For years northern Europeans have vacationed in the glorious hill towns of Tuscany like Montopulciano, Arezzo, and San Gemi- gnano. Americans learned about this Italian secret when Francis Mayes rebuilt a Renaissance house in Cortona and wrote, “Under the Tuscan Sun”.
Yet another Tuscany is on the Mediterranean with 3000 years of ancient history based on the Etruscan civilization. Our fixed-base bicycle trip began on this Tuscany coast. The nearby village names sound like a panoply of buon vino: Castagneto Carducci, Donaratico, and Suveretto. Our fearless leader, Syd Smoot, hails from Texas and with electronic efficiency sent us reams of information. Armed with these maps and route sheets getting lost seemed impossible unless you realize that we American cyclists must read Italian signs written in kilometers.
The Texas grandfather of this ride is George Hall. Now two Texans can be overwhelming for 44 cyclists especially when two-thirds of us hail from California. So the TALL men are assisted by a capable Scotsman, Tommy Glendinning (replete with kilt) who also functions as Court Jester. Since all men need a wise woman, Jean Smoot was our Athena of Tuscany.
Birthday factoids include the fact that two people out of 44 had a birthday on June 25th, yet in our Mallorca BAC group of 21, three people had that birthday. In the Tuscany crowd the big birthday month is November and amongst these Scorpios, three were born on November 17th.
Arriving at the hotel there’s a hub of activity as bikes are assembled, while rental bikes are fitted and adjusted. I am delighted to have a Colnago and quickly adjust to the lack of a cyclometer. Each night is a pre-dinner meeting to discuss the day’s adventures and the next ride. Breakfast and dinner are included at Hotel I Ginepreni. The food is superb but this is Italy where even the airport food is gourmet. Did I mention the excellent gelato that is found everywhere? Snacking on such ambrosia is a twice-daily requirement.
This section of Tuscany is bicycle-heaven. Small roads have courte- ous drivers and the acres of vineyards are interspersed by age-old olive groves. Intermingled among the trash-free country roads are pink stone villages reachable by climbs of varying length and height.
Several roads are shaded with tunnels of overlapping chestnut trees. Tall umbrella pine trees often provide another shady respite. On some rides, regal cypress mark our pathway while in the distance small mountains touch the sky. California’s pink and white highway flowers, oleanders grow everywhere.
Most days the climb is at least 2000 feet with an average distance of 30+ miles. The weather starts cool and after an hour or so heats up to well- over 80o.The high humidity requires frequent hydration, ingestion of salt pills, and water soaked clothing and hair. To this regimen add energy bars, and gels to keep body and soul united. Based on pace, attitude, need for food, and in some cases past friendships we form small cycling units.
One stunning hilltop town feels like our ‘hood since we bike through so frequently, Castagneto Carducci dates back to 1000 C.E. The five mile ascent is a downhill delight on our homeward stretches. Originally the town was Castagneto Della Gherardesca, after the family who owned much of Tuscany and ran their world in a feudal Cosa Nostra style. By 1907, the locals decided to rename the town to honor a famous short-term resi- dent, Nobel laureate poet Giosue Carducci and voilá Castagneto de Carducci. Considering that Carducci was anti-clerical and pro-Satan, one can only guess that fame trumps religion.
The lunch stop on the return ride through Castagneto Carducci is a highlight. The restaurant tables are outdoors, under cover and my favorite is a luscious Caprese salad (tomatoes, basil, Buffalo mozzarella) .As we sip espresso, our view extends to the sea over the pink stucco towns with red tile roofs and. We marvel at the beauty below.
Our most challenging and spectacular ride was off prescribed routes. Our intrepid group traveled almost 70 miles with 4200 ft of climbing to Volterra, a major tourist attraction for over 100 years. D.H.Lawrence traveled to Tuscany in the 1930s and wrote about Volterrra. Halfway up our climb, we understood Lawrence’s words.
On our “no-bike-day”, we returned to Volterra by car to delve deeply into this amazing town. It is hard to believe that we really climbed the four miles up to the town. Wow! Now we can explore on foot the renaissance plaza and tower. Like D.H. Lawrence, we see the seashells imbedded in the stone squares on the ground.
The Etruscan museum tells tales of an early pre-Christian civiliza- tion. Most of the information is from burial tombs that relate to the lives of the wealthy class. Nothing is known about the world of the peasants or craftsmen. An old Roman theatre and baths have been excavated but not kept well. There are also Moorish influ- ences in the black and white marble decorating some buildings.
