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Too old for Ibiza, too young for Madeira, I look into Tenerife. I passed a promotional poster for the Canary Island in a Barcelona travel agency window back in the late ’90’s and the image has been stuck in my head ever since.

Conde Nast Traveler:

The Canary Islands have long been a bolt-hole for Europe’s sun-starved horde.

Well that sounds awful. I read on:

But beyond the beaches, Ron Hall finds spectacular vistas, striking architecture, and a new attention to syle.

Much better. From the portrait Ron Hall paints, the archipelago suffers from a split-personality, the condition being most manifest in its “most beautiful and varied” isle, Tenerife.

Bad Tenerife — Southern Tenerife — is rife with drunken, sunburnt, topless, fowl-mouthed Eurotrash flocking to foam parties, discos and casinos. So I read. Reports may be exaggerated.

Good Tenerife — Northern Tenerife —  is blessed with charming Spanish colonial towns (La Orotava, Puerto de la Cruz, Garachico), genteel watering holes, seventeenth-century aristocratic mansions converted into sophisticated family-run properties, and Teide National Park, Spain’s largest national park.

Tenerife Village

I choose Good Tenerife, Northern Tenerife. Specifically, the winsome village of La Orotava.


I peer down at the Atlantic Ocean. My stomach tumbles. 

I’m flying alone to a remote island somewhere off the coast of Africa (the coast of Africa!), based on some recommendation from some guy I don’t know and when I land I’ve gotta find my way to some obscure village — La Orotava? La Avatoro? — and schlep my luggage to the Hotel Alhambra — a former gentleman’s residence (according to the website) and I don’t even know what a ‘gentleman’s residence’ is I think it’s a brothel and I’m going to be trapped in it by an owner who will make me look at bad paintings (according to one Tripadvisor poster, anyway) and my family doesn’t even know where I am let alone how to reach me once they finally figure out I’m missing how will they find me do they even know how to dial outside the U.S., no they don’t know to dial 011 or to drop the zero before the city code and they’ll balk at the long distance rates and I will never be seen, or heard from, again someone better look after my cats when I’m dead and gone I’m so fucked.

Sometimes I get a little nervous at landing.


My bus ride to the village of La Orotava is brief, pleasant, and seamless. Not at all what I feared. The Hotel Alhambra is located two blocks from the station. Along the way I pause at crosswalks to allow cars to pass, but they actually stop and wait for me. I’m not used to this civility: in Chicago drivers accelerate when they have a pedestrian within their sights.

I arrive. So this is what a gentleman’s residence looks like. It looks pretty nice. I ring the bell and seconds later Antonio greets me warmly through the ornate wrought-iron gate.


Antonio is an sleepy, pony-tailed teen. I like him. I follow him into the foyer where Lennon’s Imagine plays in the background. The moment is surreal, my standing here sharing an entire mansion with a single stranger, listening to one of the greatest songs of all time, on a sunny afternoon somewhere off the coast of Africa.

Hotel Alhambra is bright and open. Cheerful, even. Not at all brothelesque.

Antonio takes me on a brief tour of the magnificent 18th century residence, dutifully describing the over-the-top (but awesome) murals in the dining room, which were painted by Venezuela’s renown Antonio Otazzo, who vacations in La Orotava. They’re a little intense. A woman may or may not be masturbating as a horse and bull look-on.

Hotel Alhambra Dining Room La Orotava

These must be the “bad” paintings to which the Tripadvisor reviewer was referring. Actually, I think they’re fabulous, not that I’d want them adorning the walls (and ceiling!) of my own white on white on white minimalist loft, though.

Antonio leads me to the second floor where busts (representing the four seasons) guard over what just could be a courtyard from Rick’s Cafe Americain.

Hotel Alhambra Balcony La Orotava

Hotel Alhambra La Orotava Foyer

I’m eventually led to my chambers. I love my chambers! 

Floor-to-ceiling windows open up to fresh air and a view of the ocean, a departure from my home in Chicago, where my bedroom overlooks el tracks, electrical wires, dumpsters and the occasional rat.

Hotel Alhambra View La Orotava

The bathroom!

