BOOK REVIEW: 111 Places in Brooklyn That You Must Not Miss

When I saw that Brooklyn had been newly added to the list of international travel destinations covered by the German publisher Emons in its 111 Places series (joining the Twin Cities; Verona, Italy; Malta; Liverpool and other less-expected spots), I have to admit I allowed myself a small scoff.

As a Brooklyn resident for 42 years, my jaded self doubted there were many sites in the book I hadn’t at least heard of, if not been to.

When I read the bio of the author, John Major, and found out he’s a newcomer to the borough (only 12 measly years), my certainty grew.

How wrong I was. The book soon reminded me of Brooklyn’s unknowable vastness and the multitudes it contains. Most shamefully, that I’m barely acquainted with all that’s happened in Bushwick, Williamsburg and Greenpoint over the past couple decades, which are outside my traditional Brownstone Belt stomping ground.

Barge traffic on the Gowanus Canal and Downtown Brooklyn as seen from the Smith-9th Street subway platform

There were some listings I expected to see, including such old favorites as Sahadi, Bargemusic, the Kings Theatre, the site of Ebbets Field, the harbor view from Fairway Market in Red Hook. Like all 111 entries, each has a full page devoted to it, opposite tantalizing photos by Ed Lefkowicz.

Fish Friday at Acme Smoked Fish in Brownsville, the only day it’s open for retail sales

But so much in the book was new to me that I was forced to shed my arrogant (albeit very Brooklyn) attitude. I was impressed by the author’s hip, offbeat selections and stunned at my ignorance of the answers to such questions as:

  • Where were Woody Guthrie’s ashes tossed after he died in 1967? (The rocks near West 37th Street and the boardwalk in Sea Gate)
  • Where can you do laundry, drink beer and play pinball all at the same time? (Sunshine Laundromat in Greenpoint)
  • …take a pole dancing lesson, starting at “Level Zero”? (IncrediPOLE Studio, also in Greenpoint)
  • …buy smoked fish at wholesale prices from a company founded in 1905? (Acme Smoked Fish in Brownsville, Fridays only for retail customers)
  • …find Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s childhood home? (1584 E. 9th St., Midwood)
  • …discover what became of Lundy’s in Sheepshead Bay? (It’s now the Cherry Hill Market, with Russian and Azerbaijani specialties)
Cakes and pastries at Cherry Hill Gourmet market in Sheepshead Bay

111 Places in Brooklyn is a smartly written, nicely designed package that pays homage to places even longtime locals don’t know about. Nor does it shy from dark chapters in Brooklyn’s history, like the 1903 execution of Topsy the elephant in Coney Island and the site of the infamous 1960 Park Slope plane crash.

Black Gold, a vinyl, coffee and antique shop hybrid in Carroll Gardens

Last year, the same publisher put out 111 Places in Queens That You Must Not Miss. I was born there, so surely there can’t be much I don’t know.

Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples, with a Pit Stop in Noto

Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples is the most amazing place you’ve never heard of. At least I had never heard of it, until I began planning a trip to Sicily a few months back.

Turns out Sicily’s south coast has an ancient Greek temple complex said to be the most outstanding outside the Acropolis in Athens (and unlike the Acropolis, it has the advantage of feeling undiscovered).

But first came Noto, above, a half hour from Syracuse, a hill town of quiet (except for the church bells) Baroque beauty. For lack of time, we breezed in and out. Noto had to stand in for Modica and Ragusa, which are surely worth extended visits as well. Can’t do it all, I kept telling myself.

Noto’s long, elegant promenade, the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, is centered on — guess what? — a grand and glorious Duomo, built or re-built, as were all the towns in the southeastern corner of Sicily, in the early 18th century following a devastating earthquake in the 1690s.

An hour’s stroll through Noto’s relatively un-touristed streets, a pistachio/almond granita in a café, a peek into a few of the town’s fifty antique churches, which were more restrained on the inside than their intricate stonework façades would suggest, and we were on our way again.

Choosing (blind) one of several routes suggested by the GPS, we ended up taking a three-hour drive to Agrigento, which encompassed everything from ugly urbanity (Gela, an industrial port) to heart-stopping beauty, deep in the countryside. There were fields of wildflowers, infinite sea views and agriculture on a grand scale — greenhouses filled with tomato plants, olive orchards, wine grapes reaching over the hills into the distance.

We arrived after dark at the Villa Goethe, below, in Agrigento’s historic center. The B&B is so named because the German poet actually stayed in the building in the 18th century as a guest of the then-owner, a baron.

Though the old town has a bunch of highly rated restaurants one can’t possibly sample in a two-night stay, Agrigento draws visitors mostly for those 5th century B.C. temples, seven of them in total. Each was dedicated to a different god or goddess, not all known, but Zeus, Heracles and Juno (or Hera) were among them.

The temples are strung out along a mile-long walking path, interspersed with 500-year-old olive trees. They are in varying states of preservation, from barely to incredible. All have now been stabilized, a feat made possible in recent years with the help of EU funding. Needless to say, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Visitors are now able to scramble over most of the ruins, without a guard in sight, though not over the Temple of Concordia, the least ruined of them, above, which vies with Athens’ Parthenon in terms of preservation, scale and grandeur.

