Empire state of mind

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I’m not quite sure when the dream began but a 1990s guidebook is evidence of it beginning many years ago. The city itself never really seemed close though – we went to France and Spain for our holidays, I related to New York only through images – the horror of 9/11 and then all the films and photos in both colour and black and white. Part of me almost didn’t want to really go there because the reality could only be a disappointment. And then last year we decided to cross the pond and I spent months and weeks in giddy anticipation counting down, reading all the travel guides, watching all my favourite films, not quite believing that my dream was coming true. I will never forget the view from above, just before landing, looking out at a landscape totally unlike anything I had seen before and the reflections of the setting sun perched on the horizon. And those first moments when we saw the shimmering skyline of Manhattan for the first time from the cab crossing the Queensboro Bridge – is that really the Chrysler Building? The humidity hit us like a sledgehammer when emerging rather tired and travel stained but full of excitement that night. Exploring would have to wait until the following day though.

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We checked in at the Best Western Premier Herald Square which I definitely recommend. A small room (but then this is Manhattan) but amazingly quiet and a great location. Staying just 5 minutes away from the Empire State Building made it a natural choice for our first destination. Definitely take your time looking out at the skyline through the glass on the lower level in air conditioned comfort first – I rushed things in my eagerness to get outside.The humidity was intense, even at 9am, and crowds clustered at every corner of the observation deck but nothing could dim the thrill of being that high with the city at our feet.

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The stones of Florence

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The cathedral and Santa Maria Novella

After returning from Florence almost three weeks ago, it’s difficult to put into words exactly how it made me feel. What could I possibly add that hasn’t been said before? Part of me almost expected to be disappointed, especially in comparison with Venice, my favourite city. Florence is certainly not without its irritations – I cannot describe it as a city for walkers like Paris – despite its compactness, luggage rolls over the narrow, uneven pavements at most hours of the day, vespas and taxis prevent you walking in the road and even in the pedestrianised zones, there are bicycles, refuse collectors and delivery vehicles to consider. Unlike in Venice, it is much more difficult to find a quiet spot. Nearly every church or museum is invaded by tour groups; almost every sight is surrounded by selfie takers. And yet in spite of this and myself, I became a little more bewitched by the city each day. Walking out each morning and seeing the stunning black and white façade of Santa Maria Novella, seeing the familiar massive form of the Duomo grow ever closer at the end of the street, looking up to discover something unexpected and beautiful on every corner, never ceasing to be amazed by the evening sun on the façade of the cathedral and the campanile, sipping hot chocolate at Gilli’s while looking out at the Piazza della Reppublica, dodgling puddles in the Bobboli Gardens and admiring the lush Tuscan countryside around, taking a break on the Uffizi terrace and at the café at the Spedale degli Innocenti to bask in the autumn sunshine and admire the stunning panoramic views of the city. Since returning, I haven’t been able to get Florence out of my head. I long to be there again and my heart is full of regret for the things I didn’t have time to do.

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Donatello’s statue of St. George outside Orsanmichaele and its stunning nave

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The Palazzo Vecchio

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Inside the Baptistry

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Visiting Santa Maria Novella

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The Boboli Gardens

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I’ll be back with some more impressions of Florence very soon.

The fragrance of summers past

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Impressions of my first trip abroad are still vivid in my mind. Our departure in the early hours of the morning, sitting in the back seat of the car in between my two older half-brothers and spending the long journey to Dover listening to cassettes on my Walkman (though whether it was the Beatles or ’80s pop, I couldn’t possibly tell you). And then after so long on the road, suddenly catching sight of the sea, that mass of blue with the seagulls squawking overhead. It never ceases to astonish me. Travelling by ferry really makes you feel you’re going somewhere, watching the boat pull away from those famous white cliffs while strangers on the quay wave you off. And then just under an hour later, seeing the French coast emerge. We drove with our caravan to a campsite on the coast of Brittany. Every morning, my parents took me for walks along the seemingly endless and beautiful beaches.

