Thursday, July 31, 2008

Does travel make me whole?

I’m sure you’re aware from my recent inconsistent attitude that I haven’t had a trip in the pipeline. I was edgy, irritable and not really coping well with the day to day. New challenges at work, unpredictable encounters with certain of the male species, crappy summer weather and my recently vamped up exercise schedule were, well, let’s be honest, running me down. So yesterday, I solved that problem. I found a killer airfare (albeit on a “new Private Italian Airline”) to Milan and Rome so I booked it. In 12 weeks I leave for a week in Italy.

And last night, I slept soundly, calmly and restfully for the first time in a while. Today I woke up able to face the world with a smile and not wanting to run down everyone in my path.

So then, the question arises: Does travel make me whole?

What is it about getting on a plane and going somewhere, anywhere, that’s not here? And what is it about Italy in particular that just draws me in? My poor family can attest to the recent crises of decision-making I had, kicking around Napa, D.C., Peru and Greece before finally saying “Oh screw it, I don’t care if I was just there last year…” and packing up to go to Italy. As I told them and anyone else who would listen, a year without Italy is just, well, a year.

Why does the world look differently today (read: better) now that I have this trip in the pipeline? Why do I feel joy in the expectation?

So raise your espresso cup and toast trip number seven to Bella Italia. At least this time I will be more fully versed in wines (thank you Jon T!) and I will have already covered most of the usual tourist ground in Rome so I can spend more time sitting in cafes sipping said wine or maybe even an espresso and read, absorb and write about the atmosphere. Hopefully I’ll get something publishable out of this trip, but that’s not my objective. I live to travel, clearly. And it’s just a bit more of that kind of living that I need right about now.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My Top Ten Sights

It’s a beach day and I’m cooped up inside, which means there’s no better time than now to recap my…

Top Ten Sights I Have Seen, and Why

1) Michelangelo’s David -- also known as my new boyfriend. Seriously, he is beautiful. Michelangelo truly created the “perfect man” at least in a physical form. Both times I have seen him, as I have rounded the corner into the long hallway leading to him, I have had my breath taken away by his profound beauty. That's the only word for him. And twice, I have been rendered teary once I am up close. He looks so alive that I honestly believe he is about to lean down and whisper “just what exactly are you looking at?” As if he doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.

2) Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel -- I have had the great fortune to visit this twice. Once when it was jam-packed like a sardine can and once when I was one of 16 people in the chapel. Believe me when I say, you have never seen color like this before. Even from two stories below, these colors just sing out to you. And “hidden messages to the Pope” or not, the themselves images are just breathtaking.

3) Keukenhof Gardens, The Netherlands -- again with the colors. This is where I fell in love with the color orange because in its Dutch flower form, it made such a profound, lasting impression on me. Here you will see reds, oranges, yellows like you have never seen before, so rich and vibrant that you almost smell the flowers before you are close enough. The gardens are immaculately kept, the flowers are always perfectly in bloom (thanks to their full-time gardening/rotation of the crops); this is flower heaven, even for people lacking that green thumb gene.

4) Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland -- There are no words for this other than “hmmmm”. Essentially what this is is thousands upon thousands of octagonal columns of rock, on which you can step from one to the other for miles along the northern coast of Northern Ireland. Legend says these were steps that were built to help a giant walk from England to Ireland; perhaps that’s a Guinness-induced legend, I’m not sure. Whatever the case, I was there on a dark summer afternoon as a thunderstorm passed off the coast and it was eerie and beautiful and a complete wonder of nature. Each clap of thunder could easily have been one more nearing step of the giant himself. All I could do was hop among them and wonder why.

5) Pike’s Peak, Colorado -- Now admittedly I have not traveled in the US as much as I probably should. On one of my few trips westward rather than eastward, I had the chance to ride the tram up Pike’s Peak. It was about 3/4 of the way up, above the tree line, that I looked out and saw what had to be the inspiration for the verse “purple mountains majesty” because good lord, was that a tremendous view of purplish-blue mountains capped with a whipped-cream-like dab of snow. Oxygen deprivation and all, for the first time I fully appreciated the beauty that exists in my very own country.

