Ode to Rome

When it’s your umpteenth time in Rome, and you have already seen all tier 1 sites on your previous trips, there is still plenty of tier 2 sites for you to see here.
Mind you, tier 2 in Rome would easily qualify as tier 1 anywhere else in the world.  This city is so full of wondrously beautiful monuments and museums, it could easily fill the list on tier 3 and 4, and maybe even tier 5.
Rome is a gracefully aging aristocrat. It is distinctly male; handsome despite but also because of his age, elegantly dressed and decidedly noble. Its color is honeyed. The hues of terra cotta are subdued and gentle on the eye. It’s a portrait in sepia.
No effort is made to upkeep the facades; the paint is peeling, the marble is cracking, the plaster is chipped, and the statures are covered with grey soot. Yet it doesn’t take away but adds to the painting that is Rome.
Only the Trevi fountain has been thoroughly cleaned and restored to its original glory by the Fendi family. I thought it was beautiful before; but now, it is blindingly resplendent in its dazzling whiteness.
Rome is made up by a mishmash of palazzos, churches, piazzas, and grand houses seemingly thrown together with complete disregard of any city-planning.  No straight lines here, no Haussmann-type boulevards.  It is laid out more like a small medieval town than the great metropolis it is. Yet somehow, this complete mishmash is crazily artistic.  It’s like a piece of art that looks random but that was actually carefully designed by a genius to be this way. Only it wasn’t. It just happened naturally, or at the whim of each next builder. But since each next builder clearly had a refined taste, each next building complemented the previous setup rather than going against it.
There are more stunning facades on a single Roman street than there are in any given city, which makes the city itself an open air museum.
Our tier 2 visits included two magnificent palace-museums, Palazzo Colonna and Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, two privately owned opulent residences whose aristocratic owners still live on the premises while they open the doors to their palatial public spaces and art galleries to visitors.  Most cities  can’t boast the likes of such palaces and such art collections in their major museums.
The food scene is also becoming more exciting. Some brave chefs are daring to step away from the traditional. We had an outstanding meal at Retrobottega – a take on the classical Italian fare with a decidedly modern twist.
One sorrowful observation: you don’t see fashionable people here anymore. Gone are the high heals and fancy dresses. Men in smart suits are a rare sight. Jeans, sneakers, and teeshirts prevail. Not even fine designer and well-fitted items, but well-worn cheap clothes and athletic sneakers. How sad!

 

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Banff, Lake Louise, Columbia Icefield, and the Road to Jasper

I must be spoiled rotten but I wasn’t in awe of Banff.  Yes, it’s got pretty mountains and lakes, but nothing warranting a voyage this far from home.  Nature lovers will most likely disagree, but imho, it’s not much different from the Alps or some other mountainous regions.  The only awesome panorama was from the deck of Banff Spring Hotel.  Mind you, the area is very pretty but not unique.  I’ve already seen it (and better) in Bariloche.

Lake Louise, on the other hand, is one of the prettiest lakes I’d ever seen.  Maybe the prettiest.  It’s just magical!  Sadly, it’s overrun with busloads of Chinese tourists.  The noisy crowds ruin the majestic serenity of the place, and there is nowhere to hide from them.

Columbia Icefield is another place mobbed with busloads of tourists from every country (mostly Chinese, though).  The tourists are allowed to walk at the foot of the glacier on a patch of ice staked by flags, where 6 busloads  of tourists at the time are deposited en masse every 20 minutes.  If you look at this patch from the bus, you will see a congested herd of humans stomping the ice, making loud noises, and taking selfies.  Here too, the majesty and serenity of the place is painfully compromised.

The road to Jasper was pretty: going through the woods with mountains and occasional lakes on both sides.  But honestly, I’ve seen better in Japan, on the Amalfi Coast, and in our own route connecting Zion and Bryce National parks.

Sorry guys, I know I am a brat!

Calgary, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, and Waterton.

