26 May 2014

SHORE EXCURSION: Back Lakes District

Beijing, Yangtze River land extension, China
Beihai Park, Beijing, China.
Photo: Cruise Captain
For the energetic and those looking to relax alike, Beijing can be a challenge. No one seems to walk anywhere and the ‘nine million bicycles’ that Katie Melua sang about have all but vanished. Even if you just want to chill out rather than stretch your legs, you’ll find public parks invaded by dancing retirees and shrieking teenagers in rowboats.
But there’s one place in Beijing where you can still walk or pedal all morning and barely see a car, where people play ping-pong outdoors and sit sipping tea in their slippers. In the Back Lakes district, fat orange fish burp in the water, pagodas peel with the passing of centuries, and you might feel you’ve stepped into a China long forgotten. Yet despite the charm and history you can have contemporary fun too, in back alleys hiding eateries, hip nightspots and boutique hotels.
Cycle-rickshaw in the Back Lakes District,
Beijing, China.
Photo: Cruise Captain
The Back Lakes lie just north of the Forbidden City, and were once home to courtiers and master craftsmen who depended on imperial largesse. They built large residences arranged around central courtyards and hidden behind high walls, which created narrow walled laneways called hutong. Today, in a city of vast apartment blocks, it’s one of the few places to see Beijingers going about their daily lives: chopping vegetables, reading newspapers and fishing from bridges.
Some river-cruise companies offer shore excursions to this area but, if you have free time, it’s also easy to do yourself. The lakes lie just beyond Di’anmen East Road, where taxis drop you into a horde of pedicab drivers. You’d do best to ignore them, since they’re used to pedalling high-tipping American tour groups about. Besides, this area is really about slow appraisal and good walks. Though you’ll find a few temples, defensive towers and small museums, Prince Gong’s Mansion is really the only formal sight. The mansion was built in 1777 by a court favourite and brings together a collection of cedar-wood pavilions set in traditional Chinese gardens of pocket-size ponds and covered walkways.
Promenade along Front Lake in the
Back Lakes District, Beijing, China.
Photo: Cruise Captain
Other than this, the Back Lakes make a pleasant change from serious cultural sightseeing. Looping around all three lakes will take you several hours. If you don’t have time, walk to humpbacked Silver Ingot Bridge, where two of the three lakes meet in a charming vista of waterlilies and willow trees. An eighteenth-century emperor declared it one of the city’s Eight Great Views, and little seems to have changed.
In the Back Lakes, you might come across old men in blue Mao jackets pedalling sedately along the cobbled lanes, or neighbourhood wives scraping potatoes on doorsteps. In the evening, red lanterns hang from upturned eaves and the centuries unpeel. Above the distant hum of traffic and construction work a songbird in a cage trills, a lovely lament to a Beijing that is almost obliterated.

If you’ve been to Beijing’s Back Lakes District and feel you have something to add, please do so. Our readers appreciate your tips and memories.

21 May 2014

Cruise News: Un-Cruise the Pacific Northwest

The SS Legacy.
Photo: Un-Cruise Adventures
The Pacific Northwest of the USA might be one of the more overlooked corners of the river-cruise planet, but Captain Rivers reckons it provides one of the wildest, most scenic cruises anywhere.
Now Seattle-based small-ship cruise line Un-Cruise Adventures has added more river-cruise opportunities in the Pacific Northwest, with the S.S. Legacy scheduled for 34 departures on the Colombia, Snake and Willamette Rivers from April-November 2015. The cruise departs and ends in Portland, Oregon.
Highlights include a jet boat tour into Hells Canyon, Multnomah Falls, Bonneville Dam, private tasting at a Washington winery, Fort Walla Walla, Maryhill Museum, Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, Astoria’s Columbia River Maritime Museum, Fort Clatsop and a transit of eight locks.
View over the Colombia River, USA.
Photo: Un-Cruise Adventures





The rich history of the rivers comes alive through shore excursions and lively on board presentations that focus on Lewis and Clark’s expedition, the Oregon Trail, native Americans, early pioneers and entrepreneurs. 

