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Gothic Pilgrimage, visiting the great French cathedrals.

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December 17, 2010

Know Thyself.

“It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that, he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in the humanities is not learning facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.” – Albert Einstein

When the going gets tough, the tough take accounting. When the job market worsens, many students figure they cannot indulge in English or a history major. They have to study something that will lead directly to a job.

Therefore, it is almost inevitable that over the next few years, as labor markets struggle, the humanities will continue their long slide. There already has been a nearly 50 percent drop in the portion of liberal arts majors over the past generation, and that trend is bound to accelerate. Once the stars of university life, humanities now play bit roles when prospective students take their college tours. The labs are more glamorous than the libraries.

However, allow me to pause for a moment and throw another sandbag on the levee of those trying to resist this tide. Let me stand up for history, English, and art, even in the face of today’s economic realities.

Studying the humanities improves your ability to read and write. No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose). You will have enormous power if you are the person in the office who can write a clear and concise memo.

Studying the humanities will give you a familiarity with the language of emotion. In an information economy, many people have the ability to produce a technical innovation: a new MP3 player. Very few people have the ability to create a great brand the iPod. Branding involves the location and arousal of affection, but unless you have the skill to use words, you are not going to be able to do this.

Studying the humanities will give you a wealth of analogies. People think by comparison — Iraq is either like Vietnam or like Bosnia; your boss is like Narcissus or Solon. People who have a wealth of analogies in their minds can think more precisely. If you go through college without reading Thucydides, Herodotus, and Gibbon, you will have been cheated out of a great repertoire of comparisons.

Finally, and most importantly, studying the humanities helps you to Know Thyself.

Let me try to explain. Over the past century or so, people have built various systems to help them understand human behavior: economics, political science, game theory, and evolutionary psychology.

These systems are useful in many circumstances. Alas, they do not explain human behavior. Deep down people have passions and drives that do not lend themselves to systemic modeling. They have yearnings and fears that reside with the inner self. The observant person goes through life asking: Where did that come from? Why did he or she act that way? The answers are hard to find because the behavior emanates from deep inside.

Technical knowledge stops at the outer edge. If you spend your life riding the links of the Internet, you probably will not get too far into the ‘knowing thyself’ because the fast effortless prose of journalism lacks the heft to get you deep below.

Nevertheless, over the centuries, there have been rare and strange people who possessed the skill of taking the upheavals of thought that emanate from Self-knowledge and representing them in the form of story, music, myth, painting, liturgy, architecture, sculpture, landscape, and speech. These men and women developed languages that help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them. They left rich veins of emotional knowledge that are the subjects of the humanities.

It is probably dangerous to enter exclusively into this realm and risk being caught in a cloister, removed from the market and its accountability. But it make sense to spend some time in the company of these languages — learning to feel different emotions, rehearsing different passions, experiencing different rituals and learning to see in different ways. We navigate social environments if we are dumb about ‘knowing ourselfs’, we will be consumed by them.

December 4, 2010

Over the top.

Frequently spotted around Cambridge: a gaggle of camera-toting tourists (us included) huddled over these kinda-cool relief maps of the city centre trying to work out how to get from where they are to their favourite coffee shop the epidemically-omnipresent Starbucks. These relief maps are great reproductions though and very realistic - the most recognisable bits being King's College chapel top right and Trinity College Great Court (a la the race in Chariots of Fire, although the film actually used Eton College school) in the foreground. The only innacuracy as far as I can tell is that, unlike the actual city centre buildings, this isn't covered in pigeon poop.

Of course, the true beauty of this map is that, whilst any photoblogger can snap a city's best bits, only a really lazy one can give you the whole city centre, to scale, in one shot. Voila!

