I should add GRAVITY to the equation.Niagara Falls is familiar to many of us, mainly through images in books and movies – like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, Marilyn Monroe in something or rather (an old B&W movie) and the scene on that bridge between Canada and the US in The Untouchables. It’s also one of the world’s honeymoon destinations.
Niagara (split across a border) is a glitzy town too, and according to some National Parks people we talk to, shows the worst of what can happen to a national park through self-interest and desire to make money.
And this is the impression when you walk through parts of the town – on both sides of the border, even though the Canadians consider their’s is the best view of the Falls (they’re right).
Fun parks, MacDonalds, noise, restaurants by the hundreds, hotels big and small and thousands of tourists – everything designed to distract and extract money from one’s pocket.
But nothing prepares you for the real Niagara Falls – their sheer force, their roar as the waters of the Great Lakes pour over the 53m drop, and the mist that soaks and, depending on the wind direction causes a permanent rainfall. The larger Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side are about 790 m wide, while the American Falls are 320 m.
We come to the Canadian side.
I’ve chosed a room with a breathtaking view, right into the Horseshoe Falls and decide on the spot – Niagara Falls is definitely worth making the detour to experience close up.
If you’re like me and you’re curious about how geological features came to be, check out the info in Niagara Falls – it’s all about the power of water over rock – the mightiest, most persistent and enduring force on this earth, maybe?
In every State we’ve visited there are moments of serendipity – that feeling of being in the right place at the right time … to feel tangible history in the fall-cornfields of the Civil War town, Antietam in West Virginia; to see well-loved paintings by Vermeer and Wyeth; or to read the hand-written draft pages words by the great American writers … Hemingway, Kerouac, Faulkner, Poe, Twain, Dickinson and London.
For Chicago the planets aligned for me when we walked through the public thoroughfare under Navy Pier and came across the Smith Museum of Stained Glass.
This darkened 800 ft long series of galleries is the first museum in the United States dedicated solely to stained glass windows – secular and religious, from the 1870s to the present. Most of the windows in the exhibit were originally installed in Chicago’s residential, commercial and religious buildings.
Did you know Chicago is the stained glass capital of the US? I didn’t and I’ve been a fan of stained glass for a long time. Never attempted it myself, I get cut enough doing mosaics. But I can admire the art and the craft involved.
I bet you’ve heard of Tiffany lamps – so called because this unique style is by American artist Louis Comfort Tiffany. And yes, he experimented and excelled in design and manufacture of stained glass. He’s just one of the artists involved in the multitude of windows exhibited in this space.
The artistic themes divide into four themes: Victorian, Prairie, Modern and Contemporary. They also include national and ethnic styles of Chicago’s European immigrants.
This dimly lit walkway under the Navy Pier is stunning – imagine being confronted every few feet by a breathtaking explosion of colour and shape.
Outside on the Pier are the usual clutter of hot-dog and pretzel vans, souvenir shops, restaurants, even a House of Horrors – a fun park sort of place.
But if people want to get from one side to the other of Navy Pier, they walk though the dimmed space of the Smith Museum.
That’s another fantastic thing about this Museum …this is accessible art – it’s free and it’s in the right place – for the masses, for the devotees of stained glass and also for the serendipitous-lucky tourist like me.
It’s taken fifteen years to come back to San Francisco but on the shuttle bus to Petite Auberge up near Nob Hill it’s like we’d never left.
San Francisco is a one-off … a city all on its own – sparkling Harbour waters crossed by the dull-orange (International Orange paint) span of the Golden Gate Bridge; its innovative architecture, much with cutting-edge safety designs … as you’d expect for a city poised over the San Andreas Fault and those two opposing plates in a constant ‘head-butt’. As they say, something’s gotta give.
Down by the water, the buildings’ foundations go down into reclaimed land, sand actually, and you know what happens to sand when it super-heats (i.e. by friction in an earthquake) – yes, it turns to molten glass. Ancient Chinese proverb? When earthquake hit, head for hills.
San Francisco is also a city of great contrasts – a middle-aged woman bedecked with bling (the non-fake kind), makeup and hairdo unable to disguise her age, and laden with parcels as she exits a designer clothes store, pauses at the traffic light.
