Category Archives: City of the Month

Rue du Cherche -Midi

There is a very cool hotel in the delightful neighborhood of the 6th arrondissement. It’s called La Belle Juliette. I have stayed there several times and always recommend it to friends. It’s reasonable and one of those places that immediately immerse you into the feel and touch of a Parisian neighborhood. It’s on the Rue du Cherche-Midi. A favorite street of mine. So called because a sundial was at the top of the street and was used as the clock for Paris for centuries. There’s even a French phrase that references the name. Chercher-Midi a quatorze heures. To find midday at 2 pm. To over complicate things.

It’s the home of several monasteries, a now defunct prison, and several very cool restaurants. A fantastic bar and café are on the corner of the Rue St. Placide and the Rue du Cherche-Midi. The 6th is where I would choose to be. A bit encompasses Notre Dame, St. Germain, the Jardin Luxembourg’s, and all along the river on the left bank. The bookstores and overpriced antique stores and the delightful Rue du Bac. It stretches all the way to Montparnasse.

And of course, the famous Hotel Lutetia, recently renovated and offering rooms at 1300 EUROS A NIGHT. YEAH RIGHT. A beautifully designed building, with its past a rich and checkered tapestry brilliance and blemishes. Jazz found its home here and the jazz bar still plays on. It was a part of the Belle Époque. Splashes of Art Nouveau stretching all the way to Deco. It sits opposite a tiny park and the busy Boulevard Raspail. I have stayed there many times when the Hotel Lutetia was a tad shabbier and afforded more affordable rates. It’s still worth a visit for the restaurant and the jazz bar. The rooms. Dunno. Too expensive, but I recall great views on the upper floors of the Eiffel tower! I’ll just have to do with the memories for now.

Paris

Sometimes a city just has it. Paris is one of those places. Our office is in a small and quaint space nestled inside a residential building along the Rue de Babylon. It’s a stone‘s throw from the swish Conran’s store and the Belle Époque style Bon Marche, Paris’ super chic department store. It’s also the home to the Épicerie. Paris’ version of Harrods food halls and one of the greatest food halls in the world. And strangely enough there is a Chapel opposite the Department store. The Chapel of the Miraculous Medal that attracts 2 million visitors a year.

According to the story, the Virgin Mary visited a 23-year-old novitiate in 1832 with a request for medallions to be made to facilitate miracles. Catherine Laboure thus became the facilitator of miracles. And…there were miracles. A cholera epidemic was halted once medallions were distributed to the sick, a fire was halted that threatened to spread from the Bon Marche department store to the church and lastly, when they exhumed her body to place her inside the church, her body was identical to the day she passed away. A miracle indeed! As a skeptical miracle believer, it all makes a pretty decent story and more important the extraordinary site is jammed between the two trendy stores and a épicerie all on the beautiful Rue du Bac. So called because the ferry (The Bac) would moor at the bottom of the street and was used to transport the stone that was used for the construction of the Palais des Tuileries. A wonder of wonders. Our little and humble office is right in the middle of all these amazing non touristy apparitions!

Notre Dame Cathedral with Paris cityscape panorama at dusk, France

The Journey to Paris

Arrived very early at St. Pancras station. It was organized but you need more time than I recalled. More time for vaccine card.  Proof of a negative Covid test.  And everything takes three times longer. But, at some point you get through. They give you a tiny card at French customs on the UK side and as long as you don’t lose the card you are good. The breathtaking journey to Paris.

Whoever remembers those awful journeys with flights from Heathrow or the ferries from Dover. I was musing about the absolute brilliance of bringing Europe together the other day. Brexit? Never going to happen. Boris Johnson. A joke. A clown. No way! Here we are. It’s all happened. Agghh!! But at least we have the train under the channel!!

