Category: Travel

Adventures and Misadventures.

My Favorite Places: Musée de l’Orangerie

The Musee de l’Orangerie might be my favorite art museum in the world. Instead of trying to explain why you should go, I will do the lazy thing and drop a couple of pictures into my blog now.

Like Monet? Here's some Monet for you.

Here's some more.

Feeling lightheaded? Grab a seat and enjoy the view.

The museum is spectacular on multiple layers.  The two upstairs rooms have eight Monet paintings surrounding you like covered wagons in a movie starring John Wayne and those rooms are totally awesome.  I don’t mean totally awesome in a 1980’s Jeff Spicoli way, but in a “I can’t believe someone did this” way. I like Monet just like most people, but I am not crazy about Monet. Monet is a lot like Barry Manilow to me: I like his songs, I know his songs, I won’t admit in public that I like his songs but put on Mandy and I’m singing along with Mr. Manilow in a few seconds. But, if given the choice between Mr. Manilow and something edgier, I go with the edgier, and the edgier is downstairs in l’Orangerie.

The personal collection of  Paul Guillaume is hiding in the basement of the museum and I must say that dude had some pretty good taste in paintings. It’s easy to look at his collection today and think that you could have selected the same paintings if given the chance, but come on, let’s all be honest here, he took some chances.

What I like best about Guillaume’s collection is the weirdness of it. Many of these artists were really stretching the idea of beauty. Do I know that from some art class I took or a book I read? No, I am no Art major, I am just a guy who knows what I like, and I like weird paintings.

Exhibit A

Not strange enough for you? Here is my favorite painting in the museum:

The town is melting...

If you don’t like Chaim Soutine you can still find a nice collection of Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse, Modigliani and Renoir. I love Soutine and l’Orangerie has the largest collection of his work that I am aware of. I could spend a couple of hours looking at these paintings, but not everyone in my family likes his stuff, my son asked me if Soutine had a physical disability, not the greatest compliment for a painter unless you are Chuck Close.

The museum is just the right size for a leisurely two-hour visit without having to feel rushed. The line to get into the museum can get a bit long so I suggest showing up just before it opens so you can maximize your time. So, if you are visiting Paris, live in Paris, passing through Paris, visit the l’Orangerie it is one of my favorite places.

My Favorite Places: The Gardens of Versailles

The Palace at Versailles is on several lists of things you should see before you die. Unfortunately places that end up on everyone’s bucket-list are pretty crowded (people take these bucket-lists seriously.)

I have been to the Palace at Versailles a couple of times: once in a driving rain storm which should have sent everyone home, and once during a lovely warm day which should have sent everyone outside to the gardens, but the problem with Versailles is that almost everyone who arrives there is trapped by the clock and their paid tour. Groups of human blobs clog every hallway, vista, and room. The most annoying groups follow a tour guide who holds up a little flag so his flock of sheep don’t get lost. These groups are under the impression that they are descendants of Louis XVI and therefore can take up 80% of the space where ever they go.

The a typical picture from inside the Palace.

The crowds might be frustrating but it is worth the trip to see the Palace in all its crowded splendor. My suggestion is to make your trip to the Palace secondary and spend your time in the gardens.

For me going to gardens usually ranks right up there with going to a fabric store, but the gardens at Versailles are different. First of all, if you plan your trip correctly you don’t have to pay to see the gardens. The gardens behind the Palace are open to the public (except on Sunday when they have a music and fountain show) and if you are bold enough you can walk up to the palace and take a peek inside if you are dying to see what crowds of people look like.

The gardens themselves are lovely, that’s right, I said “lovely.” (I worked in a cemetery for a couple of summers and I know how hard it is to tame wild hedges and keep things looking nice.) The best part about the gardens is that they are almost free of people.

Apollo's Fountain in the garden at Versailles.

Since most people are on a tight timeline, many of them never make it down to the garden area, so while the rest of the traveling world is trapped in the Hall of Mirrors for half an hour , you can be strolling through the gardens getting lost.

Bring a comfortable pair of walking shoes, because the gardens are large.

Maps of the gardens are available for people who don't want to get lost.

Amphitheater hidden away from the public by some tall hedges.

