A Walk Along the Cape Town Waterfront

Much of Cape Town radiates with modern appeal, brandishing its abundance of fashionable and trendy shops, galleries, cafes, restaurants, and hotels throughout the city. However, the crossroads where residents and tourists travel to find it all is Cape Town’s waterfront.

Leah and I took a walk through the waterfront district to see for ourselves, and found that one day was not enough to cover it all.

The heartbeat of the waterfront is the Victoria and Albert Wharf, where the city meets the sea.

V&A Waterfront

Grounded by a two-story mall, the Victoria Wharf Shopping Centre bustles with 450 retail stores, and over 80 restaurants and eateries.

V & A Wharf

Beyond a swinging bridge and a capsule of specialty malls stands the Clock Tower, where a ferry (calm seas and weather permittting) awaits to shuttle intrepid visitors to Robben Island…

Mandela Gateway

the one-time prison of Nelson Mandela from 1964 to 1982, but now a museum and World Heritage site. Unfortunately, high swells prevented us from visiting.

His importance to the city and country cannot be underestimated, as his name and face is omnipresent throughout the region.

The Four

Visible from all points of the city, and looming over the wharf is Table Mountain,

Table Mountain

accessible by cable car, with commanding views of the city below. Unfortunately, Leah and I never made it to the top because of gusting winds at the time.

Continuing south, we mounted a set of stairs…

Steps to Silo

directing us to the Silo District, where a 1920s grain silo…

Silos

has been repurposed into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art,

The Silo and Zeotrope

having opened on September 2017, and boasting the world’s largest collection of African art.

The building also houses the Silo Hotel, occupying the top six floors within the one-time grain elevator. Daily rates during low season range from $900 for a luxury room to $5000 for a 1-Bedroom Penthouse. Leah and I thought we’d have a look around.

The elevator carried us to reception on the sixth floor, where we spoke to an attendant who eagerly escorted us to the eleventh floor open-air restaurant, lounge and pool.

Silo pool

Having missed out on a Table Mountain overlook because of weather, our surrounding views of the stadium,

Stadium (2)

the wharf,

Looking out to Robbens Island

the ship terminal,

Cruise Terminal

and the courtyard below were spectacular, and made up for our disappointment.

Silo Courtyard

Once back on earth, we headed past the shipyards…

Shipyard

and along the canal…

Canal

to Battery Park, a greenspace where families gather to skate and picnic.

Battery Park1 (2)

After reaching City Hall in the distance, we doubled back to the waterfront, eager to continue the next part of our journey in search of wild animals.

Giraffe crane

Much more to follow…

Searching for Closure, Part 3

The Neue Synagogue of Stalerstrasse was consecrated in 1913 from Edmund Körner’s designs, and was Essen’s cultural and social epicenter for the 4500 Jews around town. With its four striking copper cupolas,

Neue Synagogue (2)

it was considered one of Europe’s largest and architecturally significant synagogues of all time.

women's gallery interior

Twenty-five years later, the synagogue burned at the hands of Nazis on the eve of Kristallnacht, while onlookers could only watch in horror and dismay.

Essen Synagogue (2)
Neue Synagogue burning, Photo Archive Ruhr Museum (photographer unknown)

Fire engines stood guard as a precaution in case adjacent buildings should accidentally catch fire while the synagogue continued to burn.

Although the synagogue’s interior was plundered, vandalized and badly scarred by fire,

burned interior
and intense Allied bombing scored direct hits on the Krupp artillery and munitions factory nearby,

Krupp plant bombed (2)
Repairing Tracks at Krupps Plant, Essen, Germany, 1945. Photographer Margaret Bourke-White.

the exterior of the synagogue miraculously survived against a backdrop of rubble.

after the bombing (2)

My mother’s family worshipped at the Neue Synagogue from the time her parents settled in Essen in 1919. One of her earliest memories was sitting in the chapel listening to her father chant the Sabbath prayers from the bimah.

By 1988, the synagogue had been restored to its original splendor, and to the world, represented a shining memorial of the German resistance.

Torah Ark (2)

In August, 1999, despite my mother’s solemn vow to never return to Germany, her views were softened by Essen City Council’s olive branch of restitution, and she accepted their invitation to once again visit the synagogue she loved, and reflect on her upbringing.
Twenty years later, Essen City Council officially decreed the Alte Synagogue as a “House of Jewish Culture.”
permanent exhibit.pngFollowing my visit to Bergen-Belsen, I met with Martina Strehlen, the Deputy Head of Research Collections of the Old Synagogue to experience this cultural landmark, the origin of my mother’s Jewish roots, and to review specific archival materials. Martina clearly recalled my mother’s visit 20 years ago, and eagerly shared copies of artifacts she had donated to the research center’s collection.

Grandma Rose
Rose Straws, my grandmother
Mnil admission to Westerbork
Proof of Registration for Menil Strawzinski

Afterwards, I stood in the warm sun for a time and marveled at the significance of the Old Synagogue sharing a courtyard with the Church of Peace.

jewish-and-catholic.jpg

I was nearing the end of my journey, but there was one last deed to fulfill. Before returning my rental car to Amsterdam, I would first stop at the Jewish Cemetery of Diemen, located just outside Amsterdam’s city limits, and search for my grandfather’s grave.

Records indicate that Mnil Strawczynski was cremated on September 5, 1943, and his remains were transferred to Field U–a remote and overgrown plot of closely stacked headstones memorializing the 400 urns from Westerbork Transit Camp during Nazi occupation.

Field U

Walking the cemetary alone against a gray souless sky, I felt a odd closeness to someone I had never met, but had come to know through scattered remnants of research.

cemetary stones

But I was no closer to the closure I was seeking.

cracked and falling

With each stone unturned, a mountain of questions have been unearthed,

damp grass and stones

yet the answers are as obscure as the inscriptions on these markers.

field of stones

Searching for Closure, Part 2

I wanted more time in Amsterdam, but time wouldn’t allow it. I still had to reckon with Germany, and Bergen-Belsen was my first test. Google Maps predicted a 4.5 hour drive time, but then again, Google never consulted me about driving on the Autobahn.
I rented a SEAT Leon–a car I knew nothing about–but was assured by the agent that, “SEAT Leon is a useful car to get from point A to point B.”
“Never heard of it before. What kind of car is it…compared to more popular carmakers?” I asked.
“Think of it as a sportier Spanish version of a VW Golf,” he informed.
OK, I thought. That ought to do, and it seemed so appropriate considering how close the concentration camp is to Wolfsburg, home of the VW factory and largest automobile plant in the world.
For a third of the way, I had to watch my speed, before crossing the country border into Germany. But once A1 turned into A 30, I was off to the races.

Ordinarily, 130 kph (81 mph) is the top-posted speed limit on highways, but for many high performance vehicles, that’s akin to standing still. When clear of frequent road repairs, much of the Autobahn carries three lanes of traffic: trucks and turtles in the right lane; quasi-regulation speed in the middle lane; and Mach 1, bat-outta-hell speed in the left lane.
I waited patiently until I reached De Poppe, where I overtook a BMW 3, and throttled the accelerator as I pushed the transmission into top gear. This was life in the fast lane. When the speedometer crossed 170, I set my sights on the next middle-lane creeper, a Fiat 500. My cruising speed topped 190 and flattened.

