Saturday, September 13, 2014

Beyond This There Be Dragons

This is REALLY a post no one would want to read. No, really. Stop now. (I'm just putting it here because I felt like writing something and I no longer have a journal to write in.)


I am a lapsed drummer. I did a lot of it from roughly age 13 or 14 until the late '80s, some of it in a semi-professional capacity. I was no superstar, to be sure, but I was at least competent and could have worked from there to make a living this way. I kind of planned on that through high school.

Anyway. After a hiatus of a dozen years, I bought a used kit in 2002 or so. My circumstances and budget at the time dictated that I buy a cheap used kit. But my schedule didn't really lend itself to my playing with other people--certainly not to gigging, and just soloing or playing along with music didn't have as much appeal as, say, during my high school years. And after my years playing a professional-level German Sonor kit in the 80s, I never really fell in love with these cheap drums.

So I found I rarely played them, and after a decade of moving them from house to house I sold them.

Of course now that I've sold them I find I'm thinking about drums all the time. Go figure. But now I have no place to put them even if I did buy another kit. (Anticipating the suggestion, electronic drums are not for me. Why? Because *tone production* is a huge part of what it is to become accomplished on any instrument. I could write a post on that, I think, but we'll leave it at that for now.)

This all plays into my current subject, really.

I've been thinking about drums that were smaller and not so noisy. A company used to produce a no-shell drum that would be easy to store and carry, though I don't know anything about their sound. Whatever the reason, they didn't catch on, and you never really see them today. But I've never been quite sure why, and in my current predicament I find myself thinking about whether a fella couldn't work them up on his own.

Maybe their failure to take off has to do with that tone-production business. But this leads me directly to what I've REALLY been chewing on specifically: what role does the drum's shell really play in the drum's tone? I've combed a number of articles and websites that talk about this, and major drum companies (Drum Workshop, Yamaha, Pearl) make drums of various materials. Yamaha in particular makes drums specifically out of maple (the most common drum material), birch, and oak, citing different tonal characteristics for each material. They clearly think the material makes a difference. Additionally, a number of boutique drum-makers make drums out of a single-thick ply rather than staggered thin plies of wood--again, citing sonic benefits.

Far be it from me, a decades-lapsed half-assed musician, to contradict the accumulated wisdom of a vast industry... but I'm skeptical. I know, I know, I just talked about selling some cheap drums because they failed to excite me after I had experienced a high-quality product. They were cheap drums and they just didn't sound very good.

But I can explain. Or I think I can. I might start with an analogy from the otherwise totally- (and tonally-) unrelated world of the pipe organ. Organ aficionados say "the most important stop on the organ is the room," and indeed the acoustic is HUGELY important for organ music and for how a given instrument sounds. Stone buildings absorb less of the organ's sonic energy, so an organ will be much more resonant in a stone building, especially the lower frequencies, which inherently have more energy. Wooden buildings, by contrast, will flex and will absorb those high-energy low frequencies. So an organ will sound more biased to the high frequencies in a predominantly-wood building, whereas the bass will be more predominant in a stone building (all other things being equal). An organ builder must keep this in mind when designing and voicing an instrument for that space.

With drums, I think a similar situation prevails within the drum itself. (Of course, the acoustic of the room affects the drums too, but we're accustomed to thinking of the inherent sound of the drum apart from the acoustic, since, unlike the organ, the same drums will be heard in a variety of acoustics.) Here's my theory: it's my contention that, unlike a guitar or a violin, the drum shell itself is not the sound-producing element. The sound of a drum does not come from a resonating shell; rather, the sound comes ENTIRELY from the vibrating head (placing one's hand on a drum shell when hitting the drum will confirm this). And what the head is made of and how tightly it is tuned determine what we have to work with. A shell, as near as I can determine, can only take away from the sonic raw material that is pumped through it. The different sounds of various drum materials relate to what is absorbed and what is passed thru and out to the audience--just like a wood-vs-stone building with an organ. (In all this I'm thinking about drums with a head on top AND bottom. This is most drums. Drums are also made with only a single head on top, but these "concert toms" haven't really been in vogue in popular music since the '70s.)

The harder the material--in order, cheap plywood, birch, maple, oak, metal--the louder and more resonant the drum. We especially see this in snare drums, which are made mostly of wood or metal. Wooden snare drums, all things being equal, do not produce as much volume or sustain or projection as a steel drum. Also, the bigger the drum's diameter, the louder the sound and the longer the sustain. My cheap drums were made of some Southeast Asian scrap wood, and they had no sustain whatsoever. I put the same heads on these drums as I had always used, but the sound that came out was uninspired. And I suspect it was because the cheap wood simply flexed and absorbed any energy put into the head mounted to it. On the other hand, I bought a custom-made rolled stainless steel snare drum which weighed a ton and, I suspect, absorbed NONE of the energy put into the heads with the stick. So it was naturally pretty loud and had *fairly* good sustain, though not so much as to slam-dunk my theory. I talked to the drum maker about the possibility of completing a kit out of stainless steel, and he confirmed that the bigger drums--bass drums and floor toms especially--were MONSTROUS in their volume and sustain.

So that's one set of ideas to chew on: I'd like to determine if one needs shells for any TONAL reason. And there's another angle to this question to consider: nowadays, drums are very often mic'ed and amplified, and this adds another complicating layer to our situation. The volume in particular of a drum set, but also its projection out into an audience, seems much less important than it might have been back when drums were never amplified. (In my career, such as it was, we rarely if ever mic'ed the drums, and in most intimate acoustic settings the drums' inherent volume was a problem to be tackled. The other instruments had to be amplified to bring them up to the drums' volume.) The amplification system will play a huge role in what an audience hears, and so the drum's basic sounds--specifically things like volume and resonance--may be less important than in the past. (In an extreme analogy, a solid-body electric guitar needs no sonic properties at all. Assuming everything else is the same, the sound is all about what pickups are used, where they are placed, and what processing of the signal one applies. Electronic drums are NOT analogous to this; with electronic drums the sound itself is electronic and only *triggered* by the player. That's a whole different kettle o' fish.)

So my thinking has been moving along these lines. Why could one not just work on a head that vibrated with the basic sound that you wanted and then amplify it? If the head is doing the work, and there is no shell to deplete or otherwise dampen the sound (which is all I contend a shell can do), why would this not be the best thing from a pure sonic standpoint? Why even bother to bring a shell into it?

As I said starting out, there used to be a shell-less drum set available, called the Traps A400 portable kit. The company seems to be in business, but there's a steam-era website that I cannot get to work on any of my browsers, so I'm not entirely sure they're a viable entity. I was able to find a YouTube video review of the Traps A400 drums where the owner verified one key piece of my theory: under amplification the A400s sound like every other amplified drum (though let the record reflect that up close and unamplified they do not).

There is also a product made by Remo called the Roto-Tom. Roto-Toms are small drums, typically sold in a group of two or three mounted together, which can vary in pitch by rotating the heads in their stand, like a tympani drum but with rotary tuning rather than a foot pedal. I believe the small roto-toms are still available, but there were once a full range of sizes made (though not a bass drum). Even these larger sizes can still be found used on eBay. I never owned them, but now I'm dying to play with some, and especially to compare their sound, size-for-size, with a single-headed concert tom. Any difference would kind of have to come down to the shell.

So I'm chewing on how I might construct shell-less drums on my own as an experiment. A drum is after all only a head stretched over a hollow tube, and we really only need enough of that tube to hold the tuning lugs--or, in the case of the Roto-Tom, not even that much. But Roto-Toms sport pretty expensive machining, and for most people the ability to quickly change the drum's tension is not important. Certainly it's not to me.

Of course, I'm not the first to think on these things. Turns out a British inventor named Marcus de Mowbray has played in these fields already. He started with "shell-less" tympani drums for classical music--that is, tympani without the copper bowl beneath the heads. And it sounds like the great discovery was that the bowl was of no use whatsoever (I've never heard any of Mr. de Mowbray's work). He then went on to make no-shell drums, but with top AND bottom heads for each drum. And it seems, though the evidence is a bit sketchy, that they work brilliantly well. I see from the pictures, though, that they do not take up any less space than regular drums, and by his own account the drums are even louder than standard drums. So based on his experiences I'd be zero for two.