Hotel Alhambra Bathroom La Orotava


I’ve napped — which is probably a big mistake jetlag-wise — and now I must prowl La Orotava for a decent meal. Antonio and his father intercept me on my way out the door to inform me that the residence will be vacant tomorrow morning because they’ll be taking Antonio to the university. We keep talking, as best we can anyway, considering the language barrier.

“Have you seen our paintings?” The Owner asks in Spanglish. How could I miss them?

He leads me to the dining room and educates me on both the painting, Sleeping Europe, and the painter, Maestro Otazzo, Antonio translating as quickly as he can. I comprehend maybe 25% of what I hear but I The Owner’s passion is obvious.

“(Spanish) (Spanish) (Spanish)… Guernica… (Spanish) (Spanish)… Picasso… (Spanish) (Spanish) (Spanish)… Guernica…” 

I perk up. Guernica is my favorite painting. I viewed it at the Reina Sofia several years ago and I couldn’t tear myself away: I’ve never been more moved by a work of art.

“Would you like to see Guernica in 360 degrees?” asks The Owner.

“Sure.” Who wouldn’t?


The Owner and Antonio are escorting me into the restricted recesses of the mansion, guiding me down an endless corridor straight out of The Shining. We stop before a locked white doors marred by angry black scrawl.


The Owner withdraws a medieval skeleton key from his pocket.

Holy crap. I am alone in a mansion with two men, on an island somewhere off the coast of Africa, and I’m about to enter some sort of secret, forbidden chamber. This is insane.

The doors open. Row after row of skulls stare me in the face. I’m frozen, transfixed. I tentatively enter the ballroom, which is bare of furniture save for an oversized, orange, elaborate fainting couch. A mural encompasses its four walls and ceiling.

??? … !!! … ??? … Otazzo may not be for everyone but his work is undeniably powerful, visceral. I’m speechless. Confused. Wowed. Insulted. Impressed. My impotent descriptions fail to capture the emotions his visceral paintings evoke. They cover it all: war, politics, humanity, religion, suffering, hell, heaven, life, death.

Now I get it. Guernica in 360 degrees.

The Owner explains the mural to Antonio, who attempts to describe its nuances to me. We spend a great deal of time discussing the scene in which the Statue of Liberty, clothed in an American flag, grasps a missile in one arm and an assault-rifle labeled EU  in the other. The weapon pierces a dove in flight and Lady Liberty weeps. The Owner goes to length to explain to me that the image is not anti-American: it’s anti-Bush. I’m anti-W too.

I ask about the fainting couch and learn that it’s where Otazzo slept for the month it took him to create his masterpiece.

The Owner allows me to photograph the room, but requests that I keep the pictures only for myself.

I am grateful. What an honor to be privy to this secret work of art, and to have its owner take the time to explain it to me. I will continue to cross oceans and continents for these rare travel moments.

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Part of a London Trip series.

I seek both the boutique and the unique when I travel. Rarely have I been disappointed when I’ve sought out the weird parts of a destination, and the Tuesday (most small museums are closed on Sundays and Mondays) in January I devoted to discovering bizarre London was the best day of my trip.



The Sir John Soane’S Museum is easily accessible from the Underground (Holborn stop, Northern Line), or by walking from Central London. The women at the gate take their job very seriously. Small talk is not encouraged. Purses are stuffed into plastic bags. Entrance is strictly controlled. Their hypervigilance is a bit much, but on the other hand I respect their dedication to their job (and they’re probably volunteering their time).

Sir John Soane Museum

Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was a self-made, successful and distinguished architect whose home and office have been preserved as a museum to display the antiquities, works of arts and books he collected, including a 3,000-year-old inscribed, alabaster sarcophagus occupying his basement. This intimate museum offers a personal glimpse into the life of an eccentric, brilliant, talented and sophisticated man. No wonder the people entrusted to it are so protective of his legacy.

Admission is free. Taking photos, defacing the property and stealing are disallowed. The museum offers a candlelit tour the first Tuesday of every month to the first 200 visitors.

