Friday, October 28, 2011

Ingmar Bergman's Projection Room

Near downtown, on a stately street near the university, through a handsome arched doorway, across the theatre lobby, nearly to the framed and mounted poster advertising "Fanny and Alexander,'' then up a few steps, is the modest projection room where Ingmar Bergman learned to love cinema.

The theater, a lovingly restored 1914 structure in the Swedish university town of Uppsala, is called the Slotts Biograph (in Swedish: Slottsbiografen). Bergman served as an upaid assistant to the projectionist while growing up in Uppsala, his hometown, in the 1920s and 1930s. The room, small but neat, is much like it was then.

The cinema,with its traditional single screen and non-traditionally comfortable seats, is a pleasure to visit. It still shows movies, including silents, though Slotts is no longer a commercial cinema. Rather, it is an arts center with a special emphasis on film. Theatrical performances, music, readings, meetings, even weddings for the heritage-minded, also take place there. The theatre operated as a commercial moviehouse until 1991. It was declared a monument in 1994. Extensively restored, it was reopened in 1996. With just 130 seats, about half as many as during Bergman's boyhood, it is more comfortable now than back in the day.

Visiting the Biograph was one of the highlights of my recent visit to Sweden and Finland. It provides a physical link to Sweden's rich cultural past and to Bergman, an Old Master who is to the movies what Rodin is to sculpture and Rembrandt is to painting. It's easy to imagine the boy Ingmar lifting a new reel of film and offering it to the projectionist, peeking out of the projection room at flickering black and white images on the screen of this marvelous, three-dimensional magic lantern and trundling home after the show to his grandmother's apartment.

She occupied an entire floor in a handsome building that still stands. This was the home fictionalized in Bergman's late masterwork "Fanny and Alexander,'' released in the early 1980s. Before that, making pilgrimmages to see Bergman pictures such as "Wild Strawberries,'' "Smiles of a Summer Night'' and "The Seventh Seal'' were artistic rites of passage for many filmgoers, including myself. His works survive as touchstones of 20th century European art cinema.

After retiring from filmmaking, Bergman (1918-2007) served in Stockholm as artistic director of the magnificent Royal Dramatic Theatre. Tours are offered in that cultural mainstay of central Stockholm and they are well worth taking.

Still, there is something innocent and beguiling about Slotts Biograph. It is easily reached from the central train station in Uppsala, which is only 40 minutes from the capital by train. If you get the chance, go.

Slotts Biograph is located at Lower Linnankatu 6B, 753 09, Uppsala, Sweden. Tel. 018.101101, e-mail

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Five Cool Things About Ventura, California

There are more than five cool things about the city and county of Ventura, in California. But here are some sterling places to go and things to do that especially appealed to me on my recent visit to Ventura, my first:

1. Downtown Ventura Historic District. This is an eminently walkable area filled with vintage buildings, many of them refurbished and repurposed, used for shops, bars, restaurants, museums and more. The heritage building where Earl Stanley Gardner, creator of "Perry Mason,'' had his law office and the old county courthouse just up the hill, now City Hall, are especially worth seeing.

2. Watermark on Main. Occupying parts of the building where Perry Mason's creator once worked, is the sumptuous Watermark restaurant and its rooftop bar, W20. Owned by the husband and wife team of Kathy Hartley and Mark Hartley - Mark's talent management company manages Olivia Newton-John and country music stars Brad Paisley and Clint Black, among others - this is a gorgeous tricked-out restaurant downstars with superior versions of California comfort food, along with live jazz. W20 was added-on upstairs and expertly blended with the heritage architecture. It has a lovely bar, really jumping at the weekend. Mark Hartley told me there are something like 16 venues that offer live music within a several block area weekend nights. 598 Main St., Ventura, Calif., tel. 805.643.6800,

3. Patagonia showcase retail store. The upmarket climbing and outdoor gear company has its mother ship in the restored and renovated Great Pacific Ironworks building, in downtown Ventura city. With a helpful, enthusiastic staff and row upon row of top-quality gear in a handsome redbrick building topped with skylights, this is the place to get in touch with your inner Sherpa. 235 W. Santa Clara St., Ventura, Calif., tel. 805.643.6074,

