In Interlaken, Switzerland: Spectacular scenery on a train journey to the ‘top of Europe’ railway station

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At 13,462 feet, Jungfrau (right) is the tallest of these three Alpine peaks near Interlaken, Switzerland. Mönch (middle) tops out at 13,448 feet, and Eiger (partially obscured) at 13,025 feet. 

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

If  you’ve ever dreamed of standing relatively near some towering Alpine peaks but have neither the time nor money to train as a mountain climber, you can still achieve your goal.

In Switzerland, all you need is the railway. In a bit over two hours, you’ll be whisked in comfort from Interlaken to the “top of Europe” — the highest train station on the continent. 

From the outdoor-loving, recreationally rich city in the south-central part of the country, you can enjoy a spectacularly scenic journey through the Alps that will take you to 11,333 feet, where you disembark at Jungfraujoch, which also boasts the highest post office. 

At that point, you can venture outside for a closer look at the jaw-droppingly gorgeous vista of the Bernese Oberland region and the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau peaks.

All accomplished with no sweat, little risk and no problems.

More than 1 million visitors in 2018 made this excursion on a coordinated series of trains that gain more than 9,500 feet in altitude while winding through picturesque valleys, cozy villages and verdant farmland. And mountains, of course.

It’s best to start out early from Interlaken, set between lakes Brienz and Thun, so you can make the most of your experience. Also, as it gets later in the day in spring and summer and the snow melts, the chance of fog obscuring the tops of the peaks increases. The ever-efficient Swiss have a TV channel that shows continuous images of the weather conditions at altitude so that you can plan accordingly.

The train does the route year-round. Even if you go in summer, you are guaranteed to see ice and snow. 

When I visited in May 2004, the temperature was in the 50s (about 10 degrees Celsius) upon departure from the Interlaken Ost station. I had the recommended light coat, sunscreen and sunglasses, and it was gloriously clear — the bluest sky you can imagine.

Many tourists were dressed lightly in ski vests and boots, with their skis and other gear stowed in another carriage.    

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As the train gains in altitude, the houses and farms in the valley look like so many random dots.

The train began its gentle climb, passing through Wilderswil, where cows and black sheep were grazing in the meadow. Before long, rich green pastures gave way to forests heavy with pine trees and then impressive bluffs, some as high as 3,300 feet.

The waterfalls also became more numerous as we approached the U-shaped Lauterbrunnen valley, dotted with A-frame houses and small farms. 

We changed trains here, and soon were surrounded by snow as we passed through the car-free village of Wengen (4,180 feet), sitting snugly on a slope above the valley floor. Think chalet and ski resort and you’ll have conjured the picture-perfect setting. 

The higher the train climbed, the more tunnels we went through and the more our ears popped. The incline became more noticeable as did the pressure in our heads.

Kleine Scheidegg (6,762 feet), a village at the base of Eiger’s famed north wall, was the next stop. Another train change here put us on the Jungfrau Railway, the brainchild of 54-year-old Adolf Guyer-Zeller, a widely traveled Swiss textile magnate, who was active in politics.

Guyer-Zeller was also something of an entrepreneur. After a pleasant hike with his daughter on an August day in 1893, he hit upon the idea of making the upper reaches of the mountain range more accessible. Thus, a tourism scheme was born. 

The electric cog railway from Kleine Scheidegg was begun in 1896, and took 16 years and 15 million Swiss francs to build. The project had to overcome monetary and technical difficulties, the death of 30 workers, strikes, supply issues, and weather and environmental challenges. 

Construction was particularly harsh in winter, as the camp and its up to 300 workers (many of them Italian) were cut off from the outside world. To ensure that work could continue, immense amounts of food, some brought in via teams of huskies — 12 tons of flour, 2 tons of potatoes, 3,000 eggs, 4 tons of meat and more — were stockpiled. The Eiger glacier’s crevasses provided a natural freezer for the perishable goods.

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This memorial to Adolf Guyer-Zeller (1839-1899), the Swiss entrepreneur behind the Jungfrau Railway, is in Interlaken.

Almost 20 years after Guyer-Zeller applied for the concession, the railway began operating in 1912. (Guyer-Zeller died in 1899 at age 60; his sons finished overseeing the project.)

On one stretch, the 5.7-mile railway (9.3 kilometers) tunnels through Eiger and Mönch for more than four miles. At times, the tight fit puts the rail cars just inches from the rock.

Only two stations — Eigerwand (North Wall, 9,400 feet) and Eismeer (Sea of Ice, 10,368 feet) — remained until we reached our destination.

At both stations, the train stopped for five minutes and we piled out quickly to take photographs through enormous windows.

As the railway was being built, blasted rock and other debris were disposed of through the spaces that are now covered by glass. 

Today, the Eigerwand station is still the rescue-mission starting point for stranded or injured climbers.  

Only a few minutes more on the train, and we reached Jungfraujoch, where passengers scattered.

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An igloo is right at home (pun intended) in the Ice Palace, complete with a seated Eskimo (right) and tail-up seals (foreground left).

Some headed to the blue-hued Ice Palace, with its slick, long tunnels and ice sculptures of penguins, birds, bears and other figures carved from the ice. The slow-moving glacier continues to advance, which means that new figures are sculpted every year.

Others made a beeline for the terrace of the Sphinx Observatory, where scientific, astronomical and environmental research is ongoing (the observatory is not open to the public).

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The Sphinx Observatory conducts scientific research and is not open to the public. But you’ll be so dazzled by the Alpine view that you’ll be busy looking at the mountains.

From the terrace, Eiger (which means ogre, 13,025 feet), Mönch (monk, 13,448 feet) and Jungfrau (virgin, 13,642 feet) comprise an almost incomparable panorama. On a clear day, you might be able to make out Germany’s Black Forrest to the northwest and France’s Vosges Mountains near the German-French border. 

Another stunning view is the Aletsch Glacier, at 14 miles the longest in Europe. Its snow runoff reaches Lake Geneva en route to the Mediterranean.

At two miles high, you might feel a bit dizzy or out of sorts, because of the rapid increase in altitude. On my visit, there was — shockingly — little wind, probably a rarity. The highest wind speed ever recorded is 267 kilometers per hour (about 166 miles per hour).

The temperature was just below freezing, but with the bright sun, it was warm enough to take off my coat. 

In the valley, enthusiastic skiers were making the first tracks of the day, and in the far distance, slow-moving ant-size glacier hikers were inching their way up-mountain. 

After wandering around this part of the Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn UNESCO World Heritage Site for two hours, it was time to get back on the train. On the descent, I again switched at Kleine Scheidegg, but took a route heading northeast to Grindelwald, another ski-centric (22 lifts, more than 100 downhill runs) village, with far more places to stay and dine than Wengen or Mürren. 

In the center of a small park in Grindelwald is a statue of a man dressed for outdoor adventure, cradling two upright skis in the crook of his left elbow. The plaque in the stone base recognizes 100 years of winter sports in Grindelwald (1888-1988).

Just the sort of commemoration Adolf Guyer-Zeller might have envisioned when he conceived of bringing visitors to this area of Switzerland and beyond. 

Quick reference: At the Jungfraujoch station, tourists can dine at three restaurants (two open year-round), or shop for souvenirs featuring Swiss goods (Victorinox knives, chocolate, watches, carved wooden figures). Should you find you are not dressed warmly enough, you can purchase hats and gloves. At Snow Fun Park, snowtubing, skiing and snowboarding are among the options, for additional cost. A round-trip ticket, second class, will cost at least $210. A discount may be available for holders of a Swiss Travel Pass. Take the time to research the many options at sbb.ch. For a detailed description of the construction of the Jungfrau Railway and historical photographs, see www.jungfraubahn.ch (tickets can also be booked). For general information on Switzerland, myswitzerland.com

A version of this post appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Travel section on December 5, 2004.

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In Heraklion, Crete: A new hotel sets a high standard for service and belt-busting breakfasts

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A bust of native son Nikos Kazantzakis, a Nobel Prize-nominated writer, stands near the entrance to the pink-facaded Legacy Gastro Suites in Heraklion, Crete.

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the sixth in a series about my October 2018 trip to Athens, Greece; and Crete. See my October 21 post about a fast-paced Greek cooking class in Athens; October 30 about the destruction of the Jewish community on Crete during World War II; February 7, 2019, about the Minoans’ Palace of Knossos on Crete; February 19, about a thick soup and appetizer called fava puree; and February 28, about the Minoan treasures, and more, at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.

When you make a reservation at a newly opened or about-to-debut hotel, you take a risk that staff, service and culinary glitches might not yet be ironed out.

The trade-off is usually an introductory special on the cost of staying at the property — often a big discount off what will be the standard fees — enticing would-be guests to take a chance.

Such was the case when I booked online, months in advance of my four-night stay, at the Legacy Gastro Suites in Heraklion on the island of Crete. After studying the website of the company’s existing locations and reading words of praise, I decided that trying this newbie was worth whatever unpredictability might lie ahead. 

I was not disappointed. With comfy accommodations, overly generous breakfasts (included in the tariff) and attentive, detail-oriented staff, Legacy seemed to have hit the ground running. 

Situated immediately to the south of Eleftherias (Liberty) Square, it’s an easy walk to all the main tourist attractions, be it the museums, churches, shopping streets, restaurants or harbor. 

Some of the more-distant sights, such as the sturdy Venetian walls and seven bastions (13th to 17th century) that enclose central Heraklion — especially if you follow the roughly star-shaped perimeter from its west point to its east — can take hours. But the weather was close to perfect, when I visited in October, so even this lengthy walk was enjoyable. 

The No. 1 priority for my stay in Heraklion was to spend a good part of a day at Knossos, partially restored site of an ancient Minoan civilization, and at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, where many of the artifacts are on display (see headnote for date of those blog posts). 

