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Thessaloniki: history in your face

“In Thessaloniki we live our history.” Sofia Bournatzi

 

looking down to the Rotunda

Of course that statement could almost be a cliché if it wasn’t applied to Thessaloniki. It has greater impact for the city simply than having eighteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It has more to do with resilience. Despite wars, earthquakes and fires, Thessalonians are doing what they have been for 2,300 years.

looking out on Thessaloniki port from the Heptapyrgion

Thessaloniki is still what King Cassander, its founder, planned:

  • Largest city in Macedonia
  • Greece’s second largest
  • The port city of the northern Aegean
  • Gateway to the Balkans
  • Commercially connected to Asia Minor
  • Strategically located on both Spice and Silk Roads to the Orient
excavations of antiquities during construction of 21st century Thessaloniki subway next to a 15th century Ottoman bath.

This reality has made the city coveted and popular over the millenniums by conquerors from Rome to the Ottomans,  and their presence is palpable now. It’s under your feet; it’s towering over your head, and soon you’ll whiz by more on the new state-of-the-art underground subway/tube system. The past is an integral component of Thessaloniki’s urban fabric because it’s in your face.

Looking out to the Thermeic Gulf from Thessaloniki’s new Waterfront Promenade merchant ships are anchored waiting their turn at the modern docks just north of downtown. Behind are the Ladadika,  Ano Poli and the “acropolis” – the imposing Heptapyrgion fortress. These districts are the commercial, cultural and culinary heart of the city. They offer postcards onto the past …

The Palace of Galerius

Palace of Galerius (c.300)

The Palace of Galerius was not a large luxurious house. It was an “Imperial City” within the city – administrative, residential, religious and public entertainment venues. Depending on interpretation, it was such a vast complex it could well be considered a rebuilding of Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki was a major distribution port for the Spice & Silk Roads from the Orient.

The Romans were enamored with Thessaloniki ever since they had absorbed Macedonia into the Empire in the 100s BCE. Four hundred years later the port city was the largest in Rome’s Greek provinces and one of the wealthiest in the empire. By the end of the 3rd century Thessaloniki was poised to become central to the new Eastern Roman Empire.

Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus (Caesar: 293-311) newly appointed “assistant Emperor” in the Tetrarchy created by Diocletian, preferred Thessaloniki over his region’s official capital. Construction on his palace complex started in the late 290s.

(video published 02/02/2016,  Vladimiros Nefides)

It was a vast site covering a good portion of Thessaloniki’s historic core and composed of numerous interconnected components, most of which today are lying underneath streets, parks, residential and commercial buildings as the city morphed over the centuries. The complex was enclosed by stonewalls from the port waterfront up to the newly fortified acropolis. The most visible examples of the complex today are the stunningly preserved Rotunda and the Arch of Galerius.

Rotunda

The Rotunda (Roman c.300 with Ottoman minaret c.16th century)
The Rotunda’s interior was covered in elaborate mosaics and frescoes

The cylindrical Rotunda was built in 306 AD and has served as a public building ever since. It was originally a temple, possibly to Zeus. By the end of the 5th century Christianity had been established in the Empire and for over the next  thousand years the Rotunda was the Byzantine Church of St. George. After Ottoman conquest in 1430 it became a mosque (note the 16th century minaret in the photo) until 1912 when with Greek-Macedonian reunification it was designated a national monument. (Ottoman era buildings are protected by historic designation throughout Greece.)

Arch of Galerius

Arch of Galerius (Roman c 300)

The Arch of Galerius stands on a busy intersection (Egnatia & Dimitriou Gounari streets) just as it did when constructed. Thessaloniki’s Egnatia Street is a portion of the 2,000-year-old Roman Via Egnatia, which still connects Macedonia to Istanbul (aka Constantinople, aka Byzantium). Significant remains of its intricate carved marble panels detail the military prowess of Galerius and Rome.

Heptapyrgion

Heptapyrgion
The Heptapyrgion overlooking Ano Poli

The Heptapyrgion towers above downtown Thessaloniki where the ancient acropolis was located on the foothills of Mount Chortiatis. The massive fortress guarded the city for nearly two millenniums. Started by the Romans in the late 4th century along with rebuilding the defensive walls to encircle the city, it was substantially expanded by the Byzantine Empire in the 12th century and the Ottomans in the 15th.

Ano Poli

Oddly both its Greek and Ottoman name (Yedi Kule) mean “fortress of seven towers” even though it has ten and at no time in its construction phases did it ever just have seven. Despite that anomaly, the impressive relic today serves as an UNESCO World Heritage  site, a park with panoramic views of the city, and a backdrop for the historic Ano Poli (Upper Town) neighborhood , which survived the Great Fire of 1917.

 

The Baptistery of St. John

The Baptistery of St. John, 5th century – see map below for location
Hagia Sophia, 5th century

The Baptistery of St. John the Baptist of Thessaloniki (c.400) is a peaceful hidden sunken garden with an art deco apartment building and outdoor cafe overlooking the site. The sacred spring still flows but is channeled inside a modern chapel. It’s considered the oldest Christian baptistery. It is close to the 5th century Hagia Sophia and within the Galerian Palace complex.

Bey Hamam

Bey Hamam, 15th century Ottoman bath house used until the 1960s

Surrounded by popular cafes in the shopping district of the  Ladadika is one of Thessaloniki’s most beautiful medieval buildings. The 15th century Bey Hamam, an Ottoman public bathhouse, is testament to the sophistication this city has enjoyed during its long history. Only ceasing its original use in the 1960s, its intricate brick and tiled facade is an architectural sculpture dramatically lit at night providing a stunning visual backdrop as café patrons dine.

