June 13, 2012
This year the Hotel Astoria celebrates its 100th anniversary in St. Petersburg, Russia. I’m celebrating, too, because I got to stay there one white winter shortly after it was purchased and refurbished by the British hotelier Sir Rocco Forte in 1997. Other grand hotels may be more famous, but the Astoria holds its own place of pride among them.
A Russian icon in the Art Nouveau style on St. Isaac’s Square near the Neva River, the Astoria evokes a Belle Epoque world of grand dukes, ballerinas and Fabergé eggs. Everyone from Rasputin to Isadora Duncan stayed there, drinking tea from gold-rimmed teacups made by the czar’s favorite Lomonosov porcelain factory or swilling Russian Standard vodka at its velvet and wood-lined Kandinsky Bar.
All that was swept away by the Bolshevik Revolution, but the hotel soldiered on. Lenin gave a speech from its balcony in 1919 and during World War II Hitler planned to mark the city’s surrender in the Astoria, though Leningrad endured the 900-day German siege, proving the Führer premature.
The Astoria is sumptuous in an Old World way, not over-the-top like other modernized grand hotels, with soaring, chandelier-bedizened ceilings, voluminous swagged drapes, vanilla ice cream-colored molding and red-carpeted staircases. My room had a foyer separated from the sleeping chamber by etched-glass doors and a hand-embroidered bedspread, blissfully quiet even though its window looked directly over busy St. Isaac’s Square. There I watched snow coat the gold dome of the cathedral, sat reading Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra or dressed for the ballet at the nearby Mariinsky Theatre.
As part of the centennial celebration, special boxes at the Mariinsky are available to hotel guests, and jazz evenings return to the Astoria, a tradition begun in the 1920s. If you go, please raise a Russian Standard on the rocks in at the Kandinsky Bar. I’ll be doing the same in spirit.
June 7, 2012
Did anybody else see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel over the Memorial Day weekend? Somebody must have because the film, which opened on May 4, continues to do well at the box office, and that’s compared with a slew of big-budget blockbusters—Men in Black 3, Battleship, The Avengers—that have come along since then. Marigold’s popularity has been credited to John Madden, who also directed Shakespeare in Love, and to its 24-karat gold cast, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy, all of them over 60. (The film is based on These Foolish Things, a novel by Deborah Moggach about a group of English oldsters who move to a retirement hotel in India.) But the movie’s reception is also seen as proof that there’s a market for movies about people who aren’t young and beautiful, just interesting—as are the characters in Marigold, coping with end-of-life transitions in a drastically foreign place.
And let’s not forget another major factor in Marigold’s success: India, specifically the western state of Rajasthan, long a favorite with travelers for its mighty hill forts, bedizened palaces, teeming markets and lost desert villages. The hotel in the book—Moggach called it the Dunroamin—is located in the dreamy lake city of Udaipur, though the movie was filmed in Jaipur to the north. I recognized the setting immediately because I began a tour of Rajasthan there ten years ago.
It was in Jaipur—known as the Pink City for the color it was painted when England’s Prince Albert came to visit in 1876—that I learned how to take wild rides in auto-rickshaws without fear, tasted my spinach paneer at a vegetarian restaurant downtown, climbed to Amber Palace built by Raja Man Singh in 1592, and had a fine gin and tonic in the style of Prince Albert at the Polo Bar in the Rambagh Palace Hotel, where the Maharani of Jaipur lived until 1957. And I only have to look as far as my bedroom to remember a daylong shopping expedition aimed at finding the perfect quilted cotton spread, decorated in woodblock prints, a specialty in Jaipur. Mine is in shades of blue—soft and beautiful, albeit somewhat threadbare now.
I went on from there to Udaipur, the Jain temple complex at Ranakpur, Kumbhalgarh Fort and Jaisalmer, the last Thar Desert outpost before the Pakistani border. But Jaipur remains most deeply etched in my memory, which is why I took so much pleasure in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The $13 ticket price is a small amount to pay for a trip to Rajasthan.
May 18, 2012
Some people claim that pizza was invented in Greece; others say it hails from southern France. A friend of mine who went to Yale swears it comes from New Haven. Sheesh! Have any of these people been to Naples?
