Posts Tagged With: garden

Kanazawa Flowahs

Sorry, but do you have any idea how hard it is to make a pun on the name “Kanazawa”? The title actually refers (badly) to our first stop of the day, Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en Garden. Now, I have to confess that for me personally, a garden is a garden. Alice, who is an avid gardener and appreciates these things, probably feels differently. But the Japanese, being Japanese, take pride in complicating this simple concept to a degree that I suspect is designed to make Westerners feel guilty if they don’t know what the hell the Japanese are talking about. In this case, the name of the garden literally means “six attributes”. I have also seen it translated as “six sublimities”, which I am not even convinced is a word. The six attributes are those that, to Japanese thinking, constitute the ideal landscape. They are: spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, waterways, and panoramas. So if you do not identify and appreciate these six factors, you are philosophically deficient. That’s definitely me. But it was nonetheless a very compact, beautiful park — 29 acres, dating from 1871 — dotted with exactly the kind of serene Japanese vistas you would expect, like these.

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Today had by far the nicest weather we have had on this trip, so it was a good day to go strolling in a garden. Our tour lead Mariko even dressed for the occasion, sporting a casual kimono for the day instead of her usual Western garb.

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We moved from the garden to our next stop, which was the restored house of a semi-prominent Edo-era samurai, Kurando Terashima. Terashima was basically a mid-level functionary who pissed off the wrong people and died in exile, though he did achieve some fame as a painter as well. The house is spare, its interior architecture all rectangular spaces with paper walls and tatami mats, and it looks out over a small, precise garden, in appearance and ambiance a greatly scaled-down version of Kenroku-en.

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I have been struck by the fact that when discussing houses like this, or indeed any housing at all, the unit of measurement is the tatami mat. You know what it is — a straw mat, basically, though its construction is actually rather more elaborate — but probably never knew its role as some kind of universal standard.  An official tatami mat is 33.5″ x 70.5″ (85.5 x 179 cm), and when someone is describing a room to you (e.g., Mariko describing her apartment), she will tell you that it is, say, 8 tatamis.   Since Japanese living spaces tend to be rectangular, you can assume that she means 4 tatamis by 2 tatamis. (Either that, or it’s a very long skinny apartment.) And so the brochures for the late Terashima-san’s home state that there is a 5 tatami tea room, an 8 tatami room where he painted, and so forth. Japan is on the metric system except when it comes to interior design, where it is on the tatami system.

This very traditional way of thinking gives me a cheap segue into the subject of geishas. Yes, they still exist for real, not just for tourists. (And no, they are in no way prostitutes, though you probably already knew that.) But they are a vanishing breed. Kanazawa has only 43, of which 14 live in the so-called geisha district, which looks like this:

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The district is home to both geisha houses — of which there are only seven left — and jewelry stores specializing in gold (about which more in a moment). The very traditional nature of the neighborhood makes it a popular place to stroll in traditional garb, thus:kanazawa-geisha-district-007 kanazawa-geisha-district-003

The pair in the lower picture are newlyweds, who were in the neighborhood with their wedding photographer.

Mariko had been in contact with the owner of one of the geisha houses, this rather elegant lady.

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She introduced herself to us, in soft-spoken, accented but precise English, as Lady Baba (“Not Lady Gaga,” she added.) as she explained the system. She owns the elegantly outfitted house (no, I don’t know how many tatamis it is) and hires the individual geishas on a freelance basis. All of her customers are either known to her personally or vouched for by an existing customer. No money changes hands during a visit; customers are billed semi-annually. (And if a customer fails to pay up, then the person who recommended him is held responsible for the debt.) Everything is all very tasteful and on the up-and-up, but discretion is nonetheless absolute since the geisha house is the venue for, e.g., closing business deals. In such a case the geisha is basically a social lubricant, keeping the men happy with conversation, jokes, and playing traditional musical instruments.

The geishas themselves are supposed to be a bit mysterious, with anything about their backgrounds or outside life kept hidden from the customers. It is perfectly permissible for them to be married, but such information is secret since their allure is correspondingly diminished. Although “allure” is probably the wrong word; the attraction is social, not sexual, and though the youngest a geisha may be is 18 years old, there is no upper age limit. Indeed, the oldest geisha who works for Lady Baba — and who by virtue of her conversational, entertainment, and musical skills is one of the most sought-after in her ranks — is 84 years old. (Are you reading this, Mom?)

