Thursday, February 9, 2012

Art and Soul: A Magical Tour from the Riviera to Provence


The light shimmers bright and golden on a cerulean sea. The soft, warm breeze stirs the palm trees and threatens to take my napkin off into the blue. I’m sitting at a terrace cafĂ© on the Cote d’Azur, drinking a cappuccino and asking my friend Karen to pinch me to prove I’m not dreaming. Since the beginning of the 20th century, many of the world’s greatest artists have made this the birthplace of modern art. Painters have long celebrated the sensational light, the sensual climate, the diversity of the landscape and the beauty of the Mediterranean.

Both on the Riviera and in Provence, France was paying homage to Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and we saw important exhibits of Picasso’s work including some paintings never seen before. My group of five women had the lucky opportunity to view exhibits, studios and homes of Picasso, as well as those of Matisse and Cezanne – two painters that had a profound impact on the artist.

Southern France played an essential role in Picasso’s life and the soul of this great Spanish artist continues to be felt here, so we began our sojourn in Nice, a city that has inspired artists for centuries. In fact, it prompted Matisse, upon moving here to exclaim: “When I realized I would see this light every morning, I could not believe my good fortune and I decided to live here for the rest of my life.” Nice is elegant and trendy, cheerful and bustling, and when the sea spray meets the fragrance of the tall Aleppo pines, this town is downright bewitching!

We visited the Matisse Museum (www.musee-matisse-nice.org), a Genovese-style villa filled with his masterpieces and personal possessions. After the museum, walking around the town, we experienced a deeper level of appreciation for Nice as we saw it now through the eyes of Matisse. Our hotel, the Beau Rivage (www.hotel-nicebeaurivage.com) just happens to be where Matisse himself lived till the end of his life. Sadly, my room there was not the one he occupied, but from my window the view of the sea and the special Nicoise light was exactly what the artist saw and that alone sufficed.

Next, we went to the Riviera town of Vence. There’s an Old Town of quirky houses showing the patina of time and a walk through its colorful market captivated us with the scent of delicious herbs and bouquets of lavender. Here we found the Villa Le Reve (www.villalerevevence.com) where Matisse lived and worked from 1943 to 1949. Today it’s a charming house that can be rented by groups of artists. After touring the studio, we descended upon the garden where a small group of Swedish women were attending to their easels on the vast sloping lawn, all the while taking their inspiration from the grand master. Matisse named this place The Dream, a name that is, quite literally, spot-on!

The enchanting Picasso Museum, (www.antibesjuanlespins.com) in the Grimaldi Castle lies amid the calm beauty of pine groves and is located in the town of Antibes. This is the first museum to be dedicated to the painter, and it is home to some 245 of his works. The exceptional exhibit includes his gay and lyrical work “La Joie de Vivre” – the joy of living – with flute playing fauns, dancing goats and a female nude modeled on his then love, Francoise Gilot. Our hotel, the Garden Beach Hotel, (www.garden-beach-hotel.com) afforded us smashing views of the sea. Antibes has grand estates, dense vegetation and park-like settings. F. Scott Fitzgerald, staying here wrote: “We’ve found a splendid location – a big house, the seaside, and the casino is hardly 100 m. away.” Apparently the Fitzgeralds were enchanted by Antibes, as were we.

The town of Vallauris is where Picasso discovered the art of ceramics. From the summer of 1948 until 1955 when he left, he created 4,000 ceramic works. In the town square rests his iconic bronze “Man with a Sheep” which he gave to Vallauris in 1950 when he was made an honorary citizen. One of the artist’s most famous works “War & Peace,” his last great political composition, was installed in the 12th century chapel of the Vallauris chateau in 1959. It is a powerful work that takes the viewer from the horrors of war to peaceful times. Picasso depicts his belief that all is possible through peace with images of a boy plowing the sea, fish swimming in a bird cage, and birds happily existing in a fish tank. Through peace, all is possible.

Leaving the Riviera and driving to Provence, the landscape began to change dramatically, from exotic plants and palm trees to purple mountains and fields filled with yellow rape flowers. Aix-en-Provence has always been associated with water. Springs and fountains abound in squares and along streets lined with centuries-old plane and olive trees. This was once a Roman city, and it is thoroughly Mediterranean. Artists’ studios, artisan shops, restaurants, cafes and market stalls today make this ancient city modern and lively.

In Aix at the Granet Museum (www.museegranet.com) we viewed an exhibit which brought together a hundred works by Cezanne and Picasso and saw the significant influence Cezanne had on Picasso throughout his life. Of Cezanne, Picasso said “He was my one and only master.” I discovered first-hand how the paint colors Cezanne favored were used again and again in Picasso’s works. It was interesting to compare the artists’ works, and two in particular were most revealing: Cezanne’s “Man with a Pipe” and Picasso’s “The Smoker.” Picasso once said “I don’t paint what I see but what I feel.” In these two paintings one observes how Picasso, inspired by the Cezanne work, painted essentially the same subject but in abstract form. We also visited the Chateau Vauvenargues, which lies at the foot of the Sainte-Victoire Mountain, and is where Picasso worked and died. In this austere castle he now rests alongside his wife Jacqueline.

