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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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?
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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It was a thoroughly muggy day in mid-August when I boarded a boat in Battery Park.
My destination was the most famous statue in the United States, if not the world. And I was willing to pay to get up close. Now, if you merely wish to take a good picture of the statue against the New York City skyline, then no financial transaction is necessary. The Staten Island Ferry—a gratuitous vaporetto—passes quite near Liberty Island, allowing its parsimonious passengers an excellent vantage point from which to gawk and snap photos. But I was in no mood for drive-by glances; I wanted to see the statue from dry land, which requires a certain amount of money.
In the time before COVID-19, the ferry company had no qualms with herding us through a large security tent and then packing us into the boat like salted fish. I opted to stand on the deck. Despite the summer heat and the humidity, the sea wind whipped up soon after we set off, giving me goosebumps. But this was compensated by anticipation. Even a short ferry ride partakes, however modestly, in the romance of travel by sea. And as a good friend of mine once said (well, he said it repeatedly): “The best way to see a city is by boat.” This is certainly true regarding New York City, at least. Seen from the harbor, the Manhattan skyline is at its most vertiginously dramatic. The Statue of Liberty is not bad, either.
In about twenty minutes the boat docked at Liberty Island. Now, this was not always the name of this little piece of earth. Before Europeans came to dominate the land, the Canarsie people called it Minnisais. Since then, however, the island has been dubbed Love Island, Great Oyster Island, and Bedloe’s Island, among other appellations. It had many uses before being made home to an enormous copper goddess. Food was grown, men were hanged, garbage was dumped, and Tories waited here to be extracted to England. The island was even used as a kind of lazaretto for those suspected of harboring smallpox. Its last function before being turned into a monument was as a fortified battery; and the star-shaped remains of Fort Summer still sit below Liberty’s green heel.
I pushed my way down the boarding ramp and headed straight for the statue. This was not my first visit. Many years ago, when I was still in middle school, I visited the island with my Californian cousins, who wanted to see some of the main sights of New York. At the time I was inclined to see any sort of cultural excursion as a monumentally boring waste of time. Video games were infinitely more entertaining, and I resented my family for dragging me away from my computer. Nothing I saw made much of an impression on me: not the Empire State Building, not Wall Street, not Battery Park. It was wholly unexpected, then, when I found myself entranced by the Statue of Liberty. I could not take my eyes off it. I even felt inspired. Somehow the statue had broken through the many layers of youthful apathy and juvenile ignorance to touch a hitherto unknown part of myself.
This second visit was not quite as stupendous, if only because by this time I had grown accustomed to visiting monuments and the feelings that they evoke. This is not to say that I was uninspired. The towering lady is not as dynamic in composition or as beautiful in form as, say, Michelangelo’s David; and the sickly green color (caused from the oxidation of the copper) is not the most aesthetically pleasing shade imaginable. (Like the oxidized patina itself, however, it grows on you.) But statues of this size have different engineering constraints, not to mention serving a different purpose. As a synecdoche of the nation, as a grandiose welcome to those arriving by sea (many of them immigrants), and as an artwork that represents the Enlightenment values that (nominally, at least) set this nation apart, Liberty Enlightening the World could hardly be more successful. Granted, Bartholdi probably only intended some of this in his design; yet the mark of any great work of art is that it goes beyond even the vision of its creator.
I had opted for the cheapest ticket, which only allowed me to gaze at the statue from without. Paying more would have given me access to the pedestal, and still more would have allowed me to ascend to the seven-pronged crown. (Visits to the torch have been prohibited since 1916, for a somewhat obscure reason.) But even the most basic ticket seemed pricey to me. So after I had taken my fill of the statue, and walked around her a few times, I wandered over to the other end of the island to see the museum. The visit begins with a strange cinematic experience, wherein visitors are led into a big, empty room, shown an informational video about the statue’s history, and then led into another room where the video continues, and then yet another. I suppose they screen the film this way so that more visitors can be shown it at once, though I did wish there were seats available.
The museum in general was surprisingly good. There are models of the statue and its innards, a great deal of information about its construction and inspiration, and even real models and former parts. But rather than try to narrate the museum, I will use it as an opportunity to tell something of the statue’s history:
Given that Lady Liberty is one of the most quintessentially images of America, it is somewhat ironic, then, that the statue was designed and built entirely by the French, and given to us in an act of international generosity. I can think of no other major monument with such an origin.
The idea for a celebratory dedication to the United States evidently originated with Édouard René de Laboulaye, a prominent French abolitionist, who wished to celebrate the Union victory in the Civil War, and the end of American slavery. This proposal was taken up by his friend, the artist Frédéric Bartholdi, who liked the idea, if only because it would have provided an indirect rebuke to the repressive regime of Napoleon III. But such projects are seldom conceived and completed on schedule; and by the time the statue was finally built, in 1885, Napoleon III had been deposed.
It was difficult enough for the cities of Brooklyn and New York (when they were formally separate) to work together to plan, fund, and execute the Brooklyn Bridge across the East River. Imagine, then, the nightmare of coordinating an international project across the Atlantic. To build the statue, Bartholdi had to personally come to the United States, scout out a good location, meet with the president (Ulysses S. Grant at the time), and then cross the young nation trying to drum up support. Batholdi also had to come up with a design. That the theme should be liberty was obvious; but freedom can take many forms. It can be a bare-chested woman leading troops into battle, à la Delecroix; yet that seemed too violent or revolutionary. Instead, Bartholdi opted for a neoclassical design, staid and solemn, robed in a Roman stella (togas are for men), crowned with a diadem, and holding a torch rather than a sword.
In 1875 Bartholdi and Laboulaye set to work raising money for the statue. It was to be a long slog, combining a difficult PR campaign with a vast logistical challenge. Building material was needed, talent had to be recruited, and the public interest maintained at a high enough level to keep funds flowing. As an engineering task, the statue was daunting enough. Standing 46 meters tall, the statue had to support 91 tonnes of metal without crumpling or toppling over. The thin copper skin simply would not bear that much weight, and so Gustave Eiffel was contracted to design an internal steel skeleton. This internal work is a magnificent achievement in itself, since it could be easily assembled and disassembled, and also because Eiffel designed it in such a way as to allow the metal to expand and contract in the changing weather without cracking the skin. Were the copper exterior removed, then, New York would have her own Eiffel Tower.
While the French were busy with the statue, the Americans had to make the pedestal. This proved to be quite a challenge, for the simple reason that nobody wanted to cough up the money. Grover Cleveland—who was then the governor of New York—vetoed funding for the statue, which left the project lingering in unfunded purgatory. (Cleveland, as president, later presided over the dedication of the statue, which seems terribly unfair.) The task to fund the project fell, instead, to private industry and the good people of New York. Specifically, Joseph Pullitzer led a funding drive in his newspaper, The New World, promising to publish the name of every single contributor. Thus the pedestal was built with spare nickels, dimes, and pennies, mailed in from children, widows, and alcoholics. Even so, it took longer than expected to raise the required sum, and the pedestal was still incomplete by the time the statue arrived by steamboat.
The assembly and disassembly of the statue, transportation across the seas, and then reassembly in its new home, was yet another massive engineering challenge for the designers. Eiffel’s steel beams arrived with Bartholdi’s hand-beaten copper, and teams of workers had to put it all together, like an enormous erector set. The statue’s completion was celebrated by the city’s first ticker-tape parade, which culminated in a yacht trip to the island for a private dedication ceremony, attended only by politicians, dignitaries, and other officials. Ironically, in a fête for an enormous female, few women were permitted to attend. The values of the Enlightenment have their limits, after all.
My sojourn on the land of liberty had come to close; but I still had more to see. Tickets to visit the Statue of Liberty come included with a trip to Ellis Island, just a few minutes away. Like Liberty Island, this island used to be called Oyster Island, for the very logical reason that it was a shallow tidal flat where oysters liked to live. As such, it was used as an important food source by the Lenape people, but they called it “Kioshk” for the many seagulls which liked to rest there. Much later, when an island was needed to process the increasing tides of immigrants, the government started dumping sand, rocks, and soil (taken from the subway tunnels) in order to create something fit for permanent habitation. (This had very unfortunate results for the oysters, which scientists are now trying to revive in the Billion Oyster Project.) Ellis Island was not even originally a single island, but three separate ones which were gradually merged. The current landmass is shaped like a fat “C,” and ships dock in the space between the northern and southern halves.
Ellis Island has come to serve as a symbol of American immigration, but of course this particular institution represents only one chapter of the story. Ellis Island was never the only port of entry into the United States for immigrants, and it was active for only about thirty years, from 1892 to 1924. Most of these immigrants coming through Ellis Island were, naturally, from the other side of the Atlantic, specifically Europe. This includes Germans, Irish, Scandinavians, a great many Italians, Eastern European Jews escaping pogroms—and many more, to the tune of 12 million souls. It has been calculated that 40% of the United States population can trace at least one ancestor to Ellis Island (though I do not know if that includes me).
The basic visit is to the island’s Main Building. This is a large and surprisingly beautiful structure, built in a French Renaissance style. Your visit is meant to replicate the journey of an arriving immigrant to the island. You begin in the baggage room, complete with real period suitcases and trunks, where you pick up your audioguide. Then you advance to the registry hall, a cavernous open room topped with Guastavino tiles, which shimmer and sparkle in the indirect light. But I doubt that an arriving immigrant would have been in the mood to admire architecture, since this room was the scene of fateful decisions.
While the hall is now open and luminous, during the heyday of Ellis Island it would have been full with queues upon queues of incoming immigrants, awaiting their turns on long benches to talk with a customs official. While they entered and waited, doctors would inspect and examine the hopeful immigrants for any signs of ill health. Those presenting a worrisome sign would be marked with chalk and more thoroughly examined. If the problem was grave, or the disease highly contagious (like trachoma, an eye affliction), the poor soul might be sent all the way back—a fate of a small minority (about 2%), but a very crushing fate indeed after spending one’s savings and crossing an ocean in the hopes of a new life. If the problem was less severe, then the migrant may be in for a stay at the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital (more on that later).
In any case, even for the well in body in mind, the experience must have been extremely stressful. For the most part, the rich are not the ones who emigrate; it is the poor, with little money to spend. Consequently, then, the voyage aboard the steamers crossing the Atlantic was abysmally uncomfortable—cramped, cold, dark, seasick and poorly fed. Then the storm-tossed travelers were thrown into a hall echoing with unintelligible languages to be handled by unfeeling officials.
Thankfully, for the majority of those arriving on Ellis Island, the affair was quite short, lasting only a matter of hours before they were allowed through. Laws regarding immigration were, after all, far more lenient back in the day, especially in the decades leading up to World War I. Stefan Zweig, for example, remembers traipsing around Europe without even possessing a passport. But that war initiated a period of nationalism and xenophobia on both sides of the Atlantic. A literacy test was mandated in 1917 (in the immigrant’s native language), and by the 1920s quotas were imposed, thus ending the period of mass immigration.
From the registry hall, you move from room to room, each one used to process the immigrant in a different way—further health inspections, mental aptitude tests, literacy tests, legal processes, money exchanges, bus tickets, and so on. A courtroom was busy hearing cases of immigrants suspected of being professional paupers or contract laborers (oh, the horror!); luckily, immigrant aid societies paid for lawyers to help appeal cases, and 80% of the immigrants on trial were accepted. Particularly fascinating to me were the examples of IQ tests, meant to weed out those considered to be mentally infirm or deficient. This was a challenge, since the tests had to be applicable to anyone, regardless of their national background. Even a simple task, like drawing a diamond, was not a fair measure, since a large portion of immigrants had never even held a pencil. The psychologists thus settled on visual tests, like identifying faces or distinguishing between images. Still, the whole attempt seems rather silly in retrospect.
