at the British Museum in London.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In November 2016, spring in the Southern Hemisphere, I took an unforgettable, two-week trip to Easter Island and Chile. This is the seventh post about my adventures. See August 27, June 17, April 10, March 6 and February 12, 2017, for earlier posts about Easter Island, and July 8 for one about the El Tatio geysers in northern Chile.

In 2010, the BBC, in conjunction with the British Museum, aired a radio series with the characteristically understated title “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” based on the museum’s vast — and I mean vast — collection, “exploring world history from 2 million years ago to the present.”

Each program was 15 minutes, written and narrated by Neil MacGregor, then-director of the British Museum. A book of the series was also compiled. (MacGregor stepped down in 2015.)

An Easter Island moai, transported nearly 8,500 miles, clocks in at number 70 of the 100 objects. This well-preserved, long-eared, square-headed stone giant, with the name Hoa Hakananai’a is today on display atop a square plinth in Room 24, under searingly bright overhead spotlights.

It’s also one of the most popular pieces in the museum, if the number of people pausing to take photos in front of it, are any indication. In May, when I stopped for several days in London on the way home from Portugal, I revisited Hoa Hakananai’a (“Stolen Friend” or “Hidden Friend”), which I had seen on previous visits to England’s capital.

Cambridge University-trained linguist James Grant-Peterkin, a native of Scotland but living on Easter Island since 2000, takes issue with the translations of the moai’s name. He believes “the breaker of waves” is more accurate.

Having now been to Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui) and understanding far more of the history and culture, I wanted a fresh image of Hoa Hakananai’a, both in my mind and from my camera.

This nearly 8-foot-tall moai (missing his bottom half) was taken from Rapa Nui by the HMS Topaze in 1868. Some sources say that it was a “gift” from island chiefs, newly converted to Christianity, who at one time believed the moai protected Rapa Nui’s inhabitants and embodied their ancestors’ mana or power.

The moai’s original home was the Orongo ceremonial village, on the southwestern tip of the island, far away from the quarry at Rano Raraku, and from other moai in general.

Orongo, an isolated, cliff-top site, is archaeologically linked to the cult of the Birdman, which British researcher Katherine Routledge detailed in “The Mysteries of Easter Island,” published in 1919, based on her 17-month stay on the island. Thus the avian and fertility carvings on the back of Hoa Hakananai’a make perfect sense.

The drawing at right, part of the informational boards at the Orongo site on Easter Island, detail the moai’s carvings more clearly. The two photos at left show Hoa Hakananai’a at the British Museum.

Online, I found a photo claiming to be taken in 1868 of the moai on a ship, with all the carvings distinctly outlined in paint. No viewer has to strain to see the standing bird figure, in right profile, in the center of the head, and the stylized canoe paddles topped by mini-moai heads sandwiching the bird.

Or the two facing birds, shoulder high, with human-like feet, just above the rainbow-shaped girdle at midback. Their upraised beaks touch, at neck level,  below the bird on the moai’s head.

Nowadays, the paint is gone, and even with the moai so elevated at the museum, these details are plainly evident, though a little harder to see.

The birdlike figures also match hundreds of petroglyphs found on the boulders at Orongo village.

American archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg, who has been studying and excavating on Rapa Nui for decades, says this moai was carved from basalt — not the volcanic tuff that the majority of the moai are made of — and buried upright to its shoulders in one of the stone homes at Orongo. Its back was to the home’s door.

One school believes the carvings on the back were added much later.

Reports say that 300 crew of the British ship and 200 islanders dragged the 4-ton statue, secured with ropes, down the cliff and to the waiting frigate.

HMS Topaze also brought back a second statue, known as Moai Hava (“Dirty Statue” or “To Be Lost”), weighing less than four tons and in poorer condition than Hoa Hakananai’a. Moai Hava, taken from the Mataveri area, near the present-day airport, has periodically been loaned to other institutions, but it is not on view at the British Museum.

Back in 19th-century England, the Lords of the Admiralty offered both moai to Queen Victoria, who donated them to British Museum in 1869.

Rano Kau, on the southwest corner of the island, is Rapa Nui’s largest volcanic crater. The dip in the rear indicates that the cliffs below are eroding into the sea below. A long time ago, the crater lake supplied fresh drinking water to this side of Rapa Nui. Freshwater reeds form the mats that sit atop water that’s about 46 feet deep. 

The Orongo village site, occupied only seasonally, was among the most significant ones that American anthropologist-archaeologist William Mulloy explored and helped to restore. (See my August 27 post for much more on Mulloy.) It is directly west of the crater of Rano Kau, one of the island’s three main dormant volcanoes, and hugs the cliffs towering about 1,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean.

This is another gorgeous Rapa Nui vista, though the wind can be annoyingly persistent. Beware the swiftly moving clouds, threatening to bring intermittent rain, as was the case when I visited last November.

A small display and visitor center explain the Cult of the Birdman in illustrations and text, and the restorations done at Orongo.

Moto Nui is the biggest islet; Moto Iti is in front of it, and Moto Kao Kao in the foreground. Competitors in the Birdman Competition scaled down the cliffs and swam to Moto Nui to await the first egg of the migrating sooty terns. 

From the village, looking south to the sea, are the tiny specks of land known as Moto Kao Kao (“thin islet” in the Rapa Nui language), Moto Iti (“small islet”) and Moto Nui (“big islet”). There are 12 other islets, but they don’t figure in this story.

Archaeologists date the site to the 1600s, when the moai-carving era was coming to an end. Some posit that the clans were warring at this point, that the moai were being toppled in fits of revenge, and no longer exerting “power” over the islanders.

If these conditions were, indeed, accurate, they signaled a shift away from the influence of the chiefs and priests (think rank and status), and the near-revolutionary rise of the warrior class, with its own ideas about leadership.

Henceforth, physical ability partially leveled the playing field, with selected representatives participating in an annual, grueling athletic contest to determine the dominant clan for the coming year.

And thus the Birdman Competition — a combination of climbing agility, swimming ability and patience, with a religious component to boot — was inaugurated as part of a monthlong celebration.

In spring, September in the Southern Hemisphere, islanders eagerly awaited the migration of thousands of white-breasted sooty terns, who laid their eggs on the offshore islets. As the birds arrived, the athletes and the most important members of their tribes would make their way to Orongo.

The slab-stone houses provided protection from the wind, high up on the cliffs at Orongo. American anthropologist-archaeologist William Mulloy and a team of islanders restored 54 of these houses in 1974.

