A life of travel: From dives to posh

  • By Mike Murray, Special to The Herald
  • Thursday, April 24, 2014 9:52am
  • Life

Our first trip as a married couple was the honeymoon. I was in the military stationed in Delaware; we were dirt poor and my bride requested that we not stay in a motel with a tin-can shower.

Somewhere off the Jersey Turnpike on the first day, we found just such a motel, shower rust included.

Our romantic destination was a budget-busting Connecticut inn where our room, all chintz and frilly curtains, was equipped with two single beds, New England proper for sure.

In Poughkeepsie, N.Y., a driver rear-ended our second-hand VW Beetle. A nearby mechanic who saw the accident rushed to the rescue, and slashed open his hand trying to separate the car bumpers.

So began a lifetime of travel.

Young people, with their meager budgets, resilient bodies and enthusiasm, can absorb discomfort, inconvenience and surprise.

We did, staying in old hotels with bathrooms down the hall and sloping floors, in noisy motels next to fleets of semi-trucks idling all night, in airless rooms located above grease-wafting kitchens.

On a sweltering summer night in Paris, the hotel window opened to a lovely, traffic-clogged square where the band in a Mexican-themed nightclub played “Cielito Lindo” into the night. Ay yai yai.

We have slept in college dorms and on the floor of an unfinished building. On our first cruise, sailing down the Mediterranean on a vintage vessel, the cabin was so below-decks we could hear the anchor chain go up and down. The best thing on the menu was french fries.

With age, accommodation becomes as important as destination. College kids sleep on trains. I have trouble sleeping in my own bed. Finding a nice place to stay is about comfort and security, but it’s also about landing somewhere memorable.

Such was the case on a 1998 trip to Italy, where home base in Rome was the regal Excelsior Hotel, a turn-of-the-century Beaux-Arts extravaganza in the fashionable Via Veneto district.

The Excelsior was our first and only experience staying in a “grand hotel,” luxury to me.

The white marble bathroom was bigger than our bedroom at home, and immaculate. When we returned to our room at night, there were dainty paper doilies with candies next to the bed, unlike the balls of cat hair we encountered at home.

The hallways were long and hushed, the chandeliered public rooms deeply comfortable in faded grandeur.

A Middle Eastern contingent was staying in seclusion somewhere in the hotel, and their security men in the hallways, armed with rifles, added international intrigue.

Modern hotels are loaded with creature comforts, but this was a different kind of indulgence for me.

Best of all, Rome was at our doorstep: the Roman Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Borghese Gardens and Spanish Steps all beckoned.

In the evening, the fashionable Via Veneto came alive with a parade of elegantly dressed Romans walking the long avenue of chic cafes and posh stores. Many brought along their little dogs; many more smoked and they epitomized the notion of “La Dolce Vita.”

One day as we wandered the city, people-watching and eating gelato, we encountered a woman my wife had known in college.

She and her husband were on their Roman holiday, and we joined them for lunch. Our Italian was nonexistent, so we pointed at the menu and ordered.

Course after course of sublime food arrived, and as we polished each one off, another course would appear. I ate until my back hurt and the wine carafe was empty.

We finally waved the waiter off, paid and waddled into the Italian sun.

I recently thought about this unexpected event. Legend says that if you toss a coin into the water of the Trevi Fountain, you will return to Rome.

We did return, but on that visit the fountain was drained and under repair.

Mike Murray is a former arts and entertainment editor and writer for The Herald, who retired to travel and ride his bike.

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