Posts Tagged With: bridge

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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Under the Not-Altogether-Tuscan Sun

…Which is to say, that though we are not technically in Tuscany (yet; we are still in the region called Veneto), the “look and feel” of this part of Italy comports quite perfectly with your mental image of sun-drenched hillside vineyards and rustic farmhouses. (Please note that, as in Greece and similar Mediterranean tourist destinations, “sun-drenched” is the officially-approved adjective and must be used at least once every three days in all missives back home. I have now fulfilled my quota.)

Anyway, our particular farmhouse was a lovely two-story structure with two bedrooms and a comfortable modern kitchen and living room area, accessible by a tortuous narrow (and unlit) road, and situated on a you-know-what-drenched hillside full of vineyards adjacent to a stereotypically charming village. And here are the pictures to prove it:

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This was essentially an overnight way station en route to our next “real” destination, which were the towns of Asolo and Bassano del Grappa. (Pay attention to the “del Grappa” part of the name; it’ll become important later.) Both are medieval towns – they’re all medieval towns around here – of about 50,000 people. Asolo is known primarily for having been the site of a gruesome World War I battle. It is all steep cobblestone streets and narrow alleys, like this:

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I should mention that while I was taking the picture of the bicycle I was observed with great interest, and then engaged, by an elderly local gentlemen, spectacularly drunk and straight out of Central Casting with the largest, most mottled cauliflower nose I have ever seen, about one-third the size of an actual cauliflower. He commented at cheerful length in heavily slurred and fully incomprehensible Italian, nearly incapacitating first me and then Alice with breath that, were an open flame to have passed nearby, would have incinerated us all.

The town is dominated by a tall bell tower and by a castle built as a sort of a consolation prize to house the reluctant bride of a local nobleman.  You can enter the grounds and ramparts of the castle (via a steep cobblestone path, of course) to get an excellent view of the town and surrounding hills, including of course the bell tower, as you can see.

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We spent the morning and early afternoon in Asolo before moving on to Bassano del Grappo, which in overall appearance is pretty similar, right down to the alleys:

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Bassano, however, has two claims to fame, one being this attractive covered bridge that was built in 1569, repeatedly destroyed by fire, and rebuilt most recently about 50 years ago.

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We walked across the bridge, of course. But the part of its history of which Bassano is most proud – and probably makes the most money off of – is the “del Grappa” part, which is to say that Bassano, in particular via the efforts of the highly venerated Poli family, is for practical purposes the birthplace of grappa. Grappa, if you are not familiar with it, is the highly potent, multiple-distilled product of, essentially, the dregs of the winemaking process. It is cheap, flavorful, and highly toxic to carbon-based life forms. Some people love it. Some people are crazy.

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Do not drink.


Now, needless to say, the city fathers of Bassano would like to encourage you to consume their home-grown claim to fame, and so the Poli Grappa Museum gives you the opportunity to do so responsibly, if somewhat surrealistically. The museum displays a variety of archaic distillery apparatuses, tangled collections of flasks and retorts that would be right at home in any mad scientist’s lab. The culmination of the self-guided tour (immediately prior to the gift shop, of course) is a sampling gallery. But they are smart enough not to let you actually drink the stuff, which would be catastrophic. No, they let you smell it.

Huh? You enter a room lined with what appears to be about 20 coffee urns, each representing a flavor of grappa. You push a button on the counter in front of the “urn”, and it blasts a mist of some kind of synthesized ersatz grappa with exactly the correct smell and (sort of) taste into your face. See Alice imbibing the aerosol below:

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The world’s only olfactory hangover


At that point, if you’re anything like me, you react exactly as you would to a real swig of grappa, which is to say your olfactory system seizes up as your entire body briefly convulses.  Jim managed to give himself a zinger of a headache by performing this exercise once too often. This may be the single most bizarre interactive display I have ever experienced. It was a fitting end to our brief stay in Basanno. You have been warned.

We continued on to our destination of the next four days: Vicenza, about an hour’s drive further. Vicenza is a somewhat larger town of about 100,000, somewhat spread out with actual suburbs but enjoying an old walled city in the center, the nexus of its cultural heritage. Our plan is to use it as a base of operation for the next four days, visiting some of the surrounding towns like Padua and Verona. Our B&B – a quite spectacular one that I will describe at length in my next post – is located on a hillside outside of town. We arrived around 7:00 PM, settled in for an hour or two, then struck out to find some dinner.