So if you are thinking of going to Versailles, my suggestion is to save yourself a couple of Euros and spend the day in the garden. Pick up picnic supplies in the center of town (they have a farmer’s market most days), grab a bottle or two of wine and sit down by the fake lake and enjoy life like a King/Queen. Whatever you decide to do, make sure you spend the majority of your time in the gardens, it is one of my favorite places.

My Favorite Places: The Rose Theatre, Port Townsend, Washington

I do love a good theater and these days “good” theaters are getting more and more difficult to find. What now passes as a good theater is some place that has 16 movies to choose from, seats that rock and full ear-shattering sound. The Rose is not one of those theaters.

Here is where I am going to sound like a snob: Going to a multiplex should be something you do only when you have to, like getting a colonoscopy. Maybe part of my problem with multiplex movie watching is that I feel like a cow being taken to slaughter when I go. Crowd in this line, walk down these increasingly narrow halls until you come to a room where advertisements disguised as entertainment play between movies, advertisements that I paid ten dollars to watch.

The Rose, on the other hand, is a personal experience. You can buy tickets online if you want to guarantee yourself a seat, but you still have to get your ticket from the little ticket box before entering the theater itself. There are two screens: The Rose and the Rose Bud. I am not sure how many seats there are in either theater, but one of them probably holds about 50 people and the other one holds around 150. Most of the movies are independent films and foreign, but they also show blockbusters. For example, right now the two movies playing are The Hunger Games and Pina.

The Snack bar at The Rose.

The snack bar is small, efficient and has some of the best popcorn in the world. The prices are nearly as ridiculous as most theaters, but don’t fret, the popcorn is worth it. Order the medium-sized popcorn in a large bag. Take the 2/3 filled bag to the seasoning bar and start adding stuff. I like the parmesan cheese and yeast mix (if you have not had yeast on your popcorn add it to your bucket list).

Once I am fully supplied, I head into the theater and find my seat. My seat is easy to find because no one ever wants to sit in the front row. At the Rose, the front row is not 25 feet below the screen, so I get all the benefits (no one in my line of vision+leg room) of the front row and none of the problems.

Then the best thing happens, a member of the staff comes out and welcomes everyone to The Rose and gives a mini-lecture about the movie. They don’t say, “Tonight your movie is about a crazy ballerina,” they add something to your movie going experience. Sometimes the information is about the director, sometimes it is about an actor, and sometimes it is about the writing/production of the movie. Then they remind you to turn off your cell phones and ask you to pick up after yourself, in other words, they treat you like a human being with a brain. (I have never seen anyone texting during the movie or heard a phone ring.)

After the movie, stroll Water Street and pick up a slice of Waterfront Pizza. Sure the place looks like a hole in the wall but if you have functioning taste-buds they will thank you. If you are really feeling daring and it is a nice day, pick up a couple slices, grab a Port Townsend Amber Ale and head to Chetzemoka Park.

So if you are in the northwest corner of the United States, head to Port Townsend and take in a movie at The Rose Theatre. It is one of my favorite places.

My Favorite Places: Bacharach, Germany

Nestled along the Rhine River sits a little town named Bacharach. Bacharach is one of those towns that refuses to move into the 19th Century. Sure it has running water and toilets, but it is like a little town in a snow globe, it is as cute and unchanged as any place I have ever been. There is a fake almost Disneyland look to the town, but it is a real place.

Downtown Bacharach during rush hour.

The cobblestone streets, the leaning timbered buildings, and the lack of crowds makes a tourist feel like they have fallen off the world. How many times did I say, “I can’t believe this place still exists?” Probably too many, but I really couldn’t believe it.

What is there to do in Bacharach? Eat, sit around, drink cold sweet wine, walk, take short hikes up to the castle above the town, and relax. This is not a destination if you are 25 and looking for a party, but for families or finely aged members of the world this is a great destination.

Don’t miss the ice cream/gelato shop on the main street and don’t forget to head up into the hills away from the river.

Bacharach and the Rhine from the hillside above the town.

Above the town is a trail leading to a destroyed church and a castle that has been converted into a hostel. If you venture just beyond the castle there is another fantastic viewpoint.

The end of the trail above Bacharach.

The interior courtyard of the castle above Bacharach.

