That’s the name of my favorite TV travel series ever. It stars the unlikely pair of mega-chef Mario Batali and Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow along with NY Times food columnist Mark Bitten and the adorable Spanish actress Claudia Bassols. They drive around Spain for thirteen episodes, eating and talking. As each of them have careers to attend, they fly off on occasion to handle kids or chores, leaving the others to come together as mix-and-match pairs, triplets, and occasional quartets. That shakes up the dynamics in entertaining ways as they react to various sights and stimuli along the route. Conversations linger and meander, full of joshing and gastronomical insights. And this is my kind of travel: They give nods to architecture and history in passing from one meal to another, as when they drive by the massive walls of Avila, the Roman aqueduct of Segovia, and the ponderously gloomy El Escorial palace, on their way to what really matters to the participants and viewers – food and drink.

The show plays erratically on PBS stations. We probably haven’t even seen every last one and are delighted to come across a new one, not that we mind watching repeats. There’s a companion coffee table book, of course, Spain…A Culinary Road Trip, written primarily by Mario, but with snatches of dialog from the show, plenty of photos, and a fair number of recipes. A DVD is available. These last are grouped to represent the cuisines of the various regions. The one reproduced below is from Galicia, in the far northwest corner of the peninsula.

Caldo Gallego Serves 4 to 6

½ pound slab bacon, diced

1 cup dried white beans, soaked overnight in water to cover

1 large onion, diced

2 baking potatoes, peeled and diced

2 turnips, peeled and diced

½ pound Spanish (not Mexican) chorizo, casings removed and sliced ¼ inch thick

1 pound dark leafy greens such as turnip greens or kale, stemmed and coarsely chopped

Cook the bacon over medium heatv in a heavy pot large enough to contain all the ingredients, until most of the fat is rendered, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain the beans, add them to the pot, along with enough water to cover them by two inches. Bring to a boil. Skim off the foam, then lower the heat and simmer gently, partially covered, for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the beans are beginning to soften.

Add the onion, potatoes, and turnips and cook for 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are softened. Add the chorizo and greens and cook for 10 more minutes, or until the greens are tender. Serve.

Clean Lucre

Money, money. We have less, but it buys more, and not just at those 50% to 75% discount sales we’ve been seeing. A euro cost almost $1.60 a year ago this May. Lately, it’s been bouncing around $1.40 (although who knows what next week will bring.) That means that a Rome hotel that cost €200 ($320) a night last year would cost $280 tonight. With a six-night stay, that means $240 less. Given similar savings for restaurants, cabs, shopping, and sightseeing tours, not to mention dramatically lower airfares even in the middle of summer, a European escape can cost 25% to 30% less than it did in 2008.

If France is on the itinerary, there’s even more incentive to start planning. France’s VAT (Valued-Added Tax) has long been one of Europe’s highest, at a thumping 19.6%, applied to most goods and services (the cost of a rental car there is nothing less than hair-raising). But relief has arrived, a measure, at least. Beginning July 1st, the VAT is to be lowered to 5.5% in restaurants. Assuming that restaurants pass along the saving, a meal for two that totaled $150 on June 30th will drop to about $132 the next day. Over that hypothetical six-night stay, that could mean a food discount of over $220 – enough for a last-night splurge at a Michelin one-star.

Here in the States, the Berkshires region of Massachusetts has embarked on an interesting experiment: They’re printing their own money. This is entirely legal. While only the federal government can issue coins, any legitimate municipal or regional entity can design and print bills. Here at the western edge of the state, well over two million BerkShares, as the currency is called, have been circulated by branches of five banks. Nearly four hundred businesses have signed on to accept the money, the intent to promote first-choice use of local professionals and enterprise. The benefit to users? The exchange rate at participating banks is 95 U.S. dollars for 100 BerkShares, which are printed in denominations from one to 50. The designs of the bills feature portraits of such local luminaries as Norman Rockwell and Herman Melville.

