Milan: Behind the Façade

I guess it was appropriate that my first conversation in Milan should have been about fashion.  H. and I just had lunch at Stazione Centrale and were leaving the restaurant, trolley suitcases in tow, when I noticed a young woman oscillating her head as I passed, to follow my feet with her gaze.  She was sitting on a high stool, and turned to mutter something to the young man next to her.  I did a sharp U-turn.  "You're talking about my socks, aren't you?" 

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She raised her eyes to mine, evidently assessing my tone on the friendliness scale.  "I was just telling him –" she began, cocking her head towards the young man.

"I was talking about tights – not socks!" he stammered, blushing.

"No, you weren't!" she almost snapped, outraged at this evident betrayal.

"Well," I said, "normally, I would never wear white ankle socks with this kind of shoes but, firstly, I come from England, and in England fashion is not a priority, and, secondly, I've just been on a train for several hours, wanted to be comfortable, and the socks stop my sweaty feet from sticking to the insides of my shoes.  I know, the white  ankle socks give it a little girl look –"

"– and the actual shoes are also little girl shoes," she added with organic seamlessness until her face suddenly froze with the realisation she had dispensed a gram of honesty too many.

The young man was looking away, his entire body expressing an unequivocal desire for a hole to open beneath his bar stool and swallow him up.

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I glanced at my shoes.  Sand-coloured leather with flat, white rubber soles, a T-bar with a buttoned strap and oval details carved out at the level of the toes.  It hadn't occurred to me but, now that I studied them, yes, they did look like little girl footwear.  I looked up at the couple and burst out laughing.  The young woman ventured a smile of relief and I walked away, wheeling my suitcase.

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I had never been to Milan before.  I pictured high fashion, risotto with gold leaf and Northern Italian efficiency.  I had read Caterina Bonvicini's exquisitely incisive portrayal of upper middle-class Milanese women in her brilliant (sadly not yet translated into English) novel, Tutte le donne di("All His Women") and an article in the Corriere della Sera that presented Milanese ladies as a bouquet of beige outfits, fish and salad lunches, private views at art galleries and operas at La Scala – but never on opening night.

After a week in the city of unbridled sensual splendour that Rome is, the relative austerity of Milan's imposing, chunky buildings felt like a foreign country.  With a foreign language.  When I used the word stampella (entirely common in Rome)to ask the hotel receptionist for more coat-hangers, he did his best not to stare and, with composed politeness, asked me to clarify, then, with equally measured politeness, communicated to me that a perhaps more easily understandable noun would be grucciaand that I had, in actual fact, just requested a walking stick.

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As we walked along Corso Buenos Aires, then Corso Venezia, every building offended my baroque-spoilt eyes.   The massive palazzi, the lack of finesse in the stucco and carvings – everything seemed to stand witness to the slight vulgarity of 19th-century industry-generated money that has to prove itself.  The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II struck me as rather glitzy and vulgar, not a patch on the genteel, if a little worn, Gallerie de la Reine in Brussels.  Even my first sight of the Duomowas a disappointment, like an over-decorated cake, with sculptures filling every available space – even at the top of the tall gothic spires.  Every building in Milan seemed to antagonise me.

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On our first evening there, I e-mailed an Italian writer whose books I have translated. "Milan is not Rome," he wrote back.  "Its beauties are hidden.  Give it a little time..."

There was a festival of Baroque music the next day, and H. and I went to a concert of sonatas by Arcangelo Corelli by the Ensemble Estro Cromatico at the church of San Bernardino alle Monache.   As it was some distance from our hotel, H. suggested taking the metro.  Frequent and swift, the Milan underground transport system is light years more efficient than the one-down-one-across metro network in Rome.  We emerged in an area quite different from the one we had walked around until now.  Older, friendlier-looking buildings that had more history and more heart.  That were not in your face.  Buildings that whispered.  I approached the makeshift box office outside San Bernardino alle Monache to pick up our tickets. "Ah, Gregor," the lady behind the desk exclaimed as though she'd heard the name before, and rummaged through a stack of envelopes.  "Benvenuti!" she said, smiling and handing me our tickets.  

For a second or two, I was puzzled by this unexpected welcome.  Then it occurred to me that mine must have been the only non-Italian name on her list.  "Grazie!" I replied, suddenly feeling unaccountably cheerful and glad to be there, in this initially aggressive-looking city that clearly had a warm side.   

