An architect’s dream trip to Europe I made in 1959 came to mind, as forced confinement stimulated my urge to record my memoirs. The extended pandemic and the new travel ban Europe has imposed on the U.S. are making me nostalgic for the days when such a trip was easy, cheap and accessible to many, even college students. Some will remember, but the millennial generation may not believe, that a man named Arthur Frommer was able to write a book in the 1950s called Europe on Five Dollars a Day. Well, my friend Mike and I darned near did it. The only exceptions to the rule were the VW Beetle we bought for delivery in England, and eventually shipped home and sold, and our occasional blowout for dinner and a night’s entertainment. But even these came at bargain prices — for Americans in those balmy days.
We stayed ten days in Paris altogether, leaving on the morning of the fourteenth — we had had three days of celebrations already and didn’t need anymore. We saw the Eiffel tower, visited the Louvre, the Impressionist museum, which back then was in the old tennis courts, le Jeu de Paume (which I loved), saw la Sainte Chapelle and ate a fine meal every night.
Paris was hot, and the Parisians were clearing out on their annual holiday, when we left on the 14th. We joked about language a lot that day. Although I had the advantage of three years of college French, Mike had traveled throughout Europe with his family. It was a great combination. He knew about service issues: restaurants, hotels and local customs, and he spoke German. For example, at the cafés in Paris he had taught me that ordering a “limonade” would get me a fizzy bottled soda. Ordering a citron pressé would reward me with a much better drink. I insisted on my “limonade” and soon realized my error. The waiter brought me a bottle of lemon Pschitt, which tasted about like it sounded, but Mike got a plate with a knife, a fresh lemon and a bowl of sugar, so he could make himself a real lemonade.
I have always had a good ear for language, so I was somewhat fluent in a natural-sounding French. It also made for great fun. When a Citroën crossed into the opposite lane to sail past us at 110 miles an hour, Mike said, «Ça va être un Citroën pressé.» When I saw a cow in a field, he’d say, «Voila une vache francaise. (There’s a French cow) » I responded, «Ç’est comme une vache normale, mais plus amoureuse. (It’s like a normal cow, but more amorous). »
I was to be the art and architecture guide for the tour, while Mike would find us the best musical and entertainment events. Our next stop that afternoon was to be Notre Dame du Haut, a free-form church on a hilltop in in Ronchamp, France, designed by Charles-Èdouard Jeanneret-Gris, a Swiss-French architect who called himself Lecorbusier. As we rounded the curve in the mountainous country of southeastern France on a dull day, a sunbeam burst through the clouds and fell on a gleam of white on a hilltop. Following the signs to our destination, we lost sight of the church began to climb. As we neared the summit, around the bend we came upon the building itself, two upswept curving walls of white stucco, topped by a billowing roof ending in a point and a simple cross. On the interior, one left the blinding light of the approach was plunged into a darkened compressed space, which exploded inside to the higher roof above and focused upon a simple raised pulpit. Illuminated by tiny square openings punched in the right-hand wall and a vertical window, which joined and illuminated the edges the two sweeping enclosure walls. A few typically black-clad French ladies knelt in prayer, scattered among the pews , setting the stage.This was of the the few projects this influential architect and theorist actually saw constructed. Seeing this in itself was an architect’s dream, and it was worth going out of our way to visit.
We headed southward to join the main route and plunged into the foothills of the Alps. We were headed for Geneva, Switzerland, and sought a youth hostel somewhere along the way a short distance from the Swiss border. We didn’t count on distances through mountainous terrain, however, much longer than they looked on the map,. About 8 PM we arrived in the fading twilight at the joyous scene of some thirty-five French teens on vacation, singing and joking with each other outdoors. Despite the hour, the jolly patrónne was happy to see us as asked if we were hungry. Like any resourceful French woman, she rustled up an omelet and accepted us for the night’s lodging. My most vivid memory in the morning was the French and Swiss kids, awkwardly lifting their feet high into several large sinks in the yard to wash them—no doubt, we remarked, just in case they had to trample grapes later for wine.
We went through Bern and Interlochen and stopped at Lausanne in one day. The weather was bad and we couldn’t see the mountains, but We swam in Lake Geneva on both sides. We stopped at a lakefront youth hostel near Vevey. When we awoke and entered in a large refectory overlooking the deep, still waters, 100 young people were already feasting at a breakfast of fresh-baked bread and an unlimited supply of semi-sweet chocolate cocoa, of a flavor my dad had made for me as a child from unsweetened Baker’s chocolate. The heavenly aroma and authentic flavor of that marvelous Swiss confection confirmed for me the country’s reputation as the greatest chocolatier in the world.
I wrote home next from Juan-les-Pins, on the Mediterranean coast, “So here we are on the Cote d’Azur. Last night we had dates with some Danish girls from Copenhagen that we met on the beach at Cannes. They are really friendly people. We may see them again in Copenhagen at the end of August. We’re leaving Cannes tomorrow, driving along the coast through Genoa and going to Florence, where we hope to stay for a few days if our guide, the girl I met on the boat, is still here.”