Built over 5 years and opened in 1994 it has transformed access to Europe. Imagine. Two hours and 15 minutes. Thirty-eight minutes under the channel. 250′ feet under the bottom of the chalk seabed. The longest underwater tunnel in the world. Napoleon. Hitler. Nobody since 1066 has ever managed to breakthrough. Except the Chunnel. Even the EU got rejected. It’s a shame but at least we have the champagne bar to send us off as we go into the unknown. At least we have Europe. Well, hang on. They don’t want the Brits. The Chunnel was it. Brexit was the end! Oh well!

Corfu

Corfu is an island well known by ferry travelers enroute to Athens. In the summer, ferries push straight on from Brindisi in Italy to Athens but off peak, Corfu is a stopover. It has one off the most charming towns in all of Greece. Corfu Town. The influence of Venetians is everywhere. Four centuries of influence. A castle and beautiful pastel-colored buildings with medieval cobbled marbled streets that house the usual souvenir stuff that I confess I’m attracted to! There is a cool bar and restaurant scene, lots of nighttime activity and several narrow passageways that offer mystery tours through the old town. It is probably the most beautiful town of the Greek Islands. Small enough to boast and show off its history and lively enough not to dampen the vacation spirits. And if course, in every plaza there is ample time to catch up on Greek salad, grilled octopus and moussaka. Whatever your fancy.

I had not been back for a long time. It was nice to get back into the travel groove again. Especially if you have been watching the gorgeously told TV series on the Durrell’s who lived on the island during the 1930’s before the start of the Second World War.

How to get there….I traveled from Rome to Corfu on Ryan Air. BA flies daily from London. There are several flights from Athens each day. Hotel Cavaliers Hotel is right in center of town and convenient to everything.

Check out the Hotel Cavaliers here:  https://cavalierihotel.gr/

 

 

 

 

An Evening Stroll Through Rome – Part 2

I have a walk I always used to take in Rome in the evening. My first evening back for a year and a half prompts me to walk that route once more as an introduction to Rome. Start at the Pantheon. At the Piazza della Rotonda. Take an aperitive and say hi to the waiters who I have known for 30 years. The Pantheon is always a fabulous start to any walk in Rome. It begins at the start of it all. A perfectly preserved dome. Built in 125 AD and never replicated until Brunelleschi built the Duomo in Florence in 1296! Amidst this huge structure in the middle of old cobbled streets is Bernini’s elephant in the Piazza Minerva. And the gentle color on the sandstone buildings starts the evening walk. Ahead Bernini fountains and Borromini churches. The superstars of Baroque. Ronaldo and Messi of their day! Piazza Navona and the Campo di Fiori and Piazza Farnese. History jammed into three squares. Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and Ancient. And in between ice cream, espresso and an aperitivo. Not necessarily in that order.

An Evening Stroll Through Rome- Part 1

It’s the sunset that so attracted me to Rome all those years ago. I usually start at the Temple of Cats and make my way to the Campidoglio via the Piazza Venezia. The colors of a Roman evening are quite extraordinary. There is the Vittorio Manuel monument. Awkward and towering with its white marble uncomfortable in between the Baroque Domes and Medieval Church of the Aracoeli but it’s a vital landmark for those unfamiliar with Rome. The Cordonata provides a gracious entrance to the Piazza Campidoglio with Marcus Aurelius equestrian statue, a copy, marking the center of Michelangelo’s square. The Capitoline Museum, a treasure trove of Ancient Rome on the right but beyond and around the corner lies the real treasure. And I had forgotten how impactful that first sight of ancient times is. Breathtaking. The Palatine on the right. Oleander, Cyprus and umbrella pine all around and there is the Forum. The columns and arches, the Senate, and the path to the Coliseum. I first brought my parents here 30 years ago. I think of them and the memories of Rome and everything in between. At sunset.

Across the Divide

My Roman friend has a system for crossing the road. I thought of this while trying to cross along the busy road opposite the Campidoglio. There is no zebra crossing. No traffic lights. Just a steady stream of unrelenting traffic both ways. There is no gap. No opportunity to cross. So, I did what he had suggested. I just walked out into the road slowly but confidently and amazingly the traffic simply parted. He always told me never to hesitate. Keep a straight line and keep walking. I must confess it took some adjustments. And of course, I always wave to the cars and scooters as a thanks as they slow down or maneuver to avoid me. They think I’m mad. Not to cross under their noses but to thank them! Very, very unItalian. It’s been a while. Feels good to be back.

