Category Archives: My Favorite Places to Stay

Venice, Taparelli and Ice Cream

I guess, for me it all started with a visit to the Carnival in Venice.  February 2020.  I remember the spectacle. I had never really seen anything like it.  A piazza that looked more like a show, colors and masks and people parading around, posing and becoming photo opportunities for the tourists and the casual travelers.  Centuries condensed into a parade and a piazza turned into a Broadway show.  Leaving there, I remember thinking how extraordinary it was to have seen this event.  For all the years I had traveled to Venice, I had just missed it.  And as we drove out of Venice heading north, I remember thinking I had witnessed something special.  And then, Covid.  

Italy first, shut down and slowly this phenomenon engulfed all of Europe.  That was 2 years ago.  Now, I am heading back to Carnival and Italy to meet our staff and clients.  The suppliers who have just about survived these past 2 years with no business.  Some never made it.  Never to reopen.  For most of us, we are back and I cannot wait to hear the sounds of the Vaporetti, the lapping of water of the gondolier jetties and the winter light in beautiful Venice.  This is where it all began for me.  The windows closed. The doors shut. And now, they’re opening again.

Someone once asked me what I loved about Italy.  Was it the Forum, St. Peter’s, the Duomo, the Basilica in San Marco, the food, the wine, etc.?  The wonder of Italy is that the list is endless.  But it remined me of a funny story.  My niece lives in Rome.  She had bumped into Hugh Grant, the English actor, at a well-known bar and she had asked him what he loved most about Italy.  He paused and then said, “the beautiful darkness that hotel rooms afford me during the day!”  What he was referring to are the blinds in the rooms and in every house, apartment and shop. The Taparelli as they are called.  A moving curtain of metal slats that gives you utter privacy and solace from the sunshine and light. The bliss of absolute darkness in the afternoon for a snooze before an evening venture around the streets of Rome or Venice. Not, I hasten to say, venetian blinds.  A whole different story and a whole different century! And nowhere near as effective!! 

Taparella means a conveyor belt.  Sliding, rolling slats that interlock and offer perfect darkness. Operated electrically or on a rope-pull. They are one of the great inventions of Italia.  I always think of that great line in Life of Brian.  “What have you Romans done for us lately!  Roads, heating, bridges, sanitation, aqueducts, baths, and…Taparelli!”

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.

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.

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.

Observations: How Arriving in Rome Leads to Magic

Let me just say, I miss Italy – the walks, the food, the friends, the light, and the myriad of personalities represented by each tiny kingdom that makes up this crazy country. Whenever I travel to Italy, I find myself in a reoccurring predicament sort of like Groundhog Day…the arrival day. There is a reassuring madness and transition that takes place every time.

In Rome, if you made the mistake of checking your bag, you are often resigned to a long wait by the carousel where I am convinced the baggage handlers gather underneath and watch us poor checkers of bags wait and wilt, teasing us with an early movement of the carousel, encouraging us to jostle to claim the best spot for a smooth departure. Mistake number one. You checked your bag! Rome’s airport is so convinced that it will be a long and possibly fruitless wait, that they have installed a children’s playground and coffee/wine bar to ease the pressure of the moment as the baggage handlers do whatever they need to do to maintain their part in this commedia dell’arte.

And then at some point, if you’re lucky, the bags show up. There is a frantic grab as everyone, except the unlucky ones, retrieve their bags and head to the uscita. And then the next round of fun begins.


Taxi? No grazie.
Metro? Dove? Bus al centro, mi dispiace! Nothing comes easy.

The signs at airports in Italy are always confusing and there are often a couple of exit points so that somebody waiting for you may be in the wrong place. It only adds to the story. By nature, Italians are overly detailed and under sourced in terms of organization. So there are rules that make no sense and rules that are deliberately confusing. And everyone in Italy think they make perfect sense – which they do if you’re Italian.

Confusion, chaos, where is the metro, how do I get a ticket, where is the motolaunch in Venice, which way do I go?! Italians almost revel in that power of perfect and complete orderly chaos. It’s their word after all – caos.

At some point, you survive the airport arrival and end up in your hotel. A little frustrated, but how bad can it be as we are talking about Italy!