A winery tour is scheduled on one cycling day. Our little quartet starts ahead of the group. We ride south on the coastal road through San Vicenzo and then onto a bike lane-running path. Our leaders Steven and Linda have some discussion about the correct turn and then we meet Franco, a 50 something Italian cyclist. He becomes our de facto tour-guide (although the winery is not on his itinerary). Instead we climb up to the hill-town of Campiglia. Franco points to the sea and we glimpse the edge of Elba Island. The tiny square has houses that range from medieval to renaissance complete with the requisite number of old men who sit near the church and comment on the world. After lunch, we walk our bikes up a steep, narrow to view the ruins of an old castle, water system, medieval farm implements and an amazing view. This castle too, once belonged to the Della Gherardesca family, clearly the Medicis of Tuscany. They ruled and owned everything.
Of course we did miss an amazing ultra-modern winery constructed from stainless steel and concrete. Vicki Romo, a fellow-cyclist and keen observer has supplied all winery facts. The owner of the Petra Winery, Vittorio Moratti, is in the concrete business. No expense has been spared beginning with the winery design. Signor Moratti engaged the Swiss architect Mario Botta, who also designed San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. The vineyard is on a steep hillside and produces three boutique wines and olive oil.
The last cycling day is a flat coastal ride to Poplonia. However, the final section — although less than a mile has several 18% grades. I make a few stops to catch breath.
A gorgeous aquamarine bay is below but the Etruscan settlement dates to 900 BCE and is the oldest ancient city of Italy. Excava- tions continue today. The ruins stand in sharp contrast to the 14th century castle and fortress which provide the gateway to the town.
Arrivederci Toscana e molti grazie Syd, George, Tommy, and Jean!
My comments on Angelina Jolie’s mastectomy decision published in the NY Times May, 2013.
Angelina Jolie’s Decision: More Perspectives
Published: May 15, 2013
To the Editor:
Connect With Us on Twitter
For Op-Ed, follow @nytopinion and to hear from the editorial page editor, Andrew Rosenthal, follow @andyrNYT.
Re “My Medical Choice,” by Angelina Jolie (Op-Ed, May 14):
When tests revealed that Ms. Jolie had a mutated BRCA1 gene, which significantly increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, she chose removal of her healthy breasts with a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. After this brave procedure, there’s still a small risk of breast cancer.
Women have other options. The National Cancer Institute facts on BRCA risk indicate that mammography, magnetic resonance imaging and clinical breast exams enhance the possibility of early detection and treatment.
In the last 50 years, the medical literature has demonstrated that early breast cancer treatment with combinations of lumpectomy, radiation and chemotherapy yield the same healthy survival rates as mastectomy. As always, the final decision is between a woman and her physician.
San Francisco, May 14, 2013
The writer is a retired consultant for the Breast Cancer Fund.
Driving in Spain is not a problem until we enter a town. Then I long for my bicycle since the car navigates tiny bike lanes between stone houses and hotels. Driving in the open countryside is easier and landscapes there are dotted with olive trees, orchards, and grazing land. When the countryside is hilly, Don Quixote’s old windmills have been replaced by enormous wind turbines. In spite of this being sunny Spain, solar cells are uncommon. Recycling is sporadic and involves small stations where cans and glass can be left. Garbage is often collected in large plastic bags which aren’t of the biodegradable species.
Salamanca is an old university town dating back to the 13th century. We arrive on a graduation day and the streets are overflowing with diplomates, families, and friends. Young women wearing the shortest skirts on the planet and do the wobble walk as they negotiate the cobblestones in their high stiletto heels. Large crowds of people are celebrating and the cafes overflow.
The university has a wide range of colleges including medical, law, and even one for archbishops. This superb city has a mix of Renaissance and modern buildings but somehow the new blends in with the old. At night the illuminated walls create a magical glow.
The countryside around Salamanca is a lesser known area of Spain called Sierra y Francia. Old villages with timber-imbedded in the walls are framed against the snowy mountains. Once this area was considered backward, useless and mosquito infested. In 1922, the King of Spain visited and his café con leche was served with human milk. Within the year he introduced cows and today there is a thriving dairy industry as well as olive orchards and fruit trees. Our favorite town Candelaria is free of both tourist buses and shops. We feel this unique mountain charm walking the narrow cobblestone streets.
