Oxford and Reading by Train

Oxford has some kind of allure for me that I can't really explain and I never miss a chance to visit. I'd love to claim it's something to do with the town's long academic history, reputation as an incubator of genius, etc., etc. but it's probably the result of watching too many episodes of Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis on TV.

But then again, as Morse would have it, it may be something about the beer. Oxford, not surprisingly, supports a lot of very good pubs. I have my own private Ale Trail when I visit, which starts at Far From the Madding Crowd (CAMRA City Pub of the Year 2012, 2011, 2009) where a lively bunch of old folks turn up for brunch. And the unemployed, semi-alcoholic, common man having a pint with me at 11:00 am is always a great source of interesting commentary on life. The pub always has a good range of cask ale on tap and the staff is great.

Then it's on to the White Horse, on George Street, with its prominently-placed, framed head shots of John Thaw, Kevin Whatley, and Laurence Fox and, in the TV shows, the scene of many a brainstorm as the detectives sift through the clues, with the assistance of a good pint. This pub is small, with a low ceiling and plenty of good cask ale.

Then I took myself to the Turf Tavern, another storied place, not too far from the replica of Venice's Bridge of Sighs. “The Turf” has been around, in one form or another, as a pub since the 13th century and has been a watering hole for many a student, don, and tourist. Local legend has it that it was at the Turf Tavern that former U.S. president Bill Clinton, while attending Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, famously “did not inhale”.

Between all the not inhaling and all the beer on offer, one wonders if students here do indeed get an education. These kids are some of the best and brightest the world has to offer, after all. Well, fear not, this sign, assures us that an education is being had (click the photo to enlarge and read the fine print).

Having educated myself a bit, I took the train back to Reading, where I used to live in 2008 and arrived at the marvelous new train station. The constructon was just getting underway when I visited last year and it's nearly done now – quite an improvement! Once in town, I reminisced a bit as I strolled along the main pedestrain shopping area, past John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, and the Oracle shopping mall.

And soon found myself a seat at The Ale House, formerly The Hobgoblin, which has served over 7,000 different cask ales. Plenty to like here. A classic pub, this place hasn't a single stick of matching furniture and is a warren of little rooms beyond the bar. As Happy Hour rang out, colleagues from the local office of my company, and a few who had just flown in from the U.S. to visit them, arrived and the pints began flowing. It was nice to hang with these folks on a social basis, though I declined an invitation to join some of them much later at The Purple Turtle for uninhibited 1980s disco dancing. Yeah… that sounded like not my kind of fun.

So instead, I had the reliable Great Western rail system deliver me back to London in good shape and with plenty of good memories refreshed.


From Paris to London

My four days in Paris were spent in my usual hangouts: people-watching in Luxembourg Gardens, art-worshipping at the Orsay and Louvre museums, simply smiling at the Eiffel Tower, and lunching at the restaurant under the Art Deco dome atop the Printemps department store. Once again, the Fete des Vendanges (Harvest Festival) in Montemarte was something of a bust.

I did find this interesting store featuring products from the Basque area of Spain (hey – Phil and Marti, check it out) on Boulevard St-Michel. If you double-click the picture and zoom, you can see those are hams hanging from the ceiling.

One more item for the “In Europe, It's Not What You Expected” Department: I decided to send out two pairs of jeans to be cleaned. As we all know, washing and drying them also shrinks them a bit, solving that baggy look they get after a few days wear. Off I sent them, and back they came, dry-cleaned. So they are now very clean and still baggy. Oh well…

As usual, the Eurostar train was fine except we had to stop (yes, dead stop) short of the Chunnel to fix some outer panel door that had come open. Result: 1/2 hour late arrival into London. Also, discovered iPhone Location Services/Facebook has no entry for “under the middle of the English Channel”, which I think it should.