To repeat, for the majority of immigrants, Ellis Island was only a brief stopover. But a sickly minority required a longer stay—days, weeks, or even months—in the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital. For some, this meant a stay to “stabilize” their condition before being sent back, but for others successful treatment was an entry ticket to another life.
The hospital is on the other half of the island, and off limits to the casual visitor. To go, one must sign up for a guided hard-hat tour, as the buildings are nowadays in a quite dilapidated condition, empty and overgrown. But at one time this was one of the biggest public health hospitals in the world, complete with separate words for infectious diseases. Nowadays, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, we can appreciate the role of border control in controlling contagious illness. This idea was old even by the time Ellis Island was built (there are islands for isolation in the Venetian lagoon, for example), though of course it was never a fool-proof way of controlling epidemics—such as the waves of cholera that arrived from the Old World. Still, Ellis Island was an important line of epidemiological defense for the United States.
Taken together, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are the country’s greatest monuments to the immigrant—symbols of the country’s open-armed embrace of anyone willing to come. At a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is once again raising its ugly head, these monuments are more important than ever, for they remind us that the majority of us are descended from immigrants, most of them poor, most of them uneducated, and all of them looking for a better life. How were those Hungarians or Italians, unable to write or even to hold a pencil, any different from the people now at our southern border, who fill us with so much fear?
Economists may show us, again and again, that immigrants do not steal jobs; and historians may demonstrate that xenophobia is used, again and again, as a scapegoat for other social ills. But no argument is as profoundly moving as that lady of oxidized copper, herself an immigrant, holding out her torch towards the vast and windy seas, inscribed with the words of Emma Lazarus:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
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The way that this year is going, 2019 is beginning to look like a long lost paradise. This was especially true for me—partly because, last year, one of my oldest friends, Greg, was living and working in Europe. Fluent in French, willing to travel, he was the perfect partner in my goal to finally see Normandy.
The plan was simple: I would fly to Nantes (on the west coast of France), where I would pick up a rental car, and then drive about three and a half hours to Caen. Meanwhile, Greg would take a train up from Paris and meet me there. Alright, perhaps the plan was not exactly simple, but we did save money this way (both the flight to Nantes and the rental car were bargains).
I arrived in Nantes on an early May morning, in a sorry state. Flying always makes me nervous—the security, the long lines, the altitude—and the prospect of driving does not exactly calm me, either. As a consequence of using my license only occasionally, I have managed to remain an inexperienced driver for many years. And this time I would have to drive in an entirely new country, all by myself.
But when I walked into the rental car agency, anxiety was rebuffed by incompetence: They did not have my car. In fact, they did not have any car with automatic transition in the lot. I would have to wait until the truck came with new cars. (As a side note, I still do not understand why nearly all Europeans drive manuals, while Americans have switched to automatics.)
Thus, I found myself sitting in an airport café, sipping on a café au lait, for about two hours until a suitable car arrived. And no, I was not offered a discount. But the mistakes and misdeeds of rental car agencies are too sordid to dwell upon.
The drive was blessedly easy. The French, as it turns out, obey the same traffic laws as do other drivers around the world. Soon I felt confident enough to listen to an audiobook: Livy’s History of Rome. This quickly proved to be a bad idea, however, as the narrator’s deep and sonorous voice, combined with the fairly monotonous rhythm of his delivery, had a powerful soporific effect. At one point, my eyes even started to close, and my car drifted into the next lane. Luckily, I jerked awake before any calamity could occur. The historical audiobook was then replaced by upbeat music.
I arrived in Caen just in time to pick Greg up at the train station. Then, we headed to our Airbnb, which was a bedroom in a little house on the outskirts of the city. Our host was a young Frenchman with a broken leg. Nearby there were formidable concrete walls, which I romantically imagined to be connected to the Second World War. In truth, it was the Centre pénitentiare de Caen, a prison for people serving long sentences.
By the time we were ready to head out, the hour was already late, and daylight was waning. We got into the car and drove into the center of Caen; and though I have a bad history with underground parking garages, it was the only place to leave the car. The sky was overcast and the city’s stone streets equally grey. It was too late to visit anything, so we strolled around until we found a place to eat, sampling some of the local cuisine (hamburgers). After a satisfying meal, we wandered through the historical center, where Greg—who was dressed in a colorful shirt, a long red trench coat, and an equally scarlet wide-brimmed hat—had his dazzling cranial accoutrement snatched by a mischievous drunk, who danced around asking for money with the stolen article. Eventually the hat was returned, the drunk unrewarded.
Soon we passed by the Abbey of Saint-Étienne, a beautiful romanesque monastery that was, unfortunately, closed by the time we arrived. (It was founded by none other than William the Conqueror, who is buried there.) Nearby was a wine and liquor shop, where Greg bought some hard cider, a specialty of the region. Then, we headed to the Château de Caen, an impressive castle situated on a hill overlooking the city. (This, too, was built by William the Conqueror.) The front gate was still open, so we strolled right in and climbed up to the walls, where Greg opened the cider in celebration. And, truly, it felt surreal and awfully pleasant to leave my Madrid apartment in the morning and to end up, that night, sipping cider with an old friend on a Norman castle.
Darkness fell and the day was over. Time to go to sleep. But we had quite a bit of trouble finding the car. I could not remember where the parking garage was, or how to get down into it. Eventually we had to ask a local in a hotel, who told us, with mock solemnity, that we had forfeited our rights to the car and that it was his now. (Normans are more jolly than Parisians, it seems.) That was one day’s adventure. We still had two more to go.
Our first full day in Normandy had only one objective: to visit Mont-Saint-Michel.
I had first seen the island in a photo, some years ago, and had assumed that it was from some fantasy movie like Lord of the Rings. Upon learning that it was real, I could hardly believe it. Now I was finally going to see it, and I could hardly believe that, either. I had mentally filed Mont-Saint-Michel away in a folder of places that I would often see in photographs, but never travel to, like the Taj Mahal or Machu Picchu. Apparently I had underestimated life.
During the hour’s long journey there, we listened to a podcast that Greg recommended, 99% Invisible, which focuses on architecture and design. The subject of that podcast was Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese-American artist who, among other things, designed an iconic coffee table, as well as innovative playground ideas. His culminating work was a large landscape called Play Mountain, which looks to me like an overgrown South American pyramid.
Feeling properly edified, we arrived. Formerly, visitors were able to drive on an elevated causeway up to the walls of the commune and park on the island; but the authorities rightly decided that the parking lot was an eyesore. Now, one must park in a large area on the mainland, and then choose either to walk or take a shuttle bus to the island. We took one look at the long bus line, and quickly decided that walking would be better. And it was. This way, we were able to relish the slow approach.
Mont-Saint-Michel is a tidal island, situated in the middle of a silty bay. The island was formed as the tough granite at its base resisted the abrasion of the sea, while the softer land around it was gradually worn away. At high tide, water pours in from the ocean, filling in the space between the island and the mainland. But at low tide, enough water drifts out that a pilgrim can walk directly to the island without any sort of walkway (though with very muddy shoes). Apart from giving Mont-Saint-Michele its air of mysterious beauty, this situation has also given the island military importance. Neither a naval nor a land attack is safe, since the changing tides can either leave boats stranded or wash soldiers away. This has allowed quite small garrisons on the island to hold out against far larger forces.
But Mont-Saint-Michel has never been primarily a military site. It began, in the early Middle Ages, as a small hermitage, much like San Juan de Gaztelugatxe remains today. This hermitage eventually grew in size and importance (bolstered, of course, by the obligatory legend of a heavenly figure appearing to inspire someone to build a church there), and became a site of pilgrimage within France. As such, it was integrated into a much wider network of European pilgrimage, ultimately connected to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. (In the Abbey’s gift shop there was a lovely map of these routes.) Thus, as both a holy site and a bulwark against invading English forces, the small hermitage grew into an architectural wonder.
Once we passed through the main gate, we found ourselves in an environment built of greyish brown stone (the locally-sourced granite). The plan of Mont-Saint-Michel follows a kind of zig-zagging spiral up to the top. We wasted little time in ascending up from the streets to the commune’s walls, which allowed us to avoid the crowd and enjoy the view at once. Besides, there is not much in the way of street life or local culture in Mont-Saint-Michel. The island has seldom supported populations above 200 (though it rose over 1,000 during the 19th century), and lately has dwindled to about thirty lonely souls. So it is safe to say that every business on the island exists exclusively for tourists.
We followed the walls ever upward, revealing a progressively more expansive view of the bay. Eventually we reached the very top, occupied by the Abbey, which sits on the island like a crown. Amazingly, at the entrance to the Abbey, Greg and I almost balked at the price of admission. This would have been a remarkably stupid decision.
As soon as we entered the church, we were blown away by a beauty that, cliché as it is, must be described as “heavenly.” It is hard to capture in words, since everything hit us at once. There was the environment. The church epitomizes the Norman style—austere and unadorned, with strong vertical lines. Bright sunlight flowed in from the long windows, almost blinding us at first. There was also the sound. A group of nuns and monks in white robes were chanting in harmony, and their voices echoed spectrally—even, yes, celestially—in the cavernous space. The result was a mixture of light and sound that almost knocked us off our feet. We went from animated conversation to hushed, reverential silence, and left the abbey in a kind of daze. Both of us spontaneously admitted that we had almost converted to Catholicism on the spot. It really was that powerful.
We wandered through the rest of the Abbey complex, chattering happily about the nuns. The Abbey had what one might expect from a monastic space: a cloister for meditation, a refectory for shared meals, and a hall to receive pilgrims. The most striking feature was a treadwheel crane, which was used to haul up supplies from the lower levels. In order to operate it, people actually had to climb inside and walk forward, like hamsters. This feature was installed in the later history of the abbey, when its religious function was stripped away during the fiercely anti-clerical French Revolution, and it was turned into a prison (mostly for priests!). Unsurprisingly, it was the prisoners who had to operate this winch. Mont Saint-Michel served this ghastly function for over half a century, until campaigners—most notably Victor Hugo—convinced the government to restore the Abbey to its former glory.
After the visit, we found ourselves back on the twisting streets of the commune. It was rather jarring to see the overpriced restaurants and junky gift shops stuffed into the exquisite medieval streets. In such tourist hotspots, I normally opt for the cheapest, fastest food available, since there is little hope of having a genuinely good meal. So we ordered some ham and cheese sandwiches in a place so cramped that the kitchen was actually on the floor below (all of the orders had to be sent down a little elevator, and the food brought up the same way). Having dined with our wallets intact, we left through the front gate and walked out into the bay in order to see the other side of the island.
The ground was sticky—covered in thick pasty silt—and smelled of the ocean. Every so often we would come across a decomposing fish, left behind by the receding tide. In the distance we could make out Tombelaine, a small island further out in the bay. We put some distance between ourselves and the city, and looked back to see a less-famous aspect of Mont-Saint-Michel. Whereas from the land you can see the walls, the town, and the lower structures of the Abbey, the northward facing side is covered in a thick mass of trees. The only notable feature is the Chapelle Saint-Aubert, a small stone structure that is about as simple as a chapel can be. The chapel is named in honor of Aubert of Avranches, who had the legendary vision that led to the creation of the abbey.
