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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Senza Glutine-- Eating Gluten-Free In Tuscany Is Easier Than In The U.S.

Da Delfina terrace with the 1596 Medici pad in the background

I just got back from about a month in Tuscany. Some old friends and I rented a beautiful old villa outside a small town in the Chianti region of northern Tuscany, just southwest of Florence. I ate every day-- and that included a lot of pasta and some pizza-- and never had to worry about gluten, which my doctor told me to avoid.

I have four favorite Italian restaurants here in L.A.-- BellaRiva, Angelini Osteria, Osteria Mozza, all in the Hollywood area, and Piccolo in Venice-- and I wouldn't even think to ask them for gluten-free anything. Although... I'm about to start. It's perfectly natural in Italy, where, apparently, Celiac is a well-understood disease. Health food stores, like the well-stocked NaturaSi in Florence (4 outlets), normal run-of-the-mill grocery stores (like the Coops everywhere) and pharmacies, all carry gluten-free food-- and lots of it. So cooking back at the villa was no problem.

But it's Tuscany. I was there to eat the most refined and deicious cuisine in the world. And I never had a problem with that it. Montespertoli is a tiny town you won't find on many maps. You don't even find the roads that go to it on any maps. But the one of the pizzeria's just off the main square Garby's, with dozens of different kinds of pizza on their menu, was always happy to make a pizza senza glutine. Down the road from the villa in the other direction, there was a big restaurant, Lo Spigo in Montelupo Fiorentino has a page on their menu with gluten-free dishes, but basically they'll make you anything you want in a gluten-free way, including every kind of pasta (except ravioli and lasagne) and every kind of pizza.

When I first got to town I called on a friend of mine who's been living in Tuscany for 8 years, American-born film-maker Frank LaLoggia (Lady In White, Fear No Evil). He suggested we go to a place owned by a friend of his, Paolo, in Lucardo, 10 minutes from Montespertoli and halfway between our villa and his house down a dirt road in San Casiano-- Ristorante C'era Una Volta in Lucardo. Not only did Paolo offer to make me any pasta I wanted senza glutine, he even served me gluten free bread while my friends ate the house bread. I might mention that the food is amazing and the view from the terrace is spectacular and that I ate there half a dozen times afterwards. Just down the road a piece is a turn-off on via Lucignano which leads to a not easy to find farm house that doubles-- if you make a reservation-- as a vegan restaurant, La Fonte. It's not specifically gluten-free-- more organic and macrobiotic-- but they know how to do it and do it well.

And that brings us to the world renowned Tuscan destination restaurants-- and, yes, they take care of their gluten-free guests as well. The first day I arrived in Italy I didn't go to the villa but stayed to see some friends honeymooning in Florence. We had dinner at one of the best restaurants in town, Ristorante Cibrèo. It was my first meal of the trip and I was taken aback when I asked the waiter if he could serve gluten-free pasta. He got all huffy-- but, as it turned out, not over the gluten-free part. In all their long history (Etruscan times?) they have never ever served pasta. OK, once we got over that, I sat back and had a superb meal. The menu, which changes constantly, is scrawled in Italian by hand but the waiter sits down and explains every dish on it to you. There were a dozen things I wanted to order and I barely remember what I wound up picking but everything was delicious and had I ever worked up the courage to brave Florence's bizarre traffic again, I would have certainly gone back again.

The only other restaurant in a city I ate in was Siena's wonderful Osteria le Logge, just off the Campo, the city's famed main square. Everything was delicious and although gluten-free wasn't their thing, they were able to easily accommodate my request. I went with a bunch of friends and we ordered tons of food, all of it delicious, well-prepared and shockingly inexpensive. All the other restaurants were in the countryside and-- warning-- they all require reservations. They also require a car and a lot of directional savvy to locate and get to.

In the small cluster of buildings in the middle of nowhere called Artimino, near a small town called Carmignano just west of Florence is a Tuscan classic, Da Delfina. The terrace overlooks a gorgeous bucolic scene that happens to include an amazing Medici villa built in 1596. As one reviewer put it, "Comfort is the keyword: you come here for an elegant take on mamma's home cooking, served on crisply laid tables by impeccable, bow-tied waiters." I had called ahead and told them I didn't eat gluten and they were prepared. One of the reasons-- there are several-- that I keep going back to RivaBella in L.A. is because of their unqiue take on eggplant parmigiana, which the L.A. Times described as "a luscious eggplant timbale in a light Parmesan cream" and I'm hooked. But wasn't I shocked to find the identical preparation at Delfina, only twice the portion size and a little more... let's say relaxed. I wouldn't call the restaurant inexpensive but it's far from expensive. They don't accept credit cards.

