Saturday, January 31, 2009

You know you're getting old...

...when snow loses it's mystic charm.

Remember when you were a kid and you eagerly looked forward to snowfall? Snow days, sledding, snowballs, snowmen, snow forts etc. etc. The world seemed to have transformed into a fantasy land when those first few inches would stick to the ground.

Yeah, that's all changed.

Snow is now more of a hassle than a sign of fun. Things I consider when I hear there is snow in the forecast: "Do I have enough milk?" (I am from Virgina, after all), "will my bus be on it's normal route?," do I need to drive anywhere?," and "will Metro be running?"

So the magic of childhood has faded to the practicalities of adult life. And that's depressing.

But despite that, there are still times when the snow is just as beautiful and filled with as much promise as when I was a kid. But it's getting harder and harder to remember that. Especially when I have to hike home on iced over sidewalks after my bus has dumped me 10 minutes away from my normal stop because it's running on a snow emergency route.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Things to do in DC: National Museum of American History

After closing it's doors two years ago for extensive renovations, the National Museum of American History on the DC Mall reopened in November of 2008. And a couple weeks ago, my Mom and I visited to check out the new digs and see the special exhibition of The Gettysburg Address, one of the few original copies hand-written by Abraham Lincoln.

Now, call me old-fashioned, but I like my museums to feel like museums. Old marble, maybe some dust gathering in the corridors, none of this light and airy crap. And what the American History Museum has is a nice marriage of traditional and modern. Walking in the front entrance (which is actually the entrance opposite of the Mall), you enter a huge gallery lined with random pieces of American history. C3PO from Star Wars! A nineteenth century bicycle! Things like that, all displayed in long cases the entire length of the hall. And while there is a huge skylight in the main hall, things don't feel too disconnected from the museum of old.

And very smartly, the bathrooms and lockers are located right next to the entrance. Thanks layout planners!

In fact, the only disappointment I had is that the museum eliminated the huge pendulum that used to swing in front of the star spangled banner. Sigh. Memories.

As for the flag itself, it's been moved to a glass enclosed viewing area which seems much more logical than having it hanging out in the middle of the air. It also underwent some extensive cleaning, but honestly, it looked the same to me. Which is as it should be.

I was surprised by the small number of exhibits that are currently out. I distinctly remember there being about twice as many First Lady gowns on display as there are now, but I have a feeling the curators are still getting settled in the new space. And they probably like to bring new things from time to time and put some thing backs in storage. Most shocking was how small Mary Todd Lincoln's waist much have been and how cute Kermit the Frog's felt hands are. I mean, I saw Kermit! The actual Kermit! And Oscar the Grouch. Other than the Gettysburg Address, the pop culture and entertainment display was my favorite. We Americans can get so nostalgic over our entertainment.

As for the Gettysburg Address, we were fortunate to have arrived right when the museum opened on a Sunday on a non-holiday weekend. Which means the place was not packed and I could get my nose right up to the glass to look at the speech. It's amazing how so few words (it covered about 2.5 pages of lined notebook paper--paper that looked exactly the same as lined paper we use now) can reverberate so loudly and so clearly through history. Lincoln's handwriting was small and precise, and I imagined him sitting at his desk writing several copies of the speech. Did he have to concentrate absolutely on what he was writing, as I have to, to avoid mistakes, or could he allow his mind to wander to other matters of state or something more mundane? Did he write by the light coming from the sun shining in the windows, or was it night? Did he know the impact his words would have on generations to come? For that matter, do great men and women ever fully realize that they are great?

Ok, this post has gotten a bit off course.

It's strange what runs through your head when you get close to history. Just being that near to a copy of his speech was surprisingly moving. It's pretty much the only way we have to feel like we can communicate with the great people of our past.

In any event, the new museum is well laid out, and worth visiting. My only advice is to avoid the peak times; if I had had to wait in an hour line for each exhibit, I would have been disappointed by the small number of objects out. And take advantages of the lockers. You don't want to have to carry your coat all day, and they only cost 25 cents.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Florence and the Santa Maria del Fiore

Hang in there, kids, we're slowly but surely nearing the end.

After passing the Stromboli Volcano without experiencing any lava or other disasters, our final excursion was to Tuscany were we traveled to Florence and Pisa.

Florence is known for its history and its importance in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance especially for its art and architecture. A centre of medieval European trade and finance, the city is often considered the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance; in fact, it has been called the Athens of the Middle Ages. It was long under the de facto rule of the Medici family. From 1865 to 1870 the city was also the capital of the Kingdom of Italy.

