Monday, November 25, 2013

CHIHULY GLASS SCULPTURES, Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, Arizona, Guest Post by Cathy Bonnell

Chiluly Sculpture, Phoenix AZ Botanical Garden
Cathy Bonnell is a good friend who lives in Phoenix, Arizona.  She is a retired elementary school librarian who continues to be passionate about children’s books and children’s books art. I have visited the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix in the summer, but her report makes me want to make a special visit in the winter to see the amazing glass sculptures installed there.  Here is her report:

Even though the Arizona desert is green and growing, there is not much blooming in the winter. So it's the perfect time of year for the Desert Botanical Garden of Phoenix to install Chihuly glass throughout the 140 acres of desert plants. The natural outdoor setting lends itself to the unusual shapes and vibrant colors of artist Dale Chihuly's blown glass sculptures. This new exhibition is the second time the Desert Botanical Garden has hosted Chihuly glass to sold out crowds.
After a tasty dinner of fish tacos at Gertrude's--the Garden's new restaurant–my friends and I found the best time to see this stunning site was at night when the crowds have thinned. The marked and lighted trails throughout the garden took us on an adventure around every corner, where enormous glass spires or curly stakes of colored glass stood among the natural plants for dramatic impact. As you may know, the desert can be cold at night in the winter, so we bundled up and just slightly ignored the predictions of rain. I felt like a child who sees a huge decorated and lit Christmas tree to see these amazing pieces--oooh's and ahhhh's escaping from my mouth at every piece. 

A short film of how Chihuly makes the glass pieces, which are then assembled on site, is available for viewing in one of the small buildings. And, of course, a dedicated gift shop sells small but four figure-priced pieces of Chihuly glass. We came back to the stunning blue and white starburst piece at the entrance just as huge rain drops began to fall.

Desert Botanical Garden
1201 North Galvin Parkway
Phoenix, AZ 85008

For directions, hours, and information about tickets go to

Monday, November 18, 2013

SKARA BRAE, a Prehistoric Stone Age Village in Scotland's Orkney Islands

The ruins of Skara Brae face the Bay of Skaill
On a windswept island at the northern tip of Scotland, thick, stone walls lie half buried by the edge of the sea.  They are the remains of Skara Brae, one of Europe's oldest known and best preserved prehistoric villages.  Five thousand years ago ancient farmers tended livestock and tilled the earth on land surrounding the village.  They also hunted wildlife and fished along the coast.  Their houses, built of sturdy stone, were clustered in a compact unit and joined along an inner passageway.  They were the heart of a close-knit agricultural community and may have been home to as many as twenty families at one time.
    Art and I visited Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands in late August 1992 as part of the celebration of our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.  We rode a train north from Edinburgh to John O’Groats and took a ferry from there to the islands.  It was an amazing trip back in time as we viewed the remains of the village where people had lived for nearly 600 years. After they left, wind blew sand from the surrounding dunes over the village and buried it.  For thousands of years Skara Brae was forgotten.

Skara Brae and the manor house of the Laird of Skaill
The weather in the Orkneys is often wet and windy and during our visit we experienced both sun and rain. In the winter of 1850, a series of violent storms battered the islands, pounding them with fierce waves and gale force winds.  One of these storms was so severe that it blew away the grass and sand from a high dune on land owned by William Watt, the Laird of Skaill.  (Laird is the Scottish word for lord.)  When the storm subsided, William Watt went out to inspect the damage to his property.  As he crossed the land that separated his fields from the sea, he saw that the wind and waves had exposed the remains of a long buried ancient village.  For the first time in more than forty centuries, the dwellings of Skara Brae were exposed to the open air.  As William Watt uncovered the ruins he discovered more stone walls, furniture, stone and bone tools, pottery, beads and other objects.  The sand and surrounding embankment had protected the houses and the items in them so well that many were in almost perfect condition.