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This was the view from the balcony of my room, looking across Eleftherias (Liberty) Square. In the distance is the Mediterranean, with massive ferries in port (a Minoan Lines ship is at right). On the far side of the trees is the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. The stop to catch the bus for the ruins at Knossos is by the blue-and-white crosswalk.

The No. 2 bus that makes the trip to Knossos about every 15 minutes stopped near the hotel, and the ticket kiosk was diagonally across the square. And just across the street from the kiosk was the archaeological museum. 

The 12-suite boutique hotel had been open about a month when I arrived. The building, the exterior of which is a subtle pink, was formerly the offices of Olympic Air, Greece’s national carrier.

I stayed in Room 203, one of four EL Suites Sea View, named after Doménikos Theotokópoulos, better known as the artist El Greco. He was born in Heraklion on October 1, 1541 and died on April 7, 1614 in Toledo, Spain. 

(Other suites are named for Nobel Prize-nominated writer Nikos Kazantzakis, born in Heraklion in 1883, and Cretan poet Vincenzo Kornaros, who died in Heraklion in 1613. A bust of the former is just outside the hotel.)

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Just to the left of the multi-colored vertical screen is the walk-in shower. The screen helps to conceal a white porcelain sink, towel rack, a large mirror and bath amenities.

Outside the sliding glass doors was a compact balcony, with a table and two chairs, overlooking the square. In the distance, I could see the blue Mediterranean and the massive ferries in port.

I thought traffic and crowd noise during nightly gatherings in the bustling square might be an issue, but people seemed to disperse before midnight and the din lessened.

The entrance hallway was flanked on the right by an open space to store luggage and to hang clothing, across from the separate enclosed toilet, and tiled, walk-in rainfall shower with a glass door. On solid hooks inside were two heavy white terrycloth robes and equally substantial fluffy white towels.

A king-size bed dominated the main space, beside which was a white porcelain sink, towel rack, wooden shelving with extra towels, bath amenities, large mirror and round extendable magnifying mirror. 

The rest of the hardwood-floored room was occupied by a round table set for two, adorned with a vase of flowers; a desk and chair against the wall below the flat-screen TV; a light green plush sofa long enough to lie down on, over which hung a copy of an El Greco painting; and a well-stocked credenza, with tea- and coffee-making supplies, a mini-refrigerator, and an ample sampling of local food and beverages (wine and spirits) meant to be consumed in your room (at extra cost) or purchased as souvenirs.

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A wide variety of local delicacies are stocked in the shelves in the credenza. A mini-refrigerator, with further options, is hidden by the bottom right cabinet. Beyond the sliding-glass doors is a compact balcony with table and chairs.

The “food station” choices ranged from a jar of smoked portobello mushrooms in Greek olive oil (14 euros) to white truffle butter (26 euros) to filet of escargot in extra-virgin olive oil with vinegar, rosemary and sultanas (9.50 euros) to air-dried salami (6.50 euros) to Kavourmas beef (7.50 euros) to nuts, raisins and four types of cheese and more.

Breakfast was served at a time of my choosing every morning in my room. Faced with so many choices, I consulted with desk staff about portion size and specialties while filling out the card for my order. My goal was to vary my options daily.

One morning I had “kagianas,” a flat, plate-size omelet with tomato, flecks of green onions and creamy feta cheese. Accompaniments were a basket of bread, a grilled rectangle of somewhat chewy cheese and “double-sweet” Greek coffee (I was advised not to drink to the bottom of the cup because of the grounds) and four petite, round orange cookies. 

After this super-filling meal, I headed to the bus for Knossos, and I didn’t even think about food until almost dinnertime.

Another morning I had “peinirli,” a boat-shaped bread sort of like pizza, filled with dried beef and melted cheese. (This was similar to pizza I ordered in Turkey.) I also had two small “lalagites” (pancakes) with honey and cinnamon, “freddo” coffee (iced, where the layers of milk and coffee are obvious), juice and four chewy-on-the-inside “loukoumades” (Greek doughnuts). No need for lunch after this feast either.

My C Gastro Bar, the hotel’s dining area, also features locally sourced ingredients and authentic Greek and Cretan dishes. I didn’t eat there because there were so many tempting restaurants and bakeries near the hotel. 

A bakery just around the corner became a daily stop. Every type of glistening, honey-soaked Greek pastry you’ve ever heard of was here, plus freshly baked loaves of bread, ready-made sandwiches, elaborate cakes and pies, and a whole section of just ice cream. I had to put the brakes on, limiting myself to just three diminutive portions of patisserie yumminess a day.

About those glitches: The air-conditioning in my room was wonky. Upon arrival, it worked fine. But the thermostat turned itself off every day of my stay except one, at different times of the day. Repeated calls to the desk staff were answered promptly, and it seemed a computer at check-in could be used to reset the AC. In the overall scheme of things, not a big deal, though whatever the issue was should have been taken care of after the first day, and if not then, certainly after the second. 

The representation of my room on the website also looked more luxurious and colorful than it was. Perhaps that photo was of one of the other El Greco suites. 

A check of the website indicates some introductory prices may still be available.  

Quick reference: Legacy Gastro Suites, 43 Eleftherias Square, Heraklion, Crete. http://www.legacygastrosuites.com

The many twists and turns of one family’s unflagging efforts to regain a priceless art collection looted by the Third Reich in World War II

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After a nearly three-year legal fight and personal negotiations, a settlement was reached as to the rights to “Paysage” (circa 1890) by French Impressionist Edgar Degas. The pastel over monotype is sometimes known as “Landscape with Smokestacks.” It was one of the pieces of art looted by the Nazis from the Gutmann family during World War II. Art Institute of Chicago Art; Purchased from the collection of Friedrich and Louise Gutmann, and gift of Daniel C. Searle

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and one photo. All rights reserved.

“The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family’s Art Treasures Stolen by the Nazis” by Simon Goodman (Scribner, 2015, $28)

On the “60 Minutes” broadcast on January 19, 1997, in a segment titled “The Search,” correspondent Morley Safer introduced America to Simon and Nick Goodman, British-born brothers who for years had been trying to recover their family’s legacy, stolen in the years leading up to and during World War II: priceless artwork ranging from Chinese vases and Meissen porcelain to Impressionist paintings by Degas and Renoir to furniture to a collection of 200 pieces of silver. 

It was a task they inherited from their father, Bernard Goodman, who after the war had visited European countries repeatedly — stamps totally filling his passport’s pages in a single year, year after year — in a quest that they didn’t fully grasp at the time.

After Bernard’s death by drowning at age 80 in 1994, a multitude of boxes showed up at Nick’s house in Los Angeles that same year. They were crammed full of government documents and letters, receipts and bills of sale — in Dutch, German, English, Italian, French and Czech — a meticulous 50-year record of Bernard’s attempts to prove to various authorities that his once-fabulously wealthy German-born father and mother, Friedrich and Louise Gutmann, had been the owners of these exceptional possessions, nearly all of them looted by the Nazis. 

(Bernard, British-born in 1914, Anglicized his name to Goodman before World War II.)

the-orpheus-clock-9781451697643_hrThe task Bernard set for himself nearly broke him. As Simon writes in the often heart-wrenching “The Orpheus Clock,” Bernard, especially as he grew older, was an enigma to his sons. But as the Goodmans organized and began to study the documents, they were rewarded with an unexpected dividend: a better understanding of the obsession that had driven their father. 

Complemented by their own research, the paperwork revealed a clearer picture of Bernard’s youthful days in Holland and England, as well as a greater appreciation for the extensive roots of their multinational family tree. 

The wide-reaching publicity surrounding the Goodmans’ efforts to reclaim family-owned art and/or gain restitution, was among the first of its kind. In addition to the “60 Minutes” segment, their story was told in “Making a Killing,” a 1998 British-produced 52-minute documentary from director Anne Webber, chairwoman of the European Commission on Looted Art. 

Prominently covered in the film is the French Impressionist Edgar Degas’ painting “Paysage,” later known as “Landscape with Smokestacks,” that Friedrich Gutmann had purchased in 1931. (Part of the problem with recovering artwork is that the names may have been changed, sometimes to deliberately hide their provenance.)

The Gutmanns’ collection was hardly the only one stolen by the Nazis, and as other families were to find, persuading governments, art museums and private individuals that they were the rightful owners of particular works of art generally proved to be a difficult, time-consuming, expensive and often frustrating endeavor.

Sometimes the cases ended up in court, such as the claim by Maria Altmann, an elderly refugee from Vienna, whose efforts to regain Austrian artist Gustav Klimt’s 1907 portrait of her aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer was portrayed in the 2015 film “Woman in Gold,” starring Helen Mirren as Altmann.

Altmann ultimately prevailed, and the painting, originally called “Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” was relinquished (with four others) by the Austrians and delivered to her in Los Angeles in 2006. It was later sold to New York-based businessman Ronald Lauder for $135 million. (This story was also told in the 2007 British documentary “Stealing Klimt” directed by Jane Chablani.)

In “Foundation,” the first section of “The Orpheus Clock,” Goodman introduces the parts of his family that founded and nurtured private banks, one of which was to become — through a series of mergers and acquisitions — the Dresdner Bank, the second-largest in Germany, with international branches and financial backing for well-known German companies such as Bayer (chemicals and pharmaceuticals), Krupp (armaments), Thyssen (steel and iron) and Siemens (electric).

Eugen Gutmann, born in Dresden in 1840 and a descendant of a long line of rabbis and religious leaders, helped to put together the original conglomerate for the Dresdner, where he was director for 50 years. He was Goodman’s great-grandfather, and also began the family’s art collection. 

Friedrich, known to friends as Fritz, was the youngest son and last of Eugen’s children with wife Sophie. The Gutmanns were highly assimilated, nonpracticing Jews, who lived the kind of socially connected and luxurious lifestyle that dazzling wealth can bring. 

