Posts Tagged With: palace

Hip, Hip, Hula

On the third Sunday of every month — which was yesterday — part of the waterfront main drag of downtown Kailua-Kona is closed off to auto traffic in favor of the “Kona Sunday Street Stroll”, which is pretty much exactly what you are picturing. About 100 local vendors set up tents, and it’s worth an easy hour or so to stroll among them. Some of these are for food, including that Hawaiian perennial, shave ice, and — our personal favorite — a local lady who makes popsicles out of fresh-pressed local fruits. Trust me, you want a lilikoi (passion fruit)-banana popsicle. I also tried a rather bizarre mixture: a pineapple-papaya-chili pepper popsicle. The chili peppers were in little chunks, scattered dangerously throughout. I came to think of it as a Menopause Popsicle: you’re happily working your way through the sweet refreshing fruity ice, when POW! Hot flash!

The non-food vendors: jewelry, tee shirts, photographers (you have no idea how many metal-printed photos of lava and sea turtles are out there), and herbal panaceas. The latter are usually advertised as having been extracted from some species of flora that no one has ever heard of, but which can nonetheless provide relief from pretty much everything.

Certainly the highlight of our walk — besides the popsicles and shave ice — was the hula demo on the grounds of the Hulihe’e Palace, the former Kona waterfront vacation home of Hawaiian royalty, built in the early 1800’s. Here was the scene yesterday at about 4:30 PM:

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Hula — especially Hawaiian hula – is a complicated and subtle art form. Many mainland hula demonstrations include an admixture of Tahitian hula, which is the one with the very rapid tempo drumming. the tall headdresses, and the women with the inhumanly fast hips. Traditional Hawaiian hula is different: the pre-Western kind, called hula kahiko, is a story-telling medium centered on the arms, hands, and face. It’s performed to a song and accompanied only by a percussive double gourd. Here’s what I mean by it being gestural:

I like to think that the pose on the left means, “Please silence your cell phones.” Other examples from yesterday:

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At this point, someone out there who is reading this post is thinking, “Wait a minute. What’s with the 19th century prom dresses? Where are the grass skirts?” Here’s where it gets complicated.

First of all, the original Hawaiian female hula dancers never wore grass skirts. They wore very elaborate, multi-square-yard skirts made of kapa cloth, which is a fiber made from a certain pressed tree bark. And they did not wear coconut-shell bras. (No sane woman anywhere ever has; they’re some late 19th century guy’s fantasy, which I’ll get to in a moment.) They did not wear any tops at all.

The whole topless women thing did not sit well with late 18th century missionaries, or at least with their wives. It became necessary to cover the immodest heathen, and so they did. To keep the missionaries placated the hula halaus (schools) adopted the grandmotherly garb that you see above, and much of both modern day (‘auana) and traditional (kahiko) hula are performed that way. Men’s hula, on the other hand — much more stylistically aggressive and less subtle than the women’s dance — was and still is performed in loincloths and maile leaf adornments.

So where did the whole grass-skirt-and-coconut-bra shtick come from? The answer, believe it or not, is vaudeville. Vaudeville got its start in the 1880’s about a century after Cook’s arrival and eventual death in the islands. Knowledge of Hawaii’s existence had seeped into popular knowledge by then, and theater producers were always on the lookout for exotic material for their productions. “Girls from a tropical island” was bound to occur to somebody sooner or later. But the topless thing clearly wasn’t gonna fly, and the authentic kapa skirts weren’t going to work either: they were expensive, labor-intensive to maintain, and, well, insufficiently sexy for their intended purpose. Enter the grass skirt: cheap, easy to fix or replace, and just a bit suggestive. Ditto the coconut bras. The skirts also had a certain historical precedent in that they did somewhat resemble Tahitian hula skirts, which are indeed made from grasses and leaves but are ankle-length and thick.

This dress scheme was wildly successful, and soon every vaudeville act with a Hawaiian number was dressing their dancers in grass skirts, to the point that it eventually became everyone’s default mental image for Hawaiian hula. It was, in its way, one of the first viral memes. And of course, it filtered all the way back to its point of origin: if you plunk for the $49.95 Colorful Hawaiian Luau at whatever hotel you’re staying at, odds are good that you’ll see a hula dancer in a not-particularly-Hawaiian grass skirt.

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

I Just Met A Girl Named Bahia

I promised some nighttime photos of the main square near Marrakech’s bazaar, so here they are. When looking at them imagine that you can smell the smoke from dozens of grills while hearing chanting, percussive music, flutes, and people shouting. Lots of people shouting. It was total sensory overload, a great deal of high energy fun.

