Tuesday, November 23, 2010


In the spring of 1799, the city of Philadelphia, PA was bureaucrat heaven. The State, Local and Federal governments were for the most part sharing the same space, and the their constituent parts were lodged in every nook and cranny of downtown Philly. Politicians from every conceivable level were walking the streets and 18th century lobbyists were waiting behind every corner waiting to pounce.

But then, almost suddenly, the city was abandoned. First the Pennsylvania government decided they needed more space and they moved to Lancaster in the middle of the summer. Then, in 1800, the Feds moved to Washington, and Philadelphia was left with only its local pols, and a pressing need with some other industry to fuel its economy.

That the city did, but the few blocks around Chestnut street continued to hold the remains of what was at one time the center of the American universe.

It was here at the old State House, on the first floor, that the Second Continental Congress, decided to declare themselves a thing called the United States of America in 1776. Then ten years later, the same Congress, now located in New York, endorsed the creation of a heretofore-illegal convention to replace the ramshackle constitution that had been in effect since 1781, and suggested holding it in the empty lower floor of the Pennsylvania State House.

But in 1801 no one really cared all that much about historic preservation, and the place became a warehouse, then an art school, then Charles Wilson Peale’s museum, which was meant to be Philly’s answer to P. T. Barnum’s in New York.

Peale’s Museum was thrown out when it was decided the building was too venerable, and became a more dignified public space, before being turned into a shrine in 1876.

Today, while it’s been restored to it’s 1787 glory; one cannot help but be a bit sad that the top floor, which is where the rangers give their talks, couldn’t have been redone to be a restoration of Peale’s museum. An ancient freak show would be a perfect antidote to the solemnity of the assembly hall on the ground floor.

While independence Hall itself, and Congress Hall next door, which was where the first few Congresses under the constitution met, are well done museums, much of which surrounds it is not.

The shrine to the Liberty Bell is downright vulgar, and a number of private museums in the immediate area, most notably the Museum of Liberty, are total rip-offs. The National Constitution Center is hideously expensive, and when I was there, the place was full of advertisements for an exhibit that had already closed.

On the other hand, the visitor’s center has a couple of nice movie theaters and a couple of decent exhibits, and the Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson impersonators are relatively entertaining.

One thing that they’re currently doing is rebuilding the mansion that was where the Presidential residence was. When I was a kid, the site was a public toilet. I thought then as now that the President living in a toilet was hilarious.

Independence Park is a UNESCO Would Heritage site, and deservedly so. The two seminal events that happened here are is why it’s essential.

The Vatican

One of the coolest things that a tourist can do is to see an entire foreign country…All of it…From one end of the other.

This is activity that can literally take a lifetime in some cases, and for most of us, that’s just too damn long. So how to choose?

Size matters. It has to be small, real small. So the best place is to start in Rome. The record books state that the City of Rome is home to three countries: Italy, of which it is the capitol, The State of Vatican City, and the embassy of The Sovereign Military Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta,

The Knights of Malta’s embassy at Via dei Condotti 68, has official extraterritoriality, which means that, it’s the territory, not of Italy, but of the Knights, which don’t have a country back home like Belize or Monaco and thus, the small palace and it’s courtyard are the whole shebang. They don’t let tourists in, and there’s nothing to actually see except a couple of trees and boring office space.

So that’s why the Vatican’s a must. It’s an official country, and at 0.2 square miles, much of which is dedicated to one of the best museums in the world, is doable, and thanks to the internet, now more than ever.

It used to be that getting a ticket to the garden tour, where you get to hike all the way to the helicopter pad on the western end of the country and back, was impossible. You had to send a fax to some monsignor somewhere, and wait a few weeks, and if the pope decided to take a jog or something, it could be cancelled. Then you’d be stuck.

But today, it’s different. Go to http://www.rome-museum.com/vatican-gardens-booking-step-1.php, apply, then pay the 35€ when they reply, and when the time comes, go. It’s worth the trouble.

The first thing you notice when you get off at the Ottaviano metro station is that the reason the Vatican still exists is that it’s surrounded by a very high and thick wall. Across the street are literally hundreds of souvenir shops, at least on the side close to St. Peter’s basilica, and these sell religious articles and pope stuff, and it’s best to ignore these for now. So look for the huge line and find where it begins. You don’t need to wait because you’ve already got a ticket. You enter the museum entrance and go through customs, which resembles airport security. You will then notices the first of many official souvenir shops, which dot the museum. After presenting you’re ticket to the people at the guided tour they give you a little radio receiver. That way the guide doesn’t have to yell and disturb the priests who hang out in the gardens to shirk their hard spiritual labors.

