All over Portugal, lightweight, versatile cork is a heavyweight in the business world

Cork postcards are an inexpensive and easy-to-pack souvenir from Portugal. I found these by the riverside in the Belem area of western Lisbon, but they’re also available around town. I plan to use them as coasters. Read below for further information on the postcards.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the third in a series on my spring trip to Portugal. See June 2 for a post about unexpectedly meeting TV travel host Rick Steves in Lisbon and July 30 for a post about the Casa da Musica in Porto. 

The next time you open a bottle of wine, rest your chilled cocktail on a coaster, or pin a note to an old-fashioned bulletin board, stop and say a quick “thank you” to Portugal. Chances are, the cork in the stopper, coaster and the bulletin board’s background material originated in this western European country.

According to the website, Portugal was the No. 1 cork exporter in 2016, accounting for 63.1 percent of the refined tree bark sent around the world. All that cork produced in excess of $1 billion for Portugal, far outdistancing No. 2 Spain, which had sales of $278.8 million and 17 percent of the market.

Filling out the top five: France, $73 million (4.4 percent); Italy, $44.8 million (2.7 percent); and Germany, $34.4 million (2.1 percent). Cork is produced in many countries, from Africa (Morocco, Tunisia) to China to South America (Chile), but the next 10 top exporters all together don’t begin to approach the output of Portugal.

A selection of the inventory at Cork & Co., where nearly everything in the Lisbon shop is made from cork. The company has a second location in Porto.

On my May trip to Portugal, I noticed cork products everywhere. From simple trivets, to purses to postcards. In shops devoted to cork, the workmanship of the items was excellent, and that quality comes at a price. But if your heart’s desire is a wallet, umbrella — cork is waterproof — or apron, you won’t be disappointed.

The mercado (market) in Porto, in northern Portugal, and the Saturday-Sunday flea market along several blocks of the tree-lined Avenida da Liberdade in Lisbon, turned out to be good places for less-expensive goods. An added bonus: The vendors behind the cork-heaped tables and hanging displays may have had a hand in the manufacturing of the goods, and they’re open to bargaining.

At the two-story Mercado do Bolhão in eastern Porto, I bought a cork purse with a painted floral design for a friend’s daughter. For myself, I got a trivet — a ladder of four chunky fish, alternating head to tail, bound together by braided rope. The covered market dates to the 19th century, and it caters to locals, selling a wide variety of fresh and frozen fish and seafood, meat, fruits and vegetables, cheeses, olives, flowers, bread and more. It’s fun even if you aren’t looking for cork souvenirs.

The fish trivet from Porto’s Mercado do Bolhao and my book cover from the flea market on Avenida da Liberdade in Lisbon.

On the Avenida da Liberdade, I bought a book cover for under $10 from a woman who had designed and sewn the versatile material, “cork leather,” if you will. It marries well with stamped designs, and also takes to dyeing. My book cover has both. The bottom part is a solid, rich navy, and the tan top has a repeating pattern of stamped fish, anchor motifs and maybe a stylized Viana heart, a religious symbol in Portugal.

The woman said the cork is very supple and easy to sew. Even though it is thin, it isn’t on par in thickness with most cotton and silk fabric. When I’ve filled the included notebook, I can replace it with one of similar size. I particularly like the little faux silver spoon that serves as part of the clasp.

This is the purse I bought for a friend’s daughter. The shoulder-length strap is tucked inside for photo purposes. The purse is fully lined inside and has another zip-close compartment on the back. 

Cork has small indentations like you would expect to find in tree bark. Some products have a more pebbly-looking finish — the processing must be different — but are still smooth to the touch, what you’d associate with bulletin boards and coasters.

Along the waterfront in the Belem section of western Lisbon, I bought four thin postcards (I did see racks of these in other locations). Two exceedingly thin slices of cork, each 6 1/4 by 4 1/4 inches in size, are glued together. One side has the design and the other has a barcode, the place for a stamp, address and writing space. I’m not sure how well the postcards would do passing through an automated sorting system, whether it would be too rough and damage them, so perhaps they wouldn’t reach their destination intact. Instead of mailing them to friends, I intend to use them as coasters.

I can’t remember how much I paid, but they were cheap. Each has a different design. One celebrates the art of Portuguese tiles. Another pays homage to the country’s seafaring history with a speedy caravel centered on a tile. Another has two electric trams like you’d see on the streets in Lisbon, and the fourth a colorful, red-crested cockerel, an enduring Portuguese icon with its own story.

As my postcard and guidebook tell it, a 16th-century pilgrim (or possibly 14th century) on his way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain was accused of theft in Barcelos, a walled village with a medieval tower in northwestern Portugal. He was sentenced to death by hanging. His appeal to the judge rested on a humble rooster.

Legend has it that the pilgrim said a cooked bird would “rise from the plate and sing,” proving his innocence. Apparently, as the judge was about to eat the rooster, it crowed. The pilgrim was saved. I saw many a rooster perched on top of cork stoppers, the perfect pairing of Portuguese symbols for the shopping public.

Cork is a renewable and recyclable resource, and it’s biodegradable. The lightweight material comprises the outer layer of the cork oak tree (Quercus suber L.), which grows particularly well in countries around the Mediterranean.

Large pieces of bark can be stripped every nine years or so from the trunk, by skilled professionals using a specialized ax. (This is a good-paying job because the expertise is so specific.) The season for doing this is between May and August. However, a tree has to mature to about 25 years old before it can be harvested for the first time. It also has to meet circumference and height minimums.

Cork floats, which makes it popular with fisherman, who use it in their nets or on individual fishing lines. It’s employed in soundproofing and flooring, to the delight of architects and other designers who feature it in their building plans.

Footwear, toys, jewelry, clothing, furniture, desk accessories — cork appears in them all. NASA is even high on the material, incorporating cork into heat shields for spacecraft.

This business in Porto surely would custom-make goods for the home or office. Note the long, upright rolls of cork for sale at the left of the photo.

In Porto, I also passed a shop that had standing rolls of cork and a lot of business and home decor accessories. It looked like it took custom orders. It was not touristy at all, as I saw no cork-and-ceramic souvenirs. Unfortunately, I didn’t write down the address or the name of the shop.

No matter. Even if I hadn’t already made my cork purchases, the possibility of another memento was probably just around the corner.

Quick reference: In Porto: Mercado do Bolhão, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. Near the Bolhão metro stop, market is on the corner of Rua Formosa and Rua Sá da Bandeira. In Lisbon: Cork & Co., 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Rua das Salgadeiras 10, in the Bairro Alto neighborhood. Also a store in Porto at Rua do Almada 13. For additional information on cork, its harvesting and production (and more), see top commercial producer Amorim’s website: Company heir Americo Amorim, Portugal’s richest man with an estimated fortune of $4.8 billion (part of that is oil holdings), died last month at age 82.

In London, underground silver vaults are a collector’s dream destination

Part of the well-organized showroom at Koopman Rare Art, the only business that is above ground at the London Silver Vaults. Koopman sells some items crafted from gold, and many centuries-old, museum-quality silver pieces.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos except where noted. All rights reserved.

Imagine the wealth and plenty of some Victorians, who possessed so much contemporary and heirloom silver that they couldn’t store it all in their stately London homes.

That’s how the London Silver Vaults came into being, in1876, but then known as the Chancery Lane Safe Deposit. Then as now it is an underground repository for vast collections of fine silver cutlery, tea sets, double-handled serving plates, mirrors, objets d’art, engraved tankards, footed wine coolers, ornate soup tureens, delicate cruet sets, and on and on. Jewelry and important personal papers were also safeguarded here.

The Chancery Lane location is marked on many modern maps, and it is mentioned briefly in some guidebooks, as the vaults are open to the public.

But few visitors to London, especially if they aren’t silver collectors, know about the vaults and rarely explore the antique troves in the subterranean location.

Many months ago, I saw the show “Secrets of Underground London” on my local PBS affiliate, in which the vaults were included. So when planning my recent trip, I thought I’d explore this little-known attraction.

I was not disappointed as I leisurely wandered in and out of the individual vaults for several hours. I saw fewer than 10 other tourists. The experience was a cross between viewing the decorative arts of a less-well-organized Victoria & Albert Museum and a very, very, very high-quality flea market.

The closest tube stop is Chancery Lane, on the Central Line. Follow the signs and it’s about a five-minute walk to the entrance. Holborn and the Inns of Court are one tube stop to the west, and St. Paul’s Cathedral is one stop to the east, so the general area has a lot of interesting history and important buildings to explore. Make a day of it.

About 30-plus vaults, and when I say vaults I mean rooms of varying size with heavy metal doors like you would see in a bank (secured each night), comprise the site.

My overriding thought was: Who polishes all this gleaming stuff? And how often? There is so much of it in each vault that it would be a full-time job for several people, who, just as they got to the end of the inventory would surely have to start all over at the beginning, a never-ending loop of dust, polish, buff; dust, polish, buff — and gently at that.

Some dealers are members of the British Antique Dealers Association, the London and Provincial Antique Dealers Association or other antiques groups. Their business card shows their affiliation, sometimes with an imprint. Many specialize in English-made merchandise, but some also feature imported silver.

