Posts Tagged With: food

Reykjavik: In Search of Icelanders

We arrived in Reykjavik at about 6 AM local time this morning, some 14 hours ago. Since we have attacked the city with our usual touristic compulsion, accompanied by our equally immoderate traveling companions Janet and Tim, I am more or less exhausted and so will for the most part let some photos do the talking. So let’s start with a panorama of Reykjavik Harbor, taken from the tallest point in the city: the spire of Hallsgrimkirkja (which I will explain in a moment):

The city looks more or less to the north across the harbor, and a couple of things stand out as you view it from either street level or from above: (1) the city has a very clean, orderly feel; and (2) the predominant architectural style is Primary Colored Boxes, a very Scandinavian look that might have resulted from the Norse gods having purchased the city in its entirety from Ikea. (It would have had some typical Ikea name like Whølecitii and the assembly instructions would have been 163,000 pages long.) It has a very walkable and compact downtown area; most of the major landmarks and attractions fall within an area about a mile on a side. The dramatic clouds that you see in the photo are pretty typical.

The Hallsgrimkirkja is probably the single most publicized and photographed building in Iceland, a 75 m (244 ft) church named after  Hallgrímur Pétursson, a 17th century Icelandic poet and clergyman. It shows up in every tourist ad and every postcard. You have very likely seen a photo of it at some point. Here it is:

The statue in the front is Leif Erickson, presented to Iceland as a gift from the United States in 1930 to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament. Dating from AD 930, the Althing is the oldest parliamentary body in the world, originally presided over by Strom Thurmond. (That last phrase is actually a pretty good joke that only Americans over the age of about 55 will understand. Everyone else, just move on.)

As I mentioned, you have probably seen this picture before…. except that when you saw it, the building looked very white. For some reason, the Icelandic tourism authorities feel compelled to present this church as being heavenly white in color, and that is how it appears in most “official” photos after suitable lighting adjustments and resorting to Photoshop. But it isn’t white: it’s gray, just as you see here. Maybe on a sunny day it would like more iconic.

The interior of the Hallsgrimkirkja is every bit as striking and stark as the exterior. Here is the main sanctuary:

It is white, or nearly so, and very imposing, albeit in a spartan Mormon-Temple-Also-Bought-From-Ikea sort of way. At the back of the hall is a glorious and impressive 5700-pipe organ.

Before moving on I would first like to confirm two of the predictions that I made in my pre-trip blog post about a week ago. First, Reykjavik appears not to contain any actual Icelanders outside of store and restaurant employees. (And not even all of them: the rental agent who gave us our car was Lithuanian.) Pretty much everyone on the street is a tourist, Americans seemingly the most numerous.

Second, the locals love hot dogs, in case you thought I was kidding last time. We counted 5 hot dog stands in a two block stretch downtown. The most famous of all — supposedly the lines can be an hour long in the summer — is an unprepossessing kiosk dating from 1937, called Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. (No, I do not know what the translation is.) And by “unprepossessing”, here is what I mean:

That’s it. Happily there was almost no line. The menu consists of exactly two items: hot dogs, and Coca Cola. There are five possible things you can get on your hot dog: mayo, mustard, ketchup, raw onion, or fried onions. Oh, and the Coke can be diet. That’s it. So we did our touristy duty and each had a hot dog and a Coke because really, what else was there to do. Here are Janet and Tim, snapping under the pressure.

In all fairness, I will grant that they were pretty good hot dogs. They were reasonably priced, and a lot less exotic (or at least thought-provoking) then some of the other local restaurant fare. We were looking for places for dinner later in the day and came across a well-reviewed steak restaurant near our flat. It seemed pretty straightforward: the name of the place was “The Steak Restaurant”. Reading the menu in the front window, an entree called “Surf and Turf” caught my eye. Reading one line further down revealed that the “surf” was minke whale and the “turf” was horse. We went elsewhere and got fish and chips for dinner. The fish was cod. All the fish here is cod, except for the halibut and Arctic char. (And whale, which isn’t a fish.)

Anyway, having fueled up on hot dogs to counteract our jet lag, we were ready to tackle some of the major city attractions. Besides the Hallsgrimkirkja, the next most prominent structure in the city is the much more contemporary performing arts house, the Harpa, which is essential the local equivalent of the Sydney Opera House. It is an exceptionally striking edifice, all prismatic glass that creates stunning interior and exterior views, e.g.:

(The bottom image is on the inside, looking upwards and outwards from the atrium.)

The Harpa sits right at the water’s edge, which prompted Janet to relate an anecdote that she had read in a book about how Icelanders view tourism. The complaint from at least one of the locals was, “Why do tourists keep building stupid piles of rocks?” we weren’t sure what that mean until we noticed the beach next to the Harpa, which looks like this:

Apparently these were erected by tourists rather than trolls. (Icelanders love trolls. You see stuffed trolls, troll toys, and books about trolls in pretty much every store. These are apparently not the kind that live under bridges and eat billy goats. Nor do they build pointless piles of rocks.)

