Friday, June 17, 2016

Frankenstein and vampires celebrate their 200th birthday in Switzerland

The Castle of Chillon was made famous by Lord Byron in his epic poem  (wikipedia)

LAKE GENEVA, SWITZERLAND Had it not been for an unseasonably cold and rainy weekend in June, 1816 near Geneva, Switzerland, Gothic literature might have never had two of its most infamous characters.

In fact, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi might never have had careers, because that’s when the Frankenstein monster and vampires were born.
Mary Shelley created Frankenstein  (wikipedia)

Mary Godwin was only 19-years old when she dreamed up the idea of a scientist who created human life from the body parts of corpses. It was the result of a challenge by Mary’s future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Gordon, Lord Byron and John Polidori to see who could come up with the best horror story. In the process, Mary brought Dr. Frankenstein’s monster to life, while Polidori gave us the world of vampires.

Villa Diodati -- Home of Frankenstein and vampires  (wikipedia)
It happened at Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva. To pass the time the group invented stories which resulted in the creation of Frankenstein, published in 1818 as The Modern Prometheus,” and Polidori’s 1819 Gothic horror story “The Vampyre.” 

At first it was believed that Lord Byron was responsible for the genesis of vampire literature. Byron attested to the fact that Polidori, who was also the poet’s personal physician, was the author of the now infamous bloodthirsty creatures.
The Frankenstein monster  (wilipedia)

Though Villa Diodati is a private residence today and inaccessible to visitors, it can be seen by boat from the lake.

A site that can be visited however, nestles it the eastern end of Lake Geneva, and it is here that Lord Byron attained his literary credentials in the region with his 392-line narrative poem “The Prisoner of Chillon.”

The Castle of Chillon was originally a Roman outpost along the main road through strategic Alpine passes to the east and south. The first written accounts of the castle date to 1005, but it was Byron’s poem in 1816 detailing the imprisonment of a Genevois monk, Francois Bonivard, that captured the imagination.
The dungeon at Chateau Chillon where Francois Bonivard was prisoner  (wikipedia)

Bonivard was held prisoner at the castle from 1532 to 1536 and the imprints of his footsteps are still visible in the dungeon floor where he was chained.

The Castle of Chillon is one of Switzerland's most popular sites thanks to Byron  (wikipedia)
Because Switzerland has been a democracy since the 13th century, it has never had any royalty so castles are not as common in the mountainous country as in other parts of Europe. Even so, Chillon remains one of the most popular attractions in Switzerland.
Portrait of Lord Byron  (wikipedia)

Travelers to Lake Geneva who have no interest in castles or monsters can still enjoy the essence of Swiss culture. With vineyards literally creating a carpet of grapes from the highest hill to the water’s edge, it is one of the most productive wine regions in Switzerland.

Never heard of Swiss wine? That’s because the Swiss drink it themselves and very little is exported. Better to export fictional fiends and savor the wrath of grapes than vice versa.

Teetotalers can still indulge in another well-known Swiss tradition however, as Nestle celebrates its 170th anniversary in 2016. The world famous chocolate company came into existence in 1866 in the village of Vevey as a milk-based baby food manufacturer.

Fireworks at the close of the Geneva Festival light up the sky  (wikipedia)
In 1879, Nestle merged with the inventor of milk chocolate, Daniel Peter, and in 1905 it joined forces with the Anglo-Swiss Milk company in what may have been the sweetest business deal in history.
In Geneva fireworks are an art form  (wikipedia)

Henri Nestle was the founder of the business, but the word “nestle” in French also means nest or finding comfort in a nest and who could dispute such a claim when they “nestle with a chocolate concoction” created on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland?

For the ultimate grand finale, visit Geneva in August and catch the last night of the Fete de Geneve or Festival of Geneva. If you think you have seen fireworks before, you probably haven’t until you witness the hour-long display of pyrotechnics that bring down the curtain on Geneva’s festival.

