Fall in Montreal


Can’t get to France this fall?  No worries…get the best of France and North America in one shot in Montreal, and at a fraction of the cost!  We enjoyed a long holiday weekend there (Columbus Day for the Yanks, Thanksgiving for the Canucks) and took in some great fall foliage, architecture, art and music.  Highlights included:

  • A Robert Maplethorpe exhibit (Isabella Rossellini, unlike for David Letterman on one famous occasion, was-a-show…or, well, at least a famous portrait of her was) at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which has to be one of the most confusing museums to navigate
  • A Postmodern Jukebox concert at the Place des Arts where three numbers brought down the house (Casey Abrams’s wacko-bluesy slow-down of Sweet Child O’ Mine, Morgan James soulful tear-inducing rendition of Take Me to Church, and Maiya Sykes sassy cover of Creep)
  • A hike up Mount Royal for some killer leaf-porn and skyscraping views

Local tip: check out great views of Old Montreal (and the Notre Dame Basilica) from atop Hotel Nelligan’s rooftop bar and terrace (the terrace season closed on Monday).  It’s also a totally chill and cozy place to just hang out in the lobby bar/restaurant on a rainy day.

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My Most Memorable Dining Experiences

Are you a foodie? Do you believe that fine dining is an art form? Are some of your most treasured memories of being in a certain place at a certain time with your favorite people having that special meal? Well, I would answer a resounding yes to all three questions, and here I share with you some of my most memorable dining experiences eating my way through cities abroad and my own backyard of Philadelphia.

The Best Italian Restaurants…Where You Least Expect Them:

  • Il Piccolino – Paris, France (8th arrondissment). Ah, Paris, it truly is a movable feast. But who knew, on our last night in the city (in September of 2015) the month before our wedding (we honeymooned before, because that’s how we roll), desperate for something other than the overload of French food we had been eating, and upon the recommendation from the concierge at our hotel (who secured a last minute reservation), we would stumble into the best Italian restaurant we ever experienced? There were probably about ten tables inside (all reserved) and a kitchen in full view (that looked like a kitchen in somebody’s house). From the little old man who provided colorful service, to the fresh veggies they walked across the street to the market to procure as you ordered them, to the hand-made sage ravioli with truffle oil drizzle, to the cutesy-translated deserts “in their honey shirts” – this was quite possibly the best dining experience of our lives.

Il Piccolino Paris Food 04

  • Zeppoli’s – Collingswood, New Jersey, USA. Less than a mile from our new house is this gem of “a hole in the wall” we indulged in just last week after a multitude of rave reviews from friends and coworkers. There’s maybe a dozen tables inside. Reservations must be made weeks in advance. Upon entering it’s all a bit gentrified-rustic-hipster-is-this-a-dump-or-is-this-chic and unassuming. But WOW! The food (which is Sicilian and far removed from the typical Italian fare you find In NJ-PA-NY) was out of this world and full of flavors my taste buds didn’t know existed. The service was both casual and spot-on where the highly competent wait staff tag-teams the tables and walks around as if they are serving family at their house – never missing a beat or a half-filled water-glass. The chef offers up complimentary after dinner drinks (while the place is otherwise BYOB).

Zeppoli's 03  Zeppoli's 05

  • Trattoria Toto da Lucia – Amsterdam, Netherlands (near Vondel Park).  Was the food here really that good?  I don’t know.  It was my last night in the city (in October of 2013), this was right around the corner from my friend’s flat off the Overtoom. The atmosphere was comforting. The wine was flowing. The conversation was bountiful. The food was fresh and made from scratch. I think I had a risotto? It’s a place where I’ll never forget the feeling…of being happy where I was in life at that moment…wrapping up my first trip to Europe, sharing my experiences and my hopes for a travel-filled future with a good friend, and feeling like the world was now my oyster.

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Dickensian Louisiana

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“It was the best of times…it was the worst of times.”

