Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Channeling Van Gogh

April 19-20

We hit the road to see some new places. Well, new to us, but not to the Romans or anyone else in Provence.

We started out for Pont du Gard and Nimes, but took a wrong turn and continued to Arles instead. Larry, who was driving, was fine with the change. If you don’t get lost, you’re not traveling hard enough.

Arles is where Van Gogh went in search of the colors of the south. It is a colorful place, and when we rolled into town, it was one of its more colorful days. The market was in full swing.

We didn’t spend much time with the market, even though it was full of vegetables and fish and exotic food, because we had been marketed out at Vaison-la-Romaine the day before.

We did, however, go to the Arles tourist office to get a city map. The woman at the counter said there was an exhibit of several Van Gogh paintings. She showed us where. She showed us other Van Gogh sites on the map, too.

Of course we couldn’t keep them straight, and so it took a few tries to find the art exhibition. We stopped at a couple of spots before we found the works on display at Fondation Vincent Van Gogh.

It’s only since Joanna took me to a Van Gogh exhibition at the Hermitage branch in Amsterdam that I have been able to appreciate Van Gogh. Before that, I had only been looking at prints of his work.

You have to see the real thing, stand to one side and see the paint rise off the canvas, get close to see how he breaks the colors into short pixelated strokes, then step back to watch everything blend. If you think about all that hard enough, like how did he do it, how did he get it, you can imagine that you’re going crazy too.

Arles, like most old European towns, has winding narrow streets, old churches, and great doorways, including one flanked by baroque Bernini-style helical columns. One of the motives to travel is to breathe the air in these places.

We took lunch at a small restaurant called L’Autruche, The Ostrich, on a narrow side street. We all ordered the lamb and had it with the local wine.

(Editor’s note: The red wine at lunch was made only with Grenache grapes. Joanna)

Arles is fun, a bit touristy, but still full of commercial streets and places where people live, and isn’t just tourist hotels. There are little silhouettes set into the sidewalk of a figure wearing a floppy hat and carrying an easel, as if to say, “Van Gogh walked here.”

We strolled around Arles, or maybe were blown around by the mistral, which was ferocious. It wasn’t so bad in the narrow old streets, but when we came out to the plaza around the ancient arena, it was too much.

We got a couple of snapshots of arches and then ducked into an alley for cover from the wind.

Thursday Larry reviewed the directions of Pont du Gard and found where we had missed our connection the day before. We were supposed to take the first toll road, A7, for one exit and then get onto A9.

The pont is a high bridge across a huge gorge with a small river called the Gardon. It is part of an aqueduct that carried water from a mountain source to the city of Nimes.

The pont is made of arches upon arches three levels high. It is really remarkable to walk around a bend and suddenly see the Pont du Gard.

To get to the pont, you walk up a slope past another ancient site, a large, shallow cave that seems to have been inhabited in the remote past. You can’t go in, but you can see the areas of the cave floor where researchers have been digging.

You can cross the pont on a walkway next to the second level of arches. I don’t know if the structure is modern or part of the original. The arches are next to the walk.

The mistral has been blowing for days. Wednesday and Thursday have been the worst of it. Cars hit by sidewinds swerved on the highway.

It has also made us much colder than we expected to be. 

The mistral blew so hard when we were on the pont that it gave me flashbacks to the Golden Gate Bridge. I didn’t get the same sense of Hitchcock-style vertigo, but I held my hat in my hand. 

We entered from the right bank, and when we got across, we came to a steep set of stairs running up a hillside. We opted out of that part.

It was very interesting to get so close to the stonework during the crossing. The bridge is made of huge limestone blocks. Those at the top were lifted more than 150 feet into the air. That would have been done with ropes and wooden engines powered by men and animals.

The pont was built sometime in the middle of the first century, so the Roman arches have stood for almost 2,000 years. 

One feature that I found curious is a series of projecting stones. Every second or third course up the side of the pont, a block extends a couple of feet out from the wall. I don’t know if that is decorative or if it served some purpose during construction.

