Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Memoir”

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.

 

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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 California: Exploring Stanford’s GEM of a Library

MainLibe2I have mentioned before on this blog that I am something of a connoisseur of libraries.  A few weeks ago I had the chance to explore a local GEM, as Stanford University celebrated the 100th Birthday of its Main Library (now known, in Stanford’s frenzy of naming buildings after wealthy donors, as the Bing Wing of the Green Library).

The stately façade, with its Façade obscured by renovation scaffolding but we were assured that the look would remain unchanged, including Stanford’s trademark rough-hewn sandstone and terra-cotta roof tiles. After a barbecue buffet and birthday cake, we were escorted into the library in groups for guided tours of the exhibits.

But here’s the secret:  you don’t need an invitation or a tour guide to explore the marvels of the Main – all you need to register for use is a government-issued photo ID, which gives you seven days a year of access at no charge.  Access to what? you may ask.  Let’s explore.

20190715_142729webRegister at the entry inside the big wooden doors of the Main Library.  Then head up the stairs to the rotunda.  On the day of the birthday, there was a harpist playing near the center of the rodunda, the delicate sounds reverberating in the giant space.  When I was a student, the Stanford Choir would give impromptu concerts on the stairs, especially wonderful at Christmas time, when we were swotting away in preparation for final exams.

I f there is no harpist, turn left into the spacious reading room.  In earlier days it served as the Reserve Book Room where students waited their turn to read the assigned texts for Western Civ and other limited-access materials.  Hoover Tower looms just out the windows.  As a student, I remember watching from the Reserve Book Room as suicide-prevention grates were lifted up to install at the top-most level. Stanford legend holds that someone studying in the RBR looked up from his textbook and and actually saw that guy fall. MainLibe1

Currently, the space where I used to wait impatiently for my number to come up is known as the Lane Reading Room,  and as one of the best spots to study on campus.

At the entrance is a fascinating clock, which looks like a fishbowl with a globe somehow floating magically in the middle.  A fish points to the correct time.  Along the walls are portraits of past presidents of Stanford, most posed staidly in suits or academic robes.  My favorite is of Gerhard Caspar, the German iconoclast who came in to shake things up in the 80’s. It’s the only one that looks like the artist or the subject were enjoying the process

If you come back to the rotunda and go left away from the stairs, you will end up in the newer part of the Green Library, which is much less interesting, in my view.  Instead, go straight across the rotunda and look for the stairs on the right, leading up to the Romsey Map Room.

David-Rumsey-Map-Center-LargeThe stairs alone are worth the price of admission, as each wall is covered with giant reproductions of antique maps and charts, covering everything from a visual representation of the longest rivers on earth vs the highest mountains, to a 3-D rendering of Manhattan Island in the 50’s, and much more.

The Romsey Map Room itself is a magic place where you can seemingly travel through time and space, thanks to the technology of Google Earth combined with Stanford’s amazing collection of maps and globes.

If you need a rest after zooming in and out with Google Earth, exit the back door of the Map Room and take the elevator up to the fifth floor, where you can rest up in the Bender Room, one of the most peaceful retreats on campus.  It has deep leather chairs, capable reading lamps, and windows allowing you to look out of the Main’s front windows over the Quad.

Display cases around the rotunda and in the Bender Room often display special exhibits featuring treasures from Stanford’s collection.  If you want more personal access, you can check out the digital catalogue, and even order up an arcane book for perusal. (I was excited to find a childhood favorite, The Magic Doll of Roumania, long out of print and invisible on Amazon’s and Ex Libris websites, listed in the catalog.  I put in a request, and three days later I was invited to come up and examine the book at my leisure.  I couldn’t take it out of the building, but if I needed more than a couple of hours, they would be glad to hold it for me for several days. Amazing!) Spend some time, and see what treasures you can unearth!

 

 

 

 

Freeway Free in Texas: On the way to the Back of Beyond

20190612_090827docOK, I’m cheating a little.  We actually spent quite a bit of time on the freeway on our way to the Big Bend area of west Texas – there is no other way to get there.

