Sunday, June 15, 2014


Compact snow so intensely blue it appears painted, frozen peaks of silt stained glacial ice and large chunks sheared from a tide water glacier adrift in the sea, will forever define my thoughts of Alaska after our Silversea cruise. 
Over the past week we have visited the isolated towns of Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka and Skagway enjoying a variety of activities designed to showcase the natural beauty of this part of the world. These small coastal towns swell from May to September each year as people come to experience the abundant glacial ice and marine life.

In Juneau we soared high above the Mendenhall glacier in a helicopter ride which helped give perspective to its enormous scale and dramatic beauty - glacial ice hung over cliff precipices forming a deceptively fragile topography, while surface ice peaked in patterns reminiscent of icing on a birthday cake. The glacier itself appeared pockmarked – wave like peaks of ice stained by glacial silt ground from the rocks – a result of the froes of gravity across its surface.

On our ascent to the landing area high on the glacier, our highly skilled helicopter pilot nonchalantly flew so close to the shear mountain rock face that we felt we could reach out and touch it. (Not surprisingly he had read ‘Chickenhawk’ the non-fiction epic about a Vietnam helicopter fighter pilot at aged 14).

Landing high on the glacier enabled us to trek across its surface to gain a closer view of the deep crevasses and blue lakes. Seeing the graduating intensity of the blue ice at close range was so picturesque that even consistent rain could not dampen our enthusiasm – the “liquid sunshine” an obvious necessity for longevity of a glacier! We also lay on the ice to sample the pure glacial water directly from the summer stream – crisp, cold and devoid of any man made additives.

Overall the clarity and graduating intensity of the blue ice will be a lasting memory. We usually think of snow and ice as being white in colour, but as it compacts, density and thickness increasing, the absorption of blue from the colour spectrum decreases, thus the deeper the ice the more the intense the blue.

In Skagway we took a catamaran ride to a remote island where we paddled across Davidson lake to walk on the Davidson glacier. There was a group ice climbing on the glacier and their presence enabled a scale comparison to appreciate its enormity. On our way there we saw whales playing in the ocean plus a large sea lion colony whose boisterous males were using their impressive bulk to aggressively defend their female pack from younger males sea lions.

In Sitka we rode bicycles along a quite forest lined inlet to hike through rainforest with a gushing glacial fed stream. An enjoyable way to appreciate the peaceful natural beauty of this location.

Then on our final sea day we rose early to marvel at the tide water Hubbard Glacier. A snowflake that falls on its surface today will take about 400 years to reach its base – a fact which makes its huge scale even more impressive. Like all glaciers it is constantly moving – evident by the large chunks of ice adrift in the surrounding sea and the occasional sound of it shearing off at the edges.

On each of our shore trips we were warned of what to do in case we happened upon a bear in the wild and it was the only disappointing aspect to my trip that we didn’t encounter any! - However with no "bear mace" (the locals really do carry it - they tell me it is like normal mace but on steroids!), in our backpacks perhaps that was not such a bad thing.

Mendenhall Glacier seen from the helicopter

Cravass on Mendenhall Glacier
Drinking the Glacial Water directly from the stream

Paddling across Davidson lake to Davidson Glacier

Hiking in the glacial fed rain forest at Skagway 
Hubbard Glacier
Ice chunks adrift in the sea at Hubbard Glacier
Hubbard Glacier as seen from the deck of our Silversea ship

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Portugal's magnificent history of tiles

Leonardo mainly used canvas, Michalangelo often marble, but for the past five centuries, the main foundation of artistic material in Portugal has been ceramic tiles.
Known in Portugal as ‘Azulejos’, derived from the Arabic word ‘Azzelij’, or 'Al zuleicha'  meaning small polished stone, this custom of painting bright artworks onto ceramic tiles originated in Egypt, then moved to Persia where it was adopted throughout the Moorish world, before moving up to Southern Spain and the Iberian peninsula.
The Portuguese embraced this art form and it is used extensively on both exterior facades and interior spaces in public & private buildings across the country. The brightly, and often ornate tiles decorate everything from walls of churches to metro stations and public toilets with subject matter as varied as Religious figures, geometric patterns and historical events. It exudes a richness of cultural iconography that has become a symbol of the country.
I was very interested to learn more about the manufacture of these tiles and the process of dating them, so we organised a private guided visit to one of Lisbon's original tile manufacturers. Fabrica Sant'Ana has a showroom in central Bairro Alto and their factory is a little further away in the suburbs. Fabrica Sant'Ana began manufacturing tiles in 1741 and the process is exactly the same today with the exception that the ovens are now electrically powered rather than wood fired!
We watched the entire process of manufacture from the throwing of the clay, pressing into the moulds (all done by hand), to drying racks & kilns, application of a milky glaze with fine glass particles to achieve an end shine, and then the meticulous hand painting process. Each and every single tile is done like this! The day we visited, the painting artists were working on reproducing a centuries old panel, and the process involved trace, charcoal and very fine paint brushes. It was absolutely beautiful to witness a process which has remained the same for centuries and gave us an incredible appreciation for the workmanship in the tiles we saw adorning buildings across the city. (Unfortunately we were not allowed to take photos)
Since one of my favourite things to do in cities we visit is to discover unusual items in flea markets, we visited Fiera da Ladra the city's Saturday market. Many websites I read said it was full of junk, but I suppose all of those things are certainly in the eye of the beholder, because I think they show a slice of the cultural life of a city - & we loved this one! Although tile facades across the city are protected from demolition, there are still many being uncovered as building occurs or from warehouse supplies, so there is significant number of antique dealers selling them. One of the best value was a dealer at this flea market. Laid out on an old sheet, the man in this market had quite an array of options to purchase. I bought 4 matching tiles which date back to 1650, and Lorenzo and bought 4 dating to 1750. The ages are authenticated by colours used, colour intensity size and brushwork. I plan to make perspex boxes to display these tiles as they are definitely a work of art worth preserving.
If you are on the hunt for antique tiles in Lisbon another well known shop is Solar Rua Dom Pedro V, 68-70, Bairro Alto. This shop has an enormous array of tiles well displayed for sale in period of manufacture. Any tiles with people, in particular faces, are considerably more expensive due to the exertise requires to achieve this but they are divine!. This shop is much more expensive than you will find in the flea market, but the quality and choice is extensive. Even though I had bought a set of 4 dating around 1640 in the market, I still fell in love with one in Solar so bought it - just the side of a face (less than a front on version and within my budget!). You also receive a certificate of authenticity stating the age of your tile.
Then to top off my total tile immersion, I visited the fabulous National Tile Museum in Lisbon. This place is extremely interesting, a very well curated museum, especially if you like cultural iconography. It is housed in the monastic buildings of the Madre de Deus Convent, which was founded in 1509 and renovated to its former glory after the Great Earthquake. The museum is housed in the rooms around the cloister and at the far side of the cloister is a magnificent chapel filled with superb ornately painted tiles. This church is so richly decorated because it belonged to the household of Queen Leonor who in the years after the death of her only son Prince Afonso in 1491, spent much of her time praying and living in this convent.

