Haarlem, in the Netherlands, has long been on my must-visit list. I am particularly fond of the full-of-life paintings by Haarlem native Frans Hals. Unlike his contemporaries, such as Rembrandt, Hals did not travel to paint his subjects. He preferred to stay at home in Haarlem, requiring his sitters to come to him. Consequently the majority of his best know work has not strayed from Haarlem. So if you want to see it you also have to go to Haarlem.
Fortunately we were already in Amsterdam, and Haarlem is not much further from the center of Amsterdam as Harlem is from downtown Manhattan. So we hopped on the local commuter train for the short trip.
Arriving at Haarlem’s central station you are already in one of the city’s historic landmarks. The train line from Haarlem to Amsterdam was the first in Holland, and special attention was given to the stations along this historic route. Haarlem’s station today is virtually the same as the day it opened in 1908. A fitting introduction to the history of a city that saw tremendous growth in the late 19th century.
If, when you arrive for the first time, the station feels familiar, it may be because it was used as a substitute for Amsterdam’s station in the film “Oceans Twelve”.
The town is a smaller, more compact version of Amsterdam, today with slightly less of an emphasis on canals as a means of transportation. It used to be much more of a canal city but many years ago, on the occasion of a cholera outbreak, the city fathers deduced that the polluted canals were the cause, and those that were stinking, black and stagnant were filled in and made into avenues.
Prior to our arrival we booked a canal tour on Captain Peter Blankendaal’s 1930’s era wooden canal boat. Peter moors his boat next to the old De Adriaan windmill, not too far from the train station. Seeing the city by canal gives you a different perspective on the city, and it’s a great way to orient yourself for walking later on.
We were also joined on our boat excursion by local historian and guide, Walter Schelfhout, who filled us in on the rich history of Haarlem as seen from the water. A light mist settled over the canals as we made our way slowly through the city’s waterways. The soft Dutch light, filtered through the chilly morning mist, cast the city in an atmosphere reminiscent of an Old Masters painting.
Beer production figures prominently in Haarlem’s history and the architecture is reflective of this industry, long since passed. Walter, with his encyclopedic knowledge of the area, is able to tell us the story of each building we pass, most of them being at one time connected to the brewing industry. With a basic sense of the city’s layout, and with Walter’s brief historical overview, we are ready to launch out on our own. Captain Blankendaal drops us off on the Raamvest Canal just next to the Frans Hals Museum for our next stop.
Back in the day, Monet, Courbet and Manet reportedly made pilgrimages to Haarlem just to visit the Frans Hals Museum. I am sure their journey was much more treacherous than our relatively easy trip into town. Their dedication to come and experience Hals first-hand is testament to how ahead of his time Hals was.
If he were alive today, we would likely call him a “Lifestyle” painter. In contrast to his contemporary, Rembrandt, who ingeniously devised ways to illuminate his subjects with candlelight, Hals preferred to place his subjects in daylight settings. And recognizing that beauty cannot exist without imperfection, Hals showed his characters, flaws and all. You can see this even in the surface texture of his paintings. The fashion was for glossy smooth paintings, but Hals’ paintings leap out at you with all their bumps, lumps and swirls. It all results in a feeling of immediacy, a moment caught in time. Looking at it today it feels quite photographic. You can almost hear the laughter and the cries echoing down the 400 year old corridors of Hals’ subjects.
It was January and the off season, but the museum was still buzzing with lots of local families (and a few of us tourists): great to see so many Dutch visitors enjoying their own heritage. There is a lot to take in here and we spent some hours gazing in Hals’ work, and learning all about his place in art history via the museum’s handy audio guide, free with admission.
Leaving the museum, just across the street you will come upon the Historic Museum Haarlem. Housed in a former hospital, this quirky museum has a general overview of the city’s history, with an interesting emphasis on the last 50 years. Lots of obscure artifacts and interesting knickknacks that still seem pretty familiar. After a quick look around we took advantage of the nice cafe on the ground floor for a quick hot drink served by the museum’s great crew of volunteers.
Continuing on into the center of town, we made our way to another of Haarlem’s highlights, Teylers Museum. This is the oldest museum in Holland. Built in 1784, it remains almost untouched to this day. So your experience will not be that much different from that of an eighteenth century visitor. Passing through the heavy monumental entry doors, a magical world of the past awaits you.
Peter Teyler was a rich banker and merchant with a passion for what was new and rare in the world. Being a man of the enlightenment, he collected books, fossils, ephemera, and scientific instruments, and commissioned various experimental devices to help him understand the workings of the world. The museum was built on his legacy, to share with the public the world of emerging science and invention. The museum’s collection has continued along these lines.
My favorite object was “The Highest Point of Mont Blanc”: literally the highest point of the mountain chipped off and pocketed in 1787 by one of the museum’s collectors. There is something hilariously inappropriate about this. But there it is, now seen by millions of people, where before it was only accessible by a handful.
The craftsmanship of the rooms, the display cases, and the objects themselves, are absolutely fascinating. If you saw the movie Night at the Museum, you can just imagine what happens in this museum after hours.
