Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Freeway Free in France: Tales of War in Bayeux

20190604_154859docBayeux was the first French city to be liberated by Allied Forces.  Troops marched into the city on a street bordered with cheering townsfolk who waved French and American flags, and offered kisses from happy young women and fresh baked treats from older ones.  The Germans evacuated so quickly that they had no time to organize a defense, so the most of the medieval structures remained intact.

20190604_134313webWe first stopped at Bayeux Cathedral, with its mix of old and new stained glass, its ornate Gothic verticality, its mystic paintings decorating the crypt beneath the alter.  The apse was decked in French tricolor, British Union Jacks, Canadian maple leafs,  and American stars and stripes.  Behind the altar there was a large concert band practicing for Prince Charles’ visit the following day (Wed. June 5).  This was a truly excellent brass ensemble, plus some woodwinds and tympani.  The sound reverberating through the cathedral was thrilling.  One piece was “The Spitfire Overture” and another, appropriate for a visiting Brit, was the lovely, noble main theme from “Jupiter” from “The Planets” by Gustav Holst.  My partner, a music-lover with bad knees, stayed in the church for the whole rehearsal while I wandered around the side chapels and lower levels.

20190604_145313webRight across from the cathedral is an old store front set us as a Lace Museum, with lovely examples of the prototypically Breton/Norman craft.  Unfortunately, I have since read that the Lace Museum is in danger of being closed, as it is funded by the city of Bayeux and patronage has been light.  So don’t forget to stop in!

Just down the street is a more modern museum of Breton arts and crafts, housed in a former bishop’s palace, with lovely landscape paintings, more lace samples, and a well-stocked gift shop offering post cards and booklets about the medieval city, its role in World War II, and its artistic heritage.

20190604_161740webOf course, Bayeux is most famous for that other artifact of war, the Bayeux Tapestry, now displayed beautifully in a circular museum which allows the entire 200 feet of  embroidered cloth to be shown, accompanied by an audio commentary provided through headsets to each visitor.  (This device not only fills you on details a guidebook may have overlooked, but it artfully keeps the visitors moving forward as the audio commentary moves forward to the next panel.  No pause button. ) Notice the way the borders complement the action, with dead and dying soldiers, archers, and mythic beast bordering the action-packed cavalry sequences.  The Bayeux tapestry is like an early graphic novel, with leading characters easily identified by distinctive dress or hair, and scenes of ribaldry aleternating with the diplomacy and bloodshed.  Definitely a Don’t Miss!

Freeway-Free in France: Ceremonies (LATC July 3, 2019, for our Veterans)

20190606_102633docI had the good fortune to be among the 12,000 + invited guests at the 75th anniversary ceremonies commemorating the D-Day landings in Normandy.

All 12,000 + guests were brought in by shuttle buses from staging areas in nearby towns (except for the VIPs, like Presidents Macron and Trump and their supporting cast, who arrived by helicopter). The security lines were long, but we passed the time checking out the helicopter arrivals, and applauding the mostly wheelchair-bound, heavily be-medaled D-Day survivors as they wheeled past on the way to the VIP tent.

20190606_114147cropWe were among the last 4000 to arrive at the American Cemetery, and the stage and podium seemed several football fields away in the distance.  But giant Jumbotron screens gave us close up views of Air Force One (both jet and helicopter) and its occupants as they landed, and of President Trump’s ceremonial greeting of guests President and Mrs. Macron onto what is considered American soil.

When we took our eyes from the screens, we looked out over a sea of white crosses, each decorated with a  American and a French flag,  stretching beyond the audience area for even more hundreds of yards. So many dead buried in tidy rows, as if drawn up for a regimental parade. An occasional Star of David marked a grave instead of a cross. A rare cross with gold lettering indicated a Medal of Honor recipient. An occasional soldier is “known only to God.” It seems right that all the soldiers are equal in death, except for those singled out for their valor.  The son of a US President has the same marker as an unknown soldier.

Before the speeches, national anthems were sung.  During the speeches, 12,000 people listened quietly.  President  Macron thanked the veterans who were present in English, and presented four of them with the French Legion of Honor (including air kisses on both cheeks).  President Trump told stories of the heroics of two D-Day soldiers, then turned to shake their hands personally on the stage.

