European Holiday

I love Christmas and all the special events that go with the Season.  So this year I decided to do things in grand style with a trip to Europe to see how the Holidays are celebrated in the Old Country.

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Mike and I and three of his cousins booked a Rhine River cruise for early December.

Chris and Norm traveled from Oregon, and Jan came from the state of Washington. We all met in Basel, Switzerland.

Our voyage was titled “Rhine Holiday Markets,” and as the name suggests, had an emphasis on the Christmas Markets along the way.  We visited eight cities in as many days.

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The origins of the Christmas Markets can be traced back over 500 years ago to Nuremburg, Germany.  They initially offered citizens a chance to stock up on goods for the coming winter months.  These markets of everyday staples eventually evolved into Christmas markets with its decorated stalls. Over the centuries, the markets brought cheer, color and light in the long, cold winter months.

Something I noticed in all the cities we visited – Europeans decorate with white lights, never any of the colored bulbs we see here in the U.S.  This probably goes with the tradition of candles at the early markets.

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Lucerne, Switzerland

 

Our travels began in Basel, Switzerland.  The Swiss are famously independent and stayed neutral in both World Wars.  They declined to join the European Union, and still use the Swiss franc as their currency.  You can make purchases with Euros, but you’ll get francs in return as change.

Switzerland has five official languages – German, French, Italian, English, and Romansh.  Romansh is spoken in the southeastern region of the country and is derived from Latin.

The city of Basel is an industrial and technology center with a high number of foreigners in residence.  Thirty-six percent of the population is not Swiss.  In religious beliefs, it’s about half Catholic and half Protestant.

Basel is known for its fountains.  Over 300 are scattered throughout the city.  On the fountain pictured below is a basilisk which is associated with Basel.  Basilisks are a mythological animal that can be described as a cock with dragon’s wings, having the beak of an eagle, and the tail of a lizard.  If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you read about them in  J.K. Rowling’s books.

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Middle Bridge – tower in the middle of the bridge was a chapel
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City Building

After our city tour, we enjoyed the market in Basel.

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Before leaving Switzerland, we took a bus trip to the central part of the country to visit the beautiful city of Lucerne.  I live in a town with two covered bridges, so I was most looking forward to seeing Lucerne’s Chapel Bridge, a covered footbridge that dates to 1333.  It is the oldest truss bridge in the world and measures 672 feet long.   I walked over the bridge twice and took photos of the wonderful old paintings that can be seen up in the interior triangle of the roof.  The paintings show events from Lucerne’s history.

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Lucerne’s Christmas Market

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Merchant selling reindeer pelts

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After visiting Basel and Lucerne, we set sail up the Rhine to the next city.  We went through a series of locks in rapid succession and completed a total of ten.  1st Captain Menno Van Meerveld was our Dutch captain of the ship.  He ably piloted us on the busy river.

The mighty Rhine has always been a major trade route in Europe. It flows north from the Alps in Switzerland through six countries and eventually drains into the North Sea in the Netherlands. Today there is still a steady stream of barges transporting goods.  We learned that captains need special training and certification to navigate the Rhine.

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S.S. Antoinette

Our floating hotel for the next eight days was the S.S. Antoinette, owned by Uniworld Boutique River Cruises.  We shared the longship with 129 other passengers.

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The lobby featured a 10-foot blue Strauss Baccarat chandelier that once hung in New York City’s Tavern on the Green.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ship had a nice lounge, and the five of us spent time there playing cards and dominos.  We also had musical entertainment a couple of nights later in the cruise.  The most enjoyable extra for me was a lecture on European Holiday Traditions that was given by a local historian, Rebecca Hajek.

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Mike, Chris, Jan, and Norm
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We always had plenty of snacks in the Lounge.

The food was prepared by our executive chef, Peter Magac.  Toward the end of the tour we had a cake decorated with a map of our cruise.

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Pam, Chef Magac, and Jan

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We spent the third day of our cruise in Strasbourg, France which is located in the historic region of Alsace.  It’s a lovely city known for its well-preserved, half-timber buildings.  It’s also the official seat of the European Parliament, and along with Brussels and Luxembourg, is one of the three main capitals of the European Union.

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Strasbourg

We took a tour of the Cathedral of our Lady and checked out the astronomical clock.

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The stores were beautifully decorated for the Holidays.

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Strasbourg Christmas Market

We continued our journey to Heidelberg, Germany.  I liked Heidelberg.  It’s a college town with the oldest university in Germany (1386) and the third oldest in Europe.  The university is well-respected and boasts eleven Nobel Prize winners, with five of them in the field of medicine.  Heidelberg was spared much of the bombing of WWII and has a classic old European feel about it.

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Downtown Heidelberg

The first half of our day was spent exploring Heidelberg Castle.  It’s a rambling mix of buildings dating from 1214.  Much of it is in ruins, but overall the castle has great appeal.

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Located in the cellars of the castle is the Heidelberg Tun, a giant barrel that held 58,000 gallons of wine.  Supposedly 130 oak trees were used in its construction.

