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Travel Feature

Philadelphia's Independence Hall Spotlighted

In the spring of 1799, the city of Philadelphia, PA, was bureaucrat heaven. The State, Local and Federal governments were sharing the same space, and the their constituentIndependence hall by ferdinand richardt parts were lodged in every nook and cranny of downtown Philly. Politicians from every conceivable level were walking the streets and 18th-century lobbyists were waiting behind every corner waiting to pounce.

But then, almost suddenly, the city was abandoned. First the Pennsylvania government decided they needed more space and they moved to Lancaster in the middle of the summer. Then, in 1800, the Feds moved to Washington, and Philadelphia was left with only its local pols, and a pressing need with some other industry to fuel its economy.

That the city did, but the few blocks around Chestnut Street continued to hold the remains of what was at one time the center of the American universe.

It was here at the old State House, on the first floor, that the Second Continental Congress, decided to declare themselves a thing called the United States of America in 1776. Then 10 years later, the same Congress, now located in New York, endorsed the creation of a heretofore-illegal convention to replace the ramshackle constitution that had been in effect since 1781 and suggested holding it in the empty lower floor of the Pennsylvania State House.

But in 1801 no one really cared all that much about historic preservation, and the place became a warehouse, then an art school, then Charles Wilson Peale’s Museum, which was meant to be Philly’s answer to P. T. Barnum’s in New York.

Peale’s Museum was thrown out when it was decided the building was too venerable, and it became a more dignified public space before being turned into a shrine in 1876.

Today, while it’s been restored to its 1787 glory, one cannot help but be a bit sad that the top floor, which is where the rangers give their talks, couldn’t have been redone to be a restoration of Peale’s Museum. An ancient freak show would be a perfect antidote to the solemnity of the assembly hall on the ground floor.

While Independence Hall itself, and Congress Hall next door -- which was where the first few Congresses under the constitution me -- are well-done museums, much of which surrounds it is not.

The shrine to the Liberty Bell is downright vulgar, and a number of private museums in the immediate area, most notably the Museum of Liberty, are total rip- offs. The National Constitution Center is hideously expensive, and when I was there, the place was full of advertisements for an exhibit that had already closed.

On the other hand, the visitor’s center has a couple of nice movie theaters and decent exhibits, and the Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson impersonators are relatively entertaining.

One thing they’re currently doing is rebuilding the mansion where the residence was. When I was a kid, the site was a public toilet. I thought then as now that the President living in a toilet was hilarious.

Independence Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and deservedly so.

Independence Hall is the centerpiece of Independence National Historical Park located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Chestnut Street between 5th and 6th Streets. Known primarily as the location where both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were debated and adopted, the building was completed in 1753 as the Pennsylvania State House for the Province of Pennsylvania. It became the principal meeting place of the Second Continental Congress from 1775 to 1783 and was the site of the Constitution Convention in the summer of 1787. The building is part of Independence National Historic Park and is listed as a 

Tourist Traps: The Essentials -- The Statue of Liberty

As far as national icons go, Frédéric Bartholdi’s Liberty Enlightening the World is the ultimate. It is a symbol of what this nation is supposed to stand for, for the nation in general and for New York City in particular. Uncle Sam is as fictional as Santa Claus; Mom is mad at you half the time; apple pie is overrated; and the flag is everywhere. But Lady Liberty is different. The UN has declared her a World Heritage Site.

She’s in one place, and as the genuine article, just has to be experienced in person. However…

There are a number of things that have to be seen properly at a distance, and this is one of them. For one thing, it costs $12/person MINIMUM to get to Liberty Island. For that you get to see the statue’s butt from afar. A few months back they started letting people in for the climb to the top, but in order to do that, you have to make reservations well in advance or get to the ticket office in Castle Clinton (itself a National Monument), by at least eight in the morning. Just going on a whim is a waste of time. Generally, the ferry goes there and to Ellis Island (which IS worth going to), and starting around noon, there’s not enough time to see both. So if you’re in the Battery in the afternoon, or New Jersey’s Liberty State Park, where the other ferry docks, don’t bother getting on.

