A Travellerspoint blog

America's Northern Midwest: Milwaukee

I've lived in several different parts of the United States thanks to the vagaries of educational and employment opportunities and over time I've come to appreciate the subtle cultural differences between regions. These differences are much more pronounced in the major cities and I've developed a fondness for the variegated character of American cities. Some time ago I set a goal of visiting every major American city and I've seen the majority of them. My favorites are New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon but I've been surprised how many others differed radically from what I expected. Houston and Atlanta were upside surprises while Seattle and Chicago were disappointments. 2016 was the year that Cleo told me she didn't want me to take her out of school for travel any more (she was four) so we wedged two trips into her summer break. We had a long road trip in central Europe planned for the end of the summer so we devised a two week itinerary for the American Midwest right after Cleo's school ended for the year.
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Every July there's a multi-day event called Taste of Chicago which bills itself as the world's largest food festival. I'd never been there, but word of mouth was that it was a big culinary event in which some of the best restaurants in Chicago served their food from stalls in a downtown park. As luck would have it the end of our two week time slot coincided perfectly with the beginning of the festival so we decided make Chicago the end of the road trip rather than the beginning. We flew into Chicago in the evening and crashed in a cheap motel, and then picked up our rental minivan the next morning. We had our nanny with us to help take care of Spenser, who wasn't even a year old yet, and watch the boys when we wanted to go out to dinner with Cleo. After loading up the minivan we drove straight to Milwaukee which was just an hour and a half away.
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In 2016 the food hall movement was rolling along in American cities. It was lunch time when we arrived in the city so we headed to the Milwaukee Public Market even before dropping off our stuff at the Airbnb. The market was very busy and had a mixture of mini restaurants and delis. With six of us we were able to sample most of the restaurants that interested us and get a very satisfying lunch. It was a perfect way to kick off the road trip.
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Not many Americans, let alone international travelers, would think of going to Milwaukee on vacation. To the extent the city even has a reputation, it is as a boring midwestern nonentity with a lot of breweries. Fortunately I've learned not to pay much attention to those capsule summaries of American cities that are largely generated by media and people who've never been there. Los Angeles is not a shallow wasteland of surfers and celebrities, Boston is not a snobbish Brahmin enclave, and Portland is not overrun with hippies chomping granola. Nor did Milwaukee turn out to be a convocation of beefy Nordic types washing down sausages with cases of canned beer. Over the next two days we discovered that Milwaukee is quite beautiful, surprisingly quirky, and full of interesting things to do for families. Our Airbnb was a pleasant if undistinguished three bedroom house in a funky central neighborhood called Walker's Point. We made a brief stop there after lunch to drop off the bags and be sure we had a place for the night.
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Our first stop after checking in at the Airbnb was Brady Street, a nine block stretch in the bohemian Lower East Side neighborhood that's famous for restaurants and bars but also has eclectic stores, ethnic markets, and thrift shops. Art Smart's Dart Mart is the kind of store that every mid-sized city should have at least one of, a colorful collection of novelties and offbeat sports equipment that ultimately has something for everyone. If you can't find something at Art Smart's that you never knew you needed but now you can't live without, then I don't want to know you. Close by is another necessity of American city life, an authentic Italian market. Glorioso's has been an institution on Brady Street for seventy years and once we were inside it felt like we had entered a place where nothing had changed for decades.
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As the afternoon went on we continued to explore Milwaukee's cornucopia of unique attractions. Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory is known affectionately to locals as "The Domes". The cluster of three glass hemispheres sits improbably in a nondescript park like an outpost on a distant planet. Inside are elegantly landscaped plant collections that would be the envy of any botanical garden. It was one of the most beautiful and magical places I can remember seeing within the continental United States.
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Milwaukee hadn't finished amazing us for the day. Lots of American cities have a river snaking through their center and too many of them have no clue whatsoever how to incorporate them into the urban landscape. My hometown of Miami is one of the worst offenders. Fortunately Milwaukee got its act together in the 1990's and constructed a beautiful path that extends along three miles of river that pass through the city's oldest and most scenic neighborhoods. The RiverWalk provides a relaxing way to admire Milwaukee's river and historic buildings while enjoying a series of eclectic sculptures such as the Bronze Fonz.
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We topped our awesome first day in Milwaukee with dinner at Wolf Peach, which at the time was one of the city's most beloved bistros. The contemporary American food was pleasant if not particularly innovative, but what was most enjoyable was the restaurant's brick and stone farmhouse style and patio seating on a cool summer evening.
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We kicked off our second day in Milwaukee at the South Shore Farmers Market, a large Saturday market in a beautiful residential neighborhood right at the shore of Lake Michigan. We never judge an American city until we've seen at least one farmer's market and once again Milwaukee passed with flying colors. The market was busy and energetic with live music, plenty of greenery, and a lovely park with a lakeside view for a picnic.
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Science museums are a great way to make sure the kids are having as good a time traveling as we are. Milwaukee's Discovery World has a great location on a short promontory into Lake Michigan. It is just a block away from the Milwaukee Art Museum whose Quadracci Pavilion was designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The pavilion is topped by a sculpture of enormous steel wings that opens and closes twice a day and we were able to time our visit to enjoy the spectacle.
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Discovery World was one of the better science museums we've visited in the United States. There was heavy machinery to operate, a decent music lab, and a design workshop. One surprising display was a bed of nails that patrons were invited to lie on. Mei Ling took a go at it and discovered that they weren't fooling around. The nails were really sharp. Of course since her weight was distributed on all of them her skin didn't get punctured but they left some nasty marks that lasted most of the day.
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Milwaukee is a pretty large city but so far we'd spent almost all our time close to downtown. We ventured inland to the River Bend neighborhood to check out American Science & Surplus, another unusual hobby and curiosity shop that is like a nerd's paradise. It was the kind of store where one could have stocked up on a full year's worth of Christmas, birthday, and Tooth Fairy presents for a curious kid. I would have been happy to spend most of a day in here but it became exhausting trying to keep up with the kids as they tore through the aisles investigating all the colorful knickknacks. We didn't leave before selecting a few puzzles and games for the road trip.
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We had dinner at Circa 1880, a highly regarded small restaurant that had the added advantage of being walking distance from the Airbnb. It was nice to have a relaxing dinner with just us and Cleo without constantly having to keep an eye on what the boys were doing.
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On our last morning we had another farmers market to visit, much smaller than the one we'd been to the previous day. It was set in another pretty park surrounded by idyllic homes. In the center of the park was a cluster of colorful metal tree sculptures, yet another taste of that Milwaukee funkiness that we had quickly come to love. Afterwards we took a brief swing through the Milwaukee County Zoo before getting back on the road west to our next stop, Madison.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 19:41 Archived in USA Tagged travel family blog milwaukee wisconsin Comments (0)