At vault 17, I had a chat with Gideon Cohen about what he looks for when he’s buying silver for his business ( His requirements are pretty straightforward, self-explanatory and likely similar to those of other dealers.

He considers “quality, condition, craftsmanship and commercial viability.” I suppose he could also add “age” to that list, as in Edwardian, Georgian, Regency, Victorian or whatever the appropriate historical period.

Even with the required hallmarks, I asked him how tough it would be to make and pass off a counterfeit piece.

Silver is “as difficult to forge as it is to forge currency,” he replied.

A piece of English silver will generally have several hallmarks — a series of small illustrative stamps of letters and figures hammer-and-punched into the metal — which will reveal the purity of the silver, where it was made (country and city), what year (indicated by a letter’s font) and who the craftsman was. Some older silver will have a monarch’s head in profile to indicate a duty was paid. If it was made in another country, it will bear an import mark also.

For example, a piece stamped with a crowned leopard’s head means that it was crafted in London before 1820. After 1820 to the present, the uncrowned leopard indicates London-made. A walking lion (sometimes called “rampant”) stamp claims the sterling purity standard for England.

These symbols can be decoded from books, such as Bradley’s Book of Hallmarks, or from charts available online. Your shopping success would also benefit from some pre-visit hallmark research.

Some of the vaults are well-organized and you can get a clear-eyed view without having to rearrange the goods. But others are, and there’s no politer way to say this, cluttered, with  inventory stacked on shelves and jumbled on the floor (especially the hefty bigger pieces) clogging the aisles in no discernible order so that you have to step over the silver in some spots to get to the item that’s caught your attention.

English silversmith Paul Storr, born in Westminster, made this rococo-style tureen in 1819-1820. It’s on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Don’t let this deter you. There are intriguing treasurers, some of which date to the 16th century, but seeking them out may try your patience. Generally, the older the piece, the more expensive. And if it’s the work of a famous craftsman, such as Paul Storr (1741-1844), a master of neo-classical style, or Paul de Lamerie (1688-1751), a French Huguenot who came to London as a child and later claimed British earls and dukes among those who purchased his creations, then prepare to open your wallet wide.

Some dealers specialize in particular goods, such as the woman who is very big on spoons, from tiny barely adorned ones used to portion salt to shellwork-encrusted serving size.

Most were friendly and eager to discuss their wares, answering questions about acquisition, price and the all-important hallmarks.

Each vault, often in the same family for generations, has a website, so you can evaluate the stock before you go. This alone can take hours, and I’d advise this step, especially if you are looking for something in particular, such as a snuff box, tea service or candlesticks.

Don’t hesitate to send an inquiring email. They’ll be more than happy to answer questions. And for that matter, if you see something you want to purchase from the comfort of your home, they will arrange shipping to the United States and many other global destinations.

The ground level entrance, before proceeding downstairs to the vaults.

Once inside the entrance, the first business you’ll see is Koopman Rare Art ( It’s the only one above ground and it also has one of the largest showrooms. Much of the inventory is museum-quality, which is no surprise in that Koopman boasts some of the major art institutions of the world among its clients.

In the lobby, pass the security guard and go down a few stairs to the hallway to the vaults. Technically, photography is forbidden, but in several vaults permission was granted. This is handy if you see something you like but aren’t quite ready to buy. You’ll have the digital image on hand to jog you memory or compare it to a piece that you’re inspecting/considering in another vault.

In several vaults, I asked if prices were negotiable. The answer was yes, but I can’t say if this holds true in all vaults. You may be able to knock off several hundred pounds, but not likely more than that.

Even if you aren’t buying, it’s a tempting place in which to examine elegant articles made through the centuries by brilliantly skilled silversmiths.

Quick reference: London Silver Vaults, 53-64 Chancery Lane. 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. Closed Sundays. Not all vendors are open all hours and all days.


How the U.S. Army’s intelligence-gathering Ritchie Boys, many of them Jews who fled the Nazis, served in the European Theater in World War II

The original caption on this photo of three German prisoners of war reads: ” ‘There is always a moment of intense fear when a soldier is first taken prisoner — as is shown in the face of the Nazi in the center of this group of three captured by the United States 82nd Airborne Division in Belgium.’  The trim on the collar of the center soldier indicates he is a noncommissioned officer.” Questioning POWs was among the duties of the Ritchie Boys, trained in intelligence gathering, at Camp Ritchie in western Maryland during World War II. Several of the young men profiled in the new book “Sons and Soldiers” were attached to the 82nd Airborne. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text. All rights reserved.

The industrious, good folks of western Maryland, many of them farmers, could be forgiven for believing that a German invasion was under way in their neck of the woods not too long after the United States entered World War II.

They often saw men in Nazi uniforms, thunderous heavy trucks and other equipment sporting swastikas, all of which were alarmingly out of place in the eastern United States countryside.

The right thing to do was to alert the local authorities and await confirmation that in the bold light of day, their worse nightmare had come true.

These fairly regular sightings were actually groups of young soldiers attached to the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Training Center at Camp Ritchie, Maryland. In all manner of operation, the center tried to simulate what the troops would encounter once they were posted overseas and questioning prisoners of war, thus the need to practice with authentically dressed German-speaking men.

Fortunately, word soon passed among the locals that their little patches of turf were indeed quite safe from foreign occupation — but to keep what was going on at the center to themselves.

The stories of six German-Jewish immigrants who served in the U.S. Army unfolds in “Sons and Soldiers.”

The story of Camp Ritchie and the language-proficient soldiers who trained there  are two of the elements — the third is in the subtitle — examined in the recently released “Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned With the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler” by Bruce Henderson (William Morrow, 2017, $28.99).

Henderson has written a vivid narrative with enough background on what was developing in Germany in the early 1930s to set the scene for readers who may be unfamiliar with this pre-World War II era.

Likewise, he reconstructs parts of some of the major battles, such as the D-Day landing in northern France and its aftermath, showing how vital the Ritchie Boys’ contribution was in extracting up-to-the-second intelligence from German POWs and interpreting that data, which eventually helped to save American lives.

As he advances six immigrants’ stories, Henderson deftly sums up the young man’s history each time he is reintroduced so that readers can remember who is who.

Followers of this blog may recognize Henderson as the author of the engrossing  “Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War,” about German-born American Navy aviator Dieter Dengler. I discussed that book in my post of October 16, 2016 (see my archive).

I’m going to quibble with the word “untold,” because a 90-minute German-made documentary called “The Ritchie Boys” was released in 2004 (2005 in the U.S.). I haven’t seen it, but reading about it on the film’s website makes it clear that the director, Christian Bauer, covered some of the same material.

Several of the Ritchie Boys, as they were known, featured in the film also play a prominent role in Henderson’s book. Guy Stern, whose story is told in the book, is on the DVD’s cover, with two other Ritchie Boys, Walter Sears and Fred Howard.

And a few of the young men Henderson tracks went on to lengthy, highly successful careers in academia and published their own memoirs and articles. So maybe “largely unknown” or “not widely publicized” would have been more accurate.

Guy Stern (left), Walter Sears and Fred Howard from the German-made documentary film “The Ritchie Boys.”

The six profiled young men of varying age and economic stature did not know one another while growing up in Germany. What they had in common was that as Hitler consolidated his power from 1933 on, making life increasingly difficult and dangerous for Jews, they had fled, often the lone family member crossing the Atlantic, to freedom in a not-always-welcoming new land.

One of them, Martin Selling, from Lehrberg, a small agricultural village in southeast Germany, had even survived imprisonment of about 90 days in 1938-39 at Dachau, outside Munich, the first concentration camp, established in 1933.

It took a considerable amount of paperwork and a willing family member or individual to sign on as a sponsor for a refugee to come to America. Those who could manage the immigration maze, then found the door nearly closed as, deep in the Great Depression, the number of visas granted dropped from 241,700 in 1930 to 35,576 in 1932.

Several of the boys escaped Germany more than once. Berlin-born Werner Angress, 16, possessing the blond hair and blue eyes touted by the Nazis as the Aryan ideal, signed up for an agricultural program in Poland, where he thrived for a year and a half. By late 1937, his banker father had hatched an ingenious plan to exit Germany, and smuggle out a strictly forbidden load of cash to boot.

What ensued was a scattered family making an edge-of-their seat dash to Holland. But it worked, and they reunited in Amsterdam. With the Nazi threat growing, Angress, encouraged by his father, was able to use his farming experience and connections to get to the United States in late 1939.

According to Henderson, the secrecy surrounding the buildup at Camp Ritchie was second only to the Manhattan Project, the multi-discipline scientific program that developed the atomic bomb.

By mid-1942, with the U.S. now deeply entrenched in the war, the military recognized what a priceless resource the German Jews represented. Speaking the language as natives was almost secondary. The real value was the insight that these young men, all soon to be newly minted American citizens and noncommissioned officers, would be able to deliver on the German psyche, the society and the culture they had left behind.

