Posts Tagged With: tower

Déšť, Déšť, Go Away

That would be “rain”, which is what is falling from the sky in Prague today. It didn’t really slow us down because in the wake of yesterday’s ambitious touring, we decided to take it easy today. Our first stop was the National Museum of Decorative Arts for the purpose of seeing the photography exhibition of Josef Koudelka, an outstanding and near-legendary Czech photographer whose name you may never have heard but whose work you have seen. He’s the guy who took all those famous street photos of the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968.

It was an enormous exhibit displaying hundreds of works — all in black and white — from over Koudelka’s 60+ year career. He’s currently 80 and still working… and collecting awards by the bushel.

 

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(I don’t know who the visitor is in this picture; Alice was in another room at the moment.) If you have any interest in photography at all you owe it to yourself to learn more about Koudelka and look up his work. He’s amazing.

Our second and final stop was a return to the Franz Kafka Head, which frustrated us a couple of days ago by stubbornly sitting there inert instead of doing its metamorphic act. But today we got lucky, and I filmed this:

Alice correctly observed that it was a lot cooler in motion than standing still.

And that’s about it for today, which was our last full day here. We return for a stopover overnight in Reykjavik late tomorrow evening, then return home Tuesday afternoon. For our penultimate dinner in Prague tonight, we went to…. a Thai restaurant. Czech food is fine but is heavy on things like lamb and venison and wild boar and such, accompanied by five different kinds of bread and potato dishes. We were getting a little dumpling’ed out so went to a Mexican restaurant last night, one run by actual Mexicans, which was excellent. If you’re wondering how and why Mexicans came to Prague to open a restaurant as opposed to, say, San Diego or Omaha, the answer is complicated. Some of the owners and staff came as students and stayed; others skipped over the US (I can’t imagine why) and emigrated to Canada, then came to Prague from there. Restaurant prices, by the way, are about 20% cheaper here than they are at home in the DC area. So Prague generally seems like a bargain.

Some final random notes about the city that I was too tired to include in yesterday’s entry:

  • St. Vitus Chapel at Prague Castle contains the sepulchers of both Saint/Sorta King Wenceslas and Saint John of Nepomuk. You’ve never heard of Nepomuk but he’s got a good story: in the late 14th century he was said to be the confessor for the queen of Bohemia. (This is unlikely to be true for reasons that I will not bore you with.) The king was the jealous sort and demanded that John reveal the queen’s secrets. But unlike Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, John of Nepomuk refused to dish to the authorities. So the king had him drowned. Three centuries later, his body was exhumed and his apparently intact tongue — the one that he held, so to speak — was found in his skull. Wow! Miracle! Canonize this guy right now! So they did. Three centuries after that, the Catholic Church — who should have known better — allowed a forensic analysis of the tissue and it was discovered not to be a tongue at all, but rather a mummified glob of brain tissue. But hey, once you’re a saint, you’re a saint. No take-backs.
  • Speaking of Catholics, there aren’t enough of them here to fill the churches. Nearly 80% of the Czech population either identifies as “no religion” or refuses to answer the official survey questions about it. 30% declare themselves full-on atheists. The Catholic population, nearly 40% of the population as recently as 25 years ago, is now down to 10%. So this translates into a lot of empty churches: one that we visited had been donated by the local diocese to their Greek Orthodox counterparts, who were apparently able to make better use of it.
  • I mentioned earlier that Prague is a popular movie filming location: Amadeus, a couple of  Mission Impossibles, Yentl, The Bourne Identity, the Vin Diesel action movie “xXx”, and a number of others. Our wanderings happened to bring us to a number of the sites, including the courtyard of Prague Castle, which played the role of the Kremlin courtyard in Mission Impossible IV. Or III. Or some other number. Here’s a street corner that shows up in Amadeus:

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  • Prague loves to claim Mozart as a sort of adopted favorite son, even though he never really lived here. He did visit several times for extended stays of a month or two. But interestingly, Prague contains one of the very few harpsichords that is known for certain to have been played by Mozart. It’s a “George Washington Slept Here” sort of thing.

Weather permitting, probably the last thing we will do tomorrow is visit the highest point in Prague: the Petřín Tower. At 63.5 meters (208 ft) tall this would not seem to be a strong candidate for the designation, but the trick is that it sits on top of a 318 meter (1043 ft) hill overlooking the city, so its observation deck is actually 382 meters (1252 ft) above the river. That’s taller than the Eiffel Tower… which is not a coincidence, because the Petřín Tower is a nearly exact model of the uppermost 64 meters of the Eiffel Tower! This bit of architectural weirdness gives the Czechs an opportunity to thumb their collective nose at the French.

