Friday, April 17, 2015

Cherry Blossoms at Washington DC Tidal Basin

Jefferson Memorial and the pedal boat docks
We went to Japan a few years ago to see the magnificent cherry blossoms.  There are also a large number of trees in Washington DC, which were gifted to the US from Japan, and we wanted to see them to compare.  There aren't as many as in Japan, but they are well concentrated.

It was a beautiful weekend to be in Washington DC if you enjoy pretty flowers...and hordes of people.  Still, if you're an aficionado of cherry blossoms, you have to put up with crowds.  The Cherry Blossom Festival goes on for 3 weeks, but the peak of the bloom is just a couple of days.  The national park service will normally post well in advance when they believe it will peak.
The tidal basin in full bloom
We got decently priced tickets with Southwest airlines.  The nice thing about flying with Southwest is that you can change reservations as often as you like, so just in case the flowers weren't blooming, we could have changed the date.  Hotels will be more expensive because of the demand, should you go during the Cherry Blossom season.  We found a room with breakfast at the Doubletree Crystal City, which is just a few blocks from the Pentagon City Metro and was very convenient.  They also offered a free airport and metro shuttle.

As I mentioned, there were hordes of people and we have a son who tends to get lost, so we opted for one of the hop-on hop-off buses.  Traffic was at a standstill through the monuments area, but it was a nice day and we were on the top of a double decker.  It allowed for lots of picture taking, and there was sightseeing narration and music on headphones.  At least we didn't have to worry about losing Omar.  The route usually takes just over an hour and it took us three.  There are a number of sightseeing buses and they all go to this area, so I'd say choose whatever is convenient.  I don't think there's too much difference between them.  We got the 48 hour pass which also included a night bus tour and some additional museum discounts.
This photo taken from the bus shows people picnicking under the blossoms and taking photos

Many of the girls had cute dresses with cherry blossom fabric

The next day, I got up before sunrise and met the Washington DC Photo Safari for a walk around the tidal basin.  It was really the only way to ensure I'd get good photos.  There was a marathon the same morning so the entire area was closed to vehicles. The metro station at Smithsonian is closest to the meeting point for the tour of the tidal basin.  It meant a good bit of walking.  I use a pedometer and noticed I'd done 12,000 steps before breakfast!  We got lots of instruction, tips on where and how to get the best shots, and a handout to take with us.  People with a variety of cameras joined the tour.  Some had tripods and huge DSLRs.  Others were just using their iPhone.  There were only serious photographers out at 6:30 am, but by 8:00, the sidewalk was jammed with people.  I ended up losing my photographer leader near the end of the tour due to crowds, but felt it was still worth the $79.

On the way to the tidal basin before sunrise, I saw this view
For the rest of the day we hopped back on the bus and found it a bit easier to get around, but still there were many tourists like ourselves.  We also took a boat ride from the Georgetown harbor to see the blossoms on Monday, but the boats really don't get very close to the shore so you only see them from a distance.  Still, it was a fun 50 minute ride.
View from the Potomac River
I might also mention that it's not just the cherry blossoms blooming.  There are also tulips, forsythia, and magnolia.  You'll see blossoms everywhere you go.  It was such a beautiful place.  We did manage to step inside a few of the many free museums.  There is so much to do in this city!
Magnolia and forsythia

You will meet people from all over the world.  This lady was from China.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Mapping the World

When I was a kid, I used to savor the National Geographic magazines and loved looking at the maps of faraway places.  I was thinking about this when we recently traveled to Croatia because it was a bit confusing to me about where the country lines had been drawn since Yugoslavia ceased to exist.  I was quite good in memorizing all those maps we had to do in 7th grade social studies, but the world keeps changing and it's a challenge to keep up.
Some of the globes on display at the entrance to the AGS Library