What’s there is almost unexpected. Aside from the formal gardens, there’s areas of lush subtropical splendor palm trees and banana bushes with parrots screeching from here and there. There’s Pope Pius IV’s pleasure dome, which dates from the early 16th century, which is a sight to behold, a small temple to the Madonna and John Paul II’s jubilee bell from ten years ago.

The priests and Swiss guards don’t like tourists mucking up their private park, and after about two hours of hiking, we’re sent back to the grounds of the museum and relieved of our radios. The tour covers about 75% of the country, and the rest is the museum and the office buildings. While the offices are of no real interest to anybody who doesn’t have business there, the museums are.

The Popes didn’t live in the Vatican until 1870. That’s because they controlled all of central Italy until then, and would only use it as glorified panic room when the Romans would revolt, or the Saracens or Germans for French would invade or something like that, and since these things would happen far more frequently than one might assume, what is now the museum was a rather large palace.

This palace now contains literally centuries of plunder and collections, Rome being almost three thousand years old and all, every time someone found a sculpture, his holiness would get first dibs on it, and if he was generous would actually pay for it.

The amount of ancient Roman sculpture on display is mind boggling there are tens of thousands of busts of anyone and everyone between emperors and slaves, some of which are rather famous, such as Laocoön and his Sons by Agesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus, and the iconic image of the Emperor Augustus.

But the Sistine Chapel beckons, and while the art is spectacular, the place is as crowded as a subway car during rush hour, and the conservators keep the room dark, and it’s difficult to take it in.

Then once you’re finished with that, there’s the long trek back to the exit, and on the way, there’s dozens of official souvenir stands selling Michaelangelo reproductions and Pope stuff. There’s also a pizzaria, which isn’t bad.

Then you have to leave the country, return to Italy, and follow the walls to St. Peter’s basilica, which is a trip in itself. There’s the huge works of art, and at least three dead popes in glass cases (John XXIII, Clement XI, and Pius X) and a souvenir shops in the treasury area and near the statue of Constantine. The huge church is in fact built over a graveyard, and you can see that too, but aside from the graves of the two John Pauls, it’s difficult to find any of the more interesting ones.

The area around the entrance to the basilica has a dozen or so official Tchotchke places, so it qualifies as a tourist trap. It is essential.

Fisherman's wharf, San Francisco

It is said that San Franciscans hate Fisherman’s wharf. To some extent that’s probably true. The reason is simple. Too many tourists! San Franciscans HATE tourists, those who aren’t in the tourist/hospitality industry at least. It reminds them that the hospitality/ tourist industry is in fact the largest in the city and that it’s possible that the city’s best days are behind it. Granted, gentrification has improved much of the burg, but be that as it may, whether the locals like it or not, Fisherman’s wharf is an essential tourist trap.

If it wasn’t so, then how do you explain the fact that it has three (count’em THREE) National parks, decent food, a sizable percentage of the world’s sea lions, good fishing, and really good views of the bay. What more do you want? A cheesy shopping mall? They got that too.

The reason most San Franciscans rarely go there (or admit that they do) is the main reason it’s essential. It’s too famous. This is why most people don’t go to their area’s famous attractions. It’s also arrogance. After all, the area stinks with tourists, and unless they work there, the locals are better than that, thumbing their noses at us fat visitors who come to see the city by the bay. This is just something you have to see…

Starting with the National Parks…

The three NP’s, Alcatraz, San Francisco Maritime, and Golden Gate/Miller Field aren’t exactly in the Wharf, they frame it, Alcatraz, on Pier 33, is the eastern boarder of the area, the other two on the west. As far as Alcatraz goes, trip is definitely worth it, however you just can’t walk up to the ticket kiosk and get on the next boat. Everything’s booked up for at least a day in advance, so go to the website first: http://www.alcatrazcruises.com/website/pyt-transportation.aspx and get a reservation. The whole thing takes about a day, which means that Fisherman’s Wharf is a two-day operation.

