Venice

April 9, 2007

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I know that Paris touts its reputation as the “city for lovers”, but for my money, there is no more romantic city in the world than Venice.  When I first came here, I was about twelve, and I must confess that all I really remember from that trip is being stuck on a tour with a guide who lectured us for what seemed like hours on the historical importance of the “Bridge of Sighs“.  (This tour guide so overshadowed my memory of that first visit that I wrote a one-act comedic play about the tour in high school.)

But, even then, I could see that this was a breathtakingly romantic city.  Earlier on, my mother had seen fit to make me watch David Lean’s Summertime.  If you haven’t seen it, you should.  It’s the story of a middle-aged school teacher from the Midwest (Katherine Hepburn) who travels abroad for the first time to Venice.  At first she feels awkward and alone, but then discovers the beauty of the city and rediscovers her own beauty through an affair with a local antiques dealer (Rossano Brazzi).  It’s still one of my favorites, and it will make you want to book your tickets to Venice tomorrow.

The real-life Venice is one of the few great cities in the world that lives up to and exceeds everything you read about in the guide books and see in the postcards.  Words really can’t describe your first sight of all those gondolas and vaparettos cutting across the water, and the sound of their wake slapping against the buildings.  There are “touristy sights”, for sure.  There’s the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Square, the Guggenheim Collection and, yes, the aforementioned Bridge of Sighs.  But, all of these are mere diversions.  This is a city for romantic evening strolls along the water, and daytime urban exploring through a literal maze of twisting, turning little streets without a car in sight.

Derek and I lucked out tremendously on our room.  I had booked online at the Hotel Monaco’s website, and upon arrival we were lead out of the hotel, down a narrow street and to an unmarked door.  The bellman unlocked it and led us upstairs to what turned out to be a suite of rooms directly adjacent to St. Marks square.  Even better, the price included breakfast, and when we went down to the lobby to inquire where it was being served, we were led out to an amazing terrace overlooking the Grand Canal.  Normally, I’m not a “breakfast person”, but we ate breakfast every day we were there, soaking in that gorgeous view, being waited on hand and foot, and generally feeling like royalty.

For dinner, I splashed out and booked a table at Harry’s Bar.  This is yet another restaurant made famous by the patronage of Ernest Hemingway, and sustained by a steady flow of celebrities and crowned heads ever since.  The room itself is small and totally nondescript: straw-colored walls and a couple of brass sconces.  But, from the moment your seated, the white-jacketed wait staff swirl around your table like a ballet troupe, constantly switching out your silverware, glasses, plates, and linens in a manner that is both fawning and completely unobtrusive.  How they manage this in such a cramped space boggles the mind.  If you so much as look like your about to ask for something, they’ll already be bringing it to you before you even get a word out.

I knew I wanted to eat here for the experience and didn’t even see the menu before we sat down.  The food choices all sounded excellent, but shock of seeing the prices had me loosening my tie a little.  This was the sort of place where the soup is $40.   Harry’s Bar looks pretty innocuous from the outside, and since it’s located right next to one of the main water-bus stops, it gets a lot of foot traffic shuffling past its frosted-glass door.  Every so often, we’d see college-aged Americans in t-shirts and shorts come through the door.  The maitre’d didn’t have to shoo them away; he’d just smile and hand them the menu… at which point all the color drained from their faces and they couldn’t leave fast enough.

Our meal was incredible, from the ice-cold Martini served in a mini-highball glass to the beef carpaccio which literally melted in your mouth, and the Bellini (invented here), to the flaming dessert.  I couldn’t have asked for more.  As we were eating, a stream of diners and bar patrons stopped by the table next to ours and chatted with an elderly gentleman seated there.  After we got our jackets from the cloakroom, the old man came over and shook our hands.  Only later did I realize it was multi-millionaire owner Arrigo Cipriani.  I think I said “Thanks.”

