Archive | Travel

Long Boat Long River

May 2018

Long long ago when you wore white gloves and nylons and your handbag matched your shoes, you walked up the long diagonal gangplank and boarded Cunard’s Elizabeth, Mary or Mauretania to cross the Atlantic in five vertiginous days. (I use the smokestack from my luggage tag as a logo.) In Cabin class, a deck up from Tourist, you dressed for dinner and if you caught the eye of the chief bursar you might be asked to join the captain’s table in First where I spotted a rueful Cary Grant just divorced from Betsy Drake. 

A thousand years later in another world I took my next watery vacation,  Viking’s Rhine Getaway cruise featured in Kodachrome- alluring ads on PBS before and after Downton Abbey

Heidelberg Baroque

. I was hooked and we arrived in Basel, stepped onto the longboat (not a ship, carrying boats) Kara with 170 other passengers and 48 staff eager to serve. To a man everyone was over 65, white, married, retired middle management, with enviable appetites for information and food.

Sailing north on the Rhine, which started its 776 mile journey to the North Sea in the Oberalps, the Kara cruised for the first three nights while we were asleep and I wondered if this was just a floating hotel docking at different ports. Every morning passengers were divided into three or four groups and off we went on a caravan of buses. First stop Breisach, the warmest place in Germany, in hilly wine country, up tp 6,100 feet,  with a Romanesque cathedral and Schongauer murals which survived the war. In Germany every monument is preceded by this lugubrious reminder, was it or was it not bombed by the Allies.

The Black Forest, impenetrable in thick fog, defied the bus driver  so we stopped at a cuckoo clock shop in Hofgut Sternen next to the very hotel where Marie Antoinette stayed in 1770 en route from Vienna to Paris to marry Louis. (This is why you go to Europe!).The next day, the mist folllowed us into the old town of Strasbourg, all cobblestones, canals, half timbered houses, a medieval guild city circling a suave Gothic catheral . The multicultural new city  with its unfortunate modern architecture is the seat of the 28 member  European Parliament, which Britain will leave in 2020 and perhaps Italy, the Council of Europe and the Council on Human Rights.

Viking packs a full basket of Optional Excursions, “Making the MOST of every stop” but after a morning of sightseeing we skipped the Alsatian feast (food on the Kara was, fresh, simple and healthy) , the wine and beer nights in monasteries and fortresses, the cheesemaking demos, stunning Colmar, the Bruhl princely palaces, E-biking here and there. Jack did take the tour of Mercedes Benz where robots assembled cars overseen by workers rotating jobs every hour and never working more than 30 hours a week.

Heidelberg was still Edmund Purdum (with Mario Lanza’s tenor) in The Student Prince, singing DrinkDrinkDrink to Eyes to that are Bright and…. in the oldest university in Europe (1386), summertime, linden trees,bells chiming, lover’s promenade. Ah! The pink sandstone castle 330 ft high above the lovely Neckar, home of the Palatinate princes was so beautiful the Allies spared it. It is sans doute the most Romantic place on the Continent, and you have to hand it to the Germans, no folderol, no commercialism, no glassed in forced fed education, no Frenchified son et lumiere as in Lex Baux, just the empty melancholy divinity of castle ruins, yes in a thunderstorm, that enchanted Turner, Goethe and Mark Twain.


Finally finally daylight cruising in the choppy Rhine Gorge between Rudesheim and Koblenz the 25 mile stretch a UNESCO World Heritage site with 20 hilltop castles where robber barons exacted tolls from river traffic and where at the treacherous bend in the river stands the Lorelei rock of the Niebelungen. I longed to hear Siegfried but the musak offered All You Need is Love, a nod to the “Royal” wedding that day. The Kara docked in Koblenz, home of the Teutonic knights, where the Rhine and Moselle meet at a massive equestrian statue of Prince Willliam I and off to Marksburg Castle, the only castle untouched by the war, high up on the gorge. At this age having explored a lifetime of ruins, castles, monasteries and cathedrals I didn’t need to see another medieval kitchen and great hall so stayed outside, had a grand local beer,  and admired the view. 

Marie Antoinette’s Inn

During the night cruising and day cruising through lock after lock one noted that not a centimeter of space was left on the banks of the Rhine with heavy industry, factory after factory, plants after plant,many pharmas, smokestack after smokestack, shipping port after shipping port. In a country the size of Montana with 83 million souls( 10% have foreign passports), from cradle to grave everything is be organized in a quasi socialistic system where engineers earn more than lawyers and a super skilled workforce offers America, so profligate with our treasures, a valuable lesson.

Castle on the Rhine

Then Cologne, 90% flattened in the war, the old town rebuilt as a perfect copy of the original thanks to city planner Klement Eul the godfther of our guide Irwin. The biggest cathedral in Europe, built from the 14th through the 19th centuries, was as black as coal sadly unable to be cleaned so far has grime penetrated into the stone. The fourth country of the tour, the Netherlands and Kinderdjik another UNESCO site  with 19 eighteenth century windmills, the largest concentration in the country, still fully functional,  amidst the polders or grasslands five feet below sea level .Massive pumps from 1740 still keeping the sea at bay. Forgoing the tour of Amsterdam, which after all never changes, we were corraled onto a very old KLM 747 for the long painful flight home. The next time I cross the Atlantic I’ll try one of those new Cunards.

Strasbourg timber




Provence, Art and Memory


Fifty, yes that’s fifty, years ago in Provence I marveled at the clear air, soft light, pebbled beaches, northern Mistral, very violent with 65 mph gusts this October, open air markets with chickpea Socca, flowers, honeysuckle, poppies, hyacinth, lavender, Romanesque eglises, the ominpresent Roman remains and those lovely Beaux Arts buildings. Not much has changed today save the sheer numbers of Millennials in jeans and sweatshirts, no French stylishness here, meandering around the spacious plazas festooned with awkwardly unintelligible contemporary “art”.


Victoria’s palace

In the 1960s on the Cote d’Azur a vague anticipation of glamor was in the air, but, alas, the south of France had already lost its panache, its chic,  the Riviera set long gone, not a ghost of an impoverished aristocrat or Gerald and Sara Murphy but rather the playground of actress Brigitte Bardot. Since the 18th century the English had swarmed to Nice reaching an apex with Queen Victoria’s residence in an enormous summer palace, now the Regina hotel, and the descendants of aristocratic pre-revolutionary Russians who still live in the neighborhood of the ornate Orthodox cathedral built in 1865.   A soupcon of raffish louchness persists, Maugham’s “sunny place for shady people”, in the 1,600 slip Marina in Antibes festooned with gigantic brand new yachts.


Russian Cathedral

Antibes, dans ma memoire, the distant pink and blue Alps, the golden ramparts plunging directly into the cobalt Med, and half a century ago the rickety dark charm of the Old Town (built up today) . I vowed to live there someday, smoking Gauloises, drinking rouge, and writing on a balcony overlooking the sea, a la Lawrence Durrell whose Alexandria Quartet offered a fetching alternative, never taken, to Academia.








Joie de Vivre

Though the petit pension on the Cap where we spent our frugal vacs, Les Coquelicots, had vanished the Grimaldi Castle, now officially the Musee Picasso, still housed the jolly yellow La Joie de Vivre which I recalled as far larger. Today the collection has expanded with photographs and ancillary exhibits, high entry fees, head sets, gift shops and a quartet of gendarmes with AK 47s with fingers resting on the triggers. They are a force a presence all over the Cote presumably since the July 14, 2016 terrorist massacre in Nice.


Cezanne’s atelier

Provence had been part of a research journey for my thesis on the paintings of Roger Fry who loved its solid limestone rocks and farmhouses amidst the vertical cypress and horizontal plains.  Deeply inspired by Cezanne whose paintings he first brought to England in 1912 naming them Post-Impressionist, he copied the master’s techniques, rather ruefully.


