In Taormina

Yesterday we visited Taormina, a cliffside town that is a short drive from our vineyard lodgings. Originally founded by Greek settlers in the B.C. period, the town is a melange of Greek, Byzantine, Moorish, Norman, and Italian influences, with bright colors and patterns everywhere you look. The town square shown above, with its fabulous tile inlaid floor, is a good example. You get a sense of Taormina’s cliffside status from the steep hills immediately behind the church.

The town square also affords a sweeping view of the cliffside and the Mediterranean Sea far below. Those are prickly pear cactus plants in the foreground, and you can see a few boats on the bright blue water.

The buildings in town are colorfully painted, and many feature second story railings with plantings and traditional figures. The streets in the town are narrow—being built into the hillside means space is at a premium—and you get a close-up view of the buildings as you stroll along.

From the town square you pass through an arched gate in the wall that leads to an older part of town where the streets are even narrower. The archway features a beautiful traditional Madonna and child mosaic, shown below, that is set into the wall for all to enjoy and that attests to the Byzantine influences in the town.

Part of the fun of visiting Taormina is taking a peek at the tiny alleyways that branch off from the main street. You’ll see lots of stairs leading up and down and planters, too. The stairs also can serve as seats for the footsore visitor looking for shade. Stopping in the beautiful local churches also is a good way to beat the heat.

There was an amazing variety of plants along the passageways, with the kinds of deep color you expect to find in tropical settings. That should come as no surprise in a seaside town on an island off the coast of southern Italy.

Taormina is a popular tourist destination, and it is not hard to see why: it is a charming and interesting place with some very dramatic views.

Coastal Colors

When Betty and I took our walk this morning we passed the Island Ad-Vantages building, which has a new paint job. It a pretty bold color scheme—which means it fits right in.

One of the things I like about Stonington is that people aren’t afraid to use bright paint on their houses. That is true in many seaside communities. To be sure, there are many houses that are white or coastal gray, but there also are vibrant yellows, blues, reds, and greens. It makes for a very pleasing palette. It also says “vacation.”

The new shades on the Island Ad-Vantages offices just add more hues to our multi-colored Stonington rainbow.

When Girth Is A Virtue

New York City is now home to the world’s skinniest skyscraper. The Steinway Tower has finished construction and is open for occupants. The building comes in at 84 stories in height, is 1,428 feet tall, and has a height to width ratio of 24:1. It is taller, and therefore skinnier, than the other slender skyscrapers that are found on what is being called “Billionaire’s Row” on West 57th Street.

There are 60 apartments in the Steinway Tower’s 84 stories, and as the photo above indicates, the Tower offers a commanding view of Central Park, the east side and west side of Manhattan, and the rivers beyond. According to the CNN article linked above, the prices are extraordinary, even by Manhattan standards: studio apartments are $7.75 million, and the penthouse goes for $66 million. (Seriously, who would want to pay $7.75 million for a studio apartment?)

Photographs of the building make it look like a gigantic, freshly sharpened pencil, and in addition to it’s super-thin appearance, it’s got other architectural flourishes. The facade includes blocks of terracotta, which appears to change color when seen at different times of day with different light and from different angles.

Separate and apart from the cost, and the height, it would take a special person, willing to put a lot of trust into architects, contractors, building materials, and super-height construction techniques, to live in this building. Super-skinny might be fashionable, but in my view when it comes to buildings a little more girth is welcome.

A Deer’s-Eye View

Betty and I took a walk around the river in downtown Columbus this morning, which gave her a chance to hang with a deer friend (get it?) on the stepped seating area in front of COSI. She and her antlered pal got to take in a nifty view of the skyline.

The seated deer sculpture is one of several deer sculptures in the riverfront area, all of which are doing very undeerlike things. I think they are pretty cool.

Underneath The Bridges

The Scioto Mile path offers the walker a choice: you can take the high road, or you can take the low road. The high road pretty much sticks to street level. The low road, on the other hand, hugs the river, and leads you down on a winding path that runs beneath the various traffic and railroad bridges that span the river.

I prefer the low road, and the bridges are a big part of the reason why.

Street-level views of the world are fine, of course, but that’s what we get every day. To me, the engineering underworld of concrete spans and bridge abutments and rip rap is a nice change of pace. It is especially interesting on a cold, clear morning, where the sunshine plays with the concrete and metal and adds a new element to the views.

When we hear debate about infrastructure, bridges are a lot of what we’re talking about. To my unschooled eye, the downtown Columbus bridges over the river look to be in pretty good shape, with no apparent cracks or sags or exposed rebar. And they are interesting bridges, too, from a design standpoint. I doubt if the bridge designers focused overmuch on the underside views as opposed to the topside perspective, but the underside views are compelling nevertheless. Looking at the bridges from below helps you to understand how bridges work, and also leads to an appreciation of the artistry of sound engineering.