Picasso was deeply attracted to the city of Arles whose extravagant atmosphere, climate, and bullfights reminded him of his birthplace, Spain. The town is known as “the daughter of the South” and cultivates a way of life that cries out to be sampled – on terraces, in shaded alleyways or beneath trees in tiny village squares, and boasts seven UNESCO-ranked World Heritage monuments. We visited the Reattu Museum (www.museereattu.arles.fr) which has 57 drawings and two paintings by Picasso, including the charming “Portrait of Maria,” Picasso’s mother.

Picasso did not paint what he saw but what he felt. “We need to get to the bottom of the story,” he said “and see all the pictures underneath a picture. I have tried, by destructuring, to illustrate and help reveal the hidden picture.” On this magical romp through Picasso-Land, I felt what he felt and, as his feelings were revealed through his work, I gained a profound and lasting insight into his world.

If You Go:
www.franceguide.com
www.AirFrance.us

WONDERFUL CITY: Carnival Time in Rio


Cidade Maravilhosa – Wonderful City. This is the name the Cariocas (residents of Rio) fondly call their town – and with good reason. A city of six million inhabitants, Rio de Janeiro has a special vibe all its own – a Samba vibe, to be sure, and it all begins when we deplane at Tom Jobim, an airport like no other. Warm smiles greet us, music pulses from all corners of the building, and men and women sway to the beat of Samba. The city is gearing up for its most famous event – Carnival – and so are we!

First reached in January, 1501 by Portuguese explorers in an expedition led by Amerigo Vespucci, the Europeans thought at first the Bay of Guaranbara was the mouth of a river which they then named “Rio de Janeiro,” river of January.

Our ride from the airport to Copacabana Beach seemed to take just about as long as it probably took those explorers to discover Rio. Traffic here is appalling and driving even a very short distance takes hours. Finally ensconced in my hotel room, I checked out the scene from my window. Below all was bustling and vibrant. I smiled as I glimpsed the familiar sight I’d long associated with Rio, the wave-patterned sidewalks and Copacabana Beach. Gentle waves washed the shore and the ocean curved off into the distant, odd-shaped mountains beyond.

Brief is Best
To call Rio informal is a gross understatement. The sidewalks teemed with people in various stages of undress – short shorts, minis and teeny, tiny string bikinis that adorned bronzed, beautiful bodies. This is not a place for the shy, the retiring, or for my boring, one-piece black bathing suit. In fact, I’m sure the color black must be banned in Brazil. Instead, a kaleidoscope of riotous color reigns. Later, peering from my window at 3 a.m., I was surprised to see the beach still alive with countless strollers, water gently lapping at their ankles. I’m told that Rio’s citizens routinely hit the beach on their lunch hour, as well. For them, the beach is an integral, necessary part of life. Quite simply, here life is a beach.

I planned on getting in some beach time myself, but the main reason we’re here is for Carnival so let the cutir (fun) begin!

The first records of this festival date back to 1723 when immigrants from the Portuguese islands introduced it to Rio and, by 1855, Carnival acquired unique elements derived from the African culture – organized parades, luxurious costumes, music, masks and flowers. Fast forward to the 21st century with the event drawing 500,000 foreign visitors and tens of thousands participating in spectacular parades with fantasy floats and dancing till dawn at the Sambodrome – an event that everyone must experience at least once in life. During these four days offices, banks and shops close. Everything stops and the insanity begins. As sure as the glorious sun shines on this luminous city, without fail, Rio’s Carnival takes place again in 2012 from February 17 through Fat Tuesday, February 21.

A Truly Heavenly View
Gearing up for my first night of Carnival, I spent an inordinate amount of time that morning choosing my dress for the famed Copacabana Palace Ball. Satisfied that I had a killer outfit at the ready, I joined our group for some serious Rio sightseeing. And what should be our first sight? Just the largest art deco statue in the world, Cristo Redentor, Christ the Redeemer, the beloved symbol that looms over the city and is considered its protector. It is 73 years old, 98 feet high and rests atop Corcovado Mountain. My reward for climbing the 220 steps to the top (there’s an elevator if you don’t fancy the climb) is a euphoric feeling of standing on top of the world with a panoramic view of sea, sky, mountains and the beaches of Lagoa, Ipanema and Leblon.

I Could Have Danced All Night
That evening, we had the special privilege of attending the prestigious Carnival Ball, an event I like to refer to as my very own “15 Minutes.” Why? Because to enter the Palace, we walked a Red Carpet (yessss!) while hundreds pressed up against a fence which separated the invited from – well, from those that were not. Flashbulbs popped as we entered this classic hotel and once inside, pure fantasy. This event offered the chance to mingle with the glitterati, international VIPs, top starlets and models, the works. The theme of the ball was “Opera Magic” and as I wove my way through the costumed Carmens, Aidas, Rameses and Rudolfos, I had to pinch myself to believe I was really there. Like most other Carnival events, this ball lasted till dawn and I was grateful that next day’s sightseeing was put off till very late morning.