If you forgot to make a reservation for Alcatraz, then find out when the first available boat is and head west to Pier 39, which is where the carousel, aquarium and the notorious hoard of sea lions are. This is the little bit of Disneyland that the shishi San Franciscans so love to hate. Unless you’re looking for high culture or a quiet bucolic setting (in which case what the hell are you doing in San Francisco?), this is the best spot for people watching (Union Square is a close second). The prices for souvenir tchotchies are high, but not THAT high, and the street performers are for the most part entertaining. This is San Francisco the theme park, and as such is pretty successful.

West of Pier 39 is the Wharf proper, bordered by the bay to the north and North Point St. to the south, and Hyde St., where the cable cars and Maritime National Park are, to the west Here you will find a huge number of souvenir stands and seafood restaurants, just what a tourist wants and a local doesn’t. After all, except for the occasional patriotic tee shirt and baseball caps during the season, who really goes around with stuff festooned with one’s hometown’s logo on it?

But behind the all the kitsch, you will discover that Fisherman’s Wharf is a real wharf with real fisherman. Go ahead, have an expensive bowl of chowder or crab cakes. It’s part of the experience. Finally, there are the two national parks. Maritime has an interesting museum and for a small fee you get to see some interesting old ships. Then there’s a place to rest and look at the bay, which is owned by the US government and is absolutely free. Further to the west, you’ll see a cliff. That’s the Fort Mason Unit of the Golden Gate National Parks, and is technically part of the Marina district.

Fisherman’s Wharf is an essential tourist trap….and why do you think they call them that?

New Orleans

Sometime back in the early ‘90s, some congresscritter got it into his head that the Department of the Interior should promote music.

A few years earlier, in 1987, Congress passed one of those symbolic resolutions, somewhat akin to “National Turnip Day,” declaring “Jazz is hereby designated as a rare and valuable national American treasure to which we should devote our attention, support, and resources to make sure it is preserved, understood and promulgated.” This was harmless enough in itself, but how exactly does it go from there to one of the more misbegotten parks in the National Park System?

Well, in 1993, Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA), the guy who would eventually wind up in jail for having all that cash in his freezer, introduced H.R.3408, a classic piece of pork designating something in New Orleans to be a National Park celebrating the history of Jazz. It had no boundaries, no land, no nothing. Just funding for some rangers based in the offices of Jean Lefitte National Park trying to promote what the city of New Orleans was doing very nicely on it’s own.

Today, it has a few very modest venues around the French quarter and is getting some more, but that’s why not why it’s essential. The reason it’s essential is that Jazz National Historic Park, and its sibling Jean Lefitte, cover the entire French Quarter of New Orleans.

So get this: The two Hustler Clubs on Bourbon Street, of which I’ve only seen the outside of, are inside a National Park, so’s the rest of Bourbon Street, and if there ever was a tourist trap, it’s Bourbon street.

The French Quarter, unlike, say Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, is a source of pride for New Orleanians, and while the place is as touristy as Hell, the locals not only admit to frequenting the place, they can outnumber the tourists on occasion, and the area of Bourbon St. between Canal and St. Phillip, is Disneyland for Drunks.

The drinks are extremely expensive, although you can take them outside and go to another bar for a refill, paying $16 for a shot is a little much. But if you do it right, you can manage to hear some pretty good music, which is what the National Park is all about. While it’s not always Marti Gras, they try to keep up the pretense.

One block south of Bourbon is Royal, which is full of art galleries and restaurants, all three levels of government, Federal, State, and Local, have strict laws regarding the preservation of buildings, and as the Quarter was one of the few areas that were totally unscathed by Katrina, and unlike the Ninth ward, the powers that be want this area to continue to thrive, and it does.

Most people in the Quarter don’t know that they’re simultaneously in two National Parks. Tour Guides Association of Greater New Orleans, Inc., who’s membership doesn’t appreciate the Federal Government taking over their jobs, has an agreement limiting the NPS to one fifteen minute tour a day. With tourism the areas largest industry, that makes sense.

The architecture is beautiful, the people are mostly friendly, and while everything is damn expensive, but you just HAVE to see it.

Washington's Mall.

Washington, DC is a company town all right. It has one industry, the government, and everything derives from that. People go there to see the government and said government’s tributes to itself, nothing else. Sure there are restaurants and museums. Sure there are three major universities, and some pretty nice parks, but aside from the Universities, all are either run by the government or by private interests to maintain it.

