2006: Endings and Beginnings

Home is a place and a state of mind, I find, especially after a long absence. While I do love traveling, I equally love returning to the familiarity and security of my own roof, my own bed. My return flight from London was uneventful; on the taxi ride to Falls Church, as always, I was taken by just how green Virginia is this time of year. I’m now sorting through the post-trip wreckage of dirty laundry, maps, guidebooks, and  travel gear to be cleaned and put away.
Venice, Florence, Rome, Paris, London: all unique places with signature art, geography, and temperaments; all well worth visiting. I think the general travel experience would be enlarged by traveling with an SO (Significant Other) but I can’t pass up the opportunity to go to these places just because I lack one. Life is too short, my friends, too short.
Five flights, five train trips, five cities, three countries, two currencies, and one passport. I’ve pretty much mastered the logistics of international travel by now and so had the right-sized suitcase, the right clothing combinations, and the right schedule to make things go smoothly. The mechanics of this trip were never a concern and that’s a good thing on foreign turf. It’s also something I’ve arrived at not by any great wisdom, just by sheer experience and, probably, luck.
These blog entries were often made under time constraints as I tried to get my doings down digitally before using up my minutes at one Internet Cafe or another. I tried to avoid making them simple lists of I-went-here and I-saw-that but in this I don’t think I always succeeded. I decided not to drag a laptop along to Europe in order to save carry-on baggage weight and the attendant mental security overhead but having one along would have allowed me to compose my blog entries in places and at times that might have encouraged more reflection. This is a long way of saying that I’m sorry if the narrative got a bit dry here and there.
No one knows how the future will look back on these times but it seems to me as if we’re turning a page; the old world with its paintings, books, and sculpture – all very "hands-on" – is being slowly eclipsed by the new digital world. This begs the question about how the future will value old artifacts: will they be revered more as reminders of our humanity or be rendered meaningless to generations raised on text messaging and the ubiquity of the Internet?
I, obviously, find a strong and important human connection to the beautiful things from the past that have been created with relatively primitive tools. And, alone or accompanied, I recommend them to you as examples of human expression and genius that everyone needs to experience firsthand. Perhaps we can read your travel blog next? If so, be sure to send me the URL!
Thanks, dear reader, for coming along with me on this and my earlier journeys. I’m not sure what the fate of this blog is at the moment but I will not take it down for now. I think it could benefit from a little proof reading at this point. Thanks to all of you who have sent me encouragement and your own recommendations; they were greatly appreciated. For now, ciao, au revoir, and so long.

