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Posted by on 29 Jun 2009 | Tagged as: Music and Arts, Travel

The obvious solution to a garbage strike is to leave town.

Well, actually we had our trip to Boston planned for at least two months. J. read in the NYT about a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition coming to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), and we realized we had a bit of time in late June, and, besides, J. had never been to Boston and I hadn’t been since 1999 or thereabouts.

We flew Air Canada, which was uneventful on the way down, and slightly more eventful on the way back since they cancelled our flight. We were fortunate to get seats on the next flight out which was also the last flight of the day. In town, we stayed at the Copley Square Hotel in the Back Bay, which was apparently the first hotel in the back bay, having been in business since 1891. It was just renovated last year and re-opened with a modern hip international-style look — a bit hipper than we really needed or would ordinarily be willing to pay for, but they had a very good promotion for their “interior view” rooms. Since these rooms remain a nonnegotiable part of the hotel’s structure, I wouldn’t be too surprised if there were more such promotions in the future. It’s very conveniently located just off Copley Square, near a number of other hotels, shops, and restaurants, within reasonable walking distance of many attractions and convenient to the subway which will get you pretty much anywhere you’re likely to want to go. The 39 bus also stops right at the hotel’s doorstep which is actually probably the fastest way of getting to the MFA.

We spent our first day wandering around Boston, up to the old North End — an slightly odd combination of Revolution Era landmarks and Boston’s Little Italy — where we visited Old North Church and drank iced coffee and double espresso (J. and I. respectively) in an Italian cafe. We wandered back through Quincy Market (now unfortunately transformed into a food court) and downtown with lots of photo ops, finally getting back to our hotel via Boston Common, the Public Gardens, and Newbury Street.

Our second day was devoted to the MFA. The special exhibition — on till mid-August — is a comparative exhibition of Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, three leading Venetian sixteenth-century Venetian painters. All are obviously first-rate artists, but our favourite by a long measure was Titian — J. putting it in terms of Titian being a “once-in-a-century” painter and the other two “once-in-a-decade” painters. Tintoretto is interesting, with canvasses characterized by great energy and outward drama, but Titian is often capable of capturing the same dramatic intensity with greater complexity and richness. Their later works sometimes made us think of El Greco and Rembrandt respectively. I’m not sure what to make of Veronese based on what was on offer — I think numerically he had slightly fewer paintings on display than the other two — and a certain amount of what I saw struck me more as not-Titian or not-Tintoretto than as something distinctively Veronese. Apparently Titian himself — a generation older than the other two — preferred Veronese to Tintoretto, though that may have had as much to do with personal and professional reasons as with any view of their respective artistic merits. In the evening after dinner we walked through the Back Bay and parts of Beacon Hill.

We went back to the same neighborhood on our third day to see the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a palazzo-style building built to order to accommodate the collections of its founder, Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924). Gardner was a woman of considerable means and strength of personality who acquired a very distinctive collection of art, mainly European pre-1900, which in its day was more significant than the collection next door at the MFA. It’s still a very impressive collection, a whole that is more than the sum of its parts, with a number of significant old masters (including another famous Titian). It is also the scene of one of the most (in)famous art thefts of the last century, dating from the early 1990s, where about a dozen works were stolen including a Rembrandt and a Vermeer.

We had some time left in the afternoon and took the subway over the Cambridge to see Harvard University, unfortunately a bit underwhelming as far as we were concerned. I think perhaps we have just spent too much time hanging around universities.

We spent our last day in the Back Bay, taking in views at the Public Gardens, walking along the Charles, and finally popping into Trinity Church, a remarkable Romanesque-style Episcopal church designed by the American architect H.H. Richardson and dating from the 1870s. It is interesting partly for its engineering, sitting like other buildings of days on multiple wooden poles that carry the weight of the building through the Back Bay infill to solid clay.