Ensconced at the Paddington Hilton, more proof the world is going to hell in a handbasket: no rooms available to upgrade me (a mere Gold Hilton Honors member, not Diamond or Platinum) to an Executive level room! Hasn't ever happened before in all the years I've been here. Between that and the difficulty upgrading my trans-Atlantic flights, I'm closer to joining the crowd that thinks these loyalty programs are becoming worthless.

Paddington Railway Station is a vast, cavernous space which has a glass wall closing off one end into a food court, inside of which are open-air eateries and other stores. In the past, in this area they've had a problem with pigeons and every horizontal beam and other surface was festooned with those 5″ plastic spikes intended to keep them from roosting. Didn't help much in the past. This morning I spotted a fellow in a service staff uniform walking around with a hawk on his arm. Yes, a hawk. And then I noticed there was not a single pigeon to be seen anywhere inside the food court. What a concept: using a hawk inside an enclosed (though large) space to control the pigeons. Brilliant!

I'm off to my old home, Reading, today to visit some favorite old haunts and perhaps see the lads from our company office for a pint after work. Cheerio!


The “Joys” of Modern Travel

I'm in Paris today but getting here was no treat. First, in Venice, while taking the AliLaguna boat to the airport, someone's full-sized piece of luggage toppled off the stack in the cockpit, down the steps, and onto my extended leg, waking me from a nice doze. Had circumstances been slightly different, I might have had a broken leg. As it was, I only received a nasty and painful bit of road rash, and some swelling and bruising later. No blood running into my shoe, so I deferred treatment until Paris.

The scrum at Marco Polo airport was worse than usual due to yesterday's air traffic controller strike, which forced many cancellations, resulting in extra heavy crowds today. When I was directed to the “Bag Drop – Internet Checked-in” desk, which miraculously had no line, I found a quartet of older Americans ahead of me who thought the agent was their personal travel agent, and proceeded to take 25 minutes to “drop” their bags – had I gone through the regular, snaking line instead I would have gotten through more quickly. This same group of four were on my flight, and one of them used an airport wheelchair so all of them could board early, then he leapt up unassisted once we landed and hustled out of the plane on foot. Grrrr.

Our plane was packed and though I managed to get into an exit row, it was in the middle seat, so I spent the hour and a half flight with my arms tucked into my sides, feeling like I was wearing a straight jacket. Also, the plane arrived late into Venice, and left late, so I got into Charles de Gaulle airport about an hour late.

After landing, I made my way to the RER “B” train for the ride into Paris, which usually delivers me almost right to the door of my hotel. However, well before that, at Gare du Nord, they announced it was the end of the line and kicked us all off! Here's the last place you want to find yourself: Gare du Nord, at rush hour, with luggage. What I found was: huge crowds, 5pm, packed and infrequent trains, and utter chaos over the RER B line and other issues, and many PA announcements in French only. Oh yes, this is a multi-level train station with very few escalators, so I found myself carrying my luggage up and down multiple crowded stairways. Helpful information to be found anywhere? Nope. I was told different things by different “Station Information” staff, often just 10 feet apart, almost accidentally got back on a train to the airport, saw signs that seemed to indicate track work in progress on RER “B”, and when I did get to my hotel was told by the desk clerk there had been a rail worker strike/slow down. Go figure. I finally gave up on the train and went upstairs to get a taxi, where I waited in the taxi queue for an hour before being put in one. Luckily, the huge traffic jam around the station dissipated quickly and I arrived at my hotel across town in about 20 minutes. Sheesh.

Well, it's always nice to be back in Paris, regardless of how you get here. At my hotel, I was assigned a really nice room I'd not stayed in before, so I'm bouncing back fast. Got some first aid supplies to tend to my leg wound from the pharmacy across the street, so that's in hand. Today, weather looks good so it's off to the Fete des Vendanges, the wine harvest festival in the Montmartre neighborhood.


One More Venice Post

I can't resist commenting on the Taverna Al Remer, where I had lunch today. This is truly one of the “hidden treasures” of Venice and very difficult to find on foot, but one of my favorite restaurants in Venice.