The Fiat was coming up fast on my right. I checked my mirrors, and suddenly discovered the front end of a Mercedes-AMG GT filling my rearview and flashing its headlights. Seriously?! Within seconds of passing the Fiat?!
I stood my ground–I was committed to passing the Fiat–it was my right! Of course, my tailgater thought the same.
The roadster was so close, I could have been towing him. And now its syncopated horn was blaring. In my fantasy, it probably resembled a Grand Prix pas de deux, but in reality, it was German intimidation.
I sped past the Fiat and quickly crossed back to the middle. The Mercedes effortlessly blew by me doing no less than 240, and in a blink of an eye, my nemesis was beyond my driving horizon. Thereafter, I occasionally found my way back to the rocket lane, but I was content to run, where others were meant to fly.
Nevertheless, I managed to shave a half-hour off my run time as I took my exit. The scenery turned verdant green as I shot down the lonely country lane. Trees were filling in, crops were sprouting, and accents of color from wild flowers popped against a cloudless sky.
I was racing to Bergen-Belsen–not knowing what to expect–but once I sensed the immediacy of my arrival, I purposely down-shifted my anxiety to regain control of my emotions. I sat in the parking lot for a minute with the engine idling, thinking about the history of this place and its connection to my family, and the untold suffering and misery caused to so many others, that I wept. It wasn’t a long cry, but long enough to strengthen my resolve.
I entered the facility, where I met Simone, who sat behind the desk of the documentation center…
Simone at the entrance
and I restated my purpose. She took my grandmother’s name and cross-checked it against the memorial registry. It’s estimated that more than 50,000 people died of starvation, disease, brutality and medical sadism while interned at Bergen-Belsen. When British Allies liberated the camp on April, 15, 1945, they discovered over 60,000 prisoners, most of them sick or dying.
“You are very fortunate. Just before the Liberation, the Nazis destroyed most of their records to hide their crimes. We have records for only half the prisoners held here, but lucky for you, your grandmother’s name is on the list,” she said with excitement.
And then she presented me with twin volumes…
Books of Remembrance
and flagged the most significant page in Volume Two, which caused my heart to race.
list of names (2).jpg
Simone offered a map of the museum, and I got started on my quest.

museum map

My time was limited and I was feeling overwhelmed by the site of so many artifacts–laid out like a trail of evidence–to narrate a place in time when human beings behaved at their worst.

Standing there, I was seeing the truth stripped bare, and this sensation was getting in my way of collecting clues of my family.
exhibit hall
Square window boxes have been dropped into the cement floor, representing the found objects that archealogists have unearthed…


after the camp was incinerated by the Brits to control the spread of typhus.
camp_model
Walls of displays detail the story of the horrors within…
mission.jpg
Because of my correspondence with Bernd Horstmann, curator of the museum’s Register of Names, I learned that Grandma Rose arrived at Bergen-Belsen from Westerbork on January 12, 1944 with 1,024 other Jews,
When a transport arrives
and was detained at the Star Camp, a subsection of the Exchange Camp…
worden.jpg
crematorium
Because Grandma Rose had value to the Nazis as a seamstress, she was most likely deployed to the SS-owned Weaving Works,
letter and records (2)
letter and records (3)
which forced women to produce items from scrap materials,
weaving-works.jpg
in addition to repairing inmate uniforms.
prisoner uniform
Although living conditions at the Star Camp were considered better than other blocks within Bergen-Belsen…
conditions
the indignity and torture was more than enough to drive many of the prisoners mad.
indignity
Nonetheless, a code of conduct ruled inside the huts, in sharp contrast to the chaos and barbarism that reigned on the outside. Having been relegated to Block 20, Grandma Rose was beholden to Jewish Elder, Joseph Weiss.
code of conduct
In time, as surrounding concentration camps closed, Bergen-Belsen saw a dramatic increase in inmates. Originally intended as a Soviet POW camp for 20,000 prisoners, the camp population swelled beyond imagination and sustainability.
prisoner numbers (3)
By April, 1945, the Third Reich learned that the Allies had broken German defenses from the west and the south as the Soviets were advancing from the east.
in-early-april-1945.jpg
On April 7, 1945, Grandma Rose was among the first to be loaded onto a cattle car initially bound for Thereisenstadt,
Trains to Westerbork (2)
but destined for the gas chambers.
map of death trains route
Of course, none of the transportees knew where they were going or what to expect on the other side of their living hell, except continuing sickness and certain death.
the ride to Farsleben
After six days of unimaginable terror on the rails, Grandma Rose’s train was liberated near the German village of Farsleben on April 15, 1945 by American soldiers from the 743rd Tank Battalion of the 30th Infantry Division.

liberation mother and child (2)
Courtesy of the Gross family

Maj. Frank Towers, who also took part in the liberation, organized the transfer of Grandma Rose and the other 2,500 freed prisoners to a nearby town, Hillersleben, where they received medical treatment from Allied troops. Grandma Rose weighed 90 pounds when she admitted to the field hospital.
I felt I had reached my capacity for absorbing the inhumanity justified by the Nazis in their quest for the “Final Solution”. I didn’t know if I could process any more of it, but there was one last exhibit inside the Film Tower that was impossible to ignore, no matter how difficult to endure.
Eventually, the museum was cleared at 5pm. As many as 10 other patrons filed through the exit and into their cars, leaving me with another couple to roam the cemetery grounds on a beautiful Spring afternoon.
1940 Bis 1945.jpg
There are no tombstones on the grounds, but there are government memorials…
oblisque.jpg
and government tributes…
Herzog plaque
and personal markers.
personal tributes.jpg
scattered among a cluster of memorial mounds…
Memorial.jpg
where the unknown remains of tens of thousands of victims share a mass grave beneath the berm.

(please be advised of extremely graphic content)

I found solace inside the House of Silence, an outlying metal and glass edifice on the edge of camp, in the midst of a grove of birch trees…
Acute angle blue
where a soaring meditation room offers space for personal reflection,
House of Silence interior
and an altar for hundreds of tokens of healing and prayer.
shrine
Bergen-Belsen is a sad place that offers little redemption beyond the nagging reminder that people have the capacity for immeasurable cruelty toward each other–as if it’s in our DNA–and this is our scar for future reference.Surely, a solemn oath from each of us to “never forget,” brings us one step closer to “never again.”
But this memorial also challenges us to check our speed. We need to slow down and be mindful of the world around us in order to listen closely for the pulse of hatred that still beats among us, lest we drive down this familiar road again, ignoring the vital signs of tolerance, freedom, and understanding.
A “Search for Closure” concludes with Part 3.

Searching for Closure, Part 1

A recent two-week trip abroad was much more than a European romp through a handful of city centers. My mission was ambitious: to gather relevant data on my mother’s ancestry that has thus far proved elusive, and reconnect with family across the Atlantic whom I haven’t seen in nearly 48 years.

My itinerary took me through the highlands of Scotland, to the canals of Holland, to the Rhineland of Germany,

travel route

with travel hubs in Edinburgh,

Sir Walter Scott Monument1 (2)

Amsterdam,

bikes2

and Essen,

Alte shul plaza (2)

before taking a breath, and finishing strong as a tourist in Brussels,

Mont des Arts1

and Paris.

Luxemburg Gardens

Each stop was consequential in my quest to uncover vital research of my mother’s epic escape from Nazi Germany, and the endless road taken to reunite her broken family.

This was not an easy trip, but I could sense that during the planning stage. Yet, preparing myself for the inevitable and predictable emotional turmoil was balanced by the prospect of discovery–knowing that every step was taking me closer to connecting the dots.

Starting in the UK, I then worked my way back in time to The Netherlands, and eventually Germany–where it all began–but it was Amsterdam that proved most pivotal in my discovery and the epicenter of my travels, because it was Amsterdam that first offered safe harbor and hope for two young sisters, who until then, only had each other.

Centraal1

It was in Amsterdam that my long-distance cousin Jude and I began to fill in the missing pieces.

Jude and the Tree of Life

It so happened that a landmark exhibit of rare photographs at Amsterdam’s National Holocaust Museum coincided with our visit, and immediately became a must-see.