My Cezanne painting











On this excursion I stepped through the very doorway of Cezanne’s atelier outside of Aix which I painted five years ago. Inside the high ceilinged room with walls painted neutral gray by Cezanne himself, foliage now obscuring the view of Mount St.Victoire, but the very wine bottles and statuettes he painted were miraculously intact.
#6 Cezanne’s atelier

Back then we zoomed through the Dordogne, far too drizzly like our home in England, to visit Marie Mauron in nearby St. Remy. The widow of Charles Mauron, Fry’s best friend, an eccentric literary critic now with a grand boulevard named for him, she was too busy to reminisce about all the Bloomsbury visitors, the industry in full swing and the BBC filming a documentary at the mas.  This October the town square was in the throes of a wedding celebration with four tubas with the gaiety and sprezzatura of nearby Italy.


Van Gogh’s bedroom

Van Gogh paints the room

Van Gogh paints the room

In Arles, after pizza au feu de bois (no longer allowed) and sleeping in the VW beetle on the Roman forum, we had a Perrier menthe at the Van Gogh cafe still there today unchanged and where I repeated the order. Van Gogh has become a potent marketing tool in the tourist industry and seemingly every sight he ever saw for a painting is noted. Jack and I stood on the exact spot on the Rhone where he painted Starry Night then visited the mental home where he exiled himself for a year, St.Paul de Mausole. His miniscule stone bedroom looked out on a gorgeous lavendar and almond orchard and down the road were two magnificent ornate columns of 5th century BC city of Glanum which he curiously never painted.


St. Paul de Mausole


Carrieres de lumiaire

In 1967 we raced up the rocky bauxite mountain in the heart of the Alpilles to the fortified 12th century castle at Les Baux, sitting on the stones all day in the hot sun looking south over the plain where even the Romans dare not traverse it was so remotely forbidding. #11 Les BauxThe tiny village is still preserved intact by the vigilant French which added to the mix the Carrieres de Lumiere galleries dug into the limestone rock for immersive exhibits which this October was projecting the images of Bosch’s hell and Breughel’s sinners on the walls to the music of Carmina Burana and Led Zeppelin.


Pont du Gard

Though the Greeks were in Les Baux earlier in recorded history, the Romans are the overwhelming presence here and all over Provence which has to have a psychic impact on the Provencals, the weight of the past, the looming thereness especially of the first century AD, a tangible memento mori. The most overwhelming monument is the gigantic three tier Pont du Gard the highest Roman aqueduct in the world which carried water to Nimes from Uzes, now a UNESCO site.


Matisse chapel

And the artists the artists all the artists knew what they were doing when they chose St.Paul de Vence the intoxicating mountain town where midwestern-born F.Scott and Hemingway drank pastis and Simone and Yves lived and where Matisse recovered from cancer surgery. He gave the Dominican nuns who succored him and who still live here a thank you gift, the Chapelle du Rosaire’s stained glass windows and priest’s chasubles, which the Vatican tried unsuccessfully to buy.  A Matisse museum in nearby Cimiez the hilly region north of Nice is adjacent to Roman baths and arena, housing the works of his cut out years, which hover somewhere between graphic design and art. The Chagall Museum in Cimiez down the hill contains his large iconographically rich biblical paintings but I found them muddy and formless, however precious in the details.


Chagall detail


A Tour of Ancient Apuglia


img_0647We were tourists not travellers in Apuglia (I prefer the older word) setting out to see as much as possible with a guided tour. It was a trade off to be sure, more a quantitative than qualitative experience, but that was fine, the purpose was served. For fifty years I longed to see Bari which my grandmother left forever in 1911, the land of poverty, the Land of Remorse, the land of chronic massacres. It was far more beautiful and haunting than I’d ever imagined and understood why Laura Terrone missed it every day of her life in the New World.

My DNA is half Apuglian; I had expected to see half Italian when I sent the sample to Ancestry which determined the other 50% originated in the British Isles. Instead it revealed 29% Greco Italian, with 21% an assortment of Balkan, European Jewish, Caucasian, and Middle Eastern with a touch of the Iberian peninsula, like a history of the eastern-most region of Italy. At one point in time it was the colony of Magna Graecia where
Pythagoras, Archimedes and Aeschylus lived and where Western Civilization started to flourish.

Castel del Monte

Castel del Monte

I could scarcely believe how congested, chaotic and graffiti -strewn Naples was on the drive from the airport to the Renaissance Mediterraneo hotel, a few minutes from the Bay and overlooking Vesuvio. After a sleepless night with singing giovanetti outside our window we spent the next day at the National Archaeological Museum one of the true wonders of the western cultural world housing the Farnese collection and artifacts and mosaics from Pompeii and Herculaneum. At the Herculaneum excavation site later that day a few miles south we walked down into the ruins of luxury villas in what had been a seaside resort for the wealthy, Ercolani, before Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. It rained lava here not volcanic ash as in Pompeii which preserved the organic life in the bustling commercial center. Here only a few skeletons remained, in basements near the river bank and scholars are still debating what happened to the people.



The next day we were off to the northeast of Campania, stopping for lunch in the stunning mountain town lying on a ridge between two rivers, Benevento, on the Via Appia between Rome and Brindisi. Founded by Diomedes after the Trojan War it became a Roman colony then a Lombard city and has numerous Longobardian churches where a young Padre Pio worshipped. Trajan’s Arch still stands and from a later moment in time Santa Sofia where the locals congregated after mass then strolled in a colorful passeggiata on the Corso Garibaldi.

Later in the day we arrived at Apuglia’s most prominent landmark, the 13th century Castel del Monte, one of the 92 castles built in the region by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, Hohenstaufen. The dark moody day was perfect for visiting this massive Gothic castle sitting atop a 4,000 foot mountain overlooking the coast from the Gargano to Monopoli and the foothills of the Murge plateau. Equidistant between Chartres and Cheops it has an obsession with the number eight (as in the emperor’s crown!) , with eight rooms, all perfect octagons, on both floors, and eight octagonal towers, one of which we ascended on impossibly tiny steps. There was a lot of climbing up and down streets and staircases on this tour and you really had to have stamina. Most of us were past 60 some past 70 and 80 and the level of activity was considerable though we had not been forewarned.




Passing Cerignola, the storm center of revolt in the early 20th century when peasant farm workers struck against the brutal conditions imposed on them by the owners of the vast latifundi. The green and golden fields of wheat, the endless olive orchards and vineyards of the Tavoliere here in Foggia rolled by the window, once the land of extreme poverty and inhumanity imposed on Apuglians by men from the north who came south after the Risorgimento like carpetbaggers. Latifundism was another reason why millions emigrated from Apuglia.


Then Bari, Bari, Italy. Finally. We stayed in the new town on the Corso Cavour with its grid plan spaghetti-thin streets a few minutes walk from Bari Vecchia which reminded me of a medina in Tangiers with narrow streets winding around and around the port within the fortified castle walls. It is authentico, with a vigorous street, life old men sitting and smoking on plastic chairs, laundry hanging from each balcony, nonnas their daughters and grandaughters making the daily orrechiette and taralli drying them on screens in the sun.


San Nicola

San Nicola

The 11th century Basilica Pontificia San Nicola the vast Romanesque cathedral was my true destination, the church which my grandmother sent money to from America, $2 at a time, for stained glass windows. It was startlingly half Roman Catholic, half Orthodox, housing the bones of Saint Nicholas ( Santa Claus of legend) a Turkish bishop adopted by the Barese when 62 local sailors stole his relics from Myra in 1087. in the lower crypt babushked Russian women and Orthodox priests prayed before his bones at the silver alter behind a silver screen. Every May the 17th century statue, right there still in the basilica, is carried through the streets of Bari down to the sea by sailors. That St.Francis of Assisi prayed here and that my grandmother sometimes wore the Capuchin robes and scapulas of the Order of St. Francis was emotionally powerful.



