Hertog Jan: The End

At the start of this year I read online that what I consider to be the best restaurant in Belgium, and even one of the best in the world, was closing down. The partners who run Hertog Jan announced that they would close their doors at the end of 2018. Their reasoning is one I’ve heard before in this industry, along the lines of “We’ve reached the top and achieved all we set out to achieve, so now it’s time to try something new”.

Having eaten there twice before, we snapped up the opportunity to go a third and final time. We arrived on foot, as our lodgings were only a 15-minute walk away. We settled in, please to see that we’d been given the table by the window, like last time. The restaurant filled up quickly; both it and the B’n’B are fully booked until the end of the year.

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We chose the special menu which was a kind of “greatest hits” package of the chef’s favourite dishes, plus wine, and we got a free recipe book thrown in.

Before the menu proper we received five amuse-bouches, and because Gert De Mangeleer is a millennial the first one was avocado, with tomato powder, salt and olive oil.

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Marinated cucumber strips curled around salmon with a jus of champagne and dill oil.

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Pork and pickles. There was a surprisingly large lump of meat under the pork scratching layer on top.

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Potato purée, vanilla, coffee and mimolette cheese. We’d had this one last time too.

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At this point we were invited into the kitchen (no special treatment: everyone had their turn) for a brief look at the prep work.

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While there we were handed our final amuse-bouche: passion fruit meringue containing goose liver and Coca-Cola.

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We were then invited to walk around the gardens with a glass of lemonade. As you can see it’s a serious herb and vegetable plot.

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The red tiled roof is the kitchen; the black low building is the restaurant.

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It was nice to get some fresh air, but it was quite fresh so we didn’t tarry and went back inside for the starters.

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Caviar and plankton on dill-dusted crisps.

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The sun came out just in time for the next dish: sea bass with herbs from the garden, tomatoes, radishes and oil infused with Balinese kaffir lime.

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Pumpkin dim sum with cream of langoustine and a dollop of passion fruit.

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Grilled white asparagus with potato purée and cod roe.

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Guinea fowl with herbs, sorrel and morel mushroom. Perhaps the most plate-lickable dish of the evening. The sauce was amazing.

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The main course: wagyu beef and spicy peppers hiding underneath mushroom discs. The orange blobs are Bernadine sauce (basically béarnaise but with added tomato).

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While my wife opted for the cheese plate I had raspberry mousse with vanilla and rose water.

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And finally, a surprisingly thick and chewy caramel sheet over passion fruit and chocolate.

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At the end of the meal one of the partners stopped by for a chat and discussed their future plans, which are still in flux, but which may include a more traditional Belgian-style bistro back in their initial location nearer Brugge. Whatever they do next, Hertog Jan will be missed, and I’m glad we got to go once, let alone three times.

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Piazza Duomo

Piazza Duomo is currently ranked 15th best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine. It’s located in the centre of the small Piemontese town of Alba. We arrived around 1pm and in view of the evening’s plans didn’t want a huge lunch, so we just stopped for a glass of wine and some nibbles.

The nibbles were slightly more copious than anticipated.

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We were staying a a room above the restaurant, so when we emerged ready for dinner all we had to do was walk a few metres down the corridor to a discreetly marked door into the restaurant.

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The next morning I discovered the main entrance around the corner.

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The dining room is small and very pink. Not overly keen on the murals, personally.

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Various menu options. We chose “degustazione +”, which added two surprise dishes to the normal tasting menu.

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I didn’t take many notes so don’t expect detailed descriptions. Think yourselves lucky I took photos. There was a spotlight behind me that cast irritating shadows of my phone onto the food, so I had to experiment with different angles to get anything usable. There was a selection of pre-starter starters. This was an intriguing savoury creme caramel.

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Some kind of sesame seed cracker.

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More crackers.

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Olives which are not really olives, as they’re made of small rolled lumps of, respectively, shrimp and veal.