Afterward, the ceremony continued.  We heard taps played by a distant trumpet, followed by a 21- gun salute, delivered by three mighty howitzers aimed out over Omaha Beach. Five fighter jets flew over in the missing man formation. A platoon of other military aircraft filled the sky, emulating the flocks of fighters and bombers on D-day.  Finally, a second squadron of nine jets, trailing red, white, and blue contrails, roared across the sky.20190606_130439doc

The whole event was both humbling and satisfying.  We had paid appropriate homage to those who fought for us, and in doing so honored those who are still fighting.

Our French guide had told us that, in France, the D-day landings are never referred to as an invasion.  Instead, they were the forces of liberation. Tomorrow, if this piece is published on schedule, will be Independence Day.  Let’s celebrate our own liberation with due ceremony, while remembering those we owe it to.

[Article first published in the Los Altos Town Crier this summer;  still appropriate as Veteran’s Day approaches.]

Freeway Free in California – Adventures up the Empty Coast – Day 2 (continued)

IMG_0251docThe weather was perfect: warm, no fog or wind, as we left Hearst Castle.

We meandered up Hwy. 1, ooh-ing and aah-ing alternately at the gorgeous scenery and at the huge scars on the hillsides marking the winter landslides of several seasons. South of tiny Gordo men were still working to clear a large slide – the influx of workers must have been a boon to the intesnsely cute Whale Watcher’s Café which dominates the one-block town.

Fountains of invasive pampas grass flaunt their rusty pink plumes all over the scarred hillsides. It’s clear that they have gotten the jump on native vegetation, but one must be thankful for any roots that will hold back more landfalls. Not encouraging to start the trips with a sign saying “Rock Slide area – next 60 miles.

We snuck into the Los Padres National Forest’s Plaskett Creek Campground despite the signs saying “Campground Full,” and ate sandwiches and chips we had bought at the Hearst cafeteria/deli. The group camp, with a beautiful ocean view, was deserted at midday, except for a group of grackles generaled by jays which hovered ever closer to our crumbs. Then after our lunch, only about 500 yards further down the road we saw a sign for “Beach and Picnic Area”. Our lunch tasted better for being illicit, though.


20191002_125717docFurther up the road there was an even bigger slide, with an obviously temporary one-lane road perched nervously across the new ground. But it was fascinating to watch the big diggers roaming and scooping  atop huge mounds of dirt and stone. And that road remains a marvel of impossible engineering, spectacular vistas, and a maddening plodding pace behind the inevitable road boulder, often a “Rent-Me-RV” whose first-time RV driver is scared to death of his rig and the road.  And they won’t pull out to let the long line of vehicles behind them to pass, which is the law, or, if it isn’t, there oughta be.20191002_132921doc

And finally we made it to Big Sur, with its redwoods, its fire-scars, its resorts both humble and ostentatious nestled in the piney woods.  Only another hour of gorgeous scenery to go before we hit the traffic and tourists of the Monterey Peninsula.  It’s been a great ride.

Freeway-Free in California: Exploring the Castle on the Empty Coast (Day 2)

IMG_0260docWe had perfectly an ordinary breakfast at Cambria’s Creekside Garden Diner,  which we would probably have liked a lot better if it had been warmer and we had eaten on their attractive creekside patio. There are two breakfast/lunch places in the same Redwood Square shopping center, both  recommended by a local as the best options for breakfast – next time we will try the other one. No complaints about the French toast with strawberries I had – but it was ordinary, as was the hole-in-the-wall decor.

Then, for a complete contrast, we headed up the coast for the Grand Rooms Tour of Hearst Castle at San Simeon.  We had last visited the Castle several decades ago.  Things have changed.  There is now an elaborate Visitor’s Center with a movie theater and a number of exhibits relating to Hearst’s parents, the Hearst fortune, Hearst’s travels, and more.

 

Previously we  had been able to drive up close to the castle;  now there is a large parking lot near the Visitor’s Center and a shuttle bus which follows a loop driveway through the estate, with a recorded commentary on Hearst’s wildlife collection, riding trails, and so on. We had perfect weather to enjoy the spectacular views  of ocean and mountains from inside the bus and from the patios surrounding the castle.

