Italy and Israel
Tuesday, November 14
Miserable day in NY: a real nor’easter pouring through. All I could do was fidget all day. I went out to JFK early and settled into the business lounge. Amazingly the plane boarded on time and pulled away at 7pm. There was a wait for take-off, but we were in the air by 8:15. I took a nice six hour nap and was reasonably awake when we landed at Heathrow.
Wednesday, November 15
Snack bar breakfast, then onto the Underground at 9:15 just in time for the tag end of rush hour. Walked from Covent Garden down to the Strand Palace. Nice day. Dumped my bags and headed off to get acclimated. Wandered Covent Garden, etc. until lunch at a pleasant Italian place. Then over to Leicester Square for tickets to Dead Funny. Wandered through the National Gallery for a while. Funny that I’ve never been inside before. Surprised to find all the “great painters” but not their finest. Funny mix. Had fun, but pooped out and headed to the hotel around 4pm.
Rested, unpacked, made some tea. Had a pleasant but mediocre meal at the hotel, then ran just across the street to the theater (Savoy). Dead Funny was more dead than funny, but I had a good time all the same. First row center. Kevin McNally (remember Poldark?), Belinda Lang. Fans of English comedians of the Benny Hill ilk. The play itself was straightforward -- some nudity, some sex talk and situations, some good secondary roles and acting. Slight enough to be enjoyable when tired.
Thursday, November 16
Predictably I slept in ‘til about 9:30. Wandered down to a late breakfast, then used the hotel service to book tickets for Oliver for Friday night. I’m look forward to it. Headed off into a nice-enough morning with few plans in mind. I though I’d go over the river and see the new Globe, but I got diverted to St. Paul’s and had a great time doing the cathedral. It still doesn’t have presence to me, especially spiritually, but it’s quite a marvel. I haven’t been there in ages so I wandered the whole place and climbed to the Whispering Gallery and top-of-dome. I refuse to give into acrophobia, but ugh, I don’t like those open stairs. Nice view from the top of approaching rain. Oh well. It is however, the first time I’ve seen St. Paul’s without scaffolding.
Over, well under, the river for a stop at Southwark Cathedral, a new spot for me. Nice, more my period. Odd tidbit -- Shakespeare’s brother Edumund (who knew he had a brother?) was buried here before being moved. Nice stroll in light rain from there along the river to the Globe. Oh my, they are really doing it. It’s still under construction -- great logos of Will in a hard-hat -- and it’ll be a thrill when it’s open. Intimate, closed, wood, thatch, bare. It’ll be a test of theater to have a hit there. Back to the words.
Walked from there along to Waterloo, enjoying the promenade and the dearth of tourists. What a nice time to be here. The promenade is dandy and kept beautifully. From Waterloo on to Leicester Square for tickets to The Importance of Being Earnest. Back to the hotel for an early roast beef dinner. The play was simply delightful -- straightforward, light, fun. Barbara Leigh-Hunt was the hit as Lady Bracknell. Also Frances Gray, Hermione Gulliford, Robert Hands, Patrick Godfrey, Rosalind Knight, Martin Wimbush, and David Yelland.
Friday, November 17
Whatever is great about being here at this time of year, there’s one tiny caution -- today was lovely but the high temperature was 42°F. Up a bit earlier, breakfast at the hotel, then off to Westminster Abbey. Maybe the world’s greatest indoor cemetery. I do enjoy it. Did a thorough tour then up to the British Museum, another landmark I’ve left untouched for years. I’d seen posters for a Keats exhibit and I thought I’d check it out for Mummy. Not too extensive or impressive. To me. Had a nice lunch at the museum, checked out the manuscripts and first editions -- like the Magna Carta.
Mid afternoon I felt out of steam so I basically just strolled around the Inns of Court and Temple. Tea near Covent Garden, then back to the hotel to relax. Jim Dale in Oliver for the evening, then dinner with Jeff and Susan Volk. What a jet-setting life I lead!
Oliver was great fun. The show hasn’t changed (from the movie). Jim Dale was a pleasure. He moves so beautifully, and shows off his hands in this. Despite typically restrained response during the show, it was clear that the audience loved it -- multiple calls and enthusiasm at the end. I hung around a bit -- saw all the kiddies leave -- then went along to Claridges. Got lost on the way and was late, but Jeff and Susan were waiting and we had a fun dinner at Caprice. Such good friends. Lots of laughing, then home late.
Saturday, November 18
Warmer today and still nice. Started slow but headed first to the Tower. Mobs of tourists waiting in line so I skipped the tour and walked along the river and around St. Katharine’s Dock. I always like that area even though there’s little that I do there for shopping or eating. Felt a bit at loose ends but went back to Westminster and walked along Whitehall past the Horse Guards, through Picadilly and along to Leicester Square. Much to my surprise was able to get a matinee ticket to The Rat in the Skull. The run ends tonight so I hadn’t expected anything to be available. I saw the play years ago -- I think here with Caroline Allen. Lunch at a mediocre Italian place in Coven Garden, then on to the theater. Super. Rufus Sewall and Tony Doyle. Tough, sullen, breaking. Environmental set was harsh and effective. Really liked it.
Mass at Corpus Christi near Covent Garden. Homily about living through eras of apocalyptic horror. The Reformation was mentioned warmly as the lead example. Oh to be in England. Dinner at the hotel then packing for a moderately early take-off.
Sunday/Monday, November 19-20
Caught the 7:50 Airbus at the hotel door then straight to Heathrow. Onto the plane and an on-time take-off at 11am. Had a pleasant lunch then slept for six or seven hours. Landed at 7:50am and was through the airport and into the Hyatt car in fifteen minutes. Civilization is when things work. Nice room at the hotel, 15th floor complete with a glass breakfast nook. Napped briefly then lunched in the hotel. Strolled Orchard Road in the 92°F heat. What a switch from London! Dinner with David May at a place up on a hit with a lovely view of the city. Alaheff Mansions.
