Posted on December 24, 2015
“Imagine the amount of sorrow this wood has seen,” said Pepe. “And Joy,” countered his son, also Pepe, of the surprisingly heavy wooden plank I held.
These would be Pepe Romero, my dear friend and neighbor, preeminent concert guitarist, and Pepe Romero—the son, whom I will refer to as Pepito, for differentiation—my growing friend, and masterful luthier, as guitar-makers are more properly called. And ukulele-makers, too, in his case.
The rough-hewn plank of Spanish pine, its stubbly surface, coarse to my touch, was the point of reference in this discussion. And there, an arm’s length off my left shoulder were two magnificent, audaciously beautiful just-completed examples of Pepito’s craftsmanship—as yet unstrung Spanish concert guitars. Their faces glowed the pine’s rich honey gold, the sides and backs contrasting with the dark and light grains of rosewood.
The backstories of these guitars compel my sharing. Granada’s Hospital Real was built between 1502 and 1522 at the behest of queen Isabela and king Fernando of Spain, those monarchs who had bankrolled Christopher Columbus in 1492. This is when Spain, under these Catholic monarchs succeeded in pushing the Moors from the Iberian peninsula, the apogee at the time of Islamic expansionism. Originally used in caring for soldiers injured in the battle to retake the city, the structure then became the first European lunatic asylum, then hospital again, and now an edifice of the University of Granada’s library.
A Granadan artisan carpenter named Paco Montañez, who specializes in repairs and reconstruction of ancient historical buildings like the Alhambra and the Hospital Real, was employed by Pepe in a rebuild of his and esposa Carissa’s European-away Granada home. Paco had replaced a Hospital beam, and wood from that was being used in the Romero residence. Visiting Paco’s workshop and hearing the beam eerily singing as the saw cut into it, Pepe attested such apparently musical wood should be saved for use by Pepito in constructing guitars back in his Del Mar workshop.
Alone with Pepito the next day, he mused on the history of this wood, a massive beam five hundred years ago when laid in the hospital, yet having begun life a tiny seed dropping in the wind from a tree maybe a millennium before then.
What a humbling thought. What an exhilarating thought. How metaphoric for his own family tree, a story of the seed truly not falling far from the tree. And is it too far a reach in this season to not see parallels to the Christmas story, a humble beginning in a stable with the wooden manger, of a gift of love, of beauty and peace? The thought resonates with me, much more fulfilling than the hypertension of the malls.
The family, longtime residents of Del Mar, hails originally from Málaga, Spain. Pepito’s grandfather, the inestimable Celedonio, revered for his performance prowess and compositional genius, ever the gentle poetic romantic, and sire of the first family of the Spanish guitar—Celin, Pepe, and Angel. Concert guitar performances could be in any combination of numbers from solo to quartet, and all three sons are famous musicians the world over. Celedonio, and his wife Angelita have passed on, and the quartet now performs with Celin and Pepe, as well as Celino and Lito, Celin’s and Angel’s sons.
Pepito has shared with me that there had once been unspoken, yet palpable expectations that he, too, should join the family performance dynasty. But he heard and has embraced a different muse, turning his hands to crafting the instruments themselves, exquisitely creating beauty for the eye, the ear, and the tactile. Having known Celedonio for many years across the backyard fence, I find Pepito’s thoughts and philosophical expressions very… in tune… with his abuelo. I have no doubt that Celedonio smiles proudly at the broad curves and nuanced details of Pepito’s work and words. I know first-hand that his father does. For what it’s worth, so do I.
My dad, both a musician and a painter, conveyed that he saw human creativity as mankind’s modest recapitulation of God’s seminal expression of creative love—by humans, at once an homage, a touch of the sincerest form of flattery, and a fulfillment of mankind’s destiny as breathed into humankind at creation. I express it poorly, and for some this will sound too too. Whatever, for me, it is essential truth. It is why I love beauty as the fruit of creativity. And it is basic to the natural resonant camaraderie Celedonio, his sons, grandsons, and great grandson, Bernardo and I share.
The creation of music and the tools for its performance, its composition, its transcriptive adaptation, the philosophy of its place in the world, the appreciation of its beauty and redemptive powers, even the poetry flowing from those who would embrace all this is the family tree that lives from the seed of Celedonio. And it glows quietly and exquisitely in Pepito and his creations—his gifts to the world.
I referenced the season and the Christmas story above. Let me add a whimsical tangent for you non Latin or Catholic scholars. Both of the Pepes are actually named José, the Spanish version of Joseph. Joseph is considered Pater Putativus, or “P.P.”—Latin for “father in name only.” In Spanish, the letter “P” is pronounced approximately as in “pay,” and PP would be pronounced Pepe—the Spanish nickname for José. Who knew?
‘Tis the season of giving. Each of us having received the gift of life and the gifts of our living. It’s the season in which we take stock of our blessings and seek to share blessings with others. My neighbors give the gift of music to the world, caretakers of their unique capabilities and lineage, a human parallel to the sojourn of the pine seed. Beauty shared with us all. From my father, I inherit a particular affinity for this sort of thing, and I relish my proximal opportunity to convey this modest story as my Christmas season gift to you.
As Ever, T
Posted on September 28, 2015
As is widely known, last evening’s so called Super Moon also treated us to a Blood Moon total lunar eclipse in the bargain. A sufficiently infrequent event that I was positively salivating at the prospect of using multiple cameras to get both a time-lapse and still images.
Then, just this week we got word that Cathy’s brother Steve Zeisler had selected yesterday, Sunday, September 27th as the day he was retiring as the senior pastor at Palo Alto’s Peninsula Bible Church after a 43 year run there, following his time as a Stanford University student and football athlete. Another sufficiently infrequent event, that it, too, was not to be missed. We took trusty N111TT and flew up for the day, the plan being to leave there in time to return to Montgomery Field, put the plane away, and rush to my chosen photo site along a ridge in the Torrey Pines Reserve. Boy, but there were a lot of well-deserved testimonials from the Stanford and Silicon Valley types that are the parishioners there. Steve and his bride, Leslie are such a class act, so genuine salt of the earth types, and the affection of their friends is so sincere, this was a thoroughly touching event, and an honor to be there. We quickly forgot the scooting out midway through plan, and Cathy, Torrey and I stayed until everyone repaired to the patio for munchies and drinks, then scooted out.
We took an Uber ride back to Palo Alto and were shortly ensconced at 9,500 feet on a nearly direct southeasterly course. The flight was smooth and scenic in both directions.
While still at the church I figured if we got off by four-thirty, we should be able to catch the initial moonrise while near the Orange/San Diego County lines, and that is exactly how it turned out. As promised, the moon broke the horizon already showing the penumbral shadowing of a partial eclipse heading toward totality—best seen on the initial image, above.
Arriving and maneuvering for our landing, I eschewed my usual hand-flown descent and made liberal use of the autopilot to free me up for images of the rapidly advancing umbral shadow of the developing total eclipse. What a great platform to accomplish all this.
Airplane back in the barn, I was able to set up just off taxiways Bravo and Hotel for this positively glowing view.
A few more shots there, then back to Del Mar for additional images of the various stages of the Blood Moon, which is not easy for me to shoot well. The dimness of the eclipse makes focusing and exposure a challenge, especially if you want to bring out the lunar surface features.
The farther the shadow retreated, the easier it was to focus and reveal the surface mare, craters, and green cheese.
I had researched the moonset, as well, which was this morning at 07:15. I made my usual mental request for the muse to awaken me if there was going to be a viable show. I awoke at 05:45 and discovered pea soup fog had enveloped us, so I rolled over trying for more shuteye. Then about 06:30 the muse alarm went off, and I discovered a fog reprieve.
So, all in all, a nice day in the life. Great for we three Del Martians, bittersweetly reinforcing for Steve, Leslie and family. As ever, TWC
Posted on July 5, 2015
Like Rumpole of the Bailey, I am wedded to “She Who Must be Obeyed,” also known as “Ol’ What’s Her Name,” affectionate titling for my bride of THIRTY YEARS! this month. Trying unsuccessfully to keep up with my dotage, Cathy nonetheless managed to qualify for Medicare in May, ample motivation for a celebratory trip, adventurously worthy of age denial and anniversary exultation. Naturally, I obeyed her summons, and agreed that biking some 255 km (160 miles) across undulating bucolic southern Czech Republic topography fit the bill handsomely. “Yes, dear, whatever you say, dear,” sayeth Brer Rabbit, eyeing this central European briar patch. Perhaps I should mention that the Czechs exceed, by orders of magnitude, other countries’ per capita beer consumption? Pilsner is named after the Czech city of Plzen, after all. This is a country where pivo, as beer is called, is a daily part of the fabric of life.