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Another olive, this time flattened out and rolled up and filled with ricotta.

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An anchovie cracker.

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Chard sponge with a blob of tuna inside. Just slightly too big to get comfortably in the mouth in one bite.

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In the background, a foie gras mousse with ginger and grapefruit. In the foreground, a peanut cracker. God, this chef loves crackers, doesn’t he?

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The first proper, menu dish was a large selection of vegetables (plus a blob of fish: cod with yellow peppers and salsa verde). At top left are artichoke and avocado, and the salad at bottom left contains raschera cheese.

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Below is the only dish I really didn’t enjoy. Thin slices of raw sea urchin with tomato, water and gelatine. Sea urchin is a very strong flavour and not my favourite at the best of times, and serving it raw in gelatine only made matters worse. The name of the dish is “CapRiccio”, which is a multi-layered pun. “Riccio” is Italian for sea urchin, “capriccio” means caprice (as in pizza capricciosa) and thin slices of raw meat or fish are called “carpaccio”.

The name is more fun than the dish.

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It was accompanied by a blackened (yet soft in the mouth) bruschetta with calamari and sea urchin sauce, topped with dried seaweed. Much nicer.

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Next is the only dish for which I can confidently supply an exhaustive list of ingredients, because they gave it to us themselves. Chef Crippa’s signature dish is “Salad 21…31…41…51”, so named because it can contain anywhere up to 100 ingredients depending on the season and availability. 

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We were given a pair of tweezers with which to eat it, which makes sense as the leaves are so varied and distinct in their flavours that you need to try each one individually. The top layers were quite dry, but towards the bottom there was a light mandarine dressing. It looks quite small but there was a lot of interesting stuff in a compact and dense dish, and it took a while to get through it all. But it was probably the most interesting thing we ate all evening, and proof of the idea that food isn’t always about cooking and fancy methods as much as it’s about choosing great ingredients.

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By this point we were already pretty full, thanks to the vegetable selection and the epic salad. Thankfully the next courses were quite light.

Cod cooked at low temperature, in a cod reduction. With some flowers on top. Soft and creamy, but a little basic.

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Shrimp with spring onion and bisque. And flowers.

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Asparagus with béarnaise sauce. And flowers.

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Potato purée (very liquidy) with a dusting of Lapsang Souchong powder and a quail egg underneath.

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A surprisingly tough morsel of lamb hiding under a lettuce leaf, with some mushroom broth in the cup in the background.

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Wine.

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Another of our favourite dishes: risotto with parmesan cheese, caviar, mastic (a type of small black berry) and squid ink spray. Very yummy and I’d have happily sacrificed the lamb and cod courses in exchange for a larger portion of this.

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My notes run out here, but this is the final course and it’s not on the menu so it must have been one of the extra, surprise ones.

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The main dessert was a beautifully light, crunchy “crepe caramel”. Not too sweet.

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More dessert nibbles.

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And to go with your chocolates, a tiny bottle of vanilla milk and grappa.

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There are some very inventive things on this menu but maybe I’d have preferred a shorter meal focussed more on Crippa’s strengths (which appear to be vegetables and salad, interestingly), and without the underwhelming fish and meat courses. Probably the best way to do it would be to go à la carte and just have the starters and the mega-salad.

And some flowers.

Random Japanese curiosities

Last piece on Japan for a while, I promise. This one’s just a collection of stuff that wouldn’t fit neatly into a coherent, themed post.

Electricity cables in the UK were undergrounded (yes that is a verb) a while ago, but in Japan they’re still all out in the open on top of poles. An awful lot of them.

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Most of the cars I saw in Japan were this snub-nosed, compact and boxy type. The engine mut be pretty small.

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One of the large chains of booksellers in Japan is called “Book Off”, which doesn’t make it sound particularly welcoming. But this time I found out that they also sell secondhand hardware in a sister chain called “Hard Off”, which sounds even less family-friendly.

