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IMG_7564  The glassblower faces an open, white-hot furnace, 2400 degrees Fahrenheit, the same temperature as the molten lava pouring out of Kilauea volcano at this moment. The heat is intense, from this and the room’s slightly cooler (900 degrees) ovens, as you’d expect in any glass forge. This one is the Glass Forge Gallery and Studio in Grants Pass, Oregon. It’s a warm summer day here in southern Oregon, but a breeze wafts through the large, warehouse-like studio, open to visitors who can watch the entire process. Inside the furnace, a ceramic crucible holds liquid glass–pure silica, I’m told, mined in Texas and mixed with 10% soda ash and lime.

The long hollow pole dips it into the hot pool in the furnace. Turning the pole constantly, the glassmaker pulls it out, spins it in a bowl of multi-colored glass bits, and carries it to a curved stand. He attaches a mouth tube to the pole, and now it’s my turn.IMG_7592 IMG_7566“Blow hard, as if you were blowing up a balloon,” he says. I blow, but nothing much happens. “Harder.” I puff my cheeks and blow, and the glass, which will drip and ooze if it’s not continually turned, begins to fill with air and round into a ball. “Now softer.” I blow more gently, and the ball grows bigger. The expert knows exactly when to nip the ball closed, make a swirl at the top, and set it to cool. I, with considerable help, have just made a beautiful, colorful ornament.  In sixteen hours it will be completely cool and ready to handle. The folks at the Glass Forge will mail it to me.

Hundreds of hand-blown glass items, from simple balls like mine to elaborate lamps, IMG_7571chandeliers, curved vases and art pieces, are created in the forge by a co-op of glass artists.  Most have been here awhile, and everyone bears a few burn scars despite the protective shields. The shop, a showcase of their artworks, is open every day but Sunday. If you want the fun of blowing your own glass art–and I can testify that it is fun–come on a weekday (except for 3 weeks in August, when the place is closed for cleaning). At this writing it costs $15 to make an ornament and $20 for a more complicated piece. IMG_7837

Oscar Wilde tomb Pere Lachaise    Père Lachaise cemetery, in the 20th arrondisement in Paris, is like a peaceful, tree-shaded, 110-acre park, only with lots of bones entombed and underground—not at all gloomy, in my opinion. Tourists love it. A map, available at the entrance, shows where some of the famous names are, but frankly, I find it confusing and prefer to just wander the walkways and possibly happen upon one I recognize. Oscar Wilde, maybe, whose tomb is fenced so you can’t leave lipstick kisses as people used to do. Sarah Bernhardt, Gertrude Stein, Edith Piaf, Chopin, Jim Morrison and thousands more are buried here. Some memorials are haunting: a wall dedicated to the Communards killed in 1871, sculptures in honor of WWII Resistance fighters and Holocaust victims.

The hillside cemetery’s name comes from a priest, Père Francois de la Chaise, 17th century confessor to King Louis cemetery1XIV. In 1804, Napoleon declared the site where the priest once lived a graveyard. Parisians didn’t like it. They weren’t going to bury loved ones so far from the city and in unblessed ground. The answer was to bring in celebrities, starting with the remains of the beloved writer and comedic actor Molière and the author La Fontaine. A few years and several bodies later, the place was in demand. Today Père Lachaise holds more than a million of the dead, and there’s a long waiting list.

IMG_0780   Montparnasse Cemetery, on the other side of the city in the 14th arrondisement, is much smaller. Its flat, 47 acres are divided into the petit and the grand, with some 1200 trees making it another quiet park. Montparnasse holds the remains of many artists and intellectuals, plus memorials to Paris police and firefighters who died in the line of duty. Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Alfred Dreyfus, Susan Sontag, and Paul Belmondo are among the more famous names on the graves. I’m intrigued by all of it – the sad little verses, the ceramic flowers, the names known only to long-gone family members. One monument is a huge bed with sculptures of Monsieur and Madame Pigeon reclining on it, and an angel standing guard above. Pigeon helped found La Samaritaine department store and invented a type of gas lamp that wouldn’t explode. This was hugely important in the 19th century and made him wealthy. He designed the tomb to hold his family of 18 people.

After all this reflecting on mortality, I’m in need of an apéritif at a lively (emphasis on live) sidewalk café, so I’m heading for La Rotonde, on Boulevard Montparnasse. Hemingway and Picasso liked it and I do too.

DSC07965 Rattlesnakes. Poison oak. Ticks.  We were well-warned, and I’m prepared   with thick boots, long pants, walking sticks and tweezers. Sure enough, ten minutes after starting up the rock-strewn trail, I spot a  rattlesnake sunning on a rock. It’s a pretty little thing, with black and orange-yellow stripes, and doesn’t bother rattling, just slithers away between rocks. Great start! I’m thrilled, but just as glad it’s the only snake I see on this beautiful 5-mile hike in the Columbia River Gorge in southwestern Washington.  No ticks, either, but vast quantities of poison oak. I’m steering clear of the shiny green, red-edged leaves, and all clothes will go into the washer at the end of the day.

