8

No Place Like Rome

Throughout the 1950s and early '60s, Rome was the coolest city on earth, synonymous with fashion, style, design, glamour, a vibrant if sometimes disreputable nightlife – and, of course, movies. The epicenter of all this excitement and frenetic activity was a hitherto-unremarkable 200-yard street named Via Veneto. It was here that international high society would gather: the rich, louche and beautiful. There were movie stars and international financiers; haute couture tycoons and minor noblemen; millionaire playboys and stunning models, dressed to kill. The stories that emerged from this small street made it one of the most famous places on earth.

 

The after-dark activities, and sometimes outlandish behavior, in bars, restaurants and nightclubs on and around Via Veneto were the stuff of worldwide gossip. It looked like one long, wild party to which only the gilded and glittering were invited. All this lasted a decade or more, and from the outside, at least, it looked like a sweet life. No surprise, then, that the greatest film documenting the era was called La Dolce Vita – even if its title was sardonic.

 

What a scene it was. On any day in this feverish period it was hard not to catch sight of people so famous they could be identified by their surnames alone: Bardot. Sinatra. Ekberg. Welles. Lollobrigida. Mastroianni. Loren. You might glimpse Prince Rainier, Aristotle Onassis, the Aga Khan, Jackie Kennedy, King Farouk. Not to mention Burton and Taylor, or Liz and Dick, as the papers called them when they visited Rome to shoot the epic Cleopatra, and carried on an illicit affair that made global headlines for weeks on end.

 

While the film was being shot in 1962, the couple stayed at what was then called the Grand – which has been known as The St. Regis Rome since the turn of the century – and it became one the film’s informal production offices, with ordinary Romans waiting in line to be auditioned for lavish crowd scenes. The gorgeous belle époque palace, founded in 1894 by the legendary hotelier César Ritz, had become a Roman home away from home for dozens of stars, ranging from Kirk Douglas, Jack Lemmon, Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner and her then husband Frank Sinatra (sometimes quarreling furiously) to Fiat’s playboy tycoon Gianni Agnelli, who maintained an apartment there all year round.

 

Jess Walter’s bestselling 2012 novel, Beautiful Ruins, gives a flavor of the place. One of his characters, an Italian man of modest means named Pasquale, enters the hotel to see hundreds of extras for Cleopatra being cast: “The mahogany door opened on to the most ornate lobby he’d ever seen: marble floors, floral frescoes on the ceilings, crystal chandeliers, stained-glass skylights depicting saints and birds and glum lions. It was hard to take it all in, and he had to force himself not to gape like a tourist...”

 

Via Veneto was heaven for the press, even in daylight, with all these famous people strolling and behaving impeccably. After all, they were rich, elegant, fashionably dressed by chic designers – and their images sold newspapers. Journalists and cameramen worked the Via Veneto beat in pairs, nosing out juicy titbits of gossip. Any celebrities behaving in an unseemly manner found their activities captured as they fled from gangs of ruthless cameramen, indifferent to their feelings and privacy. These men – some on Vespas, some simply sprinting – came to be known as paparazzi – after Paparazzo in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, the photographer sidekick to Marcello Mastroianni’s gossip columnist.

 

The paparazzi made the lives of some celebrities sheer hell. One of their favorite targets was Anita Ekberg, famous from La Dolce Vita as the sex-goddess actress who provocatively waded into the Fontana di Trevi and beckoned Mastroianni to join her. She and her husband, English actor Anthony Steel, were often out late on Via Veneto, sometimes openly arguing, with Steel frequently quite tipsy. He would literally fight back at the paparazzi, throwing punches. On one occasion Ekberg felt so persecuted by paparazzi who had tailed her all the way home, she grabbed a bow in her house and fired off arrows at her pursuers.

 

The standoffs between celebrities and paparazzi, out for scandalous photos that hinted at adultery or inebriation, became an almost nightly melodrama. Scuffles, shouting, chases and recriminations were commonplace. It wasn’t always seemly, yet the whole world seemed to be watching.

 

The phenomenon of La Dolce Vita seemed to emerge from out of nowhere, and several unlikely elements contributed to bring it into being. The most remarkable thing about it was the speed with which it happened and its time-frame: only a few years previously, the Eternal City was a devastated place, having been occupied by invaders – first the Nazis, then the Allies – with large sections of it reduced to ruins. Plus, of course, Italy had been on the losing side in World War II; it was a Fascist nation ruled mercilessly by the tyrannical dictator Benito Mussolini. Yet only five years after hostilities ceased, it felt as if the western world had swiftly forgiven Italy, and Rome re-assumed its place as a friendly international playground.

 

Three great neo-realist Italian films, all shot so cheaply and convincingly they looked like documentaries, helped to sway opinion, especially in America. Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and Vittorio de Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1948) convinced the world that Rome’s citizens were mostly poor, decent and struggling to get by in their beautiful but war-ravaged city.

 

It also helped that Italy underwent an economic resurgence in the post-war years: “il boom”, as it became known. This was partly due to generous American aid under the Marshall Plan, but was also thanks to the country’s production of well-designed products for mass consumption: domestic appliances, Fiats and Vespa motor scooters, all of which introduced us to items that were both chic and iconic.

 

After the war, the population around Via Veneto changed. Although once a hangout for artists, writers and intellectuals, after the US Embassy opened for business in 1946 in the old Palazzo Margherita, the street became the heart of an unofficial American colony, which the Yanks nicknamed “the Beach”.

 

Brigitte Bardot is snapped by the paparazzi in Rome, 1970

(AGT/REX/Shutterstock)

 

By the end of the 1950s, it boasted a Harry’s Bar and a Café de Paris, establishments already existing in cities favored by jet-setters, and the airline TWA began operating direct flights between New York and Rome. The city’s status as a glamorous destination was sealed; and Via Veneto was the hub of a neighborhood where visiting Americans, especially wealthy ones staying in luxury hotels, might feel at home.

 

As for movies, the genesis of La Dolce Vita was rooted in a pragmatic business decision. The Italian government, like others in Europe, was alarmed by the overwhelming post-war success of Hollywood films and passed legislation to defend its film industry in a number of ways. These included a strategy known as “blocking” funds earned in Italy by American films, insisting they could only be spent in the country where they were earned.

 

Hollywood studios circumvented this by making films abroad, using blocked funds as their budgets. Italy was a beneficiary of this gambit: it boasted a reliable climate for uninterrupted shooting, and great locations including beaches, coastlines and the glories of Rome. Above all, it had Cinecittà (Cinema City), a world-class film studio conveniently situated on the outskirts of Rome. Opened in 1937, the dream factory was Mussolini’s brainchild (something Italians are still a little sheepish about). Il Duce grasped how potent moving images could be for propaganda, and resolved to make Cinecittà the equal of Hollywood studios. This was a dictator who genuinely loved movies (he founded the Venice Film Festival); with Cinecittà, he effectively created a viable film industry for Italy.

 

So it was that 20th Century Fox shot Prince of Foxes, a medieval adventure story starring Tyrone Power and Orson Welles, wholly in Italy. On its release in 1949, it grossed enough money to make shooting Hollywood movies in Italy seem a shrewd idea. In its wake, MGM upped the ante, announcing an epic production of Quo Vadis, set in ancient Rome and starring Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr. A huge production, even by Hollywood standards, it boasted a then remarkable budget of $7.6 million. Statistics about the film’s scale were bandied about by publicists. Some scenes used 30,000 extras, all of them job-hungry Romans. A record 32,000 costumes were designed for the movie. The production took over Cinecittà for a whole year.

 

Quo Vadis was such a big deal that, in June 1950, Time magazine ran a leading piece about it, and the significance of making American movies abroad (now known as “runaway production”). The piece was titled Hollywood on the Tiber, and the phrase quickly stuck.

 

If it seemed a risky proposition, it paid off. Quo Vadis went on to gross three times its budget in North America, and became the highest-grossing film of 1951. As a place for making Hollywood movies, Rome was suddenly hot.

 

And Hollywood kept on coming. The next big film was wildly different, but also advanced Rome’s credentials as a destination for Hollywood film-makers. Roman Holiday (1953) was a charming romantic comedy starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. She played a princess, in the city on an official visit; she abandons her duties when she falls for Peck, playing a reporter who takes her sightseeing on the back of his Vespa (of course), taking in the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum and the Trevi fountain. Director William Wyler chose to shoot largely out in the streets, aware that the real city looked better than any backdrop the movies could devise. Thus, the film had three stars, Hepburn, Peck – and Rome, at its most ravishing.

 

No-one would argue that Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) was much of a movie. Its premise was paper-thin: three young American women, in town and looking for love, toss their loose change into the Trevi Fountain and make a wish. But it was a huge hit and its title song, crooned by Sinatra, topped the charts and won an Oscar. Rome? It looked as lustrous as ever.

 

Looking back, it feels as if Cleopatra (1963), a film that was a spectacle but failed to justify its absurdly expensive budget, was the high-water mark of the La Dolce Vita era. No bubble suddenly burst, but as the 1960s progressed, it seemed other cities (notably London) had seized Rome’s mantle. The Café de Paris moved out, as did Harry’s Bar.

 

They have since returned, and although Via Veneto is a less frantic street than in its heyday, it still has a real allure. It’s not hard to conjure up images from its illustrious past: a young Sophia Loren striding down the street, heading for the stardom that awaited her; Mastroianni, avoiding the gawping gaze of passers-by, and looking rueful; Ava Gardner, flashing her brilliant smile as she leaves a restaurant. And, of course, the ever-present paparazzi, jostling, shouting and waving, their flash guns popping. Times may change, but good stories never die.

 

Your address: The St. Regis Rome

 

 

Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, 1962

(AP/Topfoto.co.uk)

 

 

7

 

 Scooting through Via Veneto

(Getty Images)

3

A River Runs Through It

Early evening on the Nile in Cairo, and the sail of our felucca, the traditional Egyptian sailing boat, was swollen with pink light. Mohamed – guide, boatman, sage – was standing in the stern, balanced against a stay, guiding the tiller with his bare foot. Caught up in the arms of the river, we were talking pyramids.

 

“You are mistaken,” he said. “There are no secrets on the Nile.”

 

From vantages all over Cairo, from the windows of the new St. Regis Cairo to the ramparts of the Citadel, the great pyramids of Giza are visible beyond the rooftops, icons of the city standing on the edge of the western desert. Their scale is staggering; Napoleon calculated that the stone from the three pyramids could build a wall 9ft high around the whole of France. Their antiquity is scarcely creditable; they were already 2,000 years old when ancient Rome was still a collection of thatched hovels. But as much as anything, it is their silence that intrigues.

 

The pyramids tell us almost nothing about their occupants, about the lives they lived, about the world they came from. Only diligent archaeological detective work has discovered the names of the pharaohs buried within them. There are no inscriptions, no reliefs, no wall paintings. By the time the ancient Greeks turned up to swoon at the feet of the pyramids, even the contents were missing; the tombs had been looted centuries before. As a window on ancient Egypt, they are closed, shuttered and secretive.

 

Mohamed pushed the tiller starboard and we tacked towards the eastern bank, the direction of medieval Cairo. The old city, now a World Heritage Site, is the antithesis of the pyramids. In the warren of narrow lanes and alleys, vociferous life swirled around traditional Cairene houses, past some of the greatest buildings of medieval Islam. There seemed to be so few secrets here among crowds surging towards the clamor of Khan el-Khalili bazaar in search of everything from a cradle to a camel saddle, from perfume to chamber pots, from junk to jewels.

 

“But there are no secrets in ancient Egypt either,” Mohamed insisted. ‘Everything you want to know about the pyramids, about the men once buried in their chambers, about the world of ancient Egypt – everything, you will find along the banks of this river. The Nile is an open book.” Laughing, he scooped a handful of river water and splashed me. “Follow it,” he said. “It will answer all your questions.”

 

So follow it I did, though the idea of traveling the length of the Nile had occurred to me long before I had met Mohamed. A giant among rivers, the world’s longest and mightiest (though some claim this title for the Amazon), it runs almost 4,000 miles from its headwaters in the Mountains of the Moon in Central Africa to its twin mouths on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. To anyone who loves travel, and the challenge of a grand journey, an expedition up the Nile is irresistible.

 

Beyond Egypt, it curves through Sudan and Uganda. But that perhaps is another river, and another story. In Egypt itself, a country that Herodotus described as the gift of the Nile, the monuments along the banks, and indeed the river itself, tell the story of the lost world of ancient Egypt in detail so graphic that we come to feel a part of it.

 

I followed the Nile from its mouth at Rashid on the Mediterranean to its source at Lake Victoria in Central Africa. For nine months I traveled in antiquated buses, in freight trains, in the backs of lorries, and wherever I could, on the river itself. I drifted to the tombs of Beni Hasan in a leaky boat piloted by an ancient fellow with the creased and leathery features of a pharaonic mummy. I traveled from Asyut to Luxor in a barge carrying cement, sleeping on a mat on the decks with the three-man crew. I sailed upriver in a felucca from Luxor to Aswan, stopping at the great temples of Edfu and Esna and Kom Ombo, picturesque on its bluff above the river.

 

I fell in love with the Nile, and the timeless life along its banks. In the early mornings, the surface of the river was glassy as egrets flew upstream, their yellow legs skimming their own reflections. Small boys shepherded dusty buffalo down to the water’s edge. Men appeared among the reeds, climbing into fishing skiffs. Caryatid women followed paths through the fields with water pots on their heads, moving like belly dancers – their bodies undulating, their heads perfectly still.

 

As the morning sun polished the river, voices drifted from the banks, elongating across the surface of the water. Blue-domed shrines rose from fields of sugar cane. An old man passed on a donkey. In the palm groves, between the aisles of tall trunks, flocks of sheep wandered through latticed shade, trailed by robed shepherds. On the Nile, past and present intersect; the fascination of these river banks, and of the fellahin or farmers who mine its waters, is how little has changed since the days of pharaohs.

 

Without the Nile, Egypt would not exist. The country is a desert, the eastern reaches of the Sahara, and its inhabited territory merely a long thin oasis, a line of irrigated cultivation, framed by dry wastelands. The border between the two is so distinct that you can straddle it, one foot in lush grasses, the other in sand. I wondered if ancient Egyptian anxieties about death might owe something to this tenuous geography, to the proximity of the enveloping desert, traditionally the land of the dead.

 

At Abydos in middle Egypt, I went ashore to see the great Temple of Seti. This was the journey every ancient Egyptian longed to make, just as Muslims today all wish to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. If they didn’t manage to come to Abydos in life, they believed their soul would travel here in death. Up and down the Nile on the painted walls of tombs, on the carved reliefs of temples, under the lids of sarcophagi, is this theme of river journeys, of boats, their sails hoisted to the north wind, all traveling to Abydos, the center of the Osirian cult of resurrection. The painted river scenes are eerily familiar to the modern traveler.