Leaving Teylers, we head to the town square for some much needed sustenance and stop in at the Grand Cafe Brinkmann. Established in 1879, its lofty ceilings and Art Nouveau interior is a great place for some food, drink and people watching.
Following the back streets towards our hotel, we happen across Friethoes (Fries—made by owner Joost—Hoes), near the train station. No visit to Haarlem is complete without the consummate pommes frites indulgence. And no better place for that than Friethoes, run by a young friendly team, they use all organic potatoes, oil and even home-made-organic mayonnaise. Each batch is made freshly to order. There are three sizes on offer and several topping options. Of course, When in Haarlem … we opted for the Dutch way and went with the Mayonnaise. Delicious!
As the winter sun set and the streetlights began reflecting in the canals, we arrived at our hotel, the Golden Tulip Lion D’Or, ready to call it a day.
Next morning we headed back towards the Frans Hals museum area to check out the modern side of Haarlem. We stopped in at Portrait, a new concept store created by young locals, Karen, Daisy and Rogier. Part boutique, part coffee shop, part live/workspace, their mantra, “call this home and you don’t have to do the dishes”, strikes quite an appealing note. Housed in a former stable, Portrait offers a great curated selection of clothes, postcards, books and design objects. Another friend bakes daily-fresh-sweet treats, which I can personally attest, are very good, as is the coffee by owner/barista Rogier. So make sure you stop in, there is something there for everyone.
With bags packed we are ready to head once more to the lovely train station to depart. On the way I notice a sign on one of the old station waiting rooms advertising Salsa classes starting in February. I imagine the sounds of Salsa drifting across the platforms. Such an interesting, diverse place.
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Long Island City, or as the locals say “LIC”, is the western-most residential and commercial neighborhood of New York City’s borough of Queens. As the name suggests, Long Island City was formerly an independent city after several villages merged to form it in 1870. Twenty years later it surrendered its independence and merged with the borough of Queens.
With rents ever on the rise in Manhattan, LIC has seen an uptick in interest in recent years from those looking for a reasonable place to live and work within hitting distance to Manhattan. As a result the area is undergoing rapid change, which is a good thing because now more than ever, there is amazing food to be had and great museums to visit just a short hop from Manhattan, over the East River.
LIC was home to the infamous Major Patrick Gleason, an Irish immigrant who fought in the Civil War, failed at several business ventures around New York and then moved to San Francisco where he made a small fortune in the distillery business. Moving back to New York, he established himself in LIC. He was known for his volatile temper and having a stronghold over local politics, being elected three times to office.
One of his legacies was a school he built for local children, the largest high school on Long Island at the time. It educated students for many years, and still stands today as the home of MoMA’s PS1. Major Gleason would be proud to see his legacy still standing.
So, here is where we start our food and art tour for the day.
MoMA’s PS1 is a major hub for contemporary art lovers, and the largest institution of its kind in the United States. When MoMA took over the space it was already structured in a way quite suitable to the display of art. So fortunately, much of the old school remains intact, and walking around the galleries today it is easy to imagine the halls and classrooms packed with energetic kids.
After you have strolled the galleries, there is one particular classroom you should check out. It’s a classroom turned dining room, on the ground floor, and the home of M. Wells Dinette, a cafeteria-style eatery run by husband and wife team, Hugue Dufour and Sarah Orbraitis.
Hugue got his start at the famed “Au Pied de Cochon” in Montreal, the restaurant which many say brought nose-to-tail cooking back to the Americas. On moving to New York from Montreal, Hugue and Sarah first tried their luck taking over a small diner next to the Vernon Boulevard Subway stop in Queens. That was not meant to be, but soon the opportunity arrived to take over PS1’s cafe space, and M. Wells Dinette was born.
It’s a good fit with PS1. You feel Hugue and Sarah’s creativity in their unique take on food and place the moment you enter. An open kitchen overlooks the dining room. And in homage to the young, energetic and mostly French Canadian team, overlooking the kitchen is a giant portrait of famed Quebec Politician Rene Levesque, founder of Quebec’s political independence from the rest of Canada.
The food is a natural extension of the PS1 galleries. Unique and inspiring works, in various edible mediums. It’s a tangible and fulfilling experience with art. The menu is at its core French, but the French connection is mainly philosophical. The dishes are thoroughly current and modern, prepared with a love of ingredients and assembled in fresh new ways.
On the day of my visit there was a bit of a nip in the air and it was gratifying to see that the day’s menu had “comfort” written all over it. Two dishes stood out: foie gras with oatmeal, and diced veal hearts. Yum! There is a great wine list which, naturally, is predominantly French. You will have to ask what the best pairing is for foie gras and oatmeal.
Next stop is a real treat and it’s just a few blocks away. The Isamu Noguchi museum is a quiet, intimate and reflective museum that rarely gets overcrowded. Noguchi designed the museum himself as an open air sculpture garden ensconced within a building that houses ten galleries.
