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Thursday, August 28, 2014

SITKA: Kale Smoothies and Cathedral Bells







Sitka is a small town with a big history. There has been human activity for the last 10,000 years when it was settled by the Tlingit people, but is best known to American history students as the capital of Russian America. The Russians arrived in 1799, naming their fur trading outpost Fort Saint Michael. The Tlingit managed to throw them out in 1802, but not for long. Alexander Baranof, the Russian governor, won the Battle of Sitka in 1804 and renamed his nascent town New Archangel. In 1804 it was named capital of Russian America, which comprised all of Alaska and a fort near Bodega Bay (Fort Ross) and plantations south of the Russian River in California. When the Russians were forced to sell off Alaska in 1867 due to financial woes, Sitka was the site of the signing of the Alaska Purchase.

While my husband went in search of sea otters and other wildlife, I spent day in search of memories of Russia. I did not have to look far. The National Park Service maintains the Russian Bishop’s House, completed in 1843 as an ecclesiastical palace, New World style. It includes the first bishop's personal residence and chapel along with a seminary and native school.


A portrait of the czar presided over Bishop Innocent and his samovar when he entertained dignitaries:





Russia’s interest in the coastal areas of Alaska was mainly limited to the trade in sea otter pelts, the most valuable of all furs. When the population of otters was close to extinction, the Russians drifted home. A leftover pelt was draped over a bench in the Bishop’s house. The Park Service tour guide asked if I wanted to try it on. Of course! The fur was soft and dense, and very heavy. It wasn’t hard to imagine Russian aristocracy wearing their sables and otter furs as their horses dashed through the snowy countryside.



Not all Russians made it home alive. The dark and overgrown cemetery is a melancholy reminder that life in the vast wilderness territory was tenuous. Some of the headstones are made of ship's ballast.




The lovely Russian Orthodox church is in the center of town:



Built in 1848, the cathedral was nearly destroyed by a fire in 1966. The priceless icons, enormous chandelier and other church furnishings were saved, and the church was rebuilt to the same plans.



A Native American priest welcomed me. I told him I was waiting for a friend who is the bell ringer. Near noon, she and I climbed the 58 steep steps to the top of the bell tower where all Sitka listened to her short concert played on eight bells.








You can watch and hear the music recorded on what looks like a cold and wintery day when she hosted a group of visitors.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSAU5fgQx-Q&feature=youtu.be




My stereotyped view of the locals was upended when I had a quick lunch at the Homeport Eatery which provides coffee, baked goods, a pub, creperie and organic wine bar for citizens and tourists. A rough and ready type wearing rain gear and rubber boots bellied up to the bar to order a kale smoothie and a veggie crepe. Apparently real men are different in Alaska.



The last part of my tour was several of the many art galleries in the small town. My favorite was the Rose Gallery next to the Bishop’s House. It is filled with exquisite local art and walrus tusk ivory carvings by natives who live on islands in the Bering Sea. I purchased several fine woodcuts by Eric Bealer who lives in a tiny village on Chichagof Island, north of Baranof Island where Sitka is located.



Sitka has an annual music and arts festival running in the summer. We are already making plans to return to see more wildlife, sample native jazz and other enticing offerings.


All photos copyright Judith Works, except that of the Russian cemetery taken from photos on Bing.

Friday, August 1, 2014

THE COLORS OF ALASKA

After watching gigantic cruise ships sail past our home on Puget Sound every summer for years we finally decided to try an Alaska cruise ourselves. But we didn't want to be with three or four thousand people on a fast round trip from and back to Seattle. On the other end of the scale are expedition ships that focus on a specific area and we wanted an overview. We settled on the Navigator owned by Regent Seven Seas Cruises and which operates on one-week cruises from Vancouver BC to Anchorage or the reverse. It holds 490 passengers, maximum, and was a good choice for us.

Next problem was worries about the weather. Southeast Alaska is notorious for rain at any time of the year and we were sailing in June, hardly the height of their brief summer. I expected gray, maybe more than fifty shades, but we were fortunate and found the long days drenched in color. Sky, water, mountains, flowers, native art and even signage combined to make a kaleidoscope of beauty.

The cool color of ice of Hubbard Glacier where our captain sprinkled ashes on the water in honor of a local deity. We assumed the ashes were from one of the many volcanoes - or did the chef burn something? At any rate, it worked because the weather held.




And icebergs in Tracy Arm:



The many colors of Russian dolls in Sitka:



And Russian icons in the Orthodox St. Michael's Cathedral:


And malachite green, too:



The brilliant color of a coffee ad in Skagway:



The pink of wild roses:



And of foxgloves:


The orange of salmonberry:



The multicolored flower baskets everywhere:





The soft colors of Tlingit art on weathered gray cedar:





And the brightness of new masks in a museum in Ketchikan:


Even the no smoking signs get the message across with color:


We saw pods of orcas; schools of whales; and herds of sea lions, along with sea otters, bear and innumerable birds. Too difficult to photograph well, they made for an unforgettable experience, especially when we saw two eagles leap into the air from an iceberg as it turned upside down while a Humpback whale breached. A truly spectacular memory of Alaska.