Cherry Orchard Trail starts just east of the tunnels on Highway 14, east of the small town of Lyle. On a warm spring day, it is lovely, with stunning viewsDSC07971 of the wide river, the columnar basalt cliffs, and hillsides glowing with yellow balsamroot and purple and blue lupine.  After a few minutes’ walk, we reach the trailhead sign and a metal box of releases. This is private land, but hikers are allowed if they sign releases stating that they assume all risks and agree to not have fires. We wind through forests of scrub oak and across open green hillsides where wildflowers bloom; I-expect to see Julie Andrews come toward us singing “The Sound of Music.”

This hiking trail was redone not long ago. It’s not as steep as the old route, DSC07976but has plenty of up-and-down, with an elevation gain of 1160 feet. The trail switchbacks up and eastward through woods and  fields, passing a seasonal pond where butterflies gather. Few are here now, but we have company: shiny black beetles, red-winged flies, a still-as-stone green lizard, flies with black and white stripes, crows, hawks, and blue moths.  And the rattler.

When you’re looking for solitude, this is a good place to find it.  On the entire 5-mile, 3.5-hour hike, we encounter a single walker and a small group of friends on an outing. We hear nothing but the breeze rustling oak leaves and, on the lower slopes, the hoot of a train and the faint roar of freeway traffic from the Oregon side of the river.

When we reach an old dirt road, we turn right and go a few yards more to a former homestead site and the orchard that gave the DSC07973trail its name. It’s the end of the trail and our grassy picnic spot.  The view is stunning. We’re high above the Columbia, looking down on a bend in the river, with hills and flatlands stretching to central and eastern Washington. Oregon’s cliffs, forests, and snow-peaked mountains lie to the south.

The orchard itself is at the end of its life; I see only one tree with cherry blossoms.  I’m already thinking of coming back in summer to see if any cherries appear, but that’s only an excuse. This is such a great hike, I’ll be happy to return with or without cherry trees.DSC07981

Here in San Francisco, we’re sampling foods from around the world. Italian, French, Basque, Vietnamese, Thai, Spanish, Japanese, American-at-its-best. . . but time runs short, so some great-sounding Mexican, Indian, Chinese, and Asian-Fusion places are on the list for next time.

DSC07818     Zarzuela, on the corner of Union and Hyde, has a loyal following and doesn’t take reservations, but service is fast and we don’t have to wait long for a table. The atmosphere is

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lively, not too loud for conversation. Lots of tapas here, hot and cold, from grilled eggplant stuffed with goat cheese to poached octopus and potatoes with onions. Several Spaniards are tucking into a taste of home. Specialties of the house include Catalan seafood stew, scallops in romesco sauce, and oxtail stew, all interesting, but the paella gets the most raves, and I’ll try that next time. For now, it’s grilled squid with aioli, asparagus with goat cheese, and grilled mushrooms served in a small skillet (flavorful, but drenched in oil). Zarzuela serves a house-made sangria; we go for a crisp white wine instead. Tip: parking is a hassle. Ride the bus or cable car, which stops at the corner, or walk. You need the exercise anyway, with all this eating out.

Next is Japanese cuisine. After strolling the Marina district in the sunshine, watching white sails zip around the bay, we head to Chestnut Street and its many cafes. They’re all crammed, almost spilling into the street, but Naked Fish has empty tables in back next to a small green garden, so here we are eating terrific sushi. The ahi tuna, wrapped in seaweed and rice, is so tender it almost melts in the mouth. The miso soup is delectable, prices are reasonable. The chicken yakitori and teriyaki are fine, but the soup and sushi are tops.

DSC07373On Russian Hill, Cocotte, formerly Hyde Street Bistro, is small, French, and charming.

The menu is limited but varied and the service excellent, with French flair.

There’s an open kitchen, so we can watch the chef prepare the house specialty, juicy-tender rotisserie chicken. My unusual appetizer of shredded rabbit on crispy spaetzle is delicious—I swipe my plate clean with the good bread–and the butter lettuce salad takes me directly to France. The wine list is commendable.

 Basque food I know only slightly, so I’m eager to try

Piperade, on Battery Street. Bay Area friends greet us gladly, as does the waiter, and already I love the place. Piperade refers to a typical Basque dish of red pepper and onions, with many variations. This one has sautéed Serrano ham and poached eggs.