We had passed a couple of reasonable-looking trattorias not far from the B&B, but decided that we would take the opportunity to find something a little more interesting in the downtown area, near the walled city. This turned out to be an impressively poor plan, as the narrow, poorly-lit streets were nearly deserted and most of the restaurants closed. We wandered and wandered, the hour grew later and later, and we got more and more lost, finally giving up altogether and deciding to return from whence we came and settle for one of the local trattorias after all. This proved to be far easier said than done, because:

  • The streets were not only narrow, dark, and deserted, but there was virtually no signage;
  • Our GPS was blissfully unaware of things like pedestrian streets where traffic was not allowed;
  • Our GPS does not speak Italian and thus mangled the often-lengthy street names as though they were being read by a female version of George W. Bush; and
  • The narrow streets often caused the GPS to lose lock and thus become as confused as we ourselves were.

The upshot was that we followed an essentially random trajectory through the seamiest, Fellini-esque back alleys of nighttime Vicenza. Our GPS gamely struggled to keep up, occasionally emerging from its electronic ataxia (“Recalculating route!”) to attempt to tell us in Bizarro Italian that in 100 feet we should turn left at Viata Santo Ciccianizolo Aleghieri Cruce del Roseannadanna, as we all went “Wha….?” and cruised past the intersection, which didn’t have a street sign to check and was one-way the wrong way anyway.

By 10:30 PM, primarily through Alice’s heroic navigation efforts,we somehow stumbled back into our original B&B neighborhood and walked sheepishly into the very first trattoria we had seen hours before, which was thankfully still open, and where (I am happy to say) we had an excellent and very inexpensive meal. Which just goes to show…something, I guess.

Tomorrow: a description of our jaw-dropping lodgings, and our first full day in Vicenza. (The walled city by daylight!)

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Venice Day 3: Water from the Sky as Well as in the Canals

As you can tell by the title, today was not a good weather today: cold and rainy, and thus ideal for museum visits. My only requirement: no crucifixions.

It occurs to me that I have been slightly remiss in not showing a photo of the famous Rialto Bridge, right down the street from our flat. This was in part because you really need to be in the middle of the Grand Canal to get a good view of it, a problem that I solved today by positioning myself appropriately on the vaporetto. The other reason is that it happens to be half-covered in scaffolding due to some restoration work. So here is how it looked a few hours ago:



Alice and I have a long history of visiting world-famous structures that are covered with scaffolding. These include the Parthenon, the Doge Palace, and now the Rialto Bridge. Everyone should be grateful to us for our contributions to preserving our world heritage: as soon as we pick a travel destination, the local authorities somehow get wind of it and say, “Quick! Rich and Alice are coming to visit! Time to start the restoration work!”

Anyway, today’s weather was not at all conducive to walking anywhere, so we bought a 3-day vaporetto pass and picked a few likely indoor attractions that we could easily reach on the water. The first of these was the Palazzo Mocenigo, known for its collection of fabrics, period costumes, and history of perfume-making. It had what were for us the additional virtues of being free (we bought city museum passes yesterday), and having no paintings of saints being hideously martyred.  The presentation was unusual and intriguing, the costumes being displayed on mannequins in slightly surrealistic 18th century settings, e.g.:




Venice3-6Turns out that until the city started its long decline in the 18th century, Venice was the go-to place for perfumes. A lot of what we might call “perfume technology” was developed there, and it dominated the industry until the city’s cultural and economic influence began to wane and the French pretty much took over. Here’s a 17th century perfume laboratory, as well as a 21st century Alice sampling one of a couple dozen elemental fragrances (jasmine, oak moss, orange blossom, etc.) that they have out for sampling.


Eye of newt, toe of frog…does that smell good? No? Try adding some lavender.

Our next stop was an unexpected treat, a temporary Leonardo da Vinci exhibit whose existence we were not even aware of until serendipitously seeing an ad for it (in a church, of course) yesterday. The floor space of the church was basically filled with constructions of some of Leonardo’s inventions, reconstructed from the various codices, plus explanations of some of the artistic techniques that he developed and worked with.