Friday, June 27, 2014

ROMAN REMAINS





When in Rome it is always fascinating to follow the lives of ancient Romans. We read and see so much of corporate grandeur that it is easy to forget that individual Romans were real people with families. Families who had a preference for staying together in life as well as in death. When the inevitable happened the remains were often kept in mausoleums so the living could gather in memory of the deceased.

The best preserved of these memorials is the Vatican Scavi underneath St. Peters, where the wealthy went to their eternal rest. But if you want to wander in the sun among the middle class and common people’s tombs, a visit to the Necropoli di Porto is a place to spend some time. That is, if you can find it and get reservations. The Necropolis is located between the airport at Fiumicino and the mouth of the Tiber River on Isola Sacra and is not well signed. The famous ruins of Ostia Antica are a few miles away. (The whole ancient port area is now part of an enormous archaeological project called the Portus Project. The website is www.portusproject.org if you are interested in knowing more.)




The necropolis, a true city of the dead, is across a canal begun by Emperor Trajan for a direct connection between the meandering Tiber and the sea. After the fall of the Empire the area was gradually abandoned as it silted up and became a malarial swamp. It was reclaimed in 1920 and much of the land was turned into market gardens.



We began our tour at the ruins of the Basilica of Sant’Ippolito, constructed in the 4th Century over an earlier complex of baths, only uncovered in the 1970s. The church continued as a place of worship through the 13th Century. The Romanesque bell tower was converted to a watch tower by Pope Gregory XIII in 1585. The church houses some of the artifacts discovered at the site.



It is a short walk from the church to the necropolis where the remains of  merchants, artisans and ship owners from Trajan’s port were to enjoy their sleep. The area is now protected by a chain-link fence and an on-site custodian but no actual remains are left, all lost long ago to the depredations of animals, antiquities hunters and archaeologists. Because the cemetery is so obscure not only are there no actual dead occupants, there were only a few other live ones wandering around when we visited.



The chamber tombs are rectangular, similar to little houses with door, thresholds, windows and terraces with couches for funeral feasts. Many face a cobbled road known as the Via Severiana that ran down the coast, now much farther away than in ancient times.



Outside some of the buildings are amphorae used to pour libations into the tomb.



The occupation of the deceased was often memorialized by a sculptured plaque showing activities such as those of a grain merchant or ship owner. One tomb has a mosaic of an African elephant, probably a strange sight to a member of the family visiting Africa.









Another tomb has a mosaic of the lighthouse and two ships, no doubt a welcome sight after a perilous sea voyage.



But the poorer could not afford such fancy memorials. They are buried in the ground under what looks like dog houses or little old-fashioned traveling trunks. Others only have simple tiles forming a peaked roof. 



It’s hard to imagine what the lives of these humble souls lives could have been like – sailors stranded far from home, dock workers or laborers, all long forgotten except for the occasional wanderer, like us, who briefly wonders who they were.



If you want to visit you can check out www.archeoroma.beniculturali.it. I would suggest actually calling them.

  

Friday, May 30, 2014

SPRING IN ZHUJIAJIAO



Shanghai can get pretty frantic with all the skyscrapers and crowds. If you are in need of a quick change of pace, a good choice is the quiet “water town” of Zhujiajiao, about an hour from the city by bus.

The area around Zhujiajiao was settled thousands of years ago, and the town itself has been around for about 1700 years, new in Chinese terms. Formerly a trading center for cloth and rice, it is now a getaway for tourists and locals who come to enjoy the peaceful watery setting.



When we last visited, it was so early in the spring that the bare branches of the canal-side trees were decorated with laundry instead of leaves. I especially liked the blue briefs that brightened up a view of pale sky, green water, white houses and red lanterns hung outside doorways.


The sun was still weak and the locals were well bundled up as they played cards beside the canals or waited for shoppers.






We began with the obligatory boat ride on the placid waters, boarding near the Fangshen Bridge, built in 1571 and restored in 1812.





We glided under a number of the 36 smaller spans as a sturdy woman propelled the the boat with a wooden pole.


The voyage came to an end when we disembarked near the town’s center for a stroll through the Kezhi Garden with its contorted rocks and old buildings now housing new craftsmen demonstrating traditional Chinese arts such as paper cutting, calligraphy and embroidery.





Later, we moved on to the main shopping area filled with tiny shops and a museum with displays about local culture including a kitchen and dining room from an upper-class family and wind-powered rice milling equipment. But lunch time was nearing and pots bubbling away presented some interesting choices.



Instead of dining canal-side, we decided on a restaurant for an opportunity to sit down and get warm. On the way we saw this plump-cheeked child:




Outside the old post office we came to a wonderful mailbox. It says “Letters” in Chinese and English. The box is supported by a writhing dragon with five claws on each leg. The Imperial dragon represents a long-gone phase of Chinese history but despite the current lack of Emperor or Empress to oversee the mail system, the lock on the box looks new. I thought about posting a card to friends saying “I’ll be here for a while.”




All photos property of author