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Backpacking-through-Europe Part VI: Vienna

Backpacking-through-Europe Part VI: Vienna

Sent Wednesday, April 01, 2009 9:11 PM

Before I visited Vienna, I had pretty strong visions of the city…and all of it, well, “classy and luxe”: The Vienna Opera House, the Viennese Waltz, Mozart, the Lippizaner Stallions, the grand ball held by Christopher Plummer and the wickedly gorgeous Countess in ‘The Sound of Music’, the Vienna Boys Choir, the mouth-watering Sacher Torte and other, luscious pastries. My first longing for Vienna, I sheepishly admit, started back in the ’70’s on TV, when those General Foods International Coffees commercials ruled the airwaves. The spot for Cafe Vienna hooked me, with its romantic images of sipping steaming cups of coffee from beautiful china cups at a charming Vienna cafe. I’m sure I bugged my Mom relentlessly until she bought a can of the hardly-Viennese, just-add-water, sugar-loaded coffee-flavored powder. But, on a chilly, Texas-winter day, it sure warmed my insides and made me feel, well, “classy and luxe”! (Oh, yeah…the not-so-little “dash” of Kahlua I snuck in there helped, too!)

And then there’s Vienna sausage; but somehow, those pale, watery, mushy fingerlings have no association with my grand visions of the legendary Austrian city. Incidentally, in Vienna, they call their city “Wien” (pronounced “vee-EHN”); and someone (or something, such as a sausage) that comes from Wien, or is in the style of Wien, is called “Wiener” (pronounced “vee-EHN-er”). How we took such a beautiful pronunciation and twisted it into the awful-sounding “WEE-ner” is beyond me!

Vienna did not disappoint. Its city center, within the well-trafficked “Ring”, is spotless-clean and filled with beautiful, wedding-cake buildings containing layer upon layer of ornate architectural flourishes. St. Stephan’s Cathedral (under construction since 1147) and the “twin” museums – Naturhistorisches and Kunsthistorisches, veritable palaces dedicated to, respectively, the sciences and the arts, are not to be missed. The Staats-Oper (Vienna State Opera House) is beautiful and iconic, but tastefully subdued, not garish. Arrive for one of the nightly musical performances in a glassed-in, Cinderella carriage pulled by a team of elegant horses. Afterward, finish your evening by crossing the street to the Sacher Hotel, home of the famous Sacher Torte: the indulgent, dark-chocolate-and-raspberry sweet.

Outide the “Ring”, government buildings, such as the towering Rathaus (City Hall) and the gleaming-white, classical Parliament Building, are a delight. My favorite visit was to the Naschmarkt, a bustling, open-air market. The fruit, vegetables, meats, cheeses and spices are an explosion of high-intensity colors and enticing aromas. Make sure to sample some of the mouthwatering dried fruit, little cheeses wrapped in prosciutto, honey-sweet dates and pickles so salty-sour that, once your lips start puckering, you’re in danger of sucking your own face right in! While you sashay down this epicurean catwalk, you can also pop into one of the myriad wine bars and cafes serving delicious Viennese fare. (You’ll never taste a wienerschnitzel or apfelstrudel as amazing as the ones you’ll find here, right in their own hometown!)

Like Paris (but much, much cleaner), wide boulevards, manicured parks and symmetry in building abound. Like Rome, the scale, detail and drama in Vienna’s mythological statuary are amazing! You know by now that I like a little “rough-edge” aesthetic in my cities; and except for the area surrounding the Wien Südbahnhof rail station we pulled into, Vienna might have been (a wee bit) too polished, a movie set, for my tastes. (However, I can understand how this is the very thing that makes Vienna so attractive to the traveling set, compared to some of its rode-hard, European sister cities.)

But, what I came to Vienna for most was her museums; and she does have some fantastic ones, mainly clustered (as Berlin had done) in a beautiful, open-air square known as the MuseumsQuartier, once the royal stables. In my last travelogue, I mentioned the hours spent in the library in college. My parents’ artistic, slightly-off-center views of the world had already begun shaping (misshaping? Haha!) my own outlook; but burying my head in glossy art books and cutting-edge design journals blasted a hole in it! ‘Twas here that I met the artists, designers and craftsmen, both past and contemporary, that would become my personal deities: Frida Kahlo, Dale Chihuly, Egon Schiele, Louise Nevelson, Cindy Sherman, Gustav Klimt, Francis Bacon, Phillipe Starck, Thierry Mugler. I’ve come to Vienna to worship two of them – Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt – sons of Vienna, both.

These extraordinarily talented men, contemporaries of each other at the turn of the last century, are both particular favorites of mine. Klimt is the better-known of the two…his work, especially his hauntingly beautiful, Eastern-inspired (and controversially erotic at the time) paintings of fin-de-siecle Austrian high society, have been exhibited around the world. These are here at Vienna’s LeopoldMuseum, too; but it’s also amazing to see his less-well-known landscapes, as well as earlier work before he developed his signature style. It’s also heartbreaking to see sketches and photographs of his greatest works, lost in a fire at the ImmendorfPalace in 1945.

Egon Schiele was a student of Klimt; and I have to say that I admire his work the most. I’m thrilled to be at the Leopold, which has the world’s largest collection of Schiele’s legacy. His paintings are dramatic and dark; but I’m most captivated by his drawings and watercolors…not just erotic, as with Klimt, but dripping with unabashed sexuality. His self-portraits are my favorite, revealing a rebellious, slightly tormented, sensual creature. He draws his subjects in slightly twisted, almost unnatural poses…and they look you, bold and defiant, right in the eye. Both artists shook the art world in their day, breaking several times from the art “establishment”. In 1918, Klimt died of a stroke. Schiele sketched the last portrait of the great master at the morgue and then, at the age of 28, died that same year. Their art remains, surprisingly contemporary…and powerful as ever.

Tonight, my hostel roommates, Edmund (born in Malaysia, living in Seattle and moving to Washington, D.C.) and Dimitry (born in Russia, living in Boston, moving to New York City) and I are celebrating our last night in Vienna. I’m heading to Budapest in the morning; they’re on to Prague. Edmund is the first hostel roommate I’ve had on this trip who is gay. He’s a party-boy…always wanting to go clubbing (kinda like me when I was young!). Dimitry is straight and studious, always on his laptop, checking on the status of the economy. (He’s moving to NY to work for Citicorp.) The three of us have been sightseeing separately, then meeting back in the evening at the hostel’s lounge to share our experiences of the day over boxes (yes, that’s BOXES!) of cheap wine. Tonight, though, we’ve finally given in to Edmund’s pleas to go out for one drink on our last night. Dimitry has never been to a gay bar; Edmund has already researched the name (The Village) and location (not far from our hostel) of a bar; and I am looking forward to sampling a few more European beers.

We stop for delicious, 2.5-euro doner kebabs on the way.  We arrive at The Village, a slow (no…dead) Sunday night; but the music is great. Dimitry is a great sport…a little nervous at first; but doing fine. Since the bar is empty, Edmund and I don’t have to bust out our Evil Gay Ninja moves to protect him from Leather Daddies or Lumberjacks. After finishing our Austrian Ottakringer and Puntigamer beers and listening to a few more songs, we shake hands with our bartender and walk back to the hostel…a subdued evening, but a great one amongst new friends. Dimitry arrives in NYC at the end of June; and Edmund will come into the city from D.C. to visit. We’re planning on getting together for a little reunion then, the 3 of us…The Wiener Boxwine Gang!

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Backpacking-through-Europe Part V: Prague

Backpacking-through-Europe Part V:Prague

Sent Monday, March 30, 2009 9:51 AM

Prague is probably the city on this trip that I was most excited about.  All the capitals once behind the Iron Curtain have that appeal, I guess –  their one-time inaccessibility, their mystery, their time-warped technological advancement during Communist rule, which preserved a bygone way of life.  (I remember being so shocked when I went to work in the Soviet Union in 1990 at how their technology had seemingly frozen in time…the abacus being used at shops, rather than cash registers, street juice-vending machines having one, real glass – not disposable – and everyone using the same glass, etc.  But, Madonna t-shirts were for sale in my hotel gift shop!  Pop culture spreads faster than technology, apparently!)  Prague, however, is a modern city today, with all the modern comforts of home…but wrapped around a rich, medieval core.

Out of Berlin, with a stop in the famous German city of Dresden, we head for the Czech Republic.  The scenery changes as we glide beside the Vltava River…beautiful, sheer stone cliffs on the opposite side, an ancient castle or two above, and beautiful, tiny river-villages below.  The landscape turns hilly once we’re in the land of Kafka…and the hills are white!  It’s snowing heavily when my train pulls into Prague’s Holesovice railway station.  It’s a nice snow, big and fluffy; and with the onion-domed churches I pass on the brief walk to my hostel, I’m reminded of the movie ‘Dr. Zhivago’.  My hostel, Miss Sophie’s, is stunning.  It’s a boutique hostel, if ever there was such a thing…beautifully renovated in the latest style of furnishings, window treatments and chic lighting (after all, interior design is ALL about the lighting!).  This MORE than makes up for the strange hostel I just left in Berlin!

The snow has stopped; and the sun is trying hard to claw its way through the thick cloud cover (yeah!)…but it’s still freaking cold.  I’m staying in the Nové mesto (New Town) area of Prague.  The two main areas of interest here are Staré mesto (OldTown), where the Old Town Square is located and, across the Vltava River, Hradcany, the hilly area of Prague’s famous castle, Prazsky hrad.  A quick walk down Václavské námesti (Wenceslas Square…whodathunk good ol’ King Wenceslas from the Christmas carol was from Prague?!) into Staré mesto, and the best of Prague unfolds before my eyes.

As in Brugge, I’m dumbfounded by the absolute beauty of the Old Town Square, which originated in the 12th century.  From a quick cel-phone-pic I sent out, my friend, Jennifer, replied that it appeared as if I had stepped back in time; and that’s EXACTLY how I felt!  The architecture is typically medieval-east-European; but the thing that amazes me is the color…bright-orange tile roofs contrast and clash beautifully with stucco walls in lime sherbet, butter yellow, cool-mint blue and fresh-baked gingerbread. If color can be called “delicious”, this is it!  I can’t help but wonder if these are traditional color choices, or choices made to brighten up the days behind the Iron Curtain, or colors meant to draw the tourists like butterflies to a floral fantasy feast? Whatever it WAS, I’m glad it IS…I’m hooked on the aesthetics here!

