Jul 29

Discovering the City through its Villages: Greenwich Village

Although it isn’t our first time in New York City, we’re still finding it overwhelming. It’s a colossal city, with so much on offer that it’s hard to know where to start exploring and what to do.

One thing in our favour is that we have done all the sights – Central Park, Empire State Building, the museums, etc – on previous visits, which means the pressure is off so we can just kick back and not feel like we’re missing out on anything. But where to kick back is the question?

While local writer David Farley (whom we interviewed here) recommended we get out of Manhattan and experience the ‘real’ New York, i.e. boroughs such as Brooklyn and Queens, we’ve decided to stay in the East Village, as we don’t enjoy spending a lot of time on subways.

Instead, we’re going to focus. We’re going to stick around Lower Manhattan and New York City’s ‘villages’ – our home, the East Village, as well as our neighbours, the Lower East Side, Greenwich Village, and to a lesser extent, the West Village.

We decided to get a kick-start from our friends at Context and signed up for their Greenwich Village Walk with local architect Michelle Cianfaglione – ironically, an Italian-American who is originally from the Bronx but now living in Manhattan.

A hamlet within a city, Greenwich Village (like the East Village, as we’re to discover) has always defined itself by its sense of community, and it doesn’t take long for us to appreciate this, as we walk its leafy streets, by basketball games and kids playing in parks, on our way to meet Michelle. The area has a very different feel to Midtown and Uptown and the financial district further south.

Michelle begins our walking tour at a secret spring, the city’s main source of water, the Minetta Stream – bizarrely hidden beneath the lobby of an apartment building. “The whole of Soho used to be a pond!” Michelle tells us excitedly, “Many sources dried up, others were simply built over, but this one still runs.” This is a girl who gets excited by history and urban planning, and it’s infectious.

As we stroll toward Washington Square, Michelle explains that we’re walking the shape of the creek, making it easy to imagine what it must have been like. We stop in the Square, the heart of the Village – where it’s also strange, as Michelle points out, that when the City recently renovated the park, it didn’t consider taking advantage of the water source. The fountain currently sits empty and unfinished.

We take a seat in Washington Square, not far from the park’s splendid arch. Michelle tells us about the City’s Native American roots and its early colonisation by the British and Dutch, who brought African slaves to work the fields here and provide a buffer between their country retreats and the Native Americans ‘uptown’.

It wasn’t until the early 1800s that the City began to create the grid as we know it now, as a way to deal with the rapidly growing population and what was starting to become a very dense city. And it was as early as that that New York University (NYU), one of the City’s largest landholders, began to buy and level out land and cover the streams.

While the amount of land that NYU owns is controversial (as we’ll also quickly discover), Michelle acknowledges that the University saved a lot of old buildings from becoming derelict, and was responsible for a new style of architecture, Greek Revival, which tipped its hat to the classical style.

Michelle shows us Macdougal Alley, a quaint little lane lined with mews, former carriage houses; The Row, on the north side of Washington Square, which exemplifies the Greek Revival style of architecture; and Washington Mews, another charming cobblestone street lined with splendidly renovated buildings owned by NYU. At each stop she points out the architectural features and details that identify each style, and it’s not long before we can detect them ourselves.

Over the next couple of hours as we stroll the shady streets of the Village – McDougal (“named after the revolutionary”), Minetta Lane (“once the worst neighbourhood in the area”), Bedford Street (home to New York’s tiniest house dating to 1892 at #75 and the city’s oldest house dating to 1807 at #77) – Michelle covers everything from architecture and urban planning through to the Village’s social and cultural history.

Michelle points out Groove, a bar where Hendrix played, and Café Wha, where Dylan strummed. She tells us about Chumleys’ prohibition-era bar (a topics she has a personal interest in, which we’ll soon share with you) at #86 Bedford, and she takes us to the handsome former molten glass factory (look for the carved glasses on the edifice) of J Goebel & Co, dating to 1865, at #95.