 

 

 Above: a felucca in Aswan, on the banks of the Nile

(©Tuul & Bruno Morandi/4Corners)

 

Largely intact, the temple is like the set for an Indiana Jones film, the remnant of a lost civilization. The disembodied voices of other visitors echoed between the stone walls. Figures flickered like ghosts in the shafts of light between the massive columns. The gloom deepened as I passed from one hall to another towards the inner sanctuaries where the gods lived.

 

Here, on the wall reliefs, some of the most beautiful in Egypt, all the secrets of the sacred rituals are displayed, rituals that would have been known only to the high priests and the pharaohs. We see the royal figure washing and dressing the statue that represents the God’s soul. We see the rituals of purification and the presentation of offerings. Finally, we see the pharaoh withdrawing, scattering sand on the floor, and sweeping away his own footsteps as he backs out of the sanctuary. These are works of art, masterpieces of the ancient world, and they appear on these walls like faded and cracked film footage from a world that flourished four millennia ago.

 

At Luxor in Upper Egypt, any lingering notions about the silence of ancient Egypt were soon overturned. Known as Thebes in ancient times, Luxor is a treasure trove of antiquities, and they come with a language, a history, a pantheon of identifiable gods, a list of kings, not to mention the endless tales of warring dynasties, of hopes and despairs, of political intrigues, and family conflicts, culled from inscriptions. On Luxor’s east bank stands Karnak, the colossus of ancient Egyptian temples, that has dazzled visitors for centuries. On the west bank, the funerary side of the river, I explored the Colossi of Memnon, the Ramesseum, which inspired Shelley’s Ozymandias, the Temple of Hatshepsut, a magnificent elegy for Egypt’s first female pharaoh, and Medinet Habu with its ithyphallic gods.

 

But it is in the Valley of the Kings that you come face to face with the fears and hopes of the ancient Egyptians. Sixty-three tombs and burial chambers are tunneled into the soft earth of this remote valley, their corridors lined with paintings that depict the rituals of death, and the images of paradise.

 

In the tomb of the Pharaoh Merneptah I made my way down the long tunnel towards the burial chamber. Along the walls were reliefs of elegant gods and their attendants with images of the dead pharaoh preparing for his journey to the next world. The carvings seemed as clean and precise as the day they were made. Their colors, after more than 3,000 years, glowed in the dim light.

 

I paused to examine the lithe figure of the Western Goddess. She was wearing a rather fetching topless frock. In the sloping tombshaft I passed the Hour Goddess, the different forms of Ra, the jackal Anubis, alert and watchful, past the sun disks and the scarab beetles, past the exquisite registers of hieroglyphics that unlocked the secrets of eternity.

 

At the bottom I emerged in the tomb chamber. All that remained was the granite lid of one of the four sarcophagi that had enclosed the mummy. Across the top was an effigy of the pharaoh, his arms folded across his chest. He was ageless. Beneath the lid was the beautiful Nut, goddess of the sky, stretched above the wrapped mummy like a lover. In one of these Valley tombs, some 19th-century graffiti captures the Egyptian anxieties as simply and eloquently as a dozen ancient reliefs. Scrawled on the hull of a royal barque is a single line: “You must not forget me.”

 

For ancient Egyptians, the next world was not a cloud-strewn heaven of angels and harps. Their paradise was simply the Nile. Their images of the next world were images of their beloved river. In the tombs we find feluccas with sails set, fishermen casting nets, boatman waiting for fares. If they were to live forever, what could be more divine than the banks of the Nile?

 

Over two millennia later, the third Aga Khan agreed. One of the world’s wealthiest men, he spent his winters in Aswan, and asked to be buried here on the banks of the Nile when he died in 1957. Every evening his mausoleum, standing on the west bank, darkens to a silhouette against a colored sky.

 

Now emphatically the end of Egypt, Aswan was for millennia the limit of the known world. Even in the early years of the 20th century, European visitors, enjoying cocktails on the terraces of the Old Cataract Hotel, could still thrill to the idea that beyond lay a barbarian darkness, little known and largely unexplored. Yet Aswan has none of the melancholy transience of a frontier town. It is a delightful and sophisticated place. If Luxor is a town of archaeological sights, an intense immersion in ancient Egypt, Aswan is a place for aimless meandering, where people come and go on boats.

 

One day I took a boat across to Elephantine Island, and strolled through villages where women sat on their doorsteps sifting rice and gossip. Another day I went upriver to the ruins of Philae, a temple that seemed to have sprung from the Nile itself. Through the empty windows of the Hall of Nectanebo were views of boats and water birds. Yet another day I explored the sprawling ruins of San Simeon Monastery, on a bluff, half a mile into the desert. Founded in the seventh century, it was originally dedicated to Saint Hadra, a cheery fellow who encountered a funeral procession on the day of his wedding. Seized suddenly with the tragedy of life, he went straight to a hermit’s cave without ever consummating his marriage.

 

In the evenings the feluccas spread swallow wings to the north winds that have carried boats up the Nile, against the currents, since before they built the Great Pyramid. Nowhere in Egypt is the river in such picturesque form, threading through islands between banks of desert sands and smooth granite. It looks, as the ancient Egyptians believed it to be, a kind of paradise.

 

Your address: The St. Regis Cairo

 

Above: fishermen on the banks of the Nile, between Luxor and Aswan
(©Günther Grafenhain/4Corners)

Below: the 3,000-year-old Great Temple of Abu Simbel, on the west bank 
(©Tuul & Bruno Morandi/4Corners)

 

1_BacktoBeginning_issue8

Back to the Very Beginning

Two years ago, a friend I hadn’t seen in years phoned me from Washington, D.C. He was in the city on business and knew I lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, but he said he didn’t have time to visit “the South”. I told him something that surprised him. “You’re in the South, Jonny. Look out of your hotel window. That’s Virginia on the other side of the Potomac River. I live 50 miles west of there. Tell me when you’re free, and I’ll take you on a drive. It’s another country out here – great characters.”

 

I understood my friend’s surprise that cool, cosmopolitan D.C. was a Southern city, largely because I had to amend my own hoary clichés about the South when I moved here from New York five years ago to a historic 1733 Quaker village named Waterford, in the Piedmont region of rural northern Virginia. We could see the Blue Ridge, part of the Appalachian Trail, from our front porch.

 

We’d moved because my wife, a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee, wanted our kids to feel the grass beneath their feet, but still have proximity to D.C. I wanted all the Southern stereotypes: mint juleps, crumbling antebellum mansions, redneck moonshiners tending stills on starlit nights. What we got was something so utterly different it still surprises me today.

 

The land around us turned out to be far more Hamptons than hillbilly. Luminous green meadows dotted with sheep and horses stretched to the horizon; historic country homes with wrought-iron gates and oak-shaded driveways stood sentinel on hilltops, like mansions out of Edith Wharton novels. On any given weekend, we would drive winding, stone-fenced country lanes to our local tavern and run into scarlet-jacketed fox hunters riding to hounds. Loudoun, it turned out, was the richest county in America.

 

But the wider region was rich, too – in history. The land between the Blue Ridge and Route 15, a narrow north-south blacktop that runs 180 miles from Pennsylvania, past Waterford, on down to Charlottesville, Virginia, is one of the most historic corners of the U.S. It’s The Place Where America Happened. No fewer than nine presidents have lived on it or nearby; some of the greatest battles of the Civil War, including Bull Run (first and second) and Antietam, took place here, and world historic documents, from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution, were either drafted or inspired by events on its route.

 

My friend had two days to spare, and I took him on the drive I take all visiting friends: a 350-mile loop from the Capitol, west on Route 50, through the chic horse country towns of Middleburg and Upperville (where Jackie Kennedy rode to hounds), and down Skyline Drive on the crest of the Blue Ridge into rural Rappahannock County. We would stop at Montpelier, family home of James Madison, father of the Constitution, then loop back up Route 15, Highway of Presidents, arguably the most eventful road in U.S. history.

 

I picked him up at the St. Regis, where he was staying, and we did a brief Capitol tour, cruising past the Lincoln Memorial on The Mall, and the Jefferson Monument along the Potomac. No fewer than eight U.S. presidents were born in Virginia, the Old Dominion, including four of the first five. George Washington’s grand estate, Mount Vernon, stands on a high bluff overlooking the Potomac near Alexandria to the south of us; it’s not on our route but it’s an essential stop for any D.C. visitor.

 

For the first 40 minutes, Route 50 is bumper-to-bumper through the suburban sprawl, but nearing Aldie, a strange thing happens. As if you’ve crossed a border, the development clears, and you’re suddenly in glorious countryside: luminous green fields; forests of maple, oak and birch; the Blue Ridge Mountains shimmering in the distance.

 

Route 50 meanders 3,000 miles from Maryland, through America’s heartland to California, but the 30 miles where it passes through Aldie, Middleburg, Upperville and Paris in the Piedmont are arguably the most gorgeous 30 miles in Virginia. The towns date back to the 1700s, when the road became a busy route for traders from colonial Georgetown and Alexandria accessing the farms of the Shenandoah Valley across the Blue Ridge. Stables, inns, taverns and mills opened to cater to passing carriages and horsemen, and as the settlements grew, grand estates sprang up on their outskirts. Today, Middleburg is a sort of Hamptons for the D.C. set, but with horses instead of beaches.

 

I park outside Country Classics, a raffish boutique selling tweed coats and cravats, and watch as blondes in jodhpurs and leather riding boots step out of mud-splattered Range Rovers. Middleburg is the heart of the Mid-Atlantic show-jumping, steeplechase and fox-hunting scene. Even the coffee shop is called the Giddy Up. We pop into the Red Fox Inn for coffee, the oldest building in town, a low-slung fieldstone “ordinary” from 1729 that reminds me of the Dickensian taverns of London. Above the front desk are gracious thank-you letters signed by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, from visits the former First Lady made here in the early 1980s.

 

It was Jackie Kennedy who put Middleburg firmly on the map, 20 years prior to penning those letters. When J.F.K. was president, she wanted a weekend retreat from the White House for her and the children. The Kennedys rented Glen Ora, a grand estate south of town, one of those sprawling mansions with oak-shaded driveways. Jackie joined the Orange County Hunt, her kids attended the local pony club, and the paparazzi followed. Middleburg was never the same again.

 

We pop across the street to The Home Farm Store, a former bank converted into a gourmet food store by Cisco Systems co-founder turned organic farmer, Sandy Lerner. Everything here is from Lerner’s farm, Ayrshire. After a six-dollar Scotch egg, we motor west. It’s early afternoon and the Blue Ridge shimmers above fields of boxwoods and beech. Then, like a mirage, a red British phone box appears as we enter Upperville. Welcome to the Hunter’s Head, my favorite country pub.

 

The tavern is a warren of cozy, low-ceilinged rooms, their walls covered with cartoons of foxes in riding hats. Built as a farmhouse in 1750, it looks like it’s been serving ale to ruddy-faced regulars since George Washington’s time. We tuck into bangers and mash with fresh bread, then walk off lunch in the village. It’s tiny, with the handsome sandstone Trinity Church, a few stone houses hugging the road, and a gun shop selling vintage muskets and Remingtons. As John Updike noted in a 1961 poem for The New Yorker, Upperville is even fancier than Middleburg:

 

In Upperville, the upper crust

Say “Bottom’s Up!” from dawn to dusk

And “Ups-a-daisy, dear!” at will

I want to live in Upperville.

 

“Mr. Rogers, cocktails in the parlor at 6.45pm. Don’t be late!” It’s time to meet some local characters, including Nat Morison, 76, seventh-generation Virginia Brahmin, owner of Welbourne, a 1770s country estate on a rutted dirt road, 15 minutes’ drive away (near the famous Foxcroft School for girls).

 

Welbourne, a custard-yellow colonnaded mansion on Nat’s 500-acre family horse farm, is a Piedmont mansion that doubles as a guesthouse. It was turned into an “invitation-only” inn back in 1930 by Nat’s grandmother. Thomas Wolfe and F. Scott Fitzgerald were invitees, and both wrote stories about it. I stay in Wolfe’s room (creaking four-poster) just past the library, where an imposing portrait of Nat’s bearded great-great grandfather, Confederate Colonel Richard H. Dulany, stares at me from the wall. Dulany rode with the great Gray Ghost, guerilla fighter John S. Mosby, in the war, and road signs throughout the Piedmont still venerate “Mosby’s Confederacy”, as the region became known.

 

American Heartland

Above: Wyant’s store, 12 miles west of Charlottesville, Virginia, lies in the Blue Ridge Mountains, near the spectacular 105-mile Skyline Drive. Below: the Hunter's Head, Upperville

 

You visit Welbourne for warmth and character, not frills. Sherry, Nat’s garrulous Connecticut-born wife, gives us “the tour”: three floors of dust-covered armoires, antique travel chests, shelves cluttered with faded Country Life magazines and leather tomes on war and horses. Picture Downton Abbey, if Carson, Mrs. Hughes and the rest of the staff had gone to the village fair 30 years ago and never returned. The music room (Nat collects – and plays nothing but – pre-1930s New Orleans jazz 78s) has a still-working Aeolian Vocalion gramophone and an out-of-tune 1907 Steinway. “It’s the eternal question,” Sherry sighs. “Fix the pipes or the piano?”
 

To me, this sounds like an unmistakably English sensibility, but when I mention this over cocktails (Virginia Gentleman bourbon on the rocks), Nat bellows at me like I’m crazy. “England? How would I know? I’ve never been out of America – except to New Orleans.”
 
In the morning, we motor south, leaving Route 50 for Fauquier County on a narrow, stone-fenced lane towards The Plains. A promising sun is burning off yesterday’s cold, and the land changes subtly here, becoming flatter and drier, yellow grass in open fields making it resemble Montana. The Plains are aptly named. The actor Robert Duvall has a horse farm here and is a regular at the local Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase in May, the Piedmont social event of the year. My Waterford neighbor,Tom, a political consultant, tells me he does more business in one afternoon at the Gold Cup than he does in a month at the Capitol.
 

It’s time to hit the Blue Ridge, and from The Plains we drive due west, detouring through the orchards, hollows and deer-specked valleys of Naked Mountain, part of Sky Meadows State Park, before accessing Skyline Drive at the resolutely blue-collar Front Royal. Built in the 1930s as a public works project, Skyline Drive is a spectacular 105-mile traverse running north-south through Shenandoah National Park on the crest of the Blue Ridge. There are 75 cliff-edge viewing points on its course and low hanging oaks and willows form a natural tunnel part of the way. To me, Skyline Drive is more than a road; it’s a barrier and symbol. Below, to the west, the Shenandoah Valley, its great river a muddy snake on the plains, is the start of the American heartland, while down to the east, the Piedmont, as green and delicate as a country garden, clings to the ways and manners of the Old World.
 