Onward and Upward
Because of its height and its unmistakable outline, Sugar Loaf is one of Rio’s main attractions. On a cable car that has been in operation since 1912, the first leg of our ascent took us to a height of 720 feet above sea level and stopped at the Morro da Urca plateau. There our car was boarded by a group of boisterous musicians who gaily played and sang us to the summit. Sugar Loaf is a green, unearthly peak that rises over the city and affords a bird’s eye view from Copacabana Beach to the Corcovado Mountain. Feeling adventurous? You can take a helicopter ride which leaves from the first plateau. Really adventurous or slightly mad? Try climbing up this mountain. I peered down over the sheer vertical side of Sugar Loaf to see tiny, ant-like figures attempting to make their way to the top. They, more than we who rode a cable car, would find the stunning views a most just reward.

This Girl in Ipanema
Throughout the four days of Carnival, there are Bandas (street parades) that take place in the many Rio neighborhoods. Each Banda consists of an orchestra playing well-known music that everybody sings along with. I marched along the Ipanema Banda irreverently titled “Que Merda E Essa?” (no translation needed). The streets were filled with hordes of enthusiastic people dancing the samba in costumes, bathing suits, special T-shirts and even in drag. The crowds were so thick I was literally carried along, at times wondering if I’d ever see my safe, relatively quiet hotel again. Happily, I hung in there. I made it!

All Night Long
The highlight of Carnival is the Samba Parade which is held at the Sambodrome (this coming year on February 14 and 15). The parade starts at 9 p.m., both nights featuring six Samba Schools, each group with as many as 10,000 revelers (you read it right) marching down the Passarela do Samba, the runway. The event ends at dawn the next morning. The phrase Samba School is actually somewhat of a misnomer. It is not a teaching institution; you cannot go there to learn to Samba (a dance unique to Brazil and invented by poor Afro-Brazilians). Instead, the 70 Samba Schools in Rio represent eight neighborhoods that work all year to build the floats, make the costumes and choreograph the dances they will perform in the parade. All night we sat mesmerized, viewing the parade in this amphitheater which was designed by the renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Back in the mid-eighties, the Samba Parades had become too big for improvisation in the streets and needed a professional site to perform in. When commissioned to build the Sambodrome which was to be completed in 110 days, Niemeyer said “We built the capital Brasilia in four years. We certainly can build the Sambodrome in four months,” and he did. About the Samba Parade, may I just say that it is an utterly unbelievable spectacle in color, grandeur and splendor, something you’ve gotta see to believe.

Too soon, Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday arrived. Carnival in Rio is a unique experience. Discard inhibitions, wear a wild costume, just let go and have a blast. In short, it’s a moment you will never, ever forget. And, however cheesy it may sound, Rio de Janeiro - mad, magical and mysterious - allows you to live out, if only for a brief moment, your fantasies and dreams.
Cutir - Party on!

RIO de JANEIRO 411:
Hotels
Rio Orthon Palace Hotel Santa Teresa
Great location on Copacabana Beach Bohemian artists’ neighborhood
A.v.Atlantica, 3264 R. Almirante Alexandrina, 660
Tel: +55 (21) 2106-1500 Tel: +55 (21) 2222 2755
www.orthonhotels.com www.hotelsantateresa.com

Copacabana Palace Hotel Brazil Tourist Office
5-Star, Deluxe www.iexplore.com/dmap/brazil
Av. Atlantica 1702
Tel: +55 (21) 2548 7070 American Airlines
www.copacabanapalacehotel.com Great Vacation Packages
www.aa.com

Restaurants
Porcao Rio’s Aprazivel
Traditional Brazilian Barbeque Dine in a garden
Av.Infante Dom Henrique Rua Aprazivel 62
Tel:+ 55 (21)3461 9020 Tel:+55 (21)3852 4935

Photos courtesy of Sloane Travel Photography

NORTHERN IRELAND: Where It's Easy Being Green



Peering out of my van window, I was happy the rain had stopped. Looking over the meadow, the fog was slowly lifting, and out of this moody, misty atmosphere I saw several large, lumbering images walking the fields. Our van slowed to a stop and as the mist receded, I recognized this ghostly vision to be nothing more exotic than some gorgeous Galloway Belted cows, quite common here in County Down.

Here is a land of intense loveliness - blue mountains, deep forests, misty lakes, and just as it should be - the moors are windswept, the cliffs are craggy and the sea is wild and roiling. Welcome to Northern Ireland (aka Ulster). It has six counties, 1.8 million people and tourism, technology, and agriculture are the mainstays of its economy. Weather here can be fickle. Oh, let’s just tell it like it is: it rains 270 to 290 days a year. In this wee country, about the size of Connecticut and just 100 miles by 100 miles, it’s damp and chill and green all over! Naturally it is this very climate that keeps the Emerald in Isle, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The van was taking us to St. Patrick Centre to pay homage to the country’s Patron Saint who didn’t actually drive out all the snakes (myth) but did, in truth, bring Christianity to Ireland. The Centre is located in the medieval town of Downpatrick and has all the information about St. Paddy one would ever need, presented through some quite inventive multi-media exhibits. A mile away is the first church of Ireland, the Down Cathedral, the site where St. Patrick is buried and an essential pilgrimage destination for people from around the world for over 1500 years.

