Tag: Art

Art, Transformed

Art, Transformed

I was only two weeks away from my first solo trip to Paris when I stumbled across an online mention of an immersive art experience called Atelier des Lumieres (Workshop of Lights). From what I could gather, it was some sort of show featuring the art of Vincent Van Gogh.

I’m not a huge fan of Van Gogh, but I appreciate his “Starry Night” and “Sunflowers” as much as the next person. I’ve even seen a couple of his works in person. So I really didn’t get too excited about this art thing. After all, I had set aside an entire day for the Louvre… how could this possibly compare?

But then I kept seeing rave reviews about Atelier des Lumieres and FOMO kicked in. If that many people liked it, I reasoned, then surely I should go see it. You know, for the blog. So I ponied up the $16 or so and made my reservation. (As an aside, I’d like to remind you that I pay for all of my own travels. In the event that I am offered a complimentary admission/lodging/meal when traveling, I will disclose that up front.)

So… what is this art thingy, anyway?

In all of the rave reviews that I saw, not once did I find someone who could really explain what the Atelier des Lumieres experience was, exactly. And, believe me, I looked! So now I find myself in the same unenviable position as those who have reviewed it… trying to put into words something that, for the most part, defies description.

My goal here is to give you a realistic expectation of what the experience is like and to encourage you to check it out if you are in Paris. It truly is a phenomenal, unique experience.

The Immersive Art Experience

Upon arrival, you enter the lobby of the building, which is bustling with activity. You may have to wait a few moments, as they only allow guests to enter in between shows. Then, when the time is right, you will pass through a doorway into a very large, open, and dark space.

Take a moment for your eyes to adjust, and (if you want) look for a place to sit. There aren’t a lot of seating options, and if you really want to sit during the show, you may have to just find a spot on the floor. However, don’t despair if you can’t snag a seat right away. Most people will move around during the show, vacating their seats at some point.

As the show begins, you will see works of art displayed on the walls and floors while music plays. You won’t see dust particles swirling in a beam of light from a projector. You won’t see shadows cast by objects that have come between the image source and the wall. But thankfully, you will be too mesmerized to think about where the images are coming from, or how they are displayed so seamlessly. That’s something that you will ponder afterward.

Act 1: Van Gogh, Starry Night

Rather than keep the big name artist until the end, Atelier des Lumieres starts their show with the works of Vincent Van Gogh.

It begins with music, loud enough to keep you from being distracted by the sounds of others’ conversation, but not uncomfortably loud. The songs are about as varied as you can imagine. Some were fast-paced, some slow; some in English, some in (I assume) French; some relatively modern and others from decades past.

The pictures begin to appear, larger than life, on the walls and the floors. One of the first images I saw was this haunting self-portrait of Van Gogh, painted in 1889. Seeing it in a gallery is one thing. Seeing it larger than life in front of you, eyes fixed on you, is quite another.

There are a couple of things I’d like to point out about this picture. First, notice the scale of the space in comparison to the two people who walked into the frame. Second, as previously mentioned, the art was projected not just on the walls, but also on the floor. Third, the round-ish wall on the right of the picture has a completely different image, which is why it’s best if you don’t stay in just one spot to enjoy this immersive art experience.

As I mentioned, I appreciate Van Gogh’s works, like his Sunflowers, which I saw at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And while I tend to be the old school purist who says things like, ” Nothing can compare to standing in front of it and seeing it with your own eyes,” I would have been unequivocally wrong in this case. I saw an Gogh’s sunflowers in a while new light:

Sunflowers by Van Gogh at Atelier des Lumieres in Paris

Or perhaps you prefer irises to sunflowers?

The colors are intense. Music heightens the mood. The size and scale of the art is nearly overwhelming. Put all that together and you have a completely immersive art experience like no other. But as if that weren’t enough, Atelier des Lumieres adds animation to the mix:

The pictures come to life before your eyes! Birds fly, waves move, raindrops fall. It feels as though you are not looking at a painting, but rather standing inside it!

The Van Gogh portion of the experience ends with the soulful sounds of the 1965 hit, “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” by the Animals. It couldn’t have been more appropriate for a man who struggled with mental illness for most of his life. The final image of Act 1 was simply the artist’s signature.

Vincent Van Gogh's signature, the final image of the Starry Night portion of Atelier des Lumieres' immersive art experience.

Act 2: Dreamed Japan, Images of the Floating World

The next act took us from 19th century Europe to ancient Japan. It started with images of nighttime in a forest, with fireflies illuminating the space. Then kimono-clad figures appeared, gradually dissolving into the night.

We left the forest and traveled underwater, entertained by all sorts of aquatic life. They floated and swam past us, and seemed to watch us every bit as intently as we were watching them.

The scene transformed, and suddenly we were standing inside a shoji – a Japanese structure with paper walls. Two women were there, a teapot and cups on the floor by their feet.

Ancient Japanese warriors also appeared on the walls. Their facial expressions cracked me up, because in some cases it seemed as though they were scowling at the spectators.

Two of Japan’s most iconic cultural symbols came to life through the magical animation of Atelier des Lumieres. First, the ornately decorated hand fans, opening and closing in graceful sweeps of motion:

Second, the beautifully illuminated paper lanterns that float up into the night sky at a lantern festival.

Act 3: Verse

“Verse,” presumably short for Universe, is a piece created specifically for the Atelier des Lumieres. Bursts of light against a black background make you feel like you’re floating through space.

In all honesty, I didn’t like this segment of the immersive art experience as much as I did the other two. I didn’t even take any pictures. For me, the appeal of the Atelier des Lumieres is primarily seeing familiar things in a brand new way. The art showcased in Verse was not familiar to me, and seemed to be more of a movie than an experience. Which is not to say that it wasn’t well done or beautiful to look at. It simply lacked the excitement that the other two possessed.

Bottom Line

By all means, if you are in Paris, go see the Atelier des Lumieres. It’s an amazing, completely immersive art experience like nothing else. I highly recommend it for anyone!

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My Notre Dame Cathedral Tour: 11 Days Before the Fire

My Notre Dame Cathedral Tour: 11 Days Before the Fire

On Monday, April 15, I returned to work after taking nearly two weeks off for my first solo trip – to Paris. I emailed my co-workers to let them know that I had brought a box of Parisian chocolates and some other souvenir trinkets for them.

Around mid-day, one co-worker emailed me back. He wasn’t in the office but had checked his work email from home. Did you hear about what is happening in Paris? he wanted to know.

I had no idea what was going on in Paris, so I Googled it. And my mouth fell open when I saw the news that Notre Dame Cathedral was on fire. Nothing could have prepared me to see the iconic church set ablaze while millions watched, helpless. Especially since I had been there just eleven days earlier.

But that wasn’t my first time visiting Notre Dame cathedral…

1984: My First Notre Dame Cathedral Tour

Notre Dame Cathedral Tour 1984 - I thought I was heading to the toilet and ended up atop the cathedral.

This photo was taken in April 1984, when I took a trip to Paris with our high school’s French Club. Now, I wasn’t studying French… I was taking Spanish. But they needed extra people to go on the trip, and because my Spanish teacher considered me “gifted” with foreign languages, I got to go. Even though the only French I knew was basically “oui” and “non.”

Part of the pre-departure lecture my parents gave me was to make sure that I got lots of pictures of me in front of “French things”. At the time I rolled my eyes and thought that was just silly. However, I’m glad I followed their instructions. This picture alone is worth it. Here’s why:

It was our first day in Paris and we attended mass at Notre Dame cathedral. Jet lagged and confused by all the French (or maybe it was Latin – I couldn’t tell), I nearly fell asleep during the service. When it ended, the teacher ushered us outside and began speaking to us in French. I’d venture to guess that everyone knew what she was saying except for me. I assumed by the vigorous head nodding and enthusiastic responses of “oui!” that she had asked if anyone needed to go to the bathroom. I certainly did! So I too nodded my head and said “oui” like everyone else.

Off we marched, back inside the cathedral, up a stone staircase that twisted and turned. Up, up, up. Imagine my surprise when we emerged not near a public bathroom, but at the top of the cathedral!

So, dutiful to my parents’ instructions, I had a friend snap this picture. I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m sneering a little because (a) I still needed to go pee, (b) I’m afraid of heights, and (c) the gargoyles were really quite creepy. For the rest of my time in Paris, I made sure that I understood the question before I said, “oui.”

35 Years Later…

On this trip to Paris, I flew from Newark NJ to Zurich and then from Zurich to Paris. Unfortunately, my luggage stopped in Zurich and didn’t accompany me to the City of Lights.

I usually travel with only a carry on – a practice to which I will now return! – and I was at a loss as to how to proceed without all of my stuff. The way I saw it, I had two options. I could hole up in my Airbnb and stay there until the courier brought my luggage. Or I could get over the jet lag, then go ahead and see the sights as I had originally planned.

After a two hour nap and a bit of a meltdown with an emotional call to Hubs at home, I decided upon the second option. After all, I had a plan for every day of my trip and missing one day would throw all of my other plans off kilter.

The next morning, I awoke rested and determined to not let a thing like missing luggage derail my vacation. After getting a call that my luggage would arrive around 2:00 in the afternoon, I headed off to see Sainte Chapelle, Notre Dame, and the Deportation Memorial. All were located on Île de la Cité, one of two islands in the Seine River in Paris.

I’ll cover Sainte Chapelle and the Deportation Memorial in separate blog posts. Today, in light of the devastating fire that recently took place, I want to focus on Notre Dame Cathedral.

2019: My Second Notre Dame Cathedral Tour

Almost as soon as I arrived, the bells of Notre Dame started ringing:

As you can see, it was a beautiful day – all blue skies and sunshine. I stood outside the cathedral and took in all of the amazing architectural details.

Thought to be on the former site of a Roman temple to Jupiter, Notre Dame Cathedral has stood in Paris for over 850 years. Until the completion of the Eiffel Tower in 1889, the massive towers of Notre Dame were the tallest structure in the city of Paris (226 feet high).

I wish I could find a statistic for how many figures are carved into the stone facade of this amazing piece of Gothic architecture. Let’s just say a lot. But there’s a good reason for that. The cathedral is an example of a liber pauperum, or a “poor people’s book”, covered with sculptures that vividly illustrate biblical stories. During the era in which the cathedral was built, the vast majority of parishioners were illiterate. The only way they could learn about biblical stories was by looking at the figures carved into the church building.

For instance, if you face the towers of the cathedral, you will find above the middle doorway a vivid portrayal of the Final Judgment:

Notre Dame Cathedral Tour - the iconography of the central portal shows a vivid depiction of the Final Judgment.

Jesus sits on his throne in Heaven. Beneath his feet there are two figures holding scales. On the left is the archangel Michael; on the right, Satan. Each side of the scale holds a person whose life is being judged. Those who have been condemned are being led away by a demon on the right hand side.

