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.

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Volterra AD 1398

I’m a bit of a sucker for medieval fayres. Not sure why, as all the luxuriant beards and local artisans make it look a bit like history for hipsters. But it’s certainly photogenic, and the Italians do that aspect better than most. On a recent trip to Tuscany we stopped for a couple of nights in Volterra, in time for a two-day event called Volterra AD 1398. 

We started in the main square, watching some very energetic flag-twirling displays.

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Video, so you can better appreciate the twirliness:

Other parts look more like a BDSM convention.

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Love the curly beard – chain mail combo.

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The food’s usually good too, as long as you’re happy looking it in the face while you eat it.

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I opted for a cheesey sausage sandwich. The cheese melting technique was low tech but efficient.

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I had to pay with “grossi”. The exchange rate was one grosso to the Euro.

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Authentic 14th century doughnuts were also available.

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In addition to artisans, stallholders and performers there were plenty of people just wandering around in costume. Although maybe that was considered a kind of performance too.

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There was also a falconry display, although when I passed by all the raptors were resting.

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At first glance I thought this manuscript illuminator had an iPhone, but it turned out to be his palette.

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Others just sit there and soak up the attention.

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One thing seems sure: being medieval is really tiring.

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Return to Le Cor de Chasse

This trip wasn’t planned. We happened to be in the area and decided to take a visiting friend somewhere nice for lunch. Since the last time we went to Le Cor de Chasse seven years ago they’ve moved to a new location with a slightly larger dining area, but they still offer bedrooms and a nice garden to look at while you eat. I forgot to take any pictures of the decor, but there are some (surprisingly bad) photos on their site.

I liked these utensil holders, although surprisingly the forks weren’t always changed after every course, meaning I had to make sure I licked them clean. We were served by three different people during the meal (not necessarily a problem); one of them an older lady I remember from their previous establishment; two of them very young ladies, one of whom at one point left us a starter without explaining to us what it was. Apart from that service was fine.

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We chose the longest tasting menu, with wines. Amuse-bouches included cauliflower with dried herring crumbs.

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Mussels smothered with mascarpone and dried legume crumbs. Probably the best of the bunch.

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Rillettes with crunchy potato strips.

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And a daishi meringue with a shrimp tartare hiding underneath. This one was a bit bland.

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First proper course was one of the best: lobster with veal meatballs covered in vegetable ashes, beetroot, and melon balls. Surf ‘n’ turf!

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Of the wines, the best was undoubtedly this Verdejo from the north of Spain.

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At the top, crab; at the bottom, mackerel. Avocado blobs in the middle. Both nice, but the crab won on flavour.

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More mackerel, but this time with a burrata sorbet, chopped fennel and frozen raspberries. An intriguing combination, but the raspberries were too cold and hard for my liking.

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Trout with a kind of tomato mash and “Asian” soup (there was a hint of wasabi).

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The second best dish of the day: brocard (roe deer) with artichoke, spelt and yellow tomatoes. Tender meat and rich flavours. Although I gave my artichoke to my wife.

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Cheese trolley. The large jar in the middle is full of Liège syrup, which is gorgeous. Next time just leave us the jar and a spoon, ok?

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My selection. I can’t remember any of the names, but the one at far right was a soft, Camembert-style cheese covered with Calvados crumbs.

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And I loved the texture of this hard cheese.

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The first and best dessert: strawberries with a melt-in-the-mouth beetroot meringue.

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Apricot, yoghurt sorbet, little bits of fig and dark chocolate.

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Pineapple with white chocolate.

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And a few little coffee accompaniments. I liked the pink marshmallows.

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Pretty good overall with several outstanding dishes. We won’t wait another seven years before going back again.

Villa Lorraine

We’ve tried to go to Villa Lorraine three times (by the way, you may notice from their website that they also own Villa in the Sky). The first time we had to cancel because my wife was feeling unwell. The second time we had to cancel at the last minute because our car broke down on the way there. This time we both felt fit and well and so did our car, so we made it safe and sound.

Villa Lorraine has been around for a while, and somewhat like Comme Chez Soi its reputation stagnated a little in recent years, only to make a comeback following the appointment of a young new head chef. We arrived and were greeted by a rather elderly valet who insisted on parking our car for us even though we met him in the tiny car park behind the restaurant and he only had to move it a few metres for us into a parking space.

Once inside we chose the longest tasting menu, with wine, and sat back to enjoy the amuse-bouches. All were delicious. Squid ink cracker, foie gras

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Little fried dumplings of cauliflower and aioli.

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Sardine, avocat, vodka tonic.

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Gazpacho with cherries, a burrata sorbet and drops of oregano.

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Lobster, beetroot, crunchy little coffee-flavoured puffs.

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Frogs legs with pecorino and a cress cream.

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Sole with umeboshi (small Japanese pickled fruits) and apricot butter.

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Rabbit three ways, one of which was a slightly greasy, crunchy samosa.

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CHEESE! It’s been a while since I had a decent cheese selection from a trolley, and this one didn’t disappoint. The waiter explained what every single cheese was and then we chose five each. He laid them out on the plate in a specific order and told us to eat them clockwise. The sommelier said that we could have a glass of red wine with it, or if we were feeling daring we could go with his suggestion: saké. Of course I felt daring, and I was rewarded with a surprisingly flavourful and strong glass of saké.

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Sorbet with cardamom and orange.

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Strawberries with gold on them. And little floppy tubes full of cream.

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Nibbles to go with the coffee.

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Pretty good. Glad we finally made it. Although I think Villa in the Sky is probably a little better.