Our own pilgrimage takes us on to Londonderry (aka Derry), rich in cultural and architectural heritage. Our walking tour encompassed the 17th century Derry City Walls and St. Columb’s Cathedral built between 1614 and 1619. The walls stand 26 feet high, 30 feet wide and throughout the walk we saw 24 medieval cannons still seeming to stand sentinel, protecting the city from attack by marauding Irish clans. Never breached, the walls remain completely intact and almost perfectly preserved, making Londonderry one of the finest examples of a walled European city.

The next day on to County Antrim to visit the famed Causeway Coastal Route. The landscape here is astonishing, with patchwork hills, mountain streams and tumbling waterfalls. Along the coast our driver adeptly maneuvered over a road lined with majestic (heart stopping) cliffs and below, golden sands and the Giant’s Causeway, recognized as one of the natural wonders of the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Jutting into the sea are 40,000 hexagonally-shaped basalt columns formed 60 million years ago from volcanic lava. I stood among the towering tubes of stone musing over a popular legend that an Irish giant named Finn McCool had an altercation with Fingal, a Scottish giant who lived across the water, and began flinging huge clods of earth at him which landed in the sea, forming a causeway so they could meet and have a face-off. The story goes on and on but, suffice it to say, it has a happy ending for dear Finn McCool. Nearby are the ruins of the 16th century Dunluce Castle standing on a 100 foot-high basalt stack. The ruins are breathtaking and even roofless it portrays the air of strength this site commanded and which, before the advent of gunpowder, would have been almost impossible to conquer.

The Glens of Antrim are steeped in myth and legend, especially in fairy-lore. On a walk-about we came to a stand of Hawthorn trees. Our guide Brendan explained that this area is rife with fairies who are fond of Hawthorn trees and of their own particular hang-out, Fairy Hill. He went on to say: “Woe betide anyone who would dare to cut a Hawthorn down!” Just then a brisk breeze stirred the forest’s leaves, and I believe I saw in the distance a procession of teeny, green-clad souls climbing up Fairy Hill and disappearing down the other side. Imagination? Maybe. Or maybe just Ireland, charming and beguiling as ever. It was a sweet, cherishable moment that was quickly broken by Brendan saying “I’m told they taste just like chicken.”

Our journey ended in Belfast, a city of 500,000, replete with history, heritage and tradition. Once the linen capital of the world, the city pulses with energy: quaint cobbled streets, historic pubs, boutique hotels, nightclubs, music and murals - a city of murals, really. They are some of Northern Ireland’s most unique expressions of public art reflecting political and social views while others pay tribute to local heroes. One that I will long remember read: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, leaves everyone blind and unable to eat.”

Belfast had the biggest shipyard in the world and it was here in 1912 that the Titanic, the world’s most famous ship since Noah’s Ark, was built. We saw the dock where she was fitted out and the slip where she was launched, all virtually unchanged since she sailed away. Belfast has commenced a mammoth $150 million project to open in the centenary year of its sailing. There will be a museum comprised of 9 galleries which will take the visitor through time, telling of Belfast’s shipbuilding boomtown, of those who built the Titanic and those on board her tragic maiden voyage up to present day where you will see video footage of where she lies at rest. The aim of this ambitious project is, in a sense, to bring the Titanic home.

Northern Ireland is a place where myth, magic and mystery live side by side with everyday life. Our senses were besotted with visions of sheep-strewn meadows, stately horses standing beneath milky skies, and hedgerows of green, gold and copper emerging like ghostly blobs as we traversed narrow lanes. Ireland’s native son, Oscar Wilde, once irreverently said: “The only thing I can’t resist is temptation.” For me, the temptation to return to Ulster will always be there.

If You Go:
www.discovernorthernireland.com
www.discoverireland.com

Hotels Restaurants
Slieve Donard Resort & Spa, Newcastle The Oak Restaurant, Newcastle
www.hastingshotels.com www.hastingshotels.com
Lough Erne Resort, Enniskillen Priory House Restaurant, Benburb
www.lougherneresort.com www.nigoodfood.com
Everglades Hotel, Derry Brown’s Restaurant, Derry
www.hastingshotels.com www.brownsrestaurant.com
Merchant Hotel, Belfast Molly’s Yard, Belfast
www.themerchanthotel.com www.mollysyard.co..uk

For Running in the Rain On The Move Between Raindrops
Columbia Mountain Mix waterproof jacket Travelpro 20” Rollaboard luggage, waterproof and its
in meadow green! stability system prevents tipping (into puddles)
www.columbia.com www.travelpro.com

SPANNING THE CENTURIES IN EGYPT


An elegant, bearded man swaddled in pure white robes, wearing a kefiyeh headdress encircled with a black rope band and surrounded by four large, no-nonsense bodyguards walks through the Four Seasons Cairo lobby. When my waiter brings me tea, I ask him who that very important looking man is and he explains it’s a sheik from Saudi Arabia. “You’ll see lots of them here. This is, after all, The Four Seasons,” he says with a proud smile.

Yes, that says it all. Whether in Boston, Washington or Cairo, Egypt, this hotel chain with its demanding high standards frequently hosts celebs, heads of state, and occasionally a lucky travel writer like me.