Venice3-9Da Vinci was quite the anatomist, as you may realize from his famous sketches of the Vitruvian Man. (The gift shop included a teeshirt of Vitruvian Homer Simpson.) He came by his knowledge via the most direct hands-on experience: dissecting corpses. In fact, among his countless achievements was comparing the hearts of a newly-deceased centenarian with that of a child and both discovering and inferring the significance of the plaque in the coronary arteries. Yep, Leonardo da Vinci discovered arteriosclerosis. The guy was beyond genius; you could make a pretty good case that he was the smartest human being ever to walk the planet.

Our final stop was the Ca’ Rezzonico, the museum of 18th century life in Venice. Or more accurately, the museum of 18th century life of very rich people in Venice. Merchants, tradesmen, the 99%…not so much. This modest abode boasts a 5,000 square foot ballroom, Murano glass chandeliers, and a ceiling fresco commemorating the marriage of one of the Rezzonico boys commissioned for the wedding. Kinda puts to shame the old baby-pictures-of-the-happy-couple-stapled-to-posterboard-on-an-easel, doesn’t it? Anyway, the Rezzonicos were sort of the Mitt Romneys of their day and the house is basically the documentation of their lavish lifestyle. The chandeliers alone (detail in photo below) pretty much set the tone of the place.


They’ve got lots of these.

There is, however, a fair bit of interesting art including some creepily lifelike miniature Asian statuary, like this guy, about 16″ tall:


That pretty much sums up the day….relatively modest for us. But before I close I’d like to make what we might call a “meta-blog entry”. Since I’ve started blogging our travels instead of simply emailing my daily journal to friends and family I have made contact with a number of other travel bloggers who have some excellent insights of their own and whose own blogs have provided some interesting sources of information for me. I learned about yesterday’s “17 is bad luck” factoid from, which is a very nice blog about Italian tourism. And I have become “virtual friends” with the author of the “Are We There Yet?” travel blog: Fabrizio is an Italian expat living in London who travels extensively and writes lyrical, insightful prose about his various destinations, and includes his very good photos as well. Definitely worth reading.

Off to brave the weather for dinner. We will hope for better weather tomorrow.





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Venice: The Incredible S(hr)inking City

You may have read on occasion that Venice is slowly sinking — more about that shortly — but may not have been aware that it is shrinking dramatically in population as well. As recently as 1952 the official population of the lagoon city was over 200,000; today it is roughly 50,000. It has shrunk by 9% in the past 15 years alone, and the fear is that soon it won’t be a “real” city at all, with actual residents, but rather solely a tourist enclave populated entirely by tourists, gondoliers, restaurant owners, and souvenir vendors. In other words, it may become the Colonial Williamsburg of the Adriatic.

But at that, it would still be pretty charming: Venice is one of those places whose appearance comports very nicely with your mental image of it. Which is to say, that it looks like this:


Venice, appearing as advertised



Venice-7Despite the charm, it’s pretty clear that the city is in decline, struggling to maintain its physical infrastructure.  Venice the city-state reached the peak of its influence quite some time ago — the Venetians basically dominated the Western world from about 900 AD to 1300 AD — but, well, what have they done for us lately? At least a bit of this decline is a consequence of the aforementioned sinking, whose signs are everywhere. Basically, the water is lapping at the front door of every canal-side structure, and the “ground” floors of many dwellings are unusable as a result, as you can see here.

So when will you need scuba gear to tour Venice? It depends on who you ask. The “official” rate at which the water is said to be encroaching is roughly 2 mm per year, but those self-same officials ascribe that number mostly to the rise in sea level of the Adriatic rather than the city actually sinking. (The Republican Party may not believe in global warming, but the Venetians, Dutch, Seychellians, and other low-lying peoples know better. And if you, gentle blog reader, also disbelieve it, then you are a willfully ignorant idiot and can stop reading now, pausing only to leave some stupid comment that I will delete.)

Where was I? Ah, lapping canals, yes. The official line is that, sea level rise notwithstanding, Venice used to be sinking on its own but isn’t any more. This may actually be true. Venice used to be studded with many artesian wells whose effect on the water table was exactly what you’d expect, and as the underground water was drawn off the city subsided to fill the gap. For that very reason artesian well drilling was halted about 25 years ago, and the subsidence has supposedly stopped as a result.

