Van Morrison’s Belfast

IT’S AN EASY TWO-HOUR BUS RIDE from Dublin to Belfast, Northern Ireland, where I traveled last week to fulfill my original goal in planning an Ireland trip in the first place: seeing Van Morrison in concert in an intimate supper-club setting at Belfast’s Hotel Europa.

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Belfast is Van’s hometown, and I (mistakenly, as it turned out) thought he would surely give his all for a local crowd. But there seemed to be more Americans there than any other nationality. I met people from Arizona, New Orleans, Texas, Oregon, Chicago.

I’m a longtime fan of Van’s and had seen him perform half a dozen times, so I knew the show could be either a transcendental experience or just him, as they say, “phoning it in.”

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Rock chick with a Belfast blowout

This one was probably more the latter, with a couple of exceptional moments. Van did the requisite 90 minutes and ran off with barely an encore or a thank you, without properly introducing his fantastic band or even his daughter, Shana, who joined him onstage for one number.

Still, I had a blast, seated at a convivial table of mostly Americans, plus one Swede and one Irishman, in a room holding just 350 people.

I spent only a day-and-a-half in Belfast, a city with some truly grand Neoclassical architecture interspersed with harsh modern structures, staying one night in a stylish boutique hotel called Ten Square and moving the next night to the Europa.

My Belfast explorations took the form of a daylong pilgrimage to spots Van has written about in his songs over the years, about two miles from the center of town in gritty East Belfast. I walked there from my hotel, passing some of Belfast’s major Victorian landmarks, crossing the Albert Bridge over the Lagan River under dreary skies.

Roughly following a self-guided walking tour laid out by a local development organization, I headed for Van’s humble birthplace on Hyndford Street, where he lived until adolescence, evoked in a long spoken-word piece on the album Hymns to the Silence; Cyprus Avenue, mentioned in more than one song, lined with stately homes he aspired to as a kid; and bucolic spots like the famous “hollow” of Brown Eyed Girl, and Orangefield, the park that inspired a gorgeous, romantic song on Avalon Sunset.

I wasn’t in Belfast long enough to fully understand its history of sectarian conflict, now mostly calmed, or pick up on the cultural differences between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK (the border my bus had sailed across was a sticking point in the Brexit talks while I was there, the TV news about nothing else). I didn’t have time to investigate Belfast’s restaurant scene or the galleries in the Cathedral Quarter, apparently the arty part of town.

But I saw plenty. Come let me show you what I did get to see of Belfast.

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Above, an Art Nouveau relic, the first thing I photographed on getting off the bus from Dublin.

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Lovely intact Georgian terrace (or, as we say in Brooklyn, early 19th century row houses), above.

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The recently renovated Ten Square Hotel, across from the 1906 Town Hall, below (which I read somewhere is a “shameless copy” of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral — not a bad thing to copy).

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View of Great Victoria Street from my third floor room at the Europa, with the world-famous, putty-colored Crown Liquor Saloon, an 1885 extravaganza of tile work, etched glass and carved wood, on the corner.

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Originally a Victorian ‘gin palace,’ I was looking forward to a gin and tonic, but The Crown doesn’t do cocktails — only beer and whiskey.

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The Soviet-style Hotel Europa was once known as the most-bombed hotel in Europe, or perhaps the world. Its new history began in 1994, after “The Troubles” subsided.

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Next door to the Europa, the 1895 Grand Opera House survives!

Below, buildings of interest seen as I wended my way toward East Belfast.

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The enormous St. George’s Market, below, is used several days a week for produce and such.

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The 1869 Albert Memorial Clock, below.

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Views from the Albert Bridge, below, one of many bridges over the Lagan River. Belfast was once a shipbuilding powerhouse. The Titanic was built there, and the Titanic Belfast is a massive new tourist attraction. Not for me, however — I was on my way to Van Morrison’s birthplace!

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East Belfast, below, was quiet on a Tuesday morning in early December.

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My first Van-related site, above: the beautiful grounds of the still-extant Elmgrove Primary School, a leafy contrast to the barren surrounding streets.

IMG_0017Above, “the hollow”

You remember:

Hey, where did we go, Days when the rains came?
Down in the hollow, Playing a new game…

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Hyndford Street, above, was deserted. Number 125 — the “two-up, two-down” house of Van’s first 16 years — is marked by a discreet (that is to say, minuscule) brass plaque.

