Friday, December 31, 2010

Oh Chateau! A cycling adventure in the Loire Valley

"Oh, chateau."

I'm not sure when my wife started saying that, perhaps after we visited the Versailles palace one trip to Paris, but she usually uttered it in a wistful way that implied she immediately wanted me to transport her to France so she could enjoy great wine and cheese on the lawn of one of these grand residences that used to belong to French nobility and upper-class.

So, when it came time to consider a second multi-day European biking adventure, our first one to Belgium being such a delight, I immediately began planning a trip to the Loire Valley, home to vineyards and hundreds of chateaux, including some of the most famous ones. Fortunately, the region is also blessed with many flat, well-signed biking paths, including a major one that runs along the Loire river. Thanks to a lot of web surfing and a few travel guides, including the Lonely Planet Cycling France book, I soon had what seemed like a nice 4-5 day itinerary.

Day One - A Royal Porcupine? (handful of miles pedaled)

And so, very early on a dreary Wednesday morning late in September, we walked out the door of our Cambridge house, hopped onto our loaded bikes, and began pedalling our way to France. Of course, that starts with a 10-minute ride to the Cambridge train station, a train ride to London's Kings Cross station, a short walk across the street, and a two-hour Eurostar ride to Paris Gare du Nord. Our train to the Loire valley was far across town at Gare d'Austerlitz and wasn't for several hours, so why not lunch in Paris? We headed for West Country Girl, a creperie we had wanted to try on our last visit to Paris but was closed. Two savoury crepes and two salted butter caramel crepes later, we knew we had made the right choice.

When we got to Gare d'Austerlitz, I wondered if our trip would be halted. France's regional train system has several types of trains, each with its own bike regulations that are hard to nail down on the Internet, and I was worried that our train needed a reservation or, worse, wouldn't take a bike at all. We spotted a student on a bike in the station whose English was better than my French, and a quick conversation with him eased my mind that we would be OK. Sure enough, not much later our bikes were hanging from special hooks on the cycle car and we were off on the 2 hour trip south.

Our destination was Blois (say Blwah), a good starting point for those cycling the Loire from east to west. The city sits on the northern bank of the Loire and comes with its own chateau, which we quickly spotted as we cycled down the hill from the train station ("Oh, Chateau!" KT exclaimed with a big smile on her face as we sped past it). We settled in at our hotel (Cote Loire--Auberge Ligerienne, one of many Loire hotels that promise to accept cyclists and offer them bike storage and other amenities), enjoyed a look out the room window at the Loire, sampled some gorgeous macaroons from a nearby patisserie, and then strolled the town a bit.

The chateau and most sites were closed but we peeked in gates and appreciated the nice sunset. We also came across the first of many "royal porcupines" (The crowned animal was the emblem of Louis the XII who lived in Blois, among other places in the Loire) on the chateau. (While some chateaux were no more than big country houses for rich folks, Blois' was a true royal residence). Our first evening came to a delicious conclusion in the hotel's cozy restaurant, which oddly had paintings of chickens decorating it.

Day Two (25ish miles biked)

I had an ambitious agenda planned of biking to two chateaux and back to Blois on our second day but KT was still battling through a bad head cold, so we didn't rush to get pedalling. Unsure of the paths, signage, and the weather, we decided to just shoot for Chambord, which was originally a hunting lodge for Francois I. The nearly 2-hour ride to Chambord was pleasantly easy although a wrong turn did accidentally send us on the longer of the two paths to the chateau. It was grape harvest season and at one point we followed behind a truck loaded down with the ripe fruit.

We soon saw Chambord's majestic outline--it's the largest chateau in the Loire--and not much later were locking up our bikes in the rack next to its slimy moat. It took us several hours to explore the huge building, which counts among its highlights an impressive double helix staircase rumoured to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci. The place was used to safely store art from around France during WWII; the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo were there at one point. After riding home to Blois, we cleaned up, walked around town some more and bypassing the Michelin-starred restaurants in town, ended up at the much modest but nonetheless tasty (and packed) Le Castelet, which was well reviewed in Lonely Planet and elsewhere.