Most of the hillsides around Bacharach are lined with vineyards and dotted by castles. There are river boats that will drag you up and down the river if you want to feel like you’re on a Disney ride with 3,000 of your closest friends. (It is a crowded touristy activity, but I think it was worth it.) A few of the castles are in ruins but the majority of them have been pretty well preserved. The castle above St. Goar is stunning. I intended to visit the castle with my family but I ordered a large beer for lunch. After drinking the two liter beer, I didn’t really feel like doing much, other than taking a nap. These are the difficulties in traveling in Germany, you order a big beer and they bring you something that looks more like a pitcher of beer than a pint. I am not a wasteful person, so I had to drink all of it.

For some folks Bacharach is a good distance from other destinations, but the German rail system is so good it really isn’t too inconvenient to find your way there. So, if you are planning a visit to Germany and you want to see what life was like before television, head to one of my favorite places: Bacharach.

My Favorite Places: Being Lost

One of my favorite places in the world is being lost. I like being lost. There are of course different levels of lost and I will admit that being lost at night is not the best, or being lost with other people (for example, my family) is not a great deal of fun, and being lost in the woods is not something I would suggest doing unless you are filming one of those survival shows. Some might call the type of lost I am writing about wandering, but I like the term lost better.

I have been lost many, many times. There was a time when being lost made me anxious, but lost hasn’t killed me yet, although there was a time I nearly died while hiking around Mount Rainer, but that is less of a “lost” story than it is a “following the wrong trail” story.  The variety of lost I am talking about is the type where you drop yourself somewhere unfamiliar and you begin exploring. Leave the maps behind and just let the day unwind, this is best done on foot and don’t get crazy and plop yourself somewhere dangerous, find a spot off the beaten path and begin drifting.

Entering into the world of wandering is a wonderful thing, too often people plan their trip itinerary down to the minute, I have been guilty of doing it, but if you really want to relax plan to get lost. For the really gifted traveler getting lost isn’t something that even has to be scheduled, it just happens naturally. It might be on a trip to wash a backpack full of clothes that you find yourself lost, or maybe you hop on the wrong metro train and find that you are suddenly miles from you planned destination, take a deep breath and accept the unplanned day as a gift from the traveling gods.

A few years ago I became epically lost (not quite as epic as Ulysses) in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. My intention had been to zip into the cemetery, get a quick picture of Jim Morrison’s grave for my son, and then spend the rest of the day on Montmartre. My plan had two major flaws: 1. I was using a guidebook with a very small map, 2. I was under the impression that everyone would be looking for Jim Morrison’s grave.

I gave up on the map after about thirty minutes, but I could not give up on the idea that following groups of people would lead me Mr. Morrison’s decomposed body. So for four hours I followed groups of mostly young people like I was a very large, conspicuous spy. Believe it or not, this very excellent plan did not lead me to find Jim’s grave, but I did find many graves of other pretty famous people. I ended up having a very good day of walking and reminiscing about the good old days when I worked in a cemetery for two summers. If I had found Jim Morrison’s grave immediately here is what I would have missed:

Georges Rodenbach busting out of his tomb

Edith Piaf's grave site

Modigliani...wow...Modigliani

Alice Toklas and right next door...

Gertrude Stein

Mr. Wilde

I eventually did find Mr. Morrison’s grave and I can honestly say that I liked Victor Noir’s much better.

This is what four hours of lost looks like. Mr. Morrison napping peacefully in the background.

Fertility charm and grave of Victor Noir.

My Favorite Places: The Pergamon Museum, Berlin

When it comes to stealing really large things from ancient civilizations there is a great deal of competition. The English have the British Museum filled with pilfered artifacts that they refuse to return, the French have done a nice job of grabbing old stuff and hiding it in the Louvre basement, but the Germans really set the bar when they filled the Pergamon Museum with some really, really big relics from the ancient world.

When I first read about the Pergamon Altar I assumed that it would be a reconstruction of bits and pieces found scattered on some desert landscape, but it is not, it is the whole thing. It is massive. It is not only massive, it is nearly complete and preserved.

I have moved a few pianos in my lifetime, but never have I seen something this big inside a building. I wondered how they got the whole thing in the room, but I am sure I don’t really want to know who was forced to put the Altar together. I doubt it was a union labor job.

