Discovering Lima

DSC05064When we docked at Callao, the port for Lima (which is really just a southern suburb of this sprawling city), we knew this would be one of the historical highlights of the cruise.  Founded by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in 1535, Lima would become the capital of the Spanish South American Empire and rule over the entire continent, with the exception of Portuguese Brazil, for 300 years.  The modern city of ten million inhabitants still has remnants of Spanish colonial architecture that have managed to withstand the intermittent, devastating earthquakes that plague Peru to this day.  Not only cathedrals and monasteries from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but ornate Spanish baroque structures housing government offices line the streets and plazas in the center of the city.  Other parts of the city echo the belle époque of Paris, wedding-cake buildings with mansard roofs surrounding a circular plaza anchored by a very French-style fountain.

 

It is obligatory to start a tour of Lima with a visit to the Plaza Mayor, or Main Plaza, just two blocks from the banks of the Rio Rimac where Pizarro first planted the flag of Spain.  The Cathedral stands in imposing splendor along the east side of the plaza, with the bishop’s residence attached.  Twin bell towers loom over the massive sets of carved wooden doors, and the bells toll at peculiar times, for instance at 10:30 a.m. but not at 11:00.  Of course, our first day in Lima was a Sunday, so maybe the bells were calling the faithful to services.  If so, they were fighting a losing battle against the bicycle fair in the plaza and the Peruvian girls posing against the background of the fountain.

 

The predominant color of buildings in Lima is indisputably yellow, and not a pale insipid yellow, but a robust Spanish gold.  Not only commercial and residential buildings are painted this color; we saw several churches and other religious structures proudly sporting bright yellow walls.DSC04978

 

Interestingly, our first guide in Lima was a young apologist for the Spanish invaders: he insisted that the Spanish were not “the bad guys,” despite what we had been taught and despite their awkward habit of slaughtering the indigenous population whenever the two cultures came into contact.  But the fact that 85% of the population of Peru is Roman Catholic, and that the only literate Spaniards who accompanied the soldiers were members of the Catholic clergy (Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jesuits) who wrote personal accounts of what they found in South America and sent them back to Spain, may explain the pro-European slant we detected in our tour guide.

 

What is indisputable is that the conquistadors plundered tons of gold and silver from the native peoples, took the beautiful and historically invaluable ornaments created by these pre-Columbian artists and melted them down into bars of metal easier to transport, and demolished the architecture that had stood for centuries because it must have been the work of the devil – how else could primitive peoples have built cities of such glorious splendor?  I’m afraid that I find the greed and arrogance of the Spanish invaders more appalling now than I did when I first read their history in my elementary schoolbooks.

 

DSC04910That said, some of the architectural vestiges of the colonial period are very interesting, in particular the former monasteries and convents, with their high-ceilinged galleries surrounding quiet courtyards edged with rose bushes and hydrangeas.  The Convento de Santo Domingo, which houses the tomb of Santa Rosa de Lima, the first saint of the Americas, is especially appealing; it breathes a sense of peace and contemplation even in the center of a busy city.DSC04914

 

Best of all was our visit to Casa de Aliaga, a 47-room house across from the Palacio del Gobierno, an ornate government building equivalent to the White House (on the site where Pizarro’s own house once stood).  Geronimo Aliaga was one of Pizarro’s captains and a close personal friend, and he built his house across the street in the mid-16th century conveniently close to the seat of power in Lima.  Aliaga was a shrewd businessman and made a huge fortune in trade, passing along his acumen to his children and grandchildren.

 

DSC04933Seventeen generations later, the Aliaga family still lives in the house, which has undergone gentle updating over the centuries but retains its graceful and elegant atmosphere.  The matriarch of the family, now 101 years old and in blooming health, occupies part of the house, as do her son, three of his adult children, and a couple of cousins.  A few of the public rooms, as well as the central courtyard, are open to the public; nonetheless, the family has dinner in the formal dining room five nights a week once the tourists have left the premises.DSC05080  The exterior of the house is unprepossessing, stretching the length and width of a city block but only two stories tall, with enclosed balconies overlooking the narrow street below; but the interior is spacious and charming, furnished with comfortable chairs and sofas that speak to the good taste and hospitality of the family over the generations.  The open-air courtyard, with its fountain and its giant 150-year-old ficus, brings gentle and cooling breezes into the heart of the house, DSC05093and the second-floor gallery that surrounds it provides shaded seating for guests and visitors.  As a special treat, a couple dressed in seventeenth-century Spanish finery strolled through the rooms, looking perfectly at home.  We loved the whole experience.DSC04943

 

Because of the location on the plaza of the presidential offices, there is a very visible police presence in this part of the city.  But despite their looking very serious and watchful, the police enjoy a high degree of respect in Peru.  And we even got a smile and a friendly wave from some officers standing quite casually behind their riot shields in front of the Cathedral.DSC04976

 

Unfortunately, Francisco Pizarro lacked the good sense and foresight that were clearly possessed by Geronimo Aliaga.  Pizarro had ruthlessly fought and subjugated the once-powerful Inca, leading the Spanish effort to demolish their highly-developed civilization in only one century.  He accumulated a great fortune from gold and silver held back from the massive wealth sent to Spain from its South American colonies.  When Pizarro was rewarded for his military and plundering success by the King of Spain with the title Marquesa, his close companion, Diego de Almagro, received a much lesser title.  This perceived injustice infuriated Almagro, since he had gone on battling the recalcitrant Inca while Pizarro lolled around Lima enjoying the good life.  Cool heads did not prevail, and the conflict between the two former friends resulted in Pizarro’s condemning Almagro to death.  The Spanish were not then noted for a “let bygones be bygones” philosophy, and on June 26, 1541, twenty armed men, led by Almagro’s son, set out to seek vengeance by assassinating Pizarro in his own palatial home.  They were successful, but Pizarro was a tough old bird (he was nearly seventy years old by then) and took three of his killers with him.

 

DSC05120One of our tours in Lima was conducted by a noted Peruvian historian, a man with a varied and fascinating background, holding degrees in anthropology and business administration.  He was a graduate of St. Mark’s University in Lima, the oldest university in the Western Hemisphere, where the country of Peru took shape when it finally achieved its independence.  We sat on long benches in the room where all the major issues confronting the formation of the new nation were discussed and resolved, and we could almost feel in the atmosphere of the chamber just how important and serious those decisions were.

 

In the port of Callao, we saw for the first time on the entire trip another cruise ship, the elegant condominium ship The World, on which we were fortunate enough to sail during her maiden season, when cruise segments were sold to passengers who wanted to experience something unique.  She was docked next to us for the two days we were in Lima, and we couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to sail on her again.  She no longer operates as a cruise ship with paying passengers, since she is entirely owned by the residents who own condos on board and does not market rentals.  The World is beautiful inside and out, with the condos designed by internationally-known interior designers, several five-star restaurants, an on-board market selling fresh produce and groceries, an excellent library, and a staff and crew outnumbering the passengers and providing superb service.

