Thursday, December 22, 2011


A number of friends and colleagues have been asking me for gift ideas for people they know who love Paris and France, and Tuscany and Umbria and Italy, and Istanbul and Turkey,...and therefore who also love art, music, history, and travel in general. Short of an airplane ticket or a hotel gift certificate, I always reply that the best gifts for people who love travel are books, and I don't say that just because I am an author. Rather, I truly believe that books (in any format) offer what literate, curious travelers want most: depth, background, and inspiration.

Without doubt, the book I am recommending most often right now is the one pictured above, The Louvre: All the Paintings (Black Dog & Leventhal, published on November 14th). This is no ordinary book, and it is not an updated version of a book previously published. It is a ground-breaking, extraordinary, gorgeous, must-have work of art itself, and it features every single painting in the Louvre's permanent collection. Every one. Three-thousand and twenty two of them. The book is 766 pages, it weighs a number of pounds (I'm not sure how many, but you need two hands to hold it), it's accompanied by a navigational DVD-ROM, and it's $75. And it's a perfect gift, even one for yourself.

Readers of my Paris book know that I am hugely fond of the numerous small museums in the city, whether devoted exclusively to a single artist (Delacroix, Picasso, Rodin, etc.) or to collections (Jacquemart-Andre, Cognacq-Jay, etc.). But there is no doubt that my most favorite museum on earth is the Louvre, the largest single museum in the world. When I was a student in the Hollins Abroad Paris program in 1979, my art history classes were held once a week at the Jeu de Paume (which then housed the French Impressionists) and once a week at the Louvre. We were required to go to each museum a second time each week to complete homework assignments, but I always returned to the Louvre a third time, every Sunday, when it was free (today it is free on the first Sunday of every month, as well as on Bastille Day and on Fridays after 6:00 p.m. for anyone under age 26). I loved (and still do) the enormity of the museum (I like knowing that I will never see everything), and I loved the beautiful parquet floors in the galleries and I loved the periodic views out the windows and I loved seeing the 'Winged Victory of Samothrace' sculpture that was then at the top of a stone staircase. Most of all I loved the paintings, some of them the largest I'd ever seen.

I know I'm not alone in my love for the Louvre -- it is the most popular art museum among Americans traveling abroad, who represent nearly 1 million of the museum's 8.5 million annual visitors -- and at the celebratory party for this new book last month I met a lot of other fellow Louvre enthusiasts. The party was given by American Friends of the Louvre, and I was initially embarrassed to realize that I'd never heard of AFL, but I now know that this terrific, non-profit organization was only founded in 2002, so I don't feel so ignorant. In addition to fostering collaborations between the Louvre and American institutions with exhibits, educational programs, and scholarly exchanges, AFL also helps finance Louvre projects such as renovations of galleries, restorations, fellowships, and educational programs both in France and in the U.S. AFL has provided grants benefitting all eight curatorial departments of the Louvre, and among the projects it has supported are the creation of Cy Twombly's 'The Ceiling' in 2008; fellowships in Islamic art and American art, 2005-2009; restoration of Greek and Roman antiquities in 2007; and the English version of Atlas, the museum's online collections database with access to the 35,000 works on display. Currently, AFL has pledged to raise $4 million to support the restoration of the museum's 18th century Decorative Arts Galleries, designed by Jacques Garcia and scheduled to re-open in 2013. Additionally, AFL has raised $146,000 toward a conservation program for the Louvre's extensive holdings of pastel drawings.

(Now that I think of it, a truly generous and meaningful gift would be a copy of the book along with, say, a bottle of French wine, some Mariage-Freres tea, a French press and some coffee, or even a bottle of Badoit avec gaz and a membership to AFL (there are 6 levels of membership, ranging from $500 to $25,000 a year). Membership at the Chairman's Circle level ($10,000 for 2 people for 1 year) entitles you to an annual trip to Paris focused on a major exhibition or theme at the Louvre. The description of the 2011 spring trip was among the most distinctive I've ever heard of, including a trip to Metz to visit the Pompidou Centre's new outpost; a private tour in the Louvre on a Tuesday (when the museum is closed to the public); cocktails at the Delacroix museum; visits to the Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte and Chateau de Sully; lunch at the Chateau de Courances hosted by the Comtesse Serge de Ganay and the Marquise de Ganay and a tour of the home and gardens; and dinner in the home of a Parisian collector. Wow. AFL is at 60 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan / (212) 367.2645)

At the book party, the Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, Antonin Baudry, gave the introductory remarks to all of us gathered there in a beautiful room. I was particularly drawn to his comments that, "All together, we are 'les Amis du Louvre' (what a beautiful formula!) because we are friends of art. We are also, I hope, a community that embodies more generally the friendship between France and the U.S. Art is a bridge, as we all know. Between countries, nations, or people. Also between body and soul, the work and the eye, matter and spirit." Baudry later said that a book is not only a book: "A book is a world. Just like a museum: the pages are open, the walls are windows. Body and soul, I said. Matter and spirit." Precisely.

The Louvre: All the Paintings is authored by a ridiculously talented foursome, Erich Lessing, Vincent Pomarede, Anja Grebe, and Henri Loyrette (Loyrette has been Conservateur General du Patrimoine since 1975 and President and Director of the Louvre since 2001, but each of these authors have very impressive credentials). Paging through this monumental edition is an absolute pleasure as I see works I consider to be old friends but I also see others for the first time. And what is especially appealing about a book of this sort is that I can choose to turn to a particular artist or school of painting (in the case of the Louvre these include Italian, Northern, Spanish, and French) and just get lost in it all. Literally, every day since I've had a copy of the book, I cannot wait to spend time with it. Each day has been filled with this lovely surprise.

It's easy to say that this book is for Francophiles and everyone for whom Paris holds a special place. But the truth is it's a book for any art lover, any traveler, any museum goer, any human being who appreciates beauty. Or, as Henri Loyrette states best in the book's Preface, through this illuminating volume, "all people -- from scholars to tourists, art professionals to students, the "learned" to the "unknowing" (to paraphrase the French philosopher Denis Diderot) -- will be able to reflect upon and preserve in their memory the paintings of the Musee du Louvre."


Warm and joyeuses wishes to everyone at this almost-end of 2011! My next posting will appear in early January.

Friday, December 16, 2011



















Perhaps I’ve been lucky, but I don’t think it’s been luck that has allowed me to bring back many souvenirs in my luggage without any mishaps. I have carefully packed bottles of olive oil, wine, liqueurs and jars of condiments; Venetian glass candies; and various pieces of ceramics and none have ever broken. I have also carried delicate lavender wands from Provence, prints and etchings, and glass perfume bottles from Morocco, and all survived happily in my carry-on bag (I always pack an empty tote bag in my luggage, and this becomes my carry-on bag when I’m leaving my destination). I use my worn articles of clothing to wrap around fragile items but I also usually bring some plastic bags and some bubble wrap. And I keep in mind something a UPS driver once told me: you should pack a box (or a piece of luggage, in this case) so that if it falls from a second story window nothing will break.


I have also had some items shipped on a few occasions, again with positive results. But I’m well aware that some travelers have had items break, whether they packed them on their own or had them shipped from a merchant.


Recently, my good friend Linda, who went to Italy for the very first time in October, had one of these experiences, and it reminded me that it’s worthwhile to share these stories, so here is Linda’s:


“Although I bought many souvenirs, the one thing I wanted most was a ceramic keepsake made by hand, preferably painted in bright colors. I liked the idea that I would be the only one in Brooklyn to have such a piece. Though I didn’t do much research into Italian ceramiche, I could tell that the ceramics on display at the street vendors along Via dell’Ariento in Florence were not to my liking. Then, on our last night, we were strolling along a little street near the Ponte alla Carrala, we came across what I hoped to find - a window display of beautiful ceramic lemons, platters in all sizes, with every detail glowing in the nighttime light. The store sign, made also of ceramic, simply said Giotti Ceramiche (Borgo Ognissanti, 15r, http://www.giotti.net/).
I was hopeful there would be at least one piece I could afford, and when I returned in the morning I was so happy to buy not one but two unique pieces: a basket of lemons with grapes and a serving platter with a painted scene of a podere (estate or farm), cypress trees, and red poppies. I asked the staff at Giotti to have my items shipped, and we traveled on to Venice.


One week later, a box arrived from Giotti, but it was a flimsy box and I thought I heard a rattle as I carried it to my apartment door. Yes, my lemon-and-grape basket was broken -- one of the delicate leaves was chipped off -- and I was sad and slightly angry because the nice man at Giotti had assured me they package items like this all the time with complete success. When I was at the store I never asked about guarantees or refunds, but now I needed to tell them what happened and see what they would do. I took pictures of the box and pictures of the lemon-and-grape basket and sent an e-mail to Giotti. Within minutes, Laura (a Giotti employee) responded. After a few e-mail exchanges, Laura confirmed that a replacement piece would be in production immediately and that I could keep the broken one. She would look into why the packaging was faulty and would make a note for future shipments. Within 3 weeks a new box arrived and this box was strong and taped well and was clearly marked (and best of all there was no rattle sound when I picked it up). My new lemon-and-grape basket is now sitting on my kitchen table, and every time I walk by it I think of my first trip to Florence and my walk at night along that little dark street. But I also think that when I return to Florence (and I most definitely will return), I will go to the Giotti shop and give Laura a big hug (and buy some more ceramics!).”


