Thursday, May 7, 2009

May 7: Westminster Abbey & The National Portrait Gallery

The first stop of the day was Westminster Abbey, situated across the street from the Houses of Parliament and the location of every English and, later, British coronation from 1066 on (excepting the 2 rulers who did not have a coronation).  We were originally going to visit the Abbey on the first day of the trip (April 30), but because of tiredness it was put off until later.  This proved to be a mistake.  The Abbey was now home to the 50th anniversary of some kind of flower show, for which it seems every woman in Britain over the age of 50 decided to attend.  

The entire affair was a wall-to-wall experience with any caution to fire code thrown out the window.  Imagine the headlines: "Two Iowans Trampled to Death by Kindly Old Women Escaping Abbey Fire".  I have no doubt that even the trampling would've been kindly.  

The visit was still interesting, if only because I had not been there before.  The price was also half-off (6 pounds instead of 12), which added to the allure somewhat.  Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the Abbey (similar to St Paul's policy, but interestingly not Canterbury Cathedral where all manner of photography was allowed excepting inside the Crypt), though on this day would've been nearly impossible anyway.  Now, as difficult as I find it to not take pictures in such places, I do obey the rules.  It seems that some people, no matter where they are, cannot.  I wished our guide from St Paul's, Chris, would've been present to wave a finger at those who were not taking heed.  Perhaps, after a few waves of the finger doing no good, he would've simply resorted smashing the camera on the ground followed by a trademark, "I simply love it!"

After returning to the open air we headed up to the National Portrait Gallery, housed right next to the National Gallery, which contains portraits of famous Britons going back to the 16th century.  When it was started, in 1856, it was the first museum of its kind in the world.  In addition the viewing royal portraits, I was extremely interested in seeing the "Chandos Portrait", which is the only portrait of Shakespeare "known" to be painted from life (there is, as with all things Shakespeare, some doubt as to whether the portrait truly depicts him; I, however, remain convinced).  

We spent about 45 minutes at the Portrait Gallery and then headed back towards the hotel for a late lunch.  Following this, it was back to the British Museum for some additional perusal.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

May 6: The Tower of London and the Museum of London

At around 10:30, we took the tube from King's Cross/St Pancras to Tower Hill station in order to visit the Tower of London. The tower, which is accessible via a pedestrian stairway running under the street immediately outside the tube station, is one of the most famous and enduring icons of London. Its famous White Tower, built under order of the newly crowned William the Conqueror, was completed in 1078 and still stands to this day. In addition to serving a role in protecting London from invaders, it served an equal function in those early days in protecting the new rulers, the Norman French, from the native population of London.

From this time, the Tower was expanded and today contains 20 towers within its complex. As we entered, we were fortunate enough to jump in on a Yeoman Warder (popularly known as "Beefeaters") tour that had just kicked off, which is an option for anyone who has paid admission. To become a Yeoman Warder one must be enlisted in the British service for at least 22 years, whilst essentially maintaining a spotless record. In addition to providing tours and information, the Warders must also provide for the defense of the Tower should the need arise. To complete these tasks to their fullest, the Warders live with their families inside the Tower compound behind the Tower gates, which are locked every night. Our Yeoman Warder was a former Sergeant Major who, as part of his duties while serving on a British base in Germany, guarded Nazi war criminal Rudolph Hess - who was also, somewhat ironically, the last State prisoner to be held in the Tower, in 1941.

The commentary provided was witty and fluid, while also commanding the audience's complete attnetion. Stories, of course, generally centered on the bloody history of the Tower. Before our final stop on the guided tour - the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula - the Warder instructed us, in no uncertain terms, to have all cell phones turned off in the chapel. Naturally, these demands were too simple to be met and two people were publicly humiliated once inside. In the second instance, the Warder said "Sir, are you texting? Because I can go back into 'Sergeant Major' real quick. DON'T text back! Shut it OFF!"

Needless to say, this was quite enjoyable to watch even though the Warder was anything but joking; full attention was demanded and expected. After the colorful commentary, we were off on our own, heading into Waterloo Barracks, where the Crown Jewels are housed.

After being led through three queues involving short films - including Queen Elizabeth II's coronation - pumped up with increasingly regal music (which frankly set up expectations for some kind of royal theme park ride which was presumably just around the bend), we were allowed to view the most prized items from a slowly moving walkway. It was certainly impressive to see them outright, including the Sceptre of the Cross, which contains the second largest polished diamond in the world - the Great Star of Africa - weighing in at 530.2 carats. In addition to this, my favorite item was the oldest surviving piece in the collection, a golden spoon dating from the 13th century. It is the Anointing Spoon (upon which the "anointing oil" is poured which is then used to anoint the new Sovereign by the Archbishop of Canterbury), spared from Oliver Cromwell's psychotic decision in 1649 to destroy the Crown Jewels by the intervention of a Yeoman of the Removing Wardrobe, Clement Kynnersley, who bought it for 16 shillings before the Jewels were destroyed. One of the greatest items destroyed by Cromwell was reputedly the crown of Alfred the Great, who ruled from 871-899 - such a pity.

From here, it was on to the White Tower where an exhibition of Henry VIII's armor - in honor of the 500th year since his ascension to the throne - was on display and was also included in the admission price. Essentially, this exhibit allowed one to watch, in increments, the increasing size of Henry's frame. From a fit young ruler at age 18, to the extremely obese and unhealthy man from age 45 onwards, Henry VIII's armor tells the tale. Needless to say, it was a fascinating exhibit.

We followed this with a trip through the remaining towers and, in total, spent about 3 1/2 hours at the Tower. From here we hopped on the tube from Tower Hill to Barbican station to visit the informative, though significantly smaller than other London museums visited previously, Museum of London. Smaller is used somewhat lightly here, as there were still a very wide range of objects emanating from the London area going back to at least 2500 BC. The most impressive and interesting were the collections from Roman London, including a full mosaic floor.

Tired now, we headed back to the hotel to wind up the day eating the evening meal at Callaghan's where I had, once again, the prized fish & chips.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

May 5: Coach Tour to Leeds Castle, Canterbury Cathedral, Dover

This morning began earlier than others as we needed to make it to Victoria Coach Station by 8:30 in order to board an Evan Evans coach tour to Leeds Castle, Canterbury, and Dover.  After some bit of confusion between the Euston Square underground station and the very nearby Euston underground station, we made it intact to the coach station at around 8:15.  We boarded at 8:45 and were off slightly before 9.  Our guide, the extremely enunciated Marc, and our driver, the quiet but good Martin (who I nicknamed St Martin at the Wheel - echoing the church by Trafalgar Square, St Martin's in the Fields) led the way as we disembarked London.  

Marc provided interesting and witty commentary for most of the journey from Victoria Station to Greenwich with additional bits as we approached the stops.  Whilst driving through Greenwich, he mentioned we would be passing the Prime Meridian, heading, for the first time in my life into the eastern hemisphere.  "Don't worry, you won't feel anything", he reassured.  

Our first stop was Leeds Castle, built in 1119 by Robert De Crevecouer.  In 1278, the castle became a royal palace for King Edward I and his queen, Eleanor of Castile.  It remained a royal palace through the days of Henry VIII and was used extensively by his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.  Later, the castle was owned by the Culpeper family (who, in siding with the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War, allowed the castle to escape destruction) and finally, 300 years later in 1926, it was purchased by Lady Baillie who redecorated the castle and set up the trust that ultimately led to it being opened to the public in 1976.  

