Monday, October 31, 2011
My area of Bay Ridge has a lot of single-family homes, and they sure like to doll themselves up for the holidays. Christmas lights are just the tip of the iceberg -- I've seen one house with a Mother's Day flag perched off the front door.
But few holidays compare with Halloween in this neighborhood. Not only does Third Avenue hold a special parade in early October just to let the kiddies show off their costumes, but several houses deck their porches with orange lights and their windows with glowing pumpkins.
My favorite house -- the one I try to walk by each night when the sun is down and the moon is out as I exit the subway on my way home from work -- is on 79th Street. A pair of gigantic glaring eyes following you on your commute home? That's better than any haunted house.
Friday, October 28, 2011
Iceland was by far the easiest leg of the trip to plan. We had only two full days there, and we knew exactly what we wanted to do with them: the Blue Lagoon one day, and the Golden Circle tour the next.
The Golden Circle tour is a popular route through southern Iceland that often includes (at the very least) Gullfoss waterfall, the Geysir hot spring area and the Thingvellir historical site. It's possible to make the circle on your own with a rental car, but we took the easy way out and booked an 8-hour bus trip with Reykjavik Excursions.
Gullfoss, or "Golden Falls," was my favorite stop. Think Niagara Falls, only more dramatic since the waters drop down several layers and you can stand on rocks so close you can practically touch the cascades.
As its name suggests, Geysir was the first geyser discovered and lent its name to all others. One of them in the area still blows its lid every 10 minutes or so. Although we saw it pop its top about five times, I feel like I actually only really saw it a couple of times -- so much of the time I was trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to catch it on film. Paul evidently has better reflexes since his was the best photo.
|Paul's photo -- the best!|
|Waiting for the perfect shot.|
Thingvellir is a national park where Iceland's parliament was established in 930. It's also a meeting spot of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, so geographically we were on two continents.
Each stop and all of the landscape we saw from the bus confirmed that the best word to describe Iceland's scenery is dramatic. There was plenty of greenery, but it was combined with mountains, fog, alternating sunny and dark gray skies, and some of the clearest water I've ever seen. Dramatic really is the only word.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Many visitors to Iceland go to the Blue Lagoon either directly after arriving at Keflavik International Airport or on their way to the airport before leaving the country. The geothermal spa is actually closer to the airport than Reykjavik, and you can even store your luggage while you take in the warm waters.
Paul and I, however, arrived at Iceland at night. We could have visited before our afternoon flight back to the U.S., but we opted for a more leisurely experience. So we booked seats on a bus to the Blue Lagoon on a Thursday morning, our first full day in Iceland.
I was looking forward to the visit, but I wasn't sure what to expect. First off, I knew that before entering a spa or public pool in Iceland, you must first shower unclothed -- no swimsuit -- in the locker room. I was never an athlete, and I'm a little bashful in that respect. However, it wasn't a big deal. The Blue Lagoon was sparse when we arrived at 11 a.m., and I found a semi-private shower with a door that mostly shut. Then it was off to the creamy blue waters.
The waters are heated by a nearby geothermal power plant to 98 to 102 degrees, but there are certainly some pockets that are hotter than others. The floor is covered with black sand and smooth, jagged rocks, but you can see neither. Forms become vague two inches below the surface and completely disappear another three inches below that.
The pool has no right angles and is surrounded by large piles of black lava rocks. Out of the pool, the temperature must have been in the high 40s to 50s, and there was an ever-present fog over the water. A breeze created ripples in the water and made my ears cold.
The Blue Lagoon also has saunas, as well as several tubs of silica strategically placed throughout the pool and generously used by visitors to create facemasks. We tried it three times. But mostly we did nothing at all -- just explored the lagoon and sought out the hottest spots of water.
The place got much busier around 5 p.m. -- Icelanders off work? Tourists arriving from the airport? Either way, the lagoon's bar area was lively and the place got much louder. We left shortly after, spending a good 7 hours at the lagoon.
Interestingly, every visitor receives a rubber wristband to wear for the duration of the visit that locks and unlocks your locker and which you can use to charge food, drinks and towel rentals. When we arrived in Iceland we still had some Danish currency, and Paul asked a Blue Lagoon employee if it would be accepted. Yes, the man said. The lagoon basically takes all currency, he went on, and they'd probably even accept jewelry -- they'll get paid somehow. So obviously they see a lot of tourists -- not a surprise since even the New York City subways have advertisements for the Blue Lagoon.
I expected to enjoy the Blue Lagoon, but it was even better than I thought. In fact, I would try to arrange a long layover in Iceland in the future just for a quick return visit -- not so difficult to arrange since it's so close to the airport. It was a relaxing day, and one I hope I'll one day get to repeat.