Then the arrival moment…the passegiata.

Through the busy piazzas and the bits of Bernini, past the fountains and the Baroque and Roman stone, you stop and take an espresso, or a gelato, or a beer, or a Campari. And you look out onto the movie set walking by and you know something beautiful has happened without your knowledge. You have passed to the other side. You have disappeared into Italy, and have become an observer of all those things that you found frustrating and they have turned into beautiful moments. The transformation is complete.

No need to toss coins in the fountain. The spell is cast and without even a thought, but with a skip in your step, you go about your day secure in the knowledge that you will return.

London in Darkness: The Holiday Season

Let me just say that I love London in the winter time. It is dark for most of the day and it rains on and off every single day. If you are traveling during the winter (or even summer), make sure that you arm yourself with a decent mini-umbrella that you can tuck in your bag. Essential. The weather changes all of the time. I guarantee you will always need to reach for that umbrella.

London is unlike most cities in the world during the holiday period. It just simply goes for it. Lights are everywhere and not just in the shops…they are on miles of streets that populate the center of the city. It’s not even that the Christmas tree is the main focus, although traditionally there has always been a beautiful tree in Trafalgar Square opposite the National Gallery. It’s really the lights on Oxford Street, Regent Street, Piccadilly, and Covent Garden that takes your breath away. There are thousands and thousands of people rushing around from shop to shop and pub to pub, hopping on double deckers, jumping into cabs, and pouring into the Tube. It’s cozy and it feels so intimate.

The neighborhoods all have their own decorations and their own ambiance.  In the West End, the bustle of the restaurants, theater, music, ballet, and museums, seem to move into high gear over this period. My favorite neighborhood is always Soho. It even has my favorite hotel, the Dean Street Townhouse, and my favorite restaurant, the Dean Street Brasserie. I like to keep things geographically simple!

“Maybe its because I’m a Londoner, that I love London town!”

Hotel Alex Zermatt

Routine and familiarity are comforting. I’ve been going to the same hotel, the Hotel Alex, in the Swiss Alps for 15 years. Same room, same friends, same everything. It’s a great place!

There is an order to the week. There are the owners that know us and greet us daily.  There is the bar and the dinners all set out every night. It is a fixed menu that is beautifully crafted by a fabulous chef. There are special dinner nights like fish night when there is a fabulous array of smoked delicacies (Eel is my favorite. All of my childhood years of jellied eels created this addiction).  Then there is cured meat night – a gourmands dream and as many types of mountain animals that your cholesterol can take! There’s raclette night when the owner of the hotel sweats over a raclette machine and serves grilled Swiss mountain cheese with potatoes and pickled onions. As much as you want. And these are just the appetizers! There’s always salad and always a fabulous dessert. Breakfasts are part of the extravaganza too. Yep, it’s a calorific buster off week. The skiing keeps the damage down but who is counting really?!

Apart from the food there’s this level of anticipation. Everyone looks at the map denoting ski runs open and weather reports from the top of the mountain. “What piste should I take today?” “Is Italy open?” They are always the same conversations. Reassuring. Then there’s the in-between time at the hotel. The spa and a swim before the dinner make it just a perfect week.

The people who work at the hotel are super nice. They get it. We’re all there to have a good time and escape. They smile and become part of the week.

The Hotel Alex is near to the main cog railway that takes you up the mountain and right by the main station that connects everyone to the real world down in the valley. It’s a bit like Brigadoon. For a week at least it works for me. More info on the Alex can be found on their website: Hotel Alex Zermatt. It is a surprisingly great deal and a fabulous four star hotel. Best in town. Best in show.

Making My Way Around Naples

Let me start out by saying that I visited Naples on my own a few years’ back.  It was just a quick
stroll from the station and around the city for about two hours before heading back to Rome.  It was interesting but I really didn’t get a sense of the city.  Now we have a client that I know that would like to go to Naples but the rap on the city is that it has a lot of petty crime.  So off I went with my man bag in hand for a virgin overnight in Naples.