Ladadika

Ladadika

The unrestored street (left) in the Ladadika is on purpose to preserve the facades of what this major international commercial district was like prior to the 1917 Fire. (right) A busy historic district of cafes, commerce and culture today.

The White Tower

The White Tower

The White Tower’s infamous history as a notorious Ottoman prison fades in the mist of time when viewed today at its photogenic location on Thessaloniki’s historic waterfront. The current tower, constructed in the 15th century replacing an earlier Byzantine fortification, anchored the city wall’s southern corner on the waterfront. The tower is a fascinating museum of the historic district and offers panoramic views of Thessaloniki.

Rebetika Music

(video published 28/01/2010, flat13onfire)

Within the prisons of the Heptapyrgion and White Tower many famous rebetika songs of love, loss, resistance and survival were written by Greek prisoners during the last 30 year period of Ottoman rule. The mournful yet captivating music of rebetika still reverberates in many Greek cafes bonding music, food and friends and in 2017 UNESCO listed rebetika music as an “intangible cultural heritage” of Greece.

 

When you go: Thessaloniki International Airport (SKR) is served through major European hubs and Greek cities. Thessaloniki is connected as well by rail and coach bus within Greece and to the Balkans.

Location of the The Baptistery of St. John the Baptist of Thessaloniki and much of the historic core:

Special thanks to Sofia Bournatzi of Pass Partout DMC and to Thessaloniki Tourism Organization for facilitating my stay. Historic and culinary walking tours can be arranged with certified multi-lingual guides of the Tourists Guides Association of Thessaloniki

You can read the culinary story of this history at:

Naturally Thessaloniki is a foodie city

walls of the Heptapyrgion

Please read more by Travel with Pen and Palate at…

The Hellenic News of America
Travel with Pen and Palate Argentina

Clarissa Dillon on the great age of English puddings

D. Clarissa Dillon at the Thomas Massey House (1693) Broomall, PA
D. Clarissa Dillon at the Thomas Massey House (1696) Broomall, PA

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” is a simpler statement than posterity has endowed. In her monograph, “Blessed be he that invented Puddings,” (2013) Dr. Clarissa Dillon explains that it’s just an instruction not to under cook the pudding. Too little time in the water bath results in a loose mass rather than the firm ball that signifies proper texture. Of course, she’s not writing about Jello-O instant pudding in this case.

process making puddings (sausages were considered puddings)
author inflating casing & process making puddings (sausages were considered puddings)
"sausages" – puddings in the 16th-18th centuries
“sausages” – puddings in the 16th-18th centuries

Clarissa Dillon, Ph.D., professor emeritus at Bryn Mawr College and the foremost authority on 16th through 18th century English and colonial American cooking and household industries, tackles the often confusing interpretations of our shared culinary past. For centuries, puddings were virtually any mixture of ingredients from sweet to savory including meats, seafood, fruits, oats that were blended, wrapped in a casing and steamed. This included what we call today sausages. The casing could be sheep gut or heavy linen cloth.

17th/18th century meal being cooked at the Thomas Massey House (1693)
17th/18th century meal being cooked at the Thomas Massey House (1696)

Puddings were a major component of the English and American table during these centuries and often served as the foundation of a one dish meal in this age of cooking on an open wood fired hearth. In her monograph, Dr. Dillon covers the breadth of combinations that must have delighted an imaginative cook of the day. Puddings can also be seen as the casseroles of the era in so far as any leftover could be added to compliment ingredients creating a new dish.

18th century toaster at hearth of Thomas Massey House (1693)
18th century toaster at hearth of Thomas Massey House (1696)

In an age where few could afford to waste food, even blood from butchered animals combined with cream, eggs, oatmeal, herbs and spices created the famous Black Pudding, a sausage that still graces many a full English breakfast. Without preaching to the reader, Dr. Dillon’s “Blessed be he that invented Puddings” effectively dispels the myth that past diets were monotonous and tasteless. The recipes include a litany of herbs, spices and flavorings that many cooks today believe were either rare or reserved for the very rich – raisins, nutmeg, mace, oysters, anchovies, currents, gooseberries, almonds, saffron, sherry and, by the 18th century, New World Indian corn.

spices, eggs & removing seeds from currents w/ a needle
spices, eggs & removing seeds from currents w/ a needle

The genius of creating puddings to serve as the center piece of a one dish boiled meal proves that the cook of old was just as conscious of time management as any modern household. The recipe for a basic oatmeal pudding could serve as a savory carbohydrate for some meat and vegetables easily steamed in the same pot. Fortunately, we do not have to labor over the raisins today individually seeding them with a long needle.

Dr. Dillon tying the pudding for steaming
Dr. Dillon tying the pudding for steaming

An Oatmeal Pudding

This recipe in “Blessed be he that invented Puddings,” by Dr. Clarissa Dillon is from “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy,” by Hannah Glasse, London 1747.

Ingredients

  • 16 ounces good quality oatmeal such as Irish steel cut (not quick cooking)
  • 16 ounces suet – edible suet from a butcher, not what one puts out for the birds.
  • 16 ounces currents
  • 8 ounces raisins
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 large square of thick linen cloth at least 2’X2’

Procedure:

  1. Finely shred the suit with a knife or the grater blade of a food processor.
  2. Combine with the remaining ingredients.
  3. Fill a large pot ­– 2 to 3 gallon size – with cold water and bring to a boil over high heat (or over a good fire if you have a cooking hearth).
  4. Dip the linen cloth into the hot water and spread out onto the work counter. Coat the cloth with a handful of flour – this seals the fabric.
  5. Place the oatmeal mixture in the center of the cloth and bring the corners up to encase the mixture into a ball and securely tie it with kitchen twine. Be careful not to make the ball to tight because there must be room for the oatmeal to expand.
  6. Place the ball into the boiling water. When the water returns to a boil, lower the heat to maintain a steady simmer. Cook for 2 to 3 hours.
  7. If desired, half way through cooking, add any meat you wish to the pot – pork butt, cubed beef, chicken – and root vegetables such as turnips, parsnips, carrots and potatoes. Continue to cook until the ball of pudding feels firm to the touch.
  8. Remove from the water and let rest on a sheet pan for a few minutes. Unwrap the cloth and slice the pudding, surrounding it with the meat and vegetables.

