Atlantis Alumni

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Of Sintra And Portugese Fado

Our last day in Portugal was a busy one.

In the morning we took a 45 minute train ride to Sintra, a beautiful resort high up in the mountains. Taking a local tourist bus we were driven to the Castle of the Moors, anold fortress that provided spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. The ruins, dating from the time of the first king of Portugal, were restored in the 19th century.The 19th century was the height of Sintra, when millionaires from the country and around Europe built castles and palaces on the hillsides.

Our second stop was at the colorful Pena Palace, turned from a 16th century monastery into a Victorian Age, multi-roomed showplace by King Ferdinand. The lavish and excessive furniture and decorations were still in tact, and the palace attracts throngs of tourists from all over.

After a lengthy luncheon in the center of town, we went to the Palacio Real, or Royal Palace, a great 16th century structure with fantastic chimnies that resembled cones or witches ' hats. The decorative tile work and gilt ceilings were the best we saw on the trip, though fewer tourists visit the Royal Palace.

Jim picked out our next attraction, the Toy Museum. Though it did not have a large collection of toy trains (Jim's special hobby) the museum had such unique items as Nazi toy soldiers from the WW II period. The founder of the museum was there, rolling around in his wheelchair, and he spoke proudly of his collection. He had spent 50 years building up the collection, and had more toys in his house in Lisbon. When I told him how much I enjoyed the German figurines, he pointed out how two small figures in a toy limousine, made to represent Hitler and Mussolini, were different heights, with the former a couple heads taller than his Italian counterpart!

Our last attraction in Sintra was a recently opened palace with extensive gardens full of grottoes, wells and fountains. The 'Quinta' was no longer furnished, but it had been designed by Manini, an Italian stage designer and architect of the mid-19th century, and had recently been classified as a Unesco World Heritage site. (If I had been on the Unesco committee, I'd have chosen the unique Royal Palace instead, but the Quinta was fantastic.)

After taking the train back to Lisbon, we headed back to the Bairro Alto for dinner (note the different spelling from the Spanish 'barrio', though it means the same.) We went to a Fado cafe, where tourists are jammed next to each other at long tables. The restaurant featured two guitar players and three singers of fado songs; one woman was quite good and Jim bought her CD, which is fun and a great musical memento of the trip.

The next morning we flew back to Philadelphia on a sparsely populated US Airway jet. Now we're back on Fire Island, but still have fond memories of a spectacular and busy journey though southern France and a few days in Portugal.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Trip Finale!

Top photo: What a ham! A playful sea otter at the Oceanaria in Lisbon.
Middle photo: Jeronimos monastery in Lisbon
Bottom photo: St. Sernin in Toulouse

The last day in France, a very exhausting day, started with the recovery of lost laundry from the front desk of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Montauban. This is written just to tell readers that travel, besides being enjoyable, is also arduous, sometimes perplexing and vexing. Does this sound like end-of-the-trip weariness? Indeed, we're both looking forward to flying back to Philadelphia tomorrow. Yesterday Jim calculated that he drove over a heroic 1,000 miles through southern France!
After checking out from the hotel in Montauban, we drove south to Toulouse, the fifth largest urban center in France. It was much more built up than remembered (when my friend Jet and I drove there almost thirty years ago), and might be considered a larger, still pink-brick cousin of such beautiful cities as Montauban and Albi. We left the car at the airport and took a bus into the city of Toulouse, walking in its old alleyways to eat lunch and visit a few sights. The best was the remarkable Romanesque cathedral of St.Sernin, one of the finest architectural treasures in France. Its broad nave and clearly articulated barrel-vaulted ceiling soared heavenwards.
Late in the same day, at 7 PM, our flight left Toulouse for Lisbon. We gained an hour, due to a time change, during the two hour flight, and the sky shone bright, if cool in the Portugese capitol. After a very late dinner, we tumbled into bed.

The next day we covered as much of Lisbon as possible. In the morning we took a cab to the Museu de Arte Antiga, which has a medium-sized collection featuring some major gems: works by Durer, Zubaran, Nunco Gonzalvez (the most important Portugese painter) and best of all, Bosch's fantastic "Temptation of St. Anthony," a painting which may depict a black mass.

