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EVERY NOW AND THEN, I need a photo workshop to help me look at things afresh. In Europe last month, I was so busy chronicling all I saw as straight-up reportage that I rarely took time to be creative with my camera — or iPhone, in my case (I’ve given up carrying anything heavier).
This morning, at the Municipal Arts Society offices in Midtown Manhattan, I took a two-hour class called “Getting the Shot” taught by Timothy Schenck, a photographer specializing in art, architecture and construction. Tim ran through an astonishing amount of information in an hour. His reminders about basic mindfulness (“focus on the task”) were not lost on me, and I loved being given permission to experiment (“tap into your individual vision,” “try the unconventional”), along with composition (eliminate visual clutter, use negative space, remember the rule of thirds) and technical tips.
I asked how to take photos of a building besides just standing in front of it and holding the camera up, something I often find myself doing. Among Tim’s suggestions: try a very low angle to take in, say, the cobblestones on a street; use ‘leading lines,’ like a row of houses diagonally pointing toward the subject building; look for a convenient bell tower for a high vantage point; take close-ups of a weathered door or interesting knob; tell a story about the building in a series of images.
All very helpful, so when our group of about 25 — most with SLR cameras, some with point-and-shoots, a few with cellphones — marched the 10 blocks south to Grand Central Terminal to put Tim’s tips into practice, I was feeling inspired. The image, top, taken on 42nd Street just in front of the station, may be my favorite of the day.
It was crowded inside the station, with more tourists than commuters. I interpreted the part of the lesson about weeding out visual clutter to mean people — people en masse, at any rate. I gravitated toward quiet corners and was surprised there were some, even inside Grand Central on a Saturday afternoon. And when there weren’t, I found that if I waited, a wave of humanity would pass and for a few seconds the coast would be clear to grab a shot of the station’s grand Beaux Arts architecture.
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
– T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland
APRIL HAS BEEN CRUEL, an abrupt withdrawal from the stimulation and excitement of my monthlong trip to Europe in March. Though I was there but four weeks — and they flew — the trip had been in the planning all winter, so my head had been in Europe far longer. Now both mind and body are back in Brooklyn and I’m in recovery, chafing against the fact that I’m no longer hearing mellifluous Romance languages, hopping on and off trains with a sense of purpose, feeling intrepid and self-sufficient, exploring new streets and seeing new vistas, steeping myself in art and culture, walking a pair of sturdy boots into oblivion.
I came home to bills and taxes and issues I’d been happy to put out of my head completely for the duration of my trip. I’ve been feeling dull and grouchy, if only to myself, pissed off about being back in New York, but unwilling to kvetch out loud, for who would sympathize with someone who’d had those four weeks of freedom and delight? I couldn’t even write a blog post; what could I possibly say or show that would hold a candle to Verona or Naples? I went out to eat with friends at restaurants new to me, including Eugene and Company in Bed-Stuy and Chavella’s in Crown Heights, and though I liked them both and look forward to return visits, couldn’t even be bothered to lift my iPhone to take a photo of my food.
“Mixing memory and desire,” T.S. Eliot wrote — that’s what April has done for me, mixing the memory of being in Europe with the desire to return. Be here now? Ha. I’ve been wanting to be there. I drove out to my house in Springs to check on things and found both house and garden in perfect order, just as I left them last November, but didn’t feel the usual uplift.
It was only yesterday that I finally felt “dull roots stirring.” I met a friend for lunch in Bryant Park during a brief spell of perfect weather, and it happened as I emerged from the subway, caught a glimpse of the Park’s newly seeded lawn (thankfully rid of the skating rink and market stalls of winter) and the stately back of the Public Library, and the fountains, and the daffodils, and the carousel, and the happy people released from their offices basking in the novelty of an alfresco lunch, and even the green and blue glass skyscrapers which somehow on this day didn’t offend but wowed me with their shiny brilliance. I was a bit early, so I went inside the Library and wandered through their current, excellent exhibitions: one of vintage photographs and another of World War I graphics.
Coupled with my first visit of the season, this morning, to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, below, where the cherry orchard is late to bloom but the magnolias are going crazy, I’ve at last begun to think, hmmm… maybe New York can hold a candle, after all.