The stained glass windows at Notre Dame are just beautiful. There are three circular “rose” windows, and the one on the west facade over the Final Judgment scene is the smallest. That said, the window still measures over 31 feet in diameter. From the outside of the church, you can see three figures in front of the rose window: the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus, and an angel on either side of her.

My Notre Dame Cathedral Tour - The Virgin Mary and two angels stand in front of the cathedral's smallest rose window on the western facade.

Below the window you will find statues of the 28 kings of Judah in “The Gallery of Kings”. During the French Revolution, rebels thought that the statues represented the kings of France. As a result, the angry French citizens lobbed off the heads of the statues. Fortunately, the statues have been restored, and you can see some of the old heads at the Cluny Museum in Paris.

While I stood there admiring the cathedral’s exterior, I started to notice some odd details that I might have overlooked if I hadn’t paused to take it all in. For instance, this poor fellow:

When taking a Notre Dame Cathedral tour, be sure to study the figures carved on the outside of the building.
I’m not sure who this king is, but a much larger man is standing on him!

Inside the Cathedral

As stunning as the outside of Notre Dame is, though, its real beauty lies within.

As with most Gothic cathedrals, Notre Dame has chapels on each side of the building. These alcoves, dedicated to saints, can hold some of the most beautiful artwork found inside the church building. For instance, a memorial to the 14th century heroine, Joan of Arc:

Notre Dame Cathedral tour - statue of Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc)
Statue of Joan of Arc

I especially liked this memorial, dedicated to Denis Auguste Affre, the Archbishop of Paris from 1840 to 1848. The phrase inscribed above his head translates to “May my blood be the last shed”.

Memorial to Denis Auguste Affre

Affre was led to believe that his personal involvement in the June Days uprising of 1848 could lead to peace between the French military and the insurgents. Mounting the military’s barricade, he waved a branch as a symbol of peace and began to speak. Insurgents heard some shots and suspected a betrayal, so they opened fire upon the National Guard. A stray bullet hit Affre, and he died two days later.

In another spot, there was a model depicting the construction of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Notre Dame cathedral tour - model of cathedral's construction

The 14th century wall separating the choir from the main walkway of Notre Dame was decorated with stunning detail.

This scene shows Jesus with the apostles. the inscription, in Latin, says “Christ appears to the Apostles near Lake Tiberias” (Lake Tiberias = the Sea of Galilee). This scene constituted only a small portion of the scenes depicting the life of Jesus.

One massive piece of statuary that caught my eye was the mausoleum of the Earl of Harcourt:

Cancre [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Note that there are four figure here. An angel carelessly holding a torch, a woman kneeling as if pleading to someone, a man who appears to be coming out of a coffin, and a hooded skeleton holding an hourglass in his bony hand.

I read that this memorial’s name/theme was Conjugal Meeting. The angel has lifted the lid on the Count’s sarcophagus, and he has risen. The skeleton, AKA Death, is holding an hourglass to symbolize that the Countess’ time has come. The Countess is reaching out toward her husband and Death as if she is ready to join them. (She outlived her husband by ten and a half years.) It was beautiful and tragic all at the same time.

On a Notre Dame Cathedral tour, be sure to look for the three rose windows of stained glass.
The South Rose Window, one of three in Notre Dame Cathedral.

The south rose window was constructed in 1260, and most of the original thirteenth century stained glass is still intact, even after last week’s tragic fire. Larger than the west rose window that I wrote about earlier, this one measures more than 42 feet across. Unlike the north rose window, which features Old Testament prophets and kings, this one is dedicated to the New Testament.

The center medallion features Jesus reigning as King in Heaven. The sixteen panels beneath the south rose window feature the prophets of the Bible. The four center panels depict the great Old Testament prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) carrying the four New Testament evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) on their shoulders.

From outside the cathedral, the south rose window looks like this:

A Notre Dame Cathedral tour offers glimpses of the church's three rose windows - from inside and outside the building.
The south end of Notre Dame’s transept, featuring the south rose window.

You can see the church spire sticking up above the roof in this photo. Sadly, the spire was completely destroyed by the fire.

At the very back of the Cathedral, I found a small area with the most venerated holy relic in France: the Crown of Thorns.

The Crown of Thorns display, as seen on my Notre Dame Cathedral Tour

The crown of thorns, worn by Jesus at the time of his crucifixion, has been in the possession of the French since 1238, when the Emperor of Constantinople gave it to King Louis IX.

King Louis IX had the cathedral of Sainte Chapelle built to receive and hold the crown of thorns and other holy relics. The crown stayed at Sainte Chapelle until the French Revolution, at which point authorities hid it at a different location. From 1806 until the fire, it was located in Notre Dame cathedral.

The reliquary holding the crown of thorns is in the case that you see between the candles in the above picture. A semi-translucent sheet of bright red material (resembling a cascade of blood) hangs over it. Through it, you can just make out the circular outline of the reliquary.

Inside the reliquary, the crown of thorns is actually thorn-less. Some 70 thorns were removed and distributed to holy sites across the world over the centuries, leaving just a band of rushes for this reliquary. One of the thorns was inside the rooster that sat atop the Notre Dame spire. The day after the fire, someone found the rooster in the rubble … dented but intact.

On the first Friday of every month at 3:00 p.m., the time of Jesus’ death, the faithful attend a special “veneration of the crown” church service.

Conclusion

The fire at Notre Dame Cathedral was certainly tragic, but it could have been much worse. I am so thankfully that I was able to see the beautiful building and all of its treasures before the fire took place. I am looking forward to the day when I hear that the cathedral has been fully restored and rebuilt. Until then, I will cherish the memories of my Notre Dame Cathedral Tour!

My Scotland Bucket List

My Scotland Bucket List

Scotland Top Ten

Last week, someone on Quora asked me what places I would visit in Scotland if there were no restrictions on how long I could be there or how much money I could spend.  I came up with a list so fast, I started thinking maybe Scotland needs to be at the top of my “Places I Need to Go” list.  And what’s not to love about a country whose national animal is the unicorn? Here’s my Scotland Top Ten list:

1. Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye

Okay, if I had to pick just one area instead of ten, the Isle of Skye would probably be it. There’s just something about a sparsely populated island that I find intriguing. Maybe it’s the unspoiled landscapes, maybe it’s the chance to have a large area to yourself for a while, maybe it’s the feeling that your place in the universe isn’t so tiny and inconsequential after all. Whatever it is, I can’t get enough of islands like that, and Skye is especially beautiful.

Scotland Top Ten: Dunvegan Castle looks out over the water.Image via Flickr by Bea y Fredi

Dunvegan Castle covers ten different building periods from 1200 to the 1850s. It consists of a series of five separate buildings, each with its own unique character and story to tell. The remote setting of the castle, coupled with its backdrop of sky, mountains and sea, make it a must-see.

Visitors may see one of the castle’s most cherished heirlooms of clan MacLeod – the Fairy Flag. The exact origins have been lost in time, but most say that the flag was given to an ancient clan chieftain by the fairies. Stories of how the flag has brought luck to the family are legendary, dating from before the 15th century up through World War II. It has been credited with the ability to:

  1. multiply a clan’s military forces
  2. save the lives of certain clanfolk
  3. cure a plague on cattle
  4. increase the chances of fertility
  5. bring herring into the loch at Dunvegan.

The fabric of the flag is silk; specifically silk from the Far East. Some theories hold that the flag was brought home by a clansman who had fought in the Crusades. Today, the flag is in very fragile condition but can be seen in the drawing room of Dunvegan Castle.

2. Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye

Scotland Top Ten: Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye are truly magical places.
Image via Flickr by evocateur.

Who hasn’t seen these amazing images of fairy pools on Pinterest or Instagram? Well, the good news is that they are FOR REAL and fairly accessible. To get there, you will need to hike through the Glen Brittle forest. The water flows between pools with waterfalls of various shapes and sizes. Idyllic!  On a sunny day, the turquoise waters of the natural pools are so clear, it’s easy to see the stones at the bottom. After a good rain, the water rushes along at a brisk pace. Visitors could attempt to swim in the fairy pools, but most accounts say that the water is quite cold.

3. Culloden, in the Highlands

I have Diana Gabaldon to thank for my semi-obsessive fascination with the Scottish Highlands. It’s difficult to resist the temptation to travel there once you’ve read her Outlander series of books or seen the associated television show.  The landscape has contrasting qualities that make it mysteriously enticing… at once beautiful and brutal, welcoming and harsh, refined and barbaric.

Scotland Top Ten: The battlefield at Culloden is a must for anyone interested in Scottish history.
Image via Flickr by nicksarebi

On 16 April 1746, the final Jacobite Rising came to a head in one of the bloodiest battles in British history… the battle of Culloden. Jacobite supporters, seeking to restore the Stuart monarchy to the British thrones, gathered to fight the Duke of Cumberland’s troops. In less than an hour, around 1,500 men were slain – more than 1,000 of them Jacobites.

The Culloden Visitor Centre beside the battlefield featuers artifacts from both sides of the battle and interactive displays that reveal the background to the conflict. It’s worth noting that this site commemorates a tragic event in Scottish history – one that changed Scotland forever. Visitors should keep that in mind by maintaining a solemn and respectful manner when at the site.

4. The Enchanted Forest event near Pitlochry, Perthshire

Scotland Top Ten: The woods come to life at the Enchanted Forest event in Pitlochry
Image via Flickr by J McSporran

Described as a premier sound and light event, the Enchanted Forest has won many awards in the UK. Last year, the show was sold out with 73,000 attendees. This year they are selling 80,000 tickets and will likely sell out again.

Each year the festival has a theme, and partners with local charities to benefit from the income it generates. It runs for about a month in the fall, and takes place in the evening. Visitors walk through Faskally Wood, which is transformed into a magical place by music, colorful lighting, and interactive special effects. You can expect to spend 60-90 minutes enjoying the show, but are welcome to stay longer if you would like.

5. Dunottar Castle Ruins, Aberdeenshire

Scotland Top Ten: Dunottar Castle sits in ruins on a clifftop in northeastern Scotland.
Photo by John Roberts on Unsplash

The castle is in ruins, but it’s so dramatic and romantic I still feel a need to see it in person. The oldest part of Dunnottar Castle still standing is the late 14th century keep. However, a chapel and other fortifications stood on the site at least 100 years earlier than that. We know this because in 1296 Scottish hero William Wallace killed an entire English garrison inside the castle with only a handful of men.

One of Dunnottar’s other significant places in history is that it was the hiding place for Scotland’s Crown Jewels after Charles II’s coronation in 1651. Within a year, Dunnottar was under siege by English troops. Six women smuggled the jewels out of the castle to safety, pledging to throw the jewels into the sea rather than see the English get their hands on them. Today, the Honours of Scotland are the oldest surviving set of crown jewels in the British Isles.

History aside, though… look at that view! I can’t wait to stand there and take it all in.