New Orleans has always been a city of extremes, and our recent visit proved that in spades.  It’s a place of both high-class Southern charm and “9th Ring of Dante’s Hell” style debauchery.  For me, it was a second visit to the fabled city that has been both blessed and cursed, and for my wife it was her first time.  She was greeted on the first night with a Carnivale parade – who knew the season was so raucous even with Mardi Gras still weeks away?  We erroneously stayed on the main parade drag on St. Charles Ave at an otherwise nice hotel where Murphy’s Law ruled the roost.  The next evening, my wife was paid a visit by yee olde food poisoning courtesy of a French Quarter Jazz Club that was otherwise lovely (tip: drink, don’t eat, at a jazz club).  Meanwhile, I was suffering from a head cold that started a few days earlier during a work trip to Jacksonsville, Florida.

Buuuut…once we survived all that and spread our wings to more relaxed environs (the Garden District, City Park, a tour of some of the grand River Road plantations, and Algiers)…it couldn’t have been nicer. Continue reading

France, Je T’aime – Part Five: Versailles

Versailles 03

Our epic French adventure ended with an overnight stay in Versailles before flying back to the States.

Versailles is everything you dream and fear it could be (it’s as crowded with tourists as the Louvre), but the grounds are so expansive, if you take the right turns you’ll find yourself in quiet gardens and pathways.  Even lovelier than the grand chateau was Marie Antoinette’s Petite Trianon and Estate – a country oasis still full of grape vines and livestock living an idyllic existence away from the hustle and bustle of the main palace.  It actually makes you feel a bit sorry for the famously beheaded queen – as its rustic design and graceful grasps at tranquility render it clear that poor Marie was in way over her head and simply wanted to escape the madness of the royal court.  It makes for a beautiful walk (the hidden grotto is especially hidden) that was a perfect way to end our epic tour.

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France, Je T’aime – Part Four: Colmar et Strasbourg

Colmar 48

After five days in Paris, we needed an escape from the big city and wanted to experience more of France.  After a comfy, three-hour train ride from the Paris Gare de L’est we found ourselves in the heart of Alsace at Colmar.  Here we made our home base for three days, the middle day of which included a quick jaunt (just a 30 minute train ride from Colmar) to Strasbourg.  Both “cities” boast amazingly quirky rustic architecture, great country-style food, and fantastic wine influenced as much by France as Germany (the region has been a historically hotly contested border territory between the two nations – and when you indulge in it, it’s easy to see it’s worth fighting for).  There is also a more laid-back vibe in Colmar and Strasbourg while still offering up plenty of art and history.

Without further adieu – here are some photographs from Colmar et Strasbourg.

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France, Je T’aime – Part Three: Le Paris Macabre

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Ou est elle la mort toujours future ou passée Apeine est elle presente que deja elle n’est plus – one of the many thought provoking and haunting quotes found deep in Les Catacombes.

One of the most romantic things about Paris is that it will make of anything art – even death.  The underground Catacombs (possibly the most creative urban space repurposing in history – former quarry caves turned into a massive human remains dump/art installation project) are unlike anything you’ve ever seen and boast millions of lost stories and souls (over six million to be kinda exact – in skeleton form and stacked and designed like hell’s Legos!) while the cemeteries still above ground revel in their gorgeous, macabre monumental splendor.

What else is there to say?  Let the ghosts behind the photos whisper their secrets and history to you.

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France, Je T’aime – Part Two: Paris – Musees et Monuments

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Paris was a museum displaying exactly itself. – Jeffrey Eugenidies

Is there a city with more museums and monuments per square-foot than Paris?

I don’t know, but if you find yourself in Paris, you can’t help but stumble into a museum or monument (both historical and religious) while walking her beautiful streets, and the super-savvy Museum Pass will help you stumble into as many as possible in as little time for as few Euros as possible (just be sure to make time for a leisurely lunch with some wine at a street café/brasserie in between).

As Eugenidies states, the entire city is a museum.  And as lovers of art, my fiancée and I couldn’t help but devour as much of Paris as we could.

I won’t ramble about the obvious (the Louvre, the D’orsay, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, etc…) where pictures have always spoken for themselves but I will gush about a fabulous “off the beaten track” museum dedicated to a single artist who I will now claim as one of my favorites.  The intimate and astounding Gustave Moreau Museum at 14 Rue de la Rochefoucauld in a quiet residential neighborhood, housed in the beautiful townhouse he and his mother once called home, is possibly the best example of an artist’s home/studio turned into a museum.  As you ponder his personal artifacts and fascinating works, its impossible not to be swept up into his vision.  But I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking here as well.