Since we are flying out tomorrow evening, I expect that this will be my last blog post from this trip, which began nearly three weeks ago. It’s been another great trip. Next up is a visit to our friends in Arizona in about 6 weeks, followed by our return to Hawaii in February. Life is good!

 

 

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Categories: Czech, Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Last Day in Paris

This will be a brief post since it is late and we still have to pack for our departure to Prague tomorrow.

One of our favorite venues in Paris is Sainte-Chappele, a spectacular Gothic chapel literally around the corner from Notre Dame. A lot of visitors overlook it on their first visit to Paris, which is a mistake, since its stained glass alone is practically worth the trip to France. The lower chapel is modest enough, dominated by a small gift shop and some statuary like this one.

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But upstairs is the main event, 750 square meters (8000 square feet) of stained glass in exquisite detail. This panorama along one wall does not come close to doing it justice (in part because of the terrible fish-eye distortion…trust me, the walls do not bulge). The real thing is eye-popping because the windows are 50 feet (15 m) high (!) and cover all four walls of the room.

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The chapel was completed in 1248 and 700 years later amazingly survived World War II without a scratch. But three quarters of a millennium takes its toll even on workmanship like this, and so in 2008 an enormous restoration effort got underway, costing some US $12M and lasting seven years. Every single segment of glass was removed, cleaned, given a protective glass veneer (with an air gap), reassembled if cracked, re-leaded around its perimeter, and reinserted. The results are spectacular, and when you make it to Paris you should not fail to visit.

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By the way — you’ll thank me for this if you come — you should buy tickets for Sainte-Chapelle online. They do not cost any extra than “real time” walk-up tickets and though they commit you to a particular day, they do not tie you to a particular time of day. But the important thing is that they give you priority admission, i.e. they allow you to skip the (sometimes very long) line. It’s an absolute no-brainer. (The same paradigm applies to the Picasso Museum and the Musée d’Orsay as well. Buy online and save yourself a lot of line-waiting at a cost of zero dollars. You’re welcome.)

Speaking of Musée d’Orsay, that was our next stop. Originally built as a Beaux-Arts-style railway station between 1898 and 1900, it fell into disuse after three or four decades, and after yet a few more decades of everyone wondering what to do with it, was finally re-purposed as an art museum. It opened in 1986 and now houses the largest collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces in the world (even greater than the Louvre) and includes collections of Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. In other words, the A-Team.

Alice is a lot more into Impressionism than I am (though I love Van Gogh), but even aside from the art we both love the space itself, whose central atrium still has the look of a modernized version of its Beaux-Arts railway origin.

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And here was an unexpected display: a very detailed and seriously cool cross-sectional model of L’Opera, which of course we had just visited yesterday! (They really ought to hide a little model Phantom in there somewhere.)

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We spent an hour or two in the museum, then had lunch at a nearby brasserie and walked a mile and a half along the Seine to the Eiffel Tower. Distressingly, the security paranoia of the past several years has taken hold; unlike all of our other visits here, it is now no longer possible to stroll among the tower’s four gigantic pylons and look straight up at it from underneath. The area is now cordoned off with a security fence, and only ticket holders for the elevator are allowed through.

But the surrounding grounds are unchanged, and it is still a genial place to lie in the shade and gaze up at the tower, watching the elevators glide up and down its spidery height. We lazed for a while, then headed home to have dinner and pack and talk about when our next visit should be.

Categories: Europe, France | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lon Chaney, Call Your Office

So it appears that in France they believe that “The Phantom of the Opera” was a documentary. And, weirdly, that may not be altogether off the mark. The famed book, about a half dozen movie versions, and the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical all take place at L’Opera de Paris, also known as the Palais Garnier for the young architect who designed it in the 1870’s. Interestingly, the following things actually did happen in real life:

  • Some flooding occurred during construction, necessitating the inclusion of a retaining wall that created a small sub-basement pool that still exists and became the “Fantasy Lake” of the story.
  • One of the construction workers had a terrible facial deformity that he kept hidden. He loved the building and pretty much hung around there in secret all the time.
  • A counterweight from the chandelier in the main auditorium broke loose and fell in 1896, killing a spectator.

Who knew? In any case, the building is a spectacular one, built in an ornate neoclassical style, all marble and curlicues and domes and staircases. We took the tour. Here is the main lobby. It made me feel like I should have arrived in a horse-drawn carriage.

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Here’s the domed main auditorium. It seats nearly 2,000.

