Travel time once again. The ultimate destination this time was one of the corners of the earth – Varna Bulgaria, but first I had to kick a little of the jetlag by cooling my jets on the Cote d’Azur, or the French Riviera with my great friend Peter Friess who is a durable and frequent travel partner. Peter and I met up in Nice and we picked up a snappy VW convertible with a quaint 5-speed stick. From Nice we buzzed on over to Monte Carlo for the boat show. There were some very nice boats up to about 40 feet some costing in the 2 million range. Oh, these were the tenders for the actual boats which started at about 80 feet and went up to over 400 feet. The big ones can’t even get into the harbor.
The Northern Star
Peter and I set our sights on the Northern Star, a 250 footer with a nifty green helicopter on the aft deck. I asked the sales rep taking us through if the chopper would be included in the price. He said sure if you like. At 150 million it seemed they’d just toss it in like floor mats for a Volvo. This boat is 5 decks of overthetopness and can go wherever 52,000 gallons of diesel will take you. Frankly, buying the Star is a bit beyond this humble restaurateur but it can be chartered for about 700 a week in Euros in the summer in the Med or 700 in dollars in the Carib in the winter. That’s plus food, fuel and tip so toss in another 25 % taking you just shy of a million a week in either currency (they also take rubles). But it is real nice. Trust me.
From Nice we cruised down the coast in the prefect sunny weather to Saint Tropez. We got hooked up in Monte Carlo so one of our stops was Pallis Bulli which is Pierre Cardin’s ‘house of bubbles’.
House of bubbles
It is fantasy of rubric-stone soap bubbles perched above the azure sea (as Homer might say [not the cartoon one]) Finally we arrived in Saint Tropez. This is a smallish town with the reputation for flash that is well deserved. We arrived to find it was the week of the J class sailboat race. These are 125 footers and include some of the great yachts of America’s Cup fame. Lionheart, Hunaman and Valshida were all lined up at the quay.
Lionheart, Hunaman and Valshida
I was overjoyed to see the boats as I had attended all but the last race of the recent America’s Cup in San Francisco. I did witness the final day via Skype with my family who were at son Dylan’s apartment in San Francisco where he has a view of the entire course of the event.
The food in France defies my humble powers of description. One night at La Penche I had a plate of tiny cuttlefish the size of the finger tips of angels. Each one of these squid-like cephalopods has a delicate crunchy center. As Homer would say. AGGGHHHHH. (Not the Greek guy, the cartoon character). We sat next to a very jovial couple from Holland who said they were in on their 36 foot sailboat. As we left the restaurant we saw them go aboard a giant sloop…oh – 36 meters. I told Peter if I had realized that, I would have stuck to them a little tighter.
Then off to Cannes where we had adjoining rooms at the Carleton and where the film stars gather for the festival. That isn’t why we stayed there. It was because during this year’s festival some thieves made off with 150 million US in jewels from the ballroom. (Queue Pink Panther music.) Cannes is pretty over the top. The streets are lined with Ferraris and Bentleys…sort of like Woodside I guess. But we don’t have stores that sell mobile phones for as much as a BMW. A salesman said with a straight face one was 35k Euros. Peter asked what made it special and the fellow said it haselectroplated gold buttons. Too bad it was a Droid, or maybe…
We then flew to Geneva where Peter is the director of a rather special watch museum. Many of you will recall that Peter was the director of the San Jose Tech Museum for many years. He took that institution from a marginal operation to greatness and after 5 years decided he needed another challenge so he took the post as director of the Patik Philliup Museum in Geneva. He does this by commuting from the Bay Area. The owners of the museum wanted him very badly but he didn’t want to move from California so they accepted his offer to commute. And you thought your trip to SF was a chore.
Tourists enjoying the view in Murren, Switzerland
Peter is one of the world’s foremost experts on not just timepieces but also historical automatons. These tiny mechanical robots are the marvel of the pre industrial age. Picture a tree covered with birds all singing and turning their heads and flapping their wings. The birds are about an inch long and 300 years old. Peter is charged with not only running the museum but with acquiring historic pieces for what is already the greatest museum of watches in the world. He recently bought the watch owned by Marie Antoinette shortly before she became short herself.
My cousin Will Milne met up with us in Switzerland with his two daughters Helen and Ruth. Helen is a volleyball coach and a graduate student in Santa Cruz and Ruth just graduated from Santa Barbara after a stunning career as the four-year starting goalie on the water polo team. This fall she has joined the French professional team. I see more cuttlefish in my future.
After the museum visit the five of us went to the store where the new Patik watches are sold. I wear a Timex Ironman which really turns heads especially in that store. It helped that Peter was taking us through. The starter watch, the one you give for the bar mitzvah, starts at 30k. A new one sold recently for 5 million at a charity auction. I’m told they aren’t even waterproof.
Peter had to return to San Francisco and then Will, the girls and I tootled off to the Jung Frau. This is train trip up an Alp in the middle of Switzerland. I had never been to this part of the Switzerland and was amazed to learn that there are hundreds, maybe thousands of trains, gondolas and all sorts of clever contraptions in the Alps that allow for the vertical living they are famous for. Of course this is a new development and we were amazed that people could have inhabited such difficult terrain before the electric motor. There are lots of houses 4 and 500 years old plopped on the side of cliffs covered with grass and trees. It is this grass that sustains the cows, hence the milk and cheese. Historically the Alpine Swiss had just cows to sustain them. The average herd now is about 17 cows in Switzerland and half them live in the mountains. The government pays about $1,500 a year to subsidize each cow. Somehow the Swiss have turned this whole country into a miracle of sustainability. The power is nearly all hydo and the standard of living is so high that the government is considering a national minimum income. Not minimum wage – a minimum guaranteed income regardless of whether you work or not.