Nimes was packed when we got there. It took a while to find a place to park, for instance.

Nimes is a little less tourist-oriented than Arles is, and that makes it even more interesting to see. Frequently a large door to the street would be open, and we could look in to see a sun-drenched courtyard.

The streets are full of young people. Not because life in town is particularly lethal to people over 40, but because there are several universities in Nimes.

The cafes are full of students. And wonder of wonders, the mistral tapered off by the time we got into the city. We actually sat at a sidewalk cafe for coffee and pastis.

The cathedral nave is undergoing renovation so we couldn’t go inside or see much from the open door, except for three stained glass windows glowing over the sanctuary.

There is a wooden platform attached to one side of the belfry. Maybe that’s where they poured the boiling oil when the heretics attacked. 

Maybe as God’s way of compensating for our disappointment over the closed cathedral, a group of monks in dark robes and baseball caps walked by.

One (unfortunately not in a cap) posed for Joanna.

Equal time for pagans, of course. The Maison Carree is a Roman temple dedicated to two dead nephews of Augustus Caesar in the first decade of the first century A.D. 

According to Wikipedia, it is “one of the best preserved Roman temple fa├žades to be found in the territory of the former Roman Empire and the only completely preserved temple of the ancient world.”

Dinners over the past couple of days have been unusual by American standards. Wednesday night we had smoked sausage in a tomato sauce with onion. Claude, who gave Larry the recipe, said it originated in the island or Reunion off the coast of Africa. 

It was best with the addition of a hot chili sauce. It’s good that we ate it over white rice because that can cool off the tongue.

Thursday Larry put together a sauce of rabbit with mushrooms that went with a pasta that looked like oversize rotini. This wasn’t a red sauce, although there may have been some tomato in it.

Wine flows in this part of the world. We have been having the white from Domaine la Garrigue in Vaqueyras as an aperitif. The wines with our meals have included a couple of reds, whose names escape me, and the Eddie Feraud Chateauneuf du Pape.

Twice now I have enjoyed them too much and that makes me snore all night long. I may be keeping other people in the house awake. I’m not sure. I was asleep at the time.

Good night, all.


Saturday, May 13, 2017

Back in the Provence of the Popes

April 16-18, 2017

This has been one hell of a few days.

We left Newark on Saturday evening and landed at Charles de Gaulle around seven in the morning local time on Easter Sunday. (I know. I know. I swore I’d never go back to CDG, but that’s a story for another time.)

After a night in Paris, we boarded the Train a Grande Vitesse at Gare de Lyon for a three-hour ride to Avignon. 

Larry met us at the station and drove us to the Chabrans’ home, where we are staying this week.

This is the land of wine and honey (and lots of other great stuff). We haven’t bought any honey yet, but plan to bring some home. We’ve already started on wine.

The trip over was almost uneventful. Just as we came to the security check, I realized that I had forgotten about the switchblade in my vest pocket. I told them about it right away and surrendered it.

Good thing I collect them and have plenty of backups at home.
We took the commuter rail line RER from the airport to Gare du Nord because it is a straight run that far. When we left the station, there was a funny installation on the sidewalk, a scaled-down Parisian townhouse with a decided tilt.

We stayed in Paris at the Hotel Paris Bastille, near the Place de la Bastille and less than a kilometer from the rail station. 

It was clean enough, but they cut corners, so I don’t think we’ll go back there. The rooms are uncomfortably cramped, and my room was mostly filled by the bed. There was one small bath towel per person, much like the hostel where I’ve stayed in New York.

We arrived too early to check in and left our bags, so we could make it to an Easter service at Notre Dame. That was pretty spectacular. 

It was high mass, backed by a choir of 10 women who mainly sang unaccompanied. The service had begun when we arrived and the entire space seemed to fill with plainsong.

The center of the nave was full, so we found seats on the side. We couldn’t see the actual service but could watch on a monitor. The music was the big thing—the choir, the celebrant, the pipe organ.