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This place, on the other hand, has the perfect name:

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At most shinto shrines you can write a wish on a wooden card and hang it up on a rack.

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A snack store in Harajuku pre-empted my own reaction to the description of its wares.

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Many of the clothes stores in Harajuku specialise in the Goth/Lolita/Alice In Wonderland fashion sub-culture, although this place seems to cater to even more obscure splinterings. “Qutie Frash”? Or maybe that’s the name of the brand? I didn’t go inside the check.

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Cat cafés. They’re a thing outside of Japan too now, and even Brussels has one. We visited one that specialised in Bengal cats and featured a faux jungle decor to complete the vibe.

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Another café in Kobe even offered an unique real/virtual cat combination.

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Other animals are available. We also saw ads for otter cafés, although a lot of these placed feature obviously doped animals, charge extortionate entrance fees and don’t even offer much in the way of coffee.

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Idiosyncratic use of English is another Japanese cliché, but this one in particular caught my eye. No way you’d get away with a magazine title like that in an English-speaking market.

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Finally, two videos. One of the famously busy pedestrian crosssing in Shibuya. I crossed it a few times and there was always a large number of people (including myself obviously) filming or photographing as they crossed. Some of them even stop to sit on the floor to get a selfie of the crowds swirling around them.

And on one occasion there was a very un-Japanese commotion as a car attempted to drive through the crowd at speed, right past me, honking its horn repeatedly. As it passed I noticed the guy in the passenger seat reclined, covered with a coat and with his eyes closed, which led me to the assumption that he was injured and his friend the driver was taking him to a hospital. Police gave chase on foot, and I think they managed to get it to stop just after the crossing but I never saw the conclusion so I don’t know if they arrested them or let them continue on their way once they’d established what was happening.

And here’s a minute of Japanese cityscape scrolling past a train window. I don’t know about you but I could watch this kind of thing all day.

Itadakemasu!

I’ve already blogged about food experiences in Japan, so I won’t repeat (m)any of those observations here. As before, this is a fairly random collection of foods and restaurants from our recent trip, with no overall theme or message.

One of the first places we ate in was chosen with the kids in mind, and the food was probably the least important part of the experience. Kawaii Monster Café is located in Harajuku, and is probably a perfect distillation of the kind of colourful, playful pop culture for which that Tokyo district is best known. It sits on the top floor of a shopping mall on the main street, and the queue to enter is usually quite long. I’d managed to book a table in advance and so we walked right in, and as soon as the doors opened the loudness (both in terms of music and colour) hit us right in the face.

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This should give a better idea:

In the centre of the room sits a cake-shaped podium. These ladies spend most of the time wandeing around, posing for photos with the diners, but once you’ve finished eating they climb aboard the cake and spend about 15 minutes dancing to loud J-pop songs. But even louder was the hostess who spent the almost the entire duration of their routine screeching into a microphone. I have no idea what she was saying but I don’t think I missed much of any importance.

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The food itself is colourful but bland. Basically fast food with added psychedelic colouring.

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Although I like the idea of a dessert that looks like it’s trying to eat you.

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Go for the novelty and the “vibe”, not the food.

Coffee is easy to find in Japan. Good coffee, not so easy. Even the Starbucks drinks taste a little different there, and when we were on the go I usually found it easier to just grab one from a machine. Kind of disgusting if you’re expecting it to taste like normal coffee, and usually very sweet, but I developed a bit of a habit nonetheless. Also, I know that in some places frappuccino is a thing, but Japan is the only place I’ve been where they systematically ask you when you order a coffee if you want it hot or cold.

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One drink they do well, obviously, is saké. At dinner one night we were served saké “sosogi-koboshi” style, which basically means that the glass is filled until it overflows into a little box underneath. The origins of this practice are shrouded in mystery and some people object to it for hygiene reasons. I didn’t object and greedily slurped it all up. Further explanations here.