Skyline Drive ends in the town of Charlottesville, home of another Virginia President, Thomas Jefferson, author of the original American document, the Declaration of Independence. His majestic plantation, Monticello, which he built in French Revival-style, stands atop a hill overlooking a sea of green forest. Somehow, 230 years of development in the nation he helped found have not encroached on his view.
 

We don’t have time for Charlottesville, though, and instead keep it local, exiting Skyline Drive on Route 211 at Thornton Gap, descending into Sperryville, a river-splashed Piedmont farming town somnolent in the shadows of the Blue Ridge. Seventy years ago this was a bustling outpost, last stop before the mountain for traffic heading south-west to New Orleans and beyond. Then, in the 1950s, the highway was built at Front Royal, and Sperryville fell into slumber. In retrospect, it saved the town. Today, it’s a bucolic retreat with a creative subculture of organic farmers, artists, chefs and artisans. I make my way to the River Arts District, former apple-packing sheds on the Thornton River, converted into studios, galleries, and a tapas restaurant.
 

The highlight is the Copper Fox Distillery, where fortysomething Rick Wasmund makes award-winning ryes and whiskeys using a unique technique: he accelerates the aging of his spirits by adding a sachet of small “chips” of charred wood (oak, apple, and cherry) to the aging barrel, increasing the wood surface area. The result is astonishing: rich, smoky spirits with a delicate, fruity finish. I ask him how he came by the method, and he tells me he was caretaker at an old mansion in Middleburg that had eight fireplaces. “I had to light them every night, and I got to experimenting with smoke and wood, which got me to thinking about whiskey.” A brief stint at a distillery in Scotland and, lo, an idea was born.
 

We consider the power of ideas an hour later. We have taken the scenic 231 South for an hour and found our way to another presidential home: Montpelier, home of James Madison, the fourth president. A handsome two-floor neoclassical mansion on a 2,500-acre estate, Montpelier was built by Madison’s father in 1764, and remained in the family until 1840. In 1901, it was bought by the duPont industrialists, who added a garish mural to its façade and a steeplechase track – as you do. But in 2008, after a painstaking $24-million restoration, it was returned to the way it originally looked back in Madison’s day.
 

From the second-floor library, I look out on the same incomparable Blue Ridge view Madison had surveyed in 1786 as he considered all those weighty questions. A towering intellectual, he read more than 400 books in seven languages while he was drafting the documents that would form the basis for the U.S. Constitution, including, as our guide explained, texts in original Latin, Hebrew and Greek. “They don’t make ’em like that anymore,” someone next to me mumbles.
 

It’s late afternoon by the time we double back on to Route 15, now part of The Journey Through Hallowed Ground national heritage area that links Jefferson’s Monticello to the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania, 180 miles to the north. Several other battles took place at points along its route including Manassas, site of the First Battle of Bull Run, the brutal first big clash of the Civil War. Waterford, my own town, lies just off it. I take Jonny to see it before driving him back to the St. Regis in D.C. We sit on the porch sipping a bourbon as the sun sets over Blue Ridge. For some reason I think of New York City and the big move south. I have no regrets. I’m in Virginia, where America began.

Your address: The St. Regis Washington, D.C.

History in the making

Above: a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to the Red Fox Inn in Middelburg. Below: rustic beauty and old-world charm characterize this historical region just outside Washington, D.C.

 

cityofgods-beyond-issue7

City of Gods

It’s those beautiful artists’ impressions of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan that make people say so many unjust things about Mexico City. The emerald-hued lakes, the slender causeways, the story of Montezuma, enthroned in his feathery splendor, warmly greeting Hernán Cortés – only to be betrayed by the duplicitous conquistador, cut down in his prime, and the Aztec empire crushed.

 

It’s true that when you fly into Benito Juárez International airport, you can’t help lamenting that such a wonder has been buried beneath millions of tons of concrete, and a sprawl of houses, apartment blocks, shanty towns and suburbs that shatters the human scale while housing 20 million human beings, or more – no one really knows. Nevertheless, Mexico City, or DF (pronounced day-efay, standing for Distrito Federal) as everyone calls it, is not the impenetrable, car-dependent maze of modern myth. Indeed, a pleasant introduction to the center, and one that subverts several stereotypes about the Mexican capital, is to walk it, slowly, calmly, flaneurishly, from Aztec heart to contemporary barrio.

 

I begin where you have to begin: standing at the center of the Zócalo, the vast main square; officially the Plaza de la Constitución, though no one ever calls it that. This is where Mexicans protest and march, celebrate and stroll, kiss and tell. The Spanish included grand plazas in all the major cities they built over pre-Columbian settlements, and one has to suspect that the Zócalo is one of the biggest of these because it had to symbolically bury the majesty of what stood here before.

 

Parades and expos occasionally invade the plaza, but today there are only strolling locals, a statue of Cuauhtémoc, the last native ruler of the city, and a massive Mexican flag, unfurling in the warm morning breeze.

 

A magnificent vestige of the pre-Hispanic city lies at the plaza’s northeastern corner. The Aztec Templo Mayor was Tenochtitlan’s sacred hub, continually expanded over two centuries by the city’s rulers. The archaeological site is no mere pile of stones, but rises, strangely, magnificently, with serpents greeting you as you turn a corner, and daubs of the red, blue and yellow paint that once glowed under the highland sky. The temple was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, sun god and bringer of war, and Tlaloc, the rain god and source of fertility. Arid death and liquid life.

 

Right next door, the vast Metropolitan Cathedral is the biggest cathedral in the Americas. It’s a squat, hulking edifice, designed to crush any memory of what might have been worshipped here before the arrival of Cortés and his Christian soldiers. A medley of baroque, neoclassical and Spanish churrigueresque (elaborate stucco ornamentation) elements, it too has been built and rebuilt several times over the centuries.

 

Before exiting the Zócalo I duck into the Palacio Nacional to see Diego Rivera’s murals, which decorate the stairwell and the middle story of the central courtyard. The panoramic piece, titled México a través de los Siglos (Mexico Through the Centuries), conflates the dramatic history of this great nation into what looks at first glance like an insane group photograph – with Quetzalcoatl (the plumed serpent) rubbing shoulders with Zapata’s revolutionaries, who are in turn looking down on the dastardly inquisitors, Hidalgo the liberation hero, five-times president Benito Juárez, and many other assorted great and good, plus Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo, and Karl Marx, helpfully giving directions to the massed proles.

 

I’m dizzy with names and blinded by colors by the time I get back outside. I grab breakfast at the nearby Café de Tacuba. This handsome institution, all tiled walls and white-aproned waitresses, has been serving good coffee and sublime tamales – chicken-filled corn wraps served with spicy sauce – since 1912. It also lent its name to a well-known Mexican pop group.

 

I continue west along Calle de Tacuba, which lies along the axis of one of the lake-city’s original causeways. It’s an elegant part of the city, with a distinctly European feel, though I occasionally arrive at hectic, aromatic corners where streetfood vendors are whipping up filled tortillas and crispy tacos for the time-poor traders and political aides who work in these parts.

 

Billionaire investor and philanthropist Carlos Slim has been throwing money at the city center, and many facades look new or very well polished. Edifices that were little more than warehouses or squats have been taken over as office space, work-live accommodation and nightspots. Prone to seismic activity, Mexico City is a mid-rise city, though I occasionally catch glimpses of the lofty, 597ft, 44-story Torre Latinoamericana, a glass and steel quake-proof landmark that was once the tallest building in Latin America.

 

My next stop, in the shadow of the Torre, is the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Built during the 1876-1911 Porfiriato – the modernizing, if sometimes brutal, regime of Porfirio Díaz – and facing the Alameda Central, it’s one of Mexico City’s most beautiful palaces. Begun in 1904 and overseen by Italian architect Adamo Boari, a fan of neoclassical and art nouveau lines, its construction was interrupted by subsidence issues and then the Mexican Revolution. It was completed by Mexican architect Federico Mariscal in the 1930s, with the interior leaning towards the then-fashionable art deco style.

 

The three expansive floors of Mexican and international art merit a day or more, but I limit myself to viewing pieces by Rufino Tamayo, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera, including the celebrated El hombre en el cruce de caminos (Man at the Crossroads), originally commissioned for New York’s Rockefeller Center. The Rockefellers had the original destroyed because of its anti-capitalist themes, but Rivera recreated the work here in 1934.

 

The Alameda Central is one of relatively few green spaces in the Cuauhtémoc quarter. Created by Viceroy Luis de Velasco at the end of the 16th century, and enlivened by paved footpaths, decorative fountains and statues, it occupies what was once an Aztec marketplace. The name comes from álamo, Spanish for poplar tree.

 

These elegant gardens provide a natural border between old, romantic DF and the Paseo de la Reforma, the throbbing heart of modern Mexico’s economy. Skyscrapers loom over every block of the Reforma, including impressive landmarks such as the Torre Mayor, owned by George Soros, Torre HSBC, the Angel of Independence monument and César Pelli’s sleek Torre Libertad, home of The St. Regis Mexico City.

 

I make a slight detour to the Plaza de la República to admire the Monument to the Revolution, a towering neoclassical triumphal arch that doubles as a mausoleum for several heroes of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, including Francisco “Pancho” Villa.

 

Diego Rivera’s panoramic mural, ‘Mexico Through the Centuries’, conflates the dramatic history of this great nation into what looks at first glance like an insane group photograph

 

Street life

A hop away at Calle Antonio Caso No. 58, is the Cantina La Castellana. Established in 1892, it’s one of a dozen or so traditional cantinas left in the ever-evolving, fad-hungry capital. It has 13 big TV screens, six of them showing a soporific, scoreless Mexican football match, six an overacted soap opera, and one a grisly news bulletin. There’s a cheap buffet, into which the clientele of working class men is diving with gusto, filling soup bowls and piling up plates of potato, meat and beans. I opt for the daily special, which today is the very Mexican chamorro enchilado al horno – oven-baked, chilli-peppered pig’s leg – superb with a well-iced bottle of beer.

 

Buzzing, cozy, laid-back, this cantina, like all the best ones, is timeless. Some of the men are playing dominoes. Several are just having beers and botanas – salty snacks. Mariachis sometimes drop by, usually in the afternoon, not because they think tourists will reward them but because they are appreciated here. La Castellana also has some cultural cred: past visitors included author Renato Leduc, who hung out with Antonin Artaud in Montparnasse, and songwriter Álvaro Carrillo, who composed more than 300 songs, most of them romantic boleros. Poet Pablo Neruda, Communist activist and essayist José Revueltas and poet Efraín Huerta were also habitués.

 

After lunch – the match still at zero-zero, the dominoes still clacking – I’m back on to Reforma, which is busy with lunchtime traffic. The thoroughfare was commissioned by Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I to seal his authority on the city after overthrowing Benito Juárez in 1864. Designer Ferdinand von Rosenzweig’s intention was to grace the imperial capital with a grand boulevard equal in grandeur to the Ringstrasse in Vienna. It would also serve as direct route to – and an imposing sightline for – the Castillo de Chapultepec, the imperial residence.

 

Reforma these days feels very modern, with police zipping along the wide pavements on Segways, and the mainly modern and functionalist architecture and bank and brokerage HQs attesting to the power of commerce rather than conquering viceroys. After the narrow grid of the old city, it’s good to see some sky, too. I don’t generally do shopping, but I decide to stop briefly at Fonart at Paseo de la Reforma No. 116. Buying local handicrafts is a minefield for travelers, but these government-run, fixed-price outlets are a joy: superlative textiles and art are on display and browsing is more like a museum visit rather than mere retail.

 

The Altar a la Patria, six white marble columns honoring six teenage cadets who died in the 1846-8 Mexican-American War, marks the entrance to the Bosque de Chapultepec – a name that means Chapultepec Wood but doesn’t quite capture the magnitude of this verdant megaspace. Spreading over some 1,695 acres, it’s one of the biggest city parks in the world. Made especially delightful by its hilly contours, it invites you to breathe deeply, take in a view over DF and enjoy a few minutes of silence – well, subdued traffic hum, anyway. Native carpenter birds and hummingbirds sing and tweet, and the park is a refuge for migratory birds from Canada and the U.S., including the red-tailed hawk and Harris’s hawk. Dozens of tree species provide shade, including the Montezuma bald cypress, Mexico’s national tree.

 

Overlooking all this is the Castillo de Chapultepec, accessed via a winding, gently inclined road. A sacred spot for the Aztecs, the mansion we see now is a reminder of Mexico’s bygone aristocracy. It was begun in 1775 but not completed until after independence, when it served as the national military academy. When Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlota arrived in 1864, they gave it a regal refurbishment and it was the presidential pad until 1939 when it was converted into the Museo Nacional de Historia.

 

The displays chronicle the periods from the rise of colonial Nueva España to the Mexican Revolution. Even more impressive than the sumptuously furnished salons, swords and banners are the dramatic interpretations of Mexican history by muralists Juan O’Gorman and David Siqueiros. Huge, overpowering and full of the everyday chaos of humanity, Mexican mural art enfolds and moves the viewer in a way sedate, framed gallery art can’t. I leave the museum feeling uplifted as well as informed.

 

It’s only a 20-minute walk to my final cultural pit stop, one of the world’s greatest museums. This is only my second visit to the Museo Nacional de Antropología but I know what not to do: try to take in 23 rooms and more than 4,000 years of pre-Columbian art and culture in a single sweep. Instead I focus on a couple of eras. The Olmecs – the first major civilization in Mexico, present from the 16th to the fifth centuries BCE – tend to get less attention than the Aztec and Maya but, as the colossal heads, clay dolls, vases and figures on show demonstrate, theirs was a bold and brilliant culture.

 

The museum’s building is an artwork in its own right. The umbrella-shaped edifice was designed by three visionary Mexican architects, and when it opened in 1964, the soft, tropical brutalism was considered audacious. The exhibition halls surround a courtyard and a large pond so that as you move between rooms you find yourself suddenly in a serene, airier space. It readies the spirit for the next bout of learning and awe.

 

My second specialism for the day is the Maya. While I’d seen many of the magnificent sites around Yucatán, it filled in gaps to see the altars and artworks shipped from the peninsula to be exhibited in the capital. Indeed, when it comes to everything in sprawling, multi-faceted Mexico – from food to art to music to commerce – in the end all roads lead to DF. The capital sucks in energy and creativity and concentrates it here.

 

The sun is slipping away and the gardens around the museum are cooling down, breathing out their evening perfumes. I walk slowly towards the north, exiting into Polanco – Mexico City’s most upscale neighborhood. As barrios go, compared with the shabby chic of Condesa and the hip, emerging buzz of Roma, Polanco is sedate and civilized. Which is a relief – because after a longish walk (only about six miles but lots of zigzagging and art-filled corridors along the way), I need some leafy luxury and lounging.