Though Linda should have inquired about Giotti's policy on shipping before she left the shop, she carefully documented what had happened and took photos when she was home, and her story has a happy ending.


(Full disclosure: I happen to be the recipient of the original lemon-and-grape basket with the chipped leaf, and I completely understand why it caught Linda's eye! Linda knows I am nuts for ceramics, too, and I was only too happy to add this decorative piece to my collection. But beyond the usefulness and practicality - or just plain beauty -- of ceramics, one of the best reasons I seek them out is for the memories associated with buying them. Like Linda's memory of discovering Giotti's window in that little Florentine street at night, I remember where I bought every piece I have, making their value inestimable.)

Monday, December 12, 2011

I just realized I’d forgotten to mention some other books I’ve read since my Tuscany and Umbria book was published last year that I very much want to enthuse about, but since my last post was a little long, perhaps it’s better that I forgot them. In fact, this post will be a little long, too, and it’s devoted to only one book; but I think you’ll agree that this one, which is rather hard to accurately describe and that makes the word 'unique' sound trite, is worthy of its own post. (And it makes a very wonderful gift.)

I have never, ever seen a book quite like Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town by Douglas Gayeton (introduction by Alice Waters, preface by Carlo Petrini, Welcome Books, 2010), and happily it is a perfect example of a book that will never (or never should, anyway) translate into an e-book format: with a trim size of about 13" across x 11 1/2" from top to bottom, this is a book that's meant to lie horizontally, especially when you come across one of the fold-out spreads that opens to about 36" across. There are just certain types of books -- namely, those covering art and photography -- that simply must be read and viewed on bound pages.

Slow has a generous amount of text but is essentially a book of photos by Gayeton, a multimedia artist who has created award-winning work for National Geographic, PBS, Warner Brothers, and Sony. The book documents the years he lived in Pistoia, among my favorite Tuscan towns and one that many Americans never visit (more about Pistoia in an upcoming post). In the beginning of Gayeton's time in Italy he is dating an Italian woman, and becomes very close to her family; but even after she leaves to live in the States, he maintains a close relationship with her family members and meets many other locals in Pistoia who earn a place behind his camera lens. So there are many people who appear in these sepia-toned photos, and in most of them Gayeton has written in script around the edges of the pages, and around the heads of the people, describing the scenes. This, Gayeton informs us, he was inspired to do after one of his many visits to the Uffizi -- where "I could practically walk through the museum blindfolded" -- and among his favorite works are the smaller, pre-Renaissance paintings that incorporated narrative devices like "words floating in air" and "rays of light emanating from the heads of saintly figures" and "even diagrams and lengthy texts were painted directly on the canvas." When you see this book, you will understand immediately what he's referring to as the text in and around his photos is in English and Italian, and one of my most favorite attributes of the book is Gayeton's use of everyday Italian phrases (many slang) and their translation into English. Among these are A tavola non si invecchia mai (at the table one never grows old, a Tuscan proverb); Fuori dai piedi (literal: away from your feet / figurative: get out of my hair!); Meglio solo'che male accompagnato (better alone than in bad company); Conosco i Miei polli (I know my chickens, an Italian saying); Morto io morto il mondo (when I die, the world dies, also a Tuscan saying); Le morte non guarda infaccia a nessuno (Death looks no one in the face," also a Tuscan proverb); Questa vigna non fa una (literal: this vineyard doesn't make wine / figurative: you can't get anything out of him); Nelle botte piccola c'e vino buono (literal: in the small cask there's good wine / figurative: good things come in small packages); Tutti in piazza (literal: everyone in the town square / figurative: take to the streets); Fare due chiacchiere (literal: to make two (gossipy) comments / figurative: to have a chat); Scopa! (a game of "scopa" halts when the men notice a group of young women crossing the street; the word means a card game, a broom, and to have sex); and Meglio spendere soldi dal macellaio che dal farmacista (better to spend money at the butcher than the pharmacist, an old Tuscan proverb passed down by the father of Dario Cecchini, the colorful, Dante-quoting butcher of L’Antica Macelleria in Panzano-in-Chianti). It doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that, as Gayeton notes, "most Italian sayings had evolved from the wisdom of peasants."

In addition to the fold-outs, there are a few of those pages where you lift the clear plastic to see the unembellished photo beneath, like those current and imagined drawings of Ancient Rome, for example, or Pompeii. I am crazy for this kind of thing, especially in a large format.

The story in the middle of all this family and of Pistoia is food, and Gayeton writes that "when I first moved to Pistoia I discovered that people here lived slow lives without knowing what Slow Food was. They were connected to the land, to the seasons. They not only knew their food but often who grew or made it." On the spread entitled 'Una Scampagnata' (scampare + campagna = to take a walk in the country), we are introduced to Daria, a cook at Villa di Celle, outside Pistoia. Her grandmother taught her how to hunt for wild salad, and Gayeton tells us that "it will take over an hour to pick and another to wash the dirt and bugs out of this salad (that's slow food)." Daria wisely asks, "who will know about such things after we're gone?" Gayeton doesn't have an answer, but a book like this certainly honors the food traditions of Tuscany and of Italy, and I believe that the people who read it are paying attention and spreading the word.

The real gift of this book is that you will learn an awful lot about Italian customs, culture, quirks, and language. You have to look at every photograph and read every surrounding word, and you'll find that even by just turning a few pages a wealth of knowledge is revealed. This kind of book can only be created by someone who is not only extremely observant but who really looks, smells, eats, listens, and ponders, someone who has the advantage of staying for a long while but more importantly sits patiently and soaks it all in. As Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini notes in his Preface, Gayeton's photographs and words "are rich and undeniably authentic, and could only have been made by someone with a deep sensitivity and understanding that goes beyond the boundaries of nations and languages, and represents the principles at the very heart of the Slow Food movement."

Perhaps surprisingly, if only because you expect to read that he still lives in Tuscany, Gayeton now lives on a farm outside Petaluma, California with his wife (who he met in Tuscany, though she's American) and daughter. Laura (his wife) started the first goat's milk ice cream company in the U.S., and they have their own chickens, roosters, goats, and cows. Their neighbors bake their bread, vegetables grow in their garden, eggs come from their henhouse, and Laura knows the people who make the cheese they eat. And when Gayeton received a phone call from the local cafe and learned that hawks had raided the cafe's henhouse and killed all the chickens, he gathered up all of his own eggs and delivered them to the grateful cafe staff. Which sounds an awful lot like life in Tuscany.










Monday, December 5, 2011



























"Was it better to be cool and look at a waterfall, or to be hot and look at Saint Mark's?...Was it, in short, ever well to be elsewhere when one might be in Italy?" These words of Edith Wharton -- from a book entitled Edith Wharton's Italian Gardens by Vivian Russell that I recently read -- are so quotable that I had to share them with you, and they also reminded me that I have a number of books to recommend since the publication of my Tuscany and Umbria book last year. I've been saving the list as a way to honor the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, which was on March 17th, 2011. Here is a handful of titles, in no particular order, a few relating to Italy and others specifically devoted to Tuscany, that are not only good immersion reading but are great gifts for an Italy enthusiast as well:


How Italian Food Conquered the World by John F. Mariani, foreword by Lidia Bastianich (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). Mariani is the food and travel correspondent for Esquire, wine columnist for Bloomberg News, and the author of several books, including The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink and, with his wife Galina, The Italian-American Cookbook. (He's not the John Mariani who founded Banfi Vintners in 1919.) He's also been referred to as "the most influential food-wine critic in the popular press," so it will not come as a surprise to know that he tells the story of how, indeed, Italian food has conquered the world with great spirit and wit. As Mariani writes in his Introduction, we can go to a restaurant anywhere in the world today and chances are very good that we'll find Italian dishes listed on the menu. Mariani has witnessed, over the last four decades, how the status of Italian food has gone from a "low-class, coarse ethnic food to the most recognizable, stylish, and influential cuisine in the world." And how this happened "has as much to do with changing ideas of ethnicity and a surging interest in wholesome ingredients as it does with taste and fashion." He shares the stories of a great number of people, restaurants, and products, such as Mamma Leone's, Elaine's, Patsy's, Sirio Maccioni, Mario Batali, Pizzeria Uno, Ernest and Julio Gallo, Robert Mondavi, Alfredo's Ristorante, Mary Ann Esposito, Marcella Hazan, London's River Cafe, Sophia Loren, Rice-a-Roni, and Chef Boyardee -- did you know the name derives from Italian immigrant Hector Boiardi? He worked as a chef in Cleveland and then opened his own restaurant, called the Italian Immigrant, and began canning his own sauces and then spaghetti. He provided the U. S. military with canned spaghetti with tomato sauce during World War II, and after the war he made new labels for the cans featuring his photo. He also changed the name to a phonetic spelling so Americans could pronounce it easier -- Chef Boy-AR-Dee (but most Americans still mispronounced it as Chef Boy-Ar-DEE, as they do today). "Italian food," says Bastianich in her Foreword, "is simply gratifying, effortlessly delicious, and nutritionally sound...It is safe to say that Americans have a love affair with Italy and its food and that they aspire to live the Italian style and eat the Italian way." This is absolutely true, but it wasn't very long ago that Italian food was considered inferior, especially to French cuisine. Mariani notes that Italian food just about everywhere outside of Italy was "regarded as little more than macaroni with red sauce, chicken parmigiana, pizza, and "dago red" wines. I highly recommend his enjoyable chronicle of a now nearly universally loved cuisine. (One small quibble: this book would have benefited from the services of a good copyeditor as there are a number of annoying typos.)

