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Sunday, February 25, 2007

TRAVEL PLANS FOR VENICE

"In Venice Tasso's echoes are no more
and silent rows the songless gondolier;
Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,
And music meets not always now the ear;
Those days are gone - but Beauty still is here.
States fall, arts fade - but Nature doth not die,
Nor yet forget how Venus once was dear,
The pleasant place of all festivity,
The revel of the earth, the masque of Italy."
Lord Byron "Childe Harold" 1817

My travel companion Ingrid came over yesterday and we watched videos of Venice. Both of us are getting real excited about our trip in mid May. I've been reading travel books and deciding the main points of interest I'd like to see. Of course, there are hundreds of things to see. I can't think of another more romantic or exotic place to visit and it will be a dream of a lifetime to be there. But as a travel writer, I like to focus on possible article slants, so I usually do some research about a place before I visit to make sure that I won't miss out on something important.

I've visited a lot of the Venitian sites in Greece and so I've always been interested in the connection between those two countries. I've also been planning to do a story about Lord Byron's Greece and before going there he spent some time in Venice. So I've decided to focus on various places of interest in Venice that may follow those themes.

I'm fascinated by the number of writers who found Venice was their Muse. I'm hoping I will too. George Eliot was a frequent visitor. Her poem "The Spanish Gypsy" was influenced by the works of the artist Tintoretto. Byron arrived in Venice in 1816 and moved into the Hotel Gran Bretagna on the Grand Canal where he lived for nearly five years. Richard Wagner lived in Venice where he composed the second act of Tristan and Isolde. He died in the Palazzo Vendramon-Caleogi in 1883. Georges Sand left her husband in 1831 and embarked on life as a writer spending much of her time writing in Venice. Guy de Maupassant thought Venice would be a place of surpassing grandeur but amazed, found it to be "tiny, tiny, tiny! -- an old charming, poor, ruined place on the point of crumbling into the water" Henry James found it melancholy and memorable. "The deposed, the defeated, the disenchanted, the wounded or even the bored, have seemed to find there something that no other place could give."

So here's a list of some of the places I hope to visit:

CANNAREGIO
The Jewish Ghetto : I'm thinking of The Merchant of Venice. The word 'ghetto' came from the cinders piled where founderies were set up in Canneregio. The Venetian word "to smelt" was gettare, hence the name "geto veccio" (old foundry) for the first site and "geto nuevo" for the second. With the arrival of the Jews in the 14th and 15th centuries, the meaning and prounciation changed as the "ghetto" became the place assigned to them.

Palazzo Vendramon-Calergi - The palace became the property of the Calergi, a family of Cretan origin. Composer Richard Wagner lived and died here in 1883. The palace is now a casino.

Campo dei Mori - Where the fondaco, houses used by Arab merchants are located. Palazzo Mastelli is the estate of three Moorish brothers (spice traders) who came in 1112 to escape civil war in the Peloponnese. The name "Mastelli" came from the thousands of buckets of gold sequins mastelli, the merchants possessed. Nearby is Tintoretto's house where the artist died in 1594.

Corte Seconda Del Milion - Marco Polo lived here until the time of his death in January 1324. (The house was burned down in 1596 but the courtyard remains.) Teatro Malibran is thought to occupy the place where the house stood. This theatre as named after Maria Malibran an opera singer who arrived in Venice from Paris in 1835. She stayed at the Grand Hotel near Palazzo Contarini-Fasan where the legendary Desdemona was said to have lived. With this in mind, Maliban sang Rossini's Othello and later donated her fees to the bankrupt theatre (formerly called the "Fenice")

The Church of San Michele Cemetary where famous writers, musicians and royalty are buried including Igor Stravinsky, Serge Diaghiliv of the Russion Ballet and poet Ezra Pound.

CASELLO
The Greek community at San Giorgio Dei Greci. There were about 4000 Greek residents in Venice in the 15th century. Now there are only about 100. Most were merchants, book publishers, artists, scribes and literary scholars.

The Grand Hotel Danieli (former Palazzo Dandolo,) built in 14th c.) one of the world's most famous hotels. Amont the famous literary guests here were Dickens, Wagner, Balzac, Proust, Debussy, Cocteau, and George Sand who ended her famous love affair with Alfred de Musset here after he found out she was having an affair with his physician.

