Monday, January 30, 2012

London Museums

Natural History Museum, London
Museum of London, St. Paul's Cathedral, National Portrait Gallery, Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Museum of Childhood, Royal Academy of Art:  Here are notes of some of my museum visits from my diary of our three month stay in London in the fall of 1998.  London is packed with museums, so this is just a sampling! Click on the links for current information about museum hours, locations, etc.

Museum of London
    My other excursions last week included a trip to see the Museum of London, which traces the history of the city from 50,000 years ago.  (I didn’t realize that until the end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago, Britain wasn’t an island and people simply walked across from Europe.)  I have never been able to keep the kings and queens of English history straight, but this museum does a good job of making it clear when and why ruling families changed.  I didn’t allow enough time so I’ll have to go back to find out what happened after Henry VIII.

    (A few weeks later.) On Saturday afternoon we decided to visit the Museum of London.  The museum is so packed with information that one can easily go there again and again.  One of the items that caught my attention this time was the story of building the wall around London when it was the Roman city of Londinium.  The stones for the wall came from a quarry near the mouth of the Thames and were transported by boat up the river to the city.  We know this because one of the boats sank with its load of stones and was preserved in the mud of the river.  Wedged into a hole in the side of the boat archeologists also found a pair or men’s leather underwear.  Apparently some Roman sailor had tried, in vain, to use his clothing to stop a leak in this ultimately unseaworthy vessel.   

St. Paul’s Cathedral
    After tea in the museum café we visited St. Paul’s Cathedral. Unlike most other English cathedrals, which are medieval, St. Paul’s is baroque, built after the earlier medieval cathedral was destroyed in the great London fire. It is topped by an enormous dome which is one of London’s most impressive landmarks.  We decided to stay for the 5:00 Evensong, a sung service performed by the priests and the St. Paul’s Cathedral choir.  This is a boys’ choir with the soprano parts sung by little boys, who looked as young as seven or eight, and were positively cherubic in their long robes and high, fluted collars. I had been eager to hear one of the Anglican cathedral choirs after watching the Masterpiece Theater series, “The Choir” (based on a novel by Joanna Trollop), on television last year.  The boys’ voices are so pure and clear and they just soared in the huge space of the cathedral.

National Portrait Gallery
    Last Monday I met a friend and toured the National Portrait Gallery, which is a collection of portraits of notable British people from medieval times to the present and ranges from political figures like Winston Churchill and royal personages to ballet dancers, writers and pop singers.  Most are paintings, although in the modern era there are some photos.  Almost every name is familiar from history books (or in the modern era from the news) and I was amazed at how the pictures brought the people to life and in some cases revealed a different character.  In an early picture of Henry VIII he is actually quite thin!

Natural History Museum
    On Thursday morning I finally visited the Natural History Museum, and I spent most of my time in their excellent dinosaur and fossil collection.  I discovered that one of the most important fossil collectors of the last century was a woman named Mary Anning and that she made her first major find at the age of eleven.  I am trying to get more information about her with the idea that I might write a story about her later. [Note: I did include her and her discoveries in my books Giant Sea Reptiles of the Dinosaur Age and  Pterosaurs: Rulers of the Skies in the Dinosaur Age.]

Victoria and Albert Museum
    The Victoria and Albert Museum is across the street from the Natural History Museum so I spent the afternoon there.  It has an enormous collection ranging from paintings (including more Constables and Turners) to costumes and decorative arts from all over the world.  I went to two special exhibits, one of the work of Grinling Gibbons, a wood carver who made elaborate decorations for doorways, fireplaces, mirrors, etc. in the 18th century, and the other of the work of Aubrey Beardsley, whose black and white drawings characterize the 1890’s.  I did a paper on his work when I was in college, although I never saw then the quite shocking erotic drawings that were on display here.

Museum of Childhood
    On the same outing as my visit to Toynbee Hall, I visited the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, a museum that is packed with dolls, doll houses, toys, trains, etc. many from Victorian times but others that were more recent.  It was a bit odd to see Malibu Suntan Barbie displayed alongside China dolls dressed in 19th century outfits.  In the shop there was a series of children’s books on Victorian life in Britain and now that I'm home I regret that I didn't buy one called "Victorian Toilets.”