From 1942 to 1945, 35 classes of Camp Ritchie trainees completed a demanding eight-week course, more than 17,000 men in all, in subjects such as interrogation of prisoners of war, terrain and aerial intelligence, and photo and document interpretation. The largest number of graduates — 1,985 — were German Jews.

One of the most mentally taxing classes was Order of Battle, an all-aspects study of the German army.

“For all the divisions and other units likely to be encountered in Europe, the students had to learn unit designations, terms and abbreviations, their arsenal of weapons, the nature of their supply system, and their chain of command,” Henderson writes. This included commander’s name, field strength, home station and unit history.

(Online, I found a 1943 “Handbook on German Army Identification,” prepared for use at Camp Ritchie. It runs 77 pages.

Some Ritchie Boys specialized in other languages, such as French, Italian, Spanish and Dutch, and many were multilingual.

Staff Sgt. Martin Selling (left), assigned to the 35th Infantry Division, interrogates German POWs in France in 1944. U.S. Army Signal Corps

One other motivation drove the German-reared soldiers to excel: Once back in Europe, they could try to determine the fate of their families.

At the same time, returning posed an enormous risk: If they should be captured, they would face almost certain death, not only because they would be considered traitors, but because they were Jews. Some of the men had their religious designation omitted from their dog tags, or changed it to “P” for Protestant.

And more than once, some U.S. military members, unaware of the Ritchie Boys’ particular circumstances — and hearing only their German accents — foolishly questioned their loyalty to their adopted country.

The Ritchie Boys took part in every major military action in Europe: From D-Day, to the liberation of Paris, to the failed Operation Market Garden in Holland to the Battle of the Bulge.

(A quick aside: Americans of Japanese descent were also trained in military intelligence gathering. They carried out similar types of functions, such as translating captured documents and interrogating POWs, as their European-based counterparts. The Japanese-Americans in the intelligence service largely served in the Pacific Theater.)

Finally, when the Allies began liberating the concentration camps in 1945, the true enormity of the Holocaust was revealed to men whose very families had perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Guy Stern, assigned to First Army Headquarters, was at Buchenwald three days after its liberation. The last letter he’d received from his family was after they had been deported to Warsaw, Poland, in 1942.

“Guy was instantly struck by the faces of the inmates: loose-hanging skin and slack jaws not unlike the look he had seen on dead soldiers,” Henderson writes. “Even though this is what he had expected to see, nothing could prepare him for the real thing. Many of the liberated prisoners appeared to be more dead than alive, and yet they were all welcoming and thankful and eager to hug anyone in a U.S. Army uniform.”

Stern’s parents and brother and sister were likely transferred from Warsaw to Treblinka, second only to the death camp Auschwitz for number of people killed. He was his immediate family’s lone survivor. Today, he’s 95 and living in Michigan.

Henderson has skillfully depicted the deeply emotional, life-changing journeys of these remarkable men. In the face of enormous challenges and great personal loss, they all persevered.

Additional reference: According to the website,, the DVD is no longer available for purchase, but you may be able to find it on a streaming service. To see photographs of the Ritchie Boys in Henderson’s book, go to his website:

In Porto, Portugal: The celestial Casa da Musica makes an architectural statement

The Casa da Musica is a contemporary building surrounded by more traditional architecture in Porto, Portugal. It was designed by Dutch-born architect Rem Koolhaas.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Smack in the midst of the Boavista section of Porto, Portugal, is a formidable white concrete and glass building, the unusual shape of which has been variously described as “wonky cuboid,” “faceted” and “alien.”

The first attempts were from my guidebook; the second from the architect; and the third from our guide Ricardo, who encouraged us to embrace the idea of what happens when a “meteorite becomes part of the landscape.”

The contemporary building is the Casa da Música, designed by controversial Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. It is home to the 94-member National Orchestra of Porto and three smaller groups, and opened in 2005.

It was to have been part of the celebration of Porto’s designation as a European Capital of Culture in 2001, but as so often happens, it wasn’t finished in time and took six years to complete. The original estimate was 30 million euros; it ended up costing 120 million euros.

From some angles, it does, indeed, look like something otherworldly has hovered, then decided to set down just west of the historic Rotunda da Boavista, anchored by a columned war memorial at its center and ringed by gardens. To say that it doesn’t fit in with the architecture of the working-class neighborhood would be an understatement.

Clearly, Rotterdam-born Koolhaas, winner in 2000 of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, among that profession’s highest honors, was thinking way outside the box. More like: The odder the angles the better.

In his mind, however, he and his firm, OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) envisioned the “continuity and contrast” as “a positive encounter of two different models of the city.”

On one side, stairs leading to an entrance made me think of that scene in the film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” when the ramp of the spacecraft folds down and skinny aliens meet Richard Dreyfuss et al. One could say the aliens’ tonal greeting and accompanying flashing illuminations were in effect music.

A view of the Casa da Musica from another side.

Windows stretch across the upper levels on a shorter side of the building, but one can almost envision a starship captain using this as his viewing screen (or giant windshield) while rocketing through space.

In reality, this is the exterior glass wall of the Sala Suggia (see first photo), the grand auditorium that spans the second through fourth levels. It’s named after native daughter Guillermina Suggia (sometimes spelled Guilhermina; 1885-1950), a renowned cellist.

The auditorium, lauded for its excellent acoustics, can seat more than 1,200. Abundant natural light floods the shoe-box configuration and is said to be so bright that daytime musicians don’t need secondary illumination for their sheet music.

An example of the corrugated glass that’s used in many spaces around the Casa da Musica. This view overlooks one of the secondary performance spaces.

“Generally glass and sound don’t mix,” Ricardo said, but in this space, they do because the windows are corrugated — think curtain-like waves, not flat panes — allowing vibrations to move freely.

Nordic pine plywood, gilded in some places, covers the ceiling and walls, another element to enhance the sound capabilities. The orchestra pit is absent, again a concession to precise acoustics. If an opera production requires a pit, four rows of velvet-covered seats can be removed.

Sala Suggia, the grand auditorium, is where the National Orchestra of Porto performs. The 1,200-plus-seat space is known for its excellent acoustics. 

Rows of seats run the width of the auditorium and are unbroken by a center aisle. The seats slide back so that patrons entering and exiting can do so without having to climb over the already settled concertgoers or asking them to stand.

A smaller, multiuse performance space, known as Sala 2, can accommodate 300 seated and 650 standing. Angular spaces elsewhere are used for rehearsals, receptions, conferences and education. On weekends, even parents with babies as young as 1 year old are encouraged to bring their children and introduce them to music.

There are also two bars, a café, a restaurant (on the top floor) and underground parking.

In the fourth-floor VIP room, Koolhaas has drawn a parallel between his home country and Portugal, with both sharing a centuries-long history of making decorative tiles. Flat panes of glass comprise the exterior facade. The hand-painted tiles cover the ceiling and interior walls.

The Dutch and Portuguese share a long history of decorative tile production. This Dutch aristocracy scene in the VIP Room on the fourth floor has a tile purposely placed upside down. 

One busy ceiling scene depicts the Dutch aristocracy having a leisurely al fresco meal, attended on their terrace by servants. Ricardo pointed out that one tile was purposely installed upside down, “a sign of the humility of the artist,” he said.

It’s contrasted by depictions of Portuguese women queueing for water, battles and former rulers.

This room is often the backdrop for photographs of visiting musicians, holding press conferences or small parties for record releases.

Visitors will know immediately that they’re in for a different architectural experience, whether they’ve stopped by to join the one-hour guided tour as I did one May morning, or come for a musical performance.

Aluminum staircases are sleek and spare.

Instead of an open foyer, where concertgoers might congregate before heading to their seats, a set of shiny aluminum stairs beckons upward. The flow is circular and the decor “minimalistic because color is in the people,” Ricardo said.

The black-and-white tiled roof terrace overlooks the Rotunda da Boavista (the war memorial is in the center-distance of the photo).

The roof terrace, a fine open space for an outdoor gathering or cocktail party, is composed of alternating black-and-white tiles set in a geometric pattern on the floor and ascending sides. It is recessed into the roof, not level with it. From one point, there is a excellent view of the rotunda and its column.

Another view of the war memorial at the Rotunda da Boavista and the neighborhood around the Casa da Musica.

In an aerial photograph I found online, I can’t quite decide what shape the terrace is — maybe a stretched or exaggerated rhombus? In keeping with the space theme, the white tiles surrounding the terrace and making up the roof’s exterior evoke the heat shields that protected NASA’s space shuttles.

With limited time in Porto, my plans couldn’t accommodate attending a concert. But I’m sure it would have been an enjoyable experience at this striking venue.

Quick reference: Casa da Música, Avenida da Boavista 604-610, Porto. 9:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays and holidays. Tours in English: 10 and 11 a.m., 4 and 5 p.m. Tours in Portuguese: 11 a.m. and 2:30 and 4 p.m. Admission: 7.50 euros. Performances take precedent over visitors. Metro lines A, B, C, E and F to the Casa da Musica stop. For some excellent aerial photos of the building and neighborhood, plus more background and schematics, go to

At Mauthausen in northern Austria, former concentration camp is a poignant memorial to Holocaust victims

The Stairs of Death as they appear today at the Mauthausen concentration camp site in Austria. In World War II, some prisoners of the Third Reich were forced to repeatedly carry heavy chunks of rock up these 186 stairs out of the granite quarry.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

The continuous hell that was daily life in the Mauthausen concentration camp was characterized by a starvation diet, forced labor, savage beatings and the constant fear of death.