Monday, October 24, 2011
What better day to ring in fall than one that feels like spring?
It was a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon that Paul and I walked to Narrows Botanical Gardens for Bay Ridge's 16th annual Harvest Festival. We'd never been to the festival and, in fact, I'd never even been to the botanical gardens although Paul has jogged through it.
Narrows Botanical Garden is just a sliver of land between Shore Road and New York Bay -- actually, it's between Shore Road and Bay Parkway, but it's much nicer to overlook the freeway traffic and instead concentrate on the blue water just beyond.
In any case, we weren't there for the views. In fact, we really weren't there for any reason at all. Since we had no expectations, it was hard to be disappointed. And we weren't.
We spent a lazy hour drifting from craft booth to food stall, stopping to watch some square dancing. I didn't know it before, but there is something inherently autumnal in square dancing. Paul sampled some rooibos tea; I opted for cheesecake on a stick -- a round slab of cheesecake the size of a baseball, dipped in milk chocolate. We left midway through the canine costume contest, which the kids seemed to find just as fun as painting pumpkins.
|Dog dressed as jockey|
It wasn't much, but it was about as close to the country as Bay Ridge is ever going to come. Welcome, fall. Welcome, Halloween.
Friday, October 21, 2011
I think it was in a social studies textbook in elementary school. Maybe junior high.
It sticks out because Denmark wasn't a place we normally talked about in class. There was England, Germany, Spain. Ohio history in the seventh grade. But Denmark was a mystery. I think that's why the short section on the Scandinavian country holds a place in my mind yet today.
I don't remember the text, or even the gist. I seem to recall a photo of Tivoli. What I know for sure, however, is that for many years I basically knew of only two things in Denmark: the aforementioned Tivoli Gardens amusement park and Lego Land.
Lego Land has since lost its appeal, but Tivoli never did. (Blame it on all of those summer trips to Cedar Point.) As the years passed, I gradually picked up a few more tidbits on the country and Copenhagen: names, words and phrases. Hans Christian Andersen. Bicycles. Quaint. Put together it created more of a state of mind than a vivid picture.
By the time we got to Copenhagen, it was day 10 of our 15-day vacation, and we were ready for a change of pace. Paris and Rome were exciting, but now I wanted to kick back and give my feet a rest. But it wasn't only my aching legs -- I had somehow picked up a cold in the Roman heat. The skies were gray when we arrived in Copenhagen, but we had scheduled only a little more than 48 hours in the city. Cold or no cold, we dropped off our bags and immediately began to explore.
Copenhagen is like a storybook -- it looks just like how Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales feel. In fact, one of our few destinations in Copenhagen was the statue of the Little Mermaid of his famous tale.
We were almost to the statue when the sky opened and it began to pour. We hid out under a bridge and escaped when the drizzles slowed down, but it was hopeless. I took some photos and we made our way to a brewery Paul wanted to try. By the time we got there, we were soaked.
When the rain finally let up, we decided to find a grocery store and have a picnic in our room. Salami, pita bread, hummus, yogurt and the BBC -- our first interaction with what was going on in the world aside from a short internet session a few days before in Rome.
Our only full day there was spent with our friends Chris and Meghan, braving a windy Copenhagen and then taking the train a half-hour into Malmö, Sweden, where they live. We had planned to meet up the next day, our last in Copenhagen, but the so-so weather continued and it was raining by the time we checked out. Paul called Chris and we said our goodbyes by telephone.
Lego Land wasn't in the books -- it's something like 150 miles from Copenhagen -- but as the sky cleared and the sun finally appeared, Tivoli was finally looking like fun.The entrance was somewhere between $15 and $20, and rides were almost $5 for the crappy ones and $13 for the fun ones. We rode no rides. Still, we easily dawdled away a few hours eating open-faced sandwiches, wandering around the lake and greenery (it's not called Tivoli Gardens for nothing), and generally just fulfilling a childhood dream. It was cute and fun, but I suspect it would have been even more so at night, when Tivoli is lit up and probably more crowded. Still, I'm certainly glad we were able to fit in a visit during the trip.
Setting aside that textbook from long ago, my first and last impressions of Copenhagen remained the same: the city and its surrounding areas seem like lovable, livable cities. They seem very pleasant, aside, perhaps from the long, dark winters. When the sun is shining, however, the buildings are beautiful. And -- bonus -- English speakers have no trouble getting around at all. Everyone we had even the remotest contact with spoke impeccable English, and the guilt I felt at not even learning the Danish (or Swedish) words for "please" and "thank you" was only in my mind.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
The kernel that turned into this trip to Europe sprouted when two friends and coworkers, Chris and Meghan, moved to Sweden last spring. We had good luck when we planned a trip to Japan around two other friends who lived in Hiroshima -- why not try it again? (The lesson to all of my friends: if you move to another country, I will be visiting you.)