In 1898, they converted to Lutheranism, apparently, Goodman writes, only in theory; they never attended church or observed any other religious conventions. 

Fritz went into the family business, working at branches in Paris, then London. In the upheaval of World War I, Fritz — as a German citizen — was interred on the Isle of Man for four years. The post-war chaos in Germany, and perhaps an inkling of dark days to come, led him to settle in the Netherlands, where he founded, with German-born stockbroker Ernst Proehl, a banking concern. 

The business thrived, enabling Fritz, Louise, Bernard and Lili (born in Holland in 1919) to emulate the opulent existence Fritz had known as a child. Like his father, he too had a keen interest in collecting art, and the means with which to indulge it.

Eventually he would amass hundreds of paintings that would, unfortunately, attract the rapacious attention of the highest-ranking Nazis. Hitler planned to stock a yet-to-be-built museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria, with the spoils of Jewish collections.

With an eye on the rising storm in Germany, Fritz, Louise and Bernard became Dutch citizens in 1924. (Lili already was one by virtue of her birth in Amsterdam.) 

In the end, nothing — not astonishing wealth, Christianity or frantic outreach through diplomatic channels and far-flung relatives — could save Fritz and Louise after the Nazi invasion rolled into Holland in May 1940. 

In “Devastation,” the second section of the book, Goodman details how Fritz was forced to “sell” his collection in several lots, each time at vastly below market value. He actually had no choice; the Nazis would have confiscated the artwork anyway, with or without Fritz’s signature. As a further insult, the money from the sales was put into bank accounts controlled by a Nazi-appointed trustee. Goodman writes that Fritz could access almost none of the proceeds.

Living in greatly reduced circumstances, Fritz and Louise were rounded up by the SS in May 1943, still not understanding what lay ahead. They were allowed to take ample provision- and clothing-stuffed luggage, expecting to make their way by train via Berlin, Dresden, Prague and Vienna to Italy. It was all a ruse.

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Part of the vast cemetery at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, near Prague in the Czech Republic. Fritz and Louise Gutmann were deported to the camp, though when they left their home in Holland under SS guard, they didn’t know this would be their destination. The arch in the rear of the photo is the entrance to the Little Fortress, the most heinous part of the complex. Fritz Gutmann was beaten to death there in 1944. I took this photo when I visited in 2008.

Instead they ended up in Theresienstadt, a “model” concentration camp not far from Prague. Prisoners who survived the war remembered Louise arriving in a full-length black mink coat and Fritz in a three-piece suit. 

Theresienstadt wasn’t an extermination camp, but conditions nonetheless were shocking to the highly cultured Gutmanns. In 1944, a Red Cross delegation visited, seeing only what the Nazis dictated: Children who were in relatively good health and spirits. What they didn’t know was that 7,500 elderly, sickly and orphaned souls had been deported to Auschwitz in the days preceding the delegation’s arrival.  

Fritz was beaten to death there in April 1944; three months later Louise was on a cattle car to Auschwitz, where she died, also in 1944.

In “Restoration,” the third and last section of the book, Goodman describes his father’s unflagging efforts to track down the family’s art. Bernard’s claims were often met with skepticism, and dismissed or ignored by antagonistic “officials” as he wrote letter after letter after letter filled with lists and proof as to the ownership of the Gutmann collection. As Goodman was to find, unscrupulous and deceptive members of the “art world” were frequently as imperiously unhelpful as any government agent.

Invaluable assistance, however, was rendered by Frenchwoman Rose Valland, who, during the war, was an official at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris, and a member of the Resistance. Part of her job was to catalog the looted artwork before it was sent into storage. 

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Much of the looted art from across Europe ended up in storage in the mines of Germany and Austria. Part of the Gutmann collection was located in Altaussee in Austria. The conditions there would have been similar to what Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower (right) found with General Omar Bradley (left) and Lieutenant General George Patton Jr. (behind Eisenhower) at a mine in Germany. National Archives and Records Administration

Thanks to her, the whereabouts of some of the Gutmann collection had been recorded. Their destination: The salt mine at Altaussee, near Styria, Austria, where more than 6,500 paintings, books, statues, furniture and jewels from European museums and private collections littered the web of underground tunnels.  

The Altaussee evidence produced another flurry of paperwork from Bernard.  With the assistance of his sister, Lili, living in Italy, the recovery mission chugged on. Once the Goodmans took over the treasure hunt, Lili’s status as a crucial resource was proved time and again.

The Orpheus Clock of the title, an unparalleled 16th-century mechanical marvel of gold, bronze and iron crafted by German goldsmith Wenzel Jamnitzer and sons, was recovered by Simon in 2011. Eugen Gutmann purchased it in 1893; it was stolen by the Nazis from Fritz’s house in Holland. Goodman tracked it down at the Landesmuseum Württemberg in Stuttgart, Germany. Able to prove its provenance, Goodman gained financial restitution from the museum, and left the spectacular clock in its care.

The Goodmans’ long and winding hunt continues. Though they have kept some of the artwork for their homes, recovered pieces have been sold to cover legal fees, compensate other family heirs and pay expenses incurred in the protracted effort to untangle the voluminous mysteries of the Gutmann collection.

Should you have a spare $866,500 or more, you might contact Christie’s, current caretaker of “Le Poirier” (The Pear Tree) by French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). The oil painting, circa 1870, was acquired for $310,554 by the auction house from rival Sotheby’s in 2005 “following a settlement agreement with the heirs of Friedrich Gutmann.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At Crete’s Heraklion Archaeological Museum: Palace of Knossos frescoes, artifacts and much more

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Known as the Minoan Chessboard, this artifact was found at the Palace of Knossos, site of an ancient civilization on Crete. Among the materials used were ivory, blue glass paste and gold and silver leaf.

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the fifth in a series about my October 2018 trip to Athens, Greece; and Crete. See my October 21 post about a fast-paced Greek cooking class in Athens; October 30, 2018 about the destruction of the Jewish community on Crete during World War II; February 7, 2019, about the Minoans’ Palace of Knossos on Crete; and February 19, about a thick soup and appetizer called fava puree.

The Palace of Knossos, just to the southeast of Heraklion, is the most-visited sight on Crete, drawing more than 600,000 tourists a year, as of 2017, according to the Hellenic Statistical Authority. 

The site gives a glimpse into the sophistication of the Minoan civilization that occupied the area from about 3000 B.C. to 1050 B.C.

As I wrote in my February 7 post, parts of the Knossos site are restored, with its frescoes and structures echoing the vision — some say imagination — of Sir Arthur Evans, the Englishman who directed the excavation of the ruins over a period of 30 years in the early 20th century. 

But to be able to appreciate many of the artifacts — and marvel at the craftsmanship and ingenuity of the Minoans — tourists should pair their Knossos experience with a stop at the 27 rooms of the Heraklion Archaeology Museum, Crete’s second-most popular attraction with more than 400,000 visitors in 2017.

While the frescoes are re-created at Knossos, the originals uncovered by the many Cretans in Evans’ employment reside at the museum, where an extensive renovation was completed in 2014. The frescoes are displayed one floor up from ground level, and it is here that visitors can get a much closer look at how from just a few fragments nearly complete paintings were extrapolated.

No other museum in the world has such a wealth of Minoan artifacts — thousands of objects — though Evans did leave part of his personal collection to the Ashmolean at Oxford University in England, where he had formerly been a director. 

Beyond the Minoan collection, the museum showcases Cretan art ranging from the Neolithic period through Roman times (7000 B.C. to the third century AD). The non-Minoan collection is particularly strong in large pieces of pottery, funeral art, and figural sculptures large and small.

Crete’s strategic Aegean Sea location meant that there was trade with other wide-ranging cultures, and as a byproduct, the importation of goods, ideas and a sharing of technical abilities.

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The bull’s-head rhyton was a drinking vessel, found at Knossos. It was filled though a hole in its neck, and the liquid would exit through its nose, which is outlined in inlaid seashell.

Among the most famous Minoan artifacts is a realistic-looking stone bull’s-head rhyton, which, despite its menacing face, was used as a drinking vessel. It dates to 1600 B.C. to 1450 B.C. and was found at Knossos.

The rhyton would have been filled through a hole in its neck, with the liquid exiting through the nose, which is delineated with inlaid seashell. 

The horns have been restored, as has the left side of the face, but the rock crystal left eye surrounded by red jasper is original.

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Many scholars think the bull-leaping fresco depicts an ancient sport; dissenters say it might have been a religious rite. The action involved the middle figure somersaulting from the left into the outstretched arms of the figure on the right.

The male bovine motif is found again in the bull-leaping fresco depicting the action of an ancient sport — or was it a religious rite? Two female athletes bookend the animal, above which is a feet-in-the-air somersaulting brown male figure. The female on the left holds the bull by the horns to slow its speed, while the one on the right, with outstretched arms, waits to catch the tumbling leaper.

This fresco, and other fragments, were found on the east side of the Palace of Knossos and date 1500 B.C. to 1400 B.C.

The life-size “Prince of the Lilies” fresco in three vertical sections holds its own secrets: With a crown of peacock feathers and papyrus lilies, was this a likeness of the ruler of Knossos, as Evans posited, a priest-king with religious and secular power?

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Similarly, theories differ as to the fresco identified as the “Prince of Lilies.” Was the figure a priest, priestess or an athlete? Does the crown of papyrus lilies and peacock features indicate royalty? Was the figure leading an animal with its left hand?

Other scholars present arguments that the figure (circa 1600 B.C. to 1450 B.C.) represented an athlete — possibly a boxer — or that the figure was a female priest or maybe even a sphinx.

Found at Knossos in the Corridor of the Procession (just south of the rectangular Central Court), where a re-created fresco stands, the figure’s outstretched left hand holds a tether, possibly indicating that it was leading an animal. 