The tribesmen lived in slab-stone houses, with Rano Kau providing the large sections of basalt used in construction. In 1974, Mulloy and the islanders restored 54 of these sturdy dwellings, most of which faced the islets, all the better for watching the Birdman Competition. Some of the structures were even interconnected.

The Birdman winner was the athlete who got his hands on the season’s first egg laid on Moto Nui, obtaining it being no easy feat. First the competitors descended via a path in the crater, out its back and then down the ragged cliffs to the sea. Next they swam, hauling meager supplies on a bundle of buoyant reeds, to the islet, a distance of more than 1 mile (about 2 kilometers).

There they passed the time in a cave, until the egg-laying began. Once the all-important egg was secured, the victor signaled to the spectators back at Orongo of his success. His goal on the return swim, with the egg in a small basket tied around his head, was not to break the egg.

The athlete was rewarded for his efforts, but it was the chief he represented who ascended in importance, as did his clan. For five months of his year-long reign, the new Birdman lived alone, a servant bringing him nourishment.

The Birdman Competition continued until about the 1880s, when Christianity came to the fore. Present-day islanders pay tribute to the competition during the annual Tapati Festival in February.

No eggs are involved, but physical tests for the scantily clad competitors include canoeing across the lake’s crater at Rano Raraku (on the northeast side of the island), a footrace where each barefoot competitor carries heavy, arm-filling clusters of bananas, and then a swim across the lake on a reed “surfboard.” Competitors must be Rapa Nui men.

Hoa Hakananai’a was brought to England on the HMS Topaze, and presented to Queen Victoria, who donated the moai to the British Museum in 1869.

More than 6 million people visited the British Museum in 2016. Fewer than 60,000 make the trek to remote Rapa Nui, 2,300 miles west of Chile, each year. Is it better to have Hoa Hakananai’a spark people’s imaginations where he is, to dream of one day seeing the hundreds of moai on Rapa Nui in person? Or is it time to send Hoa Hakananai’a and Moai Hava home, returning these important cultural works to the people of Rapa Nui?

Quick reference: For more on “A History of the World in 100 Objects”:

For more on Jo Anne Van Tilburg’s work, see the Easter Island Statue Project’s website:

For more on Moai Havi:

In Portugal: Contentedly indulging in rich custard tarts and sweet port wine

Sugar-dusted mini custard tarts and ruby port were delivered by hotel staff as a welcome gift in Lisbon.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the fourth post covering my spring trip to Portugal. See June 2 for a post about unexpectedly meeting TV travel host and author Rick Steves in Lisbon, July 30 for a post about the Casa da Musica in Porto, and August 20 about cork and its importance to this western European country. 

Shortly following afternoon check-in at my hotel in Lisbon, there was a gentle knock at the door.

Hmmm. What could this be about? I hadn’t asked the desk staff for anything. I had barely said hello to my friend Sylvia, who had flown in from a different American city, and who had checked in several hours earlier and already taken a nap.

Standing at the threshold of our room was a smiling young woman holding a tray, upon which were four mini custard tarts on a plain white plate and a red-foil capped, 375-milliliter bottle of ruby port from brand Niepoort, founded in 1842, and based in the northern city of Porto.

That’s what I call a welcome “welcome”: two of Portugal’s best-known foodstuffs generously provided by the hotel with its compliments.

Custard tarts, known locally as pastel de nata, feature a flaky puff pastry shell, filled with a not-overly-sweet egg-and-cream center, usually served hot from the oven. What looks like small brown scorches — they don’t taste burnt — are the results of being baked in a 500-degree-plus oven. (Some sources says they’re baked at 800 degrees, but that would have to be at a commercial operation.) Those in the know sprinkle a bit of cinnamon and confectioners’ sugar lightly on top before diving in.

As part of the pastry tray at breakfast, as a midmorning or midafternoon snack, or as dessert after dinner, there really isn’t a wrong time to indulge.

And a bounty of bakeries around the country are there to help. You can’t walk too far in Lisbon without one of these specialties — or some other interesting confection — beckoning to you. Each bakery has its own version of the recipe, and you’re not likely to be disappointed.

Employees at Antiga Confeitaria de Belém work swiftly to package custard tarts for customers to take home. 

Among the most popular places to enjoy a custard tart is at Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, across from the waterfront, in the Belém section of western Lisbon. According to one guidebook, it turns out up to 10,000 handmade tarts a day following its super-secret recipe, and up to 20,000 on weekends.

For those taking away, special paper tubes help to protect the tarts on their journey.

In the kitchen, away from prying eyes, long ropes of puff pastry dough are rolled out and then sectioned off into single pieces. The dough chunks are flattened into a round, then pressed in the bottom and up the sides to the rim of individual tart tins.

They are placed close to one another, 60 at a time, in a high-sided baking tray. Next, they are filled with an off-white creamy custard mixture, before the trip to the sizzling oven. (You can see the process on the bakery’s website. See link below.)

The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, composed of white limestone, is a monastery and abbey near the waterfront in the Belém section of Lisbon. The Praça do Império (the square with the trees and greenery at left in the photo) is directly south of the monastery.

Antiga Confeitaria traces its secret recipe to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. The enormous, white-limestone monastery and abbey of the Hieronymite religious order is listed among UNESCO’s World Heritage sites.

It’s just a block from Antiga Confeitaria. The monastery is the final resting place of explorer Vasco da Gama (c. 1460-1524) and 16th-century poet Luis de Camões (c. 1524-1580), who wrote an epic poem about da Gama’s first voyage to India. Da Gama is said to have spent his last night before his departure at the monastery.

In the early 1800s, a sugar cane refinery and small store were next to the monastery, which was shut down by 1834 following abolition of the religious order (delayed fallout from Napoleon’s territorial ambitions of the Peninsular War).

A clever soul, eager to find a new way to survive, began making the tarts in a building adjacent to the refinery. Visitors, peckish after a tour of the monastery and the Belém Tower farther west on the riverfront, spread the word, helping to make a viable business of selling custard tarts. Few know the recipe, but today’s rendition at Antiga Confeitaria is claimed to be exactly the same as the original from 1837.

The line forms to the right for patrons who want to get their custard tarts to go from Antiga Confeitaria.

While we were there in the waning hours of a Saturday afternoon, the line of people waiting outside to order to-go tarts wasn’t too long. At busier times, the idea of queues extending down the sidewalk wasn’t hard to envision.

We decided to go inside for a more leisurely break. The restaurant can seat 400 patrons at once, many of whom order just the tarts, known here as pastéis de belém, or with another light snack.

