Posts Tagged With: lake

Art and Watercraft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finger Lake-in’ Good

In case you happen not to be familiar with the geography of New York State, the central region of the state — north of Pennsylvania and southeast of Lake Erie — is dominated by the scenic and aptly-named Finger Lakes region. It’s called that because, um, well, look at the map:

There are technically 12 Finger Lakes, but the “big four” are Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka, and Canandaigua. Those intimidating-looking names are from the Iroquois language, the Iroquois having populated the region well before we did. The lakes themselves were carved by the retreating glaciers a mere 20,000 or so years ago. They’re all long, skinny, and very deep, as much as 600 ft (180 m) in places. They’re also cold and silty — fine for boating, not so much for swimming or diving. (One of my college friends actually learned to scuba dive there. The water was so opaque that he never saw a thing, including his own hands.) But the entire region is extraordinarily scenic.

The region is dear to my heart because everything about it hearkens back to my long-receded youth: I went to college here, at Cornell University in Ithaca, at the south end of Cayuga Lake.  So it seemed a natural destination when we were discussing a joint getaway weekend destination with our friends and occasional traveling companions Laura and David.

Thing is, this is wine country. There are over 100 wineries in the region, which is great if you like wine, which I do not. So it was pretty clear that I was going to be the permanent designated driver on this trip, which I do not mind.

Wineries and quaintness always seem to go hand in hand for some reason; vineyards somehow make otherwise economically depressed areas seem attractive. The Finger Lakes are no exception. We are staying at a B&B in the town of Geneva, a small lakefront town at the top of Lake Seneca, whose downtown is graced by 1940’s building facades and Gothic churches and which is otherwise ringed by spectacular venerable estate homes on the water. The B&B itself, look many such establishments, has a picket-fence, overstuffed-furniture wholesomeness to it, as you can tell just by looking at the front.

It’s a very pleasant inn, the kind of place whose room decor includes this:

And there are of course wreaths. If you live within a block of a B&B you apparently must have a wreath on your door.

But back to the wineries. Visiting all 100+ was not a practical option, but our B&B host kindly presented us with free tasting coupons for several nearby ones. David handed me the car keys, and off we went.  As we approached our first destination (out of what would eventually be five), Laura expounded a very profound insight: “You know you’re at a winery when there’s a chandelier in the barn.” True dat.

The day consisted of a great deal of sloshing, spitting, and pronouncing. (“Too acidic.” “Notes of oak, cinnamon, cat dander, and feldspar.” “Hey! This is Diet Coke!”) They tasted, I photographed (and drove), we all admired the scenery.

Now here is today’s riddle for you: what do wineries and the Special Olympics have in common? Answer: everybody gets medals. There is not a winery on the planet — or at least not in the Finger Lakes — that does not boast a slew of awards of mysterious provenance. The Governor’s Cup. The Decanter Awards. The Chardonnay Showdown. La Mouffete d’Or. Whatever. Here’s a set won by a local winery that you’ve probably never heard of.

No matter… I don’t drink the stuff anyway, and everyone had a good time. It was crystalline sunny day, about 80F, when the area is at its most beautiful. Tomorrow we will visit some spectacular local waterfalls, our admiration doubtless punctuated with more wine.

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Hakone in the Mist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t pretty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gomez Addams, Call Your Office

It is a chilly and rainy day today here on the shores of Lake Garda, so as I mentioned last time we shelved our more ambitious plans — a boat ride on the lake — in favor of visiting the very nearby Vittoriale di D’Annunzio, the sprawling home of Gabriele D’Annunzio, whom I slighted in my last post by calling an eccentric. He was, in fact, an Italian icon in the first third of the 20th century, an accomplished poet, playwright, World War I combat hero, ladies’ man, rabid nationalist, relentless (and spectacularly successful) self-promoter, and batshit loonball of truly epic proportions. If you have ever visited San Simeon, the Hearst Castle in California, then you know how far unlimited wealth and overweening narcissism will take you in the Over-The-Top Real Estate & Decor department, but even with that data point this place forces you to recalibrate your expectations. No photos are allowed at Vittoriale di D’Annunzio , so thanks to  Google Images here is a view of the estate and a few shots of the interior:

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That is a rebuilt Greek amphitheater in the foreground. What the photo does not show — because the estate is so large — is the torpedo boat that he commanded in World War I, which is installed on an adjacent hillside, nor the pet cemetery about the size and of similar appearance as the amphitheater. Inside the house — which we toured — is the biplane that he flew during a propaganda raid against Vienna in the war, in August 1918. (He led a squadron of 9 planes dropping leaflets urging the Austro-Hungarian Empire to surrender, which three months later they did.)