6. The Royal Scotsman train

Scotland Top Ten: Ride the Royal Scotsman on the line from Perth to Inverness at Dalnaspidal, nr Dalwhinnie, Badenoch and Strathspey, Scotland
Photo courtesy of Belmond.

Travel is a wonderful experience to be sure, but the actual mechanics of getting from A to B often leave a lot to be desired. Cramped seats on a budget airline, rental cars that are unfamiliar, crowded subways. Blech. I have a not-so-secret desire to travel in first class style so I can actually enjoy the journey as well as the destination. There’s no better way to do this than by riding the Royal Scotsman train, operated by Belmond.

The rail cars, which run April-October, are outfitted in mahogany and Edwardian elegance. Each journey carries no more than 36 guests and 12 staff.  With those numbers, you can be certain that you will be treated like royalty. The observation car even has a veranda that you can step out on to watch the scenery pass by. This palace on wheels even has a spa car! During the day you will enjoy excursions throughout the Scottish Highlands, and in the evening you will relax to a fine gourmet dinner. Meals and beverages are included in your fare, but it carries a hefty price: roughly $5750 for a three day journey or a whopping $13,000 for a seven day journey – and that’s per person.

Oh well, I can still dream, can’t I?

7. Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

If you fly to Scotland, the chances are good that you will fly into Edinburgh, the capital city. Just a word of warning. The latter half of this city’s name is pronounced nothing like the US city of Pittsburgh. It is somewhere between Edin-burrow or Edin-brah. I usually use the former pronunciation.  As long as you don’t say Edin-burg, I think you’ll be fine.

So, what is there to see in this Scottish city?  Plenty! But the thing that appeals to me most is the Royal Military Tattoo.

Scotland Top Ten: The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is a must for anyone who loves pageantry.
Image via Flickr by DVIDSHUB

Now, this tattoo has nothing at all to do with needles and ink. The term “tattoo” derives from a 17th-century Dutch phrase doe den tap toe (“turn off the tap”) a signal to tavern owners each night, played by a regiment’s Corps of Drums, to turn off the taps of their ale kegs so that the soldiers would retire to their lodgings at a reasonable hour. With the establishment of modern barracks and full military bands later in the 18th century, the term “tattoo” was used to describe the last duty call of the day, as well as a ceremonial form of evening entertainment performed by military musicians.

Each performance begins with a fanfare, which is usually a piece of music composed specifically for that year’s show. The Massed Pipes and Drums then perform, marching through the gatehouse of the castle and performing a traditional pipe band set. Then, the show’s featured acts perform individually. These acts could be either civilian or military. Whatever they are, you can bet that you will be entertained! The show concludes with a fireworks spectacular at each performance.

8. Up Helly Aa Festival in Lerwick, Shetland

Scotland Top Ten: The Up Helly Aa fire festival in the Shetland Islands is like none other in the world.
Image via Flickr by Vicky Brock

You’re watching a horde of fur-clad Vikings marching through the streets carrying torches. You might think you’ve suddenly traveled through time, but a more likely explanation is that you’re in Lerwick, Shetland on the last Tuesday in January.

Groups dress in costumes and carry torches through the town. At the end, they throw their torches into a replica Viking longship, resulting in a massive bonfire. Then the groups visit local halls to attend private parties. At the hall, each group performs an act, which may be a send-up of a popular TV show or film, a skit on local events, or singing or dancing.

9. The Glasgow Necropolis

Scotland Top Ten: The Glasgow Necropolis is a Victorian cemetery situated on top of a hill.
Image via Flickr by p_a_h

As I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog, I love old cemeteries. This one in Glasgow, the name of which means City of the Dead, is situated on a hilltop. Over 50,000 people are buried there, but only 3500 or so of the burial sites are marked. A monument to John Knox, leader of the Scottish Reformation, stands near the summit of the hill, surrounded by some of the larger memorials. If it seems odd to put a monument in a cemetery, I would agree; however, the monument predates the cemetery, not vice versa.

Among the graves you will find in the Necropolis is the grave of William Miller, also known as Laureate of the Nursery. He is the author of the “Wee Willie Winkie” nursery rhyme.

10. The Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Dumfries

Scotland Top Ten: The Snail Mound and the Snake Mound in the Garden of Cosmic Speculation.
Image via Flickr by yellow book

Sadly, this site is only open one day a year, so I would have to plan my travels carefully. The Garden of Cosmic Speculation is a 30 acre sculpture garden that is inspired by science and mathematics. The owner, Charles Jencks, says that “the garden uses nature to celebrate nature, both intellectually and through the senses, including the sense of humor. A water cascade of steps recounts the story of the universe, a terrace shows the distortion of space and time caused by a black hole, a ‘Quark Walk’ takes the visitor on a journey to the smallest building blocks of matter, and a series of landforms and lakes recall fractal geometry.”

It’s such a unique place, I would love to be able to see it someday!

What about you?

Have you visited any of these places? Would you add any to my list? Let me know in the comments section below!

 

Scotland Top Ten: Places You Should Visit in Scotland Before You Kick the Bucket
Top Ten Places to See in Uruguay

Top Ten Places to See in Uruguay

Why Uruguay?

I’ve had an interest in Uruguay since my college days, when I represented Uruguay in a model OAS. In doing my research on the small South American country, I discovered it was an often overlooked but quite extraordinary country. Its neighbors, Argentina and Brazil, get all the attention (and tourism), but Uruguay has quite a lot to offer its visitors. Here’s my Uruguay Top Ten list:

1. Montevideo

No visit to Uruguay would be complete without spending some time in its vibrant capital city. Take a stroll along La Rambla, the ten mile promenade that separates the city proper from the sea. While you’re doing that, cross over La Rambla and spend some time enjoying one of the city’s beautiful beaches.

Uruguay Top Ten: No visit to Montevideo would be complete without strolling along La Rambla.
Photo of La Rambla & beach in Montevideo via Flickr by Andre S Ribeiro

If history and architecture interest you, go to Plaza Independencia and from there explore the older part of the city. Be sure to look for the old city walls and gate! And for more on Montevideo history – as well as outstanding views over the city – be sure to visit Fortaleza del Cerro a military fortress-turned-museum located at the highest point of the city.

2. Hot Springs Near Salto

The Guaraní Aquifer, one of the largest groundwater reservoirs in the world, is located in northwestern Uruguay near the city of Salto. In Uruguay, this water system has temperatures ranging between 100º and 115°.

As a result of their high mineral content, the hot springs are ideal for relaxing baths and also digestive remedies. The area has capitalized upon this by improving infrastructure and supporting the development of many hot spring resorts.

Uruguay Top Ten: The Hot Springs near Salto make for a relaxing swim.
Photo of Termas del Arapey via Flickr by todo tiempo pasado fue mejor 

After enjoying the water, stroll through Salto, which is the second most populated city in Uruguay. The downtown area is full of historic monuments, shops, interesting architecture, and cafes. Other attractions in Salto include a zoo, a water park, and a riverside walking path.

3. La Mano en la Arena

This literally translates to A Hand in the Sand.  And that’s exactly what it is. Located on the popular Punta del Este beach (see below), it is a sculpture of five fingers emerging from the sand.

Uruguay Top Ten: See the hand in the sand at the popular Punta del Este beach.
Photo of La Mano By CoolcaesarOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal made the sculpture in the summer of 1982. He sought to make a sculpture of a hand “drowning” as a warning to swimmers. In fact, the sculpture is also known as Monumento al Ahogado (Monument to the Drowning Man). The artist made three replicas of the sculpture – one is in the Atacama Desert in Chile, one is in Madrid, and the third is in Venice.

4. Casapueblo

Casapueblo is a sprawling, vivid white estate near Punta del Este. Originally, Casapueblo served as a a summer house and workshop of the Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró. Today, the building houses a museum, an art gallery, a cafeteria and a hotel.

Uruguay Top Ten: Casapueblo is an artist's former home with a stunningly unique design.
Photo of Casapueblo via Flickr by pviojo

Built of whitewashed cement and stucco, the building may remind you of the architecture seen in Santorini, Greece. The artist said that he drew inspiration from the nest of the Hornero, a South American bird known for building mud nests with chambers inside them. It has thirteen floors with terraces facing the waters of the Atlantic ocean. The construction has a staggered shape that allows better more/views of the ocean.

5. Museo del Gaucho y la Moneda

Two museums sharing a three story rococo mansion in Montevideo – what more could you ask for? The Museo del Gaucho contains exhibits about South America’s version of what we call a cowboy – el gaucho.

Uruguay Top Ten: Be sure to visit the Museo del Gaucho in Montevideo.
Photo of two gauchos via Flickr by Vince Alongi

Here you’ll find items from the gauchos’ everyday life, from traditional garb to the detailed silver work on the cups used for drinking mate. The second museum (la Moneda) deals with coin, and contains many examples of ancient South American and European coins.

6. Mercado del Puerto

I love shopping in Latin American markets, where the selection is vast, the colors are vibrant, and the prices are negotiable.

Uruguay Top Ten: Mercado del Puerto is a must for shopping and steakhouses.
Photo of Mercado del Puerto via Flickr by El Coleccionista de Instantes

At Montevideo’s Mercado del Puerto, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, you will find everything you can imagine – souvenirs, antiques, leather goods, hand crafted items, and of course, delicious meats. Be sure to eat at one of the steak houses there.  You will not be disappointed!

7. Colonia del Sacramento

Colonia del Sacramento is a small city in southwestern Uruguay. Founded in 1680, the town’s historic quarter was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. As you might expect in a city this old, visitors are able to walk through cobblestone streets to the Plaza Mayor.

Uruguay Top Ten: The City Gate at Colonia del Sacramento, founded in 1680.
Photo of the city gate and wooden drawbridge at Colonia del Sacramento by User:HalloweenHJB, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Many points of interest can be explored from there, including the city gate and wooden drawbridge, lighthouse and convent ruins, two museums, and the Basilica of the Holy Sacrament, built in 1808.

8. Punta del Este

Punta del Este is a tremendously popular tourist destination, with over 1 million visitors annually. It has been given several comparative nicknames, including “the Monaco of the South”, “The Pearl of the Atlantic”, “the Hamptons of South America”, and “the St. Tropez of South America.” In addition to the Punta del Este sites on this list (La Mano and Casapueblo), there are a few other attractions worth checking out when you visit.

Uruguay Top Ten: The pirate exhibit at the Museum of the Sea in Punta del Este.
Photo of pirate exhibit at the Museo del Mar in Punta del Este by FedaroOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

One particular attraction that I would recommend is the Museo del Mar (Museum of the Sea), which contains over 5,000 specimens of marine animals, including whale skeletons, sea urchins, starfish and turtle shells. In addition, there are exhibits about beach attire and habits of the early 20th century, navigational tools, and famous pirates.

