Friday, June 30, 2006

Dublin's North Bank

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I had only one goal today: to see Phoenix Park and the Dublin Zoo. It took me the whole day to get there (I kept doing sightseeing en route), and I wasn't ready to go to the zoo until half an hour before closing time. So the zoo will wait for another day.

I headed north on O'Connell Street, which is currently dominated by Barry Flanagan's sculptures of hares. This one is called "Acrobats" and strikes me as somewhat touching, even tender.
This one just reminds me of Donnie Darko.
Outside of the spillover collection of the National Museum (a former barracks built in 1700, which now houses folk/decorative arts and other miscellaneous items), there is a lovely garden where I saw a bee and a butterfly nestled among the purple flowers. Here is the bee:

In the museum courtyard, they displayed one of the first postboxes in Ireland of this particuular type (from the 1800s):
The highlight of the trek, without question, was an impromptu (on my part) tour of Jameson's Old Distillery. (From Jameson's point of view, the tour was simply one of 10 or 15 tours scheduled throughout the day.) The guide was wryly funny about the fact that the tour is basically an advertisement for Jameson's whiskey. There was a highly entertaining whiskey tasting at the end of the tour. All four tasters chose Irish whiskey above scotch and American whiskey -- although the decks were stacked because they were comparing Irish whiskey with the best-selling (rather than the best) scotch and American whiskey. Three of the four liked Jameson's best. I enjoyed my cocktail of cranberry juice and Jameson's, and it left me with a happy glow throughout the afternoon.

Since a biking trip was my excuse for going to Ireland, I liked seeing these old bikes in the distillery. However, I didn't see any explanation of their connection with the distillery. (In any event, it turned out we had newer and more comfy bikes for our trip.)
When I reached Phoenix Park, I found a few surprises – an obelisk, a large grassy field dotted with yellow and white flowers, and a wild deer herd, which appeared surreal in the soccer field (a comment on Ireland’s prospects for the World Cup?).

In Phoenix Park, a bird's interactions with a snack wrapper kept me entertained. It was the same old story: bird meets wrapper, bird chases wrapper, bird loses wrapper.

Everyone raves about the Liffey Bridge, but I preferred the Millenium Bridge:

In the evening, I saw a play called Dandelions, which was well done if not as filled with groundbreaking insights as its author may (or may not) have hoped.

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Thursday, June 29, 2006

Dublin and the Shortcomings of the Guide Michelin

N.B. This is the first of 12 posts from my Ireland trip. Navigation: [next post]; [final post].

A few words about Dublin (three stars in the Michelin Guide). It is a modern, grimy city. Not terrible, just not a place that lends itself to random wandering. I booked an unimpressive hotel, sight unseen, at the airport -- but at least its location was very good.

My first tourist stop was Dublin Castle. Michelin recommended it highly (and I sneaked a peek at Time Out Dublin, who also liked it). I was underwhelmed. The decorations, furnishings, and architecture are too modern for my taste (or rather, not old enough or modern enough), as the castle proper was apparently mostly destroyed when someone had the bright idea of storing all of the gunpowder in one of the turrets for fire safety (apparently, they thought this would put an end to any fire super quickly). The tour guide did his best, but it was his second day on the job, and he didn't know any more than the guidebooks. The Castle was overpriced by approximtely 4.50 Euros.

From there, I went to a famous library on the premises, the Chester Beatty Library (there are several libraries on Dublin's tourist circuit, along with a writers' museum) which features -- for free -- a nice selection of artwork from Asia, the Middle East, and the West presented in parallel in the galleries for easy comparison. In keeping with the exhibitions, they also have a nice cafe which serves excellent middle eastern food. I ordered a simple panini which came with a lovely salad of spices, grains and olives. Needless to say, this cafe is totally ignored by Michelin.