Then we took a bus to the Hieronymite Monastery, the most important building in Lisbon. It's a huge complex, with chapter house, cloister and church all carved from warm-colored stone in the elaborate Manueline style, unique to early Renaissance Portugal. Ropes and other sea-motives are set in stone on the walls, alongside kingly shields, and saint's heads. This Unesco world heritage site, thronged with tourists, is near the Tagus River and the ocean. It reminds one that Portugal achieved its stature 500 years ago from its brave sailors, the most famed being Vasco da Gama, who is buried in the monastery's huge and ornate church.

After lunch we parted ways for the afternoon. Jim took a bus to the Oceanio, one of the world's largest aquariums, where he took extensive photos of playful sea otters, fish and other sea creatures. I went to the Gulbenkian Foundation's art museum, and enjoyed some of the masterpieces of that collection, including art works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Turner, Manet, Houdon, Lalique and many others. Calouste Gulbenkian was an early 20th century collector with exquisite taste and great means, and when he died he left his collection to Lisbon.

In the evening Jim and I explored the old section of town, the Bairro Alto, a neighborhood built on small hills, full of tascas (typical restaurants), bars and places where one can hear Fado, the unique Portugese folk songs. Though I was disappointed by the simple food, Jim enjoyed it very much, and it's certainly hearty. That's what happens after spending two weeks in France--one's palette expects only the best!

Today we'll take a train to Sintra, a nearby resort, mainly built in the 19th century. Then tomorrow it's the big return to the United States, home sweet home. Adieu, France and Portugal.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

An Excursion To Moissac

Tuesday we took our last excursion from Montauban. It was an easy, half hour drive west to Moissac. There, we saw the remarkable abbey church and adjoining cloister of St. Pierre. The Romanesque statuary in the tympanum of the church are some of the most celebrated examples of that type of sculpture, and prove amazing to look at. Figures are elongated, and fanciful yet full of deep emotion, created for pilgrims to venerate. After a pleasant lunch in the square opposite the church we drove back early to Montauban to spend a final afternoon relaxing. Jim swam in the hotel pool, and Dan took a brief stroll to the city center to see Hardouin's neo-classical Cathedral.

Tomorrow we drive to Toulouse and then fly to Lisbon. Stay tuned for our adventures in sunny Portugal.


Lascaux and Rocamadour

Yesterday we left Montauban for another day trip, driving under cloudy skies up into the wild mountains of the Dordogne region. The dramatic clouds turned to blue skies as we crossed both the Tarn and Dordogne rivers. The gentle farmlands of the lower hills, with their greenery, poplar and plane trees, red-tiled farmhouses, and population of sheep and cattle disappeared as Jim manouevered the Pugeot into mountainous regions largely devoid of any human presence.

After two hours of driving we reached the town of Montignan where we bought our tickets to see the prehistoric paintings re-created in the famed Lascaux II cave. We had to sign up for a French tour, because otherwise we would have had to wait for an English language one two hours later. Better if they used head-phones, since my French is not that fluent! Nevertheless, the eerie mystery of the Prehistoric cave paintings provoked us into pondering the lives and beliefs of those who dwelled in the region 35,000 years ago. After the guided tour we drove back to the major highway to reach our second destination.

The town of Rocamadour, a former pilgrimage spot on the road to Santiago de Campostella, is perched on a huge cliff. In the Middle Ages the rocks were hewn into seven chapels, one of which contained the 'miraculous' image of the Vierge Noire, or black virgin, who still sits perched above the altar in her chapel. Visitors take two elevators, and the second one is on an incline which travels to the cliff top where the lord's castle is located, a building now housing the chaplains. But one may walk on the walls and take photos of the incredible views from Rocamadour.