These monstrous conditions and worse were echoed in other concentration camps, but there was one particularly cruel aspect that some Mauthausen prisoners faced day in and day out: the Stairs of Death.

This is photo of a photo that I took at the Mauthausen Memorial museum. It shows the prisoners lined up on the stairs sometime after 1940.

Hour after hour, tightly bunched horizontal rows of poorly fed and clothed men, growing weaker by the day, were bullied into putting one exhausted foot in front of the other to climb 186 steep steps from the quarry floor to the exterior rim, each carrying heavy pieces of granite in a rigid backpack-like wooden frame. (Some prisoners tried to balance the granite on one shoulder.)

And then driven to do it again, and again and again.

Eleven hours a day in summer and nine hours a day in winter, prisoners extracted granite from the quarry’s cliffs by hand or using explosives. Then those chunks were shattered into smaller pieces for hauling up the Stairs of Death.

Some pieces of granite, destined to comprise administration buildings for the Third Reich’s ambitious construction program, weighed 30 pounds. Others were as heavy as 75 pounds, not much less than the prisoners whose bodies were wasting away.

Needless to say, men already weakened by lack of nutritious food and illness didn’t survive the Stairway of Death for long. Blows from vicious guards rained down on prisoners who stumbled or fell. For some, those blows brought instant death.

Among the most unfortunate were those who “committed suicide by jumping” (that’s how it was recorded officially), and referred to as “parachuting” by the sadistic overseers. In reality, the SS shot or pushed prisoners from the quarry’s rim to meet their death below. If the fall didn’t kill them, they would drown in the lake.

Sadistic guards used to shoot or push prisoners off the cliff tops into the quarry, and if the fall didn’t kill them, they would drown in the lake (no longer much in evidence).

(The quarry floor is overgrown now with trees, shrubs and weeds.)

I visited Mauthausen concentration camp, in the bucolic Austrian countryside, in October 2015. It is just a few miles from the village of Mauthausen proper, so close that it is impossible to believe that residents didn’t know what was going on at the quarry, even before the world was plunged into war. The camp was on a hilltop, and residents would have seen prisoners being marched from the rail station.

Visitors can spend several hours looking at the exhibits in a very good museum, watch a 45-minute film featuring some survivor testimony, and take their time walking around the extensive grounds and buildings. The Room of Names, opened in 2015, lists more than 81,000 victims, though more people than that died here.

The Room of Names lists more than 81,000 victims of many nationalities. The names are the white type on the upward-facing panels.

Like other concentration camps I’ve visited, Mauthausen has been sanitized and downsized. For hygienic reasons, the camp obviously couldn’t remain in its World War II condition. The liberating U.S. Army burned down the camp infirmary and parts of the barracks in a move to keep rampant disease from becoming an epidemic.

However, cleaning up the site does somewhat lessen the impact of the horrors — including mass gassings, executions and twisted medical experiments — that were perpetrated here and at other camps. The gas chamber and crematorium seem to have preserved close to their original states.

Visitors will have to use their imagination in the rebuilt  barracks — meant for 5,000 each but housing 19,000 — to picture the wretched, overcrowded conditions, and what it was like for prisoners to stand in the wide-open gravel area in all weathers when roll call was taken several times a day.

This is a memorial to the children and youths who died at Mauthausen. On the rear right is the memorial from the Germany Democratic Republic (formerly East Germany) and in the center back is the Jewish memorial.

Around the grounds are striking memorials of different shapes and sizes, erected by the diverse countries whose citizens were prisoners. Many of the memorials list names and display moving tributes to the many thousands who lived and died at Mauthausen.

On the fall day I visited, there were few other people on the grounds. I had taken a train from Vienna, and changed in Linz. Total travel time was a bit over two hours. As I was sitting on the second train waiting to depart, a young woman of Chinese heritage was walking up the aisle asking other passengers in English if this was the train to take to Mauthausen. I assured her it was, we got to chatting, and we ended up spending the day together touring the camp.

My guidebook suggested asking the agent at the small Mauthausen station to call a taxi or shuttle service for a lift to the camp. No agent was in sight and neither was a phone.

Before I met Jen, I had originally planned to walk the 2 miles or so from the station to the camp. But by the time I came outside after using the restroom, Jen had commandeered a postal bus. I’ve taken postal buses in other countries — they often go on routes that regular service doesn’t cover — and had no problem.

This turned out to be extremely creepy and unsettling and probably not the smartest thing to do. If I were by myself, I wouldn’t have gotten on the bus. Particularly icky was the middle-aged driver saying out loud “Hitler,” and doing so with a wide and leering grin.

Jen and I sat in the first row, just behind the door, to the driver’s right. Three young dark-haired men were several rows back, and they were not speaking German. They didn’t bother us or speak to us, but I was still uncomfortable.

I watched like a hawk as we were passing road signs indicating the direction of the camp. Thankfully, the short ride was uneventful, and we were dropped about a half-mile from the entrance. We walked up a tree-shaded lane past well-tended houses the rest of the way.

Hungarians are remembered in this memorial. Many of that nationality who died were transported to Mauthausen from Auschwitz-Birkenau or Plaszow, both in Poland.

The number of people who were imprisoned in Mauthausen and its subcamps from 1938 to 1945 were, relatively speaking, far fewer than the death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. But citizens of about 40 countries, in total more than 195,000, were held at the Mauthausen camp system.

From the Room of Names, a closeup of victims’ names, written in their native languages.

At least 95,000 died. More than 14,000 of those were Jews (some sources give a larger total of 38,000).

After the Nazis annexed Austria in the Anschluss of March 1938, they were looking for a site on which to construct a concentration camp that would house Austrian “traitors to the people.”

One of the outer walls and entrance (left) to Mauthausen. The long green buildings inside the wall were barracks.

The secluded stone quarry location, then owned by the city of Vienna, fit the bill, and so in August 1938, the Nazis transferred about 300 prisoners from Dachau concentration camp, near Munich, Germany, to build the new camp.

At the time, most of these prisoners were classified as “asocial” or were political prisoners or convicted criminals. The camp population grew to 1,000 by the end of 1938, and more than doubled by the end of 1939, about three months into World War II.

The new totals included religious conscientious objectors, but at this point, not many Jews; implementation of the Final Solution had not yet begun. From 1938 to the end of February 1944, about 2,760 Jews were imprisoned, though most of them were deceased by the end of 1943.

Roll call was taken several times a day in this area.

Mauthausen was probably the last place that thousands of Spanish refugees had expected to end up. They had fled to safety in France after fighting against General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War and his overthrow of the republic in 1939.

When France fell in June 1940 to the Nazis, about 7,000 of the refugees were deported to Mauthausen later that year and in 1941.

As the Nazi war machine rampaged across Europe, the multi-cultural population of Mauthausen increased. Soviet prisoners of war, numbering more than 10,000, were incarcerated at Mauthausen or its subcamps, as were more than 23,000 civilians.

This is the memorial to Czechoslovakians, thousands of whom died at Mauthausen.

Other large groups by nationality included more than 37,000 non-Jewish Poles, up to 8,650 Yugoslavs, about 6,300 Italians and 4,000 Czechs.

Until 1942, all prisoners were men. In June, 24 women were brought from Ravensbrück, an all-female concentration camp about 50 miles north of Berlin, Germany. They were made to work as sex slaves, installed in a bordello as an “incentive” to service male prisoners and guards.

Larger numbers of women were transferred from other camps in 1944, some ending up in Mauthausen subcamps working in the munitions factories or making viscose, chemically treated cellulose used to produce rayon fiber.

Some women — and children — were just passing through en route to other concentration camps. Records indicate 3,000 women were registered, but 10,000 total spent some time at the Mauthausen camps.

In 1944, Mauthausen prisoners also included 47 allied personnel, most of them affiliated with Britain’s Special Operations Executive, who carried out secret missions behind enemy lines.

Not until March 1944, when transports from Auschwitz-Birkenau and Plaszow (both in Poland) did large numbers of Jews arrive, citizens mostly of Hungary and Poland. For the year, almost 14,000 ended up in Mauthausen.

On May 5, 1945, the U.S. Army’s 11th Armored Division liberated Gusen, one of the subcamps, and just in time. The Nazi SS had plans to dynamite the tunnels and factories where the prisoners worked, but American intervention saved their lives.

Mauthausen was liberated the next day. Several weeks later, a medical inspector commented on the “indescribable filth and degradation” of the concentration camp.

Generally, the Germans were meticulous about record-keeping. But it seems to have been the case that some who passed through or were briefly at Mauthausen were never registered, so the complete number of prisoners or those executed may never be known.

Mauthausen became a permanent memorial and historical site in 1947.