A Proper English Experience: London & Notting Hill Carnival

After using Airbnb on several trips in 2014, we had become fairly savvy users. The flat we booked in Notting Hill was by far the most amazing place we'd found by then and still possibly one of the best ever. I knew Notting Hill was an attractive part of London but I really hadn't imagined that neighborhoods this beautiful actually existed. The only word that I can think of to describe Notting Hill is immaculate. Our street had endless rows of tall cream-colored townhouses, while other blocks had multicolored or brick houses in a variety of styles. The one constant was the pleasant congruence of homes on each block and an awe-inspiring classical beauty. The apartment itself was surprisingly spacious and well-appointed with high ceilings and hardwood floors, and decorated idiosyncratically with colorful furniture and repurposed hardware.
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Of course we hadn't chosen Notting Hill just for its architectural allure. The whole reason we had chosen this particular week to come to England was to be there for the world famous Notting Hill Carnival, an annual celebration of Caribbean culture since 1966. The genesis of the Carnival was as an event to promote cultural unity after the race riots which had occurred in the neighborhood in 1958. The festival has grown dramatically over the years and it is now one of the world's largest street festivals, attracting over two million people to the neighborhood every year. We were incredibly fortunate to have found such a magnificent flat on the very doorstep of the festival just a month in advance, a stroke of luck I can only ascribe to Airbnb still being a fairly new mode of accommodation at the time. To do the same in the 2020's one would likely have to book a year in advance and pay easily twice as much.

