My Little Town

1234382Westport is a quiet hunk of Connecticut shoreline originally populated by the native Pequot tribe. Nestled between the Saugatuck River and Long Island Sound, this pretty tidal treasure is a mere 47 miles of commuter rail from New York City, one of several sleepy suburban communities immortalized by mid-century masters Updike and Cheever.

The town became a creative hub in the early 20th century, attracting artists, musicians and writers. Then came the ad-men, and later, an alarming influx of CEOs and high-level executives. The small New England community with rural, agricultural roots now wears an unmistakable gloss of wealth and privilege.

Williams SonomaDSCN1246In the ’60s, Westport’s leafy Main Street housed Klein’s department store, Achorn’s Drug, a mom-and-pop hardware, and the Remarkable Book Shop (it really was remarkable). Penny candy and tobacco could be found side-by-side at Bill’s Smoke Shop. Bill’s is now a Williams-Sonoma — which pretty much tells the whole story. But if you know where to look, you can still catch a glimpse of Westport’s precious, poky past.

REMARKABLE

Edge of the parking lot IIGreat Bones, Grand Viewssnowy-egret

Westport has a tidal marsh with ducks and a graceful, stand-offish snowy egret. The little riverside park offers a quiet spot to read, reflect, sip coffee and examine the graffiti carved by decades of high school sweethearts.

Graffiti 2

Development Happens

The former Westport YMCA is being converted into loft apartments and commercial spaces. I am sure they will be expensive and tasteful, whatever that will mean in this little corner of post-modern New England.

Development at the Yice_stormIn the Movies

Ang Lee’s film The Ice Storm exposed our cozy little burg in Technicolor Blue, although I never heard the sound of a key dropping into a bowl, anywhere, in my whole sheltered life.

The area was also lampooned by Ira Levin in his thriller, The Stepford Wives, which satirizes the the fawning, submissive and beautiful wives in fictional Stepford, Connecticut. Ira nailed it.

Fab Friendssuzanne2

We enjoy a spectacular homage to country life with friends Rozie and Suzie of grilled lamb chops, asparagus, and gorgeous berries. The evening of laughter, jokes and stories neutralizes our fear, “You can’t go home again.” Yes oh yes you can. And if you’re very lucky, you will find wonderful friends like Rozie and Suzie when you get there.

Compo Beach

Shoreline

Sherwood Island is a wonderful stretch of beach, but Compo is the family favorite. We still have a beach-locker, but no one wants to open it. Too many happy memories—we don’t want to let them out.

Earthplace has acres of walking trails, a wildlife center, live animals and an aquarium. Don’t miss Cocktails & Clams, a delicious evening of Copps Island Oysters straight off the boat, plus cocktails and live music for a cause.

Or rent a sunfish at Longshore Sailing School. I remember sunny summer days taming a wet, flapping sail with Susan.

Paul NewmanSummer Stock

Westport Country Playhouse is one of the country’s oldest summer theaters. Since the 1930s, the venerable summer stage has mounted comedies, dramas and musicals from June through September. Longtime supporters Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman combined forces for a wildly acclaimed production of Our Town that continued to Broadway. The two longtime residents of Westport agreed with us: “We just like it here.”

th-1Sip & Savor

Don’t miss Oscar’s signature pastrami on rye with Russian dressing — our oddball version of Proust’s Madeleines. If it’s Sunday morning, walk to SoNo Baking and grab a croissant and coffee. Or meander a few miles up the Post Road for a beer at Two Roads Brewing Company in Stratford.

It’s Connecticut. Childhood is calling. Stop and smell the dogwood. Life is good. •

LibraryLive by the SoundWestport riffraff in 1965Five Westport knuckleheads – 1965

 

 

Posted in Art and Culture, East Coast Travel, Food and Wine, New England Travel, Off-the-beaten-track, Retro-Travel, Theater, Travel | 5 Comments

Caccia di Blu!

terracotta rooftops Italy’s terra-cotta landscape is rustic, golden, timeless. But tell me, do you sometimes miss the color blue?  Let’s go “caccia di blu!”

Blue espresso cupsWe serve our espresso in blue, with a splash of modern stripes.

Pietro in blue close-upOur alpaca-blend “Maggie” shawl warms WWII hero Vassano Pietro of Argegno.

Blue water pipesNew blue water pipes are ready for service and make a striking waterfront graphic, too.

Blue scarf from Sr. FrancoThis two-hue-blue scarf is courtesy of our friend Signore Franco – grazie Franco!

Blue direction signsIn Italy, blue tells you what to do, where you are, and which way to go.

Blue instuctional signageBlue is serious, it is the color of INFORMAZIONE. Pay attention!

