Our only other visit to Lisbon (aside from a plane touchdown in 1995) had been in October, 2009, so we were unprepared this time for the city’s beginning to decorate itself for Christmas. Lights strung across streets in the Bairro Alto. Stores beginning to bling up their windows and facades. “Boas Festas” signs all over the place. Look at the snowballs or globes or whatever hung above the pedestrian street Rua das Portas de Santo Antão seen here on our way back from another satisfying dinner at A Esquina da Fé. Some guidebooks warn that this neighborhood may be too dangerous for tourists to stroll. What? That has never been our impression. We want the real Lisbon (and its restaurants), not the sanitized Disneyed attractions on offer to the timid. And besides, who would possibly misbehave beneath such well-wishing decorations as these?
November 29, 2017
I love that everyone drinks tea in Istanbul. All the time. And I love how tea shops transport take-out orders to customers at nearby businesses. Look at that ingenious device, a tray to carry four glasses (he’s just served one) on the ubiquitous red-smeared saucers plus a small dish of sugar cubes. Everywhere you look in busy sections of town (here in a crowded street behind the Spice Bazaar) you see men (never women) carrying these trays that are held by three “prongs” connected to a joining-point handle at the top. So much more genteel than a paper (or plastic!) bag filled with lidded styrofoam cups. No wonder Istanbul (and earlier Constantinople or Byzantium) has been a center of civilization for so many centuries.
November 28, 2017
Lunch at the Taberna Almendro 13 in the La Latina neighborhood (after we’d fled the gussied-up and sanitized nearby Mercado San Miguel) and this Madrid specialty is what all the locals were having. Huevos rotos con jamón: thinly sliced fried potatoes doused with a slightly cooked “broken” egg and some diced ham. And no wonder it’s a popular dish; it was terrific. Ham, eggs, potatoes...sounds like breakfast, no? Not in Spain. I was amazed at the reverential place the egg has on menus at every meal. It could be in the fabled tortilla española (an omelette-like cake of onions and potatoes, served whole, cut up as tapas or as a sandwich filling.) Or maybe expertly fried as an entree...the “incredible, edible egg” (as the old ad campaign used to say) is everywhere. And, come to think of it, so are potatoes and ham. No problem.
November 27, 2017
Little yellow things. That’s what these cookies are called in the Venetian dialect of Italian: zaleti. How do I know all this? I learned it from my friend Nick’s Great Italian Desserts book, the zaleti page of which carries the smears and other marks of honor that bear witness to my having made this recipe more times than I can count. Of course, my results for these Venetian cornmeal diamonds may not have the professional finish that Nick’s do (as he’ll be happy to remind me) but no one (else) seems to mind. I make them at Christmas time. I make them in summer. I make them when friends request them for their birthdays. All the time. Cornmeal, flour, lemon zest, sugar, eggs, butter, vanilla, salt, baking powder, raisins or currants. Nick’s recipe is all over the internet (search: zaleti nick malgieri) and is foolproof, yielding terrific cookies every time. Make a lot because everyone likes them (even the many internet bloggers who’ve lifted Nick’s recipe uncredited), so they tend to disappear quickly. And if you want to see how a professional does it, go to Nick’s website, click on "Videos" and watch him make them with Julia Child. She liked them, too.
November 26, 2017
Los Angeles at night always looks like Christmas to me. The strings of lights spread out to the horizon. The colors. The activity. Even though I snapped this photo off season from the heights of West Hollywood, it still suggests December decorations, no? Actually I was in LA only once at Christmastime. Maybe I harbored unrealistic expectations, but what a disappointment. Elaborate front-yard Santa panoramas on bright green lawns (or, worse, sun-scorched lawns.) Huge decorative candy canes criss-crossing entranceways, roasting in full, bright sun. It just seemed wrong. (Like below-the-equator residents in Australia or South Africa who go to the beach on December 25, midsummer for them. No!) When Jay and I lived in Beverly, MA, in a house whose kitchen/dining room/living room was mostly glass that gave onto woods, I strung small white lights throughout the whole room one December. They reflected back and forth in the glass over and over, multiplying each time. Jay walked into the room and said, “It looks like Los Angeles.” QED.