Exhibit cover

A large number of photos were taken by professional photographers, mostly commissioned by German authorities for use as propaganda. In addition, there were also countless amateurs who photographed the persecution and deportation of the Jews. The NIOD (Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies) manages by far the largest photo collection on this theme and conducted extensive research into the visual history of the persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands. Countless archives at home and abroad were consulted; this has led to the discovery of many still unknown photos.
The exhibition shows a large and representative overview of the photographic recording of the persecution of the Jews. The images show in a penetrating and confronting way, the consequences of the anti-Jewish measures in the occupied Netherlands. They bear witness to the merciless behavior of the German occupiers, the cooperation of the Dutch in the deportations, but also the help to people in hiding and to the daily Jewish life during the occupation. In addition, attention is paid to the post-war reception of the few survivors from the camps and those who returned from hiding.

First greeted with a timeline of events,

timeline

we proceeded through an open-air corridor and into a subdued chamber, where mostly elderly patrons followed a photographic progression of Holland’s involvement in the war, and its impact on the Jewish population:

exhibit intro

Experiencing the exhibit was numbing to my core, but still my senses were on high alert. What were my chances, I wondered, that of the 140,000 remaining Jews in Holland from 1940-1945, I might find a photograph of my grandmother stitching an article of clothing…

sewing room

for the Jewish Council,

Jewish Council

to match up with one of the few yarns she used to tell me when I was so much younger and unappreciative of her travails?

Perhaps, she could be the proper woman in the gray coat with the straight back walking the lane between barracks in Westerbork.

Life in Westerbork

Or might I recognize her in a crowd of 2,500 faces that was awaiting one of three “death trains” to Theresienstadt after the Nazi command realized that the Allies were only days away from liberating Bergen-Belson on April 15, 1945.

Trains to Westerbork (2)

At times, I used my camera as a shield to protect me from the full impact of the horror behind the photographs, thinking that if I could position myself as someone who is solely documenting the documents, than I could better insulate myself from the madness that she and so many others must have experienced.

An interactive Remembrance Wall occupied a room by the Museum foyer, encouraging patrons to search its ever-evolving database for the names and dates of Jewish victims who perished in Holland.

As a tribute to my unknown maternal grandfather Mnil…

Mnil

I entered his name into the query window. He never survived Westerbork, and I had a quiet moment of reflection and gratitude for his courage to save his family before himself.

A two-hour drive to Kamp Westerbork with Jude did nothing to assuage my feelings of emptiness and sadness, but the site was ironically enlightening and beautifully serene.

Once at the memorial museum, we were greeted by a train of suitcases, representing the cycle of detainees that the Dutch pushed through Westerbork over the years,

suitcase-symbolism.jpg

with an emphasis on the plight of 102,000 Jews who sacrified their lives, all for the sake of a twisted manifesto of hatred.

mural

Jude and I met Guido, the senior conservator of the museum at the museum cafe,

Westerbork collage

where he eagerly shared news and theories of our grandfather’s demise and our grandmother’s salvation through a collection of registration documents.

Two miles away, the hallowed grounds of the memorial can be reached on foot or by bus. Mostly empty space and green fields for an array of radio telescopes,

radio telescopes

it nevertheless showcases a collection of iconic relics from the war that survived the Dutch government’s demolition of the camp in the 1960s.

There is a glass enclosure protecting the Commandant’s quarters;

Westerbork under Glass

an original boxcar that stands as a testament to the 84 trains that transported Jews to Auschwitz and Sobibor,

Train car

where nearly all of the 94,643 persons deported were killed on arrival;

boarding the train.jpg

a monument to the 102,000 Jews of The Netherlands who passed through Westerbork…

The 102,000 Rocks

and lost their lives;

Bricks.jpg

the remnants of a barrack;

barrack-then and now.jpg

broken barracks

and a guard tower standing beside a metaphoric railbed.

guard tower.jpg

I drifted from display to display, as if being involuntarily directed like a Ouija board peg–believing that I was somehow being programmed to walk in the footsteps of my grandparents.

Upon return to Amsterdam, Jude and I strolled through the Jewish District, walking past the Portuguese Synagogue, an imposing Baroque structure completed in 1675, where most certainly, our family would have prayed, but sadly, never as a family;

Portuguese Synagogue

and along Weesperstraat, past the Monument of Jewish Gratitude,

Monument of Gratitude

where a controversial limestone edifice will soon be replaced by Daniel Libeskind’s Shoah Memorial.

From there, we strolled in search of the Burgerweeshius,

Amsterdam Museum

once the landmark orphanage that sheltered our moms after they were transported from Soesterberg…

De-Burgerweeshuiskinderen-voor-mei-1940.-Foto-NIOD (2)
Bertie stands in the back row in front of the tree; Eva sits in the second row, third from the right

and now home to the Amsterdam Museum.

Burgerwiishaus

For one moment, I thought I could hear the faint and familiar sound of children playing in the courtyard–playing tag around the tree, and playing soccer across the herringbone pavers.

Amsterdam had much to offer. Walking through the city, I felt an eerie sense of belonging–not because of the dissonance of grief–past or present–but the resonance of a shared understanding brought about by reconnecting with my cousin, Jude and the revelation that Amsterdam’s secrets have become an open book of acknowledgement and remembrance.

The journey continues with Part 2…

Window Dressing

Peering into shop windows along the streets and canals of Amsterdam…

canal scene

…presents many an oddity that will surely arouse the senses. Although, considering Amsterdam’s predilection and distinction for legal marijuana and prostitution, it would seem unlikely that there could be any room for other surprises.

Yet oddly enough, despite the merchandising overload of everything cannabis,

containers

pot menu

and the city’s penchant for 24-hr flesh peddling,

red light secrets

there is more to Amsterdam than just kink and circumstance.

There are also plenty of museums,

Amsterdam Museum.jpg

and enough al fresco cafés and frites stores to support a cultural and gastronomical battalion.

fast food

Amsterdam is a place for eyes behind your head, because two eyes in front is not enough to sidestep all the oncoming cyclists coming from every direction,

bikers and reefer.jpg

bikes at nite

but also to catch all the head-turning outrageousness of an unrepentant town that still embraces Easter.

20190412_124910.jpg

Amsterdam is a place to relax. Heck, half the population is already stoned, and the pungent waft of weed is a strong reminder to kick back and enjoy the scenery.

canal sitters (2)

park canal.jpg

Amsterdam is a tolerant town, where all kinds of people gather and co-exist without judgement or little reservation. Citizens are proud and expressive, at times aggressive, but mostly helpful–although they smoke entirely too much, and regard the street as their personal ashtray.

Queers

As a laissez-faire society by practice and design, it appears to work. Quite simply, Amsterdam is a libertarian’s delight!

And that leaves plenty of room for rubber duckies and vaginas, and everything between.

think pink

Brussels Lore

Brussels loves its folklore. And its citizens are unabashed about it. They show it off around town, and celebrate it with a flourish.

Belgians are world renown chocolatiers, and proud of their invention. Case in point–Jean Neuhaus…

Jean Neuhaus (2)

…a one-time chemist who realized that a chocolate coating around a pill helps the medicine go down. His pharmacy in Galerie de la Reine…

Galerie de La Reine

located in a glass-covered mall of pilasters, arches, and windows…

Galleries

was converted into a chocolate shop in 1912, when he replaced his pills with praline, giving rise to an international addiction, and no doubt, a tooth decay epidemic.

On this particular day, the theme of chocolate carried over to Brussel’s most famous fountain–a 17th century pisser known as Manneken Pis–who was undergoing a celebrated makeover with yet another costume.

The pomp and circumstance surrounding the event was palpable. A singing society of Manneken Pis enthusiasts had crowded the corner of the Incubator and Oak Street,

Pis assembly

just south of Grand Place…

Grand Place

in anticipation of the grand reveal.

Outside the circle of importance, a fringe show delighted the onlookers.

Pis pusher assembly

Pis pusher

Eventually, the Nation’s colors were pulled away to expose the little exhibitionist dressed as a chocolatier–one of 1000 different costumes he has worn throughout the ages.

chocolatier pis

But Manneken Pis has some able-bodied company. Located a short distance away, his counterpart, Jeanneke Pis is a fine squating specimen.

