Archive for July, 2013

The Island Everyone Wanted

July 31st, 2013 9:05 am by Dave and Ray from here

We arrived in Cyprus on Friday night, rented the car, found the hotel, and ate at a generic chain restaurant on the strip of Larnaca beach restaurants. Relatively few wrong turns. The Palm Walk at Larnaca looks exactly like Ibiza, Newport Beach, or any other place where people come to get sunburned and drink and have sex. I wonder what will happen to these places when everyone realizes that being drunk is not all that neat except as a prelude to having sex, and they don’t want to have sex any more becuase the Internet is so much more satisfying?

On Saturday the tourist office fixed us up with maps and listings, and we set off along the south coast to see several sets of ruins. First we stopped at Choirokoitia, a Neolithic site with round houses and a defensive wall dating from 9000 BC. That’s a really long time ago! The other sites we visited were much more modern, consisting mostly of Roman ruins: Amathous was a fairly small area where a few pillars had been set up. Kourion was a very large site with a reconstructed theater, a villa with several mosaic floors, and a couple smaller houses with mosaics as well. From there we headed to the place depicted in the picture above, Petra Tou Romiou, the place where Venus, er, Aphrodite is said to have emerged from the ocean. Ouranous was ravishing Gaia when he was interrupted by his son Kronos, who “took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him.” These fell into the sea, surrounded themselves with foam, and from them emerged Aphrodite.

Now it is a popular swimming spot, especially for Russian tourists in Speedos.

We headed into Paphos, and hooked up with our Airbnb apartment. The apartment is in one of a two buildings, with more planned, by a local construction company. Perhaps you’ve heard things haven’t been going so well in the Cyprus economy, and the third building never got started. It has been very difficult to find people to rent or buy the apartments, and Airbnb has been something for them to do while they wait. Unfortunately it didn’t have an Internet connection, and we found ourselves choosing places to eat based on whether or not they did.

Sunday was spent in two sites located in the town: a large area called Kato Paphos, with many well-preserved mosaics, especially in the House of Dionysus; and the Tombs of the Kings, kind of a cemetery grounds for the 1% in the 3rd century BC, with several mausoleums carved into the rock near the shore. It is much easier to see the structure of 2nd and 3rd century houses from their imitations in graves, than from the reconstructions above ground.

On Monday we drove through Troodos, the highest mountains in Cyprus, and visited three Byzantine wooden-roofed churches. About five kilometers before reaching the first one, the car got a flat tire in a tiny village on a steep road, and a nice handball player stopped and helped us put on the temporary spare.

In Pedoulas, the Byzantine Museum was closed (because it was Monday), but the church of Michael the Archangel was open. It was a very small church, but the walls were covered with well-preserved frescoes. We continued to Moutoullas, where there was another church next to the village cemetery. It was locked, but a bus with a tour group from Spain arrived which had arranged with the local caretaker to open the church, so we got to go inside and see it. A little larger, the frescoes somewhat more damaged. The caretaker was impossibly old and wizened, and we ended up giving him a ride down the hill to his cottage after the tour bus had left, because he did not feel up to the walk. The towns in Troodos have a strong vertical component.

The third site, Kalopanagiotis, had a monastery with a museum. A monk spotted us and other tourists and opened the museum. A Russian family toured it with us. The church was scheduled to be opened at 4 P.M., so we retired to the cafe across the plaza to eat what amounted to a quesadilla, except it was in Greek, and drink lemonade. Something from the Disney Channel was on TV, dubbed. Without being confronted with what I am sure was horrible dialogue, I was free to evaluate the other aspects of the production. One little kid about eleven looks to be ferocious leading-man material in another decade. He was overplaying the part of a kid trying to act grown up toward an older girl, but he controlled his face and posture perfectly, and his sense of comic timing was absolute.

The monastery church was much larger than the others, and was actually in everyday use: it had a lot of stuff in it. There were a few post cards for sale, but you couldn’t take pictures. Someone will invent a periodic table of iconoclasm: where you are and are not allowed to take pictures, and why.

