Book Review: The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Walt Disney World: Magic Kingdom by Aaron Wallace


Author: Aaron Wallace
TitleThe Thinking Fan’s Guide to Walt Disney World: Magic Kingdom
Publication Info: Branford, CT : Intrepid Traveler, [2013]
Summary/Review:

This will be the last in the trio of books about Disney theme parks I’ve read recently, but it’s also the best of the bunch.  The author takes us on a tour of the Magic Kingdom and fills us in on the history, artistry, and hidden features of each attraction.  Wallace knows a lot about the thinking that went behind creating the attractions and offers insight into how people respond to them.  He also pairs each attraction with a movie to watch, and not always the most obvious one.  Some of the films aren’t even by Disney!  This is a great book on how Disney theme parks work as cultural artifacts.
Recommended books: The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney’s Dream by Sam Gennawey, The Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World by Susan Veness, Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World by The Project on Disney
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World by Susan Veness


Author: Susan Veness
TitleThe Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World
Publication Info: Avon, Massachusetts : Adams Media, [2015]
Summary/Review:

Having read The Disneyland Story by Sam Gennawey, it was natural to follow up by reading a book about Walt Disney World.  Unfortunately, this is less history and more of a guidebook listing various details and features you can find at the Disney parks in Florida.  There’s an expectation that the reader is carrying the book while touring Walt Disney World with lots of “look around X to find a special surprise” that doesn’t help if one is reading the book at home. Nevertheless, this book is an entertaining diversion.

Recommended booksInside the Mouse by The Project on Disney and The Disneyland Story by Sam Gennawey
Rating: **

Book Review: The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson


Author:Bill Bryson
TitleThe Road to Little Dribbling
Narrator: Nathan Osgood
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio, 2016.
Previously Read by the Same Author: A Short History of Nearly Everything, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, Notes from a Small Island, In a Sunburned Country, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, The Mother Tongue, The Lost Continent, Neither Here nor There, At Home: A Short History of Private Life,
Made in America, and One Summer: America, 1927
Summary/Review:

This is a follow-up to Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island with Bryson officially becoming a citizen of the UK to once again travel from end to end of the island nation.  This time he follows “The Bryson Line,” the longest distance between any two points on the British mainland without crossing open water. The book is full of Bryson’s awe of the natural beauty and cultural history of Britain, mixed with a sad nostalgia for what made Britain great when he first arrived decades go in the era before austerity.  Bryson fills his travel narrative with arcane, yet fascinating, facts about the places he visits as well as his crankier moments when he encounters poor service or obnoxious people.   Bryson fans will enjoy another humorous and erudite addition to his oeuvre, although new readers should probably seek out an earlier book as an entryway.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2017 by Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa


Author: Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa
TitleThe Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2017 
Publication Info: Unofficial Guides (2016), Edition: 2017 ed
Summary/Review:

I did not read this cover to cover, for it is a massive tome containing information about all the Walt Disney World and Universal resorts – theme parks, attractions, hotels, dining, shopping, and more – but I did find it useful for the portions relevant to planning my own trip.  The distinctive feature of this guidebook is the touring plan, suggested itineraries that take one through the attractions at the theme parks in a way to best avoid long waits in line based on collected data.  The book also includes lots of tips submitted by readers offering contrasting perspectives from the authors.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Devil’s Picnic by Taras Grescoe


Author: Taras Grescoe
TitleThe Devil’s Picnic : Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit
Publication Info: New York, NY : Bloomsbury Pub. : Distributed to the trade by Holtzbrinck Publishers, 2005.
Previously Read By Same Author: The End of Elsewhere: Travels Among the Tourists and Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile

Summary/Review:

In Grescoe’s travel books he seeks out a specific theme for his travels.  In The End of Elsewhere he deliberately sought ought the most touristed spots across the Eurasian landmass and in Straphanger he rode the world’s best metro systems seeking solutions for cities.  In The Devil’s Picnic, the theme is prohibition and Grescoe travels the world to make a meal of food, drink and other consumables that have been banned or severely restricted in different parts of the world.  The menu includes moonshine in Norway, poppy seed crackers and chewing gum in Singapore, bull’s testicles in Spain, smoking in San Francisco, absinthe in Switzerland, mate de coca in Bolivia, and assisted suicide in Switzerland (the one thing the author does not sample).  Many of these items are banned out of concerns of morality and health, but Grescoe notes the arbitrary nature of prohibition and the damages on society and individuals that arise when resources are dedicated to legal enforcement rather than treatment, and forbidden fruits are only available through criminal organizations.  Similarily, there’s the hypocrisy of some substances such as caffeine being considered “harmless” and commonplace, something Grescoe attributes to it being a productivity drug that benefits a capitalist system. At times Grescoe comes off as a jerk, like when he deliberately chews gum in Singapore trying to provoke a reaction, knowing that a white Westerner will not be punished like a local.  But largely this is a thoughtful book on where the lines should be drawn between self-determination and societal protection.
Recommended books: Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and The Global Soul by Pico Iyer
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman


Author: Francis Parkman
Title: The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life
Narrator: Robert Morris
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2012, originally published in 1849)
Summary/Review:

This narrative describes 23-year-old Parkman’s travels west in  with fellow Boston Brahmin Quincy Adams Shaw.  Together they travel with settlers adventurers through the future states of of Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, and Kansas (the title is a misnomer as they never go to Oregon), and spend three weeks hunting buffalo with the Ogala Sioux.  It’s a well-written narrative that captures the flora and fauna of the prairies, the lives of settlers, soldiers, and Native Americans, and the uncertainty of so much change happening in the region at one time.

