Snapshots of Galicia

Snapshots of Galicia

As I have written time and again, Galicia is my favorite place in Spain, a region I return to again and again. Part of it is homesickness. Galicia is the only region in the country which bears a passing resemblance to the Hudson Valley—green, hilly, forested. But part of it is due to Galicia’s unique delights: its simple and hearty food, its distinct local architecture and customs, its calm and quiet. And, best of all, a trip to Galicia is very easy on the wallet.


A Coruña

It was the summer of that fateful year, 2020. My brother had just left to return to America. Soon, the school year would begin, and I would go back to in-person teaching—though I could hardly imagine what it would be like after the trauma of the (still ongoing) pandemic. Wanting a last gasp of peace before what I assumed would be chaos, I took a train to my favorite city in Spain, A Coruña.

I had no ambition to do anything but relax. I walked for miles—through the dense streets of the old city, under the distinctive galerías (glass balconies), along the promenade (paseo maritímo) and past the aquarium. One evening, I sat amid the jagged rocks below the Tower of Hercules, a Roman lighthouse, and read a book as the waves crashed below me. Another evening I made my way to Monte de San Pedro and watched the sunset from the old naval guns overlooking the sea. For dinner, I had takeout Chinese food. It was absolutely splendid.

And I packed my running shoes. After the isolation and confinement of the lockdown, I craved the outdoors, and spent as much of my time under the sky as possible. I ran in the late afternoon, with the sun beginning to set. A cool breeze blew in from the ocean, seeming to propel me faster than I had ever gone before. The combination of wind and waves flowing all around me gave me the odd sensation of flying. This, of course, was followed by duck curry and spring rolls.

The only thing vaguely touristy that I did was to visit the Museum of Science and Technology. Considering the museum’s low entry fee and relative obscurity, it is an impressive institution. The halls were filled with beautiful examples of extinct apparatuses—calculating machines, steam locomotives, telegraphs, type-writers… By far the biggest installation is a cockpit of a Boeing 747, which you can walk inside. It must have been no easy task to transport. My only criticism of the museum is that they put the informational texts in three languages (English, Castillian, and Galego)—yet the texts are not repeated in those languages, but continue through them. That means to read the information completely you must be trilingual. 


A Walk in the Woods

The coast of Galicia—like that around A Coruña—is gorgeous. But I had just finished a camino through the wooded interior of the countryside, and I was still craving the forest. So, one day, I decided to take a day trip to a more rural area.

Yet I had little idea where to go or how to get there. In search of a solution, I looked up the stops on the train that runs from A Coruña to Santiago de Compostela, and then I examined these stops on Google Maps to see if they looked like decent hiking spots. I eventually settled on a little stop called Cerceda-Meirama, which is remote from any major population center. The fast train had me there in no time.

I emerged onto an empty platform and immediately found myself in the countryside. Having absolutely no idea in what direction to go, I decided to try to walk a lap around a nearby lake. As often happens in Galicia, I passed by a few scattered houses and then was in the woods—or, at least, a grove of trees. (Unfortunately, the countryside of Galicia has been heavily logged and many areas are covered with young saplings, often eucalyptuses, deliberately planted to be farmed later.)

The narrow path took me alongside the Meirama Lake. This is not a natural lake, but was created to cover an industrial eyesore. For decades, not a lake but a lignite mine occupied this area, which only closed as recently as 2017. (Lignite is a type of coal.) Indeed, though at the time I assumed the surrounding trees were planted by loggers, they were actually put into place by the mining company as part of an environmental rehabilitation project that had previously denuded the area. An ominous concrete cylinder still sits, overlooking the lake, next to a featureless gray building.

I cannot honestly say that the path was particularly beautiful. Even so, in my nature-deprived state, I was enraptured by the intermittent calls of birds and even stopped to examine insects crawling along the dirt road. I walked along quite contently, making a circuit around the lake and trying to be mindful of my return time. (The fast train does not pass through this station so often, so I had until about four in the evening or I would be stranded for the night.) Eventually I decided that I had time to spare, and took a detour.

Things went bad very quickly. The path I took trailed off into the forest, and soon I was scrambling through brush. Twice I almost walked straight into a spiderweb with a large awaiting inhabitant. Somehow, to right myself, I had to walk up to an overpass and then along a small highway, before finding a path leading me in the correct direction. Even then, I was not (pardon the pun) out of the woods. The hour of my departure was nearing, and I was still quite lost, just hoping that the path I was on would lead me back to the train station.

Once again, however, the path led to a dead end in the forest. Luckily, by now I was at least close to civilization. Through the brush I could see what was obviously a field of crops. Desperate by now, I went for it—pushing through the thick vegetation and praying that there would be no shotgun-wielding farmer or attack dog waiting for me. Thankfully, not a soul was in sight, and I was able to make my way through the rows of wheat to the nearby road. I only had twenty minutes now before my train arrived. No choice but to run.

Tired and sore, wearing hiking boots, I jogged the remaining distance to the station (scaring off what I believe were two partridges in the process). I made it, sweaty and panting, with just a minute to spare. Sometimes relaxing is hard work.


Pontevedra

The only vaguely touristy thing I did on this trip was to visit Pontevedra. I had been there once before, but it was under unfortunate circumstances. That time, I had parked the car in an underground parking lot (the center of the town is a pedestrian zone), and had scratched it badly against a concrete pillar. This put me in such a fretful state that I could even focus on the city.

But this time was different. I arrived on the early train from A Coruña, ready to do some sightseeing.

The name Pontevedra comes from Latin, and means “old bridge.” And there is, indeed, a rather old bridge in the city, the Burgo Bridge, built in the 12th century. It spans the River Lérez, the dominant water feature of the city, which sits nestled in a bend of the river, near the coast, among the surrounding hills. Pontevedra is not an especially large city, but it is an especially well-planned one. It was a pioneer in instituting a car-free zone in the center and is known for the high quality of life enjoyed by its denizens.

As in any good old Spanish city, there are lots of ornate churches to see. Chief among these is probably the Church of the Pilgrim Virgin. By European standards, it is not an especially old construction, dating back to about the signing of the American Constitution. It was made in order to venerate a rather odd statue of the Virgin Mary dressed as a pilgrim. This image was declared the patron saint of the Portuguese Way, a branch of the Camino de Santiago that passes up through Portugal and then Pontevedra on its way to Santiago de Compostela. Even if you are not a pilgrim, however, you must admit that it is a rather nice church.

The car-free center of Pontevedra is well-preserved and charming. There are tiny side-streets and grand plazas, historic convents and ornate façades, and of course lots of restaurants and cafés. As I strolled around, I came across a life-sized statue of Ramón del Valle-Inclan, an iconic Spanish writer who was born just outside the city. He is outfitted in his usual way: neat suit, thick-rimmed glasses, and a long flowing beard. A literary innovator and iconoclast, he now holds an honored place among the Spanish literary patheon, and is one of the many writers often assigned to suffering high school students.

One of the most interesting sites in the city are the ruins of the church of San Domingos. This is (or was) a lovely gothic structure that now stands without a roof or half of its walls. I have seen ruined churches before, but those have been ruined by some disaster, like an earthquake or a fire. In this case, the culprits are time and neglect. In 1836, during a liberal spasm in Spanish history, a huge amount of land was confiscated from the Catholic church through a law called, in Spanish, the desamortización. This Dominican convent was one of them. The monks had to find a new home and the building was used, in turn, as a women’s prison, hospice, and an infant school. But it fell into decay very quickly under civil ownership and now stands like a ghost in the old city.

I have said before, and will again, that it is often worthwhile to visit relatively obscure museums in Europe, as they can have collections that rival the most prestigious institutions in the United States. This is certainly true of Pontevedra’s Provincial Museum. Even the structure itself is impressive, comprising a complex of buildings which includes modern glass constructions and former mansions. Its collection is vast and varied, including archaeological remains, ornate silverware, religious sculptures, traditional costumes and oil paintings (including those by Goya and Sorolla). Best of all, it is free to visit.

After spending a few hours in the museum, I made my way to the nearest Pulpería I could find. As its name would suggest, this is a kind of restaurant that specializes in octopus. I gorged myself on tentacles and pimientos de padrón (small green peppers), and chased it down with a pitcher of the local wine—typically young and fruity. For some reason, it is customary to drink the wine out of a little ceramic bowl, which reminds me very much of the vessels used to drink saki (called sakazuki).

The meal ended, I contemplated trying to do more visiting. But, somehow, I had lost the motivation. Instead, my legs took me on a meandering walk out of the city and, following the river, towards the ocean. I walked until the city receded into the less dense outskirts, and kept going until I came across a small beach at the mouth of the river. A small boat—more of a dingy—had been hauled up on the sand, looking somehow pathetic next to the water. Smokestacks split the sky on the opposite bank. A helicopter came into view, flying low over the river. Though I was surrounded on all sides by evidence of human life, I was the only person in view, and I had the illogical feeling that I had reached the edge of the world.

This romantic feeling was dispelled when I checked the time and realized that, once again, I had to hurry in order to make my train back to A Coruña. I arrived that night, and celebrated with a final dinner at the takeout Chinese restaurant. It had been an excellent stay in Galicia.


Santiago de Compostela

One year later. It was the All Saints’ Day holiday, in late October, 2021. I had no plan whatsoever, except to relax and to look for some foliage. (Madrid is quite bereft of colorful leaves in autumn, as a result of, well, not having many trees.) I bought a cheap train ticket to Santiago de Compostela, the regional capital, and booked the cheapest Airbnb I could find. My hosts were not thrilled when I arrived at nearly midnight. But at least I was back in Galicia.

My first day was uneventful. It was the day before Halloween, overcast and foggy. I decided that I wanted to take a hike. Santiago de Compostela has some attractive city parks—the two principal ones being the Parque de San Domingos de Bonaval and the Parque da Alameda—but these are rather small. Seeking wider fields to wander, I walked to the edge of town, to the Parque Forestal de Monte Pedroso. This is a large park—well, more of a young forest than a park. The land had obviously been clear cut not too long ago. Virtually all of the trees were young saplings, planted in neat rows on the hilly landscape, doubtless to be themselves harvested at some future date. (Galicia, though beautiful, has mutilated many of its own landscapes.)

Paths led in and out of clearings in the forest, climbing and falling through the misty trees. The fog was so thick that I would have been completely disoriented if not for the AllTrails app on my phone. It was perfect for Halloween, but not ideal for pretty foliage or beautiful views. At the very least, the hike allowed me to work up an appetite for my visit to El Mesón Do Pulpo, one of Galicia’s many fine pulperías, or octopus restaurants.

I must have been in a very suggestible mood, for I allowed the waiter to talk me into buying a plate of octopus followed by a whole steak, washed down with a pitcher of the fruity local wine. It was an excessive amount of food—and absolutely delicious. You can imagine that the rest of that day was not particularly productive. The only thing I managed to do was to have another excessive meal, this time dinner at a Korean restaurant called NuMaru. I am glad I did, since it was perhaps the best Korean food I ever tasted, better than any restaurant I have visited in Madrid (which one would think is more cosmopolitan and diverse than the provincial Santiago). Clearly, then, my first full day in Galicia was a success.

As an afterthought, I wanted to mention the strange architectural installment (sculpture?) I found on the edge of town, on my way to the forest. The thing consists of a kind of arched hallway, constructed of massive pieces of granite. This monstrous monument was built in honor of the Sociedade Xeral de Autores e Editores, which translates to the General Society of Authors and Editors, a private organization that aims to protect intellectual property of those who write and publish music, books, and plays. This sounds noble enough, but it sometimes boils down to publishing companies trying to wring money out of musicians and acting companies—most of which never gets to the artists or writers themselves. Once, the organization charged €96 to a high school theater company who wanted to do a play by Federico García Lorca, who died in 1936. This happened in 2010.

In any case, my next day in Galicia was far, far more eventful. 


A Whirlwind Tour

I awoke early, having set an alarm. The previous day, my Airbnb host invited me on an outing to see his native village. “It is one of the most beautiful villages in Galicia,” he said. The other guest at the Airbnb was going, too. Not having any real plans, I accepted.

The next day, after breakfast, I was ready to go.

“Alright, I’m ready,” the host said.

“And the other guest?”

“Something came up.”

Unphased, I followed my good host and got into the passenger seat of his car. It soon emerged that my host was not simply a man fond of his pueblo. He was a professional researcher and extremely knowledgeable about his native region. As he drove, he rattled off a constant string of information about the area, and I soon realized that, rather than a simple trip to a town, he had an entire itinerary planned out.

Our first stop was the church of Santa Maria de Adina. The church itself is large and attractive but otherwise not remarkable. But buried in the surrounding graveyard is Camilo José Cela, a writer who was born in this town and who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1989. I have not read any of his work (it does not seem to be especially popular now), but I was glad to pay my respects to a writer.

Nearby was the town of Padrón, our next stop. This town will be familiar to lovers of Spanish food, for being the home of the famous pimientos de Padrón—delicious small green peppers that are fried in olive oil and served with rock salt. But my host wanted to show me the Parroquial Church. Again, like many local Spanish churches, it was large and attractive but not memorably so. What sets the church apart is the “pedrón.” This is a sort of large stone that is given pride of place in the church. According to legend, the ship that divinely transported Saint James’ body from Jerusalem to Spain was finally moored to this stone.

The truth is actually more interesting than the legend, as the letters clearly visible on the stone were actually inscribed by the Romans to honor the god Neptune. It reads: “To Neptune: the Orieses (?) put up this stone at their expense.” It seems odd that a pagan monument would hold pride of place in a church. But many pagan rites and rituals were taken over by the Christians. (Christmas is December 25, not because we know when Jesus was born, but because it allowed the holiday to replace the pagan celebration of the winter solstice.) According to this website, the stone was used even before the Romans as a place to tie up their ships.

The tour continued. My host then took me to a very small village called Bustelo, in order to show me a fine example of a Galician cruceiro. This is a distinctly Galician artifact, consisting of a large stone cross standing atop a pillar, often with a small carving of Jesus or the Virgin as adornment. According to my guide, since only the properly baptized were allowed to be buried in the church graveyard, babies who died at or near birth were often prohibited from this sacred ground. Despondent mothers thus would bury their babies at the base of this cruceiro, being another kind of religious burying ground. (If you’re curious, this website contains an image and the location of every cruceiro in Galicia. They are quite beautiful, in my opinion.)

Our next stop was another distinctive monument of Galicia: the hórreo (yes, it sounds like the American cookie). This is small building that was used to store food, primarily grain, before refrigerators became common. They are elevated to keep out vermin, and normally have slits in the walls to keep the food dry. Nowadays they sit unused, a charming and constant reminder that one is in Galicia. My guide had an encyclopedic knowledge of hórreos as well as cruceiros, and he took me to see one of the largest ever built, called the hórreo do traba. It is huge: five or six times the length of a normal hórreo. I have no idea why it was built so large.

Next we visited the lovely seaside town of Noia where, mercifully, we had some coffee. But our break was brief: I was whisked off to the church of Santa María a Nova, which now houses a museum of antique gravestones. These are notable for their decoration (though they are often faded by time and weather), which normally feature the deceased person’s profession. I must admit, however, that I did not understand much of what I saw.

No matter, we had pressing business, and within moments I was back in the car on my way to the next destination. This was probably my favorite thing I saw that day, but I admit I was on guard when my host pulled over by the side of a road and told me to start walking into the forest. My misgiving aside, it was a thoroughly lovely example of a lush Galician forest, with moss-covered trees all around, and the Traba river gurgling nearby. Soon we had arrived at our destination, the abandoned village of Xei. Though the ruins appear absolutely ancient, this village was not abandoned so long ago (less than a century, I think). According to this website, the town was depopulated because its economy relied on the water-powered mills, which became obsolete with the adoption of electricity. In any case, I think ruins often have a strange and otherworldly beauty, and these skeletal structures, green with encroaching forest, were wonderfully evocative.

Our next stop was brief, to the nearby Dolmen of Argalo. A dolmen is a kind of megalithic tomb, consisting of a single chamber in a stone structure. In this case, very large slabs of granite were stuck into the ground to form the walls, and dirt was piled up all around it to make a kind of mound. Human remains do not preserve well in the acidic soil, so no bones were found inside. However, archaeologists did uncover stone tools and fragments of ceramics. As my guide remarked, we will never know what the people who built these believed.

Are you tired already? I was, but that did not stop us from visiting yet another stop. I shouldn’t complain, since this was also a wonderfully beautiful spot. We parked the car near a large old monastery building, the Mosteiro de San Xusto de Toxosoutos, which seemed unused. But this attractive old building was not our objective. Nearby, a path led into the forest, along the San Xusto river, and soon we were surrounded yet again by beautiful Galician forest. Better yet, at this juncture the river formed a series of ever-more attractive waterfalls (fervenza in Galician). Also of interest were the large mill-stones which now sit, unused, alongside the river, a reminder of the ancient importance of water-power.

In addition to its many charms, Galicia is rich in prehistoric sites. Not far from the waterfalls, for example, was yet another dolmen, the Dolmen de Axeitos. This one is larger and more impressive than the Dolmen of Argalo, with a massive granite slab somehow elevated in place as a roof over the wall stones. Whoever made this benefited from not a little teamwork, coordination, and technological sophistication, since moving stones of that size is no easy feat.

It was getting late now, and darkness was setting in. But my guide still wanted to show me one more thing. Aside from dolmens, Galicia has many sites known as “castros,” which are the remains of ancient (presumably Celtic) settlements. One of these sites is the Castro de Neixón, which occupies a peninsula on the coast. (Peninsulas were advantageous locations, both ideal for fishing and sea transport, and easy to defend from the land.) To be honest, this site was disappointing compared to the spectacular Castro de Baroña, which I had previously seen. But the interpretation center nearby also houses a fine museum—which, unfortunately, I was too tired to really take in.

We arrived back in Santiago de Compostela at around eight at night. I immediately went to the nearest restaurant I could find, which happened to be a Chinese place. I was ravenous—we had eaten just a little sandwich for lunch—and the order actually discouraged me from ordering the amount of food I wanted to. He was amazed when I ate every last bite. I really am grateful to the host for having shown me such a wealth of interesting things. But it was a long, long day.


A Pilgrims’ Mass

I had just one more morning in Santiago de Compostela, and I knew how I was going to spend it. The previous night, I learned that the other Airbnb guest (the one who had abandoned the odyssey of Galician sightseeing) was a veteran of the Camino de Santiago. He informed me that was planning on attending the so-called Pilgrims’ Mass the following day.

Now, I had already attended this mass several times (once while suffering a severe stomach cramp), and had always been disappointed that the famed Botafumeiro was not used. This is the enormous incensor that, on special days, is swung from wildly through the cathedral on a pulley. Constantly missing this event was perhaps my greatest disappointment in Spanish travel. But according to my fellow guest, today there was a good chance that I would finally witness the spectacle.

The cathedral was packed. There were lines to get in at every entrance. I arrived nearly an hour early and still had to stand, as the pews were completely occupied. It was obvious at a glance that most of the audience was not there to save their souls. Foreign languages abounded, and cameras were held at the ready. I was certainly no different; but even within this great crowd I tried to temper my expectations. I had been in a similar crowd when the Botafumeiro failed to materialize.

But today was different. A hush came over the crowd as the robed priests appeared. Then, somewhere behind me, voices began to echo in the stone chamber. It was a choir, and a very good one. The singers were moving through the space, from the front to the back, but with so many people I could hardly catch a glimpse of them. It hardly matters, as their voices were rendered omnipresent by the reverberations, washing over me like a wave. It was genuinely spiritual music, soothing and even spine-tingling in its ethereal beauty.

