Our hotel was literally (one might even say “playfully”—theatre district pun) in the throbbing heart of Leicester Square…intentionally. (It is the tan building in the middle of the image at the top of this page.) The activity for blocks around is unlike anything I have seen outside of Hong Kong. (Sadly, Greenwich Village, NY is not active at all, anymore.) The adjoining Chinatown has quadrupled in size and been polished since our last visit. Piccadilly Circus, so buried in construction back then that we thought it a slum, is a dazzling ring of neoclassical buildings with trendy, high-end shops and restaurants. (We ate one night at the oldest Indian restaurant in London.) What are redundant souvenir shops in many touristy neighborhoods, Leicester Square has theaters, casinos, Mike’s male strippers, day-of-the-performance half-price ticket vendors, a whole spectrum of restaurants, and myriad street performers. It is quiet from predawn until the revelers recover. My kind of place.

Charlie Chaplin and William Shakespeare are both immortalized in sculpture at this center of stage and film entertainment, though the Globe Theatre is a hike from here. (The boy just walked in front of the statue and I thought it a poignant reminder of why we create statues and plaques.)

There must be 30 plays running in this neighborhood at all times. Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap is in its 65th year, leading me to believe that if something beats this record, I probably will not be in the audience. (And if it is anything like Book of Mormon, I am pre-grateful.) As to what awards are given to gay bars, I can only imagine—but not in writing.

Some years ago, Prince Charles took a lot of heat for comments he made about modern architecture. I take his side in this. London has row after row of stately neoclassical buildings that are outstandingly beautiful, many refurbished and repurposed. Amid these are flat façades with unadorned, metal-framed windows and doors, the best of which are nondescript, the rest are just badass ugly. One such building in Leicester Square holds the worlds largest M&M candy store.

The best view of this building is at a sharp angle, where it can reflect the beauty of what came before and should return.


Here’s an example of indisputable ugliness. It has a certain dynamism, I concede, as it appears to be two buildings colliding, one buckling from the force. My guess is that Home Depot ran out of cork panels before the architect was finished adding rooms. By comparison to many, there seems at least a weak attempt to decorate the roof with a squashed beret.

Could anyone find a modern square or the curved street out of this square done in modern architecture that would look not just pretty, but refined? How much deeper into bland could we possibly sink? And London cannot hold a candle to San Francisco’s modern mediocrity. The best country/city for modern architecture is probably Copenhagen. For those who enjoy TED Talks, here is a good argument:
Danish architect

Gorge Wharf Pier Buildings

An area to the west of London called Vauxhall is growing at an astonishing pace. One large complex is a bit odd looking, but it has activity at the street level with a touch more symmetry than a healthy mind can absorb. Nonetheless, it generated greater public interest than many less controversial constructions.

This complex was nominated by architects for “carbuncle of the year,” a dubious compliment, for anyone who thought otherwise. (The winner was far more deserving.) One positive thing about Vauxhall is that it is connected to London proper by all forms of public transportation. Ok, so there is not much greenery…except for the glass. It appears to be inspired by the video game, Angry Birds.

We saw Vauxhall from the less-than-speeding train on its last stop before Waterloo Station🎶, a favorite Kinks song of mine. We had travelled to Hampton Court, where Henry VIII held parties and charmed the panties, and eventually heads, off a chorus line of nubile nobility who gave Henry their best head before that phrase had less morbid connotations. But I am wildly digressing.

Hampton Court is interesting both historically and architecturally. Built in stages by different owners and kings, it hangs together pretty well.

The entrance is guarded by these fearsome creatures holding shields in a decidedly clumsy way. But their scale against the entrance makes them almost charming.

The ceiling of the great hall, where tonnes of roasted meat were consumed by Henry’s friends (some, prior to being killed themselves), is a masterpiece of woodworking. It is probably the most impressive part of the palace, with the possible exceptions of the chapel and the gardens. The part of the palace where Henry took residence is impressive, but cold. By the time George III occupied a different, newer half, the rooms are less impressive, but warmer and more suitable for country life.

In Trafalgar Square, Mayor Kahn, whom Trump hates and hurled insults at him before visiting London, stands a model of an Assyrian statue destroyed by Isis after our invasion of Iraq. (The inscription above tells more.) I have included a photo of the Canadian embassy on one side of the square because there was a rainbow flag among Canada’s Maple Leaf flags. I infer that this has something to do with Canadian support for an underground railroad rescuing gay men and women from persecution around the world, just as Canada was once a key refuge for escaped slaves from their neighbor to the South.

Our destination in Trafalgar was The National Museum, a must see (and free). Among my favorite things was a class of school children intently forging art in plain sight.