In her inimitable way, Cathy’s research turned up a splendid outfitter in Loren of Pure Adventures www.pure-adventures.com specializing in self-guided bicycle and hiking trips. Loren, a European ex-pat, now living in Scottsdale, and his Czech in-country counterpart, Tomas, promptly fielded every request and lame question with equanimity, putting together a trip that challenged us without breaking us. Every detail was covered from navigation to accommodation, from surface transit to electrical plugs. Loren and Tomas must operate in a 48 hour per day universe, they were so capable of patiently responding to our every concern. Everywhere we had quality lodging, routinely the best place in each town, as often as not, on or just off the main square. We provided the propulsion, but Pure-Adventures took care of the logistics. Each day we sallied forth with bicycle panniers and handlebar bags carrying day gear, leaving our suitcases with hotel staff. By the time we arrived at that day’s destination, our bags had been transported ahead, awaiting us in our new lodging’s rooms.
I wish to step back and approach our adventure somewhat chronologically, mentally ambling as I go. We decided that as long as we were going to be in “the neighborhood,” why not begin by exploring Salzburg and Vienna, Austria, and finish with Prague? And then there’s the matter of a gateway to get there and return. Somehow or other we managed to find space available for pass riding on United from San Diego to Munich—then surfaced to Salzburg at the outset, and back from Prague at the end.
Salzburg, with a population of some 146,000, is a delight to the senses—the birthplace of Mozart and the setting for The Sound of Music, an approachably-sized city, redolent of western culture, and bisected by the Salzach river. Our Hotel Elefant lodging was thoroughly modern within, notwithstanding being a 750 year-old baroque structure in the exclusively pedestrian cobblestone pathway Altstadt (Old City) just steps off the river’s left bank, and loomed over by the Festung (fortress).
As I say, Salzburg is suffused with culture, a fitting nurturance for Wolfgang Amadeus, with art and music everywhere. Here we began what turned out to be a recurring theme, walking to a marvelous early evening concert of piano and violin sonatas performed in the acoustically live Schlosskirche Mirabell (Mirabell palace church) followed up with dinner at a walk-side cafe. You’ll notice that we had front and center seats, this event drawing maybe thirty attendees—not a testament to the quality of the music, but rather the number of such events available nightly.
On another evening we took sustenance just across the street from Mozart’s birth house.
And what could be more fitting than strolling to the Augustine monastery’s brewery beer garden on a warm afternoon? Sit in the deep cool shade of the trees, consuming delicious beer drawn right into your mug from wooden barrels to quaff down grilled sausage and potatoes, while people watching and conversing in rusty Deutsche and English with the table of gentlemen next to us. A vignette—free WiFi is ubiquitous everywhere in Austria and the Czech Republic. One of the gents, just off the frame to the right, looked exactly like NFL coach and commentator John Madden. I pulled up Madden’s photo on my i-phone and showed it to him as conversation ice-breaker. Not that much ice breaking is needed after consuming a couple of half liter mugs of cold brau.
From Salzburg, we took the WestBahn train on to Vienna, no reservation needed. The train leaves just about hourly. Pick a seat, and pay by credit card when the conductor meanders by. Two hours later we de-trained, and grabbed a cab to our Hotel Mailberger Hof, just off the main Kartner Strasse pedestrian pathway, and two blocks from the famous Vienna Opera House.
Cathy and I found Vienna a bit excessive, as compared to the more embraceable scale of Salzburg. But there is much to love. This is the musical city of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms and waltz king Johan Strauss.
It is a city of monumental cathedrals, castles and parks, the Danube flowing by on its way to Budapest. Residents and visitors are at once immersed in all this. An interesting aside, perhaps modest testimony to the egalitarian nature of Austria—Cathy and I cannot remember seeing a single police officer in either Salzburg or Vienna. Also, another quirky aside—what’s with languages changing another country’s place names? To Austrians, this city is Wien, not Vienna, and Prague is Praha up in the Czech Republic.
Across the street from the Opera House is the Hofburg Palace, and its lovely Albertina art museum, where one can take in works from the likes of Michelangelo Buonarotti, the creator of Florence’s statue of David, the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and marble statue of the Pieta. Here’s a sketch by the master, a study for the statue, perhaps?
It had been quite warm while we were in Salzburg, and afternoon thunderstorms attenuated that as we arrived in Vienna. Our hotel was here, on Annagasse, another cobblestone pedestrian-only pathway. Gasse is the German diminutive for Strasse, or street—gasse, being too modest to call a true strasse street. The name Anna refers to the church Annakirche, the steeple of which is reflecting in the residual rain puddle. That’s an Italian cafe, upper left, where we had a late lunch on our first day in Wien. The next table over had two singers, conversing in English as their common language, starring as Leporello and Donna Elvira in that evening’s performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, tickets in hand for the sold out performance, which we had already acquired from a scalper dressed in 18th century attire. You just can’t make up this stuff.
Okay, it’s not every Del Martian beach bum who can claim to have climbed the gilded stairway of the world famous Staatsoper Wiener, and then watched a Mozart opera from a box seat, before wandering outside after intermission to capture the action with culture-embracing street people. But I am a pushover for smaller ensembles in baroque settings with the tight acoustics of stone, granite, and gilded statues beneath lofty arched ceilings. For our second evening in town, I secured tickets to a string quartet performing “right next door” at the Annakirche. Oh, my, what a glorious setting and what beautiful music.
I know, but to clean up the panorama composed of four images, is to cheat you on the vaulted splendor of this place, which nonetheless was only about the width of twenty parishioners side to side. They don’t make them like this anymore.
Yes photos, surreptitiously snapped, without flash, were allowed at all of our small venue performances in Europe. I asked first, and was very unobtrusive in the taking. Chamber music just isn’t the same on a recording. Being up close with small ensembles in tight hard-surfaced venues you not only hear the nuances of each instrument individually, but feel them viscerally. The horsehair of the bow literally vibrates across the strings and comes at you like some sort of wondrous musical washboard road. And do you not feel like royalty wafted along in gilded splendor?
Another snippet from my goofy noodle. Hollywood Boulevard is a Johnny-come-lately to the sidewalk stars, which are scattered all over central Wien. This one is for fellow United pilot retiree Pfred Hayes (he mocked himself with his silly spelling) who was a music major in college. One of his professors had been an oboe performer in an orchestra conducted by Maestro Toscanini. At the end of a rehearsal, one of the oboist’s valve mechanisms structurally failed, and he dutifully and nervously presented himself to the maestro to explain his plight. Mr. Toscanini just stared quietly into space for a few seconds before replying that this would not be a problem, as that particular valve would not be needed at any point in any of the pieces being played that evening. The maestro had mentally fast forwarded through all the evening’s scores to render this judgement. Apocryphal? Perhaps, but what a juicy story.
The Vienna Bucket List box checked, it was time to take the train to the Czech Republic. A couple of side stories, here. We were planning on taking a trolley to the Meidling Bahnhof (train station) but I slipped up and got us on a local bus. It got us to the station, just fine, but as a milk run through multiple Viennese neighborhoods en route. Part of the fun. Our train took us to Breclav, which is pronounced Brehslav, and this is a fitting segue into the Czech language, which I admit intimidated me as we pondered this trip.
Like Hungarian, Czech is a language unique to itself, seriously challenged by the lack of vowels where our tongue would wish to place them, and with pronunciations at which even the Czechs shake their heads. For instance we pedaled through Znojmo, which is pronounced “Noy-mo,” and stayed the evening in Telc (Telsch) and Trebon (Chey-bonya). Go figure. Loren’s instructions gave us to understand that English would be little used or understood at the small places making up our biking venue, although we could hope for some English in Prague, or is that Praha? And we’re biking through here on our own? Gulp. I’m happy to report that we found that English worked fairly well amongst younger people in the small towns of the south of the Czech Republic, and our Google translator phone apps and Pure Adventure mini-glossary helped. That and smiles, and dumb “who me?” looks generally got the job done, especially when older cafe-keepers would call out their young offspring to translate. A case in point, on one day, nearing Trebon, we needed a stretch and butt break, so peeled off at a tiny cafe abutting our two bike-width path. We sought food and a libation, which turned out to be goulash and a mineral water. The goulash really called for a pivo, but we still had kilometers to ride ahead of us. Pondering the menu was greatly assisted when the owner called in his high school age son, and before we knew it we were honored special guests, given a wonderful pamphlet (in Czech, English, German, and Spanish) extolling the region we were biking through and would we please except a free serving of their in-house specialty of fish something or other? The kid was great, keenly interested in all things English language, especially when he learned we came from the U.S., evidencing frustration that as yet his vocabulary was insufficient to convey all he wished to share, and assuring us that English was his favorite subject in school. A pathway lunch stop turned into an iconic cultural moment. Why we travel.
Another sub-tangent, here. The Czech are a proud and conscientious people. Their geographic location between Germany to the west, Austria (as in Austro-Hungarian empire) to the south, and Russia to the north, has produced its fair share of subjugation, recently during and after WWII, about which more, anon. For now, recent history reminder is that Vaclav Havel and other intellectuals effected the Velvet Revolution to throw off the Soviet yoke in 1989, and the Velvet Divorce, to separate the Czech Republic out of the former Czechoslovakia four years later. This is the nation through whose countryside we bicycled, on a route designed by Tomas to give outsiders a sense of the beauty, history, and culture of his land, apart from the tourist sites in Prague. I can’t overstate how glad we are that we got to experience this.