Precarious Snowman

I’ve always been an admirer of a good snowman. Building an acceptable snowman takes patience, the fortitude to work in the cold, the right kind of good packing snow, a practicable giant snowball rolling technique, gentle assembly skills that allow you to stack the three balls into the classic snowman shape without splitting one of the balls, and then an artistic flair as you add the final facial decorations and other distinctive touches.

So I’ve really got to tip my cap to the anonymous snow artist who not only created a credible snowman, but also balanced it on the very tip of one of the stone fenceposts along the St. Mary’s School property, at the corner of our block. As feats of engineering go, that’s a pretty strong effort. And seeing a midair snowman can’t help but lift your spirits as you slog through the ice and snow and slush.

Thank you, anonymous snow artist!

What Makes A Great Urban Park?

Yesterday we decided to spend some time at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the premier art museums in the United States and home to pieces like American Gothic, Nighthawks, and a vast collection of impressionism and 20th century artwork. Because it was on our way, we walked through Millennium Park, which has to be one of the finest urban parks in the world. Chicago definitely got this one right.

As we walked through Millennium Park, I thought about what makes a great urban park. Of course, you want to have some green space, like the lovely garden area shown in the photo above. And you also want to include some interesting large-space artwork, like the gleaming reflective sculpture nicknamed “the Bean” that is shown in the first photo of this post. It draws people like a magnet, as they search to find themselves on the rounded, mirror-like surface, and probably has become, over the years, one of the most photographed objects in the city’s history.

One of the big questions for urban park planners has to be deciding how to treat the surrounding city. Do you plant a lot of big trees, to block out the skyscrapers as best you can and try to create a quiet, green space, or do you focus instead on creating vistas that frame the towering spires in interesting ways? The Millennium Park designers took the second approach, and I think it was a wise decision. Everywhere you look–even in the reflection in the Bean–you can see Chicago’s skyscrapers. And why not? This is some of the best urban architecture in the world, and it makes sense to show it off. But I appreciate the little touches that the planners have created, like the wooden walkway through the garden area, shown above, and careful thinking that the bridge shown in the photos below.

The BP pedestrian bridge, which links two parts of Millennium Park, is a good example of how creativity and attention to detail can add so much to a park. The designers needed a bridge to allow park visitors to easily cross over a highway. They could have made a simple overpass, but instead they created a shimmering, serpentine structure that winds around and makes you forget that you are on a bridge at all. You walk along, dazzled by the glint of sunlight on the sides of the walkway and gaping at the skyline and surrounding buildings, and before you know it you’ve reached the other side and have a hankering to walk back over the bridge again, just for the heck of it, because crossing it in the first place was so cool.

I’m confident that most of the tourists who visit Millennium Park end up leaving with the thought that they wish that their hometowns had a place like it. What better testament is there for a successful urban park?

Harbor Portraits

Last night we took a sunset cruise around Charleston’s harbor. It was a warm, pleasant evening with lots of clouds in the sky, but happily the rain held off and we were able to enjoy a light breeze and the scenery. The cloud banks prevented us from actually seeing the sun drop below the horizon, and instead we were treated to the colorful impact of the dying sunlight on the many clouds. As we sailed along it was like traveling through an ever-changing modern art painting. Pretty spectacular!

Chalk, And A Blank Slate

We have a piece of slate and a stand in our kitchen, and plenty of chalk to go around. It makes for an irresistible combination that lures everyone to try their hand at a little calligraphy.

Of course, chalk reminds me of elementary school and standing at towering, wall-to-wall chalkboards, being handed that piece of chalk, and being instructed by Mrs. Haddad, my third-grade teacher, to solve a math problem or spell Mississippi or make the perfect cursive capital E, like the one on the cardboard example thumbtacked above the board. In those days, when you were handed a piece of chalk, the pressure was on, and if you didn’t perform your sorry effort would be swept away by a dusty eraser as you went slinking back to your desk.

These days, the piece of chalk isn’t quite as intimidating. In fact, it’s kind of fun to try your hand at a little printing that might meet Mrs. Haddad’s exacting standards. And we welcome the forgiveness inherent in erasure, which gives us a chance to fix those little mistakes.

Over The Susquehanna

We’re in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania for a wedding. Lewisburg is the home to Bucknell and is located along the west branch of the Susquehanna River. The Susquehanna is the longest river in the eastern United States and runs from a lake in New York through Pennsylvania and down to the Chesapeake Bay.