4. Santa Cruz Island. The largest island in Channel Islands National Park, and the largest island in California, this rugged, rocky redoubt for seabirds and rare wild foxes is reached by ocean ferry from an hour to an hour and a half from Ventura city harbor with the well-run Island Packers company. En route, you may well see swarming birds, leaping dolphins and the occasional whale; blue whales, the biggest creatures to ever inhabit the planet, have been spotted here. The island is largely bereft of tourist amenities but that is by design. It has sea kayaking and hiking paths galore. I did the strenuous 7.4 mile return hike from the pier to Smugglers Cove, with its sandy beach, gnarly-trunked mature olive trees and now-abandoned ranch house, to have a picnic and rest my weary bones. National Park visitors' center 1901 Spinnaker Dr., Ventura, Calif. tel. 805.658.5700,

5. The final cool thing is, er, actually two cool things, both located down the highway south of Ventura city in the town of Santa Paula. The California Oil Museum occupies the ground floor of a 19th century building downtown. It is loaded with old oil producing equipment used in the early days of the oil fields of Southern California and has venerable knick-knacks such as tall, spindly gasoline pumps from the earliest gas stations. Upstairs, fitted-out with period furniture, is the original headquarters of Union Oil Co., now part of Chevron: 1001 E. Main St., Santa Paula, Calif., tel. 805.933.0076, A short walk from the oil museum is the Museum of Ventura County Agricultural Museum. Opened in late September 2011, this fine new museum, located in a converted railroad warehouse, has old farm equipment, exhibitions on farm life, a strong interactive component to appeal to children and a clear, steady focus on the still-active agricultural life of the county, one of the United States's leading producer of fresh strawberries and its major producer of fine juicy lemons: 100 E. Main St., Santa Paula, Calif., tel. 805.525.3100,

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Beam Me Up, Scotty

There's nothing like flying domestic in the United States - and especially flying domestic in coach - that makes me want to crib a line from the old "Startrek'' TV show and say "Beam me up, Scotty!'' If only it would work.

It's no secret to any frequent traveler that domestic flying, especially in the back of the bus - er, plane - suffers by comparison with long-haul transcontinenal or trans-oceanic flying, especially in the front of the plane where first- and business-class is located.

That gap is widening, especially in the U.S. - burdened as it is with airlines that have only recently resumed making money - and that could be temporary, given the state of the national and global economies. Old fleets, shrinking the size of planes used to create packed flights, cutting routes, charging extra for most anything - this is the legacy of a lost decade for U.S. carriers. An antiquated air-traffic control system and overcrowded airports racked with delays add to the problems.

I am fortunate enough to fly often in business and occasionally in first class on long-haul flights by top international carriers. When I fly domestic, though, I often fly coach. This was the case last week when I flew with United Airlines from Los Angeles (LAX) to San Francisco (SFO). It was situation normal all fouled up - again.

What went wrong? Well, no United employee appeared at the designated gate until the scheduled 4:35 p.m. departure, and then only to announce a gate change and a delay. New departure time: 4:58 p.m. Opps! Did we say 4:58? We meant 5:15. All three departure times turned out to be fiction. In fact, the flight went wheels up at 5:53. We left 68 minutes late for the 53-minute flight.

The personable pilot did his best to lighten the mood for frustrated passengers. "This is United flight 460, with eventual service to San Francisco,'' he announced as we sat on the tarmac awaiting permission to take off.

The various reasons cited for the delay were: plane arrived late at LAX; minor mechanical problem; air traffic backup at SFO due to bad weather; and, finally, the need to take-on some extra fuel lest we be ordered to circle before landing in San Francisco. (We weren't.) There was, of course, no room to cross one's legs or retrieve items stored under the seat in front, given how tighty packed the rows of narrow seats were. The bad food for sale on the plane? Don't ask.

Well, so, you might say: What's the big deal? This is absolutely normal. And that's true. That's my point: It's absolutely normal.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Argentina's Santa Julia (+) Wines

Four years ago, my wife and I visited the Southern Cone countries of South America: Chile, Uruguay and Argentina. Most of the trip was first-rate, never more so than in Mendoza, the high, arid province where 75 percent of Argentina's affordable, world-class wines are produced. Over several days, we visited maybe half a dozen wineries - bodegas. We wound up our touring at Familia Zuccardi, a sprawling, family-owned spread at the foot of the magnificent Andes - which were still wearing a spring cloak of snow when we visited.

While touring the property with a company guide, we spied a table in the vineyards, set with cutlery on white linen. "Wouldn't it be incredible to have glass of wine there?" I said to my wife, nodding toward the table. "You will,'' our guide interjected. "That's your table.'' So, we did have wine there - Zuccardi wines, of course - some made from grapes grown in that very vineyard, along with fresh bread, cheeses and Mendoza olive oil.