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France, Je T’aime – Part One: Paris – Rues et Jardins

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A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of Life. – Thomas Jefferson

Paris is a moveable feast – Ernest Hemingway

I don’t believe I could’ve picked a more perfect period in my life to experience Paris for the first time after having experienced other European capitals (the infinitely more laid-back Amsterdam and Dublin) to ease me into the overwhelming moveable feast that is Paris.  It helped that my fiancée had been to Paris twice before, as while together we came to it with the wide-eyes of outsiders (it’s easy to see why so many ex-pats holed up in Paris for a spell have written some of the kindest words about the city of lights), her tourist knowledge kept us from going mad while wandering the streets and the metro.  Paris is best experienced by walking, and this first post in an epic five piece series capturing our French adventure through pictures will focus on the maddeningly beautiful, confusing streets and the resplendent parks and gardens of Paris the burst with life, secrets and the profound.

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Random Places I Have Been in 2015

When I originally conceived this annual feature, the idea was to link pictures of the places I visited with ideas for stories, favorite movies or strange/funny anecdotes.  Well, have I got one for you folks this year.

While spending some time at Big Bass Lake in the Poconos Mountains, jaunts through Gouldsboro to grab provisions were inevitable.  It was on one fateful evening when we first got a glimpse of this saucy mannequin gracing the roof of a house like a pin-up model atop a Corvette’s hood.

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We laughed, but then noticed that mannequin was not alone, and a whole family of mannequins were strewn about the yard in various poses, like they were a family.

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We laughed nervously now, and then on the way back I tried to convince the others to stop so we could grab some pictures.  Suddenly, to our horror, a man (who looked like he walked off the set of True Detective Season One) was coming out of the side of the house (likely for the nightly inspection of his Mannequin Family) just as we were passing…prompting us to keep on passing (praying he didn’t see how slow we passed, with our shocked gawking), only to  pass a few moments later an abandoned double-wide trailer in the high weeds out of which came stumbling three tottering, torn-up, turned-out characters who looked like they wanted to hitchhike if only they could find the road five feet in front of them.  I imagined the trailer as part of the same Mannequin Cult Compound where meth-heads and drunks were lured by the Yellow King of Carcosa to be murdered and turned into mannequins to join the family.  The next morning I forced my significant other to pass by the site again, and this time we noticed another shop that had a creepy mannequin in the window (clearly the other boundary of what I was now referring to as The Poconos Mountain Mannequin Murder Cult Compound).

This time we got some pictures (like the ones above) – and narrowly escaped by the skin of our teeth (alas, no shots of the double-wide trailer were taken for fear of our lives).  And one day, a screenplay will be written.

Oh, and there were also more mundane, relaxing, less horror-movie-like trips to Saratoga Springs, NY (which included a stop at the lovely Yaddo Artist’s Retreat); Washington DC; and as always Cape May and Wildwood.

With a big trip to France next month (and an excursion to Chicago already in the past), it’s been a wonderful, weird and wild traveling year, with the best hopefully yet to come.

Enjoy the photos (presented in chronological order of trip):

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Of Architecture, Hancock Views, Wrigley and Celebrating the 4th of July in Chicago

Chicago View from Plane Landing

It’s been 16 years since I last went to Chicago.  I’ve changed a lot since then (and so has the Chicago skyline, most notably with the can’t-miss-it Trump Tower), and it’s certainly interesting to return to a city of good memories to create new ones in an entirely different milieu.  Last time there was a boat tour, a comedy show and tons of laughs.  This time there was a boat tour, a comedy show and tons of laughs.  Good people having good times in good places marked both visits.  But this time there were also drinks at the top of the Hancock, a 4th of July Cubs game, fireworks galore (apparently Chicago is intent on trying to recreate the Great Chicago Fire every 4th – never have I seen so many fireworks and we were lucky enough to not only enjoy them at the ballpark but also afterwards when we were treated to a panoramic view from a residential balcony that gave amazing views of the dark city horizon and burbs bursting with bombs), the Art Institute of Chicago, Millenium Park, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Robie House at the University of Chicago.  Apparently my 35 year-old self can run circles around my 19 year-old self in terms of sight-seeing (and many many other things – I’m one of those few who loves being an adult and getting older and wiser).

Here are the requisite shots that hallmarked this trip:

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