Portland Oregon, capital of weird…..and Powell’s City of Books.

Many cities around the world have slogans that they identify with for example Los Angeles is “City of Angels”…..although I’m not sure how angelic L.A. is. Portland has a rather strange one – it’s “Keep Portland Weird!” Actually I found Portland quite delightful.

There you have it… the weird side of Portland.

First of all Portland is a foodie’s paradise. The food is some of the best, by which I mean locally grown, freshest and tastiest that I have had anywhere on my travels. Secondly they revere the art of making great coffee….and thirdly they have some awesome boutique breweries. Add to this trio, scenic surrounding natural wilderness, parks and formal gardens, a farmers market, a huge weekly art and craft market on the riverside and a great range of boutique shops and department stores to satisfy the most demanding shopper and you would think that Portland has it all.

BUT the crowning glory of Portland has to be the ultimate in bookstores – Powell’s City of Books – which occupies an entire city block and houses around a million books displayed in 3,500 sections in 9 colour-coded rooms, over several floors. When I say rooms I mean massive rooms of warehouse size.

I am a huge book lover….not that I am large and overweight….nor that I like over sized books….but you know what I mean. I’m a bibliophile. You’d think therefore that a store like Powell’s would have been a delight for me to wander through – right? Actually I was overwhelmed by the vastness of the place and the selection of books was mind blowing. It was sensory overload for book lovers. After a half hour of moving quickly – running like a headless chicken – with no real meaning or goal, I managed to calm down and slow down enough to start taking things in and having a proper look around. Up on the top floor…I think it was the top floor…was an amazing selection of books on photography, art, design and architecture. The phrase “spoiled for choice” doesn’t even cover it. Some of the prices were “up there”, but many were a lot cheaper than I’d be able to access at home in New Zealand. It was such a pity that having to fly home meant strict weight restrictions and so ruled out many of the large format picture books that I would otherwise have selected.

Powell’s have a computer screens and keyboards throughout the store enabling access to their huge catalogue of books. Key in the title of a book or an authors name and the computer will tell you the room and rack of books where they can be located. In the end I think I bought maybe 4 or 5 books from Powell’s, as did my wife. This sounds pitiful when there were a million titles at our disposal, but we’d already “shopped ’til we dropped” in the book stores of San Francisco so space, or more exactly weight, available for extra books in our suitcases was minimal. I’d love to take another trip there, this time with an empty case!

Unfortunately we were only there for one weekend, but if you read on you’ll see that we squeezed in quite a lot during our brief stay in the capital of weird.

One place we wanted to go to we pre-booked before leaving San Francisco. That was Stumptown Coffee Roastery. We’d booked in there for a guided coffee tasting….or coffee cupping also known as spooning….but not the cuddling kind.

We arrived early and were shown to a waiting area where we could sit on comfortable sofas and try hot coffee from a pumps….or iced coffees from the refrigerator. Wow what a choice there was. Also in the same area were a collection of old style coffee machines. All chrome and absolutely wonderful. By the time we were shown through to the “cupping” area I was already wired on caffeine.

We had maybe 15 people or so in our tasting group and the young lady who led the tasting was friendly and extremely knowledgeable. First of all she laid out about a dozen different coffee bean blends and we could examine the bean and smell it’s aroma. Next came the ground coffee…again to sniff at while dry. Then the hot water was added and we went along the line sniffing at each cup just after the water had been added and again after a few minutes…the difference in aroma was very noticeable. Finally we got to taste the various coffees. Some very mild…moving through mid range…to rich and strong. The tasting was done by taking a spoon – a cupping spoon…a little like a shallow soup spoon – and then slurping the coffee from it to make sure the flavour goes all around the mouth. You could choose to spit out the coffee or swallow….now where have I heard that before? We also got to know all about how they source their beans from all over the world – predominantly Africa and South America. It was quite a fascinating afternoon. My preference was toward the stronger, richer, chocolatey end. But having said that, I also liked a couple of the milder brews. The aftertaste flavours were almost peachy.

We hit a number of micro-breweries and bars to sample the amber nectar, and sometimes the almost chocolatey nectar too. One bar we went in, and I can’t for the life of me remember the name, had a deliciously rich chocolate Porter. Never have I tasted one so delicious. Another one called 10 Barrel Brewing had a tasting board where you could try all 10 brews. My son and daughter-in-law had a go at those while my wife and I settled for a pint. I must say, whilst in Portland, I didn’t meet a beer that wasn’t delicious.

The cafes were marvelous too – excellent coffees served at every single one we went to. Heart coffee/café was probably the best. But it would be a tight run thing as there were so many delicious cups of coffee consumed over the 3 days of our trip.