First of all, it’s only a 63-minute journey on the high-speed Frecciarossa from Rome to Naples.  The train is super fast. The Italians love their high-speed train links.  They’re really good at this stuff!  After a particularly dreadful on-train coffee served by a particularly disinterested on-train steward (the Italians are really good at this stuff too), we had arrived in Naples.  My mate had organized a taxi (booked) from the station and so far, so good.  We safely got to our hotel on a nice stretch of the promenade that sits opposite the island of Capri.  In between, there were the usual underground excavations for a project that would never be finished, but no matter, we were here.  The trip had been entirely uneventful, no muggings, no hassles and now with the light of the early evening, we decided to go for a walking tour.

Here’s the thing about Naples – it’s handy to know your way around, there are lots of hills, it’s a chaotic, and there are lots of different areas with very different characteristics.  The first stop was the Palazzo Mannajuolo which holds an incredible staircase; probably the most breathtaking internal staircase in all the world, la scala ellittica.   We strolled around the hilly Chiaia and stopped at an old-world candy store in San Ferdinando.  We came across a beautiful piazza with the pantheon-like structure of the church of San Ferdinando.  The piazza here is open and full of light with Vesuvius in the background.  The opera house, Teatro di San Carlo, was showing La Traviata.  There is a spectacular galleria, the Galleria Umberto I, close by as well.  It houses thousands of panes of glass sitting in a cross formation with a whole series of panels of Jewish stars that form part of the glass decoration.  The history of Naples is more or less the entire history of the our ancient civilization.  One thing’s for sure, it makes Rome look like a young lad.

The light was dropping so we wandered back to the harbor to prepare for dinner near the Castle Nuovo (not very nuovo actually).  That is where I had the most incredible spaghetti alle vongole I had ever eaten.  So, this was Naples and we had only been there a few hours.  More to come.  Wow.

NYC or London: Which City Do You Prefer??

I like New York City a lot, and although it’s not my favorite city, I do appreciate its amazing museums and grand theaters.  I love the neighborhoods that stretch all the way from the Battery to the Bronx and the new Brooklyn, unrecognizable to my wife now who went to Bayridge High School and grew up a stone’s throw from the Verrazano Straights.  New York has a busyness to it with its big, broad avenues, and trying to catch the pedestrian
lights as you walk so you don’t need to stop and can just zig zag your way from 30th to the park. I love Soho and the Village and always wondered where I would live (probably Soho although the park is stunning).  So my question on New York is why is it so ratty in places?  London can be patchy and the outskirts of Paris are dreadful, but we are talking downtown New York City.  It’s very uneven to me.  Fun, but dirty, and even the late-night scene is sketchy.

My favorite restaurant in the city is Esca.  I love this place – great seafood, nice wine list, but honestly, it’s stuck in the seediest part of town on 43rd Street and 9th Ave, next to porn shops and dodgy quick bites.  It’s weird, New York.  The transportation hubs just seem to be seedier than they need to be.  Grand Central is a beautiful station but it’s confusing.  The shops and kiosks around it are grim.  Penn Station is even worse and is surrounded by dodgy hotels.  Yet here in the thick of it is Madison Square Garden.  Let’s not forget to mention LaGuardia Airport, antiquated and inefficient, with no great transportation link into town.  Welcome to New York

So, yeah, I do like New York for two days, grab an overpriced play and go out to a nice dinner, but in the end, no prejudice, London is just a cooler place.

Checking out the Cuevas de las Maravillas – Dominican Republic

Richard, our local hero in the Dominican Republic, was hosting me for a day and a half.  He wanted to show me the Cuevas de las Maravillas which is just west of La Romana and is designated a national park.  I have been to a few caves in my time.  I remember well the caves near Nerja in Spain and the Postos in Slovenia.  Limestone plays fantastic tricks with water underground!  This was going to be a bit of an adventure.