Joanna was reluctant to leave her carry-on at the hotel because she had money and other valuables in it. The city is on high alert. When we reached the square in front of the cathedral, soldiers stopped us and asked her to open the bag. 

She had to open it again when we entered the church door.

There was quite a crowd outside the church, too, including one very colorful old guy on a bicycle.

We strolled back to the hotel after the service. We took a street called Rue Miron, which included a couple of buildings that, according to a sign, date back to the Middle Ages.

One had a bent wall looming over an alley. I don’t know if it was buckling or if it was built that way. It reminded me of the crooked houses of Amsterdam, and of the funny play house outside Gare du Nord.

We checked in and took a rest. We may have gotten catnaps on the plane, but if we managed two full hours’ sleep between the two of us, I’d be surprised. So we were beat.

We checked out a restaurant a few yards from the hotel, but were skeptical. It had taken roast chicken off its menu. And we were in the mood for chicken.

We went instead to Cafe Francais, which is on the Place de la Bastille facing the monument that marks where the old prison stood.

We had a plate of the tastiest green beans and mushrooms that I can remember. 

We also had snails, of course.

We followed that with chicken under a brown glaze that was also spectacular. 

I managed to spill a glass of Bordeaux on my jacket. The waiter brought me a small pitcher of hot water and vinegar. 

“It won’t do miracles,” he said. 

He was mistaken about that. There’s not a mark on the jacket, which is light blue. I’m still wearing it. 

After dessert we headed back to pass out.

We talked about walking to Gare de Lyon. It is less than a kilometer from the hotel. But wheeling bags that far can be a pain in the neck, so Monday morning we opted to wimp out and take a cab. 

It was fun to sit in the station for a while and watch people work out on the pedal-powered battery recharger.

We had bought our tickets online and printed them before we left. 
We had not done that before, but will again. There was no problem at all. The conductor scanned the code on our printouts and wished us a bon voyage.

We were on the top deck of a two-level car. We had no idea how many passengers would be trying to get out of the car at Avignon or how long the train would stop there. 

We didn’t want to be the two geriatric characters blocking the stairs with their suitcases, so we brought our bags down and finished the last 10 minutes or so of the ride in the vestibule. 

It’s good that we did. Not so many were getting off, but there were plenty of antsy people on the platform raring to get on board.

We took the glass elevator down to the main level of the station and saw Larry coming to meet us even before the car stopped.

We piled into the Citroen and got lost just outside Avignon. We got a good look at the city walls and gates while we searched for the sign that pointed the way to Carpentras, which is in the direction we needed to go for Beaumes-de-Venise.

We went this way, that way, and then Joanna saw the sign. So Larry turned us around one more time and we were good to go. 

When we arrived at the house, Sophie was in the pool. That is, she was in the dry pool grouting the replacement tile.

We had daube, the local beef stew, for dinner along with two local red wines. One was from the Beaumes-de-Venise co-op, which Claude heads, and the other was from Martinelle, a particular favorite of Larry's.

That was Monday. Tuesday is market day in Vaison-la-Romaine. We got up and headed to the market town and got there in time to get the last space in the parking lot.

Larry, who is the cook when he’s in Provence, didn’t need too much. But these open-air markets are always fun to visit. We walked around looking at stuff. 

Larry stood in line for sausage. Joanna bought a piece of pastry for a snack. 

There is an archeological site in town, and we walked around the fence above it, but the gate was closed so we couldn’t get in.

On the way back to the Chabrans’ house we stopped at winery called Domaine la Garrigue to get a few bottles of white and some rose. Garrigue is the local name for the ground cover in the region. 

It includes grass, flowers, and herbs all growing wild. 

Larry says it has a characteristic smell, which gets into the wines of the countryside.

We picked up rotisserie chicken at the small street market in Beaumes-de-Venise. We see rotisseries full of chickens here and in Paris. As the chickens cook, the fat falls onto potatoes that roast in the bottom of the rotisserie. The aroma is gorgeous.