All Points of the London Compass

Today, my last day in London and the last before returning home to the U.S., was filled with activity. But before we  go there, I want to promote my traditional strategy of staying at a high-end hotel at the end of a trip like this. In this case, I’m at the Paddington Hilton (but , thanks to Frequent Flyer miles, I avoid the stiff prices) where the room is great, the bed is superb, and the bathroom is almost as big as my entire hotel room in Rome. Also, the Paddington Hilton sits right atop Paddington Station (endpoint of the Heathrow Airport Express and crossroads of several subway lines) so getting to the airport tomorrow will be so very easy. I highly recommend the practice!
So, today began with a "tube" ride out the west side of London to Warr’s Harley Davidson dealership, a lovely place packed with bikes, established in 1924. The staff was very welcoming and even gave me a little tour of the shop. There I saw two brand new bikes, for customers in Bahrain and Beruit, that had been customized to look like bikes from the 40’s and 50’s – really beautiful work. This gives you an idea of the international nature of the business here in Europe. After a bit, I snapped up a tee-shirt, bid them farewell, and headed back into London.
My next stop was Harrod’s where I discovered that my favorite Lagerfeld after shave balm is also not sold here anymore (so I guess they really did stop making it) and where I did a little gift shopping. Harrod’s is always an amazing experience – the targeted, quick in-and-out was a good approach but I could have been sooo easily distracted and stayed much longer. The Food Halls are unbelievable!
Next, back on the subway for a long ride to the South East of London, to Greenwich and the Royal Observatory. The latter sits atop a steep hill in the middle of huge park and so it’s a pretty long walk up to see the observatory and… the Prime Meridian, or 0-degrees Longitude. Yes, it’s the international zero point for Longitude and all of our time zones are offset from it (see photos). The observatory grounds also house a neat museum covering the 19th century contest to figure out how to acurrately measure Longitude at sea. Greenwich also has a fine maritime museum (which I didn’t see) and a nice waterfront area (which I did). I had lunch at the Spanish Galleon Pub and learned a bit about the bar business, English-style, from the friendly manager. Now I know the difference between lagers, ales, and bitters and their handling.
My next two subway rides took me to the north side of the city and the British Library. I fell in love with their "Treasures Room" during my last visit and definitely wanted to go again. The items on exhibit change periodically but here’s some of what I saw today: a Gutenberg Bible; one of the copies of the Magna Carta; the handwritten notes of Galileo, Da Vinci, and Newton; the Codex Sinaiticus (4th century Bible in ancient Greek); the Beowulf manuscript; one of the Shakespeare 1st Folios; some of the works of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Lewis Carroll, in their own handwriting; the original scores of Handel’s Messiah, works by Mozart, and Beethoven’s 9th; and finally, the handwritten original lyrics for a number of Beatles songs. Totally amazing stuff, just really jaw-dropping. You can digitize books all you want and read them online but there is something so personal about being within a few inches of the actual paper where the hands of the creators wrote these things. I know it seems silly but I feel as if a proximity to the actual paper and ink handled by these geniuses brings you somehow closer to the essence of what these people are/were.
Finally, one more tube ride back to the Hilton and then a little rest. It was a very good last day in London, spanning all sorts of things that are veddy British, and a good way to wind up my little European excursion. Tomorrow I’ll pack up my bags, head to the airport one last time, and turn myself over to Virgin Air again for the ride home. Once I get there, I promise a retrospective entry and my final photos.

Home of the King’s English

It is something of a relief to be back in a country where English is the predominant language. My new command of Italian and also my French (which came back to me better than anticipated and is still, I think, such a beautiful language) served me well "on the Continent" but the mother tongue is so much more relaxing. Of course, it’s something of a treat to bathe in all the accents here in the U.K.
Taking the RER train to Charles Degaulle Airport, flying BMI to Heathrow, taking the Heathrow Express to the Paddington Hilton, these are all known and familiar experiences, too. Still, for a 43-minute flight, there was a 5.5 hour door-to-door exercise.
The Bayswater area around Paddington Station is nice but, like everything, has changed a bit. The Archery Tavern, operated continuously since 1840 and the neighborhood pub where I planned to have a pint and dinner, closed last January! What a shame, the end of a long history and no "Tanglefoot Ale" for me. I managed to find the Dickens Tavern instead and sampled small doses of ales named "Pride of London", "John Smith’s Extra Smooth" and, my favorite, "Courage".
I meant to mention something about the handling of credit cards at European restaurants. A great effort is made to keep your credit card in your sight at all times. It goes like this: a wireless, hand-held credit card authorization station is brought to your table, your card is swiped once and immediately returned to you, you get to watch the screen to see the results of the authorization. The device then prints the paper receipt for you to sign. So you are absolutely sure that the card is only used once for your bill and never leaves your sight. This may be security overkill but certainly is nifty.
A young German couple had a fight of some kind on the Heathrow Express and the young girl had a tear-filled melt down right in front of me this afternoon. All I could do was offer her some tissues I had in my bag and a sympathetic nod. I know from personal experience that traveling can be hard on relationships – I remember a girlfriend from long ago (known to my friends as "Wonder Woman") screaming at me as we walked down a street in Athens while I tried to look like I didn’t know the crazy woman. Traveling alone has its shortcomings, too, though. At every hotel this trip, the desk clerk has looked incredulous when confirming that my room reservation is not for two people.
Tomorrow: first, a special stop in London and then off to Greenwich to visit the Prime Meridian.