 

Polanco was originally a hacienda (rural estate) and then a suburb until the early 20th century, when mansions began to pop up surrounded by old-growth trees and high walls. First retail moved in and then, from the Seventies on, companies fed up with the gritty flavor of the Zona Rosa relocated here. Embassies, restaurants and boutiques followed, and sleek towers were erected to house their well-heeled employees. As a result, Polanco has also become one of the city’s best spots for high-end dining.

 

Before I partake, I need a drink. Jules Basement prides itself on being Mexico City’s first speakeasy. The term means very little nowadays but there’s still something exciting about passing through a big fridge door and some rubber drapes to find yourself in a shimmering space – all black, white and silver: cool in the shivery sense – with cocktail tables inspired by Mexican skull art. A bit industrial, very theatrical, and somehow very Mex-urban, it’s a good spot for a pre-dinner cocktail. I have a mescal-based Negroni that wipes out the day’s toils and then a cool artisanal beer.

 

My last stop is a place I first read about in the influential S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants listings. Polanco boasts three top-rated places within a few blocks. Quintonil and Biko are two, but I opt for Pujol, where El Bulli-inspired chef Enrique Olvera specializes in refined versions of native cuisine. He cooks with ant larvae and grasshoppers and, in a nod to local streetfood culture, prepares one dessert with a 20-day-old banana.

 

The tasting menu is a series of taste volleys, from fried pork to delicate sweetbreads to a succulent tamal (closing the circle I’d begun at breakfast) to a range of moles – Mexican sauces, some with chocolate and sweet spices – and a glass of Baja Cal white. The meal is deeply indigenous, and as exquisite on the palate as anything the Old World has to offer. A DF mini-banquet. A megalopolitan treat. A fitting finale to one of the world’s great city walks.

Your address: The St. Regis Mexico City

A relief sculpture of an Aztec calendar, in the Museo Nacional de Antropología,
showcase for 4,000 years of pre-Columbian art and culture

A church doorway

Big_Feature_To_Rome_with_Love_1060x560

To Rome with Love

When Mary Shelley sat down to write her letters home in the early spring of 1819, she had already fallen in love. The author of Frankenstein and the wife of the famous poet had arrived in Rome a few days before, and the city had seduced her. Basking in the warm Roman sun, contemplating countless masterpieces across two and a half millennia of history, she was enthralled. “The delights of Rome have had such an effect on me that my past life appears a blank,” she wrote breathlessly, “and now I begin to live.”

 

Mary knew well the Piazza del Popolo, the square in which I am sitting at the Caffè Canova, enjoying a croissant and the best coffee in the world. A wide oval, the piazza is framed by curving balustraded roadways and centred on fountains spewing curtains of silver water. To the south, twin churches mark the entrance to the city. On the opposite corner, by the Dal Bolognese restaurant, where film stars dine on Saturday evenings and cardinals have Sunday lunch, two carabinieri pose in uniforms that are more Gilbert & Sullivan than constables on the beat. Two nuns glide by, twins in wimpled black, passing a young couple locked in an embrace on the rim of the central fountain. The shadow of the obelisk that Augustus brought back from Egypt after defeating two of the great lovers of antiquity – Antony and Cleopatra – stretches across the cobblestones to touch my feet.

 

Cavalcades of ghosts roam this piazza. Before trains and airplanes gave us more mundane backdrops, the square was the grand stage for Roman arrivals. For more than 17 centuries, all those who made the journey to Rome from elsewhere in Europe – kings and popes, armies and emissaries, merchants and pilgrims – entered the city through the great Porta del Popolo opposite. Martin Luther lodged here while formulating ideas that would lead to the great schism of the Protestant Reformation. Queen Christina of Sweden – libertine, libertarian and lesbian – rode through Porta del Popolo opposite, waving to welcoming crowds, believing she was escaping the constraints of a northern throne for the freedoms of southern indulgence. Bonnie Prince Charlie – pretender to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland, and born in this city – paused here to splash his face in the fountains after another drunken night.

 

But the journeys and the arrivals that fascinate me are those of the early tourists, the travelers on what came to be known as the Grand Tour, a phenomenon of the 18th and 19th centuries in which gentlemen and sometimes ladies of means toured the continent to add some polish and sophistication to their manners and education. With its wealth of artistic treasure, Italy was always the highlight of these European journeys, and Rome, the ‘Great Crown of the Grand Tour’, the ultimate destination.

 

Among them were famous writers and artists. John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron all hurried across the cobbles of Piazza del Popolo. Stendhal, Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens – all went “reeling and moaning about the Roman streets”. Henry James echoed Mary Shelley’s passion for the city. “For the first time,” he wrote to his brother on the evening of his arrival, “I live.”

 

The journey to Italy and to Rome started with the Alps, “those uncouth, huge, monstrous excrescences of nature”, according to one 18th-century traveler. Some visitors, like Horace Walpole, whose King Charles spaniel was carried off and promptly eaten by a wolf, rode mules along the snowy precipices. Others, like James Boswell, were carried in palanquins by sure-footed porters. Boswell was said to have crossed the Alps “with mingled feelings of awe and adulterous anticipation”. Italian women were one of the attractions of any journey through Italy.

 

Boswell was probably anticipating Venice, whose courtesans were famous. The Frenchman Charles de Brosses described them as a cross between fairies and angels; heroically, he tried eight in order to get a decent sampling. But nuns were generally considered to be the most passionate lovers in Venice; there was a famous incident of a nun fighting a duel with an abbess over a mutual lover. Someone should have told Boswell. His adulterous intentions towards a promising Venetian woman “of some social standing” met with a sad rebuff.

 The Colosseum

Lovers on the Pincio Hill

From Venice our travelers crossed the Apennines to Florence. The journey could be difficult (in one wayside inn William Beckford was offered a dinner of mustard and crow’s gizzards) but everyone loved the city on the Arno. As always, there seemed to be too much to see: one 18th-century guidebook listed 160 public statues, 152 churches, 18 guildhalls, 17 palaces, six columns and two pyramids, without even mentioning the countless paintings. Tired of the sights, Sir Horace Mann was fortunate to catch the Carnival with its masked balls and its bacchanalian amusements. “I have danced,” he cried. “Good Gods! How have I danced!”

 

As the travelers turned south to Rome they followed the Via Cassia of the Roman legionnaires and the Via Francigena, the centuries-old pilgrim route to Rome. Both led directly to the Porta del Popolo, where, stretching their legs, they marveled at the theatrical entrance to the city. But the piazza was hardly journey’s end. Rome, which Lord Byron called “the city of the soul”, awaited them.

 

I finish the last of my croissant and coffee and set off to follow the travelers on their ramblings around the city they knew as Caput Mundi, the Capital of the World. A short walk round the corner into the Via del Corso, once the scene of riderless horse races, brings me to the rooms where Goethe lodged. The great German writer came to Rome in search of classical art. But in the humble rooms in Via del Corso, where he once lay writing verses on his lover’s naked back, he found love, passion and erotic emancipation. By his own account, Rome and his love affair with his Italian mistress changed his life. “Eros has arrows of various kinds,” he wrote. “Some seem just to scratch us… others, strong-feathered and freshly pointed and sharpened – right to the marrow they pierce.” His love nest is now a small museum, the Casa di Goethe, and its exhibitions trace the transformations of the man known as the German Shakespeare. Pick up a copy of his Roman Elegies; erotic poetry was never so exquisite.

 

From Goethe’s apartment I cross to Via del Babuino and the entrance to Via Margutta, one of the most charming streets in Rome. Long associated with visiting writers and artists, it was home to people like Sir Thomas Lawrence, the president of the Royal Academy of Arts, who lived here in the early 19th century. It is the street itself, as well as its associations, that is so seductive. Rising rents have forced most artists to look elsewhere for studios, but this pedestrian backwater, with its small galleries and antique shops, retains the atmosphere of an earlier Rome. The tiny Osteria Margutta at number 82 is my favorite place for romantic candlelit dinners. Bring along a copy of Goethe’s Elegies to read over the dolci.

 

Back in Via del Babuino I’m on the trail of Keats, the tragic young poet who arrived in Rome in 1820. At the end of the street I emerge in the Piazza di Spagna, where the Spanish Steps, strewn with flowers, rise to the double spires of the church of Trinità dei Monti. In the 18th and 19th centuries the area was known as the English Ghetto. As early as 1740, Horace Walpole was complaining that the English in Rome seemed numberless; the Italians had taken to calling them milordi.

 

Just to the left of the Spanish Steps is one of their favorite haunts, Babington’s Tea Rooms, still serving English afternoon teas between the beveled mirrors and the palms. Not far away, in fashionable Via Condotti, is another of their haunts, the Caffè Greco. After two and a half centuries, the fittings and the paintings still evoke the long-lost world of the Grand Tour.

 

Hard by the Spanish Steps is the Keats-Shelley House, now a museum to the two Romantic poets. Already suffering from tuberculosis, a lovelorn Keats came to Rome in the hope that a sunnier climate might provide a cure. With its book-lined rooms, the house is a wonderfully atmospheric place. I climb the stairs to the narrow chamber where Keats lay day and night gazing at the ceiling that his friend, the painter Joseph Severn, had decorated with flowers for him. He died here, on a dark winter day in February 1821, barely 25 years old, still dreaming of his beloved Fanny Brawne, left behind in London. It remains one of the most moving places in Rome.

 

Back outside I climb the Spanish Steps to the district of the visiting French. Architects routinely praise the way the steps are visible from all angles. But the builder, Francesco de Sanctis, did not have aesthetic considerations in mind. “I will make the steps visible from everywhere,” he sniffed, “because the reverend fathers [of the French church atop the hill] have alerted me to the gross indecencies committed on that shrubbery slope by couples who often hide there.”

 

The French always have an eye for the best real estate, and the area at the top of the steps enjoys some of the finest views in Rome. I follow the Viale Trinità dei Monti to a wonderful Renaissance creation, the Villa Medici, “acquired” by Napoleon for the French Academy. Visiting artists are still granted studio space here, but for the general traveler there are tours of the apartments and the gardens that feel like a secret retreat. A little farther along the Pincio Hill is the Casina Valadier, named after the man who designed the Piazza del Popolo. Its elegant terraces are the ideal place for lunch with a view over Roman rooftops where domes rise like hot-air balloons.

 

Away to the left, you can see the white “wedding cake” creation of the Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, commonly called the Vittoriano, and just behind it, the Forum of ancient Rome. In the days when Latin and Greek were still part of a normal school curriculum, most travelers on the Grand Tour had read Cicero and Virgil, Ovid and Horace, and were thrilled to be wandering the streets where they had lived and died. Many enlisted the services of guides to show them around ancient sights. The great German guide Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who became the leading 18th-century authority on classical art, was much sought after. He was a man of considerable tact. Showing John Wilkes around the Forum, Winckelmann kindly pretended not to notice when he and his mistress, overcome by lust, disappeared for some moments behind a ruin. All the more obliging, Wilkes commented later, because he had to pass the interval with his mistress’s mother, “who had as little conversation as beauty”.

 

But no visitor is more closely identified with ancient Rome than Edward Gibbon. I climb the long steps to Michelangelo’s glorious Piazza del Campidoglio, centred on the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. Just beyond the piazza in the far left corner is a balcony overlooking the ruins of the Forum. Gibbon came here one fateful evening in the autumn of 1764 in reflective mood. The sound of the friars chanting litanies in the Church of Santa Maria d’Aracoeli wafted across the piazza. As he looked down on the Forum “where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell”, he conceived the idea of writing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, one of the seminal works of European history.

 

Keats’ great friend Shelley also found inspiration in Rome’s sprawling ruins. Shelley adored Italy and spent several years here, where his curious domestic arrangements – in addition to his wife Mary he seemed to travel at different times with two mistresses – didn’t seem to raise any eyebrows. The spring of 1819 found him lodged with Mary, Claire the “nanny”, and his son William in the Palazzo Verospi in the Via del Corso, not far from where Goethe had lived some decades earlier.

 

The Shelleys spent their mornings exploring the ruins and the art collections and their afternoons riding through the gardens of the Quirinale and the Villa Borghese, the latter still Rome’s great green oasis. In the churches, Mary wrote, “we see the divinest of statues and… hear the music of angels”. Shelley loved to wander the city alone by moonlight, when the evening breezes brought sweet aromas from the country. His favorite destination was the vast Baths of Caracalla, the most spectacular of Rome’s ruins. It was here, beneath the arches, that he wrote Prometheus Unbound.

 

I hop on the No. 3 tram from Trastevere to the Protestant Cemetery, one of the stops on Shelley’s moonlight rambles, by a southern gate of the city, close to the Pyramid of Cestius. “It might make one in love with death,” he wrote, “to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.” Pines and cypresses separate the rows of tombs. The colony of cats that has lived here for generations has its own charity box just inside the gate. You can find Keats’ grave in the far left corner, shaded by trees, inscribed with a single line: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

 

In July 1822 Shelley drowned after his boat capsized in a storm off the coast at Livorno. Mary accompanied his ashes across the Piazza del Popolo and through the city to burial in the cemetery. His gravestone is inscribed with Ariel’s lines from The Tempest: “Nothing of him that doth fade/But doth suffer a sea change/Into something rich and strange.”

 

It reads like an epithet for the city itself, the Eternal City, still rich and strange, still unfaded after the many sea changes of two millennia. For generations of visitors, Rome has been a revelation. No city in the world has been the destination of so many journeys, or has transformed the lives of so many travelers.

 

Your address: The St. Regis Rome

 Catching up with the news outside the Pantheon

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Gauguin’s Polynesia

In 1891, it took Paul Gauguin 63 days to sail from Marseilles to Tahiti. This year, it took me 22 hours to fly from Paris. The reception each of us received couldn’t have been more different. Whereas the arrival of the 43-year-old French painter, sporting shoulder-length hair and a cowboy hat, caused much mirth, I’m greeted at Faa’a International Airport with strumming ukuleles and a garland of heavenly scented flowers. It is warm and sunny, the hills are alive with tropical colors, the gorgeous blue ocean is fringed with joyful white-capped waves. Everything is instantly, and emphatically, de-stressing. As the artist put it in Noa Noa, the enigmatic illustrated journal he began on his first trip here: “Little by little, step by step, civilization is peeling away.”