Quick reference: Mauthausen Memorial: March 1-October 31: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mondays-Sundays; November 1- February 28: 9 a.m.-3:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays (closed Mondays). Closed December 24-26, 31 and January 1. Free admission, but you’ll need to get an entry ticket at the Visitor Center/Bookshop. For a fee, you can join a guided tour or rent an audio headset. The website has excellent background information and many other photos of the country memorials.

For train information from Vienna: Austrian Federal Railways, (click Union Jack at top of page for English).



Soldier and civilian: John Paul Vann’s unconventional life and death in Vietnam

Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann (second from right) briefs other U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam in this undated photo, but probably from 1962 or 1963. Library of Congress

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text. All rights reserved.

The media blitz started several months ago for documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’s latest epic project. He and co-director Lynn Novick have been giving newspaper and television interviews well in advance of “The Vietnam War,” to debut at 8 p.m. September 17 on PBS.

The 10-part, 18-hour series, to be shown on consecutive nights, is, Burns admits, his production company’s most ambitious project to date. Forty-two years after the end of the war, the subject still provokes heated arguments and lingering questions as to how and why America became mired in what proved to be an unpopular, divisive, and ultimately unwinnable war in Southeast Asia.

More than 10 years in the making, Burns says his team examined 100,000 still photographs and 5,000 hours of archival footage. They’ve also drawn upon interviews with more than 80 people, from Americans who fought in Vietnam to protestors who opposed the U.S. presence there, to former Vietnamese soldiers from the north and south, and civilians.

One of those interviews was with Neil Sheehan, a former United Press International reporter who later joined The New York Times.

Sheehan knows a thing or two about being in the grip of a topic that won’t let go. He toiled for 16 years researching and writing the superb book “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam” (Random House, 1988).

It won a slew of awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, a National Book Award, and was named to Modern Library’s list of 100 best nonfiction books of all time.

It was also made into a made-for-TV movie (1998), starring Bill Paxton as Vann. I have not seen the film.

For a long time, I had been meaning to read this 800-plus page book. I finally got to it after I returned from a two-week trip to Vietnam (and Cambodia) in March 2016. (See my archive for multiple posts.)

This is the 1988 edition. A new hardcover edition was reissued in 2009.

Harvard-educated Sheehan spent more than three years covering Vietnam. He was there at age 32 in 1962, a time when the American presence was increasing from 3,200 advisers at the beginning of the year to 11,300 by December under President John Kennedy’s Military Assistance Command Vietnam strategy.

Vann, then 37, a lieutenant colonel (and World War II and Korean War veteran), was among the March arrivals. Portrayed as a fearless, supremely confident and capable man, he lost no time in utilizing his management and logistical skills to impress the brass who would determine his assignments and possible advancement.

He believed in the mission — stopping the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia — and America’s ability to help the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to see it through to completion.

But even as early as 1963, Vann was beginning to have doubts, particularly after the Battle of Ap Bac, in the Mekong Delta. Sheehan minutely reconstructs this battle, a microcosm of all that the Vietnam War was to become.

The operation’s target was to destroy a Viet Cong radio transmitter, well-hidden in the hamlet of Tan Thoi, next to the hamlet of Bac, about 40 miles southwest of Saigon. In his advisory role, Vann was in a spotter plane, from where he could see the January 2, 1963, operation unfold.

Fog delayed the ferrying in of the full compliment of infantry, and faulty intelligence underestimated the number of enemy. Further burdens included the ARVN’s disregard of basic tactics, poor leadership and a command-structure breakdown.

Language issues between the ARVN infantry and U.S. advisers, and an inability to maximize the superior, American-supplied ground and air firepower further turned what should have been a successful mission into a humbling mess.

Meanwhile, the 4-to-1 outnumbered enemy, deeply entrenched in foxholes and behind tree lines, and communicating via a protected irrigation canal, conserved its ammunition. When the guerrillas did open fire, they took down five Huey helicopters — at that point an unheard of loss for the South Vietnamese.

The battle’s toll: On the Saigon side, more than 80 dead, 100 wounded and three dead Americans. On the guerrilla side: 18 dead and 39 wounded.

Sheehan and other reporters caught up with Vann in the evening after the battle.

Vann, Sheehan writes, “spoke of how the guerrillas had stood and held despite the assault of the armored tracks and all of the pounding and burning from the air and the artillery. …

“ ‘ They were brave men,’ Vann said. ‘They gave a good account of themselves today.’ ”

For Vann, it was a not-unexpected wakeup call — and should have been for senior officers and American politicians — that strategy would have to change. He took his crusade up the line, but speaking his truth to power did not alter anything. After 20 years in the military, he left the Army in July 1963 — a move that does not seem to have been spontaneous — serving in South Vietnam a little more than a year.

When Sheehan begins to reveal Vann’s background, “A Bright Shining Lie” takes on a second, equally troubling meaning. Despite Vann’s many positive attributes, Sheehan came to believe that he and other reporters had been deceived by the words and actions of a man they had come to consider a trusted source and friend.

In a gripping, 100-plus page section in the middle of the book where Sheehan traces Vann’s pre-Vietnam years, the warrior emerges as an ambitious yet profoundly flawed individual, with more than a hint of Southern Gothic elements in his Virginia background.

The illegitimate son of a 19-year-old job-hopping future floozy and a married trolley driver, Vann’s (the last name of his mother’s second husband) Depression-era childhood was marked by poverty, filth, a frequently unemployed stepfather and an less-than-attentive, unstable mother.

Two benefactors helped the maturing Vann along the way, but the damage done by the depravations and traumas of his hardscrabble boyhood were inescapable. His constant companions for much of his life: self-destructive behavior and an insatiable sexual appetite, ultimately inflicting irreparable damage on his military career and his own estranged family.

When Vann returned to Vietnam in 1965, he did so as a civilian employee of the Agency for International Development. Among its goals: the pacification of Vietnamese civilians.

Over several years, Vann’s titles and roles evolved, consolidating enough tactical seniority to become the de facto civilian commander of one region’s combat forces. His rise is far more involved than that sentence, obviously, and Sheehan spends the last 300 pages or so of the book on this period.

Vann died when, in poor weather, his helicopter crashed on June 9, 1972, in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, after the battle for Kontum. He was 47. I’m not giving anything away here. The book opens with a detailed, 30-page description of his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, attended by a who’s who of now well-known names.

Among Vann’s pallbearers was close friend Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine Corps infantry officer and Rand Corporation analyst who leaked what became known as the Pentagon Papers to Sheehan, then at The New York Times. Also in attendance were Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts; William Colby, operative but not yet director of the CIA; Defense Secretary Melvin Laird; Secretary of State William Rogers; and William Westmoreland, former U.S. commanding general in South Vietnam.

Vann was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom and Distinguished Service Cross by President Richard Nixon, who met with Vann’s family in the White House from 12:44 to 12:53 p.m. on June 16, 1972, a Friday and the day of the funeral. John A. Vann accepted the awards in his father’s memory.

Make no mistake: Reading this book will take a commitment of time, concentration and patience.

But anyone with even a passing interest in Vietnam and America’s involvement should move “A Bright Shining Lie” to the top of their “must-read” list — preferably before “The Vietnam War” airs on PBS.

A chilly, early morning outing to northern Chile’s El Tatio geysers

At more than 14,000 feet above sea level, Chile’s El Tatio geyser field is the highest in the world.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In November 2016, spring in the Southern Hemisphere, I took an unforgettable, two-week trip to Easter Island and Chile. This is the fifth post about my adventures. See June 17, April 10, March 6 and February 12, 2017, for earlier posts about Easter Island.

Take the coat or not?

That’s the discussion I have with myself before nearly every international trip. The coat is midweight, comes to my knees and has a hood. It is water-repellant but not much protection in a downpour.

It has a thin lining, so I can wear a sweater or sweatshirt under it and be comfortable at temperatures to around 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

In that I don’t like being cold, I usually take it, even when the trip is to a destination that boasts a mostly temperate climate.

On Easter Island, I knew I wouldn’t need it, and I didn’t think it would get much use in Santiago, or San Pedro de Atacama, in the Chilean desert, virtually rainless and one of the driest places in the world.

(Little-known fact: Chile is a country rich in lithium reserves — the top producer in the world of the metal. About 20 percent of the world’s output comes from the salt flats in northern Chile. Australia and Argentina are Nos. 2 and 3 in production. And yes, that lithium, the metal used in batteries … and more.)

But in that the itinerary I put together included a pre-dawn outing to the El Tatio geysers, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of San Pedro de Atacama, the small town (population about 4,000) already at an altitude of almost 8,000 feet (2,438 meters), I thought it might be a good idea.

So I took the coat. And I was glad I did — it came in handy during a shiver-worthy morning spent in the Andes mountains.

At about 4:30 a.m., while I was waiting in the lobby of my small hostel to be picked up by my day-trip tour group, I was chatting with some other travelers who had already gone to the geysers and were headed on a different outing to Uyuni in Bolivia. Even at that point I was wondering if I’d need my coat for the day. They said yes, which is also what my guidebook advised.