Another restaurant that stands out as especially delicious and also pretty much in the middle of nowhere was La Locanda di Pietracupa on the side of the "main road" into San Donato in Poggio. That's where we had our goodbye dinner when my friends from Amsterdam and Arizona were leaving for home. All send-offs should be that delicious! Again, I called ahead with the senza glutine request and they were solicitous and ready to serve! I had the amazing pasta dish with a light sauce made of beets and gorgonzola. It doesn't sound that good but, man, would I like to be eating there again tonight! They even had gluten-free bread for me!

I should also add that all the restaurants are especially proud of their olive oils and balsamics, and they should be. In fact the only souvenirs I brought home were bottles of local olive oil!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

You Can Still Enjoy Milos' Beaches, The Discos On Mykonos And Yummy Food on Crete... Before Greece Starts Herding People Into Concentration Camps

For the food, the prices, the diversity and the friendless and honesty of the people, I always preferred Turkey over Greece. I visited both for the first time in 1969 and I've back many times since although, admittedly, more frequently to Turkey. But, now with the violent, neo-Nazi New Dawn party making it unsafe to walk the streets of Athens, Greece isn't a place for American tourists. Xenophobia there is on the rise-- and Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King would feel very comfortable:
"These parasites drink our water, eat our food and breathe our Greek air," Alekos Plomaritis, who was a Golden Dawn candidate running for office at the time, says in Greek, translated into English, in Georgousis' film. "They are primitive, miasmas and subhuman. We don't care about their existence. We are ready to open the ovens. We will turn them into soap, but we may get a rash."
Jews are especially in danger if they go to Greece since the Golden Dawn thugs-- both in Parliament and on the streets-- are outspoken and overt in their virulent anti-semiticsm. Last month the World Jewish Congress warned Jews about the dangerous situation in Greece posed by Golden Dawn.

Are Jews still welcome in Greece?

CNN, though, feels the Greek islands are safe enough to suggest tourists go and enough themselves on one. This week, they asked Which Greek island should you go to? Personally, the only one I ever really liked was Corfu in the extreme northwest off the coast of Albania and far from the luxurious and over-touristed islands in the Aegean Sea favored by Americans. I found Rhodes, Chios and Kos, all off the coast of Turkey, unfriendly and a waste of time in comparison to Turkey itself. And places like Mykonos and Santorini... well, Club Med has never been my idea of a holiday. But it is most peoples'. 230 of Greece's 1,400 islands are inhabited and CNN has some suggestions. "For sheer variety in a small radius," they write, "proximity to Athens' ferry port at Piraeus and the best inter-island boat connections, none compete with the Cyclades. For best scenery, they suggest Santorini.
The story behind this island is the stuff of legends -- in 1600 BC after a volcano erupted and its center collapsed into the sea, it left behind parts of its caldera that today form the island Santorini.

The views from pretty much anywhere on this crescent-shaped outcrop are superb.

Sheer rock faces are striated in multitudinous shades, villages and towns cling to the tops of cliffs, the caldera is filled with clear deep turquoise water home to the visiting cruise liners.

The whitewashed buildings in the main town Fira resemble a fresh blanket of snow atop a mountain.

On the northern tip, at Oia, where the sunsets are outstanding, houses, hotels and churches tumble down the rock walls. Every evening bus loads of tourists descend to watch the sun sink into the Aegean.

The scenery is as just impressive at sea level. Red Beach, as the name suggests, has a rust-colored backdrop and Mars-esque boulders, Eros Beach's eerie hoodoo-like walls would fit right in at a national park in Utah, and Caldera Beach, the only one that faces in toward the caldera, gives visitors a discernible sense of the volcano's immensity.

Where to stay: Vedema, in the village of Megalochori, doesn't have a caldera view, but its setting in a small village feels authentic (the town square and village church are a one-minute walk away).

The 45 rooms have views of the village homes or the surrounding rolling vineyards.

If a vista of the caldera is key, check in to sister property Mystique. Set in Oia, it has a secret wine cellar, and its 22 cave-style rooms are terraced into the cliff face, providing that classic Santorini experience.

Best nightlife: Mykonos

Mykonos is Greece's answer to Ibiza, but without the attitude and posturing.

Either side of the summer season Mykonos resembles another low-key beach destination but come July and August, night owls arrive in droves, and the main streets of Mykonos Town are packed with revelers-- even revelers with babies strapped into carriers.

