Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Getting a Hotel Right


I hated this hotel at first sight. Granted, Monaco is, from most points of view, a best avoided complex of vertical cement depositories insensitively imposed upon what was once a dirty little Mediterranean fishing village. It's a mini French Rivera Hong Kong without the complex texture of a real city. But this monolithic bunker of a new hotel? Why it, and why here? I hadn't thought you could have ruined something already ruined beyond repair but I was convinced, throughout its construction, that this new hotel would have accomplished the impossible task.

But then why have I been staying here once a year ever since it was built? Answer: it's the nerve center of the Monte-Carlo Masters tennis tournament. (That high-rise to the left is not part of it.) But there is another reason: I find it amusing.

Over the years I've come to understand what's gone into creating such a thing: a new hotel, in a high-profile, high-end tourist destination where every month there are international meetings and events that bring in masses of visitors from all over the world, all hoping to have a fabulous, memorable experience in fabled and glamorous Monaco.

The creators of this hotel were clever and prescient. They knew where the future was headed. For instance, in this enormous hotel there isn't what could be called a "fine" restaurant—by that I mean a restaurant with charm, atmosphere, elegance, finery, dignified service and a well-dressed clientele. The creators of this hotel understood that that's a thing of the past. Everybody's in jeans nowadays. They put their feet up. They wash their hands with mineral water right out of the bottle over the table. Their kids drive electric Mercedes Benzes all around the lobby. This is the future and a hotel just better be ready for it.

And they spared no expense. Glamor as we once knew it might be gone forever but a new glamor has displaced it. People might be dressed down and have no manners but they want their stuff.

And this hotel provides it. The pools and simulated beaches go on forever, indoors and out. And to create a lush atmosphere of green they brought in Jean Mus, one of the most famous garden designers in France, who gave it a masterfully produced Provençal-themed garden—I hate to think of what the place would look without it.

But in all fairness, it's brilliant. All of it. It runs like a fine Swiss watch.  It gives you desires you'd never thought you'd had and it fullfils them for you. It makes you smile and chuckle to yourself in astonishment and awe. All things considered you can't help but say to yourself, "They sure got it right, didn't they?"

Monday, April 23, 2012

Rolex Masters Monte-Carlo


I've been doing this for years, every spring. The Monte-Carlo Tennis Masters Tournament. This year, the weather was almost perfect and the tennis, as always, was of the very highest standard. For the past three years we've had no Roger Federer, and that's regrettable, but almost all the other top ten male players were there. It's very exciting to see them in this close atmosphere. I took this picture from my Monday seat. The box with the Monaco coat of arms belongs to Prince Albert, who did not occupy it that day, but Princess Charlene did, momentarily.

There's lots of fun to be had for kids. They buy these big tennis balls and get their favorite players to sign them, and that involves a relentless chase all about the tournament spurred by rumors as to who's about to walk out of this or that door any minute now.

It's 10:00 AM and play is about to begin. I'm always among the first in the stands. It's like a private viewing.

There are those who prefer another aspect of this glamorous occasion. Tempted as I might be by the Fauchon fare I opt for the tennis and a sandwich.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Walls of Lucca


Lucca has had three sets of walls in its long history, the Roman, the medieval and the renaissance walls. This one shown above, the last to have been built, was begun in the 16th century and it transformed the entire city into a fortress. The walls were never breached because the invaders never came, and the peaceful years that followed the walls' initial construction rendered them obsolete. This is the gate of San Donato; it's perhaps the handsomest of Lucca's five gates for its almost Palladian simplicity.

These lime trees were planted in the 19th century and they line the old ring road along the wide apron of green that surrounds the city walls.

These are among the best preserved antique city walls in the world. In the 18th century the tops of the walls were transformed into a sprawling public park and it's still a park today.

Guns and cannons would have fired from a side angle at invaders approaching the gate of San Donato, shooting from that cleverly indented space in the distance. But they never had to. What a peaceful town, Lucca.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

By Request: Our Entry Hall


About what lies beyond.

The all white, or as the Italians say, "total white," color scheme could easily give you the wrong impression. The rooms you don't see upon entering this house stand in stark contrast to this minimalist restraint.