A bit further down the road is the Socrates Sculpture Park. This is a recently built outdoor sculpture garden with regularly changing exhibitions. One feature of this park is the spectacular Manhattan skyline which is something you just can’t see in Manhattan. You have to go to Queens for that.
Depending on when you began your LIC tour, it might be about time to start thinking about your next meal. Continuing on with Sarah and Hugue’s other LIC venue, our next stop is M. Wells Steakhouse.
For the steakhouse, Sarah and Hugue chose a former car mechanic shop as the location. This provided a great industrial backdrop characteristic of LIC, on which could be added elements of old world charm and glamour, which you would expect in an establishment specializing in steak house fare.
When people ask me where they should head for the best New York steak, hands down this is the place to go. There are some other better known steak houses in New York but you will not find a better dining experience than at M. Wells Steakhouse.
To back up my claim, last September Hugue received his first Michelin star!
As at M. Wells Dinette, the menu is characteristically French, layered with Hugue’s newly found American roots. My favorite dish for taste and presentation was the French onion soup with bone and marrow right in the middle. It is served with a delightfully small silver fork sized especially to facilitate the marrow part of your meal.
The dish has a magical, slightly fluorescent green tinge to it. An effect which Hugue achieves by topping the dish with a mixture of finely ground parsley mixed with breadcrumbs. It is divine.
There are brilliant deserts on offer as well, so make sure you leave room. The dessert presentation is on a 1950s style cake trolley. The selection is quite something to behold.
After a day full of amazing food and art it is back to Manhattan on the 7 train. What a great day of amazing creative treats for mind and body.
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A few weeks ago a friend called from San Francisco with a question. “I’m visiting London with my mother soon and we want to take a day trip into the country. Any ideas for where we can go without having to drive?” I know they’re both interested in contemporary art, so Hauser & Wirth immediately came to mind.
Hauser & Wirth Co-founders Iwan Wirth and Ursula Hauser recently established a brand-new outpost for their collection of galleries nestled in the green pastures of Somerset. Seems like an odd choice on first thought with the vast majority of art establishments firmly ensconced within urban centers. But no one ever had any success in the art world by doing what’s expected. So in a business where contrarian thinking can often garner spectacular results, this is worth checking out. I suggested that my friend and her mom take the train to Hauser & Wirth in the small town of Bruton, about an hour and a half west of London.
Hauser & Wirth, Somerset is not a gallery in the conventional sense. It’s a new kind of art experience combining education, conservation, sustainability, shopping, dining, performance and accommodation, centered around a beautiful rural gallery space and all set within a classic-English-pastoral landscape.
So what are the chances this is going to work? Well, the numbers speak for themselves. Since opening in July 2014, there has been a steady stream of visitors from near and far. I planned my trip on a Tuesday thinking I would have the run of the place. No such luck. Even on a cold and grey winter’s day the galleries were bustling and the dining room was fully booked. On weekends there are many more visitors.
From the start Hauser & Wirth placed a strong emphasis of reaching out to the community. Children from local schools visit often, there are family Saturdays, lectures, DJ Fridays and many more events occurring year round. All this adds up to a great place both for the community and city dwellers on a day-trip, like us.
The foundation of the complex is the original historic buildings of the Durslade Farm. When you first enter through the main courtyard you are greeted by a collection of sculptures. On the day of our visit, to the right was a large Paul McCarthy sculpture and to the left a massive milking pail by Subodh Gupta.
At the far end of the courtyard sits a wonderful 18th century farmhouse adorned with a Martin Creed light installation announcing to all visitors “everything is going to be alright”.
The Parisian architects Laplace restored the derelict stables, cow sheds and threshing barns, and linked them with a new structure containing galleries, with space more suitable to larger scale work. The existing buildings are often left with the original stone walls and roof beams exposed, set in contrast to large expanses of glass, where barn doors used to stand, directing the view outside.
The gardens are equally interesting, designed by Dutch garden architect Piet Oudolf whose signature planting schemes you will also find on New York’s Highline elevated urban park. We are visiting in winter when gardens do not typically show their best face, but I find Oudolf’s planting beautiful even when ostensibly barren. There is a poetry and beauty in the plants just carrying seeds and grass turning yellow and bearing the scars of winter. Grass circles lend a graphic element to the center of the garden which changes in character with each season.
Offsetting a cold and grey winter day was Pipilotti Rist’s lovely video shot on the farm during the previous summer. To produce the work Swiss-based Rist took up residency on the farm with her son in tow. Projected on three large walls of the gallery, the images speak of a warm lazy summer’s day. People look on, sitting on the gallery floor strewn with sheep skins, as if still grazing in a field.
After touring the gardens and galleries we visit the restaurant located in the farm’s former cow shed. Roth Bar and Grill is run by husband and wife team Julia and Steve Horell. It is a mixing space where people arriving with different agendas all end up together. I think this is the lynch pin of the whole place and the main reason the complex works so well. People come for the art and stay for the food. And conversely, people with little interest in art, stop in for a bite and can’t help but share their sense of enchantment. In each case everyone is engaged and enjoying the experience.