The place might look like a fairyland but the Swiss are pretty tough minded and have a lot of rules. All able bodied men are expected to do real military service and are required to keep a machine gun at home with ammunition…just in case.
But enough frolicking. We had work to do. Our work was to be sword bearers for Will at the International Fencing Tournament in Varna, Bulgaria.
Bulgaria is the poorest country in Europe. It is part of the EU but doesn’t use the currency. I expected it to be a sad, drab country. The airport in the capital city Sofia was modern enough. I asked the way to Varna and the car guy said just go out of the airport and turn right at the gypsy village and then he chuckled as we shared a joke about American’s thinking there would be such a rustic sight. But soon we saw there was no joke and we found ourselves driving through a slum of very unEuropean squalor. The city gave way to rolling countryside and village after village of collapsed barns and empty houses. We soon came across factories from the Soviet times, all abandoned. Some proved to be quite large, as in Detroit auto plant-sized, and the only employment seemed to be a gate guard or two running the remarkably clean and modern gas stations. The road we took was a country two lane highway with suicidal truck drivers who pass at tremendous speeds on blind curves. There is a great deal of animal roadkill and there are frequent roadside shrines to the vast number of traffic fatalities.
It was about 250 miles across the country and there was only one city of any size. It was poor, partly abandoned and very grey though it’s claimed to be the intellectual center of Bulgaria. We sped on through. Finally after about 7 hours we entered the seaside city of Varna. Population about 300,000 in the winter and 600,000 in the summer. Some call it the Cote d’Azur of the Black Sea and they aren’t far off…if you don’t look too closely. It’s oldish and the pavement heaves a bit but there are modern hotels and lots of them. Most were open but the season was over so we had the run of the place. All up and down the coastline there are some tens of thousands of hotel rooms and villas. Most of the hotels and casinos were finished but the 2008 recession hit them hard and you see a great many that are half finished or completed but empty. It is eerie to see whole neighborhoods of empty buildings.
The fencing tournament was a multi-day affair so we settled into our top rated hotel. This is an ultra modern place called the Grafit and each floor had a different theme. The hotel is famous for having truly strange rooms with loose river stone floors in the bathrooms (necessitating putting towels down so you can walk on them) and clear glass walls for the bathrooms. The furniture was made of solid wood or stone and some of the tables weighed 300 lbs. The rooms were huge, the view of the Black Sea great and all for about $80 a night. The food in town was very good and so cheap it felt like stealing.
The world of fencing is taken very seriously by the participants who come from all over but primarily Eastern Europe. Last year Will took first place in his 50-59 year old saber division. This drove the other fencers simply wild because some have been doing this all their lives. He beat university fencing coaches, Olympians and has only been doing it for 11 years. Because he is relatively new to the sport compared to many he bested it really stung. Will is a design/builder of fine homes and is just finishing a house on Canada Road two doors north of Buck’s. He brings the same attention to excellence in his profession as he does to completive fencing.
During the preliminaries the girls and I amused ourselves by exploring the town. We discovered that there a good many stray cats and dogs. The dogs are cared for by the government and are all tagged and live on the streets. They were very happy to meet us as we brought them treats from breakfast. At one point we assembled a rather large dog posse and took our new friends to the center of town where they inexplicably attacked passing cars with startling ferocity. One driver tried bashing one of our dogs with his car door. The locals snarled at us with undisguised scorn which we though unwise of them as we had a half crazed posse of biggish dogs who would do our bidding.
The day came for the finals and we were wound up as tight as a tiny sweater. The field of 32 was quickly halved with Will winning his first bout 10-9. Too close for comfort. Then 8 more dropped with Will easily crushing the UC San Diego coach. Then he faced off with another American and sadly did not prevail. We saw one guy lose and hurl his equipment and berate the ref then apologize profusely and sputter a list of excuses. Will stoically took his beating and said that next year he would learn from his mistakes, train harder and take the gold again. Last year he was modest in victory (he took first) and this year gracious in defeat. He lost to the second place finisher so he is still one of the best swordsmen in the world and certainly the best in my family.
It was time to drive back to Sophia but this time we took the southern freeway. This gave us a very different view of the country. There were still closed factories but the south had a less desperate air even though the countryside has been severely depopulated. In the small towns there are people so poor they are seen collecting firewood in horse carts with the entire family. There are farms but curiously no farmers. The corn crop had just been taken in but there are no farm buildings and we realized that under collective farming the small farms had been wiped out and the large scale farms were mono cropping wheat and corn and once the harvest is in the whole place takes on a post apocalyptic feel.
Old and new
Our last night in Sofia we did the town and it was fairly vibrant. At one point we stumbled into a polite protest against the government. The police weren’t even interested.
Bulgaria, like the other eastern European countries, will come around and soon. The people are shaking off the communist past more slowly than most but I believe that Bulgaria is a good bet for success. Traveling there is so cheap it might as well be free. The people are nice and they have real beaches so I say, go Bulgaria!
Bulgaria is pretty far to go for fencing but next year’s tournament is scheduled to be in Mauritius. This is to the east of Madagascar and is the farthest place from Woodside you can go on earth before you are actually coming home.