Friday, February 24, 2017

Van Gogh and Tuschinski

July 15th, Van Gogh Museum and Tuschinski Theater,  Amsterdam

The included breakfast at our hotel is wonderful and we load our plates with slices of delicious Dutch cheeses, meats, fresh fruits and melt in your mouth pastries. The coffee is strong and ample and we are grateful that we do not need to search the streets of Amsterdam for the illusive, perfect cafe. During breakfast, I purchase online tickets to visit the Van Gogh Museum today and the Rijksmuseum, tomorrow. With prepaid tickets downloaded on my phone, we will be able to avoid the purchase ticket line and wait in just one queue at our scheduled entrance times. The morning is sunny and cool and we head to the train stop at the arena. Unfortunately, it is a 30 minute train ride into the medieval center of town. Row houses line the picturesque cobbled streets and we cross over several canals and pass through the red light district on our way to the museum district. The Red Light district is especially seedy and sad in the morning light. The gutters swim with slimy liquid and trash is everywhere. We notice several crews of morning sanitation workers doing their daily cleanup and a mini street sweeper car chugs along washing the gutters.

On our way to the museum district we stroll through the Jordaan district, popping into antique shops crammed with collectables. A window display of museum quality art nouveau jewelry catches our eye and the kind salesperson allows us to examine several of the enamel pieces. Two are Danish modern silver pins and although expensive, purchasing one of these is not beyond the realm of possibility. John and I, having just taken Merry-lee Rae’s cloisonné workshop inquire of an exquisite art nouveau gold and enamel neckpiece. It is not overpriced at $15,000 euros but beyond our means. Because of our interest in the Art Deco and Art Nouveau jewelry, the gallery curator tells us we must go see the Tuschinski Theatre, an architectural masterpiece of the Amsterdam School. We will stumble upon it later this afternoon and it is indeed fabulous!

Antique store in the Jordaan

Bicycles and Canals of Amsterdam

When we arrive at the museum district a crafts market is in full swing along the perimeter of a large park. There are about a hundred exhibitors and many of the booths have unique and indie style products. I am especially struck by a booth selling mini skirts made from vintage fabrics and I consider buying one for Alisha until I learn that the designer has an Etsy shop and that I will be able to show Alisha the fabric options and be certain of her size at a later time. Had the woman not had an Etsy shop, I would have bought one at the market and since I am writing this blog many months after our trip and have still not taken action to buy one, her having an Etsy shop was deterrent to me buying one at the time. This is an interesting concept to consider.

We enter the Van Gogh museum at our scheduled time, rent the audio guide headphones and spend nearly three hours at the exhibit. Many of the paintings are like visiting old friends but it is especially wonderful to see John so engaged in the art. Most interesting to me was a section about the psychiatric and medical state of Van Gogh and how his mental state affected his work and ultimately caused his death.

In the late afternoon we visit the Coster Diamond Factory. There a number of these diamond factories along one street and I surmise that all of them use the same formula. The factory is a sales tool for these diamond companies and I watch with fascination as the expert sales staff make quick evaluations to snare and pull in their catch of the tourist dollars. The expansive ‘factory’ is divided into many showrooms and most tourists follow a standard path, but there are tributaries where a more affluent or serious clientele are funneled into private rooms and treated to a red carpet experience; one on one with an expert sales person, high end diamonds and champagne. One exits through a low end gift shop where CZ’s are all that sparkles.

Marty, Coster Diamond Factory

Marty, Coster Diamond Factory

As we return through the park, there are several tents serving free vegetarian meals and we accept a bowl of vegetarian stew before realizing that it is a controversial event supporting an Israeli pro Palestinian movement.

Museum park district, Rijksmuseum
We walk back towards the medieval center of town and although we are not actually looking for the Tuschinski Theatre, we stumble across it and are jolted into the realization that this is the Theatre that we were told about earlier. The architecture is remarkable and alien; a unique version of Art Deco. We enter and examine the stained glass and interior details before starting our nightly routine of reading menus in search of the perfect restaurant.