To the right of the children is a nice painting of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, but it was neither the artistry nor the miracle that caught my eye—it was the frame!
(The posing boy was inserted to demonstrate the implausible scale.)

These two photos are of the same painting. You will notice that there is a strange something on the floor between the two men, but from the second angle, it appears to be a human scull. Whether it demonstrates an astronaut entering a black hole or a municipal worker having been careless around a steamroller, I cannot recall.

Carnaby Street

Remember Carnaby Street where all the cool London kids shopped for smart fashion in the 60s? Remember the 60s? Well Carnaby Street has gone a little upscale, but it maintains the small store charm of shops wedged into low, narrow buildings. Today, cars are forbidden. Hurray.


On our last afternoon, we connected with an old friend from PG&E with whom I worked some 26 years ago. She is a British citizen who moved back to London from San Franciso after marrying Mark, someone I have never met. It was wonderful to see her again.

There is so much more of London and surroundings to see that it will be another, shorter trip in the next couple of years. Trains to Oxford, Cambridge, Bath, and Brighton can fill a day here and there. A boat trip to Greenwich to learn about why time is so mean, as I can attest, with the photo above, it is.

If you have read this far, you need to do more with your life, but thanks for listening?


Our long trip home was bearable.


Had Rod had his way, we would have forfeited the rest of the trip, including penalties on hotels and loss of expensive airline tickets, by flying home early. Of course, we would have been spared the six hours (my estimate) sitting through The Book of Mormon in London. Tough call.

LvOoepChQf+FJnut96KYYQLagos should not be called a “sleepy” town, but it is not bustling. Like all of our other visits, including Munich, there were perhaps a dozen street musicians belting out their version of Cohen’s Hallelujah. My guess is that aspiring artists start with Lagos and work their way north after a couple days of practice. Identifying the song was aided by lyrics. 

The streets of the old town, mosaic as in all other places in Portugal, are lined with outdoor restaurants with a wider span of quality than cuisine. Some cafés are distinguished from their neighbors by chair design or table color; others are delineated by interlaced trinket and tee shirt shops. It is worth an afternoon’s browsing. Our plan to explore the caves and grottos of the coast were set aside for another day, but knowing how way leads on to way

Lagos has the feel of being at an awkward teenage stage—lots of spirit and potential, but unpolished. Places like this are defined, not by their fans, but by their critics, who are always louder. Few will praise the innocent beauty as much as complain of the undeveloped beaches and lack of a good disco to get fleeced on expensive, après-soleil cocktails or three star Michelin restaurants. When those improvements uproot the unsophisticated sincerity of the small businesses that are at the core of Lagos’s charm, the old fans will become the new critics and raise their voices in righteous anger over what they failed to champion when it was right in front of their sandals.

Our last night in Portugal was spent at the airport hotel, a short walk from Terminal 1 but a great distance from Gate 49. Here is a good place to insert a minor criticism of the normally friendly Portuguese and their inability to deliver clear directions. They like to point, often omitting turns or distinguishing characteristic of a building, like its being covered in scaffolding. At the airport we spent time in lines we were told to use only to learn that our tickets afforded us a shorter, more convenient option, a required option. We missed our flight.

We enjoyed Portugal, but it proved more difficult to navigate than we expected of a first-world nation. English is widely spoken and has been a requirement of primary education for years. It often felt as though tourists are tolerated, but not enjoyed, certainly not appreciated for our easily bearable transience.

Portugal seems to be on its way up, gradually climbing out to the economic mess visited upon the country by the 2008 recession. When they learn to cook, it will be heaven. (Okay, the shared salad shown above and followed with a vegan lasagna for me and beef for Rod was really first rate.)


There is not much to report about Evora, or there is but it’s not pleasant, which is not the town’s fault. On our last night in Santiago, I found it difficult to sleep. Not long after being on the road, maybe 90 minutes, I became too tired to drive. Rod could not take over because, like most Americans, he lacks the requisite number of limbs in mutual cooperation to control the various levers, wheels, pedals, gears, switches, and audio/visual clues required to control the aircraft. I slept. Perhaps for 15 minutes.

Two hours later, we repeated the cycle, but after five minutes, I felt terribly ill. In fits and starts we arrived in the outskirts of the old town, defined by a wall, which is not a threat to the Chinese wall record. The traffic pattern is creative. The old city has one entrance and all other roads are one way out, providing the tourist a nearly infinite number of ways to fail to find a destination, which I discovered by trying them all. The hotel was discovered by happenstance when Rod saw its sign and I managed to turn sharply into its full parking lot. The GPS lady tried one last attempt to foil us with her impatient sneer, “recalculating,” an obvious lie.