The white Mercedes minibus was nearly full by the time I got in. It was chilly, but even so, I noted some of the other women were wearing shorts, like they were headed for a day at the beach. I wondered to myself if I had miscalculated, but it wasn’t long before I knew I hadn’t.

Over bumpy, winding roads with few markers or lighting of any kind, we were gaining in altitude, heading toward El Tatio, at more than 14,173 feet (4,320 meters) above sea level, the highest geyser field in the world.

It was still pitch dark and getting colder. The windows had frosted over, but I don’t think we were missing much in the way of scenery at this point other than rock formations.

I already had my sweatshirt’s hood up, but I added a wide acrylic headband under it to cover my ears, and then put my coat’s hood up also. From my pockets, I pulled out my thin gray gloves and put them on. I was wearing every piece of warm clothing I had with me. Added to the heat being generated by about 20 bodies, I’d say I had my gear just about right.

It took about 90 minutes to get to El Tatio, the area of which covers about 3.62 square miles. Along the way, the van was pretty quiet. Many people seemed to be dozing, ignoring the uneven ride and the early hour.

As a safety precaution, we were told to stay to the right of the path delineated by red-paint-topped rocks. 

When we disembarked, the sun was rising into a cloudless azure sky and immediately warming the crisp morning air. Fortunately, it wasn’t windy. My guess is that the mercury was around freezing.

More than 80 active geysers are scattered around El Tatio, the largest geyser field in the Southern Hemisphere and third largest in the world. The highest eruptions reach about 20 feet, so not as impressive as, say, Old Faithful’s maximum of 184 feet in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in the United States.

But the sight is exciting nonetheless, due to the unpredictability of the geysers’ timing and the ethereal beauty of the drifting columns of steam, dissipating like ghostly apparitions not long after they’ve flared from the surface.

I caught this geyser in mid-eruption. You can see the water spurting up in the center of the picture.

Despite the abundance of about 100 fumaroles (gas-spewing volcanic openings), I wasn’t getting the odious whiff of sulfur that would be an expected accompaniment.

Many signs warn about staying on the designated paths, cautioning that the hissing, gurgling, ground-level puddles may look benign, but they could erupt at any moment, spraying scalding water to a temperature of about 185 degrees Fahrenheit (85 celsius). The terrain is often uneven, adding to the necessity of watching where you’re going.

This is no joke. In October 2015, a Belgian woman, concentrating on taking photographs, slipped into a hot spring and was burned over more than 80 percent of her body. She died in a Santiago hospital.

Illustrated informational boards alerted us to some of the flora and fauna of the high desert. We saw a series of spiky, yellow-brown plants, known as coiron o paja brava, that provided great contrast to the drab gray and brown mud pools.

Though in perhaps the driest desert on earth in northern Chile, there is still enough scrub for grazing vicunas.

It wasn’t until we were on the way back to San Pedro de Atacama that we spotted vicuñas (in the camelid family, related to the llama) grazing in the hillsides, a small rabbit-like rodent with a long tail called a viscacha (in the chinchilla family), llamas themselves, lots of species of birds and flamingoes (Chile has three varieties).

The ride back also gave us a glimpse of the yareta, a mounded, slow-growing bright green plant that looks like moss gone wild in shape and size. And lots of prickly cacti.

After we’d explored the geothermal field, we returned to the parking lot where our guide and his wife had unpacked coolers from the minibus and set up the breakfast spread. Cheese, sandwich bread, cold cuts, avocados, cookies and fruit were available, as was juice from cartons, instant coffee, tea and hot chocolate and thermoses of hot water. (The previous day on a different outing, we had stopped at a bakery for fresh rolls. We didn’t have that option for this earlier-departing tour.)

My guidebook said that some tour guides boil eggs for breakfast in the geyser pools. I didn’t see anyone doing this, and considering the advisories to steer clear of the boiling water, I can’t say how accurate this claim is.

The contrast in attire is what’s most notable here: Thermal-pool bathers in swimsuits and non-bathers in layers of clothing.

An outdoor thermal pool with a cabana was our last stop at the geysers. Some people had brought (or worn) their swimsuits and towels, and they took a dip. I didn’t do this but asked one of the women to assess the water temperature. She said that except for one hot spot, the water was quite cold. Although the air temperature was warmer than when we arrived, emerging from the water must have been … invigorating.

Near the small village of Machuca, we saw a small herd of llamas. 

About halfway back to San Pedro, we briefly disembarked at a village called Machuca. I think this was to serve as a bathroom break, and to give visitors the opportunity to souvenir-shop and to taste barbecued meat cubes, which might have been llama. Cold drinks and empanadas were also for sale. Those who wanted to photograph the church or to go inside were asked to pay.

We arrived back in San Pedro at about noon. By this time, I had peeled off all my layers, had put away the rest of the warm-weather gear, and my coat was slung over my arm. It was already so hot that I eagerly thinking about putting on a T-shirt and shorts.

Quick reference: I booked with Lithium Aventura. Calle Caracoles No 419 B-1, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. (Spanish only).

Just about every tour company in San Pedro de Atacama covers this route. If you book an additional day tour with the same company, you may be able to bargain and get a better price. Many companies also insist that you pay in cash in Chilean pesos (if you haven’t made a reservation online). You may book with one company and get picked up by another. This is often done to fill a minivan and group speakers of the same language.

It may be a crapshoot as far as your guide’s English abilities. Despite an in-depth talk with the company rep I booked with in person and assurances of multilingual ability, my guide’s English was not good. He spoke Spanish, and some of my fellow travelers helped get the gist of what he was saying across to me.

Entry fee to El Tatio (not included in tour cost): 10,000 Chilean pesos (about $15). Since 2004, the site has been under the administration of the indigenous Atacameño people.

It’s advisable that visitors spend at least one overnight acclimating to the altitude before going to the geysers. Further, don’t consume alcohol, and eat lightly the evening before your trip. Dress in layers (you’ll be peeling them off on the trip back), bring bottled water, sunscreen and a hat.

Twin fawns join the temporary nursery that is my wooded backyard

This is the fawn I saw first, but from the back. I named it Sunday, for the day of the week of its birth. It will be a week old on July 2.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Sixteen days after the little fawn that I named Friday was born (June 9), another doe larger than Friday’s mother decided that the wooded environment that is my backyard would be a dandy place to deliver her young also.

But this time, it was double the little darlings: I found two fawns snuggling individually but within eyesight of each other. One was settled in the open among the leaves and twigs and decomposing branches. The other was near the base of an oak tree.

I’ve named the first Sunday. I saw the length of its dotted back first and I walked gingerly toward it. I moved around to the right to get a better look at its face and to make sure it was breathing, trying not to snap branches and startle it. That’s when I saw the second fawn. I named that one Sammy.

When I moved around to the right of Sunday, I saw the second fawn tucked in beside an oak tree. This one I’ve named Sammy. You can see Sammy’s ears have far more black on them than Sunday’s, which are light tan.

I’m sure mom was around while I was taking photos and trying not to intrude on the newborns, probably lurking in the woods watching my every move.

Just like with Friday’s mother, for about a week, I kept seeing the larger doe closer to my house and property than normal. She is taller and older than Friday’s mother, and her belly looked heavier too. I thought there was a good possibility of twins.

Like Friday’s mother’s behavior, which I wrote about on my June 10 post, the bigger doe was testing locations in which to give birth. One of the areas under consideration was the patch under the oak tree in the front yard, facing the house. I spotted her around 11 p.m. midweek, and delayed my dog’s “last out before bedtime,” hoping she’d relocate. About an hour later, she had.

Saturday morning (June 24), she was sitting in the backyard, facing the woods, calmly chewing her cud. But she was much closer to the house than Friday’s mother had been, who had chosen a more secluded spot in the corner of the woods for Friday’s birth.

When my canine and I got back from an early afternoon walk on Sunday (June 25), the larger doe was standing on the stairs of our front landing, just as Friday’s mother had done. While the deer visit my yard nearly every day, they don’t usually get that close to the front door.

I caught the larger doe in the act of eating leaves off the top of an azalea bush. She ran off before I could make a determination if she had delivered the fawns yet.

About midafternoon, I looked out the kitchen window, searching for the larger doe. She wasn’t there, and I didn’t spy any fawns either. I think they may have already been born, but I didn’t see them, some leafy branches obscuring my view of part of the landscape. Young fawns also benefit from about 300 spots on their fur that provide camouflage.

The fawns were close enough to see each other, but I don’t think there was much in the way of interaction going on. Except for their gentle breathing, they weren’t moving. Sunday is in the upper left of the photo. Sammy is beside the tree at mid-right.

A couple of hours later, about 7 p.m., I decided to explore at ground level. That’s when I found them. Neither had the “wet” look to its fur that newborns possess after having been licked clean by mom. It’s also possible that they were born elsewhere and relocated to this safe space while mom went off to look for food. There’s even a chance that two different does gave birth, but I don’t believe that’s the case.

So I think they may have been born earlier in the afternoon, maybe around the time when I found their mother nibbling the azalea leaves.

