Around the World in Eight Days
A mad dash to circumnavigate the globe on a budget, in an art-inspired game of Connect the Spots
By JEFF CHU
The Wall St, Journal
The trip was for art—sort of. "The Complete Spot Paintings: 1986-2011," a show of works by the semi-deranged British artist/marketing genius Damien Hirst, has taken over all 11 outposts of the Gagosian Gallery through mid-February. http://www.gagosian.com/ Before the show's January opening, Mr. Hirst issued a challenge: Anyone who visits every gallery—three in New York, two in London, one each in Athens, Geneva, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Paris and Rome—before the close will receive a limited-edition spot print. (Estimated value: upward of $3,500, depending on how many people complete the task.)
First stop: L.A. On a 70-degree day with robin's-egg skies, my buddy Michael picked me up at LAX and drove me to the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills for the show's opening reception. I picked up my Complete Spot Challenge registration card and got the first stamp. There were so many Louboutins and fake tans (why, in sun-splashed L.A.?) that I could barely focus on the paintings, so I spun around the gallery and hopped a taxi back to the airport.
The flight and the international date line ate Friday and half of Saturday. Hong Kong is the anti-L.A.: densely packed, a public-transport paragon. Thanks to its Airport Express train, I was in and out of the Gagosian Gallery in Central just over an hour after touchdown. Then I headed to my spotless Airbnb room in an old tenement in Kowloon, five narrow flights up from bustling Shanghai Street. At $39 a night, it was a crazy bargain.
Two lessons from the four-flight, 23-hour trip (via Singapore and Istanbul) to Athens: Old Greek ladies say "Opa!" a lot, and Singapore Airlines has the world's best economy-class food. The succulent Malay chicken stir-fry was just spicy enough to be interesting.
I arrived in Athens with the cold Monday dawn, determined to speed up—more spots, more sights. I hopped on the X95 express bus to Syntagma Square, a ride that provided a visual primer on Greece's economic troubles: graffiti, empty storefronts, boarded-up buildings.. Back downhill, I popped into a month-old gourmet-food shop and asked the 20-something shopkeeper for a carry-on-friendly souvenir. She suggested hilopites, a square-shaped egg pasta, and dictated an easy casserole recipe with chicken, onions and tomato sauce. I asked her whether it wasn't an odd time to start a business in Athens. "I am optimistic," she said with a shrug and a half-smile that seemed to disagree.
Now, as then, Rome came after Athens. My half-Tuesday in Rome included the requisite gallery stop and a self-guided walking tour via the Tazza d'Oro coffee bar, Pantheon, 14th-century Santa Maria sopra Minerva church and ruins of Trajan's Market. My true destination was Lucio Sforza's neo-trattoria, L'Asino d'Oro (the Golden Donkey), enthusiastically recommended on Chowhound's online discussion boards. Mr. Sforza offers a four-course lunch, with wine, for just €12. Every mouthful was deliciousness magnified by the outrageous price, from the featherweight cannelloni with ricotta and lemon to the luscious meatballs (three brown spots on a red-sauce canvas!). Mr. Sforza emerged from the kitchen at meal's end to ask, eyebrows raised: "Good?" No, great.
I cheated in Geneva, avoiding a pricey hotel by staying with relatives in nearby Lausanne. The next morning, my uncle Jason showed me around Geneva's old town, injecting a touch of the sacred into my trip: visits to the Calvin Auditory, a 15th-century chapel where John Calvin lectured, and to Calvin's home church, St. Pierre Cathedral, whose tower offers gargoyle's-eye views.
The TGV whisked me from Geneva to Paris in just over three hours. After a stopover long enough for me to get my gallery stamp and one of the best steak frites I've had (perfectly marbled entrecôte, with crispy-outside, fluffy-inside fries, at Terminus Nord), I boarded my London-bound Eurostar train.
The next morning was stereotypically drizzly. Soon, though, the sun emerged, making London's streets shine like titanium and warming my walk from Gagosian's gallery in chichi Mayfair to the location in a grittier area near King's Cross. I wound through still-sleepy Soho; across bustling Covent Garden, where I stopped at Neal's Yard Dairy to buy a hunk of local cheese called Bermondsey Hard Pressed; past the British Museum and the stately gardens of Gray's Inn.
In the course of my journey, I spent a total of an hour and 40 minutes in the galleries. Mostly, I was indifferent to the art—with one exception, which I saw at the Britannia Street gallery before I headed to Heathrow for my flight back to New York and the last three Gagosians.
The trip was never about the art, but about the trying. I read a lot during my many hours in flight, finishing Ryszard Kapuscinski's magisterial "Travels with Herodotus," an account of journeys the Polish journalist took with the Greek historian's travelogues. "What set [Herodotus] into motion? Made him act? Compelled him to undertake the hardships of travel?" Kapuscinski asks. "I think that it was simply curiosity about the world. The desire to be there, to see it at any cost, to experience it no matter what."
This journey? Worth all 279,000 pennies.
The eight-day trip started in New York.
$290 Flight from New York to Los Angeles
$824 Flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong
$608 Flights from Hong Kong to Athens
$158 Flight from Athens to Rome
$73 Flight from Rome to Geneva
$106 Train from Geneva to Paris
$115 Train from Paris to London
$159 + 30,000 frequent flier miles. Flight from London to New York
$100 London hotel
$39 Hong Kong lodging
$107 Meals and drinks
$88 Public transportation
$19 Entrance fees
$4 Souvenir pasta
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142 ... 19234.html