 

During the Romantic Movement of the 1800s, artists painted the castle ruins and the surrounding landscape.  Mark Twain described Heidelberg Castle in his 1880 travel book, A Tramp Abroad.

 

 

Our group took the funicular from the castle hill down to Main Street.

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We had lunch at a lovely restaurant called the Golden Falke.

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During the afternoon we walked around the Christmas Markets and along the river.

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On to Wiesbaden.  This town was made famous by its thermal springs and spas.  In the 1800s, the rich and famous gathered to enjoy the baths and do some gambling, which was also popular.  Among the visitors back then was Fyodor Dostoevsky, Johannes Brahms, and Richard Wagner.

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I liked the Christmas market in Wiesbaden.  It had a unique color theme of blue and gold.

Rudesheim was another charming town.  Riesling wine is popular in this area of Germany.

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You’ll also want to try Rudesheim coffee when you’re in town.  All the coffee houses serve it.

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The drink was invented in 1957 and combines local Asbach Uralt brandy and coffee.  In Rudesheim, it’s served in a special cup.  To make the coffee, flambé brandy and sugar in a cup to dissolve the sugar.  Add hot coffee and top with whipped cream and chocolate flakes.  Delicious!

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Rudesheim Coffee Cup and Saucer

On day 6 of our cruise we sailed through the Upper Middle Rhine Valley.  It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and featured 21 castles perched on steep cliffs.  Down below were picturesque villages and lots of church spires.  This stretch of the river is sometimes called the Romantic Rhine.

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During Medieval times, the princes who owned the castles taxed passing merchants on the river.  Ships could only proceed if they paid a duty to this local ruler.  If the merchant refused to pay, the prince confiscated the ship and its cargo.   That’s where the term robber baron comes from.

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Pfaltzgrafenstein Castle – toll house

We passed through an area known as the Lorelei.  According to legend, sailors became distracted by a beautiful singing maiden at the top of the cliff and crashed their ships.  In truth, it was a dangerous area of the Rhine with swift currents and rock ledges that caused accidents.

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Lorelei

A statue at the bottom of the cliff pays tribute to the mythical Lorelei.

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There was some agreement during WWII that historic buildings and sites would not be a target for bombing.  So the Germans set about building historic-looking structures over their railroad tunnels to avoid bombings that would interrupt their transportation system.  You can still see them today.

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“Mini-castle” over a railroad tunnel

After the castle viewing, we arrived in Koblenz.  This city is important for its location at the confluence (where two rivers meet) of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers.  It was heavily bombed during WWII and 87% of the city was destroyed.

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A major historical site is German Corner – the point of land where the Rhine and Moselle meet.  The space is dominated by a large statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I.  It was dedicated in 1897 as a tribute to the leader for unifying Germany in 1871.  The statue was damaged in WWII and removed.  After the war, when Germany was divided into the communist east and the capitalist west, German Corner became a symbol of the hope for a re-unified country.  That happened in 1990; three years later the statue of Kaiser Wilhelm was reinstalled.  Today visitors can also see three sections of the former Berlin Wall that were dedicated to “the victims of the division.”

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The oldest church in Koblenz is St. Castor (1208).

 

 

 

 

 

Koblenz had some nice markets and shops, too.

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The small windows in the roof of the City Hall building, above, serve as an Advent calendar.  The number of each day is added, and at night they are lit up.

Our final stop was Cologne, Germany.  It’s the country’s fourth largest city after Munich, Hamburg, and Berlin.  Cologne was another city that was heavily bombed in WWII.  Nearly 92 % was destroyed in the war, and that’s because it was a transportation hub.  Today over 1,500 trains per day pass through the railway station.

You can’t miss the majestic Cologne Cathedral in the city center.  Construction began in 1248.  Cologne is still a Catholic stronghold in Germany.  The cathedral is Cologne’s most visited landmark with an average of 20,000 people a day.

 

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The gold sarcophagus is believed to contain the bones of the Three Magi.

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Outside the Cathedral were several Christmas markets.  The city had a total of seven markets.  Businesses were nicely decorated, too.

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Chocolate, Gingerbread, and Gluhwein

A travel experience isn’t complete unless you try the food specialties of the area.

Switzerland is about chocolate, and we sampled several kinds.  Our guide told us that Lindt makes a chocolate exclusively for Switzerland, and the rest of the world gets another recipe.  But it’s all creamy and delicious no matter what you have.

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I like gingerbread and that was easy to find in the markets.  A variation called Lebkuchen became my favorite.

A popular drink at the Christmas markets is gluhwein, a hot spiced wine served in a small, ceramic mug.  Each market has its own unique mug that is decorated and may feature the name of the city and some local landmarks.  I made it a point to purchase one from each town we visited.

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I really enjoyed my holiday cruise of the Rhine River.  On one of the last days, the pastry chef made a birthday cake for me.  I also had a chance for a photo with Captain Van Meerveld.

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This was a Holiday Season I won’t forget.

Merry Christmas!

