Sometime in late May the shining sun announces that spring has started to slide into summer in the Lunigiana, a region in northwestern Italy that straddles the border between Tuscany and Liguria. This geographically diverse area that I have called home since 2007 is at its best in that glorious shoulder season when secrets can be unearthed both up in the mountains and down by the sea.
On that first warm obligation-free morning, faded beach towels are shaken clean of last summer’s sand and tossed in the back seat of my aging Volkswagen. With the car’s windows down and sunroof open, my husband navigates the short but winding drive along the eastern coast of the Gulf of La Spezia. Known as the Golfo dei Poeti because centuries of writers have sought inspiration in the area’s natural beauty, this rugged coastline has dozens of inlets and sandy beaches tucked among pastel-painted fishing villages.
One particularly beautiful stretch boasts a sandy crescent behind San Terenzo’s castle, perfect rows of blue umbrellas lining Venere Azzurra beach, and giant rocks that locals use as sun beds along the promenade in Lerici. But for me, the most special spot for sun-musing, the one I mention to friends only in a whisper, is Eco del Mare.
A secluded cove cradled by enormous cliffs, Eco del Mare is a beach club whose exclusivity seems destined by nature. In high season, reservations for the sun beds situated far below the snaking road are hard to come by and prices spike. But before the preening tourists arrive from Milan and Moscow, there are still oversize beanbag chairs to rent, including one each for my husband and me under a large white umbrella with billowing curtains for a touch of privacy. It feels like our own private beach hut, just steps from the azure water, where the seaside soundtrack includes no buzzing motorboat engines, no radios blasting Italian pop music and no teenage gossip wafting from a nearby towel — it’s just the sound of the lapping waves echoing off the cliffs, l’eco del mare.
When the daylight fades in the Lunigiana, the secret is to migrate into the nearby mountains. Ristorante Emili is situated so deep in the foothills that even my GPS gets lost navigating the endless switchbacks. But the arduous drive is instantly forgotten when you’re seated at a table on the outdoor terrace overlooking rolling hills thick with vegetation. And then comes the sgabei.
Unique to the territory, sgabei are salty pillows of fried dough that are typically served with a platter of local meats and cheeses. At Emili, a heaping basket of still-steaming sgabei arrives alongside fresh stracchino cheese, paper-thin prosciutto crudo and buttery lardo di Colonnata, among other delicacies. The multicourse meal will continue with other only-in-Lunigiana dishes, such as testaroli, a crepelike pasta that gets a liberal dollop of fragrant fresh pesto. But the first bite of sgabei makes a convincing case that the best-kept secrets of the Lunigiana are the unheralded culinary traditions of this ancient territory nestled between the mountains and the sea.
As Cole Porter sang, “I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles / I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles.” I am in the drizzle camp, and I’m lucky: Rain erupts all year long, sending the pigeons flapping and the crowds darting under cafe awnings. The 21st-century bustle subsides, and the Paris of the past — damp gardens, Beaux-Arts townhouses, Art Nouveau Métro canopies — emerges into the foreground. It’s perfect weather to revisit the city’s prophets, painters, poets and mystics.
And departed spirits. Just outside my door in the Bastille neighborhood is the Café des Anges, a symbol of both the city’s suffering and resilience. During the horrifying terrorist attacks of Nov. 13, several regulars were murdered while celebrating a birthday at a nearby restaurant. But the cafe reopened within days, and I find myself regularly at the counter, sipping espressos among the morning crowds.
Nov. 13 did nothing to diminish my affection for North African and Islamic culture, which pervade Paris city life: Moroccan restaurants, Algerian pop music, corner hammams, water-pipe lounges, exhibitions of the Institut du Monde Arabe.