As one 18th century author, William Ellis, put it, “if they cannot dine on this with good boiled beef, or with pork, or with bacon and roots, or herbs, they deserve to want (skip) dinner.”

steaming pudding
steaming pudding

When in the Philadelphia area do visit the historic Thomas Massey House (c.1696)

Additional articles on historic cooking by Marc d’Entremont at…

Church Keys are going extinct but not Clarissa Dillon: Colonial cooking in the 21st century

 

You can read more articles by Marc d’Entremont at:

Hellenic News of America

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Waiting to Invent: Thomas Edison in Florida

This photo at Seminole Lodge is titled "Waiting for another invention" – T. Edison (on ground), H. Firestone (left) & Pres. W. G. Harding 1921 in Florida
This photo at Seminole Lodge is titled “Waiting for another invention” – T. Edison (on ground), H. Firestone (left) & Pres. W. G. Harding 1921 in Florida

Much is written in the media today concerning the inability to disconnect while on vacation – professionals glued to email and cell phones around the pool. Yet that’s hardly unique to the 21st century. In 1885 when Thomas Edison purchased 14 acres along the Caloosahatchee River as a winter retreat in the remote southwestern Florida farming hamlet of Fort Myers he had no intention of turning his mind off.

The guest house of Seminole Lodge, Fort Myers, FL
The guest house of Seminole Lodge, Fort Myers, FL
Edison's office in the Moonlight Garden
Edison’s office in the Moonlight Garden

Although Thomas (1847-1931) Mina (1865-1947) and their children spent most winters at their Seminole Lodge estate, his office provides ample evidence he was still connected by correspondence to his invention laboratory at Menlo Park, NJ. Along with good friends Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford the Edison Botanical Research Corporation was established and a laboratory constructed on the estate in the 1920s. The goal was to make America independent of foreign rubber.

Edison Botanical Research Corporation laboratory at Seminole Lodge
Edison Botanical Research Corporation laboratory at Seminole Lodge

Edison dubbed Seminole Lodge his jungle. He and Mina surrounded their home with lush gardens. But first, they had to construct the houses.

Seminole Lodge
Seminole Lodge
Entrance & pilings remain of the 1,500' pier at Seminole Lodge
Entrance & pilings remain of the 1,500′ pier at Seminole Lodge

The railroad was not extended to Fort Myers until 1904, which meant convenient travel was by ship. A 1,500 foot pier was built as a landing for family, guests and the materials necessary for Seminole Lodge. Prefab houses were also not new to the 21st century. The lumber for the two identical mirror-image houses that are Seminole Lodge was fabricated in Maine, shipped to Fort Myers and assembled on site.

Seminole Lodge, Edison & Ford Winter Estates, Ft. Myers, FL
Seminole Lodge, Edison & Ford Winter Estates, Ft. Myers, FL
Dining room at Seminole Lodge
Dining room at Seminole Lodge

The adjacent second house was originally the winter home of business partner Ezra Gulliland, but was bought back by Edison after a serious split with Gulliland. The spacious, airy wood structures were connected with a pergola and the second house turned into combination guest quarters, dining room and kitchen for Seminole Lodge. Both houses were electrified, of course, with power from both generators and batteries – all the product of Edison’s fertile mind.

Henry Ford house, Edison & Ford Winter Estates, Ft. Myers, FL
Henry Ford house, Edison & Ford Winter Estates, Ft. Myers, FL
Ford Model T, Edison & Ford Winter Estates, Ft. Myers, FL
Ford Model T, Edison & Ford Winter Estates, Ft. Myers, FL

Children of America’s great industrial age, Thomas and Mina were friends with other magnates of the day, especially Henry Ford. A frequent guest of the Edisons at Seminole Lodge, Ford purchased the beautiful yet modest Craftsman house in 1916 adjacent to Seminole Lodge. Although the Fords only used the home for two weeks each winter to celebrate Edison’s birthday, their friendship and business partnerships were life-long.

(clockwise left) motion picture projectors, water powered cylinder phonograph c.1890, early record players, electric industrial tractor c.1917, Edison Manufacturing Co. electric fan c. 1900
(clockwise left) motion picture projectors, water powered cylinder phonograph c.1890, early record players, electric industrial tractor c.1917, Edison Manufacturing Co. electric fan c. 1900

After Thomas Edison’s death at age 84 in 1931 Mina continued to winter at Seminole Lodge. Mina was Edison’s second wife having been widowed in the early 1880s when only in his 30s. The daughter of an inventor, university educated and an employee at the Menlo Park lab, Mina was as much an intellectual equal to her husband as a wife.

Fountain of natural coral at Seminole Lodge
Fountain of natural coral at Seminole Lodge
At Seminole Lodge: the 1st private swimming pool built in S.W. Florida, 1911. The above ground pool constructed of Portland cement – Edison held the patent
At Seminole Lodge: the 1st private swimming pool built in S.W. Florida, 1911. The above ground pool constructed of Portland cement – Edison held the patent

Mina was active managing their households, the botanical gardens and the Edison business ventures. Edison was said to greatly appreciate Mina’s intellect and input in discussing his many theories for everything from the phonograph, electric batteries to motion picture cameras. In 1947 Mina deeded the estate to the City of Fort Myers on condition that it be preserved as a public memorial to her husband’s genius.