This is the catalogue system used at Fabrica Sant'Ana to chose your tile colour & pattern
This dealer at Feira da Ladra had a very good selection of tiles at a very fair price for their age and hand made execution
Solar Antique Tile Shop in Bairro Alto - a huge range of tiles
This is the tile I bought from SOLAR and it is authenticated as being made between 1720-1750 
The chapel in the convent of Madras de Deus which now houses the National Tile Museum


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Fontesecca Wines, Citta della Pieve

To discover and uncover is one of the great delights of travel – as much today as in Marco Polo’s, Captain Cook’s or Vasgo da Gama’s time. Whether the discovery is in unchartered waters or close to where one spends much time, it is always a delight to unearth the unexpected. So, after drinking many bottles of a local biologically produced wine called "Fontesecca" when we enjoy our countless meals at our favourite family operated restaurant own town in Citta della Pieve,  "Bruno Coppetta", we decided it was time to source the grower /producer!
Like with many hidden gems, it turned out to be in a place we drive past regularly, but just slightly off the main road out of vision. Paolo Bolla the owner of Fontesecca wines, has a 4 generational heritage in wine manufacture, and was originally from the Verona area where he learnt his trade in the family business. In search of new unspoilt terrain, he and his family moved to the Umbrian hills in 2004 and began an independent winery that today produces a limited quantity of excellent wines plus extra virgin olive oil, all grown on their land. The delightful part about their production methods is their organic farming approach, a respect for the land, nature & time which seems to be a recurring narrative in this part of the world.  
The wines we have previously tasted are a fabulous red wine called "Pino" (named after Paolo Bolla’s father), which is made from 100% Sangiovese grapes and exudes a spicy, slightly floral, full rounded taste with which as Australians, we are familiar. It is absolutely delicious and with a dark ruby red colour, it looks as good as it tastes. The white wine, "Elso" (named after the man who planted the original vines 40years ago) also has a wonderful 3 dimensional layered taste being a mix of local varieties of Trebbiano, Toscano, Grechetto & Malvasia grapes. With a colour of wet straw, we can testify it is a superb wine to enjoy with lunch during the warmer months.  They also produce several other wines and needless to say we purchased the whole range to be sure!
The terrain from millennia ago used to be sea and we were told that when ploughing the soil to plant the new vines they found many fossilised shells which is where the symbol on their label is derived. Today these shells are proudly displayed to show the geographical history of the region and Paolo mentioned that these crustaceans add to the saltiness of the soil and contribute to the grape's end taste for the wine production.  
Uncovering local gems like this, we feel are peeling back the historical layers that have shaped this Umbrian region for centuries.

Citta della Pieve seen from Fontesecca Vineyard

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Jules Verne would be delighted!

French novelist and playwright Jules Verne may be famous for "Twenty thousand leagues under the Sea" or going "Around the world in Eighty days" but I think he would be very happy with his namesake restaurant high in the sky! 
Visiting the iconic Eiffel Tower without the laborious wait in queues, is only one of the reasons to lunch at Alain Ducasse's "Jules Verne" restaurant on level 2, 125metres above the ground.
This gorgeous restaurant invigorates the senses in all ways - the interior design is sumptuous, mimicking Gustave Eiffel's  iron lattice structure through the use of lighting, ceiling panelling and windows, the view is spectacular, not just of distant sights of the city of lights but also of the closer workings of the tower itself, and the food by head chef Pascal Feraud is subtle with very clever taste pairings. Most of all this restaurant it is not at all pretentious, just an overall memorable experience.
As with many European restaurants, the fixed price lunch menu is the best value - 3 courses with choices in each, with or without wines to match, and exceptional service by a league of wait staff. With additional 'tastes' between courses and delicacies with coffee, the meal is very substantial.  
What a piece de resistance it would be to have Mr Verne as our lunch guest! We could quiz him on his profound influence on science fiction genre in a setting that, although he would have seen in his lifetime (he died 15years after the Eiffel Tower was erected for the world Trade fair in 1889), he probably never imagined would house a restaurant of such magnificence.