Because of the traditional nature of the business, and the geisha houses’ status as cultural touchstones, ownership of a house can only be passed on to a daughter who is willing to carry on the tradition. Lady Baba is in a bind in this regard: she has a 12 year old daughter who (at least for now) has no interest in taking over the house when she is older: quite to the contrary, the child has announced her intention of moving to California and marrying a rich American. This leaves Lady Baba with three options: (1) talk her daughter into changing her mind (she’s still only 12, after all); (2) adopt another daughter who would be willing to take over the house (this is a real option); or (3) sell the house. For the moment, Lady Baba is banking on the first option.

She answered all of our questions with great charm and forthrightness, then demonstrated how she ties her kimono sash, which as you’d probably expect is all very elaborate.

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The whole experience was rather remarkable. The whole geisha concept is a throwback, but there is no denying the stratospheric level of social grace that the practitioners command. Lady Baba was very, very smooth: engaging, charming, self-deprecating, gracious, the whole works: when your livelihood depends on delicate social interaction, you get really good at working a room.

We finished up with everyone taking pictures of themselves with her (yes, us too), so I’ll close my geisha discussion with this more pensive portrait that she let me set up.

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Our final stop of the day was one of the gold jewelers in the area. These particular craftsmen (and -women) specialize in gold leaf, which they produce on spectacular quantity and with spectacular thinness.

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The sheets are so thin, and thus the quantity of gold that they contain so small, that they can use it for just about anything without driving the cost too high. Alice bought a fan covered in gold leaf; and I have now, for the first and probably only time in my life , had the privilege of peeing in a bathroom whose walls were literally completely covered in gold. Donald Trump would approve.

Oof. I can’t possibly end this post with that sentence. So I will close by observing that we had sushi for dinner.

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

Faster Than a… Oh, You Know

It is possible to get from Hakone to Kanazawa (our next destination) by shinkansen (bullet train) but this requires backtracking to Tokyo. So our travel itinerary for today was to travel by bullet train from Hakone to Nagano, then by conventional rail to Kanazawa. The numbers are revealing: we covered the 175 miles from Hakone to Nagano in an hour and ten minutes by shinkansen, but the remaining 145 miles took three hours. In other words, the bullet train is fast. Very fast.

We arrived at the Hakone rail station at a little before 10 AM, leaving us with enough time to hang around on the platform for a few minutes and watch the bullet trains pass through. Not two minutes after we arrived on the platform, someone looking down the length of the track said, “Look, here comes one.” “Oh good,” I thought, turning on my camera, “I’ll be able to get a pic-

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-ture.” HOLY MOTHER OF ZORK, WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?

“That”, of course, was a shinkansen, a blue-and-white blur passing our platform about 8 feet away from us. It was gone by the time I got my lens cap off, and I stood there frozen like an idiot. Then I took another few seconds to pick up my jaw off the floor; that thing passing next to the platform was the transportation equivalent of a bomb going off, absolutely stunning. Fortunately there were some other tracks farther away from us so over the next several minutes it was possible to get some shots at a distance from which it was physically possible for me to push the shutter button in time.

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“Race ya!”

The shinkansen has a cruising speed of 300 km/hr (186 mph), though the one that took me by surprise was probably not even going that fast since it was passing through a station. There are 16 cars whose total length including the engine is just about a quarter mile (404 m, to be exact). At its cruising speed, therefore, the train covers its own length in 4.8 seconds. It can carry roughly 1000 people.

The ride is quiet and very smooth, far smoother in fact than a conventional train, and with none of the traditional side-to-side rocking that one normally associates with train travel. That smoothness is not just a passenger convenience, but rather a physical requirement: at those speeds, a bump equals a catastrophic derailment.

After transferring to a run-of-the-mill express train (which, the name notwithstanding, made 13 stops en route) we reached our destination at about 3 PM. Kanazawa is the historical epicenter of the samurai culture, and so like Kyoto is known for its Shinto shrines. It’s a modern city overall, with a population of about half a million, and like many other Japanese cities with long histories takes some pains to integrate the old and the new.

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By the time we settled in to the hotel there was not a lot of time to explore, but on the way to dinner, just down the road, Mariko led us to the Oyama Jinja shrine, a relatively recent (mid-19th century) shrine distinguished by having stained glass and, oddly, sporting the first lightning rod ever installed in Japan. You can see both in this picture. (The stained glass is behind the upper balcony, below the cupola.)