We visit tiny verdant gardens, such as Minetta Triangle (perhaps New York’s smallest?) and Green Streets, and we peek into Grove Court, a lovely garden shaded by taller buildings either side, and prettily fronting what looks like a splendid English country house to us, but which Michelle reveals is a combination of Federal and Greek Revival architecture. Once home to some of the City’s poorest people, it is now highly coveted property.

We wander down Commerce Street – which quickly becomes my favourite Greenwich Village street – by #36, a former factory and brewery (there was once a silo nearby and farmland all around!), and the Cherry Lane Theatre, where Pinter and Shepherd staged plays. Michelle points out #48 an especially sweet example of Greek Revival and, opposite, two delightful symmetrical buildings with a courtyard garden in between.

We stroll down Barrow and Hudson Streets – we’re so close to what was once the edge of the river here, which of course the Dutch, masters at landfill, filled in! – and head for St Lukes in the Fields, one of the oldest churches in the City.

Not content with revealing the Church’s lovely oasis of a garden, Michelle ignores a ‘keep out’ sign to take us into a secluded spot and, hopefully, into the church. Unfortunately the Church is locked as there’s some work going on, and, as we soon discover, we’re also locked in.

“This is embarrassing,” Michelle says, “But don’t worry, I’ll climb the fence and unlock it from the other side. This is why my husband doesn’t like going on walks with me. But, hey, I’m an architect. This is what we do. We’re used to sneaking into places we shouldn’t be to find out things.”

Just as Michelle readies herself for a bit of fence climbing (luckily she’s wearing shorts), a Mexican gardener-cum-security guy appears, shaking his head but smiling, somewhat bemused. Michelle apologises sincerely and sweetly and we scurry out.

It’s not a problem. As travel writers we’re used to sneaking about places too, although we don’t make it a habit of climbing fences. Exploring the Villages of the New York City, especially its secret gardens, is a wonderful way to discover the real New York, as we’re about to find out…

Jul 28

An Irreverent & Curious Guide to New York by David Farley

I can’t exactly recall how New York writer David Farley and I first made contact, but I do remember that at the time of our email exchange Terence and I were firmly ensconced in the library of my uncle and aunt’s house in Bendigo, Australia, for a few months, gazing out at their English cottage garden occasionally as we wrote a guidebook to the Italian Lakes.

Farley offered to send a review copy of his book, and although we weren’t travelling for another month, just the name of the thing – An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town – inspired a flight of the imagination. (Isn’t it the most intriguing name for a book?) It may not have been far to travel in my mind from the genteel shores of Lake Como to the medieval village of Calcata where Farley’s book is set, but it was certainly a long haul from rural Australia.

Arriving in New York a year or so later after a 30-hour trip from Bali via Hong Kong and Vancouver, I scribbled down a few names of New Yorkers we ‘knew’, including friends of friends and email and Twitter acquaintances we’d never met, so we could start the process of connecting with locals.

When I spotted the launch of Farley’s paperback version of his book promoted in the Village Voice, I added him to the list and emailed to see if he wanted to have a drink to talk travel and share some local tips. Nobody knows a city better than a travel writer, right? Surely Farley would be the perfect guy to share some local tips to experiencing his hometown? Let’s see…

How do you like to travel?
I’m not really into luxury travel. Nor am I a so-called ‘backpacker’. So I guess that puts me somewhere in between. I don’t dress for traveling; instead I dress the same way I’m in New York, which is generally quite flexible: not out of place in a casual setting yet I could probably pass muster in an upscale restaurant.

Are you a travel writer, historian or both?
None of the above!* Well, I don’t know how I should label myself. I write about travel a lot and often those articles have a deep history element to them or, increasingly, a focus on food. So what does that make me? I’m not sure.

How can travellers make their experiences of places more enriching?
I’ve always been a big advocate of pre-trip research—mostly because I love knowing as much about the place when I encounter it for the first time. Plus, I get a bigger rush when I finally encounter a monument, tourist site, building, restaurant, or whatever that I’ve read a lot about. It enlivens my travel experience.