With some cities, it’s love at first sight; others grow on you, and yet others leave you cold. Calgary is the latter. It is tidy and orderly; undoubtedly offering a comfortable lifestyle, but with no personality. Insipid and bland, it boasts no cutting edge architecture nor ancient ruins to stir up your emotions. The buildings are plain and functional, the streets are clean, the people ain’t no fashion forwarders. The only radical side is manifested in numerous tattoos and some wacky-colored hair. Most of the population, though, and the city itself are utterly boring and forgettable.
The ride to Waterton was just as forgettable save for the stop at the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump: a museum on the site where the tribe of the native people called Blackfoot used to hunt bisons, running them off the cliff. The site is run by the members of the Blackfoot nation. One stately old man named Little Leaf welcomed us in, and another man, young and handsome, bearing a prosaic name of William, gave us a tour. William would not look out of place in full feathered regalia, riding a hoarse to a battle. Hollywood should really seek him out. Chingachgook he was; the Big Snake incarnate. A handsome Indian brave with a big smile and dimples. I was smitten.
Waterton is a tiny resort town at the feet of the Rockies. It sits on a pretty lake and has a nice backdrop of the mountains. The best view is from the most adorable Prince of Whales Hotel – a structure out of a Russian fairytale. A terem in the heart of Canada. As behooves a proper terem, it is constructed out of ornate carved wood decorated with colorful paint. It is coming on its 100th year soon and exudes the characteristic order of old wood. The view from the lobby is drop dead gorgeous: overlooking the lake between the mountains.
The town itself is reminiscent of a small trading post town, stuck in the 1960’s or earlier. Kinda cute, but the size of a small housing development. Again, tidy and orderly, not much personality. Oh, and the people everywhere are so obedient! Nobody crosses the road on red light and, God forbid, jay-walks!

Toulouse

Toulouse came as a surprise – we didn’t expect it to be such a lovely and largely non-touristy town.
Whoever called it “the pink city”, though, must have been slightly color-blind, as it is not at all a pink but rather a reddish-orange city. Built mostly of brick, with tiled roofs, Toulouse comes in all shades of reddish, orange, and brown.
In the US, brick facades are rather plain and boring, but not here. Here, they are ornately elaborate: the masons laid out brick in intricate designs, which were then decorated with long lacy cast-iron balconies.
The city was never bombed during WWII, and its mostly 16th century core survived intact. Even though overall, the old city is a mishmash of individual houses rather than an architectural ensemble, it is still lovely somehow.
Brick is the king here. You see it everywhere: from old churches and bell towers to brand new apartment houses. The streets are lined with cobblestone; they are narrow, but wider than those in medieval cities. Both streets and lively squares are on a human scale: not too wide, not too narrow, but just right.
Oddly though, in our modern times, with the advent of the internet, tv, and fashion magazines, it is still a backwater town. Not too many beautiful people are to be found here (have they all left for Paris?) and the fashions are dated, both on people and in the stores. Granted, it’s a far cry from the villages of Dordogne we left behind. It is a city, albeit a smallish provincial city, populated by city folk, not the peasant stock we found back in the country. An abundance of foie gras and duck meat clearly took a toll on the bodies of those countryfolk! I won’t even mention the missing teethe, greasy hair, and Kmart-type clothes. But tourists don’t go to Dordogne to people watch, right?

Font de Gaume

So I was totally off in my speculations. It was stupid of me to try outsmart the archeologists 🙂
The animals our ancient ancestors painted, as a rule, weren’t the animals they hunted. The preferred image was that of a bison repeated over and over, and as I found out, those Cro Magnons didn’t hunt bisons.
Font de Gaume is one of the last real caves open to the public and the last one with polychromatic paintings (the other two are Lascaux and Altamira, both now closed to visitors).
There is something to say about going into a real cave, even though, I must admit, the paintings here aren’t as impressive as those in Lascaux (I mean the copy thereof), as they have greatly faded. But standing in a cave that was actually painted by a prehistoric human being, who even left an imprint of his left hand on the ceiling, is totally awesome! It’s not clear if he left the handprint as his signature or was just leaning on the ceiling with his left hand while paining with his right.
The great mystery of cave paintings is: why did they do it? Were the caves their temples? Was it just art for the sake of art? Is it possible that our desire for art and beauty is so programmed into our DNA that those people, whose whole existence was a daily struggle for survival, made time in their harsh lives to seek out caves, make and mix paints, create something they could use as brushes and sharp carving instruments, and paint those noble animals while using the natural topography of the stone walls to breathe some life into their art?!