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And here is the dome itself with the infamous chandelier. You may note that the painting style does not exactly say “1875”. That is because it was repainted in a more current motif in 1968 at the behest of the then Minister of Culture, author Andre Malraux. The style may look familiar to you, since the artist is… Marc Chagall!

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And finally, here is the austere, understated Great Hall, in case the palace of Versailles isn’t garish enough for your tastes.

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Now here’s the weird part: the blockbuster Broadway musical “Phantom of the Opera” has never been shown in France. Apparently it was finally scheduled to run in Paris two years ago in October 2016, but a fire in the theater a few days before opening destroyed everything. So… no “Phantom” for Parisians, L’Opera notwithstanding.

Our next stop was a pilgrimage of sort, although I am not sure if it counts as a pilgrimage when you’re making the trip for somebody else. My former Evil Assistant and longtime BFF Angie is a devotee of insanely expensive designer purses (or, as she describes them, “receptacles for my soul”) and so we spent a few minutes wandering through the Insanely Expensive Purse And Other Retail Store district, just off the Champs Elysée. Our specific goal at Angie’s request was the Hermes flagship store (it’s pronounced er-MEZZ, you Philistine, not HER-meez), which we photographed but did not enter because we were not worthy. Angie was outraged that we did not take the opportunity to stop in and pick her up something called a “Birkin 35 Vermillion Togo”, which a moment of Googling revealed to be a $10,000 purse. I told her that we had decided to wait till it went on sale.

Designer-purseless, we moved on to one of our favorite museums in Paris, the Picasso Museum.

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The Picasso Museum is four stories tall, and by the time we got to the top I must confess that even we, big fans that we are, were utterly Picasso’ed out.

We had dinner at an excellent nearby Greek restaurant, three doors down from one of the sleazy sex shops on our street. Our dirty little secret (unrelated to the sex shops) is that neither Alice nor I are big fans of French haute cuisine. We love French “street food”: baguettes, crepes, that sort of thing. But I am not especially fond of creamy sauces, and Alice, being lactose intolerant, can’t handle the French fondness for butter and cream in everything. So when in Paris we go ethnic, much as we do at home. As you might expect Paris has very cosmopolitan restaurant offerings; so far our diners have been Italian, Vietnamese, and Greek. Tonight we’re doing Japanese.

It was dark after dinner, and so we made our way to the Seine for our nighttime boat ride. The Bateaux Mouches (literally “fly boats”, as in the insect, named for the Mouche region of Lyon where they were first built) are one of Paris’s delightful institutions They’re huge barge-like tourist boats, perhaps 200′ (60 m) long that hold hundreds of passengers, and they’ve been plying the Seine since 1867. Americans and Japanese seemed to be the predominant groups last night. The best time to go is at night when the monuments are lit up, so here are some shots from our trip. (The first, showing the beacon, is from shore, but all the others from on board. The second one shows Notre Dame over the rooftops.)

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Eifel Tower Moon crop (5 of 1)

Note the sequence of low bridges in the middle photo. The boats have unusual design to accommodate them: the ship’s bridge (where the captain steers) is on a hydraulic cantilevered arm and can raise and lower by several feet as needed.

We returned home about 11 PM, navigating the gauntlet of prostitutes working the street near our flat. One surprisingly pretty streetwalker, all hot pants and fishnets, greeted me with that most venerable come-on: “Hi! Do you speak English?” I said, “Yep,” and continued to walk, but before I could take another step, Alice charged up from a few feet behind me, grabbed my arm, and forcefully declared, “HE’S MINE!” It was such an absurd, retro bit of rom-com that all three of us — including the hooker — burst out laughing. Which, I suppose, was as surreal a way as any to end the evening.

We had another “museum day” today — St Chappelle cathedral, with its spectacular stained glass, and the Musée d’Orsay. I may write about them later if time and energy permit. This was our last day in Paris: we head to Prague tomorrow morning. We loved our time here; for us, Paris is the most enjoyable city in the world to simply be in, regardless of whether one runs around checking off all the traditional sights.

Categories: Europe, France, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Running for Vancouver

We were in Vancouver, British Columbia for all of half a day before continuing on to Victoria to stay with friends, but even a whirlwind 4-hour city tour is enough to whet our appetite for the place. Vancouver is ranked as the 4th most livable city in the world (“Hey! Let’s move here!”)… accompanied by the 6th most expensive real estate in the world (“Hey, Let’s each sell a kidney and move here!”). So there went that fantasy in a hurry. Still, it’s a gorgeous, diverse, and generally interesting place.