As would befit a palace population, a handsome board game testifies to leisure pursuits. Known as the Minoan Chessboard, it is believed to share similarities with a game from the Egyptian court.

Materials such as ivory, blue glass paste, glazed ceramic ware and gold and silver leaf adorn the busy board’s pattern. It was found in a corridor to the northeast of the Central Court (where the above mentioned bull-leaping game might have taken place) of the Palace of Knossos. Religious celebrations might also have been staged in the Central Court.

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Another Minoan palace existed at Phaistos, where this mysterious two-sided disk was found in 1908. Again, scholars have theories, but no one has definitively deciphered the 45 symbols. Look for the plumed head, which repeats on the spiral, as do other symbols.

Still posing a mystery to experts is the clay Phaistos disk, which contains 45 distinct stamped symbols — some repeating such as a plumed head and shield — in a spiral configuration on both sides of its 16-centimeter (about 6.25 inches) surface. It was found in 1908 south-central town of Phaistos (also spelled Phaestos), site of another Minoan palace, and dates to the early 17th century B.C.

Gareth Owens, a linguist at researcher at the Technological Educational Institute of Crete, and John Coleman, a phonetics professor at Oxford, believe the disk may be a prayer to a Minoan goddess. 

Other interpretations range from an adventure story to a possible game board.

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Pottery known as Kamares ware was both decorative and utilitarian.

Also from Phaistos are pieces of polychrome pottery known as Kamares ware, showcasing decorative flourishes such as scrolls, leaves and imaginative sea creatures. A lovely example is the Kamares crater, a large footed bowl with attached white blossoms and a checkerboard band around the central body.

Quick reference: Ruins at Knossos, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. April to October; 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. November to March. Holiday hours may differ. 16 euros for combo ticket with Heraklion Archaeological Museum; museum alone is 10 euros. Ticket is valid for two days after Knossos entrance. To avoid the summer heat and the busloads of cruise line passengers, arrive early. There is very little shade at the site, so bring a hat, water, sunglasses and sunscreen. 

Parking is severely limited. Instead, catch Bus 2 from Heraklion, which makes the 10-minute journey almost continually. Buy a 1.70 euro ticket (two for round-trip) from a machine or tobacco/newsstand kiosk. It’s 2.50 euros if buying on the bus.

Heraklion Archaeological Museum, in March: 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays; closed some holidays, summer hours not yet available, see website; Xanthoudidou 2, Heraklion, heraklionmuseum.gr/

Greek appetizer fava purée can be served as a thick soup or a veggie-friendly dip

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This might be one of the thickest soups you ever try: Fava purée, popular in Santorini, and all over Greece.

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the fourth in a series about my October 2018 trip to Athens, Greece; and Crete. See my October 21 post about a fast-paced Greek cooking class in Athens; October 30 about the destruction of the Jewish community on Crete during World War II; and February 6, 2019, about the Minoans’ Palace of Knossos on Crete.

Lost in translation, or just something else entirely? 

At our cooking class last fall in Athens, Greece, we made fava purée, which we ate as an appetizer, with portions served in small red clay pots, like the containers you would use to grow plants or herbs. 

But the key ingredient was not what we in America identify as fava beans. Favas are generally broad, flat, tan beans that mature in a slender pod and are shelled before being prepped.

In Greek cuisine, fava purée is made with what most closely resembles yellow split peas. It is often served like hummus (made from chickpeas) — as a thick dip. And it’s a specialty on the island of Santorini, famed for its white-washed buildings and abundant sunshine.

In class at the Greek Kitchen, we made five dishes in under four hours. We started with the fava purée, putting some of the ingredients in a saucepan, which was then attended to in the kitchen by our instructor Vasia’s assistant, while we moved on to the next recipe. 

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The yellow peas are covered by a quartered red onion, three whole cloves of garlic, a bay leaf and water.

Technically we hadn’t prepared it from start to finish, so we hadn’t had to stand over the saucepan, skimming off the foam that rose to the top, monitoring the water level or scraping the peas off the bottom so they wouldn’t stick.

The recipe calls for removing the onion after the peas are cooked, but when I made it at home, I found most of the quarters had disintegrated, and besides, extra flavor is always welcome.

Another possibility would be to use two or three medium shallots, and perhaps they hold together better during cooking.

I’d never had this dish before, either as a thick soup or dip, though I am well-versed in green split peas. The purée was so flavorful — and healthfully high in protein — that I bought a 500-gram package of fava beans (a bit more than a pound) for 1.55 euros (about $1.75) before I left Crete — one of the easiest-to-pack and worry-free souvenirs that I’ve ever brought home. 

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The Greek version of split favas that I bought on Crete.

If the package burst, I’d have little yellow pea pieces spilled among my clothes, but they wouldn’t stain or impart any lasting damage to anything. Collecting all the bits would have been a time-consuming task, but they probably would have been usable.

Fortunately, no calamity ensued, and the package took up residence in my pantry, waiting to be a rainy-day project.

I looked in a few cookbooks and online for similar recipes to the one we used in class. In “The Greek Vegetarian” by Diane Kochilas, her version finishes with a topping composed of sun-dried tomatoes, capers and green onions that is meant to be spread over a platter of fava purée. That sounds pretty mouth-watering also, and I might try it in the future.

But for now, here’s an adaptation of the recipe we made at our cooking class. You don’t need to stand over it the total time it’s on the stovetop. But I wouldn’t get too far away either, because if it boils over, you’ll have a mess.

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Fava Purée as a dip, with celery and carrot sticks, juicy slices of red bell pepper and chopped red onions. It’s also delicious spread on rustic bread or crackers.

Fava Purée from Santorini

Hands on: 10 minutes, plus periodic skimming of foam from liquid

Total time: About 1 hour, 40 minutes

Serves: 4-8 as a small appetizer

1 pound (450 grams) yellow split peas

1 medium onion (I used a red onion), peeled and quartered

3 whole garlic cloves, peeled

1 bay leaf

5 thyme sprigs, or 1/2 teaspoon dried (if using dried, add at end of recipe)

About 6-8 cups water

3.5 ounces (100 milliliters) extra-virgin olive oil

Juice of half a lemon 

1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste

Wash the split peas in a fine colander under cold running water. 

In a large, deep saucepan, place split peas, onion, garlic cloves, bay leaf and thyme sprigs, and cover with water.

Over medium heat, bring to a boil. Skim off foam as it floats to the top. 

After mixture boils, reduce heat to a simmer and cook until the peas are soft, about 1 to 1.5 hours.  

While peas cook, continue skimming foam as necessary, and add more water if needed. Stir occasionally so the peas don’t stick to the bottom.

When peas are done, reserve 1 cup cooking liquid, then drain the peas (you may have less liquid than 1 cup). Discard onion, bay leaf and thyme sprigs. Reserve the garlic.

In a medium mixing bowl, mash peas and garlic into a fine paste. Add olive oil until completely combined. Add lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper to taste. I like texture in my soup, so if you prefer a completely smooth puree, use an immersion blender or a blender, working in batches. 

If you find puree is too thick, add some of the reserved water. 

Portion into bowls or place on a dish surrounded by cruditiés. Drizzle with olive oil and serve warm. Garnish with chopped red onion, capers or chopped tomatoes. Serve with a wedge of lemon. If serving as soup, accompany with your favorite rustic country bread.

Adapted from a recipe from the Greek Kitchen in Athens, Greece. greekkitchenathens.com

Among the restored Bronze Age ruins at the Palace of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete

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A restored fresco of a raging bull adorns the West Bastion at the Palace of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete. From this view, the middle column mostly obscures an olive tree, but some of the branches are visible left of the column.

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the third in a series about my October 2018 trip to Athens, Greece; and Crete. See my October 21 post about a fast-paced Greek cooking class in Athens; and October 30, about the destruction of the Jewish community on Crete during World War II.

Considered among the most important European archaeological excavations of the early 20th century, the restoration of the ancient site of Knossos is not without controversy. 

The ruins, about 5 kilometers (3.2 miles) southeast of the city of Heraklion (also spelled Iraklio) on the island of Crete, cover an area of about 20,000 square meters (almost five acres), laid out in a roughly square configuration. 

Beginning in March 1900 and over more than three decades, Sir Arthur Evans, a former director of the famed Ashmolean Museum at England’s Oxford University, presided over hundreds of Cretan workers as they filled container after container with rock, soil and other debris, uncovering the secrets of a site that was occupied as early as the Neolithic period (7000 B.C.-3300 B.C.).

While much of the Palace of Knossos — thought to have more than 1,000 rooms — is accessible to visitors, those who trod the rambling ruins will see not just the remains of the excavations, but the restorations of what Evans imagined the structures and their colorful adornments looked like during the late Bronze Age (about 3000 B.C.-1050 B.C.).

Evans named this civilization Minoan, after the mythological Cretan King Minos. Advances in written script, art, architecture and culture are credited to this period. (It was not until 1952 that the writing was identified as an early form of ancient Greek.)

So while there is a possibility that the restored orangish fresco of a fierce-looking, golden-horned, snorting bull — a recurring Minoan symbol and tied to the myth of the half-man, half-bull Minotaur — once decorated the palace’s West Bastion, the question of whether it is an authentic replica may likely never be answered.

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Part of the first floor of the Royal Apartments, with a flight of stairs featuring shallow steps and a gentle incline. Look closely in the upper left of the photo (behind the stone wall)  to see the tops of the columns in the Hall of the Royal Guard.

Among the most complete restorations are the grand staircase, which led to the three- or four-storied Royal Apartments on the eastern side of the site; the apartments themselves, decorated for the queen with a clay bathtub, en suite toilet and a fresco of leaping dolphins and fish; and the Throne Room, with its original alabaster throne — perhaps the seat of a priestess (opinions differ on this) — guarded by a wraparound fresco of griffins (head and wings of an eagle with the body of a lion; think speed and power). The frescoes were both “re-created” by British-born artist Piet de Jong.