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Behind the shrine is a small, classical Japanese garden, complete with stone lanterns and burbling brook filled with koi. We spent about a half hour wandering among these scenes:

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It was a gratifyingly serene way to end a day of train travel, and the topper was our first non-Japanese dinner since joining up with the tour group a week ago. Mariko led us to an underground promenade lined with appealing-looking eating places of various descriptions, and we dined at an Italian restaurant. The relatively small portion size and artistic presentation on the plate were definite Japanese accents to what was otherwise a very typical (to Americans) and quite good Italian meal. No doubt we will revert to native cuisine tomorrow.

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hello, Hilo

Hilo, the largest city on the Big Island (despite a population of less than 50,000)  has something of a rustic and even slightly downscale reputation, probably not helped by the 150″ (3.8 m) of rain that it can get in a particularly wet year (and I witnessed one of those). But I’ve always loved it, for many reasons: for one, I lived here for three years, decades ago, and my first child was born here. But my emotional resonance with the place notwithstanding, Hilo is one of the most authentic places that you can visit in Hawaii, insofar as its daily life and commerce center on its residents rather than on a flow of tourists, which are relatively few compared to Kona or any of the other islands.

Hilo sits in the crook of U-shaped Hilo Bay, a geographical feature whose shape contributed to tragedy. In May of 1960, a tsunami triggered by an earthquake in Chile roared into the bay, whose shape essentially focused the wave onto the downtown waterfront; 61 people died. Today, a seawall extends about halfway across the mouth of Hilo Bay in the hope of diminishing that focusing effect should another tsunami strike someday. The downtown waterfront has long since been rebuilt; it’s only a few blocks long but pleasantly situated directly adjacent to a park and of course looking out over the palm-lined bay itself. Adding to the scene are some pretty good restaurants and a lot of local artisan shops that on average are superior to what you’ll find in Kona, probably because they feature real local artworks instead of an endless selection of plastic leis and coconut-shell bras for your next at-home production of “South Pacific”. (You can find that stuff here too, of course; but in Kona it sometimes seems that that’s most of what you find.)

We got lucky with Hilo’s weather yesterday, it being sunny and beautiful. So after having lunch at a waterside restaurant with some old friends, we walked around Liliuokalani Gardens, a 30-acre waterfront garden and park established by the eponymous queen in about 1900. It’s a serene place to walk, Japanese-themed with arched bridges, pagoda-shaped shrines, and koi ponds, but unmistakably Hawaiian nonetheless, dotted with enormous monkeypod and banyan trees.

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Queen Liliuokalani, by the way, was the last monarch of Hawaii as well as the author of the most well-known piece of Hawaiian music ever created: Aloha Oe. You have heard it a hundred times, but in case the title is unfamiliar to you this should refresh your memory:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjZyZ8IuSzw.  (And if, when you read the words “most well-known piece of Hawaiian music ever created”, your first thought was “Tiny Bubbles” sung by Don Ho, please go back to drinking your mai tai.) Her portrayal in popular culture has been rather “Disney princess-ized” over the decades, depicted as your classic willowy and almost-Caucasian beauty. She was in fact very Polynesian in appearance — dark skin, broad nose — and as an adult somewhat resembled her contemporary, Queen Victoria. She was also very responsive to her subjects, moving by popular will to abrogate the so-called Bayonet Constitution that had essentially been forced upon the islands by the sugar barons. She renounced it in 1891, proposed a more Hawaii-centric alternative, and was promptly invaded and deposed by the U.S. That, gentle reader, is why Hawaii is a state today, and you should not imagine for one moment that there aren’t still people here who are pissed off about it.

About 10 miles north of Hilo is the largest and most impressive tropical botanical garden  on the island, the unimaginatively if accurately named Tropical Botanical Garden in the microscopic town of Papaikou. The parking lot and entry point of the garden is just off the coast highway, on the scenic northeasterly-facing Hamakua coast of the Big Island. But the walkway through the gardens takes you a steep 200′ (60 m) or so down the hillside to the roiling coast, passing waterfalls, palm-shaded gardens of orchids, anthuriums (or is it anthuria?), ginger, and a lot of everything else along the way.

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At the bottom you end up at a dramatic ocean overlook where swimming would be a decidedly bad idea.

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The (literal) downside, of course is that having walked steeply downhill to get here, you get to walk steeply uphill back. And since this is a rain forest, you get to enjoy the 120% humidity while you do so. Still, it was worth it.