Tuesday, November 21
Citibank day. Chinese lunch followed by all afternoon conference room meeting. Wrapped up and back to the hotel by 6:30 or 7. Jeff organized a Raffles Grill dinner with a Citibanker based here named Kyle Thomas and his wife Eliza. Lots of laughs, lots of good food, lots of wine, lots of fun.
Wednesday, November 22
Not much worth mentioning about daylight hours. Full conference sessions all day fueled by in-room sandwiches. Discouraging silo mentality, my country/region/business right or wrong. Impossible to trigger discussions of inter-region cooperation or real business issues. Even Rana defending his box.
Evening though was unexpected fun. Amy Tan threw an IPB Singapore staff party at her home -- a house clearly designed for public entertaining. Pool with waterfall, putting green, built-in huge screen video and kareoke set-up, room for 60. Mingling was more fun than expected, dinner conversation with Mauricio, Jeff and others downright fun. Rana came and was almost human. (Drank too much and wouldn’t leave.) Only flaw: not back to the hotel until 1:30am.
Thursday, November 23
Jeff did the business thing today, so I hung around the hotel relaxing. Onto Singapore Air First Class around 5pm and on our way to Hong Kong. Glorious comfort and service. Jeff played helpless and let the flight attendant help with the tray, the reclining seat, the video, etc. etc. etc. Hilarious. We did however have the unwelcome excitement of an aborted landing coming into Hong Kong. We couldn’t have been 100 feet off the ground -- we were over the short runway -- when they pulled this groaning and straining 747 back up for another go-round. Apparently the wind was gusting oddly at 15+ knots and they “elected” to abort. No fun. Second approach was similarly bumpy and wobbly, but we came in safely. No one applauded.
Through the airport in normal time then hotel Mercedes to the Mandarin. I may have the “city view” of a brick wall, but hey, everything else is superb. Most check-in formalities are done in your room, jasmine tea is fetched in an insulated basket, china teapot cuddled within, and on and on. (Cross culturally note: I got the male check-in manager; Jeff was sent upstairs with the female. Wouldn’t happen that way at home.) Called Springfield with turkey greetings which was fun. Then off for not enough sleep.
Friday, November 24
Mostly bank day. Jeff hired a car so we were chauffeured happily on our round of meetings -- three stops at different offices, plus another hotel for lunch. Just as well. Cabs were no easily available. I caught up on Citimail in the am, then we met Cecilia Ho (our own pioneer in HK) for lunch at Gizini -- yes Italian -- in the Grand and grandiose Hyatt. Thoroughly enjoyable; I really liked Cecilia. Meetings with Peter Wong and Rita Hsu in the afternoon. Took a quite ferry ride to Kowloon to wallow in the view before heading back to the hotel for a nap.
Met Jeff for a drink, then 8pm dinner upstairs at Manwah. The room is gorgeous as is the view. The food and service OK. Prices obscene. Cecilia had said that the Mandarin has bee surpassed as the best service by the Shangri-La and (maybe) the Grand Hyatt. I can see why folks would say it, though I like the quieter decor and atmosphere.
Saturday, November 25
A day for sightseeing. Jeff hung around the hotel working out and being pampered so I wandered around myself. Slept late then took the Peak Tram. For the first time in any of my visits had some time to walk around. Once past the tourist stands, there’s a lovely walking path shaded by tropical trees. It winds around then joins up to Findlay Road and something else. The private homes up there are astounding. No property to speak of, but four or five stories spilling down the mountain. Entrance might be over a driveway bridge, through a security gate, then park in a modest courtyard. Door opens. Humans vanish. Patios, pools, VIEWS are all down the back, out of sight of the road. Spectacular.
Walking back I had to spend more time just gazing at that view. Is there a city or harbor view anywhere else that has the same breathtaking excitement and beauty? It is endlessly fascinating.
When I could finally tear myself away, I headed back to the hotel to refuel with lunch. The folks at the table next to me were a Malaysian women and a British male business colleague. Interesting comments: She: “Hong Kong is the worst face of Asia, the aggressive, mercantile side. I like other parts where there’s a culture.” He: “Journalists have a license to behave like irresponsible kids.”
Out again exploring. Other trips hadn’t left me with the memory of how crazily hilly Hong Kong city is. I can’t imagine how I missed it. I walked through Central and the packed traffic, then took the escalator system up to mid-levels. Wild. A roofed series of moving ramps and escalators going smack up the middle of the street at least fifteen blocks long. And an impressive gain in altitude. I was tickled pink, but everyone else was blasé and local. Going down is on foot (except during the morning rush hour) but still within the walkways. What a hoot!
Took a nap then met Jeff about 6pm and led him over to the ferry and Kowloon. We strolled to the Regent and had a drink in that glorious lobby bar with the never-ending harbor theater. The buildings and lights are as packed as ever, but we had the extra treat of the Christmas lights: whole buildings coated with neon decorations and greetings. (You COULD tire of the noise, activity, pushing, shopping, news information, overload of it all. There’s no soft spot here. Only Hong Kong would have notices on menus saying “No cigar or pipe smoking. No mobile phones.” Only Hong Kong would have CNN and the Asia Business Channel playing continuously in the ferry terminal.)
Across the street to the Peninsula for dinner at Spring Moon. I didn’t care for the decor -- it seemed a bit like an interior dining room at an aquarium -- but the food was much better than Manwah. The Peninsula is grand in the old style: huge high lobby, gracious stairs. Not glitzy. Not half bad. Back on the ferry.
Sunday, November 26
Jeff left this morning early. I went to church aiming for a 10am mass, but used outdated directions and ended up at a different church catching most of the 9:30 mass. Dumb luck. Afterwards I walked back through the zoo which is shoehorned into green terraces surrounded by bustling concrete. Walking back I cut through Battery Lane Road which was a Sunday morning discovery. Seems every Philippine maid in Hong Kong around comes to town on Sunday to spend the day with friends. They hang out in groups, sitting in clusters on the pavement with picnics. Some offer outdoor hair cutting and dyeing, some manicures, most just gossip. The street behind the hotel was closed to traffic and all you could hear was the roar of chattering female voices.
With this ringing in my ears I took the immaculate subway out to Mong Kok in Kowloon. I stepped out onto the street and followed my ears -- really -- to the Bird Market. It’s a small alley, maybe two blocks long, full of men selling, buying and admiring songbirds. Bamboo cages hang above and around. Shops are crammed with stacks of plastic cages. Everything chirping away. I plowed through feeling very conspicuously tall and female. Plenty of round-eye tourists were there, but the overwhelming flavor is Chinese male.
Subway back to the ferry where I did a slight bit of shop browsing. Ferry back to the hotel, lunch, pack, nap (bliss), left business clothes to be mailed home, checked out by 6. I had a car at 8:45 for the airport, so what’s to do but ferry back across the harbor and have dinner in the Regent “coffee shop” again facing THE VIEW. Very expensive -- as is everything in Hong Kong -- but well worth it for the space rental. Ferry back to the Mandarin, car to airport, on to Rome.
Monday, November 27
A day for getting my bearings I guess. Arrived at Rome around 7:15am after ten-plus hours of sleep. Sounds great, and is, but I’m muscle sore from not being able to move around. Through customs and immigration easily then found the train into the main Rome Termini. (ATM at airport accepting only deposits, automatic currency exchange machine worked moderately well but was fussy about crisp, clear, centered bills, train ticket booth not open, automatic ticket machines want close to exact change -- so I used Diners for a $10 ticket!. It’s not Singapore.) Nice half-hour train ride to the station, then an orderly taxi queue. Gray and rainy. Probably in the low 50s. Checked into the Columbus and was able to get straight into the room which was heaven. I took a shower and changed and felt quite human. The public areas are grand (if unheated) palazzo with marble stairs, high ceilings, wood beams, fireplaces. My room or suite is inside, but shabby. Stained blue wallpaper, chipped wooden wardrobe and door frame. Bath is shiny bright, but shower only. I’ve got an entry hall, bath on one side, room on the other.
Started out around 11am and headed straight to St. Peter’s. Oh. The square and colonnades are vast and perfect. But going inside -- I didn’t remember ANYTHING from before, not even the immensity. It’s like a hallucinogenic opera set. Empty of pews or chairs, but every tiny bit marbled, statue-d, or dressed up. The size blew me away, the style didn’t. I guess I’m more a gothic girl than a baroque buddy. First chapel on the right has the Pieta, now behind non-distorting, but smudged, glass. It’s magnificent, but isolated. Á bas the crazy who smashed it in ‘72. Such weight, so human. It is glorious. Took plenty of time to meander around. Oddities: the confessional with their posted language hours, the central underground shrine around St. Peter’s tomb, the Bernini yahoo Chair of St. Peter. (Now I find that an original chair is embedded in this fireworks display.)
Lunch at a nearby place from Fodors. Heavenly risotto with artichokes. I may have been the only patron, but it was comfortable, sit-down, tasty food. Back to St. Peter’s. Toured the treasury treasures. After intermittent sun, the rain closed in again, but I still headed up the dome. Even after practicing at St. Paul’s, it’s a hike. I cheated with an elevator to the terrace, clung to the railing inside the dome -- way too high and majestic AND the floor of the gallery slopes down -- and climbed up the sideways slanted stairs to the top. It’s easier that London because it’s all enclosed, no open grates or stairs. Dark rainy view from both the top and terrace, so I crawled back to the hotel and collapsed in a nap. Zip on TV except Italian downscale shopping networks or psychic lines. Very different selection from Hong Kong business hotels.
Dinner in the great hall at the hotel. Very nice. Four or five tables filled with clergy and me. One group of jet-lagged Eastern Orthodox priests here for a conference. Unexpectedly Rome shares a vice with Asia -- portable phones and people taking incoming calls.
Tuesday, November 28
I get the all-star tourist award today, hands (or feet) down. It was a beautiful sunny morning so I headed off after breakfast and was pounding the pavement by 9 or so. First strolling along the Tiber in a lovely hazy autumn light. Very Parisian. Then inland to the Piazza Navona through all sorts of crooked little streets. The square is very theatrical (it used to be flooded for entertainment) and it was fun to be there early while it was very quiet and clear. Only a fashion shoot on the Four Rivers fountain.
Next on to San Luigi dei Francesi which was on the list for the three Caravaggios in the chapel. Imagine these paintings in an open church screened off only by railings! From there to the Pantheon which is astounding. I love the huge, perfectly round dome and the feeling of a round church. Like EVERYTHING in Rome, partially screened off for restoration. (Also homeless sleeping on the porch.)
Around the corner to Santa Maria sopra Minerva which is actually super-ornamented gothic. (Yes I like it, but couldn’t we scrape off most of the paint?) Here they’ve got two Michelangelo statues edited by later hands, but somehow they still stand out. Through a maze of streets a brief stop at Sant’Ignazio, then on to the Spanish Steps -- closed for restoration. Gee the plastic wrap really does wonders. Took the side tour through the Keats and Shelley house. Got quite intrigued by the whole tribe of Mummy’s “pals” even if some of them weren’t quite nice.
OK amateurs, feeling tired? It’s only noon and we have miles to go yet. Shake a leg.
In the interests of speed I had a notably mediocre lunch at MacDonalds right on the Piazza di Spagna. In Rome they come with a pastry bar out front and marble steps up to Big Mac-land. Food dreadful. Off again looking for Bernini’s St. Theresa in Ecstasy, but got skunked. The church is open am-1pm and 4:30-7:30. Rats. Long walk then down to the Forum and Coliseum. A few, very few, faint feelings of recollection here. The Coliseum is great because so much is relatively intact. Gives one pause even in our day of hyper-stadiums. Then wandered thoroughly through the Forum. Again a few flashes of memory. What was brand new though was the immensity of the Basilica of Constantine and Maxentius. Huge rounded vaults and all that’s left are the side aisles. The nave is long gone.