Vancouver BC 2017-003-EditI shot the cityscape above looking across Coal Harbour from Stanley Park, one of the most popular green spaces in the city. It’s named after Lord Frederick Stanley of Preston, Canada’s first Governor General and the man after whom professional hockey’s Stanley Cup is named. (His lordship would not be pleased to know that it has been 25 years since a Canadian team actually won his eponymous cup.)

Stanley Park includes an aquarium, horse-drawn carriage tours, bike paths, and similar idyllic activities, none of which we had time for on our flash tour. It also boasts a pretty cool collection of nine totem poles, carved out of red cedar by artisans of several indigenous tribes (known in Canada as the First Nations) whose territory included this area. The totem-makers’ tribes include the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Watuth, which I include because the names are cool to type and make me sound erudite. Here are a couple of examples from the park.

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In addition to Stanley Park, one of Vancouver’s other iconic locales is the Lion’s Gate Bridge, which connects the city proper to the mountainous area to the north. You can see the bridge for many vantage points around the city, but this one, near the north end of Stanley Park, gives a good sense of the stunning local geography. You can see the bridge on the right.

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As you look out over the bay, the sky is occasionally crisscrossed not only by the usual big jets, but but by small seaplanes ferrying passengers to Victoria (to the west), Seattle (to the south), and Whistler ski resort to the north.

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Vancouver is very much a city of neighborhoods, which include the original part of the city (Gastown, now a trendy, restaurant-rich area) and an extensive Chinatown, second only in size to San Francisco’s in the Western Hemisphere.  One could actually make a case that the entire city is Chinatown: due in part to a large influx of Chinese after the handover of Hong Kong to the PRC in 1997, nearly 30% of the 2.3 million population of greater Vancouver is ethnic Chinese. (If you include South Asian as well, e.g., Indian and Pakistani, the fraction goes up to 40%.) The suburb of Richmond, where the airport resides, is so heavily Chinese that almost all of the business signage is in both English and Chinese; as the airport shuttle took us to our hotel, I briefly wondered if we had been diverted to Hong Kong.

Sadly, among all this demographic tumult, only about 2% of the population is First Nation. Such is the way of the world, it seems.

Another trendy neighborhood is Granville Island, a former industrial area that has been hipsterized and gentrified till it begs for mercy, much like similar harbor areas in Baltimore, Cleveland, Capetown, and I suppose lots of other places as well. It was a fishing area for the First Nations but in the early 20th century became a factory area: machine shops, corrugated tin manufacturing, and other non-Starbucks businesses. Today the only remnant of that era is an appropriately — and literally — gritty cement factory immediately adjacent to all the shops, art galleries, and so forth.

Vancouver BC 2017-050But notice those cement silos to the left of the tower. They’ve gotten into the local artistic swing of things too:

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The local cafés and shops operate literally in the shadow of the Granville Street Bridge, giving the area an unmistakable but pleasant Urban Hipster Tourists Welcome vibe.

Vancouver BC 2017-056My snark notwithstanding, it’s a fun place, with a large indoor farmer’s market whose outdoor seating area is adjacent to the False Creek canal, bustling with colorful “Aquabus” water taxis.

Our final stop was the Vancouver Lookout, a 553 ft (169 m) tower and rotating restaurant that affords a 360° view of the city with its impressive mountain vistas. (The white tent-like structure in the panorama below is the cruise ship terminal. The fan-like white pattern at lower right is the heliport.)

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So there are our four hours in Vancouver. On to Victoria!

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Categories: Canada | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Shrine On, Harvest Moon

…But first, the promised pictures from last night’s visit to the Tokyo Tower. The first is of course the tower itself; the others were taken from the top observatory, 800 feet up. (There is also a midpoint observatory at the 500 ft point.)

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The Tower was the tallest structure in Tokyo until July 2008, when the Tokyo Skytree was finished; at 2080 feet it dwarfs the Tower but is far less convenient to our hotel. Plus, I was up in the Tower 20 years ago so there was a certain nostalgia factor as well.

Today was a shrine-filled day as we moved around for the first time with our 15-person group. Also, the weather appears to have improved for the moment, so I suppose one could say it was a sun-shriney day. (Rim shot!)

Our first stop, however, was the Imperial Palace. You can’t actually go inside without special arrangements made long in advance, so your options are basically to either look at the gardens (which in truth are not all that interesting), or circumnavigate the grounds whilst admiring the wals and the moat. We went with the latter, and about all we have to show for it is a nice view of the so-called “double gate”, i.e.:

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Along the way our tour lead Mariko — a knowledge, high-energy 30-ish woman who speaks noticeably accented but generally good English — filled us in on the structure and recent history of the Japanese royal family. It’s less dysfunctional than the English royal family, though not by a whole lot. There was all sorts of angst about royals marrying commoners, that sort of thing. (There was also a case of a commoner joining the royal household and basically lapsing into permanent depression upon losing control of all aspects of her life.)

