East Coast romance

As a visitor from the UK long fascinated by American history and culture, if I told you I had fallen hard for a city in the US, you would probably assume that I mean New York, San Francisco or Chicago maybe. But no, the place that really captured my heart on a recent trip was Philadelphia. Until recently I knew very little about it, other than the famous Liberty Bell and what I had glimpsed from that great ‘80s film, Trading Places but happily an excellent new book, Philadelphia Builds, and local recommendations from followers of my popular Instagram account opened my eyes to the richness of its history and all there is to see.

The empty halls of the airport serve as a reminder of the strange and uncertain times we are living through but in under half an hour I found myself in elegant Rittenhouse Square, the loveliest of the five original squares planned by William Penn in the late 17th Century. It also provides the perfect base for any stay with many sights and excellent places to eat nearby. The recent emphasis on outdoor dining also gives the city a continental feel with tables spilling onto the sidewalks.

Many things in Philadelphia remain strangely underrated – in my opinion, the restaurants are equal to those of Manhattan without the eye watering prices (Parc, Oyster House and Rouge were especially good), locals might justifiably complain about the potholes but the flatness and compact size of Center City make it ideal for walkers. Some of its leading architects are not as well known as in other cities but you’ll find an exciting range of buildings with old and new blending more seamlessly than in some other places. The remarkable City Hall is the highest masonry building in the world without a steel frame and was until 1987, the highest structure in the city and deserves to be more widely acclaimed as an architectural masterpiece. I even went to my first ever baseball game at the excellent Citizens Bank Park with superb seats available at a fraction of the price of New York or California.

What surprised me most perhaps was the range of experiences on offer: from the breathtaking elevator ride to and views from the Jean-Georges SkyHigh restaurant at the top of the city’s highest tower in the Comcast Center to the beautifully preserved historic buildings clustered near Independence Square. Turn again and you find Paul Cret’s (another underrated architect) remarkable Logan Square designs, influenced by the Place de la Concorde and the Champs-Élysées.

Comparisons with New York are inevitable at times and I have to say that after the disappointment of visiting the gentrified Lower East Side, it’s something incredibly special to wander through the Italian Market on 9th Street (which you can glimpse in Rocky during the famous scenes of his morning run), an authentic and large blue collar district, ten blocks long, where the chains are missing and you can buy a huge range of the freshest produce. At the family run Villa di Roma, the menu changes little but servings are generous and so good.

Lower down on 9th Street, Pat’s and Geno’s compete for the customers and title of King of Philly cheesesteaks, a large and tasty sandwich, which any non-vegetarian visitor has to try. There’s a choice between Provolone or Cheese Wiz and you can simply say “with” or “without” depending on whether you want onions. I went to Pat’s where photos of famous customers over the years hang, making it a fun experience. The sandwich tasted great and authentic too.

The museums are also diverse and remarkable: the Barnes Collection is unlike any other I have visited, preserving the intentions of its founder by presenting the artwork as he had at home while offering a beautifully designed modern and sympathetic space to view it in. The Museum of Art was eerily deserted but it was still a great pleasure to wander through the superb collections of European, Asian and American art. The Mutter museum, devoted to the study of medical history, is at once disturbingly macabre and oddly poignant.

Philadelphia’s role in the vital stages of American history in well known so it’s not surprising that museums devoted to the Revolution and Constitution are especially outstanding, presenting timelines and key events in a fresh and accessible way, even for a non-American like myself. Two things in particular stood out for me: the compelling “We, the people” presentation at the Museum of the Constitution and the incredibly moving “Washington’s Tent” at the Museum of the Revolution. I prefer not to reveal too much about these and let the reader discover the experience for themselves but I urge you to see them if you get the chance.

There is also much to see and explore in the surrounding countryside. I only had time for a short trip to Brandywine Valley in Chester County but after less than an hour’s drive, you feel a million miles from the city, with many lovely places to walk. Stopping on the way back at the Northbrook market, another family run place, country music plays and you can order a range of salads and sandwiches from the deli along with homemade fruit pies or, as I did, a really delicious selection of BBQ with coleslaw. It feels like another world and I cannot recall another city that offered me such an exciting range of experiences on my travels.

Of course my time there was filtered through the lens of a tourist and the city certainly has its problems which I have no wish to gloss over. Yet I also felt incredibly sad when it came to leave, realising how much I would miss the friendly locals and beauty of the place which made an impression on me as few others have. Next time you are on the East Coast, perhaps you’ll take a trip to the City of Brotherly Love, although part of me hopes it’ll remain a closely guarded secret, ready for my next trip in the near future.

