HITTING THE JACKPOT AT THE CASINO HOUSE: A MID-MOD COMMUNITY’S LINKS WITH OLD-TIME LAS VEGAS by David Latta

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NOTE: These days, the location of the Casino house is all over the Internet. When I first started looking, it was another matter entirely. This piece originally appeared on http://www.davidlatta.org back in May 2011; it’s now been amended and expanded.

Sometimes it pays to ask and, if you don’t get the answer you want, keep asking. Persistence pays off eventually. It just takes a little time.

I’m a big fan of Las Vegas, that glittering, gaudy and spiritually gluttonous mirage in the Nevada desert. I especially love its history, the tangled path by which it travelled from being an illicit getaway in the middle of a sun-parched nowhere to one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.

There’s something for everybody in Vegas: flashy ultra-luxurious resorts stand side-by-side with giant grandly tacky homages to ancient Egypt, King Arthur’s Court, classical Rome and the canals of Venice.

Unlike Los Angeles, where there’s more aspiring actors per square metre than anywhere else in the world, in Vegas everybody unashamedly wants to be rich and they have just about every way imaginable of making that happen. Most, of course, don’t and more shattered dreams lay congealing in the city’s neon glow than in a Nathanael West novel.

The archetypal Las Vegas movie is Casino, Martin Scorsese’s ultra-violent 1995 depiction of old-time Vegas starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone. The idea being that fiction sometimes has nothing on real life, Casino is based on the story of Frank Rosenthal, the professional gambler who institutionalised sports betting in 1970s Vegas and ran a few casinos for the Mob while he was at it. Robert De Niro plays Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a thinly-veiled Rosenthal.

I’d been trying for some time to locate the house on the edge of the golf course in which De Niro and Stone (as his wife, Ginger, based on Rosenthal’s wife, Geri McGee) lived. I’d initially contacted local journalists who specialised in Vegas history and ended up corresponding with author and Vegas buff, Steve Fischer, whose excellent book, When The Mob Ran Vegas: Stories of Money, Mayhem and Murder (Berkline Press, 2005) is required reading on the city’s lawless adolescence. Get it at Amazon. There’s also an audio version on iTunes.

Robert De Niro in Casino
Robert De Niro in Casino

I’d initially contacted Steve about an Australian showgirl, Felicia Atkins, the star of the Folies Bergere show at the Tropicana, Bugsy Siegel’s old casino, in the 1950s and 60s. Felicia was Vegas royalty, centerfold of Playboy’s April 1958 edition and appeared with Jerry Lewis in The Errand Boy (1961) before retiring and moving back to Australia where her trail went cold. Other former showgirls who’d worked with Felicia reported that she’d returned to Vegas a few times for Folies Bergere reunions but none had contact addresses; seems she didn’t stay in contact with too many of her associates.

Then, purely by luck, I found her though it was very much a good news / bad news scenario. Yes, she was still alive, living in an aged care facility north of Newcastle, New South Wales. No, she was far removed from any attempt to recall her glory days as she was deep in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s Disease and her memories had long since evaporated.

A staff member at the home recalled that, in the early days of her arrival, she’d shared her stories about being a Vegas showgirl but not too many people took her seriously. Felicia did, however, love teaching others to dance. The cruel reality that is Alzheimer’s has robbed us of first-hand recollections of those heady days.

Anyway, back to the Casino house. Steve Fischer thought it was located on the 17th hole of the Desert Inn Golf Course and had been demolished to make way for Steve Wynn’s $US2.7 billion Wynn Las Vegas development. In trying to verify that, a very helpful soul at the Nevada Film Office confided that the house was still very much in existence, a little further east on the edge of the Las Vegas National Golf Course.

The National started life in 1961 as the golf course for the Stardust Casino, in 1969 was renamed the Sahara-Nevada Country Club, changed its name to the Las Vegas Hilton Country Club in 1994 and four years later acquired its current designation . These days, the National’s website mentions the Casino house but, when I was looking, it took a fair bit of detective work. So, armed with the film office’s clues, I started driving around the housing development hugging the golf course.

Happily, I found the house quite easily and it looks almost exactly as it did when Scorsese filmed there. If anybody is interested in paying a visit, the address is 3515 Cochise Lane.

I’m sure the owners are pretty weary of tourists snapping their property and I’d advise against knocking on their door and requesting a guided tour of the walk-in wardrobe. But they live in a little piece of movie history and, hopefully, they’re understanding about it.

Felicia Atkins, the Australian star of the Folies Bergere at the Tropicana

Since then, I’ve learnt that the Casino house is a cherry on a far larger slice of old-time Vegas history. The golf course and the huge surrounding residential area was built at the same time and named Paradise Palms. The task of creating a homogenous design character to the development was given to the architectural firm of Dan Palmer and William Krisel, which already had mileage in that other time-capsule of mid-century modern architecture, Palm Springs.

(As an aside, it’s worth noting that one of Krisel’s Palm Springs designs is perhaps the most famous of all the city’s mid-mod houses, the one where Elvis and Priscilla Presley stayed on their honeymoon. It features on every Palm Springs bus tour.)

It was a planned community in that buyers had to choose between certain Palmer & Krisel designs, although numerous variations (in such areas as roof line, decorative finishes, allowing the homes to be rotated on their sites, even having Hawaiian influences as options on some models), allowed individual expression.

Entertainers, casino executives and, inevitably, more than a few “made men”, the people who fed the furnace of 1960s Las Vegas, called Paradise Palms home. Some of the casinos also kept homes there for visiting entertainers. Amongst the Palm’s more famous residents over the years were Bobby Darin, Phyllis Diller, Debbie Reynolds, Dionne Warwick, Juliet Prowse, Max Baer Jr (Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies) and lounge music maestro Esquivel.

It should come as no surprise that even Frank Rosenthal himself lived there (though not in the house where Casino filmed). And, on a personal note, I’m extremely pleased to report that Frederic Apcar, the producer of the long-running Casino de Paris show at The Dunes (and whose 1963 Cadillac Coupe de Ville I own – see http://www.davidlatta.org/2011/08/29/a-classic-link-to-old-time-las-vegas-the-dunes-frederic-apcar-and-the-casino-de-paris ) was also a resident.

Drive the streets of Paradise Palms and you’ll find a haven of low, long mid-mod homes. There was a time, when the mobsters’ reign ended and Vegas went legit (or gave every appearance of such), morphed into Disneyland and went all out to attract families, that Paradise Palms went into decline. Without regular maintenance, the built environment doesn’t survive long in the harsh desert conditions and these beautiful homes cracked, split, warped, leaked, fell apart.

The erosion would have continued had mid-century aesthetics not become so fashionable in recent times. Now, bit by bit, the tide has turned. New residents with a respect for the past have moved in and restored these wonderful homes back to their former glory.

Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone on the set of Casino
Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone on the set of Casino

Paradise Palms has its own website – http://www.paradisepalmslasvegas.com – and Facebook page, while a host of other retro-obsessed sites breathlessly report on PP’s latest developments. The like-minded new arrivals socialize together and spread the gospel: remember, respect, retain.

When, like Felicia Atkins, the real thing is way beyond our reach, it’s still possible to visit a time when style was supreme. The residents of Paradise Palms have it better than most. They can live their dreams in ways most of us can only imagine.

