Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Pride of Baltimore

Pride of Baltimore

Original text by Katie Knorovsky; Executive summary by darmansjah

A CIVIL WAR-ERA cannon points its barrel at the Baltimore Harbor from Federal Hill Park, above a sentinel of waterfront luxury condos. Yet the real eye-catcher stands between-a three-story kaleidoscope of glass shards spackled onto the American Visionary Art Museum, an exuberant haven for self-taught artists. Such microcosms play out all around this Maryland Port, where centuries of history loom large and a newly buoyant tax base adds gloss, while a mosaic of colorful neighborhoods, vibrant art and music scenes, and a deep-rooted sports culture still shines through. “Baltimore tends to be an informal town that can make fun of itself,” says local arts advocate Megan Hamilton. “There’s an authenticity here that people appreciate.”

DAY ONE. MORNING Step into the Gilded Age Before Old Bay Seasoning and Michael Phelps’s Olympic records, another Baltimore contribution changed America: the steam powered locomotive. To glimpse how the rail rush shaped the city-and filled the coffers of the elite-head to Mount Vernon, populated with the grand town houses of Gilded Age industrialists and the free institution they gave the city, such as the palazzo-style Walters Art Museum, with a 17th-century cabinet of curiosities, and the Peabody Library, with tiered ironwork and preserved tomes under a latticed skylight. Farther north, tree-lined Charles Village leads to the Evergreen House, the “country” estate of the Garrett family railroad dynasty. A guided tour of the pale yellow mansion reveals rare Tiffany lamps, a Leon Bakst-designed theater with Russian folk stencils, and telling relics such as an opulent opium bed. The Egar Degas and Diego Rivera paintings in the home serve as appetizers for the free Baltimore Museum of Art, with the modern-art anthology of Claribel and Etta Cone (500 Matisses, 114 Picassos, and thousands of others) that hung in the sisters’ Baltimore apartments in the early 20th century. Andy Warhol’s monumental “Last Supper” print holds the spotlights in the new $24.5 million Contemporary Wing.

AFTERNOON Meet the hons Baltimore thrives on the tightrope walk between highbrow and lowbrow, so balance your cultured morning with the kitsch klatch of Hampden, where the beehive hairdos of brassy 1960s diner waitresses-aka ‘hons’-endure thanks to native film maker John Waters (Hairspray, Pink Flamingos). These days businesswoman Denis Whiting has taken up the charge at her retro Café Hon-going so far as to trademark ‘hon,’ only to give the term back after months of hate mail. For an over the top lunch without the controversy, Golden West Café serves Elvis Pancakes any hour, piled with bananas and stuffed with bacon. Tucked among vintage and antiques emporiums along ‘the avenue’ (actually 36th street), Sixteen Tons sells sea-mineral aftershave and men’s selvaged denim inside a 19th-century bank building, and Atomic Books stocks graphic zines and Iggy Pop bobbleheads. A world apart, the rehabbed Clipper Mill and Union Mill are worth detouring down the hill for Japanese cold-brewed iced coffee at Artifact and blown glass from a Dale Chihuly protégé at Corradetti studio and gallery.

EVENING Creative commons If Mount Vernon says 19th century and Hampden smacks of the 1960s, the story of today’s Baltimore unfolds in Highlandtown, an immigrant neighborhood of Fomstone row houses huddled east of Patterson Park’s restored 1890 pagoda (its spiraling stari-case open to climb Sunday afternoons through October). “Highlandtown is classic Baltimore-white marble stoops and painted window screens (a local folk art tradition), great ethnic restaurants, and an old-fashioned shopping stretch,” says Megan Hamilton, co-founder of the Creative Alliance, operating out of the neon-marqueed Patterson Theater, built in 1910, which stages everything from burlesque to serious jazz. No matter the billing, expect a convivial crowd lingering in the glow of the mural-a swirl of orange and red-at the on-site Marquee Lounge for its bistro menu (wasabi edamame, beer-braised pork belly).

