At Home in the World - 2003-08-01

Lush Life
By the time I heard Maria da Fe sing the fado, I was drunk. It was midnight, and we'd been waiting hours to hear the owner of Sr. Vinho, a Lisbon fado restaurant whose name, appropriately, means "Mr. Wine." But even without the vinho, or the bitter-almond liqueur we savored after dinner, I would have been intoxicated: with the music, the atmosphere, and Maria's poignant voice.

Fado, a kind of Portuguese blues, colors my memories of last April in Portugal. As guests of Mondotels (a destination marketing firm), PPC Incentivos, and Destination Portugal DMC, we'd started in Estoril -- the coastal region 15 miles from Lisbon -- at the 46-room Hotel Albatroz, an ex-palace overlooking the Atlantic. From there we'd taken winding roads up to Sintra, a hilltop candy-box town where Lord Byron once lived. Along the way we devoured fresh-grilled fish at Furnas do Guincho restaurant, toured the palaces of Queluz, Sintra, and Pena, and zipped down to Lisbon for steaks at trendy Alcantara Cafe.

In Lisbon, we stayed at the 282-room Four Seasons and took in must-sees like the Royal Coach Museum, Jeronimos Monastery, and the ninth-century Castle of St. George (where we lunched at Casa do Leao, overlooking Lisbon's red-tiled roofs). Then I took a train north to Coimbra, to explore its 700-year-old university and stay at the Quinta das Lagrimas (Estate of Tears). This mansion, now a 39-room hotel with meeting space for up to 100, owes its name to a heartrending 14th-century romance: Here Prince Pedro I fell in love with Ines de Castro, who was murdered here by henchmen of Pedro's father, King Alfonso IV, who forbade the union. It'd make a fine subject for a fado -- I could picture Maria singing it: motionless, black-clad, head thrown back.

Madrid, Spain
Waiting in the customs line at Madrid's Barajas International Airport, I had more than enough time to contemplate the mural spanning the reception area in front of me. The artist had loosely portrayed the theme of transportation by painting businessmen straddling airplanes.

Except for that large part of the wall devoted exclusively to a couple making out in the backseat of a car.

This welcome was as good a reminder as any of Spain's contributions to the surrealist movement. You could even say that Spanish surrealists raised the "put-on" to a fine art: I saw plenty of evidence for that at the Reina Sofia Contemporary Art Museum, where the works of Dali and Bunuel are exhibited, complete with a showing of their film collaboration, Chien Andalou.

But not everybody gets the joke: In fact, there's a story about Dali having stayed at the luxurious Palace Madrid Hotel as a young man, and drawing all over the walls of his guest room. Not recognizing his budding genius, the hotel staff simply painted over the sketch. Literally, he was too hip for the room.

The Palace, now a Westin, is a very popular hotel, especially for groups. During my visit, its 18 meeting rooms were completely occupied, some with a meeting from Sony Asia; and things were so busy, a part of the lobby -- right under the stunning, 1912 stained glass rotunda -- was cordoned off to accommodate a private meal function. The 465-room Palace is close to the Prado, Madrid's world famous museum of art. Also close by is the historic 167-room Ritz Madrid (now an Orient-Express property). During the '40s and '50s, the jet-setting playboys, movie stars, and writers who beat a well-worn path between these two properties included Porfirio Rubirosa, Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren, and Ernest Hemingway.

In another part of town, just off Retiro Park (the city's largest and busiest greenspace) is the 266-room Hotel Wellington. Famous for hosting Madrid's matadors, the Wellington's lobby boasts a painting of them issuing from the hotel's entrance, adorned in the bullfighting costume that's known as the "suit of light." (A full-sized, stuffed bull used to grace the lobby as well, but was at some point removed.) The property seemed the natural venue for a meeting of journalists who cover bullfights; they met one night for dinner on the hotel's mezzanine meeting floor.