Home from the hill

Posted by on 12 May 2009 | Tagged as: Current Events, People News, Travel

In case anyone missed it: BruceR is home safe and sound after eight months as an intelligence officer on the staff of an ANA brigade in Kandahar province, and is blogging up a storm.

Eating and drinking in Florence

Posted by on 02 Mar 2009 | Tagged as: Food and Wine, Travel

We are both fans of Italian food and wine — J. being especially addicted to good pastas — so we tried to eat well when we were in Florence, without entirely breaking the bank. Depending on where we went and how much wine we ordered, we were generally able to sit down to leisurely dinners for something in the order of 60-90 Euros. (I’m not sure exactly what the conversion rate is right now and at the moment I’d rather not know.)

A point of detail: it’s rare for a good Florentine restaurant to open before 7:00, and some of them don’t open till 7:30.

The challenge in Italian dining is not altogether unlike that in the Italian wines category — finding the right middle ground between traditional-but-not-very-good and creative-but-international-and-rather-anonymous. Some of our best dining experiences were with wine bars that were also apparently popular with locals: Coquinarius on the north bank near the Duomo, and Il Santo Bevitore on the south (Oltrarno) side (both of them, incidentally, located in former stables). Both offered interesting pastas and cold dishes (meats, cheeses, carpaccios, etc.). Bevitore also had warm main dishes (secondi) that were well-executed but perhaps not very Tuscan. We had some very good Tuscan wines at both places. Santo Bevitore has a very good wine bar two doors down which opens earlier than the restaurant per se — we spent about half an hour there waiting for the restaurant to open. Unusually, Coquinarius is open all day.

We were more equivocal about a similar type of establishment in the Santa Croce area called Baldovino — good pastas (including a porcini ravioli in truffle oil [or “truffle oil”? — we’re not sure] that J. returned to devour again on our last night), but the secondi are kind of weird Cal-Ital at best. We also had our worst wine experiences here — two rather anonymous international-style wines identified on their labels as DOCG Chianti Classico, both recommended by our servers. (Why did I ask for another recommendation on the second occasion having being disappointed by the first one? — I dunno — there were only 5 Ch Cl’s on the list…) I don’t know whether all their wines are international style or only the ones they recommend to tourists.

In the more traditional (though upmarket) Trattoria style, we had an excellent lunch at 4 Leoni in Oltrarno, and we would have been more than happy to return for dinner. Their menu is only in Italian which might make them a better candidate for a visit later in your stay, after you’ve learned a bit of terminology (we visited them in a jet-lagged state for our first lunch, before we even checked into our hotel). We also had a very good meal at Antico Fattore, which is a traditional Trattoria very close to the Uffizi (they apparently suffered considerable damage in the 1993 bombing of the Uffizi).  We ordered mainly off their extensive daily specials menu. Also likeable in the traditional style though perhaps not as interesting  was Trattoria Angiolino just down the street from Il Santo Bevitore in the Oltrarno.

We didn’t have any genuinely awful food experiences in Florence. Our worst experience was a place near downtown called Paoli, a cloth-tablecloth type of place that gave us serious attitude about I’m not sure quite what. Their food wasn’t all that good either — I had a good pasta (butter and sage…) but my main was uninspired and J. found both her dishes a trial.

Being in Tuscany, we generally tried to get our hands on a good bottle of Chianti Classico at dinner — it’s a style we both like, a moderately oaked red with some complexity and an earthiness and “meatiness” that goes well with food. We met with varying degrees of success.

Baldovino, as already noted, recommended two oaky international-style wines to us on the two nights we were there. The first started OK, became somewhat overwhelmed with oak as it opened up, and then was already starting to fall apart well before the end of dinner. J. essentially rejected the second wine so we both ended up leaving the restaurant with quite a lot of wine in our glasses — something I’m not sure I’ve ever done before… Antico Fattore led me astray by listing Villa Antinori as a Chianti Classico on their English menu — it’s not, and I confess I probably would have known that given more than a passing acquaintance of the leading Italian producers. It’s a perfectly likeable IGT Toscana, probably more likeable than either of the the Baldovino Classicos, but missing the characteristic earthiness-meatiness-not-overwhelmed-by-vanilla-iness of a traditional Chianti. We had very pleasant wines on both occasions at Coquinarius, and Santo Bevitore served us two very nice Classicos in the wine bar and restaurant respectively. The half-bottle of Classico we ordered at Paoli (Peppone, I think) was possibly the best part of the evening. Next time we go to Tuscany, we will go with some serious wine research in hand.