For further retro and old-time Las Vegas info, go to:

http://www.paradisepalmslasvegas.com

http://www.classiclasvegas.com

http://veryvintagevegas.com/2014/05/22/the-loving-restoration-of-a-mid-century-modern-home-in-paradise-palms-las-vegas/

http://www.whenthemobranvegas.com/
Words ©2014 David Latta. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.

CHILE’S CHANGES by Glenn A. Baker

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I had taken much of my understanding of the origins of the Chilean nation from Inez of My Soul, the gripping and expansive novel by Isabel Allende, niece of the tragic president Salvador Allende, but within hours of arriving and on more than a few occasions thereafter I was offered an alternative, and apparently rather popular, scenario. It goes along the lines of: God made Chile last and, perhaps a little tired, gathered together leftover parts and molded them together in a sliver, a final piece for the mosaic.

As an explanation for incredible and even affronting diversity, I suppose it’s as good as anything else going because this country truly is diverse. Yes, it is long but then so is Japan and not a lot changes between top and bottom there. However, fly into Santiago, change planes and, in less than two hours, you can land in the driest-on-earth Atacama Desert, with all its stark, barren splendour. Take a domestic flight south, though, and in slightly less than an hour you are in the Chilean Lakes district, feeling that you’re moving through Wales or Ireland or even Switzerland – a lush, green, sometimes alpine environment.

Both are absolutely Chilean, both are peopled by citizens of considerable casual charm who stand apart from the assertive Argentinians and the boisterous Brazilians who make their way there in large numbers but you do find yourself wondering why you haven’t had to get your passport stamped moving from one to the other. Were you to continue down the sliver to Punta Arenas, one of the gateways to Antarctica, the sense of overwhelming change would be even more greatly enhanced.

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The sombre stature of the Atacama is apparent from arrival at the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, dramatically sited beneath towering walls of red rock in the Catarpe Valley near the adobe village of San Pedro de Atacama. Well, it was once a village. Now it is a crossroads tourist town with traders, cantinas, museums, churches, tour operators and currency counters. There is an undeniable Wild West tone about it all that almost has you mentally conjuring up banditos in Zapata moustaches and sombreros with cartridge belts across their chests riding into town firing six guns and whooping war cries. Though if they did come, it would probably be to open their laptops and avail themselves of the free wi-fi in the town square or to enjoy the weekend rock concert that was taking place the day I dropped by. There is, however, an outpost not too far away, with a church perched upon a hill, that looks so absolutely evocative that it was used in the James Bond film The Quantum of Solace (though it was passed off as being in Bolivia, to the chagrin of the few locals).

The plush Alto Atacama has an eerie emptiness during daylight hours, as most of its guests are out participating in one of the almost three dozen excursions, which span the high, dry realm and take in lakes, streams, salt flats, mountains, gorges, dunes, passes, villages, gardens, cordilleras, caves and ancient shepherd’s paths. Some are accessible by bicycle, horseback and foot but mostly it’s a case of loading into air-conditioned (and, more importantly, heated) vans and heading thirty minutes to Moon Valley or two hours to the Altoandina Lagoons or the Tatio Geysers, which gurgle, splutter and spurt almost four and a half thousand metres above sea level, enticing busloads of backpackers to disrobe and dip. Wise heads at the hotel will keep such delights from you for two or three days, to allow you to acclimatise and even when you have got your mountain lungs to some extent, you’ll still find it prudent to ration yourself to relatively slow steps.

Llamas graze, flamingos fly and sharp eyes may spot vicunas, suris, viscachas and foxes. In the direction of the airport at Calama is the miniscule village Chiu-Chiu, with a history dating back to around 3000 BC. And it is at the airport that you will inevitably find yourself, returning to Santiago, a pleasing, vibrant city that has come on in leaps and bounds since the scars of coup and conflict could be discerned as mortar and bullet shell holes in the walls of public buildings. Today, a statue of the overthrown Allende stands in the city centre, with no memento to the dictator Pinochet. There is imposing open air art and inventive architecture, some striking fashion and some fetching bohemian barios, one of which, Bellavista at the foot of San Cristobal Hill near Pablo Neruda’s beloved La Chascona, houses the luxury 15-suite boutique hotel, The Aubrey, a restored 1920s Spanish Colonial Mission mansion with a terraced bell tower. The hotel is managed by a genial fellow from Wangaratta, Victoria, who does not seem to have lost his Australian accent.

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In high season, there are flights directly into Pucon down in the lakes district and roughly level with the Argentinian resort of Bariloche but, even if you have to fly into Temuco and be transferred for an hour or so around the shores of Lake Villarrica, past cheese factories, contented herds, farms, forests and a panorama line of snow-capped crests, the soothing nature of it all enriches every kilometre. While still wondering just how the Atacama could have slipped away so swiftly, you are taking part in another acclimatisation.

The well-travelled and well-heeled have been coming here for decades, seeing it as one of the pearls of the southern hemisphere. When you arrive at the famed clean-lines and sleek Hotel Antumalal you bring to mind the lines with which has long been touted in prestige guides: “Built in the 1950s as an ultra-modern lakeside resort, its Bauhaus-influenced architect Jorge Elton was inspired by a terraced 13 acre park that surrounds it”. And, indeed, the lobby does combine tree-slab tables, shaggy fur rugs, primary colour cushions and views, views to have you rubbing your eyes. In the 22 rooms are wood panels, fireplaces and wide windows, all the better to bring the vastness of Lake Villarrica right to you.

In the foyer is a fascinating wall of photographs, including some of guests who’ve made their way to the property over the years and made themselves very much at home – actors Jimmy Stewart and Emma Thompson, first man on the moon Neil Armstrong, assorted scientists and academics, assorted European nobility and a young and beaming Queen Elizabeth II, with Duke. The proprietor, engaging Rony Pollack, daughter of the Czech immigrant whose dream the hotel was, tells a beguiling tale of being a young teen when Regina descended with her bossy courtiers and ladies-in-waiting and of being placed in the front seat of the royal vehicle for a journey to a barbecue, forbidden to initiate conversation but expected to navigate and becoming a tad flustered when it became apparent that they were lost, if momentarily.

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Just down the hill is the town of Pucon, sort of a Chilean take on Jackson Hole, replete with chocolate shops, restaurants, a beach, design emporiums, waterfront accommodation and an intriguing flower shop where every stem and petal is in fact carved out of wood, sort of like large pencil shavings. Thronged when ski season is in full-flight, it maintains a presence and energy all year around, standing as one of the principal drawcards of Chilean tourism.

There is a nearby Mapuche reserve where local cuisine can be sampled and a Mapuche museum tells a tale of a self-contained world before the Spanish came. Within easy reach of Pucon and the Antumalal is the base of the softly-smoking and very much active Villarrica volcano, which doubles as a ski lift station. Slightly further away but well worth the expedition, past wooded rapids, lake towns, handicraft factories and chalets, is the Termas Geometricas hot springs. Here some 17 slate-lined pools have been artfully constructed along the path of a mountain stream just below a waterfall. While the stream is expectedly icy, the pools are filled with steaming water that arrives beside it, coming out of holes in the mountain side that descend to a magma chamber some 14 kilometres below, deep in the bowels of the earth. Splashing about in a pool of pure 40 degree water while snowflakes floated down upon me was as fine a way as I have ever passed a morning.

