Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Spring in the Western Mediterranean


For regular readers of the business blog I maintain for the HP NonStop community: http://www.itug-connection.blogspot.com/ – you will have come to recognize that travel, food, cars / bikes, and music are pretty much at the top of the list of things Margo and I like to do. While we both like to read and watch movies, our passion to explore places, enjoy “new adventures”, and to sample different food and wines will remain a key part of our lives for years to come.

While it’s still fresh in our minds, it is appropriate that the first posting for “buckle-up” (a suggestion from Margo, of course) looks back at our last trip to Europe. While we mixed a little business with vacation times and the enjoyment of the places we visited, we ran into the problem many US travelers face these days – the terrible exchange rate between US dollars and the Euro. By the end of the two weeks, we were really pleased to be back in the US where a simple Starbucks coffee purchase didn’t have us both cringe! The trip was book-ended by a weekend in Barcelona and a weekend in Rome. In between we picked up a few days in Monte Carlo.

Barcelona

Barcelona, a place we had been looking forward to exploring for a long time, really didn’t live up to the expectation. Probably not a fair assessment, as it rained the whole time we were there. It was windy. And it was unseasonably cold – London was many degrees warmer. We came across a group of young ladies at our hotel who had elected to leave London for sunny Barcelona to enjoy a weekend of “clubbing” and they were very disappointed. The architecture of the city is certainly unique, and the famous Sagrada Familia Church that had consumed the last days in the life of architect Antonio Gaudi, is a place well worth the time to visit. But it is not a quick visit inside the Church – the lines stretch for blocks and again: the ongoing work to complete the Church is based on the entrance fees charged. We took a look at these lines, and the rain coming down – and we’ve concluded that although we wanted to see it, we did not need to do it this time around!

The food wasn’t all that spectacular and wasn’t what we had been expecting – although the various air-dried hams were fantastic. After our experiences dining out in Lisbon a few years back, where we had eaten some wonderfully prepared fish dishes, we were expecting a lot better. We did find a local café, with an early morning breakfast of fried eggs with lightly grilled air-dried ham, that was pretty good and kept us sustained till late in the afternoon. The olives were plentiful and really good so we quickly adapted to the tapas that were available, and anytime we could grab a plate of olives, air-dried ham, and some cheese, made up for some of the early disappointments. And the local wine was pretty darn good.

We never did figure out the right times to dine – it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The city residents certainly live and work according to typical Spanish hours – with dinner anytime after 10:00pm. But with so many tourists, nearly all the establishments are prepared to serve dinner anytime after 6:00pm.

Another issue with dining out is the proliferation of “purse and handbag snatchers!” Picket pockets operate brazenly in many of the popular tourist haunts. It would be just another story if it was not so sad – a fellow traveler we met on the boat told us how she was forewarned about it and how she took her expensive handbag and placed it right by her feet in a local restaurant. But even so, before the desert tray arrived, it had disappeared and the authorities were not even surprised or offer any hope at all!

By the time we checked out, and headed toward Rome, we were feeling relieved to be leaving Barcelona. When compared to the other great cities of Europe, it didn’t do it for us and I suspect we have no real reason to return. Well, except to see inside the Sagrada Familia Church but we suspect the lines will still be there when we’ll return, so there may be no point. What we were looking forward to however was the time we would be spending on our cruise ship - a sailing ship that is part of Windstar Cruises and they always went out of their way to provide first class service.

Monte Carlo

Monte Carlo, on the other hand, remains a must-see city for both of us. We have visited this place a number of times, and in 2004 we were there for the F1 Grand Prix. To be fair, each time we are in Monte Carlo, this year included, the days are sunny, the temperature seems balmy, and the place looks beautiful. This year, we arrived mid-week just as the circuit was being set up, so getting around was a little difficult. You really had to tag along behind a resident and follow them through the maze. But once we have sorted out the quickest way up to the rock and to the residence of the royal family, as well as up to the hill on the other side where the casino is located, it became quite simple and easy to find our way around.

How the principality of Monaco came about is pretty interesting in itself. In the late 13th century, the ancestors of the Grimaldi family turned up at the fortress dressed as Franciscan monks and, once inside, threw aside their robes to reveal the swords! They simply, and with ease, seized the place. They have held on to it ever since and today, as you enter the grounds of the fortress, there’s a stature of a monk with a sword under his flowing robes, looking directly at the castle.

Monte Carlo is just so alive at this time of year – and we spent a couple of afternoons in Casino Square. We sat outside, on the patio of the Café du Paris that is in the Casino Square – adjacent to the famous Monte Carlo Casino and directly opposite the Hôtel de Paris. It is “the place” to watch the events of the day. It’s where you get to see the elite of Monte Carlo stopping by the hotel and where you can best see all the cars. The premises that surround the square make sure only the best cars are parked out front and it’s a veritable sensory overload for anyone who likes performance cars. Yes, we saw an Enzo Ferrari being driven rather quickly through the square, as well as a new MacLaren SLR. The prices for drinks and coffee at the Café du Paris were pretty reasonable – but don’t go across the street to the Hôtel de Paris expecting anything inexpensive. A small beer for 14 Euros seemed a tad overpriced!

But Monte Carlo is all about gambling and cars. The Café du Paris is a casino as well and we went in and lost our 10 Euros pretty quickly. To get into the Monte Carlo Casino was a completely different story. It’s a requirement to carry your passport and to be presentable – men need a jacket and tie. It was also suggested that this was mandatory to wait until after dark, if you want to experience the true feeling of the grand casino. Well, we sat and watched the parade of people entering the Casino – even after dark, and we can attest to the fact that many were less than formally attired! The Casino staff, manning the steps leading into the Casino, was turning away anyone who wore shorts – but we saw some pretty casually dressed people easily glide past the staff.