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In the same restaurant the menu was an interesting read. There was some discussion about the difference between “guts” and “entrails”, and puzzlement over “entrails upwards”. My personal favourite is the contrast between danger and delicacy in the description “Shark cartilage dressed with plum pulp”.

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I also like number 10 below, which manages to be both very specific and frustratingly vague at the same time.

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I’ve written before about my appreciation for okonomiyaki, and in Hiroshima I got to try a local variation. Most of the recipe is the same, with savoury pancakes, shredded cabbage, some optional extras like bacon and cheese.

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But in Hiroshima they also add a layer of fried noodles in the middle, before topping it all with a brushful of that dark, sweet okonomi sauce.

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Sashimi is pretty.

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Especially when served in a mirrored bowl.

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Tempura too, although I’m more used to seeing shrimp and beans than these strangely formed mushrooms:

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Finally, we wandered one night just off the fringes of Shinjuku, into a neighbourhood of narrow lanes full of small bars and even smaller restaurants. We chose a ramen noodle bar.

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We were told to wait outside in the adjacent alleyway until some space freed up.

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Inside there was room for about ten diners. Note the tissue boxes above their heads.

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The options were limited and basically consisted of minor variations on a bowl of noodles topped with pork. Prices depended on the quality of pork used, and whether or not you wanted some extra toppings. The waiter punched your order into this machine and you paid by inserting cash. The priciest dish on the menu: the “Super Golden Unbelievable Niboshi Ramen”, is around €12.

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This picture behind the bar gave you some idea of what to expect. I’m sure it says lots of other things too but I can’t read kanji.

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Served with a large sheet of nori (pressed, dried seaweed). The broth was amazingly rich and tasty, the noodles slightly al dente (you could choose how soft or hard you wanted them when you placed your order). Very satisfying.

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Sakura

Sakura is a big deal in Japan. Sakura being the word for cherry blossom, that is. And they even have a word which specifically means ‘looking at cherry blossoms’: ‘hanami’.

Every year the progress of the blossoms across the country is obsessively tracked, trees are judged for the percentage of blossom, and large group outings are organised to the most photogenic spots. The last time we were in Japan, in 2008, we only caught the end of the display when it was starting to fade, but this time we got lucky and arrived at peak blossom. We also got to see something we’d missed the last time: night-time sakura.

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And of course when one is viewing sakura at night, one must celebrate with a glass of single serving ‘One Cup’ saké from the local convenience store.

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But daylight is probably still the best way to see the flowers, and again we got lucky with several days of warmth and sunshine. Local parks were packed.

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Photography is essential #hanami #sakura #nofilter

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“Quick, take a photo of me taking a photo of the sakura!”

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The next two photos were taken by my daughter.

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Large bins are provided to collect all the refuse generated by the wild partying. Some groups even picnic directly on these large plastic sheets, and then pick the whole thing up and dump it in here afterwards. TV news features rolling coverage of the extent of the blossoms and the size of the crowds.

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Although there’s always one straggler who’s reluctant to leave…

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4DX

This weekend I took the kids to the cinema to see Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. It was a fun adventure with lots of big laughs and a likeable cast.

But I made a mistake when buying the tickets. We were in a bit of a hurry to get in on time, so when the options came up on the ticket machine screen I just jabbed at “2pm” and paid. What I didn’t realise until we got into the room and took our seats was that I’d accidentally bought tickets for a 4DX screening.

4DX was launched in December 2017 at the Kinepolis cinema, and the first film screened in this format was The Last Jedi. I avoided it as I didn’t want any gimmicks distracting me from  the content of a cultural event as momentous and serious as a new Star Wars film. In case you’re wondering what 4DX is and how it affects the viewing experience, watch this:

I was intrigued to learn that the system was actually introduced by a company based in South Korea in 2009. After that it had a rather strange propagation: it spread first to Mexico, then South America, Thailand, Russia, Israel, and Europe starting in Hungary and Bulgaria. For some reason it only reached the US in 2014.