 

 

Grant Wood Studio Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Grant Wood

 

 

Grant Wood is one of my favorite American artists – he’s the fellow who painted American Gothic.  Today, it’s one of the most recognized paintings in the country.

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American Gothic

Wood spent most of his life in the state of Iowa.  He was born in Anamosa (east-central Iowa) and lived in nearby Cedar Rapids from 1901-1934.

A few years ago I visited the American Gothic house in Eldon, Iowa (see June 2016 post) and recently decided it was time to continue on the Grant Wood trail by visiting his studio in Cedar Rapids.

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American Gothic House;  Eldon, Iowa

Cedar Rapids

The American Gothic-themed rest stop, just a few minutes outside of Cedar Rapids, lets you know you’re entering Grant Wood territory.  Most rest stops are fairly institutional looking and don’t require much attention, but this one was different.  I wanted to stay and look around.

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Studio

The Grant Wood Studio is close to downtown and has been open to the public since 2004.  The building was a carriage house on land originally owned by the Douglas family (they were one of the founders of Quaker Oats).  The stately Douglas mansion was completed in the 1890s and is located close to the carriage house.

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Grant Wood Studio
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Douglas Mansion

In 1923, the property was sold to John Turner and his son, David, and they opened a mortuary in the Douglas mansion.  Grant Wood was commissioned to redesign the home for the funeral business.  The Turners also invited Wood to build a studio and living space on the unused second floor of the adjacent carriage house.  His address became 5 Turner Alley.

The studio is cozy and interesting.  Our guide was very good, and we learned about Grant Wood’s life and his art.  It was here that Wood created his most well-known paintings including American Gothic, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, and Daughters of Revolution. He lived at the studio from 1924-1935.

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Wood added several unique features to the space – my favorite was a hood over the fireplace made from a galvanized farmer’s basket.

 

The entrance door is also clever. It’s a copy of the original that is now in the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.  Wood had a lot of visitors, so he made the door with a pointer that he could spin to indicate what he was doing at the moment.  The choices were: “In,” “Out of Town,” “Taking a Bath,” or “Having a Party.”

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Original door in Cedar Rapids Museum of Art

After touring the studio we stopped at the impressive Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.  It’s a combination building of the old Cedar Rapids Public Library and a 1989 addition.  The exhibit space is still small compared to some art museums, but the galleries and displays are outstanding.

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They boast the largest collection of Grant Wood paintings anywhere.  We enjoyed looking at his work and that of other Midwest artists.  I liked Woman with Plants that Wood painted in 1929.  It’s a portrait of his mother, and she’s wearing the same brooch that his sister, Nan, would wear a year later in American Gothic.

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Woman with Plants

After looking at the art work, we visited the museum store located in the former public library wing. They have quality merchandise and friendly staff.

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Museum store

Bonus Stop: Czech Village

Cedar Rapids is also known for its Czech Village. Immigrants from Eastern Europe began arriving in the 1850s, and today their descendants carry on traditions in a restored section of town.

We had lunch in the neighborhood at a restaurant called the Village Meat Market & Café.  They offer traditional Czech food including goulash made from a very old recipe.  Another popular menu item is beignets (French, not Czech, but very good – the restaurant owner had spent some time in New Orleans.)

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Hungarian Goulash

 

Cedar Rapids is a large city with a small-town feel and interesting attractions throughout the community.  You’ll enjoy a visit!

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Downtown Cedar Rapids

 

Pikes Peak or Bust

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Zebulon Pike

Most everyone has heard of Pikes Peak in Colorado, but did you know there’s one in the Midwest?  It’s Pikes Peak State Park in McGregor, Iowa, about an hour-and-a-half drive north of Dubuque.  The Colorado and Iowa places both have a connection with Zebulon Pike, a U.S. army officer and explorer.

The United States acquired millions of acres through the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, and several expeditions were carried out under the authority of President Thomas Jefferson.  In 1805, Pike was ordered to find the source of the Mississippi River.  Pike’s expedition took him through the present-day park in McGregor.  A year later, his second expedition was to Colorado where he sighted Pikes Peak.   He tried to do a fourteener, but had to give up – it was November and Pike and his men were waist-deep in snow.  Nonetheless, the peak was eventually named for him.

Back in Iowa, Pikes Peak State Park covers nearly a thousand acres.  It’s well known for a high point at the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers.  An observation platform offers visitors a splendid view from the 500-foot bluff.

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Pikes Peak State Park

One of the recommended hikes took Mike and I to Bridal Veil Falls.  It was lovely.  The delicate flow of water cascaded down the hillside, much like a bride’s veil, and the little canyon was beautiful.

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Bridal Veil Falls

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Be prepared for a descent to get down to the falls, and a steep climb back up the boardwalk staircase, but the scenery and falls itself are worth the effort.

 

 

 

Our journey took on some international flair before we got to Pikes Peak.  We stopped to look at the glorious St. Boniface church in New Vienna.  Though not as grand as St Stephen’s in Vienna, Austria, I wasn’t expecting to see such a large church in this rural Iowa town of 407 residents.