Jeanneke Pis1 (2)

It is believed by Belgians that the fountain was built in honor of loyalty. An old custom states that a coin tossed into the basin will bring good luck and is an expression of fidelity.

Jeanneke Pis CU1

Of course, what could be more loyal than man’s best friend, symbolized by Zinneke Pis…

Brussels, BE

…thus completing the pee pee trilogy.

Dogs are a common site and symbol around Brussels, and represented throughout history, whether at the foot of Everard t’Serclaes, a 14th century legend, embodied in thestatue of his reclining corpse–

the rub

which is believed by locals to bring luck to all passers-by who rub it.

And then there’s Tintin’s dog, Snowy,

Tin Tin

a comic sensation created by Belgian cartoonist Hergé (aka George Remi).

There is a framed beauty and whimsy about the city of Brussels.

angels

While it never takes itself too seriously,

posers

bus stop.jpg

there is just enough richness…

Mont des Arts

garden

regalness, 

Royal Palace

crown

righteousness,

Eglise Notre Dame des Victoires

alter and basilica.jpg

and Old World charm…

Arch of Cinquantenaire (2)

…to compete with any of the other great European capitals, while never forgetting its role as de facto capital of the European Union, 

social issues.jpg

and its advocacy for social justice.

commemoration plaques.jpg

 

Skullpture Park

Everyday is Halloween at Les Catacombes de Paris. But, it’s not about dressing up in outrageous costumes, or wearing outlandish make-up. It’s about visiting a subterranean ossuary that radiates miles in all directions beyond the 14th Arrondissement of Paris.

Taking 130 steps into the bowels of time…

spiral (2)

…and following a long and winding stoney path…

stoney foot path

…through weeping ceilings heavy with humidity,

arches

and sobering humility,

cavern turn

one reaches an imposing gateway, warning: STOP! THIS IS THE EMPIRE OF DEATH!

Empire of Death (2).jpg

Beyond the entrance exists a daunting surreality that 6 million human remains reside here, integrated into the walls of 8000 year-old limestone tunnels once quarried to build Paris into one of Europe’s brightest beacons–bringing an eerie normalization to the horror and beauty of this place, for the skulls and bones are often arranged in an unnatural state of decoration.

heart of skulls

With Parisian cemeteries overflowing their boundaries, Louis XV and Louis XVI crusaded for a ban on future burials within city limits when the insufferable stench of rotting corpses began overwhelming the community. But the Church pushed back, citing that the dominion of God’s holy spirits should never be disturbed.

Charnier_at_Saints_Innocents_Cemetery

However, in 1780, a rush of Spring rain caused a wall to collapse between a house cellar and the Holy Innocents Cemetery, causing the unsanitary contents of its burial pit to flood the house.

Skullpture (2)

Thereafter, all Parisian cemeteries were exhumed,

skull wave

and the bones were transferred into the catacombs–

skull de sac

a practice that continued until 1859.

St. Nicholas Des Champs

Yet, it’s the skullpture, first imagined by Hericart de Thury, the inspector of the quarries during 1810 that resonates most among the catacomb’s 300,000 visitors each year.

skeletal tower

Although there is a bone to pick: roving security discourages tourists from touching sacred ruins or leaving graffiti behind,

skull cross

while a final bag check at the conclusion of the one-hour tour prevents tourists from poaching remnants.

embedded skulls

But if souvenirs are a must (and who doesn’t enjoy a small memento of their visit), the gift shop at the museum exit does a brisk business–

painted skulls (2)

bringing renewed life to the term “head shop”.

terminator heads.jpg

Touring the Tower

Let’s face it! The Eiffel Tower is one of the most photographed structures in the world. Since celebrating the 130th anniversary of its opening last week, more than 7 million people a year now flock to gawk at it’s imposing presence along the Champ-de-Mars.

the approach

I’m certain that it’s been photographed from every imaginable angle, in all sorts of light–day and night–and in all sorts of weather conditions.

But not by me! After arriving in Paris and settling in my hotel in Montparnasse, the first thing I wanted to visit was the Eiffel Tower. To me, it meant that I was in Paris!

piercing the sky

There’s security now. Since July 2018, a 3-meter high wall of bullet-proof glass (2.5 inches thick) protects the “Iron Lady” and visitors from vehicle-ramming attacks, while two sentried openings scan personal property. But the inconvenience is minimal compared to the lines that form for stairs and elevators to the top.

Once inside the enclave, the enormity of the tower is that much more imposing, stretching the length of one football field in all directions from the center to its foundation footings.

looking up

Examining the intricacy of the lattice can be hypnotizing,

Y (2)

when studying the symmetry of shapes,

through the center

or it may seem random and haphazard by a clash of metal girders.

twisted

But if abstracting the Eiffel Tower appears upsetting or unsettling, a postcard version of this Parisian landmark can always please the senses…

tower and garden

of those who long for the familiar,

traditional

or those who are easily pleased.

Paris Vegas 1

 

Views of Edinburgh

There’s no need searching for fabulous viewpoints in Edinburgh, because the city is chock full of them. And each one delivers the most splendid views of a town steeped in Scottish lore and history. All that’s required is an ability to scale any of the neighboring hills, and the payoff is heavenly.

For instance, a hike up to Castle Rock…

Castle Rock

to access the gate to Edinburgh Castle…

castle entry

provides a fantastic overlook to the south end.

South view

But the bigger reward becomes more apparent after buying an access ticket to the castle for £18,

approach

and stepping back through time to follow in the footsteps of Scottish royals who traversed the cobblestone roads since the 12th century.

Castle ramparts

Once inside Foog’s Gate, one discovers St Margaret’s Chapel–the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh–built around 1130 by David I, and dedicated to his mother Queen Margaret, who was later canonized in 1250 by Pope Innocent IV.

The chapel was designed in a Romanesque style with small, irregular stones fashioned in a simple rectangle, and underwent major reconstruction in 1851 by Queen Victoria,

chapel knave.jpg

and was updated with Douglas Strachan’s stained glass windows in 1922.

Stained Glass St Margaret's Chapel (2)

St Margaret’s Chapel commands a view of north Edinburgh,

looking north

looking to Leith.

new city

In addition to the best westerly views in the city…

looking west

the Castle’s royal palace…

Royal quarters mantle and plaster ceiling

offers a glimpse of the elaborate decoration of the birth chamber of James VI, son of Mary Queen of Scots.

Royal Quarters birth room

A visit to the Great Hall is also in order…

Great Hall crest

boasting an interior ceiling constructed without nails–looking much like an upside down hull of a boat–

Great Hall timber ceiling

and housing a variety of vintage weapons displays.

weapons display[2151].jpg

armored soldiers

Several exhibits on the mount recount the many coronations of its kings and queens,

coronation.jpg

the fighting character of the Scots…

war museum

and an active tribute memorial to all of those who have fallen in battle throughout the ages.

War memorial plaza.jpg

Lion guard

Scottish National War Memorial (2).jpg

Once outside the castle entrance, a walk down the Royal Mile…

Royal Mile marker.jpg

past The Hub (where the famed Fringe Festival headquarters resides)…

The Hub.jpg

will likely lead to an encounter with a bagpipe player…

bagpipes.jpg

standing by one of the many Closes of Edinburgh which look out to the north and south.

Devil's Advocate Close

Continuing further east is St. Giles Cathedral, founded in 1124, and the focal point of the Scottish Reformation in the 16th century.

St Giles.jpg

Inside the church are an array of small knaves and chapels enhanced by extraordinary examples of intricately detailed stained glass.

St Giles' Robert Burns window

Views of Edinburgh also abound from Calton Hill,

Calton Hill map.jpg

where several monuments dot the landscape, whether it’s to honor Horatio Nelson,

Nelson Monument

Dugard Stewart,

Dugald Stewart Monument

or the war veterans who lost their lives in the Napoleonic Wars.

