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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Montreal: Plateau, Parc, Musee

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ALLÔ, MONTRÉAL! I’m in this hip, sophisticated city for a few days, ensconced with a friend on a leafy block in an Air BnB apartment, below, that’s big enough for six people, taking in some of the major sights and lurching from meal to meal.

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A Canadian friend steered us to the charming and convenient Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood, made up mostly of small late Victorian townhouses, many with balconies and exterior staircases (for reasons, we learned, having to do with taxes, not having to heat stairwells, and saving interior space).

Yesterday I weaved in and out of the area’s narrow alleys en route to my first Montreal coffee and best-ever cheese croissant at Le Moineau Masqué, enjoying the century-old domestic architecture with its quirky paint jobs and front gardens, some tidy, others desperately in need of weeding.

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I had to see the modest home of Leonard Cohen, one of my musical heroes, which he owned for many decades and re-visited throughout his life. It’s a three-story gray stone townhouse, below, on the small vest-pocket Parc du Portugal, where we sat and absorbed the atmosphere, looking across at the bagel place he was known to pad over to in his bedroom slippers many mornings.

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In 36 hours, we’ve shopped and window-shopped on Rue St.-Denis (Tibetan jewelry, housewares, arty made-in-Canada clothing); drove up to a viewing spot in the city’s green heart, the central mountain (Mont-Royal) that gives Montreal its name; enjoyed the sounds of French heard everywhere, though English is almost universally spoken as well; dined at bustling neighborhood eateries in Plateau (L’Gros Luxe — that’s their tuna tartare, below and Café le Cherrier) and had an elegant grown-up lunch — grilled sardines for me — at Ferreira, a landmark Portuguese restaurant downtown.

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Below, typical of Plateau: corner cafés with mural decoration.

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Why have a boring garage door? Two of many, below.

IMG_0014IMG_0018We revisited our youths at “Revolution,” the current exhibition on 1960s culture at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, enjoying the psychedelic art, hippie fashions and vast room given over to multiple enormous video screens showing performances from Woodstock, with cushions on the floor for lying and taking in Hendrix and the Who, towering overhead.

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And we’ve proudly mastered the arcane parking rules, which are no more or less complicated than New York’s, except, like everything, in French.

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Hot Town, Summer in the City

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IT’S NOT OVER ‘TIL IT’S OVER, but as soon as you start seeing ads for back to school shopping, you know it can’t be long before the Halloween decorations come out.

The knowledge that it will soon be September has always cast a pall over August. Growing up, I waited eagerly for the big fat back-to-school issue of Seventeen magazine to show up on my local newsstand August 1st. I was so bored I devoured its 600 pages of wool skirts and cable-knit sweaters immediately. Though it was still high summer, I was painfully conscious that its appearance signaled the beginning of the end.

Later this week, I’m off to Montreal and Quebec City for a few days and will be blogging my ass off while there, no doubt, so there’s that to look forward to. In the meantime, the days count down on summer in the city. With frequent forays out of town, y’know, it hasn’t been half bad.

July began with a day trip to Kykuit, below, the Rockefeller estate in Westchester County, a century-old Italianate-style ivy-covered pile, romantic on the outside, boring within. Chief joy and surprise: Nelson Rockefeller’s collection of modern art, relegated to a basement space, world-class though it is, and wonderful outdoor sculptures (like the Elie Nadelman figures below), perfectly placed.

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I abandoned Brooklyn again to ferry over to Governor’s Island, where my daughter is now working, and what a surprise. In the past couple of years, they’ve (almost) completed a park called The Hills, as close to unspoiled nature as you can get in New York City, with a skyline view at every turn.

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For culture, I joined a friend at the Whitney Museum in Chelsea to see Alexander Calder’s mid-century mobiles, below, so simple and yet so brilliant. The views from the outdoor terraces there are always stunning.

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Then there was a two-day road trip to Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Mass., cultivated over a period of decades, exclusively with plants native to the region. We found accommodation nearby at the oldest continuously operating lodging in the U.S., the pre-Revolutionary Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Mass., below. (It burned nearly to the ground and was painstakingly rebuilt in the 1950s, so it’s hard to say what’s original and what’s not, but the illusion is impeccable.)

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I tried a few new-to-me Brooklyn restaurants, including L’Antagoniste in Bed-Stuy, a tad precious and a tad pricey, and the French-Senegalese Cafe Rue Dix in Crown Heights.

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Even treading city sidewalks in summer is made pleasanter by overflowing window boxes and creatively planted tree pits.

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Follow me on Instagram, where I’m having some fun… @caramia447

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Posted in BROOKLYN, LONG ISLAND, MANHATTAN, NORTH FORK, ROAD TRIPS | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Yugen – A Japanese Garden Where You Least Expect It

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THE ADDRESS OF YŪGEN is a closely guarded secret. I didn’t even know of its existence in the backwoods of East Hampton, N.Y., until it appeared in the 2017 catalogue of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program, open for just two hours on a Sunday morning at the end of July.

Yūgen is a privately owned garden of 20 acres, heavily inspired by Far Eastern garden tradition. The property’s anonymous owner, who manages global public health crises, has been working on it for a quarter century. He began as a collector of Japanese suiseki –– small, naturally-formed stones that suggest larger landscapes. This, according to the catalogue, led to more stones in the garden, many on a massive scale, and then to a passion for horticulture.

With advance reservations, my sister and I gained two of the limited places and found ourselves wandering nearly alone through expanses of mossy-banked pine woods, an artificial dune scape, a re-created section of primeval forest whimsically called Jurassic Park, rocks and rills and waterfalls, gravel patches and sculpture gardens (all surrounding a rather more conventional house).