The choir ceased, and the priest approached the pulpit. Everyone turned around to face the main altar. Sunlight was pouring in through the high windows, a single bright beam illuminating the white robe of the priest. For the second time in my life, I briefly considered converting to Catholicism. (The first time was in Mont Saint-Michel, and also involved sunlight and choirs.) I was so transported by the atmosphere that I could hardly register anything he was saying. In any case, his prayers were brief. Soon an organ had begun to play, now filling the cathedral with piercing reedy notes, while several robed men got into position around a multi-corded rope.

My body filled with electricity as I realized that, yes, this time I was finally going to see it. The rope was pulled taught and the men began to tug, gently at first, and then more firmly. With every tug, the enormous incensor began to swing higher and higher, from right to left, until it completed an arc that almost touched the ceiling. Smoke poured out of the flying metal casket, and soon the entire cathedral smelled of frankincense and myrrh.

This performance lasted for about five minutes. Then, the Botafumeiro gradually slowed down enough for the brave priests to catch it. This was our cue to leave, and the audience filed out in a respectful silence. I must admit, as absolutely cool as the Botafumeiro was, it did leave me feeling a little sorry for the priests. It is not a sight calculated to inspire religious devotion, merely to please tourists like myself. There is nothing theologically significant about a flying ball of smoke. Even so, I was very happy to have seen it. Though it had been more than a year since my last walk on the Camino, it felt like the end of a long pilgrimage.

Images of Asturias

Images of Asturias

From León, the journey continued north. Our GPS took us on the main highway, the AP-66, which cuts straight through the Cordillera Cantábrica—the major mountain range separating the interior plains from the northern coast—with tunnel after tunnel. Our destination was Oviedo, the capital of Asturias. Thankfully, this time our Airbnb had heating and hot water.


Oviedo

On my last visit to Oviedo, I went into raptures about the beauty of the city. This time around, having much to see, we did not spend very much time in the city. Indeed, though last time I regretted not entering the cathedral to see the Cámara Santa—a pre-Romesque church that has been converted into a chapel, and which now houses several famous relics—during this trip I positively forgot. I suppose I will just have to go back.

Instead, our brief time in the city center was spent visiting museums. If memory serves, we were able to buy combination tickets to the Archaeology and the Fine Arts Museums. In general, it is a good idea to visit even relatively obscure, provincial museums in Europe, as there is a good chance that it will have a collection that rivals far more prestigious institutions in the United States. This was no exception. The archaeology museum had artifacts from the stone age to medieval times, and the collection was housed in a beautiful old monastery. Even more impressive was the Museum of Fine Arts (Bellas Artes), which has a surprisingly large and wide-ranging collection of paintings, including some by Picasso, Sorolla, El Greco, and Goya.

Then, we ventured somewhat outside the city to see what are Oviedo’s most precious monuments: Santa María del Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo. These are two pre-Romanesque structures from the 9th century—very rare survivals from this time period. I visited these two structures on my last visit to Oviedo, but I wasn’t able to go inside. This time, however, we arrived in time to take a tour of Santa María del Naranco. Despite its religious name, this structure originated as a palace, built for the Asturian king Ramiro I, and was only consecrated centuries later. Compared to what was to come in the Romanesque and the Gothic ages, this structure seems quaint and primitive. Indeed, considering that it is less spacious than many suburban houses, it is difficult to believe that it was intended to be a palace. But for its time, its design was highly innovative—incorporating rounded arches and the barrel vault to make it more spacious and bright inside. Though these two buildings are youngsters compared with, say, the Colosseum or the Parthenon, they nevertheless evoke the feeling of deep time and lost memories.

The last thing I must mention about Oviedo is the food. In Spain, Asturias is famous for its cuisine, and we sampled two of the most iconic dishes: fabadas (a hearty bean stew) and cachopo (similar to cordon bleu). Washed down with the local hard cider, this makes for a hearty meal in the cold, rainy weather.


Cudillero

With a few hours of daylight to spare on our first day in Asturias, we decided to visit Cudillero. To be honest, I had no idea what this was, but Rebe assured me that it was worth seeing. We put the name ‘Cudillero’ in our GPS and started to drive. Within an hour, I was screaming as we careened down a steep, narrow road straight through the center of a seaside village. The street seemed much too narrow for a car, and the many pedestrians paid no heed as they walked back and forth in front of us. Meanwhile, the GPS took us down and down and down, until we were right at the water’s edge. At least there was free parking.

To be honest, I do not have much to say about Cudillero, other than that it is a memorably beautiful and dramatic village. The entire thing is like an amphitheater, with some roads that ring from side to side, and others that lead down toward the water. Every new vantage point opened up another lovely perspective on the town.


Cangas de Onís

We visited Cangas de Onís when the light was already fading and we were pressed for time. It is a small village and, as often happens, parking was scarce. We found a parking spot on the street but it required me to parallel park—something I hadn’t done in years. I messed it up, badly. To make matters worse, an elderly local couple were standing on the sidewalk, watching me. The shame grew too acute and I eventually gave up and drove away. Thankfully, after I circled back, we found a parking lot. (I have since improved my parallel parking abilities.)

The town is quite lovely but we hardly had time to do anything but walk down the main street and admire the elegant “Roman” bridge, which is actually medieval.


Lagos de Covagonda

Our next stop was nearby. Now, if you visit during the off season, it is possible to drive to these lakes yourself. But as this was a holiday weekend (the Puente de la Constitución, in early December), we had to park the car and board a bus at a bus station right outside Cangas de Onís. It is probably wiser to buy the tickets online instead of doing as we did and buying them on the spot, late in the day.

The bus trip is a bit harrowing, as the enormous vehicle navigates narrow mountain roads. But we got there in one piece. It is a stunning place. The lakes are over 1,000 meters up the mountain (3300 feet), and are surrounded by snow-capped mountains, with still green meadows below.


Mirador del Fitu

I do not remember what day we visited this lookout point, but it was one of the best things we did in Asturias. It is one of the most beautiful mountain views I have ever seen.

A special thanks to Rebe, who took many of these photos.

The Drive South

For the drive back to León, and then to Madrid, we set the GPS to avoid tolls. This took us, instead of through the mountain via tunnels, over the top via the Puerto de Pajares. This is a lovely mountain road, full of twists and turns, that leads up and up, giving you a wonderful view of the bucolic Asturian countryside.

Along the way, you can see the historic Rampa de Pajares, a train line that seems to weave around the road. This was constructed between 1880-4, and represented a major engineering accomplishment. I am not sure if trains still use the tracks, though. The high-speed trains (AVE) pass through a tunnel rather than climb the mountain.

Right when we reached the top (about 1380 meters, or 4500 feet) we saw a light covering of snow on the ground. In retrospect, we were lucky. Had the weather been less kind, the road might easily have been impassable with snow. Once we began our descent on the other side of the mountain chain, we saw a series of fascinating rock formations. Rebe look up one particularly noticeable mountain on her phone, and found that it was the fossilized remains of a coral reef! If anything, this is an excellent lesson in geology.

After a brief stop in León (described in the other post), we carried on to Madrid. Our trip was over. It was the best mountain scenery I have ever seen.

The mountain is no impediment.
That ridge is, apparently, an ancient coral reef!

Images of León

Images of León

Three years ago, in December of 2019, Rebe and I took a trip up north, to Léon and Asturias. Though I have already written a post about those two areas, my first visit was brief—and in any case I did not have a decent camera back then. It is with much apology, therefore, that I upload these belated photos of what was a thoroughly lovely holiday.

The drive from Madrid to León is the better part of four hours. Thus, we could have arrived at a decent time, had not the rental company been swamped with angry customers, waiting to pick up their cars. A word to the wise: when you rent at the cheapest company, you end up paying one way or another—in time, emotional energy, and yes, unexpected payments. As the Spanish say, lo barato sale caro. This has been my consistent experience with rental companies and airlines—though, I admit, I am so stingy that I still can’t help myself when I see a good deal.

In any case, we arrived in León just before the sunset. Compared to Madrid, it was frigid—made that much colder by the fact that the airbnb I selected did not have heating or hot water (again, being cheap has its costs). We were greeted by a dramatic sunset, the pinks, oranges, and reds dancing across wisps of clouds, as the shifting light played across the gray surfaces of the city. Such sunsets are rare in normally cloudless Spain.

We headed straight for the cathedral, hoping to visit before it closed for the evening. This cathedral is, without doubt, one of the finest in Spain—and all of Europe, for that matter. León, you see, was a major stopping point along the Camino de Santiago,  and so was visited by a constant stream of pilgrims during the Middle Ages—who, of course, brought both money and knowledge along with them. This explains the notable French influence in the gothic design of León Cathedral.

Although it is, by the exalted standards of gothic cathedrals, not especially big, its placement in an open plaza allows the visitor to appreciate the full, weighty majesty of the structure. In the waning evening light the delicate tracery, the graceful buttresses, and the many points and spires appeared like a dance captured in stone. But the real treasure is inside the walls—or, rather, in the walls themselves: the stained glass. Unlike most gothic churches, León has preserved its medieval windows (wars, bombs, and fires destroyed a good many over the centuries). These are absolutely stunning: full of intricate details and hundreds of individual figures, filling the interior with gemlike colors and ethereal light.

Once we had our fill of divine beauty, we turned our attention to more earthly matters. It was December and the town was full of Christmas decorations and market stands selling all sorts of knicknacks. I did some Christmas shopping—buying a colorful plate with a serrated center, for grinding up garlic, as a present to my grandmother—while Rebe contented herself with a new pair of mittens. And if you are in Spain in the winter months, it is obligatory to have some churros with hot chocolate.

Our meandering took us, inevitably, to Casa Botines, one of a handful of buildings outside Catalonia designed by Anton Gaudí. It is a severe building, strictly neogothic, lacking the exuberance of Gaudí’s later works. Even so, it fits in harmoniously with the city of León and is, at the very least, imposingly symmetrical. Right next to it is the Palacio de los Guzmanes, an attractive Renaissance structure that is now the seat of the local government (Guzmán was a wealthy family who commissioned the original palace).

This was basically it for our evening in León. After a short stroll along the Bernesga River, we drove to the Airbnb where we shivered all night.

Rebe with her new mittens.

However, this was not our last glimpse of the city. Three days later, on the way back from Asturias, we made a stop in the city to see the one major attraction we missed: the Basilica de San Isodoro. The history of the basilica’s name is interesting in itself. Though originally dedicated to another saint, in the middle ages it was re-dedicated after the Muslim ruler of Seville allowed the remains of the venerated Sevillian (he was a theologian and archbishop) to be moved north to León, which at the time was under Christian control.

Above the Casa Botines. Below the Palacio de los Guzmanes.

The basilica can only be visited on a guided tour. And though this tour lasted about an hour, only two things really stick out in my memory. The first is a jewel-encrusted chalice that was displayed in a glass case, in the center of a room devoted solely to this item: the Chalice of Doña Urraca. This item lay relatively unnoticed and uncelebrated in the basilica’s collection until 2014, when two Spanish writers claimed that it was the legendary Holy Grail. The evidence for this assertion was thinner than air. Art historians believe the chalice was likely constructed in 11th century Germany. In any case, there is another potential Holy Grail in Valencia’s Cathedral, if you want to cover all of your bases.

The real jewel of the basilica is, undoubtedly, the royal pantheon. This is the burial place of many of the kings and queens of León—from a time before Spain existed as a country, and León was just one of several small kingdoms occupying the Iberian Peninsula. Yet the pantheon is not famous for its bodies, but for its art. The ceiling is covered in a series of beautiful and well-preserved murals from the Romanesque period. These are of such fine quality that they have been compared with the Sistine Chapel, though stylistically they share little with Michelangelo. As is typical of Romanesque art, the figures are stylized, almost cartoonish, with no attempt at creating accurate proportions or a realistic space. The result is a kind of naive charm that I find quite moving.

A public domain image of the Pantheon.

That was the end of our tour. We ate tacos at a nearby Mexican restaurant (surprisingly good), and kept going back towards Madrid. But not long after we left the city, the sky exploded into yet another gorgeous sunset—with streaks of purple, red, and pink undulating like waves in the rolling clouds. We pulled over to take pictures. By chance, right in our line of sight, was one of the iconic Osborne bulls—the universal symbol of Spain. It was yet another reminder of the enchanting beauty of this country.

A special thanks to Rebe, who took many of these photos.

Krakow and the Wieliczka Salt Mines

Krakow and the Wieliczka Salt Mines

The plane—Ryanair, unfortunately—landed well after dark. My brother and I quickly extracted some złoty from an ATM and then got into a taxi. The driver was a friend of our Airbnb host. Quite polite and charming, he asked us about where we were from, and a halting conversation began.

“Man, it’s really cold,” I observed, lamely, during a lull.

“Yes,” he said in his thick accent. “In Poland, we have winter.”

Indeed, he was right: it was winter. In fact, this was the last weekend of February 2020, right before the pandemic turned the world on its head. Though I was blissfully unaware of it at the time, this trip would prove to be my last gasp of “normalcy”—and, at least until now, my final European trip outside of Spain. But at the time, I only noticed that it was awfully cold compared to Madrid.

We had left for Poland as soon as we had gotten out of work. As a result, by the time we made it into our room, it was past midnight, and we only had the energy to crawl into bed and pass out.


The next day we awoke, dazed and still a little cold, ready to explore Krakow.

But first, breakfast. For this, we stopped by a food stand and got some obwarzanki krakowskie, the so-called Krakow bagel. Unlike the bagels I am used to, this version is thinner, saltier, and crunchier—almost like a cross between a bagel and a soft pretzel. Very tasty and affordable. After this wholesome repast, we wandered toward Krakow’s old center.

Like many cities in Europe, Krakow has a history that stretches back to medieval times, and beyond. And like many beautiful cities, a certain set of circumstances conspired to build up and preserve the place. The first necessary step is to enjoy a golden age of artistic creation—either through commerce, or by being the seat of political power, or preferably both—and it just so happens that Poland’s so-called golden age occurred when Krakow was the capital of the country. Then, importantly, political power shifted elsewhere (to Warsaw), leaving many impressive buildings to weather the centuries, bereft of their original importance. Finally, and crucially, Krakow was lucky enough to survive the desolation of modern warfare. While Warsaw was blown to smithereens, Krakow remained relatively unscathed during the Second World War. Thus it is that the city has the look and charm of a medieval capital.

The first thing to catch our eyes was the Grunwald Monument. This is an enormous equestrian statue of the Polish king Władysław II Jagiełło (don’t ask me to pronounce it), who forged an alliance with Lithuania and defeated the Teutons (Germans) in the battle of Grunwald. This epochal battle, which took place in 1410, is said to mark the beginning of Poland’s golden age; and the monument was erected 500 years later, in 1910, to commemorate this symbol of Polish pride. Unsurprisingly, when the Nazis invaded, they could not abide the sight of a monument to a German defeat; so they did what Nazis do, and destroyed it. The monument was rebuilt in 1976—and may it be forever a symbol of Poles triumphing over Germans.

Nearby is the barbican. This is a kind of fortress that once formed an important part of the city’s defenses. Though we did not go inside, a single glance was enough to reveal an imposing and, in a way, a beautiful structure—with gothic spires jutting out over the solid brick walls. I would hate to have been the poor soldier tasked with capturing it. The original medieval walls are also preserved nearby, which encircle the old center of Krakow. We proceeded through the gate, and down a long avenue—Floriańska Street—filled with touristy shops and American fast food, until we reached the Rynek Główny, which is just Polish for “Main Square.” It is a grand, open space, filled with pigeons, tourists, and stately buildings.

Prominent among these is the Town Hall Tower, a gothic clock tower that—as its name suggests—once formed a part of the town hall. For better or worse, the rest of the town hall was demolished in 1820 in order to open up the Main Square. Much more modest in stature is the Church of St. Adalbert, a relatively small church with modest decorations inside. Yet it is distinguished for being one of the oldest stone churches in the country, having been built in the 11th century. Nearby is the Adam Mickiewicz Monument, a large sculptural assembly that may be the best place to meet somebody if you want an easy-to-find landmark. Adam Mickiewicz, by the way, can perhaps be considered the national bard of Poland. (One day, I hope to read his epic poem, Pan Tadeusz.) Right in the center of the square is Cloth Hall, a lovely Renaissance building that once served as a kind of medieval stock exchange, though for spices and fabrics instead of stocks and bonds. Nowadays it is a touristy market.

Yet the loveliest building of the bunch, for me, is St. Mary’s Basilica. Like the cathedral at Chartres, this basilica has two unmatching towers, which rise splendidly over the main square. The interior is even more impressive than the relatively unadorned façade. Pride of place undoubtedly belongs to the magnificent wooden altarpiece, carved by one Veit Stross. As you may have guessed from his name, Stross was a German; yet his masterpiece has—ironically, perhaps—become an icon of the Polish identity. Even more ironically, this artistic treasure was stolen by the Nazis, only to be found in the basement of the Nuremberg Castle (a city, as it happens, where Stross also lived and worked). Passing over the other lovely works of art in the basilica—most notably, Jan Matejko’s murals—I must mention the hejnał mariacki, a bugle call played every hour, twenty-four hours a day, from the taller tower. It is a beautiful melody that ends awkwardly and abruptly, in honor of a bugler who was, supposedly, shot in the throat by an arrow during an attack by the Mongols, in the 13th century.

The altar was being restored when I visited.

Next we made our way to another edge of the old town, to a hill overlooking the river Vistula. This is Wawel, a large building complex that includes a castle and a cathedral. It is an architecturally jumbled place, with buildings from every major stage of Poland’s history. One highlight is the arcades in the Italian Renaissance-style courtyard, constructed under the reign of Sigismund the Old (1506 – 1548). This old Sigismund, along with the younger one, are buried in a resplendent chapel in the cathedral. Yet old as he was, Sigismund was not the first king to be buried in this august place, that distinction belonging to Władysław I the Elbow-high, so called because of his short stature. This cathedral, as it happens, also has two unmatching towers; and while not as beautiful as St. Mary’s, Wawel Cathedral makes up for it with its many royal bodies.

Leaving the old town now, we visited the nearby neighborhood of Kazimierz. This part of town is now most famous—partly thanks to the movie Schindler’s List, which was filmed here—for its Jewish culture. But Kazimierz was never exclusively Jewish, as you can see from the many churches, such as the impressively pointy Corpus Christi Basilica.

The Old Synagogue.

Though this part of the city was looted and destroyed by the Nazis, and then further devasted by the Red Army, many examples of Jewish culture survive. Foremost among these is the Old Synagogue, which is part temple and part fortress, with thick walls built to protect those inside. Constructed in the 15th century, it is the oldest synagogue in the country. Aside from the many synagogues and Jewish restaurants, there are also many reminders of the oppression suffered by this community under the Nazis. A plaque affixed to a stone invites onlookers to meditate on the tens of thousands of Jews from Krakow killed during the Second World War. A short walk across the Vistula brings you to another monument, this one consisting of empty metal chairs, which commemorates the former Jewish ghetto (the Nazis forced the Jewish population to leave Kazimierz and live in this ghetto, where conditions were so bad that most did not survive).

Nearby is the famous factory of Oskar Schindler. If you have seen the movie (I actually haven’t, come to think of it), you know the story: Schindler, a member of the Nazi Party, dedicated enormous resources and energy in order to keep the Jewish workers of his factory safe, thus saving the lives of over 1,000 Jews. The factory is now part memorial, part museum. You can see Schindler’s old desk, examples of the enamelware they produced, as well as exhibits on the history of Krakow—including a good deal of information about World War II and the Holocaust. It is an ideal place to learn about some of the more recent history of the city.