Our last days in Spain are spent in a jewel of a medieval town─ Avila. From a distance, this appears to be a movie set on a Spanish hilltop. The most famous resident of the town was Sainte Teresa who is still a mighty presence. At 20 she became a nun and rebelled against the errant and indolent ways of Spanish Catholicism. This caused a certain amount of upset for the patriarchal church leadership. She also invented some cookies made of egg yolks and sugar. Fortunately her church clean-up was far more successful than her cookies which are still available today.
Perfect fortifications surround Avila and a large cathedral dominates the square. We climb the walls to walk on the ramparts. For most people the walk is short but we ascend every single rampart. Atop there is often a Spanish plaque explaining an aspect of the fortification. Undaunted Mark attempts comprehensive translations.
We also spend long periods of time watching the nesting storks. On the most precipitous parts of a church roof, the storks build large nests and give birth to several chicks. Storks like some humans are only partially monogamous but they have a singular relationship to their own nests which can be used for many years.
So Adios for now and thanks for traveling with us…..
North of Madrid and Pau 5.13.11
Our adventures continue with Mark’s sister Florence and her husband Allen. Out of Madrid we drive en route to Segovia, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. This hill town resembles a Tuscan village with red tiled roofs, tan walls, and often flowers on the iron grill balconies.
Segovia claims the largest preserved Roman aqueduct (circa 200 CE). The enormous triple arched structure dominates the town. We climb alongside for personal inspection. The town once had a Jewish quarter but the synagogue was appropriated and thoroughly converted to Corpus Christi church in 1472. Next to the church is a quasi-Jewish museum, the “Menorah Bar” and a Judaica shop. It all seemed a bit faux. Segovia also boasts an Alcazar. However, like the synagogue, this one-time Moorish building is now a Spanish castle.
Our next goal is to view 30,000 years old Paleolithic drawings. We climb into the foothills and pass through tiny villages, Florence sees the turn off for the El Castillo caves. Unlike reproductions in Altamira or Lascaux, the paintings here are real. A guide accompanies a group of 12 and no photographs are allowed.
The caves contain stalactites as well as –mites colored pink, tan, and black from a variety of minerals. Some of the formations have sparkles from calcium carbonate crystals. The drawings show bison, horses, deer, handprints and some symbols of unknown meaning. The handprints seem to have been sprayed with red paint analyzed as iron pigment. The black line drawings are charcoal and have been carbon-dated to determine the age of the caves. Here an unknown people created mysterious art.
Moving into the 21st century, we go to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The swirling titanium roof plates glint in the sun and blocks of golden stone compliment the external undulations. Internally, the curves and swirls continue and appear to merge through the glass panels. Both exterior and interior design challenge outmoded architecturally concepts. Outside art and inside installations dare us to accept new forms. Our favorite is a multiple steel installation by Richard Serra. Feeling a part of his artistic expression, we are dwarfed walking among the massive pieces.
Onwards along the coast we stop at the wealthy enclave of San Sebastian and pass through famed Biarritz, once a major playground for the jet set. The Surgeon General’s report never reached Spain where young and old smoke incessantly. They also cover themselves with suntan oil and spend hours soaking up the UV. Most exposed body parts are lobster- red. Ouch!
In this part of the world, there are numerous tapas bars. The problem is that ham seems to be a required flavoring for almost everything ─ not too grand for a vegetarian. The larger issue is closing of cafes and restaurants around 2 PM and nothing opens again before 8 PM. We have some difficulty adjusting to this Spanish dining schedule.
We take a four day detour into the foothills of the French Pyrenees. Our cousins, Fran and Morley have given us their country house near Pau. Bicycle aficionados know Pau as a mountainous stage in the Tour de France. The villages here are small with micro roads and many were constructed in the 15th century. The lovely tan houses have colorful wooden shutters, stone walls, and flowering plants in window boxes.
The hillside house has a continuous serenade of bird-song and cowbells. Lovely roses ring the porch. Mornings are foggy but in the clearer afternoons, the Pyrenees are visible in the distance. The setting is pastoral and we walk in this lovely countryside. We explore Pau and even watch some Formula-3 auto races. Discovering the church cum movie house, we see Woody Allen’s brilliant “Midnight in Paris.”