 

Gauguin’s paintings inspired by his time in French Polynesia have become synonymous with our image of the South Seas. With their rich and glowing hues, strong outlines, confident-faced nudes, lush landscapes and underlying mystery, they are unfailingly exotic. They sing of heat, natural abundance, sensuality and spiritual succor, and the world loves them. In 2003, when the landmark Gauguin-Tahiti exhibition was held at the Grand Palais in Paris to mark the centenary of his death, more than half a million people queued to see famous works such as Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary) and Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

 

Inevitably, there is commercialism. The gift shops of Papeete, the island capital, are awash with shopping bags, tablemats and even flowerpots exploiting the painter’s masterpieces. Today a 332-passenger ship, Paul Gauguin, cruises the Society Islands, as Tahiti’s central archipelago is known. This name was bequeathed by Captain Cook in 1769, who drily observed in his journal how “more than one half of the better sort of the inhabitants have entered into a resolution of enjoying free liberty in love, without being troubled or disturbed by its consequences”. It’s a reminder that Gauguin was but one of many visitors to confirm the multiple charms of French Polynesia. Two decades after Cook, the Bounty mutineers famously demonstrated the lengths sailors would go to in order to stay in its warm waters, just as writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Rupert Brooke and Somerset Maugham spread the word in later years.


 

Tahitian women in a banana grove,
looking as though they have stepped out
of a Gauguin painting

 

Sunsets in the South Seas are as magnificent
as anywhere on Earth. Above is majestic Mount Rotui
on Mo’orea, one of many peaks on the island
that made a great impression on Gauguin

 

As the critics like to tell us, though, Gauguin’s paintings were a fantasy. He yearned to escape bourgeois routine, to find the primitive and essential. Unfortunately for him, the London Missionary Society got here first. In the Musée de Tahiti et des Îles, I contemplate black-and-white photos of local families taken from the 1860s onward, in which all the women wear decidedly unrevealing full-length dresses known as “Mother Hubbards”. My driver-guide is entertainingly blunt on this. “First the English came, telling us to cover up,” he says. “Then the French came, telling us to undress. We prefer the latter.”

 

Tahiti is actually two islands linked by an isthmus, and as I drive around its figure-of-eight, admiring the mighty forest-cloaked mountains and black-sand beaches, it is not hard to find scenes straight out of Gauguin. A horse grazes in a field of luminous grass, mangoes ripen on a table, vahines (Polynesian women) with long dark hair and a bright flower behind the ear relax on the beach. “Everything in the landscape blinded me, dazzled me,” the painter wrote. Once here, it was natural to paint a red close to a blue. “There is a continuing supposition,” argues his biographer David Sweetman, “that Gauguin invented his own Tahiti, particularly in respect of his colors, but one can only hold to such a view if one has never visited.”

 

Most visitors use Tahiti only as a stepping stone to the other islands, but it is worth a tour. Highlights include the Plateau de Taravao viewpoint, the dramatic surfing spot of Teahupo’o, and Mataiea, where the painter retreated to live in a bamboo hut. It’s sad but understandable that there are few original works by Gauguin to be seen on the island and that the Gauguin Museum, which has them, is currently closed for lengthy renovations. If you want to behold the art that resulted from this great creative adventure you’ll need to visit major galleries in cities such as New York, Boston, Paris and St. Petersburg.

 

But the real subjects are everywhere. Looking across from Tahiti to the graph-like peaks of neighboring Mo’orea for the first time, I’m as stunned as Gauguin was. “The mountains stood out in strong black upon the blazing sky,” he noted, “all those crests like ancient battlemented castles.” At times the sunsets here are so magnificent they fill the sky like a prelude to the Second Coming. Why isn’t everyone on their knees praying, I wonder? Because this is a tropical outpost of France, and everyone is far too busy buying baguettes, puffing on cigarettes and driving erratically.

 

Gauguin never made it to Mo’orea, but I can’t resist whizzing over by high-speed ferry, which takes 35 minutes and provides a chance to mingle with the sturdy, tattoo-covered, ever-smiling Tahitians who so enchanted the French painter. Here I join a Jeep tour that takes a roller-coaster drive inland to savor panoramic views and visit pineapple estates and marae (historic sacred sites). While French Polynesia is traditionally seen as a place for scorching romance and sipping coconut cocktails on the decks of over-water bungalows, it clearly offers much more: 118 islands, in fact, sprinkled over an area the size of Europe, but with just 275,000 inhabitants. Rather cheekily, Air Tahiti, the domestic airline, prints its route map superimposed on this continent, with Papeete standing in for Paris and its services shooting off to the equivalent of Bilbao, Stockholm and Istanbul. Point made – French Polynesia is one huge, adventure-packed chunk of paradise that cries out to be explored. Diving the shark-filled Tiputa Pass in Rangiroa, swimming with whales in Rurutu, visiting the pearl farms and vanilla plantations of Taha’a, admiring the coral churches of the remote Gambier archipelago – it is all most enticing.

 

One place on most wishlists is Bora Bora, a 50-minute flight west of Tahiti. “So beautiful they named it twice” quip the t-shirts, and its reputation as a scenic stunner is deserved. The island presents a sensational pairing of dramatic tooth-like peaks and bewitching blue-green lagoons, and owes its fame in part to the Second World War, when U.S. forces built an air base here following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Among their number was a young naval officer, James A. Michener, whose 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Tales of the South Pacific, which inspired the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical South Pacific, shone a spotlight on this balmy paradise. Until the 1960s, when tourism started to develop, Bora Bora was one of the few places you could fly to in French Polynesia, and it has since developed a reputation as the destination for honeymoons and landmark celebrations.

 

“Have you ever seen green clouds?” a boatman asks as I speed across its divine waters. He points up to the sky, and I see what he means. At times the lagoon here is so intensely emerald that the sunlight bouncing off its surface gives the puffy clouds above a mesmeric, jade-like sheen. Gauguin would have noticed such things, I’m sure, just as he would have appreciated the tremendous sunsets now enjoyed by guests at The St. Regis Bora Bora Resort, which rests on an eastern motu (islet), with a necklace of luxurious over-water villas, offers grandstand views.

 

For me, it isn’t the soaring silhouette of Mount Otemanu backed by an apricot glow that most impresses; it’s the sights after sunset. When the sun has slipped away but the darkness of night, heralded by the first silvery stars, has yet to take hold, the sky becomes a magical, fleeting shade of indigo. You might even want to paint it… On the other hand, by this time you will surely have sipped a cocktail or two, such as the intriguing watermelon-infused Bora Mary, the signature drink at The St. Regis. Then it will be time for dinner, perhaps on the beach, à deux, with flaming torches. A little poisson cru à la Tahitienne, some roasted spiny lobster with mango. Could life ever get more romantic?

 

Gauguin returned to France in 1893, where 42 of his Tahitian paintings were exhibited that autumn in Paris, receiving little acclaim. These include the now-celebrated Vahine No Te Tiare (Woman with a Flower) and Manao Tupapau (Spirit of the Dead Watching), which are today in galleries in Copenhagen and Buffalo respectively. Two years later the artist was sailing south again, on a trip from which he never returned. His entire life had been spent rejecting things: wife, children, France, friends, agents, Van Gogh… The final destination this time was the Marquesas Islands, which lie almost 900 miles north-east of Tahiti. For the 19th-century adventurer, let alone a man now ill, penniless and despondent, it was the equivalent of a voyage to Mars.

 

It took Gauguin five days to sail here from Papeete, but I choose to follow in his wake aboard Aranui 3, a “freighter to paradise” that carries both passengers and cargo. It’s a comfortable but unconventional cruise – there are lectures and entertainment, but the crew are informally dressed and there is a clear sense that we are here to do important work supplying French Polynesia’s far-flung islands. We deliver everything from cars and cement to peanut butter, and then pick up copra and noni fruit for export. One of the deepest joys of this voyage is being lost amid the vast blue saucer of the South Pacific. At night, up on deck, relishing the warm breezes and a sky peppered with stars, I can’t help thinking of the Polynesian navigators who ventured across these waters in their huge canoes as early as 2000 BC.

 

While the crew get busy loading and unloading, passengers take excursions. One key stop is the 78 coral atolls known as the Tuamotus, where the horizon is adorned by a long trail of cartoon desert islands. Renowned for their diving, this is where another great French artist, the 60-year-old Henri Matisse, came in 1930. Like Gauguin, he was drawn to Polynesia’s extraordinary light and color. On Fakarava he went snorkeling, donning wooden goggles to admire the vivid fish, corals and “undersea light like a second sky” – sights that would inspire later works, such as the two Oceania cut-out wall-hangings, dancing with vibrant fish, corals, jellyfish, birds and leaves, that are now in the National Gallery of Australia.

 

Ten degrees south of the equator, the 15-strong Marquesas are the island group farthest from any continental land mass. Their atmosphere is markedly different from Tahiti, and it is easy to believe they were once peopled with club-carrying cannibals tattooed from head to toe. Rising to 4,000ft, their steep volcanic peaks are blanketed with thick forests that confine village life to narrow valleys and beaches fringed with a waving green sea of coconut palms. Serial escapists can’t keep away. In 1842, Herman Melville jumped ship on Nuka Hiva, his experiences inspiring his first best-selling novel, Typee. Jack London passed through in 1911, and in 1937 a young Thor Heyerdahl lived on Fatu Hiva for a year, trying to lead the simple life as the world moved towards war.

 

Gauguin only made it to one of the Marquesas, Hiva Oa, and today his simple grave lies in a hilltop cemetery overlooking the capital, Atuona. It is often adorned with flowers and mementos from the trickle of fans who make it here, and I am moved to pay my respects, too. As with many great artists, Gauguin’s personal life was far from exemplary, but no one could argue with the sensational work he created in his “Studio of the Tropics”. He painted his dreams, but after my 2,000-mile tour through the enchanting islands of French Polynesia, I have only one conclusion: the reality is even better.

 

Your address: The St. Regis Bora Bora Resort

 

Images by Getty Images, Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos, Ferdinando Scianna, Bridgeman Images

A Mo’orea man displays his traditional tattoos.
The word “tattoo” comes from the Tahitian “tatau”,
dating back to a time in Polynesian society
when nearly everyone was tattooed,
to indicate genealogy and rank

 

Self-portrait with the Yellow Christ, 1890,
painted on the eve of Gauguin’s first trip to Tahiti

Issue 1 - The Ascent Of Man - Image 1

The Ascent of Man

You can’t mistake the Beijing West Railway Station. A massive, plain-face building broken in the center by a cavernous archway, it is one of the capital’s throbbing transportation hubs. Colorful little pagodas are perched on the roof, and the effect is a kind of hybrid of the Pentagon crossed with Disneyland. But the station handles a quarter-million passengers every day, and on Chinese holidays, when half the country seems to be on the move, it can manage twice that number. Even at nine o’clock on this weekday evening in spring, the place is teeming with travelers.
 
Passengers for Urumqi are shunted into one huge waiting hall and passengers for Kunming into another. Those bound for Tibet jostle into Hall 5, standing room only. In the crowd, I’m reassured to spot two Buddhist monks in saffron robes, and I figure that they must know where they’re going, at least in a temporal sense. When the departure is announced, the gates open and the crowd cascades down a stairway to the platform below. There is the usual last-minute mayhem of passengers finding their places. Almost all the travelers are Han Chinese with a sprinkling of Tibetans and a half-dozen Westerners. Everyone carries suitcases, backpacks, plastic bags and roped-up bundles. I find my sleeper car and my compartment: two berths below and two above with a narrow passage between. Shrewd beyond my years, I have purchased all four places, an indulgence for the sake of privacy as well as space to store my gear for this three-day trip. Beneath the large window is a small, fixed table. An arrangement of dusty artificial flowers sits on top. There is a tiny reading light at the head-end of each bunk and a television screen set into the wall at the foot-end. The Chinese are putting a lot of effort into their long-haul passenger service and a pair of hotel slippers is tucked into each bed. I’m impressed, and I feel pretty well off. Spot on time, the engine pulling 18 cars glides out of the station. A forest of lighted apartment towers passes by on either side of the track and I see that some of the narrow alley markets are still doing business at this late hour. But then, suddenly, as if a curtain were lowered on these urban scenes, we are in the countryside and the Chinese night closes in around us.
 
The rhythmic click of the rails and the sway of the car become a lullaby. The Beijing government has invested vast sums of money in its national infrastructure and the rail network is a prime beneficiary. There are already more than 56,000 miles of track, but the plan is to lay half as much again by the year 2020 at a cost of some $675 billion, and high-speed trains (200 miles per hour) have been introduced on several sections. Even more ambitious, the Chinese have imagined a high-speed train eventually hurtling from Beijing all the way to London in four days. For the Chinese, the purpose of all this investment in rail is partly political: to strap together a far-flung and disparate country which has always been susceptible to centrifugal forces. It’s also economic: the rich mineral and coal deposits of western China can be efficiently funneled eastward by rail to the industrialized regions of the of the coastal hinterland. And with passenger traffic generously subsidized, the entire network represents a colossal national expenditure. Developing the Chinese railroad system has been a daunting undertaking. When the Americans and Russians constructed their great rail systems, the respective landscapes only occasionally presented serious obstacles. But more than half of China’s surface is rugged and mountainous. In this twisted terrain, every mile of track is a challenge.
 
We arrive in Xi’an with the dawn. Passengers disembark. Others board, and we’re on our way again. The track here swings north west to skirt the forbidding mountain ranges lying directly west. We follow the course of the Wei River, the broad, shallow, muddy stream that cuts through the dusty loess of the central highlands and eventually becomes the Yellow River. We are in the real heart of the nation, for it is from this region, Shaanxi Province, that the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, emerged and unified the country in 221 B.C., but who is best known for his extraordinary Terracotta Army of soldiers that escorted him into the next life. The lower course of the Wei is fertile on both alluvial banks. Green fields of rice and millet roll out to the distant foothills. By the time we reach Baoji, however, the broad, well-ordered plain suddenly seems to collapse into a jumble of crumpled earth, and the valley narrows. On either side now stand bare sandstone mountains with sharp ridges, like a dinosaur’s backbone and flanks, gouged and jagged from eons of wind and rain. Here, rice is still grown, but cultivated in helter-skelter paddies, some carved into narrow terraces leaving others to cling to the steep hillsides. From the 21st century we seem to have slipped into the 18th. Villages are a collection of mud walls, small courtyards and tile roofs. The primary source of power is the ox. The train switches back and forth across the tumbling river, and in and out of innumerable tunnels. And we are climbing. In the outskirts of Lanzhou, the public address system in the compartment jumps to life.
 
After a long announcement in Chinese, a recorded translation in English is played. Passengers are informed that Lanzhou is a thriving city and “a friendly stopping point connecting on the way to Africa.” But there aren’t too many travelers on the train who look as if they’re bound for Kampala or Bamako, and Lanzhou, through the window, seems like yet another of China’s nondescript, colorless, over-built cities. At the station, more passengers get off than get on, and I notice a telling attrition rate as the train heads for the remote, high-plateau country and the gateway to Tibet.

 

Pilgrims prostrate themselves in front of
the Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet

Each day trains leave Beijing Western Railway Station for Lhasa,
along the highest railway line in the world.

