Down East Culture

Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Travel Writer

The urge to get away for a weekend may be primal, but New York’s sprawl can make it tough to find a true change of scene. A half-hour outside Los Angeles or San Francisco, you leave buildings behind for wild mountains or oceanfront cliffs. A half-hour out of Manhattan, and you’re still mired in traffic.

But with enough patience, I-95 is the conduit to a rustic New England adventure. With a terrific Jewish Film Festival, a Dégas exhibit and last-of-winter discounts, March is the perfect time to explore one of my longtime favorite cities — Portland, Me.

At any time of year, downtown Portland surprises a vintage charm. Prim Victorian row houses, red-brick streets down by the old port and dove-gray painted gables are reminiscent of Boston. But what makes Portland different is the way you can stroll from the boutiques and coffeehouses of Exchange Street to the red-iron sculptures adorning the Compass Park waterfront in a matter of minutes.

And then there is the distinctive light of northern New England: sea and sky are stark azure by day, while afternoon sunlight turns the clapboard seashell-pink as a cool twilight descends.

It’s no coincidence that Portland is the smallest U.S. burg to host its own independent Jewish film festival. Despite its compact, historic center and townie friendliness, Portland has an outsized sophistication that merits comparison to arts hubs like Santa Fe.

Many Jewish Portlanders have strong connections to New York, and the community is defined by its civic and cultural bent. Jews are among the most active supporters of such world-class institutions as the Portland and Maine State Ballets, the Portland Chamber Music Festival and the Museum of Art.

Fifteen years ago, the Maine Jewish Film Festival started as a handful of videos screened on a TV set at Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland. Now it’s 2012, and the opening-night gala sold out awhile back for what has become one of the state’s most anticipated cultural events.

There are plenty of quality features from Israel, Europe and the Americas, but documentaries are a real highlight of this year’s Festival, held at locations around Portland from March 17-24. There’s a thoughtful local connection evident in such shorts as “Burial of Names,” about a small Maine community that gathers with its rabbi to bury Jewish artifacts, or “Seltzer Works,” another short about the last seltzer bottler in Brooklyn, Gomberg Seltzer Works.

Notable documentaries include last year’s “Stealing Klimt,” a hit of the Jewish film circuit, the thrilling account of Austrian Maria Altman’s quest to recover family art stolen by the Nazis; and “Between Two Worlds,” a frank and personal examination of the issues that divide American Jews today — Israel, intermarriage — through the lens of two contemporary families.

So popular is the festival that it has inspired this year’s inauguration of another event, the Portland Children’s Film Festival, from March 29-April 1 at venues around town. In addition to independent and international films for children, the festival will feature workshops for budding young filmmakers.

Before or after a flick, drop by Dobrá Tea, a self-styled “bohemian teahouse” on Middle Street. This is the Eastern European answer to the Park Slope Tea Lounge — the Maine outpost of a Slavic chain with organic chai blends, poetry readings and plenty of kids. On March 28 (and every fourth Wednesday), you can sip rooibos (herbal tea) while listening to Deena Weinstein of MOOSE, the Maine Organization of Storytelling Enthusiasts.

Culture of a more formal sort thrives over at the Portland Museum of Art, where a Dégas retrospective is on through May 28. “Edgar Dégas: The Private Impressionist” has more than 70 pastels, drawings, prints and sculptures, which reveal an interior world far beyond the stereotypical ballerinas.

It’s hard to resist a swing through the PMA’s other current show — “Making Faces: Photographic Portraits of Actors and Artists,” eye-candy pictures of celebrities ranging from Jackie Gleason and Jerry Lewis to Martha Graham and Maine’s own Andrew Wyeth.

Even in winter (and believe me, well into April, it is winter here), the great outdoors is one of Maine’s big selling points. So it’s worth knowing that through the end of March, Maine’s Coastal Botanical Gardens is absolutely free to enter.

Just walk in any day from morning till dusk with your cross-country skis or snowshoes, and 250 acres of woodland trails, forests, waterfalls and stonewalled gardens are yours to explore along the Maine shoreline.

The Gardens are one of Maine’s best-kept secrets and an organized way to see New England coastal landscapes. There’s a handy cafeteria, a popular children’s garden and plenty of family activities to while away the day.

En route to or from Maine, consider a stop in postcard-perfect Portsmouth, N.H. The woodsy Granite State has only a morsel of Atlantic coastline, but it’s a memorable morsel, a veritable outdoor museum of historical buildings from Colonial America.

Visually, Portsmouth has a classic red-brick-and-steeple downtown that’s similar to Portland, but it’s much smaller, quieter and local in feel.

Marvel at New Hampshire’s oldest surviving wood-frame home, the circa-1664 Jackson House, or John Paul Jones’s circa-1770s mansion, which served as a home base in between his Revolutionary War naval battles.

The downtown restaurants and cafes make an ideal dining break for road trippers. They’re far more inviting than highway rest stops, especially when capped off by a post-prandial stroll along Prescott Park, Portsmouth’s revived waterfront.

With the price of gas these days, after all, you might as well enjoy the drive.

Portland’s harbor is just a stone’s throw from downtown.

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