 

The Pizzardone

There is a name in Roman for the guy who stands in the middle of the traffic intersection at the Piazza Venezia. I had not seen him for a while but this time, as if to greet us all back, there he was. The Pizzardone. It’s an art. He is a conductor. His white gloves holding the craziness of motorists, busses, and cars. It is dramatic. He has this immense power. A rotary like the Piazza Venezia and four streams of congested moving anxious Romans on bikes, scooters and in cars would seem no match for the Pizzardone. But Romans become extraordinarily compliant. Obedient. Nobody moves without his assent. The hands are all drama. His whistle ready to pounce on anyone who breaks the rules. And fantastically nobody does. It is a play. A performance. There is a special school that trains Pizzardones. It requires incredible organizational skills, judgement and flexibility. It is knowing how to work on the fly. In the moment. Moving traffic along and avoiding bottlenecks. His orchestra is the sea of traffic. His baton is his hands. It is quintessentially Italian and more importantly its timeless. Traditions are held sacred in this ancient crazy city. Green lights. Red lights. Sophisticated computer algorithms. Not in the main piazza. Not in the center of Rome. The show must go on!

Rome….I’m back!

Travel life between countries is a series of Covid tests and passenger locator forms. The rapid types. Antigen. Results in 15 minutes. The journey from Mallorca to Rome was fairly smooth. Two flights, masked up, and the usual endless wait at Fiumicino for the bags to land on the carousel. I have a theory about Rome airport waiting. The baggage handlers clearly wait and then give the carousel a whirl to get everyone’s hopes up. And then the great “nothing.” More waiting and an occasional sporadic whirl again. This goes on for half an hour. At some point the bags did arrive. And then we were out and into the night air of Fiumicino, Italy. A year and a half. And then it came back.

The drive into the city. There is no skyline to illuminate the skies. Simply an expectation and a longing for the familiar that has been part of my life for 40 years. The Aventine with its views across its neighbor hill the Palatine. The breathtaking ancient villas that sit above the Circus Maximus. The crazy traffic as we wind around by Teatro Marcello that sits on the outskirts of the ghetto. And then the Campidoglio with castor and Pollux atop the beautiful and graceful staircase of the Cordonata Capitolina and we are in the city. And I disappear into Rome.

Roman Ways

Seeing Rome on a Vespa

Riding around on a red Vespa in the center of Rome is a way to see the city. Not necessarily the safest, but a way. So, I had the pleasure of riding on the back of my friends scooter so I could take in the sights and film the chaos while he focused on the road.  Rome makes its claim on being built on seven hills but ironically the two hills that afford the most spectacular views of the city are not on the coveted list of the magnificent seven!  So, off we went!

The Pincio is the hill that sits high above the Spanish steps. It backs onto the Borghese Gardens and always in my mind belongs to Sundays.  Sunday walks, Sunday picnics and strolls from the Piazza del Popolo through the chic and glitzy streets that lead to Keats house and the Babington’s Tea Rooms. One of my favorite cafes is on the via Condotti, the Main Street that showcases the Spanish Steps.  Antico Caffe Greco. The oldest bar in Rome and second oldest in Italy.  Cafe Florian in Venice has that title. The tiny sandwiches at cafe Greco are simply like no other!

The other hill is the Gianicolo. This is the hill that winds its way out of St. Peters and descends back again past the Spanish Embassy into Trastevere.  Most notable for Punch and Judy shows on Sundays and the classic view of Rome stretching from the wedding cake building far beyond to St. John’s in Lateran.  It’s Garibaldi’s hill.  His statue dominates the top of the hill.  The revolutionary who became the catalyst that united Italy and ended Vatican and French dominance. The Gianicolo was a battleground, and now is probably the most peaceful place on earth to take in this magnificent city.