I managed to find Butler's Chocolates, a place Michelin praised highly for its Irish whiskey truffles. (It wasn't easy, because Michelin's map omits many streets, as does the free tourist map I obtained at the airport.) I didn't think much of the Irish whiskey truffles, but the hot chocolate was delicious and thick. The value for money seemed quite high (at least for take-away), in fact it was such a large cup and the chocolate so rich I couldn't finish it.

I was very pleased with this find, until I continued my wanderings and realized that Michelin had identified only one of the half-dozen or more Butler's Chocolates establishments in the city. Your cup need never run dry in Dublin.* At first I was annotating my map with their locations, but ultimately gave up because there were so many of them.

With even greater difficulty, because I was trying to follow Michelin's totally inadequate walking tour directions, I found the Iveagh Gardens, looked unsuccessfully for an alleged "maze" that Michelin claims is located within the garden, and napped for a while. It was a relaxing place, with a few fields and fountains.

I woke up in plenty of time for my concert -- Bach Concertos played by the Irish Baroque Orchestra in the national orchestra hall. Despite the guidebook's totally unfounded complaints about the acoustics, the music was gorgeous. For the record, however, I would like to lodge one minor complaint about the proceedings. I was approximately 1 minute late to the concert (a sudden downpour had induced me to purchase a rainjacket), and I was not permitted to enter the concert hall -- even when I promised not to try to get to my seat but only to stand quietly at the entrance. After a relatively pleasant 20-minute wait (like Lincoln Center, they show the concert on flat-screen TVs for latecomers), I went in. At intermission, a man and a young girl came in and sat down near me. The girl might have been 7-9 years old, and she could not for the life of her sit still. Despite her dad's efforts to keep her quiet (and her own efforts to comply), she kept whispering to her father, playing with the velcro on her shoes, and banging her feet around. If they were really serious about not disturbing concertgoers, they would weed out not only the latecomers, but also all persons under the age of 25.

FN* This is true also of beer and whiskey, of course, not just chocolate.

Ireland Trip Navigation: [next post]; [final post].

Saturday, June 24, 2006

A New Jersey Wedding

Among the myriad professional and social obligations of my week in NYC - some expected and others entirely unanticipated - was the wedding of a friend of mine from high school (actually the third and last high school I attended). The wedding was one of the anticipated events of the week - the happpy couple were engaged for 1.5 years before they married.

My just-in-time approach to things this week did not work so well for the wedding, however, and if I am lucky I will probably be awarded the prize for Most Distracted Bridesmaid of the Year. However, I did make it to the rehearsal dinner and the ceremony on time, and was even able to contribute constructively in the bridal preparation suite (I brought a subtle shade of nail polish and managed to apply it to the bride's fingernails - not well enough to qualify for a career in nail painting, but well enough to provide a sophisticated gloss for the occasion).

Since the happy couple had been living together for 2 years, you may be wondering how marriage has changed things. Well, I'm glad you asked.


The ceremony itself was quite nice. It was held outdoors, with reeds and a river backdrop. The bridge and groom made both traditional and individualistic vows before family, friends, and a minister. Readings were from 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 ... and a story written by the bride.

The ceremony was also quite short, which was a good thing -- a torrential downpour started just as it ended. The wedding party and guests quickly adjourned to a large tent for the reception. The grassy floor under the reception tent soon became a treacherous muddy swamp; assigned seating was abandoned as tables on the outer edges became inaccessible. At the height of the storm, lighting struck a huge tree about 6-10 feet away from the tent.

Here's the happy couple during the reception. The important thing is that are still happy in the midst of the storm which to some extent threw all their careful planning for a loop.
Luckily, they are known not only for their sincere affection for each other, but also for their love of adventure. And as the bride likes to say, "Attitude is the difference between an ordeal and an adventure".

Here's wishing them the best, always.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Florence (Coda)

WARNING TO SENSITIVE READERS: Some of the figures depicted in Italian art are not fully clothed. The first half of this post contains photographs of Italian art (specifically, two statues in the Boboli Gardens and a painting in the Uffizi). Consider yourself warned.