At times the narrow alleys are so jammed with bodies the only way to move is en masse with the crowd as it sways through the streets in a singular motion.

In true Greek style, nothing here starts until late, though you can party in the daytime with 20-something Italians at Super Paradise beach.

A popular start is to have drinks at sunset at the Sea Breeze Cocktail Bar in Little Venice, snagging a table up the steps for the best views.

Across the island at Kalo Livadi you can find an unfussy beach where the new Nice n Easy bio-restaurant has fantastic organic fare at reasonable prices (the pasta with sharp kopanisti cheese is excellent).

Back in town, Jackie O' is a lively waterfront bar that draws the gay crowd, Agyra Bar has attractive, hard-bodied staff from Athens and at the always packed Rock 'n' Roll, where local and tourists are evenly split, the bartender blows a whistle before doling out oxygen shots.

My personal favorite is the bar/club Caprice, where all are united in their mission to just have fun, no judgments, no agenda; the barmen are as much into the music and dancing as the customers (they'll readily pour free shots of jelly liqueur).

Tip: At Caprice, many a first-timer falls into the area where the bar stools are, set one step down from the rest of the floor, so tread carefully.

Where to stay: Hotel Kivotos, on Ornos Bay, is removed from the hubbub, set on a hill with steps down to a peaceful rocky beach, and is an ideal refuge to refuel and recharge.

The cool rooms have clear Lucite chairs, LED lights in the floors (sounds tacky, but looks appropriately festive), a pool with a small circular bar, and most importantly, an energetic, attractive young staff that will give you the scoop on the best night spots.

Best traditional village life: Naxos

The largest island in the Cyclades has a string of swoon-worthy beaches on its west coast, a Venetian castle in its main town, some interesting ruins and great local produce and dairy.

But what sets it apart from the other islands are its traditional villages.

When you leave Chora, where the ferries berth, the pull of village life is evident-- note the sign at the outskirts of town that simply reads "Villages."

There are 46 of them on Naxos, some miniscule, but all a window into traditional life. Each has a bakery or cafe, a village square where old men with sun-creased faces sit around on tables drinking coffee and trading stories and an immaculately preserved church or two.

The hamlets are tucked among the hills and the switchback road that crisscrosses the island.

Kinidaros is famous for its bakery (the best on the island, the oven fired by wood) and musicians; Chalki has the excellent artisanal jam shop Era; locals come to the cobble-stoned streets of Apeiranthos to eat the crepes at Samardako; Keramoti sits in a valley, seemingly cut off from civilization, but it's also the base for hikes to Routsouna waterfall.

Since most tourists don't venture inland, the villages haven't succumbed to money-grabbing gimmicks.

Where to stay: Set away from the coast, Naxian Collection has good views of Chora, a handful of typical Cycladic white cubist villas with private pools, an on-site organic garden with fresh strawberries and breakfasts large enough to keep you going all day.

The likeable owner Ioannis Margaritis was born and raised on the island, so he knows everything about, and everyone on, Naxos-- literally. If you're lucky, he'll take you to a barbecue at his friend's house in one of the villages.

Best kiteboarding and windsurfing: Paros

The constant wind on Paros is evident as the ferry approaches the island-- you can see giant turbine fans steadily cartwheeling on the north coast.

While Paros might be as cosmopolitan at Mykonos (without the Louis Vuitton and Diesel stores) and pretty enough to attract Hollywood royalty (Tom Hanks purchased a house in the neighborhood, on sister island Andiparos), the real draw here is the force of nature.

During the summer, the Meltemi winds blaze down through the Aegean, supplying welcome breezes for beachgoers, but also creating conditions ripe for windsurfing and kiteboarding.

The winds peak in intensity during July and August; the five-mile channel that divides Paros from its neighbor Naxos funnels the Meltemi to glorious effect.

The main beaches for the sports are Pounda on the west of the island and Santa Maria, Golden Beach (Chryssi Akti), and New Golden Beach (Nea Chryssi Akti) on the east (New Golden Beach's winds are so reliable that The Professional Windsurfers Association held its World Cup there for six consecutive years in the 1990s).

For newbies, mornings are the best time to learn, when the wind is steady but tame. By early afternoon, when the gusts pick up and continue till dusk, pro boarders and windsurfers skim and bounce along the water.

Established operators include Paros Kite Pro Center, Force 7 Paros, and Paros Surf Club.