A tale of two hills.  Neither on the list of seven, but both significant and meaningful to the tourist for the classic view of Rome.

Oh, and I survived the Vespa experience too!

Watch the video tour here:  RomeVespaTour2021

Spain

I have always loved Spain. I first went there during the Franco era in a very beaten-up car that barely made it across the border. It was all beaches and Paella. But my favorite memory is a trip I took to the White villages (Pueblos Blancos) a few years ago. The white villages are a necklace of hilltop villages strategically spread along the Andalusian interior. The road that connects the villages is breathtaking. Arcos de la frontera tips the clue that these places were built along the border between the Moors and the Catholics. Painted white because of the heat in the summer and breathtaking because like good border defenses the towns were nestled in the mountains and hills of southern Andalusia.

When we visit Granada, Seville, and Cordoba we get a fully sculpted picture of the influence of the Moorish occupation. Cathedrals and churches converted from mosques but still retaining are some of most stunning interior architectures.

One of the bigger towns, Ronda, that boasts a fabulous gorge, has a bridge that connects the old town to the new town. There’s a beautiful bullring and some fun tapas bars for the evening paseo; I had a travel moment. In the back streets we came across a young boy being tutored by an older man in the art of bullfighting. The boy had a cape. He was practicing quietly under the guidance of the older man to move the cape and kneel and turn as if he were in the arena. It was so unreal. Just the two of them. He didn’t see us. He was super focused on the old man who was maybe once a bullfighter. It seemed so out of time. So bizarre but strangely beautiful…there it was. A passing of the baton. A generational lesson. Under a hot afternoon sun not far from the old bullring and a million miles away from everywhere.

Piscine Deligny-Paris

This is a story of swimming pools and Paris.  When I first was a Tour Guide I noticed during a sightseeing tour a swimming pool that was incredibly crowded on the banks of the River Seine.  It was big and opposite one of the most famous museums in Paris.  So, I decided, as I love swimming, to return and find out more about the spot.  As it turns out, this was the Piscine Deligny.  It dates back to the 1800’s.  This barge on the Seine, was one of the first swimming pools in Paris.  Opposite what is now the Musee d’Orsay, it had a fascinating and checkered history.

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Built in oriental style and with water originally drawn from the Seine, it was pretty sketchy in terms of hygiene and antics.  It was a frequent hangout for the decadent and the famous.  Few swam, most posed, and during the later part of the 20th century, most woman went topless, prompting the legislature at the National Assembly to protest as it was distracting workers! They had the view!

It all came to an end one fateful day in 1993 in the middle of the summer.  Maybe too many parties, too much history, but the Seine swallowed up the pool during a July storm.  Thirteen years later, the Piscine Josephine Baker was built on a barge using more sophisticated technology and a sliding roof for cover in the winter.  It’s a public pool and one of the highlights of my visits to Paris.  Josephine Baker was a black American who fought in the resistance during the Second World War for her adoptive country, France.  Now that’s another story.

Eiffel Tower!  No way.

London’s Open Air Theatres

 

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When I think of London, I think Pubs, the Royal family, and theatre. And I think of rain and summers that fly by without a summer day in sight. But, ironically I think of open-air theatre. London houses two of the most famous open-air theatres in the world.

Let’s start with my favorite. The Regents Park open-air theatre. Founded in 1932, its located on the inner circle by Queen Mary’s Garden. By the rose garden. Its season is the summer.

See the source imageI have seen Midsummer Night’s Dream there so many times and it never tires. The clouds come in, the rain starts, the planes boom overhead, and the birds fly from tree to tree. It’s part of the set. Puck delivers his closing line and then the mad dash across the park, in total darkness and often pouring rain as the audience run for the last tube, a late restaurant in Soho or a taxi home. When I lived in London, I was always at the park. Sometimes at the Zoo, sometimes at the open-air pool but never got to the theater.