The Reluctant Tuscan: How I Discovered My Inner Italian by Phil Doran (Gotham Books, 2006). This is one of those Tuscan memoirs that I was prepared to dislike simply because I didn't like the title. And, as I note in my book, do we really need another Tuscan memoir? Like others I didn't think I'd like, this one, too, proved me wrong, so yes, I've added it to my (sagging) shelves and I'm recommending it to you. Doran was, as you may know (I admit I didn't recognize his name), a successful Hollywood screenwriter and producer whose wife, Nancy, a sculptor, saw their life together heading in a dead-end direction so she went to Italy and bought a crumbling farmhouse for them to fix up. She didn't consult Doran first, so right off the bat you can imagine how at least some of this story goes. But you can't imagine how truly hilarious their straniere in Paradiso story is, and how lovely, and beautiful, and memorable. In the telling of the story, Doran also enlightens readers to numerous Italian traditions, customs, and vocabulary, which I particularly love. So for the word cantina he notes that this is the "heart and soul of every Tuscan home," and if we think it's the equivalent to the American den, the English drawing room, or the French parlor we're wrong. "Every Tuscan home, no matter how humble, is guaranteed two things by law: a forno for baking bread and a cantina where the family can make wine. No one is guaranteed a bathroom, but every citizen must have their pane e vino." Initially, Doran really has no intention of actually living in Tuscany, let alone fix up a house and deal with all the local bureaucracy and the village personalities. But eventually, he warms to Tuscany, writing that "there is a fabric of life here, a texture that enfolds you in a way that as a young man I might have found smothering." He also comes to understand how much a sense of place can shape a person, and he believes there is no greater difference between Italy and America than the relationship to our natural surroundings. Though Tuscany is much older than America, it is actually more unspoiled, Doran writes, and "Tuscany is the reality, where our suburbia is the re-creation of that reality." So our neighborhood parks are really just re-creations of meadows, our malls are re-creations of villages, and swimming pools are re-creations of ponds. All of which has the effect of making our experiences one step removed from the immediate impact of life. "Our lives in the 'burbs are clean, efficient, well organized, and essentially soulless. And I would have never understood that if I hadn't come to live in Italy."
There is one tale I won't spoil here but will only say that it involves one of the workmen, Umberto, and 'The Sopranos,' and when I read it I was practically gasping for breath I was laughing so hard (and when I read it aloud to friends they were laughing, too). Yes, you really do need to read one more Tuscan memoir.

Edith Wharton’s Italian Gardens by Vivian Russell (Bulfinch, 1997). Edith Wharton’s lifelong love affair with Italy began at the age of 4, when her parents took her to Rome for a year. Russell set out, nearly a century later, to visit the gardens that Wharton had visited. Some gardens were no longer, and others denied permission to photograph; so Russell focused on those “whose stories could still be told in a visually provocative way.” The gardens featured are in Lombardy, the Veneto, and those around Rome, as well as those near Florence (Villa Castello, Boboli Gardens, Villa Petraia, and Villa Gamberaia) and those near Siena (Vicobello and Villa Cetinale – the cover photograph, in fact, is of Villa Cetinale). She relates a priceless vignette of Iris Origo (author of War in Val D'Orcia and The Merchant of Prato, two of my most favorite books) who accompanied her mother around Italy in 1911: “The sight of a cypress avenue leading to a fine villa or the mere mention of its existence in a guidebook, was to my mother irresistible.” I couldn’t agree more!

In a lovely book called The Garden Visitor's Companion (Thames & Hudson, 2008), author Louisa Jones opines that “gardeners are a curious lot. They want to know what is happening next door, down the road, in the next country or county.” I think this is absolutely true as people I know who are gardeners are interesting, curious, and passionate. They also have a wonderful ability to notice a thing of beauty in the most unlikely places. They are very much glass-half-full kind of people, as opposed to those pesky glass-half-empty kind of people. Jones also relates in her book that when she asked some gardeners in France what they particularly liked about gardens, they gave answers like this one: "You open the gate to a garden as you would open the first page of a new book, with the hope of living a moment of happiness in the discovery of a place, a story, a human adventure, a time to dream away from the bustle of everyday life, dream and escape…a moment outside of time." I just love that, and a book called Tuscany Artists Gardens by Mariella Sgaravatti, with photographs by Mario Ciampi (Verba Volant Ltd., 2004) is a large hardcover that is surely an embodiment of this sentiment. The book is beautiful and I recommend it not because it's very helpful in planning a trip (it isn't, unless it inspires you to include gardens in your itinerary); rather, it’s a book that highlights 30 artists who live (or lived) in Tuscany and illustrates what they brought to Tuscany and what Tuscany gave to them. It’s interesting to see how each artist interacted with the Tuscan countryside, and as Sgaravatti says, “I hoped to discover the connection between the artwork and the magic of the Tuscan landscape.” Among the artists included are Maro Gorky and Matthew Spender, Sandro Chia, Fernando Botero, Niki de Saint Phalle, Beverly Pepper, and Robert Morris. My most favorite is Sandro Poli’s Garden of Arcipressi, in the Marignolle hills outside of Florence – the photograph on page 82 is extraordinary: looking out from the pergola, covered with a grape vine, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) is seen in the distance, behind a stretch of green trees. It’s a magical view, and not one you can reproduce at home, but this book may still be inspiration to anyone who gardens or is an artist.


The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk (Picador, 2010). "We decided to go to Italy," Cusk writes, "though not forever. Three months, a season, was as much of the future as we cared to see." In the novels Cusk read, "people were forever disappearing off to Italy at a moment's notice," for various reasons, and Cusk and her husband and their two kids left England for Italy as well, for their own various reasons. This is a book filled with many passages to ponder over and is a great read for anyone planning to spend an extended time in Italy (specifically Tuscany, Umbria, the Amalfi Coast, Rome, Naples, the Cinque Terre). Cusk also details the family's drive to Italy, through France, and I admit I didn't much care for this early part of the book because I just wanted to focus on Italy and I didn't make many connections between the "getting there" and the "being there." But on page 38 readers arrive at 'Italian in Three Months,' which is the name of a new textbook Cusk is studying, and the family's Italian adventure begins. Cusk's retelling of her family's sojourn is not filled with a lot of humor but rather with great attention to wonderful details, like those about Tintoretto's painting of the Last Supper in Lucca's duomo (an absolutely fabulous painting that I love but is rarely given the attention it deserves in my opinion). Cusk writes that "perception is stronger than belief, at least for an artist, who sees such grandeur in the ordinary. In this it is the artist who is God. And it is a strange kind of proof we seek from him, we who are so troubled by our own mortality, who know we will all eat a last supper of our own. We want the measure of the grandeur taken. We want to know that life was indeed what it seemed to be."

Monday, November 21, 2011













































A Last Great Place


I promised one more post about Block Island (also known as New Shoreham, Rhode Island), included on a list The Nature Conservancy started in the early '90s called "The Last Great Places." The single reason this island remains special is that over 40% of it is preserved as open space in perpetuity by the Block Island Conservancy, the oldest environmental protection group on the island. The BI Conservancy, which works to preserve the unique characteristics of the island, also oversees a conservation easement program, which according to its website is a "legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values." This allows landowners to continue to own and use their land as well as sell it or pass it on to family heirs. Mitchell Farm, featured in Robin Langsdorf's Polaroid transfer in my previous post, was a conservation easement purchase of 22 acres in 2007.


