Thursday, November 22, 2012

All Nomads Can Go Home Again and Again and Again

A Trip To Be Thankful For
Today, it's personal. It's Thanksgiving week. I know last week I said  I would post about our second day in Italy and one of its most unique enclaves, Lake Como. But something happened on the way to waxing eloquent. This past Sunday, at the urging of my brother, we had occasion to visit my favorite cousin from my mother's side of the family who is facing the winter of her life with style and grace. Her name is Yvonne and she is a spitting image of her Aunt Juanita, my mother. Our visit brought back a flood of memories of her and the interesting life that she has lead. Let's just say Yvonne was light years ahead of the Gloria Steinem crowd. Let's also say my first exposure to big time travel and big time hotels was in a large "downtown" hotel  she managed back in the sixties, when hotels were HOTELS. She was the first woman I remember holding her own in a man's world. She had style and her own special attitude. Some would call it swagger. I always remembered her as this unique female presence that was clearly in charge and clearly in command of her world running a large metropolitan hotel.

In addition to being a trailblazer of the first order, Yvonne had something else that women and men could use a lot more of today. An amazing sense of humor. She had an easy laugh and could "chew the fat" with the good old boys as well as the girls. An excellent golfer, wife, friend and mother, she was the ultimate multi-tasker before the word was invented. And not only that, she scored tickets for her daughter and me to see the Beatles in Jacksonville, Florida at the Gator Bowl, September 11, 1964. That's OK, you are allowed to be impressed. I know I was. I was thirteen and, like all teenagers, thought the Beatles would change the world.
As we sat and talked about our lives and how they have been interconnected over the years, it reminded me that the real point of life is real life. In this ever splintering culture we live in, its the joy, laughter, pain and healing through family and friends that makes every day relevant. As we drove home, appreciative that Yvonne has been and still is in our lives, we all knew that our lives were simply better because of her. And we were thankful for that knowledge. We do not experience life in a linear, straight line fashion. There are good times. There are not so good times. But through it all, it is family that sustains us and brings all Nomads home, be it from the other side of the world or from down the street.
In The Kitchen With Susie and Dama
And then we get to the main event for American families everywhere. Turkey Day, Thanksgiving, Football, Kids, Grandkids and Food. I have posted before about the legacy of southern cooking that has been passed down from grandmothers and mothers to daughters and granddaughters through some strange combination of osmosis, trial and error and tradition. My wife, Susie, and her cousin, Dama, are two such women who go through the details, written in very neat cursive in what appears to be an ancient secret spiral notebook, of preparing what will be a classic southern feast that would drive the food police into fits of politically correct rage against some of the highest calorie, best tasting food this side of Eden. And there will be numerous contributions by other, equally talented, self taught master cooks of southern cuisine. As author James Dickey once said, "the south is the only part of the United States that has its own unique cookery". That sense of place and culture is still very much alive and, although the older generation complains that it will all end with them, I can already see the desire by the younger set to enrich life through the most social of all acts by human beings - the simple act of preparing and eating good food with family and friends. There simply is no endeavor that brings people together like the preparation and eating of great food.
And The Beat Goes On

As she began to wind down the day's preparations for tomorrow with the seasoning of a twenty six pound gobbler, my soul mate and favorite Nomad was questioning the directions from the grocer on the baking time for a turkey that large and decided, like the true southern culinary expert she is, that the instructions were simply incorrect and she would cook it the amount of time she thought such a huge bird deserved. If only our political leaders could act with that kind of confidence and aplomb, the world would be a much better place, indeed. So tomorrow, as you welcome your circle in for this most important meal of the year, just thank your God for the blessings you have in your life.  In the times we live, the following anonymous thought has never been more relevant:
"Life can be very trying. When your child is hungry, your body wracked with pain, or you have no idea where you and your family will find a place to sleep, it's hard to find something for which you can be thankful. So, for just a few minutes on Thanksgiving Day, step outside your situation and just "be". Find something, no matter how small, to be thankful for because in giving thanks, you will be lightening your load, even if for only a moment".
Happy Thanksgiving To Nomads All
D.L. Stafford
P.S. Susie just went into the kitchen to put that giant bird in the oven. Can't wait!
Video Artist of The Week - My Morning Jacket - This Louisville band can rock with the best of them. But the masterful imagery and lyrics of Wonderful (The Way I Feel) truly sets them apart from a very short list of great indie bands.
Travel Quote of The week - Thanksgiving dinners take eighteen hours to prepare. They are consumed in twelve minutes. Half-times take twelve minutes. This is not coincidence - Erma Bombeck.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Varenna, Lake Como & Emero Gaudio - A View From The Top