Visitors should time their visit around the island's most important festivity, on August 15, celebrating the Virgin Mary's ascension to heaven and culminating in a giant fireworks display mounted on boats in the bay of the port town Parikia.

Where to stay: Poseidon of Paros mixes whitewashed Cycladic architecture with flagstone walls, and is strategically poised between Golden and New Golden beaches (you'll see windsurfers shredding the water during afternoon drinks). The place also does a steady business with weddings.

Best beaches: Milos

Every islander has their favorite beach, but none of the Cyclades promises the number and diversity of beaches as volcanic Milos.

Some have white sand, some black, some are rocky, others offer the satisfying sensation of crushed shells underfoot, with water ranging from emerald to aquamarine to cobalt blue.

With a heavily indented coastline (on a map Milos resembles a mutated crab) and pretty little coves at every turn, Milos has about 80 fine beaches, many only accessible by boat.

While each has its charm, some should not be missed.

Sarakiniko, a beach of brilliant white pumice, looks truly otherworldly (many liken it to the moon).

The three beaches of Paliochori are cupped by towering rock formations, its pebbles are multicolored and the sea water has warm pockets where it's fed by hot underwater mineral springs.

The small Tzigrado beach is flanked by headlands, and can only be accessed by boat or by a ladder down the cliffs.

A cave borders the even tinier Papafragas beach, while the rock walls that enclose it give the water the appearance of a river starting in the sand.

At Paliorema beach you can wander around an abandoned sulfur mine plant, see the wagons used to transport the chemical and look for sulfur crystals growing among the rocks.

Where to stay: Since visitors will likely camp down at a different beach every day, it makes sense to stay close to the main port of Adamas where taxis and boats are easy to organize.

Villa Notos has simple rooms in Cycladic colors of blue and white (some have terraces), Greek-made Korres toiletries, pretty views of Adamas Bay and is within walking distance of the town's restaurants.

Best for nature lovers: Ikaria

This rugged, wing-shaped island on the cusp of the Cyclades and named for Icarus -- the son of Daedalus who fled from Crete, got too close to the sun and tumbled into the sea just offshore -- has gained fame for the longevity of its residents.

Their diet, strong community and daily exercise mean Ikarian men are four times as likely as American men to reach the age of 90, according to a study by the University of Athens Medical School.

The 99-square mile island is basically one large mountain, peaking in the central Pramnos-Atheras range. For such a small area, the geographic variation is astounding-- Ikaria has rivers and tiny lakes, high forests of pine and oak, and hills at every turn that combine to make Ikaria an Elysian Field for outdoor buffs.

Ikaria's network of mountain paths known as monopatia is an informal web of routes that connects villages. The hiking guide "Round of Rahes on Foot," published by the local municipalities, details tracks and trails on the west of the island and also maps out a 15-mile tour along monopatia through the hills and villages of northwest Ikaria.

The trek brings hikers through farmland, bush, forest, past lakes, along donkey tracks, skirting goat herds and introduces visitors to the unhurried pace and uncomplicated nature of Ikarian life (this is an island where bakeries use the honor system).

After a hard day of tramping, trekkers can rejuvenate aching muscles at the mineral bath houses of Therma (whose waters, according to the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, have the highest concentration of the therapeutic element radon in Greece), or look for the steam rising from various spots around the coast like Lefkada, where heated water emits and joins the Aegean.

Where to stay: Fittingly Villa Dimitri has studio rooms and apartments terraced into a hillside near Armenitis, the steps an ideal preparation for the walks and inclines ahead. Whitewashed rooms have private terraces and views of the Aegean.

Best Robinson Crusoe destination: Koufonisia

Actually two islands, Kato and Ano (meaning lower and upper) Koufonisia, with the former almost uninhabited, are like a land that tourism forgot, mainly because the quickest ferry from Athens takes six hours.

Home to only a few hundred residents, Ano Koufonisi is tiny, just 2.2 square miles, so walking or cycling round the island are the most efficient modes of getting about.

The main industry, apart from the creeping reach of tourism, is fishing, and the main town of Chora retains the feel of an untouched fishing village, with small boats bobbing in the harbor.

There's not a whole lot to do here, but that's the idea.

You can hire a caique (traditional wooden boat) for a trip to the nearby island of Keros, where examples of early Cycladic figurines have been carefully excavated.

Otherwise life settles into a slow rhythm of going to beaches like Finikias, Platia Pounta, Fanos and the naturist-friendly Pori, taking a caique trip to the deserted strands of sand on Kato Koufonisia, or visiting the churches of Agios Nikolaos, Profitis Ilias, and Agios Georgios.

