Provence

lavender-fields-near

I make this trip in my role as an advance man. Alison and three of her longtime college buddies, “The Lone Mountain Quartet”, are planning on renting a villa in Provence in 2017 and I’m taking this opportunity to scope out one prime candidate, Maison Sereine, located in a town called Maussane-des-Alpilles, about seven miles down the road from Saint Remy, best known as a haunt of Van Gogh and a few of his impressionist compadres in the 19th Century.

Alison has gotten the info about this particular villa from a woman named Annie Flogaus of Just France, who appears on Wendy Perrin’s list of expert trip planners. Wendy Perrin has been a regular contributor to travel mag Conde Nast Traveler for many years and has acquired the reputation (with me, at least), of being the world’s ultimate travel guru. If Wendy says it, I believe it. And Annie, Wendy says, is the go-to expert on rentals in Provence. Anyway, Annie has given Alison three suggested properties and, based on her research on the Internet, Alison has decided she thinks she likes this one, Maison Sereine, best.

Why the need for a preview? Because Alison and I previously rented homes in the Dordogne and Provence with mixed results.

The Dordogne residence was more or less a renovated farmhouse, high on a hill, with a sheep pasture behind and a nice view of a river and valley below. The Dordogne is what I like to call France’s Iowa, an agricultural area dotted with cute little towns, many of them nearly a thousand years old, populated by scores of mom-and-pop restaurants that all feature fois gras and duck magret. It’s a charming region that requires a little travel guile since almost no one in the local towns speaks English. Since our stay was three weeks long, we of necessity used all of the local service businesses– grocery stores, local markets, gas stations, cleaners (know how to say “light starch” in French?…we never figured it out), florists and so on. It was a delightful visit in a delightful part of this country.

Our experience in Provence was a little different. The house we rented had been featured in Architectural Digest and according to the photos in the brochure offered light, airy rooms decorated in classic Provencal decor, with a lovely swimming pool to boot. Suffice to say that the home’s photographer was a master of deception and the pictures didn’t quite match the reality. What the brochure failed to disclose was that the house was located in a village with s population of about 30, with maybe one bar/café and little else. And the written description neglected to mention that the upstairs of the house didn’t have doors. Rather, rooms–even bathrooms!– were separated from one another by hippie-era style beads or curtains. And so on and so on. Lesson learned.

Based on that experience, I have tried to make it my policy, whenever possible, to take an advance in-person peek at vacation properties to get a true eyeball view of what really is there. I’ve done it on Cape Cod, done it on Nantucket, done it in Hawaii, and by gosh, I’m going to do it in Provence.

Agent Annie has kindly provided s list of Provencal must-see’s and a large list of recommended restaurants, describing each in terms of their atmosphere, level of culinary sophistication, and price. In this part of the world, she strongly advises advance reservations. So for once in my wandering life, I contact each of my planned hotels (I’m going to be in Provence four nights, so four hotels, right?) and ask them to make lunch and dinner reservations for me…lunches at 12:30, dinners at 8:30…at the ones I deem to be closest to my likes and dislikes and most affordable. Unlike so many of my trips, where food is not a major concern, I’m going to be dining in high style.

And so it’s off to France for a look-see. To roughly paraphrase Julius Caesar, omnia Provencia divisa est in tres partes, which in this case are the Vaucluse, the Luberon and the Alpilles, all of which I’ll be visiting, while concentrating on the last one.

I fly into Marseille, get out of that town as fast as possible in my big-as-a-boat Renault SUV and drive an hour north to Les Baux-des-Alpilles, a stone’s throw from Maussane-des-Alpilles where the prospective villa is located. (A word about the “Alpilles”, which I had never heard of until this trip. The Alpilles are a range of low east-west mini-mountains that look like a moustache on the face of Provence. They were a favorite subject of Van Gogh during his St. Remy days.)

Les Baux, my first destination, is one of those hilltop villages made entirely of stone and cobblestone with ho-hum shops and cafes that attracts droves of tourists who park their cars long distances away and trudge up steep roads for the privilege of walking up more steep hills. Exactly what are they all stopping for, I wonder? I could never figure it out.

The outskirts of the village are home to two luxurious 5-star hotels where I will be staying: Domaine de Manville and Baumaniere, both of which are famous for their prestigious Michelin-star restaurants.

My first night I stay at Domaine de Manville, a big, beautiful, hip French manor house into which someone has invested a fortune to install rooms with lush furnishings, an all-glass “Winter Garden” for dining, and a huge world-class spa…all at hip prices. The Domaine also has the biggest and best golf course in the area. The only corner they cut was obviously on plumbing, since on my night there a water pipe broke and flooded the bathroom. As luck would have it, the area experienced the biggest thunder-and-lightning storm in decades that night which made it impossible to go into Maussane for my scheduled reservation, so I was forced to go to their fancy Winter Garden restaurant, Le Table, where I enjoyed a 46 Euro appetizer and a glass of wine.

I have made arrangements to view the Maison Sereine in Maussane the next day at 10:00 a.m., then spend the rest of the morning at the village’s weekly market and have lunch at one of the cafés on the village square. The owner of Maison Sereine, has graciously offered to pick me up at Domaine de Manville and drive me the short distance to the villa. At 10:00 on the dot, there she is, waiting in her tiny Fiat, her “town” car. She is a friendly, artsy-looking late-30’s/early 40’s woman who has a fairly good grasp of English.

We arrive at her residence about 400 meters (her estimate) or 600 meters (Annie’s estimate) short of the village. Outside I notice rows of cypress and palms that frame a swimming pool, and a pathway of roses that leads to the front entrance. Inside, I find a spacious, nicely appointed home with an eclectic collection of furnishings, a large living room (called the “salon”) with large windows facing a lovely courtyard, a picture gallery, a large well-equipped kitchen, four bedrooms, 4-1/2 baths, 3,875 sq. ft. in all. I had a good hour-long look-around, took a few pictures to complement those I already had and made extensive notes about all aspects of the property. I’ll wait until I get home to give Alison the details and make a recommendation.

I take the opportunity to take a look around Maussane, which is somewhere in size between a village and a town. I spend a while at the Wednesday market near the town hall, have lunch at one of the “cute” outdoor cafes in the central square, and roam around looking at the menus of the several restaurants for which the town is famous. The remaining days of my trip will be to survey some of the other surrounding towns and areas in Provence…to see the markets (Annie has sent me a list), the town squares, the cafes and shops and restaurants, and (being who I am) to spend an afternoon at the races at a little racetrack in a town named Crau (pronounced “Cro” with a guttural rolling R) near the larger town of Salon.

The next day and night are spent seven miles away in Saint Remy, many people’s favorite town in Provence. Mine too, as it turns out. The roads leading into town are picturesque allees with towering sycamores lining both sides of the road and creating a cathedral effect. Inside the town itself, there’s an oval road circling close-in to the centre ville, with a pretty crisscross of small shopping streets and alleys inside. This is one good looking town, clean as a whistle, prosperous, stylish, fun atmosphere. A little touristy, but not overly “precious” like some places. What a place.

I stay at Le Tourret, a very pricey boutique hotel in an in-town mansion that has been completely renovated and done up by the owner-architect in a trendy ultra-ultra-modern style. Not an easy place to find. My Hertz Never Lost went crazy trying to direct me to this place, and eventually I had to park on a street and walk to the address with the help of a couple of locals. When I finally got to the address, I discovered that the hotel has no sign, but merely a tiny half-inch typed indication of its identity…to be “discreet”, the manager tells me. It’s an eye-catching place, with the look of the public rooms inviting, the bedrooms very appealing. An interesting stay.

The next afternoon, I head over to the races at Crau. Not a very pretty track, but charming in its own little way. Estimated Paid Attendance on the Friday I was there? That’s easy. Zero. Because at Hippodrome de la Crau, parking is free, entrance is free and programs are free. As for the actual crowd on hand, I’d guess about 200. Not a bad day of racing, though. Big fields. All of the races—all turf routes– were for 16,000 Euro purses, about on a par with Golden Gate Fields, and races were competitive, albeit a little fishy…if you looked at the first tote board click, you’d invariably notice that one horse was being bet down drastically from its morning line odds, and darn if that horse wouldn’t invariably win. Not that I was smart enough to figure that out. I stayed for six races. Bet 60, won 45.

That night I am lodged back in Les Baux-des-Alpilles at Baumaniere, perhaps the most famous hotel in Provence, mostly because of the reputation (which has recently lost some of its lustre) of its Michelin-starred restaurant– definitely not my sort of place, but considered a culinary temple by foodies. Baumaniere, which is currently the result of a merger of two local hotels, both luxurious, has an upper campus and a lower campus. At first I am concerned that upper is for the A-crowd and the lower, where I am assigned, for us B-people, but those concerns are quickly allayed as I am steered toward a room on the second floor of a lovely building with a small sitting room, a generously sized bedroom and bath and a wrap-around terrace with a view of the hotel’s elaborate gardens, swimming pool and tennis courts. In my travels I have stayed at some really nice places, but this one is very, very special. The grounds are gorgeous, with meandering paths through manicured hedges and gardens, highlighted by a picture-perfect pond with ducks and swans. Instead of availing myself of Michelin-starred Baumaniere’s four course Menu at 215 Euros, I take dinner at a little Annie-recommended bistrot in Maussane, Ou Ravi Provencal, a gem of a little place run by four or five middle-aged French women where the fixed price for four courses is 55 (including a bottle of wine!). a bargain in this part of the world, where “Provence prices” are Aspen/Palm Beach/ Hamptons/ Nantucket prices.

On the way out of town, I stop by Les Baux’s local sightseeing phenomenon, the Carrieres de Lumieres, a dramatic 45-minute light show where the works of famous artists—currently Chagall—are projected onto the walls of an ancient 8,000-year-old cave (when the Quartet is here, the show will change to Bosch, Brueghel and Archimoldo). A worthwhile event.

It’s Day #4 and I move over to the walled town of Gordes, where everybody you meet raves about the panoramic views of the Luberon, regarded by many as Provence’s most beautiful valley.

My hotel tonight is Le Bastides des Gordes, another 5-star property that’s part of the Leading Hotels of the World group, which means I’m supposed to get an upgrade, a breakfast, free wi-fi and an “amenity”. Sorry, it’s Saturday night and the hotel’s full, so no upgrade tonight, which means I’m consigned to a “village view” room (my room looks at the wall of a building across the street instead of the magnificent Luberon Valley). I make do with the view– which is darn nice– from the hotel’s elegant top terrace . Again, instead of the hotel restaurant, I head down the Gordes hill to a popular local restaurant on Annie’s list, L’Estellan, another family-run establishment full of locals.

Sunday, and it’s time to head back to Marseille for my very early Monday morning Marseille/Brussels/Chicago/LAX flight, but before I do, I go for lunch in a tiny village named Goult, where Annie has said there exists an incredibly popular local favorite called Café de la Poste. Advance reservations are an absolute must, she says, and Le Bastides has secured the last Sunday noon table for me on a sunny afternoon. What a treat. It’s a packed house, most of us sitting in the outside front garden where, because little English is spoken, I have the opportunity to impress the Goultians with my “Restaurant French” and have a great lunch and a great time.

On to Marseille for an overnight at an airport hotel and my multi-legged flight back home.

Parting thoughts: What a fun trip! On my way there and on my way back, anytime I mentioned that Provence was my destination people universally ooo’ed and ahhh’ed because Provence has the reputation of being one of those nearly perfect places on earth…and rightly so. The region is beautiful and welcoming and charming and is constantly bathed in a “soft” light which makes all of its surroundings so fetching. The Lone Mountain Quartet is going to have a wonderful time there.

London, Goodwood, Cagnes-sur-Mer, Nice and Paris

Here’s a recap on my latest journey.

Tuesday, London

London’s becoming a regular destination for me, whether for a theater run or as a stopover on my way somewhere else. This time I’m meeting close friend Gary Conrad, who took his 11-year-old Philadelphia grandson Owen Conrad on a four-day see-everything trip to London. And by “see everything,” I mean it. Gary has recounted the amazing list of sites and experiences he shared with Owen. and it was impressive. When I arrive, Gary has deposited Owen on American Airlines for a solo flight back to Philadelphia using American’s unaccompanied minor program. Now he has to put up with me for four days.