Blue leading nowhereSometimes the instructional blue gets lost and leads nowhere.

Blue parking signBut mostly it is telling you something you need to know.

Blue Halo ANNABlue is the color of St. Anna’s robe, and sometimes her eyes.

Blue halo LukeAnother lovely blue halo! Note the turquoise flourish on his wrist.

Lavazza IITaste Lavazza Blue, one of Italy’s finest coffees. If you’re bored, count the spoons.

PANDAA sturdy Fiat Panda comes in 50 shades of blue – we have rented them all.

Spot of blueSometimes an unexpected patch of blue just sneaks up on you.

Blue sky over lakeAnd if you’re lucky, blue is the color of the endless Italian sky each day. Ciao!

 

 

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La Primavera 2016

PansiesTile roofs. Terraced, unfussy gardens. Wisteria in bloom everywhere, along with pansies, peonies, tulips and iris. The sun is hot. Lake views are blinding. Weekend-warrior cyclists in black spandex speed past in a blur. Tiny fishing boats sputter by with the day’s catch. I vow never to take this view for granted.Turquoise chairs

We are repeat renters because we do not like surprises. Our apartment is a sunny rectangle with sleek kitchen along one wall and floor-to-ceiling windows on the other. A small dining table, turquoise dining chairs and boxy leather sofa take up most of the space – a molto modern mash-up.

A battered coffee-table book on the bellezza of Italy is the largest object in the room. And of course, an outsize television that happily pulls in several British channels on a rainy afternoon.

111 steps into townTanti Auguri

The lid of my favorite sauté pan is broken. We descend the 111 steps to the tiny hardware store in the village. I show the proprietor which piece is missing. He calls his pimply assistant, Paulo, to discuss the problemo.

They grow passionate. They shout and wave their arms. I back out of the shop and decide to use a few bits of wire and a wine cork. Problem solved. I wonder how long their discussion will go on. I wonder if they will notice that I am gone.

Spacious is a Frame of Mind

Terrace cocktailsOur terrazza panoramica provides a sunny spot for cocktails or breakfast on a sturdy wraparound deck with rattan chairs and a clever drying rack. Stunning lake views razzle-dazzle the apartment and make it seem spacious and grand. On rainy days, it’s cozy and quiet; the fog adds a pearly glow.

Although it’s warm, a small, steady stream of smoke curls from my Breakfastneighbor’s chimney, the one with the miserable dog who yelps and barks all day. The dog is alone from sunrise to sunset, and although he lives in the most beautiful place in the world, he still gets lonely, povero cucciolo.

The Italians are still wearing their quilted winter coats. It’s sad that no one is out for the evening passagiata, a special time to see and be seen – one of my favorite customs.

Stranieri In Paradise

Rain and Fog.

Window view new friend LauraAs clouds thicken and wet fog rolls in, we make a new friend. Laura Barelli is working with her brother Giuseppe and husband Giorgio, renovating their ancestral home across the stream. We wave and jump up and down when we see each other from our balconies. Their first cozy apartment is on Airbnb – if you rent it, we will wave to you, too! Check out its stunning lakeview at left.

Rain or shine, there is no place I’d rather be. •

Next up: A Caccia di Blu!Pink tuplip 1

 

 

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Florence Interlude

DSCN0013DSCN0004We zip into Florence to meet dear friends at Hotel Bernini. It is posh, next to the river. Our mood lifts and spirits brighten. Our friends help us see a jolly way forward: buying shoes! which always helps. We shop and eat our way out of la nebbia, our workday fog. We enjoy all 4,000,000 bricks of the Duomo, the largest masonry dome on earth. We bask in the lovely golden light that is Florence.

Florence_duomo

Florence 1We treat ourselves to a  convivial lunch of several yummy courses in a courtyard. Of course we share all of our dishes – even those we don’t really want to share. That is friendship.

Our Florence interlude is a delight. We do not rush home. Rushing is impossible anyway, due to relentless snarls of traffic. We resolve to travel to this glorious city by train from now on. We also agree that this visit has been a joy.

(Forgotten post – one year old.)  •

Nightttime Florence sculptures

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Costa Rica – It’s a Boy

DSCN0658Jess and Colin IIJess gets married, initiating a nifty and unexpected trip to equatorial Costa Rica. Best of all, we get Colin, the son we always wanted.

Tamarindo is about an hour from Liberia airport. We take several wrong turns and realize, yes, we’re in the jungle. Unpaved roads are dusty, information is sparse, and the route is incongruously lined with yoga retreats, a range of primitive-to-posh accommodations and a baffling array of restaurants.