Edison's "jungle" at Seminole Lodge
Edison’s “jungle” at Seminole Lodge

Henry Ford sold his house in 1947, and it remained a private home until the city purchased it in 1988. The Edison & Ford Winter Estates is operated and maintained as a non-profit offering a plethora of tours and activities including an extensive museum dedicated to the genius of these two men. A visit to Edison’s jungle is to step back to an age where great ideas were conjured in the mind rather than by an electronic device – although Thomas probably would have invented the computer if he’d had time.

Sunset over the Caloosahatchee River at Seminole Lodge
Sunset over the Caloosahatchee River at Seminole Lodge

You can read part 2 on Seminole Lodge:  Edison’s Jungle in Fort Myers, Florida

You can read more articles by Marc d’Entremont at:

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Where Asia and Europe flow together: Kavala, Greece

 

Kavala, Greece
Kavala, Greece
the Imaret (early 19th century) now boutique hotel.
the Imaret (early 19th century) now boutique hotel.

The twisting streets of Kavala’s old city reveals its recent past. The architecture is a mosaic of historical patterns befitting a port city serving empires. Known as Neapolis for its first thousand years, Kavala has born witness to dreamers and emperors since the 7th century B.C.  It’s easy to marvel at the 16th century engineering beauty of the Kamares aquaduct from the fortress.

 

The Kamares aquaduct (15th century)
The Kamares aquaduct (15th century)

Adding to the charm of the city are important and entertaining sites in the nearby countryside – the impressive remains of Philippi,  Lydia, the Krinides Therapeutic Clay Baths and vineyards on the mountain where Dionysus resided in the Pangaion Hills.

Ktima Biblia Chora vineyard on the slopes of Mt. Pangaion.
Ktima Biblia Chora vineyard on the slopes of Mt. Pangaion.

 

To get there, stay at, go to and dine please read…

Kavala: still fresh after 2,700 years

 

N 40° 55' dining room at the Lucy Hotel, Kavala
N 40° 55′ dining room at the Lucy Hotel, Kavala

 

You can read all my articles at:

Hellenic News of America

Original World Insights

Culinary Travel Examiner

 International Dining Examiner

International Travel Examiner

Philadelphia Fine Dining Examiner

Food & Recipes Examiner

Driving Halkidiki

harbor, Neos Marmaras, Sithonia, Greece
harbor, Neos Marmaras, Sithonia, Greece

Sitting at a beach side café in Possidi on the Halkidiki peninsula of Kassandra, this North American was struck by an unfamiliar scene. People were reading.

Driving Kassandra unplugged and tuned into Greece

Nea Fokea:14th Century Byzantine tower and church
Nea Fokea:14th Century Byzantine tower and church

Fingers of land jutting into the Aegean, Kassandra, Sithonia and sacred Athos have, like all of Macedonia, been at the center of turbulent times since the 4th century B.C.E. In the 21st century the only turbulence seemed to be the long lines of cars every summer weekend that bring holiday seekers from Thessaloniki and Eastern Europe.

water sports in Sithonia
water sports in Sithonia

Family owned since it opened in 1989, the rooms surround an opulent pool that is the focal point of the Flegra Palace Hotel including the Soleil Bar with its dramatic glass floor jutting over the water.

Soleil Bar at the Flegra Palace Hotel
Soleil Bar at the Flegra Palace Hotel

Flegra Palace Hotel plans new venture in Pefkohori, Greece

Fortunately mere mortals can dine at Ambrosia, the open-air dining room at the Flegra Palace Hotel in the Halkidiki seaside resort town of Pefkohori, Greece.

Ambrosia, Flegra Palace Hotel
Ambrosia, Flegra Palace Hotel

Chef Aphrodite Balanou makes Ambrosia in Pefkohori, Greece

You can read all my articles at:

Luxe Beat Magazine

Original World Travel

Culinary Travel Examiner

 International Dining Examiner

International Travel Examiner

Philadelphia Fine Dining Examiner

Food & Recipes Examiner

Suite101

Beach in Ouranoupolis, Athos, Greece
Beach in Ouranoupolis, Athos, Greece

Tragedy and Triumph: Antique Carousels in Seaside Heights and the Fete Paradiso

The Denzell/Looff caousel destroyed by fire in Seaside Heights, NJ September 11, 2013
The 1910 Dentzel/Looff carousel
Denzell/Looff carousel's Wurlitzer organ, destroyed in the Seaside Heights, NJ fire September 12, 2013
Dentzel/Looff carousel’s Wurlitzer organ

My wife and I were elated when we spied the Carousel Arcade on the Seaside Heights, New Jersey, boardwalk this past Monday, 9 September 2013. Having ridden and admired its magnificent century old Dentzel/Looff hand carved carousel with its powerful Wurlitzer organ, we were unsure it survived Superstorm Sandy. Fortunately it had, and although the arcade was closed on this post-Labor Day Monday, we peered through the window and wished we had come down earlier in the summer.

The Denzell/Looff carousel Seaside Heights, NJ, as seen 3 days before the September 12, 2013 fire.
The Dentzell/Looff carousel Seaside Heights, NJ, as seen 3 days before the September 12, 2013 fire.
Repairs being made to Seaside Heights boardwalk on September 9, 2013
Repairs being made to Seaside Heights boardwalk on September 9, 2013

We were pleased the boardwalk, one of only a few remaining early 20th century examples of pre-digital mass entertainment, was being restored. Many small cottages that once were the summer homes to working and middle class families – along what have increasingly become beach communities for the wealthy ­–­ had not survived. Yet repair and restoration efforts were ongoing and there was hope that the character of this town, made infamous by MTV’s Jersey Shore, would survive both Snookie and Sandy.