Posted by on 02 Mar 2009 | Tagged as: Travel

We arrived back from Florence Sunday afternoon after 8 days of art, architecture, and good food. It was my first time in Florence, J.’s third, but with her last trip 15 years ago and with a school group a lot of it was like a new experience for both of us.

Practical details. We flew Air France though CDG, managed to make both connections (both of them absurdly tight, in retrospect), though our baggage missed the connection on the way home. We enjoyed Air France — they’re comfortable, decent food, free wine, good audio-video system. In Florence we stayed at Hotel Perseo, a 3-star hotel located on the third and fourth (i.e., fourth and fifth) floors of a standard-issue old Florence building (with elevator retrofit) located on a major commercial street about half a block from the Duomo (location, location, and location…). It’s also conveniently close to the train station while being far enough away from the station not to absorb any of the latter’s somewhat sketchy atmosphere. It is a recent renovation, and really about everything you could ask for in a mid-priced hotel: New World efficiency (the manager is Australian) combined with a bit of Old World charm. Clean modern rooms, comfortable beds, soundproof doors and windows, friendly staff, etc., etc. Breakfast is included in the price, as is a pre-dinner “happy drink” between the hours of 6 and 8.

February is a great time to visit Florence. It’s a bit chilly — too cold to be able to rely on being able to eat outside — but the obvious upside is that the overwhelming tourist throngs have not yet arrived. Which is not to say there are no tourists — the pedestrian areas near the Duomo and the Uffizi are well-populated, and there’s already a bit of a crowd most times at the Uffizi — but the city is not overwhelmed by tourists in the way it is reputed to be between the months of March and November. We were able to get into all the museums with ease (the Uffizi with the aid of a membership — see below) and we experienced real crowding problems only at the blockbuster pieces in the Uffizi. That said, J. got about half-an-hour all to herself with the Botticellis by waiting until right before closing on a midweek day.

For the museums we bought a family membership to the Amici degli Uffizi, which got us unlimited admission to all the museums run by the Florence museums organization for 100 Euros. Practically speaking, that means most of the museums, except those run by church organizations (e.g., the Opere del Duomo). Difficult to identify highlights, really — I am a paintings person and naturally had a special thing for the Uffizi, which is a beautiful space to boot. The Palatine Gallery at the Pitti Palace was perhaps the most frustrating space — a baroque-Neoclassical space filled to the gills with paintings ranging from the truly great to the embarassingly indifferent. I suppose it’s of some historical interest — being essentially a record of Medici collections and commissions — but some of the paintings are clearly of more than historical interest (e.g.,Titian, Raphael) and are really not well-served by their environment. (My favourite room in the building was one that was hastily redecorated with tastefully neutral beige temporary walls and where they hung some of the Old Masters that were normally located in a different room that was in the process of restoration.) I also loved both the Bargello and the Museo San Marco both for their spaces and the contents thereof, and we were both very impressed with the recently reopened and newly redesigned Opere del Duomo museum.  (It sometimes seems like about half of Florence is either in the process of being restored, is just about to be restored, or has just finished being restored.)

We made a few days trips outside Florence. Our hotel reservation came with a day trip to Chianti and Siena (an off-season freebie, I think), a fun day that included a quick stop at the old walled hamlet of Montereggioni, lunch and wine-tasting at an organic wine-balsamic-olive oil-etc farm operation together with great views of the region, and an unfortunately rain-soaked foray into Siena itself. We spent our last full day, a much sunnier one, taking in the sights of Fiesole and enjoying a leisurely lunch in its main square.