Royal Academy of Art
    One of my stops was at the Royal Academy of Art, which has a special exhibition of Picasso ceramics.  It is a wonderful show with room after room of all kinds of ceramics including vases turned into voluptuous women, birds and other creatures, plates painted and decorated with ceramic fish and forks, other plates with bullfighting scenes where the plate itself becomes a miniature bull ring, painted tile murals, etc, etc.  The sheer quantity and inventiveness show what a genius Picasso was.  The show was crowded and included a lot of school children taking notes and carefully sketching various pieces.  I thought to myself, what a great homework assignment!  Maybe the kids didn’t think so, but most other children are lucky to see pictures of great art in books or posters.  As I came out of the museum I noticed the elaborately decorated shop windows across the street and realized that the store was Fortnum and Mason’s, the famous food emporium.  So I went in to take a look and it was like another museum with every kind of pickled, bottled, boxed, or packaged food imaginable, all at great cost and displayed and wrapped so nicely that it seemed a shame that one would have to open the packages up to eat what was inside.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Australia's Great Ocean Road

View of the coast along the Great Ocean Road from our B and B in Apollo Bay
March 1999 (excerpt from my diary of our three month stay in Melbourne)   
Our expedition for the weekend was a trip along the Great Ocean Road--Australia’s equivalent of California's Highway 1.  Our first stop was in the port city of Geelong, Victoria’s second largest city and the center of the wool industry.  We toured the National Wool Museum there which was a nicely displayed explanation of the history of the sheep industry and the many steps between a sheep on the hoof and a piece of finished fabric.

Fore! Golf course at Anglesea
After lunch we began our scenic drive along the coast (stopping to view the kangaroos on the golf course at Anglesea) and arrived at our B and B in Apollo Bay by mid-afternoon.  I had decided to splurge a bit and chose a “room with a view.”  Actually we had a whole vacation house that sat on top of the ridge above the town and had a 360 view of the coast and surrounding countryside.  The view was spectacular and it was too bad we couldn’t just stay there for the whole weekend.

Rainforest near Anglesea
The next morning we continued on our way and drove through Otway National Park where we stopped to do a short walk through lush rainforest and then drove to the headland to visit the lighthouse which stands on a cliff nearly 100 meters above the shore.  This is the point that marks the division of the Bass Strait (between Australia and Tasmania) and the Southern Ocean.

Lighthouse on Otway Peninsula
My brother (who was visiting) and I climbed to the top of the lighthouse (no longer in operation but open to tourists) and the attendant told us that going south from there the next landfall was Antarctica; going west, one wouldn’t hit land until reaching Patagonia in South America!  Sailing ships from Europe have to pass the Otway Peninsula on their way to all the major cities along Australia’s east coast and, in former times, before modern navigation, it was a dangerous passage because of the treacherous currents.

The Twelve Apostles
The Ocean Road goes inland for a while at this point and we did a short diversion to visit a beautiful waterfall.   When the road returns to the coast it reaches the most famous feature of this coast--the Twelve Apostles, a series of giant rocky outcrops just off shore. (Actually, you can only see seven.)  Like all the other tourists lined up at the overlook, we took more than enough photos.  Then we finished the trip with a stop for tea and scones in nearby Port Campbell and from there we circled back to Melbourne on a main inland highway.

Details:  We organized this trip by ourselves and went by car using maps and brochures we had gotten from the RAC (Royal Auto Club), which has a cooperative relationship with the AAA. (Remember that in Australia people drive on the left.) 

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Oakland Hills: Huckleberry Nature Trail

A surprising amount of open space is found in the Oakland hills, making it possible to move in a short time from the densely urban sections of the city, to being totally immersed in nature.  Sunday, January 1st, 2012, was one of those remarkable warm sunny days, when even though the calendar said that we were in the heart of winter, the air felt almost summery.  Art and I decided to take hike on the Huckleberry Trail in the Huckleberry Botanic Nature Preserve, part of the extensive trail system running through the San Francisco Bay region.
This 1.7 mile loop winds its away along the side of forested hill, looking out toward the grassy slopes to the north and west.  Although we did have some minor climbs and descents, it was basically easy walking.  Along the way posts with numbered markers served as a guide.  At number six we climbed to the top of a small knoll where there was a bench tucked among the manzanita bushes and a spectacular view.  As we sat there, a hummingbird zipped by and systematically fed from the tiny manzanita blooms.