Many of the fine area restaurants are closed since we are pre- season. Yet, wealmost miss one of our best meals. At the outskirts of Pau, a hotel has a “Welcome Bikers” sign for the Harley Davidson crowd. However, a local revealed that a meal here is “haute cuisine.” We chance the dinner at Hotel Kastel and enjoy an exquisite French feast that will long be remembered.
We leave our country house and drove over the magnificent Pyrenees back into Spain. The wild flowers and snow patched peaks give us a scenic journey.
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Madrid, Capitale Extraordinaire
Madrid is a grand bustling city where a café or restaurant seems to appear every other block. Each eatery is filled with customers regardless of the hour. This capitol city is designed for grazers like me. Madrid dates back to the 16th century but today’s 3.5 million residents move about (and drive) with a Manhattan style urgency. The old, preserved architecture blends well with modern buildings and cobblestone streets. Gardens punctuate the cityscape and major traffic circles strut their stunning fountains.
In Spain each town has a “Plaza Mejor” aka best and biggest square. In Madrid, this great plaza is enclosed by antique, multi-story apartments with grill work balconies and the requisite statuary. Cafes abound and street performers bustle about selling wares. Nearby is an incredible marketplace where locals meet, greet, drink, and eat. Of course you can buy produce, meats, fish and all grocery items but shopping is unrelated to evening frivolity. We move through and have a delicious hors d’oeuvre supper like real hip “Madriders.”
The Madrid Royal Palace has the requisite array of portraits, tapestries, and valuable furnishings. Yet we are most impressed with the four (4) Stradivarius instruments encased in one room. Major string quartets are invited to the palace to perform on these Strads. We wonder if Craig’s EOS ensemble can land an invitation.
Madrid is renowned for three museums. The world-famous Prado contains an extensive collection of old masters. We pick and choose carefully concentrating on Goya and Velasquez to avoid being overwhelmed. Many groups of pre-schoolers are paraded through these collections. They sit quietly on the floor while a teacher explains a painting. We’ve never seen young children view art with such rapt attention.
On another day we view Picasso’s overwhelming “Guernica.” This is such an artistic anti-war indictment. In rooms that lead to the giant masterpiece, there are early sketches and drawings that were later incorporated into the painting. Guernica was once housed in the New York Metropolitan Museum but Picasso always wanted it returned to Spain.
An artistic highpoint is the lesser-known Thyssen- Bornemisa museum with an incredible collection that stretches from the Dutch Masters through the great painters of the 20th century. There’s an exciting temporary exhibit called, “Heroines” which contrasts women portrayed in older paintings with modern work from female artists and photographers.
However the back story of this museum reads like a People Magazine exposé. Mr. Bornemisa, captain of industry and art collector incrediblé, marries a trophy wife, Carmen Thyssen (a former Miss Spain). Ms. Thyseen is also the ex-spouse of Les Barker, an ex-Tarzan actor. Over the years, Carmen Thyssen turns Bornemisa’s petite art collection into a world-class museum.
One evening we join other tourists for a rousing flamenco dance and music show. We are surprised that the dinner here is quite good. Spain needs some serious cuisine instruction from Italy. First of all the Spanish need to learn the art of salad and eliminate iceberg lettuce, canned white asparagus, and dry mashed tuna fish. When the Iberia airlines salad is one of the best around, you know the country is in trouble.
A high speed Madrid train whisked us to nearby Toledo ─ a must for all Madrid tourists. From the station we walk up, up, and UP to the medieval walled town. Toledo was once a Moorish citadel but few traces of that culture remain. We stroll through narrow arches and winding cobblestone streets.
Toledo was home for the great Domeniks Theotokopoulos aka “El Greco.” He painted in the 16th Century and spent most of his years in Spain. His works created a problem for the church and his royal patrons due to the elongated figures and deep emotion on display. As a result sales were not always brisk. Three hundred years later, a wealthy Spanish matron bought 3 adjoining houses and created the El Greco Museum to house the dramatic paintings. There’s also an enormous El Greco painting in a nearby church which honors the death of a local nobleman and his ascension to heaven. In the surrounding male crowd the painter included himself, his son, and Cervantes.