Unfortunately, the huge problem is that Parkman is deeply prejudice against the native peoples, which yes is a characteristic of the time, but there were more sympathetic contemporary white American writers of the time as well.  Parkman also is dismissive of a number of white settlers he encounters.  I kind of imagine that Parkman and Shaw were like Charles Emerson Winchester haughtily looking down on those around them.  So, yes, this is a terrific descriptive narrative, but there are a lot of aspects that will be hard to stomach for modern readers.

Recommended booksThe Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown
Rating: ***

Book Reviews: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell


AuthorSarah Vowell
TitleLafayette in the Somewhat United States
Narrator:  Sarah Vowell, with  John Slattery, Nick Offerman, Fred Armisen, Bobby Cannavale, John Hodgman, Stephanie March, and Alexis Denisof
Other Books Read By Same Author:

Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2015)
Summary/Review:

This audiobook includes numerous well-known actors performing the quotes of  historical figures in addition to the author reading the main text.  As the “Lafayette” part of the title implies, this is a biography of Marquis de Lafayette, the young French aristocrat who helped George Washington win the American Revolutionary War.  Vowell starts with Lafeyette’s historic tour of the United States in 1824-25 and then flashes back to Lafayette’s experiences in the war.  I wish that we learned more about the Grand Tour or Lafayette’s post-American Revolution activities, but the war-era biographical details are solid with a mix of Vowell’s humor and pop culture references.  For example, Vowell details the arrival of Baron von Steuben with falsified credentials on a direct continuum to the parade and dance party in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

The universal admiration is contrasted to the “Somewhat United States” where it seems that Americans can never agree on anything or get along. The Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, the Election of 1800, and the Election of 1824 all provide numerous examples of this disunity through which the United States still persevered. It is somewhat comforting that if even the esteemed founders of our country had difficulty agreeing and maintaining cordial relationships that today’s political discord is just par for the course.

The book also takes the form of a travelogue as Vowell and various traveling companions visit sites associated with Lafayette, leading to an amusing side trip in Freehold, NJ to see Bruce Springsteen’s childhood home (both Springsteen and I were born in Freehold), and a very positive experience at Colonial Williamsburg for Vowell, her sister, and nephew.  Particularly interesting is an interview with the historic interpreter who portrays Lafeyette and his experience during the Iraq War era when anti-French sentiment was high.

This is an enjoyable popular history which makes a good introduction to Lafayette and his place in America’s cultural consciousness.

Recommended booksRevolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America by Jack Rakove and Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Rating: ****

Massachusetts 351


I’ve lived in Massachusetts for nearly 19 years (and in a bordering state for 15 years when I was younger), but despite it being a small state I feel that I have not seen much of Massachusetts.  I am the stereotype of the Boston urbanite who rarely ventures outside the confines of the Rt. 128 beltway and certainly never go Westa Wistah.

There are 351 cities and towns in the Bay State and with a handy list on Wikipedia, I was able to determine how many of them I’ve visited.  I left out any place I merely passed through – whether in a car, bus, train, or bike – and focus on the places I have a concrete memory of visiting.

In alphabetical order, here’s the list:

Amherst
Aquinnah
Arlington
Belchertown
Belmont
Beverly
Boston
Braintree
Brookline
Cambridge
Canton
Carver
Chelsea
Chilmark
Concord
Danvers
Dedham
Eastham
Edgartown
Essex
Everett
Falmouth
Foxborough
Framingham
Gloucester
Haverhill
Hingham
Holyoke
Hull
Ipswich
Kingston
Lexington
Lincoln
Littleton
Lowell
Malden
Manchester-by-the-Sea
Marblehead
Marlborough
Maynard
Medford
Melrose
Nantucket
Natick
Needham
New Bedford
Newburyport
Newton
North Andover
North Reading
Northampton
Norwood
Oak Bluffs
Peabody
Plymouth
Provincetown
Quincy
Reading
Revere
Rockport
Salem
Sharon
Shelburne
Somerville
Southborough
Stockbridge
Stoneham
Stoughton
Sturbridge
Tisbury
Topsfield
Wakefield
Waltham
Watertown
Wayland
Wellesley
West Tisbury
Westford
Weston
Westwood
Wilmington
Winchester
Woburn
Worcester

So there we go, 84 Massachusetts’ cities and towns, about a quarter of the total of 351.  What I’m going to do is try to make an effort to visit all 351 municipalities, take a picture of myself by a local landmark, and post it here.  I don’t know how long this will take (and I’m not even sure how one gets to Gosnold, the smallest community in Massachusetts), but I’ll do my best.