Blue-and-white seemed to be the color scheme, with hundreds of tiles lining the walls. Some of the scenes depict Belém in the 17th century, when, with access limited to boats, this area was considered to be a good distance from Lisbon. It’s now easily accessible, connecting via metro and trolley.

The specialty of the house, pastéis de belém, right out of the ovenat Antiga Confeitaria. All the tarts need now is a sprinkling of cinnamon and confectioners’ sugar. 

We each ordered a tart; Sylvia had coffee and I had a bottled mango juice drink. The tarts, by the way, cost just 1.10 euros each (about $1.23).

Service was quick and the tarts arrived nice and toasty. At our hotel, I had been having my morning mini tart unadorned. This time I tried the cinnamon and confectioners’ sugar on top, the deep red spice imparting that extra “oomph.”

Portion-size was just right, as the tarts kept at bay any hunger pains until we headed toward dinner.

Back home, I searched for a recipe to attempt to duplicate the tarts. Many online assertions were made as to authenticity, but the recipes varied so much, it’s unlikely that any of them were the real thing.

Some called for up to 12 egg yolks; others half or three-quarters that amount. Baking directions cranked the heat up to 550 degrees Fahrenheit (my oven tops out at 500) and leaving the tarts in for 10-12 minutes. Or 400 degrees at 20 minutes.

Some suggested pricking the puff pastry and blind-baking it before adding the custard. Others skipped this step entirely.

I tried another approach: I got a 2009 cookbook from the library written by an American of Portuguese descent who visited Antiga Confeitaria, and was given an “official” tour, though no secrets were divulged. I prepared this version.

The tarts were edible, as in I didn’t have to toss the whole batch into the garbage. But overall: Not. Even. Close.

And what’s especially odd, is that an online version from the same person in 2016  is markedly different — from number of yolks, to amount of sugar in the custard to making the pastry from scratch. The earlier version allowed for store-bought frozen pastry and using heavy cream instead of milk, among other alterations.

So for now, I’m still searching for a recipe that’s a reasonable facsimile to what we enjoyed in Portugal.

Quick reference: Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, Rua de Belém 84-92. 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, October to June, to midnight July to September.

Inspira Santa Marta Hotel, Rua de Santa Marta 48, Lisbon, Portugal. Excellent breakfast buffet, large rooms and friendly staff. The hotel is about a five-minute walk along the upscale Avenida da Liberdade to the Avenida metro stop.

How American anthropologist William Mulloy helped restore Easter Island sites and giant moai — and jump-start a cultural renaissance

American anthropologist William Mulloy, a professor at the University of Wyoming, at the Orongo village ceremonial site on the southwestern tip of Easter Island. On the rock behind Mulloy are bird-man petroglyphs. Photo courtesy of Brigid Mulloy, Rapa Nui Remembers

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos, except where noted. All rights reserved.

In November 2016, spring in the Southern Hemisphere, I took an unforgettable, two-week trip to Easter Island and Chile. This is the sixth post about my adventures. See June 17, April 10, March 6 and February 12, 2017, for earlier posts about Easter Island, and July 8 for one about the El Tatio geysers in northern Chile.

Many, many thanks to Brigid Mulloy, daughter of Emily and William Mulloy, whom you’ll read about below, for permission to use family photographs and quote from her blog.

“… The whole population was quick to grasp the advantages to the island of the project. It was something that could give them pride in both their ancestors and themselves, something that stayed on the island instead of being carried away to some faraway museum. We also tried to promote the idea that future archaeological finds should be preserved on the island rather than being sold to tourists or used as building stones.”

— Emily Ross Mulloy, wife of William Mulloy, writing to her family in Michigan, about the groundbreaking restoration work her husband and his team were undertaking on Easter Island in 1960

With little dissent, it can be convincingly argued that esteemed American anthropologist-archaeologist William Mulloy was one of the fathers of modern history on Easter Island and, furthermore, the impetus for its surging tourism industry today.

England’s Katherine Routledge (1866-1935) laid the groundwork for modern academics with her seminal work “The Mysteries of Easter Island,” published in 1919. Her book, based on the 17 months she spent on the island — also known as Rapa Nui — in 1914-15, was the first catalog of the massive statues called moai, and a study of the culture and legends of a Pacific island people.

But it was the clear-eyed insight, unrelenting drive and deep respect for the Rapa Nui people that inspired Mulloy to help restore some of the iconic stone giants to their rightful geographical locations in the latter half of the 20th century.

Mulloy (1917-1978), a native of Salt Lake City, Utah, was 38 years old when he first ventured to Easter Island. He was part of a team cobbled together by Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002), who was planning to excavate sites at Rano Raraku (the main moai quarry), Ahu Vinapu (on the southern portion of the island) and Poike (the northeastern tip).

The Vinapu site was where Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl’s team, including Mulloy, undertook early excavations. The huge stone blocks that make up the ahu — ceremonial platforms — are excellent examples of Rapa Nuian construction skills.

Over seven months in 1955-56, Heyerdahl also was investigating how Rapa Nuians raised the moai to a standing position. This research, calculated to test antiquated methods as recounted by a contemporary islander, was successfully carried out on a single moai at Ahu Ature Huki, near Anakena Beach (see June 17 post).

Up to the time of his invitation to join the Heyerdahl team, Mulloy’s area of concentration had been studying the Native Americans of the northwestern Plains of the United States, particularly the states of Wyoming and Montana.

Also at the Vinapu site is Ahu Vinapu, with five face-down moai (center back of photo), several round pukao, or topknots (far right), and a rare, red scoria moai (front), the same material from which the topknots were made. Mulloy was credited with unearthing the moai, which may be one of the few representations of a female.

But the trip to Easter Island changed Mulloy’s life. Here was an exciting opportunity to examine how such an isolated people — the triangular-shaped island, among the most remote, inhabited places on Earth, is about 2,300 miles (3,700 kilometers) west of Chile — developed not only as a society but as a viable, creative population seemingly without much outside influence.

From this experience grew the idea of establishing an outdoor museum to honor the Rapa Nui people and their heritage, while at the same time recognizing that showcasing the unique moai could become an economic basis for the future, drawing curious visitors from around the globe to see the towering figures for themselves.

And so from the late 1950s almost until his death, Mulloy made repeated trips — more than a dozen — to Easter Island, working around his schedule and commitments to the University of Wyoming, where he joined the faculty in 1948.

The seven moai at Ahu Akivi, an inland site, and the first complete restoration of statues to their ahu. Mulloy and his team did the work in 1960. These are the only moai that face the ocean.