See the musicians in front of the fruit stand in the picture above? That’s a common sight in the square. And sometimes there are dancers as well, one that caught our attention being a fully burkha’ed drag queen who made nice with our friend Jerry. And it was just around that moment, amidst all the dancing and hilarity, that some less entertaining person pickpocketed Jerry’s camera. Welcome to Marrakech, where your fun is best taken with a heavy dose of situational awareness.

The gentlemen below is selling escargot, one of the popular types of food stands in the square.

Our first stop this morning was the Bahia Palace, within walking distance of our riad. It is not especially old, dating from the 19th century, and was built by the grand vizier (yes, they really did have grand viziers) of the time to honor his new favorite wife, Bahia. The architecture is spectacularly ornate, with thousands of square feet of carvings lining the walls and ceilings that look like this:

I mentioned that we went on foot. This is because we abandoned our trusty bus and driver altogether last night and have now adopted a lower-tech means of getting around the city: horse-drawn carriage. We’ve split up among four carriages and go merrily clip-clopping through the street from one destination to the next in grand eco-friendly (if somewhat low-speed) style. And it really is eco-friendly: if you look carefully at the top photo you will see that the horses are wearing poop-catchers.

We eventually cycled around back to the main square, which, while still a cauldron of activity, is far less crowded and madcap than at night. Still, it has its attractions: there are craft merchants instead of fruit stands and for sheer weirdness it is hard to beat the snake charmers:

You may have a mental image of a half-naked turbaned fakir playing a pipe in front of a wicker basket, but it is not quite like that. The are actually three guys, one doodling on a pipe, one beating a drum, and one running around like a madman and actually handling the snakes. The music is not soothing and hypnotic; it is frenetic and insistent, and the handler is in nonstop motion, waving his arms at the snakes, spitting at them, picking them up, putting them down, and generally acting like he’s got some kind of locomotor Tourette’s. There are two kinds of snakes: about a half dozen cobras and some larger reticulated variety that you can see at the lower right of picture. Those seemed pretty torpid, but the cobras were definitely active and not especially happy looking. (Though I will admit that I have a hard time reading reptiles’ state of mind.)

The handler stroked them, waved them around, spit and made kissing noises at them, and in one instance managed to put one to sleep on the ground. Here’s our guy making kissy face with a cobra:

Notice anything unusual about the snake? Remember, this is a deadly cobra who injects deadly poison into its victims with its razor sharp fa…waaaaaaait a minute. Where are the fangs? Back at the snake charmer’s house, I’m guessing. Yep, our snake charmers have a little insurance policy: defanged snakes. They may be weird, but they’re not stupid.

From the main square we clip-clopped around to the other side of the large mosque that overlooks it; the far side of the mosque is graced with a congenial well-kept garden dotted with benches and strolling paths… and water sellers. These are a traditional fixture of Marrakech, exotically-costumed men who carry goatskins full of water and copper drinking vessels in which to pour it for the thirsty wanderer. They announce their presence by ringing bells as they walk around, basically being the Good Humor Men of their day. At least, that’s the idea, and long ago it probably worked exactly like that. Drinking water is now rather more readily available than it was, back in the day, and their main function now is to have their pictures taken for money. So here they are:

Our next stop was the Saadian tombs, which date from about 1600 and were the necropolis for the Saadi dynasty of that era. Their distinction — besides a lot of royal dead people in one place — is the extensive use of marble. Outside the metaphorical velvet rope, in the courtyard, are the graves of honored servants. That’s what you see here:

But inside is the first class seating, with lots more legroom:

Not sure quite what else to say about them, really. They were very, um, marble-y.

Following the tombs, we gamely agreed to visit a rug merchant, which you might correctly guess is a high-risk endeavor. We’d done so in Turkey and enjoyed it, seeing the women weaving the rugs, spinning the silk from the silkworm cocoons, etc., before being subjected to a friendly high pressure sales pitch. This was the same, except without the interesting stuff: it was all sales pitch. A few members of our group bought attractive rugs at reasonable prices, but we were not in the market.  In fact, we have never been in the market; the only oriental rug we’ve ever bought was a small one from our friend Warren, who unloaded it for $100 without explaining anything about silkworms. It’s still in our living room.