As you can see by the photos, Sunday and Sammy’s ears are distinctly different. Sunday’s are all light tan on the exterior, with soft pink inside. Sammy’s are shaded black from about mid-ear all the way to the tips.

And Sunday is a bit larger in overall body size.

I watched them for about 15 minutes. Then Sunday got up and ran off into the woods on the side of the house. I was losing the light needed for more photos, so I headed back inside.

Sammy was still resting beside the tree trunk.

About midnight, I saw mom and one of the fawns standing on the lawn between my house and my neighbors’. In that my dog was straining at his leash, they turned and ran.

I’ve seen them several times during the week. On Wednesday, their mom must have brought them over sometime earlier in the day. It was late afternoon when I saw them resting in almost the exact same spots where they were newborns: Sunday in the open, Sammy near the tree trunk.

Part of my summer enjoyment will be watching all three fawns grow.

An update on Friday

The first fawn is 3 weeks old now. The day after Friday was born, I saw the fawn and mother in the woods next to my house. From my deck, I could get an extended look at both without either being frightened away.

Friday at 1 day old. The fawn got the logistics of feeding immediately. I took this photo standing on my deck.

Friday was underneath mom, facing toward me. Friday’s tiny head was turned up, feeding from mom, periodically stopping to breathe, then aggressively drawing more mother’s milk. The attentive doe’s head was curled around to her infant, cleaning Friday’s bottom. It’s what does do for their young.

I haven’t seen Friday this week, but I’m not worried about the little one’s well-being. The fawn is just probably deeper in the woods adjacent to my neighborhood or is with its family unit, roaming one of the subdivisions that backs up to mine.



A minor train adventure en route to England’s Hever Castle, childhood home of Anne Boleyn


Hever Castle, deep in the Kent countryside, was Anne Boleyn’s childhood home. It’s about 30 miles from London.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

My original plan was to visit Hever Castle, childhood home of Anne Boleyn and where Henry VIII occasionally later courted her, on May 19 — a Friday — on what would have been the 481st anniversary of her execution at the Tower of London.

But being thoroughly familiar with England’s notoriously fickle weather, I also built in enough days on my recent trip — which started in Portugal and ended in London — so that in case it was raining, I could postpone the outing until conditions improved.

I knew there were two Southern Railway routes to Hever Castle, thanks to information on its website. I could go by train from London Bridge Station via Oxted or East Croydon to Edenbridge Town and then take a taxi about three miles to the castle.

Or I could leave from Victoria Station, change trains in East Croydon for Hever and walk about a mile. The castle website provided a map to follow from Hever Station to the castle.

I studied the train schedules for both options and it seemed that leaving from Victoria was a bit faster and more importantly, closer via the tube to my hotel. I was also attracted to idea of a countryside ramble, though I didn’t relish the idea of doing this clutching an open umbrella, sloshing through puddles and trying not to slip in the mud.

The entrance to Hever Castle. The portcullis, in the center arch, is still in working order.

Dame Judi Dench, in a “Visit Britain” promotional short that has aired on PBS, may visit Hever Castle with her family “in all weathers,” but touring the expansive gardens, which cover 125 acres, seemed best left for fine weather.

On my last day in London, the skies finally cleared and I set off for Victoria Station, thinking that in under an hour, I’d be close to my destination.

I bought a return ticket to Hever (£12.20, about $15), and the woman at the window indicated that I could take any train to Clapham Junction and transfer for the train to Hever. I thought the change in routing might be due to the fact that this was a Sunday and perhaps trains were running on a limited schedule.

When I got to Clapham Junction, no train was going to Hever. A station worker showed me an information board, where you type in your destination, and it reveals the routing. What I found out is that the woman in Victoria Station should have told me I still had to go through Oxted — and change trains again there.

So off I went to the platform to wait about 30 minutes for the train to Oxted.

Once there, I had another lengthy wait, though I met two men, maybe in their 60s, who had just returned from Macedonia, where they said they had helped set up firefighting equipment and training procedures. We had a pleasant chat and they assured me that once the train pulled out of Oxted, I was only 10-15 minutes from Hever. They also noted that they had planned to leave from London Bridge Station, but that service wasn’t running and they ended up at Victoria Station also.

The extra change and downtime added about an hour to my journey, but was more of an inconvenience rather than something to get annoyed about.

I was heartened to find that once at Hever — a very small unmanned station — the signs pointed the way to the castle and the map became just a backup. Several other passengers were also headed to the footpath.

Gates along the way had red circular plastic markers with a white arrow and the words Hever Castle posted on them, and a yellow marker and black arrow indicating this was a public footpath, so there wasn’t any question I was headed in the right direction.

Black-faced sheep paid no attention to the visitors tramping across their pasture.

As I expected, it was a charming walk, and I stopped to take pictures of some of the blooming flowers. What clinched it, however, was the group of black-faced sheep, sitting huddled together under a grove of trees in one of the lush pastures I crossed (keeping an eye out for piles of droppings I certainly didn’t want to step in).

I was barely 30 miles from London, and deep in the rural Kent countryside, but the verdant landscape made it seem like England’s capital was much farther away. I also passed a house with a thick thatched roof, doing business as a bed-and-breakfast, that would have been equally at home in Shakespeare’s time, and a helmeted woman leisurely riding her horse down the quiet road.

Parts of St. Peter’s Church date to the 13th century. 

On the last stretch, now walking on a narrow street, I got sidetracked into St. Peter’s Church, which had a wooden sign that indicated this was the resting place of Thomas Bullen (aka Boleyn), Anne’s father and grandfather of Queen Elizabeth I. So I had a brief look inside.

His massive above-ground tomb is between the chapel and chancel. The brass plate on top of it indicates that he was a knight of the Order of the Garter (founded in 1348 by Edward III. It is Britain’s highest order of chivalry). Boleyn’s investiture was in 1523, during the reign of Henry VIII, whom he served as a diplomat and later as Treasurer of the King’s Household.

Under this brass lies Anne Boleyn’s father, Thomas. The illustration indicates he was a member of the Order of the Garter, Britain’s highest order of chivalry. He’s wearing the garter on his left knee.

Boleyn died on March 12, 1538, not two years after Anne’s death. The brass illustration is of Boleyn in his full robes, his garter around his left knee and the badge on his left breast. The brass plaque notes he was also Earl of Wiltshire and Ormonde.

From the stone-and-plaster church, parts of which date to the 13th century, it’s a short walk to the ticket booth and entrance to the castle and grounds. As you approach the castle, you can’t miss the dozens of topiaries, some precisely clipped into whimsical animal shapes.

The structure itself predates the Boleyn family, with original construction taking place around 1270; the crenellated features were added over a period of years. Two centuries later, around 1459, Thomas Boleyn’s grandfather, a former lord mayor of London, bought the property and added two wings.

This is the Long Gallery, added in the 1500s. Guests would have been entertained here. The ceiling is a 20th-century reconstruction in the Tudor style. The child in the golden gown is meant to depict Anne as a child.

Among Thomas Boleyn’s 16th-century improvements was the addition of the Long Gallery, which spans the width of the castle. Today it’s a sparsely furnished room that showcases several costumed figures meant to illustrate three periods of Anne Boleyn’s life.

Anne Boleyn lived here only about nine years, from about age 3 to 12, and a brief period as an adult around 1523 when she was exiled from court, where she was a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife.

A room that was believed to have been Anne’s bedroom is rather compact, features a window, half-domed ceiling and a carved headboard, but it is not set up as if she occupied it.

This “Book of Hours” belonged to Anne Boleyn. It is in a glass case with low lighting to protect the pages. It was printed sometime around 1410-1450.

Among the prized possessions on display are two of Anne’s prayerbooks, known as a “Book of Hours.” These books would have been read from eight times a day at specific hours, thus the name. The castle website said that on May 19, 2016, both were opened to the pages where her signature and writing appear.

The illuminated version dates to 1410-1450; the printed one to 1528.

After Thomas Boleyn’s death, the Crown took over the castle property. By then, Henry was on to wife No. 4, Anne of Cleves, a German noblewoman, whom he took an instant dislike to at their first meeting. Among other things, he railed about her not looking at all like the attractive person in the portrait by court painter Hans Holbein, and she spoke no English, French or Latin.

The marriage was never consummated. Henry was already smitten with Catherine Howard, and eager to have the six-month union with the German annulled. Hever Castle was among the properties granted to Anne of Cleves at the time of the divorce. When she died in 1557, the property returned to the Crown.

American William Waldorf Astor bought Hever Castle in the early 20th century. Among his main contributions was the addition of 125 acres of gardens.

Over the centuries, ownership passed through several families and the castle fell into disrepair. When American financier William Waldorf Astor purchased it in 1903, he employed more than 700 skilled artisans and craftsmen to restore the castle using 16th-century techniques, and 800 more to dig the 38-acre lake. Astor is responsible for the addition of the gardens, which took several years to plant and cultivate.

The resulting renovation is a combination of Tudor-era decoration crossed with 20th century Astor sensibilities.