This was all for Mont-Saint-Michel. We circled back around the island, walked back to the mainland, and, after some confusion finding the car in the parking lot, we were off in search of something else to do. Luckily, Greg knew a Norman who gave him a few suggestions. One of these was the nearby town of Granville, where we headed to next.
Granville is a lovely coastal commune on the English Channel. The town immediately reminded me of some of the more picturesque pueblos from the north of Spain—a jagged peninsula jutting out into the rough waters of the North Atlantic. There are also several sandy beaches in Granville, which helped to make it a popular resort for landlocked Parisians. On the day we arrived, however, the town seemed to be rather sleepy, the only notable street life being a group of older men playing pétanque (a very simple game in which you try to throw balls as close as possible to a given target).
We parked the car and admired the town’s principal church, Notre Dame du Cap Lihou, an attractive stone building that stands at the commune’s highest point. Then we walked out to the end of the peninsula, the Pointe du Roc, which is a kind of park. There, a stumpy little lighthouse overlooked cliffs of pale schist, while a few boats blew about in the water. In the distance we could see the Chausey Islands, a sparsely-inhabited archipelago out in the English channel. If we had binoculars we could, perhaps, have made out Jersey—which, I was surprised to learn, is technically not part of either France or the United Kingdom, but a self-governing state. (Europe is filled with all sorts of absurd historical artifacts like this.)
After taking in our fill of the view and the cold ocean breeze, we retreated to the center of town for a snack. For this, Greg ordered rillettes. He told me it was a kind of meat, so I was surprised to be confronted with something that looked more like butter. In fact, rillettes is meat cooked in its own fat at low temperatures for a long time, and then served as a spread at room temperature. It was quite delicious.
marBy now, the day was mostly spent, and we still had to make the drive back to Caen. Back in the Airbnb, we decided to cook instead of going out for dinner; and for a meal decided to recreate the exact menu we had the last time we were together, in Marseille: merguez sausages, ratatouille, and couscous. And even though my ratatouille wasn’t as good as my friend Lily’s, and even though Greg made far too much couscous, the meal was a success. We went to bed with full stomachs, dreaming of the morrow.
I have only taken one art history class in my life, an introductory course in college with a fairly apathetic teacher. And yet, this one basic class has had quite a lasting impact on my travels. Whenever I realize that I have the opportunity to see something from my old textbook, I make it a priority on my trips. This time, that piece of art was the Bayeux Tapestry.
As you will probably not be surprised to learn, this famous tapestry is located in the city of Bayeux, which was our first destination for the day. This small city is only a short drive from Caen (though the drive was still slightly stressful due to my making a fool of myself at a gas station because I didn’t know which side of the car the fuel cap was on, and also my general incompetence when it comes to parking). We headed straight for the museum where the tapestry is held; but instead of walking inside, we got involved with a group of Erasmus students standing out front, who needed the two of us to get the group discount rate. We participated and saved a few euros. This is communism in action.
The museum issued us audio guides and then directed us to the tapestry. This tapestry is about 70 meters (230 feet) long, and is displayed in a long case that wraps from the entrance to the exit. No photos are allowed, and the hallway is kept quite dark. The audio guide was programmed to play automatically as we proceeded through the space, which made the experience almost like watching a documentary. I was impressed.
But I ought to describe the tapestry itself. The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the jewels of Romanesque art. It is a kind of woven comic book, telling the story of the conquest of England by the invading Normans (1064-1066), led by William the Conqueror. For centuries it hung in the Bayeux Cathedral, exposed to the smoke of incense and candles, and yet it has survived in quite excellent condition. The story reads like an epic poem: It begins with a dispute over succession after the death of Edward the Confessor, king of England, and culminates in the huge, bloody Battle of Hastings. In the course of the story we can see Mont Saint-Michel, Hailey’s Comet, and many historical figures like William and his enemy Harold Godwinson, as well as more humble historical details like boat building, roasting a meal, or the construction of a fortification.
By the time you reach the end (which takes about half an hour), you really do feel as though you have seen an engrossing film. But I wish I had had more time to stop and pause over the details of the tapestry (we had to keep moving through the hallway), since it is a wonderful work of visual art, in addition to a compelling narrative. Though it can seem crudely made at first glance, the stylized aesthetic effectively brings you into a different world—a world with different values and different concepts of beauty. This makes the tapestry one of those rare portals to the past. And it just so happens that the event depicted was quite genuinely epic, since it marked the end of Anglo-Saxon rule and the beginning of Norman domination in England. If it were not for this event, and the resultant use of French, the English language would be very different (not to mention the rest of England).
The rest of the museum was interesting but, I admit, not especially memorable. I do remember seeing a facsimile of the famous Domesday book. This was compiled by William the Conqueror in order to take account of his newly acquired realm. Thus the book is part census and part Internal Revenue Service. Indeed, the name of the book (Middle English for “Doomsday Book”) seems to indicate that even back then, taxes were seen as inevitable—quite as inevitable as the apocalypse.
We exited the museum and found ourselves in a bright and brisk day. We strolled around Bayeux a bit, which has an attractive medieval center, and stopped to wolf down some sandwiches from a little corner shop. Then, we ducked inside the gothic Bayeux Cathedral, which is surprisingly beautiful given its relative lack of fame. But we did not have time to pause over spires and arches. This was our last day, and we had to go and see American Cemetery at Omaha Beach.
When Normandy is mentioned, the first thing that comes to mind for most Americans (if anything comes to mind at all) is D-Day. The bloody scenes of combat, so often dramatized in films, took place here in northern France, signaling a new phase of the European war that put Nazi Germany on the defensive. It was an enormous operation, likely the largest invasion by sea in human history, which nevertheless had to be kept top secret. And it was a success: the Nazis were caught off guard, as they had expected the invasion to occur elsewhere; and Allied casualties were actually much lower than expected. And yet, as we can see from the Bayeux Tapestry, even though the invasion was carried out with battleships and bombers, it was not all that different from the many naval invasions that have taken place here. Normandy has long been a site of contact and conflict between the British Isles and the Continent.
We parked the car and walked into the cemetery. The American flag was flying overhead, signalling that we were crossing a border. (The land is a concession from France to the United States, though it technically still belongs to the French.) For the third time in this trip—after Mont Saint-Michel and the Bayeux Tapestry—I was filled with that strange, reverent feeling, the sensation of witnessing something iconic and significant. For the third time, I was going to see something which, just a few months ago, I assumed that I was never going to see. It seems trite to describe the sensation like that of walking onto a movie set, though the comparison always comes to mind. Perhaps it would be better to say that it is like walking into history.
The cemetery is so famous that it hardly needs describing. Rows upon rows of white marble tombstones extend in every direction—over 9,000 in all. Most of these are crucifixes, for Catholics and Protestants, though 151 are stars of David for Jewish service members. (These were the only officially recognized religions at the time.) In fact, the entire complex is arranged as a crucifix, which lays parallel to the shore. In the center of the cross is a simple chapel, and a semi-circular memorial sits at the far end, listing the names of the missing. The most recent burial in the cemetery occurred just two years ago, in 2018, when a veteran was laid to rest next to his twin brother—one of 45 pairs of brothers in the cemetery. Not every casualty of the landings are buried here, of course; the soldiers’ families had the option to repatriate the remains.
We wandered around the cemetery, trying to wrap our minds around this epochal battle. It was unlike any cemetery I had ever visited, in that the vast majority of those interred did not die of natural causes. These people were deliberately killed. Such carnage is simultaneously a noble sacrifice and a tragic waste—a loss endured by those fighting to end a war that they did not start. It is humbling to think what sorts of lives these men and women could have led, had not a group of crazed nationalists decided to seize their “birthright.”
After walking through this somber monument, we decided that we had to set foot on Omaha beach itself. There is a little path that leads down towards the ocean, which takes you past a small memorial and a ruined German bunker. The beach itself is both wide and long—stretching 5 miles (8 km), with several hundred feet from the water’s edge to the other side. One can see both the advantages and disadvantages of such a spot: plenty of space for landing crafts, but no cover whatsoever or the advancing troops. It must have been terrifying.
After taking our fill of the chill ocean air, we climbed back up towards the car, to visit another monument to this war: the artillery battery at Longues-sur-Mer. This consists of four guns in concrete bunkers. The guns are huge: firing 15 cm bullets, with a range of 20 km, originally designed for use aboard destroyers. A good hit could easily have taken down a warship.
The guns were fired in action during the Allied landings, though quite ineffectually since most of the Allied ships were out of range. The concrete fortification did hold up against aerial and naval bombardments, however, and the guns remain in a good state of preservation. Like the tombs in the American Cemetery, these old rusted barrels brought home for us the intensity of the fighting on these beaches. The guns are also, in a way, a reminder that war can touch any earthly spot, however apparently tranquil. The area surrounding Longues-sur-Mer is nowadays lovely and bucolic, with fields of wildflowers overlooking the sandy coastline. It almost boggles the imagination that people were willing to fight and die over this bit of land.
Having had enough of war for the day, we got in the car to see some of the local life. Greg’s friend had recommended a small village to us, Beuvron-en-Auge. Personally I did not think this village would be very special, if only because every village we passed through looked so similar. That is not to say they were boring. On the contrary, as we drove through the countryside, I was in an almost continual state of delight. The country roads took us by farmland with grazing cows, through wooded areas and fields of flowers, and passed dozens of the distinctive stone barns in the local style. But the charm reached almost absurd heights when we reached Beuvron-en-Auge.
This town is legitimately special. Rather than the typical grey stone, most of the village’s buildings are made of wood, all of them painted in bright colors with criss-crossing patterns on their façades. There also seemed to be flowers everywhere: on the street, hanging from walls, and in the shops. Really, I do not think I can do justice to the sensation we had from seeing this town by mere description. The emotional effect was like stepping into a fairy tale. We stopped into a café, and were served tea in appropriately adorable kettles. Then, we made a lap around the town. This was not hard to do, considering that only about 200 people live in it.
“Look, that’s the town hall,” Greg said.
“Really?” I said, examining the little house. “Who do you think the mayor is, an elf?”
The town is, admittedly, a bit touristy, as evidenced by the many shops selling typical local products. These include lots of sweets, cheeses, jars of honey, and of course calvados, the regional apple brandy. There were even locally brewed beers and honey mead. We bought a few drinks for later, and returned to the car.
Our last stop for the day was, like Granville, another beach resort town: Cabourg. The town itself is frankly not particularly memorable, except for the appropriately named Grand Hotel. But the reason for this town’s fame becomes clear as soon as one catches a glimpse of the shore. Just as in Omaha Beach, a wide expanse of sand—seemingly endless—stretches out on either side. This is what made Cabourg a popular resort town for Parisians hoping to escape the summer in the city.
Most famous among those Parisians was none other than Marcel Proust, who immortalized Cabourg as the fictional Balbec in his interminable novel, In Search of Lost Time. Here is a taste of his writing:
Among the rooms which I most often evoked in my sleepless nights, none resembled the rooms at Combray, sprinkled with a grainy, pollinated, edible, and devout atmosphere, less than that of the Grand Hotel, at Balbec, whose lacquered walls contained, like the polished walls of a swimming pool where the water turns blue, a pure, azure, and saline air.
(And, yes, all 3,000 pages are written like that.)