We moved on to Asakusa shrine, like Meiji one of the larger and better known shrines, although not one that acrries quite as much historical import as Meiji. Asakusa, like Meiji, has a large courtyard but with an added attraction: a large well-shaped incense burner in the middle of the courtyard so that prior to approaching the shrine supplicants can immerse themselves in, well, holy smoke, I guess. You can see the incense burner smoking in the middle of this photo, taken from the steps of the shrine and looking back towards the courtyard.

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And here are some visitors getting smoked:

asakusa-004The woman on the right in the sleeveless top who appears to be complaining about a migraine is in fact wafting the smoke towards her face, the better to be immersed in it. This is not a recommended religious activity for asthmatics.

One of the fun things about Asakusa is that it attracts a lot of people in traditional garb, like this girl.

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Here’s another traditional Japanese activity that you can find in the area:

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But another fun part of Asakusa — the best part, if you don’t actually practice Shinto — is that the road leading up to it is lined with vendor storefronts selling everything from Hello Kitty souvenirs to an enormous variety of interesting edibles.

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As you can see it’s a total madhouse, jam-packed with people to the point that it is occasionally difficult to move. We had lunch at an udon (thick noodle) restaurant on a side street and hit an ice cream stall for dessert on the crowded promenade. This was more interesting than it sounds, because the Japanese — as with so many other things — have a unique approach to ice cream. You know those Keurig coffee machines, where the cofee comes in a little cup-shaped pod that you pop into the machine? That’s how the Japanese do ice cream. The “pods” in this case are about the size of a small cereal bowl and are (obviously) stored at very low temperature. You specify what flavor you want, and they pop the appropriate pod into the machine, which aerates and extrudes the contents into the familiar cone. The wonderful thing about this paradigm is that since the pods can be stored so efficiently in these single-serving pods — you just have to stack the things in the freezer — that it is easy to lay in an inventory with a very large number of flavors, even in a small store. And so it came to pass that I had honeydew ice cream and Alice had — wait for it — sesame ice cream. In case you were wondering, sesame ice cream is gray in color, which is a little odd to behold. But they taste great.

Sated, we moved on to our next shrine, the controversial Yakusuni war memorial. More on that in a moment but first we stopped along the river for a view of Asahi (the beer company) headquarters. Why?  Here’s the building:

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The tall pointy thing second from left is the aforementioned Tokyo Skytree. The Asahi headquarters is the gold building with the funny upper floors. Look carefully now. Could it be that that building is built to resemble….a glass of beer? Yep, complete with foam head. But what’s that giant misshapen rhinoceros horn on the right? It is supposed to represent some kind of divine spirit that motivates the (apparently) blessed beermakers of Asahi. To me it looks less like a divine spirit than some kind of caricatured spermatazoa from a poorly-made junior high school sex-ed film. But that’s just me.

But back to the Yasukuni shrine. It is controversial because it is the memorial to 2.5 million war dead, all of whom are named there. This might not be so terrible except that the names include a number of Japan’s A-list war criminals. Every year there is a huge blow-up as to whether the prime minister should visit the shrine and pay homage; for many years he did not, at the urging of the US, Russia, China, and just about everybody else, the not unreasonable argument being that it kinda sends the wrong message. But the very nationalistic right wing is ascendant in Japan these days, just as in the US and Europe, and so the Prime Minister attended this year and pissed off a number of foreign governments in the process.

The shrine includes a good-size museum about the war, which I can hardly begin to describe because it is frankly such an egregious whitewash. But here’s a corner of the lobby:

yasakuni-001You may have a sense of where this is going. I won’t go into the details — partly because I am still picking my jaw up off the floor and partly because it is late and I need to get to bed — but here’s the big takeaway: World War II was the U.S.’s fault. Wow! I had no idea. I will have to sleep on this, so good night.

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

You Want a Pisa Me?

(Our final destination and current venue is the city of La Spezia, adjacent to Cinque Terre. Alas, the wifi in our otherwise beautiful villa is not working, so I am typing this offline and will broadcast when I can. But I may not have the opportunity to transfer my photos, so these posts may be like the good old days of email, text-only journaling. My apologies for being insufficiently multimedia for these final posts.)