A few hundred meters up the road from the Harpa is another of Reykjavik’s signature landmarks: the Sun Voyager sculpture:

It dates from 1990, created by the Icelandic sculptor Jón Gunnar Árnason. It is 18 m (60′) long and about half that in height. If you are like every human being on Earth other than Jón Gunnar Árnason (who is now dead and thus not on Earth in the usual sense) you take one look at this thing and say “Viking ship.” I mean, it’s pretty obviously a Viking ship, right? But apparently not. According to Wikipedia:

“It is a common misunderstanding that Sun Voyager is a Viking ship. It is quite understandable that many tourists think like this when travelling in Iceland, the land of the sagas. Jón Gunnar was himself very ill with leukaemia at the time that the full-scale Sun Voyager came to be constructed, and he died in April 1989, a year before it was placed in its present location. Some people have thus suggested that Jón Gunnar conceived the work during this period, at a time when he might have been preoccupied with death, and argued that Sun Voyager should be seen as a vessel that transports souls to the realm of death. Sun Voyager was essentially envisaged as being a dreamboat, an ode to the sun symbolizing light and hope.”

You will note from a careful reading, however, this is all third-party interpretation: it appears that no one ever thought to ask Jón Gunnar whether it was a Viking ship and get “no” for an answer. So I’m sticking with Viking ship.

So jet lag and fatigue withstanding, that was our first day in Iceland. Tomorrow we are driving to Gulffoss Falls and doing our insanely cold snorkeling trip in the Silfra volcanic fissure.

 

 

 

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Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Iceward, Ho!

In less than a week we embark on an itinerary that one could fairly call “eclectic”, even by our peripatetic standards: 10 days in Iceland, followed by 4 days each in Paris in Prague. Why those choices? We’ve been to Paris many times and love it; it’s been 8 years since we were last there, and we felt it was time to go back. Prague has been on our bucket list for some time; we know many people who have visited and come back raving around it. And Iceland seems to have gotten very trendy in the past few years, with hordes of visitors descending upon the little island, so we figured it was time to do our part. Here’s our route, just south of the Arctic Circle:

2018-08-29 20_06_49-Reykjavík, Iceland to Reykjavík, Iceland - Google Maps To give you an ideal of the scale, the island is roughly 400 km across; our driving route, the aptly-named Ring Road (marked in blue) is about 900 miles (1500 km) long. You’d think that 10 days would be more than enough time to cover that distance, but it’ll be tight: a lot of the route is slow going, and of course there is a lot to see along the way. These include geysers, glaciers, waterfalls, volcanic landscapes, glaciers, waterfalls, volcanic landscapes, glaciers, and waterfalls. And geysers.

Some fun facts about Iceland:

  • The native population is about 350,000, but the island hosts over 2 million visitors a year. In other words, if you say to a random stranger, “Þú ert með fallegt land.” (“You have a beautiful country”), the highest-probability response, spoken ver-r-r-y loudly and slowly, is, “SORRY… I… AM… FROM… OMAHA.”
  • Those entertaining-looking glyphs Þ and ð in the previous paragraph are both pronounced “th”. (Fun sub-fact: English used to have such a letter too. Its name was “thorn” — really — and it looked rather like the letter y. So on those pseudo-Olde-English signs that you see that say things like “Ye Olde Haberdashery”, the “ye” is actually the word “the“. You’re welcome.)
  • Speaking of language, modern Icelandic is essentially identical to Old Norse. This means that present-day Icelanders can easily converse with Eric the Red during seances.
  • Iceland is renowned for its impressive variety of remarkably disgusting foods, which include fermented shark and “sour ram’s testicles”. (Research topic: Are there Chinese restaurants in Iceland, and if so do they serve sweet and sour ram’s testicles?) Supposedly they also make really good ice cream and hot dogs. Guess what we’ll be eating.
  • The famous volcano whose massive eruption disrupted North Atlantic air travel in 2010 is named Eyjafjallajökull. Do not be intimidated by the word, for it is actually surprisingly easy to pronounce: just remember that it rhymes with Þeyjafjallajökull.

At an average latitude of 65° — just a hair south of the Arctic Circle — Iceland is not famed for its clement weather. And of course at that latitude, you are stuck in more or less endless night in midwinter, and get to enjoy 24-hour daylight in midsummer. But we’ll be there in September, not far off the equinox, and so neither the temperatures nor the length of the day will be particularly extreme: sunrise will be at about 6:30 AM and sunset around 8:15 PM. The daytime high temperatures will be  about 50° F (11° C), the nights several degrees cooler.

What will be cold is the water, at a cryonic 36° F (2° C). The reason this matters is that we have booked a snorkeling trip (!) at Silfra, a volcanic fissure that is essentially the boundary between the two tectonic continental plates that Iceland straddles. (Hence all the volcanoes and geysers.) It is known for its stunningly clear water, volcanic rock formations, and hypothermic tourists. I’ll report on this when it happens.

Finally, we are of course hoping to see the aurora borealis. This is definitely a crapshoot; we’re at the early end of the season for it, and as of this moment the weather forecast calls for a lot of clouds and rain, at least for the first half of the trip.. But perhaps we will get lucky.