A Fine and Busy Day in Paris

Friday I revisited my old friends, the Louvre and the Orsay Museums. Virtually across the Seine River from each other, the Orsay is a newer museum that houses recent Impressionism and Art Deco collections and more modern sculpture. It was built by renovating an old train station and the building itself, with its cast iron structure and deco details, is something to see all by itself (see photos).

The Louvre is always a treat and I always stop in to see the large-scale 19th century works of Gericault and Delacroix. On my first trip to the Louvre I learned about the secondary entrances where there are rarely lines and each time I visit it again I try to find Americans in the long main entrance line (which can be hours long) and point out the secondary entrance. However, there was virtually no line at all so there was no need to share the "secret" this year. I did take a few pictures of couples (with their camera), another good deed I try to do each day.

Things do change and I was disappointed to find that Soufflot Cafe, one of my favorites near my hotel, has changed management and the menu. Quel horror – no more escargot! They changed the menu enough that I decided not to eat there at all last night and just settled for wine and a view of the passing sidewalk scene.

Today (Saturday) was a bus- and subway-riding extravaganza. These two mass transit systems are so good here. I started by bus with a visit to the Paris Harley Davidson dealership where I indulged myself by buying an HD Paris tee shirt. The folks were nice and we chatted a bit; it was interesting to see how a dealership can be wedged into several city storefronts. Next I hopped the subway to the famous department store Printemps for some gift shopping and then had lunch up under their nifty art deco, cast iron and stained glass dome on the top floor (the menu has changed here too but lunch was good anyway and the service was great). I took a post-lunch walk a few blocks down to the Paris Opera House to see how the cleaning and renovation of the front facade (which took a year or so) turned out and it was beautiful (see photos). Next, a subway ride to the Rodin Museum and some of my favorite scupltures. You may know his The Thinker but my favorites are The Danaid and The Kiss – very sensual stuff for hunks of marble.

I spent some time today at the Luxembourg Gardens which the citizens here use as their front porch. Metal chairs and wooden benches abound and couples often meet here for romance, families come to run the kids, and students to do their studying. When the weather is good, this is a wonderful place to enjoy the outdoors. Best of all: it’s free.

Odds and Ends: I miss the more complete Italian smoking ban; too bad the practice is alive and well in most places here, especially among kids. We must be in between the Spring Break and Summer tourist hordes as crowds are low and there are no lines for anything. Hour-long U.S. TV shows are shown here (not the current season, of course) with just one commercial break; so the show starts on the hour and ends (with break) at :40 after. This makes it much more obvious just how much of a viewing hour is show and how much commercials.

Caution – Free Press At Work: Here’s some verbatim reporting from Sky News about the recent terrorist arrest in London, about six hours after the event:

Cecil (at Scotland Yard): "John, we’ve had no report yet from the police whether or not a bomb device was found and that’s something you would think they would have revealed by now."

John (at the studio): "Thank you, Cecil. So the latest from London is that no bomb device was found."

Sky News also reported at different times throughout the day that 150, 200, 250, and 300 officers were involved.

My tourist pocket is overflowing as access to everything now is via plastic or cardboard card with a magnetic stripe. For example, in my pocket right now I have a hotel key card, credit cards, ATM card, Museum Pass, Bus/Subway Pass, and an Internet Cafe card. I have no pickpocket worries though as I have troubled yanking that wad of cards out of my pocket myself.

Au revior, mes amis. This is my last report from Paris; tomorrow I’ll fly over to London for a few days before coming home on Tuesday. Paris has been very pleasant and I’m glad I put it in my itinerary.