Tuschinski Theater

Tuschinski Theater

Detail Tuschinski Theater

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Dubrovnik to Amsterdam

July 14th, Dubrovnik to Amsterdam

Our flight to Amsterdam leaves midafternoon so we spend the morning in Dubrovnik. We find a tourist cafe and order their set breakfast menu and our usual three cappuccinos. It’s almost impossible to find anyplace other than a tourist restaurant inside the old city and we endure the bad service and mediocre fare. Our waitress fauns over the locals at an adjoining table making the slight all the more obvious.

Marty on the 'Walk of Atonement' staircase. 

We visit the ‘Walk of Atonement’ staircase one last time and have the staircase all to ourselves. Dubrovnik is a port for many cruise lines and in an hour the city will be crawling with tourists.

Staircase leading to the upper plaza. 
View down the staircase

One of the many things that I love and admire about our son John is his good disposition and his interest in absolutely everything.  Our Dubrovnik cards are valid for another few hours so John suggests we go to the Cultural and Historical Museum before driving to the airport. The two floor museum is great; the exhibits span many centuries of Yugoslavian, Bosnian and Croatian history. Most poignant to me are the photos of the Croatian War of Independence, the civil war fought between 1991 and 1995.

We stroll back towards our guest room and car via the wide and fashionable shopping promenade. A mixture of couture and tourist shops line the ancient polished limestone marble street. I spot a sign to a coral factory and we dart up a narrow street to visit the workshop.

Marty in the coral workshop

Close up of Oxblood Coral Horns

Workbench at the Coral workshop
The showroom is on one side of the steep street and the workshop just across from it. Red oxblood Mediterranean coral horn is a deep sea coral, extremely hard and easily carved and fashioned into jewelry. For years, at world class museums around the world, I have admired remarkable religious chalices and renaissance and baroque jewelry featuring the red coral horns. Naturally the salesmen in the workshop hopes to sell me a piece of jewelry and they give us a long and careful explanation of both the harvesting process and the jewelry-making techniques. I want to purchase a small and ornate horn but the best ones have already been incorporated into jewelry designs and I have not researched the price per gram prior to my visit to this workshop so I leave with only photographs.

Goodbye view of  Dubrovnik
Art maneuvers our rental car out of the tight parking space and we merge into bumper to bumper traffic and search for the coastal road south to the Dubrovnik airport. The view of Dubrovnik behind us is postcard perfect and I reflect on the near perfect 24 hours we spent in there. Once again, we have managed to squeeze the most out of a short amount of time and I am ready to begin our next adventure in Amsterdam. We pass airport souvenir shops and I wonder if I should have purchased a Game of Thrones T-shirt. I am amused at the abandoned water bottles along the terminal windows of the airport security check.

Abandon water bottles at airport security
Last chance to buy Game of Throne souvenirs

Our plane lands in Amsterdam late afternoon and we stop at the airport tourist information bureau to purchase the three day I Amsterdam Card which gives us three days of unlimited train and metro rides plus discounted entrance to many of the museums. Art is very good at figuring out metro stops and schedules and we are quickly onboard a train towards the Arena district on the outskirts of Amsterdam where I have reserved a room for four nights.

Garett guest room in Dubrovnik
Luxurious Amsterdam Hotel

The hotel is modern and our room bright and quite luxurious especially in comparison to the guest room we stayed in last night. Unfortunately, John’s bed is more of a converted window seat but he takes this in stride and after quick showers we make the 30 minute train ride into the heart of Amsterdam. It is always exciting to be in a new city and Amsterdam is bustling tonight. We walk from our metro stop towards the Red Light district passing many cafes and bars and window shopping along the way. I have been to Amsterdam several times before and it comes as no surprise to me to see window displays of sex toys and drug paraphernalia along side of clothing boutiques and sex workers. Provocative woman stand in windows, advertising their wares. I sense that both Art and John feel slightly uncomfortable walking in this district with me but this is all a part of the adventure of travel.