After unpacking, we moved the car to distant lot conveniently adjacent to a hospital, which we entered in the hope of finding a toilet, but stayed for the ambulance transfer to a nearby trauma center. I did not die, though there were times I wished I could have—gastritis. That is about all I recall of Evora. We left in the morning.

Santiago de Compostela

In the northwest corner of Spain, a small city is almost cultish in its importance among devout Christians and off-the-radar by almost everyone else. Or that was my expectation, which might have been valid two decades ago, before the veil (or robe) of infallibility was pierced by the wink-wink, nudge-nudge carnal benefits afforded the long-suffering clergy and put on display beside the questionably immaculate conception. Just how endemic and fundamental has the hypocrisy been? 

The cathedral at night

Well, never mind all of that, because people still make the blistering hajj over several routes, not so much to cleanse their souls (or even to callous their soles), but to enjoy a cold beer over octopus and fries and have a few comradic (🎶you say “comedic,” I say “comradic”) laughs without the danger of getting a Pamplonic (🎶you say “Platonic,” I say “Pamplonic”) steer horn up your butt. (The “running of the bull” does not refer just to my blog posts.)

Rod in the plaza

A massive cathedral dominates the central square, where once the faithful dragged bruised knees across the last 100 yards of reverence. Today, skateboarders dodge selfie-sticks and street performers in a devotion of life far more sincere than a cluster of dour nuns ever had. Santiago is today more a celebration of living than when bemoaning the apocryphal climb of a cross-burdened, long dead martyr.

The church is late Romanesque, barely predating gothic Notre Dame of Paris. The arches are round, not pointed, and the walls carry the weight of the high nave, without the refinement of gothic flying buttresses, allowing few window holes of stained-glass. Still, it impresses. 

Because of restoration work, there was no Sunday mass for us (I hear you chuckle), but one common feature of mass is the swinging of a 60 pound, silver, incense burner traveling in a wide arc over the congregation, propelled along its flight by a priest holding one end of the pendulum rope, assisted by some kind of pulley at the apex. The rope was dangling from the pulley to inspire our imagination, briefly, before we wandered down the street for bread and wine, produced in Biblical profusion for the carefree multitudes, sans wedding celebration.

Our hotel (accommodations rarely make for interesting blog fodder) is worthy of mention, being nearly as old as the church and standing deservingly on one side of the giant plaza beside the cathedral. The hotel was originally a hospital. It has hundreds of rooms. The internal rooms edge four large cloistered courtyards, peaceful as stone, until trod by a new guest with a roller and the oblivious nerve to stray from the thickly carpeted halls within the building. The wheels of dragged luggage sounded like rain on tiled roofs from our large bedroom chamber. A few decades ago, giving a room with a single bed in such a holy site to two men would have been sacrilege, but the Spanish have had it up to the sombrero with authority and today, tourist dollars speak louder than Latin mass. Clink clink. Thank god.

Though I would not want our Portuguese friends to be offended, the food in Spain is superior to that in Portugal. One item above, the wedge of Tarta de Santiago, is a particular dessert made only here and though it looks simple, it is perfect.

In one part of the city is a food market, like Boston’s Quincy Market but four times larger. There were fewer prepared food options, but there were some with people drinking wine and eating fresh seafood, midday. (I advise visits in the morning in lieu of breakfast…I mean, for breakfast.)

These random shots of the city give, I hope, a sense of the charm of Santiago. Most of the old town is car-free. Pilgrims wander the narrow streets enjoying the calm pace of life here. We spent three nights, which is probably more than most do, but the accommodations were comfy and there always seemed to be a new neighborhood to haunt.


The morning breakfast table, overlooking a quiet plaza. We miss this.

Douro Valley

The trip from Porto to Peso do Régua inspired a few thoughts about driving in Portugal…like, don’t. The cities are no worse than any other laid out a thousand years before the questionably helpful invention of the horseless, and shitless, carriage. The highways are modern and the drivers keep fastidiously to the right except to pass. Tail lights flash turns and lane changes with the insistence of a broadway marquee’s border. So what is not to like?

Speed. The signs say 120 (kph = 75 mph) and no one is moving slower than 180, except for other horrified or cowardly tourists. On a divided highway, one just keeps to the right and hopes for the best. On a narrow, two-way, river bender, you cannot travel two kilometers without an angry local crawling up your ass, presuming their horn will push you along at the speed of sound. Mach my words. Take a train.

Sign-work is meant to make the visitor regret putting off that 18-month course on conversational Portuguese, which could easily come in handy if ever kidnapped in Brazil.

