Tuesday, June 12, 2012

This morning, I’m standing in front of William Shakespeare’s birthplace on Henley Street, waiting to buy a £21 ticket for all five properties in town run by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, including Hall’s Croft, Nash’s House and New Place, and two sites farther afield—Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and Mary Arden’s Farm—for which there’s a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus.

Shakespeare was born in a half-timber frame building with tan plaster walls, pointed gables, and diamond-paned windows—not terribly impressive in its own right in a city awash in Tudor homes, but because of its literary connection, this has been a tourist destination for more than 250 years, visited by the likes of Charles Dickens, John Keats, Thomas Hardy, and, of course, Washington Irving, who wrote of his visit during a “poetical pilgrimage” to Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1820. Even then, it was a “small mean-looking edifice of wood and plaster,” but one that was undoubtedly, he said, “a true nestling-place of genius.”

Irving was hardly the first to write about his visit. When the city of Stratford erected a statue to Shakespeare during a Jubilee celebration in 1769, the playwright David Garrick penned these fanciful lines in a lengthy “Ode”:

The fairies by moonlight dance round his green bed
For hallow’d the turf is which pillow’d his head.

The bed is indeed draped in a green coverlet to this day, but as I wander from room to room, it occurs to me that the house says more about those who admire Shakespeare than it does about the Bard himself; more, it would seem, about his reputation after death, than about his earliest years of life. Of that we know remarkably little, aside from the register of his baptism at Holy Trinity Church. Instead, what stands out here is the original window from what is traditionally thought to be the birthing room (in all honesty, historians have no idea in which room Shakespeare was born). The tiny panes of glass were covered with so much graffiti through the years—with so many etched names of ordinary visitors, as well as literary giants such as Sir Walter Scott and Alfred Lord Tennyson—that it had to be removed for safekeeping.  

Shakespeare is credited with coining a great many words and phrases in the English language, including these: “A plague upon both your houses,” “All that glitters is not gold,” and “As dead as a doornail,” later used so memorably by Dickens to describe old Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol. Standing here among the relics, I am reminded—just a bit—of a line from As You Like It: “Too much of a good thing.”

Outside in the garden, things are less hallowed, but far more lively. There are two actors performing scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and there is a small crowd of school kids dressed like characters in a Harry Potter book, with black jackets and red and yellow striped ties. When one of the men asks a question and a young girl raises her hand to answer, I’m reminded of Hermione Granger and think: “Five points for Gryffindor!”

The younger of the two actors has a sweet voice and tuft of ginger hair, and he turns and says:  

 If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding than a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And if I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friend,
And Robin shall restore amends.

We all applaud appreciatively. It’s a fitting cue to leave, so I walk to the corner and grab the sightseeing bus to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, which is just a ten minute ride down the road. This is the childhood home of Shakepeare’s wife and it’s a decidedly romantic place with climbing roses and a thick, thatched roof, and there is a sea of flowers spilling out across the yard. Oddly enough, I recognize it immediately because of a blue and white china plate I once bought at a small antique shop. For years, I used it every day for lunch until it finally broke.

Inside, the cottage is cramped and cozy, with a large open fireplace and a low-hanging ceiling supported by dark oak beams. In the hallway on the way out, there is a corkboard where visitors can leave a note behind that reflects on their visit. It reminds me of Juliet’s house in Verona, Italy, and I wonder if it’s covered with similarly inane commentary. It is! One slip of paper reads: “Zip, zip. Wisconsin, USA” and another, “Where is all the Batman stuff?” But my personal favorite is: “I am cool like sausages.” This one makes me burst out laughing. I suspect that William Shakespeare would turn over in his grave to see how we waste the English language today.

I hop back aboard the sightseeing bus and ride on to Mary Arden’s Farm and the adjacent Palmer’s Farm, where I break for lunch. I look over the menu and because I have no idea what it is and it intrigues me, I order the “Bay & cider infused pot roasted hot hog & pippin bap, sage seasoning with old English slaw.” I am somewhat disappointed to see it’s simply a hot pork sandwich with potato chips and rather conventional looking coleslaw, but it’s warm and satisfying nevertheless.