It's also one of the few, perhaps only, “buffet”-style meals in Venice. For a mere 20eu you get an all-you-can-eat buffet of about 30 items, a half-litre of wine, plus a pasta dish or soup, and a selection of desserts. So it's a terrrific value on top of it all. Recorded classical music created the background to conversations featuring French, Italian, and Russian. Like all Venetian lunches, if you finish in less that 2 hours, you're doing it wrong. And if you show up before 1:00 for lunch, you'll be recognized as a dumb tourist (busted). I finished my tasty lunch with a glass of grappa and was in heaven. I understand that in the evening, in addition to the great food and atmosphere, there's live jazz every night.

Oh, one more thing. The Al Remer sits in a tiny square, about 25 yards on a side and open to the Grand Canal just above the Rialto Bridge. I was seated so that I had a view out the front door to the dock and was delighted to see a water taxi pull up, with a newly minted Mr. and Mrs. aboard in the open rear cockpit. Yes, both in their wedding outfits – and let me tell you, a bride all in white on the canal draws a lot of attention. Getting married in Venice is quite a tradition. The taxi docked and the happy couple disembarked into the photogenic square, with attendants, for many a picture. Where they went after that, I haven't a clue, but they were both smiling broadly, as were all of us in the restaurant.

Late Breaking News: French air traffic controllers went on a 1-day strike today, so I'm expecting travel chaos for my Air France flight to Paris tomorrow. Zut!

Venice Observed

Today is my last day in Venice, with Air France whisking me off to Paris tomorrow. As a keen observer of “stuff”, here are a few notes I've made this week here.

This year's crop of ultra-annoying sidewalk vendors are Bangladeshis (for the geographically- challenged, their country is wedged-in between India and Thailand). They're everywhere, especially at night, hawking penlights with prism filters, roses, and luminescent helicopter thingees shot into the sky with a rubber band. The latter are kind of cool at night in St. Mark's Square, until one comes down and hits you in the head or until you express any interest and are then immediately besieged to buy one. The price descends through the day from 5eu to 1eu, meaning they're probably worth 10 cents. The rose sellers are particularly insistent, shoving a stem into a woman's face until she touches it in self-defense, at which point it's impossible to give it back. All completed with endless smiling and apparent deafness to repeated “No”s.

What a strange gender we men are. It's night, it's Venice, it's romantic, and we're out on the town with our lovely wife. She's taken the trouble to dress nicely, do her hair, apply make-up, wear her good shoes. We men, on the other hand, are wearing an old Nike sweatshirt, sneakers, and jeans. Yes, you can see this proof that men are tone-deaf when it comes to such things anywhere but, here in beautiful Venice, it seems especially insensitive.

Here's a shot of the Taverna San Trovaso, not far from the Academia Bridge, where I had lunch yesterday. Great place, great food, nice staff. Highly recommended when you come here. My lunch included homemade ravioli stuffed with mushrooms and truffle oil. Yum! I happened to share the dining room with a group of Japanese tourists and was incredibly impressed with the thoroughness of the service offered by their guide. He explained the menu to all of them (in their native tongue), took their orders, handled all communications in Italian with the staff, and handled all individual payments. Everyone benefitted.

The international version of “get to the top of the escalator and stop in the mouth of it to get your bearings” is still alive and well in Venice. Walking left while looking right, stopping in a narrow alley – with your stroller – to chat with your friends, suddenly coming to a dead stop to light your cigarette without stepping to the side… all time-honored dumb and inconsiderate behaviors all too often seen here and especially problematic given the high volume of people everywhere.

One thing visitors don't understand before coming here the first time is the sheer difficulty of finding your way around, particularly if you're dragging two suitcases along, are jet-lagged, and it's getting dark. That rolling suitcase that moves so nicely in the airport? A horror to pull over Venice's pavers and cobbles, and its many bridges. Your hotel is at 677 Grand Canal Way? Well, yes, streets here are named, sort of, at least – on the map, but actual street signs are rare, as are building numbers. Advice to newbies: use Google Map intensely, call ahead to get as much info as possible and then plan the shortest, flattest route. Also, get here well before dark. And there is no “Grand Canal Way” and no streets along the canal itself, either.

