April 11, 2012
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano’s recent visit to Vernazza—one of five villages along Liguria’s fabled Cinque Terre coast—signaled a comeback for a region devastated by flooding and mudslides last fall. On October 25, 2011, the delicate and precious little Cinque Terre, strung along approximately ten miles of heavenly Italian littoral between the towns of La Spezia and Levanto, received a pounding 20 inches of rain that turned streets into raging rivers, filled homes and businesses with debris, swept away mudslide barriers and obliterated sections of the beloved coastal path that connects the hamlets of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. In Vernazza, three people died and the village was temporarily evacuated. After the disaster it seemed unlikely that spring and the visitors it brings would ever return to the Cinque Terre.
But spring has come, along with crimson poppies on the shoulders of the Via dell’Amore path. Vineyards that cling to steep cliffs overlooking the Ligurian Sea are greening, promising a fine fall harvest of the grapes used in the region‘s sweet, golden Sciacchetrà wine. Olive trees are unfolding, ready for their annual pruning. Work to rebuild the damaged villages and erect protective mudslide barriers continues, but many townspeople have moved back into their homes and businesses have rushed to reopen for the spring tourist season.
One of the happiest chapters in the story of Cinque Terre’s renewal is the effort made by three American women—Ruth Manfred, Michele Lilley and Michele Sherman—longtime Vernazza residents, to get the news out about the disaster and raise funds for relief. Shortly after the floods, they launched Save Vernazza ONLUS, a not-for-profit organization that has received almost $200,000 in donations to be used for rebuilding Vernazza’s historic center, restoring the scenic trail system and replacing the dry stone walls that are an integral feature of the landscape. Beyond rebuilding, the hope is to promote sustainable tourism in the heavily visited Cinque Terre. “We are making Vernazza more beautiful than before,” Mayor Vincenzo Resasco said, though I don’t know how that could ever be so.
Starting from Montorosso, I walked the via dell’Amore 20 years ago, before the Cinque Terre became an Italian national park and Unesco World Heritage site. It was early spring and I had the whole coast to myself, it seemed. Near Vernazza I climbed onto a boulder just above the sea to work on my tan, then lunched in Corniglia, filling my canteen with leftover wine to take me on to Riomaggiore. That day exists in my memory like one of those old colorized photos that give the places they depict an air of fragile permanence. Let’s hope that, come wind and rain, that air persists in the Cinque Terre.
January 30, 2012
It’s L.A.’s Yellow Brick Road, a show-stoppingly scenic route along the backbone of the Santa Monica Mountains, 55 miles from Dodger Stadium to Malibu, where it swan dives into the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, Mulholland Drive passes precariously-perched mid-century modern castles in the hills, the Hollywood sign and the Hollywood Bowl, L.A.‘s own Mount Olympus, the Getty Center, the hippie hamlet of Topanga Canyon, trailheads in Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, abandoned lookouts for the Army’s Nike anti-aircraft missile system and reservoirs built by the L.A. Department of Water and Power headed from 1886 to 1928 by the man who gave the road its name: William Mulholland. An Irish immigrant and self-taught engineer, he brought water from the High Sierra to the once bone-dry San Fernando Valley north of L.A.
When I first moved to Southern California in 1998 I got to know the lay of the land by driving Mulholland, which is not for the faint-hearted. Seldom more than two lanes wide, it has more hairpin curves, steep climbs and downward glides than a roller-coaster, along with L.A. Basin and San Fernando Valley views that will kill you if you takes you eyes off the road long enough to look at them.
At the time, a little-known 8-mile stretch of Mulholland starting just west of the 405 Freeway was drivable, but unpaved—remarkable given its route across one of America’s most densely-populated regions. A few years ago a group partly spearheaded by actor Jack Nicholson tried to get Dirt Mulholland on the National Register of Historic Places. The effort came to naught, but Dirt Mulholland still rambles in the tracks of coyotes through the stony, chaparral-covered heart of the Santa Monica Mountains, turning down the volume on L.A. so you can hear birdsong.
So on a recent trip to L.A. I was surprised to discover that Dirt Mulholland is now closed to motor vehicles due to damage from El Nino rains over the last decade.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you ask Paul Edelman with the Santa Monica Mountain Conservancy, a California state agency established in 1980 that has helped to preserve over 60,000 acres of wilderness and urban parkland, including many contiguous to Dirt Mulholland. With cars and motorcycles banned, it’s now the province of hikers, mountain bikers and wildlife.