I’m the kind of person who only sees a film in 3D when there’s no 2D option, and I don’t particularly like rollercoasters or other kinds of theme park rides, so I wasn’t especially looking forward to this. And yet I was pleasantly surprised. Obviously it depends on what kind of film you’re watching, but a video-game-style action comedy like Jumanji suits this treatment pretty well.

It was interesting to see how and when the techniques were used, and to think how much work went in to preparing the chair movements and effects to coordinate precisely with the often frenetic on-screen action. When the film started we saw a slow track in towards an object on the floor, and the seats started to gently tip forward, as if you were physically leaning towards the object. This was pretty effective, although I did start to worry that if my seat was going to move constantly for two hours I’d feel nauseous by the end. But I got used to it pretty quickly, and they didn’t overdo the movement, only using it when most appropriate, such as when characters lean out over a cliff.

There were blasts of air when bullets and missles whizzed past our heads, the occasional mist or sprays of water when the heroes were on a river or diving into a waterfall, and strobe lights during storm sequences. During fight scenes we could feel the impacts in the back of our seats, and the backs of our legs were tickled when a character was dragged across the floor.

Perhaps the best use of seat movement was during a scene near the end when two characters kissed. As the camera circled them, the chairs tipped and banked, sucessfully creating the woozy, dizzy feel the camerawork was hinting at.

The kids loved it, and to be honest I wouldn’t rule out choosing this kind of screening again, depending obviously on the type of film.

 

 

 

Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens

There are many things to do in a town like Philadelphia, and a lot of them are based around historical monuments such as the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. Which is all well and good, but having seen those, I wanted something a little quirkier too. Much like Coral Castle near Miami, I often like to seek out the weirder little attractions, and in this spirit I decided to take us to the Magic Gardens I’d read about online. This is one man’s personal artistic expression made of concrete and junk like bottles and bicycle parts.

The ‘history‘ section of the gardens’ website describes how the artist Isaiah Zagar moved to the South Street neighborhood in the late 1960s with his wife, Julia.

“The couple helped spur the revitalization of the area by renovating derelict buildings and adding colorful mosaics on both private and public walls. The Zagars, teamed with other artists and activists, transformed the neighborhood into a prosperous artistic haven and successfully led protests against the addition of a new highway that would have eliminated South Street. This period of artistic rebirth was coined the “South Street Renaissance.” After the street was saved, Zagar continued creating mosaic murals, resulting in hundreds of public artworks over the next two decades.

In 1994, Zagar started working on the vacant lots located near his studio at 1020 South Street. He first constructed a massive fence to protect the area then spent years sculpting multi-layer walls out of found objects. In 2002, the Boston-based owner of the lots discovered Zagar’s installation and decided to sell the land, calling for the work to be dismantled. Unwilling to witness the destruction of the now-beloved neighborhood art environment, the community rushed to support the artist. After a two year legal battle, his creation, newly titled Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, became incorporated as a nonprofit organization with the intention of preserving the artwork at the PMG site and throughout the South Street region. Zagar was then able to develop the site even further; excavating tunnels and grottos while adding his signature mosaics to every surface.

In 2008, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens opened to the public”.

Once you’ve bought your tickets you exit the lobby directly into the gardens, which are flanked by a huge, wall-filling mosaic.

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There’s a sunken section filled with more mosaics, portraits, phrases and quotations, doll parts…

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I found myself switching between peering more closely at details, and stepping back to take in the scale of the place.

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There are secret tunnels.

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The many mirrored mosaics offer reflective selfie opportunities.

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There are a few other walls and vacant lots further down the street from the main site, and many of them feature this catchphrase declaring art to be the very essence of existence.

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Zagar has included a few self portraits dotted around the site, usually with four arms (to signify his polymathy?). He’s also usual naked.

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It’s a lovely place in which to get lost for an hour or so.