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Hoo boy, at this rate I won’t finish my London posts until summer.  Eek!  Sorry for the slow pace, but life (and a sometimes slow internet connection, grr) gets in the way of blogging sometimes.  Day three of my London trip was jam packed, so this may get long, but this day had my favorite sights.

My first stop of the day was Portobello Road Market.

Portobello Road Market
storefront sewing machines
Portobello Road
sign shop
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My second day in London was largely spent wandering the turrets, keeps, and walls of the Tower of London.

jumble of towers

While it may not be the most charming fortress, it has so much history and drama that it was a must-see for me.  My first order of business was one of the guided tours by a Yeoman Warder. The Yeomen Warders, also known as Beefeaters, mostly serve as ceremonial guards and tour guides and live on the Tower grounds. The Warders give a tour that hits the high points of the Tower’s history, and the tour is the only way to gain access to the Royal Chapel of the Tower, St. Peter ad Vincula.

Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula

The chapel, built around 1520 during Henry VIII’s reign, is a pretty little space, but you aren’t allowed to take photos. Several famous Tower prisoners are buried in the chapel, including Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey, and Thomas More, and during a renovation in the Victorian era approximately 1500 unidentified remains were found under the chapel floor. Yikes.

After the Warder tour, I spent quite a while wandering on my own. First I checked out the Crown Jewels, which are housed in the Waterloo Block and, of course, carefully guarded.

Waterloo Block
guard

I didn’t expect to be as interested in the Crown Jewels as I was. For one thing, I was amazed at the size of some of the stones, like the Cullinan I in the Scepter with the Cross, which, at 530 carats, is the second largest diamond in the world. It was also neat to see the ways the style of crowns has evolved over the centuries.

After viewing the jewels, I headed to the White Tower, which was built by Williams the Conqueror in the late 11th century and is the oldest part of the Tower of London.

White Tower
corner tower

The outside of the White Tower is distinctive with the light stone trim around the windows and architectural details. It was designed to be defensible, so the entrance is on the second floor, reached by wooden stairs that could be knocked down so that attackers could not reach the door.

White Tower

Inside the tower, there was a big exhibit of arms and armor. I got to see several sets of Henry VIII’s armor, horse armor, ceremonial armor for a child, etc. The variety of the armor was really impressive and interesting, and many had gorgeous inlay, engraving, and other decorations. My favorite pieces were the child’s helmet with a little dragon on top and a very intricate ivory saddle.

articulated armor
intricate armor decorations
Henry VIII's armor
dragon helm
ivory saddle

After seeing the White Tower, I wandered the grounds, walls, and several of the towers.

grounds

The Tower is home to a number of ravens, and legend has it that the kingdom is only safe so long as the ravens remain at the Tower. Until I saw them, I wasn’t really sure I could tell the difference between a raven and a crow, but there’s something regal and mysterious about the ravens. But it could just seem that way because crows are more familiar.

Tower raven

In addition to ravens, the Tower of London has had many creatures in residence in its long history, and an exhibit called Royal Beasts gave some intriguing facts about them. Lions were kept at the Tower for over 600 years, and James I designed a bottle nipple for feeding sick cubs. The royal menageries also included tigers, kangaroos, elephants, and even a polar bear. Apparently, the polar bear belonging to Henry III was tied to a rope, so it could swim and fish in the Thames. And I also spotted a couple more fantastical creatures around the Tower.

Gargoyle

In various structures there are placards and displays relating to some of the stories from the Tower’s history. The Beauchamp Tower has carved graffiti left by prisoners, who were kept in the Tower in varying degrees of comfort. In the Bloody Tower there are interactive exhibits on the mystery of the Little Princes. In the Wakefield Tower you can see torture devices. And in the Medieval Palace you can see the royal living spaces built for Edward I.

private chapel
chapel stained glass
Chapel

As you can tell, there was plenty to see! I think I spent over six hours at the Tower. Before I left, I visited the gift shop and snagged a wee, silver Tower for my charm bracelet. Then I headed out to Tower Wharf, where there are lovely views of Tower Bridge and London’s South Bank area.

Tower Bridge illuminated
South Bank

That could have been enough for one day, and I was pretty tired, but I was determined to have authentic fish and chips while in London. I had read that one of the best places for fish and chips is the Golden Hinde. So, after wandering a bit through the streets of the City of London (including the eerily lovely garden of St. Dunstan in the East, which grows among the ruins of a Wren church that was bombed in the Blitz), I headed to Marylebone for dinner.

fish and chips!

Yum! I enjoyed my crispy, flaky fish and rested my feet a bit before hitting the streets again, this time to take in the lights and do some shopping.

holiday lights

Without meaning to, I ended up at the Liberty of London store, which was beautiful, inside and out, from the window displays to the merchandising.