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Figure-eight shields in the colonnaded Hall of the Royal Guard, which I referenced in the preceding photograph. The Royal Apartments would have been accessed through this hall. The shields may reflect the reign of the Mycenaeans, who ruled Knossos from about 1430 B.C. to about 1370 B.C.

Also in generally good condition scattered around the site are more than 100 giant earthenware pithoi (storage jars) more than 6 feet tall, which would have been filled with supplies such as grains and olive oil; and on the north side of the complex, a stepped Theater leading to the Royal Road heading back into town. 

Just inside the west entrance are three wide subterranean kouloures, stone-lined storage pits that may have been granaries, or used possibly for refuse. Nearby is a bust of Evans, unveiled in 1935 at a ceremony which he attended.  

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Mythical griffins guard the Throne Room, where a priestess may have sat on the alabaster throne on the right wall, flanked by stone benches. The door at the rear may have led to an inner shrine.

It seems that once the often imperious Englishman made up his mind about what he was certain Knossos looked like during the second palace period (built in about 1700 B.C.-1580 B.C. and replacing the residences and administrative center that might have been destroyed by an earthquake), those who challenged his assumptions could not persuade him that he might have been in error. 

Or as author and archaeologist Joseph Alexander MacGillivray puts it in “Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth,” Evans “let his unfettered imagination raise [the site] from the mundane to the eternal.”

Detractors call these fanciful decisions “reconstitutions,” criticizing not only the artwork, but the use of modern materials such as concrete to shore up walls and columns. Evans argued the original limestone and gypsum would not stand the test of time.  

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The dolphin fresco in the Queen’s Apartments was re-created by British-born artist Piet de Jong, who based his work on mere fragments of material. The original fresco is in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. 

Repainted wall-size frescoes extrapolated from mere fragments of material have also drawn the ire of archaeologists, who later studied Minoan civilization. In other words, even before excavations began, Evans had already arrived at his conclusions about what would be uncovered and how they would fit a historical timeline, MacGillivray writes.

Evans (1851-1941), born in Hertfordshire, England, was the son of a wealthy British paper manufacturer, himself an avid amateur archaeologist. Evans’ mother died when he was 6, and the young boy retreated further into a world of his own making, often peppered with artifact-collecting excursions with his father. Coins and script written on seals were particular interests.

Educated at Harrow and Oxford, where he read modern history, Evans’ ambitions to leave his mark in the world were stoked by German amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann’s late 19th-century excavations in Turkey (where he mistakenly identified what he said were the remains of Troy) and at Mycenae (in the Peloponnese), the Greek mythological capital of King Agamemnon and another Bronze Age site.

In the mid-19th century, archaeology was a newly spun-off scientific discipline. Certainly excavations — and site looting —  had taken place prior to that time, but rigid specifications for laying out measured grids, methodically excavating strata, making detailed drawings and recording voluminous notes were only beginning to form an accepted standard.

It took Evans more than seven years to acquire the rights to excavate the site — Schliemann had tried previously — hampered by political upheaval as Greece (Crete fell under its umbrella) was trying to oust the long-ruling Ottoman Turks. He also faced difficulty in raising the funds needed to begin the project, and often turned to taxing his personal fortune to keep the work going.

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The Theater’s wide, tiered steps and the location near the Royal Road could indicate that visitors were received in this area on the northwest side of the site.

More than 25 years before Evans began to dig, Minos Kalokairinos (1843-1907), born on the Greek island of Kythera, began looking for the Palace of Knossos on north-central Crete. He found the outline of some buildings in 1879, and collected “bits of painted stucco and scraps of pottery,” according to MacGillivray, but digging stopped because the Cretan Assembly was afraid the Turks would insist on taking artifacts to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). 

Evans, according to MacGillivray, himself a former curator at the British School at Athens (an “institute for advance research”), was less than generous later when it came to acknowledging Kalokairinos’ work, and also may have failed to give enough credit to the contributions of artists and experts he hired to document and preserve the site.

Archaeologist Duncan Mackenzie (1861-1934), a native of Rosshire, Scotland, served as Evans’ right-hand man for many years. He also supervised the workmen, kept accounts, and wrote the excavation daybooks from which Evans drew on for his exhaustive four-volume “The Palace of Minos” opus.

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Sir Arthur Evans was in attendance in 1935 when this bust of him was unveiled at Knossos.

Once the excavation season was in full swing, Evans, wearing a suit, vest, tie and hat, was a familiar sight, riding daily from Heraklion atop a wooden-saddled donkey to the site, accompanied by senior team members.  

In 1906, he built a two-story home and garden northwest of the main site, under the direction of excavation architect Christian Doll, which Evans named Villa Ariadne, after King Minos’ daughter. It put an end to the commute from Heraklion.

During World War II, the villa served as headquarters for the occupying Nazis, and also was where the defeated Axis powers signed papers returning Crete to the Allies. The home still stands, though it is not open to the public. 

A visit to Knossos should be coupled with several hours in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, where many of the palace artifacts reside — from pottery to Linear B tablets — as do some original frescoes. I’ve touched on only some of the highlights here.

Quick reference: Ruins at Knossos, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. April to October; 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. November to March. Holiday hours may differ. 16 euros for combo ticket with Heraklion Archaeological Museum; museum alone is 10 euros. Ticket is valid for two days after Knossos entrance. To avoid the summer heat and the busloads of cruise line passengers, arrive early. There is very little shade at the site, so bring a hat, water, sunglasses and sunscreen. 

Parking is severely limited. Instead, catch Bus 2, which makes the 10-minute journey almost continually. Buy a 1.70 euro ticket (two for round-trip) from a machine or at a tobacco/newsstand kiosk. It’s 2.50 euros one-way if buying on the bus.

Heraklion Archaeological Museum, hours vary by season, see website; Xanthoudidou 2, Heraklion, heraklionmuseum.gr/

Hiking on Guam, in the Mariana Islands: Is Mount Lamlam an authentic rival to Mount Everest?

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The higher you climb on Guam’s Mount Lamlam, the more beautiful the views become. This is Cetti Bay on the southwestern side of the island. 

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the 12th in a series about my March 2018 trip to Guam, and Okinawa and Tokyo, Japan. See my April 1 discussion of Navy man George Tweed’s ability to elude capture by Japanese soldiers for more than two years on Guam in World War II; April 8 about Okinawan food specialties, and visits to a market and area known for its pottery; April 15 about the sinking of Japan’s Tsushima Maru and the deaths of hundreds of schoolchildren during WWII; April 29 about photographing newlyweds after their Shinto ceremony; May 14 about the WWII destruction of Shurijo Castle; May 21 about making soba noodles from scratch at a cooking class in Naha; June 16 about Peace Memorial Park, a former WWII battlefield and now a sprawling complex that commemorates the Battle of Okinawa; June 27 about the sister cities of Naha, Okinawa and Fuzhou, China and their shared bond celebrated at Fukushuen Garden;  July 22 about the former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters in Okinawa; August 15 about WWII-related sites on Guam; and August 28 about the Guam Museum and the island’s cultural heritage.

Consider this an apples and oranges discussion. Our topic: tallest mountain on Earth.

Mount Lamlam is the highest point on the island of Guam, topping out at about 1,332 feet (406 meters) above sea level. Some make the claim that it is “higher” than Mount Everest (29,035 feet, 8850 meters), so how can this be? 

The mountains have almost nothing in common. Mount Lamlam, in a tropical marine climate in the South Pacific, is nothing like the ice, snow and bone-chilling temperatures facing those that attempt to scale Everest. 

Reasonably fit hikers can make a round-trip hike of Lamlam, near the village of Agat on the southwestern part of the island, in little more than three hours. (Agat’s beach was one of the locations where U.S. troops came ashore on July 21, 1944 in an opening battle to retake the island from the Japanese during World War II.)

It takes many days and altitude acclimatization — to say nothing of thousands of dollars, permits and teams of guides and sherpas — to tackle Everest, in the mighty Himalayas between Nepal and Tibet.

The answer to the height question is the Mariana Trench, a deep depression in the Pacific Ocean floor, which is where Lamlam begins. If measuring from that point, Lamlam rises to 37,820 feet. But because the majority of Lamlam is submerged, it obviously isn’t equal to the Everest climb. 

Some evidence also points to Mauna Kea, a volcano on the big island of Hawaii, as being the tallest on Earth, topping out at more than 33,000 feet from base to peak (10,200 meters). It’s not really possible to compare the peaks using the same parameters, which is where the apples and oranges come in.

But in Lamlam’s favor, even considering the remote location of Guam in the Mariana islands chain, is that it is likely that far more visitors and residents have successfully summited it than ever will Everest.

It wasn’t until May 29, 1953, that New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepalese sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first to stand atop Everest. Since then, about 4,000 people have successfully summited, but about 200 climbers have died trying while pitting themselves against the treacherous peak.  

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Keep your eyes open for pretty flowers among the native plants.

The trek up Mount Lamlam (it means lightning in the indigenous Chamorro language) — with no need for expensive gear, clothing or oxygen tanks —  offers a superb view of Cetti Bay. All you need to do is glance back over your shoulder to drink in the deep blue sea and a rocky coastline. Contrast that to the surrounding scenery of lush green hills, native grasses, delicate flowers and plants as you continue up Lamlam. 

I’d recommend wearing long shorts or even long pants because in many sections, the poorly marked but well-worn red-dirt path goes through swaths of head-high jagged sword grass. (I didn’t see any wooden signs or arrows pointing the way. Flimsy pieces of cloth were tied to some plants, and I think these were meant to indicate the route.)