We didn’t have the traditional roast potatoes but instead had potato pancakes that Larry found at the Vaison market.

After a nap, we went to Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The area around the town produces some of the world’s greatest wines,

We wound up buying two bottles from Eddie Feraud, two from Beaucastel, and one from Brun Avril.

The Brun Avril was one of the bottles we polished off with Tuesday’s dinner, duck breast, pan-fried leeks, and roast baby potatoes.

This is way too long already. I’ll send more another time.

So everybody be good, but not too good, and don’t forget to stop and smell the wine.


Friday, April 7, 2017

Marbles, Bones, and Mozzarella

March 1-3, 2017

Wednesday we got to the Museo Archeologico. This is where most of the gorgeous stuff taken from ancient Pompeii and Herculaneum is on display.

Beginning in the 18th century, excavations uncovered treasure after treasure, and all of them were taken to the collection of the Bourbon king of Naples.

The subway station for the museum houses a bronze group (a replica most likely) of Laocoon and his sons being strangled by the sea serpents. It is almost identical to the marble in the Vatican.

Laocoon is the skeptic who told the other Trojans to beware of the horse. He’s the one, according to Virgil, who said, “I fear the Greeks, even bearing gifts.” That’s why the gods who were on the Greeks’ side sent the serpents to kill him. Killed his sons, too, because that’s what gods usually do.

The artifacts recovered from the digs at Pompeii and Herculaneum were combined later with a collection from Rome owned by the Farnese family.

The mother of one of the Neapolitan kings was the last of the Farnese line, which had included cardinals and Pope Paul III.

The Farnese collection, which occupies most of the ground floor, contains huge bronzes and marbles.

One very complex piece from ancient times is called the Farnese Bull. It is a group telling the story of Antiope’s revenge on Dirce, who had run away with Antiope’s husband. Antiope’s two sons are tying Dirce by the hair to a raging bull.

The piece is generally believed to have been carved in the fourth century A.D. Like the Venus Pudica in Syracuse, it has a baroque flavor. The artistic skill to do that would decline long before the final gasp of the Roman Empire and would take Europe more than a thousand years to recreate. 

Another of the famous pieces in the Farnese collection is a large marble of Hercules, exhausted after completing his labors. For many years, the statue stood on legs that had been partly restored by an artist in the 16th or 17th century.

The original legs were discovered years later and eventually were reunited with the piece. The replacement legs are on display near the restored statue.

A stunning sculpture is Apollo with his lyre. It is one of the first you encounter coming into the Farnese Collection.

The robe that covers the body is carved from dark red porphyry to suggest intricate folds. The hands, feet, and head are white marble.

The parts are assembled to elegantly that you believe it is cut from a single block. Particularly intriguing is the way the wavy locks of hair fall over the shoulders. 

It looks so delicate. How could somebody fit them together so tightly? And not even break something?

Venus Kallipygos (that is, Venus of the Beautiful Butt) is also stunning, both from the front ….

… and the back.

We took a break for pizza and a little bit of wine and then went back to the museum. As bad as the streets are, the food here is terrific. We went into a shiny little shop and had pizza with mozzarella made with water buffalo milk.

The wine was a decently tangy house red, which was indeed terrific at 3 euros for a quarter liter.

The top floor of the museum houses frescoes, artifacts, and sculpture from a Temple of Isis that stood in Pompeii. The collection is a detailed example of the tendency of the ancient religions to mix and match images and beliefs.

The Secret Room is no longer secret. It is on the mezzanine floor at the end of several rooms of frescoes, sculpture, and mosaics recovered mainly from the so-called House of the Faun at Pompeii.

The famous mosaic of Alexander defeating Darius, what’s left of it, is on a wall here. The floor of the house in Pompeii, where the original was, now has a reproduction. 

Large parts of of the mosaic are missing. According to Rick Steves’s guidebook, the damage done to the mosaic occurred when excavators removed it to Naples.

The mosaic is based on a much older painting, which apparently is known, so an illustration of the complete composition is shown alongside the fragmentary original.