According to the trail guide, the Huckleberry Preserve is an ecological jewel, preserving plants found nowhere else in the East Bay.  Besides the manzanitas, we passed towering California bay trees, patches of ferns, delicate lichens, and, of course, huckleberry plants.  While we did see other people on the trail, after all it was a beautiful day and a holiday, we enjoyed the feeling of being alone in the great outdoors. The Huckleberry Trail is for walkers only–no bikers, joggers, or horseback riding, which helps ensure its peaceful and relaxing qualities.  I continue to be amazed at how easy it is to enjoy nature close to home, as we continue to explore the area in and around San Francisco Bay.

To Reach The Park

From Highway 24 in Oakland, take the Fish Ranch Road exit immediately east of the Caldecott Tunnel. Continue 0.8 miles to Grizzly Peak Blvd. Turn left and go 2.4 miles on Grizzly Peak to Skyline Boulevard. Turn left and drive approximately one-half mile to the park entrance on the left, past Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve.

The closest bus line, AC Transit #305, runs only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. From Lake Merritt BART, 19th Street BART, or Rockridge BART take AC Transit bus 59 or 59A; these bus lines go to the Montclair Transit Center. From there, transfer to AC Transit bus 305 and exit at the stop on Colton Boulevard and Ridgewood Drive. Walk the short distance from Colton to Skyline Boulevard, turn left and proceed to the preserve. It is a mostly level, 0.5-mile walk. Please call AC Transit 511 (TDD/TTY: 1-800-448-9790) or visit to confirm transit information.

Monday, January 9, 2012

China: Around the World in 50 Days with Sara Kras, Fall 2011 (Guest Post)

My friend Sara Kras and her husband went on an amazing journey this fall, circling the world with stops in the Middle East, India, China and the Pacific.  I think you will enjoy reading the reports of her adventures!  Sara is a children’s book author with books about animals and world cultures and geography.  Find out more at .

We are now in China and it has been a real eye opener. The country is bustling with construction. Huge modern buildings are being built in the major cities and massive highways are being erected to connect the country. Beijing, Xian, and Chengdu all have very new roads. Some put in only a year ago. I was really surprised how modern some of the larger cities were and also how many people live in them. Beijing had about 30 million, Xian had about 8 million, and Chengdu about 18 million. We also visited Lijiang, high in the mountains. It is a small city at 1 million. Joe mentioned that the entire state of Wyoming has only about 500,000 people in it so that gives you an idea as to how huge these “small” cities are.

The traffic in Beijing was horrendous. It seemed heavy at any time of the day. In order to control the traffic and cars per family, everyone in Beijing must enter a lottery in order to be allowed to buy a new car. Also, each driver can only drive 4 days a week. It is regulated by the last number on their license plate which determines the day they cannot drive. Another thing to note is we saw many accidents in China probably because many of the drivers are new drivers.

Tourists are everywhere in China and I don’t mean foreign tourists. Instead, there are huge amounts of Chinese tourists visiting the popular sites of their country. While at the Forbidden City, I tried to look at the Emperor’s chair. I had to join in with a mass of humanity straining to get a look. I have never been so squished in my life. Thank goodness I’m not claustrophobic. Our guide told us it was like that on the subway every day during rush hour.

We also visited a Hutong on a rickshaw, which was very touristy but interesting. A hutong is an old neighborhood of Beijing. These neighborhoods are what it used to be like before the government tore most of these old neighborhoods down to build all the shiny new buildings, which are everywhere.

Hutongs have public toilets but what is considered a public toilet in the states is not the same in China. Everywhere you go in China the toilet facilities are rated. Five star includes western toilets, doors, toilet paper, sink, and soap. Three star includes a single western toilet and door. The rest are Chinese toilets. One star is only Chinese toilets (squatting on top of a porcelain bowl) with doors. (Unfortunately, urine splashes on the ground, so you have to roll your pants up to stay semi-clean.) Zero star is squatting over a concrete slit with no door, just out in the open where you can have a discussion with your potty neighbor. Zero star is the kind of toilet found in the Hutong for the local residents. On the same topic as toilets, we stayed at the Fairmont Hotel which had an amazing toilet. Just push a button and get a rinse front or back, blow dry, and even powder!  I don’t mean to have a huge potty discussion, but the toilet facilities really made life awkward. You have to have really strong thighs to withstand the squatting. I can’t imagine going through this at the age of eighty. Fifty was hard enough! Anyway, enough potty talk.