Albeit, unconventionally... The infamous cult book  The Night Climbers of Cambridge describes the best routes around the colleges, the quietest spots for reflection, the best views to be had in the whole city. Of course, this is only if you happen to be a skilled climber - and happy to wait until the middle of the night to avoid the authorities...
Luckily - and amazingly, considering the paraphernalia needed in those days - they took pictures of their 1937 feats and included them in this incredible book, along with details of their nocturnal adventures. Republished in 2007 by The Oleander Press - it's now available everywhere because...
They've eventually moved into the future with ol' Whip and made him available on Amazon's Kindle.
Here's showing how the authorities went just slightly / wildly overboard:

Mail  &  Sunday Telegraph

The Night Climbers regularly swoop along the roofline of the city, mischief on their minds and happiness in their hearts. Their actions may confound the university but to residents past and present, of the colleges and the city, they are outriders of optimism and evoke a time when opportunities were boundless and the term PC, was a mere twitch in the dreams of tomorrow.

“Lest others should attempt the ascent of this terrible climb and perish, they swore themselves to secrecy and went off to try Everest instead.”

November 26, 2010

The morning after.

There was no way that I was not going to celebrate Thanksgiving. It is the holiday where we get together eat and drink too much and... I do not want to eat anything turkey until next year.

Living in Paris, having Mona and Felix as guests, I decided to celebrate. I was h**l-bent on having a dinner with all the trimmings. What I didn’t anticipate was that we could have gone to the poshest restaurant in Paris and eaten for less than that dinner cost, but we wouldn’t have feasted on turkey-please don’t say “so what?”

Chemically treated über humongous birds do not exist in France.  When I went to the butcher, he told me that it was impossible to buy a turkey large enough to feed twenty people before Christmas. These are free-range birds and they weren’t going to grow large enough just because I wanted one.

OK, that was no problem. Being resourceful and being able to add, I ordered two turkeys. Defeat would not be mine. Ah, hmmm, that was until I picked up the fowl in the morning only to realize there was no way both could possibly fit in one oven.

This has been the week of me becoming extremely friendly with the concierge.  We usurped her oven and shuttled up and down five floors so we could baste both turkeys.  Each time we went down to the ground floor apartment, we took a bottle of wine.  After all, that was only polite.

Dinner was a roaring success! I will go to bed and sleep for a week, undoubtedly from the fact that the guests each brought a lovely bottle of wine-and there was no way we could insult anyone by not drinking all of them.

Since this is not a French holiday, dinner began 8 p.m. By the time we finished it was long after midnight (thank goodness someone brought a bottle of first-rate cognac).  I wonder how our guests are going to be able to work today.
But this is France, and I am the only one with a real hangover. Happily, Thanksgiving comes only once a year-it will take me that long to recover. But yesterday I’ll never forget. Nor will our guests, or the concierge.
Vivent les Américains (even if we are crazy).

October 30, 2010

There is Love and then, there is Life.

You know how in the movies He says to Her, "You make me a better man" and you cringe because it's such a hackneyed thing to say. But, you also hope that you will end up with someone who brings out the best in you instead of encouraging all of your bad habits.

You definitely want that person around. That person makes you feel capable, and powerful and fabulous. That person is the one that is going to ‘woman up’ when it comes time to dislodge the fried chicken that is stuck in your throat.

Because I am spoiled, I have always thought that life should make me feel the same way a lovely woman does - safe, stimulated, challenged, your best, and most authentic self.

Where was I going with this?

Oh yea. In the meantime, there is life (school). Other than committing a few ‘fo-paws’ during my getting–to-know-you period, my first few month have passed without incident. I am studying hard and observing carefully, as school politics emerges. School is demanding (like a spoiled girlfriend), jealous of my indulgences and restricting playtime! School also encourages undesirable parts of my underdeveloped character, including (but not limited to) shyness and over-indulging in things that are bad for me (eating a bag of chips with a pint of ice cream). To prevent a break-up, I have come up with a perfect solution-

Move over Woody...

Meet my dreamwoman.

“Moi? Je ne suis pas infame. Je suis une femme.”

I’m a better man already.

October 3, 2010

Finding Inspector Lewis.

From Christ Church meadows to the vast university museum, no tour of Oxford could be as enchanting as the one conducted by a mathematician with a very special kind of logic. Charles Dodgson-known to us as Lewis Carroll-sprinkled references to the university (he was a scholar for 47 years) throughout the stories he created for little Alice Liddell.