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St. Boniface Church, New Vienna

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Just down the road a few miles was Luxemburg with another mighty church, Holy Trinity.  As you would guess, the community was settled by immigrants from Luxembourg, in addition to persons from Germany and Ireland.

 

 

The town of Guttenberg came next, and that’s where we took a break for lunch.  It’s an historic river town with storefronts built by German immigrants in the mid 1800s.

We chose the Picket Fence Café for a sandwich.  The restaurant is located in a charming 1846 rock warehouse building.  The staff is friendly there, and the food is excellent.  They are well-known for their homemade pie which did not disappoint.

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Picket Fence Cafe

We didn’t take time to visit the town library, but learned that they have a facsimile of the Gutenberg Bible on display.  It was printed in Mainz, Germany in 1913 and brought to the United States in the 1950s.  Some of the pages show fire damage from the Allied bombing of Mainz during World War II.  The bible was purchased by Charles Millham, publisher of The Guttenberg Press.

Bonus stop: Galena, Illinois

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After visiting the Pikes Peak area, we spent some time in Galena, one of my favorite Midwest towns. (see November 2016 post)  The shops and homes were decorated for Fall and their upcoming Halloween parade.

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As we left town we stopped at an overlook to enjoy a few last views of the area.

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Pikes Peak State Park

 

 

 

I’m always ready for a trip to Galena, and this time we also traveled north to see more of the country.  Peaks Peak State Park in McGregor, Iowa is a beautiful, well-kept park and definitely worth a visit.

 

Starved Rock State Park Utica, Illinois

When I was in grade school, a favorite Sunday outing took us to Starved Rock State Park in Utica, Illinois, about an hour’s drive from home.  I grew up surrounded by flat land of corn and soybean fields, so in my young mind, Starved Rock was a natural wonder.  The Illinois River flowing by was deep and swift, the canyons looked mighty, and the Rock itself was high and scary.

We’d have a family picnic on the grounds somewhere, or for a special treat, lunch was in the Lodge Dining Room.  Later everyone hiked the trails and climbed to the top of the famous Rock.

A recent get-together with friends Cecille, Sarah, and Judith took me back to Starved Rock on a beautiful fall day.

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Starved Rock a
Starved Rock

 

The park got its name from a Native American legend.  Around 1760, Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa tribe was attending a tribal council meeting in the area and was stabbed by an Illini brave.  Pontiac’s followers wanted revenge.  Warfare broke out, and the Illini fled to the top of the Rock.  The Ottawa, along with Potawatomi members, kept watch at the bottom until finally all of the Illini had starved.  The landmark was thereafter known as “Starved Rock.”

In the late 1800s, the area was developed into a vacation resort.  The resort was then acquired by the State of Illinois in 1911 for a state park, which it remains today.

The iconic Lodge was built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC for short. (This agency gave young men jobs during the Depression.)  The Great Hall is decorated for each season and offers a place to relax in rustic charm.

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The Dining Room just off the Great Hall serves delicious meals and an excellent Sunday brunch.

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One of the favorite activities at Starved Rock is hiking.  There are thirteen miles of well-marked trails and eighteen sandstone canyons to explore.

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The climb up to Starved Rock is a must-do.  At the top, the walkway is circular so hikers are rewarded with a 360-degree view of the area.

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If you’re not feeling trails and canyons, you can take a self-guided walking tour of Art in the Park.  It’s a collection of wood carvings and modern sculpture surrounding the Lodge, and some pieces can be found inside, too.

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Want to spend a few days at the park?  There are rooms available at the Lodge for overnight stays, and these cozy little vintage cabins can also be rented.

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Today Starved Rock attracts over two million visitors a year.  It’s a great place to visit anytime, including the Holidays and winter months.

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The Winter Get-Away III

This year the Winter Get-Away is west to the sunny metropolis of Phoenix, Arizona.  In recent years the temperatures have gotten up to 90 degrees in February, so that should be warm enough to make us forget about the frigid Midwest.

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A good place to start a visit is the Heard Museum on Central Avenue.  They have exhibits that tell the story of Native Americans in the Southwest and display beautiful American Indian art.

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Taliesin West

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t want to spend his winters in the Midwest either so he established Taliesin West in Scottsdale, a suburb of Phoenix.  He lived there during the winters from 1937 until his death in 1959.  The facility was a combination architecture school and home for Wright.

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The guides at Taliesin West give an excellent tour.  The building is still functioning as a school of architecture, and you’ll see students at work through the drafting room windows.

As you walk around on your tour, it’s easy to see the usual Frank Lloyd Wright touches.  A highlight is the beautiful reflecting pool on the side of the building.

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A worth while side trip is about 100 miles from Phoenix to the quirky town of Jerome.  It was a booming mine town in the 1920s, but eventually the ore deposits ran out and so did most of the townspeople by the mid-1950s.  Today the community is centered on tourism.  You’ll find art galleries, coffee shops, and interesting historic sites.

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The Jerome Grand Hotel was once the town’s hospital. 
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The House of Joy was a former brothel.  Now it’s a boutique.