Day Three (20+ miles biked)
Chateau de Beauregard

Today was, as hoped, a two chateaux day-it just wasn't the two I planned. We packed up our panniers and headed across the Loire again, riding through a pretty forest path that started our way to Cheverny, a chateau known for its well-preserved interior and for being home to a pack of French hunting hounds. The day started out sunny and we soon detoured to a random mansion I spotted in the distance, Chateau de Beauregard. We kept our helmets on while parking our bikes as acorns rained down on us from the trees. An older couple chuckled with us as we dodged them. The couple turned out to be from St Ives, a town just 15 miles from Cambridge!

Beauregard turned out to be closed so we took a quick walk around and headed off to Cheverny, where we saw the same English couple! Chevenry's interior is indeed spectacularly well-kept, and a nice contrast from the largely barren rooms of Chambord. The chateau is famous for its 100 French hunting dogs, but KT wasn't a fan of the baying hounds as they seemed forlorn in their fenced, concrete-floored enclosure.

As we left Cheverny, I still had hopes of making it back to the banks of the Loire to the village of Chaumont, site of another major chateau. But we were initially distracted by stopping in for a delightful tasting at Domaine de Montcy, a small vineyard that like many in the region was in the middle of its harvest. Once back on the bike, rain and wind began to slow us down and the sun began to set. Add to this that we had no hotel reservation in Chaumont -- I wanted to stay flexible after Blois -- and I started to wonder if KT might divorce me by the end of the trip. We passed a few hotels and gites (French B&Bs) as we thought Chaumont was still possible, but as the rain intensified, we finally decided enough was enough and pulled into a small village to find its tourist office.
The tourist info/children's railroad station

bar/diner/tobacco shop/savior: our B&B for the night.
To our amusement, the tourist office was in a small "train station" for a children's railroad. The kind man in the office spoke almost no English unfortunately. But with the help of a woman who stopped by I conveyed our need for a place to stay that night and he started making phone calls. Once he found a place, we then had to understand his directions there! In the end, it all worked out. We biked another 10 minutes to a roadside restaurant/bar that had a few sparsely furnished rooms above it, but it was ridiculously cheap and also had very welcoming hosts. The bar had about 8 men in for a post-work day drink, but we think the hotel and restaurant part was actually closed as the couple was leaving the next day for a funeral. They must have taken pity on us when the tourist office called. Even better, they offered us an inexpensive dinner, which turned out to be what they were cooking for themselves: tasty potato and leek soup, out-of-this world meat-stuffed tomatoes, a cheese course (and an offer for dessert). While no gourmet feast, it may have been one of our most satisfying meals in France.

Day Four (20+ miles biked)

Dry and refreshed, we set off in the morning for the short ride to Chateau Chaumont, which is grandly perched on a hill overlooking the Loire, a very strategic military spot. The chateau itself is perfectly nice, and its location offers spectacular views, but the overall estate is best known as home to art installations, both within the building and in its large gardens. The gardens are truly the big draw as 30+ artists get spots to put their visions on display; many of them hard to describe. One turned a plot of garden into a jazz lounge with a piano set amongst the plants and Billie Holiday records playing in the background. Another had a wall of teacups.

A leisurely lunch and a tour of the grounds occupied most of our afternoon, so we then had to make haste to Amboise, for the first time following the bike path that goes directly alongside the Loire. Yet the path soon moved away from the river and up a large (for us) hill that made us sweat for the first time. We paralleled the Loire from up high all the way to the outskirts of Amboise, where we quickly descended into the heart of the city, which like Blois, has a major chateaux at its center. Again, I had made no reservations so I quickly began calling a list of cycle-friendly places. All were full or too far away. As the sun began to set, we dashed to the bank of the Loire and began checking the cheap hotels there. I finally found one with an open room and a willingness to store our bikes for a few euros, and we collapsed, exhausted.

