2016 has been a year of travel firsts for me: My first visits to New York City, Padua and Stockholm were all memorable in different ways – good and bad, but mostly good and sometimes extraordinary. Being in NYC during the second biggest blizzard to whitewash the Big Apple since records began was thrilling, and walking down all-but deserted, snow blanketed streets like Madison Avenue and Broadway was to experience a kind of benign apocalypse. These are the sort of memories which etch themselves so deep into the fabric of one’s being, they become a part of who one is.
While Padua and Stockholm offered nothing quite so spectacular, they did, in their own distinct and quirky ways impress and give pause. I returned from one feeling refreshed in spirit and from the other, in body, both to unusual degrees.
In purely colourist terms, the overriding impressions of the three cities were white and platinum, silver and blue and ochre and gold – I’ll leave it to the imagination of the reader to guess to which/what each refers…
In addition to travelling there were all the regular and irregular events and postings which go to make up a pretty typical year in the life of this blogger. Presented below is a snapshot record of those events and postings.
This then is me signing off for 2016, wishing all my followers, viewers and accidental visitors a wonderful Christmas, or Hanukkah (or both), a Happy New Year and loads of good luck for 2017.
Regular readers of these pages will know that travel comprises a significant part of my life, even to the point that I once had homes concurrently in three different countries.
But, when I look back now, of all the hundreds of journeys, vacations and adventures since my first flight – aged three – to Zurich from London on a Swiss Air Caravelle (I remember that we sat facing each other with a little table between us, as on a train) – there are eight trips of which every detail remains etched into my memory.
All of these trips were specifically formative in that they either changed my life in a literal sense, or my perceptions of life in some fundamental way. Followers of this blog might already be aware of some of these episodes.
Firstly there was the trip to Israel in 1967 just weeks after the Six-Day War which blew both my 7-year old mind and my 1960’s, suburban British olfactory senses. I vividly remember being on the Golan Heights, walking along the safe paths marked out by Israeli mine disposal teams, into Quneitra and dozens of Syrian military documents blowing on the dusty hot winds like confetti. And equally, I recall the first time I tasted real humus and roasted eggplant and being almost emotionally overcome with the sheer pleasure of it;
Then there was a gastronomic drive along the length of France in 1970 which turned me into one of the England’s most precocious connoisseurs of food and wine;
A year later, I was treated to my first visit to Spain where I discovered the hitherto (to a typical Jewish lad like me) forbidden twin joys of fried bacon and fresh shellfish in addition to poolside cocktails and luxury hotels. The fact this was all part of a photographic shoot for Max Factor and that I spent the entire time in the company of two of the UK’s top fashion models was the icing on the cake for a sexually curious eleven-year-old;
Fourteen years after it was Andalusia again, but this time a romantic five days in Seville, in the company of a beautiful law student, where I discovered the exotic joys of tapas washed down with ice-cold fino and late-night flamenco.
About a decade later in 1991 saw my first flight across the Pond, where the sublime “New World” strangeness of newly-democratic Chile bludgeoned me back into painting landscapes and left me a life-long lover of cazuela de pollo;
Then, twelve years after that in 2003, there was our visit to southern India where I was held enthral to the equally glorious and wonderful strangeness of ancient Tamil Nadu and Kerala and where I discovered that a mostly vegetarian diet could almost be fun (not to mention hugely fattening);
In 2007, I made my first trip to Australia, which, especially in magnificent Melbourne turned out to be quite simply the most enjoyable and mentally invigorating shattering of dearly-held pre-conceptions I have ever experienced;
And finally, just this January, when the cliché “better (incredibly) late than never” took on a whole new profundity for me after my first visit to New York City left me and all my senses dazed, awestruck and ecstatic in equal measure.
However, when I ask myself what was the trip that played the biggest and most enduring role in shaping the adult I eventually became, it would have to be another of the trips I made to Israel; this time in in 1978, during the summer break of my first year at Saint Martin’s School of Art.