GOOD EATING, staggeringly beautiful scenery, and hordes of other tourists characterized the last few days of my month-long Mediterranean sojourn, winter ’15 edition.
From Naples last Friday morning, my cousin Susan and I traveled an hour by train to Sorrento, our base for three days. A small, picturesque city with convenient bus and boat connections to other places we wanted to visit, exploring Sorrento itself, above, kept us busy for a day. The sights took some seeking, like the extraordinary Sedile Dominova, below, a 16th c. open-air loggia with trompe l’oeil frescoes, which we eventually found on an obscure corner in the city’s historic center.
We also hunted down a 1772 majolica-tiled wall, below, located in the back of what’s now a flower shop and event space, in a building called Palazzo Correale. We walked far out of our way, directed by locals to the Museo Correale instead, got caught in a rainstorm, and took shelter in a beauty salon. Finally we found the wall and marveled at its being there.
We crisscrossed Sorrento’s lovely, café-filled main square, Piazza Tasso, numerous times; stopped to look inside beautiful Rococo churches, including one with a 14th century ‘Paradise Cloister’ or planted interior courtyard, below; admired cliffside villas and, from many vantage points, the ring of mountains, including Vesuvius, that encircles the intensely blue Bay of Naples.
Our favorite viewing spot was the pergola at the luxurious Hotel Bellevue Syrene, above, where we were rewarded on our last night with an exquisite sunset, and entertained by seagulls trying to get at the bowl of nuts that came along with our Negronis, top.
Our time in Sorrento got off to a loud start when the rooftop room we were given at Casa Astarita, an otherwise delightful B&B, above, turned out to overlook the garden of a disco, making sleep impossible for much of the first night. The next day we were moved to an inner room whose thick walls made all the difference.
Above: Father and son restauranteurs at Le Grazie, Sorrento.
We ate well in Sorrento restaurants recommended in guidebooks, by our B&B hosts, or just stumbled upon. All had homey ambience, homemade pasta, pizza almost as good as Naples’, incredibly fresh seafood, creamy out-of-this-world bufala mozzarella (above, with cold tomato sauce, at Inn Bufalita, which specializes in it), and house wine as good as what we’re used to paying far more for at home.
Saturday morning we took a crowded bus an hour and 40 minutes to the town of Amalfi, whose glory days were the 8th to 12th centuries. The route was all hairpin turns and photo ops. Whether it was the clear morning light, or our first sight of Amalfi’s Moorish-influenced cathedral and bell tower, above, decorated with multi-colored tiles; or the choir we heard singing; or the fact that a festive wedding party was posing for photos on the broad flight of steps up to the cathedral, we found Amalfi magical. After exploring the cathedral’s sumptuous Baroque interior and courtyard garden, we trekked around back streets, going in and out of alleys and up and down ancient stairways, before settling down for lunch at Marina Grande, a seaside restaurant that has jutted out over Amalfi’s beachfront since 1935. Homemade breadsticks and octopus three ways, below.
We had the requisite mid-afternoon espresso at an exceedingly pleasant sidewalk café, above, while waiting for the bus back toward Sorrento. It stopped at Positano, below, a near-vertical, pastel-colored pile of houses often called ‘the pearl’ of the Sorrentine peninsula. It is astounding from the road, and we disembarked there, but after Amalfi, we found Positano in close-up a bit disappointing. It’s a thirty-minute walk from the bus stop down to the town, which seemed to have little to offer visitors beyond souvenir shops and a patch of gray beach, and we didn’t linger.
Above: Terraced farms near Positano, through a bus window.
We saved Sunday, our last full day in the area, for legendary Capri. A fast ferry from Sorrento’s port arrived at the rocky island, seemingly made for Hollywood, in 20 minutes. My chief memory of Capri from a brief visit there at age 16 was of over-burdened donkeys carrying tourists’ luggage up an impossibly steep hill. The donkeys are gone, I was relieved to discover, replaced by a funicular to Capri Town at the top. There we found outposts of Prada, Ferragamo, and the rest, amidst a group of five-star hotels. We bought ourselves some fragrance at Carthusia, the venerable fragrance shop, below.