The Church of La Pieta where Vivaldi taught from 1703. He was the violen master and occasionally choirmaster and resident composer.

The Arsenal with it's two giant lions brought from Greece in 1687. Here is where Venice's naval ships were built and maintained. The Naval Museum is nearby.

Palazzo Benzon Where lord Byron was a habitue of the Contessa Marina Querini Benzon's literary salons, along with other famous writers of the time.

Palazzo Mocenigo (18th century) where Byron lived 1818-19 while writing Don Juan

San Lazzaro Degli Armeni Monastary where there is a room in the museum devoted to Lord Byron who regularly visited the convent (to study the Armenian language.)

It may sound like a lot to see in the few days we'll be there, but Venice is small, and I am told you can walk across it in an hour (if you don't get lost. But then, getting lost in Venice will be a lot of fun!)


Thursday, February 22, 2007

NEW ORLEANS Part III MARDIS GRAS: Hey Mister, Throw me Something!

Ok, Mardis Gras is now over for this year but I thought I'd still post this as this was my experience in 1994 when Sylivie and I went to New Orleans. I always wanted to return there in Springtime to see the wisteria in bloom and perhaps spot a few alligators in the swamp. But, alas, the city will likely never be the same and I wonder if many of those grand old mansions are still intact. I know the French Quarter escaped some of the damage. But is it still the same?

New Orlean's grandest celebration, Mardis Gras, was brought to New Orleans from Europe in 1879. Carnival is a mystical combination of Christian beliefs, pagan rituals, glamour and debauchery that begins twelve days after Christmas when Balls are held, hosted by the carnival "krewes" to choose the King and Queen of "misrule."

There are 60 krewes, the oldest being the krewe of Rex. The male and female members of these krewes pay up to $1000 a year for the honor and each krewe bears the cost of throw-aways, the doubloons and beads tossed to the crowds during the Carnival parades.

In February, the week before Lent, the parades begin, ending on Mardis Gras -- Fat Tuesday -- with the wildest celebration of all. The song goes: "It's Carnival time and everybody's havin' fun..." and you will have fun if you're in New Orleans for Mardis Gras.

More than two million people jam into the French Quarter to celebrate, so if you plan to be there for this event you will need to book your hotel months in advance and be prepared to pay top prices. But in the end, you won't regret the cost. There are things you will see in New Orleans during Mardis Gras that you will never experience anywhere else. It's one huge party, and if you use your common sense, you are sure to have an unforgettable and safe time. Keep you rmoney in a safe place under your clothing, and don't carry a purse. If you're with a friend, stay together. Don't walk down empty or unlit dark streets. Keep with the crowds. Be sure to dress warmly in casual clothing and comfortable walking shoes.

The balconies of the French Quarter are hung with purple, yellow and green streamers and flags, the Mardis Gras colors. The streets literally run with beer and are ankle deep with rubbish and discarded plastic cups. It's common practice in the French Quarter to carry your drinks in take-away cups from bar to bar. The official tourist drink is the Hurricane, but beer and wine flow freely too. Anything goes during Mardis Gras, and the New Orleans police, who are visible everywhere, are tolerant and polite but very firm in enforcing the law if necessary.

Pick up a copy of "Where", an essential guide to New Orleans, free and available from hotels and tourist agencies. It will include maps outlining the parade routes. There are several parades a day, and as the streets will be impassiable, it is wise to find a vantage point for viewing well in advance. You will soon get used to elbowing your way through the crowds, scrambling up on the barricades and screaming at the passing krewes the familiar refrain: "Hey mister, throw me somthin'!" as you grab for the trinkets and beads the krewes toss. The point is to catch as many strands of beads as you can and wear them all during the Carnival. If a doubloon lands near you, put your foot on it and wait, or you'll get trampled as you try to pick it up.

The parade floats, lavishly decorated with feathers, flowers and streamers of vibrant hues, are manned by the masked and costumed krewes, and carry guest celebrities. Each krewe has its own theme: Zulu's jungle; Orpheus' music; Okeanos' fantasy sea world; Bacchus's god of revellries. There are buccanneers and clowns, snappy marching bands, and spangled majorettes. Inevitably you will see New Orleans jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain and his Half-Fast Walking Club, a merry band of strolling musicians.