A good guide is the key to deriving the most from this lush, green land and, for one afternoon I had the best, in Rony Pollack, who is known to one and very much all; sort of an unofficial mayor. She ranged across the landscape to just near the Argentinian border, taking myself and three animated Brazilians who find themselves in residence at the Antumalal each year inside churches and pastry shops, to a high farm where wool is fabulously fashioned, through rarely visited villages and atop precipices with commanding and inspiring views. This is the world her father came to and brought to the attention of thousands with discernment and a desire for sumptuous serenity and she and her late husband continued to make accessible. Inside the Antumalal is a level of cosy comfort and warmth, of the human variety, that sets it apart from most resorts and spas and, as I found, entices back those who discover it.

Glenn flew to Chile with Lan Chile.

Text and images copyright Glenn A. Baker.

SWIMMING AT THE NORTH POLE by John Borthwick

© 2014 JOHN BORTHWICK

I’m standing at the North Pole in board shorts. The air temperature is well south of zero and there’s a Russian behind me with a machine-gun. Behind him is another with a bottle of vodka. In front of me is an ice-hole. I jump.

Expletive-unfucking-deleted! Take my frozen word for it: polar ice water, at – 1.1 degrees Celsius, stings like the furies, all over. Then you start to go numb, which is a relief. It’s also hypothermia. I burst to the surface, yelping profanities, gather what’s left of my wits and swim back to the “shore” of pack ice. As I clamber out, the Russian with the bottle gives me a big swig of vodka while his mate with the Uzi keeps watch for polar bears.

Playing the ultimate fool at Ultima Thule is, for those who’ve gone gonzo, the climax of a trip to the North Pole. We’ve parked our monster conveyance, the world’s largest nuclear-powered icebreaker, 50 Years of Victory, right at the geographic Pole, 90 degrees North, and dropped the gangplank. A crewman sticks a red pole in the ice to mark “the spot”. After my swim — and now sanely clad in thermal underwear, parka and boots — I stroll around the Pole, thus completing a circumambulation of the world in twenty seconds.

© 2014 JOHN BORTHWICK

I look up at our massive Russian vessel, seemingly marooned amid a White Limbo icescape that stretches to the horizon. In fact, packing 27,000 horsepower of nuclear grunt, she’s far from stuck, having muscled her way here, 1382 nautical miles from our embarkation point, Murmansk, northern Russia, through dense sea ice. We’re now sitting atop the 2.5-metre thick polar ice cap. Some 4261 metres below us on the sea-bed sits a flag placed by a manned sub in 2007 — Russia’s ambit claim for the Pole and its minerals.

It has taken us five days to reach the Pole, time for the 120 passengers on board to get to know this 75,000 tonne behemoth which spends 10 months of the year keeping open High Arctic shipping lanes between the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans. We’re in the two-month “summer” (the term is relative) during which the ship takes paying, charter passengers to the Pole.

© 2014 JOHN BORTHWICK

Our day at polar ground zero is about more than having fun with hypothermia. We form a circle around the Pole sign and observe a moment of silent respect for the planet and this shrinking ice cap we stand upon. The kitchen crew then set up tables, benches and a barbecue, with the hot toddies and mulled wine flowing generously. Later we explore this ultimate realm, this lemon granita landscape, where the polar silence sings, ice crystal forests rim pale turquoise pools and a fog-bow arches over the ship’s Martian silhouette.

After this day of awe at the top of the world, will the rest of the cruise be an anticlimax, all downhill, as it were? Far from it. The big ship turns, crunching its way south again through the pack ice — it feels like we’re in a bus driving forever over an unsealed road — while we settle into a semi-routine of meals and naps, plus lectures by our expedition specialists in polar history, glaciology and wildlife.

© 2014 JOHN BORTHWICK

Far below decks we get to inspect the ship’s engine-room, its truck-sized turbines, massive steering gear and nuclear reactor control room. It’s strictly “no photos” in the latter, with beefy Russians of unspecified occupation keeping an ursine, Soviet eye on us. “The ship’s got three, not two, first officers,” notes a passenger. “The third one must be KGB to keep an eye on the other two,” he speculates.

Before I left, friends had joked that I should wear lead-lined undies on this nuclear hot rod. (“She does 22 knots, ’officially’,” says Captain Valentin Davydyants, hinting at somewhat less — or perhaps more? — speed.) One American passenger takes the radiation idea dead seriously and brings his own Geiger counter. To his relief, or disappointment, the only furious clicking we hear is scores of camera shutters during any polar bear or walrus sighting. My friends had also joked that meals would be borscht and cabbage, with yellowcake for dessert. On the contrary, with the catering run by Austrian hoteliers, we sup like minor czars.

I perch at the bow, peering out across an ivory desert, a Lake Eyre in ice. Crazed by fissures and leads, the pack ice parts before the ship’s massive bow to reveal brilliant teal-green waters. The wind-chill up here might be bone-snappingly cold but there’s always a gaggle of passengers watching as the prow cracks through ice sheets like they were the toffee crust on a crème brulée. We’re also scanning for polar bears. “Just look for what seems like dirty ice moving,” says Alaskan Kara Weller, one of our voyage naturalists. Whenever someone spots a polar bear — they are rare this far north — there’s an announcement from the bridge, the ship slows and we rush to the rail like kids at a zoo, with camera shutters in overdrive.

I see four bears during the voyage — supreme, solitary, creatures gliding over the infinite ice, unperturbed by the sudden intrusion into their white-on-white world of a 160-metre long, red-black gargantuan. We track each bear at a distance until it ambles off into the lunar emptiness.

© 2014 JOHN BORTHWICK

Our twin-berth cabins, normally those of the ship’s officers (who are bumped downstairs during charter season), have en suite bathrooms and blackout curtains. Travelling beneath the midnight sun means for us 12 nights of constant daylight. We might be alerted to a bear or whale sighting at 3 am, or to depart on a helicopter trip at midnight. Add to this the ship’s bar being open till 2 am, or until the last passenger slumps, and our sleep patterns go haywire. “I’m going to bed when it gets dark,” says one woman, absent-mindedly.” “It gets dark in August,” Kara reminds her.

Returning from the Pole, we plough south through the Barents Sea, aiming for the Franz Josef Land archipelago. I have time to consider the eccentrics among our company of 22 different nationalities. There’s the Englishman who wasn’t sure if Russian hospitality yet extended to toilet paper — he brought huge supplies of his own. The girl from New York who did headstands at the Pole. The Russian crewman who dived in but could barely swim. The cashed-up hard partyers from Beijing who observed the ship’s total “No Smoking” policy by lighting up only in their cabins — thus setting off at four a.m. the fire alarm and the Captain’s considerable Russian wrath.

Shackled to the aft deck is a huge MI-8 helicopter that we use for landings and sightseeing. Franz Josef Land appears out of the fog, a monochrome maze of low, dark islands drizzled with glaciers. We pile into the chopper, 14 at a time, and shuttle ashore to Cape Fligley on Rudolf Island, the northernmost point of the Eurasian landmass. Like all 191 of these basalt islands, it is uninhabited. As the sun comes out, we roam across its tundra of lichen, spotting bear tracks, a nesting Eider duck and a lonely wooden Orthodox crucifix facing the Arctic void. Enormous domed glaciers slump off the island’s flanks but are off-limits for hiking because of bears.

© 2014 JOHN BORTHWICK

Next day we weave through the island maze, down the Markham Strait to another landing at Champ Island. Time for a serious hike but always with a machine-gun man not far away. We clamber up a steep scree and into birdland — hills where thousands of auks, black-legged kittiwakes and glaucous gulls wheel and cry, sending our considerable pack of birders into their own exclamatory raptures.

