Category: Travels

The merit of Mount Rushmore

I went there once, I think in 1988.  To me it was a nightmare, aesthetically and otherwise.  The art of the monument was “not even as good as fascism.”  (Various Soviet-era memorials are far superior as well.)  I am not into the whole cancelling thing, but I didn’t feel I needed to pay additional homage to a bunch of well-known presidents.  The surrounding food scene appeared quite mediocre, although probably that has improved.  Overall it was crowded, tacky, and unpleasant, with absolutely nothing of value to do.

The main value of the scene was to liberate space and ease congestion in other parts of the universe, so I certainly hope they never abolish it.

It’s a Good Summer to Explore America at Random

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the premise:

With my summer trips abroad canceled, I decided to be resourceful about travel. Having lived in Northern Virginia for 30 years, I asked myself a simple question: Which local trip have I still not done?

Earlier in the summer I thought I might spend time in scenic Maine, but too many of my friends from the Northeast and mid-Atlantic seemed to be planning the same. I decided a more adventurous course of action would be to get in the car with my daughter Yana and spend a three-day weekend on the road.

The column is not easily excerpted, but here is one bit:

Lunch was in Morgantown, West Virginia, but rather than visit the university, we stopped for excellent Jamaican food with jerk chicken, oxtail and plantains — better than the equivalent in the D.C. area. A tip: If you’re ever looking for great food in obscure locales, don’t just google “best restaurants Morgantown WV,” as that will yield too many mainstream options. Pick a cuisine you don’t expect them to have, and Google something like “best Haitian restaurant Morgantown WV.” Whether a Haitian restaurant comes up (it didn’t), you’ll get a more interesting selection of “best” picks. In this case we learned that a town of 30,000 people has several Caribbean restaurants, highly rated ones at that.

Five states in one day (VA, WV, MD, PA, OH) was great fun.  In my view, every excellent trip has one stop or locale at its emotional and narrative heart, and for this trip is was the Native American Earthworks in Marietta, southern Ohio.

Charles Town, West Virginia

It is only about 70 minutes drive from Fairfax, VA, and yet so few go and visit — why might that be?  This town is full of charm, old buildings, Civil War history, and there is a plaque to Martin R. Delany in the town center.

West Virginia is in the process of reopening (note the obscenity), but barber shops require appointments and take only one person at a time.  The restaurants seem to be doing curbside only, as in Virginia, and what would you want to eat there anyway?  Population density in town is low, and it feels quite safe to walk around because you don’t have to switch sides of the street to avoid people.  You just have to walk at a constant pace.

In one store they will sell you toilet paper and masks.  But the guy takes his mask off to sell you the masks, because he feels he needs to explain and justify the prices for the masks.

The gdp per capita of West Virginia is, surprisingly to many people, equal to about that of France.  Charles Town is by no means run down, and either the center of town or the outskirts appear to be somewhat wealthier than most parts of Western Europe.

Here are eleven classic dishes you might try in West Virginia.

And there is still an opera house in town, and it was staging Sondheim’s Into the Woods until Covid came along.

Places to go in 2020

Here is the mostly dull NYT list.  Here is my personal list of recommendations for you, noting I have not been to all of the below, but I am in contact with many travelers and paw through a good deal of information:

1. Pakistan, and Pakistani Kashmir.  Finally it is safe, and in some way it is easier to negotiate than India.  The best dairy products I have eaten in my life, and probably it is the most populous country you have not yet seen, or maybe Nigeria, but that makes the list too.  Islamabad is nicer than any city in India, and watch the painter trucks on the nearby highway.

2. Eastern Bali.  Still mostly unspoilt, the perfect mix of exoticism and comfort.  This island is much, much more than Elizabeth Gilbert, yoga, and hippie candles.

3. Lalibela, Ethiopia.  Has some of my favorite churches, beautiful vistas and super-peaceful, and the high altitude of Lalibela and Addis means you don’t have to take anti-malarials.  I know a good guide there, here are my Lalibela posts.  the central bank forecasts 10.8% growth for the country for next year, so Lalibela is likely to change rapidly.