Edit on 1/11/2016: Thinking of some places I’ve been on outdoor adventures in western Massachusetts and realizing I can add a few more municipalities to the list.

Charlemont (Mohawk Trail State Forest)
Lenox (Tanglewood Music Center)
Mt. Washington (Bash Bish Falls)

There are probably others that I will add if I remember them, but this brings the list to 87!

Do you live in Massachusetts?  Tell me about your city or town? What local place should I not miss when I come to visit?

Honeymoon + 10: Day #6: Lazy Sunday Hike from Marinzen and Meeting Oetzi


The final day of our honeymoon remembered….


 

While our first room at Hotel zum Wolf had a view of the mountains, the view from our current room was dominated by a close-up view of the church tower. As each bell vigorously called out to demand parishioners attend morning mass, we realize that sleeping-in is not an option. After a breakfast buffet at the hotel, we take a ride on the Marinzen chair lift. The open air rides provides a good view of the open meadows, the fairytale forest, and the skyline of Kastelruth dwindling in the background. Liam is anxious about getting off at the upper terminus, but discovers that chair lifts are lot easier without skis. We stop to write postcards and sip cappuccino at the Marizen-Hutte. Around the hutte is a children’s petting zoo and we look at the cats, goats, pigs, donkeys, and ducks. One Wilhelm-Goat is particularly impressive although uncooperative about posing for pictures.

Hiking through awe-inspiring open meadows.

We walk down the trails that return to Kastelruth. First they pass through thick forests, occasionally opening into small pastures where cow grazes. Liam poses with the cows for a picture and then inadvertently frightens one by getting too close. As we descend we pass by picturesque farmhouses, barns, and vacation homes. The forest ends and the trail crosses open meadows that make one want to spin around singing “the hills are alive.” We rest on a bench and watch as children ride up the trail on ponies, their guides stopping to give them lambs to hold (although we feel they’re far to young to be playing with these animals). At long last our stroll returns us to the city center of Kastelruth, where we have another yummy meal and more beer.

We take the bus back to Bolzano, Liam finding the close air inside the bus, the rapid twists and turns, and vertiginous drops to the right of the bus to be a bit nauseating. In Bolzano, we bail out our extra bags from luggage check and then check ourselves in the Hotel Feichter. We wander across the city to the South Tirol Museum of Archaeology, home of the iceman Oetzi. Susan wisely rents an English audio guide and is nice enough to share it with Liam when he discovers that all the labels are in Italian and German. The museum is a comprehensive collection of archaeological artifacts from the South Tirol region starting on the ground floor in the Neolithic Age and winding up the stairs through prehistoric times, the Roman Era, and into the Middle Ages.

The centerpiece exhibit is the mummified remains of a Copper Age man found by a pair of Alpinists in the mountains along the Italian-Austrian border in 1991. An entire floor of exhibits contain the well-preserved remains of this man’s clothing, tools and weapons with interpretations of how the iceman may have used them. As the two British narrators on the audio guide frequently comment, “We don’t know for sure.” The remains of the iceman – nicknamed Oetzi – are kept in a temperature and light-controlled room that visitors may peek into to see his shrunken, tattooed body. The narrators of the audio guide remind us that Oetzi is a dead human being and this is his final resting place and to treat it with respect – in fact they insist one turns off the audioguide before entering the room. It’s both eerie and amazing to see the 5,000-year-old remains of this human being (although it’s actually less creepy than the scourging of Christ on Calvario).

The museum is well-designed and fascinating, but museum-fatigue and hunger set in and Liam decides we must go. Finding a place to eat in Bolzano on a Sunday evening is not the easiest thing as most restaurants and pubs are closed, so we settle for a sidewalk cafe that serves food that obviously was heated in a microwave. We return to the hotel where Susan curls up with her fantasy book, but after packing his bags for the trip home, Liam gets restless and goes for a walk. After dark there are now numerous cafes and beerhouses open and overflowing with customers but Liam is not linguistically adventurous enough to go in for a drink. So he sits in Piazza Walther, admiring the catalpa trees that remind him of Williamsburg and the illuminated cross on the mountaintop overlooking the city which looks like it is floating in the dark of night. Liam also finds a machine that vends Pez candy and brings some back to Susan as treats from Mt. Pez that he found stuck to his hiking boots.

Residents of Bolzano commute to work by bicycle.

The next morning we take a cab to the Bolzano airport to begin our journey home. We fly a prop-plane to Rome and from there fly to New York and then on to Boston. It is a long day of travel with all three flights crowded and delayed so we arrive home more frazzled than rested. But we have our memories of Italy and our hopes to one day return.

Full photo album from Day #6: Kastelruth and Bolzano.

Honeymoon + 10: Day #5: To Tierser Alpl and Back Down


The fifth day of our honeymoon remembered….