We walked around until we found a public garden overlooking the rock formations that typify the island, below, and the vistas that make Capri the ultimate in scenic thrills.
Finding little else to do in Capri Town but shop, we hopped on another bus for the 15-minute ride to Anacapri, the island’s other, quieter town, and had lunch in the garden at Il Solitario, below, where, the waitress told us, New York City mayor Bill deBlasio dined with his family last summer.
Homemade linguine with clams “from today,” below, and escarole sautéed with olives and pine nuts made a very fine meal.
Above: A beautiful, simple church in Anacapri, outside and in; and an Anacapri street scene.
As I write this, I’m on the Frecciarossa, pride of Italy’s high-speed train fleet, on my way back to Milan to catch a New York-bound flight. A man pushing a cart with an espresso maker mounted on it comes through after every stop. He makes each cup individually; it’s free, in first class anyway, as are biscotti, chocolates, water, juice and newspapers (but only in Italian). We’re bulleting through some of the greenest and most satisfying scenery I’ve encountered from a train window.
It’s been four weeks since I began my trip in Madrid and it was only yesterday, on a bus in Capri, that I finally encountered another American woman traveling alone in Europe (from Colorado, for seven weeks, sans husband: “I told him, I’ll drag you through churches and art museums. You’ll hate it.”) The continent isn’t crawling with us at this time of year, apparently.
I’m glad I bracketed my solo sojourn with a visit to friends in Spain at the beginning, and a few days with my cousin, a stellar travel companion, at the end; and that I had the good fortune to make new friends for a three-day spell in the middle, because the best times have been with other people. Without this blog as a focus for reporting my experiences, knowing I have readers at the other end, this would have been a different, perhaps more lonesome trip, and I’m grateful, too, that you came along for the ride.
THE PIZZA. It really is that good. My cousin and I randomly entered one of many pizzerias near our hotel in Naples last night — here, they’re actual restaurants with a full menu and a wine list, not counters where you get a slice and a soda — and ordered a Margherita and another with provolone and basil. Best pizza of my life. It’s the water, they say, but it’s also the bufala mozzarella and the tomato sauce and the way they bake the crust, thin and crispy on the edges but chewy toward the center. We didn’t make a fetish over seeking out any particular place; Susan’s taxi driver had told her, “There’s no bad pizza in Naples,” and we took his word for it.
From our balcony at the Grand Hotel Saint Lucia, above, a grande dame perched on the Bay of Naples, the smell of the sea and the sound of the gulls is ever present. We can see Vesuvius to the left of us, shrouded in clouds, Castel dell’Ovo, below, a site with 2,000 years of history, straight ahead, and the city curving around to the right.
After Milan, Naples doesn’t seem particularly chaotic. Crowded, hectic, noisy, yes. Construction everywhere, yes. But mainly just full of life, as we discovered walking around today from the seaport area up through the center of town. We looked into churches and another Victorian iron-and-glass shopping center, Galleria Umberto; had a peek at Cafe Gambrinus where Oscar Wilde and other 19th c. notables hung out; stopped at the cafe/bookstore Intra Moenia on leafy Piazza Bellini for a glass of Prosecco.
Then we ran though the unparalleled National Archaeological Museum, below, where we took in the Pompeiian frescoes and whatever else we could manage to see in the hour we had before meeting Susan’s Neopolitan friend, who took over from there.
Massimiliano, a 28-year-old businessman in the fashion industry with a sideline as an aspiring pop star, steered us expertly to artisan shops to show us a creative side of Naples — small clothing and jewelry stores, an 80-year-old leatherworker’s studio, an art gallery with works made of concrete, resin and cork — greeting friends and acquaintances all along the way.
We had a memorable lunch at Pizzeria Mattozzi, but we didn’t have pizza; we had a variety of seafood dishes, including fried anchovies and fried calamari the way it ought to be, octopus in red sauce, tiny tasty shrimp you eat without peeling, then pasta with razor clams (no parmesean with seafood in Naples, ever).
We thought we would never eat again.