I had plotted getting assistance from a friend who is a former metalworker, but another buddy suggested a much easier test platform: just buy an old drum and cut the unneeded shell out of the middle. Brilliant idea.

So I think that's where I'll start.

Find Me When You Wake Up

I've never been a gamer. But there was a while, a decade ago, where a group of us were stuck for days at a time in our little rat-hole crash pad in Louisville waiting for our phone to ring with a flight assignment. To while away this time we bought an X-Box and played a small number of games.  My favorite was Halo, a highly-regarded First Person Shooter game.

I'm probably not the person to describe these things, but for the uninitiated I'll take a stab. Your controls manipulate a character--the character you play, as it were--called the Master Chief, a half-human, half-machine (think RoboCop) soldier who is tasked with killing off a variety of alien scum threatening a ship or a planet or a people. Your controls manipulate the character's movement through space (to include walking or running and jumping, turning, etc.) and the selection and operation of weapons and vehicles. The setting for these battles is a collection of Earth-like planets, often with abandoned structures. There are often other soldiers who accompany you, and one of your tasks is to look after them and keep them safe (you'll often get further with other people helping you to kill the bad guys). You play against an array of computer-driven enemies--you against the game, as it were--or the game can be played in multi-player mode, either with up to four people playing on the same game console (with the TV split two or three or four ways) or with other players who connect online. We did very little two-person playing, and none of us ever tried the online version--not least because we did not have a phone line and could not connect our X-Box to the internet. But the game was addicting, and it occupied us for countless hours.

When playing a game like this, one of the things you get accustomed to is the notion that you can only make it so far before your character is killed and you are "reborn" back at a previous checkpoint. Thus you have to work your way through a given scenario again and again until you find the exact right way to get through to the next scenario. We used to refer to this process as developing a "pattern" (no idea what anyone not a thousand years old calls it today) which you would follow and tweak until you got it right.

So it's not much of a stretch to imagine what it would be like to actually BE the character you play, the guy or woman who gets to die again and again until they figure out exactly what is needed to survive for another day.

This is exactly what director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Jumper, Fair Game) has done with his latest film, Edge of Tomorrow. (I'll try to say no more than can be gleaned from the trailers.) Set in the not-terribly-far future, the Earth is being overrun by an alien invasion. Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), an Army PR guy, finds himself unexpectedly assigned to an invasion force in France, an unwelcome assignment and one for which he is unprepared in training or temperament. After resisting the assignment, he is brutally demoted back to Private and becomes basically a prisoner in the Army--one condemned to an almost certain death in combat (a fate of which he is reminded continually by the wonderful Bill Paxton playing a hard-assed Southern Sergeant).

The invasion goes, well, quite badly and Cage does not make it far. But at the instant of his death he finds he is transported back to a point in time just after his demotion to Private and he gets to live the whole scenario over again. And again and again, basically until he gets it right.

He meets another soldier during these Groundhog Day events, a Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who is world-famous for her role in beating the alien force in a previous battle. It turns out that she achieved what she did in exactly the same way as he: she got to replay her scenario over and over again until she figured it out. After some discussion, they learn that what they have in common is that they each killed a certain kind of alien whose splattered blood conferred on them an ability to reset the time clock, as it were. This little insight also helps them to understand why they're being so badly beaten.

It's certainly no more absurd a scenario than many fantasy or sci-fi stories, and it all whips along at a dizzying pace. But unlike so many movies of this kind, the character development here is very satisfying. Both Cage and Vrataski are unexpectedly rich, flawed people caught in a nightmare, and we sympathize with them. We expect to see Tom Cruise playing an action hero, but we don't expect him to start as a sniveling coward and become a hero by being forced externally. Sergeant Vrataski has become a hero in exactly the same way--she did not start life this way--and Emily Blunt carries this along in her performance in lovely fashion.

The effects-rich setting requires its own kind of 21st-Century expertise, and too often the effects become the tail wagging the dog. But Doug Liman seems to have the situation well in hand here, as he did with the first Bourne movie (still the best, in my opinion). Everything looks great, and though the action is a bit thick and fast we are given moments to catch our breath. The invading aliens--a kind of super-creature that seems part spider and part fungus and which moves at lightning speed like millions of pairs of organic nunchaku or like a thousand-headed weed-whacker--are more imaginative (and fearsome!) than we might have expected. So it's doubly surprising to find character development in this setting. It's not world-beating, but it makes for a more watchable story than I anticipated.

So, unexpectedly satisfying. Grade: A-

Friday, August 8, 2014

Within These Walls

Though it has to have been quite recently, I don’t remember when I first heard of the Kowloon Walled City. But it was a place custom-made to capture the imagination. Mine, anyway.

Demolished by the Hong Kong government in 1993-4, the Kowloon Walled City was a collection of some 350 buildings constructed on a couple city blocks’ worth of land in Kowloon near the now-defunct Kai Tak airport. Though it began as a military fort, it grew in recent times into a dense community, a kind of city within a city that, legend had it, existed off the grid, outside regular law and order. At the end, at least, the City was said to be controlled by the Chinese organized crime syndicates known as the Triads (though like many legends of the Walled City this is now disputed). With an official population of 33,000 residents (some estimates put the number as high as 50,000), the Walled City notoriously sported the highest population density on Earth (extrapolated, some 3.2 million people per square mile; that’s considerably denser than the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side, previously thought to take the prize).

I first flew into Hong Kong when I came to the MD-11 in 2009 or so. The Walled City was long gone by then, but in historical terms I feel like I just missed it. From my first visit to this place I was taken by the grimy back streets and chaotic, ramshackle construction (as my tedious - photos - attest), and in truth there’s a lot of Hong Kong that looks very similar to pictures of the Walled City (our old hotel on Nathan Road is right next to a similar conglomeration of buildings called the Chungking Mansions—I’d never heard of that place either until researching the KWC). There’s a lot of crumbling masonry construction here, and many old residential buildings seem to be kept going by improvised repairs. By our standards, many seem on the verge of collapse, or at least well on their way. So it’s not the construction of the Walled City itself that is odd: it’s how tightly packed it was. You might say the Walled City was Hong Kong only more so. The pictures remind one of the city of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, incredibly dense and dark and wet and tangled. 

The Wikipedia article details some of the history of this plot of land, and though there was a residential presence for much of the last 80 years most of the construction that housed such a density of people dated from the 1960s-80s. Though Hong Kong was ruled by the British, the Walled City was exempt, an area still under Chinese control. At the end of WWII, Chinese squatters flocked into the City under Chinese protection. The British tried to dislodge them, but eventually washed their hands of the place. Keeping order there was more trouble than was deemed worthwhile. This situation—governance by in-absentia Chinese, and abandonment by the Brits—allowed the drugs and gambling and prostitution businesses to grow unchecked. It also meant that nobody was governing the construction process as more and more buildings were erected (though, interestingly, Wikipedia says that the proximity of the Walled City to the Kai Tak airport mean that no buildings could be built above 14 stories in height; I wonder who agreed to and enforced that rule?). Structures were built wherever they could be made to fit. 

Yet the vice and mayhem existed cheek-by-jowl with pensioners and thousands of families, all crammed into tiny spaces (the article says most apartments were only 250 square feet). It became very nearly a self-contained ecosystem, as most everything a person wanted or needed could be had within the City's walls. Numerous unlicensed doctors and dentists operated there--that is, medical professionals who wanted to avoid the exorbitant licensing fees of Hong Kong (a unique subculture that would be a fascinating study in and of itself) and there were many restaurants and a motley assortment of schools and daycares. There was mail service, though very few people were able to navigate the compound in any comprehensive way (I love the story of the old woman who lived there for years but said she never went anywhere but directly to and from her residence, so she didn’t know the rest of the place at all). Though it seems that several water mains were eventually routed to the City, there were no regular utility services since the city was not involved in the construction. And yet the residents seem to have cobbled together utilities, as the many pictures of bakeries and small factories and tiny apartments with a tap and bare light bulbs attest. But in most cases ad hoc means improvised: pictures show an unruly tangle of wires and pipes and hoses in all the alleyways, many of which leaked so that the dark passages were frequently damp. The alleyways themselves were originally open passages between buildings, but most of them were covered and structures built atop them, so that there were hundreds of internal passageways known only to the residents of each particular section. The rooftops were public outdoor spaces, frequently used by children and by the residents of the upper floors.

I’ve taken pictures in Shanghai of an old part of the city that reminds me of the Walled City, but without the verticality. Many of the structures in this part of Shanghai look to be uninhabitable, and yet clean and smartly-dressed people can be seen incongruously issuing from them. And so it must have been with the Walled City: thousands of children were raised there, leaving their residences inside the walls to walk to school like all other kids. It’s the juxtaposition of these extremes—normal family life next to brothels and drug dens and cookie factories and Chinese bakeries and illegal doctors, all piled on top of each other in incredible density—that the pictures bring home to you. Pictures do so much better than words here. The photos of the exterior show a chaos of birdcage balconies and rooftop porches and a forest of antennas, all crammed together higgledy-piggledy without adhering to any master plan.

At least in theory—setting aside the whole organized crime angle, which would be quite beyond my ken—I would give my eye teeth to explore such a place. Well, there exists the next best thing: I learned that a book of photographs and stories about the Walled City by Britons Greg Girard and Ian Lambot had been published around the time of the City’s destruction. The stories of the people who lived here and the small factories that operated here, all under the radar, in the midst of one of Asia’s premier and most bustling and cosmopolitan cities is one of those stranger-than-fiction things. The book—City of Darkness—is out of print and the few copies available on Amazon were asking some $900. But as luck would have it, the authors are producing a 20-year anniversary edition with substantial updates—City of Darkness Revisited. The reissue project was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, and though I missed the campaign I was thrilled to find that I could pre-order the new book from London. Deliveries are expected in September.

I went through a period where I was infatuated with the Kai Tak airport. It was another of those places that could only have existed here, an incredibly busy one-runway airport in one of the world’s densest and most vibrant cities, an airport built on created land which required huge jets to fly very close to—and in some cases below—the skyline of the city. (Do a search on YouTube sometime for “Kai Tak” and you’ll see some spectacular airplane footage.) The spit of land is still readily visible jutting out into Victoria Harbour, now converted to a cruise ship dock and terminal. The Walled City was situated right off the end of the runway, and much of the footage of airplanes scarily close to buildings was doubtless taken from the rooftops of the Walled City, jumbo jets passing in a steep bank, so close you could read the writing on the fuselage. (Many of our pilots have stories of flying in and out of Kai Tak, though it was closed by the time I got hired here.)

About a year ago I walked the five or six miles from our hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui over to look at the remains of Kai Tak (alas, not being able to see much). At that time I had not yet heard of the Walled City, or I would certainly have looked for its remains. Though the Walled City is gone, the city of Hong Kong put up a park on the exact footprint of the old Walled City, called, appropriately enough, the Kowloon Walled City Park. That was the destination for today’s walk. Only a few artifacts remain of the settlement. Several of the entry gates are still there, and there are maps and diagrams throughout the park showing the former locations of things. But knowing it was here is a far cry from seeing it in person. My loss, but luckily a good record of the place exists.

(In addition to Wikipedia, much of this information--and most of the photos--come from Greg Girard and Ian Lambot via their website, and from a Daily Mail newspaper story using the same source.)

Friday, July 4, 2014

One Other Thing

I'm not a photographer, though I love photography and I seem to take a lot of pictures. I say this not out of false modesty, but as an honest admission that I have no real clue what I'm doing and I don't have an especially good eye. (Susan will grab my phone and snap an occasional picture, and her percentage is a good deal higher than mine, I'd say.)

But I got it into my head to make a collection of cool door photos as we moved from country to country (started because there were so many cool doors in Barcelona, and it just took off from there).

The results are on a Flickr collection that can be seen HERE.

I love many of these, and as a collection they seem kind of fun. Every one was taken with my iPhone 5S, and many of them were taken hastily as I often had to stand in a busy street and snap quickly.

Vacation 2014: Wrap-up.

(Sorry. No pictures. Isn't 2,600 enough?)

And so it ends. Flying now above the North Atlantic on our way to Detroit, we are left to chew on a vast collection of impressions and experiences. This certainly ranks as my favorite vacation thus far. Apart from our brief flights thru Amsterdam, I had never seen any of these places we visited. And each one seemed in some way to top the last, such that the days seemed to get better and better as we went.

Part of this is, I think, just a readiness to take in whatever the day holds in store. I’m always eager to explore a new place, and so each new day is a no-lose proposition. But it’s also the case that each of these places is more interesting than I expected. I knew I’d love Venice and Rome, and I really wanted to see the streets of Monaco. But I had little expectation about Marseilles or Livorno or Naples or Corfu or Taormina or Dubrovnik or Kotor. And they all turned out to be fantastic.

Looking back, I think only in Taormina did our usual strategy of just hitting the streets and seeing what we see as we walked around miss its mark. The tender port for Taormina was actually a little coastal village that was nice enough. But it sounds as though the actual village of Taormina proper was spectacular and very worth taking the trouble to get to it, up and over the mountain range visible from the coast. But in every other case we just picked a place or shop or region we wanted to see, and just let the days happen to us. Especially in the bigger cities that’s a failsafe proposition. But even in the smaller places it worked.

I think our routing was a bit odd. We went very slowly from Taormina over to Corfu, taking our day at sea where one wasn’t required travel-wise. then from Corfu we bypassed Kotor to go to Dubrovnik, then went back to Kotor and subsequently had quite a haul to make it to Venice. We had to leave Kotor early—14:00—and steamed continuously to make it to Venice by 13:00 the next day. There must be a reason we didn’t go in order (Corfu, Kotor, Dubrovnik, Venice), but it would have gotten us to Venice sooner, which would have been cool. But I’m just thinking aloud. This takes nothing away from any of the ports.

One thought we had—not really a complaint, but more an observation—that we might apply to future trips: a cruise that hits 10 new places in 12 days makes for quite a number of new things to process. And it might be wise to restrict ourselves to that or to maybe only a single other place in addition. Getting to Europe (or, if it happens, to Australia or Southeast Asia or wherever) is enough of a trial that I think the smart money is on squeezing everything one can out of one’s visit since coming back is difficult and uncertain. We began this cruise with five days in Barcelona, and that may turn out to have been the best part of the same vacation. After this more leisurely stay, we both declared Barcelona to be our new favorite travel destination, and I can’t help thinking this is because we had the most time there. If we had started with five days in Rome (or ended that way), we both think that might have become our favorite place. I think there’s a place for little day-visits to these smaller countries; one would simply not need more time in Monaco or Livorno or Kotor, for example. But a little time to get to know a bigger place brings definite rewards.

I also find myself chewing on the whole cruise experience. I have a number of friends for whom this would simply not be their cup of tea as a means of travel, probably for the very reasons I allude to above: these little day-visits overwhelm the senses and do not allow the experiences that a longer visit does. We initially said that this would be a great way to get a general overview of these places with an eye on whether we’d want to come back and explore further. Well and good. But I find myself saying every day like a mantra: Everything Is Better On The Ship. I’ve said this before. Doing even the most mundane things on an ocean liner makes them a wee bit magical. I don’t know that this itinerary, say, by car, would have had the same impact as arriving by ship affords. But the ship is, well, magnificent. And not least because it’s your home and your hotel and your commissary and it travels with you! You wake up every day and your hotel had moved! How cool is that? This is offset by 1) the realization that no everyone will be so nourished by the ship, and 2) the reality that everything you see is accompanied by one or two thousand other people getting off the ship to see it with you (or more in a big port like Venice or Rome where several cruise ships dock daily). We almost never do the ship-sanctioned activities, but there’s no getting around a big influx of tourists to the little village you’re attempting to explore on your own.