 

We awake to a chilly morning, the shadows and sunrise transforming the appearance of the surrounding mountains, and a dramatic undercast filling the valleys below. In the dining room, we’re among the first to take our seat and felt further shunned as all the German-speakers gather around the other table to chat and eat breakfast. After breakfast we begin our hike along the ridge of the Schlernalm/Altipiano Dello Sciliar. Again the views are quite impressive, the Alpe di Siussi on our left and a more distant valley down the steep slopes on our right. At one particularly dramatic overlook, an elderly couple we recognize from the Schlernhaus offer to take our picture. Susan and the gentleman converse awkwardly in German, while the woman tells her husband several times that we are “Amerikanische“. Finally the man hears his wife and says, fluently, “Well, in that case we should speak English!” After a laugh, Susan apologizes for not being able to speak German well, but that man replies, “That’s okay, we’re Norwegian.” We tell him about our problems communicating at the hutte, but he says reassuringly that it’s not a problem, “as long as you can eat.”

The language divide provides a moment of levity for Liam & Susan as a fellow hiker takes their portrait with a dramatic backdrop.

Past this point the trail winds around a deep gorge where several mountain ranges meet. The views here a particularly fascinating and Liam stops frequently to take photographs. Peaks of limestone tower over us looking like the drip-castles children build on the beach and perhaps are an inspiration for Frank Gehry’s architectural style. While the hike is generally not too strenuous, our untrained lungs find it difficult to breathe in this altitude, and after passing through the gorge a slight uphill grade feels like a deathmarch to Liam. We stop to refuel at Tierser Alpl hutte where Liam perks himself up with an espresso and fills his tummy with polenta, while Susan enjoys the Huttennudeln.

From here begins the descent back into the Alpe di Siussi along a series of maddening switchbacks that zigzag among loose rocks. The descent here is much steeper than our ascent of the previous day and Susan feels like a wimp not climbing up this side, but a smart wimp. Liam points out that she is in fact a luck wimp since she had no idea what the trails would be like. Numerous huffing and puffing Wanderen are coming up the trail and apparently ask us how far to the hutte. Susan is forced frequently to say “Es tut mir lied. Ich spreche nur Englishe.” Liam smiles and nods. Every time we think we’ve neared the end of the descent we turn a corner to find more switchbacks. Eventually we reach the meadow where the trail levels out. Along the trail, a Haflinger stands blocking the way and Susan enjoy a close-up look at the horse until it bares his teeth at her. The trail crosses the meadow where the ground is spongy and springs back after you step on it so that no footprints are left behind.

Susan befriends a Haflinger, one of the stocky little horses specfically bred to be workhorses in the high altitude of the Italian alps.

Our hike comes to an end at the Panorama hotel, where a group of children are intrigued by a paddock filled with little goats (the kids like the kids). There’s a chairlift to Compatsch here, but since there is no staff to let us on we decide to walk down the road. Along the way we notice some rulebreakers hop on the chairlift of their own volition. From Compatsch we take the Seiser Alm Bahn again, this time hearing conversations in three languages among our fellow travelers in the gondola. The shuttle bus is crowded and we have to stand and hold onto our packs as the bus speeds around the bends of the mountain roads. Burgi greets us and apologizes that she cannot put is in a room with a balcony again. The room also lacks a sofa, a dinette table, a hairdryer and a shower curtain. We think that Burgi is trying to tell us something. Liam discovers that his water bottle leaked and wet all his clothing and thus has no clean shirt to wear. While Liam washes clothing in the sink, Susan heroically returns to the sporting goods store and purchase Liam a lovely plaid shirt made of a wicking fabric.

We dine at a pizzeria, recovering from our hike with a couple of pizzas and lots of weisebier. We write postcards and listen to the church bell ring frantically as it calls worshipers to the vigil Mass. After the sun sets we go on a walk around the Calvario/Kalvarienberg hill where life-size dioramas show the stations of the cross. The scourging of Christ is particularly creepy in the dark. We encounter other walkers including a pair of children out on their own playing with flashlights and some dogwalkers whose vicious hunden bark vigorously at us. Liam worries that we are walking further and further away from Kastelruth on the dark wooded paths, but then we turn a bend and come upon a view of the Kastelruth church tower. Susan claims that she knew the path was circular all along. After another loop around, we head back to our hotel and help ourselves to drinks in the self-serve bar and look through the stacks of German board games. Back in our room, Liam flips the TV channels vainly in search of soccer, fussball, or calcio, but ends up watching the end of Beverly Hills Cop with Eddie Murphy humorously dubbed into German. Susan just sits back obsessively reading her George R.R. Martin book until drifting off to sleep.

Full photo album from Day #5: Hiking the Alpe di Siusi and Seiser Alm

Honeymoon + 10: Day #3: From Basilica Di San Marco to the Dolomites


The third day of our honeymoon remembered….


 

 

 

Over breakfast we determine that pricey Venice has emptied our wallets, so Liam sets off in search of an ATM so we have enough Euros to pay our hotel bill. Right in front of Hotel Riva the same fashion models are posing for another photo shoot. The whole crew come into the hotel for cofee and pastries, but the models refuse to eat anything. More tart succo di frutti and cherry preserve on rolls for us!