After a quick shower, we rallied to walk down to the base of the chateau where we dined outside in the cool breeze.

Day Five (20+ miles)

While our hotel room was small, and its bathroom microscopic, it was nicely situated across the street from the Amboise market this morning. We like nothing better than a French market so we soon loaded up on bread, cheese, sausages-and a roast chicken, of course. Suitably loaded with food, it was time to head for our last major chateau: Chenonceau.

Chateau du Pintray, our accommodation for the night.
But we would go there after first stopping at our final destination of the day, the wine estate and B&;B Chateau de Pintray. When we rolled into this beautiful mansion several miles outside Amboise and KT got a look at the magnificent setting and gorgeous room, I knew I had made up for the rainy rides without hotel reservations. Our host apologized for greeting us in dirty work clothes but she and their friends and neighbors were harvesting grapes that day! Given the mansion wasn't near any restaurants, we decided to leave our market provisions there for dinner that night and headed off on our bikes to Chenonceau.

To my taste, Chenonceau offered the most beautiful pictures of the chateaux we had visited--It's literally built over the river Cher. The day was capped off back at Chateau de Pintray where we met the winemaker--who discussed whether France would ever accept genetically modified grapes--and later sampled the vineyard's wines and dined on the market food in the dark at a candle-lit picnic table. Ah, the good life.

Day Six Amboise (and Seven) (handful of miles biked)

One of daVinci's inventions
A relaxed final day in the Loire. We biked back into Amboise and roamed around the city a bit before visiting Leonardo da Vinci's home, Clos Luce. Able to visit the royal chateau by an underground passage, da Vinci spent his final days here. Given that I was fielding calls that morning about one of the Nobel prizes, it was fitting to be at the home of this unparalleled genius. The mansion offered models of his many inventions and the grounds also offered full-sized versions of some of the machines. Then it was a quick stop at the community wine cooperative tasting center before we jumped on the train back to Paris where we spent the night at a friend's house before catching a Eurostar train back to London, and then a final train back to Cambridge. Can we sneak in one last European biking adventure before we return to the States? We'll see.

Click here for extended photo album.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas from Cambridge!

Merry Christmas on a picture-perfect day in Cambridge! This is snow left over from last weekend (and perhaps a fresh 1/4 inch from Tuesday) -- the snow that shut Heathrow airport for days. We were actually in the US last week, scheduled to fly out on Monday, a day when most flights to London were cancelled. We took our flight from Detroit to Washington DC, fully prepared to spend up to a week waiting out the chaos. However, when we arrived at Dulles airport, we were whisked onto an open flight to London on another airline. We think it was originally a cancelled flight that was at the last minute granted one of the precious few slots to land at Heathrow. It was all a bit odd and the plane was only about two-thirds full, but we made it home and from all the crazy stories we've heard, it's a good thing we jumped on that plane.

So, we're in Cambridge and looking forward to a quiet week of reading, movie-watching, and exercising off our Christmas feast.

Merry Christmas, y'all!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

When in Rome ...

We're just back from Rome and Sorrento, and earlier this month I was in the US. Now I'm enjoying one of my 10 days at home (by which I mean Cambridge) this month. After a lull in traveling, it seems like the suitcase is always out. This last trip was good fun, and included two friends from Washington DC. For the fans of our self-portraits, I thought you might enjoy one that includes all four of us.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Oh my fjord.

I have a loooooong post on our 3-day trip to Norway that I still haven't managed to finish. While you wait, I thought I'd provide a lovely video of a Norwegian Fjord to entertain you.

Fjord Tour from dceditors on Vimeo.

This is in Sognefjord, "Norway's longest and deepest fjord," says the Web site.