Ah, but there was Charles, he loaded the car with baskets of choice comestibles, cranked the engine and we set out on Friday morning on a leisurely jaunt trundling along the roads through the Shire until we spotted the perfect place for a gourmet repast, and then drove on to Oxford.

She is a city of “weathered cloister and worn court,” a “grey city of strong towers and clustering spires,” exulted 19th-century poet Lionel Johnson, who also showered Oxford with a wealth of regal compliments. “A queen in pride of place,” he wrote, “beauty’s home."

Oxford sits aside the Thames, called Isis here. Its flowing waters-and those of its tributary the Cherwell-carry punting boats along on afternoons. Alongside the waters are meadows as peaceful as the drift of the boats, willow lanes where strolling and jogging are equally acceptable, and the Botanical Gardens. “The sky was laid below me in azure anemones,” wrote the poet Anne Ridler, and “the willows wept against the sun like rainbows, and punts as lazy as clouds slipped by beneath.”

Alas, it was a grey overcast day. “Our two weeks of summer are over,” remarked Charles.

” I have a surprise for you. He won’t tell where we are going until we arrive at The Trout Inn (one of Lewis and Morse’s favorite stop for a pint). So did we, make that several pints, and a scrumptious meal.

There is poetry, too, in the church bells of Oxford, forever reminding us that it is a city of the Middle Ages, a city where the Church was the font of life’s daily patterns.  The hall, the chapel in each college and the common gathering places-all reflect the monastic time.

Christ church Cathedral, a haughty Norman structure, rests in gardens walled to shelter its splendor. St. Mary the Virgin sprawls next to the 18th-century Radcliffe Camera, a magnificent rotunda that is the private preserve of students.

I did find signs of Inspector Lewis everywhere I went. Most places were reminiscent of scenes from episodes. Charles had no clue what I was all about.

And so each building at Oxford can be described, set in its time, delineated by its architecture, and filled with the personal stories of the students and the dons who had so blissfully resided here.

The architecture of Oxford, Wordsworth called the “sacred Nurseries of blooming Youth,” overwhelms the visitor as much as its academic history. From the simplest to the most extravagant, Oxford presents a 700-year lesson in the architecture of England. Limestone found locally was turned into buildings with Gothic grandeur, Elizabethan decoration, and the classical prowess of Christopher Wren, architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Baroque and High Victorian reside together as comfortably as scholars do. The landscape they are part of is so beloved and praised that Oxonians who have beauty’s home most often become prophets of its life and spirit.

Mathew Arnold perhaps said it best: “Beautiful city!...spreading her gardens to the moonlight…Adorable dreamer, whose heart has been so romantic!”

“I have another surprise for you Clive.” Charles told me Saturday morning. After a blissful night’s sleep I was unsuspecting of Charles’ little scheme.

“I have reserved a place for you in the “Lewis and Morse” tour, so hurry up, get ready, I will drop you off.” He smiled to himself. “You will have fun visiting all your favorite haunts and meet-up with so many American compatriots too boot.”

“And what may you be doing?” Ask I.

“I will have fun exploring roads less traveled.”

Charles enjoying the out of the box experience. Roving down memory lane? I see. So like Inspector Morse!

Nevertheless, the story of this picture Charles will not divulge. I have my ways. I am really starting to think like Inspector Lewis. Watch out Charlie.

So we did, have fun, one finding Inspector Lewis, and one, hmm, avoiding Inspector Lewis?


Following is a list of Oxford hometown expressions. I am NOT divulging how I found out.
No, Charles I will not tell.

Ah, of course. Why we're all here. Because we were the best and brightest of our various sixth forms. So people will (obviously) take their work very seriously. They'll intimidate you with their summer reading (voluntary of course) and will leave you to wallow in your awkward ‘I don't know the answer to that question’ silence in tutorials. Who cares? You'll be the one with all the stories about vomming on your shoes. Who's the real winner eh?