1910 Dentzel-Looff carousel, Seaside Heights, NJ

Tragically, a mere three days later on Thursday, we listened in horror to the reports as most of the historic boardwalk went up in flames. The loss to the community is devastating. Yet miraculously the carousel with its intricately hand carved and decorated animals and the Wurlitzer player organ survived! The fire was suppressed just yards from its pavilion.

Lower Manhattan as seen from Governors Island, NY
Lower Manhattan as seen from Governors Island, NY

Ironically, we had just spent the previous day at the Fete Paradiso on New York’s Governors Island. On a pleasant sunny day in this military base turned park in the middle of New York harbor, we marveled along with hundreds of children, and other adults behaving like children, over more than a dozen restored late 19th and early 20th century French carnival rides and games. These treasures are part of the personal collection of Frenchmen Francis Staub and Regis Masclet, and the installation on Governors Island is their first venture to make a traveling living museum of what entertainment used to be.

Flying swings, early 20th century, at Fete Peradiso
Flying swings, early 20th century, at Fete Peradiso

The Vélocipèdes is the centerpiece of the collection. One of only two remaining, this 19th-century French carousel ran on pedal power. It was created in Paris to encourage the use of bicycles as a cleaner mode of personal urban transportation than horses. Although it’s pedal power that starts the carousel, they drive a motor invented by Nikola Tesla that adds surprising speed to the ride. The other Velocipedes is in a Paris museum and was featured in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris.

Singer at Fete Paradiso
Singer at Fete Paradiso

Other features include flying swings, a children’s carousel, a mechanical ball toss game of life-size caricatures of celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin and Josephine Baker and a magnificent mechanical pipe organ. Fete Paradiso recreates the feel of a summer carnival with entertainers from fire-eaters and sword swallowers to musicians crooning French love songs and an outdoor café created by New York’s bistro Le Gamin.  For an afternoon the Fete Paradiso reminded me that people will restore and revel in a past that can still become the future.

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Travel 1931: A Reflection of (racist) Times

You are reading that correctly: “…every effort to appear civilized.” The author was Aleko E. Lilus and the article, “The Old Seaport of the Sulu Pirates,” appreared in the highly popular monthly magazine, Travel, October 1931 (Robert M. McBride & Co., Camden, NJ). I did not seek out this magazine. This treasure of Western mores illustrated through travel was a recent gift  knowing full well my interest in antiques and popular culture through the ages.

cover of the Oct. 1931 edition, illustration by Frank Newbould

Travel (1902-2003) “…was reflective of the world at the time…” (Contextualization, Clay Dillon) and let’s remember the time. 1931, the depth of the greatest world economic depression ever, Fascism is flourishing in Italy with many European and American supporters, the Nazi Party is gaining ground in Germany, the Western empires control most of Asia, Africa and South America. In the USA the Klu Klux Klan is terrorizing and murdering African Americans, Jews and Catholics – and not just in the south – and the United States has shut the immigration door to all but white Christian Western Europeans.

Yet for the affluent who could travel, and the majority that could only dream through films and lavishly illustrated magazines, this was the “Golden Age” of Aryan dominance – the opportunity for the “savage” to rise above his station. Travel writers could transport minds from a 3-room Hoboken apartment to exotic lands, “educating” their audience that there were people that had it “far worse” than you had it at home.

children gathering grapes in France, 1931, page 20
“land of boundless opportunity for the man of business”

The articles run the gamut from the cathedrals of Mexico, the American Southwest, the vineyards of France, a once great Medieval European city to the wilds of Australia.  Yet the language used to describe non-Western cultures is far different than those used for lands closer to home.

“The sultan’s niece…became a co-ed of the University of Illinois. She was thoroughly Westernized, but on her return…she promptly forgot her pretty American ways…and went native…As an educational and social experiment she must be considered a complete failure.” (p.25).

“Some of them…have bought Fords…but in the back country they still shoot bows and arrows and have never heard they belong to a vanishing race…” (p.28 “Exploring the Southwest in Your Own Motor” by Harry Fergusson).

“They love their children but they are inclined to spoil them for discipline comes hard to the southern mind..” (p.17 “Malta – Stronghold of the Sea King” by Francis Mc Dermott).

“The Spanish Colonials…upon this land they called “New Spain” … lavished their genius, endowing it with…civilization…” (p.7 “The Glory of Mexico’s Cathedrals” by James Jenkins).

Soochow, China, photo by M. O. Williams, p.33
illustration for a Cunard Line ad.

Despite the racism, my 1931 edition of Travel is a gorgeous magazine, especially its stunning black and white photography and its advertising illustrations. In researching the history of Travel, it was second only to The National Geographic in readership for an audience interested in the world outside the United States. Indeed the last article in the October issue is on Australia’s unique animal life, “Nature’s Side Show in Australia” by Georgia Maxwell.

Clif Dwellings, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, photo by Ewing Galloway, p. 27

Naturally, for any modern traveler, 1931 prices for hotels and steam ships seem absurdly inexpensive until one factors what a 1931 dollar purchased compared to 2011. Today’s traveler needs $14.00 for what $1.00 was worth during the Great Depression.

The queen of Philadelphia’s hotels, the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, had rooms as low as $4/day in the depth of the Depression. You need $56 in 2011 – cheap but these were teaser rates  if you didn’t have a job..).  A 12-day cruise to the Bahamas started at $125 ($1,750 in 2011 dollars) and the French Railways campaign that “Everybody’s back” speaks to today’s travel ads urging the recession weary to travel once more.

I well remember this anticipated magazine that arrived at my home as a child and young adult. I assume the strong cultural inclusion of my parents negated any latent racism in the 1950s– 1960s. As a travel writer I’ll be the first to praise the work I’m fortunate enough to enjoy, yet I’m well aware of the fine line that separates being the eyes of the reader from the human that may color the picture with their own cultural prejudices.