Unlike New York, where I’ve kept count of the number of hotels I’ve stayed at (I’m up to an amazing 81), I’m not sure of the number in London…probably around 30. This time I’m staying at The Goring, where the Middletons and their family and friends and townfolk were lodged during William and Kate’s wedding. While you maybe wouldn’t describe it as luxurious, an accurate capsule description would probably include the words elegant, stylish, polished. (It’s a place Alison would like a lot.) I booked the cheapest room in the house and it was spacious and comfortable, my street exposure bright and airy, the decor traditional but fresh and colorful. The lobby is somewhat ordinary, but the bar is very nice (and popular). When Gary and I meet for a drink, all of the tables in the bar are “Reserved”. At first the host insists on sitting Gary and me outside on the far corner of the lawn, but as soon as he realizes I’m a “resident” one of the reserved tables magically became available and we have a drink. Sounds slightly snobby and unwelcoming, but I think it was just one of the facts of life at the Goring. Overall I really liked the place and recommend it.

That evening we go to a play in Southwark (pronounced “Suth-ark”), London’s trendy neighborhood across the Thames near Southbank. We saw a play called “Sunset at the Villa Thalis”, about a loud, pushy, rarher obnoxious American couple who invite themselves to a villa in Greece rented by an English couple Terrific dialogue if you enjoy Americans being mocked. Very, very good first act, the second act not as cogent or entertaining. But we agree we liked it and we’re glad we went. Dinner afterward was at The Wolesley, a place Alison and I went during our last trip to London and which continues to win raves as one of London’s hottest restaurants (GQ rates it #1). Great menu, good food, the best table in the house. Loved it.

Wednesday, Chichester

We train down ninety miles southeast of London to Chichester in the morning, then check into the Chichester Park, a 3-star property that we are forced to stay in after the Goodwood Hotel cancelled all reservations since the Qatar folks, sponsors of Glorious Goodwood, insisted on taking over the entire hotel. There apparently is quite a furor over this by the longtime Goodwood Hotel regulars who had been going there for years, and then even more furor when it turns out that not all of the rooms of the hotel are filled by the Qatar guests. The Chichester Park is a cheaply built ‘50s English quasi-country hotel– a dull, bland place (at least it’s clean) occupied by a fair number of t-shirts and tattoos.

At all of our events during Glorious Goodwood, we are picked up by taxi, all of which I prearranged due to our extreme difficulty in getting cabs on short notice last year. This year we have friendly, courteous drivers who are always on time, while others we meet are being told “no taxis until midnight”.

Out at the Goodwood Racecourse, we enjoyed the rather extravagantly priced 90-GBP three-course luncheon at the Sussex Bistro, which provides Gary with a look at the “better” English people. We spend another 40 GBP on admission to the Gordon Enclosure, the “middle class” section of the grandstand where you climb a steep flight of stairs to your seating area and fight for a seat before each race. At least you’re sitting rather than standing all day. The racing turns out to be good, with the featured turf mile $1M GBP Sussex Stakes won by The Gurkha, a horse with part-American ownership that might be brought to the U.S. for the Breeders Cup Turf Mile. Betting-wise, the day was mostly a loser for both of us until I score with a $140 winner in the last race.

Dinner was had at a deserted restaurant in the town of Chichester (for some mysterious reason the entire town was deserted…right in the town’s busiest season…no explanation) chosen by EnglishmanTipster/Journalist friend Neil Morrice, who was accompanied this year not by his omnivorous buddy Angus, but by “Jerry”, a former 15-year professional soccer player in the English Premier League, generally regarded as the world’s best. Alas for Jerry, the Premier League didn’t land a big TV contract until the year after he retired, so he never really cashed in on his sports stardom. We had a great time, and it turns out the food at the “restaurant with almost no customers” was really good.

Thursday, Chichester

Day Two at Goodwood starts out with a gorgeous blue sky and slowly degenerates into a weather disaster. The largest crowd of the year has come ready for the party of the year, gaily spread out on the back lawn and the paddock enclosure seating areas.

Suddenly, dark clouds creep ominously toward the racecourse, eventually producing a steady drizzle followed by rain followed by an all-encompassing fog that made it impossible to see the horses circling the course, leaving the huge crowd with nothing more than the announcer’s call. Even the track announcer demurred at times. making it clear to the audience that he often had no idea which horses were where. Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of smartly dressed patrons who had assembled this Ladies Day, the dressiest day of the meet, were packed together inside the humid grandstand interiors , milling around and bumping into one another and spilling beers and drinks on each other. All the while, Gary and I, who had purchased seats in the Richmond Enclosure, the upper class potion of the venue, sat high and dry with a finish line view (at least we could see the closing seconds of each race) and having a very successful betting day, cashing four winners in the first five races.

That evening we travelled out to a classic countryside pub called The Fox Goes Free, which has become a go-to après race destination in West Sussex, where we had drinks out in the backyard and a delicious dinner.

Friday, London

We have to hustle this morning, taking an early train back up to Victoria Station, then heading over to the Chesterfield Mayfair to check in, then rushing over to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre for the matinee performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which in all actuality turned out to be A Midsummer Day’s Nighmare. I’ve been to London maybe thirty times, go to all kinds of sites and events and theater productions and this ranks as the absolute worst thing I’ve ever done in that city. The Globe, which was reconstructed by wealthy American donors, the Philadelphia Wanamakers, an attempt at a replication of the original, with a large open space for “groundlings” (who have to stand for the entire ordeal) and ringed by three tiers of cramped wooden benches (one of their most lucrative concessions is the rental of seat cushions and seatbacks). The performers are the most amateurish of amateurs, pratfalling and mugging their way through scene after scene, their diction unintelligible, their dancing (yes, there are repeated choreographic episodes inserted into the Shakespeare classic) was dreadful, their acting awful, their humor humorless (although some patrons inexplicably laughed from time to time). Luckily I had brought along a sweater and a jacket, which I converted into a makeshift cushion, but even that double layer of padding couldn’t alleviate the numbness of my rear end as the first act dragged on and on and on. There is no second act, at least not for us, as we instead opt to walk along the banks of the Thames (where Gary runs into one of his Pasadena cardiology patients) for the next hour.

The evening’s scheduled event is to be a performance by a classical (or so we thought) guitarist from Denmark at the Italian restaurant inside the Royal Albert Hall. Turns out he is a jazz guitarist accompanied by a heavy-handed piano player who drowns out much of the guitar music with his frenetic, over-eager imitation of Dizzy Gillespie. As mentioned, the performance was given inside a section of Verdi, the hall’s restaurant, and a crowd of about 40 jazz enthusiasts were gathered in the room. The guitarist struggled to be heard over the soundings of the piano player and the clatter of glasses and plates as the audience ate their dinners. Gary and I end up seated next to a Jazz vocalist and the violinist partner who bob their hears and wiggle their shoulders to the jazz beat. We eventually engage them in conversation during the breaks and enjoy their company (although not so much that we stay for the entire performance. It was starting to get late and cutting into our pub time.)

Saturday, Nice, France

Saturday was to be a day of surprises. Gary departs early that morning to catch his flight to Philadelphia on his way to L.A., so I take the opportunity to sleep in the first time on the trip. In the afternoon, I fly from Gatwick to Nice, where I am planning to attend the races at a small track called Gagne Sur Mer. I’d been dreaming of visiting this track for years, and planning it for months. Cagne Sur Mer…the name conjures up images of men in seersucker suits and white hats, in the company of beautiful young blond women in flowing dresses and wearing elaborate hats or fascinators, all just off their yachts or away from their villas on the Riviera. Names can be deceiving.

Surprise No. 1 on this Saturday appears when I arrive at my hotel, the 5-star Boscolo Exedra, only to discover that it sits in front of two blocks of construction fencing. Inside I can see monstrous digging equipment and construction supplies. Turns out that the City of Nice is building a new subway from the Port to the airport, and the current jobsite is right in front of my hotel. Fortunately my stay will be for Saturday and Sunday nights, so there will be no construction activity over the weekend. But still, what an eyesore.

The Boscolo Exedra is a gorgeous hotel, all brilliant white inside, minimalist except for the enormous nude on the main wall in the lobby. The theme is carried over to the rooms, which are impressively large, with a low-slung white king bed floating in a sea of white carpet, white desk, white bath…you get the idea. They have me on the Fourth Floor in the front, directly over the construction site. Normally the scene outside would have immediately disqualified the room, but somehow the room’s ambiance is so soft and lovely that it cancels out the distraction outside, so I settled in.

One of my (many) quirks is that I like…read need…to have a small electric fan in my room, not for coolness, but for “white noise”. The pleasant hum eliminates the stark stillness of a completely silent room and sings me to sleep. Virtually every hotel I stay in is able to accommodate this request, so I asked the front desk attendants, twice, to arrange for Housekeeping to put a fan in my room.

On my way back from the front desk, I stop by the Concierge Desk to check on my arrangements for the next day at Cagne Sur Mer… transportation, my reservation at the posh Le Paddock restaurant, etc.

Time for Surprise No. 2. “Tomorrow’s racing has been cancelled,” says the Concierge. What!!!? I’ve travelled halfway around the word to go to this track and now there’s not going to be racing there? I asked the Concierge to call the track to double-check. “No racing tomorrow. He continues: “They are racing tonight at 8:30.” Tonight? It’s 7:00 P.M., but I’ve got time to run upstairs and change, catch a train over to the bucolic town of Cagne Sur Mer, take a taxi to the track and be there in time for the first. So off I go.

I get to the train station at 7:45, catch a train that will get me to Cagne in 18 minutes, and everything will work out. I have negative vibes as the train pulled out of Nice Ville. Along the way are the suburbs of Nice, containing those dreadful projects that in France produce the terrorists who feel they have no place in French society. Out the window I see endless graffiti and laundry hanging from grubby apartment back porches, a scene reminiscent of the old South Bronx. As we get within five minutes out of Cagne, I begin to wonder: how much is this scene going to change in five minutes? Answer: it doesn’t. I disembark at Cagne to find a worn-out town with quite unattractive residents. Worse, a town with no taxis. So, map in hand, I hoof it over to the track, a mile to the track’s outer entrance, then another kilometer from the outer entrance to the ticket booth. A half hour wasted. Oh, well, at least I make it in time for the second race. I enter through the gate and go through the clubhouse and out onto the track, where I see…well, I see Surprise No. 3…

TROTTERS.

Trotters!!!!!!!!! Trotters!!!!!!!! I hate trotters!!!!!!!!! It’s against my racing religion to watch, much less bet on, the trotters. I abandon my principles. I’ve come all this way and endured the rush over here, so I might as well stay and get as much out of the experience as I can.

The Cagne Sur Mer racetrack, more formally known as the Hippodrome de la Cote d’Azur is not much to look at, although maybe in the daytime it looks a little better. It is, in fact, right on the sea, which one can see from the upstairs seats and restaurants, but the grandstand and racecourse themselves are very homely, reminiscent of a fairgrounds track in California. In the end I stay for three of the remaining six races, lose thirty Euros, have dinner not in Le Paddock restaurant but at a food stand specializing in Merguez sausages, drink a couple of Carling beers, and wave goodbye.

Back at the hotel , Surprise No. 4 arrives. When I check my email, I am advised by Air France that various of their crews are commencing a five-day strike and that my flight from Nice to Paris has been cancelled. There is, however, an alternative. There’s one flight later in the afternoon that will be going, but the fare is 475 Euros. Or, if I decide to take a train or bus, they’ll reimburse me up to 120 Euros. The train it will be.

Still another surprise. No fan in my room. I walk downstairs and talk to Lorenzo, the night manager, who to his enormous credit, arranges to get a fan for me. At midnight! Borrowing it from one of the hotel’s housekeepers! Exceptional service from the kind of employee every hotel should cherish. I plan to write the hotel’s CEO.

Sunday, Nice

In the morning I walk back over to the train station to buy my ticket. Obviously a lot of Air France flyers have received the same message, because the waiting time in line will be about an hour. A kind woman helps me use the machine, which knows only French. I can get a 1st Class ticket ton the TGV to Paris for 167 Euros if I’m willing to leave at 7:03 a.m. I book it.