Where to stay:

The white-on-white Aeolos Hotel is close to the port, has bright rooms with flashes of pastel color, and a decent pool ringed by stone tiles.

Best couples getaway: Folegandros

Santorini is often the go-to island for couples in these parts, but another Cycladian island where houses perch on clifftops is an even better escape for lovebirds.

The mountainous, mostly treeless Folegandros doesn't get the crowds of the islands around it thanks to sparser ferry service, a boon for twosomes in search of some solitude with their sun and sand.

The main village of the island, Chora, set on a cliff plateau 650 feet up, embodies the archetypal image of Cycladic buildings of small white houses with blue doors lining cobblestoned street.

The Kastro, the Venetian part of Chora, is well preserved while the majority of the island appears as it has for centuries, devoid of buildings in favor of open landscapes.

Donkeys remain a widely used means of transportation and goats scramble up and down the sun-baked hills. Painters and writers from Europe come to Folegandros for quiet inspiration and the most enduring memories of a visit here are the silence and the bays with crystal clear water.

The one not-to-be-missed site is the northeastern cave of Chrysopelia, where ancient names are written in clay into the walls, a custom from the Hellenistic Period.

Where to stay: In the port village of Karavostasis, Anemi Hotel has a gorgeous infinity pool and a clutch of two-story buildings with rooms that have modern furnishings and exposed wood beams. It also accepts pets.

Best food: Crete

A 90-minute high-speed catamaran ride from Santorini, Crete is Greece's Wild West, where the locals are fiercely independent and have a fondness for guns (used, I'm assured, only to shoot at street signs or into the air during festivities).

Its 3,200 square miles are blessed with scores of microclimates, fertile soil and crops that haven't succumbed to the scourge of industrial farming. Which means that the tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, strawberries, watermelon and other fruits and vegetables that grow here taste as nature intended.

The topography of central mountains ringed by shimmering coastline allows two growing seasons-- lower elevations in the winter, higher elevations in the summer-- and Crete is a hub for olive oil, cheese and wine production.

Eat at a traditional taverna (even a touristy one) or kafenio (Greek café) and you'd be hard pushed to have a bad meal because the raw ingredients are so darned good.

Elounda, on the island's northeast coast, is surrounded by some of the island's great agricultural areas, like the Lasithi plateau, has a selection of hotels for all budgets, and some excellent examples of what makes Greek mainlanders sigh when they think of the divine freshness of Crete's cuisine.

Ergospasio Restaurant, a former old stone carob factory, serves just-caught seafood overlooking Elounda harbor. The Ferryman Taverna is a local favorite, and for reason-- the mezes make great use of Crete's agricultural bounty.

Manolis Kafeneion on the main square is a great spot to share meze and raki (a fiery alcoholic drink made with grapes that locals drink after a meal) with Cretans.

Where to stay: The Blue Palace, just beyond Elounda, has spellbinding views of the Venetian-fortress-turned-leper-colony Spinalonga from its rooms, restaurants and beach. Its Blue Door restaurant does an expert job of recreating an authentic Greek taverna with flavors to match.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Urban Gadabout: Plans come together as I look out over the upper East River esplanade and later walk across 72nd Street

From the esplanade (more properly John H. Finley Walk) of Carl Schurz Park (lower left) we could look out at the lighthouse at the northern tip of Roosevelt Island, which I visited last week on an MAS walking tour, and, farther off, Astoria on the Queens shore, with the bird sanctuary of Mill Rock Park on the left and Wards Island farther off.

by Ken

It didn't quite rise to the level of the way the A Team's Col. Hannibal Smith always used to love it when a plan came together, but that's sort of how I felt last week during a Municipal Art Society walking tour on Manhattan's Upper East Side with Francis Morrone. It's sort of the reason at least some of us urban gadders gad: to make sense of the world around us.

It was in the East 70s and 80s, and all to the east of York Avenue, the north-south street that runs parallel to and east of First Avenue. As a matter of fact, I learned from Francis that York Avenue used to be called Avenue A, and the still-farther-east East End Avenue used to be called Avenue B, just the way the streets to the east of First Avenue in Manhattan's Lower East Side bulge have lettered-alphabet names, creating Alphabet City. I also learned that the name York Avenue has nothing to do with any of the other York place names in the region -- like, for example, New York -- all of which have to do with the Duke of York. No, York Avenue was so named in commemoration of Sergeant York.

The things you learn on these walks! And while I probably only remember about 10 percent, that's still 10 percent more than I knew before!