The Secret Room, which at one time was open only to visitors who had written permission from the king of Naples, houses erotica retrieved from Pompeii and Herculaneum. 

There are large stone and wooden phalluses that were protective talismans for shops and homes. They represented fertility and prosperity.

The original advertising illustrations from the Lupanarium of Pompeii are also there.

For dinner, we went back to the usual place, which I learned is called La Stanza del Gusto. Not only is the food good, but it is about as far as we are willing to walk in this neighborhood after dark.

Joanna had spaghetti with a sauce of codfish, vegetables, and bread.

Mine was bucatini with a tomato sauce that contained Sardinian cheese. 

I thought they were both very good, but Joanna wasn’t so sure about her dish.

The red for the night was Piedirosso, from Cantine Federiciane in Campania. I took one sniff and a small taste and guessed that it was a blend that included a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon. 

I asked the waiter about it, who went and checked. It is a varietal, and Piedirosso is the name of the grape,. Apparently it is native to the region.

A distinctive spicy smell and taste dominate Cabernet. Piedirosso has some of that, but is not as strong as in the Cab.

Thursday morning, the day before we left, I opened an e-mail from Ken, husband to Joanna’s sister Gladys. He had mentioned a great pizzeria in an earlier message and was following up with the full name, L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele.

I checked Google Maps and found that it was about a mile from the hotel. Better yet, the route would take us within a block of the Naples Duomo, which we hadn’t seen.

We needed to find Via dei Tribunali and follow that to Via Duomo. Much to my surprise, it was actually easy to do.

We walked Via Costantinopoli to the street with the arch. Instead of turning right, toward Piazza Dante, we turned left. It wasn’t called Tribunali there, but took us through a couple of piazzas before the street name changed.

The street is very narrow, without pedestrian walkways. 

Narrower alleys branched off Tribunali and wound their way under balconies draped with drying laundry.

An occasional car would come through and everybody would have to get out of the way. Motorbikes were even worse, beeping in their annoying road-runner voices and weaving at speed among people on foot. 

At times this seems to be a country overrun by undisciplined children.

The Duomo apparently commands a great deal of respect here. Either that or it is subjected to extraordinary maintenance. Only a small part of it has any graffiti.

It is baroque, as many churches are that we have seen on this trip. I imagine its roots run older, though.

An unexpected high point involves San Gennaro. This is the saint whose festival is celebrated every year in Little Italy in New York.

Gennaro was bishop of Naples and visiting Christian prisoners in a nearby town when he was arrested and beheaded during the persecutions by Diocletian. San Gennaro died within a year or two of St. Lucy.

I am fascinated by cults of relics. In Singapore, for instance, we went to a huge temple in Chinatown where a tooth of the Buddha, as well as vials holding some of his cremated remains, are on display.

The Duomo has a chapel called the Treasury of San Gennaro. It is full of silver objects, but the treasure, according to signs outside, are the relics of the saint. 

A silver bust holds his head and some of his bones. There is a vial of his blood that alternately congeals and liquefies, and no one can explain why.

There is also a crypt below the cathedral’s high altar where a large vase holds more of San Gennaro’s bones.

I was walking around this place with my mouth open. Witnessing a tradition that goes back 1700 years can do that.

When we left the Duomo, we went back to Via dei Tribunali to find the Vico della Pace. It was next to a church, Santa Maria della Pace. So we had no trouble finding it.

Della Pace, a very narrow alley in which car and bike drivers like to make up for lost time, changes its name to Via Cesare Sersale, and Da Michele is at the very end of that, at Number 1.

There was a crowd of people outside when we got there. Joanna said, should we ask about getting a number? 

No, that’s just the end of the lunch crowd, I said. So we went for a walk around the neighborhood to kill some time.

A large corso runs not far from the restaurant, and that was interesting enough, I guess. All corsos in this part of the world are named for one of the Vittorio Emanueles or an Umberto. 