Another city not too far away is Sedona with its beautiful rock formations.

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Chapel of the Holy Cross was completed in 1956.  It sits in the hills of Sedona and was the idea of a local rancher and sculptor.

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If you want to venture even further north from Phoenix, the Grand Canyon is about 3.5 hours away.  It can be cold there in the winter depending on what part of the Canyon you visit, but it’s so spectacular to see, it’s worth the drive and weather.

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The Desert View Watchtower on the South Rim offers a good look at the Canyon.  The art on the inside walls is excellent.

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Back in Phoenix, the Cubs spring training will start in a few weeks, and it’s always a good time at the ballpark.  The Cubs are part of the Cactus League and play at Sloan Park in Mesa.  (The Cactus League is made up of MLB teams who train in Arizona.  Other teams are part of the Grapefruit League and train in Florida.)

 

There’s plenty to see and do in the state of Arizona.  Head west for a pleasant break from the Midwest winter!

 

 

 

 

Pabst Mansion

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Something I try to do each holiday season is visit a Victorian mansion all decked out in grand style.  This year it was the Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  As we toured the three-story home, we were treated to beautiful decorations in all of the main rooms.

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The Pabst Mansion opened to the public in 1978 and welcomes thousands of visitors a year.  We had an excellent guide, Carolyn, who shared many stories about the Pabst family and their home.

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Captain Frederick Pabst

Captain Frederick and Maria Pabst completed their thirty-seven room mansion in 1892.  It was built in the Flemish Renaissance Revival style of architecture that reflected their German heritage.  Frederick Pabst began his adult years as a river boat captain, but is best remembered today for his company that brewed Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

Success with his business ventures allowed Pabst to build a luxurious home.  Along with the brewery, he had a real estate empire that included hotels, theaters, and resorts.    Pabst and his wife only enjoyed their mansion for about twelve years before they passed away.  By then, the neighborhood was changing, and their children choose to sell the property out of the family.  The buildings and grounds were purchased by the Milwaukee Roman Catholic Archdiocese in 1908.  They owned it for almost seventy years until a non-profit group, Wisconsin Heritages, Inc., bought the home in the mid-1970s.  To this day, they continue to restore the mansion and offer tours on a daily basis.

Captain Pabst’s study was a splendid room.  The intricate ceiling was stained with several different colors to give the appearance of inlay.  Four of the Captain’s favorite German proverbs were worked into the ceiling design.

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Learn
A feeling heart suffers pain.

Strive
Bread eaten with thankfulness inspires a joyful heart

Honor
Never have I found anything more priceless than a quiet and true heart.

Wait
Never soft, never loud what a friend has told you in confidence.

In the study, our guide also gave us a handout to read later.  It was a copy of a letter written by Pabst in 1899 to his children.  He kept it with his will, and it was to be read in the event of his death.  The letter was encouragement and advice.  By all accounts, Frederick Pabst was a decent man and had these last words for “My dear Children” – two sons and two daughters:

“Be generous and unselfish to each other in Case of need and above all, be honest and noble, in all your dealings, not only with each other, but with the World.

I want you to always have a good Name.

It is better than riches, and your greatest happiness will come from your Knowledge of doing right.”

One surprising thing I learned is that although Pabst would drink beer and had a thorough knowledge of beer brewing, he actually preferred wine.  In the basement of the home is a wine cellar that held an extensive collection of bottles.  A display sign on the cellar door reads: “The inventory from the estate of Mrs. Pabst in 1906 lists the contents of the wine cellar –  261 cases of wine plus 219 miscellaneous bottles for a total of 3,351 bottles plus one case, valued at over $2,500.  Not a single bottle remains – we checked.”

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We thoroughly enjoyed our tour of the Pabst Mansion and seeing all the beautiful holiday decorations.  But it would be a worthwhile tour any time of the year.  Frederick Pabst was about much more than beer brewing.

Merry Christmas!

Lots of Color

Fall is a popular time in the Midwest for festivals, and every weekend in September and October is busy.  We’re celebrating apple and pumpkin this-or-that, along with the beautiful autumn colors.

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Fall seems to bring out the decorator in all of us, too, almost more so than Christmas.  Here are some decorations, large and small, that can put a smile on our faces, and add to the enjoyment of the season.

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Pumpkin grain bin

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Teepee, Pumpkins

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In the category of fall insects, my favorite is the woolly bear caterpillar.  Folklore says he can predict the weather.  According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the wider the caterpillar’s rusty-brown segment, the milder the coming winter will be.  I found a woolly bear in the neighborhood recently, and I’m afraid we might be in for a rough winter.

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Fall in the Midwest –  enjoy the beautiful leaf colors, the bounty of the harvest, and crisp, cool days!

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Cruzn Abroad

We were doing some real cruising recently, but far from the Midwest . . . it was a trip on the Danube River from Passau, Germany to Budapest, Hungary.

Our ten-day cruise was labeled the “Delightful Danube,” and the adventure began in Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic.