To learn about some more distant history, the place to go is the Rynek Underground. As its name suggests, this is a subterranean museum, to be found below the Main Square (it took us a few minutes to locate the entrance). This museum is situated in an archeological site, where the remains of the medieval city are still visible. Rather than just letting the old bricks and rocks do the talking, however, the curators opted for holograms, wherein daily scenes of medieval life (recreated by actors) are projected onto the scene. I am not sure that it was particularly educational, but it was interesting. My favorite part of the museum, ironically, was near the end of the visit, where a documentary of the history of Krakow is simply played on repeat. It was quite well-made, I thought, and taught me more than the actual exhibits had.

This fairly well did it for our time in Krakow. Yet the Rynek Underground did not prove to be the most interesting thing we saw below the earth that trip.


Wieliczka Salt Mines

The train from Krakow dropped us in the town of Wieliczka in a little under an hour. Having a bit of time to kill before our timed entry, we went on a short stroll of the town. It is quite a pretty place, with brightly colored buildings spread out in the valley—though not particularly exciting. Surely, few tourists would go out of their way to visit this place if not for the enormous mine below the ground.

Finally, it was time for us to enter. For reasons that soon become obvious, it is only possible to visit the mines in a group. For one, the descent to the main level of the mine is long; and there are so many passages that it would be easy to get hopelessly disoriented and lost. For another thing, there are quite a number of precipitous chasms that the unwary traveler could easily trip into. In a word, the Wieliczka Salt Mines are big—over 300 meters (1,000 feet) below the earth, and whose chambers and tunnels, if laid end to end, would cover the same distance between Krakow and Warsaw. The guided tour covers a mere fraction of this enormous extent. Thus, to visit you need a guide.

Descending into the mine.

Now, considering that I did not even know beforehand that salt is mined, you can imagine that this experience was a revelation to me. The walls of the tunnels are brownish gray, nothing like the crystalline white familiar to cooks. This salt is truly ancient, having been formed in seabeds eons ago. Through the churning of the earth’s tectonic plates, this oceanic salt has ended up many hundreds of miles from the nearest coast. Apparently sick of bland cabbage and potatoes, Poles have been mining salt here since the 13th century. (The smaller Bochnia Salt Mine, located nearby, is slightly older.) The salt is mined much as anything else might be: by tunneling into rich veins, extracting as much as possible with picks and shovels, and then hurling it back up to the surface where (I presume) it can be processed into something more attractive than its raw, rocky state. For much of its history this work was carried out by man-power alone; but eventually horses were brought down into the tunnels, to perform some of the drudgery in literally abysmal conditions.

Nowadays the horses are just models.

One cannot discuss the history of these mines without mention of Casimir III the Great. One of the most important and pivotal rulers in the country’s history (he ruled from 1333 to 1370), he was instrumental in the development of these mines. This was no disinterested gesture, however, as up to a third of the royal revenues were derived from salt. In the medieval world, salt was big business. Another famous name that must be mentioned is that of Nicolaus Copernicus. (That is the latinized version of his name; in Polish—his country of birth—his name is Mikołaj Kopernik.) He is the first known person to visit the mines as a tourist, and he was followed by many more over the centuries. Thus, even though salt production stopped in 1996, Wieliczka is still a gold mine—pardon the pun—of tourism, with over a million visitors per year. 

A salty last supper.

Yet the reason that Wieliczka became so popular is not because tunnels and salt are so fascinating. It is, simply, a beautiful place. Over the years, talented miners have carved works of art into the walls—humorous statues, religious figures, historical personages. There are four entire chapels, one of them as impressive as a cathedral, complete with a chandelier adorned with salt crystals. Another highlight is an underground lake, eerily blue in the artificial light of the cavern, whose water is so saturated with salt that it is probably quite toxic. And then there are the massive scaffolds that seem to go endlessly on into the bowels of the earth.

Yes, that is salt.

This fairly well wraps up my trip to Poland. But I would be remiss if I ended this post without mentioning the food. Though most people do not think of Eastern Europe as a garden of culinary delights, I must say that every single thing I ate in Krakow was scrumptious. The pierogies, the soups, the fried pork cutlets, the potato pancakes, and, yes, even the cabbage—it was all terrific. (I would like to single out the restaurant Domowe Przysmaki for special praise.) One night, my brother and I walked out of the center of town to visit a food cart selling nothing but grilled kielbasa, and it was worth the cold and the long line. The fresh ingredients and bright flavors of Mediterranean cuisine get all of the attention, but if you ask me the salty, vinegary, smoky flavors of Poland are just as satisfying.

Considering everything I mentioned in this post, along with the opportunity to visit Auschwitz (detailed in another post), I would say that this is one of the most interesting and rewarding corners of Europe for the traveler. 

A Visit to Auschwitz

A Visit to Auschwitz

The train slowed as it approached its destination. Outside, I could see a bleak landscape of dead trees, soggy fields of gray, covered with a haze of fog. We were in Oświęcim, Poland, about an hour’s train ride from Krakow. It was a cold February day in 2020, and we had arrived to visit Auschwitz.

The walk from the station to the former concentration camp was brief. Beside the road, the remains of the old railroad tracks used to transport prisoners were preserved. After showing our tickets at the entrance (it is strongly recommended to book them in advance), we were ushered inside and, within minutes, our tour of the complex had commenced.

The tour guide was a young Polish man who spoke excellent English. From his somber tone, it was immediately clear what kind of tour this was: a visit to the site of a historical atrocity. Still, I could not resist taking a photograph of the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate. Though this slogan—German for “Work sets you free”—seems to be a kind of sick joke, according to historian Laurence Rees, it was placed there without any sense of irony by the camp commandant, Rudolf Höss, who had himself spent four years in prison. In any case, as you undoubtedly know, it was very far from the truth.

As the guide informed us, what is often thought of as “Auschwitz” was actually two camps, Auschwitz and the newer, larger Birkenau. We were now in the older, original camp. It consisted of tall brick buildings arranged in neat rows. Our guide spoke rapidly, giving us some idea of the history of the camp. It had been opened in 1940, originally to house Polish prisoners of war. Even at this early stage, however, the camp was a sadistically cruel place, where many inmates quickly died. By 1941, mass execution via gassing had commenced; and from 1942 to 1944, the camp became the site of mass death for Jews who were transported from all over Europe. In all, over one million inmates died at the camp. The day of its liberation by the Red Army, on January 27, 1945, is commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

But this tour was not primarily educational. It was designed to make us feel the horrors that went on in that place. To that end, many of the buildings in Auschwitz have been converted into exhibition spaces. It is viscerally disturbing. We saw the discarded glasses, shoes, luggage, pans, pots, canes, crutches, artificial limbs, and walking sticks of the victims. Most nauseating, there was a large mound of the victim’s hair, shaved from women’s bodies after gassing, and examples of clothes that were woven from such hair. Inmates with dental experience were also employed to remove any gold teeth from victims. All of these remnants form a powerful summary of how the Nazis dehumanized their victims. It was not enough to kill their ‘enemies.’ The bodies had to be turned, as much as possible, into sources of profit, or industrial products.

This attitude is just as apparent in the so-called ‘experiments’ that the Nazis subjected some of their victims to. The guide only touched on this aspect briefly, but the details are chilling. The company IG Farben, for example, paid the camp for 150 female inmates, in order to test an anesthetic. A letter regarding the test still survives; it reads: “The transport of 150 women arrived in good condition. However, we were unable to determine conclusive results because they died during the experiments.” The letter ends with a request for more inmates. And, of course, there was Dr. Mengele, who performed savage experiments on identical twins before killing and dissecting them. This ‘experimentation’ took place in block 10.

Nextdoor, in the closed space between blocks 10 and 11, executions were performed—usually on prisoners of war. Thousands died this way: forced to kneel, and then shot in the back of the head with a small-caliber pistol. The neighboring building, Block 11, was used for brutal punishments, such as being hung from the ceiling by one’s wrists, or being forced to stand in a cell for days on end. In 1941, a group of prisoners were deliberately starved to death in the small, dark, windowless cells in the lower level, as retribution for other prisoners who had managed to escape.

After this, the guide took us to the first gas chamber in the camp, Crematorium I. Here is where the Nazis who ran the camp perfected their method of mass-execution. Prisoners were told they were going to take a shower or to be de-loused. This kept people calm and allowed the camp to preserve a facade of order. After removing their clothes, they were herded into the chamber, and the door locked behind them. Then, pellets of Zyklon B were dropped into the chamber from the ceiling, releasing hydrogen cyanide gas that would kill everyone inside within minutes. The bodies were then burned. All this was explained to us as we stood outside the structure—which looks like a concrete bunker—and then we were briefly led inside. The structure that stands now is a reconstruction (the Nazis tried to hide the evidence of their crimes). Still, if it is faithful to the original, then it is chilling that such a nondescript place could the site of mass murder.

The gallows where Rudolf Höss was executed

Right next to this crematorium—on the spot where the Gestapo headquarters used to be—was where Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, was executed. Höss unsuccessfully tried to go into hiding after the war by pretending to be a low-ranking soldier. But he was arrested in 1946, tried by the Polish Supreme National Tribunal in 1947, and hanged on a specially made gallows shortly thereafter. According to Laurence Rees, the execution had to be postponed for several days because the crowd—which included camp survivors—became unruly and aggressive (understandably). Yet as our guide informed us, it is hard to say that justice was done, as less than 15% of those who worked at Auschwitz were ever tried. As a case in point, the horrid Josef Mengele died of natural causes in Brazil.

After this, our group boarded a small bus that drove us to the second camp, known as Auschwitz II-Birkenau. This camp, built in 1941 on Himmler’s orders, has a very different look from the original Auschwitz. It is much larger, built on a wide, open field. The surviving structures are also shorter and less substantial. This is the camp that was specifically built for mass killing and large-scale slave labor. The guide showed us the train tracks that brought the prisoners in through the front gate. Here, Mengele (among others) would make his “selections,” choosing who would be forced to work, who would be used for experiments, and who would be immediately sent to the gas chambers. (Auschwitz is unique for having been both a concentration camp—where prisoners are forced to work—and an execution camp. Usually a camp was one or the other.)

An example of the kind of train car that would transport prisoners to Auschwitz

Our guide then took us to the site of the two main crematoria. They are little more than piles of broken concrete now, as the Nazis destroyed them before they abandoned the camp. Still, it is deeply unsettling to see the remains of a building made especially for mass killing. The victims would be led to an underground room, where they undressed in preparation for “disinfection,” leaving their clothes on numbered pegs. Then, after walking down a hallway, they entered the gas chamber, where Zyklon B was dropped inside. (From the outside these looked like bricked-up cottages; one was called the “little red house,” and the other the “little white house.”) As soon as it was safe to enter, the bodies were taken to the adjoining crematorium and burned. An efficient factory of death.

The ruins of one of the gas chambers

It was here that the guide left us. My final image of Auschwitz was walking through one of the old barracks for prisoners. It was a simple, one-story structure with brick walls. With its poor insolation and large windows (I am not sure if they originally had glass in them), it must have offered little warmth in the cold months. Prisoners slept on wooden bunks, often with more than one prisoner crammed into each bunk. The abysmal living conditions—a scanty diet, insufficient clothing, poor sanitation—meant that many prisoners died without the use of gas chambers, simply through malnutrition, disease, cold, or overwork.

I have given the briefest description of Auschwitz. There is infinitely more that could be said; and there are many captivating books on the subject. There are also, I am sure, many lessons and morals that can be drawn from this atrocity. What struck me was how perfectly designed the camp was to strip inmates of their humanity. The entire process—from transport, to uniforms and tattoos, to the living quarters, to the gas chambers, to the use of prisoners for experiments and their bodies for raw materials—was designed to turn individual human beings into something entirely disposable, like cattle. This allowed men like Höss and his subordinates to perpetuate one of history’s greatest crimes with hardly a second thought.

Later, we were on the train, heading back to Krakow. I did not feel sad, or angry, or even somber—just a kind of emptiness. If a place like Auschwitz is possible, what does that tell us about being human in the first place?

Ancient Cities: Istanbul

Ancient Cities: Istanbul

The plane ride was remarkably pleasant. After years of traveling on budget airlines, finally I had a bit of luxury—spacious seats, decent food, an entertainment system, and even free cologne in the bathroom. I was even more impressed when I stepped off the plane. We were in the new Istanbul Airport, which has been opened just the month before, in April of 2019. (This replaced the older Atatürk Airport, now used only for shipping and cargo.) The place was striking. Everything was sleek and shiny, with a futuristic design reminiscent of a spaceship. This was not what I expected when I chose to fly to an ancient city.

This was Holden’s second time in the city, and my first, so I was following his lead. We withdrew some Turkish Lira from an ATM (worth about ten Euro cents a piece), and then found the bus to Istanbul. Even this bus was pleasant (it had free wifi!). We were dropped off in front of a big hotel, and had a quick bite to eat in a nearby Kebab place.

Now, I need to say a word here about kebab—more specifically, döner kebab. It is a staple in Europe. Indeed, along with pizza, it is one of the only truly pan-European foods. You can find kebab shops in Italy, Spain, France, Portugal, Poland, Germany, or England—all with the same rotating spits of meat, the same shabby decor, the same disposable napkins and frozen french fries—and you are always guaranteed a cheap and filling meal of bread and meat, with a sprinkling of lettuce and, perhaps, the odd tomato thrown in. For two years I even lived above a kebab shop, and breathed in the meaty aromas which wafted up from below, filling me with strange cravings at odd hours.

Unfortunately for me, the kebab in Spain is notably worse than the kebab elsewhere. I blame it on the Spanish preference for bland foods. To adapt to the local tastes, kebab owners here tone down the spices, reducing the flavor to that of a standard hamburger. Even so, during my nights out, after some drinks with friends—or before, or during—I came greatly to appreciate the humble döner kebab, so cheap, fast, and ubiquitous. This may seem to be quite a lot to dedicate to a bit of ground meat on a bun; but I want to explain why I was so excited to try a kebab in Turkey, its birthplace. I was finally in the Mecca.

The kebab arrived, and I devoured it with passion. Absolutely scrumptious—far better than the Spanish version. But it was late now—approaching midnight—so we could not stay to savor the meal. We found our Airbnb and got ourselves ready for bed. The next day our trip would truly begin.


If asked what the largest city in Europe is, I suspect most people would say London, Paris, or perhaps Moscow. But with 15 million souls, Istanbul easily takes the cake. Admittedly, the city is not wholly European: it straddles the continental divide between Europe and Asia. Roughly half of the city sits on either side of the Bosphorus (the strait that connects the Mediterranean with the Black Sea), which has always put Istanbul in an ideal place to dominate trade, as this is a natural bottleneck. We should not be surprised, then, that the city’s roots stretch far back to antiquity.

Istanbul is a city with three names. In addition to its current appellation, it has been called Byzantium and Constantinople. The city began, like many cities around the Mediterranean, as a kind of Greek colony and trading post. The Romans, as was their wont, eventually conquered the city; and when the great Roman Empire grew unwieldy, and split into West and East, Byzantium became the capital of the new state (thus the name Byzantine Empire). Shortly thereafter, however, the city changed its name to honor the great Constantine, who is now remembered mostly as the emperor who converted to Christianity; but he did an awful lot of things besides that—most notably, govern well.

For centuries thereafter, Constantinople was one of the great cities of the world. As the Western Roman Empire collapsed, and Europe was swallowed up by the Dark Ages, the Byzantine Empire preserved much of the pomp, prestige, and power of the erstwhile Romans. The city remained a major center of trade—particularly on the Silk Route—as well as an important barrier between the new religion of Islam and Christian Europe. After a very long and very slow decline (famously catalogued by Edward Gibbon) the city finally fell on April 6, 1453, to the Ottomon Turks, who used cannons to break through the previously impregnable city walls. As Gibbon narrates it:

It was thus, after a siege of fifty-three days, that Constantinople, which had defied the power of Chosroes, the Chagan, and the caliphs, was irretrievably subdued by the arms of Mahomet the Second. … The senators were linked with their slaves; the prelates with the porters of the church; and young men of the plebeian class with noble maids, whose faces had been invisible to the sun and nearest kindred.

But of course that was not the end of its story. The city became the capital of the powerful Ottomon Empire for another five centuries—until finally, after independence was won from the Allied Powers, the capital was moved to Ankara, and Constantinople renamed Istanbul. Even so, few would doubt that Istanbul remains the most important city in Turkey. Indeed, though somewhat fallen from the glory days of Constantine, Istanbul is still one of the most important cities in the world.

It is also, as it happens, one of the most enchanting.


I only had one demand of Holden: that we see the Hagia Sophia. So that is where we headed to first.

It was a stunningly sunny day, the sky a piercing blue. After a bit of fumbling, we managed to get tickets for the tram from the machines, and off we went through the city. The tram took us over the Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosphorus. The spires of minarets and the domes of mosques loomed in the skyline overhead. The streets teemed with people. The city had none of that sterile polish that some popular tourist destinations have. It was immediately clear that Istanbul was a real place.

Locating the Hagia Sophia was no challenge. But buying tickets presented us with a dilemma. We had the option either to buy a single entry to the museum, or to buy a combination pass that included many other monuments. I normally shy away from such passes, since you lose money unless you visit most or all of the sites; thus buying it commits you to a certain itinerary. So I elected for the single entry. But Holden reached the opposite conclusion, which led to a competition between us: Who would save money in the end? I will not bother with suspense: Holden won. I humbly recommend the combination pass.

In any case, it is too vulgar to dwell on such things in the presence of the Hagia Sophia, one of the great architectural wonders of the world. Completed in 537, under the rule of Justinian, its name literally means “Holy Wisdom.” Two churches had previously occupied this spot; both burned down. Justinian was determined that his own effort not meet with the same fate, and so ordered the new building to be made of brick and stone.

Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles were chosen to design the new building, even though they were both mathematicians rather than architects. It was a brilliant choice, as only a mathematician could have designed the series of pendentives and semi-domes that culminate in the crowning central dome, mutually supporting one another over a vast internal space. With the help of some 10,000 workers, they created both the largest dome and the largest cathedral in the world—not to be surpassed for almost a thousand years. (Its dome was eventually surpassed by the Duomo in Florence, and its size by the Seville Cathedral.) Admittedly, an earthquake caused the roof to partially collapse just a few months after it was completed, which required extensive reconstruction.

The Hagia Sophia is a building marked by time. Much has changed since it was first built. For one, the marble covering its façade has almost entirely fallen away, leaving the structural brick exposed. This gives the current building a slightly shabby aspect from the outside; but in its day it would have glimmered brightly in the Mediterranean sun. Many other changes are due to the building’s religious history. After it was converted from a church into a mosque, four massive minarets were constructed on each corner of the building, whose spires even extend beyond the top of the dome.

The inside presents the same contrast of religions. The most obvious sign of Islam are the eight large medallions bearing ornate calligraphy, boldly displaying names of Muhammad, Allah, the caliphs, and Muhammad’s grandsons. There is also a mihrab where the Christian altar used to stand, though it seems strangely misaligned, as it had to point to Mecca in a building which points to Jerusalem. The Christian elements are no less obvious. The walls are covered with elaborate, golden mosaics, depicting Jesus, Mary, Emperors, Empresses, and Saints. These had all been covered with plaster during the centuries when the Hagia Sophia was a mosque, as representational imagery is considered sacriligeous in Islam. They were carefully uncovered during the mosque’s conversion into a museum in the 1930s. The strangest of these might be the six-winged seraphim adorning the pendentives—a bundle of feathery wings with no face, appendages, or bodies.