The word yūgen means something like “subtle, profound, mysterious beauty.” It suits.

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Done! Philadelphia Attic Duplex Reno

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IN CASE ANYONE HAS BEEN WONDERING, the Philadelphia renovation in a c.1810 row house that commanded much of my attention and most of my resources last winter was finally finished in May. I’m very pleased with how it turned out. In fact, the result was so satisfying I’m starting a new renovation in the same three-unit building next month, in the second-floor apartment below.

Joke! I am starting a new reno in the same building next month, but not because the first one was satisfying. It’s because there was a watery disaster in that second-floor apartment about a month ago: a burst hot water heater that let loose all 40 gallons of its contents, ruining the carpeted floor and finding its way through to the ceiling of the apartment on the ground floor below, causing extensive damage there as well.

The ceiling damage downstairs has been repaired, but I’ve asked the tenant in the second-floor apartment to vacate in late August. It’s the last un-renovated apartment of the three, and was sorely in need of upgrading anyway. I’m excited about the opportunity to fix a major design flaw in that space (there’s no proper living room to speak of).

But before we get to that in months to come, I want to share, for the record, photos of the completed duplex, which combined an existing one-bedroom apartment on the building’s third floor with previously unused attic space, to create a bi-level apartment with two bedrooms and an additional open loft.

At the center of it all is a new handcrafted staircase, which I consider very successful in both design and execution.

The pine floors are new; the bathroom is brand new; the kitchen cabinets received a cosmetic upgrade. There was no electricity on the upper level; now there is. The original wood floors upstairs were painted white.

Downstairs, the door to the bedroom was moved to allow a longer sight line through the apartment. Add to that new windows, new moldings, bumped-up electrical service, new HVAC units and a paint job. All in all, a major accomplishment <blowing on fingernails and buffing them against shoulder>.

Most telling of all: the apartment rented very quickly, to the first people who looked at it.

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Ninth Year in East Hampton: Same Old is Damn Good

Follow me on Instagram @caramia447 where I post quirky one-off images of, among other things, tiny houses, retro storefronts, street art and the occasional sunset

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I’M BACK IN EAST HAMPTON for my ninth season and I don’t even care that it’s raining for the third straight day. I’m just glad to be here.

My show-stopping 15-foot-tall rhododendrons have already faded and are rapidly falling apart. Hours of tedious petal clean-up and deadheading await. Is it worth it, in exchange for the week or two of blossom explosion my friend characterized as “like an LSD trip”? You bet.

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The irises, too, are having their moment. It takes time, I’m learning, for irises to come into their own after planting, maybe three years. It’s a bumper crop and here I am, just taking them for granted.

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The garden has a thick new blanket of mulch, whose spreading I hired out this year, leaving me to wander my tidy-looking half-acre with an odd, displaced feeling of nothing to do.

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I’m here for just a few weeks, determined to make the most of June before renters arrive July 1 and stay through Labor Day.

May was cold in my unheated house, so fires in the fireplace, sweaters and scarves were the order of the day, and hot water bottles the order of the night.

Below, the golden hour: May at Maidstone Beach

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Memorial Day weekend brought friends to my deck for the first al fresco meal of the season, the traditional (round these parts) salad Niçoise, free-flowing rosé and a fire in the fire pit.

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A week into June and the house is still 54 degrees, fire crackling away, space heater turned up full blast, soup on the stove.

Arriving last Saturday evening, after a couple of days attending to business in the city, I couldn’t waste time in transition. I dropped my bags and ran down to the beach to catch the sunset, not knowing these were the last rays to be had for at least 72 hours.

It was close to a religious experience — fat clouds limned in gold against postcard blue, the bay shimmering, seagulls bobbing, sand glinting, horizon satisfyingly distant but not so far off as to be intimidating, evening air soft on my face. I picked up shells and driftwood and a gull feather and walked along the water as darkness fell, smiling goofily at people with dogs and fishing poles.

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I’m grateful to be out of the city, to be where nature can work its magic on my mood.

And now I can say it, loud and proud: I love East Hampton. Nine years ago, when I first moved here, I was embarrassed to tell people I had bought a house in “the Hamptons” (albeit the cheapest house on the South Fork).

All I really knew of East Hampton before I bought that first cottage (I’ve since sold it  and bought a different house nearby), were snooty, overpriced designer stores and the hassle of finding parking in high season.

Now I cherish the fabulous institutions with which the town is blessed, like the hushed, rambling mock-Tudor library with its Long Island research collection, a room devoted solely to garden books and brand new children’s wing; and Guild Hall, an art museum and theatre, with a circus-striped auditorium featuring ambitious programming all year long,

I’ve discovered exquisite local gardens like LongHouse Reserve and Madoo, and smaller gems like the beautifully tended kitchen garden at Mulford Farm, a cedar-shingled saltbox pre-dating the American Revolution by a long shot. Even the 200 ancient elms that line Main Street are a national treasure (and possibly endangered).

My time here will be truncated, so I’ve got to squeeze it all in: gardening, swimming in the bay, farmer’s markets, picnics at Louse Point, walks on Gerard Drive, sunsets at the jetty, art exhibitions, garden tours, yard sales.

Knowing I’ll soon have to tear myself away makes me appreciate all the more what my Hampton, prettiest of them all, has going for it.

Posted in GARDENS & GARDENING, HAMPTONS, LONG ISLAND | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments