Posts Tagged With: art

Art and Watercraft

In his book “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, anthropologist Jared Diamond makes a case that geography is destiny, i.e. that a lot of the major currents of history (such as the conquest of the Meso-americans by the Spanish) were consequences of geographical particulars. In the case of the Finger Lakes, the argument would be that geography is demographics. That is to say, the fecundity of the soil and glacier-flattened terrain makes this good dairy farming country — there are ice cream stores everywhere — which for reasons I do not pretend to understand seems to be associated with a politically conservative mindset. At the same time the bucolic setting attracts a lot of artists, who tend to be at the other end of the political spectrum. Then of course there are the wine growers — no idea where your typical vintner sits on the ideological spectrum — and the harsh winters, which attract rugged individualists, which is to say oddballs.

The upshot is that the Finger Lakes are a place where you can attend an art festival (as we did, in the town of Penn Yan on the northern end of Keuka Lake) that includes a collection of vintage trucks…

… and truck engines, here being admired by some locals who at the risk of stereotyping I somehow doubt voted for Hillary Clinton:

At the same time — and at the same arts festival — it is easy to find some local color of a more charmingly outré nature, like this retro-looking young woman:

She is no doubt on her way to visit the artists’ kiosks exhibiting carved cutting boards, sculptures crafted from farm implements, and — this seems to be a local thing — jewelry made from antique buttons.

We spent a pleasant hour or two at the festival before making our way south back to the town of Watkins Glen at the lower end of Seneca Lake. Our goal this time was not the state park with its many waterfalls, but rather the lake itself, or more accurately a boat ride on it. But here’s a relaxing view of the lake from the southern docks. You should now be hearing Otis Redding singing “Sittin’ on the dock o’ the bay…” in your head.

Our conveyance was the beautiful teak two-masted schooner True Love, operated by  Schooner Excursions out of Watkins Glen. At $45 for a two-hour tour (yes, yes, you can start singing the Gilligan’s Island theme song now) it was a great deal and a wonderful outing on a warm sunny day blessed with scenery like this:

One of the things that struck me during the trip is that the water seemed a lot clearer than I remembered it from when I lived here in the 1970’s. (Indeed, I made a remark in my last post about how silty it was.) Turns out that this was not my imagination: our crew members/tour guides informed us that the dreaded zebra mussels have arrived: that highly invasive, prolific, and aggressive freshwater species that has become the scourge of North American freshwater bodies. Zebra mussels are filter feeders — they feed by pumping water through their bodies and extracting microorganisms, algae, plankton, etc., along the way. As you would suppose, this causes the water to become very clear, which sounds great but which is actually terrible because said water is also now nutrient-free. As a result, Finger Lakes fish populations — notably freshwater trout — have plummeted. Remarkably, this has all happened in 25 years: the first zebra mussels were discovered here in 1992. So if you’ve ever wondered how long it takes to completely filter 3.5 trillion gallons of water (which is the actual volume of Seneca Lake), the answer is 25 years if you have enough zebra mussels.

The True Love itself (which is not the small sailboat in the above photo) has an interesting history of its own. It was built in 1922 and appeared in the 1956 movie “High Society” starring Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby. (Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong also make appearances.) Here’s Bing Crosby serenading Grace Kelly aboard the boat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZ1ZLiyGrE0.  You can see the ship itself in the first few seconds.

There was not a lot of serenading going on during our outing, which is probably just as well, but it was an idyllic way to close out a long weekend.

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Hakone in the Mist

Man does not live on hot springs baths alone, so the original plan for today was to include a short cruise on Lake Ashi, the scenic lake on whose shores Hakone sits. It became clear pretty quickly that that wasn’t going to happen, because it was this kind of day:

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On and off drizzle, wind, and heavy fog rolling in off the lake made the prospect of a cruise pretty unappealing. The boat operators thought so too: the cruise was canceled as our bus pulled into the parking lot. However, our tour lead is nothing if not flexible, and so the day’s itinerary was immediately reshuffled accordingly.

