Down Into The Levels of Travel Hell

Dante’s Inferno envisioned nine levels of Hell, with the hopeless condemned being subjected to various kinds of torment depending on the nature of sins they had committed.

Any traveler knows that there are similar levels of Travel Hell.  Yesterday, Kish and I got down to about Level 5.

angerWe first crossed the river Styx when an early morning snowstorm and de-icing needs delayed our flight out of Columbus.  We abandoned all hope when our flight was late arriving in St. Louis and the airline inexplicably did not  hold the plane for only the few minutes needed for us to make our connection — leaving us winded and desolate as we stood at the gate, watching our plane move slowly away — and instead booked us for a flight to occur 11 hours later.  We then wandered like lost souls through the St. Louis airport, moving from terminal to terminal in the bitter cold, enduring the initial levels of Travel Hell and hoping in vain to find an earlier flight option.  We moved even lower when we decided to take an earlier flight, through Houston, with the thought that we could then drive to our ultimate destination of San Antonio, and learned that the flight was populated entirely by screaming, thrashing children and inattentive parents.

We reached our final depth when we arrived in Houston, found the rental car counters in the terminal were closed, checked to make sure that their signs indicated they had cars available, then went to a rental car area only to learn that notwithstanding the freaking sign, they had no cars, and we therefore had to return to the terminal and board another bus to get to another rental car outlet.  The final indignity came when, after waiting patiently in the line at the rental car counter and finally securing a vehicle, we were directed to a car, got in, drove to the exit, and were told that we were in the wrong kind of car and needed to return it and get another one.  After that piece de resistance, the three-hour drive through the rain from Houston to San Antonio, with oversized pick-ups with their brights on powering up right behind us, seemed like a walk in the park.

Fortunately, we didn’t reach the lowest levels of Travel Hell — which involve things like being physically ill, getting food poisoning at an airport terminal food court, and then having to spend the night in an airport in the company of fellow travelers who won’t shut up — but Level 5 was bad enough.  After 14 hours, we emerged from the pits into the friendly environs of San Antonio, and the air never smelled so sweet.

The Stained Glass Of St. Chapelle

038In past visits to Paris, I’ve never been able to see the legendary St. Chapelle, because it was being renovated, or the lines were too ridiculously long.  This trip, I finally was able to check off that item from my bucket list.

033St. Chapelle was the home church of the early French king who was killed in battle during the Crusades and later became canonized as St. Louis.  The chapel itself is known primarily for its stunning stained glass windows, which are brilliantly colored, intricate and ornate, and reach to the very top of a high vaulted ceiling that seems to touch the heavens. The windows are generally viewed as the finest surviving example of stained glass artwork of the early Middle Ages.

The windows of the chapel each have a theme and depict Bible scenes that would be immediately familiar to the people of the time.  In addition to the windows, the chapel features fine wooden carvings of saints, small frescoes of Bible scenes, many of which are violent — how many people got beheaded, tortured or impaled during the early Christian period, anyway? — and a painting of Jesus engaging in the Last Judgment above the doorway.  I guess the idea was to remind you of the need to avoid the temptations of sin when you left the sacred sanctuary and returned once more to the real world.

As I craned my neck to take in the towering windows, I wondered about the medieval craftsmen who created the scenes at the very top, that cannot really be viewed and enjoyed by mortal man.  What must it have been like to work with dangerous substances like lead, doing the painstaking work needed to create delicate objects of such beauty, knowing that the product of your labors would be largely inaccessible to your fellow man?

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Columbus And Columbia, Linked At The Gateway Arch

Although Richard is hundreds of miles away, we’re still linked by I-70, the east-west highway running through the middle of the country.  Yesterday we left Columbia, got on I-70, drove eight hours or so on that same road, passed the Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis, and exited in Columbus.  It’s oddly comforting to know that we are joined by that continuous strip of asphalt and concrete rolling through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri.

What Makes The Ritz The Ritz?

In the St. Louis Ritz-Carlton lobby

On my recent trip to St. Louis I stayed in the Ritz-Carlton.  After staying there, I learned why “the Ritz” is used as shorthand for luxury and top of the line accommodations and why “ritzy” has entered the language as a synonym for elegant.

A vase in the Ritz-Carlton lobby

What makes the Ritz the Ritz?  Well, the lobby, for one.  This is not one of those cookie-cutter hotels with tile floors, a bland neutral color scheme, and a cheap chair and table tucked in one corner of the check-in area.  No, the Ritz lobby features a roaring fire, chandeliers, fine carpeting and furniture, and gilt-edged paintings.  There are multiple seating areas for quiet reading, confidential conversations, or a quick check of the Blackberry.  The tables feature golden clocks, or fine vases, or a Remington-like sculpture.  The entire lobby ambiance exudes comfort and sumptuousness.

The guest rooms similarly have that fine, posh feel about them.  The rooms themselves are considerably larger than normal hotel rooms and are well designed.  (My room had a small balcony, too, but I didn’t venture out to check the view given the arctic temperatures.)

The bathroom soap dish and glassware

The bed, linens, lamps, and chairs are top of the line.  The coffee cup for the coffee maker has the Ritz-Carlton seal and the coffee itself is excellent.  And the bathroom is resplendent in marble, with polished dishes and glassware.  The shower is bright and spacious, with plenty of hot water.

The staff of the hotel were friendly, professional, and quick about their work.  We had breakfast in the dining area where the service was prompt and the food was hot and freshly prepared.  And when we were leaving the doorman held the door open and the bellhop capably carried our bags to the taxi.

What makes the Ritz the Ritz?  Just about everything.