The Hamakua coast road was for many years (and the whole time I lived here, ages ago) the best practical way to drive between Kona and Hilo, taking about 2 1/2  hours. There was also the so-called Saddle Road, which cuts straight across the island between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, but it was a grueling drive: a narrow, poorly-maintained road with more twists and turns than a bad soap opera. But that all changed in the 1990’s when the road was regraded, repaved, and straightened, and that more direct route now shaves about a half hour off the trip. It’s an unusual drive, starting in lush, humid Hilo, climbing up to 6600′ (2000 m) elevation where the terrain is all lava fields, the air is dry, and the temperature about 20F (11 C) cooler than sea level, and then descending again to the dry Kona coast. When you make that drive, as we did, you pass through a layer of clouds that gives you a good chance of getting rained on, after which the emerging sun will grace you with a rainbow. The Big Island has a couple of nicknames, the Orchid Isle being one and the Rainbow Isle another, both for very good reason. So here was our rainbow, an impressive double-decker with nearly a full 180 degree arc.

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At the midpoint of the saddle, if you are above the inversion layer (read: clouds) you get striking clear views of the two 14,000′ (4300 m) peaks that dominate the island: Mauna Kea (“White Mountain”) and Mauna Loa (“Long Mountain”). Mauna Kea is the premier astronomy site in the world and hosts about a dozen major observatories to prove it, a couple of which you can see from the road:

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I have spent approximately 200 nights atop Mauna Kea, using those telescopes. It was an exciting and wonderful time in my life. Plus, the loss of countless brain cells as a result of breathing the thin air for so long at that altitude is a great excuse for my personality, though only for those who didn’t know me before that.

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Madrasahs, Medinas, and Souks, Oh My

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

Looking at Lucca: Up Against the Wall

Yesterday was something of a lost day as we discovered that May Day – the European equivalent of Labor Day, squared, when pretty much everything is closed – is a really lousy day to drive on the Autostrade. It is not only commerce that grinds to a halt: highway traffic grinds to a halt as well as everyone hits the road for the holiday weekend. That proved to be bad news for us, as we had gotten a late start and basically blew the rest of the day on what ought to have been a two hour drive from Modena to Lucca.

A word about driving in Italy. A couple of our friends reacted in horror at the prospect of our driving in Italy at all, doubly so since we had made clear our intention of using the Autostrade. This is rather overwrought. For one thing, Italian drivers are no more aggressive than Washington DC area drivers. (This is admittedly a weak statement, like declaring that a PCP-crazed honey badger is no more aggressive than a rabid mountain lion. But the point is that we are used to it.) In addition, Italian transportation infrastructure is quite good. The Autostrada is efficient and well-maintained, though it struggles to handle the volume of holiday traffic. Especially since the authorities ramped up electronic enforcement a few years ago, drivers are pretty good about adhering to the 130 kph (80 mph) speed limit. In the cities, streets are often narrow but the lane signage is good and our GPS easily keeps us out of navigational trouble. So driving has really been quite easy. (That said, it helps that I have Alice in the passenger seat as a full-time navigator so that I do not have to divert my attention from the road to the map display.)

My only real gripe with Italian roads is roundabouts. Generally speaking I have no issues with roundabouts, but Italian road engineers seem to worship them. If you are driving in a city or suburban area you can count on traveling not more than about 500 ft between roundabouts, to the point that it starts to feel like you are on some kind of grand scale go-kart track.

After enduring a series of lengthy backups on the Autostrade – the longest being a good 10 miles, although the word “good” hardly applies – we arrived in Lucca at about 5:00pm and after some casting about eventually located and checked into our flat. Although well-organized and reasonably equipped, it could well serve as some kind of living module on the Space Station, compact to just short of cramped. (The kitchen is by actual measurement 9’ x 4 ½’ in size.) But it’s clean and reasonably comfortable and suits are purposes. Most importantly, it is very close to the heart of Lucca, the old walled city.

We love Italian food – after 2 ½ weeks here, we’d better – but it was impossible to overlook the temptation of an actual Chinese restaurant just down the street from the flat. Called New Hong Kong, it could pass pretty easily as a garden variety Chinese restaurant in any American town. It was perfectly good and a welcome change of pace.

Lucca is not as nearly well known as its famous neighbor Pisa, only 12 miles away. But it is a real gem, an ancient settlement dating back to the Etruscans in about 700 BC. The Romans took it over about 500 years later. Although the city as a whole is home to about 90,000 people, the real attraction is the walled center, a very compact oval-shaped area about 2 ½ miles in circumference. The wall is fully intact in part because of its relatively recent construction; most of it dates from the early 17th century. It’s about 30 feet high and you can stroll atop it around the entire perimeter of the city.