National Monument

Once the site of medieval tournaments and festivities during the 1400s, Calton Hill was also the best place to catch public executions in the 1600s.

Observatory House

But today, it’s best known for it’s iconic views of the royal residence, Hollyrood Palace positioned beneath Arthur’s Seat,

Hollyrood Palace

and a look down Princes Street.

Waterloo

Views notwithstanding,

view from Calton Hill.jpg

the real appeal of Edinburgh lies in its streetside presence, where it’s never too early (or late) to duck inside a pub or a whiskey bar on Grassmarket…

Grassmarket shops

for a pint or a single malt to really put a different spin on the city views.

 

Cummer Attractions

In celebration of Pi-Day, Leah and I scored theater tickets to the national tour of Waitress, presenting at Times-Union Center in downtown Jacksonville. Wanting to take advantage of fair weather, and never having seen Jacksonville during daylight hours, we decided to make an afternoon of it by visiting the Cummer Museum of Arts and Gardens located in Jacksonville’s Riverside neighborhood, a short distance from our evening venue.

entry

And it was well worth the trip.

statue (2)

In 1902, Arthur Cummer joined his parents, Wellington and Ada at their St. Johns River homestead, and built a half-timber English Tudor style house for Ninah, his bride. Arthur and Ninah began collecting art soon after.

Only the designated Tudor Room remains from the original house, so “the public at large may enjoy some insight into the personality of the owner.”

Cummer study

A series of interconnected museum wings are separated by a courtyard paved with terra-cotta tiles from the Cummer’s old roof.

courtyard

The original Cummer collection plus acquired collections of paintings, sculptures, and Meissen porcelain fill fourteen galleries, span 3200 years, and range from:

2100 BCE… 

frieze

to 100 CE…

1 AD mosaic

to 13th century…

religious art

to 17th century…

European Renaissance

to 18th century…

GW Gilbert Stuart

to 19th century…

Ponce deLeon in Florida

…to contemporary artists like Harlem Renaissance sculptor, Augusta Savage, whose work is currently exhibiting in the Mason Gallery.

Augusta Sanders (2)

Following Arthur Cummer’s death in 1943, Ninah wished to establish a “center for beauty and culture…[for] all of the people” on the residence grounds.

live oak over gardens

Upon the widow’s death in 1958, the estate and gardens were granted to the DeEtte Holden Cummer Museum Foundation. Soon after, buildings were demolished (with the exception of the Tudor Room) in favor of a state-of-the-art museum that opened in 1961, followed by a detailed restoration of the property’s Italian Garden…

garden under repair

the Olmstead Garden…

English garden

and the English Garden–

English garden1

all of which were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010 for outstanding “American landscape design in the first four decades of the twentieth century.”

As northeast Florida’s largest and most significant museum and arts education center housing over 5,000 works of art…

archer

the sky is the limit.

BTW…the show was a tasty morsel about a bittersweet topic.

Used Cars

On the third day of a four-day affair, the 1-mile approach to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel was thoroughly congested. In addition to stand-still traffic, an unbroken chain of cars akimbo were parked on both sides of the grassy shoulder.

A steady stream of walkers of all ages easily out-paced my Ford pickup on the way to the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, north Florida’s premier destination for car connoisseurs–and in some cases–car collectors with deep pockets. They have come from around the world to claim bragging rights for owning many of the rarest sporting and cruising motorcars worthy of six to seven-figures.

Welcome sign (2)

We mastered the final quarter-mile in 30 minutes. Once past the event entrance, we took a quick right and followed the signs that led us to a string of ad hoc neighborhood parking concessions charging $40 for the day. Fortunately, as I approached the first backyard turn-in, a couple was just claiming their vehicle–leaving an open spot for me.

“Are you kidding?! I’m not paying that kind of money for a parking spot! That’s highway robbery!” announced Leah to me. 

“Is it any cheaper down the road?” Leah called out to the attendant/mansion owner.

“It’s the same, but if you’re willing to walk back about 20 minutes, you might be able to park somewhere for half the price,” he offered, “but you need to make up your mind ’cause there’s traffic piling up behind you.

I turned into the lot.

“Location, location, location,” I declared.

The sunny skies were a blessing and a curse. The weather was perfect for strolling along the 1st, 10th, and 18th fairways of the Golf Club of Amelia Island…

on the fairway

to gaze at more than 400 classic and exotic automobiles.

fountain (2)

However, the owners who were standing guard over their prized possessions were invariably hard at work, answering questions, overstating their cars’ value, and forever polishing away the glaring fingerprints of so many gawkers-turned-touchers.

volvo door style

A full representation of cars from every manufacturer was mostly categorized by brand, ranging from Datsuns…

Datsuns

to Porsches…

Porsche Sea

with occasional support provided by corporate tents and stages…

Rope around the green

showcasing concept cars…

Silver Arrow

Silver Arrow wheel

Prototype 10

Infiniti 10

steering wheel detail

elite production models,

Carrera GT modelCarrera GT

and vintage heirlooms.

Mercedes V10 (3)

BMW 700

There were novelties…

junk in the trunk

coockpit

clean and dirty

steamed-clean engines to admire…

Porsche engine

Bugatti racing engine

1930 Cadillac V12

and glorious paint jobs to behold…

Pink Panther

hexagons

car body

6 lite Porche

But most enjoyable was sitting on the sidelines watching a parade of auctioned vehicles…

antiques

Horch grill

as they were being polished,

yellow

and preened…

1930 Cadillac (2)

by teams of attentive handlers in white gloves…

Chrystler

before facing RM Sotheby’s gavel. According to the auctioneer:

Leading RM’s string of 19 individual million-dollar-plus sales and claiming top honors of the 2017 Amelia Island auctions was a striking 1937 Bugatti Type 57S Cabriolet, one of only three examples sporting rare coachwork by Vanvooren of Paris. Offered for public sale for the first time in its 80-year history, the highly original Type 57S sparkled under the auction lights during Saturday’s sale session, commanding $7,700,000. Just moments prior to the Bugatti’s sale, a well-known 1929 Stutz Model M Supercharged Coupe, one of only three supercharged Stutzes in existence, proved demand remains strong for great American Classics at auction, selling for $1,705,000 against a pre-sale estimate of $1/1.2 million. The strong sales price represents a new record for a Stutz at auction.

Friday’s sale session was also one for the books, with the Orin Smith Collection generating $31 million in sales with a 100 percent sell-through. A wonderful showcase of RM Sotheby’s expertise and capabilities in handling private collection auctions, the sale represented the first time RM has hosted a Friday evening sale at Amelia, and provided a fitting tribute to a man beloved by the Amelia crowd, drawing a packed sales room. The group of 63 vehicles was headlined by a stunning 1936 Lancia Astura Cabriolet Series III “Tipo Bocca” at $2,145,000. Other notable sales included:

  • the 1956 Bentley S1 Continental Drophead Coupe, just two registered owners from new, shattered both its presale estimate of $700/900,000 and the previous auction record for the model at a final $1,683,000;
  • a superbly restored 1933 Rolls-Royce Phantom II Special Newmarket Permanent Sedan soared past its $1,000,000 high estimate at a final $1,237,500; and,
  • 1966 Aston Martin Short-Chassis Volante, the very first example of just 37 built, sold for $1,705,000.

The power of ‘no reserve’ exhibited at Friday’s Orin Smith Collection sale was witnessed again on Saturday with terrific results achieved for a well-known private collection of 10 sporting cars. Highlighting the group, a dramatic two-tone red and black 1956 Maserati A6G/54 Frua Coupe Series III, much-admired by enthusiasts during preview, provided one of the most intense and lively bidding contests of the weekend, eventually selling for $2,365,000 against a pre-sale estimate of $1.6/2.2 million. From the same collection, a 1974 Porsche 911 Carrera RS 3.0 eclipsed its pre-sale estimate of $900,000 – $1.1 million to storm into the record books at a final $1,375,000 (an auction record for the model). Also commanding strong bids were a spectacular 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing, which realized $1,358,500, and a stunning 1955 Alfa Romeo 1900C SS Coupe, which brought $1,100,000.