Navigation is clearly an important aspect of a self guided trip in an unfamiliar country with a language and alphabet all its un-pronounceable own. The following scans from the very documents we had arrayed daily before us in our clear plastic-covered handlebar bags—the bicycle version of an aircraft Heads Up Display—give a hint at the thoroughness with which our routes were prepared. The actual maps were scaled such that each grid was one square kilometer, which made estimating distance simple, although estimates were unnecessary, given that the textual guidance was accurate to the 1/10th of a km, and our two GPS units were accurate to 1/100th of a km.
Yes, the yellow highlighting was already on the maps when Tomas provided them and walked us through the basics of the travel package at our excellent pension in Valtice, CZ.
Out on the road, the Czech Republic provides clear guidance. CZ is a bike-friendly place, with bicyclists and bike routes encountered regularly. I wonder if biking’s ubiquity is because they are a healthy robust people who like the out-of-doors, or maybe if some of that became a necessity when under Nazi or Soviet thumbs? At any rate, the signage was great. This sign was at a juncture of two hardpack dirt paths in the middle of a forest.
When we were on roads they were generally tertiary or secondary paved country roads with minimal auto traffic. The Czech drivers were routinely courteous, angling to the far side of the road as they passed us, and the roads were invariably clear of glass and other bike tire-damaging debris. And with each town one entered, there was a sign telling you the name of the place, and another as you left, indicating that you were now leaving that named place. Good information, itself, but also, precisely to the tenth of a km, accurately annotated on the textual directions. I quickly learned that passing these signs, it was invariably beneficial to re-zero the second of the two kilometer readouts on my GPS, as this micro-updating kept us out of trouble when we might encounter confusion as to which juncture to depart from the small town square, say. For example in one tiny town, the GPS, updated when we passed the “Entering” sign, coupled with the textual directions, told us we should be at a picket fence, where we would discover a tiny bike path angled off in the direction we needed, but a hundred or so meters out of sight over yonder. A woman and her adult daughter saw us circling and pondering, and came out asking which language—”Deutsche or English?” then, looking at our map, pointed us in the correct direction. Another cultural exchange moment. In sum, we never got lost in six days of pedaling, but we did have the occasional 0.2 km back track, or put the foot down moments, comparing the map/text/GPS with my innate sense of direction. Not too disquieting or stressful, but caution-inducing. And a few hours after departing we would arrive safely at our next lodging, the bags up in the room, legs happy to be done for the day, and smiles on our hearts and faces.
This missive begins with a picture the innkeeper took for us, as Cathy and I began our bicycling from the small town of Valtice, CZ. The Pension Prinz, with maybe six to eight rooms, was immaculate, and thoroughly modern in every respect, beds to bathrooms, t.v. to free Wi-Fi, which as I say, was the rule everywhere in the Czech Republic—the U.S. is terribly backwards in comparison. The kind innkeeper with limited English, and her English proficient eighteen year-old daughter made sure our every need was met, and as with all our CZ lodging, this included a robust breakfast to give us the energy for the days’ endeavors. Cereal with homemade yogurt and fresh fruit, eggs as you like them, juices, coffees, hot chocolate or tea, ham, salami, multiple types of cheese, hearty breads and rolls, fresh preserves, and the Czech equivalent of crumble-topped fruit-within coffee cake or Danish breakfast sweets. Oh so civilized.
We were typically on the road by nine, a little earlier on the longer days. The trip was nominally six days of biking, to which we added two additional rest and recon days in Telc, and Cesky Krumlov, so it was eight days biking total, averaging just under 27 miles a day, some shorter, some longer. This was the view, fifty meters from where sat at table, above.
Our first few days, we were in the Czech region of Moravia. This is the Czech vineyard region, and we took the opportunity to test drive several varietals with our dinners. This is also the region in which the Liechtenstein family held power for years—yes the same folks for whom the small country between Switzerland and Austria is named, a country now with the highest per capita GDP in the world, a finance and insurance enclave. The progenitors obviously wielded great wealth, as we discovered on day one. Our textual guide gave us precise locations of several “Follies” as they are called—erected in the middle of the forests by the Liechtenstein families so that they could properly enjoy outings there with guest visitors. Then, as now, there are the superrich and the rest of us.
Further along on day one, our route had us biking a levy berm alongside a meandering river, one of many lakes and rivers we cruised beside. And here’s as good a time as any to discuss the weather and riding conditions. This day was mostly sunny, with scattered cotton balls, but a good part of our week we had multiple scattered cloud layers that summed up to overcast or nearly so, sometimes darker than a well-digger’s nether parts, and looking altogether threatening. We saw rain hither and yon, but actually encountered it only twice—once just after we pulled into lunch under a broad umbrella at a directions-recommended cafe to the north of Hardegg, the smallest town in Austria, just across the border to our south. The rain, heavy while we ate, passed on by the time we resumed bicycling. Camelot. And finally, it began raining on us the last 2 km of our longest and final day of riding, as we entered Cesky Krumlov, actually causing me to don my rain jacket, carried all those kilometers in the pannier bag mounted over the rear wheel. The other meteorological aspect was relentless headwinds, every day. Not blow you off your bike strong, but just enough to wear you down by the end of the day. This was an east to west routing, and I suspect the prevailing winds are westerly. A little penance for the privilege. That said, the cloudiness and winds came part and parcel with unseasonal cool temperature—Fahrenheit low fifties when we started in the morning, to mid sixties in the afternoon. Ideal exercise temperatures.
I’m usually behind the lens, not in front of it, but here’s a treat from Cathy’s i-phone of a little light-hearted abandon by me on this first day’s ride. As we exited a forest trail, here was this lake and a handy parent-for-kid made wooden plank swing just sitting there as engraved invitation.
Our first day destination was Mikulov, with this being its town square, “namesti,” in Czech. This Czech name tickled me throughout, given its similarity in sound and spelling to the Sanskrit “namaste,” the greeting of hello and goodbye in Nepal, and meaning roughly “I bow to the spiritual within you.” Not a bad name for the greeting place that is the center of all these small rural communities in the Czech Republic. Our Hotel Galant was just that, and located about a block off the square, where I bought a nifty linen ball cap from one of those tiny wooden sidewalk sales casitas you see beyond the statue.
I’ve mentioned the Czech affinity for relaxing with a brewski, and I felt duty bound out of respect for the culture to do my part to fit in. We walked up the hill, taking in our guidebook suggestion to visit the ancient Jewish cemetery, which like all cemeteries, stands as quiet testament to the history of an area. On the way we had passed a small neighborhood square with a recommended sweet shop, itself, right next door to a delightful version of a Czech “Cheers” watering hole. What’s a guy and gal to do? Note the renaissance structures reflected in the window, and the page torn out of my guidebook beneath my 0.5L Pilsner Urquell. This became a recurring theme of our time in CZ—big breakfast which lasted for most, if not all, of the ride, then an afternoon snack like this one after biking, followed by dinner later in the evening. All the food groups here—pivo, chocolate, a cookie, and a fresh apricot. Somebody’s gotta do it.
The next morning we launched for Vranov nad Dyji. I have absolutely no idea how to pronounce that last word in the name. Clueless. It was a fairly longish day, with lots of hills to climb, the steady headwind, and the aforementioned rain just as we pulled into the “U Svestku” pub for lunch. This area was littered with WWII pillboxes, concrete bunkers for soldiers to watch for the onslaught of enemy troops. Our textual directions also suggested we stop and take a look at a remnant of the Communist Cold War after the Nazis had been defeated and prior to the Velvet Revolution. I’ll return to this theme as my commentary takes us to Prague, but this scene is a sobering reminder of the bastard case that was Soviet communism. This barbed wire, these barricades and watch towers were not put there to keep others out, but, like the Berlin Wall, to keep the citizens in. Think on that for awhile. So much for the workers’ paradise.
Here’s Cathy arcing through another small town on the way to Vranov. Don’t you find it fascinating that the red octagonal stop sign is near universally the same the world over, with the textual admonition in English? The church itself, was mentioned as a navigational check point to the nearest tenth of a kilometer, of course.
And here’s how things looked on the descent into Vranov, and the next morning, from our Hotel Zamecky before starting the climb out of town for a visit to the chateau (née castle, or zamecky, in Czech) on the hill.
Vranov is a small market town on the Dyji river. The name translates as Vranov over the Dyji river. We tried to find a recommended restaurant near a dam on the river, but went the wrong way, to the dam upstream, not the one downstream (here’s a recommendation for a small refinement to the guidebook, Loren). We didn’t find the cafe, but we did encounter this unexpected delight in the late afternoon glowing light. Eye candy.