The picturesque castle, set partially on a lake-island amidst rolling hills of green, was very accessible and well-cared for.  Most rooms were viewable on the self-guided tour and were furnished as it was upon the death of Lady Baillie (in addition to many items left in place over the centuries, namely, the walls).  In addition to the castle, the grounds hold spacious gardens, an aviary, a golf course, a maze, and, strangely, a dog collar museum (which was not visited by us, but, in retrospect, should have been).  

After re-boarding the coach promptly at 12:45 (Marc: "If you are not on the coach at 12:45, a taxi could come collect you and take you to Maidstone where there is train service to London.  People think I'm joking when I say this; I'm not."), we headed for Canterbury to see, primarily, Canterbury Cathedral, built in 1077 on the site of  2 former cathedrals.  The first of these was founded by St Augustine in 602 after being sent by Pope Gregory the Great in 597 as a missionary to the Anglo-Saxons.  

Once the coach arrived in Canterbury, Marc took great repetitive and enunciative pains to make sure we knew to return to "the Bus Stay-shun" for our coach and not the coach station which is evidently somewhere else altogether.  All together now: the Bus Stay-shun.  With these pertinent details firmly engrained, we headed towards the cathedral, clocking in at 297 feet at its highest point and composed of Norman and Gothic styles, set just off the city center.  

In addition to being the cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury (leader of the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion), the burial site of Henry IV and his wife, and also that of the Black Prince, it is probably most famous for being the site of the murder of Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162-1170, Thomas Becket.  Becket was murdered by 4 knights who interpreted, literally, Henry II's supposed utterance:

"Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?"  Or, variously:

"Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?"

"What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?"

Regardless, the knights set off and shortly before Evensong on December 29, 1170, Becket's head met with the blades of the knights' swords (for more on this, including an eyewitness account:  The exact spot of the murder is marked by a hanging sword sculpture in an area of the cathedral known as the Martyrdom.  

If all this wasn't enough, according to Marc, the cathedral is home to around 1/2 of all surviving medieval stained glass in England, which was viewed with immense pleasure.  After about 2.5 hours in Canterbury, including a pause to eat some terribly bland fish & chips (me) and equally tasteless chicken (Dan), we headed for our final stop, Dover, home to the imposing White Cliffs and Dover Castle.  

We arrived at Dover around 30 minutes later, de-coached, and took to the stony beach for a brief 20 minute stretch.  The views were very nice, though France decided to pull down the shades and was not viewable across the Channel.  After indulging in a vanilla ice cream cone and throwing a couple of stones into the sea, we re-coached and headed back to London, arriving around 6:30.  

In all, it was an enjoyable trip through the countryside of Kent and to the coast.  We arrived back at the hotel somewhat tired and decided to take in some football (Manchester United vs. Arsenal) on the tele whilst perusing the internet on our respective laptops.  

Monday, May 4, 2009

May 4: Abbey Road

Today's schedule was tackled in an incredibly relaxed manner due to a number of factors.  First, there was no hot water in the hotel for the morning and this wasn't resolved until 2:30.  Since it was a bank holiday, many things were closed, which is presumably why it took so long to fix the water.  After waiting around until 11, I decided to go ahead with a freezing cold shower (in reality, the water was probably in the low 50s, which sounds better than it really is, but this may as well have been freezing).  

After this, Dan & I set out for Abbey Road, taking the tube from Holburn Station to Bond Street, and then switching to the Jubilee Line to St John's Wood.  The studios were very easy to find, just down the street from the tube station.  We perused the wall outside the studios and read fan graffiti for a bit and then headed about 5 minutes away to 7 Cavendish Avenue, Paul McCartney's home from 1965 onwards (he presumably just owns the home today, rather than living there full time).  It was a somewhat interesting excursion as we could see some of the house over the security gate.  At the house next door, the security gate was open with an Aston Martin parked in the drive.  

From here it was back to the hotel as we were both feeling inordinately tired (for doing practically nothing).  This was followed, later, by some very good fish & chips at Callaghan's, the nice pub which is part of the hotel.  Nothing much else to report on this day.  

Cloudy all day.  Much windier.  Colder.  

Sunday, May 3, 2009

May 3: Hyde Park, Changing of the Guard, National Gallery

The morning started with a tube ride from Holburn Station to Marble Arch, where we proceeded to walk across Hyde Park, a royal park first set aside by Henry VIII in 1536 and populated with deer for hunting.  We proceeded from Speaker's Corner (where individuals are allowed to exercise their freedom of speech about, well, anything - Sunday afternoons only) to the Grand Entrance at Hyde Park Corner, where I purchased a hot dog and a Coke to tide me over.  From here, we walked in the general direction of Buckingham Palace which was quickly confirmed by the throngs of people present as the specific direction.  

In an act of complete accident, we had stumbled upon the Changing of the Guard, which takes place around 11 AM.  We were able to get some shots of the proceedings, which was a more positive experience than a lot of the guide books made it sound; typically, the books indicated that it was so packed that one rarely gets much of a glimpse of what is going on.  Certainly, it was crowded; I suppose it also helps when one is tall.  As we tried to leave, before the ceremony was finished, we were stopped at a cross-walk at which we had the good fortune of watching the musical unit of the guard march immediately past.  We had to wait here for about 10 minutes with no crossing allowed from either side.  While we had no problem heeding the MP's command of "Off the road, please", others were evidently deaf, stupid, or answer to some higher road crossing authority than the Metropolitan Police.  Soon, the "please" was dropped from the command.  Towards the end, after the band had passed, 4-5 more people crossed about 50 feet down the road from us.  Dan and I both shook our heads in disbelief, to which the MP responded off hand, to us directly, "Well, you win some, you lose some".  

From here, it was on to a walk by Big Ben and Parliament, then across the bridge to walk along the south bank of the Thames beside the London Eye, the 434-foot-high Ferris wheel which moves at 1/2 mph and makes 1 revolution every 30 minutes.  I had this on the agenda for the trip, but at $26 per person I realized why the climb to the top of St Paul's (experienced last Friday) could be referred to as the "poor man's Eye" (even though the views from St Paul's are over 200 feet closer to the ground).  We'll see what the following days bring; there may be a ride on the Eye yet.  

Immediately past the Eye, walking east, the sidewalk was divided amongst 15-20 street performers of different profession and levels of talent.  An elderly man, hunched over slightly in a grey jumper and white long-sleeve shirt playing a harmonica with vigor while stamping his left foot to the beat; a silver-painted man dressed in a silver wizard suit whose principal talent, it seemed, was bobbing slightly left-to-right whilst wielding a silver stick; a copper face-painted man in a copper suit with 8 foot long arm extensions; an entirely blue man playing a blue guitar though not playing the blues; 2 people dressed in lizard suits...riding stationary bicycles; a bassist and a drummer jamming out.  

We crossed another bridge down river to head to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery.  After visiting the V&A, the British Museum, and the British Library and being continually impressed with their scale and content, one might think that it stops somewhere.  I thought it might stop at the National Gallery; surely this museum cannot be as impossibly huge and complete as these other institutes?  Wrong again.  The National Gallery houses over 2,300 paintings from the 13th century to 1900 laid out over two floors and contains at least 2 works of nearly every painter of significant note.  In addition to my general appreciation of art, my primary destination in the gallery was Da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks, one of two paintings of the same name (the other is at the Louvre) which were painted sometime between 1483-1486 (Louvre) and 1495-1508 (National Gallery).  As I rounded the corner into the room which housed, amongst other things, 2 Da Vinci works including the Virgin, I noticed an empty space.  In the space was an informational plaque which read: "The Virgin of the Rocks is temporarily off view for restorative purposes".  Well that figures.  Oh well, I'll be back someday.  The rest of the Gallery was consistently complete and contained many redeeming (in the sense of redemption for lack of Da Vinci) pieces including a number of works by Rembrandt, Monet, and Van Gogh.  