After taking in our fill of the beach, we had to find a place to have dinner. Privately, I was a little concerned, since I doubted we would be able to find anything decent and affordable in such a ritzy town. But my phone told me that there was an inexpensive restaurant nearby. Well, “nearby” turned out to be an overstatement, since my phone took us into the residential part of town, over a bridge, and across a major road, into what looked like a strip mall. Worse still, according to the restaurant sign, the place would only be open for another half-hour before closing; and we had to wait for a table. These sorts of situations provoke an unreasonable amount of anxiety in me, so I spent all the time waiting for a table in a quiet panic.
But there was nothing to fear. We were seated and enjoyed a delicious meal. The restaurant was the Creperie Suzette et Sarzin, and specialized in galettes. This is a kind of savory crepe from Brittany (entirely new to me) made with buckwheat flour and served with the filling of your choice. I ordered one with chicken, potatoes, and mushrooms in a cream sauce, and it was scrumptious.
The rest of our plan was simple: return to the Airbnb, drink the alcohol we purchased in the little village, and watch a documentary. This was, after all, our last night. But fate had something else in store for us. When we arrived, our Airbnb host was drinking a beer and was all dressed up and ready to go out. He told us he expected to leave shortly to see his friends, and made some light conversation with us in the meantime. However, it soon became clear that his friends were either very disorganized or blowing him off. Half an hour stretched into sixty minutes, one hour into two, and then three. Throughout all this time, he kept up an almost continuous string of broken English, which became louder, more slurred, and nonsensical as he continued to drink. The night ended, memorably, with him explaining his antipathy to cream.
“Imagine!” he cried. “I am Norman, and I can’t eat cream! It makes me do like this.”
Then he proceeded to stick his finger in his mouth while he imitated a retching noise.
“Blegh, blegh, blegh. You see? Cream makes me blegh!”
Greg lost all patience at around the one hour mark, so by this time he was angrily responding in monosyllables. But our host was far past the point of being able to pick up on social cues.
Finally, at around midnight, he mercifully left the house. But by then, we were thoroughly tired and soon went to bed. So ended our last day in Normandy.
On our final morning together, we walked into the center of Caen to get something to eat. It was a Sunday, and we found ourselves smack in the middle of the weekly market.
It was this humble event that, of everything I saw on the trip, contrasted most powerfully with Spain. Not that Spanish people are averse to markets; quite the contrary. However, in a typical Spanish outdoor market you can find fruit, jewelry, clothes, or cheap consumer items like kitchen knives or extension cords. But you will usually not find a stand selling street food. Spanish people have preserved their dislike for eating while standing, walking, or even on a bench. (They do make an exception for churros.)
What is more, Spaniards are not overly fond of “ethnic” cuisines (they are convinced their food is the best); and in any case there are not nearly so many immigrants in Spain. But this Norman market was a paradise of international street food. The selection on offer was amazingly diverse. There seemed to be food from all over the globe being sold in this smallish, northerly Norman city.
The reason I am bothering to write all this is to convey how unexpected and delightful it was for me. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by all types of scrumptious cuisines, most of which I would have trouble finding in Madrid. The choice was indeed overwhelming, as we walked passed stand after stand, each one looking better than the last. Finally we settled on a woman selling food from the Caribbean (I think it was Trinidad?)—savory meat stews served over rice. We sat down and devoured our meal.
And that was that. Greg had to catch his train back down to Paris, and I had to get to Nantes for my flight back to Madrid. It is always bittersweet—if not altogether bitter—to leave a place that has put you under its spell. It is also quite unpleasant to say goodbye to friends. But after all we had seen and done, we were in good enough moods to last us a long time.
The only thing that remains is to tell of my own return journey. I drove the rental car back to Nantes, fighting traffic and my own bladder along the way. (I was greatly relieved when I figured out that Aire in French was used to indicate rest stops.) The car was returned without a dent or a scratch; and even though I am sure I ran at least one red light as I drove through the medieval city centers, I never received an additional bill.
I stayed the night in an Airbnb with a somewhat eccentric host. He was an older man, retired, with surprisingly good English, who had a great passion for films. His apartment was covered with movie posters and filled with books about cinema. He even offered to walk me into town, since he himself was on his way to see a screening of a David Lynch movie.
As I arrived towards evening, I did not see much of Nantes. But what I saw, I liked. The town is situated along the Loira River, a fact that has made it a major commercial port. Indeed, two centuries ago Nantes was an important hub in the Atlantic Slave Trade, a sad fact now memorialized in a kind of mini-museum along the river. (My host even informed me that the homes of slave-traders were distinguished by including little sculptures of faces in the façades.) I was quite impressed by the city’s castle, the Château des Ducs de Bretagne, as well as the local cathedral. Even putting aside the monuments, the historical center itself is attractive and filled with character.
Naturally, I had dinner in a kebab restaurant. Then, I bid adieu to France and went to sleep. It was a wonderful adventure.
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Rebe was in acute distress. That day, wholly unexpectedly, she was informed that she had been chosen from the list of substitute teachers (interinos) and had been given a real, full-time teaching job. Essentially, this meant going from unemployed to real teacher in 24 hours. Such a change entails a great deal, of course. For one thing, she had to go get a Covid test the following day at a private lab, and then go directly to her new school to meet the other teachers. And, this being the Spanish government, she also had to do a great deal of paperwork.
But this also meant that she could not go on the vacation that she had so painstakingly planned this weekend before, with me, to the Pyrenees. She had mapped out every glacial lake (ibón), and had ranked them in interest. She had examined the weather predictions in every relevant locale, so that we could take advantage of the most temperate conditions. She had even noted which restaurants in which pueblos would be the best for our future repasts. The mountain resort was booked, the rental car reserved. And she could not enjoy any of it.
“Are you going without me?” she asked, as she frantically searched on her phone for information about the next major phase in her life.
The better angels of my nature told me that I ought to stay, in solidarity and support. But the more wicked of my internal cherubins said, in a choir, that this was an opportunity that I could not forego.
“Uhhhh,” I said. “I think so.”
You see, the trip was too good to pass up. The national park of Ordesa is a UNESCO World Heritage site—an enormous expanse of majestic mountains. Tucked into this landscape are medieval villages, some of the loveliest in the country. Every photo online gives the impression of jaw-dropping beauty. Most importantly, despite my years of crisscrossing Spain, this was a region entirely new to me—one of the final frontiers in the country. How could I pass up the opportunity to finally see the Pyrenees?
Thus, the next morning, while Rebe prepared herself for bloodwork and actual work, I left to pick up the rental car. Soon I was driving on the A-2 highway towards Zaragoza. Even though I still have apprehensions about driving by myself, the car went beautifully, and I figured that I was in for an excellent vacation. There was only one slight source of annoyance, however, and that was that the rental agency had given me the car half-empty, even though I had paid for the full-full policy.
Well, this was remedied easily enough. I pulled over and called the office, and they told me to simply bring it back half-empty with no harm done. Then, feeling rather happy with myself, I filled up the car with unleaded gasoline and drank an unleaded coffee.
But trouble started as soon as I got back on the highway. The engine revved up to a high-pitched buzz, even though I was not going very fast. Looking at the RPM meter, I saw that I was dangerously close to the red zone. Meanwhile, I could barely keep up with the creeping tractor trailers. Something clearly was not right.
I pulled over at the next exit. A call to the rental office did not help. First I was told to restart the car—which led to innumerable and seemingly nonsensical error messages popping up on the screen, for everything from the USB connection to the parking brake—and then to reset the battery. This also proved to be quite useless advice, as the “reset battery” button I was assured existed did not, in fact, exist.
Finally I was able to get the car started and took it for a few drives around the parking lot. It felt quite fine—good, in fact. Maybe the trouble had passed?
With some trepidation I once again took the car onto the highway. Once again, I tried to confidently accelerate past the sluggish transportation vehicles, and once again I found that I was the sluggish one. I pulled over and called the office again.
“What do you think the problem is?” I asked.
“Are you sure you put the right type of fuel in?” they asked.
“Almost completely sure,” I said (instantly made unsure by the question).
“Well,” they said, “then I guess the only thing you can do is return the car yourself, or call a tow truck.”
“Do you think it’s safe to drive?”
“If you go really slowly, I think you can make it.”
My heart was beating somewhere near my eardrums at this point, and sweat was rolling down my back in thick globules. But I was willing to do almost anything to avoid having to call a tow truck. So I plugged in the rental car office into the GPS, and began my journey back. But the car seemed even slower than before. I could only go half the speed limit. Fearing an accident, I turned on my emergency lights and prepared for a long, long drive.
But that was not to be. Within just two minutes, a police jeep was following me. They pulled up alongside, gesturing in perplexity, and then trailed me until I pulled over. I must say that the two men were quite nice, if not exactly helpful. Their intervention essentially consisted in telling me that it was too dangerous to drive so slowly on the highway—quite correct, of course, but not very constructive.
There was a rest area very close to where the police pulled me over. In an act of surrender, I parked the car there, took out my things, and called for a tow truck. After all, the car seemed to be deteriorating rapidly. Several times during that short drive, it rattled and shook, like the engine was choking; and before I stopped by the side of the road, the engine had cut out completely. My mind, seeking a reason for the whole thing, insisted on recriminations. Could it be my fault? Did I really put in the wrong fuel?
The stress of the situation was beginning to seem overwhelming until I walked into the rest area and found myself in that most soothing of environments: a Spanish bar. In moments, I was seated outside sipping on a coffee and nibbling on a slice of tortilla, as I waited for the tow truck to arrive. I was in the barren plains of Castilla La-Mancha, an hour away from the nearest city. As a measure of the remoteness of the area, this particular rest stop specialized in wild meats: deer, rabbit, wild boar… The closest pueblo, Saúca, has a population of about 70.
Hardly twenty minutes had gone by when the tow truck arrived, which I found quite impressive. In the blink of an eye the car was loaded on the back and I was stranded. Now, time to call a taxi. The tow truck man told me to call a number on my rental contract; the lady at the other end of the phone told me to call any local taxi service; and just as I was about to do so, I was called by a taxi driver who was on his way, asking where I was, and berating me for not telling him sooner.
Another twenty minutes and the taxi was there. A typical Spanish character, he smoked two cigarettes and downed a coke before the drive. Then, he insisted that I call the rental company—twice—to confirm that the trip was covered by the insurance. Apparently, he had been stiffed too many times.
When his nicotine and caffeine levels had been properly replenished, and his money assured, he finally agreed to drive me back to Madrid. Nothing at all interesting happened during the ride, other than that I found the receipt for the gas station, which confirmed that I put the right fuel in the car after all. This made me feel considerably better. (As it turns out, this particular model of car, the Ford Focus, has had trouble with fuel pumps; and my issues were entirely consistent with a failing fuel pump. So it was not my fault!)
The rental people were very professional: They offered me another car; and when I decided—in frustration—to cancel the trip altogether, they at least reimbursed me for the fuel I bought. If you ask me, though, giving me a car with a failing motor that required several hours worth of towing should have merited a full refund.
But I am not particularly sad that I did not get to see the Pyrenees. I will see them one day, hopefully when Rebe can actually come. Until then, let this voyage be a counter-balance to all of the nice stories of European vacations on the internet (including, of course, on this blog). Sometimes a vacation simply does not work out.
Marseille’s reputation—at least as a tourist destination—is not enviable. Virtually everyone I told about my upcoming visit raised their eyebrows. They told me that the city was very dangerous and should be avoided. One person told me that a friend of his, while merely driving through Marseille, had a gun stuck in his face through the car window. For my part, I would have never even considered going if one of my oldest friends had not, by chance, been living in the city for his historical research. He was very enthusiastic about the place, and assured me that I almost certainly would not get shot.