The Old Town Square’s belfry (which I plan to climb tomorrow…a European tradition I started years ago at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral) contains a famous, astronomical clock, with an on-the-hour, mechanized display of the Twelve Apostles passing by the windows, accompanied by bells and chimes galore.  At 10 minutes to the hour, the tourists have gathered below, cameras pointed and focused, as if the Pope himself were about to appear at the balcony…crowding each other, standing en pointe, shivering, all vying for the perfect position. The “spectacle” is over before you know it…cute enough, but I’m reminded of that song, “I Shaved My Legs for This?”.  My version would be, “I Froze My Butt Off for This?!”.

The sun is lowering over the hills; so I scurry towards the river for some (hopefully) great camera shots.  Parizska ulicka leads me directly to the Vltava. Walking the length of this beautiful street, I’m in danger of whiplash from the constant looking up, hypnotized by the luscious buildings on both sides, now housing the premier fashion boutiques from around the world.  I’m struck by the number of caryatids in the architecture: those fabulous architectural creatures, female (and sometimes, male) figures (usually in pairs on either side of a doorway) appearing to support the structure…in effect, columns in human form. They are one of my favorite architectural details. The fact that the male figures are beefy and RIPPLIN’ doesn’t hurt a bit…the fact that no one uses them in building anymore DOES!

The sudden, icy blast tells me I’m at the water…and what a view!  High on the hill, proud and strong, stands Prague Castle, the pride of Bohemia, both imposing and incredibly graceful. The effect is oil-painting perfect – the castle silhouetted against a mottled, grey-and-silver cloud background, pierced, sword-like, by rays of dusky sun.  I snap some shots and make my way south along the river to Karluv most, Charles Bridge, the most famous site in Prague. Crossing this majestic, stone bridge, guided safely across by the beautiful, blackened statues along its edges, leads you directly to the castle district. Looking up at the climb, I decide…uh…better make that journey tomorrow!

I did so well with my daily budget in Berlin that I’m treating myself to a nice, relaxing dinner back in Prague’s Old Town Square this evening.  Prague is proud of it’s traditional, roasted duck, and with good reason.  Succulent and falling-off-the-bone tender, accompanied by delicious, tart, salty-sweet red cabbage cooked with apples, not to mention the VERY filling Czech dumplings, it forced me into complete and utter gluttony.  Of course, it required the delicious, Czech beers, Pilsner Urquell and Krusovice, to wash it down! (My friend, Gloria, emails me that I’m going to come home sporting a beer belly!  If so, it will have been well worth it!)

On the way back to Miss Sophie’s, I happen upon the famous “Fred and Ginger” buildings.  Both modern buildings, “Fred” is geometric, rectilinear, proper and debonair.  “Ginger” is leaning against “Fred”, all curves and flowing, her “skirt” billowingly frozen mid-twirl.  I had seen a daytime photo in the travel guide of these 2 buildings and, not impressed, didn’t even put it on my to-do list; but at night, glittering with light, the pair is onstage and on fire, foxtrotting beside the River Vltava!  I’m so glad I stumbled upon them!  (That’s the beauty of wandering and getting lost in a place…the unexpected jewels you find along the way.)

Back at my oh-so-chic hostel, I meet 2 of my 3 roommates, Kurando and Barbara.  (A 4-bed “apartment”, which is Miss Sophie’s fancy-schmancy term for “dorm room”, I’ll meet my other roommate, Susanna, from Rochester, NY, later.)  This is the first hostel I’ve visited in which the dorm rooms are co-ed. Barbara and Kurando are a couple living in Dresden. He’s from the Dresden area originally; but she’s from Köln.  We hit it off immediately, mainly because we are all the offspring of multi-racial parents: Kurando is half-German-half-Japanese; and Barbara is half-German-half-East-Indian…and you know my mutt-mixture! (Ahem! That’s mutt with nobility in the Hawaiian AND German lines, thank you very much! Haha!)  Kurando and Barbara are thrilled that I, too, am part German (albeit just a little bit, “ein kleinen bisschen”)!

We carry our conversation downstairs to the hostel’s lounge/kitchen; so they can prepare their dinner.  On tighter budgets than mine, many of the younger hostellers cook their own dinners from groceries gathered during their daily sightseeing.  (Many of the hostels have a full kitchen for the use of their guests, complete with all the necessary accoutrements.)  Cooking wasn’t a part of MY particular backpacking plan; but I can dig it!  Having stuffed myself with so much duck that I’m about to “Quack!”, I politely turn down their kind offer to join them in their meal, but accept their offer to help them drink the wine they bought, provided they allow me to help them with the dishes afterward. Two bottles of wine later, our laughter and conversation probably annoying the few hostellers watching an old James Bond movie in the adjoining lodge (whatever!), we have become fast friends.  Their thirst for stories about Hawaii and New York now quenched, my list of places to visit next time in Germany appended, and dishes done, we call it a night.

A new morning, sunny and brisk, and my sustenance for the climb to the castle takes the form of a delicious, traditional pastry called trdelnik, a pizza-like dough wrapped around a hot, metal cylinder, spinning over an open flame. Once toasted perfectly, it’s rolled in sugar and chopped almonds and served hot…soft and crunchy at the same time, sweet and delicious!  Though marvelous on it’s own, I need some excuse to buy from a street-side stand another of what has become my beverage of choice in Prague, svarene vino. This hot, mulled, red wine has a nice, cinnamon-y spice to it; and though it’s quite strong, it goes down smooth on a chilly day.  Plus, I love a good buzz in the morning!

Always up for a good hike, and lightheaded from the sugar and wine, I take the old castle steps up to the top; but, if you prefer, a tram will drop you right at the castle gates. The castle complex is large, encompassing many buildings and several churches.  My favorite of all is the ornate St. Vitus Cathedral, which took 600 years to complete.  In Europe, the cathedrals are all so beautiful, each vying for your favor (well, actually, GOD’s).  It’s easy to get jaded after you’ve visited some of the more famous ones; but if you are patient and open, you will find something that makes each one unique…some little detail or story in its history that captures your admiration.

For me, it’s the stained-glass windows here that are so unique.  Normally, pieces of colored glass are cut into exact shapes to fulfill the design, then fitted together like a colorful, Holy jigsaw puzzle, with each piece in its special location in the finished work.  At St Vitus, though, I was intrigued by the tiny, uniformly-shaped pieces of glass put together at different angles and color combinations to form the design. They are, in effect, huge, sparkling mosaics of glass…absolutely amazing!  (Having recently finished a month-long mosaics class in New York and discovering that they’re much more difficult to execute than they appear, my appreciation for these windows is immense!)  That said, though, the piece de resistance is the one window designed by the world-renowned Czech artist, Alphonse Mucha.  Mucha was a brilliant designer of the Art Nouveau, probably my favorite stylistic movement of all.  (More about Mucha later.)  His window is the most beautiful stained-glass artwork I have EVER seen!  When you first walk into the church, a quick glance around at all the windows alerts you that one window is different from the rest.  Rather than the usual mixture of red, yellow, green and blue, this one glows a seductive, undersea palette of emerald, deep aqua, rich Prussian blue.  This is the Mucha window; and when you make your way around to it, you will stop, drop into a stupor, and want to get much closer to it than you can.  If you are already familiar with Mucha’s lithograph posters, imagine them in super-saturated, colored glass.  If you’re not, then you must go to see the window in person…you’ll understand when you are standing beneath it, gawking at its brilliance.  Note: If you can, find out about what time the sun will be shining through the great, rose window.  When I was there, this was around 3:30 pm.  If you go then (and it’s a clear day), the sun streaming directly through the colored glass will refract a kaleidoscope of rainbow-light-chips all over the cathedral’s interior…FABULOUS!!  It’s otherworldly; and I can see how, for the hard-working, down-trodden, Slavic townsfolk of several centuries prior, this WAS a religious experience!  Me? I felt like slipping on some bellbottoms and platform shoes and gettin’ DOWN, Y’all!

This area of Prague, Hradcany, has much to see; and it would be easy to spend an entire day on this side of the river.  I, however, have to head back across one of the city’s bridges to Staré Mesto to visit the Alphonse Mucha Museum, one of the things I most wanted to see on this trip.  When I was in college, I spent hours in the library, poring over art books.  Here, I discovered I was really seduced by the sinewy, underwater- and deep-forest-fantasy designs of the artists involved in the (quite-shocking-back-in-the-late-1800’s) Art Nouveau movement. I would get lost in the lithographs, paintings, sculpture, textiles and architecture of its great designers: Hector Guimard, Victor Horta, Gustav Klimt, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Alphonse Mucha.  (A few years later, on my first trip to Europe, I nearly hyperventilated upon approaching one of the original, Guimard-designed entryways to the Paris Metro.  At the end of this trip, I luxuriated in the Victor Horta Museum, originally his home, in the outskirts of Brussels!)  Mucha’s work is probably familiar to most.  His posters, usually featuring beautiful women with strands of their hair swirling around the image, flowers intertwined in their hair and the poster’s text, abound in the Mucha Museum.  It’s fascinating to learn about his life and see so many of his beautiful works of art.  I was most impressed, I think, with his preliminary sketches, which give you more of an insight to his thought processes, techniques and sheer talent than you get from the finished prints.  If you go to Prague, check out this museum.  You’ll also see his architectural prowess in several buildings throughout the city, including the most famous, the Obecni dum (Municipal House).

From here, I’m keeping my promise to myself to climb the Old Town’s belfry tower.  An easier climb than I expected, I’m rewarded by yet another fantastic view.  This is picture-perfect-Prague; and everyone else up here agrees with me. It’s nice, because you are on an outdoor balcony all the way around the tower, letting you soak in the panorama from every angle.  The soon-to-set sun is causing the orange-tiled roofs to glow like coals; and the long shadows being cast over the tiny cafe-sitters below on the cobblestone-paved square all epitomize this part of the world to me.  If any of my photos scream, “EUROPE!”, I bet they’ll be from the series I shot from way up here.  I could stay for hours; but it’s a small, cramped balcony; and before the awesome lighting fades, many more people waiting below should have this beautiful experience.

