Wrought iron, gardens and relax in Europe

Gardens provide relaxing stops, allow vacationers to truly unwind
Take time to smell the tulips

By Rick Steves

wrought_iron_gardens_relaxI head to Europe every spring, ready to start afresh on a new season of travel. It’s an exciting time, as I dive into exhausting days of non-stop guidebook research and travel-show filming. With age and wisdom, I’ve learned to take some of my own advice: on any trip, I slow down and smell the roses — or tulips.

I may not have the greenest thumb (and I’ve got the weeds to prove it), but wandering through a European garden is one of the better ways I’ve found to unwind and enjoy the world. Whether tucked into a little corner of a big city or decorating the grounds of an old aristocratic home, gardens soften the edges of life. Wherever you travel in Europe, there’s bound to be a garden in bloom nearby when you need some (aroma) therapy.

In France’s Loire Valley, Villandry is an average château, but its Renaissance gardens make the estate a show stopper. The original builder, a wealthy 16th-century finance minister, installed the famously formal gardens as an interlocking series of flower and vegetable beds. The eye-popping, geometric plantings are as manicured as a putting green — just try to find a weed. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Queen of Hearts pop out from behind the topiary in this wonderland.

On the other end of the valley is the Chenonceau château, France’s first great pleasure palace. King Henry II built it for his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. The girlfriend immediately got to work, planting extensive flower and vegetable gardens. But when Henry died in a jousting accident, his wife, Catherine de Médicis, kicked Diane out. The queen let Diane’s garden go to weeds and planted one of her own. Today, there’s a “Diane” garden and a “Catherine” garden on the estate — each lovingly maintained and safely separate.

Sometimes a garden escape can be no more than a soothing glimpse. Some of London’s residential squares are behind locked gates, but your eye is free to wander over these pretty, well-maintained gardens. In the tangle of Seville’s Barrio Santa Cruz, flowers cascade along the wrought-iron latticework of whitewashed houses, providing a psychic refuge from the heat and bustle of the city.

But for a full-fledged urban break, nothing beats Luxembourg Garden in the middle of Paris — it’s a colour-filled Impressionist painting brought to life. After a day of pounding the cobblestones, I like to stop off here and slip into one of the green chairs that ring the central fountain. I can admire the first flowers of spring, all the while watching Parisians being French.

When it comes to gardening, the British seem to forget all about their stiff upper lips.

The best of their gardens are an unabashed assault on the senses. My nose always thanks me for detouring to the fragrant gardens at Hidcote Manor, in England’s Cotswolds area. Hidcote is where garden designers pioneered the idea of outdoor “rooms.” Close your eyes and sniff your way through a clever series of small, sweet-smelling gardens. In springtime, clouds of wisteria and magnolias drift overhead.

For another take on traditional English gardening, seek out Sissinghurst Castle, near Dover. In the early 20th century, writer Vita Sackville-West transformed the grounds into the quintessential English “cottage” garden. There is always something blooming here, but the best show is in June, when the famous White Garden bursts with scented roses. When the sun is shining, Sissinghurst is perfect.

The granddaddy of the European bloom parade is Keukenhof. This 80-acre park, situated between Amsterdam and The Hague, has the greatest bulb-flower garden on earth. (Those without a car can ride the bus right to the park from Amsterdam, Haarlem or Leiden.) For two months in spring, Keukenhof’s seven million tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils conspire to thrill even the most horticulturally challenged visitor. The place is packed with tour groups daily — go in the late afternoon for the fewest crowds and the best light on all those happy flowers.

Dedicated tulip-gazers don’t have stop with Keukenhof. It’s possible to rent a bike (available at Keukenhof for a reasonable €10/day, about $13.50) and head out into the surrounding Dutch landscape. Tooling along on two wheels among tulip fields is a special kind of bliss.

For me, a garden is a way of thinking about travel. If we are like seeds, the travel experience provides the dirt. The act of travelling plants us. And the people and experiences we encounter in our travels are like watering the garden. Combine the dirt, seeds, and water properly, and you get the blossom. Happy travels!