Nantucket has a beautiful, cobblestoned Main Street and a whaling history that made many islanders rich. Martha's Vineyard has lovely Edgartown, the Black Dog bakery, and the bluffs. BI's history does not mirror the history of its neighboring islands, and is far less fashionable than either of them. Dutch explorer Adrian Block charted the island in 1614 and the Old Harbor area was named a National Register historic district in 1974. Just a few of the island's other distinctive features are 17 miles of gorgeous beaches -- each different, with its own character, and all free -- and the Greenway trail network -- which includes more than 30 miles of connecting hiking trails -- and the very cool sacred labyrinth (pictured above), off Corn Neck Road with picturesque views over Sachem Pond toward North Light. This labyrinth is one of my favorite places on the island and is little visited, at least in my experience. As you can see from the photo, the labyrinth is a single, circular path that leads to a center bench and then back out again. It is not a maze, which has several dead ends. It is one of BI's quirky little spots, and as a browser on yelp.com noted, "make sure your stupid, demonic and twice accursed cell phone is off. The labyrinth is a very special and unique place and deserves respect." I applaud this sentiment.


The photo of the staircase and the sea was taken at Mohegan Bluffs, a family favorite, and the other two photos are of the Rodman's Hollow plaque and a view over it. "It" refers to a 230-acre parcel of land that is considered the birthplace of conservation on Block Island. There is a wonderful hike through here and the preserve has the largest population of the state-endangered bushy rockrose in Rhode Island. Additionally, the also-threatened northern harrier feeds and nests here, and the only natural population of federally-endangered American burying beetle east of the Mississippi lives in the hollow.


For an island where there is supposedly not a lot to do, it surprises me that we always leave with a long list of things we didn't get to. This year, because of the hurricane, we didn't get to enjoy tapas on the great lawn of the Atlantic Inn. Or drinks on the fabulous porch of the National Hotel. Or sandwiches at Three Sisters. But at least we had an outdoor, candlelit dinner at the wonderful Manisses Hotel and we had the opportunity to see the new animals at the Abrams family farm (behind the hotel) and pet a baby alpaca. Then there was dinner at The Oar, games of bocce at the house we rented, Blocks of Fudge, Mansion Beach, feeding the ducks at the duck pond...the sparkling, late days of summer are over for the year on Block Island but they are still fresh in my memory. And one of these years I'll visit in the fall, which I'm told is an equally beautiful season.






































Friday, November 11, 2011











'Littlefield Farm with Ferry,' Polaroid Transfer by Robin Langsdorf (Robin B. Langsdorf Photography, http://www.robinlangsdorf.com/)





I never would have imagined that it would take over eight weeks before I posted again, but then again, I also couldn't imagine that Hurricane Irene would cut my summer vacation on Block Island short (and leave us without power for five days) or that my daughter would need to have her appendix out (she also became a bat mitzvah in the middle of all this!) or that we would have a freak snow storm in October (that again left us without power). Anyway, we're all busy, but rather than continue to list reasons why it has taken me so long to return to my blog, I'll just get started again. I have so many wonderful things to share!



First, back to Block Island: we (my husband, daughter, brother-and-sister-in-law, and nieces)returned to BI for our seventh visit in late August, after not going for two summers in a row, and were reminded of how much we love this island. I've sometimes contemplated beginning a love letter to BI with that somewhat common phrase, "At the risk of ruining a good thing,...."; but I don't believe I have to do that because I don't think Block Island is on the brink of being ruined or is about to receive thousands of new visitors. The islanders have a very strong sense of what they want their island to be, which is decidedly not to be another Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket, which is refreshing. I have been to Nantucket three times in my life and once to the Vineyard, and they are both lovely; but I vastly prefer BI. to me, it reminds me of another one of my most favorite places on earth, Corsica. That may seem incongruous -- a mountainous, Mediterranean island and a relatively flat New England one -- but Corsicans, too, know what they don't want their island to be (the Cote d'Azur, the Italian Riviera) and they are fiercely protective of it.



One of the joys of Block Island is its twice-weekly farmer's market, held on Wednesdays and Saturdays. When we first visited, in 2001, the market only had about a dozen vendors, but today there are about twenty-five. There is some island produce, smoked fish, and baked goods for sale at the market, as well as island specialties like Littlefield Bee Farm honey products and Island Mist bath and body products, but there are also local artisans and it is this combination of vendors that makes the market so fun. It's rather remarkable how much time you can spend here after you stop to talk to everyone! Plus, as at other markets around the world, you can learn an awful lot about a place and pick up some great tips.



This year I discovered a photographer, Robin Langsdorf, who displayed her collection of unique Polaroid transfers, like the one featured above. These transfer works are only one project of Langsdorf's -- she's a terrific portrait photographer as well, and her travel work is impressive, too -- but she devotes her booth at the farmer's market to the transfers, which all feature Block Island scenes. (You can see the full range of her work at her own website, above, as well as at the Spring Street Gallery, across the street from the lovely Hotel Manisses and the longest running gallery on the island.) Langsdorf majored in journalism in college and was always very enthusiastic about taking photos, but it wasn't until she was traveling around Nepal and Varanasi, India twenty years ago that she was inspired to "get more serious" about developing her passion for visual storytelling.





I immediately fell in love with the Polaroid transfers, and Langsdorf, too, told me that when she learned the Polaroid transfer process she "began a love affair with this beautiful, painterly, impressionistic photographic art form. Sadly, Polaroid is no longer making this film." I knew I wanted to buy one or two of her images, but was having difficulty making up my mind which ones to choose. So I did something I always, always advise my readers to avoid: I didn't buy anything, figuring I would go to the Saturday farmer's market and decide then. Naturally, there was a hurricane, and naturally, I had to leave the island empty-handed. [Note to travelers: do not repeat my mistake, and adopt my (mostly observed) motto of "When in doubt, buy it now!" The likelihood of being able to retrace your steps to a particular merchant when it is open is slim, and, well, there's always the possibility of a natural disaster. One has regrets only for the roads not taken -- or the object not purchased!]



Before I had to evacuate the island (I didn't really have to evacuate, but it sounds much more dramatic) I did stop by the Spring Street Gallery to pick up one of Langsdorf's business cards, so I was able to get in touch with her later via e-mail, and I'm now the happy owner of the Littlefield Farm transfer above as well as another one of Mitchell Farm, which is, according to the Block Island Conservancy website, "one of the island's most cherished vistas, over 1,000 feet of road frontage with open field landscape." The Mitchell Farm Campaign raised the funds needed to complete an easement acquisition, and again to quote from the website, "those 1,000 feet are as important to Block Island's sense of community as is the overlook at Rodman's Hollow" (more about Rodman's Hollow in my next post). Family member Adrian Mitchell noted that "my values about what is important in life were shaped right here on Mitchell Farm in view of the sea and these green pastures. I want future generations to see this place as I have and be nurtured by it." My transfer prints are in appropriately rustic, wooden frames, and they are daily reminders of my many visits to this special island.





As for Langsdorf, she recently left for Brazil, where she has family members, and she is working on a series of Polaroid transfer prints collaged with photos of her family taken during the early part of the 20th century in Prague. It's set to debut in 2012, and I, for one, can't wait to see it!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Required Reading. The tenth anniversary of September 11th was a few days ago, and though I'd initially thought to mark it in some way on the 12th here on my blog, I picked up this wonderful, brilliant book on Monday morning and knew I had to postpone my entry. Islam Explained by Tahar Ben Jelloun (translated from the French by Franklin Philip, The New Press, 2002) is a book you need to read, right now. Jelloun, a French writer of Moroccan descent, also wrote a previous book you may remember, Racism Explained to My Daughter (New Press, 1999, hardcover; 2006, paperback), originally published in France and translated into twenty languages, which is also a must-read.

Jelloun was moved to write this volume when he heard his own children repeat some inane remarks about Islam, and he thought that if Islam was misunderstood within his own family, how distorted was it in other families? He then read (or reread in some cases) books written by specialists, of which there is no shortage in France as Islam is the country’s second religion after Christianity. And then he started writing, with the goal of extracting the essentials and presenting them simply, clearly, and objectively for young readers in particular but also for adults (and I'd like to stress that this really is also a book for adults). It's “the book of a father who, talking to his children, would like to talk to all children everywhere,” and what Jelloun is seeking to do is “tell the story of Islam as it is recounted in serious books, to present it as something belonging to the universal heritage of humanity.”

In his Preface, Jelloun writes what is certainly among the best sentiments I’ve ever read about tolerance. He says that beyond the knowledge Americans may have of Islam and beyond a desire to know “the other” or “the foreign,” there is also a need to keep the doors of one’s own culture open. “We can enrich ourselves only by exchange, in cultural and economic intermixing, in the dialogue between different peoples. For this, we must not indulge in racism or impose our cultural and religious values on others. It must not be said that “Western civilization is superior to other civilizations,” nor claimed that the world is experiencing “civilization and culture shock.” Cultures travel: they move around and get into homes without even being invited. The only dominant culture is that of intelligence, knowledge, and sharing. In this way culture does not dominate, but opens doors to those seeking to learn and to know what is going on outside their own tribe.”