We stumbled back to the room considerably poorer, but also happy, fully sated and sleepy, collapsing into bed and listening to the sound of tourists shuffling through the streets below us, music wafting from the orchestras in the square, and the calls of the gondoliers echoing in the distance.  It truly doesn’t get any better.

More info: Venice

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Milan

April 7, 2007

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I don’t have much to say about Milan, as Derek and I were on there for a day.  I can tell you that on the whole it was not as “glamorous” as I was expecting.  And, if there’s one “must see” for Milan it is without a doubt the view from the top of the cathedral. 

The climb up to the roof snakes out and around the hundreds of flying buttresses, columns, statues, gargoyles, and every other type of gothic architectural decoration known to man.  Never have I seen so much intricate marble-work on a church at such an amazingly close distance.  You can literally reach out and touch it all.  And, your reward upon reaching the summit is not just the spectacular view of the city, but the uneasy yet awe-inspiring feeling of standing on the actual slanted marble roof of the nave, which vibrates below your feet with from bellow of the grand pipe organ inside the cathedral.  True, there are plenty of churches that let you climb up their bell towers or domes, but Milan’s is the only one I’ve ever been to that lets you run around the entire roof.  It’s a tremendous experience.

More info: Milan Cathedral


Prague

April 5, 2007

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My first impression of Prague was an overwhelming sense of deja vu.  Not because I’ve seen Prague in the background of a thousand movies, standing in for every european city from Vienna to Paris.  But, because I’ve already been to Budapest, which I’ve come to realize is sort of “Prague Lite”.  Both cities are built across two sides of a river; both have an “old town” mountainous side topped with a castle.  Both also have a flatter, more cosmopolitan side with tree-lined shopping boulevards.  Both have a signature bridge across the river; both have a grand fin de siecle train station.  Both have a metro system with three lines that meet in the center of town.

Prague is bigger, grander than Budapest.  But, it also feels a little more impersonal as a result.  Budapest has a mix of stunning Art Nouveau and post-modern architecture, palatial thermal baths, and amazing Hungarian cuisine, all packed into a fairly walkable area.  By contrast, Prague felt a little lacking on all counts.  Make no mistake, it’s still a beautiful city, but for me it occupied an awkward middle-ground, too large to be intimate, not large enough to be grand.  Prague also has a bit of an edge to it, a little grimy, a little dark (Dare I mention Kafka here?), and way too touristy.

More info: Prague


Budapest

October 4, 2006

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They say Budapest is “the Paris of the East”, a moniker that I’m sure causes French Parisians to bristle.  But, the truth is that it’s a worthy title.  Despite being a former Eastern Bloc capital, Budapest has somehow managed to retain its fin de siecle style and glamour.

As most folks are aware, the current city of Budapest resulted from a merger between the cities of Buda and Pest in 1873.  This odd historical conjunction resulted mostly from the building of the Chain Bridge (shown above) which was the first bridge to span the Danube, thus linking the two cities together forever, and cementing Budapest as the trade capital of Eastern (well, Central really) Europe.

Nevertheless, even after 130+ years, there are still stark contrasts between the Buda and Pest sides of the city.  For one thing, Buda is incredibly hilly, with winding roads and cliffs that soar straight up from the river.  Pest, on the other hand is perfectly flat, with ample space for tree-lined boulevards and open squares.  The Buda landscape is dominated by a hilltop castle and lots of expensive homes set into the hills.  The Pest side is where you’ll find the dense urban city with designer shopping and palatial hotels.  Buda has a funicular railway, and Pest has about 90% of the subway system.

Speaking of subways, Budapest has one of the oldest in the world.  The original #1 line still has oak-paneled platforms and wooden train cars with turn-of-the-century brass and leather fittings.  The other two lines were built during the Soviet era and look exactly like you’d expect: cold, metallic, monochromatic, devoid of all character.  The efficiently color-coded Soviet-era stations feature the world’s most uncomfortable plastic molded seats.  Maybe Soviet efficiency is also the reason for the swiftest-moving most-dangerous escalators I’ve ever ridden on.  Then, when you exit the station, your ticket is checked by a cadre of stout, matronly women wearing “official ticket inspector” sashes and looking like they really enjoy catching out the odd fare evader.