6) Roman Forum/Palatine Hill/Colosseum, Rome, Italy -- Back to Italy I go to point out the obvious: Roman ruins are fascinating, phenomenal and addictive sights. Granted, I’d read about Ancient Rome up the wazoo before I visited them, so for me, it was more than a pile of rocks or one pillar of 28 still standing 3000 years later. I also took a tour with a specialist in Ancient Rome that really made this all speak to me. But I was still drawn, again and again, under different lighting conditions and at times of day, to just stand and stare, soaking in the history, remembering the men (and women -- can’t forget the Vestal Virgins) who walked these same paths. Most of what you think you know about the Colosseum is false, but it doesn’t make that building any less impressive.

7) Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia cathedral, Barcelona, Spain -- From a distance, and even close up, this looks like the kind of sand castle I used to make by dripping really wet sand between my fingers across the top of my sand pail stack, leaving precariously tall pointy triangular columns of drizzle to dry in the sun. But the thing is, this cathedral is cement and it’s still not finished. 100 years or so after Gaudi’s tragic death by streetcar, construction workers sign up to work on this project, considering it an honor to do so. The exterior appears to be complete, with various biblical scenes played out over doorways and on the spires. The inside appears as a war zone, with fencing keeping you out of holes, stacks of concrete and construction machinery. When it’s complete, if ever, I’m sure it will be extraordinary, but even today, I still found it gorgeous.

8) The Eiffel Tower, Paris, France -- As cliché as it may seem, I am smitten by this structure. The fact that it looks like a large hand has just plopped it in the middle of a residential neighborhood makes it just seem all the more surprising. My two favorite views of it, from the top of the Arc de Triomphe and from Trocadero, really highlight this aspect of it. Nothing nearby is more than a couple stories tall, so it makes the tower seem that much larger. It’s actually painted a beautiful brown/bronze and is just a feat of engineering, if you think about it. It is the seminal image of Paris in my mind and I’m not ashamed to admit it. It’s one of the few sights that takes my breath away every single time I return to Paris.

9) Cliffs of Moher and Dun Aengus, Ireland -- I’m a water sign and probably unnaturally drawn to water scenes. That said, both the Cliffs of Moher and nearby Dun Aengus (on Inishmore) are amazing experiences. When I was there several years ago, neither location had fences that kept you from blowing over the 800+ foot cliff face. I’ve heard that has changed. But in any event, the miles of coastline that you can walk and admire the massive cliffs beneath you is just stunning.

10) (tie) Duomo (Cathedral), Siena, Italy and Florence, Italy -- What is most striking about Siena’s cathedral is its massive size wedged into a tiny neighborhood and its glorious black and white striped marble façade and interior. It is the one cathedral I think that I have returned to over and over without fail with the exception of the cathedral in Florence, which is equally as ornate with its pastel pink and green marble exterior (the interior isn’t nearly as satisfying). I think because we are so brick and mortar with our churches in Boston, these two churches really stand out for me. I see them as Italy’s way of honoring and celebrating its religion through beauty. And that type of celebration, I can never tire of.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Postcards from Paris (and Vienna) v. 4

Maybe I identified with Theo van Gogh more than I knew. Theo fueled his younger brother Vincent's dreams with cash, moral support and encouragement for years. His only pay-off would have been to see Vincent's eventual success, but it was not to be. Theo himself died a mere 6 months after Vincent committed suicide, a fact I became aware of as I stood in front of a wall-sized image of their side-by-side graves in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam last year. There, I myself was side-by-side with my younger sibling, fueling the first of her many travel dreams.