The walls of the dining room are adorned with tightly packed works by artists of the Hauser & Wirth family. Large vibrant neon chandeliers by the late Jason Rhodes cast a multi-colored glow over the room.
Steve serves a simple, honest, seasonal menu with local produce, usually sourced within a 5 mile radius. We tried 1/2 Woolly Park Farm Chicken with lemon mayonnaise which was lovely. I can really recommend it – but I am a sucker for the simple things. Nothing beats homemade bread and butter. Steve makes his own, and it is excellent.
After lunch we checked out the farmhouse. If you can’t get enough in one day, why not stay over at the farmhouse. It has six rooms and can sleep up to 12 people. The house is an artwork in its deconstruction executed through a collaboration between Laplace and conservation architects Benjamin & Beauchamp. The team set about excavating the house’s history, revealing the traces of the families that have lived there since the 1700s.
Walls have been peeled exposing their various paint layers. Temporary walls from the 20th century have been reinforced and put to new use, and furnishings have been found in local thrift stores and flea markets to keep the spaces grounded in local character.
One area has been used as an installation space for a recent artist in residence. Hauser & Wirth gave one of their famously open briefs, asking Argentinian artist Guillermo Kuitca to create something in the dining room during his five week residency. He started painting on one of the walls and gradually it expanded to encompass the whole room, floor to ceiling. With nowhere else to go the project came to a natural end. Along with the five green glasses we found on the table when we arrived, it seemed like a complete piece of art.
All through the house you see old and new in beautiful tension: It really is an inspirational place, a living art space. As the day drew a close we made the short walk back to the tiny Bruton train station, and headed back to the big city.
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We are all products of a world which trends ever more towards mechanization, and since the latter part of the 20th century, digitization. As far back as I can remember, we embraced technology as the way to achieve a better quality of life. Even though in retrospect it is clear that the transformation has occurred at rapid speed, as we strolled along day-to-day into the future, the change was almost imperceptible.
As more and more things move from analogue to digital, we seem to be losing touch with physical objects and processes that, while perhaps not the most efficient, did contain satisfying elements that we are now finding irreplaceable. The more they disappear, the more obvious their absence is becoming, and I would suggest that a tipping point has recently occurred. While mass production has given us adequate facsimiles, for a whole range of goods and services there is simply no replacement for what’s made by hand, with dedication, intuition, experience and care.
From butchers and bakers to candlestick makers, there is renewed interest in quality hand-made goods. In fact, being a maker of things has become a desirable career path. Many young people are leaving corporate jobs or taking apprenticeships after college and becoming carpenters, bakers, goldsmiths, restorers, et cetera, to meet the growing demand for hand-crafted goods.
On the other hand, we are lucky that a few old-world businesses withstood the barrage of mechanization long enough for a new generation to pick up the reins. A classic example of this is the Vienna workshop of Rudolf Scheer & Söhne (Son), a company that has made shoes continuously since 1816.
Fronting onto Bräunerstraße 4 in Vienna’s first district, Scheer maintains two entrances, the original and the new. I like to use the original and take the same path customers have trod for just short of 100 years.
Designated imperial court cobbler in 1878, Scheer reached the pinnacle of prestige early. Later the business weathered two world wars, and the dramatic social changes that followed. Each generation reinvented the business to meet the changing needs of its customers, while maintaining the highest standards of craftsmanship.
Now in its seventh generation, the current Scheer at the helm is 41 year old Markus, who started working as an apprentice for his grandfather at the age of 18.
In the late 1990s when his grandfather retired, Markus started to put his mark on the family business. He initiated an update of the brand, including the addition of a new showroom and distinctly modern entrance reflecting the mood of the next phase of the business.
I head over to Scheer’s new retail space to wait for Markus. A tiny passageway links the old and the new showrooms. To make the passage a small changing room had to be sacrificed. But true to form, everything original was left intact. I noticed a small window on the side of the old changing room which did not seem to serve any purpose, so I enquired. The story goes that when the emperor came for fittings he would change in this room, and the window allowed him to wave a hanky to signal that he was ready.
The new showroom displays classic shoes, handmade belts and other accessories. One of my favorite pieces was a handmade leather picnic hamper, fully outfitted with an espresso maker. It’s the perfect product to represent Scheer’s dedication to craft and function.
Markus has ingeniously treated the new showroom walls by exposing layers of old paint and wallpaper, reflecting the style of ancient frescoes. With the walls juxtaposed with clean lines of metal, glass and leather, the effect is altogether modern.
A glass banister staircase leads customers down to a cellar suggestive of an old grotto. Making our way down the staircase we enter a large hall with arch-shaped window. Special lighting in the windows makes it appear as if daylight is filtering down from the street above.
A long table with simple benches extends the length of the room. On the day of our visit, leather samples of all colors and textures were spread over the table waiting to be selected by customers, to be made into shoes.
Back on street level, in the reception room, original wooden glass cases display the wooden shoe moulds of various Austrian monarchs. With each owner’s name attached their mould, it’s a veritable who’s who of Austrian history. An arrangement of original Thonet chairs occupies the center of the room, providing the place where customers have always been received for their appointments.