We hobbled on to Nicosia, which they call Lefkosia, and after much back and forth, met our Airbnb host on a street behind a church; he guided us to his place. The address defies looking up in any standard mapping program (perhaps we should have typed the name in Greek). It definitely did not help that Pocket Earth has that street misspelled, Lefkou Nastasiades instead of Lefkou Anastasiades. Airbnb hosts should be required to share GPS coordinates. Anyway, it’s a lovely two-bedroom flat with air-conditioned bedrooms, with WiFi! We had more traditional Cyprus food in the old town for dinner.

Tuesday morning was spent doing nothing, one of the few chances on this trip to rest. Vacationing is hard work.

Tuesday afternoon we drove into town, found a questionable parking place (Cyprus doesn’t really seem to enforce parking very strictly), and spent a couple hours in the Cyprus Museum looking at various artifacts, many from the sites we’d seen the two previous days. Some small figurines were the most fascinating: one from 3000 BC or so depicted childbirth with the mother leaning back on another person, and someone standing assisting in the delivery. The ones from 750 BC or so were quite finely executed.

The title of this post is the name of a children’s book for sale in the museum store. It refers to the repeated invasions of Cyprus by every tribe which ever had designs on the Mediterranean trade routes, which is all of them. Cyprus achieved independence in 1960. The British still control two little Guantanamos, one of which, called “Akrotiki”, we drove through on the way from Larnaca to Paphos. Not foresightful enough to mail a post card from there. It would have been much more expensive than Cyprus Post, which is 45 euro cents and a real bargain, if you’re just coming from northern Europe. So even though Heathrow is too unmanageable to fly through any longer, we did manage to dip into the British empire on this trip. The sun had not set, but it was a weekend.

Non-British Cyprus, as you know, is divided into two areas: the southern part, where we have been visiting, is the Republic of Cyprus and is ethnically Greek. The northern part is referred to by the Greeks as “Area Under Turkish Military Occupation Since 1974”, or by the residents as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. There is a thin DMZ, the “green line” between the two areas administered by the UN, which for some reason they don’t want you to take any pictures of. Nicosia is an old city whose core is surrounded by a circular city wall which looks cool on a map, or perhaps a satellite image; you don’t get the same impression seeing it up close. The “green line” goes right through the core of the city and was impassable for three decades after the Turkish invasion. But in 2003 or so, a crossing was opened up so that anyone with a passport or identity card can go to the other side.

A reporter who works for a North Cyprus newspaper told us that there were friends who hadn’t seen each other for thirty years, who greeted each other at the opening. “It was emotional,” she said. We talked to Ann for a long time, about elements of life and politics. One of many people we meet as a result of our having beards. You should have a beard when you travel, or at least a flat tire.

Our hosts have enjoyed going to the Turkish side, but they haven’t gone for awhile because their friends have traffic tickets which must be paid before they can return. We didn’t have traffic tickets there, so we crossed over for a couple hours and walked around. We saw a little exhibition where old people were invited to remember what used to be where the wall is now back before it was put up. The most interesting thing was an old Catholic church that was repurposed to be a mosque. The church faces East, but the direction to Mecca is 156°, almost south: the orientation of the patterns on the carpeting and the location of the minbar make it clear what direction to face once you get inside. (Like all Turkish mosques we’ve seen, anyone is allowed inside except during prayer time). Most of the larger Christian statues were removed from the ornamentation of the outside of the building, but some were so small and deeply integrated that they were left.

Tuesday night we ate at Souxou Mouxou Mandalakia, probably the best restaurant in Cyprus. We had a nice salad of assorted greens with a honey lemon dressing, instead of the Greek salad of tomatoes and cucumber and feta; scallops in orange juice sauce; and lamb shank on a celery root puree. The California cooking style with Greek chefs using Cypriot ingredients.

Today we will hobble back to Larnaka, find out how expensive it will be to return a rental car with a flat tire, and find out what the security experience is like for people traveling to Israel.

Friends in the Low Countries

July 26th, 2013 7:33 am by Dave and Ray from here

On Saturday, our last day in Dublin, we took the bus into town, and walked to a critically acclaimed coffeehouse (also recomended by a Dublinite we’d met) called The Fumbally, and had a most excellent and large breakfast: Green Eggs and Ham was simply eggs, avocado, and chorizo; a plate of bread with soft cheese and honey; a bowl of carrot soup, and a fruit and nut bar.