Another thing that Portland is famous for is donuts. If you want quality donuts try Blue Star Donuts, but if you want to put the weird into Portland’s donuts you have to go to Voodoo Doughnut. The choice of toppings for your donut is mind boggling. I went for the Portland Cream – basically a cream filled chocolate covered one. Very YUM! But you’ll see from the photo below that there are some odd toppings. They are very popular and we had to line up outside the shop for fifteen minutes or so before being served.

Evening dining saw us dining in a couple of restaurants. My favourite was Besaw’s. It was kind of 50’s style with high backed green leather booths. Excellent food…tasty and ample sizes…and the staff were attentive and friendly. I hate going to restaurants where you order your meal…a steak maybe, along with the several items that come with it…only for it to arrive at the table to look small and lost, sitting alone in the middle of a plate with swirls of ‘Jus’ around it and 3 little cubes of something, artistically placed to one side. The waiter comes along and asks “How did you find your steak sir?”….the reply – “I moved a pea and there it was!” They then sting you extra for ‘sides’ of potatoes and veg. Not here at Besaws. You order a meal and you get a meal. The bottle of 2014 Pinot Noir to accompany the meal, from Angela Estate in Oregon, was rich and delicious. And takes the award for best wine I tried whilst in Portland.

We never made it to the Farmers Market, but did get to the Saturday arts and crafts market by the riverside. Lot and lots of stalls to wander around all selling hand made items…plus the usual buskers and food stalls. Some of the prices were ‘up there’ though, due to the poor exchange rate with the NZ Dollar.

I was also very impressed by some of the murals on the side of buildings. Excellent quality art. And there was a wide range of architecture….the old and new sitting side by side.

The only thing that let Portland down was the weather. One day was sunny but two days showery and cloudy. I guess that’s what you get in the Pacific North West. Fortunately it was a fine day when we explored Portland’s parks and gardens. The Shakespeare gardens with it’s Rose Garden was beautiful, high on a hill overlooking the city….and would have been even better if the roses had been in bloom! We were maybe a month early. Afterwards we had a wander along a little trail through woodland back down to the city…..eating Blue Star Donuts along the way.

Weird or not, Portland Oregon is a great place to visit for a weekend…..but be warned, if you’re a book lover, you need a week to explore Powell’s Book Shop.

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The Thing About Prague – Rachael Weiss – book review

A few months ago I was looking at the books in my book cases and had one of those “aha” moments. The majority of my books were by male authors, very few were by female writers. I hadn’t consciously been avoiding women writers, it was just one of those things. I found it really quite odd, and wondered why subconsciously I may have been avoiding them.

When I was in San Francisco earlier this year I’d read, not only a women writer, but also a feminist woman writer – Rebecca Solnit’s book ‘Call Them By Their True Names‘ (American Crises And Essays) – and thoroughly enjoyed it.

So, I am now consciously trying to read as many women writers as I do their male counterparts. With that in mind I recently picked up Rachael Weiss’s memoir about her time in Prague ‘The Thing About Prague’ – printed in 2014. Suddenly waking up to the fact that she was not only still single, but also ‘middle aged’ and having nothing better to do at the time, she decides to pack everything up and move to Prague.

The Thing About Prague

Prague is one of my favourite cities in the world, alongside Paris, so I hoped that in reading Ms Weiss’s book it would bring back some happy memories. It did, kind of, but Rachael was there long term as a resident and owner of an apartment, doing the things that residents do….like living their lives… where as I was simply there doing touristy things for a week.

Rachael’s relationship with Prague was more meaningful in that she became, or tried hard to become, part of the community there. She left her home and her pet cat back in Australia to head for the birthplace of her father, to carve out a new and more satisfying literary lifestyle. Her frustrations with the Czech language and with pedantic Czech bureaucracy comes to the boil, overflows even, numerous times as she battles officialdom – what was left over after 40 years of communist rule – trying to firstly obtain her resident visa and then to sort out the mess made by another bureaucrat who changed her job description….trying to be helpful, but in doing so created a mountain of problems for her.

It’s a nice easy read. The words and sentences flow well. She doesn’t feel the need to impress us by using complicated words that would require a quick dip into the thesaurus. It’s simply a straightforward look at the three year period of her life spent living in Prague….a city that whilst bohemian, historic and magical is anything but straightforward.

Her adventures, or should that be mis-adventures, find her doing jobs that she doesn’t like, for people she would rather avoid, but also inexplicably becomes romantically fixated on (like Leonard who foams at the mouth when excited, and spits when he talks – a real catch!)…saw her somehow leading services in a Jewish synagogue – which was more a case of ‘forgive me lord for I know not what I do’…..find her lost in the woods on a hike with a very unattractive Kyrgyzstani who has cannibalistic fantasies….and she spends lots of time in bars partaking in the traditional Czech pastime of drinking copious amounts of alcohol. All while trying to find the time, and to create the right atmosphere, for writing that all important novel.

