July 18, 2012
Everyone knows what to see at Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado: the cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people who occupied the Four Corners region from A.D. 600 to 1300. Soon, though, there will be good reason to stop at the entrance because the park is building a new Visitor and Research Center, scheduled to open late this year, that will give a state-of-the-art museum to its remarkable collection of archaeological artifacts, ethnographic material on the Native Americans of the Southwest and Santa Fe Indian School painting. Considered as a whole, it’s one of the oldest and biggest museums in the national park system.
Another one of its treasures is a collection of jewelry and ceramics given to Mesa Verde in the 1940s by architect Mary Jane Colter. Born in Pittsburgh in 1869, she attended the California School of Design in San Francisco, then went to create and decorate buildings for the Fred Harvey Company which ran shops, restaurants and hotels along the Sante Fe Railway. Among her masterworks are Hopi House, Lookout Studio, Hermit’s Rest and the Watchtower on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, all stunning examples of the American Arts and Crafts movement that take their inspiration from Hopi, Zuni and Navajo design, as well as Spanish-Mexican hacienda architecture. Between 1900 and 1940 Colter also worked on landmark train stations in Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City and Los Angeles.
At a time when women spent their time in the kitchen and parlor, Colter made her way in a man’s world, striding over construction sites and seeking artifacts all over the old Southwest, her hair in an untidy French roll, her radio tuned to a Mexican music station. On forays around the Four Corners region she collected baskets, jewelry and pots, while getting to know the Native American craftspeople who made them. She used most of the treasures she found to decorate Harvey Company buildings, but kept some for herself, eventually retiring to Santa Fe where she died in 1958.
Colter was a close friend of the archaeologist Jesse L. Nusbaum, who excavated Mesa Verde’s Balcony House and served as the park’s superintendent from 1921 to 1946. So the museum there seemed to Colter a suitable home for her art.
But she never wanted the 530 pieces of jewelry she bequeathed to Mesa Verde to be known as the Mary Colter Collection. “I think she didn’t want it to be about her. She wanted it to be about the artists,” said curator Tara Travis. Later some of Colter’s ceramics were added from the old Southwest Museum in Los Angeles.
When the new Visitor and Research Center opens at Mesa Verde, 30 Colter pieces will be on display, including a silver Navajo pin shaped like a biplane, heishi necklaces made of delicately strung shells, and tie slides carved from the vertebrae of cows and goats—all showing, as Travis explained, that “Colter had an interest in how artists used materials—shells, stones, turquoise and silver—and everyday objects to create works of art.”
The mastery of the Native Americans who made them should be overwhelmingly apparent. But I can’t think of it as anything other than the Mary Jane Colter Collection.
June 13, 2012
This year the Hotel Astoria celebrates its 100th anniversary in St. Petersburg, Russia. I’m celebrating, too, because I got to stay there one white winter shortly after it was purchased and refurbished by the British hotelier Sir Rocco Forte in 1997. Other grand hotels may be more famous, but the Astoria holds its own place of pride among them.
A Russian icon in the Art Nouveau style on St. Isaac’s Square near the Neva River, the Astoria evokes a Belle Epoque world of grand dukes, ballerinas and Fabergé eggs. Everyone from Rasputin to Isadora Duncan stayed there, drinking tea from gold-rimmed teacups made by the czar’s favorite Lomonosov porcelain factory or swilling Russian Standard vodka at its velvet and wood-lined Kandinsky Bar.
All that was swept away by the Bolshevik Revolution, but the hotel soldiered on. Lenin gave a speech from its balcony in 1919 and during World War II Hitler planned to mark the city’s surrender in the Astoria, though Leningrad endured the 900-day German siege, proving the Führer premature.
The Astoria is sumptuous in an Old World way, not over-the-top like other modernized grand hotels, with soaring, chandelier-bedizened ceilings, voluminous swagged drapes, vanilla ice cream-colored molding and red-carpeted staircases. My room had a foyer separated from the sleeping chamber by etched-glass doors and a hand-embroidered bedspread, blissfully quiet even though its window looked directly over busy St. Isaac’s Square. There I watched snow coat the gold dome of the cathedral, sat reading Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra or dressed for the ballet at the nearby Mariinsky Theatre.