Our first stop thus became Narukawa Art Museum, a privately-owned museum that sits above the shores of the lake and offers a commanding view of it. Today the view was more opaque than commanding, although if you like fog you would have been impressed. The museum’s collection is small and pleasant to browse, almost all contemporary stuff in a spare, almost Scandinavian setting.

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A guide gave us a short presentation about the collection and some of the artists’ techniques, and we were turned loose for an hour or so on our own.

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As you can tell from that last photo, the Japanese are heavily into ridiculously detailed carvings, frequently out of a single piece of marble, or jade, or whatever. A raging case of OCD is a big plus if you are in this line of work. Speaking of which…

Our next stop was the workshop and store of a nationally-recognized master of marquetry, which I confess is a word that I had never heard before. You know what it is, but in case you didn’t know what it was called either, Google defines it as “inlaid work made from small pieces of variously colored wood or other materials, used chiefly for the decoration of furniture.” If you go to Google Images you will immediately recognize it as this stuff:

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I had never really thought about how it is made, but the process and skill are level are extraordinary. The craftsman basically shapes short (an inch or two, sometimes more) rods of different types of wood — each with its unique color — such that their cross sections represent every shape in the final image, then fits and glues them together like a thick jigsaw puzzle. He then cuts slices through the assemblage to make multiple copies of the finished image. In some cases those slices are as thin as a piece of paper; he uses a wood plane to shave off a slice of absolutely uniform paper-thinness. There are no paints or dyes or used; all of the colors are the natural wood. And even the most finely detailed features in the image, which look they have been drawn on using a pen, are made using microscopically think slices of wood, shaped with a jigsaw whose blade looked to be about the thickness of a human hair. It was a very, very impressive demonstration, and here is the master in action (using a wood plane):

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In addition to planar objects such as coasters and hangings, he also makes bowls like the one you see in the foreground. You can see that it is resting on a glued-together stack of cylinders (they are actually triangular, hexagonal, and octagonal in cross section); the bowl is created by carving (i.e., hollowing out) a stack like that one. And he also makes puzzle boxes — you know, those fancy wooden boxes with hidden panels that you have to find in slide in the right order to open it. He makes phenomenally complex ones: he demonstrated one that required seven steps — and I swear there was not a seam to be felt — then held up one that required fifty. He said the most complex that he had seen required — wait for it — seventy-two steps to open. I mean jeez, it would take you 20 minutes to open the damn thing even if you had correctly memorized all the steps. And if you haven’t, well, I can promise you that the only way you ever going to see the inside of that box is with a saw or a sledge hammer.

And speaking of wood, Hakone is also known for having a small cedar forest. There is an easy strolling path along its edge, adjacent to the historical road that connects Osaka to Tokyo. On this misty, drizzly day the forest looked like this:

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The trees are tall and the place feels ancient, rather like Muir Woods with its redwoods.

Our final stop of the day was another art museum, the Hakone Open Air Museum. It is, fortunately, not entirely outdoors since the weather had not yet started cooperating. It comprises three very modern gallery buildings spread out over a park-like area criscorssed by poaths that connect the buildings and dotted with sculptures by (to our surprise) very famous Western artists: Henry Moore, Brancusi, Giacometti, Modigilani. And one of the gallery buildings was devoted entirely to an impressive Picasso collection, which we were rather surprised to find here.

After walking around all day, however, our personal highlight of the Open Air Museum was an outdoor hot springs foot bath at a temperature of 41C (106F). You pay 100 yen (about $1) for a towel, and you can soak your aching tootsies for as long as you like. Of course, when it is raining — which it was — then your enthusiasm for doing so is somewhat dampened, literally. However, that was not going to stop Alice:

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Dinner this evening was a another artistically-arranged 10-course traditional Japanese meal. (The courses are quite small, so it is not the feat of gluttony that it sounds like.) And afterwards, we were given a lesson in “gift wrapping cloth) by Mariko. As you may know, the Japanese are big on gifts, and the presentation no less than the gift itself is very much a part of the ethos. If you buy something at a department store, they will wrap it for you in such a transcendentally artistic way that your heart breaks when you are forced to open it later. But for many occasions — visiting friends, for example, or possibly even having your tires rotated — mere paper will not do. No, special cloth is used for this purpose, and Mariko gave us each a couple of brightly colored swaths, each about a meter on a side, then showed us how to wrap a gift in it.