Maybe. A recent study by a geology group at Stanford claims that the city is in fact still sinking, at a rate of 8 mm per year. That is a lot: a foot every 40 years or so. The city fathers of Venice do not like this number, and there is quite the roiling controversy as to whether the study is correct.

Be that as it may, we will only be in Venice for 5 days, meaning that even if the Stanford study is correct the water will gain only about 0.1 mm on us, which is roughly twice the width of a human hair. And since we are staying in a third-floor apartment, our electronic equipment is probably safe.

We landed at Marco Polo airport at about 8:30 AM today (local time) and took the vaporetto (“water bus”) from the airport to the famous Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal, from which we could walk to our apartment. It’s a third-floor walkup that we found through AirBnB, nicely appointed and well-situated maybe a 75 yards from the canal. Although its entrance is an obscure doorway in a tiny grey stone medieval alley, the flat itself is modern and comfortable: 3 bedrooms (though we only need to for ourselves and our traveling companions Jim and Elaine); 1 1/2 baths, a small living room with TV, and a large well-equipped kitchen and breakfast area.


The maid was cleaning the place when we arrived at about 10:45 AM, so we dumped our luggage in the living room and set off to explore the city for a few hours before exhaustion and jet lag felled us altogether. As it happens the particular part of the Grand Canal that our street abuts is the home of a large outdoor produce and fish market, which made for  some pleasant wandering. The fish offerings in particular were plentiful and diverse, showcasing a number of creatures that we have seen rarely or not at all, including (a) gigantic black-and-white mottled and blobby-looking cuttlefish about the size of bed pillows; (b) buckets of whelks in their shells; and (c) a variety of unfamiliar crustaceans.

Some further wandering revealed that there are essentially three kind of souvenir vendors in Venice, found in about equal numbers. The sketchiest of these are the African guys who operate off a blanket thrown down just about anywhere on the street. They are everywhere, and they clearly all get their inventory from the same place, because they always all sell the same thing. (I have noticed this in previous trips to Italy and in Paris as well.) The “thing” that they sell is whatever happens to be the fad this year, which in April of 2015 happens to be selfie sticks for about 5 bucks each. Every last one of them was selling selfie sticks, and God knows the market was there because a lot of tourists — especially the Asians — were using them. Despite the availability of ready customers, the vendors were not at all shy at coming up to me and offering to sell me one as well…as I stood there holding my SLR with its soup-can-sized lens. Really? Does this camera look like you could attach it to a selfie stick and hold it at arms length?

The next-least-sleazy species of souvenir vendor is your garden-variety storefront selling plastic gondolas, teeshirts, snow globes…all the traditional tchotchkes. There are approximately one billion of these stores in Venice, and their density increases exponentially with proximity to a major tourist attraction such as Saint Marks’s Square. (Indeed, there are now so many selfie-stick-sellers and teeshirt vendors in Saint Mark’s Square that the famous pigeons have apparently been squeezed out; there were surprisingly few there.)

Venice-5Venice-6And finally we have the actual cool souvenir stores: the mask vendors. Venice is famous for its masks, as you may now, ansd there are many stores selling many beautiful ones. Some are whimsical, some grotesque, and many would be right at home in a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. The nice ones of course are handmade, often out of papier mache, and one patient owner let us watch her for a while. You can see her at work and one of her simpler creations in these two photos.

We spent the rest of the afternoon variously walking our feet off our getting around on the vaporettos. (Question to my Italian friends: is the plural “vaporetti”?)

Perhaps it would be helpful to clarify the type of water traffic on the canals. The Grand Canal is positively choked with boat traffic which, remarkably, seems to manage itself quite handily with few or no collisions and not even any obvious near-misses. Anyway, a quick glance at the canal immediately reveals:

  • Vaporettos, i.e., water buses that hold perhaps 40 people.
  • Water taxis, which are much smaller and more expensive teak-paneled speedboats that hold perhaps 4 passengers
  • Utility boats delivering supplies and construction, dredging, and other equipment from one point to another
  • …and of course hundreds of gondolas, mostly filled with clueless seniors like us or Japanese schoolgirls with selfie sticks

…which pretty much sums up our day so far. The weather today was beautiful — sunny and in the 60s — but is supposed to turn sour tomorrow. So we are considering going out tonight for an obligatory gondola ride, which should be especially nice at night. Perhaps I will buy a selfie stick.

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