D’Annunzio suffered an eye injury during a plane crash earlier that year that made him averse to bright light.  He was in addition to everything else a raging hypochondriac, and as a result when he built his palatial monument to himself he ensured that it was always dark and gloomy inside. Which is good, because if you were actually to behold the inconceivable mishmash of religious, artistic, and general cultural in unfiltered daylight your eyeballs would melt. Here are a couple of images of the more sedately-decorated rooms:

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You stumble through the gloom half expecting Herman Munster to come lurching stiff-legged down the hallway, marveling at the heretofore inconceivable fact that this place makes San Simeon look like it was furnished by Ikea.

You’ve got to give the guy credit for sheer profligacy, though. In one room he has a reference to the Seven Deadly Sins painted above the doorway lintel. The phrase, in Italian, reads “Five Fingers, Five Sins”.  Five? Yeah. Turns out that D’Annunzio refused to recognize “greed” or “lust” as sins and so dropped them from the traditional list. He definitely walked the walk.

We spent a couple of hours touring both the house and the grounds, and by the time we finished the early afternoon mist had turned into a more robust drizzle. We therefore decided to have a late lunch at a trattoria just outside the grounds in the hope that the rain would pass or at least lighten before we had to make the 15-minute walk back to our flat. And that worked, if by “lighten” you mean “strengthen into a steady downpour”. It was a wet walk back to the flat, where we arrived at about 4:00 pm.

At that point we basically called it a day, reading, napping, and generally drying out. We may get ambitious enough to go out to dinner tonight. We leave Garda tomorrow morning, though, and it appears that the weather will improve somewhat so I am hopeful that we will still get our self-promised boat ride on the lake before heading to Merano, our next destination.

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En Garda!

With great reluctance we took leave of our castle yesterday afternoon, pausing only to hand out pennies to the serfs who were throwing rose petals in our path. Well, no actually. We did however, get to chat with the owners, or more accurately the managers, Maria and Gabriele, a handsome thirty-ish couple with two small children who run the place (and several others) on behalf of Maria’s grandfather , who bought the place from an eccentric baroness (really) ten years ago. Turns out that we were only the second guests, ever.

Maria also told us a bit of the castle’s history. (She has done some research and is preparing a brochure which has not yet been translated into English.) The oldest part of the castle dates from the 14th century, with various parts being added and renovated all the way up to the 19th. Our apartment was originally part of the one of the older sections, though has obviously undergone a series of renovations. (14th century electrical wiring was notoriously unreliable.)

Our goal lay to the northwest towards the mountains, in particular the resort region of Lake Garda, with a stop along the way in Verona. And as in the previous couple of days we eschewed the Autostrade in favor of the proverbial scenic route, wending our sinuous way through an endless series of hairpin turns up and down through the hills so that we could enjoy the views of the countryside, e.g.:

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Those are grape vines in the lower right, by the way. They are ubiquitous.

Scenes like this were a fine reward for taking this route, of course, but the driving itself was exhausting, a master-class exercise in heel-and-toe work on the clutch, brake, gas, and stick. It was one of the few occasions when I would have been happy to sacrifice my Manliness Points for driving a stick shift in favor of a good old pedestrian automatic transmission.

Verone lay at about the halfway point between Vicenza and Lake Garda, so we stopped there for lunch and to look around. It’s a lively city of about a quarter-million inhabitants, dating all the way back to about 500 BC. It became officially Roman in about 100 BC, and as they did everywhere else the Romans left their architectural mark, in the form of high city walls that encompass the city center and, most notably, a large amphitheater that looks remarkably (and unsurprisingly) like the Roman Coliseum.

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It is, however, in rather better repair than its big brother in Rome, because the choice was made to repurpose it for modern performances rather than preserve its full archaeological value. Hence the performance space, rather than being a field of collapsed columns, looks like this:

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Great for Bar Mitzvahs

The bowels of the structure are a lot more historical looking, however:

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Lions enter on the left, Christians please continue around to the right.