Down By The River

Urban planning can work, contrary to theorist Jane Jacobs’ shrill screeds, and Battery Park City, on the Hudson River edge of lowest Manhattan, is a heartening example. Since the heart of the development is just four lanes across West Street from Ground Zero, it would surely enrage bin Laden to know that the 14,000-plus residents continue to expand in both number and satisfaction. Unlike the controversial “urban renewal” projects of the Fifties and Sixties, Battery Park City didn’t require the razing of established (if depressed) neighborhoods to build complexes of apartment blocks that too often resembled the Stalinist bleakness of the former Iron Curtain satellite nations. Instead, B.P.C. was built upon new land – the rocks and dirt provided by the excavation for the World Trade Center and from dredgings from New York harbor.
To provide what amounts to a community gathering place, the handsome World Financial Center was erected across the street from the Twin Towers and filled not only with companies engaged in financial dealings, including American Express and Dow Jones, but with shops, restaurants, a ferry terminal, and a marina for private yachts known as North Cove. In the soaring atrium known as the Winter Garden are live palm trees.
The first neighborhood encountered at the north end of the development contains a new building for the elite public Stuyvesant High School, a hotel, theater, and shopping mall to serve the residents of the several apartment buildings. South of the Financial Center are the primary residential districts, deploying low- to high-rise structures that are both harmonious in appearance and yet varying substantially in design.
Separating the subdivisions are east-west pocket parks permitting quiet activities beneath trees flowering every April. At their waterside ends are symbolic gateways of discretely different design, lending each district a touch of individuality. Dog runs, community gardens, and tennis and basketball courts are spotted along the West Street edge. On the ground floors facing inland are installed delis, drycleaners, compact supermarkets, pizza parlors, bank branches, daycare centers – most of the services required by the young families that increasingly make B.P.C. their home.
An esplanade runs along the Hudson from the top end of the development well over two miles south to where it merges into the park for which it is named. They are lined with bushes, flower beds, and groves of trees, and provide unobstructed vistas of the surprisingly attractive Jersey skyline and down to the south, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. At the southern end, the gardens widen and the paths intentionally begin to meander. Cyclists, runners, skateboarders, and pedestrians take full advantage; amorous couples occupy benches, devotees work through their yoga routines.
For the last time (sob), we borrowed the Battery Park City pied-à-terre of our son, the computer genius. He has been assigned duty in flyover country and no longer has need of the apartment. We made the most of our stay. First stop was the Macy’s Flower Show at the main Herald Square location, one of those events we’ve meant to attend for decades and never got around to working up the energy. (New Yorkers are like that. Born in The Bronx, I last visited the Statue of Liberty when I was five, about a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor.) Despite the throngs, it was worth the time. The displays occupied the shelves above the sales counters on the ground floor – flamboyant, voluptuous, opulent displays of leaping plants and blooms of exotic origin. There were guided tours every twenty minutes. An invaluable experience for enthusiastic gardeners, it didn’t test the patience of children nor of those adults who have no closer relationship to nature than a potted geranium on the windowsill.
Lunch was two blocks south, in what passes for Koreatown, basically one long midtown block. Hip-to-hip restaurants and variety stores invite consideration, but if numbers of patrons are any indication, Kunjig (9 West 32nd St., 212-216-9487) has to be the most popular on the street. The inside is all weatherbeaten wood – floors, benches, tables – battered by the eager eaters who swarm the place 24 hours a day. The wait for a seat isn’t long; the scurrying hosts quickly find places to squeeze in all comers.
Skip the appetizers, since they quickly bring out no fewer than eight bowls and plates of various tastes to keep you busy until the mains arrive (very shortly). The prelims include pickled daikon, leaves of spicy fried tofu, kimchi, strips of crispy beef, and scrambled eggs. Entrées arrived in a slam-bang delivery, kimchi godol bibimbob (rice in a heated stone pot with that vinegary pickled cabbage and vegetables, pork, and a fried egg) and mandoo jjim (steamed dumplings). It was all tasty, if not transporting. The bill arrived without asking. Gotta turn those tables. For all this, with a couple of beers, including tax but not tip, we paid $51, our cheapest meal of the trip.