November 25, 2017
I chose Catania as my home base for travel through eastern Sicily. It had good bus and train connections, and plenty of cheap places to stay for a single. A walk from the train station, a check-in at a bare-bones pensione, and, of course, a stroll to the outdoor market. Where I saw this...a wonderful tableau of a butcher making sausage on the sidewalk outside his shop. This is varsity sausage-making, ingredients in the grinder on top, check. Pig’s intestine attached to the exit, check. Go! Soon, yards of salsiccia for sale, a meandering pile from the freshest of ingredients...and maybe just a little bit of cigarette ash thrown in for good measure. One of many such scenes in this lively and welcoming market. (The morning after I took this photo, there was a government crackdown on local Mafia chieftains less than a block away, gunfire and all.) I love Sicily.
November 24, 2017
Okra. Love it or hate it. No in between. I love it. Seen here in the French Market in New Orleans, its mucilaginous (aka slimy) qualities are one way the natives thicken their gumbos. (I had less success with said qualities when I sliced up some of the pods to make soup once.) I also like crisp pickled okra, which I’ve found both in Middle Eastern and Middle Western venues. The Armenian markets in my neighborhood feature both homemade and commercial varieties. And the Talk O’ Texas brand (”makes your mouth happy”) can be readily found in pickle-loving communities nationwide. I’ve put up jars of my own with iffy results. Hell, even Martha Stewart’s got a recipe for them. In Istanbul, baby okra is strung into “necklaces” and hung up to dry, later to be reconstituted in stews and other vegetable dishes. Closer to home, it’s still a mainstay of Southern and Southwestern buffets, breaded and deep-fried, the perfect accompaniment to chicken-fried steak. On the “hate it” side: My friend Nick makes a face whenever i mention okra (maybe he remembers that gooey soup referenced above) and always hopes his okra-lovin’ friend Nancy will forget to order it at the Manhattan Vietnamese restaurant they frequent. For the especially vehement, there are several “I Hate Okra” websites and even a Facebook group. Enjoy.
November 23, 2017
Who says the Greeks have no sense of humor? It seems the Greeks on the island of Rhodes do. I was just leaving a group of friends in a non-touristed part of the capital city, assuring them that I knew my way. And moments later, you guessed it, I was completely lost. In a dark maze of streets, no sidewalks, unable to read the map, traffic whizzing by. Finally, a glimpse of the sea. And I thought I’d just follow the coast to the harbor and my waiting boat. No such luck. I had wandered far afield and was on the other side of the island, nowhere near the harbor. Don’t panic. The ship won’t leave without you. Sure. So I retraced my steps, consulted the map more seriously...and started running. I soon found civilization, spied the boat on the horizon...and then saw this, a sign.
November 22, 2017
Ancient and well preserved. Not me. The Library of Celcus within the remarkably reconstructed and maintained ruins of Ephesus, once a major city of the Roman Empire, second in size and importance only to Rome during the time of Augustus. Just over a mile long from entrance to exit gates, the site was blessedly free of summer tour groups during our recent visit and made for a wonderful cloudy-morning walk. Roads, fountains, columns, theaters, markets, a gymnasium, even a public toilet...all part of a city layout that’s so well annotated with posted information that no tour guide is really necessary. Though there were plenty on whom we could eavesdrop from time to time. (Musical comedy fans will note that although Ephesus is the setting for Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse, we managed to control all impulses to break into song. Just saying.)