Laulupidu: Estonian Song Festival

Laulupidu is an event which takes place every five years in the Estonian capital Tallinn. There’s an overview of the history of the event here, and it’s deeply rooted in Estonian culture and their sense of national identity. It’s part of a weekend-long festival which incorporates dancing and choirs both adult and junior. We were there to watch our daughter, whose school choir had been accepted as participants.

The day started at 09:30 as all the choirs gathered in Freedom Square in the city centre. The bears arrived early.

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It was a grey day so many people came wearing transparent plastic ponchos, but the rain held off.

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The parade made its way through the centre of the city and down a wide road towards the festival grounds, about 5 kilometres away.

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Apart from the impromptu singing from some groups (other saved themselves for the actual concert) the main attraction for me were the traditional costumes.

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I wasn’t the only one taking photos.

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I’m not really sure what the large yellow ball signifies, but many people at the head of their group had them. There were choirs from all across Estonia present, plus some from Canada and the US.

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Several people had these large circular metallic brooches.

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That’s the Estonian flag. The colours represent sky, earth and snow.

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At the grounds themselves the crowds gathered. We had seats quite close to the front. Those on the slope in the background were standing or sitting on blankets.

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And there are the singers. Thousands of them.

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There was a brief ceremony at the start with an Olympic-style torch.

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And then the singing started. For the first few songs everyone sang together, which made quite an impression.

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Then some left the stage and a certain number of children’s choirs (including my daughter) sang five or six songs, all in Estonian. here are extracts from my favourite two.

 

 

 

Although this kind of event can never have the same significance or emotional charge for someone not raised in that culture, it’s still powerful and moving to see and hear that many people singing in harmony. If that whet your appetite, you can see full coverage of the parade and the concert on the website of the national TV broadcaster.

Tallinn stories

The title is a lie. I don’t have any stories about Tallinn, just photos. But you know me: I like bad puns.

Anyway, Tallinn is a lovely place to spend a weekend. The exceptionally well-preserved historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here’s the town hall in the main square.

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And here are some crazy, thrill-seeking Estonians sitting on a sloping roof in the main square.

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That’s Olde Hansa on the left, a medieval-themed restaurant which is actually less tacky than it sounds. Decent food, too.

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Dragon-gargoyles on the town hall.

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There are lots of guild halls and merchant houses in the lower town, many dating from the 13th-14th century when Tallinn (known as Reval in those days) was part of the Hanseatic League.

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The nobles used to live in the upper town, which has a nicer view.

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Apart from anything else it was handy for seeing when another ferry-load of Finnish tourists had arrived.

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Just outside the old city walls, across the road and behind the train station (only a ten minute walk) is the achingly hip area of Telliskivi. An old abandoned industrial zone, this is now home to ‘creative’ types and their media start-up offices, coffee bars, eateries and live music venues. There are lots of nice murals.

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And the inevitable trash rodents.

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A little farther north is another area being prettied up with murals and new apartments and restaurants. The neighbourhood of Kalamaja used to be home to fishermen and their families. There’s still a small harbour with a regular fish market, and some of the old wooden houses still survive, although there’s a lot of new construction going on.

Murals abound here too.

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The chimney on the right is part of an old chemical factory where Tarkovsky shot scenes for his film Stalker back in the early ’70s. Now it’s being converted into a cultural centre.

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That’s Tallinn. It’s the kind of town where ancient and modern co-exist.

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More photos here.

Cococo

Although we were only in St. Petersburg for a few nights we managed to squeeze in Russian, Azeri and Armenian dining experiences. Probably the fanciest and most memorable was Cococo. Located in a hotel and owned by Sergey Shnurov, aka “Shnur” of the famed ska-punk band Leningrad, this is reputedly the best restaurant in town.

Here’s the view from our table back towards the bar.

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And looking in the other direction we could see the kitchen, behind this richly decorated sliding door.

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Our dining companion went à la carte, while my wife and I took the “classics” tasting menu.

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First up, salmon ice cream. Very smooth and creamy, and very salmony. I could have eaten a much larger one (the scoop was barely a mouthful).

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A little tart filled with cottage cheese, mackerel and baked beetroot. Russians really seem to like beetroot and use it a lot (as you will soon see). The cream on top is made from peas, if I recall correctly. Behind it is a cream-filled “buckwheat nut”.

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As at White Rabbit, the bread and butter was served as its own separate course.

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Here’s the butter. Can you guess what the red dust on top is? Beetroot, of course.

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Roast beetroot salad with Circassia cheese. Our friend had this as her starter on her shorter menu, and we were a little surprised to be given the same size portion as her. It was lovely, but perhaps half this size would have been enough considering that it’s part of lengthy tasting menu.

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Mushroom consommé, wild boar dumplings, smoked sour cream. Dumplings are another Russian staple and the sour cream set off the gamey flavour nicely.

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Fun presentation of the next dish. Of the two choices we snubbed the cod and went for the more rustic-sounding buckwheat porridge with porcini mushrooms and stewed beef cheeks. The axe at right is actually a piece of moulded and dyed butter on a stick, which you use to stir the porridge until the butter melts.

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Pre-dessert: sugared cranberries.

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Not our dessert; our friend saw a photo of this on the website and booked the table almost on that basis alone (plus a colleague’s recommendation). Yes, it’s supposed to be broken, and it’s made of chocolate and the whole thing is edible (except the wooden board underneath, I think).

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With our menu we got “cococorn”, which is a pot of small scoops of popcorn-flavoured ice cream.

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Followed by a tea-flavoured jelly shaped like a rooster.

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Pretty impressive overall, and at around €40 for the whole menu, amazing value.