 

Lima boasts a couple of very upscale neighborhoods, Miraflores and San Isidro, where big-name boutiques and shops line wide boulevards, and high-rise condos loom over the seafront from very insubstantial-looking cliffs.  DSC05039Overlooking the sea is Love Park, where couples come to celebrate their engagement, their marriage, and their anniversary.  We felt a bit like voyeurs, watching all the happy young people having their pictures taken, two by two, against the vast blue background of the Pacific.  We enjoyed our stay in Lima, although we never had the chance to taste its famous cuisine – Peruvians pride themselves on the blend of different cultures in their country, both in racial mix and in food.  Spanish, indigenous Indian, African, and Chinese inhabitants have intermarried for centuries, giving Peru its distinctive face.  In Lima alone, there are 3,200 Chinese restaurants (called chifa), which perplexed Gerry:  If 85% of the population is Catholic, 10% belong to other Christian denominations, and the rest have no religious beliefs, how can the Chinese restaurants stay in business without any Jews?

 

Speaking of the Jews, we haven’t seen a single synagogue anywhere in the parts of South America we’ve visited – although there was a very prominently-situated mosque in Coquimbo, Chile, built by a local politician as a gesture of good will to Muslims in the country.  But as far as we know, there are no Muslims in Coquimbo; once a week, groups of Muslims make the trek from Santiago to attend services.  Lots of races in South America, but basically only one religion.  Every town or city has at least one cross on a hilltop, and there are Catholic churches everywhere you turn.  Our trip is taking place right at the end of the schools’ summer vacation, so we weren’t surprised to see lots of school-age kids in the parks and markets and on the beaches.  But we were struck by the enormous number of families with infants and toddlers.  Clearly, family planning is not a priority in this part of the world.  But we were given the opportunity to take tons of pictures of delightful young children, with their parents’ smiling permission, and Gerry will assemble a gallery of the best of those photos to add to this blog.

 

 

Onward to Peru

Early in the morning of our arrival in Peru, our ship maneuvered along a mountainous and austere coastline, escorted by solicitous tugs flying the Peruvian flag, into a tiny harbor almost entirely enclosed by a long jetty of rip-rap.  DSC04632The harbor was so minuscule that it seemed impossible for our ship to fit into the available water, but with the help of two busy tugboats, we swiveled 180 degrees and fetched up neatly against the pier, facing back toward the sea.  And suddenly we found ourselves at Matarani, the port closest to the city of Arequipa and subsequently to Cusco, high in the Andes.  Since we weren’t making the excursion to Machu Picchu (“Old Mountain” to the Inca), and I wasn’t feeling up to taking the nine-plus hour trip to Arequipa, we decided to stay on board and just relax.

 

DSC04634To our surprise, this turned out to be one of our favorite days of the cruise, beginning with the vista from our veranda as we sailed into port and ending with a perfect sunset.  DSC04636Matarani has no tourist facilities, nothing to come between us and the serene beauty of the mountains beyond the port or the sparkling sea cradling a small fishing fleet at anchor beyond the pier. DSC04653 In the harbor itself, tiny fishing boats lined up in a colorful array, welcoming dinghies from the larger boats as they entered the harbor one by one.  The air was soft and clear, and the entire day drifted past like a peaceful gift from nature.  And when the sun set in a cocoon of rose and gold and amethyst behind the fishing boats to our west as our ship sailed out of the harbor, we watched from our veranda in awe.  Sometimes the unexpected is the best.DSC04660

 

At Pisco, our next port to the north, we looked forward with anticipation to a tour for which we had been waitlisted and which we did not want to miss.  Luckily, we made the cut and climbed onto one of the buses headed for Paracas, a resort area on the beach.  We drove past shanties roofed with corrugated iron lining dirt streets, tumbledown hostels with hand-lettered signs dangling above their open doors, and eventually down a narrow road leading to an absolutely beautiful five-star resort hotel, with villas set in pristine landscaping along the seafront.  We walked down a pathway banked with perfectly pruned topiary and oleanders in full bloom to board big speedboats, thirty passengers at a time, and head out to the Ballestas Islands. DSC04677

 

Until 2009, these three islands, along with nineteen others, were valued solely as sources of guano, bird dung used as fertilizer.  Every seven years, for example, workmen (presumably without a sense of smell) were – and still are – housed on the islands while they collected guano and shipped it to the mainland and eventually overseas.  Then in 2009, the Peruvian government awoke to the fact that the area comprised a critical marine ecosystem that should be protected and preserved; and the National Reserve System of Islands, Islets and Coastal Guano Concentration Areas was established.  DSC04694The Ballestas Islands (North, Centre, and South) have been compared to the Galapagos Islands of Chile because of their concentration of birds and sea mammals, a comparison with which we agree.

 

This part of Peru was home to some of the earliest Andean civilizations, including the people who carved the famous Nazca Lines into vast expanses of a barren plain.  These geometric drawings of birds, animals, and symbols have baffled archeologists for a century, since they can really be seen only from the air, and the people who carved them could not fly.  Naturally, those who believe in visitors from outer space have a ready explanation for the mystery, but for now the rest of us remain in the dark.

 

DSC04680On the other hand, the indigenous Paracas people, who lived here from 200 to 800 A.D., carved on a hillside facing the sea the huge stylized “Candelabrum,” depicting an artifact used in religious rituals to hold sacred (and hallucinogenic) liquid in its cups.  The Paracas are also famous for their beautiful weaving, examples of which have survived more than a thousand years  because of the dry climate.

DSC04723As we approached the Ballestas Islands, we could see birds by the hundreds – even thousands – perched on the jagged cliffs, their white heads and necks identifying them as Peruvian boobies.  Clusters of grey-headed booby teenagers gathered on small rocky islets just far enough away from their parents to avoid being given a sharp peck or two to keep them in line.  DSC04734We had been warned to cover our heads and arms, since birds have a tendency to use human targets to practice their aim, and I was glad I’d worn a windbreaker with a hood once I found myself in the cross-hairs of one avian bombsight.