I have brought along abundant supplies of nutrients: bags of dried fruit, bars of dark chocolate and a treasured jar of peanut butter. But on the second evening, I decide to see if I can get a place in the normally crowded dining car. To my surprise, I find the car empty and I don’t know whether that’s a good sign or a bad one. I order “eggs with edible fungus”. Inedible fungus is probably cheaper, but the fare is tasty, and the bill, including an excellent Chinese beer, comes to $4. Shortly after returning to the compartment, there is a knock at the door. The attendant hands me a long coil of plastic tubing, and with gestures he indicates it’s for the oxygen outlet above my berth. The straight end of the tube plugs into the socket and the splayed end into your nostrils. But I have already decided to forego the convenience of the oxygen supply unless absolutely necessary. After all, the prospect of gazing at the wonders of Tibetan scenery with a long string of plastic sticking out of my nose might undermine the romance of the journey. Later, after settling in again, I peer through the window at the mountain shadows of the lengthening twilight. With the clickety-clack of the train, the effect is mesmerizing.
 
On the third morning, I wake early. The compartment is cold. I peek through the curtains and see a gibbous moon illuminating the landscape. Clouds hang low over the dark, barren and deserted countryside of Qinghai Province, and a distant lake shimmers in the moonglow. The train is slowly pulling up the incline from the southern edge of the great Qaidam Basin, and at full light we arrive at Golmud Station. The 700-mile stretch of track from Golmud to Lhasa is the engineering jewel in China’s iron crown of railroads. For years, a line across the Tibetan Plateau was deemed physically impossible and economically unjustifiable. Eighty per cent of this route is higher than 12,000 feet and the surface is mainly unstable permafrost. But, against the odds, the Chinese authorities launched the project in 2001, and after five years of toil, the highest railway line in the world opened for service at an estimated cost of $3 billion. In addition to the delicate laying of track, the line crosses 675 bridges and runs through the world’s highest tunnel, the 12,000ft-long Fenghuoshan (“Wind Volcano”) Tunnel. Even then, the maintenance of heaving track and shifting pylons plagued the line’s first years, although the authorities now assert that the problems have been resolved and the route is perfectly safe. The train creeps out of Golmud and begins the gradual climb to the roof of the world. At the outset, we chug through a grey, gritty landscape that is almost lunar. Once on to the high, undulating plateau, however, a green hue of sparse grassland washes over the countryside, which contains small ponds and depressions streaked with white salt deposits. The peaks of the Tanggula Mountains to the east snag puffs of cotton clouds, and there is snow in the Bayan Har range to the west.
 
The train passes several antelope, and near a bend in the track I spot my first shaggy yak standing insouciantly on the crest of a ridge. Hugging the shoulder of a hillside, we cross the Tanggula Pass at 16,640 feet and then start the long, gradual descent to Lhasa. There are many good reasons to take the train to Tibet, but three stand out. First, a train is still the best way to travel in a foreign land. On this trip, you pass through postcard after postcard of stunning scenery, which pile up in your memory. Second, and more practically, the slow ride up to the highlands of Tibet gives your body a chance to adjust by degrees to the altitude. This is a serious consideration, for mountain sickness can quickly lay you low and ruin your adventure. And, third, this is Tibet, and traveling there by train allows you to fix the place in the map of your mind. The mystery and magic of this remote land on the roof of the world deserves a gradual approach, a long, anticipatory overture before the curtain rises. One doesn’t simply drop in on Shangri-La. We roll down the long incline toward Lhasa. The valley narrows as the train picks its way through the snowy Nyainqentanglha Mountains.
 
Near Damxung we pass our first glacier, a field of white glass squeezed between two peaks. Below 14,000 feet, the scattered tents of nomadic shepherds sprout up like big flowers, and herds of domesticated yaks graze in the permafrost. And now we begin to see isolated Buddhist religious monuments – stupas – on the hillsides and the colorful prayer flags which festoon this intensely religious country. Every peak, point and promontory seems to possess a spiritual significance. The train crosses numerous streams and rivers; Tibet is the fountainhead of Asia and the source of the Brahmaputra, Yangtse, Indus, Ganges, Yellow, Mekong and Salween Rivers. In the villages of Lhasa’s hinterland the houses of brick or stone are unexpectedly substantial. Doors are decorated with strapwork and little ruffled aprons flutter above the windows. Each corner is surmounted by a castle-like turret with a prayer flag on top, and each flat roofline is broken by a big, beehive-shaped incense burner. In the swept courtyards there are stacks of dried yak dung for winter fuel. With one final effort, our weary locomotive pulls the train across the Kyichu River and the track then swings into Lhasa. Rising above the city like a red-and-white mountain is the magnificent, monumental Potola Palace, the 1,000-room residence of the long-exiled Dalai Lama. The train stops. A Tibetan guide meets me outside the new station and drapes a white khada around my neck in greeting. I have been delivered to the top of the world.
 

Raymond Seitz was the US ambassador to Great Britain, 1991-1994

 

Photographs courtesy of VII

 

Your address: The St. Regis Beijing; The St. Regis Lhasa Resort

 

Sheep and cattle struggle to find grazing
as the landscape turns to snow and ice

City of Our Dreams

City of Our Dreams

The first time I crossed the border into Turkey, I was on foot, on a long walk from Gdansk in Poland. My final destination was the glorious city of Istanbul, but on reaching Erdine I found it hard to leave. Right on the border with Greece and Bulgaria, the ancient city founded by the emperor Hadrian was for a while held by Greek troops thanks to some sharp military maneuvering before the outbreak of World War I, and known as Adrianople. The Turks won it back, but it was destined thereafter to be an outlier, a city on the road to nowhere; and that, to be honest, is why I love it so. For me it is the soul of Turkey – and a perfect preparation for Istanbul itself.
 
After our journey by foot through the grey, drab cities of post-Communist Eastern Europe, Erdine was also a gateway to the marvels of Turkish enterprise: food stalls and coffee kiosks, restaurants and bazaars, and spicy food and minty tea; a cornucopia of possibilities. On our first day, we found a room in an old hotel, with doorknobs polished by a century of use, and woke to the sound of a cockerel crowing like a muezzin. For breakfast we ate yogurt and honeycomb, and went out to explore the second capital of the Ottoman Empire.
 
There aren’t many tourists in Edirne. As we wandered through its charming Ottoman district, with its collections of 19th-century wooden houses, if we half-closed our eyes we could be back in the world of pashas and viziers, and splendidly accoutred armies on the move to conquer Europe.
 
The next day, entering the courtyard of the great Selimiye Mosque, we stood before what is, perhaps, the most perfect and ambitious mosque ever raised in Turkey. It is the masterpiece of that 16th-century architect of genius, Sinan, rival not only to the glorious mosques of Istanbul but to the mother of them all, the great church-cum-mosque of Aya Sofya – of which more later. Aside from a few weekday worshippers, I had the place to myself, a moment to reflect on my smallness in the grand arch of the cosmos. A few moments later, I was in the 16th-century hammam, or baths, also built by Sinan, enjoying a leisurely steam soak.
 
Partly European, partly Islamic, Edirne is comfortably modern yet steeped in the traditions of the past, and above all slow, expansive and relaxed. Life doesn’t bustle in Edirne. Old men play backgammon in the square, and drink their tea. Once, it’s true, the Ottoman armies would gather here to begin their campaigns into Serbia and Greece, even to the walls of Vienna, 1,000 miles away. But with the departure of the armies, the place would revert to its usual unruffled calm, and sultans would descend to hunt in the royal parks, away from the pressures of populous Istanbul.
 
It’s worth paying a visit here to the Ottoman medical museum, close to the railway station, which recalls the sensitivity of early Islamic medicine, with its particular care for the sick in mind. While Europeans locked their madmen in bedlams, to be jeered and stared at, the Ottoman doctors used gentle and effective treatments – aromatherapy, music and the sounds of water – that could alleviate, if not cure, a patient’s condition.
 
Some of the city’s cobbled streets, not to mention the odd café, have an almost Central European air. Edirne was linked to Central Europe by trade and war, and many of the languages of Southeastern Europe were once spoken there: Greek and Bulgarian, Serbian and German, and all the mountain dialects of the Pindus and Rhodopes mountain ranges. Edirne is a little lost vision of what once was, and I like it for that. It’s also a taste of things to come.
 
For what comes next – a few hours away by bus or car – is Istanbul, a city of such grandeur and complexity, a city so freighted with meaning and possibility, rich, bewildering and exciting, that it cannot be comprehended all at once.
 
Our journey to get there was unremarkable: two days’ walk across the hot Thracian plains, trying to find byways that avoided the main road, and its hum of dusty trucks. Our reward was the sea at Tekirdag, our first sight of the sea for many months, and thousands of miles. We lay on the sand, in the shadow of a minaret, hearing the muezzin’s call to prayer echo across the water and watching a sky crowded with migrating storks. Men in tea shops waved and invited us to join them, but we only smiled. A few more miles, a few more hours, and we would reach the city of our dreams.
 
“You walked? From Poland?” The reception clerk shook his head. “You must have been carrying a Kalashnikov.” I’m glad he said so: it made me feel rather brave. It was nonsense, of course: all the way from Poland we had been fed and hosted by kindly souls in villages and farms, and when I once brandished a stick it was only to repel a Carpathian sheepdog. But his remark was of a piece with something we had already learnt. “You’re in good hands here,” people always said, as they invited us across their threshold. “But don’t go on. Stop here.” Over the ridge, beyond the river, or in the next town, they said, “They’ll rob you, cheat you, or eat you alive.” And in the next place, of course, they’d say the same.
 
Along the shore of the Sea of Marmara, where the great ships wait like patient cattle in the roadstead, we had walked, still dreaming, through the stripy walls of the old city of Istanbul – double walls, triple walls, of rubble and stone and bands of brick, punctuated by towers, most fearsome on the landward side. No one, the Byzantines believed, could take the city from the sea. In the shadow of the massive stones, we passed small market gardens that once fed the mightiest city in medieval Europe, with a population of well over a million.
 
Constantinople, as the rechristened city of Byzantium became known, was founded by Constantine the Great in 330AD to be the second Rome, and much has been made of the fact that it encompassed seven hills, as did Rome. We failed utterly to identify them: Istanbul is simply a hilly city, full of steep streets and even stepped streets, though none rival the splendid Camondo Stairs completed in Art Nouveau glory in the late 19th century.


 

The Aya Sofya, constructed to be the temple to beat all temples

As we tramped into the city, our belongings on our backs, we passed some of the hamals, or porters, who carry vast loads on their backs secured by a band around their foreheads. Bent almost double, they put our chafing shoulders to shame. But the hills kept us cool, encouraging a breeze, and giving glimpses, from the top of an alley, or a window over the street, of the extraordinary Bosphorus, twinkling and choppy in the summer sun.
 
Still to this day one of the busiest waterways in the world, the Bosphorus meanders through the very heart of Istanbul, and it puts the city on one of the most astonishing crossroads in the world. Too many cities are known as the place where East meets West; in Istanbul, as we soon discovered, it’s no idle boast. We stood at the very edge of Europe, looking east across the straits to Asia, and the Turkish heartland. Perhaps, as one overawed ambassador put it in the 16th century, it is a city devised to be the capital of the whole world.
 
His 16th-century world was smaller, of course. But Istanbul felt immediately like the turnstile of a world, whose size we could measure through a few hours at lunch beneath the Galata Bridge, dining on fish plucked from the waters at our feet: the exquisite lüfer, or bluefish, simply grilled. From there we watched the ships that glide along the Bosphorus West to East, and East to West.
 
The Bosphorus is not a river but a flooded chasm, created thousands of years ago when the Black Sea burst into the Mediterranean, almost a mile wide and several hundred feet deep. Jason and the Argonauts passed by here, and Xenephon’s shattered army of ancient Greeks, and even now it is where the people and the products of Southern Europe meet the Eastern world of the steppe and the far shores of the Black Sea. Oil tankers, Russian warships, battered freighters from China, cruise ships from Naples and Southampton, all file through the straits, dwarfed by the hills of Istanbul, and sliding easily beneath the great suspension bridges that have been flung across from the European to the Asian shore.
 
Wherever I walked in the city, I found myself knee-deep in history; the past guiding my steps, and its relics scraping my shins. Wandering towards the Grand Bazaar up Divan Yolu – the old Imperial Road from Constantinople to Rome – I trod in the footsteps of Byzantine emperors. Dropping down from Topkapi to Eminonu, I ambled along the road that wound past the Sublime Porte, the seat of Ottoman government, where the Grand Vizier governed, in a sultan’s name, an empire that stretched from the borders of Iraq to the river Nile, and from the Crimea to the Danube. On my way to the Aya Sofya I stopped at the Milion, now just an obscure stump of stone, from where, more than a thousand years ago, all distances within the Roman Empire were measured.
 
Before actually going into the fabled church-cum-mosque, we descended, via a dark stairway, into the astonishing Yerebatan cistern. This subterranean forest of beautiful marble columns, rising from a shallow underground lake, was built by the emperor Justinian, as was the Aya Sofya just beyond. This was constructed to be the temple to beat all temples and it is said that when, in 535AD, the emperor first entered the building, he murmured, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!”
 
Aya Sofya’s architects were the first in history to figure out a way of placing a vast dome, with a circular rim, on a building that was essentially square. Square on the earth, for the world below, and domed above, for the divine world. “We knew not whether we were on Earth or in heaven,” a group of 9th-century Russians declared when their Byzantine hosts ushered them into the building – and adopted Christianity on the spot.
 
It was, it is true, also a piece of imperial bling: I couldn’t help smiling when I saw, at the top of every column, the initials of Justinian and his saucy wife, Theodora, entwined in marble: I and T. And upstairs, in one of the galleries, I was startled to find a marble inscription on the floor that read, simply, Enrico Dandolo: the tomb of the blind nonagenarian Doge of Venice who, in 1204, masterminded the first successful assault on the walls of Constantinople in almost a thousand years. For the great empire of Byzantium, which ruled from this city, it was the beginning of the end.
 
The city that lies before our eyes is now primarily Ottoman. When their great armies stormed the city for a second time in 1453, raised the crescent of Islam over the dome of Aya Sofya and made the city the capital of their new empire, they set about restoring its glory. Successive sultans indulged in a frenzy of building, paid for by the trade and peace they brought to Istanbul. Great new mosques decorated the skyline. At their feet, the famous Grand Bazaar dropped down the hillside to the Golden Horn, a huge creek.

Board games are a time-honored way to relax in Istanbul

I always enjoy visiting the bazaar, the original shopping mall, a glorious warren of tunnels and arcades offering everything from old books to jewels, where you can always find a pleasant café and sit for a moment drinking in the atmosphere. The Grand Bazaar has two mosques, more than 5,000 shops and innumerable secrets, and perhaps no one in Istanbul really knows them all.