Paris In The Spring

Italy was a fine experience but upon my arrival in Paris, I realized that I felt like I was coming home. I flew into Charles Degaulle Airport, jumped onto the RER train, and arrived at my old favorite hotel, the Elyssa Luxembourg, without a hitch. On the train I met a pretty Columbia University grad student (she was also a UVA undergrad from Lynchburg, Virginia) just arriving in Paris for the first time for a month-long French language immersion class. I treated her to my "vast "knowlege of Paris and my snappy mangling of the French language and she laughed enough to temporarily forget her jet lag.
Once I got to my hotel, I had plenty of time to check-in, drop my bags in the room, board the old #27 bus right outside, and make it down to the Cafe Corona for the weekly meeting of the Club Metropole (a group of American ex-pats). As it turned out, I was this week’s only tourist attendee and therefore Visitor Of The Week. It will be interesting to see my picture and the meeting notes on the club website next week.
I’m using a French keyboard as I write this and the main keys are laid out like this:
(take a look at your keyboard for comparison) and requires things like 3 keys to be pressed to produce the @ sign, so please bear with me.
After saying goodbye to Club Metropole president Ric, I dashed over to the Louvre to snap up a 2-day museum pass (lets you skip the entry lines) and then hopped the bus back to the Left Bank and my hotel. This is the location of the Sorbonne University and the neighborhood pulses with student activity. A light rain was falling and I have to confess I was not much in the mood for the cafe scene so I indulged in… Quick Burger. This is a sort of Five Guys burger place and sooo much tastier than the McDonald’s across the street: it was terrific.
My cold has improved markedly and I realized yesterday at breakfast in Rome that all the Americans were coughing and sneezing. I wonder if this was not a cold at all but instead some kind of allergy (though I would be greatly embarrassed to say that I’m allergic to Italy!).
Tomorrow: The Louvre, with my favorite large-scale French paintings by Delacroix and Gericault, and the Orsay, with its fabulous Impressionist collection.

An Operatic Finish To Italy

Today’s beautiful weather was ideal for my day on foot visiting the Colesseum, Roman Forum, the Palantine Hill, and the Pantheon. And what great sites (and sights) they are! Some of you know that I’m an avid reader of Roman history, real and fictionalized (and I know some of you are, too), so it was fascinating today to see some of the places from my readings. For instance, I stood at the spot where it’s said that Julius Caesar was cremated after being assassinated.
It’s amazing that such ruins remain at all, though I thought the Forum seemed way too small to have been the civic seat of a culture that ruled 54 million people at one time. The ancient Romans excelled in so many ways, lasted for 1000 years, and commanded a huge empire. They were the greatest economic and military power on the planet yet their leaders’ arrogance and corruption led ultimately to their decline and eventual ruin. I often wonder if the U.S. is not on the same track today…
Some Odds ‘n’ Ends: Modern Romans are definitely fans of stylish eyewear and devote many, many high-end stores to them. The rectangular lens shape is very much in vogue here and I’ve gotten quite a few weird looks while out and about, which I ascribe to my utterly retro, "so Out they’re In" Wayfarer sunglasses. Or could it be my L.L. Bean Safari outfit?
Sadly, I had no luck finding the fabulous Sfogiatelle pastry that my friend Salam so highly recommended (he did say it might be more popular further south, closer to Naples) and I did not get to eat carciofo romana, a dish which involves flattening and grilling parts of a whole artichoke.
However, the best Gelato I found in all my Italian travels was not at one of the recommended gelaterias (most of which I tried) but instead at a family-run, hole-in-the-wall down the street from my current hotel. Go figure.
Tonight I wrap up my Italian stay with a performance of Il Turco In Italy by Rossini at the National Opera House (conveniently right across the street from my hotel). This is an Opera Buffo (comic opera) but the plot is so convoluted that, when I read the synopsis, I gave up on keeping track of who was cheating on, in love with, pining for, disguised as, or fleeing from, who. I’m sure the music and singing will be great. (Post-performance comments: it was a great show, with very clever scenery and directed by someone with a great eye for small comic bits that delighted throughout the performance. Terrific music and singing, as was expected. The opera house itself was not quite as fabulous as La Fenice in Venice but wonderful nonetheless).
Speaking of music, my hotel only occupies some of the floors in its building and on the floor above me someone in an apartment plays excellent classical piano every night, which lulls me to sleep.
Tomorrow: I bid Italy goodbye and head off to Paris for a few days.