I recall the taste of galettes with cheese and of crêpes with ice cream. And most vividly of all, I remember trying to look in through the gap in a circus tent on our campsite to catch a glimpse of a magician and his glamorous assistant doing a show before getting caught by one of the staff and told off in incomprehensible French.

If summer had a particular scent back then, it was probably my mother’s Mitsouko which I secretly used to spritz and later on my eldest half brother’s bottle of YSL Kouros until he complained about me using too much. Or perhaps my American aunt who rented a house in Brighton where we spent one summer. She always smelled of Giorgio Beverly Hills which made me think of those striped yellow awnings I had seen in my favourite TV show back then, Beverly Hills 90210.

The first summer scents of my own were Ô de Lancôme, Clarins Eau Dynamisante, Prescriptives Calyx and Estée Lauder’s Pleasures. The last one was a particular favourite, worn the summer I finished high school when spent the long holidays in the garden, reading under the apple tree. I was reminded of this after finding a bottle the other day in a discount store and felt inspired to recommend some of my other current favourite summer fragrances paired with books for summer I love. Alongside Pleasures in the first shot. I chose a delightful Moomin book which never fails to lift my spirits and will make you long for adventures.

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I love the greenness of this Diptyque fragrance which counters the sweetness of the figs. There are many other fig fragrances out there but for me, this is the best. This classic book transports you back to Greece before mass tourism and is a delightful account of childhood discovery and English eccentricities. Frequently adapted for television but none have the charm or magic of the original.

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The first time I tried this classic fragrance, I found it rather intimidating but with a little patience, I’ve become addicted to its green sharpness which comes into its own in summer. Heartless but utterly brilliant, rather like this Evelyn Waugh masterpiece.

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I cannot wear Acqua di Parma without thinking of Venice. I wore it every day on my trip there last year and saw it in almost every shop window. Although I recognise that the Colonia Intensa is probably a more complex and interesting fragrance, this is still my favourite. I cannot get enough of it citrussy opening and sexy woodiness, warmed by the sun. It’s the essence of summer for me. The Brodsky is probably the best book ever written about Venice by a Russian poet in exile who loved the city as much as I do.

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I love No 5 and wear it all year but on hot days, it’s nice to have something lighter. I consider all the fragrances here unisex but this one smells especially nice on men with more vetiver than in the original. I also much prefer it to last year’s lighter version of the classic. Paired with a lovely Folio edition of a wonderful book which inevitably makes you think of No 5’s most famous wearer.

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Created for the Duke of Marlborough in 1902 and worn by Winston Churchill, this is an invigorating  blend of citrus, woods and spices and goes perfectly with Tove Jansson’s stories of summer on an island which has to be one of the best holiday reads ever which its quirkiness, humour and poignancy.

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Cristalle was created to remind us of the dazzling structure of a crystal. It’s a citrus chypre and its crisp opening makes me think of the dazzling California sunshine and beauty described in Ross Macdonald’s crime novels which mask a bitter heart. This is the reason why I love reading noirs in summer. I bought the Eau de Parfum which is a little softer and was developed much later but next time will try the Eau de Toilette which is closer to the original by Henri Robert from 1974.

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Acqua di Parma has always been my favourite cologne. Until I tried this one from Les Exclusifs. It’s the kind of fragrance you want to drown yourself in all day which explains why the large bottle is always sold out and its dazzling, polished beauty goes perfectly with the magnificent prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tragic masterpiece set in the South of France.

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I was inspired to buy this thoroughly delicious Guerlain scent after reading how much my friends Jan and Patricia love it. Depending on your point of view, it may make you think of sherbet lemons or freshly pressed lemon juice but the fact that it reminds me of them makes it extra special. Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle is my absolute favourite summer book, best read around midsummer. It’s full of the dreams and heartbreak of youth. Quintessentially English.

