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St. John on Patmos -- the missing link in my Bosch quest.

St. John on Patmos — the missing link in my Bosch quest.

Part II of a two-part series. Our story so far:

In my previous post, I confessed to spending three months in Europe shortly after finishing college determined to view every painting on the Continent by the 15th-century Flemish artist Hieronymus Bosch.

My quest took me the length and breadth of Western Europe on a tight budget, in rumpled clothing, and with an almost fanatical zeal to complete my Bosch life list. In the process,  I  befuddled just about everyone I knew. I was no trained art historian, just an amateur Bosch aficionado equipped with a rail pass and an oddly compelling travel obsession.

You can catch up by clicking here or just pick up the story at the point where I left off: A guard in Spain’s Prado Museum taking an inexplicable liking to me and escorting me into a private room to view the progress that restorers were making on one of Bosch’s masterworks, the Seven Deadly Sins

Suddenly, I Was a (Sort of) Bona-fide Art Expert

Incidents of similar serendipity occurred throughout the trip.

Merely to mention my mission, I discovered, inspired meetings with museum curators, conversations with previously stand-offish strangers on trains, even a brief friendship with a pair of Spanish Civil Guards, who, under then-dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco, had a fearsome reputation for unfriendliness, especially for long-haired foreigners (as I was then).

They first accosted me as a possible vagrant; they later bid me goodbye after buying me lunch, finding me a nice cheap hotel, engaging me in spirited conversation about “El Bosco” and guiding me several miles to an obscure gallery on my list.

And then there was the time, after exclaiming to no one in particular about the demerits of a painting that I believed to be wrongly attributed to Bosch, that I suddenly realized a fairly sizable crowd of museum-goers had gathered around me, apparently hoping to hear more of my “expert” opinion.

Bosch was a master of medieval horror and the grotesque.

Bosch was a master of medieval horror and the grotesque.

Who was I to deny them?

“You see that figure in the right corner?” I intoned. “A cheap imitation of the master — it reminds me of that forgery I spotted in Bruges…”

One man even left me a tip.

Besides a cheap boost to my ego, I discovered that having an organizing principle — however quixotic it may have seemed — added an entirely new dimension to my travels. Everything I did seem to gain a new legitimacy.

I splurged on extra plates of lasagna to harbor strength for the long walks that lay ahead. I lazed for three days on a Portuguese beach to stare at cloud formations, convinced they contained secrets to unlocking Bosch’s enigmatic imagery. I accepted the man’s tip in the museum and told him to watch for my upcoming book on Bosch, which had already received favorable advance reviews in the Times.

The fact that along the way I had violated at least four of the Seven Deadly Sins — pride, gluttony, greed, and sloth — only seemed to validate the Bosch connection.

Adding a Sense of (Obsessive) Purpose to Traveling

While I’ve never had another travel obsession that was quite so…obsessive, I do find that packing a sense of purpose along with my passport instills a frisson of excitement that adds flavor to any trip.

I’ve searched diligently around the world for the best fried squid, most exotic T-shirts, most creative carved elephants, and most atmospheric colonial-era hotels, complete with doddering waiters in white coats.

I’ll spend any extra amount of time required to take a ferryboat ride, even if it’s not going where I was planning to go.

The Maltese capital of Valletta was a center for the Knights Templar in the Mediterranean. Photo by Clark Norton

The Maltese capital of Valletta was a center for the Knights Templar in the Mediterranean. Photo by Clark Norton

I’ve tracked Somerset Maugham’s literary path through Asia, Sir Richard Burton’s explorations through East Africa, and the Knights Templars’ odysseys through the Mediterranean.

Some lost souls, admittedly, find  pursuing travel obsessions as absorbing as Chinese toilet paper. They probably don’t even know how many Southern Hemisphere countries they’ve visited whose names contain the letter “Z.”

Fine.

But for those of us who are afflicted, I believe it’s best to nurture and act on our travel obsessions.

  • Besides instilling a sense of organization to a trip, obsessions can provide the very motivation to leave home in the first place — and travel is almost always a broadening experience.
  • If you don’t lack motivation, but do lack the time and money to travel, obsessions can help you overcome such petty considerations. Sell the house! Hock the kids! Take early retirement! What does it matter? Obsessions must be fed.
  • Obsessions are educational. If you doubt it, answer this question: How many of the earth’s countries lie entirely below the Tropic of Capricorn? I know the answer, because I’ve made it a point to visit them all. (Hint: a couple are pretty obscure.)
  • Obsessions are fun. Next time you’re at a cocktail party, tell people you just spent three months tracking down or traversing every _______ in _______ (fill in the blanks as you please) and watch them turn green with envy or head straight for the clam dip.
  • Obsessions are practical. Tie them to your work somehow and write the trip off on your taxes. (Unless, of course, you took early retirement.)
  • If all this fails to convince, look at it this way: obsessions provide a great excuse to go anywhere or do anything that might otherwise be considered self-indulgent. (Gorging on lasagna comes to mind.)
Bosch had a macabre sense of humor. This fragment is from his triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Bosch had a macabre sense of humor. This fragment is from his triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Working on this story, for instance, I realize how remiss I was back in 1971 to have ended my quest prematurely, not to have checked off every item on my Bosch target list.

You may recall from Part 1 of this series that I was stymied by my inability to reach a museum in Berlin, which harbored a Bosch painting called St. John on Patmos but required passing through East Germany, not covered by my rail pass. Sadly, I had run out of funds, but that’s a poor excuse when an obsession is at stake.

I’m ashamed to admit I still haven’t made it there. My only visit to Berlin was brief, in 1989, and — caught up in other activities — I failed to seek out the Gemaldegalerie, where the painting hangs.

I did make it to the Greek island of Patmos to check out the setting where St. John was said to have been visited by an angel, the subject of the artwork. But that doesn’t quite cut it in the obsession business.

So sure, the rent is overdue and baby (well, grandbaby) could use a new pair of shoes, but you have to prioritize in life.

Berlin awaits!

Travel Tip of the Day: While Albufeira, Portugal — where I scanned the cloud formations for clues to Bosch imagery — is no longer the dirt-cheap, quiet fishing village that it was in 1971, it still has a variety of beautiful beaches and provides a great base to explore the Algarve region along Portugal’s southern coast.

 

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According to government and private surveys:

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