The Sephardic synagogue/museum is mammoth and the enormous main room is now used for concerts. Diminutive Corinthian columns set off a small area that once housed the Torah scrolls. The high ceilings were delicately carved by Mujedar craftsmen centuries ago. The ornate arches above the women’s balcony also speak to an earlier Muslim influence. The museum section contains Judaica through the centuries including a very old Megillah.
Unfortunately a serious rain storm comes in the afternoon hastening our return back to the train. We are told that the train is full but on the platform we persist and the “manager agrees to let us stand. Actually there are many seats.
Madrid has a fine vibe. There’s even an opera house but we are off season. So Adios to the city as we again take off for the countryside.
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Onto Lisbon … Spring 2011
We arrive at the Mallorca airport to wait for a postponed flight to Madrid and Lisbon. Iberia Airlines is short on explanation and long on delays. This pattern continues in Madrid where our 2 PM flight finally departs at midnight. We are convinced that when Dante entered the inner circle of hell, he flew Iberia airlines.
Lisbon is an ancient European city and has known a passel of rulers: Romans, Goths, Moors, and in the 12th century Crusaders. Today’s population exceeds 3 million and Lisbon is a commercial hub and a tourist mecca. Unfortunately, Portugal like Greece, has major economic problems that need attention and intervention.
Our hotel neighborhood has a wide boulevard and numerous statues honoring Lisbon’s past diplomats and progressive royalty. Sidewalks contain white mosaic tiles often imbedded with black designs. The center of the busy boulevard has a wide swath of park with enormous chesnut trees. Strolling back along the river, we are again struck by Lisbon’s juxtaposition of old world charm and new architectural style although sometimes the city seems stuck in a 1960s glass façade phase.
One of the oldest sections of town is the Moorish influenced Alfama. Here are incredible overlooks known as “miradors.” High up the town’s red tile roofs dominate the land below while a castle-fort guards the river. We walk and also ride the old wooden 28 Tram. Our cobblestone descent takes us through many tourist-free, working-class neighborhoods.
Our next mission is to find the old Lisbon synagogue. On a small wall near a train station are Hebrew letters – Shaare Tikvah, “Gates of Hope.” A caretaker responds to our knock as we enter a small courtyard. Through the doors there’s an old orthodox synagogue built in 1904. This was the first synagogue in Portugal since the 16th century. Today there are 300 members and we even meet the Rabbi.
Next is a tram ride to Belem, an old but upscale water-front neighborhood. Portugal’s super-hero Vasco da Gamma departed from here and discovered the passage to India. A beautiful inlaid map details all the explorers while an enormous monument commemorates the history of Portugese exploration. A bakery here claims the title of oldest bakery in Lisbon and features the classic pastel, a small but scrumptous custard-filled tart. Dinner is near our hotel where we stumble upon a family-run fish restaurant ─ Santa Marta has a 20 year history without closing for a single day. The delicious dinner includes sardine appetizers and a variety of delicious grilled fish.
After exploring the past, we tackled the future at Parque des Naḉoes. In 1998, Lisbon held an ultra-modern World Exhibition on a site that involved slum clearance and closure of a polluting oil refinery. Even the metro station has been enhanced by world-famous artists. One city mural is painted on tiles by the Austrian Fredick Hundertwasser who did not believe in straight lines. Emerging from the train station is akint to entering the Starship Enterprise. The river view displays the ten mile Vasco de Gama Bridge with its Madonna bra structure. Our walk includes: water gardens, green spaces, a science museum, the famed white and black mosaic streets and a glorious aquarium aka “Oceanarium.” This remarkable place has wrap-around windows that extend over two floors, a great turtle exhibit, sea otters, penguins, and the perfect climate zone for each species. Exhibits emphasized: conservation, climate change, and other aspects of the eco world.
The day ends with the Lisbon Indie Film Festival. We are the oldest people in the audience and we see “Attenberg.” Will it cross the pond? Quien Sabe?
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Salvador – Last Days in Brazil Nov.20-24
True confessions – the only reason we came to Salvador is because our travel agent has a pousada (inn) here. Is this like going to the pharmacy your doctor owns? Salvador has a population of 3 million although this is hard to believe when you are on the “Coconut Coast,” a primary beach destination. The high downtown buildings are visible on a distant bluff which we can see but never venture into.
Portuguese explorers landed here 100 years before Columbus came to the new world. Salvador was the first capitol of Brazil and the major port of entry for African slaves─ the percentage of blacks is higher here than anywhere else in the country.
