Saturday, December 15, 2018

Mosaic art project featuring beautiful tiles (146Cong.Rec.E780)

I have been to Italy twice before, and both times, I was a bit underwhelmed at first, maybe because Rome and Milan are a bit oversold in terms of historic culture. But both trips, I was won over by the more modern culture of the country, its welcoming traditions and friendly people. My third trip, which started out in Florence, was no different. I flew into the central city, where I spent one night in a hotel by the Baptistery of St. John and Cathedral of Saint Maria of Fiore (top left). I took an obligatory walk along the Arno River (top right) to the famous Ponte Vecchio (bottom left), in the middle of which sits a bust of sculptor Benvenuto Cellini surrounded by a love-lock collection (bottom right).
The bridge was swarmed with selfie-takers, but meanwhile, just a few meters away, the courtyard of Uffizi Gallery was serenely vacant (top left). A few hardy salespeople were still hawking their paintings there and in other squares, but to me, the city's narrow, lamp-lit streets revealed the true artistry of the city (top right). People are just going about their daily business amid the ancient architecture: Down an alley steps away from the Duomo, they were getting repairs to the bikes and scooters they use to navigate the car-restricted downtown (bottom).
The next morning, my friend and I set out by car for Ravenna, where we would be running a half-marathon on foot. Our back-roads route took us near the National Park of Casentinesi Forest, whose elevation put us above the clouds (top). The view from our AirBnB wasn't quite as spectacular, but it did feature of wall of grape vines on one side (bottom left) and a small church on the other (bottom right).
We loosened up our legs after picking up our race packets by walking to some of the city's notable sites, including Dante's Tomb, which apparently its residents don't really love because of the crowds. When we were there, the line was only about a dozen people deep (top left); I can only imagine what kind of hell it must be during high season. I, for one, would rather take in a showing of the writer's work at the nearby Dante Alighieri Theater (top right). With no performances on the bill that night, we opted to carboload with some bread, pasta, and wine at Al Gallo 1909 (bottom), whose patriarch proprietor kindly took pity on a pair of reservation-less gals, possibly because his son, who served us, is a runner himself.
The marathon refers to Ravenna as the City of Art because it is on the UNESCO World Heritage List due to its well-preserved mosaics. We visited the city's collection of masterpieces over two days. Our first stop was to gawk at the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo (top left), whose fifth-century artworks show the beginnings of Byzantine influence, including one of the few depictions of the devil in a church (top right). The influence of the East comes clearly into focus at the Basilica of San Vitale, built later, in the sixth century (bottom left). Its ceiling, for example, mixes biblical figures with Byzantine emperors (bottom right).
The adjacent Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, with its beautiful blue colors and intricate designs, is thought to hold the remains of its Roman empress namesake, although there is no substantial evidence to support the claim (top). The Baptistery of Neoniano, located by the tiny Chapel of St. Andrew, features equally vibrant mosaics inlaid with marble (bottom left). As small as it was, its ceiling creations outshone those in the dome of the Cathedral next door (bottom right).
After the race, of course, we didn't reward ourselves only with a walking tour of world heritage. We also sampled the local wine heritage at super-small Baldovino Enoteca, where we accompanied our red with some chocolate bought from a festival going on in the city's main square (top). (Hat's off to you, Ravenna, for that excellent coordination in event planning.) At dinner afterward at cozy Al Cairoli, I switched to beer, a LaFresca golden ale from Birra Riminese, with my appetizer (bottom left), which I followed up with an absolutely full-size and guilt-free dish of pasta (bottom right).

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Provide a glimpse into life above the Arctic Circle (147Cong.Rec.S12679)

Although I really enjoyed hanging out with the animals, the people in the Arctic Circle weren't so bad either. Of course, this was no surprise, considering I knew some of the crew that I chose to stay with in a lodge at Levi Spirit. Despite the rest of us being strangers, we got along just fine, but if we hadn't, there were plenty of places to get some space. The group sauna, which had a window to the adjacent jacuzzi tub, was quite roomy (top left). Similarly spacious was the outdoor fire pit, which we re-named the reindeer shaman room (top right). Even when we were all the living room, the many heated windows made it seem cozy but not cramped (bottom left). About the only tension the group experienced was during the competition of drinking games, but in the end, we bonded over our mutual disgust of Assa Shot (bottom right).
At other points in my trip, I drank tastier beverages. During my overnight in Kemi, I enjoyed two to-go beers I chose based on their wintry labels: a sleigh-embellished Sinebrychoff Jouluolut and a skiier-adorned Mustan Virran Panimo Viima Talviolut (top left). Other beers I chose for their crafty quality. At Leskinen in Oulu, I lapped up a Humalaja NEIPA by Sonnisaari (top right). At Kilta Bar in Kokkola, I enjoyed a Suntti Brown Ale by Kahakka Brewery, which was tastier than its name implies; the bartender told me it references the color of the much-maligned creek that runs through the town (bottom left). On a Sunday at O'Learys Irish bar in Jakobstad, I was able to find an aptly named tap among the many shuttered businesses: Reluctant Capitalist NEIPA by Jacobstads (bottom right). 
Sometimes, I focused on drinking in the culture with some more pedestrian brews. After a day of double hikes, I rewarded myself with a pizza and a big glass of Hartwell Lahden Erikois' hefeweizen at Pub.Fi (top). The pub was right down the street from my accommodations in Ivalo. The night before, after a day of driving, I had a beer at the bar of Hotel Kultahippu (bottom left), then made good use of my in-room sauna. Ivalo is a blue-collar town, and many road workers were my breakfast-buffet companions. They ate and ran, but I had the luxury of being able to linger and look at a sculpture honoring the gold-mining industry along the Ivalo River (bottom right).