DAY TWO. MORNING The feminie mystique Oprah got her break as a Baltimore news anchor in the 1970s-merely one in a line of powerful women to use the city as a launchpad. A quiet edge of Little Italy, east of the Inner Harbor, testifies to three other history makers. Down the block from an alfresco bocce court and hydrants striped red, white, and green is a sign for “Via Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi.” The speaker of the House grew up on Albermarle Street as the mayor’s daughter and surely developed her famed sweet tooth at old-world bakeries such as Vaccaro’s, where you can zip up your day with espresso and cannoli. Nearby stands the modest brick colonial where Mary Pickersgill stitched the 15-star flag that, after flying over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry in 1814, inspired Francis Scott Key to compose his ode to the “star-spangled banner.” The original flag is preserved at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., but here a glass remix sparkles in the sun, fronting the interpretive Star-Spangled Banner Flag House. Next door, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum honors Maryland native Harriet Tubman’s legacy (and the 100th anniversary of her death) with contemporary photos and art by Underground Railroad descendants (through June 23).

AFTERNOON Walter world Once second to Ellis Island in port arrivals, Baltimore’s harbor front has anchored the city since the 1700s, bringing in a heady blend-bawdy sailors and prostitutes, Frederick Douglas and Edgar Allan Poe, and, now, rowdy pubgoers and joggers on the seven-mile Harbor Promenade. The harbor offers endless places to lunch on the Maryland blue crab, with Duda’s Tavern in Fells Point serving one of the best crab cakes (no filler). A cheap pint of National Bohemian (‘Natty Boh’) is the classic pairing, but unlike the winking Mr. Boh, Resurrection ale and Heavy Seas Loose Cannon are actually brewed nearby. Walk off lunch along shop-lined Thames and Broadway and on to Harbor East, an upscale retail enclave radiating around a gold-flamed memorial to Polish victims of WWII. Chain stores and a Four Seasons have recently move in, but local standbys include jewel-box Amaryllis and wine boutique Bin 604. Follow the Harbor Promenade west toward the Inner Harbor, a riot of attraction ranging from dragon shaped rental paddleboats and an armada of tall ships-including the 1854 U.S.S. Constellation-to the shark-finned National Aquarium and Harborplace, a complex of shopping and dining pavilions. Cool off by the ‘dancing’ water fountain on the harbor’s west side, not far from the Oriole’s retro ballpark that spawned a generation of imitations, Camden Yards, or join commuters aboard a blue-and-white water taxi.

EVENING Local sparklers Before the sun begins to set, vie for a spot on the terrace of WaterfrontKitchen, a relative newcomer on the tip of Thames Street, jutting into the harbor. Its upmarket ‘seed to plate’ menu highlights Maryland water cress and Chesapeake Bay rockfish, but the view of the red-neon Domino Sugars sign is the true toast of the house. Or water-taxi across the harbor to the Rusty Scupper stop near the glittering American Visionary Art Museum for its top-floor restaurant, Mr. Rain’s Fun House. From there, continue your culture quest for some drama downtown at Center Stage-now celebrating 50-years- to the city’s lates designated arts district, Westside, with the new Everyman Theatre in the shadow of the century-old, crenellated Bromo Seltzer clock tower

ART IN THE AIR:  June 1 and 15, The Bromo Seltzer Tower opens its 30 artist studios to the public. Attendees bedecked in beehive hairdos are the works of art at Hampden’s HonFest (June 8-9), a street party featuring a local beauty pageant. Artspace (July 19-21) will transform downtown into the U.S.’s largest free arts festival, with a juried market, outlandishly decorated cars, stages for music and theater, and family art demos.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Bad Timing, Good Vacation

Executive summary by darmansjah

I AM TEMPTED TO ENTER the oh-so-charming new Manhattan café, but then I notice a recent rave review proudly hanging in the window. Is the café now so popular that it won’t accommodate a walkin customer like me? Fearful of being turned away, I hesitate outside, then recover my gumption and swan in boldly without a reservation. To my astonishment, the manager is at my side in a blink of an eye with a menu: “Table for one?” Later, as I wait for my order to arrive, I pull out my mobile phone and impulsively call a spa that I have been longing to try out. “Why, yes, we do have massage appointments available today,” trills the spa receptionist at the other of the line.