So wish us luck, watch this space, and remember this traditional greeting: “Þjónn, ég pantaði gerjað hákarl en þetta eru hrútur“, which according to Google means, “Waiter, I ordered fermented shark but these are ram testicles.”

 

Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Oahu and Aloha

We left the Big Island 2 1/2 days ago with our usual reluctance — meaning that a commando team was required to get Alice onto the plane — but as usual have arranged to ease our transition back into non-tropical life by spending three days with our old friends Laura and Brian in Honolulu.  This having become part of a pleasant yearly routine, we by now have a certain number of haunts on Oahu that we visit with them.

The first of these — it having impressed us so much in the past that we now schedule our visit around it — is the Saturday morning farmer’s market at Kapiolani Community College. Trust me, if you’re used to farmer’s markets on the mainland this one is a revelation. Here’s a panorama of a small piece of it:

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The sign on the left says “Kimchi Poke Bowl”, which already tells you a lot about Hawaii: kimchi of course is Korean, whereas poke (pronounced poke-eh) is a Hawaiian specialty, basically marinated sushi (and most wonderful, I should add).  At this market you can also enjoy (among many other delights) sushi sliders, lilikoi (passion fruit) popsicles, grilled giant shrimp, and kimchi sausage on a stick. And we did. In fact, the entire time we are visiting our friends here we eat very exotically and very, very well. And very excessively.

Most non-Hawaiians’ mental image of Honolulu is probably dominated by visions of Waikiki, and it is true that that iconic strand is a very visited place.

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But there are in a sense really two Waikikis: the tourist one that you see in the picture above, and the one frequented by the locals, from which the photos above and below were taken.

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The “local” part of Waikiki is smaller, dominated by an old World War I memorial and a decrepit and long-since-disused public swimming people, long gone in disrepair . But there is also a pleasant beach with no hotels hard upon it, and a large park filled with exercise classes, picnickers, and — on this particular day — a gathering of the Aloha Koi Club, presumably there to compare their respective decorative fish. It’s a pleasant place with a family atmosphere. There is also an old concrete jetty, perhaps 40 meters long, extending into the shallow green surf and offering an excellent platform from which to throw bread crumbs to the waiting fish. The water is clear as glass, and it’s a lot of fun watching the surgeonfish and the triggerfish (“humuhumunuknukuapua’a!”) go after their targets.  That abundance of fish makes it a pretty good place to snorkel; you can see two snorkelers in the foreground of the photo above.

The central part of Oahu, north of Honolulu, is overlooked by the 550′ (16m) high Punchbowl, an extinct volcanic crater that is now home to a military cemetery. A little further north than that, perhaps 10 miles north of the city and about twice as high as the Punchbowl, is “The Pali”, or more formally the Nu’uani Pali Lookout. (Pali means cliff in Hawaiian.) It’s an overlook on the volcanic side, overlooking the central valley of the island and and flanked by the crenelated basaltic cliffs, long overgrown with vegetation. The wind howls up the cliffside from the valley below, and on especially windy days requires you to lean forward to avoid being blown over. It was unusually calm when we visited, and afforded us this view of the plain below.

Pali lookout

Those craggy hillsides are completely typical of eroded volcanic landscapes, and make every setting a dramatic one.  (On rainy or foggy days, they become looming and ominous, as you’ll see below.) And as you can see from the picture, from this 1200′ (360m) vantage point, you can see all the way to the ocean to the northeast.

Heading eastward from Honolulu quickly brings you to the eastern end of the island, Makapuu Point. It’s a commanding viewpoint from which you can easily see the islands of Lanai and Molokai on the horizon, with a glimpse of Maui as well on a really good day. Closer to shore, especially in the winter months, you can see whales, and indeed we saw a handful of them, including one performing a spectacular breach perhaps 200 meters from shore below us. We don’t see a whole lot of those around Washington DC.

The lookout spot where we parked offered an ideal spot from which to launch my drone, but I hesitated because of the cop directing cars into the lot. My hesitation vanished about a minute later when we saw a guy flying a drone about fifty feet from the cop, so off I went. I flew along the coast for a mile or so, keeping both a drone and a protoplasmic eye out to see in case the opportunity to fly above a whale presented itself. It didn’t. (It would have a lot of patience and a lot of drone batteries to pull it off; the whales do not stay on the surface for very long, and it is unlikely that I would have been able to get the drone position before the beast dove again. Those BBC and National Geographic guys have a lot more patience than I do.)

Makapuu Point is dominated by the Makapuu Lighthouse, activated in 1909 and still in use. It has the odd distinction of having the largest lighthouse lens in the US, and is also the third highest lighthouse in the country at 422′ (129m). (The two higher ones are both in California, in case you were wondering.)

Makapuu Lighthouse

There is a fairly steep trail leading up to the lighthouse. Last year we were ambitious enough to make that hike; this year I let the drone do the work. Here’s the video:

We had a gorgeous day for it, as you can see. And yes, the water really is that color, so feel free to hate us.