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And if you do take that stroll along the ramparts, as we did, you get a number of nice views back into the town.

Lucca-18It was a drizzly morning, and we entered the city through one of about 8 gates, our entrance portal in this case lined with vendors since today was market day. You can see the archway at the right of the photo.

Lucca-03A lot of the vendor stall were a little rough-and-tumble, the outdoor equivalent of a dollar store, as this image correctly suggests:

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Lucca’s “local boy makes good” story is Giacomo Puccini, the guy who wrote Madame Butterfly and La Bohème. His house is of course a museum. Outside of that, the town — remember, we’re talking about an area roughly one mile by half a mile in size — is crammed with something like 100 churches and a large number of palazzos. We poked our noses into a number of the former and toured around one of the largest and most elaborate of the latter, the Palazzo Pfanner, formerly owned by a German sculpture collector and physician. It is graced by a formal statuary garden (Athena, Hermes, all your favorites) that includes a very large number of lemon trees, every one of which seemed to be bearing fruit today. The guy must have really loved drinking whiskey sours.

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When life hands you a palazzo, grow lemons.

As befitting its age, the streets of old Lucca are narrow with tiled stone surfaces and punctuated by large squares, the latter usually lined by restaurants and shops. The side streets offer tiny grocery stores, wine shops, bakeries, and people on bikes shopping at all of the above.

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Lucca-22We spent most of the day wandering around the city, variously on and off the wall, breaking for lunch (and of course gelato), looking up at bell towers, and making brief forays into churches of varying ages, elaborateness of decor, and general medieval creepiness. (One had the fully dressed mummified body of some saint or other on display. Great for terrifying your children into following the proper spiritual path.)

There is also a small — very small — botanical garden, which we pretty much exhausted in about 25 minutes, thereby closing out our exploration of the city.

Tomorrow we move on to La Spezia, near the Cinque Terre hiking area on the coast. We’ll pass thorough Pisa along the way, so expect a photo of you-know-what in my next post. However, I caution you in advance that there will be no, repeat no, cutesy forced-perspective photos of one or another of us seemingly holding up the leaning tower.  My photography snobbery does extend at least that far.

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

A Gondola Ride, and Not the Ones in Venice

Balzano-1We walked around in Merano for a bit last night, mostly in an arduous search for an open restaurant, soaking up the odd hybrid Italo-Austrian ambiance. There’s a small pedestrian area near the heart of downtown, reached by walking over a small bridge over a wide but shallow creek. And should you find yourself on that bridge you will see a phenomenon that is gradually becoming the bane of city bridge-maintainers everywhere: padlocks, like the ones you see here. There are hundreds of them, some placed by lovers looking for cheap symbolism, others as some kind of memorial. Some are attached by the dozen to engraved sheets of aluminum, which are themselves then locked to the bridge railings. It is a particular problem in Paris, I have read, where some of the smaller bridges have so many locks that they are becoming a structural risk. Here it is just an oddity.

Balzano-2And speaking of oddities, the next one that we encountered in downtown Merano was some kind of art installation, a cylindrical wedding-cake like structure about 10′-12′ in diameter and a good 8′ high, made entirely out of newspapers. And I don’t mean papier-maché or anything like that: I just mean folded-up whole newspapers. Here’s a closeup. I have no idea what this means. Nor do I know what is going to become of it after a few heavy rainstorms, other than becoming an extraordinarily dense pile of cellulose mush.

This morning dawned clear and bright, despite an ominous weather forecast of mid-day thunderstorms, so we decided to take advantage of the nice weather, however temporary, to get a better view of the Dolomites. One of the best places to do this is in the nearby city of Bolzano, only about 15 miles to the southeast, a busy city of 100,000 best known for a large army base and, more interestingly, a “tram” — actually a cable car or gondola — that takes you up over the town and into the lower Tyrolean Alps.

The gondola ascends about 3,000′ starting from Bolzano’s central train station, up to a the small and appropriately-named village of Soprabolzano, i.e. “above Bolzano”. In German — and everything is in German here, about which more shortly — it is Oberbozen. The change in ambience over that 3,000′ ascent is remarkable. As you look back down the cable car path you see the urban center of Bolzano…

Balzano-12…and a few minutes later you are in Soprabolzano, where they could have filmed Heidi:

Balzano-4You can get some of the best views of the Dolomites not from Soprabolzano itself, however, but rather from the nearby village of Collalbo (Kolbenstein if you’re in a Teutonic frame of mind), which you get to by hopping on the cutest little one-car light-rail tram ever built. The tram leaves from Soprabolzano every half hour and pretty much follows the ridge line of the mountain, arriving in Collalbo about 15 minutes later. Along the way, and in Collalbo itself, you get views like these:

Balzano-9

Balzano-10

Balzano-5…which are pretty remarkable considering that we were negotiating busy city traffic about an hour earlier.