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Classic dishes change daily, touching on a cuisine that borrows from the sea and the mountains of Basque country. On Fridays it’s black cod with potatoes and leeks, on Saturdays veal stew with braised peppers. My tasty salad combines arugula, large radish slices, golden raisins

and arugula salad Piperade

pine nuts, a nice combination and probably very Basque. The calamari with fennel and capers is another good choice, and the piquillo pepper stuffed with rich goat cheese, surrounded by a pistachio sauce is a hit. Best, though, is the rack of lamb, cooked rare and tender. With all this (tastes around the table, of course) we have a dry white Basque wine.

 

San Francisco food: clam chowder, crisp fish ‘n chips, Caesar salad. These we like with beer at Park Chalet upscale DSC07885and has a view of the beach and the Pacific. Our pub food is good and the service fine, though I should add that I’ve heard some negative comments about it. Anyway, the most interesting thing about this place for me is the lobby. This is a remarkable piece of San Francisco history, and I knew nothing of it until now. It has display cases of SF historic items, intriguing tile work, and walls covered with wonderful 1930s frescoes by Lucien Labault.  They’re scenes of San Francisco life during the Great Depression. Labault also painted some of the famous murals in Coit Tower.

This is only a minuscule, whimsical sampling of a few restaurants among hundreds. Do you have a favorite in the City by the Bay?

Why I Love Waikiki

DSC07659  I’m flip-flopping along Honolulu’s Kealakaua  Avenue, among hordes of tourists in search of sunshine and tropical drinks stirred with pineapple spears. This is Vegas-by-the-Sea, packed with tawdry glitz, upscale glamor and crowds. Not my usual cup of tea, yet here I am, settling now onto the warm sand of Waikiki, mai-tai in hand, happily watching the surf roll in. I’m surrounded by acres of sunburnt flesh, much of it squeezed into bikinis so skimpy they could fit in my pocket.  People-watching can be a full-time hobby here, with all ages and sizes dressed—or barely dressed—in every possible outfit.

Waikiki has lost its long-ago quiet, lazy appeal, but the soft breezes, sunshine, waving palm trees, and rugged beauty of Diamond Head are still here. The long white beaches are perfect,DSC07701 and Hawaii tourism interests plan to keep them that way. To fight erosion, they built walls and used to barge sand  in from California. More recently it’s been carted from nearby shoals to restore the shoreline and widen the beach.

Here’s what draws me, besides the climate and setting:  local papaya and pineapple for breakfast, concerts and hula dances in Queen Kapiolani Park, swimming with colorful fish, the grace of practiced surfboarders, a relaxed and friendly (mostly) culture, shopping and chatting at farmers’ markets—tourist brochures list where to find them, and three are an easy walk from my condo rental.

Banyan tree, Queen K park honolulu I like walking through the 100-acre banyan-shaded park, with a stop for a lunch of grilled mahi-mahi at Barefoot Beach Cafe. Or I continue on to lunch at lovely Hau Tree Lanai, where Robert Louis Stevenson used to hang out. On the return walk I stop to read every historical plaque. Hawaii has a rich history, full of war and beauty and sorrow.

Back on Kealakaua I pass kids texting, guys lugging surfboards, hustlers selling tours, street people scrounging trash bins. Musicians play on the street corners. Nobody bats an eye at the strolling Santa  with his violin, the muscle-bound man covered in tattoos, the young women in minuscule shorts and stiletto heels. Stores advertise everything from high fashion to t-shirts with sslogans that prove bad taste knows no bounds: “Sluts rule.” “I just want to pee onDSC07695 everything.” And the ubiquitous “I’m with Stupid.”   Festivals keep popping up; here comes the Chinese New Year lion, with his clanging entourage, growling for money from local shops.

When it’s time to eat, choices are everywhere. I skip the fast-food chains, of course, and go for local sushi or pho or, for a pricier meal head for the Asian/Pacific fusion food at ever-popular Roy’s. Also good:  Il Lupino’s veal scallopini and arugula salad with almonds and spiced pears, evoking memories of Sicily. DSC07705My favorite lunch place is the classic Moana Surfrider, where I’ll sit on the veranda above the beach and feast on soy-glazed salmon. Lots of Japanese wedding parties are held here, so I get to admire the gorgeous brides in their fluffy white gowns. I find a lively, fun atmosphere at Duke’s, which has memorabilia of the famous athlete. And I always go for a last-evening watch-the-sunset drink at the Royal Hawaiian.