Cape Tegetthof on Hall Island, a place of bleak and gothic beauty, is (as Tom Waits would say) “colder than a well-digger’s ass”. We find the remnants of an 1899 expedition hut that echo a time when this shore was at the extreme limits of the human reach. Beyond here was so forbidding that it wasn’t until 1948 that the first person stood at the Pole — when Russian Aleksandr Kuznetsov’s party flew in and hiked to 90 degrees North. Today, some 25,000 people aboard 81 ships have been to the North Pole and, it being the alleged residence of Santa Claus, Canada Post has even assigned it a post code, HOH OHO.

© 2014 JOHN BORTHWICK

Our last explorations are to the ghostly, abandoned village of Tikhaya Bukhta, a former Soviet “weather station” (aka Cold War spook listening post), followed by a Zodiac excursion to the extraordinary Rubini Rock. We are greeted here by some 100,000 squalling guillemots and kittiwakes that nest among the giant rock’s basalt “organ pipe” formations. But their raucous welcome is also our farewell to the High Arctic as 50 Years of Victory turns for her home run down to Murmansk.

As we step ashore, the ship’s doctor hands me a certificate attesting that my plunge at the Pole was “an act of indubitable courage — as well as extraordinary, incomparable foolishness”. Probably so.

© 2014 JOHN BORTHWICK

© 2014 JOHN BORTHWICK

For information on 50 Years of Victory’s North Pole trip: http://www.peregrineadventures.com
Words and images ©2014 John Borthwick. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.

 

ROMAN WALLYDAY: HOW LARRY, CURLY, MOE AND NERO REVIVED THE ROMAN EMPIRE by David Latta

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The Colosseum of ancient Rome was a circus in more ways than one. Completed in 80AD, it hosted entertainment for the masses, and what entertainment it was! Up to 50,000 spectators would watch the ultimate in populist entertainment including recreations of famous Roman battles, animal hunts and fierce gladiatorial battles to the death.

It was completed largely under the patronage of the familial rulers of the Flavian dynasty, Vespasian and his son, Titus. Suetonius, who displayed an engagingly contemporary regard for gossip and scandal, went so far as to consider Titus (no relation to Shakespeare’s gore-soaked opportunist) a worthy emperor, one of the good guys as we’d say today, and thus the Colosseum remains one of his greatest legacies.

In modern times, the Colosseum is still a circus although a little worse for the wear and tear of the ages. Togas have been replaced by logo t-shirts and baggy cargo shorts, leather sandals by the gleaming white runners of the elderly American tourists who look as if the furthest they’ve ever jogged is to the nearest all-you-can-eat buffet.

They cram inside the Colosseum’s massive brooding walls, gazing out on the broken arena and possibly reflecting on Russell Crowe in Gladiator or, as Dr Frank-N-Furter once so grandly remarked, “an old Steve Reeves movie”. Oiled pecs gleaming in the sun, the glinting fury of swords cleaving human flesh, the deafening roar of a crowd maddened by blood lust. The images flow readily in a place where the atmosphere leaches from the weathered stone blocks like slowly-melting gelato.

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Any thoughts of Anita Ekberg wading through the Trevi Fountain a couple of blocks away or Audrey Hepburn, regally serene astride a Vespa with William Holden, seem like another Rome altogether. The Colosseum is blood, sweat and tears for the ages.

Outside, the snaking lines of tourists are tempted by hunky Romans dressed up as gladiators. For a few Euros, nothing less, they’ll be photographed flirting with the ladies and menacing the men with their plastic swords. Their scowls have been carefully crafted over years of mirror-gazing to maximum effect. Warren Beatty in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone had nothing on these guys.

Yet, amongst the many locals eager to share a Kodak moment for the EU equivalent of a fistful of lira, the most popular were those I came to think of as the Four Stooges. Three were attired in the leather skirts and gold breastplates of Roman soldiers, the fourth as an emperor resplendent down to his crimson robes, gleaming laurel wreath and air of taciturn indifference (or else he’d seen The Great Beauty one too many times and was yearning for a colourful linen jacket and contrasting puff-pointed pocket square). They were gregarious and entertaining, jokes at the ready, flashing smiles and deadly poses for a never-ending line of delighted tourists.

The startlingly handsome gladiators, with cheekbones as sharp as their plastic swords were blunt, kicked the dirt in rejection. There was no competing with the Four Stooges and they knew it. They were the vanquished of the modern-day Colosseum, their humiliation as final as any suffered within its walls.

Words and photos © David Latta

CHARACTERS, CONTRAPTIONS AND CASTLES: THE EXOTIC ENCLAVE OF LIGHTNING RIDGE by Glenn A. Baker

Lightning Ridge, Australia

When they take the census out at Lightning Ridge, the forms are distributed as they are everywhere else in the wide brown land that is Australia. They even arrive at a figure, though you wouldn’t want to put much store in it. There are always those who’d rather not be found and there’s more than a few of these out in the Black Opal fields of the charismatically quirky town up near the Queensland border. As the quite formal sign on the outskirts declares, almost proudly: Lightning Ridge Population ? 

Over the years, they’ve come to make their fortune; drifted in and drifted out, set up camps and convoluted constructions, dug deep, altered the landscape, run themselves ragged, told tales, generated some themselves, and abided by few dictums apart from their own. There’s been names on mining leases more likely to be found inscribed on a collar than entered on a birth certificate. That’s when there’s actually been mining leases. 

All frontier towns celebrate their outlaws and outcasts and on the Ridge, where it seems everyone’s a blow-in – you don’t get born there, you just show up one day and maybe stick around – there’s far less mention of ocker actor Paul Hogan (who was actually born there) than of the infamous One Bucket Bob from down south who scooped up a million bucks worth of opal in his first scoop then, when he’d squandered it foolishly (is there any other way?) came back to town and did the same thing again.

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If he’s mythical then I suppose the tourist who plucked a twenty grand stone out of a slag pile outside the Visitors Centre is as well but, the longer you’re in town, the more credence you’re inclined to give the legend and lore of the place. Indeed you’re inclined to wonder just what hasn’t been handed down in a community that keeps much of its business close to its chest. As one long-term resident said of the opal rush that exploded in the early 1900s and put the town on the map: “People came here to disappear. You rarely knew anybody’s name, and those names you knew were probably fake nicknames in any case. You didn’t ask much about somebody, and they didn’t tell too much either.”

It was where they came from that had particular impact on the tone of the settlement, which was named after a shepherd who had most of his flock wiped out by a lightning strike one tempestuous night. Not just from all around the wide brown land but parts of old Europe much given to ancient tales and mythology. Today, the biggest church in town is the Serbian Orthodox of St. George and unquestionably the most compelling structure is an unfinished astronomer’s castle, with walls crammed with diagrams and verse. Many of the miners who left their mark so indelibly upon Lightning Ridge were learned, curious souls who found it difficult to exist in too close a proximity to others. They would have been hermits wherever they ended up. As you can read in your Lonely Planet guide: “The streets are trodden by eccentric artisans, true-blue bushies and the general unconventional collective. And that’s all ridgy-didge in the Ridge.”