Other noteworthy sales of RM’s 2017 Amelia Island event include:

  • the 5,694-mile 1995 Ferrari F50, originally delivered to famed heavyweight Champion boxer, Mike Tyson, sold for an above-estimate $2,640,000;
  • 1938 Graham 97 Supercharged Cabriolet, exquisitely restored by RM Auto Restoration, set a new benchmark for a Graham at auction with its strong $770,000 final price; and,
  • ending Saturday’s sale session on a fun note, a 1963 Meyers Manx—the original dune buggy—doubled its pre-sale estimate to sell for a record $68,750.

Collective sales for 135 blue-chip entries generated nearly $71M in sales–producing a record high in the event’s 24-year history…

Cadillac hood ornament

…and at prices that would make a hood ornament blush.

 

 

A Walk in the Garden

Leah and I awoke to an overcast day. The forecast promised more of the same, which was fine with me as long as it didn’t rain. We spent the morning searching for a new destination to stretch our legs–maybe find a bike trail, or at the very least, a walking trail not too far from home.

After a late breakfast, we headed south toward Flagler Beach, a salty seaside community with orange sand from crushed coquina…

dunes and beach

midway between St. Augustine and Daytona. We were in search of Betty Steflik Memorial Preserve, a cache of 217 acres of marsh and mangroves tucked beneath the Highway 100 causeway,

causeway

and bordering the Matanzas River.

Matanzas River

A mile or so of boardwalking through the salt marsh was pleasant though unremarkable. However, it offered me time to play with my newly acquired 1.7X tele conversion lens (see Zoom!).

egret takes off

avoiding the wake

Anticipating a loop around the preserve, we were surprised that the trail dropped us at a different parking lot annexed to the town’s public works complex that was surrounded by dilapidated residential trailers planted only blocks from the beach.

cistern1

And so we continued our tour of all things industrial and commercial, until we returned to the preserve entrance.

bridge piers

Feeling underwhelmed by our walk-around, I opted for the slow road home, following A1A North on a prayer that the seaside scenery might somehow improve on a somewhat lackluster afternoon.

We passed through nothing of consequence: nondescript shops and eateries, assorted bungalows, big machines for county road repairs, and mainstream subdivisions along the way. But when we reached Palm Coast, the road opened up to a dense maritime hammock of hardwood trees to our left, and I felt compelled to u-turn for a closer look.

We turned into Washington Oaks Garden State Park,

National Register

and heard from the gate attendant that the azalea blooms had just reached their peak, and that was enough to pique my interest.

gazebo and fountain

As we completed a self-guided tour of the grounds…

Washington Oaks Historic District

I felt relieved, knowing that our Sunday excursion had been rescued.

mask

The formal gardens were beautifully unusual,

live oak

lushly carpeted,

green garden grasses

and precisely manicured.

garden path

We left the area under partly sunny skies…

marshian sunset

knowing that we would return another day to devote more time to the miles of trails through the hammock.

And weather permitting, we will cross the highway to follow the coquina rock formations that line the Atlantic side when the tide is nigh.

The Rocks

 

 

 

 

 

Tequila!

There was a time when slamming back Jose Cuervo tequila shots defined my notion of drinking socially and irresponsibly. When attending college mixers and parties, it was the perfect way to act cool and behave stupidly at the same time. The time-honored tradition of licking salt before swallowing a rim-topped shooter glass and finishing with a limon bite was a pattern of behavior that I remember clearly, but can’t recall with any accuracy.

empty glasses (2)

It was also my surrender to the fiery pepper that typically accompanied the alcohol. While the raspa would rocket through my gastric canal, I often wondered how I survived the taste of jet fuel laced with vanilla extract. But those negative thoughts always melted away after the third shot. That’s the magic of tequila; sometimes it makes you question your own sense of reality.

As we aged, so did our palettes. Drinking buddies flush with more disposable income succumbed to the lure of unblended Scotch or reveled in the crisp bite of French vodka. But not me. I saw no reason to search for a better bitter. It seems I was too emotionally attached to tequila to switch to a competing liquor.

shooter girl (2)

My mission was to find a tequila that didn’t taste so nasty. Move over Jose Cuervo, and say hello to Patrón.

Apart from all the trusted distilleries in Jalisco, Mexico, the one tequila that resonated in America debuted in 1989, and soon captured a coveted 30% market share–not because of Patrón’s unique flavor profile or quality control standards, but because shampoo mogul and co-founder, John Paul DeJoria positioned Patrón’s top-shelf status through its hand-numbered bottles, silk ribbons, and round-top corks. Late-show tequila was now dressed up and ready for prime-time.

It wasn’t long before other celebrities jumped on the brand-wagon to use their cache to cash in. While Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville and Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo supported the aging baby boomer sub-culture, George Clooney’s Casamigos courted the endless summer sect, and P. Diddy’s DeLéon catered to the crowd behind the velvet rope.

Tequila’s makeover has generated record-breaking sales since 2012. According to the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS):

…tequila volumes [in the U.S.] have grown by 121%, at an average rate of 5.8%. In 2016 alone, 15.9 million 9-liter cases were sold. What is even more impressive is that while the volumes of value and premium tequila grew by 93% and 72% during the aforementioned time frame, those of high-end premium and super-premium shot up by 292% and 706%, respectively.

And spirit producers are betting big that the current wave continues. Last year, DeJoria released his remaining 70% of Patrón shares to Bacardi for $5.1bn, and Diageo secured Casamigos from Clooney for $1bn to stand beside its Don Julio brand acquired from Jose Cuervo in 2014.

With my head spinning from all the stats, I needed a drink…or more. And I needed clarification and historical perspective to make sense of it all. Fortunately, when at our resort South of the Border, Leah and I were introduced to Socrates, our waiter at Vidanta’s La Cantina on the Riviera Maya, who was eager to share information about his culture, and the connection between tequila and Guadalajara, his family’s home for the past 200 years.

mixing worm salt

Ordinarily I’d order a margarita before my meal, like so many times before…

margarita

but on this night, Socrates offered me a turn at the tasting table…

smooth fire (2)

and a briefing on the distillation process of tequila and its significance to the Mexican economy.

“Tequila has been produced in Mexico since 1726, but mezcal has been distilled by the Toltecs in clay pots for special ceremonies since the year 600. My family has been growing blue agave and producing spirits before my abuelo was walking,” stated Socrates, “so it is my honor to present you with our wonderful heritage and the drink of my people tonight.”

He continued, “Tequila is a very special drink that requires lots of patience–from the ten years the agave tequilana plant grows to maturity in the sandy hills of my country–until it is harvested. Once all the leaves are stripped from the agave plant, the piña is roasted, and the juice is released by running the tahona over the piña. This is true for all the varieties of tequila you will sample tonight.”

“What makes it clear and what makes it golden-colored?” I asked.

“Ah, that is all about the aging,” replied Socrates. “Silver tequila or blanco is tequila in the purest form with the most natural taste after the distilling process–a little bit of sweet with a taste of citrus and pepper. It is preferred when making margaritas.

“And the golden color?…” I reiterated.

“That is the color from the barrels to age the tequila. Usually 6 months resting in an oak barrel, sometimes already flavored from bourbon or wine, and we call it tequila reposado. The taste is a balance between the agave and the wood–more smooth with hints of caramel and spice,” Socrates continued.

“But for me, the real tequila is the sipping tequila called tequila añejo. This is tequila aged for at least one year in the barrel, which now darkens the tequila to an amber color. It is very smooth like fine wine or whisky, and is to be enjoyed at room temperature,” he concluded.

I pointed to the tequila table. “But there are bottles that are marked ultra and extra añejo. What about them?”

