Posts Tagged With: architecture

Hawaiian Sky

It is for several very good reasons that Mauna Kea is the premier astronomical observing site in the world: the summit is above half the atmosphere and its attendant water vapor (astronomers hate water vapor); it is accessible with good local infrastructure; and — I know this will shock you — it is dark. Very dark. The entire population of the Big island is only 150,000, and the nearest towns are tens of miles away from the telescopes, their lights often concealed under a layer of clouds. And so the night skies on the Big Island are nothing short of glorious.

You do not have to be atop a mountain to enjoy the stellar show — in fact, in some ways it’s better if you’re not. (And despite our plans, we have not made it to Mauna Kea’s summit on this trip: conditions have been too cold and windy.)  So my friend Jim and I struck out from Kona with our cameras and tripods, to a point well away from town about 10 miles inland and about 2500′ (760m) up. With the exception of a couple of hillside dwellings, it was, as they say, as dark as the inside of a dog. Dark enough, in fact, that the unwary photographer can stumble around blindly and knock over his tripod at the end of the night. Fortunately the tripod mounting mechanism made the supreme sacrifice and absorbed the blow of the fall, sparing my camera with its rather expensive lens. But now I need a new tripod mount.  In any case, here are some samples of our work from two nights ago:

Saddle Road Night Sky-005That tongue of stars sticking up from the middle is indeed the Milky Way, as you no doubt suspected. The dots of light at the very bottom of the picture, about one-third of the way in from the left, is Jim setting up his camera by flashlight. And the red glow that you are wondering about is real, neither a Photoshop fake nor the incandescent lava from a distant volcano. It is the actual color of the night sky in the opposite direction from the Sun, i.e. eastward at 9 PM when this picture was taken. I’ve exaggerated it in intensity (thank you, Photoshop) so that you can perceive it in the image. It is a well-known celestial phenomenon called gegenschein, the reflection of sunlight off of interplanetary dust orbiting in the plane of the solar system. In very dark locales it is just barely visible to the naked eye, but a long (6 second) camera exposure of the dark Hawaiian sky brings it right out. Pretty cool, huh?

If you don’t believe me — and I don’t know why you wouldn’t, since I am a professional and not to be taken lightly, dammit — here’s an equally long exposure taken in the opposite (westward) direction:

Saddle Road Night Sky-008No red glow. If you are wondering why you can see the spooky tree and the grass since I earlier stated that the scene was pitch dark, the answer is that I was standing off to the side shining my cell phone flashlight onto the tree in order to get this precise effect. (Photographers call the technique “light painting”.)

One of the things that we tend to forget in this age of crowded cities and light pollution is that there are a surprising number of glorious astronomical objects that are visible to the naked eye or in small binoculars.  The camera sees them just fine in these dark island skies, though. Here is zoomed-in portion of a shot of Orion, the hunter:

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Those are the three stars of Orion’s belt at upper left, visible even in cities. But what’s that big blob in the middle? It is the Orion Nebula, a.k.a. M42, an enormous cloud of gas and dust 12 light-years across, a stellar nursery where massive, hot stars are condensing and igniting. Here’s what M42 looks like through an actual telescope.

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Obviously one cannot see that kind of detail in a photo taken with a conventional mid-sized camera with a 17mm wide angle lens, but if you look at it in my photo you can  clearly see the shape and a bit of the color. Slightly below the nebula in my picture you can also see two bright stars. The upper is called Iota Orionis. The lower is actually a double star system called Struve 747: if you look carefully at it you can see the dim companion star.

So it was a photogenic night. Here I am in situ, taking the above pictures and illuminated by the light of Jim’s flashlight:

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You’ll note that I’m wearing a sweatshirt and long pants, not my usual attire here. But it was an unusually cool night and we were a few thousand feet up; the temperature was about 55°F (13C).

I’ll close this post with a photo that has nothing at all to do with the sky but which I feel like throwing in because it is a night shot, albeit not looking heavenward. The Aloha Theater is a venerable performing arts venue in the nearby delightfully-named town of Kealakekua (pronunciation lessons available for a small fee). It was built in 1932 and is still in use — they’re performing Beauty and the Beast as I type this — and its architecture is typical pre-war (and thus pre-tourist-boom) Hawaii. It has a pleasantly anachronistic feel to it that I tried to capture.

Aloha Theater-002This year’s stay on the Big Island is winding down; we go to Honolulu in 4 1/2 days, followed by eight days on the mainland (California and Arizona) and then home. We’re going diving tomorrow, and in the following day or two I hope to shoot some drone footage of downtown Kailua that I can post before we depart.

 

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London Calling

I expect to have my laptop back — and thus be able to post my final Namibia entry — within a few days, but in the meantime I’ll leapfrog in time a little bit to our first post-Namibia destination. ( And you knew that had to be the title, right?)

If the aliens ever land and want to know where the Capital of the World is, you could make a pretty good case for pointing them to London. You might be able to make a stronger case for New York City in the past 80 years or so, but for a couple of hundred years prior to that it would have been a no-brainer for London. It’s stodgy, lively, vast, intimate, and generally schizophrenic all at once, with traditions and about one-third of its architecture rooted in the 11th century.  Another third of the buildings seem to have congealed some time in the 1940’s, and the rest looks it has been taking lessons from 22nd-century Japanese architects.