You lived in Calcata to research and write your book. I find I get so much more out of a place when I visit with a purpose rather than just a holiday.
I officially agree. Putting yourself on a quest forces you to get out, talk to people, go to off-the-radar parts of a town or a country that you wouldn’t have normally had an excuse to go to.

Did you see New York with fresh eyes after returning from Italy?
Calcata is made from the same stone—a tan volcanic stone called tufo—from which it sits. So whenever I return to New York from there, I’ll come up on the subway in the West Village where I live and will be amazed by all the colors here in New York. But less literally, when I return to New York from Italy, I’m always a bit shocked by how little New Yorkers interact with each other on the street. People will go far out of their way in the supermarket, for example, so they don’t have to say “excuse me” to get passed you. In Italy there’s a constant interaction with people and it makes you feel much more connected to humanity.

New York is enormous; it can seem overwhelming to first-time (or even third-time!) visitors. Advice?
Avoid chain restaurants and coffee houses. Let a local take you around, as you and Terry do. And get out to the other boroughs. You really can’t get the full Big Apple experience just in Manhattan. The real New Yorkers live in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island.

Down to the important stuff…**

Best New York breakfast?
Egg. An awesome place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The last time I was there I had the duck sandwich, which was also slathered in duck pate.

Favourite place for a browse?
I love the Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side. I love Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt and their peers.

Best coffee stop?
Jack’s. It’s on my block in the West Village and has a great neighborhood feel.

Good place for lunch?
Oh, so many. I’ll go with Hecho en Dumbo, a Mexican place on Bowery and E. 4th St. They have a great two-course lunch for $10 and huge bowls of spicy pozole.

Favourite neighbourhood for a stroll?
Lower East Side. The narrow streets and fire escape-clad tenement buildings are really atmospheric. Plus, if you get thirsty the neighborhood is crammed with great drinking spots.

Best place to kick back?
I love Washington Square Park. When the weather is nice, there’s always something going on. When I walked through the other day, there was a punk rock-looking couple jamming on some accordians and a jazz band playing about 100 feet away. A little further on was a guy playing Bob Dylan songs on an acoustic guitar.

Good dinner spot?
I recently went to Perbacco and was quite impressed. The chef, Simone Bonelli dabbles in molecular gastronomy and he does it well. Think: a Parmigiano crème brulée or a deconstructed carbonara complete with deep-fried spaghetti.

Favourite bar?
There are too many. One that comes to mind, though, is Lolita Bar, on the Lower East Side, where I hold my semi-monthly readings, the Restless Legs reading series.

Bookshop?
I love Idlewild Books, the closest New York has to a travel bookshop***.

Where can we find the most curious and irreverent New York souvenirs?
Obscura, located in the East Village. C’mon, you know you’ve always wanted an 19th-century wooden leg or a creepy vintage ventriloquist dummy!

* Curiously, Farley might not like to be pigeon-holed as a travel writer, but he’s written lots of great travel articles, which you can find here.
** I asked Farley for all these eating and drinking tips cause he’s also written a lot about food. Check out these.
*** Don’t forget to grab a copy of Farley’s book while you’re at Idlewild Books or any other bookstore for that matter.

Jul 27

Our Home Away from Home in the East Village, New York

A snug studio apartment in a tenement building in Alphabet City in the East Village served as our ‘home away from home’ in New York City. You know, those buildings you see in the movies with fire escapes snaking down the exterior. You don’t? Picture Audrey Hepburn strumming Moon River on her guitar on her fire escape in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Got it? Well, accommodation doesn’t get more New York than that!

When we first visited New York some 17 years or so ago, we stayed in a petite room at the Philippe Starck-designed, Ian Schrager-owned Paramount Hotel. We could barely get around the double bed and forget about being able to open our bags, but, hey, we saw Drew Barrymore saunter across the lobby, the bar blasted early Bowie, and the hotel staff wore black (rare in those days). What a special moment in travel history that was – the birth of the boutique hotel as we know it today. Aside from the teensy size rooms the only downside was the touristy Times Square location.