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Silk – Thread of Empire

silk scarves from Laos © Marc d’Entremont
silk scarves from Laos © Marc d’Entremont

“With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.”  ancient Chinese proverb.

The allure of silk: its soft feel, its shimmer, its character to absorb vibrant colors, its legend of luxury, its power. No other fabric has caused the rise and fall of empires or led legions of adventurous merchants to risk life and fortune. For centuries the Silk Road linked the fabled kingdom’s of Asia with the Mediterranean and Western Europe. The expensive, arduous and dangerous journey fed into the mystique of an enigmatic Orient – a land of meditation and mass murder, tea and opium, the Buddha and Pol Pot.

Silk: (top left) Mulberry Trees, (bottom left) silk cacoons, (center) cacoons on bundles of sticks and (top right) circular basket, (bottom right) silk worms munching on Mulberry leaves
Silk: (top left) Mulberry Trees, (bottom left) silk cacoons, (center) cacoons on bundles of sticks and (top right) circular basket, (bottom right) silk worms munching on Mulberry leaves

Yet during 19th and 20th century domination by European empires over Asia’s economies, silk was overshadowed by more lucrative commodities – opium, tea, rubber. By the end of the Second World War, large scale manufacture of silk cloth in Southeast Asia had been reduced to a cottage industry, a victim of hard economic times, war and changing fashion – synthetics. It took an entrepreneurial visionary – a risk taker –  to revive Asian silk.

Jim Thompson

As an artist Jim Thompson was drawn to the rich colors and expressive designs of what was by the mid-1940’s a tiny cottage industry in the Muslim provinces of southern Thailand and northern Malaysian jungle villages.  These villagers were using centuries old silk worm farming techniques, natural dyes and ancient tools to produce stunning yards of intricately woven fabric – and selling them for a pittance.

Born into a Delaware clothing manufacturing family in 1906, educated at prestigious schools, a successful and well connected  architect and designer, Jim Thompson chucked it all after becoming disillusioned with life by the late 1930’s. Joining the army at the start of World War II, he was recruited into the OSS, forerunner of the CIA. Sent to Thailand late in the war to infiltrate the Japanese occupation, he was assigned to head American intelligence in Bangkok. The war ended shortly after parachutting into the country, but Thompson liked Bangkok and made the decision to stay. That’s when he discovered the Muslim silk weavers.

(from Top left) silk worm, eating Mulberry leaves, mature cocoons boiling, (from bottom left) strand of silk fiber being pulled from cocoon, fresh silk thread

Jim Thompson cultivated personal relationships with the village weavers assuring them of markets for their cloth which did not yet exist. He encouraged the weavers not to give up the old methods and tweaked traditional designs for western clientele. (He later established a Muslim weaving quarter next to his compound across the canal. Today, wandering the Thompson House grounds, you can clearly hear the daily calls to prayer). Ensconced in Bangkok’s legendary Oriental Hotel, he effortlessly, it’s said, schmoozed with wealthy ex-patriots and visitors personally marketing Thai silk cloth. Within a few years his Thai Silk Company attracted the patronage of Vogue magazine and Irene Sharaff, fashion designer for the musical The King and I. By the early 1950’s Thai silk was an international rage, silk weaving was once again a vibrant home industry and Jim Thompson was dubbed the Silk King.

Muslim weavers quarter across the canal from the Thompson “House on the Klong”

Thompson became a celebrity in Bangkok and a confidant to the rich and famous. His parties at the unique compound he created in the city were frequent with an eclectic mix of the business and art worlds. Using his considerable skills in architecture and design, he melded together six antique teak wood houses brought from various areas of Thailand into a compound including his home, workshops and retail space. It doesn’t hurt that he filled the grounds with gardens, pools and priceless Oriental antiques.

Jim Thompson’s House on the Klong, Bangkok, Thailand
living room at House on the Klong
Jim Thompson silks and designer gowns

Although Thai Silk Company products are legendary today and available in elegant shops, Jim Thompson himself is simply a legend – or an enigma. In 1967 while visiting friends at their country house in northern Malaysia, Thompson went for a walk and within minutes had disappeared. No word was ever heard, his body never found. Speculation/conspiracy theories run rampant even today – a truck hit him and the driver took the body, a large animal ate him, he was still working for the CIA and was either eliminated by them or Communist guerillas (although he questioned the wisdom of the Vietnam war), or perhaps he simply wanted to chuck it all again and went native. Oddly, only 6-months later his wealthy sister was mysteriously murdered at her Pennsylvania estate – no robbery, no alarm, even her dogs didn’t bark.

natural dyes for silk thread

 

Lao Textiles, Vientiane, Laos

Carol Cassidy, on the other hand, is hearty, alive and well in Vientiane, Laos. When I met her for the first time a couple of months ago, she took me back to the workshop with a very worried expression saying she’d ruined a run of silk. Not the first words I expected from one of the world’s most renowned women in the art. She showed me this beautiful skein of shimmering teal silk. That was a mistake?? It just wasn’t the exact shade she wanted for the project, and considering silk is made by a worm, it’s not like she can run down to the local 7/11. Traditional arts for a contemporary clientele are long, serious work.

one-of-a-kind Carol Cassidy shawl

The scion of a prominent Connecticut family, Carol was the first American allowed to establish a business in post-1975 Laos, Lao Textiles, in 1990. This was after a career with a variety of NGO’s world-wide as a textile expert. Although she’s frequently compared to Jim Thompson’s Thai Silk Co., their business model is the only similarity. Both use traditionally trained weavers, pay fair wages and build personal relationships with the craftspeople. Yet where Thai Silk’s designs are for a mainstream international market, Cassidy specializes in made-to-order art hangings and clothing utilizing traditional Lao patterns. This carries over to the very limited runs of products available in the atmospheric 19th century French Villa showroom/workshop. Most are one of a kind Carol Cassidy wearable art in Lao silk and a terrific memory of that beautiful country.

hand bag with silk balls, Phontong Handicraft Cooperative

Local non-profit organizations dedicated to the preservation of traditional arts exist in all Southeast Asian countries. In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, the Phontong Handicraft Cooperative has been organizing village craftspeople and marketing their work since 1976.