Known to locals as Umm al-Dunya, “Mother of the World,” Cairo is a city of 18 Million which swells to over 20 Million daily counting the workforce. I swear I can see many of those millions right below my hotel window, a virtual feast for the eyes: streets teeming with people, a cacophony of bleating car horns, tall pastel-colored apartment buildings, their balconies alive with clothes flapping in the breeze. Tiny, shadowed alleyways almost obscure men sitting around tables eating, smoking, visiting. A colorful profusion of veggies, fruit, nuts, flowers, perfumes and handicrafts are displayed in front of the shops as hawkers implore you to taste, smell, buy or at least join them for a glass of tea. Oh yes, I am, indeed, in Cairo, Egypt and anticipating the exotic adventure that’s about to unfold.

After resting for a few hours, our group was driven to The Citadel, an open-air amphitheatre on high where exhibitions, artistic events and concerts are held. The view from there gives onto the entire city below and as the lights of all Cairo came up, it was magic. We dined on spicy, traditional Egyptian fare while musicians played tunes on ancient instruments, singers sang with seductive, mournful voices and whirling dervishes in long white gallabiyas twirled trance-like for what seemed like hours. They never get dizzy, I’m told, because their dance is divinely inspired. After my long flight and feeling somewhat dizzy myself from the mesmerizing performance, I was glad to return to my hotel and prepare for a big day ahead.

A visit to the Egyptian Museum began with what was one of the highlights of the trip: a lecture by the one and only Dr. Zahi Hawas, the world’s foremost Egyptologist and the head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Dr. Hawas discussed some of the museum’s 2,500 artifacts culled over 5,000 years. The treasures of the museum were heart-stopping and it is said that to see the entire collection it would take 9 full months, every day, from 9 to 5. The Tutankhamen exhibit was my favorite, with the 18k gold mask of Tut, his chariots, sarcophagus, and including golden jewelry enclosed in his tomb for over 3,500 years. I longed to have the time to just gaze into each and every splendid vitrine and simply let the heady atmosphere envelop me. Sadly, t’was not to be as the plan was to spend the evening at the Sofitel Hotel. Boarding a wooden felucca docked at the foot of our hotel, we had a 10 minute sail across the Nile to the hotel’s Buddha Bar where we sampled Egyptian hors d’oeuvres and inventive cocktails. With lights glistening on this mythical river, good company and great drinks, it was, in all, a fine Cairo evening.

The next day we crossed over one of the 11 bridges from Cairo to the section called Giza on our way to the Pyramids and Sphinx. Though the three Great Pyramids are the most famous monuments, the site has actually been a Necropolis since the beginning of Pharaonic Egypt. Shortly after we arrived, a sand storm kicked up turning the sky from blue to milky white, the wind whipping sand particles into every possible crevice of our bodies. It made picture-taking difficult, as did the hoards of tourists. But, intrepid travelers that we were, we got our shots and bragging rights about enduring a sandstorm at the Pyramids and living to tell it!

That evening, dinner was at the Robayat El Khayam, the historic restaurant of the Mena House Oberoi Hotel. Lavish, over-the-top, a true Hollywood set, this is not to be-missed. An ethnic-inspired show of dancers and singers was a fun accompaniment to our meal.

After checking out of our hotel, we took an hour-long flight to Luxor where we boarded a Nile cruise ship for a four-night trip to Aswan. The first stop on our cruise was the Temple of Karnak. Although badly ruined, no site in Egypt is more impressive. It is the largest temple complex ever built by man; in fact it’s a city of temples built over 2000 years for the Theben triad of Amon, Mut and Khonsu. The Great Temple at the heart of Karnak is so big, at 54,000 square feet and 134 columns, it is the largest room of any religious building in the world and its grandeur is incomparable.

The Temple of Luxor is in the renowned city of Thebes, the city of a hundred gates, close to the Nile and parallel with the riverbank. Inside, one is in the midst of a multitude of columns which seem to rise to the sky, bearing intricate designs and painted in reds, blues and greens, colors that today are as vivid as when they were first painted. Two statues - huge, strong and handsome guards - stand on either side of the entrance to this Temple. Since it has been in almost continuous use as a place of worship right up to the present day, one can conclude that these guards have done their job exceedingly well.

The following day we toured the Valley of the Kings with its best-preserved hieroglyphs and home to at least sixty-two New Kingdom pharaohs and ranking officials. There is an Egyptian belief that “to speak the name of the dead is to make him live again.” Thus, all the kings’ tombs are inscribed with names and titles, along with images and statues – so that they will live again. A sweet and comforting thought. That evening back on our cruise ship, I pulled a chair up to the rail and literally watched Egypt float by before my eyes, a spectacular end to the day.

A quick breakfast on board, and we’re off to the Aswan airport to fly to Abu Simbel. The two temples at Abu Simbel are among the most magnificent monuments in the world. Even more extraordinary was their removal and reconstruction to keep them from being lost forever under the waters of Lake Nasser when the Aswan High Dam was completed in the late 1960’s. Gazing up at the four gargantuan Pharaohs carved into the mountain, and knowing that heaven and earth were moved to save it, was a touching and poignant experience.

