Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “museums”

Freeway Free in France: the other national cemeteries of Normandy

20190605_093503docWe are all familiar with pictures of the American Cemetery in Normandy, with its rows of white crosses stretching into the distance.  I had not known that the United States was the only combatant in World War II which offered families of its dead an option to repatriate their remains for burial in the US.  The nine thousand plus graves at the American Cemetery are only a third of the fallen.  These are those soldiers who had no family, or whose families lacked means or desire to hold funeral rites at home, so they preferred to let the government bury their dead.

Soldiers from other countries were buried near where they fell. There is a cemetery for Commonwealth soldiers in Bayeux, with tombstones rather than crosses.  There is a Canadian cemetery near Caen.  And, most ironically, there is a German cemetery. at LaCambe, also near Bayeux.

The German cemetery is quite different in look and feel from the rows of white marble favored by the victors.  One enters the cemetery through what seems like a large arch, but once inside, the spacious entrance gives onto a small room with a memorial wall on one side and a listing of the cemetery’s occupants on the other. Exit into the cemetery is through a narrow and low door.  The symbolism, we were told, is that the soldiers entered the war as a group, but died individually, one by one.

The central feature of the cemetery is a tumulus which contains the remains of mostly unidentified German soldiers, topped by a black lava cross and two human figures, one of Jesus, the other of Mary.  Scattered around the grounds are groups of black crosses, some slightly larger than others.  The individual graves are marked by brown plaques laid flat in the grass, each bearing the names of two German soldiers, with their dates of birth and death, and sometimes merely the inscription “Ein Deutcher Soldat”. The plaques are made of German clay.

In school we learned Rupert Brooke’s elegy “The Soldier” which begins

If I should die, think only this of me:
      That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
France has ceded the land which contains the World War II cemeteries to the respective nations which maintain them.  (Thus President Trump acted as host for ceremonies on D-Day at the American cemetery, arriving first and greeting French President Macon and his wife as guests.) It is sobering to realize that this corner of France will be forever Germany, peacefully coexisting in death with its former enemies.
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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 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 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.

Freeway Free in California: San Jose’s Japantown

20190713_144402docSan Jose’s Japantown, centered around the intersection of Jackson and Fifth Restaurant, is one of only three remaining  centers of Japanese culture in the US (the other two being in San Francisco and in Los Angeles.)  Almost destroyed by the forced internment of most of its citizens during World War II, it has bounced back as a nucleus of Japanese restaurants, shops, and community organizations.

If you go to Japantown, it’s best to start with a good meal.  Kubota’s on 5th is an upscale favorite of local Japanese businessmen and their visitors from Japan.  I’m a big fan of their chirashi, which comes with a really good tofu salad along with a sizable bowl of rice topped with generous slices of raw fish.  If you want a more casual meal you might try Gombei,  the sister restaurant around the corner on Jackson, which specializes in sushi.

20190713_134425webAfter lunch, a stroll along 5th street on the other side from Kubota’s will lead you to the San Jose Betsuin Buddhist Temple, with its serene garden inviting some digestive meditation.  If you can, enter the temple and admire its beautiful sliding shoji screens, gilded lanterns, and handsome icons.

From the intersection of 5th and Jackson, a stroll up and down Fifth Street gives you a chance to browse in shops featuring Japanese anime action figures and bobble-head toys,  music stores featuring Japanese stringed instruments and taiko drums, houseware stores, and a variety of Japanese and Korean restaurants and tea shops.

My favorite is Nichi Bei Bussan – a gift shop which has been in business over 100 years, featuring all things Japanese, including kimono fabric and patterns, whimsically decorated socks designed to be worn with flip-flops or Japanese sandals, beautiful tea sets and platters, origami paper, craft books, gift wraps, Japanese graphic novels and magazines and charming, helpful sales people who will gladly help you find the perfect item.

After shopping, time to reflect on the history of Japantown. Go back down Fifth street past Kubota’s and find the memorial sculpture and garden next to the Nissei Memorial Building housing the Japanese American Citizens League.  It’s worth studying each face of the three-sided memorial before visiting the Japanese American Museum just a few doors further down.

The Japanese-American Museum traces the history of Japanese immigrants in the US, from their being imported as easy-to-exploit agricultural laborers to their forced removal to concentration camps during World War II.  The museum includes videos, recorded intreviews, and a replica of a family’s space at Manzanar, one of the relocation camps.  You cannot spend time in this museum without feeling a bit queasy at how easy it seemed to have been to deprive thousands of U.S. citizens of their rights, even as our country  fought against the same arbitrary cruelty as seen in Nazi Germany.

On a lighter note, try to schedule your visit to coincide with one of the special festivals.  I recently happened to arrive during the summer Obon Festival, which featured dancers, taiko drummers, men and women in traditional costumes, lots of food and crafts booths, and an open house at the Buddhist temple offering one-hour classes in “Buddhism 101”.

 

 

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!

 

 

 

 

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