From here, it was back to the hotel for a fairly relaxing evening with Bank Holiday Monday just around the corner.  

Saturday, May 2, 2009

May 2: Sir John Soane's Museum and the British Museum

The day started late again today with time adjustments still taking place.  At around 11:30, we departed for Sir John Soane's Museum, another free museum and former home of the eponymous Sir John Soane (1753-1857), an English architect who specialized in the Neo-Classical style.  Unfortunately, Soane's work was not truly appreciated until the late 19th century, by which time many of his works were already demolished.  The nearly total replacement of his most notable work, the Bank of England, was described by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (a noted German-born British scholar of architecture) as "the greatest architectural crime, in the City of London, in the 20th century".

What Soane did leave behind, which has thankfully not been destroyed, in addition to some of his works, was his home at No. 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, Holburn, London which contains various works of art, pieces of architecture, and other historical miscellany collected by Soane during his lifetime and arranged, in the words of a caretaker, "in the exact placement they were in the day he died".  This seemed to be a reasonable thing to accept as we stepped from the queue into the museum, checked our bags at the door, and walked amidst the hodge-podge of antiquity which inhabits the home.  It is fortunate that upon Sir John's death he didn't, say, fall into a collection of his vases or sculptures, which would have evidently been left in pieces on the floor.  It was quite an interesting excursion.  It really feels as if Sir John is just out for a bit and that we, the lucky impostors, are allowed to peer into nearly every nook and cranny.  The centerpiece is the sarcophagus of Seti I, son of Ramses I and father of Ramses II.  It was purchased by Soane in 1824 when the British Museum refused to pay the £2,000 requested and is quite a site.  

Following this, I purchased another take-away sandwich at Pret a Manger and we headed for the British Museum for an introductory visit (a longer visit is set aside for Thursday, May 7).  Disregarding the general pilfering that went on to fill the museum with some of its most impressive pieces (the Elgin Marbles which were removed from the Parthenon, the Benin Bronzes, the Rosetta Stone to name some of the notables), the museum is an amazing site to behold.  Divided into periods from ancient to modern, the museum covers 2 miles of exhibition space, making it impossible to take in on a single visit, regardless of length.  

After visiting the museum, we headed back to the hotel for a brief rest and then ventured out once again, this time so I could pick up some clothes at Marks & Spencer (colloquially known as Marks & Sparks or simply M & S).  After adding 4 shirts and 1 pair of jeans to my bag, I was approached by a woman wishing me to use her "£5 Off" coupon in order to return her £5 in cash.  I was paying with a card and wasn't about to just hand over a £5 note.  So I inquired, just for fun, if they would return £5 to me.  Naturally, they wouldn't and I gave her the coupon back.  

"Why wouldn't they do it?" she asked.  I should've immediately thought of the "No Cash Value" that is typically printed on American coupons and directed her attention thusly; instead I stated "I don't know but I assume they know what they are doing", implying very evidently that she did not.  Immediately after which, we left, leaving her to attempt to get something for nothing from someone else. 

May 1: St Paul's, Tate Modern, and the V&A

After a well deserved night's rest (Me: 10 Hours, Dan: 13 Hours), we left the hotel around 11:30 (I don't think I've ever been in a hotel this late in the morning before) and headed towards Christopher Wren's masterpiece, St Paul's Cathedral, with hopes of taking a 1:30 guided tour. Built on a site that has housed a church of some sort since 604 AD, the current structure was built over 35 years from 1675 t0 1710 to replace the former St Paul's destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Though the magnificence of the cathedral is impossible to deny, the £11 ($15.50) admission fee seemed a bit steep and coupled with the presence of a cafe and a large gift shop in the crypt, there was no mistaking this for a money-making operation (though from the upstairs the only notice of commerciality was the admission queues). In contrast, church services are still performed here regularly (4 per day), with around 100 regular Sunday-service parishioners. We inquired about the 1:30 tour (another £3, though certainly worth it) after our entry to the cathedral at 12:30.

While waiting, we grabbed a bite in the aforementioned cafe and then headed up to meet with "Chris", our guide. Chris, a 60-something BBC-voiced Brit gave us and around 8 others a wonderful hour and a half tour. The tour was informative and humorous and when it was over, we were eager for more. Here were some of the particularly enjoyable moments:

As we were sitting in a "court" area (once inside, immediately to the south of the entrance) adorned with tall wooden carvings and benches, Chris was giving a talk about the general age and creation of the space. He paused for a moment as he'd been dealing with a direct beam of sunlight pouring through the window above our heads. He quipped, as he moved out of the beam, "Well, I'm not that righteous." And he was correct; his name was lacking a "t" at the end.

Our visit happened to occur on the Duke of Wellington's 240th birthday. After being informed of this by Chris, he declared as we passed the Duke's massive tomb, "So, Happy Birthday, Duke (which of course sounded like dj-uke)."

At a number of stops, Chris would add that he "just simply loved" whatever object we were viewing, which was pleasing to watch someone get so giddy over structural objects as I certainly have an excitement for these kinds of things as well. It did make one wonder what Chris "just simply hates", though this never became apparent. At one of the simply loved stops, an abstract white-marbled sculpture of mother and child whose stone had a number of natural indentions throughout, Chris urged us to cop a feel. He then quipped, at once seriously and tongue-in-cheek, "Sometimes we give tours to the blind and they really love this."

And finally, as we were standing in front of Lord Nelson's (he of Trafalgar, of course) tomb, Chris conveyed to us that upon Lord Nelson's death, his body was placed in a cask of rum. While stopping in Gibraltar, on the way to transfer the body back to England, the cask was found to be empty of rum as it had been presumably consumed by the sailors. To this day, particularly among members of the Royal Navy, rum is often referred to as "Nelson's Blood".

Following the tour, we departed and, as we were waiting to cross the street, saw Chris heading away from the church, apparently absolved of his duties for the day. We almost approached him with the hopes of him giving us a tour of, well...anywhere he'd like. But we didn't and the informative Chris vanished into anonymity in the distance of a busy sidewalk.

From here, we crossed the Millennium Bridge, a foot-traffic-only bridge which crosses the Thames and leads from St Paul's to the Tate Modern, housed on the south side in a converted former power station and presently Britain's national museum of international modern art. Admission was free and the galleries were displayed over 4 floors of impressively laid out space. As with much modern art, in this viewer's opinion, certain areas of the contents lack almost everything to be desired. To wit, one piece of "art" consisted solely of a thick old rope laid upon the floor. How does one even approach this? For that matter, how does one approach the Tate Modern with the hopes of it adorning their floor?

Artist (or Finder of the Rope): "So, I found this old rope in a barn and laid it about thusly. Whaddya think?"

Tate Modern: "I think we've got just the floor."

As we approached another consisting of cast bells (similar to those adorning the California missions) strewn upon a table at the end of a 40-foot room, I thought, "I hope this one is titled "Embellishment". It was not to be. This artist, it seems, not only could not produce art, he also lacked the artistic vision of even coming up with a name for the non-art. It was listed as "Untitled", in addition to 3 other different (and non-bell related) pieces of the same name. Such inspiration.

After viewing things of this nature in many of the galleries, I decided to create my own art which I hope will be displayed in the Tate Modern one day. It will fit in well amongst some of the more tiresome peices; you may have even viewed it in a museum before. It shall be titled "Exhibit Temporarily Closed". Now that's art.