Written in a straightforward question-and-answer format, this little book is only 113 pages long, and you can, uninterrupted, read it in about an hour. It is utterly clear and simple, yet packed with key words (hegira, chachada, sura, Sunnis, Shiites, mullah, hijah, chador, hashashins, hadits, shari'a, fatwa, etc.) and key concepts, such as "Tolerance has meaning only if it is mutual. Intolerance is not accepting and even rejecting those who are different from oneself. It fosters racism." I was also fascinated by a list of words Jelloun provides that originated in Arabic. These are now used in languages derived from Latin, and in other languages as well, but most people don't know their origin. They include admiral, alcohol, algebra, artichoke, carafe, caravel, carousel, chess, divan, emerald, giraffe, lemonade, magazine, monsoon, rice, saccarine, safari, spinach, taffeta, tarragon, and zenith.

This is one of the most powerful and unsentimental books I've ever read, and I urge you to go out and find it and read it and share it with everyone you know. Maybe, just maybe, Jelloun's words will resonate widely.

Other related reads I particularly admire are:

*The World of Islam: Faith, People, Culture (Bernard Lewis, W. W. Norton, 1992).
*Islam: A Short History (Karen Armstrong, Modern Library Chronicles, 2000). In this slender but fine work Armstrong wisely warns that "Western people must become aware that it is in their interests too that Islam remains healthy and strong. The West has not been wholly responsible for the extreme forms of Islam, which have cultivated a violence that violates the most sacred canons of religion. But the West has certainly contributed to this development and, to assuage the fear and despair that lies at the root of all fundamentalist vision, should cultivate a more accurate appreciation of Islam in the third Christian millennium."
*A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Karen Armstrong, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).
*Oriental Treasures in the Mediterranean: From Damascus to Granada (Henri Stierlin, White Star, 2005) which features Islamic architectural, artistic, and scientific masterpieces in the Near East, Asia Minor, North Africa, and Spain.

And, see a terrific article I was unable to include in my Paris book: "In the Heart of Paris, an African Beat" by Seth Sherwood, The New York Times travel section, 18 December, 2005.

Thursday, September 8, 2011






















Do you subscribe to Bonjour Paris? If you -- like me -- do, then you already know it's the best site around for All Things Paris. If you don't, and you -- like me -- are a Francophile or someone who is only un petit peu interested in Paris and France, you should start your subscription immediatement! BP is a terrific resource for anyone planning on visiting Paris for the first or fiftieth time, and it's also a great time-waster. What I mean when I say that is that once you're browsing around the site you can really get sucked in and it's hard to leave, and an hour can go by really quickly. BP is practical, but it's also a great place for daydreaming about Paris!

Run by American expat Karen Fawcett, the site is a real community of people interested in a wide variety of topics pertaining to Paris and to France. I've not yet met Karen, but I interviewed her by telephone for my book (pages 632-635), and after only a few minutes I knew we were kindred spirits. She is very sympa and savvy, and as she noted in a posting on May 1, 2010 (her twenty-second anniversary in Paris), "after all these years, more of me is French than American...Paris has captured my heart and part of my soul."


In her post this week, 'Meandering in the Paris 7th,' I was reminded of my own year in the 7th arrondissement, where I lived as a student in 1979 with a French family dans la rue de Grenelle. One of Karen's neighborhood favorites is the Rodin Museum (the photos above were taken from the museum's website), which was and is one of my favorites, too. As Karen notes, if you have a young visitor with you (under the age of 8) you can stroll the museum's really pretty gardens for free, something I did about twice a week as I was also working as an au pair for three children, the youngest of whom was 3. The museum is located on rue de Varenne, only one parallel street away from rue de Grenelle, so from my family's house I could be at the Museum's gates in about seven minutes. Laurent and I were most definitely regulars.


The gardens are truly a special place in Paris, but the museum is, too. In addition to all the works by Rodin, there are some paintings that were in his personal collection, like the one above by Van Gogh. When I first saw 'Arles: View From the Wheat Fields' (1888) I immediately loved it, and even this many years later I still feel the same way about it. It was a natural for inclusion in an exhibit entitled 'Vincent Van Gogh: Timeless Country - Modern City' held at the Complesso del Vittoriano in Rome that ran from 7 October, 2010 to 6 February, 2011. I didn't see the exhibit, but the accompanying book is of very good quality and is quite interesting (edited by Cornelia Homburg, Skira, 2011).


When I read how fond Karen was of the Rodin Museum in her post, it reminded me that I hadn't enthused about the museum in my book; that of course is the limitation of a book -- I can't, after all, include everything I love about Paris in a book because it would be as big as a house -- but is the opportunity of a blog. However, in my book I feature an entry on the Jeu de Paume museum in the 'Paris Miscellany,' which I included as a way to remind readers not to overlook Paris's wealth of small museums. (When I was a student, the Jeu de Paume housed the works of the French Impressionists -- it's now reserved for temporary exhibitions -- and for many years I was still able to remember the exact placement of each painting in every room.)


I am an enormous fan of the 7th arrondissement -- and another museum gem in the neighborhood is the Musee Maillol, at 61 rue de Grenelle -- as well as of the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay; but as I note in my book, "I will never forget how standing and looking in the Jeu de Paume made me feel about art, about my life, about the extraordinary place that is Paris." In any of Paris's small museums, you may very well have your own illuminating thoughts.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011







If you've read my Istanbul book you know that Claudia Roden, one of my most favorite food writers and cookbook authors, shared the name of one of her favorite restaurants in the city, Borsa in the Istinye Park mall (there are other Borsas in Istanbul, but this is the one she was taken to by her friends Nevin Halici -- who was the first to travel around Turkey collecting regional recipes -- and her brother Feyzi Halici -- a poet and longtime senator who promoted regional cuisine by organizing cooking competitions and gastronomic congresses).


I regularly use several of Roden's cookbooks at home, including Arabesque (Knopf, 2006), Mediterranean Cookery (Knopf, 1992), The Book of Jewish Food (Knopf, 1996), and both of her books on Middle Eastern Food (the original edition was published in 1974 and the new one appeared in 2000). But a few weeks ago, I bought Roden's new cookbook -- The Food of Spain (Ecco)-- and I think it might be her best book yet. It's just fabulous. I've been dipping into it at random and can't stop reading it.


If you have my book on Northern Spain: from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela (Three Rivers Press, 2003) you know that I have a soft spot in my heart for Spain -- I went there with my high school Spanish class, and it was my first trip outside of the U.S. So with Spain in mind, I went last weekend to see 'Spanish Paradise: Gardens of the Alhambra' at The New York Botanical Garden. What a wonderful garden they've created in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, and there is a companion exhibit, 'Historical Views: Tourists at the Alhambra,' in the Mertz Library. This is presented in collaboration with The Hispanic Society of America, which addresses every aspect of culture in Spain, Portugal, Latin America, and the Philippines and whose collections are unparalled in scope and quality. In the gardens surrounding the Conservatory there is Poetry Walk, featuring sixteen poetry boards with the poems of Federico Garcia Lorca , and there are tapas and sangria in one of the cafes as well as flamenco in the Ross Performance Hall. The whole thing was so impressive I became a member!



'Spanish Paradise' closes in just 4 days, so if you are living in or visiting the New York metropolitan area make haste and get there quick. And if you love Spain as much as I do, you'll agree that The Food of Spain is a must-have volume.

Friday, August 12, 2011












Continuing with my recommendations for some recent good reads, this post is devoted to just one: Hotel Il Pellicano (Rizzoli, 2011, $60). It landed on my desk on one of the hottest days of the year in New York, and I was mesmerized by the cover image. It seemed incredibly appropriate that I read this during the dog days of summer, so I immediately dove in. With text by Bob Colacello (former film critic of Village Voice and editor of Interview, author, and special correspondent for Vanity Fair) and Bronwyn Cosgrave (fashion historian, journalist, and author), this is mostly a book of photos, fabulous photos, by John Swope (who established himself as a photographer in Hollywood in the 1930s and after the war became a Magnum photographer; he became an investor in Il Pellicano and documented the 1964 ground-breaking of the hotel); Slim Aarons (who began his career as official photographer for the U. S. Military Academy at West Point and later became a photographer of the jet set for Life, Town & Country, and Harper’s Bazaar; he aimed his lens at Il Pellicano guests from 1967 to 1991); and Juergen Teller, a German photographer born in 1964 who is credited with campaigns for Marc Jacobs, Missoni, Helmut Lang, etc., and whose work has been shown at Tate Modern and MoMA – he and his family were invited to Il Pellicano in June 2009, when he also captured the hotel’s Globetrotters’ Party on film.

Readers of my Tuscany and Umbria book know that Dianne Hales -- author of one of my most favorite books, La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language (now a Broadway Books paperback) who maintains a great site you should know about, http://www.becomingitalian.com/ -- is a great fan of Il Pellicano, the hotel perched on a hill overlooking the coastal Tuscan town of Porto Ercole. And, in the May 2011 issue of Dream of Italy, she relates that the first time she went to the hotel it took her breath away: “I want you to bring me here every year for the rest of my life,” I said to my husband Bob. That was 1990 and we have indeed returned annually. How could we not? No place on earth may be more romantic.”