In spite of the controversy surrounding them, bullfights are still gathering crowds, Thursdays and Sundays, at the historic Plaza de Toros. Attend them at your peril -- not because they are dangerous, but because not everybody can handle the bloody conclusion. (As we were leaving, we saw a group looking on as one of its members sobbed uncontrollably after seeing a bull get killed.) Better to take in a flamenco performance at the historic Corral de la Moreria restaurant where, at most, a drink gets spilled. The restaurant accommodates up to 150, serves dinner and a performance, and is frequently honored with celebrities (the foyer has a picture of Sandra Bullock hugging one of the dancers).

From my experience, it seems impossible to not to get a delicious, sophisticated meal in Madrid, and at any price; there's even a McDonald's housed in what looks like a Belle Epoque drawing room. But equally, it's also hard to be a vegetarian, as whatever is ordered seems to come with Serrano ham -- a dark, intensely smoked meat with a flavor that can trump any other ingredient. The ubiquitous Serrano appears to be the hospitality equivalent to our "super-sizing." ("You want ham with that?")

Another thing: Madrid is a fascinating, stunning city of culture, shopping, and nightlife -- all you could ask for, in fact. But it's funny -- Madrid treats Americans to a little of their own medicine; namely, just like most Americans only know one language, very few Madrilenos that I encountered (outside the hotels) spoke anything but Spanish. This may change, since the city's official soccer team, Real Madrid, recently acquired the world-famous athlete David Beckham -- with his equally famous spouse, Victoria "Posh Spice," in tow. Perhaps soccer fervor to commune with Beck will launch a national wave of English lessons, but until it does, I'd recommend using a good destination management firm to smooth the lines of communication. As for me, I'm learning the Spanish for, "May I please have that without ham? Thank you so much."

Joie De Vivre
France, Monaco, Belgium
Americans, it's been said, live to work, while Europeans work to live. And among us Americans, nobody lives to work more than New Yorkers. I'm no exception, but I like to keep an open mind, which is why I welcomed the chance to explore the European lifestyle on three recent trips to the Continent.

Last summer, I joined a group of 25 international incentive buyers invited by Continental Waterways, a French charter cruise company, to explore the south of France on a luxury barge. And since we were allowed guests, I'd brought along my mother, who'd only seen France through Colette's novels.

This was the maiden voyage of the M.S. Provence (one of Continental Waterways' fleet of 50 custom-built vessels), and it was seven days on the Rhone River, mooring at various points to tour castles, historic villages, and other sights. With Captain France (his real name!) at the helm of our blue-and-white, flower-bedecked boat, we started in Nimes, a 2,500-year-old city founded by the Celts. On board, when Maman and I weren't relaxing in our air-conditioned, spacious cabins (the barge sleeps up to 50), or savoring excellent Provencal food and wine with our fellow passengers, we passed the time on the 7,500-square-foot sun deck, watching olive groves and vineyards drift by, or using the deck's fitness equipment to work off those Provencal calories.

We saw many beautiful places that week, including the Papal Palace in Avignon, the stern Cistercian Abbey of Senanque, and Roussillon's ochre quarries, but my favorite was Arles. Its lush, dazzling light is ever associated with van Gogh, who painted over 200 canvases in 444 days here -- before slicing off his ear. We wandered Arles' ancient streets shaded by fig trees and wisteria vines, and when we returned to the boat, the staff greeted us with cool washcloths soaked in lavender-scented water to relieve the heat and dust of the endlessly blowing mistral.

Nothing reminds me of that summer in Provence like the odor of lavender. One whiff and I'm flooded with recollections of chatting on the barge with new friends while savoring roast pork with stewed apples and a glass of Chateauneuf du Pape; of passing fields of bright yellow sunflowers bobbing in the breeze; of marveling at the purple waters and pink flamingoes of the salt flats surrounding the medieval city of Aigues-Mortes. The memory of those colors, scents, and tastes left me longing to return.