Architecturally, the influence is most vivid at the Grande Mosquée de Paris, an Arabo-Andalusian marvel in the heart of the Latin Quarter. Constructed in the 1920s by artisans from North Africa, the whitewashed walls and green tile roofs of the vast mosque complex also enfold a courtyard cafe and indoor restaurant. Both are favorites of Parisians of all faiths and stripes. Entering the keyhole-shaped doorway, I feel Paris fall away and find myself amid striped banquettes and a ceiling painted with geometric patterns. Steaming plates of couscous and glasses of mint tea complete the journey.
Arcaded passageways are welcome companions on a rainy day. I like the ones enclosing the 17th-century Place des Vosges and its manicured greenery. Footfalls echo as you pass the Victor Hugo museum and multiple art galleries. Two always merit a stop: the gallery of Nikki Diana Marquardt, a former assistant to Man Ray, and Galerie Mark Hachem, which features contemporary Middle Eastern artists. Carette is also worth a visit. There’s nothing cool about this dowdy tea salon. It’s a place to bring your aunt — especially if she is a hot-chocolate addict. Served in a silvery teapot, it pours out in a lava-like wave. It wakes me up every time.
Sun would destroy the shadowy ambience of the Musée National Gustave Moreau. Moreau, a 19th-century painter obsessed with Greek myth, biblical tales and Shakespeare, filled his creaking townhouse with strange, gloppy canvases depicting Salome, Eve, Moses, Hamlet, Pericles, the angel of death and additional otherworldly characters. A winding staircase carries you higher and higher, like Jacob’s ladder, into his mysterious universe.
By night, the stone fireplace in Robert et Louise, a rustic restaurant, is a favorite spot to devour flame-grilled meats. Fat sizzles, smoke billows, and beef, lamb, duck or whatever I fancy appears before me in this cozy carne-copia.
Down the street, I finish my evening at the zinc counter of La Belle Hortense, alongside regulars like Basile the novelist and Philippe the professor. The bar sells wine and books. The bartender Cendrillon — French for “Cinderella” — pours Côtes du Rhône, and a 3-euro folio paperback edition of Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du Mal” offers poetic intoxication. “Comes the Charming Evening …” begins one Paris work. Soon I am drifting along the lines of his imagery, deeper and deeper into the Parisian night.
A City That Never Forgets
For nearly two decades, I have lived — on and off — in Sarajevo, an energized tangle of traditions wedged in a valley and fueled by colliding empires and cultures. From one window in my apartment and office (where I work as an editor and writer), I can see the main mosque, built in the 16th century, and Bascarsija, the old Ottoman bazaar. Another window overlooks the Miljacka River and the Latin Bridge, which leads to the green steeple of the Franciscan monastery and the snow-capped mountains beyond.
When people ask how I, an American from Atlanta, ended up in the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a city only now on travelers’ maps, I say it was a combination of Sarajevo’s under-the-radar subtlety and historic complexity. Here, modernity struggles against Old World traditions. Over the last century, this tenuous balance has been tested time and again.
Below my apartment, for example, Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28, 1914. That event sparked World War I and transformed the world. In the 1990s, Sarajevo was under a nearly four-year siege during the war that destroyed Yugoslavia and permanently rejiggered the Balkans.
Today, Bosnia’s chief city is still about change — and perspective. The tile-inlaid words “Sarajevo Meeting of Cultures” stretch across the main pedestrian avenue and pinpoint the spot where Ottoman flagstones (to the East) meet Austro-Hungarian Secessionist facades (to the West). Depending on the observer, this unexpected exactitude either inspires platitudes about diversity or is a reminder of a tumultuous past.
The Sarajevo I have come to love pays homage to every era. Recently, I found myself walking past ateliers, shops selling hand-sewn slippers, kebab stands, the aroma of hookah smoke. Climbing a cobbled alley, I stepped onto the porch of Cajdzinica Dzirlo, a teahouse anchored in Ottoman tradition. Here, patrons lounge on cushions and prayer rugs, and sip salep, a steaming drink made of wild orchid root and mixed with milk and cinnamon. “We have 50 teas,” says the owner, Dijana Dzirlo. “But we are not about tea, we are about our relationship to people.”