However, not every day is gorgeous here — only most of them — and today, our last day in the islands, was emphatically not. It rained buckets for most of the day, a relentless drenching of the sort that you only get in the tropics. Unusually, we had thunder and lightning as well. But hell, it was our last day here and we weren’t going to let a little rain stop us. Or a lot of rain. Or an insane nonstop deluge that left us cowering in the car saying, “What were we thinking?”. But we pushed on anyway, Laura bravely navigating her new car through flooded roads whose Stygian depths may well have harbored entire new species of sea life.

But we were not seized by the kraken, and made it around the coast to the North Shore, stopping at a beach whose famous landmark is an offshore island with the condescendingly racist (but nonetheless apt) name of Chinaman’s Hat. You can see why:

Chinamans Hat Oahu-028-Edit

Trust me, those pendulous clouds represented a break in the weather. Turning 180° from this scene to face inland revealed this vista:

Chinamans Hat Oahu-001-Edit

And now you know where Darth Vader goes on vacation.

The rain kept up all day and into the evening, our phones screaming out flash flood alerts every hour or two as they were broadcast by the authorities. (No incoming missile alerts, though.) The downpour finally tapered off about 9 PM, after we got back from our farewell dinner with our friends.

So I guess it is time to leave the islands. We’ll be spending about a week visiting various friends on the mainland before getting home for real at the end of the month. But we’re already talking about next year’s visit.

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Hawaii | 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:

tokyo-metro-map

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.

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Who Are All These People, and What Are They Eating?

People who are not actually familiar with Hawaii — and this includes the large fraction of tourists who are focused entirely on their mai-tais — can easily overlook its complex and yeasty ethnic makeup. Hawaii’s demographics don’t look anything like the rest of the US; in fact, they don’t look much like anything anywhere. More than 20% of Hawaiians identify as mixed-race; taking that into account — because it makes the numbers add up to more than 100% — the breakdown of the largest groups is:

  • 58% Asian
  • 39% White
  • 23% Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander
  • 7% Hispanic
  • 3% Black

That’s quite the mix (and I should add that the absence of blacks is quite noticeable as one walks down the street here in Honolulu).  Precisely because it is such a melange, the faces of the locals make for quite the panoply.

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(I’m not sure why that first guy reminds me of Leonardo DiCaprio, but somehow he does.)

OK, what does this mean for us in practice on our visit? It means that there’s all sorts of cool food, that’s what. (What, did you think this was going to be some kind of anthropological treatise?) We are here visiting our old friends Laura and Brian, and they wisely realized that yesterday, our first day here, was a happy confluence of two food-related events: a farmer’s market at local Kapiolani Community College, and — insert drum roll and Asian gong sound here — a Chinese New Year parade.

(Laura and Brian themselves are pretty good exemplars of Hawaii’s ethnic potpourri. She’s a Jewish girl from Massachusetts; he’s ethnic Japanese from the Hawaiian island of Kauai. They have a daughter in her 20’s, whose consequently stirred-up gene pool makes her beautiful in proper Darwinian fashion.)

So, food. For breakfast we worked our way through the farmer’s market, chowing down on everything in sight like a small group of well-behaved army ants, or perhaps a genteel Sherman’s March to the Sea, navigating through a mass of both locals and Japanese tourists, the later all in sun hats and moving in amoebic little groups as though chained at the ankles. As we ambled with feigned patience from stall to stall, our diet included the following, all locally made and in no particular order:

  • Assorted local fruit juice blends, e.g. passion-fruit/ginger and strawberry/blackberry
  • Grilled local gigantic shrimps on skewers. (You eat the whole thing, shell and all.)
  • Seared ahi tuna sliders with mushroom tempura sticks
  • Kimchee sausage on a stick
  • Assorted homemade popsicles including honeydew with ginger and dark chocolate with Chinese spices
  • Ice cream bananas, which is a type of creamy banana, not a type of ice cream
  • Kahlua pig
  • Dark chocolate plus Kona coffee-covered macadamia nuts
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Brian bites the big one.

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Alice, still hungry.

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One could persuasively argue that poi = taro hummus.

And this was breakfast, mind you.

Having eaten our fill — a sentiment that would immediately prove both naive and ironic — we headed home for some down time, inexplicably becoming peckish along the way and so stopping en route to pick up some poke (marinated, seasoned ahi sushi),  boiled peanuts (a Hawaiian local favorite), and chicharron, which sounds Hispanic and is: it’s pork rinds.

We variously napped and pigged out some more at home before driving downtown for the Chinese New Year parade. And of course, upon arriving there, the first thing we did was start eating again, kicking things off with some roast suckling pig from this guy.

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OK, so we just ate. What’s your point?

Honolulu’s Chinatown, like so many American Chinatowns, pretty clearly has its best days decades behind it and has a rather characteristic seedy feel that you will also experience in its counterparts in Washington DC, Philadelphia, and even — though it is vastly larger and somewhat less tatty — San Francisco. It all has something of a time-warp-y feel to it, with tattoo parlors and dusty arcane-looking herbal remedy stores, the ones with dried lizard skins in the windows.