For my last 4 nights in Italy, I stayed in Florence on the Piazza del Carmine. (More on that later.) I thought about taking a day trip to Venice (3 hours each way) or at least San Gimignano (probably 1 hour each way), but ended up with plenty to do in Florence. In fact, I didn't even get to see and do everything I wanted. Left for next time: Santo Spirito, the Museo di Storia della Scienza, the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, and the Museo di San Marco.

Since I was staying south of the Arno (in a neighborhod known as "Oltarno" or "beyond the Arno"), it was very convenient to check out the Boboli Gardens. I went in by the back way to avoid the crowds and was greeted by Adam and Eve. They were a little preoccupied.

There was also a sculpture of Narcissus, although a different title sprang to mind initially. I love that he is bringing himself a bouquet of roses.

The Uffizi is a lot more popular, it seems, than the last time I was in Florence (August 1991). As I recall, there had recently been an explosion that damaged some of the works and/or the building itself -- not, fortunately, the Boticellis I love so much. I remembered standing and gazing at those paintings 15 years ago... not sure I even bothered checking out the rest of the collection that was on display (parts of it were closed at the time due to the damage). Now the guidebooks tell you that you can call for a reservation to see the museum (there is an extra "booking" charge) or use an internet reservation service (for an even larger "booking" charge of roughly $5 per ticket). On June 15, I called for a reservation for any time before June 20 -- the recorded announcement indicated that the Uffizi reservations were sold out through June 22. I tried the internet service, and they said the first available reservation was June 30. Obviously that was not going to work for me. So I went to the Uffizi about 8:05 a.m. (10 minutes before opening time) and got in line, emotionally prepared to wait 3 or 4 hours as per the guidebooks (and mentally cursing Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code, which I blame for Florence's surge in popularity). There was a nice modern sculpture to look at while I waited:

I got in at 8:50, i.e., just 40 minutes later. So it wasn't all that bad, after all. And I got to spend four hours dodging tour groups to see all my favorites (including Fra Filippo Lippi, 1406-1469, apparently the father of Filippino Lippi and the teacher/mentor of Sandro Botticelli) and all the popular stuff, such as Michelangelo's Holy Family:

Speaking of which, the Piazza Michelangelo is known as the city's balcony, and indeed there are nice views of the Florence from there...

... not to mention multiple tour buses, tour groups, a giant bronze reproduction of Michelangelo's David, and vendors of important cultural souvenirs such as boxer shorts emblazoned with images of David's groin.

But you can take a walk just a bit further up the hill from Piazza Michelangelo, past a somewhat nondescript yellow church, to the glorious San Miniato:

This has similarly spectacular views, but with less crowding. Plus the church is beautiful inside and out.

San Miniato has its own cemetery. I didn't spend much time looking around it (I got the cemetery bug out of my system in Siena where the graves were bedecked with hideously fake plastic flowers), but I was drawn to this bronze sculpture of a young girl among the red blooms.

One of the great pleasures of Florence (other than Renaissance art) is gazing at the river Arno. It is so calm and peaceful, affording near-perfect reflections of the lovely old buildings up and down its banks. Do not be fooled. The Arno flooded in 1966, reaching heights of 20 feet -- tsunami height -- and destroying many buildings, papers and works of art. So many of the traditional-looking buildings along the river are actually less than 40 years old. Here is the Arno today, in the late afternoon, minding its own buisiness and quietly reflecting the passing scene.

The center of Florence, or rather, one of a number of non-geographical "centers", is the Piazza del Duomo. Here we get a glimpse of all the major buildings in the Piazza:

Here is Piazza Santa Croce in the rosy glow of sunset:

Besides paintings, sculpture and church facades, I also caught a few concerts while I was in town.
  • One was a free concert out in the Piazza della Signoria, with a girls' baton twirling accompaniment for the first piece, and a tenor and soprano for the other pieces. It was a Florentine brass band (as opposed to stringed instruments, which are my first love). The singing was nice, but I left after the second-to-last song, "Jesus Christ Superstar" -- a song that was sung with deep feeling and (unintentionally) a Monty Pythonesque accent.