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Down on Cyprus Avenue
With a childlike vision leaping into view
Clicking, clacking of the high heeled shoe
Ford and Fitzroy, Madame George

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I really enjoyed my stroll through Orangefield Park, above, even calling up the relevant song on Spotify, plug in my earbuds, and listen to it as I walked. Dorky but perfect.

On a golden autumn day
You came my way in Orangefield
Saw you standing by the riverside in Orangefield
How I loved you then in Orangefield
Like I love you now in Orangefield
And the sun shone on your hair…

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Then I hopped a double-decker bus back to Donegall Square, above, in the city center (only because I couldn’t get a cab to stop).

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There was a Christmas market going on in front of City Hall.

I felt like I’d really been somewhere — not just to the other side of town, but to a different era, and I came back with a prize: a deeper appreciation for the source of the music I’ve so enjoyed over the years.

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In Dublin’s Fair City

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THERE ARE 850 PUBS in Dublin — down from a peak of 4,000 in centuries past, when every other home, thanks to enterprising beer-brewing housewives, became a ‘public house.’ That’s one of the fascinating factoids I learned on my first-ever visit to Ireland’s capital city.

My cousin Susan and I visited quite a few of those pubs, with an emphasis on the historic, and sampled their fine products. I’m now a fan of Irish whiskey, neat (Red Breast, Yellow Spot, Teelings) and of Guinness, which I thought I wouldn’t like, but after a day of tromping around Dublin’s cobblestone streets and mingling with the Christmas-shopping crowds, I found it just the revivifying, delicious thing.

When it’s on draft at an atmospheric, 300-year-old Dublin pub, where they pull it at just the right angle and let it sit for a specified length of time before topping it off, and serve it at just the right temperature, one can easily begin to understand why Guinness is a national obsession.

Three-and-a-half days in Dublin — a place I’d long wanted to visit — was all good. The city is civilized, safe, friendly, easy to navigate. We had several outstanding meals without half trying. Our hotel, Staunton’s on the Green, in a Georgian townhouse, was centrally located, gracious and comfortable.

Days are short in Dublin this time of year, with the sun coming up just before 8:30AM (!) and setting at 4. but we packed them full.

We toured Trinity College, top, with its 400-plus-year-old library, The Long Room, surely one of the world’s great interior spaces, and saw the Book of Kells, a millenium-old illuminated manuscript, as well as the original harp that became Ireland’s national symbol.

We saw hoards of Bronze Age gold jewelry at the national archaeology museum; took a gleefully touristy nighttime “literary pub crawl” led by a pair of funny and talented old pros; heard live traditional Irish music with fiddles and flutes; visited the small Irish Jewish Museum, poignant in its modesty; got a sense of Oscar Wilde’s posh childhood on Merrion Square and George Bernard Shaw’s working-class birthplace; tried on hats in millinery stores; ventured to Dublin’s medieval Christ Church Cathedral; found ourselves on the main shopping drag of Grafton Street (not especially interesting) all too often, and on the main drinking drag of Temple Bar just once, which was enough.

On Day 1 of our visit, when the bright, low winter sun cast long shadows on the manicured lawns of St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin was uplifting. On subsequent days, when the sky was bleak and gray and damp (exactly the weather I expected), it wasn’t quite as, though the city’s over-the-top holiday lighting goes a long way toward making up for the hours of dark.

I enjoyed the streets lined with late 17th and early 18th century flat-fronted brick townhouses with tall paned windows, and especially their multicolored doors under arched fanlights. There’s a goodly amount of spectacular Victorian commercial architecture in Dublin, and an unfortunate amount (well, any amount would be unfortunate in my book) of brutally misguided 1960s and ’70s building, with which the city is now stuck.

Is Dublin a beautiful city? Yes, though a visit at another season would probably make me  even more emphatic on that point. Have a look at my photos below, and see what you think.