The awful Oxford slang for a college disco. Some are raucous and amazing fun, some are awful (Merton...) most play Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ at least once. All have potent cocktails that will burn your taste buds off. Invariably fancy dress, but it's not like school: the cool kids all dress up. In costumes that took more time to plan than your vac essay. Seriously.

Where the cool kids hang out. Sweaty, small and too cool for its own good. Edgy hair and ironic dress only.

The foil of Babylove, just as sweaty. Cheesy fun. And it has a stripper pole that rugby boys tend to flock round. Unexplained. Just don't get 'Anuba'd'. Anuba is the bar (waiting room) you go to if the queue for Bridge is too long. You'll be given a ticket like when you bought your school shoes from Clarks. No night can recover.

Short for 'Bodleian Library'. Seriously, go to your fresher orientation otherwise you will never find your way round. And it’s seriously embarrassing going as a third year, and asking where you get books out from, trust me. Don’t try to take them home, you can’t, and you’ll be rugby tackled by a security guard if you try.

Crew dates.
A very unique Oxford thing. One all girl 'crew' (think netball team, drinking society, women's elephant polo club) goes for a curry or to a formal hall with another all boy crew (rugby team, drinking society, general lads). Can be between colleges or uni wide. One side pays for dinner; the other provides the wine (minimum one bottle per person). General hilarity ensues in the form of drinking games and copping off with each other. Although Cherwell advises against the latter.

Beginning of term exams used to check you weren’t telling porkies about how much work you did. Taken in various degrees of seriousness – some are in exam conditions, some you’re allowed to take back to your room. Don’t panic about them, very uncool. Go for studied nonchalance instead.

Drinking societies.
Ah, infamous tabloid fodder. Some are just as elite as described – despite various equality committees trying to intervene and spoil their fun. Each college has their own, with their own bizarre traditions. Initiations are a must. The infamous ‘Buller’ is now supposedly struggling for members- it's now cooler to turn it down than to accept. The first rule of equally infamous Piers Gav is you don't talk about Piers Gav (just google it). Christ Church Cardinals throw the best party every term, but don't be fooled by the black tie. Ain't nothing classy about their 'cocktails'. Girls drinking societies are a bit of an oxymoron, but they do try.

A college tutor. Derived from the Latin dominus meaning variously master, lord, owner, host. A strange species that comes in wildly different forms. Some are old school and will offer you a glass of wine and spend the whole hour talking about opera, some will let you call them by their first name, some are terrifying and are not to be crossed. Most cannot be fooled, and they’ve seen every trick in the book. And have probably already read that essay you’re trying to pass off as your own. You will, however, learn their traits and your own tricks for getting around them, even if it is just to avoid eye contact and sudden movements.

Entz/Entz Reps

Short for Entertainment, your Entz Reps will arrange the bops and other super fun events - think chocolate orange world record attempts. club nights as well as your Freshers' Week, film nights, and selling tickets for club nights throughout term. Be nice to them and they'll save you tickets and tell you what's happening.

Ban the phrase 'essay crisis' from your vocabulary. It's irritating, and if you have one, it's your own entire fault. Yes, you will get lots of them, particularly if you do a humanity, but get over it. There's some myhtical guideline that says you can only be set sixteen in a term. Maybe that's not very comforting. Double spacing is your best friend (the pages multiple, like magic!). And despite what you may think, doubling the expected word count will not impress your tutor. You're just giving them more to cover in red pen.

Examination Schools
Where Prelims, Mods and Finals are held (more on those later). On the High Street. Also where you’ll have to hand in any finals coursework. Not really a place of laughs and giggles.

Fuzzy ducks
The Brookes night, in the O2 in Cowley. Voted the fifth easiest place to pull in some lads’ mag, some time ago. Buy your ticket in advance, and take your breath mints. Not for the faint hearted.