DSCN0666Squirrel monkey in a branch in Costa RicaWe make it to Tamarindo, a booming commercial strip along a stretch of blinding beach. Monkeys and coconuts dominate the canopy of parched trees above our heads. Bright green birds flit from tree to tree, invisible among the leaves. As temps climb to 100˚F, the constant breeze rolling off the thundering turquoise surf is a relief.

The vibe is laconic, and just about anything goes. I watch a pair of slim and beachy Bohemians puffing on a fat cigar. Smoke mixes with coconut suntan lotion to surprisingly pleasant effect. I relax and decide to rethink my radical stance on bourgeois tropical vacations.

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Our nearby grocery store is air conditioned and orderly, with plenty of cheap and refreshing Imperial beer. Fruit and vegetable stands are accessible, friendly, and street food includes delicious and filling empanadas and kebabs. Expat Italians have also colonized this wild hunk of beach, bringing with them some respectable pizza.

DSCN0676HawaiianAging hipsters thrive in Tamarindo, exchanging “Pura Vida” both as greeting and password. At our rented paradise, Steven Stills lookalikes in bright hibiscus shirts and graying ponytails address each other as “man” and “dude.” Conviviality prevails as the merry band of brothers meets each morning by the pool in our shared courtyard. They sit with laptops, comparing notes on the stock market, deep in their laid-back parallel universe.

Tamarindo Beach

Costa Rican beaches are blessedly public, and we DSCN0715spend most of our time on the seashell-covered playa. Pacific waves are bathtub warm with strong undertow. Vendors hawk brightly painted bird whistles, jewelry and wood carvings, but will graciously take ‘no’ for an answer. Don’t miss the beach cevice, fish cured in citrus and spice – local treasure served from humble plastic coolers.

Shaded beach chairs are available at shoreline restaurants and bars. Spend a few colones on an Imperial beer or iced juice blend (or both). Tourists can sit as long as refreshments keep coming. Natives rest on blankets off to the side, which triggers my tourist-guilt. Sunsets happily unite the two groups around 5:30 as beaches become crowded with people taking a moment to appreciate the magic of nightfall together.

DSCN0648Grenada underwaterTamarindo is ideal for gringos who love surfing, yoga, zip-lining, horseback riding, exotic birds and wildlife, paddle boarding, fishing, mountain hiking, swimming, and exploring the wild. My relationship with nature has always been somewhat tortured, and I find myself a bit alienated until I find the bookstore, farmer’s market and lively bistro and bar scene.

Rachel at Pangas

Pangas Guara PunchPangas bistro is a favorite – beach club by day and a relaxed restaurant by night. Have a guara punch in a rustic driftwood chair with surf tickling your toes – a perfect place to harness the local vibe. Don’t miss the steak you cook yourself on a black volcanic rock, or the day’s catch straight off the boat, served sizzling on a rustic iron skillet.

Up the road, breakfast at La Terasse is served on a breezy terrace overlooking the beach, a popular spot for couples, young moms, and surfer dudes. Watch what other people order and use your most polite Spanish, por favor. If you can’t manage, just point to what looks good. Try the Machaco Burro, an enormous flour taco stuffed with shredded beef, two eggs, melted queso fresco and beans. Or the Samba, an enormous, gooey breakfast sandwich of egg, avocado and queso fresco. Skip gringo touches like toast (yuck) and home fries (more yuck). The coffee on the terrace is strong and  “bottomless” which appeals to our Yankee sensibilities.

Bernie at PatagoniaAnother very popular restaurant, Patagonia, specializes in Argentine cuisine. We order all four of the house specials and a bottle of local red wine as my husband’s Bernie Sanders T-shirt is greeted with warm applause. (Tamarindo feels the Bern.) The house-made tagliatelle is robust, heavily spiced, and loaded with house-cured meats. Patagonia’s ravioli stuffed with fresh salmon is delicate and unexpected.Colin G. II

Colin sends us to the upscale hotel Diria Tamarindo for a civilized and potent rum punch, barefoot elegance at its best. We watch a glowing sunset on the beach, listen to jazz piano on the terrace, and celebrate the good life – Pura Vida!  •

Three lovely coconuts: Rachel, Sheila, and Jess

Three lovely tropical coconuts, from left: Rachel, Sheila and Jess

 

 

 

 

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Our Tuscan Paradise – Carmignano

DSCN0068Duomo FirenzeThe Carmignano Hills are lush and verdant. Even the fog is soft and sweet. Our annual climb up La Rocca yields arresting views into the bowl that is Florence, and the terra cotta Duomo at its heart.