Waikiki can be off-putting, especially if you’re looking for tranquility, and Honolulu offers many other attractions—fabulous botanical gardens, Chinatown, museums, temples, historic sites—but those are for another time. Today I’m just  part of the passing scene, one more sun-loving vacationer in Waikiki.  Aloha.DSC07703

Madrid at Christmas (By Guest Contributor Alyssa Powell)

In Spain, Christmas and New Year’s Eve are celebrated with gifts and treats, feasts and parties, just as we do back home in the USA, but with a difference. It’s a great time for anyone lucky enough to be in Spain for the holidays  I’ve been living here in Madrid for a while now as a teacher, and keep discovering new twists.  They vary around the county, but here’s my version:

On Christmas Eve, my friend Alberto and his family and friends got together in their home village for a big meal, a marisco (seafood) feast. We had a brothy, delicious soup with clams and fish, and ate lots of shrimp, which we beheaded and peeled and dipped in sauce. All this was prepared by Alberto’s mom. Next came traditional, typical treats: a kind of nougat candy called turrón, chocolate truffles,  little cakes and pastries, and the best red wine they could afford.  Some very good red wine comes from Spanish vineyards.

The Catholic church is a strong influence, and many people go to church several times during the season.  Some who are less religious attend mass because it’s traditional, while others don’t go at all.

The next day, Christmas, people usually hang out with their families and open their boots (not stockings!). I had set out one of my own boots and found candy and chips inside. The family Roconas del Reyopened a few presents from Papa Noel, but most gifts are opened January 6,  Dia de Los Reyes, or Three Kings Day.  That day there was a parade in the streets, with men costumed as the Three Kings (Three Wise Men), and after the parade the kids hurried home to open their best presents.

Then it was time for another festive meal, ending with a traditional dessert:  roscón de reyes, a round cream-filled pastry with a hole in the middle and dried fruits on top. It looks a bit like a crown, and maybe that’s what it represents. Inside are hidden figures and a bean. Whoever gets the piece with the bean pays LiveBelenfor the roscón, and the one who gets the figure can expect to have good luck all year. My piece had a little duck figure. We weren’t through yet. After the festivities we took a walk to see the Belén displays around town. These are nativity scenes, some very elaborate, in shop windows. My favorite included dinosaurs. In one village I visited, there was a living Belén, with villagers playing the roles of Mary, Joseph, and shepherds.

Between Christmas and Dia de Los Reyes we celebrated New Year’s Eve, complete with fireworks, immense GrapesAtMidnightcrowds in the plazas, food and drinks. We watched the clock in Puerta del Sol, Madrid, but instead of counting down and cheering, Spaniards wait until midnight, and as the clock strikes twelve they eat one grape for each chime. You have to chew fast because if you do it correctly, you’ll have good luck all year.  Then everybody drinks champagne and heads for the bars.

Whew. All the world should enjoy the winter holidays as much as the Spanish do.  Feliz Navidad and Feliz Año!New Year's Eve

The Inn at The Presidio is different. Set outside San Francisco’s city bustle, it’s not only a pleasurable place to stay, it holds a significant piece of the region’s history. The stately red brick building used to be headquarters for U.S. Army officers fortunate enough to be stationed at this military outpost. Now the entire 1,491-acre Presidio is a National Historic Landmark District, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  Pershing Hall, the single officers’ quarters, was remodeled and opened as a hotel in 2012. And here I am, admiring the view over the Presidio’s red-roofed buildings and green fields to the bay beyond and, of course, the always compelling Golden Gate Bridge.

I’m in one of 22 rooms on three floors that have been painstakingly restored to preserve the old Georgian Revival style and military memorabilia while providing modern comforts—downy duvets on firm beds, sizable bathrooms, flat screen TVs, internet access, mini-bars. (The best views are from the third floor.)  The service is top-notch. There’s no elevator, in keeping with the historic status, but guests who can’t climb stairs can book a room on the ground floor. Some SF visitors want to be closer to the action of downtown, but I don’t mind being this far away because it’s quiet–no sirens, traffic, or late-night party crowds. That doesn’t mean I’m alone. Five million people a year visit the Presidio, but I’m  happy to share this huge park of rolling green hills, wooded trails,  a beach, picnic areas, and a couple of restaurants (the Presidio Social Club is a good choice, though so popular it’s wise to book a table early).  The Walt Disney Museum is here, along with a number of commercial sites in former military buildings. If I want to go to the heart of the city, Inn at the Presidio offers free shuttle service on weekdays, as well as a shuttle around the Presidio itself. The Visitor Center tells of the site’s long, richly dramatic history,  It’s a pleasure just to wander among spicy-scented eucalyptus trees and over grassy slopes.

At the hotel, a feature I particularly like is its commitment to the environment. LEED-certified, it uses organic-based paints, insulation from recycled cotton denim (who knew?), USA-made wool rugs, water conservation, and no mini-soaps or shampoo bottles. Room and suite rates are $195 to $350 per night, which includes an excellent buffet breakfast, taken indoors or out, and afternoon wine and cheese. Parking is $6 a day. Inn at The Presidio is a fine addition to the San Francisco lodging scene.