Cool off with a Cannabis Drink

Sensi seeds for sale in Amsterdam

The lighted canals shimmer in the glow of the evening and we crisscross many canals as we get our bearings.

Amsterdam canals in the evening light 
We eventually settle on an Argentinian restaurant for dinner. The fare is mostly red meat, a change from much of what we have been eating on this trip. Art and John eat heartily but the chicken entree I choose is mediocre at best. Once again it is the red table wine that saves my meal.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Dubrovnik - A City fit for Queen Cersei

Wednesday, July 13th, Ston to Dubrovnik

Village of Ston, Ancient fortress wall

After cappuccinos and breakfast in ancient Ston and admiring Ston’s hillside castle wall from afar, we drive the final leg of the coast road toward Dubrovnik. The views from the road are breathtaking and we stop several times to take photos of the dramatic Adriatic Sea coastline.

Bridge into Dubrovnik

We cross a modern suspension bridge and enter the outskirts of Dubrovnik’s new city. We pull into old Dubrovnik shortly after 11:00 A.M. and as Art predicted, traffic is heavy and parking is challenging and expensive.  The first place that I inquire about accommodations is full and we circle down into town in the heavy stream of bumper-to-bumper traffic. I spot an “Apartman” sign (private rooms for rent) and Art pulls over and I hop out of the car to ask about accommodations. An elderly, portly and grim-faced woman with a large wart in the middle of her forehead comes to the door and I try to communicate our need for a room for three people for one night. She surveys me suspiciously and grumbling and with great physical difficulty, she shows me the upstairs room. She hauls her body up one flight of stairs and then opens a door to a garret stairway and points for me to climb the sagging stairs up another flight. The dark carpets are stained and the wallpaper is peeling and should another guest rent her second room we will all share a vintage bathroom. The garret room is hot and a struggling fan stirs the air minimally but there is a double bed and a single bed with clean but tired sheets and this room is just steps away from one of the entrances to the old city.  The 50 euro price for the room also includes a coveted parking space.

Garret room with view of Dubrovnik city walls
Worn carpet to garret room

The room is a flash back to my backpacking days, but before committing I return downstairs and ask Art to turn off the car’s engine and come take a look at the room. The troll-like woman points again to the stairs and Art and I hurry up the two flights and quickly decide that we can handle this for one night considering the location, the price and the parking space. While I sit on the front porch with the woman in awkward miscommunication, Art maneuvers into the tight adjoining parking space.  She repeatedly asks me if I speak German, and I repeatedly tell her I speak English and a little French but when I pull out a 50 euro note, she grins broadly and begins clumsily punching her phone. She manages to communicate that her son speaks English and she passes me the phone and I tell him that I have just paid his mother 50 euros for the garret room for the night and that we plan to spend the entire day in Dubrovnik and will leave the following morning. He is articulate and reassuring and tells me he will explain our plans to his mother. When John enters with our bags, she appraises him quickly, smiles broadly, and proudly tells me that she has two sons. We make a hasty retreat to the attic, stow our luggage and within minutes are walking through the Dubrovnik Castle Gates.

Entrance to the old city of Dubrovnik

Outside Dubrovnik city walls 

We enter at the top of the old city and descend seemingly hundreds of stone steps down to a city plaza and promenade. On the descent, I pop into a tiny tour office to ask for a map and a young woman, slightly younger than John offers me a free map but is insistent that I sit while she marks places of interest. Always wary about being pressured into buying a tour of some sort, I hesitate, but she is so innocently charming and enthusiastic that I sit and we ultimately buy our city museum passes from her.

Dubrovnik Old City
Dubrovnik Old City

With our usual dysfunctionality we struggle to choose a café that will please us all. We enjoy cool drinks while John strategizes our Dubrovnik plan, starting with the Dubrovnik museum.