W picked me up at the Austin airport in a giant white 4-door truck which we have christened Moby Dick. It has mirrors that can fold in electrically so you can squeeze through narrow spots, and a backup camera, and a hands free phone,  and a beeper in front and in back if you are about to hit something.  You can adjust the seat back and forth and up and down and the brake pedal and accelerator also up and down. It took W awhile to figure out how to turn on the windshield wipers without turning open the windshield washer, and there are a few more bills and whistles we probably didn’t notice. And most importantly, it has four-wheel drive and rides high off the ground. (This last is a bit of a challenge to W and me, who are both on the short side.  We have learned to vault up to our seats with the help of a grip on the window frame, and slither down to the ground carefully to avoid jolts to our knees on descending.) Moby Dick seems very out of place driving through the well-manicured Austin suburbs;  we might as well be driving a Sherman tank.

20190325_155456docSo off we go out of Austin and past places that we have visited before, into the unknown spaces of the Big Bend country of southwest Texas.  We move out of the area where bluebonnets and scarlet paintbrush are blooming and into an area where odd geological formations punctuate the skyline like very broad pencils with sharp tips.  Scattered yuccas bloom like pale torches among the scrubby bushes. The occasional farm augments its income with pumpjacks in the valleys and windmills on the ridges, hedging its bets between the old energy and the new.

Knowing that our access to fast food restaurants will be scarce, we stock up at a Lowes market in  Ft. Stockton on raw veggies, hummus, oranges, pears, grapes, cottage cheese, cheddar cheese, tuna fish, sardines, and crackers – good for several breakfasts and dinners, we hope.20190324_150327web

And finally we abandon the cheery red line on our Texas map, and head south on the black lines.  Our first stop will be at an amazing oasis in the Back of Beyond, so stay tuned!

Freeway-Free in San Francisco: Bay to Breakers – Still Crazy After All These Years

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When our kids were pre-schoolers my husband took up jogging with some friends. In the spring, they decided to try the Bay to Breakers race/fun run in San Francisco. For the next two years they would set off early to start the race, while the kids and I would hustle into the car later and do our best to get to the windmill in Golden Gate Park in time to wave at Daddy as he went by.

Then I took up jogging, too, as did a lot of other folks, it seems. Bay to Breakers ballooned from a few thousand participants to tens of thousands. The night before the race became a family event, with my sister, my brother, and their families bunking at our house the night before. On race morning Grandma and Grandpa came over to look after the grand-children, while the parents crammed onto CalTrain with assorted crazy people in costumes. The race was always schedule within a few days of my birthday, so I always felt somehow that everyone was celebrating with me.

Fast forward a few years. My kids were both running track, and eager to smoke their dad and uncles in Bay to Breakers. Grandma and Grandpa decided to be walkers, so we found a baby-sitter for the younger kids. Bay to Breakers was up to over 100,000 participants, fueled by baby boomer enthusiasm and the free radio, TV,and newspaper ads put out by the sponsoring San Francisco Examiner. The race route was officially equipped with timers at every mile interval, first aid stations, and volunteers offering water, and unofficially equipped with rock bands on the corners and SF residents cheering us on from their balconies with showers of confetti and speakers blaring Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again”.

Some teams ran yoked together as “centipedes”. The San Francisco Dental School carried a giant toothbrush and tube of toothpaste and chanted “Brush your teeth! Brush your teeth!” as they went by. Both men and women ran dressed as ballerinas, as cows, as the President, as nuns, as Elvis. There were some dressed in nothing at all. From the finish line at Ocean Beach participants back-tracked to the Polo Grounds, where the post-race Expo included more rock bands, the race T-shirt distribution tables, food and beer booths, and lots of free stuff. What a party!

More years have passed. I’m an empty-nester and an orphan, my husband has a trick knee, and my family has scattered. I haven’t done Bay to Breakers in years. A friend and I decided to make it a goal. So in the middle of May, in pouring rain, my husband took us up to the Millbrae BART station and off we went.