9. Punta del Diablo

Don’t let the name fool you, Punta del Diablo is a heavenly place to visit! This little village is very popular and growing more so every year. It has a temperate climate (70°-80° in the summer; 50°-60° in the winter), great views of the ocean, and stunning beaches.

Uruguay Top Ten: Punta del Diablo offers visitors wide expanses of beach for recreation.
Photo of the beach at Punto del Diablo via Flickr by Vince Alongi.

In addition to the beaches, where locals and visitors are often seen in the summer gathered around fires playing guitars and singing songs, Punto del Diablo has other points of interest. Parque Nacional Santa Teresa (Saint Teresa National Park) offers 60 km of hiking trails and the potential for a whale sightings along the shore during summer. Another popular attraction is the Centro de Tortugas Marinas (Center for Sea Turtles). It is located near a popular foraging site for sea turtles, the waters off the beaches of Barra del Chuy to Punta del Diablo.

10. Wine Tasting in the Canelones Region

Uruguay’s wine industry began in the 1870s when Tannat was introduced by Basque immigrants. Since then, Tannat has become Uruguay’s signature varietal, producing rich, full-bodied red wines with dark fruit and spice aromas and flavors.

Uruguay Top Ten: Uruguay has many wineries in the Canelones region.

The wine is food friendly and traditionally paired with beef and lamb as well as pastas and strong cheeses. Named for its high tannin content, Tannat has been found to be the healthiest of red wines due to its high antioxidant and resveratrol levels which can aid in lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. (See? Wine is good for you!)

There are at least a dozen wineries in this region, all fairly close to each other, so it would be easy to visit several and learn more about the wines produced in this part of South America.

And Just for Fun:

Ten Things You Might Not Know About Uruguay

  1. Uruguay is a socially progressive country. It was the first nation in Latin America to establish a welfare state, the first in the world to provide every child in school with a free laptop and wifi access (2009), and the first in the world to legalize the production, sale and use of marijuana (2013).
  2. Although marijuana is legal in Uruguay, it is illegal for a non-Uruguayan to purchase marijuana there.
  3. In the 2018 Global Peace Index, Uruguay ranked as the 37th safest country in the world – the second highest ranking country in South America.  (By comparison, the USA’s rank is 121 and the UK’s is 57.)
  4. Cows outnumber people in Uruguay by a margin of four to one.
  5. Uruguay is the only county in South America that lies completely outside the tropics.
  6. Uruguay’s national anthem clocks in at over five minutes, making it the longest in the world.
  7. Less than half the population of Uruguay is Catholic, making it the least religious country in South America. Many of the Catholic holidays have different names in Uruguay. Christmas is Family Day, Holy Week (Easter) is called Tourism Week, and so on.
  8. Uruguay was home to the “World’s Poorest President,” José Alberto “Pepe” Mujica Cordano. Mujica served as President from 2010 to 2015, and earned the nickname because of his humble way of life. He donated about 90% of his income as President to charity, refused to live in the Presidential Palace, and drove a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle.
  9. The unofficial national motto of Uruguay dates back to the 19th century and is still repeated today: “Because here nobody is better than anybody else.”
  10. The Rio de la Plata, which forms part of Uruguay’s border with Argentina, is the widest river in the world, with a width of 140 miles at its mouth.
URUGUAY TOP TEN: The ten best destinations in Uruguay that should be on  your bucket list.
Gulliver’s Gate Review: A Miniature World to Explore in NYC

Gulliver’s Gate Review: A Miniature World to Explore in NYC

Size Does Matter –

Regular readers know that I love miniatures – dollhouses have fascinated me ever since I was a little girl. So when I heard about Gulliver’s Gate opening in New York City, I knew I had to go. If you’re curious about what this world-in-miniature is like, read on for my Gulliver’s Gate review.

About Gulliver’s Gate

The attraction draws its name from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The classic story features the title character entering fantastical, hidden places. In each of those places, he discovered his expectations challenged and his sense of wonder expanded. Gulliver’s Gate seeks to do the same for its visitors.

The exhibit includes miniature scale models of well-known places from all over the world, and a few fictional worlds. These worlds are connected by train tracks and highways featuring all manners of transportation known to mankind – from horses and elephants to hot air balloons, jet planes and space shuttles. Gulliver’s Gate is done in HO scale, which is 1:87 (1 foot = 3.5 mm). A six-foot tall person would be .8 inches high in the Gulliver’s Gate world.

Gulliver's Gate Review: The Big Attraction with the Tiny World in NYC

Upon arriving at Gulliver’s Gate, you will receive a lanyard with a silver key. The key, they tell you, unlocks some of the special features of this miniature world. All you have to do is look for the kiosk (key-osk? hahaha), insert your key, and turn it.

First stop: New York City

Not surprisingly, New York City is the first stop on your journey through Gulliver’s Gate. It has all the major landmarks: the Empire State Building, Central Park, Staten Island Ferry Building, the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, and more. Here is the 9/11 memorial:

Gulliver's Gate Review: The 1:87 miniature depiction of the 9/11 Memorial in NYC.

The miniature version of Grand Central Station is sliced open to allow you to see three levels of transit at the same time – cars, commuter trains, and the subway system, as well as the main concourse.

Gulliver's Gate Review: Visitors are treated to a cross section view inside the miniature Grand Central Station.

Just like the real life city, in Gulliver’s Gate there are so many people – in cars, on the streets, going about their business and seeking fun. And just like the real city, model NYC is pretty big and complex.  It took a team of 16 builders almost a full year to complete!

A Slight Detour Before Crossing the Atlantic

Other areas of the United States represented in Gulliver’s Gate don’t get as much attention as NYC . There is a large display portraying New England in the fall, but I found it to be disappointing, and I wasn’t sure why that area of the US got special attention when no other area did. The bright autumn foliage was too sparse, and the display is inexplicably full of different businesses, including a prominently displayed, overly large Citgo sign. I wondered if there was some corporate sponsorship of Gulliver’s Gate.

Gulliver's Gate Review: New England received a dedicated display, but no other region of the US did.

The section also included a stunning depiction of Niagara Falls. Visitors could have their face projected into the falls by standing in a designated spot off to the side, but I liked it just as it was. The famed Maid of the Mist boat moved around at the base of the falls.

Then on to Europe

I thoroughly enjoyed the Europe section of Gulliver’s Gate, and lingered there longer than any other area. There was just so much to take in!  Countries blended seamlessly together, and iconic landmarks loomed over the tiny European people.

The British Isles

Naturally, I gravitated toward the Britain side of the exhibit first. There was a great Scottish castle, Westminster and the Elizabeth Tower, which houses Big Ben. Buckingham Palace, Stonehenge, and Tower Bridge, featured prominently against a backdrop of the London skyline.

I tried out the key in the Scotland exhibit and the Loch Ness Monster popped up, looked around, then disappeared beneath the waters again. But not before I got her picture!

Gulliver's Gate Review: Turn your key in the Scotland section of the British Isles display, and the Loch Ness Monster will pop up to greet you.

I was absolutely mesmerized by the London display, particularly the long road that led up to Buckingham Palace, flanked my light posts with Union Jack flags hanging from them.

Gulliver's Gate Review: Buckingham Palace in the British Isles display.

Another interactive opportunity arose at the outdoor concert arena.  By turning my key in a particular direction, I could choose who performed on stage. On my first try, I accidentally choose the Beatles.

Gulliver's Gate Review: The Beatles are one of four performers at the outdoor concert venue.

Then I got the one I really wanted: Adele.

Gulliver's Gate Review: Adele is one of four performers you can see on the outdoor stage

Depending on who you choose, the stage will rotate around to show miniature figures of them. The music plays in full audio (not miniaturized squeaky chipmunk tones as you might expect), accompanied by video clips of their performances on the small screen above the stage.

It wasn’t until I began looking through my photos to decide if I needed any more that I noticed something decidedly out of place at the miniature Stonehenge. Can you see it?

Gulliver's Gate Review: Stonehenge at the British Isles Display.

Wait a minute, I thought. Is that what I think it is? No way! I backtracked to the miniature Stonehenge and confirmed that my eyes had not been playing tricks on me.

Gulliver's Gate Review: The TARDIS from Doctor Who is just one of many hidden surprises in the miniature world.

The TARDIS from Doctor Who was right there in the middle of Stonehenge – how funny! Well, needless to say, I had to look for more little surprises like this. I headed off to go through the exhibit a second time.

When I did, I found a few more interesting items in the British Isles section. For instance, Peter Pan stands atop the palace at Westminster. Elsewhere, you will find the Beatles crossing Abbey Road. And back in New York, there is a tightrope walker balancing between the chandeliers in Grand Central Station (it’s in the photo above – see if you can spot her!).

Italy

Italy, like the British Isles, had all of the major landmarks represented. St Mark’s Square in Venice, the Colosseum of Rome, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, even the Cinque Terre for avid travelers.

I took a few pictures, but it wasn’t until my second pass through that I noticed the humorous touch they had added.

Gulliver's Gate Review: Trying to set the Leaning Tower of Pisa straight.

The van is marked Servizio Torri and all of those people are attempting to straighten out the famously leaning tower. This picture was taken at an angle from the side, not from the front where most people would stand and look. In fact, from the front you may only notice the string, but I didn’t.

If you’re looking hard enough, you might spot the Ghostbusters’ car in Italy, too. They must have left it there and flown home, because you can find them on one of the streets in New York, chasing after some ghosts.

France

The Arc de Triomphe was replicated in miniature. You can’t see it in this photo, but the Moulin Rouge is located behind the Arc.

Gulliver's Gate Review: The miniature Arc de Triomphe dominates the French section of the European display.

Off to the left of the Arc is something I didn’t notice until my second pass through. It isn’t funny, but it is one of the excellent details that made touring the exhibit such a joy:

Gulliver's Gate Review: Look to the left of the Arc de Triomphe and you will see the European Giant Pumpkin competition.

Spain

Then there was Spain, and another opportunity to use the key.  When I turned it, Don Quixote came out charging at the windmill as he did in Miguel de Cervantes’ classic story.

Gulliver's Gate Review: Use your key to make Don Quixote charge at the windmill in Spain.

Portugal

In Portugal, this was not a hidden scene, but it certainly was an eye catching one:

Gulliver's Gate Review: Why was there a rhinoceros in Portugal?

Figures dressed in medieval garb, and a rhinoceros wearing a garland of flowers around its neck. The rhinoceros presented a mystery, as I had no frame of reference for this. As it turns out, this is a significant bit of Portuguese history.

India sent the rhino to Portugal in 1515 as a gift. It survived the 120-day sea voyage to Portugal. Unfortunately, once it arrived, it was kept shackled and on display at king Manuel I’s Ribiera Palace. Efforts to make the rhino fight an elephant for entertainment failed (the elephant wasn’t interested, and walked away). Lacking any entertainment value, King Manuel grew tired of the rhino and decided to re-gift it to Pope Leo X, whom he was schmoozing. Unfortunately, the rhinoceros died when the boat carrying him to Rome wrecked.