4. Lagos, Nigeria.  A bit dangerous, but immense fun, wonderful music every night, and not nearly as bad as you might be thinking.  Africa’s most dynamic city by far and a new modern civilization in the works.  Here are my earlier Lagos posts, including travel tips.

5. Odisha [Orissa], India.  Sometimes called India’s most underrated cuisine, that is enough reason to go and so now it is on my list for myself.

6. Sumatra, Indonesia.  Surely a good place to understand the evolution of Islam, and supposedly to be Indonesia’s best food.  I hope to get there soon.  First-rate textiles and lake views, I hear.

7. Warsaw, Poland.  No, not a fascist country (though objectionable in some regards), and rapidly becoming the center of opportunity for eastern Europe and a major player in the European Union.  First-rate food and dishes you won’t get elsewhere, at least nothing close to comparable quality.  Nice for walking, don’t expect too many intact old buildings, but isn’t it thrilling to see a major part of Europe growing at four percent?

8. Baku, Azerbaijan.  The world’s best seaside promenade, and wonderful textiles and food, in the Iranian direction, here are my travel notes.  Feels exotic, yet safe and orderly as well.

9. Macedonia, or anywhere off the beaten track in the former Yugoslavia.  Then think about the history and politics of where you are at, and then think about it some more.

10. Quito, Ecuador.  One of the world’s loveliest cities, including the church, wonderful potatoes and corn for vegetarians too.  There are some iPhone snatchers, but overall safe to visit.  Very good day trips as well, including to the “Indian market” at Otavalo and volcano Cotopaxi.

How has Paris changed

Following my OECD visit, I have been thinking about how Paris has changed in the almost thirty years I have been going there.  I came up with the following mental list:

1. It is much less of a working class city in the center.

2. Many more immigrants, most of all outside the center.  The center and the periphery are now more different than in times past.

3. People smoke much, much less.

4. The residents are less Marxist, but now more “woke.”

5. English is far more widely spoken, and good French is not so much expected in casual interactions.

6. The average quality of bread is declining.

7. Michelin restaurants, in relative terms, have grown much more expensive.  I recall having a meal at the Hotel Bristol, maybe six years ago, for 150 euros.  A similar meal now goes for 380 euros, more than I am willing to pay.

8. The city has been remarkably economically resilient, in part because of the longstanding emphasis on services.

9. The city now has a burgeoning start-up scene.

10. I believe central Paris is now much more different from the rest of France than it used to be.

What else?

My favorite things Venice

1. Favorite playwright: Carlo Goldoni, eighteenth century, best if you can see one rather than try to read it.

2. Play, set in: William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice.  Read it carefully and repeatedly, it is far subtler on issues of racism and prejudice than you might have been expecting.

3. Opera, set in: Verdi’s Otello (James Levine recording).  Even as a dramatic work I (perhaps oddly) prefer this to Shakespeare’s play.

4. Memoir, set in: Casanova, though I suggest you read an abridged edition.  I strongly recommend reading Marco Polo as well, though I am not sure that counts as a “memoir.”

5. Short story, set in: Thomas Mann, “Death in Venice.”  But a close runner-up is Henry James, “The Aspern Papers.”

Are you getting the picture? Venice has inspired numerous major writers and artists.  However I don’t love John Ruskin on Venice.

6. Painting: Ah!  Where to start?  I’ll opt for Giorgione’s The Tempest, or any number of late Titian works.  And there are so many runners-up, starting with Veronese, Tintoretto, the Bellinis, and later Tiepolo.  Even a painter as good as Sebastiano del Piombo is pretty far down the list here.  Canaletto bores me, though the technique is impressive.

7. Sculptor: Antonio Canova was born in the Venetian Republic, and I believe he is now one of the most underrated of Western artists.  His greatest work is in Vienna.

8. Composer: I can’t quite bring myself to count Monteverdi as Venetian, so that leaves me with Luigi Nono and also Gabrieli and Albioni and Vivaldi, none of whom I enjoy listening to.