The Yubi Fingertip Brush – a review

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Disclaimer: This is not an ad or a sponsored post. I was sent the brush to try but the opinions expressed below are my own.

Although I don’t consider myself a beauty Luddite, I’m very much someone who likes to stick to things I know. Liquid Lipstick is exciting for young influencers but I often find it drying or the finish rather flat and harsh and prefer mine applied from the bullet in a glamourous metal tube if possible. I’ve tried the Beauty Blender and liked it but not enough to consider forking out over £20 a month to keep using it. Brushes are more economical and for me, quick and convenient. Needless to say I was rather sceptical about the need for Yubi’s Fingertip brush which is designed to give you the precision of your fingertips while applying or blending makeup without the bacteria or messy cosmetics left on your hands (yubi means fingers in Japanese). But I was presently surprised, delighted even, and think it’s a truly brilliant idea.

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The product comes in a cardboard box containing two brush applicators, a sponge applicator and a plastic handle onto which you easily snap or click your desired applicator. You then slide your fingers onto the underside and blend. It’s so easy. The brushes are vegan and probably the softest and most luxurious I’ve ever used and I’ve tried all ranges from budget to expensive. I would say the brush gives a medium finish which is perfect for me but you can always apply another layer of foundation if needed. It truly does give an airbrushed, polished look, never settling makeup into fine lines or pores. The sponge applicator was a little firm for my taste which surprised me after my experience with the bounciness of the Beauty Blender. I prefer to keep this for touch-ups during the day or blending powder or bronzer. Both applicators can be used wet or dry depending on the finish you want.

Another convenient aspect of the set is that it comes with its own cloth travel pouch so you can easily pop the handle and chosen applicator in there ready for a trip away. No need to take heavy brush sets in your luggage anymore. The only negative I can see with the brush and the sponge is that they are too large to use around the under eye area and the nose where I like to use concealer so I will still be packing my concealer brush. Before writing this, I looked up other reviews and the only criticism people generally seemed to have is that the brushes weren’t easy to clean. I disagree – you should be gentle with the delicate bristles and the sponge but it’s so easy to wash them with antibacterial brush cleaner, give everything a swish, squeeze out the water and leave them to dry bristles/sponge down on a clean surface. I wash mine once a week to keep them looking at their best.

The Perfect Polish set retails at £42.99 on the Face Vital website or $49 here on the Yubi website in the US. It’s by no means the cheapest brush set out there but I actually find it good value when you consider you’re getting two brushes and a makeup sponge compared to other luxury brands and very much admire the ethos behind it.

Images via the Yubi website.



Empire state of mind


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.


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.


A stroll in the Luxembourg gardens


If there is any place guaranteed to make you wish you were Parisian, it’s probably the Luxembourg gardens. How envious I feel when reading accounts by those who were taken regularly to play there as children, had pony rides and sailed boats on the wonderful pond. You imagine alternative lives in which you went to a lycée or the Sorbonne and regularly hung out there to study or skipped classes and passed through on your way to the cinema. But in truth, I also have plenty of memories myself of happy times there – that glorious winter’s day when I first walked there with my father on our way to Montparnasse, the visits with my mother to the charming little cafe and the nearby Musée in the park. Those incredible tartes à l’orange we devoured on a bench after buying them from a fabulous patisserie we could never find again (those pre-internet days!). I love this place so much I even returned there three times on my trip to Paris, all on blisteringly hot days when I sought the shade of the horse chestnut trees and took a seat under the watchful gaze of one of the beautiful white statues.


An afternoon in the garden


Of course I didn’t go to Giverny, but I got the next best thing by going to the Musée de l’Orangerie, a place I’ve wanted to visit since I saw it featured in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.

In reality, it’s nothing like the private tour Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams get – there are plenty of people taking selfies or posing in front of the canvas and the sound of a phone ringing occasionally. It’s still a fabulous place though – the canvases are so huge and magnificent that it’s impossible not to feel moved and astonished by the changing colours and light Monet observed so late in life. You realise that it isn’t about travelling to see as many places as possible but rather we need to open our eyes and observe what’s around us time and again.