By Rail - It's A One Minute Stop On The Wandering Nomad's Road Less Traveled
It must be stated from the outset that I have a soft spot in my heart for Varenna, Italy. Even though we landed in and enjoyed the sites, food and architecture of the very cosmopolitan Milan, our eyes blinked and our hearts leaped at  the first site of Lake Como from the "left side" of the train as we rounded the last bend heading into this small lakeside town of eight hundred. Varenna, strategically located on the shores of Lake Como, was to be our first real experience of the Italy we had read and dreamed about.  And to arrive at this small, less visited part of the Italian Lake District by train,  we felt like actors in a 1940's romance novel. We knew we were not in Kansas or Tampa any more!

Back in Milan, still not acclimated to the ways of this great country, we apprehensively searched for our train to Varenna. Then I remembered the advice of travel guru Rick Steves specific to Varenna. Destination Varenna appears nowhere on the computerized Arrivals/Departure screens in Milan's Central Station. And the train station in Varenna is actually called  Varenna-Esino. And the train stops literally for one minute. And, if you do not get off quickly, you will end up in the next town. And you will have to backtrack. So, like the good readers of Rick Steves we are, we did pay attention and got off at the right place. Stupendo! The adventure was officially underway.

So now what? Here we are, two Americans who, despite many hours of self taught language lessons, had come to the realization that Italians don't actually talk like they do on the CD, and we still have to get to our hotel. So, like all Nomads worth their salt, we pressed on, found a taxi, amazing in such a small town, gave him the name of our hotel in letter perfect Italian of course, and headed out for our first Nomad Night in the land of amore. In a few minutes we arrived at the end of a small gravel road and a large gate. After retrieving our luggage, we pushed the button to request entry. The gate opened and we came face to face with a mode of vertical transportation that I had read about and seen in photographs but never actually seen up close and personal. Yes, to get up to this small mountainside boutique hotel, you must take not one, but two funiculars. A funicular is essentially an inclined rail car or lift used to traverse very steep slopes.  Ascending to the hotel in this thoroughly romantic mode of travel, Lake Como and the surrounding mountains came into view. As an architect and nomad, I found this mode of travel to be utterly sublime. It was as if some elegant time machine arrived from up the mountain to take us to another place far far away. Molto cool!
And it was far far away. This small boutique hotel of only twenty three rooms  is in a repurposed orphanage and monastery built between 1400 and 1800 by the Pirelli Tire family.With thirteen rooms perched on the side of a steep, cascading mountain, surrounded by ancient cedar trees, killer views of Lake Como and clear, cool mountain air that can be enjoyed from your small private balcony or from the hotel's main terrace, we felt like we were, indeed, masters of our very own domain.The hotel also has ten rooms at a lower elevation for those who just can't stand being on top of their own little world. 
If You Are Gonna Sleep In An Ancient Monastery - It Should Be Thoroughly Modern, Right?
In architecture, fashion, cars, art and food, the Italians have contributed to the betterment of world culture for centuries. And they have continued this tradition of excellence in modern design as well. Hotel Emero Gaudio has adroitly overlaid and inserted a simple modern design motif, comprised of white walls, tile floors and minimalist furniture, into the rough hewn stone walls and arched walkways of a 600 year old hand made masonry monolith. This duality of design is not some aesthetic trick but rather a merging of modern and ancient forms to create personal and public spaces of serenity and elegance. And the bathrooms? I have posted before about the need Americans have for large stuff and that certainly applies to bathrooms. All one needs to do is walk through a "Parade of Homes" McMansion and see what falso opulence and garish design can accomplish for people with too much money and too little restraint. For those who are so inclined, the Emero Gaudio will not be your kind of place. The bathrooms continue the clean lines found in the rooms. Small and efficient, they are more than adequate to meet the needs of tired and/or dirty Nomads in need of life's basic needs for cleanliness and refreshment. And the price for these elegantly styled, comfortable rooms with a view to die for? A mere $135 euro per night. Even with the sorry state of the dollar, it's a steal.
And the design quality does not stop with the rooms. We have all heard the expression, usually expressed by architects, that a building has "good bones". Because of the original massive masonry structure, this characteristic is everywhere apparent to this Nomad. The public spaces have a character that continues the interplay of ancient stonework and modern plaster, tile work and minimalist detailing.
And Then There Is the Terrace

