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European Spring Fling May 2002 Zurich, Monaco & Nearby France, Italy (Abano, Sermione, Milano, Como), Dublin

Zurich – Business class makes a difference and Swiss Airlines is maintaining the Swissair standard. I arrived alive enough to go straight into a breakfast meeting and had no real desire to go to sleep. Also had no real jetlag the first couple days. The main sticking point in my somewhat contentious discussion of the distance between Europe and America on foreign policy these days is that the Europeans simply don’t view Iraq as a threat to the same degree the US does. The Americans view the Europeans as being on another planet, not having been sufficiently affected by terrorism aka 9/11. Whether or not the Swiss would be so civil under such pressures, my Swiss colleague admits that he doesn’t really know.

Zurich never disappoints and strangely enough I never spend much money here. (Maybe it’s because I’ve learned you can get on the airport train for free as they never check for tickets on the way to the airport.) People walking along the promenades; today you can see the Alps beyond the Lake. There is always a free concert going on somewhere. A couple doing tai chi in the park. People live the outdoors more here; in New York it’s only Central Park where people can sit and walk about. The Banhofstrasse is a strange street in the sense that you can hardly tell where the place for cars begins and the sidewalk ends. My hotel Widder is really interesting and well located just off the main shopping street which this season featured very nice clothes at good prices (buy it if you like it; don’t wait for Italy because the styles are different); I was impressed when I was shown to my room. Ultra-modern furnishings and gadgets amidst historical treasures in a renovated thousand-year-old townhouse converted into a hotel in which every room is unique. And the hugest towels of any hotel I’ve stayed in, they serve a nice breakfast and the architect was magnificent. They say there is nightlife in Zurich but I had a hard time finding it. Same thing in Dublin later on. Radio Eviva features yodeling and polkas 24/7; a great station to try and uniquely Swiss. May 1st threatens demonstrations and the police are out in force but nothing seems to happen. 

Great airport maneuver; at check-in the lady said my bag was too big to carry on. She tagged it and referred me to the check-in counter for oversized bags. This was ridiculous as I always carry on the same bag. I went around the corner, removed the tags and went to passport control with my bag. Needless to say, the bag was fine. Swissair business lounge is a good one with about a dozen computers to check your e-mail. This should not be taken for granted; all the other lounges I visited on this trip didn’t have e-mail access worth using.

Let’s talk luggage for a moment. My garment bag has been sewn up too many times and has to be replaced. TUMI makes an innovative garment bag which triple-folds and is made of very sturdy material but yet very light and practical with many compartments and a good shoulder strap; guaranteed not to make airline people say it’s too big to take on board. Costs $195 but worth it for that reason alone.

I visited the Beau au Lac Hotel which is more traditional and nearer to the Lake but the rooms have no real lake view. I would recommend the Widder if you want an interesting experience on the 5-star level with local flavor. A good thing to do is to join the Leaders Club of the Leading Hotels of the World (lhw.com); you definitely get treated better this way.

Interesting note about living in Switzerland. I inquired as to what the deal is on residing there. Getting a Swiss passport is hard. But living in the country is easy. There are two tracks: you can live there and pay no income tax, but you can’t earn money from within the countries or own shares in Swiss companies. Or you can do both those things and pay the tax. In any event, Swiss income tax rates are lower than the US. Quite a few very wealthy people live in Switzerland under the first track.

MONACO – I flew an hour to Nice and my crazy taxi driver is going through mountain tunnels at 130 km/hr; now I know how Prince Di died. You pay up front and get a voucher for the taxi; if the taxi driver asks you for extra money for highway tolls, he is cheating you as it is included in the price. Unfortunately, the sun doesn’t come out for the 48 hours that I am in town but it doesn’t rain much when I am trying to walk. The clouds keep it cool and I walk a lot. I walked from my Hotel D’Paris to the Exotic Gardens (about half an hour); the city of full of tall apartment buildings densely packed sorta like Hong Kong but everything is very nice. Metro stations feature endless halls of marble and there are elevators to the streets. If you visit the casino, pay the 10 Euro cover and go into the European salons. It is worth it just to look at the art and the beautiful rooms; imagine having the Palace of Versaille virtually to yourself. The European salon has few gamblers but they are high rollers. All the Americans on bus tours go to the casino on the street which is more cheesy. The hotel’s grill room is rooftop with nice views and the coffee shop is next door to the casino and is a world-class coffee shop with platters worth the flight. At the airport, there were no border patrol present because it is May Day; the perfect day to sneak anyone into France. The Hotel is quite beautiful but ridiculously overpriced with $30 breakfasts that are nothing to write about and $50 laundry bills for 3 days clothes. With only 120 rooms they can afford to be. My main beef here is that the concierges were consistently the most clueless ones I’ve ever seen in a world-class hotel.