In 1960, he and a team of Rapa Nui men spent more than a year restoring Ahu Akivi, the first complete ahu (ceremonial platform) to have its moai replaced atop it. Manual labor was used in all aspects of clearing the site, reconstructing the ahu and raising the moai. Mulloy commuted daily to the site on horseback, his daughter recalls.

Many of the scientific papers Mulloy wrote were in collaboration with Chilean archaeologist Gonzalo Figueroa (1931-2008), with whom he had first become acquainted on the Heyerdahl crew, and who was an instrumental part of the 1960 group. (Figueroa was affiliated with the University of Chile.)

In January 1960, summer in the Southern Hemisphere, Mulloy brought Emily, who herself had studied anthropology at the University of New Mexico; their son, Patrick; and daughters Kathy and Brigid, the youngest, at 8 years old, to Rapa Nui. They stayed for 13 months, learning Spanish and Rapanui, and integrating fully into island life. Some of the living conditions were primitive, but the family quickly adapted.

In those days, of course, the Internet didn’t exist. There was barely any communication from the outside because the scheduled supply ship visited only once a year. Even largely cut off from the world, the sojourn on Rapa Nui was a profoundly satisfying, eye-opening adventure for the Mulloys, made more so because they experienced it as a family.

“We sighted Easter Island from afar early Monday morning, at first it just looked like a blue cloud low on the horizon,” Emily wrote of her initial impressions. “Later it grew until you could see the two volcanoes at each end and a low flattish part between. It is bigger than you would expect from photos and much less rugged. By noon we were sailing along the south shore and were surprised to find the slopes of the volcanoes quite green with a lot more trees.”

Brigid Mulloy, with members of her adopted family, Martin and Ursula Rapu. Brigid is wearing a red plaid dress that her mother, Emily, sewed for her to mark the Mulloy family’s departure from Rapa Nui in 1961. Photo courtesy of Brigid Mulloy, Rapa Nui Related

In May, several months into Mulloy’s work at Ahu Akivi (on the mid-central western part of the island), an enormous tsunami, spawned by an earthquake off the coast of Chile, destroyed Ahu Tongariki, on Rapa Nui’s eastern coast (see March 6 post). Tongariki was in ruins until 1992-95, when funding, imported Japanese heavy equipment and technology were finally mobilized for a full restoration.

The seven moai at Ahu Akivi, are the only ones on Rapa Nui that face the sea. They are farther inland, about 1.5 miles (3 kilometers) than the 15 aligned moai at Ahu Tongariki, or at Ahu Nau Nau on Anakena Beach (see June 17 post), also on the eastern side of Rapa Nui and within steps of the coast.

But don’t make too much of how the Ahu Akivi moai are positioned. In that archaeologists believe that the moai “watched over” their descendants, the ample space in front of the platform offered the resident clan access to enough resources for the effective development of a community.

Mulloy believed that the long-ago inlanders were farmers, as opposed to those closer to the ocean, who relied more heavily on fishing and seafood.

The seven Ahu Akivi moai are very close in form and height (taller than 13.2 feet or 4 meters), likely indicating that they were all carved in the crater at Rano Raraku around the same time, and transported across the island to their platform, possibly in the very early 15th century. In the overall scheme, archaeologists date this group to the late period in which islanders were still carving moai.

The full platform is 297 feet long (90 meters), but the section that the moai reside on is only 125.4 feet (38 meters). Around the back are two pits that Mulloy believed were crematoria. One pit contained burned human bones of some quantity, and small statues that might have been burial offerings.

The location of Ahu Akivi may also have a celestial component. On the spring and fall equinoxes — about March 20 and September 22 — the platform lines up with particular stars. These dates would, of course, be important to people relying on the land for sustenance.

It was a partly cloudy day, with steady light rain when I visited. This did not stop our guide from delivering the full complement of information about the site or our small group from exploring it. The rain did hamper picture-taking, so in several photos, I have water spots on my lens and some blurry shots.

The final resting place of William and Emily Mulloy’s ashes. The plaque is attached to a piece of stone brought down from the quarry at Rano Raraku. The Tahai site, restored by Mulloy and his team 1968-70, is in the background. Ahu Ko Te Riku (with topknot) is at far left. To its right is the lone figure of Ahu Tahai. 

It had long been Mulloy’s dream to live permanently on Rapa Nui. Over the decades, he had participated in the restoration of additional sites around the island, including the ceremonial village at Orongo, which I’ll discuss in a future post.

In the late 1970s, that goal looked close to fulfillment, until Mulloy was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died on March 25, 1978 in Laramie, Wyoming. His ashes were buried under a plaque near Ahu Tahai (see February 12 post), a coastal complex that he helped to restore.

A close-up of the sentiments, expressed for eternity.

The simple bronze plaque, attached to a piece of a stone transported from the quarry at Rano Raraku, reads: “By restoring the past of his beloved island he also changed its future.” Tributes in Spanish and Rapanui are also on the plaque.

Decades later, when Emily died, also of lung cancer, her family brought her ashes to rest alongside William’s.

At the small museum named for German missionary Father Sebastian Englert, who lived on the island for 34 years and also made a lasting contribution to its cultural preservation, is a library named for Mulloy. It houses the professor’s vast collection of books covering Easter Island and Polynesia.

Brigid Mulloy, recently retired in Hawaii, remembers her childhood days on Rapa Nui with great fondness. On her blog, Rapa Nui Related, she has posted excerpts from her mother’s letters home, which make for fascinating reading, and also about her father’s formative years. Don’t miss the post on the fund-raising efforts that saw one of the Tongariki moai heads being installed on Park Avenue in New York City in 1968. Go to for more on the family’s special relationship with Rapa Nui.

All over Portugal, lightweight, versatile cork is a heavyweight in the business world

Cork postcards are an inexpensive and easy-to-pack souvenir from Portugal. I found these by the riverside in the Belem area of western Lisbon, but they’re also available around town. I plan to use them as coasters. Read below for further information on the postcards.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the third in a series on my spring trip to Portugal. See June 2 for a post about unexpectedly meeting TV travel host Rick Steves in Lisbon and July 30 for a post about the Casa da Musica in Porto. 

The next time you open a bottle of wine, rest your chilled cocktail on a coaster, or pin a note to an old-fashioned bulletin board, stop and say a quick “thank you” to Portugal. Chances are, the cork in the stopper, coaster and the bulletin board’s background material originated in this western European country.

According to the website, Portugal was the No. 1 cork exporter in 2016, accounting for 63.1 percent of the refined tree bark sent around the world. All that cork produced in excess of $1 billion for Portugal, far outdistancing No. 2 Spain, which had sales of $278.8 million and 17 percent of the market.