I am not one to suggest returning ancient artifacts to the original countries, I like being able to see the great works of the ancient world without getting my shoes dusty, but when I saw the Pergamon Altar I did think a line had been crossed. Berlin has enough historical sites without stealing a few from other countries, but since my entire country was stolen from the Native Americans I doubt there is a moral high ground I can stand upon. At least that was my thinking until I left the Altar room and saw this:

Yeah, those are the Gates of Ishtar from the ancient city of Babylon. Unfortunately when they set up the Gates in the Pergamon they were not considering how I might get a photo of the entire set up. So instead I walked around in a daze snapping photos of other tourists taking photos.

The Gates of Ishtar were more impressive than the Altar. The ancient city of Babylon in my head was one of those mythical places like Troy or Mordor, but there it was, the actual gates that people walked through thousands of years ago. The color of the tiles was one of the most surprising aspects of the gates. I have always had a stonewashed vision of the past, but here the colors were vivid and shockingly detailed. I cannot imagine how impressive the gates were to the ancient travelers visiting Babylon.

So if you are in Berlin and have a few hours to kill between eating Berliner doners, drop by the Pergamon Museum, it is one of my favorite places.

My Favorite Places: Powell’s Bookstore

Portland, Oregon is home to the greatest bookstore in the world. Now I have not been to all the bookstores in the world but Powell’s, in downtown Portland, is everything a bibliophile could want in a bookstore. As the Romans said, “It isn’t the size of the bookstore, it is what you do with it.” Powell’s is a full city block in girth and six floors in length. Well, Powell’s has size and they know what to do with it.

English: Powell's City of Books NW Entrance- P...

Each year I take a pilgrimage to Powell’s with a friend. Tradition dictates that the journey takes place in May and we spend at least four hours wandering through the store. Does that sound like too much time in a bookstore? Well, you probably haven’t been to Powell’s, four hours is barely enough time to scratch the surface. Rows and rows of poetry, thousands of books on Shakespeare, enough history to make the librarians at Alexandria jealous, kids books, books on farming, knitting, even boring crap like math has a full section. Pick up a map of the bookstore when you enter the building and you should be able to find your way around. You can park in the Powell’s garage and they will validate an hour of parking if you buy something. If you make it out of Powell’s without a purchase you are a bad person and if you are there less than an hour you are an idiot.

The rare book room on the sixth floor can cause heart palpitations. I saw a first edition Catcher in the Rye there, I wasn’t allowed to touch it, but I saw it. ($3,500.00 if you want to get me something for Christmas.) Oh, there are some Hemingway 1st editions, some Ken Kesey 1st editions, and lots and lots of old books that make me wish I was rich.

There is a café in the store on the second or third floor…it is almost in between the second and third floor…just walk toward the coffee smell and you will find it. The café serves your typical northwest coffee with a hint of Portland style. Portlanders (Portlandians?) are unique people. Don’t judge a Portlander by their cover; even the most tattooed and pierced member of the Portland tribe is friendly. The staff at Powell’s may look like they just escaped from a fire-eating-circus and freak show, but they did not. The strange haircuts, the odd glasses, the lack of deodorant, the eyebrow piercings and the earlobes stretched to extremes by gauges are all part of the charm of Portland. These people love books and are happy to help you. They are not snotty, know-it-all-elitists, they are like your weird aunt or uncle who always knows what book you should read next.

People from outside of the northwest need to know one thing when traveling to Portland: it is not Seattle. The two cities are vastly different and so are the people. Portland is relaxed and nearly European in feel. Seattle is a little colder, a little more uptight and a little more business focused. If you took Portland and Seattle and mixed them together you would get San Francisco. If you like the relaxed quality of SF, then Portland is your city. If you like the business suit and Starbucks, then Seattle is your spot.

If you ever visit Portland you must visit Powell’s, it is one of my favorite places. I will be there this year on May 18th,look for me in the rare book room.

My Favorite Places: The Getty

English: The inner courtyard of the Getty muse...

I am a museum nerd. I like a nice beach as much as the next guy, but when it gets right down to it, I like a good museum a bit better. Museums don’t get sand in your butt crack, don’t insist that you reveal your pathetic body, and people rarely get sunburned while at a museum. I realize this makes me sound like I don’t like beaches, but I do and as I write about my favorite places I will include a couple beaches along the way, but not today. Today I am writing about my favorite place in LA: The Getty Museum.