At dinner In a trattoria on the Piazza Ferrarese, overflowing with Barese on a warm Sunday night, we had the best meal of the trip, with the main ingredients the mellow, fruity Apuglian olive oil and dark red wine from the Primitivo grape. It was virtually vegetarian, true cucina povera, rapini with orrechiette, fava bean puree, wild mushroom ragu, stacked eggplant sliced paper thin, ceci. Mussels and some veal made an appearance as almost always in Apuglia where I never saw chicken or beef because it is too expensive to raise cattle to maturity. The brown grainydurum wheat bread was a revelation.

Lecce's papier macht

Lecce’s papier macht

Bari has a long gracefully curved harbour and busy port, which was in October with the blinding sun still too hot to tarry on for long. One can only imagine the 100 to 120 degree temperatures in the summer which justifies these long siesta hours when everything is chiusa from 1.30 to 5. Everything still was this October, much to the tourist’s annoyance The port was a point of departure for the Crusades and the entry point for a dizzying array of conquerors including the Lombardian Dukes of Benevento and Muslim Saracens and the Byzantine emperors of the Levant . From the Neolithic, to the Peutians, the Messapians, the Greeks, the Romans, Swabians, Normans, expecially the Normans, the Longobards, the Angevins and Aragons and the Turks. It seems everyone who had a fleet raided this part of the Adriatic coast.

Olive Tree

Olive Tree

We checked out of the Hotel Oriente and boarded the bus to Lecce at the beginning of the humble Salentine peninsula, the southermost part of the heel. Deemed the Florence of the South, the Athens of Apuglia, the Florence of Baroque, all meaningless terms because it is perfect as it is, remote Lecce has now been discovered by Helen Mirren, Gerard Depardieu and countless Englishmen. After the great commercial successes of the 17th and 18th centuries the city’s architects embraced Baroque and Rococo decoration carving on to classical facades golden bouquets of stone putti, angels, saints, fruits and flowers as in the gay and exuberant Cathedral of Santa Croce. Though loved by most over the centuries, 18th century Marchese Grimaldi said the facade made him think of a lunatic who was having a nightmare.

Old Matera

Old Matera

There are numerous ornate palazzi where the elegant Salentino citizens lived (who called the Barese decadent Levantines), with Spanish style wrought iron balconies. The Piazza Oronzo is named for the the sainted bishop whose statue looms over countless African immigrants trying to supplement their stipends from Italy by selling trinkets. Though there were 62,000 migrants in 2015 and 200,000 since 2014 in a poor crowded country the Italians are tolerant and kind though the commercial harrassment of tourists continuous. The piazza is constructed atop a wonderful Roman ampitheater that once seated 25,000.

Our hotel was the remote Best Western’s Leone di Messapia (evocatively named for the Balkan Messapians, those Indo European Illlyrians who settled in Apuglia seven centuries before Christ). The restaurant Mbriana Bella was sparsely populated like the hotel and the veal dry and pasta pomodoro, always with ricotta mixed in, bland. Maybe the hotel and restaurant were like many of those optimistically built in the oughts when everyone predicted a tourist stampede to Lecce and the Salentine, which one suspects has not really materialized. Even the luxe high priced masseria like Borgo Ignazio may not have found it easy to attract tourists and one wonders how Francis Ford Coppola’s Palazzo Margherita is faring in Bernalda, Basilicata. This has been called the Great Tourism Fail in the Mezzogiorno with the Italian government using 98% of the tourism budget for salaries and where only 13% of all tourists to Italy venture.

Nonna in Bari

Nonna in Bari

The next night a wine tasting at the Masseria d’Astore in
Cutrofiano a few miles south of Lecce took place in a fortified farmhouse on a grand Salentine estate carefully restored by orthodontist Paolo Benegiamo who lives there with his family. It produces evoo and small batch wines mainly from the Primitivo and Negroamaro grapes grown in their vineyard. We started dinner of with a Malvasia Bianca, then a Negroamaro Rose and on to two Filimei Reds one a year old the other five years made from the Aliarico grape. They were clean and crisp though lacking

Matera Today

Matera Today

L’Astore studiously makes biodynamic wines, subsidized by the government, using purely organic grapes, with no synthetic chemicals or mechanical irrigation and no added ingredients. That the harvesting and planting respect obscure astrological rituals detracts a bit from the credibility of this monoculture. The masseria was once a 16th century frantoio ipogeo and still retains the underground olive mill, in the original cave where olives were crushed and made into golden liquid for consumption for London street lamps. The workers were too poor to use the oil themselves and the subterranean conditions under which they labored to produce the oil was visibly worse than Dickensian, dark, underground, damp, with low ceilings which forced the men to remain bent over. Mamma mia!

Capri ride

Capri ride

Apuglia has olive trees some which still bear fruit though they predate the birth of Christ. Before the xyella fastidiosa outbreak there were about 60 million trees and some estimates claim over a million trees or more have been lost since 2013. The olive trees here are much larger, gargantuan even, than in Tuscany and like the people of Apuglia because they have had to struggle for survival in a harsh land they have grown tough, reaching deep down to reserves of strength.

The next day we drove through the Val d’Istria the lovely undulating Trulli Valley, stopping by Ostuni ,the White City, dazzling on a high hill about five miles inland to evade pirates. As usual in Apuglian towns it was repeatedly sacked, has a colorful but treacherous history, a riot of Norman churches, palazzi for the aristocratic familes past and present, winding streets and alleys with shops and family restaurants. English and German tourists flock here.

At the source

At the source

Tourism in Apuglia is usually promoted with endless photos of
Alberobello which until a hundred years ago was the lair of brigands hiding in thick woods and preying on travelers. Today the hundreds of picturesque trulli, the bee hived shaped conical houses that resemble farm tool sheds in the olive fields, are one or two room dwellings. Built of local limestone slabs their triangular roofs have Messapian roots with enigmatic icons and varied rooftop spindles. They tell the tale of the woodland town Sylva Arboris Belli and powerful Count Giangirolamo in the 16th century who told his feudal serfs to build houses without mortar to be easily dismantled to evade tax collectors.They are gleamingly whitewashed, with walls of several feet,perhaps one window and are charming en masse.


Facade San Nicola

Facade San Nicola

The restaurants were closed even before the magical siesta hour because of nearby construction so we spent our time walking up and down the hilly town about to close for the season. Sometimes called Trulliville with its endless tiny, poor tourist shops, it has chic weekend second homes for rich Milanese or Barese. Our hotel for the next two nights, the Grand Hotel Chiusa de Chietri, again far out in the suburbs, was built as a luxurious spa paradise with magnificent landscaping and spacious public spaces but alas had fallen on hard times perhaps because the working class English trippers tolerate substandard everything. Our feisty American tour group complained that the carpets were wet and the mold everywhere including the questionable bathrooms.
Otranto Otranto — where had I heard that? Was it Byron? No it was the Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (he had never been there but liked the sound of the name) the very first Gothick novel kicking off centuries of vampires and monsters and other nonsense. Bari and Otranto were ruled by the catapan of Byzantium before the explosion of Christianity in the middle ages, the 11th -13th centuries, when ruthless conquering Muslims were replaced by equally ruthless and even more cruel Catholic Normans, those footloose mercenaries who passed through Southern Italy in 1015 on their way back from the Crusades and by 1050 were powerful enough to defeat the papal army .