OK, it has never been proven that pizza was first popped into the oven in Napoli, though everyone knows pizza Margherita—a simple classic topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and basil leaves, mimicking the red, white and green colors of the Italian flag—was created by Neapolitan chef Raffaele Esposito to celebrate a visit to the city by Queen Margherita of Savoy in 1889.
Anyway, who gets the credit for inventing pizza is a moot point when the answer to who makes the best pizza is obvious: Naples, Naples and more Naples. Fie on your Chicago deep-dish, your Roman pizza bianca and especially your mass-produced Domino’s and Pizza Hut. There is simply nothing like Neapolitan pizza made of hand-kneaded dough too fragile to toss, topped with fresh, authentic ingredients and baked fast on the surface of a bell-shaped, wood-burning oven. When the pizza maker (or pizzaiuolo) pulls it out on a paddle and slides it onto a plate, who can wait? The mozzarella is a milky puddle, with a mat of red sauce and a frame of incomparably chewy crust, flexible enough to fold in half and eat like a sandwich on the street. In famous Naples restaurants like Brandi, Da Umberto and Trianon da Ciro, pizza-making is high art, but you’d have to be cursed by the gods to find a bad pie anyplace in town.
Why, then, I have always wondered, is it so hard to find Neapolitan pizza in the U.S.? We’ve got every other celebrated Italian product from olive oil to shoes.
Caporuscio, born into a cheese-making family from Pontinia south of Rome, studied pizza-making in Naples before coming to the U.S., where he serves as ambassador-at-large for the APN. When discussing other types of pizza—for instance, the pies available at longtime pizza favorite John’s just across Bleecker Street—he’s always diplomatic: “It’s not better or worse, just different.”
Asked to comment on New Haven’s claim to the pizza birthplace title, he said, “They invented New Haven pizza there.”
A big bear of a man with palms permanently pink from handling pizza dough, Caporuscio explained that immigrants to America from the Campania region of Italy around Naples were farmers, shoemakers and builders, not pizzaiuoli. “And to make a Neapolitan pizza you need one thing,” he said. “A Neapolitan pizza-maker. Someone who understands all the details, how to stretch and raise the dough to keep it aerated, which is what makes it chewy.”
I had to press him on the delicate matter of the toppings, especially the cheese, because I’m a purist when it comes to mozzarella, which in Naples means mozzarella de bufala, unavailable in the U.S. because it isn’t pasteurized. Caporuscio solves that problem by making his own cow’s milk mozzarella, known as fior de latte, on the premises at Keste; only one pizza there, the Regina Margherita, features the imported buffalo milk version of the cheese.
I got a taste, of course, and it took me straight back to Napoli—which is probably the main reason why I love Neapolitan pizza.
April 26, 2012
In 2006 when the People’s Republic of China started railroad service from Beijing to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa—a 2,525-mile route cresting at 16,640-foot Tanggula Pass—people like me got in line. Though critics have seen it as yet another means for China to despoil Tibet’s cultural and mineral riches, I was studying Mandarin in Beijing and I couldn’t pass up the chance to take the railroad trip of a lifetime. I did think about waiting because I’d heard there were plans for a luxury version of the train, managed by Kempinski Hotels, with private-bath suites, elegant dining cars and window-lined lounges.
Then spring break came around and I couldn’t wait any longer. I flew to Lhasa and got a train ticket back to Beijing in a four-berth soft sleeper; it had pressed cotton sheets, pillows, comforters, TV monitors with headsets and oxygen canisters for victims of altitude sickness. All quite congenial at first. But it’s a 40-hour trip, so conditions deteriorated along the way (especially in the restrooms). At mealtime, passengers filed into the dining car for unappetizing food or bought noodles on the platform during brief stops.
I’d have been miserable, but every time I found myself wishing for a cup of coffee or a hot bath, all I had to do to raise my spirits was press my nose to the window. The first day we crossed the Tibetan Plateau, which looks like Utah with Alaska on top. Nameless ranges of snowcapped peaks passed by; fur-clad villagers stared at railroad crossings and yaks bolted off the tracks. The Chinese government spent millions to cross the plateau by rail, piping liquid nitrogen through the tracks to keep them from buckling during a thaw and building underpasses for wildlife.