We spent some time at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the main cathedral for all of Ireland. Jonathan Swift served for many years as the dean there, and there were several monuments to him; he is buried there as well. The pews were very much like an airliner: first class pews faced towards the aisle, and behind Ireland’s coat of arms were seats for the President, with the seal of the presidency; the sun at various points shone directly on these emblems while we were there. Business class was another set of fenced-in cushioned pews facing forward; and economy were extremely simple chairs with handmade cushions for sitting or kneeling. The building has been there a very long time: Saint Patrick was there in 450 preaching at a well, some stone remains of which exist; documentation mentions a church there in 890; the current church was built in the 1200s. It’s been damaged over the ages by storm and fire; much renovation has been underwritten by Guinness over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.

From there, we returned to Chester Beatty Library, a building located at Dublin Castle housing books and other items collected by Mr. Beatty. He seemed to have a special fondness for religious texts: Christian, Muslim, Buddhist. The library exhibits many of the interesting items in some museum rooms, but you know that there must be thousands more books stashed away in the stacks. There were examples of styles of paper, styles of printing, styles of bookbinding; it was quite a beautiful presentation. Also Chinese snuff bottles. Collectors drift.

After some Japanese food which was nothing special, we returned to the hotel.

Early Sunday morning, we headed to the airport and checked in for our flight to Amsterdam. It was your basic domestic flight: as happened to Ray several years ago on US Airways, they only offered water as a purchase; I complained to the steward that that was a disgraceful practice. He said “we would have given you a complimentary cup”. Fine, but I would have had to beg. Harumph. We picked up the rental car and headed to Antwerp, finding our Airbnb accomodations for the evening, a room in a physical therapy student’s flat for $25. For that price, so what if the beds were small, one was a mattress on the floor, and the bedding was probably what he grew up with as a kid? We targeted a restaurant two kilometers away and saw a few closed Antwerp sights, including the very impressive cathedral with the sun setting on its intricately sculptured door. It has a very intricate steeple as well. We reached Fiskebar, a very popular fish place; on this very warm evening everyone insisted in sitting outside. While waiting, Ray took some pictures, including some of a good-looking guy smoking, who turned out to be our waiter taking a break. He wasn’t a model. In California, a hot waiter is more likely to be a model. We ordered a small seafood platter and a grilled fish. The platter had three oysters, probably 10 medium prawns, dozens of small clams, and two different sizes of sea snails: whelks, about two inches long and pointy, which were very easy to get out of the shell; and periwinkles, spherical about three-quarters inch in diameter, which were very difficult to coerce the meat out of. Ray managed to master the technique though, and probably got about 70% out, compared to my paltry 30%. We hadn’t really had them since 1987, and they were pretty fun.

Monday we went to this very silly little town called Dendermonde, because its city hall bell tower featured carillon concerts every day in July and August at lunchtime. It was located next to a large town square full of little restaurants with seats extending out into the square under shade umbrellas. The concerts were a bit cheesy, with hits like Blue Danube, House of the Rising Sun, When You Wish Upon A Star, and Sunrise, Sunset. The accordionists and violinist in town must not have respected them much either, because they felt free to drown out the carillon with their even cheesier fare.

All the cities we visited in Belgium had something called a “begijnhof”, medieval women’s spaces that featured (in the case of the Dendermonde beguinage) a small triangular park plot surrounded by rows of little attached houses where widows and unmarried women were encouraged by the church to live a bit like nuns, but without taking any vows. A small church was located in the middle of the plot. It was Monday and the museum was closed.

Monday is also the market day of that town and everything in the world was being sold on the blocked off streets. We had to park some distance away.  Many stores were also closed because of the holiday: Belgium had crowned a king the day before.

After we escaped Dendermonde traffic, we headed to the Atomium. The Atomium is a building I remember reading about as a child and I always was curious to see it. It was built for the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958 and is the only pavilion still standing from that exhibition. Burning Man isn’t the only wasteful art show. The Atomium was resurfaced with Stainless Steel in 2006 (The original was aluminum) for its 50th anniverary. It seems in very good shape. Only a couple of the balls have exhibits in them, either of art depicting the times it was built in, or of rave music. Others are available for private functions, and one has a forest of hanging beds which school kids sleep over in on special field trips.