But I digress. It so happened that the tour meeting place, on a corner of York Avenue and East 76th Street, was right across the street from a branch of a health club I had gone to many, many years ago, since I was working on the East Side then, and that was the closest location. And so every day after work I made my way up there, and on weekends I traveled straight crosstown from the Upper West Side, where I lived then -- or as straight as you can travel with that big park there in the way. At the time, I recall, I had never set foot as far east in Manhattan as York Avenue. And now here was a walk on which York Avenue would be the western extreme.

We proceeded to tiny Cherokee Place, which had been in the tour description and which I'd never heard of. So I was relieved when Francis ventured that 99 percent of New Yorkers never have. And the reward was exposure to the "model tenements" there, known now as the Cherokee Apartments, which were designed according to health objectives involving maximum light and air, and therefore even (or especially!) now have amounts of light and air that are generally unknown now in even the most expensive Manhattan apartments. Francis described the apartments as having "almost too much light," and I remembered that I had once looked at an apartment up the block, on East 78th Street, in the City and Suburban buildings, also model tenements. It was a sixth-floor walkup, and the rooms were tiny, but I remember looking out the south-facing windows, where the 59th Street Bridge seemed almost within reaching distance, and the sun streaming in was almost blinding.

We made our way up to 79th Street and then farther north and east, and eventually we mounted the East River promenade known officially as the John H. Finley Walk. (Naturally Francis made sure we knew who John H. Finley was.) And looking out over the river the first thing I saw was the norhtern tip of two-mile-long Roosevelt Island, which sits in the River between Manhattan and Queens from roughly 46th to 86th Street, and which I had just walked the weekend before on the second of two MAS Roosevelt Island walks, this one the "northern route" -- up to the lighthouse at the northern tip, or almost. We learned from tour leader Judith Berdy, president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, that because of Superstorm Sandy damage, which was considerable on the low-lying island, you can't get to the lighthouse, which is actually on a little island of its own, and the two little bridges that connect it had washed out, with their repair still trapped in an administrative boondoggle.

Beyond Roosevelt Island, in clear view was the Queens shore of Astoria, with the inlet where Jack Eichenbaum had explained -- on a walk up the Queens shoreline that I've done twice with him -- that this is the southernmost point in Queens where a ferry was possible, for the obvious reason that Roosevelt Avenue blocks the way farther south. (Also, Jack pointed out, at the time when ferries beetween Manhattan and Brooklyn were becoming so important to commerce and development, there was nothing that far north on the Manhattan side worth ferrying to or from.)

Off to the left was notorious Hell Gate, the infamous strait between Astoria and the now-combined Wards Island and Randall's Island, which are traversed by the Triborough now (RFK) Bridge that joins Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx (with the Hell Gate Bridge, a railroad crossing, just visible in the distance. Closer to us in the direction of Wards Island was little Mill Rock Island, now a city park, notably chiefly as a habitat for wildlife, which as it happened I'd had a chance to view close-up just a few weeks earlier on a New York Water Taxi EcoCruise up the East River beyond Wards and Randall's to and around the now-abandoned North Brother and privately owned South Brother Islands. (The captain took us on a different side of Roosevelt Avenue on the northward and southward legs of the trip, so we saw both sides of the river.) And come to think of it, just a few months before, I'd done my most recent circumnavigation of Manhattan, chugging north past the very point where I was standing, on up the Manhattan shoreline into the Harlem River.

As I say, it wasn't really planned, this confluence of al those gadding experiences, but in a sense it was, because each of those trips had been undertaken as part of my ongoing project, as a life-long map obsessive, to (finally) get some real-world images and tread some real-world turf to bring those maps to life. After we finished that walk last week, seeing the higlights of Carl Schurz Park, which contains within it the NYC mayoral residence, Gracie Mansion, which is separately administered (and for which I must make a note to schedule one of the tours offered there, which Francis says are extremely good, especially while there's no mayor in residence, the current officeholder being our first mayor for whom residence in Gracie Mansion would have been a step downward), I circled back to Finley Walk and just sat for a while, on that picture-perfect late Sunday afternoon, just enjoying the view, and enjoying how all those pieces had come together for me.