Beside her stands a grey-haired, black man, his face deeply-lined; his dark suit too large for his shrunken frame as he braces against the rush of a passing bus. He holds out a paper cup and shakes it. “Change? Any change?” The woman studies the Don’t Walk sign across the road until the lights turn red, then she’s gone.
There are other more delightful contrasts though – lush city gardens, but across the Bay, the bare, brown and beautiful hills of Marin County; neat architecture of the older style San Francisco terrace houses back-dropped by glass and metal towers.
One of my favourite buildings is the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Here I also have a task – to find another pair of perfect earrings.
If you know me well, you’ll recognise my earring addiction – not just any earrings though – I know what I like. Whenever Ross was working in California over the past twenty years he brought me back a pair (he has good taste in earrings, if not in clothes). Those from MOMA have outlasted, outdone all the others. They are designed and made by artists and it shows.
I find a perfect pair at a reasonable price, and as a bonus, in MOMA’s wonderful art collection I come across my favourite Diego Rivera painting. He was a Mexican artist of the early 20th C, a painter of the people for the people and once married to Frida Kahlo. The Flower Sellers – intense, colourful, solid shapes; stoic, patient faces of the couple as they go about their work.
By luck we decide to pay an extra $5 to see a photographic exhibition by an unknown (to us) American photographer, Richard Avedon.
Turns out he’s one of the most famous image-capturers of the 20th Century. I’ll let a couple of his pictures do the talking. Check out the link too.
Highlights of San Francisco:
The Petite Auberge – B&B on Bush St (thank you Expedia.com.au) with fireplace and the feel of the French countryside. All included h’orderves at 6pm, full breakfast with Edith Piaf singing in the background. We end up in the honeymoon suite because I’d asked for a quiet room – apparently all the rooms are quiet.
Must sees: The De Young Museum Art Gallery and the city’s Science Museum.
Les Joulins Jazz Bistro in Ellis St where Ross connects up with barman and fellow jazz sax player, Charles Unger. The music grooves and so does the food.
Travelling as tourists in foreign cities is fun, but having a friend there is much better – even more so when that friend lives in a most remarkable house.
In Santa Cruz, we stay with our friend, Helen. She lives in an apartment building called Piedmont Court, one of this small city’s Historical Trust Landmarks (the Court, not Helen). We stay in the Court’s special private guest room.
Built in 1912 by architect, William Bray as a hotel for the elite of Santa Cruz, it’s had a interesting history.
Piedmont Court was the finest apartment house in town in the 1920s – described as “Moorish in design, with an elaborate interior court with fountain,” and Santa Cruzans sat up and took notice when they heard that a 50-room apartment house was to be built with steam heat, electricity, and hot and cold running water througout. This was in the days when homes were heated with wood fires and water pumped by hand.
In the red-carpeted entrance hall, with its white columns and staircase, the building still holds the presence of those long-gone. Let the imagination loose and that could be Ernest Hemingway puffing on a cigar in that velvet, upholstered armchair by the window.
The building has been home to an assortment of Californians – a plush, but comfortable hotel for years, and then in 1952 it was bought by the California Retired Teachers Association. They gave it the name “Calreta Court”.
When Helen moved in in the 1980s it was home to Quakers, Left-Wing, Humanists and other progressive people. Imagine the conversations between the ghosts of the past when this new lot moved in.
Nowadays, it’s one of Santa Cruz’s retirement condominiums. The only requirement to living here in a 1-bedroom apartment is to be over 55 and have around 295 thousand dollars US. Each apartment has its own kitchen, living room, bedroom and bathroom – communal laundry and garage.
Oh, by the way, our friend, Helen is selling hers if you’re interested.
An added extra if you have a thing about owls … there’s one up in the Court’s rooftop turret – a stone-carved owl, designed by the architect to scare away nesting pigeons? Definitely designed to startle an unsuspecting human in the moonlight.
More excellent things about Santa Cruz:
it’s a smaller city – lovely cosmopolitan malls with great shopping