I was feeling a bit pooped (aren’t you gentle reader?) but was blessed with one of those bolts of traveling serendipity. I was meandering up the hill behind the Victor Emmanuel monument thinking only to get a long shot of the Forum, when I stepped into an exquisite square and thought, “I wonder if I’ve found something?” Well yes. I’d stumbled into Piazza del Campidoglio designed by Michelangelo. My next thought was “this is the model for Lincoln Center” (which I think is true). Then I dug out the guidebook and got my bearings. Magical place. Walked all around and finally down the majestic ramp at the front with great reluctance. Couldn’t resist climbing back up again to see Santa Maria d’Aracoeli where my slog was nicely rewarded with an organ rehearsal.
Tuckered out, but too stubborn to take a cab. I walked home to relax with a shower and feet-up time before dinner at the early Roman hour of 7:45.
Wednesday, November 29
Only slightly less hectic day. Started off in the Vatican museum. Wow. I can’t say much. The Raphael rooms, the library, the paintings, Da Vinci and all. I was awed by the vastness of it all. Then I came to the Sistine Chapel and basically forgot everything else. After the cleaning the colors and figures are so clear even from ‘way below that they look as if they’d been painted yesterday. II was most taken with the Last Judgment wall. I guess I’ve overlooked it for the ceiling panels. It’s quite upsetting -- all sorts of graphic detail and no sympathy. Even with people milling about, you can sit as long as you like, so I studied carefully for quite some time (for me).
Early lunch then grubby subway to St. John Lateran. Huge church, but the highlight is the towering high altar with relics of Saints Peter and Paul. That and the glittering apse. Long walk then to St. Peter in Vincoli only to find it closed for mid-day break. Pushed on to Santa Maria Maggiore which was disappointing, very dark and did nothing for me.
Subway to Piazza di Spagna and tried to get train tickets at AMEX. Sorry, computer down. Things really don’t work reliably here. Recognizing signs of exhaustion and crankiness, I sopped for tea and scones at Babington’s Tea Rooms. The perfect break. Home via Trevi Fountain and back through Piazza Navona, much tattier late in the day with hanging kids and hawkers. Back along the river in a hazy sunset light to a welcome nap.
Thursday, November 30
Observations about traveling solo: it’s wonderful to have a hotel restaurant that’s beautiful in setting, friendly and gracious in service, and adequate in food. At night when I’m unconscious with exhaustion, it’s divine to go down the marble stairs and seat myself in the baronial dining hall. Another odd tidbit: I hate being cold, desperately, penetratingly cold at odd times. I know it’s jet lag, off-cycle body temperature and all that, but it’s exhausting. The guidebook is smack on target about how to cross a street in Rome: fix the driver with a determined glare and stride ahead steadily. Dealing with the buzzing Vespas is the same theory, but more problematic. They will chase you along the sidewalk and they do travel in swarms.
Took a much easier day. First went through the Castel Sant’Angelo. My favorite yet again. First the long curving ramp, then the straight arrow interior stair. Then to come out into gracious palazzo courtyards, rooms, and terraces with views to die for. It’s special.
On to Santa Maria del Popolo via a lovely golden, leaf-kicking walk along the river. With my luck, there was a funeral going on, so I climbed up to admire the view from a terrace in the Pincio park. Back down to the church, now quiet, to admire the Caravaggio, “Martyrdom of St. Peter”. Worth the coins to supply the light meter. Worth the wait.
On to AMEX to book my Venice train tickets, easy today, the system was up. Then subway back to the Vatican and lunch at a place just outside the walls. Another visit to St. Peter’s. They were setting up chairs so at first the vastness was tamed a bit. Not so when I walked around. Had a lovely browse, then called it an early day and went back to the hotel around 3pm to be lazy.
Friday, December 1
After breakfast took a stroll up to St. Peter’s to mail postcards and visit until train time. Nice to be there early. I was alone with the Pieta, disturbed only by a nice guy with a floor-polishing zamboni machine. There’s some “do” coming up, whether a special mass or preparations for Christmas. They were still at work filling the nave with packed rows of molded plastic chairs. I’m glad I saw it empty earlier. Back to the hotel by 10am, then cab to the train station.
Oh I love trains, even when they’re an hour late. The station is a real terminal with the trains lining up in the shed at the end of the line. My carriage has plush seats facing 2x1 across with lift-out tables between. Very civilized. Hunky Italian opposite me taking calls on his mobile and reading movie magazines. Took lunch in the dining car which was expensive (~$34) but cool. Real linen, real china, real waiters. Same seating set-up which I shared with a Japanese couple. (Actually, Japanese tourists are in the majority at the moment. Americans -- and hordes in general -- are few and far between.) Asti spumante, spaghetti, chicken (or “swine”!), cheese, tea. Just fine. Country going by is surprisingly not built-up. A lot of Agriculture. Cows. Sheep(s). It seems that overpopulation is not Italy’s problem. I wonder if they’re all cramming into the cities? Rome doesn’t have that flavor, but a zillion years ago, Naples did. Who knows.
Funny. Long tunnel going out of Firenze. On one side clear sun and surprisingly green fields fringed by bare brown trees. On the other side, gray misty overcast. Dreary and a bit dingy. Quite a continental divide. Met two (Latin) American women from Florida on the train, Nellie and Muriel. Said they worked for Chase, but Nellie’s bag had a Citibank business card luggage tag. Wouldn’t it be a hoot if she’s with IPB?
Venice. Haven’t died. Have gone to heaven.
Asked directions at the train station then boarded vaparetto #1 to San Marco, Stop 15. Oh yes. Clearly commuting time. Folks bustling on and off in purely routine fashion. Dark, impressive palazzo entrances were eye-catching. Landing at San Marco is clearly the center of the universe: Harry’s on the corner, Gucci just up the block. Hotel easy to find, maybe 4 blocks along clean, main passages -- and charming. I ended up in a double room thanks to Maritz’s fumbling, but it’s a lovely room and a real bed. Wallpaper, matching fancy Venetian glass light fixtures, wardrobes and side furniture a medium grainy finish circa before my time. Bath tile and has a (short) tub. Can’t wait for a soak.