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Good place to pick up some dried lizard for either your arthritis or your black arts.

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An 1890’s bawdy house that became the “Club Hubba Hubba” just after World War II. I don’t think the women are still there. God, I hope not.

But the important thing is, that we kept eating. Strolling through the crowded streets as the dragon puppeteers suited up for the parade, we continued to glut ourselves on mango ice cream, lobster chips, and almond cookies, all the while reminding ourselves that we had dinner reservations for later. This was roughly equivalent to reminding a cokehead sucking on a crack pipe that he has a job interview scheduled in three hours.

(Speaking of cokeheads, I feel compelled to relate a minor incident. As it happens my arms are covered at the moment with some painless but very nasty-looking bruises, souvenirs of a short hospital visit just before our departure during which I came under the ministrations of a technician who had, apparently, never inserted an IV or taken blood before. The side streets of the parade route had a number of stalls advertising local worthy organizations — Jaycees, local sports clubs, and the like — including a meth clinic. Despite my pleadings Alice rather stodgily forbade me from walking up to them, arms out with black-and-blue marks on full display, and asking for help. I suppose that in any marriage you need to have at least one responsible adult present at all times, but still.)

The parade itself was a raucous and colorful affair, full of dragons and martial arts displays and little old ladies carrying fans whilst sitting on festooned flatbed trucks, smiling and waving delicately to the crowd as they represented assorted charitable Chinese organizations that we of course had never heard of.

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There were drummers, a platoon of kids on BMX bikes, and of course beauty queens riding on top of convertibles: “Miss United States: Samoa/Guam/Hawaii/Mariana Islands”. “Miss Chinese Chamber of Commerce” and her first four runners-up, the latter in a convoy of Mustangs whilst the winner rode in a Corvette, and all waving gamely with that odd rotary side-to-side waving technique perfected by Queen Elizabeth II. And game they had to be: how would you like to be the last of those girls, smiling at the crowd while sitting on a top of a car with a sign announcing that you were the fourth runner-up? “Hi, I’m Jessica! Those four girls in front were all prettier than me!”

Anyway, we had a wonderful time, and saw many dragons.

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And a couple of hours later, we of course went to our dinner reservation and had a big and wonderful meal.

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Turbanator

We left the hotel at about 9:00 this morning en route to an alfalfa farm (yes, there is a reason for this), and our first sight as we crossed a low bridge was a group of Berber women doing laundry in the river at the foot of the hill on which our hotel is perched.

No starch, please.

This gave us pause because we had sent out our laundry last night and thus could not altogether rule out the possibility that our teeshirts were in there somewhere.

Anyway, the alfalfa farm. Today’s itinerary is called “A Day in the Life of Tineghir”, and that day includes not only people doing laundry but people — which is to say, women — doing stoop labor in the alfalfa fields as well. We first picked up our local guide, a manic Berber named Mokhtar who knew the local ropes, had a 1000-watt personality, and whose clothing alone was worth the trip.

Mokhtar the Enthusiastic

You can see the fields — and three very out of focus women — behind him. Most local women, and a large fraction of local men, are adamant about not having their picture taken, at least not of their face, so this is about the best I can do. The most common exceptions are beggars, whom one can pay to allow a photo, and the families where we have our hosted visits.

This is backbreaking labor, scything the alfalfa at ground level with a small curved blade about a foot long, and laying out the sheaves for the men to pick up and load onto waiting donkeys. This being an organized trip, Mokhtar inevitably wrapped a couple of the women in our group in shawls, gave them a blade one at a time, and had them cut a few stalks while the rest of us took pictures and the actual working women no doubt muttered imprecations under their breath. Then Mokhtar drafted some of our men to pick up the bundles of cut alfalfa and carry them to a nearby donkey. I wonder if perhaps we could put together a tour group of Berbers, bring them to the US, and have them take pictures of each other pretending to be consultants or programming a computer.

Our next stop was a very old mosque and school that had fallen into disrepair and was now being rebuilt. Part of the reason it needed rebuilding was its location on a steep hillside, where erosion had pretty much eliminated the possibility of having any of the building columns remaining exactly vertical. But the place had a pleasantly ancient and spooky air about it, like something from an Indiana Jones movie. You can get the idea from these two shots.

It turned out, to our surprise and delight, that Mokhtar is a muezzin, the guy who chants the call to prayer from the top of a mosque five times a day. In the two weeks we’ve been here we’ve heard it dozens of times, of course, but usually at a distance and always in a cacophony of echoing calls from all the nearby mosques at once, competing as well with day-to-day noise from the street. But now we were by ourselves well away from any distracting sounds, and Mokhtar wowed us by chanting the call in the very room we were in.

He puts his all into it, drawing deep breaths, cupping his hands around his mouth, and closing his eyes to concentrate. It is far less jarring to hear it this way than in all the times we’ve heard it thus far. It seems to me almost a shame that it is almost always heard that way, because in these more intimate conditions its musicality emerged, and it was haunting and strangely beautiful.