We decorated this room more than twenty years ago, and since then only a few details have changed. The silk curtains were hung about five years ago, which was when the rug was introduced.

But the furniture is from the 1970s, from Flexform.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Car of Your Nightmares


This is a Trabant, parked on a street in Budapest. Powered by a two-stroke pollution generator that maxed out at an ear-splitting 18 hp, the Trabant was a hollow lie of a car constructed of recycled worthlessness (actually, the body was made of a fiberglass-like Duroplast, reinforced with recycled fibers like cotton and wood).

I took a peek at the interior. It did have a sort of 70s look to it.

A virtual antique when it was designed in the 1950s, the Trabant was East Germany's answer to the VW Beetle — a "people's car," as if the people didn't have enough to worry about. Trabants smoked like an Iraqi oil fire, when they ran at all, and often lacked even the most basic of amenities, like brake lights or turn signals.

But history has been kind to the Trabi. It looks rather picturesque even to me here on a charming old Buda street. Thousands of East Germans drove their Trabants over the border when the Wall fell, which made it a kind of automotive liberator. Once across the border, the none-too-sentimental Ostdeutschlanders immediately abandoned their cars. Ich bin Junk! (My thanks to Time Magazine for these clever lines.)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Budapest Hotels on Easter


A unique art nouveau landmark, the recently transformed Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest combines historical elegance with ultra-modern comforts (in their web site's words). This custom Preciosa chandelier, with hand-shaped crystal leaves, is illuminated by 76 hidden bulbs.

Wherever I go I visit the fine hotels. I think it was my mother who taught me that hotels are a must sight to see in any town even if you don't have to use the bathrooms. Built in 1906, Gresham Palace has been reborn, thanks to Miklós Szenkirályi and his team of wrought-iron specialists, silversmiths, stained-glass makers, ceramists, mosaicists and craftspeople. While it's solidly contemporary you still know you're in Budapest.

The bar looks just right for an early evening drink.

And this is the Boscolo Hotel. The eclectic building was constructed between 1892 and 1894 by the architects Alajos Hauszmann, Flòris Korb and Kàlmàn Giergl, for the Hungarian offices of the New York Life Insurance Company, by transposing the old styles of Greek, Latin, Renaissance and Baroque together in prodigiously-creative Art Nouveau.

I prefer it as a hotel, I must say. In all its Easter finery!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Budapest Café Life


Our friends Lance and Jane, who live in Budapest, might not think to post, in their famous blog HATTAT,  the city's cafés as a visitor would, but I was enormously impressed with the variety and style. I suppose that in the afternoon this sumptuous room at Cafe Gerbeaud is filled to overflow with attractive and elegant Hungarians enjoying a hot chocolate and a piece of cake.

 This corner bar is a little chocolate center, very fin de siecle!

 They said it was a linzer torte, but not the usual linzer torte; very handsome in any case!

 And finials of macaroons, what joy they bring!

 A fine old café to say the least!

This one, on the edge of a park, two steps away from the very popular zoo, is owned by Ronald Lauder, of Estée Lauder. It is Budapest's best-known restaurant, Gundel, now restored to its former pre-World War II glory. His investment in the project is part sentiment and part his contention that in this post-communist era Budapest will become the "Hong Kong of Europe." Funny comparison!

 We toyed with the idea of dining here, but only briefly. Not sure it was really us that night.

 But we did dine here, in most unusual circumstances. This is the Budapest Jazz Club.

 In a few moments the Anglophone population of Budapest would be arriving for a "film evening" organized by a very amusing group of British friends.

And we did have a lovely lunch here at Café New York in the splendor of this grandiose hall.

Sunday, April 1, 2012



We walk the dignified streets of Budapest, impressive and imperial in their old world order, and we wonder what lies within these imposing buildings of classical lines and grandeur. Most visitors here have no idea.

Denizens emerge from the noble portals and make their way outward, into this city of high culture, about the revealed and the withheld. But from what world within this world do they come and to where do they return once all their urban needs are seen to of an afternoon?

 Perhaps to a context befitting this refined city, this surely, but what in the world would it be?

And so these questions remain unanswered as we proceed along these unfamiliar streets whose rows of blooming fruit trees in spring remind us of something, but of what? Do we ever know for sure, do we ever truly see?