The pictures below are all that remain of my “Wanderers Period” and represent the most eloquent way I can describe the feeling and atmosphere of those six weeks; the highlight of which was when four of us – two guys and two girls – walked the entire circumference of the Sea of Galilee in two days. We slept on the pebble beaches, and lived on falafel and bags of crisps washed down with cheap wine, accompanied by the dulcet tones of Weekend in LA on our cassette player. Without going into details, it became my coming-of-age drama in every sense, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and of course, sensual. It was my “Summer of 42”, except it was 78. It was when I truly fell in love with life and this Earth (and the incomparable virtuosity of George Benson).
Most unfortunately, the large canvases that emerged from these sketches and scrawls I painted over the following year after my art school tutors deemed them “unsubtle, hopelessly romantic and naïve” – they were a bunch of passionless idiots, but that’s another story. Nevertheless, I think these pictures, for all their rawness, convey the power of an 18-year old’s emotions, lusts, yearnings and wondering (and one or two aren’t bad drawings either)…
I thought that a lifetime of watching movies and TV series based in New York would have prepared me for my first visit to Central Park. But all the Kojak, all the Law and Order and all the Sex in the City in the universe could not have anticipated the blizzard of January 2016 and its magical transforming effect.
So, instead of a stroll through one of the world’s most famous urban “green” spaces, we found ourselves trecking through a pristine winter landscape.
Fortunately, unlike the evening before when I had left my camera in the hotel (see previous post “The Big White Apple“), this time I was prepared and here are some of the results…
If Claude Monet had been walking through Manhattan during the second greatest blizzard in history to hit the city – with only an old Nokia phone camera to record what he saw, then perhaps – with just a little help from Photoshop – he might have ended up with a set of pictures like those displayed below.
These photos were taken by my wife Dido, on her aforementioned Nokia, on the evening of Saturday 23rd January during our walk back from Madison Avenue to Broadway.
We were in NYC to celebrate our silver wedding, and although the snow disrupted much of our planned itinerary for the trip, this walk, down the middle of almost-deserted, iconic streets, blanketed in powder snow turned out to be one of the most enchanting experiences of all our years together.
I think that these images get some of the magic across…
Life’s a funny old thing, full of unexpected twists and turns. For instance, who knew just a few years ago, that the city of Little Rock, Arkansas would become one of my most regular travel destinations?
But unexpected things like that can happen to you when Little Rock ends up as your in-laws’ home town (how that came to pass is another story altogether).
And, as it happens, and contrary to nearly everything I’d been led to expect from its hillbilly caricature, Little Rock turned out to be an agreeable and welcoming town.
Bisected north from south by the Arkansas River, the city is unusually contained by American standards, surrounded as it is on most sides by wooded hills. The downtown area is on a reassuringly human scale for European sensibilities, and fairly pleasant to stroll around. The Arkansas State Capitol building (a virtual, smaller replica of the Capitol in DC) and the Old State House are both highly photogenic, and with its river walks, river market, excellent Historic Arkansas Museum and the Clinton Library, there’s enough to keep the average traveller interested for a day or two. Moreover, easy road access to the stunning Ouachita Forest and Lake, not to mention the nearby Hot Springs resort ensures that there’s plenty on offer for lovers of the American big outdoors.
And if all this weren’t sufficient reason for visiting then I should also mention that Little Rock has a rather special hotel; The Capital…
Ask the average Brit to name an iconic American hotel / city synonymy, the one that they would probably first think of would be the Waldorf Astoria / New York City. Asked to name another, they could then suggest the Beverly Hills / Los Angeles. If they were more than usually informed they would even be able to list a few more, such as the Biltmore / Miami, the Monteleone / New Orleans or the del Coronado / San Diego (of Some Like it Hot fame).
In fact just about every US city, large and small, from Spokane in the north to El Paso in the south has an iconic hotel that reflects the spirit, texture, and the history of the host town.
And as it turns out, Little Rock is no different.