 

The arena has a seating capacity of 30,000 and is used for every kind of performance: opera, plays by Shakespeare through Tennessee Williams (“Gatto Sul Tetto Che Scotta” = “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”), and rock concerts (Mumford & Sons this June!).

As you can tell, the seating is a mix of folding chairs down at ground level, and both aluminum bleachers and the original stone steps above. The stone steps, though brutal on my poor arthritic knees, are beautifully preserved and beautiful in their own right, being a mix of different colored stone:

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We climbed to the uppermost row of seats to get a view of the town, in particular the teeming square adjacent to the amphitheater. Verona is quite the tourist draw, in part because of its mention in a couple of Shakespeare’s plays, and of course for the amphitheater itself as well as other Roman architectural legacies.   The square is lined with restaurants and alive with tourists, strolling locals, tchotchke vendors, and political groups making their pitch from canopied folding tables.

Verona does not shy from its literary connection to Shakespeare, far from it. The local authorities will no doubt be forever grateful that Romeo and Juliet was set here, as that fact alone is probably responsible for a measurable fraction of the tourist traffic. And indeed, somewhere in the city there is a balcony that is advertised as the one that Juliet stood on for her immortal “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” speech. This of course is completely idiotic, Juliet being a fictional character and Shakespeare never having left England. I was ranting on this topic and complained, “Hey, if you have any friends in Missouri who live in a house with a white picket fence, tell them that they can make money by advertising it as the one that Tom Sawyer talked his friends into whitewashing!” Whereupon Elaine informed me that such a fence does in fact exist, in Mark Twain’s home town of Hannibal, MO. Which just goes to show that it is not possible to be too cynical. In any case, we did not seek out the pointlessly-famous balcony, so I cannot tell you what it looks like.

We left Verona, and our driver (me) having tired of hairpin turns, headed directly to the resort town of Gardone Riviera on the western shore of Lake Garda, in the foothills of the Alps about 60 miles from the Swiss border. The weather, alas, has been deteriorating, and so our view of the gorgeous multitude of orange-tiled roofs along the shore was hindered by low-hanging clouds and a very light drizzle.  Still, we found our flat, a modern two-bedroom affair, nothing compared to our previous digs but enjoying a beautiful view of the lake. Here are some shots taken from the balcony outside our bedroom:

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Our flat is high on the hillside, nestled in a maze of the ever-present steep, narrow, winding cobblestone streets. (Navigating them by car is all sorts of fun.) The owner recommended a gourmet restaurant right down the street, where we enjoyed an excellent meal whose dishes included a rather unusual array of ingredients: Alice’s included spelt pasta with octopus sauce; mine was a fish mousse. If for some reason you ever find yourself in this particular town, by all means eat at Osteria Antica Brolo. Tell them that Fabrizio Pollini sent you.

The weather today is pretty bad, chilly and drizzly, and so we are setting aside our more ambitious touring plans. As it happens we are very close to a large and famously bizarre Addams-Family-style mansion, the Vittoriale D’Annunzio, whose eccentric owner decorated it with knick-knacks like gilded turtle shells that happened to catch his fancy. A more complete report later…

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I Go, You Go, Tierra del Fuego (Oct 6)

“You are here”, quite precisely

I am dating these next few entries because we are aboard ship as I type this and will not be be able to send them out for at least another few days. (Our ship, the Via Australis, is a small (126 passenger) “expedition” passenger ship devoid of a lot of big cruise ship amenities: no internet, no swimming pool, no movie theater, etc. It does however have an open bar; this ain’t exactly the Shackelton expedition. Anyway, more on the ship shortly.)

Ushuaia (pronounced oosh-WAH-yuh, by the way) takes its reputation as the southernmost city on the world pretty seriously, to the point of indicating the latitude and longitude of the major intersections on its street signs, as you see at left. One second of latitude is about 100 feet, and one second of longitude is only about 55 feet or so at this latitude, so you can actually see the differences in the coordinates on the signs as you walk from block to block. (The main drag of Ushuaia is a single street of crappy souvenir shops and much better restaurants, about 16 blocks long.)