Of course, one of the more recent non-architectural traditions is Worrying About Brexit, probably for good reason. The most recent source of angst as I type this is a report that came out yesterday predicting that British farmers’ profits will be cut in half as a result of Brexit. This could put real pressure on the milk supplies to make the batter for fish and chips.

Our stay in London was a brief one: just about three days, much of which was spent looking up old friends. (And one new one. I have for some years been following the beautifully-written travel blog “Are We There Yet” written by Italian ex-pat Fabrizio S, living in London. We have been following each others’ blogs and corresponding by email for about two years and have finally met face to face!) But we managed to hit at least a few of the high spots: St Paul’s, the Tate Modern Gallery, and the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace (viewed in person daily by over 45 billion people, most of them standing in front of me). So here are some obligatory London Tourist photos:

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Lord Nelson overlooks Trafalgar Square

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St Paul’s Cathedral,. Yes, we climbed to the Whispering Gallery.

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Iconic Tower Bridge

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The latest Harry Potter movie.

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Westminster Abbey

You will note the scaffolding around Big Ben in the second to last photo. I have warned you about this in the past: when Alice and I travel, there will be scaffolding. So far in our globetrotting we have seen scaffolding around the Parthenon, scaffolding around the Via Veneto, scaffolding around the Washington Monument. So if you ever go to a major world heritage monument and see scaffolding, you can be sure that we’re around somewhere.

One of our go-to stops on this trip was the London Eye, the famous 450′ Ferris wheel built for the millennium celebrations in 1999. It’s a great sight in and of itself, fitting oddly but somehow comfortably into the local skyline, and of course affording a spectacular view of the city.

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We arrived at 2:15 PM on a cloudy afternoon amidst an enormous throng of visitors, and were told by the automated kiosk that we could buy either a regular admission ticket for £26 or a so-called FastTrack ticket to jump part of the line for £36. Hmmm, tough call. How long would we have to wait? Well-ll-ll-ll, we were informed, with the Fastrack ticket we could get onto the Eye at 4:00, versus a plain-old cheaper regular ticket that would allow us on at….. 3:15 PM. I asked the nice uniformed attendant how this could be, and was told, “Well, so many people sign up for the FastTrack tickets that it makes the wait longer.” OK then.

The ride takes a half hour, during which time the wheel rotates only once. There are 32 ovoidal capsules (Alice was quite scandalized when I described them as suppository-shaped), each holding 25 people, which means that at any given moment 800 people are enjoying the view and peeking down into Parliament.

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There is a lot that has changed in London in the decades since I last visited, most notably the ethnic mix, about which a lot of people angst, since “ethnic” in this context is a sort of code word for “Muslim”. I heard grim tales about areas where no Westerner or immodestly-dressed women dare to tread without getting glared out, and it is all rather overwrought.

It is certainly true that London has a far more diverse ethnic array than it did when I last visited, over 25 years ago. (The mayor is a Muslim, Sadiq Khan.) It is also true that there are areas that are heavily Muslim: there are blocks at a time when all of the store signage is in Arabic as well as English. But to us at least, the general feel of those areas is not a whole lot different — and no more threatening — then, say, Chinatown in San Francisco. There are certainly visibly many Muslims in traditional garb in the streets, but it by no means feels like an isolated enclave; there are lots of other ethnicities walking around as well, all looking quite unconcerned.

I suppose it is quite possible that women in particular might receive a lot of hostility for being seen as dressing too immodestly. But context is pretty important: I guarantee you that you’ll receive those same looks today by walking around in revealing clothes in the orthodox Jewish sections of the Williamsburg neighborhood of New York City. Ethnic mixes change, cities change, countries change, and in general I feel that the threat is more to our perceptions and self-image than anything else.

Of course one of the upsides to all this newfound diversity is….better food. English food has its reputation, of course — and completeness compels me to report that the aptly-named “Mushy Peas” is still a dish here — and it has long been the case that you were better off frequenting Indian Restaurants. But now there’s a lot of everything: Middle Eastern, of course, and even (to my amazement) the occasional taco truck. So things are looking up.

But a lot of the old charm is still there, even as ancient cathedrals nestle up against 50-story steel and glass extrusions. Our hotel was adjacent to St James Park with its long lake, country gardens, ice cream stands, and enormous diversity of waterfowl.

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The Guard still marches, the weather is still rainy, and overall it was great to be back.

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Underneath the Millennium Bridge

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Suicidal Pilgrims and the All-Seeing Buddhas

Long day today, and a rainy one at that. It would seem that the northern end of the island is being visited by Typhoon #18 — they gave them numbers instead of names here, which may be the only example on record of Japanese being less colorful than Americans. We’re in Kyoto now, towards the south, and are not receiving the full brunt of it, but it has been mostly a gray and rainy day. Not that this slowed us down.

It is getting late after a long day so I will moistly let the photos do the talking in place of my usual sparkling commentary. So to begin, we visited the Kiyomizu Buddhist temple, which is distinguished by three things: (1) a huge five-story pagoda; (2) a large stage where Noh performances were held; and (3) a platform on the aforementioned five story pagoda that people jumped off of. I’ll answer the obvious question in a moment, but let’s start with some photos of the environs.