Filling out the top five: France, $73 million (4.4 percent); Italy, $44.8 million (2.7 percent); and Germany, $34.4 million (2.1 percent). Cork is produced in many countries, from Africa (Morocco, Tunisia) to China to South America (Chile), but the next 10 top exporters all together don’t begin to approach the output of Portugal.

A selection of the inventory at Cork & Co., where nearly everything in the Lisbon shop is made from cork. The company has a second location in Porto.

On my May trip to Portugal, I noticed cork products everywhere. From simple trivets, to purses to postcards. In shops devoted to cork, the workmanship of the items was excellent, and that quality comes at a price. But if your heart’s desire is a wallet, umbrella — cork is waterproof — or apron, you won’t be disappointed.

The mercado (market) in Porto, in northern Portugal, and the Saturday-Sunday flea market along several blocks of the tree-lined Avenida da Liberdade in Lisbon, turned out to be good places for less-expensive goods. An added bonus: The vendors behind the cork-heaped tables and hanging displays may have had a hand in the manufacturing of the goods, and they’re open to bargaining.

At the two-story Mercado do Bolhão in eastern Porto, I bought a cork purse with a painted floral design for a friend’s daughter. For myself, I got a trivet — a ladder of four chunky fish, alternating head to tail, bound together by braided rope. The covered market dates to the 19th century, and it caters to locals, selling a wide variety of fresh and frozen fish and seafood, meat, fruits and vegetables, cheeses, olives, flowers, bread and more. It’s fun even if you aren’t looking for cork souvenirs.

The fish trivet from Porto’s Mercado do Bolhao and my book cover from the flea market on Avenida da Liberdade in Lisbon.

On the Avenida da Liberdade, I bought a book cover for under $10 from a woman who had designed and sewn the versatile material, “cork leather,” if you will. It marries well with stamped designs, and also takes to dyeing. My book cover has both. The bottom part is a solid, rich navy, and the tan top has a repeating pattern of stamped fish, anchor motifs and maybe a stylized Viana heart, a religious symbol in Portugal.

The woman said the cork is very supple and easy to sew. Even though it is thin, it isn’t on par in thickness with most cotton and silk fabric. When I’ve filled the included notebook, I can replace it with one of similar size. I particularly like the little faux silver spoon that serves as part of the clasp.

This is the purse I bought for a friend’s daughter. The shoulder-length strap is tucked inside for photo purposes. The purse is fully lined inside and has another zip-close compartment on the back. 

Cork has small indentations like you would expect to find in tree bark. Some products have a more pebbly-looking finish — the processing must be different — but are still smooth to the touch, what you’d associate with bulletin boards and coasters.

Along the waterfront in the Belem section of western Lisbon, I bought four thin postcards (I did see racks of these in other locations). Two exceedingly thin slices of cork, each 6 1/4 by 4 1/4 inches in size, are glued together. One side has the design and the other has a barcode, the place for a stamp, address and writing space. I’m not sure how well the postcards would do passing through an automated sorting system, whether it would be too rough and damage them, so perhaps they wouldn’t reach their destination intact. Instead of mailing them to friends, I intend to use them as coasters.

I can’t remember how much I paid, but they were cheap. Each has a different design. One celebrates the art of Portuguese tiles. Another pays homage to the country’s seafaring history with a speedy caravel centered on a tile. Another has two electric trams like you’d see on the streets in Lisbon, and the fourth a colorful, red-crested cockerel, an enduring Portuguese icon with its own story.

As my postcard and guidebook tell it, a 16th-century pilgrim (or possibly 14th century) on his way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain was accused of theft in Barcelos, a walled village with a medieval tower in northwestern Portugal. He was sentenced to death by hanging. His appeal to the judge rested on a humble rooster.

Legend has it that the pilgrim said a cooked bird would “rise from the plate and sing,” proving his innocence. Apparently, as the judge was about to eat the rooster, it crowed. The pilgrim was saved. I saw many a rooster perched on top of cork stoppers, the perfect pairing of Portuguese symbols for the shopping public.

Cork is a renewable and recyclable resource, and it’s biodegradable. The lightweight material comprises the outer layer of the cork oak tree (Quercus suber L.), which grows particularly well in countries around the Mediterranean.

Large pieces of bark can be stripped every nine years or so from the trunk, by skilled professionals using a specialized ax. (This is a good-paying job because the expertise is so specific.) The season for doing this is between May and August. However, a tree has to mature to about 25 years old before it can be harvested for the first time. It also has to meet circumference and height minimums.

Cork floats, which makes it popular with fisherman, who use it in their nets or on individual fishing lines. It’s employed in soundproofing and flooring, to the delight of architects and other designers who feature it in their building plans.

Footwear, toys, jewelry, clothing, furniture, desk accessories — cork appears in them all. NASA is even high on the material, incorporating cork into heat shields for spacecraft.

This business in Porto surely would custom-make goods for the home or office. Note the long, upright rolls of cork for sale at the left of the photo.

In Porto, I also passed a shop that had standing rolls of cork and a lot of business and home decor accessories. It looked like it took custom orders. It was not touristy at all, as I saw no cork-and-ceramic souvenirs. Unfortunately, I didn’t write down the address or the name of the shop.

No matter. Even if I hadn’t already made my cork purchases, the possibility of another memento was probably just around the corner.

Quick reference: In Porto: Mercado do Bolhão, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. Near the Bolhão metro stop, market is on the corner of Rua Formosa and Rua Sá da Bandeira. In Lisbon: Cork & Co., 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Rua das Salgadeiras 10, in the Bairro Alto neighborhood. Also a store in Porto at Rua do Almada 13. For additional information on cork, its harvesting and production (and more), see top commercial producer Amorim’s website: Company heir Americo Amorim, Portugal’s richest man with an estimated fortune of $4.8 billion (part of that is oil holdings), died last month at age 82.

In London, underground silver vaults are a collector’s dream destination

Part of the well-organized showroom at Koopman Rare Art, the only business that is above ground at the London Silver Vaults. Koopman sells some items crafted from gold, and many centuries-old, museum-quality silver pieces.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos except where noted. All rights reserved.

Imagine the wealth and plenty of some Victorians, who possessed so much contemporary and heirloom silver that they couldn’t store it all in their stately London homes.

That’s how the London Silver Vaults came into being, in1876, but then known as the Chancery Lane Safe Deposit. Then as now it is an underground repository for vast collections of fine silver cutlery, tea sets, double-handled serving plates, mirrors, objets d’art, engraved tankards, footed wine coolers, ornate soup tureens, delicate cruet sets, and on and on. Jewelry and important personal papers were also safeguarded here.