To finish out the day, we rode the Underground (for the first time) from Mansion House to South Kensington to visit the Victoria & Albert Museum, described in the literature as the "greatest museum of applied art in the world". We arrived, and so it was. And it was also free(!). This space is truly amazing. Occupying 4 floors and a total of 7 miles of floor space (of which around 4 miles housed objects from all around the world), the V&A, as it is popularly and self-evidently known, contains over 4.5 million objets d'art. The favorite room, of both Dan and me, was that of the Cast Courts, which contained plaster casts of various items, including Trajan's Column from the forum in Rome, the entire portal of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and a number of effigies of royalty and other dignitaries from the 12th century onwards amongst many other items. Honestly, everything in the room looks as good as real and I was as pleased as punch to be viewing such inspired "genuine" forgeries. The rest of the museum was impressive as well, with sights too many to recount. Here's a link to the contents:

We followed this with a sandwich, crisps, and Coke at Pret a Manger, the UK fresh-sandwich retailer. Supper was had for less than £5 and was very tasty at that. After returning to the hotel and having a Skype conference call with all members of my extended family, I was off to bed at around 1 AM, though didn't make it to sleep until 3.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

April 29-30: Taking Off and Landing, Starting and Then Stopping

Our flight departed Des Moines at 1:33 PM with a connection in Detroit.  Following this, we boarded a larger plane to London.  Fortunately, the back of the seats seemed to be padded with only 3 layers of Kleenex, which would've been no problem at all if there wasn't a small child in the seat behind me who evidently thought I had a keen interest in feeling his small, individual toes pressing with varying force against my lower back; he was sadly mistaken.  In a vain effort, "dad" made at least 6 remarks in attempt to stop the feet, but at an age when one's attention span is roughly that of a flea, the child had no other choice but to continue.  To distract from this, a full meal was served at no additional cost (Flight Attendant: "Chicken or Pasta?"  Nearly Every Passenger: "Chicken." Flight Attendant (after having served most): "Here's your pasta."), including a  breakfast-like offering made up of a less-appetizing, rather doughy egg-and-biscuit, combined (interestingly) with a cup of exotic fruit.  

We deplaned 6 hours and 46 minutes later on the accord of our pilot, though I would've been just fine with a London arrival in, say, an hour or two.  My tire of flight was diminished considerably when we boarded the dot2dot (paid transport for 4-6 people from the airport to the hotel) and met an Australian couple who had just been flying for over 24 hours yet seemed they had just finished spending the day at the beach.  I've never met an Australian who wasn't generally cheery - perhaps there was a beach on the plane.  

The dot2dot ride into the reality/surreality of London was something different altogether.  I was suddenly awakened when faced with the prospects of throngs weaving bikers, motorcyclists, cars, and double-decker buses all roving over lanes barely large enough to contain them, and, for added effect, at great speed - as our driver navigated us to the hotel.  In addition, I was surprised to see distances listed in miles - it is a very interesting group of people who refer to distances traveled by car in miles but the speed at which they travel those distances in kilometers per hour.  Amazingly, we arrived intact and unscathed and were even able to get our room at 10 AM.  This was followed by a well-deserved 2 hour nap.  

After waking, still very tired, we headed towards the British Library to view the Sir John Ritblat Gallery which houses the Library's premier works; amongst the collection: the Magna Carta, pages from DaVinci's notebook, a Shakespeare First Folio, and the original, handwritten lyrics to a number of Beatles songs including Yesterday and Hard Day's Night.  A full listing of the contents of the gallery can be found here: 

Next, we walked in the general direction of the Royal Courts of Justice (home to the Court of Appeal and High Court of Justice of England and Wales) and the Inns of Court (home to 4 professional associations, at least 1 of which every barrister in England and Wales must belong).  Certain structures within the Inns date from the late 13th and early 14th century and were a splendor to view, even from the facade as seen from Fleet Street.  Very near this area is Temple Church, consecrated February 10, 1185 as the Knights Templar's English headquarters, which we attempted to find and succeeded with 10 minutes left before closing time (I didn't even know it'd be open).  We entered and were allowed to take pictures and video and generally had a great 10 minutes (we will be returning here later).  

After this, we walked back towards the hotel, rested for a bit and then headed across the street to the Brunswick, an open air shopping arcade with restaurants interspersed (  Following dinner, we returned to the hotel and promptly crashed at around 7:30 PM.  Dan was out at 8, I lingered on until around 10:30-11 reading and watching BBC News, for some reason unwilling to give in to my body's tiredness.    

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Oh! Britannia: Preparations from March 28 - April 28

Q: If one wishes, how fast can one conjure together a passport and full travel plans to an international destination?

A: 14 days at absolute minimum (barring the outlay of exorbitant amounts of funding to a 3rd-party expediter - at least $200 in addition to the expedited passport fee - who can provide such documents in 24-48 hours); 25 in my case.

Rather than spending months glancing over various sources of information, deciding on a destination, and then carefully planning the pursuit, I decided to act with some promptness when I learned that international travel (and national air travel, for that matter) was suddenly very, very cheap.  Not so sudden, I suppose.  Perhaps, as is likely and is the theory to which I subscribe, the cost of travel has declined in a manner similar to the world markets.  

Frankly, it was unhealthy for me to learn of this.  My formerly vacant calendar now seemed to desire company; an entry etched in the future, to which we could both count down.  Former monetary plans now seem irrelevant as I believe the prices will not remain at these levels.  And so, as March was coming to a close, my recently traveled mind (Arizona-California-Utah, as devotees will recall) desired to be more recently traveled.  

What are some of these prices, you ask?

Here are a few samples of air (from Des Moines, IA) and hotel packages (9 nights stay), priced per-person assuming a 2 people splitting the hotel, viewed over the last month (note that all were for an end-of-April to beginning-of-May timeframe):

London: $900
Paris:     $1100
Athens:  $1200
Rome:    $1100
Sydney: $1200

I even tried some fares for later in the year (the end of August) and found these to be nearly the same price.  I reasoned, "If world economy continues to falter, or at least hastens recovery, these prices will remain cheap."  Many sources are pointing to 1st Quarter 2010 as a probable and noticeable recovery timeframe.  So, travel should be this year, I thought.  In addition, I had to take into account my Master's program at ISU (began January 2009 - ends roughly Spring 2012), which was conveniently on break from the middle of April through the middle of May.

And so it is time to go...again.  But this will be very different from any prior travel; this time, an ocean will be crossed, an island nation on a different continent will be visited; a years-long dream will be realized.  And not just any island nation; rather a journey to the land of my forebears, from both sides of the family - a United Kingdom whose history is rich, varied, and directly connected to the series of events which allowed me to exist on this world today.  

With such lofty ornamentation, how could this voyage be anything less than exhilarating?

So, within a week of returning from California, I suggested to Dan Dudley (who clinched the other lead part for the previous trip, and whom I was still, after 10 days of car travel, able to stand) the prospects of travel to London, by way of quoting the rock-bottom package prices returned for nearly every online query.  Through the combined, tactical persuasion of low prices and my rushed, excited "impending possibilities of travel" tone, Dan was evidently convinced enough to come along once again.  

Suffice it to say that a whirlwind of action allowed all preparations to be in order leading into the week of April 19th; Dan had already received his passport, I would receive mine on the 23rd.  Also on the 23rd, a hotel and flight package was booked for 9 nights in a 4-star hotel within a 5 minute walk of the British Museum (and about a 5-45 minute walk to nearly anything else one would like to see in London) and 2 minute walk of Russell Square Underground station.  The final price, which included roundtrip flight (from Des Moines!) and hotel, was $1016 per person.  If you aren't ready to go yourself after reading this price, you should be.  Typically, this would be at least 2-3 times costlier.  

We take off tomorrow, April 29th, for London.  