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OK, now why exactly would someone jump of of something that high? The answer is easily summarized in one word: religion! Yessirree, when it comes to convincing people of the virtue of doing suicidally stupid things, it’s hard to beat religion. I had kind of figured Buddhism to be immune from this sort of thing, but apparently not. The deal was, you made a wish and jumped off. If you survived, your wish would come true. Personally I’d go with the old coins-in-the-wishing-well approach, but to each his own. Mariko claimed that the survival rate was 80%, which seems highly unlikely to me. In any event, the practice was discontinued a century or so ago.

There’s a beautiful view from the top, as well as a number of other smaller and very colorful ancillary temples. Here’s the view and some of the architecture.

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Our next stop was the 12th century  Sanju Sangendo Hall. Its claim to fame is a room full of Boddhisatva Buddhas, a thousand of them, each qbout 5 1/2 feet (165 cm) tall and strikingly detailed. No photos are allowed, alas, but here is a shot from Google Images. (In the dim light of the hall they actually appear much more brown than the golden tone in the photo.)

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It is quite an amazing sight. And an ironic one as well, for these particular thousand Buddhas – each with 42 arms — are the so-called Kannon Boddhisatvas, Kannon being an incarnation of Buddha who sees everything that happens in the world. Why is that ironic? Because if you were a Japanese entrepreneur who wanted to found a camera company whose name symbolized the all-seeing Buddha, your cameras hopefully seeing things all over the world, you would name your camera company…… Canon! Ta-da! I have now answered a question that you never thought to ask! Canon cameras are named after the thousand Kannon Buddhas…. the ones you’re not allowed to photograph. (As it happens, I shoot with a Canon EOS T1i, so it seems only fair that the authorities should have allowed me to take pictures. They didn’t see it that way.)

Well, at least here is a shot of a nice hallway outside the temple.

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We had a delightful encounter as we were about to leave the grounds, when I was accosted by a gaggle of middle-schoolers on a class trip who had a homework assignment to interview and English speaker in English. They were the most charming group and I happily answered their questions about where we were from (“Washington, DC.” “OOOOoooooohhhhh…!”), how Japan was different from the US, why we had come to visit, what was our favorite Japanese food, etc. We spent about ten very enjoyable minutes with them — you have never encountered a more polite set of adolescents — then took each others’ pictures.

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Next stop: the Golden Pavilion. Why is it called the Golden Pavilion? Duh.

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Its official name is Kinkaju-ji, and it dates from the mid-15th century. That is real gold leaf covering the outside, and as a result of this strikling distinction it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the region. Which is another way of saying that the place was mobbed, and since it was raining at the time the challenge became navigating the sea of umbrellas without losing an eye.

We moved on to the Nijo Castle, which was the local shogun’s residence during the Edo period (1603-1871) when the shoguns ruled the roost. The emperor was on the throne, of course, but the shogunate held all the power. They would probably have offed the emperor but for the fact that he was a divine descendant and thus much revered by the general population. Killing him would likely have sparked a revolt that would not have needed well for the shoguns, so they contented themselves with actually running things and let the emperor be.

The exterior of the castle is imposing, though very unlike a European castle. It has high, ornate gates and stark dark wooden walls.

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The Nijo castle is also known for its beautiful gardens, said to be among the most iconic in Japan.

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No photos are allowed inside. It is a maze of high-ceilinged square hallways with dark wooden beams and white paper walls. There are a series of large, spartan anterooms — little more than tatami mats and wall carvings — where visiting functionaries awaited their audience with the shogun. But the cool thing — and it is very cool — is that the floors are designed to squeak so that would-be assassins would be unable to sneak around. And we are not talking about the random squeaks that you get from loose floorboards in your house: these floorboards are supported by metal angle brackets that establish a small air gap between the boards and underlying support beams, so that when you step on them the metal bends and the nails through it “chirp”. It is a most remarkable sound: as a group of people (like our tour group) walk down the hallway you hear what sounds for all the world like a soft metallic discordant chittering flock of birds. As busloads of tourists make their way through the building it sounds like you are surrounded by huge numbers of vaguely ominous robot nightingales. It is quite an amazing effect.

We ended the afternoon with a tea ceremony, which I won’t bother describing in detail since this is the second one we’ve had on this trip. But the young woman performing the ceremony was quite graceful and pretty, so here are a few pictures of her anyway.

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I took the last one as we were leaving, when I asked if I could take her portrait. (Alice thinks the photo looks like an ad for Japan Airlines. I’m OK with that.)

As we headed back to the hotel, Mariko proposed an “architecture walk” through Kyoto railway station before dinner. I confess I was unenthusiastic about the idea, since we were tired and I had a mental image of a decidedly unexciting walk: “These roof beams date from the early shogunate…”, that sort of thing.  But I had to go along: I lost my lens cap yesterday and Mariko had told me that there was a camera store at the station. Hoo boy, was my expectation off base. My interest would have been a lot higher had Mariko explained that the Kyoto railway station architecture dated from the early 23rd century, e.g.:

kyoto-023 kyoto-024 kyoto-025Absolutely unbelievable…the place is pure Blade Runner, except for the Las Vegas parts. It is vast, a five-story science fiction shopping mall with animated LED staircases and spidery skyways, attached to a train station. Do not fail to visit this place at night if you are ever in Kyoto.