The Chancery Lane location is marked on many modern maps, and it is mentioned briefly in some guidebooks, as the vaults are open to the public.

But few visitors to London, especially if they aren’t silver collectors, know about the vaults and rarely explore the antique troves in the subterranean location.

Many months ago, I saw the show “Secrets of Underground London” on my local PBS affiliate, in which the vaults were included. So when planning my recent trip, I thought I’d explore this little-known attraction.

I was not disappointed as I leisurely wandered in and out of the individual vaults for several hours. I saw fewer than 10 other tourists. The experience was a cross between viewing the decorative arts of a less-well-organized Victoria & Albert Museum and a very, very, very high-quality flea market.

The closest tube stop is Chancery Lane, on the Central Line. Follow the signs and it’s about a five-minute walk to the entrance. Holborn and the Inns of Court are one tube stop to the west, and St. Paul’s Cathedral is one stop to the east, so the general area has a lot of interesting history and important buildings to explore. Make a day of it.

About 30-plus vaults, and when I say vaults I mean rooms of varying size with heavy metal doors like you would see in a bank (secured each night), comprise the site.

My overriding thought was: Who polishes all this gleaming stuff? And how often? There is so much of it in each vault that it would be a full-time job for several people, who, just as they got to the end of the inventory would surely have to start all over at the beginning, a never-ending loop of dust, polish, buff; dust, polish, buff — and gently at that.

Some dealers are members of the British Antique Dealers Association, the London and Provincial Antique Dealers Association or other antiques groups. Their business card shows their affiliation, sometimes with an imprint. Many specialize in English-made merchandise, but some also feature imported silver.

At vault 17, I had a chat with Gideon Cohen about what he looks for when he’s buying silver for his business ( His requirements are pretty straightforward, self-explanatory and likely similar to those of other dealers.

He considers “quality, condition, craftsmanship and commercial viability.” I suppose he could also add “age” to that list, as in Edwardian, Georgian, Regency, Victorian or whatever the appropriate historical period.

Even with the required hallmarks, I asked him how tough it would be to make and pass off a counterfeit piece.

Silver is “as difficult to forge as it is to forge currency,” he replied.

A piece of English silver will generally have several hallmarks — a series of small illustrative stamps of letters and figures hammer-and-punched into the metal — which will reveal the purity of the silver, where it was made (country and city), what year (indicated by a letter’s font) and who the craftsman was. Some older silver will have a monarch’s head in profile to indicate a duty was paid. If it was made in another country, it will bear an import mark also.

For example, a piece stamped with a crowned leopard’s head means that it was crafted in London before 1820. After 1820 to the present, the uncrowned leopard indicates London-made. A walking lion (sometimes called “rampant”) stamp claims the sterling purity standard for England.

These symbols can be decoded from books, such as Bradley’s Book of Hallmarks, or from charts available online. Your shopping success would also benefit from some pre-visit hallmark research.

Some of the vaults are well-organized and you can get a clear-eyed view without having to rearrange the goods. But others are, and there’s no politer way to say this, cluttered, with  inventory stacked on shelves and jumbled on the floor (especially the hefty bigger pieces) clogging the aisles in no discernible order so that you have to step over the silver in some spots to get to the item that’s caught your attention.

English silversmith Paul Storr, born in Westminster, made this rococo-style tureen in 1819-1820. It’s on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Don’t let this deter you. There are intriguing treasurers, some of which date to the 16th century, but seeking them out may try your patience. Generally, the older the piece, the more expensive. And if it’s the work of a famous craftsman, such as Paul Storr (1741-1844), a master of neo-classical style, or Paul de Lamerie (1688-1751), a French Huguenot who came to London as a child and later claimed British earls and dukes among those who purchased his creations, then prepare to open your wallet wide.

Some dealers specialize in particular goods, such as the woman who is very big on spoons, from tiny barely adorned ones used to portion salt to shellwork-encrusted serving size.

Most were friendly and eager to discuss their wares, answering questions about acquisition, price and the all-important hallmarks.

Each vault, often in the same family for generations, has a website, so you can evaluate the stock before you go. This alone can take hours, and I’d advise this step, especially if you are looking for something in particular, such as a snuff box, tea service or candlesticks.

Don’t hesitate to send an inquiring email. They’ll be more than happy to answer questions. And for that matter, if you see something you want to purchase from the comfort of your home, they will arrange shipping to the United States and many other global destinations.

The ground level entrance, before proceeding downstairs to the vaults.

Once inside the entrance, the first business you’ll see is Koopman Rare Art ( It’s the only one above ground and it also has one of the largest showrooms. Much of the inventory is museum-quality, which is no surprise in that Koopman boasts some of the major art institutions of the world among its clients.

In the lobby, pass the security guard and go down a few stairs to the hallway to the vaults. Technically, photography is forbidden, but in several vaults permission was granted. This is handy if you see something you like but aren’t quite ready to buy. You’ll have the digital image on hand to jog you memory or compare it to a piece that you’re inspecting/considering in another vault.

In several vaults, I asked if prices were negotiable. The answer was yes, but I can’t say if this holds true in all vaults. You may be able to knock off several hundred pounds, but not likely more than that.

Even if you aren’t buying, it’s a tempting place in which to examine elegant articles made through the centuries by brilliantly skilled silversmiths.

Quick reference: London Silver Vaults, 53-64 Chancery Lane. 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. Closed Sundays. Not all vendors are open all hours and all days.


How the U.S. Army’s intelligence-gathering Ritchie Boys, many of them Jews who fled the Nazis, served in the European Theater in World War II

The original caption on this photo of three German prisoners of war reads: ” ‘There is always a moment of intense fear when a soldier is first taken prisoner — as is shown in the face of the Nazi in the center of this group of three captured by the United States 82nd Airborne Division in Belgium.’  The trim on the collar of the center soldier indicates he is a noncommissioned officer.” Questioning POWs was among the duties of the Ritchie Boys, trained in intelligence gathering, at Camp Ritchie in western Maryland during World War II. Several of the young men profiled in the new book “Sons and Soldiers” were attached to the 82nd Airborne. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text. All rights reserved.

The industrious, good folks of western Maryland, many of them farmers, could be forgiven for believing that a German invasion was under way in their neck of the woods not too long after the United States entered World War II.

They often saw men in Nazi uniforms, thunderous heavy trucks and other equipment sporting swastikas, all of which were alarmingly out of place in the eastern United States countryside.

The right thing to do was to alert the local authorities and await confirmation that in the bold light of day, their worse nightmare had come true.