One of the highlights of any trip abroad is trying out the local cuisine.  Sometimes this is a test of will.  Scotland comes to mind here.  But, Hungarians love good, strong, no-nonsense home cookin’ (as it were).  “Paprika chicken” is the standard dish you’ll find on every menu, and it’s absolutely delicious.  Something akin to spaetzle is also very popular, and it also is extremely tasty.  We had a couple of off nights (I would suggest you follow the guidebook tip and avoid any place that advertises a “tourist menu” because the food there will be markedly inferior.), but on the whole, dining in Budapest was a treat.

Budapest is also world-renowned as a spa town.  Centuries ago, the ancient Romans discovered mineral hot springs, and a local industry was born.  Today, people come from hundreds of miles in every direction to soak in the “healing” waters.  For the locals, visits to the baths might be as common as eating dinner.  And, the baths are beautiful.  Huge palatial buildings were constructed around them in the 1890s, complete with Bernini-like fountains and overblown baroque decor.

There’s a whole etiquette built into the Hungarian spa-going experience, and Derek and I tried to study up.  Do you wear a bathing suit?  How do you pay?  Do you have to bring your own towel?  How do you move between the various pools?  Is there a path you’re supposed to follow around the complex?  What about the dreaded tipping question?  And, finally, which baths do you go to?  There are at least 15 major spas in central Budapest.

Ultimately, Derek and I opted for the largest and most elaborate spa, the Szechenyi Baths, named after Count Istvan Szechenyi, a 19th century Hungarian politician who has the sort of reputation that, say, Franklin Roosevelt has in the US. (The Chain Bridge is also named after him, and his picture’s on the money.)  Sadly, after we got there, we seemed to lose all memory of our etiquette research, and I’m sure the locals immediately pegged us as idiot foreign tourists.  The baths themselves however did not disappoint.  They were absolutely breathtaking, and the warm, mineral-rich water felt luxurious.  There were indoor pools and outdoor pools, each with it’s own regulated temperature, ranging from freezing cold to boiling hot (thankfully, most were in a nice comfortable hot-tub-ish warm range).  Old men sat playing chess on boards fixed to marble pillars in the water.  Families with kids splashed about.  Inside, a classful of middle-aged women performed graceful water aerobics.  But, mostly people just sat and relaxed.  And, it was very relaxing.  I nearly fell asleep a few times.  A picture is worth a thousand words, so click here.

The relaxing baths were a welcome relief after days of hurried sightseeing.  Budapest has lots of amazing landmarks (too many to name here), but my favorite was the Fisherman’s Bastion.  It’s really a completely useless building (a “folly” as the Brits would say), a huge white marble sandcastle of a structure that wouldn’t be out of place in Disneyland.  That’s probably why I love it.  And, from its perch atop Castle Hill on the Buda side, it has the most spectacular views of the city.

By the end of the trip, Derek was exhausted, so I let him rest while I checked out two of the city’s most dubious attractions: the House of Terror and the World’s Most Beautiful McDonalds.  No, I’m not kidding.  About either of them. 

The House of Terror is a museum detailing life in Budapest under the two successive totalitarian regimes that controlled that country: first the Nazis (under the banner of the Arrow Cross party), then the Communists.  It’s housed in a building that was used as a headquarters (complete with a basement full of torture cells) by both camps.  Oddly enough, it’s smack in the middle of Andrassy Avenue, which is sort of the Champs-Elysees of Budapest.  Inside, the experience is supposed to be a bit like the Museum of Tolerance or the Holocaust Memorial Museum, where you chronologically journey through the harrowing rise and fall of fascism and communism.  But, in reality, it feels more like a trip through the Museum of Design or maybe the Knoll furniture showroom.   It’s like a very elaborate, very stylish modern art installation.  Instead of making the regimes look horrific, the museum makes them look, well, sexy.  Which is almost as horrifying as the horrors the museum purports to be exposing in the first place.