LA has a few world-class museums. Yeah, that’s right, LA. The center of all things superficial and tanned has great museums. My favorite sits on top of a hillside (they would call it a mountain on the East Coast) overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the 405 freeway. It could not be more perfectly placed. It sits between everything that is wrong with LA: Traffic, cars, people, road-rage; and everything that is right about the city: the chunks of land that have not been turned into Trader Joe’s parking lots.

Getting to the Getty is a royal pain. The 405 is by far the worst freeway I have ever driven on. Instead of using the old adage “when pigs fly” people should say, “When the 405 isn’t jammed with cars traveling 20 miles per hour.” It is a horrible, horrible, horrible freeway. If you want to avoid the traffic leave around three in the morning and you should have smooth sailing, but if you insist on non-vampire hours, be prepared to get stuck in traffic.

Once arriving at the Getty there is a charge to park, but the museum itself is free. There is a large parking garage and elevators take visitors up to a tram station where they catch a ride to the museum. The ride to the top is tranquil and slow. There is no annoying Muzak on the ride to distract; it is just quiet.

The tram drops everyone off near a large courtyard and it is your job to figure out what to do next. There are the gardens, there is the art collection, there are some fantastic views of the Pacific, there is a café, and there are the courtyards made of white marble. I like to start out wandering through the gardens to get myself calmed down from the drive. The gardens are wonderful and relaxing, unless you bring your sister who is some kind of international seed stealing thief (these are personal problems that most people will not encounter.)

Then I like to check out the art collection. Mr. Getty had some cash, so he has some pretty good stuff. I am partial to the Impressionist room but so is everybody else, so getting a good long look at Van Gogh’s Irises is unlikely. There is always some couple standing in the way for far too long. There should be a five-minute maximum when standing in front of a painting. If you want to stand there longer you are a pretentious ass. Buy a poster and look at it each morning before putting your glasses on.

After the art collections, I like to find a back door and go outside. There are not very many people who find the balconies to the south of the museum, but open enough doors and you will eventually find yourself looking out over the Pacific.

For first time visitors I would suggest a three-hour visit. There are things for families to do together and enough distractions to keep even the most ADHD kids busy.

So if you are in LA and you need a break from all the chaos and noise that is LA find the Getty. It is one of my favorite places in the world.

The Home Exchanger

There are two types of people when it comes to home exchanging, there are people who exchange homes and love it and then there are people who worry that someone is going to sleep in their bed and steal their big screen television.

I love home exchanging. Do people sleep in my bed? I hope so, I change the sheets and lay out fresh towels. For some reason people will sleep on a hotel bed without a second thought, but someone else’s bed gives them the willies. I don’t know if they think the Virgin Mary is sleeping in their hotel rooms, but it seems like an odd reason to avoid exchanging homes to me. Take your own bedding if you like, or buy some when you arrive, it will be cheaper than staying in a hotel room.

Now if you are someone with a priceless collection of Picasso paintings, I could see how you wouldn’t want folks staying in your mansion, but if you have Picasso paintings hanging on the wall, I imagine you don’t have to travel on a restricted budget. I don’t have any Picasso’s at home and I do like to save a little money when I venture out into the wild world. Fortunately for me there are other people who don’t care about some stranger sleeping in their bed and using their house like it is their own.

How much does home exchanging cost? Well, I pay 100 American dollars a year to be a member of a home exchange website. After that all the costs are your choice. You can choose to leave a gift for your host or you can just leave a card. You should clean up after yourself and it never hurts to leave more beer in the fridge than you drank, but those are all optional costs. The other costs are the same costs you might encounter when you are at home. In the long run you will save lots of money. If you want to eat out, then eat out. If you want to cook a meal, then all the stuff is there waiting for you. (You do have to buy groceries.)

How does it work? Well, you can actively pursue places to stay by emailing members, or you can select areas that you would like to visit and hope someone wants to head your way. You also select when you are available to travel. Some sites have reverse search engines so you can find out who wants to come to your area and then you can decide if you want to go where they live. This year I have had three offers for exchanges in Denmark, two in Germany and one in England, but we will be staying closer to home this summer and exchanging with a couple in San Francisco for the second summer in a row.