A few curiosities stand out for note. There is the Wishing Column, a column with a hole in it that apparently was replaced with a piece of bronze. Curiously, the bronze now feels oddly wet, for which reason it is also called the sweating or the crying column. In any case, touching this perspiring indentation is supposed to bring you good luck. Also curious are the two enormous urns, meant for the ritual purification of Muslim worship. The urns themselves were actually carved in Ancient Greece out of two even more enormous blocks of granite—an incredible feat. Most amusing, for me, were the graffiti carved into the upper-story railings. While you may think that these have some religious significance, they were actually carved by soldiers in the Emperor’s Varangian Guard—an elite bodyguard unit, with members recruited from the brutal northern lands. In other words, there are runic inscriptions carved by Vikings in a building in Turkey.

As for the majestic beauty of the place, I will leave that to Edward Gibbon:

A magnificent temple is a laudable monument of national taste and religion; and the enthusiast who entered the dome of St. Sophia might be tempted to suppose that it was the residence, or even the workmanship, of the Deity.

But he also adds:

Yet how dull is the artifice, how insignificant is the labour, if it be compared with the formation of the vilest insect that crawls upon the surface of the temple!

It is true that cathedral architecture does lag far behind insect evolution in complexity and efficiency of design. But I still prefer the Hagia Sophia.

I cannot move on without noting the recent decision to turn the Hagia Sophia back into a working mosque, rather than a museum. Thankfully, this time around, the Christian artworks will not be plastered over. Even so, many people criticized the decision, as the Hagia Sophia has long been considered to be a symbol of co-existence between the two religions. But to be fair, Christians are still worshipping inside the Great Mosque of Cordoba, which was turned into a church when the city fell to Christian conquerors, about 200 years before Constantinople was taken by Mehmed II. So perhaps we should make an exchange.

Standing right outside the Hagia Sophia is another ruin of the ancient city, though you may not recognize it. The current Sultan Ahmet Square occupies what used to be the Hippodrome,* Constantinople’s version of the Circus Maximus. That is, it was an enormous stadium—big enough for 100,000 spectators—used for chariot races and other amusements. None of the stadium survives; but some of the monuments placed in the center of the race track do remain. One of these is the Serpent Column. This was actually the base of a sacrificial tripod, made in the 5th century BCE to commemorate the victory of the Greeks against the Persians; and originally three snakes’ heads extended from the twisted bodies of the column. Unfortunately, those delicate heads rusted off a few hundred years ago, leaving only the slithering column at the base.

(*Hippodrome is Greek for “horse course.” The word “hippopotamus,” by the way, comes from the Greek for “water horse.” Hippocampus, used for both the animal and the part of the brain, means “sea horse.”)

That Greek column was transported here by the Romans as a celebration of their power. The same was done with the Obelisk of Thutmose III. This is an enormous stone tower, built around 1490 BCE during Egypt’s 18th Dynasty (Thus, this column was more ancient to the Byzantines than they are to us!) It was transported here during the reign of the emperor Theodosius, for which reason it is sometimes (though unfairly) referred to as the Obelisk of Theodosius.

In his excellent course on Ancient Egypt, Bob Brier remarks that obelisks were enormous engineering accomplishments, arguably more impressive than the pyramids. This is because they were made from a single piece of stone. Moving them from the quarry, and getting them into position, was thus a terrific challenge—not only because of its massive weight, but also because it could easily crack if not properly supported during transport. As a case in point, this obelisk was damaged when the Byzantines moved it here, effectively losing over a third of its original height. As another case in point, the so-called Walled Obelisk, built by the Byzantines as a kind of matching twin to the Egyptian original, is made from cut stone—that is, assembled out of little pieces, rather than carved from a single rock. It certainly looks shabby when compared to the original.

I should here mention the infamous Nika riots. During the reign of Justinian, in the 6th century, chariot racing was intertwined with political affiliation. The populous divided itself into factions—blues, greens, reds, and whites—which were as much like street gangs as political parties. After chariot races, hooligans frequently clashed, sometimes with fatal results. But in the year 532, tensions were coming to a head. Justinian had become so unpopular that, at one chariot race, partisan loyalties were thrown aside, and the entire populace turned against him, chanting “Nika!” (“Victory!”). The rioters started attacking the palace and destroying the city. Justinian (prompted by his wife, Theodosius) stayed to command his forces against the mob. By the end of the riots, tens of thousands of people had been killed, and half of the city burned down. Indeed, this is what gave Justinian the opportunity to build the Hagia Sophia.

Looming over this ancient racing ground, within sight of the Hagia Sophia, is another iconic monument. Yet this one is not ancient. I am talking about the famous Blue Mosque, though it is properly called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Sultan Ahmed I ruled the mighty Ottomon Empire from 1603 to 1617, notably deciding not to kill all of his brothers when he ascended to the throne. (Sultans typically had many sons, from their polygamous ways; and it was customary for the new sultan to get rid of the competition when the time came to rule.) Though his life was eventful by any standard, he is mainly remembered now for the erection of his eponymous mosque. Indeed, he is buried in a türbe (tomb) right outside its walls—a surprisingly humble shrine for such royalty.

The Blue Mosque is still very much an active place of worship. This means that, five times a day, the muezzin sings in a husky, melismatic voice: “Allah is the most great. I testify that there is no God but Allah. I testify that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah. Come to prayer. Come to salvation. There is no God but Allah.” In the old days the muezzin would ascend to the top of the minaret and shout out this call at the top of his lungs; but nowadays they use loudspeakers rigged up to the minarets. In any case, it is a lovely and haunting sound—seeming to encompass the whole culture in a few lines of melody. But this does mean that the Blue Mosque (as with any mosque) is sometimes unavailable for visits.

From the outside one can easily see the influence of Byzantine architecture on the Ottomon style. Much like the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is composed of a series of cupolas and semi-domes that culminate in the large central dome. Its appellation notwithstanding, the hue of its façade is, at best, only vaguely azure. Visiting the mosque means getting in a queue and shuffling through the impressive courtyard that sits in front of the entrance. Shoes must be removed for the visit (little plastic bags are provided to carry them), and women must cover their hair (scarves are provided if you do not have one). Some Westerners may bristle at the sexist double-standard, though to be fair I have seen women being told to cover up in Rome before visiting Basilicas. So perhaps we are not so different.

I had never been inside a mosque before, so I did not know what to expect. What first struck me was that the inside was a lot less “busy” than a European church. Whereas a cathedral is full of little altars and shrines, with saints and angels jumping out at you from every corner, the Blue Mosque was open and empty. The floor was covered with an enormous prayer rug (red, not blue), and the walls decorated with ceramics of highly elaborate floral designs. As mentioned above, Islamic art considers depictions of the human form—especially of religious figures—to be profane, a prohibition which prompted Muslim artists to develop abstract design to prodigious heights. Yet what I found most charming about my visit was that there were young men passing out copies of the Koran, in multiple languages. I requested and got an English version—with an appropriately blue binding—which now sits proudly on my bookshelf. I ought to read it soon.

Our next stop was the Topkapi Palace. This was the center of Ottomon power while the empire was at its height, built by the order of Mehmed the Conqueror, six years after he took Constantinople. Unlike monstrous European palaces—everything gathered under one enormous roof, Versailles being the prime example—Topkapi takes the form of a series of walled courtyards, each more intimate than the last. In other words, the palace is spread out rather than piled in a heap. The place is quite massive, so I will not even attempt a general description. But there are a few highlights. What most sticks out in my memory is the impressive collection of porcelain, how displayed in the palace’s kitchen. Here the Muslim genius for decorative art is displayed to full affect, as the ceramics were covered in lush patterns.

A model of Topkapi Palace

In the third courtyard, in the Sultan’s private chamber, there is also a display of Islamic holy relics. These include things like Muhammad’s footprint, his bow and sword, his robe and his banner, and a letter by his hand, in addition to relics of Moses and John the Baptist. In one room, a hafiz—someone who has memorized the entire Koran—keeps up a continuous recital of that sacred scripture (presumably they do it in shifts). Koran recitation, by the way, is a serious artform in the Muslim world; to Western ears it sounds like music. The most impressive architecture is to be found in the fourth courtyard, where a series of beautifully decorated kiosks, full of delightful ceramics. Here you can also enjoy a view of the Golden Horn and the Marmara Sea.

Roof decoration from the palace

Unfortunately for me, however, I did not get to see one of the most interesting parts of the palace: the Harem. This was because it cost extra to go inside—that is, if you did not have the pass. Perhaps I would not have minded paying; but I was determined to show Holden that I would save money through my decision not to buy the bass. Holden, meanwhile, strolled right inside, leaving me to wait in the courtyard. In any case, it is worth noting that the harem was not exactly the den of pleasure imagined by European orientalists, where the Sultan luxuriated among limitless numbers of concubines. Indeed, his whole family lived there—including, most notably, his mother, who was involved in selecting women for the Sultan. Still, judging from the photos, it was probably a pretty nice place to be (at least for the Sultan).

Holden running from an Ishtar Lion

Right next to Topkapi is perhaps the finest museum in the city: the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. In fact, you do not even need to go inside to enjoy the museum’s collection, as the courtyard is littered with stone fragments—of sculptures, columns, and even sarcophagi—a kind of graveyard for monuments. Even though part of the museum’s collection was unavailable due to construction, I still came away quite impressed by the visit. There are, for example, some examples of Ancient Mesopotamian art, such as the wonderful Ishtar Gate, or clay tablets bearing cuneiform inscriptions; and the many busts, friezes, and mosaics—from Egypt, Greece, and Rome—should also be mentioned. But the highlight of the museum is its extensive collection of sarcophagi. The most famous of these is the Alexander Sarcophagus, reputed to belong to the great conqueror. Alexander is certainly depicted on the outside (in much the same manner as in the Alexander Mosaic, in Naples), but it is very doubtful that this was actually his resting place. Even so, it is a beautiful place to be dead in.

This actually isn’t the Alexander Sarcophagus, but another impressive work in the museum’s collection

After enjoying the museum, we headed to the Basilica Cistern. This is so-named because, in this spot, a Basilica once stood, facing the Hagia Sophia. Now, only the underground rainwater receptacle remains. But it is impressive in itself. The visitor pays the fee (it isn’t included in the Istanbul pass, much to my delight and Holden’s chagrin!) and descends a tunnel into a kind of damp cave. There, you walk on a platform (the cistern is mostly drained, but some puddles remain on the floor), observing the strange subterranean environment. It is an enormous space, big enough to hold 21 million gallons of water. The roof is supported by 366 marble columns, most rather plain, but some quite elaborately decorated. One column is decorated with eyes, which seem to be weeping tears—apparently a tribute to the slaves who died constructing the cistern. Two other columns rest on enormous carved statues of Medusa (a case of recycling materials). In any case, it is clear that the Byzantines knew the value of water.

After saying so much about the major monuments of Istanbul, I ought to take some time to describe the city itself, as well as its people. This was my first time in a predominately Muslim country, so a lot was new for me. I found the innumerable mosques, with their minarets and domes, to be endlessly charming; and the call to prayer (adhan) never failed to send a little shiver down my spine. What is more, it was Ramadan when we visited, which meant that, every evening, right as the sun was setting, one could observe the people scrambling to eat. One policewoman carried a stack of pizza boxes to her fellows, as they got ready to devour them at the appropriate time; and vendors rapidly set up shop along the streets, with rice and chickpeas ready to be sold to hungry customers. Another consequence was that alcohol was not especially manifest. Granted, if you wanted to find a beer, it was not especially difficult; but it was not reliably sold at every corner store. And, of course, most women walked around with their hair covered (and some with their face veiled, too).

My impressions of the Turkish people were entirely positive. In every interaction we had, they were unfailingly attentive, polite, and helpful. The helpfulness was the most striking thing. Any time we asked someone for directions, they would really go out of their way to help us out. Holden, for example, was determined to get a haircut while we were there, but we did not know where to go. When Holden asked a bystander who was sitting on a bench, smoking, he got up and walked us several blocks to a barbershop. Then he even called inside to the barber, and led us in, purely out of courtesy! (The haircut, by the way, was quite special: The barber used only scissors, no electric razor, and layered the hair with diligent skill. He also gave Holden a shave with a straight edge razor, and even used a little torch to burn off the peach fuzz on Holden’s face and neck. It was quite a performance.)

The Galata Bridge

Aside from its many monuments, the city of Istanbul itself is not exactly beautiful. Yes, the bridges and waterways provide for a nice view; and many neighborhoods are reasonably attractive. But great swaths of the city are run-down, with damaged buildings and shabby roads. Feral cats and dogs were a constant presence, so much so that I doubted whether any Turks had any actual pets. To get a good taste of modern Istanbul, you can head to Taksim Square, one of the major plazas of the city. It is ringed by hotels and restaurants, where tourists are inevitably gathered. In the center is the Republic Monument, which celebrates the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—freedom fighter and first president of Turkey—occupies pride of place in this monument; indeed, he is on both sides of it.

But Holden would argue that Istanbul is not best seen from any square, street, or building. As he is fond of saying, “The best way to see a city is by boat.” It is his mantra, his life’s creed. In keeping with this sage principle, therefore, we decided to take a little Bosphorus cruise. The waterway is constantly full of little ferries, transporting busy Istanbullulars north and south, and from Europe to Asia and back again. You can buy a ticket for one of these ferries for an exceedingly reasonable price (though Holden and I struggled to find exactly where to buy the tickets, and which ferry line to use). So after Holden had his hair cut, we were off to the seas for the absolute best possible view of Istanbul.

It was a sparklingly clear day, with cloudless skies and shimmering waters. Seagulls floated motionless on the gales as we ascended the gangplank and found seats on the upper deck. It was not crowded. Soon the ship had pulled away from shore, and we were cruising northeast, hemmed in by two continents. We all around us were gargantuan cargo vessels, full of multi-colored shipping containers. (According to Rick Steves, many of these are Russian, as the Bosphorus is still a major artery between Russia and Europe.) In the distance, swimming among these leviathans, I spied the black backs of a pod of dolphins, coming up for air.

Holden was correct: the city was very attractive from this vantage point. I especially liked the many mosques and minarets that adorned the surrounding hills like crowns. Far off, we could spot the commanding form of the Çamlica Mosque, the biggest mosque in the city, which had opened just a few months before our visit. After fifteen minutes or so we came upon the Dolmahbahçe Mosque—a small and lovely mosque that sits on a platform over the water. Right up river is the Dolmahbahçe Palace, which replaced the Topkapi Palace as the center of Ottomon Power in 1856. Unlike its predecessor, Dolmahbahçe is transparently European in inspiration and design, imitating Versailles in its weighty grandeur.

The Dolmahbahçe Palace

Further on, we encounter the Rumelihisari. This is a large fortress, built by the orders of Mehmet II (the Conqueror), with the intention of choking off boat traffic on the Bosphorus. This effectively prevented any kind of aid from reaching Constantinople during its final siege. Finally we reached the Bosphorus Bridge. Opened in 1973, it was the first permanent bridge to span two continents. (In his attempt to conquer Greece, the Persian Emperor Darius had a bridge of pontoons built for his army to cross.) Leonardo da Vinci first proposed a suspension bridge here in the 16th century; it took the rest of us a little while to catch up with his vision. 

Such was our little cruise, which lasted about two hours. (There are longer ones that take you all the way to the Black Sea, a day-long affair.) Holden may be right about his boat theory. But if you do have to see Istanbul from land, then perhaps the best place to go is the Galata Tower.  This is a tall watchtower—measuring about 60 meters, or 200 feet—that was built in the 14th century. The Genoese had a colony in the city at that time, which they used as part of their extensive trading network; and they built the tower as a kind of lookout on the Bosphorus. The visit seemed a bit overpriced (and it wasn’t included in Holden’s pass!), but the panoramic view of the city is difficult to beat, even if you do happen to be on a boat.


On any trip to Istanbul, it is pretty well obligatory to pay a visit to the Grand Bazaar—even if, like me, you are no great fan of shopping, and have no need for touristy souvenirs. Here you can see that the idea of a shopping mall has impressively hoary roots, as this enormous market was opened back in the 15th century. The bazaar is fairly inconspicuous from the outside; but once you go inside, you find yourself wandering in an enormous maze of covered passageways—61 streets in total. All around you are shops and stalls, selling textiles, spices, jewelry, makeup, and sweets like Turkish delight. None of this may appeal to you (I didn’t buy anything), but it is enjoyable simply as a spectacle.

Standing quite close to the Bazaar is the oldest monument in the city: the Column of Constantine. In its current form, you may wonder why this lumpy bit of stone is famous. But when it was constructed, this column was enormous (perhaps the biggest triumphal column erected by the Romans) and glorious, featuring a shining bronze statue of Constantine on the top. A gust of wind eventually blew down the statue, as well as a few chunks at the top of the column, which was replaced with a cross. Then the crusaders blundered the bronze rings that held it together, and the conquering Muslims had the cross removed. Finally, the column was scorched in a fire, giving it a distinctive black tint. These days, a masonry base has replaced the original marble one, and iron braces hold the porphyry of the column in place, which makes it a rather ugly sight. But it is still worth seeing, as this column commemorates the renaming of Byzantium in Constantine’s honor, in the year 330.

Our next visit was a less ancient monument: the Süleymaniye Mosque. Until it was surpassed, in 2019, by the aforementioned Caliça Mosque, this was the largest in the city. It is certainly hard to miss—sitting atop a hill, with a commanding view of the Bosphorus. The mosque owes its name to perhaps the greatest Ottomon ruler, Suleiman the Magnificent, famous for both his many conquests and his judicial reforms. He also, as it happened, presided over a high point in Ottomon art and architecture, as evinced by this glorious mosque.

I remember my visit most vividly. Before going inside, we spent some time wandering in the adjacent cemetery, examining the tombstones with Arabic calligraphy. Then we paused to admire the expansive view of the Golden Horn, full of boats on the glimmering waters. Finally we turned our attention to the building itself. Using little fountains outside the walls, people were practicing wudu, the ceremonial washing of the face, arms, and legs before prayer. We went inside, first into the enormous courtyard, surrounded by the towering minarets, and then into the massive prayer hall. In form it was quite similar to the Blue Mosque—a floor covered with a rug, and walls decorated with abstract designs. One side of the space was set aside for visitors, while the other side (roped off) was for worship. A very polite young man, volunteering at the mosque, gave us an enthusiastic explanation of the building’s history, with a few curiosities thrown in. According to him, ostrich eggs are put on the chandeliers to repel spiders (I suppose spiders hate ostriches?).

I must mention here a fact that testifies to my own general ignorance. While waiting for Holden, I peaked into a large tomb, which a sign said was for a man named Suleiman. Somehow, I did not realize that this was Suleiman the Magnificent himself, who is buried right outside his eponymous mosque.

Next, we had a Christian monument to visit, the Chora Church. Its name (Greek for “field” or “countryside”) actually refers to the fact that this church originally stood outside the city walls of Constantinople; and even now, the church is far from the city center. Holden and I elected, unwisely, to walk the few kilometers to the church, thinking that we could see some of the city on the way. Instead, we ended up walking through ugly urban wastelands, alongside busy and noisy roads. It was not pleasant. Thankfully, once we got nearby, we popped into a little café for some Turkish coffee. And we were charmed to find posters of Hollywood films in Turkish hanging nearby.

When we got to the church, Holden’s sagacity in purchasing the Istanbul pass was decisively demonstrated, as he was able to walk right inside, while I had to wait for about 20 minutes to buy a ticket (the ticket office being monopolized by a tour guide buying dozens of Istanbul passes). So, once again, if you go to Istanbul get the pass.