John planning our Dubrovnik itinerary

View from the Dubrovnik museum

Hot and tired museum cat

After the world class museums of Florence and Rome, this one is not memorable but I am intrigued by the sedan chairs, brightly painted in a Venetian Rococo styIe. I try to imagine a procession where dignitaries, kings and queens might be carried through this medieval city in the tiny enclosed and claustrophobic chairs. The weather is sweltering but I surmise that the labyrinth of narrow streets, thick stone walls and polished marble plazas provides some relief to the heat.

The Game of Thrones, 'Walk of Shame 'Staircase in Dubrovnik
Episodes of the Game of Thrones were filmed in Dubrovnik and John navigates us to an open square where a wide and elegant marble stairway ascends to an upper plaza. This stone stairway was featured in the “Walk of Atonement” episode and I am excited to see the actual location. I imagine Queen Cersei Lannister, stripped naked and making her walk of penance down the staircase past the jeering crowds. Dubrovnik is a bewitching city, the very essence of a medieval Mediterranean fantasy and the perfect setting for filming The Game of Thrones.

"A sinner comes before you, Cersei of House Lannister. Mother to His Grace, King Tommen, widow of His Grace, King Robert. She has committed the acts of falsehood and fornication. She has confessed her sins, and begged for forgiveness. To demonstrate her repentance, she will cast aside all pride, all artifice, and present herself as the gods made her... to you, the good people of this city. She comes before you with a solemn heart, shorn of secrets, naked before the eyes of gods and men, to make her walk of atonement."
―The High Sparrow to the people of King's Landing[src]

I  return my thoughts to the present and Queen Cersei fades from my thoughts and the jeering crowds turn into photo snapping tourists, myself one of them. I dutifully take photos and plan to come back early tomorrow morning when I can take photos without throngs of tourists.

We enjoy a pasta lunch at an outdoor terrace café where there is a welcoming breeze and then navigate our way to the Maritime Museum. The walled city of Dubrovnik sits at the edge of the Adriatic Sea and on our way to the museum, we pass a small harbor and cross the square to the edge of the city walls. Many young people are jumping from the adjacent rocks and John takes several dives, cooling off in the crystal waters below the city walls.

Swimming along the Dubrovnik City walls
The Maritime Museum interests both Art and John but is not of particular interest to me, but it is cool inside with views of the Adriatic beyond. We continue to the beautiful 13th century Franciscan Monastery famous for its ancient pharmacy featuring a collection of pharmacology literature and equipment dating to the 15th century.

Franciscan Monastery Apothecary

Franciscan Monastery Cloister
Franciscan Monastery Cloister

The highlight of Dubrovnik for all of us is our late afternoon walk along the top of the city walls. Circumnavigating the wall takes us nearly two hours but with each turn the view changes. The afternoon light is golden and we inhale stunning vistas of the Adriatic coast and roof top views of the ancient city below.

John and Art atop the city wall, Dubrovnik

Rooftops, Dubrovnik old city
Art and Marty, Dubrovnik

Our appetites are primed after completing the city wall walk and we drop down into the old town and search for a restaurant. After much indecision and minor disagreements we settle on one. Dinner is not memorable. Exhausted, we walk back to our garrett room, grateful that it is just steps away from the old town of Dubrovnik.

Nighttime Dubrovnik

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Trolls, Ogres and Ston - Dalmatian Coast

Tuesday, July 12th, Split, Trogir and Ston

By 8:15 A.M. we are sipping cappuccinos at the local café bar adjoining the farmer’s market. The coffees cost 21 kunas which is just under a dollar each. Art walks up to a market bakery and brings back three sandwiches, two salami and cheese and one ham and cheese that we eat with our coffee. It is already hot as we cross through the market to the waterfront and wait in line for the 9:15 ferry to Trogir. We buy the 24 Kuna tickets each as we board the ferry and settle into our seats for the hour ride to Trogir.

Ferry to Trogir

Morning market in Split

We are amused by the town's name of Trogir and I anticipate seeing both trolls and ogres in this medieval walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After disembarking the ferry we cross over the bridge to the medieval Venetian style walled city. After strolling around the perimeter of the walled city we enter the old town through the back and wander the maze of narrow stone streets paved with an ivory colored travertine limestone, polished smooth by centuries of foot traffic.