Dinner at a hotel-recommended hostaria was great. Friendly, mostly tourists, but seeming like a place locals would come. (dream on!) Walk back via Piazza San Marco. I’m going to like this.
Saturday, December 2
What a wonderful city to roam in. That’s all I did today, roam around. Breakfast at the hotel, then I strolled out through San Marco. Fabulous with few people around. I meant to tour the church and palace, but was side-tracked into walking along the quay as far as the Arsenal. Gondolas, men fishing, street hawkers, dog walkers, pigeons. Back again, I did the basilica which seemed dark and dull after the high splendors of Rome. I wandered along and eventually found the vegetable and street market around Rialto bridge. Bustling. Real people doing real shopping. Tourists doing the usual. From there meandered along to Accademia and beyond to Santa Maria della Salute. Glorious view across the mouth of the Grand Canal to the sweep of that waterfront, boats of all sorts crisscrossing, sunlight warming the palazzos and sparkling on the water, San Marco and the Doge’s palace. Hypnotic. As usual the water held me and I walked along a great Promenade della Zattere as far as the real port where the big ferries and boats dock. Back via Accademia to lunch and back to the hotel for a breather.
Later vaporetto to Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari -- finally a plain Gothic-y church. Notable for me for two things: Titian’s grave (under restoration) and his Assumption over the main altar, framed by the marble altar screen. So full of swirling life and excitement. Special to see it live.
Long walk home and feeling drained. Hung out watching CNN before going out for a pleasant, so-so dinner around the corner. Now back watching Dr. Zhivago in Italian and forcing myself to stay up until 10pm.
Sunday, December 3
I’m glad I planned a leisurely stay here; I’m just loving Venice. If there’s any flaw at all it’s that it could be a few degrees warmer. I’d guess the high has hovered in the low 40s and that gets chilly when you’re spending the whole day outside touring. After breakfast went to mass at San Moisé at the end of the street. (You come out of the cozy Flora lobby with plush wallpaper and blue velvet chairs, along a long, bare, concrete passageway, and into the wider, but enclosed tunnel of the main “street.” Paving blocks, shops at ground level, solid 4-story buildings on either side, windows and all, a few people dressed for city-life, crisp air. Sunlight up above, but not yet hitting the street.
Mass had its funny moments. I was a few minutes early and sat on the wooden pew eyeing the polished wood kneeler with some dismay. On old man was bundled in the corner all in black, a fake fur plush hat, black rumpled cardigan as the top of many dusky layers. He turned out, of course, to be the priest. He seemed forceful and colorful, but all in Italian, so how can I know? Thanks to a missal I was able to translate most of the mass into simultaneous English. He seemed to cut the first two readings -- is that allowed? -- for which I was grateful. There was no heat and admiring my breath steaming into the sanctuary did nothing to help me think warm. The backdrop to the altar was a curious painting with collage effects of Moses getting the ten commandments at Mt. Sinai. Figures painted, but the mountain rocks were in 3D relief and dusted, I’m sure, with snow. (Probably mildew, but the illusion was powerful.)
On, teeth chattering, to tour the Doge’s Palace. Surprisingly big and ornate gold decorated state rooms. In ignorance I’d been thinking much smaller and darker. Very grand. Seriously chilly by now so I stopped into Cafe Florian for tea. Plush banquettes lining smallish rooms, solidly decorated with painted panels between smoky mirrors. Little marble tables. Everyone sitting side-by-side sipping coffee and reading papers cozily. Very fin-du-siecle. Six dollar pot of tea and worth it.
Took the vaporetto over to San Giorgio Maggiore church and monastery on the island in the harbor. Mass going on so I only got a glimpse of a very attractive, light, simpler interior. Walked around admiring the boats in the marina and admiring the amazing view of San Marco. It seems a perfect spot for a monastery, an isolated bit of calm, counter balancing the global commerce just over the way. Even if the church is grand, it seems to float when seen from across the lagoon. Back to the commercial world with a ride through the Arsenale -- must have been a staggering shipyard -- and on to Murano. I’m glad I went on a Sunday (Thanks for the suggestion Jeff!). It’s all glass shops and “factories” and is probably ghastly and overrun on a summer weekend. Instead it was quiet, half the shops and most factories closed, and the island looking cheery and down to earth.
Walked down to SS Maria e Donato to admire and ran into a funeral. I’m doomed (sorry) to be frustrated by church timetables. Stopped for a nice lunch then browsed the shops to find one that wasn’t too awful -- bought Christmas necklaces, etc. -- and another that specialized in the blown glass pens. Took the long vaporetto route back from mid-Murano, across the lagoon, under the Ponte Tre Archi, past the ghetto, past the train station, then through an industrial area (cars allowed), out into the Canale della Guidecca, past the maritime terminals, and back to San Marco. It was probably an hour dock-to-dock but I loved it as a grand tour. The last leg is how ships would have approached the city in the past, and an eye-popping entry it must have been. My jaded and sophisticated jaw was hanging open. What would a sailor from the twigs have thought of this immense wealth lining the canals? Dinner near La Fenice (the opera house) then home.
Monday, December 4
Woke up to another clear nice day. Seems a bit warmer. I checked at midday and got an official reading of 44°F. Wonder how cold the last days really have been. First took the vaporetto to the Accademia to admire the stunning collection of paintings. Mostly old, mostly religious subjects. I found the scale manageable and enjoyed it more than many museums. From there walked randomly ending up in San Marco where I took in the view from the top of the campanile. (Easy elevator ride up.) More strolling then a truly enjoyable lunch near the Rialto Bridge at the cozy Trattoria Antica Carbona. Dark woods, enormous (seat ten) booths lining the side, tables down the center. Cordial service. Very homey.
