Monday, May 31, 2010

May 31 - Chester

I had heard from several people (and read in a couple of guide books) that Chester, which is not too far from here, has the only complete town wall standing in England, and a lovely Norman Cathedral to boot, so I booked tickets for a day trip to Chester and hoped for minimal rain. It threatened rain when I got up, and actually sprinkled a bit on me as I walked to the train station, but it cleared later, then clouded, etc. all day long - quite a nice day, actually. Chester is a pretty town for certain, and the town wall is impressive - but it is "complete" only with a stretch of the imagination. Two sections were knocked down for the railroad, and bridges over the railroad rebuilt with stone railing from the old wall, and some of the wall is not much above street level - I don't think it's as impressive as York, but it is definitely interesting, and I enjoyed walking around it.
It was also interesting to tour the Church of St. John the Baptist, which housed the cathedral for several hundred years, and has some fascinating and very romantic ruins from the collapse of part of the old church in the late 19th century. The current Chester Cathedral, a fine example of Norman architecture, is also very interesting. Both churches have very high vaulted ceilings, massive pillars, and lovely stained glass windows, some quite modern. In the current cathedral, there are also a large number of carved wooden seats, and many of the regular pews also have wood carvings, quite nice wood carvings, but many of them seem (to my untrained eye) rather secular for carvings on a pew, but perhaps I am missing something. I took quite a few pictures of them, because they are so interesting. I also took a picture of an interesting modern sculpture in the rectory garden.
It was a great day and very relaxing. The old part of Chester is quite beautiful, and I enjoyed walking around the wall and just loafing around town for a while.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

May 28, Darwin's House and Covent Garden

Yesterday I had a very productive day; managed to finish the outline for a book proposal and get much of the first chapter done; this morning I finished the first chapter and sent the whole package to my editor to see if it is about what she had in mind. Then I headed for the train station - and immediately ran into a little hitch. The bike front tire, fixed just a week ago, is flat again. Fortunately Joy was heading out to the gymn so she gave me a lift to the station.

A second minor hitch: The bus company web page said there is a bus from Orpington to Down House (where Charles Darwin lived most of his life) every 20 minutes, but it was actually over an hour - who knows when the bus company last updated their web page. Once I got there, it was very nice. Not impressive in the way of the castles and monuments I have been visiting, but still nice to walk through the rooms where Darwin lived and did his work. I couldn't figure out if there was a no photos prohibition - there probably was since no-one else was snapping pictures, but I snapped a couple of the study where he wrote Origin of Species and several other books that would have made his reputation even without that book, and one of the billiards room, with the desk where he did much of his correspondence. They had very good displays, nothing new if you have recently read a good bio of Darwin, as I have, but clear and well presented. One thing I did find new and fascinating - they had put together a flip-card display showing the evolution of whales over the past 55 million years (based on fossile evidence). It was also enjoyable to walk on the "gravel walk," the long garden walk where he did much of his thinking. It would have been more enjoyable but there were faorly large crowds, which made it difficult to get into an appropriately reflective mood. Over lunch I met a charming English couple who live in Orpington and drivve out there just for lunch once a week; we had a great conversation and they kindly drove me back to the train station.

Their lift got me back into London quite a bit earlier than I really needed, so after I dropped by thed ticket office to pick up my ballet and opera tickets, I wandered around Covent Gardens a bit - it is interesting, although not a place I necessarily want to go often. There was a very indifferent street performer, a gymnast / juggler who managed to keep 6 balls in the air for about 45 seconds, and did ten pushups on his thumb. He promised for a finale to do a sideways flip over a chain held 5 feet above a 14 year old boy lying on the pavement, but his audience manner was so incredibly irritating that I left before he got around to it. To state the obvious, I have seen better!

With an hour to kill before my dinner reservation, I sat down at a sidewalk cafe on Wellington Street, one block away from Bow Street and the opera house, to have a cappuccino and begin writing this blog. I had decided a couple of weeks ago just to eat where I had dinner with Lynne before we saw Warhorse, partly because I knew how to get there and it's very close to the opera house (I didn't know that I wouldn't be rushed for time) and partly because I enjoyed the dinner I had there.