A stairway leads up to the first floor into a private reception room where Markus takes clients through the process of determining their particular shoe needs. The floors creak. The walls are lined with shoes and boots from past and present. At the center of the room is a shoe-fitting stool: a simple, utilitarian piece of furniture that you might find in any shoe shop. But in this case it was made exclusively for Scheer by classic Austrian furniture maker, Thonet. It’s a beautifully functional piece of furniture and a real treasure.
For those who have not yet experienced the making of custom shoes, you may be surprised to find that it is much more involved than simply forming a nice piece of leather to your foot and attaching it to a sole. As I found, it involves craft, engineering and surprisingly, a great deal of psychology. A big part of Markus’ skill is drawing out of his customers things you might think unrelated to shoes. Things like their goals and aspirations, and what kinds of things they would like to do in their new shoes. Markus takes the time to get to know his customers. He then expresses what he’s learned – in form, comfort, materials, and color. It all seems magical, but, really, it comes from years of practice and the dedication to learn from generations of experience.
It takes around six months for Markus to produce a pair of shoes, which includes at least three fittings. Successive pairs can be produced much faster.
A pair of Scheer shoes can last for 30 years or longer. But as with all things of value, proper maintenance is key to making them last. Just like your own skin, leather needs to be cleaned and moisturized. Your shoes shouldn’t be worn every day; every other day they need a rest. And bringing them in once a year for servicing will greatly increase their life expectancy.
One of Markus’ assistants passes by and I couldn’t help checking out his shoes. I expected that everyone working at Scheer would have great shoes, but these stood out. It turns out that they were an experiment in restoration. Markus took apart an antique pair of shoes and reworked them onto a new mould and gave them a new sole. It brings the idea of recycling to quite a different level.
Beyond the Salon is the workshop, with the room, wall coverings, furniture and most of the tools dating back generations. It feels like a museum or movie set, untouched by time. The only concessions to modernity are modern, high-end work lamps suspended over each shoemaker’s work station. In times past you would have seen a “shoemaker’s lamp” consisting of a glass sphere filled with water with a candle behind. The sphere of water focused the candle light to a spot precisely measured on the other side of the sphere, the glow of which would illuminate the shoemaker’s work into the dusk, which in the winter comes early in Vienna.
These rooms, now dedicated to production, used to be the Scheer’s family residence. It’s a bit like a maze these days, filled with tools of the trade, stacked wooden moulds for various clients, leather patterns and workbenches, all of the things essential to produce a perfect shoe.
There’s an air of intensity in the production room – concentration and skill combined with smell of wood leather and wax. It’s strange to think that 98 years ago it would not have been that much different … except for the lamps.
Visiting Rudolf Scheer & Söhne it’s easy to see why people are becoming more attracted to the idea of mastering a craft. It’s fascinating to meet someone like Markus who embraces his work with such a passion for perfection. I think it must be the only way to sustain a craft tradition, shepherding it into the next generation. Work at this level in any discipline is an inspiration. I would encourage any aspiring craft aficionado to make a visit.
Of course there are no shortcuts to this process, so a weekend visit won’t really do you much good in terms of a new pair of shoes. But you can still pick up a little bit of Scheer with one of their beautiful accessories, or some of Scheer’s fine shoe-care products. My suggestion would be some of the custom blend shoe cleaner products. A great souvenir to bring home from your trip.
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When thinking about classic European destinations guaranteed to deliver maximum yuletide joy for the lead-up to Christmas, cities like Vienna, Nuremberg, Munich and Salzburg immediately come to mind. And for good reason, because most of the traditions, symbols and characteristics that we now associate with Christmas were born in the Germanic countries, with some traditions, like Christmas trees, originating way back in the Middle Ages.
But Christmas was too good an idea to keep bottled up in the German Empire forever, and it eventually found its way out of mainland Europe and across the channel in the luggage of Francis Albert Augustus Charles Emmanuel (Prince Albert) on his betrothal to Queen Victoria. Yes, almost everything you now know as “Christmas” really comes by way of the English. Maybe that is why my favorite Christmas is an English one. So, for your classic Christmas extravaganza, stock up on Christmas crackers, don your paper crown, pop a threepence in the plumb pudding, and book your ticket to London.
There’s a bevy of activities available in London during the holiday season with various festive markets popping up around town. But one thing you should definitely plan on is a visit to the Somerset house ice skating rink. This year Somerset house collaborated with famous purveyor of the best seasonal goods, Fortnum & Mason, who turned the halls of Somerset house into their own Christmas market, of sorts.
Situated on the Strand next to Waterloo Bridge, overlooking the River Thames, the Somerset House foundations date back as far as the 16th century. It was once home to Queen-in-waiting Elizabeth the First, daughter of Henry the Eighth and Anne Boleyn, during the reign of Queen Mary the First.