Sometimes, traveling in a packed, noisy city is an endurance test; right now, though, I’m like a mild-mannered  reporter suddenly gifted with super powers. Taxis screech to the curb at the slightest flutter of my palm, and every bus I catch ahs an empty-window!-seat. More than eight million people live in New York City, but today it is mine, all mine. Mainly because I am staking my claim to the city when almost nobody else wants it: on a 92-degree Saturday afternoon in the last week of July.

When it comes to crowds, I’ve always been a grumpy traveler, and many of my travel habits evolved from my desire to ditch the pack. Does the guidebook suggest the road that leads to the right? I turn left. Is everybody planning trips based on colorful memoirs about living in Venice and Provence? I head for little-known wine regions in Spain, to castles with difficult-to-pronounce names in Serbia. I compile lists of natural wonders that aren’t quite wonderful enough for UNESCO World Heritage designation. I go for cool sounding second-or third-tier cities in China and South Korea.

Up until a few years ago, my road-less-traveled instincts served me well. I never had much trouble finding places I could enjoy without the headache of making hotel and museum reservations month in advance, and then standing in a long time, craning my neck over the heads of strangers to see the views.

But that was before wanderlust swept the planet. More than a billion people traveled for pleasure last year. Even worse: Many travelers aren’t keeping their secret places to themselves. Nowadays, to travel is to “share”-not just with family and friends but with your 5,000  twitter followers. As travelers, we navigate a world that is getting smaller every day, bursting at the seams with others keen on exploring it too. This calls for new strategies.

I have one, and with a nod to the great New Orleans piano player Dr. John, I call it: “Wrong Place, Wrong Time.” Decades ago, with more time than money for travel, I learned what budget travelers learn: it’s cheaper to go somewhere when nobody else is going there. Of course there is usually a good reason why a particular season is “off,” as I discovered the first time I booked a discounted cottage for a September Caribbean vacation. Worrisome breezes welcomed me to the island, along with a shout from the hotel manager, perched on a ladder and nailing boards across the windows: “Hurricane com-in’!”

All night the winds wailed palm fronds and coconuts tumbled to the ground as the storm passed  season guest at the hotel bar, I drank rum and shared stories until dawn to the flicker of emergency candles. The next morning I woke up with a whopping hangover, and a revelation: When you travel against the calendar, the upside isn’t just economic. Thanks to my “bad” timing, I came home from my budget friendly vacation with something much better: a traveler’s tale.

By choosing to visit the wrong place at the wrong time, not only do I lose the crowds; I almost always experience my surroundings, especially familiar ones, in an unexpected way. This is where dreaded jet lag can be a friend; it ensures that you’ll be awake and eager to roam the streets of, say, Hong Kong or London during the wee hours, when those restless cities slow to a crawl and seem to turn into a grainy black and white, like a silent movie.

Even when you’re not jumping across time zones, shifting your travel activities to a “wrong” hour can mean having a place to yourself, leading to a feeling that you’re somewhere new without having left the same destination. The California geyser that fizzes at midday to the applause of crowd turns, you discover, into a mighty, erupting dragon in moonlit solitude. The Mexican market town that honks with cars and pickup trucks all morning softens into a Gabriel Garcia Marques short story during the dead hours of the afternoon siesta.

Sweat is trickling down the backs of my knees in the 92-degree streets of New York in July. The heat rising from the asphalt is so thick and intense that I can see it ripple. If the taxi that just pulled up to whisk me to my next city adventure has no air-conditioning, I may melt in the backseat.

Traveling at the wrong time, against the clock and calendar, isn’t always the easiest or most comfortable ride. But the destination will be yours, and yours alone. In the wrong place, at the wrong time, I’ll take Manhattan, with pleasure.

Monday, July 21, 2014


Art Walk

Executive summary by darmansjah

An Art historian provides the narrative during daily hiking jaunts. There are long nature walks, such as the one through the Palava hills reserve, samplings of Czech beer and Moravian wine, and tours of Prague and the beautifully preserved city of Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its baroque and Gothic architecture. The Wayfarers: “Vienna to Prague,” 8days: $4,195