Dinner was quite good - baked halibut in a sauce, oven roast potatoes and asparagus. They had an interesting dessert, mango with raspberry ice cream, but the dinner filled me up too much so I reluctantly passed on it.

The Royal opera house is quite plush - seats more comfortable than anything in Portland, and they actually have room for my knees, plus vents under every seat so there is at least a bit of fresh air. The Royal Ballet performed three pieces, the first two to modern music and the third to a Bizet symphony. The dancers are of course superb. The first piece, Chroma, was set to music by Joby Talbot and Jack White III, choreographed by Wayne MacGregor (none of these names mean anything to me either.) I liked it by far best of the three. Costumes were minimalist, a soft fabric rather like short nightgowns that didn't get in the way of the movements or distract in anyway. Choreography was very lyrical, almost romantic, with lots of influence from modern dance; at times it was quite enchanting. The second piece, Tryst, was set to music by James MacMillan, choreography by Christopher Wheeldon. This piece was more classical in tone, but still with a lot of modern dance influence. The choreography was highly stylized, almost machine-like at times. Although there were some very fluid, lyrical moments it generally seemed, compared to the first piece, almost soulless. I enjoyed it, but kept losing the thead - I don't think it lacked coherence so much as that it failed to maintain attention. The third piece, Symphony in C, was set to the piece by that name by Bizet, choreography by Balanchine. It was the most classical of the three, danced in tutus and en pointe, very lyrical and romantic. I liked it a lot, but the first piece was still the best of the lot for me. During the first intermission I asked the usher about the vents, and we struck up a conversation which we resumed at the second intermission. She was a nice, interesting person, aspiring actress, very enjoyable to talk with.

It was an altogether satisfying day, very relaxing, altogether successful. I feel quite rested up and ready to work through much of the rest of what promises to be a rainy weekend.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

May 23 last day in Slovenia

Because I had so much difficulty figuring out bus schedules I had given up the possibility of another trip to the mountains, but Metka sent me the time tables I needed, and I realized I could catch a 7 a.m. bus that would get me to Lake Bohinj, near Lake Bled, so I did that. When I got off the bus, a computer scientist (Vietnamese but currently teaching in Hungary, also in Ljubljana for academic purposes) also got off. Tuan said he was interested in the tram to the canyon rim, and I said I wanted to walk on up to see the famous waterfall; he gamely went along with me. He is a very nice person and interesting to talk with, so we had a pleasant walk, 5 km. to the Savica Waterfall. When we reached the parking lot and paid our admission there were two huge tour groups assembling, which always makes me a bit nervous. Tuan suggested I go on ahead, since he expected to stop quite often to mess around taking photographs, then we could meet back at the coffee shop (I wanted a snack of some sort), so I did - but in the event he reached the top only a few minutes after I did.
The waterfall really is spectacular; I have a couple of pictures on the photoblog. It emerges from behind a rocky promontory a little way up the base of a sheer cliff; unfortunately you cannot get to any location from which you can see the hole in the rock from which he water emerges, but what you can see is quite spectacular. Back at the coffee shop I discovered that they sell no pastries, which rather surprised me, so I had to settle for a granola bar with my coffee, and an ice cream bar to eat as we walked back along the road toward the tram. I also bought 1/3 kg of local cheese from a farmer who was setting up shop in the parking lot - it is swiss style, quite good.
We reached the tram just before it was about to leave, and after learning that the trail (road actually) back down is only 8 km (for a descent of over 1500 meters), decided to buy only a one way ticket and walk back down. The tram ride itself was quite spectacular as we rose up high enough to see the snow-covered peaks above the walls of the canyon. At the top we spent ten minutes or so taking in the view and taking pictures (some of them are on my photoblog). Then we bought beers and I bought a sandwich (I had forgotten the cheese in my backpack) and we settled down for lunch. By the time we had finished lunch, it was threatening rain, and we could see it raining way down the valley toward Bled, so Tuan wasn't sure he wanted to walk down. But after talking it over for a while we decided to go for it anyway.
The way down is a forest-service type road, very steep for about half the way, covered in gravel and rocks as large as soft-balls, that make for very tricky walking. I should mention Tuan was wearing street shoes, not at all optimal for that type of walking. It started raining, lightly, but enough that I put the rain fly on my day pack. We crossed several snow-fields, none deeper than a foot or so and pretty easy walking actually. The view was spectacular, lush green woods with occasional bits of the rock walls opposite showing through. The walking was extremely difficult for the most part but otherwise it was a very pleasant hike, and by the time we got down, Tuan and I were hitting it off quite well. We stopped at the tram station and bought a couple of beers, part of which we drank there on the patio, and part of which we carried down to the bus stop with us. It started raining again about the time we reached the bus stop shelter, but we only had to wait about 5 minutes. Within a half hour the rain had quite again and by the time we were halfway back to Ljubljana the skies were about half clear. It was a great day in the woods - and the lake really is quite lovely; one could enjoyable spend several days there I think.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

