Monday, October 14, 2019

VENICE, ITALY: Glittering Jewel at the edge of the Sea

Venice, Italy. Campanile and domes of Saint Mark's Basilica. View across the Grand Canal from Punte della Dogana on the Dorsoduro.
Visiting Venice is a little bit like going to Disneyland--the crowds, the rides, the spectacle, the assault on the senses--the difference being that everything in Venice is real and in many cases hundreds of years old. In late September, my husband and I spent three days in Venice and it was still just as magical as on our first visit 25 years ago. Between the food, the art, the music, the boats and the bridges we felt like we had been immersed in a painting by Turner or Canaletto.
A gondola traffic jam in one of the smaller canals.
The weather was perfect--sunny and warm, but not too hot--and although there were crowds of tour groups in the popular tourist spots during the middle of the day, they thinned out by evening.
Venice is an island, part of an archipelago that includes the main large island of Venice plus numerous smaller islands. You can see the Campanile in Piazza San Marco sticking up above the red roofed buildings.
Our first view of Venice was from the airplane as we approached the airport on the mainland. After landing, we followed a long walkway to the docks, where water transport was waiting to take passengers to the island of Venice. In our shared water taxi we sped across the lagoon, waves splashing across the bow, until we arrived at the entrance to the canals, where the boat slowed to a more sensible pace.
The Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal is the oldest bridge in Venice
We were one of the last to be dropped off, so our ride served as a mini-tour of the city and the web of canals that are the main streets of Venice.
One of the 400 bridges and 150 canals that connect the islands of Venice
Our hotel, Pensione Seguso, in the Dorsoduro neighborhood, was a two minute walk from the Zattere boat stop. After checking in, we took a walk along the Zattere promenade where there were various restaurants, many with tables on platforms over the water.
Waiting for pizza at our waterside table. On the other side of the channel we looked at the narrow island of Giudecca.
Our hotel was out of the way of the main tourist traffic in Venice, but it was only a short walk to the Accademia bridge over the Grand Canal and to the central part of Venice and the magnificent Basilica San Marco. (The easiest way to get around Venice is by walking, although the maze of squares, narrow walkways, bridges and canals make a map essential.)
View of San Marco and the Campanile (Bell Tower) from the loggia surrounding Piazza San Marco. The bell rings twice a day, at noon and midnight.
The Piazza San Marco is enormous, easily accommodating the thousands of tourists who visit it each day, not to mention the flocks of pigeons waiting for offerings of breadcrumbs. With its glittering mosaics and multicolored marble columns, the magnificent basilica is the perfect backdrop for all this activity. 
The Basilica di San Marco.
To the left of the Basilica in Piazza San Marco is Torre dell'Orologio (the Clock Tower) with its beautiful 15th-century blue and gold leaf clock.
The 24-hour clock on the Clock Tower.
Besides visiting the Piazza San Marco, highlights of our time in Venice included an afternoon at the opera (we saw the Barber of Seville at the Teatro de Fenice, the famous opera house where Maria Callas got her start), a Vivaldi concert at the Church of San Vidal, and visits to two art museums, the Peggy Guggenheim Museum and the Accademia Gallery (to be the topic of another post.)
Posters on a palace along the Grand Canal advertise the Biennale.
We never got to the Biennale, the bi-annual international art exposition at the Arsenale–not enough time in our short visit. 
Art by Jean Dubuffet was on display at the Palazzo Franchetti.
But the streets were filled with smaller ancillary art exhibits, dozens of art galleries, and the display windows of the high-end fashion shops in the streets near Piazza San Marco had their own spectacular art creations.
Carnival masks on display in a shop window.
Other shops featured typical crafts of Venice--elaborate masks, marbled paper, glass sculptures from the island of Murano, and much more.
Gondolier shirts are among the many souvenirs one can buy at pop-up stalls on Piazza San Marco
On our first trip to Venice we met a architect professor who had brought his students to see and draw the intersection of buildings, bridges, and water that make the city of Venice unique.No other city is like Venice, with its mix of churches, palaces, plazas, towers, bridges and waterways.
Sunset on the Giudecca Canal, viewed from the Zattere promenade. After dark the lights come on and the city sparkles in the night.
We were lucky on both trips to Venice to enjoy good weather. (It can be foggy and rainy.) This trip was short and we only had time to sample a few of Venice's pleasures. One day was a trip to the outer islands, a chance to get away from the tourist crowds--to be the subject of another post. Altogether our visit to Venice was a magical three days--and we wish we had had time to spend more.