After that the palace saw its fair share of renovations and additions due to the many different “lodgers” that followed. After the English Civil War, Parliament attempted to sell the property but nobody wanted to buy it. So it was taken off the market and put to various governmental uses. Legend has it Lord Nelson worked in the building for a while when it was partially occupied by the Admiralty. And as testament to the legend, the meeting room that Nelson might have visited has for a long time been called the “Nelson Room”.
In the late 20th century it was decided that Somerset House will be a centre for the Visual arts, and now houses several exhibition spaces and a few restaurants, all focused on the central courtyard, used for various events and activities, like ice skating.
The ice rink appears at the beginning of November and remains until early January. Booking is available for hourly slots, with skate rental included in the price of admission.
Every hour, admission is limited to 220 ice skaters so it never gets crowded on the ice. Plenty of room for you to show off your twirls and glide around the rink backwards. Each hour the ice is cleaned and smoothed for another round of holiday skaters.
The afternoon we visited there was a good mix of skating skills on display, from total beginners to advanced skaters. And for the little tykes, something to lean on is provided to steady the glide, in the form of small polar bears and penguins. They are very popular but remember, they’re only for kids! You adults will have to find someone or something else to lean on.
As dusk set in, the lights came up giving the courtyard a wonderfully festive glow, capped off by the “SKATE” sign on top of the building. Opposite is an enormous Christmas tree with tables underneath where you can sit and enjoy warm drinks and treats from Tom’s Skate Lounge situated on the east side of the rink. Or if you are not in the mood for refreshments, it’s a great place to just sit and watch the people glide by.
After an hour of skating, time to head indoors to investigate the Fortnum & Mason Christmas Arcade installed in the West wing of the building. F&M has outfitted each room with classic English Christmas treats. Truffles, Christmas puddings, special Christmas teas and an array of great gifts for family and friends. The F&M Lounge just next to the Lord Nelson Staircase is particularly good for a cozy drink.
I mentioned Christmas Crackers earlier. These are one of my favorite English holiday traditions. You can pick them up in one of the F&M concessions. They were invented in 1840 by Tom Smith. Originally he sold his bonbons in a twist of paper with love messages inside, later adding the “crackle” to represent crackling logs in the fire place. Finally, Mr Smith let go of the candies and replaced them with little trinkets, including the now iconic paper crown and a selection of really bad jokes. It sounds absurd but you can really get a party going with a few paper crowns and some bad jokes.
The English are famous for their dry subtle wit. My personal theory is that the reason for this is because they all grew up on these bad Christmas cracker jokes. Practice makes perfect. As an aside, did you know that the British royal family has special Christmas crackers made for them each year? I wonder who writes those jokes.
Merry Christmas everyone
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Just north of the African continent, a little southeast of Italy and southwest of Turkey lies the island of Crete, the southernmost island in Greece. Its location plumb in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea has made Crete a stopping-off point for thousands of years. Throughout history, anyone going from here to there in the Mediterranean likely had a layover in Crete. And these successive waves of traders, marauders and pirates are the key to understanding the many layers of modern Crete.
Much of the flux in Crete has centered on the city of Chania in the west of the island. Here the successive layers of conquest and immigration by various Mediterranean and European groups is hidden in plain sight. You just need to know a few clues and, like an x-ray machine, all the intricate layers of history are revealed.
Today’s invaders of Crete are mostly package-holiday goers, a relatively benign force that, as a rule, stays in camp, rarely venturing out. When they do go out, a popular destination is the historic and beautiful harbor at the center of the old city. On our initial visit to Chania we too headed straight for the harbor in search of history, local culture and fresh regional cuisine. What we found was fast food, cocktails and the drum beat of euro-pop echoing across the deep blue waters.
Briefly disoriented, we thought surely this is not the Chania we had read about. Were we mistaken about this place? We quickly changed strategies.
It is true that Chania’s harbor is the most picturesque part of town, and probably for this reason uncontrolled development has taken over, making the place a bit of a mess. Realizing we needed help ferreting out the hidden delights of Chania, we sought professional assistance.
Dr. Alexandra Ariotti is an Australian born archaeologist and historian. She works all over the world researching, lecturing and digging. She has extensive experience around the Mediterranean and a particular focus on the Middle East. However when she is not working abroad, she calls Chania home. Alexandra hosts fabulous private historic walks, each lasting 2.5 to 3 hours, guiding you through a maze of streets and alleys on routes which reveal the mysteries of Chania’s fascinating history. Alexandra knows the city inside and out. Listening to her weave historical and present day Chania together brings the place alive.
I jotted down some observations from our tour with Alexandra:
• Chania is the second largest city of Crete and until 1971 it also was the capital (today the capital is Heraklion). The old town of Chania is the site of the Minoan settlement the Greeks called Kydonia, Greek for quince.
• Crete has quite a tumultuous history due to its strategic location in the Mediterranean. Ever since the Byzantine era, the Venetians, the Ottoman, all the way up to the Germans in World War II, fought for and occupied the island. You can see the scars of conflict all around you. Alexandra points out the dividing lines in some of the excavations, where one group co-opted buildings from the past to build on Crete’s evolving urban landscape.