May 22 Side trip to Slovenia

Thanks to an invitation from Metka Kuhar, a colleague at the University of Ljubljana, I had a chance to take a side trip to another part of the world I had never visited. The lecture, on metaphor, of course, went well, and was a lot of fun. Having a very long lunch with some of Metkas colleagues was also quite interesting. After that one day of work, the rest of the weekend, Friday through Sunday, was open for some sight-seeing. Renting a car was not a very good option, since I had to be at the airport Monday morning before the rental agencies open, and the ones downtown are not open on Sunday. That left me to deal with train and bus information.
Metka proviided me with the URL for the bus company's on-line information service, along with a stack of brochures and printouts about interesting things to see and do in Slovenia. I began by leafing through the brochures and ruling out the things not served by public transportation, hikes above the spring snow line, and things far enough away that they would take more than a two or three hour bus or train ride to reach. Then I started looking up schedules and figuring out what I could reasonably hope to do. I immediately ran into one source of recurrent frustration: The university's quarters for visitors, part of graduate residence, has wireless set up in such a way that you need not only the key but also an account name and password, and if you haven't actually transmitted anything for about 5 minutes, it automatically logs you out so you have to log in again. While trying to figure out bus timetables, etc., it is easy to be apparently inactive for five minutes - especially Slovenian schedules, which are set up in such a way that you have to scroll through every town in the country for both your origin and your destination. So deciding on what to visit and working out when to leave to get there turned out to be quite frustrating and time-consuming. However, I finally decided on trips for Friday and Saturday - I decided I would have to work Sunday out after I got home on Friday or Saturday.
On Friday I got up early and walked to the bus station, about a 2 block walk. After an hour and a half ride, I reached the little village of Divaca, near Skocjan Cave. The information in the tourist information, both on-line and in the printed brochures, was confusing; it said that there was a 45 minute walk through the woods to the cave entrance, and in the spring tours are given at 10 and 1:30. Since the bus arrives at 9:30, there is an obvious problem. I and two others on the bus who were headed for the cave asked 2 or 3 people how to get there and they all said the shuttle-bus, which leaves at 10! None of them seemed to see why that was a problem. Turns out they wait the tour for the shuttle-bus, so the tour doesn't actually start at 10, it starts about 10:10.
I was disappointed - the rules include no photography inside the cave. Other members of the group ignored that inconvenient rule, and had I brought the camera that is better in low light I probably also would have. That was the only aspect of the visit that was at all disappointing. Skocjan Cave is incredible. The main attraction is reached via a series of chambers that would be quite spectacular in themselves, with stalactites and stalagmites but also many other interesting formations, including thin little calcium curtains and several flat, thin slabs of rock that were perched on other, sometimes smaller rocks. As water dripped on them, calcite built up into a mound, and stalactites had formed around the edges so that they looked like huge porcini mushrooms.
After walking through several of these chambers, we began to hear the roar of a river, the waterfall we had been promised, echoing through the passages. As we passed though yet another domed chamber (100 feet and more above our heads), the water grew louder and louder - but nothing prepared us for the actuality of the underground river. In addition to its huge domed chambers, the cave has a gorge running through the center, a split in the rock that is over 100 meters deep, and perhaps 15 or 20 meters wide, with absolutely vertical walls into which the park service has cut paths and stairs (in many cases they have instead built walkways projecting out over the chasm). The waterfall was visible as a silvery glow near one end of the chasm, which curves around so that it enters toward you and exits to your left. The deep narrow gorge complete with waterfall and rapids would be enough in themselves, but there is much more to this part of the cave. The cave periodically floods, and about once in 100 years it fills to the top with rushing, churning water. Where the water turns the sharp bend in the chasm, it forms vortexes around the stalactites and stalagmites, and the circular rush of water erodes them both into spirals and into other very unusual shapes.