Ok, but the Douro Valley is mostly about wine and food. Not just port wine, though there is more of that than an English rugby team could possibly drink in a week, but top-notch pretentious reds and whites that could, unless we are careful, find their way onto San Francisco and Plaistow dining tables. We had three great meals. The third, at a small neighborhood bistro for a quarter the price of either of the others, was really good.

We took a trip up river one day to the town of Pinhåo, spelt with an a-hole. Ok, by “up river” I mean driving, not sailing. And we could have taken the train. So many options, for a place where few visit.

Watch out for puffing billy.
Why did the Germans cross the tracks?

This is how you get to the other platform. Makes sense, but I had never seen it. Probably works less well for high speed rail lines, so I would not invest in the rubber walks.

These images and their elaborate frames are all done in tile. They obviously last a long time. I found them elsewhere in the valley, depicting life and the industry that has put some prosperity into Douro.The men crushing grapes in their underwear is a favorite, recalls Lucy doing this and ending up having a fight with another stomper. Wines that deliver a taste from the feet rarely earn comments from the discerning palates of connoisseurs, like a little strong on the heel, but a fine arch and a light touch on the balls with just the hint of toe.

We enjoyed the Douro Valley, but three nights was more than the average tourist needs. The hotel turned out to be a spa, with lots of options for residents of Porto who want to get away and relax, but it was heavy on relax and light on wifi. 


Perhaps because Lisbon gets so much attention, I assumed Porto to be a poor cousin. It ain’t. In fact, Porto, named for the access to the sea, not the wine (the wine is named after the city) is one of the most remarkable natural ports I have ever seen. The land on both sides of the river rises steeply, but near the water’s edge a narrow land shelf gives commerce access to shipping. Today, the lower level gives tourists and residents alike a wide selection of eateries, with the occasional produce-laden vehicle bouncing along the cobblestones to supply the kitchens.

The port is uniquely suited to these two-level bridges. Pedestrians cross on both levels.

On the left side of the river, the upper and lower levels of the city are connected by a few gently sloping streets, the fortunate happenstance of geology. A walk up requires no funicular though one is available next to the bridge. Instead, a gentle climb (or descent) past small merchant stores, simple eateries, and thoughtfully renovated apartment buildings beckons the unencumbered and able-bodied. We pretended to be both.

Preservation of the city’s architectural history is a wise priority.

Porto is recovering its historic charm building by building, block by block. The economic recession (or catastrophe) of 2008 set back progress by a decade, but Portugal, unlike Greece, accepted that it needed to recover by its own will and has done remarkably well.

“Even the sky is yellow” scream the young protesters.

As was true in Coimbra, the students in Porto were celebrating graduation. There was less beer swilling and mindless merriment in Porto and more serious protest about the state of the planet. The sign here reads “Even the sky is yellow.” (To my readers in NYC, it is supposed to be blue.) Perhaps 2020 is the year when young people will rise up and rescue us from ourselves.

She does the work, he takes the credit. Practically American.


The town of Coimbra was a last minute change to our plans, booked only three months before departure. (To a man my age, “last minute” is a frightening phrase in its literal sense, when using the word “literal” in its literal sense. I’m getting dizzy.) Coimbra is a natural pause in the drive from Lisbon to Porto, sitting equidistant between the two.

That the city hosts one of Europe’s oldest and most prestigious universities was a draw with unexpected benefits. Our one-night stay coincided with a city-wide party of graduating students and others young and old who like to celebrate. Such crowds are remarkably easy to assemble in Portugal, or in any country where pleasure and fun are elevated above church attendance—countries commonly referred to as “civilized.”

The students group according to college color, yellow for medicine, red for law (if not order), blue for science, and other colors I could not identify. Rod referred to the contingent of young women in the float as “nurses.” I ran from the scene expecting a cascade of beer.

We found the merrymaking to be in good spirits, though there was a lot of spilt beer, much landing on male students in black robes.

We were lucky to stop into a fine restaurant just as it was opening for dinner. Within 30 minutes, it was full. Great place to go to school, which I am discovering a little late.


The trip to Sintra was not exactly after Lisbon, but filled our last full day in the city. It requires a train trip followed by a vehicle—a bus, a faux tram on rubber wheels, or a tut-tut, which is a motorcycle modified with a seat and a prayer, the seat being optional. In the US, this vehicle would not be legal to operate in a private garage. So that’s what we hired: adventure

Our pilot Henriké spoke with crisp consonants, rolled Rs, and a proud multi-syllabic vocabulary that gave one unjustified confidence in his ability to drive the narrow curves up to the castle with an inattentive navigation that gave us more face-time than needed. But he’s a charming chap with sound advice as to how to skirt the lines of ticket-buyers who chose the safety of a crowded bus. I hope, against the odds, that Henriké and his vehicle live for many more trips—without us.

