Monday, September 28, 2015

September in UMBRIA, ITALY, Part 1: Perugia and Deruta

Piazza in front of the Duomo in Perugia; the fountain, Fontana Maggiore, is decorated with dozens of carved stone figures
We love traveling to Italy for its beautiful scenery, delicious food, wealth of art and culture both ancient and modern, and the opportunity to spend time in the out of doors. Two weeks ago we spent six days in Umbria, a region of rolling hills, ancient hill towns, and national parks about two hours north of Rome. We made Perugia, the regional capital, our base.
View of Perugia from our room at the Castello di Monterone
We stayed about three kilometers outside of Perugia at the Castello di Monterone, a medieval castle that has been converted to a comfortable hotel. From our windows we looked out over golden fields and olive groves and on the other side of the valley we could see the steeples and towers of Perugia perched on top of the hill. Like many medieval Umbrian towns, Perugia is a walled city, with buildings clustered together along steep and narrow streets. The old town is the historical center and has most of the tourist attractions, while the new, modern Perugia spreads along the slopes below.
Perugia Duomo, Dedicated to San Lorenzo, was built in the 15th Century
On our first day, we drove into Perugia, leaving our car at the Piazzale Partigiani, a parking garage at the bottom of the hill and took a series of escalators from there up to the main square. It was Sunday, so we decided to go first to the Cathedral (Duomo) and listen to the service (in Italian) and the organ music while taking in the magnificence of the surrounding space.

Adoration of the Magi by Perugino (1450-1523)
Afterward, when we went outside, it had begun to rain so it seemed like a good idea to head for the art museum across the square to view the works of Umbria’s most famous painter, Pietro di Cristoforo Vanucci, known as Il Perugino. His figures convey a naturalism not seen in earlier works of the period and the paintings are filled with light, making them feel quite modern. The museum has hundreds of works from the early Renaissance onward, revealing the richness of Umbria’s art heritage. Other Renaissance artists whose works can be seen in the museum include Piero della Francesca and Fra Angelico.
Etruscan boundary stone, Cippus Perusinus

Our ticket to the art museum also got us into several other museums in Perugia, so after a cup of strong Italian coffee (sipped under an umbrella since it was still raining) we made our way down the hill to the archeology museum which is filled with ancient Roman ruins, prehistoric tools and artifacts, and a tablet with the oldest known example of Etruscan writing.

Chocolate samples at Perugina factory

Perugia is known as the chocolate capital of Italy and we passed numerous chocolate shops as we walked along the streets. Later, at the end of the week, we went to the Perugina chocolate factory (owned now by Nestle), located in the industrial part of Perugia and home of the famous Baci candies. We went for a tour, chocolate tasting and visit to the Museum of Chocolate. Thousands of chocolate candies are produced every day in the plant. We toured from a catwalk above the factory floor and watched them move along conveyor belts in various stages of completion. I only realized after the tour that the name Baci means “kisses” in Italian. Inside the wrapper of each Baci is a love note! Not surprisingly, the busiest time of year at the factory is Valentine’s Day.

Entrance to the hill town of Deruta

Umbria is also famous for its majolica pottery and the center for that is the hill town of Deruta, about a half hour's drive from Perugia. That was our destination the next day, and again, we parked our car at the bottom of the hill. But this time there were no escalators, so we walked the steep paths to the top where a broad piazza surrounds a modest church and a museum of ceramics. However, it was Monday, when most museums are closed, so we didn’t have a chance to visit. Instead we explored the many shops and bought a small bowl as a souvenir.

We then returned to the hotel to relax and for dinner in the excellent hotel restaurant, Gradale. Our plan for the following day was an excursion to Lake Trasimeno. (To be continued next week.)
Sunset over Perugia

Monday, September 21, 2015

ZION and ARCHES NATIONAL PARKS, Utah. Guest Post by Tom Scheaffer

Arches National Park, Utah
My brother Tom Scheaffer recently traveled with a friend from California to the East Coast and stopped in Zion and Arches National Parks in Utah on the way. Here is his report and a few of his beautiful photos. 

Zion National Park
A few weeks ago I traveled across the country with my friend Salil in an RV that he had just bought in Los Angeles. Utah was my favorite state because of the amazing and colorful rock formations. We drove through Zion National Park and marveled at the sculpted rocks and peaks.
Layered rocks, Zion National Park
We then proceeded north and east to Moab, Utah, where we spent a comfortable night in an RV park. Traveling in an RV is like pulling a small and fully equipped house from one beautiful spot to another. 

Our RV
The next morning we went on the switch-back road into Arches National Park. The morning light created dramatic shadows on the red and orange cliffs. We hiked one and a half miles up to Delicate Arch where we met other tourists from around the world who had also come to enjoy the beauty of Utah's great national parks.
Delicate Arch. Note tiny figure on left for scale.
Arches National Park has the densest concentration of natural stone arches in the world with over 2000 arches in the park. For information on the geology of how these arches have formed, click HERE.
Tom (right) and his friend Salil, Park Avenue in Arches National Park

Monday, September 14, 2015

PAINTING SET FREE: J.M.W. Turner Exhibit at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA

Snow Storm–Steam-Boat off a Harbor’s Mouth by J.M.W. Turner
Several weeks ago, when we were in the Bay Area, we made a special trip into San Francisco  to see the spectacular exhibit of Turner paintings at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free.
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) is one of England's most renowned and prolific painters. This show features works from the last fifteen years of Turner’s life, from 1835 to 1850, a period when some of his most famous paintings, such as Snow Storm–Steam-Boat off a Harbor’s Mouth and The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons were created. In these, and other paintings in the exhibit, the canvases swirl with color and light and sky and water seem to merge. In many, the actual subjects become almost secondary to the texture and physical qualities of the paint. Although Turner’s painted more than a century ago, his art feels supremely modern.
These three paintings, illustrating scenes from Virgil's Aeneid, were the last works Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy in London.
Turner loved to travel, which I learned both from the exhibit and from the movie Mr. Turner (Sony Classics, 2014), which I saw earlier this year. In summer, Turner journeyed all over Europe, filling notebooks and sketch pads with scenes of his travels. One room of the exhibit features Turner's “sample studies” which are rough watercolors of various scenic views. When he returned home to London, patrons could choose from these samples and he would create a finished painting for them.