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My current summer read. It’s the perfect companion for a long journey – compelling, beautifully written and moving. Guerlain’s Après l’Ondée is a very old and magical scent which is like a soft blanket and reminds you of flowers in the garden after the rain with violets, irises  and carnations.

Winter light

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Photo taken on the train to London, 2009

December 1990: A blizzard swept over the country, bringing down all the power lines and, to my great delight, closing my school. The world became an enormous playground where everything was an adventure. The garden was a place for snowball fights and building the craziest snow creatures and people. When my father and I drove out (what madness without snow chains or winter tyres) to collect my half-brother who was studying at university nearby, we stocked up with vast quantities of chocolate and biscuits for worst case scenarios, although these mysteriously  disappeared without trace later. Every day, we all ventured out for long walks to buy fresh supplies as our freezer was out of use. But best of all were the evenings when we toasted bread in front of the fire, lit the candles and read to each other from our favourite books. A particular highlight was my mother reading the classic section from George and Wheedon Grossmith’s ‘The Diary of a Nobody’ where Mr. Pooter paints his bath red and ends up looking like Marat in David’s painting after using it. She could never quite forgive my father for falling asleep at that part or for him using the antique bed warmer. An heirloom which had been in the family for some time, it proved to be disastrous and leaked water everywhere, forcing my parents to spend a miserable night in the living room until their bed had dried. Utterly worthless, it hangs on the wall today, superfluous but never failing to make me smile each time I see it.

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The sight of snow brings back memories of that winter and those quiet nights in the time before computers and smartphones. What that in mind, I’ve selected a few classic winter images which I hope you will enjoy, even if you consider snow more of a nuisance than a delight.

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A streetcar stuck in New York after a freak snowstorm in 1936

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Traffic chaos in New York, 1967

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A man walking through Montmartre cemetery, 1946, by Ed Clark

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The Eiffel Tower, 1948, by Dmitri Kessel

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The Paris Opéra in 1942 by Robert Doisneau

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On the Rhine, 1956, by Henri Cartier-Bresson

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Washington Square, 1954, by André Kertész

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Car tracks in the snow by Bramham Gardens, London, 1940s, by Eileen Agar

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A snowball fight in Trafalgar Square, 1931

Berlin in November

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Night falls on Ku’damm, Berlin’s famous shopping street

My mood going to Berlin was a little sombre. November has that effect, especially in the German capital where you rarely see the sun and darkness falls at 4pm, and the victory of Donald Trump just a few days earlier made it hard to feel positive about anything. But miraculously, after weeks of rain, the sun returned for my visit and the stunning colours of the trees in all the wonderful parks and streets lifted my spirits. And even when the rain did return towards the end of my trip, there were old favourites to return to like the cafe at the Literaturhaus on Fasanenstrasse, which I cannot visit without thinking of this post, Café Einstein on Unter den Linden for the old fashioned café au lait and the most enormous piece of German cheesecake which I miss so much, the excellent Buecherbogen and the Autorenbuchhandlung bookshops on Savignyplatz, Quartier 206, Galeries Lafayette and Dussmann on Friedrichstrasse, the Film Museum and the Sony Center cinema at Potsdamer Platz. It’s a shame the staff at the Helmut Newton Foundation are so unfriendly because I really love the building and the collection, but it was a great pleasure to see the C/O’s Gordon Parks’ exhibition at the Amerika House where the atmosphere is much more relaxed and you can even sneak a photo. Hope the photos will inspire you to take a trip to Berlin as well.