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Where In The World…?


Scroll Down For Answers

Summer Swimmers

With every fragile hint of Spring – peeks of emerging crocuses, wisps of fragrant breezes – I summon images of tropical fruits and seafood. Braised meats and beef stews are so January. If you share my proclivity for seafood over beef, here are simple recipes to take advantage of some of the less expensive fish appearing in markets this time of year.

All are meant to serve four.

1½ pounds flounder (or similar) fillets
Lemon juice (bottled OK)
Salt and pepper to taste.
2 large eggs, yolks and whites separated
½ cup beer
½ cup flour
½ teaspooon baking powder
Oil for frying

1. Cut the fillets into three-by-four-inch pieces. Sprinkle with lemon juice and salt and pepper. Set aside.
2. Combine the egg yolks, beer, flour, and baking powder. Mix thoroughly.
3. Whip the egg whites until stiff.
4. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter until incorporated.
5. Heat the oil until almost smoking (about 375 degrees). Put the fish pieces into the batter and shake off the excess. Fry a few pieces at a time, without crowding. Turn gently with a slotted spoon when they rise to the surface. Drain on paper towels. Serve.

This also works well with bluefish.

1 medium onion, finely chopped
Olive oil
4 large garlic cloves (or more to taste), minced
2 tablespoons capers, drained
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
½ cup white wine
Juice of one lemon
1½ pounds striped bass fillets

Pre-heat oven at 400 degrees. Saute onions in oil over medium heat until soft, about five minutes. Add garlic and saute another minute. Add the capers, tomatoes, olives, and wine, and bring to a boil. Add lemon juice, stir, and pour over the fish fillets in a baking dish. Bake in oven for 12-15 minutes. Serve.

Easier than it looks, low-calorie, and only 45 minutes from start to table.

For the Salsa:
1 ripe mango, peeled, seeded, and diced
1 small red onion, peeled and minced
1 ripe avocado, peeled, pitted, and diced
3 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
Zest of 1 lime
1 jalapeño, seeded and minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 teaspoon salt

For the Fish:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1½ tablespoons orange zest
¼ cup orange juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Crushed red pepper flakes to taste
4 to 6-ounce tilapia fillets

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Combine all salsa ingredients in a bowl. Stir gently to blend and set aside.
In a shallow baking dish large enough to hold the fillets in a single layer, combine the olive oil, orange zest, orange juice, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes.
Rinse the fillets and pat dry. Place them in the baking dish and turn several times to coat. Bake for 10 minutes in the preheated oven until the fish can be flaked with a fork.
Place the fillets on a platter and spoon the salsa over. Serve.

Valencia was the last major city to fall to the victorious rebel forces in Spain’s 1936-1939 Civil War.  Before it did, it suffered furious and lengthy bombardments by Franco’s artillery and bombers. Its devastation accounted for the paucity of surviving architectural landmarks encountered since then. That is, up until one of the city’s brilliant native sons, architect Santiago Calatrava, rose to prominence on the world stage.  He provided the designs for the five striking designs for the City of Arts and Sciences, described below in the post  “A Place in the Sun,” which have helped to transform Valencia into a destination, not a way station.

Long before Calatrava jump-started his hometown’s rebirth, Valencia was known primarily as the repository of an object alleged to be the Holy Grail and for the decidedly secular event known as Las Fallas “The Fires”.  One of the most exuberant and literally consuming fiestas in Spain, it was originated by medieval carpenters’ guilds who set aside annual days for burning their accumulated wood shavings. Somewhere along the way, some of the participants formed the shavings and other materials into figures. This evolved into a week-long celebration in mid-May where virtually every major intersection of the city hosts giant tableaux called minots artfully constructed of papier måché, rags, and wood.  The scenes rise to five or six stories, illustrating themes that are often fanciful, risqué, and always satirical.  No politician, local or national or foreign, is spared skewering.