The church was undergoing extensive restorations when we visited, so there was almost nothing to see on the outside, as it was entirely covered with scaffolding. But the church is famous for its interior, anyway. This is because of the gorgeous and astoundingly complete set of Byzantine mosaics that cover the ceilings. Though the church was originally built in the 4th century, these decorations hail from the 14th century, a period of artistic splendor known as the Palaeologan Renaissance. Typical of Byzantine art, the mosaics feature somewhat abstract figures against a glittering, golden background. The mosaics are astounding for their quantity as much as their quality—far surpassing those in the Hagia Sophia, even though Chora is so much smaller.

I should note here that, last year, shortly after the decision to reconvert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, it was announced that the same was to be done with Chora. Like the Hagia Sophia, this church had spent several centuries as a mosque (known as the Kariye Mosque), until it was converted into a museum in 1945. A Turkish court decided that this conversion was unlawful, and that it should be used as a mosque once again. Personally I found this decision rather odd, as it does not seem practical to cover up the dozens and dozens of Christian images, which the Muslim faith demands. But I suppose it is their monument to dispose of.

To return to the city center, we decided that we had better take a bus rather than walk this time. By chance, the main bus hub we found was right next to the iconic Theodosian Walls. This is a set of double walls, built around the ancient city by the order of Theodosius, who reigned in the 5th century. The walls are both tall and thick; and having two layers of protection only made them more formidable. It is worth going out of your way to see them, as the imposing walls of Constantinople are largely responsible for the Byzantine Empire’s longevity, making the city almost impregnable until the advent of cannons. Indeed, over 60 cannons—including one super-sized cannon, weighing over 30 tons—were used by Mehmet II to finally capture Constantinople. 

Now, here I must break off this long list of beautiful monuments, in order to introduce you to an experience. I am talking about the Turkish Bath. Normally I don’t go in for this sort of thing. I have never gotten a massage. But Holden was adamant: we absolutely had to get a Turkish bath if we were in Turkey. Here is how it went.

After looking around for a good place, we decided on one that advertised itself as being traditional (I think it was Çemberlitaş Hamamı, near the Column of Constantine). The price was about 30 euros per person, which I found reasonable. Then we were guided to the changing room, or sogukluk, which is a kind of enclosed courtyard with multiple floors. We were led up the stairs to a little room with a glass door; then the attendant handed us two towels and said something like “Take off your clothes and put these on.” (I should note that both the changing room and bathing areas are segregated by gender.)

At this point I panicked. First of all I still have my puritan notions of nudity to contend with, so I did not feel at all comfortable disrobing. But my other problem, as I soon found out, was that I had no idea how to properly fasten a towel around my waist. I confessed this difficulty to Holden—who, for his part, was feeling totally at ease and eager for his massage—who almost passed out from laughter. When he collected himself, he kindly helped me to wrap myself with the garment, explaining the principle to me. (At home and at college, I had always carried my clothes into the bathroom with me to shower, so I never had to learn!)

Then, we were led from the changing room (where we left our things) to the sickaklik, the bathing room. This is quite an impressive space. The room has twelve walls, and sits under a large dome, which is perforated with little, star-shaped holes for ventilation. In the center is a large, raised platform; and all around the periphery are little niches with fountains. We were instructed to lie down on the slab and wait (we had a little towel to cushion our heads). Holden explained that we had to be properly sweaty for the bath. This was no problem, as it must have been nearly 100 degrees inside, the air dense with moisture.

After about 10 minutes of silent sweating, we were approached by two burly Turkish fellows, who explained (in functional English) that they were there to bathe us. The first step of the process is pretty jarring. My gentle masseuse started to vigorously scrub my skin with a kind of rough cloth (called a kese), I suppose with the goal of exfoliation. It was not exactly painful, but it could not be called soothing, either. Then, my attendant filled a bucket with very soapy water, and proceeded to lather my raw epidermis. After properly suddy, I was instructed to get up and go to one of the bathing niches, where I knelt down as he poured hot water over me. As the final step, I was taken outside the bathing room to a kind of adjoining room. Here I was once again instructed to kneel down, as the attendant vigorously scrubbed my hair and scalp with a bar of soap, and then once again doused me with bucketfuls of hot water.

We were back on the street in about an hour. Holden, for his part, felt absolutely clean, refreshed, and rejuvenated. I mainly felt exhausted from the sensory overload; but it is an experience I will certainly never forget, and will perhaps someday repeat.

So Istanbul has much to offer in the way of history, architecture, cruises, haircuts, and baths. But it would be criminal not to dwell on the food. It was delicious, filling, and cheap—a winning combination, if ever there was one. I have already had occasion to laud the kebab. It was consistently good (most distinctively, it was served with pickles), though I have to admit the best kebab I ever tasted was still in Berlin. The sweets were also excellent. Istanbul of little pastry shops, with displays filled to the brim with tiny packets of delight. I ordered a little plate of baklava every chance I got, and the kunefe was also scrumptious. Another joy was the coffee: it was both very strong and very sweet; likewise for the tea. After a few baklavas and a cup of Turkish coffee, I was always ready for more adventure.

Another common sort of shop are buffet-style restaurants, with hot food—vegetable, meat, and fish dishes—behind a pane of glass, for you to choose. Holden and I ate at one of these; and, judging from the other clientele, it was the most “authentic” place we went to. But the real stand-out place was Falafel House. We went there our first night for dinner, and returned every night for the rest of the trip. I ordered the same thing every time: falafel, hummus, and tabouleh (a kind of salad made from parsley, mint, cucumbers, and bulgur wheat). Not only was it vegetarian, but vegan, and (to repeat myself) delicious, filling, and cheap. Unfortunately for Holden, he suffered from food poisoning on our final night, which is strange, considering that we ate almost the exact same things during the trip. But in general I would rank Istanbul very high in gustatory pleasure.

For our last night in the city, we decided to cross the Bosphorus to visit Asia. So we hopped on another ferry and traveled over to Kadıköy. As I stepped off the boat, I felt a strange thrill: this was my first time in Asia—officially, the fourth continent (after North America, Africa, and Europe) that I had stepped foot in. This part of town was quite different from what we had already seen. First we passed through an enormous market, selling fresh vegetables, jars of pickled foods, cheeses, olives, sweets, fish, spices—a garden of earthly delights Then, we found ourselves surrounded by trendy bars. This, alone, was striking, as establishments mainly devoted to alcohol were absent from the Istanbul we had seen. The people looked different, too. Both men and women were dressed as hipsters; and, notably, many were walking their dogs. (Virtually all the dogs we had seen up until then were strays.) Clearly, this part of town was more Westernized.

Holden and I strolled around, eventually coming to a park on the water. There, young people were lounging on the grass, drinking wine; and a group of boys were playing basketball. The Bosphorus gently lapped the rocky shore, as couples held hands and kissed (it also occurred to me that I had not seen any public displays of affection until then). Holden and I decided to have a coffee, where we found that the establishment had backgammon boards available. We played a game (my first) and I narrowly lost. To drown my sorrows, I then had a drink at a bar.

If Holden’s boat theory was not definitely proven during our Bosphorus cruise, it was strongly verified on our return back across the Bosphorus. At night, as the city lights played on the placid waters, with mist sweeping in from the sea, the city took on a dream-like quality. One could easily imagine what it could have been like for a traveler, years ago, to see the towers, mosques, and minarets rise up in the distance over the waves. This was Constantinople.

As I mentioned before, our final night was somewhat marred by Holden’s getting food poisoning. (We also watched the disappointing penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, which didn’t help.) In the airport, the next day, we noticed some men with shaven heads, partly wrapped in towels, with odd red patches on their scalp. This is evidence of Turkey’s increasing medical tourism, specifically for hair transplants, which are apparently far cheaper than in most Western countries. (According to this article, however, the quality is inconsistent and the procedure potentially dangerous.) Finally, we boarded the plane back to Madrid, which was just as comfortable and luxurious as the ride there had been. It was an extraordinary trip.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Ancient Cities: Naples and Pompeii

Ancient Cities: Naples and Pompeii

Naples

Compared to Rome, Florence, Venice, and Milan—all meccas of European travel—Naples is like a disreputable cousin, or worse. Known for being dirty, run-down, and crime-ridden, Naples has none of the chic of Lombardy and none of the rustic charm of Tuscany. But this shady reputation has some advantage; for unlike those more popular destinations, Naples is still very much a city for Neopolitans.

Our plan to visit was multi-pronged. My brother Jay and my friend Greg had Fridays free, while myself and my friend Holden had Monday off. This led us to a strange, staggered schedule, wherein Jay and Greg would arrive Friday and leave Sunday, while Holden and I would arrive Saturday and leave very early Monday morning. But sometimes it is worth a bit of awkwardness and inconvenience to be with friends.

After a plane, a bus, and a metro ride, Holden and I arrived bright and bleary-eyed in the city. Immediately I was struck by the wonderful aesthetic of the city. Much like Marseille, the physical environment of Naples is a mixture of urban grittiness and Mediterranean beauty—the tan, brown, and yellow apartment buildings in various states of disrepair, graffiti sprayed onto every other surface, sun and sea a constant presence. But unlike Marseille, the energy of the city was pure anarchy. Mopeds and motorbikes zoomed by with wild abandon, neither stopping nor even looking, while the streets were filled with yelling, gesticulating citizens. It was, I admit, a little intimidating at first. But I soon decided it beat the more placid north by miles. 

The chaos and commotion immediately reminded me of Seville or Granada. But I soon discovered that Naples did have one thing seldom found in Spain: street food. Famished from the journey, Holden and I stopped at a little café that had a take-away window. The display was filled with all sorts of fried delights—rice, vegetables, and meat that had all been rolled into a ball, coated in breadcrumbs, and cooked to a crisp. We ordered some morsels and sat down on a bench. From the first bite, I decided that I liked the place.

Naples is covered with these street shrines, called “edicole votive,” allowing good Catholics a chance to pray wherever they go.

Soon, Greg and Jay appeared down the street in order to let us into the Airbnb. Greg, in fine form, was holding a blood orange (an Italian native), and making quite a mess as he ate it in the street. The Airbnb was in a big old building, slightly rundown but thoroughly charming in its Byzantine layout (we had to take two separate elevators to get to our apartment, since there wasn’t a straight path to the upper floors). In just a few minutes we were reunited and ready to meet this disreputable cousin.


Naples is one of the oldest cities in Europe, with a history stretching back far beyond the Romans. Prehistoric peoples had long been calling this area home when some impertinent Ancient Greeks established a major colony here. The Romans replaced the Greeks, and were in turn replaced by the Ostrogoths. Then the Normans came, and then the Spanish, and finally the French under Napoleon. Only after that, in 1815, did Naples definitively come under Neopolitan rule. A few decades later, while the United States was busy fighting its Civil War, Naples was finally integrated into the Kingdom of Italy. This quintessentially Italian city, then, has only been Italian for a century and a half—a short time for such a hoary place.

Naples is focused around its commodious bay. This has made the city a natural hub of trade and transport for thousands of years. Even today, Naples has one of the most important ports on the Mediterranean. This economic importance has resulted in urban accumulation. Naples is the third-biggest city in Italy, and its most densely populated. The whole place is huddled around the water like a group of children around a schoolyard fight. The streets are narrow and steep, and there are almost no parks within the city center itself to relieve the pressure. But every so often the claustrophobic city opens up into an enormous vista, revealing a giant cacophony of life spread out below the ominous form of Vesuvius. But more on that later.

Our first stop was lunch. And this, of course, had to be pizza, as Naples is the birthplace of that magnificent dish. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact birth of pizza. Bread topped with garlic and cheese is nearly as old as time, or at least agriculture. The missing ingredient was tomato, which had to make its way from the Americas to Italy. Thus, it was not until the early 19th century that pizza really came into its own. It is often told that the most iconic pizza of all, the Margherita pizza, was developed on the occasion of the eponymous queen’s visit to the city, where she sampled a pizza patriotically decorated with red (tomato sauce), green (basic), and white (mozzarella). This story may be partly fantasy; but there is a pizzeria in Naples—Brandi—which claims to be the originator of this now ubiquitous style.

We were famished, and so we headed into the nearest decent restaurant we could find. And as it happened, it was a lovely place. Totò, Eduardo e … Pasta e fagioli is a family style restaurant with a wonderful view of the city. It is not exactly a pizzeria—I assume it specializes in pasta e fagioli, another Italian classic—but, lucky for us, pizza was on the menu. And it was delicious. Neapolitan pizza is quite unlike what we normally eat in the United States. The crust is very thin, and so much tomato sauce is ladled on that it is normally eaten with a knife and fork. In contrast to a NY slice of pizza, then, wherein the lightly scorched crust is such a big component of the flavor, the taste of the Neapolitan version is dominated by the savory tomato and rich mozzarella. For my part, I was astounded at how addictively delicious the tomato sauce on my pizza was. Simple food, made well, can be stunning.

The view from the restaurant, with Mt. Vesuvius in the distance

After the meal, we headed to the city’s major museum: the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. The entrance fee did seem a little steep to us, but I assure you that the collection is worth the price. The visitor is immediately greeted by the enormous head of a horse. This is a work by Donatello in imitation of a Roman original. The Renaissance master outdid both himself and his ancient counterparts, as the horse is a wonder of realism—with each individual tooth, subcutaneous vein, and fold of skin clearly visible. If memory serves, the statue is also significant for being one of the first bronze statues made since antiquity. It is, thus, both a technical and an artistic achievement.

But the bulk of the museum’s collection is devoted to the Romans and not the Renaissance. The first collection the visitor encounters is sculpture; and though many of the statues on display were unearthed in nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum, the most famous works, ironically, come from Rome itself. This is the Farnese Collection. It is situated here because of dynastic maneuvers. Pope Paul III, née Alessandro Farnese, acquired the major pieces of the collection during his papacy. But many years later, when the family lacked a male heir, Elisabetta Farnese became queen of Spain by marrying Philip V, and then passed on the collection to her son Charles, who became the king of Naples and eventually of Spain, too. In short, famous Roman statues acquired by a Renaissance Pope are in Naples because of a Spanish king. Europe can be a confusing place.

In any case, the collection is magnificent. There is Apollo playing the cithara, his robes and body sculpted from costly porphyry, while his head and extremities are white marble (a modern replacement of the original bronze). The statues of Harmodius and Aristogeiton are significant more for their history than their beauty. Roman marble copies of lost Greek bronze originals, the statues depict the two men—lovers, of course—in the act of killing the last tyrant of Athens, thus paving the way for democracy. In the museum of Naples, then, we thus can a little taste of the Athenian Acropolis. Another group of statues commemorates military victories, both real and imagined, as it portrays an Amazon, a Giant, a Persian, and a Gaul—all warriors—all lying dead or dying. 

My brother posing with the dying enemies.

But my favorite work of the bunch is the Farnese Hercules. Like so many great “Roman” works, it is actually a copy of a bronze Greek statue that was sadly destroyed when Christian Crusaders sacked the Christian city of Constantinople (they got sidetracked from battling Islam). At least we have this marble version, which is the most wonderful portrayal of that brawny Greek demi-god I know, as it shows both his humanity (he seems a bit tuckered out) as well as his monumental power. A close second is the statue of Atlas, with the world on his shoulders. This work is of some scientific interest, as the globe is supposed to represent the entire cosmos. As if the night sky were a sphere, and we were outside of it, we can see the major Greek constellations sitting atop the bent figure of the Titan.

Holden, Greg, and Jay (left to right)

Yet by far the most dazzling and virtuosic of the collections is the Farnese Bull. Carved from a single, enormous block of marble, weighing 24,000 kg (about 21 tons) it is the biggest statue to survive from antiquity. It also rivals the Laocoön Group in the Vatican for complexity. The statue depicts a now-obscure myth of Dirce, who is being murdered by a pair of twins, sons of Zeus. The two young men are tying the unhappy woman to a bull, who will either impale or trample her in short order, while in the background the twins’ mother watches it unfold. These human figures stand on a beautifully ornate base, and are accompanied by a barking dog and the visibly irate bull. It is a lot for the eyes to take in. Discovered along with the Hercules in the Baths of Carcalla, in Rome, the statue was restored by none other than Michelangelo. As such, it is difficult to say how much the work’s virtuosity owes to the Romans or to the Renaissance. Either way, it is supremely impressive.

Advancing from the sculptures—animals, busts, friezes, sarcophagi, cult statues, and equestrian figures—we come next to the mosaics. These are genuinely local, most having been taken from nearby sites like Pompeii. These are, in my opinion, some of the most charming works of art from antiquity, most of them intended to be interior decoration—images of heroes, deities, birds, and fish. But there is one mosaic in the museum that is far more than decoration: the Alexander Mosaic.

The Farnese Bull

This extraordinary work was excavated from a Pompeiian villa. Though damaged, the essential scene is intact: Alexander the Great facing off against Darius III of Persia at the Battle of Issus. We can see the young and daring Macedonian pressing forward, as the distressed Persian Emperor is ready to turn tail and order a retreat. The mosaic is believed to be a copy of a Classical Greek painting, which would make it a fascinating window into the past, as none of the acclaimed Greek masterpieces have survived. But the Roman contribution cannot be neglected. Putting together a mosaic of this scale and complexity is a major feat by any standard. Over a millenia before the Renaissance we can see a highly sophisticated visual language. A variety of techniques—overlap, scale, foreshortening—are used to convey depth, while the figures show a range of dynamic movement that convincingly brings this battle scene to life.

The entire mosaic.
Alexander the Great

Another major section of the museum are the frescos. These, too, are from nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum, and also served as interior decoration—the Roman version of fine wallpaper. Though faded, the color in many of these has held up remarkably well, partially because they are buon fresco, meaning that the paint was applied when the plaster was still wet, thus becoming part of the wall. This also meant that the painters had to work quickly, before the plaster dried. The style of these frescos vary from abstract designs of architectural fantasy and floral patterns, to landscapes or cityscapes, or more intimate scenes of daily life. For my part, the human figures have a kind of generic, cartoonish quality I do not care for. But in the views of cities we can see that the Romans developed a kind of quasi-perspective, using receding lines to give a realistic sense of depth. (In “true” perspectives all the receding lines must converge on the vanishing point, an innovation that the Romans did not develop.) And the abstract designs are quite superb. One can easily see why the re-discovery of Pompeii influenced 18th-century European style.

It doesn’t look they’re having fun

All of this art is lovely, and some of it magnificent. But nothing in the museum is quite as memorable as the Secret Cabinet (Gabinetto Segreto). This is the gallery devoted to erotic and obscene Roman art. Of course, the very notion of obscenity or pornography would likely have been foreign to the Romans, who did not separate sex into a special, taboo category. Pompeii was full of frank depictions of nudity and various sexual acts. But the Romans were especially fond of the phallus. This is usually explained by saying that the Romans thought that knobs brought good luck; but this only leads to the question—why willies? Perhaps they were meant to symbolize the masculinity of Roman culture—the macho ideal. One suspects that, at the very least, the Roman love of the membrum virile goes beyond the low humor of a middle school student doodling Johnsons in his notebook. Some of the art in this museum would have taken an awful lot of time and skill to make.

The fascinus

That is not to say it is not funny. There is, for example, a statue of a Roman wearing a toga, with a very conspicuous bulge in the crotch—the most elaborate dick joke in history, perhaps. Then there is the fascinus, the divine ding-a-ling, portrayed as a kind of strange winged wiener. This was taken very seriously by the Romans. One of the duties of the Vestal Virgins was, ironically to tend to the cult of this godly Roger. They were found all over Pompeii, apparently used as amulets to bring good luck. But, for the life of me, I do not see how anyone could look at a fascinus without a laugh.