Using the north shore of the lake as a backdrop, the southern banks are reserved as a viewing area. The fireworks are synchronized to a musical theme, and once they begin, they, indeed, are linked to the music with Swiss precision.
Geneva's skyshow is one of a kind and not to be missed (wikipedia)
It’s a skyshow that is not to be missed. Everything else pales in comparison.

Thus, the fireworks began on the southern shores of Lake Geneva in 1816 and two centuries later, Frankenstein and his vampire friends are still enjoying the show.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Kon-Tiki Museum conjures adventure in Oslo

Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki sailed across the Pacific Ocean in 1947 to Polynesia (wikipedia)
OSLO, NORWAY Usually when people say “They don’t like museums,” what they really mean is that they don’t like certain “types” of museums. For example, there are five exhibitions that immediately come to mind that have universal appeal to even the most hardened “museum cynic.”

The Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland is a showcase of both the summer and winter games over the last century. The Museum of Transportation in York, England features trains, trolleys, buses and any other means of mobility from the U.K.’s historic past. In Stockholm, the Wasa Museum is a three-story virtually complete Swedish warship dating to 1626 that was salvaged from the bottom of the harbor in the 1960s. And then there are the outdoor ruins of Pompeii, once a thriving port city near Naples that was smothered by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D.
Model of the Kon-Tiki from above  (wikipedia)

Oslo, Norway is home to another such venue which is guaranteed to become a topic of dinner conversation following a tour. The Kon-Tiki Museum captures the imagination of everyone who visits, especially appealing to the “little boy” spirit of adventure that lives within the soul almost every male on the planet.

Here in a single setting, visitors discover the story of Norwegian explorer and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl who set out to learn more about the wanderlust spirit of primitive man’s search for new worlds. Guests can also experience the original vessels used during Heyerdahl’s amazing expeditions including the Kon-Tiki, Ra, Tigris, Easter Island, Fatu-Hiva, Tucume and Galapagos. There is a cave tour as well, plus an underwater exhibit and a life-size model of a whale shark.
What makes the Kon-Tiki Museum so appealing is that it’s the kind of place you know a little bit about from magazine articles or television programs but not much more. Then, when you see it up-close-and-personal, it becomes and eye-brow raising source of discovery and suddenly, what was supposed to be a fifteen minute break in the itinerary turns into a two or three hour love affair filled with curiosity and wonder.
Ra II was a reed boat the Heyerdahl team used to cross the Atlantic in 1970  (wikipedia)
Heyerdahl’s first expedition began on April 28, 1947 on a balsa raft called Kon-Tiki. Along with five other crew members, Heyerdahl began his quest from Callao, Peru sailing across the Pacific Ocean to the Polynesian Islands with the purpose of proving it was possible for people in pre-Columbian times to have settled Polynesia from South America.
Side view of Ra II which Heyerdahl used to sail from Morocco to Barbados  (wikipedia)
In literal terms, the “pre-Columbian era” represents to the times preceding the first voyages of Columbus in 1492.
Heyerdahl used only materials and technologies available to the people of the time in which they lived, attempting to prove that there were no technical reasons that would prevent them from a successful voyage. Though the 1947 expedition did sail with some modern equipment, Heyedahl’s argument was that the technologies they possessed had nothing to do with the physical proof that a primitive raft could successfully complete the journey.
Sailing their vessel built from balsa logs and other native materials recorded in illustrations by Spanish conquistadors, the sextet of adventurers were at sea for 101 days covering 4,300 miles before crashing on a reef in the Tuamotu Islands.
The indigenous craft was built from nine balsa tree trunks lashed together with hemp roping. Cross-pieces of balsa logs added support and pine splash boards covered the bow. The main-mast was built from mangrove wood to form an A-frame while behind the main-mast was a bamboo cabin that was 14-feet long and 8-feet wide. The steering oar was also made of mangrove with the rudder blade built out of fir.
Adventurer Thor Heyerdahl  (wikipedia)
Initial supplies consisted of 275 gallons of drinking water stored in 56 water cans. For food, the team relied on flying fish, dolphin fish, yellow fin tuna, bonito and shark which were plentiful to catch during the voyage. Other provisions included 200 coconuts, sweet potatoes, bottle gourd and an assortment of fruit.
Some 23-years later, in May of 1970, Heyerdahl challenged the Atlantic Ocean by sailing from Morocco on a course for Barbados in a reed boat called Ra II. A year earlier, the Norwegian explorer had attempted the same experiment but was forced abandon the project, falling short by only a week.
The Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo is home to all of Heyerdahl's expeditions  (wikipedia)
The 1970 expedition with its eight man crew was at sea for 57 days for a distance of 3,270 nautical miles. Using wall paintings of papyrus vessels from Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and Central and South America, Heyerdahl had the added vision of demonstrating that people from differing cultures and religions could work together to accomplish a common goal.