I fell asleep after a 30-minute stop in the lonely mining town of Golmud, then woke the next morning in the heart of the Middle Kingdom, decorated with sunshine and cherry blossoms. I remember passing through Xi’an, home of the terra-cotta warriors, before tucking in the second night, followed by wake-up the next morning at Beijing’s West Station.
In retrospect, I’m glad I made the trip when I did because the 5-star Beijing-Lhasa train is on what looks like permanent hold. Fifty percent owned by the flush Chinese electronic company Huawei, it’s still being touted. But Kempinski has bowed out and the perhaps too fast-and-furiously growing Chinese railway system has suffered setbacks: to wit, an accident last July on a new high-speed line in eastern China that killed 43 people and the imprisonment of the nation’s railway minister, suspected of graft.
So don’t wait for amenities on the railroad that crosses the Middle Kingdom to the Tibetan Plateau. Question your soul about the political correctness of taking a PRC train to embattled Tibet. And then, if you ask me, go.
March 25, 2012
I spent the first few months I lived in Paris—from 2003 to 2006—seeing almost every sight in the Blue Guide, but after a while I stopped running around and discovered that the true pleasure of living in the City of Light is having the luxury of taking it for granted. A good day started with un café at the bar on the corner, a little shopping and then an afternoon at the American Library in Paris.
On rue du Général Camou near the Eiffel Tower, the library is unknown to most tourists, but deeply embedded in the hearts of expats from dozens of countries, not just the United States, who sometimes need to read and think in English. A quarter of its 2,500 members are French, in fact, drawn to the library’s Anglophone-friendly 120,000-book collection. Compared with other libraries in Paris, it is a quiet, uncrowded oasis offering two to three special events every week, including children’s programs, book groups and author lectures.
With a constant stream of writers from the U.S. passing through Paris, the library serves as a literary center. “There is something about an expatriate library—a tentacle, an emissary, a piece of another civilization residing in an alien one—that is very moving,” says Adam Gopnik, author of the acclaimed essay collection Paris to the Moon.
The not-for-profit library was founded in 1920 as a home for 1.5 million books sent to soldiers in World War I trenches by the American War Service. Its motto reflected the origins: After the darkness, the light of books. American writers who began flocking to Paris after the war were frequent visitors. Young Thornton Wilder and Archibald MacLeish spent time there in the 20s; Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway were among its first trustees and both contributed to its still-published newsletter, Ex Libris. When an even deeper darkness fell over Paris during the World War II German occupation, the library managed to stay open and uncensored against all odds because the French director’s son was married to the daughter of Vichy prime minister Pierre Laval. Unbeknown to the authorities, it lent books to Jews banned from other libraries, though a staff member was shot by the Gestapo.
After the war, a new generation of writers like James Jones, Mary McCarthy and Richard Wright could be found in the stacks and satellite branches opened around Paris. In the 1950s, when the library occupied quarters on the Champs-Elysées, it was the scene of a tense standoff between staff and anti-Communist censors sent by Senator Joseph McCarthy to eradicate Red books from American libraries in Europe.
Its current 7th Arrondissement home was renovated last summer, but still seems unprepossessing compared with nearby Belle Époque landmarks like Jules Lavirotte’s flamboyant Beaux-Arts apartment house at 29 Avenue Rapp. You have to go inside to appreciate its treasures: big biography and mystery collections, DVDs, 500 periodicals, a computerized catalog, books for teens and children. The stacks are open (though you have to be a member to check books out) and eccentrically arranged with secret nooks scattered throughout. Librarians often can be found reading to groups of children; habitués come in for their morning look at the International Herald Tribune; best-selling writers research works-in-progress, rarely recognized by people at the next carrel.
Anyone who grew up in an American town with a good public library will feel at home as soon as he or she walks in. “It feels like a little piece of the U.S.,” says director Charles Trueheart, who came to the library in 2007 after serving as Paris correspondent for The Washington Post.
American tourists, too, are welcome, Trueheart says. It’s a good place to check e-mail and research the next leg of a trip, surrounded by Anglophones and great books in the mother tongue.