• Walking around town you come across various excavation sites seamlessly woven into the fabric of a neighborhood. Some of them feel a bit neglected, but since everywhere you scratch the surface you stumble across some important archeological find, important ones are simply stabilized, protected and left for future research.
• We saw many old houses falling apart and in ruins while right next door a house would be beautifully restored and fully occupied. Alexandra explained that in World War II during German occupation, the city was heavily bombed, killing the occupants of the buildings. Ownership is often shared between family members or is murky with the former owner deceased. Without clear ownership or agreement on who can develop the homes, they fall into disrepair and eventually fall down.
• Walking through town while Alexandra points out details dating back to Minoan times is like walking through a mystery novel. All the while locals come and go among the ancient structures seemingly oblivious to the history around them.
• Walking through the market area where in days past fine Cretan leather products would have been made and sold, we notice that most of what’s on offer is imported. There are exceptions though. We found one obscure shop still making the famous black leather boots worn by men throughout Greece. You have to look hard but there are a few shops that still practice the traditional Cretan crafts.
Having completed our time with Alexandra we had a good overview of the old city and could start navigating on our own. We set out to explore some more. Here are some of the places we found that are worth checking out.
Museum of Chania
The museum is housed in the former Venetian monastery of Saint Francis, a truly wonderful place to explore. The old worn walls in pinkish colors and the 1950’s-era museum cases make for an interesting mix of styles. You can see jewelry, vases, sculptures and coins from the Minoan, Roman and Byzantine times.
Etz Hayyim Synagogue
We sat down with Dr. Nikos Stavroulakis in the Synagogue’s courtyard, to talk about the buildings long history.
Etz Hayyim Synagogue is the only surviving Jewish monument on the island of Crete. The building goes back to the Venetian period and became a synagogue in the 17th century to serve a vibrant Jewish community living in Chania at the time.
For about 2,300 years, Jews thrived in Crete, sharing in its history and contributing to the complex local culture throughout the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Andalusian Arab, Venetian and Ottoman periods, until near the end of World War II, when the Cretan Jewish community was, decimated.
In early June 1944, virtually all the Jews in Crete were rounded up and arrested. Together with some 600 Greek and Italian prisoners, the Jews were put on the German merchant ship Tanais and shipped off the island. Tragically, soon after its departure, the Tanais was spotted by the British submarine HMS Vivid and fired on. The Tanais and all on board were lost.
Canea Gift Shop
While wandering around, we happened across the Chania Gift shop. Owner Konstantinos Konstantinidis was born and raised in Chania and after living abroad for many years came back home to start a local business. His idea was to make a gift shop that sells unique products that are designed and made in Greece.
You will find smartly designed mugs, towels, bags, T-shirts, and notepads: absolutely the best place to get a souvenir to bring home from Crete. I still use my mugs from Konstantinos regularly and remember my time in Chania every time.
After talking to Konstantinos for a while about his shop and his great products, he invited us to come by his restaurant, Tamam, to meet his partner. Tamam is quite well known for its authentic regional cuisine. And like his shop, at Tamam, Konstantinos’ mission is to support local producers.
Located one street behind the harbor but still in the hub of the old town, Tamam has been in operation since the 1970s. It is still one of the best places to eat in Chania. There are two indoor seating areas across the street from each other. And in-between, a narrow row of tables where you can sit outside and watch the people passing by. As usual, in high season it will be very, very busy, and off-season a real delight.
The Well of the Turk
Wandering through the back streets of old Chania, we stumbled across the restaurant, The Well of the Turk, and recalled that it has been recommended to us by friends. Located in a quiet neighborhood, it’s a great restaurant serving an eclectic mix of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food.
There are many homes for rent in Chania, but we happen to have the inside track on one of the best. This apartment is right in the heart of the old town and owned by an architect husband and wife team living in London. It’s a great place to spend a few days … or much longer. Check the details section below for contact information.
A wonderful hotel owned by two fascinating sisters who were born in this house which has been owned by the family for generations. If you are looking to immerse yourself in Chania history this is the place for you.
Nestled in the Pioneer Square district of Seattle is Laguna Pottery, the storefront of Michael Lindsey’s ceramic collection. A mecca for collectors, enthusiasts and amateurs alike, Michael’s is a great place to find unique objects to treasure or to give to a very special someone. Part museum, part shop, all curated with Michael’s extensive knowledge of American ceramics, this is a unique shopping experience.
The store opened in the Green Lake area of Seattle in 1987. The name “Laguna Pottery” was suggested by a good friend of Michael’s called “Grannie”, an enthusiast of Laguna ceramics and an early supporter. Grannie encouraged Michael to turn his passion for ceramics into a business. She also designed the shop’s logo—still used today.
Located south of downtown Seattle in Pioneer Square (in one of the largest national historic districts in America) are some 145 protected buildings of the type Laguna Pottery calls home. The area has seen many attempts at revitalization in recent years, and is poised to turn a new page, with a variety of stores and restaurants either planned or recently opened.