Though I’ve not been a guest at Il Pellicano, I agree that it is incredibly romantic (but in fairness I must admit that the village of Ravello, on the Amalfi Coast, might give Il Pellicano some stiff competition!). In the same year that Dianne Hales first visited the hotel, I was very fortunate to be invited for drinks there that summer by the then-proprietors of the Cala Galera Marina, who were old family friends of my good friend Charles (readers of my book may recall that Charles contributed an account of his salad days in Porto Ercole on pages 71-75). I no longer remember if we had drinks in the Il Pellicano Bar, at the poolside restaurant, or the all’aperto bar – I mean, I was given a tour of all the public areas of the hotel, but most of the time I was practically pinching myself to make sure I really was in this place that didn’t even seem like a hotel. It felt more like a grand party, one that I wasn’t invited to officially but that I was in the middle of nonetheless. It was intoxicating, stunning, hugely appealing, and downright sexy.

As Bob Colacello writes in ‘A Visitor’s Note,’ when he finally visited Il Pellicano, after hearing about it from friends, he wanted to stay for two weeks, or two months. “At Il Pellicano, the world beyond disappears. It’s a place to rejuvenate, to have a real vacation, not to network, or to see and be seen…it’s Italy the way you dreamed it would be.” He also accurately points out that both Il Pellicano and Porto Ercole are such an anomaly. “Mass travel has created mass development and mass disappointment,” and places that were once unspoiled – Marbella, Mykonos, Puerta Vallarta, etc. – have utterly changed. Porto Ercole is better known today than it was in1990, but still, I meet very few people who’ve been there. As I wrote in my book, “Porto Ercole is a pretty, pleasant coastal village with a refreshing lack of sites to see, though it’s noteworthy for the fact that Michelangelo Merisi – Caravaggio – died here in 1610. And when the Argentario area came under the control of Spain in the late 1500s, Philip II had the Forte Stella (“star fort”) built, seeking the advice on the fort’s design from Cosimo de’Medici, who recommended Bernardo Buontalenti and Giovanni Camerini. The Argentario was described as “scarcely undiscovered, but neither is it a byword among Mediterranean resorts” by Doone Beal in Gourmet (July 1988), and I think this is still accurate.” Bronwyn Cosgrave, in her essay, ‘A Tuscan Home Away From Home’ shares the opinions of several people very familiar with both the hotel and its locale. One, Frida Giannini – creative director of Gucci -- says, “There is no shopping in Porto Ercole and no showing off at Il Pellicano.” Another, Daisy (Countess Desidera) Corsini – of a very distinguished and princely Florentine family dating back to the 13th century; you may be familiar with her family’s Palazzo Corsini at via del Parione 11, one of the most prestigious examples of the Baroque style in Florence -- says that Il Pellicano, just like Porto Ercole, “has never been a jet-set place like Sardinia or St. Tropez. It is about family. Some people come here and say, “Where is Prada? Where is Gucci?” We tell them: “Go back to Rome.”

Il Pellicano (the hotel) was conceived by Michael (British) and Patricia (American) Graham, who, in 1962, “accomplished ‘what a lot of people talk about, after their third martini, but seldom do – they chucked all their so-called “security” and changed their lives” as San Francisco Chronicle Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Herb Caen noted. Bronwyn Cosgrave reveals that after the Grahams were refused a loan from the Italian government that they’d counted on, the financial backing for the hotel came from a consortium of close friends. Michael reportedly gathered about twenty friends together and told them if they’d contribute, they and their families could come to the hotel gratis. But Michael Harris, an advertising executive who’s been staying at the hotel with his wife since 1967, said Graham “forgot one thing. Some of these people had very large families. They ate him out of house and home! So Il Pellicano never made any money.” The hotel was acquired by Roberto Sció in 1979, and his daughter, Marie-Louise Sció, an architect, oversaw a two-year restoration of the hotel in 2006. She was aiming for a very homey look, but “it all had to look Pellicano.” Bronwyn Cosgrave observes that “by using Pellicano as an adjective, Sció alludes to something its guests understand – that is, Il Pellicano is as much an attitude as it is a hotel, combining the old-school polish of Roberto Sció with the freewheeling spirit of founders Michael and Patricia Graham.”

Il Pellicano (the book) is a beautiful, must-have family album of la dolce vita. I love the thick cloth binding, and how the endpapers feature a red wave design on a bright white background. I think I love the black-and-white photo section by John Swope a tad bit better than the color images, but only just a tad. Missing, to my mind, is pictures of the restaurant with some accompanying recipes (after all, it has earned two Michelin stars) and of guest rooms – I, for one, would surely glean some ideas from the rooms’ style and décor. But, I suppose that since the hotel is closed from mid-October to mid-April, the focus of the photographs is outdoors, and its publication now is not accidental as it’s a true song of summer: I can practically smell the suntan lotion while I turn the pages. A nod to the level of service at the hotel is found in the book’s acknowledgements by Roberto and Marie-Louise, who express their thanks to the hotel staff “with special mention for those boys and girls years ago who worked so hard jumping up 94 stairs and down 94 stairs just to bring water to the guests on the beach” (before they got the license to build the elevator).

Bob Colacello recalls ordering a club sandwich and fresh limonata lunch down on that cement beach (which, though it doesn’t sound like it is actually very chic and is reached by those many stairs or by taking the outdoor elevator) and revelling “in the rays of the Tuscan sun. That’s an Il Pellicano day: living in your bathing suit, reading a fat royal biography or slim avant-garde novella, breaking for dips in the warm, clean, emerald sea or in the very civilised saltwater pool.”

Hotel Il Pellicano is a member of Relais & Chateaux and its Michelin-starred restaurant is under the direction of Chef Antonio Guida. Room rates range from 420-880 euros and suites from 765-1900 euros.

Porto Ercole is in the region of La Maremma, and a good resource for the whole area is http://www.tuttomaremma.com/ (click on the British flag for the English version). Other nearby places to visit that I recommend are Orbetello, Porto Santo Stefano, Grosseto, Pitigliano, and Isola Giglio, where I had to buy two pairs of plastic blue sandals because I lost a single sandal (from my left foot) in the deep and clear water of the Tyrrhenian Sea. I still wear them today anytime I’ll be on a rocky beach.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

















I've been reading a number of books that I didn't know about when the manuscript for my Tuscany and Umbria book was due, and they've each been great, so I'll devote the next few posts to these very worthwhile tomes. I enthusiastically recommend them for companion reading while traveling, armchair reading if you're daydreaming about going to Italy (or have recently come back), or, in the case of a few, culinary reading if you're inspired to get in the cucina and start cooking! Here are the first two below:


How Italian Food Conquered the World by John F. Mariani (foreword by Lidia Bastianich, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). Mariani is the food and travel correspondent for Esquire, wine columnist for Bloomberg News, and the author of several books, including The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink and, with his wife Galina, The Italian-American Cookbook. (He's not the John Mariani who founded Banfi Vintners in 1919.) He's also been referred to as "the most influential food-wine critic in the popular press," so it will not come as a surprise to know that he tells the story of how, indeed, Italian food has conquered the world with great spirit and wit. As Mariani writes in his Introduction, we can go to a restaurant anywhere in the world today and chances are very good that we'll find Italian dishes listed on the menu. Mariani has witnessed, over the last four decades, how the status of Italian food has gone from a "low-class, coarse ethnic food to the most recognizable, stylish, and influential cuisine in the world." And how this happened "has as much to do with changing ideas of ethnicity and a surging interest in wholesome ingredients as it does with taste and fashion." He shares the stories of a great number of people, restaurants, and products, such as Mamma Leone's, Elaine's, Patsy's, Sirio Maccioni, Mario Batali, Pizzeria Uno, Ernest and Julio Gallo, Robert Mondavi, Alfredo's Ristorante, Mary Ann Esposito, Marcella Hazan, London's River Cafe, Sophia Loren, Rice-a-Roni, and Chef Boyardee -- did you know the name derives from Italian immigrant Hector Boiardi? He worked as a chef in Cleveland and then opened his own restaurant, called the Italian Immigrant, and began canning his own sauces and then spaghetti. He provided the U. S. military with canned spaghetti with tomato sauce during World War II, and after the war he made new labels for the cans featuring his photo. He also changed the name to a phonetic spelling so Americans could pronounce it easier -- Chef Boy-AR-Dee (but most Americans still mispronounced it as Chef Boy-Ar-DEE, as they do today).

"Italian food," says Bastianich in her Foreword, "is simply gratifying, effortlessly delicious, and nutritionally sound...It is safe to say that Americans have a love affair with Italy and its food and that they aspire to live the Italian style and eat the Italian way." This is absolutely true, but it wasn't very long ago that Italian food was considered inferior, especially to French cuisine. Mariani notes that Italian food just about everywhere outside of Italy was "regarded as little more than macaroni with red sauce, chicken parmigiana, pizza, and "dago red" wines. I highly recommend his enjoyable chronicle of a now nearly universally loved cuisine. (One small quibble: this book would have benefited from the services of a good copyeditor as there are a number of annoying typos.)