Liberty of London
Liberty window display
fabrics for sale
rug room

As I recall, I pretty much fell into bed that night, happy and exhausted from a full day of drinking in London’s past and present.

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In the late fall, I decided I needed a vacation. Work had been crazy, friends were having rough times, and so on. At first, I thought I would just take a week off from work, but stay in town. With the help of an airfare voucher and an ad for good fares to London, though, my vacation plan got much more grand. I had been to London once before, my senior year of college, but the visit had been cut very short. It was 1997, and I was supposed to fly from Boston to England on April 1st for about four days in London and a long weekend in Chichester, where a friend was getting married. Alas, April fooled us big time with a blizzard that delayed my trip three days. So, I spent less than 48 hours in London that trip, which made me eager to go back.

St. Pancras exterior

So, 15 years later, I got to actually spend my four days in London, in early December, and it was awesome.  I packed a lot into the days, but left knowing there was so much more I could have done.  I arrived in the morning, a little bleary from the long, overnight flight, but eager to get exploring.  After leaving my luggage at the hostel, I headed to King’s Cross/St. Pancras.  This is a transportation hub and shopping area, with two stations right next to each other.  King’s Cross is sleek and modern, while St. Pancras is ornate and Victorian.  Both house rail platforms, restaurants and shops.  St. Pancras is, at least to me, more picturesque, so it bore the brunt of my shutterbugging.

St. Pancras Station

ornate

Everywhere I looked there were lovely decorative elements, inside and out. And on the upper level of the station I stumbled upon the Olympic rings and a huge sculpture that I found charming and perfectly suited to such a busy place of departure and arrival.

Olympic rings at St. Pancras

statue

Honestly, one of my main reasons for visiting King’s Cross/St. Pancras was to check out Eat St., which is a spot where a variety of food trucks and vendors gather at lunchtime a few days a week. There were so many delicious sounding items that it took me a while to decide on my lunch. I finally settled on a pork taco from Buen Provecho and a noodle soup from Yum Bun.

pork taco

soup

After lunch I headed around the corner to the British Library. I think this was the only attraction I visited on both my trips to London, which isn’t really surprising, since I am an avid reader and majored in English. The Library, though, is rather different from what I remembered since it’s current site (created to bring together the parts of the collection that had been scattered around London) opened in 1997, but after my visit. My romantic side kind of prefers the old look, with the glass cases of manuscripts surrounded by two stories of shelves, but I have to admit that the new galleries are better organized and more informative. I found it thrilling to see the original manuscripts of books and authors I love, Austen, Bronte, Shakespeare, along with letters to and from royalty and other historical figures. This time I also really enjoyed the impressive collection of religious texts, many gorgeously illustrated, from all sorts of faiths. One of the temporary exhibits was on Dickens and his historical context, from which I learned a lot. Well, truly I retained only a little, but I have notes. (Yes, I am such a nerd that I take notes on vacation.)

British Library passageway

My final tourist stop of the day, though I was nearly falling down tired, was the Wellcome Collection. This place is a quirky museum that began with the personal collection of Sir Henry Wellcome and has expanded to include art and other exhibits that relate to health and medicine. Seriously, quirky. The main collection ranges from chastity belts and fertility charms to amputation saws and prosthetic limbs. There are rotating exhibits, as well. I was particularly taken with the Mexican votives in the Miracles and Charms exhibit. The votives, or miracle paintings, are painted on tin roof tiles or other small plaques and created in gratitude to God for deliverance from illness, accident, or some other difficulty. There were dozens of these works, and they were somehow both uniform (standard size and some very common compositions and motifs) and diverse (folksy to sophisticated and all sorts of stories from bandits to electrocution.) Fascinating stuff.

By then it was evening and, not having gotten much sleep on the flight the night before, I was exhausted. So after heading back to the hostel, I had no trouble at all going to sleep, even though it was only afternoon back home.

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I got to visit my parents in St. Louis after my conference trip to Chicago.  The timing was good, as my dad had just had surgery, so I was able to visit him, while my mom worked.  Most of the visit was spent just hanging out with my parents, but Mom and I did take some time to check out the Missouri Botanical Garden, one of Mom’s favorite places. I generally get out to visit my folks in the winter, so it was nice to be there at a time when the garden was in full bloom.  It really is an impressive place, with lots of different styles of garden, beautifully executed.  It is free for residents of St. Louis county and very reasonably priced for the rest of us.  Honestly, they must do a lot of fund-raising, because the quality is way above what one would expect for the admission price, especially once you see the number of Chihuly pieces the Garden acquired permanently after the exhibition of his work there several years ago.  Those glass installations are not cheap.

Mom and I started in the Climatron, a domed glass greenhouse filled with an amazing variety of stunning tropical plants.