Lucky for me we have a great resource right here in Milwaukee- the American Geographical Society Library which includes maps and photos of worldwide interest. There are more than a million items with some as old as the 16th century.  Formerly the library and map collection of the American Geographical Society of New York, it was transferred to Milwaukee in 1978.  It's housed at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Golda Meir library on the third floor, east wing and is open to the public Monday through Friday 8-4:30.  If you have something in mind you're looking for, you can make an appointment and a staff member can pull out items which interest you.  When you walk in unannounced, you will see many globes and rotating presentations they have chosen to post, but most of the collection is in storage in the many drawers within the library.
There are rows filled with cabinets and globes

There's also a special collections room which houses the oldest materials- basically anything prior to 1900.  The librarian allowed me to come in to take a peek and I was amazed and humbled by what I saw.  Charles Lindbergh's map from his transcontinental flight.  Photos of Yosemite taken before Ansel Adams was even born, perhaps taken by Carleton Watkins in 1861. Books that smelled interestingly ancient.  Whaling maps. Photographs taken by Timothy O'Sullivan when he accompanied US engineers on a geological exploration.
A portion of Lindbergh's map- he cut away just the piece he needed to take with him

Lindbergh's comments in his pen!

And Lindbergh's signature!

Similar to Ansel Adams but the photographer may have been Carleton Watkins 
If you're not able to make the trip to the library, you can view much of the collection on-line.  It's a fun way to lose yourself for a couple of hours!  If you find you'd like a copy of anything they can print it for a reasonable price- less than $2 per square foot.  I saw some of the prints they made which were high quality color.

You can attend lectures several times a year.  The next is April 23 at 6 pm when the program will highlight pictorial maps.

I might add that this little library is getting some attention lately.  Even Atlas Obscura included it on their website just this week.  Now there's another website where you can get completely lost.  Go ahead and take a look!

Monday, April 6, 2015

London Tourist

I've been to London many times, but I enjoy something different every time I go.  There is simply too much to experience in one vacation.  This time my husband was busy visiting an aunt at a London hospital so we had to entertain ourselves.

Getting around is easy once you figure out the underground and buses.  If you really have no idea what to do, a good place to get information is the London Tourist Office near St. Paul's Cathedral. They can answer questions, set up tours, and put you in the right direction. You can opt for a self guided walking tour or even hire a private guide for the day. Maybe you want to buy a London Pass to see the big name tourist attractions. You should definitely get an oyster card for the cheapest travel while you see the city.  Taxis are available, but unless you have 3 people going to the same place, it isn't cost effective. You can also buy paper tickets for just a single ride using the kiosk at most underground stations.  If you're not sure what to buy, bring your credit card to an attendant and ask for help.  They can give you the options and show you how to use the machines, if that's your desire.  If you're used to using a smart phone to get around, you can download apps for London, which include off line maps.  Some I used are Tube Map- London Underground, and the Tripadvisor City Guide, but there are a number of free apps.  Riding the Tube is an experience.  You may run into entertainers at the stations, if you're lucky.  They are selected through the arts council and appreciate tips.  We met a harpist who let Omar "pet" the strings.
You may see performers in the Tube Stations- this one a classical harpist
The Underground stations are easy to spot by the signage

City of London Tourist Information Office

Seeing a show there is a MUST!  Though tickets can be pricey, the quality of the shows are stupendous.  You can buy in advance through a number of agencies, and usually they charge a fee for the convenience.  Try Theatre People, Box office, or call the theatre if you know where the show is playing.  On the day of a performance, you can stop by the Leicester Square TKTS booth and pick up the cheapest tickets, if you aren't fussy about what you see.  I have never seen a bad show, so I'm sure whatever you see will be good.  We had preordered tickets to see the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory musical, based on youtube previews our son had seen...daily...for the past 6 months or so.  He was so hyped up to go that he'd been telling everyone he was going to see it before we even planned a trip to London.  It was incredible in so many ways.  The special effects and the talent of the children cast members was the highpoint, but the story was also good.  Even if you've never seen the movies or read the Roald Dahl books, you'd enjoy it.  They even sold Wonka bars in the lobby.  We also saw Thriller at the Lyric Theatre, which had some talented dancers and singers in a tribute to Michael Jackson.
Royal Drury Lane Theatre
You should probably see a church and a castle.  Most people do.  But unless you're crazy about that style of architecture, see some modern buildings too.  St. Paul's Cathedral or Westminster Abbey would be high on my list for churches.  Buckingham Palace or a trip out to Windsor Castle will fill the bill for castles. If you can be there for the changing of the guard , it is quite regal and interesting.  We have nothing like it in comparison.  If you aren't able to go inside, you can still enjoy the grounds and parks surrounding these buildings.
St. Paul's Cathedral

