Archive | August, 2009

RCJ Column #10 (the last one!) Paris

(Published in the Rapid City Journal on Sunday, July 12, 2009)

Getting Around Paris:  Bikes, Boats and Baguettes.

The Eiffel Tower, built in 1889, is still the tallest building in Paris

The Eiffel Tower, built in 1889, is still the tallest building in Paris

You can never get around Paris.  Or over it.  Paris frustrates me.  Just when you think you have seen Paris, or understand Paris, or are tired of Paris, it will unfold itself just a tiny bit more.  It is the grand seductress of cities.  It will lure you in, promising an enchanting time at the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre and you will go away thinking you’ve ‘done’ Paris.  It will smile indulgently at you from a distance.  Because every time you return to Paris (and you will), you’ll experience an entirely different Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, etc.; and then you’ll want to know her even more.

Behind Notre Dame with a peek at the Seine

Behind Notre Dame with a peek at the Seine

You’ll read, you’ll take guided tours, you’ll attempt to learn French, you’ll wander the streets at all hours trying to put your finger on exactly what it is about Paris that fascinates.  And you’ll get whiffs every now and then; enough to keep you on the scent.  But Paris is elusive and moody.  She prefers her privacy.

A rental bike location near the Place Vendome

A rental bike location near the Place Vendome

Getting around Paris, literally, is another story.  The city is large and there’s lots to see; fortunately, Paris is ready for you.  The best new transport scheme is the ‘rental bike’, which you’ll find densely scattered throughout the central city.  You put payment in a slot, it unlocks a bike, and off you go.  Of course, the program is not without drawbacks.  There are few dedicated bike paths and traffic is a nightmare; Parisians believe their cars to be very slim and able to fit in the smallest spaces. Like next to you IN the bike lane.  I recommend getting up really early on a Sunday morning and biking everywhere; you’ll have the streets to yourself. And at the end of your journey, you just deposit the bike back into any of the  bike racks around the city; no need to return to your point of origin.  It’s genius!

The River Seine MINUS the Bateaux Mouches

The River Seine MINUS the Bateaux Mouches

The Seine flows serpent-like through central Paris; the Bateaux Mouches are another alternative to getting around.  Long, comfortable, barge-like boats will take you sightseeing and a smaller version, the Batobus, will let you hop on and off at many important sites along the water.  Pure romance, especially in the evening.

The Louvre with IM Pei's Pyramid addition

The Louvre with IM Pei's Pyramid addition

The Paris Metro is a comprehensive subway system that will also get you anywhere you want to go.  There are usually helpful attendants at the bigger stations who will sell you tickets and give travel directions if you are put off by the ticket dispensing machines.  And don’t forget the taxis – Paris has fleets of Mercedes and other upscale autos that will haul you around town in style – but that brings me to another subject.  Trying to be understood in Paris.

The oldest department store in Paris - the BHV (Bazar Hotel de Ville)

The oldest department store in Paris - the BHV (Bazar Hotel de Ville)

I can speak a few words and phrases in French with a reasonable accent.  But, in Paris, if you try to give a destination to a taxi driver in your best French, he will sit with a stunned expression on his face as if you’ve just asked to be driven to Mars.  You can repeat your destination over and over (of course, you can point to it on a map, but that takes all the fun out of it), and each time, he will look more and more puzzled until he finally begins to look fearful.  For example:  we said “Hyatt Hotel” in numerous cabs, to looks of extreme bafflement.  We’d repeat it three or four times until a light bulb moment later when the driver would say:  “Ah!  ‘Eye-yatt O-tel’.  Oui, oui!”  I’m certain it’s just a fun way for them to pass the time and annoy tourists.

Sacre Coeur Basilica commands a spot on the highest hill in Paris

Sacre Coeur Basilica commands a spot on the highest hill in Paris

You’ve probably heard rumors that the French can be rude.  In the past, those rumors were certainly true.  In recent years, however, it appears that the French attended charm school and are capable of being quite helpful and talkative.  Note that I said ‘capable’.  Arm yourself with at least a few words of French: it will make all the difference in how you are welcomed and treated in many establishments.  Just do try to know what you’re saying.

St. Eustache Church in Les Halles.  Mozart's mother's funeral was held here.

St. Eustache Church in Les Halles. Mozart's mother's funeral was held here.

Some things not to miss:  (in addition to the list of the usual attractions!)  Have dinner at an outdoor café after 10PM; American meal times are a curiosity here; you’ll find yourself eating alone (or with other Americans) at 6 or 7PM.

The Eiffel Tower at 11 PM

The Eiffel Tower at 11 PM

Stroll to the Eiffel tower at 11PM and revel in the romance of one of Paris’ iconic images lit as if exploding with joy.  Linger in the Luxembourg Gardens when a band is playing in the gazebo.  Stroll the banks of the Seine after dark when the buildings and monuments are lit to extraordinary effect.  Eat a dessert crepe in the Latin Quarter.  Search out the locks and canals in the northeast part of the city for a respite from the crowds.  Mostly, just go to Paris and try not to miss anything.