The SS Legacy is a replica coastal steamer that emulates the steam ships found along the rivers in the early twentieth century. Public spaces include an elegant Klondike Dining Room, Grand Salon with dance floor, wine bar and rollicking Pesky Barnacle Saloon. (It’s true, Captain Rivers doesn’t make these things up.) Wellness amenities include two hot tubs, a sauna, an included massage, fitness equipment and yoga on deck.
If you’ve cruised the Pacific Northwest and feel you have something to add, please do so. Our readers appreciate your tips and memories.

15 May 2014

HISTORY OF TRAVEL: Stained Glass


Medieval European stained glass.
Photo: River Cruise Insight.
There’s something magical about stained glass. It gleams in rivers of light and throws splotches of green, blue and red across any enclosed space, suffusing it in glowing color. Even in its very creation there is something extraordinary: stained glass is essentially sand transformed by fire, then turned into art by those skilled enough to control it. Take a river cruise in Europe, and youre sure to see plenty of it.
While stained glass has become synonymous with church windows, it can in fact refer to any colored glass, produced by adding metallic salts to the glass during manufacture: cobalt for dark blue, copper or gold for red, copper oxide for green. (Stained glass can also be made by painting the surface of glass before firing it in a kiln.) Objects are then created by arranging pieces of glass in a mosaic-like fashion, traditionally held together by stone, plaster, wood or strips of lead.
The rose window of Notre Dame in Paris, France.
Photo: River Cruise Insight.
No one is sure when stained glass first emerged, but certainly Syria was an early centre of production. The ruins of early Islamic cities in Syria have revealed colored fragments of yellow, green, pale blue and purple glass once mounted in wooden frameworks. By the eighth century, alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan was detailing stained-glass production and cutting techniques.
Arab stained-glass filigree windows arrived in Europe via Spain, where they appeared as early as the tenth century. Returning European Crusaders also carried Islamic decorative ideas home; the famously beautiful rose windows of European cathedrals such as Chartres and Lincoln were inspired by the rosettes and octagonal windows of Ummayid palaces.
Heraldic crest on a window of Berne
cathedral, Switzerland.
Photo: River Cruise Insight.
However, the best of medieval European stained glass was soon depicting human and animal figures. Ecclesiastical stained glass was essentially an illuminated story portraying scenes from the Bible to a mostly illiterate population. Mythical figures, heraldic shields and royal memorials also featured prominently.
During the Renaissance, small, paned domestic windows were created by blowing and then spinning glass bubbles. This resulted in the characteristic concentric rings of glass still seen in old houses and castles, complete with a central lump where the spinner's rod held the glass. But not all such windows from this period are actually stained glass, since artisans had started to paint the surfaces of colorless glass. This was cheaper and added to the range of color and detail, but some of the rich glow of medieval stained glass was lost.
In the nineteenth-century, stained glass made something of a comeback in household windows and leadlights, or decorative glass panels over doorways. A revived taste in Gothic architecture also saw decorative glass appear in train stations and other public buildings.
Window by Louis Comfort Tiffany
in the Museum of Metropolitan Art,
New York, USA.
Photo: River Cruise Insight.
By the early twentieth century, American designer Louis Comfort Tiffany was famous for decorative and iridescent stained glass, especially lamps and windows in the Art Nouveau style; many artists of the Art Nouveau movement were particularly fond of stained glass.
However, the art of stained glass had remained virtually unchanged for a thousand years until French artist Jean Crotti pioneered a new technique called gemmail in the 1930s. This did away with the need for a frame in lead or other material; instead, overlapping pieces of glass were simply fused together. Many artists such as Picasso and Mondrian dabbled in gemmail, but the German Walter Womacka was its most noted expert. French artist Marc Chagall also became a leading proponent of stained glass in the 1960s.
The end of the twentieth century saw stained glass regain popularity once more, this time as a hobby craft and for use in leadlights and bathroom windows. Today, stained glass is produced commercially mainly in the USA, Germany, France, Poland and Russia. Magical as always, it still brightens up our world, and brings color to unexpected places.