Our religious duties fulfilled, it was time to go shopping for dinner. Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) is all about participation, so when I say that we went shopping, I mean that we were driven to an open air market and divided into three groups of five or six people each, each group given a shopping list and a 100 dirham note (about $10 US), and told to be back in 20 minutes with the goods. Bargaining would be necessary. Steve, Thumper, and we were the fruit group, assigned to buy 4 kilos (8.8 lbs) of apples and bananas and 3 kilos of oranges. Off we went.

Thumper brings home the bacon, or rather apples.

We thought the nearest fruit stand looked too touristy so we found another and were immediately distracted by pomegranates. We bought three big ones for the low, low prices of 7 dirham (70 cents US) because we could; at that price bargaining seemed superfluous and we still had 93 dirham left. So we looked first at the apples and decided that the quality was low, and maybe we were better off at the first fruit stand after all. We returned to it and, satisfied with the quality of the goods, started loading up plastic tubs with the required amount of each fruit. The stall had two scales, a modern electronic one and an old fashioned mechanical one with counterweights. We put items in and out of the basket till we had the desired weight of each of the the three fruits, and the tab came to 142 dirham.

Hmmm. We only had 93 out of our original hundred, and we didn’t want to front any of our own cash unless absolutely necessary. So we handed the vendor the 93 and said, in English and French, that that’s all we have. He thought for a second, handed us back the three odd dirham, and said (in English), “Twenty.” I fished a 20 out of my wallet and gave it to him, and the deal was done: 90 + 20 = 110 dirham ($11 US), about 20% less than the original price. We had fruit. We had bargained successfully. (I would also like to note that we paid $11 US for over 24 lbs of fruit, which seems like an awfully good deal in general.)

Our next stop was a school visit, a common feature of many OAT tours. (OAT is affiliated with the Grand Circle Foundation, a nonprofit that supports a number of educational and cultural institutions at their tour destinations; a small part of our OAT tour cost goes to them.) Our school of interest was a Berber boarding school of sorts; I say “of sorts” because it is not a school per se, rather it provides boarding and study facilities for poor students who are brought there to attend nearby public schools. It does have a study area and a very small library, seen here. Needless to say, they accept donations of just about anything. (While on our fruit quest earlier, we had bought some pens and notebooks from another market vendor to leave behind at the school.)

The facility has dorms that support 140 boys from 7th through 12th grades, and there is a sister facility down the street that houses 104 girls; the girls’ school is only 5 years old. Admission is selective and takes into account primary school achievement, poverty levels, and other factors. The facilities are basic, clean, and spare: the sleeping quarters are basically large cubicals with lockers, each area holding two two-person bunk beds. There was a soccer field and a basketball court; a dining area, and a grand total of three computers. The principal walked us through as he talked about their history, how they operate, and what they hope to accomplish. One interesting feature is their association with a nearby vocational school; students who can’t cut it in regular school are allowed to continue to board there while attending the vo-tech school. It seems like a very good model for bringing education to a large socioeconomic segment that would otherwise remain illiterate and unemployable.

Time for another home-hosted lunch, this time with a barely-middle-class Berber family whose income seemed to come both from a small garden farm and from these visits themselves; they host about four a week, for which OAT of course pays them.

Our host was Achmad, who was definitely a wild and crazy guy of about 40. He lives with his brother, two sisters (both well past marrying age, for reasons unknown), and his 80 year old father. They were warm and welcoming, Achmad doing most of the talking; his brother spoke a little English and his sisters and father less. (French worked, though, and we used it a fair amount.) Our gift to them, as we have done before, was some NASA paraphernalia that went over very well, as you can see from Achmad’s enthusiasm:

“To the moon, Achmad!”

Lunch was excellent, a lamb tagine preceded by a first course that was completely new to us: angel hair pasta topped with cinnamon and sugar. Yeah, I know it sounds weird but it was really good: try it! It has the additional virtue of allowing you to pretend that you’re not eating dessert before dinner.

Achmad went around the table asking where we were from, whether we had children, and what religion we were. He was excited to hear that I am Jewish, and ran to get an old coin that he had found in the mountains to see if I could identify it. Here it is:

 

It’s about the size of a US dime and is featureless on the back. I have no idea what it is. Let me know if you do. (For all I know it’s an old rabbinical shirt button.)

The fun began after lunch: it was Dress Up Time. (One gets the sense that the family has done this before, which I expect they have about 100 times. Still, they seemed to genuinely enjoy interacting with us in this way.) Achmad got the ball rolling with his Ultra Macho Triple Decker Turban:

Now THAT’S a turban.

And it was not long before everyone got into the act, including me

Without question, my new Facebook profile picture

Notice also that I am wearing a black robe with a gold banded collar. That is because at Achmad’s behest everyone went Full Berber:

No tourists here, nosirree. But at least I know what to wear to my next business meeting.

That’s Alice on my left, Steve and Thumper on my right, and two of our other travel mates, Dave and Patricia. Dave got shorted in the turban department because everyone agreed that the white skullcap looked exactly right on him.