Monday, October 7, 2019

MOUNTSFIELD PARK: One of London's Many Green Spaces, Guest Post by Gretchen Woelfle

Autumn colors, London style. Mountsfield Park, Hither Green (South London)

My friend and fellow children's book writer Gretchen Woelfle loves to travel and frequently goes to London, living in local neighborhoods. Here is a post about one of her recent visits.

London has some magnificent famous parks: Regents Park, Hyde Park, Hampstead Heath among others. But I especially love London neighborhood parks. Many of them are the sites of homes (long gone) of landowning squires, or transformed farmers’ fields. A few include land reclaimed from World War II bombsites. 
Dragonfly gates at entrance to Mountsfield Park
I spent a month in Hither Green (south London) right across from Mountsfield Park, not famous but lovely just the same.  
A path with light and shade under green, leafy arches
I took a daily stroll (along with locals and their dogs) across large expanses of guilt-free (for a SoCal resident) lawns where people of all genders and ages play soccer, under tall stately trees, across wild places where the grass isn't mown and shrubbery isn't trimmed, with winding paths through it all. 
Girl power!

Lots of coffee at the tea shop.
I lingered at a tea shop, a rose garden, a wildflower meadow, a community vegetable garden, tennis courts, and a playground.
Hidden sculpture tucked in the trees.
There are carved wooden sculptures hidden here and there and heaps of logs placed to provide habitat for an endangered English beetle.
Berries ripe for autumn harvest.
The autumn colors were out – subtle but stunning. I love the wild foxes that roam the parks and gardens all over London.  Residents call them vermin, but they are exotic to me, with their long bushy tails. I see them crossing the street into the park at dusk.  And one morning as I was retrieving my bike from the back garden shed, I startled one out of the next-door overgrown garden.
Community garden.
Google tells me that 47% of London is “green”. The website below lists 111 parks and Mountsfield isn’t even one of them. Wherever you happen to land in London, there’s probably a park – or a garden or a common or a heath – nearby where you can enjoy the pleasures of the English countryside in the heart of the city. Here’s the list of 111 parks tells the history of Mountsfield park.
Scarlet highlights.

Monday, September 30, 2019


Midnight sunlight on icebergs, windows, and water
My friend and fellow children’s book author Caroline Hatton and her husband Bill visited Greenland in July 2019. She took all but one of the photos in this post.

Three whales as seen from the trail
While staying in the town of Ilulissat, almost half-way up the west coast of Greenland, we saw whales every single day: from the midnight-sun tour boat, from the hiking trails along the shore, and even from our breakfast table inside the hotel dining room. They were feeding, their backs and tails sporadically breaking the surface of the icy water among the icebergs.
On one hike, at one point a rocky hill blocked our view of the water, yet we heard a whale blow, loud as a locomotive releasing steam. When the water came into view, we discovered that the whale was some thousand yards (a kilometer) out in the water. Perhaps the far wall of icebergs the size of continents reflected the sound toward us.

Ilulissat as seen from a tour boat. When Greenland was a Danish colony, buildings were color-coded: hospitals were yellow, factories blue, radio communication sites green, and churches and shops red. The colors applied to the workers’ homes. Newer buildings can be any color.
It was on our midnight-sun boat tour that I took my favorite photos, compared to those I snapped while hiking, walking around town, visiting the museum, and eating.

