Friday, January 31, 2014

Las Vegas

What a change of scenery, after nearly a week of virtual solitude, her I found myself surrounded by people. The shimmering buildings skyrocketing towards the heaven had replaced the stone monuments. Thousands of people scurried about the sidewalk, forcing their way past slower walkers, half looking up in wonderment, half looking down in despair.

Las Vegas is a dichotomous city, poverty and excesses stand hand to hand in jaw dropping juxtaposition. Down trodden homeless men and women sit on the sides of bridges, asking for spare handouts. Few people give them any, instead deciding to free themselves of the burden of cash by gambling it away inside the opulent casinos that give life to this desert oasis. The grandeur of it all seems ostentatious as first appearance, then it seduces you, drawing you in with it’s ornate appeal. There is no place in the world like Vegas, it stands alone as a city built on temptation and built to satiate our every desire. 

Some people find it all tacky and vulgar, the fake facades of the elaborate buildings symbolic of the cities showy exterior hiding it’s  seedy ways. Solicitors on the street had out cards with topless women on them to pedestrians, trying to draw up clients for the array of strip clubs. Drunk patrons harass the homeless men, throwing insults at them in a drunken stupor that only highlights the absurdity of it all. But for all Sin City seems to do wrong, it does one thing very well, entertain.

I had woken up early, and as I walked around the strip the city was still quite. Most of the shops had yet to open, save the ones serving breakfast. I found a sports bar inside a shopping center that advertised a $2.99 breakfast special and sat at a table, hungry and unable to turn down such an offer. The ceiling above me was painted to look like the sky, the shops all decorated to look like a renaissance street. The fountain danced to the music as the billboards behind announced the days entertainment in the theater. I ate my breakfast and headed out into the day. At night it gets rather cold, and when I had woke up in the morning it called for a sweater, but the day had quickly warmed and my sweater seemed unnecessary as I strolled from one empty shopping complex to the next. 

It amazing how much art there is in Las Vegas that just sits being ignored all day long, amazing pieces that in any other setting would be focal points, but in Vegas they are just another adornment, another bit of flamboyancy swept up by the enormity of it all. I headed back to my car deciding to return to my room for a bit until the day picked up. I have little interest in gambling and the finite space of my vehicle mad shopping an unlikely endeavor. I headed back to relax and catch up on some reading, the day after day of hiking had caught up with me and realizing seemed more pleasant than wandering around tacking more miles on my wary legs. 

My stomach began to rumble and I realized it was time to venture out for food. I had heard murmurings of a secret pizza place, located inside the Cosmopolitan. Apparently the pizza was amazing. According to my, not so official, source, the pizza shop has water flown in from New York City to make their dough, but I can find no confirmation of that fact. I decided this would be my lunch spot, if I could find it. I was armed with one clue, the hallway that leads to it is unmarked but the walls are covered in records. 

I decided to walk, as it was only a 15 minute walk and traffic had slowed to a crawl. When I walked out of my hotel the wind was blowing fiercely, stirring up the dust around the area. I was hoping to use the word haboob here, but the dust storm was far to minor to be described by such an amazing term. My walk was into the wind and the dust filled the air trying desperately to infiltrate my eyes, forcing me to walk most of the way squinting or with my eyes closed. Finally I reached the Bellagio, which is next to the Cosmopolitan. The Bellagio cost $1,600,000,000.00 to build, and open in October of 1998 with a reportedly $88million ceremony, and every bit of that opulence is still apparent, from the Fiori di Como, a 2000 square foot sculpture containing over 2000 hand blown flowers, that hangs from the lobby ceiling, the the ever famous Fountains of Bellagio. 