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Old Town Square and Tyn Church

Prague managed to escape much of the bombings of World War II and is considered one of Europe’s best preserved medieval cities.  There’s plenty of good sites and architecture to see.

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Municipal House
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Prague Castle

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Charles Bridge
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King Wenceslas statue

Wenceslas Square features a large statue of good King Wenceslas, whom we sing about in the Christmas carol.  He was really just a Duke, but after his brother murdered him (!) in 935, the Duke was elevated to Sainthood and considered a king.

Wenceslas Square is an important place in the modern history of the Czech Republic.  It was here that thousands of people gathered in 1989 to demand the end of Communist rule.

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It was Rosh Hashanah when we were in Prague so museums and other sites in the Jewish Quarter were closed, but we walked around the neighborhood and saw buildings from the outside, including the oldest synagogue in the city.

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You can take the usual horse and carriage rides in the Old Town Square, but a popular way to tour Prague is in a vintage car.  Drivers zip over cobblestone streets in these open-air vehicles while pointing out the sites to their passengers.  We noticed most of the cars were Fords.

After leaving Prague, we boarded our ship in Passau, Germany.  We were supposed to get on in Nurnberg, but the water level of the Danube was so low that we needed to go further east to Passau.  Europe was experiencing a drought which greatly affected river traffic.  Passau is a city where three rivers meet – the Danube, the Ilz, and the Inn – so I guess the combined rivers gave us enough water to sail.

Our home for the next nine days was a river longship named the S.S. Beatrice, owned by Uniworld Boutique Cruises.  The ship was registered in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and our Captain was a Dutchman named Jord Zwaal.  We shared the boat with 136 other passengers.

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S.S. Beatrice
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Captain Zwaal

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were served on the ship.  The food was delicious, and the daily menu reflected the country we were in.  We enjoyed apple strudel, weiner schnitzel and spaetzle, Mozart cake, and Hungarian goulash. There was unlimited drinks and a 24/7 coffee lounge.  In the lower level was a spa that was always very busy.  Life was grand.

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Executive Chef Michal Furka and Dining Room Manager Sorin Cutui

When the ports were busy, ships were sometimes docked three across.  If your ship was on the outside, you would walk across the tops of the other ships to get to shore.  One time we went through the lobby of another ship rather than the top.  It was fun to check out the other boats.

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A well-known landmark in Passau is St. Stephens Cathedral.  We enjoyed looking around at the fancy baroque architecture.

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St. Stephen’s Cathedral

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We returned to the Cathedral Square later that night to see a spectacular light and sound show projected onto the facade of the church.  The 20-minute production reviewed 1,500 years of the church’s involvement in the region.

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Our ship, based in Passau, acted as a floating hotel while we were bused to different cities upriver where the water was low.  We got out on the Autobahn to visit the Bavarian city of Regensburg.  Buses and trucks have a speed limit, but cars can go as fast as they want.  Our guide told us the auto makers like Audi, Porsche, Mercedes Benz, etc. lobby the government hard to keep that privilege for their customers.  But we also learned that the speed issue is somewhat self-regulating.  Gas is expensive there (it was about $7.00 a gallon) and people tend to drive slower to conserve fuel.  At the German-Austrian border, car owners engage in “tank tourism” – they cross over from Germany to Austria to fill their tanks because gasoline is cheaper in Austria.

The Bavarian countryside was interesting to see.  It was harvest time, and heaps of sugar beets lay in the fields.  And the cows grazing in the fields looked much larger than the ones we have here in the States.

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Sugar beets

In the 1800s, Bavaria was the poor region of the country.  Many of the citizens immigrated to the United States to seek a better life.  Then the two World Wars happened and industry took over.  Now it is the most prosperous area in Germany.  The auto industry is big and so is logging and making things from wood by-products.

Regensburg is a picture-perfect European town; the medieval city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The stone bridge there was completed in 1146.

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Regensburg, Germany

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For a taste of the city, our guide recommended her favorite place, the historic Wurstkuchl (Sausage Kitchen.)  It’s considered one of the oldest continuous restaurants in the world, dating back to 1320.  The sandwiches are fairly simple and made up of a bun, two smoked sausages, sauerkraut, and mustard, but they are absolutely delicious.

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Historic Sausage Kitchen

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Interesting sidebar: When the Danube threatens to flood the area, owners of the sausage kitchen empty it out, seal up the building, and flood it with fresh water.  When the flooding subsides, they open the building and let the fresh water out.  Clean-up is much easier than if flood water had gotten inside.

Just down the river from Regensburg, in the lovely little town of Straubing, we visited an old cemetery and heard a story of the worst in-laws ever.

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St. Peter’s Cemetery

The tale involves Agnes Bernauer, who was born the daughter of a barber in 1410.  She became the mistress and perhaps the first wife of Albert III, Duke of Bavaria.

Albert’s father, Ernest, who was the ruling Duke of Bavaria at the time, considered Agnes beneath his son’s social standing.  While Albert was away on a hunting trip, Duke Ernest had Agnes arrested for witchcraft and drowned in the Danube River.