Our customary factory visit yields soft cashmere blends in earthy hues that reflect the surrounding countryside – chestnut, indigo, olive. Maurizio and his wife welcome us with tiny cups of espresso on a tray. This lovely ritual both comforts me and expresses the essence of convivio that is Italy.

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The humble snail, Italy’s slow-food mascot.

Tuscany is at the heart of the slow-food movement here in Italy. At Barco Reale in Carmignano we savor local lento favorites like braised rabbit, hand-rolled pici, and simple savory beans with pancetta. Regional wines are served alla spina for tasting, by the glass, in a clay pitcher, or of course, by the bottle. No English here, you must bravely use your Italian and hope to be understood.

It is very warm and often HOT here under the legendary Tuscan sun. Black thunderclouds move in and convulsive cleansing rains sweep the hills. Then more sun. And so it goes.

Annunciating by PontormoWe visit Pontormo’s restored Visitation – 1528, depicting an intense encounter between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth as both reveal they are pregnant. The painting is even more expressive than we remember.

Visitation is both Pontormo and Carmignano’s most famous work of art, an extraordinary must-see. The Visitation is a convenient obsession for us as we always stay in the wonderful Hotel San Michele across the square.

Wineglass - weblogInformal wine tastings in late afternoon provide a civilized close to the business day. At the moment, Dave is drinking a soulful and minerally glass of Vermentino with a plate of house-cured prosciutto. It is parecchio lento, “quite slow,” here in the Tuscan Hills, a home to which we will always return. •

 

Next up – Firenze!

 

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My Funny Valentine II

573077_714683661_197414135_nMy friend Bob Greene is cool. He is tall, suave, and an excellent cook. Bob is a tennis writer who travels the world to watch famous and not-so-famous athletes whack a fuzzy yellow ball across a net at 100 mph. See what I mean? He even has a cool job.

Bob and I share two essential interests: booze and jazz – sometimes enjoyed simultaneously. There’s nothing better than savoring a velvety Syrah with side of a bebop from Dr. Billy Taylor or sipped under a cloud of moody Miles Davis.

Kind of Blue

Hooch and Historyth-2

Bob collects unique wines and spirits like Slivovitz, fiery plum wine from Czech Republic, or Becherovka, herbal bitters also from Eastern Europe. “In other words,” he says, “I’m a lush.” We agree that a few beverages in his collection taste like gasoline and might be better suited to removing paint.

Bob’s Maine roots date back to the 1700s. His relatives buried in venerable Eastern Cemetery on Congress Street pretty much make him Portland royalty. He helped establish Portland’s Freedom Trail, Maine’s small but significant piece of Underground Railroad history. Local artist Daniel Minter designed the beautiful brass markers at each stop along the tour. Bottom line: Bob gets things done.

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^ Kwanzaa stamp by Portland’s own Daniel Minter, world-class artist and friend of Bob Greene

Bob’s birthday falls on Valentine’s Day. Each year, he throws himself a slammin’ party packed with musicians performing jazz standards from afternoon well into evening. Guests mingle in Bob’s packed “jazz club” – wherever it pops up – with local musical all stars like Flash Allen. There’s nothing like hearing “Your Cheatin’ Heart” delivered in a Maine accent over a plate of fried chicken and mashed-potato salad. (Note: Both are way better than you’d think.)

Pretty In Pink

We also celebrated Bob’s birthday with a monochromatic food event all in pink – from food to flowers. Highlights included pink-rice nori rolls, new potatoes with creme fraiche and caviar, and dozens of briny pink shrimp. Jello creations evoked the fab fifties, and a cheese ball brought back the lounge lizard ’70s. Raspberry birthday cake with delicate, pale rose-scented icing was bliss.

We followed our monochromatic excess with a special tasting of Maine-distilled Fernet Michaud. We’re all familiar with Fernet Branca, served in Italy as a digestivo when a party has gone on a little long. After Bob’s birthday blizzard of piquant pink, a golden herbaceous hit of Fernet Michaud was, as my mother would say, “just the thing.” Go Maine.

Maine Maestroth-6

To alleviate the boredom of another winter waiting for his birthday, Bob Greene compiles a weekly list of jazz happenings – who, what, when and where. Bob’s got this end of Maine covered with an eclectic, ever-expanding list of venues from Portland House of Music to Dogfish Bar & Grille; Snow Squall to Local Buzz; Solo Bistro in Bath to my townie favorite, MJ’s Wine Bar … and more.

The Music Scene is a good list to be on, and Bob is a spectacularly great friend. Here’s to his robust recipe for a soulful and flavorful life: Eat, drink, and listen to good music. Cheers, Maine Bear!

Continued from 2012 Portland Daily Sun “Travel Local” column.
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