I made my way through Bellagio’s gaming rooms and shops and back outside, where, with the help of the long moving walkways, I quickly found the entrance to the Cosmopolitan. The fashionable hotel was filled with gorgeous decorations, a chandelier of crystal drapes hung down from the third floor. I headed along the edges of the complex, looking for a record clad hallway. A small unmarked hallway sat next to a coffee shop, I headed towards it, a sign read “Staff only,” clearly this wasn’t my destination. Having searched the entire floor I head to the next and repeated the task, more art work adorns the hallways, distracting me from my mission. A man behind me asks a shop keep, “hey, where is that pizza place,” hearing this I scurry away, I will not have the adventure ripped from me. After a few moments I feel I continue my search without spoilers and continue. Again I find nothing, I head to the next level and I smell pizza. I must be close, soon I hear music that is distinctly unlike the calm music that permeates the rest of the building, and then I see it, a narrow hallway tucked away along the backside of a restaurant, the records on the wall beckon me. 
Chandelier at The Cosmopolitan
“I’ve found it,” I though as I entered. The place is nearly empty except for a young couple enjoying slices under a television in the corner. I go up to the counter and order a slice of pepperoni and a slice of white pizza, which I had been told was a must have. They inform me that they just put a white pizza in the oven and it would be 20 minutes before it is done, after a nearly half hour search I am not going to be thwarted by time so I take a place at the bar and wait. As I wait other patrons meander in, each doing a small celebratory dance when they see the pizza, each having searched out the small secret pizza place, that in fact has no official name, and is simply referred to as Secret Pizza. 
If you are going to hide you pizza shop you have to make amazing pizza.
My slices came out of the oven fresh and hot, one bite and I was in heaven. This pizza was unlike anything I have had outside of New York City, and I feel confident, having eaten at over 20 New York Pizza shops in my prior travels, that this pizza could hold it’s own against the best of them. I saved the white slice for second, and all I am going to say is that if you do go on the hunt to find this pizza place you must get the white pizza, it is simply perfection on a crispy crust. As I finished the chef was throwing a new pizza in the oven, I asked what it was, “sicilian,” he said, “we only make it a couple times a day.” I knew what this meant, I would be ordering slice. He told me it would be another 20 minutes so I headed out to take in some sights. 
Random Art I found searching for the Secret Pizza
Out on a bridge I stood and watched the people. A kid with a backwards baseball cap with rocking out on a violin, his flat brimmed hat and sagging pants another great Vegas juxtaposition to his classical instrument. I stayed and enjoyed his concert, another example of grey art being ignored by passersby in the quest for more commercialism. I threw a couple dollars in his bucket, feeling guilty for not giving more to this talent. 

I headed back upstairs and got to the pizzeria as the Sicilian pizza was coming out of the oven, it’s thick crust draped in a staggering heap of meats and cheese. I was not hungry after my prior slices but I knew I had to try the pizza that only appears a couple of times. It was once again delicious and without much effort I stuffed the gargantuan slice into my already full stomach. I waddled out of the shop and decided to go see the famous Volcano at the Mirage. By the time I arrived I only had to wait a few minutes before the show began, spending the time people watching. 

The show was amazing, hundreds of nozzles shoot out flaming natural gas, which has been striped of its natural gas smell and fragranced with the smell of pina colada, because it’s Las Vegas and nothing is overlooked. The soundtrack includes the sounds of real volcanoes erupting and drums, few people manage to walk by without stopping to take in the awe inspiring spectacle. 

After the show I headed over to The Venetian, the facade of the complex is a replica of St. Mark’s Square in Venice, and an amazingly accurate one at that, if some liberties were taken with the placement of iconic features. Inside the amazing continued, with a brilliantly painted ceiling adoring the entry way. If this piece were a couple hundred years older and located in the proper geographical location it would be a world wonder. In the shopping areas a canal is navigated by gondoliers singing as they paddle under bridges taking patrons on a short ride. To take a gondola ride in Venice is one of the most romantic things I can imagine, in fact it makes a appearance on my bucket list. To take a gondola ride in a mall seems extremely cheesy and lame, but it was still amazing to watch the gondolas pass under the bridges as if I had been transported to the real City of Canals. 

Las Vegas seems to have an obsession with Italian and Roman culture. From Caesar’s Palace, to The Venetian and Palazzo, to my hotel The Tuscany, which was decorated like a fusion between the farming villages of Italy and the resorts of the Hawaiian islands. However the facade starts to fall apart when you get closer to anything, the stonework of ancient roman sites has been replica by the quick and inexpensive use of cement, the walls which look to be made of granite or marble turn out to be painted drywall. Don’t look to deep into anything in Vegas or the veneer falls away exposing the ersatz of it all. 
Ceiling at The Venetian
I decided to take it easy for the night and strolled slowly back to my hotel. On my walk I discovered that The Flamingo Hotel has a small bird sanctuary tucked between their buildings. The birds were all asleep, equally exhausted as I by the long day.

As the night dragged on my stomach once again demanded satiating, apparently having worked its way through all the pizza I had consumed. In my hotel complex was a small cafe and I headed over there, unwilling to venture back onto the strip. The special for the night was lobster and steak, for $12, it took little time to decide this is what I would be having. Only in Vegas can you eat so cheaply, only in Vegas do you have to search out a pizza place, only in Vegas can you see the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty and the Sphinx in the same day. But those things would have to wait for tomorrow, I was too intrigued by the idea of relaxing by the pool with a book to bother with any more sight seeing for the night. 

I know you love pictures of my food. 

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