This is an area famous for marionettes, and here was a collection quietly hanging out in a resident’s window beside the river. Serendipity. Dinner at the hotel was just fine, then exhausted sleep before the next day’s ride beginning with an ugly climb, stopped as soon as it was finished, to visit the Vranov chateau. These had all once been castles, but later were renamed chateaus. We had to wait about :10 for a set tour of the chateau, dating from the 11th century, and remodeled in the 17th when renaissance architecture was all the rage. Cathy is literally checking her e-mail with the chateau Wi-Fi while I look for perspective on the statue of Hercules fighting off some beastly sort from the underworld.
This is the view, when looking back down on the town and the river. Our hotel is dead center in the frame, right next to where the curving road crosses the river.
I think I got the name of this hall correct. The Althanns, who did the remodel, wanted to extol their heritage.
This day’s ride, another longish one, ended up in the town of Slavonice, where we boarded one of two afternoon trains to Telc, and our planned two night stopover. Telc is yet another Unesco World Heritage Site, and a perfect place to calm down and enjoy some R&R. Our Hotel Celerin was the lynchpin of one corner of Namesti Zachariase, the town square. Throughout the Czech republic we found buildings colored in various pastel shades. Telc is noted for the colors on the square.
The first evening we discovered a restaurant not (yet) mentioned in the guidebook recommendations, called Zach’s, named for the Namesti Zachariase square on which it is located. It was rather modern in decor as compared to the more baroque cafes we often frequented. The food was excellent, as was the local pivo, and a fine Moravian Reserve Frankovka red wine. Penny pinchers take note—at this top notch restaurant with fine service, we had a mug of beer and a glass of wine respectively to go with our appetizer, then the bottle of reserve wine with our sumptuous dinners, followed by a marvelous apfel strudel with vanilla ice cream for desert, and the tab came out to around $55 USD with the tip. Total. The Czech Republic is part of the European Union, but it has retained its own currency, the Koruna, or “Crown.” The official rate of exchange is approximately $1 USD = 24 CZK. It took awhile to get used to the fact that the coins we had were not fractions of a Crown, but whole Crown denominations of fifty or less, and it took awhile longer to realize how inexpensive travel in the Czech Republic is. If you want to visit a terrific place where you can stretch your dollar, this is it.
On our second day the townspeople had set up a small community stage in the square, and there were local youth musical groups performing songs and dances. At one point, while enjoying an afternoon pivo and sweets break, we heard gospels, sung a cappella in English, and discovered another bit of serendipity. A high school choral group on summer tour from a Chicago suburb was traveling from a prior performance in Prague to one in Vienna. One of the students discovered that he had left his passport in the Prague hotel room, so the group leaders created an impromptu stop in Telc, awaiting the passport, and got permission to join in the Telc day of song and dance. And they were terrific.
Rested and onward to Jinrichuv Hradec, which our guidebook refers to as unpronounceable, meaning simply Henry’s Castle. Hotel Concertina was right on the main square, and as you can see the bike-friendly Czechs provide guidance to locking bike rack parking just off the square.
And Jindrichuv Hradec has its own take on pastel facades. Here, Pure-Adventures outdid themselves, literally. They had upgraded our room to a suite, but I had to request a more modest room when discovering that the bedroom was a loft up a narrow circular staircase from the living area, and more importantly, the bathroom. For us gentlemen of a certain age, that becomes a worthy nocturnal consideration. Ahem.
Next up, a relatively short 29 km ride to Trebon, sitting next to a large lake, and possessed of a chateau which we declined to explore internally, in stead taking in the grounds via a stroll.
And there was another activity to undertake—a tour of the 700 year-old Regent Brewery. The tour was a bit much, conducted in Czech with brief asides in English, although the tasting directly from the storage vats was a nice finish. And this detail of an old brewing device appealed to me. Don’t ask as to its use, I couldn’t even pronounce the Czech name for the gadget, let alone translate it. But I like the look of it just the same.
Trebon is situated in that part of what by now had become Bohemia, the part where they cultivate fish in the lakes strewn about, which is why we had a fish dinner at Supina a Supinka following the brew sampling.
And then the next day, our longest journey of the trip—62 hilly, blustery kilometers to Cesky Krumlov. I’ll begin with a few images of the ride.
Here’s a couple of random recollections. Throughout our biking we were constantly wafted along by the beautiful lyrics of song birds. They were a delight everywhere we pedaled. And cherries. Multiple times we came upon cherry trees chockablock loaded with ripe fire-engine red cherries, their branches overhanging the bikeways as open invitation to sample the tangy sweet treats along the way. Yum.
Ol’ What’s Her Name resting on her laurels while I rearranged the three maps that were needed for keeping up with this day’s navigational niceties.
And then, there was an opportunity for an impromptu picnic lunch break consuming the sandwiches we had made at breakfast in Trebon, along with some fresh fruit and nuts.
Following another forest tunnel through trees, we had a steep descent into the Vltava river valley where Cesky Krumlov is located, the entrance per our directions pretty much set the stage for the place, which could well have been created on a Hollywood sound stage for a baroque period story complete with massive castle and gothic church.
The Vltava is more commonly known in the U.S., by its German name—the Moldau, musically memorialized by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana in his orchestral piece Ma Vlast (My Country). It flows south to north, here on its way to Prague, and Smetana’s composition delightfully recreates its bubbling currents. This is a decidedly eye-popping place, whose only down side is quaintness situated just right for inclusion on tourist bus itineraries between Prague and Vienna—a there goes the neighborhood sort of inevitability, I suppose. Besides the medieval Cesky, there’s also a modern play version with kayakers and rafters drifting along, as here, where we had stopped our pedestrian meanderings, beginning to suffer from castle overload, to take in a rejuvenating snack of Czech sweets.
After refreshing our energy we walked the short distance on this bank to an un unexpected delight—a museum dedicated to the early 20th century work of photographer Josef Seidel. The museum is a period remodel of his home/studio. It’s like walking back a hundred years and seeing not only what his personal life and work methods were, but enjoying pictures and artifacts that let you see and feel life at this tumultuous time before the First World War, and then the new realities devolving from WWI and WWII. This wasn’t revisiting war so much as experiencing the region, and him, as they got on with the day to day business of life. It seemed an honor and privilege to gaze on Mr. Seidel’s life, and how he viewed the world around him, as here, on a bellows camera with its inverted and reversed ground glass rendering of his garden and Cesky Krumlov beyond.
A glimpse of St. Vitus’ spire across the Vltava, the scene gentled by the warpage of olden glass, the window etching and the comforting shade of green window frame. I spent my entire time in his home and studio in whispered reverence.
To give you an idea of the sort of accommodations arranged for us, let me show you our room in Cesky Krumlov’s Hotel Ruze, a former 16th century Jesuit dormitory. The view out the window, just out of sight on the far left of the frame was of the river rushing by. We kept it open all evening, lulled in slumber by Smetana’s rushing water sounds.
We ate dinner at two CK cafes listed in our guide. Krcma Satlava was only so-so. Our dinner, the second evening, next to the river at Papa’s Living Restaurant was most excellent, prepared and served by a staff that provide not just typical Czech dishes, heavy on meat and starches with rich sauces, but also southern European and South American entrees, and extraordinary salads. I had a goat cheese salad that must have taken an entire herd of goats to cheese up for me. Portions here, and at all Czech restaurants assured that no one went away hungry. By the time we were done and had walked back across the river to the Ruze, it was time to take in a gentle sunset, at 8:56 in the evening, two days after the Summer Solstice.
The next morning we were met by a driver arranged by Pure-Adventures and taken to the bus station for our drive to Prague, where we were met by another driver to take us to our Hotel Constans on one of the small pedestrian streets in Lesser Town, located just a block from the U.S. Embassy and about a :05 walk to the western portal of Charles Bridge. This bridge was originally the only one across the Vltava, and now is unquestionably the most popular with tourists, a vibrant artery in a vibrant city.
Every time I had mentioned Prague to others, I’d heard back nothing but gushing accolades. Nor shall I disavow that mindset. If there is a downside it would have to be summer crowds. This is a city with vast areas dedicated to foot traffic, and Prague seemed on a par with the masses one experiences in Hong Kong. I have never seen so many cameras being wielded at the too numerous to count sights. It’s like those videos one sees of people on cell phones stumbling off unseen curbs, or walking into closed glass doors. Not that I was any better, but the entire world seemed to be ambulating Prague’s pathways with their faces transfigured with permanent camera transplants, or frozen arms extended to a glassy-eyed 14 inch distance staring single-mindedly at their smart phone LCD screen. Then, there were the Asians. I’m sorry if this seems prejudicial, but it would be impossible to count the number of Chinese and Japanese tourists, usually frenetically scurrying in large groups, then stopping to deploy their divining rod “selfie” devices extending their smart phones out before them for yet another “here I am in front of the XYZ” photo. The generous way to address all this is to say that wondrous Prague is a target rich environment. You may fire when ready, Gridley, which is pretty much constantly in Prague.