You've almost certainly seen stained glass while on your river cruises, so please leave a comment about the best you remember, and join the conversation!

11 May 2014

Cruise News: New ships to sail in America

The Queen of the West, currently operating in
the Pacific Northwest, USA.
Photo: American Cruise Lines
American Cruise Lines has confirmed it will be placing the first of four upcoming newbuilds on the Mississippi River, where it currently operates its newest riverboat, Queen of the Mississippi. The second newbuild will operate in the Pacific Northwest on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, where the line is already operating the 120-passenger Queen of the West. Construction of both new riverboats is well underway.
The new Mississippi riverboat will have a similar capacity to Queen of the Mississippi at 150 passengers, and will enter service in March of 2015. The new Columbia riverboat will follow later that same year. It will be slightly larger than American Cruise Lines’ other riverboats, with a planned capacity of 175 passengers. Similar in design, both will feature fully functioning paddlewheels.      
Queen of the West on the Columbia River, USA.
Photo: American Cruise Lines
The two new ships, which haven’t been named yet, will enable American Cruise Lines to offer expanded itineraries on the Mississippi River System and the Columbia and Snake Rivers, adding new cruise options for those looking to experience these regions. The line currently runs numerous eight-day cruises on both rivers, offering various themes from wine and jazz music, to Mark Twain and the Lewis & Clark expedition.
The company says the new ships will feature the largest, most well-appointed staterooms on the rivers, and that almost all staterooms will have large sliding glass doors offering panoramic views and entirely private balconies. A glass-enclosed dining room and various spacious lounge venues are also planned.


Have you sailed on a US river, or with American Cruise Lines? Why not add a comment here and join the conversation.

6 May 2014

SHORE EXCURSION: St Basil’s Cathedral

Moscow – Volga-Baltic Waterway, Russia

St Basil's Cathedral, Moscow, Russia.
Photo: Cruise Captain
Few buildings say Russia more than the candy-cane domes of St Basil’s Cathedral under the walls of the Kremlin and overlooking Red Square in Moscow. Nobody knows who designed it, though legend says Ivan the Terrible had the architect’s eyes put out so he’d never create anything else again to rival its beauty. It’s certainly a compelling building, every dome differently decorated in almost garish, Willy Wonka colours.
Interior of St Basil's Cathedral, Moscow, Russia.
Photo: Cruise Captain
Surprisingly few people – and hardly any of the river-cruise tour groups – visit the interior, which is a shame. If you have free time after the tour of the Krelim that is always included on Russian river cruises, then pop in for a look yourself. It’s quite a contrast to the cheerful exterior, with shadowy chapels (nine in all) connected by arched corridors and staircases that provide some of the menace of medieval Russia. Every chapel is different, and the tomb of St Basil himself is splendid in red and gold. When we were there, a choir was busking to raise funds for renovations. The beautiful liturgical singing echoed right through the building and accompanied us on our exploration.
Nothing is more evocative of old Russia than its shadowy, icon-filled churches and cathedrals. Outside, they’re a flamboyant collection of medieval onion domes in swirling stripes, or a baroque whimsy in pink and blue, or sport glittering gold domes that bulge as if about to pop. 
Icon inside St Basil's Cathedral,
Moscow, Russia.
Photo: Cruise Captain
Inside, they’re often dark and dramatic, sauna-hot and shimmering with candles. Sad-faced saints look down from walls onto whispering women in headscarves, and priests chant like the droning of a thousand bees. Russia’s churches are also intertwined with its colourful and often violent history, commemorating saints and tsars, murdered princes and scheming aristocrats. These days, religious life is bouncing back in the post-Soviet era, and many churches in Russia are busy with young, mobile-toting priests and crowds of solemn worshippers. St Basil’s is an exception. It’s no longer a working church, but a museum with an entrance fee, but still solemn and beautiful.

If youve visited St Basil’s Cathedral and have any fond memories you’d like to share, please join the conversation by leaving a comment below.