  • Another was a free concert at the Orsanmichele church, which featured two artists imported from the U.S.A., an oboist and pianist. They were good, and the lovely frescoes were much easier to see than usual because of the extra lights for the performance.
    Of course, I kept thinking of Professor Peter Schickele's play-by-play commentary on the "surprising oboe cadenza" of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony: "He's playing a cadenza! He's out of his mind! He thinks it's an oboe concerto!"

  • The other two concerts were at St. Mark's English Church-- the place I would likely worship if I moved to Florence. The sanctuary is small, but acoustically perfect. The pianist, Brian Marble, is phenomenal -- and I don't usually even like piano music. The tenors, Giacomo Miro and Maurizio Marchini (both born in 1977, in Italy) were also very good. I particularly liked Mr. Miro, who was both an unusually expressive singer and a friendly person as well. They apparently hold concerts every night, nine months a year (from April-December). Six days a week they charge admission to raise funds for a children's home in southern India. Monday nights are free of charge, but they ask for a contribution to repair and replace the church's organ (which was manufactured 7 years before the tenors were born!).

And for G-san, here is a quick video of a race I saw on the 17th:

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Under the Umbrian Rain (Perugia to Assisi)

The trip from Perugia to Assisi on June 6 was the most adventure-filled day of the entire bike tour - and all the more so, due to the element of surprise.

The previous evening, during the city tour of Perugia, we went to a patio overlooking the countryside, and our guide pointed out Assisi - our the next day's destination. It was so near, we could almost grasp it! Only 20 km away! It would be a relaxing, easy journey, so the guides gave us a "late start" day (we'd get on the bikes at 9:30 a.m.) ... and went out clubbing after dinner.

So after a sleepless night (for me, this was because my hotel room, immediately over Reception and adjacent to the uncarpeted open internal staircase, doubled as a sound box, not only amplifying street sounds and lobby sounds but also giving me a continuous and full understanding of the whereabouts of the guests in the room above mine), we gathered for our relaxing, easy journey to Assisi.

Our bleary-eyed guide led us down the streets toward the city gates. Unfortunately, we lost one-third of the group en route and people had to go back up the hill to find them. We waited at Via della Viola for a group that - coincidentally - included a young woman named Viola.

Once everyone was reunited (hooray!) we proceeded to the gate.

Victoria (our guide) led us triumphantly out of the gate and took an immediate left up a steep street that hugged the city walls. She had to stop almost immediately, however, because of a rather inconvenient building blocking the way. She called Jacob (the van driver) for directions, then led us back through the city gates, up the hill, up some stairs to our right, and then down around again to a different city gate. We were a little bit reluctant to follow her down another hill, knowing we might have to walk back up it again.

But this time the direction was fine, and we begain coasting down a winding hill outside of the city. We stopped at an intersection toward the bottom of the hill. There were two choices -- one involved merging onto a highway, while the other involved more of a local street system. So we merged on to the highway.

After a few minutes, the guide called us to a halt. We then descended the median to the local streets. The men took charge of making sure the bikes and riders made it through and down the slope successfully (thanks, guys!).

We milled around for a bit.

