Sunday, August 17, 2014

Washington, D.C. (United States)

We were in D.C. years ago, but I had adamantly vetoed the National Air and Space Museum since, at the time, it seemed like the only attraction I'd ever seen in my childhood trips to the nation's capital. My denial probably constituted cruel and unusual punishment for an astrophysicist and former Air Cadet. When work took Rich to Washington, it seemed like a good time to make amends.

The National Air and Space Museum is the country's most visited museum with roughly 8 or 9 million people annually oohing and aahing the world's largest collection of air and spacecraft. It's a madhouse inside, of course, but really, in these times of STEM funding under fire, who can begrudge kids of all ages getting excited about science?! The rockets and displays with gear from the Gemini and Apollo missions are always a big draw, and we really enjoyed the exhibit celebrating over 10 years on Mars. The high def images from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers are gorgeous, and the full-size replica gives you an appreciation for the engineering and design involved. 

Air & Space is only one of the 19 wonderful - and free! - museums that are part of the Smithsonian Institution. Luckily, our visit also coincided with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Each year, the institution highlights the cultural heritage of different countries by hosting performances, discussions, and demonstrations. This year China and Kenya were showcased in a massive camp set up on the National Mall. We watched a troupe from Fujian Province with marionette puppets, stepped inside a traditional pokomo hut, and tried Kenyan coastal and upland cuisine. In short, it is what all international festivals dream to be.

In what is rapidly becoming a bad habit for us in visiting big cities, we hit the art hard in D.C. Rich wandered into a private tour with a docent at the Phillips Collection, which he was still raving about the next day. The National Gallery of Art filled that impressionist hole in our hearts with a fine exhibit on Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas. A video montage loop at the Hirshhorn Museum questioned whether any art is new, and the juxtaposition of Christopher Robin from "Winnie the Pooh" and Mowgli from "The Jungle Book" in eerily identical animation clips blew our minds.

Washington is also a fantastic place to see performing arts. For our indie buzz, the Source Festival was putting on 10-minute plays, chosen from over 500 nationwide submissions. The 6 plays in the series on mortality were alternately absurd and funny and moving with a cult, cancer, and the zombie apocalypse. "Dressing Bobby Strong," about a funeral director's assistant preparing the body of her unrequited first love, managed to be not at all creepy, deeply touching, and our favorite of the bunch. For a distinct contrast, we saw "Shear Madness" at the Kennedy Center. It's a murder mystery set in a hair salon. To explain more would ruin it, suffice to say it was hilarious, so much fun, and easy to understand why it's one of the longest running plays in the world.

As an added bonus, we saw an SUV double park and block traffic, thereby, pissing off the van behind him. The drivers got into a honking and shouting match, ending in the SUV driver trying to deck the other guy through the window. Unfortunately for him, the driver and passenger of the van were undercover cops, who hauled him off in cuffs in seconds!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Dubrovnik (Croatia)

Heading southeast on a bus from Split along the Dalmatian Coast brought us through the thin strip of land that belongs to Bosnia-Herzegovina and back into Croatia. We had that brief moment of anxiety when the customs officer walked off with the stack of passengers' passports before he returned. One German couple on a shopping spree didn't even realize we'd be crossing borders. They got a stern dressing down but were let through in the end.

Four and a half hours seemed a long way to go - European-wise at least - to just visit one city, but Dubrovnik is called the Pearl of the Adriatic for a reason. Before Napolean conquered it, the city was the center of the republic of Ragusa for nearly 500 years. Nowadays tourists from the cruise ships are the only ones swarming the city walls... and judging from the hordes when we were there, we dread to think what the flood is like in the actual high season. Nonetheless, the walls are very impressive. They run intact nearly 2000 meters around the old city, and as fortifications, were never breached during Medieval times. The buildings within, however, were razed by shelling during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Now the city walls offer impressive panoramas of the painstakingly restored, orange-tiled roofs - icons of the old city. The views of the sea are also superb. If any of it looks the least bit familiar, it's because medieval Dubrovnik doubles for King's Landing in HBO's Game of Thrones. Squeezing by groups on the walls, we had to giggle at overhearing Spaniards cut through the tour guide's historical spiel with, "¿Dónde está Blackwater Bay?" Not to get all fanboy, but there is a killing to be made on getting photo ops with, say, the severed head of Eddard Stark.

The entrance ticket to the walls also includes a pass through round towers, along bulwarks, and several fortresses. St. John fortress houses an aquarium and a maritime museum, and nooks here and there hosted small exhibitions of Croatian artists. Outside the city walls, Lovrijenac (or St. Lawrence fortress) is known for hosting theatrical productions. When we were there, the risers and staging we saw being constructed looked more in line with a fashion show or exclusive dance club with big spotlights and bars at the ready. Possibly, it was part of the celebrity hoopla overrunning the city.

One morning we brought our newly stamped Dubrovnik Pass to one of the most beautiful and important historical places in the city: the Rector's Palace. To our consternation, the entire complex was roped off for the wedding of some New York socialite and wealthy banker. We were furious! No one we spoke to - not the official tourist office who pitched us the expensive day pass, not even the people at the ticket counter at the Rector's Palace itself who had persuaded us the afternoon before to delay our visit until the following morning - had thought it worthwhile to mention the star attraction would be closed! The plaza outside was clogged with people craning their necks to look at the rich and famous. Although we'd never heard of the bride and groom, such names as Leonardo DiCaprio, Snoop Lion née Dogg, or Angelina Jolie were rumored to be among the guests. That might have explained why, at dinner the night before, Rich had seen a group of men with big cameras jump up from their tables to run lenses out and flashes going... so at least the paparazzi were in attendance!