So, with no racing on the schedule, what am I going to do for a day in Nice? It’s a gorgeous blue-sky day, albeit very hot and somewhat humid, so the logical thing to do is to go down to the waterfront, along the beautiful Prominade des Anglais (where the terrorist mowed down the crowd on Bastille Day). Now lining the road are short, thick metal poles that have been installed to safeguard the sidewalk pedestrians against similar catastrophes.

At the beach it’s a dream day. Perfect azure sky. Nice breeze. Not that the beach itself is much of a dream, because it’s not a sandy beach, but one made of stone pebbles, some pretty large. Sunbathing on this beach requires a pretty thick beach towel, maybe two thick beach towels if you’re that girl sunbathing topless atop this rocky bed.

A young Russian couple at the hotel tells me about a hamburger restaurant I MUST try. The TRYBurger. So on my way to Nice’s Old Town, I “try” it .It’s one of those gourmet burger places founded by a former 2-Star Michelin chef who adorns his burger with foie gras and bacon and charges 22 Euros. Rating? Average.

The day gets hotter so I decide to go to a movie…something I love to do in Europe. The Concierge advises that there are no English-language films unless I want to take a train 30 minutes away. Sorry. I opt for the French version of the apocalyptic “Independence Day II,” which I can’t fully comprehend, although I would caution you that if you are planning a visit to Hong Kong, London or Washington, DC, forget about it. They’re all totally destroyed.

Monday, Paris

The five-and a-half hour TVG train ride from Nice to Paris traverses the French Riviera for about 70 miles until it turns north toward Paris. It’s a beautiful ride.

In Paris I’m lucky enough to have a certificate from Leading Hotels of the World for a free night at the Hotel Bristol, where, despite the fact that I’m a freebie, they treat me royally, giving me a huge room on the fourth floor overlooking their world-famous garden and comping me to a very nice bottle of Chablis. I’m going to treat this as a relaxing day, since (a) it’s August, when so many things in France are closed, and (b) it’s Monday, when so many things in Paris are closed. I take a stroll over to the newly opened Ritz, where Alison’s CEO group will be holding a get-together sometime in 2017 or 2018. The hotel’s group events manager gives me a tour of the property, including the various dining rooms and their very special backyard garden, then shows me a representative “Executive” room…very, very lovely, but a tad small for a room that costs 1,400 Euros a night. I spend the day walking around some of my favorite places in Paris, then veg out at my hotel enjoying the bottle of Chablis before going to a local brasserie for a dinner of l’entrecote and frites.

Tuesday, New York

An uneventful day. Fly from Paris to New York, where I am writing this and where I will go to a half-price TCKT play tonight, then fly home on Wednesday.

Anthem of the Seas: Part 2

anthem

Back to the Start: Anthem of the Seas Part 1

In this segment of the blog I’ll cover some of the miscellaneous factors about the Anthem cruise.

Destinations? I knew from the outset that the weakest aspect of this cruise was fated to be the ports of call where we would be calling, and indeed they were truly weak. Because they don’t deserve a lot of time, I’ll briefly summarize:

  • Port Canaveral, FL: A desolate place where I rented a Hertz car and drove to the Kennedy Space Center for the whole-enchilada tour…viewing historic launch pads, going inside the operations control center, watching dramatic film presentation about Apollo 1 (tragic fire) and moon landing, viewing of full-size Saturn rocket hung from the ceiling of gigantic hanger. Verdict: Tired old place in need of a makeover, special effects not very special. Recommendation: start over, keep the Saturn. My visit was spiced up by the fact that upon my return to Hertz, I found the office CLOSED, with a note on the window to call a guy named Jon Minor who picks up renters after hours. Sure enough, Jon came by and picked me up, but on the way back to the ship, we were sitting on a bridge-up drawbridge when his car conked out (“Durn,” he said, “that’s the second time this week.”) In panic I jumped out of his van and raced over to a taxi full of people waiting for the drawbridge to go down and begged for a ride, which was mercifully granted. Made it back in time.
  • Nassau, Bahamas: Approaching the island, the turquoise water and white sand beaches were stunningly beautiful, but Nassau itself is just another beat-up town in the Caribbean filled with glitzy jewelry stores and straw markets and hawkers and crummy shops and bars, the premier venue being Senor Frog. I took a walk out of the tourist area into the center of the regular town to find once-classic colonial hotels with boarded-up windows, filthy alleys and beat-up cars and pick-up trucks. (Didn’t try to go “over the bridge” to the enormous Atlantis resort because all the word-of-mouth on Cruise Critic and on the ship was that the place is a waste of time.) Verdict: A dump.
  • Coco Cay, Cayman Islands: One of those “private” islands the   cruise lines have developed to give their passengers a chance to have a “day at the beach”. This one was horrible…a ratty, scraggly atoll jammed with the passengers from two of Royal Caribbean’s monster ships and accessible only by means of overcrowded tenders that resembled those migrant boats in the Mediterranean. Verdict: Godawful.

In each instance coming back to the Anthem was like going to heaven.

The food on the Anthem? Predictably, as a mass-feeding operation the food is essentially banquet quality in most of the restaurants, the only exceptions being (as you might expect) the ones that you pay $30-$40 extra for. Throughout the ship, soups and salads are pretty good; stir-fry is as good as you’ll find anywhere; the pizza is awful, breakfasts are weak, lunch ends up being the best food with delicious hand-carved roast beef sandwiches on salted Kaiser rolls (a Buffalo specialty called “Wecks”) and paninis and a wide variety of salads; at dinner, starters are surprisingly tasty, main courses almost universally blah.

I have scoped out the majority of the dining rooms and restaurants on board, with the main lessons being learned: (a) if you wait to eat late, be prepared to be served food that was prepared hours earlier and then zapped up to lukewarm, (b) DON’T ORDER THE LOBSTER, an item offered on virtually every menu as Surf & Turf or Broiled Lobster Tail, because it’s not like “lobster” as you know it , (c) don’t try to be sophisticated and order seafood; stick with chicken or pasta, (d) don’t even THINK about ordering the Huevos Rancheros at breakfast, (e) forget about steak unless you’re paying the additional $39 at Chops, (f) for God’s sake, if you like Chinese food, don’t eat at the Chinese restaurant, (g) order the escargot*, because you won’t find it on any menu printed after 1959.

*When I asked about the escargot at Grande, the “formal” restaurant, the waiter said, “It’s only good because of the garlic and butter. The snails aren’t from France…they’re from Indonesia….out of a can.” I ordered it anyway and the garlic and butter were delicious.

Theater entertainment? The featured musical was “We Will Rock You”, the Queen-inspired show that was pretty much of a flop in London a couple of decades ago, not improved since. “Spectra”, sort of a Cirque du Soleil knock-off that the Anthem theater-going audience (read aged) found a little too weird. “The Gift” a fantasy musical that was about…well, I never could figure out what it was about. I previously mentioned the wide variety of other Anthem performers who were invariably excellent. All group activities and theatrical performances on the ship were emcee’d by our Cruise Director Abe, a peripatetic showman—“hip” when he was with the young crowds, “distinguished” when addressing the age-olders– obviously auditioning for s job as a TV game show host.

Fitness Dept.: Spa looked okay, not spectacular…didn’t use it because (a) I hate spas, and (b) they charged a lot . Cardiologist Gary Conrad would have loved the 1/3-mile running track that circumnavigates the 15th deck featuring two “lanes”…one for running, one for walking, with spectacular views. I dutifully walked one lap a day, augmented by my hundreds of trips between ship events, restaurants, bars, theaters and the library, often taking the stairs for several floors because the elevators were usually crowded.

Activities…a brief rundown on what I did (and didn’t) do…

  • FlowRide Surfing…didn’t do it…it looked entirely too hard…the only people who were able to stand or even kneel on the surfboards and boogie boards looked like they were lifelong residents of Huntington Beach.
  • Casino…did it, and ending up donating 140 of my favorite dollars playing craps and Three Card Poker…not bad when you consider all the time (80% of it watching) that I spent in that smoky, smelly joint during the weeklong cruise.
  • North Star capsule…didn’t do it…it involved a 2-1/2 hour wait and I overheard one guy saying “all you can see is more water”.
  • Bingo…did it twice at $32 a session and won zilch. When I think of the drinks I could have bought with that $64, it makes me want to cry.
  • Art lecture on “the masters of the art world”…did it…was surprised to learn that so many of them were exhibited right here on the Anthem.
  • “Quest”…did it…a scavenger-hunt kind of group game for 300 where I won the affection of my team by coming up with a piece of currency with a picture of the White House on it ($50 bill). Other members of the team contributed far more, such as pants, bras and thongs. They were young, thank goodness.
  • RipCord by IFLY…the simulated flying thing where you are suspended in a big tube of air…didn’t do it… the people who did it said it hurt.
  • Bumper Cars…did it…as you might expect, emphasis is on safety, safety, safety…thus, cars are slow and ride is short…waste of time.
  • Glow Party…did it…basically a disco party with everybody wearing flashing lights..eyeglasses, necklaces, etc. I’m too old for this stuff.
  • And yes, TRIVIA! After a few instances of merely walking up to strangers and asking to join them, I happened to sit with a foursome at a shared table at breakfast and they asked me to join them at trivia and we’ve been a trivia team fivesome ever since. We’ve got Nevin and Heather from Canada, Mike and Audrey from New Jersey. (Nevin is a composer from Toronto and at one session was able to identify 17 out of 20 Elvis hits on the first or second note!) I held my own over numerous sessions (e.g., Hey, I was the only one in the room who knew the meaning of hippopotamus and could identify an obscure Jane Austen novel).

Flops? No. 1 on the list was the robotic Bionic Bar, basically a one-trick pony that people would watch for twenty minutes or so as it went through its herky-jerky snatch-and-go drink-mixing motions and which actual users complained made the drinks too sweet and/or spilled too much.

Conclusion at the end of the trip: This cruise left me with a little bit of a funny feeling…a feeling that I was a little disappointed at the fact that I’m NOT disappointed. I had signed on this cruise thinking it was going to be a hoot filled with a collection of wacky characters who would go on a cruise like this and hokey events. Yet in the end it turned out to be just a fairly pleasant trip on a beautiful well-designed, tastefully decorated vessel , crowds not too bad at all, weather very good, food okay, events sort of fun, My favorite moments: sleeping at night with my veranda door open, listening to the whoosh of the ocean rushing by and feeling the sway of the ship (even on a ship this big!). One night was had a major storm-at-sea and it reminded me of the stormy Midwestern nights when I was a little boy and felt warm and safe under the covers listening to the rolling thunder outside me window. Those were some of the best times of my life, but this night on the Anthem was close.

Until the next adventure…

Anthem of the Seas: Part 1

anthem

Travel is flight and pursuit in equal parts.

– Paul Theroux

I am sailing on the Anthem of the Seas, Royal Caribbean’s newest Quantum Class sea-going colossus, on my way to the Bahamas.

Why, you might ask, would any sane person want to go on a leisure cruise on a vessel with (a) a capacity (passengers and crew) of SIX THOUSAND FOUR HUNDRED AND FIVE, (b) a departure from Port of Liberty, NJ (aka Bayonne, New Jersey) in winter weather, (c) a totally mediocre itinerary, and (d) a thousands of New Yorkers and New Jerseyites clawing for bar stools, deck chairs and restaurant and event reservations?

I hope to answer that existential question over the course of my journey.

But first, let’s deal with some essential stats about the Anthem:

She is 347.8 meters long…longer than an aircraft carrier, longer than the QE2, much, much longer than the Titanic (and yet astoundingly, not AS LONG as her sister ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet, the Oasis). She took six million hours to build.

She has 2,090 cabins, including a unique category that lured me … namely, a solo passenger “studio stateroom with veranda”…as far as I know, the first of its type in the cruising world. Inside staterooms on the Anthem feature “virtual balconies”…floor-to-ceiling ultra-HD screens with real-time views of the ocean and destinations.