November 21, 2017
November 20, 2017
When a favorite writer authors a book about a favorite city, well.... Irish novelist and journalist Colm Tóibín spent much of his restless twenties in Barcelona, just at the end of Franco’s reign and afterwards. So his book serves up multiple perspectives. Not just his own as a foreigner (no matter how much Catalan he studied or how many Spaniards he slept with) but also those of the lifelong residents whose confidences and memories he secured. A great book, Homage to Barcelona (whose title offers a respectful nod to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia) provides an insider’s look into the city’s various neighborhoods and sights, of course. But also an accessible and enjoyably readable look at how being Catalan informed the visions of such native masters as Picasso, Gaudí, Miró and Casals. It’s also the first book I’ve come across to make sense for me of the various factions involved in the Spanish Civil War and how they interacted over those turbulent years, how Franco’s tenure suppressed (but didn’t snuff out) the art, the language, the heart of Catalonia.
November 19, 2017
I’ve taken a different attitude toward snowfall here in New England now that I don’t have a pre-dawn, hour-long commute to the middle of nowhere. I see it as decorative rather than menacing. In the past, one flake and I’d begin to fret. Now, like kids in my neighborhood, I still watch the streetlights on snowy nights, but instead of hoping for “snow days” as the school-age kids do, I look at it more as the pre-schoolers do. Something to enjoy, have fun with. For a different perspective, check in with my friends whose flights to Europe last Christmastime were completely fouled up for almost a week by European airports’ panic over unaccustomed snow. And one pal whose Boston flight to Houston was weather-inconvenienced. (He arrived at Logan Airport at 11am, finally got on his delayed flight, which was then de-iced, taxied down the runway...then it turned around and emptied its passengers back at the terminal. TWICE. He finally took off to sunny and warm Texas after 10:30pm.) In this photo, taken in our Gloucester front yard, I am happily accepting one of those “things I cannot change.”
November 18, 2017
On my only other visit to Amalfi some 27 years earlier, I’d arrived by bus. I can still remember my heart being in my throat as the driver twisted and turned high up on switchback mountain passes, no guardrails, honking his horn to alert any hidden cars that might be blindly speeding toward us around the narrow curves. Yikes! This time was blessedly different. We sailed along, gently approaching the tiny city that gives its name to the entire coast. The summer crowds were gone. School kids crowded the streets on their way home for lunch. Farmers on the hillsides made small bonfires of fallen leaves and long-spent vines. The light was beautifully muted, the colors autumnal.
November 17, 2017
Our first trip across the Bosphorus on this most-recent visit to the City of the World’s Desire was magical in every way. The sun was setting over Aya Sofia. The ferry sheltered a gentle and uncrowded mix of families, pals, businessmen returning home to the Asian side of the city from their work in the European section. No one was pushing, no one in a hurry. Tea was offered. Smiles. Welcomes. And we were on our way to a wonderful dinner at Çiya. Every time I cross this fabled waterway I can’t help wondering about all those who have crossed before me. How these same currents have carried passengers since the days of antiquity. And will continue to do so. Humbling.
November 16, 2017
Look at this thing. It’s a wall of greenery planted onto the side of an otherwise nondescript building, a 78-foot-high vertical garden, a work of art. It stands outside the CaixaForum gallery not far from the Prado, and even though Madrid is a city where one gets used to surprises, this “living painting” of 15.000 plants from some 250 species by French artist Patric Blanc comes as a surprise. Blanc believes that “plants don’t need earth: only water, minerals, light and carbon dioxide,” and he’s been putting his belief into practice, building these vertical gardens since 1988 in such places as Paris, Osaka, New York, Bangkok, New Delhi and Genoa. He hopes gardens such as these will be created in train stations, parking lots, the metro, “those difficult spaces where you don’t expect to see greenery.” Surprise!