I saw the Virtuosi di Venizia (moonlighting singers and musicians from the La Fenice opera house) again last night. A great, intimate setting, wonderful acoustics, and a fine hour of music and singing. Puccini, Verdi, Vivaldi – a great selection of arias and duets for tenor and soprano – supported by a fine string quintet. Marvelous stuff, inexpensive, informal, and highly recommended.

Based on the “you look like a Native, I'll ask you” metric of being asked four times yesterday for directions, I must be doing something right. Maybe it's my white beard and professorial appearance, for surely no one confuses me with an Italian. Even better: I actually knew the answer to the questions.

Visiting Venice really isn't like visiting Berlin, Paris, or London. It's unique: no cars, no bicycles, very old twisting lanes and ancient buildings. All the fancy hotels, such as the Hilton, are on other adjacent islands. Wi-Fi is limited (in the hotel lobby only, if they have it at all) and cell service (of the international roaming sort, for foreigners, i.e. ME) is non-existent. Space is at a premium in hotel rooms, in shops, and in restaurants. In fact, the imaginative use of space and relentless avoidance of waste (yes, you only get ONE paper napkin, why would you need more?) is a kind of revelation and a reminder of the wasteful abundance of life in the U.S.

Ciao for now, I will resume my writings once I'm installed in Paris! A tout alors!


A Walking Tour

Today I indulged in a guided “walking tour”, led by an archaeologist, obstensibly to see the Hidden Treasures of Venice. We met at the top of the Rialto Bridge and not a one of the 14 attendees was under 60. Each person was outiftted with a little wireless radio and earpiece so you could hear the guide's commentary, but unfortunately our guide held the lapel-style microphone too close to her mouth and a lot of what she said was lost to distortion. I'll be sending them my technical recommendations for a better microphone choice.

The highpoint of the 2-hour walk was the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, one of the greatest churches in the city. The artwork inside, including terrific paintings by Titian, is remarkable. Many very large churches like this collapsed over time due to Venice's sandy foundations but this one survived and was worth the walk.
We also learned why all gondolas are black: when the powerful Venetian Republic collapsed after Constantinople's rise to power, the gondolas, previously painted in a riot of colors related to the noble families that owned them, were made all the same color, black, to foster solidarity in the city.

On a somewhat different ecclisiastical level, I started my evening (after a refreshing nap) at Harry's Bar and communed with the ghosts of Hemmingway, Toscanini, Charlie Chaplin, and other glitterati, over a martini. They all said to say hello to you. Opened in 1931, Harry's remains moored in the 1940s, with their signature Bellini drink (Proseco and white peach juice) served up by white-dinner-jacket-clad bartenders. It's always a treat worth the sky-high prices.
I followed that with a trip to Al Peocetto Risorto, a hidden treasure of a restaurant up near the Rialto Market, for a lovely meal that began with salami slices with grilled polenta cakes, moved on to Spaghetti ai Olio ai Aglio (pasta cooked perfectly, with olive oil, and a little pepperoncini tossed in for bite), and then Saltimbanco all Romana, veal topped with pancetta in a wonderful sauce. Heavenly! A carafe of tasty Bardolino rounded out the picture and a great Creme Brulee put a bow on it! If you're ever in Venice, put this place on your list!


To Glorious Venice Again

My weekend in Berlin was filled with historic buildings and some great museums. Saturday night there were fireworks and a rock concert (too late in the evening for me) at the Brandenburg Gate celebrating German Unity Day, when East and West became one, 24 year ago.

Berliners have been kind enough to put five of their biggest and coolest museums together on the nearby “Museum Island” in the Spree River. They're doing a lot of site improvement, so it was also a construction zone, but navigating it Sunday wasn't too bad and the Museumspass card saved us money and opened all doors without waiting.