“The Nile does not change. Indeed, I don’t know of another place in which everything changes as much and yet nothing is ever changed. You feel quite at home.” ( Henry Adams, 1898). Eternal Egypt - exciting, enriching - an experience whose memories will last forever.
If You Go:
Four Seasons Hotel Wings Tours & Nile Cruises
www.fourseasonshotels.com www.wings/egypt.com

Sofitel Cairo Egypt Airlines
www.sofitel.com www.egyptair.com

Oberoi Hotel Egyptian Tourist Authority
www.oberoimenahouse.com visitegypt@gmail.com

Photos courtesy of Sloane Travel Photography

ZERO NO MORE: A Decade After 9/11


After ten long years of wavering and indecision, the powers that be have finally agreed on a master plan. The cavernous hole known as Ground Zero has a new group of skyscrapers transforming NYC’s downtown skyline. A brand-new, beautiful and livable urban area has surfaced with innovative and fresh restaurants, hotels and public spaces. Reflecting Absence, dedicated on September 11, 2011, is the contemplative memorial which marks the footprints of the old towers and the building of One World Trade Center is moving along at an encouraging pace and will reach its 1,776 apex 2012.

I had the opportunity to visit the 9/11 Memorial recently, reserving my free timed pass to visit ahead of time, due to ongoing construction on surrounding WTC projects (www.911memorial.org). Reflecting Absence occupies half of the 16 acres World Trade Center site and consists of two enormous pools set in the footprints of the Twin Towers. Thirty-foot waterfalls cascade down all sides and hundreds of white oak trees line the surrounding plaza. The names of the 2,983 victims of the attacks at the WTC site, at the Pentagon, and aboard Flight 93, as well as the WTC’s bombing on February 26, 1993, are inscribed into bronze panels surrounding the pools.

Unlike any other memorial in the world, the names of the victims are arranged by a concept that architect Michael Arad describes as “meaningful adjacencies” guided by where people were on 9/11, who they were with and by more than 1,200 requests made by victims’ next of kin for individual names to be next to one another. The Memorial is one of the most sustainable, green plazas ever built and serves as an eight-acre green roof on top of seven stories of below-grade spaces and a train station.

All but one of the trees on the site are swamp white oaks taken from areas impacted on 9/11. The one that is not, standing at a place I found incredibly moving, is a Callery pear tree that became known as the Survivor Tree. After sustaining extensive damage it somehow lived through the attacks and in October, 2001, the tree with lifeless limbs, snapped roots and blackened trunk, was discovered and freed from the wreckage at the WTC complex.

When I visited the Memorial, I was among hoards of visitors. As we filed onto the site, I feared that being able to truly connect and relate to this uniquely significant place would be difficult, if not impossible. I am glad to report that everyone there maintained a respectful silence, sitting on the surrounding benches lost in private thoughts or quietly hunting for names meaningful to them and once found, gently running their fingers over the engravings.

Now, a decade along, downtown NYC has not only recovered, it’s been reborn. With a nod to the past and an eye toward the future, the World Trade Center site lives once more.

Love Blooms Eternal in the City of Light



“We’ll always have Paris.” Those iconic words uttered by Bogart to Bergman in Casablanca so many years ago are just as true and meaningful today. Maybe even more so. You see, recently Bertrand Delanoe, the Mayor of Paris, has created something called Paris Tourist Day, meant to encourage Parisians to adopt a more cordial view of tourists. Launched a few years ago – and acknowledging that an estimated two million jobs here are linked to tourism - this project looks to become a regular fixture. This lesson in Parisian etiquette includes the vow to take the time to give information to visitors and to attempt to reply to them in their own language. Merci!

A Cimetiere Extraordinaire
On a recent visit to Paris, I came with a check list of all the “must-dos” that I hadn’t done in the past. At the top of this list was to visit a cemetery. No, not just any cemetery - the Pere Lachaise Cemetery with its starry lineup of illustrious corpses - indeed the celebrity resting place in Paris. My visit, surprisingly, had a touch of romantic history to it because I visited the graves of old-timers such as Delacroix, Proust and Bizet, as well as the more recent dearly departed Jim Morrison, and that famous love duo: Simone Signoret and Yves Montand. Opened since the 1790s, Pere Lachaise was designed as a public park and still today is a green and pleasant, albeit somewhat somber place to wander. With the help of a map supplied upon entering, one can check out the sites of almost anyone French, talented and dead - they’re all here.

Bubbles in a Glass of Champagne
That evening, local friends, knowing my love for glamour, luxury and the great American songbook, suggested we visit the very elegant Georges V Hotel (www.fourseasons.com/paris). An acquaintance of theirs, Flavien Compagnon, sings and plays piano in the Georges V cocktail lounge, and, turns out, the entertainer’s love of Cole Porter and George Gershwin matched mine exactly. Sitting on a burgundy velvet banquet, sipping some bubbly, the room low-lit by crystal chandeliers and fragrant votives, and with floor to ceiling windows giving onto a perfect formal garden in the distance, it was a pinch-myself, dreamy moment

Twinkle, Twinkle Eiffel Tower
Departing this grand hotel, my friends had a perfect nightcap idea to end the evening: a visit to La Tour Eiffel. We timed it just right. Moments after we arrived at this most iconic symbol of Paris, the Tower began to do its thing - The Great Eiffel Tower Light-Up! Back on New Year’s Eve, 1999 to mark the new millennium, 20,000 light bulbs were added to the tower and illuminated. And because we all like things that sparkle, the tower continues to be lit up every night for 10 minutes. We watched as this grand structure came alive, twinkling and dancing before our eyes! The Eiffel Tower became something magical to behold. Ever since its appearance on the Parisian skyline in 1889, the Eiffel Tower has drawn both criticism and praise. Guy de Maupassant called it a giant and disgraceful skeleton while Paul Gauguin hailed it as a “triumph of iron.” I second old Paul’s sentiment.