She has 17 restaurants and 7 bars and lounges, including another first…the Bionic Bar where your beverages are prepared by robots. Of the restaurants, four are the traditional mass-feeding operations, eleven others are “specialty” restaurants, some complimentary, some charging extra. I intend to try as many as I can.

She has 15 stories of glass and steel that make her look like a flopped-over high-rise office building.

She has two spectacular theaters and three pools (I’m sure I’ll at least get a pool chair upon our departure from Bayonne, particularly if it’s snowing), bumper cars, roller skating, FlowRider surfing and flying trapeze lessons. She has a skydiving simulator and something called “North Star”, a capsule that rises 300 feet above sea level.

She has her own satellite that provides more bandwidths than are available on all other cruise ships in the world combined. She has the “Royal Esplanade”, an indoor shopping world that’s a cross between the Mall of America and the lobby of a Disney World hotel.

And she has your faithful correspondent on board, ready to “meet and mingle.”

And so it begins…

…with an effortless boarding process and an awaiting luncheon at the ship’s Windjammer buffet, a spread equal to a Wynn Las Vegas or Bellagio with remarkable variety and food quality. Before entering the buffet, all guests are required to pass through a little tunnel with five “Wash Your Hands” stations…nice idea.

Now I head to my stateroom, the aforementioned single studio with veranda, a one-of-a-kind creature in today’s cruise world (unless you count Norwegian’s 100 sq. ft. inside studios that resemble prison cells more that guest accommodations). At first glance, there’s a moment of shock. I take pause…this is a very, very, very small room, made so because the designers had to allow for my quite generous balcony with a nice ocean exposure and a spacious little bathroom with walk-in shower. Very tight closet and drawer space, no chair (an ottoman-like stool takes its place), a 2’X2’ “desk”, and a double bed that eats up two-thirds of the room. But, you know, once I unpack and get everything into its place, it becomes quickly livable.

It’s the first day and I’m a little lost. I do a cursory tour of the ship’s public areas and settle for my first activity: a trivia contest. Unlike most vessels that have one trivia event a day, the Anthem has five per day…is this place heaven, or what? I follow it up with the requisite nap, then have an early dinner at one of the ship’s hot spots, the Mongolian Corner, where the faithful line up for Mongolian stir-fry that hits the spot. Off I go to the Music Hall to listen to some good-and-bad karaoke, followed by a performance of a Journey tribute band called Resurrection who are nothing short of terrific. (I like them so much I go to their 10:30-12:00 performances three nights in a row.) Besides the rockers, we have a Disco DJ who performs to a jam packed dance floor, a salsa group, a Caribbean steel drum band and three piano players, one a Woody Allen type, one a crazy Bette Midler type and the other a kid who looks about 16.

I came on this cruise expecting to find atrociously garish décor and trumped-up events and a ship full of misfits in our society…only to find a beautiful architectural creation, with a bright, fresh feel and expansive floor-to-ceiling ocean views, beautiful sweeping staircases, nice hallways, two impressive theaters, attractive carpeting, and a pretty normal group of people. In keeping with the season, there’s even a very tasteful Christmas tree with ornaments the size of cannon balls and poinsettias all up and down the hallways of the Royal Esplanade.

The crowd on the Anthem? Well, they’re “the public.” They’re not the obviously affluent cruisers you find on Seabourn or Silversea, but more like the everyday folks you’d find at a ball game or shopping mall or a Fourth of July parade. Some a little rough-hewn, but nice people. By the way, no need for any Diversity Task Force on the Anthem. We’ve got 150-200 of EVERYBODY on this voyage (did you know that the Amish go on cruises?). Every continent except Antarctica, every ethnic group, every nationality, every language is heavily represented. Comporting with the complaint most often voiced about cruising, i.e., “just a bunch of old people”, this passenger list is indeed weighed quite heavily in favor of the ancient set, especially the New York and New Jersey attendees, whose wheel chairs, walkers, crutches, canes and limps clog the thoroughfares, and whose heavy accents permeate the atmosphere. Hey, they make me feel young. There are a very substantial number of cruisers in their twenties and thirties, most of the ready to party hearty (the nighclubs and music venues are packed every night), although quite a few were dumb enough to bring along their little kids whom they have to drag or carry up and down the lonnnnnnng corridors of the Anthem. Also, a surprising number of 5-12-year-old kids, and I mean hundreds… what are they doing here? As for the ultimate fact…number of tattoos? Actually, not that many.

Even though there are 4,900 passengers on board, only five show up for the Solo Travelers’ “Meet & Mingle”…Caroline, who heads the Selective Service (yes, it still exists) in Delaware, Jo, a Navy “mustang” who has just been promoted to Commander, John, an elderly guy from New Jersey who interrupts every topic with “Where’s that?”, Lee, a young guy in his twenties who clearly doesn’t want to hang with this crew of oldsters, and me. We chat for a while and agree to gather at a future trivia to form a team.

By the way, it is important to note that Royal Caribbean ships are not “all inclusive,” meaning that you pay extra for everything, including drinks (even soft drinks and water), internet, shore excursions and some specialty restaurants, all of which results in hundreds of dollars being added to your cruise bill. They offer a range of beverage packages, but at the “Meet & Mingle” I go through the economics with Caroline and Jo and we conclude we would have to have a daily intake of seven glasses of wine, in their case, or nine beers in my case, to make the beverage deal pay. I’m going a la carte.

The first thing I realize is that my dining strategy (more on the culinary experience later) is going to have to be altered. Instead of having a group of Solo Traveler “buddies” to meet for group dinners, I am going to go with Plan B, which is to tell the host or hostess at any given restaurant that I want to be seated at a “sharing” table. I end up doing this at sit-down breakfast and dinners and the results are mixed:

Day 2 breakfast – I meet Matthias, a German guy who reviews cruises and has a show on German TV. Interesting guy.

Day 3 breakfast – I dine with Staten Island Donna who doesn’t approve of anything in the world and lets you know it, and Philadelphia Susan whose husband has had Alzheimers for the past nine years. Very uplifting.

Day 3 dinner – I’m at a shared table with Don and Mary from Pennsylvania, whom I suspect are Amish even though they don’t wear the garb. They don’t drink, don’t go to any of the ship’s entertainment, don’t really do anything, in fact, except eat…they were thinking about going on the North Star capsule, but were rejected because each of them weighs 19 pounds over the 300 lb. limit.

Day 4 breakfast – Share table with a couple from Long Island on their 63rd cruise, another couple from Baltimore on their 20th or so who complain that the Anthem doesn’t have a re-created Central Park like the Oasis does, and a sanitary engineer from Indiana on his 20th or so whose main interest in coming on this cruise is to take the behind-the scenes tour of the ship’s plumbing and power system (for which he’s willing to pay $200 extra).

Haven’t done any casino time yet. I’m too scared to. The table minimums are $10 and $25—as many of you know, I’m strictly a $5 table guy—and my $$100-$200 bankroll will be blown away in one sitting at those rates. Still, I’ve taken an opportunity to peek in. This is no ordinary cruise ship casino. I would estimate the slot machine count as somewhere in the 300 range, and the room is four or five times bigger than the standard box assigned to the casino on most ships. Besides the slots, they offer one craps table where I will probably donate my money, a Three Card Poker table (where is John Winter, the king of Three Card, when I need him?), two roulette tables and maybe 8-10 blackjack tables. Worse than gambling losses will be my cleaning bill, as the Casino Royale gladly allows smoking and the place is totally unventilated as far as I can determine. As usual, the casino staff is largely made up of Russians and former residents of the various “-Stans” who conduct their trade with cold stares and phony smiles. I’ll get there eventually.

But, you say, I’ve heard there are some really tacky events on these types of cruises? There surely are.

The Art Auction would definitely qualify. During my morning dead period I stop by the Art Auction on the Royal Esplanade where the auctioneer’s opening quote goes as follows: “Ladies and gentlemen, on Royal Caribbean we have people who cruise exclusively to collect art.” Uh- huh. The first painting offers is a “unique” Peter Max creation which our host claims has a retail value of $41,000, after which he starts the bidding at $36,500. Stone silence throughout the room of about 150. He quickly announces “Pass,” and proceeds to bring out something more moderate, a Thomas Kincaid (“Look at the light in this work!” he croons) print where the bidding starts at $25 (yes, $25), although with his frenetic urging the saps in the room actually bid it up to $400. Now that he has them in the mood, he goes back up the ladder to a copycat Matisse-esque print by some Israeli artist supposedly worth $11,000, but where the bidding would start at $9,000. Silence, then one hand goes up. “Sold” comes the call as the hammer instantaneously slams down. And so forth, as he parades out a host of paintings and begs for bids, most often resorting to the refrain “Pass!” then going on to the next one. This is all followed by the “Mystery Auction” in which the works of art are hung backwards to the bidders. It is all too complicated to explain, but it ends with a row of eight unseen paintings being sold to people in the audience. I have to cut my visit short because it’s time for trivia. (I think the Kincaid will look perfect in our dining room.

The other qualifier is the “$10 Sale” in which dozens of boxes of goods–all covered by red sheets– are piled on tables in the center of the Royal Esplanade, everything to be sold for $10 per item (five for $40). At the opening bell, the sheets come off, revealing hundreds of scarves, shawls, sunglasses, watches, handbags, etc., and the three-deep crowd surges toward that cornucopia, jostling each other out of the way, tossing favorite items across the room to their friends, trying on hats and scarves. The New Yorker standing next to me calls out to his wife: ”Honey, don’t pay $10 for a $3 watch!”, but to no avail as she forges on. Fortunately I am able to score some nice Christmas gifts at the sale.

Finally, I am witness poolside to the first International Belly Flop contest (use your imagination), filmed and scheduled to be shown on ESPN and won by 325 lb. Steve from Ireland, a thrilling result in the mind of Cruise Director Abe because that makes the competition truly “international”. Steve’s water displacement was impressive.

All the while I do my best to keep up with the NFL, my emails and the Republican debates.

To be continued…

Next: Anthem of the Seas Part 2

Cheltenham

To my racing friends:

As you know I wander the world going to interesting racetracks and races. In recent years Goodwood has become a fixture on my calendar because I have always regarded it as the prettiest track I’ve ever been to. Next come Deauville, Baden Baden, Keeneland (where I’m going this weekend to Breeders’ Cup!), Saratoga, Chantilly, Del Mar, Happy Valley,and well, the list could go on.

In recent years, however, whenever I have mentioned to knowledgeable racing folks how much I like Goodwood, I’ve had the name “Cheltenham” whispered in my ear with a tone of authority that said that THIS was the ultimate beauty. So this year when I knew I’d be going through England on my way to Amsterdam (to visit not a racetrack, but reputedly the most spectacular city hotel in Europe…the new Waldorf Astoria*) I set aside a day at the end of my trip to go out to Cheltenham, about a 2-1/2 hour train ride out from London.

I should have recognized that something special was up when the boarding notice went up on the board at Victoria Station and a virtual stampede ensued toward Track No. 9 for the train to Cheltenham Spa. On board, out came the Racing Posts and the cheers and beers as we journeyed westward.

Cheltenham Spa is located in the Cotswolds, more specifically in Gloucestershire. It’s a city of about 100,000, a lovely town with a tidy downtown and classic old English churches and stately homes, and its pride and joy is the Cheltenham racetrack about a mile outside of town. It is a gleaming white palace that overlooks an endless expanse of emerald green lawns and white fences in the foreground, and in the distance a towering hill replete with farms and steeples and country houses. The closest thing I can compare it to is an Impressionist painting where your eye is drawn to an immense array of color and beautiful muted figures. The fact that I was present in late October with the accompanying autumn colors only added to the mystique.

This was “Showcase Saturday”, the end of a two-day racing festival in late October that kicks off Cheltenham’s fall and winter racing calendar, a preview to its vaunted Gold Cup in November. Inside, a crowd of approximately 40,000 was squashed into a facility probably designed for 20,000. The English are prodigious daytime drinkers—a pint in every hand– and the tweedy well-dressed mob of
(mostly young) revelers was definitely up for a party. The races at Cheltenham fall into the categories of steeplechase and hurdles, an unfamiliar world for me which makes my limited handicapping skills even more tenuous. Nonetheless, I persevered and eventually got the hang of it a little bit…well, actually, I just decided to go with the winning jockey of the first race all day and hoped that he would have a hot day, which he did, winning three our of the six races, putting an extra $100 or so in my pocket. The races were thrilling. The crowd was enthusiastic (and well lubricated). The atmosphere was electric. It was a ball.