Leccese Baroque

Leccese Baroque

The capital of the Terra d’Otranto and the easternmost point in western Europe, Otranto seems like a Greek town. The Norman cathedral’s floor is the most important mosaic in Apuglia depicting the struggle of good and evil perhaps predicting the Turkish invasion of 1480, still called the sacco, which wiped out the town of 12,000 leaving only 800 who were canonized as saints.

We were however getting a tad churched-out so hurried up the steep hill to the cathedral then descended to the seaport to look at the meeting point of the Adriatic and Ionian seas. We bought a gelato at one of the few places still open at the end of the season and I thought of our trip to the seaside towns of northern England a few years ago when shuttered shops greeted autumn’s visitors. But there was one more important place to see.

Matera was once in Apuglia but today is the Sassi city on a hilltop in Basilicata. The bus was parked alongside a long string of buses about a mile from the center of the town of Matera located on top of the Sassi cave dwellings. We were herded on to a viewing platform as we had in Alberbello here with Italian tourists and their families taking selfies before the spectacle of the troglodyte village.

My grandmother often told me that people lived in caves in Apuglia and now I knew she was not exaggerating as I stood before a ghoulish stage set from a production of Dante’s Inferno. The caves carved into limestone ravine, treeless and desolate, a fortress standing above the plains and the Gravina River below. Although sassi existed in some form since Neolithic man they remained throughout the millennia dire peasant dwellings for the poorest of the poor in one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, like Aleppo. For several centuries the city was entirely underground hiding in a dense forest so invading Saracens could never see it from above.

Matera Momento Mori

Matera Momento Mori

Down, down, down Escher- like steps into the old city hewn we see limestone rocks, tufa, high above the river and plains, past the newer sassi now 4- star hotels and boutiques and second homes (some call it Tribeca) down down into the vertical chaos of the old city that was exposed by
Carlo Levi in Christ Stopped and Eboli. When it was published in 1945 a horrified government forced the evacuation of the population of 15,000 who lived with their animals in the filthy underground caves. They were moved into sterile new housing blocks, destroying the community, but in 1986 subsidies were made available to renovate the sassi and grotto churches cutting costs in half and in 1993 it had recovered enough to be declared a UNESCO world heritage site.



Ah would that we had happened upon this astonishing vision by chance in another era. Today the city of Matera with 60,000 residents with its elegant 18th century square with palazzi and restaurants was just declared the 2019 European Capitol of Culture. After viewing all the momento mori skulls and crossbones on the cathedral we grabbed an aperitivo at Hemingway’s Bistrot on the via Riobla Domenico. Yes. Hemingway again, even here in the Mezzogiorno. This man was a historical menace.

Towards Benevento

Towards Benevento

Such melancholy thoughts accompanied me the 200 miles to Sorrento. through Basilicata’s mountains that resemble the Dolomites which after the flatness of Apuglia was a shock. Both regions of the Mezzogiorno are still poor compared to the rest of Italy with over one quarter (some say 75%) of young men unemployed. One of our guides Simonetta told me with that characteristic menefreghismo that there were no opportunities in the south and that she will probably be stuck in her job forever if she choses to stay here. Many young people have already jumped the train out of there since Matteo Renzi’s master plan to resusitate Apuglia seems to have stalled.
Sorrento was a mass of humanity spilling off the sidewalks, so exquisite, so picturesque, so polluted with unregulated tourism, here on the beautiful Tyrrhenian. The Cristina Hotel had a spectacular view of the coast. You cannot ruin the beauty of the natural setting of the peninsula, the red clfffs against the blue sea and the golden light.

Cerignola from the bus

Cerignola from the bus

We took the bait and went to Capri via the hydrofoil, then on to a waiting speedboat that zipped around the gorgeous aquamarine grottoes (though the Blue one now off limits) past scores of boats some with divers. Then we were crammed into a funicular for the ride to the Piazza Umberto a seething scrum of comically overpriced shops and restaurants. We did get some stunning tourist shots from the Garden of Augustus at the base of the Krupp mansion but this was not the Villa of Jovis of Tiberius or the Capri of Graham Greene and Debussy. One needs to go to the private parts of the island for that and there was no more time.



One of the pitfalls of being a tourist is the relentless momentum of it all, when your brain cannot keep pace with your feet and spectacular sights flash by with one’s dwindling comprehension. I will have to return to Apuglia some day as a traveller but I will always be grateful for this chance to see what I have always dreamt of. Ciao




Save the Everglades

March 21, 2015


cork2We spent much of the wicked winter in Naples, Florida where dangerously wealthy retirees and their ubiquitous wives, mainly from the Midwest, spend the cold months. Save the physical beauty, the warmth, the palmettoes it could be Oak Brook, Illinois, with a similar demographic, builder’s mansions, malls and golf clubs. Etcetera.

Biblical rainstorms plagued us from Chicago to Savannah so we saw little of the city Sherman stormed in the War of Northern Aggression. The landmark Riverfront Hotel, a converted cotton warehouse on the Savannah River, was casual at best, with that disturbing southern racial divide as in black staff, white guests. The same syndrome appeared in Paula Deen’s buffet restaurant, no more inviting than Waffle House. Forsyth Square featured in the hothouse fantasy Midnight in the Garden etc. was invisible in the storm.  Some other time, perhaps.

St. Augustine was celebrating its 450th anniversary in the somewhat bedraggled historical district with its chilling Spanish fort where the European assault on Florida all began. The skies lifted in Naples just in time to see pelicans plunging balletically into the Gulf against a blazing pink sunset. We had passed the tropical Mason Dixon into Southwest Florida where the foliage and climate become Caribbean, colorful, exotic. Which is precisely why it is so suffocatingly, chokingly overcrowded with cars, condos, people, shopping centers. In 2014, over 97 million tourists visited Florida, and with 18% of the state water, and 20 million residents no wonder it has a higher density of population per square mile than California.



In February the Imagine Solutions Conference, a TED- style think tank where retirees can have the Renaissance Man Experience, took place at the Ritz seeking “general solutions” to world problems. Over 600 seekers paid $600 for lunch and to listen to local healthcare experts in a state with the highest number of Affordable Care Act enrollees in the nation.  One seeker exclaimed, “holding a conference like Imagine Solutions makes a lot of sense in Naples, where there are so many smart retirees looking for something to do.”

Ah yes! Something To Do!  A Plague of Volunteers is much in evidence at every turn in this city of 20,000 with the world’s largest chapter of the Circumnavigators Club. Each week the Naples Daily News lists 200 plus events and club meetings, for soroptimists, optimists, orchid lovers, pastel painters, rubber bridge players, alums of Notre Dame, Delta Gamma, Midwest high schools, the list endless……stock options, canasta, Corvettes, DAR chapters. Philanthropy is High Sport.

Florida is recovering from the Great Recession and yet more gated communities are breaking ground with land grabbing golf courses called Chambord or Tuscany (even a St. Lucia!)  developed by Lennar builders. In 2015 SWFL tops the nation in job growth and a hot housing market and Naples and Marco (a sea of coastal) are exploding reminiscent of the 90s when Carl Hiaasen’s Sick Puppy described “Trucks, bulldozers, cement mixers, cranes, gasoline tankers….Here’s where the yacht harbor will be dredged. There’s where the golf courses go. That’s being cleared for the airstrip. And everywhere else: homesites. Very expensive houses also condominiums and townhouses and even some year round rentals. Duplexes and triplexes.”

1956Sadly and ineluctably Florida’s unique fragile ecosystem will not sustain the onslaught of even more prosperity. Though many of the winter billionaires have become feel-good conservationists their efforts are too late; the next generations need to make a buck from the weather, the weather, the waters, the waters, the exploitation of the fragments that remain of Old Florida.