Liam evades a bronze horse trampling.

Liam in his wisdom made online reservations to visit Basilica di San Marco, yet when arrive at the church there is no indication of where tourists with reservations can enter. There’s a long line of tourists waiting by one door and a long line of tour groups waiting by the other door. This causes Liam to have a hairee-gazairee. We end up standing in the tour group line until the guides for a Japanese group tell us that all we need to do is cut to the head of the line and go right in. So we do. The basilica is crowded with people pushing and ignoring the no photography signs, but when we can sneak off into an uncrowded spot we admire the basilica’s beauty. After years of settling, the marble flooring rolls like the sea. The walls use many marbles of different colors — pink, green, grey, white — like a Neopolitan ice cream. Up in the galleries we can view the glimmering mosaics up close. Finally we step out on on the loggia to stand beneath the bronze horses and enjoy a wide view of Piazza di San Marco. Despite this, crowd fatigue has us feeling cranky and anxious.

We retrieve our bags from the hotel and then take a vaporetto down the Grand Canal to the train station. After puzzling over the self-service ticket machines we eat an adequate lunch and then board our train. Despite having reserved seats, we find a group of pouty, young German women occupying our compartment. They don’t have reserved seats and try using “We are so exhausted!” as an excuse, but we’re still forced to evict them. Our train rolls northward while we nap, read, write and look out the window. Susan is delighted when two gentleman in our compartment get off at Verona. The train heads into a long dark tunnel and when it reemerges we are in a land out of Grimm’s Fairy tales – towering mountains shrouded in mist. Yet even among the mountains it appears that every spare patch of ground is filled with grapevines. We arrive in Bolzano and on the platform Liam tries to buy a snack from a vending machine but it eats his money. Susan goes into the adjacent newsstand and buys an apricot-jam croissant which they share on the train platform. It is the most romantic moment of the honeymoon.

After checking extra luggage at the train station and struggling to find the bus station, our journey continues to Kastelruth. A few miles out of Bolzano our bus leaves the autostrada and starts up a narrow, windy road. Soon the autostrada is just a thin ribbon of black in the valley below, but our bus keeps climbing up, up, up through verdant mountain passes. Then we turn a bend and for the first time see craggy limestone peaks towering still higher above us. Liam contemplates hiking these mountains: “We’re going to die!” We’re seperated on the crowded bus and the friendly woman seated next to Susan tries to let her know where to get off for Kastelruth, but Susan can’t understand. Several rows back, Liam is powerless to reassure Susan that we are riding all the way to the last stop. That stop is conveniently located right next to our hotel, so we head up the stairs where the hotelier (who we learn later is named Burgi) greets is by name. Susan is amazed but Liam figures we’re the only guests who haven’t checked in yet.

Susan admires the view from the balcony of our room at Hotel zum Wolf in Kastelruth.

Hotel zum Wolf is very modern with rusticated decoration and is neat as a pin. We’re amazed that our bargain hotel room is large and cozy with a balcony looking out over the Dolomites. Susan decides she does not want to leave Hotel zum Wolf. Ever. At the desk we extend our stay another night after our planned hike and Burgi reccomends a restaurant for dinner. Our meal at Ausserzoll restaurant may be the gustatory highlight of our honeymoon. Liam eats rocket waffles with gorgonzola mousse and spinach ravioli, while Susan savors champagne soup and frogfish. We wash it down with the local brew and afterwards the waitress treats us to grappa as a digestif. We head off to sleep feeling warm and happy.

Full photo album from Day # 3: Venice — Kastelruth

Honeymoon + 10: Day #2: Venice Walks


The second day of our honeymoon remembered….


Rooftops of Venice in the shadow of the Campanille.

In the early morning, Susan watches from our hotel window as a man and his dog pilot a work boat down the canal. After a tasty breakfast at our hotel, we follow walks around Venice from our Rick Steves’ guidebook. We start in Piazza di San Marco – home to Basilica di San Marco, the Doge’s Palace and the Campanile. We ride the elevator to the top of the Campanile where we can see the red-clay rooftops of Venice and clear views across the lagoon. After strolling the waterfront and seeing the famous Bridge of Sighs, we head off in dense web of alleyways toward the Rialto. En route we visit the 10th century Church of San Moise with its Baroque 17th century facade. Our guidebook tells us that during World War II the Nazis had there local headquarters next door to this church named for one of the great patriarchs of Judaism (the irony of this occurred to Liam two days later while hiking the Seiser Alm). Further along our meandering brings us to Scala Contarini del Bovolo where we climb the spiral stair to the top. We are greeted by a slim, friendly gatto wearing a jewel-encrusted collar. The view here is more intimate than the Campanile, with views of tiny Venetian backyards and clotheslines.

Liam peaks out of the bovolo (“snail shell” in the Venetian dialect).