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Festive lighting in the shopping district compensate for the long hours of winter dark 

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Above, our elegant high-ceilinged digs

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Above, St. Stephen’s Green, the city’s largest park, on Day 1

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Above: Trinity’s campinile; our cute tour guide in the gown once required wearing for all students; the college’s awe-inspiring, wood-vaulted Long Room; the legendary ancient harp that is  Ireland’s national symbol (more prevalent than the shamrock, even)

Below, a sampling of Dublin’s old-school pubs, including Kehoe’s, Toner’s, O’Donoughue’s

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Late-day walk past Dublin Castle to the Cathedral, below

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The River Liffey, by day and by night:

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Weird scene near an illuminated statue of Wolfe Tone, leader of the 1798 Irish Rebellion, below

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Classical Revival doors galore, with columns and fanlights, below

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Single-story 19th century rowhouses in the Portobello neighborhood, below, and the birthplace of George Bernard Shaw, one of  four Irish Nobel laureates in literature 

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Funky storefronts I couldn’t resist photographing:

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There are numerous independent bookstores in Dublin, including the beauty below.

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We twice tried to get into the 1920s Bewley’s cafe, below, never succeeded. Long lines.

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Oscar Wilde’s plays were performed at the 1871 Gaiety Theatre, above, still operational. 

There’s Wilde reclining on a rock in Merrion Square, below, and a Victorian fountain in Iveragh Gardens, right behind our hotel.

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We had the requisite Irish breakfast a couple of times, and Susan sampled Irish stew in a pub, but mostly it was fancy foodstuffs in a ‘modern Irish’ vein. Butternut squash seems to find its way into everything.

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Above, at the canalside Locks restaurant, recommended by a self-described foodie we met, a precious one-inch fried fish ball in a butternut squash “velouté” (sauce), on a 12-inch plate, as a starter, plus an exquisite cod and mussel main. 

Below, the lunchtime scene at Fallon & Bryne, Dublin’s answer to Dean & DeLuca but with a wine cellar and upstairs restaurant as well as a gourmet food hall and cafe. Note the chunks of butternut squash in the green salad.

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Hearty Irish breakfast, vegetarian edition, at Taste Food Co., below.

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Below, Etto, a chic storefront restaurant near our hotel, where they were able to squeeze us in at the bar without reservations because it was 5 o’clock. That’s butternut squash risotto with chanterelles, extremely comforting with red wine.

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Below, the grandly sited archaeology museum, one of four segments of the National Museum in Dublin. We marveled at the modernist-looking 3,000-year-old gold jewelry, skipped the mummified “peat bog men.”

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A museum on a considerably smaller scale, below, dedicated to Ireland’s ever-dwindling Jewish community. The upper level was a synagogue, closed since the 1970s.

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More festive lighting, nighttime scenes, a random building and your goofy blogger, below. That hat is just so me — too bad it cost 300 euros. 

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Vicarious Visit: October in Paris

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WHAT’S THE NEXT BEST THING to a trip to Paris? A friend’s trip to Paris, when you get to see pictures and hear about meals and fortuitous conversations and the discovery of unusual shops and forgotten streets.

These images came to me in almost real time, through the magic of texting, and some are so evocative I just had to share. (The friend in this case is my wasband, Jeff Greenberg. Commentary in italics is his.)

My sense is that Paris isn’t going the way of New York, at least not as quickly. I know there are chain stores along some of the major boulevards, but it seems that Paris still abounds with one-off shops and cafes. Not to mention perhaps the most stunning urban vistas anywhere.

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The beloved Hotel du Quai Voltaire on the Left Bank, above, very close to Musée d’Orsay (we’d stayed there before, in ’98). Small rooms, big view. Note list of famous residents on plaque to right of entry.

Below, at Café La Palette in Saint Germain des Pres:

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All around me, it seemed like Jean-Pierre Léaud and Bernadette Lafonte were deep in conversation. Every time I hear French in a setting like this, it sounds like they are discussing the fate of mankind, but they’re probably just talking about their laundry. 

Below, a bridal photo shoot in the rain. Do you prefer color (the original) or black and white (my doctoring)? B&W makes it look magically like Henri Cartier-Bresson.

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Wish the one below was a video so we could hear the violin…

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Below, a place I’ve never managed to get to, the Jardin des Plantes (botanical garden). Next time!

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Nighttime street scenes:

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An extraordinarily preserved 1950s neon-lit cafe on Blvd Saint Germain:

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Some of the oldest streets in Paris, below, are in the 4th arrondissement on the Right Bank. The Tudor style half-timbered house, listing a bit, is one of the only remaining medieval houses, from the 1500s.

