30 May

21st-22 May 2023 (Towers, Trolls and Translucent Art) 

Visitors to Seattle may be aware of its reputation for being the wettest city in the USA, but this is only true in part. Fact is that while Seattle has more days when it rains than anywhere else in the USA, the amount of actual rainfall does not compare to cities like Boston. New York or New Orleans. This is because Seattle has what is called “mizzle” , a combination of mist and drizzly rain which leaves an effect as though you are being showered with icing sugar. And on top of that, this mostly happens in the morning, by lunchtime the sun is out and the temperatures rise accordingly. This does depend on the time of year of course, but locals are adamant that the reputation for the wettest city is undeserved and from the brief time I spent in Seattle, I would have to agree.

Seattle is very similar to San Francisco and its steep inclines Once you cross over Alaskan Way and western Avenue from the Harbour side, things go uphill fast and sometimes without warning. Anyone visiting the city would be well advised to wear shoes with a good tread to avoid any chance of slipping on the increasingly steep roads. One such road is so steep, the city council kindly place a bench half way up. Rather worryingly, there is an old people” residence at thr top of the incline. Whether this means that once you reach the top of the hill, you are so physically done in that you an move right in, I can’t say. I was however grateful for the wholesome breakfast I had in the morning .

Seattle is like an hourglass, surrounded on all sides by water, whether it is the Pacific and the Peugeot Sound to the West or Lakes Union and Washington to the East. The city sees the meeting of salt and fresh water and this is significant for the scores of salmon which make their way inland to spawn every year before completing the end of their life cycle. To ensure that this natural evolutionary step is not hampered by modern construction, the architects responsible for the so-called Ballard Locks, built a salmon ladder into the design of the lock, a feature that draws crowds of locals and tourists to the spot just to watch this wondrous annual event. The designers expected this and so they also added a public viewing gallery where visitors can follow the salmon”s progress through a glass barrier. The channel below forms of the habitat for blue herons, sea gulls and harbour seals and eagle-eyed observers can spot a seal or two ducking and diving beneath the briny waves. The waves by the way are not briny because of the dirt in the water, rather it is a natural reaction to what happens when freshwater comes into contact with sea water.

A little further outside the city in the suburb of Fremont, there is not one but two things you have to go and check out before you leave Seattle. The first is the so-called Fremont Troll, a sculpture based on the nursery rhyme of “Billy Goats Gruff” recounting the tale of how three goats wanted to cross a bridge, having to outwit the troll living beneath it to do so. Basically, how the case about was as a result of a town beautification project. Fremont has more bridges then surrounding suburbs and this attracted the homeless in ever increasing numbers and subsequently lead to the increase in rubbish and human detritus. The town council invited suggestions on how this could be dealt with and the winning suggestion was to erect a statue of a troll under the most commonly used bridge to keep the homeless away. Whatever the logic, it worked. Not only that, it quickly became a local attraction and now the Fremont troll is part of the town’s history. If you look closely under the troll”s left hand, yes, that is an actual Volkswagen Beetle it is holding down.

The second attraction in Fremont is Theo”s Organic Chocolate Store on Phinney Avenue North. You can tell what is made there as the smell of premium dark chocolate hits you as soon as you come within a street of it. For us, the smell was overwhelming when the people in my tour and I stepped off the bus. Inside is an assortment of chocolates, coffees and teas from the simple to the imaginative and I would challenge anyone to leave there without having purchased a bar or two or three or more even, especially after having enjoyed a sample or two from the friendly staff. Prices are reasonable when compared to those we are used to in the UK where Organic food stuffs are concerned. They also offer guided tours, showing how the chocolate is refined and how the bars and sweets are made - check them out here: “https://theochocolate.com/

Yet Seattle has much more than Trolls, Chocolates and Salmon Ladders to draw in visitors. Perhaps the most well known is the so-called Space Needle. Located in the so-called Lower Queen Anne neighbourhood it’s construction took place for it to be the centrepiece at the 1962 World Fair. It stands 184m tall with a diameter of 42m. More importantly it is designed to withstand a category 9.0 earthquake. Quakes of varying intensity are not uncommon in this area and so the monument and those who visited it needed to be protected against whatever mother Natur could throw at it.The Space Needle has an observation deck 160m above ground and on the floor below it a slowly revolving floor, both of which provide an excellent view of the city and the surrounding stretches of water, the Cascade and Olympic mountains, Mt. Rainier and Elliot Bay. 

Elevators to the top of the tower take just over 40 seconds to reach the upper deck, while a set of stairs provides access to the revolving platform below. The Needle has featured in opening sequences of TV Series like “Grey”s Anatonmy” and “Dark Angel” as well as becoming the centre piece for the Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks movie “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993). While the Space Needle provides breath-taking scenery of the city below, good shots of the tower itself are only possible from an elevated position like the Upper Queen Anne Park. By the way, the district does not get its name because it was visited or inaugurated by some royal personage, but because a large number of the houses are still built in the Queen Anne style, some costing several million dollars to own to this day.