My family loves exchanging homes. Finding hotel rooms for four people is a pain in the rear these days, but finding homes that hold four people is no problem. My family also likes that we have a place to relax when traveling. When we exchanged with a family in Hamburg we really got the feeling for what it was like to live in a neighborhood outside of the tourist areas. We went to local restaurants, we took walks around the area and went to grocery stores to shop. It was a great three weeks. Imagine staying in a hotel for three weeks.

International exchanges are really not any more complicated than local ones. You can decide how to exchange, when to exchange and figure out any concerns before you leave.  The issue of auto exchange also makes people nervous, but my insurance company covers other drivers so I don’t stress too much about that. Remember, you will be using their stuff too, so there needs to be an element of trust in your fellow-man, so if you are a Republican you might want to avoid exchanges. I suppose there are exchangers who could abuse the system, but why would they? Is someone going to travel all the way to my home to steal something? Oh well, I will know where they live and where they sleep. I also don’t have much worth stealing.

So should you exchange homes? Well, do you care if someone sleeps in your bed? Do you  care if someone eats at your table? Do you fear someone is going to steal your big screen television? Do you want to see a new part of the world? Do you want to live like a local? Do you just want to save some money? Then start thinking about exchanging homes. If you live somewhere great let me know, I might just want to exchange with you.

 

 

 

Ugly Americans on the loose

A Curse Upon Both Your Houses

Ugly Americans on the loose

I can point to the moment I was first cursed with the travel bug. It was 1979 and my whole family traveled to New Zealand to spend a year. It was an odd arrangement that seemed perfectly natural to me. My father was a Presbyterian minister and had managed to exchange pulpits with a minister in Auckland, New Zealand. So the whole family packed up and traded homes, cars and churches for a year.

We landed in Auckland and my life was never the same. I went to Mount Roskill Grammar school. I learned to play rugby, cricket and tennis. I discovered BBC comedies and ate new and delicious food. We went to the beach and I learned to body surf, we traveled the entire country of New Zealand and I didn’t want to leave when the year was over. When I came back to the US, I was changed. I could no longer view the world from a strictly American viewpoint. When I watched the news I wondered what was happening in New Zealand (a country at that time that was hardly known in the US.) The internet did not exist and I felt like I was living in a world with blinders on. I hadn’t yet read Plato’s allegory of the cave, but if I had, I might have felt like someone else understood me. Sure, there was Mork and Mindy  but I missed Faulty Towers and rugby and cricket and the beach and climbing Mount Eden and the slower pace of life in the South Pacific.

These were thoughts I knew I should not utter aloud. As an American, I had a duty to believe that my country was the greatest country ever established on the face of the Earth and if I didn’t believe that then I should march on off to Russia and live in a gulag. I had trouble swallowing this because New Zealand had damaged my brain. I could no longer see the world as the US and then a bunch of moron countries that survived simply because we decided to allow them to exist.

Travel has a way of damaging your brain. Travel is a Pandora’s Box. Once the spirits of travel are let free you cannot put them back. Which brings me to one factoid that is troubling to me: In 2011 only 30% of Americans held passports. (Good thing we don’t need passports to invade countries. Cheap shot, but I couldn’t resist.) As a comparison, 60% of Canadians and 75% of UK citizens have passports. The US certainly has a lot to see, but if 70% of Americans never leave the country there is a problem.

I began thinking about this the other day when my son and daughter started to talk about missing Europe. We are not a wealthy family, but we have traveled to Europe as a family twice. I’m sure there are people who think it was a complete waste of our hard earned money, but I have always believed in investing in memories instead of things. I also believe that there is no better learning experience than traveling. You can always read about places or watch Youtube videos, but travel brings more meaning to what you read and how you think.

Would the US be a better country if more Americans traveled? I believe so. Would the world be a better place if more Americans traveled? I believe so. We misunderstand a good portion of the world and the world misunderstands us. Americans might be more willing to change their perspectives on education, health care, transportation and military spending if we traveled more. Ignorance of the world only breeds fear and fear makes us reluctant to change. I am proposing that we take the money Newt Gingrich wants to spend on a moon base and instead of sending 1,300 Americans to the moon, we send 13 million Americans to another country for a month. It couldn’t hurt.

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