Words Cannot Describe…

In the interest of brevity, I will dispense with the following superlatives now: astounding, amazing, fabulous, incredible, and humbling. Today I have experienced them all.
The National Museum of Rome is my kind of museum: spacious, quiet, air conditioned, uncrowded, and filled withg great artifacts. Located just a few blocks from my hotel, it contains great sculptures, including the busts of many ancient Roman notables (the Emperors, Senators, Generals, and their wives) and Greek and Roman Gods. Some of these are "death masks" and therefore represent what they really looked like. The basement is a vast walk-in vault (complete with bank vault doors) that presents the chronological progress of coins in the Roman Empire and Italy, from Denaris to Euros. Fascinating. The basement also houses a collection of common ancient Roman household items, including jewelry, hair pins, and cosmetic jars. A terrific 90 minute visit.
Rome’s subway system is pretty lightweight by our standards: there are only two lines, A & B, which run North-South and East-West and serve very little of Rome. However, imagine the difficulties in trying to tunnel today through a 2,400-year old city! Every 10 feet they must have had to call in the archaeologists to examine some new find. Nonetheless, the subway at least had working A/C and typical cars, complete with graffiti, and is, apparently, well-used by the citizenry. I used the subway today to visit…
The Vatican Museum, houses a great collection of sculpture and painting. There is one long hall that features 100 yards (our modern football field) of sculptures, followed by 50 yards of amazing tapestries, followed by another 100 yards of The Map Room. The latter is a room whose walls are painted with frescoes of maps of different areas of Italy and whose ceiling is the most fabulous assortment of frescoes and decorative detail. The 3-D in the frescoes is so good that it’s frequently hard to figure out what is painted and what is real. This is followed by the Raphael Rooms – Raphael took up residence at the Pope’s request and painted huge frescoes in the Pope’s private rooms, including the famous and gigantic "School of Athens", featuring Aristotle, Socrates, Euclides, and even Michelanglo (who was working down the hall at the time). I am reminded of the observation I made when viewing Louis XIV’s bedroom at Versailles: how could anyone actually sleep underneath all that art, gold, and decoration?
Next, the Sistine Chapel, the Pope’s private chapel. Imagine, a chapel the size of a high school gym, reserved for the exclusive use of one man. Described as the greatest single work of art by an individual, the ceiling frescoes simply defy description. Here is the Old Testament history of the world before Jesus. Here is the famous panel showing the extended finger tips of God and Adam. Though Michelanglo at first refused the commission, saying he was a sculptor not a painter, the Pope prevailed on him and, from 1508 to 1512, the sculptor found himself on scaffolds painting 5,900 square feet of ceiling (compare that to the size of your house or apartment). When you enter, the space is dimly lit to preserve the frescoes and you are asked to be silent (Americans, of course, lead the way in babbling). At one end, above the altar and painted by Michelangelo 23 years after the ceiling, is The Last Judgement, a dark and horrific vision of the end of days. This is very different in outlook from the optimistic ceiling frescoes and illustrates the pessimism of the end of The Renaissance.
I used the sneaky "Group Tours Only" exit from the Sistine Chapel to save myself a 30-minute walk around to the front of St. Peter’s Basilica. This is the cathedral of all cathedrals. The front porch, the Atrium or covered entrance before you reach the doors, is itself larger than most churches. Inside the scale is huge: 200 yards from front to back, 430 feet to the top of the dome, the inside covers 6 acres and can accomodate 6,000 standing worshippers. The altar is covered by a 7-story tall bronze canopy and every surface is ornately decorated. This clealy carries the splendor that was once ancient Rome forward and is a magnificent seat of worship for the 1.1 Billion Roman Catholics. It’s hard to describe the feeling one gets viewing this – the accomplishments of man are truly heavenly here.
Where are the artistic accomplishments of recent centuries that rival those of men like Michelangelo, I wonder? What from our time will be revered 600 years from now as unbelievable accomplishments in art? I wonder…
Tomorrow: the Colesseum, Forum, Palantine Hill, and the remains of ancient Rome.

