Last night and day on the Big Eagle
The gang aboard the Big Eagle

We spent it docked in Capri. This was our fourth trip together on this beautiful boat and we now have a tradition for the last night: Dinner with the two captains – Captain Ed and Christiana, who in the past couple of years has become a captain also. Both are amazing sailors, as is their crew – all of whom work very hard, from early morning till late at night, serving the guests, keeping the ship in tip-top shape, clean, clean, clean, neat, neat, neat, while meeting all needs all the time without even allowing time for a request.

The Big Eagle ready to ship out

At the last night’s dinner this year, we all had to put on the black tee shirts you can see in the picture of the group. Our two hosts are on the lower left and the upper right. The tee-shirts have written on them (in sequins – made by a Broadway costume designer and supplied by one of the guests): Big Eagle Rockers (or Rockerettes, depending). Haw-haw and all that. Corny but fun, as corny always is when you’re with old friends (and from the looks of us, we ain’t young anymore, are we? — Young-ish; how’s that?).

After the group photo, right after, it started to rain. The first rain of the entire trip. We removed our tees and all hastened down to the afterdeck where everything was set up for dinner. It was also the day before my birthday (7/26) and two days before Captain Christiana’s and Steve McPherson’s. There were little presents waiting for us at our places. After dinner there was a big cake for me and Steve prepared especially for us by Chef Wendy. After that, three of us sang two songs “My Favorite Things” and “These Foolish Things” with special lyrics improvised by Diana Feldman and Tina Sloan McPherson and accompanied by this writer. Corny meets Super Sentimental and Giddy Goes to Laughter. Everyone had a good time. You had to be there; I’ll leave it at that.

Everyone gets a little nostalgic at this moment because these extremely casual yet very luxurious (and otherworldly to most of us) trips are a great great pleasure – thanks to our warm and gracious hosts. However, after dinner, people are thinking about packing their bags.

Monday morning in Capri
The following morning we departed Capri about ten-fifteen for the approximately two-hour cruise over to Naples. Many of the yachts that were berthed along with us the night before had already departed and were already in Naples when we arrived where, like the Big Eagle, were dropping off passengers and/or picking up new ones.

Arrivederci Capri
Hello Napoli
Naples is serenely beautiful from the water, as the picture may indicate. Low, and old, the soft pastel colored buildings lined up and stacked in rows marching up the hill, punctuated by larger villas and churches and monuments, as well as trees and vegetation.

There were cars waiting to transport all of us to Rome which is about two hours up the autostrade the way the Italians drive. Halfway there, we were met by torrential rains and thunderstorms that lasted the rest of the trip. There was one van just for all our luggage and we lost them along the way only to learn when we arrived in Rome that they were there and waiting for us. What a hundred miles an hour can do.

Most of us put up in the Hassler, the beautiful old hotel on the top of the Spanish Steps and those of us who’d stayed here before were given the same rooms. Mine overlooks the terrace restaurant in the courtyard of the back of the building surrounded by greenery and flowering plants. The windows are tall and open like doors so that I could hear the rain falling on the canvas/plastic roof of the restaurant below. One can hear the occasional voices from below and there is something communal and intimately comforting about it. Then, when the windows are closed, the room is one of the quietest I think I’ve ever been in.
Captain Christiana and Captain Ed
Chef Wendy
Lucy, Cheri, and Jen
Jose, Scott, and Adam
Rome, from my experience, is filled with the soft sounds of silence and soft voices, often melodic because of the beautiful language. Tuesday morning, my first full day here, I had to meet Tina and Steve McPherson who were staying at the D’Angleterra two blocks away. I took the Spanish Steps to get to them. It was a beautiful day, a bit overcast, and Via Condotti, with its famous shops, was already busy with tourists and natives beginning their day. People walk in the narrow streets, moving out of the way for the cars which move along slowly enough for the pedestrians to stay clear. It’s an amazingly quiet city, to these ears, nothing jarring or blaring – even the sirens of the cabanieri – like so many places that we (especially us New Yorkers) are used to enduring.