Entering the Capital Hotel is the epitome of that cliché, entering a different world. More Claridges than Dorchester (for the benefit of my British readers), it’s an oasis of 19th century, understated grandness and subtle, tasteful decor. From its colonnaded, high ceilinged foyer to its immaculately appointed rooms and suites, the Capital offers an exceptionally comfortable experience embellished by flawlessly competent and courteous service.
In fact, the service at the Capital is worthy of special mention, for it somehow pulls off genuine southern charm without being gushing or over-the-top. So much of north American Hotel and restaurant service these days, and not merely in the South , is so intensely “friendly” and overly attentive, to non-Americans at least, it often feels more like your being dared or challenged not to have a good time. But, under the skilled guidance of its genial and dapper manager, Michael Chaffin, the staff at the Capital, exude the kind of confidence and assuredness that guarantees those fortunate enough to stay there the feeling of being sincerely valued and cared for.
Like all great American Hotels the Capital takes its restaurant and particularly its bars very seriously. So, it’s hardly a surprise that its main bar — the stylish-yet-business-like Capital Bar and Grill — is the place to be seen for anyone who is anyone in Little Rock; from brunching politicians to lunching celebrities to cocktail sipping businessmen and women. A solid, reasonably-priced menu of both typical, and not-so-typical bar snacks and entrees, plus a well-stocked bar, all contained within a relaxed, informal ambiance (often enhanced by a live jazz trio) make the bar a must-visit, even for non-guests of the hotel.
One Eleven at the Capital constitutes the hotel’s main restaurant and doubles up in the morning as the breakfast dining room. It also has its own, beautifully elegant bar manned by seriously skilled and intuitive bartenders whose cocktails are simply fabulous. (They even stock Lillet Blonde aperitif for those brave enough to try an authentic Vespa (a la Casino Royale).
Formally known as Ashley’s, the recently re-vamped restaurant itself now has a Michelin decorated French chef whose menu reflects a noble intention to bring his native expertise to local raw materials. And for the most part he succeeds brilliantly — the shrimp (prawns) and grits for example were an orgasmic revelation and worth a trip to Little Rock all on their own. However, even where the dishes don’t quite attain this kind of sublime perfection, everything we sampled was at the very least, delicious and perfectly cooked. Moreover, the Capital has a vast cellar, stocked with plenty of fine wines to match the quality of the food.
All in all then, a stay at the Capital Hotel — even if only for one night — is an experience worth saving for and sufficient reason in itself to visit Little Rock.
When I started this blog the only thing I ever meant to advertise was my own books. But, our experiences over the past few years at the Capital have been so pleasurable that I felt it was about time I let the world know about this southern gem of a hotel.
I once heard somewhere that “you haven’t seen fall until you’ve seen fall in Vermont” – or words to that effect. Well, I can’t claim to have seen fall in Vermont, but I did see it two years ago in the magnificent Ouachita Forrest (Arkansas) – so I guess this will have to do until I do finally get to Vermont. Mind you, Vermont will have a lot to live up to…
Typical! My first ever visit to the States and as I was about to take my first shot of the trip the shutter jammed on my old Nikon FE . I know! Nikon FE’s don’t (or didn’t at least) jam – yet somehow mine did, and the only thing I could afford as back-up was a disposable Kodak. To add to my irritation, it turned out I had inadvertently purchased a wide-angle disposable Kodak. Never having used any kind of disposable camera I was ignorant of the fact that there was a choice of lens configurations and had just picked up the first one I saw on the shelf of the corner shop. Looking at theses images now however, more than 20 years later, I think that it was a happy set of accidental circumstances. There’s something appealingly technicolor and fresh about this basic Kodak film, and the wide views of fabulous Seattle and its environs have an almost Robert Burks-like cinematographic quality (Burks created the look of most of Alfred Hitchcock’s American-made movies). Ultimately I think they capture a sense of vivid “Americana” which I’ve struggled to repeat on all my subsequent visits to the US, with far superior cameras…