The first stop along the way was at ramparts pointlessly defending the trees and hiking paths behind them, but even the Moors must have enjoyed the views easily scaled on the backs of those unfortunates whose whole purpose in life was to move heavy stones up hill until the day one might be dropped, smashing a foot, thus making feeding and care an expendable charity. That aside, the view is lovely.

Just as Henriké had promised, a bored young man at a line-less kiosk off the beaten path sold us tickets to the palace. After a short hike up the last 200 meters, we bullied our way past clueless tourists, our tickets in hand, to enter the walls of this colorful, quirky get-away of a ruler whose family had no vision of their fate. Like Louis and Marie before them, their excesses would one day tear this extravagance from their cold dead hands, but our visit was not about the past. It was about envisioning the future when Trump and his family would be dragged from Washington as unceremoniously.

It galls one to think that Disney continues to enjoy copyright protection for Mickey Mouse and pays nothing to Portugal for the Magic Kingdom. When I look at these tarted up crenelated walls, I see not a fortress, but Joel Grey’s rouged face in Cabaret, the movie. It falls short of garish—certainly not hideous, almost playful, it defies description. The best I can do to label this construction is to call it the marriage of determination with immaturity, vigorously consummated.

The interior seems conventional. When the king and queen established this retreat, various important lords built competing homes on the slopes below in dangerously mockish good taste.

If one travels to Lisbon, failure to visit Sintra would be an affront to bucket lists the world over. For agile youth, the scamper down the mountain, if not the clamber up, will more than justify homage paid to this moorish mishmash. One can always crouch behind I know it’s gaudy and showy, but it’s fun. Who can point an accusing finger at fun? Pas moi.


One speaks of a country’s cuisine with the reverence given the dead. So of Portugueese cooking I say, may it rest in peace. It has virtues, like simplicity. Fish, when grilled, is unadulterated. Salads are fresh and served with good olive oil and vinegar on the side. Desserts have flair. But when a restaurant boasts “traditional Portuguese cuisine,” it is an invitation to, as Dionne Warwick might say, 🎵walk on by, which we were fool-me-thrice slow learners. If one needs an explanation for why Italian cooking is ubiquitous in Lisbon, try the salted cod.

Breakfast at our fine hotel was more than adequate, but I longed for the German bread.

So enough with the complaints, already. Dining is a joy. Many beautifully lined, auto-free streets are staged with restaurant tables that run an unbroken column from intersection to cross-street. Notice that the pavement is a mosaic of off-white and dark gray stones, buffed glossy by the shuffling feet of tourists, sometimes finding more interest in their iPhones than in the remarkable life around them.

The tiled streets and sidewalks all over the city are crafted of these stones, replaced with the same artistry as done originally when construction requires that sections be disturbed, which we saw in stages over our 5-day visit. Walking on these broad sidewalks, some wider than the boulevards they line, is an uplifting experience.

Lisbon is a city of street musicians, and they are good. The one in the video above had the added advantage of being remarkably handsome and slim. One out of three songs from any musician is Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Melancholy sells.

In the area called “The Bairro Alto” a simple park overlooks the city from a hill to the north. The steep climb is commonly assisted by a form of funicular with larger wheels on the lower end than on the upper, allowing the floor to be flat as the climb is at a constant pitch.

To save rail cost, the ends of the lines have a single track and the center expands to two tracks, permitting a climbing car to pass a descending car, if the timing is right. It was not doubt of their smooth passing, but a long line, that persuaded us to walk the hill, beating the next lift. (Incidentally, a funicular is designed so that the weight of the descending car assists the rising car, so they always pass at the same location.)

In the park is a bust of the first newspaper man of Lisbon, less prominent than the full scale, skinny lad in bare feet hawking the news. Whether the sculptor sought to undermine the Citizen Kane of his day or elevate the entrepreneurial vigor of the boy, I shall never know, but I approve of their relative importance.

According to Rick Steves, the Bairro Alto is known for its raucous nightlife and the last honest meal, but we did not embrace the idea of returning by cab—traditional Portuguese, thrice burned. However, for those looking to see all of Lisbon, I’d recommend seeing the Bairro Alto at night; it lacks energy during the day.

With hours to kill we took a ferry across the channel to a neighboring peninsula southwest of the city. A bridge that strongly resembles the Golden Gate in San Francisco ties the two together, but the boat is fast and cheap. Here we shared a fine lunch of pan-fried sole. Even with the cost and hardship of sailing, the meal was a great value.

More about sidewalks  In the neighborhood of our hotel, workmen had to remove and replace a sidewalk for reasons I could not discern without learning Portuguese. 