Final examinations at the end of 3 or 4 years as an undergraduate. Some degrees are divided in to Part Ones (taken at the end of second year) and Part Twos (taken at the end of third or fourth year) much to the annoyance of people actually trying to have fun at the end of their term. Finalists can be recognized by a permanent caffeine shake and the deep scowl if people even whisper loudly in the library. Probably best avoided in Trinity term.

First years. Will be said with distain by some second years, who have conveniently forgotten they were one just a year ago. Don’t do anything too outrageous in Freshers’ Week because the nickname ‘Fresher Slut/Lad/Douche/Sick’ etc will stick for the rest of the year. Technically you should only be called a Fresher in your first term, but no one pays any attention to that. And you'll be told to “Down it, Freshaaaaaa!”, quite a lot.

G and D’s
An Oxford cafe - one in Cowley, one on St Aldates - specializing in ice cream and bagels. Always busy after nine as people avoid work and get their caffeine fix, but it's expensive... But it IS open ‘til midnight. So, swings and roundabouts.

Short and armless if you’re not a scholar, long and more batman like if you are. Also refers to the University in the phrase ‘Town vs. Gown’ – the ever-bubbling tension (apparently) between students and the normal people of Oxford.


September 23, 2010

School for Mandarins

The mandarins of ancient China, the elite corps of civil servants who held the Empire together and imposed their values and language on it, were given their responsibilities only after a long and difficult selection process. The mandarinate of nineteenth-century England, the class destined to hold down the outposts of the British Empire, was formed in the harsh conditions of the Victorian public schools. Today’s American mandarins of the technological society should ideally be equipped by the intellectual and personal demands of elite schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Harvard Business School to deal with the problems of a changing technological society.

In France, for over 200 years, a single educational institution has provided French society with an elite to measure up to any other in its ability to make a success of high administrative positions. This institution is the Ecole Polytechnique.

Founded in 1794 in the first flush of French national feeling during the Revolution, the government’s objective was to create a scientific elite for the various departments of state. The courses were to last two years, during which time every aspect of science would be touched on. There was a social theory behind the choice of science as the basis of the curriculum for the new school; the arts had been the traditional field of study for the aristocracy and it was thought that science-based courses would open up the school to a broader social spectrum. Science and democracy were to go together.

Under Napoleon, the school was charged with the specific task of providing scientifically and technically trained officers for a largely mercenary army. The artillery and the engineers were to be assured of a constant supply of competent officers who would compensate for the professional soldier’s traditional lack of knowledge of the mechanics of warfare.

During the 19th century, the school continued to fill a large number of the higher ranks in the armed forces; but graduates began to take up many of the most important posts in state organizations and even spread into private industry. In time, Polytechniciens were managing, administrating, guiding, and governing from key positions throughout French society.

The prestige of the Polytechnique has always remained high and it has kept its position as the first of the great French schools, though today many of France’s leading intellectuals come from other schools, notably the Ecole Normale Superieure. One reason why the Polytechnique has lost some of its edge is that the sciences have become so specialized. It is no longer possible to have a complete grasp of all fields, as the founders of the school intended. Yet virtually all the higher posts in the French scientific civil service are still filled by Polytechniciens, recruited either directly from the school or after further training. The school has remained faithful to its original aim of providing a general education based on the sciences, and it continues to give a sound training for minds that will later have to grapple with the problems of running the French nation.

Today few ex-students become army officers, most turn to careers in finance and politics. This may seem far removed from the broad scientific and technical education they have received, but the important aspect of this education is that it is primarily conceived as a training for the mind, a training which will enable the Polytechnicien to feel at home in any position requiring high-level decision making. Where industry and administration can easily be divided by their distinct viewpoints, formed from different sets of knowledge and experience, the Polytechnicien finds himself in a particularly advantageous position, in that he is trained expressly to understand the problems of both sides. The Polytechnique thus remains an essential feature of the upper strata of French management.

The qualities demanded of the pupils are an aptitude for abstract study and a willingness to work extremely hard. In return for dedicated effort, the school will not only dispense knowledge, it will also turn its pupils into leaders of men. There is no more effective channel for rapid social advancement in France. The Polytechnique is still the goal for all pupils who show exceptional promise in the sciences.