After a stop for a cappuccino, we emerge onto the Grand Canal by the Rialto Bridge where we are reacquainted with the throngs of tourists. We cross the bridge and enter the arcades of the Rialto Market (Erberia) where vegetables, cheese, fish, leather handbags, and tourist junk is sold. Susan is delighted by a UPS delivery boat and piles of pallets on the quayside. For lunch, Susan eats a plate full of tiny squid and Liam cannelloni in a dark, atmospheric pub along the shopping street called the Ruga. We follow lunch with another helping of gelato. Continuing our walk, we visit the Church of San Polo, its small stone nave decorated with art by Tintoretto, Veronese, and the Tiepolos. Like New Orleans, Venice is always ready for Carnival and mask shops are frequent along the tourist paths. We stop in Tragicomica and try on some masks, but don’t buy. Our next stop is the Frari Church, a larger medieval/early Renaissance building containing both paintings and the tomb of Liam’s favorite artist Titian. Next door is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco — home to a fraternal organization that performed charitable works for plague victims — and is richly decorated with religious art by Tintoretto. We enjoyed interpreting the religious themes in the dozens of giant canvases on the walls and carrying large mirrors to study the murals on the ceiling.

After all that walking and art, it was time to rest with pizza and beer at a cafe by the Academia Bridge. It was delightfully refreshing until the wind picked up and we got too cold. We ducked back into the alleyways zigzagging our way toward La Salute Church. Along the way we stopped at a gallery selling intriguing works of art by an artist named Tobia Rava. We continued are walk into a covered alley that felt like a dark tunnel. We emerged from the tunnel and found ourselves amidst twig-thin fashion models in a photoshoot. We are certain the photographer said, “Yes! Gauche Americans are exactly what this picture needs to make the cover of Elle!” We returned to our hotel to rest and wash up for supper at Osteria de Carla. The fact that all the other diners speak English and clutch Rick Steves’ guidebooks embarrasses Susan but the food is tasty enough to bury Liam’s shame.

We conclude the evening with a gondola ride. Susan chats up the gondolier:

“Have you gone under all 460 bridges in Venice?”.

“Si, most of them!” He shows as Marco Polo’s house and the City Hall as we sail along tiny canals as well as a brief float on the Grand Canal. In the darkness, we can peep in windows, look at the stars, and listen to the gondolier greet doormen and waiters as we pass. The motion-sensor doors on the fancier hotels slide open as we glide by. Venice looks just right from the water.

We eat more gelato before returning to Hotel Riva for the night.

Susan waits for the gondolier to return to begin a tour of Venice’s canals by night.

Full photo album from Day #2: Venice.

Honeymoon + 10: Day #1: Arriving in Venice


My wife Susan & I recently celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary.  Looking at the website with all our wedding and honeymoon photographs, I discovered that I’d written a travelogue of our honeymoon in Venice and the Dolomites which I’d forgotten about.  In a sense, it was my first blog post; my blog before I had a blog.  A lot has changed since that time (as all the dead links can attest).  Ten years ago I was still using a 35-mm film camera and apparently brought very grainy film on the trip, so the pictures look like their from another era.  Still, it’s a fun time full of fond memories.

I thought it would be fun over the next six days to republish the travelogue and some of the best photographs in blog format. Happy Anniversary, Susan!


Rio di San Giulliano flows by Hotel Riva carrying gondolas and work boats.

We flew overnight aboard Alitalia, our cabin served by handsome bald flight attendants, one who said to Liam “Look at my face!” and apologized for the plane not having vegetarian meals, but did a good job filling Liam up with salad and cheese. During a layover at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport we sipped cappuccino alongside nattily-dressed Italian businessmen and Susan napped. Arriving at Venice’s Marco Polo Airport, we rode the Alilaguna water bus into the city. Liam got acquainted with the lagoon when a wave of briny water splashed through the window soaking his shirt. We disembarked at Piazza di San Marco, pushing through its crowds of tourists and pigeons to get to our lodging at Hotel Riva. Once checked in, Susan napped and Liam strolled blindly through Venice’s alleys ending up in Campo Santa Maria Formosa where he kicked a soccer ball back to a local youth. Reunited at the hotel, we headed out for supper at Antica Sacrestia. Following a tasty meal, we search for gelato and happily consume a cone of limone while listening to the orchestras on Piazza San Marco. We dance in the now depopulated square until accosted by flower sellers.

Susan and Basilica di San Marco are romantic by night.

Full photo album from Day #1: Venice.

Book Review: Unruly Places by Alastair Bonnett


Author: Alastair Bonnett
Title: Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies
Narrator: Derek Perkins
Publication Info: Tantor Media, 2014
ISBN: 1494505827
Summary/Review:

Dr. Bonnet collects a compendium of curiosities in geography, places in the world at the borders, no-mans lands, enclaves, dead cities, floating islands, and ephemeral places.