There are facsimiles of Old Florida, like zoos for flora, called “preserves” that give one a sample of Nature in the past. The Southwest Conservancy has a patch of mangrove swamp near the heart of Naples, offering half hour electric boat tours down the Gordon River where one can see the expanding number of houses and the Bear Claw development lurking on the perimeter. Only a matter of time!  The Naples Botanic Garden has 90 acres of a river of grass, a restored habitat which you whip by on a path before entering the gift shop. There are state parks and endless environmental learning centers but it’s all….well, you know.



The Land Preservation Trust and the Conservancy are dedicated to saving wetlands but this year saw a very steep decline in wading birds’ nests, and sightings of egrets and herons and ibis. Corkscrew Swamp is 13,000 fragile acres of wetlands where the ancient old growth cypress, 100 feet tall, are submerged in a shallow slow moving river. So beautiful! So refreshing! A chap in a Tilly hat and walking stick emerged from the forest as we were about to enter the two mile boardwalk and mumbled sadly, “This is the real Florida, the old Florida.” The Romance of the Swamp. We saw  a couple of mammoth gators, two tiny turtles, two squirrels, two anhingas and one lonely white ibis in the hour’s walk though the Audubon guide said panthers and woodstorks are coming back one of the many promised sightings over the months.

We spotted two dolphin fins on a boat tour of Naples Bay and listened to numerous teasers about manatees but none materialized amidst all the racing speedboats. What we did see were ugly McMansions being constructed by corporations and syndicates, many foreign, and left uninhabited. They say 20% of the estates in Port Royal are empty. A panther was found hiding in a backyard of one of these rented mansions having swam across the bay from Keewaydin Island, a 22 -mile preserve. The cousin of the American cougar  is losing more and more habitat and there are weekly postings of how many were killed on highways like I-75, 2014 being highest and 2015 surpassing that already.



“The growth is coming. The growth is coming.” warn local newspapers about Fort Myers. Today the blue collar river town, where in 1881 Hamilton Disston from Philadelphia came to dredge and drain the Everglades, is seeing a building boom on the Caloosahatchee River, nice but not the Gulf. The main attractions are the airport and the Edison Ford Estate, 20 acres of experimental labs where the great inventors tried to find a cheap source of rubber, from goldenrod to banyan trees, for auto tires. The gardens by Olmsted are stunning but tough to navigate with the mobs.

 Old Florida, or what remains of it, became increasingly alluring as we took refuge from Mercato, Venetian Bay and Waterside (jewelry stores, sweatshirts and kitchen supplies) and escaped south to Everglades City for our annual crazy-fast airboat ride through the mangroves this time led by Shaun. Born on Chokoloskee Island as his father and grandfather were, this wiry Cracker lured a few raccoons out of the mangroves with Cheetos. The only Confederate flag we saw during this trip (and the only one since West Virginia!) was on a crabbing boat outside the Triad Café here which sold blue stone crabs.

16th century

16th century

The city was, as so many in early industrial Florida history, a company town built by another Everglades drainage outsider Barron Collier and is today a real backwater. The Rod and Gun Club hosted five presidents seeking great hunting and fishing and today is a restaurant.  The 11th Annual Marjory Stoneman Douglas Festival in the wee Museum of the Everglades, the Old Laundry Building, built in 1927 was organized by Friends of the Everglades. It was founded in 1962 (the Rachel Carson era) by the conservationist when she was 78 the media age of the club members listening to Seminole Indians talk about powerful women in their culture.

There are six Seminole reservations in Florida but the Seminoles are long gone and you need only one-fourth Indian blood to be a tribal member now. The tribe is more involved with the Immokalee casino and live in their own gated communities though the history of the tribe resonates. A loose amalgam of many southern tribes, they welcomed runaway slaves before the Civil War and after the Seminole Wars retreated deep into the Everglades rather than be forced onto western reservations.

msdFrom Everglades City it’s a short drive over a causeway to Chokoloskee Island, a Calusa Indian shell mound, where the Smallwood Store founded in 1906 was a trading post in the heart of Ten Thousand Islands. In 1982 it became a designated landmark and museum. Totch Brown and his pioneer family were born in Chokoloskee and his book which we bought one desperate day in Barnes & Noble in Waterside,  Totch!A Life in the Everglades, is wonderful oral history of the land and the life of this alligator hunter, fisherman, crabber, poacher, weed runner, singer and character of the Western Everglades. He appeared in Bud Schulberg’s Winds Across the Everglades which seems to be running permanently in some cinema or other. The Glades have inspired filmmakers and writers for a hundred years, the best of which is Peter Matthiesen’s Shadow Country a classic of the outlaw life in the Glades.  As usual an informed literary imagination is the redeeming factor in the arduous sport of traveling.

For 150 years wetlands have been considered wastelands to be drained so today half the Everglades is gone and the other half is dying, au revoir to the unique flora and fauna not found anywhere else in the world.  What remains of the River of Grass is 2,500 square miles of Everglades National Park, designated in 1947 as a subtropical wilderness of mangroves, hardwood pine forests, cypress swamps and sawgrass prairies. It is located next door to the Big Cypress preserve another 2,400 square miles of subtropical swamp one- third covered with cypress trees.  You can a glimpse of the wilderness with a tram tour at Shark Alley on Highway 41 but no sense of the extent of the national park whose waters are disappearing or being ravaged.

coonsThe Everglades Restoration Plan 30 years and eight billion dollars later fresh water still does not flow in sheets across the sawgrass prairie. Jeb Bush crossed party lines to sign Clinton’s bill to balance restoration with growth management but alas uncontrolled development reigns, traffic, air and water pollution, ever more loss of trees and marches. Newspapers bristle with fights between developers and city councils struggling to preserve What’s Left even if it just a theme park like the Bonita Springs Everglades Wonder Garden.

One day we drove straight east from Naples to Clewiston, past fields and fields of sugar cane plantations and humongous belching sugar refineries, to see what once was the beating heart of the Everglades, its headwaters at Lake Okeechobee. It has of course been dammed up since the 30s by the Herbert Hoover Dike forever preventing its clear waters to return to the Everglades. The Sweetest City in the World now an old former company town was built for executives of the US Sugar Corporation and we stopped briefly at the famous Clewiston Inn where the Windsors once stayed before going bass fishing on the lake. It was dark and empty and the new owner from New Delhi said the restaurant was now closed.

totchWe tried to see the lake but without a boat to go through the locks and levees it was accessible only on foot 35 feet high up so we settled for having a beer at Roland Martin’s Marina. At the Tiki Bar we continued to read Michael Grunwald’s extraordinary book The Swamp, one for the ages, telling the melancholy history of the ruination of Nature in south Florida from the 19th to the 21st centuries.  Apparently the sugar farmers are still back pumping polluted water into to Lake O which is then released into the Caloosahatchee, fouling Estero Bay and continuing on as red tide into the Atlantic.

The March 8th New York Times reports, Miami Port Project killing off coral reef. The Army Corps of Engineers is ignoring environmentalists and creating even more of an underwater moonscape by poor dredging, poor management. It’s all a Lost Cause. “Alligator” Ron Bergeron a Fish & Wildlife Commissioner writes, “you have to decompartmentalize the system to where it has a natural flow from Lake Okeechobee to the central Everglades and on to Florida Bay.”  That will never happen of course.



Before we left Florida we had to see Ave Maria a new town founded a decade or so ago by the Domino’s Pizza guy according to the strictest (loathe that word) Catholic principles. This Bizzaro Brave New World has a university whose president Jim Towey is the biggest donor to Jeb Bush.  The alien cult like atmosphere After the Bomb empty with a creepy cathedral where the entire town was at a service on the Sunday morning we appeared.