Equidistant from Sydney and Brisbane – about 750 kilometres to both (with Dubbo, more than 350 kilometres away, the closest “big smoke”) – Lightning Ridge is not really in the trajectory of anywhere in particular, except perhaps the sleepy little outpost of Walgett, the shire’s seat. As a long-time resident called Christine has put it: “You have to really want to come here. We aren’t on the way to or from anywhere and we’re a full day’s drive from the nearest major airport. Even a quick visit can take days of travelling each way. Not a lot of people have that kind of time these days.”

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And when you do arrive, the bush panorama you have been accustomed to for so very long seems to belong to someplace else again. What greets you is a haphazard landscape, or a sci-fi moonscape, almost Dali-esque.  One description has been a post-apocalyptic Mad Max junkyard. But there is more sense to it than is initially apparent. It’s a terrain scattered with Day of the Triffids-type contraptions, no two seemingly alike. Very little seems purpose-built, with some clumsy devices adapted from the drive shafts of old flat-bed trucks and pick-ups. You see, a registered vehicle isn’t necessary for you to work on your mining claim so, as it has been oft said, many a truck and car comes to the Ridge to not so much die as be reborn for a more dignified life. The role of each is essentially the same – shift soil, filter its contents and tuck it all away somewhere in piles.

The most industrious examples of endeavour are not in Lightning Ridge itself, which has become almost gentrified, with a score of opal shops, a John Murray Art Gallery, modern housing, a large air-conditioned bowling club with artificial-grass bowling greens, a huge Olympic pool complex and an outdoor steaming mineral bath in use even during the 45-plus degree height of summer, but a short drive away at Grawin Field. Here a couple of hundred hardy folk survive, welcoming visitors to their ‘Club In The Scrub’ and ‘Glengarry Hilton’ – watering-holes-cum-community-centres, libraries and internet cafes that seem to have been crafted in classic fiction, or perhaps built for a film set.

It’s out around Grawin that your camera never seems to leave your eye. This is a world dominated by people who feel as comfortable living under the ground than above it, who build Chambers of the Black Hand stacked with surreal subterranean art, who put together houses made from bottles, cans, sheets of iron, old furniture and whatever else comes to hand. You find your way to much of it through an ingenious network of colour-coded and numbered car doors taken from rusting hulks (whose moving parts may well have been otherwise harvested) – a perfect system in an otherwise confusing realm devoid of street names and house numbers.

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But not devoid of fairly strict codes of conduct. While it has been legal to fossick since 1992 and the large tourist intake residing in caravan parks, camping grounds and motels during the cooler months does just that (with One Bucket Bobs a distant memory), few words are spoken with the dripping disdain or unbridled anger of “ratter” – the unspeakable curs who sneak onto leases and mining sites under cover of darkness and make away with the precious and rare stones. A strong seller in its day was The Ratters of Lightning Ridge, a novel by Richard W. Holmes that touched upon the rich and ribald tales of rough justice that involve deep mine shafts and dynamite.

The opal miners were not the first to scratch hopefully in the dirt, not by a long shot. For this is a land where dinosaurs once roamed. It is a key paleontological site on our ancient continent, with fossils from the Cretaceous period some 110 million years ago occasionally opalised in the sandstone rock that once formed the bottom of a shallow inland sea. The remains of aquatic plants and animals – small creatures living in a world dominated by dinosaurs – add to the treasures beneath the surface, with archaeologists scrabbling away with miners and fossickers.

All told, the place is quirky, whimsical and, for all the tales of shadowy wealth acquisition, friendly and accommodating. Though it’s a haul to get there, an awful lot do, gleefully participating in the “self-drive tours” upon arrival. They’ll follow the green car doors to the end to check out Charlie Nettleton’s first hand-sunk shaft, and they’ll swap notes at night in the Dig In – an outdoor eatery famed for camp oven roasts – about an 18-hole golf course touting dusty brown “greens” and rock-strewn fairways, a cactus nursery with supposedly more cacti on display than anywhere else in our hemisphere, crazy crenulated concrete monuments, Amigo’s Castle, an incomplete observatory, massive Tuscan compound and other monumental constructions said to be a testament to Lightning Ridge’s self-taught architects and builders. If they arrive at Easter, they’ll be out on the sides of the wide Morilla Street cheering on a favourite in the annual Goat Race, where the ornery beasts are harnessed and driven by local kids. If they’ve still got a voice left, they’ll front up the next day for the wheelie bin race and perhaps some more rudimentary competitions involving horses.

You know, that census, when they did take it last, seemed to say that the population of Lightning Ridge was a couple of thousand. Only thing is, traders in the town seem to think they offload enough provisions for twice that, and the wiry citizens certainly don’t look as if they consume significantly more than their fellow countrymen. So, you work it out.

Text and images copyright Glenn A. Baker.

 

THE GHOST WORE COWBOY BOOTS by John Borthwick

 

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In Wyoming, the ghosts wear cowboy boots. At night you might hear one creaking down the wooden halls of the old Irma Hotel in Cody. You leap from your bed, fling open the door and hope to glimpse a spectral gunslinger or just the ghost of Belle Starr. No one there.

“Ain’t nobody prowlin’ around,” the manager says, “except maybe the ghost of old Bill.” “Old Bill” is none other than Colonel William F. Cody, better known as the Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody. He also built the town and – modest to a fault – named it after himself.

The Irma, made of stone, timber and memories, is no broke-down palace but the grand old lady of Cody. In the morning, down in the ornate dining room, you spot cowboy boots galore. Lined up at the enormous, carved cherrywood bar (that Queen Victoria gave to the touring Bill Cody), a dozen good ol’ Wyoming boys are perched there, all bow-legged and no bullshit, on their barstools, with Stetsons tilted back and de rigueur denims giving way to battered cowboy boots. Outside, their steeds are tethered – giant pick-ups with V8s that could each power a Third World village.

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Wyoming, a permanent state of Stetson head and Cuban heel, remains the heart of the Wild West. Not far from the Irma is the Buffalo Bill Center of the West whose collections of art, firearms and Indian exhibits are outstanding: true West, true grit, no spaghetti. Go see it.

Meanwhile, back at the Irma, if you don’t run into old Bill’s putative ghost, they can always direct visitors to other shades of the West. At the old Frontiersman Hotel down the road in Medicine Bow, there’s a recurrent spook called Jake who haunts Room Three, while across the border in Deadwood, South Dakota (where Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane Burke are pushing up daisies side-by-side on Boot Hill), the Franklin Hotel claims its resident ghost is none other than that most presidential of cowboys, Teddy Roosevelt.

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©2014 JOHN BORTHWICK. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.

AN ETERNAL MAJESTY: THE HOTEL DEL CORONADO, SAN DIEGO’S MOST FAMOUS RESORT by David Latta

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For many guests at The Del, as San Diego’s historic Hotel del Coronado is often known, their stay recalls the line from The Eagle’s Hotel California – you can check-out any time you like but you can’t ever leave.

This massive pile, opened in 1888 and today one of the largest wooden structures remaining from the grand era of late nineteenth century resort building in the United States (not surprisingly, most burnt down), is a place of mystery despite the resort ambience of its Pacific Ocean-front position. Ghost stories abound and, within minutes of setting foot inside, I’m drawn to asking the question that I’m sure the staff have heard a million times before.

I’m in the gift shop, just off the main lobby. Amongst the copious Marilyn Monroe memorabilia that fills this area almost to overflowing (Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy, Some Like It Hot, ranked by the American Film Institute as the funniest US movie of all time, was filmed at the Coronado), I ask a staff member if any of hotel’s ghosts cause problems.