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It looks deceptively easy when she does it, as a few of our travel mates will attest:

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“That folds over…no, wait…bring that corner over to…hold it…my shirt is tangled in that corner…no, fold it… wait, I lost my hand…. aaaarrrghhhhhh”

It wasn’t pretty.

And that pretty much wraps up Hakone. Tomorrow we take the bullet train to Kanezawa, where we will stay for a few nights before heading on to Kyoto.

After all this discussion of artistic stuff, I will close this entry with a nonsequiter about toilets. Well, it’s not altogether a nonsequiter, just mostly. One of the common factors binding all of the aesthetics that we witnessed today was a very high degree of the fastidiousness for which the Japanese are justly known. This mindset makes for delicate art but makes the whole issue of, um, elimination somewhat problematic: there is noting fastidious about what you are doing in the bathroom when, say, suffering a bout of digestive upset. So in order to preserve everyone’s delicate sensibilities, many toilets — on the trains, and in our hotel rooms — are equipped with noise machines. While you are proceeding with your unspeakable excretory business you push a button and the machine emits a continuous loud sound — water running, white noise, or the sound of continuous flushing — that prevents the sounds of your personal biology from impinging upon the attention of whoever is in the next room. I have to say that my reaction to this is, “C’mon, people, grow up!” I mean, really.

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New York City is Also Not Japan

…but it is in many respects pretty close to it. We spent a long weekend there celebrating my wife’s birthday, charging from one art museum to the next as though they were going to be outlawed tomorrow. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cooper-Hewitt, MOMA, the Whitney, and more: it was a museum kind of trip, capped off by the Broadway performance of Wicked.

But enough narrative; New York is New York and probably deserves its own planet. Here are my photos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/isaacman/albums/72157668571406892. You can take it from there.

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Madrasahs, Medinas, and Souks, Oh My

I alluded to Steve putting on a performance of his own in the main square last night. You may recall that in addition to the rows of food tents and crowds of vendors, visitors, beggars, and pickpockets, there are also clusters of street performers, mostly musicians but also storytellers. There is also the occasional carnival game. Everyone is competing for the visitors’ dirhams, of course, some more successfully than others, and there is no angle left unexplored; better carry a pocketful of change if you want to take anyone’s picture. Steve, however, raised the stakes considerably by first sussing out a needy-looking band of musicians — these guys below — and then inserting himself into their act.

How? He owns a pair of “poi sticks”, which look like high-tech fluorescent light bulbs. What they actually are is a line of 80 programmable LEDs on a motion-sensitive linear mount. When you wave them they blink in accordance with their programming to display whatever image you have uploaded and thus appear to paint the image in the air itself. Steve had prepared a set of Moroccan-themed images — patterns, desert scenes, swords, and even the Moroccan flag — and promptly quintupled the musicians’ otherwise modest crowd with a New Age light show complete with dance moves. Here he is in action:

As you might infer, Steve is not a shy guy. (His wife Thumper is somewhat more introverted, though in private she has only two settings: “Quiet” and “Will you please calm the #%}&@$+ down?”) We like Steve and Thumper. In any case, if you are really extroverted, love high-tech toys, and have too much disposable income, you can obtain a set of these poi sticks for yourself for only $1200. They’re seriously cool. (No, I am not buying a set.)

Our first stop today was one of Marrakech’s best-known sites, the Majorelle Gardens and Berber Museum. They were designed by French expat painter Jacques Majorelle in the 1920’s and 30’s when Morocco was still a French protectorate. Basically, he was looking to create an oasis in the middle of the city, and succeeded; though it is only a few acres in size, the garden is a serene, manicured little forest of cactus and bamboo, home to something like a dozen species of endemic birds. It hosts a few burbling little fountains as well and it is easy to imagine it as a retreat from the chaotic city beyond the walls.

