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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
(more…)

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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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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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I just got back from several days of vacation in Phoenix with friends.  In addition to enjoying baseball, Rock Band, and board games, this group loves to eat.   We ate a lot of ballpark food over the week, but we also got the chance to try some interesting area restaurants.

Chino Bandito This place is really hard to describe, so if you find yourself in Phoenix, you should just go check it out. Their menu combines Mexican and Chinese flavors, which sounds odd, but really works. You can get a bowl with a combination of two meats (from their list of 14), beans, and rice, like I did.

(clockwise from top) Carnitas, Cuban Black Beans, Jerk Fried Rice, Jade Red Chicken

Or try a quesadilla with a meat like Emerald Chicken. Or a Machaca or Teriyaki burrito. If you’ve never been to the restaurant before, they let you try a sample of pretty much everything before you order. And every meal comes with a wonderfully chewy and delicious Snickerdoodle. I love how wonderfully wacky Chino Bandito is! The original location (which is the only one I have visited) is totally no frills, but there is a giant, granite statue of Pancho Panda, the mustachioed, bandoliered, sombreroed panda, who is the face of Chino Bandito. Very wacky, very affordable, and very worth a trip.

Culinary Dropout There was a lot to enjoy at this restaurant in Scottsdale, right around the corner from the Phoenix campus of Le Cordon Bleu. The space has an eclectic, modern, hipster vibe, with rustic wood and iron tables, oversized chairs in graphic velvet and paisley, textural wall panels, and huge chandeliers with green crystals. If you don’t care about decor, the food and drinks will draw you in, though. For drinks, our party had the elderberry wine spritzer (a refreshing take on sangria), the Dirty Schoolgirl, Smashed Irishman, and Eric’s “Blue Ribbon” Rhubarb.  I tasted all of them except the Dirty Schoolgirl, and can vouch that they were tasty.  We had so many appetizers that I am surprised we had room for anything else.  The house made potato chips with onion dip and cheese fries were both yummy, but the soft pretzels with provolone fondue?  Whoah, were those good!  Deep brown, chewy, salty pretzel nuggets and a velvety cheese sauce – mmmmm.    We also had a sampling of the antipasti: the cheeses were nice, but not particularly special, the roasted beets were lovely, and the jamon iberico and prosciutto melted in the mouth.  I think we were getting a little overwhelmed at this point, so there wasn’t as much passing and tasting of entrees, but everyone seemed to enjoy their main dish.  I ordered the gnocchi with sausage and mushrooms, which was very good: pillowy and flavorful.  But we still weren’t done!  We just couldn’t pass up the apple monkey bread and salted caramel custard for dessert.  The monkey bread was like a lovely cross between bread pudding and cinnamon rolls, and the custard was so smooth and creamy with a nice hint of salt and crunchy caramel corn on top.  We could barely shove ourselves away from the table by the end of the meal.  The service was excellent, as well: attentive, informative, with a bit of humor.  So, Culinary Dropout gets two thumbs up, too.

Tonto Bar & Grill So, let me get the non-gastronomic item out of the way first. We saw javelinas as we were coming out of the restaurant after dinner, a whole group of maybe 8 of them! Javelinas are a wild, boar-like animal in the peccary family, and they are big. I was definitely intrigued by them, but also a little intimidated. I definitely didn’t want one of them charging at me. Sadly, I couldn’t get a good photo. Anyway, Tonto had yet another eclectic menu, largely Southwestern and Native American inspired. For an appetizer we got a couple orders of the three sister salsas and guacamole, served with both corn and flour tortilla chips and Indian fry bread. I was feeling a little under the weather that night, so I only tried the guacamole, which was great with all three types of chip, and judging by the noshing that went on around the table, the other dips were delicious, too. My companions reported that the Tontorita and prickly pear margarita were both satisfying, as well.

Tontorita and Prickly Pear Margarita

When it came to entrees, several of us opted for the compressed arugula salad with cherries, manchego, apples, and pecans, which can be topped with your choice of meat or seafood. It was a huge salad and pretty tasty, though I found the ratio of greens to other ingredients to be a little high. The big entree hits at the table seemed to be the onion crusted walleye and the pork chicharrones. The menu also has a cool “Vegetarian Nosh” section, that allows one to choose from a number of vegetable and starch dishes along with a sauce. The service was pretty good, and the interior of the restaurant, while a little overdone for my taste, suited the menu and style of the place. Also, the drive to Cave Creek, where Tonto is located, is pretty, especially if you arrive just at sunset, like we did.