On my one full day here, I have a car and driver for 6 hours to sightsee. Monaco is getting ready for the Grand Prix car races. One hour covers Monaco, then to Eze Village, a medieval village with shops and views just outside Monaco, then to Nice and St. Paul de Vence where you will see many nice art galleries. Lunch at Mere Germaine in VilleFrance Sur Mer, a fish restaurant in a very pretty coastal town. Then a drive around the estates of the rich and famous and return to city. Cannes is another hour beyond Nice and I was told it wasn’t worth it after seeing Monaco. Near the hotel and casino is a shopping mall with good food (there is no bad food here) at cheaper prices. An nightcap ice cream sundae overlooking the casino square as the rain is pouring down. Friday morning another visit to the Exotic Gardens hoping for a bit of sun and a better view and then a 30 minute ride to the airport. I felt a bit cheated here; no sun and color so I didn’t get the full picture that is the Riviera. Considering what I paid, I hoped for better.

Air Littoral is the regional commuter airline and they play “Sing a Song”as the plane takes off. Great idea to make kids happy. The business lounge has good food but primitive internet. It is a 45 minute flight to Venice, Italy and it is raining here too. But not as bad as it was that morning a bit further west; my mom’s flight to Milan was diverted to Turino and she drove 4 hours in a blinding rain to get to the spa town of Abano which is where I will be the next 48 hours.

ABANO, ITALY – From the airport, a 45 minute ride to Abano and in Europe a 45 minute taxi ride is almost $100. My driver wears sunglasses even when it’s raining and he’s indoors, wears jewelry, keeps talking to his girlfriend by cellular and has looks to kill. Ciao Italia! Today in Europe, walk in a park and you see everyone talking into their cellphones (except they all wear earphones so it looks like they are all talking to themselves). Wonder what they did just a decade ago with all that extra time…. We have booked the best suite in this 5 star hotel (Grand Hotel Abano) for a nice weekend which is a 2 minute walk from the center of town. Still they charged us $15 for each person who wore the hotel-supplied bathrobe to the pool. Things to buy include baby outfits, table linens, and very nice fabrics. For the first time Italy is now in Euros; still, the Italians keep putting zeros at the end of all the prices because they just can’t kick the habit of all them zeros. At our hotel, they serve price fixe dinners for about $45 but it’s all you can eat off the menu and French-style service with food prepared at the tableside. I haven’t been so stuffed in a long time; this may be a spa but the food is not dietetic (though the Northern Italians don’t cook with lots of sauces, butter or oil) and people are not here to lose weight, but rather to just chill out. People here eat very well and still look good. It is the “Grossingers” that no longer exists (a Catskills resort of yesteryear). This week I have sun and showers trading places constantly. Just when you think the rain is going away, it starts again 10 minutes later. Sunday the finalists from the Carnivale de Venice are walking around the city in their costumes and parading down the streets; it’s lots of fun and feels like a Mardis Gras with class. We then leave to Sermione, a little village by the lake halfway between Abano and Milano. It’s a nice place to have lunch, climb to the top of the castle at the old city entrance and to take a tram to the Grottos. We then continued to the town of Alessandria which houses many jewelry factories and very lovely countryside. A good hotel there is translated into English as the 2 Red Beef Cows and I’m sure you can find out how to say it in Italian; it is the only good hotel in town and there’s no reason to go to Alessandria unless you have business there, which we did. The local provincial capital Turino has won the Italian football championship and horns are honking all evening long. It is quite dead at night here but it is also raining. Chirac has just won the second round in France. One weird thing in Italy is that like communist Poland the hotels leave the lights off in the hallways unless your presence trips a sensor to turn on the lights. It is rather creepy that way. If you are driving a car into a city and have no idea where you are going, a good idea is to stop at a point near the entrance to town and call for an escort from your destination. Cellphones are good for this.

Alessandria is an hour’s drive fromMilano. The Hotel Principe de Savoia is very famous but too much of a ripoff and we check out after the first night. It is also very inconveniently located outside the central city area and a taxi ride from anywhere. It is also poorly serviced; you call for things and nobody answers the phones. The layout is poor with stairs everywhere, the food and beverage prices are sky-high (ie: $5 for a breakfast roll); the coffee shop was dark and neglected and features the $20 tuna sandwich which I haven’t seen even in Japan (we walked out); the rooms are decorated garishly and over-the-top to the point it is no longer classy. The Starwood Luxury Collection manages it; problem here is that it screams Luxury Luxury to Americans who seem to think every inch has to be Ralph-Laurened in order for them to believe it’s a classy place. The Italian version of the Emmy Awards were taking place and the hotel had many celebrities – and, it seemed, no patience for anyone else.