And it was with this first excursion abroad with my sister that my inadvertent appreciation for van Gogh began. Oddly enough, we'd read a book of letters between the brothers van Gogh years ago and joked that I was Theo to my sister's Vincent. I was the one with the risk-free job that paid more than the bills, while she was the one chasing her dreams with her abilities, at the cost of financial independence. At one time, such a trip might have been impossible for her, but her desire to see Dutch art, and van Goghs in particular, coupled with my penchant for travel for what would become our first and second art-packed trips to Europe.

And the things I have done to see van Gogh's art. They go above and beyond just crossing the pond in a Boeing. I've been to Auvers-sur-Oise (via two trains) and walked miles in a blanket of rain and dreary grayness as we followed a trail of paintings on a map and matched them to their real life landscapes. I've taken two trains to a bus to a 20 minute walk to a 10 minute bike ride to a museum in the middle of Dutch no where to see the largest collection of Van Gogh's work anywhere. Yes, it has even more than the museums in the center of Amsterdam proper.

I've stood at the graveside of Vincent and Theo a year after seeing that same wall-sized image in Amsterdam. On that overcast and damp April morning, I noted solemnly that their graves were much more ordinary than that image. They themselves were resting among the common folk of Auvers rather than the rock stars, poets, artists and writers in Pere Lachaise or Montmartre. That man to their left could very well have been a cook, a gardener or a normal joe. The woman on the right a nurse or a maid. In death they all became equals, the difference being the mass of ivy over the van Gogh plot and the random paintbrush or solitary flower laid on Vincent's side in his honor.

I wish now I'd left something for Theo. Because after 34 years of being an older sibling, the "responsible one" encouraging the dreams of the younger, I believe credit is due for him as well. Unfortunate as it is that neither lived to enjoy the many fruits of Vincent's success and Theo's many sacrifices, I've been blessed to see many, many more van Goghs than the average non-fan. From New York to Paris to Amsterdam and Vienna, this is one of the many benefits of believing in my sister's dream.

Postcards from Paris (and Vienna) v. 3

My last time in Vienna found me running from a homeless man on the city's tram. I forget exactly what said homeless guy did other than keep moving closer to me seat by seat. So at the next tram stop, I fled. And in my wake I accidentally abandoned one of my favorite black fleece gloves and some of the pride that a novice solo traveler works hard to accumulate. This time, I vowed that it would not happen again. I would take on Vienna, and win.

Sitting in the U-Bahn waiting for a train, I perused my multicolored street map of the city and found myself face to face with a homeless gent who was forcing his face between mine and my map. Girding myself, I snapped the map shut and held my ground. He wandered off as if I had rapped him like a puppy on his snout and I felt defiant. Vienna wouldn't beat me this time.

Postcards from Paris (and Vienna) v. 2

For me, Vienna is about two things: the coffee and pastry stops and the wienerschnitzel. I am genetically programmed to appreciate good (not necessarily foodie good, just good) food and I certainly enjoy the hell out of eating. So returning to Vienna, I focused on the positive and remembered the pastries and liquored-up hot chocolates that I loved 5 years ago. And then I was back there.

The cafe culture in Vienna is such that you pay for your coffee and pastry and then you can linger as long as you want...forever if you wish. On my last visit, I had decided that Cafe Demel was my favorite so I was anxious to introduce my dear sister to the Big Three (Demel, Sacher and Central) and see if first my opinion remained the same and second if she fell for the cafe culture as well. In less than 24 hours we had to try all three. And we did.

Our first stop was the luxurious Cafe Sacher, home of the sacher torte, which we both ordered and devoured after a day full of Klimts. The coffee here was delectable as well, quite unlike my Starbucks brews at home and just divine, so I bought a pound of ground beans to take home (which I am still nursing 3 months later!) We loved the atmosphere and the elegance of it all and I think appreciated that we were just across the street at the Albertina when a thunderstorm broke out. We smartly escaped the torrents by huddling over our snack at the Sacher.