I leave for Vienna in the morning; and passing through the Old Town on the way to my hostel for the evening, an art gallery window brings me to a screeching halt.  In it are the most beautiful, fancy, fully-operational, crystal chandeliers…but they’re made completely of plastic water bottles. I peer beyond the chandeliers and see a display of potted cacti of all shapes, sizes and shades of green, some with spines, others sprouting blooms in vivid reds and yellow…again, all out of plastic water and soda bottles.  This is the work of Prague environmental artist, Veronika Richterova.  The gallery director invites me in; and I’m awestruck by enormous, rainbow-hued, plastic dragonflies, tranclucent schools of realistic, yet plastic, fish, and a tree hanging with a bevy of plastic, flying-fox bats.  A brief film documents the artist’s views on the problem of waste and shows her digging in trash receptacles for variously-colored plastic bottles (Dumpster-diving! I LOVE her!), cleaning them, and creating her art through various blow-torching and hot-wire-cutting techniques…wonderful!  She appeals to my own love of recycling, of creating beauty from the ordinary or offcast; and I feel an instant connection to her.  My last, engaging experience in Prague, this exhibit was also a reminder that this medieval city, capitalizing successfully on its Old World treasures, is yet a modern city with modern issues to deal with.  And Richterova symbolizes that modernism, calling for modern solutions to a modern ecological problem through her powerful, modern art.

Backpacking-through-Europe Part IV: Berlin

Sent Thursday, March 26, 2009 3:13 PM

From the wonderful, anything-goes city of Amsterdam, my train proceeds to Berlin, capital city of the new Germany.  After brief stops in the German cities of Osnabrück and Hannover, I arrive in this great city, contemplating my own, preconceived notions of the city – an eclectic mixed-bag of Adolf Hitler, Marlene Dietrich, Albert Einstein and Checkpoint Charlie…oh, yeah…and Liza Minelli in ‘Cabaret’!

After warm days in The Netherlands, Berlin is sunny and clear, but blusteringly, hand-and-ear-numbing-ly cold!  But, no worries!  Between my snazzy, long-john underwear and wool socks, the high-tech-fabric undershirt and jacket Mom & Dad helped me pick out at REI in Seattle along with the backpack (which, by the way, has been AWESOME!), the hoodie sweatshirt Ben and JoAn brought me back from Nantucket, the everything-proof Carhartt gloves I picked up in NYC and my favorite, hand-knitted-by-Ralph cap, I’m ready for any sharp, icy jabs Mother Nature decides to throw my way! (Bring it ON, Sistah!)  I won’t be toasting HER today!  Here’s to Polartek Fleece!

And, after great hostels in Brussels and, especially, Amsterdam, I arrive at my not-so-great hostel here.  No breakfast like the last two and, strangely, no reception!  When you arrive, you call a phone number; they arrive to give you your key and orientation; and they leave.  Bizarre!  Oh, well…I like the location, a neighborhood called Mitte-Prenzlauer Berg that used to be behind the Wall in Eastern Berlin.  It’s now a hip and trendy, sort-of-edgy ‘hood, where Berlin’s alternative subcultures thrive.  When the Wall came down, West Berlin’s artists, musicians, gays and students hastened to the East side, where rents were much cheaper and the “wasteland” of the East provided a fresh canvas on which to paint their lives…an ironic, reverse-direction “escape” from those that had been attempted over the past 40 years!  Here, bars, nightclubs and cheap eats abound…hence, the hostels.  Mitte-Prenzlauer Berg is within walking distance of about a third of the sights on my to-do list, and hosts several bus and tram lines. A good thing, since Berlin is quite large and spread out…the walk between sights will test even MY walking-legs…and THESE boots were made-for-walkin’!

Thankfully, Berlin has one of the most extensive, super-efficient (Hello! Germans!) transportation systems in the world.  There are buses, trams, and not one, but TWO, light rail systems, the S-Bahn and U-Bahn trains.  Berlin’s mass-transit is the epitome of the well-planned systems of Europe.  Tickets are good on all the various types of transit; and ticketing is on the honor system. Rather than the profit-paranoid, ticket-and-turnstyle system in the States, Europeans dutifully purchase their tickets and self-validate the tickets at convenient machines in the stations or on the buses, trams and trains. This validation stamp determines the start-to-end validity period of the ticket.  Compared to the ticket-machine- and turnstyle-bottlenecks in the NYC subways (which only happen when you’re in a rush), the European system is brilliant…and nope, the system’s not bleeding to death from travelers cheating it!

My first day, I venture through the ‘hood, passing the Stiftung Neue Synagogue of 1866, its facade and dome restored to its historic, sacred, golden glory, then cross over Berlin’s river Spree onto Museumsinsel, a beautiful island on which the city’s great museums reside.  Past the collection of museums, I’m stopped dead in my tracks by the incredibly beautiful Berliner Dom, the massive and ornate Lutheran cathedral built in 1900, whose green-black, verdigris domes and statues glow in the tangerine light of the waning sun.  I’m also duly impressed by the sheer number of statues up there! (Party on da rooftop!)

Alongside the Dom, I begin a long, long, long walk down the famous (and did I mention LONG?!) boulevard, Unter den Linden, to its terminus, the famous Brandenburger Tor, the Brandenburg Gate. Today, this beautiful structure, under which I’m filled with the same sense of awe I get standing under Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, leads you to the beautiful greenspace called Tiergarten, once the royal hunting grounds.  But the gate’s infamy stems from its service as the main gate of the dreaded Berlin Wall.  Once the sun sets for the day, the cold is unbearable (Mother Nature ain’t playin’ fair!); so a quick duck into a bäckerei (bakery) in Pariser Platz for a soul-warming coffee, then back to the hostel to hunker down for the night.  Tomorrow’s itinerary is gonna kick my ass!

Potsdamer Platz, the throbbing hub of Berlin life (on par with New York’s Times Square) from the turn of the century until the WWII bombings and its later leveling to serve as the no-man’s land between East and West Berlin, has been rebuilt in modern steel and glass.  Not very interesting to me in general (remember, I like OLD!); but the giant, modern, canvas-and-metal sunshade atop the Sony Center complex is a wonder: part sail, part fan, part bird-wing…and pure art…origami on a scale as grand as Berlin.  Go to Potsdamer Platz to see this, if nothing else.

Nearby is the sight at the tip-top of my list, the Reichstag.  But on the way, two memorials I’ve wanted badly to visit.  The Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) is fantastic.  Encompassing an entire block, it’s a series of rectangular, concrete blocks of different heights, set into ground that has been UN-levelled intentionally, a rollercoaster surface causing you to labor up inclines, then drop into sudden depressions in the ground.  As you walk into the monument, the monoliths begin to suddenly tower over you and envelop you – a cold, dark, tomb-like feeling.  Add to this the uneven, snakey ground you’re trying to navigate; and you become disoriented and, to be honest, a little spooked…just the effect the memorial’s designer had in mind.  It gives us a sense of the disorientation and lost wandering the Jewish people experienced during this horrible period in history. This is another Berlin must-see.  The feeling is at once somber, wondrous and uneasy.  The design, however, is perfection.

Directly across the street is a small and obscure, but very unique, memorial – the Monument to Homosexual Holocaust Victims.  During Hitler’s reign of terror, homosexual men (but not lesbians, who were considered less of a threat) were also rounded up all over Europe and sent to the concentration camps, forced to wear a pink triangle sewn onto their clothing in the same way that Jews were required to wear the yellow Star of David. (This is why, worldwide, gays today have adopted the pink triangle as our symbol of pride, to celebrate survival.  “Knock-knock…we’re still HERE!”  Snap-snap-snap in Z-formation!  Haha!  The Cosmopolitan, originally known as the Pink Martini, was our “official” cocktail way before “Sex and the City”…just look at it…it’s a pink triangle in the glass!) The Homosexual Holocaust Victims monument is small and not very spectacular, looking like a cross between a misplaced concrete block from the Jewish memorial across the street and a metal garden shed, with a small window that is obviously meant for peering into. The placard for the memorial, right on the sidewalk, accessible to the reading eyes of any passerby, is far from the monument itself, a VERY interesting juxtaposition! The placard’s text is informative and touching, explaining the history I briefly mentioned above, then noting that a kiss between two lovers was reason enough for conviction, and ending with the following quote: “Because of its history, Germany has a special responsibility to actively oppose the violation of gay men’s and lesbians’ human rights.”

BUT, if you’re interested in learning more (and you can’t help but WANT to peer into that little window to see what the heck is in there!), you have to walk a designated trail from the placard to the monument…anyone passing by can see you (you’re, in effect, “outed”) making a conscious, knowing effort to take part in the honoring of these lost, gay men.  In fact, after proudly peering into the little window, I walked away and sat down on a bench away from the memorial, deep in thought.  Several men passed by, read the placard, then glanced around to see if anyone was around who might possibly see them before approaching the window.  Only when they were certain the coast was clear did they quickly and nervously proceed.  Some just never got up the nerve to go further; and some couples who approached separated at the placard, the female of the couple advancing to the window, leaving her partner behind…he more anxious than ever without his female partner to confirm his sexual preference to the passing public.  Interesting, huh?  Fear runs DEEP!

And just what IS inside that window?  A continually-running film showing various, gay male (and fully-clothed, mind you!) couples standing in the spot before the memorial was installed, hugging, laughing, whispering sweet nothings into each others’ ears, and kissing. It’s so beautiful; and it made me aware of how rare these images of gay couples are for all of us…being lovey-dovey and sweet, holding hands and each other, touching each others’ cheeks and hair, enamored and in love…and all above-the-belt. Wow…

Two “heavy” sights in a row; and I need major sustenance. You can’t NOT do sausages and beer in Germany; and you don’t have to go far to find both! (It was my first trip to Germany in 1994 that sent my 7-year, steak-and-burger-resistant vegetarian streak crashing like a Stuka in flames.  My Achilles’ Heel, a weakness for salt-cured meats like bacon and sausage, was brutally exposed. Blame it on a big, grilled Bratwurst in an outdoor market in Köln that had me at “sizzle!”)  Today’s perfect lunch is “Berliner” brand beer, “naturlisch!” (naturally!), accompanied by an extremely popular Berlin street-food, “curry-wurst”.  This is a big, grilled sausage, sliced, drizzled with a tangy-sweet, tomato-ey sauce, then liberally sprinkled all over with curry powder…yowzah!  Any of you who have dined with me know I’m all over this!