As we added more cities to the trip, plane tickets -- at least reasonably priced plane tickets -- became harder to find. The trip planned itself based on the days airfare was cheapest. Unfortunately, that meant only a little more than 48 hours in Copenhagen.
Even though Meghan and Chris live in Sweden, Copenhagen is the nearest big city. In fact, Malmö -- the third largest city in Sweden -- is only a half hour train ride outside of the city. That made it easy for them to meet us in Copenhagen the morning of our only full day in the city, and then for the four of us to take the train back to Sweden to spend the afternoon and evening in Malmö. Bonus: Chris grew up in Sweden and could act as interpreter, even though pretty much everyone speaks perfect English.
We wandered around Copenhagen for awhile, stopping in Nyhavn for coffee and juice, although we didn't brave the windy outdoor seating long and moved indoors. I did, however, learn that Scandinavians are dedicated to eating al fresco -- restaurants drape blankets over the chairs for the chilly.
|Blankets at a restaurant in Malmö|
Then we wandered through Christiania, a neighborhood where the barbecue smoke covers up the pot smoke, graffiti art covers the walls and photos are discouraged with "No camera" paintings. We stopped for a beer at noon and continued to catch up.
I can say without a doubt that this was the one day of the entire trip in which I did the least amount of sightseeing. Chris and Meghan might disagree -- we did do a lot of walking, and we saw a lot of sights. I, however, was doing much more talking than looking around. That accounts for the fact that I have only 10 photos from that entire day -- and none at all of the four of us together.
|One of my very few photos of Sweden|
That afternoon we went to Malmö and basically just hung out. Ate some falafel, had a few drinks, met their friends and roommates and talked, talked, talked. When the sun went down, the scene shifted to a couple of bars a block or two away. The night quickly flew by, and before I knew it the combination of beer, conversation and my cold resulted in a lost voice. By the time Paul and I caught the 12:37 a.m. train back to Copenhagen, I could barely keep my head upright. Vacation had caught up with me.
Some of my greatest regrets stem from this part of the trip -- I wish we would've gotten to spend more time with Meghan and Chris, I wish we would've spent at least one night in Malmö, and I wish I would've taken more photos of the day. In any case, I have great memories, and a few photos or a relocated hotel room couldn't have changed the day at its core.
Monday, October 17, 2011
Zuccotti Park used to be just the place where I'd occasionally get a chocolate chip muffin at the weekly farmer's market.
Now, according, to one New York Times columnist earlier this month, it's "the city's newest tourist attraction."
And it's all just a little more than a block from where I work.
The Occupy Wall Street gang is just down the street, but I've had surprisingly little contact with it. Occasionally I'll see a few of my coworkers huddled around a window, stretching their necks to see a group of straggling protesters down the street. Once or twice, as I've walked from the subway to the office, I've seen men putting up metal gates along Broadway, a sure sign of a march that sure enough took place when I left work that night.
The protesters had been at the park nearly a month -- in fact, it's one month today -- but mostly I'd just seen them on the "Daily Show." (I amuse myself by figuring out what angle the cameramen are shooting based on the stores and restaurants I clearly see in the background.) It was time to pay a visit for myself, so during one lunch break last week, I did.
It took exactly five minutes to get there, and I think most of that time I spent waiting for the elevator in my building. It was a gray, rainy day, so I wasn't sure how many people would be out. I needn't have worried. Hundreds of people crowded Zuccotti Park, some holding signs, some meditating, but everyone mostly just talking. There was a constant buzz, interrupted only by a steady rhythm of chanting as a mini-march passed by.
Occupy Wall Street seems sort of like a small neighborhood. According to a friend and coworker, they have a library, wifi, a kitchen area and even a small medical center. What they don't have much of is food, although they do accept deliveries and donations.
I'm still not exactly sure what Occupy Wall Street stands for, but maybe that's OK. We're so used to hearing talking points and politicians staying exactly on-message. It's refreshing to see people stand up because they know something has to change, even if they can't all precisely articulate what that something actually is.
I left with a greater respect for Occupy Wall Street. And also, based on the number of cops surrounding the peaceful gathering, with the suspicion that a lot of people are getting some easy overtime.
Friday, October 14, 2011
Rome was exhausting.