Then yesterday another MAS tour group assembled at Park Avenue and East 72nd Street for a walk that Matt Postal explained he had led once, seven years ago, and not since. The idea of simply walking across 72nd Street, including walking through Central Park, all the way to Riveside Drive at the Hudson River, sounded intriguing enough. Little did I know, though, how strong a role 72nd Street, which barely existed at the time that Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead had had for it when they were conceiving their plan for Central Park in the 1850s. In reality, of course, 72nd Street is only maybe a quarter of the up the north-south length of the park, but from the start it had the feel of a sort of "central" east-west axis, which is how Vaux and Olmstead conceived it, with vehicular entrances (tough the vehicles they envisioned would all have been horse-drawn) on both the east and west sides of the park, which laid the way for the development of both the East and West Sides relative to the park.

But that's not all. At the far end of West 72nd Street, Matt pointed out, lies the start of Riverside Park, and he explained that Vaux and Olmstead had always thought of 72nd Street as a connecting boulevard between the two great parks -- and Riverside linking to a network of parks to the north and circling around to the parks along the rift fronted by Saint Nicholas Avenue in Northern Manhattan and then . . . back to Central Park! And suddenly a whole new vista, a whole new way of thinking about all that park space, opened up to me. Along the way, both out of Central Park and in, Matt pointed out a selection of the kinds of things he normally does, and though I lived on West 75th Street for more than 20 years, I saw things in my old neighborhood that I'd never been aware of. We finished up at the Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial at the foot of Riverside Park, at 72nd Street and Riverside Drive. Matt pointed out -- obvious enough, once you've had it pointed out -- that the statue of Eleanor sits directly on the ground, without a pedestal, and it's remarkable what a powerful humanizing effect that "no pedestal" feature has.

Naturally we were well entertained along the way, on both Francis's East Side walk last week and on Matt's 72nd Street walk this week. That you can count on with them, along with counting on learning all sorts of stuff you wanted to know and even more stuff you didn't know enough to know you wanted to know. I try to make sure that all the tour leaders I especially value hear periodically how grateful I am for what the do. I worry that it's not often enough.


The schedule for September, October, and November is up now on the Tours page at On my first pass, I found something like 29 tours I hoped I might be able to do. There should be lots of stuff for all tastes on the schedule, and at $15 for members, $20 for nonmembers, they're still an amazing value. If you see something you know you want to do, it's a good idea to register sooner rather than later.


A few weeks ago Francis and his co-author, Robin Lynn (a former MAS director of tours), were guests of honor at a public book-launch party held in the beautiful Historical Chapel at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. (The chapel was designed by Warren and Wetmore, whose credits include Grand Central Terminal.) The book (pictured above) is Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes, and in recent times Francis has been doing a lot of MAS tours on the subject, and insisting that it's revitalized and exploding urban landscapes are now becoming perhaps the city's defining feature in the outer world.

The Green-Wood people had in fact provided important support for the book, for the obvious reason that when it comes to New York City urban landscapes, Green-Wood stands at the beginning of time. In the city's early history, cemeteries provided a lot of residents with their only opportunity for "getaways," and often involved a day trip with picnic lunch, with or without a dead relative to visit. A carefully fabricated reinvention of a selection of natural environments was the basis for the design of Green-Wood (which sits astride a portion of the terminal moraine in Brooklyn, with what must have been -- in pre-development times -- spectacular views of the harbor), and it clearly served as a starting point for Vaux and Olmstead's designs for the city's first great parks, Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

Francis did a terrific presentation tracing four stages in the evolution of the city's thinking about urban landscapes, with new thinking about parks and the way they should or shouldn't relate to their surroundings replacing older ways of thinking in cycles. It occurred to me that you can build fine parks according to any of these philosophies, and also not-so-fine parks. For all sorts of reasons you couldn't build Central Park or Prospect Park today, but is it possible to imagine the city without either of those magnificent spaces? Happily they're both in better shape now than they've probably ever been.

As for Matt Postal, it happened that when I was ordering Robin and Francis's book, and looking for something lift my order into the "free shipping" zone, I noticed a book I'd somehow never been aware of, a 2009 MAS-instigated book called 10 Architectural Walks in Manhattan, half by Francis and half by Matt. I don't know how I managed not to know about it, but I'm having a lot of fun with it now. It's great for parts of Manhattan that I have walked with them (among other reasons to fill in some of the 90 percent I've forgotten) and also for areas I haven't. There is, for example, a block of lower Greenwich Street that I walk through almost every morning coming out of the Rector Street IRT station, which was once the heart of the young New York City's most fashionable residential district. With the incision for the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel this stretch of Greenwich Street has become a sort of wilderness. I learned a lot about it from Joe Svehlak's MAS tour of "Manhattan's Lower West Side," and even more from the portion of one of Francis's walks that covers these blocks.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Still Not Time For A Vacation In Yemen