While in Beijing, we visited Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven, which was really a magical place. On the temple grounds, retired residents came daily to use the exercise equipment provided in the park, dance in groups, participate in a folk song sing-along, and play games. These games were games of physical skill such as twirling a long flag on a stick in figure 8s and balancing a ball on a paddle as you move it sideways, upwards and backwards. Groups of men played cards and women knitted in the park. It was truly a community social event. I got the hang of the flags, but I was terrible at the paddle balls.

We also visited the Summer Palace which had an outside corridor which went on for ¾ of a mile and painted on it were about 700 different pictures. It was truly amazing and beautiful.
But my all time favorite was the great wall. I hiked it for almost an hour. Even though there were many people on the wall with me, it was awe inspiring. You could just imagine the ancient Chinese soldiers marching up and down the “dragon’s back” and looking through the many parapets for invading Mongols.

After Beijing we flew to Xian to see the clay soldiers. My plan was to fly into Xian in the morning and have the day to see the clay soldiers and other areas of Xian and then fly onto Chengdu. We arrived at the Beijing airport at 7:00am and it was extremely foggy. Our guide told us that planes still fly when foggy at the Beijing airport, if only that had been true. Our flight was delayed by five hours! I couldn’t believe it. My hopes of seeing the clay soldiers at all were slipping away. What a waste of time and money to fly to Xian for nothing.

We finally arrived in Xian at 4:00pm after a 2 hour flight. Our guide was waiting for us and rushed us to the car. He said that the clay soldiers closed at 6:00pm but it would take us an hour and 15 minutes to get to them from the airport. He didn’t know if the ticket office would be closed. Our driver high tailed it to the soldiers and got us there in 45 minutes. We rushed to the ticket office and were able to get our tickets. After taking the tram we arrived at a building the size of a football stadium. Inside were rows and rows of clay soldiers all waiting for me and standing at attention. (Ha ha).
Even though we saw many whole soldiers, none of the clay soldiers found were whole except for the archer. They had all be smashed to bits and had to be meticulously pasted back together. It is really a massive project. At the other end of the stadium was the clay soldier hospital where the soldiers are pasted back together.

There is something to note about visiting the clay soldiers. The best time to visit is in the evening. Our guide was really surprised how empty the building was. He said everyone wants to go in the morning and there usually a line which continues outside the building. Tourists have only a few minutes at the front of the line to view the clay soldiers then they have to move on. We literally had the entire building to ourselves. We stood for the entire hour taking photos and walking around the entire building.

Immediately after seeing the clay soldiers, we had to grab something for dinner (KFC, which is very popular in China and just as greasy and disgusting there as it is in the states). We were then rushed back to the airport to catch our flight to Chengdu. We arrived at our hotel in Chengdu at around midnight. We stayed at BuddhaZen which is an old temple converted into a hotel.

The next day we had to get up at 6:30am to get ready to go to the Panda Research Center. Even though I was exhausted, the center was completely amazing. We saw baby pandas, one year old pandas, sub-adult pandas, and grown pandas. We also saw red pandas, which are related to the cat family and black swan floating in the manmade lake. I also paid too much money to sit with a baby panda. But it was totally worth it because he was so cute. His fur wasn’t soft like I thought it would be but rather rough. I also held his back paw which was warm. To placate the panda, he was fed honey on wooden sticks. He was very well behaved and let me stroke his ears, head, arms and feet.

Our guide then took us to experience hot pot, a local dish in Chengdu. We had the western hot pot which consists to two pots. The inner pot is hot spicy oil and the outer pot is a chicken broth. Meat, wontons, and vegetables are thrown in and cooked. It was very delicious.
The next day we departed for Lijiang, a beautiful town dominated by Snow Mountain. We stayed at the Banyan Tree and had a room with an amazing view of Snow Mountain. I spent hours staring at the mountain watching the world go by.

We visited Tiger Leaping Gorge where we were pulled by rickshaw drivers through a path blasted through the granite mountains side. We also visited Black Dragon Park , where snow mountain reflected in the lake; Old Lijiang (also known as the Venice of the Orient); and a Naxi village, local indigenous people. I got to learn a lot of about the Naxi from our guide as she was half Naxi. They are very similar to the American Indian as they worship nature and also have totem poles similar to the Eskimos.