 We sat at the very back, by the doors that had been left open for the air to circulate in the 35ºC heat.  Everyone sat fanning themselves with either fans or programmes in this enchanting, 13th-century church with frescos, filled with the haunting, gentle emotion of period instruments.  I could get used to being here, I thought.

As though the evening of the concert had unlocked a door I had been walking past without realising it, I began to see a different side to the city.  I remembered my Italian writer acquaintance's advice.  Yes, Rome opened its arms to you.  Milan required a little courtship.  Along the very Corso Buenos Aires and Corso Venezia that had so offended my eyes on the first day, I began to notice small gates leading to magnificent courtyards with hidden gardens and – in one case – a small pond with flamingoes.  Yes, flamingoes.  Who – what kind of individual keeps flamingoes in their garden? I wonder if I shall ever find out.  All over Milan, behind chunky, thickset façades, through elaborate, wrought-iron gates, lurked these alluring, elegant courtyards made of arches, a single lantern and sprawling foliage.  Intimate spaces shielded from prying eyes.

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The view from my temporary "office"

Freelancers aren't free.  Fifteen pages of translation editing – a couple of hours' work – had to be done every day, holiday or no holiday.  Not wanting to stay cooped up in our hotel room, I went in search of somewhere with a table, a view, tea, and where I could linger undisturbed for as long as I needed.  The ideal spot presented itself at the Mondadori bookshop, in Piazza del Duomo.  A corner table by the window.  A view over the Gothic cathedral looming over a square swarming with tourists, spires challenging the Heavens.  A cathedral which, as the days went by, began to look less aggressive to my eyes.  Its whiteness less glaring, its size less daunting, its spires less defiant, more inspired.  More inspiring.

I could get used to being here, I thought once again.

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Scribe Doll

 

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In Praise of Old Hotels — Part 8: Faunbrook Inn

FAUNBROOK INN - WEST CHESTER, PA 

James Baldwin was a local millionaire in the 1860s who had the need for a fine home so he built himself a very impressive place in West Chester. The home later belonged to GOP Congressman Smedley Darlington (what a name) who was also, of course, a wealthy oilman. The house is now the Faunbrook Inn. It's not exactly a hotel -- it is clearly a house -- but the Inn is very impressive. The house is constructed in a Federal-Italianate style with three floors and a large wrap-around porch with ornamental ironwork. There is a large parlor, library, dining room and sitting room/bar on the first floor and very nice bedrooms on the second and third floors.

The rooms are spacious and furnished with antiques. Each guest room had a private bath. The house was extremely quiet considering that it was 150 years old. Apart from the sound of someone using the stairs you could not hear anything from the rest of the house...not even water running or toilets flushing. People seemed comfortable congregating in the library. The porch was also very inviting since the weather was mild and the first floor windows and doors were open. There were large windows in the parlor that converted into doors so people could drift in and out as they pleased.. We were there as part of a wedding group so there was about a dozen people mingling throughout the Inn.

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The breakfasts were excellent - French Toast strata with apples, berries and cream, apple-flavored sausage, scrambled eggs, juice and coffee...that was day 1. Day 2 was just as good and included an extra sample of the local "Scrapple" which is apparently a Pennsylvania thing -- sort of a sausage made up of butchering leftovers that tasted like bland sausage mixed with sawdust. Must be an acquired taste. The group managed to polish it all off.  I was so busy eating I forgot to ask if this was the standard breakfast or something special for the wedding guests. It seemed like it was a normal breakfast based on how it was served.

 

The wedding took place at the Inn in the garden on a brick patio next to the porch. The garden has a natural look to it but sort of a faded glory feel as if it was there when the inn was built.

What to do in the Brandywine Valley? -- Go to Baldwin's Book Barn

The thing to see close by is Baldwin's Book Barn -- a five story barn built in 1822 by the Darlington family (remember Smedley?) that was converted into a book store 75 years ago by William Baldwin (must be the son of the guy that built the Inn). It's only a short distance south of the Faunbrook Inn. A person could spend a weekend just roaming around in the stacks. Books are arranged by categories, more or less, and then shelved by author, more or less. The special first editions and rare books are on the first floor. Apparently they sell books by the foot. You can purchase refurbished leather-bound books at $300 per foot for your executive library...if you have one.  We spent about an hour wandering around. I like Joseph Conrad and got a couple of his novels while there.