The driver of our boat steered us into coves and along cliffs, until we began to see long stretches of beach completely covered with South American sea lions, mothers and babies on the sand and huge bulls patrolling at the water’s edge. DSC04757 One colony of these beautiful creatures numbered more than 500; we were there during the first weeks and months of the pups’ lives, so they were just learning to swim and hadn’t yet learned to fish.  Some of the adults, though, swam fearlessly around our boat, trying to get a closer look at these peculiar marine mammals who appeared to dislike water.DSC04848 - Copy

 

DSC04708The structure of the islands is very beautiful, with caves and arches carved from the rock by the constant motion of the sea.  The faces of the cliffs are sculpted with ledges where birds build their nests and raise their young, so when you look up at the island from your boat, you can watch them going about their daily lives as if they were performing living theater for your entertainment.DSC04775 - Copy

 

The Ballestas Islands are the breeding grounds not only for sea lions, but for many kinds of birds, some of which we were able to recognize.  DSC04765The Peruvian booby looks just like the blue-footed booby we saw in the Galapagos – except, of course, minus the blue feet.  Then there was the American oyster-catcher with its long red beak, Peruvian pelicans and glossy black vultures, seagulls and red-legged cormorants and terns skimming over the water, and a few other species we couldn’t identify on the fly, so to speak.  We’d hoped to see a condor, since they are commonly found in the area, but no such luck.  We did, however, see three Humboldt penguins having a quiet conference on a rock, which was a real treat.DSC04827 - Copy

 

On the way back to the dock, we noticed that the mountains to our right, which had been a rich café au lait earlier, seemed to glow with iridescent color: red and gold and green and purple, all shading from one to the other in the folds of earth on the hillsides.  We never knew what caused those colors, but it was as if an artist had dipped his brush in random pots of paint and swept it across the hills.DSC04861 - Copy

 

We agreed that this was one excursion we wouldn’t have missed for anything – it was like being on safari in Africa and seeing our first (and second and third and . . .) pride of lions in the wild.  There is something liberating about being so close to animals without a fence or a pane of glass to separate us from them.  It requires a level of mutual trust that has to be built without words.  We feel very fortunate to have had this experience once again.

 

 

Northward through Chile

Leaving behind Coquimbo and La Serena and their forlorn dogs, photogenic people, and fascinating early history, we looked forward to a day at sea before our next port.  On this cruise, we have the privilege of having three superb guest lecturers with us throughout our trip: Niki Sepsas, travel writer, guide, historian, and photographer; Dr. Herb Keyser, physician, musicologist and all-around renaissance man; and Dr. Norman Caisse, astronomer, professor, and member of the team that sent the first mission to the moon.  Each presentation is more fascinating than the preceding one, and each lecturer has his own unique skills.  Dr. Caisse also holds  star-gazing sessions on deck several nights during the cruise, acquainting his students with the stars of the Southern Hemisphere.

 

We love sea days, especially in the middle of a busy schedule – they give us the chance to recharge our energy and prepare for the next adventure.  And this first sea day was especially necessary for another, less pleasant reason:  As soon as we boarded the ship, what I had thought was just a nagging little cough resulting from seasonal allergies blossomed into a severe, bone-rattling cough and an upper respiratory infection that kept me from sleeping and sapped my strength.  When it worsened instead of improving, we began to be seriously concerned about my ability to handle the extreme altitudes we would experience in Cusco and Machu Picchu.  I went to see the ship’s doctor, an Italian physician who had formerly been a thoracic surgeon, and after an examination he strongly recommended that I cancel my excursion.  Reluctantly, I agreed when Gerry insisted that we do so, and we resigned ourselves to giving up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – at least for now.

 

So as we headed to Arica, Chile, we began to look for ways to fill the four days on board we would have missed during our land excursion.  Most of the tours on the cruise had been booked online in advance of our departure, and the more popular ones were already full.  But with polite persistence, Gerry was able to obtain places for us on two tours in which we were particularly interested, so nothing was lost.

 

DSC04518As we arrived in Arica, a long row of dozens of pelicans formed a welcoming committee and accompanied the ship as it pulled up to the dock.  I wondered if they had mistaken us for a very big fishing trawler and were hoping for scraps.  If so, they were sorely disappointed.

 

We knew nothing about Arica except that it was the northernmost port in Chile, that the city lay under the shadow of the imposing rock formation known as El Morro, and that it hadn’t rained in Arica in over 40 years.  But what a rich history this small city and its environs has!  Arica lies on the sea, between two river valleys carved through sand and rock from the Andes to the Pacific: the Valle del Lluta to the north and the Valle del Azapa to the south.  Thousands of years B.C., the people who lived in the “highlands,” in the Andes Mountains and their foothills, would regularly make their way to the sea to trade with the people who lived on the coast.  The people from the highlands came with their llamas laden with trade goods, such as wool, leather, minerals, dried grain, and handicrafts.  The coastal people had fish, shellfish, vegetables, and other goods to trade.  Since neither of these cultures had a written language, there was no way for them to communicate with each other by messages.  DSC04523Instead, there are geoglyphs on steep hillsides along the river valleys.  I had seen pictures of these remarkable drawings of llamas and small animals and adults and children, but I never knew what they meant.  I assumed they were intended as some sort of historical record of a civilization.  But they appear always on the same side of the mountain or hillside, with the figures always facing the same direction: toward the sea.  They were made by scraping away the sand and dirt from the rock surface of the hills, making a sort of nest surrounded by sand, and then building a multi-layered heap of stones to outline and fill in the figures.  DSC04527They are elegant signposts strategically placed on the hills to point the highlands people the way to the sea.

 

In this increasingly fascinating place, once again we found ourselves in one of the best museums we’d seen in all our travels: the Museo Anthropologie, near the small town of San Miguel de Azapa.  Here we learned the ancient history of the Chinchorro people, who populated this area from 10,000 B.C. until they were subsumed by the Incas in the 15th century A.D.  In beautifully presented glass cases backed with paintings depicting the life of the people during a specified period of time, we followed their steady progress from extremely primitive hunter-gatherers to skilled fishermen, weavers of finely-wrought cloth and baskets, and artisans who created pottery that was as beautiful as it was utilitarian.  DSC04551Most interesting was their practice of mummifying their dead, using very specific and intricate procedures passed down from generation to generation by having the entire family involved in the ritual.  Since the Chinchorro had no written language, this was their only means of transmitting their history and customs to their children and grandchildren.

 

Everyone was particularly struck by one exhibit: the skeleton of a young person, probably a boy 13 or 14 years old, with a full set of perfect teeth, straight and white and undamaged by use or time.  We reflected that by the time most of us were his age, we had a mouthful of fillings and were undergoing orthodontia.

 

Despite lying at the edge of one of the world’s great deserts (ostensibly the driest on earth), Arica is surrounded by a thriving agriculture, thanks to the miracle of irrigation.  Fields of corn, beans, tomatoes, and greens give way to orchards of olive trees; in fact, the museum was built in part around a massive ancient olive press.

 

DSC04614El Morro was the site of the battle that settled the War of the Pacific, fought between Chile and Peru (abetted by its ally Bolivia).  When Chile achieved victory, it took territory from its enemies: Bolivia’s only access to the sea and Peru’s southernmost portion were lost in their defeat.  Later, Chile gave land back to Peru, but not to Bolivia, which remains landlocked.  The view from the promontory is very impressive, and its topography makes it hard to imagine how anyone could have scaled its walls and captured it from an enemy, but Chile managed to dislodge the Peruvian army from the fortress in just 55 minutes on June 7, 1880.  (Legend says that a Chilean “nurse” – there is some dispute about what exactly she did for the soldiers in her care – made up bottles of strong liquor spiked with gunpowder and passed them out to the Peruvian soldiers in charge of holding El Morro.  Drunk and hallucinating, the Peruvians were no match for the sober and determined Chileans.  Something to bear in mind . . .)