“Heavens, yes,” she replies readily enough, although not without a touch of nervousness. “It constantly rearranges the shelves.” The saleslady seems exasperated by the extra work. It’s bad enough when the earthly visitors leave the place a mess, let along long-dead guests adding to the workload.

“It doesn’t like anything to do with Marilyn,” gazing back at the lunchboxes, fridge magnets and books to check they are still in a general sort of order.

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The Coronado’s flesh-and-blood guests have long reported strange occurrences, from sudden plunges in temperature and ghostly footsteps to televisions and ceiling fans that turn on and off without warning.

The usual culprit is claimed to be Kate Morgan, a young woman who checked into the hotel in November 1892 and spent five days awaiting a lover who never arrived. She was found dead on an outside staircase with a bullet wound to the head. The San Diego Coroner ruled the death as suicide.

Kate is said to be still seen wandering the halls while guests in her room (Room 3327) report all manner of unexplained disturbances.

Thankfully, the Coronado is not exactly the Overlook Hotel. It’s a benign and most amazing building, designed in the Queen Anne revival style by Canadian architect James W. Reid, and dominated by a massive red turret.

Construction of what was envisaged as the grandest resort hotel in the United States began in March 1887. At its peak, some 2,000 workers toiled on this sandy wasteland but, when it opened the following year, it was an immediate success.

Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot.
Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot.

It has somewhere around 675 guestrooms and dominates the southern end of Coronado, a peninsula that is linked by a 16 kilometre-long isthmus known as the Silver Strand to the San Diego mainland. At Coronado’s northern end is the sprawling Naval Air Station North Island, comprising some 35,000 personnel and 23 aviation squadrons.

From the early days of manned flight, North Island was an important aeronautic location. Before being commissioned as a Naval Air Station in 1917, it was the site of an aviation school that attracted trainee pilots from around the world. One such aviator was Sadayoshi Yamada, who rose through the ranks of the Japanese armed forces to become Vice Admiral in the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II.

Over the years, the Hotel del Coronado has welcomed royalty, American presidents and movie stars. One of its most famous turns in the spotlight was during the filming of Some Like It Hot, which used the beachfront and hotel exteriors to great effect (the interiors were recreated in the Culver City, Los Angeles, studios of MGM).

Another famous guest was Frank L. Baum, author of the Wizard of Oz series of books. Although from the East Coast, he was drawn to California’s more welcoming climate. He spent months at a time at the Coronado between 1904 and 1910, after which he built a home in Hollywood that he named Ozcot.

The Coronado also inspired novelist Richard Mathieson (whose 1954 novel, I Am Legend, has been filmed four times, the last with Will Smith in 2007) to create Bid Time Return (1975), that deftly interweaves a love story with time travel. When it was filmed as Somewhere In Time (1980), with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, the setting was changed to the equally-elegant Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan.

Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis during filming of Some Like It Hot at the Hotel del Coronado
Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis during filming of Some Like It Hot at the Hotel del Coronado

However, one of the most interesting connections with the Hotel del Coronado is actually one that could have happened but didn’t. When Bessie Wallis Warfield married Earl Winfield Spenser Jr. – an aviator and lieutenant in the United States Navy – in 1916, no-one could have foretold the effect it would have on the world.

Win, as he was known, was posted to San Diego in 1917 to oversee the establishment of the nation’s first naval air base. Wallis, as she was known, was the dutiful but ultimately unhappy military wife of a dissatisfied and alcoholic officer, a woman who loved to entertain and be entertained.

On 7 April 1920, the Hotel del Coronado hosted a ball in honour of Edward, Prince of Wales, who had arrived aboard the British warship HMS Renown en route to a royal tour of Australia. In later years, Win himself recalled he was on hand that evening with his wife who was introduced to the Prince.

Such is the cachè of such a momentous meeting that it has passed, unchecked, into popular legend. Even the Coronado’s website states that many have speculated that “they may have first met at The Del”. However, as Anne Sebba reveals in That Woman: The Life Of Wallis Simpson, Duchess Of Windsor (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2011), the reality is more like the golden opportunity that never occurred.

Several days before the ball, Wallis left San Diego for San Francisco to visit a socialite friend and didn’t return until the week following. This is confirmed by newspaper social columns of both cities.

It would be another 11 years before Wallis finally met the Prince. In the interim, Wallis divorced Spenser in 1927, moved to England and married Ernest Simpson in 1928. She met the Prince at a country house party in 1931 and they became involved sometime around 1934. He ascended the throne as King Edward VIII in January 1936, Wallis and Simpson divorced in October 1936, and Edward abdicated in December of that year. In June 1937, Edward and Wallis married.

And the rest, as they say, even in the character-saturated hallways of the Hotel del Coronado, is history.

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Words  © David Latta

Main photo courtesy of the Hotel del Coronado. Other photos copyright MGM

UNDER COOL MOROCCAN SKIES by Glenn A. Baker

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It was that line in Crosby Stills & Nash’s Marrakesh Express about being “under cool Morrocan skies” that marked my expectations. I’d been warned to avoid the train itself but the evening breeze, well, that didn’t seem too much to expect. 

And there it was, swirling around Casablanca airport, which is as close to the city of Bogie’n’Bergman, of Rick’s Cafe, as I would get. Dismissed as dreary and corporate by even those who reside there, it seems that Morrocan visitors rarely see it. No sooner are you out of the car park, breeze in your hair, than you’re whipping along a wide motorway to Rabat, just an hour away.

When you think about it, and I did, few relatively small countries have so many cities that can be brought immediately to mind, even by those who may not have been there. Casablanca, Marrakech, Fes, Tangier, Rabat, Melilla all roll off the tongue easily.  It could have something to do with the fact that, since the counter-cultural upheaval of the 1960s, Morocco has loomed large as an exotic destination, a place that you should have found your way to if only to be a bona-fide global citizen. The rock gods of the time, Rolling Stones and Hendrix, came to commune with high-flying traditional musicians and hash sellers and set in train a hippie trail that still exerts a certain pull.

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There’s always been something enticing in the proximity of this North African nation, just there on the far side of Gibralter’s rock, sharing the same sea as Spain, France, Italy and Greece. It could be anything you wanted it to be. The Mediterranean at the top, the Sahara at the bottom, the Atlantic on one side, forbidding Algeria on the other. In the middle, magnificent, evocative landscapes that could be in Continental Europe.  Traditional Berber and Islamic on one hand, French-tongued cosmopolitan on the other.

The allure remains potent – a generation of young women now know it as one of the principal locations of the second Sex In The City film. There is yet to be a permanent monument erected to Sarah Jessica Parker and comrades but, when Orson Welles made Othello in the harbour city of Essaouira, the locals honoured him with a park surrounding a bust set in a monument. Sixty years on, it can be said to have seen better days, with his sculptured face splashed with a bucket of wet cement….but, hey, it was initial thought that counted.

Unless you’re heading well north to Tangier, the former International Zone where spies rubbed shoulders with flower children, there is a natural trajectory to be followed from Rabat – inland to Fes then back west and descending south to Marrakech and on to the vigorously sea-swept ports of Essaouira and Agadir, Bouncing up against the magnificent High Atlas and Anti Atlas Mountains, possibly en route to rolling Saharan dunes. Throughout, well lubricated by cups of steaming mint tea, a ceaseless Moroccan motif of medinas (walled cities within cities), souks (tumultuous markets), riads (intimate oasis-type hotels, usually tucked away anonymously down slender passageways) and meals taken at footpath grills out front of butchers providing cuts to order.