One of the big attractions at the Neues Museum is the bust of Nefertiti, shown on the banner at left. Sadly, no photography of the real McCoy was allowed but you can Google her. A very impressive artifact and, if true-to-life, a lovely woman. I hate to think she had buck teeth and warts and the sculptor, thinking of his own neck, provided an idealized rendering of the Egyptian queen, but you never know.

After many hours of museum salon strolling and getting a touch of museum fatigue, John and I headed to a recommended dive, Deponie #3, underneath the nearby elevated S-Bahn tracks for a signature Berlin dish: Curry Wurst. This proved to be a monster hot dog, slathered with curry-flavored ketchup, and fries. Pedestrian but tasty, and we can say we had it. And that once was enough.

Sunday night we took in a “Gentlemen's Club” which, here in Berlin, was pretty unrestrained. I won't jeopardize this blog's PG status with details but I can say it was an “experience” and European women are beautiful.

Monday saw me on the Air Berlin flight to Venice. John was headed back to States today. As discount airlines go, Air Berlin was fantastic. Absolutely excellent web site, automated email reminders, online check-in, boarding pass delivery in a lot of different ways, great staff, and a pleasant and comfortable flight. A great example of how it should, and can, be done.

Venice is always remarkable. I arrived to a warm welcome back from Gabriel and Diego at the Hotel Casa Fontana (their family owns and runs it) and soon after dove into some cicchetti (Venetian tapas) and red wine at the Bacarro Risorto next door. Later, I had a wonderful meal of breaded veal and roasted potatoes at Osteria Oliva Nera, a very nice restaurant. I especially enjoyed the deep-fried zuchhini flowers stuffed with anchovies and sour cream! A fine Tempura-like appetizer.

Today, I'm off to the “Hidden Venice” walking tour, followed this evening by my traditional visit to Harry's Bar. So, until tomorrow, buongiorno!


The Center of Evil

Today we visited a unique exhibit, called The Topology of Terror, which includes a museum explaining the rise, the evil, and the fall, of the Nazis, with emphasis on the worst-of-the-worst, the Gestapo, the SS, and the SD. All of the exhibits are photographs, films, and papers from the era, many from the official records kept at the time. They trace Hitler and Company from their rise in 1933 through the end of the war and beyond.

Not only are these materials bleak and depressing but the design of the building deliberately reinforces that air. Built on the city block that once housed the Gestapo, SS and SD HQ,there is no green landscaping, no plants or trees or grass at all. Instead the building, shown at left, is surrounded by large fields filled with very coarse, fist-sized stones, that are sharp-edged and violent-looking. A long section of the Berlin Wall lines along one side the grounds and, below it, a section of the underground basement of Gestapo HQ has been dug out and made part of the exhibit that you walk through. It isn't hard at all to imagine people being shot against those walls.

The site also held several other buildings where the Nazi bureaucracy hatched and supervised its terrible projects. All of them were destroyed during the war and the block was eventually levelled. The square museum building in the picture, itself encased entirely in a kind of steel cage from top to bottom, occupies the space now by itself. In all, it's a very smart piece of architecture that sets the tone of the material you're about to see inside.
Of the rise of the Nazis, it is important to be reminded that the conditions that allowed it to happen included economic hardship, a government unable to govern, a rising extremist ideology, and an intolerance for diverging views. Huh. Those are conditions that sound all too familiar right now in the land of the government shutdown…

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews is another amazing site, consisting as you can see above, of 2,711 slabs or stellae, in different shapes and sizes, set in rows with an undulating base of tiles. It's a really thoughtful space, full of surprise shifts in perspective, and easy to get lost in, if only temporarily.

It's important to be reminded about the evil men can do, and have done, lest we forget and allow it to happen again. But it's mighty depressing, too. And, also, a bit uplifting that at least we have chosen to make these reminders public and hear their message.