 

Arica proved to be a very interesting city, in part because of its beautiful cathedral, San Marcos de Arica, designed by the same Eiffel of the Paris Eiffel Tower fame.DSC04613  But it also enjoys a temperate climate – it’s known as the “City of Eternal Spring” – and has a friendly population.  Whenever we asked if we could take someone’s photo, the response was always a nod and a smile.  No beggars, no one pressuring you to buy something you didn’t want, no sense of urgency, just pleasant, helpful people justifiably proud of their city and their varied, beautiful country.

Starting our South American adventure

For years, we have talked about completing our circuit of South America, sailing from Valparaiso, Chile all the way up the west coast of the continent and through the Panama Canal before returning to the U.S. We’ve been up and down the east coast, once from Buenos Aires to Rio and up the Amazon River to Manaus, and once from B.A. around the tip of South America to Valparaiso. We’ve actually visited Ushuaia at the tip of the continent twice, first when we rounded Cape Horn en route to the Pacific coast and again when we sailed from that tiny Argentina port to Antarctica. But other than a couple of days in Quito, Ecuador before flying to the Galapagos, we’d never been further north than Santiago. This year, we decided to remedy that gap in our travel experience.

The most compelling reason, of course, to make this journey was our lifelong desire to see Machu Picchu, the spectacular Incan ruins high in the Peruvian Andes rediscovered only a hundred years ago by a Princeton academic named Hiram Bingham. We found a cruise on Silversea Cruises with an excellent itinerary and an optional four-day land excursion to Arequipa (the “White City”), Cusco, and Machu Picchu, and booked passage on the Silver Spirit. Our only concern was our ability to handle the drastic changes in altitude from sea level to 11,000 feet at Cusco, followed by 7,900 at Machu Picchu and back to 11,000 for another night in Cusco before flying back to the ship. But we did everything we could to prepare, including asking our doctor for a prescription for a drug that helps to alleviate, if not prevent, the symptoms of altitude sickness; and we resolved to drink plenty of water throughout the excursion to stay hydrated. Most important, we planned to drink the coca tea on offer everywhere at high altitudes in Peru, or even to chew coca leaves, if necessary, as the locals do. But we were warned not to try to smuggle any of that exotic plant life into the U.S. – processed coca leaves, after all, produce cocaine and are quickly sniffed out by those very businesslike dogs at immigration checkpoints.

The ship sailed from Valparaiso, although all the passengers flew into the airport in Santiago, the capital of Chile, 75 miles from the port. Our overnight flight left Miami at 9:30 p.m. and arrived eight and a half hours later in Santiago. One of the interesting things we’d learned years ago about the geography of the Western Hemisphere is that all of South America lies to the east of the North American continent. So flying from Miami to a city in Chile means that you wind up at least one time zone east of where you started. Very confusing – but you can look it up!

All of our luggage arrived safely and on the same flight as we did, which is always a comforting start to a long trip. Something new since we were last in Chile: each U.S. citizen arriving in the country has to pay a “reciprocity visa entry fee” of $160 per person before going through passport control. This fee is not the same for citizens of all countries. For instance, Canadians pay $132, Australians $95, and Mexicans $23. I don’t know whether we Americans are being punished for something our government did that displeased Chile, or previous American tourists behaved badly, or what. Anyway, we paid up and were allowed in.

Santiago is a very large and very flat city that lies in a plain between mountain ranges, principally the Andes. And just as in U.S. cities with similar topography, the air is badly polluted and hazy. Even the magnificent mountains that loom over the landscape are mostly obscured by a veil of pollution, especially in the summer months. So it was a welcome change, once we boarded our bus for Valparaiso, to escape the city and head out through the central Chilean wine country toward the coast. Acres of carefully tended and groomed vineyards stretched out across gently undulating land and climbed up terraced hillsides, as we passed beautiful wineries and their whitewashed palatial buildings. The contrast between the vineyards, with each vine carefully trimmed and trained and with not a weed to be seen between the rows, and the highway verges littered with trash, broken bottles, garbage, and hundreds of white plastic bags blowing in the wind was unsettling. We remember when it was the usual practice in the U.S. to toss trash, including lighted cigarette butts, out of the windows of our cars without a second thought. Nowadays that would be unthinkable, not to mention unlawful, anywhere in the country. Unfortunately, South American countries haven’t got the message.

DSC04557At the pier in Valparaiso, our ship awaited us, beautiful and gleaming white in the bright sun. The Silver Spirit is the largest and newest of the five ships in Silversea’s “Classic Fleet,” carrying 540 passengers (the other four carry either 296 or 382 guests). Her lines are elegant and classic, very unlike the awkward big boxes most cruise lines have chosen to build in order to carry several thousand passengers. We have sailed on a few of those ships, but don’t enjoy the experience and won’t repeat it. Our preference is always a small ship with an interesting itinerary, spacious and comfortable cabins, excellent food, good enrichment lectures, and the level of service we’ve come to expect over our years of travel. This ship provides all of that and more. We rarely stay up for the late-night entertainment offered on most ships, but we enjoy the occasional daytime concerts and performances by classical musicians on board. I remember one cruise several years ago that featured a young Polish pianist whose specialty was Chopin; his concerts were packed with appreciative audiences. On our current cruise, a young woman violinist who performed with Lord of the Dance is on the schedule; and although she looks intriguing (she has even played while standing on her head!), we probably won’t make it to one of her shows.

Our stateroom (every cabin on a Silversea ship is called a suite) is on the port side and midship, so we are usually facing the dock in port. This gives us the chance to watch the captain on the flying bridge as he oversees our arrival and departure, and to wave goodbye to the locals who often come down to the pier to see the ship sail away. In Valparaiso, we had an enthusiastic crowd seeing us off, clustered beside a tiny marina crammed with small, colorful boats.  One of the first things we always notice in South America is the riot of color exhibited in the painted houses and boats, whether ferries, tour boats, fishing boats, or pleasure craft.  Set against often spectacular scenery, this creates vibrant and artistic “pictures in the mind” that typify the many cultures of the continent.

 

As  we sailed out of the port, we passed what looked like the entire Chilean navy, docked three-deep at a long pier, flags flying and at least some engines running.  It occurred to me to ask if Chile was about to engage in maneuvers, or was the country perhaps contemplating something more serious?DSC04384

 

We reached our first port the morning after sailing and disembarked in Coquimbo, Chile for a guided tour.  Coquimbo is a busy commercial port whose principal claim to fame is the nearby Horseshoe Bay, where 16th-century English pirate ships took shelter between raids on the Spanish galleons bearing plundered gold back to Spain.  Sir Francis Drake, best known of the English privateers (and a special favorite – although piracy was technically outlawed in England at the time – of Queen Elizabeth I), visited Horseshoe Bay in 1578.  Local legend has it that there is still a treasure somewhere on the beach or in the rocks left behind by the pirates, but diligent searching has yielded no joy.