Florence has a decidedly different feel than the cities of Southern Italy. It's as populous as its southern sisters, but feels somehow roomier. The weather is cooler, the streets are cleaner, and it has a more peaceful feeling. It's easy to imagine the Renaissance masters wandering its twisty streets contemplating art, philosophy, and the place of man in the world. Or maybe I had been on the road a really long time and was starting to hallucinate.

In any event, wiki isn't kidding when it says the city was "long" under the rule of the Medici. You can't take a step in Florence without tripping over some piece of Medici history; one of their art galleries, an old villa, or one of the their family crests that seem to drip from the stone walls.

But the real pride of Florence, and it's most recognizable landmarks is the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, or as it is more commonly called, the Duomo.

The basilica was built on the site of a previous cathedral, Santa Reparata (locals of Florence continued to call the Cathedral by this former name for some time after reconstruction), and was inspired by the new cathedrals in Pisa and especially Siene Cathedral, whose ever-extending and over-ambitious plans were never in fact completed. By the end of the 13th century, the nine-centuries-old church of Santa Reparata was crumbling with age. Furthermore, it had become too small in a period of rapid population expansion, when prosperous Florence wanted to match or exceed in size the much larger cathedrals then being built.

The new church was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1296 (although the design was altered several times and later reduced in size). He designed three wide naves ending under the octagonal dome, with the middle nave covering the area of Santa Reparata. The first stone was laid on September 9, 1296 by Cardinal Valeriana, the first papal legate ever sent to Florence. The building of this vast project was to last 170 years, the collective efforts of several generations.

But enough of that boring history stuff. Let's get to the good stuff.

Nice, huh?

The Duomo must be one of the most recognizable churches in the world, and it was the only Florence landmark I was familiar with. It's so huge, it's difficult to get an idea of the full scope when you are on the ground. The city is built right up to its walls, so to get a good look you have to walk several blocks away, turn around, and stare up.

Approaching the cathedral from a street.

Looking up at the dome. Or at least trying to get a view of the whole thing. That mother is huge!

The "new" facade, completed in 1871. The cathedral is covered in beautiful white, red, and green marble.

The Florence Baptistry is located directly across the street from the facade of the cathedral and is renowned for its three sets of artistically important bronze doors with relief sculptures by Lorenzo Ghiberti. These doors were dubbed by Michelangelo as "the Gates of Paradise" because of their beauty, and they were said to have begun the Renaissance. The large panels pictures above show scenes from the Old Testament.

Details of The Birth of Eve panel. See, she's busting out of Adam's rib. Ouch!

More pics of the Duomo:

Campanile tower (aka the bell tower).

The facade again.

One last look at the dome.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Katakalon and the Stromboli Volcano

Our next stop on the cruise was a small village called Katakalon in Greece. We didn't book an excursion for this place, mostly because we were exhausted. But we did walk around the town a bit. Any by town I mean the one street that ran right through the center and was chock full of tourist souvenir shops. The good news is, I found tablecloths for everyone on my Christmas list, the bad news is it took like 2 hours of wandering to find them. But find them I did!

Here's the view walking towards the village from the ship. I told you it was small.

The main drag, lined with shops.

The next day we had a treat. We cruised by the Stromboli Volcano, a volcano on a small island off the north coast of Sicily, containing one of the three active volcanoes in Italy.

Stromboli stands 924 m (3,031 ft) above sea level, but actually rises over 2,000 m (6,500 ft) above the sea floor. There are three active craters at the peak. A significant geological feature of the volcano is the Sciara del Fuoco ("Stream of fire"), a big horseshoe-shaped depression generated in the last 13,000 years by several collapses on the north western side of the cone.

Stromboli is remarkable because of the length of time for which it has been in almost continuous eruption. For at least the last 2,000 years, the same pattern of eruption has been maintained, in which explosions occur at the summit craters with mild to moderate eruptions of incandescent volcanic bombs at intervals ranging from minutes to hours. This characteristic Strombolian eruption, as it is known, is also observed at other volcanoes worldwide. Eruptions from the summit craters typically result in few second-lasting mild energetic bursts emitting ash, incandescent lava fragments and lithic blocks up to a few hundred meters high. Stromboli's activity is almost exclusively explosive, but lava flows do occasionally occur - an effusive eruption in 2002 was its first in 17 years.

Extreme close-up!