In January I drove up Topanga Canyon Road from the Ventura Freeway, wandering through suburban subdivisions until I found Dirt Mulholland’s western threshold. Soon the houses petered out, as did the pavement, but I kept going until I reached a yellow gate where a lone bicyclist was strapping on his helmet. There I got out of the car and walked to a precipice from which I could see the old dirt track winding across the hills, headed back to Lalaland.
January 20, 2012
As the story of the January 13 Costa Concordia disaster unfolds, the spotlight has turned sharply on 52-year-old Captain Francesco Schettino who is said to have abandoned ship—or tripped and fallen into a lifeboat, as he told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica—before all passengers and crew members were evacuated. Schettino has served as a Costa captain since 2006 and comes from a family of ship owners in the Bay of Naples area. People in his hometown Meta di Sorrento, where he was put under house arrest, have rallied around him, and 1,500 fans have supported him as friends on Facebook. The Concordia carried some 4,200 passengers; as of this writing, several have been confirmed dead and a score were reported missing.
The Genoa-based Costa Company was quick to blame him for deviating from authorized course while passing the islet of Giglio just off the Tuscan Coast. In a statement, the company pointed to possible human error on the part of the captain, unauthorized course deviation and mishandling of safety procedures. But questions remain about why standard on-board passenger security drills had not been conducted, and Lloyd’s List Intelligence reports that Concordia last August changed route to pass close by the island, a maneuver approved by the cruise line at the time, prompting editor Richard Meade to ask of the recent accident, “The company‘s account of what happened isn‘t quite as black and white as they presented originally.”
Costa disasters have made the line the butt of jokes about Italian navigation (never mind Amerigo Vespucci, Christopher Columbus and Giovanni Cabot, a.k.a. John Cabot). In recent years these have included a botched attempt in 2008 to dock the Europa during high winds at Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh, killing three crew members, another docking accident involving the Concordia in Palermo the same year, and the collision of the Costa Classica with a cargo ship in China’s Yangtze River in 2010.
None of the earlier Costa accidents figures on anecdotal lists of history’s worst cruising disasters. Industry insurers and trade groups do not keep safety records, though a statement released on January 16 by the Florida-based Cruise Line International Organization calls cruising “one of the safest means of travel among all types of vacationing.” Cruise Critic’s Carolyn Spencer Brown and other industry observers agree about the rarity of accidents at sea but continue to ask questions about Costa’s safety procedures. “This is a wake-up call for Costa, most particularly, but also for any other line that has slacked off on the nautical rulebook.”
I’m sorry to say I wasn’t surprised when I heard that the Concordia was a Costa vessel. In my family, at least, the line has long been synonymous with calamity because my brother was on Costa’s Angelina Lauro on March 30, 1979, when it caught fire at Charlotte Amalie on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. He and his wife had gone to shore with most other passengers, rented a car and driven across the hills to the far side of the island. On the way back, they saw a header of smoke rising from a ship docked in the port—the Angelina Lauro, a 40-year old Dutch-made vessel that had been refitted for Costa. Stranded with nothing more than wallets, bathing suits, tee shirts and sneakers, completely unassisted by the cruise line, they checked into a hotel, then flew home. It made a good story, especially given that both of them were newspaper reporters. But after the ship was declared a total loss they spent years trying to get compensation for their belongings—they ended up being reimbursed for 50 percent of the value of their belongings—and ultimately cheered when the Angelina Lauro sank in the Pacific on its way to Taiwanese scrap yards.
Unlike the Angelina Lauro, the Concordia was a new, state-of-the-art cruise ship with no known defects. Which leaves two avenues for inquiry: the captain whose role in the disaster is already well-known, and Costa which has deflected heavy criticism, as yet.
December 15, 2011
Any Tintin fans out there?
I’m pretty sure there will be once The Adventures of Tintin, directed by Steven Spielberg with the assistance of motion-capture expert Peter Jackson, opens next week.