Blue Rigi, sample painting; the Rigi is a large mountain in Switzerland near Lake Lucerne
The Blue Rigi, Sunrise, finished painting
In the movie it is clear that Turner was a man who marched to his own drummer and that he liked to experience life intensely. He claimed that his painting of the Snow Storm was painted after he had sailors lash him to the mast of the boat so that he could feel and experience the wind and power of the storm first hand. Although this claim has never been substantiated, the painting certainly evokes the crashing waves and violent swirl of the elements.
Norham Castle, Sunrise (1845)
The final room of the exhibit displays some of Turner’s most luminescent works. These include Norham Castle, Sunrise (1845) in which the objects seem to float in space and the painting seems to glow from within. Turner's greatness is that he was able to convey the emotional truth of his subjects.

J. M. W. Turner: Painting Set Free was organized by Tate Britain in association with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It is on exhibit at the de Young from June 20 to September 20, 2015.

Monday, September 7, 2015

MONGOLIA’S WELCOMING GERS (YURTS) – Guest Post by Caroline Hatton

Sunset over tourist ger camp, Mongolia

My friend and fellow children’s book writer Caroline Hatton shares some notes from her June 2015 trip to Mongolia. To find out more about Caroline and her books, visit her website, She took all the photos in this post.

When my husband and I visited Mongolia, spending time in gers allowed us to enjoy many novel, interesting experiences. A ger (rhymes with air) is a traditional Mongolian home, a round hut made of a wooden structure covered with felt and canvas. Mongolian nomads can put up or take down a ger in about an hour! The Mongols live in gers in the countryside, in small towns, and outside of the country’s few cities, where apartment buildings are also found.

The following is based on advice from Mongolia Horse Trek guides, photographer Thomas Kelly and anthropologist Carroll Dunham.

* Mongolian families welcome visitors in their gers. There is no need to knock, but don’t approach a ger unless the occupants know you're coming, because guard dogs are likely to be on duty.

* To enter, step through the doorway over the threshold with your right foot.

* Once inside, go left. Never step between the two wooden poles that support the roof.

Never step between the poles
* When seated, never let the bottoms of your feet be visible to others. It would be very offensive.

* When your hostess offers you a dish of food or beverage, take it with both hands, or use the right hand (not the left hand!) with the left hand supporting the right forearm.

* If served, say, a cup of vodka, first you must offer some to the sky, to ancestors, and to the earth. To do this, hold the cup in your left hand, touch the vodka with the tip of your right ring (fourth) finger, then raise your hand and flick the droplet straight up. Touch the vodka again with the same fingertip, then flick the droplet over your right shoulder. Touch again, flick again, this time straight down on the floor.

* Drink as much vodka as you wish and give the cup back to the hostess, with two hands, or use the right hand with the left hand supporting the right forearm. If you don't want to drink any vodka, dip the tip of your right ring finger in it and touch your forehead just above your nose, before giving the cup back.

* If it's a food, take the dish, then take some food and eat it, or give the dish back—don't smear food on your forehead!

To say thank you, the Mongols I met said bayarla.


Lapis Sky Camp
The following is based on personal observations.

* Before walking in, take off your hat so you can see the top of the door frame and avoid whacking your skull on it.

* It’s great that the roof is always open because you won’t need to consult your mobile phone weather app to know that it’s raining outside.

* If the door is open, a squirrel (Citellus undulatus) might come in.

What squirrel?
The squirrel might run out through the crack between the floor and the bottom of the wall.

Squirrel exit between floor and wall
* Bathing: if the bucket of water you carried back from the river appears to contain a nearly-transparent baby fish swimming around, the size of a nail clipping, use a mug to catch him, put him back in the river, and rinse your mug with bottled water to prevent subsequent gastrointestinal distress. Alternatively, go take a hot shower in the shower ger.

* Laundry: if the next bucket of water you carry back from the river contains two baby fish (which you couldn’t see when you were at the river, in the dim evening light), if there is no sunscreen or insect repellent on your T-shirt and socks, and if you don’t plan to use soap, ignore the fish and gently rinse your T-shirt and socks in the bucket. When done, even though the water is no longer clear, you should still be able to see the fish swimming. Go pour the dusty water (and the fish) back in the river. Alternatively, the camp staff will be happy to do your laundry.

Bucket on wood-burning stove
* If you’re as lucky as I am, your wonder husband will hang your clothes to dry on the outside of the ger and the next day he will move them to the other side of the ger to keep them in the sun.

Wonder husband hanging laundry
* My husband was also quick to take the clothes inside as soon as we heard it coming—the bleating goat herd. According to experts, goats eat socks.

* If you step outside during the night and see two lights blinking in unison, it’s not fireflies on a date, it’s a yak batting his eyes at you.

Domesticated yak
Seriously, the superior comfort and charm of gers added a lot to our well-being and pleasure while in Mongolia, and to our happy memories ever since.


Watch Mongols set up a ger at (2-minute time-lapse video)

Learn about Mongolian etiquette at