Yesterday, I did the next best thing to traveling back to Mendoza; I attended a press luncheon in California for Zuccardi Wines. Zuccardi's vintages are becoming increasingly available in the United States, which the company counts as one of its primary global markets. Chicago's Winesellers Ltd. ( imports the wines, which retail in the $9-10 USD range in the U.S.

Over lunch at the South American-themed San Francisco restaurant Destino, we tasted sustainably produced vintages - some of them organic - from the winery's new Santa Julia (+) line. It wasn't the same as being in Argentina, to be sure, but the presence of Julia Zuccardi - the line's namesake - helped bring a bit of Argentina to us. Julia, fluent in English, heads up the winery's active tourism division ( and plays a key role in marketing. Also on hand to help out with the meal was Argentine chef Ana Rodriguez Armisen, from Famiia Zuccardi.

The wines were supple, rounded and, as the saying has it, fruit-forward, with a smooth finish not often associated with wines in that modest price range. They were also markedly better than most organic wines I have tasted - which are finally getting better, as more producers gain experience making them. Her family's winery, Julia Zuccardi says, has been embracing sustainability for 10 years, making Zuccardi one of the earlier exponents of "green'' winemaking.

We tasted Santa Julia (+) Brut Rose, a Torrontes, a Malbec and a Santa Julia Organica Cabernet Sauvignon and Santa Julia Organica Chardonnay, among others.

Back when my wife and I visited Familia Zuccardi, we followed our wine and appetizers in the vineyards with a full lunch and tastings in the bodega's restaurant. All told, we tried no fewer than 14 wines at lunch that September day. (We had a hired car and driver to take us around.) I didn't try that many wines yesterday, but the California luncheon - organized by Zuccardi's U.S. public relations agency, Folsom and Associates - did as much as anything could to bring back the flair and generosity we experienced in Mendoza without my actually being there.

That, I hope, will happen another day.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Wanted Man

Abdel Basset al-Magrahi, a Libyan convicted of masterminding the 1988 Pan Am Lockerbie bombing that killed 259 travelers and 11 people on the ground, is reportedly still living in Tripoli after returning to a hero's welcome in 2009. Released on compassionate grounds by blinkered Scottish authorities because he was supposedly on the verge of death from cancer, Magrahi was giving self-serving interviews to the international media as recently as Oct. 3 of this year.

Magrahi maintains he didn't do it and that the facts about the Lockerbie bombing will soon emerge. A Dutch court disagreed with his profession of innocence, which is how he came to be imprisoned in the first place.

As for the convicted mass-murderer's decrepitude, it should be noted he has been dying any day now for more than two years. A Reuters report published in the British press this month reported that while Magrahi held forth for the media, "An oxygen tank stood nearby, but he did not use an oxygen mask during the interview.''

The Dec. 21, 1988 bombing, one of the bloodiest terrorist attacks on travelers in modern history, numbered among its victims 189 Americans - including 36 students at Syracuse University, my alma mater, who were returning from studies in Britain for their end of the year holidays.

The United States opposed Magrahi's release by Scotland and his return to Libya and is seeking his extradition.

"He does seem to have made a miraculous recovery ... he never should have been let out of jail,'' the Reuters dispatch quotes U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland as saying. "We continue to believe that the right place for Mugrahi is behind bars and we will continue to make that case to the Libyans.''

Good luck with that. The present, hopefully transitionary leaders of Libya demonstrated their commitment to justice and compassion on Thursday in videos showing the beating of the deposed dictator Moammar Khadafy. In an earlier announcement, the victorious rebels - who beat Khadafy on the battlefield thanks to military help from the West, including the U.S. - have said Magrahi will not be extradicted from Libya.

Khadafy's ghost will continue to haunt long-suffering, good-hearted Libyan people in many ways for many years. It will continue to haunt the West, too, especially so long as Abdel Basset al-Megrahi remains at liberty.

Friday, October 21, 2011

23 Years, 270 Deaths, One Dictator

Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy's capture and apparent execution yesterday comes nearly 23 years after agents of his government bombed Pan American World Airways flight 103, killing 270 people in the air and on the ground in Lockerbie, Scotland, in late 1988. It was a brutal end for a man ultimately responsible for one of the most vile acts against travelers in the modern era.