Wrought iron and Connecticut’s Historic Gardens Day 2013

Connecticut history from the ground up

by Marisa Nadolny

wrought_iron_connecticut_historic_gardens_day_2013Who says you can’t reinvent history? Or, at least, replant it? On Sunday, June 23, the team behind Connecticut’s Historic Gardens marks 10 years of doing just that with Connecticut’s Historic Gardens Day at 14 historic locations throughout the state.

In 2002, a group of tenders of various historic sites in Connecticut pooled resources to get some visibility by participating in the Connecticut Flower and Garden Show in Hartford. Ten years later, the group continues its work to raise awareness of “distinctive historic sites and gardens within Connecticut’s borders.”

Locally, the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, the New London Historical Society and Shaw Mansion and Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford will participate and offer special events that illustrate the unique nature of their gardens.

And really, what’s a historic house without a historic garden? These living installations provide additional context to the historical periods preserved in a given museum; or they simply offer a window into yet another historic period.

“In terms of Connecticut’s Historic Gardens, we deem ‘historic’ to be gardens designed by a known designer or reflect an historical garden style or design philosophy,” explains Tammi Flynn, a spokesperson for Connecticut’s Historic Gardens. Historical relevance, though, doesn’t necessarily exclude creative expression. “The gardens in New London County have great personality,” Flynn notes.

At the Florence Griswold Museum, the resident beds reflect the eclectic style of Miss Florence herself, who was an avid gardener. None too formal, Miss Florence opted for a hodgepodge of plantings that offered splashes of color. Visitors to the museum can expect to see variations of hollyhocks, iris, foxglove, heliotrope, phlox, cranesbill and day lilies.

Admission to the gardens will be free on Connecticut’s Historic Gardens Day, and painting supplies, refreshments and artist demonstrations will be made available to visitors.

Over at Harkness, park staff and volunteers will lead free tours of the gardens that surround the circa-1906 Roman Renaissance Revival-style mansion. The gardens reflect the work of Beatrix Farrand — one of the first noted female landscape architects in the United States — whom Edward and Mary Harkness commissioned to design their gardens from 1918 to 1929. Farrand’s designs combine Asian statuary, wrought-iron fencing and benches with plants that reflect Mary Harkness’ preferred colors.

Visitors who prefer to cover as much historical ground as possible might consider a stop at the New London Historical Society’s Shaw Mansion.

“You get two time periods at a time at the Shaw Mansion — a formal Victorian garden in front of the house and a colonial garden in the rear of the house,” Flynn says.

The colonial garden is a nod to the mansion’s heritage; Capt. Nathaniel Shaw constructed the building in the 1750s. His great-grandson, Dr. Nathaniel Shaw Perkins, inherited the structure in 1845; the Victorian garden illustrates that transition.

And don’t forget to take a look at the mansion’s accompanying summerhouse, intriguingly referred to as a “gentleman’s folly.” This little getaway was constructed in 1792 and offers views of the Thames River.

A local croquet club will play a match and offer demonstrations at the mansion during Connecticut’s Historic Gardens Day, alongside a plant sale. Refresh after the game with strawberry shortcake and lemonade.


New wrought iron baskets for the Bath Beautification Project

Bath Beautification Project supported by local Rotary Club

wrought_iron_basket_bath_beautification_projectMay 29, 2013 the Bath Rotary Club saw its Bath Beautification Project come to fruition when twenty-three new wrought iron, hanging baskets filled with colorful flowers were hung on the light poles along Liberty Street.

The floral arrangements and baskets were done by TNT Greenhouses in Bradford.  In addition, those Rotarians who helped hang the baskets that day with the assistance of personnel from the Bath Village Department of Public Works planted flowers, provided by the Bath Beautification Trust Fund, in the barrels throughout the downtown area.