A freezing gale howls down St. Charles Street but fails to chill the enthusiasm of the revelers. A bevy of plumed beautifies are almost blown over when the wind catches their head-dresses. Banners and streamers unfurl in the icy gusts. Spectators wrapped in blankets and muffled with scarves sip hot drinks. Some of them have been standing in the cold for hours.

Masks and costumes are tradiionally worn by revelers only on Fat Tuesday. This is the day the Monarchs come to town. The fun starts early in the morning with the Gold Nugget Festival at Woldenberg Park, between Jackson brewery and the Aquarium of the Americas, the highlight being the arrival of Rex, King of the Carnival, who is officially given control over the city by the Mayor.

At the corner of St. Anne and Burgundy Streets in the French Quarter, one of the most outageous contests of all is held. The Drag Queen Costume Contest features some of the most exotic and elaborate costumes modeled with an equal amount of pizzazz.

Down on Bourbon Street it's adult entertainment as the bartering for Mardis Gras beads between people on the street and those on the balconies begins. The traditional call of "Show us your #@*!" rings back and forth as particularly well-endowed women are challenged to show their comely charms.

But Mardis Gras is just one day and by midnight the party is over. New Orleans mounted policemen sweep through the French Quarter followed by the street cleaners who wipe away all traces of Carnival for another year. By morning the streets of Vieux Carre are spotless and the crowds of merrymakers have gone. You can once again enjoy New Orleans in all its elegance.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

NEW ORLEANS Part II: Mint Juleps and Alligtors

If you want a touch of the romantic south, visit the plantation homes near New Orleans. A number of companies offer these tours, conducting small multilingual groups by mini-bus with interesting and well-informed gu ides. The tours include several plantation homes and a Bayou boat trip, with a plantation lunch included.
Author's note: Since the hurrican I don't know if any of these grand old mansions were destroyed. It's heartbreaking to think they might have been!

While sipping on a mint julep under the oaks of Oak Alley, you cannot help but find yurself transported into the world of Scarlet O'Hara and Rhett Butler. As you look out on the green lawns and gracious Greek Revival architectures of the manor, you are offered a clear view of the past.

Oak Alley Plantation was built in 1839 and is best known for its alley of twenty-eight evenly spaced Louisiana live oak trees, believed to be 300 years old, that gave the plantation its name. The mansion is furnished exactly as it was when the last owner, a venerable old lady in her 90's died in the lavender bedroom upstairs. Each room has a unique story which is related by the guides who are dressed in period costume. You can imagine the little slave boy pulling on the 'shoe-fly' fan while his master dined in the elegant dining room, or hear the servants whistle as they carried the trays of food along "Whistler's Walk" from the kitchen to the big house, their whistles assuring the mistress that their mouths weren't full of sampled food. The slaves' quarters no longer exist because they were mainly flimsy wooden shacks that did not withstand time.

In the south of Louisiana, only a dozen or so plantation houses still stand, all on the west side of the Mississippi River, because the Civil War ended before they could be burned down as ordered by the Yankees. The oldest is the Destrehan Plantation, built in 1787.

From the levees and estates of the Mississippi, journey to the dense, mysterious channels of the bayou, aboard a boat navigated by a handsome young Cajun guide. The boat glides down the narrow channels where egret, blue heron and water fowl nest among the red swamp maples. Grey-green tufts of Spanish moss hang from the cypress trees. Snapping turles sun themselves on the mud banks. These turtles, which grow to an immense size, can snap off a stick with their jaws. Poisonous snakes such as the copper head and water-moccasin lurk in the moss and the root systems of the trees making it a dangerous occupation for the Cajun folk who pick the Spanish moss for sale to florists.

In spring and summer, water hyacinths cover the murky surface of these foreboding waterways concealing the deadly alligators which the guide and his father hunt.

"We bait these big hooks with meat," he explains. "Then the hook is hung over a branch by a rope. When the bait is pulled down into the water you know there's a 'gator on it. We bring the boat alongside and shoot. It's dangerous and tricky. You have to hit the 'gator in just the right spot behind the eyes so as not to damage the skin. Some of these critters are up to seven feet in length and if they strike with their tail they can break a man's arm. Once a 'gator's jaws clamp down on its prey you can't pry them open."