We had a blissfully non-Moroccan lunch for a change of pace — pizza at an Italian restaurant, yay! — before heading off for shopping at the souk. By now even Alice has caught bargaining fever, and we bought several items at about half their original asking price. But the highlight if the afternoon was a delightful unexpected encounter arising from the a broken strap on my leather backpack. I hunted around in the souk looking for a replacement but could not find anything suitable and had pretty much resigned myself to carrying the pack around by one strap when Thumper saved the day. She observed perspicaciously that since there were maybe 75 leather craftsmen within 200 feet of where we were standing, then instead of buying a new pack maybe I could find someone to repair it? Duh.

And so I walked into the next leather goods store I saw, about 20 feet from where we stood, and spent a wonderful 20 minutes with the young man in the picture and two of his buddies/colleagues, speaking a combination of French and English and talking about our families and our homes while he effected a repair that will without doubt outlast the rest of the backpack (which I bought about twelve years ago for twenty bucks in Tijuana). He wouldn’t name a price for the repair so I tipped him and his friends ten bucks — very generous by local standards — and everyone left delighted. It was one of those encounters that reminds me why we travel.

We had dinner with Steve and Thumper at an excellent local restaurant down the street from our riad: pigeon pastille (squawk!) topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar, and a belly dancer for entertainment. Then it was back to the main square at night, where Steve wowed the locals with a performance of his own, about which I will regale you tomorrow.

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Come with Me to the Casbah (Again)

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

Does this look like fun, or what?

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

Le restaurant s’appelle Le Dhow

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

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

The Senior Center is around the back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Look Ma, no scaffolding!

 

We are not amused.

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

Exterior courtyard, with kids playing soccer


Some local ladies enjoying the Andalusian garden

 

Making bread in dark and cramped quarters on a side street

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

Merely being dead will not get you in here.

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

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

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

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

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

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Venice Day 2: Doge Day Afternoon

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The fearsome, delicious mantis shrimp

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

Aren’t you glad you asked?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hercules at the Bat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Worst. B&B. Ever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Santiago vs Coney Island

What, you may ask, do those two titular locations have in common? The answer is: hot dogs. Santiagans (?) just love hot dogs. (And I am warning you now, I better not see any “Chile dog” puns in the comments section of this post.) 

We arrived at our hotel well before 10 AM, hours too early to check into our room, and so our tour lead Julio (about whom more later) had arranged for a local tour guide, a pleasant mid-30ish woman named Miriam, to talk us out of our fatigue — we had left our house 18 hours earlier and flown through the night — and lead us on a few hour walking tour of downtown first. And so we rode the subway downtown and saw the government palace, the main square, a church, and a large number of hole-in-the-wall hot dog restaurants.

Ya got your hot dog, your hot dog, and your hot dog.

No joke. We were solemnly informed that Santiagans’ favorite food is sandwiches, and hot dogs are the sandwich of choice. As nearly as I can tell from their menus, all such hot dog joints offer the following: the “Italiano” (includes tomato, guacamole and mayo toppings to duplicate the color of the Italian flag, and no, I am not kidding), the “Completo” (tomatoes, relish), and a combination platter that is two hot dogs, being (wait for it) an Italiano and a Completo. That’s it. No fries, no salads, no anything. Ya got your Italiano and your Completo and that’s it. Don’t like the choices? There’s another hot dog place half a block away with the same menu. The hot dog lobby is apparently really influential here in the capital. Our particular choice of dining establishment is shown at left. (Note the crazy-looking prices: there are about 600 Chilean pesos to the dollar, but just to confuse things they use the $ symbol. The total tab for lunch was six bucks.)

I should add that while the hot dogs themselves were unremarkable, the rolls were excellent, yeasty fresh Italian rolls like you might get on a good cheesesteak in Philadelphia. Miriam informed us that Chileans are real bread snobs and eat a lot of it.

But let me now turn back the clock to several hours earlier. Our flights were uneventful except for the guy who keeled over in the aisle between Alice and me for causes unknown. He just fell over with a loud thump, stared semiconsciously at the ceiling for a minute or so while everyone went nuts, and then with some help got up, apparently none the worse for wear.

The red eye flight from Miami to Santiago was on the much touted spanking new Boeing 787, which you may recall from news items a few months back is notable for being quieter and more fuel efficient than most big jets as well as (a) having more frequently circulated and better humidified air inside, and (b) being grounded with regularity because of its high-tech lithium batteries’ predilection for catching fire. I can report that it is noticeably quieter and less dry than most jets, that the batteries did not catch fire, and that it still felt like a cattle car with no legroom.