New lens cap acquired, and we headed to dinner, the uniquely Japanese okonomiyaki. It’s a teppan yaki kind of thing, like Benihana without the steak or the theatrics. Rather, the entrees are various types of pancake-like agglomerations of meat, noodles, and cabbage, cooked on the grill at the table. Satisfying, tasty, and cheap.

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Hmmm, I thought I said something about not writing much. I guess I can’t help myself. Anyway, that was our day…

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Land of the Rising Sun and Falling Rain

alice-metaOur flights to Tokyo began in Philadelphia but since I’m in charge here and I’m writing about airports I feel compelled to open with an image of Alice on meta-display at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, close to where we live. This doesn’t have anything to do with Japan but all our friends thought it was pretty cool. (I took the photo of Alice in a waterfall in New Zealand and wrote a blog post about it here. I submitted it for display at the airport about a month ago.)

Our actual journey to Tokyo was unremarkable, taking 5,211 hours — at least it felt that way — and arriving on schedule with our desiccated corpses in row 19. The trans-Pacific leg of the flight was on a 787, the Boeing “Dreamliner”, which is as advertised a pretty nice plane: noticeably quieter than most and with much better air quality. The snazzy part, though, were the windows: the shades are electronic, not physical, and you can dial in the opacity to turn them a lighter or darker shade of blue. Most people opted to do this — it being rather sunny at 38,000 feet — consequently bathing the cabin in a tropical oceanic blue light. It is rather like flying inside an aquarium.

The downside of this is that when you do fly over something interesting — and we overflew some truly spectacular Alaskan glaciers — it becomes difficult to find a place from which to look out and admire the view. Everyone’s windows are dark blue, and it feels like looking at the Arctic landscape as through it had been relocated underwater in the Bahamas.

Narita airport is in the hinterlands about 40 miles outside of Tokyo, so after flying all that distance you get to enjoy a whole new journey into town. There are several ways to do this, one of the easiest being an express train line that runs directly from the airport to the Tokyo main rail station. It takes about an hour. We bought tickets immediately after clearing customs but had to wait about half hour until the train left. Notice that I say “until the train left“. The train arrived almost immediately but the cleaning crew — one man to a car — spent the rest of the time cleaning in that fastidious Japanese way that reflects either an advanced aesthetic or culturally-ingrained OCD. By the time we were allowed to board  you could have performed open heart surgery in that rail car.

The ride into town passes through surprisingly rural countryside considering how vast and utterly urbanized Tokyo itself is: the metro area is 5,200 square miles with a population of 38 million. In other words, it is a city that itself is one-third the size of Holland with twice the population. With numbers like that it is surprising to see any grassland at all, let alone rolling fields. Gradually, of course, the landscape gives over to suburbia, small outlying towns that are surprisingly European in appearance, two story dwellings with tile roofs. The giveaway is that about 10% of those roofs curve slightly upwards at the eaves, giving them a distinctly (and deliberately) pagoda-like appearance.

The overall scene was on the gloomy side, mainly due to the weather. We arrived through drizzle and heavy overcast, and the towns — and Tokyo itself — were shrouded in low-lying clouds and a persistent light rain. We are in a tropical storm, it seems, and the rainy weather continued through today and will alas remain with us for at least another few days. Nothing to do about it but sightsee with umbrellas, which we had the foresight to bring. (I do not know the name of this particular storm, or even whether it has one. This being Japan, I would name it either Tropical Storm Sushi or Tropical Storm Manga, the latter if the storm has a big eye. Ha ha!  A little meteorological humor there!) Tokyo is in general a pretty rainy city: it gets 105 days of rain per year, about the same as London.

mustardWe arrived at our hotel, 24 hours after walking out the door and suitably exhausted, at about 5 PM. (We are staying at the Hotel Sardonyx, whose name, Alice observes, would make it the ideal pied-á-terre for me and my entire family.)  In the interest of mitigating the worst of our impending jet lag, we decided to tough it out for a few hours and have some dinner at the hotel before crashing into bed. That dinner was a little dose of surrealism of its own, the management having decided for some reason to serve almost exclusively some Bizarro-world simulacrum of what someone thinks American cuisine is. Everything you need to know about that meal is contained in this image of a mustard packet that I was served with my sandwich.  I did not have any “frank frutes” with my dinner, and if I had I assure you that I would not be looking for the “unique taste of plan sourness”, in part because I have no idea what that is attempting to mean.

And so to bed. Our room is small but comfortable, largely Western in appearance and feel but for a few very Japanese touches. One is an invisible rectangular heating coil behind the bathroom mirror, about 16 inches on a side, that keeps that area of the mirror fog-free no matter how long and steamy a shower you wish to take. The other is an intimidating toilet with onboard electronics, which is to say about a half dozen buttons of varied and uncertain function. At least two are related to some bidet-related butt-washing function; a third — which Alice mistakenly activated, to our delight — heats up the toilet seat. Our buttocks are now nice and toasty, thank you very much.

We slept well and long enough to at least partly counteract the 13-hour time difference, awakening at 7:00 AM or so, so we had some breakfast (vastly better than dinner) and struck out on the Tokyo Metro for our first round of exploration. As it turns out, that fact inspires me to close this post with a paean to the Metro.