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A random act of art:

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Below, Picasso’s first atélier, in Montmarte.

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Why does such an essentially simple scene, above, so clearly say Paris, and nowhere else?

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Place des Vosges in the Marais, above, with and without people. The architecture is flawless, completely self-contained. A beautiful day with low sun casting those Last Year at Marienbad shadows. (Another film reference!)

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Below, covetable items from the Marché aux Puces (flea market). Vintage posters priced around $300, which seems quite reasonable.

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Mustn’t forget the food… a historic patisserie, below, and sesame-encrusted fish at Au 35 on Rue Jacob.

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Dinner last night, plus parsnip soup, creme brulée and a perfect Sancerre. Lesson:  Let them pick the wine.

Yes, Paris is still there in all its Parisian-ness, and I find that very reassuring.

For more Paris, my own posts from my last visit there in 2012 can be found here.

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For Sale in Springs: A Long Island House as Old as They Come

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THERE ARE VERY FEW truly old houses on the East End of Long Island, but those that do remain, like Mulford Farm in East Hampton, are among the oldest in the country, dating back to the earliest English settlers in the 17th century.

So it’s possible that this little house I’ve always admired, at a bend in Three Mile Harbor Road in Springs, about 4 miles north of the Village of East Hampton, is as old as the real-estate listing says. Though “1639” strains credulity a bit. As does the whole story that goes with it, per the multiple-listing sites:

This Property Situated On 2.3 Acres Has Amazing History. Built In 1639 Part Of The House Is Made From The Wood Of A Ship And Has The Original Wood Pegs Holding It Together. The Wood Is Numbered In The Event That The Ship Was Wrecked It Could Be Put Back Together. There Is An Operating Farm Stand On The Property. This Historical Home Is Truly One Of A Kind.

Yes, the property (240 Three Mile Harbor Road) was well-known for years as the site of the Pig Pen farmstand, with a battered pink pick-up truck serving as signage. The house’s red shutters and the farmstand’s pink truck have always been a cheering sight for me when, arriving after a long drive from the city, they herald my return to Springs.

The house always reminded me of England, sitting at the bottom of a rise, surrounded by a usually very green lawn.

The farmstand never opened this season, which was a great pity — we need all the farmstands we can get — and then a For Sale sign appeared on the property.

The four-room house on 2+ acres is priced at $1.869 million, with annual taxes of $5,500. What’s odd is that it went on the market in July at $1.2. The ask was raised considerably in September.

It would be nice if whoever buys it reinstates the farmstand, and I certainly hope they don’t tear the house down.

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Anyway, thanks to the real estate listings, we finally get to see the interior of the house, below. Now I believe that story about the ship’s planks.

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Hamptons Weekend Cottage Keeps it Simple

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A FRIEND OF MINE has had a tendency to move often, both her family’s primary residence and weekend/vacation homes. Fortunately, she also has a talent for making any apartment or home look Domino-ready in very short order.

This two-bedroom 1930s cottage in a community of older homes near the village of Southampton, Long Island, is a long-range proposition, but it still looks essentially the same as it did one late summer evening two years ago. That’s when I saw it for the first time and took these photos, shortly after my friend and her husband moved in. (I’m finally getting around to sharing them as part of an effort to resume more frequent blog-posting),

The cottage proves a few things: that (well, as recently as two years ago, anyway) you can still find a substantially built house on a nice chunk of property — in this case, a flat, sunny acre — with vintage details, wood floors and walls — for under half a mil. And that you don’t need to over-furnish or overspend to create an interior that’s chic and functional. Sometimes simple is best.

My friends did a tad of work in the bathroom, installing a new wall-hung stainless steel sink, and virtually none in the rest of the house, even leaving the kitchen just as it was, with its basic appliances and linoleum floor.

They wired up some home-made lighting, and recycled furnishings they’d had in storage. The main seating is two twin mattresses on platforms, arranged in an L in a former sun porch. The dining table converts to a desk, or perhaps it’s a desk that converts to a dining table.

It’s all charmingly improvised and very much to my taste. There’s a renovation in the cards that will add a bathroom, a large bedroom, a screened-in porch and outdoor living areas. Meanwhile, the unassuming cottage fits the bill.