We left Lucca yesterday morning, enjoying the sight of a massive running and bicycle race that seems to occupy the entire city outside the central walls. Happily traffic management for the event was good and we did not get tangled up in what could have been a traffic nightmare, and we got our of town with difficulty. Our first stop was Lucca’s better known cousin Pisa, home of the universally familiar Leaning Tower. We parked our car in the surprisingly empty parking lot adjacent to the grand square that is home to the tower, and were immediately accosted by one of the countless African vendors offering tchotchkes at every tourist venues. 

These vendors, by the way, have terrible lives, basically imported like cattle from various African countries; they are crammed in large numbers into small flats and pretty much sent out onto the streets with the day’s inventory of selfie sticks, crappy wooden sculptures, and whatever else is selling this season. We can only assume that this is somehow a better life than what they had back home. In any case, this particular vendor kindly informed us that the lot was free on Sunday, and further offered to watch our car if we would buy a six-pack of Kleenex from him for 2 euros. Seemed like a good deal, so we did.

Pretty much every likely tourist destination in Pisa is contained in the one square that includes a museum, the iconic tower, the cathedral (Duomo), and the associated baptistry — a squat cylinder with an large enormously ornate dome, whose interior is famous for its acoustics.  The Duomo is beautiful, though as you are herded through it, assembly-line style with the rest of the crowd, your opportunity to enjoy it is limited. It is enormous, dominated by endlessly high walls culminating in a glorious reticulated gold ceiling that really looks like it might be a bit of architecture imported from Heaven.

But the big draw, of course, is the tower. And of course it is some kind of universal cultural trope that onsey must be photographed by one’s friends at an angle that makes it look like you are holding up the tower with your hands. We didn’t participate in that particular ritual, but it’s pretty hysterical to watch the enormous number of people who do (and there are a lot of tourists hanging around that square). I entertained myself photographing other people doing this; when viewed from the side, a crowd of tourists engaging in is particular ritual looks like some weird Tai Chi class, everyone standing with knees bent, arms out to the side, palms facing outward. I’ll post some pictures of this if the opportunity arises, but for now you can use your imagination.

The tower leans by about 5 degrees, which is a lot. Construction was started in the mid-12th century and was halted after the first three tiers were built because someone spoke up and said, “Hey, isn’t this thing supposed to be pointing straight up?” Turns out the underlying soil is too sandy and compressible. The structure then sat idle for the better part of a century before construction resumed, this time under the auspices of an architect who rather ambitiously figured that he could correct the error by making the columns longer on the downward side of the tilt and thus angle the upper tiers upward again. The result is that the tower is shaped oddly like a banana.

Now the problem, of course, is that since the center of gravity is offset from the center of the base, the Leaning Banana is not at all stable, and the tilt has increased over the heads. Things reached a crisis point about 25 years ago when the total amount of the tilt reached 4.6 meters (about 15 ft), which is perilously close to the point at which the whole thing would topple over. Which would be a great and irreplaceable cultural tragedy, but man, think what incredible security camera footage that would have made.

Anyway, the situation was sufficiently dire that the tower was closed to tourists and an immense, complicated, and expensive engineering effort undertaken to stabilize the underpinnings and remediate some of the tilt. It thus came to pass that a complex arrangement of excavations and counterweights and such was installed, and the tilt successfully reduced to 4 meters (13 ft) and the tower reopened to tourists. (And by the way, now that I think of it, it is apocryphal that Galileo dropped two balls of differing weights off the top to demonstrate the mass-independence of gravity. Though he did do a lot of his other experiments around here.)

It would be cool to climb the tower of course, but two things prevented us: (1) Admission is strictly timed, and our first window of availability was 2 1/2 hours hence, longer than we were willing to wait; and (2) neither our knees nor our our lungs were enthusiastic about ascending a 293-step stone spiral staircase. So we contented ourselves with gawking — it is a wonderfully worthwhile sight, after all — and moved on.

By the time we left, the square had gotten very noticeably more crowded and it is not hard to imagine the place being a total tourist madhouse come summertime; if you are going to visit, this is definitely the right time of year. We returned to the car, the formerly empty parking lot now completely full, tipped our Kleenex vendor another euro (he was indeed right by our car) and headed on our way.

La Spezia sits at the northern crest of the arch-shaped Bay of Poets, so named because Lord Byron supposedly swam across its two-mile width. At the eastern foot of the bay is the seaside resort of Lerici, overseen by an imposing, ominous fortress on a hillside. Mirroring Lerici on the western foot of the bay its sister village of Porto Venere, dominated by its imposing ominous fortress on a hillside. There is a ferry connecting the two.