Every night the sky is shattered by up to ninety minutes of fireworks, and, on the sunny morning of the last day, having run out of venues and options, there is an eruption of powerful explosions marking the end of the year’s festivities.  At midnight on March 19, St. Joseph’s Day, all but one of the ninots are set ablaze.  A few days later the craftsmen start planning for the following year. 

To see more images of a past Las Fallas, go to the Photo Gallery and click “Valencia Fallas“.   While you’re there, check out the newly installed pictures of Barcelona’s La Boqueria.


Answers to “Where in the World…?”

Left – Buskers, Covent Garden, London

Center – Car, Roof of Brick Alley Pub, Newport, R.I.

Right – Habitat 67, Montréal

Staying Put

“Gather ’round, people. I have some housekeeping announcements. In the morning, have your bags packed and outside your hotel room by 5:30. I know that’s early, but we have a long ride tomorrow to Wherever and only 45 minutes to see the Whatsis. Then we’re on to Someplace to have lunch at 2:30. Yes, that’s late, but we don’t want to back up the itinerary and you will have 30 minutes of free time in the lovely little souvenir shop across the plaza. Now, please don’t wander away. It backs up the whole group while we have to go looking for you. I’ll be holding up this yellow umbrella so you can find me in the crowd. Now tomorrow…”

That, more or less, is what the average group tour sounds like, hour after hour, day after day.  Get off the plane and into a bus and keep moving through five cities in eight days, the group breaking down into cliques and unlikely attachments and barely minutes in contact with the people who actually live in the places where they get to briefly look around. They see everything through a camera lens, posing their spouses against this cathedral and that monument.

As a long-time travel writer, I’ve spent more days than I care to count on these sorts of cruises, conventions, press trips and what are known in the trade as “fam tours”, but only when there was no other finacially tenable way to see what I had to see. So, whenever possible, I settle in and stay awhile, renting houses or apartments in places I want to know better. These have included lakeside cottages in Massachusetts and Ontario, centuries-old stone houses in remore regions of Spain, a farmhouse in Tuscany, cabins on Block Island, a walkup flat and a tiny house in Venice, hideaways in Old Town Key West, and romantic apartments in Left Bank Paris.

Early on, before the Internet, I found these properties through friends, the classifieds, or real estate agencies. Now, there are dozens of online sources. The big dog is , with over 125,000 international listings, and, with the acquisition of former competitors and, another 150,000 properties with similar coverage.  We’ve had good to very good experiences with VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner).  These have largely been properties exclusively intended for rental income, as opposed to those available only when the owners aren’t in residence.  Arrangements were made online, but we were usually put in the hands of a property agent, who met us upon arrival, showed us around the house or flat, pointed out features and quirks, and gave us the keys.

We took three different flats in Venice.  One was beside the San Remite canal in the residential Dorsoduro quarter, where tourist crowds are less smothering.  It was, however, four long, steep, flights up.  The beds in the two bedrooms were large and comfortable enough, but there was only a small couch on which to sit in the main room, apart from the straight-back dining table chairs, and the kitchen appliances and utensils were primitive, to be kind.  Since one of the reasons for renting is to save money on food, this last circumstance was a hindrance.  To make space for our visiting grown children, we moved to another flat upstairs, this one better furnished and with pleasant rooftop views, but five flights up.

Our third Venetian flat was on the ground floor of a palace directly on the Grand Canal, providing a constant pageant of gondolas, barges, vaporettos, trim water taxis, competitive racing events, and and frequent festive waterborne parades. Seating was far more comfortable and the decor included a number of antiques.  The kitchen, however, was a disaster.  Its various parts were hidden behind four doors, each one blocking access to the next when open – wash vegetables in one cubicle, close the door, open the next, chop the veggies, close door, open another, heat the frying pan.  There was also a washer-dryer combo, a curious European invention in which clothes are both washed and dried in the same stand-alone machine. We never did get it to work.  I didn’t care. We were in Venice! Magic time!
Our lodging luck was better the fourth time out. This property was a compact duplex, an attached house at the end of a short alley with a restaurant at the corner.