If the rooms are well appointed spaces of repose, then the main terrace is the crescendo  that gives one a sense of being on top of the world. First, the terrace is used for meals and simple relaxation with a glass of local vino and cheese. Our first night at the hotel, we chose to take our evening meal on the terrace. The food and the service were first rate, as we enjoyed the end of our first full day in this beautiful place. According to hotel staff, the terrace is a popular venue for various social functions such as receptions, weddings and other small group gatherings. But the real reason for the terrace? The view. With an incomparable vista of beautiful Lake Como and the snow capped Alps beyond, there is  no better way to enjoy the day with the one you love. Amore indeed!
As the sun set and the day  transitioned to evening, we retired to our room, tired from the day's travels, secure in the knowledge that we would wake up the next morning in a new hotel/monastery, on the side of a mountain with a breathtaking view of the incomparable Lake Como in a small Italian hamlet with all vestiges of jet lag completely vanquished. 
Next up. Day two - Varenna and the big lake.
Buono Sera,
D.L. Stafford
Travel Quote of The Week - “When you come to a fork in the road….take it” – Yogi Berra . Now that's some advice that any Nomad can take to heart.
Video Artist of The Week - Paul Simon. This singer/songwriter  and impresario of every genre of music imaginable is always worth a listen. The irony of You Can Call Me Al certainly makes one think and smile at the same time

Friday, November 9, 2012

Milan - Leonardo & Armani Slept Here - Life Imitates Art & Vice Versa

Planes, Trains & The Last Supper

As we settled into our seats at Tampa International for the nine hour flight to one of the world's great fashion centers, Milan, we had read all the books, listened to the Italian language CD's for hours on end, researched late into many nights and planned our first trip abroad at a level of detail exceeded only by the Allied invasion on D-Day. The excitement I felt was like Christmas morning, my first real date and seeing The Beatles in concert in '65 all rolled into one. Even my fellow Nomad and wife, Susie, demure though she may be, was unusually talkative and animated as she began to realize that we were actually doing something we had dreamed about for years.

As Americans traveling to the country that gave us opera, the Lamborghini and Spaghetti, we had committed ourselves early on to learn everything we could about the history, traditions and people of one of the great cultural building blocks of western civilization. Italy's architecture, music, art and culinary contributions to the civilized world are well documented. But we were now taxiing to lift off to experience first hand all of the things we had only read about in travel and history books, seen in Italian films or heard on a Pavarotti recording.

No discussion of travel to Europe would be complete without the mandatory acknowledgement that flying for nine hours, even to Italy, is simply one of the least enjoyable experiences any human being willingly agrees to subject himself or herself to. There is no component of air travel, particularly to Europe, that can be described as pleasant, tolerable or even slightly uncomfortable. In a word - it sucks! From the ergonomically masochistic design of the seating to the bland microwaved food to the C movies provided to help get your mind off your misery, flying on any commercial airliner for nine hours is proof positive that they just don't like you or care about you in any way. But in a world which is growing increasingly less civil by the day, it's the price one must pay to experience the joys of travel to the continent. And without hesitation, I can say it was worth every uncomfortable second spent with Delta to experience one of the truly great cultures of the western world.