We quickly arranged to switch the next day to the 4-star Hotel Brunelleschi near the Piazza Diaz which was much hungrier for our business and which was much more convenient (and which included a nice breakfast as well in the room rate which was half the price). And other freebies such as free internet and laundry at reasonable prices. Other nearby choices would be the de la Ville, the Rosa (near the Duomo) or the Grand Hotel Duomo. A smart move: the mini-bar is see-through so you constantly see what you should be eating… Dinner at our old standby Bruno’s which has a great antipasta bar; in the piazza Diaz. Red orange juice is available at this time of year. Such a thing coupled with a brioche at 3pm in the Galleria by the Duomo is for me the perfect setting. Then some gelato to smooth things out at 4. Metro to Monte Napolean, the high-class shopping street with little to actually buy. The metro here is very good; there is live TV in the stations and the signs tell you in 30 second increments how long to the next train. Having spent almost an hour getting home tonight in New York, I really wish we’d modernize our transit system where you never know when the next train is supposed to arrive. You can walk or take an elevator to the top of the Duomo Cathedral and get an interesting experience walking along the steeples. The other cathedrals in Florence and Rome offer different perspectives. Try them all. My first pass at the Rinascente, the main department store. My initial feeling is that Rome shopping is better. Milan has good shopping too but it requires more time; fortunately, I have 3 full days here to fool around. I am here with my mom and aunt on a business trip and have lots of time to kill till the weekend. 

Walking down the street I see this guy with a purple hat, tie, scarf, vest, cigar, sunglasses, mustache, cellphone with ear phones and a very funny face. He looks like a caricature of my roommate. I would have taken a picture of him but he had someone with him and I was afraid they might shoot me. One of those things you had to see…

Late at night I am watching Kuwait TV; they are showing films between other programs with a few minutes of martial music, Palestinian fighters, martyrs and civilians, demonic portraits of Sharon – enough to drive people to great fury. And then it just stops and somebody is talking about some kind of consumer goods. Great way to fill the spots between programs I guess. Here’s one for the Jewish conspiracy theorists – stand in the middle of the Galleria in Milano and look up – at the windows of some Kollel (Jewish house of learning).

Good shopping: I enjoyed Roggier right on the Duomo square near the entrance to the Galleria. FIRST was a good boutique between the Duomo and Piazza Diaz. Some good shops on Vittoro Emanuel running between the Duomo and Piazza San Bilba. A good shop for suits near the Hotel Rossa is Angelo Santagostino, a block off Vittore Emmanuel, a shopping street that runs off the Duomo. I bought a lot of blues, particularly bright blue and turquoise, and not as much green as usual (because they’re not showing much green.) A traditional plaid jacket in dark green, gold and peach is popular this year. This year’s fashions for men include neckties with colored stitching along the edges, shirts with 2 or 3 buttons along the neckline above the top button for decoration and criss-cross patterns used on shirts and neckties. A good gift item: footballer shirts for kids with their names and ages stamped on the backs of the jerseys. The Europeans have colorful football uniforms and for kids these can be unisex. Try Cisalfa Sport off Vittore Emanuelle. They have a children’s store next to the main store and in the main store downstairs they put the names on jerseys. (Ed. Ask for Roberto at the Carnival de Venice tie factory. Private item.) Yes, 3 days of not much except shopping. The program is wake up, go shopping and a little sightseeing and of course dining and snacking (there is a difference), dinner followed by evening shopping at the Rinascente which closes at 10. They kicked us out 2 nights in a row.

In the sightseeing department: The Duomo has a lower level which should be seen. Also next door is the Museum of the Duomo. Some good views from the 7th floor of the Rinascente. The public gardens deserve a walk-thru. Besides Via Monte Napolean is the nearby Via Spigna which houses some trendy shops. Museum Pinoteca di Brera has good Italian art. Nearby there are pretty courtyards within the homes on the street (walk between the metro station at Monte Napolean and the Museum and you will pass them. One of these is the corporate offices of Giorgio Armani.) To see the Last Supper, you must call ahead and reserve; I never got through on the line and when I showed up it was sold out. Or just go with a bus tour for 2 hours. I saw it 15 years ago so I didn’t really care and didn’t remember it being all that impressive.