The first thing you have to realize is that you need a big subway system to serve 38 million people.  How big?  This big:

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Leaving out the buses and trains, there are 13 lines containing 285 stations. It carries nearly 9 million people a day. But the system’s designers did something very clever that, astonishingly, does not seem to have occurred to any of their counterparts in other cities: they numbered the stations on each line. The stations all have names describing their location, of course — the one across the street from our hotel is Hatchibori — but on all the maps and signage they also appear as sequential numbers on their particular line. Hence our Hatchibori station is Hibiya-11, Hibiya being the name of the line that we’re on. The Ginza is Hibiya-8, which tells us immediately that if we want to go see those gazillion lights at night we need only hop on our own local station and travel for three stops.

How do you navigate transfers? In our case, with the help of my new favorite and exceedingly wonderful piece of software, the “Tokyo Subway Navigation” app, available for free at your favorite online app store. This little gem uses your phone’s GPS to tell you what station is nearby and how far away it is; lets you select start and destination points from a searchable database (e.g., your hotel and the Imperial Palace); and then tells you not only what stations to get on and off at, but how long each leg will take and how much the trip will cost. You can even eliminate that last concern altogether by shelling out ten bucks for a Metro 24-hour pass, which gives you unlimited usage on all 13 lines. Between that day pas, the app, and the intuitive station numbering, the city is basically at your feet; we bopped around all day with scarcely a thought. Next time I will tell you where we bopped to.  It involves sushi, kabuki, and manga action figures.

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Not Tangy or Tangiest, but Tangier

(That title only works in English, since the local French and Spanish spelling is “Tanger”. And it is of course pronounced “tan-jeer”.) Before I begin, I should mention that our friend and travel companion Steve, who was yesterday laid low by Moroccan Montezuma’s Revenge, has largely recovered and is quite his old self. So we are in equal measure relieved about that and paranoid about everything we eat. But anyway…

We were walking to our van this morning for our final departure from Chefchaouen, when at a turn in one of the twisty blue alleyways we encountered a lanky young man, berobed and sporting a close-cropped beard,  standing in an archway smoking a long skinny pipe. He greeted us with a knowing smile and, knowing this part of the country’s reputation as the drug center of Morocco,  we engaged him in conversation as our tour guide Mohammed (he has encouraged us to call him Momo) translated. What’s in the pipe? A mixture of marijuana (“kif”) and tobacco. How much of each? About 50-50, though some folks prefer variously stronger or weaker mixes up to about 70-30 either way. He gave us a small sample. I will not reveal what became of the small sample.

And so we left Chefchaouen for the three hour drive back past Tatuen to Tangier. As before, we drove down winding mountain roads, the yellow limestone cliffs like walls to our right and more clearly visible across the river. The cliffs eventually give way to more rolling hills bounding the flood plain of the river, but the river itself is barely a trickle. This may change: we drove past two substantial dams that were under construction, one earthen and one concrete, that would not only fill that flood plain but submerge part of an adjacent village in the process. We drove through that village, a pretty populous and well-developed enclave of whitewashed houses and shops, and wondered what kind of planning would accommodate the inhabitants.

We passed through Tatuen itself again, the brown and burnt-looking field now empty where yesterday the sheep market was going strong. As we passed through the town the surrounding landscape seemed to alternate between scrubby wasteland and uninviting industrial parks. Steve spotted smoke on the hillside that turned out to be an enormous trash fire, the smoke clinging to the ground like toxic fog, blown gently along the ground. The smoke field was at least an acre or two in size, dotted with silhouetted people scavenging the trash as flocks of birds dived in and out to find their own morsels. In other words, a hellscape straight out of Hieronymous Bosch.

As we approached the outskirts of Tangier, we were struck by…apartment buildings. Huge agglomerations of them like beehives clustered densely across the hillsides, whitewashed multistory boxes of spare architecture.  It was an oddly alien site, almost industrial-looking complexes of flats, all white and gleaming against the ochre landscape. White against brown everywhere; it was like looking through some kind of Photoshop filter. Closer into town, and particularly by the beach, the construction became more individualized, though the density was always claustrophobicly high.

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But the proliferation of construction did tell us that we were entering a more prosperous area. Tangier has a population of about 1 million and is a major commerce and recreation center, the former for its port and ferry service to nearby Spain, the latter because of the broad, well-kept, and generally inviting Mediterranean beach. More on those topics in a moment. It has an interesting history because of its location, essentially straddling Europe and Africa somewhat similarly to how Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia. (Istanbul’s borders literally span two continents, however; Tangier’s do not.)  Its roots go all the way back to the Carthaginians in the 5th century AD, and has at various times been under the control of just about everybody: Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, Portuguese, English, and Spanish. It even has a nice little bit of American history: Morocco was the first country to recognize the newly-minted United States in 1777, and full diplomatic relations were established in 1786, the US first establishing a legation right here in Tangier.

The ownership problem get solved in 1923 when everybody agreed that nobody owned Tangier: it was agreed by all that it was an international city. This solution became one of the greatest boons ever for novelists, for the city immediately became a notorious hotbed of international espionage and thus the setting for countless spy novels and movies, especially during the early days of the Cold War. The Boris-and-Natasha party ended, more or less, in 1956 when Morocco was granted independence by Spain and Tangier joined the new country. Fedora and trenchcoat sales plummeted.