Over on the east (right bank) side of the river is Old Town, with its endlessly appealing Namesti, the Clock Tower, and the cathedral of Our Lady Before Tyn. Nice 360 degree views from the Clock Tower, but also delights that are closer in.
Shortly after arriving at the square we were treated to a wonderful surprise—the open area of the square, shown above, blocked off for a military review. I have no idea what the occasion was, but we spent a delightful hour witnessing the parading of colors, marching and close order drill, all accompanied by military bands surely putting a smile on John Phillip Sousa’s divine countenance. What fun.
The Clock Tower not only keeps time, topside, but down near street level there is its famous Astronomical Clock. I’ll shortcut paraphrase the Lonely Planet Guide description of this paean to 15th century Prague concerns, which goes through its ritual on the hour throughout the day. Beginning :10-:15 before the hour, enormous crowds begin massing before it for the roughly one minute action. The four small figures you see near the middle, bestride the clock, represent medieval anxieties of Vanity, Greed, Death (the skeleton, natch), and Pagan Invasion. Down lower are the Chronicler, Angel, Astronomer, and Philosopher. On the hour Death rings a bell and inverts his hourglass, and the starred-in-blue-window covers open to reveal the Twelve Apostles parading by to take in all the gawkers arrayed below, finishing with a crowing cock and the ringing of the hour. As to Mr. Pagan Invasion, I wonder if there is some way to get ISIS to rethink their caliphate dream’s C-4 and beheading M.O. and replace it with something as embraceable as this? Sorry, that just slipped out.
Prague has both a Metro and the ever-present trolley. Buy your ticket for 90 minutes, a day, or three days, and get on and off from either as often as you want. The Mrs. and I managed to figure out the process and the routings to beneficial relief of tired feet. That said, we nonetheless walked mile upon mile through the Czech capital. The trolley is a delightful way to get around, and makes you feel like one of the locals, even if they know better.
My convoluted thought processes seem to find association in what comes next. Bear with me. As with Salzburg, Prague’s river meanders betwixt hills, on one of which is the enormous castle and equally large St. Vitus Cathedral. Throughout our travels I found myself taking an inordinate number of photos in portrait vs. landscape layout. Upon reflection, I concluded this was a natural byproduct of tall churches and castles built in communities laid out and built in keeping with the narrow confines of ambling oxcarts, and thus providing insufficient space for a photographer to pull back for perspective. St. Vitus cathedral is certainly such an edifice. I’ve heard descriptions of these extraordinary cathedrals as reflecting the architectural and religious sensibilities of the time—the spires metaphorically pointing to heaven’s zenith. Makes sense to me, and I don’t wonder that evoking God’s transcendent throne on high would be a necessary motivation to undertake construction of such an incredible engineering project, accomplished in more than multiple generations’ lifetimes. But to what purpose in present day, ever more rigidly secular Europe? We never seemed to be nearby for Sunday mass (and both Austria and the Czech Republic are nominally Roman Catholic), but I can’t help but notice that these churches, large and small, were either shuttered other days, or lost to tourist exploration. This Protestant sees Pope Francis as a breath of fresh air to 21st. century Roman Catholicism, and he seems deeply concerned about the Church’s relevance in the eyes of the citizens of nominally theistic-accepting countries. I hope he succeeds in better integrating the church and aligning its potential with humankind. Arguably a worthy and profoundly beneficial goal.
Hold on, as there’s a second facet here. I mentioned the Czech geopolitical realities, a byproduct of its geographic location in a continent with a long history of conflict. Prior to the blitzkrieg grab of Poland, the Third Reich employed the anschluss to annex Austria, and then decided the Sudetenland, including Moravia and Bohemia should also be part of greater Germany. As the tide turned in 1945, the Russian bear came barreling along in the opposite direction. By VE Day, the map of European spoils had been redrawn, with Czechoslovakia now under the “patronage” of the Soviet Union. The 1989 Velvet Revolution was hard on the 1987 heels of President Reagan’s call to General Secretary Gorbachev to “tear down this [Berlin] wall.” The times, they were-a-changing. What better example of communism’s reversal of fortune, than this image, taken just off Prague’s Na Prikope, shopping district thoroughfare? Eat your heart out, Vladimir Putin.
Cathy and I walked the Prague pathways in this area near Wenceslas Square where the 1989 crowds, no longer tolerant of their communist overlords, surged back and forth in nearly bloodless rebellion. The Museum of Communism was well worth the sobering time spent seeing laid out, through Czech eyes, the promises, deceits, failures and eventual collapse of Czech communism.
I’ve failed to translate this, but it would appear to be Nazi propaganda warning about the evil hand of godless Soviet Socialism reaching for St. Vitus Cathedral and the Castle. And then after the war, there were those watch towers and barbed wire.
Near the statue of St.Wenceslas is this small memorial to two young Czech men. Their deaths were in early 1969, shortly after the Soviets had crushed a popular uprising in Hungary. Two days before his death by self immolation, Jan Palach wrote “people must fight against the evil they feel equal to at that moment.” He died a martyr protesting the Soviet occupation of his Vast. Jan Zajic also martyred himself by self-immolation—on the 21st anniversary of communist domination. This small memorial was placed here after the Velvet Revolution, which two decades later finally gave Czech nationalism the light of day.
So, religious relevance and unshackled nationalism sharing one rough patch of mental ground in my psyche? My fervent pondering is beyond my conclusions at present. While I don’t have a stake in the Czech circumstance, I find much fondness for the resilience of the Czech people and wonder what the future will hold for them and like-minded peoples the world over, including right here at home?
Nearing a merciful close to this long-winded amble, I return to the treasure that music posed on our trip. By the time we had reached Cesky Krumlov, accessing the internet by free Wi-Fi, we had scored reservations for two more concerts—in Prague. On our first evening we walked across the Charles Bridge and entered the Mirror Chapel, a small oasis in the block-square Klementinum edifice on the way to Old Town Square. The ensemble was a string quartet, a soprano, and a pipe organist, performing in various combinations, selections from WA Mozart, Antonio Vivaldi, Tomaso Albinoni, Johann Pachebel…
…and Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Schubert. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and Schubert’s Ave Maria. I hope the Musician’s Union will forgive me. Anyway, that’s a video link which can give you a small hint of what it was like there. Remember, I had to be surreptitious about video—they’d said that photos without flash were okay, but the subject of videos was never entertained….
And on the next evening in Municipal House we attended performances of the Prague Symphony of Schubert’s “The Great” Ninth Symphony, Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, and vocal selections from Tannhauser and Parsifal.
A parting snippet of Close household silliness. From past trips to Alaska and northern New England, we’ve got an in-house game of who is going to make a given trip’s first sighting of a Moose. As you probably know, Moose are a beast of North America. But on the very last morning in Prague, just minutes before our pickup for the train station to catch our uber bus to Munich for the flight home, I nailed a biggie, that will surely go down in the Del Mar homestead archives as a monumental score.
Enough, already. If you’ve gotten this far, you deserve a gold star for perseverance and indulgence.
As ever, TWC
Posted on May 22, 2015
I’ve been a pilot for over a half century now, and a water person longer than that. Getting long in the tooth on both. The latter is not so far distinct from the former as one who does neither, might imagine. The surf can be soothing or roiling, it is sustaining, and offers up glorious opportunities to ride its currents. Immersed within its embrace below the surface, a diverse world awaits to dazzle one with its immense diversity and sheer beauty. It’s just like the atmosphere—liquid in a vapor state (and sometimes a liquid state in the bargain). I’m here to tell you that flying is nothing like wielding a joy stick in a computer game—the atmosphere is alive and thrumming in your hands and against your rudder pedal feet, you can feel its energy as a dynamic force by which manipulating the controls produces changes in the aircraft attitude and direction. Exactly like dropping in on a pitching peak breaking at my favorite local reef—a little bend in the legs, and then off the bottom, a leg and upper back extension as the shoulders dip to drive the board off on a side rail in the direction of travel across the wave face. Energy imparted from the body and returned by the “atmosphere.” Lucky me, I get to revel in these experiences in both of earth’s fluid atmospheres. I check the waves daily, and when they fit my old guy parameters, I paddle out. I also watch the sky daily, and look for times that just call out to me to be soaring, untethered by the two dimensions that mostly constrain terrestrial life. And sometimes other opportunities present themselves to waft about in ways at once delightful per se, and altruistic. Let me introduce you to Angel Flight West, and what it does, by introducing you to Lawrence Greenberg.