He displays photos of the monstrous creatures he has hunted, and explains that the 'gators hibernate, buried in the mud, from October to March and surface once the water temperature is warm. Strict laws prohibit alligator poaching and offenders risk a find of $5,000 or a jail term of up to 15 years with no parole. Because of alligator farms, licensed hunters such as our guide, have suffered a loss of income from the valuable hides which are mainly sold to France for shoes and purses.

"Don't be caught taking any souvenir allegator artifacts out of Louisiana unless they have an official dated blue tag," he warns. "Or you will be penalized."

Most of the cypress forests in the swamps are owned by logging companies, but the Cajuns have lived in settlements here since they were offered land back in the 1800's. The name "Cajun" is derived from "Acadian". The Acadians once settled in eastern Canada, before the British evicted them because they wouldn't pledge allegiance to the Queen. In these tiny enclaves in Louisianna's bayou country, the descendants of these French pioneers live isolated lives, and speak a Cajun-French patois.

To be continued: Part III MARDIS GRAS, New Orlean's grandest celebration.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

CELEBRATING MARDIS GRAS: MY TRIBUTE TO NEW ORLEANS Part 1: Savory New Orleans

The following three blogs about New Orleans were written several years ago and first published on a site called themestream.com (no longer existing.) Because it's Mardis Gras time, and because that grand old city is making a comeback after the devastating hurricane that all but destroyed Her, I am posting the three stories once again.

SAVORY NEW ORLEANS
Like a rich, savory gumbo, spiced with just the right combination of ingredients, New Orleans is a feast for all senses. From hot cuisine to cool jazz, as the refreain goes: "You'll know what it means to miss New Orleans" once you've experienced this unique city.

Seasoned with a blend of history, charm and joie de vivre, this genteel 275 year old metropolic, cradled in a bend of the Mississippi River, is a city where you can lose yourself in time. As you stroll under the ornate wrought iron balconiesof the French Quarter or meander on the manicured lawns of gracious colonial estates, its a rare opportunity to see and expeirence the Southern way of life.

Since the days when the fabled pirates, Jean and Pierre Lafitte haunted Bourbon Street, New Orleans has had the reputation of being one of the most dangerous cities in America. But don't let this intimidate you, because it is equally renown for its southern hospitality. People are friendly here, and you can get a conversation started instantly by talking about cooking, food or music.

The food in New Orleans is as legendary as the famous restaurants that serve it. From grand southern dining in well-appointed French Quarter restaurants such as Brennans, with its French-Creole delicacies, or Antoine's, where oysters Rockefeller was first created, to modest diners that offer a fare of hot roast beef Po-Boys oozing with mayonnaise and gravy, or a bowl of stewed greens with ham soup, there are gastronimical adventures here to fit everyone's budget.

Try Cajun gumbo, shrimp remoulade, craw-fish etouffee. Felix Fish and Oyster Bar on Bourbon Street serves everything from oysters on the half shell to Italian and Creole or Cajun specialities in a casual atmosphere. Or spend a lazy lunch hour by the river at the French Market under the striped awnings of the Mediterranean Cafe. While you eat spicy prawn jambalaya, enjoy the jammin' of a jazz combo.

In New Orleans, there's music everywhere: blues, jazz, lively Cajun two-step. Bourbon Street is famous for its jazz clubs. Buskers entertain on every street corner while little boys tap-dance on the curb. You can sing along with a banjo player strumming on the wharf, or watch a junior version of Louis Armstrong, a boy not more than ten years old, wailing on a trumpet in Jackson Square. In this bold, decadent city, a host of famous musicians had their start. In "N'walin's" Preservation Hall, Dixiland jazz was born.

Vieux Carre, the French Quarter, has its share of famous streets, immortalized in songs and movies: Bourbon, Basin, Rampart and Desire. Take a tour by mule and carriage through the heart of New Orlean's original old town, where you will see fine examples of French and Spanish colonial architecture, arched carriage ways and enclosed courtyards where in summer canopies of purple wisteria bloom. Or board the St. Charles streetcar on Canal Street, to visit the Garden District with its elegant antebellum mansions, Audubon Park and the Zoo.