Clearly, an institution so bent on creating an elite has come in for criticism in the current educational and political climate. The ideas, which have spread through universities of the Western world, have not left the school untouched. The mandarins themselves have questioned the validity of their privileges and ask whether their education makes a fruitful contribution to society.

Still, anyone with a baccalaureate can go to a French university, but an entirely different situation prevails with the grandes ecoles, such as the Polytechnique, the shrines of French higher education. However, the residence regulations and the military character of the school distinguish the Politechnique from other grandes ecoles. Students are still grouped in companies, and officers exercise a moderate, but nevertheless effective, control.

What is really important about the present generation at the school is that, however moderate they seem to be, their preoccupations are more altruistic, more critical and more open than they seem to be at first sight.

One factor, which contributes a great deal towards the caution of the Polytechnicien, is undoubtedly the period of intense preparation, which he undergoes before entering the school. This tends to stunt his natural development by enclosing him entirely in a world of abstract study. “Mathematics hardly makes for maturity,” jokes one young man. “We do develop but it’s slow. Everything is toned down, cushioned from the outside world. Someone who is thought of as extremist at the school would only be a moderate at the University. This is quite serious, because it is normal for a student who is not completely thick-skinned to go through a left-wing phase. We must feel free to express this, to live it. It is most likely that we will forget it soon. The main objective here, is, that at the time we should feel free to be concerned by injustice and stop having an easy conscience about the affairs of the world.  We should not be frightened and must be permitted to try to live up to our ideals”.

When this is possible, the grand ecoles will produce really human mandarins.

January 26, 2010

In Michelangelo’s footsteps (Campidoglio)

According to legend, Rome was founded on April 21, 753 B.C.

The first villages were clusters of dwellings on the Capitoline and Palatine that over the centuries spread over the hills and lowlands on the banks of the Tiber, communities so small that half a dozen could fit into the piazza of St. Peter’s. The village feeling has never changed. Rome remains a chain of enchanting communities with great monuments at the center of each.

Rome is above all a treasury, artistically the richest in the world, and it is a time machine. Fourteen feet down, antiquity lies. Dig out a cellar, and you will find a foundation stone laid in imperial times; enlarge a parking lot, and fragments of statues will turn up; enter a church crypt, and you are surrounded by paganism. Antiquity goes straight up too. What edifice, from early Christian shrines to palaces of the high baroque, is not constructed from pagan remains?

Rome is a city that never tires of proclaiming its importance. Hardly a building is without dozens of inscriptions, graffiti, sets of papal and familial arms. Whispers and murmurs from the past envelop everything.

No city on earth has fewer social demarcations or architectural ghettos. Modest shops and dwellings flank grandiose palaces. This unself-conscious mix of rich and poor, titled and bourgeois, makes for a special magic.

Eleven “villages” make up the urbs et orbis, the city and the world, that is Rome. One can devote to each a half day or a lifetime. Each possesses its own heart and soul.

The “Village” of the Campidoglio

Here the spiritual heart of pagan Rome, site of the sacred temple of Jove, still beats. Pillaged countless times in the name of faith and order, the place has had a long, tough history. The Christians sacked the pagan buildings, barbarian hordes destroyed the churches, what remained from medieval times was laid waste by sixteenth- and nineteenth-century planners, and, finally, the Fascists carved up everything to fashion their boulevards. Despite all that and the whirlwind of traffic, grandeur still cloaks this, the truly “eternal” village.

Getting around on foot is best. Start by climbing Michelangelo’s stairs, the Cordonata, past the sentinel sphinxes and the ancient Roman trophies, and enter the piazza with his Palazzo Nuovo on the left, the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the right, and the Senate as backdrop. The bronze emperor on horseback is Marcus Aurelius. Michelangelo’s buildings in golden travertine combine power, delicacy, pomp, and human grace.

The Capitoline Museum, the world’s oldest -a hodgepodge of antiquities, many over restored – is still worth a visit. You will see the moving Dying Gaul, the battered Victory, owned by one of the last pagan senators of Rome, and the gallery that displays marble busts of all sixty-five emperors.