At the steps of the castle we met our excellent guide.  We were asked to imagine ourselves as guests just arriving on the front patio of the Castle.  Our host might or might not be there to greet us. Meanwhile we  marveled at the fountains and statues which surrounded the entry, and the famous Roman swimming pool.

Inside, we saw the tapestry-clad reception room, the expansive dining room with its regal beamed ceilings and proletarian catsup bottles on the table.

The whole place is like a combination of Versailles and San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House. Hearst was constantly acquiring antiquities, constantly planning more building. Only the collapse of his publishing fortune during the Depression halted the expansion of his plans. Some of the items he purchased were never used;  some, like the room bought from Gwydir Castle in Wales in a bankruptcy sale,  (see my earlier article “Freeway- Free in Wales”) have even been lost.

20191002_110452webSome of the acquisitions were puzzling – what was the meaning of the Arabic writing in mosaic tile positioned over the player piano in the alcove off the billiard room? The guide was too far away to ask, so this remans a mystery.

Questions had to be asked fast, as the tours are carefully timed – a group could be spied leaving each of the rooms just as we entered, and after  the final room (the spectacular indoor swimming pool)  we had an option of getting on a bus to descend the hill or wandering a bit more about the grounds.  I’d like to go back for a second tour, to see the bedrooms (42)  and bathrooms (61)where the guests could stay and relax. But that’s the secret of a great host, to keep you wanting to come back.IMG_0274doc

 

Freeway Free in CAlifornia – Adventures on the Empty Coast (Day 1)

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What’s the empty coast? Where Highway 1 clings to the cliff faces south of Carmel, with basically no left turns and few habitations until it regains civilization and a few crossroads south of San Simeon.

We needed a fall getaway, so D and I headed lickety-split down US-101, aiming for a calm coastal stay in Cambria, followed by a visit to Hearst San Simeon National Monument, and a scenic trip back up through Big Sur and the stretch of California Highway 1 that had been cut off by landslides and fires for several of the past years.

We stopped for lunch in Paso Robles, one of my favorite pauses for trips south and north on Historic El Camino Real. There are several good restaurants in Paso. This time we stopped at the Berry Hill Bistro, where the paninis are huge, the salads ample, and the servers slim and smiling. (I always think it’s a good sign if a restaurant’s waitresses are thin. It means they are running off the calories serving customers as fast as they can, rather than sitting around eating the leftovers.)

Just past Paso we found our exit on CA Highway 46, and sailed along a well maintained road through San Luis Obispo wine country. Acres of grapevines in fall colors cloaked the dry hills, and each winery seemed to be vying with the next to have the most oddly memorable name (my favorite: Tooth and Nail Winery.)

Only a half hour later we were cruising along Cambria’s Main Street. To our delight, we discovered that the entire month of October in Cambria is devoted to a Scarecrow Festival, and each retail, educational, and many private establishments compete for the notice of passers-by. There were Mexican-themed flamenco scarecrows for the Mexican restaurants, a Victorian lady in blue and white next to the blue and white Chase bank logo, and my favorite Raggedy Ann and Andy from my childhood next to a toy and gift store.

After checking into our beachfront motel, the Little Sur Inn,  we walked along the boardwalk bordering Moonstone Beach to check out the Moonstone Beach Bar and Grill as a dinner prospect, but although it has a lovely front veranda with a stunning sunset view,  and seemed to have a lively patronage, we would have been walking back in the dark, and it seemed a bit far.

We has our traditional champagne on the balcony of our room, looking out over Moonstone Beach. The sunset looked like a banana skin shading around the curve from pale yellow to golden brown.   We lingered until we both thought we saw the green flash accompanying the last rays of the sun. Lovely.20191001_190339web

As long as we would be getting in the car anyway, we decided to try Robin’s Restaurant in Cambria’s east village, a recommendation from a friend. It is a beautiful adapted home just a block from the Main Street, with a quiet ambiance, excellent service and good food (roasted Brussels sprouts with pine nuts and blue cheese, miso sea bass, firecracker shrimp).