THE HUNTERIAN MUSEUM (subtitle: a bunch of weird shit in jars)

Exiting the Sir John Soane Museum, cut directly through the park one block and you’ll arrive at the Royal College of Surgeons and the Hunterian Museum. The Hunterian Museum is the baby of Dr. John Hunter (1728-1793), a surgeon remembered as a founder of “scientific surgery”. His collection once contained 14,000 preparations of greater than 500 different species of plants and animals. The Hunterian is London at its best.

I have no idea how many preparations are currently on display at The Hunterian Museum, but there are rows and rows, and stacks and stacks, of all sorts of weird shit in jars, encompassing two spacious floors. The specimens are primarily scientific in nature, but the collection’s slant towards the morbidly fascinating is hardly subtle (although it does not yet rival Bangkok’s Siraraj Medical Museum for sheer shock value).

Among the oddities on display:

  • Elephant spinal chord
  • Tiger brain
  • Salamander heart
  • Virginian horned owl jaw
  • Larva of a tussock moth
  • Skate’s oviducts
  • Crocodile trachea
  • Extracted varicose veins
  • Human foot afflicted with elephantiasis
  • The 7’7″ skeleton of one Charles Byrne
  • Skull of a 25 year-old man with hydrocephalus
  • Painting of a girl with piebaldism

And the list goes on, and on, and on… The Hunterian Museum is riveting, which is saying a lot considering the fact that I hate science.

Some postcards from the Hunterian Museum gift shop (WTF? Who mails these things?):

Hunterian Museum Piebaldism

Hunterian Museum Alligator

Hunterian Museum Skeleton


In keeping with my bizarre London theme, I visited the Wellcome Collection, a mix of galleries displaying the development of medicine through the ages and across cultures. I was disappointed.

The Gordon Museum of Pathology — the largest medical museum in the UK looks even more fascinating than the Hunterian Museum, but it is closed to the public.

Similarly, the Black Museum (a macabre collection of artifacts from London’s criminal history, per Time Out) is closed to the public, which particularly sucked for me as I walked by New Scotland Yard every day in London.

Lastly — and this entry probably qualifies more as unique London than bizarre London — but I visited the Churchill War Rooms my last visit to London (over 15 years ago) and the experience stuck with me.



More bizarre London… I try to visit at least one cemetery when I visit a new country. They usually provide unique insights into the culture, contain a multitude of interesting stories, and are photogenic.

I conducted a little internet research and Highgate Cemetery seemed to be the most interesting/picturesque of the London cemeteries. AND, it was accessible from the Northern Line, just a few stops away from the Holborn stop near the Sir John Soane Museum and Hunterian Museum. Disembark at the Archway (not Highgate) station, take the Highgate Hill exit and head up the hill. Take the road to the left just before the hospital, walk a block or two, and then cut through Waterlow Park to the cemetery. The west side can only be viewed through a scheduled tour: the east side is open for the wandering for a small fee.

Karl Marx is the most famous resident of Highgate Cemetery.

Karl Marx Headstone

Many of the other headstones and statues are leaning, crumbling, and/or covered in moss, which lends the site a certain gravitas and atmosphere.

Highgate Cemetery Angel Headstone

Highgate cemetery angel headstone

With the exception of this minimalist, contemporary, no-nonsense, font-conscious headstone:

Patrick Caulfield Headstone Highgate Cemetery

Minimalist! Contemporary! No nonsense! Font-conscious! A (dead) man after my own heart! Figures. I discover my soulmate in a cemetery — his cemetery. The man behind the headstone, Patrick Caulfield, is (I learn later) is a famous artist in the UK, whose work was recently displayed in the Tate Modern, which I visited yesterday. No wonder his grave spoke to me: I love his pop art. And I am equally enamored with the matter-of-factness on display here: no afterlife, no angels, no bullshit: DEAD. And deeply loved, reads the slab.


Several years have passed, but I still clearly — fondly — recall my Jack the Ripper walk on my first London visit. A few hundred of us gathered on a damp, foggy Sunday evening as our host/guide/historian/raconteur/dramatic actor led us scurrying through the backstreets and alleys of London like a pack of bubonic rats, him pausing occasionally to step atop a wooden crate and regale us with grisly, gruesome tales. Quite likely the walk has morphed over the years, but if it retains one-tenth of the mob mentality/crowd energy that coursed of that night, it’s worth doing.

Read the entire London Trip series.


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