We also attended the Impression Show at Snow Mountain. This show was produced by the same man who produced the opening show for the Olympics. The show was outside and had hundred of performers in native dress along with horseback riders. The music was amazing, along with the dancing and drumming.

We are now in Hong Kong at the Intercontinental Hotel. We have a room with a balcony and an incredible view of the harbor. Every night there is a laser show in the harbor and we have front row seats. We are headed to Bali tomorrow where I hope to have some true down time at the beach and Ubud area along with seeing the Komodo dragons.
(Look for Sara's reports on Egypt and Jordan, 11/28/11, and India, 12/5/11.)

Monday, January 2, 2012

Paris Weekend, August 1998

Paris:  Rodin Museum with the Thinker
Woody Allen’s recent movie Midnight in Paris brought back memories of my one and only visit to Paris in August, 1998, when Art and I spent a long weekend there during our three month stay in London.  Here is the entry from my diary at the time:

    It was the August Bank Holiday Monday in England and rather than fight the crowds at London’s traditional West Indian Carnival (the equivalent of Mardi Gras and touted as Europe’s biggest street festival) we decided to spend the weekend in Paris.  We traveled via Eurostar, the high speed train that goes through the Chunnel. (The Chunnel part lasts about 20 minutes.)  It is a remarkably easy way to get from the heart of London to the heart of Paris in just under three hours.  Because we booked late we ended up going first class which cost more but meant that we were wined and dined both ways.
Toy boats for rent in the Tuileries Garden
We arrived midday on Saturday and after checking into our hotel (near the Place d’Italie on the Left Bank) we set out on foot to explore the city.  Half the fun is just wandering through the narrower streets past sidewalk cafés, open air markets, art galleries, etc.  Whenever we travel to Europe (which isn’t that often) we are on a perpetual search for a certain kind of leather key case Art likes and this gives us an excuse to go into shops.  Much to my surprise, I remembered more of my high school and college French than I would have thought, and we managed to communicate quite well.  (We never did find a key case.) 

Notre Dame Cathedral, Rose Window
Our stroll eventually brought us to the Seine and to Notre Dame Cathedral, a must-see despite the crowds.  We arrived as an afternoon service was just ending.  The combination of the organ music reverberating through the lofty  spaces, the waxy smell of hundreds of votive candles, and the brilliant stained glass rose windows makes one appreciate the power of the church.  We had dinner at a tiny family run restaurant where the food was delicious even though we weren’t completely sure of what we were eating.  (Menu items were not a staple of my high school French training.)  Paris is a relatively small city and one can walk or take the Metro almost anywhere. 

Eiffel Tower at Night
After dinner we walked to the Eiffel Tower which is brilliantly lit up at night.  Art doesn't like heights so we didn’t go to the very top, but compromised on the middle level—which is still hundreds of feet off the ground.  Needless to say, the view was impressive with the city and the river sparkling below.  One historical tidbit explained at the tower is that after it was finished in 1889, it was used to test the physical principles of falling objects.  Basically, they tossed things over the side and watched them fall!

Sacre Coeur
 Sunday in Paris was devoted to museums and a visit to Montmartre and Sacre Coeur, a church on top of a hill in one of the more arty, and quaint parts of Paris.  One climbs the steps to the church mainly for the view.  Stationed around the base were a number of street performers dressed like clowns, mummies, etc.  Each one stood motionless, like a statue, until a coin dropped into the hat; then the figure would change to a new position, a performance that especially entranced children.  The mummies, which looked like King Tut wrapped in gold stretch fabric, were particularly bizarre.

Viewing a Degas Dancer in the Musee D'Orsay
 Paris has too many museums to see anything but a sampling on a weekend visit.  On Sunday we decided to go to the Musee D’Orsay, a former railway station that has been remodeled  to display a large portion of the wonderful 19th Century and Impressionist paintings in the Louvre collection.  We also went to the Rodin museum which displays his works in a lovely 18th century house and garden.

Louvre with I.M. Pei designed Pyramid in front.
We saved our trip to the Louvre until Monday and spent most of the day there.  When we got tired of looking at art we walked in the Tuileries Gardens which stretch out in front of the museum and look toward the Arc de Triomphe.  At the end of the afternoon we returned to the train station, got onto the train, and zipped through the French countryside as the sun was casting golden shadows over the fields.  Altogether, it was a lovely weekend. 
Au Revoir!