These fairly regular sightings were actually groups of young soldiers attached to the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Training Center at Camp Ritchie, Maryland. In all manner of operation, the center tried to simulate what the troops would encounter once they were posted overseas and questioning prisoners of war, thus the need to practice with authentically dressed German-speaking men.

Fortunately, word soon passed among the locals that their little patches of turf were indeed quite safe from foreign occupation — but to keep what was going on at the center to themselves.

The stories of six German-Jewish immigrants who served in the U.S. Army unfolds in “Sons and Soldiers.”

The story of Camp Ritchie and the language-proficient soldiers who trained there  are two of the elements — the third is in the subtitle — examined in the recently released “Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned With the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler” by Bruce Henderson (William Morrow, 2017, $28.99).

Henderson has written a vivid narrative with enough background on what was developing in Germany in the early 1930s to set the scene for readers who may be unfamiliar with this pre-World War II era.

Likewise, he reconstructs parts of some of the major battles, such as the D-Day landing in northern France and its aftermath, showing how vital the Ritchie Boys’ contribution was in extracting up-to-the-second intelligence from German POWs and interpreting that data, which eventually helped to save American lives.

As he advances six immigrants’ stories, Henderson deftly sums up the young man’s history each time he is reintroduced so that readers can remember who is who.

Followers of this blog may recognize Henderson as the author of the engrossing  “Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War,” about German-born American Navy aviator Dieter Dengler. I discussed that book in my post of October 16, 2016 (see my archive).

I’m going to quibble with the word “untold,” because a 90-minute German-made documentary called “The Ritchie Boys” was released in 2004 (2005 in the U.S.). I haven’t seen it, but reading about it on the film’s website makes it clear that the director, Christian Bauer, covered some of the same material.

Several of the Ritchie Boys, as they were known, featured in the film also play a prominent role in Henderson’s book. Guy Stern, whose story is told in the book, is on the DVD’s cover, with two other Ritchie Boys, Walter Sears and Fred Howard.

And a few of the young men Henderson tracks went on to lengthy, highly successful careers in academia and published their own memoirs and articles. So maybe “largely unknown” or “not widely publicized” would have been more accurate.

Guy Stern (left), Walter Sears and Fred Howard from the German-made documentary film “The Ritchie Boys.”

The six profiled young men of varying age and economic stature did not know one another while growing up in Germany. What they had in common was that as Hitler consolidated his power from 1933 on, making life increasingly difficult and dangerous for Jews, they had fled, often the lone family member crossing the Atlantic, to freedom in a not-always-welcoming new land.

One of them, Martin Selling, from Lehrberg, a small agricultural village in southeast Germany, had even survived imprisonment of about 90 days in 1938-39 at Dachau, outside Munich, the first concentration camp, established in 1933.

It took a considerable amount of paperwork and a willing family member or individual to sign on as a sponsor for a refugee to come to America. Those who could manage the immigration maze, then found the door nearly closed as, deep in the Great Depression, the number of visas granted dropped from 241,700 in 1930 to 35,576 in 1932.

Several of the boys escaped Germany more than once. Berlin-born Werner Angress, 16, possessing the blond hair and blue eyes touted by the Nazis as the Aryan ideal, signed up for an agricultural program in Poland, where he thrived for a year and a half. By late 1937, his banker father had hatched an ingenious plan to exit Germany, and smuggle out a strictly forbidden load of cash to boot.

What ensued was a scattered family making an edge-of-their seat dash to Holland. But it worked, and they reunited in Amsterdam. With the Nazi threat growing, Angress, encouraged by his father, was able to use his farming experience and connections to get to the United States in late 1939.

According to Henderson, the secrecy surrounding the buildup at Camp Ritchie was second only to the Manhattan Project, the multi-discipline scientific program that developed the atomic bomb.

By mid-1942, with the U.S. now deeply entrenched in the war, the military recognized what a priceless resource the German Jews represented. Speaking the language as natives was almost secondary. The real value was the insight that these young men, all soon to be newly minted American citizens and noncommissioned officers, would be able to deliver on the German psyche, the society and the culture they had left behind.

From 1942 to 1945, 35 classes of Camp Ritchie trainees completed a demanding eight-week course, more than 17,000 men in all, in subjects such as interrogation of prisoners of war, terrain and aerial intelligence, and photo and document interpretation. The largest number of graduates — 1,985 — were German Jews.

One of the most mentally taxing classes was Order of Battle, an all-aspects study of the German army.

“For all the divisions and other units likely to be encountered in Europe, the students had to learn unit designations, terms and abbreviations, their arsenal of weapons, the nature of their supply system, and their chain of command,” Henderson writes. This included commander’s name, field strength, home station and unit history.

(Online, I found a 1943 “Handbook on German Army Identification,” prepared for use at Camp Ritchie. It runs 77 pages.

Some Ritchie Boys specialized in other languages, such as French, Italian, Spanish and Dutch, and many were multilingual.

Staff Sgt. Martin Selling (left), assigned to the 35th Infantry Division, interrogates German POWs in France in 1944. U.S. Army Signal Corps

One other motivation drove the German-reared soldiers to excel: Once back in Europe, they could try to determine the fate of their families.

At the same time, returning posed an enormous risk: If they should be captured, they would face almost certain death, not only because they would be considered traitors, but because they were Jews. Some of the men had their religious designation omitted from their dog tags, or changed it to “P” for Protestant.

And more than once, some U.S. military members, unaware of the Ritchie Boys’ particular circumstances — and hearing only their German accents — foolishly questioned their loyalty to their adopted country.

The Ritchie Boys took part in every major military action in Europe: From D-Day, to the liberation of Paris, to the failed Operation Market Garden in Holland to the Battle of the Bulge.

(A quick aside: Americans of Japanese descent were also trained in military intelligence gathering. They carried out similar types of functions, such as translating captured documents and interrogating POWs, as their European-based counterparts. The Japanese-Americans in the intelligence service largely served in the Pacific Theater.)

Finally, when the Allies began liberating the concentration camps in 1945, the true enormity of the Holocaust was revealed to men whose very families had perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Guy Stern, assigned to First Army Headquarters, was at Buchenwald three days after its liberation. The last letter he’d received from his family was after they had been deported to Warsaw, Poland, in 1942.

“Guy was instantly struck by the faces of the inmates: loose-hanging skin and slack jaws not unlike the look he had seen on dead soldiers,” Henderson writes. “Even though this is what he had expected to see, nothing could prepare him for the real thing. Many of the liberated prisoners appeared to be more dead than alive, and yet they were all welcoming and thankful and eager to hug anyone in a U.S. Army uniform.”