 
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In Praise of Old Hotels — Part 6: A Couple of Fine Tourist Stops

Santa Fe, New Mexico and Cody, Wyoming both thrive on the tourist trade. Santa Fe has a long history of travelers coming and going and Cody is a popular stopover for travelers heading to Yellowstone National Park. Today, Santa Fe is not wild west but shows a more refined and elegant side even though it has a rough and tumble history linked to the Santa Fe Trail. Cody is wild west through and through and seems to magnify this aspect…it practically rolls in it.

THE IRMA HOTEL, CODY, WYOMING 

The Irma Hotel was built by Buffalo Bill Cody and named for his daughter — that would be Irma. It was opened in 1902 and has been a local landmark ever since. The saloon on the ground floor is famous for the cherry wood back bar which was a gift from Queen Victoria…who died in 1901 and never visited the saloon.  The place is popular with bikers on their way to Sturgis or other western motorcycle rallies.  We were there between two rallies so there were a lot of interesting bikes lined up out front.

Buffalo Bill’s ownership ended in 1913 when he sold it to his wife to keep creditors from taking it. Eventually the hotel passed into other hands and was expanded. Apparently some rooms are restored and furnished with antiques but we stayed in a more “modern” room that was spacious but looked like an old Howard Johnson’s room. I wasn’t impressed with the room but we were here during the busy summer season. The place was pretty crowded. I assume the restored rooms are much better.  Here is a picture of a room we didn’t see.  I halfway expected to see a mechanical bull in the room but it was fine.

 

 

 

 The place really is as theatrical as Buffalo Bill. It could be described as a saloon with a hotel attached. The saloon was crowded and seemed to take up most of the ground floor of the building. we were hard pressed to find a place to sit but everyone was having a good time and the beer was cold. Queen Victoria's bar is impressive.

 

 One of the features of the hotel is the theatrical reenactment of a wild west gunfight out in the street. Tourists take their places on the covered sidewalk as the lawmen and outlaws face off and eventually shoot each other. This is quite a cliché but the hotel guests seem to eat it up.

We also went out to Stampede Park to see the "Cody Night Rodeo", a nightly rodeo during the summer months. This was not my first rodeos, so to speak, and this one was pretty good. If you like horses and horsemanship, you will enjoy it. We left before the bull riders started...not my thing. Like everything else in Cody, it was a little over the top…but it was entertaining.

 

HOTEL ST. FRANCIS, SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO

In the heart of Santa Fe, down by the plaza, sits the 1920-era Hotel St. Francis. It is reputed to be the oldest hotel in Santa Fe, which surprises me a little considering the long history of travelers coming to this place and the fact that Santa Fe was the seat of government way back under Spanish and Mexican rule.  Hotel St. Francis is about a block away from the city plaza and the Palace of the Governors and a similar distance from the Basilica of St. Francis.

The hotel is more Mediterranean in style than Southwestern or Pueblo but the color scheme seems to fit in with the local buildings and the Santa Fe ambiance. There was a time when the Southwestern style was considered uncouth. The Basilica of St Francis is French Gothic as is the Loretto Chapel. Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy (the inspiration for Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop) was French so some things look a little odd now that the town has embraced its Spanish and Pueblo past. There are other hotels that feature the Pueblo style if that is what the traveler wants. The hotel furnishings are sparse in comparison to some other historic inns or hotels. A lot of the furnishings seem to be made by local craftsmen.

Rooms are small but comfortable — one doesn’t come to Santa Fe to sit in their room so the size isn’t a problem and is a reflection on the era when the hotel was built. We stayed a couple days and the room was adequate. We spent almost all of our time out walking around town and I don’t even recall eating at the hotel. There are great restaurants and pubs within walking distance.  We did have a few Irish Coffees in the hotel bar one evening and it was very nice and an intimate place to just relax and reflect on the day’s activities.

The hotel is a little “upscale” and I had the feeling that the staff felt that they were, too. They were polite but not exactly friendly. I came away with a mildly negative impression of the place but I think it was mainly due to the staff because the accommodations were fine and the location was perfect for exploring downtown Santa Fe.

As I said, if you are wanting more of a traditional Santa Fe (Spanish Revival or Pueblo) style there are other places. The La Fonda is a block or so away and worth a visit. The La Fonda also dates to the 1920s and was owned by the Santa Fe Railroad and operated by Fred Harvey. We had lunch there and it was very nice.  I will add that to my list of historic hotels at some point.