(According to this website, however, Marseille does indeed have the highest crime rate of any major European city—or at least in 2018. You are warned.)
Marseille is the second-largest city in France—though its population of around 850,000 is fairly modest—and the third-largest metropolitan area, after Lyon. (Need I mention which city is the first?) Like many European port cities, Marseille has a long history, dating back at least to the Ancient Greeks. Indeed, during the construction of a shopping center in the Place Jules Verne, the remains of two Greek ships were found. (If you would like to learn more, here is an hour-long documentary about the attempt to reconstruct one of the boats and sail it in the port.) Not ones to miss a strategic position, the Romans also set up camp here,
By the time I arrived, I had an entire posse awaiting me. Greg—the aforementioned historian—was accompanied by my brother (who had arrived the day before), and Lily, another old friend from New York, who was coincidentally visiting at just the same moment I was. Four denizens of the Hudson Valley thus found themselves thrown together in Mediterranean France, looking for a good time.
After dropping off my bag, the first item was lunch. Marseille is fortunate in having a robust culture of street food—particularly pizza. Just down the block, we found a food truck selling pizza baked in a wood-fired oven. And it was good: with a savory tomato sauce and a few anchovies. I mention this because, for all of its many delights, Madrid does not have a street food culture to speak of (Spaniards always eat sitting down) and also lacks a good pizza culture (Dominos is popular). So I was already rather taken with the city.
The repast done, we then boarded a city bus that carried us beyond the city limits. We were going to visit one of the treasures of the area: Calanques National Park. At first I did not know what the fuss was about. The bus left us near a trail, leading us into an entirely typical Mediterranean landscape: with dry, sandy soil, diminutive pine trees, and sun-baked rocks. Indeed, the area was strangely reminiscent of hiking trails in the Guadarrama mountains of Madrid. We carried on walking, pausing occasionally on the wooden benches, smelling some of the wild rosemary growing along the path, until we reached the coast.
Here is where the park became spectacular. The landscape swelled into peaks and then dropped in sharp cliffs towards the sea. The rough and rugged limestone shone pale in the sunlight, like old bone. This arid landscape contrasted sharply with the aquamarine glow of the Meditteranean. The result was quite dramatic. My favorite touch were the little white sailboats in the distance. We climbed a peak and took in the expansive sight, marvelling at how little the boats appeared amid the seething rock. It is difficult to contemplate such a scene—reflecting on the millenia it must have taken to form—and not feel both physically tiny and temporally insignificant.
After taking in the natural spectacle, we walked back to the bus and headed toward the city center. I want to mention something that we passed along the way, but which we unfortunately did not take the time to stop and see: the Unité d’Habitation, a modernist apartment building designed by Le Corbusier, the great French prophet of modernist architecture. Indeed, the building in Marseille is considered to be a prototype of his Utopian vision of urban planning—spaces designed to equalize social rank, to create a more open and organized city, and to embrace the efficiencies of the industrial age. Unfortunately, Le Corbusier’s vision did not pan out so well in practice, as high-rise apartment buildings were used all over the world as public housing for the urban poor, thus isolating them in corners of the city with few other resources.
Looking at the building in Marseille, however, one does feel a sense of utopian inspiration. Visually it is quite striking: with the entire concrete edifice elevated on stilts, allowing pedestrians to walk under and through the building. Thus, the apartment is integrated with the green spaces on either side, fulfilling the old notion of the ‘garden city.’ The wall panels around the windows are painted red, yellow, and blue, creating an attractively retro color scheme. At least part of the building is now a luxury hotel; and judging from the photos online, the retro aesthetic is maintained throughout. Another part of the building is a modern art museum, in which the visitor can ascend to the roof to enjoy some odd concrete excrescences, as well as a beautiful view of the city and the sea. There is even a nursery school in the building. Despite the attractive and thoughtful design, however, I would much prefer a room in a smaller building, better integrated to the life of the city. Good neighborhoods are organic rather than planned.
It was already getting a bit late, so our next step was to have a night on the town. But first we had to have a little snack. For this, we went to a local shop to buy a baguette and some cheese. Now, I cannot say that I am a particular fan of cheese, or even bread; but this little meal was quite impressive. First, the baguette was far better than what I was used to from New York or Spain—nicely crusty on the outside, while not too flaky, and almost creamy on the inside. The cheese was even more delicious. We bought three kinds (don’t ask for their names), all of them tasty. One in particular impressed me: it had three separate flavors—a sharp attack, a buttery middle, and a bitter aftertaste. The French deserve their reputation.
Evening was fast approaching, so it was time to head into the center of town. In Marseille, this almost inevitably means walking towards the water. We followed the gently sloping ground down to the city’s cathedral, which sits within a few hundred feet of the sea. It looked quite lovely in the waning daylight. Of relatively recent construction (for Europe), the cathedral was made in a Byzantine-revival style, with ample domes and circular arches—a far cry from the angular French gothic. The alternating horizontal bands of dark and light stone used in the facade give the building a playful charm. (Though I did not see it during my trip, I later learned that the much older, much smaller original cathedral can still be seen beside the modern building.)
As the sun sank below the horizon, we found ourselves in the port. Though we were just walking and chatting, this part of the night sticks out in my memory for the vibrant colors that suddenly appeared in the darkening sky. A ferris wheel was lit up neon green, while a nearby museum projected wavy blue lights onto the walkway. The horizon, meanwhile, cooled into an ember glow, turning walkers into dark silhouettes.
But we did not have all night to dawdle on romantic seascapes. We had dinner to eat. For this, Greg took us to a seafood restaurant at the Old Port, where he ordered a terrific platter of the fruits of the sea. There were oysters, clams, mussels, prawns, and crabs, all served on a bed of ice with a few slices of lemon. Now, I admit that I am not the more passionate admirer of seafood; and having it served so raw and unadorned was not exactly to my liking. But there is certainly a kind of purity to such a meal—the unadorned flavor of the Mediterranean.
Our day ended in a bar, over a bottle or two of red wine. From the start, Marseille had maintained a pleasant atmosphere. Contrary to the evil reputation of the French, the people of Marseille were consistently pleasant and friendly. (Maybe it is just the Parisians that are rude.) The city, though not spectacularly beautiful, is full of the charm of old Europe. What is more, since the city does not receive a great deal of tourism, there is a kind of intimacy to the place—the aura of a city that is lived in rather than traveled through. That night, I went to sleep eager to see more.
The next day began with a pilgrimage. We were going to visit Notre-Dame de la Garde, by far the most famous church in Marseille.
There seems to be a universal human urge to climb to tall places and, when possible, build something there. We are willing to endure quite a lot of physical hardship for something as intangible as a view. Of course, there are advantages to having the high ground—most notably, surveillance and defense. This is why so many hills in Europe are occupied by fortresses. Driving through Spain, one even sees castles built on hills overlooking tiny pueblos. Marseille is no different in this respect; a fortress was built on the city’s highest point during the Renaissance.
Before this, the hill had mainly served a religious function, being the home to a gothic chapel. It seems that expansive views, aside from their tactical advantage, also put people into a spiritual frame of mind. When the fortress became militarily useless in the 19th century, the hill reverted back to its primary function as a place of worship. Just as the Marseille Cathedral was getting underway, it was decided to build another large, neo-Byzantine church atop the old fortress. Ever since, the church has served as the most identifiable symbol of Marseille, and the city’s most popular attraction. Hills, you see, are very profitable indeed.
The walk up to the hill was relatively painless (even if we did it before having any coffee). The church presented a splendid sight to us pilgrims, as the sun shone directly behind the building. The basilica is dominated by a large tower, topped with a gilded statue of the virgin. Both inside and out, it is characterized by the same bands of light and dark that distinguish Marseille’s cathedral. In the interior you can find attractive mosaics in a pseudo-Byzantine style. But what I found more charming was the surprising sense of cramped intimacy in the church—pilgrims packed into pews, the walls full of little paintings, and toy boats hanging from the ceiling.
It would be generous, however, to consider the basilica itself an architectural wonder. It is impressive more for its situation than its design. The view is panoramic and thoroughly captivating. You can see the green, grey hills that encircle the city, and the red tile rooftops of the buildings as they fall towards the sea. White sail boats filled the water, accompanied by the odd motored craft.
Off the coast you can see the Frioul Islands (called simply “Les Îles”), four small floating bits of limestone that serve as home to about 150 residents. On the smallest, there is a well-preserved castle (islands are also useful for defense), the Château d’If—iconic as the site where Edmond Dantés was imprisoned in Dumas’s The Man in the Iron Mask. The island was actually used as a prison, in fact; much like Alcatraz, its location made it extremely difficult to escape from.
On the opposite side of the basilica, you can see the white folded shape of the city’s football stadium, the Vélodrome; and beyond that, you can see the monumental conglomeration of apartment buildings, La Rouvière, which seem to be as much part of the landscape as the mountains.
After partaking of the spectacle—and a quick coffee in the café next door—we went back down the hill and returned to the port. There, we visited the Mucem, short for the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, which was opened in 2013 when Marseille was dubbed a European Capital of Culture for that year. We did not visit the exhibitions, however, as we were short on time, and Greg assured us that they were not spectacular in any case. Instead, we headed up to the roof, to enjoy another coffee in the modernistic museum building. The outside of the entire structure is covered in a kind of grey, plastic web, like artificial seaweed, which certainly stands out among the sandy-colored stone that makes up the surrounding area.
The visitor can walk directly from the roof of the museum to the neighboring castle, Fort Saint-Jean, via an elevated walkway. This is yet another fortress in the arsenal of Marseille, built during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV. The old turrets provide an attractive view of the Old Port, and many parts of the fortification are now occupied by lovely planned gardens. Across another elevated walkway there is the church of Saint-Laurence de Marseille, a lovely old Romanesque church. From there, the old port (le vieux port) is just a short walk away.
(By the way, I have an idea for Marseille’s new official tourism slogan: “Come for the Port View, stay for Le Vieux Port.”)
On any given day, the water is full of hundreds of little white boats, bobbing gently in the tide. Restaurants wrap around the water, offering French classics like moules-frites (though that’s actually from Belgium!). At the end of the port, you will find something which, as an American, cannot but make you pine for the Old World: fishermen and women selling their fresh catches. Little brown and grey fish float in plastic bins, while their vendors call out their prices. And it is no mere spectacle; when I was there, the fisherpeople were doing good business. I am sure it tastes better than frozen fish at the supermarket.
Right next to this little market is a bit of public art, the Ombrière. Like the museum, this is yet another relic of the 2013 European Cultural Capital Celebration—a design by big-time architect Norman Foster. The Ombrière is an elevated roof whose underside is an enormous mirror. This makes for good fun as you walk underneath and crane your neck, and it is a gift to amateur photographers. It would be much appreciated in a rainstorm, too.
Now it was time for lunch. For this, we decided to experience a different kind of cuisine. Because of the city’s location on the Mediterranean, and owing to France’s colonial past, Marseille has a deep connection with Northern Africa (the Maghreb). Thus, there are many thousands of immigrants in the city; and of course they brought their food with them, too. This was readily apparent when we sat down to have some kebab. Of course, kebab is a European staple, to be found anywhere. But this kebab was special—not the cheap ground meat sandwich with ketchup and mustard, like you find in Spain, but a properly spiced dish with good ingredients. I was very happy with my meal.