After our uneventful flight and arrival at Milan's Malpensa Airport, we made our way through customs and boarded a quick train to Cordona Station. As per travel guru Rick Steves, we planned to store our luggage in a locker at the train station as we had reservations to view one of the great paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci, The Last Supper, which was within walking distance of Cordona Station. Alas, this was not to be, as the lockers were closed for repairs. Since there was no plan B, we headed out for Santa Maria Delle Grazie Church with our luggage in tow. Then we got lost. As strangers in a strange land, we were at the mercy of various people on the street to give us directions to the church. After finally finding our destination late, the very nice English speaking docent allowed us to view the great painting with the next reserved group.
With our luggage still in tow, exhausted from a nine hour flight, we stood in awe of one of the most compelling works of art ever created. As we studied the great mural created by the original Renaissance Man, the first sparks of the paradigm shift I posted about last week, hit us. We knew we were in a different time and in the presence of divine inspiration from another time at this place. Davinci painted The Last Supper around 1495. As with all great ancient paintings, the painting suffered extreme deterioration over five centuries. Fortunately for weary pilgrims and art lovers alike, the painting went through a major restoration started in 1978 and completed in 1999. Because of the popularity of this priceless work of art, viewing is only allowed by small groups in fifteen minute intervals.

Just as Leonardo himself was obsessed with his mode of dress (many historians consider him to be the first real fashion conscience genius), any account of a visit to Milan would not be complete without a discussion of its position as one of the fashion centers of the world. Armani, Versace, Chanel, Prada and Gucci are just a few of  the endless roster of world renown and less famous designers who have boutiques all over The City of Fashion. They even have outlet malls. And you thought outlet malls were only on I-75 between Atlanta and Tampa. No sir. Milan is the place for fashion conscience shopaholics, rich and fiscally challenged alike.

Pizza, Coca Cola and The Duomo
Upon leaving The Last Supper and the Santa Maria Delle Grazie with our first real memory of Italy, we headed for the famed Piazzo del Duomo, the main city square of Milan. Getting more exhausted by the minute, we snagged an outside table at a small cafe right on the piazza, ordered pizza and a coke (cut me some slack, it's my first day) and marveled at the most important work of Gothic architecture in Italy, the Cathedral Duomo. This majestic work of art took over five centuries to build. At over 500 feet in length, 300 feet in width and 350 feet in height, this massive church features five naves constructed of white Candoglia marble. Though thoroughly exhausted from our flight and first day activities, we enjoyed our first  Italian meal in plain view of one of the greatest works of  religious architecture ever created. As we sat and took in the beautiful day in our new temporary home, we gathered up our luggage and headed to the train station for a connecting train to Lake Como and a little hotel on a mountain.

After settling in to our first class seats (only 8 euro extra), we headed out for the three hour train ride to the small resort town of Varenna on Lake Como and The Hotel Eremo Gaudio, a small boutique number in a re-purposed former monastery built on the side of a mountain in the 1400's. As we began to speedily make our way through the countryside to Lake Como, I thought to myself, these Italians have got this train thing down. We were traveling the way human beings were meant to travel in what has to be one of the most amazing countries on earth. And we had only been there a few short hours. As we emerged from a long tunnel, the train sped around a curve and Lake Como came into view. I gently squeezed my favorite Nomad's hand and smiled.  Sorpreddente!

Next up, Varenna and The Hotel Emero Gaudio. You won't believe the place or the price.


D.L. Stafford

Travel Quote of The Week. "A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what is expected a man should see". Samuel Johnson 

Video Artist of The Week.  Who better to introduce The Nomad Architect series on Italy than the great  operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti. As we say in God's country, the man could flat out "sang".