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IT’S BEEN CALLED the ‘crown jewel’ of New York City’s public gardens: see why. The plantings at the Conservatory Garden at Fifth Avenue and 105th Street — different every year — are exuberant. Their unrestrained color combos feel like the tropics; the attention to textural variation makes nearly every spot an arresting visual. High summer is the time to go, though this garden — made up largely of annual plantings, with a backbone of hedges and perennials playing a supporting role — will be fabulous through frost. Combine with a visit to the Folk City and Paul Rand exhibitions at the Museum of the City of New York across the street for an ideal midsummer outing.
THE MONTH OF LONGEST DAYS is drawing to a close, and I feel compelled to celebrate it with a blog post before it fleets by. The alliums, lush purple just two weeks ago, are already browned on their stalks. Those are not my alliums, above, though I have a few, or my lily pool; they are attached to an East Hampton oceanfront estate I toured as part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program on June 21.
Young men in straw hats were stationed to direct mortals like myself through this sensational south-of-the-highway estate, pointing the way to wildflower meadow, cottage garden, woodland walk, vegetable garden, parterre and croquet green (pool and tennis court go without saying). Have a small look:
It was a month of yoga on the beach, lobster in Montauk, sunsets from the jetty, and the humble satisfactions of my own half-acre compound shaping up (as I type, two men are working by night to finish the transformation of shed to guest cottage; photos to follow).
I introduced two friends to one of the oddest and most photogenic places I know of on the East End: Multi Aquaculture Systems, an Amagansett fish farm, below, the last on Long Island. Besides tanks of striped bass and other fish, it has ducks and dogs and a cafe selling Provencal pottery and picturesque decaying buildings and wildflowers in abundance by the bay.
I swam a couple of times at my local beach, below. It was exhilarating, and that’s how I know it’s really summer.
LAST MONTH’S ‘OLD STONE STROLL’ in Springs (East Hampton), Long Island, to benefit the renovation of tiny, unassuming 1881 St. Peter’s Church, below, was a revelation to me, even though I’ve had a home here for six years now. The self-guided tour of eight gardens, all located along what was once an unpaved road called the Springs-Amagansett Turnpike and is now Old Stone Highway, reminded me of the hamlet’s artistry and celebrity — not least because Springs’ best-known resident was abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, who inspired a wave of artists moving to the area in the 1950s and ’60s.
One of the properties on the tour (the most modest of them) was musician/performance artist Laurie Anderson’s; she was outside planting vegetables and chatting with visitors. Another was the 18th century farmhouse of the late sculptor Constantino Nivola, one of whose house guests painted a mural on the dining room wall (the guest happened to be the monumentally important architect Le Corbusier, and it’s the only Corbu mural in the U.S.). A couple were places I’d already been wowed by on Garden Conservancy Open Days; you can see one of them here.
Everywhere, it seemed, there were vignettes of great charm, even (perhaps especially) where gardens were not manicured to a fault.
Below, the home of Charles Savage, who has put together three properties over a couple of acres with garden room after garden room, including arbors, statues, urns, a stone courtyard, etc. But I liked the backwoods “hills and dales” areas the best, and the driveway/breezeway. Why don’t more people do that? It’s like a picture frame for your backyard.
Below and top, a glimpse of the 7-acre estate of handbag designer Judith Leiber and her husband Gus , a painter.
Below, the onetime home of Constantino and Ruth Nivola. He was a sculptor known for his sand-casting technique; she made Etruscan-style jewelry in a little wisteria-covered cottage on the grounds. We peeked in the windows of the house (which was not open to the public) for a view of the Corbu mural. Wouldn’t I like one of those in my place…
Finally (for purposes of this blog post), the most evocative spot at “The Landing,” below, a 12-acre property on Accabonac Harbor owned by a member of the Bacardi rum family.
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.
HOW DID I END UP IN MENTON, France, of all possible places I could have roosted for two unplanned nights between Nice and Milan? It was a default decision, but I’m not sorry. Candy-colored Menton was a treat.
My original thoughts were Lyon, France, or Turin, Italy; either could have kept me busy for two days. But friends said they found Turin ‘boring,’ and the weather had finally turned good in the South of France (sunny and 60). I wasn’t ready to leave the coast. And I was curious to see whether Menton still resembles the town in the vintage hand-colored souvenir photo I have on my dining room wall back in Brooklyn. (It does.)
So I made a reservation at the Hotel Napoléon, below (the kind of design-y boutique hotel I wasn’t able to find in Nice), took a half-hour train ride from Nice Thursday morning, and got off in this small city in France’s southeastern-most corner, practically on the Italian border.
At the corner of the block, next to the hotel, below, a 16th century chapel remains.
Menton has a uniquely warm microclimate and therefore an abundance of famous gardens, many open to the public. “Are you doing all the gardens?” a British traveler asked me at the exotic botanical garden Val Rahmeh, part of France’s National Museum of Natural History, as I followed numbered signs from bamboo glade to lemon grove. It was a logical question. The garden-visit options in and around Menton number about a dozen, including Serre de la Madone, an English garden transported to the Cote d’Azur by Lawrence Johnson (of Hidcote fame), and Hanbury, a 22-acre garden in nearby Ventimiglia, Italy, that would have required a day I didn’t have. Anyway, I adored Val Rahmeh. Below, a taste of what there is to see.
High on my list for Menton was the Jean Cocteau Museum, opened in 2011, and the Salle des Mariages (marriage chamber) at the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall), below, whose walls and ceilings Cocteau exuberantly decorated in 1958. The multi-disciplinary artist loved the city, and I love the graphics, expressiveness and originality of his drawings and his campy films, on loop at the museum.
As soon as I got to my room at the Napoléon, below, I decided to linger for two whole nights in Menton. Built in 1962 and renovated to a high standard with a modern-art theme, the hotel had heretofore unimagined luxuries like a rain head walk-in shower, free water and juices in the minibar, a swimming pool I didn’t use, my own miniscule balcony with a sideways sea view, three separate passwords for my three devices, a room safe that actually fit a laptop, a TV with 6 or 8 English-language channels I didn’t watch, and room service (this was the first hotel I’ve been in with a real bar and restaurant downstairs). Although the place looks like it could be in South Beach and should be populated with beautiful young people, most of the hotel’s guests were part of an elderly British tour group.
My one disappointment in Menton, and the South of France in general, has been the food. I’ve slacked on restaurant research and have just taken my chances. My big meal of the day has been a casual lunch at an outdoor café or creperie. So I’m leaving France with just one great food memory: the late-night fish meal in the bar at Collioure. I can’t believe I didn’t have a good salad Niçoise in Nice!
Menton was restful, though somehow I clocked 14,000 steps (approximately 7 miles) on my iPhone’s pedometer each day. Today, my feet get a break. I’m on a high-speed train to Milan (just under four hours) as I write this, sharing a 1st class compartment with five Italian women, four of a certain age buried in newspapers or tabloid magazines, and one young thing with closed eyes and earbuds.
The day is gray, the scenery so far uninspiring. It seems that many of Europe’s high-speed trains run on newly-built track that goes through industrial areas; I’ve seen a fair number of warehouses, electrical towers, and smoke-belching factories. I’m planning to do at least one post on European train stations and the experience of rail travel in Europe, but I’ll say just this for now: the efficiency is stupendous, but the romance is gone.