My keyboard rests on a glass tabletop, on a sunny balcony overlooking the Gulf of Trieste.
Across the Riva del Mandracchio from our hotel stands an old administrative building, the Molo Bersaglieri. It occupies the pier where cruise ships dock.
There were two liners when we checked in yesterday, one each side of the pier, their tall hulks spoiling the view of the harbor. But both steamed out at five, civilized guests, well-versed on when to leave.
Since then, we can see the sea, out to the horizon. That horizon is lost in afternoon shimmer as all Europe smothers under a blanket of heat. Global warming? Climate change? Normal fluctuations? Who can say?
Whatever its cause, I don’t mind the heat, because I was a child in downstate Illinois in the Fifties (pre-A/C). Also because I live now in Madison, Wisconsin, where the Ghost of Winter Past and the Ghost of Winter Yet to Come haunt each day from May through October.
Dolce far niente
So I’m happy to sit on the balcony of this luxury hotel, flanked by two honest-to-god Greek pillars, each two stories high and topped by a handsome Ionic capital. With my laptop and a bottle of literary-looking Italian soda pop—La Nostra Gazzosa, quella con il limone sfusato di amalfi—I engage in the splendid Italian pursuit known as il dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing.
Where I come from, this is called lollygagging. It’s one of those American expressions like rubbernecking, flabbergasted, and bumbershoot; an honest, all-purpose word with no humbug or hokum about it. Still, the Italian rendering is more poetic and less accusatory. Italians know that while a certain amount of doing may be unavoidable, life itself is being. And it takes a mature tranquillity to simply be.
A river runs through it
We have brought our daughter and two grandchildren across the world to experience Italy and, incidentally, to help us celebrate our Golden Wedding Anniversary. Two years late. The trip was scheduled for the summer of 2020, but Something Happened to prevent it. That Same Something was still happening in 2021. But now, That Something’s prefix has changed from pan- to en- . So we are globetrotting again, like almost everyone we know, in a great lemming herd of pent-up travel demand.
The good news: Europe is still here.
The bad news, Dear Reader, if you choose to see it that way, is that “we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven.” We, unlike our progeny, have gotten old.
So when we sojourned a few days in Croatia, my wife, Joelle, chose to stay in Zagreb while I accompanied our offspring on a day trip to Plitvice Lakes National Park. She was wiser than I. She would not have well endured the hike over hill and dale, treading shifty duckboards over rushing waters, climbing back up at least three feet for every one foot descended.
A couple of days later, all five of us visited the Škocjan Caves in Slovenia. Joelle and I should have left it to the kids. We barely survived the climb back up. There’s even a purposebuilt funicular tram provided to lift unhardy travelers through the toughest 150 meters of the ascent. But first you must scale an infinite staircase to reach the foot of the funicular; then, from the top of the funicular, hoist your expiring carcass up another endless flight to regain the visitors’ center.
A helicopter, oxygen tanks, and a crack team of paramedics would have come in handy.
Was it worth the effort? I would have to say yes. The geological extravaganza, both inside and outside the massive cave in the Istrian karst, was ASTOUNDING. But do yourself a favor and go see it before you get too old.
On the Other Hand
Is there no silver lining to this tale of age and incompetence?
Well, yes, Gentle Reader, there is a silver lining. Or maybe a gold one, judging by its cost.
On previous travels we have used a method I call Rick Steves Lite. We go by train, taking rooms in hotels or pensions near the stations. We have bumped our roller bags over cobbles and trolley tracks in many a city, homing on rooms that provide overnight rest and a cheap pied-à-terre while we explore the environs on foot or by metro. Not quite youth hostels but several cuts below the Ritz. This method has preserved our funds while yielding up many a chuckle over things experienced in some of the Fawlty Towers-style hotels that dot the European landscape.
For the present safari, however, we asked Vicki, our travel agent friend, to simply line up good European hotels for us. Comfort and convenience were the goal; money, for once, was secondary. Vicki’s Croatian colleague Nicolina booked all hotels for this trip.
So we stayed in the Zagreb Esplanade, one of the grand old hotels of Europe. The Esplanade was built in 1925 as a deluxe oasis for travelers on the Orient Express. Yes, that Orient Express—the one Hercule Poirot is always solving murders on. The train oozes countesses, movie stars, and secretive diplomats. Such folks require high-class digs when they get off the train at an intermediate stop. Zagreb is one such stop, and the Esplanade is high-class digs.
We arrived in the hotel’s driveway by private transfer, a guy driving a Mercedes van from the airport. A squad of uniformed bellmen surrounded us, inhaled our luggage, and exhaled it mysteriously into our rooms. We sat in comfy chairs while a check-in specialist entered our passports and other information in a sleek computer.
There was a lovely bar, a great dining room with a scrumptious and multifarious morning buffet, and a bistro staffed by enchanting waitresses who served gourmet options for casual dining.
But the room! Whoever designed it thought of everything and finished it off with Art Deco elegance. The bed was firm; the space, well . . . spacious. The bathroom was nicely sequestered from the sleeping space. The shower rained tropical water down upon your morning self at perfect pitch.
I would stay in the Esplanade any time.
Ah . . . Italia!
Here in Trieste, Italy, on the eastern ashore of the Adriatic, we are in the Savoy Excelsior Palace Hotel. A pretty fancy name, you must agree. The hotel is in the same class as the Zagreb Espanade but does not have as much of it. Art Deco is replaced by a curious mix of Italianate Rococo and Nondescript Modern. Still, the room is spacious and fully appointed, the hotel sports an army of attentive helpers, and the bartender mixes a good neat Drambuie.
It’s a far cry from the old Hotel Speronari in Milan—before its recent renovation—where you humped your luggage up three or four flights of winding stairs; where the aged manager plied you with a free cappuccino before allowing you to attempt the climb; and where your stomach was jolted awake at four a.m. by overpowering aromas from the bakery next door.
Despite lacking such touches, our first-class hotels are not all bad. I could get used to luxury.
I can hardly wait to see what Nicolina has booked for us in Venice.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. —Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses”
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