Later I might jump centuries ahead to the Yugoslavia-nostalgic tavern Zara iz duvara, which serves Bosnian fare like sarma, minced meat and rice rolled in cabbage. Zara becomes an open-mic venue three nights a week. Lamplight spreads under wood-beam ceilings and across lace curtains as guests lock arms, puff cigarettes, drink beer and rakija (schnapps) and sing acoustic rock and traditional numbers until the wee hours.
A good 21st-century recovery brunch awaits at Delikatesna Radnja. Creative types crowd the intimate riverside bistro. Snag a patio table and order veal steak with rosemary and basil, and red Vranac wine, such as the Vukoje Reserve.
I often escape time altogether with a jaunt into the eternal: a hike above town to the top of the 5,344-foot Trebevic Mountain. The adventure tourism operator Green Visions leads treks from the graffitied shell of the 1984 Winter Olympics bobsled track, through spruce forests with a view of Old Town and a panorama of peaks. From this position I feel small but invigorated by the promise of my adopted home’s next chapter.
The Past Endures
Ten years ago, Cukurcuma was a lively neighborhood of Turkish women hanging their laundry to dry outside their windows, and pushcart street vendors calling out their still-warm baked goods. But local families have largely sold out to the builders of boutique hotels, and the bakkal, a corner store that would deliver newspapers and fresh bread to the basket I lowered on a rope from my third-floor window, has given way to the shiny office of yet another real estate agent.
Cukurcuma is in the valley between the pricier, trendier Cihangir area and the retail-heavy Istiklal Caddesi that was shaken by a suicide bombing in March. The apartment I moved into in 2006 was recently sold, but I am still drawn to the neighborhood’s old-time atmosphere and dusty antiques shops that have endured even as younger entrepreneurs added value to the area.
When I visit Cukurcuma, I start with a latte and a Wi-Fi session at the welcoming Holy Coffee. Then I head across the street to poke around at Yasam Antik, where I wish I had enough space for those life-size marble lions on display in its courtyard, or the carved wooden doorways that look as if they came from a palace on the Bosporus.
Then I like to meet friends to swap updates under a shady umbrella at Cuma cafe for a brunch of seasonal dishes like a nettle and pumpkin quiche, or a bowl of cooked spinach, poached eggs and yogurt with a drizzle of chile oil.
Continuing down Cukurcuma Caddesi, it’s fun to admire the view of the distant Galata Tower while checking out the potential treasures displayed on either side of the road, and to nose around shops like Cihan Antiques to weigh the need for a rosewood Art Deco tray.
But shopping here is not just about old stuff. Kare, or “Square,” offers unique handmade leather bags, goatskin parchment necklaces and lovely little notebooks, while 3rd Culture, a home-furnishings gallery established by the sister-brother team of Zeynep Lale Rende, a designer, and Emre Rende, a photographer, features pillow covers, lampshades, reupholstered chairs and framed images inspired by the people and textiles they encountered in their travels in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Americas.
Finally, one of the quirky places I often revisit is the Museum of Innocence, created by the writer Orhan Pamuk in conjunction with his novel of the same name. The Nobel Prize winner turned a narrow, multistory Ottoman-era house into a home for all the objects his lead character collected over the course of the book. Even if you haven’t read it, this homage to obsessive love is a delight, its cabinets of curiosities fitting neatly into the street’s own embrace of bric-a-brac.
In 2002 I arrived in Madrid on a self-styled one-year sabbatical. The plan was to paint, write and learn Spanish before heading back to New York. Much of the year blew by in a blur of long lunches and late nights before I painted or wrote anything. But I learned Spanish in a few months and fell in love with Madrid even faster.
Now 14 years, a husband, two children and a slew of Spain-centric articles later, I can give a candid assessment of my adopted city.