Collalbo’s big attraction, aside from the obvious views, is a multitude of hiking trails, in particular one that leads to what they call the “Erdpyramiden” (“Earth Pyramids”), a type of geological formation found throughout the world and which in the US are called “hoodoos”. They are tall pointy formations, some with rocks balanced on top, formed by alternating periods of drought and rain that erode the ground around the rocks and eventually leave them balanced precariously on an array of pointy columns that make the hillside look like some kind of surreal convention of either Ku Klux Klansmen or Spanish Inquisitors. Here’s what the hillside looks like, reachable by a rather hilly half hour hike from the Collalbo tram station:

Balzano-7…and here is a closeup that shows some of the rocks on top:

Balzano-8We admired the geological weirdness for a few minutes, then headed back towards the tram station, pausing to stop for lunch at a hotel restaurant. The weather was still beautiful so we ate outdoors, where Alice increased her Italian vocabulary the hard way: the special of the day was polpetto, which Alice ordered, knowing that since the Italian word for “octopus” is polpo, polpetto clearly means “little octopus”. Octopus is a favorite meal of hers. And unfortunately for her, polpetto actually means “meat loaf”.

We would actually have figured that out if we had looked a little more closely at the menu, since underneath the Italian name it pretty clearly said something like Fleischstück in German, which would have been a giveaway that we were not talking about octopuses. (And yes, the correct plural is “octopuses”. I don’t want any comments demanding “octopi.”)

This brings me back to the whole Austrian-Italian mishigoss. (For non-Jewish readers, that’s Yiddish for “complicated mess”.) Merano, as I mentioned, is very much a bilingual city with the local culture tending towards the Austrian. But Bolzano, despite being slightly further from the Austrian border, takes a big step closer to its Germanic roots. There is little trace of Italy either in the architecture or in the language spoken in the streets: German is clearly more prevalent.

I mentioned last time that this is a consequence of the redrawing of Europe’s borders in the wake of World War I. Italy wanted this particular chunk of the Austro-Hungary Empire, and got it. (They also wanted scenic Dalmatia, spurred on by the ubiquitous ultra-nationalistic Gabriele D’Annunzio, he of the Addams Family mansion. But they didn’t get that, and it is part of Croatia today.)

But it was a near thing. German U-boats had utterly decimated British sea traffic by mid-1915, and, though hard to imagine today, Britain was only about three months away from surrendering when the US finally shed its neutrality and entered the war. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened had the US not done so, e.g. had the Germans not unwisely sunk the Lusitania the year before. Germany and Austria would have won the war in late 1916 instead of losing two years later. And that means that there would have been no onerous Treaty of Versailles, no Weimar Republic…and no rise of Hitler. In other words, World War II would not have happened or, if it did, would have been in a radically different form, e.g., Europe (including Germany) and the US allied against Stalin’s USSR.

It also means that we would have needed to get our passports stamped this week as we moved from Vicenza to Merano, and would have been a lot less confused as to whether we were still in Italy or had somehow wandered into Austria.

We headed back to Merano around 3:30, with a final stop of the day at Trauttmansdorff Castle, known for being the world’s least-pronounceable botanical garden. (It is actually one of the largest and most impressive in Europe.) We had repeated trouble keeping the name straight and eventually fell back on author Kurt Vonnegut, electing to call it Tralfamadore Castle. (If you don’t know what Tralfamadore is, you need to (a) look it up by clicking the link, and (b) reading more Kurt Vonnegut.) Jim sand Elaine toured the grounds, but Alice and I were just too tired and so just waited for them outside: she is still getting over a cold, which she has now generously shared with me.

Tomorrow we are off to our next destination: Modena, home of Ferrari and Lamborghini. Along the way we will visit the South Tyrol Archaeological Museum to call upon Ötzi, the famous 5500-year-old mummified hunter retrieved from a glacier in the Alps several years ago. He is widely known as the “Ice Man”. We, however, refer to him more familiarly as “Frozen Dead Guy”.

 

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