As there was a partial strike of museum staff, I sadly wasn’t able to see that fabulous Picasso which also features in Midnight in Paris (the one with Adriana dripping with sexuality!) and I could only gaze through gaps longingly at the marvellous collection off limits. Unfortunately, the Renoir gallery remained open – I say unfortunate as he’s not a great favourite of mine but I did see a couple of paintings  I rather liked. That’s what an afternoon with Monet will do for you!

Afterwards, there was only one thing to do – brave the heat and crowds and head for Guerlain on the Champs-Élysées.


Le temps des cerises


There’s a famous scene in Proust where the narrator goes for a walk with Gilberte and noticing the hawthorn, she allows him a few moments alone to talk to the leaves and ask where the blossom has gone. I was reminded of this when I visited the Jardin des Plantes in April to see the cherry trees in bloom. Never have I seen such a huge or magnificent display. Even a whole school group disappeared under the pink boughs of one of the trees.

I sat quietly for a while, eavesdropping on the two Americans alongside who were complaining about how their grandchildren never want to do anything and savouring the smell of freshly cut grass and the warmth of the sun. I spent as long as possible with the trees, knowing that I wouldn’t see them again for a while, turning for one final lingering glance at the gate. If you go there, please give them my regards.



Chasing light


Paris is the city of lovers, of walkers, night owls and early birds. As I belong to the last category, you won’t be surprised to learn that I was already strolling through the Latin Quarter at 8am while the streets were still being washed, past the Musée de Cluny where I have spent so many happy hours, past the fountain which was still dry and heading towards the magnificent cathedral of Notre Dame. There are already a few groups of tourists outside, listening to some nonsense about Esmeralda but hurry past and admire the carved figures and gargoyles high above before you push open the door. It’s been at least 16 years since my last visit and I couldn’t possibly begin to describe what I saw or the effect it had on me – just look at the photos below instead.

I emerged some time later, dazzled by the light and the warmth of the day, even though it wasn’t yet 10am. I paused to admire the horse chestnut trees in bloom with their candles and strolled a short distance across to Sainte Chapelle whose entire purpose seems to be to showcase Gothic architecture and teach you how to look at light. There is really nothing else to do but sit and admire the stained glass and the perfect blue of that ceiling.


In the footsteps of artists


I defy you to walk down the Champs-Elysées and say you can still imagine Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in that famous scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle. Too many cars, too many tourists, not many interesting shops unless you love Apple and Nike (how I miss those late night excursions to buy jazz, Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg CDs at Virgin Megastore). But get away from the tourists in Montmartre and it’s still possible to imagine this area for a few moments as the artists saw it, like in the photo above. Late night dancing at the Lapin Agile and the Moulin de la Galette, Picasso working at the Bateau Lavoir and all of Paris at your feet as you compose a poem or a piece of music in your head on a walk to the top of the Butte.

I hadn’t been there for 17 years (!) and it’s true that the Place du Tertre is worse than ever, as are the crowds around Sacré Coeur. Yet turn down a side street into a quiet square and you understand perfectly why Dalida felt it was like a country village far from the bustle of the city. I spent a charming afternoon there, strolling around, eating ice cream, climbing 200 steps to the top of Sacré Coeur to find myself almost alone and with a splendid view before coming down and taking the funicular. The day ended with a walk around the Palais Royal gardens, a visit to Galignani’s bookshop and finally there was a superb and inexpensive dinner at Mio Posto in the Bastille area.


The Place Dalida – apparently rubbing her breasts is good luck. I resisted the temptation to try.

The man who could walk through walls, based on the magnificent story of the same name by Marcel Aymé.


Dalida’s fairytale house, sadly now divided into luxury flats. The window with the balcony on the left was her bedroom.


I couldn’t finish the dessert!

Jules et Jim


Paris is full of surprises. Not least when you arrive at the florist shortly after 8am and pick up four bunches of flowers. After explaining that I didn’t want them mixed into a single bouquet, the woman removed the lower leaves and thorns from the roses with extraordinary skill, cut the stems at an angle and an even length and wrapped them in beautiful paper for me, even adapting the plastic bag I had brought along into the ideal flower transporter. Now that’s service for you. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was just taking them to the cemetery!


Visiting Montmartre cemetery has been an ambition of mine for many years. You may remember that on my only previous attempt eight years ago, I arrived to find it closed because half a centimetre of snow had fallen. Luckily this time it was like summer and I walked through the gate of the Avenue Rachel (the only entrance), almost finding it hard to believe I was really there.