We should have taken the four hour ferry from Marco to Key West since driving was at gruesome snail’s pace. Eight hours in half way through we gave up at Marker 61 and stopped at Marathon’s Duck Key and the Hawks Cay Resort along with half of the Jersey shore. The Preferred Group hotel definitely needed Leona Helmsley and finding solace at yet another Tiki Bar we could not help but notice the clear aquamarine waters, the exquisite beauty of the lagoon and the breathtaking natural setting.

Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

Hoping to avoid The Flood we returned home through the Panhandle en route to Alabama’s I-65, the War on Terror Memorial Highway. In all our American travels over the years no state seemed more impoverished than southern Alabama with countless derelict shacks next to billboards for the Robert Trent Jones Trail.  We arrived in Montgomery, trying to exploit its history to draw tourists, this time thankfully Civil Rights not the Civil War, on this the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma. We stayed at Hampton Inn next to the Hank Williams Museum and took a pass on the Zelda Fitzgerald and Jefferson Davis’ homes. We will definitely return to this living history museum someday.









Door County

Lunch at Maxwelton

August 21, 2014


All the chattering about Route 66 induced road trip fever and Door County was only five hours away so off we went. In 25 years, nothing much has changed, still the land of Illinois and Wisconsin tourists in moldy cottages, milling around leather hat and moccasin shoppes waiting for the next meal, breakfast, brats, fish boils and something in between. Unless you’re exhausted from grueling factory work and need to regain your strength …you know what we mean….

In Sturgeon Bay with a reservation, we drove straight past a peeling white stucco bungalow on 1st Street, nahhhhhh this can’t be it. It was. A stuffed crow on top of the plastic Christmas tree in the lobby of the Holiday Music Hotel on 1st Street said it all. We wrote a tart email to the site and the even more inaccurate trip advisor and repaired to Maxwelton in Bailey’s Harbor, a once fashionable golf resort and now a bit down-in-the-heels though still fadedly- glamorous.It must have been swell in 1936. Washington Island

Foregoing kayaking, hopefully just a fad unlike the more sociable and even somewhat elegant canoeing, we hiked buggy trails in Peninsula State Park past family campsites, human settlements, ratty tents and tarps, to the American Folklore Theater where on a red bearded preacher exhorted the audience to be all that they could be.

Fish Creek is the liveliest town on the peninsula and we booked a $28 fish boil in a jammed eaterie, dining on laps with paper plates before an iron cauldron that boiled over on cue, transforming whitefish into paper pulp. We asked a bartender what people do off season here? He said, “Drink.”

A car ferry across Death’s Door to Washington Island, a 25 mile gap in the Niagara Escarpment which freezes in winter with shipwrecks and lighthouses created some  sense of drama. (Never did we long more for the ferry to Sag Harbor).

On an early Sunday morning there was a fly-in, a mini-Oshkosh, Pipers, Cessnas, for, yes, a fish boil. Only on Washington Island can you find fresh lawyers, the fish, a ‘burbot’ cross between cod and eel. On the drive back to Chicago we stopped at the Island of Herb Kohler, unrepentant snob, for lunch at Whistling Straits and a return to a somewhat more advanced civilization.



Our next road trip was longer,the monotonous interstates between Chicago and Baltimore, 13 long hours of the ghastly industrial landscape of northern Indiana and its dirty unkempt bathrooms, through Ohio, thence the high terror of the Ho Chi Minh trail of the Pennsylvania turnpike which has not upgraded in 50 years.

Who were these people lining up at Hardee’s in the plazas? The truck drivers should be on treadmills (why are they not available?) not killing themselves with Cinnabons. And were we the only ones of our tribe who take road trips? Do the others just fly or perhaps rent old beaters and paste on tattoos for class camouflage?

The Baltimore suburb of Columbia is middle American dog-obsession country for NSA employees at nearby Fort Meade and prosperous Asians. We attended a preseason football match between the local Ravens (Poe lives!) and the 49ers, all fireworks, big screen televisions, and thunderous screaming, forcing us to try Zen once more. Our host said he sat next to George Will at a recent Orioles vs. Padres (baseball) game and he was very grumpy indeed when recognized. Oh dear!

Annapolis, the Naval Academy, 300 acres on the River Severn, 4,000 undergraduates in blinding whites and braced shoulders preparing to be Marines or Navy men. Alums include Jimmy Carter, John McCain, Montel Williams, Jim Lovell, and our left-wing  history prof  in Madison, William Appleman Williams. Preble Hall’s museum is a shrine to alums, practitioners of sea warfare with memorabilia such as Don’t Give Up the Ship the personal battle flag of Commodore Perry during the war of 1812, which still looms very large in these parts.

Bloody WordPress will not let us upload other photos into the text for some bizarro reason. iPhone takes poor photos anyway so we’ll return to the Canon next time.

The small city of Annapolis with its 18th century human scale is utterly charming and relatively untouched unlike the manicured reconstruction in “colonial” Williamsburg. It takes however some sincere effort of the imagination to get inspired by old buildings such as the Maryland State House, where the first Continental Congress, 1783, took place now the oldest capitol building in use. We recommend the Old Stein Inn in Edgewater where a lecture in the bier garten was about the remaining (only 35) descendants of Germans in the Maroon country in Jamaica live.

Departing Baltimore, forgoing the usual return route north through Hagerstown and Cumberland that tiny northern strip on Maryland, so beautiful, we drove past Harper’s Ferry, through the Shenandoah Valley’s Winchester and Woodstock Virginia, all hunting, cabins, knives, tractor pulls, drag races, lawnmower pulls and demolition derbys. Country roads, take me home to the place I belong, West Virginia mountain momma take me home country roads.

Then we decided to head towards the Monongahela National Forest and Elkins, West Virginia, the county seat of Randolph County and the Mountain Highlands. Maybe it was John Denver, or Dorothea Lange, or The Song Catcher, but we wanted to visit West Virginia in the Allegheny Mountains, the core region of Appalachia, and the only state completely in the Appalachian Mountain Region. The mountain road winds past the Smoke Hole Caverns named for the Seneca Indians who smoked wild game in them before being relocated to reservations. At Seneca Rocks in Germany Valley near Riverton was a climbing school and a few young people convened outside Yokum’s general store before ascending the needle, Gendarme.

West Virginia seceded from Virginia in 1861, joined the Union, and abolished slavery but you wouldn’t know that today here in the High South, the land that time forgot, with the confederate flags still flying on top of log cabins and everything from rivers to restaurants named for Stonewall Jackson. Finally four hours later Elkins, one of Theroux’s “vast number of dying and depopulated towns” in the south. The largest regional municipality it was a boomtown from 1900-20 then died for good sometime in the 1980s.

Though not the Appalachia in last week’s 60 Minutes, poverty stricken southwestern Virginia, in West Virginia you just know that those who remain here, working men, inherit adversity. Elkins is located just a few miles from Sago Mine on the Buckhannon River where 12 miners died in 2006 after grave dancing Palm Beach fancy man Wilbur Ross ignored 21 citations times for toxic gas build up.

West Virginia’s new governor Earl Ray Tomblin is a progressive Democrat and native son who is trying to revitalize a feeble economy. After Wyoming it is  the top coal mining state in the country though exports fell 40% in 2013, population radically declined, and the state is last in the Gallup Economic Index, last in employment to population ration with the revenue growth in the country. There are two different Americas, and life is a lot harder in one of them not just in urban slums but in Appalachia.

We stayed in the showpiece of the town, the spotless but empty Holiday Inn Xpress in front of the defunct railway station, across the dusty path from the American Mountain Theater and the Delmonte Hotel where we just missed the Bluegrass and Southern Gospel Fests. The locals are elaborately courteous and mannerly in an ante bellum way or maybe they were just happy to see a tourist or two. The 1863 Grill with portraits of Robert E. Lee in the lobby didn’t serve drinks so we went to a deserted boarded up downtown and ended up in Scottie’s where the wiry chicken under thick white gravy was inedible. Sunday dinner was eight bucks and the parking lot was full.