The cruise was between Gudvagen and Flam, as illustrated here:

View Fjord cruise in a larger map

More to come!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Into the (London) Woods and to the Queen's Castle We Go

When I told a colleague about some vacation plans in a few weeks, she emailed back "Another vacation?" I was initially a bit annoyed because we actually haven't taken a real (week or more) vacation all year, and I have more than half my vacation days left. But I understood why she made the comment. KT and I have become good at exploiting work trips to visit new places, even if we just have a day or two free, and we've regularly taken long weekend vacations. A few weeks ago offers a good example of how much fun that can be. KT had a work conference in London on Friday and Saturday, so we decided to make a London weekend of it. And since we didn't want to spend a lot to do it, we tried something different for housing--we booked a room at one of Imperial College's new dormitories. Many English universities rent out summer room whiles students are away and Imperial's dorms are located in one of our favorite spots, South Kensington, right next to the V&A, Science and Natural History museums and Hyde park.

We also made this London visit a bit different by bringing our bikes. We initially planned to take part in London's Skyride--a day when the city closes some main roads and thousands pedal through the auto-free streets. But we then noticed that that there was charity London to Windsor bike ride the same day--and we had not yet seen Windsor castle. That's why on friday night after work I was on the train to London with my bike. KT had come down in the morning, with her bike, for her conference and we met outside the British Library. We then summoned up our courage and began our first bike ride in London. It was much easier than we expected--the city has carved out a good number of bike lanes and put up good routing signs. We pedaled west in more or less a straight line for about 15 minutes, before diving down south into Hyde park and looping around it to reach South Kensington. Seeing the dorm room was a relief--it was a nice, if not better, than some London/European hotel rooms, particularly its bathroom. And amusingly, there was a university bar at the bottom of the neighboring dorm wing--it felt like we were back in college! That evening we strolled the area and found a rare Portuguese restaurant that offered some tasty food and wines.

The start line of the Richmond to Windsor bike ride
Chorizo pizza!
The next morning, after marching over to the university's cafeteria to get a Full English breakfast (The room was a B&B!), KT went off to the last day of her conference and I went off to explore. It didn't take long to find a farmer's market and a cupcake store, where I had an Elvis--a banana cupcake with peanut butter frosting, and saved a chocolate one for later. That's because I had more food to find.

I crossed town on a bus to brixton market for the much-celebrated Franco Manca  sourdough pizza, sold in a chaotic little stall/restaurant in the middle of the market. Completely stuffed at this point I...went to another food market. It wasn't planned, honestly. I hopped on the subway and realized I would soon reach one of our favorite London spots, Borough Market. I must admit to sampling a few things but I mainly picked up provisions for planned picnic that evening. I also stumbled upon a colorful wedding party--the bride was African and her side of the family were decked our in traditional attire (picture). By that point, it was time to rush off to the British Library, where I was able to speed through its impressive Maps exhibit before KT was done with her meeting.

We encountered Hampton Court Palace along the Thames path
The evening's plan emerged when we realized the weekend weather looked promising and I noticed that Regent Park was hosting an open-air production of Into the Woods. I knew nothing about the musical, which marries a bunch of classic fairy tales (Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella) into a single narrative about a baker and wife trying to remove a witch's curse so they can have a baby. KT, however, had seen it decades ago and loved it. So I snapped up tickets. It was magical, one of the best performances I've seen. (check out a video montage here). It's hard to imagine a better location for the show as the backdrop was tall trees swaying in the night wind.

I like to be visible from outer space.
We went to bed so late Saturday that we weren't sure we would actually do the Sunday ride to Windsor. But we got ourselves moving and after an adventuresome hour ride along the Thames, we found our way to the starting line in Richmond and signed up just before registration ended. We were soon off with the crowd, mostly following the Thames along a delightful path. It was great to see how populated the path and the river were--everyone was enjoying themselves. At one point, we suddenly came across a palatial looking mansion--indeed, it was the Hampton court palace. About halfway on the 28 mile ride, we stopped for a delicious hog roast at a village pub, the delightful Royal Marine; everyone was abuzz because the pub had 4 pairs of baby twins in it. The parents had all met at the hospital while giving birth and decided to make getting together a regular occurrence. KT thought they really wouldn't miss one baby, so I got us out of there quickly. After slogging up a few tough hills, we finally made it into Windsor, speeding past the Queen's castle (she was apparently in residence as the Union Jack flag was flying) to the finish line in a nearby park. After celebrating our accomplishment for a while, we pedaled a bit around Windsor and crossed the Thames to visit the famous boy's school Eton. A train fortunately sped us back to London and we wearily cycled home the short distance to our room.