On another trip a couple of years later, we stayed with our friend Scott, a hip-hop producer-cum-jazz muso who lived in Williamsburg before the hipsters moved in and the neighbourhood became fashionable. In those days, taxi drivers asked us for extra money when they dropped us off at Scott’s. “We’re in Williamsburg!” they said in their heavy accents, “How are we going to get a ride back to Manhattan from here?!” My how things have changed.

Our experience on this, our third visit to NYC, took us back to those early stays in some ways. We weren’t sleeping on our friend’s couch this time, nor were we checking into a cool boutique hotel, but it was somehow something in between…

Until Lil, the owner of our building, moved us up to a three-room studio on the third floor that she had just finished renovating, our home for the first few days was a one-room, ground-floor studio. We couldn’t open our bags properly, though we could easily get around the bed, however, while the room may have been compact, it cost half that of an equivalent size space at the Paramount. It also had a kitchen and tables for each of us to work.

While the downstairs studio would be fine for if you’re travelling light and out most of the time, the light-filled studio upstairs was much more spacious and better-suited to a couple spending time in the place. We are working after all.

The style is eclectic shabby chic. Vintage furniture and fittings, such as a distressed wooden kitchen sideboard, sit comfortably beside vibrant striped cushions and rugs, and kitschy lampshades and shower curtains. There is fast Internet access and a big TV, and in the kitchen, there’s a big fridge, a decent stove, and enough pots and pans and other bits and pieces in case you fancy doing a bit of cooking. While the hallways are looking a bit tired, everything is scrubbed shiny and clean inside.

And while there are Schrageresque accommodations nearby, it would seem at odds to be checking into such flashy sleeps in a such a down-to-earth ’hood. The modesty of the digs themselves – which remind us of our old inner-city Sydney terrace houses we used to live in as university students with their chipped paint and worn carpets – are in keeping with the gritty vibe of the ’hood.

Whenever we meet New Yorkers, they inevitably ask our address. Initially a little taken aback with our choice of Alphabet City as a location, when they ask the nearest cross streets – “Oh, we’re between Avenue D and C,” we say – they nod their heads, clearly impressed with our selection.

Alphabet City – a section of the East Village identified as such due to the names of its streets, Avenue A, B, C and D – still has the edginess and authenticity that Williamsburg has lost. It also boasts a rich, colourful history that rivals that of any other ’hood. After all, this was the home of Bebop jazz, the Beat Generation and punk rock.

But for a while, it also happened to be one of New York City’s most dangerous neighbourhoods, with drug dealers openly trading on the streets, gangs operating out of the projects, and Tompkins Square Park serving as a shanty town for the homeless.

Despite the East Village’s increasing, and generally unwelcome, gentrification – restaurants, bars, cafés, and boutiques line its streets – Alphabet City still has a local flavour and authenticity that you won’t find in other neighbourhoods. You’ll still see homeless people and the occasional druggie, and you probably don’t want to be walking down Avenue D too late at night (not everyone is going to feel comfortable here), but it’s a neighbourhood where everyone knows everyone, and you probably wouldn’t find that in Williamsburg, and definitely not on Times Square.

Jul 23

Reflections from 6 Months on the Road & Grand Tour Travel Tips

As we’re now six months into our grand tour and have another six months to go it seemed a good time to reflect on the first half of our travel experiment and share some tips based on what we’ve learned from the experience so far.

Rarely a day passes when we don’t get told “You guys have the best jobs in the world!” And we have to agree that travelling around the world, living like locals, meeting people, and doing and learning things is pretty incredible – being paid to do it even better – and as far as we’re concerned, much more preferable to looking after an island.

But we do appreciate that this style of travel doesn’t suit everyone. Why?