The local club sponsored two fundraisers to benefit this project.  In April it held a Stearns’ Chicken Barbeque, and at its 90th Anniversary Celebration Dinner in May the winners of its Big Bucks Raffle were announced.

Becky Stranges, Bath Rotary Club President, remarked, “Flowers say to residents and visitors that people care about the community.  Betty Langendorfer has spent endless hours as the caretaker of the village beautification for many years.  The previous baskets made the task rather difficult, and it was thus the general consensus of the Bath Beautification Committee to replace the wrap-around pole baskets with larger hanging baskets.

When the Bath Rotary Club heard about this need, it eagerly took on the project to adorn the light poles lining historic Liberty Street with new wrought iron, hanging baskets.  We hope that everyone enjoys these new baskets full of colorful flowers.” The Bath Rotary Club meets every Thursday at noon at the Bath Country Club.


Second Titatic to include replica of original wrought iron decorations from original ship

second_titanic_exteriorThe plans for Titanic II have been unveiled, revealing there will be three classes, the same food menus, period costumes and identical interior decoration.
The man behind the adventurous project, mining tycoon Clive Palmer, revealed his plans for the boat at a press conference yesterday.

‘Titanic was the ship of dreams, Titanic II is the ship where dreams come true,’ he said.
Passengers can choose to stay in the lavish first class cabins or experience the Irish drums, stew and shared bathrooms of third class.

‘That’ll be where the most fun will be,’ Palmer said at the conference.
‘For me that’s the great adventure. I can sit down there, have some Irish stew, talk to somebody and at night I can get up and do the Irish jig. It’ll be a great place to be.’

Each passenger will also get a period costume relative to which class ticket they hold.
40,000 people have reportedly already registered for tickets to be on the maiden voyage, with Palmer saying people ‘want something a little bit different, an experience.’

‘We thought it would have a lot of appeal. We didn’t know how much appeal, but certainly we’ve found it’s had enormous appeal. And financially very strong as well … it’s going to be a blockbuster.’

One of the top 100 richest men in the world, Australian Palmer will be funding the project himself, but declined to comment on how much it is estimated to cost.

Whilst the exterior and interior will match the original 1912 Titanic as closely as possible, there have been a few mod cons added such as a 400 seat theatre, a casino, air-conditioning throughout, and obviously some safety improvements.

The ship will have 18 modern lifeboats, with the capacity of carrying the ships 2,435 passengers and 900 crew members.

Markku Kanerva, the director of sales for marine design company Deltamarine, who are overseeing the project, told reporters at the press conference that Titanic II would be ‘the most safe cruise ship when it is launched,’ ironically mimicking the claims of an ‘unsinkable ship.’

The vessel is due to set sale at the end of 2016, following the same route from Southampton to New York.

The project has raised criticism, being dubbed ‘morbid’ and disrespectful to the 1,523 people that were killed when the original ship sank in 1912.




“Double Indemnity’s” Seven Oscar Nominations Helped Ignite the Film Noir Boom

wrought-iron-dvdWhile channel-surfing the other night, I found myself watching the beginning of a film I’d already seen and had no intention of seeing again. That’s Fred MacMurray slumped at a desk in the film noir shadows of the headquarters of the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company. He’s talking into a dictaphone, about to confess to his boss his part in a sordid tale of claim-rigging, murder, and betrayal. The room onscreen is so deep in the murk of its mood it seems to be glowering at me from the third dimension. Never mind that the man slowly bleeding to death is being played by one of my least favorite actors, he’s sinking his teeth into the role of a lifetime, a mortally wounded insurance salesman named Walter Neff mouthing the hardboiled poetry of Raymond Chandler, with contributions by director Billy Wilder, from a novella by James M. Cain. That’s all she wrote, I’m stuck, can’t turn it off, can’t stop watching, can’t change the channel, Turner Classic Movies scores again.

As the scene shifts to a daylight flashback that shows Neff driving up to a nifty little Spanish colonial hillside chateau, I shout out, “It’s Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck’s house in Los Felix!” and my wife, who grew up in L.A. and loves this movie, comes running.