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Quaint Quebec

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QUEBEC CITY, on the St. Lawrence River three hours’ drive north of Montreal, is ridiculously picturesque — the oldest parts, anyway, where stone houses, some from the 17th century, form an Upper Town and a Lower Town on a steep escarpment, and much of the original city wall, below, a fortification from the days of the early European settlers, remains perfectly intact (it’s the only walled city in North America).

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In a two-day stay, I especially enjoyed the outstanding municipal plantings — oversized annuals that provide wowie-kazowie color in the city’s extensive park system — and wandering the streets of the residential neighborhood surrounding the lovely church of St. Jean le Baptiste, below.

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The vintage townhouses in Upper Old Town — a couple of choice examples, below — are mostly spiffily restored.

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The funkier houses on hilly neighborhood streets outside the wall, like Rue Richelieu and Rue Olivier (where our Air BnB was located), below, are in varying states of repair. Their gabled or mansard rooflines, steeply pitched to shed snow, clearly reflect French influence.

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The atmospheric Rue St. Jean is lined with phenomenal Victorian storefronts still in use as grocery stores, pubs and cafés, below.

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What you have to close your eyes to is a fair amount of unfortunate 1970s architecture, large blocky buildings bearing corporate logos that mar the city skyline and aren’t going away any time soon.

August in Quebec City — especially Sundays in August — is jam-packed with visitors, many concentrated around the riverside landmark Chateau Frontenac, below, a 600+-room city unto itself that looks like a Disney castle, built by the Canadian Pacific Railway and opened in 1893.

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Down a steep staircase (you can also take a funicular) are the even more ancient streets and stone houses of the Lower Town, now all about souvenir shopping.

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There’s an impressive daily farmers’ market at the old port, below.

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In a hectic couple of hours toward the end of our stay, we tore off to the Musée Nationale des Beaux-Arts du Quebec to catch an amusing exhibition of the work of photographer Philippe Halsman, below, famed for his LIFE magazine covers, lively celebrity portraits and long collaboration with Salvador Dalí.

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Final stop: the 15-acre Van den Hende botanical garden at nearby Laval University, below, whose extensive greenhouses yield those super-sized flowers in which Quebec seems to specialize, putting those of us with longer growing seasons to shame.

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Montreal: Mile End, Old City

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MONTREAL IN SUMMER means bountiful seasonal plantings — in tree pits, roadside strips, highway medians; lush baskets hanging from café awnings and balconies; flowers, grasses and vines everywhere. It also means a lively sidewalk café scene that far surpasses New York’s, and people making the most of the city’s parks, including the romantic Parc La Fontaine, above, jewel of the Plateau neighbohood.

Something to do with Montreal’s winter being long and harsh, so they revel in summer to the utmost?

Summer in Montreal also means tourists, especially in the Old City/Vieux-Port, below, where my friend Nancy and I ventured today. There really wasn’t much for us there, having little interest in visiting the cathedral, riding the ferris wheel or plunging into the shopping hordes along Rue Saint-Paul. After strolling along the waterfront promenade for a bit and admiring the high Victorian commercial architecture, we tucked into a bar with an outdoor terrace along a quiet side street and whiled away an hour looking at our phones, surrounded by baskets of flowers.

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Earlier in the day, we had checked out Mile End, the hipster quarter, which seems like another great neighborhood to live in, with one-off coffee shops — I’ve only seen one Starbucks in Montreal — and numerous independent bookstores. Below, Cafe Olimpico, a Mile End fixture since 1970.

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And then there are the BAGELS! I had to sample the bagels of which this city is so proud, from each of the arch-rivals, separated by a couple of blocks in Mile End: Fairmount Bagels and St. Viateur, both with long (but fast-moving) lines.

My vote goes to Fairmount, where I had an onion bagel so sweet and chewy it was practically cake. My rosemary bagel from St. Viateur was drier, not nearly as transcendental an experience. Sadly, neither location has sit-down facilities, just take-out, which leads to scenes like people putting cream cheese on their bagels with plastic knives while leaning on windowsills down the street.

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My brief stay in Montreal is nearly over. Can’t complain about the weather, although we got hit with a couple of downpours, in between spells of intense sunshine and muggy warmth. One caught us as we headed to dinner at L’Express, a dead ringer for a Paris brasserie, with bread just as good and convivial groups at table. I had grilled dourade and a glass of chablis. Yes, most def a taste of Paris without the transatlantic trip.

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