Buckingham Palace
Changing of the guard at Windsor Palace
Shopping is fun if you are looking for something in particular, or even if you just want to "window shop".  There are a few parts of the city with pedestrian zones.  Most busy crosswalks are marked to remind you to look for traffic in the opposite direction you are probably used to.  You should visit a market too, if for no other reason to see the local foods, maybe catch a free performance, and people watch.  I especially like the area around Covent Garden.  Stop at the Covent Garden market and you can walk to Hotel Chocolat (via mostly pedestrian streets) for a pick me up.  My husband likes Vivo Barefoot shoes and they have a flagship store on Neal street in this area.  There are also about a dozen other shoe stores on the same block.  The area in the market and also near St. Paul's Church at Covent Garden is a great place to catch a street performer.  You may see harpists, classical music, opera, or jugglers.  Anything is possible.

Simply so many chocolate varieties in this shop

Covent Garden Market

The market has shops plus fresh foods in and outdoors

String quartet playing at Covent Garden Market
Visit at least one museum...or more if it's raining.  They are often free and it's not only the displays you'll find interesting, but the architecture of the building and the live performances.  We went to the Victoria & Albert Museum, just 5 minutes walk from South Kensington tube station. Admission was free, though you can donate.  After viewing about one third of the exhibits, we went to the cafe for scones and tea (delicious and so British!).  Afterwards Omar found a group of artists sketching and wanted to join them so we quickly bought a sketch pad, in the gift shop by the wedding dress and fashion exhibit, and he sat down for 20 minutes.  What an impromptu adventure!  The courtyard is a nice place to take your coffee, sketchpad and scones if weather is nicer.  The Science Museum and Natural History Museums are within walking distance of this one, and they are also free.  Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park are nearby and if weather is nice, you should go see what's blooming or pick up a sandwich and enjoy it on a bench while you people watch. You could spend an entire day just in this neighborhood without spending anything.
V&A courtyard
So many choices in the cafe- lovely scones!

The artist sketching
Of course this only covered a small amount of what you can do in London, but it gives you a taste.  Some other ideas: Eat fish & chips, ride in a taxi, sit in the top of a double decker bus, ride the London Eye, do the zoo, take a boat ride on the Thames, or borrow a bike for a few hours.  We always enjoy the city!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Love Locks

Love locks are a popular way to show love, but are not well liked by city officials
When I found love locks attached to a fence overlooking the city of Zagreb, Croatia, it was new to me.  They were also on the river at Samobor.  How did this tradition start and how widespread was it?  I posed the question to a group on the Facebook page for Urban Travel Europe.  It turned out it was a hot topic and many travelers had their own photos to post. This blogpost by Its all Bee shows great photos of how big the "problem" can be in Cologne.

They have been around for a long time, and you can read more about them on the wiki page.  It's mostly been in this century that they have popped up across Europe and other parts of the world.  Apparently a couple creates a lock and puts it somewhere public to declare their love for each other, then throws away the key. Though the idea seems kind of sweet and innocent, they are being outlawed in many cities since the weight of love locks seems to be the reason a bridge rail failed in Paris at Pont des Arts in 2009.  Now they are treated like graffiti and removed.  Even the Eiffel Tower has been love locked!