Sarlat la Caneda and Lascaux

Traveling from Bordeaux to Sarlat was a step-by-step improvement on the scenery. Not that Bordeaux wasn’t a good-looking city, it was. It had a lot of stately architecture that would make many a city proud, but somehow, it was missing something. Maybe charm.
The large village of Saint-Emilion in the heart of the wine country was lovely, and Perigueux, the regional center of Dordogne, boasted several perfectly charming squares, but Sarlat la Caneda was the prettiest of them all!
This fairy little town, which is virtually unknown to Americans, is a little jewel of honey-colored stone houses topped with dark conical roofs and turrets and an unexpected peekaboo effect of semi-hidden stairs and towers. It is more redolent of an opera set complete with mise-en-scenes, than of a real live town.
While all the towns we visited thus far in this region were built of whitish-yellow stone, the stone houses of Sarlat are the color of golden honey. They are succulent yellow, as if they soaked up the rays of the Southern sun.
The countryside around Sarlat is also right out of a storybook. It is natural and unspoiled, with green meadows, fields of wild flowers, ponds of still water surrounded by sedge swaying lightly in the gentle wind.
We passed farmhouse estates the size of small palaces and farmers who were actually tending their fields by hand!
The freshly plowed soil here is not brown but the rusty color tinted with ochre. The whole field of view is a carpet of greenery punctuated by golden-yellow stone houses, reddish earth, splotches of lilacs and fields of sunny yellow flowers. The scenery is tranquil and calming, and softly beautiful.
This area has been populated by humans for tens of thousands years, and they left their marks on the many caves in the surrounding hills. Today, we visited the queen of them all, Lascaux.
Nobody knows why prehistoric artists painted this cave. What archeologists know for sure is that prehistoric humans didn’t live in these caves; but why they went through the trouble of painting the walls and ceilings with magnificent animals is the staff of speculation. There are several theories. Mine are that either those prehistoric humans painted the animals they killed, believing that these paintings would ensure that those dead animals would come back in the form of new animals for their future hunting pleasure; or maybe, they painted the animals they wanted to kill in the next hunt; or maybe, they painted the animals they killed to ask their forgiveness.
Whatever the reason, those early humans were amazing artists who skillfully used the shape of the cave walls to created volume, and knew how to make vivid dyes, some of which hardly faded after 25,000 years. The animals they painted would not look put of place as a part of a modern painting – they are that sophisticated. The only primitive drawing was of a fallen hunter: a stick figure with a head of a bird, sticks for arms and legs, smaller twigs of fingers splayed out wide, and a large erect penis.

Seoul

After a day of touring Seoul, my conclusion is that this is not a city for tourists. It’s neither beautiful nor charming. It’s modern, clean, very livable, and very wealthy but nothing here catches an eye even with a very tepid “wow”.
The royal palace was one of the most boring palaces I’ve ever seen; the houses in the reconstructed village were almost identical and not remarkable; the folk museum would be perfectly suited for a small provincial town, but pathetic for a capital of a first world country. The Buddhist Temple was a pitiful complex of traditional Korean pagodas. The modern buildings were rather uniform – no attempt of avant guard architecture. The pedestrian shopping street was lined with sad little shops selling mass-produced souvenirs and trinkets. The street market – was a flee market of cheap clothes and shoes made in China.
The only place that made a deep impression was Shinsegae department store adjacent to the hotel. Take Galleries Lafayette and Bon Marche combined, multiply by two, and you will get Shinsegae. 10 floors (+ 11th of restaurants, ad the food basement) featuring all major and medium-level designers I heard of and those I never heard of. Enormous amounts of merchandize was displayed in style and curated by hordes of salespeople. They stood guard by their sections and if you as much as slowed down your pace to look at an item, would rush toward you ready to offer their assistance.
Beside the merchandize, the shoppers were a sight to behold. Mostly young, beautiful, well-dressed, and well-heeled, they toted around, toddlers in tow, grasping their Chanel bags and sporting the latest and newest fashions.
I was an odd bird there – older than most, a single Caucasian, and simply being single – all of them came in groups.
The food basement dazzled! I couldn’t decide which one of the stupendous-looking desserts to select for my dining pleasure.
And then, I saw a line. The line led to the shop selling one single product that looked like a small lemon tart but was called “cheese tart”. The sign said the origin of the tart was Hokkaido, and that they would only sell 7 pieces a person. The line drew me in, the limited quantity allotted per person sealed the deal.
The little tart was perfect: the shell, crispy, crumbly, with just enough sweetness complemented the semi-liquid eggy cream filling.
The wonder basement also housed a supermarket selling $40 watermelons, $400 boxes of fresh porcini mushrooms, and other slightly less expensive but still picture-perfect fruits, so perfect indeed, they didn’t look real. I want to know what the store does with these prize-winning fruits at the end of the day if no one buys it?
Another luxury food item that made a lasting impression was a case of dry fish, looking a lot like the lowly Russian vobla and guarded my a man in a white apron. The price of one modest package of several voblas was a whooping $1,275!!!
Seeing this cornucopia, all I could think was that bordering this wealthy country, there was one of the poorest countries in the world, populated by the same people but governed by a different party. And how some years ago, the sadistic government of that second Korea told its impoverished citizens that their brethren in the evil capitalist hell next door are exploited and just about dying of starvation, and that the comrades in the socialist heaven should do all they could to help. So the semi-starved paupers tightened their belts, and gave what they could to the government to send to their hungry neighbors. Right.