 

Coquimbo’s other notable distinction – not one the city would prefer – is the enormous number of stray dogs everywhere you go.  They are beautiful creatures and appear healthy and well fed, many of them mixes of German shepherd, yellow Labrador, golden retriever, and other large breeds.  DSC04409Our guide assured us that they are not dangerous or aggressive, and in fact we never heard a single bark.  Some of them might not even have been strays, just loose-running pets; but it was very sad to see them watching us with hopeful faces, then turning away discouraged when we got back on the bus.

 

Adjacent to Coquimbo is the regional capital La Serena, where vestiges of Spanish colonial architecture still line the streets.  Serious young musicians play classical music on the sidewalks, a string duo here, a string quintet there, and passers-by pause to listen.  DSC04447Early in our trip, it became clear that many of our best photos were going to be pictures of people – children, old people, craftsmen, musicians, everyone whose face caught our interest.  In La Serena, that trend began in earnest.

 

In the covered market in the center of the town, vendors’ stalls were filled with local arts and crafts: alpaca sweaters, brightly-colored woven shawls and ponchos, endearing little stuffed toy llamas with sweet faces and bright saddle cloths, carved wooden figures, key chains and magnets and pins decorated with ceramic art, and huge jars packed with pickled mangos stacked six feet high.DSC04461  Most of the sellers were clearly a mixture of Spanish and indigenous background, with the latter predominating, and they tended toward unsmiling, watchful seriousness without seeming unfriendly.  Very few of the local people we encountered spoke English, even to tell us the amount of money an item cost in pesos, which was somewhat surprising since Chile prides itself on its strong support of public education.  Maybe this means that Spanish-speaking countries are counting on the Spanish language supplanting English as the universal language of commerce in the near future.

 

The most interesting stop in La Serena was, despite our general skepticism about the value of local museums, the extremely well-curated Museo Arqueologico, where exhibits traced the pre-Colombian history of this part of the world and its people.  After we had made our way (with some difficulty, since the museum’s director refuses to translate any of its descriptive signs into English, despite the fact that English-speaking tourists comprise by far the largest number of museum-goers) through the galleries, we came into the centerpiece of the museum – and, indeed, of any museum we’ve ever seen: one of the giant stone sculptures from Easter Island. DSC04489 We hadn’t realized that Easter Island is part of Chile, just as the Galapagos Islands are part of Ecuador, but it is.  This particular head was a gift to the people of Chile from the island, and it is incredibly impressive.  It is far from the largest of the Easter Island statues, but the features are remarkably lifelike and human.  The expression is solemn, the eyes focused and intense, the bearing noble and dignified.  When you think about the massive size of these sculptures and the very primitive society that created them and then somehow moved them across the island to places that had special significance, the achievement becomes astounding.

 

Northern Chile is very different from the southern part of this long, narrow country.  The landscape is dry and barren, although rivers flow from the mountains to the sea and provide water.  But you have to find beauty in deserts and rocks – and fascination in ancient history – to appreciate this part of Chile.  Luckily, we do.

 

 

Little Bighorn Battlefield

On the Crow Indian Reservation northwest of Sheridan, Wyoming, along the north bank of the winding Little Bighorn River, we stepped back into history on a flawless day in early September.

Ponies on the Crow Reservation

Gently rolling hills above the quiet river gave no hint of the terror and bloodshed that enveloped these acres in the summer of 1876.  Horses roamed freely over the hills and blocked the road that led across the Little Bighorn Battlefield from end to end, eyeing us warily as we got out of our car to take pictures of this living scenery.  But we were soon immersed in the story of the most famous battle of the western expansion movement.

As I mentioned in my post about Deadwood, a large area of what is now eastern Wyoming (and a sliver of western South Dakota) was designated a permanent reservation for the Lakota, Cheyenne, and other Native American tribes of the Great Plains by the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868.  This treaty followed decades of intermittent but bitter fighting between Indian and white cultures, as white emigrants moved relentlessly westward and the United States expanded its borders and its influence.  The Treaty of Fort Laramie was intended to buy peace, and for a time it was successful.  But in 1874 gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the heart of the Indian reservation, and prospectors streamed into the territory by the thousands in violation of the treaty and in disregard of the sacred hunting grounds of the tribes.

When nothing seemed able to stem the tide of incursion, the Lakota, Arapaho, and Cheyenne left the reservation in defiance of the treaty and began to again raid white settlements and travelers on the fringes of Indian land.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs issued an order directing the tribes to return to the reservation before the end of January 1876 or be treated as hostiles by the U.S. Army.  When the deadline had passed and the Indians had not complied, the Army was sent in to enforce the order.

Little Bighorn River from Greasy Grass Ridge

And this is what led up to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, an episode in our history that illustrates what happens when myth and reality collide.  The Army’s plan was to neutralize the war chiefs, round up the recalcitrant tribes, and confine them to the reservation.  The Indians refused to be restricted to the reservation, preferring their traditional way of life as nomadic buffalo hunters.  Poor intelligence resulted in the Army’s vastly underestimating the size and strength of the Indian encampment along the Little Bighorn River, believing that there were only a few hundred warriors and noncombatants (women, children, and the elderly) when in fact there were 7,000, including as many as 2,000 warriors, led by the charismatic Lakota chief Sitting Bull.

The terrain of what is now known as the Little Bighorn Battlefield makes it easy to see why the Army was at a tremendous disadvantage from the outset.  Deep ravines and coulees run down from high ridges to the river valley, providing cover for the Indian warriors familiar with the landscape and accustomed to fighting from concealment, rather than from horseback in the open.

Deep Ravine southeast of Custer Hill

Also, the Army issued only two types of weapons to its troopers: the Colt six-shot revolver and the Springfield single-shot carbine.  The Springfield excelled in range and accuracy, but it had to be reloaded after every shot, and the cartridges tended to jam when the barrel grew hot with use.  The Indians used at least 41 different types of guns, including modern Henry and Winchester repeating rifles, giving them an advantage at close range.

Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, an experienced veteran of the Civil War, led the 7th Cavalry (about 600 men) to the Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1876, where the Indian camp had been reported by his scouts to be located.  Custer divided his regiment into three battalions and retained five of the twelve companies under his own command, assigning three companies each to Major Reno and Captain Benteen and the twelfth to guard the pack train carrying their extra ammunition.  When all three battalions, operating separately, encountered heavy fighting, the story becomes murky.  What is not in dispute is the fact that the 7th Cavalry lost all five of the companies under Custer’s command, about 210 men.

The conventional wisdom says that Custer heroically took a stand on the peak of what is now Custer Ridge, surrounded by his troopers, all of whom fought to the death.  The Indians removed the bodies of their dead, estimated between 60 and 100, and left the troopers’ bodies on the battlefield, after stripping them and counting coup on their enemies in order to prevent their souls from being released to the afterlife.