Monday, March 23, 2009

March 21: Salina to Denver, CO via Canyonlands and Arches National Parks

We departed from a little earlier this morning, at around 7 AM, taking I-70 for around 120 miles to Crescent Junction, UT and then heading south towards Moab.  We were unable to book a hotel closer to Moab (which would've been preferred) as there happened to be a 1/2 marathon taking place that weekend; in turn, all rooms were booked within a 70 mile radius.  

I have visited this area a number of times over the years; this was to be my 6th visit to the region.  From the first time, this has been one of my favorite areas of the country, primarily because of its geologically unique features: the largest concentration of natural sandstone arches in the world, canyons, and the convergence of the Colorado and Green rivers.  

Our first stop was Dead Horse Point State Park, so named due to the use of a narrow neck of land as a natural corral by horse thieves in the 19th century.  An unintended consequence, thanks to hot and dry desert conditions and the relative lack of food, was that the horses often died.  The park is currently undergoing significant parking lot construction for the viewpoint at the end of the park's only road and the access fees have been dutifully marked up (presently $10/car).  Regardless, the view at the end is grand - so grand in fact, it was used for the Grand Canyon scenes in the 1991 film Thelma & Louise.  The serpentine Colorado River switches back on itself creating the centerpiece "gooseneck" (the typical term for the relatively narrow plateau of land created by a river's switchback) which rises at least 500 feet from the river bed, which is 2000 feet below the viewpoint.  

From here, we moved south into Canyonlands National Park, which is split into 3 districts: Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze.  Island in the Sky, where the main park entrance is located was our district of choice as the Needles district is only accessible via a 100+ drive from the main park entrance and the Maze is even more challenging, restricted to only 4WD vehicles, bikers, and backcountry hikers geared up for the prospects of no food, little water, and a great chance that rescue is nowhere to be found if conditions should deteriorate.  The main viewpoints in the Island in the Sky are generally canyon overlooks, be it from the Colorado (east side of the park) or Green River (west side of the park) canyons.  The views are spectacular and the park is rarely crowded.  This day, the sky was filled with frequent bursts of white clouds and a temperature in the mid to high 60s - rare for this time of year - which made viewing and picture taking all the more worthwhile.  

Next, we visited Arches National Park, home to over 2,000 natural sandstone arches.  The day was equally perfect for this visit as we stopped at the Windows, Balanced Rock, and Park Avenue.  

It was around 3:30 PM when we hit I-70 again to continue west to Denver.  As we were approaching, I realized that since I booked the hotel while on the trip, I did not have a map print out of its location.  I decided to call the hotel to inquire about which route to take once in Denver.  Unfortunately, the inept front desk associate (mind you, this was a 3-star Hampton Inn for which some level of service is expected) interpreted my statements (variously "eastbound", "driving from Grand Junction to Denver" & "heading east") to mean that I was heading west.  What additional information I could have provided, I do not know.  The worst part is that the same associate committed this error in sensible logic 2 different times, as I made an additional phone call when we started heading back into the mountains based on her advice.   Thank goodness I-70 and Highway 6 only run in 2 directions.

We still arrived on time by reversing her logic and directions to make them applicable to our course.  Upon checking in, I decided to spare her the multiple choice "If I am heading eastbound, what direction am I heading?" sarcasm and slowly began to relax and prepare for tomorrow's final, though 9.5 hour, drive home.  

Sunday, March 22, 2009

CA-AZ-UT Trip - A 66 Picture Overview

Below is an embedded video slideshow of selected pictures from the trip.  The images are presented in order as they were taken; feel free to guess at the locations as they are not labeled.  Note that these have been compressed to aid in loading time and do not reflect the full quality of the source images.  

March 20: Springdale to Salina, UT via Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks

We left a little later this morning as I decided to give some attention to my studies.  We had breakfast at the Pioneer Restaurant at around 10:30 and then proceeded to the west entrance of Zion National Park, a mere 2 miles away at the edge of Springdale's city limits.  For most of the year, Zion operates a free shuttle bus service which is required for trips into the 6-mile-long, one way drive into Zion Canyon (excepting those staying at Zion Lodge, who may drive personal vehicles to the lodge but no farther).  This service does not resume, however, until April 4th.  As this was a pristine Friday with temperatures in the 70s, the drive into the canyon from Zion Lodge to the terminus at the Temple of Sinawava altered the name of the park to Zion National Parking Lot.  This was, of course, the way the park functioned year-round prior to 1997; but I had not visited the park prior to 2003, and had ridden the shuttles for each of my 3 prior visits.  Believe me, once you have experienced the canyon with shuttles channeling visitors in and out of the park there is no other way.  Due to this, our stay was brief, with a few pictures snapped and few parking spaces to be found.  

We headed out of the park following the Zion/Mt. Carmel highway to its junction with US 89 outside the eastern reaches of the park.  Turning north, our next destination was Bryce Canyon National Park, a scenic 60-mile drive away.  The weather at Bryce was unseasonal as well (typically 42, today 64-66), which certainly made the visit very pleasant.  The centerpiece at Bryce, which is not really a "canyon", is the elegant rock spire known as the hoodoo, which is created over time by erosive forces.  These hoodoos are present throughout the park and occur side-by-side to create a vast amphitheater of formations which present themselves in colored layers of red, orange, and white.  Additionally, due to the time of year and 8,000 foot elevation, a layer of snow was present around the base of the formations in many areas.  We stopped to take in the scenery at the four essential viewpoints (though there are at least 10 more to see if one has time): Bryce, Inspiration, Sunrise, and Sunset. 

After this, we continued north on Highway 89 towards I-70 and our hotel in the small town of Salina, UT.  From here, I continued work on my studies as we passed a most uneventful, though very relaxing evening generally sitting around.  

Saturday, March 21, 2009

March 19: Solvang to Springdale, UT - Goodbye Ocean, LA Commute, and the Slot Canyons of Eastern Zion National Park

We left the hotel in Solvang at around 7:30 AM and headed towards the distant, smog-filled expanse that is Los Angeles. Ventura Highway in the sun it was not to be as fog meandered across the landscape from the Pacific. We said goodbye to the ocean in this way, as it disappeared mysteriously beyond the low-lying clouds as the congestion of LA morning traffic became a reality. Amazingly, we were only halted for a few minutes (less than 5, not a complete standstill) during the crossing of the Ventura Highway and the 405. The rest of the time was spent at varied speeds, with the speed limit of 65 of little concern to many drivers. My speed varied from 75 to 90, as I was quickly feeling at home in the swift lane-switching tactics that saved us at least 45 minutes and significant frustration with some fellow drivers.

Our goal today was simple, to escape LA, to briskly pass Las Vegas, and to come to a halt in one of the better National Park entrance towns: Springdale, Utah. After significant delay for construction in Las Vegas (this was actually slower than any of the times in LA traffic), we arrived in Springdale, and in turn, Zion National Park at around 5:00 PM. After dropping off our belongings at the well-appointed and beautifully landscaped Desert Pearl Inn, we headed to the eastern parts of Zion, following the twisting Zion/Mt. Carmel Highway and it intermittent 1.1 mile tunnel. The eastern reaches of Zion are often passed up for the splendor offered in the valley below; however, this has quickly become one of my favorite parts of the park. Pulling off nearly anywhere above the tunnel, one can descend into the washes of the higher elevations and meander through various slot-like canyons. It is amazing to me that this part of the park is so often overlooked. After hiking in nearly complete solitude through a few different slot sections, aside from meeting a couple of climbers, we headed back to Springdale for a New York Strip dinner at the moderately pricey though tastefully presented Spotted Dog. Laundry was the final order of the day, followed by a restful sleep - aside from an incredibly strange dream involving the defense of my life against rattlesnakes - in the 530 square foot hotel room with the carving forces of the Virgin River at work a mere 100 feet off the back patio.