The Palazzo dei Conservatori is a labyrinth of exhibition halls, containing some magical things. In the grand court – once the Emperor Constantine’s basilica-are the fragments of his monumental statue: head, hand, feet, leg, and arm.

The spectacular marble altarpiece commemorates Claudius’s conquest of England. Upstairs in the picture gallery seek out Guercino’s huge painting of Saint Petronilla (with blues of imcomparable intensity)-a masterwork (note Ms. Edna). In the Salla della Lupa is the haunting and primitive Roman She-Wolf, the Etruscan bronze of the sixth century B.C., with Romulus and Remus, who were added in the fifteenth century.

Instead of trudging through the Forum, save yourself some trouble and look down on it from the Senate-one of the most evocative views in Rome.

Few visit the antiquarium on the Palatine, with a graffito of a Christian kneeling in devotion before a crucified donkey-headed man, inscribed”Alexamenos aderes his god.”

The monument to Victor Emmanuel II, the “Vittoriano,” is garish, yet a magnificent example of late nineteenth-century style at its most regal, puffed up with pride and exploding with confidence. The views of the neighborhoods from its deserted porticoes are fabulous.

Among the least-appreciated works of art in Rome are the flat wooden ceilings of its “hall” churches, heavily gilded and chock-full of armorial devices. Two of the best are in San Marco and in S. Maria in Aracoeli, atop the Capitoline Hill.

The strident Palazzo Venezia, once Mussolini’s residence, is now a dispirited museum stuffed with objects d’art. Two alone make a visit worthwhile: the intricately inlaid ninth-century casket from Terracina and the stupendous silver Orsini Cross, of 1344.

In the seldom visited upper part of Trajan’s Forum the ancient buildings are astonishingly well preserved. Unfortunately, the deterioration of one edifice-the thirteenth-century Torre delle Milizie, once thought to be the place where Nero fiddled-at least temporarily prevents one from seeing the splendid vista from its top.

Finally, plunge into the teeming streets and piazzas around the Teatro di Marcello, the Portico of Octavia, and the old ghetto, where there is a series of small, beautiful palaces and refurbished private houses.

The area has an abundance of excellent restaurants. The following are among the best (book in advance).

Da Piperno, (Via Monte dei Cenci 9, ph 06 6880 6629, www.ristorantepiperno.com). Closed Sunday evenings, Mondays, Christmas, Easter, and August. For carciofi, funghi porcini in season, superior pasta with tomato sauce, and very good house wines.

Il Pompiere (Via Santa Maria de' Calderari 38, ph 06 686 83 77). It is closed on Sunday. A huge first-floor dining room with frescoed ceilings. Its prices are reasonable and the food is great. Try the carciofi alla giudia, filetti di baccala, and keep some room for a slice of ricotta and sour plum tart supplied by the Jewish bakery around the corner.

Da Giggetto (Via del Portico di Ottavia, ph. 06 686 11 06, giggettoalportico.com). Closed on Monday. Has been serving Roman Jewish cooking for years (the deep-fried artichokes are especially good).

Ristorante Angelino a Tor Margana (Piazza Margana 37, ph 06-6783328). For the good old heavy cooking you thought had vanished with the nineteenth century.

Vecchia Roma (Piazza Campitelli 18, ph 656-4604). Closed Wednesday. Beautiful inside and out, famed for its fish, vegetables and desserts, its antipasti di pesce is unequaled in the entire city.

Bar Brasile (in the Piazza Venezia ph 066 795706). Where the world seems to stop in.

Toto (Via Portico d’Ottavia 2) makes a legendary cappucino.

January 15, 2010

climbing Michelangelo's stairs(again)

Arrived safe via small detours courtesy of Charles thank you very much.

Back to school and preparation for FINALS.
(I remember your recipe for cramming, black coffee, and orioles’.)

I promise upcoming posts about "Rome for the discriminating".

Your devoted...