At one end of the garden is the Berber Museum (no photos allowed, alas), a boxy blue and yellow building (you can see it through the cacti in the lower photo) that houses a small but utterly spectacular collection of Berber jewelry, costumes, and artifacts. The jewelry room alone is worth the trip; it is a dark hexagonal room lined with infinitely reflecting mirrors and topped with a black ceiling dotted with lit stars. It feels like you’re floating in space along with a lot of eye-popping jewelry.

Berber jewelry has a very distinctive style. They do a lot of very fine filigree silver work, and they are big on turquoise and red coral. The color combination makes it look like a cousin of a lot of Native American jewelry from the Southwest, an unexpected correspondence that as I think I have mentioned applies to some of the architecture as well. There is a legend that the American Indians are the lost tribe of Israel; they say that about the Berbers as well. Hmmmm.

Majorelle himself has pretty much lapsed into artistic obscurity, but for two things. First, he invented a particular shade of cobalt now known as “Majorelle Blue”, which is of course the color of the building. And second, he had a big fan in designer Yves St. Laurent, who donated the money to have the grounds restored after they had fallen into disrepair, and whose ashes are scattered in the garden. There is a small monument to him in a contemplative little glade at one corner along the path; there are some benches surrounding a small Greek-style fluted marble column.

After leaving the gardens and museum we plunged back into the medina on foot, this time navigating our way through the metalworking district en route to the Ben Youssef madrasah (about which more below). I have spoken before about the clangor of the medinas and souks, and in this case the word applies literally: the alleys were steeped in deep shadow but filled with metal sounds, clanging and banging and tapping and grinding as the artisans turned out tea sets, belt buckles, candelabras, and — like this fellow below — even escutcheons, huge medieval-style locks that would go perfectly on the cells in your dungeon.

Few of the artisans were as cheerful looking or accomodating as this guy. In fact, none were. Most wore dark expressions of concentration, dark eyes glowering at me from the Stygian depths of narrow unlit workshops if they thought I was about to take their picture. I didn’t dare.

I have mentioned frequently how crowded, narrow, and uneven the alleys of the souks and medinas are. What I may not have made clear is that in addition to these attractions they are dangerous too, and not just because of the pickpockets. They are dangerous because the Bangladesh-level population density notwithstanding, they are still streets, which is to say thoroughfares in constant use by motorized vehicles. You rarely see a car in them — they are too narrow for that — but there are mopeds and bicycles aplenty, often carrying comically oversized and insanely unsafe loads as they barrel through the alleys at whatever speed the thousands of dodging pedestrians permits, which is almost always way too fast. The mopeds in particular are a genuine terror, and it is not at all unusual to be physically brushed by them as they maneuver past you; woe betide the unwary foreign visitor who has either insufficiently catlike reflexes or an inadequately developed precognitive sense of when to take a quick step right or left.

Compared to the mopeds, the bicycles are positively benign. What this means in practice is that you are less severely injured when you get hit. (Morocco has the sixth highest rate of road accidents in the world. My reaction to this is “Only sixth?”)

Two-wheeled terrors or not, we walked through the alleys till we reached the Ben Youssef madrasah, the largest Koranic school in Morocco (though it has not been in use as such since 1960; it is a historical site and museum now).

Ben Youssef dates from the 14th century, though it fell into disuse and was restored about 200 years later by one of the Saadi sultans. (Remember the Saadi tombs from yesterday?) As madrasahs go — they’re usually a couple of rooms — this one is vast, with 130 claustrophobic student dorm rooms about the size of a half-decent walk-in closet and overlooking an ornately carved courtyard. The carvings are marble and stucco, and the ceilings of the larger rooms (not the dorms, of course) are cedar.