Learning The Roman Way

Rome is a vast, sprawling city on the scale of Paris, London or even New York, with all the attendant bustle, business, dirt, and noise. The traffic is not quite as crazy as reported (although I had a wild taxi ride this morning, barreling through traffic while the driver had a screaming match with someone on his cell phone). In fact, drivers really seem to obey the rule of stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks and there isn’t too much jay-walking. The drivers are used to passing cars and other things with minimum clearances, at a crawl or at speed, and the notion of lanes is non-existent. Yet, the cars are not all banged up along their sides as you might expect.
My hotel is across the street from the National Opera House and so the neighborhood is lively with restaurants and bars catering to the opera-going crowd. Very convenient for me, as I have a ticket for Wednesday night’s performance of Il Turco In Italy.
Best laid plans do go awry and I found myself attempting to visit two museums today that were closed on Mondays (guess I’ll have to fire someone in my Trip Planning Department). I’ve also been dealing for days with a vicious head cold and cough that is just hanging on and on (no, I haven’t been around any birds). So after my abortive museum trips, I decided to play it low key today in the hopes of shaking my cold.
One thing that is unusual here is that businesses close up early. The government has been on a kick to break the "siesta" plan (where businesses close in the afternoon and reopen in the evening) and adopt a more Western timetable. But it’s usual to see everything but restaurants close up after 7:00 PM, so forget it if you want a pack of gum or an aspirin after that time.
You have to marvel at the focus on energy conservation here. My hotel room, for example, uses a programmable key card. After you open your door, you have to insert the key card into a hold just inside the door in order to get the lights to come on. When you leave and take the card, the lights will stay on for 30-seconds and then go off. So you cannot leave the lights (or TV, A/C, etc.) on when out. Incidentally, the key card, which is the US is very anonymous to prevent theft in case it’s lost, features the hotel name, address, and room number on it.
One drawback of traveling with a guidebook as your guide (in my case, the Rick Steves books) is that you may wind up surrounded by Americans toting the same book wherever you go. While the Italians themselves are ardent tourists and there are certainly plenty of them scrutinizing maps at the tourist sights, my hotels and certain recommended restaurants seem like they’re located in D.C. based on the conversations overheard.
What’s for breakfast? All my hotels have served a complimentary breakfast consisting of a choice of cold cereals (Rice Crispies, Corn Flakes), yogurt, bread and croissants, ham, Swiss cheese, fruit, and beverages. The "orange juice" is the weakest stuff you’ll ever see and there is no cream or half and half for your tea or coffee. On the other hand, it is free, it is just downstairs from your room, you can get a great cappucino, and everyone there is American.
So, tomorrow will hopefully be a busy day. I hope to see the National Museum of Rome, the Vatican, and St. Peter’s Basillica. Rick Steves says I can do it all in one day. I’ll put him to the test.

Never Made Siena

Siena, sadly, was not to be. There was some kind of "work action", a slowdown, by the bus drivers and so buses were infrequent and mobbed. As it turned out, by staying in Florence I was able to talk with a Harley rider and see the start of a large running event. Interesting point gleaned from the bus schedule: "weekdays" here means Monday thru Saturday.
The rider belonged to a "moto club" from Pettrona and they pulled up in the Piazza del Republica right in front of me. His was the only Harley I’ve seen so far in Italy and the club’s dozen or so bikes were among the first real motorcycles I’d seen. He was riding a 2001 Softail and they were in town to work as volunteers escorting the runners. Unfortunately, he spoke no English so we didn’t have an extensive conversation.
The Florence to Pettrona race is 100 KM (60 miles) over the Pyrenees mountains. It started right in town at 3:00 PM (what an odd hour – most US races start in the cool mornings) and the start was chaotic. It was not a closed course per se, just a regular street in the pedestrian zone, and when the gun sounded, tourists were scrambling to get out of the way of the runners. Exciting to watch nonetheless; 60 miles is quite a run and there were all sorts of participants, including wheelchair racers.
So that’s it for Florence. This afternoon I’ll be boarding the Eurostart train again, this time for Rome and I look forward to the ancient ruins and the Vatican.