It was a moist, misty morning, and my view of the river as shown above reminded me of the Hudson River school of landscape painting. As it passes Lewisburg, the Sus is very wide and calm. It was quite a drop from the bridge to the surface of the water, though so I steered toward the inside lane as I walked across.

Art Underfoot

A construction crew has been working on one of the access ramps to the underground garage under the Ohio Statehouse. I’m not sure exactly what they are doing, but it sure looks cool.

First they put down what looked exactly like yellow Legos, then they placed bright red wires over the yellow blocks. The combination was striking when I walked past yesterday morning, and produced what really looked like a modern art installation. It seems like a shame to cover it up with concrete.

Failing The Pie Test

The Washington Post recently ran a thought-provoking piece on its opinion pages about pie. That’s right, pie — the warm, flaky, delectable dessert concoction. The writer’s point is that America, which apparently invented pie, is letting its salutary contribution to the dessert realm wither away, because Americans are forgetting how to make a good pie crust.

The piece, while alarmist in tone, has a point. The crust of a pie is as important to the whole pie experience as a crisp, delicately flavored, non-doughy crust is to a fine pizza–which makes sense because it is a pizza pie, after all. As the writer notes, more and more Americans are buying store-bought crusts that aren’t up to snuff, and in her experience even professional artisanal bakeries aren’t producing the light and flaky pie crusts that her mother and grandmother routinely pulled from the oven during her childhood.

The notion that America may be losing its collective pie crust know-how is a very disturbing thought and, for those of us who have personally experienced piece crust artistry, cruel news, indeed. My grandmother made an excellent pie crust, and the Harbor Cafe here in Stonington produces some excellent graham cracker crusts to go with its famous banana cream pie. But there is no doubt that the knack of making a great crust is the kind of thing that could be lost forever if not carefully handed down from generation to generation or, alternatively, reinvigorated by a new generation focused on preserving this important American institution.

I like baking, but I’ve always limited myself to cookies. I have considered baking a good pie crust to be akin to climbing Mount Everest. I’m taking the Post piece as a kind of challenge, however. I like pie–apple pie, like the kind shown in the photo above, is my favorite–and I’m not willing to stand idly by and watch pie die. When the winter rolls around, and it’s prime baking season, I’m going to take a crack at some pie baking, and hope that some of that pie artistry was passed down in the family genes.

Austin’s Architecture

I’ve been meaning to write one last thing about our recent trip to Austin. If you’re interested in architecture, Austin is a must-visit destination. With the city growing like crazy, and new buildings being constructed everywhere you look, Austin allows a kind of real-time look at the direction of modern architecture.

So, what do you see in Austin’s new buildings? Lots of geometry, for the most part, and not much ornamentation. The ruffles and flourishes that you notice in older buildings—sometimes beautiful, sometimes garish, but almost always interesting—are long gone. The new buildings are sleek and gleaming, and in many instances the simple rectangle and cube designs that maximize the space under roof reign supreme.

But that doesn’t mean the architects don’t try to come up with visually interesting buildings. The Google headquarters building that is under construction and shown in the first photograph in this post is enormous, occupying an entire city block, but the design includes a graceful curve and, at the front of the building not visible in the picture, a unique stacking of floors that makes it look like the observer is peeking into the innards of the building. The design of the top of the building in the photograph immediately above tries to depart from the standard flat roof. And other buildings, like the eye-catching “Jenga” building shown in the bottom photograph in this post, make a statement by playing off the cube and rectangle look in an arresting way.

In the ancient architectural battle of form against function, functionality seems to be winning, but the architects look to be doing their best to add a dollop of flash and flair and inject some art into the architecture. And one other thing is clear: if you live or work in one of Austin’s new buildings, you are going to get lots of natural light, because windows—lots and lots of windows—are a dominant feature. That’s a good thing too, because it shows that today’s architects are concerned about the experience of the people inside the building as the people like me gawking at the skyscrapers from the outside.

Amidst The Mist

Fog is a curious phenomenon. For one thing, sounds seem to carry differently when Stonington is socked in by a heavy fog, as it is this morning. The growling sounds of the lobster boats heading out to sea seem to be amplified by the moisture in the air, so that it sounds as if the boats are very close by when it is clear they aren’t. And familiar scenes look different, too.

But the visual effects of fog can also be surprising, and varying. Sometimes it renders things, like the boats at anchor above, blurry and indistinct, like a grey aquatic dreamscape. In other places the fog acts as a kind of backdrop that frames the structures in the foreground, giving them a different cast. The old dock and green boathouse below, located next to the post office, are a good example of this effect. I’d never paid much attention to them before, but amidst the mist they look spindly and delicate and haunting.

Fog makes the morning walk more interesting for me, but makes the morning work more treacherous for the lobstermen.