March 18: Montana de Oro State Park, Hearst Castle, and the Pacific Coast Highway

The day began with a trip north on the 101 to Montana de Oro State Park, located near the town of Los Osos, CA. This was my first visit and for my money, I have to say this is one of the most impressive beachfronts in California. The beach is composed, in various stages, of sandy portions, followed by small pebble sections, and lastly, larger rock sections. Many of the larger rock formations, which appeared to be composed of some type of sandstone, extended out into the pounding surf like fingers extended from the beachfront. Some of these rock outcroppings contained small coves which could be easily explored, including a small natural archway eroded over the ages. This was the first and only beach where significant amounts and varieties of small shells were found as we searched the beach. Traffic in the park was very light and it was very secluded. Again, I would say a stop at this park is a must for those traveling north towards Monterey/San Francisco from Los Angeles on the 101.

After this stop, we moved through lushly green hills towards San Simeon and our primary destination of the day, the Hearst Castle. Perched five miles inland, high atop a coastal mountain with a commanding view over the area, the castle impresses well before one can make out the particulars of its structure. The 1 hour and 45 minute "Experience Tour" - recommended for first time visitors like us - was $20/per person and was worth every penny. The relics contained therein, be it inside or outside of the building space bring a true and relevant meaning to the use of the word "castle" in its name. From a 2000 year old stone tableau representing the backdrop of the famous Neptune Pool, to various 13th-17th century tapestries, to entire ceilings transplanted and rebuilt from centuries past, to frankly, every other single item contained on the premises the complex represents a truly wondrous intersection of the ages. If one is driving up the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) from Morro Bay to Monterey, this is not to be missed. Take multiple tours if you can; it would certainly be worth it (there are 4 to choose from, highlighting different indoor and outdoor spaces in the complex). Reservations are recommended during the summer months, though this is also the hottest time of year (with temperatures on the mountain often in the 90s); visiting in the spring is a much better option, as the surrounding landscape will be in prime form as well.

From here, we continued north up the storied Pacific Coast Highway towards Big Sur. This drive is not to be taken by those with a fear of heights, nor those with a desire to reach the Monterey Peninsula or San Francisco quickly - the speed in most areas will be confined to 35-40 mph as you navigate hairpin turns on the precipice of the road, at times more than 1000 feet above the Pacific. The views are magnificent, however, and it is worth the occasional stress of the road. Our destination was Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where the 80-foot McWay Falls drops onto the sand merely feet in front the ocean. If this sounds appealing, it should, as it is quite a sight. The water in this area, apparently more shallow than other Pacific locales, is nearly turquoise in color.

From here, we began to work our way back south.  I decided to stop at a pull off called Jade Cove, which I had been meaning to do for some years.  My Grandpa Davis' 1st cousin Clare, who lives in Campbell, CA, mentioned that he took his boys there in the 1960's and that you could climb down to the beach from the road to look for jade, an ornamental stone.  He also mentioned something about a rope which was anchored to the cliff which was required to get back out of the cove.  We proceeded down the path, which became increasingly narrow and filled with loose rocks as it switched back down the cliff face.  Sure enough, there were two stakes pounded into the rock wall serving as anchors for a 20 foot strand of rope, which by the looks of things would be required if we were to reemerge.  At the bottom, waves crashed against large boulders strewn from the beachhead well into the water.  I collected a few rocks which were green but were probably not jade.  Either way, this was an incredible spot to witness the raw power of the ocean.  We left after about 30-40 minutes, at first clinging to the rope with camera around neck (me) and camcorder in hand (Dan).  We arrived at the top breathless and frazzled and plopped down in car seats which had heretofore looked uninviting.  

Following this, we drove the 2+ hours back to the hotel in Solvang for what was to be our last evening in California.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

March 17: San Diego, CA to Solvang, CA

We left our hotel at around 8 AM to head towards Solvang, CA.  We drove through Los Angeles on I-5 and then I-405 with significant traffic, but were able to maintain the speed limit (65) or above (70-80) for most of the drive.  We were only ground to a halt once, and this was fleeting at best.  The driving conditions certainly took a toll however; by the time we exited the 405, I felt exhausted, having spent the previous 2 hours 5-10 lanes of heavy traffic.  

Upon exiting the freeway, we noticed a sign to Venice Beach, which, according to Chad at work was somewhere we had to stop.  We did; but it wasn't very interesting.  We were one of maybe 15 people in a quarter-mile vicinity along the beach.  Fortunately, one of our beach companions was a woman of undetermined age doing aerobics with a hula-hoop, clapping and, it appeared, singing.  If this description sounds rather boring, believe me, it was not.  I have never seen someone so singularly affixed on what appeared to everyone else to be extremely exaggerated and nonsensical gyrations.  Worth the price of admission (parking $10)?  No.  But interesting none the less.  We departed a mere 15 minutes after arriving and drove down Santa Monica Boulevard towards the Getty Museum.  

The Getty Museum, situated atop the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking Los Angeles and the 405, contains pre-20th-century European paintings, drawings, illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, and decorative arts, and 19th- and 20th-century American and European photographs.  The complex, known as the Getty Center, is made up of 4 directionally-named sections of 2-3 stories.  Aside from the smog looking back towards downtown L.A., the day was magnificent, with temperatures in the low 70s.  To visit the museum, one parks at the bottom of the mountain on 1 of 7 parking garage levels.  From here, a tram is accessed from the top of the parking garage which takes passengers up to the Getty Center.  This museum is truly a testament to philanthropic vision and the interests of one man in bringing art to the public.  We spent around 2 hours at the center viewing a number of things, including Van Gogh's Irises.

Next, we proceeded to Solvang, which was around 3 hours drive to the north of L.A.  We drove Highway 1 along the Malibu coastline to Santa Barbara and took Highway 101 from there.  Solvang, founded in 1911 by Dutch educators, is home to a number of wineries.  Unfortunately, all of these close at 5 PM and we had arrived at around 5:50.  In lieu of this, we headed back to the ocean to view the sunset and peruse the beach.  We finally settled in to the hotel (Hadsten House) at around 9 PM after eating a tasty, but slowly and inattentively served filet mignon at the hotel's eponymous restaurant.  

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

March 16: San Diego and Mission San Juan Capistrano

Following an evening of pleasant rest, we departed the hotel at 8:30 AM and headed for Mission San Juan Capistrano, about 1 hour north of San Diego off of I-5.  This was to be my 3rd visit to the mission, dubbed the "Jewel of the Missions" because of its beauty.  As with Balboa Park in San Diego, I feel this location is a required visit for anyone traveling to the area.  A history of the mission can be found here.  We were arriving just 3 days before the famed "return of the swallows" upon which the Cliff Swallow ends its 6,000 mile migratory journey to San Juan Capistrano from Goya, Argentina.  Indeed, a few swallows were already present, evidently not content to sit outside the mission walls for another few days.  As usual, the building and scenery were quite enjoyable, though a preferred time to visit would be between April and September as more flowers are in bloom.  

Afterwards, we drove back towards San Diego, stopping briefly at Torrey Pines State Reserve which is home to the United States' rarest pine, the Torrey Pine (its existence limited to a range of around 4,000 trees in the preserve and another closely related variety of 100 trees to be found off the coast of Santa Barbara on Santa Rosa Island).  Our visit was brief, though the scenery was enjoyable.  The park features a number of trails which meander atop cliffs overlooking the ocean and northern San Diego.  

Our next stop was downtown San Diego, where we walked along the harbor to view various ships and people (homed and homeless).  