The author, with Athena

After our unexpectedly risqué museum visit concluded, the evening was already coming on. So we decided to just enjoy the city. Even a casual stroll turned out to be exciting. Every shop seemed to spill out onto the street, with every sort of merchandise crowded onto racks and displays. Every sidewalk was full of pedestrians; and on every street a buzzing hive of motorcycles went by. The bars, we learned, served drinks to go—an important discovery. Then, we rounded one corner to find, of all things, a clown festival—the stage full of men and women wearing white makeup and red noses. Later, we learned that the city was having a piano festival: As we sat outside for another drink, a man gave a spontaneous performance of a piano sonata from a balcony. It was delightful. 

Wandering along this way, we happened upon some of the city’s landmarks. We briefly went inside the Castel dell’Ovo, a castle that sits on a little island off the shore. Though the castle, as it stands today, is mostly medieval, a fortress has been on this island since at least the days of Rome. Not far off is the Galleria Umberto I, which is essentially a beautiful mall. Built in the late 1800s (during the reign of the eponymous monarch), the Galleria is a covered glass arcade, and includes shops, cafés, and private apartments in an attempt to create an integrated civic space. I have no idea if such utopian ideals were realized, but the building itself is a lovely relic from a classier age. The same description applies to the nearby Caffé Gambrinus. This is a coffeehouse from the Belle Epoque, so impeccably decorated that you feel as if you could be in a Wes Anderson film. We ordered some slightly overpriced (but good) coffee and pastries, and tried to imagine ourselves chit chatting with Guy de Maupaussant.

Right next door is the central square of Naples, the Piazza del Plebiscito. This plaza owes its name to the 1860 plebiscite, in which the people of Naples voted to unify with the Kingdom of Italy. It is an expansive space. On one side, the neoclassical church San Francesco di Paola extends colonnades to its left, to the Palazzo della Prefettura, and to its right, to the Palazzo Salerno, forming a kind of embrace. Opposite the church, the erstwhile Royal Palace presides, now bereft of purpose. Adorning this palace are a series of statues that illustrate the tumultuous history of Naples. The first statue is of a Norman conqueror, Roger II, who is followed by a French king, two Holy Roman Emperors, an Aragonese and a Spanish king, one of Napoleon’s generals, and finally an Italian: Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a united Italy. This quintessentially Italian city has only been Italian for a short while.

For dinner, we decided to try another Neopolitan classic: fried pizza. This is exactly what it sounds like, dough formed into a kind of calzone shape, filled with cheese and tomato sauce, and then deep fried. Apparently the dish originated out of the desolation of the Second World War, when ingredients were scarce. Naturally, a fried pizza uses more flour and fewer toppings; and the dough puffs up during cooking. The four of us stopped at a takeaway place, and were soon gnawing on crunchy pizza dough in the street. I quite liked it. But I admit it could not compare with the genuine pizza we had eaten earlier.

On our way back to the Airbnb, we stumbled upon an enormous group of young people drinking in the street. (Writing this, I feel such nostalgia for the pre-Covid days!) We soon found out why: nearby was a bar selling Aperol spritzes for one euro a pop. The Aperol spritz is a drink that has yet to catch on in the US; but in most of Europe it is a summertime staple. Aperol is an herbaceous liquor, too bitter to be drunk on its own. But combined with a bit of prosecco, seltzer, and some lemon juice, it makes for a delightful refreshment. We idled around, swigging down the cheap plonk, and enjoying the nighttime ambience. But my brother happened to be feeling unwell (this was before cold symptoms sent shivers up our collective spine), so we went back to the Airbnb to drop him off. Greg, Holden, and I then continued our Aperol spritz binge in a nearby bar. And as the warm glow of alcohol fell over me, I listened to the mad rush of scooters zipping down the nearby street, and felt that wonderful, romantic feeling of being in a foreign place. 


Pompeii

The next day, Greg and Jay had to catch their flights back to Marseille and Madrid, leaving Holden and I to explore another ancient city: Pompeii.

Getting to Pompeii from Naples is easy. Many people opt to take a tour, of course; but for those plebeians like me, the train is the way to go. There are two train lines that go to Pompeii, the Metropolitano and the aptly-named Circumvesuviana. Either one gets you to the site in around 40 minutes, plus a bit of walking.

After the Colosseum, Pompeii is likely the most famous ancient Roman site. Everyone knows the story; and many of us can remember seeing those frightful plaster casts of the deceased, frozen in their last excruciating moments. Even so, when I walked into this iconic place, I really had little idea what to expect. Indeed, my first reaction was mild disappointment, if only because visiting Pompeii is so unlike visiting other famous monuments. Instead of glorious architecture or priceless artwork, the visitor is confronted with something far more humble: houses, apartments, streets, alleys… The buildings on display were not made to satisfy a king or celebrate god (at least not most of them). They are entirely cotidian. But it is the very ordinariness of Pompeii that makes it special. For it is here, more than almost anywhere else, that we can imagine what life was really like all those years ago.

Let us begin at the end, with the destruction of Pompeii. This was due to a catastrophic eruption of nearby Mt. Vesuvius (still an active volcano), in 79 CE. The traditional date given for this eruption is August 24, as this is the date provided in the letters of Pliny the Younger, the only surviving eyewitness account of the eruption. However, evidence found within the site—coins, clothes, produce—suggest that this day may be too early. Indeed, we know that medieval copyists (who preserved Pliny’s writings) were prone to errors. It now seems more likely, then, that the eruption took place in autumn, in late October or early November.

It also must be remembered that the eruption was a process, not a single moment. Tremors and earthquakes began to rock the city for days beforehand; and the first phase of the event consisted of hail of pumice, lasting many hours, which is normally not life-threatening. The residents of Pompeii thus had ample warning that something was happening, and had plenty of time to escape if they chose to. Most did. For the unlucky few who remained, the situation soon became far more dangerous. Pyroclastic flows—clouds of ash, extremely hot, moving at hundreds of miles per hour—streamed down the sides of the volcano. The physical impact alone was sometimes powerful enough to destroy buildings. But even if the building held firm, anyone sheltering inside was killed instantly by the arrival of the hot gas (after traveling the long distance from Vesuvius, the gas was still as hot as your oven at full whack).

In total, about 1,100 people lost their lives in the event, in a city of probably at least 20,000. What remained of the city was entombed beneath a layer of ash, 6 to 7 meters (19-23 ft) deep.

This eruption is forever connected to two Plinys—the younger, previously mentioned, and the Elder, his uncle. Pliny the Elder was a famous naturalist, remembered for assembling a massive encyclopedia of knowledge of the natural world, called the Naturalis Historiæ. When Vesuvius began to erupt, he was at his villa across the Bay, and set off on his boat on a rescue mission (as well as to collect some observations on volcanoes, one presumes). Unfortunately, the old man died in the attempt, apparently by breathing in toxic fumes from the volcano (though the other members of his party were unharmed). Meanwhile, the younger Pliny—a writer and future statesman—was observing the scene from across the bay. Many years later, this Pliny put down his reminiscence of the catastrophe in a couple letters to the historian Tacitus.

Here is what he said about the eruption:

A cloud, from which mountain was uncertain, at this distance (but it was found afterwards to come from Mount Vesuvius), was ascending, the appearance of which I cannot give you a more exact description than by likening it to that of a pine tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk…

And here is the younger Pliny’s moving description of the aftermath:

We had scarcely sat down when night came upon us, not such as we have seen when the sky is cloudy, or when there is no moon, but that of a room when it is shut up, and all the lights put out. You might hear the shrieks of women, the screams of children, and the shouts of men; some calling for their children, others for their parents, others for their husbands, and seeking to recognise each other by the voices that replied; one lamenting his own fate, another that of his family; some wishing to die, from the very fear of dying; some lifting their hands to the gods; but the greater part convinced that there were now no gods at all, and that the final endless night of which we have heard had come upon the world.

It is difficult to imagine something more terrifying—especially when you consider that Pompeians had only feeble oil lamps to use in the ashy darkness as they made their escape. We have unusually detailed knowledge of the victims, as they died almost instantaneously, and were then entombed under the ash. Later excavators would fill in the cavities left by these bodies (now decomposed) to make gruesome plaster casts of victims in their last, painful moments. Some were sheltering in homes or basements, while others were struck down as they fled, carrying some money and a few valuables.

In the weeks and months that followed, the site was visited by survivors and, most likely, looters, who came to retrieve the valuables left behind. There is clear evidence of post-eruption tunneling, and it is even possible that some skeletons in the site are actually would-be robbers, whose tunnels collapsed on them. But after that, the site slowly drifted from memory, laying mostly undisturbed for well over a thousand years. Aside from a few chance encounters, the site was only really re-discovered—and then excavated—in the 18th century, by the Spanish engineer Roque Joaquín de Alcubierre.

Excavation has continued right up to the present day, as significant sections of the city still remain buried in ash. Just three weeks ago, for example, the discovery of a Pompeian pub was announced. Since the city’s discovery, archaeologists and antiquarians have raced against time to preserve the site, as tourism, looting, vandalism, pollution, the Italian sun, the Mediterranean rain, and the slow knife of time do their damage. Pompeii is even battle-scarred: Allied forces dropped bombs on the ruins (presumably they missed their target), reducing many structures to rubble. The city just can’t catch a break.

But now we must go back to the beginning. Though Pompeii is now known as a quintessentially Roman site, one must remember that the Romans were comparative latecomers in antiquity. Before they conquered Italy and spread their Latin language, the peninsula was populated by a patchwork of peoples speaking different Italic languages, such as Etruscan and Umbrian. Here at Pompeii, the people spoke Oscan; and they had been living in Pompeii for centuries before the Romans arrived. Indeed, it was the Greeks who came first, integrating Pompeii into their network of trading ports. (At the time, the city of Pompeii was much closer to the coast; volcanic eruptions have extended the land many hundreds of meters out into the Mediterranean since then.) In an exhibition center, some artifacts from these bygone days—pottery, armor, weapons—were on display.

After centuries of being gradually pulled into the Roman orbit, and serving as a Roman ally, Pompeii officially became a Roman colony in 89 BCE. This meant that its residents were just as much citizens of Rome as the denizens of the capital city itself. By the time of its destruction, Latin was spoken in the streets, Roman gods and emperors were worshipped in the temples, and Roman laws were enforced in the land. But it is worth remembering that many other peoples—Oscans, Greeks, Etruscans, Samnites—contributed to the shape of the city, too.

But enough background. Let us explore the site itself.

Upon entering the front gate, you soon come upon the so-called Antiquario. This is a kind of miniature museum with all sorts of artifacts on display—coins, jewellry, urns, furniture. But the most memorable thing to see are four plaster casts of victims, their bodies curled and twisted in the moment of death. Nearby there is a cabinet displaying a few dozen of the human skulls found at the site (as well as one horse skull). It is a grim introduction to Pompeii. Later on, I peered into another storage area for these petrified corpses. The human tragedy of Pompeii is brought painfully to mind by these remains. But the most touching might be a dog, whose final agonizing moment is captured in vivid detail. It is hard to look at. 

Most of the time, however, visiting Pompeii does not feel at all like visiting a macabre museum. Rather, you find yourself walking down cobblestone streets and wandering in and out of buildings. But the streets themselves are interesting enough. There are recognizable sidewalks that run along the street, just like today—though unlike today, in Pompeii the sidewalks are elevated high from the street. In fact, the sidewalks are so high off the ground that I actually ripped the crotch of my bluejeans stepping up onto it (luckily, the rip was invisible while I was standing). The probable explanation for this is that the streets easily flooded during a downpour, as the city lacked sewers. (The streets also probably smelled terrible, for the same reason.) I must also mention one of the niftiest features of the Pompeian streets: the stepping stones that allow the pedestrian to cross the street without descending, while also allowing wheeled vehicles to roll through the gaps in the rocks. That is elegant design.

The buildings of Pompeii range in size, splendor, and state. Some are little more than a few walls and a roof, with weeds sprouting in the middle. But others are quite magnificent. Among the most famous is the so-called House of the Tragic Poet. We have no idea if a tragic poet really lived there; but the house has invited speculation because of the high-quality art packed into a relatively modest dwelling. More amusing to me, however, is the mosaic of a pooch on the floor near the entrance, with the words “Cave Canum” (“Beware of dog,” in Latin) spelled around it. Another notable residence is the House of the Faun—an enormous mansion, which obviously belonged to someone very wealthy, named after a charming little statue in its courtyard. The house was richly decorated. The Alexander Mosaic, for instance, adorned a floor here (imagine walking on such a work of art!). Above the doorway the word “HAVE” is inscribed, Latin for “Greetings”—though it does seem an unintentional pun on the owner’s wealth.

Another common sight in Pompeii are buildings with countertops, filled with large holes. At first, Holden and I speculated that they were communal toilets (which the Romans did use). In reality, however, these were eating establishments. Poorer residents, you see, usually lived in cramped little apartments on upper floors, with no kitchen and hardly any space to store food. Thus, unlike in our own day, it was the poor who ate out. The modern visitor can discover some erstwhile cooking implements, and even some frescos adorning the walls of these eateries—scenes of restaurant life (like two drunkards arguing) or images of what was on the menu: chicken, duck, goat. We know from surviving Roman cookbooks, as well as archaeological remains, that snails were a favorite. They were usually topped with garum, the ubiquitous Roman condiment made from fermented fish. Some garum was produced right in Pompeii, doubtless to the delight of neighbors’ noses.

(Competing with garum production for the stinkiest work in Pompeii was the fullery business, wherein workers—normally slaves—had to stand in a mixture of chemicals and urine, stomping on cloth, in order to soften it for garments.)

If you were a Roman with a little money and some free time, there were plenty of opportunities for entertainment. The biggest structure in the city was the Amphitheater, with seats for almost the entire town (20,000). Here, the bloodthirsty Roman citizen could enjoy a bit of ultra-violence—either in the form of gladiators hacking each other to bits, or humans and animals reducing one another to shreds. In a more pacific vein, Pink Floyd also had a concert here. For more sophisticated amusement, the Roman could head to the Theater Area, which contains two performance spaces, one large and one small, for plays and concerts. But one suspects that many Romans liked the Lupanar best of all—in plain English, the brothel. (“Lupanar” means “wolf-den,” which I suppose says something about the Roman attitude towards prostitution.) It was not especially difficult to identify this building as a brothel. There are erotic frescos adorning the walls, and hundreds of graffiti scratched on as well, mostly vulgar. It is a bit of a sad place, consisting of cramped rooms with concrete beds (one hopes they had mattresses).

The center of city life, as in all Roman settlements, was the forum. Nowadays there is not much to see—a collection of broken columns, supporting nothing, surrounding a big empty space. But one must imagine this place filled with all sorts of people, buying, selling, playing, laughing, and bickering. When I visited there was a statue of a centaur that I took to be original. Actually, it is a sculpture by Igor Mitoraj, a Polish artist, whose work was being exhibited throughout the site. I quite like it. Nearby are the Forum Baths, some of the best preserved Roman baths in existence. Bathing was quite important to the Romans; it was a communal activity, in a space where hierarchy mattered far less. Indeed, bath houses were public goods, owned by the state. Walking through this bath house, you can see the different spaces for hot, lukewarm, and cold baths. Though the image of squeaky clean, democratic Romans is appealing, Mary Beard reminds us that the water was not drained and refreshed. In other words, the Romans were probably bathing in a stew of bacteria and muck—if not worse.

The forum

The Romans were a rowdy and bawdy bunch, but they did have their more spiritual side. The city was littered with images of gods, both large and small; and several temples are to be found in the site. The best preserved of these is the Temple of Isis, captivating both for its well-preserved art and for serving as a window to how foreign gods were incorporated into the Roman pantheon. For Isis was, of course, an Egyptian goddess, and elements of Egyptian design are built into details of the temple. Nevertheless, it is a Roman construction, filled with Roman frescos quite non-Egyptian in style. For my part, I thought the temple was surprisingly small—a covered stone platform, accessed via a small stairwell—and I found the frescos a little silly. But for the women, slaves, and freedman who worshiped here (for Isis was a friend of the downtrodden), it must have been an awesome space.

I can’t say I love the art.

Holden and I visited for about five hours before calling it quits. But we did not see all there was to see. Pompeii just has so much to offer. Indeed, I found it difficult even to wrap my mind around it. While I strolled through the ancient city, my thoughts were mostly blank, my emotions calm, as I wandered this way and that. But for days afterwards, I constantly thought about Pompeii. It is unlike any place I have ever visited, a startling journey to another time. There are plenty of more beautiful and impressive monuments—the Colosseum, the Roman forum, the Pantheon, the aqueduct of Segovia, the theater of Mérida—but no place comes close to the evocative power of Pompeii. 

Holden and I in Pompeii

I like to think that a city is a concrete representation of the human mind. You can read our thoughts, values, and emotions in its buildings. In Pompeii you can observe the free and easy attitude towards sex and violence (in the amphitheater and brothel), the inequalities of wealth and status (in the different sized residences), but also the democratic ethos of the Roman people (in the baths). You note the importance of trade and commerce (in the forum), a spirit which even extended to the divine (if I sacrifice a goat to you, you have to reward me). The overwhelming impression is of an extroverted people. Every activity took place in public—eating, bathing, art, business, politics, and even defecation. Sex (or at least images of sex) was always in view. Like the Naples of today, then, Pompeii was a city that lived in its streets.


Epilogue

Holden and I returned to Naples by train. We were tired and footsore, but still eager to see more of the city. So in the remaining hour of daylight, we rushed to see the Castel Sant’Elmo. This is a castle situated atop the Vomero Hill, overlooking Naples. To get there without an exhausting climb, we opted to take the city’s funicular, a kind of subway for the slope. But lacking small change, we ended up climbing in without paying. Holden, to his credit, felt very bad about this. For my part, I was just eager to see the castle. Unfortunately for us, the place had closed right before we arrived, depriving us of the panoramic view of the city. This was the end of our sightseeing.

Now, I need to explain some details of our travel plan before going any further. Our flight back to Madrid left at an ungodly hour in the morning—around 5:30, if memory serves. So to save money, we had decided not to reserve our Airbnb for that night (since we would have had to leave at around 3:00 anyway) and instead sleep in the airport. Thus, now we had to retrieve our things from the Airbnb. After that we elected to have dinner in the same pizza restaurant as before. And it was even better this time. Italian families crowded around us, with children running around and grandparents clinking glasses. I felt fantastic.

After that, we slowly made our way through the center of town, on the way to the airport bus. On the way, we stopped to buy some gelato for dessert. It was some of the best ice cream I believe I have ever tasted; and it was served to me by an incredibly beautiful Neopolitan woman. The point is that I was feeling pretty great—relaxed, satisfied, my stomach full of pizza and ice cream. It was a great shock, therefore, when my jubilation was rudely interrupted at the bus stop.

We had missed the last airport bus, by just a few minutes. For no good reason, I had assumed the buses ran all night; but they stopped at around 22:30.

“I guess we gotta take a taxi,” I said to Holden.

“But wait,” he said. “Is the airport even open?”

“Open? Why not?”

But to double check, I looked it up on my phone.

He was right to ask: As I soon discovered, the Naples Airport closes from 23:30 to 3:30 every night. In short, we had nowhere to sleep and no place to go.

After a bit of despairing head-scratching, we came up with a plan. As it so happened, the Naples International Airport is not very far from the city center, only an hour and a half walk. If we walked slowly, we would arrive at around one or two in the morning, and then only have to wait a couple hours. Granted, we were both quite tired from having spent the day walking around Pompeii, but there did not seem to be much of a choice.