The streets around are worth exploring, too, not least for the amazing old caravanserais, where caravans of camels from the Asian side or of mule-trains from Europe would be stabled, and their goods unloaded and stored, while the merchants haggled and ate and slept upstairs.

Nor should the sultan’s palace be missed. Unlike Versailles or Buckingham Palace, Topkapi is not a monolithic building with a façade designed to make you feel small, but more like a luxurious encampment, a sequence of pavilions and tents raised in marble and stone, spilling down the hill of Seraglio Point to the Bosphorus below. It is formed of three increasingly intimate, and secure, courts: the first public, and the last for the enjoyment of the sultan and his family alone. To one side are the harem apartments, built and rebuilt over the centuries to house the sultan’s many concubines and women attendants. Walking through, it charms and outrages in likely equal measure.

Looking out from the palace are views of a conical tower across the waterway known as the Golden Horn. Not as majestic as the Bosphorus, into which it flows, the Golden Horn is a substantial creek, and it divides old Istanbul from the district known nowadays as Beyoglu, which leads on to other, more modern districts of the city. Once known as Galata, it was originally a small walled city of its own, run by Italian merchants; over the centuries it has kept its European character, and today it is where the consulates and the restaurants, the bars and many of the hotels of Istanbul are found. The area around Topkapi, Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque is good for sightseeing, but Beyoglu is where modern Istanbul hangs out.

Indeed, below the heights of Galata, below the famous Genoese tower (worth a lift to the top, for the stunning views), is Istanbul Modern, a former brutalist warehouse converted into a smart contemporary art gallery. One moment, then, you are in an arcade of the Grand Bazaar, in a café out of the Arabian Nights, and the next you find yourself in an achingly cool diner straight from New York or San Francisco. Such is Istanbul.

Whenever I return – which I have done, almost annually, for the past 20 years – I find myself standing in mute astonishment at the sight of a city caught so dramatically between the continents, between the ages and the faiths, between the ancient and modern. I see first-timers stepping out, wary and expectant, clutching their guidebook, wondering which way to go, and envy their discovery.

The Baklava Club by Jason Goodwin, an Inspector Yashim mystery, is published by Sarah Crichton Books

 

Your address: The St. Regis Istanbul

 

Images by Gallery Stock, Getty Images, Franco Pagetti/VII, Ashley/VII, Serrano Anna/Hermis.fr

Fish fresh from the Bosphorus

Issue 2 - In Search Of Madame Butterfly - Image 1

In Search of Madame Butterfly

That snowy evening in March 1900, it seemed as if all of New York high society had crowded into the Berkeley Lyceum Theater on West 44th Street. The auditorium, glittering with ladies in pearls and fashionable off-the-shoulder dresses, flourishing lorgnettes and escorted by evening-suited gentlemen, buzzed with excitement. Before them lay an extraordinarily exotic scene: a set painted with blossom-laden cherry trees, wooden and bamboo houses of the legendary Yoshiwara pleasure quarters of Tokyo, a cluster of Japanese actors dressed in outlandish costumes, and in the center, a single, tiny, dainty figure, her head tilted coquettishly. With her stiff brocade kimonos, foot-high wooden clogs and knotted hair studded with tortoiseshell hairpins as long as knitting needles, she was utterly exquisite. As an enigmatic smile flickered across her face, a hush descended on the auditorium. Then, with a flutter of her fan, she began to dance.
 
Japan had been open to the West for less than 50 years after centuries of isolation, and almost immediately Westerners had gone mad about its wonderful arts. On both sides of the Atlantic, Japonisme was all the rage. Vases, swords, netsuke, woodblock prints and blue-and-white porcelain were treasured collectables, fashionable ladies wore kimonos as exotic evening dress and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado had been a smash hit. But while society had heard about the mysterious geisha of Japan, no one had ever seen one. And now suddenly here was Sadayakko: “like a woodblock print come to life”, as one admirer said.
 
My own journey through 21st-century Japan in search of Sadayakko’s history could not have started farther away from the gilded world in which the geisha lived. Stepping out of the spectacular high-tech steel and glass halls of Kansai International Airport, which floats on an artificial island off the coast, I take the train to Osaka, where (as I always do when I arrive in Japan) I feel as if I’ve been transported into the future. Once a seaport, Osaka has long been the commercial heart of the country, home to merchants famous for their business acumen. Nowadays it’s a city of futuristic skyscrapers crammed side-by-side with ancient temples, quiet parks and tiny tile-roofed shrines guarded by carved stone lions. Neon lights the sky, buildings tower into the clouds, shops gleam with fashionable gadgets. On Midosuji Dori, the so-called Champs-Elysées of the Orient, home to The St. Regis Osaka and lined with sophisticated boutiques, there’s a rush of noise and bustle and crowds. A dozen lanes of traffic hurtle between the gingko trees that shade the sidewalks, hawkers sell roasted chestnuts and people in designer labels, business suits or the occasional kimono hurry to work or sip cappuccinos in the nearby Starbucks. Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Apple are here alongside shops selling gold, kimonos and silk-covered sandals.
 
It’s hard to imagine that just over 100 years ago, in Sadayakko’s time, the city was a maze of tiny streets, the widest just broad enough for very early motor cars, the back alleys so narrow that not even a rickshaw could squeeze through. It was in 1899 that she had set off with her husband, Otojiro, and a small group of actors, to America: the first professional Japanese theater troupe ever to tour the West. And it was then that her own journey to superstardom had begun: her transformation from a geisha to the most famous Japanese woman of her time, the woman who inspired Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly.
 
In her youth Sadayakko had been Japan’s most famous and desired geisha. From the age of four she was trained in dancing and singing, and she went on to become the mistress of the prime minister, Hirobumi Ito. Geisha were trendsetters and, as well as wearing multi-layered embroidered kimonos, Sadayakko experimented with western bustles, bonnets and high-heeled shoes, rode horses and played billiards.
 
In spite of being famous in Japan as a geisha, she wasn’t an instant hit when she arrived in America. At first the troupe had planned to perform as they had in Japan, using only male actors. But they realised that to appeal to American audiences they needed a female star. As a geisha, Sadayakko could dance and sing and perform kabuki plays, and she was beautiful. No sooner had she landed in San Francisco than word quickly spread across the country, and a tour was arranged. In Boston she drew record audiences and rave reviews. In Washington, she was asked to dance before President William McKinley. By the time she reached New York, she was a superstar.
 
It wasn’t just in America that the Japanese dancer’s reputation soared. In London she performed for Edward, Prince of Wales. In Paris, Picasso painted her four times. She went on to tour with the then-unknown dancer Isadora Duncan through Germany and Austria to Russia, where Tsar Nicholas II held a banquet in her honour. And finally she reached Italy, where Puccini was working on his Madame Butterfly, based on a short story by the American writer John Luther Long and the popular play by David Belasco. So spellbound was Puccini by her performances in Milan that he radically altered his new opera, modelling his Cho-Cho-San on her. She became not just the role model for Madame Butterfly, but an icon herself.
 
Everywhere she went, she was celebrated. When she eventually arrived back in Japan in 1902, at the port of Kobe, there were crowds waiting to see her as she came down the gangplank. Photographs show her wearing a huge white hat and fashionable flouncy Paris gown, riding in her carriage through streets lined with people. She was Japan’s first woman superstar.


 

The historic village of Magome

With the money they’d made traveling, she and Otojiro decided to make their base in Osaka where they built a brand new theater: the most advanced in Japan. In the West they had performed kabuki plays adjusted to Western taste. Here they would introduce Japanese audiences to Othello, Hamlet, Salome and La Dame aux Camélias.
 
Pictures of the grand opening of the Imperial Theater in February 1910 show an Edwardian-style music hall embellished with Japanese flourishes, and a kabuki-style walkway running through the audience. The area is now crisscrossed with boulevards lined with office blocks, and although it has long since disappeared, I wanted at least to get a feeling of the world in which they worked: the entertainment district where people flock to see bunraku theatre, with its realistic puppets enacting heart-rending tragedies, and traditional kabuki theatre.
 
The entertainment district today is nothing like the one in which Sadayakko would have worked. The heart of it, Dotonbori Street, is a pedestrian mall jammed with restaurants and bars, with a giant mechanical crab waving its claws above the city’s most famous crab restaurant, and lights so bright they hurt the eyes. There are restaurants selling every manner of food you can imagine; noodle stalls with three-dimensional golden dragons on the billboards overhead; restaurants serving blowfish that can poison you if not properly prepared; bars and cafés open 24 hours a day. Dotonbori canal runs alongside and on the bridge above the canal is a building walled with giant rectangles of pure light. It’s brash, noisy and exciting.
 
In Sadayakko’s day, things were simpler and quieter. Pleasure boats bobbed on the river, and low-rise buildings housed teahouses and restaurants hung with flags and lanterns, with people selling fireflies in cages outside. Just around the corner was the Shinmachi pleasure quarter and the geisha district, where Sadayakko would have felt completely at home.
 
Although in Osaka she and Otojiro lived extremely happily, building up a reputation for their theater, and their own performances, it was short-lived. In 1911, Otojiro fell ill and died shortly afterwards right on the stage, leaving Sadayakko a widow at the age of just 40. But Sadayakko was nothing if not a survivor. When she was a young geisha, a young man called Momosuke Fukuzawa had been the love of her life, and they had never forgotten each other. When he resurfaced, by now a business mogul, they rekindled their affections, and, leaving his wife behind in Tokyo, he set about building a mansion for Sadayakko in Nagoya, central Japan.
 
Thirsty for the next chapter in the actress’s life, I take the bullet train from Osaka, past the beautiful city of Kyoto, past paddy fields, plains and distant mountains. On arrival in the sprawling metropolis of Nagoya, bristling with buildings, I ask whether anyone knows of the house in which Sadayakko and her lover lived. The locals, I learn, called the house Futaba Palace, after the area in which it is situated, a suburb in the shadow of Nagoya Castle, with its impressive double keep and roof ends topped with giant bronze carp.
 
I take the subway to Futaba, a quiet residential district, where the house has been reconstructed. I round a couple of corners and there it is, with its precipitous red roofs, bigger and more ornate than I had imagined: like a grand country manor, with wood-panelled walls and heavy velvet drapes tied back with cords, and Art-Deco stained-glass windows depicting flowers and landscapes and languid ladies. There’s a tea ceremony room with sliding paper screens and an alcove with carefully arranged flowers. And there, in a case, are the courtesan’s embroidered kimonos and the 12-inch-high clogs which she wore when she thrilled the West with her dancing, as well as the gorgeous tea gowns, high-heeled shoes and feathered hats she brought back with her from Paris and New York. Beyond the great curved staircase down which Sada would sweep, in the couple’s private quarters, are photographs of Momosuke, handsome in his indigo kimono, with Sada in a simple checked kimono, her hair in an elegant chignon, kneeling at his feet.
 
Although this was clearly a house in which they spent a great deal of time, it wasn’t their only home, or their most impressive one. Momosuke’s business at that time was constructing hydroelectric dams along the river Kiso, nearby, and not wanting to be away from her, he built them a country villa halfway down the river.
 
As I discovered when I arrived in Japan 20 years ago, one of the great joys of traveling here is the train network: bullet trains supplemented by local services that go right into the heart of the countryside. The local train I take trundles off into the hills along the edge of the Kiso river, through spectacular mountain scenery. Forests plunge to the water’s edge, smoke-like clouds billow in the hollows and the mountain cherries are just coming into bloom. I get off at a village called Magome, stopping for the night to complete the journey, as the actress would have done herself, on foot.

 

Days of tranquility
Clockwise from top left: koi carp pond, a common sight across Japan;
Nagoya Castle; Sadayakko in Chingasaki, 1902,
with Otojiro on her left; detail from Nagoya Castle

Magome is little more than a stretch of inns and restaurants, a place where the present has yet to intrude, with no cars or electric cables visible. A huge waterwheel turns, creaking and splashing. I catch a whiff of wood smoke. The steep cobbled road is lined with wooden houses whose tiled roofs are weighted down with stones to keep them in place during the winter snows. There are balconies and sliding wooden doors, and strings of orange persimmons hanging out to dry. I look back from the top of the slope and see mountains looming blue in the distance.
 
Here, I spend the night in an old inn with an earth-floored entrance and watch the sun go down over the mountains from a bench. Lanterns glow, and I hear shouts and laughter from the inns along the street. I dine on grilled river fish, rice and lotus root, then climb the steep stairs to my room where my bedding is laid out on tatami mats.
 
Next morning, I set off early and walk to the top of the village from where the path plunges into thick bamboo glades and groves of cryptomeria trees. In Sadayakko’s time this was a major highway, known as the Inner Mountain Road, along which people used to walk or travel by palanquin on the long journey between Kyoto and Tokyo. Now it’s a woodland track, but still neatly paved with stones along its length, and shaded by a thick canopy of trees. In places, like the path up the Magome Pass, it’s so steep that it has been cut into steps. At the top there’s a teahouse, a weather-beaten wooden building with slatted doors. I peer inside, but it seems this place hasn’t been used for years.
 
Walking downhill to the Kiso Valley below, I glimpse a cluster of roofs. It is Tsumago, a working village that, like Magome, is determined to remain in the past. Even the postman wears 19th-century uniform. In the old days the larger villages along the road had an inn for VIP guests, and the one in Tsumago is particularly grand. In 1860 an imperial princess rested here on her way to marry the second-to-last shogun, and a few years later Emperor Meiji stopped to take refreshment. I tiptoe across the vast tatami-matted rooms and admire the decor. Inside, beautiful carved fretwork frames the paper doors and outside are two tiny gardens: one with a carp pond, the other planted with moss and decorated with two perfectly-placed stone lanterns.
 
I check into a more modest inn. Sitting outside in the evening, it is pitch black: there’s no moon and no street lighting. It seems to accentuate the rushing sounds of the river, the rustling of wild animals and the smell of fresh country air.
 
The next day I set out with a local historian called Takashi Toyama, who has lived here his whole life, in search of Sada’s country villa. The house which he takes me to couldn’t be prettier. Situated on a hill on the other side of the river, which we get to via a miniature Brooklyn Bridge, the three-storey 1919 house is handsomely constructed from rounded stones taken straight from the Kiso below. There is a balcony and a conservatory with tables and wicker chairs where the couple would sit and admire the river, a dining room for entertaining, and a lounge with chandeliers and huge windows that they would throw open. It’s a lovely, breezy country retreat.
 
Toyama then takes me to see Momosuke’s dams. He built seven in all, beautiful stone constructions decorated with Art-Deco designs, which continue to supply Kyoto and Osaka with electricity to this day. It’s amazing to realize that some of that extraordinary neon back in the city is powered by rainfall in these beautiful mountains. En route, to my delight, I meet a beaming, wizened old man who remembers seeing Sada on her red motorbike, bumping along the rough country roads in Western clothes, back in the early 1920s, when he was a very small boy. She used to smile at him and give him chocolate: a rare treat in this tiny out-of-the-way village, where no one knew who she was or cared what she did.
 