An amusing sign along the ride - "Stop feeding the horse - to[o] fat"
Monday morning saw us over at the Natural History Museum for a few hours before we packed up our bikes and sped back across town to catch an afternoon train back to Cambridge. A busy, fun-filled London weekend--and it only cost me one vacation day.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Shouldn't we have a punting license, or insurance?


Dan was the first brave one
One of the regular things we do with guests is take a punt tour of the colleges along the river Cam. A punt is a flat-bottomed boat pushed with a long pole, much like the gondolas in Venice. On a beautiful Cambridge day, a guided punt tour is a relaxing way to learn some history and see the beautiful "Backs" of the colleges, the buildings and gardens off-limits to non-students unless you pay a fee. It can also be like watching a demolition derby.

That's because while people can pay for a guided punt, as we usually do, one can also just rent the boat and try to direct it yourself. It's harder than it looks, especially to keep going straight--and even experienced chauffeurs will occasionally lose their pole as it  can get stuck in the mud. On a busy weekend, the narrow river is clogged with boats crashing into each, bridges and the shore. It's fun to take pictures and KT likes to quip that she's seen marriages end on the river as spouses fight over inadequate punting skill.

On a nice day, the river can get quite crowded with punters who may or may not be able to drive their boat in a straight line.
Of course, we've never ourselves dared to take up the long pole--until a few weeks ago, when our DC friends Dan, Lisa and their daughter Anya visited. We started on a punt tour with a few other people but they hopped off half-way through the round-trip tour--they didn't want to walk back to the turning point apparently. So we and the rather laidback guide had the punt to ourselves and he soon asked if Dan wanted to try chauffeuring it. He was game and did a fine job for about 5-10 minutes, before asking if I wanted to try. No, I was desperately thinking, but I squeaked out a "sure"--I couldn't wimp out in front of the ladies. It was a great fun, and I kept the punt moving relatively straight, albeit slowly. KT then took her turn, which was short as we were coming up on a congested part of the river. I'm not sure we'll chauffeur our next punting tour but at least we can say we finally punted ourselves.  --JT
KT navigating the Cam.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

DC Editors Take Edinburgh, 2010 Edition

I know, I know. We’ve been to Edinburgh before. One year ago, in fact. But nothing says summer vacation like a trip north to Scotland. It may be the opposite of going to the beach, but it’s crazy fun.

To refresh your memory, Edinburgh hosts something like 11 festivals in August – arts, books, jazz, dance, you name it. The big draw for us is the Fringe – more than 2000 performances ranging from comedy to drama to music to juggling to improv to … well, just about anything. As an example, one performer is climbing to space (because, he decided, the moon is too far) by going up and down a 10-foot ladder until he’s climbed the equivalent of 50 miles. That’s it, that’s his performance. People drop by periodically to check on his progress.

Last year we saw 34 performances in a week. This year we were there for just 4 days but still managed a respectable 19 shows between us. Two of the shows I (KT) saw were particularly lovely because they reminded me how much I love words. Poet Kate Fox lovingly turns her life experiences into verse that flows effortlessly and with a lovely cadence. A particularly amusing snippet:

As Leonard Cohen nearly said,

stop mithering,

I was born like this,

I had no choice,

I was born with the gift of a Northern voice.

I know hearing it makes some people groan

and develop Irritable Vowel Syndrome. …

Molly Naylor’s one woman show about her life and experiences surrounding the 7/7 bombings was poignant and insightful. She writes of her generation:

Somebody once said we were something, and we haven’t forgotten yet. // Nobody here will become a teacher and teach others how to teach. For us, there is everything wrong with a lack of glamour and we’re finding out how far we can reach // how many pints // how many overdrafts // telling stories about our experiments// the subtext that life will save us. // It won’t // but we don’t know this yet. … // Somebody once said we were something and we haven’t learned anything yet.