We returned to Montauban around four in the afternoon, which gave Jim enough time to enjoy the hotel pool. Today the sky is bright blue and we look forward to our last excursion from this lovely, undiscovered town of Montauban.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

I'm Tired of War

I think most people would agree that killing other people is a bad idea. At least that's what I have to believe, even though it seems like our country is still ape shit with "gun totin goodness".
Nope, this isn't about guns or gun control. It's about the fact that we still are in two wars and we are going broke. Didn't the Soviet Union go broke in Afghanistan? I just watched Robert Gates on Sixty Minutes with Katie Couric. He seems to have no idea when we will be out of Afghanistan. From what I can tell, it will be when there's a Starbucks in every town and new Walmart's springing up like sunflowers in Kabul.
So, as I see it, we have two little problems. The first is that history doesn't seem to be on our side. A whole bunch of very big armies including ours have trouble taming Afghanistan. It hasn't been done ever by anyone.
The second is a little more vexing. Ya see, we don't have the cash to tame the un-tameable. We're broke. And we keep writing checks to rich white guys that made a mess out of our banking system in the first place. I saw some stats this week that Social Security and Medicare are also going to run out of cash before I die. Now I think that's horse shit, however there is a little merit to some numerical evidence.
I think we have our national priorities just a little askew. We just can't keep writing checks for a war that cannot be won. We also need to stop writing checks for a financial industry that is still completely corrupt and morally bankrupt.
Ya starting to see a theme here? Are our elected officials, be they Democrat or Republican really reflecting reality? Forget about best interests, I'd settle right now for reality and best interests in a year or two?
So let's agree on one thing; if we can't afford to get sick, pay for our house, car, and basics, maybe a trillion for a war of vanity and a couple of trillion for a corporate bailout is not the best idea? What happens when there really is a "rainy day" (hurrican, flood or even something worse)?
Stop the war and stop killing our troops for no good reason, that's a good start.

A Trip to Albi

Leaving Montauban for a day trip on the beautiful backroads of the Dordogne region, we took an hour's drive over to the city of Albi, a great old Medieval town with the tallest Romanesque church in France. Like Montauban, Albi is mainly built of red brick, which gives the city its rose-colored appearance. The cathedral of Sainte Cecile is immense and dwarfs the spectator. Inside are frescoes and impressive Gothic statues on the Rood screen. Children marched in a procession down the main aisle, for their first communion, and we were lucky enough to hear the cathedral's famed organ.

In the nearby Palais de la Berbie (the former Bishop's Palace) we visited the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum. The paintings, posters and lithographs depicted his exhuberant life in Paris before he burned himself out with various alcohols and the women of the brothels, whom he depicted in his extravagant art-nouveau style.

The drive back to Montauban went smoothly, and we plan to dine at a restaurant near the grand Place de la Republique, a broad 17th century square.


Roman Ruins In Nimes

Yesterday we stopped at the Pont du Gard (outside Nimes) to see that ancient
and amazing Roman aqueduct. It transported water into the city for four hundred years before silting-up. In Nimes itself we enjoyed seeing the Roman arena and the well-preserved temple
which the French call "La Maison Caree," or 'square house.' (See the above photos of the Pont and the Maison Caree.) Our final destination was the beautiful, mainly 17th century city of Montauban, where we will be staying for four nights--the end of our stay in France before
we leave for Portugal. We drove away from crowded and rainy Avignon, and are delighted
to be in a lesser-known but friendly city.
For more information about the ancient Roman presence in France, see the article by Elizabeth Sciolino in today's N Y TIMES, in the travel section. Her fascinating piece also includes a slide show of more treasures from 'Roman France.'