We arrive on a noisy Saturday night. Our pousada is just off the beach road where the sidewalk is packed with people walking, cooking, buying, and selling. Music cascades out of restaurants, shops, and vehicles with boom boxes. There’s a Caribbean beat with lots of reggae so Bob Marley is alive and well. As the beach closes for the evening young men carry away massive amounts of chairs and umbrellas ─ all on their heads.
Marcello, the pousada day manager speaks fine English and becomes our personal tour director. On Sunday morning he arranges for a Spanish-speaking taxi driver to show us around. Mark’s Spanish allows us to understand much of what our driver describes.
We stop at a lake which holds enormous 15 foot statues of African deities in the middle of the water. Catholic priests attempted to convert the African slaves to Catholicism with limited success. As a result, there is a mix of voodoo practices and Catholic ideology that continues today.
At a park, a band of guitars, saxophones and percussion instruments are entertaining the assembled locals. As they sing and play, the oldest man of the group dances around with maracas; a Brazilian version of the Buena Vista Social Club. We join the laughing and clapping crowd in their joy.
An old fort, high on a cliff brings us a long view of the beaches. This is Sunday and every Salvadoran is at the beach as judged by the numerous umbrellas that literally touch each other.
When the sun goes down, we are surprised by the constant stream of runners along the beach sidewalk. Our informal survey shows that about 30% are female. Perhaps all this running is an attempt to mitigate the enormous beer consumption.
As the sun sets on our last night in Salvador, we dine at an elegant beach restaurant. The local fish is prepared in the moqueca style, a stew in which the fish is cooked in a sauce of coconut milk and unique spices. This is served over rice and toasted manioc flour. Our evening concludes with a walk to the local ice cream shop and my espresso at the internet café.
We arrived home on Thanksgiving morning, thankful that neither one of us ever got sick and that our luggage never went on vacation elsewhere. ______________________
“If you want a happy ending, that depends of course on where you stop your story.” ….Orson Welles
Manaus – Gateway to the Amazon Nov.15 – 19
Manaus is a crowded, noisy, port city with a population of 2 million. The narrow sidewalks need a major public works project and the streets are clogged with cars and buses. Traffic lights are an endangered species so street crossing is perilous. The city is a duty-free zone, attracting major electronics, automobile, and motorcycle industries. Manaus only connects with the rest of Brazil via air or river transport ─ there is no major highway.
We begin with the1896 opera house, built in an era of decadence thanks to the enormous wealth of rubber barons. The lavish “Teatro Amazonas” was an attempt to create Paris in the middle of jungle. Searching for even greater wealth, one of the rubber magnates dissembled a steamship and brought it through the jungle to seize the Peruvian rubber market. A fictional version of this tale was adapted by Werner Herzog in his film “Fitzcarraldo” (1982).
Aside from yellow fever and malaria the rubber kings and their families led a luxurious and often self-indulgent life style including bringing major opera stars to Manaus, and bathing horses in champagne. All of this collapsed along with Brazil’s rubber industry in 1926 ─ closing the opera house until 1997.
Teatro Amazonas features opera, ballet, and orchestral concerts. The building is located on an immaculate square complete with swirling black and white Rio-style tiles. This pink and white neo-classic structure has Greek columns as well as bas-relief carvings over the main entrance. However, Randolph Hearst must have been consulted because the roof is crowned with a large, gaudy dome constructed from thousands of Italian tiles in screaming yellow and green.
Major events occur here with world renowned performers. The night before we arrived Baryshnikov was dancing ─ actually he did a little dancing and a film of his career was shown. For this all 701 maroon velvet seats were filled at a cost of $180 per ticket.
Our opera house tour begins with a sneak attendance of the Amazonas Philharmonic rehearsing “Holocaust Requiem” by the Israeli composer Boris Pigovat. The horse-shoe interior has four balcony levels and each has beautifully carved wrought iron fixtures. European artists painted the ceiling and the curtain, lavish French chandeliers are everywhere, and rare rosewood floors are protected by tourists skating in oversized slippers.
We spend a few days at the Amazon Eco-Park Lodge which is located on the Rio Negro, an Amazon tributary. Reaching the hotel is most of the “eco” part and requires one van, one motorized long boat, one sandy hill, one ancient bus (a relic which broke down frequently), and a thirty minute walk. We’re at the end of the dry season. Rivers and streams are low and humidity exceeds 100%. The largest number of staff is engaged in moving luggage in wheelbarrows.