For many Americans—young and old—the appearance of the Belgian comic book hero on the silver screen will be a first encounter because Tintin never caught fire in the U.S. the way he did everywhere else. Since his adventures first appeared in a Belgian newspaper in 1929, books based on the strip have sold 250 million copies, translated into 100 languages (most recently, Yiddish). But America had its own indigenous cartoon tradition, featuring heroes like Superman and Catwoman, so when Tintin‘s creator Hergé approached Disney in 1948, he was turned down flat.
Enter Spielberg, who got to know Tintin in the early 1980s. It took 20 years for the movie project to find its perfect medium in motion-capture, a computer-assisted technique proved by Jackson in his Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The film opens with Hergé’s intrepid boy reporter at a flea market where he finds a model boat with a secret inside. Anyone who has been to Brussels will immediately recognize the setting: the Place du Jeu de Balle in the Marolles, where Belgians sell bric-a-brac from their attics. I’ve bought my share of precious junk there. When the sun occasionally shines on the Belgian capital, it’s one of my favorite haunts.
Hergé was scrupulous about verisimilitude, which is why travelers can’t crack open a Tintin album without recognizing real-life sites and scenes that, like the Place du Jeu de Balle, served as models for frames in the strip.
The Belgian Royal Palace on a hill above Brussels’ medieval Grand Place stands in for the Royal Place of Klow in King Ottokar’s Sceptre (1939), capital of the Eastern European nation of Syldavia.
The Seven Crystal Balls (1948) features the Belle Époque Hotel Metropole, opened in 1895 on the downtown Place de Broukère.
Out in the suburb of Uccle the Belgian Royal Observatory gives frissons of deja-vue to fans who know Destination Moon (1953) and Explorers on the Moon (1954), in which Tintin completes a lunar landing 16 years before Apollo 11.
And here’s an extra-Belgian ringer. Marlinspike, ancestral home of Tintin’s Scotch-swilling buddy Captain Haddock, is the 17th century Chateau de Cheverny in the Loire Valley of France, without its two side wings. It’s not clear that Hergé ever went there because he wasn’t much of a traveler, poor soul. But Tintologists—a serious tribe of scholars who have investigated every aspect of the strip—found a tourist brochure for Cheverny among Hergé’s papers with a faint pencil drawing of Tintin and Haddock walking toward the chateau’s entrance.
November 23, 2011
China’s ever-growing global power and influence just got another mark of recognition: The 2011 Pritzker Prize—which goes to Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura—will be awarded on May 25, 2012, in Beijing.
Considered the Nobel of architecture, the prize was created by Hyatt Hotel chain co-founder Jay A. Pritzker in 1979 (Philip Johnson was the first laureate). Award ceremonies are traditionally held in different cities around the world, but this is the first time the Chinese capital has served. The foundation that governs the prize said it based its selection on the proliferation of projects by past Pritzker winners currently rising in Beijing.
I’ll say. When I was last there in 2007, I watched a whole portfolio of them rise. A Pritzker-in-Bejing tour—not to attempt on foot, given the city’s size—should include:
National Stadium on the Fourth Ring Road
Built for the 2008 Olympics and affectionately known as the “Bird’s Nest“ for its singular round, woven design, the stadium was created by the Swiss architectural team of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, who collected a Pritzker in 2001.
Central Chinese Television headquarters in the Central Business District
It’s impossible not to rubberneck at this truly amazing structure designed by Rem Koolhaas, Pritzker class of 2000, and his then partner Ole Scheeren. The CCT Building, which was damaged in a fire and is still under construction, has two 50-story legs, connected by an angling 13-story bridge; when the observation deck opens visits will discover that the garden below replicates an 18th century map of Rome by Piranesi.
Four rounded, interconnected, steel and glass mounds in the international business district of Dongzhimen are beginning to look like buildings, as intended by London-based architect Zaha Hadid (Pritzker 2004). When completed Galaxy Soho, an office and retail complex, will join a small handful of projects completed by an architect know for mind and space-bending designs sometimes too complex to execute.
Capital Airport about 20 miles northeast of the city center used to be dowdy and inefficient. But in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics it got an ultra-modern new terminal designed by Norman Foster, whose 1999 Pritzker came about a decade after he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. Cool, window-clad and massive, T3 Beijing is the hub for Air China and thus unavoidable if you fly in on the national carrier.