Friday, May 15, 2009

Further Adventures Toward Avignon

Top photo: The port at St. Tropez
Bottom photo: Gourmet dish in Antibes

Wednesday''s excursions started with a drive to Vallauris, the cityof pottery. When Pablo Picasso, the most famed artist of the 20th century, worked in the town during the 1950s, he revitalizedthe ceramics trade. Today the village is full of pottery shops. There arealso a group of small civic museums that include a Ceramics Museum, (with mostly works by Picasso) and a chapel containing hislarge mural "War and Peace." We left Vallauris to drive back through Juan-les-Pins to Antibes. Larger than many of the nearby towns, Antibes also has a magnificent harbor (mostly full of yachts and ocean liners), an old sectionand a cheerful Provencal Market. The scents of the market--from spices,flowers and local produce --were as much of a treat as the sight ofthe intense blue sky and Mediterranean. We visited the Cathedral and the Picasso Museum, housed in the Grimaldi Castle. Here are works that Picasso made--sculpture, paintings, prints and ceramics--mostly donein the building that the town let him use as an atelier in 1946. In gratitude,the artist donated all the works he'd done that year (about 150) and later he and then his widow left more works from the late 1940s to the museum.During those years, his themes were centered around portraits of women, still life and some amazing, very personal interpretations of classicsmyth, like "Odysseus and the Sirens." His Cubist style became less strict, resulting in broader areas of color, combined with meandering or geometric line in strong brushstroke. After discovering an English bookstore, run by a pleasant expatriate named Heidi, we looked up and then found a superb restaurant right on the ramparts of the old city, overlooking the Mediterranean Ocean. Jim was so amazed by the 'terrine de maccaroni' that he photographed it; note it was accompanied by a delectable chartreuse-colored sauce and a squash flower (edible) stuffed with a soft goat cheese. Two other courses followed with an exquisitely balanced Provencal rouge wine, and we both concluded that this place--Les Vieux Murs (Old Walls)--produced the best food we've had on this trip so far.Later, after navigating the treacherous roads back to our hotel, Jim returned to the beach while Dan read and wrote.

In the evening we took a train back to Antibes, just to eat at another gourmet restaurant, the creative Figuier (Fig Tree) Le Esprit. This was our most lavish splurge so far, but well worth it.

Thursday we left Juan les Pins early, to spend a couple of hours in beautiful Saint Tropez on the coast. The small, but good art museum included marvelous paintings by Signac, Van Dongen, Vuillard and others from the time of the Neo-Impressionists, Nabis and Fauve art movements. In our last Riviera town we also bought souvenir t-shirts and for lunch, a delicious fougasse (a latice-designed bread) stuffed with tomatoes and goat cheese. We ate lunch on the road, while traveling through hair-pin curves to reach the 'Route Provencale' super highway, in the direction of Avignon. Avignon, the city of the Medieval exile papacy, proved a horror to drive around, with one-way, circular ancient streets. Finally we reached our hotel, and after recuperative aperitifs on the main square, we had a delightful dinner at La Fourchette, near the Opera.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

In The Hills Above Antibes

Yesterday we drove to Vence and St-Paul de Vence. In Vence the old town is lovely,unspoiled and with plentiful Medieval buildings. People are tres agreable, friendly and pleasant. The highlight of Vence is Matisse's simple and exquisite Chapel of the Rosary, with its windows of blue, green and yellow: the colors of sky, sea and sun as Sylvia Plath declared. Then we enjoyed the 20th century art collection of the Fondation Maeght in St-Paul, with its incredible Miro labyrinth, full of his sculptures and ceramics, some turned into or sitting in fountains. After that we wandered around the town of St Paul, perched high on its hill in the middle of the Provencal mountains and fields.

For a delightful conclusion to the morning we had lunch at La Colombe d'Or. It's the most civilized way to dine in the area, a concept the French developed to an extraordinary degree. Though we ate on the terrace, there was also time to wander through the main dining room, full of first rate paintings by Calder, Miro, Picasso, Leger and Braque; in the early part of the last century these artists would often stay/dine at the auberge La Colombe and pay for the experience with art works instead of cash! How smart were the owners, the Roux, to accept the handiworks of the early 20th century masters. After a drive back to Juan les Pins Jim decided it was time for more fun on the beach and swimming in the Mediterranean.


Monday, May 11, 2009

Beautiful Riviera Touring

We have already had quite a few adventures in Nice and the Cote d'Azur, after a couple nights in wonderful Lyon. While in Nice, we saw the Palais Massena, the Matisse Musee and most significant, the Chagall Musee; it's a nice place for lunch, too. This morning we saw the Villa Kerylos and then the Baronne Ephrussi de Rothschild villa (top photo,) with those incredible gardens. The lunch was delicious,with quiches and a fine Provencal rouge wine. Then we drove to Juan les Pins, where we are staying the next three nights.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Republicans Couldn't Be More Wrong....

