Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Kew Gardens

We live about six or so miles west of the center of London, depending on which point you choose as the center. It's relatively convenient (especially considering where some of my friends live) to get pretty much anywhere in town in about half an hour. There is one major attraction in London, however, that we can simply walk to: Kew Botanical Gardens.

Even the walk down there is quite nice, crossing the river Thames. Hard to believe it's only about a mile from our house.

I've only ever been to the Desert Botanical Gardens (which, let's face it, is pretty much an area of the desert that they charge you to look at) so I was a little skeptical about this; Kew, however, is widely considered to be the best botanical garden in the world. So we had to go there.

And I have to admit: it's like nothing I've ever seen.

Even their display of cacti is better than the Desert Botanical Garden's!

Also on the grounds is Kew Palace.

It's the same color as Teriann's shirt!

This was the residence of King George III — the king we beat in the Revolutionary War! Yeah, we kicked your ass!

Turns out, though, that he wasn't such a bad guy. Compared to the pavilion of tyrants and despots that is the British line of kings, he was a devoted family man. He developed and donated to many branches of culture — libraries, museums, and music — and was a keyboardist and flutist himself. Here's his rather unique porcelain flute.

I'm still glad we beat him, but it was interesting to learn more about him than what they tell you about him in American textbooks, which is... nothing.

Other features of Kew include the Palm House, home of the oldest potted plant in the world. The oldest potted plant! you say, Who cares? Well, like so many trivial things in this ancient land, this diagonal palm is older than America, having been moved to Kew Gardens in 1775.

My favorite, though, was the Japanese garden, in which a precisely combed rock zen garden takes the place of water. It is still, striking, and peaceful.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Another Tradition Exchange Update!

Does anyone think this might catch on?

Read this article.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mom Came to Visit!

August flew by in a flash. Blink. It's gone. After the constant travel of July, we needed a breather. I worked at the library — that's about it.

But on September 6, Mom arrived!

We spent our first day doing a general walking tour of the city, but, like everyone else who has come to visit, Mom soon felt jet lag creeping up so we had an early night.

During our next two days in London, we hit all the major sights — Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, St. James and Hyde Parks, the Natural History Museum — as well as some more off the beaten track. I took her on a mini-tour of the College (hey, she asked!), and she really enjoyed seeing St. Stephen's Gloucester Road and rummaging around old book shops. We even took in two really good shows, Wicked (pretty good) and As You Like It at the Globe (probably the best live performance of music or theatre I've ever seen).

Mom wanted to see Stonehenge, and I wanted her to see a little of England outside London (because London and England may as well be different countries!), so we took a train to Salisbury, near Stonehenge.

It was cold and windy!

Salisbury is a charming little town, and the cathedral (the tallest in England) is more impressively decorated than your typical medieval cathedral. Stonehenge makes an appearance in the stained glass,

the set of carved choir stalls are both original (pre-Renaissance!) and strikingly beautiful, and the cathedral as a whole is generally a pleasant place to be.

I'm looking forward to going back with Teriann soon!

Thus ended our time in jolly old England, and the three of us boarded a plane at an absurdly early hour Thursday morning bound for Bavaria.

There's no need to relive the frustrating events in a trip, but our rental car reservation wasn't right. Instead of a small car with an automatic transmission, they gave us a big one with a manual.

This would initially seem to be a huge coup: a BMW to drive around the Alps! And true, Mom hardly had any problems at all with the stick shift. But the car was incredibly confusing; we spent 15 minutes trying to figure out how to turn the radio off! And it was quite bulky, which didn't exactly come in handy on the tiny village roads of Austria.

Once we figured out how to turn the radio off, we set off for Hohenschwangau, home of the iconic Neuschwanstein castle. Yes, Teriann and I already visited Neuschwanstein in June, but Mom really wanted to see it. And who could complain about going again? Look at this!

As I explained in June, you actually tour two castles. The famous one on the hill was built by King Ludwig II, but the first castle you tour is Hohenschwangau, where Ludwig grew up. What a view!

Though photography is not allowed on the tours, this time I snuck pictures of two of my favorite things in Hohenschwangau, this fantastic writing desk,

and this statue with its malachite mountain.

And in between our tours, we made time to feed the swans at Alpsee, a tiny lake between the castles. This is pretty much what we do when we travel: feed animals.

This is probably my all-time favorite pic from my own Photographing Wildlife series. Maybe Teriann will let me split her book deal :)

The tour of Neuscwanstein itself was, of course, fantastic. None of the splendor or complete over-the-top-ness was lost on us our second time through. We then had a wonderful dinner (you've heard me say it: Germany has the best food in the world) and called it a night.

Our goal for the next day was to make it to Hallstatt, a tiny town in the Salzkammergut region of Austria. On the way, though, we spent a considerable amount of time shopping in the charming Christmas store in Hohenschwangau, stopped to admire the humble Plansee (a small lake with astonishingly clear water), and made a remarkable find: Ettal.