There are a few steep inclines where you may feel safer by making like a crab on the way up and sliding on your rear end on the way down.

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The jagged sword grass is head-high in some areas, and you’ll have to use your hands to part the overgrowth in others. 

In places, the sword grass is so thick that it isn’t hard to imagine how fleeing American service personnel (see April 1, 2018 post on Navy man George Tweed), stationed on Guam during World War II, crouched among the native plants while moving to more secure locations, dodging search parties of Japanese soldiers along the way. 

In my heavily jet-lagged state, I probably slowed down the pace of our threesome, the other two of whom had also previously climbed part of the roughly 2.5-mile route.

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The path off to the right will lead to a stand of crosses. If you take this leg, you won’t be heading to the top of Mount Lamlam.

About midway up the path, branching off to the right, are clusters of crosses large and small, placed by local Catholics (about 85 percent of the local population practices the religion), but we continued past this secondary peak. Small figures of Mary adorned with beads and individual crosses also dotted the trail.

Just below the summit is a rocky stretch that I declined to tackle. I thought I might be able to get up the steep landscape, but with no secure hand-holds or railings, I worried about getting down safely. As this was at the beginning of a two-week trip, I thought it wiser not to risk gashing myself on the rocks or even worse, breaking a bone. 

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Part of the rocky terrain just below Mount Lamlam’s summit. It’s steeper than it looks.

Must-haves for the outing: Hat; sunglasses; sunscreen; mosquito repellent; water; snacks; sturdy, broken-in closed-toed shoes; and a camera. A guide would also be a good idea if you plan on going alone, especially if you are an inexperienced hiker.

I saw people hiking in ill-advised flip-flops and very short shorts, with none of the support gear I just mentioned. But more amazing were the folks either carrying babies or pushing them in strollers. My guess would be that they weren’t planning on going to the summit and were just out for a gentler walk.

The hike is easier and more enjoyable when the terrain is dry. And if you’re walking at sunrise or sunset, make sure to take flashlights.  

Quick reference: Mount Lamlam, open year-round, around-the-clock. Free. No shelter, food or water are available along the route. Trailhead is across from Bakanan Cetti Overlook, about 10 minutes north of Naval Base Guam on Route 2/2A. 

Cinnamon Star Bread: A showstopper for your holiday table (or any time)

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Cinnamon Star Bread, laced with cinnamon and sugar, is just beginning its third and last rise. Pretty and not overly sweet, it’s time consuming to prepare, but the finished product makes the effort well worth it.

By Betty Gordon 

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

If you’ve seen “The Great British Baking Show,” airing on PBS in the United States, then you know the third challenge culminates when the bakers present their showstoppers — elaborate, labor-intensive creations that take hours to make.

Even edited for television, you can see the effort that goes into the final product, often festooned with icing and intricate decorations, and a whole lot of patience and skill. 

Wouldn’t you like to have a showstopper on your holiday table? One that draws oohs and aahs and makes you look like you are an expert with dough?

Cinnamon Star Bread fits the bill: Four thin golden layers filled with cinnamon and sugar. Think cinnamon buns but in a different finger-licking form.

And the real beauty is that it’s far easier to make than you’d imagine. (Your guests don’t have to know!)  

I’d seen something like this attractive bread on a Martha Stewart baking show. Her version built on an extremely rich laminated dough — laden with a pound of butter — and was called Brown Sugar-Cinnamon Danish.

I’m sure it’s marvelous, but I wanted something that didn’t contain a pound of butter.

So I turned to one of my favorite baking sources, the King Arthur Flour website. Cinnamon Star Bread calls for just four tablespoons of butter, so a much healthier recipe.

It also contains instant mashed potato flakes, which helps give the bread its tender crumb, without adding fat and a huge amount of calories. 

The recipe will take at least three hours, two of which are waiting for the dough to go through three rises, so you can get other things done in between steps (I was making Green Curry Chicken with Eggplant at the same time). 

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Drizzle icing over the top for an even sweeter finish. Or sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar.

Don’t be put off by the length of the directions. Do read all the way through more than once, so you have a mental picture of how the assembled dough is supposed to look. 

The individual steps are simple. The only tricky thing was that the dough was far wetter (and stickier) than I expected, and I had to use a liberal amount of flour when rolling out the layers. 

An added bonus is that King Arthur Flour has a step-by-step tutorial with photos — even more detailed than my pictures and what I’ve written — which should give you confidence to attempt this lovely bread. (https://blog.kingarthurflour.com/2017/11/01/cinnamon-star-bread-bakealong/)

I’ve also included directions for making the dough with a bread machine. 

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After the third rise, lightly coat with egg wash. You can see how the dough has closed the gaps between the twists. Directions on the King Arthur Flour website said to pinch the edges more like points. I decided I wanted a flatter look for my Cinnamon Star Bread.

If you’re going to serve this for breakfast, you might want to make it the previous night to avoid getting up super early. In that case, to reheat, put it on a baking sheet, and loosely place aluminum foil over it. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and warm bread for about 10-15 minutes. 

You could make this a savory bread — maybe a ricotta and spinach filling — but be careful not to overstuff the layers. The filling may leak out during baking.

Or in the sweet version, add a thin layer of your favorite jam, raisins and nuts. The possibilities are many.

Most important of all: Don’t get frustrated with the dough. Step back, take a deep breath and proceed.

You can do it! 

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Baking time is only 12-15 minutes for Cinnamon Star Bread.

Cinnamon Star Bread

Hands on: 45 minutes Total time: About 3 hours Serves: 8 to 12

For the dough:

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/4 cup potato flour or 1/2 cup instant mashed potato flakes

1/4 cup nonfat dry milk

3/4 cup plus 2 to 4 tablespoons lukewarm water, enough to make a soft, smooth dough

1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) butter or margarine, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 teaspoons active dry yeast

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 teaspoon salt

For the filling:

1 large egg, beaten

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon or 2 teaspoons Vietnamese cinnamon 

To make the dough with a bread machine: Add the ingredients according to manufacturer’s directions. My machine calls for the liquids first, so I put in water, then flour, mashed potato flakes, nonfat dry milk, margarine, vanilla extract, sugar, salt and yeast. 

After the 30-minute cycle, you can leave the dough in the machine to rise for 1 hour, or remove to a large greased bowl and let it rise for 1 hour there. Proceed with the directions as below.

To make the dough by hand: Sift flour, potato flour and dry milk into a large bowl to prevent lumps. (If using potato flakes, there’s no need to sift. Also, make sure the potato flakes are unflavored, and that the dry milk is a milky white. If it has a yellow tinge, it’s probably been sitting too long in your pantry to use.)

To the mixing bowl, add water, butter or margarine, vanilla extract, yeast, sugar and salt. (Start with the minimum of water.) 

Gently combine, adding 1 tablespoon of water, as needed. Place on a lightly floured surface and knead into a smooth, silky dough. 

Transfer the dough to a large greased bowl. Cover, let rise for 1 hour or until double in size.

Turn out dough onto a floured work surface or parchment paper. Cut dough into four equal portions and roll into balls. Cover and let rest for 15 minutes.  

To make the filling: In a small bowl, beat the egg. Set aside. In another small bowl, measure sugar and cinnamon and combine. Set aside. 

To assemble the bread star: On a floured work surface, or on a piece of waxed paper, roll out the first ball of dough (also flour your rolling pin) into a 10-inch circle. Don’t obsess over making it perfectly round.

Transfer the circle to a piece of parchment paper. (I placed the parchment paper on top of a cutting board for easier transfer later to the baking sheet.) Brush on a thin coat of the beaten egg to the edge. Sprinkle on 1/3 of the cinnamon-sugar, but leave about 1/4-inch bare around the edge. 

Roll out the second piece of dough into a 10-inch circle; try to make it close in size to the first circle. Place it on top of the first circle. Brush with beaten egg, and sprinkle on another 1/3 of the cinnamon-sugar. 

Repeat steps with third ball of dough, egg and use the rest of the cinnamon-sugar. You will have enough egg left for brushing over the top of the entire star in a later step.

Roll out fourth ball of dough into a 10-inch circle. Transfer atop the stack of three. Leave it bare — no egg wash or cinnamon-sugar.

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I lightly pressed the rim of a glass in the center of the bread to act as my guide for cutting the 16 strips. Make the 16 pieces as identical as you can, but having them a bit uneven won’t hurt the finished bread.

Place a 2 1/2- or 3-inch cookie cutter gently in the center of the dough circle. If you don’t have a cutter, use the rim of a glass in one of those sizes and turn it upside down.

With a bench scraper or sharp knife, cut four equal quadrants. In each quadrant, make three more equally spaced cuts so each quadrant has four pieces of dough.  

Make sure to cut from your center cookie cutter all the way to the edge of the circle and all the way through the four layers. 

Using both hands, pick up the ends of two adjoining pieces and twist twice away from each other. (Top should be facing up again after twists.) Repeat with other seven pairs for a total of eight pairs of strips. 

Pinch the partner ends of each of the pairs of strips together to form the eight-point star shape. Remove center cutter.

This doesn’t have to be perfect either, because the third rise will expand the star’s dough and the spaces will be closed.

Because you might have cut through the parchment paper you’re working on, place a second piece of parchment on a baking sheet. This will keep the melting cinnamon-sugar from sticking and make cleanup easier. 

Transfer the cinnamon star on top of the second piece of parchment on the baking sheet. Cover and let the star rise for 45 minutes. It will look puffy.

Preheat over to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Brush the beaten egg in a thin coat all over the entire star. 

Bake for 12-15 minutes, until golden with dark brown cinnamon streaks. Rotate baking sheet about halfway through. (Ovens vary, you may need to bake longer.)

The center should register 200 degrees Fahrenheit on a thermometer. You can also thump the top as you would a loaf of bread to check for doneness; it should sound hollow. 