Seventh Cavalry Memorial

When relief troops arrived on June 28, the bodies of Custer and his command were buried near where they were found; later, they were reinterred either in eastern cemeteries or, in 1881, in a mass grave around the base of the memorial erected on Custer Hill.  So despite the headstone markers scattered across the battlefield, erected by the Army in 1890, there is no real evidence pointing to exactly where the soldiers died.

But in 1983, a wildfire at the Little Bighorn National Monument exposed the surface of the land on which the battle had been fought, enabling archeologists to trace the movements of the combatants more accurately than had been possible before.  Identifying cartridge cases shows where a soldier fired his government weapon and where an Indian fired his Henry or Winchester or one of the other guns used by the warriors.  Identifying the bullet itself gives evidence not only of the weapon from which it was fired, but the location of the target.  Even more fascinating is what is called “firing pin signature analysis”: the firing pin of each gun leaves a unique mark, like a fingerprint, on the cartridge case as it fires a bullet.  By matching the firing pin signatures on cartridge cases at different locations, it’s possible to follow the movements of individual combatants from place to place across the battlefield.

The archeological evidence, combined with eyewitness accounts of Custer’s final battle given by Indians who participated in it (there were no surviving witnesses from Custer’s battalion), tells a different story from the legend.  Many of the troopers fled down the ravines from Custer Ridge seeking safety and were killed.  The skirmish lines that were designed to give tactical stability (each man five yards away from the next) disintegrated, and the battalion collapsed.  Some of the soldiers, probably including Custer, remained on the knoll, shooting their horses to provide a breastwork from behind which they attempted to hold off their swarming attackers.  Witnesses described the fighting as fierce and fast, lasting no more than a half hour.  One of the Cheyenne chiefs, Two Moons, described the scene: “The shooting was quick, quick.  Pop-pop-pop very fast.  Some of the soldiers were down on their knees, some standing.  The smoke was like a great cloud, and everywhere the Sioux went the dust rose like smoke.  We circled all around them — swirling like water around a stone.”

After the battle, knowing that retribution was bound to follow, the Indians scattered, some north to Canada, some to the south.  In a few years, though, most of them returned to the reservations and surrendered.  Further west, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, after resisting an order to move from his ancestral land to a tiny reservation, finally laid down his weapons in 1877 and said, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”  His words serve as an epitaph for the traditional way of life once enjoyed by native Americans.

A few more photos of the battlefield, and the Indian herd of grazing horses, are seen here.

 

Mount Rushmore and Devil’s Tower

Less than a three-hour drive apart lie two of the country’s most impressive national parks: Mount Rushmore National Memorial near Keystone, South Dakota, and Devils Tower National Monument near Sundance, Wyoming.  The majestic sculpted portraits of Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln loom high over the trails and terraces from which they are best viewed, gleaming in the shifting light as the sun drifts across the sky.

Approaching Mount Rushmore

The sculptor who carved these heads from granite, Gutzon Borglum, was a Danish-American who wanted to memorialize his country’s greatness in monumental art and chose these four presidents to represent moments of significance in our history.  George Washington presided over the birth of the nation; Thomas Jefferson personified expansion and exploration with the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition; Theodore Roosevelt is best known for development: the construction of the Panama Canal, the title of “Trust Buster,” and the establishment of the National Parks system; and Abraham Lincoln, who preserved the nation by saving the union during the Civil War.  The monument was carved between 1927 and 1941, which helps to explain the omission of Franklin D. Roosevelt from this pantheon of significant presidents.

Mount Rushmore from the Grand Terrace

When we walked from the parking garage up the wide, simple walkway toward the sculpture, we were struck by the atmosphere surrounding the entire memorial.  Voices were hushed, and everyone moved forward quietly and almost reverently as they approached the Grand View Terrace and an unobstructed view of this most famous carving in America.  The air was bright and cool, and we felt a sense of awe in the presence of such magnificent and monumental art.  Borglum achieved his goal, and did it flawlessly.

Devil’s Tower

It would be unthinkable to drive from Deadwood across the Northwest on Interstate 90 without making the short detour to Devil’s Tower in the northeast corner of Wyoming.  One writer described its impact on those who see it for the first time: “A dark mist lay over the Black Hills, and the land was like iron.  At the top of the ridge I caught sight of Devil’s Tower upthrust against the gray sky as if in the birth of time the core of the earth had broken through its crust and the motion of the world was begun.  There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of man; Devil’s Tower is one of them.”  A column of stone rises 867 feet from its base and 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River, its sides fractured into what look like marble columns and its flat oval top measuring an acre and a half in area.  Devil’s Tower is one of the natural landmarks revered by American Indians as sacred places, and signs along the trail at the tower’s base ask visitors to refrain from disturbing “prayer bundles and prayer cloths” placed there by local tribes.

Prayer cloths at Devil’s Tower

In 1906, President Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed Devil’s Tower the first national monument, thus protecting it from commercial development and exploitation.  The hiking trails that loop around the base of the tower and its surrounding parkland are testimony to how well that protection has worked over the past century.  Hikers and walkers can experience the impact of the monument without intrusion from souvenir shops, snack bars, or sellers of wearable advertising.

The drive into the park winds through one of the most appealing and yes, adorable tourist attractions ever created by nature: a large prairie dog town, home to a colony of black-tailed prairie dogs.

Black-tailed prairie dogs

Like congenial condo dwellers, these photogenic creatures pop in and out of their holes, appear to chat with each other in dirt-rimmed doorways, and regard all of us two-legged animals and our clicking and flashing and buzzing cameras with fearless interest.

The majesty of the monument is breathtaking, especially because its beauty and symmetry owe nothing to human intervention.  Its formation began 50 million years ago when molten magma was forced into rocks above it and fractured into columns as it cooled.  It stands in solitary splendor among the low, gently rolling Little Missouri Buttes, magnificent and forbidding and beautiful beyond description.

Both these sites are famous for their appearances in popular films: Mount Rushmore in the climactic scenes of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), when Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint scrambled down the stone faces to escape certain death at the hands of James Mason; and Devil’s Tower at the center of Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), compelling a handful of people touched by the presence of intraterrestrial beings to journey to Devils Tower for reasons they don’t understand.  It’s impossible to imagine either of these iconic films without their signature monuments.

For additional photos of Mount Rushmore and Devil’s Tower, click here.

 

Deadwood and the Black Hills

In 1868, some remote and apparently useless land was ceded to the Lakota Indian tribe in perpetuity by the U.S. Government in the Treaty of Laramie, and no “foreign” settlements were permitted under the treaty’s terms.  This wild and mountainous territory was unsuitable for farming or ranching, and the Oregon Trail used by emigrants lay far to the south.  So for some years, the Lakota roamed the Black Hills as they had for generations, hunting and fishing and following the trails set by the course of nature.  They believed that the spirits that guided their destiny resided in certain natural landmarks, and that therefore those places were sacred and untouchable.  Other tribes were allowed access to the Black Hills, and for the most part, peace reigned.