Artisans d’Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia, has a large vocational school complex for carving and graphic arts in town and a sizable silk farm and weaving operation just outside the city. The school particularly trains the disabled.

silk weaver at Artisans d’Angkor
monk and silk dresses

Whether it’s adventure, fortune, art or simply a way to make a living, silk has never ceased to fascinate:

“Upon them shall be garments of fine green silk and thick silk interwoven with gold, and they shall be adorned with bracelets of silver, and their Lord shall make them drink a pure drink.” ~the Quran 

“He who has little silver in his pouch must have the more silk on his tongue.”~ Edward Bulwer-Lytton   (1803 – 1873)

“Once a guy starts wearing silk pajamas it’s hard to get up early” ~ Eddie Arcaro (1916 – 1997)

Restaurant, Seafood, Hotel – Hoi An, Part III

River Lounge, Hoi An

For a tourist town, Hoi An has a surprising number of decent restaurants at some of the lowest prices outside the major cities. My first dinner in this city of 200 + year-old-buildings was at a hip new boutique hotel and café, River Lounge (35 Nguyen Phu Chu). The simple, modern white interior provides a nice foil for imaginative interpretations of traditional Vietnamese cuisine.

Take simple cream of pumpkin soup, found on so many menus, River Lounge serves a cream foam topped with the seasoned pumpkin puree in a swirl on top in a tall clear glass. The textures of hot puree mixing with cooler cream, as well as the visual, is a nice touch. The rest of the meal was equally satisfying.

An assortment of spring rolls, an entrée of grilled river fish with steamed morning glory greens and lime foam and fresh noodles and one of boneless chicken in a sesame/soy/ginger reduction accompanied by a block of rice and grilled mango. Dessert was a perfectly executed creme caramel topped with a crunchy ginger sugar glaze.

Cafe Can

Cafe Can(74 Bach Dang St.) is one of many Hoi An river front restaurants that all basically offer the same menu. Cafe Can caught my eye for both its pleasing outdoor dining and its large wood charcoal grill off to the side with fresh fish and seafood for dinner. In simple large pots of aerated water are freshly caught giant prawns, crabs and clams.

Sold by weight, they are best grilled napped with a variety of herb/garlic/ginger/soy sauces. The meal was accompanied by a large platter of steamed vegetables and mushrooms, with a large local beer.

A variety of other preparations, from fish baked in banana leaves to fried as well as non-fish dishes are available. Being open to the street directly across from the river, don’t be surprised when more than one street vendor wander in selling bracelets, the English language Vietnam Times, dried fruit and homemade candies. It’s all part of Vietnam.

(top left) Cafe Can, (top right & bottom) Dem Hoi Bar & Restaurant

Dem Hoi Bar & Restaurant, just down the block from Cafe Can, has the advantage of a beautiful French colonial building with a large open second floor that offers stunning views of the river and Hoi An harbor. The menu is decent – nothing surprising but well prepared.

Hoi An Market – sleeping on the job… or next in line?

Over on the French Quarter are several cafes that serve, if lucky and they are available at the market, Vietnamese delicacies such as pig’s brain and eel. The brain was unavailable but the eel was nicely fried in a light batter – tasted a lot like trout (see, not chicken!) The Hoi An Market is classic offering everything from hot soup to wonderful French crepes topped with coconut ice cream (top right).

Windbell Homestay Hotel

When it comes to hotels there is a large selection of accommodations with many moderately priced first class venues. The newest choices are on the expanding residential island of Cam Nan, a 10 minute walk across the bridge from the Old City. Cam Nan Island is quiet with a pleasant mixture of old wooden houses with vegetable plots to the larger homes of new middle class residents.

Windbell Homestay Villa has an established  reputation for comfort, service and a good restaurant. Set around a central garden and beautiful blue tiled swimming pool, this family run hotel offers spacious rooms with lots of windows that open onto nice private vistas letting in the sea breeze. Including a full breakfast, strong Wi-Fi, double rooms average in the low US$100s.

Windbell Homestay Hotel Restaurant

Serving all meals, the Windbell Homestay is one of the rare small hotels with a full service restaurant with everything freshly made to order. A Hoi An specialty, White Rose, (bottom left) is a delicate dumpling filled with savory mixtures which the Windbell does particularly nice as well as spicy shrimp, Beef Pho (upper left) and a great herb calamari sauté on mint and watercress (upper right). Add a bottle of white or red from Vietnam’s largest winery, Vang Dalat  and you’ll enjoy a pleasant meal overlooking the lit gardens and pool. (Vang Dalat will not win any awards soon).

Hoi An Folk Art Museum (center) Ba Trao singers, (top right) tea garden, bottom right) Unicorn Dance

The Hoi An Folk Art Museum is well worth a visit. It has a fine display of traditional tools, everyday life items, artistic and musical traditions, the important silk weaving industry and some contemporary art. The large 18th century structure is a treasure in itself.

Hoi An is one of those rare villages tourism has revived that, as of yet, has not been destroyed by its success. Perhaps it’s the strong merchant background of old Hoi An – sails and a port still equals sales. It doesn’t hurt having a strong preservation ethic among the town leaders. New construction in the Old City was following strict building codes using the same materials and methods of construction as 200 years ago. That commitment bodes well that even though it will remain a tourist town, Hoi An’s real, still going about its business and beautiful.