Discovering Berlin

Today I'm enjoying the luxury of the Berlin Hilton on the Gendarmenmarkt, a plaza that features two cathedrals, a Concert Hall, and an Opera House. The weather is beautiful, 50-65 degrees, with the kind of clear blue sky you wish was your eye color.

Berlin, as those of us of a certain age remember, is a city once divided by The Wall, a barbed-wire topped cement wall thrown up by the Soviets that divided the city into East and West Berlin. West Berlin, surrounded by East Germany, was kept alive initially with continuous airlifts of food and other supplies by the U.S military. The Wall, with its No-Man's land of land mines and guard towers, was a constant source of stories of courage and determination, as East Berliners tried every scheme possible to get to the West. This included tunnels, car trunk smuggling, hot air balloons, zip lines, and doomed attempts to run No-Man's land. A famous crossing point, Checkpoint Charlie, where U.S. and Soviet tanks faced each other just 200 yards apart, is very near my hotel.

And, how about that, who should walk through the doors of the Berlin Hilton this morning but John, my drinking buddy from back home and determined first-time Europe visitor. Doubtful of all my bragging about the fabulousness of German Oktoberfest beer, he decided to call my bluff and join me for the Berlin leg of my trip and luckily snagged a room on Expedia in the Hilton. But, as he has learned, I'm right, and now he's enjoying having his scepticism disproved. Here we are, at right, enjoying one litre steins, ein mass, of tasty Oktoberfest brew from the famous Augustiner brewery and chowing down on some traditional German fare, heavy on the carbs.

Earlier today we took a open-top bus tour of the city, which was a good way to discover the high points and get the lay of the land. It's amazing how the drivers are able to maneuver those big buses through tight city streets. We were treated to an exhibition of these skills when we encountered a Greenpeace demonstration snarling the main drag and had to do some impressive side street navigating.

John is jet-lagged but says he's recovering fast and, after a restorative nap this afternoon, he'll certainly be able to put some bartenders through their paces tonight. It's interesting for me, having traveled solo for so long, to have someone else along.

What an interesting city Berlin is. It has an ancient history filled with kings and palaces, was home to the brutal Nazi government, was nearly bombed flat during WWII, was divided by The Wall during the Cold War, and was beautifully rebuilt afterwards. Now it's a thriving, modern metropolis with a polite and well-educated population, full of art and architecture worth seeing. For 24 years, The Wall was part of its psyche and, though taken down in 1989, it remains a strong presence, through actual remnants and a brick line that crosses all paved areas tracing its course. It is, of course, a tourist draw, but also a lingering testament to the possibilities of a peaceful end to tyranny.


The Upper Class Flight Experience

Every time an airplane I'm in reaches V1 and then V2 at take-off, I marvel at the miracle of flight. V1 is the speed at which the plane creates enough lift to raise the front wheel off the ground, hopefully followed by V2, which is when all wheels leave the ground. You have to wonder about DaVinci and all those other dedicated experimenters of yore who just didn't have the means to accelerate their latest flying vehicle to the point at which it would encounter V1 and V2. The miracle of Lift: velocity = air pressure, + wing shape = flight.

In case you were wondering, here's what the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class cabin looks like. This was my first flight with the newly redesigned cabin and it was both good and bad. The seat space seems small at the shoulders but wider at the hips, and the old Soviet Block-era, DOS-based entertainment system interface has been replaced with a great touch-screen, HD interface. And the dividers between seats have been changed to etched glass rather that solid materials, which produces a sense of more space but also takes away privacy. So, a bit of a mixed bag.
The herringbone seat arrangement means you never have to climb over someone else to go to the loo, the bar, etc. and, yes, those seat backs flip forward to make a flat bed (duvet and pillow provided). Yes, there's a 4-stool bar in Upper Class, too. So what with all these amenities and excellent food and service, the cost of this ticket class is easily justified. Of course, I pay for a lesser ticket and use frequent flyer miles to upgrade to Glorious Food and Seating Class, so it's very worthwhile for me.