With the tour of the tower completed, check out the Chihuly Glass Exhibition and Gardens next door. Inspired by both local flora and marine wildlife, these are the creations of local artist and glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. Having received a Fulbright Fellowship, an exchange program between US and Italian scholars, Chihuly went to Venice to study glass-blowing at the world renowned Venini Glass factory. Upon his return, he set about incorporating the skills he had acquired in his artistic expression. Having visited the exhibition, I was simply blown away by the skill and variety of Chihuly”s designs. 

The work ranged from alien looking plants to creations that would not be out of place in a movie adaption of “The Little Mermaid” or Finding Nemo”. Then there are the seemingly endless ceiling decorations in various colours of the rainbow, designed to evoke the sense of opulence and grandeur of the creation. Truely a magnificent spectacle of light and colour!

There are a number of ways to get to see Seattle. You can fly over it with a helicopter or a sea plane, you can walk, ride or drive through its many streets or you can do what I did and explore what lies beneath the city. There is an entire network of passage ways and tunnels that hail back to the construction of the original Seattle. In fact much of what you see in the district called “Pioneer Square” at street level is effectively the second floor of the original buildings, much of the old building support beams surviving to this day.

The city got its name from the Native Indian chief Siahl, head of both the Squamish and Duwarmish tribes. He believed that accommodating the white settlers was the best way to ensure the survival and prosperity of his people. It is known that the Chief rather liked the anglicisation of his native native name, however he was far less pleased with the fact that the settlers gave their city his name in the process. In spite of his objections, he kept good faith with the new arrivals, even marrying off some of squaws of his tribe to cement the relationship. Nowadays, this would be unthinkable in the western world, for some of these women were still in their teens, but back then this was standard practice and women were commodities and bargaining collateral.

Chief Seattle formed a close relationship with one of the founding members of the city David Swinson “Doc” Maynard, who in turn took the role both as physician and Justice-of-the-Peace. Primarily however Maynard was a land speculator with visions of how to turn the land into a thriving community. However, he was not the only land owner of distinction in the city. The Dennys and Collins parties would also stake their claim to the land that is now downtown Seattle from September 1851, as would Henry Yesler who brought the first steam saw mill to the region ensuring the city’s dominance in the lumber industry. Soon the city was attracting settlers from several European countries including Ireland, Italy and Germany, many prospering in the sale of dry good and supplies.

Disaster struck in 1889 when a fire started by a glue pot destroyed house and dwellings for 29 city blocks since most were made of wood timber. This included the business district, all of the railroad terminals and all but 4 of the cities wharfs. Thankfully for the displaced residents, the destroyed buildings were quickly replaced, this time with constructions of stone and mortar which would be less susceptible to a sudden blaze. Still the after effects were felt throughout the city as prosperity stagnated and unemployment began to rise.

The Gold Rush in the Yukon”s Klondike of 1896 finally ushered in a reversal of fortunes as Seattle became a major supply base and transportation hub for those who wanted to head north to strike it rich. The city”s woes ended virtually overnight as stores needed to hire more labour to meet the demands posed by increasing numbers of fortune seekers.

Another by-product of the gold rush was a massive surge migration, especially from the Scandinavian countries. One such migrant was the erstwhile founder of one of Amerika”s largest emporiums of quality shoes and later clothes, Nordstrom. Johan Nordstrom came to Seattle after making a sizeable profit from his gold prospecting. While in the Klondike, he had met and built a strong relationship with cobbler Carl Wallin and the two went into business together to make quality shoes and boots with a unique promise and persuasive selling argument that exists to this day “Any shoe or piece of clothing sold by Nordstrom is guaranteed for life!” If a show is damaged or becomes worn, it can be exchanged for a new pair, subject to the provision of a proof of purchase of course.

Nowadays, Seattle is known not only for its past but also for its present as two of the country’s richest men call the city and surrounding area their home.

The first is of course, the founder and still owner of Microsoft Bill Gates. Though nowadays he devotes most of his time to philanthropic works - the foundation he created together with his ex-wife Melinda is located not far from the Space Needle - he still likes to shape the face of technological advances. The second individual is Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon. Though it started out as a countrywide booking selling platform, Amazon has since morphed into this global conglomerate with more arms and legs than the legendary Kraken. Both company headquarters are either in the city or in the nearest vicinity of the greater Seattle area.

However, one more business venture that must be mentioned when referring to the Seattle cityscape is Starbucks, for it was here in 1971 that the first store was opened offering coffee beans roasted with the so-called Dutch method which brought out the flavour of the beans even more. Now, it is commonly believed that the oldest store is located in Pike Place Market just to the North West of Pioneer Square. That would explain the hundreds of people, locals, but mostly tourists who flock there every day to get a coffee from what they believe is the original store. In fact the original store in which Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegel and Gordon Bowker began their now global franchise was located two street away from the ocean promenade on Western Avenue. The Pike Place Market location was not occupied until 1976 and by then several other outlets had sprung up in the city and surrounding areas.

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