The problem with the whole “southernmost” self-image — we drove past a sign advertising “the world’s most southernmost golf course” today — is that unless you are actually in Antarctica you are always on slightly shaky ground. And indeed, there is a Chilean town called Port Williams that is slightly further south than Ushuaia (which is Argentine). But Port Williams has only 1500 inhabitants versus Ushuaia’s 65,000, and so a gentlemen’s agreement — and I swear this is true — was reached whereunder each gets uncontested bragging rights:  Port Williams bills itself as the world’s most southernmost town, whereas Ushuaia is agreed to be the southernmost city. Chile and Argentina have a contentious and sometimes bellicose history, so this counts as a small victory for peace.

This is our southernmost picture, until the next one

Our main activity on Monday morning was a visit to Tierra del Fuego National Park (proof at right) which in the spirit of things I suppose is the world’s most southernmost national park. The are a number of cool things about the place, but one of them is the entrance sign itself. Note the third line from the bottom, which means “Here is the end of National Route #3”, that being the designation of the Argentine portion of the Pan American Highway. In other words, this sign sign is REALLY the end of the road.

The park itself is beautiful, the vistas strongly reminiscent of both the Pacific Northwest and many parts of Alaska: glacial moraine, cold clear lakes, snow capped mountains. We made a few easy hikes, ogled the views, got educated by our local guide Laura and the flora and fauna. The vegetation is noticeably different than the temperate zone stuff that we are used to: lots of orange-colored spherical edible fungi on the trees, Calafata berry bushes (from which one makes Calafata Sours, Patagonia’s answer to the otherwise ubiquitous Pisco Sour). The picture below gives a pretty typical sense of the place:

Nature at its almost southernmost

There was a little bit of conversational confusion with Laura as she kept referring to “Fire Land”. She was trying to be helpful, since that is the literal translation of “Tierra del Fuego”, named after the fires lit on the beach by the native Yamana and first seen by Magellan. We assured her that we called the place by its Spanish Name.

The Yamana were a hardy crew, though not hardy enough to avoid being wiped out by the Spanish. They were master canoe builders, and their designs have not yet been successfully duplicated. They were also naked, since clothes in this environment tend to get wet and stay wet, thus keeping you cold. They smeared animal fat on their bods instead. (It makes me wonder if, much as the Inuit are said to have many words for snow, the Yamana had dozens of ways to say, “Holy crap, I’m freezing my butt off.”) 

Speaking of being wiped out, another member of our traveling party did more or less that at about by tripping on a step as we were boarding the bus to leave the park. Broken wrist — she flew home from Ushuaia today. That’s our second loss, which brings the group down to 19. Julio’s not happy about it; he’s never lost two before. (And though he doesn’t know it, he’s going to get more bad news tomorrow: one of our party took sick with a cold or flu and is having trouble shaking it off. She has pretty much isolated herself in her hotel room and boat cabin, and told us in the hallway an hour ago that she is punching out too as soon as we come into port in Punta Arenas in two days.)

La specialité de maison, medieval but quite delicious

We got back from the park in time to have a late lunch before boarding the ship and decided to go full native in much the same way that we ate a whole fresh king crab for dinner the night before. The local specialty this time was barbecued lamb, and there are a large number of local restaurants dedicated to cooking mammals over wood fires and displaying the process in their windows as at left.

The waiter told us that a portion was suitable for one person, so we ordered two portions plus an appetizer. But as soon as we mentioned the appetizer (empanadas) he backpedaled and suggested that one portion of lamb might be enough, and we went with that. This turned out to be about 3 lbs of lamb on the bone, and we couldn’t finish it. But it was really good…

After lunch we walked all 16 blocks of downtown, then to the port to rendezvous with our group and board the Via Australis, which you see at right.

De boat, boss, de boat!

It’s a small, attractive ship that as I mentioned carries about 126 passengers. It has four decks plus an open top deck for panoramic viewing if you enjoy being out in the open in 40 degree weather in a 20 mph wind. The interior is quite beautifully appointed, all dark wood and brass. Our cabin is comfortable, about 11′ x 16′, on the lowermost deck right down the hall from the main dining room. (The rooms are identical on all decks, so lower down is good: less rocking.) One of the ship’s prominent features is not visible in the photo: a row of 4 Zodiacs in the back, to be used to ferry us 12 at a time to islands and glaciers. (As we shall see in our next installment.) Here we are looking back at Ushuaia as we leave port at about 7pm. Note the sterns of the Zodiacs at the bottom.