At the extreme opposite end of the cultural spectrum, there’s McDonalds.  It turns out that Budapest has a giant tri-level American-style mall (complete with a TGI Friday’s and a multiplex).  The mall is next door to the central train station, a masterpiece of brick, steel and glass, built in part by Gustave Eiffel (of the eponymous tower fame).  Attached to the station is the famous McDonalds.  Well, it’s not that famous.  Honestly, I’d never heard of the Budapest McDonalds before I came here.  But, once I read about it, I had to see it.  I mean, how do you pass up seeing “The World’s Most Beautiful McDonalds”?   (Five words I’d never seen strung together before, and probably never will again.)  And, the verdict?  Yes, it was very beautiful.  (Click here for a picture.)  I imagine it once used to be a lounge or booking hall for the station that’s since been restored to it’s original glory.  It is the only McDonalds I’ve ever been to with chandeliers and gilt plasterwork on the ceiling.  And the food?  Well, a Big Mac is a Big Mac everywhere.  I recommend sticking with the paprika chicken.

More info: Budapest


Berlin

September 30, 2006

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Berlin has always been the most mysterious of international cities.  Paris is romantic, New York is busy, Rio is sun-drenched.  And Berlin has always had a touch of the forbidden about it, be it the decadent Weimar Berlin of Sally Bowles and Cabaret, or the divided Cold War Berlin of Hitchcock and Torn Curtain. (Yes, I know I can’t go two sentences without bringing in a film reference.)  Of course, now that there’s no more Berlin Wall, a good deal of the mystery has gone.  Instead of standing on a high platform to get a glimpse over the Wall to the Brandenburg Gate on the other side, visitors can now stroll right through the gate… and, a few steps further, straight into a Starbucks for a Venti Caramel Frappuccino.

Even though the wall has come down, the legacy of the “divided city” continues. There are still duplicates between the eastern and western halves: two Egyptian Art museums, two old cathedrals, two city halls, and so on. Architecturally, the city is still divided as well, but not in the way you’d expect. The western side was free to build itself up in the post-war years, and dozens of huge modernist concrete office buildings sprang up through the 1960s, replacing the buildings destroyed during the war. The eastern side, with it’s command economy remained pretty “boring” with lots of ugly squat buildings big empty “no man’s land” spaces between it and the West.

But, now that the wall is gone, those easily-destroyed ugly squat buildings and ample open spaces have provided Berlin with something it’s been missing for quite a while: prime real estate.  The old dull Eastern side is now buzzing with building, a forest of construction cranes, and suddenly the center of all that is cool and swanky.  Just beyond the Starbucks, there’s a Galleries Lafayette, dozens of designer-label stores and a Bugatti dealership.  Ironically, now it’s the western half that seems old and dated and trapped in 1960’s concrete office-block hell.  

The eastern half also has all the cool museums.  There’s the Altes Museum with it’s celebrated bust of Neffertiti, the Alte Nationalgalerie with an admirable collection of German expressionists like Caspar David Friedrich, and of course, the crown jewel of Museum Island, the Pergammon, which features no less than three monumental ancient reconstructed structures within it’s massive walls: The Pergamon Altar, the Ishtar Gate and the Mshatta Facade.  And if that’s not enough for you, you can truck over to Alexanderplatz (which, apart from it’s fame from the eponymous Fassbinder film, was universally knows as the ugliest public square in all of Europe, though it too is being completely ripped up and re-built), and see the Fernsehturm, an observation tower that looks like a large golf ball impaled on a giant knitting needle.