And then the music started: Achmad on a recorder-like pipe, sister #1 clinking a jar with a spoon, remaining siblings providing percussion on the tabletop and a plastic bread bowl. It was a Berber Shop Quartet, plus Dad in the background clapping his hands. There was dancing. It was surreal. It was also a total hoot, and I have it on video to prove it.

“No, dammit, you’re coming in late on the down beat. Now take it from the top.”

We get more Berber Immersion tonight, as we are having dinner at a Berber camp using the food that we bought earlier today. I’ll report on that in my next posting. (Postscript: never mind. The Berber “camp” turned out to be a hotel with a Berber-style tent next to it. But the meal was very good — we bought the fruit for dessert! — and the music, a three piece percussion band with castanets and drums, was excellent.)

We leave Tinighir for tomorrow for our next destination, the town of Ouarzazate. We will be having a discussion session with an imam there. Ouarzazate is also the home of Morocco’s native TV and film industry, and is thus known as — I swear this is true — “Mollywood”. I have no idea what kind of stuff they produce, but I can imagine some locally themed programming that might appeal: classic movies like The Sound of Muezzins, racy fare like Fifty Shades of Ochre, and TV series like How I Met Your Mullah and the crime drama CSI: Middle of Nowhere.

 

 

 

 

 

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

Patty Cake, Patty Cake

OK, OK, I might as well get this out of the way first and vaporize my Sophisticated Traveler credentials once and for all. Remember what I said about djellabas and sombreros being a thing? Here are Alice and me in an act of public self-humiliation:

Nope, we are DEFINITELY not tourists. Nothing to see here. Move on now.

Nope, we are DEFINITELY not tourists. Nothing to see here.

We will not speak of this again.  Moving right along….

You probably think of Morocco as an Arab country. You have a lot of company if you do, including the government of Morocco itself. But in fact the country is 70% Berber, a very loosely-defined and heterogeneous ethnic group that is not Arab and in fact views the Arabs as invaders…which they were, in about the 8th century. The Berbers came from just about everywhere in the hemisphere; some resemble dark sub-Saharan Africans, others lighter-skinned Europeans. There are even a smattering of Jews among them. (Though very few: practically all of the country’s 300,000 Jews left for Israel after its founding in 1948, and only about 3,000 remain. There are too few of them to even bother persecuting, unlike the Shia Muslims, which are somewhat second class citizens in this Sunni country.)

And by the way, do not call Berbers Berbers: their name for themselves is the Amazigh, or “free people”. The name “Berber”, in fact, is of unclear origin; one theory is that it is related to the word “barbarian”. They are not too crazy about this theory, as you might imagine.

We are in Chefchaouen right now, in the Rif mountains in the northern part of the country. This part of Morocco was long considered something of a backwater; King Hassan II, who ruled for about 50 years until his death in 1999, was very “south-centric” and an Islamic traditionalist. (The giant mosque in Casablanca whose pictures I posted yesterday is named after him. It holds 100,000 worshipers — that is not a typo — and has a 4000 car underground parking garage. I do not know if they validate.) His son and successor, Mohammed VI, as rather more westernized and very much the reformer. Politically, this northern part of the country now gets more attention; religiously, a wide variety of traditional Islamic strictures have been loosened, the mosques are turning out a cadre of more moderate imams, and women in particular have benefited from more educational opportunities and more balanced marriage and divorce laws. More on this topic later.

Chefchaouen (hard to get all those vowels in the right order) is a beautiful hillside town, the buildings variously blue or whitewashed, making it rather Greek in appearance, as you can see here:

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We are staying in a beautiful restored traditional guest house called a riad. The floors are all tile, the rooms ringing a 3-story mezzanine onto a central skylit atrium. In the middle of the floor at the bottom, where the front desk is, overstuffed easy chairs ring a low copper and tile fountain. The front door opens onto the souk, the bubbly warren-like marketplace full of strolling tourists and insistent vendors. Leather, woodwork, clothing, and tchochkes are the order of the day, and the streets are all blue. We took an early morning stroll to see relatively people-free streets like these:

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Here are a few locals of varying ages:

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The souk takes on an otherwordly air at night, the street lights mixing with the blue walls, the vendors importuning the strollers through the maze of alleys, and the calls to prayer from the muezzin echoing from the minarets. Here are some night scenes (I may post more tomorrow):

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That last photo is worshipers exiting a mosque after evening prayers. This particular mosque has some political significance, as it is in the vanguard of training and dispatching moderate imams to counter the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. (The term “fundamentalism” is somewhat misleading insofar as even most conservative Muslims consider the jihadists’ doctrines to be an extreme corruption of actual fundamental Islamic principles.)

After our morning stroll, we boarded our van and drove about a half hour into the mountainous countryside to have our first home-hosted meal. Our hosts were Mohammed (not the same Mohammad as our tour lead) and his sister Fatima; his wife was laid up in bed with a difficult pregnancy. They are a mixed Berber/Arab couple who operate a small farm/guesthouse, and upon our arrival put the women in our group to work helping Fatima prepare the meal. This included making the flatbread from scratch, followed by the couscous. This was all dutifully overseen by the men, who according to tradition and deeply-ingrained social custom did, well, nothing. One of our guys was selected to pour the tea, which is about the extent of the male role at mealtime and, indeed, just about any time. Meanwhile, the women were doing this: chef-10 chef-09 chef-12

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   Alice keeps the home fires burning.