The gaiety, however, belied the fact that “jump racing”, as it is known there, is in a state of serious decline, mostly owing to the paucity of horses that are trained as jumpers and that have the stamina for their 2-1/2 mile to 3-1/2 mile marathons up and down hills and around sweeping turns and into a grueling stretch run that seems to go on forever as the field surges toward the finish. Adding to the sport’s distress is that the leading trainers and jockeys in England much prefer to concentrate their careers on flat racing, where there is significantly greater prestige and much larger purses.

So, my parting word on this subject is: do yourself an immense favor and someday go to Cheltenham. It is truly the most beautiful racecourse in the world..at least of all the ones I’ve seen.

*Footnote No. 1: As for the Waldorf Astoria in Amsterdam, it is a stunner, maybe the most gorgeous property in any European city. They will NEVER recover their investment in furnishings and decor, no matter how much they charge.

**Footnote No. 2: In the How-Dumb-Can-You-Be Dept., I booked tickets in London to the ballet “Romeo and Juliet” at the Royal Opera House and to the Bob Dylan concert at the Royal Albert Hall…ON THE SAME NIGHT! The solution? Saw the first act of “Romeo and Juliet”, then raced out and hopped a taxi to the last hour of the Dylan concert. Bob Dylan was in some respects a caricature of himself with his trademark mumble and his distinctive intonations, but on the other hand he wasn’t just some has-been star of yesteryear pouring out his oldies-but-goodies, but instead has adopted an endearing new style that included several “soft” classics such as “Autumn Leaves”. Bob’s 74 now, and the audience in the packed-to-the-gills 5-tier Royal Albert roared their approval and probably made him feel like he was 25 again.

Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, Newmarket, and Edinburgh

Ryder Cup!

So it’s off to Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in Scotland. But before heading to the land of plaid and tartan, there’s a stop to be made on the way: Newmarket Racecourse in Central England.

Thursday, September 25

Upon my arrival at Heathrow at 5:15 a.m., I was greeted by Neil Morrice (pronounced like Maurice), a chap I met earlier this summer at Glorious Goodwood and with whom I later struck up an email correspondence. Neil bills himself as a racing journalist (formerly 14 years on the staff of England’s Racing Post and now a free-lancer), a “tipster” (an actual profession in the U.K…in this case, Neil has a series of about 100 “clients” who pay him for betting advice on races at tracks in England, Ireland and France), and broadcaster (he has a five-minute broadcast each day from a feature race in England to the simulcast outlets in South Africa).

When I mentioned that on my way to Scotland for Ryder Cup I was coming to the races at Newmarket on Thursday, September 25, he replied that he insisted on (a) picking me up at Heathrow, (b) driving me to my hotel in Mayfair to drop off my bags, (c) driving me to Newmarket and giving me a tour, and (d) taking me to the races and obtaining a badge for the Premier Enclosure. When Alison learned of this invitation, she was very leery…”what does this guy want from you?”…”why would he be willing to do this?”…”what do you know about this guy?” I didn’t know. I just had the guy’s card I later would learn that he’s simply a very nice guy.

Newmarket is England’s horse country– its version of Lexington, Kentucky– in that it is the center of the country’s horseracing industry and the home to most of its prominent trainers. In the U.S. trainers typically train their horses at racetracks where they are stabled. In the U.K., horses are vanned from racecourse to racecourse as racing locations change each week, and as a result trainers maintain their own facilities, often 500-acre pastures and training tracks, called “gallops”, usually accompanied by beautiful mansion-like homes and miles of fencing. Trainers in England are frequently members of the landed gentry who have inherited their properties and who have had relationships with English royals and aristocrats (and now Arab plutocrats) for generations, and accordingly many are very wealthy. For example, Sir Henry Cecil (whose son Ben Cecil is a trainer at Santa Anita) owns a gallop in Newmarket fronted by a virtual castle on land that extends for miles—gentle rolling property that stretches for as far as the eye can see. Neil Morrice has been in the business for 30 years and knows everybody, or at least knows everything about everybody, and he gave m the grand tour, including all the gossip about racing’s personalities, after which we went for breakfast at a local hotspot.

Finally it was time to go to the races at Newmarket, which Neil calls “the HQ of the racing world.” I know we tend to think of Churchill Downs, Saratoga, Keeneland, Santa Anita, etc.as the capitals of racing, but in fact Newmarket is the center of the international horseracing world where, outside of North America, the best horses, trainers and jockeys compete before dispersing to other English icons such as Ascot and Goodwood., as well as the U.S., France, Hong Kong, Ireland and Dubai. The Newmarket Racecourse features
a gleaming five-story grandstand in front of a gorgeous racetrack surrounded by English countryside. Neil picked up his Press badge, which gives him all-access privileges all over Newmarket Racebcourse, and got a me badge in the posh Premier Enclosure.
We stayed for six races, in which I, the amateur, outdueled Neil, the expert, winning four races at 5-1, 7-2,12-1 and 8-1, leading to a tidy 150 GBP profit. All in all, a perfectly wonderful day, and Neil Morrice was an exceptional host, whom I’m hoping to repay when he comes to Breeder’s Cup at Santa Anita.

Friday, September 26

Flew up to Glasgow, having the good fortune to sit (in my middle seat, seeing as I forgot to make a seat reservation) next to a local business executive who gave me tips on the best restaurants and the inside dope on the city, the Scottish independence referendum, and all things Scotland. As it turned out he is the UK representative of a Seattle investment firm, Russell Investments, and so was also very familiar with all things American. When I told him I would be staying at the Blytheswood Square Hotel, he gave mea thumbs up—“best hotel in Glasgow”—and insisted that I have dinner one night at the hotel restaurant where they cook steak on their special Josper grill…”carmelized and crusty on the outside, perfectly medium rare on the inside…if you like meat,you’ll love it!”.

It turned out he was right about the Blytheswood Square…Glasgow’s beautiful old Automobile Club building converted into a hotel with a gorgeous bar (the “Salon”) and a wonderful ambiance.. I was given a room in the new modern section, a nice, spacious well-equipped 400-square footer that was very comfortable (it wasn’t until our last day that I discovered that there was “another half” of the hotel where the rooms, according to the bellman I asked, were “really very special”, which led me to conclude Id been given a B room).

A few minutes after I arrived at the hotel, Lynn and Gary Conrad also checked in, so we took our initial spin around town to give it a once-over. Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland at about 650K and the former shipbuilding center of the British Empire, can be described as a gray place, with lots of elaborately ornate 19th Century buildings standing vacant. Still, it has a young populace who keep the bars jumping and the shopping streets packed. All of my executive friend’s restaurants were full, so we were forced to settle for dinner at a local pub. But not until we checked out our train tickets for the next days and realized that our Glasgow/Gleneagles train was scheduled for 5:29 a.m.!, with the first return train not scheduled until 5:09 p.m. Saturday was going to be a long, long day. The place we chose to eat was a raucous jam-packed pub filled with people half our age– waiting time for a dinner in the main room one-and-a-half hours unless we could find a table in the bar, which luckily we did.

Saturday, September 27

It’s Ryder Cup Day for Gary and me. On the train up to Gleneagles , we ride with a nice 65-ish Englishman and his son who were willing to sit with The Enemy. Englishman had once worked for an American company based in El Segundo, so he was very familiar with L.A. (and many of its golf clubs…he’d even talked his way onto Riviera one time). The two of them told us what we could expect at Gleneagles: lots of steep hills, lots of walking, lots of people. Whereas an event like the Masters allows 24,000 people a day on the grounds, Gleneagles was allowing 45,000.

Upon disembarking, another local was heard to day: “What a glorious day!” Apparently glorious in Scotland means a biting cold temperature, cloudy skies and a persistent wind that assaults you non-stop. For nine hours we huddled in four or five layers of shirts, sweaters and jackets, plus gloves and hats, as hour after hour wore on, the wind pelting us, but thankfully no rain, and we were even graced with a few short patches of sunshine which seemed to warm the body twenty degrees while shining.

There’s no denying that Gleneagles is a stunningly beautiful golf course, with all of its hills and valleys creating natural amphitheaters for standing and watching the action, and with a majority of the holes featuring large grandstands where you could sit and watch, provided you were willing to sit and watch nothing for an hour or more until the golfers made their way to your hole. The course itself was in spectacular condition, the fairways cut as finely as putting greens and looking like emerald green Karastan carpets, its rough trimmed to a surprisingly modest length, and an absence of many trees or water hazards to impede the golfers…just that damn wind.

The crowd was huge and every hole was teeming with mobs of people lining the fairways on both sides three or four deep and watching from the hillsides maybe twenty or thirty deep. Vocally, it was a 95% pro-Europe crowd. The American 5%, however, were pretty loud and definitely rowdy, various of them groups—actually “tribes”– dressed in (a) Minnesota Vikings outfits, (b) American flag kilts and tops, and (c) the invariable Uncle Sam attire, as they sang and cheered and sang some more. A little obnoxious at times, but the Scots—fabulously nice people, by the way—were mostly amused by their antics.

The one part of the day that didn’t work out were my plans to get together at Gleneagles with my nephew George Long, a PGA member from Cincinnati, and his wife Debbie, and with Bill and Debbie Sexton from Chicago. We had all planned to taxt/call one another to get together briefly at the tournament, but confounding technology and the enormous crowds and the massive geography of Gleneagles made that impossible to accomplish.

The Saturday morning and afternoon golf competitions themselves were fun to watch, with the Americans doing okay at first, but the Euros slowly gaining momentum hour after hour as they pulled out most of the toss-up matches and took a big 10-6 lead at day’s end. Oh well, so what? The U.S. held a 10-6 lead at Medina in 2012 and blew it on the final day. Maybe it would be Europe’s turn to collapse.

The train ride back to Glasgow greeted us with a pleasant surprise…no seats. Gary eventually located one for his elder companion, but he had to stand the whole way. That evening we stayed at the hotel for dinner and I tried out the much-touted Josper grill steak. Verdict: don’t go all the way to Glasgow to try it.

Sunday, September 28

I’m ashamed to admit that I bailed on Sunday of Ryder Cup. I simply couldn’t take that weather torture for another nine hours, and the prediction for Sunday was rain in the afternoon. Gary, naturally, was up for it, so he took off for the tournament, while Lynn and I went for a leisurely breakfast at a quintessentially English tea room (superb) and then migrated to a sports bar where, astoundingly, she decided to spend the entire day and watch the entirety of Sunday’s Ryder Cup action. A group of Scotsmen graciously advised a waitress that we would be welcome to join them at their couch/table set-up, and so we had a comfortable place to spend the afternoon.

What a delight! Instead of the snippets of action I’d been able to witness the day before, this day I actually got to see all holes, all the golfers, and well, some of the action. (I say “some”, because Sky Sports presented an unbelievably biased version of the day’s events. All good European shots and putts were shown, much to the delight of the Euro-supporters who roared with delight at each great shot. Apparently the U.S. squad didn’t have any great moments, because all we saw were errant shots into bunkers and long grass and missed three-foot putts, which in turn were greeted by roars of approval from the locals. And Sky Sports also ignored the colorful shenanigans of the U.S. fans that had been the best part of Saturday’s in-person experience.

Gary got a good break weatherwise. The predicted rain held off all day and he got to see a good deal of the golf action by wandering the course. Once again the Red-White-and Blue started off strong. Was that the scent of a miraculous comeback in the air? Ooops, wrong smell. The Americans proceeded to stink up the joint and ended up with a 16-1/2 to 11-1/2 loss…thrashing would be a better word. Everywhere we went, as soon as they realized we were Americans, everyone gave us this pathetic sad look as if to say “you must be so heartbroken”. We nursed our wounds with a super dinner at Glasgow’s No. 1 seafood restaurant, Gamba (another recommendation from my executive friend), and returned to the sports bar for a nightcap and more pathetic glances.