This Zodiac got closer to these two humpback whales than our larger boat, but its passengers don’t appear to have cameras.
A dozen whales were at the rendezvous, the closest of all the whales we saw.

A mountain-size iceberg as seen from a tour boat
Admiring and photographing the mountain-size icebergs up close (but not too close, lest they flip and wash us off the face of the earth), pastel blue and yellow and peach in the soft golden light, made me feel like I had gone through a secret passage into an enchanted art gallery.

Left to right: Disko Island, Disko Bay, long white Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland Ice Sheet. Courtesy of NASA.
The town of Ilulissat is well inside Disko Bay, a bay so big you can see it on a globe the size of a grapefruit. The icebergs in the bay come out of a nearby fjord 40 km (25 mi) long, the Ilulissat Icefjord (Ilulissat Kangerlua in Greenlandic). They are calved by the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier (or Jakobshavn Glacier, its Danish name, on some maps), on the edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet from which it flows.
As seen from a hiking trail: the icefjord, full of ice, all the way to the other shore, almost 5 miles (8 km) away.
This glacier is one of the most active in the world, fast-moving (40 m or over 130 ft/day) and producing the largest volume of icebergs outside of Antarctica. But the biggest ones don’t float out to sea. Instead, they get stuck on the shallow bottom at the mouth of the fjord, causing a giant pile-up and keeping the whole fjord choked with ice. It’s a natural wonder and a UNESCO World Heritage Area.
As seen from a hiking trail: apartment buildings and sled dogs on long chains at the inland edge of Ilulissat. There are more dogs than people and more mosquitoes than dogs.
Hiking without a guide was easy because we had a trail map provided by our tour operator.

Can you see the yellow trail marker?
The map’s yellow, red, or blue trails were clearly marked with rocks or wooden posts painted with the corresponding color.
For dinner at the Arctic Hotel, lavish buffets offered Greenlandic specialties, especially seafood. The Inuit, especially in the far north, have long survived on marine mammals because there was little else to eat. But of all the seafoods, I tried only baked Arctic char, which looked and tasted delicious like a supersized trout with pink or beige flesh, “depending on how much shrimp it ate,” said one chef.

Whale skin (and a mussel)
Like elsewhere in Greenland, the menu didn’t specify which species of whale was being served. Dark red whale meat was sliced paper-thin. Whale skin appeared by itself or in a stew.
I never saw seal meat. As for the whole silvery dried fish the size of my smallest finger, I tried but failed to saw it in half with a knife. So I chewed on its tail end a while without inflicting much damage to it. That’s why I don’t count it as a seafood I tried. Gnawing at it would be a good way to pass the time in winter, and not gain weight.

The chef also served Greenlandic musk ox, lamb, and farmed reindeer roasts. And I thanked him for the variety of vegetarian salads.

Breakfast, like elsewhere in Greenland, was a buffet of fresh fruits, cereals and milk, yogurts, cheeses, gorgeous yummy dark seeded breads, cold meats such as herbed ham, salami, and liverwurst, eggs, bacon, sausages, different cold fishes such as Greenlandic pickled halibut or smoked salmon, and more.  However, my breakfast favorite was… looking for whales from my table.

For lunch everywhere in Greenland, biting bug clouds chased me indoor where I enjoyed cheese (Danish) and Wasa (Swedish) or Tuc (French) crackers (from the local supermarket) in my hotel room, or freshly cooked, hot sandwiches at family-owned caf├ęs.

When the time came to go home, we flew from Ilulissat to Reykjavik, Iceland, then to California. Flying over the Greenland Ice Sheet allowed me to see pale turquoise blue surface meltwater, as dashes on wrinkly ice like elephant skin, and squiggles like attempts to draw a river, but mostly in scattered rings like on a Nordic designer textile, each pattern another natural work of art but also an ominous reminder of global warming.


Read about a new, current map of Greenland and its back side about “Understanding the Arctic.”

Read“Greenland’s Dog”, another guest post by Caroline Hatton.