We had three full days in London but we expected the Carnival to occupy most of the first two, while the third would be free. As soon as we stepped out of our building we could smell the smoke of barbecues and hear pounding bass from speakers that were blocks away. Strollers were out of the question so Mei Ling had Ian strapped to her back and I had a carrier for Cleo, although she had sensed the energy and was eager to walk and explore on her own. The first thing we did was find ourselves a breakfast of jerk chicken and Jamaican rice with beans. Foot traffic was fairly light at ten in the morning but the streets began to fill up quickly. As we walked we began to encounter larger crowds and some impressive parades with music trucks and floats. Mei Ling really got into the spirit of things and became an attraction in her own right dancing through the streets with Ian on her back and Cleo in her arms.
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The crowds continued to grow but were never really oppressive thanks to the wide avenues that were all closed to traffic. The atmosphere was great with people of all cultures and races mingling together. Eventually we found our way over to Notting Hill's renowned Portobello Road where we stumbled on an energetic display of the Brazilian martial art capoeira.
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The Carnival would have been an amazing scene anywhere with the parades, the dancing, and the joyous celebration of Caribbean culture. However, what made it truly incomparable was the setting among the magnificent rows of pristine town houses of Notting Hill. The juxtaposition was incongruous and somehow ideal at the same time.
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At first it seemed that we could keep strolling through the streets for the entire day, but after a few hours the weight of the kids started to wear on us. I could have put Cleo down and carried Ian myself but the crowds were getting to the point where I was nervous to let her walk even holding my hand. Eventually we decided that we'd seen enough and returned to the flat for the stroller. We headed in the opposite direction from the clamorous festival and soon found ourselves in quiet lanes and green spaces with little trace of the energetic crowds we had left behind.
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After a few blocks we found ourselves in Kensington Gardens, home of Kensington Palace. Cleo got a thrill feeding the geese and swans with some crackers we were fortunate to have with us. It seemed like a typical summer afternoon in London with no trace of the wild carnival taking place a ten minute walk away.
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Notting Hill Carnival takes place over two days, with the second day being the Summer Bank Holiday. We were prepared to spend a few more hours at the festival but as luck would have it it was raining fairly briskly when we stepped out of our building. The dark skies didn't promise much hope of better weather any time soon, so we decided to chuck the whole idea and take the Tube to Camden Market instead. We really didn't have anything to complain about as we had had a blast on the first day and there probably wasn't much left for us to see anyway. We'd loved Camden Market the previous year and we were glad to have another opportunity to explore it. Unfortunately it was clear the rain had reduced the market to a shadow of its usual self. We were ready to go but the energy simply wasn't there.
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We were wondering what to do next when I noticed the staircases that descended from the market down to the water level at Camden Lock. I thought we might see something interesting down there and we discovered a fascinating path along the canal. We had accidentally discovered Regent's Canal and began to walk westward in the direction of Notting Hill. We had no idea we were about to see one of the most beautiful urban landscapes we've ever encountered. The canal winds its way through northern London a level below the city streets, making it an enchanted respite from the furious activity above. The water is carpeted with algae blooms and the sides of the canal are home to eccentrically-decorated houseboats. Set back from the banks are weeping willows and the rear facades of stately mansions and museums. It was probably the best place we could have been on a rainy day in London, with the light drizzle accentuating the verdant and colorful landscape. The best part was that we had never heard of the canal and stumbled upon it completely by accident, making us feel like we had made our own remarkable discovery in this incomparable city.
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We walked for what seemed like miles along the canal, only emerging when we couldn't ignore the growling in our stomachs any longer. London's amazing multicultural character came to the rescue with an Iraqi restaurant in the middle of Lisson Grove, a cuisine we'd never previously encountered. We continued the walk at ground level all the way back to our neighborhood where we could here the sounds of the resurgent festival that we were far too exhausted to return to.
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We had one last full day in London and decided to walk all the way to the Tower of London, a good three hour walk with the strollers. Our first stop was for breakfast at a very cute cafe with a glass ceiling on Portobello Road. Then we set off eastward through the drizzly, congested streets of central London until we reached the Thames where it bent northward at Covent Garden.
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At the river we came across Somerset House, an enormous 18th century Neoclassical building built on the foundations of a decayed Tudor palace. In the late 20th century the site was expanded with new buildings and converted into a center for the arts. The splendid main courtyard remains open to the public.
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Despite the persistent drizzle the walk along the Thames was very enjoyable. Along the north bank we passed an eclectic mix of ultramodern and historic buildings. A few oddly-shaped skyscrapers dotted the skyline. We were surprised to encounter a footbridge spanning the Thames with a very contemporary design.
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When we finally arrived at the Tower of London, the moat had been turned into a sea of red by hundreds of thousands of ceramic poppies, an artistic installation called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red that commemorated close to a million British servicemen killed subsequent to the outbreak of World War I a hundred years earlier. We were fortunate to have stumbled upon this very evocative display purely by chance as it was only in place for a few months. The breathtaking expanse of poppies revealed the enormity of the war's toll much more than could have been accomplished by any list or monument.
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The tower grounds were pleasant to stroll through, although we made the mistake of waiting on line to view the Crown Jewels which were nowhere near as dazzling as I remembered them from my childhood. The medieval complex was quite formidable and amazingly well-preserved. The iconic bridge that crosses the Thames adjacent to the Tower of London is the Tower Bridge, although it is commonly misrepresented in photos as London Bridge. The famed Old London Bridge that was lined with multistory buildings was demolished in 1831, and the current iteration is a rather low, unadorned span of concrete that most visitors don't look at twice. The Tower Bridge is quite medieval in appearance but was actually built in the late 19th century and its design was quite controversial at the time.
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With that our brief English vacation came to an end. It had only been a week but we had seen and done more than we would have in a month of our regular lives. We haven't been back in the six years since, mainly because it's simply too difficult logistically to get around by train with three small kids. As soon as Spenser is old enough to carry his own pack we'll be back for a full six weeks to give the British Isles the full exploration they deserve.