Since the Examiner folded, the race has had various sponsors: a bank, a grocery chain, an airline. With the lack of free media advertising, it has shrunk to maybe 25,000 participants. At each BART station we picked up people who were obviously headed for the race, but there were few costumes. We popped out of the underground at Powell Street and walked back toward the start.

Something new: lots of barricades to keep hotel guests and convention-goers from getting tangled up with the runners. Some things missing: the rainbow of balloons which used to make the start, the hovering helicopters, the crowd of spectators lined up along the start to cheer the runners.

Miraculouslyt, the rain had let up.  We saw the seeded runners go by.  We saw a centipede made up of twenty women dressed in black robes with lace collars who all managed to look exactly like Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  We saw a bunch of people dressed as cows.  We saw a naked runner carrying an obscene sign.  We decided it was time to jump in.

By the time we hit Golden Gate Park, the sun was shining so brightly that the Conservator of Flowers looked like a puff of meringue on its hill.  In between the rock bands, as we went through the blocked – off park, I could hear the magical sound of hundreds of feet hitting the pavement.  The post race party was relatively small, but we each still scored a bottle of water, a banana, and an energy bar to fuel our way back across the city on the N-Juday trolley to the Cal Train Station.  And we were feeling triumphant at making it from bay to beach with our thousands of friends.  Me and the City – still crazy after all these years.

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Freeway-Free in Texas: Magical Marfa

20190325_192143docMarfa, in the Big Bend Country of Texas, is the home of the mysterious Marfa Lights, a phenomenon which has been photographed and videotaped and in honor of which the local Chamber of Commerce has erected a very nice viewing site complete with benches and rest rooms.

20190325_193228webBut the real mystery of Marfa is not the lights, but how a town of scarcely 3000 manages to maintain not just the grand old El Paisano Hotel, build in 1930 with an elaborate facade, courtyard with fountain, grand lobby with Spanish tile floor and check-in desk, beamed ceilings, stuffed longhorn and buffalo heads, and a bustling bar and dining room, but also a second “retro-contemporary ” hotel, the St. George, which is all clean 50’s decor, expansive space, modern art and furnishings, and what looks like another top-line restaurant, as well as a book store specializing in contemporary art.

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And next to the St. George is a large contemporary building which houses a conference center as well as a rec center including a swimming pool with an outdoor bar. The town also boasts several art and craft galleries. How do these establishments scratch a living?

The cast of “Giant” stayed at El Paisano while filming, and the lobby is decorated with posters of shots of the stars on and off the set. If it is not occupied, you can see room 211, which was the party room with a big balcony overlooking the fountain. While waiting for sundown, we had an excellent (three AAA diamonds) dinner of salmon with pesto sauce, roasted Brussels sprouts, and pilar, preceded by a delicious dip trio of guacamole, salsa, and black bean hummus. Not your typical West Texas fare!

After dinner,  out to the Viewing Platform. The Marfa Lights were shy, but the STARS! Orion, normally just a belt with a sword in light- polluted Californa, was festooned with decoration. W had loaded a SkyWatch app on her phone which allowed her to point the phone at the sky and it would tell what constellations we might be seeing there. We confirmed Cassiopeia, the big straggling W, but I couldn’t remember much more from my brother’s Boy Scout Handbook.

On a second evening we stopped in Marfa again (on the way back from the Middle of Nowhere – see future posts!) and discovered more about the magic.  It seems that the city is literally the “lengthened shadow of one man”-modern minimalist artist Donald Judd.  Judd  vacationed in Big Bend country in the 70’s and decided the area could provide the ideal space for installations of his gigantic outdoor (made of concrete) and indoor (made of polished steel) cubic artworks. After renting a summer home in Marfa for several years, he plunged in, bought an abandoned military site with a couple of warehouses, and gradually also bought a number of empty commercial buildings in the downtown, including a National Bank building with lovely tile work which is now the office of his son’s architectural firm, a block-size office buildings which houses the Chinati Foundation,  a facing building for the Judd Foundation, and others. You can purchase an all day (6 hour plus 2-hour lunch break) tour to see both the inside and outside ateliers plus gallery exhibits by other artists, or a 3 hour indoor tour of all the buildings, or a free tour of the outside installations.