Later that same day (remember we only had 20 hours in Vienna) we went to Cafe Central for a late night snack before bed. Again, we ran in from the rain, tucked our umbrellas under the table and sat for over an hour listening to the resident piano player as he tore through an extensive collection of global favorites in the cavernous baroque setting. My amaretto hot chocolate and apfelstruedel was just enough sustenance to get me back to the hotel and safely tucked in bed. In retrospect, I would say this became my favorite of the three, if only because we enjoyed the pastries as much as the music.

After a second day of marathon museum-going, we stopped at the Cafe Demel, which sits within spitting distance of the Hofburg Palace. At this point, we had less than an hour before we had to be at the airport to check in for our flight, but we wanted one last Viennese pastry to send us on our way. Here, we had to queue for a table for about 10 minutes because the notoriety of the cafe really packs the crowds in. Once seated, the waitress apologized but said she had it reserved for someone in 45 minutes. We let her know this worked out well for us too, and this symbiosis immediately improved the rapport between us. She told us to go look at the pastries and let the clerk at the pastry table know what we wanted and it would be brought to us. As we pondered over the glass cases, a stranger pointed to the chocolate truffle cake dusted in a thick layer of cocoa powder and says "that is heavenly." If only all international relations were so positive and helpful. I believe my sister followed that advice with aplomb and delight, but I settled on a Bailey's coffee and cheese streudel, both of which were disappointing when compared to what I remembered. And this is what I was leaving with as my "last pastry in Vienna"?

Almost, yes. That is until somewhere between Cafe Demel and the U-Bahn stop to get back to our hotel, we lingered at a local bakery tucked on a side street and so dark and empty inside that it appeared that it might not even be open. But the pastries in the window held us captive. Especially the soft-looking cushion of a donut split open with a heavy cream that looked like frosting.

"Try the creams there," says a local voice in heavily accented English. Following her finger, I notice she is talking about what we are ogling. After my disappointment at not following sage advice at Demel, I didn't need to be told twice this time. I walked in, was greeted in German, I ordered "zwei" and pointed to what I wanted. The woman carefully wrapped our creams and we just as carefully (and quite skillfully, I might add) transported them to the airport for our flight back to Vienna. Afraid they might not make it through security's evil eye, we devoured them after check-in. I was not disappointed. It was the last, and best, thing we ate in Vienna.

Postcards from Paris v. 1

Catching up on things I owe the we go

There are some things you only do once in life because you have to, and ascending the Eiffel Tower is one of them. I think first-time visitors to Paris fall for it because they are awe-fully starstruck by all the big names in Paris: Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Invalides, Sacre Coeur -- all of which they can see from still another angle from the biggest name of them all: le Tour Eiffel itself.

What they are not aware of, and what return travelers painfully remember, is the nearly 90 minute wait to buy tickets, the elevator up to the second level and all of its sardine-packed pandemonium, where you wait another 30-45 minutes to be crammed into a still smaller sardine can to be pushed to the top of the tower, where you can barely move for want of space. And honestly, while it is mildly entertaining to experience vertigo at 980 feet of open air (didn't know I had that problem!) and see miniature versions of your favorite monument from that high up, I suggest you buy your favorite in faux-brass miniature version from the "bling bling" illegal vendors at the base of the tower and invest this time somewhere else in the city. Or walk around the neighborhoods near le Tour and catch it peeking at you through gardens, between apartments and over brasseries.

But you won't follow that tip, I know you, newbie in Paris. I know, because on your first trip to Paris you just have to do it, and that's ok because I did too. And because I am in Paris with a newbie visitor, I have to do it again, so I do. Going against my gut instinct, we are there an hour after opening, so we end up investing 3 1/2 hours in the process of waiting, ascending, photographing for mere minutes at the top, and descending. But by the second level of the descent, we are both so fed up with waiting and crowds that we take the stairs - 760 of them - to the ground, which only takes 10 minutes, earning us back time better used elsewhere, like over a croque monsieur and grand creme up the street.

That said, we did it and Abby loved the view (but not the crowds) and I suffered vertigo for the first time, nearly dropping my Nikon from 1000 feet up. So I leave here with the knowledge that hopefully, I will not have to ascend that beautiful tower again.