9. Conductor: Giuseppe Sinopoli.  I enjoy his Mahler and Strauss and Elgar, and his take on Verdi’s Aida was special as well.

10. Photographer of: Derek Parfit, here are some images.

11. Movie, set in: I can recall the fun Casino Royale James Bond scene, but surely there is a better selection attached to a better movie.  What might that be?

11. Maxim about: Pope Gregory XIII: “I am pope everywhere except in Venice.”

All in all, not bad for a city that nowadays has no more than 60,000 residents and was never especially large.

I’ll be there in a few days time.

Open Borders in Svalbard!

Well north of Iceland there is a island archipelago that is governed by Norway but because of a peculiar treaty it has entirely open borders:

When you land in Longyearbyen, the largest settlement in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, you can step off the plane and just walk away. There’s no passport control, no armed guard retracing your steps, no biometric machine scanning your fingers. Svalbard is as close as you can get to a place with open borders: As long as you can support yourself, you can live there visa-free.

In an excellent piece in The Nation, Atossa Araxia Abrahamian describes the history and what it is like to visit:

Formally, Svalbard—known as Spitsbergen until the 20th century—belongs to Norway, which writes the laws, enforces order, builds infrastructure, and regulates hunting, fishing, and housing. Last year, when a Russian man was caught trying to rob a bank in town, a Norwegian judge sentenced him under Norwegian law to a Norwegian jail. But Norway’s control over Svalbard comes with obligations outlined by an unusual 1920 treaty signed as part of the Versailles negotiations ending World War I.

Written in the aftermath of the war, the Svalbard Treaty is both of and ahead of its time. Its architects stipulated that the territory cannot be used for “warlike” purposes. They included one of the world’s first international conservation agreements, making Norway responsible for the preservation of the surrounding natural environment. The treaty also insists that the state must not tax its citizens more than the minimum needed to keep Svalbard running, which today typically amounts to an 8 percent income tax, well below mainland Norway’s roughly 40 percent.

Most radically, the treaty’s architects held Norway to what’s known as the nondiscrimination principle, which prevents the state from treating non-Norwegians differently from Norwegians. This applies not just to immigration but also to opening businesses, hunting, fishing, and other commercial activities. Other countries could not lay formal claims on Svalbard, but their people and companies would be at no disadvantage.

Some 37 percent of Svalbard’s population is foreign born and there is an abandoned Soviet town with statues of Vladmir Lenin. Tyler will also be pleased to know that there are puffins.

I can’t say that I am tempted to move, but given global climate change it’s good to know that I could.

Hat tip: The Browser.

Bryan Caplan on Spain

He spent a bunch of weeks there, there are many good observations, here is one of them:

17. Big question: Why is Spain so much richer now than almost any country in Spanish America?  Before you answer with great confidence, ponder this: According to Angus Maddison’s data on per-capita GDP in 1950, Spain was poorer than Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and roughly equal to Colombia, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Panama.  This is 11 years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, and Spain of course stayed out of World War II.

And this:

The worst grocery store I saw in Spain offered higher quality, more variety, and lower prices than the best grocery store I saw in Denmark, Sweden, or Norway.

Do read the whole thing.

I don’t find all global cities increasingly the same

Here is my Bloomberg column on that question, recently raised by Megan McArdle, here is one excerpt from my take:

Maybe it is only the “major” cities that are becoming more alike. If so, what is “major” supposed to mean? Among the more populous cities I have visited are Lagos, Tokyo, Mexico City, Delhi, Sao Paulo, Shanghai and Cairo. I can find very real similarities among their gyms, coffee shops, hotels and smart phones used by the locals. Still, it is hard to argue they are converging on some common set of experiences or cultural memes. Those cities show different movies (for the most part), play different kinds of music in public spaces, serve different dominant cuisines, exhibit different modes of personal dress, and of course speak different languages.