Yet despite its short life and even shorter time in Portugal, this rhinoceros was the inspiration for a fantastical illustration. Famed Renaissance wood cutter Albrecht Dürer never saw the animal in person, but based on descriptions and a sketch someone else had done, he recreated the rhinoceros. Dürer’s Rhinoceros depicted the animal with hard plates that covered its body like armor – including a gorget around its throat and a breastplate. The armor even appears to have rivets! Despite the fact that Dürer’s rhino was not what an actual rhino looked like, it went on to inspire dozens of paintings and sculptures across Europe.

Gulliver's Gate Review: Find out the origins of Durer's Rhinoceros in the Europe section.
Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art via Wikimedia Commons.

So, there you go.  History can pop up and surprise you in the most unusual places!

From there, I wandered along the path and arrived in the Scandinavian section of Europe – a snow covered land of quaint buildings. The Northern Lights make a guest appearance if you stand there long enough.

Gulliver's Gate Review - Look for the Northern Lights when you get to the Scandinavian section of Europe.

I used my key here too, and when I did, Santa Claus and his reindeer flew across the sky.

Gulliver's Gate Review: Use your key to make Santa fly across the northern sky.

Russia

From one frozen landscape to another, Scandinavia seamlessly blended into Russia. I took a lot of photos in the Russian section because there were so many wonderful details. They had a movie theater that was actually showing a movie, a carousel, ice skaters, and so much more.  It was a lot to take in!  But it was here that I got the best photo illustrating the attention to detail in Gulliver’s Gate:

Gulliver's Gate Review: The attention to detail, like the reverse lights on this car being illuminated, is astounding.

The architectural decoration on the house, the dog in the lane, and the illumination of the back up lights on the car – it was just stunning. Elsewhere, I found a pack of sled dogs, which was also a great scene to stumble upon:

Gulliver's Gate Review: Sled dogs resting in the Russian countryside.

And, of course, you couldn’t have Russia without Saint Basil’s Cathedral.

Gulliver's Gate Review: St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow.

That was the end of the European section. Next up:

Asia

Full disclosure: I did not spend a lot of time here. I’ve never been to Asia and I’m not particularly interested in exploring that region. However, there were some impressive mini-masterpieces:

 

Gulliver's Gate Review: A celebration outside the Forbidden City in China.
A celebration outside the Forbidden City in China.

 

Gulliver's Gate Review: The Taj Mahal is equally inspiring in miniature.
The Taj Mahal of India

And, for my fellow travel junkies, here’s the Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore. I couldn’t get close enough to it to look for the infinity pool on the rooftop. I’m sure it was there, though.

Gulliver's Gate Review: Marina Bay Sands Hotel of Singapore

Latin America

The Latin American section was appropriately full of music and color. In the miniature Rio to Janeiro, it was Carnival season.

Gulliver's Gate Review: It's Carnival time in Rio!

If you turn the key here, the parade kicks off with music and dancing. Just watch the figures on the street:

Miniature Latin America included Machu Picchu, I could not get a good photo of it. What I could see of it was not very impressive. Other Latin America highlights include a volcano that emits steam and looks like it will erupt at any moment.

Middle East

In the Middle East, the highlight was seeing the holy city of Jerusalem, including the Dome of the Rock.

Gulliver's Gate Review: The holy city of Jerusalem, and it's many historically significant religious sites.

Away from the historic center of Jerusalem, I spotted a terrifyingly ugly children’s playground. I was surprised to learn that it is, in fact, a real place called the Monster Playground. Alrighty then. Sweet dreams, kiddos!

Gulliver's Gate Review: Jerusalem's Monster Playground

Airport

The exhibit ends with a massive airport.

Gulliver's Gate Review: The Airport has over 2000 feet of wire underneath it, and uover 2500 miniature figures in the gate building.

Rumor has it that Yoda is in there somewhere, but I was running short on time and didn’t get to explore much.  The airport has 2000 feet of wires running under it and over 2500 miniature figures in the gate building.

My Two Cents

In summary, I think that Gulliver’s Gate is an excellent attraction for families with kids, model train enthusiasts, and travel nuts like me.  It’s extremely well done, the attention to detail is fascinating, and visitors will enjoy discovering the little extras that are hidden in plain sight. Be sure to check it out the next time you’re in New York!

 

Gulliver's Gate Review at Travelasmuch.com

Weekend in Chicago Itinerary – 48 Hours in the Windy City

Weekend in Chicago Itinerary – 48 Hours in the Windy City

What Can You See in Chicago in Two Days?

As it turns out, you can see quite a bit. We went to Chicago for my birthday last fall because it was a place I had always been interested in seeing but had never actually visited. Unfortunately, my birthday always falls the week before a major event at work that I am partially responsible for, so my trip couldn’t last much longer than a weekend.

We were able to squeeze quite a lot into just two days of touring. So whether you’re looking for a weekend getaway or you want to extend a flight layover by a couple of days, you can see the city too.  Here’s our itinerary.

Chicago Weekend Itinerary – Day One

First Stop: Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago, a large and impressive building that contains both art school and museum. It was first built in 1893 as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition. Two huge bronze lions flank the main entrance, where banners also hang to announce the latest exhibits.  The Institute has expanded several times over the years, most recently with the addition of a modern art wing in 2009. That expansion brought the size of the Art Institute to almost 1 million square feet, making it the second largest art museum in the USA. (The first is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.)

Normally, art museums aren’t high on my list of places to visit, but having read The 68 Rooms with my daughter a few years ago, I really wanted to see the Thorne Miniature Rooms in person.

Chicago Weekend Itinerary - Be sure to see the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago
One of the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. This is a shoebox sized rendition of an English cottage kitchen of the Queen Anne period (1702-1714). The blue plates are roughly the size of a dime.

I enjoyed that exhibit, for certain, but there were so many other wonderful things in the museum that I would definitely classify it as a must see in Chicago. They had a great exhibit on glass paperweights, which included this beauty:

Chicago Weekend Itinerary - the Art Institute of Chicago has a beautiful collection of glass paperweights on its lower level.

Naturally, Hubs and I were drawn to the medieval and renaissance armor.

Chicago Weekend Itinerary - the Art Institute of Chicago is a great place to visit, and includes a variety of exhibits, including one on arms and armor.

And there were some famous paintings there as well, like A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat:

Chicago Weekend Itinerary - Be sure to visit the Art Institute of Chicago and see Georges Seurat's famous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

and Andy Warhol’s rendition of the Mona Lisa:

Chicago Weekend Itinerary - Be sure to look for Andy Warhol's Four Mona Lisas at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Next Stop: River Cruise and/or Lincoln Park Zoo

We spent a big chunk of time at the Art Institute & Gallery. Afterwards, we explored the riverfront area and toyed with the idea of taking a sightseeing or architecture cruise. This would certainly be a good thing to do if you enjoy water tours and/or architecture. My daughter hates going on boats, however, so we did not.

Instead, we went to the north end of the city and explored Lincoln Park Zoo. Like the zoo in my home town, this zoo does not charge admission for visitors. Plus, they have polar bears, which are one of my favorite animals ever.

Unfortunately, we visited in the middle of a record-breaking heat wave with temperatures over 95 degrees. In late September! The animals were every bit as miserable as we were, and the polar bears looked shell-shocked. I felt so bad for them!

Chicago Weekend Itinerary - Lincoln Park Zoo has free admission ... and polar bears!

That being said, the zoo was in a beautiful park setting and I would definitely like to visit it again in cooler weather.

Dinner: Pizza Pot Pie

Within walking distance of Lincoln Park Zoo, there is a restaurant called the Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Company. History buffs will appreciate that it’s located across the street from the site of the 1929 Valentine’s Day Massacre. Foodies will love the Pizza Pot Pie, their signature dish. It is full of cheesy goodness.

Chicago Weekend Itinerary - Dinner at Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Company is a must. Try the pizza pot pie!

How good was it? Well, I devoted an entire blog post to it.  It was also the first Chicago post I wrote when I returned. I had the pizza pot pie eight months ago and I still have days where I think I’d love to have it again. Yummm.

Tip:  Be at the Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Company when they open for dinner at 4:00 pm. It’s small and fills up quickly. Besides, you’ll want to have enough time to walk off some of those calories before dessert…

Next Stop: Millennium Park

I hadn’t intended to go to Millennium Park around sunset… it just worked out that way because we got out of dinner early. As it turns out, sunset is a pretty cool time to approach the park, because you can get a photo like this:

Chicago Weekend Itinerary - Arriving at Millennium Park late in the day provides some great photo opportunities.

Yeah, I know it’s a little off-center. I would have had to fight off at least four people with tripods in order to get a better spot.

But that’s not the reason we went to Millennium Park, obviously. We went to see “The Bean,” which is actually an art installation called Cloud Gate. This is one of those things that if you don’t do it, you’ll end up regretting it after you’ve left. It’s iconic, and you pretty much have to see it.  Besides which, it’s really cool.

Chicago Weekend Itinerary - Be sure to stop by Millennium Park to see Cloud Gate (better known as "The Bean").

The mom in me wants to know how it stays so clean and shiny.  Clearly, it’s not made out of the same stuff as my kitchen sink.

The photo above is the end of the Bean.  The sides have an indentation big enough to pass through it.  When you do, be sure to look up. You might not be sure what you’re looking at, because it’s almost psychedelic.

Chicago Weekend Itinerary - Walk inside the center of the Bean at Millennium Park and be sure to look up!

Explore the rest of the park too… it has many other great things to see in addition to the Bean!

Dessert: Smallcakes Smash

If you saved room for dessert, head on over to Smallcakes for a cupcake, ice cream, or the most decadent dessert in town. (You might want to take a couple of people to share it with you.)

Now, Smallcakes is a national chain, not a uniquely Chicago business.  However, it’s worth a visit because of their signature, over-the-top dessert called the Smallcakes Smash.

Choose a cupcake and one or two flavors of ice cream. There are at least a dozen of each to choose from.  Then, sit back and watch as they construct the “Smash” before your very eyes.

A scoop of ice cream goes in the bottom of the cup, followed by the bottom half of the cupcake. A second scoop of ice cream tops that, followed by some whipped cream and syrup in a complementary flavor. Then the whole concoction is topped with the remainder of the cupcake. It is a masterpiece!  Behold!

Chicago Weekend Itinerary - Get a Smallcakes Smash at Smallcakes!

I recommend sharing one with a friend. It’s a lot for just one person!

Chicago Weekend Itinerary – Day Two

First Stop: Chicago Tribune Tower

In the morning, we walked over to see the Chicago Tribune Tower which is in the heart of downtown Chicago. Normally, I wouldn’t make a special trip to see just a building, but the Tribune Tower is a building like no other. Pieces of famous landmarks and buildings from all over the world are embedded in its walls.