Monday, September 29

Said goodbye to Gary and Lynn, who, as usual, were delightful companions throughout this entire Scotland experience.

Destination: Edinburgh. Took the train through miles of lovely countryside chock full of herds of cattle and sheep and bales of autumn hay on a mid-60’s sunny day that even the Scots couldn’t believe.. I tell you, when Scotland gets nice weather, this country shines.

Arrived Edinburgh. This city needs a new PR firm. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Of all the places I’ve been in my extensive travels, E-town is among the five most beautiful in the world.. Why is it that I’d barely ever heard a word about it? The city has an Old City from the 1100’s and a New City from the 1700’s and 1800’s and boy, they are both handsome places. Because time was limited and I wanted to get an overview of the city, I took one of those double-decker Hop-On/Hop-Off tours. (Yeah, I know, it’s touristy and hokey, but Edinburgh is full of hills and I needed a way to get around.) Again, what a nice city! The Queen has a castle there that she visits each July…not Edinburgh Castle, another one…and they have beautiful public buildings and the Scottish Parliament and a ton of historic architecture and scenic parks and clusters of townhouses. . Hundreds …thousands…of great-looking sandstone buildings line pretty streets and squares and parks. Terrific place.

I was lucky enough to be staying at the Balmoral Hotel, a palatial Rocco Forte property where, as a Leading Hotels Access Member, I was upgraded to a junior suite with five…count ‘em, five…windows and a view of the Old City and the Edinburgh Castle on one side, and some historic sites such ass the Sir Walter Scott monument on the other. Breakfast was included, so yes, I decided to try haggis, Scotland’s iconic dish made from organ meats and offal and horrible things. Not as bad as your imagination would lead you to believe, but also easy to understood why it never caught on as a staple elsewhere.

Tuesday, September 30

Flew down to London for a day, staying at the Marriott Grosvenor Square, in Mayfair near the U.S. embassy. Room wouldn’t be ready until 4:00, which always rankles me, so I killed a couple of hours strolling around Mayfair and Bond Street, London’s main shopping thoroughfare, and hitting Selfridge’s, the main competitor to Harrod’s.

For my evening entertainment, I had months ago booked a ticket at the always-sold-out play, Charles III, the rage of London theatre. The concept: the Queen has died, Prince Charles has ascended to the throne, Parliament has passed a law he doesn’t like, he refuses to sign it into law, Parliament threatens to take away his right to review legislation, he orders that Parliament be disbanded, and on and on it goes. All the players are there: a bombastic and somewhat pathetic Charles, Harry and a new unsuitable girlfriend, schemers William and Kate, a snarly Camilla, the snooty royal staff, the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader, in a play that’s half-serious and half-hilarious. This critic’s opinion? A terrific theatrical experience, a real hoot. If they ever bring it to the States, I’d call it a must-see.

Wednesday, October 1

Home again.

Goodwood

Trip summary:

Tuesday night, went to a play “The Curious Incident etc.” in London…very good. Stayed at an ultra-trendy hotel, One Alwych (Ranny and Lou stayed there once and told me I HAD to stay there)…a little more style than substance.

Wednesday and Thursday, at Goodwood. Perfect weather. Huge crowds of utterly stylish English rich at the “Glorious Goodwood” races. Great results at Wednesday’s races (hit a longshot winner in the first race of the day for 279.20GBP, followed up by about another 100 GBP in winners or place horses), mediocre at Thursday’s (broke even with a winner in last race). Stayed at the very, very nice Goodwood Hotel, where all the Bentley owners stay.

Friday and today (Saturday), am in Portsmouth, home of the English navy. Sightseeing C+. Staying at the Seacrest, a hotel right out of the 40’s where the chummy proprietress is straight out of an old English movie. Taking the train up to Heathrow this evening to catch a 7:20 a.m. flight on Sunday. I’m staying at the Renaissance Heathrow in case you ned to reach me.

All in all, everything great, EXCEPT…

I happened to have a little spill at Goodwood…banged my head, resulting in a very unsightly black eye, forcing me to wear big wraparound sunglasses everywhere so as not to frighten the locals. You can make fun of me when I get home.

[Update three days later: Shiner fading (slightly)]

Paris, Bruges, and Brussels

Wednesday, April 16

Weather as good as it can be in the Spring in Paris. Perfect clear blue sky, crisp in the morning, light sweater weather in the afternoon.

This trip I’m staying at the Hotel Daniel, a Relais et Chateaux property on the Right Ban which falls under the category of “cozy” since the rooms are typical Paris tiny, all done in toile (I’ve been in two of them so far) and nicely furnished. The hotel’s public rooms aren’t spectacularly fancy like the other Relais hotel in Paris, the St. James, but there’s a subtle elegance to the place. Lots of English speakers here…my breakfast neighbors were from Australia, England and South Africa. The hotel is located among a tricky maze of little streets just a few blocks from the Champs Elyssee, but miles away in atmosphere.

Today’s main activity was travelling over to the 7th Arrondissement to look at the apartment building where AW and the girls will be staying in August/September. It’s located at 91 Avenue de la Bourdonnais, a seven-story brick-and-limestone with a decent-size balcony on the seventh floor (where they’ll be staying) which will have a view of some very pretty buildings across the avenue and, as far as I could tell, the top portion of the Eiffel Tower, which is about three or blocks away. This is a residential street and neighborhood with only a relatively few shops on Avenue de la Bourdonnais (including two on the bottom floor of No. 91)– a great “walking neighborhood” since it’s filled with upscale buildings and pretty side streets and lots of mature trees. Two clocks away is a large park, the Champ de Mars, that sits between the Ecole Militaire and the Eiffel Tower. In the area is one major street,–Avenue Bosquet– and a warren of perfect Paris “neighborhood” streets—Rue de Grenelle and Rue Saint-Dominique are the stand outs– with cafes,, bakeries, butcher shops, florists, small grocers restaurants (if you’re into pizza, you’ve come top the right place…there must be ten pizzerias within the immediate six-block area), with some semi-major supermarkets nearby. They’ll have a lovely time here.

Tomorrow (Thursday) I’m off to the races at Longchamp in the Bois de Boulogne followed by the opera at Opera Bastille…a 6:00 p.m. (!) performance. (Oh well, I won’t fall asleep.) This evening over cocktails I’ve been studying my Paris-Turf, their version of the Daily Racing Form, and hope to win enough to pay for the damn opera tickets (Lynn Conrad, think I should bet on Superkate in the 5th?).

Thursday, Paris

Thursday afternoon, I navigated s complex combination of Metros and buses to go to the races at Longchamp Racecourse The home of the Arc d’ Triomphe, maybe Europe’s most famous horse race, Longchamp is something of a sad story, as it is becoming another of horse racing’s ghost towns. I would estimate that it could accommodate about 65,000. On the day I was there, I’d guestimate the crowd at eight or nine hundred. That’s even worse than Hollypark’s pathetic numbers and they closed that dump down. Sad, because it’s a pretty place, surrounded by a suburban forest, the track periphery featuring a giant windmill and an old medieval castle. I would imagine it recaptures its magic on Arc day.

I opened up the day with a nice winner—the only U.S.-bred horse in the race, owned by King Abdullah, whoever he is—who bested the favorite, another horse owned by the king. I had him Gagnant/Place (Win/Place) at 4-1, which covered my bets in the next two races, both losers. Then I proceeded to have a couple of just-misses in the next three, before leaving after the 6th because I had an opera at 6:00.

* * * * *

Question of the day: Why would they start an opera at 6:00? (Answer below.)

I always like to go to Concerts/Opera/Ballet in European cities because the opera house is almost invariably the most beautiful place in town. In Paris I had planned to go to a gilded palace that Louis XIV might have attended, but it turned out that this evening’s performance was being held at the brand spanking new Bastille Opera, a stunning architectural gem and an acoustic wonder…the ceiling in this place had to be five or six stories high, but I could heard every word of the lovers’ laments in Tristan and Isolde (a little screen above the proscenium arch shows the libretto in both French and English, which has to infuriate the locals). It’s a huge edifice that probably seats two thousand, and a spectacular venue. (Note to Kathryn Winslow: the seat you got me was Row 26, Seat 12S. The “S” stands for Supplement, which means it’s not a real seat, but a fold-out job sort of like the sidecar on a motorcycle. A lot narrower than s real seat, and hard as stone.) While I was getting used to the sidecar, one of the ushers came into our midst and started saying something in French. All of a sudden a bunch of people near me got up and hustled down the steps toward the front. I didn’t know what she had said, but I wasn’t going to miss out if it was something good so I joined in. Turns out she was allowing people to move down to a lower row, and I was able to snag the last one on the aisle. A magnificent view, but sad to day, the owner of that seat showed up later and I had to go back to 12S.

This opera, Tristan and Isolde, is about an Irish maiden and a brave young warrior, a pair of lovers who had a whole lot of troubles, the biggest one apparently being that they fell in love. Trust me, the gal who sang the role of Isolde was no maiden. She could be an NFL lineman. The opus was composed by Richard Wagner (Hitler’s favorite, by the way), whose music is ponderous and dreary. I could just imagine the director of this production saying to himself: how am I going to hold the attention of two thousand people through this endless dirge? His solution? While the “older” T&I crooned back and forth onstage, the image of two actors representing their younger selves was projected up onto a movie-theater-size screen where the two of them slowly disrobed and appeared totally nude (we’re talkin’ frontal here) for the entire remainder of the first act. That sure got everyone’s attention!

At the time, however, I didn’t know it was just the First Act. After the duo onstage sang on forever and reached a crescendo, the curtain came down and the cast made several curtain calls to thunderous applause, after which everyone headed for the exits. Hoorah, I thought. Now I can get to dinner at that little place I’d checked out over near my hotel. But wait a minute. The people weren’t LEAVING. They were just drifting to the lobby, where they sipped flutes of champagne and ate little salmon sandwiches. This was only an Intermission! It was now 7:50. Act Two began at 8:10 and the thought hit me: I hadn’t had a thing to eat since a Croque Monsieur at the track, and at this rate I was going to starve. So a few minutes into Act Two I slipped out the back door and went outside to a fancy brasserie next door which featured a gorgeous raw bar, had a relaxing meal of Belon oysters and langoustines with a couple glasses of wine before racing back into the Opera House to catch Act Three. Big mistake. The singers wailed on ad infinitum about night being better than day and their tragic love affair, repeating themselves over and over, and seemingly never, ever ending.

Now, back to the original question: why would they start an opera at 6:00? BECAUSE THE DAMN THING WAS FIVE AND A HALF HOURS LONG!!! It was 11:25 when the final note was sung and the curtain came down. The end of an evening of torture.

* * * * *

BULLETIN: DR. Z WAS IN THE HOUSE!
The next morning, guess who was at the next table at breakfast at the hotel? None other than Omar Sharif, Dr. Z himself. Remember the scene in Zhivago when he sledded through the bitter cold snow and his hair and mustache and face were frosted white with snow and ice? Looks pretty much the same now.

* * * * *

But before saying farewell to Paris, a few random thoughts.

I’m beginning to think the French have gotten tired of being French. The popularity of things American and English (and Italian) is amazing.

Exhibit 1: Around the corner from my hotel is an English sports bar…The Bowler. Not only is the bar packed, there’s a crowd of a hundred standing out on the street outside the
My God, I realized…that wasn’t the end; this was just an Intermission! The patrons
place, quaffing pints and martinis. I listen to the conversations…they’re all speaking French! I had a beer there. They get $11 a beer.

Exhibit 2: I mentioned all the pizzerias over in the 7th . Well,, hordes of them around me, too. They created a new item…the Pizzetta…..a .little eight-incher that’s a lot like the ones at Blaze Pizza in Pasadena. (Only theirs are $16-$20.) Add all the pasta places and ristorantes and it’s actually not all that easy to find a French restaurant.

Exhibit 3: Language. I can’t ell you how many times I’ve sat next to a foursome of Frenchmen and heard them converse (partially, at least) in English. Case in point: at a trendy restaurant where there was a birthday celebration in progress and the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” (in French), after which the honoree jumps up excitedly and exclaims (in English): “I love you guys!”