One of the most common carving motifs is Arabic calligraphy, seen on the photo below. It is essentially identical to what you will find in Andalusian Arabic architecture elsewhere, notably in the Alhambra in Spain. Arabic sculptors make the most of their repertoire of geometric patterns and letters; Islam does not allow the depiction of human or animal forms, so you will never see a carving or sculpture of a person. (They do get away with cheating a little when it comes to animals, though: you will occasionally see a stylized peacock’s tail, though not the bird’s head.)

Alice looks out over the courtyard from a room that she would not have been allowed to enter in the 14th century.

This pretty much winds up our stay in Marrakech — in the nick of time, since Alice just returned from the souk with another couple of hundred dollars worth of jewelry — and we move on tomorrow to the coastal resort town of Essaouira, our final stop before coming home. We’re not all going to Essaouira, though: the 10-person “Michie’s Camel Ride” ensemble is returning home tmorrow, leaving just the six of us who were on the first leg of the trip back in late September. We are also losing Momo, our trusty and genial tour lead, and we will have a different shepherd for this final stop. So tonight will be a farewell dinner for the group as a whole, before we fold our respective tents and the caravan moves on.

 

 

 

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Come with Me to the Casbah (Again)

As we suspected, our Rabat city tour today included a return to the Oudaya, i.e. the casbah whose Andalusian gardens we visited on our own yesterday. No matter. But before I get into all that I wanted to post a couple of photos from last night. The shipboard restaurant — appropriately enough called Le Dhow — is permanently moored on the Bor Regreb river that runs through Rabat, and although we did not see a large amount of boat traffic (despite the fleet of blue fishing boats that we never saw move) there is nonetheless a lot of activity on and in the river. People swim, people dive (for what?), people kite surf. And along the banks, people stroll, sell stuff, hang around, and — if you’re about 5 years old — drive around in little tiny electric cars:

Does this look like fun, or what?

And here is the restaurant itself, a few hours later:

Le restaurant s’appelle Le Dhow

Which brings us back to this morning. Our first stop was the Royal Palace. Now, I have already told you that many cities host Royal palaces should King Mohammed VI decide to drop by. But Rabat, being the actual capital, is home to the Royal Royal Palace, a sprawling 100 acre compound that, oddly, is accessible to foreign tourists but not to native Moroccans. Once through the gate, our bus heads down a long straight road flanked mostly by broad manicured expanses of grass; the are several buildings in the compound but they spread far apart from one another, giving the whole area the look of a particular nice suburban tract that is still waiting for some upscale real estate developer to build either a shopping mall or townhouses.

The palace itself looks like nothing so much as an exceptionally large community recreation center, so unremarkable in architecture that I never even tried to take a photo or panorama of it. So for your edification I stole one from Google Images instead. Here is the Royal Community Recreat Palace:

The Senior Center is around the back.

As you might be able to tell from the image, the only interesting part is the main doorway, which is tiled in a colorful pattern. It is also guarded by a number of impressively-uniformed people with guns, and we were only allowed to approach within about 100 feet or so.  The guards are drawn from all branches of the military, everyone wanting a piece of the prestigious action, and so the groups of guards look like this:

If they’re called uniforms, why are they all different?

Interestingly, this is the only place in the country where one is allowed to photograph soldiers and policemen, so I took advantage of that permission via telephoto. The guy on the right in the white pajamas and red belt is an actual palace guard, separate from any of the service branches.

And that was it, as far as the Royal Palace went. We were not allowed inside any of the buildings, so the drive past the huge lawns, and a view of the front door from 100 feet away, was the extent of our experience. It was a little unsatisfying, a case of palace interruptus. (Honesty and a fear of people bigger than myself compel me to confess that Steve gave me that one.)

Our next stop was an ancient Roman necropolis dating from about the 4th century BC. It has been variously rep riposted and updated over the centuries and from the outside looks much like the casbah itself, a sandstone-colored walled city. Two panhandling musicians greeted us at the entrance. You can see one here. He was a drummer.