On the western side, the redevelopment plan is going forward with mixed results.  The Reichstag has been lovingly restored, though it seems like more of a tourist attraction than an actual government building.  Most folks come just to see the view from the roof and walk up and down the spiralling ramps inside Sir Norman Foster’s mirror and glass dome (amusingly, the building’s most distinctive feature now, but not originally part of Foster’s design).  The Reichstag is flanked by the “functional” government buildings, which unfortunately look like the 21st century version of big 1960’s concrete office blocks (combined with a dash of the Kennedy Center).  Beyond those buildings, they’ve built a huge serpentine complex of apartments specifically for the public servants, so they can live where they work and avoid a lengthy commute.  Unfortunately, nobody seems to want to live this close to work, so they’re being re-purposed.

Across the river from the unused political apartments, there’s the sparkling new Berlin Hauptbahnhof (central train station).  Berlin has never had a “central” train station, in the same way that Paris and London don’t either.  Instead, there were regional stations on opposite sides of the city, serving opposite directions (like Waterloo and Paddington in London, or the Gare du Nord and Gare de Lyon in Paris).  Somebody had the brilliant idea of closing all the old stations and centralizing everything in one “centrally” located station.  Never mind the logistical nightmare that creates.  Never mind the fact that it’s not easy to get to the new station.  And never mind the fact that it doesn’t link up at all with Berlin’s vast underground metro system. I’m sure it looked brilliant on paper.  It almost seems like east and west have traded sides.  The east is now caught up in the gung-ho capitalist building craze, and the west is stuck experimenting with poorly thought out central planning schemes.

Despite all the references to Berlin’s recent Communist past — at Checkpoint Charlie, you can still take your picture in front of signs warning you you’re about to leave the American Sector and enter the Soviet Sector, and then be accosted by street vendors selling anything and everything emblazoned with the East German flag and the Soviet hammer-and-sickle (most of it, I’m sure, made in last week in Taiwan) — there are few references to Berlin’s Nazi past.  Even the tourist guide you get at the Reichstag features a historical timeline of the building that conspicuously omits everything between 1930 and 1950. 

Near the oddly rococo Berliner Dom, there’s a plain-but-pretty cobblestone square known as the Bebelplatz.   Towards the center, through a scratchy glass panel embedded in the pavement, you can peer down into an all-white room filled with empty bookshelves.  This is the memorial to the fact that Bebelplatz was the site of the Nazi’s infamous book burning in 1933. (You may remember this from the decidedly un-historical Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.)  But, you literally have to squint to know that this modern-day location was that historical location.

Over near the Brandenburg Gate, there’s a new Holocaust memorial designed by architect Peter Eisenman.  It’s a football field-sized plot, filled with 2711 black stone rectangular slabs (which viewed from above look like coffins).  They’re all roughly the same height, but as you travel toward the center, the ground level deepens, and the “coffin” walls rise up around you, feeling like a cement hedge-maze or something out of a Terry Gilliam dream-sequence.  It’s a powerful piece of art, and a moving, somber memorial.  But, even this is not without controversy.  The Jewish community complains that it’s not on a site with any Jewish or Holocaust connection.  And during its construction, it was revealed that the anti-graffiti paint used to protect the slabs was manufactured by the same company that once manufactured Zyklon B for the Nazi gas chambers.

In a way, I felt that Berliners were constantly trying to escape their city’s past precicely because it’s inescapable.  Even without a single plaque or memorial, either to the victims of the Nazis or the Communists, there’s a weird undercurrent — something in the air — that makes you feel just a little uneasy in Berlin.  Even at the Potsdamerplatz, where the Sony Corporation has built an ultra-modern office and entertainment complex under a fabric-and-steel canopy that’s supposed to evoke the shape of Mount Fuji, even here, adjacent to the IMAX theater, there are inescapable remnants of the city’s past: pieces of the graffiti-covered Berlin Wall, and two other interior walls from the ornate gilded breakfast room of the Kaisersaal, now sitting outside, preserved under glass.  This is how Berlin reveals itself to you; a brick here, a wall there; like a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing.  Mysterious and fascinating.