I spent some time at the book festival, too, even though I didn’t actually go to an event. Still, the book shop there is full of books by writers I know of but far more I don’t. I thought I exhibited remarkable restraint by buying just one book by Hanif Kureishi, who is a new-to-me author.

[UPDATE: I got an e-mail late last night from friend Em, subject line: Smile, You're on the Review Show! While I was at the book festival, there was a camera there shooting B roll. It was, rather often, pointed right at me. So, I dutifully read the stack of stuff I picked up on the way in -- the London Review of Books, the Book Festival program, etc. Turns out the cameras were shooting for a BBC book show, which Em spotted me on and I watched this morning on iPlayer. I am not, however, reading the London Review of Books.
Photo of Em's telly, with me on it. Not reading the London Review of Books.
Me playing on my phone made a great intro for a story on David Shields' claim that the the 21st century has ushered in a digital age, complete with mobile phones, twitter, and so on that render the novel obsolete. [You can read about this in his BOOK (though not a novel), Reality Hunger.]

I turn up again later on in the program - for somewhat of an opposite reason: a piece on e-books and e-book readers.
There we go. NOW I'm reading the London Review of Books.

There you have it: My 2 nanoseconds of fame.]

Of course, there’s nothing like some good music, and the Orkestra del Sol had the audience jumping around for a good 90 minutes with their Balkan Gypsy beats. Out of the Blue, an Oxford acapella group, always impresses. And Storm Large: Wow. Totally filthy and raunchy, but holy smokes, can she perform. I cringed on behalf of the middle-aged woman in front of me with the Princess Diana hair, but she was singing right along to Storm’s big finale, the chorus of which starts “my vagina is 8 miles wide.” A real toe-tapper, that one. (Here’s the video for that song; the video itself is mostly parody but don’t say I didn’t warn you about the lyrics.)

And we went to the circus. Not one with clowns, balloon animals, elephant rides, and sword swallowing. (Actually, there might have been sword swallowing.) Tabu was closer to Cirque du Soleil, but not quite. The audience stood throughout the performance while acrobatics, trapeze artistry, Chinese pole climbing, hula hooping, and so on went on over and around us, all to music of a live band. It was positively incredible – a circus for grown-ups, complete with a bar.
One of this year's features - Festival in the Sky. Have lunch, tea, or dinner suspended 100 feet above the ground while taking in the view! (We did not do this.)

A typical scene in Edinburgh during the Fringe.

Here’s what we saw, and in keeping with the standard 5-star rating system used for Fringe events, we’ve thrown in our own ratings:


Orkestra del Sol – 5 stars! Good fun – Balkan Gypsy band that had everyone jumping.

Kate Fox News – 4 stars. Kate Fox is a journalist, writer, and poet. This autobiographical show takes us through her challenging childhood, the search for her real father, her career as a journalist, and her journey to poetry and to finding her true love. She was funny, moving, and sweet. I want to have her over for a cuppa.

The Vanishing Horizon – 4 stars. A lovely physical theatre piece weaving together a woman’s personal journey with her husband’s project on the history of aviation. By the same company that did a show we really liked last year (Borges and I).

Storm Large – 5 stars. Whoa. She’s amazing. Raunchy and filthy and a sad, hard life – that she has made the most of through her abilities as a performer.

Out of the Blue – 4 stars. All male acapella group can rock Lady Gaga and Billy Joel with skill.

Memoirs of a Biscuit Tin – 3 stars. Such a sweet premise – a house has lost its owner, so the chimney, wall, and floor set out on a journey to find her. The acting was lovely and innovative, but the script needs much work.

Tabu – 5 stars. Amazing circus. See above.