And:

Even central London and central Manhattan have fundamental differences, and that is without bringing Harlem or East Harlem into it. I almost always feel pleasant and relaxed walking around London. In central Manhattan, I often feel a bit stressed. I go to Manhattan to hear jazz, to visit contemporary art galleries, to soak up the energy of the streets. When I am in London (less frequently), I visit well-stocked bookshops, eat Indian food, and absorb a very different vision of government and politics.

To be blunt, if the two cities are so similar, why do I much prefer spending time in London?

…More than ever before, London and New York offer more good ways of having different experiences.

There is much more at the link, hearkening back to my earlier book Creative Destruction: How Globalization is Changing the World’s Cultures.

Ghent travel notes

Ghent is one of the loveliest small- to mid-sized cities in Europe, perhaps lucky to have never received UNESCO World Heritage status, unlike Bruges.  Ghent was one of the earliest seats of the continental Industrial Revolution, through textiles, and the city core has splendid architecture from late medieval times up through the early 20th century.  It is what Amsterdam should be, but no longer is.

The center is full of interesting, quirky small shops, along the lines of the cliche you do not expect to actually find.  Only rarely are restaurant menus offered in English.  Most of the tourists in the hotel seemed to be Chinese.

Walk around, don’t miss Graffiti Street, and the Ensors and the Roualt in the Fine Arts museum complement the more famous items there.  The Industrie Museum has numerous textile machines from the 18th century onwards; I found it striking how different the 1770 machine was from the 1730 vintage, but how little by 1950 the machines had advanced .

For dining I recommend the Surinamese restaurant Faja Lobi and the Syrian Layali Habab, the mainstream Belgian places seem to be good but no better than good unless you pay a lot of money.

Most of all, you should walk around and ponder why we seem unable (or is it unwilling?) to build such compelling cities these days.

Quito travel notes

LLapingachos are the way to go: “an Ecuadorian dish of potato patties or thick potato pancakes stuffed with cheese and cooked on a hot griddle until crispy.”

Given the landlocked nature of Quito, the seafood — and I don’t just mean lake fish — is remarkably good.  Try the fried corvina at Las Corvinas de Don Jimmy, in the Mercado Central, with a drink and ceviche only $6.  Zazu is one of the best restaurants in South America, and many of the dishes are below $15.  I recommend La Briciola for Italian food and chocolate ice cream, noting that in Latin America the most boring-sounding pastas, such as the ravioli, are the ones to order.

The 17th century heritage of Quito makes the colonial center feel like central Mexico.  Think “built up early, backwater later on, for a long time.”  The mix of mestizo and indigenous.  The design of the inner city and its churches.  The role of crafts.  The persistence of particular foodstuffs, in this case potatoes and corn and avocado and palmitos.  Popcorn was invented somewhere around here.

The weather is perfect every day.

Compañía de Jesús is arguably the most beautiful church I have seen.

There is an unusually high percentage of Indian-American tourists (do any of you know why?), that said the absolute number of tourists is quite small.  Most people are passing through on their way to the Galapagos, described by one skeptical pro-Trump tourist we met as “$7,000 worth of lizards.”

Following dollarization, it seems that all the Kennedy half dollars and Sacagawea dollar coins have ended up here.  .

Cops dress like superheroes to make themselves more approachable by children:

The Saturday “Indian market” at Otavalo is the nicest, most hassle-free market I know.  Cotacachi would be a wonderful place to retire, except I won’t.

The quechua-speaking guide for Cotopaxi volcano loves YouTube and listens to “adventures, news, music, and much more.”  He is still hoping to get a phone with an internet connection, and believes that lack of good education for indigenous children is the country’s biggest problem.

“In 2010, more than 2,600 people were killed in Ecuador, a homicide rate of about 18 per 100,000, almost twice the level the World Health Organization considers an epidemic. This year, the small Andean nation is expected to record 5.6 killed per 100,000, one of Latin America’s lowest rates.”  (Excellent piece, WSJ link).

On the “is now the right time to visit Quito?” scale, I give 2019 a 9.5.