Posted by zzlangerhans 15:58 Archived in England Tagged london england travel family notting_hill_carnival blog regents_canal travel_blog Comments (0)

A Proper English Experience: Yorkshire and Oxfordshire

Thanks to the epidemic I finally have the time to write about trips from years long past that I never thought I would chronicle. As my collection of blog entries has grown I've realized how valuable they may be one day for my kids so I've decided to try and document all the trips we've taken since they were born. After six years some of the memories are a little vague but fortunately I have plenty of photographs to jog my memory and reverse image searches if I simply can't remember where they were taken.

Although I have at least twenty blog entries apiece for Spain, France, and Italy I have none so far for England. We've been there twice since Cleo was born, once as a quick stop on our way to China when Cleo was an infant and once a year later when we had both Cleo and Ian. We haven't returned not for any lack of love for the country, but because we simply can't manage three children without the option to drive ourselves around. Driving on the left is one risk I don't feel comfortable taking, as I'm fairly absent-minded and tend to fall back on muscle memory when I'm on the road. As soon as our youngest is old enough to carry his own pack onto trains I'm sure we'll take a lengthy trip through England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland but that's still a few years in the future.

Our 2014 visit was another episode of the greatest travel year of our lives, in which we took no less than seven trips. The genesis of this particular journey was our desire to see the Notting Hill Carnival after having an amazing experience at Carnival in Trinidad a few years earlier. We had loved London the year before and were looking for any excuse to return. Of course we weren't going to fly all the way to Europe for just three days so we included short stays in Yorkshire and Oxfordshire to fill out a week. My cousin and his family live in Oxford which made that stop especially enticing.