November 15, 2017
People sometimes ask me why I bother with Chowhound.com. Isn’t it filled with suspect information from know-it-alls with bad taste who gravitate toward the common choices of restaurants and meals? Um, no. Well, not all the time. When I was going to San Francisco on business a few years ago, I posted on the SFO Chowhound board asking where a solo diner might be able to get a good meal and not feel uncomfortable dining alone. I got dozens of replies, some repeats, but enough for me to start investigating. The result: I wound up with some mighty fine eats when I was there. My favorites were the Anchor Oyster Bar on Castro Street (where I sat at the small bar and had a great conversation with the bartender/server who made me feel right at home) and Tommy’s Joynt -- “Where Turkey Is King” -- on Geary at Van Ness (a rough and tumble, no-frills cafeteria/bar where I met a visiting couple in line and wound up eating a great meal and laughing a great deal with them.) I took this picture at Taylor’s Automatic Refresher (now renamed as Gott’s Roadside Tray Gourmet...why?) in the Ferry Building Marketplace, a place where I didn’t actually, um, EAT, but whose sign appealed both to me and to all that I stand for.
November 14, 2017
When Jay and I walked into the small delicatessen-type shop in Kuşadası, I was first struck by the many barrels of different types of olives. Then by the kindness of the owner who came right over and offered us a piece of helva. And then, there among the cheeses in the case, a big tub of what looked like clotted cream. “Kaymak?” I asked, wondering if it was indeed Turkey’s wonderfully thick cream that they layer onto so many of their desserts. “Hayır,” answered the clerk shaking her head. "No." It was, she explained, Turkish yogurt. Sold! They filled a small container for me and I brought it back to the ship, intending to have it with fruit and nuts at breakfast the following morning. And here it is, rich, resplendent and thoroughly resistant to any attempts to stir it. (Photo taken after several fruitless tries.) Like butter, some might say. And so began my comparison taste tests of yogurt over the next few weeks through Turkey, Greece, Italy, Switzerland. The winner? Nothing even came close to this unbelievably thick contender from our first stop in Asia Minor. Nothing.
November 13, 2017
Is Julius’ the oldest gay bar in New York? It claims to be. Also the oldest bar in Greenwich Village, serving up drink since 1864. And on a bad night, it looks as if many of the original patrons are still in attendance. I think Julius’ may have been the first gay bar I ever went to, back when I was in college in the late 1960s. (Or was it the Stonewall? One or the other.) I remember being terrified of going inside, practicing what I would order in advance, trying to act nonchalant. I worked my way up to the bar and asked the flamboyant bartender for an Old-Fashioned. (What made me choose that? Why didn’t I just go for a beer?) The bartender screamed to the crowd, “Oh, this one wants an Old-Fashioned! I guess she’s just an old-fashioned girl!” I was mortified. Years later, after attending Lily Tomlin’s opening night on Broadway, I popped in to this West 10th Street mainstay for a drink and realized I was in line behind the priest who was the headmaster of the Catholic prep school I’d attended. He got his drink, turned around, saw me, blushed and said, “Oh, well. I guess my secret is out.” “What secret?” I asked.
November 12, 2017
I have no idea who these guys are. Jay and I were visiting Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art one day and started to pose in front of the lobby’s installation-in-progress of Boston Globe pages (later whitewashed and hung with mirrored panels in many colors by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone.) These two charming copycats decided to do the same thing and gave me their camera so I could take a picture of them. When I was done, I shot them with my own camera, and here’s the result. I’ve started to imagine who they might be. (Friends, one of whom lives in Boston, the other in New York, they only get to see each other occasionally and make the most of their limited time together.) Part of the fun of visiting the ICA is the building itself, perched as it is over Boston’s harbor. Its oversized internal glass elevator serves up an amusement-park thrill as you ride to the exhibition galleries on the fourth floor. Even a simple stop at the gift shop is a creative experience. And, as you can see, the lobby offers an easy photo op. Cheese, guys.