We spent a couple of hours in Lerici, strolling on the promenade overlooking the beach, along rows of bright pastel houses and stores nestled picturesquely into the cliff wall facing the sea, and through a multitude of vendor stalls selling clothing, souvenirs, food, and beach stuff. The water is green, clear, and cold. There were some lifeguards on a training exercise and a few folks sunbathing on the beach, but no one in the water. (As I said, I’ll post photos when I can, but for now you can use your imagination. It was gorgeous.)

We checked into to our flat in La Spezia at about 4:30, a beautiful apartment with 10′ ceilings occupying a floor of a villa overlooking the city, and surrounded by an elaborate garden. It sits on a very steep, very narrow road that is the source of our principal problem: parking. (I have had my first car problem, scraping the front right fender against a fence while trying to park close enough to the right  allow another car to pass. I’m glad I bought the full insurance.)

Today we are heading to Cinque Terre for some heavy duty scenic views, possibly the last and best of the trip. I’ll be taking a lot of photos which, eventually, you will even get to see…

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Vaporetto to the Ghetto, and Moving on from Venice

Venice-etal-1We had grand plans for Sunday the 19th involving Venice’s Jewish Ghetto, but we overslept and, though we ended up walking arund the ghetto and visiting the Jewish Museum, we had some time constraints that prevented us from taking the tour of the ghetto’s five synagogues. (Photo taken in the staircase inside the museum.)

Venice’s Jewish ghetto has the dubious distinction of being the original Jewish Ghetto. The Jewish population was isolated in 1516 by order of the Doge (it was either that or leave the city altogether), and they were moved to an undesirable area near the edge of the city at the site of a foundry. The Italian word for “foundry” is geto, pronounced like “jetto”, but later German immigrants pronounced it with a hard G since the German language has no soft G. And so the modern word was born.  It’s a remarkably small space, basically a single square with two narrow streets radiating off it. Two of the synagogues are located on the square and the other three on the side streets.

Although World War II-era Pope Pius XII has come in for considerable criticism for what many see as a laissez faire attitude towards the Nazis, Italy did better than most occupied countries when it came to protecting their Jews. They managed to ship off almost none at all until 1943, when Germany invaded and occupied northern Italy after Mussolini figured out who was actually going to win the war and switched sides. It was in late 1943 that the deportations started: 8000 Jews were shipped off to concentration camps, and eight came back. Even so, 80% of Italy’s Jewish population survived the war.

Today, despite the presence of several kosher restaurants, the ghetto is home to approximately zero Jews and — but for the synagogues themselves — is more tourist destination than religious enclave. We toured the museum, and as we were about to leave the square I passed a young (about 30 years old) Hasid — beard, flat hat, black coat, the whole deal — who bade me “shalom“. So I “shalomed” back, and we fell into conversation. He said, “Are you Jewish?” I replied, “Yes, and I’m guessing that you are too.” He was Australian, visiting Italy for a month including the recent Passover holiday. So I said, “chag samayach” (“happy holiday” in Hebrew, to my Gentile readers), at which moment I became a marked man. He spent the next several minutes trying to inveigle me into accompanying him to the synagogue to don the tefillin, which are the leather phylacteries worn by orthodox Jews, and it’s all very complicated so just click the damn link on the word “tefillin” to get the full explanation. Suffice it to say that I had not done this since I was 13 years old and was not about to do it now, because (a) I had absolutely no memory of the required prayers; and (b) also had no memory of the appropriate details for winding the leather straps and would in all likelihood have ended up strangling myself. It would not have been a salutary experience for either of us, so I begged off.

Our traveling companions Jim and Elaine arrived from Trieste that afternoon (hence our time constraint); we had flown over with them but they started their sojourn in that city and we were now meeting up again to spend the next 2 1/2 weeks together. Our first joint stop was the Peggy Guggenheim museum. The heiress was quite the force in the art world in the 1940’s — a major patron and collector — and amassed a large collection of contemporary art here in Venice. Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollack, all the biggies form that era. Her grave is on the grounds of the museum, rather oddly surrounded by the graves of her 14 “babies”. One is shocked that she had so many children — all of whom died — until a closer reading of the headstone reveals that (a) they all died between the ages of 5 and 14, and (b) they all had names like “Sir Herbert” and “King Kong”, “Peacock”, and “Cappucino”. Dogs. Lhasa apsos, to be exact. Sheesh.