The house is still there, though according to, the reality is not in Los Felix but in the Hollywood Dell. “It was one of those California Spanish houses everyone was nuts about 10 or 15 years ago,” Neff is telling us. The interior, according to the screenplay, is “Spanish craperoo in style” with a wrought-iron staircase curving down from the second floor.

And look who’s coming down that unworthy staircase.

By now my wife’s sitting in her usual place beside me to enjoy one of the seminal moments in film noir played to tawdry perfection by a woman we feel as close to as we would to a glamorous beloved relative who’s been dead for 22 years. We’re familiar with every nuance of her voice, with the way she walks, and moves, and we can imagine her having a laugh with the crew about that big blond wig she’s wearing and the ankle bracelet or “anklet,” as Walter Neff calls it, his eyes fastened on the ankle it’s fastened to while he snidely fields sinister queries from the shady lady about her husband’s life insurance policy. Call it what you will, the effect that little adornment has on Walter is devastating. Stanwyck’s anklet is to Double Indemnity as Rosebud is to Citizen Kane, everything evolves from it, and Walter’s a goner the moment he sees it, as is Stanwyck’s about-to-be-double-indemnified husband.

According to Shadows of Suspense, the documentary accompanying the Universal Legacy Series 2-Disc DVD of Double Indemnity, when Fred MacMurray was offered the part, his are-you-kidding-me response was, “I’m a saxophone player. I do light comic stuff with Claudette Colbert.” Barbara Stanwyck was afraid the film would ruin her career. The beauty of casting a “regular guy” like MacMurray was that audiences would be fascinated by the there’s-a-killer-in-all-of-us aspect, and as a result the glib, regular-guy insurance agent Walter Neff has become one of the rare characters from vintage Hollywood whose name is as much a part of movie lore as the name of the star playing him. If the same can’t be said for Phyllis Dietrichson, the name of the scheming wife, it’s because Stanwyck’s allure overwhelms the impersonation. MacMurray is a mere mortal transcending himself in a killer role. Stanwyck is a luminary from a loftier realm who in 1944 was said to be the highest paid woman in the United States.

Academy Awards 1944

Besides being the only film noir to come close to winning a Best Picture Oscar (it lost to the upbeat, feel-good, priests-can-be-charming box-office smash, Going My Way), Double Indemnity also fits the sub genre of the so-called “buddy movie” most recently represented by Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. The affectionate rapport between Neff and his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson in his prime) creates a sympathetic contrast to the cold-blooded bond between the lovers. Whenever Keyes fumbles to find a light for his cigar, Neff is there to light it for him with a playful but caring “I love you too.” Walter and Phyllis consummate the relationship by killing one another; but when Neff is dying in the hall outside the office where the story began, it’s Keyes who lights his cigarette.

The various talking heads in Shadows of Suspense all agree that the Academy’s recognition of Double Indemnity (seven Oscar nominations), along with its box office success, helped ignite the film noir boom that took place between the mid-1940s and the advent of CinemaScope ten years later. While the wartime American public “had lost its innocence and wanted more adult stories,” according to film noir authority Eddie Muller, the Motion Picture Academy couldn’t stoop to honoring so disreputable and nascent a genre with an actual Oscar. Probably the most deserving of the nominees, along with Wilder as Best Director, was the cinematographer John F. Seitz, who steeps scenes in lavish depths of darkness that are remarkable even for film noir. While Barbara Stanwyck was at least nominated for Best Actress (Ingrid Bergman won for Gaslight), MacMurray and Robinson did not even make the cut for the Best Actor and Supporting Actor Oscars, which went to Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald in the Going My Way landslide.