The bread-making involved a lot of patting and rolling and kneading and sifting and such (hence today’s title). In other words, we all enjoyed the benefits of rampant gender inequality. But the meal was delicious. In fact, here is a picture of one of the courses a vegetarian couscous:

We worked hard for this meal. Well, half of us did.

 We worked hard for this meal. Well, half of us did.

It is traditional to bring a small gift to the host on such a house visit. I brought along some NASA paraphernalia for this purpose: a NASA logo sew-on patch and a refrigerator magnet. Mohammad was very excited by this, and we had a pantomime conversation (he speaking no English) in which he made launching sounds and motions and was apparently asking me if I worked with rockets. I said yes. It later developed that he was actually asking me whether I was an astronaut. It was with great reluctance that I fessed up. But I still got major props:

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Following the meal, Mohammed walked us around the property, down the hill to his neighbor’s scrawny marijuana patch. No, it is not legal here. No, he did not offer any to us, not even for the NASA patch.

We headed back to the riad for an hour or two break, then convened for an hour discussion with a local activist named Fatima (no, not the one from the farm), who works for an organization that is trying to modernize the situation of women in Morocco. Said situation being pretty bad at present, though not nearly so bad as in much of the Muslim world. There is in particular an enormous divide between urban and rural women (the population is about evenly split between cities and countryside): the latter are mostly uneducated, marry very young, and as I already indicated do pretty much everything to maintain the home regardless of whether her husband has a job (which a large fraction do not). The situation is changing, particularly since 2003 with the introduction of radically liberalized family laws. Women can now request a divorce (formerly solely a husband’s privilege), can require a prenup with a 50-50 property split, can demand alimony, and can have their husbands prosecuted for domestic violence. You will be unsurprised to hear that the divorce rate in Morocco has skyrocketed in the past 12 years. Fatima’s organization’s role in this liberalization process is promoting women’s education, particularly in the rural areas where at present a large fraction never go to school.

It was an interesting and animated discussion, attended by everyone in the group except one of the husbands, whom I suspect may be sleeping outdoors tonight.

We ended the day with a wonderful rooftop dinner, just Steve and Thumper and us, at a nearby restaurant recommended by our tour lead. It had the unfortunately schlocky name of “Alladin’s Magic Lamp”. But the food was excellent and we enjoyed it while overlooking the main town square during sunset, watching the nighttime town come to life and, once again, hearing the muezzins echoing from the minarets in every direction.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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.

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Viva Italia: Where the Pasta is Prologue

Having now fully recovered from last October’s sojourn to the bottom of the world, we are about to turn our attention to a (literally) more classical destination: Italy.

We depart on Wednesday, April 15, for a three week ramble through northern Italy. Most of the trip will be in four regions (see map): Veneto (since we are starting in Venice), Lombardy, Emilia Romagna, and northern Tuscany. We’ll only go about as far south as Florence and Pisa, which you can see on the map. A bit northwest of Pisa along the coast is the town of La Spezia, which is one of our major destinations since it is the jumping-off point for the famous Cinque Terre hiking region.

Why Italy? Since our travel proclivities seem to run along the lines of Botswana and Patagonia, you might ask, isn’t Italy a little….pedestrian? To which we can only reply: “C’mon, it’s Italy!” Both of us have been to the country a number of times — Alice spent ten weeks there as a visiting mathematics professor many years ago — but we have never explored these regions very much. And neither of us has ever been to Venice, an egregious oversight that we will now correct. Moreover, while we enjoyed eating warthog and pan-fried insect grubs well enough, generally speaking Italian cuisine carries just a tad more appeal than Zimbabwean. We did not much worry about gaining weight in Africa or South America; on this trip it’s pretty much a given.

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If the route were simple, it wouldn’t be our trip.

Our first five days will be in Venice, after which we pick up a rental car and follow the route shown in the second image. And now you know that this is really us making the trip, since the route is far too complicated for any rational travelers to undertake. In truth it is not quite as crazy as it looks; we will only be driving every few days, with few-day stays at “hubs” like Verona from which we will make driving and walking day trips.

We will not be alone on this trip, nor will we be in a 16-person group as we were in Africa and South America. Rather, we will be with another couple, our friends Jim and Elaine. Jim and I know each other from NASA, from which he retired a number of years ago, and we have all become quite good friends since discovering ten years ago that they lived only a few minutes from us. They are also one of the very few couples we know — my parents being about the only other one — that have traveled to even more places than we have.

As usual I will be posting my travel journal interspersed with some of my photos (Jim is also an avid photographer). So stay tuned and, as they say over there, “Ciao bella! Dolce Gabbana!” Which means, “Say goodbye to all your money if you buy this designer handbag.”

 

 

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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