Chicago Weekend Itinerary: Look for fragments of world landmarks at the Chicago Tribune Tower.

And I don’t mean a dozen or so… I mean almost 150. It was great fun to stand there looking for these special stones – we saw pieces of Westminster Abbey, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Wall of China, to name just a few.

Next Stop: Museum of Science & Industry (with Kids)

If you don’t have children with you, you might not enjoy the Museum of Science & Industry all that much. We only went because I’ve had a bit of an obsession with Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle for over 15 years, and it happens to be on display at Science & Industry. Otherwise, I would have found a different activity, such as the Field Museum, or one of those river cruises, or something else.

That being said, the Fairy Castle did not disappoint.

Chicago Weekend Itinerary - Families will enjoy a visit to the Museum of Science & Industry, home to Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle

I circled it three times and was constantly finding new details each time I looked inside the rooms. An audio recording plays while you are going around the castle, and it’s worth listening to, because it has some very interesting details. The castle is full of authentic items, some of them hundreds of years old. Other items are not as old, but are just as valuable, like the miniature chair that is made of platinum and diamonds.

We looked at a few other exhibits after the fairy castle, including one on bicycle design that Hubs found very interesting, and a mirror maze. But we still had more to see and do, so we didn’t stay too long.

Next Stop: Street Art & Lunch in Logan Square

Street art makes for great photo opportunities. I found out that there was a “Greetings from Chicago” style postcard mural and knew we had to get our pictures in front of it, so that was where we headed next.

Chicago Weekend Itinerary - snap a pic with the Greetings from Chicago mural as your backdrop.

The mural is located at 2226 N Milwaukee Ave, in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago.  Nearby, we saw another great series of paintings titled “Never Give Up” on the side of a family dollar store.

Chicago Weekend Itinerary - There are all types of street art to amuse and inspire you in Logan Square.

It had the stories of five famous people who had, at various points in their lives, encountered setbacks and failures. Despite those challenges, they went on to achieve great success.  It was a good reminder to hang in there when the going gets tough.

Logan Square is a racially diverse and artistic neighborhood with lots of beautiful architecture, great restaurants, and street art. Unlike some city neighborhoods I’ve visited, Logan Square seemed to have a strong sense of community. There are many great restaurants, bars, churches, and local is the key word when describing many aspects of the scene. Ingredients are sourced locally at restaurants; bars serve local craft brews; galleries showcase local artists; and concerts and street fests promote local, upstart bands.

There is no shortage of good restaurants in the Logan Square area, and in a wide variety of ethnic cuisines as well. We had lunch at the Logan Bar & Grill, which had an amazing outdoor seating area. I almost forgot that it was insanely hot while we enjoyed our burgers.

Feeling refreshed and at least a little rested (not to mention re-hydrated!), we got an Uber to take us to…

Next Stop: The Tower Formerly Known as Sears

As you may have read in my blog post about the Willis Tower, I wasn’t completely sold on the idea of going to the top to see the views. But eventually I did make the decision to do it, because I figured it was another one of those iconic Chicago things, like The Bean.

I wish I had paid attention to the time when we first went in to see how long we waiting in line before actually making it to the Skydeck. It was at least an hour. It felt like two. Let’s split the difference and call it ninety minutes, waiting in line, moving at a snail’s pace through the basement of one of the most famous buildings in America.

By the time we got to the Skydeck, the sun was beginning to drop in the sky, and the Golden Hour was upon us.

Chicago Weekend Itinerary - Catch the view from the (Sears) Willis Tower Skydeck.

With the setting sun behind us, the shadows of the skyscrapers were cast across the city and the lake. It was stunning! Suddenly, I didn’t resent that two hour 90 minute wait quite as much.

Dinner: Deep Dish Pizza

You can’t leave Chicago without eating deep dish pizza at least once, right? Well, there is apparently some debate as to who has the best deep dish in Chicago. I’m not a big fan of deep dish style pizza, so I didn’t put a lot of effort into choosing a restaurant for this meal. The first place I saw a recommendation for was the lucky winner: Gino’s East.

I don’t know if Gino’s East has the best pizza, but it’s probably got the most fun atmosphere. The entire restaurant has been covered in graffiti from past customers.

Chicago Weekend Itinerary - Make one meal a deep dish pizza, the city's signature dish. Gino's East is one of the best, and has an interior that is completely covered in graffiti.

Our server was great as he welcomed us and explained the different options. When the food arrived, we dug in and managed to finish the whole thing, thanks to his recommendations on what size we needed.Chicago Weekend Itinerary - Deep Dish pizza is the Windy City's signature dish.

However, that being said, do be careful when ordering a deep dish pizza.  Because it is so thick, eating one slice is equivalent to eating two or three slices of regular pizza. I saw a lot of tourists walking around Chicago carrying pizza boxes because they didn’t take this into consideration. It’s much better to order the right size and not have to worry about leftovers.

Next Stop: Strolling the Magnificent Mile

After dinner we walked along the area of Michigan Avenue known as The Magnificent Mile. (Can you hear that in any voice but Oprah’s? I can’t.) There are loads of shops along this stretch of road, most of which I cannot afford. Still, it makes for good window shopping and people watching.

Between there and our hotel, we stopped at Eataly, which I’ve always been curious about but have never had an opportunity to visit. Then we returned to the hotel to pack our bags for the next morning, when we would wish a fond farewell to the city of Chicago. It was our first visit there, but we all agreed that we didn’t want it to be our last.

Summary Infographic:

Chicago Weekend Itinerary in list form

Chicago Weekend Itinerary at Travel As Much
Surprise! A Dozen Amazing Things to Do in Baltimore MD

Surprise! A Dozen Amazing Things to Do in Baltimore MD

Things to Do in Baltimore MD

For decades, Baltimore has been seen as the ugly stepsister to Washington DC’s Cinderella. Many people consider it less attractive, less popular, and less interesting, with less to offer tourists. In the mid-1970s, then Mayor William Donald Schaefer wanted to come up with a catchy name or slogan to help improve the city’s image. Advertising executives met to discuss the idea and one of them came up with the following statement:

Baltimore has more history and unspoiled charm tucked away in quiet corners than most American cities out in the spotlight.

From there, the city’s nickname – Charm City – was born. The advertising campaign fizzled out not long after it was started, but the name stuck. Today you will still hear people refer to Baltimore as Charm City. While it might seem like a misnomer, there are dozens of great things to do in Baltimore MD. Here are a few of my favorites.

Catch an Orioles Game (April-September)

Fans of the Baltimore Orioles are a die hard bunch. The team hasn’t won a World Series since 1983, but hope springs eternal in Charm City. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the stadium (Oriole Park at Camden Yards) is one of the most beautiful in the country.

Things to Do in Baltimore MD - Catch a game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards

Built about 25 years ago, Camden Yards was the first “retro” design stadium. Before that, major league stadiums were symmetrical multi-purpose stadiums used for both baseball and football. Now, roughly two thirds of the major league baseball teams have followed suit, and built retro parks. The great thing about watching a baseball game at Camden Yards is that there really aren’t any bad seats. You’ll have a great view of the action no matter where you are.

Visit Not One, but TWO Free Art Museums

There are two top-notch art museums in Baltimore, and both have free admission.  The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) is home to an internationally renowned collection of art that ranges from ancient Antioch mosaics to cutting-edge contemporary art. The BMA has over 95,000 works of art, including the largest public holding of works by Henri Matisse.

Things to do in Baltimore MD - The Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum both have outstanding collections and offer free admission.
The Baltimore Museum of Art features the work of many famous artists, like Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen. The Walters has a priceless collection of art from many countries and time periods, including this beautiful Faberge egg.

The collection of works at the Walters Art Museum includes masterworks of ancient Egypt, Greek sculpture and Roman sarcophagi, medieval ivories, illuminated manuscripts, Renaissance bronzes, Old Master European and 19th-century paintings, Chinese ceramics and bronzes, Art Deco jewelry (including Tiffany & Lalique), and ancient Near East, Mesopotamian, or ancient Middle East items.

Mt Vernon Neighborhood

While at the Walters, spend some time exploring the neighborhood outside, which is known as Mt Vernon. Designated a National Historic Landmark District and a city Cultural District, it is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and originally was home to Baltimore’s most wealthy and fashionable families.

Architecture enthusiasts in particular will enjoy strolling through the area. It’s not uncommon to find houses that date back a century or even two. Mount Vernon boasts examples of many different types of period architecture: Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Gothic Revival, Second Empire, Queen Anne, Romanesque, Chateau, Renaissance Revival, Beaux-Arts and Classical Revival.

The Washington Monument – Yes, in Baltimore!

While you’re walking around Mt Vernon, check out the original Washington Monument, which is the first U.S. heroic and civic monument dedicated to George Washington. It predates the one in Washington DC by over 30 years.

Things to do in Baltimore MD - visit the original Washington Monument, built 30+ years before the one in DC

You can climb the Monument’s 227 marble steps for a great view of the city. Open Wed.-Sun. The Monument’s gallery with interactive exhibits is free; the climb to the top $6 for adults, $4 for children.

Peabody Library

Also in the Mt Vernon area, the George Peabody Library is a must see for bibliophiles. The library’s collection dates from the founding of the Peabody Institute in 1857. In that year, George Peabody, a Massachusetts-born philanthropist, dedicated the Peabody Institute to the citizens of Baltimore in appreciation of their “kindness and hospitality.”

Things to Do in Baltimore MD - the gorgeous George Peabody Library.

The library contains five floors of ornamental cast-iron balconies, which rise dramatically to the skylight 61 feet above the floor. It houses 300,000 volumes, mainly from the 19th century, with strengths in religion, British art, architecture, topography and history; American history, biography, and literature; Romance languages and literature; history of science; and geography, exploration, and travel.

It’s such a beautiful building that it also serves as a venue for weddings and private events.

Eat in Little Italy

Baltimore’s Little Italy is an old quaint Italian neighborhood in Baltimore City that has survived and thrived for several generations. Its original residents emigrated from Italy from the mid-1800s into the early 1900s. By 1920 the neighborhood was 100% Italian. It boasts century-old row homes, family-run restaurants, bocce courts, cultural learning center, Sons of Italy lodge, and much more. Lovingly nicknamed ‘The Neighborhood,’ Little Italy is a tight-knit Italian community that today includes residents of other ethnic backgrounds as well. Have dinner at a great restaurant like Amicci’s, but don’t get too full.  You’ll want to be sure to stop by Vaccaro’s Italian Pastry Shop for dessert!

Fort McHenry

Fort McHenry was the focus of the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. Over a 27 hour period, the British fired 1,500 to 1,800 cannonballs at the fort. What’s worse, they did so from just outside the range of the fort’s cannons, so they could not be bombarded in return.

On the morning of September 14, 1814, the regular flag at Fort McHenry was replaced with a larger flag, signaling American victory over the British. The sight inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” Later, the poem was set to music and become known as the “Star Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States.