I was back in the area sooner than I expected -- in April, when the Monaco Government Tourism Office invited me and 10 meeting planners on a site inspection of its petite principality. Where the Provence trip was laid-back and serene, Monaco was fast-paced and glitzy; I almost wished I'd packed a tiara. We arrived in high style via helicopter, a mere 10-minute jaunt from the Cote d'Azur International Airport in Nice, France, where we'd landed after a comfortable flight in Air France's business class. We checked in at the Monte Carlo Grand Hotel -- the largest in the Riviera, with 600 rooms and over 32,000 square feet of meeting space.

Today, Monaco's location -- one square mile, between the mountains and the Mediterranean -- seems perfect, yet it was a poor country 150 years ago. Then in 1863, Prince Charles III (for whom Monte Carlo is named) introduced the casino, and what was once just a big rock surrounded by olive trees grew into one of the world's most glamorous destinations. Today, at the Casino de Monte Carlo, a Belle Epoque masterpiece, gamblers in black tie play blackjack beside museum-class works of art; at the white-stoned Monaco Cathedral, Princess Grace's gravestone is eternally strewn with fresh flowers.

Monaco is mere minutes from both Italy and France, and I got to know another side of Provence when LSO International, a French-based destination management company, took our group on tours of two medieval Provencal villages about an hour's drive away: Eze, a hilltop town of winding cobblestone streets and charming shops, and St. Paul de Vence, which draws over two million visitors a year, eager to explore its cafes, art galleries, and the final resting place of artist Marc Chagall.

Of course, this being the Mediterranean, we feasted on more than just culture. My favorite meal was dinner at Le Grill in Monte Carlo's Hotel de Paris: foie gras, braised fillet of John Dory (the original chicken of the sea), and homemade chocolates, with a panoramic view of the star-filled night sky. No wonder our hosts from the Societe des Bains de Mer -- the resort company that operates many of Monte Carlo's hotels, casinos, clubs, and restaurants -- call Le Grill "a monument to Monegasque gastronomy."

Just three weeks later, I was in Belgium -- the land of beer and chocolate -- as a guest of the Belgian Tourist Office. Belgium, capital of the European Union, is easily reached from European and American cities (American Airlines offers direct flights to Brussels from Chicago) and has meeting venues ranging from small historic hotels like the 17-suite Hotel 't Sandt in Antwerp (meeting space for up to 120), to the Brussels Expo, which hosts exhibitions of 100,000 or more.

My eight-day excursion took in both the Walloon (French) and Flemish (Dutch) heritage of Belgium, but mostly it was a game of betcha-didn't-know-they-were-Belgian: From actress Audrey Hepburn to Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, from singer Jacques Brel to surrealist painter Rene Magritte, Belgians have influenced culture in all its forms. As far as pop culture goes, there's Tintin, the comic-strip "boy reporter" I loved as a kid and who inspired me to become a travel writer, and more recent offerings like the Smurfs and my favorite fictional Belgian, Dr. Evil, from the Austin Powers movies. Learning that started me thinking: Is Dr. Evil Walloon, or Flemish?

I would soon find out. We took off for Antwerp, just 30 miles from Brussels and the home of Flemish painters van Eyck and Rubens, then stopped at the medieval Flemish town of Bruges, only 60 miles from Brussels. On our way through the Walloon Ardennes region, I saw another side of my own history when we visited the American cemetery at Neuville-en-Condroz, where over 5,000 U.S. soldiers who died in World War II lie beneath rows of white crosses and the occasional Star of David.

Back in Brussels, we shook off our somber mood with a peek at the famous Mannekin Pis, or "Peeing Boy" statue, a tribute to Belgian irreverence (or so says our guide). Speaking of irreverence, I was still wondering -- aloud -- whether Dr. Evil was from the French or Flemish part of Belgium, when one of my travel companions mentioned Evil's rapped tribute to "my homies in Bruges" from Austin Powers III. Bruges? That shout-out makes him . . . Flemish.