Cape Horn, here we come

 

 

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I’ll Have a Trillion Margaritas…with Salt, Please

 

I mentioned earlier that San Pedro de Atacama is very tiny; the population is about 7,000 (not the 1,400 I mentioned earlier). This is to be compared with the number of tourists who visit here, which is 150,000 annually. So it is fair to say that tourism is kind of important here. “Here” being a somewhat wishful term, there not being a whole lot of here here (so to speak).

Those 150,000 tourists include a whole lot of ridiculously fit people, judging by the number of spandexed legs pumping bicycles. You know the demographic: skintight outfit, neon-colored helmet, scraggly hair, 40 lb backpack strapped to the bike. They’re everywhere in town, and I can only assume that they are all googly-eyes crazy, because we are at 8,000 feet elevation in the driest desert in the world, and practically every direction out of town is UP, steeply, into the Andes. Long distance biking around here is about the least fun thing that I can imagine. But bike they do: every single business establishment in town is a craft store, restaurant, or tourist lodging, and I am not exaggerating.

To give you a flavor of the place, here is one of the major intersections:

Rush hour in San Pedro. The guy in green is our local guide Camillo, warning Alice about the heavy traffic.

Our local guide Camillo has lived here for 22 years, on the outskirts of town. (How a town of 7,000 in the middle of a desert has outskirts is not clear to me.) Needless to say, he knows everyone. About 30 seconds after I took this picture he chatted with a local woman who was walking by with some shopping bags. Turns out that was the mayor.

Your go-to place for blankets and herbal Viagra

There is a central square, off of which radiate the Big Four of every small town in this region: a church, a small anthropological museum, a police station, and a craft market.  The craft market was small, crowded, and lively, as you can see at left. The collection of goods for sale had its idiosyncrasies, to say the least. Along with the expected good quality woolen hats and blankets, and the kitchshy stuffed llamas and refrigerator magnets, you can also purchase (1) crystalline salt in lumps the size of grapefruits (“Care for some salt on your food?” CLUNK); (2) coca tea and hard candies; and (3) brightly-colored packs containing extremely sketchy herbal remedies allegedly for high cholesterol, diabetes, and, um, inadequate bedroom performance. The first two featured pictures of busty girls in microscopic bikinis, which of course is the image that springs to mind when you think of cholesterol or diabetes. The third featured a poorly-lit sweaty couple demonstrating the efficacy of the product.  OK then, I’m convinced!

We had an excellent lunch (a local corn and lamb stew) at another off-the-beaten-path restaurant where Camillo inevitably knew the owner. It included a new (to us) culinary discovery: merken, a wonderfully smoky —  and very hot — spice made from dried smoked chili peppers. (We’re bringing some back for you, Jon H, and we expect to sample however you use it.) Later that afternoon we were off to the Atacama salt flats. You knew that salt was going to show up again, didn’t you?

Margaritas, anyone?

The salt flats are about two hours from San Pedro and occupy an enormous area: about 1200 square miles. They are spectacular, ringed by the mountains and surrounding a shallow briny (very briny) lake. But they did not comport with my mental image of a salt flat, which is the highway-smooth Bonneville flats in the US. These are anything but smooth: the crystallized salts are in rough flaky lumps about the size of oranges or as big as footballs, thrown together and stuck to and on top of each other to a height of about a foot and a half. You could not drive on this salt flat; were it not for the prepared path, you could not even walk on it. You wouldn’t make it six feet before falling and/or twisting an ankle. Here is Alice at right, contemplating how many Margaritas you could make out of 100 million tons of salt.

But here’s the thing. The salt flats encompass a number of briny lagoons, wherein live lots of very hardy brine shrimp, who in turn are the favorite food of (drum roll) flamingos! Yes! This seemingly inhospitable place is home to large numbers of pink flamingos, and we saw them strutting, preening, and even flying around in large kitschy numbers. It was a spectacular, memorable sight, and became more so as the sun went down, bathing the surrounding mountains in orange and exaggerating the flamingos’ natural color. We stayed for hours until shortly after sunset, wandering among the salt formations and ogling the flamingos parading around the lagoon. It was otherworldly, a real gift.

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