Lawrence and I are the same age, and he has me beaten, hands down, in the smile department. His grin is like a shaft of bright sunshine breaking out of the billowing clouds seen over his right shoulder as we cruise northwest in Cirrus N111TT. A lawyer by training, he has a keen mind, and a robust curiosity and interest in what is happening around him. He misses nothing, and knows how to engage with the moment or hold back as circumstances dictate. He has been fighting cancer for some time now, and is enrolled in a treatment protocol provided by a physician associated with UCLA. He has to get back and forth between his home in the San Diego area to Santa Monica for his treatments, and this is a challenge given the frequency of appointments, early morning times of treatment, the impact on the body for returns at the end of the day, and so on. Care providers and social workers are tuned into these necessities, and work to connect patients, support givers like those helping Alzheimer’s individuals, adults or kids with developmental disabilities, and other challenges with Angel Flight West, a non-profit based at Santa Monica Airport. Angel Flight West http://www.angelflightwest.org coordinates those needs with pilots and surface transporters—known as Earth Angels—to get folks where they need to be. I am consistently impressed with the skill and efficiency of AFW staff in interfacing with need and opportunity, matching patients, pilots and planes for effective transportation. Even more so, I am humbled by the heart that AFW staff has for both those needing help and those providing it. This isn’t just a job for the staff, it is a calling, and they give it their all, gladly and consistently. I have had the honor of attending Celebration of Life services with AFW staff for patients who eventually were overcome by their illness—these people care, and all of us who use their service are individuals they know with surprising intimacy. AFW is a Non Governmental Organization, and the sort of service AFW provides just wouldn’t be the same consuming tax dollars with government’s one-size-fits-all functionality. Not to belittle government workers, but the spirit and sincerity of AFW is hard to replicate without the get-it-done heart and mentality of individuals like the staff at AFW. There’s a place for both in society, and AFW inhabits its place with a particular grace. AFW has developed web-based programs to keep track of need and opportunity connecting both sides of the equation, providing follow up and the other mundane but necessary aspects of care-giving, all of this overseen and kept humming by staff in their office a short amble from Santa Monica’s Typhoon restaurant. I get daily e-notes providing overviews of mission needs to which I can respond for when my operational opportunity aligns. On Monday I got such a note about yesterday’s Thursday travel need for Lawrence. A quick scan of forecasts on my pilot flight planning sites suggested this was a mission that could be completed with only minimal weather impact likely. I clicked on “Request this Mission,” and a couple of hours later was assigned to be Command Pilot to take Lawrence from my home base of Montgomery Field to Santa Monica. I followed up on the contact information and we agreed as to time and meeting place for a departure providing for his his early morning arrival up yonder. AFW likes to have Mission Assistants aboard flights, in case assistance underway might be needed, and while they also try to pair MA sorts with pilots, I often prefer to offer the position to one of my pilot chums, thus providing mission assistance and pilot redundancy at the same time, and oh, by the way, sometimes connecting future command pilots with an organization about which they had only maybe heard about before. For this mission, I was pleased to be assisted by local pilot Mason Bailey, with whom I have flown to places near and far.
The three of us rendezvoused at Gibbs Flying Service and proceeded directly to my hangar, where I had the airplane at the ready, already preflighted and serviced. We loaded up and taxied out as call-sign Angel Flight 6520, aboard my Cirrus SR22. I had filed an instrument clearance for the cloudy, occasionally rainy morning the night before, and our clearance via the San Diego November Nine routing was enacted before launching straight out toward Mt. Soledad at the Pacific shore, then a turn northwest paralleling the coastline, in and out of cloud layers, detouring a little here and there around bigger billowing cumulus. Surfers, three, sweeping about the “white water.” SoCal TRACON (Terminal Radar Control, i.e., ATC) directed us into a Santa Monica left downwind between LAX and SMO, and called out a B777 crossing our path left to right ahead, and restricted above us. There it was a moment later as we both found a clear sky moment amongst the morning’s clouds. A few left turns later we were lining up with the final approach course just outside Century City’s high rises, and south of the famous Hollywood sign on the hill, although it wasn’t visible amongst the clouds. As we broke out of the clouds both laterally and vertically, the tower asked for reports on bases and tops to convey to other pilots, just as had Montgomery tower on our San Diego departure. Early birds like us are sometimes pathfinders for those keeping bankers’ hours. Forty-seven minutes after rotating aloft, I managed to find the ground with modest aplomb, more or less where I thought it and our main gear tires should be co-located, and we rolled out and decelerated. A left turn clear of the runway, and trundle via “Bravo” taxiway to a rock star parking spot before Typhoon’s front door. Earth Angel Margot Bernal was there and waiting for us as we deplaned.
Morning greetings, all around, and Lawrence and Margot were off to his treatment center. Earth Angels like Margot are an essential part of this paradigm enabling that last leg of the journey from airport to treatment. I know from personal experience that Margot does this on a regular basis. Kudos. Meanwhile, Mason and I walked the fifty or so yards to the Angel Flight Office where I could introduce Mason to the folks that make it all work, and hopefully plant a seed for his future as an AFW pilot. Back on the ramp, we saddled up and taxied out for our takeoff from Santa Monica’s runway 21, departing via their quirky somewhat 270 degree turning departure to back overhead the runway and then via the Santa Monica November 22 routing back to San Diego’s Montgomery Field. I used the opportunity to switch seats with Mason and give him the chance to see how the Avidyne Revision Nine avionics suite in our Cirrus differs from the Garmin-driven package in his Cirrus. Colleagues collaborating on things flight. An Area Navigation (GPS) approach back to Runway 28R, from which we had departed about two hours before, and back home for a dog walk and bike ride. Takeaways? It is an honor to have the opportunity, equipment and skill-set to give back to those with demonstrative need, and to be able to respond to coordination offers from Angel Flight West. Lawrence is a great guy, and his need is being answered by terrific people, and even a reprobate like me! At a personal level reflecting my specific quirks, I love the sky, I love the fluid dimension, and I love being able to share in all that with others, especially if it does some good in the bargain. I’m a lucky man. Oh, and because, as readers of this site have likely already discerned, if that day with the elements involves maybe a sunset amongst the clouds with the sky and the sea in attendance, it is icing on the cake. This is how yesterday ended up.
And, here’s a time-lapse view of this Thursday cloudset.
As ever, your scribe, Thomas.
Posted on March 6, 2015
Chilly February. In multiple winters and springs past we have journeyed south in trade of chilly for chillies and the warmth of near tropical Mexico. This year there was the additional motivation of a group flight rendezvous arranged by COPA—the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association. Climate change reversal of fortunes. We departed a distinctly habanero San Diego (daytime eighties) for a decidedly minty (sixties) Baja California Sur, with rain showers en route and at our destination. The COPA planning had nearly two dozen Cirri arriving in Loreto from multiple western (and one Pennsylvania) departure point on Friday the 13th. Saddled up in N111TT we arranged an in-trail takeoff from either side of Montgomery Field’s Runway 28R centerline with chums Dan and Jackie. Whimsical happenstance, but nonetheless emblematic of our political roots (?), we took the right side of centerline, while N907DR rolled on our left. (Dan and Jackie have had active rolls in Democratic administrations.) ATC on both sides of the border was completely nonchalant as to our proximity underway. House of mirrors over the Sea of Cortez—Jackie taking a picture of me, taking a picture of her.
South of Bahia de Los Angeles we got our first look at the atypical winter Baja weather, a modest detour to the left of course providing a gentle lluvia plane wash.
We landed at MMLT three hours after takeoff, refueled and meandered the Byzantine pathways of Mexican Aduana (Customs), Migra (Immigration), and flight permits, in my case stirring up a tempest in a teapot because I had had the audacity to refuel first before attending to the formalities. Once the dust settled, Cathy and I were off to Item One on our adventure checklist—launching for the Matancitas (MTB) dirt airstrip at Puerto Adolfo Lopez Mateos abutting Bahía Magdalena. The strip extends to the edge of the water, at a port thriving on commercial fishing, and this time of the year, tourist ponga visits with the migrating baleen Gray Whales. The protected water of the bay is strewn with small islets and shoreline convolutions, making it an ideal winter nursery and the southern tether for the females, who give birth there and train their young on the exigencies of life involving the longest mammalian migration on earth.
We overflew MTB, then did a left-hand circuit to land on Runway 28, rolling to the west end next to the fishing fleet, and utilizing a handy concrete parking pad minimizing the amount of sandy dirt and seashells the prop would pick up on the subsequent pre-departure engine start.
By the time we deplaned, the local airport overseer met us to collect a landing fee and help us board a minibus that took us to the ponga fleet some :03 away. We donned our life vests and almost immediately felt the thrumming of the sea below us and the fresh salt air tugging at our hats at the outset of a very successful search for las ballenas.
Yes, you do get close to these wondrous creatures. Baleen whales lack teeth, and adults feed on krill and other tiny sea denizens by sucking in water and forcing it through sieve-like baleen bristles. The bay is filled with pairs—the recently born calves nursing on their mother’s rich milk, adding blubber as insulation for the oceanic cold. Adult females give birth to 15 foot-long, one ton calves in the bay this time of year, and are impregnated for next year’s birthing season. In the spring they depart for the roughly 6,000 mile journey back to their summer Bering and Chukchi Sea arctic feeding grounds. Surfacing gray whales affirm their mammalian credentials with a respiratory whoosh from their spiracles, visible at considerable distance, and damply, at close range. No detectable halitosis, by the way.