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Rabat has all the business bustle of a capital, with major hotel chains and swish offices drawing that end of the market but it’s also where there’s a chance of catching the young king joining locals at outdoor prayers and where, perched atop a cliff with sweeping views of river and ocean, you’ll find the twelfth century Kasbah Les Oudamas, garnished with carved arches that came, along with the tranquil winding streets full of spruce blue and white painted houses, with Muslim immigrants from nearby Spain.

You can let this serve as a mood-setter, an introduction to million-strong Fes, a couple of easy hours’ drive away; though nothing quite prepares you for that 1200-year-old World Heritage-listed maze. Were there nothing else, Fes would be reason alone to go to Morocco. Evoking Jerusalem on one hand and Venice on the other, it is the world’s largest living medieval Islamic city and the largest contiguous car-free urban area. Hurl yourself in one end and presume you’ll eventually come out another all the better for it, having spent time among bakers, donkey handlers, scholars, singers, scribes, confectioners and craftsmen of myriad shade. Minarets alongside satellite dishes. Musicians only just heard above the din of copper beaters. A true feast for the senses.

On a hill outside the old city early in the morning, hide traders pile pelts atop small horses and trundle away. Later in the day, many of these pelts will have found their way to the Chouwara Tanneries, the oldest complex of curing and dying vats in the world. From surrounding vantage points (usually leather shops), you can watch the exacting ancient trade carried on by descendents of its founders. Just as essential a view is the one had from the balcony of the seductive Palais Faraj hotel, a remodeled traditional house of rich traders and power brokers. If breakfast is taken better anywhere else, I did not come upon it.

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Marrakech is more brash, more accustomed to (and in some ways less tolerant of) tourists. As modern as it is historical, it has – along with offices, skyscrapers and trendy suburbs with boutiques, gelati bars and expensive apartments – an enveloping, labyrinthine medina, expert padlock and musical instrument makers, universities, and a famous centre square inhabited by snakes, monkeys and their handlers by day and busy food stalls (snails steamed in their shells being one specialty) at night. As everywhere else in Morocco, teeming piles of sweet oranges sit alongside juicing machines and thirsty queues.  Proving almost as popular is Argan oil, ground from local nuts and used – depending on the roasting level – for hair care and bread dipping. On the road to the coast, past trees inhabited by goats (with some assistance from herders), there are Argan factories receiving busloads of visitors, many negotiating for further supplies by mail order. Once, they came for substances you smoked but at least they still come.

One is reminded of the initial enticement in a tiny threadbare village on the outskirts of the Phonecian-originated Essaouira, the most essential destination on the Atlantic seaboard. Though the couple of Hendrix-themed bars would suggest something more grandiose, the late guitarist spent a few days there in 1969, chilling out without a guitar but with a little help from his friends.

While one is inclined to think that it must have been quite a place then, the sea port itself is quite a place now – as picturesque a boat-jammed fishing harbour as you’re likely to find in Africa. Whipped rather energetically by winds that have stopped it from become too overrun by mainstream tourism (Agadir picks up the sun-seekers), Essaouira has a rugged, briney, gritty tone and layered mystique of a once-vital commerce link (between Timbuktu and Europe) and fortified garrison town that has retained much of its charm. Painters ply their trade, flogging their canvases under ramparts still dotted with canons, the one where Welles dangled Iago in a cage over crashing waves in that Othello production all those years ago.

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Once a French protectorate, its design is courtesy of the man who laid out Brittany’s Saint-Malo port though beyond the arresting harbour is the ancient array of medina, souk, lazas, cafes and aromatic fish markets that is pure Morocco. Blue is such powerful motif that this may be the only place on the planet where the Coca Cola signage is in that shade. UNESCO plonked the whole thing onto its World Heritage Listing in 2001.

Just as Fes hosts an annual sacred music festival which has offered such performers as Ben Harper and Norah Jones, Essaouira claims two world-renowned music events – the Gnaoua and World Music Festival and the Festival des Andalousies Atlantiques. The bluesy, rhythmic and hypnotic Gnaoua is to Morocco what reggae is to Jamaica and many of the loyal foreign visitors are drawn to Essaouira for its creative streak. My eye caught a Led Zeppelin portrait in the foyer of one of the many richly-appointed but encouragingly inexpensive hotels and riads in the town. Snatches of sound swirled through the winding streets, as did compelling characters inextricably intertwined with the place. As ethereal as it is exotic.

As shrieking seagulls swooped, grills sizzled, artists interpreted and the sun sunk over the walls where a couple of thousand troops once oversaw trade in gold, ivory, salt and feathers for the sake of an orderly empire, there was no small amount of joy once again on my part to be under those cool Moroccan skies.

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Glenn flew to Morocco via Abu Dhabi on Etihad Airways. He was exposed to the delights of the country by Morocco By Prior Arrangement.

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2013 issue of the fabulous Get Up & Go magazine – http://www.getupandgo.com.au

©2014 Glenn A. Baker. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.

 

BASIL AND BEAN GO TO AFRICA by John Borthwick

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I had a train ride in Africa — through a country where the street signs still say Kaiser Wilhelmstrasse and Zeppelinstrasse. As one woman told me, “In Namibia we still speak the Kaiser’s tongue — not like up there in Deutschland now where foreign influence has so much polluted the language.”

Ochre deserts to the right, the deep Atlantic blue to the left, we trundled north on our tourist train. This was its inaugural trip and the bar car was home to a crew, including foreign journalists, who might have come from a camp remake of Murder on the Orient Express.

A hyperactive British reporter – think Mr Bean on speed, with the added wickedness of speech – was winding up the train’s equally highly-strung tour guide – think Basil Fawlty goes to Africa. Young Bean, witty, weird and at heart still a very naughty English schoolboy, had his sights set on young Hanna, a Rubenesque, blond German journalist. Basil of Africa, fortyish, angular and anguished, had his eye on her too. Meanwhile, Hanna’s colleague, Ulrike from Erotikfuhrer magazine (the title evoked images of Hitler in fishnet stockings) was attracting the attentions of the train’s Afrikaner wildlife guide.

Before arriving, all I knew about the country was that Kaiser Wilhelm’s Colonial Reich held sway in Deutsch-Südwestafrika for 30 years from 1884. After the Germans were expelled during World War I, this became a South African protectorate. True to form, white Pretoria overstayed its invitation by decades, protecting the hell out of the place, which just happened to be fabulously rich in diamonds. In 1990 South-West Africa finally gained its independence and a new name, Namibia.

Tensions in the train’s bar car rose. Hanna, as clever as she was curvaceous, delighted in dropping double entendres before both Bean and Basil. Meanwhile, the train had four mini-buses which were rolled off for excursions. Bean further enraged Basil by commandeering one and, as a Londoner perfectly unaccustomed to driving on desert sand drifts, promptly rolled and totalled it. Hanna smiled winningly at both of them, and then had dinner with me. A train is, if nothing else, a rumour on rails. Although I retired solo to my blameless bunk, reports of our soiree saw me added to Basil’s “daggers” list — which Bean thought even jollier fun. “Let’s wind up old Basil again,” was his favourite battle cry.