The red eye deposited us in Heathrow on a Wednesday morning. I remember the immigration agent was very pleased with Cleo's passport and thanked us for helping to keep the old-fashioned English name alive. We took a train from the airport to Kings Cross where hourly trains departed to York and elected not to purchase reserved seats for the relatively short journey. This proved to be a mistake because while there should have been enough room in general seating there was none on the car we chose and we were far too weighted down with bags and strollers to go exploring through the different cars. I found an uncomfortable spot on the floor near the bags and Mei Ling took the kids into the adjacent car with reserved seats. I hadn't slept on the flight but there was no rest on the hard train floor with the wheels clattering underneath me and the wifi was barely functional. Eventually I picked myself up and went in the direction Mei Ling had gone. I found her in the midst of a rather nasty argument with an English woman of about the same age sitting across from her. The crux of the woman's displeasure seemed to be that Mei Ling had helped herself to an open seat despite not having a reservation for it. I didn't worry much as Mei Ling can certainly take care of herself, but after a couple of minutes I grew tired of watching the bickering and asked Mei Ling "What's the matter, did you drop a house on her sister?" A man in the same booth who had his face buried in a newspaper made a muffled choking sound. The woman glared at me, just now making the connection that Mei Ling and I were together and she was outnumbered. She turned her attention to the window and soon after that we arrived in York.

Our reception wasn't much better at the bed and breakfast we'd reserved. The online booking service we'd used hadn't offered us any option to list the kids in our party but we hadn't worried about that much. They were only babies. The elderly couple who came to the door took a look at the double stroller and immediately announced that they didn't accept children. We were somewhat nonplussed as the listing on the booking service had made no mention of that. Couldn't they make an exception for two nights? We had been traveling for almost twenty hours by now. No, they replied, absolutely not. There was some kind of fire code they had to abide by. I could tell they were lying about the fire code, but I could also tell it didn't bother them in the slightest to turn away a family with two babies without the slightest offer of assistance. We had to beg just to be allowed into the lobby to phone another hotel to see if they could accommodate us on short notice. Fortunately we were able to find one just a couple of blocks away and we were able to schlep ourselves over there without too much trouble. It was a tiny fifth-floor walk-up but we were glad to have it, and the staff at the new hotel were very warm and welcoming. By this point we were too tired to do anything except find our way to the nearest pub for dinner.
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I had chosen York because I was entranced with the idea of a quintessential English city that had retained much of its medieval character. We awoke with plenty of energy for exploration and quickly crossed the River Ouse into the historic town center. York had a much more easygoing vibe than London although the center seemed similarly adapted to tourism. The brick buildings and half-timbered facades gave the streets a lot of character, although I'm not sure how much of the design was original or authentic.
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Looming north of the town center is the Gothic masterpiece York Minster, famed for its enormous trove of stained glass windows. The Great East Window in particular is the largest single expanse of stained glass in England.
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Just next to York Minster we stumbled upon Gray's Court, a large and historic estate that has been renovated into a hotel and restaurant. We had a refreshing lunch and spent some time strolling around the beautifully-landscaped estate that was evocative of the English countryside.
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In the afternoon we boarded a bus to Castle Howard, an enormous private mansion that was the setting for the television series "Brideshead Revisited". The estate is still owned by the descendants of the English noble family it was built for but it is now open to the public for paid tours. The mansion was on the scale of royal residences we had seen in other parts of Europe and had stunning lawns and gardens to stroll around in as well.
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In the evening we returned to the city center for dinner. The atmosphere felt quite upbeat despite the grey sky and intermittent drizzle, and fortunately we had ponchos and stroller covers so we never had to worry about seeking shelter. We spent the last hour before dinner exploring the famous Shambles shopping street and the narrow alleys known as snickelways.
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The next day I made sure to reserve seats for the train ride back south to the Cotswolds. We only had one night to spend in that iconic region before moving on to Oxford and I'd chosen a B&B in the small town of Burford. We arrived in plenty of time to explore the small town and admire the characteristic homes built from the local golden limestone. Burford was the most emblematic English town I could imagine, with rows of ancient yet pristine homes surrounded by sharply trimmed lawns and explosions of flowers.
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Burford's gothic church was like a miniature version of York Minster, with a spooky graveyard full of weathered, illegible headstones. We topped of the evening with a beer at the local pub and then an excellent dinner back at the Bull.
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In the morning we decided to take a scenic walk along the road that followed the course of the Windrush River until we reached the bridge to the tiny village of Swinbrook, three miles away. Along the way we encountered beautiful pastures, a crab apple tree with ripe fruit, and all manner of farm animals.
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Just as we reached Swinbrook we got a call from my cousin Steven who was scheduled to pick us up in Burford that afternoon. He was ahead of schedule and on the road already. We arranged for him to pick us up in Swinbrook since it was on the way and would save us the trouble of retracing our walk back to Burford. We waited for him at a group of picnic tables alongside the river that belonged to a country inn across the road.
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It was just a half hour drive from Burford to Oxford, but for some reason Ian burst out crying about halfway there and couldn't be consoled. It wasn't very typical of him but I'd heard enough crying in the two years since Cleo had been born that I barely noticed it. Steven on the other hand seemed to get quite stressed, frequently calling to the back seat that we were almost there. After a few minutes I apologized for the noise but reassured him it wasn't anything to worry about. I was a little surprised since Steven had two young sons of his own, but they were already a few years older and out of the crying stage. He got a remote look in his eyes for a moment and then said "Oh yes ... one forgets." Once we reached Oxford and jumped out of the car Ian stopped crying as if someone had flipped a switch.