Stopped by the hotel to re-group, then boated back to the Rialto to the post office for stamps. The central PO courtyard is a unadorned, 3-story atrium lined with arcades and topped with a clear skylight. A converted palazzo. All very dark and foreboding in the late afternoon. Along the way I availed myself of the short cut offered by the traghettos -- short haul, local gondolas shuttling across the Grand Canal. A real hoot. You ride them commuter style, standing up. While not perfectly steady, it’s easier than standing no hands on the subway. Two gondoliers. They all use thin bladed oars and don’t seem to work for a rhythmic stroke, it’s more steady skimming. I guess for everyday work over time pure speed and brute force aren’t sustainable. Tea at Florians again.
Assorted practicalities of Venice: * Some (maybe 3) bridges have wheelchair lifts built into the railings. Wonder if they work? Venice is not remotely friendly to the “physically challenged.” * Venice is super easy to get around -- almost every corner has arrows to San Marco or the Rialto or the train station -- but has the worst transit map ever. Why on earth do they show the land areas as blue and the water white? * Deliveries come often by handcarts with extra wheeled prongs in the front that help lever the cart up stairs and bridges. * The population is very homogeneous. The only blacks I’ve see sell, very genteel, fake Vuitton bags on the street at night. Very organized and neat. * Outdoor cafes by the Grand Canal serve outside even now, with customers huddled around heaters. * The vaporetto workers vary. A few are noticeably graceful, handling the ropes at each landing with an consistent, patterned, efficient routine; no wasted moves, very elegant.
Dinner tonight at Taverna La Fenice, nice as can be. It’s apparently the notable hangout across the street from the opera house. The high class local. I could happily be back someday eating risotto and going on to the opera.
Tuesday, December 5
Breakfasted, then went out for an hour or so before leaving. Went over to Santa Maria della Salute and this time got inside. It’s a round plan, very light with chapels around the outside, the main altar being larger. Priest was just starting mass to a congregation of one woman. Leaving, I walked around the point again with that exhilarating view. Gray overcast coming and going, the water an opaque greenish blue. Back to San Marco for a quick look around. Must have been a high tide or something this morning. Water was lapping over the steps of San Marco and the docked gondolas were all riding very high. Easy to imagine how bad floods could be. Then to the hotel to check out. The clerk -- not Italian, but a Commonwealth type -- said my accent was British. Back on the vaporetto for the full trip along the Grand Canal back to the train station. Many locals going about their business. No wonder everyone uses the wheeled carts. Many ladies going to the food market near the Rialto. The routine is to get off the vaporetto above Rialto bridge then traghetto across to the market.
Miscellaneous thought: I never saw a movie theater in Venice. Fireboats though go bombing along with sirens, firemen clustered around the driver, belching diesel smoke, other boats pulling out of the way. Made me notice how quiet Venice is. Many motorboats, of course, but no sirens, no horns, no yelping. Nice how comfortable I’ve felt getting around Venice. Whole areas however that I didn’t get to explore. Next time.
Pleasant train trip, on time this time. Back in Rome to spitting raindrops. Everything hectic and city-paced, but comfortably familiar. No question I’m more in gear now. Swarms of bats or birds -- I think bats -- doing whirlies above the train station. At first I though it was smoke, dark diesel smoke, but then the whole swarm turned on edge and changed color, getting thin. Thousands and thousands. Nice show while waiting in the taxi queue. Back at the Columbus I was recognized and got a better room, a double with tub and much less worn. It is on the front though so I’ll get to test whether the double windows are enough to keep out Rome noise. (The windows worked.) Dinner at the hotel. I must describe the dining room here. Colder than ever; there’s no heat to be seen or heard or found in the hotel. I went down to dinner at 8pm -- in solitary splendor -- and had to ward off the strong suspicion that there was an open window lurking behind the velvet curtains. Did notice Italians in the adjoining lounge sitting over drinks while wearing fur coats.
Wednesday, December 6
When I called El Al to reconfirm my flight I found that the 12:30 flight had turned into a 4:45 departure. Beats me, but I ended up an extra morning in Rome. Put it to use by walking to the Capitoline Museums. Weather warmer than I’ve come to expect. The museums were fine with the expected highlights: Marcus Aurelius on horseback, Dying Gaul, Romulus and the she wolf, and the Tintorettos. I had to fly through in just an hour or so, but enjoyed thoroughly.
Back along the Tiber to the hotel to pack and check out. Into a cab at noon and through the Roman midday traffic to Stazione Termini and onto the train. At the airport around 2pm, then 1/2 hour or more of questioning by El Al security. It is clear that a single American female traveling alone in business class does NOT fit their safety expectations. People behind me were cleared through one after another. Two security types kept me: Who paid for the ticket? Why go to Israel? Why not fly direct from Hong Kong? Where did I stay? Do I have the receipt? Why did I keep the hotel receipt? why that hotel? Who’ll pay for the business ticket (combo)? How do I know that? Do I have any documentation of my business meetings? On and on and on and on. Finally cleared through with some apologies and sent to the business lounge for a drink and Larry King on CNN.
Finally on the narrow 757 which looks pretty grubby as equipment. Business class is a front cabin with coach seating, but the middle seat empty. Due for refurbishing. The safety video though was unexpectedly brilliant. It was a genuine Pink Panther cartoon with the PP going through all of the standard safety drill -- seat belts, life vests, oxygen. Who on earth would have expected humor from El Al? Dull flight but easy arrival in Jerusalem. Bank and information right by baggage claim so I had money and was directed to the shared taxi vans outside. For US$10 you get airport to door service. Not half bad. One very nice couple, American newly transplanted here from Cleveland, made conversation and gave me a bunch of touring ideas. The hotel was pretty much asleep when I can in around 11pm. It’s an ex-Sheraton now run privately. Big room, nice layout, CNN and a huge tub. Step one, hot bath. Step two, sleep.