The farm is a lovely place to be, even on a dreary day. There’s a woman playing a flute, the heavy smell of charcoal embers, and a bevy of farm animals under foot—pigs, goats, sheep, chickens and geese. Nearby, a Falconer is demonstrating her technique with a barn owl. There’s even a group of schoolchildren roaming about in Tudor costumes. It feels as though I’ve stepped back in time.

I finish the afternoon back in Stratford-Upon-Avon with brief visits to Hall’s Croft, the home of Shakespeare’s daughter, Susannah, and her husband, and to Nash’s Hall, which rests alongside the foundations of New Place, the excavated site of Shakespeare’s final home on Chapel Street, long since demolished. Then, I wander down to the RSC and ride the elevator to the top of the tower to survey the town and the surrounding countryside. From here, I can spot the Legacy Falcon Hotel and the adjacent Guild Chapel, and when I look past the swans and the weeping willows along the River Avon, I see the spire of Holy Trinity Church rising high above a forest of green.

With some time left before dinner, I decide do a little shopping and buy a tiny silver mirror embossed with angels for my Mom at the Stratford Antique Centre on Ely Street. Then I make a loop, darting in and out of shops, and walk back along Henley, where there’s a street musician singing “In the Summertime.” You know the song. “Sing along with us, dee dee dee dee dee. Da da da da da, yea we’re hap-pap-py.” For the second time today, I actually laugh out loud. Why? Because it’s freezing cold in Britain, despite what the calendar says, and this poor woman is strumming her guitar while wearing a winter coat, hood, hat, and gloves! I drop a one pound coin into the open case at her feet. Surely, she’s earned it.

I explore some menu boards posted outside by local restaurants before selecting Vintner on Sheep Street for dinner. The breast of chicken I order is roasted in lime butter with mango and spinach, covered in a mild curry sauce, and served over basmati rice. It’s my best meal of the trip so far, and as I eat one delicious bite after another I thumb through a cute little book of Shakespearean insults I bought for my nephew in the gift shop at Nash’s House. It’s called The Bard’s Guide to Abuses and Affronts.

“Thou art as loathsome as a toad.”
“The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes.”
“Out of my sight! Thou dost infect my eyes.”
“I was searching for a fool when I found you.”
“I do desire we may be better strangers.”

I think about those lines later as I sit in the lounge of The Legacy Falcon and try in vain to connect my iPad to the hotel’s wireless router so that I can upload some pictures from the day’s events. There is no signal in my room and this has been an ongoing source of frustration. I talk to the clerk at the front desk. She is surly and seems to have heard the complaint before, but she insists that the hotel doesn’t advertise internet access, therefore I haven’t been deprived of anything I was promised.

Feeling challenged, I stomp back to my room and return with a printed copy of my reservation and point to where it says, very clearly: “Free! Wi-fi is available in the entire hotel and is free of charge.” She is unrepentant. She shrugs mildly and says nothing.

I doubt I could deliver a line with the same flourish as those actors in the garden this morning at Shakespeare’s birthplace, but perhaps with a little practice and small amount of daring, I might just say:

“There’s no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune.”

I don’t, obviously. But I wish I had.

Monday, June 14, 2010

This morning I’m heading to “fair Verona, where we lay our scene.”

William Shakespeare is the world’s most famous poet, and “Romeo and Juliet” arguably his most celebrated play, so I’m about to see if the city lives up to its vaulted description.

It’s 11 AM when I arrive at Porta Nuova station on a train from Milan. I pause at the tabacchi shop inside to buy a Verona Card that will cover my admission fees for the day, as well as local transport, and then grab a bus to Piazza Bra.

It’s a great expanse of space, centered around a circular park, a fountain, and a statue of the ever popular Vittorio Emanuele II. Across the street, a row of elegant buildings follows a graceful arc, most with green awnings for restaurants below, and at the far end, the city’s most notable attraction—a 1st century A.D. Roman arena—stands in proud contrast.