Before heading into Tangier proper we made a stop at Cap Spartel, a little bit northwest of town and several miles west of Gibraltar. It is the cape (and overlook) that is the official entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar and thus the point where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean. And here is that magic and slightly arbitrary demarcation, painted on a rock about 30 yards from shore. The symbol is a green star on a red background… in other words, the Moroccan flag:

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Atlantic to the left, Mediterranean to the right.

There is a lighthouse, of course, adjacent to the overlook that attracts multitudes of sightseers and a nearly equal number of souvenir vendors. Here is the lighthouse:

tangier-02That is prickly pear cactus in the lower right, by the way. It is invasive, having been brought here from North America, and is all over the place. The Moroccans have taken advantage of it however, exactly as people in the southwest US do: by eating and making jam of the fruit as well as the paddles.

Oh, and see that long low blob sticking up a bit in the center of the horizon, just to the left of the lighthouse? That is Spain, the town of Tarifa to be precise, less than 9 miles away from us. “Huh, only nine miles!” you’re thinking. “Why, I could make that distance myself in a small boat!” Indeed you could, which is why an enormous number of would-be illegal immigrants to Spain and beyond have exactly the same thought. It is for this reason that the coast around Tangier is heavily patrolled, and why the gate to the ferry terminal is heavily guarded. Most of the aspirants come up from sub-Saharan Africa, Mali and Nigeria being popular starting points. (The Syrian refugees do not come this far west; as you know from recent events, they try and get across Turkey into Croatia.) We saw many groups of young African men loitering near the ferry terminal, apparently looking for a lapse in watchfulness that would allow them to sneak aboard.

We drove from Cap Spartel downtown to the beachfront, which is highly developed and very European-looking, as you see here.

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Tangier: Islamic Miami

The route from the cape took us past the acme of luxury beach houses: the local royal palace, and a little vacation pied-a-terre of indeterminate but vast size, hidden behind high walls and armed guards, belonging to the Saudi royal family. We wondered aloud whether the Saudi and Moroccan royal kids trick or treat at each other’s houses at Halloween. (“I got a gold ingot!” “Awwww, I got another diamond.”)

There is obviously money in this area, which all the royalty notwithstanding, gives off a slightly ridiculous real nouveau riche vibe. The best evidence for this is a string of discotheques along the beach, whose names include “Armani” and (I swear this is true) “Snob”. But it is a popular vacation spot, and not just for Moroccans. Thumper started a conversation with three girls in hijabs who were strolling along the promenade adjacent to the beach; they turned out to be vacationing Dutch.

tangier-09

Point. Shout. Repeat.

We ate lunch at a seafood restaurant directly across the street from the beach, then headed into the medina. About five seconds after we stepped off the van on the corner of a narrow crowded street, a car came barreling around the corner and stalled directly in front of us. The driver restarted it, stomped on the gas, and promptly lost control, plowing full speed into the rear of a parked car about 20 feet away. This would cause a commotion in the most sedate of places, and Morocco is not the most sedate of places. One quick-thinking bystander immediately jumped into the passenger side of the car to grab the keys so that the perpetrator could not drive away. This led to much shouting and pointing, which in turn led to even more shouting and pointing.

We watched the escalating shouting and pointing for a few minutes then headed up the street into the casbah and the warren of the medina.

Tangier’s medina is somewhat more open and airy than Tetuan’s, and for the most part less dingy than the souk in Chefchaouen. The architecture of the buildings near the entrance is traditional, with clean lines, whitewashed archways, and a minaret.

tangier-05The broadest avenues have the European (especially French) feel that we experienced in Tetuan, such as this street scene.

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But of course it has its share of tiny shops in dark corners too. Pretty much everything is sold here: clothing, produce, jewelry, seafood, you name it. Here’s an olive merchant:

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One interesting aspect of the medina is that from its highest points, adjacent to the casbah, you can (barely) see Gibraltar, faint and low on the horizon like the view of Tarifa from Cap Spartel. Since we visited southern Spain in 2002, we can now state that we have seen  Gibraltar from both Spain and Morocco. (We actually visited it when in Spain.) This thus marks the second locale, the first being Istanbul, that we have seen from two continents.

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Jewish cemetery

We walked past the Jewish cemetery while returning to the van. As in Tetuan and elsewhere, there was once a large Jewish community here (numbering 10,000 in Tangier alone in the 1930’s), which has mostly though not completely vanished. There is still a very small local Jewish community here — I haven’t been able to ascertain the number — and the cemetery is apparently still maintained.

Our driver Ahmed had moved the van from its original street corner — for all we knew, the pointing and shouting were still going on — down to the waterfront near the ferry terminal. As before, clusters of young African men were loitering near the gate, and one managed to provoke the ire of a guard who shoved him away. Even so, one can’t help but wonder how many sneak through this way, or via small boat. There has been some talk in the past few years about building a bridge or tunnel between Spain and Morocco at about this location, analogous to the Chunnel, but it is hard to see what Spain would gain from this other than a new undesired smuggling and human trafficking route.