To be fair, it was a great group of tourists on the ship (a third of the 2,200 passengers were Aussies!); there were very few whining, privileged Americans that we saw. And most everyone we saw ashore was polite and friendly and appreciative that people allowed the disruption of their little idyllic villages for a few tourist dollars. For the first time in 10 years of cruising, we actually met and befriended people on the cruise. We had dinner on two occasions with people we met on the ship, and both were fabulous couples. A shame that we’ve all come from such far-flung places; it’ll be hard to connect again. But I want to take a minute to celebrate what we had rather than lament what difficulty it may bring!

After a week in NYC and then these three weeks in Europe, I think we’re both well ready for some down time at home. Alas, Susan has a Broadway Theatre Teacher’s Workshop back in NYC this next week. So we have another week to wait before downtime can begin. Still, a couple days at home seem welcome.

Post-Cruise: Rome & the Vatican.

Pictures are HERE.

The three-hour train ride to Rome was painless. Easy. I used a cheap web special on the ship to scope out the location of our Rome hotel, so that I’d seem to have half an idea where to send the cabbie when we got there. The hotel was located about three miles from the train station in the general direction of the airport. Turns out to have been an unexpectedly good location for a hotel, right near the Piazza Navona (the hotel was the Suite Art Navona). Unbeknownst to me, the Piazza Navona is one of the primary public spaces of the city, the onetime location of the big public market in town. Now it’s an open square with three big fountains and surrounded by restaurants. It’s a perfect place for people-watching, and it’s easy to find and easy to find our hotel from there.

This is especially helpful, as there seem to be no straight roads anywhere in Rome. Everything twists and turns, changing names constantly, just as in most of the other medieval places we’ve visited this trip.

I’ve long thought that one of New York’s great charms for the visitor is the density of known, famous, or semi-famous places as you walk the streets. You needn’t go but a block or two before you’re guaranteed to see something you know, or know of. Rome is like that, except the famous things are all incredibly ancient. We rounded a corner near the hotel and found ourselves looking at the Pantheon—a 2,000 year-old quasi-church set in the middle of the city. You come upon it with little warning since, again, there are few straight streets that give you a vista as you approach (this is unlike the Colosseum, which can be seen from a ways off because of its size and a fortuitous few side streets that open up a vista of it). Wikipedia calls the Pantheon the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world, and its age makes the accomplishment so much the greater. And while not everything looks truly ancient—most everything you see is either a more recent version of what was originally there, or it’s been substantially renovated—this place just reeks of age. All the stones are discolored and many have cracks of age, and it’s all just so pre-technology. The floors, the steps, the ceilings; everything looks not just like it’s intended to look old, but like it’s REALLY OLD. We saw it twice and were kind of stunned both times. (Most amazing, after the dome, were the two original bronze doors which must weigh many tons each and stand 20 feet tall. The Wikipedia article, again, says they are original, and they must have been a marvel at the time. Hell, they’re a marvel now. Those and the 20 huge columns, each of which, we are told, is a single piece of stone.)

 After our first visit seeing the Colosseum and roaming the Forum, this second visit was slated for the Vatican and just general roaming. This turned out to be exactly the right strategy. We arrived Monday around 13:30 at the train station, and were at the hotel by 14:30. They let us in early, and we dropped off our (ludicrously-overstuffed and oversize) bags and hit the streets. We strolled thru the Piazza Navona and then grabbed some pizza. Every restaurant in town apparently has the same menu: pizza, pasta, meat and cheese plates, Caprese salads. Which is fine by me. The pizza is wonderful, and slightly different from pizza elsewhere. I’m not even quite sure how. It’s just not as *substantial* as what I’m used to. Thin crust—but not too thin; it bubbles up along the doughy edges—just a little sauce, not too many toppings. More of a snack than a meal, though we used it as both.

After our snack, we made our way towards where we thought the Spanish Steps were, and instead found ourselves at an open square where a huge rock and roll concert stage was being set up for later that evening. (We did not recognize any of the names.) From there we did manage to find the Spanish Steps. Both it and the Trevi Fountain were under construction. Well, the Steps are getting a refurbished fountain on the street in front of them; the steps themselves are open and unmolested. But the Fountain, which we saw the next day, is empty and surrounded by a huge plexiglass cage.

From the Spanish Steps, we made our way back to the river and strolled along until we were over near the Vatican, and then plunged back into the city for a little more shopping and sightseeing. No earth-shattering purchases—Susan found a few little jewelry things—but it’s a fun way to see the city. I didn’t buy much, though I managed to have their fabulous cherry ice cream at least once every day (both in Rome and elsewhere on the cruise). There were also fresh cherries everywhere, which were delicious. In fact, the extra-sweet cherries I got in Dubrovnik were the best I have ever had anywhere.

This wandering took us a good four hours, and we finished back on a little side street adjacent to the Piazza Navona where we found a little outdoor cafe and had dinner there. This amounted to the best meal we had all trip. It was a plate of local meats and cheeses with a huge glob of fresh buffalo mozzarella in the middle. We ordered, quite unnecessarily, a mushroom and mozzarella and gorgonzola pizza as well, which was spec-freakin’-tacular. We liked the meat & cheese platter so much that we came back the next day for another. That was the day.


The next day we had an appointment for the Vatican museums at 10:30. The plan was to tour those and take a few minutes for St. Peter’s Basilica. Getting the tickets in advance was brilliant, as the lines stretched for blocks and moved very slowly. We were able to bypass the whole thing, and join much shorter (but still substantial) lines inside. 

The museum was extremely crowded, and the organization vis-a-vis shuttling thousands of people thru the facility every day seemed spotty. There was a lot of signage, but not everything made easy sense. We rented audioguides (my first one did not want to work), and the presentations were very nicely produced. 

But after a while the collection just overwhelms. You don't realize going in--I didn't, anyway--just *how much* stuff they've laid their hands on. I was never the guy toward whom these collections were aimed, and my antipathy towards the church made me awfully skeptical about whether it was even a good idea to tour the place. But it seems stupid to go to one of Europe’s great cities and avoid this singular thing out of pique. So I told Susan I would try to be good and keep my snark at bay as much as possible. 

But it was hard. On the one hand, their collection of paintings and tapestries and sculptures and jewelry etc., etc. is unquestionably beautiful and it represents much of humanity’s last 800+ years. And it’s our history and it’s being very well looked-after. And I should hardly complain to pay an actual museum, say, for the privilege of looking at their collection, nor begrudge them charging a fee to look after these things. But on the other hand, I cannot for the life of me connect this vast, unfathomable wealth—it’s obscene, really; no other word seems to capture it—to ANYTHING connected to the Jesus story. To see this collection is to glimpse the very human men behind the curtain, to grasp the reality behind the facade. Pay no mind to what they say, the saying goes, but pay attention to what they do. The Jesus myth may have talked about the nobility of poverty and about a righteous life of privation dedicated to helping others, but that has NOTHING to do with what’s going on here. This is about power and privilege (and, yes, beauty). These guys were / are interested in exactly what rich, privileged men are seemingly always interested in: riding the backs of others to a position of comfort and ease and power. The invention of Jesus gives a convenient mascot for controlling the great unwashed from whom one may squeeze a few kopeks (which, when added up in their millions, amounts to great wealth indeed), but apart from some of the refreshing public pronouncements from the current Poobah, this place could not be further from that myth-story.