A bar frequented by bureaucrats and journalists helps maintain the government as much as the official office buildings. While it would be wrong to say the entire District of Columbia is a tourist trap, few would want to go see the SouthEast Quadrant, the area called the National Mall most certainly is. In an earlier installment of this series, someone complained that The Statue of Liberty was a “tourist attraction” not a ”tourist trap”. Well, consider this:

Take a look at the Lincoln memorial. Walk up those famous stairs and when you are on the same level as the base of the statue, go right. There you will find a souvenir shop. That’s right, built right into the edifice.

Remember Jesus tried to start a riot about something like that.

It wasn’t always like that. A century ago, the mall had only one major memorial, that to George Washington, and a much smaller Smithsonian institution. Today, we’ve got something for every war we ever fought, and then some. The Mall is beginning to run out of room, what with the Dwight Eisenhower and Martin Luther King memorials due to begin construction soon and at least a dozen others in the works.

Most of the ones that are already there aren’t the least bit objectionable, but do they each deserve a souvenir stand? No. The problem is that special interests have gotten a hold of them and for the most part made them worse. Look at the Vietnam memorial for example:

Maya Lin’s original design was perfect. It was simple, stark, and moving. It honored those who served and died in the war, but not the war itself. It was totally complete and did it’s job perfectly As such it stood as is for a number of years, and then a veteran’s group demanded to be included, and two groups of sculptures were added cluttering up the space. Not to disrespect those brave people who served and demanded to be honored there, but they pretty much ruined the serenity and the artistic unity of the space. It looks a bit cluttered, and the souvenir shed nearby doesn’t help all that much either.

Another example is the Franklin Roosevelt Memorial, which has FDR depicted in a way that would have horrified him. Pride is considered a deadly sin for a reason.

With the John Stewart rally less than a week away, going all the way to DC without strolling around and seeing some of these monuments would be a tragedy.

There are too many memorials to see than can be done in a day, but most are essential. Most also have souvenir stands. This makes them tourist traps.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Summing up the Trip

The trip is over. The killer jet lag, three days of 14-18 hours of sleep a night, has abated at last. I've ticked another country off the list and am getting ready for a cross-country jaunt from San Francisco to Boston by bus.
But before I do that, there are a few loose ends to tie up.

For one thing, Iran ain't Persia. Persia is a nation with a thousands-year-old history that's fully capable of integrating itself into the modern world. It's got the technology to do it; it's full of intelligent people with a zest for life and a love of culture. It's a nation that wants to be a friend of ours and that should be.

Iran is a corrupt, terrorist state that enjoys hurting people. Look what it's done to Iraq and Lebanon. The theocracy has managed to have a toothless toy democracy as a loincloth to cover its privates.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the puppet president of Iran, has announced that he's going to address the UN, and that's his right. He's an annoying buffoon, but we can't and shouldn't stop him. The question is not what we're going to have to do about HIM, but what we're going to have to do with his master, über-fürer Ali Khamenei, who had appointed himself to the job and threatens to remain there for life (He's been there almost twenty years). He's part of the group of thugs in antique clothing that defrauded Persia when the people demanded democracy and overthrew a tyrant.

We can't get rid of him, of course. In 1953, the CIA sent Teddy Roosevelt's grandson Kim with a suitcase full of cash to get rid of a semi-democratically elected prime minister, and he did, but only because the powers that be in Iran, including that prime minister being deposed permitted it. Mohammed Reza Shah fled in 1979 because Jimmy Carter refused to support him, and that caused all the trouble.

The Russians and the Brits have really good relations with Iran. The Russians helped install Reza Khan and the Brits got rid of him. Eisenhower sent Kim Roosevelt to Tehran as a favor to Winston Churchill. Stalin occupied much of Northern Iran during the 1940s, but they have very good relations with the Iranian government. The Soviets were the main backers of Israel during its first five years of existence.

So why is it just US who's picked out as the Great Satan? Diversion, mostly. If they refuse to talk to us, and go around shooting missiles and enriching uranium, they can go around saying..."Those bastard Americans are picking on us for no reason!" and all the problems like inflation, energy and the environment (to be fair, they've been pretty good on that) and feel like a righteous victim. But the Persians, Azeris, Kurds, Jews and others know what the real deal is. Unfortunately, the Mullahs haven’t agreed to go, and unlike the Shah, don’t care if a Jimmy Carter is going to withhold his support or nor.

Iran’s like Burma in that way. Myanmar goes under the wrong name as well.

Well, that’s it for now. I hoped you liked the series.. Now it’s back to important
things, like the cover of this week’s New Yorker…