Finally, the day was concluded with what must've been a 6-8 mile walk from the beachfront of our hotel (Pacific Beach) to Mission Beach and back.  On the way back, we noticed a number of homes for sale along the beachfront with asking prices anywhere from $1-$2.5 million and declined to make immediate offers on any.  Interested in earning our millions before spending it, we returned to the hotel for some momentary relaxation and sleep before tomorrow's trek into the abyss of traffic and smog that is Los Angeles.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

March 15: Phoenix to San Diego, CA

We (Alan, Dan & I) awoke at 5 AM to get ready to leave for San Diego.  Alan was coming along to pick up a car from someone in San Diego to drive back to Phoenix.  The previous evening I remembered that when crossing into California, there are checks at the border to see if you are carrying in any plant life.  The chili peppers.  The 2 strands of chili peppers.  Devotees will recall that I had previously spent almost $40 on 2 strands of chili peppers while in Taos, New Mexico.  Now, I was assuming that if we crossed the border with them, particularly with a strand dangling in the rear passenger window, things would not go well.  I imagined the border check guards starved of their one favorite food, the chili pepper.  I then imagined them taking 2 $20 bills from my pocket and lighting them on fire in front of my face.  Something had to be done.  I spoke to Alan about this and he mentioned he could pack them up and UPS them to Iowa.  Plan A had been devised.  In the morning, the first steps were executed (i.e. leaving the chili peppers with Alan, whose apartment now sports a distinctly Taosian flare as they are hanging off his balcony).  

We departed at 6 AM.  The drive across Arizona (taking I-10 west to Highway 85 south to Gila Bend, then I-8 West to San Diego) is relatively boring.  One writer described the area (really the entire area known as "basin and range" which stretches through southern New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona) from the sky as the appearance of a number of spaced out catepillars attempting to flee Mexico.  In essence, this means long stretches of flat ground with a distant mountain in view.  Once you have reached the mountain, rinse and repeat.  

We entered California at around 8 AM; as we approached the fruit/plant check point, we were waved on by the guard on duty.  The chili peppers were to have breathed California air as it turned out; either way, they will now be shipped.  Following this, we had to go through 2 border checks - yes, border checks - as if we had left the country.  Fortunately, we were waved on through both of these, though search and seizure was clearly in order.  As a side note, I received a text message from Alan today (3/16) stating that he did get searched on the way back into Arizona (roughly 15 minutes, according to first hand reports).  Additionally, during the drive we were easily able to view "The Fence" - i.e. the border fence between the U.S. and Mexico.  Atop one mountain, we spotted a U.S. Border Patrol van overlooking the area surrounding the fence.  

After about 5-5.5 hours, we arrived in San Diego, dropped Alan off at "Mike's" - the possessor of the car - and drove to Balboa Park for, I hoped, lunch at The Prado restaurant and some museum viewing.  The place (Balboa Park) was packed.  We were able to find a parking spot fairly easily, but there were a number of people scoping out the park and the museums.  Situated just east of downtown, Balboa Park is a wonderful example of public park space.  The parklands were put in reserve in 1835 by newly elected San Diego city officials from the Mexican government took office.  This makes it one of the oldest land areas set aside specifically for public recreational use in the United States.  When we dropped Alan off to get the car, Mike stated that in 5 1/2 years, he had never visited Balboa Park; a sin in San Diego indeed.  Much of the park's appearance today is due to the 1915 Panama-California exposition, which celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914 and touted San Diego as passing ships' first port of call.  The park is home to a number of museums (including the San Diego Museum of Man, the San Diego Art Museum, the Timkin Art Museum, and the Museum of Photographic Arts), an outdoor performance pavilion, and a Shakespeare troupe which performs at 1 of 3 theaters (2 outdoors, 1 indoor replica of Shakespeare's original Globe theater) - which is well, well worth the price of admission - and, of course, the San Diego Zoo (which, in addition to being the most loved zoo in America, is featured on the cover of the Beach Boys' 1966 seminal album Pet Sounds - which I personally have never cared for (the photo), but the music is quite inspired) all in all, Balboa Park is a beautiful expanse; a visit is required if one is to visit San Diego.  We arrived at the entrance to The Prado around noon.  Based on the number of people waiting in the open-air courtyard, I assumed it would be difficult to get in; I was wrong.  We were seated immediately, which I felt was quite amazing, for this restaurant has been voted "best outdoor restaurant" in 5 different polls in the last 4 years.  Once seated, I ordered a glass of wine, the aptly named "Evolution #9" (after the Beatles' song "Revolution #9) and waited for a very tasty, though $16, burger put forth (I'm guessing unwillingly) from organic-fed cows on the Moon or some equally impressive feat.  Dan and I agreed our meals were quite tasty; we alighted full and pleased of our first experience in San Diego.  Following this, we toured a few museums, took in a few minutes of a pipe organ concert performed by an apparently studied organist named Carol.  

Following this excursion, we returned to Alan who was to follow us to La Jolla Cove and the rocky, sandstone outcrops that make up much of the beach footing in the area (this is specific to La Jolla, as there are certainly all-sand beaches in San Diego).  We parted ways at around 4 PM, as Dan & I proceeded to the luxurious Tower 23 hotel (website).  From here, we ate dinner at one of the number of local restaurants present along the strip near the hotel, this one interestingly posing itself as "Home of the Iowa Hawkeyes".  Following dinner, we arrived back at the hotel and went to sleep at around 9 PM which was to be my first full night of sleep of the trip.  

Monday, March 16, 2009

March 14: Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West

The main excursion of today, besides picking up 4 12-oz New York Strips for grilling that evening (by the way, great job Alan), was to visit Frank Lloyd Wright's winter home Taliesin West.  In addition to being the Wrights' home, the location also began to function as a school for a few (22-30 per class) of upcoming architects to apprentice under Mr. Wright.  Known for his strong will, extreme attention to detail, and a tenedency to be an outright egotist (case and point: when Wright was ordered to testify at a trial of another architect who was being sued, he was sworn in and asked to state his name and profession.  "Frank Lloyd Wright, World's Greatest Architect" was his reply.  His wife was furious about his remarks and confronted him later about it.  In response he said, "But dear, I was under oath.  I was obligated to tell the truth."), Wright designed and lived in the home each winter from 1937 until his death in 1959.  

At $32 a ticket for a 90-minute tour, the Frank Lloyd Wright foundation makes their goal relatively clear as well.  Visitors were not deterred however, as the parking lot was very full upon arrival and departure.  With tours departing every 30 minutes, presuming 20 people per tour, a cool $10K could be procured on a good day.  Regardless, the tour was wonderful, insightful, and relevant.  The $32 ticket did not seem overpriced once the tour was over.  Among the highlights:

  • A dinner theater room shaped as an irregular hexagon in which whispers from the front (even with the guide's face turned away from the audience) could easily be heard in the back.  A group of sound engineers retrospecively declared the room 95% acoustically sound. 
  • Mr. Wright's personal doctor still lives and works at the compound, in addition to a sculptor who has lived and worked there since 1949
  • Taliesin West is still used for 6-months worth of a participating architect student's education (the other 6 months are held at Taliesin East in Spring Green, WI), which is now offered in a Bachelor and Masters degree format.  
After visting Taliesin West, we headed back to Alan's for dinner and a movie.  The rest of the evening passed in a relatively relaxed fashion, with the knowledge that we'd all need to get up at 5 AM to leave for San Diego the next morning.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

March 13: Flagstaff, AZ to Phoenix, AZ via Grand Canyon and Sedona

We left Flagstaff at around 8:20 AM, following US 89 north towards Grand Canyon National Park.  