The path crosses a bridge over the chasm, winds around the far side, and finally turns upward along a side passage toward the exit, which passes through a huge chamber that has been opened by a collapse to leave a doorway like the entry to some magnificent palace. Beyond the doorway is a huge sink-hole, the remains of a very large collapsed chamber that has several other chambers opening into it - later, on a hike around this sink hole I was able to see and photograph several of them. In the summer there is a great-looking path that leads off around and up the side of this sink-hole, but it is blocked off in winter and spring (probably for safety reasons. The path we took leads along the sheer side of the sink hole, across another opening into the cave, through which water (apparently the same stream) emerges, to a funicular that takes visitors to the top.
There is another, bigger but more touristy, cave nearby that I had thought to visit, but the bus I expected did not come and I ended up waiting an hour and a half for another bus, which I just took back into town. Even though all I did was visit the one cave and walk through the woods back to Divaca, it was a great day. I capped it off by going to a restaurant beside the river downtown and having pork tenderloins with morels.
This morning I got up early again, and took a bus to the lakeside town of Bled. All week the forecast has been saying the weekend would be sunny and mid 70s - but this morning it said chance of rain, and indeed as we neared Bled there was obvious heavy rain in the foothills above the town, and the streets were wet from recent rain. I began the day by setting out for Vintgar Gorge, 2.5 km away. In Bled, the signs were not very good and I had a hard time finding the way out of town, but as soon as you reach the outskirts, the signs are abundant and clear. It is a nice walk through suburbs and farmland, with views of the spectacular mountains and so-green forests and fields all around. Slovenia is entirely mountainous, only 10% is cultivated, and the rest is lush forest. It is quite lovely.
I reached the parking lot at the entrance to the National Park just behind a tour bus, so followed at least 30 people through the ticket booth and entry gate. I hurried to get past them and on down the trail beyond the sound of their gabbing, had to stop to put the rain fly on my day pack when the light drip turned to light rain, then began to simply enjoy the walk. The gorge is like many I've seen in the U.S., but extreme in its narrowness, steep walls, and general impassability. The Slovenia Park Service (or somebody) has dealt with the impassability by building a combination of board walks and cantilevered walkways the full length of the narrow part of the gorge, which affords the opportunity to experience the gorge (it could not possibly be done on foot otherwise - the water is too deep and swift even to think of wading. A really good whitewater kayaker could probably negotiate it, but my sense was that it is rather narrow in several passages for a raft. It would be an exciting ride.) When I reached the end, I turned around and walked back, much slower than I had walked down in the first place, soaking in the enchantment of the place. Fortunately pictures were allowed here and I have uploaded a sampling.
Back in Bled I stopped for lunch, then set out to walk the 7 km. trail around the lake. The lake is noted for several features, principally the castle atop a sheer-sided promontory near the center of town and a church built on a small island near the far end of the lake. I was able to get several really nice pictures of bot of these, and also, as the clouds finally began to lift, a few pictures of the mountains in the background. To get a sense of what Bled is like, think of McCall Idaho with the White Clouds in the background and a castle on the shore. It was a great outing and a really nice day.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