Yemen seems like an interesting place to visit. So far the closest I've come is listening to Ofra Haza's music and sitting around a kitchen table in Los Angeles and talking with her before she passed away. In 2009 we looked into how safe it is to visit Yemen-- short answer: it's one of the world's 10 least safe countries--and in 2011 we suggested postponing your trip to see the mud skyscrapers until after the revolution. I think I better update that; wait til your next lifetime. Back in 2011, the State Department was very clear:
The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the high security threat level in Yemen due to terrorist activities and civil unrest. The Department urges U.S. citizens not to travel to Yemen. U.S. citizens currently in Yemen should consider departing Yemen. The Department of State has authorized the voluntary departure from Yemen of the family members of U.S. Embassy staff and non-essential personnel. This replaces the Travel Warning for Yemen issued October 15, 2010.

...The security threat level in Yemen is extremely high due to terrorist activities and civil unrest. Piracy in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean is also a security threat to maritime activities in the region. Terrorist organizations continue to be active in Yemen, including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The U.S. government remains concerned about possible attacks against U.S. citizens, facilities, businesses, and perceived U.S. and Western interests. There is ongoing civil unrest throughout the country and large-scale protests in major cities.
Guess what the U.S. (and the Brits) are telling their citizens in Yemen this week. GET. OUT. OF. DODGE... NOW! Two planefuls of American citizens were evacuated from Yemen Tuesday.
The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the high security threat level in Yemen due to terrorist activities and civil unrest. The Department urges U.S. citizens to defer travel to Yemen and those U.S. citizens currently living in Yemen to depart immediately.

On August 6, 2013, the Department of State ordered the departure of non-emergency U.S. government personnel from Yemen due to the continued potential for terrorist attacks. 

U.S. citizens currently in Yemen should depart. As staff levels at the Embassy are restricted, our ability to assist U.S. citizens in an emergency and provide routine consular services remains limited and may be further constrained by the fluid security situation. This supersedes the Travel Warning for Yemen issued on July 16, 2013.

The security threat level in Yemen is extremely high. In September 2012, a mob attacked the U.S. Embassy compound. Demonstrations continue to take place in various parts of the country and may quickly escalate and turn violent. U.S. citizens are urged to avoid areas of demonstrations, and to exercise extreme caution if within the vicinity of a demonstration. Terrorist organizations, including Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), continue to be active throughout Yemen. The U.S. government remains highly concerned about possible attacks on U.S. citizens (whether visiting or residing in Yemen), and U.S. facilities, businesses, and perceived U.S. and Western interests. A U.S. citizen was attacked and killed in Taiz on March 18, 2012 and the press reported that AQAP claimed responsibility. An ongoing risk of kidnapping exists throughout Yemen. In the last year, international and local media have reported several kidnappings of Westerners. Violent crime is also a growing problem; local media reported the murder of two U.S. citizens in Taiz and Aden in 2013. In addition, piracy in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Indian Ocean is a security threat to maritime activities in the region. See our International Maritime Piracy Fact Sheet.

...U.S. citizens remaining in Yemen despite this Travel Warning should limit nonessential travel within the country, make their own contingency emergency plans, enroll their presence in Yemen through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), and provide their current contact information and next-of-kin or emergency contact information.
Why all the concern? Who remembers Ayman al-Zawahri? He took over al-Qaeda when bin-Laden was killed in Pakistan. And he personally ordered a big Ramadan mayhem spree. That's why Obama closed two dozen embassies and consulates in the Middle East last week-- and why they're still closed and why U.S. citizens, tourists and otherwise, are being told to stay away. NSA intercepted some electronic messages-- which is their job (rather than spying on American citizens in the U.S., which is NOT their job and not constitutional). The conversation between al-Zawahri and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who was part of a mass breakout from a prison in Sana in 2006, indicated that a big bang was ordered in Yemen.

Al Jazeera is reporting that a U.S. drone strike killed at least four al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen's Marib province and that one of them, Saleh al-Tays al-Waeli, was wanted in connection with al-Zawahri's Ramadan plot. Drone strikes have killed 17 people in Yemen last week. The BBC is reporting that al Qaeda fighters have been converging on San'a to implement the plan.
The source described the plot as dangerous, and suggested it was to include explosions and suicide attacks aimed at Western ambassadors and foreign embassies in Yemen, in addition to operations aimed at the Yemeni military headquarters.
I bet a nice shiny hotel catering to Western tourists would be a bad idea too; just a guess.