Pick up a laminated plan and then walk up the steps to your right. There you will come to one of the most beautiful graves I have ever seen, that of the beautiful singer and actress Dalida, who lived in a fairytale style house close to here until her suicide. She was buried in the dress from the video below and the elegant sculpture of her receives the first rays of sun which seems just right. Hers is undoubtedly the most popular grave but I took out a single red rose as a tribute. What a shame someone who brought so much happiness to others had so little in her own life.

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After that, the rest is for you to explore in your own way. Montmartre is definitely my favourite of the Parisian cemeteries – I love the intimate feel of it compared to Père Lachaise (which I still love!), the fact that many of the people buried here were artists and composers with a special connection to this wonderful area. I also love the cats who appear from time to time. You’ll find the graves of Nijinsky, Heinrich Heine, Henri-Georges Clouzot and many more.  left white tulips for Hector Berlioz and Stendhal whose works I deeply cherish.  But really, I went there for François Truffaut and Jeanne Moreau. They’re buried close to one another, the director and star of Jules et Jim and The Bride Wore Black. Taking roses to them and paying a silent tribute was definitely one of the most moving experiences of my life and not one I can really express in words. I stopped by once more on my way out to say farewell.


The grave of Victor Brauner and his wife Jacqueline with his sculptures



I would like to apologise in advance for chopping the top off Heinrich Heine’s grave. I love his work and he deserves better!

After leaving Montmartre cemetery, I walked up the hill a short distance in the direction of Sacré Coeur to call in the tiny St. Vincent cemetery. Marcel Aymé, Eugè Boudin, Marcel Carné, Steinlen and Maurice Utrillo are buried there and it’s a charming place to escape the bustle of tourists and you can even see the walls of the Lapin Agile alongside. Such history. I will share the rest of my day in Montmartre next time.

The beautiful sculpture by Émile Bailly at the grave of René and Jean Dumesnil.


An afternoon in Saint-Germain-des-Prés


“Il n’y a plus d’après à Saint-Germain-des-Prés” (There is nothing after Saint-Germain-des-Prés) sang Juliette Gréco in Guy Béart’s wonderful song. It’s hard to visualise her today in front of this church below in Robert Doisneau’s famous photo, or Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir strolling around, despite renaming the square after them, and it’s even more difficult to imagine Maurice Ronet’s anguish accompanied by Satie’s music on the terrace of the Café de Flore. All that went long ago – what remains is a very chic district with a vulgar Louis Vuitton boutique where it shouldn’t be instead of existentialist inspiration, full of hipsters and tourists.

But before I’m too harsh, let me say that I’m still extremely fond of this area and spent the most wonderful afternoon there. First, a coffee at the Flore in an almost deserted room (I never sit outside) where I almost convinced myself the waiter was in Sartrean bad faith. The coffee is certainly overpriced and not very good but I go there for the history and atmosphere which are hard to beat. Then a browse at my favourite bookshop, L’Écume des Pages, where I set foot all those years ago on my first trip to Paris. It hasn’t changed at all and my eye was instantly drawn to a huge volume of correspondence between Albert Camus and Maria Casarès which I had no idea about. Part of me questioned the wisdom of buying a 1300 page book weighing over a kilo but hell, this is Paris and if I want independent bookshops like this to still be around in the future, Amazon really isn’t an option. My heart skipped a beat and I had to buy it.

I called in the beautiful old church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés which was even lovelier than I remembered, then made my way over to a restaurant called Aux Vieux Garçons where I was meeting a friend for a delicious lunch, strolling first down to see the fresh graffiti on Serge Gainsbourg’s house and wondering if it will ever become a museum. Afterwards, I walked over to the Musée Rodin where the heat of the day finally hit me and I took out my new book. There are fewer places lovelier to read though in the shade of the trees and close to those wonderful sculptures. The words written by Albert Camus and Maria Casarès were so fresh and poignant and I imagined their time together in this very area.

I had only the energy left for Le Bon Marché department store where I finally bought the shoes of my dreams like those worn by Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour and afterwards stopped at La Grande Épicerie for one of the best millefeuilles I have ever eaten, thinking always of the director Jean-Pierre Melville who declared that his films were like a millefeuille. Some would enjoy the cream while the more discerning would appreciate the pastry. What an afternoon!


I also called in the fabulous Pâtisserie des Rêves to see their cakes and think about what to choose. I finally bought a Saint Honoré a couple of days later which was incredible.