May 15, Portchester Castle

As I expected, by Friday evening I was beginning to feel a bit too workaholic; fortunately I had already booked train tickets to Portchester, where Portchester Castle is located, right on the edge of the estuary of one of England's most important harbors, long the hub of Britain's naval power. The original walls were built by the Romans, on the site of even older fortifications, and most of the original Roman wall still stands. The castle was added to and expanded several times, beginning in the 11th century and ending with major renovations in the 15th century; not long after, the castle became militarily superfluous because of changes in ship design, armaments, and naval warfare. Henry II and Richard II both undertook major renovations and spent substantial time here; the last major military use of the castle was for staging Henry V's successful foray into France. Lots of history in this place.
Subsequent to its military obsolescence the castle was used as a prison for a while, then fell into disrepair until its most recent owners recognized its historical importance and began the process of restoration and preservation before ultimately turning it over to the British government.
The train trip there involved changing to the underground at Euston Station then back to a regular train at Waterloo Station; it was a comfortable ride through rolling green countryside with lot of small wooded areas here and there. I spent over two hours wandering the grounds, climbing the keep, taking pictures of the romantic ruins, and generally having a very nice day of it.

Monday, May 10, 2010

May 10 side trip to Chipping Norton

I spent most of a pretty cool and rainy weekend working on a couple pieces of the empathy project; with a forecast of better weather for today I set out early on a bus for Chipping Norton, in the Cotswolds between Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon. It remains quite cool - there was heavy frost on the grass near the canal this morning - but it really was a nice day.
Chipping Norton is a pretty little town to stroll through and the Cotswolds, a country of rolling hills and broad vistas, are quite beautiful, although not in a way that photographs very well. The path I followed went throug several lush fields, along a narrow paved road, and along some gravel roads. There were a few other people out walking the same path but we were so widely separated that they did not interfere at all with the solitude. I chose this walk because it has an interesting destination, a set of 4500 year old stones moved into a circle, a single standing stone, and one remaining burial chamber, fallen in. The legends surrounding these stones are on placards I photographed and uploaded onto the photo blog - they're mostly fanciful nonsense so I won't repeat them here. Near the stones is a 500 year old church made of Cotswold stone, which I photographed and uploaded.
I arrived at the stone circle just behind a 40ish woman, who proceeded to walk in a circle just inside the stones twice, hardly looking at the stones as she did. There is a path worn so apparently that is the thing to do, although two seems an odd number - seven, twelve, or one hundred are more common. People go kind of nuts over the druid related stuff - none of the hotels near Stonehenge will rent rooms at all during the three days surrounding the summer solstice.
I walked back through more fields, got into town pretty hungry so stopped in at an old hotel pub to get lunch. I had one of their specials, liver and onions in a sauce that looked like it might have been made with a little porter, very good. Then I had a rhubarb dessert - rhubarb ginger pie. It was more like a cobbler, with a bread-like crust on top, shortbread I guess. It was delicious with the thin slices of fresh ginger in it - I would never have thought of that but it worked! They suggested custard (runny, in England) on top of it; I'm glad I didn't have it, because the rhubarb was more delicately flavored than you might expect, and custard might have overwhelmed it.

It was a very pleasant outing, and left me nicely tired.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

May 2 London

May 1, London

It turns out there are trains every half hour between MK and London; I could have saved money by commuting to see the plays and visit some museums. The Jenkins Hotel where I'm staying isn't much for 95 pounds - $150; bed is okay, bathroom makes a phonebooth look roomy. If I come back into London I'll buy a day trip, $20 and it includes unlimited use of the underground. I ended up spending twice what I should have for the train trip - the pane of glass at the ticket window interferes with communication and I ended up with a day return - changed it to a weekend return in London, but didn't realize until the transaction was complete that it would have been cheaper just to buy a one-way back on Sunday. I have encounted some very helpful people in England, also some very unhelpful, and the two ticket agents were decidedly unhelpful.

After I checked in I walked to the Museum of Natural History - turns out, over 4 miles, a full hour walk. Fun but I wouldn't do it again. The museum was free admission; huge crowds, but they didn't interfere much. I only looked at 3 exhibits, beginning with the dinosaurs. They have scads of skeletons, which is interesting; they have also arranged displays, some of which (an animated Ty Rex straight from Jurassic Park) are for the kiddies. Others, like the computer simulations that show how they work out how the big beasts must have walked, got up, sat down, etc. are really great. I recommend it.

I next went to the Earth exhibit, which begins with an escalator that enters the center of the earth. It's one of the few pictures I took (for the most part, you can find better pictures than I would take in any encyclopedia, or all over on the web.) Great multi-media display about volcanos, glaciers, underwater volcanos, erosion, etc. Also an excellent exhibit. I was getting tired so stopped for tea and a chocolate muffin, then went on to the Darwin exhibit; focused on insects. Also very educational, not quite as exciting to me as the dinosaur exhibit, but well considered. I caught a bus about 2/3 of the way back to my hotel, lay down for a nap, then showered and changed for dinner and the play.