The removed stones were of the same marble mosaic as one assumed were laid down by Romans 2000 years ago. We watched this work progress with the same horror that many must have been experienced when a fine Victorian house had its gingerbread torn from the windows and doors to be replaced by the once ubiquitous and now illegal asbestos siding, popular by people who valued their wallets more than their living space. We presumed the an uninterrupted line of artful sidewalk would be filled with concrete to avoid paying laborers a day’s salary. We were wrong.

When the time came to put in new stones, the work was done to the same standard as was used originally. This is why miles of walkway in Lisbon (and as we learned, other cities in Portugal) are graced with the pride of artisan labor. It is not then named as “The El Barffo Corporation’s Pedestrian Way” in a whorish way to trade civic pride for advertising income, as San Francisco has done with “AT&T Park,” now “Oracle Park.” Lisbon may not have the high wages and soaring property values that put the poor in their place, but instead has a dignity that is priceless.

The Lisbon Metro is worthy of a quick mention. The long trains arrive at the station at about every three minutes. If you miss a train, the wait is short. The trains do not dawdle. They pull into the station, the doors open, people get off and on quickly because the doors soon close and the cars race down the tracks—no bullshit. If you need to get somewhere, you know how long it will take.

As a result, traffic in Lisbon is light. Taxis are cheap, busses and trams are everywhere. Who needs a car? Large American cities could take a lesson here. A city’s commitment to public transportation is the only way to spare us hours of sitting in traffic.

Munich 2019

The Flight  A Boeing Dreamliner has one notable advantage over other planes. The windows have no shades. Instead, one can change the glass transparency from clear to opaque in five steps. That turns out to be a particularly cool feature if you have ever been annoyed at one passenger who keeps opening a window shade while others are trying to sleep or watch a movie—the controls can be centrally disabled, foiling a passenger’s attempt to flood the fuselage with bright light. How did I discover this? No comment.

Orderly From the air one can see that Germany is orderly. Farmland on the outskirts of Munich is divided in neat rectangles of varying crops, distinguish only by the different shades of green in adjacent rectangles. Houses are huddled together with charm; sprawl is unknown.

nhxkrngfqcqeyjnymodnpg.jpgFrom the ground, it seems that the roadside vegetation is also well-maintained, but it is easier to discern from the air at what felt like a slower groundspeed. Fortunately, German cars and roads are designed to reduce commute times with white-knuckle effectiveness, carving a 45 minute ride by other standards into a rather thrilling 20 minutes.


We lodged by one of the ancient gates, a defense that proved useless against the angry allies, technically before my time, but city construction barriers proved less penetrable than pre-flight walls. Barriers flower everywhere, like speed bumps with an effective German insistence. An inviting metro entrance was a fortuitous discovery. The underground is teaming with shops and restaurants lining the wide concourses that lead from generously distanced escalators, providing substantial shelter from the varied Bavarian weather—chill winds and irregular showers in late April. At major stops, one can travel in shelter for two city blocks, oblivious to the construction overhead.

Schlockinspiel  There is little doubt that the Germans have a history of great music (Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, just to mention the Bs) and philosophy (Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Goethe) but in the fine arts (painting, sculpture, fashion) they lean a little harder on kitsch than inspiration.


The craftwork is admirable and worthy of compliment, if not sincerity, but how many times do we need to see George slay the dragon? Themes are limited. Lederhosen is to fashion as a sledge hammer is to the sculptor’s chisel.

I concede that I enjoyed both the oompah music and the beer.

You might expect Munich, nestled as it is in Bavarian Prealps (a summit cum laude term), to be a hilly city, but such an expectation would prove you to be as ill informed as I. To keep a good-natured diet of liter beer and pretzels unchallenged, the early settlers of München found a flat spot, modestly elevated above the Isar river. As to my personal favorite, I give it to the pretzels. Beer is taken seriously everywhere, but fresh German pretzels, always with salt, sometime with added cheese, or stuffed with a small salad, or filled with what appeared to be a young goat, are unavailable in San Francisco to my knowledge, though I could do without the goat.

The flat streets make bicycles exceptionally popular. Just as in Amsterdam, the bike paths are a lane in the sidewalks, slightly depressed, giving safety from errant vehicles to riders, but that gain is the pedestrian’s loss.

Whether due to the narrow streets or door widths fixed in leaner times, vegetarian options have sprouted on most menus below the attractive photos of slaughtered pigs. I recounted for Rod the claim that the schnitzel’s wiener is flat and tender because the cooks have to hammer the piss out of it. The apocryphal story is a vegetarian’s revenge.

