Lesson #241: Darth Vader at the National Cathedral

I’ve seen the Star Wars trilogy exactly once. I was about 10. But Darth Vader sort of permeates pop culture, so here we are.* It turns out that there is a grotesque of Darth Vader on the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.**

I find this equal parts sacrilegious and awesome!

Autobiographical note: I am disproportionately annoyed by people who don’t know the difference between a grotesque and a gargoyle. I have no idea why.

*In fact, one of my favourite Eddie Izzard segments is the Death Star Canteen bit, which is made ever more entertaining when acted out by Lego men.

**For more information see the National Cathedral’s website here.


Lesson #227: The Statue of Liberty as a Lighthouse

Technically speaking, the Statue of Liberty is a lighthouse and from its dedication in 1886 to 1901 when President Theodore Roosevelt transferred control to the War Department, it fell under the control of the United States Lighthouse Board.

When the Lighthouse Board took over, it intended to amplify the light emitted by Lady Liberty’s torch. Its engineers set up a steam plant on Bedloe’s Island to power 14 arc lamps, nine in the torch and five strategically placed below the torch,  but despite its best efforts, the amount of light produced never made the Statue of Liberty a viable working lighthouse.*

*More information here and here. For more on lighthouses in general, see here.

Lesson #136: Fire Beacons and Crusader Castles

One of my very favourite parts of the Lord of the Rings is the part where the beacons of Gondor are lit. And that was all fun in my imagination, but Peter Jackson made it beautiful. The way that sequence was filmed was probably my favourite part of the movies, which is sort of ridiculous because it’s such a minute detail (that looked very beautiful).

Anyway, today, we drove from Amman to Petra on the King’s Highway (mostly) and checked out Madaba, Herod’s Palace at Machaerus and Kerak Castle. Kerak was occupied by many, many different people including the Moabites, the Assyrians, the Nabateans, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans and the crusaders. Mostly, Kerak Castle is famous for being a crusader fort.

My travel companion is a. a teacher, b. intellectually curious and c. has lived in Jordan for four years, so has been to many of these sites on more than one occasion when she has friends and family visit, so she has thrown more information at me in the last four days than I could ever hope to remember on command, but today, she came out with this gem…

The crusader castles used fire beacons to signal Jerusalem that they were safe. And other occupants of Jordanian castles, especially along the King’s highway were built at specific intervals so that they could transmit information by way of fire beacons from Cairo all the way to the Euphrates.

I geeked out really hard over that. Internally mostly, but it still happened.

Also, we saw the most awesome thing ever tonight. We got in to Petra this evening and decided that since we had the opportunity, we would do Petra by Night — wherein they put out a trail of lights all through the Siq all the way to the Treasury. Anyway, it was a beautiful clear night out…and Orion (who in every place I’ve ever lived, is already gone for the summer by this time of year) was bright as day standing guard over the entrance to the Siq. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen!

Lesson #24: The Hungarian State Opera

The Hungarian State Opera is one of the most beautiful opera houses I have ever seen. It does well to represent the tradition of stunning eastern European opera houses like those in Prague and Vienna.*

The Opera House was opened in September 1884 and was designed by Hungarian architect Miklos Ybl. The (giant) chandelier in the main hall weighs three tons and the main staircase (my very favourite feature) was clearly designed for women to show off their gowns…it’s this gorgeous, huge stone staircase carpeted in red.**

The theatre itself is gorgeous and gilded and has a proscenium stage that at one-time had a rotating stage. There is a royal box in the centre of the balcony area that’s all sorts of lush and everything is all red and gold.

I managed to talk two of my travel companions (including a friend who I spent months and months trying to convince to come with me to the opera in Prague) into seeing a production of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus. It was absolutely spectacular, even though it was spoken in Hungarian and sung in German, neither of which are languages we understood. The costumes, the sets, the principal singers, the performance, the atmosphere***…they were all just stellar. I would put it on the top of my opera viewing experiences.

*The State Operas in both those cities are amazing.

**For more about the history of the opera house, see here. For a virtual tour of the building, see here.

***Two things that I really, really appreciated: 1. with the exception of a few people like me and my friends, everyone was dressed up. I was wearing dress pants and a nice-ish shirt and I was seriously underdressed. Had I expected to go to the opera, I would have taken the clothes for it. 2. there was no standing ovation. I hate that the standing ovation has become the norm in the west. Even mediocre performances — and I have seen a lot of truly mediocre performances — are given standing ovations these days.

Lesson #21: The Chain Bridge

The Chain Bridge is THE bridge in Budapest.* You’ve seen pictures of it, I promise. It is beautiful.

My friends and I ushered in the New Year smack in the middle of it with the most gigantic bottle of champagne I have ever seen and it was great fun!

The Chain Bridge was the first permanent bridge across the Danube and was designed by Englishman William Tierney Clark on the initiative of Count Istvan Szechenyi and built between 1839-49 by a Scot named Adam Clark.** The lions that guard the bridgehead were sculpted by Janos Marschalko who is rumoured to have been so distraught over forgetting to give the lions tongues that he drowned himself in the Danube.***

All of this information from DK’s Eyewitness Travel Budapest, pages 162-63.

*And unlike THE bridge in Prague (the Charles Bridge), it was built to carry more than just foot and cart traffic. Then again, the Charles Bridge was built in the 14th century, so they were centuries away from needing a bridge wide and strong enough for motorized vehicles.

**Who is not related to William Tierney Clark.

***A fun, if macabre, story that is completely untrue. The lions do, in fact, have tongues. We looked.