But as already said, this is a mandatory tourist trap, and visiting New York without seeing the thing head on is something you would regret. So what to do?

There are two options that are totally free of charge:

1) The Staten Island Ferry
2) Governor’s Island

The Staten Island Ferry is a no-brainer. Millions of tourists make the ride every week and never leave the St. George Terminal. The view of the statue is excellent and you get to see it twice. True, the snacks are expensive, but you can get them elsewhere for less.

However, if you’re in town over the weekend, Governor’s Island is a much better option. While only open Friday through Sunday until October 10th (unless you make a reservation for the Wednesday or Thursday tours), you can get the FREE ferry to what was until recently a military base, and walk over to what happens to be a perfect spot to view Lady Liberty, sit down on that convenient park bench and take her in for as long as you want. After that, you can do a tour of the two forts or participate in one of the many artistic endeavors that various groups have planned in order to make Governor’s Island the Great American Hangout.

As to souvenirs, you can get Statue of Liberty tchotchkies just about anywhere, and they’re generally less expensive.

If you don’t live here in New York, then it may actually be worth it to go to the website and see if you can get a “crown ticket.” There’s a better-than-even chance you won’t get it, but that’s the only reason to actually head out to the island.

Next: Independence Hall

Domodimonti's Dr. Francesco Bellini -- Renaissance Man

Dr. Francesco Bellini -- passionate winemaker of Domodimonti Natural Wine -- married an Italian and relocated to French Canada but he did not forget his Italian homeland. In 2003, while he and his wife Marisa were in Italy, an opportunity came their way to purchase a distressed Domodimonti“antique cantina” with over 40 hectares of vineyards along with eight hectares of olive groves.

The idea of producing their own natural wine in the region where he grew up was the realization of a dream. But that is just the beginning of a remarkable story for Dr. Bellini is not just a winemaker, he is also the driving force behind one the great discoveries of the 21st century -- a virtual cure for the dreaded Hepatitis C virus.

It was the first week of August, I unexpectedly received an email from my Sicilian colleague Marco Scapagnini and the Italian Tourism Board inviting me to Montefiore dell'Aso for the grand opening of Domodimonti's state-of-the-art facility and of their vineyard-based new hotel and spa, Albergo Magnolia. It was a quite a nice surprise -- it always is when someone invites you to Italy.

 I thought this trip would be about innovation in wine-making -- Domodimonti makes a "natural wine" using only minimal sulfites and he takes a "this is a living organism" approach to ensure the very best product.  So who is Dr. Bellini, you might ask? Well, he is many things and... quite complex.

If you met Dr. Bellini at a local restaurant in Marches (the region where the winery is located), you might think him to be just one of many Italian businessmen, maybe from Rome or Milan. A unassuming man, he's a passionata, a lover of wine, a man who loves hisfrancesco_bellini_2006 land and takes pride in where he comes from. But, he's complex. He is a businessman. But unlike most  -- Bellini has done good for the world. Incredible good. Some people have called him a philanthropist. I think he's a modern day Renaissance Man.
 
Dr. Bellini's first major success in the pharmaceutical world came in the form of the drug Lamivudine (3TC), commercially known as Epivir, an anti-AIDS drug, and Zeffix, used to treat Hepatitis B. Although there had been other antiviral drugs on the market, the game changer was when Epivir was used to combat the AIDS virus; it forced the virus to change into a less toxic form thereby making it more vulnerable to other antivirals such as AZT.
 
Combination therapy was born in the anti-AIDS field, eventually making Epivir the cornerstone of any anti-AIDS therapy. Ironically, Epivir seems to attack the AIDS virus in the same way the AIDS virus attacks humans -- by weakening its immune system.
 