The variety of locks seems endless.  You can buy an ordinary master lock and decorate it yourself using nail polish, permanent marker or even engraving, but if you want fancy, there's a website that makes personalized locks.  They can be created to celebrate special occasions like an anniversary or proposal.  Here's a small sample of those I found in Zagreb. They even have a map which tracks where love locks can be found.

 So what is the alternative?  There was a fundraiser by the British Heart Foundation where people could personalize a lock and have it added to what became an art piece at Covent Garden and Camden Lock.  The structure spelled LOVE.
In Budapest you will find structures surrounding trees where people are putting locks- a padlock tree.  They list a number of other cities where you can find them in Hungary.

In Venice they reengineered the bridges with a wider metal so locks can't be attached.

Moscow created metal trees for the sole purpose of love locks- a kind of art work.  This article shows a number of locks around the world.

No matter what your opinion on them, it looks like it's a growing trend that will be impossible to stamp out entirely.  Have you seen them?  What do you think?
Love locks on the fence in Zagreb

Love locks on the cable of the bridge at Samobor

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Stonehenge for the Equinox

Everyone wants a photo of themselves at Stonehenge, don't they?
We were going to be in London for the Vernal Equinox on March 20, 2015, and I had this idea that it would be fun to visit Stonehenge with my son Omar for the day.  This is basically the first day of spring, where the hours of sunlight and darkness are equal.  It was unusual because there was also a solar eclipse and an incredibly large moon planned for the day- a super moon.  Some journalists called it a perfect trifecta.  If you missed seeing it, here's a link which includes a video.  There had also been a solar flare which included sightings of the Northern Lights.  Unfortunately there was fog and cloud cover in England, so I didn't get to see the eclipse or the northern lights clearly, but the sun burned off the fog in the afternoon and it was a good day just to visit the majestic stones.

We got on a bus tour with Golden Tours, the same outfit we used to see Warner Bros. Studios for the Harry Potter Tour.  They have a variety of tours which include Stonehenge, but we chose the 11 hour tour, which included stops at Windsor Castle and Bath as well.  It was a long day but with stops and time for snacks, walking around and sightseeing, it went incredibly well.  

Stonehenge was our second stop of the day, and we arrived about 1:00.  Coaches and private cars are only allowed to park about a quarter mile from the visitor center.  Everyone then walks to the visitor center where you take one of the park buses another mile out to the circle of stones, which is roped off.  They made this change about 18 months ago because of conservation efforts.  In my opinion, this is much better than what I heard existed before.  You can't actually get up close to the stones, but then neither can anyone else.  This allows you to take better photos and to see it in its entirety from a short distance. The use of buses ensures it is never so crowded you can't see the stones. There is a walkway around the entire area so you can see it from different vantage points. In the early days of tourism, it was a parking nightmare and people were allowed between the stones.  Sometimes there was graffiti and that's when preservation plans took over.

The surrounding land is managed by the National Trust and it's public land, which means anyone can walk there.  On this special date, there were some people in colorful costumes dancing in the adjoining fields (some called them hippies), I'm assuming to celebrate the equinox.  They had tents set up there.  I was told the crowds are huge for the summer solstice.
Stonehenge- an ancient temple aligned on the movements of the sun
So what is Stonehenge?  That question has been answered in many different ways since it was first discovered.  The English Heritage are calling it an ancient temple aligned on the movements of the sun. The stones were raised 4500 years ago by sophisticated prehistoric people, that our guide called "people of the flask".  These small people are buried in mounds near Stonehenge with their flasks around their neck.  He also said to consider it a type of early church.  Consider churches today have graveyards, clocks, and are a place for worship.  Stonehenge is no different.  You can learn much more about it at the visitor center through the use of audio guides, videos, and books.  Recent archaeology studies report that there is more under the earth for several miles surrounding the stones, and that perhaps this was part of a pathway.