I tried to keep to the admiration side of my split personality for the duration of my visit. But it’s hard, for example, to suppress the Tourettes-like ejaculation when one hears the audio guide talk about this pope adding on this or that vast wing and having the barrel vault covered in gold leaf or having a 368-meter mosaic floor (that's four football fields' in length, if you're counting) built with scenes honoring his own reign (or, in one case, a vast mosaic floor pillaged from someone else’s palace and carried thousands of miles and re-installed here), or another pope amassing these several-thousand mind-boggling statues “at considerable expense.” The quick insertion of “IN COMPLETE DISREGARD OF THE TEACHINGS OF THE JESUS STORY” kept coming out almost involuntarily, and indeed would have made much of the history of the collections in the Versailles-sized museums align more properly with reality. (We met a fantastic Australian couple on the ship who went to see these museums on the ship day, and she said she just got angrier and angrier as she made her way through. What could have been done with this wealth is almost incalculable.)

Quite apart from that, I cannot but laugh with jaw agape as the commentary talks about “the mythology of the Greeks” and then does not see what followed immediately afterward in Rome as mythology. THAT was just made-up shit, but then suddenly the same kind of nonsense was TRUE and has remained so forever.

Anyway. I survived, and I can say that I saw the place. St. Peter’s was noteworthy for being immense—it’s something like 50% bigger in interior volume than the next-biggest, if I recall correctly. But I find I’m much more strongly drawn to the gothic architecture of my favorite Parisian stone buildings. St. Peter's is huge and stunningly-decorated and in brilliant shape, and it doubtless has an aura for the faithful. But it's a less-interesting building to me than Notre Dame or St. Eustache or St. Sulpice (or certainly than the Sagrada Familia).

We went back to the hotel for a short nap, and then spent the last five or six hours again roaming the streets. At this point we’re both quite homesick, but it’s so difficult to pull yourself away from all the activity on the streets and prepare to leave. Much more so than Venice, I think I could come back to Rome again and again and still barely scratch the surface of it. It’s not nearly so singular as Venice, and it’s just a much bigger place. The age of it gives it a charm and a mystery that would take a while to get to the bottom of.

But it will have to wait for another visit.

Cruise Day 11 & 12: Venice.

Venice pictures HERE.

And so the cruise comes to an end. We arrived slightly ahead of schedule in Venice at 12:45 PM, after a spectacular parade past the sea-level city. We had the remainder of the day (Saturday) to play in Venice and spent the night on the ship. Then the following morning they kicked us off—after feeding us one last time, of course! It’s always a melancholy thing to get your card scanned one last time as you leave the ship, passing a boundary whereafter you are no longer granted all the privileges you’ve enjoyed for the last week or two.

And it’s been a really glorious cruise, my favorite yet by a goodly margin. I loved each and every port, and everything seemed new and interesting to me. We had letter-perfect weather, and we walked a ton. I feel like I know Europe (to the extent that anybody “knows” Europe) just a little better.

Venice is simply not like any place I’ve been before. It’s a shade like Amsterdam, in that there’s water everywhere. But Amsterdam feels like a city with canals cut into it, whereas Venice feels like somebody floated a city on top of the sea. It’s so odd that buildings rise out of the water with no land around them, and there are NO streets whatsoever in the middle of the city (there are cars and buses of course on the outskirts, like the cruise ship docks, which are near the train station, both of which require good road connections). That’s one of the big differences from other places: Venice has NO street traffic. None. Zip. There are no bicycles, no scooters, no cars no trucks no buses. Nothing. And the rights-of-way where motor vehicles DO operate—the canals—are not places where you could or would be as a pedestrian anyway. So it’s really a pedestrian-only city, and I’ve never seen that before. Like the other places we’ve been on this cruise—Dubrovnik, Kotor, Kerkira—the paths of Venice are winding and very narrow, and they open up every couple blocks onto a square ringed by a church and a bunch of cafes. It’s very civilized. And very crowded with tourists.

We bought a 12-hour pass for the water bus (their city bus, like every other mode of transport, is a series of mid-sized boats that travel six or seven different routes) and rode a couple routes. Like the rest of the city, this mode of transport is unique to the place. Amsterdam has a water bus system, but Venice has ONLY a waterbus. Venice also has water taxis, but they run 72 Euros for a one-way trip. Despite the expense, which is not so bad if you double up with another couple or if you have kids, they were doing a booming business. And the water buses were jammed to their capacity of a hundred or so people all day long. And of course there are the gondolas. There supposedly used to be upwards of 14,000 of them, and now there are just 400 or so, but they seem to do a good business as well. But they are slow and atmospheric rather than utilitarian. It would be a bit tiresome to live in the city and need regularly to get anywhere, as there are no straight lines, and none of the transportation goes directly anywhere or at any meaningful rate of speed. But again, everything was jammed all the time on both days.

When we pulled in to the cruise ship slip we were one of, I think, four ships of about the same size (our ship carries 2,200 passengers), and when one ship left another took its place. So there must have been, on ships alone, a good 8,000 people in town at any given time. Venice has a indigenous population of some 60,000 (down from 200,000 at its peak, we were told), and so these 8,000 folks plus maybe an equal number there NOT from the ships, makes for a substantial jump in bodies wandering the streets. Tourism is the only show in town, I think, and it shows.

And I think despite snapping a thousand pictures (everywhere you look seems to demand a photo) that is my primary impression from the walking we did: Venice seems like an all-tourist place, kind of like an adult Disneyland rather than a real city where we just happen to visit. Wandering this evening before dinner, a Sunday evening, we got off the beaten path and saw the natives gathering outside for dinner and to chat and catch up. But even then it doesn’t feel like a real place so much as a special magical shopping mecca that thousands visit every day and then leave. I’d be very happy to come back here, and I’m thrilled that I got a taste of the place, but I don’t think I’d plan a visit specifically to come here again, even if I don’t expect to see anyplace like it again. Everyone treated us very well and seemed happy we were there, and the food was excellent.

Tomorrow, we take a train back to Rome, and then, 36 hours and a Vatican tour later, we’re off for home.

Cruise Day 11: Kotor, Montenegro.

(Not a postcard. *I* took that freakin' picture. WITH AN IPHONE. I know, right?)

Kotor pictures are HERE.

In truth, despite our having had a really lovely time in each of the places we’ve stopped, 12 days is a bit long to be on tour at a new-place-every-day pace. One struggles with saturation, and many of the places are similar in general character, even if they differ quite a bit in their details. Marseilles, Monte Carlo, Livorno, Civitavecchia, Naples, Taormina, Corfu, Kotor: there’s a whole lot of old stone buildings and narrow alleys in those places, an awful lot of tourist shops, however fabulous.

I’ve been really itching to see Venice, and so I was kind of wishing I could give Kotor a pass. We’re both kind of homesick, and this just seemed like a place I didn’t particularly need to see.

Fortunately, nobody listened to me. Because we have an inside stateroom on this trip, there is no window and we only really know what it’s like outside when we emerge from below decks. In this case we came up for breakfast and found the ship hovering in the middle of a fjord, with fantastic, orange-tile-roofed buildings on both sides. A REALLY fantastic setting. So we headed ashore, and Susan made a beeline to a nearby pebbly beach to lounge on a chair under an umbrella (with a surreal view of the ship surrounded by rocky mountains) while I wandered thru the old town and headed up the ancient fortified wall that stretches, Great-Wall-of-China-style, up the mountains to an ancient, crumbling fort high over the town.

That turned out to be a hell of a walk, with a hell of a view at the end of it. I don’t really know how high up it was (I’m guessing a couple thousand feet up at least—this is what happens without an internet connection; I guess at stuff), but it was pretty steeply uphill for a good hour. Despite being in the shade most of the time (the sun was behind the mountains as we climbed) I was as wet as if I’d showered by the time I got to the top. A nice workout, actually. 