In a small city park, beneath the elevated bronze of the forgotten composer Orlande de Lassus (obviously, not entirely forgotten), the people of Munich have allowed the fans of Michael Jackson to monumentalize their admired singer with a tribute of photos, flowers, and hand-written notes. To HBO watchers, the conviction of someone by profiteers is more convincing than acquittal by a jury of twelve. Perhaps the Germans have seen this movie too many times. Americans have gotten used to the discrediting of of a dead man, like John McCain for instance, by a corporateer, when dead and defenseless.

The Deutsches Museum is remarkable in a few ways. First, it is comprehensive in technology and history, from mining to astrophysics. Many things are put into elaborate settings that give a sense of realism to the unfamiliar, particularly mining. The huge museum keeps a wide array of children and adults interested. I liked the windmills, perhaps because they reminded me of being stoned in The Netherlands.

Deutsche Museum

We visited a fine arts museum (see kitsch above) and the Residenz of prior monarchs. Long after they were disposed, the capitulation of the city to allied bombing and pillage left the extensive, rambling palace without much of the original charm, such as it was. The rooms are littered with apologies for inauthentic replicas and make-dos.

We liked Munich enough to forgive its chilly April weather and hope one day to return.


The city layout of Palermo is what Shanghai should have been, a wide grid of smart boulevards enclosing neighborhoods that have, except for an ineffective dollop of asphalt, changed little in 100 years. I know this involuntarily from a premature left turn that Rick made when his navigator misread our map while seeking our classy hotel. We miraculously wound our way to the Palermo Cathedral, where Via Vittorio Emanuele, our hotel’s street, was closed to auto traffic. Our persistent navigator pleaded our case to a helpful traffic cop who allowed Rick to drive down the street with the unnecessary caution (one hopes) don’t hit anyone. (OK, she only spoke Italian, so how would I know? But that’s the Italian driving rule, no hit, no foul.)

As always, images will enlarge if clicked on.

We did a rapid check-in to drop off our luggage before returning the car about a mile away, allowing us to enjoy a sunny Friday afternoon stroll up the Via Maqueda, which on our return was also closed. Palermo is a city for people, not cars, and Friday is party day. The people are purposefully dressed for social social interactions.

To illustrate the resistance of Palermo to the demands of modern life, I took a short video of an intersection behind the Cathedral during a late-night celebration. This nest of capillaries is fed from the wide arteries of city planning. When driving around the city, stay on the broad streets as long as possible; the capillaries are not for American cArpuscles.

American movie entertainment, like The Godfather, gives one an impression of crime bosses, pickpockets, and corruption. Instead, I saw smiling faces, calm, sincere, handsome. On our walk from the jeep drop-off, quenched by a negroni cocktail, smiling under the crystal blue sky, my street gawking was well-served by a red traffic light. A group of teens, perhaps between high school and college patiently held the curb in easy going chatter when one outstandingly attractive young woman turned to give me a warm, curious glance at an obvious tourist costumed by Palermo as if at a ball. I smiled; so did she. I mouthed the words,”very pretty,” with a simple nod. She mouthed back, in posed English, “Thank you.” The light changed. We moved on in our separate clusters, my afternoon improved by her payment to my charm deficit … a tiny bit.

At the intersection of Via Maqueda and Via Vittorio Emanuele, a few steps from our hotel, is an intersection misnamed Quattro Canti, which translates to “four corners.” In fact, there are no corners because the intersection is a circle. Even the buildings are curved to deprive any place for a corner to hide. Each building represents a season (only summer and winter are depicted below), four kings, four patrons, and the four cheeses on a quattro formaggi pizza. (The last item is a guess, but all the statues represent someone known as a “big cheese.” Such is my improved Italian.) The first two photos below are of Quattro Canti.

Just around the corner (around the circle?) is the Fontana Pretoria where some nuns got a deal on a fountain and a clutch of naked statues. It came to be called the Piazza della Vergogna, the “Square of Shame.” The shame, it seems to me, is to have lived within modest reach of such depictions while never touching the real thing.
Shame or not, the carvings stand tall, if not erect. (Reminds me of a story an uncle once told of a racy play he saw seated in front of two church ladies who tisk’ed and condemned the on-stage pruriency, but sat until the final curtain.)

Once a religious city (in Europe, only the Vatican can claim to be stedfast), Palermo has a couple of outstanding efforts to get the attention of He who is not there.


Palermo’s Cathedral resembles a cluster of buildings more than a unified structure. A brilliant architect made the collection warm, proud, inviting, and harmonious. With the exception of a statue of St. Sebastian, depricted with an arrow (enforcing the mafia code of silence), this is a church that fits the purpose of a city, rather than standing apart and above it.