Upon his return to Straubing, Albrecht was furious to learn what had happened to Agnes, and left for the neighboring town of Ingolstadt.  Everyone was afraid it would literally be war between Albert and his father, but after a few months, the two were reconciled.

In 1436, Duke Ernest had a Bernauer Chapel erected in the cemetery of St. Peter in Straubing, probably to appease his son.

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Bernauer Chapel

Today Agnes Bernauer is celebrated as Straubing’s most famous daughter.  Since 1935, the Agnes Bernauer festival club has presented an historic play about the life and death of this unfortunate young woman.  It’s performed every four years with the next being in 2019.

Agnes also has a dessert named for her that can be found at the Café Kroenner in downtown Straubing.   Agnes Bernauer Torte is a layered cake, filled with almond meringue and mocha butter cream, topped with roasted almonds and nuts, and dusted with powered sugar.  We bought a couple of pieces and enjoyed them later on the ship.

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Agnes Bernauer Torte

We docked one night in Austria at a small village called Grein.  We had a chance to get off the ship and explore the town.  The main attraction there is Greinburg Castle.  If you’re a fan of “Victoria” on PBS Masterpiece Theater, you’ll recognize this as the home where Prince Albert grew up, along with his older brother, Ernest.  The castle was built in 1493 and purchased by Prince Albert’s father in 1823.  It’s still owned by a member of the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha family and open for tours.

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Greinburg Castle

One of my favorite stops was the handsome Melk Abbey in Melk, Austria.  It’s situated in another UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The abbey dates back to 1089, but the grand baroque architecture was done in the 1700s.  Their library contains medieval manuscripts and a globe from 1622.  (They owned a Gutenburg Bible at one time, but sold it to Yale University because they needed money to maintain the property.)  Maria Theresia of the ruling Habsburg family said after a visit in 1743, “I would regret if I had not been here.”  I couldn’t agree with her more.

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Melk Abbey

After a visit to Melk, the afternoon was spent strolling around the charming little village of Spitz.  It’s a wine producing region with vineyards everywhere.  The “Hill of a Thousand Buckets” is so named because of all the grapes grown there.  Apricots are also a big crop in this Wachau Valley area.  We brought home apricot jam and apricot liquor that we purchased at Melk Abbey.

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Hill of A Thousand Buckets; Spitz, Austria

A couple of afternoons were spent cruising the Danube to get to our next port.  The scenery of country churches, castle ruins, and green forests was always idyllic.

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Durnstein Abbey

We came across a Viking party boat one day, and as we passed by, one of the Vikings wearing his plastic helmet with horns yelled out, “Give us your women!”

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From the quiet Austrian countryside we arrived in the capital city of Vienna.  I found Vienna to be rather crowded and noisy, and too much graffiti on the canal walls.  The culture and architecture in the historic areas, though, made it a worth-while stop.

St. Stephens Cathedral in the city centre is magnificent with its patterned tile roof.  It dates back to 1160. The roof is so steep it rarely holds snow in the winter time.  Mozart was married here in 1782 and later his funeral took place in one of the chapels.

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Interior of St. Stephen’s

Our walking tour of Vienna took us to their famous music hall, the Musikverein.  Inside is the Golden Hall that is the site for the annual New Year’s concert shown on PBS.  Every year when I watch the concert, I always wonder how the lucky people attending got their tickets.  We learned that the tickets are sold through a lottery process.  Each year about 500,000 people apply for the 1,200 seats available.

Vienna is home to the Spanish Riding School.  Our tour didn’t take us inside, but I got a peek at the stables and some of the Lipizzaner Stallions.

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We spent an afternoon at the Habsburg summer palace, Schonbrunn, about four miles outside of Vienna.  It has 1,441 rooms.  The gardens are well-kept and beautiful.  Schonbrunn is the most popular tourist attraction in Vienna.

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Schonbrunn

At night we were treated to a Mozart and Strauss concert at the palace for Architects and Engineers.

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It was on to Budapest, the capital city of Hungary.  I liked Budapest. It had an exotic, Eastern European feel.

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The Houses of Parliament, sitting there on the Danube River, is the most spectacular building I have ever seen.  It was the architectural highlight of the trip for sure.

In the Middle Ages, the fish market was here in Fisherman’s Bastion, and this area was defended by the Fishermen’s Guild.  You have a great view of Budapest from the terraces.

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Fisherman’s Bastion

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Matthias Church

Like St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Matthias Church has a colorful, ornately patterned roof.  The building, completed in the 15th century, is Roman Catholic, and has been the site of several coronations.

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Budapest has its own version of the Statue of Liberty.  Locals have nicknamed her “the Bottle Opener.”  Liberty Statue was built in 1947 to thank the Soviets for liberating  Hungarians from the Nazis.  Then the Communists took over and stayed for 40 years.  After they were driven out in 1989, the statue was covered for three days and unveiled as a memorial to all those who sacrificed their lives for the freedom and prosperity of Hungary.  Liberty’s new stance is that of waving good-bye to the Soviets.