Milan has changed since I last visited in 1988. The Qwik in the Galleria is now a McDonalds; Motta is now an Autogrill with a Burger King. None of these familiar names existed then. I have changed; 15 years ago I missed the familiar names, now I wouldn’t want to be caught dead in them while in Italy. Milan seemed dirty in 1988; now I somewhat enjoy these European streets and historical images. The water here is fine although I stuck to mineral water mostly. Finally, I have beaten the nausea I suffered a few years ago and can enjoy myself. Today to make up for those lost years I had 3 red OJ’s and 5 desserts. A good tip here is to eat desserts with meals in the restaurants; the cafes don’t have the best desserts and anything eaten at night in a café is sure to be stale. Corso Buenos Aires has good shopping and food too. One thing lovable here is the sidewalk cafes with all the pretty fresh sandwiches and pastas, and very affordable too.

COMO, ITALY — Friday noon to Como, a beautiful mountain resort about 45 minutes drive from Milan right on the Swiss border. We are at the Villa d’Este in a junior suite on the lake. It is ridiculously expensive but an experience worth having at least once. I am with my mum and aunt and we want this week to be memorable and we succeeded. Arrived after lunch and walked around the city of Como which offered interesting shopping as well – I was on the prowl for belts.  Dinner at the Veranda (which we thought was the coffee shop but turned out to be the gourmet room); the area overlooks the hotel gardens, mosaic and mountainside which is all lit up at night with its Crusader fortresses. There are walking paths to these high points and it is a great walk; the property seems to go on forever. Got a dynamite pair of glasses from the optometrist in Cernobbo (the town in which the Villa D’Este exists about 15 minutes ride from Como); he is worth the trip because he has good taste and is a very well trained professional. My glasses are being prepared in a special lab in Japan and the pair of glasses will come to over $500 but will be very excellent.

It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Don’t Got That Swing – some new club version of this song is very popular right now in Italy. Soon enough it will come westward.

Lunch at Harry’s American Bar which could be skipped except that it’s the only place in Cernobbo on the lake. Final dinner at the Hotel’s Grill Room. Overall, food and beverage is very good at Villa D’Este but it is somewhat nouveau and could use work. We thought the Grand Hotel Abano was much better. Sunday mornings the Italians are dressed to kill in their special bicycle outfits and it is fun to watch them whizz by; took a trip up the funicular in Como; when you exit, walk 10 minutes to the left till you get to a nice vista with views of the lake and the hotel. The best views of Como are in the first 2 minutes of the ride up the mountain. Walked along the lake in Como; people are heading toward a football game. Tonight at the hotel is a wedding with a party from America; lots of kids in party dress, some Russian mafia-types and lots of Europeans in jackets and ties having tea on the back porch. Something you won’t see even in Palm Beach. Another 45 minute ride to the airport and a rather bumpy 2 hour flight to Dublin on Aer Lingus with really awful food (the food on the flight to NY was better). The business lounge in Malpensa offers lousier facilities than found in most third world countries. My mom said she couldn’t get her VAT refund in the morning; 50 people in line with one customs person stamping forms. It is quiet in the afternoon, but I won’t be getting stamped till I leave Dublin as it is also EEC. 

My mom felt that Alitalia business has really gone downhill and what I am noticing is that while the American business class product has improved to some extent, the Europeans are now cutting corners probably because their airlines are in such dire straits. Also security is still really lax here compared to America which has become more vigilant. Before 9/11, Europe was considered tighter than the US in this regard. Problem is that such cuts (ie: lounges, food service) make it tougher to justify the added expense for business class. The main feature at this point is the overall privacy on the plane – the cabin was 50% empty on the Dublin-NY flight while coach was full; on the Milan-Dublin flight, the cabin was 80% empty while the coach cabin was full, so you do have the sense of having your own plane up in the front. I took the upgrade because I was afraid of 3 hour check-ins and security checks across the board; that hasn’t happened so I’m not sure that the premium is worth it – certainly not for the food or the “expanded” entertainment options, or the completely useless gift bags they distribute on board. Really, I wonder who is in charge of procuring these things.