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Hội An: Silks and Spices and Silt – all gold

“It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.”                    Confucius  (551-479 BCE)

Dragon in the Thu Bon River, Hoi An

The estuary of the Thu Bon River is a watery maze of emerald green islands opening within a mile onto the South China Sea. For over one thousand years its villages prospered as major ports feeding the Champa Kingdom with trade, especially from China and Japan, superb fish and seafood. The decline of Champa gave rise to Vietnam’s influence, continued China/Japan trade and, by the 15th century, new Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish trading houses. The village of Hội An was a hot item on the South China seacoast.

18th century Hoi An in the 21st century

As prosperity increased both population and agricultural production and given the fickle nature of alluvial rivers, the Thu Bon River began to fill with silt making navigation by ocean-going vessels difficult. By the early 19th century the port of Da Nang was replacing Hội An as the area’s major international trade center. The town slowly sank into obscurity sustained by the accumulated wealth of old merchant families and its abundant seafood and agricultural products. Its old 18 and 19th century cypress and ironwood buildings remained intact impervious to the river’s floods and their owners inability to modernize. More remarkable was that during the wars of the 20th century while Da Nang was in the middle as the site of both a major port and airport, Hội An a mere 10 miles south, was hidden among the reed covered islands of the Thu Bon estuary.

(top left) Hoi An market (top center) hand pump for benzene - motor bike fuel, (top right) fishermen with net traps (bottom left) Pho noodle soup vendor (bottom center) junk food delivery, cyclo drivers in line, restaurant kitchen (bottom right) shoe stalls
21st century merchant house in historic Hoi An

The silting of the river that threw Hoi An into a time warp allowed it to emerge after 1975 as the most intact pre-19th century village in Vietnam. In 1999, the Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as an example of a Southeast Asian trading port of the 15th to 19th centuries.  Some decry the “preserved-for-tourist” nature of the Old Town with its rows of shops and cafes in the old buildings. Yet the reality remains that Hoi An is today what made it famous centuries ago – a busy merchant town. With a population of 120,000, it’s once more a prosperous port but now the goods don’t sail out on ships, they’re packed in tourist suitcases.

Tan Ky House, 18th & 19th century merchant house, currently in the 7th generation of the family

 Tan Ky House (101 Nguyen Thai Hoc St.) is one of several privately owned house museums in Hoi An that are prime examples of how these entrepreneurial families lived. Two stories tall, the street front of the house was always for business. The solid walls on either side of the door in the collage above are actually wood panels that can be removed to open the shop. The staircase to the left is to the second floor storeroom. The homes living quarters begin directly behind the shop surrounding two to three courtyards. The first sitting room contains the altar to the ancestors and, in Tan Ky, an elevated altar to Confucius. The detailed and elaborate interior woodwork as well as the 19th century mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture attests to the family’s prosperity. Tan Ky was particularly well situated running the full depth of the street with a direct opening to the waterfront in back.

The Tran Family Temple

Hoi An has a number of endowed “family temples,” a common method for wealthy Vietnamese families to broadcast their status and provide for the perpetual and public honoring of their ancestors. Many of these “chapels” are actually large temple/monastery complexes. One of the oldest, largest and most beautiful in Hoi An is the Tran Family Temple still sponsored by the family in its 15th generation.

Cam Pho Temple and the Cantonese Assembly Hall
Thien Hau, Goddess of the Sea & Protector of Sailors at Fukien Assembly Hall

A “guild system” among Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian merchants both regulated and governed trade as well as provided support groups. The Chinese in particular constructed several Assembly Halls which served as Confucian temples, hostels and a social gathering place for these ex-pat sailors. Japanese merchants constructed a Hoi An icon – the Japanese Bridge in the 16th century. More than just a bridge, it contains a small temple dedicated to the protection of sailors. The Assembly Halls are still active temples and social halls.

Japanese Covered Bridge, 16th century

 Although Hoi An was already in decline when the French put the Vietnamese Empire under its “protection,” French merchants and ex-pats found the charms of Hoi An sufficient to create a French Quarter just outside the old medieval town. The graceful tropical colonial architecture and tree lined streets with attractive shops and cafes make is a less hectic stroll than the Old City.

Hoi Ans French Quarter, late 19th early 20th century
barrier closing street to traffic

Hoi An is Vietnam, it is a tourist town, the streets are narrow, motor bikes and cyclos are everywhere, selling is in their blood so be prepared for constant pitches every step for everything from ice cream, postcards, chickens, paintings, street foods and, especially, silks – high quality made-to-order clothing and shoes take 1-1/2 days minimum with a reputable store. It’s a cornucopia of colors, smells and sounds. At least once a day for several hours, and during festivals, the cobbled stone streets of the Old City are closed to all motorized traffic. The absence of at least that noise certainly adds to the town’s charm. There is an admission price to most of the merchant houses, assembly halls and museums. A strip of tickets is purchased at one of several tourist offices in the Old City at a price of less that US$1.00 per venue.

Hoi An is a beautiful and relaxing town, especially surprising given its tourist nature. Within less than one mile are empty pristine white sand beaches. Surrounding the village are emerald green rice fields and vegetable farms. There are additional tourist “villages” for farming, sculpture and fishing but these are virtual recreations of life in the past and generally are excuses for more shopping. The land is flat and ideal for renting bikes. Mountains are in the distance and the fishing fleet actually fishes, it doesn’t just give tourists rides. Quiet hotels and a growing local middle class have spread out onto adjacent islands. Both residents and the town government keep the village clean, something not common in most of Vietnam. If satisfaction can be judged by the large numbers of foreign visitors, Hoi An has patiently, as Confucius advised, turned its silted river into tourist gold.

fishing boat – the eyes as so the ship can see the fish

 next: Hoi An Part II – festivals, seafood and song