I wish I had taken the photo above with Mom in it, because those plants are enormous!  The blooms were over her head.

See?  More Chihuly.  Mom and I liked the flamingo-like shapes of these, and they really glowed in their pool of sunlight.

And it wasn’t only the colorful things that caught our eyes.

I am guessing this plant is either carnivorous, and catches insects in these hanging pods or that they are for capturing water, with the prickly bits to keep critters from stealing the liquid.

Isn’t it amazing how much variety is in our world?  I love that there are always so many new things to see and wonder about! Anyway, after the Climatron, we wandered to Tower Grove House, which was originally the country home of the Garden’s creator, Henry Shaw.  It’s odd to think of it as a country house, when today the Botanical Garden is surrounded by city neighborhoods.

Of course, it’s easy to forget the city in the immediate surroundings of the house, such as the lovely formal garden, based on Shaw’s original design.

Next we headed to the expansive Japanese Garden.  While I tend to love showy, colorful landscapes, I was struck by the serene and ordered layout in this section.  It was absolutely gorgeous.

There were some flowers, of course, including irises, a favorite of mine.

And we got to feed lots of koi, whose colors and patterns were nearly as beautiful as the plants and flowers (though the photos don’t do them justice, due to the jostling for food.)

It was a hot day, so Mom and I were flagging by that point.  But on our way back to the Garden entrance we wandered through one of the rose gardens and the Orangerie, and enjoyed yet another Chihuly installation.

Really we only saw a portion of what the Garden has to offer.  There were several sections we didn’t see, so you could probably spend the better part of a day here.  Yet another jewel in St. Louis’s cultural crown.

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Art in Bloom

As I said in my last post, I returned to the MFA for their annual Art in Bloom event.  For this event, garden clubs are invited to create floral arrangements to be paired with one of the works of art in the museum.  All the floral designers clearly used the art as inspiration for their arrangements, but it was interesting to see the different ways in which they used aspects of the art, from color to shape and texture.

This arrangement clearly used color and form to mimic the composition of the painting.

This designer used a similar approach, but I like this one better.  I like the way the flowers are grouped, with each color being a separate type, to match the sections of the painting.  It’s almost the opposite technique of the painting, where small strokes of varied colors come together to make an impression.  In the floral arrangement the colors are pulled from the painting in solid, homogeneous sections.  Nifty!

This was one of my favorite displays.  I assume the floral designers got to pick which piece of art to interpret, and I think choosing a sculpture like this is more of a challenge.  You can’t use color to dictate the flowers and composition, and I really like how this designer met that challenge.  The palm fronds clearly echo the wings, and the mossy, dangling plants at the bottom of the arrangement are a nod to the texture of the flames at the base of the statue.  I also like that the arrangement avoided being too structurally literal by using three white blossoms, where it would have been more obvious to use two to match the two figures.

I am sad that I got a blurry photo here, because this was another arrangement I really liked.  This designer used colors that exactly matched the painting, but then took a playful approach with the shapes and composition, using open, metal (I think) cubes tumbling around the organic shapes of the flowers.  It both matches and contrasts with the ordered, geometric lines of the painting.

This photo doesn’t come close to showing how well the floral designer matched colors to the painting.  Here the approach seemed to be using certain elements of the painting, specifically color and curves, to inspire the arrangement rather than shaping the arrangement itself to match the painting’s composition.

This last one might not be my favorite, but the interpretation of the art is really interesting.  Who would look at that ancient relief piece and think, “I could base a floral arrangement on that”?

Art in Bloom was a fun way to spend an evening and make myself feel a little more cultured to boot.  Even if you aren’t a fan of floral arrangements, I think the juxtaposition of the flowers and art makes you see the art in a new way.  Though the event is over for 2011, it is an annual event, so you could check it out next year.  Art in Bloom always includes a Community Open House evening when admission to the museum is free, so you don’t even need to open your wallet to enjoy.

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Much like the arboretum, though I live near the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston I don’t go there frequently. I have visited the museum twice in the past couple weeks, though. First with a coworker to see the new exhibit, “Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass”, then with my brother to check out the annual “Art in Bloom” event. “Art in Bloom” is already over (it only last a few days each year), but the Chihuly exhibit will be at the MFA until August 7, and I definitely recommend a visit.

I’ve liked Dale Chihuly’s work since I first heard about the artist, while I was taking a glassblowing class for the short, unconventional winter term at my college. I’ve always been drawn to glass, color, and graceful shapes, and Chihuly’s art is a beautiful combination of all three.

Since I first became aware of the artist, his work has expanded from mostly cup, bowl, and platter shapes to include spiky pillars, sinuous chandeliers,

and juxtapositions of sleek, colorful glass against natural and weathered materials.