Mother and baby develop close bonds, aided by affectionate embraces.
Youth is always curious, and the infants gave us many look-overs.
Spy-hopping allows mom a different perspective on what’s happening in the neighborhood.
Following our whale visit, we returned on a :20 flight back to Loreto, which had us crossing the Gigantic Mountains. These are the peaks amidst which is located the lovely Jesuit Misión San Javier, established at its present site in 1702.
Clearing the peaks requires a steep descent to a left base entry to MMLT’s runway 34.
The COPA lodging choice was the Villa Palmar resort, a half hour south of the airport.
The Palmar is a very new resort with fine dining and attentive staff, but frankly Cathy and I prefer the quaintness of central Loreto, so on day two Dan, Jackie and we two taxied into town to snoop about, do a little window shopping and consume a “gigante” margarita.
The Palmar’s extraordinary view of the coast and offshore islands provided ample evidence of the unseasonal weather, which was the source of consternation and considerable careful planning for the next day’s intended flight across 100 nautical miles of the Sea of Cortez and on to the silver mining pueblo of Álamos, Sonora. There was rain this afternoon, and more the following morning, sometimes combined with lowish ceilings and reduced visibility.
This blog site belongs to a pilot. Sorry, that means you’ll get an inordinate share of pilot-speak and flight images. Deal with it. The pilots and passengers were forced to split into thirds because of transportation requirements between the resort and the airport. We four friends were in group two, which ultimately became group last, as deteriorating weather precluded group three from undertaking the crossing. Those pilots made prudent time-specific Go/No-Go decisions which allowed them adult libations at the Palmar and benign flying weather the next day. I commend their decision-making. Remember that the Cirrus is a single-engine airplane, so altitude is your friend when over inhospitable terrain or open water. The weather dampened the 11,500′ cruising altitude that I’d have preferred, and here’s what “Feet Wet” at 3,500 feet over the middle of the pond looked like on the flight deck instruments. In the synthetic vision display you can see the blue ocean beneath us, and what would appear to be blue sky above. Fortunately the engine hummed merrily along without a hint of the “auto rough” one anticipates with single-engine oceanic crossings.
In actuality, we were flying between layers, rain pelting the windscreen, and a building cumulus line ahead. I was ship one in group two, and decided to trundle on, giving time sensitive updates on flight conditions to the in-trail aircraft, which I’m told helped alleviate uncertainties for the group. Did I mention that we were operating under Visual Flight Rules? Were we able to stay uniformly clear of clouds? Whatever do you mean? Ahem.
The other side of the gulf also required some do-si-do maneuvering to avoid the worst of the budding cumulonimbus, first approaching a pre-planned group turn-in Initial Point and then the final approach to landing at Álamos (MM45 ICAO identifier). Proceed up to the reservoir, then a right 90º turn to final approach for…
MM45’s runway 13. Duck under and you’ll drop in on the casa just shy of the runway threshold.
Over the next few minutes, the birds of Group Two alighted and taxied to the ramp.
Álamos boasts a hacienda retreat that holds its own in luxury no matter your judgment standard. It is the many decades’ result of Americans (and Mexican residents) Jim and Nancy Swickard, who also recognize the benefit of a worthy hangar for guests’ private aircraft. We filled it to the brim. N111TT is the second aircraft back in the center of the scrum.
This field has the benefit of an on-site military garrison, which does mean you’ll be met with armed soldiers, and drug-sniffing dogs. It also means that your airplane is not liable to be stolen by narco-traffickers. Formalities complete, we were whisked away to the opulent retreat in the midst of the small pueblo.
Proceeding through town we passed a motor-driven vehicle, construed as a carriage “pulled” by a team of fiberglass horses. This was the Sunday before Lent, and the town was hopping with local holiday vibrance, including families in the carriage, and kids riding the horse team bareback. OSHA be damned. This marked our second time at the Hacienda de los Santos, and the understated elegance hits you right at the door.
The Hacienda is actually a melding together of multiple 300+ year-old haciendas from the Mexican silver-mining past, artfully restored and decorated to a fair-thee-well. If you don’t want to be spoiled and pampered, go somewhere else. De rigueur of Mexican haciendas, the outside is merely a high wall, hiding from view the delights within. Once through the portal, however…
… as well as the delights within the within. I think we had the finest room in the place. And I suspect everyone else felt the same. The rooms were each named for one of the saints (santos). As to our room, I could never decide if I liked St. Bernard’s bedroom, sitting room, fireplace or the outside poolside deck the best. Decisions, decisions.
Elsewhere on the grounds, amidst the flowering bougainvillea, there was a small grove of agave, the raw ingredient of tequila. Tequila in Mexico? Who knew?
We four chums struck out that afternoon and evening to take in the Álamos sites and sights, gravitating toward the zócolo, a square, central literally and figuratively to the fabric and life of Mexican villages, typically adjoined on one side by the church. This was the Sunday before Lent, and the community was festively engaged in all manner of pleasurable pursuits. The history of Mexican zócolos is as meeting place for the community, young people circling the square, boys and girls in opposite directions, sizing up each other in the ageless dance of the genes. Álamos’ zócolo boasts a delightful gazebo that provides lovely glimpses of the church spire.
The square is also a haven of calm repose amidst the tumult for more seasoned couples.
As might be expected in overtly Catholic rural Mexico, the church is a prominent and unabashedly faith-based part of the skyline and community life.
This evening, the square, and the nearby streets effused youth-engaging activities. There was a beauty pageant at the town administration building, which was lit in the national colors.
I was taken by this male-dominated happening, boys working on their upended trick bicycles while being “serenaded” by young guys doing mouth-based grunt and click timpani exhortations over warbling amplifiers and acoustically-challenged speakers. Such unassuming unbridled fun. Do you know where your kids are? At the zócolo.
A regional favorite is a mirthful activity of kids, using emptied eggs that the community women prepared, filled with confetti, which the youngsters would use, chasing their friends about the square to break atop their heads. Giggles, guffaws, and gleeful hoots and squeals everywhere. Eventually we returned to the Hacienda. The majority of the COPAns were savoring a fancy dinner, while we four chose to head for the tequila bar, giving our best to depleting the demon agave concoctions, vino and lighter dining fare. Let’s see, that is a Bohemia Oscura, an emptied shot of high-end Reposado, and a fine Sauvignon Blanc from Mexico’s Guadalupe Valley, with an absurdly delicious slice of carrot cake. No worries, I wasn’t flying anywhere the next day, and could crawl to habitación San Bernardo, it’s four-poster bed and crackling fireplace. Eat your heart out.
Notwithstanding the evening’s hedonism, I was up at the crack of early and investigating the morning light opportunities, camera in hand. If you know me, you know by now that I am gaga over color and light. If you know Mexico at these latitudes at this time of the year, it is a photographer’s target-rich environment. And this first image of a gloriously vibrant wall, is in shade, for goodness sake!
There are myriad stream beds in mountain-surrounded Álamos, arched bridges for passage, and rock foundations of adjoining structures. The near bridge was only for foot traffic, and there were many children and adults who crossed it on their way to their Monday morning school and work assignments.
A guileless elementary school girl, passing by, questioned if I might be looking for the trail up the Mirador (Viewpoint, in Spanish), which was nearby, but not immediately apparent. Following her directions, up the hill I went for splendid morning panoramas.
There were puddles from yesterday’s rains to reflect on.
And several women and men were sweeping up the confetti from the evening’s revelry.
Cathy, now up, joined me for breakfast and yet further random exploration.
In a bit of whimsy, I’ve processed this next image as a Van Goghish oil painting.
Not so ghoulish as it may sound, I often wander graveyards in places like this, a historical channeling of the lives and passings of its inhabitants. I’ve been humbled and embraced by epiphanies and emotions in places like Zermatt, Switzerland, Tombstone, Arizona, and now, Alamos, where the graveyard dates from 1703. In the afternoon, after returning from town and the graveyard, Cathy and I settled into chaise lounges and umbrella-shaded chairs around the pool next to habitación San Bernardo. I don’t normally write my thoughts underway, but let me share, word for word, the contemporaneously written thoughts I did set down in reflective savoring that afternoon of the day that was: “Warm earth tone hues of the hacienda, bold fuschia bougainvillea, bright sun and crisp shade alternating with the penumbral shadows of the drifting scattered cumulus slipping quietly northward, all a riot of contrasts to the impossibly blue sky. This morning the lad with his ‘coroneta,’ who played in the school ‘banda’, dressed in the tan slacks and blue sweater of his escuela, and the young girl in her uniform, proactively volunteering directions to the sendero leading to the Mirador. Unhurriedly meandering through the graveyard, the Espírito Santo guiding me to the headstone of Marcela Rodriguez, ‘dos mes,’ her forever youngness arresting me in tearful bittersweet recognition of the ephemeral nature of life. A day in Álamos.” Pilots need to stay up on their aviation Ps and Qs, the best pilots regularly studying flight issues. A case in point, Jim Swickard (looking modestly like the photo of revolutionary Emeliano Zapata on the wall below the rifles), maestro of “Tequila 101,” attended by all the COPA pilots and significant others, describing his collection of 500 tequilas, and all things agave and mescal in the Hacienda Tequila Bar. What? You don’t think tequila can elevate your thinking?