After the dams had been completed the couple spent most of their time in their palatial home in Nagoya, but they still found excuses to come back to their rural home here. It was a place to which Sada could return to the traditional old Japan of Madame Butterfly, with its white-faced geisha and the plangent melancholy notes of the shamisen, its tea ceremonies and flowers arranged with Japanese precision.
 
Strolling around the rooms, with their cabinets full of memories, Sadayakko’s fans and parasols and old photographs, I can almost see her here with her beloved Momosuke, dancing for him in her embroidered kimono, with her hair in a bouffant coil, or on her knees whisking up green tea in a priceless stoneware tea bowl. For a moment, if I close my eyes, I almost forget that I’m in a country whose landscape is traversed by bullet trains and whose skylines are dominated by soaring steel and glass buildings. In my quest for Madame Butterfly, I have discovered something equally beautiful: the real old Japan.

 

Photographs: Magnum Photos

 
Your address: The St. Regis Osaka

Peace and progress 
Clockwise from left: stone buddha at Teisho-ji Temple,
established by Sadayakko in 1933;
Momosuke Bridge over the Kiso river in Nagiso;
Sadayakko’s favorite silk pyjamas for winter,
on display at the Futaba museum in Nagoya.

A Taste of Shangri-La - Traditional Dress Wuhou Temple

A Taste of Shangri-La

When Marco Polo visited Chengdu more than 700 years ago, he found the Chinese city refreshingly reminiscent of his hometown, Venice. “Several large rivers of fresh water come down from distant mountains to flow round the city, and through it. The branch-streams within the city are crossed by stone bridges of great size and beauty,” he observed. “Along the bridges on either side are fine columns of marble that support the roof; for all the bridges are covered with handsome wooden roofs richly decorated and painted in red. All along the bridges on either side are rows of booths devoted to the practice of various forms of trade and craft.”
 
Today, my first impressions of the capital of Sichuan province are not so different from his. Fresh water still flows through the city, crossed by charming bridges like those painted on willow-patterned china. The Anshun bridge supports a pagoda-roofed restaurant. Tea houses, temples and trees cling to riverbanks amid the silvery skyscrapers of Chengdu’s busy commercial centre. The city is one of the fastest-growing in the world, a magnet for high-tech companies such as Cisco and Dell and abuzz with new construction. Yet one still finds picturesque stalls piled high with bananas or bright yellow sunflowers, stacks of crimson bowls with ivory chopsticks and wicker trays of paper-white mushrooms.
 
Flying out of foggy Beijing to land at Chengdu is a breath of fresh air. It’s hard to believe that 20 percent of the world’s computers and two thirds of the world’s iPhones are made here. Perhaps its charm lies in the parks, lined with weeping willows, on the Jin river. Or the red-tiled tea houses, the exotic opera, and the food – “as spicy as its women,” as our not-so-politically-correct tour guide would have it. Or the laid-back attitude of the 14 million inhabitants, going about their business with roosters strapped to their backs, gliding through temples in saffron robes, sipping tea under silk parasols all along the riverbanks.
 
The capital of Sichuan has been a commercial hub ever since the city became a stopover for caravanserai on the silk route. In 1287 AD Marco Polo reported that entrance tolls into the city amounted to 1,000 gold pieces every day. Today, there are no charges. Instead, from the airport, travelers can be whisked to the splendour of Chengdu’s newest attraction, The St. Regis Hotel.
 
From here, in the capable hands of a chauffeur and an English-speaking guide, exploring the city is easy – and since Chengdu recently became the first city in western China to allow transit travelers a 72-hour visa-free stay, it has become a place from which to explore the country. That might be a daytrip south to Leshan to goggle at the one of the world’s largest Buddhas – or, in my case, a 560-mile journey north into the forested Minshan mountains in the hopes of meeting a panda in the wild.
 
I had come to Chengdu with a party of international conservationists from the World Wildlife Fund. Our plan was to visit the breeding program for giant pandas at the nursery just outside Chengdu, and then to trek into the nature reserves of northwestern Sichuan, home to the largest number of pandas in the wild.
 
But before we set off into the countryside, there is a whole city to see: a circuit of temples and tombs, and tea houses serving green tea, woody lapsang souchong and feisty oolong in lidded porcelain cups. At the River Viewing Pavilion Park, we are treated to acrobats bending over backwards (literally) to pour steaming jets of tea into porcelain cups from a teapot with a spout as long as that of a watering can. “Why run the risk of being scalded?” comments a fellow traveler wryly.
 
Where there is tea, there is also often music. At the aptly named Culture Park, the tea house doubles as an opera house, with ivory walls weathered like mahjong tiles and seats covered in red velvet. The performance that night is an extravaganza of song and dance, acrobatics, fire-eating and magic. Against a backdrop of lavish screens depicting autumnal leaves one moment, spring blossom the next, beautiful dancers with ghostly white faces and colorful brocades pirouette to percussive clanging and tinkling. “Now you see emperor become beggar,” promises our ever-present tour guide, introducing us to the ancient art of bian lian in which identities, even gender, are altered by swapping masks with great sleight of hand.
 
“Kept inside wide sleeves,” observes our friend, a hawk-eyed wildlife conservationist who carries his binoculars wherever he goes.

 


 

Wenshu temple monastery

In this city, nightlife, too, is fun and colorful. Raised high above the streets, red lanterns and hand-painted signs proclaim the fiery food for which Sichuan is famous. The city’s speciality is the chuan chuan xiang hotpot: bamboo shoot skewers of duck, pork, chicken or fish with vegetables, rolled in spicy oil and dipped into a bubbling broth. Salty, sweet, hot, spicy, sour, sometimes bitter, Sichuan food is never bland. The best local advice I am given is to ask for a menu with an English translation: something I really appreciate when I discover that fu qi fei pian is braised cow’s lungs, and when a fellow traveler discovers that his breakfast, which has the texture of a rubber boot and looks as if it has been dusted with gunpowder, is a thousand-year-old egg.
 
But then this city is full of surprises. Visiting the Qin Shi Qiao daily market early the next morning, we discover a variety of feet: of ducks, geese, pigs and roosters. Fish and eels wriggle in buckets. Lavender Peking bantams squawk in bamboo cages. Lotus leaves and flowers plucked from lily ponds, chestnuts and bamboo shoots, spices and star anise are piled high in baskets. Just outside, street vendors fan little braziers of hot coals to roast sweetcorn on skewers.
 
But there’s modernity, too. Beside the temples in which monks in saffron robes pray in a haze of incense and gardens towering with cypresses are the skyscrapers of the commercial district, and enormous shopping centres. On Jinli Street, a recently reconstructed treasure trove of kitsch framed by traditional-style architecture, we stroll amid Mao memorabilia and images of pandas printed on everything, from backpacks and caps to scarves and kites. In this part of the world, the creature is so revered that it is often used as the ultimate political bargaining tool. In 1972, following a visit by Richard Nixon that changed East-West relations for ever, the Chinese government gave two pandas to America which subsequently attracted millions of visitors.
 
To get our own real-life encounter, we drive six miles on the four-lane highway to the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, which has had well over 100 successful panda births. The cubs, which are bred using artificial insemination, are raised in incubators and kept in enclosures, more like parks than pens. Booted and gowned like doctors, we visit the nursery where seven hairless, pink panda cubs are curled up in incubators before being moved into the toddlers’ grassy enclosures.
 
Snoozing on tree stumps, posing for pictures, appearing to beam amiably, the juvenile bears are delightful. Although they have toys and wooden climbing frames to play with in their enclosures, the creatures’ main activity is feeding. Adults eat about 45lbs of bamboo every day, spend 16 hours a day chewing it, and the rest of their time asleep. Pandas won’t consider bamboo shoots more than a day old, so truckloads of the stuff from the mountainous north supplement the harvest from groves at the Research Base.
 
Sadly, efforts to reintroduce them to the wild have not been successful. A national survey from 2004 estimated there to be only about 1,600 pandas in the wild, 80 percent of which are in the 38 forest reserves in Sichuan Province. One such, the Wanglang Nature Reserve, is where we hope to encounter one.
 
Our journey begins on the flat, driving through farmlands outside Chengdu. Around rickety little white-walled houses are clotheslines and gardens dotted with duck ponds and fruit trees. Watermelons hang from vines, and the pepper plants that give Sichuan cuisine its kick can be seen clambering over walls. The area is intensively farmed and densely populated.
 
We travel on Highway 101, passing lorries loaded with squealing pigs, a cyclist with roosters in a bamboo cage weaving past buses, and stretch limos with smoked-glass windows. As the landscape of the Sichuan basin turns golden with wheat, traffic slows for combine harvesters to move sluggishly across it.
 
The rolling farmlands give way to mist-shrouded forest and mountains that rise 10,000 feet to the Tibetan Plateau. As the road narrows and begins to climb through steep, forested gorges, the color changes from grain to green, with pine, rhododendron and barberry hugging the slopes. As it winds around steep mountainside, the road sometimes slips away or is covered by landslides. Erosion is so bad that travel is only permitted in daylight. Along riverbeds, flat-bottomed boats trawl for stone and sand to rebuild the road, the boatmen reduced to the size of ants as we climb.

Sweet snacks in a city park

As dusk falls we stop at the small town of Tudiling. Yaks graze in the grassland and our hotel is surrounded by a cluster of little stalls lit by single lightbulbs selling Tibetan dolls, rice-paper drawings, Mao Zedong caps, incense and the carved stones and ammonite fossils, known as saligrams, that every Buddhist mountain traveler holds sacred.
 
Heading west for the hills of Wanglang early the following day, our route takes us past roadside beehives and clusters of beautifully scented white trumpet flowers growing in the rocky shale. Long ago a traveler brought juniper here, and there are juniper berries and peppercorns and honey for sale at roadside stalls. We stop at one where groomed yaks, snowy white, have red pom-poms stuck on their blackened horns. Stallholders invite us to pay to pose for pictures with their beasts, wearing red cowboy hats. In the thin, crisp air our breath steams even at midday. We eat rice and drink green tea from small bowls.
 
As gears grind round hairpin bends and our teeth chatter as we cross precipices, there isn’t one of us who wishes we had taken the easy route to the nature reserve by flying to Jiuhuang airport to reach our next stop, the bustling tourist resort of Jiuzhaigou. “Just ten years ago this was a village with 2,000 residents,” our WWF field officer tells us. “Today about 20,000 tourists a day head to Jiuzhaigou.” Mass tourism is as much a threat to panda habitat as the logging which the state has now prohibited in the region.
 
Driving down into the Jiuzhaigou Valley, a necklace of hotels and casinos and flashing neon signs appears in the middle of nowhere. A plastic palm tree stands forlornly beneath a street lamp. It’s not pretty.
 
Just outside the town, however, lies the spectacular Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, studded with turquoise lakes, fast-flowing waterfalls, forest trails and snowy peaks rising to 14,800 feet above sea level. Unesco has declared it a world heritage site. It is a paradise for birdwatchers and botanists. The water is so clear that when I drop a seed into a deep pool in the lush marshlands, I can watch it sink gently all the way to the bottom. High levels of calcium carbonate in the water turn the area’s lakes the most remarkable shades of jade and turquoise, giving rise to such poetic names as Promising Bright Bay, Five-Colored Pool, Pearl Shoal Waterfall – even Panda Lake.
 
While it’s a beautiful stop-off, we have another three and a half hours to travel on a hazardous road to Pingwu and from there, a further 75 miles to Wanglang Nature Reserve on a road pitted with craters. Sheer cliffs rise above us on our climb. We stop to photograph the only other vehicle on the road, a tractor carrying a family dressed formally in silk robes as if on their way to a wedding ceremony.
 
Just as the sun is slipping behind the towering mountains, we reach the Wanglang Nature Reserve, where the WWF has helped to establish an eco-lodge complete with learning center and a veranda from which to admire the spectacular view. At 9,800 feet, though, it’s not just the views that take your breath away. It’s the thin mountain air.
 
After a comfortable night’s sleep, we are ready to explore. Outside the lodge, a wooden sign painted in Chinese and English explains what awaits those who can make it: “Baisha valley is formed by the rockslide. Walk along this way you can see grand mountains covered with snow, cuckoo and trees buried by mud flow. Single seed Savin and spruce are the main trees in this stretch of forest. There are lots of orchids under single seed Savin. Every year the best time to view and admire the orchids is from May to August.”
 
We begin in the petrified forest, where strangely sculptural, silvery black and white fossilized trees are surrounded by spruce, fir and Alpine cypress. Here wild roses bloom, pale pink and yellow, and the sudden, sharp lemon tang of azaleas reminds me that China is one of the world’s great sources of plants that have now spread across the world. This ancient forest contains species I have only ever encountered before in London’s Kew Gardens: the Venus flytrap, rare fritillaries, vivid orchids, and the curious Chinese sumac, a much-prized ingredient in Chinese medicine. All are vulnerable to plant hunters, and so anti-poaching teams regularly patrol the reserve’s perimeter. They are also charged with protecting the native fauna, which includes musk oxen and golden snub-nosed monkeys, as well as the elusive panda. We hold little hope of seeing one of the latter, though, when the park’s director, Jiang Shiwei, warns us that he has never seen a panda in the wild, and he’s lived here for seven years.
 
As we climb, the going gets tougher. Suspension bridges with a lattice of saplings span torrents. Tangled undergrowth lashes us and bamboo saplings whip across our path. It’s cold, too. The watery sun at this high altitude never penetrates the dense forest. Suddenly a shout goes up from one of the park patrollers. He has found panda droppings. “How old is it?” “Six or seven months.” “So it’s only a panda cub, then?” “No, the feces is six months old.”
 
Not exactly hot on the trail of a panda, we decide to call it a day and return to the lodge to prepare for the long ride back to Chengdu.
While disappointed, I remind myself that Peter Matthiessen wrote his bestseller The Snow Leopard without spotting a single one of the beasts on his trek across the high Himalayas. And we do know that they are out there. On YouTube there is footage captured last year of an impatient giant panda hustling her dawdling cub on a high mountain pass in Anzihe Nature Reserve, about 65 miles from Chengdu.
 
Even though we haven’t managed to find this elusive creature, the magnificence of the landscape that these solitary creatures inhabit, with its fast-flowing rivers, precipitous gorges and blue mountains wreathed in mist, more than compensates. The Tang dynasty poet Li Bai, who lived during the 8th century, described the journey to Sichuan as being more difficult than the road to heaven. Back in Chengdu, and about to fly halfway back across the world, I reflect that it was worth making that hazardous journey. For it was here that we discovered a real Shangri-La.

 

Your address: The St. Regis Chengdu

A Buddhist monk at Wenshu