Going In Seine
Another day I took a Bateaux Mouches cruise on the Seine at twilight when the sky was pale mauve turning to shell pink. The lights were coming up all over the city, and each monument was bathed in its own special glow. No matter how many times you take this romantic meander down the Seine, slipping silently under Paris’ 37 bridges, gazing up at the Notre Dame Cathedral and gawking at the stately, exclusive residences on the Ile St. Louis, it never fails to thrill.

Field of Dreams
The Champs Elysees remains a symbolic gathering place, from July 14 Bastille Day celebrations to New Year’s Eve displays – not to mention the joy of sitting at one of its sidewalk cafes, aperitif in hand, simply people-watching. I stayed around the corner from the Champs at the Hotel Marignan, www.hotelmarignan.fr), a peaceful haven in the heart of this bustling business and fashion center. This property has a cozy, romantic feel, with an added plus: Alain Ducasse’s Restaurant Spoon is on the hotel’s site, serving a light and inspired menu from all corners of the globe.

One of the coolest and most colorful neighborhoods is Montparnasse with its good-time feel which recalls the area’s artistic heyday of the 1920s and 30s. Bars, restaurants and cinemas abound and it was here on August 25, 1944 that the liberation of Paris took place. My stay in this environ was made all the more pleasant by checking into Hotel Le Littre (www.hotellelittre.com). Consisting of just 90 guest rooms with views of either the charming rue Littre or their quiet courtyard, the property is equipped with all the up-to-date features you’ll need to be totally comfortable.

Yes You Can Can
What is a trip to Paris without visiting the neighborhood of Montmartre and experiencing the touristy but oh so fun show at the Moulin Rouge? This world-famous nightclub opened its doors in 1889. The show that I saw was not dissimilar from what you might see in Las Vegas with one delightful exception: this is, after all, the place where the French Cancan was born over a hundred years ago, and today the Cancan still ends each show. I can report that their end, if you will, is quite saucy and tres French. The 60 Doriss girls give it their all – throughout the performance, they continually send amorous, passionate glances out to the gentleman in the audience, signaling that they sure Can!

Amour.. passion..romance…puts me in mind of a most love-ly upcoming holiday - Valentine’s Day, of course - and to be sure, the French do that day up right. A long-ago holiday custom that is now illegal was called “Une loterie d’amour,” where single men and women would enter houses that faced opposite each other for the purpose of pairing off. If a man was not particularly happy with his chosen partner, he’d simply leave the undesirable match for another mate. After the pairing off was finished, women who were left single built a large ceremonial bonfire and burned images of men who’d hurt them. During this ritual, the women would also yell abusive remarks at the men. Most undignified, non? Is it any wonder that this custom has since been banned?! Today the holiday is considerably more reserved and, as in many other countries, the French simply exchange small gifs, bouquets of flowers, words of affection and perhaps spend a glamorous night on the town.

To be sure, Valentine’s Day connotes romance, and no other city in the world embodies this concept more than Paris. Its beauty is a seductive backdrop to start a "dangerous liaison" or to rekindle the magic of the past. That was, I’m sure, the inspiration for those memorable last words in Casablanca . My brilliant visit to the city of love is with me still, and yes, I will always have Paris.

Paris 411
www.franceguide.com

Saturday, January 14, 2012

SPANNING THE CENTURIES IN EGYPT




An elegant, bearded man swaddled in pure white robes, wearing a kefiyeh headdress encircled with a black rope band and surrounded by four large, no-nonsense bodyguards walks through the Four Seasons Cairo lobby. When my waiter brings me tea, I ask him who that very important looking man is and he explains it’s a sheik from Saudi Arabia. “You’ll see lots of them here. This is, after all, The Four Seasons,” he says with a proud smile.

Yes, that says it all. Whether in Boston, Washington or Cairo, Egypt, this hotel chain with its demanding high standards frequently hosts celebs, heads of state, and occasionally a lucky travel writer like me.

Known to locals as Umm al-Dunya, “Mother of the World,” Cairo is a city of 18 Million which swells to over 20 Million daily counting the workforce. I swear I can see many of those millions right below my hotel window, a virtual feast for the eyes: streets teeming with people, a cacophony of bleating car horns, tall pastel-colored apartment buildings, their balconies alive with clothes flapping in the breeze. Tiny, shadowed alleyways almost obscure men sitting around tables eating, smoking, visiting. A colorful profusion of veggies, fruit, nuts, flowers, perfumes and handicrafts are displayed in front of the shops as hawkers implore you to taste, smell, buy or at least join them for a glass of tea. Oh yes, I am, indeed, in Cairo, Egypt and anticipating the exotic adventure that’s about to unfold.