Things to Do in Baltimore MD - Fort McHenry, where Francis Scott Key wrote our national anthem.

Every September, the City of Baltimore celebrates Defenders Day in honor of the Battle of Baltimore. It is the biggest celebration of the year at the Fort, with programs, events, and spectacular fireworks. But Fort McHenry is worth visiting at any time of year for its historical reenactments, exhibits about the War of 1812, and more.

The Inner Harbor

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is a hub of activity. In just a few city blocks, you can unearth dinosaurs at the Maryland Science Center, get a history lesson at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, pay respects to pop culture at Geppi’s Entertainment Museum, or submerge yourself in exotic sea life at the National Aquarium. Other attractions include the American Visionary Art Museum, the Babe Ruth Museum, and the Port Discovery Children’s Museum.

Things to Do in Baltimore MD - The Inner Harbor is full of unique and interesting opportunities for visitors to Charm City.

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor has loads of restaurants, pubs, hotels and shops. The Water Taxi will take you from the harbor to surrounding neighborhoods, and the free Charm City Circulator provides daily bus service through several downtown routes.

Visit the National Aquarium

The National Aquarium was the crowning achievement in Baltimore’s urban renewal during the 1980s. Today, some thirty-five or so years later, it still is a favorite attraction for crowds of all ages. The National Aquarium houses several exhibits including the Upland Tropical Rain Forest, a multiple-story Atlantic Coral Reef, an open ocean shark tank, and Australia: Wild Extremes, which won the “Best Exhibit” award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in 2008.

Things to Do in Baltimore MD - check out the National Aquarium at the Inner Harbor for a full day of fun.

The aquarium also has a 4D Immersion Theater and a marine mammal pavilion, which holds seven Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.

The National Aquarium has timed admission, so it’s wise to purchase your tickets in advance rather than at the door.

Maryland Science Center

Located not too far from the Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center was another establishment that brought tourism to the Inner Harbor area. It includes three levels of exhibits, a planetarium, an IMAX theater, and an observatory. Definitely worth a visit if you’re traveling with school aged children.

Things to Do in Baltimore MD - the Maryland Science Center is a must-see for families with school age children.

The modernized hands-on exhibits include more than two dozen dinosaur skeletons, as well as physical science, space, Earth science, the human body, and blue crabs, which are native to the Chesapeake Bay.

And Speaking of Crabs…

No list of things to do in Baltimore (or most of Maryland, truth be told) would be complete without the mention of steamed blue crabs. Served with generous helpings of Old Bay seasoning, this crustacean is a tasty treat. Pick your own or, if you prefer to keep your hands clean, order a delicious crab cake. If you go to Baltimore and don’t eat crabs, that’s akin to visiting Chicago and not eating deep dish pizza, or going to Philadelphia and not getting a cheese steak. ‘Nuff said.

Things to Do in Baltimore MD - Local cuisine features steamed crabs with Old Bay seasoning

So, when traveling in the mid-Atlantic region, don’t overlook Charm City. It’s a great destination!

Things to Do in Baltimore MD on Travelasmuch.com
10 Amazing Items Personalized with Travel Photos

10 Amazing Items Personalized with Travel Photos

So Many Pictures!

Digital photography has made it easier for us to take pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. We even carry a camera with us everywhere we go now, thanks to smart phone technology. But while we are taking more and more pictures, we also tend to be doing less with them. We might upload to Facebook or pull out our phone and show a friend, but for the vast majority of people, that’s it. Which got me thinking, why not utilize those photos in a creative way by getting items that are personalized with travel photos from our journeys abroad?

Now, I’m not talking about the standard items that you can get from Walmart or the local drugstore. Things like mugs, enlargements/posters/canvas prints, blankets, photo books, cell phone cases, tote bags, or mousepads.  I’m talking about taking it to the next level. Here are ten items personalized with travel photos that would make the ultimate souvenir.

Bookmarks

Bookmark personalized with travel photos
Personalized bookmark from Shutterfly

This personalized bookmark from Shutterfly would be a great way to remember your travels every time you open your book.  They cost just $6.99 for one or $16.99 for three, and come in a variety of designs.

Notebooks

Notebook personalized with travel photos
Personalized notebook from Shutterfly

This notebook can be made with a custom photo cover for $14.99 from Shutterfly.  Talk about a perfect travel journal!  There are a variety of styles and sizes, with stock images like the one above, or you can provide your own.

Keepsake Box

Keepsake box personalized with travel photos
Keepsake box from Mpix

This keepsake box by Mpix comes in a variety of designs, and measures 5 x 7 x 2 inches.  This would make a great place to store mementos from your trip, like shells found on a beach, ticket stubs, pressed flowers, or anything else that will remind you of your trip.  Cost is $55.

Luggage tag

Luggage tag personalized with travel photos.
Luggage tag from Shutterfly

The luggage tag is perfect to showcase your travel photos! They make a great conversation starter, too.  Plenty of designs to choose from at Shutterfly, just $11.99

State Photo Collage

State photo collage personalized with travel photos
These state photo collages from Minted start at $29 unframed or $42 framed.

What better way to remind you of a trip than a photo collage in the shape of the place you visited? These prints come in a variety of sizes, ranging from 8×8 to 44×44 inches, framed or unframed. Prices range from $29 (8×8 unframed) to $625 (44×44 framed with archival matting and UV safe plexiglass).

Beach Towel

Beach towel personalized with travel photos
Photo beach towel by Snapfish.

Take your travel memories to the beach with you on this 35×60 soft and absorbent beach towel by Snapfish. There are loads of customization options, and the cost is $39.99.

Shower Curtain

Shower curtain personalized with travel photos
Shower curtain from Shutterfly, $79.99

Want to decorate your bathroom in a travel around the world theme? This shower curtain from Shutterfly ($79.99) can be personalized with travel photos from your collection. Choose from a number of different designs.

Ceramic Tiles

Ceramic tiles personalized with travel photos
Ceramic Tiles from Image Snap come in assorted sizes.

The great thing about ceramic tiles is that they are very versatile. You can use them as coasters, trivets, incorporate them into a backsplash or countertop, or hang them on a wall.  They are terrific accent pieces, and now you can have them personalized with travel photos.  Image Snap provides the tiles in a variety of sizes – 2″ square up to 12″ square, 3″x6″ subway tiles, and other assorted sizes. Prices start at $5.

Tea Towel

Tea towel personalized with travel photos
Tea towel from Shutterfly, $17.99

Want a little travel inspiration in the kitchen?  Get a tea towel personalized with travel photos at Shutterfly for $17.99. As with most items, there are several designs to choose from, so you can feature one photo or many.

Photo-a-Day Calendar

Calendar personalized with travel photos.
You can feature up to 365 travel photos on a custom calendar from Social Print Studio.

I’ve saved the best for last. Of all the items personalized with travel photos, this one is definitely my favorite! The tear off calendar by Social Print Studio costs just $40 and can feature up to 365 different photos!  There are a few caveats, though, so be sure to read their how-to guide before you start your order.

So, there you have it.  No need to keep those amazing travel photos locked away on your hard drive or in the cloud.  Now you can display them all over your house and be inspired for your next trip!

Header image photo via Flickr by ben.gallagher.

Why Viking World Needs to Be Your First Stop After a 5 AM Arrival in Iceland

Why Viking World Needs to Be Your First Stop After a 5 AM Arrival in Iceland

I Get in at What Time?

If you are flying to Iceland from the United States or Canada, the chances are overwhelmingly good that you will arrive at Keflavik Airport sometime between the hours of 5 and 7 AM. The chances are equally good that after getting through immigration, baggage claim, and picking up your rental car, you will be wondering what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.

Check in time at your hotel/hostel/airbnb won’t be for another six hours or so. To complicate matters, most stores and attractions won’t be open for at least two to three hours. So what can you do? You’ve just landed in a foreign country but you can’t go anywhere or see anything because everything is closed. To make matters worse, it’s still dark outside and your body thinks it’s the middle of the night.

A Stroke of Genius

Fortunately, someone had the brilliant idea to build a museum fairly close to the airport, have it open at 7 AM every day, and serve a breakfast buffet with admission. Viking World Museum (Vikingaheimar in Icelandic), absolutely should be your first stop in Iceland.

When we picked up our rental car, we asked the clerk about the museum. He told us that it wouldn’t be open until 9:00 am at the earliest. The web site said 7:00 am, though, so we decided to take a chance and at least drive by it because we had nothing if not time to kill.

Getting to the museum from the airport only took about ten minutes. When we arrived, we noted that the lights were on and it did, in fact, appear to be open. So in we went, bleary eyed and not sure what to expect. Admission to the museum is 1500 ISK, which is in the ballpark of $15 per person. The breakfast buffet, which includes the museum exhibits, is 1800 ISK, just $3 more per person.  It’s probably the only place in Iceland where you can get a meal for $3.

UPDATE 4/30/18: The price for breakfast + museum admission, according to Viking World’s website, is now 2000 ISK, about $20 per adult.

It was an impressive spread, too, with scrambled eggs, hard boiled eggs, toast, sausage, pastries, fish in two types of sauce, fruit, jellies, biscuits, and probably some other things that I can’t remember. We took our time eating and when we’d had our fill, we proceeded into the museum exhibits.

The Exhibits

The first floor exhibits told the story of how Vikings expanded across the North Atlantic Ocean and settled in Iceland. The expansion began around 800 AD and lasted about 200 years. There were archaeological finds and reproductions. One of the most interesting to me was the burial boat of a Viking chieftain.

The burial boat of a Viking chieftain at Viking World Museum in Iceland.

In the Viking culture, it was customary to provide the dead with objects that they might need in the afterlife – men with tools and weapons, women with jewelry and utensils. Placing the bodies of the dead, along with these items, in an actual boat implies a belief that the dead journeyed to the next life.

The sample burial boat shown above held a plaster figure of a man, with a shield, furs, a drinking vessel, antlers, and other animal bones.

Just beyond the burial boat, there was a collection of figures known as tupilaks. These menacing figures, carved from bones or antlers, functioned as sort of Viking voodoo dolls.  Shaman chanted over the tupilaks to give them life, then put them into the sea to find and kill their intended victims. However, if the victim had his own witchcraft skills, he could send the tupilak back to kill its maker. Here are a few of the specimens on display:

tupilaks at Viking World Museum - what to do after early morning arrival in Iceland.

Tupilak carved figure at Viking World Museum - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.

From there, we went into a room that was showing a documentary about the Viking settlement of Iceland and Greenland. My poor daughter was suffering badly from jet lag, and she fell asleep almost as soon as we sat down. We decided to stay put for a while and let her rest.  I’m not a big fan of watching movies when you travel, but this one was exceptionally well done and informative.

Up and Away

When we decided to move on, we headed up to the second floor of the museum, where we were able to walk on board the huge Viking longboat that dominates the museum’s interior.