One caveat: As we watched, there were maybe three younger couples coming in or leaving during the evening, but this is definitely a quiet restaurant for an older crowd.  D and I are used to upping the average age of the customer base by 10 years when we enter a restaurant. In this case we were right on average. D observed thatRobin’s does not have high chairs or booster seats, but they do seem to have an ample supply of walkers and supplemental oxygen bottles.  I guess the younger crowd was still quaffing brewskis on the Moonstone Beach Bar and Grill veranda.

IMG_0247webWe took the remains of a bottle of local Pinot Noir back to our balcony to finish off the evening with the complimentary chocolate chip cookies from our check- in desk. We sat on our balcony again to watch the crescent moon setting near where the sun had set before our dinner. Suddenly stars! The Milky Way! D even saw a shooting star. Only one spotlight shining on the entry sign for our hotel spoiled the dark sky.

 

Freeway-Free in Spain: Assorted Basque Specialties

20190529_111016doc.jpgDid I mention that Bilbao is the unofficial capital of the Basque region of Spain?   I am a little bit familiar with Basque family-style dining due to the heritage of Basque shepherds which has been perpetuated in part of northern California.  But nothing had prepared me for the pintxos (appetizer plate) bars which are the pride of Bilbao and San Sebastian.  Above you see a typical spread (pardon me and my spouse for having partially blocked the view).

The idea is to browse from one pintxos bar to the next, sampling a glass of wine and a small plate delicacy in each.  As you might guess from the decor, many of the pintxos feature the local ham, a delicacy all by itself.

One evening we were fortunate to dine at Aspaldiko, a historic country estate featuring Basque cuisine.  This was our first exposure to Spanish formal dining, which involves aperitivos,  several flavors of wine, at least five courses, with coffee and cheeses and a digestif of local sherry or port following the dessert.   Be prepared.

Another long historic tradition of the Basque country is seafaring and shipbuilding.  If you have a chance, take a short boat ride from San Sebastian to visit the  Albaola Factory and Museum  , where you can watch experts on maritime heritage and boat building working on building a replica of a 16th century Basque whaling ship.  What I know about whaling is from reading Moby Dick, and I couldn’t help but imagine Ahab facing the leviathan in one of these carefully crafted boats.

The museum also partners with local cider makers, so don’t forget to make a donation to the museum by purchasing at least a glass of cider to sip while you watch. It blends wonderfully with the smells of fresh-sawn wood.

 

 

 

Freeway-Free in Spain: Old Bilbao Explored

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When you are tired of looking at indoor and outdoor art along the Abandoibarra between Bilbao’s two world-class museums, go for a different vibe in Bilbao’s Old Town and Warehouse District.

On a weekday, you can browse the Mercado de la Ribera, one of the largest and oldest indoor markets in Spain. (I was there on a Sunday, but I did get to see some of the lovely stained glass windows in the guild hall.)

In the Warehouse District you will find the Alhondiga a multi-story public library  built on pillars within an old warehouse, with a glass-bottomed swimming pool on the roof.  It’s a wonderful re-imagining of how to use space. (Notice that no two of the supporting pillars are alike.)

In the Old Town are the usual medieval cathedral, narrow cobbled streets, and slightly skewed medieval buildings.

And if you explore the side streets, you will find some amazing, funky shops offering  exotic (and painful-looking) piercings, gothic wear, and many other oddities.

If you want an overview, don’t omit visiting the park atop Mount Artxanda, the hilltop overlooking Bilbao, for a panorama which takes in both old and new Bilbao. 20190528_124541doc

And then maybe you’ll want to take in the art scene just one more time before you leave.

 

Freeway-Free in Spain: A Tale of Two Museums

Bilbao’s Promenade along the Estuary is anchored at each end by a world-class museum.  The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum looks like a traditional museum from the outside – a blockish building with a fountain courtyard,  a lobby with a gift shop.  Ho hum. But the museum has re-invented itself in competition with its more famous colleague at the other end of the promenade and its exhibit space, when I visited, was among the most interesting and inventive I have seen.

20190526_160456webAt the time of my visit, the museum had thrown the traditional chronological arrangement of its art right out the window, and had rearranged its El Greco’s, its Goyas, its Gauguin in alphabetical order by subject.  So the Gauguin was exhibited under A for ART, taken out of its frame and put between glass panels so you could see the paint smudges on the edges of the canvas, and some scribbles by the artist on the back of the canvas.  In the same room were examples of art by paleolithic artists as well as moderns ones.  It made me think about the Gauguan in a completely different way.