November 11, 2017
Pasqualino Giudice in his great restaurant Jonico ’a Rutta ’e Ciauli in Siracusa. We’d learned about Pasqualino and his local recipes (pasta with anchovies and toasted breadcrumbs, spaghetti with bottarga and smoked herring) from Paula Wolfert’s World of Food, so when we landed here in southern Sicily, we made a beeline to his table. A real showman, he soon presented us with some special memorial menus he’d had printed, signing them with calligraphic flourishes that added new meaning to the word baroque. When faced with non-Italian visitors, Pasqualino told us, he’d calmly say the only words he knew in English (besides “Paula Wolfert”): “Just a moment.” Then he’d hot-foot-it into the kitchen to fetch his English-speaking brother to help the conversation along. Nick and I had a great meal at Jonico and have since sent many friends there. Fortunately we did not have to consume any of the dishes shown in the photo, all of which (pork chops, sausages, pig face, all the rest) were fashioned out of almond paste. Today, the Giudice Family still runs the place, offering up “the ancient flavors of Magna Grecia” in their same location on the evocatively named via Riviera Dionisio il Grande.
November 10, 2017
When I visit a city, especially a European one with a strong culinary tradition, I’d much rather check out the produce in the market than the cathedral. In Rome, the open market in the Campo de’ Fiori displayed the most beautiful, long-stemmed artichokes I’ve ever seen. In Paris, the Bastille open market offered so many different kinds of shellfish. Montreal’s Marché Jean-Talon still has the most amazing samplings of cauliflower, like wedding bouquets in their extravagant splendor. And just look at these strawberries and mushrooms, side by side in Barcelona’s La Boqueria, formally known as the Mercat Sant Josep. In early November, the mushrooms were at their glorious peak. So many different varieties and in such abundance that they were on every menu of every tapas bar within the market, served up in a rich roster of preparations. Gaudí, the Picasso Museum, fine. But give me La Boqueria any day.
November 9, 2017
What do you think? Can I get away with harem pants? Fran Lebowitz once wisely advised never to get a haircut when you’re traveling. And I think the same wisdom can be applied to any number of trip-based decisions where the appeal of mysterious foreign surroundings can so easily cloud judgment. Here outside the walls of Topkapi Palace, the siren song of these exotic, overpriced vestments beckoned. Not really. As you can see, I’m a flannel-shirt-and-jeans kind of guy, not given much to billows and bling. At least not in public. Still, the display alone was enough to catch my eye. And I can imagine that less reality-based tourists may have succumbed...and are now dazzling all of Des Moines and Omaha with gauzy Turkish delights such as these.
November 8, 2017
November 7, 2017
We arrived in Tangier on a Friday, market day, the most important day of the week in Islam, when Muslims are called by the millions to midday prayer. It was also the eve of Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice concluding the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), celebrated by Muslims all over the world and one of Islam’s two most important festivals. Eid al-Adha [which began at sunset last night and ends at sunset today, November 7 in 2011], commemorates the prophet Abraham’s willingness to obey Allah’s command to sacrifice his son Ishmael, a slaughter avoided by Allah’s last-minute replacing of Ishmael with a ram thus sparing the boy’s life. The festival is marked by sacrificing a lamb and distributing the meat to relatives, friends and the poor -- an expression of zakah, one of the five “pillars of Islam.” Which explains why, as we exited the medina, we saw a crowd gathered around the open trunk of a car from which had just emerged two rams being prepared for on-the-spot sacrifice. Just one of many experiences that wonderful day that made us feel we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
November 6, 2017
On the first Sunday following the Day of the Dead, Tucson puts on a big show. Costumes, lights, floats, altars, music, puppets, masks...artists of all kinds come together and parade through downtown in the city’s famed All Souls Procession. There are some who revere this tradition for its deeply spiritual connection to family and friends who have died. Others for the spectacle and circus atmosphere. And for some, it’s just an exciting night out. I’ve been a few times now, and nothing beats the memory of this end-of-show extravaganza put on by Flam Chen Pyrotechnic Theater, Tucson’s daredevil dance-meets-acrobatics fire performance group. Their flame-infused finale, complete with aerial artists and an intentions-filled cauldron that ignited above the crowd, forged a memorable blend of sacred and profane, and brought smoky closure to this annual madhouse of an evening.