Some of the Solstice dancers
There's a nice cafe in the visitors center where we had lunch.  I can't say that I felt anything magical while I was at the stones.  There was no time travel or illuminations, to Omar's huge disappointment.  Still, it was a place I had always wanted to visit. If you go, you might consider a more personal tour which includes sunset at the great stones.  There is a newer 36 mile hiking path called the Great Stones Way from Salisbury to Barbury Castle, so if you really want a workout, you might try it.  If you do, you'll see rolling countryside and a few of England's most important prehistoric sites.  Go to the link and you can see photos as well as details about where to find the head.  You can do it in increments and stay in lodging along the way.
Cafe inside the visitors center

You could hike to Old Sarum
New visitors center

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Making of Harry Potter-Warner Bros. Studio Tour London

Nearly two years ago I was in Scotland and London doing some sleuthing about the Harry Potter series. You can read about that adventure in a previous blog.  I didn't have time during that visit to view the newly opened Warner Bros. Studio Tour.  It has been there since Spring 2012. This time I took a bus tour from Victoria Station area to view it.  For any Harry Potter Fan, I'd put this on your "Bucket List".  What a fabulous place it is, and quite large.

If you have a car, you won't have to worry about how to get out to Leavesden, where it's located.  It took about 2 hours by coach, but there is a train option as well.  I used Golden Tours, which offered an easy way to do it.  They make your reservations and deliver you to the front door where you enjoy everything for 3 hours.  It was a bit tricky to find their office, because they say they are at Victoria, but it is really a few blocks away.  The bus was a double decker painted with the Harry Potter motif so you can't miss it, once you are in the right place.

They call it a "tour", but you start out with a group just for the first 15 minutes.  After that you are free to roam the grounds as you wish looking at sets and props.  A guide tells you a bit about the sets and you watch a video before you really enter the huge warehouses set up like museums.
You might be surprised at how small everything looks in person
A guide starts you off in a large group setting and you view a video

First stop on the self guided tour
You can learn how to use a wand.  There's also a spot where you can sit on a broomstick in front of a green screen and they can make a video or photograph for you to take home with you.  Weasley's car is also in a similar setup, which is great for a group photo.  Kids can get a passport which can be stamped at six stations throughout.  They can be a bit tricky to find if you have a kid like mine that likes to run through the exhibits.  Once you move forward, you can't move back, so try to get the most out of each area before moving on.
There are various backgrounds.  They provide a cape to cover your muggle clothing

How fun to make a group shot here
The props and sets are full of detail.  The only thing missing are the actors.  Some of the exhibits are interactive, like the monster book.  Kids were lined up to press the button that makes it come to life.  You can watch mini length videos in several places that explain how special effects were made or add information to what you see.  I was most impressed with the creatures.

Preorder butter beer if you want a taste of a delicious drink that seems to be cream soda with whipped topping.  There are also plenty of food options in the cafe near the gift shop and also midway through the tour area.

Outdoors is a lot which includes the Night Bus, Harry's aunt and uncle's home, the exterior of several buildings, one of the famous bridges, and a few props you can use for photo ops.

Allow some time for the gift shop.  Things weren't that ridiculously priced when you consider this is the only place that sells them.  We ended up getting some wands made of chocolate and a marauder's map.  There is simply so much to look at.  You can find a multitude of candies, books, clothing, and of course wands galore.  I also picked up one of the official programs which covered most of what we saw (that I had to skip over because my son was moving too fast).  We've looked at that many times so it was money well spent. Overall it took us 7 hours to visit here and enjoy it, but time passed quickly.  Bring your camera and your credit card for the best experience!
Deciding what to take home with you may be the hardest part!
If you have additional time, check out this self guided Harry Potter Tour of London. There are other guided Harry Potter walks, but really the link gives you enough information about how to get around with an underground pass that you won't need much help.  Not only will you see the Harry Potter inspiration, but you'll experience a great deal of the locals' London as you do it.  Lastly, I'll leave you with a youtube link for a Harry Potter parody of Uptown Funk, called Dark Lord Funk- hilarious!