Thursday, December 7
Mixed day. Slept in then asking for touring advice from the concierge. Booked Masada trip for Saturday, and Old City/Bethlehem for tomorrow. No question that I feel a bit intimidated here. Taxi to Israel Museum where the Shrine of the Book is superb. It’s an architectural gem with a flying saucer shape inspired by the lids of the jars in which the Dead Sea scrolls were found. Inside there’s a “tunnel” leading to a central chamber with one of the scrolls (actually a facsimile) in a round case raised in the center. Scroll fragments are mounted in cases around the perimeter. Down steep curving stone steps is a “cave” underneath the central display where baskets, sandals, dishes, pots from the same find are displayed. These gave me that catch in the breath of recognizing real people using these possessions. For example, a leather pouch in which some documents were found. All of a sudden there was a real woman in my mind with a waist pack not unlike my own.
Above ground again I spent too much time in the rest of the museum. The exhibits on 18th and 19th century Jewish life around the world were fascinating. From there I went next door to the Bibleland Museum recommended highly by the folks in the taxi last night. The interesting difference is that artifacts from different (biblical) countries but the same era were displayed together so you could see things across cultures. Otherwise a straight museum.
Took a cab to the King David Hotel for a pleasant lunch looking out at the empty swimming pool. The hotel is quite grand, but the service didn’t do better than OK. Then screwed up my courage and headed for the Old City. No one seems to walk here so it felt rather lonely hiking across the couple of blocks of empty space around the walls. Entered through the Jaffa Gate and was immediately immersed in a teeming bazaar. Old streets, small shops, people at you from every side. (Madam. Madam. Just look Madam. Free to look. This is the place. What you looking for Madam. Smile for me Madam.) I was surprised to find much of the bazaar covered and many streets stepped up and down hills. “Streets” is a misnomer. Most are alley-sized, may turn into staircases, and shouldn’t be for vehicular traffic. Not too many tourists around and I felt somewhat isolated, more than conspicuous. By the time I’d marched eyes-front to the far end (beginning really) of the Via Dolorosa, I realized that it’s all a non-threatening tourist scene full of the usual hassle.
It’s murder to find one’s way around. Nothing much is marked, major sites look like empty doorways, and shop signs and overflow drown out any chance of getting your bearings. I slowed down a bit on the way back and had better lunch. Walked the Via Dolorosa and into the Jewish Quarter. It’s like crossing an invisible border into a neater, more sophisticated world. The shops don’t spill out into the street, but stay behind their glass doors and no one is nagging at you. Well, potential tour guides are hustling, but no one from the shops.
As proof of the muddle, it took me three tries with my finger on the right spot of a detailed and accurate map to find the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which is sort of a big deal site. Since there’s no open area, it’s just down another alley of shops into a small courtyard and through a church door. There’s never any long view of a building or landmark. Once inside I realized that it’s less a church than a jumbled bazaar of chapels, all dark, and mostly in the Eastern style of mosaics and hanging lamps. Nothing marked. Nothing lighted. No natural sites are visible. Everything from the crucifixion site to the tomb is enclosed, covered, built up and enshrined. There’s a constant stream of people crowding through with cameras and flash bulbs, a few are clearly moved, most are plowing through a tour. There doesn’t seem to be any room for a spot of quiet or prayer. The tomb itself has an antechamber then you duck through a low doorway into a cave space maybe 6’x4’ with candles and altar. Only a handful of people can get in at once among the lamps and candles. Outside again it’s all surrounded by an ornate 19th century altar.
The crucifixion site is two chapels, one Catholic, one Greek. They’re up a stair just inside the church entrance. The Catholic chapel has a straightforward mosaic of Christ being nailed to the cross, the Greek one is maybe 10’ away draped with lamps. It’s startling that all of these sites -- thought to be reasonably verified -- are within yards of each and all under one roof.
Back out through the bazaar and across the buffer zone back to the hotel. Mediocre dinner. The “nice” hotel restaurant is being renovated. I’m struggling with surprise that all the religious sites are so wrapped in shrine-making, sectarian rifts, and bazaar commercialism. (I know that the bazaar flavor is millennia old and authentic, but somehow Kodak signs, Ninja turtles, and blaring music take it all to a new level.) Also everyone is on the make: cab drivers, waiters, would-be guides, shop touts. Everyone has a come on and a hustle. It’s simply endemic.
Friday, December 8
A switch in tone today. Joined an Egged Tour group to do Bethlehem and the Old City. It was a good idea; I’d never have covered the same ground solo. The group was largish, 25 or so, but quiet and well behaved. Pick up at the hotel then the usual fumbling around at the office to get people counted off and onto the right busses. First headed to Bethlehem with a brief detour to a promenade overlooking Jerusalem. Cloudy weather and some haze dimmed the view a bit, but the panorama was stunning. Walled city, golden dome, new city built around, Mount of Olives, etc. The big view also reminded my that we’re in the middle of very hilly terrain.
Bethlehem is due to be turned over to Palestinian control next week, but aside from a road checkpoint and concrete and machine gun security around Rachel’s tomb, it seemed an ordinary place. Clearly though the tour guides didn’t want us walking around much. The Church of the Nativity is on Manger Square, though a better name might be Market and Bus Square. All in the golden limestone that seems to be used universally. Greek run church and grotto. Catholic church of St. Catherine attached. Coming back, some of the new towns -- settlements -- were pointed out and very pleasant they looked. In my provincial ignorance, I’d overlooked the idea that the “West Bank” surrounds Jerusalem and that the open space I’d crossed yesterday was the wall that divided Jerusalem until ‘67. Seen from the tourist’s perspective, it can all look very tame and quiet.
On to the Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem. Moving. The “museum” is simple with photos and explanations making up the bulk of the displays. Too much to absorb in only an hour or so. There’s a lovely walk lined with trees planted in memory of the “righteous” non-Jews who helped. Oskar Schindler is now the famous name singled out along this allée. The most moving though was the memorial to the 1.5 million children killed. There’s a separate low building that you enter through a hallway tunnel. You’re then walked along ramps into darkness to be confronted by a montage of twenty or so photographs of children. Then, in absolute darkness, you feel you’re way along walkways that lead around a room lined with mirrors reflecting infinite thousands of candles above, around, beside and below you. Staggering.