Trattoria Romana
A friend of the McPhersons had provided them with a car and driver, a very hospitable and charming man named Giorgio, to take us out to Tivoli to visit the ruins of Emperor Hadrian’s villa. The car was a Buick (its owner – an Italian businessman – loves Buicks and even, indeed, has a collection of several dating back to the early 1930s).

Giorgio, a man in his middle-age, speaks English very well, thankfully, and is also brilliantly well-versed in the history of this beautiful city – from the ancients to the Church to the Euro (which seems to be wreaking havoc with the average Roman’s, and Italian’s, financial security. Along and on our way out to Tivoli, about forty-five minutes outside of Rome, he told us many anecdotes about the buildings, the families, the popes and the emperors who’ve come and gone, living big, rich, complex and powerful lives, all of which are eventually reduced in the present moment, to the passing parade.

I knew of Hadrian and had heard of his famous villa. I knew nothing much other than those slim facts. The villa, which was constructed around 120 AD covers about a hundred or two hundred acres, and it is a wonder that provoked much thought and offered little information. Because it is entirely a ruin. You might think as you pass through that you know what you’re looking at. But you are consistently confronted with your lack of knowledge and even imagination. It is so vast. There was a maquette of the estate in one of the tourist buildings, and there was a voice-guide and a numbered map to take along on the tour – all of which add to the fascination.

Fire on the Spanish Steps
Nevertheless, the ruins offer up only a healthy, rich mystery about the place, the people (thousands were often there at various times) and the man who is best known to the modern world by the fictionalized study called The Memoirs of Hadrian.

I was reminded of the first time I visited Hearst Castle at San Simeon and was struck by the thought that Man will always build monuments to himself and his vanity. There is little to compare with Hearst Castle, however, although I wouldn’t be surprised if old W.R. Hearst wasn’t a profoundly fascinated visitor to these walls. Maybe Louis XIV too. Along with Peter the Great.

The three of us spent about three hours moving with map and audio-guide through the remnants of the emperor’s incredible estate, awestruck and growing hungrier to know more about the architectural, cultural, historical and political ghosts we were surrounded by. Hadrian evidently was not a popular emperor and he built this villa for a variety of reasons, the primary probably being its distance from Rome and the Senate with whom he had rocky relations.
The Spanish Steps
Bernini Fountain

We left our tour sated and yet unsated, curious and yet empty handed, thirsty for more knowledge of the man and his time. From there Giorgio took us over to Villa d’Este in Tivoli in the hills. Another architectural monument to the political times that succeeded the fall of the Roman Empire, and hardly a ruin, thanks to the wealth and attentiveness of its possessors – the popes and cardinals of the church.

The ruins of Emperor Hadrian’s villa

Hadrian, however, left little room for these exhausted visitors to enjoy much more. From there we returned to Rome, to lunch and to a brief tour of our host’s automobile collection, housed discreetly in a large garage in that part of Rome where Mussolini lived during his reign.

Tired from all the travel and excitement and taking things in, we went to dinner at the Hotel Russe, a chic and popular hotel where they recently filmed “Oceans 12” with George Clooney and Brad Pitt (and I think Julia Roberts). Afterwards some of us walked back to our hotel which is how I got to stop and take some pictures of the crowd just beginning to congregate as they do every night on the Spanish Steps. More magic hours of Roma.

It was about nine-thirty, quarter-to-ten when I reach the 132nd step and crossed the roadway to the hotel where at that moment, two friends from New York – Tom McCarter and Frannie Scaife – happened to be returning from dinner. We all said hello and good night, all the while marveling at the beauty that is Rome all around us.

At the top of the steps


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July 28, 2004, Volume IV, Number 118
Photographs by DPC/NYSD.com

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© 2006 David Patrick Columbia & Jeffrey Hirsch/NewYorkSocialDiary.com