Category Archives: My Favorite Places to Stay

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.

 

Do You Have Irish Roots?

Referendums

It’s been a tough few months out there.  First, the disastrous vote on Brexit by the (get this) “Brexiteers” followed by the new reign of King Trump of Orange (no relation to William of Orange).  And here I am with two passports, one British and one American, feeling that I need a stopgap.  As it turns out, the UK parliament has decidedly voted to move Brexit into motion.  What that means for me is that I face, along with every other pro-European, the uncertainty of access into the 27 other member countries of the EU.  So, whoever thought up the idea of a referendum? Well, actually we have the Swiss to blame for that.

Around the 13th century, the Swiss started it all and it still thrives there to this day.  All you need to trigger one of these things is 100,000 votes.  Well, as we know, it’s not all wine and roses.  Hitler used the device to promote his populist rantings and managed to screw the entire western world over and kill a lot of innocent people in the process.  Referendums gave him the dictatorial powers that enabled him to dominate the evil arena for over 12 years.  In the USA, there’s no national mechanism for a referendum.  Pity, as we could probably do something about Donald of Orange right now given his current standing!  Still, 24 states hold referendums and Massachusetts became the most recent state to pass legalization of marijuana laws through this device.  So, referendums are really not all that bad.  It’s just that when you need them to fail, the failsafe doesn’t work.  Brexit voters just caused the biggest upset in British politics…and what will happen to Scotland?  After all, Romans thought it was wise to keep out the Scots by building a wall!  Heard that somewhere before.  Didn’t work then. Won’t work now!

My Only Hope – Ireland

My grandmother was from County Clare and according to Irish law that entitles me to apply for citizenship.  Therefore, it’s a route back into the European sunshine of 27 states.  I knew granny would be good for something even though none of us could understand a word that she said!  So, off I have been on the path of discovery to County Clare, the tiny town of Scarriff, and the even tinier hamlet of Aughram.  I am looking at church records, the births and deaths register in Dublin, you name it, I am on it.  And I am nearly there.

To be honest, it is exciting to retrace my heritage and the journey has been a journey of discovery and revelation.  As it turns out, my grandmother was telling porkypies (lies) about her age and it seems porkypies about her name.  But I got her!  Even though the shocking news about name and age was difficult to take for my mother, the consolation for us all was that we can all get Irish passports.  Unless, of course, the Brexit vote is reversed.  Unlikely though with the way the world is shaping up at the moment.  For Americans, think laterally.  You may have relatives in Mexico or Canada and let’s face it, a Mexican or Canadian passport may be the only way you get to spend your vacations in Cancun.  Of course, you may never be allowed back to the USA!

 

 

Rome

I love Rome.

From the moment I jump in the cab, there is a sense of gradual transition as you journey into this incredibly beautiful city filled with dust, cracks, and occasional garbage bags. It’s all here.

For me it begins as we pass the Sheraton Hotel.  Out in the distance is Esposizione Universale Roma (EUR), a 1930’s modernist vision community of how Rome should be in the new world.  It didn’t really work out that well but it left us some interesting buildings and now a trendy neighborhood with parks and metro access to both the beach and the center of town.  That’s the other thing about Rome – it’s a beach city.  The Roman port of Ostia is connectible by metro from the beach resort through Acilia and trendy living areas of Rome to the Colosseum.

Then for me the real transition begins.  The first sight of any significance is the white marble Pyramid of Cestius outside Porta San Paolo gate. Then you make that turn up the Aventine Hill with the Palatine Hill facing you.  Residential palaces in pink Roman stone look down on the vast field of grass that is the Circus Maximus, one of the largest arenas in the world during roman times.

It becomes frenetic and exhausting at this point with ancient fragments popping up every second it seems.  The right turn at the bottom of the hill takes you by the Bocca della Verità (The Mouth of Truth).  Opposite from that there is a Greek temple then a Roman temple and as the roads start to move around, you start to see what looks like the Colosseum but in fact is Marcello’s amphitheater, the Teatro di Marcello. Behind that is Octavia’s portal and the Jewish ghetto.  On the right side lies the most glorious juxtaposition of stairways anywhere.  There is the very subtle Capitoline Hill Stairs, the Cordonata, right next to the severe and steep medieval stairway that leads to the Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli.  On the right hand side beyond the stairways is the slightly incongruous, but ever faithful tourist site for lost travelers, the 19th century wedding cake built to commemorate the unification of Italy in 1870 named the Vittorio Emanuele monument.

We are now in the Renaissance period with the Piazza Venezia with Trajan’s Forum on the right and I have disappeared into Rome before even my first cappuccino.

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Zurich

I had never been to Zurich before and probably will never go back.

Last year I was in Lausanne and promised myself never to return! I added it to my list of boring places – Deauville, Trouville, Biarritz. Places that I was curious about but couldn’t muster up enough energy or desire to return. Cross them off the list and add them to Cyprus and a few other places that I have been inquisitive about and will not go back to. But Zurich…I am torn.

This year we descended upon Zurich because I had heard some great things about it. A good nightlife, diverse restaurants, and an overall beautiful city. We stayed in the Stork Hotel. A fabulous location in a great part of town. Café stools outside overlooking the river made it utterly charming and even with cold weather, they provided blankets! I loved this hotel. A pure Swiss scene with beautiful houses over the Limmat River, three towering clock towers, and an extraordinary museum, the Kunsthaus Zürich, packed chock-a-block with masterpieces through the ages. There was a lot of Giacometti, in fact the whole family of Giacometis, a fair amount of Chagall, and a splash of Picasso and other xtraordinary artists. It had the lot. It was slightly overwhelming!

There were the two principal churches in Zurich with their stained glass windows rendered more spectacular by the artists whose paintings I had just seen in the museum. The walks were pleasant, the streets and squares were made with lots of cobblestones, all extraordinarily clean. Everything spilled onto the lovely river, even the Bahnhof with its underbelly filled with shops and eateries was decidedly clean and accesible. And of course there were swans. Lots of them.

This is a city with enough to do if you plan two or three days max.

On the restaurant scene, there are expensive places that have an iconic history in Zurich folklore like the Kronenhalle. The food there is pure Swiss with rösti, lots of meat, and fabulous desserts. The ambiance is extraordinary. Original artwork is all around – a Chagall here, a Miro there. Not far away there is Brasserie Lipp, one of Paris’ most reputable brasserie’s transplanted into the heart of Zurich. There are less expensive options and of course a few pubs where you can grab a beer, a burger, and watch a soccer game. The nightlife was a bit thin and daytime was a little quiet. Everything was very orderly and very Swiss. The tram system was incredibly efficient and very clean. As I walked along the narrow alleyways by the river and crossed one of the smaller bridges to get to the Church of the Grossmünster, I thought of how civilized this place is. Probably a nice place to bring the kids up. It’s a bit like Vancouver. But I really do not think I could live here!

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