Okay, so you know by the name longboat that it’s going to be, well, long.  But until you’re actually standing on it, you can’t fully appreciate just how big this type of boat really was.

Viking World Museum’s ship Íslendingur (which means The Icelander) is an exact replica of an ship excavated from a burial mound in Norway in 1882. That ship dated to A.D. 870, the time of the settlement of Iceland. It is likely that the settlers of Iceland sailed ships similar to the this one, with crews of about 70 men to power its 32 oars.

This ship isn’t just a pretty replica, however. It’s a seaworthy vessel that sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in the summer of 2000. It made the journey to commemorate Leif Eriksson’s trans-Atlantic voyage one thousand years earlier.

Viking World Museum longboat  Íslendingur - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.
The length of  Íslendingur

 

Viking World Museum - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.
Local students made the shields on the sides of Íslendingur. In Viking times, shields were used not just for defense, but also protection from the elements while rowing.

After exploring the massive ship, we moved on to the Fate of the Gods exhibit, an artistic expression of Norse mythology. These were very colorful figures arranged in dramatic ways to evoke the suspense and emotion of tales from Norse mythology.

Viking World Museum exhibit on Norse mythology - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.
Odin and his ravens, Huginn and Muninn, in the Fate of the Gods exhibit.

 

Norse mythology exhibit at Viking World Museum - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.
Thor defeats the Midgard serpent.

When we exited Fate of the Gods, it was about 9:00 AM and the sky was just starting to lighten. The huge window located in front of the longboat provided us with a lovely view of the harbor outside.

View of the harbor from Viking World Museum - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland

So, if you’re getting into Iceland in the pre-dawn hours, I really recommend stopping by the Viking World Museum for breakfast and a little history. It will be an enjoyable way to kill a few hours and acclimate to your new surroundings.

Wondering what to do after an early morning arrival in iceland? Check out Viking World Museum, which opens at 7 AM every day.
Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle – Chicago, Illinois

Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle – Chicago, Illinois

A History Geek’s Dream, In Miniature

When I was a young girl, my mom and I had a dollhouse that we worked on together. I used to love creating a little world for the family that “lived” there. As I grew up, I pushed aside that little girl pursuit and became interested in the typical teenage things – boys, fashion, and music. Miniatures were a thing that belonged in my past. It just didn’t interest me any more.

But when I found a dusty old book about a fairy tale dollhouse castle at a yard sale several years ago, my interest was rekindled. I had only ever seen doll houses, but this was a doll castle. First I was intrigued. Then, gradually, as years passed without ever going to see it in person, my interest morphed into fascination, which grew to become a slight obsession. To those of you who are regular readers, it should be no surprise that I am fascinated with miniatures. After all, I’ve written about them here, here, and here. And I absolutely love castles, so this was the ultimate dollhouse as far as I was concerned!

So when it came time to plan a little trip for my birthday weekend, I knew just where I wanted to go: Chicago.  The Windy City has a lot to offer visitors, but for miniatures enthusiasts, it is of special interest as it is home to both the Thorne Miniature Rooms and Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle.

The Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle

Colleen Moore created the castle with the help of her father in 1928. It measures nine square feet and the tallest point of it is 12 feet high. But it’s not just any dollhouse, and Colleen Moore was not just any woman.

Colleen Moore was a silent film star in the 1920s. She was considered one of the most fashionable stars of that era, a trendsetter credited with making the bobbed haircut popular among American women. She was also a savvy investor who became a partner in the Merrill Lynch firm and wrote a book about investing in the stock market.

Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle has been on display at the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago since 1949. In all honesty, it seems a bit out of place there. MSI is essentially a science museum, with exhibits on robots, optical illusions, physics, energy, and so on. Yet tucked away in an alcove adjacent to the (Brain) Food Court you’ll see this wall:

Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle - Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago.

Just opposite the sign is the semi-dark room that holds Colleen Moore’s masterpiece.  The castle is encased in glass on an elevated platform. A recorded announcement with details of the castle and its furnishings plays above visitors’ heads as they peer inside. Every time I went around the castle I saw or heard something new, so I would go again. I think I circled it at least four times.

The Courtyard

Upon entering the room, the first part of the castle that you will see is the courtyard.

Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle - the Courtyard.

The large tree just beyond the gates is a weeping willow. Ms Moore decided to depict the tree quite literally, with teardrops on its branches. To the left of that is a silver horse and carriage set for Cinderella, and to the right of the gate… do you see that fuzzy pink thing? Well, it’s a cradle, of course! As in “Rock-a-bye Baby, in the Treetop.” The tree was motorized and it rocked from side to side, making the cradle sway.

Also, you can’t see it in this photo, but the castle’s cornerstone is gold instead of gray.  It was laid by Sara Roosevelt, the mother of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Moving along to the right, the end of the building features a series of pictures depicting scenes from Aesop’s Fables, including “The Fox and the Grapes” and “The Ant and the Grasshopper.”

Aesop's Fables depicted in the artwork on Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle.

The Library

Turning the corner, we came upon the library. More than 100 books rest on the shelves in this room, and they are all real. Many of them are handwritten by prominent authors. The library was decorated with a nautical theme – bright blue paint, murals of ships at sea, furniture with shell motifs, and so on. It was meant to evoke a sense of adventure as depicted in the stories of Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver, Captain Kidd and other adventurers. The bookcase didn’t dominate the room. In fact, it’s so far off to the right in the photo below it isn’t even visible.  It was hard to tell that it was supposed to be a library (the bibliophile complained), but nonetheless fun to look at.

The library in Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle

So many details! A secondary theme was astronomy. The pillows are shaped like stars and moons, the dome of the ceiling looks like the night sky.  The wood floor had an astrological design inlaid in its center.

A little further down, a cubbyhole room on the second floor was the treasure room of Aladdin. I tried to take a picture, but it didn’t turn out well enough to share.

The Chapel

Then we came upon the Chapel, which has stained glass windows of Bible stories and a gold altar. On the prayer bench in front of the altar is a small Bible printed in 1840. It is the smallest Bible in the world, and is printed from real type.

Here are some shots I took of the Chapel and its furnishings.

The Chapel in Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle.

The Chapel Altar in Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle.

As you move on to the next room, you can look back at the chapel through a long window (above) and see the altar and tabernacle. On top of the tabernacle is a beautiful golden sunburst, in the center of which is a glass container holding a sliver of the true cross. This was given to Colleen by her friend, Clare Booth Luce, who was Ambassador to Italy. Luce received the relic when she had her first audience with the Pope.

The Great Hall

From there, we turned the corner again and found ourselves gazing at the great hall, the largest room in the dollhouse. It has an etched ivory floor, and a ceiling painted with figures from the classic Brothers Grimm tales.

The Great Hall of Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle, on display at the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago.

The Great Hall contains several items of interest.  For instance, two ancient statues of the goddess Isis – one of lapis lazuli, the other of green glaze. There is also a pair of hollow 1/4 inch glass slippers to fit a 5-inch Cinderella.  Under a glass dome, the tiny chairs of Goldilocks’ three bears sit on the heads of pins—the largest weighing only 1/150,000th of an ounce! On either side of the arched doorway leading to the courtyard, there is a silver knight in full armor. These figures came from the collection of iconic early film star Rudolph Valentino.

The exterior of the great hall features three figures – a female in plain dress, a male noble, and an older rich woman. They are Cinderella, Prince Charming, and the Evil Stepmother. The figure above them, arms outspread, is the good fairy welcoming you to Fairy Land.

Cinderella figures outside the Great Hall of Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle

The Drawing Room

As we rounded the last corner, we came upon the drawing room.

The Drawing Room of Colleen Moore's Fair Tale Dollhouse Castle.

This room is full of silver furniture and miniature musical ornaments. The wall features a mural of the Cinderella story. Another Cinderella scene, featutring her pumpkin/carriage, is located inside of the rosewood piano. The floor, made in China as a custom order for Moore, is rose quartz banded in jade. The vases at each side of the door going into the great hall are made of carved amber more than 500 years old.

The Prince’s Bedroom & Bathroom

Above the drawing room is the Prince’s bedroom.  Unfortunately, I did not get any good photos of this room. There was a white bearskin rug on the floor, which Moore had a taxidermist make from ermine skin and mouse teeth.

The Prince's Bathroom in Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle, Chicago

Next to the bedroom was a small bathroom. Small, but no less elegant than the rest of the castle! Mostly alabaster, the room included a gold, jewel encrusted mirror over the shell-like wash basin. The gold Japanese chest is approximately 500 years old.

The Dining Room

Back on the lower level, next to the drawing room, we see the dining room, which reminds us that we are looking at a fairy tale dollhouse castle, not just an ordinary dollhouse. A semi-round table with throne-like chairs dominates the center. Gold plates and tiny knives and forks, also gold, are set out, awaiting guests. The glasses are crystal—and most of them are more than a hundred years old!

The Dining Room of Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle in Chicago

Five needlepoint “tapestries” in the Dining Room (in the shadows of this pic, unfortunately) depict Arthurian legends’ Knights of the Round Table. A master needleworker in Vienna created them especially for the fairy tale dollhouse castle. It is almost impossible to distinguish the stitches without the aid of a magnifying glass.

The Kitchen

Next to the Dining Room, of course, was the kitchen.

The kitchen of Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle in Chicago

The kitchen is where fairy tales reign. Over the door are the three Little Pigs, and to the right, Jack and Jill are tumbling down the hill. The copper stove reminds visitors of the stove in which the wicked witch locked Hansel and Gretel. The oven contains the pie baked with four and twenty blackbirds. The Royal Doulton dinner service on the table is identical to the set made for Queen Mary’s doll house at Windsor Castle.

The Princess’ Bedroom & Bathroom

Back upstairs, above the dining room is the bedroom of the Fairy Princess.

Bedroom of the Princess in Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle, Chicago

The bed represents the bed that Sleeping Beauty slept in. The bedspread features a gold spider web that covered her for 100 years as she waited for Prince Charming. The two chandeliers have light bulbs the size of wheat grains… and they actually work!  Chairs in the Princess’ Bedroom are platinum with cloisonne seats and backs made from diamond and emerald clips. They were stunning!

Platinum jeweled chairs in Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle

The Princess’ bathroom was just as grand.

The Princess' Bathroom in Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle, Chicago.

Oddly, the most interesting thing I saw in the exhibit was a miniature book:

Thorne Rooms Book at Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle in Chicago.

It turns out that Colleen Moore was a friend of Narcissa Niblack Thorne, who created miniature rooms around the same time. Visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago can see 68 of the Thorne Rooms. (For my review of the Thorne Miniature Rooms, click here.)

If you enjoy seeing the world in miniature, Chicago is an absolute must, as host city to both the Thorne Rooms and the Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle. Be sure to follow me on Instagram for more detailed photos of the castle that are not included in this post!

Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle
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