Today, visitors to Skara Brae can explore the remains of the village and see many of the ancient objects found during its excavation.  No other place in northern Europe provides such a complete picture of life in the neolithic, or new stone age.
Shallow basins in the floor may have held fish bait or a supply of fresh water.
The village of Skara Brae is a cluster of one room houses joined by covered passages.  Today these buildings are open to the sky, but in ancient times they would have been covered by low roofs.  The houses probably had rafters made of whalebone or wood which were then covered with sod and held down by ropes. (Fragments of rope made from twisted heather have been found in the midden.) 
    Of all the ancient sites in the Orkneys, Skara Brae is among the most remarkable.  As we peered over the village walls, it was not hard to imagine families sitting around their hearths long ago talking and eating while children played and neighbors came to visit.  With firelight dancing across the walls and winter winds roaring outside, these sturdy stone houses would have been a welcome retreat from the weather and places where people could feel safe and secure.
The standing stones of the Ring of Brodgar are about six miles from Skara Brae.  They were erected during the same period that people lived at Skara Brae.
Skara Brae is amazing both because it is so old and because so much has been preserved.  People were living at Skara Brae before the Egyptians built their pyramids, before ancient Americans built their first cities and before the Chinese built the Great Wall.  Skara Brae is a window onto some of our most ancient history.  For those of us with roots in northern Europe, the ruins at Skara Brae provide fascinating clues to how some of our most remote ancestors may have actually lived.

You can read more about Skara Brae and the Orkney Islands in my book Stone Age Farmers Beside the Sea (Clarion, 1997).  It is out of print but available online and in libraries.  Or, you can download it to your Kindle.

Update July 21, 2014:  For information about the most recent neolithic discoveries in the Orkneys, check out the August 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Celebrating 50,000 Page Views!

Hurray! Today marks a total of 50,000 all time page views of The Intrepid Tourist!  Thanks to all of you who have been reading my posts!  In the two and half years since I launched this blog, the readership has grown steadily and I am gratified that the articles I’ve posted have found such a large audience. According to the stats, viewers come from all over the world!  And I thank all of my guest posters for expanding the breadth of the blog and bringing new readers to the site. 
I would love to hear your comments!  Meanwhile, Happy Traveling!

Monday, November 11, 2013


Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan
On the central plateau of Mexico, just outside Mexico City, lie the ruins of another great city, the ancient ceremonial complex of Teotihuacan.  At its center, the enormous 210 foot high Pyramid of the Sun towers over the city.  When its was built nearly 2,000 years ago, priests climbed its 248 steps to worship and study the heavens.
On top of the world! Actually, the Pyramid of the Sun.
I climbed those steep steps on my first visit to Teotihuacan, in 1991.  I looked out over the ruins of the ancient city and tried to imagine what it was like when it was bustling with commerce.  The city of Teotihuacan was established around 150 B.C.  At the height of its development, between A.D. 300 and 600, it covered an area of eight square miles and had a population of between 100,000 and 200,000 people.

Pyramid of the Moon
The most important religious structures are concentrated in the ceremonial center of the city and a long, stone walkway with buildings arranged symmetrically on either side was the main thoroughfare. The Aztecs, who came later, named it the Avenue of the Dead because the large mounds on either side looked to them like tombs. Actually, they were the ruins of ancient temples.At the end of the walkway is the Pyramid of the Moon (seen behind my head in the above picture, framed by the hills of Cerro Gordo, which was believed to be the home of the Storm God and was sacred in Teotihuacan times.) The stepped construction of the Pyramid of the Moon is known as talud-tablero, a style developed at Teotihuacan.

View from top of the Pyramid of the Sun
The Pyramid of the Sun faces west and looks across the Avenue of the Dead. It is situated so that its front faces exactly the point on the horizon where the sun sets on the days when it is at its highest point of the year. Because Teotihuacan is south of the Tropic of Cancer, the sun is directly overhead twice a year, on May 19 and July 25.
Fresco from the Palace of the Jaguars. 
Today the predominant color of Teotihuacan is of natural stone.  But long ago, it was a riot of color. Nearly every structure in the ancient city was brightly painted on the outside, and many had beautiful paintings on the inside walls as well. Paint was made from natural dyes and applied directly onto wet plaster.  Red, which signified blood and eternal life, was a predominant color.  Black represented shadows and the underworld. In the fresco above, curved designs emerging from the figures' mouths indicate that they are speaking or singing.

Votive Figurine (reproduction)
Thousands of handmade clay figures just a few inches high have been found in the excavations at Teotihuacan.  Most of these tiny figures have been found in the places where people lived.  It is believed that they were used as part of daily household rituals.  Copies of these figurines are found in the local tourist shops.