After resting for a few hours, our group was driven to The Citadel, an open-air amphitheatre on high where exhibitions, artistic events and concerts are held. The view from there gives onto the entire city below and as the lights of all Cairo came up, it was magic. We dined on spicy, traditional Egyptian fare while musicians played tunes on ancient instruments, singers sang with seductive, mournful voices and whirling dervishes in long white gallabiyas twirled trance-like for what seemed like hours. They never get dizzy, I’m told, because their dance is divinely inspired. After my long flight and feeling somewhat dizzy myself from the mesmerizing performance, I was glad to return to my hotel and prepare for a big day ahead.

A visit to the Egyptian Museum began with what was one of the highlights of the trip: a lecture by the one and only Dr. Zahi Hawas, the world’s foremost Egyptologist and the head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Dr. Hawas discussed some of the museum’s 2,500 artifacts culled over 5,000 years. The treasures of the museum were heart-stopping and it is said that to see the entire collection it would take 9 full months, every day, from 9 to 5. The Tutankhamen exhibit was my favorite, with the 18k gold mask of Tut, his chariots, sarcophagus, and including golden jewelry enclosed in his tomb for over 3,500 years. I longed to have the time to just gaze into each and every splendid vitrine and simply let the heady atmosphere envelop me. Sadly, t’was not to be as the plan was to spend the evening at the Sofitel Hotel. Boarding a wooden felucca docked at the foot of our hotel, we had a 10 minute sail across the Nile to the hotel’s Buddha Bar where we sampled Egyptian hors d’oeuvres and inventive cocktails. With lights glistening on this mythical river, good company and great drinks, it was, in all, a fine Cairo evening.

The next day we crossed over one of the 11 bridges from Cairo to the section called Giza on our way to the Pyramids and Sphinx. Though the three Great Pyramids are the most famous monuments, the site has actually been a Necropolis since the beginning of Pharaonic Egypt. Shortly after we arrived, a sand storm kicked up turning the sky from blue to milky white, the wind whipping sand particles into every possible crevice of our bodies. It made picture-taking difficult, as did the hoards of tourists. But, intrepid travelers that we were, we got our shots and bragging rights about enduring a sandstorm at the Pyramids and living to tell it!

That evening, dinner was at the Robayat El Khayam, the historic restaurant of the Mena House Oberoi Hotel. Lavish, over-the-top, a true Hollywood set, this is not to be-missed. An ethnic-inspired show of dancers and singers was a fun accompaniment to our meal.

After checking out of our hotel, we took an hour-long flight to Luxor where we boarded a Nile cruise ship for a four-night trip to Aswan. The first stop on our cruise was the Temple of Karnak. Although badly ruined, no site in Egypt is more impressive. It is the largest temple complex ever built by man; in fact it’s a city of temples built over 2000 years for the Theben triad of Amon, Mut and Khonsu. The Great Temple at the heart of Karnak is so big, at 54,000 square feet and 134 columns, it is the largest room of any religious building in the world and its grandeur is incomparable.

The Temple of Luxor is in the renowned city of Thebes, the city of a hundred gates, close to the Nile and parallel with the riverbank. Inside, one is in the midst of a multitude of columns which seem to rise to the sky, bearing intricate designs and painted in reds, blues and greens, colors that today are as vivid as when they were first painted. Two statues - huge, strong and handsome guards - stand on either side of the entrance to this Temple. Since it has been in almost continuous use as a place of worship right up to the present day, one can conclude that these guards have done their job exceedingly well.

The following day we toured the Valley of the Kings with its best-preserved hieroglyphs and home to at least sixty-two New Kingdom pharaohs and ranking officials. There is an Egyptian belief that “to speak the name of the dead is to make him live again.” Thus, all the kings’ tombs are inscribed with names and titles, along with images and statues – so that they will live again. A sweet and comforting thought. That evening back on our cruise ship, I pulled a chair up to the rail and literally watched Egypt float by before my eyes, a spectacular end to the day.

A quick breakfast on board, and we’re off to the Aswan airport to fly to Abu Simbel. The two temples at Abu Simbel are among the most magnificent monuments in the world. Even more extraordinary was their removal and reconstruction to keep them from being lost forever under the waters of Lake Nasser when the Aswan High Dam was completed in the late 1960’s. Gazing up at the four gargantuan Pharaohs carved into the mountain, and knowing that heaven and earth were moved to save it, was a touching and poignant experience.

“The Nile does not change. Indeed, I don’t know of another place in which everything changes as much and yet nothing is ever changed. You feel quite at home.” ( Henry Adams, 1898). Eternal Egypt - exciting, enriching - an experience whose memories will last forever.
If You Go:
Four Seasons Hotel Wings Tours & Nile Cruises
www.fourseasonshotels.com www.wings/egypt.com

Sofitel Cairo Egypt Airlines
www.sofitel.com www.egyptair.com

Oberoi Hotel Egyptian Tourist Authority
www.egyptair.com visitegypt@gmail.com

Photos courtesy of Sloane Travel Photography