On the ground floor was a small but adequate kitchen-dining room and a bathroom of such diminutive dimension that you had to step outside to change your mind.  Not bad, though.  A narrow, well-worn marble staircase led up to a significantly larger sitting room with a commodious wardrobe and a love seat that could be converted to a small bed.  The TV set pulled in the BBC and CNN.  Beyond that was a room with a queen-sized bed and a big window with a view of the garden next door. No canal, but then, no mosquitoes, either, and no barking dogs.  A quick right at the end of the alley and we were in Campo San Barnaba, with a couple of serious restaurants, three cafés, a design gallery, a baker, a tobacconist with a couple of Internet computers, and a former church now used as an exhibition space.  The nearest vaporetto (water bus) stop was only a long block beyond.  In a city where in-season hotel rates routinely exceed $300 a night, our ten-day stay cost $1,800, at then-current exchange rates.  It is still listed as property #20217 with VRBO.  Pro: Quiet, good beds, handy to shopping, historic sites, and eating places. Con: Limited seating, cramped bathroom.

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This most Spanish of Spanish cities is cliché made manifest. Its Gothic-Renaissance cathedral ushered in the 15th Century on the site where an Arab mosque once stood. The remains of an earlier Almohad Moorish royal residence were incorporated into the nearby 14th Century fortified palace commissioned by Pedro the Cruel. They loom over the Barrio de Santa Cruz, a whitewashed village within the city that was the Jewish quarter back when Arabs, Jews, and Christians actually got along (more or less). Off its twisting streets are iron-gated interior courts with potted greenery and splashing fountains. The clopping of hooves and creaks of carriages echo down cobblestone alleys. Gypsies play flamenco guitars driven by staccato hand-clapping in intimate squares shaded by orange trees.

From the banks of the Guadalquivir the skyline of the monumental core is made gold by the fierce Andalucian sun. This is the inland river port where Cristóbal Colón – Christopher Columbus to us – completed his triumphal first voyage. His reputed remains – their authenticity is in dispute – lie within the cathedral.

Two quintessentially Spanish folkloric events enthrall the city every spring. First comes Semana Santa, the Holy Week preceding Easter. Men from 56 religious associations bear massive floats for long blocks to the central plaza. The larger-than-life figures on the floats depict the Passion in painstaking detail, down to the glinting glass tears on the faces of the various sainted mothers of Jesus. They are interspersed with flagallents and crowds of men dressed in robes and hooded conical hats, a startling sight for Americans who associate them with Klansmen and burning crosses.

Having expiated their sins of the previous year, the townspeople then get a headstart on the one to come. A couple of weeks later is Fería de Sevilla – the April Fair. A long time past, it was a simple annual livestock auction. Now It’s a city-wide party, everyone welcome. A virtual village (in the mid-20th Century sense of the phrase) is set up in a large field retained for the purpose. Casitas – tents, large and small- are erected along temporary streets. Some are furnished with opulent leather furniture, rugs, candelabras, even chandeliers, with bartenders, waiters, and live bands; more have folding chairs and boom boxes for music. The latter have no less fun than the more affluent former. Entire families are carried along in carriages drawn by as many eight cockaded horse, stopping frequently at the casitas of friends to share sherry and pastries. The pace quickens as dusk steals in, and the costumed celebrants start to whirl into the sevillanas, a sort of choreographed dance akin to flamenco. They stay until dawn, go home for a nap, then start all over again – for a week. Yes, they still dance in the streets of Seville, as, no doubt, did Carmen, Don Juan, and that barber.

Seeing Seville is an excellent city for enthusiastic walkers. The city is flat, and nearly all the sites and attractions of touristic interest are grouped in the monumental center dominated by the cathedral. Taxis are required only if you are registered in one of the modern hotels along the perimeter, so don’t do that. A new Metro with a single short line is expected to open as this is written. It’s been planned for decades and has a long way to go. Many, if not most of the streets in center city are one-way and follow no logical pattern, so if you arrive by car, it’s best to park it until it’s time to leave.