We arrived in Santiago at about 7:30 AM and were met by our tour lead, the almost-34-year-old Julio (he’ll turn 34 next week when we’re in Buenos Aires). Julio is slight of stature, cheerful as you might expect, and speaks lightly accented but essentially perfect English. He has an elfin face that makes him look like a young, Latin Martin Short. For this Santiago and Atacama leg of the tour there are only eight of us besides Julio; we will join up with the remaining dozen in Buenos Aires. I not unexpectedly am the baby of the group, who appear to range from mid-60s to late 70s. There is only one other couple in the group, a mid-70’s pair who as it happens are practically our neighbors, hailing from just over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Their names are Jean and Dick. Jean (75) is outgoing, Dick (77) is taciturn, and they are both extraordinarily well-traveled: this is their 22nd (!) trip with our tour operator (Overseas Adventure Travel, OAT).

This makes me the Young Buck of the group, an unfamiliar status. Other than Dick, the remaining travelers are all ladies of a certain age, all pleasant enough. Alice and I were however both concerned about one robust, kind-looking, and somewhat out of it lady who had a lot of difficulty keeping up with the group; our fears came to life about a half hour into our downtown outing when she came close to fainting on a street corner and had to be taken back to the hotel. Happily the rest seems to have revived her, or it was gonna be a long few days in the Atacama.

Downtown Santiago is pleasant though not especially photogenic. It is a mix of shiny skyscrapers that would be at home in any American city, and smaller and more ornate government buildings in a European colonial style. The streets are broad and, we are told, crowded with commuters and pickpockets on crowded weekdays. (Today is Sunday, so the city was very uncrowded.) There are scattered pleasant pedestrian walkways lined with shops and restaurants, also very European in appearance. There are American-style homeless people and lots of stray dogs, the latter being very popular with locals, who sort of adopt them without ever taking them home.

I should mention something about one of those shops in the pedestrian area. We passed a coffee shop that had a lot of waist-high outdoor tables but no chairs; the patrons all stood. Our city guide Miriam said that such places were called “coffee shops with legs”, and could we guess why? Obviously because the patrons are standing, we all said. Nope, explained Miriam, look at the waitresses inside.

Hmmm, the waitresses were wearing little micro-miniskirts, sort of a cross between Hooters and Starbucks, hence the “legs” part of the sobriquet. In fact (Miriam explained) there are more such coffee shops in somewhat less public venues in which the waitresses wear significantly less. Those places are called “coffee shops with milk.” And finally, in reaction to both of these, a group of women opened a chain of places served by scantily-attired Chippendale-like men — think Speedos and bow ties. But instead of attracting women — and you knew this was coming — they became gay hangouts instead, a concept with which Chileans are a whole lot less comfortable than Americans. So the experiment failed… but not before they became hilariously known as “coffee houses with three legs.” 

Airtight security on horseback

The government palace faces a large unadorned square, and seems rather thinly guarded: two sentries at the front, a couple patrolling the square, and two ornately-dressed mounted soldiers. All seemed friendly; the mounted guards allowed people to pet the horses and have their picture taken between them. At the edge of the square stands a memorial statue to Salvador Allende, decorated with a few recently-placed bouquets of roses. The coup and subsequent Allende era are, needless to say, a rather sore subject that few Chileans wish to discuss: despite an era of South Africa-like “truth commissions” designed to effect reconciliation and put the past to rest, those who lost loved ones to the disappearances and violence — and there are many of them — understandably feel that the past is being whitewashed.

After our walking tour we returned to our hotel for a desperately-needed shower and nap. Much refreshed, Julio then took the eight of us out to a fine dining restaurant on the 16 floor of a nearby building. The menu was seafood (a Chilean specialty)  and we had hake, which was excellent. The real treat, though, was the setting: the restaurant rotated about once per hour, offering a comprehensive panoramic view of the nearby Andes mountains on one side of the city and the lower coastal range on the other. Here’s a bit of the view at sunset:

The Andes plus fresh seafood, viewed from 16 stories up. What’s not to like?

The foothills of the Andes to the east of the city are Santiago’s high-rent district; there’s more or less an affluence gradient as you move from west to east, starting with the lower economic end at the coastal range, moving through town, and then east into the Andes. Our city guide Miriam informed us that it’s the ritzy neighborhoods that get all the good restaurants, noting sardonically that these included Ruby Tuesday’s and Applebee’s. (I wonder if I can still get my Goddard discount at the Santiago Ruby Tuesday’s?)

And that, gentle readers, was our first day of the trip. We’ll be back in Santiago in a few days, but tomorrow morning we fly north to the town of Calama, then go overland to the village of San Pedro de Atacama, in the desert of the same name.

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