Exhibit 4: In my neighborhood there are dozens of great-looking cafes and bars…classic little places straight out of French movies. So what place is jammed to the gills day and night? You got it…Starbucks.

Exhibit 5: Art. At that same very trendy restaurant reference above, the portrait on the wall was of…the Godfather characters having dinner at a big table with the Soprano characters.

* * * * * *

The rest I’ll do in shorthand…

Friday, Bruges

Too Old To Go 2nd Class Dept.: Took the Thalys express train from Paris to Brussels 2d Class (I know how to save a buck!)… no problem…but on the leg from Brussels to Bruges, no seats due to the hordes heading there for the Easter weekend…that was me sitting on the floor out in the entranceway.

Bruges, one of the prettiest towns on earth, has unfortunately become just another tourist trap. Reminds me of my trip with Alison last fall to Quebec City, a place with great “bones” but ruined by T-shirt and souvenir shops and hustle-the-customer restaurants. My hotel was gorgeous, but Bruges is definitely a one-day place.

By the way, thinks the place is going to be dead on Good Friday? Think again. Bars and restaurants packed, music blasting. Traffic jammed. Highlight for me was a Good Friday night parade of about a thousand people carrying white crosses toward the town square; I figured why not and tagged along. My Flemish is a little weak, but I could understand the emotion behind their hymns. Realizing that this tradition probably went back around a thousand years, I was touched.

You are probably aware the Belgium is one of those “divided” countries a la Scotland v. England, Catalonia v. Spain, Quebec v. Canada, Ukraine v. Crimea, etc. where half the people don’t like speaking to the other. This is Flemish (Dutch) v. Walloon (French). Bruges is in Flanders, thus Flemish, the less prosperous of the two, although the people have to be among the nicest in the world.

* * * * *

Saturday/Sunday, Brussels

Hey, 2nd Class-Isn’t-So-Bad Dept.: Traveling on Saturday from Bruges to Brussels, no crowds. Plenty of seats. See, I know how to save a buck.

I’m staying at the Hotel Amigo, a Rocco Forte property. Rocco Forte, Sr. founded Trust House Forte, a European version of Holiday Inn. Rocco, Jr. took a different tack and set about to acquire old embassies and palaces through the Continent and turn them into always the best hotel in town. I’ve stayed at almost all of them in the collection and have loved them. This one, regrettably, falls slightly short of the mark. Rooms are small by Rocco standards and the décor is rather dull. A guy on the elevator actually stopped me to ask me how I liked my room. Good, not great, I said. He replied: I’m a Rocco Forte man, too, but this one sucks. It’s not all that bad.

Cased Brussels during the day. Dinner? The big rage here are Turkish and/or Greek kebob shops where they serve a Middle Eastern version of the burrito…a wrap with cucumbers, cabbage, vegetables, garlic sauce and some form of meat. The concierge directed me to Plaka up the block…he eats there at least once a week. Tried it…loved it. Then at night went to a jazz club down the street which came highly recommended by everyone at the concierge desk. Not usually my thing, but good quality music by very skilled musicians I liked it.

Sunday…Easter. Walked up the hill to the city’s famous antiques market, pretty much like any other flea market you’ve been to. Lovely day, as all of my days have been.

* * * * *

Monday, London

Flew over this morning. Beautiful day in London. Glutton for punishment that I am, I’m going to try to go to La Traviata this evening. Want to see the Ruyal Opera House.

Puglia

And so your faithful correspondent, in his never-ending search for new corners of the world, comes to Puglia, a self-described “undiscovered treasure” (we’ll see about that) located in Italy’s southeast region, just above the heel of the boot.

The journey begins with my flight from Chicago (where I had been to a 3-day “Travel Seminar” attended by 300-400 travel crazies whose primary goal in life is to accumulate as many miles– by means both scrupulous and unscrupulous, e.g., one presenter, The Mad Scientist, explained how he had generated one million miles/points in one month —as possible so as to travel the world in first class cabins and five-star hotels…too many details to go into here, but I assure you these were members of a different species) to London, where I catch an Alitalia flight to Milan and thence to Bari, capital of the province.

After a short train ride, I arrive at my destination, the coastal village of Polignano a Mare. Exiting the station on the upper outskirts of town I look around for a taxi, seeing not a hint of one anywhere. After a few minutes I approach a middle-aged guy who appears to be waiting for a ride, and I decide to attempt to determine what the story is, me inquiring in fractured Italian and him responding in fractured English. “Taxi?” “No taxi.” “Que? (What?!) “Only in summer.” “Is it possible to call one?” “No. No taxi in Polignano.” “Bus?” Shakes his head no. Bad news, especially since I have no idea where or how far away my hotel is. What am I supposed to do: walk until I find the place? I guess the distress on my face appeals to his humanitarian side, because he then adds: “Wait.” Whereupon a small car pulls up. The Good Samaritan whispers a few words to the occupants and waives me over. “We take you.” What a relief. So I squeeze into their tiny car, where introductions are made all around as I greet his wife and daughter, a medical student in London, who fortunately speaks English, a factor which enables me to give her a little life advice—i.e., that being a doctor is the greatest job in the world, and by the way, to become a dermatologist—which she responds to with a strange expression. I mean, if people are going to be so nice, the least I can do is impart a little wisdom.

They drive me through town, pointing out that Polignano is the home of the guy who immortalized “Nel Blu del Pinto del Blu” (a/k/a “Volare”….they actually began to sing it!) and dropping me at my seafront hotel, the Covo dei Saraceni, which has the identical name as the hotel I’ve liked so much on various visits to Positano, although on arrival the front desk advises me there is no connection whatsoever between the two. I mention to the front desk clerk that I am astounded they have no taxis in town and had to hitch a ride. He just smiles.

Of course, it may just be that he really doesn’t understand what I’m saying. Because one of the things I quickly learn is that almost no one in this part of the world speaks English. And I mean practically NO ONE. Even at the hotel, when I say something to the staff in English, a blank look will cross their faces and two or three of them will huddle to interpret what I’ve said. In the town, at bars and restaurants and gelaterias and the train station, they are completely clueless when I resort to English. It’s a lonely feeling. Lucky for me, I do hear the language spoken by others because my hotel is the chosen hostelry for a parade of groups of U.S. college alumni taking those affinity trips that you get junk mail about. When I arrived, it was Tufts, followed by Brown, then Smith College—which back in the day of all-female elite schools was perhaps the premium choice for girls who were either very smart or very rich. Many of these Smithies exhibit a carriage and an appearance remarkably similar to Barbara Bush.

The Covo is by far the fanciest place in Polignano, and I apparently have one of the fanciest rooms—a two-room suite with a living room featuring a half-lifesize sculpture of a male nude doing a one-handed handstand, a bedroom with an enormous Jacuzzi tub located right out in the open, and a balcony facing the Adriatic. The hotel recently underwent a major renovation, and they must have hired some eccentric architect and decorator from Milan and gone with Ultra-Modern. E.g., the place is stark white with no wall decorations, the lighting system takes three days to learn, there’s a daybed instead of a sofa in my living room, there’s no desk anywhere, and the toilet and toilet seat are square (try that on for size).

Out on the town, I discover that Polignano is an ancient medieval village built on top of two split limestone cliffs and has to hold the Guinness record for number of gelaterias in one town, since there are three on every block. I know I’m supposed to be eating seafood here, but the local pizza turns out to be so sensational that I have it for lunch and dinner two days straight. Price of a margharita pizza at a good place? About five bucks. A small carafe of local white/red? About $4. A Birra Peroni? Under $2. Even though nobody can communicate with me, I become a very popular guy around town because I’m the only person who tips.

The next day I’m waiting at the train station– the mile walk to and from becomes a regular fixture of my stay– on my way to a town up the coast when I strike up a conversation with an English couple and we hit it off. Turns out they’re from a little village near Ascot, where I’m going the next weekend for England’s version of Breeders Cup, called Champions Day. They’ve travelled all over the world and all over the U.S. and they absolutely LOVE San Francisco and the Napa Valley and San Diego; when I tell them I’m from L.A., they politely change the subject. Anyway, I tell them where I’m headed and they say they think I’d like another town, Monopoli (yes, it’s pronounced just like the game), much better. So I take their advice and hop off the train early, walking down from the Reading Railroad (just kidding) train station (no taxis there, either) through the quiet town to a scenic and authentic fishing harbor area. I stop for lunch at a little café in a pretty piazza and order a pianene (sp?), which is the Italian version of a quesadilla— very tasty, by the way– and while I’m chowing down who comes along but the British couple. We greet each other like long-lost friends and they provide further travel suggestions: don’t miss the Old Town. Not touristy at all, they explain. Well, it turns out that Monopoli’s Old Town is truly old, as in a thousand years old. The highlight is a huge maze of incredibly narrow medieval streets that wind incomprehensively making it inevitable that one gets lost. This is a residential neighborhood where laundry hangs from clotheslines and babies cry from third-floor apartments and neighbors call to one another from ancient porches and windows. As you walk, your imagination wonders how many scores of generations have been born, lived and died in this strange little world. The thing you ultimately learn about the maze is that if you walk long enough…say two miles or so…you’ll find your way out. Which I do, and head back to Polignano.

The weather has been delightful—mid 70’s, sunny in the morning, a little cloud cover in late afternoon followed by a half-hour sprinkle, then clear again at night. This is supposed to be the humid time of year, but it’s not bad. Whatever time of year it is, it’s not tourist season, as I find myself to be the only American on the streets of the town. The tour groups are corralled in their buses and herded to their group dinners, and I never see any of them outside the hotel. Sort of a strange feeling, actually.

Day three takes me back to the train station—they have no bus service between Puglian towns, only the regional train– for a ride to Ostuni, which all the brochures and guidebooks hail as a go-to destination. As I’m sure you’re aware, the hilltop town of Ostuni is known as “La Citta Bianca”…The White City… so called because the town fathers of yesteryear must have decided that the way to put this place on the map would be to whitewash all the buildings. Years ago the place might have sparkled, but the whitewash budget apparently is a little tight these days since the town is a sort of a “dirty” white…a little like the shirts in the old Tide commercials.

A train ride through Puglia offers an endless mile-after-mile view of olive groves, most of them inhabited by ancient trees with thick gnarled trunks and bushy tops. Olives and olive oil are obviously prime products of the region. When you dine at a trattoria they immediately place a small bowl of olives at your place, and are they delicious! When you’re not looking at olive groves, you’re looking at vineyards, their vines shielded from the Southern sun by mesh tenting. The local wine is really good, too. It’s on my list from now on.

Overall, I give Puglia an “okay”. There are so many fabulous places in Italy and this are doesn’t rise to the cream of the crop. The towns are all a little worn out, probably because they’re all broke. Everywhere you go, the parks and piazzas are filled with locals of all ages standing idle. I couldn’t shake the impression that the residents of this region are sort of prisoners…prisoners of their language, their culture, their economy, their static lives. I didn’t envy them or their lifestyle, and I think I’ve made my final visit to the region.

Today it’s back to Bari to catch the Trenitalia Eurostar to Rome. The ride takes us up the Adriatic Coast to a town called Fassano, then makes a hard left and cuts directly across the mountainous center of the country, then a 90-degree turn up the Mediterranean coast above Naples to Rome. Who knew that “mid-Italy” was so gorgeous? We go past tens of miles of more vineyards and olive groves…do they grow anything other than grapes and olives in this place? Yep, I learn, as we enter lemon country, with thousands of acres of lemon trees.

I outsmarted myself by waiting to get a deal on a Rome hotel room, since it turns out the city is full for some reason (maybe a canonization?) and I have to settle for an overpriced Marriott “Autograph Selection” property called the Boscolo Palace on the Via Veneto. Oh well, it’s just one night, as I leave tomorrow for London and I’ll make the money back by betting on Toronado in the Champions Classic at Ascot. I’ve made arrangements to meet YPOers Mike and Lynn Joseph for dinner tonight; they and their group are in town to meet Pope Frank, and undoubtedly make some serious donations. When we were students in Rome, the popular song at the time was “Roma, Non Fa Mi Stupido Sta Sera” (Rome, don’t make a fool of me tonight.) I’ll remember to sing it before I see the Josephs.

Ciao from Puglia.