When walking, keep in mind that street crime has long been a problem in Seville, and the high levels of unemployment exacerbated by the current international economic troubles won’t help. Tourists are favored targets. When moving about the city, stick with crowds, especially at night. That said, I’ve been writing about Seville for thirty years and was out and about alone past midnight many times, with never so much as an unkind word.

Far more likely will you encounter a little bit of life as it is lived in this city, so traditional yet of the moment. One day, in front of the Cathedral, I came upon a demonstration of sorts. About two thousand boys and girls of junior-high age were singing about peace and justice, releasing balloons and carrying signs covered, literally, with pictures of hearts and flowers. When they were done, they trooped around to the other side of the cathedral to go to mass, strung out in a long, disorderly column.

Suddenly, there was a fearsome sound: That screech of which only pubescent girls are capable – multiplied by a thousand! They had spotted, I found out from a bystander, the of-that-minute teenage boy pop star. The bolder girls chased him down the street and he let a few of them kiss him. More shrieking. Everyone over the age of consent stopped and stared.And then smiled. This, on the day the second Beatle died.

Here’s a short walking route that takes in some of the highlights. Start at the Plaza de la Virgen de los Reyes, facing the east end of the Catedral . To the right of the entrance is La Giralda, the pinkish square tower that serves as campanille for the cathedral. It began as a minaret for the mosque that once stood here. At least the bottom half. The upper stories were added long after the Christian Reconquest of Seville, its decoration in ever more florid high-Renaissance stlye as it reaches the top. Up there is a bronze state of an angel called Faith that moves in the wind (“giralda” means weathervane). A ramp that once accommodated horses goes to the top and reasonably fit visitors can ascend to a viewing platform at the 230-foot level. Great view.

Turn around, taking in the entire photogenic plaza, then turn right (south), walking past the cathedral (on the right) into the Plaza del Triunfo. A gateway to the Alcázar is up ahead. (It is an exit from the palace, not an entrance. If you want to visit it now, follow the wall around to the right.) Otherwise, turn left (east) into Calle Joaquion Romero Marube, the high rampart of the Alcázar on the right. A number of shops along this block sell Sevillano ceramics. At the end of the street is the small Plaza de Alianza. Turn right, past a sometimes working fountain and the continued Alcázar wall, which makes a right-angle here. Follow that narrowing alley, the Calle Rodrigo Caro, through a jog left, then right, into the compact Plaza Doña Elvira, with benches and orange trees. The restaurant at the corner sets out tables when weather permits, and later at night guitarists take up positions under the trees. Go to the far corner of the square and turn left.

This leads into the Plaza de los Venerables, the largest squa re in the barrio. On the left is the Hospital de Venerables Sacerdotes, where art exhibitions are frequently mounted. It has a handsome tiled and arcaded and inner patio, worth the price of admission. Also on the plaza are two atmospheric tabernas with outside tables where a couple of tapas and a glass of sangría might be welcome. The most apparent is Hostería del Laurel, over on the right, with squat tables and chairs out on the plaza. It’s touristy, but not tawdry.

Otherwise, go down the alley on the right called Justino de Neve and turn left into another, wider lane, partly bowered with flowering vines. Three houses along is a plaque noting the residence of author Washington Irving where he lived during his tenure as U.S. Ambassador to Spain in the early 19th century. Continuing, Plaza Alfaro is next. Off to the right are the Jardines de Murillo, gardens with flourishing banyan and jacaranda trees named after the city’s favorite painter.

Take the short street over at the far left corner, which empties after a few steps into the Plaza Santa Cruz. The small park in the center is notable for the wrought-iron Victorian curlicues depicting saints and fanciful creatures that, viewed as a whole, can be seen as a cross and a lamp. On the left, at #12 is a small mansion housing the romantic La Albahaca restaurant (see “eating in Seville, below). Take the street immediately right of the restaurant, Calle Santa Teresa. After a couple of bends, it passes the Casa-Museo Murillo, an exhibition space. The next intersection has several stores and cafés. Turn left, then almost immediately bear right at the sign reading Mesón del Moro (Inn of the Moor). There is now a marked increase in postcard racks and souvenir stores, for the street intersects here with Calle Mateos Gago, lined with orange trees and shoulder-to-shoulder bars and cafés. (Resist sampling the hanging fruit – they’re bitter, palatable only as British marmalade.) Turn left. The cathedral is in view up ahead.