Midsummer’s Night Madness – 5 stars. A futuristic hip-hop adaptation of Midsummer Night’s Dream, complete with soliloquies performed as R&B songs. Positively fantastic.

Others – 4 stars. A refreshing piece of theatre in which 3 women portray/recite/emote their exchanges of letters with a prisoner, Iranian woman, and a celebrity. That’s what most of the reviews call it, though that doesn’t really begin to describe it, and mostly it shines for being an innovative script with brilliant acting and staging.

Whenever I get Blown Up I Think of You – 4 stars. Molly Naylor’s recounting of her life and how it changed after surviving a 7/7 bomb attack on the London Tube.

Skeryvore –Free music from a modern/traditional Scottish rock band at the National Museum of Scotland. Beautiful venue, great music, bagpipes, men in kilts. A very valid way to spend an hour.


Rupert Pupkin Collective—3 stars. About 20 viewers in a hall seating maybe 300 isn’t a good start but this foursome of middle-aged guys persevered with a solid set of improv. They had fun and so did the audience. Some veteran British comics from the TV quiz shows.

Otherwise—4 stars. Stuffed into a moderately-sized conference room, with little more than a table and chairs as the set, this well-written drama kicks off when a young man wakes up in a police station interrogation room after a drunken night out. His girlfriend is murdered and he’s the prime suspect—to defend himself, he has his best mate and the girlfriend “appear” during the interrogation, but they don’t tell him what he wants to hear, and the girlfriend turns out to be something surprising (saying more would be a spoiler). Excellent.

Not What I Had In Mind-2 stars. A celebrated dancer interviewed a random selection of people and had them choreograph his movements to depict their emotions and dreams. Unfortunately, they’re not dancers so he does stuff like jump, flail arms, and scratch his head. Intriguing concept that fails.

120 Birds—4 stars. A much better dance show for my 5 pounds. Loosely inspired by the travels of a 1920’s dance troupe, 3 women and 1 male show off a myriad of dance styles, and costumes.

Closest to the Moon—5 stars. I kept trying to talk myself out of seeing this “musical in development” about a mountain-climbing but I’m so glad I didn’t. Minimal staging and acting for the 10-strong chorus and 2 leads—a mountain climber tackling Mt Everest and his wife who wonders why he risks it—but some brilliant singing, especially by the wife, make me wonder if this could be a musical that someday makes it to the West End. In any case, I predict some of the impressive cast will.

Invisible Atom—1 actor on a stage tells a compelling story of his gradual descent into suicidal depression after he survives a terrorist attack that kills many others—9/11?—and discovers that finding his biological father solves nothing in his life.

Wonderland—3 stars. A world premiere of a new musical about the eccentric Oxford professor who wrote Alice in Wonderland and his complicated interactions with the first actress to play the part.  Strong cast do justice to the witty songs but the the dark side of “Lewis Carroll”—biographers differ over allegations that he had an unhealthy albeit non-sexual obsession with young girls—ultimately intrudes into the fairy-tale romp and the script isn’t strong enough to pull off the complex tale. 

Two—3 stars. Two actors play bickering married pub-owners and 12 other characters in a night at the pub. Fitfully amusing for first half but then ends powerfully as couple finally deal with the emotions of an old tragedy. One for acting schools.

Scotland, as seen from a moving train.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Better Late than Never, or Wet and Wild in Scotland

KT and I are returning to Edinburgh in August for more of the Fringe (Remember the 30+ shows we saw last year?). And that made me all the more embarrassed we never blogged about the post-Edinburgh part of our Scotland vacation. So...let's get it done.

First up, here's an Edinburgh recap in a photo-album. It includes some of the Military Tatoo where the famous Swiss Top Secret Drum Corps showed off their flaming drumsticks!
But enough about Edinburgh, We spent about another week up in the Highlands visiting castles (the one at the top is Castle Stalker, otherwise known as Castle Argh for its role in a Monty Python movie) and more.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Cambridge Folk Festival 2010

Four years later, I'm not sure I have an answer to what folk music looks like in England. But I do know that this year's lineup at the Cambridge Folk Festival was an eclectic mix of acts from all over the world. I also know that it was darn good fun.