Refreshed, it’s on to my last Berlin sights this trip…Gendarmenmarkt and the Reichstag. Gendarmenmarket is a lovely, wide-open square featuring the Konzerthaus building in its center, bookended by two beautiful, nearly-twin churches: Französische Dom and Deutsche Dom, the French and German Cathedrals.  It’s the perfect square to pull up to a cafe table on a nice day, relax and watch the world go by.  Berlin should have been renamed “Phoenix”; because it has definitely risen from the ashes…both the bombings that flattened it in WWII, and the social neglect of Communist-ruled East Berlin.  I bought some postcards showing the most famous Berlin sights right after the Allied bombings…twisted metal amongst piles of crumbled, burning masonry…being stared at by stunned Berliners in total shock. These images, alongside the photos I took of the same sights today show the amazing restoration work! Gendarmenmarkt is just one of the sights portrayed, as is Brandenburger Tor and the Reichstag, my next stop.

The Reichstag is Berlin’s best-known structure, home to today’s German Parliament.  Famous is its dome, which burned in 1933 and was never replaced. That is, until the reunification, when a new, spectacular dome designed by Sir Norman Foster, one of the architects mentioned in an earlier travelogue, capped the symbolic structure. The new dome is the highlight of the Reichstag, if not all of Berlin!  All glass and metal, a spiral walkway lines its interior, affording you breathtaking, 360-degree views of the city.  The central column inside the dome is covered in an array of geometric mirrors at many different angles, reflecting the visitors, the outside panoramas of the city, and other mirrors, giving you that mirrors-to-infinity effect.  It’s a fantastic, space-age, dizzying wonderland in there…hold on to the railings if you lose your sense of balance!  Another must-see; but go early. The Reichstag is always free; and since only a limited number of visitors at a time are allowed in, the lines get long and move very slowly. But, whenever you go, it’s well worth the wait. You can even peer in on a session of Parliament, watching history in the making.

Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche is a totally different type of sight than you’ll see elsewhere in Berlin…a modern ruin. Another casualty of Allied bombers, this once-beautiful church was preserved in its bombed-out state, shored-up here and there to prevent it from crumbling further.  It’s beautiful in this state; though you can’t help but long for the parts of it that were lost.  I love that someone had the foresight to think of doing this!  It’s important to see the results of the destructive power we possess.  Berlin is not afraid of her difficult, marred past. Bravely, this city started with acceptance, then moved to reparations, healing, reunification and honoring those who suffered at her hand and, like the true world leader she is, made a pact with her citizens to prevent the same mistakes from ever entering her sparkling future.  It’s an honor to experience her!

Backpacking-through-Europe Part III: Amsterdam

Sent Wednesday, March 25, 2009 9:36 PM

I’m looking forward to experiencing Amsterdam, a city known for its extremely relaxed, live-and-let-live lifestyle. I read an opinion in an Amsterdam travel guidebook that my friend, Rob, loaned me that claimed that New York City’s own laissez-faire attitude is a holdover from the Dutch, who settled Manhattan (after swindling it from the native Lenape community!) and created “New Amsterdam”…interesting!  Amongst the hustle-and-bustle of NYC today, I forget about “New Amsterdam”; but it lives just under the radar…all the Dutch street names and neighborhoods (once separate villages) in the city, which stubbornly survived both British rule and American independence.  New York City used to be a canal city, even!  Yep, Canal Street used to be a REAL canal running east-west across Manhattan.  Imagine how awesome it would be today, had it remained a viable waterway!  Leave it to New Yorkers to pollute it and be forced to fill in the putrid, disease-causing mess.  And leave it to my peeps (the Chinese) to swoop in and revive that ol’ Dutch spirit of mercantilism, this time as a successful (if illegal) business venture in fake Guccis, “Louies” and Coach…”Good price…you like?”

After stops in the renowned Belgian and Dutch cities of Antwerpen, Delft, Rotterdam and den Haag (The Hague), my train pulls into the beautiful Amsterdam Centraal station.  Amsterdam is in the middle of an extensive, citywide renovation project; and most of the grand, historical buildings, including the rail station and the beautiful Rijksmuseum, are well on their way to emerging from their tarp cocoons.  Already, glittering brick-and-gold wings (East Wing, West Wing) are beginning to unfurl from under cover.  I can’t wait to return to see the transformation!

I catch a tram to my hostel, located right on Amsterdam’s version of Central Park, Vondelpark (People’s Park).  (Big plus for me, as my body is jonesing for some yoga and jogging!)  I’m in easy walking distance of the canals; and my camera and I are eager to make their acquaintance! The combination of the unique canals (called “gracht” here), the beautiful, gingerbread facades of the canal houses, the bridges and houseboats, make this an extremely photogenic city.  Surprisingly, the canals are a little dirty, the houseboats decrepit and rotting; and the parking of automobiles all along the sides of the canals begin to eat away at the Amsterdam charm.  But, it’s wonderful nonetheless.  I imagine the charm factor explodes once the trees have leafed out fully and all the window boxes are spilling over with multihued blossoms!

Amsterdam is a cycling city, no doubt about it.  When you step out of the rail station, the sight of the bike-park, thousands of sparkling, entangled handlebars arranged in row upon row upon row, is amazing and almost intimidating…an immense, overwhelming army of giant, steel-and-rubber insects, poised to launch their attack on the city.  And, they do attack, albeit individually.

Here, more than any city I’ve ever been (except Delhi, that is, where I actually got hit by a motorcycle-taxi), you REALLY have to watch out for yourself as a pedestrian. The streets beneath your feet are a spaghetti-strewn system of tram tracks; and the trams seem to appear out of nowhere like freakin’ ghost trams, headed right toward you. Between the trams, the automobiles and the bicycles, it’s easy to feel like a sitting duck, a pinball in the arcade. Thankfully, the streets are clearly marked with bicycle versus pedestrian paths. However, the cyclists will angrily ring their bells at you if you step into THEIR path; but they won’t hesitate at all to ride in yours. In Amsterdam, bicycles RULE…best to just accept it…and watch your ass!

My first day, I walked all the way down, then up, Prinsengracht. On the way, I passed several of the city’s famous “smoking coffee houses”, where you can buy a joint to go along with your coffee! It was odd to smell that oh-so-familiar, pungent smell wafting through the air and see tables of people openly sharing long drags, laughing and conversing amongst clouds of hazy, heavy, hunger-inducing smoke. “Coffee-house”…yeah, right…they undoubtedly sell less coffee than marijuana, and even more snack-foods when the “munchies” inevitably kick in!

A solution to the citywide munchies is to pop into one of the many Febo automat bars.  The once-common “automats”, a wall of glass-and-metal boxes filled with hot snacks (and precursors to today’s vending machines), are very popular in Amsterdam.  Drop in your coins; lift the glass door; retrieve your fresh or recently-prepared snack; scarf it down; repeat; repeat; repeat!  It’s great to see the older generations happen upon one of these snack bars…the thrill on their faces as they wax nostalgic, flooded with remembrances of their youth.  All smiles and giggles are they, giddily selecting hamburgers, cheeseburgers, or local faves, “kaassoufflé”, “kroketten” and “frikandellen” (fried cheese, meat croquettes and sausage-like meat sticks, respectively). One of life’s greatest pleasures is seeing our elders suddenly drunken and drenched by the Fountain of Youth! LOVE it!

Continuing my city exploration, I turn down a little side-lane into the famed red-light-district, expecting the cheesy-tacky-pornshop atmosphere like that in Brussels. I couldn’t have been more mistaken! Nestled discreetly in narrow, cobblestone lanes are the beautiful and charming canal houses.  Fancy, old gas lanterns, refitted with a red lightbulb, indicate a house of pleasure. Walk closer; and you’ll encounter beautiful windows, framed in beautiful draperies and soft, cherry-red light.  Amongst beautiful antique furniture and accent candlelighting will lounge the “merchandise”, in tight-fitting corsets of satin and lace.  It’s all a carefully-crafted atmosphere of luxurious, Old World, high-class pleasure. Pretty amazing, actually. Unfortunately, as in Brussels, most of the women don’t quite fit the aura. (Why is it that the ladies-of-the-night everywhere seem to be the least desirable women around? Johns, are you hearing me? Haha!) The ladies all invite me in as I pass…little do they know that what REALLY interests me are their intricately-carved, antique settees and heavily-embroidered, brocade window dressings!

Over the next 2 days, I spend my hours split between the canals, the sidewalk cafes and the world-class Amsterdam museums. I first attend the thought-provoking Anne Frank Huis. We’ve all heard the story about the house in which the Frank family, along with several other Amsterdam Jews, hid in the attic for several years before their hiding place was betrayed, resulting in their interment and deaths in the Nazi concentration camps.  I found the museum less powerful than I thought it would be, mostly due to the fact that Otto Frank, Anne’s father (and the only one who survived the camps), stipulated that the house would remain completely empty of furnishings and mementos. For me, not seeing the families’ surroundings (other than bare walls and floors) eliminated the small “connection” I might have been able to make with their experience there. Instead, I walked away having been happy to step into history for an hour or so, but not nearly as moved as I had been by the Jewish portraits in Brussels. Several excerpts from Anne’s diary are imprinted on the walls; and these did give me a sense of who Anne was, how deeply sensitive and intelligent she was, how wise she was for her age. I did come away from the experience amazed at the loss of her, at who she would have risen to become, had she not been stolen from humanity.

The Van Gogh Museum is a must-see.  Seeing the changes in his painting style as his life progressed (influenced by the places and people he came into contact with) and as his health REgressed is so interesting! Having been born Dutch and raised in the area, his early work is dark and muted in the typical Dutch painting style of the time.  As he moves to Paris and comes into contact with the painters of the up-and-coming Impressionist movement, Vincent’s work becomes colorful and Impressionist, as well. When he moves to Arles in the south of France, his work explodes with colorful images of the Arles countryside – the work we most recognize and treasure (those pricey sunflowers and irises!). Upon the advancement of his epilepsy and resulting commitment to an asylum, his work reflects his disappointment and sadness. (However, after seeing the full scope of his work at this museum, these last years of his work are my favorites!)