November 5, 2017
Daddy’s little angel. One of the many scenes here on Rome’s Spanish Steps on this sunny Sunday morning. (And I don’t think the girl’s wings were in any way related to Halloween.) I had forgotten how Romans (all Italians, really) while away lazy Sundays, just strolling about with family. On streets full of closed shops. In parks like the Villa Borghese and the Gianicolo. At fountains, on benches or on storied steps such as these. Jay and I on this, our second day in Rome? After tracking down some favorite Caravaggios, I’d left him to find his own way through the Eternal Città as I backtracked to my favorite pizza place, wound my way through the centro to make dinner reservations in the Jewish ghetto and spent some silent time (in spite of the crowds) in my favorite building in the world, the Pantheon. A lovely Sunday for dolce far’ niente.
November 4, 2017
Ah, the beautiful Greek Isle of Santorini. Whitewashed houses perched high on dramatic cliffs. Deep-blue domed roofs that mirror the surrounding sea. Sunsets fabled in legend and in song. Or, if you’re on a mission as I was, bakeries offering traditional Greek pastries like this bougatsa. Before I left on this first visit to the Aegean, my knowledgeable friend (and unsurpassed holiday baklava baker) Lea suggested that I pick out a specialty food item like this phyllo-and-custard confection, and then see how different areas of the country prepare it. Sounds good to me. Layers of the thinnest, most buttery sheets of dough wrapped around a rich filling of sugar, eggs and cream. Mmmm. Jay and I bought this fine example and brought it back to our ship to share (sort of) with onboard friends. The first of many such crunchy and satisfyingly smooth “pillows” that we tracked down. Thanks, Lea.
November 3, 2017
Fear of tapas. Not knowing how to order, when to pay, what to choose. Jay and I had experienced this fear on our previous two trips to Spain and we were determined to walk through it this time. And we did. With a vengeance. Within two hours of arriving in Barcelona we were already ordering up a multi-plate lunch at El Xampanyet, a tapas bar near the Picasso Museum that specializes in sardines and anchovies. That night we hit Tapas,24, a bustling place in the Eixample neighborhood. Lunch the following day at Jai-Ca (shown here) began with fried baby octopus, fried fresh anchovies and pimientos de Padrón. Followed by broiled razor clams, boiled octopus and, always, pa amb tomàquet (the ubiquitous Catalan toast rubbed with garlic and a ripe, juicy tomato.) The next day, lunch at Sagardi, where you choose by yourself from platters of toothpicked tapas and your tab is tallied at the end by counting the toothpicks. What could be easier? Or more delicious? Afraid no more.
November 2, 2017
Of course, I love Halloween. But I really love what follows, The Day of the Dead. Especially if I happen to be in Tucson or Mexico on November 2. The personal Día de los Muertos altars to honor family and friends who have died, filled with mementos, letters, talismans. And bread -- the famed pan de muerto prepared especially for this occasion. I love the “mixed emotions” that participants embrace on this day, too. Sadness, of course, for loved ones who are no longer with us. But happiness and conviviality, too, as this day is an honoring of their lives and an opportunity for connecting and “conversing” with them. Sassy grinning skulls are everywhere from sculpted sugar candies, to keychains to T-shirts, but most famously as catrinas, skeleton dolls elegantly dressed to remind us that even the rich are no match for Death. Candles abound. Flowers, too. Just take a look at this beautiful altar prepared for the Tucson Museum of Art by my wonderful friend David (with help from his very-much-alive loved one, Simon.) He sends this photo and writes: “I tried to include departed family members and friends using photos, objects that reminded me of them, hand embroidered ribbons, etc. I grew most of the flowers: white marigolds, tuberoses, cockscombs, some yellow and orange marigolds. Silence, quiet, reflection.” Gracias, David.