After lunch, my brother had to catch his flight back to Madrid. (Our visits were staggered since we had different days of the week off.) This meant a little trip to the city’s Saint-Charles train station so he could catch the bus. Though you may not believe it, this train station is one of the architectural highlights of Marseille, mostly owing to the richly decorated grand staircase—adorned with statues, columns, and elaborate light fixtures—that leads from the city center up to the station building. The station building itself is quite attractive as well, a classic open metal frame.
But we did not have all day to contemplate train stations. There was still one monument left on the agenda: the Palais Longchamp. This is indeed a palatial building, though not really a palace: it is a piece of celebratory architecture, a monument to the completion of the Canal de Marseille.
This canal, completed in 1849, was an enormous engineering triumph, requiring the building of tunnels, bridges, and aqueducts in order to transport the water 50 miles (80 km) to the city, using just the pull of gravity. To this day, the Roquefavour Aqueduct—built to carry the water over the Arc valley—is the largest stone aqueduct in the world, stretching 375 meters (1,230 feet)! The canal still provides the majority of Marseille’s water. (New York City’s Croton Aqueduct, another monumental project, was completed at around the same time, and traveled a similar distance. Both projects were motivated by similar problems—growing population, salty local water, and outbreaks of cholera—but the Croton Aqueduct was supplanted within just a few decades.)
Given this background, you can understand why the Palais Longchamp is truly a celebration of water. The two wings of the building extend out from the central arch, where a statue of some Greek goddess rides atop the waves. Water pours down a mossy basin into a pool, and continues falling down towards the street. The visitor can enjoy this splashy spectacle from the two monumental staircases that wind up on either side, which lead through the triumphal arches to the lovely garden on the other side. The two wings of the structure, I should note, are home to two museums: the Museum of Fine Arts (on the left) and Natural History (on the right). They were both closed by the time we got there, though. So we contented ourselves with sitting aside the fountain, having a good chat, and drinking from a bottle of red wine my friend brought along. As far as French evenings go, this was one of the best.
We finished up the night with a home-cooked meal. For this, we took advantage of the North African influence in French cuisine—a lasting relic of the French colonies. We bought merguez sausages, couscous, and eggplant, zucchini, and tomato for a ratatouille. This meal, so simple, made a lasting impression on me, and I have tried to replicate it many times since. The merguez was particularly impressive: made from lean lamb meat, full of garlic and spice, it is very much unlike the sorts of sausages available in Spain. The couscous—also not popular in Spain—was light, fluffy, and filling, while the ratatouille (made by my talented friend Lily) was wonderfully flavorful.
The night ended, as it always must, with an episode of a history documentary—this one, about the Spanish Civil War (free on YouTube). It had been a wholly enjoyable day.
I did not have much time before my flight the next day. And I had even less time to see Greg, since he had to go work (he was researching in a government archive in the area). So after a breakfast with Lily, I headed off to see one final Marseille monument: the Abbey of St. Victor.
This is an extremely old monastery—dating from the fifth century—though it was mostly destroyed by invading Vikings and Saracens, and later rebuilt in the tenth century. The abbey is situated next to yet another old castle, the Fort-Saint-Nicolas; and indeed the church looks quite formidable itself: its high, crenellated walls make the building look more military than devotional. Certainly, positioned as it is with a commanding view of the old port, the church would have been a good defensive structure in the case of an invasion. Though I am not sure that the monks would have made the best warriors.
The building is just as formidable on the inside as without. Spare of decoration, the visitor is confronted with grey stone walls forming a somber environment. Even more dark and gloomy is the crypt, where the visitor can find half-ruined tombs and cracked carvings. Yet the building’s interest goes even further back than the church’s founding, as a Greek-era quarry was discovered here, as well as a Hellenistic Necropolis. As so often happens in Europe, history is simply piled on top of itself here.
Before my bus left to the airport, I had just enough time to eat some more delicious kebab. That may have been a mistake, however. All of us experienced some sort of stomach problem either during or after our trip. Lily got sick on the way over from New York. In my case, for many days after returning to Madrid, I would find myself nauseated after eating just a bit of food. It was rather odd.
Infirmity or no, however, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in this supposedly dangerous city. One comes away from Marseille with a very different image of France than the typical Parisian experience. The people were friendly, the food relatively cheap, and the environment thoroughly Mediterranean. I would gladly return to see more of the region.
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My years in Madrid have been consumed with the search to find the cheapest possible flights. Within Europe, this is fairly easy, as bargain airlines could bring you from Madrid to Krakow for less than forty euros. But it is more difficult to find similar deals for trans-atlantic flights (which I need to get back to New York). For a few years, the best deals I was able to find were with Icelandair, which allowed me to travel for around $500 with one checked bag. The only inconvenience was having to have a stopover in Keflavik Airport—a large airport near Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik.
I performed this maneuver twice: once in the July of 2017, and once a year later. Both times, I had a few hours to kill between flights, and so I decided to spend some time in Reykjavik. This is easy enough. A shuttle bus leaves the airport about twice an hour, which brings you to the BSI bus terminal in the city. There you can find luggage lockers in which you can leave any heavy luggage while you walk around the city. Neither the bus nor the locker is especially cheap—nothing in Iceland is, unfortunately—but it was still within my limited budget. This was how I visited Iceland.
Stopover 1: July 2017
By the time I arrived in Iceland I was already jetlagged. My flight had left from Madrid late in the day, and had arrived in Iceland in the middle of the night. When I boarded the bus to Reykjavik, it was around three in the morning. And yet it was not dark. Because it is so far north, Iceland enjoys near perpetual daylight in the summer months, and suffers nearly perpetual darkness in winter. The landscape was bathed in a gray twilight, with the sun hovering somewhere near the horizon, as I slumped into my seat on the shuttle bus. A young man checked my printed ticket and, soon, I was on my way to the largest city in Iceland (population: 130,000).
Iceland does not lack for sophistication, as I soon discovered. The bus was comfortable and equipped with wifi. Soon I was using the internet connection to look up an organ piece that I had heard some months earlier, in Munich: the Salva Regina by Olivier Latry. It is an enchanting and unnerving piece of music, built of augmented and diminished chords, that seemed ideally suited for the sort of environment I saw out the window. The road to Reykjavik cut through a barren landscape of amorphous volcanic rock covered with a thin layer of moss—a landscape so bereft of feature or vegetation that it seemed entirely arbitrary where the road was built.
Occasionally, some buildings could be seen in the distance: small prefabricated structures made of steel and fiberglass. I did not know what I expected to find in Iceland, but I did not expect to find such total emptiness and precariousness. Every bit of human life seemed as if it had been eked out in a hostile environment. And, indeed, Iceland is hostile: at such a high latitude, Iceland’s climate is nearly arctic. Even in the middle of July, I needed extra layers to be comfortable (which I had hastily bought at a second-hand store before my trip). Simply looking out the window during this short bus ride opened my eyes to the reality of life in this place. It is a land of a few, hardy people, willing to deal with surroundings that are not especially conducive to comfortable life.
Finally the bus arrived at the station. I put away my extra bags and left to explore the nation’s capital. Once again, I was surprised at how humble and sparse everything was. The bus station itself is little more than a shed, and it stands right next to a neighborhood of residential houses. Even these buildings had the quality of bomb shelters, with thick concrete walls and small windows. I suppose it is difficult to build on permafrost.
Very soon I was standing in front of one of the most famous buildings in the country: the Hallgrímskirkja, a monumental church. I will discuss this church more later (since I experienced more of it during my second visit), but I do want to highlight here that this church is one of the tallest structures in the entire country. Certainly, it is not a miniscule building, but in any other context it would be medium-sized at best. Even provincial churches in Spain are taller—and that is putting aside apartment buildings. Once again, the permafrost creates real limitations.
I did not have much time—only about two hours—so I could not stop to do anything. Besides, it was around five in the morning by this point, so nothing was open. I just wanted to walk as far as I could; and the experience was surreal. Since the jet lag and the sunlight had totally thrown off my own biological clock, I had little sense that it was the middle of the night. So it was shocking to see the many young people still crowding into bars, throwing up into the bushes, or pissing on the sidewalks. Typically, such scenes are mercifully shrouded by the darkness of night. In the twilight, however, it was rather disturbing to see—especially since I was quite painfully sober.
After making my way through the nightlife sections of town, I reached the seaside. Here I got a glimpse of the beauty of the Icelandic landscape. The sky was streaked with low-lying clouds, shining bright yellow from the low-lying sun. Ships sat idle and empty at the docks—coast guard vessels, fishing boats, pleasure barques—their dusky reflections an indistinct shadow in the shady light. I kept going and going, trying to get as far as I could in the peninsula before I ran out of time. This led me to Seltjarnarnes, the township at the very end of the landform. Further on, I could see the distinct, cubic form of the Saltjarnarneskirkja, another architecturally daring church.
I had hoped to get all the way to the Grótta Island Lighthouse, which stands at the extreme end of the land. But, alas, I ran out of time before I could make it. I had to turn back. But I took a few minutes to sit by the sea and gaze into the ocean. The circumstances—the brisk morning air and the unnerving dawn light, combined with my jetlag and exhaustion—produced a strange and memorable feeling: as if I had reached the end of the world, and was gazing into an unknown beyond. This was easily the most north that I had ever travelled, and for all I knew it was the most north I would ever travel in my life. For a moment, I felt the thrill of adventure and, that most wonderful of travel sensations, the endless wonder of the world.
This did not last long, however, as I had to rush back to the bus station if I wanted to make it to New York. Soon, I was once again being driven through the strange volcanic landscape, was making my way through airport security, and was flying thousands of feet through the air. I was seated next to a nice family from Argentina, and chatted with them a bit in Spanish. Out the window, I could see an endless landscape of mountains, rock, and ice: Greenland. It was magnificent, in the way that only nature can be. And I hoped that, someday, I would have the time and the means to experience more of this extraordinary part of the earth.
Stopover 2: July 2018
A year had gone by, and I was not much the wiser for it. But at least I knew that, if I was going to stop in Iceland again, I should at least give myself a little more time to explore. Thus, I gave myself upwards of 10 hours during this second stopover: enough to at least visit a couple things and have a bite to eat. Plus, not all of it would be in the middle of the night.
But some of it would be. My flight arrived at around four in the morning, and of course I was exhausted. Once again, the sun was not quite fully up nor fully set; but this particular night was cloudy, and so it was fairly dark outside. Since nothing in the city would be open yet, I decided to spend some time trying to get a little sleep. So I lay down on one of the benches near my arrival gate and closed my eyes. The sleep was not forthcoming. Though the place was mostly quiet, the lights were blaring brightly, and placing my hoodie over my eyes did not help much. What is more, every ten minutes or so another plane would arrive, flooding the hall with passengers. This did not make for restful sleep.
One way or another, though, the time passed. By around eight, I decided that it was time to go to Reykjavik. The process of arriving was exactly the same as the year before: a coach bus to the city’s bus station. After about an hour, my luggage was stored away in luggage lockers, and I was retracing my steps.
This led me, very soon, to the Hallgrímskirkja (“the church of Hallgrímur”). And now I finally had some time to stop and visit it. From the outside, the church is quite unlike the typical European architecture. It features a central tower flanked by a series of steps which ascend, logarithmically, to the highest point. This gives the building a wonderful energy, as if the entire structure is being swept up towards the sky. Incidentally, this design also helps to accentuate the building’s verticality, helping it to appear taller than it really is (74.5 m, or 244 feet).
