It seemed like a good idea at the time. A trip that would last just over three weeks, starting with a few days in Madrid, continuing with visits of several days each to cousins on the east coast of the USA. After that we were due to spend a few days with our son in Las Vegas, and conclude with a few more days in Rome. What a perfect combination of fun, family and art. Lots of art.
What I’d forgotten when I was presented with the itinerary was that it involved many airports, living out of a suitcase at various points, and getting on and off planes. A great many planes. I’d also forgotten that I’m not as young as I was, and that the rigours of intercontinental travel tend to take more of a toll on my ancient body than was the case in the past.
Nevertheless, a great deal — even most — of our trip was enjoyable. In Madrid the delights of the Prado, the Thyssen Museum, the Royal Palace and the Monastery of Descalzas Reales provided a sumptuous feast of paintings, sculptures, tapestries and architecture. A performance of Flamenco singing and dancing gave us another insight into the Spanish heart and mind.
Our trip to the USA gave us the opportunity to renew our ties with family members, who were invariably welcoming and hospitable. Our Baltimore cousins took us to the Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery in Washington, where the latter was hosting a special exhibition of works by the Renaissance artist Verrochio. What a delight that was! It has been said that the handsome young Leonardo da Vinci, who was an apprentice in Verrocio’s studio, was the model for his statue of David. We were also taken to the fascinating National Cryptology Museum.
Our Virginia cousins took us to Monticello, the house that Jefferson built and furnished, all to his own special design. It was especially heartwarming to meet and be hosted by members of the younger generation, who all appear to be ‘happily situated’ (to use Jane Austen’s phrase) with beautiful children, successful careers, and spacious homes, surrounded by greenery, forests and all the comforts that semi-rural suburbia has to offer.
The contrast with our next stop, Las Vegas, couldn’t have been greater. Everything there was bigger, brighter, louder and brasher than anything that had gone before. The hotel room was more spacious (even if it meant forging a path through a casino to get there), the breakfast (a delicious toasted cheese sandwich available from the Starbuck’s downstairs) more satisfying, and the temptations of the Strip more appealing than ever. We ate lunch at one or another of the buffets that offer an enormous range of food of every kind, and wandered through the pseudo-Roman streets of Caesar’s Palace.
When we reached our final destination, Rome, we discovered that the Villa Borghese is merely a poor imitation of the Las Vegas version. No, not really. There are certain similarities, however. The ever-present atmosphere of conspicuous consumption comes to mind. But nothing anywhere can compete with the delicate statues of Bernini, who manages to make marble seem as malleable as flesh in his depiction of the moment when Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne is foiled as she is turned into a tree. Or when Proserpina is being abducted by a the god Pluto, whose fingers dig into her flesh with horrifying realism. Bernini has even managed to make the anguish on the lovely young woman’s face palpable.
Rome is indisputably the site of innumerable riches. It has everything – artistic treasures galore, architectural wonders, archaeological wealth – but getting to see it all is something of an ordeal. For some unknown reason, possibly economic, the streets of central Rome are paved with cobblestones that are rather hard on the feet, so that even with good walking shoes some pain cannot always be evoided. The shops display scrumptious foods and beautiful clothes, and even the museums display the high-heeled shoes that were fashionable in the seventeenth century (see photo below). Thank goodness I didn’t live there then.
In order to rest my feet I entered one of the many churches which abound on all sides. Some of them have piped music in the background, adding to the devout atmosphere. Imagine my surprise at hearing a familiar tune sung very softly in one of them. I recognised it after a momentary shock as the modern Hebrew song, ‘Ani ma’amin,’ sung in Hebrew by what sounded like a boy soprano. I assumed that whoever was responsible for choosing the tracks to be broadcast in the church had seen the Italian or Latin translation of the song, ‘Credo,’ and took it to be part of the church service, as tradition requires.
On finally reaching our home, at four in the morning, I vowed that this would be the last time we undertook such an intensive trip. But who knows? My memory isn’t what it was, and by the time I’m presented with the next itinerary I’ll probably have forgotten all about this one.