A grotto in the Luxembourg Gardens

A grotto in the Luxembourg Gardens

My final impression to share with you:  Sitting on a 19th century park bench in the leafy Luxembourg Gardens enjoying a baguette lunch with the love of my life while listening to the “Ohio Ambassadors of Music” (high school grads with extraordinary musical talent from the state of Ohio!) entertain the lunch crowd with blues, tango, Sousa and a bit of pop.  After a short pause, the first strains of “America the Beautiful” came wafting towards us.  As emotion overcame me and a tear rolled down my cheek, I realized:  it was time to go home.

Thank you for sharing this European odyssey with me these past two months.  I hope that I’ve sparked (or re-sparked) your desire to travel; that I’ve told you about a few new things and accurately given you my slightly skewed impressions of the world.  But, mostly, I hope I’ve kept you entertained.  Farewell for now!

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RCJ Column #8 Rome

(published in the Rapid City Journal on Sunday, June 28, 2009)

Dear readers,  Sorry about the temporary lack of photos to accompany the Rome column.  My crashed hard drive is being restored and I will have it (and all of my ‘lost’ photos!) sometime next week (Aug  25); I’ll insert photos then. 

Roma!

Aaaaah, Roma!!  The seven hills, the seven thousand atmospheric outdoor cafes, the seven million jostling, perspiring, tourists!  Che bella….. aroma!!! 

It’s June and it’s hot and it’s Rome.  Nothing I can say in my scribblings is going to add one iota to what has already been written/recorded/photographed about the gargantuan place in history held by sites like The Colosseum, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, The Forum, The Pantheon; the list is nearly endless.  If you have a chance to visit this city and experience these wonders for yourself, grab it.  Unless you’ve been here, your notions of the ancient Roman Empire and the current Italian capital are surely diminished.  Herewith, instead of droning on about the obvious, I thought I would share a few travel hints for you to use when you finally do visit. 

First, if you come in the summer, insure that your hotel is air conditioned.  The whole hotel, not just the lobby.  Trust me.  Many hotels, museums and churches are not air-conditioned, so be forewarned.  For the most part, buildings heat up quickly in Rome’s hot, muggy climate (think Black Hills in July, then add 90% humidity), with the exception of the churches.  I can’t decide whether it’s because the stone buildings retain the cool naturally or whether it’s due to lack of body heat.  The Italians don’t attend regularly anymore; the churches (NOT St. Peter’s) will be relatively empty.  They’re cool, they contain some of the most important works of art in Rome and admission is free.  You can’t beat that combo. 

Second, if your hotel advertises a ‘romantic rooftop garden café’ named, for instance, Terrazo di Paradiso, and you’re planning to surprise your love with a dinner and a bauble, do check to see if the ‘Terrazo’ has actually ever been open.  In our 200 year old hotel, when we inquired, we were most indulgently informed that ‘the Terrazo is a work in progress’.  (I didn’t mention that, in America, we don’t really consider a 200 year schedule ‘progress’.) 

Third, pack an umbrella (or sunhat) and binoculars.  You will be standing in line in the scorching sun and unless you want to be endlessly pestered by vendors with overpriced, oversized paper cocktail umbrellas, you are advised to carry your own shade.  Unless, of course, you’ve packed a kimono, in which case the paper umbrella will charmingly complete your look.  Binoculars (or a good zoom lens) will expose detail you’ll otherwise miss.  

Fourth, the Sistine Chapel is not in St. Peter’s Basilica, so don’t wander around making a pest of yourself and asking silly questions of the Swiss Guard.  They have dead and living popes to attend to.  To see the Sistine Chapel, a little preparation will go a long way.  You will be walking a long and diverting obstacle course through the Vatican museums along with a hundred thousand other Michelangelo fans, who will suddenly stop for a photo of something you can’t see and a  Domino effect with occur.  Like train cars piling up at a derailment.  This will happen at least five or ten times in the hour it takes to go from the ticket office to the door of the Chapel.  Make sure your brake shoes are in good working order.  

Once you finally achieve the Chapel, you will stand (unless you stand rudely close to someone who has taken up residence on the tiny bench that hugs the perimeter of the chapel, causing them to leave), craning your neck to see the ceiling, because it is 68 feet high and the Chapel is not large. (see: binoculars, above.)  It is nearly impossible to see the entire ceiling from one vantage point, but you will be borne along by the throngs, so you’ll likely see most of it before you are whooshed out the exit.  Also, despite repeated taped and live warnings against talking and taking photos, nearly everyone is talking and taking photos in this sacred space.  You can easily tell who attended parochial school in their youth – they are quiet and taking no photos.  