We also went downtown and looked at the exteriors of a couple of Art Nouveau houses designed by Victor Horta. His museum was closed because it was Monday and the houses are mostly private residences and office buildings.

Then we headed to Ghent where our friend Sebastian from Germany was staying with his friends in order to go to the Gentse Feesten, ten days of many stages of many types of music, with lots of beer being served to anyone 16 or over, all pretty much around the clock. It was quite crowded and chaotic; at one point some drunk girls came up and hugged all of us. In any case, it was nice to see him and hang out with his friends. We drove to Brugge, found the right Ibis hotel, and settled in. It was an Ibis Budget hotel, which did not waste a single square foot of space.

Tuesday we walked around Brugge, seeing its begijnhof, then having a damn fine apple pie and a Belgian waffle. The cathedral we looked at had a lot of renovation going on, and its entrance fee was marked down to 2 euro. The Groeningsmuseum had many fine works of the Flemish masters, and kind of a silly exhibit of very modern work supposedly inspired by them. We went to a free harp concert which was quite soporific, and then headed to the farm village of Kruishotem, checking into a quirky little hotel called B Hotel, not terribly unlike B Movies. The receptionist was a character out of Office Space — fortunately not out of Psycho. The front door had no doorknob on the inside, and could only be opened to exit by pressing a button some distance away. I muttered to myself that that was bizarre, and he said, “Bizarre? Why is that bizarre?”

On the outskirts of the village, next to fields of wheat, oats, and corn, is the three-Michelin-starred Hof Van Cleve, widely acclaimed to be one of the twenty top restaurants in the world. We started out on the patio, where they served no less than five amuses bouches. They then invited us into the thankfully air-conditioned interior where they brought the delicious lobster and frog leg starters, the delicious green bean salad (with young almonds and slices of truffle), and the delicious pigeon and sweetbread main courses. The cheese cart arrived with only three cheeses: three years of Comte, St. Marcellin, and a Belgian blue cheese they scooped out of the round with a spoon. Two rhubarb desserts followed, then three petits fours, then a petit fours cart from which they seemed disappointed we only had room for one or two choices. I was afraid to get the bill, but the unknowns for the water, the wine pairings, and the dessert and cheese turned out not to be that much. I suppose they serve much cheaper wine for their pairings then they feature on their list, which had scarcely any bottles less than 100 euros.

Wednesday we returned to Antwerp and toured the cathedral, an amazingly huge space. It has a 100-year-old organ for 200-year-old romantic French organ music, and a 10-year-old tracker organ for 400-year-old baroque music. An adjoining chapel had a large golden ark on the altar, and some mysterious instrument I’m guessing was some kind of harpsichord. Another had the statue Our Lady of Antwerp. There were many large oil paintings of the Flemish masters positioned around the space, including Ruebens’ Descent from the Cross. One corner had thirty or so life-sized wooden figures with benches between them serving as confessionals.

We headed back towards Amsterdam, but just after crossing the Netherlands border, visited Baarle-Hertog, a group of 26 Belgian exclaves, pieces of Belgian land completely surrounded by Netherlands. One place we found was a piece of the Netherlands inside one of the Belgian exclaves. We mailed a letter from the Belgian post office and drove on to fill up and return the rental car. We found our way to Meininger Hotel, one train stop out of town, the local equivalent of a Japanese coffin hotel — an extremely narrow room houses Ray and me and our friend Philipp. But hey, for $25 euro per person, that close to Amsterdam, one cannot complain. It’s very modern and clean, and so what if there was no hot water this morning? It works great now!

We headed into town and met up with our friends Mike and Carla, who met us in Amsterdam for a day before spending five weeks in London. By the time our dinner table was finally available, Philipp had arrived from Berlin. Dinner ended up being a bunch of little snacks, but it hit the spot.

Thursday was our One Perfect Day In Amsterdam. Breakfast was at a place which featured coffee, fresh juice, and bagels all in the same place; it was all really good. The Stedelijk Museum is the modern art museum Carla and I visited in 1978, with a massive new wing added since then. There were many cute items all over the museum, including Ed Kienholz’ The Beanery, a tiny space one person at a time could squeeze into. It was a dusty old bar, where all of the patrons had clocks as faces, and there were FAGOTS STAY OUT signs posted. A soundtrack of old music and crowd foley played through the speakers. Musicians of a certain age will remember that on Janis Joplin’s album with Big Brother and the Holding Company, Cheap Thrills, the liner notes credit crowd noises to Barney’s Beanery. That album was recorded around 1967 and the Barney’s Beanery piece here dates to 1965; I wonder how many hours of Barney’s Beanery samples were drifting around the recording studios of California at that time.