The walls / fortifications / path upward; all were crumbling and centuries past their prime. There were only one or two marginally-intact buildings along the path, and probably another 10 that were in ruins. Really, nothing useful is left intact—I can’t even figure out what purpose the wall served in the first place for all the effort it clearly took to build it. There’s nothing behind it for  anyone coming from the sea (and it only covers a short span above the city—it could easily have been bypassed by intruders) and it doesn’t cover enough to stop people coming from the backside. The path up looks like a medieval stone pathway suitable (in its prime) for golf carts. And next to the wall are narrow steps, about 15% of which are missing or crumbled. The path ceased to be functional for anything with wheels a couple hundred years ago, and is now mostly a Ramp Of Rubble that makes for slightly precarious walking. There were quite a few people doing the walk up and down (many stopping midway and abandoning their quest) and we had to get around each other on this steps / ramp combination. I had an ankle twist a couple times, though to no ill effect. But I wonder if they don’t log some injuries with so many tourists going up and down. They charged a paltry three Euros to walk up, some dude sitting at a card table with a little receipt-printer serving as the gate keeper. (In Croatia, the fee was seven Euros to walk the wall, and that money was clearly being poured into keeping the wall up; it was quite pristine.) There were pink garbage bags placed along the climb at regular intervals, and vendors carted coolers with water and soda up as far as they could make it and sold cold drinks for a couple Euros (I bought a water from one guy out of pity as he seemed to toil so much to get his cooler in place.)

After a few minutes’ admiration of the sight (and many pictures), I started down and met Susan back on the beach. We then strolled more thoroughly through the old town (which was inside the wall and REALLY like a blast from the past) before heading back to the ship. Because we had far to go before our next port—Venice—they needed to get an early start, and the all-aboard was at 1:30 PM. Arrival in Venice would be 24 hours later.

So I’m really glad I didn’t give Kotor a skip, as it was maybe the most extraordinary ancient village we’ve seen of all. And the wall climb was fantastic and some good exercise.

Tomorrow: Venice!

Cruise Day 10: Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Dubrovnik pictures are HERE.

I was looking forward to this day, as I’ve been watching Game Of Thrones, and the fantastic walled city is used for the setting of King’s Landing on the show. So I naturally expected a medieval feel. But the wall was more amazing than I could have imagined. This may be in part because it’s in such spectacular shape, and because it’s so tourist-friendly (and maybe this is because of the influx of TV money from GOT). But the city inside the wall is a fabulous tangled warren of narrow alleys packed with restaurants and kiosks and clothing boutiques, and there is a lovely central square with a couple big churches. Everything is roofed with orange ceramic tiles, and it looks almost like Pompeii before the ash.

That was our whole day there, really. We took a cab from the ship to the far side of the wall (per Rick Steves’s recommendation), and avoided any hint of a line. There was quite a bit of climbing, but the stairs were of normal size and pitch and the views took your mind off the workload. Really spectacular.

After a couple hours of that we roamed just a little in the old city outside the wall before catching a cab back to the ship.

I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Cruise Day 9: Corfu.

Pictures for Corfu are HERE.

This is our second visit to Greece, the first being a couple years ago, when we spent most of a week in Athens with a quick side trip to Milos. Hard to get a sense of a place from a short visit like these, but one hopes to build a composite picture.

Corfu is much more intimate than Athens, but reminds me of it. Like many of the other places we’ve seen on this cruise, it seems old and medieval and compact. Much of the town consists of very narrow, twisting alleyways where you can never see more than about 1/2 a block ahead, and which do not move in a consistent direction. The sun does not make its way into many of these alleys, and so it’s difficult to work your way from Point A to Point B unless you already know how to get there. You enter the tangle headed North and emerge on the West side facing Southwest. But the town is not very big, and it’s loaded with charm. The shops are very touristy, which corresponds to tourism having become many of these places’ principle means of survival. And despite a degree of crumbling antiquity, they feel like they’re doing rather well. One hopes the disruption of having a cruise ship come and go from one’s quiet little seaside village brings enough money to keep everyone happy.

We wandered the streets, buying a few trinkets and having lunch at an outdoor cafe. When we were in Athens we discovered the miraculous little treat that is the cheese croquette. We’ve never seen them anywhere else, though croquettes are on many menus in the Mediterranean. But they’re usually made from chicken, odd handball-sized fried globs of pureed chicken that are delicious but slightly… disturbing. But back in Greece we again found cheese croquettes and were thrilled. This time the croquettes were finger-shaped, like small-ish fish sticks, but still tasted pretty fab. We got those plus a great Greek salad and a Margherita pizza (which got mistranslated and came out as an uninspired four-cheese thing with a food service crust).

But if the food lacked anything, the setting more than made up for it. After a couple hours’ wandering and a visit to the Old Fort (there is a New Fort as well, the latter dating from the 1500s; not sure about the Old Fort, but it’s, well, older than that) we walked back to the ship.

Another fabulous day.

Cruise Days 7-8: Taormina and a sea day.

Pictures for Taormina are HERE.

Situated along the Eastern coast of Sicily midway between Messina and Catania (the latter the site of the Naval Air Station Sigonella, where I flew a military charter some months back), Taormina is said to be a bit of Capri and Monte Carlo. It’s not a coastal town, as I had somehow expected (since the cruise ship kind of “goes there”) but rather a place that requires another inland transfer, bypassing the cute little coastal village where our tenders let us off.

We debated making this a stay-on-the-ship day, but decided after all to head ashore and at least walk the little village. This was actually lovely and a relaxing morning. There was another town perched on the mountains above our coastal village (with Taormina proper inland of that), but we decided to stick to what we could see on foot.

Seems we should have been more ambitious. Though our walk was lovely, it sounds like Taormina proper was much worth the trouble to get there. A friendly couple we’ve met on the boat went there and said that every time you looked you felt compelled to take a photo. But one of the criticisms we’ve heard of this cruise (if it can be said to be appropriate to criticize a 12-day Mediterranean cruise at all) is that there is only one sea day, so one has something to do every day. None of it is strenuous, of course, but it does deprive one of a little down-time.

The following day provided that in spades: our one day at sea. We spent the day puttering at a very slow speed Eastward from Sicily to the mid-coast of Greece and then turning North to follow the coastline up to Corfu.

Susan decided to rent one of the little poolside cabanas, knowing that both pools would be swarming. It was an excellent choice, as it gave us a nice place to sit / lay down and store our stuff for the entire day. Usually, we try to find two deck chairs together, but they’re hard to find and hard to keep when so many people want them. So the cabana was a few bucks well-spent. I can see especially if one had kids the space would be indispensable (the extended family group next to us rented two cabanas and pulled back the little curtain to make one big cabana. This was an excellent idea). The best thing, for me, was that it kept me out of the sun the entire time. I’ve felt that I was getting much too much sun this entire vacation, despite my wearing long-sleeve things and my trés-façonable Tilley Hat. Susan thinks I may have officially changed races.

Tomorrow, Corfu.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Cruise Day 6: Naples.

Pictures HERE.

Naples has something of a bad-boy reputation. It’s supposedly raucous and dirty and crowded and loud; people either love it or hate it, it seems. And it’s also the jumping-off point for a bunch of worthwhile out-of-town destinations: the Amalfi Coast, the Isle of Capri, Sorrento, Pompeii. I admit to being tempted to just see what all the fuss is about in Naples itself, but it seemed positively wrong to be so close to Pompeii and not see it. In the world of archeology, it appears that Pompeii is a singularity, an entire town encased and preserved and then left undisturbed for some 2,000 years.

None of the ship-sponsored activities seemed especially enticing, but a fella at the train station at Civitavecchia yesterday was handing out flyers for today’s activities in Naples (very clever of them). His particular company’s tour promised to do more in the same time for substantially less money than what the ship had on offer, so we bit.

We gathered outside the cruise terminal and boarded two buses and hit the road. The goal was to drive out past Pompeii and across the boot for a view of the Amalfi Coast and then go back for a couple hours in Sorrento. From there we'd head back for a tour of Pompeii and be back in time for all-aboard. As it turns out, this was maybe a touch too much to accomplish in the time allotted. But points for effort.