Once inside the walls, the grounds themselves are ruins, mostly collapsed walls and columns. Many are tagged and the is some kind of surveying operation going on, perhaps a prelude to some reconstruction. One of the more unusual features is a dark, shallow pool, lined with granite blocks, to which antiquity has ascribed restorative properties. In particular, it is supposed to restore fecundity to women who are having trouble conceiving; and to add a big, heaping dose of Freudian symbolism to this particular juju, there are a number of eels swimming in it.

Up until today our tour lead Momo has been dressed in Western garb, usually a casual short sleeve shirt and slacks. He went native today, however, wearing a djellaba that, somehow, seems to suit him better. So here he is at the necropolis:

 

Our next stop is known as the Unfinished Mosque, because it is, well, unfinished. A 140′ sandstone tower (half its intended height), the mosque was begun in the late 12th century by Sultan Yacub al-Mansour and was intended to be the biggest, best, etc., etc. But he died in 1199, and the succeeding powers have up on the project. It sits today at one end of an enormous square, hundreds of yards on a side, filled with a grid of half-ruined columns ranging up to about 15′ in height, as though they are all paying observance to the tower. 

Now at this point in the narrative, those of you who have been following this blog for a few years might observe, “Hey Rich and Alice, you’re always complaining that whenever you travel somewhere the historical structures are covered in scaffolding! But that hasn’t happened on this trip!” Yeah, about that. Guess which 140′ ancient World Heritage structure was covered in scaffolding?

Fortunately, a beautiful structure that was not covered in scaffolding sat at the other end of the square, namely the tomb of King Mohammed V, grandfather of the current king. Here are some shots showing the exterior and interior of the tomb, as well as one of the colorful guards.

Look Ma, no scaffolding!

 

We are not amused.

Our penultimate stop of the day was the Oudaya casbah, where as I already wrote about the four of us had spent a pleasant afternoon yesterday. Now part of the larger group, covered a lot less ground today than the four of us did yesterday, so I have not got much to add. Here, then, are a few photos of the place.

Exterior courtyard, with kids playing soccer


Some local ladies enjoying the Andalusian garden

 

Making bread in dark and cramped quarters on a side street

I mentioned yesterday that there was a large cemetery adjacent to the casbah, on a hillside overlooking the river. Turns out that it’s a pretty exclusive place: you have to be rich and/or powerful to be buried there, in addition to being dead. The burial custom is that the corpse is interred laying on his/her right side, facing Mecca. Here is a small section of the cemetery.

Merely being dead will not get you in here.

We ended the afternoon at the Mohammed VI Museum of Modern Art. This was quite the departure from just about everything else we’ve seen, being as contemporary as can be. A lot of the art here would be right at home in MOMA in New York City, or in Baltimore’s Visionary Art Museum. And a lot of it would be right at home in a landfill, too. But the building was modern and airy, all glass and steel and open space, with an Isalmic ambience:

And here is a modern wife in silhouette on the main staircase:

We didn’t last terribly long there, but the museum was only two blocks from our hotel so it was an easy walk back. Dinner this evening was at a local traditional Moroccan restaurant called Dar Rbatia (that is not a typo) in the heart of the souk. We had to navigate through a crush of humanity this time, not just crowded streets but packed ones, complete with chanting, blaring music, and a generous supply of pickpockets. It was straight out of a movie, hard to capture in still photos. But I shot a few minutes of video as we pushed throug the street, camera held over my head and drawing a fair number if remonstrances from some of the people; Moroccans do not like having their picture taken. It was quite the experience, and I will post the video after we return home. And dinner was outstanding, with about four traditional courses. If you’re ever in Rabat, go there. 

The drive back to the hotel was interrupted by some excitement, as we encountered the tail end of a wedding party out on the street, complete with bedecked bride and groom. The bride was feeling expansive and invited us to come and take pictures, but the rather less gregarious groom had other ideas. So, no pictures. Can this marriage be saved?

Tomorrow we move on to Fez, stopping en route to see the a roman ruins of Volubilis…and also to meet Momo’s wife!