“That’s the newest tequila category that’s been added since 2006,” remarked Socrates. “It refers to tequila that’s been aged more than 3 years. So it tends to be darker still, unless the color has been filtered out, and looking like a blanco. But what’s left behind is tequila that is incredibly smooth and complex and rich, with very little alcohol taste.”

“How rich?” I asked.

“This tequila can cost over $300 a bottle,” he exclaimed.

Dinner was served–chicken fajitas for Leah…

chicken frajitas

and lobster tacos for me.

lobster tacos (2)

The food was delicious, but the tequila…

sipping tequila.jpg

OMG!…and worth every peso!!

The Other Side of Cozumel, Part Dos

You may recall from The Other Side of Cozumel that sometimes vacations don’t always turn out as expected. However, since my first taste of Mexico in 1975, subsequent trips south of the border were much more enjoyable and fulfilling. I returned again and again to celebrate the culture and bask in the balmy weather. I ate my fill of fresh fish, tacos and tamales, and always managed to melt my stress away with the help of good tequila.

My status improved in 1988 when I earned my diver certification at a casual Playa del Carmen resort, and thereafter, got spoiled enjoying the drift dives in Cozumel along Santa Rosa wall, or deep diving Devil’s Throat in Punta Sur, or floating through the aquarium of sea-life that is Palancar Reef.

Past Mexican vacations have been spent exploring neighboring hotspots in the Quintana Roo vicinity:

Holbox to the North …

Holbox tour

Holbox beach

Chaccoben to the South…

Chaccoben temple @ Costa Maya

and Tulum in between…

The Castle ruin

Tulum coastline

But the one thing I never got around to doing over the past 45 years was explore the eastern shore of Cozumel. Not that I was avoiding the prospect; it’s that the opportunity never presented itself…until lately.

Rather than rent scooters for the day–which Leah would have never agreed to–I rented a modest Nissan sedan, and the two of us made a day of it.

We started out in Centro by the Iglesia de San Miguel, a charming Catholic parish…

San Miguel stained glass (3)

that always draws a queue of cruise ship passengers on shore excursion,

San Miguel (2)

to fill out laborious paperwork at a tucked-away Thrifty satelite office across the way, but that was the medicine we were willing to swallow to save nearly 60% from the rental fee quoted by our hotel concessionaire. From there it was a race to escape 1.5 miles of pedestrian madness between the Ferry Pier and the International Pier Cruise Terminal.

As we left city life behind, the jungle returned with thickets of mangroves and saw palmetto. Occasional glimpses of coastline were visible through a string of scattered beach club parking lots that offered access to rows and rows of lounge chairs, palapas, inflatable water slides, and cocktails for all the cruisers fresh from duty-free shopping or the San Miguel Church tour.

We settled on Playa Palancar for its no-fee beach access, tasty tacos and snorkeling activity. Unfortunately, the fish had reservations at a different beach club at the time, so we were forced to relax before moving on to the southern tip of the island, and a stop at the Rasta Bar at Punta Sur…

reggae beach bar

for views of the ocean,

rasta's beach club chairs1

some old-time religion,

jamaican jesus

and window shopping…

rasta's

for Mayan medalians.

masks and medalions

Back in the car, we continued around the horn to the backside of the island…

cozumel map

until we reached Playa San Martin, a cozy outpost with a sparse sandy beach…

wild beach

colorful palapas,

banos (2)

backdoor boutique

and a population of lazy iguanas.

iguana king

blue iguana

iguana (2)

The two-lane road continued North to an island mid-point, where we reached the Transversal crossroad that transported us back to the population center, dodging scooters, trucks and taxis all the way to the leeward side hotels…

north zone sunset

where high above the rooflines,

door to the rooftop

I was just in time for the evening floor show.

sunset (2)

 

 

Ancient Light

The day in St. Augustine started out dreary, with passing drizzle and smoky cloud cover, but with the polar vortex finally loosening its grip on the Midwest, and the California coastline bracing for epic rain and mud, the local weather seemed well within the bounds of “I can’t complain” conditions for a Florida weekend.

Nevertheless, taking a chance on an outdoor activity seemed risky. So Leah and I hedged our bets and we traveled to St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, where $12.95 will buy a St. Johns County resident general admission for one year. We figured that we could always duck the rain…

Parabolic view

by browsing the Keeper’s house,

containers

and following the marble tiles to the landing anchorage.

approach

Then it’s 219 steps to the top.

signs 2 (2)

Congress authorized new construction in 1870 to replace the fading “Old Spanish Watchtower” by the shoreline, that’s evolved since the late 1500’s.

$100,000 funded three years of construction.

signs 1 (2)

Tourists have been climbing the corkscrew stairs since 1910. The Philadelphia iron works…

stair risers

hug the walls of the 165 foot Alabama brick structure,

signs 3 (2)

occasionally interrupted by keyhole glimpses of life…

looking out.jpg

until the stairs reach an opening…

looking up

to a 360-degree lookout… 

lighthouse view2 (3)

that’s capped by 370 hand-cut glass prisms arranged in a beehive shape towering twelve feet tall and six feet in diameter.

difracted fresnel

The original lens was restored in 1992 because of vandals, 

The Fresnel Lens (2)

and re-lit by a 1000-watt bulb the following year.

difraction close-up (2)

Today, the tower represents the oldest brick structure in St. Augustine, and shines a bright light on a community that preserves its heritage, protects through its presence, and invests in its future.

lighthouse overview

 

 

The Other Side of Cozumel

My first Mexican vacation dates back to June 1975, when Mayan archeology was en vogue among discovery buffs and adventure seekers. Notwithstanding the primitive infrastructure and limited tourist facilities throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, the ruins of Chichen Itza and Uxmal were touted as the new off-the-beaten-path destinations worthy of exploring. And sleepy Cozumel was quickly becoming a lightning rod for scuba enthusiasts after Calypso dropped anchor atop the world’s second largest reef system mapped by Jacque Cousteau in 1961.

My unforgettable honeymoon exploits began with a flight to colonial Merida. After a few days roaming the Yucatan capital, my travel agent provided a wretched VW bug for cruising the crude roadways through the jungle to explore the nearby Mayan pyramids. Unfortunately, car shocks were not an available option, so cruising in the beetle became a bone-bruising experience.

The drive took Ros and me from ruin to ruin to Quintana Roo, with a proposed route down the coastline to Akumal’s picturesque Yal-ku lagoon and neighboring cenotes. But not before the bug broke down at noon on the border of a carved out town with a hard-packed dirt road reserved for payloaders and dump trucks. If only I could find a phone to notify the local agency in Merida…but not so fast.

In what was to later become Cancun City, there were only two available telephones in town: one belonged to the military police, and the other was located inside an established cantina, where we waited our turn behind a long line of contractors from Mexico City who had queued up to call home for supplies and payroll.

As luck would have it, my bride and I were befriended by the manager of the Sheraton Hotel–the very first hotelier to arrive on the Cancun scene–who overheard our predicament and offered to advocate on our behalf. Having identified himself as the only bilingual person in the vicinity, I thought I had discovered El Dorado.

We shared a meal of tamales and cervezas, and counted the electronic chimes gonging from the newly erected church tower, as day turned into night-for-day, with crews working around the clock in the hope of meeting an insurmountable deadline. I can’t remember if it was four or five or forever hours, but within that time frame our GM had located and negotiated with a local Mayan mechanic who had limited experience repairing diesel lawnmowers, and was willing to diagnose our car trouble on the spot.

After Fabio rebuilt our carburetor for $75, we were on our way, albeit ten hours behind schedule, but secure in knowing that a full moon would help light our way as we rumbled South to our next few stops.

At the end of our first week on the mainland, we reached a charming fishing village known as Playa del Carmen where we ferried across to Cozumel for what was to be the relaxing second half of our honeymoon. A ride through roiling seas did little for our confidence and constitution.