DUBLIN – Dublin airport is an easy transfer to the city with a $20 cab ride in less than 30 minutes. It is mid-May and still a bit cold with rain and sun in and out. I start out in the morning with a 1 hour roundabout bus tour for orientation and the rain stops just as I finish the tour. Lunch at Bewley’s on Grafton Street – you can’t miss either of these two points. Grafton Street is the main pedestrian street and Bewley’s is right in the middle with cafeteria-style eating. Nothing to buy in the shops for me; their small size is 3 sizes too large and the wool is very heavy. People here dress more raggardly and the food is not nearly as good – it ain’t Italy. Everything is closed by 6:30. In the afternoon, I made sightseeing and in 3 hours you can do a lot – Trinity College has the Book of Kells (an old manuscript) and an interesting old-style stack library with various items such as the Declaration of Independence and an old harp. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, ChristChurch and the Dublinia exhibit, Dublin Castle and the State Rooms. Nothing particularly exciting but all worth seeing if you are in the area. The Old City Hall is nicely restored with a museum of the city’s history in the basement. At the Castle you see the throne room of the English kings and it must be a bit humbling for them in the grave to have their throne covered with the paper “Please don’t sit on the antiques.” Also at the Castle be sure to join the tour and see the ruins of the old city walls underneath ground level. Dinner again at Bewleys for lack of an alternative. The restaurant at my hotel, the Meridian Shelbourne, has closed as of today because revenues are down at the hotel. The hotel is fairly reasonable, rooms are large but it’s not particularly lovely. Closing the hotel’s only restaurant was a bad move and by the next day it was open again. The hotel is located along St. Stephen’s Green, a nice park which is particularly pretty in the morning sun. Parks all along here in Europe are nice to walk in; Zurich, Monaco, Milan – all of these places have nice parks.

The world cup is coming soon and TV and billboards are full of references to it. “Eat Football, Sleep Football, Drink Coca Cola” is an example. The BBC has a special service which broadcasts to Ireland and features a one hour documentary about the Queen’s past visits to Northern Ireland. Lunch, lunch and more lunch – that’s all the Queen ever does on the BBC. 

One innovation here is the chirping intersections – at some crosswalks a clock counts down the seconds till the light changes to green and then when you get the walking signal you hear this loud chirping noise till it’s no longer good to walk. This is for blind people presumably. The closest thing I saw to this was in Singapore where a second clock counts down how many seconds you have to walk till the light changes to red.

On my second day, a 3 hour bus tour to visit Madehide Castle and the nearby coast. Nice greenery and coastline with an interesting very old castle and a particularly pretty children’s exhibit in a small house on the side of the castle. The bus tour is definitely the way to cover this ground. After lunch, to the National Museum, Library and the National Gallery. These are all free but these museums are closed on Mondays. I didn’t get to see any modern Irish art as that exhibit was temporarily closed. I didn’t go for the brewery tours but near the James Brewery is Chief O’Neil’s boutique hotel and Chimney Tower. Call the gift shop to see if the tower is open because it closes when winds are high (telephone 817.3838). Did a lot of walking along the river and back to the hotel. Given 20 minutes, one can walk to just about anywhere in central Dublin and taxis are not really necessary. There is no metro.

Dinner at the hotel; the pastry chef is excellent. A 5 minute tour of Dublin by night at the Temple Bar area; lots of helicopters circling overhead; there is an EEC meeting going on at the nearby Westin Hotel just across from Trinity College. Despite all the rain here, Dublin gets hardly any snow in the winter even though it is 53 degrees latitude. Another good hotel nearby is the Westbury just off Grafton Street.

My final morning here a quick walk in the park. Many public displays of affection here and, as I said, people enjoy the outdoors. At the airport, I had to get my VAT refund and customs stamp. They do not give you cash here; have to wait a few months for the credit card to be credited and the Euro is heading up against the dollar and is likely to go up 5-10% against the dollar during the 2-3 months that follow. Despite what the check-in person said, there was no customs office after passport control; it is within the Green Channel Customs area beyond an unmarked door which means that you can’t go there through the arrivals area before check in and once you go into the arrival area you have left the departure area and must go through security and passport control yet again. It is a real doozy and virtually impossible for anyone to ever get a customs stamp in Dublin upon departure. This whole thing is a real hoax – in my family we have decided that we are no longer going to participate in the VAT refund program – anyone who wants to do business with us either will give us 10% discount and skip the paperwork or lose the sale. I intend to bring this to the attention of some travel writers because it’s a farce. Last year I brought to their attention the issue of credit card surcharges on foreign transactions and the Wall Street Journal wrote up a big article.

All in all, Dublin is not a bad place to pass 2 days on a stopover but I wouldn’t fly across the ocean just to be here. English is spoken, it’s easy to get around, but it’s not particularly fascinating. Might be a good place of refuge; there’s very little interest in the rest of the world and most of the world doesn’t think too much about Ireland either. Prices are reasonable; only problem is that the food is awful. 

Flight on Aer Lingus is 6:40 to New York; a long walk to customs at JFK but it’s a brand new Terminal 4 and they are still getting the kinks out. The customs people searched me but let me go anyway – there was some mixup about the birthday in my passport and they appeared to be looking for someone. If only they had known who they could have gotten…

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