As part of the centennial celebration, special boxes at the Mariinsky are available to hotel guests, and jazz evenings return to the Astoria, a tradition begun in the 1920s. If you go, please raise a Russian Standard on the rocks in at the Kandinsky Bar. I’ll be doing the same in spirit.
April 26, 2012
In 2006 when the People’s Republic of China started railroad service from Beijing to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa—a 2,525-mile route cresting at 16,640-foot Tanggula Pass—people like me got in line. Though critics have seen it as yet another means for China to despoil Tibet’s cultural and mineral riches, I was studying Mandarin in Beijing and I couldn’t pass up the chance to take the railroad trip of a lifetime. I did think about waiting because I’d heard there were plans for a luxury version of the train, managed by Kempinski Hotels, with private-bath suites, elegant dining cars and window-lined lounges.
Then spring break came around and I couldn’t wait any longer. I flew to Lhasa and got a train ticket back to Beijing in a four-berth soft sleeper; it had pressed cotton sheets, pillows, comforters, TV monitors with headsets and oxygen canisters for victims of altitude sickness. All quite congenial at first. But it’s a 40-hour trip, so conditions deteriorated along the way (especially in the restrooms). At mealtime, passengers filed into the dining car for unappetizing food or bought noodles on the platform during brief stops.
I’d have been miserable, but every time I found myself wishing for a cup of coffee or a hot bath, all I had to do to raise my spirits was press my nose to the window. The first day we crossed the Tibetan Plateau, which looks like Utah with Alaska on top. Nameless ranges of snowcapped peaks passed by; fur-clad villagers stared at railroad crossings and yaks bolted off the tracks. The Chinese government spent millions to cross the plateau by rail, piping liquid nitrogen through the tracks to keep them from buckling during a thaw and building underpasses for wildlife.
I fell asleep after a 30-minute stop in the lonely mining town of Golmud, then woke the next morning in the heart of the Middle Kingdom, decorated with sunshine and cherry blossoms. I remember passing through Xi’an, home of the terra-cotta warriors, before tucking in the second night, followed by wake-up the next morning at Beijing’s West Station.
In retrospect, I’m glad I made the trip when I did because the 5-star Beijing-Lhasa train is on what looks like permanent hold. Fifty percent owned by the flush Chinese electronic company Huawei, it’s still being touted. But Kempinski has bowed out and the perhaps too fast-and-furiously growing Chinese railway system has suffered setbacks: to wit, an accident last July on a new high-speed line in eastern China that killed 43 people and the imprisonment of the nation’s railway minister, suspected of graft.
So don’t wait for amenities on the railroad that crosses the Middle Kingdom to the Tibetan Plateau. Question your soul about the political correctness of taking a PRC train to embattled Tibet. And then, if you ask me, go.
September 16, 2011
Why constant, you may ask? Partly because for the last 20 years I’ve been traveling almost non-stop and writing about it for newspapers and magazines. But more because of the word’s second meaning: unchangingly faithful or loyal. I feel that way about travel chiefly because it has given me so much—vastly extending my education, teaching me to understand things that might otherwise have seemed peculiar, making me more tolerant.
There have been bad trips, of course: Bulgaria with food poisoning, second-class buses in Mexico, cheesy tourist traps the world over. And I honestly can’t say I love the getting-from-place-to-place part of travel, unless it’s a trip of a lifetime on the Beijing-Lhasa train or a small ship cruise on Glacier Bay in Alaska.
What I love in an almost spiritual way are places. Idyllic like the English Lake District or poor and haunted like Phnom Penh, all have stories to tell underscoring the variety of life and extraordinary geography of planet Earth. Why did early man arise in Africa’s Great Rift Valley? When did people in the Tonga islands start eating Kentucky Fried Chicken? What convergence of Italian history, art and character gave us the paintings of Piero della Francesca?
So this blog is for travelers who care about the meaning of place—why and how people live where they do, a place’s role in history, literature and art, what it stirs in the soul. Lying on a beach drinking a margarita is good; better is to know why the sand is pink, how the tequila is made and what makes the church steeple on the horizon Baroque.