His relationship to Theo, his brother, is touching:  If it weren’t for Theo, an art dealer in Paris, and Theo’s wife Jo, we would never know Vincent’s work the way we do today. One of my favorites is the painting he painted to celebrate the birth of Theo’s son, painted during his illness and the year he committed suicide, 1890.  It’s a beautiful depiction of an almond branch, blooming in pink and white, against a vivid, turquoise ground. To me, it shows his ability to peel through the layers of desperation to tap into that loving, hopeful spirit within.

My favorite museum was the grand Rijksmuseum.  Known for its collection of Rembrandts, which were wonderful, I learned more about the power and innovation of the 16th-century Dutch (they ruled the world!) than I had known before. The scope of their influence remains intact, worldwide, today.  What an amazing culture!

Through years of studying art history, I have to say that I never really understood the appeal of Rembrandt and the Dutch Masters’ paintings.  Having really only seen them printed in art books and on postcards, though I appreciated their mastery of interpreting the nature of light in paint, I just couldn’t appreciate the colors: brown-on-brown, drab-on-drab, blah-blah-blah.  Thankfully, again, I’m mistaken.  Rembrandt van Rijn’s MASTERPIECES are much more colorful than I ever thought, with vivid blues, aquas, pinks and reds accenting the muted palette, drawing your attention to specific details in the painting.  So realistic is the effect of the light and coloring that you expect their bosoms to rise on an inhalation or their eyes to blink, causing a tear to drop from the edge of a watery, lower lid.  The extraordinarily simple and effective, single dot of white paint in the tear brings the entire work to life. With my background in textiles, I think I’m most impressed by Rembrandt’s execution of fabrics, particularly the detail in the delicate lace of the aristocratic neck ruffs and the way he paints transparent fabrics, revealing a hint of skin underneath.  I’ve been converted!

In addition, the Rijksmuseum exposed me to another painter of the time, Frans Hals, whose style I like even better than that of Rembrandt.  Hals has a looser, more rhythmic style of painting, a departure from the soft, photorealism in vogue at the time.  The faces in Hals’ paintings are realistic; but he leaves the brushstrokes visible and strong in the subjects’ clothing, simply suggesting the color, texture and movement of the fabric, rather than spelling it out for you. Unfortunately, an old and reoccurring story repeats itself here: Painter’s progressive style brings notoriety.  Notoriety brings biggest, most important commission of painter’s career.  Painter’s progressive style and project benefactors’ aesthetic sensibility (or lack of!) come into bitter conflict. Benefactors try to strong-arm painter to “tone it down”, royally pissing artist off.  (Can you say, “Michelangelo”? “Diego Rivera”? “World Trade Center Memorial”?)  Frans Hals abandons the commission, rather than change his style; and another painter finishes the work.  (When will the people with the money ever learn to deal with the money and let the artist deal with the art?!)  Interestingly, I learned that another famous painter of the period was a woman, Judith Leysetr, which was extremely rare for the time.  A woman making a living for herself painting portraits of wealthy Dutch merchant families?!  Oh, yeah…it was AMSTERDAM! You GO, Girl!

My last day in Amsterdam and more, leisurely canal-strolling, watching the reflected buildings wiggle in the water.  I stop to sit down, the lone customer, at a vast cafe outside de Waag…a beautiful, imposing structure that originally served as one of the protective gates to the city…to have a beer (surprise!) and call my sister, Malia, who, along with other family members and friends, has been checking on me periodically via email and text messages.  (My brother, Kawika, has even been tracking my progress on Google Earth, pinpointing my exact location from the few cel-phone-pix I’ve sent to family members from each city…mostly my big head in front of local, iconic buildings! Wow!)  A grey and cloudy morning, the sun suddenly bursts through; and in minutes, the empty, outdoor tables are suddenly packed solid. This is when I got my best taste of Amsterdam…from the people.

A fairly even mix of tourists from around the world and locals on a long, midday break, the beer started flowing; and the conversation began to rumble. Before I knew it, the Bulgarian tourist at the table to my left, the two local Amsterdammers at the table to my right and I had pushed our 3 tables together, began chatting as if we were old friends, and started regularly plunking down Euro coins to buy each other rounds of beer.  (Actually, the 2 guys from Amsterdam, Tim and Theis, and I were the only ones drinking.  Nikola, the Bulgarian gent, prefered puffing on the biggest, Cheech-and-Chong joint I’ve ever seen, which he purchased from the “coffee house” for a mere 3 Euros.) Nikola didn’t speak English well; but because he’s lived in Nantes, France for the past 15 years, his French is practically native.  Tim and Theis both speak Dutch and English, but neither French nor Bulgarian.  So, I became hasty interpreter, speaking French with Nikola as best as I could and translating to English for the Dutch boys.  It was really nice speaking French again, though the words often got stuck in my throat like a hairball…KACKHH…KAAAACHHH…AACHKK!  But, when the words DID flow, they felt so good swirling around my tongue, like a sweet, warm sip of Grand Marnier…Mmmmmmmm…

We shared stories about where we come from, our families, our professions, the sad state of the economy and politics. They are completely under New York City’s spell, having practically “grown up” in The Big Apple on TV and in the movies (just as Americans in all 50 states have done).  For them, New York City is the ultimate place to visit; and they find it amusing, yet flattering, that I love Europe so much and can’t seem to stop returning to the Continent.  I’ve gotten this same reaction throughout this trip…someone asks where I live; and when I tell them I’m from New York, you would have thought I had said, “Why, I come from The Great Land of Oz!”; and they’re ready to drop what they’re doing and follow me to Manhattan, to find that “something”, that “je ne sais quoi”.  And when I think about it, I guess that’s why I, like many other non-native New Yorkers, am there, too.

But on this day, I’ve found the exact spot on Earth I want to be (can you find me, Kawika?) – amongst new friends, laughing and rediscovering that commonality we thought we lost.  Yeah, I’m lovin’ being in this chair, at this cafe, in the sunshine…a New Amsterdammer in Old Amsterdam.

Backpacking-through-Europe Part II: Brussels and Brugge

Sent Sunday, March 22, 2009 9:28 AM

Brussels: A city that, to be honest, has never been high on my list of places to visit. The administrative center of the European Union, I imagine her sporting blocks of bad, 1970’s architecture, crawling with pompous diplomats…all under a perpetually grey and dreary sky. (Non, merci!) Although my first day in Brussels IS cold, grey and rainy (is she daring me to stay?), I stick with her; and she rewards me with sunny weather for the rest of my visit. The locals tell me I’m fortunate to be enjoying such weather; and I agree, toasting Mother Nature by holding my glass of Jupiler beer high. As I do, the bright sun shines through the glass of golden, bubbly liquid.

When I was a kid (ask my parents), I loved to lay out in the bright, Hawaiian sun and place glass marbles against my eyes, entranced by the sun coming through them, getting lost in the colors and air bubbles in the glass…my little, 6-year-old, psychedelic fantasyland. (Yeah, I was just as weird then as now.) I still return to that psychedelic fantasyland, but the portal now is candlelight dancing in my glass of Cabernet or, as today, sunrays gleaming through my Jupiler. I lose myself for a few seconds; and I want to dive right in. So, I do!

The hostel at which I’m staying is nearest the city’s north rail station; and like Paris’ Gare du Nord, Brussels’ Noord Station is located in a less-than-desirable neighborhood. (I stayed in Paris’ charming 17th Arrondisement area for years because it was near the flat of my best friend, Cindy…that is, until I discovered I could get a room around the Gare du Nord for about $37 a night, nevermind the neighborhood…or the toilets and showers being down the hall!)

My first day in Brussels, upon stepping out of the station, I’m shocked to discover I’m right in the middle of Brussels’ red-light district! I didn’t even know that Brussels HAD an Amsterdam-esque red-light district, where the ladies-of-the-night sit or stand in shop-front windows like live mannequins, advertising their goods. (Though THESE goods appear less-than-shiny-and-new! No Neiman-Marcus, this…Joe’s-Everything’s-a-Bargain-99-Cents-Emporium seems more the genre here!)

Brussels hasn’t quite put the “classy” spin on their prostitution industry the way Amsterdam has. Their lighting isn’t the mysterious, inviting, soft red lighting and candlelight preferred by Amsterdammers; nor is the setting in quaint, 17th-century Dutch canal houses with windows draped in rich velvets, silks and lace. In Brussels, it’s mostly shockingly bright, hot pink neon, silver mylar ribbon-curtains, and ear-blasting Eurodisco. All of this gives the women a tacky, carnival-freak-show-like aura…kinda frightening, actually…like a really bad drag show on acid!!

Seriously, though, I don’t mean to disrespect these women. I actually admire the sensibility of Europeans in the way they deal with difficult social issues like prostitution, drug use, abortion…all the issues that seem to make us Americans squirm. “Women-of-the-profession” like the aforementioned pay taxes, get good healthcare (including regular testing and treatment for STDs) and are important, contributing members of the society they live in. I think that’s a good thing! And come on…they provide a service that is, always has been and always will be in high demand. At least this way, they (and their customers) remain in good health, without being stigmatized by the rest of the (usually hypocritical) community. Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox, before I tick someone off! (What’s new?) Haha!

Over the next few days, I find Brussels to be quite a beautiful city! There are many things that make a city great and enticing: natural beauty, historical sights, cultural events, culinary fame, reknowned shopping, etc. For me, it’s architecture that captures my heart and makes me swoon. Give me old, worn and crumbling, or old and restored to greatness. Just don’t give me new…unless its more sculpture than building, designed by the likes of Daniel Libeskind, Norman Foster or Zaha Hadid (some of my favorite architects). Despite my love…no, obsession…with architecture, I never had the desire to be an architect. It’s not so much the structural engineering that piques my interest; it’s purely the decorative aspect. I guess that’s why I love older buildings so much…they are a riot of design motifs! Luckily, Brussels is all too happy to oblige. The grand, gorgeous buildings with their orgies of statuary and bas-relief have me in their grasp; and my camera goes wild! Former palaces of the royalty and nobility, grand boulevards and geometrically symmetrical, highly-manicured parks remind me much of Paris.