Sonoran sunset

That’s it for restaurant reporting, unless you want a rundown on spring training ballpark hot dogs or my first experience of In-N-Out Burger.  Honestly, though, we ate so much at the three eateries above that our appetites were surprisingly subdued later in the week.

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One of the highlights of my trip to St. Louis a few weeks ago, other than just getting to be with my family, was visiting City Museum.  It is, quite literally, a marvelous place.  It’s a little difficult to describe the museum, so I will let this bit from their website do the talking:

Housed in the 600,000 square-foot former International Shoe Company, the museum is an eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel made out of unique, found objects. The brainchild of internationally acclaimed artist Bob Cassilly, a classically trained sculptor and serial entrepreneur, the museum opened for visitors in 1997 to the riotous approval of young and old alike.

Cassilly and his longtime crew of 20 artisans have constructed the museum from the very stuff of the city; and, as a result, it has urban roots deeper than any other institutions’. Reaching no farther than municipal borders for its reclaimed building materials, CITY MUSEUM boasts features such as old chimneys, salvaged bridges, construction cranes, miles of tile, and even two abandoned planes!

Definitely not your average museum.  Definitely a fun place to spend an afternoon.

The first floor has an area of mosaics, like this one, and huge sculptures connected by tunnels and caverns. At one point in my exploring, I emerged from the mouth of a big whale sculpture.  As neat as it was to explore parts of the museum, I couldn’t help but wonder how often kids get lost for a little while.

Very little of the museum is undecorated or purely functional.  Stairs are built into the back of a dinosaur and are bordered by colorfully painted, repurposed rollers.  And that spiraling coil of blue at the top?  You can climb through that.

Many of the walls are covered with salvaged materials, like these printing press plates.  You could easily spend 15 minutes staring at a wall in this place.

Judging from the map on the website, I am realizing we may have missed some elements, like the entire second floor.  Oops!  I suspect we mistook the mezzanine for the second floor, where we saw a snack bar and an awesome forest area with more areas to climb and crawl and explore.  The actual second floor has the World Aquarium (which requires a separate admission fee), an exhibit of vintage opera posters (so bummed I missed those!), and a shoelace factory.

The third floor has a ton to see, including one area that displays a collection of neon signs, carnival bits, and an assemblage of robots crafted from junk.  There’s also a large section known as the Architectural Museum.   It was one of my favorite parts of City Museum.  There was an exhibit on George Grant Elmslie, part of the Progressive School of Chicago Architecture, who created gorgeous medallions and other ornate, symmetrical ornaments for buildings in the 1930’s.  Alas, my photos of the exhibit didn’t turn out.  But I can share some of other architectural elements at the museum.

Another element we missed (more reason to come back the next time I am in St. Louis!) was the Everyday Circus, where there are daily performances (more on weekends) by acrobatic circus performers.  Sadly, that day’s show was over by the time we arrived.  They even offer classes!

The fourth floor of the museum houses a vintage clothing store, where I picked up a nifty, pale blue plaid men’s vest and we all spent some time browsing.

The cool, salvaged, whimsical vibe of the museum continues beyond its walls, too.  The roof (closed when we visited) has more areas to explore and a ferris wheel.  I’d say the most unique part of City Museum is the wacky, multi-story, recycled jumble of a  playground that climbs the front of the building.  You can see it in the photo at the top of this post – it’s called the MonstroCity.  I spent probably twenty minutes wending my way along platforms and catwalks, climbing stairs, crouching or crawling through coils of metal, and sliding between levels.  It was fabulous, and would be even more fun with kids, I bet!

That’s part of one of the planes incorporated into the structure.

Not only planes, but trams, a school bus, and even a firetruck are there to be climbed and explored.

Honestly, I cannot recommend this museum enough.  If you live in or near St. Louis or ever visit, definitely add City Museum to your to-do list.

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