The museum FOAM is a photography museum which had a large exhibit of Edward Steichen, a fashion photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair starting in the 1920s. After a walk in the large and crowded Vondelpark, making us wonder why no one was working on a Thursday afternoon, we arrived at Blauw, a really nice Indonesian rice table place. Four orders of rice table and one order of lamb was more than enough to feed six people, including Victor, a local documentary filmmaker who we’d met on the 2008 trip to the China eclipse.

Now we prepare to leave for Cyprus, just as northern Europe gets its drizzling rain back.

Highs and Lows in Dublin

July 20th, 2013 12:10 am by Dave and Ray from here

The Chicago Airport is nothing if not consistent. From the time Ray’s plane from Tampa pulled up to the gate to the time he got off the plane, walked to the tram between terminals, got to Terminal 5, got through the long security line, and got to the departure lounge for our flight, 64 minutes had passed. It took me 63 minutes to do the same thing coming from San Francisco.

I need to take back, or rather amend, what I have said about airbnb being unreliable and difficult, because in this trip already I have had reservations made on and rip themselves out from under me. In Dublin: The gal at Acara House B&B wrote to me a couple of days ago saying that her daughter was coming to stay with her and therefore the room I had reserved was no longer available, and I could go to Bradoge House which she would arrange if I wrote back and acknowledged this change, which I did. On the website for Bradoge house I found it was at 221 New Cabra Street, and even though the map on the website didn’t have a dot on it showing the hotel, who worries about a broken website?

We got to Dublin at 4:40 AM Thursday, got our passports stamped in a short line and waved past customs entirely along with the whole rest of the plane — so nice to be in a country that isn’t at war with the entire world — and after some consideration decided to splurge on a taxi to 221 New Cabra Street, which Garmin, Google, and the Taxi driver couldn’t find. And Bradoge House didn’t answer their phone.

The taxi driver let us off just north of the river where I made an angry phone call to Elizabeth Jones, she of Acara House, who was so apologetic that she would not hang up for apologizing; I couldn’t get a word in for the last five minutes which cost us who knows how much in foreign telephone fees but she did not do anything so apologetic as, say, driving to get us and take us to Bradoge house. She said it was too early.

The humblest little Indian immigrant in every America’s Best Value Inn knows that being available 24 hours a day is part of being in the hotel business. I have expressed my disapproval in Tripadvisor and to Venere. We sat in a Burger King using their WiFi to find a new hotel. Dublin is packed full this weekend. We got a room at the Beresford Hotel for last night and a Travelodge by the airport for tonight and tomorrow.

And Beresford gave us a room right away (at 7am) so instead of having to sleepwalk through Dublin until the room was available, we were able to take a nap until midday. Dublin hotels don’t have air conditioning: the fog usually does that. But it has been sunny here for the past three weeks, which is unusual, around 30 degrees, hotter than for the last seven years.   Our room was pretty hot:  they gave us fans, which helped a lot. When we arrived, two things failed right away: my belt and the GPS; we bought a new belt, and removed all waypoints, allowing the GPS to start up, so all is well there.

So finally about 2pm we started walking around, and had a nice snack at “brother hubbard” which an Irish guy we met a few years earlier had recommended. I have mixed feelings about reviewing them for TripAdvisor. Popularity might result in their becoming a chain. As it is they are really good and the staff is lovely and as we dug into the pulled pork sandwich I reflected that it was the first good thing that had happened in Dublin.They had programs for Gaze, an upcoming Dublin lesbian and gay film festival, which had a few films we’d seen at Frameline a few weeks ago but also had many films that hadn’t shown there.