Munch on a beignet, a doughnut covered with powdered sugar, as you explore Jackson Square, the town square of the original French colony. Walk past the commanding spires of St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in America, visit the Cabildo where the Louisiana puchase was signed in 1803, and the Presbytere which has an exhibit of Louisiana history. In the Square, you will be entertained by street performers and musicians while browisng among craft booths and art exhbitis. You can have your face painted here, and if it's Mardis Gras, other body parts as well.

At Jackson square, where the French Quarter meets the Mississippi, riverboats still churn up the fabled river. "Ol'Man River" keeps rollin' along these days with boats full of tourists. The Creole Queen and the Cajun Queen offer jazz-dinner cruises and the steamboat Natchez has a two hour cruise daily up the river to view the plantations and the stie of Civil War battlefields. For those who want a riverboat casino experience, the Queen of New Orleans, an authentic recreation of a 19th century paddlewheeler, is equipped with slot machines, video poker and speciality games.

Near Jack Square, is the French Market, America's oldest city market, a mix of retail and specialty shops and restaurants with bargains galore. Market stalls overflow with plump Creole tomatoes, heaps of okra, sweet potatoes, red and green capiscums (also known as peppers) and an abundance of other vegetables used in Creole and Cajun cooking. Fresh craw fish, oysters, clams and shrimp are available and colorful racks display spices and condiments that are necessary ingredients. While you're there, be sure to sample a traditional praline from Aunt Sally's Praline Shop, or go to a dessert shop for some old fashioned bread pudding.

Organized tours are an efficient and economical way to see other parts of the city. Knowledgeable guides provide information and history about off-the-beaten-track attractions that you might otherwise miss. For instance, it is unwise and unsafe to venture into the historic old cemeteries alone, but there's a Magic Cemetery Tour that will escort you through St. Louis cemetary, and a nightly Ghost and Vampire Haunt features lantern-carrying actors who lead you on an eerie adventure.

TO BE CONTINUED: Next, Part Two: A trip into the mysterious channels of the bayou.

Monday, February 05, 2007

TRAVEL PLANS AND DREAMS OF VENIZIA

"She looks a sea Cybele, fresh from ocean,
Rising with her tiara of proud towers
At any distance, with magestic motion,
A ruler of the waters and their powers."

George Noel Gordon, Lord Byron 1788 -1824 "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" st 2

Travel plans are coming together now. I have purchased my ticket to Venice/Greece, leaving here May 16 to Venice via Amsterdam. We'll be in the beautiful old city of canals and gondoliers for four days, then travel by ferry down the Dalmation Coat to Igoumenitsa Greece, from there making stops at various places including Lefkada and maybe Kefalonia again.

There are various plans for when we are in Greece too. Some island visits and, of course, reunions with my friends there.

I spent the weekend looking through some gorgeous books on Venice "Art and Architecture". What an amazing city. Over the last few years I've developed quite a fascinating for the Venetians and started paying attention, in Greece, to the many Venetian castles that are located around the coastline and on some of the islands. For instance, Naxos has a very Venetian flavour to it because a lot of ship owners (Veneitian) lived there. A couple of years ago I also traveled around the south Peloponnese purposely locating Venetian castle sites. That part of Greece's history is usually overlooked in favour of the ancient Greek archaeology. But it's quite fascinating to find how the Venetians ruled the waterways there and built the fortresses because at one time there were many pirates plying those waters too.

I'm hoping to explore more of the Venetian sites in Greece this summer. And I also have a keen interesting in Lord Byron and his Venetian/Greek connections. This trip I must get over to the town where the Byron museum is located. He's quite a hero in Greece because of his involvement with the resistance against the Ottoman Turk invasions. The other things that interest me about him are the many women he left heartbroken. Apparantly there's a house in Venice famous for the fact one of his paramours threw herself off the balcony into the canal when he abandoned her.

I haven't decided exactly what I want to focus on in Venice. The whole place will be a wonder to me. It's going to be one of those dream-come-true vacations. And an added little bonus on the return trip: there's a long enough stop-over in Amsterdam that I'll be able to hop the train and go into town for a look around. Another city I've always been curious to see.