Lunch as a group, then on to the Old City entering this time through the Zion Gate into the Jewish Quarter. It’s clearer now that much of this section at least is newly rebuilt in the last 25 years. The entire area in front of the Western Wall used to be houses right up to the wall. Now it’s an enormous square with security gates, airport style, at each entry point. Access to the wall is segregated, men on the left, women on the right. (I did notice one small, unhappy boy being handed over the divider to mom.)
On through the Old City which was infinitely quieter and tamer on Friday with Moslem shops closed and the Jewish Sabbath beginning. (One fellow tourist who’d been here twenty years ago described the bazaar today as “gentrified.”) We followed the Via Dolorosa along to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where we caught up with the Franciscans Friday procession. The various guardians were a bit impatient with us although in general neither the church nor the city was crowded. I felt less lost the second time, but most of my first impressions stand. Back to the hotel for an elaborate mediocre dinner with Sabbath menu and arrangements This may be a secular country, in many ways aggressively so, but it’s pure Jewish in the Sabbath shutdown. No buses, cabs, restaurants. Everything shuts and goes on special rules.
Saturday, December 9
Fun day outside the city. Another group tour, this time to Masada. Fascinating to drive five miles out of town and hit empty desert. The roads, old and new, follow valleys heading always downhill past sea level and on down to the Dead Sea. Again my ignorance was exposed by my surprise at finding the Jericho and the Jordan River are so close. Driving it’s a half hour or so. Maybe. Quite imaginable on foot. Passed Qumran and the cliffs along the Dead Sea then arrived at Masada. Hazy view, but glorious day, maybe in the mid-70s. We took the cable car up, then spend a good hour and more wandering through the site. The ruins are extensive enough and there’s enough restoration work to give a good sense of the look and size of the community and fortress. Looking down you can clearly see the seven Roman camps surrounding the mountain and maintaining the siege.
Then on to the “spa” at Ein Gedi. Much more like a public beach facility. First hot baths with high sulfur, then a full sliming with smooth black mud. Those who indulged turned magically into comic aboriginal figures. (Tour guide Joseph was on the make: offering a massage in the hot tub, help with the mud, show me the Dead Sea, help me swim, etc. etc. etc. Give it a rest!) Then a long walk to the beach which lets the mud dry, and finally a proper swim in the sea itself. Floating is truly extreme, but the promise of being able to lie back reading is a tad exaggerated. Finally showered off everything and drove quiet and drowsy back to Jerusalem.
Sunday, December 10
Nice last day. I simply can’t believe that I’ve been on the road for a month. I’m still ready to go. Chatted over breakfast with some nice folks from California. Then headed out and first walked along the wall of the Old City from Jaffa Gate around to Dung Gate. I was early enough to be able to be all alone along the walls. No Romans, no crusaders, Turks, Brits, or Arabs sighted on my watch. Entered the city through the Western Wall square then went up from there (not always allowed) to the Dome of the Rock. Very different from the rest of the Old City. Open space, quiet. Usual hassle of leaving shoes and bags outside, but the inside of the Dome is mesmerizing. The center really is the rock, the inside of the dome is decorated hypnotically, and the light comes in through the pierced windows that are invisible from the outside.
Out through Lion Gate to the Mount of Olives. First in the bottom of the valley is the Tomb of the Virgin. Maybe the most striking church. Greek. You enter from a sunken courtyard and immediately go down forty wide marble steps in lamp-hung dimness. The actual tomb and chapel are at the bottom to the side. Next door is the cave of Gethsemane where the disciples slept. It’s really a cave, now a simple chapel run by the Franciscans. I was alone and its was almost the first chance for peace and quiet. On to the new church and garden of Gethsemane, then a climb up the Mount, a very steep climb, but stupendous views back to the Old City.
Back through the city for a reviving lunch at the King David. Later I went back to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where I’d been told there’d be Mass at 4pm. (Actually, the folks at the hotel hadn’t a clue about masses; they referred me to the “This Week in Jerusalem newspaper for schedules.) It turned out instead to be the Stations of the Cross followed by Benediction. All in Latin. It was very moving to be part of the candle-lit procession around this church, over the true locations. One extraneous observation though: The processions are scheduled with precision. As we were halfway through, bells rang in the distance and a Greek procession began working around the church behind us. Everything booked and coordinated. All the monks promptly checked their watches.
Back to the hotel to eat, pack then get up at 4:14am for a cab to the airport and an uneventful trip home. One funny note, someone opened the outside pocket on my suitcase and stole the contents: a copy of Brothers Karamozov and a paperback bible. Serves them right!!
Hotel Flora Dining Room
Hard floor, dark marble chips
Dark, curvy furniture, open chair backs
White and flowered English bone china
Red velvet upholstery
Dark wood walls to waist-high
Red on cream flocked wallpaper
Double glass doors with diamond/square panes
Red velvet curtains with white ruffled liner
Dark wood serving sideboard with mirror
Venetian glass wall scones and chandelier, pink and green flowers
Cream ceiling with pink and white wavy moldings at edge
Venetian gondolier and masque prints, red mats, dull gold thin frame
4 or 5 additional tables in side room
Hotel Columbus Dining Room
Near square, boxy room
Two and 1/2 stories high
Walls golden yellow
Ceiling dark wood beams, some carving
Floor brick red tile
Serving table at far side, center of room empty, tables at ends
Fireplace at far end always with small fire behind screen
Table linens gold with white under-layer
Thick 18” walls
Windows double height with white sheers, red velvet curtains hung simply from rod
Tables round, mostly set for four
Four or five monumental, dark paintings
Chairs upright wood with red velvet seat cushion
Wooden high seat behind serving table at far side
China and furniture marked with Crusader cross
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