It's a monastery and basilica built and decorated in the most exquisite Baroque fashion. A picture doesn't do justice to the experience of walking in the place, but here's an example: the organ.

The frescoes on the dome are, in my humble opinion, just as good as anywhere in the world. They're not as famous as, say, the Sistine Chapel because they're considerably newer (around the 17th or 18th century), but they're cut from the same dramatic, vibrant, dazzling cloth.

Being by this time considerably behind the loose schedule we had set out for the day, we drove straight through to Hallstatt.

Hallstatt is a lot like Vernazza. Instead of the sea, there's a lake with dramatic, neck-achingly tall mountains. Instead of Italian, they speak German. Instead of pesto, they eat schnitzel. But the fantastic scenery remains; the slower pace of life remains; and the power of the quaint little village to relax and soothe remains.

This was our hotel as seen from the mountain side of town.

One of the most fascinating things about this town is the graveyard in the Catholic church up the hill. If one needed confirmation that this place is a world away from ours, consider this: they bury their dead considerably differently. Each grave is a tended garden adorned with a headstone that is more artwork than dreary slab. Some had pictures of the deceased. Some had still-lit candles.

And in the back of the graveyard, a small chapel containing these:

About 1,200 of them in fact. All specifically wished in their will to be included here; most are from past centuries, but the last skull added was that of a woman who died in 1985.

But enough of the macabre — look at the views!

We desperately wished we could have stayed longer. There was so much more to see: one of the oldest salt mines in the world, a lake for cruising, and ice caves in the mountains. But with heavy hearts we pointed the Bimmer towards our final stop on our Austrian tour: Vienna.

Perhaps it was a sign of shoddy planning; or perhaps just a fortuitous coincidence, but while plotting our course to Vienna the night before our departure, I came across a name I recognized: Steinbach am Attersee. I recognized it from a book I had read about Mahler's composing cabins. Like many musicians, Mahler escaped from the city to the countryside in the summer, but uniquely, he had small huts/houses built a short walk from his summer homes that were for composing only. All three huts still survive, so since we were passing through Steinbach anyway, we pulled over and I asked a local if he knew where exactly it was.

Turns out it is in what is now Seefeld, a small community just up the road from Steinbach built around the Gasthof Föttinger, which, as it turns out, is the inn the Mahler family stayed at between 1893 and 1896. It's quite beautiful in its own right.

All I had to do was ask at the front desk and they gave me the key! A short walk towards the lake brought us to the composing house.

Despite the overeager Mahler society who had installed a motion sensing sound system to play bits of Mahler's work to visitors, it was still quite an experience; we were visiting hallowed space. This was Mahler's piano!

Despite the surroundings which have, ahem... filled in during the past century (on one side, a scuba teaching school, on the other, a trailer park; no, I could not have made that up, there is actually a trailer park next to Mahler's secluded composing spot), the tiny house's position on the edge of the vast and powerful Attersee is still inspiring... somehow both overwhelming and impossibly quiet.

Before we left, we had a delicious lunch at the Föttinger and Mom took a minute out to show us how she really felt about the car.

Then it was off to Vienna!

Vienna is a city with which I instantly connected. It's arguably the most important city in music history (Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, and countless others called it home) and yet today, it pulls off London's trick of miraculously blending deep history with modern vitality.

The main road into town from the train station, for instance, is very cosmopolitan,

sprinkled with piano shops, trendy galleries, and — lo and behold! — public drinking fountains!

And yet, there's a quaintness about old, historic Vienna. The Volksgarten (People's Garden) near the palace complex is very beautiful

and the city's traffic is about half cars, half horse-drawn carriages.

This dichotomy was reflected in our visit: yes, our hotel reservation didn't work out and we had to be shuttled to one quite a way across town; yes, the Spanish Riding School and Stephansdom were both a little disappointing. But our new hotel happened to be on a convenient tram line (trams, by the way, are now my favorite form of public transport — brilliant!), and attractions like Mozart's House and the traveling carnival/beer garden in front of Old City Hall were very enjoyable.

We also stopped to take a picture in front of Beethoven's house

and had a delicious lunch in a charming restaurant (Wiener schnitzel, of course).

I suppose that when I think of our time in Vienna, though, I'll think of our first night. A bit tired and ragged from the ordeal with the hotel switcheroo, we weren't defeated. We walked through a city lit up as if in an evening gown, strolling past centuries-old churches and fountains, past modern, glittering windowfronts. We paused to listen to some street performers playing Schubert's Ave Maria. Where better to hear it? Near the giant, Gothic cathedral that marks the center of town, we settled on a funky, colorful, American-themed bar & grill called Sparky's (there was even a poster of Arizona on the wall inside) to settle down for a comfy wrap-up to our week of travel.

Thanks for coming to visit, Ma :)

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