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A Sunday In Manhattan

Not so long ago, the Financial District, at the far southern tip of the island, saw little more life than crumpled papers scurrying on the wind through the dark canyons of corporate headquarter buildings. It emptied out every Friday when the brokers downed their last martinis and left for home uptown or in the ‘burbs. Now, in rebuke to the self-appointed martyrs from Al Qaeda, people live down there, bringing up families in the mythic shadows of the Twin Towers. There are day care centers and schools and grocery stores. Dogs are walked and picnics are taken to new pocket parks and runners jog along riverside promenades.

There are established restaurant rows, such as Stone Street, clogged every weekend with the monster prams and strollers favored this generation of young marrieds. A new hopeful is Perle (62 Pearl St., 212-248-4848), which attempts to cover every possible dining need in the manner of a Lyonnaise café. It’s open seven days from 7am to whenever the last patron finishes off the last small plate of edibles. No place open for business that many hours a day is likely to garner Michelin stars, but the service is friendly and prices are fair. Steak frites are only $16 at lunch and tornedos de boeuf is the priciest dinner entrée at $26. When we were there, the three-course prix fixe was $19. Wines by the glass are a hefty pour and they even do takeout.

Successive waves of immigrants have made the Lower East Side their first stop in the New World – Germans, Irish, and Italians in order – but the neighborhood’s identity was long fashioned by Eastern European Jews. That atmosphere continues, despite the more recent influx of Latinos and African-Americans. Their predecessors packed themselves in five-story tenement buildings without plumbing, often two or three families to an apartment. Many worked long days in the rag trade, doing piecework in their bedrooms and living rooms or in over 200 sweatshops they preferred to all factories.

Much of that life continues, although now spread around town and more likely to employ Asians and Latin Americans, and L.E.S. retains its shabby aspect. That reality has been spiked with hip cafés, bars, and shops alonside the oldtime enterprises. An expanding corps of creative chefs and restaurateurs are attracting serious uptown diners to a neighborhood they once shunned, most notably Wylie Duffresne’s wd-50 (50 Clinton St., 212-477-2900). The opening of a few new galleries has led some to proclaim it the next hot art district.

A good way to get a feel for the neighborhood is to start with the guided tour of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum ( at 91 Orchard St., just south of Houston St. Tour groups gather at that address from 10.45am to 6pm on Saturday and Sunday (from 11am the rest of the week). Tickets are $17 for adults, $13 for seniors and students. When assembled, each group is taken across the street to #97, a tenement built in 1836. Inside, the first halls and rooms are maintained to reflect the earliest years, the others reflecting evolutionary periods of migration and settlement. Guides are knowledgeable about their subjects, not infrequently allowing their enthusiasm carry them well past the anticipated one hour duration of the tour. It’s easy enough to peel off if they get carried away.

A couple of doors away is the locally famous Guss’ Pickles (212-334-3616) at 85 Orchard St. On all but the coldest days, they roll six or seven plastic barrels out under the awning at the front of the store. There they ladle containers of their mainstay products to order, from kosher sour to half-sour and spices pickles. They’re just about the last of the breed, having moved here from Essex Street in 2002. They keep up to date with choices of pickled green tomatoes and distinctively marinated olives. Open Monday-Thursday 11am to 6pm, Friday until 4pm, and closed Saturday in observance of the Jewish Sabbath.