The presence of this driving force gave new life to the rest of the town. Conferences organized by the Chinati Fund  invited artists and tourists from Los Angeles and New York, some of whom stayed to open art galleries featuring modern as well as regional and native art. With the artists came foodies who brought the old hotel’s bar and dining room up to 3 diamond standard, and converted another hole in the wall into Stellina, a hip wine bar/restaurant with “some of the best veggie enchiladas ever” per W.  On a Wednesday evening by 8PM the young folk are sitting on the sidewalk with their wine buckets and generous pours waiting for tables, with more coming up the street. 20190327_184100web

Other movies such as No Country for Old Men have also used Marfa for HQ. It’s “the quirkiest town in Texas” per Texas Highways.  And the promoters of Lollapalooza are exploring holding a Burning Man -type festival on the outskirts of town which would attract four times the normal population. But even Donald Judd doesn’t explain why that grand hotel was built in 1930. There is still mystery and magic beyond even the sorcery of Donald Judd. Marfa in the Back of Beyong has almost more liveliness than it can stand, while Ozona, a similarly sized town with an equally attractive center square, and located on a major transportation corricor, molders away.  Go figure!

 

 

Freeway Free in Scotland: Another Bloody Battlefield

IMG_0684doc Why do we yearn over battlefields and lost causes?  At the Battle of Gettysburg, the High Water Mark of the Confederacy gets more photos than any other monument.  Even on our cruise in  Alaska we toured a battlefield – the last stand of the Kwakiutls or some such. We are in awe of places where lots of young men died for reasons they and we no longer understand. And here we are at Culloden, where young Scotsmen in kilts wielded swords and battle axes against British cannon and riflery, and died bravely for a prince who escaped the carnage and lived out a wastrel life in Italy. .

Culloden is a beautiful place on a bright summer day, a broad pasture stippled with swathes of greenery and shrubbery, sweeping off to distant hills and a blue sky studded with white clouds.  And then you notice the clan markers, where the bodies of slain Scotsmen were heaped into trenches and covered over with earth.  No individual markers for the Scots, just a stone with the clan name.  And maybe the bodies underneath match the name, or maybe not.

The Culloden Battlefield has one of the best visual representations of slaughter that I have seen. We are told 50 Englishmen died vs. 2500+ Scots. That seems like a lot. Then we see the wall – the extruded bricks represent a death.  – 20 feet of bricks represent the Royalist deaths – another 10 feet are flat, then 1250 feet represent the Scotch deaths.20180724_145704doc  You see, you understand.

Freeway Free in Scotland: Bonnie Braes and Bustling Edinburgh

20180723_082742docI can’t say I knew Scotland better after a whirlwind tour, and certainly gained no real insiders knowledge of its captital, Edinburgh.  So I will give you a bullet list, and some photos, and leave you to explore this fount of history and legend as you will.

  •  Take the train.

We traveled on a comfortable, modern first-class Virgin Atlantic coach from York to Edinburgh, and although the train was an hour late due to a malfunction somewhere along the line, the wait at the York station was not uncomfortable, with lots of people-watching to be done.  Once on the train, we enjoyed   lots of leg room, tasty snacks, and lovely scenery right out of Van Gogh with yellow/green checkered fields dotted with hay bales, and fringed with purple loosestrife.

  •  Pick a hotel in the middle of the action.

 

We stayed luxuriously at the Balmoral Hotel, just next to the train station.  (The hotel clocks are all set 3 minutes fast, to make sure guests don’t miss their train!)  Super elegant, super convenient.

  •  Enjoy the food.