Lastly, have a pizza in Rome.  You owe it to yourself.  But do not believe the guidebooks and rush off to Pizzeria Baffetto for what is claimed to be the best pizza in Rome.  No offense to Mr. Baffetto (well, maybe a little.  Signore Baffetto is rude to his servers and his customers because of the pedestal he has been on), but the BEST pizza in Rome is actually made by his children (who, I’m thinking, got fed up with his tantrums and their stingy allowances and opened their own place) at Pizzeria Montecarlo near the Piazza Navona.  You’ll be surrounded by animated Italian families enjoying the most divine combination of crispy, paper-thin crust, lightly singed edges, deliciously balanced toppings and the fastest service imaginable.  However, and consider yourself warned:  do not eat pizza in Rome if you ever plan to have pizza in the United States again.  They are not of the same species.  Being in St. Peter’s Basilica is probably the closest to heaven most Roman Catholics will ever feel; eating Montecarlo’s pizza will have to suffice for everyone else.

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RCJ Column #9 Tuscany and Umbria

(published in the Rapid City Journal on Sunday, July 5, 2009)

Typical Umbrian hill town

Typical Umbrian hill town

Tuscany and Umbria 

We arrived in Assisi late in the day after a speedy ride up the Autostrada from Rome.  (I believe “Autostrada” means “straddle all lanes with your auto”; passing requires squeezing your eyes shut and screaming a lot.)  Assisi is a picturesque Umbrian hill town dominated by the lovely and austere Basilica di San Francesco. 

The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi

The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi

As St. Francis of Assisi is Italy’s patron saint; this town of 3000 is overtaken by up to 5 million tourists and pilgrims every year.  And without great accommodations, it will feel like you’re sharing the town with all 5 million at once. 

 

The central square in the town of Assisi

The central square in the town of Assisi

The Hotel de Umbria, secreted off the main square with its own cloistered and leafy outdoor café, was the perfect place to escape the crowds and still be within easy walking distance of most of Assisi’s attractions.  “Easy walking” is a misnomer:  with only a few portals into town and the tiniest of winding medieval lanes, you’ll be sharing the ‘streets’ with cars, trucks and that most noxious of transportation inventions: the two stroke scooter.  As you gaze at the façade of the Temple of Minerva, built at the time of Christ, the incessant whine of those infernal scooters will have you thinking rather pagan thoughts.  

Assisi is clean, beautiful and, thankfully, frozen in time.  The League of Graffiti Artists (the amount of graffiti in Europe is astounding and dismaying) have left Assisi unmarked; the difference is almost startling.   Most of the medieval buildings are constructed of a muted grey stone; boxes of red and pink geraniums spill from every window and peeking into jewel box courtyards is a tiny, thrilling glimpse into Italian home life.  The huge, spray-painted signatures of Big Rex and Ultimo 5 are not missed.  (Let’s hope there’s a special place in Hades for these defilers of Europe’s noble and historic structures!) 

A visit to St. Francis’ tomb is a deeply moving experience.  Because of warring families in Italy at the time of Francis’ death, his body was sealed in a rock tomb so that it could not be dug up or defiled.  The tomb today is still rock, encased in iron, deep in an underground chapel, almost jarring in its simplicity.  The solitude and serenity is palpable.  It is not to be missed. 

A few miles from Assisi is Cortona, the classic Tuscan town whose outskirts now resemble American suburbs.  I think we can thank Frances Mayes and “Under the Tuscan Sun” for this phenomenon.  If you have an interest in the thrills and follies of owning a second home in Italy and are the only literate person in America who hasn’t yet read this book, don’t miss it.  When you’re done, try to resist the urge to buy a home there.  Surely, a Walmart is soon to come.  

A market in Cortona - NOT in Walmart!

A market in Cortona - NOT in Walmart!

Cortona, itself, remains another perfect Tuscan hill town; the steep ascent to the town is matched only by the steeper ascent once you’ve achieved the town gates.  If you go, be prepared to climb.  One guidebook describes the lanes as ‘ladder-like’;  although they’re not quite that steep, anything other than flat shoes will easily pitch you onto your nose in most of the town.  Cortona has, by far, the best location for the passeggiatta, or, ‘little walk’, which is an Italian pre-dinner tradition, a daily walk from 5 to 7PM, in which the locals dress up and slowly amble down the loveliest lanes in town.  This would be a wonderful tradition to start in Rapid City; the downtown streets and parks around the Rapid River would be ideal – and then we’ll all go to dinner at one of our delicious downtown cafes.  See you there!  

Michelangelo's 'David' guarding the palace gates (replica)

Michelangelo's 'David' guarding the palace gates (replica)

And finally, Firenze!  Florence – the living work of art.  An example of what can be accomplished if everyone doesn’t sit around watching TV every night. Home to Michelangelo’s “David”, Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation”, Brunelleschi’s “Duomo” (or cathedral); there isn’t enough room on this page to list the famous works residing in this city.  Once saturated with masterpieces, you’ll be ready for a little cappuccino on the main square, the Piazza della Signoria.  Grab a fringe table, especially on Fridays and Saturdays and watch the brides come streaming out of the Palazzo (palace); even more entertaining: watch the brides endure the Italian tradition of being kissed (and I do mean kissed!) by any male who wishes.  Don’t forget to watch the faces of the grooms!  And all for the price of a cup of coffee!

The famously golden Ponte Vecchio over the River Arno in Florence

The famously golden Ponte Vecchio over the River Arno in Florence

Ciao, amici!

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