This one is named for Umberto I, the king who was assassinated in 1900.

We came back a half hour later and the crowd was still as big as before. So I went inside and spoke to man in a hat and apron, who told me the wait was an hour. 

We got a ticket with number 39 on it. Several minutes later they called number 15.

I tried to wait. I really did. But I got tired of standing in a crowd of cigarette smokers and became annoyed at being shoved by people who can’t be bothered to speak.

There was a good-looking restaurant, D’Angeli, right across the street. We went there.

We had already had good pizza in Syracuse and great pizza in Naples. How much better can it get that it’s worth that kind of abuse for an hour?

The Margherita at D’Angeli was superb. Thick mozz (probably not water buffalo milk, but tasty nonetheless). Great red sauce dosed with oregano. Leaves of basil.

After we got there, Joanna told me she really hadn’t wanted pizza anyway. She has been crazy for all the pasta dishes we have been putting away.

I can understand that. I like to eat pizza once, maybe twice a week, when it’s good. I can eat pasta every day. Indeed, we have been eating pasta just about every day for the past month and a half.

Besides, Joanna saw a picture on the wall. I think it’s a classic comedian of Italian movies. The face is familiar, although I don’t recall the name.

He is shown holding a huge knot of pasta in one hand and nibbling on the strands. It triggered Joanna’s pasta craving.

She ordered the Sicilian pasta. That means it is made with eggplant.

The sauce, served on rigatoni, had a flavor I can’t identify. Maybe it was a strong hit of sage. Maybe this was some kind of eggplant that has a strong flavor. I don’t know. 

Naples may be rotten to its core, but the food is great.

We took a cab back to the hotel and never did go out again. 

Joanna had picked up a pear at a grocery store. We had bread in a paper bag left from D’Angeli, and a hard-boiled egg from breakfast. 

We ate that around 9 p.m. and that’s all we could handle.

Moving day started at 7. We took a cab to the airport at 8:30 and had some breakfast there, coffee, croissant, hot water for Joanna.

I did some writing while we waited for the plane.

We took an hour-and-a-half flight to Munich that gave us a glimpse of the Bavarian Alps. Knowing we were headed for an airport with beer and sausages, I passed on the airplane food.

As usual when you change planes, especially at an airport you don’t know, your arrival and departure gates are as far apart as they can make them.

We traveled through people carriers to escalators and onto a subway train that took us to another terminal. More escalators and people movers to passport control. 

We passed restaurants and duty-free shops and rode more people movers to yet another passport control point.

The man had my passport and boarding pass. Where can I get a beer and something to eat?

Nothing down there. We had to go back.

Lucky for us, there was a place not far away. I had a half liter of Paulaner with bratwurst. The man in front of me at the counter got the last weisswurst with a pretzel.

Everything was so good that I got another Paulaner. 

We went back through the passport check and then came to yet another security post. The guy told us to hurry. They were almost finished boarding.

I knew he was lying. If they are really close to shutting the gate and you aren’t on board, they page you. Nobody had called our names.

We got onto the plane, which is less than half full, and watched several other people board after us.

I just finished a can of Warsteiner and am waiting for the drink cart to pass this way again. I’ll finish this later.

* * *

We got to Newark without incident, about a half hour ahead of the plane’s scheduled arrival time. I don’t know how that happened. Maybe the Jet Stream was slower today. Or maybe they forgot to fly over Iceland, and so wound up taking a short cut.

Anyway, we were back at Joanna’s house by 8 o’clock. Christopher was there. 

He has been staying in Hancock, N.Y., a small town I know from the days when my parents lived in upstate New York.

He was in Montclair to welcome us home. He also prepared dinner. Besides a fantastic roast chicken, there were black beans and rice.

He had expected, quite correctly, that the food we had been eating for the past six weeks have been very good, but had not included black beans or jasmine rice.

I took off after dinner and am now back at my favorite New Jersey residence, La Quinta on Two Bridges Road in Fairfield. 

Be well, all, and don’t lose your marbles.