We had an excellent lunch at the Whiski Room pub for delicious chicken, leek and carrots and beans, layered scalloped potatoes, a pint of IPA ale.  Later we splurged on an elegant dinner at The Dome, a restaurant that started as a physician’s college (hence the caedaceum in the stained glass windows), then was a bank headquarters, and is now a beautiful restaurant with 6×6′ floral arrangements and the most elaborately decorated ladies room I have ever seen (embroidered damask satin wall covering, six foot arrangements of orchids, gilt sun burst, carved and etched mirrors…).

We had a head start at Edinburgh Castle, being admitted  in advance of the other 10,000 odd visitors it receives per day. But in rushing to stay ahead of the throngs, we had little time to savor the history.  Here was where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James, and began all the resulting civil and ecclesiastical warfare..  Here is the fabled Stone of Scone, restored after centuries under the buttocks of English monarchs to its rightful place among the Scottish Crown Jewels.  Down the road is the square where the Bonnie Prince rallied his troops  in his ill-fated rising against English rule.  And further on is  Holyrood Palace where his grandmother Mary struggled against her own lords to maintain her majesty, and where Queen Elizabeth still stays during her annual visit.

  •  Read some books in advance, to prepare yourself.  Or see some movies.  Or some plays.  Tons has been written and acted about this intrinsically dramatic period. Go ahead and wallow in Diana Gabalon’s “The Outlander” in print or on TV (Seasons 1 &2) ,   or just type in “Mary, Queen of Scots” on Amazon and stab with your finger.
  • If you are a Harry Potter fan, you can put together your own  J. K. Rowling tour of Edinburgh, highlighting the Elephant House café where she began writing the series, and glimpsing other sites which are said to have inspired her.  Or you can book a tour through the many travel helpers available.

Hope for good weather, and take your time!  Edinburgh is a joy to walk about in, and there is a story around almost every corner. IMG_0609crop

Freeway Free in Wales: From the Castle to the Pits and Back

20180717_145638docAmong the hazards of a pre-organized group tour is that one day may be PACKED with events and places to see, while the next may find you bus-bound as your itinerary hustles you off to the next attraction.  (Above is a view from the bus of the beautiful Welsh countryside near Snowdon. Time to explore on your own, and time to digest your experiences may both be limited.

Today we explored the depths of a slate mine (damp, dark, dusty),

rode on a narrow-gauge railway (clattering, quaint, cramped),

explored Portemeirion, a fantasy village created as “an homage to Portofino” by a self taught architect (eclectic, imaginative, erratic),

ate dinner at a World heritage site castle (lavish, lamb, local lore),

and watched border collies herding sheep into their home pens (energetic, efficient, effective).  20180717_145701

Lots of diversity, but almost too much to take in.  By the end of the day, I am most clearly remembering those border collies herding the sheep as we sat on the wall of our guest house, quietly and remotely and restfully watching.

 

Next Week: Freeway – Free in Wales: Life in the Village, Life in the Castle

 

 

Freeway Free in Wales: Hanging out at Bodysgallen Hall

20180716_211431docWe are still traveling first class:  we were picked up at the Manchester Airport by Jason, a deferential fellow with a strong accent.  He loaded our gear into a Mercedez limo/van, and off we go through misty rain (the first rain in six weeks, Jason says) to Wales, home of unpronounceable names.   We are staying outside of Llandudno in a 17th century carriage house named Bodysgallen Hall.  The castle for which this ample residence formerly served as gatehouse is visible from our windows, at least a couple of miles away across the valley.  Talk about an impressive entrance!20180716_185011web

Our  room has  mullioned windows and a lot of toile and chintz and Turkish rugs. The welcome reception for our group included a harpist as well as a wide sampling of local whiskeys and not-so-local wines.

Now the sun is setting through my mullioned windows, my spouse is in PJ’s reading about tomorrow’s itinerary, and I am contemplating one more tour around the garden outside before turning in.

Next week: From the Castle to the Pits and Back

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