Shakespeare is a tale of two cities. Stratford and London. In London, if you ever have the chance, go book a seat (better a seat) at the Globe Theatre. A rebuild of an original theatre built in 1599, burned and rebuilt in the 1600’s only to be shut down by Puritans in the mid 1600’s. Damn Puritans! Spoiling all the fun! Eventually torn down to make way for housing and then rebuilt again in 1997! It is a beautiful reconstruction of Tudor architecture. Situated close to its original site in Southwark by London Bridge and famous Borough Market along the ancient Thames. This is where Shakespeare wrote and performed his works. Julius Caesar was probably the first play performed at the original Globe. The new theatre serves winter as well with the Sam Wanamaker Theatre. Using only candles as lighting it recreates a theatre experience like no other. Art isn’t easy but you get to travel to a time when it was more difficult than you could ever imagine!! Go travel and visit the Globe Theatre on a high school trip. You won’t be disappointed!

Image result for globe theatre pictureImage result for globe theatre picture

Brexit…Its Complicated!

And if the world hadn’t changed and turned upside down enough, Tourism must deal with Brexit. Its complicated. Brexit for the Brits brings forth its own problems with tourism.

Imagine a British tour guide who would meet you in Italy because he or she happens to speak fluent Italian and is an expert on Italy but has a British passport.  Well, they can’t work in Italy any longer! Even worse, let’s say I’m a tour guide who picks a group up in London and wants to take them on the Eurostar (which is practically bankrupt now by the way) to Paris.  I’m an English passport holder and with the current law, cannot move with the group to Paris.  In other words, now until there is an urgent review, you simply cannot work outside of the UK if you have a British passport.  Period.

Travel organizations often use a lot of tour guides who currently work outside of the UK who are British passport holders.  Their English is….not bad… and quite often what they lack in historical and local knowledge, they more than make up with their unique British humor and acting abilities.  All this is now gone! For symphony orchestras, traveling theatre groups, people who are in the entertainment business and need to work inside the European zone, they no longer will be able to.  Gone!  Yes, a business traveler can still pop across to France for two or three days but the rest will not be legal.

Tourism depends upon tour guides who can handle different countries and speak multiple languages.  Incredibly, the British Government has overlooked this, and probably we’re all rather ironically fortunate that Brexit took place during the pandemic.  With zero business and zero travelers on organized tours, the urgency to fix this anomaly hasn’t screamed out just yet.
The Brexit decision ultimately will probably cost the Brits a valuable place at the International table.  As the financial business inevitably devolves to Germany or the Netherlands and the center of power that London once was gradually shifts, things are going to shake up.  London truly was an international city but in the past year 700,000 Europeans have moved out of the UK.  We’re keeping close tabs on this because our business depends upon a fluid border and Brexit cannot provide that.

Right now, the UK government has yet to consider any of this.  The European Union has already moved on.  Yeah, people love to travel to the UK because of the royal family, the fabulous theater, the double decker busses and the sheer weight of tradition that envelops it.  But London will miss that injection of European talent and youth that once was there.  People came to London to learn English, to take in the sights and to take part in the UK economy and some of them stayed and became resident Brits.  They started businesses and integrated into British society.  They brought fresh ideas and loved Britain maybe more than many Brits.  They became Brits.  Gone!

With Brexit or should we say more the European exit, Britain and specifically London will not be the powerhouse it was.  I hate to say it, but I think a lot of the people that voted for Brexit would probably reevaluate their decision if they had a chance to right now.  According to current polls Brexit would never go through.  But Brexit is done.

In the USA, we had a chance to dump Trump.  We get that opportunity, every 4 years.  With Brexit, it’s done and dusted.  It would be extraordinarily challenging to reverse the curse of separation from the European Union.  We must imagine that Britain will become less of an International powerhouse.  Less of a cultural heartthrob for Europeans. T he strong possibility that Scotland will call for another referendum to join the European Union as an independent nation.  We must imagine that Ireland essentially has already left. And where does that leave us?  That leaves us with Little Britain.  A short sighted and awful decision that leaves Brits minnows amongst the Giants of Europe.  Pity.