Then in 1874 Col. George Armstrong Custer led a military expedition into the Black Hills and returned to civilization to announce the discovery of gold on French Creek.  Within weeks, a horde of gold-seekers descended on what had been a quiet gully in the heart of the Hills, and the town of Deadwood was born.  Lawless, bawdy, corrupt, and illegally settled, Deadwood became the mythic capital of the Wild West, home to gunslingers, gamblers, and prostitutes, as well as to the businesses that supplied the prospectors.

Wild Bill’s grave & Calamity Jane’s (behind wall)

Wild Bill Hickock was shot to death in a Deadwood saloon and is buried in Mt. Moriah Cemetery overlooking the town.  Calamity Jane, pursuant to her deathbed request, is buried next to her old friend, Wild Bill.  Deadwood today still wears the tattered remains of its former finery, with sawdust-floored saloons, proud Victorian buildings, and kitschy architecture.

Driving through the Black Hills National Forest on the way to Deadwood, we passed through some of the most beautiful country we’ve ever seen.  A gracefully winding highway followed the dry bed of a stream that in the winter can become a raging river, flanked by towering hills carpeted in lush evergreen trees.  The air was cool and silent, except for occasional bird calls.

Deadwood from Mt. Moriah Cemetery

It’s not hard to understand why the Lakota resisted the incursion of the white men into their sacred territory, especially since that incursion was made solely for those white men’s financial gain and with no thought of the consequences to the land.  Often during our drive west, we had this same sense of empathy with the Native Americans who were displaced from the land they loved and respected and were forcibly removed to reservations for the convenience of the U.S. Government and its most powerful citizens.

Deadwood has often been the setting for tales of the Wild West, most recently the HBO mini-series Deadwood, starring Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane.  The movie Dances with Wolves was filmed mostly in the Black Hills, and its star Kevin Costner built and still owns the Midnight Star, a successful casino and restaurant on Main Street.

Main Street

That street is dotted with ice cream parlors, casinos, restaurants, and shops selling souvenirs capitalizing on the historical notoriety of Deadwood.  Every day there is a re-enactment of the shooting of Wild Bill Hickock in Saloon #10, reputedly the site of the original gunfight, where walls display photographs of many of the early residents of the town, along with the “Dead Man’s Hand” (aces and eights) held by Wild Bill when he was shot and killed.  No one can accuse Deadwood of displaying excessive good taste, but it gives you the chance to remember playing cowboys and Indians in a town where it all actually happened.

For more photos of Deadwood, click here.

 

 

Well, that’s the way it happened, movin’ west . . .

Despite the skepticism of our friends and family, we decided several months ago to make one more long trip by car while we still enjoy driving and revisit some parts of the U.S. reachable only by highway.  Also, we’ve been promising ourselves — and our family in the Pacific Northwest — that we would spend an extended period of time in Seattle some summer.  So we started by renting a condo in downtown Seattle for the month of September, in a high-rise building across the street from the world-famous Pike Place Market.  Then we began to plan our way west, the northern route toward Seattle and the southern route home.  We lined up our cats’ favorite sitters for the seven weeks we would be gone, spent a lot of time at AAA picking up maps and books and ordering Trip-Tiks for the entire trip, and booked hotels where we thought we might have difficulty finding a vacancy when we wanted it.

Naturally, the weather in the Midwest and Great Plains, which had been sunny and pleasant, with occasional showers, the week before we left home, turned brutally hot as soon as we loaded the car.  We stopped in St. Louis to see the four grandchildren who live there, which meant attending their soccer and baseball games in 90-plus degree weather, huddling under an umbrella for shade.  (We were pleased to see that we weren’t making ourselves conspicuous — most of the other grandparents in attendance did the same.)

Once we left St. Louis, we were in territory we hadn’t explored for years, basically following the Missouri River upstream to Kansas City, Sioux City, Sioux Falls, and Rapid City.  I have a trivia question for you: Which college’s mascot is the coyote?  Here’s a hint: Its campus is in a little town named Vermillion, on the river of the same name, so called because of its red clay banks.  I’ll give you the answer at the end of this post.

Tennis mural – Corn Palace

There are two must-see places along Interstate 90 through South Dakota, both of which we visited en route to our next stop.  Mitchell is the home of the Corn Palace, a huge building housing a theater-cum-basketball court, famous for its spectacular exterior adornment.  This year, massive murals created solely from corn, rye, oat heads, and sour dock depict scenes from history and practitioners of almost every sport, as well as abstract designs.

Corn Palace

About 275,000 ears of corn of every color are sawed in half lengthwise and nailed to the walls of the building, as hundreds of tourists and locals watch the pictures taking shape.  The building is redecorated every year, as it has been since 1892, and it’s a treat to see what the current year’s local artists have come up with. A few more pictures here

 

Boots, anyone?

We spent an hour or so at Wall Drug, located in Wall, South Dakota,  the eastern entry point for Badlands National Park. We wandered through acres of rooms of goods for sale (including, surprisingly enough, an actual drugstore) in what has to be the largest store of its kind anywhere.  Lots of western gear was on offer, including hats, boots, jeans by the thousands, and a wall of coiled lassos for the serious cowboy.  Tourists in shorts and T-shirts eating super-sized ice cream cones gawked at all the products on display and bought mostly postcards, key chains, and cheap souvenirs.

Ropes too?

I wanted Gerry to buy a new hat, but even after trying on several, the most adventurousness he could muster resulted in the purchase of a braided leather belt.

Here are more pictures of Wall Drugs.

Our next stop was the Badlands National Park, a place so stunning in its austere beauty that it’s difficult to describe it.  We were driving along the interstate, admiring the rich farmland planted in acres of corn whose tops were so level they looked like a young boy with a new flattop haircut, when suddenly a line of jagged rock appeared to the southwest, running along the horizon.  A curving loop drive runs through the park, so that you enter from Wall on the east and exit at Moorcroft on the west.

The Badlands

 

Tall peaks pierce the sky, and deep gullies fall away on every side.

Badlands architecture

Frank Lloyd Wright saw the Badlands for the first time in 1935 and wrote, “I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the Dakota Badlands. . ..  What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere — a distant architecture, ethereal, an endless supernatural world more spiritual than earth but created out of it.”  I couldn’t say it half as well.

Spectacular scenery… click on Badlands!

P.S.  As promised, here’s the answer to the trivia question about Vermillion: the coyote is the mascot of the University of South Dakota, and a beautiful statue of that wild dog stands in a prominent position at the entrance to the school’s campus.

University of South Dakota quadrangle

The students had just returned to college the weekend before we arrived — luckily on Monday evening — and there was a very real sense of excitement and anticipation in the town.  We’ll be watching for the “Yotes” from now on.

Next installment: Deadwood, Mt. Rushmore, Devil’s Tower.