We suddenly decided on the ten Euro tour, leaving in 2 minutes, of Trinity College which somehow supports 17000 students in a tiny campus. The guide was a recent graduate of that institution who will make a good barrister as he has an excellent speaking voice and a great familiarity with the facts he is called on to explain a dozen times a day. Trinity first admitted women in 1904 and the college head resigned and died. The ball outside of Berkeley Hall is the same artist as did the balls at UC Berkeley and the Vatican and the Berkeley is the same Berkeley, as well. The two Oregon maples are among the largest in Europe. I’m sure a lot of it is in Wikipedia but Wikipedia isn’t as good-looking as Henry Barrow.

On our trip in 2004 we’d tried to see the Book of Kells, but the line to get in was two hours long. This time it only took a few minutes, and we saw the exhibition, peeked at a couple pages of the book itself, and visited the Old Library.

We walked through St. Stephen’s Green, and noticed a statue of Robert Emmet, erected by the Robert Emmet Statue Committee. It’s good that a KFJC DJ has attained the stature to be memorialized several thousand miles away. The statue is a copy of one in Washington D.C., and Wikipedia tells me there is another copy in Golden Gate Park, at the Academy of Sciences.

After that we drifted north through the international tourist quarter Temple Bar. You would be hard challenged to distinguish it from Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco unless the photo were zoomed out enough to include major bits of Dublin skyline. The shops are the photonegative inverse of the Barbie aisle at Toys R Us: everything pink has been replaced by green.

Dinner was at the Winding Stair, which is also a bit hard to find as the map services disagree where 40 Ormond Quay is. We did find it and it was pleasantly packed and the food was pleasantly good. The chowder was more like a white cioppino. There were eleven mussels, hard to share evenly. The lamb and polenta were huge and made me happy we are only ordering one main course these days. The pear ginger cake with rum raisin ice cream — the pear got lost I’m afraid but it’s not really pear season anyway.

Friday we checked out of the Beresford, left the bags at the front, and found a place with fresh-squeezed juice next to a nicer place with coffee and pastries, and lots of table space to write postcards. Then we went to the National Museum, Archaeology, to see the “bog people”, unfortunates who had been killed and thrown into the bog, only to be preserved over a period of several thousand years. One placard explained that there was a custom that commoners kiss the king’s nipples: some of the bog people had had their nipples cut off so they could never be king. There were many other gold and stone artifacts as well.

While we were in the museum I noticed that the single pair of travel pants I have on this trip, in their “short” configuration, had ripped, up the leg. So the next ultra-important mission was to find a place to get new ones. I found some functionally equivalent ones, though more expensive and a little less roomy somehow — all the pockets are smaller. Lots of guys are wearing camo cargo shorts — maybe I should just look for some of those.

Then we took a walk in Iveagh Gardens, two-thirds of which unfortunately was closed. We sat in the shade for awhile and watched a guy do yoga and a bunch of kids swing from a tree.

Our next destination was Chester Beatty Library, and as we approached it, a woman called out “Dave and Ray!” It was our wonderful friend June who I’ve known since 1976, and was there with her husband for an urban planning conference at the end of a seven-week European trip. This meeting was completely unplanned, and instantly changed the agenda of the day — of course we all hung out together for the seven or so hours we all had left together. This included visits to a temporary location of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (not unlike SFMOMA’s temporary locations for the next three years), and to the National Gallery. Plus we saw Oscar Wilde’s statue in Merrion Square.

They had dinner plans with friends which we decided to crash. These plans turned out to be at Winding Stair, the place we’d eaten the night before. So we went back. The staff grudgingly increased the table for eight to a table for twelve (two others had added themselves on as well), and we had the opportunity to sample many different things from the same interesting menu as the night before. Tonight’s most spectacular success was a plate of various smoked fish, though everything was delicious.

Now we’re at the Travelodge: we declined buying their WiFi service, but amazingly, the voucher we’d gotten for free at Beresford still works here, since they’re both provided by the same company.  Tomorrow we’ll give Chester Beatty Library another try.


July 15th, 2013 8:08 am by Dave and Ray from here

We are taking a hot summer trip to the Aegean and Adriatic.  Cyprus, site of the birth of Venus; Israel, whose stamp may go in our passports which expire next year; two islands in Greece featuring early relics; the former Yugoslavia, full of castles and energy; and Venice, home to a film festival and an art festival in September.  In the coming weeks, we will post things which happen to this weblog.