 

The Colors of Kyoto

Nothing really prepares you for Kyoto. This is the ancient Japanese capital which then moved to Tokyo in the 19th century. It is by far and away the most unique and amazing slice of Japan that you will ever see. Kyoto is teeming with people dressed in kimonos, and geishas and maikos jumping from house to cab to evening performance. If you happen to see a maiko walking through the streets, you literally stop in your tracks. There is nothing more beautiful than the sight of one of the geishas-in-training mingling with the crowds. Kyoto is home to the original royal palace, Nijo Castle, with its beautiful gardens, stunning gates, singing floors, and the replicas of the seated shogun and his gang.

On the surface, Kyoto is a small city dissected by a river that has restaurants and shops alongside. There is a modern area with department stores and an indoor central market that houses the main food market, Nishiki. This is an endless market of delicacies, spices, raw fish, and culinary delights. Nishiki is packed with ramen and sushi bars with lines of people waiting to get in. This is Japan after all where people queue and food stands tend to not have many seats.

Kyoto has more than 1,000 temples. But if you are temple and shrine hopping, you definitely have to visit Kinkakuji, also known as the Golden Pavilion, just outside of the city center. It has spectacular gardens, and yes, a golden temple. It is staggering in all seasons but likely most beautiful in the autumn and winter when it is engulfed in golden leaves or is covered with snow. There is a delightful walking path here and a great souvenir shop where you can buy things that do not even look touristy.

But the area that carries the entire buzz of the city is Gion. It stretches alongside the main city street and is peppered with tiny alleys and houses. This is the geisha area of the city. From the tiny outpost of Gion, you can walk towards the famous Kiyomizu-dera Temple. The walk along the street leading up to the temple, and the temple itself, is probably one of the most stunning walks you will do in the world. It is a street lined with colorful kimonos, green tea ice cream, mochi, and fish on a stick.

From there, you can walk all the way down through the narrow and winding streets of Gion, passing possibly the most extraordinary Starbucks you have ever passed; a beautiful, pure ryokan-style shop that you will never see anywhere else in the world. There are beautiful tiny shops lining the street that sell incense, crafts, and Buddhas. You eventually spill out to a main square area with men that sell rickshaw rides and a giant Buddha looming in the background. You can rent colorful kimonos in any number of places here. Eventually you get to the Yasaka-Jinja Shrine before heading down the main street in Gion where the geishas and maikos live.

Probably the most famous sight in Kyoto, apart from seeing a geisha, is the Fushimi Inari Shrine with its kilometers of bright red torii gates winding uphill and downhill. It’s a magnet for tourists and locals and people wearing kimonos walking hand-in-hand to the top of the hill. There are even wild monkeys here. This has to be accessed via metro or car as it is just outside of Kyoto. On a beautiful day, it is one of the great highlights of any trip to Japan.

Kyoto is also a hub city with a huge train station that provides access to all parts of Japan. With the ease of the shinkansen train network, Kyoto is not only beautiful but a great base to “hub and spoke.” I had purchased a 7-day JR Rail Pass. From Kyoto, there are short trips to Osaka, Nara, Himeji for the castle, Atami for the hot baths, Mt. Fuji if the weather is good, and Kanazawa for the spectacular food. Hiroshima is an easy day trip. All good as excursions.

There are plenty of steps and lots of walking needs to be done throughout Kyoto. But the walks are breathtaking, the sights are amazing, and if you are lucky enough to catch a geisha, you will have seen it all. But the highlight of Kyoto for me was being there during the New Year festival in the Gion area. I bought a palm leaf that was blessed by a maiko, caught a maiko and geisha at a food stand idly chatting, and played Konpira Fune Fune with a maiko, a drinking game that inevitably requires coordination, talent, and rhythm. Predictably, I lost big time.