We checked into Cozumel’s exclusive El Presidente Hotel (because it was the one and only hotel up and running at the time). And without a minute wasted, we hopped on a rental scooter to discover our surroundings. Dressed only in swimsuits and sun protection, we set a course for Centro (town) on our 50cc moped.

With the sun on our faces and sea-breeze at our backs, Ros hung on for dear life as we cruised like Easy Riders for all of ten minutes…in the wrong direction. While I had asked the desk clerk for directions in Spanglish, his quick response in Spanish only left me guessing if I should make a left or right turn at the hotel entrance. So I made a left, and followed the road for five miles.

I still remember the event clearly. There was no warning, no barrier–only a road…then no road–just a drop-off of sand and rocks. A split second reflex to squeeze the brakes to avoid a wipeout was not without consequences. I pictured us in a time-lapsed, slow motion free-fall–my wife hurdling over the handlebars in a tuck position, and me rolling with the bike until it came to a stop in a black gravel pile.

My ears were ringing, making it hard to figure if the groans were coming from Ros or me. Instinctively, I kicked the back wheel off my bloody leg and tried to stand until I realized that my Technicolor world had been replaced by overlapping layers of yellow, magenta, and cyan–ever so slightly out of registration: clear signs of a concussion that I didn’t realize at the time, but none of that mattered at the moment.

My mission, compelled by a sense of urgency (and driven by excessive amounts of adrenalin) was to rescue my wife, who was presently lying beside the broken road, curled into a fetal position and sobbing. Fortunately, her condition looked worse than she felt. We managed to prop each other up, and limp back to the scooter to assess the damage.

We were in the middle of nowhere with a twisted bike frame and no means of calling for help. Our options were few and far between. Collectively, we mustered our strength and pushed the scooter back to El Presidente, where we both collapsed from heat exhaustion and shock. The concierge immediately summoned a doctor from Playa.

Meanwhile, two bellmen carted us to our room in a luggage carrier, where we were met by two housekeepers with wet towels, who oh-so-gently wiped down our blood-stained arms and legs. As we lay in bed waiting for medical assistance, the maids and bellmen–not knowing what else to do for us in our serious state–determined that fanning us would make us feel better, so each took turns waving a bath sheet from the foot of our bed until the doctor arrived.

Fortunately, our diagnosis was better than expected: our limbs and torso wounds were only superficial–analogous to second-degree burns; and my concussion was considered mild. As the doctor cleaned and bandaged us, he recounted that 90% of all accidents on Cozumel were scooter-related. As if to cheer us up, he considered us lucky that our injuries were far less serious than others he’s treated. True, but even so, the treatment seemed cruel and unfair.

Here we were, stranded on a quiet Caribbean island during our honeymoon, surrounded by clear turquoise waters in the thick of summer, and the doctor advised us against swimming for fear of infection. Instead, we were both confined to bed rest with no possible chance of intimacy. And to make matters worse, I was ordered to refrain from alcohol, except for tending to our cuts and scrapes.

For sure, those were the hardest seven days I ever spent in bed.

Stay tuned for Part 2 down the road.

Otto’s Collections

The former Alcazar Hotel in St. Augustine, FL was originally built by Henry Flagler in 1888…

The Alcazar from the Ponce (2)

as an adjunct to the Hotel Ponce de Leon (see The Poshest Campus in America) to accommodate overflow patronage and provide recreational facilities to his guests. Built in the style of Spanish Renaissance Revival with Moorish overtones, the Alcazar was patterned after its famed royal palace namesake in Seville, Spain.

tower

The Alcazar enjoyed a storied history, hosting society’s gentry throughout the winter months, and at one time housing the world’s largest indoor swimming pool…

bathing-pool-casino_0 (3)

until the Great Depression forced the hotel to shutter its doors in 1930. The Alcazar remained uninhabited for the next seventeen years, and sunk into ruin.

Enter Otto C. Lightner, a Chicago editor and publisher who purchased the property in 1947 for $150,000…

portrait

and began an extensive restoration campaign in anticipation of moving his massive Victorian era arts collection from Chicago into a proper facility worthy of its size and stature.

formal portrait

Today, this National Register Historic Landmark features an elaborate courtyard with a stone arch bridge…

gardens

over a koi pond.

koi

koi frontal

The first floor of the museum simulates a Victorian street emporium showcasing shop front window displays of assorted paraphernalia,

eggs

pocket watches

porcelin-heads.jpg

shave-mugs-3.jpg

spectacles

spoons

toys

beer steins1

Industrial Arts inventions,

toasters

mechanized music machines,

Victrola speaker

and curiosities, like an Egyptian mummy and an aboriginal shrunken head.

shrunken head (2)

The second floor features the remnants of Alcazar’s Turkish and Russian baths…

bath plumbing

offering vaulted views across the courtyard.

circle window

Access doors to the baths stand at opposing sides the gallery vesibule.

2nd floor

Continuing on, the gallery boasts a prodigious collection of Victorian cut glass beneath a Tiffany chandelier,

glassware

The third floor exhibits fine furniture,

chairs and horn table (2)

relevant fine art oil paintings from the Renaissance,

Cimon and Pero.jpg

and additional collections, from match boxes…

matchboxes

to cigar bands.

cigar bands1

The Lightner Museum represents Otto C. Lightner’s legacy of collecting.

He endowed his collection to the city of St. Augustine upon his death in 1950, and continues to keep a close eye on his Chicago treasures from the courtyard, where his remains are buried.

Trump’s Folly

Photo credit: (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
A political song parody…
It’s a catchy tune, so why not sing along!
(Intro)
Critics are falling on my head,

From too much rain to bother honoring the dead.
I don’t give a shit.
Those…NATO allies that I dread–

keep me bawlin’…

So I just did me some talking to my sons.
And I said, “I didn’t like the way Dems got things done–
Winning at the polls.
Those…losses are falling on my head,

they keep fallin’…”

But there’s one thing…I know.
The Blues they sent to beat me
Just defeat me.

It won’t be long,
Subpoenas now step up to greet me.

(interlude)

Democrats keep falling on my head.
But that doesn’t mean the House will soon be turning Red.
Winning’s not for me,
‘Cause, I’m never gonna stop the wave with complaining.
I’ll cop a plea.
It terrifies me.

(interlude)

It won’t be long ’till prison opens up to greet me.

Bad vibes keep falling on my head.
But that’s just karma coming ‘round on me, I dread…
Mueller’s got the key.
‘Cause, I’m never gonna stop the probe by complaining.
I’ll drop a tweet,

’cause I’m President Cheat!

Thanks to Original Songwriters: Burt Bacharach / Hal David

Southern Fortitude

It was a bad day for Col. Charles Olmstead and the Confederate Army on April 10, 1862, when Capt. Quincy Gillmore’s Union artillery attacked Fort Pulaski from the northwest beachhead of Tybee Island, forcing its surrender thirty hours later,

direction dial

and proving that a seemingly invincible coastal fortification that required 25 million bricks, 18 years, and $1 million to build could never catch up to evolving weapons technology.

Overview

Even 7½-inch-thick mortar walls were insufficient to protect the Fort’s garrison from the explosive bombardment of Gillmore’s experimental rifled cannon fire from one mile away.

gate

Construction on Fort Pulaski began in 1829 as part of the Third System–in defense of Savannah’s 20,000 citizens and dynamic seaport–adopted by President Madison in response to the War of 1812.

Gorge Wall

With Fort Sumter under Confederate control by Christmas, 1860, Gov. Joseph Brown ordered state militia to seize Fort Pulaski–still unoccupied by Federal troops–on January 3, 1861…

Demilune

…and transferred ownership to the Confederacy following Georgia’s succession on January 19, 1861.

the yard

It was a controversial gambit that ultimately escalated into eleven States joining the Confederacy–spiraling the South into Civil War by April 12, 1861.

spiral stairs