Destinations include:

  • Sandy Island, marked on maps in the Indian Ocean for over a century despite the fact that it never existed.
  • The historic Old Mecca, destroyed to make way for amenities for pilgrims.
  • Alan Sonfist’s artistic creation of pre-colonial plantings in New York called Time Landscape.
  • The lost Aral Sea, now the Aralqum Desert.
  • Kijong-dong , the North Korean “Peace Village” along the DMZ with South Korea.
  • Pripyat, the city abandoned due to the Cherynobyl disaster.
  • The intriguingly named Archaeological Park of Sicilian Incompletion  in Giarre.
  • The interlocking Dutch and Belgian enclaves of  Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog .
  • The micronation of Sealand.
  • Spray ice islands used for petroleum exploration in the Arctic
  • The RV park in the LAX parking lot which serves as the permanent home for many air carrier personnel.
  • Nowhere, the Burning Man-style art event in northeast Spain

Derek Perkins voice lends a curmudgeonly world explorer gruffness to the narration.  A fun book and informative.

Recommended booksMicronations: The Lonely Planet Guide to Self-Proclaimed Nations by John Ryan, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places by John R. Stilgoe, and Lights Out for the Territory: 9 Excursions in the Secret History of London by Iain Sinclair
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Be there now : travel stories from around the world


Editor: Mike O’Mary
Title:Be there now : travel stories from around the world
Publication Info: Dream of Things, 2012
Summary/Review:

This book collects very brief essays that capture a moment of a travel experience.  It’s interesting idea but a lot of the stories come out vapid and are not at all transcendent.  It’s a quick read, though, and a handful of stories stand out such as: volunteers helping sea turtles lay their eggs in Costa Rica ( A Trembling Voice by Frank Izaguirr), a blind man visiting mountain gorillas in Rwanda (In the Footsteps of Fossey by Irene Morse), and a writer exploring the world through Google Maps (Virtual Travel by Trendle Ellwood).  The book kind of feels the first part of a contest in which the authors of the top stories should be awarded with a chance to publish longer stories of their experiences.

Recommended booksThere’s No Toilet Paper on the Road Less Traveled: The Best of Travel Humor and Misadventure by Doug Lansky
Rating: **

Photopost: Colonial Virginia


Some of my favorite photos from our recent trip to Virginia are below.  See the complete photo album on my website.

View of Duke of Gloucester Street from the Capitol Building.

For Spring Break, my son Peter and I traveled to Virginia to visit my mother and play tourist at Colonial Williamsburg, Historic Jamestowne, and Go-Karts Plus.  It was  three-day trip but it felt like we saw and learned a lot.  Now, I once lived in Williamsburg.  I attended the College of William & Mary, worked on an archaeological site as part of a field school, studied 18th-century furniture at the art museums, and then was an employee of Colonial Williamsburg for four years during my senior year of college and the years immediately afterwards.  So, these places are familiar to me.  But this was the first time I’d visited as just a plain old tourist in close to 25 years, and the first time I visited as a parent, sharing my enthusiasm for history with my son.

We actually visited few of the sites I actually worked at in my time as a historical interpreter as Peter was drawn more to the historic trades (which, ironically, I rarely had time to visit when I actually worked there).  For a place rooted in history, a lot has changed at Colonial Williamsburg.  The Charlton Coffehouse was reconstructed in recent years and we enjoyed the unexpected treat of a free serving of hot chocolate of an 18th-century recipe.  There’s also a daily event called Revolution in the Streets where the last block of Duke of Gloucester street is open only to paying guests and character interpreters perform a drama right in the middle of the crowd.  The story we witnessed was about a slave couple deciding to “jump the broom” to marry before the man was taken away to Richmond (for some reason I never learned).  We were among the witnesses to the jumping the broom ceremony which involved everyone participating in song and dance.  It is kind of cheesy and probably not 100% authentic, but I think it gets across the point of what daily life and choices were faced by ordinary people of the past.  I liked it better than the military reviews and speeches by great men that are more typical of living history performance.

A frisbee-catching dog on Palace Green.

 

Tulips blossom in the garden behind the Governor’s Palace.

 

“Fire!”

 

A team of oxen prepare to plow another row in the field.

 

Jumping the Broom (broom not in the picture).

 

Related Post: Jamestown 2007 – America’s 400th Anniversary

Book Review: Doing Germany by Agnieszka Paletta


AuthorAgnieszka Paletta
TitleDoing Germany
Publication Info: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2013)
Summary/Review:

This is a book I idly picked up from a Kindle sale, because I enjoyed travelling to Germany.  What a surprise that the author declares early on that she never had any interest in visiting German.  As a Polish-Canadian, moving back and forth between the two nations, Paletta’s real love is Italy.  She only ends up in Germany after meeting the man she calls M in a Cracow nightclub, falling in love, and deciding to move into his Munich apartment for three months.  That three months turns to years as the couple are engaged, married, do a lot of house shopping, and have a child.  Along the way, Paletta records the cultural adjustments of living in Germany.  Her stories are episodic, a bit gossipy in tone, and she seems unusually wed to traditional gender stereotypes.  I could offer criticisms, but forget that.  Everyone thinks that they can write a book about their travels and life abroad, but few do, so good for her.  And Agnieszka seems like a fun person who’d I’d like to hang out with, perhaps to go dancing.  So it’s a breezy travel/memoir/life adventure story, and I’ll leave at that.