Our guide Wedson is excellent on a jungle walk explaining all the medicinal and survival aspects of various plants. The lodge has a monkey rehabilitation center where an attempt is being made to assist injured or abandoned monkeys and return them to the wild.
We take a Mississippi-style river boat to the “Meeting of the Waters.” Here the brown Amazon River joins the black Rio Negro with a striking demarcation line. We do get to see a few fresh water dolphins. Unlike their North American cousins, these mammals are less active and do not leap out of the water.
Just as there are people who compete for the number of countries visited, the Amazon and the Nile vie for the title, “Longest River in the World.” At the last tributary count the Amazon rules with 4,200 miles.
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This enormous area is an open grassland or savannah, slightly larger
than France, and is known as the best place in all the Americas to
spot exotic wildlife. Upon arrival in the Pantanal, we see miles of
grass and at the horizon large trees and brush. Groups of deciduous
trees are sprinkled with palmetto and some palm. There are few flowers
anywhere with the exception of the luscious coral tree and an
occasional bromeliad with red cactus-style leaves. This is the end of
the dry season and rains will come soon.
Our biggest surprise ─ herds of white cows imported from India where
the climate is similar. Ranching has been part of this area for more
than a century. However, in more recent time ecotourism has landed. We
are staying at a ranch that is 100 years old but the Pousada is only
30 years young. Pousada Piuval is a sprawling adobe ranch house with
cool tile floors and heavy wooden furniture. Rooms are of a reasonable
size and each is air-conditioned. Meals are healthy but repetitive,
although the coffee is excellent. Viva Brazil! At night there are more
insects on the floor of our room than I see in a six month period in
San Francisco. What do we do about that? We get over it.
The Pantanal has a rhythm of its own. There are morning and late
afternoon hikes, night truck tours, and boat trips. The heat of
mid-day sends the animals and the humans into siesta mode. Our guide
Jean (a Haitian ex-pat) leads our group ─ four Dutch tourists and us.
He sights wildlife that we city folk miss completely. A group of coati
amble along in the nearby brush. The coati is brown and about the size
of a raccoon. The large ring tail can either stand up proudly or lag
behind. On some hikes there’s a plethora of sightings while on others
nothing ─ this is not a zoo.
On a boat trip along the river, the Dutch fish for piranha while we
search the banks. We see a hefty doe and a bulky stag with a huge
antler stack. Unfortunately the edges of the river are already thick
with the insidious hyacinth plant known to choke major waterways.
Birdlife is remarkable and a constant source of amazement. With the
exception of Costa Rica, we’ve never seen as many bird species ─ noisy
macaws, elegant herons, flocks of egrets, hawks, toucans, parrots and
enormous storks with high nests. We watch one Jabiru stork swallow a
fish that is as large as his beak. Smart parakeets create their own
nests in and under a gigantic stork nest.
Monkeys hang out in the thick of the bush. They do wild jumps between
trees and palmettos that would be the envy of a track and field star.
Alligator-like animals are known as caimans and regardless of name,
they all look frightening and pre-historic. On a night ride, the
spotting light reflecting off their eyes appears like hundreds of city
One of the more unusual animals is a capybara, the
largest rodent in the world. They resemble huge guinea pigs with the
torso of an overweight dog. Capybaras even swim in the middle of
caiman ponds and each species gets along just fine.
Luckily, our Pantanal visit coincides with the annual “Cavalcade of
Horses.” Hundreds of horsemen and some women spend several days
crossing a wide swath of the region. As they traverse the 7,000
hectares of the pousada land, riders stretch across the horizon. We
move closer and see that most participants wear special commemorative
T-shirts. A large amount of beer has been consumed. As a small quartet
passes, I shout “Viva los caballeros!” They stop, speak some English,
and I ask the guitar horseman how he can ride and play. He responds
with a tune while everyone sings. A horseman named Berto dismounts and
starts dancing with me to a slow rhumba beat. He twirls, spins, and
even lifts me off my feet before the song ends. Berto bows and his
A horse trip was also offered to us. My attempts to sit comfortably
on the horse were unsuccessful. Mark went off with the group on two
enjoyable trips, and I went for a run.
The Pantanal is a unique part of this world and we feel privileged to
have been here.
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