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We reached the ghost town of Kolmanskop on the edge of the diamond-studded desert known as the Forbidden Territory. A community of 1300 Germans and Afrikaners once thrived here. Amid the encroaching dunes, we found their old social club, complete with a skittle alley, wooden balls and ninepins. The windowless, two-story mansion of the mine’s chief engineer stood nearby like a sand-blasted skeleton of the Bates Motel in Psycho.

Jack the Chef, too, had his eyes on Ulrike and not, as they say, on his fries. The distracted result was that his “out of Africa” cuisine increasingly became a gastronomic massacre. Pate of biltong (dried meat jerky) would accompany an offering of oryx or antelope — both of which look far better loping across a plain than demised on a plate, even if lathered with Jack’s “secret sauce.” “It’s like eating a game park with cranberry sauce,” lamented Bean, loudly. When served “tongue” (of which animal we never knew), a woman from Florida announced to the dining car, “I can’t eat that — you never know what it might have licked.”

We rolled on to Ludertiz, a sunny fishing port that looks like Bavaria-by-the-Beach. Here we were joined by Markus, a dour Namibian accountant who had been press-ganged into the role of barman. He could not accept that anyone — especially a tourist, or worse, a journalist — ought to be trusted to volunteer a correct cabin number for a bar tab. Undeterred, the wildlife guide — Bean had nicknamed him “Rolf the Ranger” — was straining to impress Ms Erotikfuhrer. His lines sounded like Karen Blixen badly rescripted by Wilbur Smith: “Let me tell you about my Hereros [a Namibian tribe] on my farm …” At which, much of the bar crew winced, as did Rolf’s wife who was darkly observing it all.

Our sometimes ship of fools of the desert moved further north to the pretty seaside town of Swakopmund, which might be a suburb from 19th century Hamburg. It was here that an elderly German woman informed me that she and her kind were preserving the Kaiser’s “pure” Deutsch tongue. Cupola domes and widows-walks crown Swakopmund’s elegant Belle Epoque buildings and everything is in good repair. In fact, Namibia is sometimes known as “the Switzerland of Africa” because of its wealth, cleanliness and rule of law. If only Switzerland had a coast like this and strudel like Swakopmund’s it could aspire to be the Namibia of Europe.

With Basil of Africa fuming at Bean on Speed, Hanna smouldering at them both, and Rolf angling for Ulrike, things were getting messy. It all hit the punkah on what became known as the Night of the Wrong Wives when Hanna enjoyed one too many cocktails with Bean and one too few with Basil.

Sulking Basil attempted to have Bean put off the train. Bean mugged, “No! There are lions out there. Tigers! Dingos!” Hanna intervened, batting her eyelashes and whispering some delectable promise — though never to be delivered — in Basil’s ear. He was torn, but Bean was reprieved. Instead, Markus the suspicious barman was relieved of his duties — no explanation was ever offered — and the bar ambience improved mightily, as did it the flow of drinks. So much so that at two a.m, Rolf’s wife stormed into the bar car and emptied the great white hunter’s drink over his head and that of the adjacent Ulrike to boot.

©2014 JOHN BORTHWICK. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.

Travelling Small Town America: The Other Las Vegas by David Latta

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It may come as something of a surprise (or not, depending on how well you know me) if I declare an eternal fascination for Las Vegas. Not, I might add, the neon glitter of Las Vegas, Nevada (although I do love that town as well, for other reasons), but the understated historic charms of Las Vegas, New Mexico, a town of just 14,000 souls located 105 kilometres east of Santa Fe.

This is the place you’d holiday with Bill Collins (in matching salmon-coloured sports coats) rather than Richard Wilkins, where the only peacock feathers can be found on the peacocks they belong on, and finding a Busted Flush may require a trawl through the local thrift store for a John D. MacDonald novel.

The New Mexico version was the original, established in 1835 when this part of the world was the property of Mexico. It was an important link on the Santa Fe Trail and many of the Old West legends, including Wyatt Earp and Billy The Kid, peopled Las Vegas at various times. Doc Holliday ran a saloon there (and killed a man in a gunfight); another bar owner was Robert Ford, who murdered outlaw Jesse James. In its heyday, Las Vegas was reputedly one of the roughest, its reputation for lawlessness far exceeding Dodge City or Tombstone.

Sudden death, at the end of a bandit’s gun or a hangman’s rope, was commonplace well into the 1890s and, if official justice didn’t manifest quick enough, the local townspeople were more than happy to form vigilante groups that routinely broke into the town prison and strung up lawbreakers.

It was the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad in 1879 that attracted the wildest of the wild westerners as the population skyrocketed and economic prosperity made Las Vegas one of the most important centres of the New Mexico Territory (it became the 47th State of the Union in 1912). It was the railroad that split Las Vegas in two with Old Town based around the original 1835 city square while New Town was anchored by the railway station two kilometres to the east.

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The glory days of Las Vegas lasted until the 1950s, when rail travel was supplanted by the automobile and the burgeoning interstate highway system. Santa Fe, that tourist-choked Disneyland of adobe, the town that launched a thousand homeware stores, became the drawcard for interstate visitors and Las Vegas went to sleep, a lucky occurrence for those who enjoy a destination with lashings of history. There are more than 900 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, most of which date from the post-railroad period, from richly-ornamented commercial buildings through to the pristine residential streetscapes of Lincoln Park, Carnegie Park and the North New Town district.

One stand-out is the extraordinary Montezuma Hotel, otherwise known as the Castle, built in the Queen Anne style as a luxury spa resort by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Company. Completed in 1886, it replaced the first hotel, which opened in 1882 and burnt down the same year, and a replacement that suffered the same fate.

The first building in New Mexico to have electric lighting, it continued as a hotel until 1903, then underwent varying uses including a Jesuit seminary. In 1981, it was bought by American industrialist and philanthropist Armand Hammer as the site of a United World College, which continues to this day.

Las Vegas also stands out as a location for film-making. In the silent movie era, it was favoured by cowboy star Tom Mix (about 30 films he either starred in or directed utilised Las Vegas as a backdrop). More recent films include the 1984 action adventure Red Dawn (Patrick Swayze loved the area so much he bought an 800-hectare ranch nearby, where his ashes were reportedly scattered following his death in 2009), Convoy (1978), John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998), All The Pretty Horses (2000), Wild Hogs (2007), Paul (2011) and On The Road (2012). The recent television series, Longmire, although set in Wyoming, films exclusively in northern New Mexico, particularly Las Vegas (Sheriff Longmire’s office is on the Old Town Square, adjacent to the Plaza Hotel). Movies and television provide such an economic benefit to the town that it has its own Film Commission.

There are two movies that will forever be closely associated with Las Vegas. The main street of Old Town was used in Easy Rider (1969), where Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper ride behind a parade and are arrested, meeting Jack Nicholson in the town jail. And extensive use was made of Las Vegas in the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men (2007), especially the Plaza Hotel.

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Built in 1882 in a High Victorian Italianate style, the Plaza Hotel is a stylish and comfortable base from which to explore the town. The adjacent Charles Ilfeld Mercantile Building, which opened in 1891 as the first department store in the southwest, was restored and added to the guestroom inventory in 2009.

Las Vegas is small-town America at its most striking. The locals are friendly and hospitable, there’s a good mix of antique shops, book stores and cafes, and the relaxed pace of life makes it an ideal rest stop on any road trip through America’s southwest. For architecture and movie fans, the attractions are even more compelling.

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©David Latta. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.