Ivalo was my stepping-off point to reach Inari, home base of the Sami indigenous people, which clearly cultivated the hearty, hard-working heritage of the region. Along the shores of Lake Inari (top) sits the Siida Museum, the Sami Parliament building in Finland (bottom left). The Sami Parliament of Norway, with its strikingly ice-like architecture, is located in what was my destination after Inari: Karasjok (bottom right).
The museum was created by a Sami leader, who wanted to educate his own countrymen about his distinct culture. It started as a collection of buildings that represented his people's open-air lifestyle (top); unfortunately, this part of the museum was closed for the season. However, inside was a temporary multimedia art exhibit emphasizing their connection to nature (bottom left). The main part of the museum traces the history and traditions of the Sami through the seasons. I was particularly taken by a part about how the community in Russia is struggling to survive. One artifact in the museum -- the Gramota, or Archive of the Skolt Sami, which maintains the tribes' land rights in Russia -- was hidden by villagers through troubled times, including the Soviet regime (bottom right). In 2015, it was nominated to be included in the UNESCO Memory of the World register
In the beginning, the Sami had pagan beliefs based around nature gods. Over the years, some adopted more Christian values, as the religion spread through the area. But their lands, as with most of Norway and Finland, remain relatively secular. Most small communities have a single church whose simple construction belie a humility in the face of God, such as the white, wooden Alta Church (left). Churches were built from local materials, mostly timber, but some spruced up the boards with color, such as Kautokeino Church (middle). The Lapp Church in Sodankyla, one of the oldest wooden churches in Finland, has become dwarfed by the new, partially stone one next door (right).
Some of you might know that my preferred place of worship is a library. The location of the one in Oulu, above an inlet between an island and the mainland connected by a bike path, is a gift from god (top left). The main holy location in the city, Oulu Cathedral, was one of the more audacious I saw during my travels (top right). It totally outshone the wooden Oulu Castle, whose remaining turret-cum-cafe looks more like a lighthouse (bottom). 
On the Saturday I was there, Oulu's streets were filled not with parishioners, but strangely constumed devotees to some sort of competition I never determined (top). Sadly, it was not the Air Guitar World Championships, which I missed by a little over a month. Besides the fancy dressers, there seemed to be plenty of day-trippers about as well. Many of them took their photos next to Toripolliisi (bottom left). The city's famous policeman sculpture stands outside the Market Hall, which was remarkable in architecture but not sustenance (bottom right).
Oulu was my lunch stop on the way to Kokkola, a charming fishing village. Its clientele seems to have changed in the current century, considering I walked past three bicycle shops in one block as I watched the sunset (top). My room, a fancy affair above a swanky restaurant (bottom left), was situated in the old town, a short stroll across the Suntti from the more modern part of town (bottom right), where I got some takeout Indian for dinner. 
The next day, I took advantage of the beautiful weather to explore the village more closely on foot. In the middle of its English park sits the English Boathouse, containing a wooden vessel courageous residents captured during the Skirmish at Halkokari (top left). Finns laid in wait in storehouses by the dock (top right), then killed nine Brits as they repelled the invading Royal Navy. Not too shabby for a town of humble laborers, as evident in some of their remaining shacks (bottom left). Merchant residents had more generous living spaces, but they also suffered a lingering paranoia, judging by the window mirrors that allow inhabitants to monitor the streets outside (bottom right).
I scrutinized more of the same kinds of wooden buildings in nearby Jakobstad, but there, they were oddly juxtaposed with more contemporary architecture, such the clock tower on the Concordia building, which seemed right out of a post-modern movie set (left). The building, named after the first Finnish frigate to sail to the East Indies, is connected to City Hall by an enclosed bridge, an architectural representation perhaps of the importance of ship-building in the city's success (right).

On my way from Kokkola to the airport, I detoured to track down Soini, where TJ's great-grandmother grew up (top). For a small town in the middle of nowhere, it was quite enchanting. The Lutheran Soini Church features the only remaining wooden "poor woman" in Finland (bottom left); others similar statues exist, but they are male. Down the road, by the Pentecostal church, sits an outdoor museum, with another authentic wooden construction: a traditional windmill (bottom right).