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Venice Day 2: Doge Day Afternoon

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The fearsome, delicious mantis shrimp

Well, we did not have a gondola ride last night after all. We were exhausted, and simply walked down to the waterfront (less than a block from our flat) and had a typically excellent Italian dinner at a seafood restaurant aptly called Pesado. I had — wait for it — mantis shrimp with pumpkin flowers over pasta. Mantis shrimp? You mean you’ve never heard of the deadly mantis shrimp? Well, I will have you know that if you are a small sea creature then the mantis shrimp is one of the meanest badasses around. About the size of a large crayfish, it sits and waits until you are within striking distance, then lashes out a barbed claw at a speed of 50 mph (23 m/s), accelerating at 100,000 g’s (!) to turn you into a kebab. I am not making this up.

Aren’t you glad you asked?

Anyway, given our state of exhaustion, the terrifying but tasty mantis shrimp was an entirely adequate substitute for a nighttime gondola ride (which we will try for again tomorrow), and so we spent our last remaining dregs of get-up-and-go walking along the edge of the Grand Canal taking some nighttime photos, e.g.:

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Venice is beautiful at any time of day and in any weather, which is fortunate since today’s weather was on the chilly, gloomy side with an occasional very light drizzle. But before I relate today’s events, I would first like to regale you with two pieces of Italian trivia:

  • 13 is not an unlucky number here, but 17 is. Alitalia has no 17th row on their airplanes, and people get all hinky because today is Friday the 17th. I have no idea why this is so. (No one really knows either why Friday the 13th is considered unlucky elsewhere; the superstition is only about 150 years old and contrary to popular wisdom has nothing to do with the Apostles.)
  • Gondolas are not symmetric. Alice pointed this out to me, and it is very definitely true. The gondolier’s oarlock is of course at the rear and is always on the starboard side. Since he is always rowing on the right, in order to help keep the boat moving in a straight line instead of a wide counterclockwise circle the starboard side of the hull is flatter than the port side. That is, if you look at a gondola from above then it looks a bit like a backwards “D”. Who knew?

Now that you can win a couple of bar bets with the above information, let us carry on. Jet lag having had its way with us, we slept in this morning and then set out to a couple of small local stores to buy breakfast stuff (cheese, eggs, bread, etc.), returning to the flat for a meal before setting out on the day’s peregrinations, which turned out to be seven straight hours of walking.

Our first destination was back to St Mark’s square which, today being Friday, was significantly more crowded than yesterday. (I can only imagine what a Saturday in July looks like; an ant colony perhaps.) It’s kind of obligatory to see St Mark’s Basilica, and the line to get in moves very quickly, so we checked off this particular obligatory item pretty quickly. I suppose this sounds insufficiently respectful; the basilica is of course huge, famous, decorated with enormous elaborate paintings of the saints who appear to be covered with gold leaf, and so on. For me (whose appetite for pre-Renaissance religious art gets sated very quickly), the most interesting part was the architecture: the domes are ornate and elaborate, and the marble colonnades intriguingly complex, with every column seemingly made of a different type of marble.

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St. Mark’s Basilica. It is very Catholic.

Our next stop, immediately adjacent to the basilica, was the Doge Palace. The Doge, as you may know, was the chief honcho of Venice, the office having been created in about 700 AD and lasting for a mere thousand years. It was an elected position although for a period of a few hundreds the practice was to allow the Doge to name his successor, which in practice made it largely hereditary. In 1172 everybody had had about enough of that, and the position became determined by a council of 40 elders, rather analogous to the College of Cardinals. (Fifty years later the number was increased to 41 because of a deadlocked election.)

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Hercules at the Bat.