In front of the cathedral stands a statue of Leif Erikson, perhaps the most famous Icelander in history: the first European to set foot on the American continent. This statue actually predates the church, as it was given as a gift to Iceland from the United States. It was designed by Alexander Stirling Calder (who also designed the statue of Washington in NYC’s Washington Square), and is quite a heroic piece of work.
One can get some idea of the engineering challenges presented by Iceland’s climate when one learns that this church—which, again, would not be considered particularly big in another European context—took forty years to complete: from 1945 to 1986. In fact, the original plan for this church did not call for it to be so large; but the dimensions were enlarged in order to outshine the country’s Catholic cathedral (located not far off). This church, by the way, belongs to Iceland’s national denomination, which is based on Lutheranism. The inside of the building is quite as geometrically daring as the outside: an unadorned assemblage of gothic vaults and arches.
Next I made my way to the city center—which was very familiar, even though I had seen it only briefly a year ago—and then onwards to the shore. There, I paused to admire the daring form of the Harpa Concert Hall, a modern performance space consisting of glass over a steel frame. Both the windows and the underlying structure were created using various geometrical forms, which make the surface of the building fascinating to see, especially as the variously angled windows catch the shimmering morning light. The Iceland Symphony Orchestra most commonly performs here, and I am sure it is quite a good show.
By now it was still early morning, but I was famished. So I decided to visit one of the most popular cheap restaurants in the city, Icelandic Street Food. When I visited, this establishment had just recently opened, and yet it already was the top-rated cheap restaurant in the city. As soon as I arrived, I could see why they had had such success. The entire staff—an international collection of young men, from Iceland, and Eastern and Northern Europe—were extremely friendly and went far out of their way to create a pleasant atmosphere. Also, their menu was tailor-made to engender satisfaction. They sold soups—two types: lamb and fish. If you paid a little extra, your soup came in a bread bowl. But whatever you got came with unlimited refills. Soon I found myself downing my third bowl of soup, as I chatted with the friendly Polish waiter.
Best of all, my soup came with a free coupon for a beer at the bar next door (which had the same owner). So even though the meal was not exactly cheap by my usual standards, I got quite a lot for my money. And, best of all, it was good.
Now my time in Iceland was running out. I could only visit one of the city’s attractions. There were many options. The Perlan is an impressive exhibition center, built in a former hot-water heater on a hill somewhat outside the city center. But I did not have time to walk so far. The National Museum of Iceland was an intriguing choice, filled with artifacts from the country’s Viking past. And of course there was the famous Iceland Phallological Museum, an exhibition dedicated to the phalluses of the animal kingdom. That was certainly tempting. (By the way, I highly recommend reading the museum’s Wikipedia entry.) But I eventually decided on a new attraction: Tales from Iceland.
To be honest, I did not know what to expect when I paid and walked inside. But I was immediately delighted to find that my ticket came with free coffee and cookies. Iceland was certainly making a good impression this time around. Soon I discovered that Tales from Iceland is an audiovisual exhibit, consisting of dozens of screens and chairs, all set on a standard timer. This way, all the videos end at about the same time, and you have a minute to move on to the next video station. I thought it a very neat idea.
I have to admit, however, that I mostly did not care for the videos on the first floor. These mainly consisted of over-produced, romanticized travelogues by tourists to Iceland, with cheesy commentary about how travel broadens our horizons and deepens our feelings and so forth. But I am sure my girlfriend would have loved it, since traveling around Iceland is one of her dreams. Certainly, judging from these videos, the country is quite beautiful. There are endless fields, cliffs, valleys, rocks, and rivers—not to mention the glaciers and volcanoes—with a few hardy Icelanders living in cozy houses scattered throughout this barren environment. The tourists seemed always to be on an adventure: driving down a dirt road, walking under a waterfall, riding an exotic horse, or camping under the northern lights. Maybe I can go on my honeymoon.
The upstairs was considerably more to my tastes. Here, the videos gave little overviews of many different aspects of this little island nation. I learned a lot in a short time, and much of it surprised me. The most important thing to keep in mind about Iceland is that there are really not many Icelanders. Indeed, there are more sheep than people living in the country: with over 800,000 of the former, and just about 320,000 of the latter. In other words, there are more people living in my county in New York (Westchester)—about three times more, in fact. Considering this, virtually every accomplishment in Iceland seems nearly miraculous.
Consider the book industry, for example. Iceland had a robust and vibrant literary output—novels, nonfiction, journalism—and even a Nobel Laureate, Halldór Laxness. Of course, this is true of nearly every major country; but in a country the size of Iceland, this means that an absurdly high portion of the population must publish a book. In fact, 1 in 10 Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime—a higher portion than anywhere else in the world. (Icelandic, by the way, is a Nordic language, like Swedish or Danish; but it is distinct for being the most closely related to Old Norse, which allows Icelanders to read the medieval Eddas and sagas in the original.)
The figures on authorship are impressive enough. But consider Iceland’s football team. Somehow, in a country the size of a medium-sized city, they have assembled a team which can compete with and even defeat countries like England (whose population is about 200 times bigger) in the World Cup. Iceland has also had great success in entertainment. A surprising number of successful musicians have come out of Iceland—including, most famously, Björk. (Here’s a charming video of her.)
And all this is not to mention Iceland’s impressive economic success. For most of its existence, Iceland had been primarily a fishing nation. In fact, the closest the thing the country has had to a war were the so-called “Cod Wars”—conflicts over fishing territories waged against the UK. In the wake of the Second World War, however, Iceland emerged as one of the most developed countries in the West, with a standard of living well above many European nations (as well as above the United States). You can get a feel for Iceland’s success by, say, paying for a cup of coffee. It is not a cheap place.
Apart from being culturally exceptional, Iceland is also geologically extreme. Besides its high latitude and cold climate, Iceland is distinct for the very high level of volcanic activity. The entire island was formed from an upsurge of igneous rock from the ocean floor. Volcanic eruptions are not uncommon events in the island, and are occasionally disruptive. As recently as 2010, a volcanic eruption in the south of the country grounded flights in the UK.
Curiously, it is not quite known why Iceland should have so many active volcanoes. Partly this is due to the country’s location between two continental plates; but still there must be other factors at work. The volcanism has certainly been good for tourism, however, powering attractions such as the Blue Lagoon, a famous geothermal spa. In fact, many houses in the country get their heating entirely from the earth.
I finished the museum, and now it was time to go. On my way back, I passed by the Tjörnin, or the little lake in the center of the city. It is a picturesque spot, with the profiles of the buildings reflected in the placid waters, and lots of birds feeding on the plentiful breadcrumbs made available by the residents. There, I snapped a final picture before returning to the station, boarding the bus, and then flying back to New York. It was a wonderful layover; and I suspect it will not be the last time that I set foot in Iceland.
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Venice certainly does not lack for sights. The entire city is virtually an open-air museum; there are architectural masterpieces on every other corner. And even if you get tired of the historical center of Venice, there are plenty of islands in the Venetian lagoon that are worth visiting. But I think that it is worth going even further afield during your trip. The famous city of Verona is not far off, and the Prosecco wine region is also within reach. But if you are interested in art, then the place to go is Padua.
Trains leave regularly from Venice to Padua. They cost less than 10 euros, and the trip takes substantially less than an hour. In no time I was stepping off the train and walking towards my destination: the Arena Chapel. Also called the Scrovegni chapel, this is the small church where Giotto—known as the father of the Italian Renaissance—did his finest work. Not wishing to leave anything to chance, I booked my ticket online in advance. The chapel is small, and the artwork is delicate; so only 25 people are allowed in during any visit; and a visit lasts about 15 minutes. I certainly did not want to go all the way to Padua to be told that there were no more tours that day.
Indeed, I was so worried about making the tour in time that I arrived substantially early, leaving me an hour to kill. Luckily, the Musei Civici di Padova—the municipal museum—is right next door. This was free to visit and actually quite beautiful. The collection is housed in a former monastery, filling the old cloisters within and without; and this former monastery itself sits in the bucolic monastery gardens (now a public park). The collection was far more impressive than I expected. There are bits of Roman ruins, fine works of ancient pottery, original manuscripts, and prints and drawings.
But of course, this being Italy, the main attraction were the many sculptures and paintings on display. Both the quality and variety of these works astounded me. In Europe, art is truly endless; every city has its own collection of minor masterpieces. Padua has some fairly major masterpieces in its collection. There were some wonderful examples of religious wood carvings, with faces distorted in grief at the dead Christ. The paintings were quite wonderful as well. There are works by Tiepolo, Bellini, and Tintoretto, and dozens of works by lesser-known masters. By the time that I had to leave for the chapel, I was rather disappointed that I could not spend more time enjoying this charming collection.
Now it was time to visit the chapel. This is a separate building off to the side of the former monastery. We gathered in front of the entrance, just as the previous tour group was exiting through a separate doorway. Soon enough we were being herded inside—all twenty-five of us—to watch a short informative film while the climate adjusted around us. It is a very good system, I think. The film gives us a bit of background, while the air conditioning gradually cools down the temperature and reduces the humidity, so that when we enter we do no harm to the artwork. I must admit, though, that I was a bit cold by the end of the film.
Before we go inside, allow me to give you some background. The chapel was never part of a public church, but was rather built at the behest of a wealthy banker, Enrico Scrovegni (thus the name), who owned a large mansion—now demolished—right next door. The chapel was built over a Roman arena which once occupied the spot (thus the other name), whose ruins can still be seen nearby. Scrovegni must have been quite a wealthy man, since he was able to recruit the great Giotto from Florence, the preeminent painter of his day. Giotto came, and spent about two years on the project. The result was one of the great masterpieces in the history of European art. For his time, Giotto was an extremely innovative figure, pioneering techniques for adding realism, dimension, and form to his paintings. There is a lifelike drama to his work that makes him a forerunner of the entire Italian Renaissance.
Finally it was time to enter. I walked through just one doorway and, finally, I was there. I remembered seeing this chapel in my art history textbooks, and finding it astonishing even then. In person, the chapel was extraordinary. Everyone who entered was reduced to the hushed silence that accompanies any great work of art—the feeling of awe that forces us to speak in reverential whispers. Though composed of dozens of individual works, the Arena chapel is a unified work, with a single aesthetic sensibility pervading the atmosphere. The dominant color is blue—a shade between the bright blue of the sky and the dark violet of the late evening. It helps to give the chapel the lush, cool ambience of a cloudless summer night.
This comparison is quite obvious, when you look up to see the ceiling painted as the night sky. In two panels, Giotto represents Christ and Mary as the center of the universe (earth, in Giotto’s day), with the prophets as planets, against a starry background. Then, in four distinct levels, panels tell the story of Mary and Christ, and represent the virtues and vices. At the far end is the centerpiece of the program: a magnificent portrayal of the Last Judgment. The entire work has been aptly compared with Dante’s Divine Comedy. Indeed, Giotto, who was a near-contemporary of Dante, may have been directly influenced by that great poem in its images of heaven and hell. In any case, the Scrovegni chapel is a work of comparable ambition and skill: a grand cosmic vision, attempting to encompass the human experience.