Along with interesting history and architecture, Budapest is also the home of Erno Rubik, the fellow who invented the Rubik’s Cube.  He’s lived there all his life.

Our journey on the Danube ended in Budapest and during the final evening, the Captain took us on a night cruise of the city.  Budapest rivals Paris for lights, and it was a memorable good-bye to my favorite city and a delightful trip.

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I love traveling abroad and taking in the centuries of history, but it’s always good to come home.  International travel helps me appreciate my country even more.  God Bless America!

Farnsworth House

Sitting close to the Fox River in Plano, Illinois, just fifty-eight miles southwest of Chicago, is the Farnsworth House, designed by renowned architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.  The property was a weekend retreat for Dr. Edith Farnsworth, a prominent Chicago physician.

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Friends Cecille, Kathy O., Missy, Barb, and I recently met in Plano for a tour.  Barb’s son, Scott Mehaffey, is currently the executive director at the Farnsworth House so it made us all proud to see a hometown boy doing well.

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Our guide, Richard, gave us an excellent tour.  We learned about Dr. Farnsworth, Mies van der Rohe, and the construction of the house.

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Dr. Edith Farnsworth

After chatting at a dinner party in 1945, Dr. Farnsworth hired Mies van der Rohe to design a house for her on nine acres she had purchased from Robert McCormick.  She wanted something modern for the post-war era, and that gave Mies van der Rohe an opportunity to create a masterpiece of simplicity.  He worked through 167 drawings before he was satisfied with the design.

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Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

The result was a structure of steel columns and floor-to-ceiling glass walls in the new International style.

Edith Farnsworth and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe started out as great friends with their house project.  They were both intellectuals and enjoyed spending time together –  at the building site and away from it.  But as time went on and expenses with the house mounted, Edith’s patience and enthusiasm faded.  They ended up in court with him suing for money due, and she charging him with fraud.  Mies van der Rohe won the judgment, but negative publicity made it a hollow victory.  They never spoke to each other again.

The house was completed in 1951.  Dr. Farnsworth lived in it off and on for twenty-one years before selling the property to Lord Peter Palumbo in 1972.  She then retired to a villa near Florence, Italy.

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Back of Farnsworth House

Palumbo is an art and architecture enthusiast, and modern sculptures dotted Farnsworth’s landscape during his ownership.  He purchased adjoining land for a total today of sixty-two acres.  When Palumbo sold the property in 2003 to the National Trust, the sculptures were moved to Kentuck Knob, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in Pennsylvania that he still owns.  Below is one of the sculptures I saw when I was at Kentuck Knob last year.

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Apple Core by Claes Oldenburg (1990)

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Visiting the Farnsworth House is a top-notch experience.  The grounds and house are both lovely, and the story of the people involved is just as fascinating as the property itself.  And rumor has it a big-screen version of the story may be coming to a theater near you.

St. Louis, Missouri

It was Cruzn with cousins recently in the city known as the Gateway to the West – St. Louis, Missouri.  It sits on the western bank of the Mississippi River and has plenty of  historic sites, good restaurants, and friendly people.

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The most iconic symbol for the community is the Gateway Arch.  You can see it from quite a distance, and it’s always fun to catch that first glimpse as you enter town. At the base they show a movie of the construction process and its completion in 1965.

The arch was designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen.  The exterior is covered with stainless steel and soars 630 feet in height.  Take a four-minute tram ride inside the arch and arrive at the top for a grand view of downtown St. Louis.

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An industry long associated with St. Louis is Anheuser-Busch.  A tour of their brewing facility is free and very interesting.  They make lots of beer.  They also have a building for some of the Clydesdale horses who live better than the average person.  We had lunch at The Biergarten before our tour and enjoyed the food.  (And you can choose from the many AB beers to go with your sandwich.)

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One of my favorite stops during our visit was the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.  The building is massive and impressive on the outside, but the interior is truly spectacular.  Beautiful mosaics decorate the sanctuary from top to bottom.  The installation of the mosaics began in 1912 and was completed in 1988.

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The cathedral was dedicated in 1914 and elevated to a basilica in 1997 by Pope John Paul II.

Another lovely place to visit is the Missouri Botanical Gardens.  Founded in 1859 by Englishman Henry Shaw, it is one of the oldest botanic gardens in the U.S.  They have 79 acres of land that includes a Japanese garden, a geodesic dome Climatron, and glass sculptures by artist Dale Chihuly.

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Visitors can also tour Henry Shaw’s 1849 country home, Tower Grove House that is located on the west side of the Botanical Garden.

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Nearby is his mausoleum.  Look inside and you’ll see a marble sculpture of Shaw reclining on his tomb.  While he was still living, he had a photo taken in that pose so the sculptor could do an accurate likeness.

 

 

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One of the more popular spots for photos in the gardens, particularly families with young kids, is the flock of sheep.  They were sculpted by Francois-Xavior Lalanne.

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These are just a few of the sights that can be enjoyed in St. Louis.  It’s a relaxed and fun city!