We also ate and drank in Florence, but that’s a different post.

Found poetry

Posted by on 26 Sep 2008 | Tagged as: Current Events, Food and Wine, Russia, Travel

Update: More here

As Putin rears his head

and comes into the airspace of the United States of America,

where do they go?

It’s Alaska.

It’s just right over the border.

It is from Alaska

that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation,


because they are right there,

they are right next to our state.

Flying the friendly skies

Posted by on 04 Jun 2008 | Tagged as: Travel

Sit back, relax, and enjoy this report from a recent short flight in Africa, sent by Gmail chat:

so, we’re sitting there, and the stewardess comes around to give us the spiel about the exit row. she’s wearing a jaunty yellow scarf, is very sincere, and is telling us we better be prepared to open the door. shows us where you pull the handle, then goes “the door will fall on you, and its heavy, but don’t worry, hold this spot at the bottom to brace yourself.”

and then says “now this is really important, you need to look out the window to assess the situation outside, if there’s fire or something, just yell to me at the front of the plane to tell me the exit is blocked and i’ll find another exit for you.”

and then says “so, once you open the door, you need to throw it toward the back of the plane on the outside, it’s really important that you do this. it will be really chaotic, and people will be running around trying to save themselvesbut the pilot wont’ have time to turn off the engines, so you need to throw the door toward the engine to block it and force it to turn off.

if you don’t do that, you’ll get sucked into the engine and die”

“i don’t mean to scare you, but i pray that nothing happens. thank you, have a pleasant flight.”


Posted by on 07 May 2008 | Tagged as: Toronto, Travel

This does help explain why dump truck drivers blow red lights so ruthlessly:

“Our trucks are supposed to carry 21 tonnes. But every time we are pulled on a scale, it’s around 28, 29, sometimes 30 tonnes in there.

“That’s dangerous, not only for the driver, but for everyone else on the road. The brake system is designed for a load of 21 tonnes. When the truck is eight or nine tonnes overloaded, the momentum doesn’t let you stop unless you really stand on the brakes.

“When the truck is overloaded and you’re going 100 kilometres an hour, how do you expect it to stop?”

Gill said drivers aren’t allowed to get out at a job site to check and there’s no way from inside the truck to determine a load’s weight.

Even worse, he said, is that drivers who question overweight loads are often banished from a work site.

rest here

A helmet-wearing, bell-ringing, blinkie-sportin’ good time

Posted by on 07 Apr 2008 | Tagged as: Travel

Out of San Francisco, Critical Manners:

Critical Manners: a revolutionary act of courtesy. Come put the nice back in the bike world with critical manners! A helmet-wearing, bell-ringing, blinkie-sportin’ good time for you and all your bike friends. Practice synchronized signaling, single file riding, stopping at stop signs and NOT blowing red lights. Critical Manners will brake for pedestrians, trolleys, and even the occasional SUV. If you’ve ridden in Critical Mass, you know about the “testosterone brigade”. Maybe it’s time you rode with Critical Manners. We take obedience of the law ridiculously seriously.

They only have eight members at the moment. It’ll be interesting to see whether and how it grows and whether they pop up in other cities.

Parks Canada encourages geocaching

Posted by on 24 Oct 2007 | Tagged as: Travel

Pretty cool, even if they are controlling it a bit:

Parks Canada caches are located in publicly accessible areas and are accessible from trails and/or roads. Instead of containing trade items, caches contain messages that reveal interesting often unknown aspects of the area where they are located. Parks Canada aims to encourage geocachers to share their enthusiasm for a particular park, site or marine conservation area by recounting a tale, a personal experience, knowledge or an anecdote for other participants to find.

(Également disponible en français, naturellement.)

Flight delays redux

Posted by on 06 Oct 2007 | Tagged as: Current Events, Travel

Here’s Patrick Smith’s most recent take on all this. It seems very reasonable to me.

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