The Kon-Tiki Museum is a showcase of wonder, awe and adventure. But don’t bother to visit if you “don’t like museums.”

Friday, June 3, 2016

A Curtain call for Shakespeare’s London theater

Exterior of London's Globe Theater, rebuilt through the efforts of American actor Sam Wanamaker  (wikipedia)

LONDON – This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. How  ironic then that excavations for a new apartment tower in London have uncovered the remains of the 16th century theater known as the Curtain where some of his plays were first performed.

But the plot thickens with true dramatic flair thanks to a number of twists.

Archaeologists were surprised to discover that the Curtain was not round like most playhouses of the day. Rather it was square. Adding to the intrigue is the reference in the prologue of Shakespeare’s “Henry V”, which was first staged at the Curtain, where the structure is called “this wooden O.”

Other London theaters during Shakespeare’s time, such as the better known Globe and Rose were circular in design.
The "Wooden O" today in London  (wikipedia)

Adding to the maze of curiosities surrounding Shakespeare and Elizabethan theater over the past four centuries, is the story of an American actor who was responsible for constructing a replica of the Globe theater in London.

During a visit to English capital in 1949, Wanamaker was astonished and dismayed to discover that only trace of the original theater honoring the memory of Shakespeare’s literary contributions was a grimy deteriorating plaque on an abandoned brewery.

With passionate determination Wanamaker created the Shakespeare Globe Trust in 1970 in an effort to raise money for the construction of a new playhouse. In 1997, the Globe reopened with a performance of none other than “Henry V.” Today, the Globe is the only thatch roofed building in the city.

Sadly, Wanamaker died in 1993, never see his dream come to fruition.

Oddly enough, the high cost of real estate is creating building projects throughout London, and the excavation process has accidentally established a bit of a “golden age” of archaeology in the city.
Standing room only for a performance of King Lear at London's Globe Theater  (wikipedia)
Other recent projects have uncovered skeletal remains of 14th century plague victims as well as Roman sandals.

Senior archaeologist at the Museum of London Archaeology, Heather Knight, claims the Curtain site “has probably the best preserved remains of any of the playhouses we’ve looked at.”

The recent excavations show that the Curtain was approximately a 100-foot by 72-foot rectangle that could accommodate about 1,000 people.

Though the Curtain was home to Shakespeare’s acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, from 1597 to 1599, and one of the oldest playhouses in London, it is also one of the least known.

The first performance at the "new" Globe was Henry V  (wikipedia)
As a tribute to Shakespeare’s literary contributions, Sam Wanamaker had a three-fold concept in mind for his Globe reconstruction. First, it would be an active playhouse where patrons can witness performances in much the same manner as they would have been staged during Shakespeare’s time.

Second, it is a school where actors can learn the techniques, nuances and historical styles of theatrical evolution through the centuries.

And finally it is a source of research for Shakespearean and Elizabethan studies.

Aerial view of Sam Wanamker's Globe...the only thatched roof building in London  (wikipedia)
For travelers to London, the Globe is also a living museum where children of all ages can gain a broader understanding of Shakespeare through a variety of ingenious interactive kiosks.

“The show must go on” as they say. Thanks to contemporary progress, some of London’s past has been unearthed and rediscovered. “All the world is a stage” as the Curtain rises like the Phoenix from the ashes of history.