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Flying to Berlin Tegel

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First view of the Spree

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In Tiergarten

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The view from the top of the Siegessaeule towards Potsdamer Platz

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The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

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Der Rufer/ The Crier on Strasse des 17. Juni

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The Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park

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I love the trees on Puschkinallee

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The Molecule Man sculpture, with the Oberbaum Bridge in the background

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Bikini Berlin, formerly a rather seedy place with sex shops, now one of the chicest, coolest places to shop and hang out

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At the zoo where most of the animals sensibly stayed inside on this cold day, with a few exceptions

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The Literaturhaus cafe

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One of my favourite places for French films and cultural events

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The Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz

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The cinema at the Sony Center

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Shopping at Quartier 206

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Galeries Lafayette where I always buy French books and then go for afternoon tea

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Some images from the excellent Gordon Parks exhibition at the C/O

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A rare selfie

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The World Clock on Alexanderplatz

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Marx and Engels

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Elegant columns by the Neues Museum

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Enjoying my favourite snack before flying back to the UK

Venice, part 2

IMG_1900 As promised, more photos from my trip. It seems strange to think I was there just one week ago – everything since my return has been rather chaotic and there’s a sharpness in the air and a real feeling of autumn here. I’m glad to be able to return to the beautiful skies and see the light of Venice again.

San Giorgio Maggiore and La Giudecca

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The interior of Palladio’s masterpiece.

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The view from the top of the campanile of San Giorgio.

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La Giudecca

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Santa Maria della Salute

Burano

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I love the brightly coloured houses and canals of this island, as well as its crooked wooden spire, but come early to avoid the huge numbers of people later on.

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Torcello

Just a short hop across the lagoon lies Torcello with its byzantine church, so beautifully described by Ernest Hemingway who stayed on the island while he was writing ‘Across the River and Into the Trees’. I loved seeing the stunning mosaics of Santa Maria Assunta, climbing the ramps to the top of the tower to look out over the watery landscapes around and walking among the Cypress trees and Oleander in this place which time seems to have forgotten.

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Isola San Michele

As ridiculous and morbid as it may sound, this cemetery on an island has been my favourite place in Venice since I first went there, back in 2009. It’s a refuge from all the noise and crowds, a place to sit and reflect. Taking the boat there from Fondamente Nuove always makes me think of Boecklin’s famous painting, The Isle of the Dead.

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Poetry left by Brodsky’s grave.

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I always find the sight of these ballet shoes tied around Diaghilev’s grave so moving.

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My favourite spot on San Michele.

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While waiting for the vaporetto to take me back to the mainland, I saw the most beautiful evening sky and knew I had to capture it.

Venice, part 1

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I left the apartment in San Polo in darkness each morning, scuttling past the street sweepers and those going to work to congregate with fellow photographers, armed with tripods, on the Rialto or Saint Mark’s Square, awaiting the moment when the sky would change from dark blue to an ever more intense pink, until finally the first golden rays touched the tops of the buildings. Walking back, I stopped to pick up fresh cornetti filled with jam, custard or almonds.

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Returning to Venice after four years, I rediscovered old friends like the St. Mark’s Basilica, San Giorgio Maggiore and Il Redentore, Caffè Florian, the Accademia Bridge, the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation and my favourite place, Isola San Michele, where Cypress trees stand like tapered church candles watching over the souls of Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Brodsky and my father, whose ashes my mother and I scattered on our trip there last time.

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But there was also the joy of seeing new places like Burano, Torcello and a day spent in Vicenza.

I became so used to the movement of the the vaporetti that I can still feel the sensation of being on the water three days after getting back, as if I had really become part of the city. When the moment came to leave, tears rolled down my face without knowing the reason why – perhaps moved by so much beauty or perhaps overcome by the emotions and sadness of four years ago. It’s impossible to describe all that I saw and felt there so I’ll share some photos with you in the next few posts which I hope will bring back good memories or inspire you to take a trip to La Serenissima soon as well.

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Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus – Peace be unto you, Mark, my evangelist. The Latin motto of Venice.

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Il Ponte dei Sospiri

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First breakfast

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Dramatic view of San Giorgio Maggiore

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One of the mosaics located on the exterior of St. Mark’s Basilica

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At Florian’s

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Tartufo and, in the background, cioccolata calda

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When I left Florian’s, the musicians outside were playing Scott Joplin