Outside the arena, costumed actors pose for pictures. A man dressed as a Roman soldier attracts attention by thrusting his arms high in the air, pointing an index finger on each hand. A tourist in a straw hat and polo shirt grins sheepishly as a fierce looking female warrior with bleach blond hair and low cut armor holds a dagger to his chest for dramatic effect.

I enter through an archway and climb the stairs to the top row for a better view. An elaborate stage is set and there is a work crew preparing for an upcoming performance of Puccini’s Turandot. It would be wonderful, I think, to see an opera under the stars, but when I cast my eyes across the rows of stone steps—there are very few actual seats—memories of an uncomfortable three hour play at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London come rushing back and I have second thoughts.

I walk down Via Mazzini, a lively street lined with shops, to Piazza delle Erbe, the city’s handsome market square. To get my bearings, I take an elevator, and then spiral stairs, to the top of the adjacent Torre dei Lamberti, which offers a gorgeous view across an ocean of red tiled roofs, from which church steeples rise like lighthouse beacons. I look down at my map and then out again at the city and spot the remains of a Roman theatre across the river on the hill. It seems my itinerary for the day is settled.

But first, there is a bit of tourist nonsense in which to partake. Shakespeare’s characters are fictional, but that doesn’t stop visitors from flocking to what is purported to be Juliet’s house, the Casa di Giulietta. There is a balcony, of course, and people pay to stand there for the thrill of reenacting the play’s most memorable scene:

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!

There is also a statue of Juliet in the courtyard and the lovelorn stand in line for an opportunity to take pictures and to rub Juliet’s breast for luck. Indeed, so many have done so that the bronze has been burnished to a blinding gold. And finally, there are the love notes left behind, affixed to the walls of an archway. There are layers of them, one on top the other, with graffiti underneath. Hannah & Richard. Ira & Kim. Renée & Greg. Where are they now? One note, written on red paper and cut into the shape of a heart, reads: “Wifey, Sorry 4 cheating on you. I love u way more than everyone. Happy to meet you and get married. Love of my life 4 ever and ever. Can’t wait to see u again.” I laugh out loud when I see it. There’s just got to be an interesting story there!

I retrace my steps to Piazza Bra and slip down a narrow alley to Cangrande Osteria and Enoteca for lunch, a spot recommended in my guidebook. The manager is friendly and he helps me select a glass of wine to pair with my antipasto of marinated vegetables and my plate of ravioli.

Feeling refreshed, I set off for the trio of churches I saw earlier from the top of the Lamberti tower. At Sant’ Anastasia I admire the vaulted ceiling, which is richly painted, an unusual pair of 15th century holy water stoups supported by carved hunchbacks, and Pisanello’s well-loved fresco “St. George and the Princess” above the Pellegrini Chapel.

Moving on, the city’s cathedral is a bright, airy space dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta. I especially like the whimsical details in trompe l’oeil. Above the Cartolari-Nichesola chapel, a pair of chubby cupids play music—one a flute, the other a triangle—and still higher on the wall, two pairs of soldiers with spears relax on a cornice, one with a leg slung over the ledge, bare toes pointing out. The effect is so real that it’s hard to distinguish the painted surfaces from the carved.

I cross Ponte Garabaldi to the far side of the river and follow its path past Ponte Pietra, the ancient arch bridge that was nearly destroyed by bombs during World War II, but eventually repaired. From here I climb to the ruins of the Teatro Romano high on the hill. The site is interesting in and of itself—an attractive jumble of exposed stone, topped by a row of cypress trees—but as a bonus it comes with a spectacular view of the city, framed through the remains of an ancient colonnade.

I climb down and wander further along the river under I reach Ponte Navi. The afternoon is starting to wane, so I end my serious exploration of Verona at the church of San Fermo. In the apse there is a fresco that represents each of the gospels—the lion of St. Mark, the calf of Luke, the man of Matthew, and the eagle of John. But the real highlight is the coffered ceiling, which looks like the wooden hull of a boat turned upside down, and on each side of the supports there are tiny Gothic arches that frame medieval paintings of the saints. I haven’t enjoyed such an interesting array of small churches this much since Arezzo.