More info: Berlin


Madrid (Part 4 – Palacio Real de Aranjuez)

May 16, 2006

For our last day in Spain, we met up with Derek’s friend Antonio and took a day trip to see Aranjuez, a small town south of Madrid, famous for its royal palace.  Unfortunately, the palace was closed when we arrived.  So, we took a walk around the town, had a real Spanish lunch (which was actually pretty good), and strolled through the palace’s gardens (which were beautiful, but also teeming with clouds of small gnats that seemed to follow me everywhere).  Overall, it was a bit of a letdown.  But, it was still nice to get out of the city for a day.

Our only other big highlight of Madrid (for me at least) was eating dinner at the famous Botin retaurant.  According to the Guinness Book of World Records,Sobrino de Botin is the oldest continually operating restaurant in the world.  Hemingway was a frequent diner, and the place is mentioned in his novel The Sun Also Rises.  Suckling pig has had pride of place on the menu since the restaurant opened in 1725.  I dragged Derek there after having it recommended to me by a coworker in Slough.  It’s not much to look at, either outside or in.  Most folks end up eating in the brick-vaulted cellars.  We ate in an tiny “overflow” room off the kitchen, literally.  You had to walk through the kitchen to get there.  We partook of the famous suckling pig, and we both agreed it was one of the few “touristy” dining experiences that lived up to (and maybe even exceeded) it’s reputation.  If you’re ever in Madrid, you have to go at least once.

More info: Palacio Real de Aranjuez
More info: Sobrino de Botin


Madrid (Part 3 – Zoo Aquarium)

May 14, 2006

After the thrillingly tacky experience of the Parque de Atracciones, we decided to try to redeem the day’s outing by visiting the Madrid Zoo-Aquarium next door.  Unfortunately “next door” (as it appeared on the map) was more like a quarter of a mile away, which normally wouldn’t be that bad, were it not for the sweltering heat.  Things weren’t improved by the fact that there were no signs at all telling you where to go.  Nor was there any walkway, unless you count the dirt trail worn through the crabgrass next to the road.

The zoo was quite large, but the environment was as dry and as “concretey” as downtown Madrid (minus the traffic).  With temperatures soaring and a dearth of shade trees, most of the animals looked like they were literally dying in the heat.  I had to wonder about the logic (and humanity) of having penguins and brown bears standing out in the hot Spanish sun all day. 

One bear (pictured above) stood motionless on the edge of his concrete habitat, looking wearily into the pit that separated him from throngs of kids who were pelting him with peanuts.  He had a look on his face that made me wonder if he was contemplating suicide, jumping into the concrete abyss head-first to end it all.  Ultimately, he just turned around and rolled over on his side.

There was an aquarium too, a building half-buried in a giant mound of grass, topped with a Logan’s Run-style glass pyramid.  Of course, with the heat outside, it was crowded beyond capacity inside.  Everyone was pushing and shoving and stepping on the feet of the people next to them.  The air was curiously still, humid and not much cooler than outside.  In fact it pretty much was the same feeling as outside, but with the added bonuses of claustrophobia, darkness and fish.

The fish were impressive.  There were some pretty large sharks.  But, the layout was confusing and uninspiring, with hardly any information available about what you were looking at.  What kind of sharks were they?  I’ll be damned if I know.  Even worse, the only exit was through the (too small) gift shop (yes, you can blame Disney for that), which only served to create a massive bottleneck for people trying to get out.

Speaking of Disney, there was (for no apparent reason) a bronze bust of the man himself right in the middle of the park.  Two little brats were busy sticking gum up his nose while their parents took pictures. Oh, how enchanting.

(Continued in Part 4.)

More info: Zoo Aquarium Madrid