It is not much over a mile to Drury Lane and Covent Gardens, so I decided to walk again. Not a good decision; no sooner was I committed to walking than it started sprinkling. Gradually the sprinkle turned to a downpour - at least I had a portable umbrella, but my pant legs and shoes were soaked. Then I reached Covent Gardens, where I was supposed to meet Lynne for dinner, at PJ's Bistro. There are three Covent Gardens - metro stop, opera house, covered market. No-one had any idea where PJ's bistro is; several thought I was looking for "Pizza." I got at least three very confident but totally wrong sets of directions, walked around in driving rain for over a half hour, finally stumbled onto the place, where Lynne was waiting, also drenched. The bistro is good; I had a very nice grilled chicken breast with potatoes and pea pods, cooked perfectly.

The play, Warhorse, was spectacularly good. It is a simple story about a boy and his horse, except the horse gets requisitioned for the army at the beginning of WWII, the boy joins up later to try to find and save his horse, lots of trials, injuries, etc... It is told with a combination of top-notch acting, very imaginative full-size puppets, and folk music (solo and choral). The horse puppets were so well done that it frequently seemed the three people operating them were struggling to restrain the horse, rather than animating it. (It has as happy an ending as possible under the circumstances, by the way.) I was riveted throughout - so much so that I'm tempted to come back and see it again before I leave. I hope a version of it is put on in Portland.

One final adventure - still raining fairly hard when I got out - London has the same scarcity of street signs as the rest of England - hard time figuring out the way back to my hotel so ended up taking a cab. 8.8 pounds, about $13, to go a bit over a mile. London is an expensive place indeed.

May 2

It was still raining when I got up this morning, so I gave up the idea of a morning visit to the Tower of London, instead spent an hour uploading pictures of castles, had a leisurely breakfast, and walked to the British Museum, where the plan was to meet Eric and Sam, his partner. I had decided after talking with Lynne last night to see the exhibit of Renaissance drawings, but I nearly passed it up because the other exhibits were so wonderful. While waiting for Eric and Sam I started with an exhibit of artifacts from various traditional societies, including some excellent Eskimo artifacts and one small Easter Island statue. I ordinarily don't take many pictures in museums, because usually much better pictures are readily available, but there were several I couldn't resist, and I also decided I wanted to provide a sense of the neat things they are doing.

I moved throgh the North America and Central America exhibits, then went down stairs to a very large Africa exhibit. This included a large exhibit of masks and costumes for ceremonial use, which proved serendipitous, because it provided me an interesting background for the Lion King. I took a couple pictures of the most interesting ones, then entered the contemporary Africa area, which was even more intriguing. I was especially fascinated by several sculptures that were made from weapons turned in during a pacification campaign - I will upload a few of the photos I took of this exhibit. Every one of these sculptures was simply stunning.

I finally made text messaging contact with Eric and learned that their train line is being repaired so they would be delayed, and we decided just to meet at the theater. That turned into an adventure in its own right, and I finally ended up leaving his ticket at the ticket sales "Will Call" window - he made it to his seat with at least 2 minutes to spare.

Before leaving the museum, I paid the 12 pound fee for the drawings exhibit - I enjoyed it, but it was quite crowded, and it was difficult to really appreciate it. I would have enoyed it more if I had gone as soon as I arrived at the museum, before the crowds built up. Still, many of the drawings were very interesting, and they more or less took me back to the days when I was studying drawing.

The Lion King: It was really good, really polished, really opulent. Brilliant costumes, life-size puppets, masks, shadow puppets, kites, African music and dance, more modern music pieces heavily influenced by R&B, modern dance, ballet, aerial dance - all with great pace and timing, simply brilliant, a 2.5 hour riot of sensory experience. Every bit as good as Warhorse, although in a very different way - Disney-slick, very polished. My first reaction, halfway through the first act, included "heartless," but by the end of the first act I reversed that decision; it did not lack heart; it just had the edges softened, the shadows reduced, the light spots enhanced. I do think I'm glad I had not seen the movie - I cannot imagine a movie engaging the imagination enough to achieve the sense of magic delight that the play achieved. So much genius - the costume design, puppets, choreography, everything. It was a wonderful experience.

I think I will try to get into London for a couple more theater or dance experiences while I'm here - but I will do it by day trip from now on. Less expensive by far, and my room in MK is a lot more comfy than any hotel room I can afford.