Trogir Waterfront
Trogir Castle
Fortress guard tower

The temperature is in the high 90’s but gratefully, it is ten degrees cooler within the stone walls. Nevertheless, all three of us are somewhat lethargic either from the heat or the pace that we have been on for the past many days. We find a café in the center of the town and sit for drinks. Art orders an aperol spritzer, John a gin and tonic and I order a local prosecco which is basically a sherry over ice. Two rounds of drinks lifts our spirits briefly and we walk on to visit the village cathedral.

Are we having fun yet? Tired tourist in Trogir

Art and John climb to the bell tower but the day is sweltering and simply don’t have the leg power to make the climb and sit in the relative cool of the shaded stone entrance and wait for then to descend.

Trogir Cathedral
Lion guardians, Trogir Cathedral

After their climb we wander the small town in search of lunch and enjoy a surprisingly good meal in a shaded café. Since arriving in Italy and throughout Croatia, we have learned that when you order chicken or fish, that all you will get is the main entrée. If you want potatoes, salad or vegetables, you must order them separately. Today’s lunch comes with all the accompaniments and although the service is painfully slow, the hard working waiter lets us know that we are not forgotten and that lunch is worth waiting for.

By 2:15, we are in line for the return ferry to Split. The ferry leaves promptly at 2:30 and I doze on the hour return trip.  We drink afternoon Cappuccinos at the market before heading to our car, safely parked inside the gates of our hotel apartment and begin the drive to Dubrovnik.

Rivera Drive along the Adriatic Sea - Split to Ston
The traffic is terrible as we navigate our way out of Split and search for the coastal road leading South to Dubrovnik. Once out of sprawling Split, the traffic eases and the late afternoon drive along the coast is breathtakingly beautiful. Art drives for the first two hours; the road winding past one picturesque beac cove after another. Families swim in the cordoned off sections of each “resort,” and many of the beaches have elaborate inflatable floating waterslides and play structures. There are countless “apartments” for rent along this “Rivera” stretch of the Adriatic Sea. Eventually the road winds higher and the resorts thin and we look down on sparkling aqua jeweled coves far below. This single lane road winds precariously along the cliff side and the guard rail doesn’t look all that sturdy so we drive mindfully and hope that no one chooses to pass on a blind curve and meet us head on. This stretch of road is as breathtaking as our California Big-sur Coastline or the Amalfi Coast that we toured just last week. At one of the many view points, Art asks me to drive and even though it’s been many years since I’ve driven a stick shift, I soon have the hang of it and thoroughly enjoy being at the wheel.

Oyster beds of Mali-Ston
Cliff faces on the drive to Ston

Our plans are to stay the night in Mali Ston, recommended to Art by Robert at the Split Tourist Information office as the place to eat oysters. We see the oyster beds in the inlets below and arrive at the picturesque village of Mali Ston at 7:30 P.M. There are two upscale restaurants with outdoor tables and Art examines the menu while I walk to find a hotel. There is only one hotel in town and they have just one expensive junior suite remaining so we climb back into the car and drive another half mile to Ston. After Art and John figure out how to pay for parking, we walk into the tiny stone village and ask about accommodations.

Stan's ancient castle wall
Street in Ston

The first private accommodations we ask about is fully booked but the helpful young woman makes a call on her cell phone, points to a restaurant on a narrow side street and within minutes the waiter escorts us to an upstairs apartment just steps away. We enter an immaculate two bedroom apartment with an efficiency kitchen and when Art asks the price we try not to laugh with relief. It is only 55 Euros for the night or about $65.00. We stow our minimal luggage and return to the restaurant where Art and John order fresh oysters and we share an elaborate fresh fish platter with piles of mussels and shrimp. The food is affordable and delicious and we share two bottles of wine before climbing the stairs to our apartment and collapsing into bed.

We are happy tourists tonight! Seafood dinner in Ston
A delicious dinner: oysters & mussels