Here are some brief highlights from the day:

As one approaches the Grand Canyon, a number of scenic pulloffs begin to serve a dual role; Native Americans of the area (presumably Navajo or Hopi) set up stands to display and sell jewelry and other items.  After passing the first one of these a sign read: "Friendly Indians Behind You!"  

Inside the park, we spotted a coyote and were treated to the sight of a some elk crossing the road in front of  my car.

After viewing the Grand Canyon from over 15 different locations, we left the park to head towards the interstate (I-40) and Williams, AZ.  From here, we were on to Sedona, AZ, whose backstory can be found here:

In general, Sedona seemed to thrive on the confusion of its scenic parks and scenic parking locations.  As you drive into the town, following the increasingly narrow US 89A, one becomes aware of many scenic locations to pull off and take pictures.  Unfortunately, you need a pass ($5/day) of some sort to park at these locations - though, according to one of the park administrators, if you don't park your car, you don't need to pay.  Either way, this is all very confusing when combined with an additional $8 pass to visit some of the locations.  So, the impression that is given on the drive to Sedona, as in the town itself is one of a particularly monetary fascination.  You'd like to see scenery?  Pay us.  You'd like to see more in depth scenery?  Pay us more.  You'd like to peruse the works of local artisans and perhaps purchase something?  You'll be paying with a second mortgage.  In all, Sedona has the makings of a place that could be really great, but unfortunately it seems the town lacks a cohesive vision of what that greatness could be.  

Following this, we drove to Phoenix, descending from over 6000 ft above sea level to just over 1000 ft above sea level.  During this drive, the temperature changed from 40 degrees in Williams, AZ to 75 degrees in Phoenix.  The interstate for this section, I-17, is actually quite scenic as you move through the mountains and, around 80 miles from Phoenix, start to see the impressive Saguaro Cactus as it begins to fill the mountainscape.  

We arrived at my friend Alan's apartment at around 5:30, went to eat at an In-And-Out Burger (and, of course, for fans of The Big Lebowski, listened to Santana's Oye Como Va on the way back to the apartment).  Other than some mountain outcrops in the city, Phoenix is impressingly flat and, even in 75 degress, the sun equally impresses its will upon the traveler.  After arriving back at Alan's we actually decided to sit around and relax for a while - and it had been a while since we'd been able to do that.   

Friday, March 13, 2009

March 12: Denver, CO to Flagstaff, AZ via Taos, NM

We left Denver at 7:45 AM. I know what you're thinking if you know me; this seems like a very late start. But, the drive from Denver to Flagstaff is made up of a mere 10.5 hours and I felt we had a little time to spare.

A Tiring Experience, Part 1

After stopping in Pueblo, CO for a restroom break I noticed, while walking out of the gas station, a piece of plastic protruding from the hubcap of the front tire on the driver's side of my car. To my immediate interest, this piece of plastic - which appeared to correctly be part of the tire's anatomy, though incorrectly placed - had worn a 1'' long and 1/8'' deep gash in the side wall of the tire. Feeling fortunate to find this when we did, we proceeded to a conveniently located Big O Tire shop preparing to hear how immediately this tire would need to be replaced. I approached the front desk with caution, wallet tightly gripped in hand. A genial young man we'll call Jose suggested he take a look at the tire to assess the damage. We walked from the building to the parking lot and he bent down to take a look. "Oh, that's only cosmetic," Jose said instantly, "You don't need to do anything. You've got a good 1/2'' before there would be any problems." I thanked him profusely and we were on our way, with my wallet's weight no less than when I entered the tire shop. I include this passage as a reminder that we're not always going to get screwed, even when we think we know what's coming.

Taos and the Rio Grande Gorge

With some time to spare, Dudley and I decided to descend on Taos, NM, a town I had been interested to visit for some time. We entered the town by way of the battered Highway 64, though the battery did not really begin until the last few miles before Taos. The road remained in this condition throughout the town, which did little to improve upon my mind's eye perspective of an artisan community made up entirely of rustic adobe dwellings set against the impressive Sagre de Cristo (literally "The Blood of Christ") mountains. The center of town fit more to this picture - the adobe dwellings were surely there, if one forgives the fact that nearly all in the town center exist today to cater to a meandering crowd of tourists, skiers, and transients. With a little spit and polish Taos could really be made into a great experience. As is, which is what the sign should read for many parts of town, it provided a pleasant excursion for 1-2 hours. I was drawn to the chili peppers hanging from wooden rungs clung to the adobe; Dan and I entered a store which appeared to have some for sale and $29 later, I walked out with my own strand. Before leaving, however, we had to endure the psychobabble of the storekeeper, a Caucasian female transplant from northern Washington who had lived here for "a long time" and referred to white folks who do not live in Taos as, I kid you not, "gringos".

15 minutes later, we re-entered the car and drove the 8-9 miles to the Rio Grande Gorge bridge, which is evidently the 2nd highest suspension bridge in the United States - to this I cannot attest, as I left my measuring tape at home. This was quite an enchanting view, as long as one can stomach walking along a raised sidewalk with a mere, 3-foot rail on the Rio Grande sides of the bridge and absolutely nothing on the sides closest to oncoming traffic. Either way, it was worth it. The Rio Grande meanders some 600 feet below surrounded by a jagged cataract which breaks through the surrounding basin and range and continues on towards the Sangre de Cristos.

On the way back from the gorge, we stopped at another shop that sold a variety of items which appeared to be procured mostly from Old Mexico, perhaps using NAFTA agreements. Lining the outside of the store, in addition to weather-worn wooden chairs, a horse made of various scrap metal, and a sign promising 50% off for a "Summer Sale" (Spring begins 1 week from Saturday), were rows and rows of chili peppers. We entered the courtyard and began to peruse. A kindly Hispanic gentleman inquired about our purchasing interests, at which point I asked the prices of the small-sized chili strands. "$9.95," he responded. "How about the larger strands," I asked. "$9.95," he responded. I now immediately thought back to our friend at the shop downtown and perhaps may have cursed her existence under my breath, I simply can't recall. I decided to purchase another larger strand to hang in the window of the backseat of my car; the previously purchased strand, you see, had been boxed in a fashion which made its access difficult, though this service was apparently worth an additional $20. I paid for my new strand, had an extremely pleasant and unimposing conversation with the Hispanic gentleman and left. We hung the $9.95 strand in the window, spat on the impenetrable box containing the other, and left.

A Tiring Experience, Part 2

After leaving Taos, we approached Santa Fe and rejoined I-25 to head towards Albuquerque. This was easier said than done, however, as the entire drive between the two cities involved a chain of cars in the left lane of the interstate whose speed unaccountably varied within a 25 mph range (60-85). It seems a magnetic force attracted these incapable drivers to one another and a symbiotic relationship developed between us whose apparent purpose was the provocation of, as time progressed, frustration, anger, and ultimately a blind hatred. Why not simply move into the right lane, you ask? wasn't that simple, my friend. The right lane contained a smattering of occasional vehicles which the left lane was simply not content to follow, but was also seemingly incapable of passing. It is fortunate Dan was not video recording during this time as the edited version would surely be made up of one extended, 30 minute "expletive deleted" sound. This may sound crazy, but I have never become this frustrated even in California traffic. Alas, these days may well be ahead.

We arrived at the La Quinta hotel in Flagstaff at 8:45 PM PST, tired and road weary, frazzled and beat. You may be surprised to know that both Dan and I were looking forward to monkeying around with internet connections (wireless and wired, variously) for the next 30 minutes in what will surely cause me to give this hotel a bad review. Finally, as I write now, some peace is gained with the knowledge that tomorrow brings an exciting day: the Grand Canyon, Sedona, and Alan in Phoenix. Better days ahead, indeed.