  • we’re staying in holiday rentals instead of hotels – this style of travel won’t work for people who spend a lot of time at the tour desk or talking to the concierge and can’t do without 24-hour room service;
  • we’re trying to live like locals – we’re shopping at local markets, eating and drinking locally, staying in and cooking, doing laundry, watching TV, and we’re even entertaining our new friends;
  • we’re connecting with locals – we’re making an effort to meet people as a way to really get beneath the skin of the places we’re visiting; those who see travel as an escape and prefer privacy (as John Nicholls’ guests do) probably won’t find this focus as fascinating as we do;
  • we’re kicking back in everyday neighbourhoods rather than ticking off sights (in Paris, we didn’t even climb the Eiffel Tower) – this won’t suit first-time visitors to a city who are intent on seeing the star attractions;
  • like the early grand tourists we’re learning things, from musical instruments to making macarons and offerings, and we’re doing stuff, from walking tours to mountain hikes – it won’t appeal to those who prefer lying on a beach or soaking in a spa;
  • not all people are made for round-the-world travel (RTW) – although grand touring couples like Kathryn and Daniel and nomadic families like Soultravelers3 seem to do it adeptly while raising a child!;
  • we’re travelling sustainably – wherever possible, we’re honing in on the home-grown, going organic, and travelling green; we’re seeking out local artisans, artists and craftspeople; we’re eating local produce and buying local products; and we’re shopping at local farmer’s markets and small ‘mom ’n pop stores’ rather than huge multinationals; and
  • we’re using food and wine as a way into a culture – okay, well, perhaps that’s something that does appeal to everyone!

We’re not only going to muse about local travel, experiential travel and sustainable travel over the next weeks, but we’ll also be sharing advice based on our experiences these last six months on the road.

Not everything has gone swimmingly – even after 4.5 years* living out of our suitcases, we still make the occasional poor decision. For example, we’ve selected a couple of properties that didn’t meet our expectations, we’ve sometimes not met people early enough in our stays, we’ve missed a few great opportunities, and we’ve even resorted to using a guidebook once or two. But fortunately we’ve learned from those mistakes.

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll share advice on everything from planning a yearlong round-the-world trip to choosing the right holiday rental, from tips on how to connect with locals to how to travel more sustainably.

If there are any topics you’d like us to cover or any questions you have, please do leave them in the Comments below.

* Prior to embarking on our Grand Tour in early 2010 we completed our fourth year of continuous travel and living on the road (mainly in hotels) as travel writers. So you’d think we’d know better…

Jul 22

A Balinese Royal Cremation Ceremony

Kiki was adamant. “There is a Royal Cremation tomorrow,” she told us, “You must go!” Our villa manager, Kiki had made it her mission to ensure we were getting the breadth of Bali’s local experiences.

And while I’m not one for taking photos at funerals (err, or weddings, for that matter), Kiki was right. Mengwi’ Queen Ida Tjokorda Istri Winten from Puri Ageng Mengwi had passed away and, as a cremation of the highest level, it was an event not to be missed.

While I had the first leg of a long haul flight to the United States later that day, I got up early so I could be there by 8am to photograph the event. (Lara sadly had to stay home.) The only problem was that when I arrived they were nowhere near ready with the preparations and the cremation was scheduled for noon – when we were meant to be on our way to the airport.

Fortunately, the preparations were fascinating – teams of people were in charge of different elements and were hurrying about getting ready for the event, putting up decorations and arranging offerings – and the disappointment of missing the actual cremation was offset by the atmosphere, the friendliness of the staff looking after the press there to cover the event, and the gamelan orchestra that was playing.

The woman in charge of the journalists and photojournalists insisted that I get out of the sun and have a cup of coffee and eat the little package of rice and other goodies they provided. The gamelan orchestra was wonderful, with both wind and string instruments present, as well as the usual metallophones, xylophones, drums and gongs.

I may not have seen the cremation itself, but my experience of the event reinforced the warmth of the Balinese people and the depth of their rich culture.

Now that was an experience getting up early for – and one I wouldn’t have had at Kuta beach!

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