Steven had to stop off at his office for a couple of hours so we took a walk around the center of Oxford. It was obviously a college town, with an incongruous juxtaposition of historic edifices and fast food joints. North of the city the twisty Thames sends off several streams and tributaries, many of them man-made in medieval times to feed the water mills. Just west of the center we ran into Castle Mill Stream, an idyllic spot seemingly a world away from the hubbub of the student environment.
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The next morning the adults relaxed over tea while the kids got acquainted with their cousins, who were amazingly tolerant of children who were far too young to play with them productively.
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There just happened to be a food festival going on that afternoon so we ignored the gathering clouds and took a bus over to the fairground. It was pretty standard food truck stuff for the most part with mainly Caribbean and Middle Eastern themes. One exception was the exotic meat burgers that we often find at food festivals in England. We can't resist trying them but whether wildebeest or lion meat they all taste pretty much like standard beef burgers. By now Cleo had attached herself to her younger cousin and the two of them were inseparable, which was quite cute. However, when Cleo decided to rock out to the festival band covering Bon Jovi her new companion hung back in a very English way.
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After the festival Steven got us to the train station for the short hop back to London. After an enjoyable prelude we were now ready for the main event of our trip.

Posted by zzlangerhans 22:02 Archived in England Tagged england travel york family yorkshire blog Comments (0)