My only quibble with Shadows of Suspense is that it opens with Muller’s declaration that film noir “for all intents and purposes began with Double Indemnity.” This is a shaky generalization at best when you consider that Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady was released eight months earlier in February 1944 and that Murder, My Sweet, Edward Dmytryk’s adaptation of Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely and Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window also appeared the same year. As far as that goes, noir themes can be dated back to films like Stranger On the Third Floor (1940), I Wake Up Screaming and The Maltese Falcon (1941), Kid Glove Killer and This Gun for Hire (1942), to mention only a few.

Oscar Night

I’ll come clean: we skipped the Oscars this year to watch David Hare’s two-hour-long Page Eight on PBS because we liked the cast, especially Bill Nighy. While I’m all for one night every year being set aside to celebrate the movies, I have a low tolerance for all the glitzy scripted back and forth, the unbelievably tasteless jokes (like the cute one about the assassination of Lincoln), and I have a lifelong aversion to watching “beautiful people” embarrass themselves in public. If there were an over the counter drug that prevented cringing and squirming, I would need half a bottle to get through an hour of Oscar night. Argo was a worthy winner, but I doubt I’ll ever see it again, except maybe to enjoy the great lines dished out by Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who also lent his inimitable presence to Flight. The fact that Goodman has never been nominated for an Oscar, particularly for the role that launched a thousand quotes, exposes an essential and enduring Academy blind spot. Fifty years from now somebody somewhere will be streaming The Big Lebowski and laughing at lines from Walter and Donny and the Dude they know by heart, but will anyone be visiting this year’s big winners? I doubt it. The Dude abides and so does Barbara Stanwyck’s anklet.

Born February 27

When you look at who was born on this date, you might be forgiven for thinking Oscar himself first saw the light on the 27th of February.

For instance there’s William Demerest (1892-1983), one of the best character actors of his time, a man who performed pratfalls elaborate enough to convulse the comic gods. His one Oscar nomination was for Best Supporting Actor in 1947’s The Jolson Story, but he’s at his best in Preston Sturges films like The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. Another member of the 27 Club is Franchot Tone (1905-1968), who netted a Best Actor nomination in 1935 for Mutiny On the Bounty.

Perhaps the most unlikely nominee ever for a major award was tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon (born 2/27/23), whose rollercoaster career included jazz stardom, drug addiction, prison time, comeback as a dominant player, and then, five years before his death in 1990, being cast by Bernard Tavernier as the tenor legend in Round Midnight, for which Long Tall Dex landed a Best Actor nomination and a seat at the 1986 Oscar ceremonies.

One of two well-known writers with Hollywood credits born on this date, Irwin Shaw (1913-1984) was nominated as co-writer of the screenplay for Talk of the Town, but the single most prodigious generator of Oscar-winning product was John Steinbeck (1902-1968). Besides scoring nominations for writing Viva Zapata, A Medal for Benny, and Lifeboat, he produced a series of novels that Hollywood feasted on to a degree unmatched by his peers, the biggest winner being Grapes of Wrath, which took two Oscars out of seven nominations in 1940.

Of the three actresses born on February 27, four-time nominee Joanne Woodward (1930 —) won a Best Actress Oscar in 1957 for Three Faces of Eve. Joan Bennett (1910-1990) never won an Oscar, nor was she nominated, but any time you talk film noir, she comes into the conversation as a femme fatale in Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). Last but definitely not least, there’s the two-time Best Actress winner James Agee greeted with a notice in The Nation she must have cherished from the age of 12 on. Writing in December of 1944, Agee admits, “Frankly, I doubt that I am qualified to arrive at any sensible assessment of Miss Elizabeth Taylor. Ever since I first saw the child, two or three years ago, in I forget what minor role in what movie, I have been choked with the peculiar sort of admiration I might have felt if we were both in the same grade of primary school.” Later, after giving her performance in National Velvet a more objective analysis, he adds, “She strikes me, however, if I may resort to conservative statement, as being rapturously beautiful.” Taylor, who died in March 2011 at 79, was nominated five times for Best Actress and won twice, for Butterfield 8 (1960) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966).

The two-disc Double Idemnity DVD is available at the Princeton Public Library.

Written by: Stuart Mitchner

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