But it’s her need for romance, to find Mr Right….or even to spend a night with Mr OK, who’ll do for now, that bring us both laughs and intense frustration. It appears, for Rachael, that the phrase ‘desperate times mean desperate measures’ defines her love life. It never ceases to amaze me how a woman who is obviously intelligent and talented could define her self-worth based on whether she has a man or not.

This is Rachael’s third book. Her second book Me, Myself and Prague (2008) was about her first attempt at living for a year in Prague….armed only with an old 1973 guide book. And her first book Are We There Yet? (2005) is another travelogue about a road trip taken with a girlfriend in a land dominated by couples having fun. I haven’t read either one yet, but intend to. Other than her books, she says that her only other claim to fame is coming fourth in the 1996 New South Wales Scrabble Tournament.

The people at Goodreads currently rate The Thing About Prague at 3.31 out of 5. I’d rate it up nearer 4 out of 5. But then I am a sucker for books about writers struggling to write THE novel. Looking on line, it would appear that since these 3 books are the only ones attributed to Rachael Weiss, she is still to write her novel. I sincerely hope that she hasn’t given up her dream.

Travel books – explore the world from your armchair.

One bookcase of travel books.

I love books and I love to travel, so it’s no surprise that I have, over the years, acquired a good number of travel books.

My favourite way to travel is by train. I only wish that I’d been able to travel more by steam train than by the modern electric or diesel trains. There’s so much more adventure or even romance on steam trains. As a passenger travelling by rail I can relax, let someone else take care of the driving, kick back and either watch the scenery flash past the window, chat to fellow travellers, or lose myself in a good book. I can take a walk if I get bored…or feel the need to exercise…or I can make use of the onboard buffet or bar. For me, the journey is just as enjoyable as the destination…sometimes, more so.

I have several books specifically about rail travel, a few of which are in the photo below, and will tell you a little about each of these 5 books pictured.

Just five of my books about train travel – there are more.

So as not to bore you all too much I’ll try to keep my summary of each book as brief as possible…just a few sentences.

Railway Stations – Charles Sheppard is a 1996 publication and looks at railway stations that are “Masterpieces of Architecture”. Some of the standout stations being New York’s Grand Central Station, Saint Louis’s Union Station, and Paris’s Gare du Nord is worthy of inclusion for its facade alone. All of which I am happy to say I have visited over my years of train travel. Moscow’s subway is also included, its passageways more ornate than many luxury hotel lobbies, and deserving of the title ‘Masterpiece’.

Amazing Train Journeys – a lonely planet publication (October 2018). Divided into neat sections – Africa, The Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. Experience 60 of the world’s greatest and most unforgettable train journeys, from classic long-distance trips like Western Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer and Darwin to Adelaide’s The Ghan, to little-known gems on regular commuting lines. Personally I’d probably choose some of the small privately run railways in the UK that have preserved and operate steam trains – such as the short 2 hour trip from Fort William to Mallaig in Scotland – this is the line that the Hogwarts Express chugs along in the Harry Potter movies.

Chris Tarrant’s Extreme Railway Journeys – (as seen on the UK’s Chanel 5) published in 2016. The text in this book is by Chris Tarrant, accompanying the many colour photos. The problem is that the majority of the photos feature Tarrant’s face mugging for the camera. There are a few pictures simply showing scenery or trains from a distance, but anything close up has the man himself blocking the view. I realise it’s HIS TV show and HIS name on the book….but really, how many photos of Chris smiling do we need to see? There are some helpful maps showing the routes of the 14 Extreme Rail Journeys covered. The text is informative and easy reading, mixed in with a lot of moaning by Tarrant about trains not running on time, being overcrowded and uncomfortable in the third world countries he visited – however he was overjoyed and waxing lyrical about the Japanese Bullet train. The efficiency, comfort and the fact that the staff bow to customers scored points with him. Tarrant, it seems, prefers his “Extreme Journeys” to be accompanied by a large dollop of comfort and luxury.

Great Railway Journeys published by the BBC in 1994 accompanying the TV series of the same name, is in my opinion a far more interesting and better presented book than the one by Chris Tarrant. What makes it so is firstly, that Tarrant is not involved at all, so we can enjoy the beautiful photographs in peace, and secondly that each of the 6 Great Railway Journeys covered is narrated by a different celebrity travellers, who barely make one complaint among them. Mark Tulley takes us through Pakistan from Karachi to the Khyber Pass. Lisa St Aubin de Teran travels in South America, from Santos in Brazil to Santa Cruz in Bolivia. Clive Anderson takes us from Hong Kong, via Shanghai through to Ulaan Baatar in Mongolia. Natalia Makarova is on the Bolshoi Express from St Petersburg in Russia via the various ‘Stans to finish in Tashkent. Seasoned traveller and former “Python”, Michael Palin has a shorter trip from Derry in Northern Ireland to Kerry in the Irish Republic, and finally it’s a South African rail trip for Rian Malan starting in Capetown and ending eventually in Bophuthatswana.