The bronze sculpture, below, depicting the fallen Icarus is a monumental contemporary work.

The Agrigento temples were built of an ochre-colored, locally quarried limestone, not the white marble of the Parthenon. Otherwise, they’re architecturally similar.

A couple of the temples are little more than fallen stones against the perfect Mediterranean sky, overrun in Sicily’s full-on spring with wildflowers of purple and yellow, rosemary and other fragrant herbs.

The Temple of Zeus was the largest of them, once held up by telamon, or figures that are the male equivalent of the caryatids of the Acropolis. One — at least 30 feet high — remains at the site, below, lying horizontal on the ground.

Another is displayed at Agrigento’s extraordinary archaeological museum, an absolute must to round out an understanding of the temple sites and the culture that produced them.

The museum has a vast collection of Greek Attic pottery from the area that the Met must surely covet. The scenes on the red-and-black vases, exquisitely etched and painted (and signed, often by both painter and potter) offer a trove of detailed information about life in that era.

If all that’s not enough, the Valley of the Temples also contains a sunken garden of some 12 acres called Kolymbethra, below. It’s set in a deep pool, dug by Carthiginian prisoners of war in the 5th century BC, but later filled in and used for agriculture.

It’s now an Edenic citrus grove where we gorged once again on stolen fruit, from bitter citrons tasted and quickly thrown away to the sweetest blood tangerines.

Rarely have I been so reluctant to end a vacation. A final day of roaming in Rome, mostly camera-free, was a nice and necessary buffer. We stayed at the faded grand dame Hotel Quirinale, enjoying its vintage cage elevator and Negronis in a 1950s ballroom-turned-guest-lounge.

We wandered the streets, checking on the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona and other greatest hits, just to make sure they were still there (they were, and crawling with tourists). One highlight: an outdoor lunch of pasta with cheese, pepper and truffles at La Maretta, a restaurant in the Regola neighborhood where most of the patrons were actually speaking Italian.

My Kind of Place: Syracuse’s Ortygia Island

I’ve found a spot I could make my base for a period of time some winter, when I’m not rushing through Sicily as fast as I can in the time allotted: it’s the island of Ortygia, a labyrinthine medieval quarter connected to the city of Syracuse by two or three short bridges.

I can see myself settling in for a spell and enjoying many a cup of espresso on its sun-splashed cinematic piazzas; taking walks along the embankment overlooking the calm, circular harbor on one side of the island and being lashed by serious winds off the Ionian Sea on the other.

Maybe I’ll read some Homer, take the sun on a bench overlooking the papyrus garden known as the Fount of Arethusa, buy fresh fish in the market alongside the remnants of the 6th century B.C. Temple of Apollo, above, whose remaining segments of fluted columns just sort of sit there, with no fanfare, in a commercial part of town.

I’ll cook up that fish (and pasta al dente, natch, with tiny clams, shrimp and chopped pistachios in a light tomato sauce) in a rented pied à terre with a roof terrace, do some hand washing and hang it out to dry in about five minutes on that roof terrace, swan around in the linen tunics and beaded jewelry they sell in the chic shops on Via Roma, chat with the artisans working in wood and leather in the rear of their shops, enjoy interesting conversations with people from exotic places like Tunisia and Cambodia, and spend time in one of Europe’s great public spaces, the searingly white, uncrowded Piazza Duomo.

If I lived in Ortygia, I might not pay 2 euros to peek into the duomo, one of the largest in Sicily, with a Baroque facade but built on the site of an ancient Greek temple, whose Doric columns were repurposed along both sides of the nave and are still visible inside and out.

If I lived in Ortygia, I might not visit the archaeological park just outside of town any more than New Yorkers visit the Statue of Liberty, but as visitors we surely did — first the well-preserved Greek theatre of 2,500 years ago, below, and then the Roman amphitheatre of half a millennium later, along with the nearby quarries from which the limestone to build them came.

Mulling over how, at the Greek theatre, acoustically perfect though built for 15,000 people, Aeschylus’s plays were staged (his “Women of Aetna” premiered there in 467 B .C.), while at the Roman theatre, animals and men mauled each other in a pit for the amusement of the citizens, I began to be convinced I preferred the Greeks.

Ortygia worked its way into my heart all the more when I remembered reading that there is a mikvah (Jewish ritual bath) there, pre-dating the expulsion of the Jews from Sicily at the beginning of the 16th century, and that one-quarter of the population of Ortygia was once Jewish and that several streets — among the narrowest and most picturesque of them — were the Jewish quarter, still labeled as such today.

“Second alley of the Jews”

We walked to the address at which the mikvah was located and were met by a young woman who led us down about fifty feet of dark, dank stone steps to a vaulted, columned room, where four small pools are still filled with spring water and there’s a Hebrew inscription on the wall.

Even without the mikvah (“miqwe” in Italian), Ortygia is my kind of place. I left there feeling: not for the last time.