Two blocks south is Little Giant (212-226-5047, www.little, at the corner of Orchard and Broome Sts.,  the sort of place that infuriates the anti-yuppie, anti-gentrification hipster crowd. The rest of us like it for what it is, a low-pressure, amiable bistro with an enjoyable card of vaguely “New American” contrivances that draws its clientele not just from the L.E.S. neighborhood but sojurners from SoHo, Greenwich Village, and even (eek!) an occasional suburbanite. Service is known to swoop from brusque to chummy, hardly surprising given that most members of the waitstaff are seeing this as a short-time occupation, hardly a profession. Even whiners give props to the upscale versions of macaroni-and-cheese with smoked bacon and breakfast burritos. A plump buttermilk bisquit enjoys the presence of two poached eggs, a pork sausage patty, and herb gravy. Wines by the glass are a full nine ounces, not a skimpy three or four. Beers on draft and in bottles steer far away from Bud – try Smuttynose Ale, Duvel Belgian Ale, or Abita Pecan Harvest Ale. With espresso, wine, tip, and taxes, brunch comes to around $75-$85 for two

It was February when we were there, and Chinatown is adjacent to the Lower East Side, an easy walk. The two-week Chinese New Year was in progress. Performances on the streets by dragon and lion dancers have always been accompanied by the detonation of assorted explosive devices, despite New York prohibitions on privately ignited fireworks. Either enforcement has been applied now or the local movers have decreed a voluntary band. Either way, the primary celebratory device this day was cardboard tubes that shot clouds of confetti and streamers into the air. We came upon both a pastel lion dancer and a short parade of emergency vehicles, sirens blasting.

Continuing on foot toward the South Street Seaport and a new food market we’d heard about, we passed this trompe d’oeil wall painting of the Brooklyn Bridge, the western towers of the real thing rising above.

At 7:00 that evening, a prior reservation was definitely required for Rhong-Tiam (212-477-0600, at 541 La Guardia Place, south of Washington Square in Greenwich Village-every table but ours was filled. At the time, it had only been open less than a year, so this was a comforting sign. We were led past the Vespa scooter in the vestibule down the narrow center aisle, a row of banquettes on the left, elevated tables on the right. The menu was extensive but hardly encyclopedic, and seemed to blend traditional Thai dishes with almost as many fusion choices. That means that some are blisteringly hot – “Pork On Fire” – while others offer complexity of flavors rather than heat. The waitstaff handily guides newbies in their choices. Appetizers veer toward the familiar, with fried shrimp wonton, summer rolls, “Asian-style” Buffalo wings and something called Thai nachos. A meal can be made right there, but more adventurous items are to be found among the noodle dishes and main plates. Find there Changmai, a noodle dish superior to the ever-present pad thai, and grilled catfish shreds married with curry paste and Thai eggplant. Dinner for two, with wine, tax, and tip, about $80.

Stealth Poison

Mmm, tasty, this red snapper. One little problem: It might cause projectile vomiting, explosive diarrhea, massive abdominal pain, reeling dizziness, instant rashes, even paralysis or death. If you’re lucky, the cascading symptoms will only last three to six months.

The cause is Ciguatera Toxin, a poison carried by predator fish that feed on other fish that in turn dine on certain kinds of algae that grow on coral reefs. That means fish caught around Hawaii, the Caribbean, and coastal Central America, including, in addition to popular snapper, grouper, eel, amberjack, sea bass, and Spanish mackerel. The poison is harmless to the carrier fish but toxic to humans. It is odorless, tasteless, and otherwise undetectable. Most insidiously, it resists high heat and cannot be cooked away.

Obviously, most of the targeted fish that arrive on our plates are unaffected. But consume the wrong individual and you’re in for a long bout of an extremely unpleasant illness. There is no cure for Ciguetara. Two or three days in the hospital with tubes in both arms only replace fluids. After that, prepare for the onslaught. Subsequent symptoms include shortness of breath, chills, itching, excessive salivation, vertigo, and episodes of tingling that resemble thousands of pinpricks. Most bizarre of all are the transposed sensations of hot and cold – a glass of iced tea feels as if it is burning your fingers, a baked potato just out of the oven comes across like a handful of ice cubes. You don’t experience all of these symptoms at once. Instead, they overlap. Just when one starts fading and the victim is thinking it’s all over, another begins.

And there is no antidote.

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