Our first and minor obstacle were that the caves were closed on the day we were going to be visiting.  Richard, in his charming
Dominican Spanish, disturbed a guy from a siesta and asked him if there was any way that he could let us into the park and caves.  The “transaction” was done quickly and before you know it the gates had been opened and we were walking along a path with a stone wall on either side.  After about ten minutes, the first surprise came.  On both sides of the wall, hanging around on trees and munching away on plants, were iguanas or baby dinosaurs, I’m not quite sure.  Lots of them though.  That prompted me to inquire if there were any venom issues – apparently not.  Eventually, we got to the opening of the caves, all quite civilized, and then began the descent.  Inside the cave, there are about 500 paintings and engravings on the walls all made by the Taínos, the ancient inhabitants of the island and in general, most of the Caribbean.  There were human faces, animals, and geometric figures.  All pretty basic stuff but all incredible given the time period.  It is a rare photograph of life just before Columbus arrived.  Of course, as is the case with all of the native Indians, they got royally (pardon the pun) screwed by either the Catholic monarchy or the diseases that the discoverer’s brought with them.  So now we get to walk through their caves. For me it was a fabulous travel moment – alone, no tourists, just the guy who opened the door for us, and the only noise was the dripping of water through the stalactites that are endlessly fascinating and at the same time you wonder if today is the day that they will fall to the ground.

 

My First All-Inclusive Resort – Dominican Republic

I was picked up by a driver at the Santo Domingo airport in the Dominican Republic.  The drive to my resort was an hour and a half away.  Driving is a little crazy here and we did a lot of weaving in and out of traffic but eventually, we made it.  I was heading to one of those up-market all-inclusive resorts surrounded by golf courses, a marina, and a white sand beach.  I was taking advantage of an outstanding credit on our books and it was a chance to see a little bit of the Dominican Republic.

The resort was huge and had the feel of a TV show about it.  Golf carts rolled around and everyone had one.  It was a little surreal and a bit like the TV show of the 1960’s, The Prisoner.  After a while, you get into it.  The golf carts were a must anyhow because the beach and the marina were around 7 kilometers away.  There were polo fields and skeet shooting places, and golf courses with guys dressed up to the nines with their own caddies and looking surprisingly and shockingly bad.  It even gave me cause to think I could return here to play golf even though I’m appalling.  Unfortunately, I got lost easily and was fooled by speed bumps.  The golf cart even lost its front piece somewhere on the road and I had to get out to fix it.  It all became part of my routine.  Take advantage of the pool in the morning, a nice breakfast, a drive in the golf cart for about an hour, and then a sunset at the beach.  I didn’t take advantage of any of the main facilities mainly because I wouldn’t know how to skeet shoot, I don’t like guns, and polo was something that was way beyond my class station!

But the place was really nice.  I was traveling on my own, got used to my own company, and the service was impeccable.  The restaurant by the reception was decent although there was this irritating rule that you had to wear a collared shirt to eat there.  Really?  There were a bunch of restaurants by the marina that was great for lunch, but for dinner, at least in my golf cart, it was simply too much of a perilous thought to have a beer or glass of wine and then jump back into my golf cart to drive on dark roads with rarely any signposts.  My driver told me that David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez lived in a complex not far from here.  I could get used to it I suppose.  I was very grateful that this was my introductory immersion to the Dominican Republic.

 

Exploring the Treasures in Colmar

Colmar was such a surprise.  I had no idea what treasures were there.  We had decided to go
Colmar because the famed Unterlinden Museum had some extraordinary medieval polyptychs from the early 1300’s.  The masterpiece was the Isenheim altarpiece.  My mate loved this stuff so frankly, he dragged us all there and what a pleasant and wonderful surprise it was.  In addition to these spectacularly colorful paintings, there were a scattering of Picassos and the museum held one of the three tapestries of La Guernica.  As for the other two tapestries – one is in Japan and the other is owned by Nelson Rockefeller’s estate and is constantly out on loan.

I didn’t know that this delightful town was a spectacular assemblage of Hansel and Gretel half-timbered houses that wound around the narrow streets and along the canals that crisscrossed the city.  The colors of these quaint houses were amazing, almost surreal.  We took what essentially was a punt boat with an electric motor and silently weaved our way under low bridges and gardens that backed onto the canal.  It looked and reminded me of Little Venice in London.  How had I missed this place on my prior travels?  It’s old brick marketplace, it’s completely authentic feel, it felt, unlike any place I had ever been to.   It definitely did not feel like France but they sure spoke French!  It was one of those places that had been trading nationalities for well over a century.  It was Alsace.