One such greenspace is the Parc de Bruxelles, facing the Palais Royale mentioned above. The day I walked through the park, enjoying the trees beginning to bud in vivid lime green and the early bulbs pushing through the soil after a winter nap, I came upon a sobering exhibit: billboard after billboard displaying portrait photos of Belgian Jews who were transfered to the concentration camps during WWII. It’s so shocking to see their faces, from toddlers to the elderly, gorgeous young men and women in their prime, youth in the midst of their studies, preparing for what were supposed to be bright futures.

We’ve seen all the horrific photos and film footage of emaciated prisoners behind barbed wire; and at some self-protective, psychological level, we filter out the idea that these are human beings like us. But these headshots, taken at the very beginning, at the time they were “registered” as Jews, show everyday people with talents, families, dreams. You can see in their faces that they have no idea of the horrors to come.

I walked slowly along the billboards, taking time to honor those portrayed by glancing at every single face looking back at me from the past. Traveling in this part of the world, I realize how far and removed the Holocaust is today for most Americans. For the people in this part of Europe, the memory is still strong, however; and the many memorials dedicated to the lost, including the Anne Frank Huis (Anne Frank House) in Amsterdam, the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) in Berlin, and the Stary Zidovsky Hrbitov (Old Jewish Cemetery) in Prague, are incredibly moving. By the time I reached the last photograph, tears were running down my face. I’m so glad I had the experience. After sitting down in the park in silence for a few minutes to let it all sink in, I realize I’m hungry…for food, and for more wonderful experiences.

I quickly master the Brussels metro system in my quest for more of the city’s sensory delights. My friend, Anna, told me before I left to make sure to eat a waffle. I did…again and again! Once you eat a “gaufre” here, you’ll never again want to eat what we, back home, call a “Belgian waffle”. Get your gaufre from one of the little gaufre vans parked on the street. It’s sweeter, softer on the inside and crunchier on the outside, than what we’re used to. You eat it in your hands like a cookie, drizzled with chocolate sauce or topped with a dollop of whipped cream (my preference!)…and hot off the grill! The sugar in the batter caramelizes at the corners of the square-shaped waffle; so your first and last bite are sweet, crunchy, sticky, slightly-burnt, yummy delights!

Now, I need salt to balance the sweet. On my first trip to Montreal years ago, I was introduced to the famous Belgian “frîtes”. That was the day I started to prefer mayonnaise to ketchup on my fries; and I’ve never turned back! The reunion of hot, golden, crispy-salty frîtes and my tastebuds was a torrid, passionate affair, leaving me a voyeuristic third-wheel. After devouring the last, greasy, crunchy bits deep at the bottom of the paper cone, I’m satiated and smiling…and I imagine my tastebuds having an après-l’amour cigarette!

Europe definitely has a strong snacking culture, with snack stands and snack shops everywhere. The variety of street food is great compared to the hotdog-pretzel-halal-meat snack carts we have on the streets of NYC. Here, everything from sausages to fried fish to beer to hot, mulled wine are on offer for you to take away. Everyone here walks (or bicycles) everywhere; and snacking is a necessity for refueling and reenergizing! The food is hot, delicious…and cheap!

Since I’ll be returning to Brussels for 3 days at the end of my trip, I’ll hit the museums then. This time around, I’m just enjoying eating, drinking, enjoying the architecture, practicing my French and walking. I didn’t realize Brussels was so hilly…it doesn’t appear so; but believe me, your calves and thighs will tell you the truth! This creates the perfect excuse to cop a seat at a cafe, have a coffee or a beer, use the WC, write in my journal and take photos of the beautiful architecture, which is a unique and wonderful hybrid of Dutch and French styling.

The people, by the way, also display this unique mix. There’s a distinct border between French-speaking and Flemish-speaking Belgium. Look at a map of Belgium and notice the towns with French names or Flemish names; and the border will appear quite distinct. In Brussels, you’ll hear French spoken the most. Take the train to the beautiful towns of Gent, Brugge or Antwerpen, and the language immediately switches to Flemish. (Note: English is commonly spoken in Brussels, Brugge, Amsterdam, Berlin and Prague, making these cities ideal destinations for us monolingual Americans!)

My favorite place of all in Brussels is the Grand’Place. All European cities and towns have a main square; and Grand’Place is it for Brussels. And wow…is it ever aptly named! It’s not a particularly large, open square compared to those of many European capitals…but it’s small enclosure is what makes it so special, boxing you in and ravishing you with it’s beauty. The stonework on the surrounding buildings is as fine and delicate as Belgian lace; and the gilding on the buildings captivates with its hypnotic glimmering of gold on a sunny day! At night, all these architectural masterpieces are floodlit in more golden lighting…pure magic! Standing in the middle of Grand’Place feels like being in a treasure chest amongst jewels, a very special feeling. I have to peel myself away; because tomorrow is an early train ride…a day-trip to the Belgian canal-town of Brugge.

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The following day, after a stop in the town of Gent and an hour-long train ride, I arrive in Brugge. A quick bus ride from the rail station to the Grôte Markt, Brugge’s main square, and I have to pick my jaw up off the floor of the bus. Brugge is astonishingly beautiful. Every building’s Dutch-like facade is gorgeous and charming. Stocky, black horses and carriages are lined up, awaiting the tourists’ arrival. (Fortunately, I’m traveling before Easter, when the floodgates open in Europe for the masses…and, because I took the early train from Brussels, I practically have the city to myself for the first few hours!)

Narrow, cobblestone lanes and sparkling-clean, mirror-surfaced canals winding through the town make me feel like I’ve stepped into a storybook. I’m thinking this has become my favorite place in Europe! The size of the town is small and manageable; everything to see is within walking distance. The townspeople are extremely friendly and helpful. They seem to really enjoy you visiting their city (I would want to show it off, as well!), rather than just being interested in you dropping your Euros here.

A climb up the town’s belfry (bell tower) affords a breathtaking view of what was once the most important shipping town in Europe (and second only in size to London), before their river silted up several hundred years ago, severing their connection to the North Sea as well as their fortunes. For us visitors, this turned out to be a good thing, for it was this misfortune that froze Brugge in time and created such a unique place. I happened to be at the top of the belfry, standing right next to the gigantic, ancient bells when they began to ring. I can still feel the vibration in my bones; and I’m surprised I walked away with my hearing intact!

Before heading back to the big city, I try to soak up as much of this amazing city as I can, enjoying the late-afternoon sunshine at a bustling cafe, drinking a kriek, a delicious, Belgian cherry beer. It’s slightly sweet and very refreshing, with a gorgeous color, topped by a light-pink foam. Of course, I can’t resist holding it up to the sunlight and peering into it, 6 years old again, “dancing” with the bubbles rising in the sparkling, magenta liquid.

Backpacking-through-Europe Part I: Preparation

Ahhh…it’s that time of year…vacation-planning season.  The weather is starting to warm up a bit; people are getting “itchy” to start moving around; and everyone is fantasizing about what they’re going to do for vacation this summer.  Having done just a little bit of travel in my life, I find myself becoming a bit of a “travel advisor” for my friends and coworkers.  Not that I mind, mind you…there’s almost nothing I love more than encouraging people to travel, to fill their heads with enticing stories about what awaits them, to watch them, wide-eyed and giggling, as they imagine themselves there already.  So, my next few posts will be completely travel-related.  First stop, Europe.

Three years ago, with the economy spiraling downward, the company I work for, in a valiant effort to eliminate layoffs, began a program of periodic furloughs for all employees…forced vacation without pay.  At first, we grumbled about it, felt like we were being bullied into it…but it was a helluva lot better than losing our jobs; and, I have to say, it forced me to take a trip I always wanted to take but never did.  I was one of the many who would have loved to have backpacked through Europe between high school and college, or between college and the headlong plunge into the working world.  Alas, high school transitioned instantly into college, which in turn forced me upon the working world while in school.  There was no way to stop the momentum; and my dream of traveling the world alone, a young, wide-open book, passed me by.  (Besides, there were other distractions…but more about that later.)  I eventually landed a job that took me all over the country and all over the world; and I loved every minute of it.  However, the romance, the adventure of traipsing through Europe with nothing but a backpack pestered me…like a 25-plus-year butt itch!

Enter the furlough.  With 2 weeks of furlough facing me, in March 2009, refusing to spend that time at home, I embarked on my dream trip.  I bought my Eurail pass for unlimited train travel through Europe (First Class, oh-la-la!) and loosely planned my circuit of Western and Central Europe.  This is the first of 5 installments I texted on my Blackberry to family and friends of my journey.  Come join me…

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Backpacking-through-Europe Part I: Preparation

Sent Tuesday, March 17, 2009 5:46 PM

Hello! This is the first installment of my 2-week backpacking-through-Europe trip. Don’t feel any obligation to read each installment, which will come every few days; but if you do, I hope you enjoy reading about these adventures…or should I say MISadventures? (And…oh…stay tuned…there’s a surprise twist at the end…it’ll be in the last installment!!!!)

So, you may ask, “Kanani, aren’t you a little OLD for this kind of trip?” Haha! Yeah, this is the trip I shoulda taken at 18 instead of at 44….but at 18, I was just discovering the Big Gay World out there…it was exciting and eye-opening…and during that amazing, fascinating time of self-discovery, Big Gay World trumped Big European World. (I mean….drugs, sex, rock-n-roll…well, more like, “It’s Raining Men, Hallelujah, It’s Raining Men”…the choice was QUITE clear to ME, thank you very much!)

Since the late ’80’s, I’ve made many trips across Europe…on business and pleasure, alone and accompanied variously by Ralph, my parents, my brother Kawika and several close friends. All fabulous trips, no question about it; but there has always remained that unfulfilled, romanticized adventure of procuring a Eurailpass, hopping on and off the train as much as I want, in any country I want, staying in youth hostels (a strange yearning for the college dorm life I never had, perhaps?), and savoring the experience fully for “pennies”…er…”Eurocents”…a day…oh yeah…all the while carrying all I need on my back. (Well, that part kinda sucks; but it comes with the territory. Thankfully, I’m a master at packing light; and Mom and Dad helped me pick out the perfect backpack at REI when we were in Seattle in January…big enough for 2 weeks of “stuff”, without looking like I’ve murdered someone, wrapped them in a tent, and nonchalantly strapped the evidence to my back!)