The company Dr. Bellini founded that is behind the discovery and making of the drugs, Biochem Pharma, would grow to be the largest biotech company in Canada. Biochem Pharma is big business and it eventually merged with Shire PLC in a staggering $12 billion dollar deal in 2000.
 
In 2001, in conjunction with Power Technologies of Canada, Dr. Bellini created Picchio Pharma (PP): A 50/50 joint venture. Picchio Pharma invested in small companies within the Biotech field, often taking control of the company; one of those investments was in a company called Virochem.
 
Virochem eventually discovered VX-222 and it would play a pivotal role in developing combination therapy. It also became a takeover target by Vertex for their V-222 drug, which they acquired in 2009 for close to 1/2 billion dollars Canadian. Today, VX-222, is undergoing clinical trials with Teleprevir to try to demonstrate that the Hepatitis C disease can be treated by a combination of two drugs, effectively eliminating treatment by Interferon, which has serious side effects. As of early September 2010, results of VX-222 and Teleprevir were released  showing a remarkable 78 percent cure rate of Hepatitis C, even with the most severe cases.

Enough pharma-speak. Lets talk wine. Specifically Domodimonti.

This cutting edge, modern winery is located only two and a half hours East of Rome in the Le Marche region between Umbria and Tuscany. With a spectacular landscape of narrow coastal plains that rise sharply into the peaks of the Sibillini Mountains, Ancona and the Adriatic Sea can be seen in the distance on a clear day. Yes, Domodimonti is is harmony with nature.
 
Dr. Bellini grew up in Ascoli Piceno. Owning a vineyard was a dream of his, and with Domodimonti -- a boutique winery that has a maximum production capacity of 400,000 bottles -- purchasing 140 acres of land in his home region would be the realization of that dream. A return to his roots, so-to-speak, to create a "natural wine vineyard," with the least amount of additives. As a chemist and research scientist, it's not surprising that Dr. Bellini -- who resides in both Montreal, Canada, and Le Marche -- approaches winemaking from a scientific point of view.

In every region in Italy and the world at large, there are rules and regulations to follow when making wine, especially when it comes to organic farming. Dr. Bellini focuses on specific aspects of sustainable wine growth including water conservation, soil improvement, erosion control and the latest in integrated pest management techniques.

The vines are sustainably grown, using primarily organic matter. The grapes are hand-picked, low-yielding with no sugar added. The wine has no acid adjustments, strict selection of yeasts and no other additives for mouth-feel or color. Temperature controlled vats with external jackets allow strict control of the very important stage of fermentation. By cooling each individual vat, Domodimonti is able to substitute the use of sulfites during the fermentation process.
 
With minimal sulfites added, there is less of chance of allergic reactions and other side effects. With the copious quantities of Domodimonti wine that I drank on my visit -- I should have had a terrible hangover. It never happened. I never woke up the next morning with a hangover -- and that's how i know this.

The vineyard is spread across the backdrop of Montefiore dell'Aso. The vineyard occupies several parcels of land made of clay soil with the vines facing south. The soil was originally covered by the Adriatic Sea. The vicinity of the sea to the east and the protection by the Sibillini Mountains play a role in creating the 1200 foot high vineyards' microclimate, ideal for healthy and natural ripening of the grapes.

There is a lot of history in this winery. Despite Domodimonti's first vintage in 2004, the vineyard has actually been in existence since the 1950s. It's taken quite a bit of time and work to restructure the original vines and to plant new ones. But the result has, obviously, been more than worth it.
 
Throughout the growing season the vines are monitored for growth. During the summer months, the vines are pruned, reducing the fruit by 50%. This strengthens the remaining grapes. They receive the maximum amount of nutrients and achieve their full potential.

The internationally acclaimed winemaker, Carlo Ferrini, adds his guidance and inspiration to the wines he produces at Domodimonti. The entire winemaking process is performed under nitrogen, which is generated by ionic exchange, allowing Domodimonti to handle and later bottle the wine in the absence of oxygen. This is where Dr. Bellini's talents as a biochemist are used most effectively.
 