More Great Railway Journeys again published by the BBC, in 1996, is more of the same….This time the celebs are Benedict Allen, Chris Bonington, Henry Louis Gate Jr., Buck Henry, poet – Ben Okri, comedians – Alexei Sayle and Victoria Wood. They journey through the middle east, Africa, the UK, Canada, Argentina and the final journey is from London to Arkadia in Greece. As in it’s predecessor, great photos and informative and witty text make this book another winner. Each journey, each story, has its own unique character, written especially for people who love slow travel….who savour the experience of the journey….rather than rushing as fast as possible to the destination. The only negative thing that I could mention about this follow up book is that there were no maps showing the routes taken. But all in all another marvelous BBC publication.

Do you enjoy the adventure of travelling via rail? What’s your favourite route? Please let me know in the comments section.

I saved the best to last. Cinque Terre. Part 3 – Vernazza. A photographic journey.

Vernazza village – Cinque Terre’s crown
Pastel houses cling to cliff tops
Steep streets take us down
Into the winding narrows
, of Vernazza’s heart
And from this place of beauty
You will never want to part.

Vernazza is a sight to behold. It’s a photographer’s dream and also a photographer’s nightmare. It’s such a lovely place, scenic, colourful – that it’s almost a sin if, as a photographer, you take a bad picture of it. Not even a bad picture….just a picture that doesn’t reflect the full beauty of the place. It’s so difficult to capture…my photos don’t do it justice (in reality the colours are so bright they “ping”)…you must go and visit yourself.

Sure it’s a little shabby in places. Some of the buildings have paint peeling from their facades but it’s a kind of shabby beauty….beauty with age maybe. I loved it here. I spent so long wandering the streets, in and out of alleys and buildings, that I missed out on the final 2 of the Cinque Terre’s villages. But it was worth it.

From the train station you can either wander straight down to the little harbour – the heart and soul of Vernazza – from which everything else radiates, OR do as we did and climb upwards instead. Up the steep stone stairways and narrow paths that bring you out on the hilltop above the village, with spectacular views over the church steeple and down to the harbour of this gorgeous little fishing village. It was exhausting but well worth the climb to the top. Only after drinking in the beauty of the place from this vantage point did we venture down into Vernazza proper.

When in a catholic country like Italy you can’t help but notice the churches and religious icons – especially in these small villages – dotted here and there in quiet corners. A chance to pass on your thanks to the powers that be…..if that’s what your beliefs are….or just enjoy the moments solitude away from the tourist throngs.

Of all 5 villages of Cinque Terre, Vernazza is the only one with a natural port. It has no car traffic either which, if you can get there early and beat the other eager tourists, adds a special tranquility to the place.

Cinque Terre part 2 – Riomaggiore village – a photographic journey.

Riomaggiore is the first of the villages you’ll meet if you approach Cinque Terre from La Spezia. It isn’t, in my opinion, the most beautiful of the villages but is still very pretty and very much worth visiting.

From the railway station you can either, follow the coastal path around a headland to get to the village, or take a short cut through a pedestrian tunnel that takes you directly into the heart of the village. Although the coastal path is picturesque and rugged, on a hot day like it was when we visited, the cool of the tunnel is the preferred route.

The villages of Cinque Terra. Part 1. Manarola – A photographic journey.

Since my last post – a black and white photographic journey through Paris – was so well supported I thought I’d try you all with some colour photos of the villages of Italy’s Cinque Terre. The villages are such a riot of colour that it would not do justice to their beauty if I presented photos in black and white.

The villages of Cinque Terre cling to the rocky cliff face along the north west coast of Italy. The can be accessed either by rail – from the nearby city of La Spezia – just 10 minutes by train to the south, or by following the pathway cut into the cliff face. The railway and the pathway link all five villages that make up the Cinque Terre. I thought that I’d be able to get some spectacular photos from the train as we made our way along the rugged coastline…..BUT – there’s always a BUT – because of the physical limitations of the geography here, the railway cuts through many, many tunnels so glimpses of the ocean are few and far between. However, the villages, as we discovered on departing the train, more than made up for the disappointment of the journey.

The buildings are close together due to the physical limits of the geography of the area and are painted in beautiful pastel colours. We spent a day exploring just 3 of the 5 villages. Here is a look in pictures at the second smallest of the five villages – Manarola.