Favorite Passages:

“I can also relate to keeping one’s roots and traditions alive and not changing your culture just because you’ve changed borders. Canada is great that way – it promotes multiculturalism. Germany is more like the US: once you cross the border, you’re expected to drop everything and mould yourself into a citizen of your new homeland.”

“Unlike on that typical bike, you don’t sit leaning forward; you sit up like a lady, much like in a chair. Therefore, you don’t crane your neck to look up; your head is as God meant it to be – straight on. It makes cycling dignified and comfortable.”

“M tells me it’s impolite to stare and talk to strangers here. You don’t ask how their day is going, how they are feeling. Basically, you don’t intrude because it’s none of your business. So like, they’re not trying to be rude or cold, but polite. They say good morning or God bless you but not how are you – that’s a private matter and none of their business.” (Note from Liam: this is probably why I like Germany.  They follow the same rules as Bostonians).

Recommended books: My ‘Dam Life by Sean Condon
Rating: **1/2

Something Cool: Visited States Map Generator


The Visited States Maps Generator at the Defocus Blog allows you to create a map of US states (and Canadian provinces if you chose) that you’ve visited, color-coded by the amount of time and commitment you’ve given to each place.

Here’s the key:

Red means I’ve just passed through, maybe seen a thing or two.

Amber means I’ve at least slept there and seen a few things. I have a first-hand idea of what the state is like.

Blue means I’ve spent a good amount of time in that state.

Green means I’ve spent a lot of time in that state, weeks at a time on multiple visits – or lived there.

Here’s my map:

vsm-5dbdf88bbe40d5edf09237c8f10aedcb

I made the decision not to include states where I only changed planes at the airport (for me that would be Minnesota and Texas).  I also think that there should be a distinctive color for  states one has lived in compared to states that one has just visited a lot.  The states I’ve resided in are New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia, and Massachusetts.  I’ve also included New York, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire in the green category because I’ve traveled to those states frequently (the first two primarily due to family living there).

What does your map look like?  Go to http://www.defocus.net/visitedstates/ and find out.

Book Review: The Wet and the Dry by Lawrence Osborne


Author: Lawrence Osbourne
Title: The Wet and the Dry 
Publication Info:   New York : Crown, c2013.
ISBN: 9780770436889

Summary/Review: 

I received this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

I selected this book expecting whimsical travel adventures seen through a drinking glass.  I forgot that alcohol is a depressant.  The author Lawrence Osbourne comes from a family of alcoholics and has recently lost his mother.  He spends a lot of time in various parts of the world isolated in bars merely drinking.  A particular challenge for him his to find places to drink in the Islamic world, which seems to be as tedious for him to pursue as it for the reader to see described.  While he has some interesting observations on the drinking culture (or lack thereof) in the places he visits, much of this work is inward facing.  And to be frank, Osbourne seems like an unpleasant person so it is a difficult read.

Rating: **

Recommended BooksA History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage and Baghdad without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia by Tony Horwitz

 

Photopost: New York City


Ch-ch-ch-ch-cheerio!
A tugboat chugs under Brooklyn Bridge

I spent the first week of September with my 5 y.o. son Peter and my mother (later joined by my wife and daughter for the last weekend). Three generations of family explored the City which has rich family history.  My mother grew up in the Bronx and I grew up in the Connecticut suburbs and now we got to share a lot of our favorite places with Peter.  But there were also new discoveries.  Through Airbnb, we stayed in an apartment in Inwood, the neighborhood at the very northern tip of Manhattan.  Inwood is vibrant and friendly with a great park and easy connections to the rest of the city on the 1 and A trains.

Sssssssssalute.
The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Grey Bridge
  • Day 1 – We visited the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn, ate lunch at a deli in Brooklyn Heights, played on the spectacular playground on Brooklyn Bridge Parks’s Pier 6, and then sailed up the East River on a ferry to Midtown.
  • Day 2 – Went to the the Bronx Zoo.  We stayed all day.
  • Day 3 – Walked along the Hudson River to visit the Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Grey Bridge.  Read the book and attracted a crowd of toddlers. Spent the rest of the day at Central Park where we: ate ice cream, ate hot dogs, played on the swings, took a nap, played catch, rode the carousel, and sailed a model boat on the Conservatory Water (Peter got very good at controlling the wind powered boat).
  • Day 4 – Visited the USS Intrepid Sea/Air/Space Museum, the highlight of which was getting up close and personal with the space shuttle Enterprise.
  • Day 5 – Ate brunch at Kitchenette Uptown in Morningside Heights, took Peter to Yankee Stadium to see the Red Sox play the Yankees (Red Sox won), and ate supper at the wonderful dog-themed pub Fred’s.
Ahoy, captain!
Sailing a model boat on the Conservatory Water.

I’ve made a web album of my favorite photos from the trip, in addition to the ones featured in this post.

Take the A Train!
The view out the back of the A train.

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