At 44, I know this whole scenario should sound repulsive to me; but instead, it sets my heart a-flutter and creates the same thrill in me I had as a kid when my Grandpa took me and my sibs to the circus at Blaisdell Arena in Honolulu, or my parents shelled out the big bucks to take us to Six Flags Over Texas! Maybe it’s the thrill of the unknown, the bizarre and unexplained love I have of “not knowing”, of being plunked down in unfamiliar place and having to just “figure it all out”. Or, maybe it’s an early mid-life crisis…my proverbial “red sportscar”…except there’s no gas, maintenance, insurance…nor the DREADED Mahelona-Family-Broke-Down-Automobile Curse!!!

So, the trip begins with fasting the day of departure. (C’mon…y’all know I don’t do things “normal”!)  I had read that drinking only fruit and vegetable juices (no food, caffeine, milk or alcohol) from the time you wake up on the day of departure until your morning arrival in your destination city (including the free “food” on the plane and all that free wine-DAMN!!!-you get on Trans-Atlantic flights) is the ultimate jet-lag prevention…something about recent findings that it’s the feeding cycle that affects our body-clock more than anything else…the fasting allows you to sliiiiide on into your destination feeding cycle smooooothly.  It sounded pretty primal…and compelling to me!

I’m happy to tell you that it worked like a charm…the ONLY thing I’ve ever tried that really works! Over the years, I’ve tried timed naps and sleeping, jet-lag pills, abstaining from caffeine or alcohol (but not food), melatonin, drinking lots of water….and always, about halfway through the day in my arrival city, BAM!…I hit a wall and am reduced to a worthless, snoring, drooling, zombified Dorothy-in-the-poppy-fields-of-Oz. But my entire first day in Brussels, I had tons of energy, wakefulness and clarity.

Granted, when the flight attendants began the hard-sell, “We’ve got (mummified) chicken or (rubberized) lasagna today (surprise, surprise!)”, I actually felt a fire of desire in my stomach…but I stuck to my guns and doused it with another bottle of V-8. But I have NO regrets….my body-clock and appetite were immediately on Brussels time…I never got sleepy (until all the Bruxellois did); and I haven’t kept odd hours or needed a nap since then!

Good thing, because I’m on a tight schedule! I’ve basically allowed myself an afternoon train arrival in each city, 1-1/2 days and 2 nights of exploration (read: walking my ass off) and sightseeing, then an early morning train departure to the next city.  It’ll be the same pattern for the entire trip. I’ll start in Brussels/Bruxelles, with a daytrip on the 2nd day to the Flemish town of Brugge/Bruges. (They spell everything 2 ways in Belgium…Flemish and French…how international…how cooperative…how annoying!)  Brussels will be followed by Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Vienna and Budapest. I had originally left the last 3 days of the trip open before heading back to Brussels for my return flight to NYC. But, I’ve decided to head back to Brussels for the last 3 days, “rounding out” my “European Tour”!

Oh…and did I mention that I’ve budgeted 100 Euros for each city? Not each day…each city! At the current exchange rate, that means about $80 for each 2-night, 1-1/2-day stay…including lodging, food, sightseeing and local metro/tram/bus transport (hence the “walking my ass off” I mentioned earlier!).

This means sitting down in restaurants will be out of the question. Instead, I’ll be eating mainly local “street food” which, in my opinion, is the best way to “soak up the local flavor” (and grease!). That, and beer and cafe food…again, not a sacrifice for me at all! Top off my nutritional pyramid with amazingly cheap (not to mention fresh and delicious) European supermarket fare, plus the free (and pretty damned good!) breakfasts at the hostels.

Wanna know the REAL clincher here, without which this whole trip would be completely ludicrous? My hostel stays average only about $18 a night! (Sit down, Rick Steves! Haha!) Ever wonder why Europeans can travel so much? It’s not just because their countries are so small and close together…it’s because they stay in hostels!

So far, the hostels have been fantastic…way better than I expected.  (They even have their own bars; and I’ve made some great new friends there!) I’ve eaten lots of delicious food; and I have imbibed more awesome beer than ever (well, at least since my beer-buddy, Ben, shared his German beer collection with me last Thursday in NYC!).

At this writing, I’m already in Amsterdam, leaving for Berlin in the morning, having enjoyed Brussels (and especially Brugge) tremendously. I will work on the 2nd installment of my travelogue (Brussels, Brugge and Amsterdam) tomorrow, during my 6-hour rail journey across The Netherlands and northern Germany (with a train change in the Dutch town of Amersfoort) into Berlin. Until then, I hope you enjoy the reading!

Guten Nacht! (Yeah, gotta practice my German for Berlin; and I gotta get up early tomorrow!)

Playtime in Puglia

Ralph’s speaking engagement having ended a smashing success, we have two full days to relax and enjoy (read: PLAY!!) the southern Italian region of Puglia. Our newfound friends, Denise and Angelo, have armed us with a list of local sightseeing favorites: Polignano a Mare, Alberobello and Matera. Our first dilemma: how to get there. We could do a group tour…NOT!  We could catch a train to the one coastal village on our itinerary, Polignano a Mare; but the train wouldn’t take us to the other two, inland towns up in the hills.  We could rent a car; but the traffic signage here is a jumble of incomprehensible, nonsensical (though highly aesthetic) symbols and icons…just like a Mac! (Haha!  Sorry…had to get ONE Apple jab in!)  Besides, southern Italian drivers are mad and make the worst NYC cab drivers look like Grandma behind the wheel.  We’re not taking our chances.  Thankfully, Ralph has the perfect solution: he’s hired a driver for the next two days.  At €200/day, it’s not that much more than a high-end group tour would be; it’s totally stress-free in terms of getting to and from our destinations; and we can explore on our own, on our own timeframe. Plus, relaxing in the back of a comfy Mercedes-Benz sedan with a good-looking Italian man at the wheel is nothing to sneeze at!

Polignano a Mare

First stop, Polignano a Mare.  A mere 20 minutes south along the coast from Bari, this is a beautiful, if somewhat run-down, village of whitewashed cubes for homes, stacked one atop another and perched delicately on vertical cliffs overhanging the sea.  Our first stop is a scenic overlook dominated by a beautifully-posed statue of Domenico Modugno, a singer/songwriter and native son of Polignano a Mare who wrote and sang the 1958 song “Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu” (better known as “Volare”).  “Volare” means “to fly”; and the bronze statue depicts Domenico with arms outstretched, head raised toward the sky.  It’s quite beautiful, especially with the open sea at his back and the wind blowing into his hair and face.  Domenico looks like he may ascend to the heavens any second.

I’m just old enough to remember the TV commercials for the hideous Plymouth Volare automobile; and the song is ingrained in my memory forever.  I have to admit, at the time, I thought it was a beautiful car and secretly wished my Dad would buy one.  But I knew that until said Volare could survive the steep levys and mud bogs of the Trinity River bottoms in Dallas or take on the dirt bikes chewing up the landscape off Hwy 360 near the then-new DFW Airport, I would just have to fantasize about cruising suburban Grand Prairie, Texas in a shiny, white Volare, wearing a corduroy blazer with suede elbow patches and leather pants,  waving to my schoolmates in their front yards .  (Pimpin’ the ‘hood, 70’s style.)

The water of the Adriatic is a gorgeous, deep turquoise here (oddly enough, the artificial blue of Tidy Bowl on the first few flushes!).  Ralph and I are standing on a rocky ledge 30 ft above the water; and it’s all I can do to resist tearing off my clothes and jumping in.  I’m certain that if I’m in any danger once hitting the water, the fishermen dotting the ledges, dangling their lines below, will rescue me.  (Or maybe they’ll just think, “One less crazy American tourist in the world!”)  I think Ralph breathes a sigh of relief when I head back up, fully clothed, toward the town.

Crossing the tiny bridge, Ponte Lama Monachile, over a great, dry ravine leading from the upland hills to the sea, we enter the old, medieval part of Polignano. Entering under a large, crumbling arch adorned with faded frescoes, the Arco Marchesale, we step into the enclosed village – and into a time warp.  I imagine the surroundings haven’t changed much since the original fishing village was established eons ago. The impossibly narrow streets, criss-crossed overhead with laundry drying in the gentle sea breezes, twist and turn out of sight, but all eventually lead you to another overlook onto the gorgeous, azure sea.  Wherever the sea reappears, we run to the edge and peer down, fascinated by the sheer, uninterrupted drop from the houses to the ocean’s surface.  I can only imagine how beautiful it must be to open your windows to the breezes and views these people must have!  They may not have much money; but they have views that “Trump” (pun intended) those of any Central Park West socialite!

The minimalistic, white-plastered homes and stairways, brightly-painted shutters, vibrant, potted bougainvilleas, delicate lace curtains, and fluttering clotheslines (all backed by an impossibly blue sky) cause Ralph and me to pause in awe, to allow these beautiful images to settle permanently into our memories.  “This is EXACTLY what one thinks of when thinking of Italy,” Ralph exclaims.  I couldn’t agree with him more.  It’s early on a Saturday; so no shops or restaurants are open, not a soul stirs outside. Ralph and I practically have the whole town to ourselves; and we take full advantage: running through the town like Wee Willie Winkie, disappearing separately down one lane one minute and crossing paths with each other the next. It’s so perfectly “Italian”, I’d swear we were running through an empty movie set!  We stop to curiously admire the ancient church, Chiesa di Purgatorio, with its morbid skeletons and skulls-and-crossbones above and beside its entryway.  We pass through the town’s main piazza, surrounded by more churches and stuccoed buildings shabbied by time and sun, but whose years and years of peeling paint layers, salmon pink on top of golden yellow, on top of rusty brown, on top of sage green, create a stunning texture and mosaic of color.  The piazza is empty now – peaceful and silent except for the “squeak” of little seabirds and the “look!” and “wow!” of me and Ralph.

When people finally begin to come out of their houses to sweep their doorsteps, bring in their laundry or gather with neighbors to chat, I notice the population is quite old. They eye the few tourists wandering into their secluded village with curiosity but do not speak. I engage them with a cheerful and well-pronounced (if I do say so myself) “Buongiorno!”, which brings surprised smiles and return greetings. I would love to have the opportunity to sit down and get to know them, to savor their local dishes and wines, meet their grandchildren, hear their family histories, answer their questions about Americans and the U.S.  If only I could speak the language…DAMN, that pesky language barrier!