First, urban planning is a stranger to Madrid — the city simply does not have that cohesive aesthetic that makes, say, Barcelona instantly appealing to visitors. But the potpourri of building styles and add-on districts has left a dynamic jumble of neighborhoods with just enough stunning streets and plazas — like Gran Vía, Plaza de Oriente or Plaza Mayor — dotting the map.
The Spanish capital also has splendid parks, from the grand Retiro to the tiny garden of the Palace of the Prince of Anglona in the city’s oldest quarter. Since 2011, a park known as Madrid Río has stretched four miles along the banks of the trickling Manzanares River, giving the landlocked city the faintest whisper of a coastline.
Moments of serendipitous beauty sometimes stop me in my tracks. I get ideas for picture books daily. One would feature the stunning brick facades of the late 19th-century neo-Mudéjar buildings like Casa Árabe opposite the Retiro or the bustling Matadero Madrid arts center near the river.
Once I got around to writing, I spent a decade chasing the new and novel, but so much of the news today is about tradition, like handmade shoes at Glent or Carmina, pedigreed olive oil and tapenades at La Chinata and artisans like Javier S. Medina who creates playful vegan animal trophy heads from dried reeds and grass.
Since I once worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Prado feels comfortingly familiar. I wept the first time I saw Rogier van der Weyden’s “Descent From the Cross,” though it’s unclear if it was caused by the artist’s evocation of abject sorrow or jet lag and an excess of Champagne during brunch in the sunny garden of the neighboring Hotel Ritz.
I was married in the garden of the costume museum, the Museo del Traje, and now our 5-year-old twins frolic amid the same fountains and cypresses. Parenthood has also increased my frequency at the Railway Museum and the Naval Museum.
The flea market El Rastro remains a favorite pastime. For decorative arts, my current first stop is Lagur, but it is also difficult to walk out of Odalisca empty handed. Every worthwhile Madrid activity ends with a meal or drinks, or both. Amid the Rastro’s classic dives like Muñiz and El Diamonte are new all-day restaurants like El Imparcial and Martina Cocina, an Argentine cafe with hearty quiches and wildly decadent desserts.
Across the city, the gastronomic scene is globalizing; you can now enjoy a proper lunch featuring international dishes before 2 p.m. From the Michelin-starred Mexican restaurant Punto MX to the 10-year-old Southeast Asian Sudestada to old-school classics like El Landó, there is a dining room to make everyone feel as home as I do in Madrid.
Ever More to Unlock
In 2003, when I moved to London to work as a pilot, I lived in Kew. From the air, the neighborhood looked like the perfect geographic compromise between life (my friends, and the occasional date, in central London) and work (my 5 a.m. starts at Heathrow Airport).
On a typical day off, before a long walk in the Royal Botanic Gardens — an annual membership (£79, or about $115) turns this premier botanical garden into your everyday neighborhood park — I would head to the Kew Greenhouse Cafe, in the cluster of shops near Kew Gardens station. I’d sit in the front room by the big windows and unfold a newspaper or a letter from home.
After several years in Kew, I moved to north London. But whenever I see the cafe and the gardens from the cockpit, I think, well, that is where I learned why English sandwiches are generally so tasty (it’s the quality of the Cheddar, and the quantity of the butter) and that is where I started to fall in love with London.
The attractions of central London are so famous that it’s all too easy for seasoned expatriates to roll their eyes and stop exploring. So I’m glad that one rainy evening about six years ago, Nicky, an English friend who’s a lawyer, showed me the Temple Church. Consecrated by the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem in 1185 (in the likely presence of King Henry II) and built to evoke that city’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Temple Church was the London headquarters of the soldier-monks known as the Knights Templar.
More recently (in British terms, the last four centuries or so), it has served the Middle Temple and the Inner Temple, two of London’s four Inns of Court, or legal societies, which are cloistered in serene Oxbridge-style campuses in the heart of the metropolis. Come for the soaring music of the choir — one of Britain’s finest — or bring your lunch to the Inns’ quiet gardens above the Thames.