Michael specializes in American ceramics such as Homer Laughlin (Fiesta), Franciscan, Vernon Kilns, Roseville, Rockwood, Bauer & Well and work by Industrial Designers Russell Wright, Eva Zeisel, Edith Heath and Ben Seibel. He also deals in rarer pieces by Louis Mideke, Robert Sperry, Marguerite Wildenhain and Harrison Macintosh, to name a few. He also has the best selection of Heath dinnerware in the North West.
Michael’s passion for American pottery goes way back to his teenage years. Once you strike up a conversation with Michael, it is clear “he knows his stuff”. His knowledge of history and theory, and his enthusiasm for ceramic arts is an inspiration which could easily turn a casual shopper into a “collector”. During my visit, a constant stream of customers flowed in and out, all absorbing Michael’s exuberance for this beautiful and utilitarian art form.
Like a museum, Laguna Pottery is worth a visit just to delve into these uniquely American objects of beauty and utility.
In a time when phrases like “hand made” and “made in America” are bantered about in support of a new domestic manufacturing movement, it is worth taking a close look at how an early 20th century ceramics industry came about. Parallels can easily be drawn between today’s renewed interest in local production, and an earlier time when a massively productive ceramics industry became a vital part of the domestic economy.
Unfortunately, few American manufacturers still exist. As was the case in the UK, another historical center of ceramic production, once a manufacturing infrastructure is dismantled, it is unlikely that it will be rebuilt in its earlier form. I say unfortunately, but rarity makes for a good collecting market, so the value of these early modern brands can only go up. And hopefully a new generation of manufacturing will take hold for future collectors to cherish.
One of the go-to experts on American ceramics today, Michael is the perfect person to chat with for advice on a special purchase, or to help you find your inner-collector instincts. Like a museum, Laguna Pottery is worth a visit just to delve into these uniquely American objects of beauty and utility.
Not planning a visit to Seattle soon? Laguna pottery has a great website you can browse, and they ship worldwide. Have a look, but swing by and visit in person as soon as you can. I am looking forward to my next visit and chat with Michael.
Crossing the threshold of E Smith Mercantile, it is immediately apparent that this is not your everyday modern store. Curiosities, locally sourced goods and traditional products that you just don’t see anymore. Part museum, part general store, part saloon: for an Austrian kid who grew up reading about cowboys and indians, this is how I pictured the general store.
The authenticity comes honestly. Inspired by their grandparents, Elmer and Mary Smith, who lived in a small gold-mining town at the edge of the Sawtooth mountains in Southern Idaho, Kate and her two daughters, Sarah and Jessie, built a brand-new shopping experience that rests gently on the past but points clearly toward the future. Once popular products that have long disappeared from modern shops are brought back to prominent display. And new products with a traditional ethos are promoted for their local sourcing and sustainable manufacturing. Old and new are presented on an equal footing and the balance is spot on.
The ease with which their product range fits together is no surprise once you spend some time talking with Sarah, Kate and Jessie. As a family, they truly exude the relaxed charm and freshness that the store expresses.
E Smith Mercantile is truly a “general” store with interesting offerings in a range of product categories. And like any general store worth its salt, it also offers an interesting range of local edible goods and beverages. Just past the merchandise you will find yourself greeted by bartender Jessie at a wonderfully crafted “U” shaped bar. At four o’ clock the bar is open, along with a tiny well-organized kitchen which prepares small dishes of locally sourced food. Have a seat and you will find yourself in the company of locals and like-minded patrons for good conversation, food and cocktails, all made with local ingredients … of course.
I tried a few things, and heartily recommend all of them.
First, the house-made Ricotta with oven-roasted tomatoes on rosemary nut toast seasoned with E Smith Mercantile’s own salt. All served on vintage plates and glasses. Delicious.
Second, the “Peg Leg Annie”. As Kate tells it, her real name was Annie Morrow, quite the woman. She set out one night in May, 1896, with her girlfriend “Dutch Em” from the town of Atlanta, Idaho, to the town of Rocky Bar. They got caught in a blizzard and lost their way. Dutch Em froze to death and Annie’s feet were amputated due to the frost bite. Alas, the name Peg Leg Annie. The drink is a chilly concoction of black-pepper vodka, Framboise and lemon.
E Smith Mercantile is truly a “general” … And like any general store worth its salt, it also offers an interesting range of local edible goods and beverages.
Then, vodka infused with pine. Refreshing and unique.
Finally, Jessie whipped me up a “Cure-All” (no story needed for this one) containing Horehound infused bourbon with Cheery Heering liqueur and orange. It puts some steel in your spine.
As we sample drinks and culinary delights, the Pooles describe to me their heartfelt belief that people yearn to reconnect with things made by people they know in their local community. And they want a place to have real conversations without music so loud you cannot hear a word their neighbor is saying. So simple, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s time for this.
I am looking forward to my next step back in time at E Smith Mercantile to see what new things they have cooked up. Also, if you are lucky, your visit may coincide with one of E Smith Mercantile’s hosted dinners, each time with a different local guest chef. Look for an announcement on their website. It will make for a totally unique experience, and a lovely story to take home from your visit to Seattle.