An Iberian Exploration: Evora and return to Lisbon

I've always noted how flat and featureless the landscape of Spain appears from the major highways, but this was particularly apparent in the western region of Extremadura. This is probably Spain's least visited region as well, the home of cities with familiar names such as Mérida and Cáceres that did not evoke any particular images. The highway skirted even the smallest towns with a wide margin so we didn't get any sense of Extremadura besides the unremarkable flatlands, but we made a mental note that one day we should return. For the present, we'd decided that our best bet for an overnight stop was the Portuguese town of Evora, a full five hour drive from Madrid.
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Far from the Atlantic coast, Evora is off the map of international tourism but it was a welcome discovery for us. The historic center of the small town is filled with character and also boasts a very well-preserved Roman temple. We arrived in the evening and had a hearty Portuguese dinner which was most memorable for our first bottle of Alentejo wine. Evora is at the heart of the Alentejo wine country, far less well-known abroad than the Douro and Dao but in my opinion equally deserving of recognition. The deep red wine provided an immediate pleasurable astringency at the first sip coupled with a long, savory finish. In the morning we explored the compact center which was almost completely devoid of tourists.
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The Temple of Diana occupies a splendid position in the center of a cobblestone square, incongruously surrounded by a park and traditional Portuguese whitewashed facades. Oddly enough there's no real reason to think the temple has anything to do with the goddess Diana. It was built to honor the Roman Emperor Augustus as a god and the association with Diana is an invention by a local priest in the 17th century.
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One of Evora's more macabre sights is the Capela dos Ossos, a Franciscan chapel whose walls are covered by thousands of human skulls and long bones. This is the only ossuary in Portugal, although there are a few others scattered around Europe including the famous Catacombs of Paris. It seems the motivation of these bone churches is to remind the visitor of the fleeting nature of life, but I would have been satisfied with a simple inscription to that effect.
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We returned to Lisbon on somewhat different terms than our first arrival. We now had navigation to keep us safely on the main roads until we reached our destination, and we were staying in an Airbnb instead of a hotel. Our choice paid off, as we had more space in the apartment as well as a working kitchen for about half the price that we had paid for our hotel. Since that trip we have rarely stayed in a hotel in Europe, and never in the United States. On our first evening back in Lisbon we only had time for a quick dinner and a ride up the short funicular called Elevador da Glória for the views over the city from Bairro Alto.
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We had one final day in Lisbon which we began with a visit to the municipal market to gather ingredients for a final home-cooked meal. Afterwards we took a short drive to the town of Sintra on the outskirts of Lisbon. The town is famous for a large number of ornate castles and palaces in a variety of styles that are located within walking distance of each other. The center is quite lovely in its own right with tall, antiquated townhouses clustered together on the hillside and the beautiful castles peeking through the trees above.
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We made a brief stop at the Sintra National Palace, a medieval edifice that is now a museum. The highlight was the breathtaking Sala dos Brasões whose walls are covered in perfectly-preserved azulejos. The domed ceiling is no less magnificent with seventy-two coats of arms of Portuguese noble families presented in panels of gilded woodwork.
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We only had a couple of hours so we focused our attention on the Quinta da Regaleira. Although the castle appears ancient and Gothic it was actually constructed in the early 20th century in a mixture of architectural styles. The exterior gives an impression somewhere between a fairy tale and a nightmare, thanks to the mysterious former owner's fascination with alchemy and secret societies.
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Quinta da Regaleira has extensive grounds that are filled with miniature castles, gardens, tunnels and pools. Some of the tunnels and caves are quite creepy and I probably wouldn't want to undertake an exploration of the estate after dark.
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Before returning to Lisbon we got a late lunch at a restaurant on a quiet side street which had an unusual way of presenting their seafood brochette.
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We were still too full to start cooking once we got back to Lisbon so we took a stroll down one of the tiled pedestrian streets in Baixa towards the river. A crowd had gathered to watch a few people dancing to the beat of a street drummer. Someone began blowing a horn in time to the drum, a few others began singing, and suddenly the crowd erupted into a spontaneous dance party that lasted for several minutes. Cleo was really excited by the scene and was pulling Mei Ling into the center of it, although she was terrified when one tall fellow bent down to dance with her. Then it was over as quickly as it had begun and we continued back on our route.
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A short distance further we found ourselves at the most well-known place in Lisbon that we had missed on our first visit. A triumphal arch heralds the entrance into Praça do Comércio, an expansive square lined with government office buildings in the shape of a U. The open side of the U faces the water. The ground floor of the buildings was dedicated to restaurants and cafes which weren't particularly busy on this chilly winter night. In the center of the square is a monument of King José I mounted on his horse. The steps around the monument were mostly occupied by drinkers oblivious to the strong smell of urine. Cleo found herself a balloon and occupied herself chasing it around the square while I followed close behind to make sure she didn't stray to close to the noxious monument steps.
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We had an early flight back to Miami and hauled ourselves out of bed at the crack of dawn to bundle the bags and sleeping kids into the car for one final drive to the airport. As we passed through Lisbon's silent, deserted streets I couldn't believe that we'd pulled off everything we had planned with only minor inconveniences. We had been pretty lucky along the way, especially with some of the navigational blunders and almost being separated when the train stopped in Marrakech. The success of the road trip opened up a whole new world for us in Europe of small towns and out-of-the-way places that would be unreachable with public transportation. In the five years since then we've repeated the feat five more times, with each adventure more ambitious than the last.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:57 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