Every expatriate in London has a story, and few such tales are as fascinating as that of Dennis Severs. Mr. Severs grew up in sunny California, but instead of a pool he dreamed of a house with ghosts, and of an English sort of light “that I saw in old varnish and paint, and that appealed to me as my ideal.” In 1979 Mr. Severs, who survived in part on the earnings from an inherited California gas station, bought an early 18th-century home in Spitalfields. He turned his new, old London digs into Dennis Severs’ House, a museum in which silent visitors tiptoe through rooms that are immaculately dressed in the sights, sounds and — yes — the smells of bygone ages. Coals smolder in the hearths, a lemon peel curls near a still-steaming cup of tea, an egg lies freshly broken in a bowl of flour. Even the contents of the chamber pots are all too authentic.
The only cognitive dissonance here, aside from that of modern London itself, which it’s hard to remember is still humming along just beyond the walls of this time capsule, is the New York Yankees cap of Mr. Severs, who died in 1999, resting on a candlelit table in the hall.
It was May the first time I visited Copenhagen, and I thought the general air of festivity was a fluke: Had my stay coincided with some obscure Danish holiday? Now, a few years after I moved here, I know that what I took to be a special occasion was actually a season.
Copenhageners live springtime with intensity. It’s not so much the warmth, which is not all that warm. It’s the lengthening days. When the dark and gray recede, it sometimes seems as if the city has turned into a giant experiment in positive phototaxis, every organism drawn inexorably toward the light.
Almost any patch of sidewalk sprouts tables to facilitate the quest. That includes obscure patches: Most of the 40,700 cyclists who cross the Knippelsbro bridge daily have no idea that beneath them hides one of Europe’s leading natural wine shops. I discovered it when I was invited to a party “under the bridge” at Rosforth & Rosforth, founded by Sune Rosforth (among the first to introduce natural wines in Scandinavia) and two colleagues, Henrik Sehested and Pontus Elofsson, a former sommelier at Noma.
There’s no sign on the door, and no fancy display cases, just an old storeroom full of interesting, idiosyncratic bottles. But on Friday afternoons starting in April, the shop sets out benches and pours wines from its sister bar, Den Vandrette. To sit in this semi-hidden spot, drinking something delicious (and organic!) while sunlight bounces off the harbor and cyclists whiz overhead is pretty much the apotheosis of the Copenhagen experience.
So, too, is a visit to one of the city’s green spaces. Many of the parks, from Bispebjerg cemetery with its cherry blossom-draped alleyway, or Kongens Have with its scads of young Danes sunbathing in their underwear, become happy traffic jams. But Ostre Anlaeg, behind the National Art museum, retains its solitude. It has become a favorite destination, in part for the way it unfolds. Its three lakes were once a section of the city’s defensive moat. Today, they hide small delights: blue herons and lily pads; garlic-scented patches of ramson; a playground with a beached boat for picnicking; a jewel box of a flower garden; and, not incidentally, the Hirschsprung museum, where Golden Age Danish artists reveal their own obsession with light.
For a food writer like myself, it’s thrilling to watch as the restaurant scene becomes almost as feverish as New York’s. But nearly a year after opening, Spisehuset remains a little-known treasure. I was skeptical when a friend invited me to what seemed an abandoned corner of the otherwise trendy Meat Packing District, but my doubts were erased with the first bite.
Each course of the changing tasting menu — from the tartare of young bull served with Limfjord oysters and marinated beets to the raw milk cheese — features mainly local ingredients. The chefs, Johannes Vestergaard and Niclas Gronhoj Moller, create light-handed dishes that look simple but surprise with the depth of their flavor. And on one of those spring evenings when the rain or cold returns, there is no cozier spot than at one of their candlelit tables.