This was especially due to the heat, but also the hills and stairs, the winding streets so easy to get lost in, the constant fear of pickpockets and the sheer number of people in such a concentrated area. Even the traffic was stressful -- I'm used to ignoring traffic signals in New York, but Rome has not only barely any signals, but also barely any crosswalks. You just dart in front of traffic and assume it will stop for you.
|View from the Gianicolo|
Visiting Rome was a little like visiting Disney World -- lots of tourists, lots of maps and lots of must-see attractions.
This was definitely the most jam-packed leg of the trip. If you can name a museum or church in Rome, we probably saw it. But my favorite hours were the few we puttered around a piazza or lingered over a liter of wine. We saw Rome, but I suspect that it was generally just what the tourists see -- not what true Romans experience.
I made a list of everything I wanted to see and do in Rome, and most of those items were checked off. But if we visit again, I will certainly "schedule" more time to do absolutely nothing.
|Baths of Diocletian|
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
If visiting churches in Rome was obligatory, then visiting the piazzas was unavoidable.
Not that you'd want to avoid them even if you could. Piazzas in Rome are basically public squares, generally centered around a fountain, monument or church. They come in all shapes and sizes and often have a restaurant or two (and many, many more at the largest piazzas) along the edges, with lots of outdoor seating and menus in about a dozen languages.
|Campo de' Fiori|
Rome certainly doesn't have a monopoly on large city squares -- Marienplatz in Munich, Germany, comes to mind, let alone New York's own Times Square -- but Rome takes it to a whole new level. This is true not only in sheer numbers, but also in their atmosphere.
During the daytime they're lively and crowded. At night the number of people only seems to grow, but that just adds to the energy, the spark of the city. No need to sit down at one of the touristy restaurants -- just grab a seat on the pedestal of a statue, preferably with a 2 euro scoop of gelato in your hand, and people-watch the night away.
|Piazza del Popolo|
Night really was when the city came alive. I suspect this is because of the high daytime temperatures, but having visited the city for only four days, I'm hardly in a position to say for sure. In any case, the evenings were pleasant and definitely when sightseeing was most enjoyable. In fact, we saw Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps only at night, unless you count a distant view of the latter in the late afternoon of our final full day there.
And before you ask, yes, of course we each threw a coin into Trevi Fountain. We will return.
|Crowds at Trevi Fountain|
Monday, October 10, 2011
|Sunset over the Tiber River, with St. Peter's in the background|
It was roundabout 4 p.m., about a bazillion degrees, and Paul was accusing me of skipping lunch on purpose.
We were hot and irritable and hardly in the right state of mind as we walked along the Tiber River toward Vatican City and St. Peter's Basilica.
I wasn't skipping lunch on purpose, but he had a point. Throughout vacation I had a habit of putting a much higher priority on sightseeing than, well, eating. This didn't go over well with Paul, whose vacation highlights generally revolve around meals. Good thing, too -- I probably wouldn't have gotten the few veggies I did during those two weeks without his prompting.
In any case, we actually did have a schedule to keep. We had tickets for the Vatican Museum that night, and it was imperative that we see St. Peter's beforehand. I wasn't going to walk there again, but I also wasn't going to miss seeing what's only the most important church in Catholicism.
|St. Peter's Square|
|St. Peter's Basilica|
We got to Vatican City in plenty of time and were in more godly states of mind after a piece of pizza. Surprisingly, however, I was more impressed standing outside in St. Peter's Square than wandering around inside the basilica.After all, a picture of the square was the image that's been in my head for the last 30 years.
|Inside St. Peter's Basilica|
|Swiss Guards outside St. Peter's Basilica|
I hate to say this, but I think I was also on church overload. It was literally impossible to walk more than two or three blocks without passing a church, and a good number of them had at least one noteworthy piece of artwork in it. We traipsed from church to church, checking off this Caravaggio or that Michelangelo. It sounds cool in writing; it's less cool when you see so much in such a short amount of time that 12 hours later you can't remember what you actually saw.
Luckily, a few things did stick out. St. Peter's, of course, and the Vatican Museum, which ended up being one of our favorite stops in Rome. The Sistine Chapel is, in fact, unforgettable.Santa Maria in Trastevere had perhaps the most beautiful interior of any church I've ever seen. And Scala Santa holds what supposedly are the steps Jesus climbed during the Passion, transported to Rome some 1,700 years ago and now covered in wood. Pilgrims climb the steps on their knees.
|Spiral ramp at the Vatican Museums|
|Santa Maria in Trastevere|
No matter your religion or lack thereof, you can't leave Rome without imbibing the importance that the church plays in the city. We didn't attend one mass that entire weekend we were in Rome, but we spent more time in churches than we ever have in our entire lives.