An Iberian Exploration: Toledo and Madrid

The drive into Toledo was nothing like the approach into the great cities of flat Andalusia. The city appeared to us from far away like an apparition, a magical kingdom floating above the horizon and topped by an amazing castle. By now we were used to the daunting experience of driving into the historic center of a Spanish city, but it didn't make our arrival to our hotel next to the cathedral any easier. Fortunately we didn't get lost and none of the narrow passages were completely unnavigable so we arrived safely with a minimum of hair loss. We had spent most of the day walking around Córdoba and on the road so we only had time for a short walk in the center and dinner at our grotto-like hotel restaurant before bed.
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In the morning we made the obligatory visit to the 13th century Gothic cathedral which sat just outside our door. The belltower was quite different from the Muslim-styled versions we had seen in Andalusia. Aside from that we were already cathedraled out from our stay in Andalusia and only took a cursory look around the interior.
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We began climbing uphill through the winding streets of the Casco Historico until we reached a scenic viewpoint from which we could see the roof of the cathedral and the surrounding countryside. We could also see a bend of our old friend from Lisbon the Tagus River. Eventually we reached the surprisingly expansive Plaza Zocodover where we stopped for lunch.
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At the top of the hill we were close to the Alcazar that crowns Toledo's iconic layout but as in Córdoba we gave it a miss. Instead we descended all the way back downhill almost to the river where we admired the Gothic revival facade of Toledo's School of the Arts.
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That day we had our shortest drive of the trip so we were still feeling energetic when we arrived at our place in central Madrid. Our experience in Córdoba hadn't soured us on Airbnb and the apartment in Madrid was a huge improvement. We'd learned from our bad experience and had been much more selective this time around. After we were settled we browsed for tapas around Puerta del Sol. The wide pedestrian streets were packed with people despite the winter chill.
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We began our one full day of sightseeing at Plaza Mayor, in the heart of Old Madrid. This enormous square dates back to the 15th century when it was used as a market. The square is now an expansive open space enclosed by classic three-story residential buildings including the beautifully-painted Casa de Panaderia. Plaza Mayor is a hub of tourism which sustains the surrounding arcades full of overpriced cafes and the many street performers who ply their trade on the cobblestones. By far the most entertaining of these to us was a supremely talented giant soap bubble artisan who specialized in enclosing entire humans within his diaphanous creations.
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Eating at one of the tourist traps in the plaza was out of the question, but fortunately we were just a few steps from Mercado de San Miguel, which may have been Ground Zero for the food hall movement when it opened in 2009. Here we had our choice of some of the freshest seafood tapas we had encountered in Spain thanks to the seafood market that was in the same building. It was quite a bit more expensive than the average lunch in Madrid but it was worth it. The awesome experience of eating at a selection of different restaurants in a market atmosphere awakened a love of food halls that has taken us to similar venues around the world since then.
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After the Mercado we continued a little further west to the Royal Palace of Madrid. We're not big fans of historical landmarks so we just admired the beautiful buildings and gardens from the outside and let Cleo stretch her legs in the central plaza.
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From the palace we set off on a long meandering walk north of the center that took us through the beautiful Malasaña and Chueca neighborhoods. These cosmopolitan areas were filled with the classic, ornate multistory buildings that Madrid is famous for.
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Eventually we found ourselves at Mercado de la Paz in Salamanca. This was a much different environment from Mercado de San Miguel in that it was clearly there to service a very discriminating but local clientele. There were very authentic tapas places in and all around the market and late afternoon was prime time for eating in Madrid.
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A straight shot south brought us to Puerta de Alcalá, the Neoclassical gate that marks the entrance to Retiro Park. El Retiro occupies a large chunk of central Madrid and is renowned for its extensive gardens, the Crystal Palace, and the Alfonso XII monument. During the summer the steps of the monument are packed with readers and sunbathers, lazily observing the myriad rowboats in the adjacent lake, but on this cool winter evening we had the park largely to ourselves. We took advantage of an empty bench to consume the irresistible fruits we had purchased at the market.
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We had made the most of just one full day in Madrid, submerging ourselves in markets and atmospheric streets without wasting precious time inside buildings and museums. In the morning we returned to Mercado de San Miguel. It was just too good to pass up compared to the pedestrian tapas offering in the touristic center. After bidding farewell to Plaza Mayor and its entertainers we set a course for the Portuguese border far to the west. Our Iberian road trip was rapidly approaching its conclusion.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 13:29 Archived in Spain Tagged toledo travel spain madrid family blog iberia Comments (0)

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