Tuesday, rested from a sumptuous dinner and sueños dulces beside the glowing fire, Cathy and I headed for the airport. The COPAns, minus us, heading back to the Estados Unidos, while we set off on the next aventura—ground exploration of Mexico’s Barrancas del Cobre, the Copper Canyon. Step one, however, involved joining a few of the COPAns with an overflight of the canyon, well, okay, flight through the canyon, before peeling off and heading to our terrestrial starting point of the colonial town of El Fuerte, Sinaloa. Full disclosure, this is the second time that I have piloted an aircraft below the rim of a, shall we say, “grand canyon.” In my more youthful past it wasn’t strictly prohibido in Arizona as it is now. Well, here’s a glimpse of this next leg of our journey.
We had arranged pickup at the El Fuerte airport (FTE, or ICAO MM79), and the driver was right on time. We paid our landing fee to the airport overseer, filled out paperwork with the soldiers of the on-site military garrison, and headed the :05 into town. Drink in the colors. Yum!
Our lodging, the Hotel Posada del Hidalgo http://www.hotelposadadelhidalgo.com was the birthplace of El Zorro, and it is located on Cinco de Mayo street, right next to #55..
…which is a touch ironic insofar as Cathy’s 5/5/50 birthdate is strewn with an equal number of cincos. Maybe you had to be there. Access to the canyon is often by the Chihuahua Pacific (ChePe) train that runs from Los Mochis past El Fuerte to Chihuahua and back. We overnighted in El Fuerte for the early morning train departure, and had arranged canyon lodging first at Cerocahui, Chihuahua state, then Barrancas, near the town of Divisadero, essentially the apex of elevation, near 8,000′. Copper Canyon is actually six canyons that run together, ground by eroding rivers coursing out of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains to combine into the El Fuerte, and eventually emptying into the Sea of Cortez. Billed as bigger and deeper than the Grand Canyon, we found them to be similar, save the fact that Arizona’s is arid red rock terrain, and the Barrancas is pine trees on top and tropical vegetation down low. The expansive vistas are very much cut from the same cloth.
Our lodgings near Cerocahui and at Barrancas:
In the morning we climbed into the hotel courtesy vehicle headed to the train station to board the ChePe…
… and struck up a conversation with the one other couple headed out from the Posada. Quick study that I am, I referenced the Australian lilt to the gentleman’s accent, but allowed as how his wife sounded English. She set me straight, as they are both Aussies. And had they come from Australia to visit the canyon? Well, actually they had come from only as far as Mexico City where they currently resided. A conversational trailhead worth following, it turns out that we were riding to the station with the Australian Ambassador to Mexico, the Honorable Tim George, and his spouse, Geraldine. Avoiding my usual churlish behavior and drooling with atypical aplomb, we settled in to enjoying each others’ company for the next four days of Barrancas exploration and sustenance-taking. Just a delightful time with kindred adventurous souls possessed of matching keen wit and senses of humor. Arriving in Cerocahui, an absurdly pugnacious chihuahua pooch barking his territorial claim to turf, Tim, in a delivery embellished with cat that ate the canary grin and eye-twinkle, dryly asserted that clearly we were now in Chihuahua state. As, indeed, we were. Geraldine, evidencing her fun way of looking at life, regaling us with the story of her inadvertent disembarking at a workman’s’ stop on Gibraltar and having to overcome her discomfort with heights amid the scurrying monkeys to reconnect with Tim and their son. What a hoot.
Perhaps you’re aware that Barrancas del Cobre is the home turf of the Tarahumara, known for the long distance running of their canyon trails? The remoteness of the canyon, and their small homes (sometimes caves) deep in the canyon were key to avoiding the worst of the Spaniards’ machinations in earlier colonial times. The indigenous people and hiking the canyon trails have loomed large on our many years’ motivation to visit this rugged place.
The canyon walls are strewn with trails, and while plying one, quietly merging with us on a separate trail in the opposite direction, we came upon this lovely teenager, dressed as the females do, in brightly colored attire with pleated skirts. “Quizás un foto, señorita?” “Sí,” answered so quietly that only her barely perceptible affirmative head-nod assured that I had secured her permission.
This lass was offering for sale a few woven items, each for a few pesos. A purchase and a photo? Yes.
It is no overstatement to share that my religious faith is buoyed by the extraordinary beauty of nature, and the Barrancas del Cobre only serves as further reinforcement. I am drawn to light and color, to shadow, shape and texture, to the creatures and other humans with whom we inhabit this planet, to the seasons, and I revere sunrises and sunsets, moonrises and moonsets.
And then, in what amounts to an exclamation point to our Fine Mexican Winter Trip, there is this glimpse of light in motion, and the rising of the Milky Way.
The Georges continued to Chihuahua, and we returned to El Fuerte, each headed back to our respective worlds of duties and responsibilities.
From FTE we flew to Ciudad Obregon (MMCN) in accordance with the Mexican legal requirement of departing the country from a Mexican Airport of Entry (AOE) and subsequently cleared U.S. Customs and Immigration at the grandiosely, nonetheless accurately named Calexico International (KCXL).
I like Calexico, because the formalities take something like five minutes, tops, and you’re on your way. And so it was on this trip, but nature turned the tables on us yet again, returning to a northern hemisphere winter more in keeping with the season than had been our SoCal departure. A cold front was arriving as we were, and I actually had to use the privileges of my airman certificate, climbing to on top of a cumulus strewn sky with strong winds and the potential for a turbulent thrashing about. On top it was smooth, but the rumbles joined a bit of mixed icing on our descent through the inclement weather to an instrument approach back where we’d departed at Montgomery Field. What wonderful opportunities Cathy and I have.
Hasta Luego, Tomás
Posted on November 1, 2014
As a Certified Flight Instructor there are times when I am called upon to conduct a Flight Review for client pilots, required biennially as per Federal Aviation Regulation 61.56 for them to continue to exercise the privileges of their airman certificate. It’s a chance to review, practice, add some polish to perhaps disused operational skills, and to spend time savoring the unbridled joy of flight. I confess that the conduct of some Flight Reviews is more fun than others, as in this past week, “working” with friends John and Howard with their Light Sport Weight Shift trikes. Howard often refers to his as the weed whacker, and you can see why. We do sometimes fly at common general aviation aircraft altitudes, but in the desert toolies, we are oft as not down where you can nearly count the grains of sand.
As you can see, the scenery is spectacular, and the view of it is pretty much unobstructed.
Did I mention that there is very effective air conditioning with this sort of flying? And there’s always the opportunity to work on one’s suntan. Trikes’ diminutive size and weight, and their flight attitude being controlled by the occupants’ shifting weight means that flight times are routinely early or late in the day when the atmosphere is smoothest. This is also the time of low sun—of rich colors punctuated by bold shadows. Just the stuff to make a photographer or painter effuse.
Some shadows move at the speed of the earth’s rotation, some at a trike’s cruise speed. This is highly technical physics, of course, most easily explained via “the one picture is worth a thousand words” exegesis.
Now, of course, it’s not all just fun and games. This is a Flight Review, after all, so serious pilot skill refresher work is part and parcel with the event. You pilots will surely remember the hours you practiced “ground reference maneuvers?”
And then there is the ritual simulated engine failure to an off-airport forced landing. Well, there are lots of definitions for airports, especially if you’re in a trike. Howard scored especially high marks for this dry lake bed landing. A nice opportunity to stretch our legs and decaffeinate.
So, the landing, and the bush-watering completed, it was time to demonstrate a soft field takeoff, which looks like this passing the elevation of the ritual imaginary 50′ obstacle.
Okay, obstacle cleared, with us back at cruise altitude. This is a great vantage point for observing wild flowers, snakes, swallows, and other desert denizens.
A stressful and successfully completed Flight Review ends with a quiet return for landing at day’s end.
As many of you may know, Howard’s day job is as a documentary filmmaker emphasizing the underwater environment. Cameras of this sort need waterproof housings, and those are produced by John’s company. The association we three have with all that is how we came to be chums accomplishing the niceties of the FARs on a late afternoon and early morning. Howard got some extra practice by flying his trike while John and I accomplished his FR. Howard took this as opportunity to roll the cameras on the scenery and the conduct of John’s and my flying. Like I say, some Flight Reviews are just more fun than others. If you need a password for this link, it is—badlands.
Posted on August 17, 2014