It was on to Italy by way of Genoa and a slow route along the crowded waterfront highway. When we finally arrived at Rome much later in the day, I depended on Mike’s experience as a guide. My architect’s dream resumed, as , we trekked to the Roman forum, visited the Pantheon, which I sketched with great enthusiasm and admiration, not failing to note the sleek central railroad station. I concluded that the Romans had been a race of designers for the last 2000 years continuing uninterrupted up to modern times. We had rabbit for dinner that night in a delicious stew and the next day went on to visit St. Peter’s Square, with Bernini’s arcade the next extended nave and the original cruciform portion of the building featuring Michelangelo’s dome.
Our quarters during our Roman stay were a youth hostel in an old house — in Italy means 400 to 500 years. People here were traveling from all over Europe: Harry and Elfie, a couple from Germany; Hans, a heavyset Dutch boy who spoke slowly and, despite some school English training, spoke slowly and seemed to understand very little, and a couple of witty French students who were sitting on the patio wall finishing off a bottle of the wine. We were having fun joking around with them. One boy said, soldat morte (dead soldier).» A girl sitting next to him tipped up the bottle and said, «Je lui donnerai le coup de grȃce (I’ll give him the final blow). »
From Paris we drove to Switzerland, via Ronchamp, France, so I could see Lecorbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut, a very modern church. It was magnificent.
In Rome we found a youth hostel in an old town house — in Europe, “old” means built at least 300 years ago. It was hard event to sleep, much less resume my architect’s dream. The boys’ dormitory, once a burger’s grand bedroom, had two large windows, was packed with double bunks for about eighteen young teens. On the first night, the day’s heat, which had built up during the afternoon, caused the inside temperature to be much higher than outside. the only relief an occasional breath of fresh air through unscreened, open windows. When darkness settled,we all collapsed our beds. It wasn’t long before I had developed a new vocabulary. The operative word was zanzara, and no one had to translate. We tried to lie still and soundless, but the sound of incoming dive bombers approached from all directions. After the first half hour of tossing in this private hell I had mosquito bites all over my arms and legs . I learned how to say mosquito in four languages and swear words in five. The only escape from the merciless menace was to hide completely under the thin blanket. But it was already 95 degrees in the room, and the blanket made it worse.
Finally, one of the older Italian boys, speaking from apparently hard-won knowledge, said in English, “Okay, here’s what we do. The only way to fix this is to close the shutters and kill every insect in here.” He was greeted with a chorus of groans and gripes. “Zu heiss. (Too hot)” and “Hey, you can’t cut off the only fresh air in the room,” and, «Il est déja trop chaud la-dedans. Tu veux nous rôtir? (It’s already too hot in here. You want to roast us?). » But no one had a better suggestion, so we closed off the windows and turned on the single bulb dangling from a cord in the ceiling. With rolled newspapers, magazines, shoes and our bare hands, eighteen guys assaulted the enemy. Twenty minutes later, the high-pitched buzzing had stopped. Remains of the tiny guided missiles were smeared on the ancient, rough plaster of every wall. We declared victory, turned off the light and descended into an exhausted, overheated sleep.
After visiting the obligatory historical sites, we were unwilling to spend another day in the blistering hot streets of Rome. Mike decided was a perfect day to leave the city and organized a trip to Villa d’Este in Tivoli, country home of cardinals and popes east of the city—a UNESCO World Heritage site owned and maintained by the Italian government since 1920—a classic example of Renaissance architecture, landscape and water feature design, further enhanced by baroque artists and architects during the 17th century. It was laid out by Pirro Ligorio (1500-1583) on behalf of Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este of Ferrara (1509-1572), who, after being named governor of Tivoli in 1550, wanted a palace and gardens suitable to his new, elevated status. I brought my sketchpad. While Mike toured the site with the a beautiful Israeli girl we had met in Rome, I was free to plant myself in front of a group of magnificent fountains alongside a valley of pools, The whole complex is sourced by water which begins at the top and descends a side slope into this valley and then is released to water gardens even further below.
The most striking effect is produced by the big cascade flowing out of a krater perched in the middle of the exedra. Jets of water were activated whenever unsuspecting people walked under the arcades. The Fontana del Bicchierone (Fountain of the Great Glass), built according to a design by Bernini (1660-61) was added to the decoration of the central longitudinal axis in the 17th century. This fountain is in the shape of a serrated chalice, from which a high jet of water falls into a conch shell. The garden with the fountains is a masterpiece of hydraulic engineering, both for the general lay out of the plan and the complex system of distribution of water as well as for the many water plays with the introduction of the first hydraulic automatons ever built.
Just as I began sketching the main fountain, a busload of schoolchildren burst upon the scene. Much to their teachers’ dismay, with squeals of delight and shouts of joy, ran for the semicircular arcade in the hillside, the exedra, which surrounds the main fountain and pool and hides its occupants behind a wall of falling water. Twenty minutes later when the chaperones had regained control, the school group moved on and I resumed what was the most refreshing sketch of the trip.
I had hoped to get back there someday. Who knows? With a minor miracle, it could happen.
Until next time, good words to you,