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In Praise of Old Hotels -- Part 4: Historic Hotels

Continuing on our merry way...

Almost by definition, old hotels are historic hotels but some are more historic than others. We stayed in a old hotel in San Antonio once that had been refurbished and then became a "boutique" hotel. Also in San Antonio there is the Crockett Hotel, 100+ years old, that stands about a stone's throw from the Alamo (I dare you...). Then there is the Menger Hotel in San Antonio which is famous because Teddy Roosevelt rode his horse into the Menger Hotel bar in 1898 and recruited volunteers for the Rough Riders. That Teddy story trumps the boutique and the chance to make history by throwing rocks at the Alamo...so I'd vote for the Menger as the most historical.

 

BEEKMAN ARMS, RHINEBECK, NEW YORK

If you are in the Hudson River valley and can work it out, stay at the Beekman Arms...or at least, eat at the tavern. It is hard to beat the Beekman Arms at the historical hotel contest. The Beekman is the oldest continuously operating inn in the USA going back to well before the Revolutionary War. George Washington slept, ate, drank and did just about everything else here. Back then, the tavern looked out on the village green and he would sit in the tavern and watch the militia drill out on the green. Remember Chelsea Clinton's wedding? Yep...in Rhinebeck, and the Beekman played a big role in the wedding.   Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton traded insults at the Beekman which eventually led to their duel and the death of Hamilton. Benedict Arnold was a common sight at the Beekman. Rhinebeck is a short distance from Hyde Park...FDR's home...and the Roosevelts were here too. I'm sure some of my ancestors darkened the doorway at some point since they were from a nearby town.

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Back in the old days, guests shared beds...maybe several guys to a bed. Private rooms were hard to come by. Today the Beekman Arms has a few small rooms in the actual old Inn but they have expanded to take over a half dozen or more historic structures in Rhinebeck and there are some very nice accommodations. You don't have to sleep in a bed with a stranger.  The time we stayed here we actually had a three-room suite on the upper floor of the old Rhinebeck firehouse...where the fireman used to sleep, but much nicer. The rooms were furnished with a few antiques (maybe replicas...?) and canopy beds.

 Apart from registering at the front desk, you might not spend much time in the actual old inn unless you go into the tavern. The tavern is a classic old colonial-style tavern. The menu was varied and the food was good. Needless to say, if you are coming to the Beekman Arms, bring your money. There is a lot to see and do in this part of the Hudson Valley and it's well worth a visit.

 

 

 

BROOKSTOWN INN, WINSTON-SALEM, NORTH CAROLINA

 Winston-Salem is steeped in history all by itself. The Moravians settled the place and there are several blocks of old and restored buildings in the historic "Old Salem" district. Everything looks historical. Wake Forest University is here and its main campus looks like a relic from the 1700s.  Winston Salem was also an early industrial site. Entrepreneurs from the town traveled north to see how the textile mills in New England functioned and then came back and established a cotton textile industry.

One of those early 19th century mills has been converted to the Brookstown Inn. The inn is in the main mill building but there is ample evidence of a sprawling complex of mill structures. Back in the day, the unmarried mill girls lived in a dormitory in the attic of the mill. When the renovation work was underway, workers cleaning and stripping the walls in the attic found lots of old graffiti, poems and sketches that the girls placed on the walls of their dormitory. Some of those are preserved and on view up on the top floor. Nothing tremendous happened here but you can see and understand a little of what mill worker life was like back before the Civil War.

The rooms in the inn are sparse with old-style furnishings and bare brick walls. The rooms are mostly on the actual mill floors with as much left as possible to give the feel of the old building. Considering the structure and the industrial history, the place is bright and cheery. The restaurant is nice...I think we only had breakfast but it was good food.

The Brookstown Inn offers a good base for exploring the rest of Winston Salem.  "Adaptive re-use" is almost always a good thing in my opinion and this place is a great example.

There are a couple organizations that serve as resources if you want to stay at a good historic hotel. The National Trust for Historic Preservation established Historic Hotels of America in 1989 and they are active in maintaining standards and they keep their list current. The website is http://www.historichotels.org.  Another similar listing is Historic Hotels of the Rockies at  http://www.historic-hotels.com .

 

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