Wow!  Reading and watching the psychosis from Cheney, Gingrich and McCain, you'd think the Republican party cleaned up in 2008.

Fact is, the Republcan's did rather poorly in 2008 elections.  

Could it be that 1 million people new people are out of work every month?


Could it be that the global economy is in the tank because of Republicans and Democrats?  
Could it be we tortured people with no real intelligence value and we hurt world opinion of the US for decades?


Could it be we are still in multiple wars we cannot afford that are doing zero to improve our national security? 


Could it be that the entire Middle East has been destabilized because our idiot politicians chose to stick a military solution in without any kind of knowledge or understanding?  Well, that is true but that isn't the reason the Republicans are sucking wind.

I'm not sure there is any one reason the Republicans suck.  Or maybe there's just too many to choose from.  The Democrats aren't far behind though; they're still conducting a war we cannot afford and they are still sucking up to the same scumbag bankers the Republicans call "Daddy".

I do have one opinion after reading about 100 newspaper articles and listening to Liberals and Conservatives alike.  The Republicans are predominantly very wealthy white people that are out of touch with a culturally diverse, economically diverse, evolving country that does not want to embrace the ideas of the late 18th and early 19th century.  

They are almost completely out of ideas.  And in our society, ideas can antiquate very quickly.  If you listen to the Republican entertainment channel (Fox, Rush, whatever), they are still waxing on about ism's.  Capitalism, socialism, communism.  Capitalism has never been a "right" in the American government.  As a matter of fact, the framers took great pains to keep the economy and the actual ideals of our government apart.

What I think the American people want, especially youth is a new way of looking at our place in the world.  Those parts and pieces like the economy, like security, like the environment, like education all fall under that.  

There are a whole bunch of great reasons to be an American.  One of them is that our framers had the foresight to architect a government that was based on a living document; The US Constitution.  They had correctly surmised that time, technology, economics, geography and circumstances would change.  This is something that seems to completely elude the Republican Party.   It's one of the reasons I still am a Democrat, in spite of the the spineless wussies I think they are.   I am not a spinless wussy and I will do my best to add backbone.  How?  By a few new ideas I think my country needs.

And until we have some new ideas and a serious approach to our participation in being part of the world's stage, we'll still be a toddler waving his guns.  It's hard to be introspective, it's easy to gravitate to any answer that seems to fit.  We need to rethink who we are and where we are going.

It's going to be difficult but I guarantee it will be worth it.


Much Better!

We are enjoying a lovely day in Nice today. I guess we got a bit of a bad impression yesterday arriving at the height of a Saturday evening after travelling for about five hours. Today we took the city tour by hop-on-hop-off bus and really enjoyed the sights. We visited the Matisse and Chagall museums, which were most enjoyable. Later in the afternoon I went to the beach and had a nice swim. Now this is more like it!
Top photo: the beach in front of old town Nice. Our hotel (Hotel Swisse" is the one on the extreme left in the back.
Bottom photo: the beautiful view of Nice from our room


We had a nice morning in Lyon yesterday, visiting the museum of art. Then we left Lyon by train enroute to Nice via Marseille. We were last in Nice about 20 or so years ago, and we remembered it as a quiet resort. It's not like that anymore. Nice is now packed to overflowing with tourists, jammed with traffic, noisy, and frankly, quite unpleasant. We've reduced the number of days we are staying in Nice and we've booked accommodations in Juan Le Pins, near Antibes, which hopefully will be a little less hectic and crowded. It's amazing how times change and places change.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Thursday, May 7, 2009

On The Road Again - Lyon France

The great Gothic cathedral here in Lyon, and a view of our wonderful hotel. We're having a blast already!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Great David Brooks Article

Go read David Brooks' column in today's New York Times. As I wrote to him: "Congratulations, Mr. Brooks, on one of the finest columns that you have ever written. Indeed, the Republicans must rediscover the importance of civic order and community if they are to regain political relevance."