His departure does nothing, of course, to erase the pain that lingers after all these years - nor does it offset the celebratory images from Tripoli several years ago, when a Libyan convicted of the crime returned to a hero's welcome after being released from a Scottish jail, supposedly because he was terminally ill. At last report, he was living in a comfortable villa in an upscale section of Tripoli.

That said, images of the dictator's last moments do nothing to inspire confidence that the North African nation will suddenly evolve into a kinder, gentler society. As for the rebel leaders saying the strongman died in a cross fire, their claims seem debatable at best. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? It's easy to see it happening.

Monday, October 17, 2011

My California in the Fall story for Alaska Airlines Magazine

If you're traveling with Alaska Airlines this month, check out my piece on California in the Fall, headlined "Golden State Grandeur,'' in the airline's monthly in-flight magazine. It begins like this:

"I'm cruising with the top down, the convertible engine humming, music turned up, feeling the caress of a light breeze under clear, blue skies. My route skims the coastline between San Diego and Los Angeles, past many beautiful beaches. In other parts of the country, this experience wopuld be possible only on a summer day. But this is California: It's an October day, and the temperature is a perfect 75 degrees.''

The story is a round-up of good things to do between now and early December, from San Diego north to San Francisco and the Bay Area. If you're traveling in that part of the world, it will hopefully give you some fresh ideas. Interested? The article starts on page 87.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Chateau Montelena at the Westin St. Francis

I attended a swell event last night at the vintage, circa-1904 Westin St. Francis Hotel, in San Francisco, to mark the grand opening of a rare hotel winery-branded tasting room. Located just off the lobby in a former jewelry shop opposite the grand staircase, the new arrival is an outpost of Napa Valley's well-regarded Chateau Montelena Winery.

Actually, "well-regarded'' may be an understatement. Chateau Montelena ( justly celebrated for its Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. It was this winery's 1973 Chard, in fact, that beat out high-end French white Burgundies in a blind tasting by French judges. This is the now-famous 1976 Judgement of Paris showdown dramatized in the 2008 movie "Bottle Shock''.

Last night, the winery took over an ornate first-floor ballroom in the St. Francis ( to pour half a dozen of its fine wines, from a welcoming glass of Reisling through Chardonnays, a Zinfandel and on to a big Cab. Scrumptious canapes from the hotel kitchen matched up splendidly with the wines.

Of course, you don't have to visit San Francisco and the Bay Area to drink Chateau Montelena wines, but if you are in town, the snug tasting room (open from 1-8 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday) is a good place to get a taste of Napa Valley. Chateau Montelena Winery is located in the town of Calistoga, at the north end of Napa Valley, about 90 minutes drive north of San Francisco.

The tasting room is a nice place and, as far as I have been able to determine, the only winery-branded hotel tasting room in this wine-mad city. I'm not aware of any other winery-specific tasting rooms in any hotel, though I wouldn't swear that there aren't any. In any case, buy a bottle of Chateau Montelena in the tasting room and they waive the corkage fee in the St. Francis's Oak Room, a handsome, traditional dining room in the hotel, so you can drink it with dinner.

The St. Francis, a grande dame hotel on San Francisco's bustling Union Square, is old school in the best sense. It pays a lot of attention to food and drink, with the top of the food chain being occupied by Bourbon Steak, an elegant steakhouse run by accomplished San Francisco chef Michael Mina. Bourbon Steak, too, is located just off the hotel's Powell Street lobby, right by the new Chateau Montelena tasting room, in the space formerly occupied by the chef's namesake Michael Mina restaurant. If you're in the neighborhood, check it out.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Finnish Made Easy

Jet-lagged and puffy-eyed, I looked down at the placemat on the breakfast table in my Helsinki hotel the other day, and laughed out loud. On the placemat are printed a number of phrases in English, with translations into Finnish. A few lines are serious but most are tongue in cheek, meant to provoke a giggle.

Such as: "Is that stuffed reindeer for sale?''

And: "My hovercraft is full of eels.''

Not forgetting: "I'm so lost.'' (Olen hukassa).

The hotel is delightful in lots of ways. Nicely appointed and attractively designed guest rooms. Good location walking distance from Helsinki's vibrant Design District and eye-pleasing, tree-linede Esplanade. A cool (though lighty used during my visit) lobby bar. A healthful, bountiful breakfast buffet.

The hotel's name? I thought you'd never ask. It is the Hotel Fabian, located at 7 Fabianinkatu 00130 Helsinki, Finland. tel. 358 9 6128 2000,

On the room card, another message is printed: "We don't mind if you stay longer.'' I wouldn't mind either.