Then we started up on the local road parallel to the highway -- but retraced our steps by heading exactly the opposite direction. We made our way to some farm areas, and went into the woods along a stream. This was very nice, except that we were going too slowly so it was difficult to make it the small inclines. Eventually, I made it to the front of the crowd. (The guide, as usual, was leading from the middle.) After vacillating between the low road (by the stream) and the high road (by the fields) multiple times, we stuck to the low road. This led us to the end of the fields, and to a small bridge. There was only one path at the base of the bridge. It led over the bridge. So we crossed over and waited. My companions urged me to go on ahead, so I did. Finally, I was flying! It was a short but glorious ride to the end of the path, no intersections or doubts. I got to the end of the path, and waited. And waited. It was strange how long I was waiting. I thought about calling Victoria to find out what was going on, but figured they couldn't be too far behind. I left my bike there at the end, and began walking back to see if there was some crisis. I met two of my fellow cyclists (Rodney and Mr. H) who were coming to find out what had happened to me. It turns out the group had gone to far (and of course I had gone even farther) and we all had to turn back. So we zipped back to the group, people pumped up their tires and drank water, then we went back. We went all the way back across the bridge. Then, we ran roughshod over the fields on the outside of the trees, until we found a path heading away from the trees and stream. We followed that path and never got lost again. (As PDQ Bach wrote in his immortal aria in The Stoned Guest, his reknowned half-act opera in two parts: "Happy ending! Happy ending!")

Here is a small video clip showing a panorama of the countryside en route to Assisi.

More of the countryside. Note the gathering clouds. This is the one day we actually had a little rain.

The "old town" of Assisi (where tourists and pilgrims flock, but where, according to our guide, no locals live ... they come only to make money from the stranieri) is nestled up on a hill. [For a contrary view, provided by someone whose cousin lives in Assisi, see the comments to this post.] In this picture, Assisi is mostly a grey or white blur.

As we approached, the town came more into view, in an almost magical way....
We stopped at a church below the hotel. We didn't go in to this particular church, but had some water under the watchful gaze of the angels.

I like the attitude, with the crossed arms.

In the old town of Assisi, we took a tour of the basilica. It's actually two (or more?) churches on top of each other. Here is a picture of one of the stranieri perched on the wall by the upper church. Dang furriners!

Monday, June 05, 2006

Lago Trasimento (en route from Cortona to Perugia)

We stopped at some small towns on Lago Trasimento on the way from Cortona to Perugia. Here is a short clip of the water lapping gently - very soothing background for our lavish picnic spread.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

En Route Mit Rotalis...

Video panorama from the top of a deceptively meek-looking hill that was a long, tough climb under the hot Tuscan sun. We paused to enjoy some delicious kiwis, oranges, and bananas here.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Scenes from Siena

A video panorama of Il Campo, which includes in its sweep a few of my fellow Radfahrers (aka biking companions):

A small parade -- Cantrada pride! -- along Via dei Rossi while I dined at L'Osteria (how can one not love a dish with a name like petto di pollo con dragoncello).

Ah, bliss! I spent tre notte in Siena altogether, bookending the bike trip, so I suppose there will be some stories to tell.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Views of the Arno

An auspicious start at JFK Airport -- no traffic coming in, a perfectly friendly and helpful Air France service agent, and no wait for check-in or security -- left me with ample time for a simple relaxing spa service and perusal of bestsellers at the book store. Luckily, I chose to purchase a copy of The Economist magazine, which I love, and Father Joe, which was recommended to me by a former colleague, because the flight was delayed 4 hours due to allegedly bad weather in New York. So we left at 3 a.m. and missed all of our connections. It was thus a little late when I arrived at the Florence airport and shared one of the few taxis that appeared on the scene with a couple from Scandinavia. Fortunately, I still got to the convent well before curfew and was able to get settled in before exploring. The place was very near the river, so I strolled down and caught some pictures of the Arno at night.

As you may notice, my camera doesn't deal well with these low-light shots, and I hadn't figured out the fake tripod technique yet, so they're a bit blurry. But I really liked the one with the bridge anyway.

Here's a picture of the convent's courtyard. Great location, spartan digs. And unfortunately a grim breakfast is included in the low price. (Nutella with crackers, plus very small apples.)

The morning of the following day was overcast -- good weather for biking. I would soon catch a bus to Siena and meet the Germans.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Off to Tuscany and Umbria

Here is an image from New York, the city of glass globes. I was going to use this as the basis for another insightful article about the Yanquis, but I'd better log off and start packing.

There's also a lot of glass for the new Apple store... pretty cool, if you ask me.