Here’s a sample of the many pieces of Spanish and European art on view at the Fine Arts Museum:

(The picture on the lower left was taken, of course, in the room labeled “P for Portrait”.)

It was a rainy day when I visited, and I could have happily stayed for hours.

The next day I visited the other end of the Promenade, the Guggenheim Bilbao.  This museum is really all about the building.  The architecture inside and out is so curvaceously fascinating that the art pieces serve as much to enhance the building as to display themselves. Here’s a sample:

Of course, Bilbao is more than the sum of two museums and a promenade along the estuary.  There is an old town. There are modern buildings. I’ll give you a glimpse of that Bilbao next time.

Freeway-Free in Spain: Bilbao Re-Imagined – Day 1

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All I knew of Bilbao before arriving was what I learned from Andy Williams in the song about “that old Bilbao moon/I shan’t forget it soon…/While Tony’s beach saloon/Rocked with an old-time tune”.

Whatever Bilbao Andy was singing about has gone, if it ever existed. For one thing, there is no beach at Bilbao; it gained its success as a port because it was situated on a wide river inlet, well away from storms AND sand.

Bilbao was the Pittsburg of Spain, a busy port located near iron deposits, and thus steel mills and manufacturing plants. Like Pittsburg, when the iron gave out, the city verged on collapse.   The warehouses emptied, the port facilities were allowed to become outmoded, and manufacturing jobs left for cheaper labor pools.

City visionaries hit on the idea of re-positioning Bilbao as a cultural center, and reclaiming its idle port as a riverside sculpture park and promenade. Someone heard that the Guggenheims were thinking of establishing a satellite museum in Europe, and Bilbao pulled out all the stops to secure this prize. The result: a voluptuously curved Frank Gehry–designed building which is a destination in itself, supplemented by The Museum of Fine Arts (the second largest museum of Spanish art in the country after El Prado in Madrid) at the other end of the promenade,, and between them a lovely open green space bordering the reclaimed river, studded with sculptures, bridges, fountains, playgrounds, and outdoor performance spaces.

Sculptures vary from realistic to very abstract:

The fountains bubble graciously from traditional to naturalistic:

And the playgrounds are well-used (note: the red-capped youth on the rope net are the same ones you can spot starting their school field trip in the first photo above).

20190526_172636webSo – come to Bilbao for the walk, the outdoor art, the architecture, the parks… and that’s only the first day!

Freeway Free in Colorado: The Headwaters Center in Winter Park – a GEM

20190821_101138webThe Headwaters Center in Winter Park, Colorado is a small delight, featuring creative audio, visuals, and interactive displays to immerse the visitor in the history and hazards of water and water management along the Continental Divide.  It opened in July 2019.

As you walk through the museum, you can use your finger along a time line to change the waterflow and scenery along the walls,  You can put yourself into a kayak or onto a mountain bike as you explore the recreation options around the river.  You can fly like an osprey over the Continental Divide, searching out the watersheds of the Fraser, the Colorado, and other major rivers. You can (if you are small) crawl inside a beaver dam and commune with a beaver.

The Center is full of “I never thought of that!” moments.  For example, I kinda knew that most of the rain along the Divide falls on the west side of the Rockies, while most of the people live on the east side.  So massive tunnels have been build to divert water flow from west to east.  (an interactive display allows you to turn a valve wheel to see the impact of this diversion on the ecology of the western slope). An unexplored consequence is that the water that would have run into the Pacific from the western watershed now eventually runs into the Atlantic.  Long-term effects? We’re not sure.

The Center itself is designed to be completely off the grid, with solar panels and a back-up generator providing clean power.  It is, of course, designed for advocacy.  From the souvenir shelf (no full-size gift shop yet) a visitor can buy eco-bricks to lessen the water flow in toilets, re-fillable water bottles to make bottled water unnecessary, and other water-conservation tools.20190821_113644doc

A take-away flyer suggests action items which a visitor can take to become more aware and informed about Western water usage.  The Center is a mind-changing, mind-expanding experiment in the power of information.  Don’t miss it.

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