The Reluctant Tuscan: How I Discovered My Inner Italian by Phil Doran (Gotham Books, 2006). This is one of those Tuscan memoirs that I was prepared to dislike simply because I didn't like the title. And, as I note in my book, do we really need another Tuscan memoir? Like others I didn't think I'd like, this one, too, proved me wrong, so yes, I've added it to my (sagging) shelves and I'm recommending it to you.

Doran was, as you may know (I admit I didn't recognize his name), a successful Hollywood screenwriter and producer whose wife, Nancy, a sculptor, saw their life together heading in a dead-end direction so she went to Italy and bought a crumbling farmhouse for them to fix up. She didn't consult Doran first, so right off the bat you can imagine how at least some of this story goes. But you can't imagine how truly hilarious their straniere in Paradiso story is, and how lovely, and beautiful, and memorable.

In the telling of the story, Doran also enlightens readers to numerous Italian traditions, customs, and vocabulary, which I particularly love. So for the word cantina he explains that this is the "heart and soul of every Tuscan home," and if we think it's the equivalent to the American den, the English drawing room, or the French parlor we're wrong. "Every Tuscan home, no matter how humble, is guaranteed two things by law: a forno for baking bread and a cantina where the family can make wine. No one is guaranteed a bathroom, but every citizen must have their pane e vino."

Initially, Doran really has no intention of actually living in Tuscany, let alone fix up a house and deal with all the local bureaucracy and the village personalities. But eventually, he warms to Tuscany, writing that "there is a fabric of life here, a texture that enfolds you in a way that as a young man I might have found smothering." He also comes to understand how much a sense of place can shape a person, and he believes there is no greater difference between Italy and America than the relationship to our natural surroundings. Though Tuscany is much older than America, it is actually more unspoiled, Doran writes, and "Tuscany is the reality, where our suburbia is the re-creation of that reality." So our neighborhood parks are really just re-creations of meadows, our malls are re-creations of villages, and swimming pools are re-creations of ponds. All of which has the effect of making our experiences one step removed from the immediate impact of life. "Our lives in the 'burbs are clean, efficient, well organized, and essentially soulless. And I would have never understood that if I hadn't come to live in Italy."

There is one tale I won't spoil here but will only say that it involves one of the workmen, Umberto, and 'The Sopranos,' and when I read it I was practically gasping for breath I was laughing so hard (and when I read it aloud to friends they were laughing, too).

Yes, you really do need to read one more Tuscan memoir.

Monday, August 8, 2011













This past Friday I went to The Frick Collection -- on my short list of favorite museums in New York -- to see 'In a New Light: Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert' (pictured at right, and sometimes also referred to as 'The Ecstasy of St. Francis'). It had been a while since I'd seen the painting, and I welcomed this opportunity to see it specially set apart and "in a new light."


The reason for the renewed attention is a recent technical investigation, by both the Frick and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that "addressed some longstanding questions about the picture's meaning," to quote from the exhibition's text. The museum staff has done a terrific job with several multimedia presentations and a short film about the unprecedented technical examination (that included infrared reflectography, X-radiography, surface examination, and paint analysis) and about the significance of this truly amazing painting.


In the film, Colin Bailey, Associate Director and Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator at the Frick, informs us that Henry Clay Frick acquired the painting in 1915, and that it is "one of the greatest Renaissance paintings in any museum in America." I was especially interested to learn that the village in the background is "probably the very first naturalistic townscape or cityscape ever painted in Western art." (The village is likely not, by the way, meant to be an accurate portrayal of Assisi.)


One of the amazing things to me about this painting is what you see when you really look at it. I had no idea there was so much flora and fauna in the picture, and this Sunday 14th the Frick is offering a drawing class, 'Bellini and Botany," that focuses on the plants seen in the picture (for anyone over the age of 10).


This special exhibition closes on the 28th of August, and is well worth an extra effort to see!


Also on view is a tiny but exquisite dossier exhibit called 'Turkish Taste at the Court of Marie-Antoinette.' Next to the gift shop, in a narrow room painted light blue, are a pair of console tables that Frick acquired in 1914 and wall panels that illustrate the taste for turquerie in France. As I noted in my Istanbul book, the word 'Franks' was an Ottoman word that initially referred to the French, but later was the word used to refer to all Europeans. The Ottoman Empire sought to emulate France in its last century, but the admiration went in the other direction as well: "for hundreds of years," according to the Frick's exhibition text, "the taste for turquerie was evident in French fashion, literature, theater and opera, painting, architecture, and interior decoration."


Three interiors a la turque were created for Louis XVI's younger brother, the comte d'Artois, and Marie-Antoinette had boudoirs turcs made for her apartments at Versailles. Included in this exhibit is a pair of firedogs (used as a decorative facade for the metal support that holds burning wood in a fireplace) made of gilded bronze and featuring seated dromedaries -- these were from Marie-Antoinette's boudoir turc at Fontainebleau. The pair of small console tables are made of gilded and painted beech and walnut with marble tabletops, and there is a row of crossed crescents at the top of the tables (a traditional symbol of Turkey) and the support figures represent African boys wearing turbans -- probably African slaves or eunuchs who oversaw the harem in Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.



These are interesting, but I was really wowed by two door panels that are from the cabinet turc of the comte d'Artois, "the most sophisticated Turkish room at the court of Marie-Antoinette." Attributed to brothers Jean-Simeon Rousseau de la Rottiere (1747-1820) and Jules-Hugues Rousseau (1743-1806), these are in a wonderful and warm palette of deep yellow, light blue, red, etc. and were in the south wing of the Chateau de Versailles. The room was the private retreat and library of the future Charles X, and its decor featured costly mirrors and fabrics, all now sadly lost, that evoked a very sumptuous Ottoman Empire.


The Rousseau brothers were named designers and sculptors to the comte d'Artois in 1774 and in 1780 they were official painters and decorators to Marie-Antoinette. According to the Frick's research, they "had specialized in the design and execution of Turkish wall panels since 1776, stating the following year that they 'were particularly au fait of this genre etranger."


'Turkish Taste' is supported by Koc Holding (there's a squiggly line under the c in Koc), Turkey's largest industrial and services group and a major supporter of art, culture, the environment, and health; the Koc family retains a majority stake in the company. The exhibit closes September 11th, and is yet another (great) reason to visit The Frick.








Tuesday, August 2, 2011



















When I was a student living in Paris, in 1979, I spent a fair amount of time walking along the banks of the Seine. I loved doing this, at first because it reminded me of a framed print my parents had of a Seine scene complete with les bouquinistes and some clochards (tramps) hanging out underneath one of the bridges. Later, I loved doing it because I was fascinated by all the house boats on the river, and on occasion I had some conversations with some really interesting people. But my absolute favorite Seine pastime was to sit somewhere -- anywhere -- along the banks in warm weather, which only arrived in the late spring. Do not believe that song 'April in Paris' (composed by Vernon Duke -- did you know his real name was Vladimir Dukelsky? -- and lyricist E. Y. "Yip" Harburg) as it is positively false. Anyone who's spent a winter in Paris knows that it's very cold (I actually went to the dentist at the American Hospital in Neuilly in the middle of February because my teeth hurt, and the dentist told me I was simply too cold!), and I completely embraced a line from 'In a London Square' by Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861) that read, "Spring never would, we thought, be here." The warm side of spring definitely does not arrive in Paris in April, which is most of the time rainy or gray or blustery or all three. (I'm glad I spent three weeks of the month in the south of France -- it was raining when I left, and raining when I came back.)


My parents came to visit me on May 2nd, and it snowed. But only a week later the warm and beautiful weather did finally arrive, and when I walked to the Seine from the rue de Grenelle (where I lived with a French family of five), Parisians were literally packed along the banks, peeling off sweaters and long-sleeved shirts, picnicking, playing guitars....it was a veritable fete, and I loved it! Someone painted the words 'Vive le Soleil, Toujours Sourire' (long live the sun, always smiling) on a stone wall, and I took a picture of it (this appears in my book on page 558).



All of this is why the creation of Paris Plages, ten years ago, is such a welcome and brilliant idea. If you'll be in Paris before the 21st of the month you are in for a real treat (the dates this year are 21 July to 21 August). I went early on in its run (I believe it may have been the second summer), and it was just so much fun my head nearly popped off. Every year this celebration of summer just gets better and better -- this year there is ten times more sand; racket sports can now be played on the "beach;" the Paris Plages furniture that dates back to 2002 has been replaced with chaises longues and blue-and-white-striped beach mats; there are ten giant deckchairs (each one is roomy enough for two adults) spread along the beach; and sculptors will recreate the castle of Sleeping Beauty out of sand (courtesy of an initiative by Disneyland Paris).



According to the official website, this year there are three Paris Plages sites: the Georges Pompidou Expressway, the La Villette Basin, and the square in front of the Hotel de Ville (the Hotel is also host to an exhibit, 'Paris on the Seine - From the Old Quays to Paris Plages' that's free until 17 September from 10 to 7 everyday but Sunday and holidays). Be sure to watch the video clip on the site entitled 'Une journee a Paris Plages' -- it's fun, and the music is terrific! (I wish I had the soundtrack.)