The wine is aged in French oak barrels in the wine cellar. Depending on the wine, the duration in the barrels may range from 3-14 months. Afterwards, the wine is bottled and stored for a minimum of three months, before being shipped.
 
With the same passion for research and entrepreneurship in biotechnology, Dr. Bellini weaves tradition and innovation in the wines of Domodimonti. It's obvious that his love for the native soil and special attention given to the land is rewarded with fruit produced of quality and value which creates exceptional wines. In the future, we can only hope that other winemakers might follow Dr. Bellini's lead.

Domodimonti

Fisherman's Wharf - San Francisco's Essential Tourist Trap

San Francisco Fisherman's WharfIt is said that San Franciscans hate Fisherman’s Wharf. To some extent that’s probably true. The reason is simple. Too many tourists!

San Franciscans, at least those who aren’t in the tourist-hospitality industry, hate tourists. It reminds them that the hospitality-tourist industry is the largest in the city and that it’s possible the city’s best days are behind it.

Granted, gentrification has improved much of the burg, but be that as it may, whether the locals like it or not, Fisherman’s wharf is an essential tourist trap.
 
If it weren't so, then how would you explain the fact that it has three (count ’em, three) national parks, decent food, a sizable percentage of the world’s sea lions, good fishing and really great views of the bay. What more do you want? A cheesy shopping mall? They've got that too.
 
The reason most San Franciscans rarely go there (or admit that they do) is the main reason it’s essential. It’s too famous. People don’t go to their area’s famous attractions. It’s also arrogance. After all, the area stinks with tourists, and unless they work there, the locals are better than that, thumbing their noses at us fat visitors who come to see the city by the bay. This is just something you have to see…
 
Starting with the national parks…
 
The three NPs -- San Francisco Maritime, Golden Gate/Miller Field and Alcatraz, -- aren’t exactly in the Wharf; they frame it. Alcatraz, on Pier 33, is the eastern border of the area, and the other two rim the west.

Maritime has an interesting museum and for a small fee you get to see some interesting old ships. Then there’s a place to rest and look at the bay, which is owned by the US government and is absolutely free. Further to the west, you’ll see a cliff. That’s the Fort Mason Unit of the Golden Gate National Parks, technically part of the Marina district.

As far as Alcatraz goes, the trip is definitely worth it. However you just can’t walk up to the ticket kiosk and get on the next boat. The whole thing takes about a day, which means that Fisherman’s Wharf is a two-day operation. Everything’s booked up for at least a day in advance so get a reservation. To do so go to the website: http://www.alcatrazcruises.com/website/pyt-transportation.aspx

If you forgot to make a reservation for Alcatraz, then find out when the first available boat is and head west to Pier 39, which is where the carousel, aquarium and notorious hoard of sea lions are. This is the little bit of Disneyland that the chi-chi San Franciscans so love to hate.

Unless you’re looking for high culture or a bucolic setting (in which case what the hell are you doing in San Francisco?), this is the best spot for people watching. (Union Square is a close second.) The prices for souvenir tchotchkes are high, but not THAT high, and the street performers are for the most part entertaining. This is San Francisco-the-theme park, and as such is pretty successful.
 
West of Pier 39 is the Wharf proper, bordered by the bay to the north, North Point Street to the south and Hyde Street, where the cable cars and Maritime National Park are, to the west. Here you will find a huge number of souvenir stands and seafood restaurants, just what a tourist wants and a local doesn’t. After all, except for the occasional patriotic T-shirt and baseball caps during the season, who really goes around with stuff festooned with one’s hometown’s logo on it?
 
But behind the all the kitsch, you will discover that Fisherman’s Wharf is a real wharf with real fisherman. Go ahead, have an expensive bowl of chowder or crab cakes. It’s part of the experience.

Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the world's essential tourist traps….and why do you think they call them that?

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