Allow to cool about 10 minutes before serving.

Dust with confectioners’ sugar, or make icing with confectioners’ sugar and drizzle over the top.

Wrap leftovers tightly in plastic. They’ll keep for several days. For longer storage, wrap in plastic, cover in foil and freeze. (King Arthur Flour’s site has additional directions for freezing.)

Adapted from a King Arthur Flour recipe

Nutrition information (based on 8 servings): 250 calories (calories from fat, 60); total fat: 7 grams; saturated fat: 4 grams; no trans fat; cholesterol from butter: 40 milligrams; sodium: 330 milligrams; carbohydrates: 42 grams; dietary fiber, 2 grams; sugars, 14 grams; protein, 7 grams.  

At the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island, N.Y.: Apollo 18 lunar module is among collection’s highlights

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The lunar module that was intended for the Apollo 18 mission is on display in a darkened room at the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island, New York. Budget cuts forced the cancellation of the program after the Apollo 17 mission, during which Eugene Cernan (1934-2017) was the last man to leave his footprints on the moon in December 1972.

By Betty Gordon 

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

For other posts from New York City, see November 25, 2018, a behind-the-scenes look at the taping of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”; September 11, 2018 about the 9/11 Memorial and Museum; and February 25, 2018 about the Museum of the American Indian in Lower Manhattan. 

When Apollo 11’s Eagle, the lunar module containing Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, was hovering over the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969 — and a worldwide television audience was holding its collective breath as the craft neared touchdown at the Sea of Tranquillity — a large group on Long Island was perhaps just a bit more anxious than everyone else.

That would be the thousands of employees at Grumman Aeronautical Engineering Company (now Northrup Grumman), who, no matter the size or importance of their role, took enormous pride in the fact that they were an integral part of the monumental achievement of landing the first men on the moon. 

Likewise, interest was high among employees of other companies scattered around Long Island, such as Norden and Sperry, who also built components for the space program.

A total of 14 Lunar Excursion Modules (later shortened to LM) were built, hand-crafted over a 10-year period by a range of technicians and specialists at Grumman, with all the elements coming together in final assembly at its Bethpage facility.

(Some sources cite more or fewer LMs. My data is based on information at the museum and from the National Air and Space Museum website. A full-size LM is in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.; and another is at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.)

LM-5 was the craft that went on the Apollo 11 mission. Less-refined versions were used in test flights and astronaut training at Grumman and elsewhere. Later modules were modified to accommodate lunar rovers for the missions of Apollo 15, 16 and 17.

Six times a lunar module set down on the moon, destined to leave behind the descent stage, after ferrying two American astronauts back to the command module via the LM’s ascent stage.

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Apollo 13 astronauts James Lovell (left), Jack Swigert and Fred Haise, who very nearly were lost in space, are surrounded by Grumman employees in 1970. The company’s expertise and ingenuity were instrumental in helping to devise workarounds for the damaged command module while the crew used the lunar module as a lifeboat. 

Nearly as important as the crafts that actually landed was LM-7, the Aquarius, which served as a lifeboat for Apollo 13 crew James Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert after a service module oxygen tank exploded on the third day of the mission when their spaceship was 200,000 miles from Earth.

The creative minds at Grumman and NASA battled the clock to come up with solutions to get the endangered command module Odyssey home in June 1970.

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The Cradle of Aviation is built on land that was once part of Mitchel Field, established early in the 20th century, and was among the largest training fields in the United States.

Today, LM-13, originally scheduled to be aboard Apollo 18 en route to Copernicus crater in 1973, is at home at the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island, New York. It never flew because budget cuts caused the cancelation of the Apollo program.

Unfurled as if it had just landed, the 8,600-pound LM-13 occupies an entire darkened room simulating the look of lunar conditions, its shiny, gold-coated mylar foil, aluminum and titanium never to be exposed to the vacuum of space. A space-suited astronaut stands next to the LM assembly, measuring 22 feet, 9 inches high, with a width of 31 feet.

LM-13 is just one of the museum’s treasures, which include restored World War II aircraft, a full-size replica of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and a Grumman F1-1A Tiger, formerly flown by the Navy’s elite Blue Angels. 

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This is what part of a “clean” room at Grumman would have looked like during the 10 years the company built the lunar modules. Technicians wore protective clothing and gloves to keep the components as pristine as possible.

Other large displays include a full-size mockup of a “clean” room, where the LMs were built, each taking up to 2.5 years to complete; the last Republic P-47N Thunderbolt to come off the production line during World War II; a glider for troop transport, also in WWII; and a $60,000 Grumman G-21 Goose, a commuter seaplane used by wealthy Long Islanders to fly from their mansions to a dock near the entrance to Wall Street. (Think very early business jet.)

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Grumman’s lunar module design (top shelf, left) won the NASA contract in 1962. The version on the second shelf, center, is pretty close to the craft that went to the moon six times.

On a smaller scale, informational displays, memorabilia (including spacesuits, toys, games and pennants) and models not only trace the history of aviation in America through to the International Space Station era, but demonstrate Long Island’s special place in the fledgling industry’s development.

There is a lot to see at the museum, so plan for two to three hours minimum. And that’s without viewing any of the films or features in the planetarium.

The museum opened in 1980 on the site of what had been Mitchel Field (closed in 1961), utilizing some of its hangars. A major renovation and expansion took place in the late 1990s and the building visitors see today reopened in 2002.

The museum is also quite near what is now known as Roosevelt Field, from where Lindbergh departed at 7:52 on the rainy morning of May 20, 1927 to begin his trailblazing solo transatlantic flight, that ended 33 hours and 30 minutes later outside Paris, France. 

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A scale model of Oscar Freymann’s “ornithopter” illustrates one inventor’s idea of a vehicle that might fly. The Russian emigre claimed he attained an altitude of 14 feet while pedaling the ornithopter in 1896, but no evidence exists that the flight took place. The ornithopter had four flapping wings meant to mimic a bird’s flight.

In the early years of the 20th century, experimental flying machines and their pilots were drawn to Long Island’s flat, open terrain. As engineering and aircraft improved, another aspect important to aviation advancement emerged: Wealthy enthusiasts who wanted to fly themselves and/or support those willing to take the risks this endeavor required.

Among those who recognized aviation’s potential was Leroy Grumman, a Cornell University-trained engineer and naval aviator in World War I. With two other engineers, William Schwendler and Jake Swirbul, and combined capital of $32,000, they founded Grumman Aircraft Company in 1929. The next year, Grumman secured its first Navy contract, paving the way for increased production and eventual factory expansion.

During World War II, two of the most reliable and effective aircraft flown by the Army Air Forces were built by workers on Long Island: Grumman’s maneuverable F6F Hellcat and Republic’s bulky P-47 Thunderbolt. In fact, Long Island companies built nearly half of the aircraft — 46 percent — that flew in WWII.

When President John F. Kennedy issued the challenge in a speech to Congress on May 25, 1961, to fly men to the moon and return them safely to earth “before this decade is out,” the structure and capabilities of a lunar lander were just beginning to take shape.

Grumman beat out 11 competitors in late 1962 to win the contract to build the lunar modules. One museum display case has a selection of models which illustrate how the LM design changed from conception to reality.

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Thomas Kelly was Grumman’s engineering director during the height of the design and implementation of lunar module construction. 

“When I was chosen to lead the engineering team to create the LM, nobody knew what a manned lunar landing spacecraft should look like. So we just let function determine form, and ended up with the spindly insect-like creation that was aptly named Spider by the first crew that flew it in space,” said Thomas J. Kelly, retired president of the Grumman Space Station Integration Division, on the Cradle of Aviation website. Kelly was also the LM engineering director.

“It had to be very light, because every pound that was taken to the surface and returned to lunar orbit required three pounds of rocket propellant. But because the LM only operated in space, and didn’t have to withstand the high gravity loads and intense heating of re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere, it could be designed primarily for the light loads encountered in free space and during lunar landing and liftoff.”

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A prototype spacesuit for lunar exploration looked more like a modified tin can in this early iteration. The LM model at bottom left was designed by Republic Aviation, one of the 12 companies vying for the construction contract.

Surely one of the oddest artifacts is a bulky, metal contraption that looks like a standing tin can and bears a passing resemblance to a primitive robot. This was a prototype of a spacesuit to be worn by astronauts during lunar exploration. Confined in this, human mobility would have been difficult even in the moon’s lighter atmosphere.

Other milestones in flight also are noted, such as the speed records set by Elinor Smith (1911-2010), one of the first female pilots, who tested crafts for use in World War I; Earle Lewis Ovington (1879-1936), who flew the first official air mail route from Garden City Aerodrome to Mineola — a distance of three miles — in a 50 horsepower Bleriot Dragonfly; and the aviation school on Long Island, where  in 1911, for $750 over a five-week period, eager students could learn to fly a Bleriot monoplane.

As the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing approaches, the Cradle of Aviation Museum is staging related events, including appearances by astronauts (active and retired), scientists and aerospace professionals. Keep an eye on the website for updates.

Quick reference: Cradle of Aviation Museum, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays. Open Mondays that fall on holidays or school breaks. $15 adults; $13 age 62 and over, ages 2-12, military personnel, voluntary firefighters and nonambulatory visitors. Planetarium and dome theater shows are extra but combo tickets are available. Charles Lindbergh Boulevard, next to Nassau Community College, Garden City, Long Island, New York. From Penn Station in Manhattan, take the Long Island Railroad’s Port Jefferson Branch line to the Westbury stop (under an hour) and get a taxi from there to the museum. cradleofaviation.org

Behind the scenes at a double taping of ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’ in New York City

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The familiar marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway in Manhattan, home of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” At about 2:30 in the afternoon on November 15, prospective audience members were already lined up, huddling under the overhang, trying to get out of the pelting rain and snow.