Each room in the exhibit housed a different style of glass sculpture or installation of many pieces.  One of my favorites, Ikebana Boat, was at the very beginning: a simple, rustic, wooden boat overflowing with colorful shapes that would fit well in a Dr. Seuss illustration.

The black backdrop (which is used throughout the exhibit) really sets off the piece, and I love the reflection in the sheet of glass that is the base of the display.

The next room had an assortment of vase-shaped pieces sprouting flower and vine motifs and showcasing methods of cutting and shaping the blown glass that were new to me.

In the claw-like part, those dots are air bubbles that are somehow evenly dispersed in the glass.  Wow!

The next section had many pieces inspired by Native American textiles and baskets.  The shapes in this part were more akin to the Chihuly works I was already familiar with, but the colors and patterns were more muted and clearly inspired by the crafts displayed with them.

From there, the exhibit moves on to a very dramatic room with a huge installation (the largest Chihuly installation to date, I believe), called Mille Fiori, made of glass shapes in a rainbow of colors sprouting from a platform that extends about sixty feet in the center of the room.  Sadly, I couldn’t get a picture that even comes close to capturing the drama of the piece.

The chandelier room was next, with six different chandeliers in different colors (and one made entirely of clear glass) composed of clusters of bulbs, buds, and curling, twirling tendrils.

The Persian Ceiling room was the only one with white walls.  In this room, the glass pieces (the first picture in this post shows a section of them – see if you can find the glass octopus) form the ceiling, with light shining through, and the white walls allow colorful designs to appear below the installation.

The final part of the exhibit, Neodymium Reeds on Logs, seemed the most contemporary to me, and certainly the most minimal.  It was striking and interesting, but I still can’t really decide if I like it.

While you can see a lot of the exhibit here, there is much more than I have shown you.  And the glass is much more beautiful and detailed in person.

This got pretty long, so I will save the “Art in Bloom” recap for another post.

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As you’ve probably all figured out by now, I love nature. The “I wonder” part of iwonderandiwander has as much to do with my frequent awe of the world around me as it does with the questions that run through my head.  When I travel, I really enjoy visiting parks, gardens, and natural landscapes and marveling at the beauty and variety of the natural world.  In Phoenix, I got to hike in the Sonoran Desert Preserve, which was a short walk from our rental house, go geocaching in an undeveloped area neighboring the subdivision, and visit the spectacular Desert Botanical Garden, so I really got to experience the desert flora. (The desert fauna made appearances, too – in addition to the javelinas I mentioned in my restaurant post, we saw rabbits, lizards, ground squirrels, and lots of quail.)

The Desert Botanical Garden was gorgeous, fun, and informative.  There are, of course, scads of cacti, in every imaginable shape and size, and some we never could have envisioned.  Fishhook cactus, strawberry hedgehog cactus, enormous saguaros, teddy bear chollas, prickly pear, cacti that undulated across the ground like tentacles, cacti in bloom.  I even managed to pick up a barbed cactus spine in my leg.  It was tenacious, but thankfully painless.  My friend, M, and I also learned that cacti have wood inside.  I suppose I always assumed that cacti were fleshy all the way through, until we saw the woody remains of dead cacti at the garden.  The wood of some cacti even has a beautiful honeycombed look.

There was plenty to see beyond cacti, though.  The garden has thousands of other plants, too, mostly succulents like agave and aloe.  We were amazed by the wide variety of agave plants.  Some had flower stems up to 26 feet tall that looked like something from a Dr. Seuss book.  We also really liked the type with delicate, white, spiraling tendrils among the spiky leaves, and a variety called Queen Victoria’s agave, which had striking, almost geometric, white veining on the dark green leaves.

We seemed to be catching the tail end of the desert spring, so there were some cacti and other succulents blooming, and the garden has a number of other types of flowering plants, too.  The creosote bushes had pretty yellow flowers and fuzzy, white globes of seeds.  I was quite surprised to find lupins growing in the desert, since I associate them with Maine (though it turns out there are species of lupins all over, and they are the state flower of Texas.)   The garden also had a tiny, gorgeous variety of iris that I had never seen before. We kept seeing signs for a mimosa-like flower with the adorable name baja fairy duster, so we were excited when we finally found one with the unique magenta blossoms.

Beyond plants, we checked out the ethnobotany section of the garden, where there are traditional Native American structures and interactive exhibits on how those early desert residents used the native plants.  We got to pound mesquite seeds and see fencing made of spiky ocotillo branches.  We also visited the butterfly pavilion, which was pretty much chock full of colorful beauties in both insect and flower form.

M and I both took tons of photos during our visit, and you can see the best of mine in the slideshow below.  The garden is more beautiful in person, though, so visit it if you are ever in the Phoenix area.

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