There’s no obvious starvation here but malnutrition, bad teeth, and wrinkled, resigned demeanors on the faces of the Ulster Scots’ descendants. Passing up the Hatfield McCoy Trails for jeeps and dune buggies and nearby Weston’s tour of the Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum we headed north.


Memorial -John L. Lewis


Miners mural in Weston


Switzerland by Rail

October 25, 2013

Switzerland was warm, sunny, and spectacular this October, always the best time to travel to Europe. Swiss Air, the only nonstop from Chicago, landed in Zurich and we headed out straight away for Luzern. Yes, that Lucerne on Lake Lucerne de rigueur on the Grand Tour of Queen Victoria, Mark Twain, and home of Richard Wagner. Today the old city remains intact, survivor of wars, with authentic 14th century ramparts and wooden bridges, 16th century clock towers and 17th century Rathaus and cathedral.

Smart Switzerland. Quiet Switzerland. In the airplane, the airport, the outdoor cafes with the wool felt knee blankets, in the restaurants and the bare bones Hotel Alpina — the lack of noise was startling, the muted tones, even whispers, of the citizens in public places and — no music. Two weeks of peace, no rap, no Sinatra, a vacation in itself.

Mountains being the raison d’etre of this trip, and trains being the chosen transport, we left the next day for Interlaken in the foothills of the Alps, beckoning in the blue mist. The original Alpine resort, another Grand Tour standard it has Jamesian reminders, the Victoria Jungfrau or Royal St. George hotels now afforded by those from the east, Arabia, India, the Orient. Bollywood films are made here instead of Kashmir so there are more currie, foo yong and kebab places than eateries like the Alps Restaurant where we settled for Rosti the potato national dish in a cuisine that doesn’t exist in the nether cantons. Would that the wonderful Fendant white wine, rye bread and Emmenthaler could sustain one.


Interlaken is however the best starting point for a visit to Jungfraujoch, in the Bernese Oberland, an hour away, the ”Top of Europe” with the Eiger, still claiming lives, though not this time when a 19 year old Brit had just scaled a huge rock face on the North Side, Paciencia. Jungfraujoch the highest railway station in Europe has the lowest temperatures and highest wind speeds in Switzerland and is accessible only from the village of Klein Scheidegg where we boarded a special cog wheel train straight up to 13,000 feet to the base of Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger.  Such a thrill to walk on the  Aletsch Glacier the glory of the high altitude Alps and a UNESCO Protected Area, 14 miles long and the largest ice glacier in Europe which sadly since 1950 has shrunk by one third.

The Jungfrau Erlebnis (Experience) was however not for sophisticates and Alpinists, with shrieking Japanese schoolgirls, a dreadful “Bollywood Restaurant”, a phony Ice Palace, Shopping Fun stores, Snow Fun kid runs. Switzerland caught the Kid Bug. in the years we were away as had England as when last year we saw Warwick Castle transformed into a grisly fun fair for children.

An antique steamer slowly cruised Lake Briesz which with the larger Lake Thun gives Interlaken its name, stopping at little wood-carving villages for fuzzy apples, picking up passengers who seemed Scandinavian but were actually speaking singsong Swiss German Schwyzeritsch. After vertically ascending the steep Harder Klum funicular for dinner at the top of a mountain we were off with the Swiss Saver Pass.

Eiger from Kleine Scheidegg

Heading south through landscape that instantly became breathtaking, and more breathtaking a half hour out of Interlaken, The Alps. Gasps all around, windows dashed opened in the rushing wind, iPhones and cameras on high alert. You could not snap enough photos quickly enough. Everywhere you look in Switzerland right around the corner there is an even better view than the previous, absolutely uncanny how absurdly beautiful the southern half of this small country is. Endless valleys with tiny mountain villages in the distance, and cows, glorious, big, subsidized by the government, brown cows, black cows trekking down from high mountain pastures in the annual Parade of Cows. And black faced sheep, larger and heartier than English Herdwicks.

Aletsch Glacier

Mountains and more mountains and finally three hours later, almost into Italy – Zermatt in the canton Valais. A classic ski town it was zwischenzeit, between times, the shoulder season, about to close down in November but due to earlier snows skiers and snowboarders were already taking the lifts up to Matterhorn Paradise Park. It was a stiff climb up Steinmattstrasse to the hunting lodge Hotel Jagerhof where our room had a direct view of the Matterhorn transforming itself by the hour from the cloudy shroud in morning to blazing pink at sunset.

On to the Gornergrat Bahn a high altitude cogwheel railroad all in the open air, no tunnels, was a completely different experience from the Jungfrauloch. From Zermatt to Riffelalp and Rotenboden to the viewing station over the Alps and the base of the Matterhorn we were outside, the apex of Europe, snow laden, cold, another world. So astounding to see lone hikers lighting out in the white wilderness, all glacial ice and a bleak netherworld of white peaks and treacherous steps, a challenge to keep upright. Seemingly every Swiss was born with backpacks and walking sticks, from small children to octogenarians. And yes, they were thin, tall and disturbingly good looking.

The Glacier Express to St. Moritz on the east side of Switzerland was booked up but we took the identical route, on the same tracks by slow local trains, five of them, in a nine hour journey, making all stops along the way. At Andermatt, the largest Swiss Army base, we had lunch watching soldiers on maneuvers. Switzerland has mandatory national conscription, the defense of the mountain paradise very much in evidence in fighter pilots whizzing overhead in formation. There is a huge underground network of hidden fortresses in the Alps and every new construction mandates a bomb shelter with supplies.

From Andermatt up the Oberalppass to Disentis, then Rheinegau finally St.Moritz in the beautiful historic Upper Engadine, the Eastern Alps, a long sunny valley, home of the Romansh people who still speak a Latin dialect. St. Moritz, the birthplace of Alpine resort skiing, celebrating its 150 anniversary of winter tourism in 2014, originated in 1864 when hotelier Johannes Badrutt urged his friends to ski in this insulted valley where the sun shines 323 days a year. There was no wind at all for three days and it was warm enough to walk along the lovely lake in shirt sleeves. We stayed at the Languard Hotel on the Via Veglia with its thick masonry Engandiner architecture built in 1867 and perfectly restored.

Rick Steves hates “the glitz” in St. Moritz, so mild compared to Aspen’s. with all the usual suspects, Gucci, Lauren, Tom Ford and where everything was 25% higher and far too small for Americans. There were even acceptable restaurants the Steffani, the Schweizerhof, the Hauser and three wonderful museums the Segantini, Berry and Engadiner celebrating the local culture. We hopped a free bus to Pontresina (Saracen’s Gate) a chic resort with Engadiner style hotels and ski shops. Arabs made it this far north in late Middle Ages as they did to nearby Samedan but were nowhere in evidence though numbering 400,000 Arabs in country of 7.5 million. There is urban Switzerland and there is Alpine Switzerland, homogeneous, conservative, insular.

St. Moritz from the Languard

The real reason to stay in the area is The Bernina Express slowly traversing over 200 bridges and through 55 tunnels and high viaducts to Tirano, Italy, the highest railway line in the Alps from high glaciers to palm trees and Renaissance palazzos. After the Bernina Pass at Ospizio Italian speaking Switzerland begins and from higher up at Diavolezza you pass the famous Pitz Palu glacier in the Bernina Range the setting of the 1929 Pabst film The White Hell of Pitz Palu with Leni Riefenstahl in her first role. Then the Morteratsch Glacier receding 56 feet a year since 1878 and accelerating to 330 feet from 2005-2006.  The high Alps watersheds of Europe flowing into the Danube, the Rhine and Rhone have a problematical future.