By Betty Gordon 

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

For other posts from New York City, see September 11, 2018 about the 9/11 Memorial and Museum; and February 25, 2018 about the National Museum of the American Indian.

Five times a week, Stephen Colbert bursts out from the theater wings, sprints downstage past the people standing in the first row — slapping their outstretched hands as he goes —  and welcomes his studio audience and television viewers to his eponymous “Late Show.” 

It’s his regular shtick, performed effortlessly and with verve, but it’s only a tiny part of what goes into producing the popular, live-on-tape variety/talk show, which airs at 11:35 p.m. on CBS.

I was in the studio audience of about 400 people on November 15, a Thursday, at the storied Ed Sullivan Theater, for a double taping, which means that I saw parts of that night’s show and the Friday one being recorded. Colbert tapes only Mondays to Thursdays.

(The theater is named after the former host of a long-running variety show that aired Sunday nights on CBS. Ed Sullivan was also a newspaper columnist, and will always be remembered for introducing the Beatles to an American TV audience on February 9, 1964. An astounding 73 million viewers witnessed the beginning of what became known as the British invasion.)

To the home audience, watching from the comfort of the couch or snuggly in bed, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” looks seamless. If you’re seeing it in person, it’s a little like that old adage about sausage-making: Parts of the process may not be the most appetizing, but all the elements somewhat miraculously come together in the end for a pleasing result.

Seated in the fifth row of the center section, my sight line was almost directly even with where the words “Late Show” are on the front of Colbert’s desk. I had an excellent view of the host and his guests, and the only parts that I watched on the overhead monitors were the pre-taped segments.

With its banks of overhead lights, the set is massively bright, giving the blue accents an almost neon glow. Because of the heat the lights generate, the studio is intentionally chilly, so much so that I kept my gloves on and my fleece’s hood up for much of the taping.

(Audience members are not allowed to take any photos, video or audio while inside the studio.)

Lest you think two complete shows were taped in the order you see them at home — monologue, comic bit/sketch, guest, guest — they weren’t. 

And the lead celebrities that were promoted on TV earlier in the day (and week) — actor-comedian Ben Stiller for Thursday, actor Timothée Chalamet for Friday — weren’t the people I saw either. 

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Upon exiting the studio, audience members could pose with cutouts of Colbert in various poses, and buy souvenirs such as mugs and T-shirts.

Colbert performed the two monologues back to back, repeating the top of the show (out from the wings, sprint, hand-slaps, etc.). He knows many of his viewers understand the schedule, and usually includes a “wink-wink” reference to how great the “Friday” night audience is, when, in fact, it is the same as the Thursday one.

The big-name guest at this taping was Oscar-winning actor-producer Michael Douglas, who was publicizing his new Netflix series, “The Kominsky Method.” Colbert seemed genuinely excited at Douglas’s presence, and the actor told a humorous story about one of his earliest parts, in 1969’s “Hail, Hero!”

A brief color clip from the old film was shown, and Douglas acknowledged how clueless he was as an actor in those days, long before landing his breakthrough role on the TV series “The Streets of San Francisco,” and eventually branching out into a lucrative movie career.

That segment appeared on the November 20 “Late Show.”

For the November 15 taping, the second live guest was Jemele Hill, former ESPN personality now with The Atlantic magazine; followed by English singer-songwriter Jorja Smith in a tight black dress, performing “Don’t Watch Me Cry” on a back-lit darkened stage with her accompanist seated at a grand piano behind her. One song, one take, finished.

For Friday night’s show, we saw a humorous interview with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, pre-taped in Washington, D.C., but not the stand-up comedian Graham Kay, who was recorded with a different audience at an earlier date.

Between set-ups (i.e. commercial breaks), Jon Batiste and his band, Stay Human, entertained, sometimes coming up the aisles into the audience. Batiste plays with such infectious joy that people were on their feet bobbing to the beat.

Though each segment clipped along professionally, all were not flawless. Several times taping was stopped because Colbert was laughing out of turn or tongue-tied, as when he was talking about Millennial Monopoly for the Friday show. Go ahead, you try saying that fast five times.

He read mainly off the teleprompter, but his safety net is the stack of blue papers on his desk containing that night’s script. If he stumbles and stops the taping, he finds his place in the script and takes it from there. 

One way to tell if segments have been edited from different day’s tapings is to keep an eye on Colbert’s tie. Most nights he wears a solid color, or sometimes a muted pattern or stripes, but if the tie he’s wearing during the monologue is different from the one around his neck while he’s seated behind his desk, then the latter portion was probably taped in advance to accommodate a celebrity’s schedule.

Taping began a bit after 6 p.m. and ran until about 8 o’clock. Like the two monologues, Colbert taped two exits, running up the aisle to the lobby.

Before taping began, warm-up house comedian Paul Mecurio spent about 30 minutes joking and explaining what was to come, encouraging us to be an enthusiastic audience, and saying that Colbert and his guests would get a buzz off our energy level. 

Mecurio called on several audience members to come onstage, and then riffed off them. He had a particularly good time with two women from Australia, now living in New York, mock-yelling at them that an actor-dancer from Oz named Paul Mercurio (note the first “r”) was the reason the comedian had to change the spelling of his name when he joined the union because Mercurio was already taken.

We were also taped practicing applauding on cue, “woo-wooing” and shouting, and providing laughter as prompted.

When Mecurio was finished, stage manager Mark McKenna reiterated how important our energy level was, and that we should respond noisily when he waved his “festive paper roll” as Colbert appeared onstage. 

About 10 minutes before taping began, Colbert, wearing a blue suit, came out to meet the audience. No diva behavior here, as he sat on the front of his desk and took questions.

The first person called upon was a woman, who stood up and said simply: “Stephen 2020.” 

The bespectacled Colbert paused ever so briefly, and started to make a joke about his poor eyesight before changing gear when he realized that she was encouraging him to make a presidential run. 

In numerous opening monologues and biting comedic bits at his desk, Colbert has been quite vocal in his criticism of the current occupant of the White House, so it came as no surprise that his answer took a shot at the president.

“Will the craziness end?” Colbert said, and added “the fabric of reality has stretched out … like a toddler’s sweater” resulting in a fraught political climate. But as for being a candidate himself? Not likely.

The next person asked Colbert who he would most like to interview, “dead or alive.” 

“Jesus Christ, which covers both dead and alive,” he quipped. Colbert, a practicing Catholic,  also mentioned the late author J.D. Salinger  (“The Catcher in the Rye”) and groundbreaking comedian George Carlin, who died in 2008.

As for which guests intimidate him, he cited musicians because “what they do is so cool to me. I’m in awe of musicians.”

And as a quick afterthought: “And [British actress] Rachel Weisz, because she’s so damn pretty.”

All the preliminaries complete, it was showtime. Cue Colbert in the wings.

Now for the downside of the experience …

The lengthy wait to get into the theater was a lot less fun, and to some extent downright baffling. 

A third-party booker handles ticket requests online. Prospective audience members can sign up about five weeks in advance for two free tickets for their date of choice, and join a “wait list.” Be advised that you may not know until a day or two before your selected date if tickets are available.

In my case, on November 13, I went from being informed via email that no tickets were available for November 15, to receiving another email about four hours later that said that not only could I get tickets, but that I had “priority” status. 

“Priority” is better than “general,” because it assures admission but not an assigned seat. If you’re in the “general” line, seats are on a first-come, first-served basis, you have to wait outside a lot longer and you may not get in at all. 

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Here’s my e-ticket, which granted me a place in the “priority” line, and the wrist band that an “audience coordinator” put on me after I checked in on the sidewalk in front of the Ed Sullivan Theater.

For priority holders, the earlier you get in line on the day of taping, the better your seats are likely to be. I was in line before 2:30 p.m., even though the instructions on my printed-out e-ticket said I didn’t have to show up until 3:30. If priority holders haven’t checked in by the stated time, they’re automatically bumped to the general line.

After presenting my printed-out e-ticket and a photo ID, both of which were scanned, an “audience coordinator” loosely fastened a red-and-white paper “Late Show” band around my left wrist. Post-check-in, we were told not to leave the line. 

November 15 was an unpleasant weather day in New York, bitingly cold with blowing, wet snow and rain. The thought of asking someone to hold my place in line while I ran across the street to get coffee from Starbucks was mighty tempting. The accumulating slush on the streets and sidewalks and the general conditions quashed the idea.

After waiting an hour huddled outside, we passed through a metal detector and queued in the lobby, where we stood for another 90 minutes. (Ticket-holders are forbidden to bring in any food or drinks, not even water.)

At least we were out of the elements — the “general” group was still outside — but were treated like kindergarteners, allowed to go to the restroom just once, and only in small groups.

We were told we could not leave the taping to use the restroom and that the facilities would be closed after the show. 

(As the hours of taping ticked by later, it was just as well I hadn’t downed a warming cup of coffee.)

Meanwhile, as we waited to be seated, we chatted among ourselves, wondering why we were still standing in the lobby. No one was rehearsing inside the studio — we’d have heard the monologue or the band warming up.

These procedures were likely their routine security, but they made no sense, especially since we’d all shown ID, our e-tickets and been through a metal detector hours earlier.

Shortly after 5 p.m., at last settled into our seats, it was finally time to be privy to the magic of television.

Quick reference: “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” is taped Mondays to Thursdays at the Ed Sullivan Theater, 1697 Broadway, New York, New York. Full shows, clips and other information is online at www.cbs.com/shows/the-late-show-with-stephen-colbert/. To request free tickets (two is the maximum), go to https://colbert.1iota.com/show/536/The-Late-Show-with-Stephen-Colbert. 1iota also books for “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” “Late Night with Seth Meyers” and many other shows.
https://1iota.com.