Stern’s parents and brother and sister were likely transferred from Warsaw to Treblinka, second only to the death camp Auschwitz for number of people killed. He was his immediate family’s lone survivor. Today, he’s 95 and living in Michigan.

Henderson has skillfully depicted the deeply emotional, life-changing journeys of these remarkable men. In the face of enormous challenges and great personal loss, they all persevered.

Additional reference: According to the website,, the DVD is no longer available for purchase, but you may be able to find it on a streaming service. To see photographs of the Ritchie Boys in Henderson’s book, go to his website:

In Porto, Portugal: The celestial Casa da Musica makes an architectural statement

The Casa da Musica is a contemporary building surrounded by more traditional architecture in Porto, Portugal. It was designed by Dutch-born architect Rem Koolhaas.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Smack in the midst of the Boavista section of Porto, Portugal, is a formidable white concrete and glass building, the unusual shape of which has been variously described as “wonky cuboid,” “faceted” and “alien.”

The first attempts were from my guidebook; the second from the architect; and the third from our guide Ricardo, who encouraged us to embrace the idea of what happens when a “meteorite becomes part of the landscape.”

The contemporary building is the Casa da Música, designed by controversial Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. It is home to the 94-member National Orchestra of Porto and three smaller groups, and opened in 2005.

It was to have been part of the celebration of Porto’s designation as a European Capital of Culture in 2001, but as so often happens, it wasn’t finished in time and took six years to complete. The original estimate was 30 million euros; it ended up costing 120 million euros.

From some angles, it does, indeed, look like something otherworldly has hovered, then decided to set down just west of the historic Rotunda da Boavista, anchored by a columned war memorial at its center and ringed by gardens. To say that it doesn’t fit in with the architecture of the working-class neighborhood would be an understatement.

Clearly, Rotterdam-born Koolhaas, winner in 2000 of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, among that profession’s highest honors, was thinking way outside the box. More like: The odder the angles the better.

In his mind, however, he and his firm, OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) envisioned the “continuity and contrast” as “a positive encounter of two different models of the city.”

On one side, stairs leading to an entrance made me think of that scene in the film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” when the ramp of the spacecraft folds down and skinny aliens meet Richard Dreyfuss et al. One could say the aliens’ tonal greeting and accompanying flashing illuminations were in effect music.

A view of the Casa da Musica from another side.

Windows stretch across the upper levels on a shorter side of the building, but one can almost envision a starship captain using this as his viewing screen (or giant windshield) while rocketing through space.

In reality, this is the exterior glass wall of the Sala Suggia (see first photo), the grand auditorium that spans the second through fourth levels. It’s named after native daughter Guillermina Suggia (sometimes spelled Guilhermina; 1885-1950), a renowned cellist.

The auditorium, lauded for its excellent acoustics, can seat more than 1,200. Abundant natural light floods the shoe-box configuration and is said to be so bright that daytime musicians don’t need secondary illumination for their sheet music.

An example of the corrugated glass that’s used in many spaces around the Casa da Musica. This view overlooks one of the secondary performance spaces.

“Generally glass and sound don’t mix,” Ricardo said, but in this space, they do because the windows are corrugated — think curtain-like waves, not flat panes — allowing vibrations to move freely.

Nordic pine plywood, gilded in some places, covers the ceiling and walls, another element to enhance the sound capabilities. The orchestra pit is absent, again a concession to precise acoustics. If an opera production requires a pit, four rows of velvet-covered seats can be removed.

Sala Suggia, the grand auditorium, is where the National Orchestra of Porto performs. The 1,200-plus-seat space is known for its excellent acoustics. 

Rows of seats run the width of the auditorium and are unbroken by a center aisle. The seats slide back so that patrons entering and exiting can do so without having to climb over the already settled concertgoers or asking them to stand.

A smaller, multiuse performance space, known as Sala 2, can accommodate 300 seated and 650 standing. Angular spaces elsewhere are used for rehearsals, receptions, conferences and education. On weekends, even parents with babies as young as 1 year old are encouraged to bring their children and introduce them to music.

There are also two bars, a café, a restaurant (on the top floor) and underground parking.

In the fourth-floor VIP room, Koolhaas has drawn a parallel between his home country and Portugal, with both sharing a centuries-long history of making decorative tiles. Flat panes of glass comprise the exterior facade. The hand-painted tiles cover the ceiling and interior walls.

The Dutch and Portuguese share a long history of decorative tile production. This Dutch aristocracy scene in the VIP Room on the fourth floor has a tile purposely placed upside down. 

One busy ceiling scene depicts the Dutch aristocracy having a leisurely al fresco meal, attended on their terrace by servants. Ricardo pointed out that one tile was purposely installed upside down, “a sign of the humility of the artist,” he said.

It’s contrasted by depictions of Portuguese women queueing for water, battles and former rulers.

This room is often the backdrop for photographs of visiting musicians, holding press conferences or small parties for record releases.

Visitors will know immediately that they’re in for a different architectural experience, whether they’ve stopped by to join the one-hour guided tour as I did one May morning, or come for a musical performance.

Aluminum staircases are sleek and spare.

Instead of an open foyer, where concertgoers might congregate before heading to their seats, a set of shiny aluminum stairs beckons upward. The flow is circular and the decor “minimalistic because color is in the people,” Ricardo said.

The black-and-white tiled roof terrace overlooks the Rotunda da Boavista (the war memorial is in the center-distance of the photo).

The roof terrace, a fine open space for an outdoor gathering or cocktail party, is composed of alternating black-and-white tiles set in a geometric pattern on the floor and ascending sides. It is recessed into the roof, not level with it. From one point, there is a excellent view of the rotunda and its column.

Another view of the war memorial at the Rotunda da Boavista and the neighborhood around the Casa da Musica.

In an aerial photograph I found online, I can’t quite decide what shape the terrace is — maybe a stretched or exaggerated rhombus? In keeping with the space theme, the white tiles surrounding the terrace and making up the roof’s exterior evoke the heat shields that protected NASA’s space shuttles.

With limited time in Porto, my plans couldn’t accommodate attending a concert. But I’m sure it would have been an enjoyable experience at this striking venue.

Quick reference: Casa da Música, Avenida da Boavista 604-610, Porto. 9:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays and holidays. Tours in English: 10 and 11 a.m., 4 and 5 p.m. Tours in Portuguese: 11 a.m. and 2:30 and 4 p.m. Admission: 7.50 euros. Performances take precedent over visitors. Metro lines A, B, C, E and F to the Casa da Musica stop. For some excellent aerial photos of the building and neighborhood, plus more background and schematics, go to