Anyway, the Doge was highly influential, even powerful, but under a number of constraints. He could not, for example, conduct official business without having a member of the council present; he couldn’t even open official mail in private. (Hillary Clinton, are you reading this?) But he was still a big deal. When granted an audience with him, the honored visitor was required to climb a specially reserved staircase — the Giant’s Stairs — to meet him. He would never descend those stairs to meet you; even the Pope had to climb them. The stairs are named for the two “giants” at their apex: Hercules and Atlas. Atlas is of course shown shouldering a globe in the traditional fashion. Hercules, however, is depicted clubbing the Hydra to death, apparently with a Louisville Slugger baseball bat as you can see in the photo. (It is not widely known that Hercules batted right, but threw left-handed. He hit .522 in his best season with the Delphi Deities but was eventually traded to Thessalonika.)

The Doge Palace is enormous and ornate in a fashion that Versailles would echo centuries later. Every room that we visited was limned in gold, the walls and ceilings virtually tesselated with the great artists of the era, notably Tintoretto. This will give you the idea:

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And that’s just the laundry room. (Not really.) But there is room after room much like it.

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Don’t cross this bridge when you come to it.

The palace is connected directly to the adjacent prison (convenient!), the connection being the famous Bridge of Sighs that you see here. Legend has it that the bridge gets its name from the sighs that the prisoners would breathe as they crossed the bridge and beheld the beauty of Venice for the last time before being incarcerated. I am skeptical of this. It’s easy enough to believe the sighing part, but personally if I were being marched off in shackles to a 13th century prison cell then no longer having a nice view would be the least of my worries.

Because of this historical association with the Doge Palace, the Bridge of Sighs is considered one of the go-to sights of Venice despite being architecturally less interesting than many of the other bridges throughout the city (and there are many, crisscrossing the spaghetti network of small canals).  But having toured the palace, we did in fact cross the bridge. No, we didn’t sigh. But if any of the prisoners who crossed didn’t either, they probably did by the time they got to their cells, which we also saw, and which I can pretty much guarantee would have gotten zero stars on TripAdvisor had it existed at the time.

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Worst. B&B. Ever.

As it happens, in one section of the palace there was a temporary exhibit of Henri Rosseau’s art, for me at least a welcome change from endless gold-leafed crucifixion scenes. We spent a relatively idyllic hour or two looking at Rousseau’s paintings, very cleverly and informatively displayed alongside his contemporary artists whom he influenced. (These included even Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.)

But when you’re in Venice, you are never very far from a crucifixion scene, and my pastoral neo-impressionistic relief was short-lived. After leaving the palace, we walked across town to the Accademia Museum, a particular goal of Alice because of its large and impressive collection of Tintorettos, Bellinis, Carpaccios, and Mozzarellas. (I’m not sure about that last one.)  By this time we had been walking for over five hours, and while I will be the first to admit that it was a very impressive collection — in some cases due to the sheer wall-sized immensity of some of the works — and that Alice very greatly enjoyed it, I was by this time pretty much crucifixion-ed and Madonna-ed out. Oh, and also St. Mark-saturated. As you may have already inferred, San Marco is pretty much the iconic figure of Venice in much the same way that Ben Franklin is the local deity of Philadelphia. We admired many paintings of Mark the Evangelist being martyred by the Alexandrians by being dragged through the streets for being a tad too evangelical.

After an hour and a half of this I reminded Alice of the wise words spoken by our almost-three-year-old grandson after an hour and a half at the National Aquarium: “I’ve seen enough fish now.” So I’m a Philistine. Sue me.

We walked back across town to our flat, by which time we estimated that we had hoofed roughly ten miles over the course of the day. Venice is a very walkable city, but you will walk a lot. It is a maze of medieval alleys barely as wide as your outstretched arms, a spiderweb of crisscrossing tiny streets and canals, and it is no coincidence that the first question one of my friends asked me after our first day here was, “Did you get lost yet?” But we didn’t, and I will tell you how. Download the wonderful app called “City Maps 2 Go”, which loads up your phone with a very highly detailed offline map of whatever city you want. It doesn’t need a cell or wifi connection to operate, just a GPS signal, and it guided us through the 10th-century street warren without a hitch. Highly recommended!

We went out for another late dinner on the Grand Canal — salmon gnocchi for me, seafood soup for Alice, both excellent. Which was a fine way to end the day, as well as this blog entry.

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