Newmarket

Going to the Gallops at Newmarket

Anyone who is a real fan of horse racing ought to go to Newmarket, not only for the races, but for the atmosphere that’s so thick you can hardly see through it.  We’d had Newmarket on our wish list for years, but finally our wishes and the timing of our visit to England coincided, and we started making plans months before we left home.  Our friends Sally and Jack McGill, formerly of Sarasota, now live in Norwich, so we decided to take the last week of our stay in England and travel to East Anglia to see them and that beautiful part of the country.  They had never been to the races, so we bought tickets for the July 28 race meet at Newmarket for the four of us via the internet from home with a click of a mouse, quite a change from our first ticket-buying experience for Royal Ascot five years earlier.  Then, in order to get tickets for the Royal Enclosure on Ladies’ Day, we had to go through the U.S. State Department and submit a detailed application, together with a letter of reference from a public official who knew us personally.  Luckily, one of my good friends from my time in Oregon was the former Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, and he was delighted to write a letter certifying that we were respectable citizens and unlikely to embarrass the United States in front of the Queen.  For Newmarket, we only had to read the dress code for the Premier Enclosure (nice afternoon attire, hats encouraged but not required, no shorts, sneakers, torn jeans, or other unacceptable clothing choices) and decide whether or not we wanted to reserve places in the prix fixe restaurant or dine a la carte.

Because it rained during so much of our time in England, we hadn’t really taken advantage of our beautiful woodland setting.  But our last Monday in West Sussex, Clive the woodsman gave us a walking tour of the woods and showed us why he is so valuable to Pom and her woodland skills program.  He knows every plant and tree, every clearing and trail, and he can make a “living” fence simply by partially cutting through a tree branch and bending it into place, where it continues to grow.

Clive at work

He built a charcoal burner and makes charcoal every year, just as the people did in those woods six hundred years ago.  He has more woodcraft skills than we knew existed, using tools he fashions himself.  If we were ever in a nuclear holocaust, I’d want Clive to teach me how to survive and take care of myself.  He is truly amazing.

Treats for William

I gave William, the Irish cob, his daily treat the evening before we left Keeper’s Cottage after our five weeks’ stay.  He had become very friendly by then, and we knew we would miss him.  It felt strange to drive down the dirt lane from the house the next morning for the last time, not sure when or if we would ever return, but we took only good memories with us.  The weather, of course, was beautiful that day, as if to remind us that the summer’s rain had been all our fault.  We’d told the staff and the locals that they would have perfect summer weather as soon as we left, and it appeared that our promise would be fulfilled.

Because one of the most famous aspects of Newmarket during the summer is watching the horses — hundreds of them — walk from their stables around the town to The Gallops, acres and acres of rolling meadows on which the horses train every day, we drove straight to Newmarket and checked into our downtown hotel so that we could see the horses going to the Gallops early the next morning.

Misty morning on the Gallops

Newmarket is generally considered to be the birthplace of thoroughbred racing (in 1174, so if there’s a better claim out there, they’ve had plenty of time to make it) and now is home to more than fifty training stables and sixty-plus breeding studs, in addition to seventy trainers and three thousand horses.  One of the largest training stables at Newmarket is owned by Godolphin Racing, headed by the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.  Godolphin’s distinctive blue racing silks are copied in the jackets of its exercise riders at the Gallops, as we saw.

Godolphin exercise riders

Racegoers from everywhere come to Newmarket to watch some of the best horses in the world compete on its two racetracks, the Rowley Mile and the July Course.

We love English racing, not only for the pastoral beauty of the setting, but because all the races are run on the grass, on wide swaths of green, green turf that blanket the gently undulating race courses.

Looking up the track

Some of the tracks have mile-long straightaways, which means that the horses don’t have to negotiate any turns.  It also means that a field of twenty-plus horses in a race is common, since no one has to battle for an advantageous position coming out of a turn.

Racing is mostly about the horses, of course, but the jockeys are the second most-important factor in this incredibly exciting sport.  We know that racehorses are great athletes because we can see their conformation, their musculature, their gait, their temperament.  But jockeys are, pound for pound, the finest athletes in the world, in our opinion.

Finish line ahead!

A good flat-racing jockey (as opposed to a steeplechase jockey) might be just over five feet tall and weigh 115 pounds, but every ounce of that weight is muscle.  And that small person has to control a 1,200-pound animal capable of running a mile in 96 seconds, using only his knees and hands, steering the horse out of traffic, not allowing the horse to use up its speed and stamina too soon, and staying aware of the position of every other horse in the race.  And all this while balancing on his toes in the stirrups, bent low over the horse’s back but never touching the saddle.  What these athletes do every day boggles the mind, especially considering the injuries all of them suffer during their careers.  There are more and more women jockeys nowadays, as we’ve seen in the U.S. in races our own horses have entered, and they are just as strong and tough as their male counterparts.

Before each race, the horses are saddled and led out into the paddock, where their owners are permitted to see them up close and where their trainers give the jockeys any last-minute instructions.

Final instructions

Every track has its own unique paddock setup — for instance, at Ascot the paddock is almost like a show ring, with seating around the outside of its enclosure where spectators can watch.  When the Queen has a horse entered in a race, she often goes into the paddock to talk with her trainer, which gives the rest of us quite a thrill.  At Newmarket, the arrangement is much less formal, with the paddock set in a rectangle just beyond the finish line and viewing areas along both of the long sides.  We like to get a closeup look at the horses before we place a bet on the race (not that we know much about what to look for), and then we make our picks.  I look at a horse’s pedigree, past racing history, and recent workouts, and if all else fails, I choose the horse by its name, the color of its coat (I’m partial to greys), or the silks worn by the jockey.  All very unscientific, of course, but sometimes it works.

Before the races at Newmarket, the four of us (Jack and Sally McGill, Gerry, and I) had lunch at one of the restaurants at the track, where a woman at a neighboring table offered to take our picture.  Sally and I wore hats, as did a few of the other women, especially the younger ones.

Lunch before the races

We saw several quite attractive young women that day, including one spectacular-looking example of why you need a very good full-length, three-sided mirror to check all angles before you leave the house in a dress that forgives absolutely nothing.  Luckily, she didn’t have a single bulge or blip to spoil the effect, and she was gorgeous, as well.  I don’t think either Gerry or Jack even looked at the horses in the paddock for that race.

Nobody came away a big winner that day, but everyone cashed at least one ticket, and we had a wonderful time.  The weather was perfect, with sun and fluffy clouds and a light breeze, and the horses were all beautiful. Racing may be called “the sport of kings,” but we’re very glad that it’s outlasted most of the monarchies and has become accessible to everyone.

Next, a brief look at historic Norwich and then on to Ipswich and “Constable country” and some of the English country houses in the eastern part of England.

Laurie

A Change in Organization

In order to make this blog more user friendly, and to help navigate more easily to posts of interest, we have categorized our current trip journal as either European River Cruise or England 2012. If you click on one of those categories on the right side of the home page, all blogs pertaining to one or the other will be shown. Remember that the blogs appear according to the date they were experienced, so newer or more recently published posts may actually be found further down the list than older ones. Hope you are enjoying them. LOHR was published yesterday, and RHINE CASTLES should be up shortly.