Our hotel tonight is a significant departure from the the traditional riad of our last three nights. It is a very modern Western chain, originally Dutch, called the Golden Tulip. Our accommodations would not be out of place in any American city.  We are only here for tonight, though; today was our single day in Tangier. Tomorrow morning we drive to Rabat to meet up with the rest of our group; there have been eight of us on this so-called “pre-trip”; we will have a full complement of 16 for the next two weeks.

 

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

You Want a Pisa Me?

(Our final destination and current venue is the city of La Spezia, adjacent to Cinque Terre. Alas, the wifi in our otherwise beautiful villa is not working, so I am typing this offline and will broadcast when I can. But I may not have the opportunity to transfer my photos, so these posts may be like the good old days of email, text-only journaling. My apologies for being insufficiently multimedia for these final posts.)

We left Lucca yesterday morning, enjoying the sight of a massive running and bicycle race that seems to occupy the entire city outside the central walls. Happily traffic management for the event was good and we did not get tangled up in what could have been a traffic nightmare, and we got our of town with difficulty. Our first stop was Lucca’s better known cousin Pisa, home of the universally familiar Leaning Tower. We parked our car in the surprisingly empty parking lot adjacent to the grand square that is home to the tower, and were immediately accosted by one of the countless African vendors offering tchotchkes at every tourist venues. 

These vendors, by the way, have terrible lives, basically imported like cattle from various African countries; they are crammed in large numbers into small flats and pretty much sent out onto the streets with the day’s inventory of selfie sticks, crappy wooden sculptures, and whatever else is selling this season. We can only assume that this is somehow a better life than what they had back home. In any case, this particular vendor kindly informed us that the lot was free on Sunday, and further offered to watch our car if we would buy a six-pack of Kleenex from him for 2 euros. Seemed like a good deal, so we did.

Pretty much every likely tourist destination in Pisa is contained in the one square that includes a museum, the iconic tower, the cathedral (Duomo), and the associated baptistry — a squat cylinder with an large enormously ornate dome, whose interior is famous for its acoustics.  The Duomo is beautiful, though as you are herded through it, assembly-line style with the rest of the crowd, your opportunity to enjoy it is limited. It is enormous, dominated by endlessly high walls culminating in a glorious reticulated gold ceiling that really looks like it might be a bit of architecture imported from Heaven.

But the big draw, of course, is the tower. And of course it is some kind of universal cultural trope that onsey must be photographed by one’s friends at an angle that makes it look like you are holding up the tower with your hands. We didn’t participate in that particular ritual, but it’s pretty hysterical to watch the enormous number of people who do (and there are a lot of tourists hanging around that square). I entertained myself photographing other people doing this; when viewed from the side, a crowd of tourists engaging in is particular ritual looks like some weird Tai Chi class, everyone standing with knees bent, arms out to the side, palms facing outward. I’ll post some pictures of this if the opportunity arises, but for now you can use your imagination.

The tower leans by about 5 degrees, which is a lot. Construction was started in the mid-12th century and was halted after the first three tiers were built because someone spoke up and said, “Hey, isn’t this thing supposed to be pointing straight up?” Turns out the underlying soil is too sandy and compressible. The structure then sat idle for the better part of a century before construction resumed, this time under the auspices of an architect who rather ambitiously figured that he could correct the error by making the columns longer on the downward side of the tilt and thus angle the upper tiers upward again. The result is that the tower is shaped oddly like a banana.

Now the problem, of course, is that since the center of gravity is offset from the center of the base, the Leaning Banana is not at all stable, and the tilt has increased over the heads. Things reached a crisis point about 25 years ago when the total amount of the tilt reached 4.6 meters (about 15 ft), which is perilously close to the point at which the whole thing would topple over. Which would be a great and irreplaceable cultural tragedy, but man, think what incredible security camera footage that would have made.

Anyway, the situation was sufficiently dire that the tower was closed to tourists and an immense, complicated, and expensive engineering effort undertaken to stabilize the underpinnings and remediate some of the tilt. It thus came to pass that a complex arrangement of excavations and counterweights and such was installed, and the tilt successfully reduced to 4 meters (13 ft) and the tower reopened to tourists. (And by the way, now that I think of it, it is apocryphal that Galileo dropped two balls of differing weights off the top to demonstrate the mass-independence of gravity. Though he did do a lot of his other experiments around here.)

It would be cool to climb the tower of course, but two things prevented us: (1) Admission is strictly timed, and our first window of availability was 2 1/2 hours hence, longer than we were willing to wait; and (2) neither our knees nor our our lungs were enthusiastic about ascending a 293-step stone spiral staircase. So we contented ourselves with gawking — it is a wonderfully worthwhile sight, after all — and moved on.

By the time we left, the square had gotten very noticeably more crowded and it is not hard to imagine the place being a total tourist madhouse come summertime; if you are going to visit, this is definitely the right time of year. We returned to the car, the formerly empty parking lot now completely full, tipped our Kleenex vendor another euro (he was indeed right by our car) and headed on our way.

La Spezia sits at the northern crest of the arch-shaped Bay of Poets, so named because Lord Byron supposedly swam across its two-mile width. At the eastern foot of the bay is the seaside resort of Lerici, overseen by an imposing, ominous fortress on a hillside. Mirroring Lerici on the western foot of the bay its sister village of Porto Venere, dominated by its imposing ominous fortress on a hillside. There is a ferry connecting the two.