Stephanie put the Cappella Palatina on our list of must sees. There is no escaping the long lines, but a visit to Palermo without seeing this Byzantine chapel built by Roger II of Sicily in 1132 is unthinkable. The mosaic detail covers every square inch of the surface. (An Italian named “Roger,” really? And there were two?)


There are many other things to see in the Norman Royal Palace of Palermo that contains the Cappella, but photographs are forbidden outside the Chapel, and so with the vision of Sebastian fresh in my mind, my camera stayed protectively in my pants. The palace houses the legislative chamber of Sicily’s elected body, showing a desire to maintain local control as strong in Sicily as England, Tibet, and North Dakota.

If I were ever to return to Sicily, Palermo is a place I would stay for several nights. Perhaps what I like most is the sense that Palermo is a city complete. Cranes do not tower above the street life, in some frantic demand that something is needed to correct a bygone miscalculation. The city seems at peace with itself—justifiably. Construction suggests dissatisfaction. The desire to create a better future is often seen as optimism, but at its core, there is displeasure. Palermo has none of that. Modernity is a visitor who knows her place.

And that is our visit to Italy in 2016. Now home to watch Donald Trump become president. I shall never again criticize the Italians for voting for Berlusconi.

The Isle of Lipari

Lipari is a popular island among tourists, but it does not have the crush of shoppers who waddle the spic and sparkle lanes of Capris. Stephanie had this on her personal agenda because her grandfather was imprisoned here (house arrest) by Mussolini for unacceptable political beliefs. It falls short the standards we set with Alcatraz or Rikers, where we house teenagers, presumably innocent, awaiting trial. Of course, Benito did not feed them; that was the responsibility of a family on the mainland that had lost its pasta winner.

I have made only occasional mention of our hotels, most of which we loved, but this one has interest beyond its breakfast buffet and clean hallways.

This place has tchotchkes everywhere. The outdoor garden is serene; a great place to read a book or catch up on a blog, which obviously, I did not.

Our first excursion took us to a simple restaurant on the main street of this two-street town. Once again, the food was surprisingly great.

San Francisco should have so many variations on spaghetti, this one with crushed anchovy dressing. The calamari was rolled around a seafood stuffing and grilled perfectly. Rod’s fries and tomatoes were served separate from the swordfish, as if the tools to eat the steak might require room to plan an attack. The effort was less than modest.

Rick and Stephanie booked a sail to a volcano and a couple of nearby islands for the following day, but Rod and I had been traveling for 24 days, so the lure of our hotel’s peaceful garden was too great. We stayed on Lipari.

Before their ship sailed, the group got to do a morning museum tour.

Rick and I speculated about the shape of amphora vessels, which to our sensibilities seem awkward. They are fashioned to a pointed bottom, which makes for a long carry home from Delta Kappa Groceries if you cannot set it down. But I think I know why they were manufactured this way.

After the boat took our travel-mates away, we strolled the narrow, non-commercial streets off the second port. These sun drenched simple homes, with murals bleached into tasteful obscurity, were the confines of Italians serving house arrest. Maybe Sing Sing will one day be a fashionable co-op, but I don’t see it.

There is not much to say about these photos (above), but I thought they captured the happy dignity of people whose place on the earth seems remote. I doubt that many would live anywhere else in the world. There is something relaxing about an island. It brings to mind a passage from Shaw’s play, Man and Superman, from an encounter in hell:

No, no, no, my child: do not pray. If you do, you will throw away the main advantage of this place. Written over the gate here are the words “Leave every hope behind, ye who enter.” Only think what a relief that is! For what is hope? A form of moral responsibility. Here there is no hope, and consequently no duty, no work, nothing to be gained by praying, nothing to be lost by doing what you like. Hell, in short, is a place where you have nothing to do but amuse yourself.” 

And so island life seems to me.

We settled at a marvelous restaurant on the slope of an ancient street. Seated beside a young Brit couple, Harry and Lidia, the conversation was entertaining, about Brexit, Trump, and a dozen other, less consequential things.

I finished off a marvelous Sicilian Cabernet, Rod contributing almost nothing to the effort, while we shared gnocchi with clams, Rod had pork with almonds, figs, and red onions. I ordered an artisanal green pasta with shrimp. We split a huge bowl of fresh fruit. The restaurant owner was justly proud of this establishment and the wife who does all the cooking. They seemed satisfied with life. Though we had dined outside, I made it a point to find the cook and express our appreciation to her beaming face and square shoulders.

You oughta see her carry wood!
I tal you w’at, eet do you good.”  from a poem by T.A. Daly

Rick and Stephanie wandered by, having finished their boat trip, and ate at the same restaurant, but at a different table.

The hour was late, the night warm, the moon was full and so were we.