So we set out. The path soon took us out of the busy city center and into the bland and ugly outskirts. We passed twisting highways, empty parking lots, and suburban homes. After about twenty minutes, we happened upon a hostel. The light was on; and the reception room had a big, comfortable couch. I even smelled food. We asked how much it would cost to sleep on a bed for a couple hours, and were told thirty euros a piece. This was too much. Holden asked if we could just stay in the reception room for a while, but was denied. So we had to continue our way, through the suburb and into the industrial park surrounding the airport. Occasionally we passed a group of drunken youngsters; but for the most part the streets were deserted.

Eventually we arrived at a lot used for rental cars. It was fenced in; and next to the parking spots there was a vending machine with a couple benches.

“Let’s stop here for a bit,” Holden said. “I’m going to try to sleep.”

Holden lay down on a bench and, in minutes, was fast asleep. I tried to do the same. But I couldn’t relax. I felt cold and exposed, nervous that I was trespassing. Every time I was on the verge of sleep, a kind of high-pitched chirping would disturb me. Was it rats? I nervously looked around, wondering if the vermin were lurking under the cars. But I didn’t see anything. After a while I figured out that the sound was coming from the bats who were circling overhead, which made me feel at least a little better.

I was again trying to sleep when I heard a car approach. I looked up, and saw—to my horror—a car pulling into the parking lot. It pulled into a space and a man got out. He looked at me, and started walking in my direction. I panicked. Who was he, a police officer? I had no time to think. I got up and walked over to Holden, nudging him awake.

Holden!”

“Huh? What?”

Holden, there’s a guy!”

The next moment, he was standing before us. I opened my mouth to sleep. But before I could say anything, he smiled and started speaking in Italian. Judging from his expressions, he was telling us we were free to stay here. Then he gave us the thumb’s up, and left.

Whew.

We stayed there for another half hour or so, before we continued on to the airport. Even so, we arrived an hour before the doors opened. Nearby was a pod hotel, full of little sleeping capsules that can be rented by the hour. It was open; but by this time the price didn’t seem worth it. Besides, I was too nervous to sleep. Holden, for his part, took advantage of a plastic slide in the airport playground to catch a few more minutes of rest.

Finally, at 3:30 the airport doors opened, and we could escape the chilly night air. Soon we were flying back to Madrid, absolutely exhausted. Normally I don’t sleep well on planes; but I was basically comatose on that flight.

My trip to Naples thus ended with a little adventure. But even without this escapade, the trip would have been wonderfully memorable. Indeed, I feel as though every instant of my time there has stuck in my memory, and often catch myself daydreaming about the place. And though my visit could hardly have been more pleasant, I do have many regrets, as there is so much I did not see: Mt. Vesuvius, Herculaneum, or Posillipo in the surrounding area; and in the city itself, the Catacombs of San Gennaro, Underground Naples, or the Capella Sansevero. In short, Naples is an absolute joy, and I hope to return as soon as I can.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Boston: On the Trail of Freedom

Boston: On the Trail of Freedom

I visited Boston by accident. It was a wedding (second cousin, once removed). On a cold December day between Christmas and the New Year, before the nuptial celebrations commenced, I found myself with some time to kill in this historic New England city. So I figured I would use the opportunity to walk the Freedom Trail.

The Freedom Trail is a walking path linking several historic sites in the city of Boston. Most of these have something to do with our Revolutionary War. In the 1770s, Boston was hotbed of rebellious fervor. John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Sam Adams, early advocates for independence, lived here, as did Sam’s more moderate second cousin John. So it was here that the growing dissatisfaction with British rule first spilled out into conflict and bloodshed. This history can be followed as it unfolds along the Freedom Trail.

The path begins in Boston Common. This is a park in the center of the city, which holds the distinction for being the oldest public park in the country, as it was opened in 1634. When I visited it was a cold and dreary day, which makes it difficult to judge the park’s comeliness. But overlooking the Common is the Massachusetts State House, a very attractive building designed in the Federal style by Charles Bulfinch, which houses both the governor’s offices and the state legislature.

Standing before this building, on the outer edge of the Boston Common, is the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial. Shaw, as you may know, was the white colonel who led the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment during the Civil War, which was composed of free black soldiers. Allowing black people to serve in the military was considered a radical step at the time; but it also was a kind of symbolic victory over the southerners who were fighting to preserve slavery.

The monument itself was a sensation: its opening was attended by the philosopher William James, the sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, and the educator Booker T. Washington, among other notables. And while the monument did attract criticism during the George Floyd protests—for it portrays the white commander above and in front of his black troops—I think that it was actually radical in its own day. It depicts the black soldiers as dignified, powerful, and fully individual. One need only compare this monument to the Emancipation Memorial (recently removed) in Boston, which shows a black man crouching beneath Lincoln. The soldiers in the Shaw Memorial do not kneel, but march resolutely.

The Park Street Church

Continuing along the trail, we immediately come upon the Park Street Church, a very attractive place of worship built in the first years of our Republic. Nextdoor is the Granary Burying Ground, so named because a granary used to occupy the space where the church now stands. The visitor enters through a mock-Egyptian gate into what is the third-oldest cemetery in Boston (founded in 1660). Quite a few heroes of the American Revolution are buried here. There is Samuel Adams (1722 – 1803), the aforementioned firebrand who helped to spark our rebellious spirit, as well as Paul Revere (1734 – 1818) of Midnight Ride fame. Aside from Adams, two more signers of the Declaration of Independence are in attendance: Robert Treat Paine (little remembered these days) and the man whose name survived in his oversized signature, John Hancock (1737 – 1793).

But that is not all. All five victims of the Boston Massacre are buried here. To recount the event dispassionately: An inflamed mob started to throw stones and other things at a garrison of British Soldiers, one of whom fired without orders, causing his comrades to follow suit. Five Americans died from the gunshots. John Adams, who was simply a lawyer at the time, took it upon himself to defend the British soldiers in court, and for the most part succeeded. But the massacre was a decisive step on the road to revolution, as it mustered colonial support more effectively than any speech could. As it turns out, citizens tend to be upset when the forces meant to protect them instead shoot them dead.

The next stop on the trail is another church and burying ground. King’s Chapel is a lovely stone church designed by Peter Harrison, one of the first trained architects to work in the American colonies. Next door is the King’s Chapel Burying Ground, which actually predates the church by over a century, as it is the oldest cemetery in all of Boston (established in 1630). The cemetery does not contain as many famous bodies as the Granary Burying Ground, but some names stand out for comment. Mary Chilton (1607 – 1679), supposedly the first woman to step foot in New England from the Mayflower, was laid to rest here, as was John Winthrope (1587 – 1649), the third governor of the Massachusetts colony. But most consequential may be Frederic Tudor, the so-called “Ice King,” who made a business cutting and shipping blocks of ice from the frigid ponds of Massachusetts. This was both a major innovation and an inspiration for the refrigeration that all of us now take for granted. 

King’s Chapel

The next stop, just down the street, is the old site of the Boston Latin School. This is a venerable institution of public education—indeed, the oldest public school in the United States. And it is still active, though it has since moved to more ample accommodations than the little building that once stood here. Its presence is marked by an elaborate plaque in the ground. Nearby is a statue of the school’s most famous dropout: Benjamin Franklin. The portly and balding Franklin is honored beside perhaps the most famous mayor of Boston, Josiah Quincy III, whose namesake is the Quincy Market in central Boston. These two eminent men stand before the Old City Hall—serving that purpose from 1865 to 1969—a lovely old relic built in the French Second Empire style

Continuing down the street, we reach the Old Corner Bookstore. This is an attractive brick building, built in 1718 to be used as an apothecary shop with an attached residence. The place became a bookstore in 1828; and shortly thereafter, starting from 1832 and on to 1865, it was used by Ticknor and Fields, a publishing company. Though long forgotten, Ticknor and Fields published some of the most significant American writers of the day, including Emerson, Hawthorne, and Longfellow. They even published Dickens’s books in the United States. As a result, this humble building came to be a meeting place for men (and women) of letters. Unfortunately, after such an illustrious history, this noble edifice is now the home of a Chipotle restaurant. Meaning no offense to big burrito lovers, I will venture to say that this building deserves better.

Right nearby is the Boston Irish Famine Memorial. This is a group of statues—two families of three—that contrasted the lives of those who left Ireland and those who remained. The family that emigrated is shown happy and healthy, while the family stuck in Ireland is on the verge of death. While the artistic merits of the memorial are not beyond dispute, it is certainly right to have a monument to the Irish in Boston, as the city was dramatically shaped by the influx of Irish in the 19th century. Indeed, Boston reminded me of no city more strongly than Dublin—its brick architecture, tight and chaotic streets, and dour atmosphere. At a glance, one could easily mistake historic Boston for the capital of Ireland.

Next on the trail is the Old South Meeting House. This is a plain but elegant brick Congregational church, with a tall white wooden spite—a typical New England aesthetic. The whitewashed interior is filled with boxes of pews, arranged like an enormous maze. This church is not notable for its aesthetic, however, but for its role in the Revolutionary War. After the Boston Massacre of 1770, annual memorials were held here, complete with fiery rebellious rhetoric. Then, in 1773, thousands of irate colonists met here to discuss the much-hated Tea Act, a tax on imported tea. From here, everyone knows the story: A group of a few dozen colonists—some dressed as Native Americans—raided three English merchant vessels in the harbor, and chucked all the tea overboard. This was the Boston Tea Party

The Old South Meeting House, with the Irish Famine Memorial in front.

Soon we come to the Old State House. And here, the contrast between the old and the new Boston is quite apparent, as this erstwhile commanding structure is now completely dwarfed by the buildings and skyscrapers all around it, in what is now the financial district. But the building is still attractive and graceful. As the name suggests, this building served as the original Massachusetts State House, before it was replaced by the current one (described above). Indeed, built in 1713, the Old State House was used for government affairs long before independence, making it one of the oldest public buildings in the country. Nowadays it is the home to a museum; but I admit the entry fee put me off, and I only browsed the gift shop—filled with the expected touristy stuff. Notably, the museum has a vial containing some tea from the Boston Tea Party, snuck into a raider’s boot. The site of the Boston Massacre is commemorated nearby, in the form of a stone circle.

An engraving by Paul Revere, depicting the Boston Massacre. The Old State House is the building in the center.

Now we enter Government Center, the part of town where we can find the modern City Hall. Unfortunately, this enormous hunk of brutal concrete compares quite unfavorably with the pretty constructions we have seen so far. Apparently gaining our independence did not advance our taste. The contrast is immediate when we turn our attention to our next stop, yet another big brick building with a white spire: Faneuil Hall. This building served as both meeting house and marketplace in colonial Boston. Firebrands like Samuel Adams gave seditious speeches in the building’s Great Hall, a task for which he is now commemorated with a nearby statue. Faneuil Hall owes its name to a slave trader, who sponsored the project with his ill-gotten gains. Slaves were even sold here. But that original building mostly burned down in 1761, passing along its name to the current edifice. So far, activists have not succeeded in changing its appellation. 

Faneuil Hall, with Sam Adams out front.

The building’s Great Hall—an enormous auditorium filled with wooden chairs—is now decorated with portraits, paintings, and other sorts of patriotic paraphernalia. It is still used for meetings, organizing, and ceremonies. “Faneuil Hall” is not only used to refer to this building, however, but sometimes to this entire area, a hub of nightlife and a great place to grab a bite to eat. This is partly because the old marketplace has been supplemented by the enormous Quincy Market, named for the Quincy mayor we met earlier. This is a long, open building filled with food stalls and a fair share of touristy junk. I enjoyed walking through the busy space, as it at least provided some respite from the cold.

From Government Center, we now walk to North End, the oldest residential neighborhood in the city. As you will probably notice, this area became popular with Italian immigrants, resulting in the plentiful restaurants serving pizza and pasta. More relevant to the Freedom Trail, this neighborhood is also home to Paul Revere’s House. The house actually predates the famous revolutionary by quite a lot: built in 1680, the house was not bought by Revere until 1770. Though the three-storey, timber house does not look like much to the modern eye, at the time it was both spacious and luxurious, befitting Revere’s status as a prosperous silversmith (there are examples of his work inside). Sold by Revere, and subject to the whims of the market—among other things, it was used as a shop and a tenement—the property was eventually bought by Revere’s grandson, who began the process of restoring it and turning it into a museum. Nowadays, one must pay to enter. Freedom has its price, after all.

Onward, we reach the Old North Church. Once again, we are confronted with a big brick church with a white spire, whose whitewashed interior is filled with wooden boxes for pews. But perhaps the Old North Church does deserve credit for originality, as it is the oldest extant church in Boston. The competition is close: built in 1723, the Old North Church beats the Old South Meeting House by six years. This church was where the iconic lanterns of Paul Revere’s ride—one if by land, two if by sea—were so briefly hung, in order to warn the colonial militia of the approach of the British Army. Revere himself rode his horse to deliver the message to the troops waiting in Lexington and Concord, though he almost certainly was not shouting “The British are coming!” as that would have blown his cover. As it was, Revere was still arrested by the British, and very nearly executed. His patriotic messenger service is now commemorated by a statue of the man on horseback.

The statue of Paul Revere, with the Old North Church in the background. A bit of a mess.

Now we come to yet another cemetery, the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground. As its name suggests, this is situated on a slight hill, giving the visitor a decent view of the River Charles. Founded in 1659, Copp’s Hill is the second oldest cemetery in Boston (29 years after King’s Chapel, but one year before the Granary), and it has its fair share of venerated bodies. Paul Revere’s less-famous fellow rider, Robert Newman, is interred here, as is the poet Philis Wheatley, the first African American woman to be published. But Copp’s Hill is more appealing simply for its landscaping, providing a much-needed relief to the crowded stone and brick streets of Boston. I consider myself something of a connoisseur of cemeteries, and Copp’s Hill is a fine one.

We have a bit of a walk now, as the next stop on the Freedom Trail is across the Charles River. This means walking across the North Washington Street Bridge, which connects North End with the Charleston neighborhood. It would be an exaggeration to say that the bridge is a beautiful piece of engineering, or that the view from the bridge is quite breathtakingly beautiful—especially on a cold, windy, drizzly December day—but I still managed to enjoy the walk. Once across, you turn right towards the wharf, where you may spot the top mast of the next stop in the distance: the USS Constitution

Now, as it happened, I was visiting Boston during the 2018-19 government shutdown. As a result, the museum attached to this historic war vessel was not open. Visitors were, instead, hastily ushered through metal detectors onto the dock by military personnel (presumably working without pay). In any case, I was able to climb aboard the old ironside and enjoy the charm of an antique vessel. The history of this ship takes us back to the very beginnings of our nation, as it was one of the first six commissioned by the new United States government. Indeed, the Constitution is now the oldest commissioned naval vessel that is still seaworthy. The frigate—equipped with 50 canons—saw significant action during the war of 1812, when it overcame five British warships. This earned the boat legendary status, and it has been kept in good working order ever since. In fact, the boat still has its own 60-person navy crew. 

After taking in my fill of the winds and waves, I made my way to the last stop on the Freedom Trail: the Bunker Hill Monument. As you may know, the Battle of Bunker Hill was one of the first and most important of the Revolutionary War. Though the British succeeded in driving the colonial militia from their positions, in their assaults on the rebel position they took heavy casualties, losing far more men than their untrained opponents. According to legend, it was during the first British charge when Col. William Prescott instructed not to fire until they saw “the whites of their eyes.” Unfortunately, there is scant evidence that this dramatic phrase was uttered, and it does seem like a needlessly poetic battle command. What is more, though universally known as the Battle of Bunker Hill, most of the fighting was done on the nearby Breed’s Hill. And this is where the inaccurately-named Bunker Hill Monument is to be found as well.

Built from 1825 to 1843 (they frequently had to stop due to depleted funds), the Bunker Hill Monument is one of the oldest national monuments in the country. And its design was influential. Standing on top of the mound of green earth, a granite obelisk juts 221 feet (67 m) into the air. This design almost certainly provided the inspiration for the tower’s more famous cousin, the Washington Monument. The stone was taken from a quarry in the town of Quincy (the town named after Abigail Adams’s grandfather) and transported to the site via one of the first railroads in the country, the Granite Railway. A statue of Prescott stands in front of the obelisk, not too far from where he likely stood during the battle, looking fearsome and fearless. There is an exhibit lodge next to the obelisk, too, though it was closed due to the shutdown. At least the view was still available—revealing the spires of downtown Boston, the cozy houses of Cambridge, and the industry across the river Charles.

I was very cold by now. My clothes soaked through from the rain, and there was a long walk back to the hotel. But my misery was punctuated by a stop at a restaurant in Chinatown, where I had some delicious noodle soup. Then it was time to shower and get my suit ready for the wedding. And that was it. So, unfortunately, I saw very little of Boston during this trip. I was particularly sorry not to see Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, one of the finest art museums in the country. But what I had seen, during my few hours of exploration, was enough to motivate me to walk several miles in soggy shoes. And that is a pretty high compliment.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Concord and Walden Pond

Concord and Walden Pond

Through some combination of chance and circumstance, some little places become fulcrums of history. This is certainly true of Concord, Massachusetts.

Boasting a population a little south of twenty thousand, and of no obvious geographical significance, this town nevertheless became the setting of our War of Independence. A detachment of British troops was sent to Concord to confiscate or destroy weapons that they believed were being stockpiled here. But they were met by the nascent American militia. After a brief shootout, the redcoats retreated, demonstrating that the British army was not invincible. This was the battle of Lexington and Concord (there was an earlier skirmish in the nearby town of Lexington), and it took place at the Old North Bridge, which spans the Concord River.

Being the site of the “Shot heard round the world”—as it was later dubbed, somewhat self-importantly—would satisfy most towns the size of Concord. But in the 19th century, this modest municipality once again attracted outsized importance by becoming the center of one of the most important movements in American literature and philosophy: Transcendentalism. This was largely due to the presence of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who moved into town in 1835.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The son and grandson of ministers, Emerson was very much a preacher himself, though of a new religion. Transcendentalism was perhaps the original back-to-nature movement, a celebration of self-reliance and the simple life. The time was ripe for such ideas, and Emerson was its most articulate voice. He attracted a circle of friends and admirers, among whom was Amos Bronson Alcott, a fellow philosopher who sadly lacked Emerson’s gift for expression. Alcott’s most notable venture was an experiment in Utopian living, called the Fruitlands, a kind of agricultural commune whose members adhered to a vegan diet. It soon imploded, and Alcott returned to Concord to live in the now-famous Orchard House with his wife and four daughters. One of those daughters was Louisa May Alcott, who fictionalized her girlhood to create the classic, Little Women. Her literary ability kept the family financially afloat.

Louisa May Alcott

The Fruitlands was not the only Transcendentalist experiment in communal living. Another was Brook Farm, also in Massachusetts, and also an attempt to live off the land in perfect equality. The novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne took part in this venture, though he did not stay for long (and Brook Farm did not survive for very long, either) before he, too, moved to Concord. Indeed, he moved into the Emerson family home, the Old Manse, which stands near the famed Old North Bridge. Emerson, meanwhile, moved into a larger house, now an eponymous museum, where he continued to serve as the center of the town’s intellectual life.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

A frequent guest was a young and very earnest man named Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau must have seemed to be an eccentric and marginal character compared to the likes of Emerson. But it was Thoreau who came to epitomize Transcendentalism better than anyone, and Thoreau who immortalized Concord more completely than any writer (with the possible exception of Louisa May Alcott). His fame largely rests upon a single book, Walden, named after a small lake in Concord. In 1845, the young Thoreau decided on an entirely novel experiment: to attempt to live independently in the woods beside Walden Pond. The land was owned by Emerson, who let the young vagrant use it. In Thoreau’s own words:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Henry David Thoreau

So Thoreau used some recycled materials to build a little cabin with some furniture and commenced an experiment that would last two years, two months, and two days. Later, when he wrote up the experience, he compressed this into an imaginative year, weaving memories into reflections to make an original work of literature. Walden is an odd book by any standard—meandering, prickly, pompous, but also thoroughly original and beautifully written—and it did not find a large audience in Thoreau’s lifetime. In the years since his death in 1862, however, Walden has become one of the most beloved American classics, and Walden Pond has become a site of pilgrimage.