The Teotihuacan culture in central Mexico collapsed in the 8th Century A.D.  It was followed first by the Toltecs, who built their capital at Tula, and then the Aztecs, whose capital was Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City.)  During centuries of disuse, what was left of the buildings at Teotihuacan gradually fell down and became overgrown with weeds.  Their colorful murals faded and disintegrated with exposure to the weather.  Objects that had been left behind were broken or buried.  What we see today only hints at the greatness that was Teotihuacan.
Coatlicue (Museum of Anthropology)
Note: Today, like most of the other ancient sites in Mexico, the pyramids of Teotihuacan are closed to climbing by tourists, but you can still visit the surrounding grounds and appreciate the richness of the culture. You can also view many of the treasures of Teotihucan–giant sculptures, masks, pottery, jewelry and more--in the wonderful Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

My visit to Teotihuacan in 1991 inspired a second trip when I went to research my book City of the Gods: Mexico’s Ancient city of Teotihuacan (Clarion, 1994), illustrated with photographs by Richard Hewett. The pictures on this blog are mine from the first trip.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Sicily, Part II: VOLCANOES and TRAFFIC. Guest Post by Gretchen Woelfle

Stromboli Explosion
My friend Gretchen Woelfle recently went to Sicily and sent me this report.  Part I, last week, focused on cathedrals and ancient ruins.  This week Gretchen visits Sicily's famous volcanoes.  Gretchen is a fellow children’s book author whose recent books include Write On, Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren and  All the World's a Stage, A Novel in Five Acts.  Find out more at .

Perhaps the most exciting parts of the trip to Sicily were our climbs up Stromboli and Mount Etna, two volcanoes very much alive.  Stromboli, the source of the island that bears its name, is only 3000 ft. high, but the climb nearly finished me off.  Hiking in a hot late afternoon, steep switchbacks all the way up – I wondered if it was worth it.

Hiking up Stromboli
It was sunset when we reached the summit, looking down into several steam-spouting craters, with the sea beyond, and as darkness fell we witnessed thunderous explosions about every ten minutes.  I managed to catch photos of one of them. Spectacular stuff, along with glowing stones that glittered on the rocks after the explosions ended.
View of Stromboli from the ferry
The walk down the gritty trail in the dark (with headlamps) was nearly as difficult as the hike up. The next day we spoke to people who had watched the same eruptions from a boat off the island, and from a restaurant halfway up the volcano.  Next time…..

Top of Etna
A few days later, when we reached Mount Etna (11,000 ft.) I was pleased to learn that we could travel nearly 9600 ft. by cable car and van.  The hike from there was a walk in the park – a moonscape park covered in black lava gravel. And at the top – a wild wind blew the sulfurous smoke in all directions as we stood on the edge of several steaming craters of unseen depth. Fantastic!

Gretchen on Etna
The most dangerous part of entire trip to Sicily though, was probably the driving. Two weeks of small Italian cars randomly creating an extra lane to the left or right of you as you made your way through traffic jams in the cities. “Streets” so narrow that you have to fold the side mirrors on your Fiat Panda to creep through. Cobbled village streets so steep you invoke all the saints for your eventual release. Cars passing on hills and curves with no regard for that solid white line down the middle of the road.  Cars double-parking at will, parking perpendicular to the curb, parking on the sidewalks, etc etc. And most perplexing of all, a lack of street signs that rendered useless my Google map directions. 
Enter friendly Sicilians who were quick to stop in the middle of the road to guide us on a bit further before we got lost again.  Or to call their Australian wife who could translate for us.  Or who jumped in their cars to lead us to the next part of the journey. Or who gathered everyone in the shop to study the online map and determine how to guide us to where we wanted to go.

Sicilian pizza
As for the food in general and the pizza in particular, experts say it’s the best in the world outside of Naples – but since we didn’t get to Naples, I was mightily satisfied.

On Stromboli we stayed in the Hotel Ossidiana
and ate delectable pizza at Luciano’s.[] We spent two nights on Etna at the Rifugio Sapienza, []
and ate risotto and pasta in their excellent restaurant, while watching a video showing Etna’s eruptions in the last ten years. They closed the mountain to visitors for three years, from 2010 until April 2013. 

Climbing down Etna
Mount Etna erupted again on October 26, 2013.  For some amazing video of the eruption, click here:

Some good reading about Sicily:

Andrea Camilleri has written a long series of terrific mysteries about Inspector Montalbano.  See “Andrea Camilleri Montalbano series” at Even better is the TV version, in Italian (!) with subtitles.

Leonardo Sciascia is an acclaimed Sicilian writer, some of whose books have been translated.  I recommend
The Wine Dark Sea (short stories)
Sicilian Uncles (four novellas)

Daphne Phelps, A House in Sicily, describes moving to Sicily from England in 1947 and adapting to the local culture, including the Mafia.
Simetti, Mary Taylor, Persephone’s Island: A Sicilian Journal, tells the story of an American young woman who travels to Sicily in 1962, marries a Sicilian and makes a life there.