The traffic in Italy is… insane. The roads are very narrow (except the expressways, which naturally do not connect the little resort towns on the coasts), and people cross the center line constantly to pass—especially those on scooter. That’s not so unusual, except that the roads we were on today were incredibly winding and perched precariously on the lips of mountains with sheer drops. The guide said that there were over 2,000 bends in the stretch of road we took between Positano and Sorrento (and beyond). Tiny little two-lane roads and huge tour buses on them and seemingly no extra room. (I’m reminded of similar conditions in Hong Kong, except there you ride in the upper deck of a double-decker bus and feel like you’re REALLY going to tip to your death!)

We stopped about an hour out of Naples for a potty break at a little factory that made wooden inlays for furniture and such. Then we made a short photo stop overlooking the Amalfi Coast—an amazing collection of buildings perched on the mountainside that looked like they wanted to tumble straight down into the deep blue water at the bottom. A flabbergasting site.

Then we stopped for lunch in Sorrento, and Susan and I did a little shopping in the medieval streets there. Very atmospheric. And I had the best frickin’ ice cream cone I have ever eaten in nearly 52 years. A sugar cone with some cherry-vanilla somethingorother that defies description and even belief. I almost went back for seconds. I wonder now if I wasn't hallucinating. Susan had chocolate-pistacchio and had a similar, if entirely in-body, experience.

Unfortunately, we wasted about half our time in Sorrento trying to find a cash machine that would work. I tried an ATM in the cruise ship terminal (since the tour, inexplicably, would only take euros or dollars; cash only) and for the first time ever my card was spit back out and I was told to contact my bank. The tour guide said not to worry, there would be other ATMs in Sorrento. I said I had used the same card literally around the world and had never had an issue. “It’s Italy,” he said with a shrug. We eventually found an ATM in Sorrento at an actual bank (though the bank was closed) and I got the same response. So we caved in and got cash on our credit card, which seems so… unnecessary (and cost about five times as much). But the immediate problem was solved.

We went from Sorrento back via the same route to Pompeii. Turns out the Pompeii workers had staged a half-day strike in the morning (which explains why we had not started there), so the crowds when we got there around 14:30 were insane (perhaps they’re always that way, though we were told the strike was to blame). We were left with only about 90 minutes to do what we were told required three-four hours, and we spent a good 20-25 minutes of that time trying to get our group tickets sorted out. Buying adult tickets (with money we paid separately) was easy, but the  under-18 crowd, who got in free, were told they needed to wait in the miles-long line. Our tour guide eventually sorted it out, and we headed off with our radios listening to her prattle on in delightfully-Italian-accented English for just over an hour.

Pompeii, more so than Rome’s Colosseum or the Forum, really feels like a preserved human settlement. The streets and curbs and steps and many of the walls are, we were told, exactly as they were in 79AD when the ash came. Very little has been reconstructed, and so nothing, for example, meets any kind of modern code. And that makes it feel antique, even more than is the case with the Colosseum, which has been extensively salvaged and resurrected. We wandered the ruins for about 75 minutes (we left a little late), and she took us to some really key sites: two different theaters (a big and a small), a couple houses, a public bath, a brothel. And we walked a number of streets, which were spooky cool. There really is a touch of the Andromeda Strain about it, like we were *that close* to seeing the real place before everyone was removed and the place aged a thousand years in a blink.

Turns out the ruins are about 75% excavated, though even the excavated stuff is still being carefully combed-over to be sure nothing was missed. I feel as though we could have spent more time there, but we saw enough to get a real sense of what the place is about; and the real drain was the heat and the incredible crush of people that kept you from getting much of a good look at so much stuff. But we were part of that same crush, so I cannot complain too loudly. Still, it might be cool to come back late in the day or during the off-season (if there is one).

Tomorrow, Taormina. We aren’t sure if we’ll get off for that or not.

Cruise Day 5: Roma.

Rome pics HERE.

This (along with Venice) was the expected highlight of this cruise for me. We again had to decide between one of the ship’s sanctioned tours or activities and just going it on our own. We prefer the latter, but Rome is one of those places where the things to see so vastly overwhelm the time available that SOME prioritization is necessary. The organized tours are one way to cram several high-priority sites into a short span of time, but 1) they tend to be expensive, and 2) they necessitate seeing the sites with a throng of cruise ship denizens. On the other hand, these sites will inevitably be crammed anyway, and the cruise ship tours generally let you skip lines and wander right in.

We are returning to Rome for another day and a half after the cruise terminates in Venice, flying homeward out of Rome. So we decided to save the Vatican etc. for our return and to focus on the Colosseum and the next-door Forum for our present day’s activities.  So we bypassed the Holland America sanctioned tours (and also their $100-a-person transport bus—since Civitavecchia is about 90 minutes from Rome proper) and opted instead for the $15 all-you-can-ride train pass. And as we were buying that we saw that, for another $20 or so, we could also get a no-wait ticket for the Colosseum and the Forum. Just what we had wanted! 

It was another of those days where I find myself emerging from a strange train (the Italian trains, while punctual, were hot and crowded and not very pleasant) in a strange, fabulous city with seemingly the whole world at my fingertips. Asking directions to the Colosseum from a tour guide in the Termini, she replied “Outside and keep going downhill.” The city was warm and crowded and chaotic—just my thing. Everything is old and slightly decrepit, and the ruins, which take up a lot of space, just spring up on you. Suddenly you look down a side street and find your view blocked… by the frickin’ Colosseum! How cool is that?

We made our way down the streets that, in some form, had to have funneled people to this site for thousands of years, past street hawkers and men dressed as gladiators selling photo ops. Thanks to our passes, we just bypassed a milling crowd of thousands and walked almost straight in. I couldn’t help thinking “Lambeau Field” as we walked the vaulted passages beneath the seating risers; the purpose of the place, as with the Greek theatres we saw a couple years back, is unmistakeable. People gathered here in huge numbers to engage in a collective event. And the size of the place really takes the breath away, especially given the time in history when it was made. Much of what we see today is crumbling, and there has been a lot of restoration. But it’s still spooky-old. We stopped by the bookstore for a couple things, one book specifically about the Colosseum and another about ancient Rome generally.

From there we walked next door to the Forum. I expected (having done very little research) that the Forum was a single thing—a site or a building or whatever; a locale for some purpose. But it’s really more like a street with numerous structures along it. There has clearly been some restoration work on some things, but most of it is still bits and pieces of things sticking out of the ground. If anything, it seemed even more fascinating to me than the Colosseum because it was many things over a large area, even if no single thing holds a candle to the Colosseum.

It’s a bit like a big art museum in that I think one could profitably return numerous times with study in between and really learn things.

Walking through these two things, Colosseum and Forum, took us a good four-plus hours. And we walked from there back through the city to the train station and headed back to Civitavecchia and the ship. Fantastic day.

Cruise Day 4: Livorno.

Livorno pictures HERE.

This is the dilemma with cruise ship travel: to a large extent, the itinerary of any given day is dictated by the ship’s schedule. True, even without the ship (unless you just got off an airplane and lit out) you’d be bound by whatever reservations you made as you planned your vacation; but cruise ship schedules tend to put you ashore in the morning and dictate an all-aboard around suppertime. So you have a limited time each day to explore the port, or to choose between several options. If it’s a place you’ve never been before, the choosing can be hard.

And so it was in Livorno. Most people use this day as a jumping-off point to nearby Pisa (to see the leaning tower) or to head a bit further afield to Florence. We debated—Florence seems like a place to see—but we were both a little tapped-out from a week of travel (following hard on a long-ish week in New York). So we decided we’d rather make a short day looking around Livorno than to spend 4+ hours in transit for 5 hours on the hoof in Florence. (It always feels odd to me to depart a new place I haven’t explored for some OTHER place I haven’t explored, even as I acknowledge that the other place may be more noteworthy.) Nobody said anything very complimentary about Livorno, but it turns out to be an interesting town with a big water presence. We walked around and saw some Venice-like canals and an old fort that, apparently, was occupied by post-WWII squatters until the 60s. From there we just walked at random and stumbled upon a great street market that we spent a couple hours exploring. It was all quite un-touristy compared to the usual cruise ship fare—as with Marseilles, the giveaway was the preponderance of socks and underwear at many market stalls. There was a fish and food market in an old building next door to the outdoor market, so we roamed those stalls as well. Compared to the tourist sites we had seen thus far, it all seemed a bit tired and low-rent, but honestly that was refreshing.