It was certainly in the spirit of a pilgrim that I visited Walden Pond, once in summer, once in winter, both times passing through the town of Concord on my way to someplace else. On my first visit I was filled with anticipation, as though I was about to step into the Sistine Chapel or walk along the Great Wall of China, though in retrospect it is hard to say what I was expecting. Walden Pond is just that—a pond: a body of water, surrounded on all sides by trees. In fact, it is not even treated very reverently by the locals. Now a state park, when I visited in summer there were many locals lounging on the sand, and a few in the water. It is a place for recreation as much as reverence.

Admittedly, the geology of Walden Pond is interesting. A kettle hole lake, it was formed by retreating glaciers during the end of the last ice age, when a hunk of ice broke off the glacier and got lodged underground. As a result, the lake is surprisingly deep: over 100 feet, or 30 meters. But ninety-nine out of a hundred visitors (if not more) would likely not find anything memorable or special about Walden Pond had it not been made famous by Thoreau. And, I realized, this is precisely the message of Thoreau’s book: that anyplace can be made special through focus, attention, and work. With the right eyes, a mundane pool could be just as inspiring as a gothic cathedral.

On my first visit, I walked around the lake to the spot where Thoreau had built his little cabin. It does not stand today, though the spot is marked by concrete pillars. Nearby is a large cairn, where visitors have been pilling pebbles for decades. Before it stands a sign on which Thoreau’s famous battlecry is painted (see above). Once again, rather than any grand monuments, we are confronted only with the woods, the water, and Thoreau’s words.

An old photo of the site of Thoreau’s cabin

Not long before my first visit to Walden Pond, I visited the Morgan Library in Manhattan, where I was lucky enough to find a special exhibit on Thoreau. It was extraordinary: the museum had Thoreau’s walking stick, surveying gear, and writing desk. They even had the many volumes of Thoreau’s journals—and he was a prolific diarist, recording both his philosophical thoughts and his observations of the natural world—which served as the basis for his published books. I believe that the bulk of these items were on loan from the Concord Museum, where they normally reside.

During my second stop in Concord, we also stopped by the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. The reader may recognize this name from the legend of Sleepy Hollow, which of course takes place in a cemetery—though not the one in Concord, Massachusetts. The burying ground of Washington Irving’s story is in Westchester, New York: my home town. It seemed very strange to me that two famous cemeteries would bear the same name; and I assumed that the Concordians had copied the Westchesterites. But apparently this is not the case. The Westchester cemetery was formerly called the Tarrytown Cemetery, and only changed its name to honor a posthumous wish of Washington Irving, who died in 1859. The Concord cemetery was established in 1855, and the place had been called Sleepy Hollow before anybody even thought of burying the dead here. So the names are a complete coincidence.

The cemeteries in Westchester and Concord do not only share a name; they were established at almost the same historical moment, and were shaped by the same intellectual currents. Washington Irving was a notable proponent of romantic gardening, wherein the landscape is modified to appear as if it were just a product of nature—albeit a particularly pleasing product. Ralph Waldo Emerson, too, believed that nature should be emulated, not suppressed; and as the designers of Concord cemetery were followers of his, the cemetery incorporates the natural topography—and some original vegetation—into its design. Both places can thus be classed as “garden cemeteries,” far more open and green than what came before.

Emerson’s tomb, in the center

Luckily for the visitor, most of the famous graves in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery are concentrated in one spot: Author’s Ridge. Here you will find Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson’s grave is by far the most conspicuous: an enormous marble boulder to which a plaque has been fastened. I suppose it symbolizes Emerson’s love of nature to have an unhewn tombstone. Hawthorne’s grave is far simpler: a standard headstone, about a foot high. Thoreau’s and Alcott’s are even humbler; but theirs inspired the most devotion. Alcott’s was covered in old pens and pencils—presumably to honor Jo, Alcott’s writer heroine—while Thoreau’s was adorned with feathers, pine cones, and a bird’s nest. The two of them are still beacons for young minds. 

Before we go, another resident of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery must be mentioned: Ephraim Wales Bull. Not a writer, nor even a Transcendentalist, Bull was responsible for developing the Concord grape, now a ubiquitous varietal. This cultivar was special because, unlike other grape species, it could survive the brutally cold winters of Massachusetts. It was also robust and sweet, making it perfect to eat by itself or to turn into juice and jelly (though not great for wine). Unfortunately for Bull, his grapes were stolen and sold, meaning that he did not profit from his hard word. This is why his tombstone says: “He sowed, others reaped.”

Bull’s tomb is on the right.

I have gone on and on about the historical importance of Concord, but I must end by noting that it is simply an attractive place. In my all-too-brief time in the town, I was enchanted by the antique houses and churches, so quaint and picturesque. Even if you have little interest in the Revolutionary War or Transcendentalism, and just want to visit a thoroughly charming place, then I propose a visit to Concord and Walden Pond.

Jefferson Country: UVA and Monticello

Jefferson Country: UVA and Monticello

Thomas Jefferson is an American icon. Virtually every American can recite (or at least recognize) the immortal lines penned by Jefferson, declaring our independence: “We hold these truths…” His face graces the nickel, and his likeness scowled from the now-defunct $2 bill. A veritable Greek temple stands devoted to his form and memory in the nation’s capital; and, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Jefferson is chiseled into a mountain-side. And yet, if you really want to pay tribute to this foundational father, you must make your way toward the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, to Charlottesville.

In the summer of 2019, my family did exactly that. On the drive down from New York, we even decided to listen to Jon Meacham’s worshipful biography of the man. Unfortunately for us, the book failed to make a good impression; and, as it so happened, Jefferson similarly failed. But I am getting ahead of myself.


This was my first time in Virginia. The summer sun beat down hard, making the rolling fields of grass glow an iridescent green. A friend of my father owns an alpaca farm in the nearby town of Gordonsville, which we visited before dinner, giving me the briefest taste of farm life—new to me. 

That night, after dinner, my brother and I wandered into downtown Charlottesville. As we did not wish to visit a bar, there was little to do but walk. But we did happen upon the statue of Robert E. Lee, which has been the center of so much controversy. A 2016 proposal to remove this Confederate monument sparked the now-infamous Unite the Right rally—in which one counter-protester died, and which Trump refused to condemn. After this, the City Council voted to remove the statue; but the state government overrode this decision, and the strange commemoration of a rebel racist stands to this day. 

If I had been more aware at that moment, perhaps I would have realized that this embattled statue was only the most visible manifestation of the region’s contested history. The Confederacy may have been defeated, and slavery long abolished; but in Charlottesville, history is still an active warzone. And nowhere is this struggle more apparent than in the town’s most famous resident, Thomas Jefferson.


We parked the car in the garage and walked onto campus. Charlottesville is, above all, a college town, and that college is the University of Virginia. This university was founded by Thomas Jefferson himself, in 1819, and the place still bears his distinct thumbprint. Jefferson designed the buildings—now a UNESCO World Heritage site—and designed the curriculum and sat on the original Board of Visitors. Indeed, the university is arguably the most complete expression of Jefferson’s intellectual vision. 

As it happened, we arrived in the university’s central building—the Rotunda—right at the commencement of a free guided tour. Naturally, our guide told us a little bit about this building first. A dedicated Neoclassicist, Jefferson modeled his design after the Parthenon, as well as works by the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. But Jefferson’s use of red brick gives the building a distinctly American stamp. Just as significant as the building’s form is its function: it housed the original university library. This is an obvious and significant deviation from the traditional, medieval model of a university, centered on a church. Indeed, Jefferson’s plan was so insistently secular that he did not even want theology or divinity taught to his pupils. This elegant building was severely damaged by a fire in 1895, during which a group of enterprising students saved a marvelous life-sized statue of Jefferson by pushing it onto a table and carrying it out together. Jefferson’s spirit would have thanked them if he had believed in the afterlife.

Extending outward from both sides of the Rotunda, like two arms, are the parallel rows of buildings that enclose the Lawn. These are the ten Pavilions (five per side), where faculty reside and teach. Nowadays, professors only live in these Pavilions for three to five years, and rotate to allow for fresh faces; but in Jefferson’s original idea, the faculty would stay here long-term and live among the students. Even now, the resident faculty are expected to socialize with the students, 54 of whom stay (during their senior year) in the prestigious “Lawn rooms” that flank the Pavilions. On the other side of the Pavilions are gardens; and beyond that, the Range, for graduate students. The idea is both idealistic and charming: Jefferson imagines a kind of open-air community of scholars, living amid architecture that inspired the mind. Indeed, each of the ten Pavilions bears a distinct, Neoclassical design, the idea being that the ensemble would be a kind of visual catalogue of architectural styles. 

On the whole, I found the Academical Village to be greatly appealing. I would love to wake up in one of those quaint little rooms, sit outside on my rocking chair, under the colonnade, reading some book, and waving casually to my passing professors. Few places I have been so perfectly evoke the gentile life of the mind—the elevation of beauty, truth, and goodness over all petty practical concerns. This picture contains a large dose of fantasy, unfortunately. The first batches of scholars were rowdy, spoiled, wealthy boys, who drank and partied and played pranks on their professors. More significantly, it is worth remembering that these buildings, gardens, and manicured lawn—not to mention the entire economical system—was built by slave labor. And though students could not bring their own slaves, professors could and did. To the rosy image of intellectual freedom, then, we must add the violence of human bondage.


Just as our tour of the university was coming to a close, our tour of Monticello, Jefferson’s old plantation, was about to begin. Now, Monticello literally means “little mountain,” and the name is perfectly sensible, as the house stands on a hill overlooking the surrounding area. We drove up to the visitor’s center (which has a café and a gift shop), and then hopped on the shuttle bus up to the house for our tour. Monticello can only be visited on a guided tour, which took around two hours. No photos are allowed inside, but the website includes a wonderful virtual tour, which is far better than this measly blog post. 

Both the statue and myself are life-sized. Jefferson was 6’2”

I will hardly bother to describe the exterior of Monticello, since if you have seen a nickel you know what it looks like. Suffice to say that it is built in the same Neoclassical style, with the same red brick, as the buildings of the university. Indeed, Monticello could be transported to the center of the University of Virginia and look perfectly at home. 

The house is entered, logically enough, through the front door, which leads directly into the entrance hall. This room is decorated with all sorts of artifacts from Lewis and Clarke’s epochal journey into the American wilderness—horns, antlers, Native American artifacts, and even the mandible of a mastodon. (According to Meacham, Jefferson’s attitude towards Native Americans was only slightly more enlightened than his contemporaries, thinking them not racially but culturally inferior. In any case, he still had no qualms about taking their land.) There are also many busts on the wall—including one of Voltaire, and another of Jefferson’s rival and nemesis, Alexander Hamilton. I suppose Jefferson liked his enemies close. 

Most conspicuous of all might be Jefferson’s Great Clock. It has two faces, one facing outward, which only shows the hour (accurate enough for slaves, Jefferson thought), and another facing inward, with a minute and a second hand. It is quite a contraption. The clock is connected to a gong outside, which chimes out the hour loud enough for the whole plantation to hear. It works via a series of weights, which look like cannon balls. The clock is wound up at the beginning of the week (Sunday), and the falling weights mark the day as well as keep the hour. Unfortunately, the clock was designed for a somewhat more ample space, and so the last day of the week (Saturday) is located in the basement.

As one moves through Monticello, the visitor gets a greatly paradoxical impression of Jefferson. He was, for example, both provincial and cosmopolitan. Not remarkably well-traveled himself, he read voraciously about other lands (such as in the journals of Captain James Cook), and kept up a correspondence with contemporary explorers like Alexander von Humboldt and Meriweather Lewis. On the other hand, he was himself something of a homebody, keeping close to Monticello (after his return from France) and even founding his pet university in his backyard. In terms of taste, Jefferson improbably wants to combine a kind of rural simplicity with an enormous mansion and French style, making the house seem both luxurious and homely. 

Another contradiction is between Jefferson’s genius and his dilettantism. His library spans dozens of academic disciplines, and yet his manner of organizing books, plants, and correspondence is entirely homespun. Monticello is a work of architectural brilliance; but the windows awkwardly span both the first and the second floor, meaning that they do not align with eye level. The clock may epitomize this contradiction best: an ingenious device for which Jefferson had to bore a hole through his own floor. The biggest contradiction of all, of course, is that the self-proclaimed champion of freedom lived in a slave plantation. But I will return to that.

From the entrance hall, the visitor quickly moves to Jefferson’s living quarters. His working life centers upon his library and his “cabinet” (or, study), which are filled with dusty volumes, the busts of famous men (like his frenemy, John Adams), and scientific instruments, such as his telescope, barometer, or theodolite (a surveying instrument). Both rooms overlook Jefferson’s greenhouse, where he grew exotic plants. The quaint quality of Jefferson’s mind is quite apparent here. He had a five-sided writing stand commissioned and built, so that he could display different documents and books (though a simple table seems more practical to me). On his desk stands a bygone innovation, the polygraph, which uses a mechanical arm holding a pen in order to duplicate letters (and Jefferson was a prolific correspondent). Jefferson did not invent the device, but he tinkered with it, and was quite enthusiastic about its use. The most idiosyncratic touch may be Jefferson’s bed, which is built into the wall between his study and bed chamber. The arrangement does save space; though for a man of 6’2’’, the bed seems quite snug. 

My favorite room in the house was perhaps the parlor, where Jefferson did much of his entertaining. The room has a high ceiling and an unusual geometry. Opposite the main doors (hooked up, under the floor, so that both sides open and close in tandem), there are two pairs of tall windows and a single glass door, all looking out at the back garden, which serve to make the room sunny and bright. Two pianos and a zittern (similar to a lute) sit ready for music-making; Jefferson himself took part on the violin. Most attractive, for me, were the many portraits covering the walls. A somewhat unusual painting of George Washington stands near the famous Mather Brown portraits of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, made while the two men were overseas, with Jefferson looking distinctly more foppish than usual in his big white wig. On another wall hang three portraits of Jefferson’s intellectual heroes: Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Isaac Newton—all unabashed champions of empiricism.  

I do not wish to get bogged down in a room-by-room description of Monticello, but I must mention some highlights. One of Jefferson’s innovations were double windows, which let in light but provide for more insulation, since the air between the glass acts as a buffer. The dining room is equipped with a dumbwaiter to bring up wine from the cellar (Jefferson liked French wine), to minimize the number of servants (read “slaves”) needed for his guests. An octagonal bedroom on the ground floor—with another alcove bed—is called the “Madison room,” since this was where that other founding father stayed on his frequent visits. Upstairs (and the stairs are very steep and narrow, another oddity of Jefferson’s design) there are mainly bedrooms, for Jefferson’s sister, daughter, and grandchildren. The tour culminates with the dome room—also octagonal, as apparently Jefferson loved the shape—on the third floor, which provides a commanding view of the surrounding area.

Me and my dad in the dome room.

But now we must leave the house of Monticello itself, and explore the grounds of the estate. For here is where the history of Monticello becomes decidedly less charming. Monticello was not simply a residence, but a plantation, wherein enslaved men and women worked to enrich Jefferson. This was done by growing and selling crops—tobacco and wheat, notably—as well as by producing goods for sale, such as nails. On the road running past the house, dubbed Mulberry Row, stood the small residences of these enslaved workers, many of whom labored alongside white contract laborers to construct the house. Some of these still stand, or have been reconstructed. One of the latter is the cabin of John Hemmings, a literate carpenter who was one of the few enslaved people to be freed by Jefferson.

The reconstructed quarters of the enslaved cook.

The contrast between elegant finery of the mansion, and this simple little dwelling, is almost gut-wrenching. That the man who declared that liberty was an inalienable right, that all men were created equal, could own fellow human beings and live by the violent coercion of their labor—it is simply too paradoxical to swallow. One naturally at least hopes that Jefferson was an especially “good” or “enlightened” slave-owner, whatever that would mean. But even that is not the case. Jefferson owned 600 different people during the course of his life—about 100 at any one time—and he treated them much as his neighbors did: namely, by giving them the choice between work or physical punishment. Husbands and wives were separated, as were mothers and children; and Jefferson ordered his overseers to beat enslaved people on multiple occasions. This should hardly need stating: Slavery requires violence to exist, and is itself a form of violence. There is no nice way to own a person.

One cannot even take comfort in the fact that Jefferson was distant from the real management of his estate, like some dreamy philosopher absorbed in his pursuits. Slavery was at the core of his life. After his wife passed away, Jefferson began a sexual relationship with his wife’s half-sister, an enslaved woman named Sally Hemings. Indeed, this “relationship”—if that is what it should be called—likely began when Hemings was still an adolescent. And while we do not have much notion of how the young Hemings felt, it is difficult to call such sex “consensual,” considering that Jefferson was much older, not to mention her legal owner, as well as the owner of much of her family. Sally Hemings had six children by Jefferson, whom he owned until his death, freeing them in his will. Evidently, slavery could not have been a more intimate part of Jefferson’s life. 

The tour ends with a walk down back to the visitor’s center. On the way, you pass by the Monticello Graveyard, where Jefferson himself is buried along with many members of his family. His own tombstone—tall, but not grandiose—bears an epitaph he wrote himself, mentioning three accomplishments: that he wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Statue of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and that he founded the University of Virginia. Anyone familiar with his life will immediately notice that it omits arguably his greatest accomplishment: serving as President. But Jefferson was very mindful of his image, and strove hard to preserve his aura of the humble, unworldly intellectual; and so I think the epitaph is very much in keeping with this persona.

Further on, down near the parking lot, is a fenced off area. This was a burying ground where at least 40 of the enslaved people of Monticello were buried, though you would never know it if not for the sign, as there is not a tombstone to be seen. Once again, the contrast speaks for itself.

Though Jefferson is buried on the property, his family soon lost it after his death. For all of his brilliance as an intellectual and a politician, Jefferson was not a good businessman, and died hopelessly in debt. The house—including the vast majority of the enslaved workers—was sold after his death to pay off these debts. Luckily for posterity, the property was bought by an admirer of Jefferson, Uriah P. Levy, who preserved the house. Monticello is now owned and run by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which I think does an excellent job in telling the story of this place. Every aspect of this complex man—from his scientific pursuits to the reality of slavery—was explained with honesty and care.

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation does not attempt to resolve the conflicts inherent in the life and legacy of the third president. Nor will I. Indeed, there is no way to resolve the paradox: Jefferson was a champion of freedom and a slave-owner. He was a man of life-enhancing brilliance who participated in one of history’s most monstrous institutions. His words epitomized some of our finest aspirations, while his actions embodied our basest impulses. I do not think penning the Declaration of Independence can somehow cancel out the violence inflicted on 600 human beings. Morality does not work like that. If he were brought back from the dead, we would have to award him the Nobel Prize and then throw him in prison for the rest of his life. 

For this reason, we left Monticello just as appalled as inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s life. His legacy is perhaps most valuable, then, as a reminder that high ideals on paper can and do coexist with ugly realities in the world. This, after all, is just as true of the story of America as it is that of Jefferson. We should not make the same mistake as Jefferson in thinking that we can politely express our disapproval of an oppressive and unsustainable system while profiting by it and doing nothing to change it. Even now, almost two centuries after Jefferson’s death, there is still much work to be done.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.