As I make by way back to Piazza delle Erbe, I stop for gelato, of course—this time ordering scoops of mango and lemon. As I’m eating, I watch an artist on the street. He’s showing off for the crowd, stepping back from his work thoughtfully and then touching up details here and there. I’m marginally impressed until I notice that he’s not really painting at all. The canvas is already dry and his duplicity has me wondering if it was crafted not in Verona but in some Asian sweatshop instead.

I circle back towards Piazza Bra, but this time along Corso Porta Borsari to catch a glimpse of the 1st century AD remains of the city’s original entrance gate. I arrived here by bus in the morning, but now I’m not quite sure where to board for the return trip. In the end, I decide that it would be easier to walk there, down Corso Porta Nuova, through the arches of the “new gate,” and past the city walls to the station, where there’s train at 7:32 PM heading back to Milan.

Along the way, I mull over the ancient Roman sights, and the elegant architecture, and the relaxed pace of the day, and come to the conclusion that with or without its Shakespearean fame, “fair Verona” has been fair indeed.

Friday, August 4, 2006

I am an early bird again this morning, trying to be at the Tower of London when they open at 9:00 AM.  I grab a quick bottle of orange juice and a maple pecan “flapjack”—which, as I discover, is not at all like a pancake—at a food stand nearby before heading in.  Once inside, I go straight for the crown jewels and find myself alone with them, except (of course) for the heavily armed guards.  I hop on the moving walkway, go around several times, and decide that I like Queen Victoria’s tiny crown the best.  Next, I meet up with a tour led by one of the Tower’s Yeoman Warders (or “Beefeaters”) and discover, much to my surprise, that bloody executions of the innocent can be quite amusing when the stories are told in the right way.  I spend the entire morning exploring the buildings and grounds, before stopping for lunch at the New Armouries Café, at which I once again stumble across that glorious chocolate fridge cake.  It must be fate.  

I tube to St. Paul’s Cathedral in the afternoon and sign up for a “super tour” with a wonderful volunteer guide named Chris at 2:00 p.m.  Afterward, I decide to brave the climb up to the dome.  I make it up the Whispering Gallery just fine.  Onwards and upwards I climb to the Stone Gallery.  Still OK.  Along the way to the Golden Gallery my legs tire and my heart begins to race.  Unmistakably, I begin to spot old graffiti carved into the plaster walls.  In a flight of fancy, I imagine a similar soul making the same trek a century or more ago, writing his last words to family and friends before dying of a heart attack!  I approach the last flight of narrow spiral stairs with trepidation, especially after seeing the open ironwork on the stair treads, which makes me dizzy.  But thanks to my nephew’s fondness for his “Lord of the Rings” DVD set, I think of Aragorn’s speech in “The Return of the King.” I say to myself: “There may come a time when the courage of men fail, but it is not this day.”  I push on and on, and…  Oh, the view!  Completely worth it! 

I climb back down and stay for evensong at 5:00 PM.  As at Westminster Abbey, the resident choir is on holiday, but the organ and the guest choir are both lovely.  Following the service, I walk across the MillenniumBridge—which, thankfully, no longer wobbles—toward the Tate Modern.  I eat dinner at the Pizza Express next door and then make my way into Shakespeare’s reconstructed Globe Theatre for a production of Simon Bent’s “Under the Black Flag.” I am disappointed, and not just because my aching feet have made it impossible for me to fulfill my dream of being a “groundling.”  The seats, even with a rented cushion, are very uncomfortable and at nearly three hours in length the play is overly long and tedious.  There is much death and mayhem, but the story would be better told by one of the Tower’s Beefeaters.  Here, it is just not funny, even though it tries hard to be. 

As I exit the theatre, the view of St. Paul’s illuminated in the night sky is beautiful.  I take pictures and then walk east, past Southwark Cathedral, to the London Bridge tube stop, stopping by the edge of the water in front of City Hall to snap more pictures of Tower Bridge.  As I balance my camera on the railing to keep it steady, the drawbridge opens and a ship sails through.  Another great picture.  I marvel at my good fortune.