The main entrance of the chapel (which is not where the modern visitor enters) is right below the Last Judgment. On the opposite side is a triumphal arch, underneath which the priest would have stood. The grand program of decoration begins right at the top of this triumphal arch and then works its way down tier by tier. The cosmic cycle is set in motion by God the Father, who calls the archangel Gabriel to his side, and instructs the angel to deliver the annunciation to Mary. This is done immediately below, on either sides of the arch—Gabriel on the left and Mary on the right—who form a beautiful pair. Already, we can see some of Giotto’s innovation here. The two figures occupy a convincing architectural space, with balconies that sing to hang into the air. This was something quite new in the history of art. Though still not true perspective (since the lines to not converge on a vanishing point), even this little background is a more convincing three-dimensional representation of space than anything in gothic painting.
The story on the upper tier begins even before the annunciation to Mary, with the story of Mary’s parents, Joachin and St. Anne. Mary herself was the subject of an annunciation, as an angel informed her mother that Mary would be born without original sin (immaculately, in other words). The story of Mary’s birth and marriage takes us back around to the triumphal arch, where Gabriel’s annunciation has its proper chronological setting. This sets in motion the story of Christ, which begins with the birth, the adoration of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, and the rest of the typical scenes of Christ’s childhood. This sequence takes us to the first half of the second tier. Now, Christ’s adulthood begins, with its many scenes: the baptism, the miracles, the betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection. This takes us all the way to the Last Judgment, the logical end of the series (and, indeed, of the world).
Of course, this is a story often told. You can see it, or part of it, in any church in Europe. Giotto’s excellence is revealed in the execution of this standard program. He was an artist of many talents. One is his sense of dramatic narrative. Rather than a series of disconnected scenes, as is often found in gothic art, the scenes in Giotto’s work all lead very naturally to the next. This is done through simple but effective visual cues, such as having Christ constantly facing in the direction of the next panel, or having the ground seem to continue from one scene to the next. This gives Giotto’s rendition of these classic stories an organic continuity and unity, easy and pleasant to follow.
Giotto was a dramatist in other ways. Whereas emotion is rather abstract or generalized in medieval art, Giotto renders emotion more palpable. This is apparent in many scenes: the tender kiss shared between St. Anne and Joachim at the golden gate of Israel, or the way that the Virgin gently cradles her newborn son, or the passionate grief apparent in those mourning Christ. The emotion in these scenes is shockingly direct; and this is a measure of Giotto’s realism. His figures are not generic or unreal, but solid and substantial. Their emotions are expressed through their very physicality—an embrace, a kiss, a gesture.
Giotto’s realism and his dramatic sensibility are tied together through his gift for composition. Several of the panels are masterpieces of formal study, guiding the viewer’s eye to the central drama, and expressing that drama through shape and line.
The best example of this—and perhaps the best painting in the entire chapel—is the arrest of Christ (or the kiss of Judah). It is a traditional scene, but its execution is far from traditional. Judas is normally shown coming and kissing Christ on the cheek, as Christ looks forward. But in this work, Christ and Judas directly face each other; Judas actually embraces Christ, covering him with the fold of his gown, and appears to kiss him directly on the mouth. The contrast between the stoic, tall Christ and the lowly, cowardly Judas—who looks both timorous and ridiculous, as he puckers—is extreme. And yet the pair, locked together, stand as a kind of anchor for the chaos raging around them. The torches, clubs, and lances of the mob are positioned so that they seem to emerge from the pair, splitting the night sky. On the left St. Peter is cutting off the ear of one of the assailants, while a hooded figure grabs somebody off to the side. On the other side, an official (painted with impressive volume and foreshortening) points menacingly to Jesus, signaling the others to apprehend him.
As impressive as this is, my personal favorite from the chapel is the Last Judgment. Like any typical representation of this awesome event, the scene is divided horizontally and vertically. On the top Christ sits among the saints in heaven, while below him the world is split between the saved and the damned, the former to his right and the latter to his left. Right at the bottom, we can see Scrovegni himself offering his chapel to the angels (presumably to secure his salvation). And we can see that the chapel, as it was when this was painted, is not as it is today. Concretely, the chapel today is smaller and less ornate that this drawing, which has led scholars to conclude that parts of the original chapel were demolished because the local church complained of competition.
Right at the bottom, below Scrovegni, there are a collection of naked, impish figures emerging from coffins. Presumably these are the dead, arising to be judged. Like many great painters, Giotto let his imagination run wild in his depiction of hell. Jets of flame shoot down into the abyss, carrying the damned into the inferno, where Satan and his minions are waiting. Demons pull and push the frightened sinners. Some unfortunates are hanging, while many others are being stuffed into pits at the bottom. In the center, Satan himself chews on a sinner, while others grasped in his hands await the same fate. Serpents emerge from his ears and he sits on a bed of dragons, which also gnaw hungrily on corrupt flesh. If Giotto was not inspired directly by Dante, he was responding to similar cultural currents. Or perhaps both imaginative men just enjoyed picturing the suffering of their enemies.
This more or less brings us to the end of the religious scenes. But I still have not mentioned the exquisite decorative painting that occupies the spaces between these scenes. They are beautiful works of abstract art, with geometrical and floral patterns perfectly imitating the appearance of marble inlays. Individual portraits of Old Testament figures occupy the spaces between the New Testament panels; and the knowledgeable viewer will notice that these, too, are carefully selected, in order to draw connections between the stories of the prophets and the story of Christ. For example, the story of Jonah and the Whale is placed before the resurrection, since Jesus’s death and rebirth were mirrored in Jonah’s being swallowed and then spit out again. (Many theologians spilled a lot of ink trying to prove that the New Testament was prefigured by the Old.)
We come finally to the representations of virtues and vices in the bottom tier. Though not explicitly religious, these only reinforce the message of the chapel: for the virtues lead directly to salvation and the vices to damnation. They are, thus, the abstract lessons to be learned from this great cosmic story, or if you prefer a moral philosophy expressed through personification. The execution of these vices and virtues in monochrome (thus imitating sculpture), only heightens their abstractness.
There are seven virtues, all mirrored by their corresponding vice on the opposite wall: hope with desperation, prudence with folly, justice with injustice, and so on. They are all wonderful, my personal favorite being the portrayal of Envy: standing in flames, clutching a bag of money, with a serpent emerging his mouth and turning around to bite him in the face. There can be no more graphic illustration of the torture and self-destruction inherent in envy. The representation of hope is also justly famous, as winged woman reaching up towards a crown; while her counterpart, desperation, has hung herself.
After fifteen wonderful minutes, we were led out of the chapel. I was exhausted. I had spent the morning rushing to the train, rushing to the museum, and then absorbed in artwork. It was time for lunch. For this, I headed to one of Padua’s better-known cheap eats, Dalla Zita, a small sandwich shop in the center. Dozens of color-coded sticky notes cover one of the walls, informing the visitor of the many sandwich options available, each one with a cute name. Somehow, the staff of the shop have memorized all of these sandwich names, and so you need only say “Steve” or “Babu” to get the sandwich you want. I do not remember what I ordered, but I am sure it involved roast beef and was delicious.
While I sat on the corner, stuffing the assemblage of bread, meat, and sauce into my mouth, I had quite a charming interaction. A woman, who had accidentally cut me in line in the sandwich shop, saw me, realized her mistake, and came over and actually apologized to me. That had never happened to me before. This was only the second act of small kindness that day. When I was in the monastery gardens trying to find the chapel a young man came over and pointed me in the right direction. He did not even want a reward! These things rarely happen in New York.
Now I had a few hours before my return train to Venice. I decided to spend some of it simply walking around the city of Padua. Though not as shockingly beautiful as Venice (no city is), Padua is a charming city, with an attractive historic center. Its most characteristic feature are the shaded arcades lining the wide, cobblestone streets. The walk along the river Bacchiglione—which runs through the center of the city—is also quite lovely. But the most picturesque spot in the city is, undoubtedly, the massive central square: the Prato della Valle (literally, “meadow of the valley”). At 90,000 square meters, this is the biggest plaza in Italy and among the largest in Europe. But it is not only special for its size. A moat encircles around a grassy central island, with no fewer than 78 neoclassical statues on either side of the canal.
Two of Padua’s most splendid church buildings stand nearby. Within sight of the Prato della Valle is the Abbey of Santa Giustina, a massive brick church building topped with domes. Like so many Italian churches, this church is richly and beautifully decorated. But it is perhaps most notable for holding the remains of St. Luke the Evangelist. Well, at least most of the remains: the evangelist’s body is entombed here, but his head is in Prague, and one of his ribs is in Thebes. In any case, I unfortunately did not have the chance to visit this church, since I was more interested in visiting another one nearby: the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua.
This basilica is the largest and, undoubtedly, the most glorious church building in Padua, though it is not the city’s cathedral. (This distinction is held by a far more modest structure, which has a famous fresco cycle by Guisto de’ Menabuoi.) Its profile is difficult to miss. Though the building has few external sculptures or friezes—being mainly composed of red brick—the roof is forest of domes and spires, which gives the building a vaguely Russian appearance.
Before going inside, it is worth pausing to examine an equestrian statue located right next to the building. This is the Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata, by none other than Donatello. Gattamelata is the nickname of Erasmo da Narni—it means “honeyed cat”—a famous condottiero (basically a general for hire). Though this statue lacks the ferocious strength of Andrea del Verrochio’s statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice, it is perhaps more historically significant in the history of art, if only because it was made earlier. The statue has many of the hallmarks of the early Renaissance: humanism, realism, secularism, classicism. After all, the subject of the sculpture is neither a saint nor a king, but a person famous for his own exploits—an individual. And Donatello obviously paid close attention to the anatomy of horses, as we can see from the careful modeling of the muscles and even the veins in the horse’s head.
The statue’s classicism is not only apparent in its realistic style, but also in the technique used: a bronze sculpture made using the lost-wax technique. Such a large-scale equestrian statue had been beyond the technical abilities of Europeans since the fall of Rome. It was the rediscovery of the statue of Marcus Aurelius (misidentified as Constantine) which showed Renaissance artists the possibilities of bronze sculpture. Donatello was both a pioneer and a master of this technique. It is also worth comparing this statue to one of the masterpieces of medieval sculpture, the Bamberg Horseman. The two works—both beautiful and realistic—reveal a difference in worldview. The Bamberg Horseman is graceful, handsome, and above all royal: a man of elevated status. Gattamelata is a much more imposing presence: self-contained, intelligent, determined, he seems to be a heroic man riding out of history.
Now, let us enter the basilica itself (where Gattamelata is buried, incidentally). Like so many Italian churches, the Basilica of Saint Anthony is lushly decorated. When not covered with fresco, every surface shimmers with gold, silver, or marble, in sharp contrast with the fairly plain walls outside the building. Because I could not take pictures, my ability to talk about any aspect of the church in detail is limited. What most sticks out in my memory is the palatial shrine of St. Anthony of Padua. When I visited, pilgrims were lined up to receive a blessing and to kneel by the saint’s relics. Indeed, this basilica is an important site of pilgrimage, and is one of the eight international shrines designated by the Catholic Church (two of the three are in Italy, and three are in Poland).
With my visit concluded, I retreated outside to take a final look at the basilica. I had spent far less than a day in Padua, and almost every minute of it was enjoyable. Indeed, I found the city so charming that I wished I could spend far more time there. At the very least, the streets of Padua are more lively than those of Venice. But I had scheduled my train back and I could not stay any longer. One major site I missed was the Palazzo della Ragione, an enormous medieval town hall, decorated with dozens of paintings. I also wish I had visited the University of Padua, one of the oldest universities in Europe, where Galileo himself once taught. I suppose that the next time I return to Venice, I will have to return to Padua as well.
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