There is a spot in the village, a tiled, rustic and very sun-worn patio, which presents the onlooker with the most beautiful vista of the Adriatic, including, directly below, the small, pebbly beach cove where an eager, lapping tongue of the sea, the Cala Ponte, reaches in to get a taste of this town of stacked sugar cubes.  An elderly gentleman, obviously a longtime Polignano resident with rather rustic, sunworn features himself, offers up a seat in the two plastic garden chairs he has set up for the handful of mesmerized tourists who pass by.  Realizing I’ve been wandering alone for a while and thinking I probably need to reconnect with Ralph, I decline with a soft, “No, grazie.”  Later on, I see this same aging-yet-still-handsome  man hobbling to and fro, gathering additional chairs from other residents’ homes to accommodate the tourists. I nod at him in passing and am rewarded with a warm, Italian smile.  My heart smiles back at this man from another culture and another time, proud to share the fortune of this place, his home – eager for us to put up our feet, to stay awhile.

Alberobello

Our driver, Angelo, waits for us patiently; and when we emerge from Polignano’s medieval quarter, passing back beneath the Arco Marchesale, he whips us away from the coast, inland, through acres of olive groves, to our next destination: Alberobello.  Ralph and I have been fascinated by the olive groves since we arrived in Puglia.  Spreading out as far as the eye can see, they cover the lightly undulating hills, separated by crumbling, ancient limestone walls.  We notice large nets spread on the ground beneath certain trees, presumably to catch the olives as they fall.  I’m intrigued by the trees’ grotesquely-twisted, thick and stout trunks and silvery leaves glimmering in the sun. Ralph is curious about the way the branches grow skyward to a certain height, then abruptly turn back down to the earth. We’re not quite sure whether this a natural growth pattern or (more likely) a result of years of pruning to keep the fruit low.  I wonder the age of these ancient trees; and I try to imagine the generations of farmers who have tended them. (And of course, the designer in me thinks these silvery branches with their onyx-like, black fruit hanging in weighty clusters would look FABULOUS in a floral arrangement, mixed with tall, black hollyhocks, the giant, ghostly leaves of cardoon and trailing, blood-red roses!)

One by one, “they” soon appear – the “trulli” – Alberobello’s claim to fame. Tiny farmhouses made of “chiancarelle”, flat stones, thin as tiles, stacked to form a circular wall and culminating in a perfect, conical roof, these whitewashed beauties are amazing to behold!  Each one we pass, few and far between at first, in varying states of disrepair (or all-out crumbling) brings gasps of excitement from us both.  We had been told about the trulli by Denise and Angelo at dinner the night before; but we had no idea how precious and endearing these Lilliputian homes would be!  And so it was that we were left speechless when our driver made one last, unexpected turn into an entire village, two hillsides ascending on both sides of the road, entirely encrusted with trulli!

Like two kids let out, wide-eyed, at an amusement park, we are giddy with excitement at the prospect of exploring the twisting lanes weaving throughout the village.  We are surrounded by trulli, like clusters of giant mushrooms in the golden sunlight near day’s end. At any moment, you almost expect a family of woodland elves to peer out behind the tiny, wood-framed windows or step out of the miniature door frames. Some trulli sport chimneys releasing the homey scent of woodsmoke. Other trulli appear to be 2 trulli merged into one, Siamese-twin of a structure – medieval Puglia’s version of a “double-wide”.  Some trulli feature white cryptograms etched onto their stone roofs, magical symbols to ward off evil or bring good fortune to the home. Nearly all the trulli have distinct and beautifully-shaped limestone pinnacles capping their conical roofs, each a signature of its builder.

Back in the 16th century, the noble family Acquaviva, Counts of Conversano, brought 40 peasant families to this area that was once a great forest (“Silva Arboris Belli”, which eventually became “Alberobello”), to have them settle and cultivate their land. In the 17th century, in a stroke of deceitful brilliance, the tyrannical Count Giangirolamo II Acquaviva Aragona (known as “the Squint-Eyed of Puglia”) decreed that the families build their miniscule homes without mortar.  In the event that a representative of the ruling King of Naples should arrive to survey the land and tax the Count for every home on it, the families could simply be ordered to knock down their homes, presenting the surveyor with nothing more than piles of rocks, then quickly rebuild the trulli after the surveyor’s departure.  In 1797, the king proclaimed the town of Alberobello to be under his rule, free from the Counts of Conversano; and the people were allowed to build their homes with mortar, to finally feel grounded, to feel, at long last, at “home”.

Ralph and I have a chance to peek inside a couple of trulli – one that has been turned into a snack bar (where we scarfed down the most delicious pizza and insalata caprese), and another that has been turned into a shop and gallery featuring the beautiful work of a local photographer. A central room is surrounded by thick walls into which deep niches have been excavated, creating places for storage and sleeping.  A well inside the trullo provides fresh water; and a hearth provides fire for warmth and cooking. In the photo-gallery trullo, a wooden platform in the conical roof space hides a cozy sleeping loft, accessible by an ancient, wooden ladder. I want to move in immediately.

Our arms stocked with black-and-white photos and postcards from the gallery, as well as little, trullo-shaped bottles of the local, almond-flavored “mandarle” liqueur, Ralph and I survey this fantasy town of Alberobello from the rooftops and stop by the town’s pièce de résistance, the Chiesa (church) di Sant’Antonio (built in traditional trullo style). Reluctantly, we head back to Angelo, patiently awaiting us in his black Benz. The drive back to Bari finds us both nodding off in the backseat – kids that have played hard, finally giving in to exhaustion.

Matera

Though yesterday’s excursion would have served as the perfect end to our trip, we have one more full day in Puglia; and we’ve saved it for the further trek to Matera.  I read an article about Matera several weeks prior to our trip and was fascinated to learn about this ancient and unique town carved into the rocky hills of Murgia. Ralph has hired Angelo again for the day; and as we head further into the interior, we also head to a much higher altitude than we’ve been thus far.  Soon, the entire coastline of Puglia is spread out below us – the rocky, dry hills giving way to an infinite, grey-green carpet of olive groves, and that piercing blue sea beyond.

It turns out that Matera is a fairly modern, sprawling mountain town; and we aren’t much impressed until Angelo stops the car in the older part of town and we catch a glimpse of the Sassi, two ancient settlements, the Sasso Barisano and the Sasso Caveoso. That’s when our hearts leap from our throats.  Deep down below us, in a narrow valley, winds a small-but-once-raging river, the Torrente Gravina di Matera. Rising from both sides of the river are steep hillsides, covered in carved-rock dwellings. On the side opposite us, true caves – natural rock formations punctuated by a myriad natural and man-made openings in the rock. It’s a honeycomb of a village – settled since Paleolithic times by cave-dwelling troglodytes and thought to be among the first human settlements in Italy.  (I’ve always loved that term, “troglodytes”, reminding me of the big-eyed, lime- and fuchsia-haired “troll” dolls of our childhood.)

We are on the “newer” side of the river, in the city founded by the Romans in the 3rd century B.C. as “Matheola”, after the Roman consul Lucius Caecilius Metellus. This area features Roman-style homes and water cisterns carved deep into the soft tufa stone.  It’s a fascinating, steep village of stairways above, below and on all sides of you; and being in it is a little disorienting and surreal, like wandering inside the famous M.C. Escher lithograph, “Relativity”.  Intrigued and eager to follow each stairway, the hundreds of stone steps you have scaled simply escapes your awareness.

The gorgeous vistas offered here are innumerable; and it’s no wonder people have wanted to live in Matera for the past 9,000 years. Beautiful churches hang precariously on the edge of the ravine, which is majestic, wild and rocky, yet serene. The carved houses are so interesting, especially their earth-colored, clay-tiled roofs and (my favorite) their distinctive, decorative ceramic air vents in a myriad of pinwheel- and flower-shaped forms. A group of students exploring the caves across the ravine calls back to us, their echoing shouts bringing smiles of delight to tourists and locals alike.

As is the case of many European villages, if it’s a Sunday and you’re hungry, you better get your food- and drink-on early!  Everything starts shutting down before you know it; and you’ll be wandering aimlessly, stomach growling, through a town of shuttered storefronts and stacked cafe tables and chairs.  This has happened many times to me in Europe.  (One of my most memorable European dinners was the one spent with my parents, brother Kawika and his wife at the time, Trudi, in our chateau B&B in the Loire River Valley in France, eating our collectively-scrounged meal of cookies, a bottle of wine and potato chips.  We had spent a Sunday driving around the countryside; and before we knew it, every restaurant for miles around was closed.  We laughed at our lack of foresight and planning; but potato chips and wine never tasted so damned good!)  Ralph and I got so caught up in the scenery of Matera that we got caught in this European food vacuum, once again.  Luckily, we found a Turkish doner kebab shop still open.  Now, one thing you will know about me if you travel with me is that I ALWAYS eat the local food.  You won’t catch me ordering Chinese takeout in Paris, or ducking into an Italian cafe in Lima…and you will NEVER, EVER catch me sneaking beneath the Golden Arches to scarf down a Big Mac in Prague.  So, I was very happy to see a menu of rustic pizzas and hearty calzones in the kebab shop!  Ralph and I split a calzone; and I accompanied my half with a big, cold bottle of Birra Moretti.  Biting into the hot, crisp calzone, dripping with gooey mozzarella and tangy marinara, our eyes roll back in our head.  Italian food in Italy is probably the most delicious food on Earth; and I marvel at the ability of Italian cooks to use the fewest ingredients, yet create food whose flavor is a veritable Roman orgy in your mouth.  If you’ve been here and tasted the food here, you know what I mean.  There is no way, try as you might, to describe to someone just how delicious the food is.  They just have to experience it for themselves.  (So if you haven’t made this journey, DO!!)

And it’s not just the food (and the wine!) – southern Italy is a feast for all the senses.  It’s a place of warm, boisterous and beautiful people.  It’s a place dripping with history so ancient and important, it’s practically a huge, outdoor museum.  It’s sunshine that warms your skin and entices your inner olive complexion to come out, ocean so blue it’ll hypnotize you, and balmy breezes that convince you to let your hair down.  In Puglia, you just can’t help but want to “come out and play”!

*For my full photo album from Puglia, feel free to click on the link below.  Enjoy!                                                                                http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150400435413541.368658.761823540&type=1&l=fd65477ed4