The weather had improved considerably over the chilly rain we had had the previous two days; the day was sunny though the night was still brisk. It seemed like a good opportunity to take the vaporetto around to St. Mark’s Square to watch the crowd and get some night shots, e.g.:

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One of the curiosities of St. Mark’s is the “dueling orchestras”. Several of the restaurants around the square have rather formal looking outdoor quartets playing both classical music and classical-sounding versions of popular tunes from various eras, e.g., Sinatra’s “My Way”. It is a pleasantly anachronistic sight. Here’s one of them:

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We spent yesterday (Monday April 20) on a boat outing to Venice’s two most popular nearby islands: Murano and Burano. Murano is famous for its glass factories and galleries, but to our eyes seems to be largely coasting on its reputation. Virtually every store along its canals is a glass gallery, and they seem to fall into two broad categories: crap made in China, and genuinely beautiful incredibly expensive locally-made pieces.  Many of the latter have signs in front of the store that say “No China” so you ostensibly know that you’re getting the real deal. But since our choice seemed to come down to lousy stuff or stuff we couldn’t afford, we didn’t buy anything.

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It should be called “Floating French Fries”, but it isn’t.

A few of the stores have resident artisans whom you can watch making glass items on the spot. This was fun to watch. What was not so much fun was when I tried to take a picture of said artisan and got yelled at. “No photos!”  Jeez.  Bunch of glass-holes.

There is an interesting  museum on Murano that displays glass items from the full history of glass, from the earliest Mesopotamian pieces of about 1000 BC to hypermodern art installations like the one I photographed here. The museum was certainly the high point of Murano, but in truth it was no better and in some ways less interesting the Corning Glass Museum in upstate New York. In short, if you’re pressed for time in Venice, you can pretty safely leave Murano off your list.

Our next boat stop was the neighboring island of Burano, very small and known primarily — and for very good reason — for its colorful streets and for its lace industry. We didn’t buy any lace but the houses are insanely photogenic. Here are a few photos from various streets and alleys; the last one is the main canal and shops.

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Burano also has its own leaning tower, a bell tower at tilts at about a 5 degree angle, roughly the same as its more famous cousin in Pisa. But it’s hard to get a good close vantage point that allows the tilt to show up in photos; you see it best from far away, aboard the boat.

This was our last day in Venice, and hence our last opportunity for a gondola ride. Yes, it’s touristy, and yes, it may be overpriced, but c’mon, how jaded do you have to be to go to Venice for the first time and not ride in a gondola? We are experienced travelers, not jaded ones, and so after appropriate due diligence (i.e., reading some web sites to see how much it ought ot cost, how long a typical ride is, etc., we took the plunge (not literally). In case you were wondering, a “standard” ride costs 80 euros and lasts for roughly a half hour. More if you want to go longer, or if you go at night, or if you want the guy — and they are all guys, every one — to sing. The basic package was entirely adequate for our purposes. (And by the way, if you do want to the guy to sing, do not ask for “O Sole Mio”. That’s a Neapolitan song: wrong part of the country.)

Fun facts, courtesy of our gondolier Antonio: there are 500 gondoliers in Venice, all men, and many having come to the career through the family line (Antonio himself claimed to be 5th generation). They all know each other; we saw that in action since we encountered several other gondolas in some of the side canals, and the guys all chatted continuously among themselves. You have to go to Gondolier’s School to get certified. (And you damn well better study; the clearance on some of the tighter turns in the side canals was about an inch.) A gondola is 35′ long, weighs about 1200 lbs, and has six coats of paint. The Rialto Bridge restoration will take two more years. Et cetera. It was quite a lot of fun, and of course very romantic. We were satisfied, as the second of the next two pictures shows.

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And that was the end of our stay in Venice. This morning we picked up our rental car (a brand spanking new Peugeot 5008 that fits us and our luggage perfectly) and set off for Aquileia, about 60 miles to the north, a formerly-great port city during the waning days of the Roman Empire. There is little there now except for a smattering of Roman ruins and, much more impressively, a basilica whose floor is a very old Roman mosaic. Here’s a detail:

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We walked around for a while then struck out for tonight’s lodging, a B&B in the northern foothills, a gorgeous wine region whose hillsides look like, well, exactly what you think they should. I’ll try and get some photos tomorrow. We are staying at a 4-unit lodge built from what appears to be a converted farmhouse overlooking a vineyard. It’s a beautiful place in a rustic hilltop village. In fact, the only thing exciting our cynical instincts is the name of the village, which is San Pietro del Fellete, which we of course call St. Peter of Fellatio. No jokes about “thy rod and they staff”, please.

OK, if I’m writing stuff like that it must be late and I must be exhausted. So I will stop now.

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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