Summer music festivals are The Thing in Britain (perhaps Europe?). The most popular are Glastonbury and the BBC Proms, but there are hundreds. I do love music, but I'm not sure I would have ever gone to one if it hadn't been for Ruthie Foster's appearance at Cambridge in 2007. I've been every day, every year since.

Thursday evening, highlights for me were Port Isaac's Fisherman's Friends, a 10-man acapella group (note: all videos are shaky, owing to my complete inability to stand still when there's music around):

Port Isaac's Fishermen's Friends from dceditors on Vimeo.

And Lissie, an American whose first album is only out in Europe:

Lissie from dceditors on Vimeo.

Friday at the Folk Festival is always a delightful day for me, because it's technically a work day that I take off, and it feels deliciously evil to be sitting in a field listening to fabulous music while everyone else is slaving away at their computers.

Highlights of the day included my boyfriend Seth Lakeman (in case you wonder why my bike rides have gotten faster, it's in part because this song is on my cycling mix):

Seth Lakeman - Race to be King from dceditors on Vimeo.

And the Boban and Marko Markovic Orchestra, a Serbian Gypsy band:

Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar from dceditors on Vimeo.

Another favorite was Imelda May, who performed with Irish folk legend Sharon Shannon. And when I saw Breabach in 2007, they were here playing their first gig outside of Scotland. This year, they opened Friday's main stage program.

 Saturday was JT's one day at the festival. He always has a great time, but isn't so interested in 4 days of Fest. But Saturday's lineup delivered. The runaway hit was Pink Martini, a classy orchestra from Portland, Oregon that delivered a big-band sound:

Pink Martini from dceditors on Vimeo.

We also really enjoyed the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who I got to see again on Sunday:

Carolina Chocolate Drops from dceditors on Vimeo.

The big headliners of the day were Americans -- Natalie Merchant and Kathy Mattea. Both were phenomenal.

Kathy Mattea

Natalie Merchant

It was great to see Dervish live; I've owned some of their CDs for ages. New to us was the Burns Unit and Joe Pug, both of whom we enjoyed quite a lot. The Quebe Sisters were a total throwback to 1) Texas, and 2) the 1920s. Have a listen.

By Sunday, I was really exhausted, but nevertheless got myself to Cherry Hinton Hall. I skipped the headliners -- Kris Kristofferson and the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Instead, I hung out at the smaller tent listening to the haunting harmonies of the Unthanks and the footstomping, dancy Dervish.

A little bit of rain throughout the festival made for great wellie watching. Here are some wellie pictures:

This was probably my last Cambridge Folk Festival, but I sincerely doubt it will be my last music festival. I'm hooked.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sunday roast and a ramble

It feels silly to even write about Sunday roast as an event anymore, but today we headed out withour friends A&E to the village of Hemingford Grey for Sunday lunch at a charming pub/restaurant called The Cock. Chuckle if you must, but this is a serious place. Such pleasant experiences are almost enough to make us forget the UK's lack of Sunday brunch foods made with copious amounts of butter, sugar, and eggs. Instead, the main Sunday meal is usually some form of delicious roast meat, generally consumed in some ridiculously charming pub that's a minimum of 300 years old.

After lunch, we headed out for a ramble around the village of Hemingford Grey and up to St. Ives. We had beautiful weather -- about 70 degrees and partly sunny. The 4-mile walk was hardly enough to put a dent in what we'd eaten for lunch, but we were all OK with that. The food, the company, the scenery -- all superb!

Photo album below.

Hole in the Wall, Little Wilbraham

The nice weather is infectious. I had been awake for 5 minutes when JT suggested a bike ride to a village pub for lunch. Since I had slept the entire morning away, this meant leaving fairly quickly. Knowing where we were heading, I was happy to oblige. The Hole in the Wall in Little Wilbraham may well be our new favorite place. Lovely ride, delicious food.