One place we loved, although it was a little more expensive – yes, the exchange rate issue again, on the rooftop of the hotel Port Palace, overlooking the Monte Carlo harbor, it provides a great lunch with one of the better views over the parked yachts and across to the rock and the castle.

We stayed longer in Monte Carlo than we expected. The ship had technical issues and couldn’t generate power but we did get to see the fireworks over Monte Carlo – for what purpose or occasion no one could tell us. But it was quite a good show – not up to Disney standard, but pretty good all the same. Finally, we set off for Civitavecchia, the port closest to Rome, for the final weekend.

Rome

Civitavecchia is a long way from Rome. It’s not a place where you simply step off a boat and hail a taxi. The fares charged can climb steeply, and be several hundred Euro’s. We went with a private operator and even though he arrived late – our boat came in a lot earlier than planned – the service was very good, and it sure was less expensive than a taxi.. There is the train station, of course, and some of the more adventurous passengers found it – but with the baggage we had, it wasn’t something we really wanted to pursue.

This was the second time we had visited Rome – and it’s growing on us. While not yet up there with our favorite cities (London and Paris, or Monte Carlo), we could easily see it developing a status close to the top of the list. The previous time, we had visited the Vatican and seen the Coliseum – so this year, we explored the city on foot. We walked through the churches, took in the Pantheon (which is stunning!), dined in the many outdoor café’s and restaurants lining Via Veneto.

We stayed at the Marriott Grand Hotel Flora – and while this may suggest a glass and brass American hotel, nothing could be further from the truth. It appears that Marriott has just taken over the management of one of Rome’s grand old hotels – the Grand Hotel Flora – and every room is uniquely furnished with antiques. For everyone who is a Marriott’s rewards member this is one place where the use of any accumulated points is well worth the effort. The rooftop breakfast area offers views of the city skyline, including the dome of St Peter’s basilica.

Apart from taking in all the local sites, we also took an afternoon bus tour out to Tivoli. The hill-side town of Tivoli is about 20 miles north-east of Rome, and has enough elevation so that you can see Rome’s skyline even through the murkiness of a late afternoon. We took this particular trip so that we could take a look at Hadrian’s 2nd century villa, as well as the Villa d’Este – the 16th century villa of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este.

It wasn’t so much the Cardinal’s residence in Tivoli that was the main attraction – although the story of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este is pretty interesting – but the gardens he created draping the cliffs behind the villa. With waterfalls, pools, hundreds of fountains, and even an entirely water-powered “Fountain of the Organ” playing tunes and producing trumpet blasts, it is the impact of this incredibly imaginative garden that is the main attraction!

The Cardinal was very ambitious and viewed himself as a potential future Pope, so the creation of this spectacle was to be a tangible projection of his influence and importance. The river Aniene wasn’t quite close enough to power all of the many garden water features so he simply demolished the town and re-routed the river, via a complex system of underground aqueducts and cisterns, and had it flow to his new villa.

Given that the Renaissance was well under way by this time, it was only appropriate that the architect he recruited, Pirro Ligorio, was keen to explore the limits of the technology of the day. Ligorio had been working nearby at the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa, a sprawling 120 acre compound built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian back in the second century. The architect had seen the role that baths, and the water that fed them, had played in the layout of that Villa. Hadrian had a number of pools, as well as an artificial grotto, that fed different bath complexes and he really liked to use them as he entertained the elite of Rome. But after Hadrian’s death, the site ceased to be of any interest to the emperors that followed, and for more than a thousand years lay in ruins buried under a mountain of earth.

It had to be quite a surprise for the renaissance architects that unearthed it, and I have to believe that they were a bit overwhelmed as they began to comprehend its complexities. I certainly was, and I spent several hours walking through the ruins. Ligorio recovered from the surprise pretty quickly though, as he then helped himself to much of the remaining marble and statues and used them to great effect decorating the Villa of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este. The completed villa and gardens, with the most innovative use of water ever seen at that time, continues to impress visitors as much as it had done nearly five hundred years before.

We really enjoyed this side trip – and for a little more info about how I applied this to the business world, you can check out the blog posting of May 23rd “Roman Holiday” on the ITUG-Connection blog site: http://itug-connection.blogspot.com/2008/05/roman-holiday.html

Returning to Rome, we continued to tour the sites the following day and stumbled across the basilica “Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri”. Turned out there was quite a connection with the villas we had only visited the day before. While Ligorio was building the Villa d’Este between 1560 and 1572, back in Rome, Michelangelo was doing something similar around the same time. Between 1563 and 1566, in the last architectural undertaking of his life, Michelangelo was transforming the old baths of Diocletian into the Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri church. What had been one of the biggest public bath complexes built by the Romans back in the 4th century, finally fell into disuse two hundred years later when the invading Goths cut off the water supply.

Following a similar story line to that of Hadrian’s villa, for more than a thousand years, it had lain in ruins before Michelangelo took on the project of turning it into a very unique and highly imaginative church. Rather ordinary on the outside, when compared to other basilicas of the time, Michelangelo mastered some pretty complex architectural spaces and came up with a structure where you can still recognize some of the elements of the former Roman baths.

Before returning home, we decided to have our last dinner in the outdoor Café du Paris on Via Veneto. Compared with the other places we had eaten at, it was a big disappointment and very expensive for the service provided. But then why would you pick a café du Paris in Rome? What were we thinking? There was a Café Roma close by!

Barcelona, Monte Carlo, and Rome – all are extremely interesting cities and well worth visiting, at least once. Sailing on the Windstar yacht, priceless! And a must do on anyone's bucket list. At a later time, I will provide additional observations about the boat we took but for now, we are both looking forward to our next adventure.