And that was pretty much the whole day. We made it back to the ship after about four hours and close to 10 miles, with enough time for a short nap and a leisurely swim and snacks (in other words, standard cruise ship daily life).

One oddity was the evening’s entertainment on the ship. There is a big showroom which can hold about half of the ship’s 2200 passengers, and so the evening’s shows are repeated twice, once at about 8:PM and another at 10:PM. The shows are about an hour, and they rotate among the ship’s cast of singers and dancers, a comedian or juggler or the like, a couple small musical acts, and some kind of ethnic show from the ship’s complement of Southeast Asian employees. Additionally, there are three or four other musical things going on throughout the ship: there is always a piano bar (which is surprisingly well-attended for what sounds to me like—well, it IS—lounge music); there’s a solo guitarist up in the “Crow’s Nest,” a bar at the uppermost deck at the bow of the ship—with a spectacular view of the sea ahead—a small dance combo in the center atrium at a bar there; and the house band typically plays rock and roll favorites somewhere else on the ship for three or four hours a day. On this cruise, for the first time, I see a group called the B.B. King’s Blues All-Stars playing in a large performance space every night. This is something new. They seem quite good, though I’ve only listened to them in passing. There’s generally a string trio or quartet on most ships that plays a couple hours in the evening, and I’ve sampled them on each cruise. The quality varies from quite marginal to really very good. On this cruise the classical fare is provided by a violinist and pianist. I could only stand a few minutes of this, though the pianist seemed quite good (I confess the solo violin is a particularly difficult instrument for me; I just don’t like the tone in general, and I HATE the constant, waggling vibrato).

So I try to sample everything, if briefly. But beyond that I don’t typically do their entertainment.

But on this cruise the surprise was an actual concert pianist in the main showroom! (A Chinese-Brit whom I did not know and whose name I cannot now remember). This is the first time I’ve seen anything like this in the main showroom, and from the description—“Concert Pianist”— I quite expected her to be more new-age or even have a showtunes trio accompanying her. But no! She played Liszt and Chopin and Beethoven and one of her own compositions. And she was quite good indeed. There were, of course, only about 200 people in the audience, but they were receptive and gave her a rousing ovation at the end.

So unexpected but delightful!

Cruise Day 3: Monaco.

Monaco pictures HERE.

Well, Monaco has come and gone. Though I have of course heard about Rome and Venice since my early childhood, most of the places on this cruise I’ve never really heard of. Monaco is an exception. I’ve followed Formula 1 car racing for close to 20 years now (though not so much in the last couple seasons) and Monaco is the crown jewel race for this series. There are only a couple races on the yearly calendar that have been there since the beginning (in, I believe, 1950). Monaco is one of them and perhaps the most special. It’s certainly the most glamorous and the most anomalous. The race is held on the city streets of the crowded municipality—a tiny city-state, really—and there are virtually none of the safety features that have become required of any other venue that proposes to host an F1 race. Mostly, there is no room for error. If you are off-line, you hit immoveable things—armco barriers or stone walls. There is precious little space to pass another car, and, again, getting it wrong means broken things. It has long been conceded that no one trying to establish a race today would be allowed to consider an ancient mountainside playground for the rich and famous as a venue.

But it was here first, so the race itself has had to adapt over time. Despite a continuous tweaking of the regulations, the cars get faster and faster, more than offsetting the increases in safety achieved in other areas. So cars going 120 mph in this setting, though considerably slower than speeds achieved on any other track, seems INSANE when you see how cramped the track is. Suicidal, even.

I’ve known all this for years, of course. Anyone who watches the race on TV gets a continuous earful about how odd the circumstances are and how dangerous it is to hold a race in this setting. And from that TV coverage over 20 years I’ve watched hundreds of laps around the circuit from both onboard cameras and from general TV coverage. So it’s kind of surreal to show up and experience a thing you already kind of know well. We got off our tender at a pier not far from the center of town (the whole municipality can be walked one end to the other in hardly more than an hour, I’d say) and was suddenly overtaken with a sense of déja vu. I know this place! This place I’ve never set foot upon. Very odd indeed.

Well, I know it, but I don’t know it. There’s still a disconnect between what I’ve seen and what it’s like in the flesh. As it looked around I needed to do a little act of translation. TV plays with your sense of perspective and distance. The actual distances are much shorter than I expected, the quarters tighter, the hills steeper. I’ve listened to laments for years about how cramped everything is, but I wasn’t prepared to practically be able to touch both lanes of the track simultaneously.

Before walking parts of the track, we headed uphill from the tender pier to the oldest part of the city, high on a hill overlooking the spectacular harbor that is the city’s trademark. This is supposedly the old, original city. From there the narrow, winding streets lead to the famous cathedral where Grace Kelly is buried (along with her husband), and from there onward to the Royal Palace. All trés swank. Then one descends down the backside of the hill back to sea level. We went from there to a shopping complex where Susan shopped a bit and I went through the prince’s private car collection, which includes a bunch of F1 cars starting from about 1980 and continuing up to the present day (they had a stripped 2013 Lotus on display). He also has a bunch of older cars from many nations, actually extending as far back as horse-drawn carriages. I especially loved the ‘50s vintage Cadillacs. Fun to see how the American cars competed when we were at the top of our game. Our cars were utterly distinct from anything else being made.

After that, we just roamed the city, mostly following the F1 track. We did a little window shopping (I bought only a Mercedes team F1 hat), we had some lunch, took a boatload of pictures, and headed back to the ship. A really lovely day. There is a fairy-tale aspect to the place, and while I’d love seeing the race in person it doesn’t seem like a place I’d need to visit again. But I’m thrilled I saw it in person.

Vacation, Day 7; Cruise, Day 2

Marseilles pictures are HERE.

Today: Marseilles. A short overnight steam from Barcelona, we were docked 3-4 miles outside the city center of Marseilles by 8:AM. We were still struggling a bit with our sleep schedules, and were awakened by the 8:AM docking announcement. We decided the day before that we’d let the tour people get off the boat first, and it was a good call. Breakfast at 8:30 was not so crazy-busy, and at 9:AM we walked right onto the waiting shuttle and were downtown in a quick 15 minutes.

We had a vague idea of things we’d be happy to see—the Roman Dock museum, a couple churches, a couple forts—and we headed off on foot to see what landed in front of us. The harbor in Marseilles is lovely, and PACKED with boats, both working and pleasure. The docks extend from both sides of the harbor and almost meet in the middle, a channel being kept open in the center big enough for a couple boats to pass. The rest is parking space. So we walked around that and looked at both the many boats and the shops and restaurants that ringed the harbor (it’s maybe half a mile on each side). At the end of the harbor going inland is the old city, and we just headed inland and picked an interesting-looking street and took it. Interesting shops and historic-looking buildings. We then stumbled upon a semi-impromptu outdoor market that stretched along both sides of a walking path along a boulevard for maybe a mile or more. This was a market for locals, I think, similar to those that pop up along the streets of lower Manhattan. Socks and underwear and phone covers and numerous kinds of foods, etc. Susan found a couple interesting barrettes and I found a small metal wallet. Lots of fun.

From there we headed vaguely uphill towards a church up on the highest peak of land overlooking the city, the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde. It was quite a hike to get up there, but the panoramic views of the beautiful old city and harbor far below were quite worth the effort. The church was quite lovely, and set in an unlikely setting. Lots of gold leaf and many memorials to those who died in sailing accidents over the centuries (our guide book says that Marseilles is one of the oldest cities in Europe, having been established over 3,000 years ago).

In all, it was a larger place than I had imagined. They have a pretty elaborate subway system, and we saw a number of bus routes, so there’s more to it than I realized. We, of course, saw only a small portion of it, but it was a lovely introduction.

Tomorrow: Monaco!