Racing-Europe Trip, July 2013

The Set-Up

There are ten of us in all, me from Pasadena, the others from Long Island, NY, Baltimore, MD, Ann Arbor, MI, Las Vegas, NV, Chantilly, VA and Buffalo, NY, all under the direction of our fearless leader, Doug Thompson, the founder of Racing-Europe, now in his tenth year of assembling private and group trips to the racing meccas of Europe. The majority of the group are horse owners, and all are fans of the sport with Jeopardy-esque recollections of horses, races, sires, dams, and the history of the sport. Literally at all times, conversations center around great horses and races and experiences at tracks all over the U.S. These folks are racing encyclopedias, although I’m proud to say I hold my own pretty well. If one is not into the history and trivia of the world of racing, this trip is not for you. Personally I’m in heaven.

The key attributes that Doug Thompson brings to a tour of this nature are: (1) access, access, access…to seats and tables and areas where you would have a very, very difficult time getting tickets on your own, (2) careful research as to the interesting sights in both the racetracks themselves and the towns in which they are situated, and (3) very creative selections of super-authentic pubs and restaurants you would never find on your own, each of which provokes an “Oh yeah!” reaction upon arrival. Plus, the presence of private cars and vans at every stop along the way makes the journey incredibly comfortable.

Day 1: We Gather

For our introductory get-together, Doug has arranged an early evening boat ride up the Thames. We are staying at the Oakley Court Hotel, a country 4-star featuring nice-enough rooms, a lovely setting, an always-on-the-phone concierge and arguably the worst hotel chef in England, who at breakfast each morning serves up an inedible swill straight out of a Dickens novel. The Oakley’s most impressive feature is an expansive lawn stretching down to the banks of the Thames, which at this point—about 25-30 miles north of London—becomes a narrow river that resembles a tranquil stream, its rambunctiousness harnessed by dozens of locks upstream and downstream, its banks populated by rowing clubs and expansive mansions, each with its own luscious lawn and gazebo with occupants enjoying evening cocktails. Our pilot Brian provides us with a narrative of the history of the area, pointing out the celebrity residences along the way, while we make introductions over cocktails and canapés.

A telltale moment: to give you an illustration of the intensity of the interest of this group in the sport of horseracing, there comes a moment when we are gliding upstream, when suddenly one of our crowd, staring at his iPhone, calls out: “Unbridled Song just died.” (For the benefit of the uninitiated, this horse was the son of Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled and went on to win the Breeders Cup Juvenile and become a very good sire in his own right; a very nice animal, but hardly a horse for the ages.) The reaction is a murmured gasp from all around, similar to what one would expect upon hearing that a beloved legend such as Jimmy Stewart or Bob Hope had just died. I mean, these people really care about this stuff.

Day 2: Ascot

The “new Ascot” is a super-modernistic glass-and-steel colossus that looks as if it could have been designed by Frank Gehry. Doug has arranged for tickets for entry in the Royal Enclosure on the structure’s fourth floor where the crowd can mostly be described as elegant due to the dress code (and the cost of the ticket). Our ladies are decked out in fancy dresses, hats and fascinators, and all the men wear spiffy coats and ties (including a blinding white suit, black shirt and black tie by our Las Vegas colleague).

Today’s card looks interesting, and the handicapping shouldn’t be all that tough, should it? Let’s see, there’re 16 horses in the 2nd race, 29 in the 3rd, and 16 in the 5th. Hmmm. But we’re primarily here for The Big Race–The King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, a race equivalent in prestige to one of our Triple Crown races. The race has been won the previous two years by wonderhorse Frankel, who retired undefeated and is considered one of the greatest racehorses of all time. This year’s favorite is the runner-up to Frankel in last year’s race, Cirrus des Aigles, but this isn’t his day as he is beaten by a German star, Novellist, who runs the mile-and-a-half in a course record 2:24 (that’s equal to the time Secretariat posted in his legendary Belmont, considered my many to be one of the greatest performances of all time. And bear in mind this was over a European course; I usually find that the Europeans run their route races in times about 3 seconds slower than U.S. horses owing to the uphills and downhills and course undulations they experience in their racecourses). I tell you, this is one great racehorse*. (Results of the day: Lost 60 GBP.)

Day 3: Jersey

Early this morning we hustle by van over to Gatwick and fly to the Isle of Jersey. Upon landing we are treated to a tour of the island, which functions as a combination resort destination and tax haven for wealthy Brits. The island is bounded by beautiful coastline and features beautiful farms and residences and lovely little villages. Stunningly nice—is has sort of the look and feel of Bermuda– it’s a definite “go-back-to” place.

We’re here to attend the Jersey Derby, the island’s signature racing event, held at a cozy little racetrack overlooking the English Channel out on a far point on the island, where you watch the races from a hillside (“The Stand”). Doug has made arrangements for a table for us in the “Members’ Enclosure”– actually a tent with dozens of tables and Jersey’s swells in their racing finest– where an absolutely delicious buffet is served. It is a five-race card, starting off with a contest in which one of the horses stubbornly refuses to face forward for the start, prompting the (superb) racecaller to comment publicly: ”I say, I have never seen an animal so uninterested in running.” (Footnote: Mr. Reluctant finally turns around and, after the jockey on the horse leading down the stretch suddenly fell off his mount, actually come on to win.)

The mile-and-a-half Derby is won by 8-1 Major Maximus, upon whom I have bet because his sire, Domedriver, completed a big exacta for me in the Breeders Cup Turf Mile at Arlington many years ago. (When you don’t have that many big winners, you remember them.) (Results of the day: Won about 40 GBP.)

Day 4: Royal Windsor

They race at night at Royal Windsor, so our day is free for lunch in town and then a tour of Windsor Castle and Eton College. Doug’s ctop-notch ontacts are apparent once again as our tour guide, Amanda, is greeted cheerfully by every single palace guard and docent as we bypass long lines and go through the castle’s chapel, residence and presentation rooms in the express lane. After the tour, on to the track.

You arrive at Royal Windsor in a manner unlike any other anywhere: by water. After our tour, we catch the river boat in downtown Windsor and float up the Thames to the quaint dock alongside the grandstand. Our seating at this event will be in an outdoor garden., where we have a table for ten under umbrellas.

It’s Irish Racenight at Royal Windsor, and the place is filled with Irish bands and folksingers, followed by a concert after the races. It’s an odd night weatherwise, with ten-minute rainstorms followed by an hour of blue sky, then rain again. Another oddity is that the track is configured in such a way that there is a period in each race in which the entire field completely “disappears” for 15-20 seconds as they negotiate a loopy figure-8 course before heading to the stretch run. As for the races themselves, the horses here tend to be second-tier, several notches below the world-class Group 1 and Group 2 runners we’re seeing at our other stops, but the merry party atmosphere still makes this a special night of horseracing. (Results: Won about 30GBP.)

Day 5: Goodwood

We’re here for “Glorious Goodwood”, one of this gorgeous racetrack’s racing festivals which attracts the social racing elite of England. We’re staying at the exceedingly nice Goodwood Hotel, where the parking lot is filled with about a hundred cars, a good 30 of them Bentleys, the rest Mercedes, BMWs and Range Rovers. It’s a very “clubby” scene, since most of the hotel’s guests are owners and trainers who know each other and who renew acquaintances each evening at a bar that’s so crowded it takes twenty minutes to order a drink.

Goodwood itself is, to put it simply, the most beautiful racetrack in the world. You look out over the racecourse to miles of farms and rolling hills that go on for miles and miles, just the way the English countryside looks in paintings. Today the weather is dicey, with cool temperatures and a bothersome windy mist that drives us indoors to a restaurant. Only problem: the majority of the Goodwood restaurants are private, reserved for the Annual Members. The only two non-reservation indoor restaurants are the Charlton Enclosure (lunch for two $650) or the Caviar House (my lunch of half-lobster and Pepsi is 96GBP, or about $150). The only other option is “van food” from a cluster of food trucks parked down the back lawn.

Seven races on today’s card, including a Group 3 and a Group 2, and because of the weather the course will be rated Good/Soft, which is the way a lot of Euro runners like it. Again, some big fields today…12 horses in the 2nd, 14 in the 3rd, 13 in the 4th, and then a couple of whoppers, 20 in the 5th, 26 in the 6th. I’m betting win/place (here they pay off for second or third for place), but I’m missing ‘em every race, having my horses come in fourth or fifth or down the track. But it’s not a miserable experience, since everyone else is losing ‘em all, too, even the Long Island horseplayer who really knows his stuff and is being confounded by these foreign horses. So we remain a merry bunch, knowing that a good dinner is on the way and tomorrow will be another day.

As we depart the track, we are serenaded by the English Marine Band playing lots of old WWII standards and marching music…a great sight that makes you forget all about the ones that got away. (Results: Lost about 50 GBP.)

Day 6: Goodwood

Day 2. This is a much nicer day than yesterday, slightly overcast but clear, so that the hills and farms shimmer in the distance and the Goodwood turf looks like the greenest green on earth.

I can’t afford those $150 lunches, so I opt out of the group and head over to the food vans to sample the local offerings, staring with a Roast Hog bap (sort of a bun sandwich) with sage stuffing and applesauce (godawful), a Goodwood sausage (tasty, but look out for those onions…hot, hot, hot!), and a small portion of fish and chips (delicious).

The day starts off with one of the highlights of my entire trip—a 2-5/16 mile race in which the horses traverse a scenic Goodwood course that’s shaped like a bent safety pin, traveling left, then right, then left across the panorama…one of the most beautiful and interesting sights I have ever seen at a racetrack, made better by the fact that I had the exacta. This is the day I’d been waiting for, as I proceed to win the next three exactas as well and then a win bet at 14-1. I’m cookin’! One of those exacta wins is in the feature race, the Group 1 Sussex, billed in the Racing Post as the ultimate showdown between two big-time archrivals, Dawn Approach and Toronado, with another dangerous horse, Declaration of War, lurking in the shadows as the possible upsetter. A fabulous race ensues, with Toronado winning by a neck in a furious finish. (Results: Won about 150 GBP. The only problem is, our group dinners are no-host and we split the cost of food and drink pro rata, and all of my profits are immediately eaten up by my share of the costs. I do the math, and I’m down about 300 GBP!)

The end of a wonderful experience.

Postscript

The Racing-Europe tour having concluded, Doug arranges for a car to drive me from Goodwood to the train station in Reading, where I catch a train out to Moreton-in-Marsh so that I can meet Alison in the little village of Lower Slaughter. We’re staying at the Lower Slaughter Manor, a Relais et Chateaux property where we have a gorgeous room with only a few minor flaws—the toilet doesn’t work, the cold water faucet emits only warm water, and it’s impossible to adjust the scalding water coming out of the showerhead. Oh well, nothing’s perfect. The next day we go into London and fly to Deauville, where we stay at the beautiful Hotel Royal Barriere in a seaview room. Deauville, with its unique and colorful version of Norman architecture, ranks in my opinion as one of the loveliest towns on earth, and Alison loves it, too. On Saturday I go to Deauville’s “minor” track, Clairefontaine, a little gem that looks like it was created by Disney, for a day of steeplechase racing. I don’t usually think of myself as a fan of the jumpers, but a win/place on a 35-1 hot may have changed my views on that. On Sunday, Alison and I go to the main Deauville track and have lunch in the charming Paddock restaurant and watch a Group 1 race won by one of the powerhouse horses in Europe, Moonlight Cloud, after which Alison takes her 50 Euro profits and goes home., while I stay for the remaining races and fritter my money away. Everything back to normal.

* Footnote: If by some chance they bring Novellist to Santa Anita for the Breeders Cup Turf, bet the house. If they decide to go for all the marbles in the Classic, at least bet the garage. Unfortunately, it’s not likely to happen. That’s because the Brits have been advised by some racing-ignorant consulting firm to cash in on the “championship” phenomenon by instituting their own “Champions Day” in October (I’m going to it this year), which has infuriated the Americans and French because it dilutes the field of horses available for Breeders Cup in America and Arc Day at Longchamp. But the Brits are about to get theirs, since the Irish have announced that they are going to create their own Champions Day. Greed is good? Not in horseracing.