A mon avis (in my opinion), Paris Plages is as wonderful and innovative as two major urban projects here in New York, the Brooklyn Bridge Park and the High Line. If you are a visitor to New York, I urge you to add both of these to your itinerary, and if you live within the New York metropolitan area, I urge you to continue supporting these great urban spaces.

Paris Plages is just incredibly additive and appealing. On y va! (Let's go!)














Thursday, July 28, 2011

Some of you may already know that Moon Over Manifest, by Clare Vanderpool, was awarded the 2011 Newbery Medal, given annually for the most distinguished American book for young people published the previous year. Those of you who've read this wonderful book know that it doesn't take place in Paris, or Italy, or Istanbul, but rather, in the fictional town of Manifest, Kansas (Vanderpool grew up in the very real town of Wichita).


So why am I mentioning it here? Because it's one of the best books I've ever read; it's for a reader of any age; as the book opens at the end of the month of May I tend to think of it as a summer book; and in its own way is a book about travel. Moon Over Manifest is worth reading for lots of reasons, and one of them is for a sentence that is my most favorite in the entire book: "But as anyone worth his salt knows, it's best to get a look at a place before it gets a look at you."


Abilene Tucker is a character you will love from the very first chapter. You will also love her father, Gideon, all her new friends in Manifest: Shady, Hattie, Lettie, Ruthanne, and, eventually, Miss Sadie and Sister Redempta. Vanderpool brilliantly and successfully weaves a story beginning in 1936 with one beginning in 1917, in alternating chapters, and though it's a work of fiction, Vanderpool is a great fan of historical fiction and she drew on stories she grew up with as well as what she researched in local newspapers, yearbooks, and graveyards (right down to advertisements for things like 'Velma T.'s Vitamin Revitalizer' and 'Old St. Jack's Lumbago Liniment'). The plot is suspenseful and mysterious, and filled with many good people from many other places in the world actually, as well as local people who are quite despicable.


Based on the real Kansas town of Frontenac, home of both of Vanderpool's maternal grandparents, Manifest --'A Town With a Rich Past and a Bright Future' -- becomes a town that Gideon and Abilene call home, a town where they belonged. And that, as you will see, is far more complex than you can imagine, because, to quote Melville (as Vanderpool does), home "is not down in any map. True places never are."


Read Moon Over Manifest and savor every word, smile, maybe shed a few tears (as I did), think about people who've extended kindnesses to you in your life, remember a time when you were a newcomer somewhere or a visitor in a foreign country, appreciate the words 'family' and 'home' and 'decency,' and then share this book with everyone you know because this is a book for all humanity.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011



I'm happy to announce that my Paris edition has just been published! As with my editions on Istanbul and Tuscany and Umbria, this volume includes an A to Z Paris Miscellany, as well as a plethora of noteworthy quotations; interviews with Alexander Lobrano, Ina Garten, Suzy Gershman, Patricia Wells, and Kermit Lynch; Parisian (and other) favorites shared by Judith Jones, Mark Greenside, Mireille Guiliano, Steven Barclay, Barbara Fairchild, and Molly Wizenberg; and essays and articles by Rosamond Bernier, Catharine Reynolds, Sanche de Gramont, Thirza Vallois, Herb Gold, Andre Aciman, Naomi Barry, Peter Hellman, Susan Hermann Loomis, David Downie, John Russell, Stacy Schiff, and a number of other writers who know Paris well.


Though I'll be continuing to add lots more posts on Istanbul and Tuscany and Umbria, I'll be focusing on a lot of Paris-related updates as well. If you're traveling to Paris this summer or fall, you have a lot to look forward to; but even if you're planning a trip further out, I am envious, and will be traveling with you vicariously!


I'll close by sharing three inspiring quotes from the Introduction page in my book:


"A breath of Paris preserves the soul." -- Victor Hugo, Les Miserables


"Those who have experienced Paris have the advantage over those who haven't. We are the ones who have glimpsed a little bit of heaven, down here on earth."

-- Deirdre Kelly, Paris Times Eight


"Paris is truly an ocean. Plumb its depths, knowing you will never touch bottom. Run its length, describe it. Whatever care you take in exploring or detailing, however many and determined the navigators of this sea, there always will be virgin territory, unknown grottoes, flowers, pearls, monsters, something amazing, overlooked by literary divers."

-- Honore de Balzac, Le Pere Goriot

Monday, June 27, 2011























I'm so embarrassed about this, but I recently discovered that I'd completely forgotten to include a book that I love within the recommendations in my Tuscany and Umbria book. It's embarrassing because this isn't the first time this has happened. Last year I embarked on a major project, which was the reorganization of my bookshelves; yet even though I (with great difficulty) donated bags and bags of books to my local library, I'm afraid books are still housed two and three-deep on my shelves. As a result, sometimes titles are hidden and hard to see. Such is the case with the paperback edition of Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King (Penguin, 2001).

As I wrote in the Introduction to my book, I will never forget the day I first saw Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence's Duomo (seen here in these four photos taken by Peggy Harrison). "As I walked down a narrow street, the name of which I no longer remember, I saw a sliver of it suddenly; as I approached it and discerned the different colors and patterns of marble, I was filled with a warmth and a happiness to be alive I've rarely felt again. Over the years, no matter how crowded Florence becomes, the Duomo will never fail to impress." I still love how you can see that fabulous dome from practically any spot in Firenze, and if you're a little lost, you can always find your way by locating the dome.



Ross King tells the compelling and fascinating story of the building of Santa Maria del Fiore's dome -- which began with an announcement on August 19, 1418 in Florence, where the cathedral had already been under construction for more than a century -- and ended twenty-eight years later. Filippo Brunelleschi "engineered the perfect placement of brick and stone" and defied all who believed his dome would collapse, and "in the proceess, he did nothing less than reinvent the field of architecture."



Santa Maria del Fiore was meant to replace the former church of Santa Reparata, by 1418 quite dilapidated, and it was intended to be one of the largest in Christendom. King tells us that entire forests provided timber for the church and huge slabs of marble were transported along the Arno on flotillas of boats. Santa Maria del Fiore "had as much to do with civic pride as religious faith: the cathedral was to be built, the Commune of Florence had stipulated, with the greatest lavishness and magnificence possible." The designer and original architect of the new cathedral was Arnolfo di Cambio, builder of both the Palazzo Vecchio and the stone fortifications of the city. Though he died after construction began, his plans were continued, and King informs us that a whole section of the city was razed to make way for the cathedral (and, in order to create a piazza in front of the church, not only were the inhabitants of the surrounding district displaced but even the bones of long-dead Florentines were exhumed from their graves surrounding the Baptistery of San Giovanni, which was just a few feet from the building site).



The Wool Merchants guild -- Florence's largest, wealthiest, and most powerful -- oversaw the Opera del Duomo and therefore had the responsibility for building and funding the cathedral. However, since their business was wool, none of the guild members knew anything about architecture, so they appointed a capomaestro (an architect-in-chief) to create the cathedral models and designs as well as coordinate the actual construction. Santa Maria's capomaestro was Giovanni di Lapo Ghini, who built a model for the cathedral's dome. The guild members also requested a second model, from a group led by a master mason named Neri di Fioravanti. While Ghini's model was Gothic, Fioravanti's group rejected the Gothic use of flying buttresses (which were at any rate rare in Italy) and proposed a plan that incorporated a series of stone or wooden chains around the circumference of the dome. Fioravanti had experience with vaulting -- he was responsible for the vaults over the great hall in the Bargello and the arches in the Ponte Vecchio after the old bridge was swept away in the flood of 1333 -- but this plan for the Duomo was far more ambitious. "It was this vision of a massive dome that seemed to rise heavenward without any visible means of support that for the next half century would both inspire and frustrate everyone involved with the project."

At a meeting in August 1367 the plan for the dome was approved by the guild wardens and later endosed by a referendum of Florentine citizens. I find it fascinating that, as King relates, approving Fioravanti's design was a remarkable leap of faith. "No dome approaching this span had been built since antiquity, and with a mean diameter of 143 feet and inches it would exceed that of even the Roman Pantheon, which for over a thousand years had been the world's largest dome by far."


I could go on, but suffice it to say that this book will surprise you, even if you know quite a bit about Santa Maria del Fiore. Of all the trivia I could continue to ramble on about, perhaps the most fitting footnote is that Michelangelo, in the late 1540s after he'd been named architect in chief of St. Peter's, was given three passes into Santa Maria's cupola so he and two assistants could inspect Brunellschi's methods of construction. King writes that Michelangelo was a proud Florentine, and that he claimed he could "equal Filippo's dome but never surpass it. In fact he did not even equal it, for the cupola of St. Peter's, completed in 1590, is almost ten feet narrower and, arguably, much less graceful and striking"