A “Movable Feast” in Europe—Part I

Saint Michel

Saint Michel Abbey~sky tower of mottled dreams~burnished memories

Shelly wrote that history is a cyclic poem written by Time upon the memories of man. I am not sure what that means (actually I do understand the quote) but it struck me as a good introduction to a blog article on a travel experience.

I’ve returned to Europe to retrace many of the places I’ve come to savor over the years, visit family members, do research for another book, and celebrate the anniversary of 84 years that my partner and I have been working in total full-time. And to write a few haiku.

On this trip we are visiting Paris, where we joined the marathon on April 15, Saint Michel, Rome, Florence, Parma, Barcelona, Seville, Madrid, Munich, Amsterdam, Bruges, Czech Republic, Berlin and St. Petersburg. Two important festivals bracket our journey, the Spring Fair or Feria in Seville and the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg, during which the sun does not set (virtually).

If you travel to France, make it to Saint Michel, about 2 ½ hours in a fast train from Paris and another hour by bus to the town. There is not much here to see but the abbey—yet the abbey alone, a UNESCO world cultural treasure, is worth the trip. You can stay at one of the hotels in the abbey town, or as we did, ensconce in Le Relais Sant Michel. It is closest to the abbey, about a 20 minute walk, and offers the view where I shot the picture shown at the top of this article.

Near the Spanish Steps, Rome

I won’t bore you with a travelogue on Rome. It speaks for itself. Suffice it to say that once smitten with la dolce vita in Rome you will return again and again. Memory of the Bucatini all’ Amatriciana, Penne all’ Arrabbiata and Saltimbocca we enjoyed in unpretentious little trattorias near our hotel lingers in my taste buds.

View of the Colosseum from the Emperor's seat

You will experience an eerie feeling to view the Colosseum from the same seat as the Emperor a couple of thousand years ago. Contrary to the myth, not so many gladiators were killed—they were valuable investments— but the mortality rate for criminals was 100 percent, as they were sentenced to fight wild animals bare-handed.

Arguably no one tops the Italians for their sense of fine design, and you can see it on display in the elegance of men and women going about, particularly during the La Passeggiata, an evening stroll along the historic streets of town.

Ponte Vecchio Florence

Ponte Vecchio~there I met my nemesis~one kiss at a time

I asked several people, neither French nor Italian, who were the best current fashion designers, and nearly all said Italian, indicating the overwhelming fashion brands: Armani, Prada, Versace, Valantino, Ferragamo, Zegna, Dolce & Gabbana, among others. Rightfully this is a close contest, with the French right at the helm, with such star-binding classic brands as Chanel, Dior, Cardin, Hermès, Yves Saint Laurent, and Lacroix. Give me the wherewithal, and I would choose both.

Most travelers to Italy include Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan on a first trip. If you wish to enjoy the best food in Italy (an audacious claim) consider a stop in Parma, one hour from Bologna, famous for its Parmesan Cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano) and Parma Ham (prosciutto). We could argue about which ham is best, high-quality Parma prosciutto or Spanish Iberico de Bellota, and some European epicureans do. Iberico has a cruder, chewier taste and Parma prosciutto a delicate “melt in your mouth” quality.  Put simply, both hams are exquisite.

Castle Fresco, near Parma

What some may not know is that Parma is a hidden cultural jewel in addition to its culinary delights, thanks to Marie Louise, the Duchess of Parma, the second wife of Napoleon Bonoparte, who developed the town. Parma was the birthplace of Correggio and Verdi, and boasts the Teatro Regio, one of the finest opera houses in Italy.

W Hotel overlooking Barcelona beach

I spent one summer in Barcelona as a graduate student in Europe, en route to Washington D.C. for my 2nd year in the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. It is always fun to return there. We usually stay at the W Hotel on the seaside, a pleasant walk to old Barcelona and a must stop at the Museu Picasso, which features his early work as well as Las Meninas (after Valazquez). My favorite Picasso Museum is in Paris but it is closed until 2013 for major renovation.

Picasso's Las Meninas
Las Meninas of Valazquez

Picasso’s genius was his creativity and relentless quest to define perfect form in art. In his youth he spent hours in the Prado Museum, Madrid studying iconic Spanish painters, most particularly Goya and Valazquez, and surely recognized that Valazquez was the master. It is apparent viewing the original Las Meninas of Valazquez in the Prado. From a distance of 50 meters, viewing the painting gives you an impression that you are seeing a “live event.”

Operatic Singer in Madrid

I give you my heart~please care for it gingerly~it is all I have

On this visit to Madrid we again enjoyed a Sunday brunch in the Hotel Palace Madrid, and the performances of opera-trained singers who treated us to some of the most memorable songs in Broadway and London musicals, including of course Evita and Phantom of the Opera. This is the same place where Hemingway often drank when in Madrid. There is a story that Hemingway and his buddy could not pay their bar bill in one drinking session and called Salvador Dali who paid it for them.

"Death in the Afternoon" Seville Bullfight

gallantry on line~grace on grace in death’s throes~the fighter prevails

If you come to Spain, by all means make a trip to Seville, 2 ½ hours on a hi-speed train from Madrid, 5 hours or so from Barcelona. Think of Madrid as the Tokyo of Spain, Barcelona as Kobe, and Seville as Kyoto.

For two years in a row we timed our visit to align with perhaps the most important festival in Spain, the Spring Feria, a whole week of partying: song (Sevillanas) and dance, eating (tapas), drinking, daily bullfights.

Seville Spring Festival

The center of the festival is the Real de la Feria, a 1.2 square kilometer area of tent pavilions or casetas, most privately arranged by local families, trade associations, and groups of friends, but there are also among the 12 streets of the festival public houses that anyone can join. The partying begins around noon and can go all night, especially on the festival’s first day, when local people parade through the festival area on horseback and in carriages.

The marvel of this parade is that it has no organized beginning or end. You will see an endless procession of the horses and carriages, and walking toward the festival across the River a stream of humanity, women adorned in traditional Spanish dress and their partners in fine suits.

You can catch a feel for the festival in more pictures below. Ole!

Meanwhile we are headed for a preview of the Daniel Buren Monumenta 2012 exhibition in the Grand Palais. Stay tuned.

Seville Festival
a flamenco dancer _Bulerias
Two young fair goers on horseback
Bright and Merry
The smile speaks legions
Who's the fairest of them all?
an escudo for your thoughts
ok make that two escudos
Make that three
ladies first
a duo dynamica
hurry hurry scurry flurry
And here's to you. Kampai!

All the best,

Warren J. Devalier

©2012 Warren J. Devalier