We spent a couple of hours in Lerici, strolling on the promenade overlooking the beach, along rows of bright pastel houses and stores nestled picturesquely into the cliff wall facing the sea, and through a multitude of vendor stalls selling clothing, souvenirs, food, and beach stuff. The water is green, clear, and cold. There were some lifeguards on a training exercise and a few folks sunbathing on the beach, but no one in the water. (As I said, I’ll post photos when I can, but for now you can use your imagination. It was gorgeous.)

We checked into to our flat in La Spezia at about 4:30, a beautiful apartment with 10′ ceilings occupying a floor of a villa overlooking the city, and surrounded by an elaborate garden. It sits on a very steep, very narrow road that is the source of our principal problem: parking. (I have had my first car problem, scraping the front right fender against a fence while trying to park close enough to the right  allow another car to pass. I’m glad I bought the full insurance.)

Today we are heading to Cinque Terre for some heavy duty scenic views, possibly the last and best of the trip. I’ll be taking a lot of photos which, eventually, you will even get to see…

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Lake, Lots of Tunnels, and the Italian Suburbs of Austria

The weather was much improved today — though unfortunately it is not expected to last — so we pulled up stakes from Gardone Riviera, en route to Merano in a more optimistic state of mind than when we arrived. Lake Garda was bathed in a watery sunlight as the sun struggled with occasional success to break through the low clouds. Our very temporary landlord, the warm and genial Fabrizio, had suggested that driving up the west side of the lake was the more scenic route, and the choice proved to be a wise one: the road hugged the narrow strip between the lake and the granite cliffs above it, beneath, above, and occasionally through one seaside village after another.  Each offered its shares of bell towers, churches, and homes nestled on to the steep hillsides, enjoying watch over the clear lake. This is a typical view from the road, looking up the hillside:

Garda & Merano-2Where there was a safe pullout off the road  and there were more than a few — we took it, soaking up the view and snapping away like lunatics. Following our instincts, we would occasionally pull off the highway (and I use the term loosely) altogether, finding a parking space and walking around the town at water’s edge.

Garda & Merano-4During one such stroll we encountered this 94 year old lady taking a walk with her grown grandson, or so we assume. She was quite emphatic about her age, repeating it a few times in Italian as she spoke no English, and we were able to puzzle out that she had lived there for a very long time.

One of these random stops found us in the town of Limone, about three-quarters up the west side of the lake, where as it happened it was open-air market day down by the waterside. It was lively with visitors and seemed like a good place to walk around and break for lunch, so we parked in a garage and waded into the market place. Leather goods seemed to be a particular specialty, and the prices were good: Alice bought a bright blue purse and wallet, and I a new and much-needed wallet.

It seemed that aside from ourselves, every tourist in Limone — and there were a lot of them — was German. We had been told about this by Fabrizio but were still taken aback by it; other than the vendors talking among themselves, we hard only German being spoken, and the restaurants by the water all offered their menus in German and Italian. (German would become even more prominent as we approached and entered Merano, but more on that shortly.)

Part of the reason for Limone’s popularity among German tourists is its proximity to the Austrian border and the fact that it offers these views at the northern end of the lake:

Garda & Merano-1

Garda & Merano-3

Garda & Merano-5You can see that that the town, like its brethren along the coast, is essentially sandwiched between the sea and the cliffs, with the foothills of the Dolomites looming in the distance.

The other common view from the highway as we drove up the side of the lake was no view at all, by which I mean the inside of a tunnel. There are a lot of tunnels on the route, all impressive feats of engineering as they are up to nearly a mile in length and are bored through solid granite. There is really no choice in the matter, as the cliffs come nearly right up to the sea and there is no other place to put a road. Even so, it was surprising: we probably passed through 15 tunnels, dark and windy and narrow, with lots of trucks to keep things interesting.

As we approached Merano it became clear that, the political border notwithstanding, we were entering Austria. And indeed, had World War I gone the other way, that’s exactly where we would be. This region is the South Tyrol, 40 miles from the Austrian border; the architecture, the language, and the culture are essentially Bavarian. A-frame roofs with timbers on the outside, a distinct absence of baroque Italianate facades on the buildings, street signs in German and Italian, and wiener-schnitzel on the menus of the restaurants. It’s slightly more Italian than Salzburg, but not by much.

Oh, and the restaurants close up at about 8:30, about two hours earlier than the rest of Italy. We almost missed dinner because our stomach clock time settings were insufficiently Teutonic. We will not make this mistake again tomorrow; we have ways of making you eat.

Anyway, here is a view of the town. If you think it resembles an Alpine ski resort, you are not far off the mark.

Garda & Merano-6Our apartment here is a spacious two bedroom condo on the fifth floor of a building, only about a block from the center of town. The decor and architecture of the place could not differ more dramatically from the other places that we have stayed. Unadorned white walls, right angles everywhere, and not a scowling 16th century portrait in sight. In fact, nothing in sight: there is not a single wall hanging or piece of decoration anywhere other than a couple of very spare-looking narrow Scandinavian-style bookcases in the living room. Gabriele D’Annunzio wouldn’t have lasted five seconds in this place.

There is a hillside promenade that overlooks the town, and, about ten miles from here, a tramway that goes to the nearest mountaintop. Both of those are on our agenda for tomorrow, so with luck I’ll have some pictures to show.

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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