Anne Boleyn was Henry VIII’s second wife. She was beheaded on May 19, 1536, in London. Portraits of his other five wives are also in the Hever Castle collection.

In truth, aside from the prayerbooks, a collection of Tudor-era portraits, including all six of Henry’s wives, and period tapestries, there isn’t much in the way of personal items to connect Anne to the castle, even if you count the richly paneled bedchamber and massive four-poster bed, purported to be where Henry VIII slept when the love-sick king was pursing Anne.

Several small waterfalls add to the beauty of the 38-acre lake.

That said, a tour of the castle and a leisurely stroll around the lake and through the meticulously maintained gardens can take up the better part of a day. You can bring a picnic (or eat at one of the restaurants or snack stands) and your dog (as long as it is leashed), and set out your blanket on the luxuriant green lawn and soak up the sun.

The Tudor gardens feature yew trees fashioned into the shapes of period chess pieces, more than 4,000 plants comprise the rose garden (they hadn’t bloomed yet this spring), and a towering yew maze lets you to test your problem-solving and direction-finding skills.

Several kid-friendly attractions include a water maze, an adventure playground, miniature model houses and lots of ducks and swans to feed.

On school holidays and weekends, rowboats, canoes and pedal boats can be rented for a spin around the lake, kids and adults can try their hand at archery, and your young knight or aspiring lady can paint a shield or crown.

If you really want to feel like royalty, consider staging your wedding here or staying at the B&B or holiday cottage. There are also 27 holes of golf.

I also had a brief look at the KSY Military Museum, a tribute to the Kent and Sharpshooters Yeomanry. It tells the story of soldiers from 1794 to the present in a museum that opened in 2015. (The collection was previously in the keep of the castle.) I would have liked to have had more time here, but it was already close to closing time.

I’m happy to report that the return trip to London went more smoothly. I retraced my steps on the footpath but was disappointed not to get another look at the sheep as they had moved from their shady spot.

The wait time at Oxted was shorter than in the morning, and I didn’t have to make a second change, so I was back at Victoria Station in under an hour.

Quick reference: Hever Castle and Gardens, open daily. Grounds open at 10:30 a.m., castle opens at noon. Tickets available for the gardens only, or castle and gardens. Discount for seniors, age 60 and up. You can save a little by purchasing in advance online, but beware that tickets can’t be exchanged, transferred to another date or refunded. Some of the extras like boating and archery have an additional fee.

On Easter Island, among the moai at Anakena: From every side, something to see

The seven moai at the beach at Anakena are known as Ahu Nau Nau. They face inland, with Anakena Beach behind them. The site was restored in 1978.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In November 2016, spring in the Southern Hemisphere, I took an unforgettable, two-week trip to Easter Island and Chile. This is the fourth post about my adventures. See April 10, March 6 and February 12, 2017, for earlier posts.

Of the 50 or so moai that have been restored atop the ceremonial platforms known as ahu, most show the weathering caused by centuries of exposure to wind, rain and sun. If these stone giants displayed decorative carving, much of it is has become “illegible” and extremely difficult to see.

But at Anakena, the carving on several of the seven restored moai on Ahu Nau Nau is much more visible for an odd reason: They spent a long period of time, possibly hundreds of years, covered in sand.

Ahu Nau Nau, with its seven moai in profile. The palm trees were imported from Tahiti in the 1960s.

In profile, four of the moai are close in height. One lacking a hat is shorter. One is a headless torso and the last not much more than a stump. On three statues, the shape and length of the facial features are similar and look like they could have been carved by the same master craftsman while they were still in the “nursery,” the volcano at Rano Raraku, and if not, then possibly someone trained by him.

The well-marked ears are rendered in relief, and the lips and deep eye sockets are also well defined.

The outline of the arms flows downward, with the flat hands and fingers clearly outlined as they cross the moais’ belly. In a few, the navel pokes out on the torso.

Look carefully, and you can make out some of the lines and spiral patterns on the back. The patterns may mimic tattoos that some islanders wore.

As viewed from the rear, visitors should be able to make out spiral and circular patterns on the lower back, and horizontal lines. These markings may have mimicked the tattoos favored by some of the clans.

As I’ve written previously, by about 1838, none of the moai were still standing upright on their ahu. One theory holds that warring clans, perhaps clashing over dwindling food and resources on the island, pushed down their adversaries’ moai in order to bury their faces and thus deprive them of their mana, or power, that the clans believed the statues were imbued with.

In other words, it wasn’t enough to defeat another clan and take its supplies. By toppling their protective moai, further insult was inflicted.

Thus, this conflict yielded at least one unintended result for modern-day visitors to Anakena.

On the northeastern side of the triangular island also known as Rapa Nui, Anakena is what many mentally picture when they think of the South Pacific: crystal-blue waters lapping at a white-sand beach surrounded by nearby palm fronds swaying in the breeze. Because of the island’s deforestation over the centuries, the palms at Anakena were actually imported from Tahiti in the 1960s.

The Rapa Nui people revere Hotu Matu’a, who came from another Polynesian island to Easter Island, possibly as early as A.D. 600 to 900. He and his group landed at Anakena, today popular with swimmers and sunbathers.

It was in this small cove that ancestors of the islanders who made the moai first landed. This likely happened somewhere around A.D. 600 to 900. The well-provisioned group, led by Hotu Matu’a, brought with it from another Polynesian island perhaps 2,000 miles away some of the supplies needed to stock a new settlement, such as plants and animals.

When they arrived in their canoes, it is believed the island was about 70 percent covered in several species of palm trees and plants, and that abundant fish and birds supplemented their diet.

Eventually, Anakena became the home of the royal clan Miru, direct descendants of Hotu Matu’a.

Ahu Nau Nau from the front. During an excavation, the white coral and red scoria that comprise an eye were found here.

In addition to the carvings, the Anakena site also has several other distinctions:

  • Four of the seven moai are sporting cylindrical pukao, the red topknot “hat” meant to evoke a hairstyle the male members of some clans wore. No other restored site features as many moai with pukao.
  • In 1978, an excavation by archaeologist Sergio Rapu turned up evidence that some of the moai had proper “eyes,”which was the final ornamental touch in their construction and installation atop the ahu. White coral (for the sclera) and red scoria (for the pupil) were inserted in a priestly ceremony, and thus “awakened,” the moais’ power was in full force. The original coral and scoria discovery can be seen at the Museo Antropológico Sebastián Englert, a small museum named for the German missionary priest who lived on the island for 34 years, learned the local language and documented many oral legends. Very few other samples of the “eye” material have been found.
  • Atop a second ahu, to the right of Ahu Nau Nau as you face it, sits a lone moai that served as a guinea pig for Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl and his team when they were testing theories as to how the islanders maneuvered the moai into an upright position.
This is Ahu Ature Huki, the first moai to be stood upright by modern-day restorers. This was accomplished by Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl and his team in 1955-56. In front, below the moai’s base, you can just make out a plaque commemorating the effort.

This site, known as Ahu Ature Huki, features the first moai to have been uprighted. Heyerdahl writes about the process of raising the 10-foot, nearly 30-ton moai in his book “Aku Aku,” based on his 1955-56 expedition.

According to Heyerdahl, the mayor, Pedro Atan, enlisted 12 men — some working barefoot —and had them gather large boulders and three long wooden poles.

“The figure had its face buried deep in the earth, but the men got the tips of their poles underneath it, and while three or four men hung and pulled at the farthest end of each pole, the mayor lay flat on his stomach and pushed small stones under the huge face. … As the hours passed, the stones he moved out and shoved in became larger and larger. When the evening came, the giant’s head had been lifted a good three feet from the ground, while the space beneath was pack tight with stones.”

The poles acted as levers as the ever-taller sloped wall of stones — picture a wedge — grew under the moai. In this manner, it took about 17 or 18 days to complete the task.

Surely one way to prove a point, but not nearly as easy as using a crane to replace the 15 moai atop their platform as was done at Ahu Tongariki.

Our small group visited Anakena at the end of a full day of island touring. It’s the only site with snacks available and a restaurant-bar, restroom facilities (fee charged), plus access to a nice, small beach.

Earlier, we’d spent several hours at Rano Raraku (the quarry) and its crater, once the only source of fresh water on the eastern side of the island, and Ahu Tongariki.

We’d also stopped at the site called Te Pito Kura, where the largest moai ever to stand atop an ahu is sprawled on the ground, its topknot nearby. It was estimated to be more than 33 feet tall, with its topknot another 6.6 feet in height. Its weight was estimated at 70 tons. This is also thought to be the last moai standing, when it was noted by a French explorer named Abel Du Petit-Thouars in 1838. No other outsiders remarked after that date that they’d seen a moai still upright.

Nearby is a large stone, surrounded by four smaller rocks. Stories diverge here, again. Some believe the large stone accompanied Hotu Matu’a to his new home, and that it is laden with mana. Others say that it’s just another ocean-tossed stone, smoothed by the elements, that found its way inland.

Quick reference: Mahinatur offers several routes for guided exploration of Easter Island. (Spanish only). Pickup and drop off at your lodging and lunch are included on the full-day tour.