Finally some days in Zurich, grey, Germanic, homely, functional bridges over the lake and Limmat River, no Pont Alexandre Trois here. We stayed near the university in the stark Hotel Bristol, the Bohemian Zurich of Cabaret Voltaire, Dada, and James Joyce, buried here with his family. A trolley tour revealed the other side of this rich city of 300,000 the richest city in Europe, many the descendants of the Celtic Helvetii tribe who Tiberius Caesar conquered and created the commercial outpost it still is.

The aloof, cool descendants of the tribes tolerate outsiders which is what you always will be if not Swiss born. With a federal system of 23 cantons where each has as much state’s rights as here in the States, the Italian canton of Ticino had just banned the wearing of burkas. The tax haven business is under attack by America and some small banks are folding but not UBS with its secret accounts in a country where one third of all global wealth is controlled.  The sheer number of building cranes in the sky reveal all is well here in  this beautiful country with the purest water in the world.








The Space Coast

March 1, 2013

February in Florida

Au revoir to the Moon! The private enterprise SpaceX Falcon  rocket just blasted off from Cape Canaveral to deliver cargo to the International Space Station; NASA has been gone for three years from the “Space Coast”, Titusville to Melbourne on the Atlantic. During our recent sojourn there we noted the landscape was still military, industrial, with fuel storage tanks, gigantic white cylinders, mechanical forms dotting the sky, and a curious lack of population.  The staff of mostly NASA are gone, and Port Canaveral has lost 95% of its staff in the past five years.

Over on Merritt Island the Kennedy Space Center is now a missile museum though we declined to pay the $75 admission fee for a look at space capsules and an interactive learning center always a phenomenal bore.

Kennedy Space Center

After the Civil War freed slaves and the occasional Confederate colonel came to this area of central Florida and it remained remote and moribund until the 1950s and 60s when the lunar quest ignited it; Cocoa Beach became a city where NASA personnel lived until it closed down in 2010. Today the 60s Pier is in disrepair, the scores of 90s condos on the beautiful sandy beaches seem largely uninhabited and in the middle range “gated” communities nothing much seems to be happening. Ron Jon surf center and others wait for the surfers to come but we did not see a one in the February high season though we were invited to a presentation by the Ron Jon Caribe Resort a development by one Joseph Zilber from Milwaukee who has created a village of time shares now called ”vacation ownership”.

Port Canaveral Dusk

We stayed in Cocoa Beach at the exact moment in time the drama of the stranded Carnival Triumph was being played out live…….everyone knew that the damned thing could have been back in a Mexican port a day after the fire but was towed to Alabama because it was cheaper than flying everyone home from Cancun. Still, yes still we saw thousands more wedged into the floating Super 8 Motels, the Disney and Norwegian cruise “liners” lurking menacingly at Port Canaveral.

This is Real Florida – not quite Everglades City or Lake Okeechobee—but still the UnNaples or UnMiami where Astronaut Boulevard had Cheaters, and Lido strip joints and biker eateries called La Cantina and hundreds of booze stores. You can still smoke in outside restaurants, really rather fun, such as Milliken’s Reef on The Cove in Port Canaveral. The music, the sheer number of talented bands, and singers and musicians in Canaveral, Cocoa, and Melbourne is very notable. Every dingy little bar has a talent or two singing and strumming away. At Heidi’s Jazz, Corky Siegel was singing away and we liked singer Paul Christopher alot.Check out his website.

Only Imagine!

The drive to Melbourne past Patrick Air Force Base recalls the military atolls in Guam with scores of seemingly empty condo buildings on the shore side of the highway. Who built all these? Who could ever afford them? Where did they expect the numbers to materialize? This is what Dubai must be like. More than 12,000 civilian Air Force workers at Patrick Air Force Base and other Florida military installations faced furloughs of up to 22 days because of sequester this week. This saved the government $94.5 million and the Defense Department $46 billion from its fiscal 2013 budget. Whether we get bombed by North Korea or Iran before September 30th is anyone’s guess.

All Aboard

Though Melbourne was also founded by freed slaves one wonders where their descendants went since it is all lily white today. At the Eau Gallie Fish Fry one Saturday we could not help but note how homogeneous the population is in this curious backwater. By the way at the Bay Tree Country Club in the city when we mentioned Chicago everyone chimed in “Murder Capitol of the World.” Rahm should really hire a damage control company to address this. Or even better try to come to serious terms with the problem.

Selby Library

We escaped and drove west to Sarasota trying to avert our eyes as we passed Orlando so as not to see the pink and blue goofiness of the skyline as we imagined dumb hordes waiting in line. We never have, even as a youth, and hopefully never will have to, do anything to do with Disney’s democracy- in- action theme parks. Though born in Chicago (2156 N. Tripp) Disney was from Missouri, conservative middle America, and he could put his juvenile stamp on American culture for all time because he lived at the right time when the Country Was New.

Orlando has third highest foreclosure rate in America and is also the country’s “most financially stressed city” (Ocala number one and Miami number two). In Sarasota the foreclosure nightmare was said to be abating as New York investment firms are buying up SW Florida residential properties to rent indicating rental is the future of the foreclosed properties.

Buffalo Creek

We stayed in a gorgeous condo right in front of the V- Day kissing couple obviously from same “sculptor” as the Monster Marilyn, overlooking Sarasota Bay, Jack’s Marina and the suave bridge to St. Armand’s Circle with its expensive fish restaurants. Not inclined to do anymore sightseeing we spent time in the Selby Library designed by architect Eugene Aubry and opened in 1998,( the previous one in the 70s designed by Walter Netsch apparently in the shape of sails.)  It is located in downtown “historic” Sarasota across from Starbucks and Whole Foods and far from the blistering social problems of the rest of the sprawling city. Each morning busloads of the homeless settled into the library for free coffee and made the library so odiferous it was almost unusable. The sweet shufflers pretended not to notice.

A few observations

Sarasota Sunset

Deltona is the real Florida, poor white people with WASP surnames living in what appear to be shacks or trailers. Windows in cars are blacked out, no one wears motorcycle helmets. Lutheran, Methodist , Baptist, Church of Christs abound. You are in the South.

A great shortage of doctors in Florida is a big problem if you’re thinking of moving there. Slapdash Urgent Care centers are the temporary solution though care there spotty at best.

On the upside Florida is very aggressive in protecting the environment which is of course the livelihood of the state. Some 68 python were found in the Everglades in a contest to find as many of the invasive species as possible. Invasive plants are also snuffed out.. From water quality to land acquisition of environmentally important land recalls Jeb Bush’s Florida Forever campaign.

On the drive back to Chicago we stayed in foreclosure capitol Ocala presumably horse country but all we saw was La Quinta and Outback Steak, typical of highway driving routes all over the country.

Georgia must be the only state that permits thousands of billboards,  nonstop gigantic overhead advertising, mainly touting truck stop hookers, along the interstate. At the Magnolia House stop along the way you can buy pecans or T-shirts with the confederate flag.

Then overnight in Chattanooga where there is some local industry in the beautiful southern Appalachian setting —  VW, Coca Cola Bottling, Wrigley’s Altoids and Life Savers and McKee’s Little Debbie are all made there. Two tone mesh baseball caps on local guys running around in packs of three or four at the chain Logan’s Roadhouse.

There are scores of stray house cats all over Florida, as well as omnipresent cheeky vultures and wild peacocks, brown hens and resplendent blue males.


Travel Photos

December 25, 2012

A Visual Year in Review. Truly appreciate your reading Lucia’s Symposium. Best to you all.